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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.