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Three Northern Ireland climbers tell of their experience on Mount Everest

Climbing Everest was once regarded as the ultimate challenge but now it's attracting so many people that queues are forming on its slopes. This, along with inexperience and bad weather, has brought 11 deaths on the mountain in 2019, as local climbers who've reached the summit tell Linda Stewart

A queue of climbers wait to get to the summit of Everest last month
A queue of climbers wait to get to the summit of Everest last month
Dawson Stelfox in the Mourne Mountains
Dawson Stelfox
Hannah Shields
Dr Nigel Hart
Dr Nigel Hart during his expedition in 2007
Hannah Shields during her Everest climb
Hannah Shields
Dawson Stelfox during his Everest climb in 1993

Belfast GP and Queen's University lecturer Dr Nigel Hart (53) scaled Everest in 2007 as part of a medical team investigating the impact of hypoxia (low levels of oxygen) on the human body. He is married with three children.

Dr Hart admits that while he is an avid mountaineer, summiting Everest wasn't a dream of his and he was there by invitation.

"Mountains are a place where I was drawn, probably more for the emotional and psychological rewards rather than the physical things. It does give you that perspective that is separate from the normal daily grind," he says.

Dr Hart was invited to take part in the groundbreaking expedition because of his involvement in altitude research in the past. The team prepared for the challenge for several years, taking part in a number of preparatory expeditions to other high peaks, including Cho Oyu, one of the 14 peaks worldwide that exceeds 8,000 metres.

As well as the team itself, another 200 trekkers also took part in the research, which was designed to investigate how the body adapts or fails to adapt to low oxygen conditions and how that might translate into a clinical setting.

"We had exercise bikes, machines to check the blood flow in your brain, to check the blood flow under your tongue, to look at the retinas of your eyes, equipment to check the oxygen in your blood," Dr Hart says.

"On the top of Everest it is one third of the air pressure that we have at sea level and therefore a third of the oxygen."

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Once you reach the top, there isn't much time to take in the experience, he says.

"The feeling when you get to the top is relief that you can turn around and come back down again.

"It's elating, it's exhausting, but there's also the sense that those really hard hours are past and you can come back down," he says.

"There's this idea that when you get to the top that you would get the picnic rug out and sit down, open a bottle of champagne to celebrate and take it all in. But in fact, you're just realising it's time to turn and come back down.

"When you're standing in that kind of cold, things can deteriorate very quickly."

When Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first scaled Everest in 1953, physiologists had no idea if it was even possible for a human to stand on the top of the mountain, he says.

"I'm pretty sure that I was close to the edge of my physical capability. You don't really know until you reach that edge.

"Up there, when you're at rest, you're breathing at 40 or 50 breaths per minutes, while it would be around 12 at sea level. When you're doing that, you know you are having to work hard and you're having to rest between each step."

The team delayed its summit attempt by a day after coming across a Nepalese climber who had become separated from her team and fallen unconscious.

"She was suffering frostbite to her fingers and toes and the team treated her and brought her back down to safety.

"As a medical team, we knew it would be our duty, if called upon, to get involved in any rescues, and that came to be the case," Dr Hart says.

"For us, it was about safety first, then the research and then possibly the summit, and the summit was the last of the things that we were going to do."

He says it seems as if the crowds photographed on the mountain were the result of a lot of people going at once after a long wait for a weather window.

"There are only two or three weeks when it's possible to have a go at getting to the summit," he says.

"Given what we know about Everest, having a large number of people queuing and trying to get up and down from the summit along a narrow route does not make good sense. Things can deteriorate very quickly."

However, while he has no plans to climb Everest again, Dr Hart says that mountaineering is "in my blood, it's in my DNA".

He cites the writer Robert Macfarlane who described so vividly the obsession with mountains in his book Mountains Of The Mind, where he wrote: "More and more people are discovering a desire for them and a powerful solace in them.

"At the bottom, mountains, like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent conviction - so easy to lapse into - that the world has been made for humans by humans."

Dr Hart adds: "I always like to go back to the mountains, but it's something I like to share with people.

"Perhaps I'd like to go back to base camp and bring a group of people with me but there are many other mountains still to be climbed too."

Hannah Shields

Hannah Shields (54) from Kilrea was the first woman from here to reach the summit of Everest in 2007. She has three brothers and three sisters.

Hannah dates her thirst for adventure back to the Moon landing.

She remembers looking at the Moon the next night and her dad pointing out that there were two people up there.

"He turned to me and said 'if you work hard, you can do anything' and I totally believed that," she says.

It was shortly after undergoing surgery at the age of 27 that Hannah heard about the first Irish expedition going to Everest and longed to be a part of it.

She says: "But it was only on going out and seeing Everest in its entirety in 1993 that my stomach did the biggest jig and I thought: 'This is what I want to do'.

"It scared the life out of me because I knew with certainty what I wanted to do."

She spent years training for the challenge, teaming up with other climbers to scale peaks around the world. In 2003 she took part in the Irish Everest expedition led by Pat Falvey and Mick Murphy, but was forced to turn back at just 150 metres from the peak because she had frostbite. "I realised I still had work to do". In 2007 she returned to climb Everest with a Russian team.

"It was amazing because they smoked and drank vodka the whole way up the mountain and down again. They were a phenomenal team," she says.

The team adopted a riskier strategy: instead of taking the first weather window, they backed off and waited for a little longer.

"We didn't know if we'd get another window and we didn't want to climb with hordes of people climbing up the mountain," Hannah explains.

Instead, as a storm came in the team of five climbed through the storm and the strategy paid off as they made it to the summit alone.

"It was only when we were coming down off the mountain that we could see the other teams coming up.

"We didn't get caught up in any queues heading for the summit," Hannah says. "We were very blessed on the day that it worked for us.

"There's a very spiritual element to being up in the high mountains. It makes you feel very humble, it makes you feel very small and it's wonderful to be part of that kind of experience.

"There was something very special about it, once you stand on it and look around and say to yourself: 'I am the highest person on this planet'. You can see the curvature of the Earth."

But she had to refocus immediately on getting back down again - not only was one of her contact lenses frozen to her eye, but she was beginning to cough up blood.

"People put everything into getting to the summit and they forget that it's a long way down again. There are more fatalities on the way down. I didn't sit and realise what I'd done or really celebrate until four days later. I had no sleep, no nothing. I was having serious problems with pulmonary oedema. You get down as quickly as possible and you become the walking wounded. There is no rescue in these places."

Hannah says she would never knock anybody going for their dream but it's vital to be prepared and to acclimatise your body by climbing the other high peaks first.

"Your body has to be able to adapt to the altitude. It has a profound effect on your body and a lot of people don't give that the respect it deserves.

"It takes a lot of hard work, preparation, knowledge and commitment," she says.

"I would absolutely love to go out again, just to go to base camp or some of the other high mountains, just to take it all in and be in the glory of the mountains.

"Any of the mountains, even the ones we have in Northern Ireland. When you're up there with no one around you, it's a very euphoric feeling. Some people think we're mad but it makes you feel alive, you know you're alive. And that's why I love the mountains. It's my thing, it does it for me and that's where I get my kicks."

Dawson Stelfox

Architect Dawson Stelfox (61) from Belfast became the first Irish person to reach the summit of Everest in 1993. He is married to Margaret and they have two sons, Rowan (25) and Aaron (23).

"I'd been introduced to hill walking as a child and I initially joined the mountaineering club in school and then the Queen's mountaineering club which was a very active club at that time," he says.

Over the years Dawson climbed in many places around the world - first the Alps, then Peru and finally, in 1981, he climbed in the Himalayas for the first time.

"It's that slow gradual build-up of experience over many years that is important, but it wasn't until 1988 that a number of us friends that had been climbing together thought we had the experience to put together an expedition," he says.

At the time there were no commercial expeditions, so it was down to the climbers, who came from all over Ireland, to organise it themselves.

The only other expedition on the mountain at the time was a Chinese group, which left soon after they arrived - a far cry from the crowds seen in recent weeks.

"For most of the time that we were in the high mountains, we were the only people there and when I went to the top I was the only person there," Dawson adds.

"Up there, everything is very difficult. The scale of the mountain and particularly the altitude means you lose your appetite, you lose your strength, everything is hard to do, your brain doesn't work terribly well.

"If you give yourself enough time and acclimatise well, you learn to cope with medium height, but when you get up to the top your body will not acclimatise any more. Your body is slowly shutting down and the amount of time you can spend on the top is very limited. You're trying to get as quickly as you can up to the top and back down again.

"The wind strength is the crucial thing. If it's minus 30 degrees you can cope with that, but if it's windy and it's bad weather, nobody can cope with that. You just can't make it."

Dawson says it is very different now than it was in 1993.

"Especially on the south side, there are commercial expeditions with hundreds of people on them.

"I heard a figure of about 800 on the south side this year, it's staggering, really," he says.

"It would be the last place I would want to be with that number of people crowding into a small area.

"It has transformed completely from those days."

Previously there had been tighter limits on the number of permits given and the number of companies that were given permits, he says.

"It seems like they have degenerated into a free-for-all, with no limits on the numbers and no real management. It's a pretty depressing situation."

But he describes the moment he reached the summit as an incredible feeling.

"It was an amazing experience. It was cloudy when I was up there and some of the views were of all the big mountains sticking through the cloud, but it was still and calm," he says.

"But even when you get to the top you are thinking about how to get back down again."

Fatalities are higher on the descent, he says, because you are more tired, the adrenaline rush is gone and it's harder to climb downhill.

"You get to the top, you take a few minutes to experience and share and then your priority switches in to getting back down again," he adds.

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