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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 May 2006, 01:35 GMT 02:35 UK
Following in her grandfather's footsteps

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Kathmandu

Serena Brocklebank with her grandfather's picture
Ms Brocklebank first tried to climb Mount Everest in 2004

A British diplomat based in Nepal is now well into her second attempt to conquer Mount Everest - following in the footsteps of her grandfather more than 70 years ago.

Serena Brocklebank is hoping to go one better than her grandfather, Tom, who was part of a famous 1933 expedition which had to turn back from the summit 20 years before the first proven conquering of the peak.

I met Serena, a down-to-earth 38-year-old, just before her departure last month.

She laughed as she offered me special energy-rich juices of spinach and carrots.

She had also kitted herself out with herbal pills - from a British friend training in herbalism - and others, to boost her immunity and increase blood flow.

And laid out in one room was a phenomenal amount of equipment.

"We talk in threes," she said. "Three pairs of gloves, three sleeping bags, three pairs of boots for different altitudes." And a made-to-measure down suit.

A mild asthmatic, she found training difficult in Kathmandu's dusty pollution.

But she has a doctor specialising in high altitude, Buddha Basnet, whom she describes as "brilliant".

'Peter Pan lifestyle'

It was only after the age of 30 that Serena joined the British Foreign Office, she told me.

Originally a lawyer, she then worked for five years instructing children from Britain's poorest inner city areas on adventure holidays in Wales.

Mount Everest
You have to be a tortoise rather than a hare
Serena Brocklebank

That was when she became a qualified mountaineering leader.

But, feeling she was leading a "Peter Pan lifestyle", she changed course and became a diplomat.

"I didn't think I was clever enough for the Foreign Office, not having a first-class Classics degree from Oxbridge," she laughed.

"But they were much more interested in my outdoor work."

She served, among other things, as Kidnaps Officer, helping to release kidnapped Britons worldwide, before being posted as a consular diplomat in Nepal - partly because of her affinity with mountains.

Dreams of Mount Everest took a long time to develop.

She was 13 - "a plump teenager", she says - when her grandfather, Tom, died.

Although she had long been fascinated by the old sepia photos of him, she says it was only in her 20s that she decided she wanted to do adventurous things.

Not until 2002 did she seriously consider making an attempt to reach the summit of Everest.

"I had already fantasised about it but always thought, 'Not me!'"

Serena related the story of her grandfather, who by now has become a major inspiration for her.

Grandfather's route

He was selected for the 1933 expedition aged only 24.

Tom Brocklebank
Tom Brocklebank was part of a 1933 Everest expedition

At that time Nepal remained completely closed to the outside world, so all attempts on Everest were from the northern, Tibetan, side.

"They needed the Dalai Lama's personal permission," said Serena.

Just getting to the foot of the mountain was a mammoth expedition: by boat to Calcutta and train to Darjeeling, from where the walk began.

From the photos, Serena has dubbed it the era of "tweed jackets, hobnail boots and caskets of champagne" up the mountains.

The photos show the climbers with safari-style pith helmets, or dining on large tables with white crockery - "like a gentlemen's club". Of course, this was actually a serious, pioneering pursuit.

The team reached over 28,000 feet (8,500 metres) before monsoon storms prevented further progress.

Serena Brocklebank did her serious high-altitude training on Africa's and Latin America's highest peaks. On Kilimanjaro she got severe altitude sickness, almost catching cerebral edema which leads to death. She says that with hindsight, she should not have gone up so quickly.

Then, in 2004, she made her first attempt on the summit of Everest, exactly following her grandfather's route through Tibet. "I climbed steadily," she says. "You have to be a tortoise rather than a hare."

Just below 8,000 metres her group got caught in a violent storm. At that altitude, she says, it is hard to get enough adrenalin to feel strong fear. In the end the weather got so bad that there was no choice but to turn back.

Was she disappointed? "Yes, but I've always thought that coming down is more important than getting to the summit," she says.

Soon she would discover that seven people had perished in the same storm. Yet within days she had decided to try again.

For this 2006 trip she is taking the southern route, through Nepal. There are 12 mountaineers in the group, in addition to the leaders and a team of Nepalese staff. Serena says being in a large team does give a sense of safety in numbers.

Having tried Everest once before has given her a sense of calmness. Her philosophy is to try for it, but not to be foolishly single-minded: "Life is important; family support is important."

Serena hopes to reach the top of Everest around 21 May.

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