Les Binns talks to Sandy Loder about his dramatic summit climb on Mt Everest in May 2016
I first contacted Les Binns in May 2016, to see if he would be happy to do an assessment for Peak Dynamics so we could analyse the quality of his decision-making. He happily agreed and he got a fantastic result. In fact, the same score as many top Chief Executives would typically score.
In December 2016, he came into the office to see me and have a chat. I have taken our conversation and printed it. I do not apologise for its length, as it is one of the most extraordinary and engrossing stories of courage and leadership I have heard. It was quite emotional listening to him talking about what happened.
Les Binns grew up in a small mining village in South Yorkshire attending the local village school. In all fairness, he admits he was an underachiever during his early years and it was not until he was training to be a carpenter and joiner that he really knuckled down. He did not get into any trouble as a youngster. He was just happy being outside, exploring the surrounding countryside.
When he was 18, he had his first opportunity to go and climb a mountain (3 actually). He was invited on to the National Three Peaks Challenge which was sponsored by the South Yorkshire Police. This was the catalyst for him joining the army.
He joined the Light Dragoons in 1997 at the age of 23 and soon after found himself deployed on a peace-keeping mission to Bosnia in 2000. A country he returned to again in 2002. With only a few months break back in the UK, he then deployed to Iraq. It was on this tour he had his first experience of a hostile environment. Three years later he would find himself back in Iraq for another operational tour.
In 2007, he was then sent to Afghanistan. During this tour, he experienced his first real enemy. He was involved in many firefights and Improvised Explosive Device/mine strikes (IEDs). It was from his actions on this tour; he was awarded ‘A Chief of Joint Operations Commendation’. A very proud moment for him.
In 2009, he returned to Afghanistan as part of an Operation Mentoring & Liaison team, working with the Afghan Army. He was the point-man in a small team that would patrol alongside the ANA. During this time, he experienced the real horrors of being caught in the blast of an IED and being blinded in one eye.
Since leaving the Army in 2010, he has undergone many operations to save the integrity of his eye. He has also had PTSD in some way, shape or form.
How did you get into climbing mountains?
Initially, it was like a childhood dream. You see all these people such as racing car drivers and mountain climbers doing amazing things and think that you would like to be one, but could never achieve it.
I come from a small mining village in northern England and have always liked being outdoors, crossing the fields and swimming in the rivers. That escalated when I joined the Army and had even more opportunity to be outside. The highest mountain that I had climbed before was 5,300m in the Andes when I was adventure training in the Army. It was basically just a trek, however.
Why did you decide to climb Everest?
People will think I am a lunatic saying this, but I was working as a private security contractor in 2015 in Iraq and one evening I watched ‘Everest’ which was about the 1996 Everest disaster. I was intrigued and I didn’t take my eyes off it all the way through. It was an unbelievable story. Something about it started to tick over in my head. I thought ‘why not, you can afford’, ‘go and climb it.’ If I can afford something, then I like to give things a go.
But then the problem was who would take me up the mountain. I had very limited climbing experience. So, I started to contact companies to find one which would take me.
I found a guy called Dan Mazur of Summit Climb who was offering a training climb to Camp 3 (7,200m/26,625ft) on Everest and those whom he felt were strong enough and good enough, would be allowed to climb for the summit.
How much preparation did you do for it?
I was training for an Ironman while I was in Iraq. For 3 or 4 months, I had been running marathons on our running machine and running up and down the steps in the place where we were living, with 15kg on my back. I was in a very contained compound in Basra which made training difficult, but nevertheless, I now had to step up my training.
So, in November 2015, I stepped up my training even more. I had a really useless static bike which barely worked. I was running with a backpack and doing weights. There was no chance to train on a mountain or even a small hill. I had to make do.
I had never done any technical training before nor climbed any major mountain such as Mont Blanc. So I was fairly inexperienced with limited training.
Les arrived at Everest Base Camp in late April 2016 and proceeded to do training climbs further and further up to Everest, improving his skills and acclimatising all the time. Eventually, the day dawned for his training climb to camp 3.
I have included a 3D video of Everest with the key features mentioned in this interview, so you can have a better understanding of what happened next. View here
What were your thoughts as you set off from Base Camp on your ascent climb?
We got up at about 2 am in the dark, had some tea and set off from Base Camp (5,335m /17,500ft) to Camp 1 (6,000m/19,685ft). The only thing that was concerning me was I was not strong enough and fit enough to get up through the Ice Fall. I had heard about all the horror stories about climbing through the Ice Fall and how it was the most dangerous part of the mountain. All that went out of my head. I was just concerned whether I was strong enough to get up to Camp 1.
All around you are avalanches going off. You get about 4 or 5 everyday. Mostly they are a couple of miles away, but we were very mindful of them. We also had to keep an eye out for these ice towers (seracs) which could be a couple of storeys high. They would just break off and collapse. I was more worried about whether I was strong enough to get through the fall, despite the steady pace.
Suddenly, I was snapped out of my thoughts when an avalanche started just to my left. I must have been only 150m from it. It was like the entire world was slipping past me. A massive slab avalanche. You could hear the rumble.
I was thinking how amazing it was to be so near to the avalanche, but then my thoughts went back to my survival and hoping nothing like that would happen in front of me.
Within minutes it happened. A massive 3 to 4 storey serac breaks off and collapses about 150m in front of me.
I now started to move a little quicker to get through the horrors of the Ice Fall. I had seen enough.
What is the hardest thing about climbing Everest?
It is the physical side of it. The drain on your body. I can’t tell you how tough it was even compared to the army. This was a totally new level.
One day I got to Camp 1 at 6,000m. I was so exhausted that I literally crawled into my tent and got into my sleeping bag. I not ashamed to admit it, but I physically wept. I was that exhausted.
I was thinking, “I have shot my bolt. I have peaked out Binnsy. You are going no further.”
And then everything came into my mind.
“What would my daughter think? She would not be proud of her daddy. All this money is wasted.”
All these things were running through my head. I decided to get a grip of myself. Get some food and drink down me. Slowly and surely I started to feel a little bit better. I still thought I had gone as far as I could. So I got into my sleeping bag and went to sleep and decided to see what the next day brought and how I felt.
The next morning, I woke and I was like a new person. The change was unbelievable. I was feeling fresh. I was feeling strong. Don’t get me wrong; I couldn’t have run 100 metres up the hill, but I felt much better.
From that moment on, I said, “Les you can’t give up on it just like that, even though you felt that exhausted. Tomorrow is another day”. That has always been my motto.
What drives you on when you are climbing the mountain?
It stems from the Army and the fear of failure. I think I am trying to prove a point to myself. You just have to dig it out and just do it.
The other big driver are the views from up the mountain. They are just out of this world. I think a friend of mine describes it best, as ‘looking at the world from the seat of 747 but without the windows’. It sounds a bit cheesy, but I think that is the best way of describing it.
When I got as high as I did, at the top of the Lhotse face, it was like a drug. As you get higher and higher, the view just got better and better. If there was a god. I don’t know whether there is or there isn’t, but that’s the view he would have if he was looking down. It is that enticing.
At 7,800m, looking out from Lhotse to Nupste, the view is worth every penny and every heartache. It really is amazing. It is an awesome feeling.
There are reminders of the danger though. I did see dead bodies while I was on Everest. When I got to a Bergschrund (the largest crevasse on Everest at the base of the Lhotse ice wall and glacier), there was a big group Sherpas standing around something. We knew there was something wrong. There was a body in a tent sheet being carried down to be extracted by helicopter. He must have fallen 1,500 to 1,600m (down the Lhotse face). That was my first reminder that not everybody was going to get out of this alive. You try and put it out of your mind. I had seen plenty of dead bodies when I was serving in Afghanistan. It didn’t affect me as much as one of my fellow climbers who turned back and went home.
What is going through your mind?
Your next step. Everything is about your next step. It is so physically demanding. That’s all you can think about. For instance, just to go up 5 metres would take me about 5 minutes to climb that. Especially up Lhotse face which has a 75% incline. It is very steep with sheer blue ice, which concentrates the mind.
How far from the top were you when your life was suddenly going to make a sudden change?
I was only 500m from the top of Everest, but in real terms that is still 10 hours further climbing to reach the summit. For what I had just climbed it was quite near the top.
When I first encountered Sunita Hazra, I think she was being clipped into the fixed line by one of the Sherpas. I believe she was trying to climb over an obstacle. I only saw a silhouette, as it was dark, so I don’t really know what caused the next thing to happen.
Suddenly she comes sliding down the mountain towards me. It was a good job that I had clipped in just beyond anchor point. She is coming down towards me with no control over her descent. Now I play rugby, but I might not be the best tackler in the game, but that night I pulled it out of the bag and I literally rugby tackled her to make her stop. If I hadn’t done that she would have knocked myself, the Sherpa behind me and another person behind him and taken us out like skittles.
Initially I wanted to try and help her, to get herself down the mountain on her own but a niggle in my head said that she was never going to be able to do to that.
She had already undone her jacket; a common sign of CO (cerebral oedema). She thought she was red hot and overheating. Her gloves had come off her hands. She had these mittens on, but I am not sure whether she had taken them off to sort her carabiner out or taken them off. I zipped up her jacket, put her gloves back on, gave her some of my own oxygen, as her tank was registering empty. This seemed to pull her round. I clipped her into her abseil device and we tried to set her off, on her own, down the mountain to camp 4 (7,950m (26,085ft). So I decided to wait there and see how well she did.
The time now was around midnight. She was on the verge of collapsing and hitting the side of the mountain.
“Enough was enough,” I said myself, “Binnsy, you have got to help her now. There is no way she is going to get down.”.
That was when I abseiled down to her and made the decision to help her. There was at least a couple more hours of climbing down to get to the camp 4.
So I abseiled down to her. Got her oxygen off her and gave her a new tank from my supply. I sorted her out and turned the oxygen flow to 3 litres a minute. (Normally you climb at 1.5 to 2 litres a minute). The higher flow helps prevent frostbite. At this time, my Sherpa was with me.
So I clipped one carabiner into the fixed climbing line and one carabiner into Sunita. My Sherpa clipped into her as well. As we move down the mountain, it is hard going. It is like getting somebody home drunk from the pub. The only difference is that you are just doing it down the side of the mountain now in the pitch dark. We get so far down and the fixed line suddenly stops. We are facing an open traverse of about 30m where there is no fixed line. Then the fixed line starts again.
At this point, a near white out snow storm blows in making visibility almost impossible. The only way I can gauge my descent is by looking across to Lhotse which is about 8500 metres and judging my descent by that.
This spurred me on.
“You are doing well here, Binnsy. Keep going, Keep going”.
But I could not find the next bit of the fixed line. I had staggered around looking for it, but the snow had covered all the tracks of climbers and the ropes. So we are stuck on the side of the mountain with our only lifeline (the fixed rope) down the mountain nowhere to be seen.
I was thinking, “Do we sit here until the storm passes. Alternatively, am I going to clip out of my carabiner and go and have a look around?”
The Sherpa is saying go one way and I am saying we should go the other. It was really dangerous out on that mountain that night.
And then the next thing I see is a figure in the distance, about 100 metres further down the mountain waving at us.
“We can’t be too far from the camp and this person is one of the rescue party.”
So we pointed out feet down the mountain in his direction and using our crampons climb down to him.
It turns out he is in trouble too. He does not know where he is, where to go, he too is suffering from cerebral oedema, but I didn’t know that at the time. The Sherpa had checked him out and he had a supply of oxygen. His name was Subash Paul.
So we scoop him up and all clip in together.
There is me leading, then Sunita, followed Subash and then my Sherpa. Subash is wailing and flapping his arms about. He was not taking his mask off to speak. He was going crazy.
So I thought to myself, “He is in trouble here and has cerebral oedema. We need to get him sorted fast”.
We had no radios. So I am now the leader, as I did not put my trust in my Sherpa. He was only a young lad, about 17/18 years old and this was his first summit climb. He must have been scared. I have more trust in myself, so I took the lead.
I am thinking, “I am going to take charge of this. I have a fair idea of where we need to get to”.
Sunita and Subash kept on collapsing and we kept on trying to get them to stand up and keep moving.
It was extraordinarily tough and dangerous. There were these 4-5ft crevasses on our route down in the dark, which I kept dropping into up to my chest. It must have happened four or five times. It was so exhausting. I was verging on anger because of it, but that was fuelling me on. It was like there was another entity trying to stop me.
“For f**k sake give me a chance!”, I kept saying to myself. “I am trying to do the right thing and get these people of the mountain and save their lives.”
It was like somebody was putting their foot out to try and trip me up. That’s what seemed to be happening.
Then I am thinking, “What do I need to do next?”
There was never a thought that I would not get down the mountain. I am a person who always try to think of the glass half full.
So I stopped for a minute to have a think and a rest. At which point, there is a break in the weather and my Sherpa decides to unclip and traverse across the slope to where the fixed rope should be 20-30 metres away. He leaves us to traverse across. He gets across, clips in and then stays put. I am shouting at him asking him to help us, but he does nothing. In the end, my Sherpa decides to descend on his own to Camp 4, leaving me on my own with these two very sick people. Bearing in mind, I have very limited climbing experience.
I decide, I am going to unclip us all now and get myself across the traverse to see if I could pull the fixed line over to the group. I do the traverse, but there is no flex in the rope at all when I get across to the other side. If I kept pulling, I was concerned I could snap that line and put everybody on the mountains lives in danger.
So I try different combinations with my harness and ropes to see if I could stretch across to the two ill climbers and clip them in. But there is no way. So I unclip and stagger back over the traverse to Sunita and Subash.
Suddenly we all slip and start to slide rapidly down the mountain. This was when I thought, “This is the end of you Binnsy, you have had it”.
I could not see anything as I was falling. Sunita is falling, as well as Subash.
“That’s it, wait for the silence as you fall over the edge of a cliff” I was thinking.
“That’s it your life is done”.
I was angry with myself that I had let myself into that situation.
I just remember screaming, “No, No, No, this can’t be happening”.
End of Part 1
If you wish to carry on and read the second part of my interview and the amazing conclusion to the rescue please click here and we will automatically email you the complete interview now.
Les Binns will be talking about his rescue on 28 March 2017 at the RGS in London. Click here if you want to know more.
Les is currently training to prepare for a summit attempt in May 2017. He is also trying to raise funds to pay for it, as well as raise money for the ABF – The Soldier’s Charity.
If you feel inspired by this interview and want to help Les, he would appreciate a donation to his chosen charity ABF The Soldiers’ Charity – who helped retrain him. He is hoping to raise £50,000.
Please click here if you can donate something.
Peak Dynamics has given its time and expertise for free to help Les succeed and recover from his illness.
©Peak Dynamics 2017