My name is Peter Hillary.
I have climbed Everest a couple of times and I work with the foundations my father helped establish to run education and health programmes in the Himalayas, around the foot of the world's highest mountain. My father, Sir Edmund Hillary, and his climbing partner Tenzing Norgay made the first ascent of Mt Everest back in 1953 and, like them, I found that the sting-in-the-tail of an Everest climb comes when you least expect it; just below the summit. It's a vertical step in the ridge now called the Hillary Step that guards access to the top.
And that is the hallmark of any adventure or undertaking. Often the biggest challenges come when you least expect them. And so it was for us when 12 60-year-old men, all former classmates from King's College, - Hamish Brown, Russell Tills, Guy Haddleton, John Reyburn, Philip Barron, Simon Hanley, Iain Patterson, Richard Agnew, Peter Revell, Greg Kay, Michael Caughey and myself - decided to go on a reunion trek to Everest Basecamp in Nepal, where there are no roads and few of the amenities of our affluent Western lives.
This was a chance to rekindle friendships and share in an adventure in the lofty Himalayas and delve behind our ageing physiognomies for the teenage cohorts we knew so many years before. And incredibly, the men I trekked with were the personalities and idealisms of the boys I had known long ago - older, wiser, more experienced - overlaid on the youthful personality and goodness of boyhood.
For two weeks we trekked from my father's airstrip at Lukla into the "high Himal", as Dad always referred to it with a smile, staying with people I have known all my life, sometimes in their own homes. Of course, being a bunch of old school friends, even with receding hairlines and bulging waistlines, there was plenty of high jinks. On Phil's birthday there was a cake and speeches and the singing of the old school song, O floreat semper, and plenty jocular aspersions cast. When Guy and I stayed at my "Sherpa aunt's" house he composed a skit that was filmed by Russell of Guy remonstrating to the camera that he had paid for a single room upgrade and here was his ensuite, a hole in the floor of an outhouse with leaf litter for a flush and a wooden pole to assist ageing knees regain their vertical composure! Oh yes, we laughed. And we encouraged each other on along the narrow footpaths as we headed up the valley at a methodical ascent rate to enhance our acclimatisation.
On the steep ridgeline above the little village of Khunde we paused at the three memorial chortens built by the villagers to my father, mother and little sister and it occurred to me that, for the first time, I was up there with a group of people who had all known them. That had never happened before. And as we gazed out towards the bulk of Everest and down at the little village hospital my parents had built, this connection with the past and my "precious ones" felt particularly special.
Group photographs were arranged as much for a rest along the trail as for a photographic record and they were always punctuated with "where's Hamish?" as our camera-shy amigo was rounded up, grinning happily for a round of high-altitude digital vainglory. A few days short of Everest Base Camp, we diverted up a side valley to a lake I had described to my fellow trekkers as turquoise blue and found it was frozen solid with an icy white surface. The cry went out that Hillary's itinerary was riddled with inaccuracies. These related to the daily trek times too. "So how far is today's trek, Peter?" Of course all my estimates were lampooned for outrageous optimism. "We will double that," they would say and then inquire about how much climbing was involved to reach the next village? "Today there is a net altitude gain of zero," I often replied.
"Yeah, right. Once we have completed the 800m descent and the two 400m ascents after lunch!"
We all mastered the road rules of "give way to yaks" and the synchronised crossing procedures for suspension bridges above Himalayan cataracts - you don't want to meet a yak in the middle of a 100m suspension footbridge. We all adopted our own versions of the "Himalayan plod", a pace that allows your heart and lungs to operate in an RPM range suitable for your age and fitness and the lofty altitudes.
In the little wayside village of Dugla, beneath the great Khumbu Glacier terminus, we managed to arrange for a high-powered helicopter to take us, in three flights of three, on a foray up the valley and into the Western Cwm (glacial valley basin) of Mt Everest. I was beside myself with excitement at this opportunity to circuit within the walls of the valley of Mt Everest at 6500m and look down like an eagle on terrain that I had spent so much time climbing on. Over the Khumbu icefall we flew, over the crevassed glacier at Camp 1 and up the ascending cwm to beneath the mighty southwest face of Everest and Camp 2, tiny yellow dots for tents, with the rays of the rising sun beaming down from behind the dark pyramid of the mountain.
It was Anzac Day, April 25, and after our dawn service at the little hamlet of Lobuche, we trudged up the valley in falling snow. We arrived at Gorak Shep just 3km south of Everest Base Camp when the earthquake struck. It felt as if the whole of the Himalayas was being shaken and in danger of coming apart. I shouted, "Get out of the building!" When we rushed outside the little teashop at 510m (17,100ft), we heard the roar of the avalanches pouring off the mountains above us like 100 freight trains and soon afterward were hit by the avalanche wind-blast, a great billowing wall of wind and snow that hit us at what felt like 100 mph. So I called to the group to "get back in the building!"
To which someone mumbled, "First you tell us to get out and now you tell us to get inside!" I was sure that this catastrophic event did not bode well for the climbers at base camp and we feared for their safety.
So what happened at base camp?
The 7.8 earthquake caused a huge block of ice to release from the ice cliff at the saddle between the two peaks of Pumori and Lingtren. The colossal seracs (freestanding ice columns) that plummeted from the ice cliffs plunged 800m to the glacier below. The pounding ice created an enormous aerosol avalanche that produced a blast of air and ice particles that hit the central part of base camp at 5360m and destroyed this part of camp with devastating effect.
Down at Gorak Shep the wind blast struck us a short time later and encased the hamlet in a blanket of ice particles.
Of course we didn't know what had happened at base camp, let alone what had happened down-valley in Kathmandu and in the Ghorka district, near the earthquake epicentre, but these distressing realities would progressively reveal themselves to us.
I called home on a satellite telephone to assure our families that we were all okay. We abandoned our plans to visit base camp (and climb Kalar Pittar at 5600m) and began trekking down-valley. Almost immediately we witnessed the extensive damage of the earthquake, with broken buildings, schools, monasteries (Tengboche Monastery is badly damaged), hospitals and other infrastructure.
We were on a mission to get down-valley and the two weeks of the trek to base camp, combined with the earthquake, had knitted us into a very cohesive group, like long-lost brothers.
For the next two evenings there were rousing speeches while sitting around yak dung fires in damaged accommodations, and a heightened sense of the good life despite the quake, the destruction, the loss of life - 18 dead at base camp and thousands dead across Nepal. That first night, Greg eloquently summarised our experiences with positivity and a touching nod to the camaraderie of the dozen. It was a special moment.
Then, at 6am on April 27, we awoke to find we had lost Greg. He lay motionless in his sleeping bag, having died from a heart attack an hour or two before. The loss of Greg was a terrible and personal blow for all of us. Greg was a pretty remarkable guy in any group and his absence haunted us, as we did what we had to do to transport him to Lukla and to arrange for his cremation. We were all deeply shocked (to say the least) and then, trembling with grief, approached the distressing task of sending messages to his wife, Sudy, the boys and the Kay family. As darkness approached, a helicopter landed in the meadow in front of the ruined monastery at Tengboche and shuttled Greg down-valley to Lukla with his oldest friend, John, and Michael.
Russell Tills wrote of this time: "Very early on, it felt like this was a group of guys who wanted to keep an eye out for each other's welfare ... and, as things got tougher, we all seemed to become acutely aware of each other's needs. It halved the burden of a growing load.
"So often in these types of experiences it's the opposite. Difficult people halve the pleasure and when adversity strikes it doubles the load and makes it intolerable. It was remarkable."
The following day the rest of us trekked down to the village of Monzo, deep in the Dhud Kosi Valley, and we descended the infamous Namche Hill with a lifting sense of purpose. Then, to my horror, as we looked down on the Dhud Kosi River, I saw some of our bags floating in the river itself and later learned that our porter Narayan was also in the water. We had lost another! Narayan, or Nikon as we nicknamed him, was a marvellously enthusiastic character and famous with us for rescuing Phil's camera from a teashop up-valley.
The trek to Lukla on the 29th went well, with some light rain causing us to don parkas and umbrellas for the last part of the trek. After lunch we went to the earthquake-damaged heliport building to retrieve Greg.
He lay, white-shrouded, within the three remaining walls of the heliport office with two other bodies tied in red and blue tarpaulins (one labelled "unknown") that had been brought from base camp. We carried him outside past an injured Sherpa climber on a stretcher and beneath the rotating blades of a helicopter on to the slippery mud and rock tracks of Lukla and up the hillside to a ridge above.
A Buddhist monk led us up the track with a silk karta-scarf symbolically drawing Greg on up the path to the next life and to an airy cremation site with views (once the rain stopped) to the north towards the Himalayas and west to the setting sun.
Beneath a parade of umbrellas we, the old collegians, said farewell to Greg as the smoke lifted into the clearing Himalayan sky.
Back in Kathmandu the great shrines of Kathmandu Valley are rubble and the appalling death toll is now more than 8000. Yet the people of Nepal retain their resilient and irrepressible shine despite it all. But they are going to need help.
So we are working hard on all of this now, with the added challenge of the 7.4 quake on May 12 adding to the death and destruction. And I feel determined to do an even better job, inspired by what we shared, what we lost and what we gained, trekking in the valley of Everest.
Damage and losses
Schools damaged (10 destroyed)
831 Houses destroyed
2500 More than 2500 houses damaged
4 Hospitals damaged
22 Deaths (18 climbers + 4 locals of the district)
How to help
The Himalayan Trust is fundraising for the rebuild programme. See the website for more information and to make donations to the relief work.