The first acclimatization foray up Manaslu, a carry to Camp 1, on which the team went after the obligatory puja, was very invigorating. I found crossing the hot white expanse of the glacier easier than I’d expected, at least psychologically. I knew the way, and it helped; I knew that our destination for the day, the yellow tents, perched up on a slope above the glacier, looked deceptively closer than they really were, and it, too, helped; I knew it would not be easy to walk for about three hours above 5000 meters with a heavy backpack, and it helped that I was not surprised. When we reached ‘Crampton Point’ – the spot on the way to Camp 1, where climbers normally stop to put crampons on their boots – I shut away all my thoughts, lowered my head and simply followed the trail in the snow.
The glacier was dark, and the mountain looked drier than I remembered. It made for easier walking because the snow layer was so thin, but the crevasses were wider than the year before, forcing one to tread as cautiously as possible and to clip into the safety ropes fixed along the route. After walking for about 2 hours, I raised my eyes from the trail – I was at Camp 1. There I dropped off the gear I would later use higher on the mountain: a light sleeping bag, my long-suffering down suit, goggles, extra-warm mitts for the summit day, some chocolate, etc. When the rest of the team had arrived and rested, we made the descent to base camp. At lunch we exchanged our positive impressions about the rotation, and began planning the next one, during which we would spend two nights above base camp: one at Camp 1 and one at Camp 2. We would then be acclimatized and ready for the summit push.
All climbing plans on the mountain, however, depend not only on the readiness of the mountaineers but also – and to a great extent – on the weather. Meteorological services providing detailed weather forecasts, though expensive, are nowadays used in expedition planning by all reputable commercial mountaineering companies to give their clients a better, safer chance to reach the summit. Our forecast was calling for patience, promising several days of heavy precipitation on the mountain. I remembered well how in 2011 we spent over a week at base camp between climbing days, watching snow turn into rain, then, snow again. When the sun came out at last, we had to sit tight for another two or three days to let the new snow consolidate on the slopes of the mountain to avoid the risk of avalanches. Thus, I fished out of my duffel bag whatever books I had brought with me, and got ready to wait for Manaslu. Yet, I knew I could not simply sit around: I had to find a way to keep my body active and ready for when the mountain’s grim mood would change. Rain or snow, every morning I would go for a 40-minute walk from the Junkies’ base camp up to the first rope, fixed to the steep rocky section on the way to ‘Crampton Point’. I used those walks to observe myself: how my breathing would get easier day by day but then, for some reason, harder again; how my legs would feel heavier one morning and lighter the next. My daily walks were anything but exciting, but I felt them to be necessary – I had to move to counter the staleness outside.
One day I decided to join a few of my team mates who were going down to Samagaon for the afternoon, for a change of scenery. Wet, heavy snow had made the already muddy trail very slippery indeed, and we descended carefully from our base camp in the clouds. After negotiating about 600 gray, damp meters, I decided to go back up: I realized that I didn’t need a ‘change of scenery’ – it was at base camp, at the foot of Manaslu, where I wanted to be. I didn’t care if it rained or snowed for another 10 days: I would wait right there for as long as was necessary; then, I would go to the summit, or crawl, if I must; only after that would I follow the downward path away from the mountain. It was my second time attempting Manaslu, and I didn’t want there to be a third because I loved, and hated and dreaded the Spirit Mountain too much. I wouldn’t give her a chance to ‘escape’ me again, nor give myself an opportunity to run away from her. That day, climbing stubbornly back up into the cloud of depressing weather, breathing in the wet, thin air, I believed my determination to reach the top of Manaslu to be immutable. I thought stupidly that the only obstacles the mountain could put between me and the summit were bad weather, exhausting climbing and icy, sleepless nights. I’d forgotten Manaslu’s other name was the Killer Mountain; I’d forgotten what mountaineers should never forget – that the risk they take, when they climb ever higher after their dreams, is real. On the morning of the 23rd of September, at the end of our second acclimatization rotation, I – and the rest of the climbing community – was violently reminded of it.