‘I prepared to die’: SAS veteran’s nightmare on Everest
Years of training mattered little when confronted by tragedy and disaster at the top of the world
It was meant to be the realisation of a boyhood dream: to stand on the apex of the planet. For Ant Middleton, however, the reality came closer to a nightmare.
In April, the 37-year-old adventurer, television presenter and Special Forces veteran set off from his home in England for a six-week expedition that would see him scale Mount Everest with just a Sherpa and a British documentary filmmaker, Ed Wardle. He wanted the trip to “give me its best”; to push him somewhere close to his very, very extreme limits.
Middleton, who admits he is “uncomfortable when comfortable” and “not a normal guy”, got what he asked for.
Everest should have been straightforward for a climber of his experience, but a combination of freak weather, the now-infamous queues and too many dangerously ill-prepared commercial climbers saw him come as close to death as he ever has, including on three tours of Afghanistan.
Spring of 2018 was the busiest season in Everest’s history. It’s thought that more than 700 climbers reached the summit, and five died. Middleton and Wardle weren’t even the only British documentary crew up there – Ben Fogle was close behind, and later recalled his terror when Middleton was reported missing: “For five hours we thought he had died.”
The resulting documentary, Extreme Everest with Ant Middleton, is gripping stuff. For climbers, the bad weather Middleton experiences will represent their worst fears. For the rest of us, it’s a terrifying and fascinating insight into the real challenges of Everest.
“Let’s get this done,” Middleton says in the film, having kissed his wife, Emilie, and four young children goodbye and got into an Uber to the airport. It was a trip planned at relatively short notice, but an ambition Middleton had harboured since he scaled Snowdon as a 16-year-old army recruit.
“I always loved the freedom of climbing, and joined the mountain troop in the Special Forces to do more,” he says. “I’ve done it round the world, but ever since I left the military [in 2012, after 15 years] Everest was my priority. It wasn’t the views or even the achievement, it was the thrill of the unknown. I had to do it.”
As chief instructor on SAS: Who Dares Wins and a general fitness nut, Middleton needed no additional physical training. But he worried about the altitude at 8,839m, which he knew could be conquered by correctly acclimatising. He would focus on staying calm, trusting his Sherpa guide and controlling his body.
Not that he was under the illusion that Everest wasn’t dangerous. As the documentary points out, for every 17 climbers who have reached the summit, one has died. Middleton had heard the horror stories about passing dead bodies, losing fingers and falling into ravines; what he hadn’t realised was just how heaving with wealthy, ill-prepared climbers the mountain would be.
“It’s absolutely lethal. There are completely incapable climbers being dragged up the mountain, risking the Sherpas’ lives in the process, and just because they’ve paid thousands of pounds to do it. It’s an absolute joke.”
In the documentary we see Middleton’s first encounter with such an amateur. Faced with a relatively simple 76m ice wall, an Italian climber flails and fails, holding Middleton’s group up for an hour and eventually having to be helped by a makeshift haulage system. Enraged, Middleton confronts him, calling him “an embarrassment” who should not be on the mountain if he cannot manage an easy stage without help.
“I was expecting him to quit there and then, but he didn’t,” he says. “It fascinates me – they pay all this money and offload all their personal responsibility at the same time. It’s like they leave all their dignity at home, and just expect to be taken up there to tick it off. It’s that commercialised that anyone with money thinks they can.”
Commercial groups on Everest are the major source of tourism income for Nepal and Tibet, which has resulted in literal queues to get on and off the summit. This was the case on the morning of May 14, when Middleton, Wardle and their guide made it. Middleton stood on top of the world for just 10 minutes. He made a phone call to Emilie in England, and that’s when things started to go wrong.
Emilie heard the wind pick up through the satellite phone. Middleton saw that a storm was closing in. Within minutes there was a white-out. “It went from sunny to ‘right, we need to get off this mountain’, and only then did I realise the magnitude of the situation,” he says.
From the north summit the way off was back the way they came, and that meant a queue. With a dozen mostly inexperienced climbers ahead, and 112km/h winds building all around, the amateurs started to panic. One businessman lost his footing and ended up hanging upside-down off the peak, delaying everybody further as they tried to rescue him, and ramping up the panic in the process.
Climbers have limited oxygen, so a quick exit is vital. But Middleton was stuck at the top for almost three hours, and on the way down his oxygen ran out. He “prepared to die”.
He thought of his children growing up without a dad, as he did (his father died of a heart attack when he was five). His supplies were restored by a Sherpa just in time, but not before he had seen another guide succumb to the conditions. The man curled up, willing passing climbers to leave him be. Middleton had no choice. “It’s the only time I’ve ever left a man behind.”
Lamu Babu Sherpa’s shoes and bag were recovered, but officials confirmed his death a few days later.
“If you were writing a horror story, that sequence – the storm, the queue, the man hanging upside-down, leaving the Sherpa, the oxygen running out – it’s unbelievable,” Middleton says.
Two days after Middleton summited, Fogle did too, without his colleague, Olympic champion Victoria Pendleton, who had withdrawn owing to altitude sickness. “It was much better weather when he made it,” Middleton says, quickly. “We’re chalk and cheese, but Ben and I became close up there and have kept in touch. He’s just a bit less extreme than me, a bit more sensible.”
Middleton is now back in England with his family. Emilie knew nothing until he was safe and the children didn’t even know where he’d gone. But he felt ready for another challenge after “a couple of days”. He is, remember, mad.
“If I don’t go away and do something extreme every few weeks, that’s when I start to get into trouble. Emilie gets it; she doesn’t want me hanging around the house moaning.”
He is stumped, though, about what to do next. He’s recreated the 6,437km voyage of William Bligh and his loyal crew in a small boat after the mutiny on the Bounty. He’s done Everest the hard way. He’s been a sniper in warzones ...
”It’s tough. Got any ideas?”
I truly don’t, though I am keen to find out what he learnt about himself from nearly dying on Everest.
“Be careful what you wish for.”
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited