In 2003, severe frostbite forced climber, Hannah Shields to abandon her ascent of Everest only 100 metres from the summit. But just four years later she returned and succeeded in conquering the mother of all mountains from the Tibetan side. This is her personal account of her challenge. (Hannah pictured above – on back row fourth from right in the Russian team.)
Never in my wildest dreams when I was qualifying in 1987, did I imagine the twists and turns my life would take. To be honest, I thought that going into practice was my only likely option after qualification.
But Alan Quayle a consultant in maxillofacial surgery, took me aside and encouraged me to think outside the box. He advised me to try maxillofacial surgery and to use it as a tool to travel and push myself out of my comfort zone.
So it was that in 2003, I found myself in Nepal, in a bid to climb the mother of all mountains, Everest. I was there with an Irish team with whom I had been climbing for a few years. I was fit and I thought I was prepared. After all, this had been my focus since I saw the mountain from the Tibetan side in 1983.
However, hindsight is a wonderful thing. I had been spending so much time trying to raise the 35,000 pounds I needed for the climb, I took my eye off the ball and stopped focusing on the objective; the climb.
On the trek into base camp, I became overwhelmed seeing only loads of big, strong, fit looking male climbers and the awesome range of the Himalayas looming high above us.
At Basecamp I refocused and broke my objective down into small and manageable challenges and decided to approach each smaller goal, one at a time.
My time there was harsh and uncomfortable, and the altitude was hard on my lungs. I had developed adult onset asthma, as well as heart problems after a prolonged illness that forced me to be in hospital on and off for six months in my early 30s.
But I was one of the few women climbing and the encouragement I received from my fellow climbers was astounding. Mind you, I was holding clinics at 22 to 24,000 feet, doing Indian massages, and in one case extracting an abscessed upper canine with nothing but a set of pliers and a drop of whiskey, (which I drank after I used it to deserialize my pliers).
Seven weeks into our climb we went for the summit, but unfortunately a bad storm blew up that night and all teams had to retreat. The four of us who were still climbing decided to hang around at 26,000 feet, the so-called Death zone and make another bid for the summit.
Staying of that height with no oxygen proved to be my undoing. My oxygen saturation was running at about 50%, and then in my hypoxic state I succumbed to severe frostbite but remained determined that it was not going to stop me. Losing my toes is manageable but then my hands went numb and I knew that I was in danger of losing my fingers. Again, though I didn’t care, I would get a new job. I was struck by summit fever.
Then, hundred metres from the summit, my logic thankfully kicked in. Hard as it was, I turned around, knowing that if I continued, I would die. It was as simple as that.
Heartbroken I returned to Northern Ireland to lick my wounds, I analysed what went well and what had to be improved to be successful on my next attempt, as I knew in my heart I could do it.
In 2007, I returned to Everest, this time to attempt to reach to reach the summit from the Tibetan side. I had joined a team of hardcore Russian timers who didn’t speak a word of English and drank vodka and smoked the whole way up and then down the mountain.
This route is considered more difficult than the Nepalese route, as on summit day there are 30 to 40 foot sheer cliffs to negotiate, which at 29,000 feet, and with a rucksack full of oxygen cylinders is tough. When I saw the route on the descent in daylight it scared the pants off me, but it was an experience, and my success means I’m now one of a few women took summited Mount Everest from the north side.
Another great thing is that all of us reach the summit with no deaths, which was previously unheard of in such a large party. Life is never normal for me. I’m still practising dentistry, but orthodontics now, and I still have a whole list of other challenges ahead of me. Thank you, Alan!