The monsoon was slowly coming to an end, but the weather was still wet and hot in Kathmandu when, on the 1st of September, Altitude Junkies set out on the Manaslu expedition. We were 13 western climbers, including the expedition leader, Phil Crampton. For once, I was not the youngest of the group, with another 25-year old – a whole 8 months younger than yours truly – joining the team. At least half of the climbers, including the other female member, E, were planning to make the ascent without using supplemental oxygen. After freezing and turning around at Camp 4 in 2011, I had no such ambitions: my circulation issues will, probably, never allow me to climb above 7500 meters without O2. My only wish was to see if, after my most recent injury, I still had it in me to reach another 8000-meter summit.
A long and infamously bumpy truck ride took the Junkies to Arughat at about 500 meters above sea level, where our Sherpas immediately went to work setting up tents in the rich, heavy afternoon air. It was impossible to stay inside, however, as one felt as if their skin was turning liquid and melting off them. It would be that hot and humid for at least another 3 days of the trek, until the team reached the cooler air of higher elevations; we were keen to get going.
I had done the Manaslu trek the year before, and considered it to be the most beautiful and unspoilt of the popular trekking routes in Nepal. I had hoped naively that if I surrounded myself again with the lush post-monsoon colors, the tall waterfalls and the loud, powerful rivers, I could, perhaps, turn back time and start afresh right where I had left off. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Part of a very strong and well-prepared team, I felt I was its weakest link. I missed my strength and conviction of the year before, when I found it relatively easy to follow the fastest climber in the group. Now, I staggered, doubting every step.
‘I have read about you in Mark Horrell’s book about Manaslu 2011,’ E told me after a couple of days of trekking.
‘And what did he say about me?’ I wondered.
‘He said you changed shirts every day. And that you were very fast…’
‘Well, you’ve seen the T-shirts… but I don’t think I can show you me at my fastest, unfortunately…’
The trek got cooler and, thus, easier, after the team had reached Dyang (Deng), where I bathed in the cold river by the village, washing off at last the heat and the fatigue of the previous days. Walking back to the campsite in my wet clothes, the refreshing evening breeze on my skin, I smiled because I was feeling the first shy touches of cold again – this meant that I would soon be in my element.
Another day of trekking took us to Namrung, and one more – to Samagaon at 3500 meters above sea level, where we would spend three nights acclimatizing before following a steep muddy trail up to Manaslu Base Camp 1400 meters higher. This being my second time in Sama, I was pleased to see how it had changed. For instance, the tired little lodge where we stayed in 2011 was turning into a much larger structure of grey rock and timber. Although still in the process of construction, the rooms were made available to our group by the lady of the house, from under whose traditional dress was showing a new pair of Nike’s.
There was not much to do in Samagaon, except wait, drink sweet milk tea and read. Luckily, I remembered the way to the beautiful glacial lake at the foot of Manaslu called Birendra Tal, where I went for a swim a couple of times, the more reckless of my team mates joining me in spite of the very low water temperature. Phil and most of the Sherpas left for Base Camp a day ahead of the rest of the team, to get the place ready for our arrival. I must say, I dreaded following them because in retracing my footsteps from the year before, I was walking along the same path that had led a much stronger me to a very painful failure. What was I expecting now, I, whom I hardly recognized: slow, and clumsy, and awkward, and miserable, and ‘whole’ no longer? I was a ghost in a rusty machine, which refused to perform up to standard – like one of those outdated robots from the sci-fi movies of my childhood. At base camp, I would sit in my tent every night for the first week, with tears painting faint lines on my face for no particular reason. I don’t believe I cried out of self-pity; I was simply a mirror to the rainy weather, mourning the passage of time, the weakening of ties, the disappearance of things from my body and of warmth – from my heart; things loosing support, things missing, things not being missed… It was a bad time, that first week at base camp. I couldn’t wait for the climbing to start, for the moving to replace the thinking.