In just a couple of days after locating Camp I, Phil, Sami and the Sherpas leave base camp in search of a safe route to Camp II. Although it is still very early in the morning – cold and, at least for yours truly, nearly impossible to get out of the sleeping bag – I am wide awake, listening to the clanking of the reconnaissance team’s harnesses as they prepare to leave. Then, it’s all quiet again, except for my heart, whose excited, impatient beating I can hear clearly. ‘What will they find on the glacier?’ I wonder, wishing I was only strong and fast enough to have joined them on their exploratory climb. I am not – not at all: still sick, I cough as much as before the first climb to Camp I, and the illness I can’t seem to shake off is slowly draining me of energy.
When I finally summon the courage to unzip my -40C sleeping bag, the bitter morning cold instantly makes itself felt on every exposed bit of skin. I loose feeling in my fingertips as I go through my very basic ‘beauty’ routine, and the little mirror I am holding in my hands is useless, clouded and frosted as it is. In fact, it is probably best this way… At breakfast I listen for Phil’s voice on the base camp radio station in the kitchen tent, but hear nothing. ‘It’s 8 am,’ I tell myself, ‘too early for any major news.’ After 9 am, sun finally reaches base camp, and the climbers emerge from the dining tent to ‘worship’ it, standing in line and basking in its warmth, which will not last.
I go to the telescope to try and spot the team on the mountain, but they are hidden from view by the rocks and seracs above Camp I. I then attempt to distract myself by reading but cannot for the life of me focus on the imaginary adventures described in the book. ‘Well, I have to do something,’ I muse, and deicide to go and search the glacier for a lake to swim in. It is a beautiful morning, clear and crisp, and the fall colors of the grass and small bushes under my feet, powdered with dry snow, are a soothing site. As I begin to descend towards the glacier, I suddenly feel the ground shake under my feet. Within seconds, I hear cracking sounds come from the seracs on the surrounding mountains. A large avalanche rolls down the steep face of Ganesh II in front of me but it is what I see when I turn to face our Yangra that makes me hold my breath: a cloud of snow is engulfing the same slopes we climbed on our way to Camp I. I stand and stare at the floating snow as several smaller slides occur on Ganesh II and IV.
‘They must be ways above Camp I now,’ I keep telling myself as, stumbling on rocks and slipping on dry grass I run back to base camp to find out if the scouting team is alright. Our cook, Da Pasang, looks at my flushed, worried face with an eyebrow raised in amusement, and tells me that everything is fine and that the climbers are safe. Taking a deep breath of relief, I return to my book and my milk tea in the dining tent. Later in in day I walk to the scope and, locating the team on the face of the mountain, watch them descend. Their backpacks look enormous, and something attached to their side straps glitters as it reflects the setting sun – it’s the snow bars the team had carried up to fix rope on the glacier. My heart sinks as I put two and two together and realize that the climbers must have come across a very serious obstacle during their search for Camp II. By the size of their backpacks it is also clear that they are bringing back down some of the gear they’d been carrying to Camp I for storage. The route, then, is a no-go. I hold my tongue and try to avoid sharing my guesses with the rest of the climbers at base camp, but they soon see what I have seen, and a bit of a panic starts by the telescope.
‘The expedition is over,’ the boys voice their thoughts, bewildered.
‘Now, how do you know that?’ I ask the loudest person in the group.
‘There’s been no news on the radio, they’re carrying the rope and the snow bars down – obviously, it’s all over.’
‘Why don’t we hold off this kind of conjectures until Phil, Sami and the Sherpas descend? They’ll tell us what’s happening. And then you can freak out all you like,’ I suggest.
‘But…’ he protests.
‘But what? Did you think there was going to be a highway to the summit once we got past Camp I? Really? So, we might have to try another route. And then, another one before we find the way. This is an exploratory expedition. We’re exploring our options here,’
‘But we won’t have the time for all that now!’
‘You don’t know that; you won’t know until you try. You run out of time – you don’t wait for the time to run out, doing nothing,’
‘There’s gotta be another way we can go,’ another climber steps in to support me.
‘Exactly,’ I smile, relieved, ‘and if there is one, there’s no reason we shouldn’t find it. We have experienced leaders, strong Sherpas and a good team. Let’s not give up before we’ve heard the news from Phil himself.’
When the reconnaissance team arrives at base camp, looking exhausted, I have very little interest in whether or not they have found the way, or what it was that blocked their passage: seeing our route in the cloud of avalanche snow earlier makes these things all but irrelevant. This being my 4th expedition with Phil Crampton’s Altitude Junkies and 7th with some of the AJ Sherpas, I care a great deal more about the safety of these people, all of whom I consider to be my friends, than I do about climbing the mountain. I am concerned, if not really surprised, when I listen to Phil’s account of what’s happened: just above Camp I there was an area of heavy rockfall that the team could not get around; they tried to climb over it on steep rock, but it was so rotten that it would break away from under the climbers’ hands and feet; as they began to retreat, a falling boulder the size of a table was a meter away from hitting one of the Sherpas. The route above our present Camp I would be deadly dangerous and, therefore, a no-go, so we must search for an alternative way to reach the glacier. Meanwhile, we plan to climb to Camp I once more in the morning to retrieve the gear we’d left there.
I go to sleep that night with a bad, bad feeling: I feel like the mountain we thought we could tame on first attempt is awake, alert and angry with us for our arrogance. I understand her, and have no doubt that we will not reach Yangra’s summit; I doubt it, however, that I will make it back down after picking up my stuff from Camp I: at night several snow slides from one of the surrounding mountains echo through base camp and penetrate deep into my mind, filling it with fear. ‘Perhaps, I could ask someone to bring my things down for me, as one of my team mates, ill like me, has done,’ a little voice whispers inside me. Unfortunately, I can’t afford the luxury of taking its advice: some of my ‘closest friends’ are made of rock and ice, and I won’t loose them to fear.
With Phil and Pasang, our sirdar, gone to explore other route possibilities, it is Sami, who leads the group to Camp I. I follow him at first but, getting cold as we wait for the others, I decide to keep moving up slowly on my own. I listen to the creaking and cracking of the seracs, which seem to be a lot closer to me than they really are, and move with the ‘music’. I climb at a normal pace and wait for the rest of the climbers to catch up, but the cold and the adrenalin won’t allow me to stop for long. When I enter the rockfall couloir, the sound of sliding and falling rocks distracts me from the seracs as I scramble up cautiously. I am above the couloir, in the middle of the final steep rock section on the route, when a loud crack coming from up high leaves me ossified on fixed rope. It is the same sound I’d heard on Manaslu the night before one the most injurious avalanches in recent Himalayan history. ‘The serac’s gonna go now,’ the little voice whispers, ‘hold on!’ Perched on a little outcrop on the rock face, I sit and wait for the wave of snow to wash over and drown me. ‘What are you doing?’ I ask myself after a couple of minutes when, naturally, nothing so dramatic happens. ‘This route is perfectly safe. You wouldn’t even get ‘dusted’ where you are now, no matter how many of those cracking seracs collapsed. Get up and get going!’ But I can’t. I close my eyes and see the empty Camp 3 on Manaslu: I am utterly helpless against the memories of grief, and voidness, and confusion this image brings me. ‘It should have been me,’ I echo the words I repeated so many times on Manaslu, thinking of the lost climbers and their families. Then, I open my eyes and look down at base camp far below. My fear-filled gaze retraces my steps downwards in search of someone from the team: there is nobody anywhere in sight, no one to distract and, thus, rescue me from my shame and my fear. I know it is pointless to wait to be ‘rescued’, and I can only play a damsel in distress for so long. ‘Either up or down, but you have to get moving. Get up!’
When I reach the top of the rock and look at the over-hanging serac slightly above and to the right of me, I notice that it’s changed shape: a piece must have broken off. I sit down to drink some water and catch my breath before stepping onto the rocky ‘minefield’ – the last section on the way to Camp I. While I rest, one of my team mates catches up to me, and we carry on together. At Camp I I recover from the climb, gather my gear and begin the descent. It is after noon now, and the morning cold has loosened its grasp on rocks and seracs, making our way down objectively more dangerous than the ascent has been. However, my fear seems to have melted away in the sun, and, in no rush to get off the mountain I now like better than ever, I follow my two slower team mates down. I feel calm and content, pleased with myself for not having lost my little battle against two of the greatest human fears: this of death, and of loneliness. It was Ganesh, who granted me this small but personally meaningful victory – a gift I accept with a lot of gratitude, and promise not to ask the mountain for more, as much I still want the summit.
Back at base camp Phil informs us that there is a Plan B, the possibilities of which are to be explored the next day. The team still has the time, the gear and the desire to look for the way to the summit of Yangra. It is good to see everyone excited and hopeful again. However, it is at least equally good to see the mountain, which has laughingly shaken us off its slopes, stand so majestically against the starry night sky.