It’s our summit day, December 24th. We have to wait for the sun before we can begin climbing – it is too cold and windy to start in the dark, which I would normally prefer. Thus, we don’t get up until 6 am. After a feast of tea, Snickers and instant soup for breakfast, we take ropes, ice tools and other things we’ll need, and leave for the summit. The day is crisp, clear and less windy than the day before, which gives us confidence and makes for pleasanter climbing.
As we climb over the Camp 2 plateau, we are faced with a question: where to go next? The most obvious and straightforward route, we agree, would be to climb a tall serac, cross the vast glacier towards the bergschrund and begin working up the steep South-East Face of the mountain. Yes, it will be a long day.
‘This is a minefield,’ I tell Dorje, as, roped up, the four of us cross the benign-looking glacier. ‘This place is all crevasses, probably, with a lot of movement in spring and fall.’ Our leader nods and smiles and, puffing like an old steam engine, I continue stumbling towards the bergschrund.
We un-rope, and Pasang trots away, followed by Galden, to check the route and fix rope on its steepest sections – pretty much the whole of the South-East Face. Dorje stays behind, reminding me every so often to rest, and that ‘we’re in no rush’. I appreciate it that he never leaves my side.
After negotiating – slowly and painfully – about 400 metres of fixed rope up the icy mountain face, there’s no more rope and no more ice ahead of me. Pasang and Galden are already smiling as is Dorje while I take a moment to realize that the four of us are on the summit of Ganchenpo. I feel… surprised, pleasantly surprised. The boys take pictures with the Nepali flag and my dazed and confused face against the gorgeous backdrop of the winter Himalaya; I reach for the Russian flag in my pocket and offer the camera my happiest smile, too. Then, I finally get a chance to look around. The summit is an over-hang of snow and ice, small and sharp, licked by loud winds. On the other side lies the mountain’s vertical West Face. The unkind-looking Langshisa Ri and Langtang Lirung, the site of death of the famous Tomas Humar, seem to be within reach; Ganesh Himal is slightly further away.
‘Chop-chop?’ Dorje suggests, pointing downwards; there seems to be nothing more to do.
We’d taken just under 6 hours to get to the summit and will need at least 2 to get down to Camp 2. Given that it’s already 2 pm, that’s where we’ll be spending the night. We arrive, exhausted but happy, at the campsite which now feels like home, after 4 pm. Our Christmas dinner will consist of little more than instant soup, tea and biscuits but it will still be a big celebration for the team, and the summit – the best of presents.
On Christmas morning I feel less than cheerful as for me it marks the beginning of the hardest day on the mountain – the descent to base camp. Although they call me Mila Sherpa, my team know that I am not their equal in strength; they always tease me about how I tend to ‘dance’ on boulders – get entangled in my own legs and fall – frequently. It is not a joke now because Ganchenpo’s steep slopes of winter ice would be almost impossible to self-arrest on with an ice-axe if I were to lose my step even once. Thus, they want to fix and re-fix what’s left of our ropes for me to rappel – all the way to the first snow-covered moraine.
‘You can’t do this. It’s a lot of rope to fix, a lot of time gone to waste,’ I say, trying to think of an alternative.
‘We’ve got rope and we’re in no rush,’ our leader replies in his calm, matter-of fact manner.
With the decision made, the team works quickly and efficiently. On our way down we stop at Camp 1 to pick up the other tent and some other gear. Once off the snow, we change into trekking boots and retrace our route to base camp, ‘dancing’ ( me) on the boulders of the moraines and following the icy river. Soon, we spot the ‘kitchen’; before long we’re inside it, enjoying a hearty dinner, courtesy of Galden, and celebrating our safe return to base camp.
Stopping overnight at Kyanjin Gompa and Lama Hotel, we return to Syphrubesi on December 28th and drive to Kathmandu early next morning. When we arrive at the hotel where I’ve been living all this time, I see a poster over the entrance with ‘Congratulations, Mila!’ written on it. I am deeply touched by my friends’ support and by the warmth with which they welcome me back home. I didn’t think there would be cause for celebration when I was leaving but my friends never doubted it.
‘It’s all thanks to them,’ – I tell the people gathered around the team, pointing at my boys. How do I express myself to make them understand that I am not being falsely modest when I say that it’s Dorje’s, Pasang’s, and Galden’s achievement? It was my team of supermen that dealt with every problem, which arose during our climb of Ganchenpo. Congratulations and many thanks to them!
Edit: About a year after our winter expedition on Ganchenpo, which, we believed, was the first ever to reach the summit, I was informed that there had been a previous successful ascent.
My sincerest apologies for unknowingly misleading my readers and congratulations to the true first ascent team!
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.
It is the day of our departure from base camp to Camp 1: sunny, windy, cold. I’m by the ‘kitchen’ entrance where the backpacks of my team wait for them, leaning against rocks. While nobody’s looking, I try to shift Dorje’s pack from its position but it won’t budge. Next to my boys’ loads my 65-litre pack looks like a beauty kit.
‘Dorje, Pasang, Galden,’ I ask the climbing Sherpas and the cook, also a good climber, who wanted to join us on the summit push, ‘how exactly are you going to carry that?’
‘It’s ok,’ they all agree, smiling, ‘we can do it.’
A few minutes later the four of us begin the climb up to Camp 1 following the dry riverbed and steep moraines. I balance on the boulders along the path quite successfully for the first two hours until, trying to catch up with my team of supermen, I rush it, slip, and fall, twisting my spine unfortunately. Judging by the intense pain which pours into every cell of my body, I have locked a nerve between the dislodged discs of my damaged spinal column. It’s happened before but why, dammit, why did it have to happen now? I growl and struggle back to my feet, stumbling behind my team as if all was well for as long as I possibly can. When my legs are numb with pain, I finally call Dorje, who knows about my tibiae problems and the damaged spine.
‘Just go on without me, ok?’ I say in all seriousness. ‘I cannot climb the colouir to Camp 1 today. I cannot crawl up the mountain like this.’
He looks at me understandingly and, lowering his pack onto a large boulder, walks off to call the other two Sherpas. They, too, take their packs off and quietly and calmly go about clearing a spot for a campsite.
‘No! No, no, no, no, no!’ I protest. ‘What is this? ‘High camp’? That wasn’t the plan.’
‘We’re in no rush, Mila. Nobody’s pushing us. Just rest!’ Dorje replies.
As I watch the boys dismantle the elaborate structures of their backpacks, I feel ashamed. The matter-of-factness with which they take the unexpected change of plans makes me feel even worse. ‘I am a human wreck,’ I tell myself, ‘and because I’m desperate to prove the opposite, people have to waste their time and strength baby-sitting me.’ I apologize to the team countless times before finally retiring into my tent and taking two pills of Ibuprofen and a Tramadol. Then, I stretch my spine as best I can and rest while Pasang and Galden head out to explore the route to Camp 1 and drop off bits and pieces of gear we won’t need until later, higher on the mountain. They come back at sunset and tell Dorje and me they’d found a shortcut. Some good news at last! High on painkillers, I fall asleep blissfully, hoping for an easy climb the next day.
At night I am desperately cold. My air-mat keeps deflating, and I wake up feeling cold rocks against my back. Then, shivering, I have to get out of my lukewarm sleeping bag and inflate the mat, over and over again. It’s a long night but, eventually, morning – if not warmth – arrives. We have breakfast, pack up, and follow the shortcut route the boys had discovered. When we step onto the ice for the first time we all turn and look at each other: it is slippery as polished glass and hard as metal, that blue winter ice. As it gets steeper, we begin to use our crampons and ice-axes more but often they simply bounce off the crystalline surface. Every knock of my crampons against the ice, every swing of the axe echo in my spine, and the lower part of my body feels rubbery and out of control. We climb for about three hours when, suddenly, we all stop and look up.
‘We don’t have to go over the pass,’ I think to myself while the Sherpas voice the same thought in their language. ‘We can just follow that ridge up there to Camp 2,’ Looking at each other, we all agree to take another shortcut the next day. After one more hour of steep climbing on winter ice, I finally find the courage to look down, and ‘Never Return’ again begins to whisper itself in my ear:
‘Lay me down on a bed of blue ice, cover me with a blanket of snow; I know I will never return home; you can now call me your own…’
‘Dorje,’ I look at our expedition leader, ‘I can climb up but I could never get down here. My legs won’t hold me firm enough.’
‘Don’t worry about that. You will get down alright,’ he grins, patting me on the shoulder. ‘Let’s just find ourselves a campsite now.’
‘Thanks, mom!’ I tease him, embarrassed but happy.
We soon see the perfect spot to put up our two tents and spend the night. The ‘cosy’ Camp 1 is all blue ice glowing in the sun with a cold shine. While Dorje and I have tea, Pasang and Galden climb a little higher to drop off the ropes to be fixed on summit day, and return for dinner. We sit in their tent and eat instant soup and hard-boiled eggs, with Digestives for dessert. As night approaches, we discuss the next day’s possible challenges, and all seems well and under control in the small yellow world of the tent.
‘If all goes to plan, we’ll be back in Kathmandu before New Year’s Eve…’ Dorje muses.
I don’t know how to reply because I’m simply not sure I will get down the mountain at all. I find it funny that this was what I wanted and – ridiculously enough – still want for Christmas.
‘Indeed,’ I say, smiling, after a moment’s pause, ‘and we’ll all celebrate together!’
That night I hardly sleep at all, my body unable to produce enough heat to warm up the sleeping bag even a little. I put some hand warmers in my gloves and socks, and focusing on those tiny sources of heat, I persuade myself to close my eyes. I see the arrivals terminal at the domestic airport in St. Petersburg, where I normally land after a stopover in Moscow. My mother stands behind tall glass gates and watches crowds of travelers come and go, like waves. I watch them and wait, too, until sunrise.