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Richard Cowper from the Tibetan-Nepali border on setbacks caused by sickness and yak herders.

An attack of high altitude mountain sickness at over 21,000ft on Everest, coupled with the machinations of two Tibetan yak herders, all but brought my attempt to climb the world's highest mountain to an end this week.

While Alan Hinkes, Britain's most aggressive 8,000-metre peak climber, prepared to set off up towards the North Col, along with Brian Blessed, the 16-stone Shakespearian actor obsessed with conquering his so-called 'Turquoise mountain', I found myself compelled to retreat because of the threat of cerebral oedema - brain damage caused by thickening of the blood, too little oxygen and dehydration - all connected to poor acclimatisation.

As if my slurring brain and dragging feet were not harsh enough a blow to my chances of getting to the top of the mountain, when I finally reached base camp at just over 17,000ft after a nightmare journey down the east Rongbuk glacier in the night, it was to find that Tibetan yak herders had made off with most of my belongings.

Their booty included a computer, all my money, a tape recorder, credit cards, film, diaries, medical kit, climbing helmet and hardware, plus my personal clothing, valued at a conservative $3,000.

Says Elizabeth Hawley, the doyenne of Himalayan mountaineering: 'Yak herders are liable to rifle deserted camps but do not normally get into a place guarded by sherpas. This is most unusual.'

Of course, yak and their herders are indispensable to mountaineers on the north side of Everest for carrying huge loads upwards long distances and at high altitudes over ice, rock and snow.

In our first push from base camp to advanced base camp (ABC) we employed 45 yaks to carry tents, hardware, food and oxygen on a 16km journey across some of the most hostile terrain on Earth.

If my only role on this trip was that of climber, I felt I might just have been able to recover and re-acclimatise at base camp, not far from the famous Rongbuk Golden Monastery.

However, as expedition writer and photographer, the loss of my diaries and film came as such a bitter blow that with the harsh north wind drumming across the Tibetan desert, I picked up the one item the thieving herders had left me - a fax from my wife, Louise - and fled full-tilt towards Kathmandu in friendly neighbouring Nepal. It was a journey I shall never forget. It had taken 10 days for me - and the other 120 members of the British 1996 North Ridge Everest Expedition - to get from the Nepali capital to the Everest advanced base camp on the northern side - scene of all the pre-war British attempts to climb the 29,028ft mountain.

But now, in headlong flight by foot through the night, followed by a Jeep ride across the Tibetan desert, the return journey to the Friendship Bridge on the Tibetan-Nepali border was accomplished in less than 48 hours.

Once out of Tibet and in the green, charming, oxygen-rich hills of the Kathmandu valley, I knew it would not be easy to return to the stark Tibetan desert and the rigours of life on Everest. I feared it would require a deep application of will, much of which had been drained away in my first attempt on the mountain.

Shortage of oxygen was also posing potentially serious problems for other members of the expedition and some were retracting their vows not to use oxygen.

Sadly, when the main consignment of oxygen, shipped from St Petersburg, was opened in Tibet, most bottles were found to be only two-thirds full.

This would almost certainly lead to a logistical nightmare on the mountain. Not only would it require an increase of 33% in high-altitude sherpa loads at heights of up to 28,000ft, but it would also mean that exhausted climbers might have to use three bottles a day rather than two - a substantial extra burden.

The expedition has requested its Kathmandu agent to dispatch several dozen full oxygen tanks to the mountain, but whether these will arrive in time is in the lap of the Chinese authorities.

This spring season, there are 15 expeditions attempting Everest from the Tibetan side, all but a handful going for the north ridge route. A record 180 climbers could end up climbing on the mountain at one time and there are fears in some quarters that a storm-bound retreat might lead to disaster of the order that hit K2 in 1986 when 13 people, including some of the world's most respected mountaineers, died in disarray on an overcrowded mountain.

Everest no longer provides the solitary experience of the past but it remains more than a jamboree for rich commercial expeditions. In Tibet this spring, Davorin Karnicar, a 33-year-old Slovenian, and the veteran mountaineer, Hans Kammerlander, are vying to become the first to ski Everest from top to bottom via the Great Couloir, one of the great remaining challenges on the mountain.

As for me, if I can just overcome Chinese mountaineering bureaucracy, get my visa and travel permits reissued and pay the official $350 for the Jeep ride across Tibet, then I shall be able to rejoin my colleagues and get another crack at the mountain.

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

(c) The Financial Times Limited April 27 1996.