In the last post of the Manaslu expedition series I mentioned I was to return to the mountains again soon. The name of the peak I will be climbing next is Ganesh I/Yangra. It looks utterly stunning from Manaslu, and has been an object of my curiosity ever since I first saw the near-perfect pyramid last year. As I did before on Everest and both times on Manaslu, I will be joining Phil Crampton’s Altitude Junkies on this exploratory expedition: Ganesh has only been climbed once before, about 60 years ago, from the side of Tibet, not Nepal, following a technically easier route than we expect ours to be. You can have a look at our potential route and follow the expedition here, on AJ’s website: http://altitudejunkies.com/dispatchganesh12.html I will also try to update this blog occasionally, but if I fail to do so while on the mountain, I will, I hope, come back with a detailed account of the climb.
In the same last Manaslu post I also hinted that I will do more than climb on Ganesh. My regular readers know that I’m an ice/winter-swimming enthusiast, and Ganesh, I am told, has a large glacier, where there’s bound to be a big and cold enough lake for me to do a charity swim in to support my Pema Choling Project. The Ganesh lake could be anything from non-existent or frozen solid to enormous and open for me to try to swim across it. The page on this blog, which I started several months earlier, will have information about and photos of the monastery in just a few days (thank you, Rebecca Gaal!). It will also feature photos and videos from the swim. If there’s not a lake on Ganesh, I’ll make sure there’s one on the next mountain I climb – so the charity swim will happen. Please, follow this link if you would like to read about the project or make a donation: https://sixthsymph.com/pemacholing-monastery-khumbu-nepal/ Myself and the kids will greatly appreciate your support in this!
I am excited to be involved with so many new, unexplored things at the same time, as you may be able to tell by the rather erratic writing :). The climb the Junkies are embarking on could – and hopefully will – result in a first ascent from Nepal of a stunning Himalayan peak. The team anticipate the ascent to be technically difficult, with many different challenges to keep us on our toes along the way. The swim, should there be a suitable glacial lake for me to do it in, could result in a world record for ice/winter-swimming at high altitude, or death from hypothermia, given that I will not use any thermal protection. Regardless of the outcome, I hope it draws some much-needed attention to the cause that I support with all my heart. It is also new for me to be doing ‘a charity project’ – trying to involve both friends and strangers in what has become very important to me personally: making a few little people a little bit happier or, at least, warmer.
All for now. The expedition leaves Kathmandu tomorrow, on the 22nd of October. We will drive to and, then, trek from Arughat through Tsum Valley to Ganesh base camp. Somewhere along the way I’ll be celebrating my 26th birthday on the 25th of October. The Junkies’ team should return to civilization after about 40 days of trekking and climbing. Drop by then if you’re curious to read about the ascent of Ganesh I and, possibly, the very ‘refreshing’ swim!
In response to a couple of my friends’ requests, I have revised the post to include a few more details about the summit day and the descent. I hope that those of you, who wanted the last installment in the Manaslu series to be ‘more’, are now ‘more’, if not entirely, satisfied ;).
The Junkies left Camp 4 for the summit at 2 am. It was a cold night. The trail to the summit from the day before had been almost entirely erased by the strong wind, and I would hardly have found my way across even the first of the wide plateaus above Camp 4, if it wasn’t for following my climbing Sherpa, Pasang Wongchu. There were a few clouds in the otherwise clear sky, and an occasional flash on the horizon, ahead and to the right of us. The flashes were extremely bright and vast, which made me believe they were lightnings, but it was quiet around us, and my heartbeat, heavy breathing and the creaking of the solidly-packed snow under crampons were the only sounds in the world.
‘Please, don’t let a storm start,’ I begged somebody somewhere, ‘not now! Not after all that, not when I’m this close to the summit…’ as if summiting would make ‘all that’ go away.
Just like I’d hoped it would, oxygen made climbing easier for me than it had been the day before. I was quite alert and, at first, even warm, but that illusive warmth lasted me precious little in the strong wind. We moved relatively slowly, and I enjoyed the feeling of not being in a race: I was almost certain I would make it – until my toes began to freeze; they would not warm up now, no matter how much I wiggled them in my boots. I would look up at the sky frequently, waiting for at least a hint of dawn, and when I could finally see it, I felt calmer, but even colder. The pre-sunrise hour is always the iciest hour of the night, but I had no warmth left to give.
We’d been moving steadily: I could already see the false summit, and was getting near it as the blue air gradually filled with light. By then, in spite of the very reasonable pace, I was tired. Two team mates had passed me with their Sherpas. As I lingered at another stop, with the traverse to the sharp summit ridge within reach, I was searching for but finding no energy or even desire to make the final push. I still don’t quite know why it was that, after walking in the night, occasionally bending double to hide from the gusts of the angry wind, after living through nightmares, after days of cold and exhaustion, now, on the vertiginously narrow ridge leading up to the true summit, I didn’t want to carry on to the end. Minutes later, crouching on the small top of the stunning Spirit Mountain and tying khatas for friends to the string of prayer flags, I felt the opposite of joy. In the summit snow I buried a photo of Christophe, to whom I had dedicated my climb, whispering as a prayer the words of ‘I Promise‘ – the poem his partner had recited at his funeral just a month earlier. There was no sense of accomplishment when I fell silent and looked at the impressive peaks below me or into myself, just loneliness as big as the frozen, timeless space all around. I’d silenced my shame of surviving where so many died, and stepped over them but also over myself to be standing where I was now. I wasn’t sure, however, that I had the heart to retrace my steps back ‘home’.
I left the summit quickly, forgetting to look at the team mates I passed on the descent from the ridge. After the ridge came the exposed, windy traverse, which had scared me on the way up but which was now a welcome sight. ‘If I fell here, it would be an accident…’ I thought, stopping, considering my ‘options’: there were no ropes to keep me, nor, frankly speaking, much else. I didn’t want to have to celebrate my dubious ‘conquest’ at base camp – I may have wanted what I’d ‘conquered’ but I certainly missed what I’d ‘defeated’ in the process. I looked down but, suddenly, my climbing Sherpa turned to me and, reaching for my safety sling, clipped it into his own without a word. I hated him then for his impeccable timing because now I couldn’t fall, and would have to tread carefully. Fixed lines, which began after the traverse, re-connected me with reality, pulling me out of my grim dream. Climbers on their way up, friends and strangers, nodded their mask- and hood-covered heads and patted me on the shoulder. They reminded me of the fact that across the long slopes and wide crevasses between the summit and base camp, there were real people, not ghosts, waiting for me. And if they keep waiting, then, I cannot fall.
The descent from the summit back to Camp 4 took us little time. The air had warmed up, but the wind was growing stronger. We could not afford to linger at Manaslu’s highest camp as the weather forecast had predicted a serious increase in wind speeds in the afternoon, but we would still take a couple of hours to rest in the tent and boil some water. Our destination for the day would be Camp 2, given that base camp seemed impossibly far away for how tired we were. E and I both decided not to use oxygen on descent so as to have lighter backpacks; I also wanted to get rid of the gas mask, which hindered my sight somewhat, especially coming down. E left before me and Pasang, and I would only follow reluctantly when the Sherpas started taking down the tents to carry them to Camp 2. Walking without oxygen proved hard, and I was very slow, so Pasang insisted I use it in spite of my protests: ‘I have no space in the pack!’ The oxygen bottle took the place of my sleeping bag, which was now tied on the outside of the Sherpa’s backpack, already ‘heavily decorated’ with other group and personal gear. I felt like the biggest, most useless whinge stumbling behind him, a little more lively now thanks to the O2. Just minutes later we caught up with E, and continued the descent together. After briefly resting at Camp 3, where I could finally stop using oxygen, we staggered down to 2. On our way we passed a small group of Sherpas, who had recovered another body from under the avalanche debris, and were preparing it for evacuation. I felt lucky to be short-sighted, but even luckier to have a tired heart.
As we approached Camp 2, I heard an all-too-familiar sound – an avalanche on a nearby slope. It was small, ways away, and the trail was completely safe from it, but I still shuddered. ‘A few hours ago you considered walking off into thin air, and now you’re scared of an avalanche? What a little hypocrite!’ I said to myself as we began moving again. Camp 2 was already in the shade when we reached it; it was going to be a cold evening. In the tent the trio shared what was left of our food supplies to make ‘dinner’ and went to sleep at about 7 pm. I had worried about spending one more night at Camp 2, but neither tears nor nightmares would disturb me – I was fast asleep before I knew it after the long summit day.
In the morning we packed up Camp 2 and began the descent to base camp. Concerned about the wide crevasses, which cut through our route, Phil would lead the team down himself, and we would all climb together. In spite of the precautions, two of us couldn’t help exploring the insides of two different crevasses; yours truly, of course, had to be one of them. Fortunately, one of the Junkies had a ‘magic sling’ to help out climbers in just such embarrassing situations, and that day the sling came in very handy indeed. Passing Camp 1, where I loaded my backpack with more gear, we soon arrived at Crampton Point. There our kitchen staff were already waiting with tea, juice and a can of Red Bull for me. I was surprised and somewhat disappointed at how energetic I felt, when we reached base camp a little later. I felt nothing like after summiting Everest, the descent from which had been so unbearably exhausting. Paradoxically, I felt physically stronger now, after returning from the summit, than I had when I first arrived at the foot of Manaslu. I remembered, however, my little episode on the traverse, and it worried me that I should have let myself grow so mentally tired and weak that such thoughts as I had would even come into my head… I knew that I could still trust my body to do what was required of it more or less efficiently. Could I also trust my mind not to yield under the pressure of all-too-many memories and fears?
At base camp we had a beautiful celebration, with champagne and laughter, and, in spite of my expectations, it felt good and right to be celebrating a summit. I was grateful to Phil and the whole Altitude Junkies crew for providing me and the rest of the clients with the opportunity and the support to reach the top and descend safely. The expedition had been an intense experience, and, ultimately, a very positive one. It took away yet another of my 9 lives, but gifted me with an increased appreciation of the remaining one(s), and another 8000-meter summit. I was glad to have stood on the tiny top of Manaslu, which I had not been able to do a year earlier. When I left base camp and at last allowed myself to walk all the way down the trail to Samagaon, I felt free and calm. However, I was missing the mountains, harsh and cruel as they sometimes are, even as I was walking away from them.
I am back in Kathmandu, having left the high-altitude winter for the stunning autumn now reigning in Nepal. I am still processing my latest climbing experience but already preparing for the next one. This time I will do more than climb – and, hopefully, for more than my own pleasure. I will post an update about the new project in a couple of days. Thank you for ‘climbing’ with me on Manaslu! Drop by if you’re curious to learn about the upcoming adventure, and take care!
After a day or two of rest at base camp, I resumed my daily walks up to the first fixed rope. They were no longer quiet: helicopters hovered above Manaslu, people were talking, tents – rustling as they were being packed away by the departing teams… Five members of our group, too, decided to leave the mountain for various reasons, all of them perfectly understandable in the light of the recent tragedy. I would miss my new friends, especially my climbing buddy K. who had been so very supportive all along. He left his camera (mine had gone swimming at the start of the trek to base camp) and Z-rest for me to use, and shared his high-altitude snacks with the team, which caused us to ‘fight’ over Shot Blocks and chocolate. It was sad and discouraging to watch some of the Junkies – all of them strong and able climbers – depart.
For me, however, leaving was not an option, and so, sticking to my savior routine, I made my way through the agitated base camp towards the first fixed line. Suddenly, I noticed two people on the trail ahead of me, with a large professional camera. ‘Here come the vultures,’ I thought, pulling the Buff over my face and hiding under the hood of my jacket. One of the reporters pointed his camera right in my face, and followed me without a word, until I – to him, apparently, an inanimate object – began climbing steeply up the path. The journalists’ obnoxious bluntness and insensitivity upset me. There were many people at base camp in those early days after the avalanche, keen on taking the most gruesome pictures or having their photo snapped in the epicenter of events. Like any tragedy, the Manaslu avalanche had its true as well as its self-proclaimed heroes, easy to tell apart even in the unhealthy excitement which followed the painful events of the 23rd of September. For my part, I wasn’t feeling like either a survivor or a victim – certainly, not feeling like any outside attention – and was simply trying to keep the resolve to carry on.
When I reached my destination at the foot of the steep rocks, I saw a group of Sherpas coming down from Camp 1 carrying enormous backpacks. ‘Time to go home,’ one of them said to me, grinning. ‘Not yet,’ I replied quietly, talking to myself rather than him. But why was I so sure I had to stay, when so many people all around me were leaving? For several simple reasons: I was alive and physically unhurt, I was a climber, and the mountain I wanted to climb was right in front of me, its slopes made safer than ever by the recent slide. It helped, too, that I wasn’t afraid to stay, since the avalanche to me had not been something surprising or unusual in the ultimately unpredictable mountain environment. Mountaineering is an extremely dangerous sport: to human error or freak accident, almost every climber I know has lost at least one friend. I know that I, too, am not immune to mistakes or ‘bad luck’; I, too, can one day be referred to as somebody’s ‘lost climber-friend’. I accept and embrace this risk: I could not love the mountains as whole-heartedly as I do, if I didn’t trust them to know my time to go. If anything, the avalanche had made me value my time more than ever – so much so, I was not going to waste it waiting or hiding.
In describing my reasons for staying, I speak, of course, only for myself. I don’t know how my team mates, who also stayed on the expedition, had really made their decisions or what their motivations might have been. The fact was that, in spite of the confusion around us, Phil Crampton’s Altitude Junkies, unlike most others, had the leadership, the support and the resources to allow those willing to try for the summit to do so. We stayed calm and focused, we rested, we waited for the right weather and, on the 27th of September, launched our summit push.
Need I say that it wasn’t easy to walk back up to where I had run from just a few days ago? That I couldn’t close my eyes at Camp 1? That I cried all night long at Camp 2, pressing my mouth shut with my icy hands? That, as I climbed alone from there to Camp 3, it was not the thinning air that made me breathe erratically and try to move as quickly as my legs would carry me, but the biggest shame for being alive? That the night at Camp 3 – such a beautiful, clear night – was invaded by more ghosts and thoughts than my mind could contain? Yet, in spite of all this, of the mental and physical exhaustion, I was strangely happy to be where I live at my fullest: somewhere between love and loss, and good and evil, where there’s nothing to be afraid of anymore.
I was the first to leave Camp 3 for Camp 4 on the 30th of September. I knew it would be the toughest of the days on the mountain for me: the steep climb is made long and exhausting by the decreasing pressure of oxygen in the air, the strong wind and the cold. I expected it to take me about 6 hours to climb from 6800 to 7450 meters, from where the Junkies would be leaving for the summit in the early hours of the next day. Four of the injis, including the leader, would climb without bottled oxygen. Our Sherpas, who would also climb without O2, all passed me within just minutes after I’d left Camp 3, all – smiling and moving unbelievably quickly under their heavy backpacks. I could never keep up with them, so I focused on making sure I could, at least, maintain my own slow but steady pace. It was very windy, and I climbed with my head down. Where a thick crust of wind-licked ice covered the slopes, I would hide under my down suit’s hood from the pieces of ice being kicked down by the climbers above me. Higher up, the wind felt even stronger, ceaselessly throwing clouds of snow in my face. When I reached the long traverse into Camp 4, cold and tired, I started to meet climbers on their way down. They looked feeble on their feet – as, undoubtedly, did I – and complained about the cruel winds up high. Stumbling at last into Camp 4, I knew exactly what they’d been talking about: the tents flapped noisily, disturbingly, and people’s voices sounded loud above the wind. My second time at Camp 4, I realized, would be colder than the first one a year ago. I was happy that in the evening I would start using supplemental oxygen to help me preserve the remains of my warmth and energy. Once in the tent, I made sure I was as warm as I could be to provide for a good rest before leaving for the summit. Eating was out of the question but, following my climbing rules, I would drink a much as possible. It was great to have my summit day climbing Sherpa, Pasang Wongchu, help my tent mate, E, and me to boil water. At 6 pm he set up our oxygen systems, and the three of us went to sleep – actually sleep and not toss and turn annoyingly in the sleeping bag, thanks to the O2. At 1 am we were to start for the summit of Manaslu. As I listened to the angry wind outside the tent, I wasn’t sure we would really be going.
I was trying to look up, but tears were crowding my eyes, and I couldn’t see anything. A Sherpa, who had stumbled down from Camp 3 bare-foot, was being wrapped in a sleeping bag and examined for shock and frostbite by Phil and my team mates. Boot-less and, therefore, useless, I sat out of the way in the snow, in a cloud of sleeping bags, with E next to me. Everything was cold, and solid, and white, and empty. I looked into the Sherpa’s eyes, wide with dread, and then up again, towards where he had come from, where there was nothing now but snow and the remains of the night, melting slowly off the sky. Just a few minutes had passed since the avalanche had struck, when a group of Sherpas from lower Camp 2 began making its way towards where Camp 3 had been. ‘Up there…it should have been me,’ a thought crossed my mind and lingered, as I stared at the spot.
I couldn’t sleep that night, as I never really can at high altitude, unless I’m on oxygen. Again, thoughts fought for the best seat in my mind, muscles twitched, and the cold was impossible to ignore. Again, I waited for the alarm to give me the excuse I needed to start moving at 4:15 am. Then, I got up, lit the stove and changed from my down suit into the Gore-Tex jacket and pants I would wear on the way down to base camp. I wanted to leave Camp 2 at about 6 am to have the time to descend leisurely before lunch, take a shower and do some much-needed laundry. It was still dark and very cold, so, while getting my things ready and throwing chunks of ice into the pot, I stayed in my sleeping-bag. E got up soon after me, and a couple of familiar voices sounded from the surrounding tents: in the tent to our right, Dorjee, our sirdar, Pasang Nima and Nuri were awake; Junior’s and Gordon’s sleepy mumbling came from the left. An then, there was this other sound…
“Avalanche!” E whispered, as if her and I could keep it secret in our tent.
“Far above us,” I had the time to reply – and the audacity to sound certain.
Hardly more than five seconds must have passed between the initial loud crack and the moment it turned into the deafening roar, which hit the tent and sent it tumbling down the slope: our nylon home, loosing its familiar shape and structure, spun around E and I in confusion.
“If we stop before we fly into that crevasse, we’re gonna have to get out as soon as possible,” I thought, pushing the sleeping bag off my legs and shouting for E to do the same. I thought, too, that I had to find and keep hold of the zipper, in the unlikely event we should, after all, grind to a halt before reaching the crevasse. And then, I simply thought that that was it: I was prepared for something to hit me, or pierce me, or crush me any moment. Just then, we stopped. Immediately, I unzipped the tent, expecting – absolutely irrationally – for snow to flood in, and thinking that E and I would now have to dig ourselves out from under the avalanche debris. As I looked out of the destroyed tent, I saw stars against the still-dark sky. The air was cold and quiet, and I crawled out into it, amazed to be free. Beams from the head-lamps of my team mates hovered on the snow of the curving slope slightly above what used to be E’s and my tent. I counted the lights: they were as many as I thought there ought be; my team mates, then, were all fine; E was alright and so was I. Together we dragged the tent, heavy with our gear, as far back up the slope as we could, and began to search for the missing items. On my way I picked up some crampons, and put them where other such recovered pieces of equipment were being carried by my team mates.
It was Dorjee, who pointed out to me that I was freezing – I was wearing boot liners but my boots were gone, and it was way too cold for Gore-Tex. “Where is your down suit? Wear it!” he ordered. He found two mats for E and I, wrapped us in sleeping bags and commanded that we keep warm. Phil was already co-ordinating rescue efforts for the victims at Camp 3, and the rest of the team were either waiting patiently for their boots to be found, trying to fend off the pre-dawn cold, or searching for those missing boots, crampons, ice-axes and other things with Dorjee, Pasang Nima and Nuri.
As we sat and waited for the sun to rise, we watched many people rush past us on their way to help, and listened to Phil reporting on the situation on the hill and making rescue arrangements on the radio. It amazed me how efficiently everybody worked together to locate, stabilize and evacuate as many survivors as possible.
Before we knew it, almost all our climbers’ essential gear had been located by their peers or the Sherpas. I was still missing one boot when my feet became alarmingly cold, and I was taken into another team’s tent lower down at Camp 2 to warm them up – under a team mate’s armpits. ‘Bye, Mila!’ E’s voice briefly brushed past the tent I was in as she and most of our other climbers started down towards base camp. Out of our group only my climbing buddy from the day before (partially boot-less, like me), another ‘Junkie’ (a paramedic) and myself remained at Camp 2 with Phil and the Sherpas.
Once the air had warmed up sufficiently, I limped back to the site of our Camp 2, where Phil and the Sherpas were building a helipad for the chopper, due to pick up the injured Sherpa from Camp 3. Soon, helicopters started flying above us, and in under an hour one of them came for the victim our team had been looking after. The helicopter also dropped off a pair of boots for my climbing buddy to use on the descent and some hot juice to keep those remaining on the hill hydrated – welcome ‘gifts’ from the Junkies’ base camp staff. By then, my missing boot had been located in the vestibule of one of the tents at the lower Camp 2, and delivered to me by Dorjee – I was ecstatic to have it back!
I had no idea what time it was, but when the helicopter had left, Phil said it was time for me and the other two climbers, one now wearing ‘new’ boots, to begin descending to base camp. There was nothing we could help with; certainly, not me, who for some reason felt completely drained. Thus, we bid good-bye to Phil, Dorjee and Pasang Nima, staying behind to continue with the rescue, and wobbled away with Nuri.
Every step I made away from Camp 3, away from death and injury, I said to myself: “It should have been me.” It was hard to walk with the burden of that thought, and I descended carelessly, as if waiting for the avalanche to engulf me, too, after all. Down at Camp 1 I waited for my two team mates, and we crossed the glacier together. At crampon point we were met by two of our kitchen staff with tea, juice and snacks. Base camp was quiet when we arrived sometime in the afternoon. The Junkies’ Sherpas, who had been waiting for us and worrying, smiled quietly and watched as we dropped off our packs, drank hot milk tea and talked to each other.
I had nothing to say, except that ‘it should have been me’, so I quietly went to the shower. It took me forever to undress, and then I just stood there, naked and cold: “It should have been me!” And I was still waiting for it to be me, so I delayed for hours before finally calling home.
“Hello?” my mother’s voice, clear and warm, sounded from across the world. It cost me a lot of effort to keep it together.
“Have you heard about the avalanche?” I asked, adding immediately that I was perfectly fine.
“No, I’ve heard nothing.”
“Never mind. I was just worried you were worried,” I said, sighing with relief. It felt great, for once, to have a family that didn’t care the least bit about climbing, and only followed the official expedition blog.
“What avalanche?” Now she was worried.
“A large serac apparently collapsed from about 7400 meters early this morning, triggering an avalanche. 8 dead, 3 missing, many injured, they say – at Camp 3. We were at Camp 2, though, so we’re all fine. Our tents got damaged, my mug went missing, a team mate lost a boot – that’s all.”
“Where are you now?”
“At base camp for a few days. I’ll call you again in a little while. I have to go now.”
“Are you coming home?” she asked quietly after a long pause, clearly knowing the answer.
“No. I’m climbing on.”
“And then, are coming home?”
“I am,” I replied, as cheerfully and reassuringly as I could.
I hung up and left the communications dome for my tent. There, I prayed in my native tongue and recited mantras for the dead, the missing and the injured. Counting away the beads of my white mala, I whispered to myself what I could not have said on the phone – that it should have been me. I felt that if I could, I would trade places with any of the climbers, lost in the avalanche. Perhaps, they had children, and loved ones, and things to live for; surely, their lives were about more than just putting one foot in front of the other on a mountain somewhere… They must have been – had to have been – unlike me, whose little nieces and nephew think that auntie Mila lives ‘in the house next to the Sun,’ so far away, she can only visit them once or twice a year. When she comes, she tells wonderful stories, and then, leaves without saying good-bye. It should have been her. It should have been me.