The peaks and troughs of mountaineering are hard to predict.
On the morning of 16 May 2011, James Ketchell was standing on the top of Mount Everest. At 8,846.86 metres, he could see down onto Mount Lhotse, across the Himalaya and into China. The world below him was so far away, so expansive.
Ketchell was the last person to summit that day, along with Dorjee, his sherpa. The sun was shining in a cloudless blue sky, with only a light wind, as Dorjee radioed down to Base Camp to say that they’d made it. He sat down, before taking the obligatory photos: one squinting into the sun, beard crusted with ice; another waving his sponsor’s flag.
Ketchell, then 27, had come to Everest after narrowly surviving a motorcycle accident in 2007. Facing a year of recovery, he needed a challenge to aim for. Naturally, he decided to row the Atlantic in 2010 – rowing 12 hours a day for 110 days – before taking on the highest peak in the world. He’d given up his job, sold his belongings, moved back in with his parents in Basingstoke, trained for more than a year and raised £28,000 for the expedition. Now, finally, he was at the top.
‘To be honest, it wasn’t this “yahoo!” moment. I was utterly exhausted and just knew I needed to get back down,’ says Ketchell, who was struggling with the lack of oxygen. ‘You’re only halfway when you’re on top. Most things go wrong on the way back down.’ And that was it. After 15 minutes at the summit, James headed down the mountain.
Stories of Everest tend to focus on the push for the summit – it’s the selfies at the top that attract sponsors, that make their way into the global press.
We talk of climbing or ‘summiting’ the mountain, as if it is the only part of the journey. My question is: what about coming down?
‘The worst part for me was coming back down,’ says Ketchell. ‘I didn’t actually know if I was going to get down or not.’ More than half of fatalities on Everest happen on the descent, when climbers are fatigued and suffering the effects of altitude – a consequence that Ketchell, still having difficulty breathing, was fully aware of. ‘Gravity has a terrible habit of pulling on you… If you don’t clip in and you slip, you’re dead.’
When Ketchell arrived back at Base Camp, still wheezing, he knew there was a problem. He was prescribed a sedative for the journey home and before he knew it, he was back at Heathrow, not fully aware how he’d got there. After asking for assistance at the airport, he was taken directly to the hospital, where he learned that he’d caught pneumonia.
‘I was lying in the hospital bed, and this doctor came up to me and said: “Can I shake your hand? You’re the guy that climbed Everest, right?” he says. ‘I just thought: “Crikey – I have climbed Everest.”’
More than 10,000 people have summited Everest – and no two experiences are the same. ‘Everest holds a different meaning to every climber,’ says Babu Sherpa, the Managing Director of the agency Peak Promotion. ‘For some, it’s a personal feat, a way of achieving something extraordinary. To others, it’s a pure love of mountaineering and part of their bucket list. For some, it’s name and fame. The bottom line is that it’s the highest mountain in the world, and that stands for a reason above all.’
For Yubaraj Dhital, a 24-year-old surveyor from Rukum, Nepal, who had climbed Everest as part of a government initiative to measure its height, the experience was very different. When he reached the top on 31 May 2021, he thanked God.
‘I felt very, very happy – like I’d been meditating for more than 22 hours,’ he says, beaming. ‘It was like a heaven.’
Among climbers, there is seemingly a tension between feeling big on the mountain, the world at your feet, and feeling small – humbled by its size and at the mercy of higher forces. For Dhital, it was empowering. ‘When I was at the top, I thought: we can make our history ourselves… If you have a positive mind and a positive plan, you can do anything.’
Ketchell, on the other hand, credits his successful ascent to good luck: ‘No one conquers Everest – it’s whether you’re fortunate enough to get to the top.’
Yubaraj enjoyed a triumphant return home. Crowds gathered to meet the expedition, and he was recognised by the president of Nepal. Today, he is enjoying a level of local fame, receiving regular requests on social media as well as media attention. He is proud to have represented his country. ‘I think this is the great achievement of my life. Until the end of my life, I will feel happy.’
When Ketchell left hospital, he celebrated over dinner with his family; met up with friends in the pub. ‘Once you’ve been out with your mates, had a few beers and you’ve told them that you’ve climbed Everest, that’s it. Done. It’s over. It doesn’t matter anymore – it’s history.’
He adds: ‘The novelty wears off quite quickly – you think your life’s going to be amazing because you rowed the Atlantic or climbed Everest, but the truth is that nothing changes. You’re high as a kite for two weeks when you get back, and then suddenly no one asks you about it anymore and then that’s it. It’s done. Forgotten about. I suppose you then start looking at: what am I up to next?’
In the 11 years since climbing Everest, Ketchell has indeed been busy. He cycled 18,000 miles around the world in 2013 (100 miles a day for six months) and flew 24,000 nautical miles in a gyroplane in 2019. He is a regular motivational speaker and ambassador for the Scouts. ‘I don’t want to be that guy who keeps talking about stuff they’ve done in the past,’ he says. ‘I want to be pushing myself and doing new things.’
For those who don’t reach the top, it’s not easy to come down from Everest, or to move on. Around a third of attempts are unsuccessful. ‘A lot of factors can stop you from reaching the top – some are in our control; some are not,’ says Babu Sherpa. ‘We do have repeat clients who have attempted Everest in the past and come back years later to try it again.’
For 23-year-old Yaashi Jain, who made two unsuccessful attempts at the summit in 2021, it was tough to descend the mountain – twice – without having reached the top. Jain, a technology and computer science graduate from Raigarh, India, had wanted to climb Everest since childhood, inspired by Indian mountaineer Arunmina Sinha. After postponing an expedition in 2020 due to the pandemic, 2021 was her big chance. It hadn’t gone to plan.
Jain’s first attempt had finished at Camp 4, 8,000 metres above sea level, when winds of almost 70mph forced her group to turn back – just 800 tantalising metres from the summit. She’d returned to Base Camp, passing frozen bodies on the descent, when another weather window presented itself.
Her second attempt was thwarted at Camp 3 when high winds, more savage than before, meant that her expedition could not continue. ‘I was heartbroken,’ says Jain simply. She told herself that God didn’t want her to summit this time.
‘He has another plan for me… I decided to choose my life over the summit.’
Not everyone that season made the same decision. Other groups on the mountain did make it to the top. Was that painful? ‘They have summited, but they have not enjoyed it,’ says Jain, pointing to a group who climbed directly from Camp 2 (rather than resting at Camps 3 and 4) and in which members began to suffer the potentially fatal effects of high-altitude cerebral oedema. ‘After hearing those stories, I thank God thatI came back safely.’
After the intensity of life on the mountain, however, returning home to Raigarh required a different kind of acclimatisation. Jain missed the fresh air and solitude of the Himalaya, not having to use her mobile phone. ‘It was difficultfor me when I came back home… I didn’t want to talk to anyone in a loud voice – I wanted everything at peace.’
Her slow journey towards the peak, combined with the mental effort of climbing, felt at odds with the sense of instant gratification down at sea level. ‘Walking so many kilometres every day, waking up early, sleeping early, that’s difficult – but it shows that you can achieve your dream only after crossing the difficult part. You cannot achieve what you want in a minute.’
As the world’s highest peak, scaling Everest represents the human drive upwards – the desire, quite literally, to elevate oneself. But if these stories show anything, it’s that Everest’s peak is not the end point. Ambition does not stop at the highest point on Planet Earth. It’s a long way down from the top, physically and emotionally, and the peak is only the beginning of that journey.
Jain has her sights set on Everestin 2023. When she imagines reaching the summit, she thinks of Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak, which she climbed in preparation for Everest. She could see the sunrise, the snow-covered mountains, the green plains below. ‘The nature and the connection between me and the mountain, they call me back, again and again.’