Sam Lipscombe Interview taken in 2014
Sam from England is a keen runner and mountaineer. He has finished in four 150 mile desert ultra-marathons and has climbed Mont Blanc, Mera Peak, Baruntse and Mount Everest reaching the summit on the 22nd May 2013.
You are still very young yet have achieved so much already. Have you any other adventures you would like to do?
I don’t think I will ever stop wanting to see and do more, after all there is just so much out there. I’ve been really fortunate enough to have the opportunities that I’ve taken and the support of people around me to help make them happen.
I’d love to go to the Amazon, sub-Saharan Africa and of course the poles. I tend to get an idea in my head and can’t seem to stop before it’s completed.
Was there any reason why you chose the North side of Mount Everest rather than the South side?
This was something that was never really much of a big deal to me. I loved the history of the North and the journey through Tibet. I have travelled around the south side of the mountain before so wanted somewhere a bit new. The solitude of the north was also appealing, especially as I was climbing in the 60th year of the first successful summit by Hillary and Norgay.
The fact that my friend Paul Noble, who has quite a bit of experience on Everest, was also going to the north was an added bonus.
You waited in turn at the Second Step for 45 minutes, what was going through your mind at this point?
It was cold but I was just focusing on the next thing I needed to do in order to move on up. Everyone ahead seemed to be suffering and moving rather slow. I wanted to keep calm to reduce my dependence on the oxygen so I didn’t think much about the potential consequences of the delay.
It did run through my mind that they found Mallory’s body at the bottom of the slabs to my right but it was nothing more than a fleeting thought. I was too much focused on keeping warm and the flow rate that my oxygen cylinder was on. The wait seemed to go quickly as I kept myself busy, in a way it was nice to slow down and take the opportunity to recover from the slog up the exit cracks that I had just climbed.
How hard is it to mentally cope with going from high camp to summit and back to camp in 16 hours, getting cold, suffering from lack of oxygen and tiredness?
Something I learned, or maybe taught myself from the desert ultras is that you need to break things down into your next objective.
I don’t think I ever really focused on the route as a whole, the summit was ultimately the place I was heading towards but before that was checkpoints that I needed to reach. These to me were the summit ridge, the second step, the third step, the summit pyramid and then the summit. After I reached one I thought about the next, it was also a handy way to remember what flow rate I should expect to be on. I decided to stop just after the third step and put on another layer as I was conscious that I was getting too cold, without this stop I’m not sure if I would have summited.
The lack of oxygen really started to affect me on my decent. I was conscious that each decision was taxing and my movement slow. It’s here that dehydration, lack of oxygen and fatigue really started to take its toll. I remember almost convincing myself that I was getting HACE as my head was hurting (this was probably because I was dehydrated). It was so seductive seeing high camp and thinking once I reached that point I was safe, of course this was far from the case. It was a real battle to continuously force myself down.
I can absolutely see how people that come to the mountain with minimal support (that they have probably only arranged in Kathmandu) get in trouble. It was the decent that you needed others, not necessarily physically but the encouragement to continue descending.
Name any climber, dead or alive, you would like to have shared your summit day with?
When you are living with others in sometimes quite tough conditions you become quite close to those that you are climbing with. I would have liked to be able to share the summit with Bob Kerr and Ian Hobson, both of which were on the same expedition. These are tough guys who were more than capable but by nothing more than total bad luck just didn’t get the opportunity to try.
I would have also liked to share the summit with my soon to be wife, Nicole as well as family and friends that were so supportive. It was quite a surreal moment, one that I doubt I will ever quite forget.
Had your ascent and descent of Mount Everest been what you expected or was it easier or harder than you thought?
It’s hard to visualise what something is like that you have never experienced before. I knew what it was like to be on a mountain but I’d clearly never been this high. My biggest concern about the altitude before I went was to retain my ability to make clear decisions. I’ve been in a few tricky situations before and in those cases I’ve needed to make rational decisions in order to get out of danger. I certainly wasn’t going to the top despite all consequences.
Now after having climbed the mountain I can see that Everest is wholly different to most others. I would say that the experience I gained from multi-day desert races prepared me more than anything else. I think it’s because Everest relies on a huge degree of mental strength. You have to be prepared to get into camp at the end of a hard day and despite wanting to crawl into bed and sleep you need to force yourself to prepare food, drink water and look after your feet, then get up in the morning and do it all over again.
The decent was probably my biggest surprise, before I went other mountaineers told me that this is where people struggle. I heard this but I guess didn’t think too much about it, focusing instead on getting myself safely to the top.
The Sherpa’s are known for working hard on any expedition. Do you think they are looked after well or should more be done to re-pay them?
I quite possibly would not have summited if it wasn’t for the Sherpa’s, or at the very least it would have been a totally different experience. It’s not so much the climbing, as everyone still has to place one foot in front of the other, its things like rope fixing and moving equipment between camps where there hard work is invaluable.
I heard the accounts of the fights that happened on the south of the mountain, I also saw the pain in their faces when a friend had died on the ropes and that we would need to climb past them in the coming days. These guys perform a tough job in a tough environment, risking their lives for the experiences of others. They became our friends who we trusted with our lives.
I think Sherpa’s are looked after, certainly on the mountain. We as climbers have the responsibility to minimise risks, pay Sherpa’s well and contribute towards insurance that would protect their families should the worst happen.
The North side is not as busy as the South, did you still come across litter etc left from previous expeditions?
The experience that I had made me think that it is a small minority that view discarding their litter wherever they see fit as ok, assuming it will be blown away or others will pick it up. This was most noticeable after returning to ABC from base camp the last time when some expeditions had packed up and left.
The Chinese have done a great job of putting in the infrastructure to enable the mountain to be cleaned (bins at points on route so that the Yak men can remove this waste) but this is a long way from resolving the problem. It’s an attitude that needs to be tackled, one where everyone is involved.
At higher camps it was more noticeable simply because you have brightly coloured items against snow and rock. At least now there is financial incentives to bring down oxygen bottles. I suspect that the only way of fully resolving the issue is for the authorities to impose financial penalties for each team that fails to bring their waste back to base camp.
Do you have a favorite mountaineering book?
I particularly enjoyed Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane. Not so much for its ‘mountaineering content’ but the way that he was able to describe the attraction and freedom that mountaineering provides.
On the whole I tend to shy away from mountaineering books, for me it’s a subject that needs to be experience and not something that can neatly be captured in words. I’ve read some books about Everest since returning home, needless to say you get a total different perspective of someone’s descriptions of an event if you can relate to places they are describing.
Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed the Second Step?
I think there’s a good chance. I remember my attitude when I had reached this point, one of quiet defiance. The cold was biting and the wind was compounding this, it was dark and unpleasant but I was strong and alert. I can imagine how they could have been strong enough to give it a good go.
About a year before I climbed I went to hear Wade Davis talk about the book he had written about Mallory and Irvine, he discussed the way that the First World War impacted their mind-set. I can see them using this mental resolve to push over this obstacle even in the challenging conditions they faced.
The problem with the obstacles on the summit ridge is not so much getting up them but getting down. When you’ve starved your brain of oxygen and are totally drained from the climb, coming down the second step without a ladder or modern safety equipment would be incredibly challenging, both mentally and physically. If they did summit, I’m sure this would have had a massive impact on their attempt.
If you would like to find out more about Sam then please pay a visit to his website at www.samlipscombe.com