The Explorer

Please, forgive me, I have nothing to say –

Silence has become my permanent state;

I am absent from this feast in my name;

It’s been months since I have last seen my face;

/

I’ve been living in the desert too long,

Looking into things which I used to fear;

And you know, they have been looking at me,

And it scares me that they liked what they saw;

/

Please, forgive me for the cold of my hands –

It’s been years since they have felt human warmth;

Dry skin, tempered by black rocks and white storms,

Is the skin, I think, I never will shed;

/

Please, forgive the taste of salt on my lips,

The glow in my eyes when, on a sleepless night

I will look into the oceans inside

Which I dived in, and which dived into me;

/

Please, forgive me that I’m gone all the time

And that I can’t tell the stories I bring

In my chest; like dreams, I trap them within –

If I let them fly, I’ll turn into dust

Shadows on Rock

I am merely a shadow, born of sunrise,

And my touch to you, I know, is nothing;

And my words to you, I know, are whispers,

Torn by wind to shreds, and you could never hear me

/

I am merely a shadow, melting in the white noon;

What are my sweat and blood to you?

They are naught but water, coloured by pain

Dripping down your slopes onto the ground;

/

I am merely a shadow, dreading the night

By whose spreading wings I’ll be consumed;

In my armour of rock, encrusted with stars

I will become one of your faceless sisters

/

I am merely a shadow, I will disappear;

What are my triumphs to you, oh Mountains?

It could be that my last breath is this very one

While for you wild gale up high will breathe forever

/

Oh Mountains, may you be blessed

For you keep bearing our passing shadows

To your proud, unyielding summits,

Upon which Light burns down Time

To nothing

The Descent

 It is a well-known fact in mountaineering that many more accidents happen during the descent from the mountain than on the way to the summit. Upon finishing the climb, the mountaineer is either euphoric, tired and distracted after reaching the summit, or depressed, tired and distracted after failing to reach it; in any case, the focus is not entirely where it should be, that is, on one’s surroundings, movements, climbing partners etc. I find descents particularly challenging because of the view – the abyss under my feet.

Standing on the summit of Chulu Far East ( about 6100m) just after 4 am on the 21st of October I am aware of the danger I am about to face – the descent down long icy slopes into the night. The light of my head lamp follows the fixed line until they both disappear in the cold blue air of the early morning. The ascent only took me three hours instead of the six I’d planned for and I am slightly disappointed that I won’t get to witness the awakening of the Himalayas from the summit of Chulu; it is too cold and I must descend right away. With my ice axe buried deep in the powdery summit snow, I turn my head lamp off and look around: at the white snow and stars, at the black mountains and the abyss I know I will not fall into now… Then, I turn the light back on in the certainty that I have now survived my descent from Manaslu. And it was one tough descent.

Our expedition team left Manaslu Base Camp for Sama Goan on the 7th of October. On the way down I treated myself to a swim in the glacial lake at the foot of the mountain followed, as always, by a camera and gasps of ‘crazy!’ The purifying, piercing cold of the water was a great relief, and my heart, heavy after the failure to summit Manaslu, beat outrageously fast, as if trying to shake off the doubts and insecurities creeping into it. However, warming up in the sun after the swim, I was once again conscious of the ‘Spirit Mountain’ towering above me – irrevocably.

On the 8th of October our team left Sama Goan for Kathmandu. Three tired-looking helicopters stuffed with duffel bags and climbers took off not without effort, and just over an hour later we were driving through the dust and noise of the capital towards our quiet haven of a hotel. For the next five days I would lie in bed staring at the ceiling, trying not to think of anything at all as any fleeting thought would make me feel all the weight of Manaslu on top of my chest. Failure to reach the top of the mountain became the sum of all my failures and instead of dealing with just one I was dealing with them all.

It had to stop right there and then. Thus, only six days after my return to Kathmandu I was leaving the city for the mountains again: one of my Manaslu expedition team mates and I decided to attempt a peak called Chulu East (around 6500 metres) in the Annapurna region of the Himalayas. We would be very limited in time as my friend had a plane to catch 12 days after our departure. Therefore, we required a strong team which would be able to keep up with the tight schedule. We believed that just such a team had been put together for us by a trekking/climbing agency manager. Unfortunately, during the trek through the Annapurna region towards Chulu base camp we quickly understood that our porters could not make it. Slowing down, we had to set our sights on Chulu East’s small brother – Chulu Far East, climbing which would save us 2-3 days.

The night of the summit push reminded me of the night at Camp 4 on Manaslu. It seemed to me that I could never leave the tent not to mention climb to the summit. I was beginning to feel sick and angry, and considered giving up. However, at 1 am I managed to drag myself out of the tent and follow my team mate and our climbing guide towards the foot of the mountain. To my surprise, I felt happy and light-hearted almost immediately after we started for the summit, enjoying the climbing very much indeed as we reached the steeper icy sections of the route. I was back in the ‘battlefield’, forgetting the defeat on Manaslu to focus all my energies on every step towards the top of another, albeit much smaller, mountain. In just three hours our team was on the summit of Chulu Far East.

Between the big failure on Manaslu and the small success on Chulu I found and tried to retain a sense of calm and of increased understanding of my strengths and weaknesses. Day was slowly dawning over the coliseum formed by the giant mountains of the region – the Annapurnas, Gangapurna and Kangaru- revealing the razor-sharp ridges and the proud vertical walls which challenge climbers to glorious battles. All too often mountains crush or kill but they also have the power to revive and fill one’s whole being with superhuman strength. Standing at the foot of the mountain after a safe descent, I certainly didn’t feel any ‘superhuman strength’ in me – I simply felt like myself again: forgiven, hopeful and full of new ideas.

Yesterday I celebrated my 25th birthday in Kathmandu surrounded by friends, eating chocolate cake and plotting my next escape to the Himalayas in whose quiet and cold I have been feeling so strangely at home.

The Climb

It’s the 4th of October and I am at Camp 4 at 7400 metres (24300 feet) above sea level. It is getting dark and the wind is quickly gaining force. There are two other people in the tent with me but they are already asleep – it’s me who cannot close her eyes. I stare blankly at the tent fabric, flapping more and more violently by the minute, at my watch and then, finally – reluctantly, with something not unlike disgust – at my feet, which I can hardly feel. I reach for my toes, and my touch on them is barely perceptible – they are all cold. With my icy fingers I peel off the three layers of thick expedition socks I am wearing and point the light of the head lamp at my toes, white and going on pale blue. Next, I look at my watch again, which still stubbornly shows only 6 pm. My eyes suddenly fill with liquid warmth, and it begins slowly to glide down my face, disappearing between my dry, cracked lips. I think I’m crying – not because I may get frostbite and lose a toe or two, not because of the skull-splitting headache which has been killing me for several hours now, not because I am ridiculously cold but simply because there is nothing I can do about this whole situation – I will not reach the summit of Manaslu which I have come so close to. In a few minutes I turn my head lamp off and lie down between the two sleeping bodies in the tent to think about how I got to where I am now.

It was sunny at Base Camp on the 13th of September. I was getting ready for the first rotation to Camp 1 at 5800 metres: trying the crampons on my brand new high-altitude boots, ‘decorating’ my climbing harness with spares and extras and airing my down suit and the sleeping bag I would leave at Camp 1 to later carry to higher camps.

When on the next day the team began climbing, it quickly became apparent that nothing – not one step – would come easy on Manaslu to any of us. I started off by following the group’s fastest climber – a marathon runner – and our expedition leader but fell behind them when we hit the glacier after negotiating the first rocky section of the route to Camp 1. Clipped into a safety rope to avoid falling into one of  the many crevasses which cut through the glacier, I moved slower by the minute under the angry sun. The day was windless and every breath of the thin mountain air I took felt deep, long, greedy and desperate. I was afraid to stop and take a sip of water – afraid I wouldn’t have the strength to keep going afterwards. Eventually, in just over three hours after leaving Base Camp, stumbling and gasping for breath, I arrived at Camp 1 – behind the expedition leader and the runner. Having dropped off our loads, we were sent directly back to Base Camp as the weather was changing and it was beginning to snow. Back at Base Camp I spent the evening thinking of how, even after a few more days of acclimatization, it would be almost impossible to breathe higher up on the mountain without supplemental oxygen. Yet, that is how I was planning to climb and, swallowing another pill of Diamox, I decided to stick to the plan.

After a few more days at Base Camp the team was leaving for an acclimatization rotation: we would climb to Camp 1 and spend the night there after which we would ascend to Camp 2 at 6200 metres for another night and hike up to Camp 3 the next morning before descending to Base Camp with our acclimatization routine complete. Our bodies would then have gotten more or less prepared to function at high altitude – prepared enough to allow us to climb to 8160 metres, where the percentage of oxygen in the air is only about 1/3 of that at sea level. A good acclimatization strategy is the key to success of any mountaineering endeavour, especially, at such high altitude, and it is therefore very important to do a rotation like the one described before leaving for the summit.

We left Base Camp for the rotation on the 17th of September. I only managed to make a few steps out of the camp before turning back. I was congested, disoriented, feverish and losing my equilibrium – I was falling ill at the worst time imaginable. The next two days tested my determination to the limit: speaking on the radio with our expedition leader, who was on the mountain with the rest of the team, I knew I had to somehow do the rotation if I wanted to join the others on the upcoming summit push. Thus, in spite of my sickness and the worsening weather conditions, I left for Camp 1 the day the rest of our group were returning to Base Camp. They looked exhausted and couldn’t stop talking about how painful the sleepless nights on the mountain had been and how the climb between camps 1 and 2 had been terribly steep and long. I listened to but tried to ignore their stories – all I wanted to do was get the rotation over and done with.

I was accompanied by a climbing Sherpa who set the perfect pace for me, making the climb relatively easy. The night at Camp 1 wasn’t as bad as I’d expected since I was able to sleep and the climb up to Camp 2 the next day was perfectly manageable. Due to heavy snowfall and the resulting avalanche danger, I couldn’t spend the night at Camp 2 and had to descend to Base Camp directly. I was feeling strong and optimistic on the way down, thinking to myself that I could, perhaps, climb Manaslu after all.

With the obligatory acclimatization routine out of the way, the whole team was now ready for the summit push. Our first attempt was cut short by a five-day snowstorm. It buried many teams’ high camps and all the fixed safety ropes on the mountain under metres of snow, creating a serious avalanche danger. After the storm was over and the snow had had a couple of days to consolidate, our patience paid off – the newest weather forecast was predicting a short weather window between the 4th and the 6th of October. To make it by the 5th – our planned summit day – we would have to leave Base Camp on the 1st of October climbing to and sleeping at camps 1, 2, 3 and 4 before leaving for the summit in the first hours of the morning on the 5th. We would have to descend as low as possible on the mountain right after summiting to avoid being caught in the fast-approaching jet stream, scheduled to hit the mountain on the 6th or the 7th of October with its 120 mph winds.

The summit push began on schedule and was going remarkably well for me. I was walking at a moderate pace to conserve my energy for the summit day, sleeping fairly well and even eating with appetite at high camps while many others couldn’t bear to look at food.

The toughest section of the whole climb is the one between Camp 3 and Camp 4. It lies between 6800 and 7400 metres and is the steepest and longest on the mountain which is why many climbers begin using supplemental oxygen as low as Camp 3 on Manaslu. It improves blood circulation at altitude thus keeping the climber warm and speeding her/his progress. My team mates would put their oxygen masks on at Camp 4 before leaving for the summit while I and the other woman on the team – the marathon runner – would go without all the way, facing an increased risk of frostbite, moving slower and getting tired faster than then our team mates on O2.

Climbing towards Camp 4, I looked enviously at the climbers from other teams wearing oxygen masks: while I was climbing in a down suit without feeling too warm, most of them wore light jackets, and those who had been much slower than me before now passed me easily while I had to sit down to catch my breath.

I arrived at the windy Camp 4 at around 2 pm and made myself comfortable in the tent. In spite of a light headache, I was full of energy and excitement, impatient for the start of the summit ‘day’ at midnight. I took my boots off, put on a pair of fresh socks (and another one, and yet another one on top of the previous two) and, hiding my slightly cold feet inside the sleeping bag, got ready to wait…

It is dark now, completely dark but it is not quiet. The wind is tearing at our tents with unsettling force and persistence so the Sherpas and climbers must talk at the top of their voices about delaying the departure for the summit. I sit up and reach for my feet to massage them but, unconvinced by my own effort, I soon stop and lie back down.

At 3 am it is still too windy to leave, they say. I sit up again and sink my nails into my cadaverous feet – there is no pain or blood, just cold. My eyes are burnt so it really hurts when warm tears begin to flood them once again.

It is 6 am and the wind is as strong as before but the sun is now shining and there is hope for warmth. I can hear my team mates getting ready. They’re going. Now. And I am not. I will not risk serious frostbite or the possibility of being dragged off the mountain by another climber or a Sherpa if at some point my legs, both broken just 8 months ago, fail me.

‘Mila?’ my climbing Sherpa calls as if from afar – he is sitting right next to me.

‘I must descend,’ I say, ‘my feet are very cold.’

When he and my other tent mate are gone, I light the stove and resume my attempts at reviving my feet but the wind carries away all its warmth and I am left with nothing. I begin to pack. Another Sherpa from our expedition looks into the tent and tells me he’ll help me down. I crawl out of the tent into the wind which bites me on the face like a starved animal. My white fingers, now barely moving, stick to the iron crampons as I try, and try, and try to attach them to my boots. Finally, I am ready to go. I clip into the safety rope and start down towards Base Camp.

The descent will take me just 6-7 hours. My decision to avoid certain frostbite and keep my toes will be called wise. A week after ‘the Descent’ I will still cry myself to sleep. Why? I hardly know.

The Trek

It’s the beginning of September in Kathmandu. Ten climbers are having early breakfast at the cosy courtyard of a boutique hotel in Thamel. Only a few of them know each other and the rest are strangers – the eight men and two women who form the Manaslu expedition team.

They have a long day ahead of them, with a bumpy truck ride to Arughat Bazaar, where they will spend the night before starting the trek to the base camp of the world’s eighth highest mountain, Manaslu. The hot and humid walk through the post-monsoon Manaslu Conservation Area will take the team from 300 metres above sea level to, they hope, 8160 metres – the summit of ‘The Spirit Mountain’.

September 2nd They arrive in Arughat at night and sleep at the local lodge where pink and yellow neon lights shine lazily on dusty electric fans, old TV’s and plastic flowers growing out of concrete walls.

I spread my mat on top of the damp linen and beg myself to fall asleep as soon as may be: I am desperate to start climbing in cold, cold snow, which, breathing in this heavy air, I can only dream of.

September 3rd They wake up to a lovely breakfast prepared by the expedition cook. While the team leader and the sirdar hire porters, the climbers take pictures of the town which was no more than a hot black hole when the truck dropped them off at the lodge the night before. Now, in the morning, it looks less surreal and mysterious.

I go for a short walk. Kids wave at me, heavy mud sticks to my trekking boots, and the trees are ridiculously green.

Porters leave Arughat for Soti Kola and the climbers follow. They cross a river and several streams; this requires taking their boots off. The inhabitants of the villages they pass ask them for things or simply stare – this area in contrast to the Annapurna and the Everest regions sees relatively few foreign visitors.

I don’t recall Soti Kola very well but it must have been small, hot and humid – like all the other villages we’d passed that day. All I remember is that my tent there was full of all kinds of insects. Normally, it would bother me but after a day of walking under the glaring sun on dusty trails I didn’t care about who/what I was sharing the tent with.

September 4th They cross three rivers on the way to Machchekola – without taking their boots off or even rolling up their trousers anymore because the last of the monsoon showers has been following them all day long, and they are all soaking wet anyway. Late in the afternoon they arrive in the village and wait for the porters with their duffel bags, tents and food at a tired little lodge. Rain water drips from their clothes onto creaking wooden floors; quiet conversations start to flow, damp books emerge slowly from shapeless backpacks.

I don’t want to talk and can’t read. The warmth my body is trying quickly to generate is not enough to dry the clothes I am wearing. I dislike the sick, tepid feeling this weak warmth is giving me so I leave the lodge and stumble down the trail to the river. The water is fast, and loud, and cold, and I step into it with pleasure, then, lie down behind a large rock which hides me from the current. The sky is grey and heavy above me and the river’s deafening voice makes my own quickened breathing barely audible. For this brief instant I am just another rock in this river – with a pair of eyes.

I return to the lodge with wet clothes sticking to my pale skin. The porters had arrived and our tents have been set up. I change into a dry jacket and trousers and join the rest of the group for dinner. Except, I am still a rock in that roaring river which now somehow runs through me.

September 5th They walk up and down following the river for hours towards Jaghat. They day is unbearably hot. Today the group enters Manaslu Conservation Area. The villages here look cleaner and the air is more transparent due to the region’s relatively high elevation.

Jaghat is famous for… leeches, which I dread. I’d spent the previous couple of days worrying about the night in Jaghat: in my imagination, I wake up in the morning with leeches, black and plump, sucking on the veins on my arms and legs.

I can’t help smiling when after dinner I take my sandals off in my tent and discover a tiny leech trying to make itself comfortable on one of my toes. I pick it up carefully and lower it onto the wet grass outside my tent. Then, I point my headlamp at my foot and notice a thin streak of blood on it. It doesn’t hurt – not unless you look hard enough.

September 6th Deng – that’s the name of the town the group is trekking to today. They cover 24 kilometres of very steep terrain in just over six hours. The going is very tiring still but less so than during the first days of the trek: at 1800 metres above sea level the air is noticeably cooler and the path underneath their feet is drier than at lower elevations.

Tibetan influences make themselves apparent to the team the moment they arrive at Deng as instead of the usual Nepali ‘namaste’ the villagers welcome them with the Tibetan ‘tashi delek’. Prayer flags, almost entirely discoloured by the sun, decorate the entrance to the village. There is no lodge for the group to have dinner at – instead, there is a small wooden building with a long and narrow table near the camping field where the climbers’ tents would be set up for the night.

I can hear the river far down below the village. I rummage through my duffel bag for shampoo, soap and a towel and begin searching for a path towards the water which I find sooner than expected: the raging mountain river has a quiet sleeve for me to hide and bathe in. I undress and lie down in the clear ice-cold water, looking at the green slopes of the gorge I’m in. I am not cold – I am the cold.

September 7th Namrung at 2700 metres above sea level is the team’s destination for the day. To reach it they will travel through what their leader calls ‘The Enchanted Forest’, where there’s monkeys, deer and even, apparently, unicorns. The path is truly beautiful, and the lack of encounters with unicorns and fairies doesn’t make it any less so.

It is quiet in the forest; I can hardly hear my own footsteps. I don’t see any magical creatures but to me their absence is magical. Although I still can’t see Manaslu, I know I’m getting closer to it, and that feeling of anticipation, this quiet before the storm, is magical, too.

September 8th and 9th The last stop on the team’s trek to Manaslu Base Camp is Sama Goan (3500 metres). They will spend two days in the village to allow them to acclimatize to altitude: their bodies will start to produce more red blood cells to help carry the oxygen, scarce in the thin air of the mountains, to their organs and muscles.

Sama Goan is quite large for a mountain village: there are several lodges here, a helipad, a monastery… Manaslu, up high, is hiding behind the thick clouds of the retreating monsoon.

I am exhausted. Gasping for breath with my mouth open wide, my mind in blank, I keep climbing and descending, climbing and descending up and down relentlessly steep slopes between Namrung and Sama. I arrive at our destination second, behind a Finnish marathon runner, the other woman on the team. Together we settle into the room we’ll be sharing for the next two or three days.

Our 170 porters carrying more than 5 tons of gear and food it total arrive later in the day. We unpack our duffel bags, eat, talk and read at the lodge.

I can hear the river again. I bathe in it the day after our arrival at Sama Goan, looking up towards where I think – hope – the summit of Manaslu is: the clouds are still hiding it from me.

September 10th The group is still acclimatizing at Sama Goan, while their sherpas and porters establish base camp on the mountain a thousand metres higher.

I have seen the mountain at last. At dawn monsoon clouds parted for a few minutes, and it was there – tall, beautiful, and distant. Manaslu was looking down on me, and I knew that I would never reach its summit, that it would always look down on me.

September 11th The day is grey and rainy. They have to climb over a thousand metres higher, to 4900 metres above sea level, to Manaslu base camp. Impatient, they don’t take long to ascend the moraine following a path between low clouds. Sleet and colourless stones welcome them to their home on the mountain for the next month.

I arrive at base camp first. Yellow and orange tents of climbing teams from all over the world are the only bright spots on the horizon. There must be about a hundred western climbers on Manaslu this season; climbing sherpas and base camp staff are many more.

I crawl into my spacious three-person tent, spread out my sleeping bag over the foam mattress and sink into the warmth of its light, puffy down. There’s a cold mountain spring running outside my tent which I listen to, lying motionless… nowhere. I know nothing about the people I will be climbing with: there has been much talking and joking but little has really been said; I can’t see the mountain I feel I must – but won’t – summit and I know it is not the clouds that obstruct the view, it’s something inside me; I can’t understand what I am doing at Manaslu base camp listening to this mountain spring, staring at the orange tent fabric over my head, thinking these thoughts. Yet, I still hear the river running inside me, and I whisper to myself:

‘I am merely a shadow, born of sunrise

And my touch to you, I know, is nothing…’