Morning sunshine is slowly creeping towards our icy Camp 1 while we are having breakfast in the boys’ tent. With a hot water bottle against my chest and a cup of steaming hot tea in my bluish hands I am beginning to warm up after the night on ice.
‘You really are ice-cold,’ Dorje had commented when he was helping me crawl into their tent earlier. He then offered my hand for the others to feel and verify his diagnosis.
‘It’s normal for me,’ I say, but my team of experienced high-altitude guides seem to see nothing normal about the lack of adequate circulation in my limbs. ‘I’m an icicle; it’s fine,’ I insist.
After a brief discussion we decide to only take one three-person tent and two sleeping bags for the four of us up to Camp 2: this will make for lighter backpacks and a warmer pre-summit day night. I’m not sure I want to share my sleeping bag with anyone having already made that mistake on Manaslu. Granted, the sleeping bag I used then was a ‘0’ and not a ‘-40’ like now; I was sharing with another Westerner lady and not a warm-blooded Sherpa climber; and I was much higher – at 7400 metres. Still, I got so cold that night, losing all sensation in my feet, that I could never forget it.
‘Don’t be shy,’ Dorje suggests. ‘On a mountain you can’t afford that…’
‘Oh, I am not shy. I just don’t want to deep-freeze at night.’ He promises that I won’t, and given that on all our previous climbs together he’d kept his promises, I assent half-heartedly.
Our loads are indeed lighter as we begin to climb to Camp 2 but the shortcut is neither a short nor an easy route. We rope up together and keep working our way higher and higher up the mountain’s steep icy slopes. I swear at my whinging spine, at the biting wind, at the strong ice walls, at crevasses and an over-hang we must negotiate on our way to the top of the ridge.
‘Soft snow…’ I comment to Dorje when after about 3.5 hours of climbing we end up on a relatively even plateau.
‘Avalanche…’ he says calmly, ‘you couldn’t climb here in spring or fall. Not that you could climb any of this when it’s warmer…’ It’s true. Ours is a winter-only climbing route.
‘So this is where we camp? I hope you like sky-diving because our tent will parachute off here before you can tie it down,’ I shout to the boys across another extremely windy plateau higher up on the mountain.
Unfortunately, there’s not really a better spot for Camp 2 anywhere near, so we stop, and my team begin to work on the tent. They roll enormous chunks of ice towards it and tie the tent to them. The fabric bends and flaps angrily but the tent stays in place. We crawl in and begin melting ice for tea and dinner. With the four of us inside and the two stoves burning it is surprisingly warm.
I get out of the tent at sunset and look towards the summit. Although the top of Ganchenpo is only about 400 metres higher than where we are now, I know that summit day will be long, with lots of steep, exposed climbing on my ‘favourite’ blue ice. I wonder if I will reach the still untouched summit of the mountain – but I am even more curious (yes, just curious) as to whether or not I will be able to descend.
‘Mila?’ Dorje calls me back into the tent. We have dinner, and at 7 pm get ready to sleep. We use my sleeping bag as a blanket and, wearing every item of clothing I’d brought with me, I hope to stay warm.
‘If I hug you at night accidently, don’t be shy,’ Dorje warns me as the other two gentlemen giggle.
‘Your hugging me, my friend, is the least of my worries right now,’ I reply, and we turn our head-lamps off to go to sleep.
Dorje does a beautiful job of keeping the down in our ‘blanket’ toasty warm throughout the night, and even the ‘accidental hugging’ is not unwelcome when the temperature inside the tent drops to -22 Fahrenheit. Still, I am unable to sleep feeling in my spine the cold underneath the tent. The boys’ rhythmic snoring sounds so healthy and cheerful it makes me smile in the dark – it is the only sound of life for miles; our bodies are the only islands of warmth in this sea of blue ice and my restless mind has this night all to itself. I let it wander.