This season winter came to Kathmandu and the mountains early. The capital of Nepal is now already as cold as it usually gets in January, and our October/early November Ganesh expedition was about as cold as my winter ascent of Ganchenpo. A winter ascent would be a serious trial in such unusually low temperatures, which only makes it more interesting for me to try. And what could be more exciting for a true altitude junkie than to attempt a winter ascent of one of the most beautiful and recognizable peaks in the world – the stunning Pumori in the upper Khumbu region just 8 km away from Everest? This is not a rhetorical question. The answer to it is, to try to scale the same mountain – a dangerous climb even on the normal route – via the notoriously difficult and steep Southwest Ridge. A scene of several accidents, the route has taken more climbers to failure than success. In terms of technical difficulty, it will be by far the most challenging climb I have ever attempted: it features overhanging terrain, long vertical walls of rock and ice and exposed traverses. My greatest enemy in the mountains – the cold – will be another serious obstacle on the way to Pumori’s summit at 7161 meters. It will take all my luck and courage to succeed – in summiting or deciding to turn around before I get myself or any of my friends in trouble. The reason my team and I chose the more difficult route over the normal one is that the latter, although technically easier, is well-known for its high avalanche risk. Those of you, who have read about my recent Manaslu expedition, will understand why I particularly want to avoid at least this danger.
Why Pumori? Why such a ridiculously technical climb in such a cold season? Aren’t there other mountains to climb: lower in elevation and, thus, warmer, with easier routes? And, speaking of warmth, how long has it been since I’ve been to the beach or gone for a long dive in the sea? Well, it is Pumori because, in addition to being a most alluring peak its own right, it is close to the unforgettable Chomolungma. In fact, it was George Mallory, who died tragically on Everest during the 1924 expedition, who gave Pumori her name, and mountaineers often refer to the mountain as ‘Everest’s daughter’. As such, it is part of Everest, which, although I have climbed it, is still a dream, that somehow feels unfulfilled. Thus, I climb on. It makes sense to me to try a more challenging climbing route now than I would have dared do before: it’s not that I am a better mountaineer now, but I am calmer, and I can enjoy the challenge a little more – even if I loose it. As for the beach… there’s a glacial lake at the foot of Pumori, so I’m bringing my swimsuit :).
Leading the expedition will be my regular climbing partners and friends: Dorje Sherpa and Pasang Wongchu Sherpa. Sangye Sherpa and a ‘newbie’ on our team, but not on the Southwest Ridge, Dawa Sherpa, will also climb with us. Our cooks, Pasang Nima Sherpa and Pemba Sherpa, will make sure we are eating well while off the mountain. On our way to Pumori base camp, which follows the same trail as the famous Everest Base Camp trekking route, we will stop by the Pema Choling Monastery above Phakding, where I hope to see the kids in good health and deliver my friends’ donations. Many thanks to all of you, who have shown interest in the project! The donations page for the monastery is not yet up and running, but, if you would like to support the cause, please, check back once in a while, as we’re only a few days away from getting things working:
We leave for Lukla on the 4th of December, and expect to reach base camp within 7-8 days. To keep my friends and readers updated on our progress, I will tweet occasionally throughout the expedition. You can follow the climb here:
Given that we expect the expedition to last about a month, I will most likely be on the mountain for Christmas and New Year, as well as the season’s other big event, the end of the world on the 21st of December. For all three of them I wish you love, warmth, courage and happy new beginnings! Thank you for following my expeditions in 2012! I hope to be back in 2013 with better poetry and more exciting adventure stories for my readers. Drop by if you’re curious ;)!
I look at my altimeter, showing me to be about 200 meters below base camp, then, at the long grassy slope leading possibly to the glacier, but maybe to another dead end, and sit back down on a warm moss-covered rock. From the top of the moraine by the dry glacier I am facing what is our Plan B – another way to get onto the glacier above 5000 meters. In the past couple of days our previous Camp I location and the route leading up to it have been cleared of rope and other remaining gear, and we must now search for a new spot for Camp 1. Phil and most of the other expedition members are on the moraine with me, looking up and guessing, like I am, about what lies beyond the line, which cuts off our view of the route. We are all hoping that, as it does in the Google Earth images, the slope meets the glacier; we hope, too, that the dangers and obstacles of the new route may prove more manageable than the ones, which have chased us down Yangra just a few days ago.
‘It would be a long way,’ one of us voices a sentiment we all share about the ‘Plan B’ route, ‘down, and then back up…’
‘It’s fine as long as we get to the glacier this way…’ another voice expresses another shared hope.
The next day Phil and the Sherpas leave base camp at 6 am and reach the glacier following the new route. It is heavily crevassed, we are told in the evening, and the ridge along which we were to proceed to the summit is corniced and narrow – too dangerous to camp on, which couldn’t be avoided. However, another attempt is to be made to cross the glacier and take a closer look at the ridge before any decisions are made. This time, everyone will go climbing together. The chances of actually finding the way around the newly-encountered major obstacles are slim, so the climbers will not carry any gear up for storage. We realize that, in all likelihood, this will be the team’s last foray up the mountain.
The night before the climb I feel sick and choose to stay behind as, early in the morning, the inji and the Sherpas leave base camp. I hear them walk away, and, knowing what news they will bring from the glacier at the end of the day, tell myself that the climbing part of the expedition is almost definitely over. There is nothing surprising or sad about this thought. Ganesh I, after all, has never been climbed from Nepal – for a reason.
I get dressed, put a towel and a change of clothes into my backpack, and go for a hike down the glacier – to search for a lake, which would not be entirely frozen, for my swim. I walk alone, making my way across the grey ocean of rocks and boulders, as if frozen in motion, climbing up and descending the ‘waves’ under the cool fall sun. Every tiny lake I encounter on my way is all solid ice, and I can walk and jump on the glassy surface without fear or hope of breaking it. After over an hour of searching, I feel exhausted and disappointed. Lowering myself onto a large boulder by one of the lakes of ice, I stare at the unassailable fortress that Ganesh has proved to be and at the frozen water under my feet. While the remains of determination to keep looking for the route and for the lake leave my body, I begin to feel increasingly like old rag doll, thrown away by her puppeteer, my motivation – gone. ‘This could be my last climb,’ I remind myself, conscious of the fact that I cannot keep putting my family through the torture of having to let me go – let go of me – every other month. ‘You’re too old for this. You have to stop, grow up and focus on your job,’ the same voice continues, ‘you must walk away, eventually, and the sooner – the better. This is no place for someone like you, and never was, really.’ These words sound to me like a cold sentence to the part of myself, which has been the defining one for a long time now. To walk away now would be like walking into a prison cell, acknowledging and accepting my sentence, and I cannot summon the strength to leave my seat in the middle of the vast Torugumba glacier. When I finally find the strength to pull myself up and start stumbling in the direction of base camp, I move slowly, and it takes me a small eternity to return to my tent.
It is after 6 pm when the first of my team mates returns to base camp by the light of his head lamp. ‘Are you alive?’ he asks, coming up to my tent. ‘You’d been coughing so much at night we decided not to wake you when we were leaving.’
‘I’m fine,’ I say, ‘but how did you do today? How far up the glacier did you guys manage to progress?’
‘Far enough to see that the glacier is a no-go. The crevasses are huge – we’d need ladders to make it across them. And the ridge, too, doesn’t look so good…’
‘Oh,’ I mumble, crawling out of my cold nylon home into the much colder air outside. ‘Come have some tea in the dining tent and tell me all about it.’
We go to the yellow tent, where the gas heaters are burning, and the sweet milk tea is waiting on the table. Soon, the rest of the team arrive, cold and fatigued after 12 hours of climbing, and join us for dinner. We look at pictures of the glacier and the ridge, and it is clear to me from what I see that we’re done with Yangra – or, perhaps, that she’s done with us. We had a plan C – ascending a very steep couloir of about 1500 meters in vertical length, which would shorten the distance we’d have to cover on the ridge to the summit – but it would have been unfair to ask our Sherpas, already working very hard indeed, to climb in such dangerous conditions, given that several seracs threaten the couloir, and we have already seen more than one collapse… The expedition is over, and we begin discussing our departure arrangements.
‘I could get a helicopter to come pick you up tomorrow,’ Phil tells the four of us, who want to return to Kathmandu by air.
‘No, please, let’s make it the day after,’ I jump in before my team mates have a chance to respond.
‘I still have to do the swim, and the Sherpas have told me they’d seen a lake from high on the mountain, which wasn’t frozen…’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Mila…’ one of the boys intervenes.
‘I’m not being ridiculous – just trying to make the most of my time here. I would really like to go for a swim, and there seems to be a puddle for me to do it in.’
‘I haven’t seen a single lake from above that wasn’t frozen…’ says another climber.
‘Just give me one more day, if you can. We have to pack, anyway. It’s too late now, and in the morning you wouldn’t have the time because helicopters usually fly early…’
Eventually, I persuade the team to give me another day to try and find the lake. I ask one of the Sherpas how to get to it, but, instead of explaining, he suggests to walk with me and make sure I come back in one piece. ‘Bring some evidence, if you do go swimming,’ my team mates request before I leave for the lake next morning. My companion and I then trek down for about an hour, cross the moraine onto the glacier and find ourselves by a tiny turquoise lake, glittering with thin ice on its sides but otherwise perfectly suited for a short swim. ‘It would be hard to do two kilometers here,’ I muse as I estimate the distance between the shores to be a maximum of 10 meters, ‘we’d be here until spring.’ Thus, I decide to simply enjoy a little refreshing dip of about 20 minutes. ‘Be careful,’ my ‘babysitter’ warns me as, breaking the thin film of ice and sinking thigh-deep into silt, I step into the perfectly blue, perfectly cold water. I feel the cold intensely as I cross the lake slowly for the first time. The warmth of my body is still too much of a contrast against the near-zero water temperature for me to be comfortable. In a couple of minutes, however, my bodily warmth retreats deeper under my skin, and cold becomes an integral part of me. Then, I can swim, it seems, forever. When I finally crawl out of the water, the midday sun feels warmer than it ever has in a long time. I sit and rest on a rock by the water, waiting for the inevitable onset of shivering to start and pass. When it does, I change, and start stumbling back up and across the moraine behind my Sherpa guide. I am slow and clumsy because my muscles have not yet warmed up sufficiently, but it doesn’t matter: I feel calm, relaxed and cleansed of all my disappointments – and cannot help smiling at the feeling.
It takes us a long time to return to the tent village of base camp, but we make it by lunchtime. I am too excited and energetic to eat, so I simply gulp milk tea, cup after cup, until the time comes to start packing. It takes me no time at all, as stuffing whole periods of my life into shapeless bags, not to mention a couple of weeks, is something I’ve had a lot of practice in. At dinner my team mates and I watch the videos of the swim, drink champagne, and share our future climbing plans. We have all had a great time climbing on Ganesh – another safe, exciting and unique expedition with Altitude Junkies, whose leaders and Sherpas have done everything in their power to find a safe route to the summit, and had the integrity to stop and turn around when such a route did not reveal itself in spite of their efforts.
A helicopter picks up four of the expedition members at 3800 meters next morning, and, as it takes off, I look at Ganesh not with sadness or regret but with genuine gratitude. It has reminded me that I was not at all a ‘conqueror’ of mountains but someone, who simply loves being in their presence – unconditionally. Mountains and high, remote lakes are, to me, spacial representations of power and sources of energy. Like people, who live high in the Himalaya, I believe that a force dwells in them that can elevate or shatter into pieces the strongest of human spirits. Sometimes it grants one a safe passage to the summit against all odds, sometimes – unexpectedly defeats all one’s expectations for success; in either case you can rely on it to teach you a lesson in humility and patience. I appreciate the lessons Ganesh has taught me, but I might need a refresher soon :).