On 1st June 1933, Frank Smythe came within 300 metres of becoming the first person to climb Everest. The 32-year-old British climber had spent two nights camped in the ‘death zone’, at 8,351 metres; a fellow expedition member, Eric Shipton, had abandoned the attempt. But Smythe, “weak as a kitten”, staggered on for several hours, until he too could stagger no more. Confused and gasping for breath, he felt like a drunk driver. At one point, slipping, he nearly fell to his death. But he retained enough lucidity to realise, just in time, that he must turn back or die.
He stood for a while, swaying at “the very boundaries of life and death”. Finally, he summoned the willpower to move, and he and his remaining companion began, painfully, to descend.
Some time later, they stopped on a ledge for a rest and some Kendal Mint Cake. Smythe broke the bar in two and offered half to his companion – at which point he realised, with a shock, that he was alone. There had never been a companion – yet for all that time he had been convinced that someone else was walking beside him.
More than 80 years later, another young Briton found himself weak, cold and confused after more than 8,500m of ascent. But Alex Staniforth, a 21-year-old adventurer and writer from Cheshire, kept going. He had made two attempts on Everest before, each thwarted by lethal avalanches; for the second, three members of Alex’s party were among the dead. This time he was on safer ground. He was on tarmac, in Cumbria, on a bicycle, attempting to ‘Everest’, as the popular practice is known, by going up and down a single peak, far from the Himalayas, until he had completed the full 8,848m of ascent in single attempt.
The traumas of Alex’s previous attempts, on the real Everest, meant that this one, on Great Dodd Fell, was emotional as well as exhausting. He was accompanied for most of his 14-and-a-bit ascents, but by the time he approached the summit for the last time it was past 1am and he was alone. The darkness and fog were disorienting, the cold debilitating, the fatigue overwhelming.
“I crossed the last cattle grid and I was alone on the top. I stopped at the summit and sent a text to say I was on my way down. I felt elated, but it was eerie there as well. Then I felt a pat on my back – a quite distinct touch on my shoulder. It made the hairs on my neck stand up, and I headed back down at top speed. It didn’t really scare me, though. It felt warming, not threatening. It was only much later that I realised how strange it was.