On the 23rd of May 2019, I became one of the fortunate few to have reached the summit of Mount Everest. My quest to climb Everest came with a purpose: making the environment the centre of my ambition to highlight the catastrophic effect climate change is having on our planet, to lead by example and to seek out practical solutions. The expedition was a wake-up call to what we are doing to the natural world.
Below, you may find an extract from my book, A Mountain to Climb, which follows my journey to the top of Everest. This book reflects the challenges I faced in reaching the summit and coming back to my family alive, as well as the reality of an existential threat unless we succeed in protecting the planet.
Extract – Lucky to be Alive
The route from North Col to Camp II is a full day’s slog: you start at seven in the morning and reach camp at four in the afternoon. As the day progressed, so the terrain shifted. The higher you got, and the steeper the slope, the more the snow thinned out. It was simply too severe to hold. That made it increasingly difficult to walk. While you were moving through the snow, there was plenty for the crampons to grip on to. Once that had gone and you were onto rock, everything became a bit more slippy. Having cursed wading through the snow earlier in the day, now I found myself wishing it was back.
If I thought North Col had been scratchy compared to Base Camp and Advanced Base Camp below, Camp II was something else. It wasn’t really a campsite at all, more a scattered selection of tents stuck at 45 degrees on the side of the mountain. And while North Col was relatively sheltered and cocooned by the snow and corniches around, Camp II was much more exposed.
We were high now. It was disappointing, in a way, that for a full day’s assault, we had only climbed another 500 vertical metres. But that showed you the severity of what we were now traversing. Ahead of me, as the clouds skimmed on and off the summit, I could grasp a sense of the final route to the peak. My eye followed the line of the ridge and, with a gulp, I recognised and followed the Three Steps to the top. From here, it looked impossible.
But for now, I just wanted to rest. Camp II was going to be the last night’s sleep before we pushed on all the way to the summit. The next day would see a slog up to Camp III, a pause for a few hours from late afternoon to early evening, and then the overnight journey to the top, reaching the peak the following morning. Then it was another full day’s descent. Above Camp II, the altitude tipped over 8,000 metres – the so-called death zone, where human life can only survive for a limited amount of time. I was glad we were sleeping below that, and have the knowledge that I was safe for one more night at least.
By the time I got to Camp II, I could barely move. I was physically on the edge of collapse. I shouted to one of the team Sherpas, asking which one my tent was. I was pointed to one sat up at an angle and flopped down in front of it. Then one of the other Sherpas appeared, and pointed further up the line.
‘Sorry Hakan, that’s your tent up there.’
I shook my head. ‘I’m not moving,’ I said. ‘I’m staying here.’
The Sherpa tried to argue, but from the look on my face, quickly gave up. I crawled in and sorted myself out. I blew up the mattress, got my sleeping bag out, and then used my small bag of spare clothes as a pillow. It still wasn’t comfy, but I didn’t care. I was exhausted. I took my crampons off and clambered in to try and get comfortable. Outside, the wind was whistling again, that eerie siren sound. The canvas walls of the tent pulsed in and out. That was the last thing I remembered as I drifted off.
‘Hakan! Hakan! Are you OK? Can you hear me? Say something.’
I was out cold when I felt a shockwave thump through the tent. A deep boom, then a crash and a whooshing sound. I was so tired and in such a deep sleep, I was confused as to what was going on. I could feel the wind on my face, a drop in temperature, and then shouts. Lots of shouts.
I struggled to blink myself awake. That only confused me further. Where was I? I didn’t seem to be in the tent any more, but instead could see the darkening of the sky above. Then came the faces: Sherpas looking terrified, and Gabriel peering over me like he’d seen a ghost.
‘Hey,’ I said drowsily, trying to shake myself to. ‘What? Huh?’
‘Can you feel your legs?’ Gabriel turned around to one of the Sherpas. ‘He’s speaking. He’s alive.’
‘Hey,’ I said. ‘Hang on. What’s going on? What’s happened to …’
It was now I took in the surroundings. The tent I’d been sleeping in was no longer there, but ripped in two, its flimsy canvas sides flapping in the wind like yellow flags. The ground seemed strangely harder and I glanced down to my blow-up mattress, except it was no longer there: there was a hole in the side, where it had been reduced to rags. More familiar scraps of material fluttered past, and I realised it was the bag I’d been using as a pillow.
I was wide awake now.
‘Gabriel?’ I asked. ‘What’s happened?’
‘This,’ Gabriel said, leaning over and pointing to a huge rock that was now sitting in the middle of what had been the tent.
‘My God,’ I said. ‘Where did that come from?’ I sat up and tried to move it. The slab of granite was heavy – ten, fifteen kilos at least.
Gabriel and I both turned to look up the mountain. Because I’d been so tired and fallen into the first tent that I could, the one I’d chosen was quite close to the climbing line. Someone further up the mountain must have dislodged it, and it had come crashing down. Looking at where the rips in the pillow and mattress were, I realised how close the rock had been to hitting me. Another inch or two, one roll across in my sleep, and, well, it would have …
‘You’re lucky to be alive,’ Gabriel said.
I gulped. Even if the impact of the rock didn’t kill me, the lack of medical equipment would have finished me off. There were no supplies that high to deal with a serious head injury, and no way of whisking me off to hospital. The Sherpas, I’d discovered, didn’t even carry a proper first aid kit with them. They had adrenaline pens and drugs to deal with mountain sickness, but that was pretty much it. For head injuries, there was no serious kit to help.
As the enormity of what had happened kicked in, I definitely didn’t need an adrenaline pen. My heart thumped from delayed shock. Gabriel and the Sherpas helped me to gather my things and I was moved to one of the Sherpa tents, further away from the climbing line. They shuffled round to bunch up in one of the bigger tents.
But even as I was catching my breath from having so narrowly escaped death, the drama wasn’t over. As we were carrying the stuff up, Gabriel called over to me. He was shouting and pointing at another tent, where I could see two climbers were collapsed outside.
‘Hakan! Give me a hand helping them up!’
I rushed over to help him prop the climbers up against the rock. Their bodies were heavy and limp and as we leant them back, I gasped. Their eyes had rolled back so all you could see was the whites of their eyes. They were alive, I could hear that from their groaning, but they were not in a good way at all.
‘They’re running out of oxygen.’ Gabriel looked at their gauge to check the levels. ‘We need to get them some more.’
I shouted up to our Sherpa who was nearby. He came rushing down to join us.
‘Where are your Sherpas?’ I asked the two climbers. They could barely speak.
The Sherpa unhooked his radio and shouted instructions into it. I wasn’t sure if he was speaking in Sherpa or Nepali. A voice crackled back.
‘What are they saying?’ I said, when the conversation finished.
‘They’re ahead,’ the Sherpa said. ‘They’re coming back.’
‘How far away are they?’ I asked.
The Sherpa shrugged. ‘They’ll get here as quickly as they can. In the meantime, do not – do NOT – give them your spare oxygen.’
It was brutal. As the minutes ticked by, Gabriel was in tears. The climbers were delirious. They were Americans, that much I could gather from what they could whisper and groan. They didn’t appear rookies like me, but big strong individuals, with all the right gear. And yet, here they were, without their Sherpas. Ours stayed with us, barking into his radio at intervals. I think he was there almost to watch us as much as he was keeping an eye on them. For him, who made his living on the mountain, the choice was straightforward: it was between the possibility of these guys dying now and us dying later. For Gabriel and myself, the choice was more heart-wrenching.
After twenty long minutes, the Americans’ Sherpas finally arrived back in camp. As with our Sherpa, there was little emotion there: just a matter-of-fact acknowledgement of the situation. They fixed up the climbers as best they could, and I watched with relief as they finally got some fresh oxygen on board. They were OK – for now. I guiltily felt relief that I’d gone with Lukas: oxygen and organisation were everything, and our expedition was doing everything they could to keep their climbers safe.
By this point I was both exhausted and scared. To be so close to death myself, and then to see others in the same situation, it hit home just how dangerous the situation I’d got myself into was. The words of the Aconcagua guide floated through my mind again. Everest is something else. Seriously, Hakan, you have no idea. If you try and climb Everest, you’ll die. I thought of Stephanie and my children. What on earth was I thinking? How am I going to get out of this? Am I going to make it back down? Am I going to see my loved ones again?
I wanted to sleep, but the adrenaline running through me was putting paid to that. The aftershock of coming so close to dying was reverberating through me. I’d no idea who dislodged that rock, and I don’t suppose they even realised they’d done it. I knew this was my last chance to get some rest, but that only ramped the pressure up further. Every blast of wind or rattle of scraping of rock had me sitting up bolt upright, terrified that another slab of stone was going to come crashing through and finish me off.
Extracted from A Mountain to Climb by Hakan Bulgurlu published by whitefox, £20
Hakan Bulgurlu is a global business leader and a climate activist. As the CEO of Arçelik, a home appliances manufacturer that operates in 150 countries, Bulgurlu has become a thought leader on sustainable and purpose-driven business. In a bid to raise awareness for the climate crisis, Bulgurlu climbed Everest in 2019.
Arçelik is currently the highest-scored home appliances company in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. Through its leadership position in sustainability and credible science-based decarbonization roadmap for achieving net zero, Arçelik became the first and only company from its industry to receive the Terra Carta Seal by HRH Prince of Wales.