From Holby City to Peak Practice
Dec 1, 2000
Zoe, my wife ,has placed an impressive brochure among my usual pile of post. Devour contents and know instantly this is the challenge for me: a strenuous three-week trek in the foothills of Everest. The fulfilment of a lifetime’s ambition. Ever since my dad eulogised about Sir Edmund Hilary’s conquest of the world’s highest mountain in the 1950’s I’d hoped one day I’d see it for myself. Knew I’d never get to the top —too many Malbro Lights and Smirnoffs for that — but a rigorous assault on its flanks would do nicely. Our aim; to reach Everest Base Camp. Ten days’ walking up, five days down. Nights under the stars. And all for charity. Hope And Homes For Children provides family homes throughout Europe and Africa for children deprived of shelter, warmth and parental love by war or disaster.
Dec 12, 2000
Next step: Recruit comrade for big adventure. Zoe ‘doesn’t do cold or mountains’, so declines. Next choice is George Irving, a good mate who plays fellow medic Anton Meyer in Holby City. George isn’t averse to mountains or a bit of cold. Perversely, in fact, he often goes out of his way to find both. So assemble glossy brochures. Rehearse speech. Trap is set in the green room at Elstree Studios. George gasps, clearly awestruck that one as overweight and unfit as me should recklessly contemplate such a feat. ‘I’ll go, too,’ he announces. Nearly a year until we leave and already I’ve memorised ‘The Rough Guide To Kathmandu.
Dec 31, 2000
Cigars and booze went at midnight. May allow myself odd cigarette, though, for fear of looking too smugly virtuous in fitness quest.
March 14, 2001
Don’t want to lug beer gut up Everest. so have lost two stone. Feel justly smug. Have also had career change. No more Mike Barratt, surgical consultant at fictitious M4 corridor hospital. Have hung up stethoscope and an now recording talking book by ex-SAS man Andy McNab.
For once have got the physique for the part, which puts me in right mood for macho type advture. Shame can’t show off newly toned body as am only talking into microphone.
George has been down to see me in Wiltshire for a couple of 17-mile training yomps, but foot-and-mouth disrupts my schedule. Discover that the two stone I’d lost is now down to one. Am now back to carrying equivalent of seven extra bags of sugar round midriff. Sometimes, brilliantly and creatively, even find excuse for odd celebratory cigar. Doubts creep in. How will I cope with altitude? What if my dodgy hamstring goes again. George and I console ourselves with expensive trip to mountaineering shop to buy essentials for 18,500ft and -20C at night.
Annoyingly, George pays half the price for his waterproofs that I paid three months earlier. Ponder how many Sherpas it would take to carry a mini-bar.
Have arrived! We’re here on the airstrip at Lukla built by boyhood hero Sir Edmund. Gasp at scale of vast peaks that surround village, which is at 9,OOOft. Our group heads along trail that leads to first overnight stop. Am thoroughly thrilled that month of strenuous training have paid dividends and am not wheezing asthmatically with every step.
Nightfall. Struggle into confines of tiny two-man tent with George. Doubt it can possibly contain both of us and our clutter. Dress for plunging temperatures in multiple layers. Squeeze into sleeping bag, only to find it ends at my torso. Short sleeping bags are a common hazard when you’re 6ft 5in. Settle for wrapping my top half, mummy-like, in all surplus clothes in vain bid to keep warm. Lie awake shivering for half the night as snores emit from other tents and temperature plunges to -150C. Wonder idly whether medical knowledge accrued during Holby City equips me to deal with imminent onset of hypothermia.
To Monjo. Miraculously survived freezing night. Spirits rise with sun. Today we cross and recross thundering glacial river named the Milk River because of its colour.Walk through pine forests and terraced fields. Pass yaks and donkeys carrying trek gear along the trail. Sadly none has outsize sleeping bags in stock. Spectacular mountain peaks unfold above us.
To Namche Bazaar. A tough climb to the Sherpa capital, but get first view of Everest. The great mountain is elusive, which adds splendour and mystique. When Sherpa points it out I burst into tears. It’s a magical moment.
Jubilation! At Namche Bazaar find sleeping bag that zips up to armpits. Won’t have to risk frostbitten torso anymore. Poor George has agonising stomach cramps, so wonderful doctor travelling with us prescribes antibiotics. George continues stoically. Inevitably, rest of our group — supposing we’re experts on every disease known to man because of our TV roles — regale us with stories of their illnesses. Try to assume look of knowledgeable concern as they go through lists of ailments.
November 28 & 29
To monastery of Thyangboche. Trail meanders round Everest. Views astounding. Walk alone, revelling in solitude. Want to empty mind of all extraneous clutter and contemplate life’s big questions —notably secrets of eternal youth but can’t help wondering how Chelsea are doing. Divert thoughts by watching last rays of the sunset behind Everest. Get up early to see sublime sunrise. Struggle for superlatives. Breakfast on porridge and omelette.
30 & December 1
To Dingboche. View of the day is Ama Dablam, one of Himalaya’s most stunning peaks. Here I go again, lapsing into guidebook speak. Actually, it’s beyond words. Perfect. Often want to cry, and do. George is the perfect tent-mate — great fun, supportive but it’s still hard living in such close proximity to someone that there isn’t a single bodily function you don’t witness. Have to be scrupulously tidy inside tent because space is so confined. Find this hardest of all.
Altitude is such that I get out of breath just organising things for next day. Nights difficult. Wake with sleep apnoea — can’t fill lungs with enough air. Lie sleepless for two hours thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’ Outside, moon shines on circle of 26,000ft peaks. Stars are blazing beacons in sky.
Climb high among glaciers of world’s giant mountains. We’re close to goal, Everest Base Camp. Overnight in a dormitory at Gorak Shep. Don’t expect a Travelodge, but this is taking inhospitality to extremes. Haven’t seen anything as grim since the prison cell in Midnight Express. The temperature is -11 0C - inside. On with two layers of thermal leggings, fleece pants, walking trousers, over-trousers. Six layers on top then ski hat, Balaclava, wool hat.
Next day: steep ascent to Kala Pattar (18,200ft) and best view of Everest in whole of Himalayas. Breathing like runaway train, am fifth to top.
Rocky buttresses of Everest look so close, feel I can reach out and touch them. Stand and stare, transfixed, so view is scorched on memory forever. Smoke cigarette —just to prove am fit enough to do so. Take piece of rock to keep as proof have reached Base Camp when bragging in pub. Bask in sense of triumph with George. No need for words. Sun shines: shared glow of self-satisfied pleasure envelops us. Am thrilled George spent twice as much on sun hat as me. Dread return. Don’t want to leave view. Then member of our group, Nick Mason, dislocates kneecap.
Seven of us take turns to ease Nick down mountain. He’s flinching with every step. We’re bantering to keep his mind off pain. We’re a diverse bunch from all walks of life — a farmer, a businessman, a lady who works in Marks & Spencer to number a few —but we all rub along. Josh with Bob Harvey, the businessman: ‘How about a chain of hypermarkets along the Everest trail?’
Reach Lulda again and savour final mountain sunset. Just as impressive are wonderful Nepalese people. Never cynical, always smiling. Ghito, who dug our latrine every day, was most cheerful of all.
Fog-bound in Lukla. A scrabble for places on plane. George and I last to leave. Feel bonded by privations and triumphs of shared experience. After three teetotal weeks, long for can of Six X beer. Diet has been largely vegetarian — fantastic Nepalese curries liberally laced with garlic, so yearn for steak and onions.
Homecoming. Zoe meets me at airport. ‘You look as if you’ve been in a war,’ she says, hugging me. Realise I haven’t seen myself in a mirror for three weeks. Look and smell like a vagrant.
Feel triumphal. Swilling can of beer Zoe has thoughtfully provided, reflect on scale of achievement. Between us, George and I have raised £20,000 for our charity. In all, the group has notched up £100,000. Physically, wasn’t quite in Sir Edmund’s league, but not bad for an overweight, 44-year-old actor with beer gut, nicotine habit and pretty impressive capacity for sinking pints.
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