Ganesh I: Things That Fall

The shadow of Ganesh II on Ganesh I

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.

The seracs on the approach to the start of the route

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.

Avalanche cloud over the start of the route

‘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.’

Phil on his way to Camp I, by the rockfall couloir

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!’

Zoom-in on base camp from Camp I

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.

Sunset on Ganesh II

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.

Ganesh I: Camp I

Ganesh I Base Camp

Our first morning at the foot of Ganesh I is freezing-cold – just like all the subsequent ones will be. The timid autumn sun will keep hiding behind the mountain’s steep ridges, and its rays will only reach our tents after 9 am. Breakfast is at 8; the leader and the five climbers, amongst whom I am the only female, stand outside the large yellow dining tent with cups of steaming milk tea or coffee. We are all looking up, to the summit of Yangra. The boys are in a race, excitedly naming the mountain’s different features and drawing imaginary route lines across rock and snow:

‘There it is – just above the Snake’s Tail…’

‘The Cobra’s Head… how do we get onto that?’

‘Now, this would be awesome to climb! See that direct line? The Colorado Direct?’

The ‘Colorado Direct’

It’s amusing to hear those names, which spell danger, and daring, and conquest. It is interesting, too, to note how desperately we need words to make the world our own, to label and thus appropriate things. ‘You’re our mountain,’ we tell Yangra as we briefly examine and hastily name her features. But why the haste? Is it because once we take a closer look at someone or something, we find it harder to project ourselves onto what has more than enough substance of its own? Is it that it is almost impossible to give just one name, assign one word only, to something which has revealed itself to have so many different aspects, angles and layers? It seems that we must attach a tag to and claim ownership over things immediately or never, for if we linger, we will have to study what we simply wish to possess, and only then come up with a well-though-out description – not one given on a first impression. There is something unpleasant to me about this ‘naming ceremony’: perhaps, because climbers refer to mountains in the feminine, or, perhaps, because I simply cannot see what they can. I am, after all, short-sighted and cannot help but examine things more slowly and meticulously than those, whose sight is sharp.

Ganesh I (summit not pictured)

After breakfast we begin to consider more realistic route possibilities than the ‘Colorado Direct’. Our main objective is to get onto and establish Camp I on the glacier above 5000 meters – safely. We pick a line for Phil and the Sherpas to explore, which, according to the images from Google Earth, looks like it could take us there. Having spent a couple of days acclimatizing at base camp, the expedition leader and the Sherpa team venture onto the slopes of Ganesh to find and establish the route to Camp I. We watch their upward progress through our base camp telescope and binoculars, and listen to Phil and the Sherpas on the radio. The climbing, apparently, is steep and sketchy, and it is no easy task to find the way to the glacier. However, the very strong climbing team eventually overcome the obstacles before them and arrive at the foot of the glacier, where they find a safe location for Camp I; it’s just after noon. We – the spectators at base camp – are overjoyed, and can’t wait for our climbers to get down to congratulate them on their quick success. On descent they fix rope to some of the steeper sections on the route, and mark the way with bamboo sticks and cairns. I am excited to see them return, exhausted but happy, to our little tent village; I am also impatient to go climbing on the route they have made and take a look at the glacier above Camp I.

Climbing to Camp 1

So excited and impatient I am, in fact, that I forget I am sick. My Everest bronchitis has returned, brought back to life by the cold and dusty air of the Tsum Valley trails. The cough fits are annoying and depressing, and my chest hurts every time I begin to breathe though my mouth – something I can’t avoid while trekking or climbing at a reasonable pace at altitude. It is only when Phil tells us that we’re going climbing next morning, doing a carry to Camp I, that I realize that gaining about 1000 meters in elevation in several hours will be harder work than usual for my lungs. I know that it would be better for me to get healthy before venturing higher, but I am too curious to stay behind. I stuff my backpack with things to leave at Camp I for future acclimatization rotations and the summit push, and leave for Camp I with the rest of the climbers.

The glacier above Camp 1

I knew it would hurt and it does. As we make our way up the first part of the route, gaining over 300 meters on a steep slope, covered with dry grass, something in my chest wheezes and gurgles at the cold air I breathe in. I have a bit of a fever and my legs are limp, lazy and slow. I try to follow Phil but find it beyond my strength to keep up with him. Luckily, we soon reach the end of the slope, and traverse to the left and into a narrow gully. The way out of it is a climb up near-vertical rock, on fixed rope. I clip into the safety line and attach my jumar to it but only use it as a safety backup. For once, instead of the bulky 8000-meter boots and mitts, I am wearing the right boots and gloves for the job, and it makes all the difference: I can feel the rock and truly enjoy the climbing. Now that the going has gotten steeper and more interesting, my chest has warmed up, and I can breathe, coughing a lot less. This encourages and speeds me up, and I catch up to Phil. We negotiate several more steep sections, which lead us eventually into a couloir, filled with loose rocks. Every step up the couloir triggers rockfall. Long enough for the rocks to gain considerable speed, this section is very dangerous and we must climb it one by one, as cautiously as we can: even the smallest of rocks, having gained enough momentum, can cause a serious injury, and the rocks we tread on here are easily big enough to fracture a limb or worse… It is my turn to go once Phil is out of the couloir, and I hate every step I take on these wobbly rocks, which slide from under my feet no matter how careful I am. Then, there’s a couple more steep rocky sections to climb and a traverse along a ‘minefield’ of loose rocks and unstable boulders to negotiate. Having gotten past these obstacles, I find myself at Camp I at 11 am, waving at base camp far below. Above me the glacier looks vast and, following the ridge along which we plan to climb to the summit, I let my gaze rest at the objective of our expedition. My daydreaming is frequently interrupted by rockfall coming from all around. The location of Camp I itself is safe from it, but we have a long way yet to go past Camp I. ‘Rockfall, seracs, very likely – many crevasses on the glacier… This will not be a piece of cake,’ I think, hoping at the same time that the going will be straightforward and safe once we reach the ridge.

Manaslu from Camp 1

After all our other climbers have arrived, dropped off their gear and rested, we begin the descent from Camp I. I am more tired on the way down that I thought I was, and descending safely, especially, though the rockfall couloir, takes some doing. I rappel wherever possible to save energy, and stop frequently to cough. On the grassy slope, which was such a torture to climb in the morning, one of our kitchen assistants, Bir, is waiting for us with some milk tea and cookies. We’ve had a long day on the mountain, and the gifts Bir bears are just what we need for the final 20-30- minute walk down to base camp.

Ganesh II from Camp 1

The evening is a happy one. At dinner everyone sounds hopeful and optimistic, and plans are made for our nearest climbing future: the Sherpas will carry more gear up to Camp I tomorrow, and the day after Phil and Sami, expedition co-leader, accompanied by the Sherpas, will search for the route to Camp II. Much depends on what they find above Camp I, and we can only hope that the news they bring us at the end of the day is good.

Ganesh I: Into Tsum Valley

(left to right) Ganesh I, Ganesh III, Ganesh IV and Ganesh II

The Ganesh I expedition leaves Kathmandu early in the morning on the 22nd of October. The air is cool, and there is hardly any traffic in the usually bustling streets. It is Dashain, time of many pujas and sacrificial ceremonies in Nepal, and our bus drives past countless houses and shops with goats tied outside or buffaloes being skinned, their blood – an offering to the ever-thirsty gods. A relatively short bumpy ride brings us to Arughat early. Next morning we trek to Soti Khola and Machhakhola the day after. The trek is familiar to me as in its initial stages it passes through the same towns and villages as the Manaslu trek, which I have already done twice. Thus, I know that it always rains in Machhakhola. On the 25th of October, my birthday, we arrive in Jagat, which happens to be one of my favorite villages on the trail. Its location in a narrow gorge, the charming cobbled main street and the blue doors of its small houses set it apart from the other settlements in the area. I spend the evening playing with (and losing to) my new camera, snapping endless photos of the picturesque Jagat, followed across town by the curious local kids.

Jagat

After dinner our cook Da Pasang brings out a cake, decorated on top with what looks like my ‘portrait’ – a round smiling face with five hairs sticking out. My team mates and the Sherpas sing a cheerful Happy Birthday to me and the latter put white khatas around my neck. I am very touched by this impromptu celebration and by the gift our liaison officer hands me at the end of the evening – wrapped in shiny foil is a six-pack of Red Bull, to which I am notoriously addicted. Back in my tent at night I sit and tell myself that I am now 26. What does it mean? I reach for a little mirror somewhere at the bottom of my backpack and look at my face when it doesn’t smile like the face on the cake. I don’t regret seeing what I see: too many wrinkles for 26, sunken eyes, thin lips that curve naturally downwards… I ask myself then if I would trade my experiences, my extreme highs and lows, for youth, and beauty, and normality. The honest answer is yes, but the better answer is no. So it’s a no again, and tomorrow I will trek higher.

Jagat

Next day we enter Tsum Valley, an area of Nepal, which has only been open for trekking for about 5 years now. We spend our first night in Tsum in a tiny village called Lopka. I am surprised to see that we are not the only westerners in these remote parts as there are two or three other small trekking groups or individual trekkers staying at the local tea-house. We arrive early and I wander off into the woods for a little hike. As I climb higher, I try to look past the gathering evening clouds into the valley to spot at least a glimpse of Ganesh I, the mountain we come to climb. However, the more I look around me, the more I forget what exactly it is I am looking for – Tsum Valley is fascinatingly beautiful and quietly majestic. Only when the air gets too cool for what I am wearing do I remember to check my watch, and retrace my steps back to the campsite.

Lopka

We leave Lopka for Domje after breakfast next morning. One of my team mates and I decide to turn the trek to our lunch stop in Chumling into an uphill race, so we reach the village earlier than expected. After waiting for the rest of the climbers and the kitchen staff to arrive, I opt out of lunch and choose to carry on to Domje on my own – to have the trail and the views to myself. Whenever I find myself alone and in doubt while trekking, I tend to ask locals or other hikers I meet whether or not I’m going the right way. The first people I run into just outside Chumling are two young Canadians, one of whom says that finding the way to Domje is tricky:

‘You turn off the main trail somewhere up there; then, you cross that bridge; then, you go under the bridge and there’s another bridge; then, there’s lots of little trails – just keep going up…’

My facial expression probably speaks eloquently enough of the extent of my confusion because he asks me if I have a map.

‘No,’ I reply guiltily, like a schoolkid who shows up to class without having done the homework.

‘But you do have a guide, at least?’

‘Yes, of course, more than one, even – but they’re not trekking guides and they’re ways behind, anyway.’ Now it’s my interlocutor’s turn to look puzzled. ‘I’m on a climbing expedition, you see,’ I explain.

‘A mountaineer? Then, you’ll find your way around these hills no problem,’

‘Yes, sure…’ I mumble less than confidently as we part and wish each other a good day.

Walking to Domje

‘The Mountaineer’, then, has to consider her options: to keep going and very likely get lost, or to sit down and wait for my team to finish their lunch and catch up to me. The former could be either miserable or fun, while the latter would certainly be pathetic, long and boring, so I continue along the trail. Across the river I soon spot a village I believe to be Domje, but I cannot see the proverbial bridge to the other side anywhere. Then, fortunately, I meet another, much larger, trekking group with porters and guides. ‘They would know,’ I tell myself. As it turns out, they know no more than I do, so, reluctantly, I entrust myself to my navigational instincts alone and walk on. Amazingly, I easily find the bridge, cross it triumphantly, feeling like I’ve just discovered the sources of the Nile, and follow a blurry trail under the bridge just like the Canadians have told me. Then, indeed, there’s that other small bridge they mentioned. Eventually, following a tiny path upwards, I find myself in Domje. I’d arranged to meet with the rest of the crew at the Domje health post, which is what I guess the building before me to be.

‘Domje? Health post?’ I ask the two locals emerging from the house. Several more are glued to the dusty windows, staring at me and giggling.

‘Yes,’ one of them replies.

‘Ramro,’ good, I grin, looking around me for a comfortable spot to wait for the boys. As I try to read, more Domjeans emerge from their hiding places to observe me. They appear very serious and almost scared. Of me. I certainly get them. So I smile – they smile, too; I stop smiling – they begin to look concerned. It’s seriously awkward, and an eternity seems to pass before our Sherpas arrive at the health post to distract my spectators from the Mila-show.

Near Domje

‘Phil is looking for you everywhere,’ one of my team mates says, as he drops off his backpack and sits down to rest.

‘But why?’ I wonder.

‘He thinks you’re lost. This big group we ran into said they’d met a blond girl on the trail looking lost.’

‘What? A blond looking ‘lost’? Unbelievable!’

‘You did ask them about Domje, didn’t you?’

‘I did ask. I never said I was lost, however.’

‘Well…’

‘Well, now, because nobody has any faith in my navigational instincts (khem…), I have to run and look for Phil,’ I complain grumpily as I put my boots back on and prepare to leave.

‘You weren’t lost, then?’ he asks, sneering.

‘Were you? It took you awfully long to get here…’ I retort.

Luckily, Phil, the expedition leader, arrives at the health post before I leave in search of him. The day turned out to be quite a long and tiring one, and after dinner we all quickly go to sleep in our private tents. We hope to reach base camp by next evening and need a good rest before the big ‘jump’ in distance and elevation.

Ganesh II in the distance

We start walking early, while it is still cold. After climbing some 500 meters above Domje we see Ganesh I clearly for the first time. It looks ridiculously tall. From Gumba Langdang, where we stop for lunch, the views of ‘our’ mountain, holy to the locals, are simply breathtaking. There is a small monastery with a dark prayer hall in Langdang where I go to make light offerings and pray for our safe passage on the still-unclimbed Nepal side of Ganesh I. An elderly nun is chanting prayers with me, and her quiet voice quivers a little like the flames of the 16 butter-lamps burning before the bronze Buddha statues and the old photographs of accomplished lamas. Each butter-lamp represents one of us on the expedition team: the two leaders, the five climbers, the five Sherpas and the four cooks. All I ask for as I watch the small flames is that we all return safely. It is, nevertheless, with a heavy heart that I step out of the dark prayer hall back into the afternoon sun. I know the feeling: I felt exactly the same before attempting Cholatse last February. I think, I already know what comes next as I look at Ganesh, rising majestically above the valley.

Ganesh I from Gumba Langdang

Yet, our main concern now is getting to base camp. The trails leading to the foot of Yangra from Gumba Langdang are small and confusing, hard to navigate for an expedition, accompanied by numerous porters and heavily-loaded mules. The forward progress of our stubborn donkeys is not speedy enough for us to make base camp before dark. We decide to camp on a spacious clearing in the forest for the night, and leave for base camp early next day.

Arriving at the foot of Ganesh I

At 9 in the morning we reach our destination at the foot of the 7422-meter Ganesh I. The place where we set up base camp, at just over 4000 meters, easily counts amongst the most stunning mountain settings I’ve been in. Mules and porters drop off their loads and leave us face to face with the stunning Yangra and her imposing ‘brothers’ Ganesh II, III and IV. I waste no time and climb to the top of the moraine to have a look at the glacier, hopeful to spot a large enough lake in which to do my planned swim. To my disappointment, all I see are two tiny frozen pools. I tell myself to focus on the climb and think of the swim later as I return to the tent town that is the Junkies neat base camp. Coils of rope to be fixed along the route, ice screws, snow bars and other mountain-taming tools and instruments lie spread out carefully on the tarpaulin outside the kitchen tent. ‘It’s a lot of stuff’, I say to myself, looking at the summit of Ganesh I, ‘but will it be enough for you?’

Ganesh I 2012

Ganesh I, view from Manaslu base camp

Dear Friends & Readers,

In the last post of the Manaslu expedition series I mentioned I was to return to the mountains again soon. The name of the peak I will be climbing next is Ganesh I/Yangra. It looks utterly stunning from Manaslu, and has been an object of my curiosity ever since I first saw the near-perfect pyramid last year. As I did before on Everest and both times on Manaslu, I will be joining Phil Crampton’s Altitude Junkies on this exploratory expedition: Ganesh has only been climbed once before, about 60 years ago, from the side of Tibet, not Nepal, following a technically easier route than we expect ours to be. You can have a look at our potential route and follow the expedition here, on AJ’s website: http://altitudejunkies.com/dispatchganesh12.html I will also try to update this blog occasionally, but if I fail to do so while on the mountain, I will, I hope, come back with a detailed account of the climb.

In the same last Manaslu post I also hinted that I will do more than climb on Ganesh. My regular readers know that I’m an ice/winter-swimming enthusiast, and Ganesh, I am told, has a large glacier, where there’s bound to be a big and cold enough lake for me to do a charity swim in to support my Pema Choling Project. The Ganesh lake could be anything from non-existent or frozen solid to enormous and open for me to try to swim across it. The page on this blog, which I started several months earlier, will have information about and photos of the monastery in just a few days (thank you, Rebecca Gaal!). It will also feature photos and videos from the swim. If there’s not a lake on Ganesh, I’ll make sure there’s one on the next mountain I climb – so the charity swim will happen. Please, follow this link if you would like to read about the project or make a donation: https://sixthsymph.com/pemacholing-monastery-khumbu-nepal/ Myself and the kids will greatly appreciate your support in this!

I am excited to be involved with so many new, unexplored things at the same time, as you may be able to tell by the rather erratic writing :). The climb the Junkies are embarking on could – and hopefully will – result in a first ascent from Nepal of a stunning Himalayan peak. The team anticipate the ascent to be technically difficult, with many different challenges to keep us on our toes along the way. The swim, should there be a suitable glacial lake for me to do it in, could result in a world record for ice/winter-swimming at high altitude, or death from hypothermia, given that I will not use any thermal protection. Regardless of the outcome, I hope it draws some much-needed attention to the cause that I support with all my heart. It is also new for me to be doing ‘a charity project’ – trying to involve both friends and strangers in what has become very important to me personally: making a few little people a little bit happier or, at least, warmer.

All for now. The expedition leaves Kathmandu tomorrow, on the 22nd of October. We will drive to and, then, trek from Arughat through Tsum Valley to Ganesh base camp. Somewhere along the way I’ll be celebrating my 26th birthday on the 25th of October. The Junkies’ team should return to civilization after about 40 days of trekking and climbing. Drop by then if you’re curious to read about the ascent of Ganesh I and, possibly, the very ‘refreshing’ swim!

Love,

Mila

Manaslu 2012: The Fall, Revised

In response to a couple of my friends’ requests, I have revised the post to include a few  more details about the summit day and the descent. I hope that those of you, who wanted the last installment in the Manaslu series to be ‘more’, are now ‘more’, if not entirely, satisfied ;). 

On the Summit of Manaslu

The Junkies left Camp 4 for the summit at 2 am. It was a cold night. The trail to the summit from the day before had been almost entirely erased by the strong wind, and I would hardly have found my way across even the first of the wide plateaus above Camp 4, if it wasn’t for following my climbing Sherpa, Pasang Wongchu. There were a few clouds in the otherwise clear sky, and an occasional flash on the horizon, ahead and to the right of us. The flashes were extremely bright and vast, which made me believe they were lightnings, but it was quiet around us, and my heartbeat, heavy breathing and the creaking of the solidly-packed snow under crampons were the only sounds in the world.

‘Please, don’t let a storm start,’ I begged somebody somewhere, ‘not now! Not after all that, not when I’m this close to the summit…’ as if summiting would make ‘all that’ go away.

Just like I’d hoped it would, oxygen made climbing easier for me than it had been the day before. I was quite alert and, at first, even warm, but that illusive warmth lasted me precious little in the strong wind. We moved relatively slowly, and I enjoyed the feeling of not being in a race: I was almost certain I would make it – until my toes began to freeze; they would not warm up now, no matter how much I wiggled them in my boots. I would look up at the sky frequently, waiting for at least a hint of dawn, and when I could finally see it, I felt calmer, but even colder. The pre-sunrise hour is always the iciest hour of the night, but I had no warmth left to give.

We’d been moving steadily: I could already see the false summit, and was getting near it as the blue air gradually filled with light. By then, in spite of the very reasonable pace, I was tired. Two team mates had passed me with their Sherpas. As I lingered at another stop, with the traverse to the sharp summit ridge within reach, I was searching for but finding no energy or even desire to make the final push. I still don’t quite know why it was that, after walking in the night, occasionally bending double to hide from the gusts of the angry wind, after living through nightmares, after days of cold and exhaustion, now, on the vertiginously narrow ridge leading up to the true summit, I didn’t want to carry on to the end. Minutes later, crouching on the small top of the stunning Spirit Mountain and tying khatas for friends to the string of prayer flags, I felt the opposite of joy. In the summit snow I buried a photo of Christophe, to whom I had dedicated my climb, whispering as a prayer the words of ‘I Promise‘ – the poem his partner had recited at his funeral just a month earlier. There was no sense of accomplishment when I fell silent and looked at the impressive peaks below me or into myself, just loneliness as big as the frozen, timeless space all around. I’d silenced my shame of surviving where so many died, and stepped over them but also over myself to be standing where I was now. I wasn’t sure, however, that I had the heart to retrace my steps back ‘home’.

Coming down from the summit (photo credit: Martin Belanger)

I left the summit quickly, forgetting to look at the team mates I passed on the descent from the ridge. After the ridge came the exposed, windy traverse, which had scared me on the way up but which was now a welcome sight. ‘If I fell here, it would be an accident…’ I thought, stopping, considering my ‘options’: there were no ropes to keep me, nor, frankly speaking, much else. I didn’t want to have to celebrate my dubious ‘conquest’ at base camp – I may have wanted what I’d ‘conquered’ but I certainly missed what I’d ‘defeated’ in the process. I looked down but, suddenly, my climbing Sherpa turned to me and, reaching for my safety sling, clipped it into his own without a word. I hated him then for his impeccable timing because now I couldn’t fall, and would have to tread carefully. Fixed lines, which began after the traverse, re-connected me with reality, pulling me out of my grim dream. Climbers on their way up, friends and strangers, nodded their mask- and hood-covered heads and patted me on the shoulder. They reminded me of the fact that across the long slopes and wide crevasses between the summit and base camp, there were real people, not ghosts, waiting for me. And if they keep waiting, then, I cannot fall.

Looking down towards Camp 4

The descent from the summit back to Camp 4 took us little time. The air had warmed up, but the wind was growing stronger. We could not afford to linger at Manaslu’s highest camp as the weather forecast had predicted a serious increase in wind speeds in the afternoon, but we would still take a couple of hours to rest in the tent and boil some water. Our destination for the day would be Camp 2, given that base camp seemed impossibly far away for how tired we were. E and I both decided not to use oxygen on descent so as to have lighter backpacks; I also wanted to get rid of the gas mask, which hindered my sight somewhat, especially coming down. E left before me and Pasang, and I would only follow reluctantly when the Sherpas started taking down the tents to carry them to Camp 2. Walking without oxygen proved hard, and I was very slow, so Pasang insisted I use it in spite of my protests: ‘I have no space in the pack!’ The oxygen bottle took the place of my sleeping bag, which was now tied on the outside of the Sherpa’s backpack, already ‘heavily decorated’ with other group and personal gear. I felt like the biggest, most useless whinge stumbling behind him, a little more lively now thanks to the O2. Just minutes later we caught up with E, and continued the descent together. After briefly resting at Camp 3, where I could finally stop using oxygen, we staggered down to 2. On our way we passed a small group of Sherpas, who had recovered another body from under the avalanche debris, and were preparing it for evacuation. I felt lucky to be short-sighted, but even luckier to have a tired heart.

As we approached Camp 2, I heard an all-too-familiar sound – an avalanche on a nearby slope. It was small, ways away, and the trail was completely safe from it, but I still shuddered. ‘A few hours ago you considered walking off into thin air, and now you’re scared of an avalanche? What a little hypocrite!’ I said to myself as we began moving again. Camp 2 was already in the shade when we reached it; it was going to be a cold evening. In the tent the trio shared what was left of our food supplies to make ‘dinner’ and went to sleep at about 7 pm. I had worried about spending one more night at Camp 2, but neither tears nor nightmares would disturb me – I was fast asleep before I knew it after the long summit day.

Packing away Camp 2

In the morning we packed up Camp 2 and began the descent to base camp. Concerned about the wide crevasses, which cut through our route, Phil would lead the team down himself, and we would all climb together. In spite of the precautions, two of us couldn’t help exploring the insides of two different crevasses; yours truly, of course, had to be one of them. Fortunately, one of the Junkies had a ‘magic sling’ to help out climbers in just such embarrassing situations, and that day the sling came in very handy indeed. Passing Camp 1, where I loaded my backpack with more gear, we soon arrived at Crampton Point. There our kitchen staff were already waiting with tea, juice and a can of Red Bull for me. I was surprised and somewhat disappointed at how energetic I felt, when we reached base camp a little later. I felt nothing like after summiting Everest, the descent from which had been so unbearably exhausting. Paradoxically, I felt physically stronger now, after returning from the summit, than I had when I first arrived at the foot of Manaslu. I remembered, however, my little episode on the traverse, and it worried me that I should have let myself grow so mentally tired and weak that such thoughts as I had would even come into my head… I knew that I could still trust my body to do what was required of it more or less efficiently. Could I also trust my mind not to yield under the pressure of all-too-many memories and fears?

At base camp we had a beautiful celebration, with champagne and laughter, and, in spite of my expectations, it felt good and right to be celebrating a summit. I was grateful to Phil and the whole Altitude Junkies crew for providing me and the rest of the clients with the opportunity and the support to reach the top and descend safely. The expedition had been an intense experience, and, ultimately, a very positive one. It took away yet another of my 9 lives, but gifted me with an increased appreciation of the remaining one(s), and another 8000-meter summit. I was glad to have stood on the tiny top of Manaslu, which I had not been able to do a year earlier. When I left base camp and at last allowed myself to walk all the way down the trail to Samagaon, I felt free and calm. However, I was missing the mountains, harsh and cruel as they sometimes are, even as I was walking away from them.

A pre-predarture swim in Birendra Tal

I am back in Kathmandu, having left the high-altitude winter for the stunning autumn now reigning in Nepal. I am still processing my latest climbing experience but already preparing for the next one. This time I will do more than climb – and, hopefully, for more than my own pleasure. I will post an update about the new project in a couple of days. Thank you for ‘climbing’ with me on Manaslu! Drop by if you’re curious to learn about the upcoming adventure, and take care!

Love,

Mila