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Richard Cowper reports from Everest Advanced Base Camp in Tibet at 6,400 metres

Brian Blessed, the irrepressible actor and mountaineer, was due to set off in grand style early this morning for the North Col on his final push to the top of the world's highest mountain.

On his departure, Blessed's remarks showed his usual flair for the heroic: 'As the great mountaineer Rheinhold Messner said - 'we are going to voyage up there on a knife-edge. But we mountaineers do not have a death wish, we have a life wish.' '

Everest, however, is no longer the domain of a highly accomplished elite band of mountaineers such as Messner, but is rapidly becoming the playground of the western world.

Blessed himself is part of that vanguard. Accompanied by his entourage of personal guide, television director, two high-altitude cameramen and four experienced sherpas from Nepal, the bearded 59-year-old star of Z Cars and Sir Galahad of Everest, is likely to find his route to the top of Everest more a matter of painful endurance than mountaineering heroics or great climbing talent.

In the last few days, more than 50 sherpas - several of whom have already climbed to Everest's summit more than once - and scores of climbers from more than a dozen expeditions have trodden a well-worn, if exhausting, route to just below the 8,848-metre summit.

Even more significantly, sherpas from the Japanese, Indian and Norwegian expeditions have fixed permanent ropes on to the rock and snow virtually all the way to the top, allowing Blessed and his companions to clip on at Advanced Base Camp (ABC) and follow the line in safety as high as their hearts and legs will carry them.

A few acerbic members of the actor's expedition, organised by Himalayan Kingdoms of Sheffield, jokingly referred to themselves as 'the British North Ridge Parasites' Expedition' as they have lazily acclimatised in comparative splendour down at base camp while other nationalities have done much of the hard work on the mountain.

Blessed's sherpas have, however, worked hard to make a hazardous venture as safe as possible. They have set up a series of pre-stocked camps on the mountain in an attempt to minimise the effort for the actor and his sahibs now the final summit push is under way.

Most important of all, however, the 16-stone romantic, who identifies closely with George Leigh Mallory, the famous British mountaineer who disappeared on Everest in mysterious circumstances in 1924, has agreed to use oxygen. Like Mallory, Blessed believed until recently that only 'rotters' would be so unsporting as to use this artificial aid.

An unusually contrite Blessed said: 'The pressures on me to get to the top are enormous - from film makers, to sponsors, to friends and to hospitals. I don't like using oxygen. I don't want to use it. But I accept I won't get to the summit without it. So I'm going to be a good boy.'

So, too, will most of the 200 or so other climbers planning to tackle the same route to the top of Everest over the next few days.

Unfortunately, my day of high altitude sickness may prevent me from getting much above 7,000 metres on my summit push next week now that I am back on the mountain after three days' rest in Kathmandu.

* The expedition has been made possible by Himalayan Kingdom Expeditions, North Face, Bolle, Lufthansa and Berghaus.

(c) The Financial Times Limited May 11 1996.