Manaslu 2012: Second Rotation, Part II

Views from Camp 2

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.

Manaslu 2012: Second Rotation, Part I

Manaslu

It was the 21st of September. We had been pinned at base camp by bad weather for over a week. Although we were not going to leave for Camp 1 at 5700 meters on our second acclimatization rotation before 1 pm, I put my 8000-meter boots on almost first thing in the morning. Having started the day with 2 cans of Red Bull, I was entertaining myself by packing and un-packing, running to and from my tent for no reason whatsoever and reading nervously until lunchtime; naturally, I was completely exhausted by then. The rest of my team mates were no less eager to start climbing again but somehow managed to look less crazy than yours truly.

Thus, my sane companions were still chewing their lunch, when I had already begun snailing up the hill behind one of the group Sherpas, Pasang Nima. He set the perfect pace, and, hopping across the many crevasses’ gaping mouths, we arrived at Camp 1 after just over two hours of climbing. I crawled into my tent and began melting snow for the evening meal and tea to share with my tent mate (the expedition’s other female member, E) and going through my gear to choose the things I would need at Camp 2 the next day. I had to pack as light as possible, but it was no less important to have enough stuff to keep me warm at 6400 meters – the elevation of Camp 2. I would use a 0F/-20C sleeping bag at all higher camps, and wear my down suit at night as a ‘pajamas’. Given my ridiculously bad circulation, I also sleep wearing two layers of the thickest socks I can find, with large chemical foot warmers stuffed in-between. When E joined me in the tent and saw my sleeping arrangements, she said there was something wrong with the way my body reacted to cold. ‘No kidding!’ I replied, sipping hot instant soup from my new mug. She looked at me compassionately, and passed me an energy bar for breakfast. Given that I had been planning on living off Mars and Snickers bars and soups, E’s offering was truly welcome.

Camp 1

I was freezing cold at night, cursing myself for only bringing one Z-Rest (insulating mat) instead of two. ‘They weigh nothing, you lazy cow, and you could have been sleeping now as opposed to counting hours till morning, had you brought another one along!’ As coughing gave way to snoring in the auditory space of Camp 1, I listened to it jealously, wishing that I, too, could sleep, ignoring the cold, the twitching in my muscles – a side effect of Diamox – and my too many useless thoughts.

Needless to say, when the weak alarm lit the green screen of my wrist altimeter at 4:15, I was nowhere near sleeping, and perfectly ready to start another climbing day. Having wiped the frozen condensation off my sleeping bag, I opened the tent flap and got the stove going to melt some snow for breakfast. E was up, too, going through the simple high-altitude ‘beauty’ routine, and packing her backpack for the climb to and the night at Camp 2. We swallowed the energy bars with hot water without much of an appetite, boiled some more water to carry during the climb and cleaned up the tent. At 6 am I was outside in full gear, frozen solid but excited to get going. Soon the rest of the team emerged from their tents and the most over-eager ones (hi :)!) were allowed to start climbing.

Seracs on the Way to Camp 2

I began the day by breaking one of my most important climbing rules: ‘do not follow the fastest person in the group.’ Doing just that, I was out of breath right away, and considering turning around by the time he and I reached the higher Camp 1. ‘Camp 2 is at least another 5 hours away from here, you idiot!’ I continued the ‘pleasant’ conversation I had started with myself the night before. ‘What are you going to do now?’ Just keep going. That’s always the answer. You put one foot in front of the other, breathe, repeat – until you get to your destination, or until you drop. It’s easy, especially after you get so exhausted that you stop thinking completely, which happens to be my favorite part of any day on the mountain and, perhaps, the reason that I climb. And so I kept going. The climbing conditions were good, the Hourglass – steep, and beautiful, and busy; the ladder across the route’s widest crevasse looked solid, and my climbing buddy and I were soon walking equally slowly.

‘How much longer?’ he asked me when we’d crossed the ladder and negotiated another steep slope.

‘Two hours,’ I guessed, looking at the route. ‘We’re over half-way now.’

In an hour we could continue no longer, and sat down to rest and hydrate.

‘I can see the tents!’ my buddy told me.

‘They’re about an hour away,’ I guessed again, wrong this time, as it only took us about 30 minutes to get to the Junkies’ higher Camp 2.

‘I thought you said it was gonna be a six-hour climb…’

‘Oh, I’m sorry it only took us 4.5,’ I smiled as we rested before retiring into our tents.

‘This was tough,’ he admitted.

‘This is the second toughest bit of the route.’

‘And what’s the toughest, then?’

‘Camp 3 to Camp 4, at least for me, is the hardest. But don’t ask me questions like like this – you know you could never get an answer you would like.’

‘I know: where some say it’s three hours, you say it’s six…’

‘They’re very fast, I’m very slow, and all you gotta do to get the real answer is work out the average.’

We laughed; we’d had a good climbing day and felt content and relaxed. I remembered, however, that Camp 2 was a place, where few people could keep happy long, avoiding strong altitude-induced headaches, so, as soon as I had the stove and the pot, off I went to melt snow – to keep myself and my tent mate well-hydrated. When E arrived and settled into the tent, I made sure we drank as much as possible: soup, tea, instant juice – anything. Pasang Nima passed by our tent and gave us some of the delicious pastries our base camp cook, Da Pasang, usually makes for the team to snack on at Camps 1 & 2, where they are carried by the group Sherpas. We swallowed the yummy apple pie without chewing, and fell asleep listening to E’s iPod selection. When we woke up, the head-aches made themselves felt, and I insisted on another 0.5 liter of liquid each before we went to sleep.

Towards Camp 2

‘I don’t think your hydration regime will allow me to sleep tonight,’ E complained as she finished her tea. I had to give her the ‘hairy eyeball’ in response to that – and another cupful of hot water.

Lower Camp 2

Before going to sleep at about 7 pm, I went out of the tent to look at the sunset. It was not yet too cold outside, and I thought I could watch the colors of dusk change forever. I stared, mesmerized, at the solid black foundations and the white ethereal summits of the mountains around me, sinking slowly into the clear night. Then, my eyes followed the slope on which we camped downwards to the tents of the lower Camp 2; there was no one outside. Turning around, I looked up towards Camp 3, where colorful tents seemed to hover over a wave of snow. Above them rose Manaslu’s East Pinnacle, sharp and dark, piercing the evening sky. And I was smiling because I didn’t care about the annoying headache, or that I would spend another night shivering in my cold skin, or that I didn’t feel the energy to jump across the countless crevasses on the way down to base camp the next day. Nothing mattered here, where I was in my element: alone, at the edge of the indescribably beautiful world. I returned to my tent happy.