Ted Atkins

Topout produce and provide the World's market-leading oxygen delivery system

They say that it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts but not on Everest. We don’t nearly climb Everest, we ‘Top Out’ or we fail. I failed twice before I used TopOut. It wasn’t 3rd time lucky, it was having the best equipment possible, equipment that to date has a huge success rate.

On Everest, it’s the getting back that counts, and if you can get back having been to the top then you are a winner. To win you have to have the best: the best attitude, the best gear and most importantly the best oxygen. TopOut is the difference between winning and simply taking part and will turn pain to pleasure; well it could! TopOut will enable you to enjoy Everest instead of feeling as if every breath is your last.

 

The Topout system

This new high altitude oxygen delivery system has been designed and developed by me, Ted Atkins while climbing the mountain. I was, until recently, a serving RAF Aerosystems (aircraft) Engineering Officer. The system was designed and has been built specifically for climbing Everest using aerospace standards that I employed with the RAF. This is the only system built specifically for climbing Everest by an aerosystems engineer who has climbed Everest in the process of testing the prototype. No other system has this pedigree.

I had tried, as I walked the route to Everest Base Camp, to find a Puja, a religious blessing in the Buddhist faith to ask favour on the mountain. I am not a religious man, but I always feel that this little bit of nsurance is a good thing. Becuase there was an important event happening elsewhere there was a dearth of monks in the valley so I reached Base without Puja. At the camp of my Sherpa friend Tashi I asked about Puja and found they were having one the next day. I love the atmosphere of Puja on the mountain. We say Everest after the Surveyor General of India who mapped the region. They say Sagamartha: ‘ Goddess Mother of the World,’ and so in the eyes of the Sherpas, this mountain is a Goddess and we must be polite and ask permission to be on her slopes.

It was a great Puja and I drank my share of rough local whiskey before breakfast. Then I heard the familiar boom of a serac breaking free high on Nupste. This huge block of ice soon caused the predictable ‘domino effect,’ and a massive avalanche destroyed Camp 1 before our eyes. We were all aware of the gravity of this and the atmosphere weighed heavy with the silence of dread. It would depend how many people were in the camp as to how many dead there would be. I moved to a friend and said, “We might have just witnessed the worst mountaineering disaster in history,” and we waited for the death toll to come in…. 

My plan to climb Lhotse, the world’s 4th highest mountain was flawed, and if someone else put the same idea to me, I would have told them so and said “don’t do it, don’t even try it.” I had no high mountain support, not even a radio. I did not have a tent to make a high camp, so I had a logistic snag if I wanted to summit. My last camp was Camp 2 at about 6600m, and Lhotse is over 8500m. Hmnnn! I had decided to go from Camp 2 to the summit with breaks at Camp 3 on my own and stop for a brew with a couple of friends at Lhotse Camp 4, just about 2000m climbing then!

I had a great walk into Everest Base Camp through the Renjo La, via Gokyo, Cho Oyo Base Camp, then Cho La onto Everest Base. I arrived later than everyone else, but then I always do. I had work to do on the way, releasing some pressure from unsafe, overfilled oxygen cylinders. I had been involved in an explosion in Kathmandu and ended up with bits of regulator sticking out of my neck. So first I had to fix this problem enroute. I arrived very fit and more acclimatised than ever before.  

This was good as it looked like we had an early weather window forecast. The weather had not been kind though, in that it had been a light winter. Very little snow had fallen, and this was causing everyone grave concern. The snow keeps the mountain stable; it glues the loose rocks to the slopes. Now we had no snow and loose rocks falling had injured one person. This was enough for the biggest operator to pull out, and so the biggest team on the mountain left for home. This left a void preparing the mountain, fixing the ropes. This delayed attempts and the first weather window was lost. Now there was much talk on how the rope-fixing would be done, so I ran to Namche Bazar, the Sherpa capital and next biggest town. It was about 28km and a long day as I had no training shoes and ran in my boots. There, at a much lower altitude, I took a good break to re-charge my battery.  I met a friend who wanted to climb Lobuche East just over 6000m about 20,000 feet and I decided this would be good training and more acclimatisation. It was fantastic and we had a perfect day for it and so back to Base Camp. I had only one day at Base, then onto Camp 2, and my mad plan…. 

I never felt so good at this height especially considering that this was my first time on the mountain. I decided that, if the weather held and the ropes were complete, I would climb from this camp. This meant over 2000m of ascent in one go. This is a lot at this altitude, but needs must. I had a friend who did have a fourth camp at about 7800m, and so my plan was to join them as I passed for a rest and ‘brew up’ time before setting off for the summit! 

I was saved from myself for now as the ropes were not complete and the weather was marginal so it was back to Base for a couple of days. Bad, very bad news awaited me there. One of our team had been killed in an Everest summit attempt. He was a really nice guy, a doctor who had helped a number of us so far. Now his body sits above 8000m between the South Summit and the Hillary Step, where I was once left to die. One of so many dead, and sadly still more to die at this point.

After a couple of days I went back to Camp 2, passing what had been Camp 1. I had the same plan as before: to leave Camp 2, rest a while at Camp 3, then climb on to Camp 4 to brew and rest a little, before heading for the summit; still a mad idea! I did have at least one excuse: One of my reasons for being here was to evaluate the Mark 3 TopOut oxygen mask that I had released new for this season. I also had a new regulator that I wanted to test and I was using both of these to climb. I had to leave my ‘proper day job’ with the RAF when I invented the Mark 1 mask and now we are using the Mark 3.  

From Camp 2 to Camp 3 was a breeze. I set off early so the sun did not catch me on the Lhotse Face and fry me. The route for Lhotse is the same as for Everest until 8000m, when Everest goes left and over the Geneva spur while Lhotse goes up and into the couloir. The issue with stone fall is that it is a couloir route: a giant gully, so stones that fall stay routed in the gully like a skittle ally – and we climbers are the skittles. The route from Camp 3 up to Lhotse Camp 4 did not go as planned. I left the sun to go down, as I needed to meet at Camp 4 with one or two friends I planned to climb with at 01:00 hours and start climbing at this time.  

I had not taken into account that the fixed ropes, being black, absorb the heat from the sun. They then sink into the ice, and when the sun goes, they freeze into the mountain. It was exhausting work pulling these ropes free and because I was the only person on the mountain, so there was no sharing the work. As I cleared the Yellow Band I realised that I would not make my schedule. 

I was not completely sure of the route, as I had never been on it before, but I had spied it out quite well from below and felt familiar enough, as I had climbed all of the Everest sections some years ago.  

Of course it was dark by now and that changes things a little, but I had a clear sky full of stars to help. However, it eventually dawned upon me that I was tired and still some way from Camp 4. I had to come to the realisation that I also would not be climbing to the summit this night. I cleared the steep ground of the Yellow Band and the going eased.  

I searched for the line breaking from the Everest route heading up for Lhotse. My headtorch was now dimming, but I found what I thought should be the line and climbed on. I was now tired and began to despair when I did not see Camp 4 when I expected I should see it. I realised that I could soon be in trouble. If I was on the wrong line, then I did not have enough strength left to search further. It would be a massive struggle to make it back down to Camp 3. I even thought about trying to get to Everest Camp 4 briefly. Before I could think too much more a tent shape filled my fading beam.  

I soon saw that there was one sound tent and one wrecked with holes from stones going through it. I had arranged with two friends to use their tents, so climbed gratefully into the first tent, where I drank my flask of chocolate. It was about 03.30 hours, so I was well off plan and out of steam, and would now need to sit it out and go tomorrow, so I brewed some more then dosed until light.  

I could then see that there were a number of other tents higher that my torch could not pick out earlier and so I wondered whose tent I might be in. Not wanting to cause offence, I set out to check the other tents and found for sure the tent of my friend Adel, where I ensconced myself and awaited her happy return from the summit. I made sure that I had plenty of fluids waiting, as climbers are always desperately thirsty after a summit. Adel was in great shape when she arrived and of course over the moon.  

My next snag was that Adel and her Sherpa  were leaving and taking their tent down to camp 2. This was a problem for me, as I needed a tent to sit out the day waiting for 01:00 to arrive again. Also I did not have a sleeping bag of my own. Hmmm…  

We came to a deal at the suggestion of Adel’s Sherpa: He would leave the tent stove and other camp gear, if I carried it down to Camp 2 after my summit bid (nice deal for him too). Combined with my own gear and after a summit day, even I realised this was a lot to do, but also my only option, so I gratefully but reluctantly accepted. 

I had a restful day ahead. All I had to do was catch up on last night’s lost sleep, eat, and drink. I have always had huge problems eating at extreme altitude and although I had a fair selection of food I only ate a packet of peanuts, something I always seem to be able to eat. My dozing was interrupted part way through the afternoon when a tired woman came to my tent and asked if she could rest up for a couple of hours, having just summited. One can never refuse such a request, although it seemed strange that she should not have a tent.  

I now lost some of my leisure and rest time as I was making brews for her and my opportunities to sleep were interrupted by her coughing, as it transpired that she had no intention of heading down to the next camp and had en-camped herself upon me! Later I discovered that she is a famous Polish climber called Kinga. I kept warm with hot drinks and coke bottles of hot water inside my clothing. I needed the water anyway later for the climb. 

At midnight I started preparing to leave. It was a fine night to climb, not so cold. It always amazes me how long it takes to get going even when you think you are prepared. The worst part is last: fitting crampons. This nearly always requires some moment of bare hands to fasten the straps. It is a feeling of elation to get moving, free of the tents and onto the climbing. There were two more lights above me and two below. The two below caught up with me, as the new valve configuration I was experimenting with in my oxygen mask was not working at this height, despite working well lower down.  

(This is why I need to keep climbing and checking that I have things right before making any changes to my product. The mask I now sell, and the one I was using, I tested on Kangchenjunga last season.)  

I had spares in my shirt pocket to change, but for the first time in my life I dropped a glove in the process. This can spell disaster, frostbite and the end, but like most sensible climbers I carry spare mitts and so this was not an issue, but I wanted no more mistakes.  

I was enjoying the route. Lhotse is a great line and very atmospheric, which delights I could soon take in, as the day arrived. I had to stop and get my camera out. Everest as few ever see her: all of the Kangchun face from 8200m is amazing. I could see the Everest hopefuls, climbing like me to their dreams. I felt very alone. It is unusual to climb so high alone and of course there are more risks, but in the words of Ibsen, “…there is always a certain element of risk in being alive, but the greater the risk the more alive you are.”  

The going was pretty straightforward, and my new regulator and mask were working perfectly. When I climbed Everest in 2004 I used the first TopOut prototype, without the benefit of prior testing, and everyone said I was mad and would die. I nearly did, although not because the system failed (but that is another story). 

Now everything was working brilliantly, years of development and testing were paying off big time. I caught up with the other climbers as I neared the summit. They were heading down and dislodging stones to shower me. I had to make a decision to hide from the stones and wait for them to pass or to close the distance between us quickly. I decided on the later and turned my gas up to 4 litres to give me the boost. This worked and I was soon out of danger.  

Now I thought I had the whole mountain to myself, but I had forgotten that I had been warned about the poor Czech who perished only meters from the summit. He stared at me through frozen eyes as I stepped over him. He lies right on the climbing line. For the first time, I felt moved and un-nerved by his body. I have seen many dead people. On the big mountains they are normally curled up and have their eyes closed as if sleeping, but this guy was staring into the sky. He has expression, presence, and being and I wondered about the people who loved him. 

Despite the corpse, I was thrilled by the summit. This was the steepest part of the route and felt nicely exposed. Room for one on the top, and a view of the world, just stunning. I tied off my string of prayer flags by only one end so they would stream out in the wind that was wonderfully missing now.  

I was climbing with just one cylinder of oxygen and needed to be careful with consumption. You cannot read the contents gauge without taking your bag off so I did this now carefully clipping it to a rope with a karabiner. This was no place to watch my bag and precious oxygen vanish down the mountain. I had plenty of gas left, happy days.  

It was running out of gas that nearly ended me on Everest, when one of my cylinders mysteriously disappeared, and since I had promised my wife I would not die, I was taking things seriously this time! I had to step once more over the corpse and again was reminded of my own mortality, no bad thing. I had a full flask of chocolate in my sac but decided to take it later and concentrate on getting off the mountain. There was no sign of change in the weather and I had plenty of gas and energy as I careered down the mountain without care for knocking stones onto others. This was the reason the other team had abandoned their attempt and I agreed that if there was a lot of people on the route that there would be more deaths. I was glad to have the whole mountain to myself. 

I got back to my camp in good shape, really good shape, the best ever after the ascent of an 8000m peak, and I set to work taking down the tent. I was starving. I had half a biscuit for breakfast and a Mars bar as I climbed. I remember wishing there was some way to inject Mars bars, as I had no will to eat them.  

I did not eat but pressed on. I had a long day ahead. Kinga was gone when I got back to my tent after climbing, when I could have used some help getting the gear down! She had taken the expensive Leatherman left by Adel’s Sherpa, and I hoped she had taken it to him with the promised tip for spending the previous night there. 

I knew the descent would be bad but as usual I had underestimated the levels of utter fatigue and pain I would experience. I estimate my sac weighed 40kg. It was only a small climbing sac so the tent stuck into the air half a metre above my head. My over-gaiters were filled with kit and strapped on, along with two oxygen cylinders and everything else that would not fit inside. It was an ungainly and downright uncomfortable pack to carry. In fact it was dangerous and I worried about tripping and the overbalance of the pack taking me away, especially on the difficult technical section of the Yellow Band. The heat of the sun added greatly to the torture.  

I met other climbers coming off Everest. They were wearing their down suits, so if I was hot wearing just decorator’s paper overalls over my base layer, then these guys must be melting. I guess I am the antithesis of ‘gear freakism’. All through my mountain days I have made my own kit. I climbed Lhotse in a pair of old military-issue quilted trousers and a thirty-quid duvet jacket I bought in Namche. I did have a quality full down suit at Base, but decided it would be too warm.  

I don’t like the down suit concept. It is not versatile and you are trapped in it. My system worked well. The paper suit worn next to my base layer was great. When it got hot I took off the jacket and now I was in a cool, breathable reflective suit with a white hood. It must catch on! 

It was eight in the evening when I stumbled into Camp 2. It had been utter hell. I had simply collapsed with exhaustion a couple of times and constantly tripped. Once down it was so difficult to get up and moving again. Words quite fail me here, it was not fun.  

One of our Sherpa’s took my sac for the last bit and looked impressed “this is a Sherpa sac, Ted.” Western climbers do not carry this sort of weight. I hold with that idea, and I would never plan to do so again, but we had done what we set out to do. At an early stage in the expedition I rated my chances at less than fifty percent for a number of reasons and now it was done. Just one more roasting day to get to Base and it would be all over.  

Again I could not eat but I managed to drink two litres of milk tea before bed and took a flask with me. During the night I drank the flask, then my hot water bottle, and woke again thirsty. I spotted a bottle and on looking at it thought, “Fresh orange juice? How can this be?” It was my pee bottle: thick and orange, it even had a distinct layer of sediment at the bottom.  

In the morning my head was booming with dehydration, so I pushed myself to the cook shack for tea. The cook gave me porridge too. I ate one spoon and took a flask of tea back to bed where I also hooked up to a part used bottle of gas to help with my head. It worked and two hours later I was able to set off for Base in the searing heat. 

The icefall was awful. It had moved so much and recent avalanche debris was everywhere. Unnerving, but I was not so worried for me. So many Sherpas still had their journeys to make. Lakes had formed in the higher reaches. I had never seen this before and worried about the consequences when they burst, but I was through and finished. 

At Base I first called at the camp of Tashi to see how my friends faired. I was close to the Indian Military team. Their leader, Colonel Rana, was an old friend, so I was invited to stay for lunch, which by now I was ready for. In retrospect the bottle of wine and third helpings of curried eggs was a huge mistake but I will not disgust you with the details of my journey back to my own camp. 

It had been an unusual and difficult season: difficult weather that caught some out, difficult climbing that took the dreams of others. The final bill, I heard as I left the mountain, was eleven dead, an exceptionally bad year being talked about as being “unacceptable.” I believe this. No mountain is worth any life. It is a case of “having the courage to climb and the wisdom not to.” It takes a lot of experience to get this right.  

Back at camp my young Nepali national ultra distance-running champion friend (142 km races!), Sanjay, declared with glee that he had managed to get me entered for the Everest Marathon the next day. The world’s highest race! I was not in best form for my firstever marathon. I borrowed some clothes and some running shoes, and we did it, and, well, that is another story….

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