Post-project thoughts

It's hard to believe the dust is finally settling! There have been so many ups and downs throughout the last five months of mountain climbing that there was an undercurrent of mini-adventures behind the big events.

What stands out most are the heart-rending views, the people along the way and the sense of achievement. Carrying the Cancer Research banner across thousands of miles and flying it from the world's highest volcanoes; fighting vicious cold and the stresses of high altitude; intense homesickness but also, after climbing through yet another arctic summit night, nauseous and exhausted to within an inch of one's life, overwhelming joy at being so close to heaven.

A heartfelt Thank You to everyone who supported the Seven Volcanoes Project! It is not far from its fundraising target of £7,000 and has helped spread awareness of oesophageal cancer. There's been press coverage from London to Hong Kong to Papua New Guinea, and overall it has created positive ripple effects.


It hasn't all been easy though. One background story is the tussle with Ojos del Salado (Chile), the highest volcano of the project at almost 7,000m. My first attempt to climb this beautiful monster was in early February. Myself, another team member and a guide set off on our acclimatisation hikes and reached camp at 4,400m after about a week, right on schedule.

However, for reasons unknown to us, the guide changed the schedule and we were told to not only quickly move up to 5,200m, but immediately carry about 15kgs each of equipment to higher camp at 5,800m, under a blazing hot sun.

That's almost 1,500m of elevation gain in one day - with considerable physical exertion - at high altitude. Basically, it was too much. The other groups arriving at 5,200m had a rest day and gawped in surprise at us moving up to high camp right away.

What wasn't a surprise though, was when I and the other team member got mountain sickness soon after the carry hike to 5,800m. My blood oxygen saturation plummeted from 84% (normal for an altitude of 5,200m) to 67%. We descended back to 4,400m immediately.

All this delayed our plans slightly, but rather than use the extra days in the itinerary to return to high camp, our guide inexplicably shut down the whole expedition. He took us off the mountain and back to Copiapo, and then left 2 days early to go home, leaving me and my team mate  stranded for almost 3 days. We wandered the town aimlessly until it was time to catch our flights home.

So much for the first expedition. Sadly, I've heard stories like this often - 'cowboy' guides pushing their clients too hard so they don't need to go through the hell of summit night, and so they can get off work sooner. I arrived back in the UK in mid-February, unhappy and frustrated. The later expedition dates were re-shuffled so I could re-attempt Ojos del Salado.

In the meantime, I had sent in an application to Guinness world records to have the Seven Volcanoes Project registered as a formal record attempt. The Seven Summits are a well-established record, and I had assumed there would be no problem registering the volcanoes, especially given their growing popularity.

Wrong!

Guinness replied, saying that since it wasn't absolutely sure that the volcanoes on the list were really the highest on each continent, they couldn't be registered as a formal record. (The "World Records Academy", however, said it was happy to register the Seven Volcanoes Project as a record...for a bargain US$12,500. If I paid in advance I would also receive a FREE "luxury certificate frame").

I wasn't about to fork over US$12,500 to some dodgy organisation. In the end, I decided it didn't matter if my Seven Volcanoes attempt was officially certified or not. If my application to Guinness failed, it also meant that no-one who had completed the 7 volcanoes before me had an 'official' world record either. So far, everyone had been climbing the same seven volcanoes, albeit in different order.

So the project went ahead regardless. In any case, the priority was to raise funds for Cancer Research UK and awareness of oesophageal cancer, not personal glory.

The second attempt of Ojos del Salado took place in March. This time my very, very supportive husband came with me for the first week. I had been quite down at the thought of spending two extra weeks away from home, and being together helped enormously.

This time I also found a much more experienced guide and assistant guide, and thankfully it did not cost my sponsors too much extra. After acclimatising properly this time, we set off for the summit on March 21.

We all felt strong. The weather was fine. Just as I was telling myself that everything was too good to be true, our progress suddenly broke down.

It could have been any combination of factors. Long story short, we ended up taking a route which was utterly gruelling. I'd never put myself through such physical exertion in my life. We just about managed to struggle through and arrived at the crater, in howling wind, in the early afternoon after leaving camp at 5am.

The actual summit of Ojos del Salado is not on the crater itself, but at the top of a rock 30 metres tall protruding from it. To climb it requires pulling yourself up a vertical rock face with the help of a fixed rope. It's very technical and requires a lot of strength at the best of times. That day the pitch was iced over.

Long story short, after a lot of tears and heartache it was decided that we were too far gone to make the final push. I could barely walk in a straight line, and my guide was sitting on the snow shuddering from cold and exhaustion. I felt more than a little frustrated as I stood there right under the nose of the summit rock, staring up at a point which seemed both just above our heads and 100 miles away.


But in the end the guide was right. If we had attempted the rock climb in our condition, we could easily have injured ourselves or worse. We got back down to 5,800m camp after dark.

The next morning I woke early and lay in my camp bed, cursing the way things had gone. It felt horrible to have missed getting to the very top by such a small margin. But I also felt that to waste more time and money, just to gain the final 30 metres, would be pure egomania. It seemed really, really silly to splash out on another attempt when the whole goal of the project was to raise funds for cancer research, not satisfy some sort of personal vanity.

Either way, there was no Guinness record to be had. And in any case, charity challenges are not contracts - the only requirement is that you do your best.

I also saw more clearly that not only was the project not about "me me me", but about supporting others. In January, I would never have gotten to the top of Pico de Orizaba without my friend Tina's encouragement, for example. And likewise, during the first attempt of Ojos del Salado, a stranger from another group, after hearing that I had mountain sickness and asthma to boot, came over and volunteered to take my Cancer Research UK banner with him on his climb. He actually turned out to be one of the few people (10% of all climbers that season) to make it to the top of the rock on the crater. It was a wonderful gesture. So even if I never personally made those last 30 metres, at least the banner did. (Either way, we had still climbed 99.6% of that hulking mountain!)

Most importantly, the Seven Volcanoes Project has raised over £5,400 (~US$9,000) and has had some very positive ripple effects. My wonderful mother has started taking regular walks ("If you can climb at high altitude for days then I should be able to cope with a 5km walk now and then"). I also met, by chance, one of the main editors of Wikipedia's medical section while climbing Mt Damavand, and he volunteered to expand the Wikipedia entry on oesophageal cancer. People have emailed their encouragement from all over the world and I was also honoured to be given an award by a Hong Kong publication. Other friends have started embarking on climbs of their own.

And this is why, even if there never was the chance of an 'official' blessing from Guinness, the Seven Volcanoes Project was a definite success. A gap of 30 metres on one mountain doesn't make it any less of a success, and I feel it has been a fitting tribute to my father, who I lost five years ago. An awful lot of good has come about, and made every exhausting step of every brutal summit night worthwhile.
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