Ama Dablam, Part I

Kathmandu Domestic Airport

I wake up again, my head still resting on the cardboard boxes full of beer bottles with which I share the back seat of the helicopter. Hopeful I look out the window at the gray, foggy and stale weather outside, and sigh: we’re not flying out of Kathmandu today and my guide is going to have to keep waiting for me in Lukla. Then, I smile as I watch my new friends, Christophe and Sabine, sleeping in the front seat, so peacefully it makes me happy and calm, too.

Soon, at around 2:30 pm, the helicopter pilot arrives accompanied by our trekking agency representative, and they confirm my ‘guess’ that we’re staying grounded. Christophe, Sabine and I climb into a little truck and drive back to the domestic terminal of the Kathmandu airport; we leave our luggage on the chopper to avoid the possibility of other hopefuls getting out of Kathmandu ahead of us the next day: the heli’s booked for days ahead as the small planes which regularly circulate between the capital and Lukla cannot handle the bad weather conditions which have surprised Nepal this November.

The three of us are disappointed but try to get some enjoyment out of the situation. We spend the evening talking in ‘Franglish’, circumambulating the famous stupa at Boudhanath and lighting butter candles in order to generate some good karma for the next day. Then, we have dinner at my favourite place in Boudha called Flavours and by the end of the evening all seem quite pleased with the extra day in Kathmandu.

On November 14th we get up early again and leave for the domestic airport at 5:00 am. Although it is still dark outside, I can see the fog in the air and yet, I know we are flying sooner or later. We dance through the airport formalities with grace that only experience can give, find seats in the waiting hall, fetch coffees, get our books out the packs and begin our morning exercise in patience.

While we wait, I meet with one of the Sherpas from our Manaslu team who has two clients with him: both professional alpine guides headed, like me and Christophe, for Ama Dablam. They are… very tall indeed :). As I watch them walk away on their long legs, I despair: I am neither as tall nor as good a climber as these men and yet our goal is the same – this couldn’t possibly be right.

At around noon our departure is announced and we are once again driven to the chopper. The pilot is already inside, his leather gloves and serious expression on, and instead of the compact beer boxes I am now sharing the back seat with three men. It’s still foggy and the visibility leaves much to be desired but we take off and fly: the chopper shakes – the pilot smiles. An hour later we are in Lukla and I, happily – inappropriately – hug my guide, one of the most respected Sherpa climbers who was also our chief Sherpa guide on Manaslu. Since Christophe will only meet his mountain guide at Ama Dablam base camp, my guide offers him and Sabine to trek with us. I am beyond pleased as I have grown very fond of my new friends.

It is late and we decide to trek only as far as Phakding that day. We stop at the lodge my guide owns and have a warm evening all together, planning our trip to the foot of ‘Mother’s Necklace.’ The next day we walk a steep and dusty trail to Namche Bazzar, where the three of us go to the local clinic to get advice on how to treat Sabine’s ‘Khumbu Cough’ (the advice + meds costs $105) and later spend more money shopping. The trek to Pangboche on the 16th of November is a beautiful torture: the visibility is zero and it is snowing. The day is cold and damp but the humid dust still manages to take off the ground and fly into one’s lungs gasping for oxygen at over 3600 metres. My guide and I run ahead, struggling to keep warm while Christophe and Sabine walk somewhere in the mist behind us. The dusty trail to Tengboche – the village housing the famous monastery by the same name – is painfully long and exhausting to climb. I begin to feel I will never arrive but here I am in front of a white-and-gold chorten growing out of the fog to greet me. ‘Just another hour to Pangboche,’ my guide announces as we stop for lunch at a local bakery. I am too cold to be hungry but the tasty smell and variety of desserts tempts even me to have… tomato soup, at least. My guide has a yummy-looking pizza, and we’re back in the mist in no time, running up and down dusty paths again, towards Pangboche.

When we finally arrive, I feel drained. Christophe and Sabine, also tired and cold, join us at one of the local lodges in a couple of hours. The lady of the house starts a fire and the few guests gather around the stove with cups of hot tea. We are quiet, smiling. My guide talks to our hostess and, suddenly, points at me.

‘Ama Dablam?’ the woman asks, looking me up and down with laughing eyes. I don’t speak Sherpa but even I can hear the scepticism in her voice. I have already heard it many times on this trek in the voices of people my guide has been sharing our ambitious plans with.

‘…Manaslu…’ he defends me, but the woman just keeps grinning.

Women, Jewellery and Mountaineering

‘You’re a climber? Really? You look nothing like one!’ a young woman comments on my appearance as I greet some of my Manaslu expedition companions before heading out to Thamel to celebrate my birthday. She is about my age, she is my compatriot and she is very beautiful: a polished face framed by perfect dark hair; big feline eyes; long, leggings-clad legs.

‘I’m not climbing tonight,’ I reply staring at her feminine expression and body language with a mix of admiration and envy, ‘and I’m not a real climber, anyway.’ Having just seen myself in the mirror, I’m tempted to add that I’m not a real woman, either.

‘Oh, but they said you’d climbed on one of the world’s highest mountains…’ she persists.

‘Yes…’ I stretch the word like a bungee cord, and let go. ‘So where in Russia are you from?’

Manaslu is still here, sticking out of my chest like an old kukri knife, its tip not quite reaching the heart, not quite sharp enough to kill. I jerk it up and down and push and pull on it which only serves to make the wound larger while the knife remains unmoved. Undoubtedly, there are bigger things in life than even the greatest of mountains – and failures or successes on them – but it is ridiculously hard to go about one’s daily business with an 8000-metre peak weighing them down. The easy mini-triumph on Chulu Far East was a temporary distraction and not, as I wished to believe, a permanent cure for the injury of failure on Manaslu – it seems to be here to stay. However, that distraction was necessary, and I feel like I am once again in need of one. What I want now, though, is not merely a distraction but a real challenge; perhaps, a bigger one than Manaslu itself. I have chosen a peak called Ama Dablam which stands at 6800 metres in the Khumbu region of Nepal. There are several reasons why I believe it will be harder for me to climb than its 8000-metre predecessor.

Mt Ama Dablam, View from Chukkung

First of all, even the ‘easiest’ route to the summit is very steep with several perfectly vertical sections of rock and ice: technical rock- and ice-climbing skills are required to tackle such a climb safely. It is a problem for me because I happen to be scared of heights – not a quality to recommend an aspiring high-altitude mountaineer, I know :). I used to be able to control my fear easily on the steepest of ascents but that was before the climbing accident of 9 months ago which left me seriously injured. I have not practised on steep rock since and, although the idea of it doesn’t worry me, I don’t know that my feelings won’t change when I’m looking at  a vertical rock face and a potential long fall down to base camp. Apparently, safety ropes have been placed on the mountain all the way to the summit which would lessen the technical difficulty of the climb and make one feel a little more protected on the exposed sections. Nevertheless, contrary to many climbers’ arrogant allegations, fixed rope is not a shortcut to the summit but merely a safety aid; thus, I will still have to make every step towards the summit without any magical forces pulling me up.

Lukla Airport, October 2009

The second problem is likely to be the weather. It has been raining and snowing heavily in the Khumbu which recently resulted in over a 1500 trekkers and climbers being stranded in Lukla (the town where most flights to the region arrive in and depart from) for a week due to poor visibility. The little planes seem to have been flying fairly regularly for the past two days but that can change as quickly as the weather, making it hard for me to even get to the starting point of the trek. If I am lucky and the weather is clear on my departure day, the forecast is not looking good for the days I plan to climb on; should the forecast prove correct, there will be no climbing.

Thirdly, there are some time constraints. With just two weeks to trek to base camp (4 days), climb the mountain (?) and return to Lukla (2 days) I will have no extra time for my body to re-acclimatize to high altitude after spending over two weeks in Kathmandu. Also, should the weather be as bad as the forecast predicts, I couldn’t wait long for it to change for the better.

Lastly, I am concerned about how I would feel if I failed on Ama Dablam like I did on Manaslu before it. Yet, it is a relatively minor concern. Why? Precisely thanks to the failure to summit Manaslu: I now know how it feels, how much it hurts and how hard it is to get over. I will not be caught off guard or be swept off my feet by failure this time; I am prepared for it. In fact, given the potential problems I have described above, I am 90% certain of failure (I would have said 99% if I wasn’t a hopeless optimist).

‘Why even try then?’ you might wonder after reading the above paragraphs.

Mt. Everest, December 2009

Because I really, really want to. What if I never want anything like that – a mountain – so badly again? What if, as I grow older and become what I’m expected to be, I lose the capacity to see beauty in the mixture of rock, ice, danger and pain? What if I turn into a walking grey rock which needs to cover herself with precious stones to hide how absolutely ordinary she is? Very fittingly, I think, Ama Dablam translates as ‘Mother’s Necklace’. It is indeed a rare piece of jewellery for which you pay with effort and courage, one you could never wear around your neck but which would glow in your eyes forever once you’ve touched it; I would love to try it on.

I will post brief blog updates during the trek and the climb as regularly as I can, starting tomorrow. Drop by if you’re curious ;)!