© Dr Melanie Windridge
Scientist Dr Melanie Windridge is a plasma physicist and Vice President of the Alpine Club. Last year she summited Everest, filming her journey to the top to share the science behind her summit whilst also producing a YouTube series on it for the Institute of Physics.
Now busy writing a book about the science of summiting Everest, Melanie let me quiz her about her summit, the importance of acclimatisation, plus her training and kit (which for her Everest trip was sponsored by Montane). Scoot further down the interview to watch the film she made about her summit. It’s fascinating.
What made you want to summit Everest – had it been on your bucket list for a while?
I suppose I just got closer to it. When I was younger, Everest seemed big and crazy and dangerous. I loved the mountains and I felt the draw of Everest as the highest in the world, but I thought you would have to be crazy to climb it. But as I trekked higher, gained an understanding of altitude and ultimately learned to climb I began to see it differently.
Then, in 2013, I was on the committee that helped organise the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the first ascent, held at the Royal Geographical Society. I met people who had climbed Everest, and I learned about the history. I became fascinated with Everest when I realised that that main reason the British reached the top in the 1950s but had failed in the 1920s and 30s was because of the scientific understanding and technology available to them. As a scientist myself this really caught my attention. And I began to realise that with a little more experience I could probably climb Mount Everest too.
How long before your expedition did you start preparing, and what kind of training did you do?
I started preparing physically about a year before, but I was quite fit anyway and had been doing expeditions and lots of skiing for years before, so it wasn’t like I was starting from nothing. In fact, the expedition manager said to me once that Everest climbers need “deep fitness” which I took to mean as fitness established over many years as opposed to a big training push at the last minute.
I did improve my fitness over the year, but I wouldn’t say I was astonishingly fit when I left for the mountain. I worked with Justin Roberts and his team at Anglia Ruskin University for fitness testing to help me make steady progress. The biggest problem for me, though, was that I work fulltime so I just couldn’t put the hours in. I had to squeeze exercise in around everything else. I think this is the case for many Everest climbers, and it’s OK. I kept generally fit by running a couple of times a week, about 5km mostly, sometimes 8km; the odd HIIT session at home, particularly in the winter when it was dark and rainy and I didn’t run, and dog-walking with an 8-10kg rucksack.
I would do more at the weekend, generally a longer walk with the rucksack. But long days out are important for expeditions, so I made sure to include this kind of training throughout the year. In the summer I went hiking in France, and did a 4-day hike in America camping out and carrying all our kit. In the winter I skied, and I went winter climbing in Scotland and ski touring in Chamonix in the two months before I went to Nepal, so getting long days out is good preparation.
Being fitter and faster wouldn’t have been a bad thing, but if you’re fit you need to go to altitude with an unfit person’s mentality – go slow, hang back, don’t push it. Overexertion at altitude can impede acclimatisation. The biggest thing is not to worry about it. My endurance is good, so even if I wasn’t fast I knew that I could hang on in there.
Only 10% of Everest summits have been made by women. Why do you think this is?
Goodness knows! Looking at the statistics I saw that women have an equal chance of summiting and of surviving, so being female is certainly not a disadvantage. I suppose there are practical reasons. For example, people build up to Everest and currently over half of the people who have summited Everest were in their 30s or early 40s when they climbed – an age when many women may be having and raising children and so not inclined to go. But fewer women climb generally, so fewer are going to get to the point where they feel that climbing Everest is possible.
Climbers spend 4-6 weeks acclimatising at Base Camp – why is this so important?
Humans are not designed to live at high altitude. As we go higher, the air pressure reduces. This means that there are fewer molecules of oxygen in each lungful of air we breathe, and less pressure to drive it into our bloodstream, so our bodies don’t get enough oxygen. We feel bad and we can’t perform as well as at sea level. We get “altitude sickness” or “acute mountain sickness (AMS)”. Everyone will suffer some symptoms, such as headaches and nausea, but if we go too high too fast and the body can’t cope then we can get fluid on the brain or lungs and these can be fatal.
Fortunately, if we go slowly, our bodies can make adaptations so that we can survive. So the process of acclimatisation is simply giving our bodies exposure to higher and higher altitude so that it can make these adaptations.
What process did you take to acclimatise?
We took ten days to walk to Base Camp (5350m) from the airstrip at Lukla (~3000m). During this time we got steadily higher and also climbed some little peaks on the way, so that we climbed higher and slept lower. This is a good way for the body to adjust. Then, from Base Camp, we did what are called “rotations”, which is essentially shuttling up and down the mountain. We went up to Camp 1 (6050m), stayed the night, then back to Base. A few days later we went to Camp 2 (6350m) for a few days, and a little way up the Lhotse Face towards Camp 3, then back to Base. I was supposed to go up again to Camp 3 (7100m) but that never happened in the end.
All of this shuttling means that our bodies can acclimatise. By coming back down to rest at Base Camp we keep our strength up. They body degrades at altitude – the muscles waste away and injuries don’t heal – so if we didn’t come back down during the acclimatisation phase we would get weaker and weaker. It’s a balance between getting altitude exposure and keeping fit and strong.
You’ve said Everest is ‘both awful and awesome’ – what did you find most challenging?
I think just feeling below par and hurting every day for weeks and just hanging on in there. There was nothing terrible, just a long, constant attrition. But at the same time it is an incredible place and I felt lucky to be there.
In your film we see you practice walking across ladders wearing crampons in anticipation of crossing crevasses. This looked pretty hairy – did you have any sketchy moments?
Um, yes, actually! On my way through the icefall on the summit push I actually fell off a ladder! Fortunately, I didn’t fall into the crevasse. What happened is that I was making a big final stride off the penultimate ladder rung to get to the safety of snow. But my back crampon caught and somehow it flipped me hard into the hard snow at the other side. I had a GoPro on my bag strap just below my left collarbone and this was rammed into me, bruising the rib heavily. So this gave me pain for about a month afterwards, including all the way through my summit push. Fortunately, it didn’t hurt much whilst walking; it was most painful in the tent.
What was the last push to the summit like?
My summit push went really well. I’d had my struggles and learnt lessons during the rotations, which was a good thing. My biggest struggle was my first run through the icefall to Camp 1. I didn’t eat or drink enough and allowed myself to get dangerously exhausted. It was silly of me, and just due to not stopping for breaks in the dangerous icefall. But after that I made sure I had snacks and water accessible even if I didn’t stop, so I was able to keep myself fuelled. For me, eating and drinking is really important, otherwise my performance really drops off. Some people say that they can’t eat above 7000m, for example, and it’s normal for people to struggle to eat at altitude. But I’m quite good at eating, and I made a point of eating almost a whole expedition meal at the South Col, plus Pringles and cake. I ate more than the guys, and I think that really helped me.
During the night when we were walking to the summit, I just took it steadily. We left around 9pm and were the first team to leave the South Col. All of us were using oxygen, and we each had a Sherpa with us. I fairly quickly moved ahead of my team-mates. I wasn’t trying to, I was just moving at a comfortable pace. Hours went by in a kind of jerky rhythm – push the jumar (a device used to ascend a rope), step, step, step, breathe. It was dark so all you see is the small patch of snow or rock illuminated by your head torch. It’s really your own little world. We reached the Balcony where we changed oxygen cylinders and had a snack, then continued on. Eventually we reached the South Summit where we did the same. I didn’t really have a low point that night. Some people say it can be a struggle in the depth of the night, when it is cold before sunrise. I was OK. I sang songs in my head and kept the rhythm. I didn’t love it and I wanted it to end, but I felt strong. I even felt hungry and wished I’d brought some cake!
What was your actual summit moment like – did it meet your expectations?
I remember standing just beyond the South Summit sweeping the narrow ridge up and down with my head torch before we started up it. There were footsteps frozen into the snow that made it easier for us. After a while I stepped out onto a snow slope that I could see stretching to the summit. I thought, “Oh, I must have gone up the Hillary Step without noticing.” As I walked along that last section I could see colour breaking on the horizon. I reached the summit for sunrise and my Sherpa, Tenzing, and I sat there taking it all in as the world brightened and we could see the view.
I probably didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have. My primary emotion was relief, I think, and then I was just really focussed on what I had to do. I needed to take photos, video and a snow sample, and then I needed to get back down to safety. It wasn’t an emotional moment for me. It was very focussed. I realise now how incredibly lucky I was to get such a pure summit experience – just me and Tenzing at sunrise.
I didn’t really imagine my summit push beforehand. Sometimes I think expectations can be distracting or disappointing. But I suppose mine was better than I would have ever expected.
There is more detail about my summit push (and some other parts of the expedition) on my blog.
(You can read Melanie’s blog here: http://melaniewindridge.co.uk/blog/everest-stories)
Approaching your climb as a scientist what were the interesting takeaways for you?
I think that some of the most interesting things came out of looking at the statistics. Sometimes the findings can seem obvious but it really hammers the message home. For example, you can see where most people die on the mountain and why they die, and this can inform your preparation. On Everest the most deadly places are the icefall and the summit ridge. In the icefall people die from avalanches and serac falls. You can’t really do anything about that except pass through as quickly as possible – so a good reason to be fit and fast, which I wasn’t! But if you look at why people die on summit day you find that they mostly boil down to the same thing – exhaustion.
The reason may be listed as falls, or altitude sickness or exhaustion but it’s the same. There are fixed ropes on Everest so no reason to fall unless you make a mistake. Altitude sickness is very well understood, symptoms are known and it can be cured by simply descending, unless you are incapable of descending. So what becomes patently clear is that one of the most important things to do on an Everest climb is to not allow yourself to become exhausted on summit day. You have to be able to walk out of the death zone. You have to cultivate the ability to turn around if necessary.
As I said, it sounds obvious, but some people don’t do this. There’s an expectation that you have to push yourself to the limit, give it everything, but if you allow yourself to become exhausted you are on seriously dangerous ground. When I was exhausted in the icefall on my first rotation I was walking in a dreamlike state, not sufficiently alert or aware of my surroundings. Imagine how much more dangerous this would be above 8000m. I found on summit day that by managing myself well – by making sure I was eating and drinking regularly – I was able to keep strong and mentally alert, and I believe this is critically important. But looking at the statistics beforehand taught me what I needed to focus on for my safety.
What are your favourite items of kit for expeditions?
Merino wool base layers that are soft and don’t smell. Although I also have some Montane Primino base layers, which are a blend of Primaloft and Merino, and these are also good. By blending natural and synthetic fibres they aim to get the benefits of both. I’m hoping that the use of the synthetic in there will make them more durable too, but that remains to be seen. I also love a big, snuggly down jacket.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
No, not as a sponsored athlete. But Montane sponsored my Everest expedition with kit.
What’s next for you in 2019?
I will get out into the mountains for skiing, hiking and some low-level climbing but I don’t have any big plans for 2019, or, in fact, for beyond. I’m sure they will come!
My main focus for 2019 is to complete a book about the science of Everest, incorporating everything I’ve learned over the last few years and tying it into the story of my climb. It’s slow progress because I can only really write on weekends due to other work. But I’ve done a lot of the research work already, which went into my Science of Everest YouTube series (watch it here) so it’s just a matter of getting writing!
I’d like to spend a bit more time on fusion energy work going forward – I work for a private company that aims to develop and commercialise nuclear fusion as a clean, sustainable energy source. It’s globally important and I feel it needs more focus. I’d be interested in doing more expeditions in the Arctic to highlight the urgency of climate change and the need for more energy investment. But I currently don’t have any actual plans.
Watch Melanie’s video about her Everest expedition:
You can follow Melanie on social media via www.instagram.com/m_windridge, www.facebook.com/drmelaniewindridge and www.twitter.com/m_windridge. For more information about Melanie and her work visit www.melaniewindridge.co.uk.