The four men – Dorje, Pasang, the lodge owner and the cook – stare at me in disbelief. We are in the mountain village of Gokyo by the side of Lake Dudh Pokhari at four thousand seven hundred metres. Our boots are soaking wet from breaking trail in a blizzard and we are drying them and our damp clothing by the large metal stove in the dining hall.
‘You didn’t think I was joking, surely, about swimming in the lake?’ I ask my Sherpas. ‘I don’t have a sense of humour.’
‘But there’s no water,’ Dorje protests.
‘Of course, there is – under the ice.’
‘We’ve had very cold December and January this year,’ the lodge owner informs us with a grin, ‘The ice would be very thick.’
‘We have ice tools, right?’ I call to my boys for support, but they say nothing for a couple of minutes.
‘Maybe, it’s better to go tomorrow, when it’s not snowing quite so hard,’ Dorje tries to bargain.
‘Today or tomorrow, I’m still going to do it. Now, at least, we’re all wet and cold already.’
‘Ok,’ Dorje says at last, ‘what do you need?’
‘Two buckets of hot water in the shower for when I return, a blanket, and for the fire in this stove to keep burning.’ The lodge owner nods and instructs the cook to make the necessary arrangements. Dorje and Pasang quietly pick up their ice axes, two ropes, and we are ready to go. I can’t help smiling as I observe their tense, worried expressions.
‘It’s fine,’ I say cheerfully, ‘I know what I’m doing,’ but my tone fails to convince the brave mountain men.
We walk through the deep snow lying on the icy shore of the lake and stop when I think we’ve reached the point where I’d gone for a swim three years earlier in December. Granted, the weather was very different then, and there was a bit of water in the shallows. Moving some five or six metres away from the shore, we begin to hack at the ice with our axes, but I already know by the sound of the ice that it’s over a metre thick.
‘Right, stop; we need to find a place where there’s some movement of water, ice will be thinner there.’ We head back towards the lodge and soon realize that the only place where it would be possible to go for a dip is the crossing between the village and the lake. Using shovels, ice tools and boots we make a hole in the ice large enough for me to lie down.
‘The previous record was two minutes,’ the lodge owner tells me, as I take off my membrane pants and parka; I will be wearing long underwear in the water. ‘Is it true that your heart is supposed to stop after two or three minutes in zero-degree water?’
‘Not in my experience,’ I reply, and step off the ice and into the shallow water. My heart begins to race as my body becomes submerged, but it regains its calm rhythm in a few seconds. Cold crawls deeper and deeper under my skin, and I welcome it; I am at home in the water, never afraid of it.
‘Five minutes,’ Dorje announces, and I wake up from my cold dream. I know that my toes are frozen solid and my fingers are barely moving. I am dying, slowly.
‘Eight minutes,’ Dorje says, worried, and I know it’s time to go; reluctantly, I crawl out of the water. With my rigid fingers I try to change into dry clothes, and it takes forever. Dorje and Pasang carefully put boots on my unmoving feet and rush me back to the lodge, where two buckets of hot water are waiting in the shower. I stagger slowly behind them because I don’t want to get back to warmth – between the lake and the lodge I walk a fine line between the quiet of death and the violent, painful shivering of life which, I know, will soon invade my body. I am very tired.
In about an hour I stop stammering and can hold a cup of tea without spilling any on the blanket wrapped around me. The boys are playing cards, while I, warm by the stove, stare at Dudh Pokhari through the falling snow, already soaked in twilight. I miss home.
In the morning I wake up feeling incredibly strong. As the boys and I break out of the deep snows of Gokyo towards lower elevations, I feel no fatigue, no hunger or thirst: I believe I can walk forever. We reach our destination for the day all too early, so I suggest that we continue on to Namche Bazaar; in total, the trek that day takes us nine hours.
Then, we descend to Phakding, where we make some arrangements to support the monastery where we’d had our puja before the climb. After a night of rest, we hike to Lukla, which we will leave in glorious weather next morning.
Back in Kathmandu I will think of the Cholatse expedition as the most interesting and challenging of the season. Instead of helping me escape from February, it showed me that I could live through it, maintaining my integrity and strength. No successful ascent would have been better mind training for my next climb, the climb of my life – Everest this spring.
On the sixth of February Dorje and I climb up to Phakding Monastery for a Buddhist prayer ceremony, a puja, to be performed by the monks to protect our team, separated by bad weather and other circumstances. One of the climbers, Pasang, is still in Kathmandu, another climbing Sherpa, Chongba, and the cook, Jangbu, are in Lukla, and I am planning to trek to Namche Bazaar early next morning to acclimatize to high altitude.
The day of the puja is beautifully sunny and the monastery, perched up on the hill overlooking the village of Phakding, is quiet and peaceful. During the long ceremony held in the cold prayer hall, I feel like I am in a dream. The sweetness and warmth of milk tea on my palate, the clear sound of the bell and the guttural chanting in the dim air as well as the icy numbness of my suddenly still body seem alien, far removed from whatever it is that I am. When the ceremony is over and we receive blessings from the lamas, I feel unassailably happy and prepared for what is coming. A Hurricane.
The day after I arrive in Namche, a storm hits the Everest Region with surprising force; it tumbles trees and moves rocks, howling and growling, while I, the only guest in a limbo like lodge, read The Wheel of Sharp Weapons stubbornly, over and over again; when I can’t hear my own thoughts because of the wind, I read aloud. The lights go out, and I turn my head lamp on to keep reading, to stay awake. The morning after brings little relief as the Hurricane takes a quiet breath before the next blow.
‘I will not stop until you understand,’ the Hurricane seems to whisper to me, ‘that I am not some external force, a storm you can sit out or hide from; I am your mind. I will tear, and break, and hurt everything you care about until you find the strength to tame me. ’
‘What am I to a Hurricane? I don’t have that strength.’
‘Then, make it out of something you have in excess.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘‘Dance and trample on the head of this betrayer, false conception;
Mortally strike at the heart of this butcher and enemy, Ego’’
[‘The Wheel of Sharp Weapons’, translated by Thupten Jinpa]
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Of course not; that is exactly why I want you to think about it.’
At four p.m. my phone is working again, and I can finally call Dorje: I want to let him know that tomorrow I will start down, and that the expedition is over: I will not risk my team’s safety for something I want, no matter how badly. Before I have the chance to say a word to Dorje on the phone, however, his tired voice tells me that he is already on the way to Namche. When he and Jangbu arrive I learn that, after six days of waiting, Pasang was able to fly out of Kathmandu by helicopter and will be joining us next morning. Strangely, instead of joy, I am overcome with grim anxiety: I had given up on Cholatse, I had decided to forget my insatiable ambition, but the Hurricane, true to its promise, will not stop until I’ve learnt my lesson well.
‘If you hadn’t come and Pasang had still been in Kathmandu, I would have simply walked back tomorrow morning, you know…’ I tell Dorje at dinner. It would have been easy, too easy.
‘That would have been hard, Milarepa,’ he smiles, ‘the trail is completely blocked by fallen trees after the hurricane. Our yaks couldn’t pass. It’s a mess.’
‘Oh…’ I am hardly surprised to hear that the way back to ‘before the storm’ is impassable. I must walk a full circle before returning home, and it is my fault, undeniably, that four good people have to join me on this eerie adventure. My desire to climb Cholatse will now have to turn into a quest to keep the team away from it.
‘Remember, Dorje,’ I ask after a moment’s pause, ‘how I told you I was an ice swimmer? Well, if we get to base camp and don’t like the look of the Devil Mountain, we’re gonna go swimming instead. In Gokyo. You can make me a hole is the ice and I’ll sit there and pretend I’m on the summit of Cholatse.’
‘Whatever you like it, take it,’ is Dorje’s response, his trademark, accompanied by laughter, ‘but,’ he adds, ‘we have to try.’
That night, for the first time ever since I began to live and to want, I pray that we fail.
Many things happened in February 2011: I successfully passed my GUE Tech 1 course in Puerto Galera, Philippines; I returned home and was forced to stay; on a bad, bad night I went climbing alone – in the morning I woke up at the hospital, somewhat broken and completely dispirited; then, I started this blog.
The sole possibility of February 2011 and the pain of the months that followed it repeating itself in 2012 is nothing less than horrifying to me. February is fast approaching, and I must find a way not to have ‘a February’ this year. Where better to hide and sit out a storm than in a tent on a mountain which your friends refer to as ‘The Devil Mountain’? I know, it makes perfect sense, right?
The mountain my team of Sherpas and I are going to climb this Febuary is called Cholatse. It grows out of the frozen ground of the Everest Region like an enormous claw. At just under 6500 metres, Cholatse is not the highest of peaks but it is considered to be one tough cookie. Due to its reputation as an ‘evil’ mountain, it is climbed much less often than the other prominent Khumbu peaks. Very few of the few ascents on Cholatse have been successfully completed in winter, which is when we are going to climb. Again, it all makes sense, non?
I expect the weather to be one of our most serious issues during this expedition. In February spring comes knocking on Nepal’s door, bringing with it strong winds, heavy clouds and snow. It is unlikely that we should have a good weather window to get to the summit, and climbing a peak as tough as Cholatse in less than perfect conditions is a ridiculous and hopeless undertaking. Other problems will include my favourite steep winter ice, vertical rock and… me: it is a problem when someone so depressed finds herself on a mountain that has killed or injured many with a healthier mindset; it is a problem because I’ve been seriously ill for the past month and, thus, will not have my usual physical strength going for me. And this, too, somehow makes sense.
How does it make sense, exactly? It makes sense to me because I know that in order to survive this February I must have an opponent who wants me not to: in order to win, I must be made to fight. I have always thought that if I were a mountain, I would be Cholatse and, therefore, there couldn’t be a more fitting adversary… or a better friend.
I am very excited about the upcoming expedition and hope to tell my readers all about it when I return to Kathmandu at the end of February. For now, take care of yourselves and keep your fingers crossed for me!
Even after all the talk about Sensei and I doing an over-a-hundred-metre dive, it came to me as a surprise, when, after doing 75 metres in Ras Il Hobs, Gozo, on Esclavo’s Tec Trimix course, Sensei said we would be doing 100 metres in two days’ time. I must say, I didn’t take it too seriously – I’d heard the same thing promised me one too many times before. Granted, it was a bit different this time: four twinsets had gases with an MOD of 107 metres in them, ready to dive, and a couple of new stage regs have been purchased… From experience, however, I knew all too well that twinsets can be left for ‘another day’ or re-blended, or simply drained, and regs are always handy.
On our way back from Gozo I found out that my brand new dry suit was waiting for me at the office. I’d not dived in a dry suit for about two months and had never used one to such depths. Also, I’d never used a separate inflation system on a dry suit – which I would have to do on the 100-metre dive to avoid Helium-related problems (isobaric counterdiffusion). ‘That’s two pieces of equipment I’m not particularly familiar with,’ I thought to myself.
We came back from Gozo, where we’d been diving that day, rather late and agreed on making the plan and doing the rest of gas blending the next day. When I walked into the dive centre in the morning, I was told I would be teaching EFR. Thus, I spent most of the day with ‘Annie’ and a Divemaster candidate, doing chest compressions and bandaging limbs. Late in the afternoon Sensei suggested I go in the water and try my new suit before I take it diving the next day. The suit passed the test of a quick dive on the house reef but I still wasn’t convinced I wanted to use it to over a 100 metres. Should I dive in three wetsuits instead? I would, but I knew all too well that under the pressure of over 11 bar I would have no buoyancy in a wetsuit – or three wetsuits – and my wing is a single bladder. It would have to be the dry suit.
When the working day was over, the tech team got together in the large classroom to make and discuss the dive plan. The four bottom divers would use TMx 12/55, 19/30 and EANx 32 and 72 during the dive; TMx 19/30 would be used as a travel gas as well as for decompression. It would be a 72-minute dive to 105 metres for me and another tech instructor. Sensei and Esclavo would go with us but stop and wait at 90 metres (max depth for last dive of the Tec Trimix course) – they would run the same dive plan my team mate and I would. However, the two teams would use different dive computers – Suunto’s for the 90-metre team and VR’s for us. We would have two support divers meet us at 40 metres with extra gas and to relieve us of the 19/30 stages. They would ascend with us to six metres and, once clear, hop out of the water and wait for us on the shore.
After leaving the dive centre that night I wasn’t feeling particularly calm. I was thinking about my busted eardrum, the new computer that had a very peculiar way of switching gases, the dry suit and what I would use to inflate it with and, of course, the three-digit depth I so wanted to reach. I went to sleep uncertain of what would happen, and if I would be able to deal with it.
The morning of the dive was rather nervy. My team mate, a safety diver and I were the first ones to arrive and analyze all our gases. I set my computer, packed my dry suit along with other bits and pieces and was ready to go. The rest of the divers arrived soon, together we loaded the van and headed for the ferry in Cirkewwa. A diving accident resulting, as we later found out, in a British diver’s death had just taken place there. The sound of rushing ambulances did not add to my sense of comfort that morning. The team, however, seemed cool and composed as ever, and it was looking at them that eventually made me feel better about the dive ahead of us.
Once in Ras Il Hobs, everything happened very quickly – as it would before, during and after any ‘normal’ dive. We got kitted up, walked into the slightly choppy water, had our stages clipped onto our rigs by the two safety divers and swam out towards the pinnacle. Next, the four of us did the checks, put our travel gas regulators in our mouths and headed down. At 40 metres we all switched to our back gas but then the two teams separated temporarily: the 90 metre divers had a bit more time to get down than us – my team mate and I had to kick fast to get to 100 metres on time. We hit 100 about 11 minutes into the dive, and, our computers showing 102 metres, we shook hands and signalled up, relieved. Our 90-metre friends were waiting for us to ascend to their depth so they could join us on the way up. Our first switch at 70 metres went smoothly. The second one, however, turned out to be more interesting. For some inexplicable reason I decided to switch to EANx 32% at 49 instead of 39 metres. I followed the procedure for switching, failing to spot the elephant, and only realised I was in trouble when I already had the new reg in my mouth. I looked at the depth on my computer – 49m, not 39, you IDIOT! – and spat the regulator out returning to the previous gas. My team mate looked terribly worried. I remember him reaching for me to pull the wrong reg out of my mouth but I didn’t give him a chance: if I was going to keep my life after all, I wanted to keep my teeth as well. The switch at 39m and the next one at 12m both went fine. Our safety divers, too, did a great job of helping us get rid of the floaty stages we no longer needed. The over-twenty-minute hang at 6 metres was fun with Sensei getting his wet notes out and congratulating my team mate and me on joining the 100-metre club. I also received the ‘Wanker Award’ – an ‘award’ for the biggest mess-up underwater – for nearly killing myself during the gas switch.
We were back on the surface and it was all over. I felt exhausted and stupid: my dry suit had done well, the computer worked fine, too – there had been no life-threatening equipment problems; what could have killed me was my lack of focus and my complacency. I distrust everything and everyone around me, yet I trust myself blindly and, obviously, it is wrong to do so.
Does it feel ‘special’ in any way to dive to 100 metres? I wouldn’t know. In the 72 minutes I spent underwater I didn’t have a moment to spare to really ‘feel’ anything. It is slightly disappointing that all I can say about going to 100 metres is that it’s stressful, difficult and tiring. Judging by how I felt after the dive physically, it’s not the healthiest pastime in the world, either. It is, however, a wonderful challenge and a test for those aware of the implications of failure. Would I do it again? Yes, I certainly would – I’m dying to go deeper.
P.S.: This story was written right after the dive, at the end of 2010. It will be the first of the series titled ‘One Day’ which I plan to write and post here. The stories will be accounts of some of the most memorable, exciting and the craziest days of my life so far. Should be fun!