‘Chop-chop,’ Dorje echoes, and we begin the traverse along rocky ridges towards Camp II and the dreaded Yellow Tower. Surprised, I find myself taking the greatest of pleasures in gliding over sun-lit precipices and among sharp rocks, their edges of ice glowing beautifully. The going seems easy and my guide and I laugh and joke. A thought creeps into my mind, carefully and shyly at first, that I might be able to pass the rock test of Ama Dablam after all.
‘So, Dorje, where’s that Yellow Tower? Have we passed it yet?’
‘It’s around the corner – we’re almost there now…’
In a few minutes Dorje points up and my heart falls all the way back down to base camp. I have climbed rock like that – and steeper – before but without a heavy pack and certainly not wearing clumsy old trekking boots. The other Sherpa and his two clients, the alpine guides, catch up with us while, doubtful, I stand at the foot of the Tower. They climb up with ease and throw me a rope to tie myself to for extra safety. Then, I clip my jumar into the fixed rope and step onto the smooth vertical face of the Yellow Tower.
‘Ok, I’m coming,’ I say. Except, I am not really able to move. I look around me for something to hold onto or a place where to put my slipping feet but can’t see anything fitting; I reach left and right – nothing. I am breathing heavily, trying to pull myself up the fixed rope but my arms, numb with effort, can’t hold my weight and I slip, swinging all the way to the left of the rock face. As quickly as I can I glue myself to the wall, finding holds for both my hands, and gather myself. Embarrassed, I look up and see a large group waiting for me to get off the fixed line; one female climber looks particularly annoyed with my ‘monkey-ing’.
‘Sorry!’ I call out. She says nothing and turns away. Busy and tired as I am, I can’t help giggling at the solemnity of the lady’s expression.
I swallow my nervous laughter to keep working upwards, slowly and anything but surely, giving up hundreds of times in my mind. Finally, I reach the top of the Tower and look at the alpine guides’ Sherpa. ‘How long…’ I gasp for breath, ‘how long was I there for?’
‘Half an hour,’ he says. ‘Go on; Camp 2 is not far away.’ 20 metres, 30 minutes – I did horribly bad!
I thank him wholeheartedly and stumble away, like a defeated boxer off the ring, following the fixed ropes. A couple other tricky sections delay my progress momentarily but sooner rather than later I see Camp 2 with about five tents placed at reason-defying angles on the tiny rock plateau. When my guide arrives, he immediately trots off to get some ice for our ‘cooking’, while I crawl into another little yellow home for another cold night.
In the dark the tired Christophe arrives and I try to revive him with a can of Red Bull: my guide is carrying plenty of it for me as it is my main source of energy on the mountain; it is also a source of endless jokes among my peers and the Sherpas who are quite certain I couldn’t make a step without my ‘magic potion’.
Christophe, the guides and I discuss the upcoming summit day. He and I are slower than the long-legged Austrian duo and, therefore, we choose to leave Camp 2 several hours ahead of them, at 3 am. None of us will stop to spend the night at Camp 3, which will make the summit day a long and truly exhausting one: 3-4 hours of technical mixed climbing in the dark to Camp 3 (the famed Grey Tower and the Mushroom Ridge are both there), another 5-6 hours of slightly easier climbing to the summit and at least another 3-4 hours to get back down to Camp 2.
‘Are you sure, Mila?’ my guide asks. ‘We can take food and sleeping bags with us to stop at Camp 3. I’ll carry it all. We’re in no hurry.’
‘No,’ I reply decisively, ‘we’re going to climb light to save time and energy. I don’t want to stop at Camp 3.’ As I say this, I already know I am making a mistake but I feel like I want to make it – need to make it for some strange reason.
Before going to sleep, we set the alarm for 2 am, pack and try to eat but the sole thought of it makes me nauseous: more instant soup and tea, then.
‘You need to eat something,’ Dorje insists. ‘Tomorrow’s a very long day.’
I tell him that I know but, really, I have no idea…