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I nearly died climbing Everest


Ian Taylor thought he was going to die. He had climbed through the night, scaled the rugged, unforgiving terrain, passed by the frozen corpses of climbers who had failed to tame Mount Everest and struggled against the odds to barely make it to the summit.
So when news of Irishman John Delaney's death on the mountain filtered through last week, Ian was not surprised.
"My sympathy goes out to John's wife and family," he says. "It was horrific news and saddening news. It brought me right back to what it felt like to be there three years ago and what a horrendous place it is to be," he says. "I am not shocked any more when I hear of deaths on Everest. A lot of people die there. So I wasn't surprised. It happens all the time."
In 2008, the then 29-year-old Ian became the youngest Irishman to scale Everest (a title which now belongs to Limerick man Mark Quinn, aged 26), but despite having stood on top of the world, the experience still haunts him.
"Everyone wants to climb Everest for the sheer joy of being on top of the world," he says.
"I didn't have that sense of joy when I stood there. No one can really understand what it's like. When you go above 26,000ft [the "death zone"] it doesn't matter how prepared you are, because nothing can prepare you for it.
"All you can try to do is limit the potential danger. It becomes a game of Russian roulette. It becomes less about skill and more about luck. When I was on the top, I remember thinking 80pc of the accidents happen on the way down."
While struggling in the death zone, fellow climber Martin McGarvey stumbled backwards on a knife-edge ridge, clasping at his frozen oxygen mask and inched closer to a sheer 10,000ft drop.
"I thought we were both going to die," says Ian. "I had seen a body off to the left and I had visions of disaster. I shouted at him to get off the ridge and to start walking back along a ledge which was only about 12ft wide."
With the help of Sherpas, the local guides employed by climbers to navigate the ascent, he managed to bring his climbing partner back to safety.
However, Martin was snow blind and they were still stuck in the sub-zero temperatures of the death zone.
"I remember looking at the Sherpas and seeing the shock on their faces," says Ian. "They are the ones you look to for support and encouragement, and to see these people scared. I just kept on thinking, 'I'm not going to get out of here'."
More than 200 lives have been lost on Everest and one in 10 climbers is left dead on its frozen slopes.
"I didn't know what was going to happen next. I said to the guide we have to help him, stay with him," recalls Ian.
"But my Sherpa shouted at me, 'We must go to the top. We have to go to the top'. He gets a $1,000 bonus if he brings a climber to the summit. The average wage in Nepal is $260 a year, so $1,000 is probably the equivalent of €100,000 to them. That's where the whole selfish thing is. You quickly realise morals are thrown out the window up there."
Tshering, a 19-year-old Sherpa, agreed to guide Martin back down to the nearest base camp, where his sight slowly returned, while Ian made the last push to conquer the mountain he had dreamt of taming since childhood.
But as he struggled to the top, every movement required a monumental effort. "I really felt I was on the verge of death," he says. "I knew the terrain we had left to cover and thought if Martin had gone blind, so would I. I knew that if that happened, I would not make it.
"The level of concentration for every step I took was unbelievable. You haven't slept for 36 hours, it's freezing cold, your digestive system has shut down and you can't eat, and physically and emotionally you're drained."
Ian pushed himself forward but as he edged closer to the summit more dead bodies came into focus.
"You are in this heightened state of fear, so emotionally it is very draining and physically your body is falling apart," says Ian. "You feel like you are 100 years old. All I knew was that I didn't want to turn into them."
At 12:02am Irish time, on Friday May 23, 2008, Ian became the youngest Irishman and the first Kildare man to stand on the top of the world. However, the memory still haunts him.
"I really believed that I was truly on my own on Everest," he says.
"People are so driven they walk past people in trouble to get to the top. The attitude is: if you can't help yourself up there, tough. Two people died when we were there. We saw them 10 hours before they died. Everest certainly conquered those people.
"Everest will show you your limits and show you who you are. It also shows you your values and what type of person you are. You see yourself in a different light. Coming out of there alive, it shows you a whole new side. It probably showed me I was reckless and very selfish."
Ian is now married and while he still climbs mountains that would be a mission impossible for most mere mortals, his wife Laura Gravino is understanding of his passion.
It helps that she, too, is a climbing enthusiast and has scaled the likes of Kilimanjaro and Mount Blanc alongside Ian.
"I would never stop him from doing anything," says Laura.
"I suppose I have enough confidence in his skills and he is smart enough that he would never put himself in a situation that he couldn't handle. I know situations can suddenly arise but I have trust in him and he's a competent enough climber to get through it."
Despite having negative feelings about his Everest climb, one positive Ian takes from the experience was using it to help raise more than €75,000 to build a school in the Ugandan village of Kitandwe in partnership with the charity Fields of Life.
"I am still to this day involved with the school," he says. "I just raised €1,000 last week to finish off a kindergarten project in the school. So it is nice to have something lasting and worthwhile, especially after having seen such horrendous sights."
Ian has vowed never to climb into the death zone again, but prepares climbers intent on trying to tame Everest by helping them train.
"The risks are high and these mountains are proving this time and time again. The last 3,000ft are something that you can't describe to people. I felt what it is like up there and I just don't ever want to feel it again.
"I saw things there I didn't like. I learnt positive and negative things about myself. You have to assess who you are and maybe that's what it's about. Maybe some people just have to climb Everest to find out," he says.
If you would like to help support the Mount Everest School in Uganda or to sponsor one of its students, visit www.fieldsoflife.com
- John Costello
Irish Independent
 

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