Ama Dablam, Part V

The Summit of Ama Dablam

At around 4 am flashes of lights and hushed voices seep into Camp 2 through the dark. I haven’t been asleep and, tossing and turning on my bruises, I wait for the visitors to go away. Eventually, they do, but I still can’t close my eyes, my mind full of blazingly bright images of the summit day.

It is 6 am and Dorje is awake now, too. He reaches for the stove, melts ice and makes me tea. Slowly and lazily we begin to pack. My guide will carry all the heavy gear down the mountain leaving me with a puffy but light backpack. I try not to think of how tired I am or how much my legs hurt. Another pill of Ibuprofen, and it is time to go.

I clip into the safety rope outside the tent and immediately realize that the descent to Pangboche will be a hard one indeed: my legs are rubbery and sore and I have no sense of balance. The Austrain duo and their Sherpa seem to fly past Dorje and I while we, as my guide says, ‘take it easy.’ Yet, no matter how slowly we go, we are bound to end up at the top of the Yellow Tower before I am ready. I clip in, thread the rope through my figure eight and feel that I have zero strength in my arms to control the vertical descent. My guide notices my distress and holds the rope for me while I slide down to the foot of the Tower. Leaving that obstacle behind us, we continue to Camp 1, where we stop to rest for about an hour and gather up the gear we’d left there on the way up. My guide’s backpack looks increasingly like a thoroughly decorated Christmas tree, while mine is neat, and light, and pretty – I feel useless.

Ama in the Clouds

The first fixed rope on our way up Ama Dablam is now, on descent, the last one, and the grey boulders, the shape-shifting scree paths and the trails snaking down long moraines lead us back to base camp. My guide is way ahead and only occasionally turns to check on me when he hears another moan or growl as I stumble and fall: I lose count of how many times my legs fail me. My pants are covered in dust, there are feathers sticking out of a hole in the sleeve of my brand new down jacket and my head is hanging off my neck like the most unnecessary of accessories.

On the path down the last moraine before base camp I am stopped by a Russian climber heading up. ‘You are so strong,’ he exclaims while I barely manage to keep myself on my feet in front of him. He knows about me from Christophe, offers his congratulations and asks for advice on how best to go about the climb. His expression surprises me: it is a mixture of envy, respect and curiosity – all caused by the fact that I’ve just walked up and down a big steep hill, and not without a lot of help. His friend soon catches up and in him my presence seems to cause the same emotions. Wishing the pair good luck, I stagger away; I don’t understand people.

My guide is nowhere to be seen, too far ahead of me, when I begin the descent down the last hill into base camp. Suddenly, I slip on the scree and, rolling over myself, land on the ground with my head stuck between two large rocks, as if ready for the executioner’s axe. I groan and endeavour to move but it seems impossible: my spine is all pain and my legs won’t obey me; the backpack is pressing me down into the dust. And I simply can’t help laughing: I would have loved for the admirers of my strength to see me now and to laugh with me. Inevitably, I get up again and deal with a couple more felicitations from fellow-climbers before I rejoin my guide and we continue together past base camp.

I have some more Ibuprofen, fall and get up some more, and at 3 pm, both of us exhausted, my guide and I arrive at the lodge in Pangboche. In the dining hall the owner of the lodge, the same lady who had sounded so sceptical about me climbing Ama several days ago, offers me tea and listens quietly to Dorje’s account of the ascent. More locals gather around to hear the tale and stare at me – the dusty broken puppet with feathers sticking out. I go to the shower, then, hide in my room, embarrassed.

Ama Dablam on the Trek Out

The next day we trek only as far as Namche Bazaar because our porters let us down, and the day after we stop in Phakding before trekking to and flying out of Lukla to Kathmandu on the 24th of November. We are welcomed by friends and a fantastic Thanksgiving celebration. I change into my Thamel dress, look around my gorgeous room, and already the story I have just told seems like a thing of the past. I anticipate a period of hibernation in which little of me will feel truly alive. It doesn’t mean I’ll be unhappy – it means only that I will be so much less than what the mountains give me space to be. I miss them, I miss me.

‘But you look nothing like a climber!’ one of my new acquaintances repeats an all-too-familiar exclamation.

‘I’m not a climber,’ I reply, ‘I’m just someone who loves mountains. A lot!’


As I later found out, the voices I’d heard at Camp 2 the night after summit day belonged to the party of six Sherpas on their way to recover the body of the Russian mountaineer, Victor Novitsky, whom I mentioned in Part IV. Due to the difficulty of the conditions on location, the Sherpas could not accomplish their task. To my knowledge, they keep trying.

My sincerest condolences go out to the victim’s family and friends and my deepest gratitude – to my Sherpas, Dorje and Pasang Wongchu, without whose unfailing support I would not be here to share this story.

Ama Dablam, Part IV

Ama D Summit Pyramid

My dive computer/watch beeps weakly at 2 am announcing the beginning of summit day. I wake my guide up and, sleepy and tired, he automatically lights the small gas stove and places on it a pot of ice to melt for our pre-departure tea. I have a Red Bull, put my puffy Primaloft pants on top of the fleece under layer, an enormous expedition parka, a thick balaclava over my head, and reach for the inner booties of my three-layer 8000-metre boots. Although I am an ice-swimmer, cold air gets to me all too easily: after all, it was the very real risk of getting frostbite which chased me down from Camp 4 on Manaslu. I hope to have learnt my lesson: in addition to thick gloves, I am carrying chemical hand-warmers and am generally over-dressed for a speed ascent of a 6800-metre peak.

At 3:30 am my guide and I are ready to set off. Dorje is carrying everything we expect to need on summit day while all I have to drag up the hill is me; it seems like a lot. Standing outside the tent with my head-lamp shining on the cold rocks, I am waiting for Christophe.

‘Go on, don’t wait for me,’ says he.

‘I’ll see you on the summit,’ I suggest in reply, trying to sound warm and confident, and trod off. Almost immediately challenging climbing begins. Here in the dark is the famously vertiginous Grey Tower with its long pitches of mixed climbing leading vertically into the night sky. ‘Is there one or are there two of these Towers?’ I wonder as a thin ridge leads from the top of one icy rock face to the foot of another. ‘Let there be more,’ I say to myself, enjoying every move I make, suspended off a thin line over the hope of soaring and a possibility of crashing. I am smiling at the night, at the rocks and the flashlights of my friends dancing far, far below; like them I am waltzing in the air with my fears for partners, obscenely happy.

The Mushroom Ridge leading into Camp 3 is stunning at dawn. My feet on the left and right sides of the abyss underneath, I stop and stare in awe at the sunrise, blushing over the Himalaya. ‘Sunrise…’ I muse, ‘I have no time to waste,’ and I climb on. It is very windy and cold at Camp 3 when my guide asks me about how my hands are feeling, making me focus on something I want to ignore – that I have had no feeling in my fingers for a while now. I smile at Dorje apologetically, admitting to being a little cold. He immediately gets me to put hand-warmers into my gloves and, still not satisfied, fishes out the backpack his own enormous expedition mitts that won’t even fit into my jumar.

‘No, Dorje!’ I protest, ‘I must have some mobility in my hands! I have to climb somehow!’

‘That’s if you have hands, though,’ he reminds me.

I let him put a mitt on my left hand which seems frozen. In the process of manipulating my glove, he lets it slip out of his grip for an instant – and it’s gone, headed for base camp. Then, he starts to massage my fingers angrily, and in a few minutes they are filled with stinging pain of the blood rushing back in. Now we can go on.

We begin to move again, but the joy of climbing of the first three hours is gone while the summit looks not an inch nearer than when we started. The wind has been biting into my throat and lungs; my chest is cold from the inside; I cough uncontrollably. In front of me there are more ropes dripping down the blindingly white face of ice leading to the summit. The ice won’t accept even the tip of my axe – only the front points of my crampons seem to penetrate its unyielding surface a little. A little is enough, and we keep climbing. For hours. Other climbers, who started from Camp 3, catch up to us. Soon, the Austrian duo and their Sherpa pass us, too.  I look up and feel tears well up under my glacier glasses, under my glassy stare of determination. ‘No more! I can’t do this anymore! No more! Please!’ the whinge inside me begs. I listen to this inner voice of pain like music which sets the rhythm and keeps me going.

‘Dorje, where’s the summit?’ I ask every other minute.

‘It’s close. Another half-hour, maybe.’

And so it goes on.

‘Dorje, what is that?’ I am looking at a colourful mass hanging off the fixed rope to my left.

‘It’s… just oxygen bottles,’ he replies, ‘the summit is close. Keep going.’

On the Summit of Ama D with Pasang and Dorje

I pass the bottles without pausing and, following the rope, struggle up the last pitches towards the summit. At noon I am finally on the spacious, even, windless, perfect summit plateau of Ama Dablam. The Austrian duo, another climber and our Sherpas are on the summit with me. People take pictures, laugh, have snacks…  I try to do the same and to look less drained than I really am; I force myself to feel the joy I expected to feel but there’s only a small spark of contentment which is growing cold, too. Getting back on my feet, I stare at Mt. Everest in the distance and at all the other peaks I would have smiled at familiarly if only I wasn’t blinded by fatigue. I sit back down again sensing that I will not make it down Ama Dablam: my neck and spirit broke under the weight of Mother’s Necklace.

‘Chop-chop!’ my guide says, but I barely hear him. ‘Do you want a Red Bull?’ he jokes, observing me, and pulls a can of my ‘magic potion’ out of the backpack. I can’t help laughing, and try to scrape myself off the summit plateau.

‘Chop-chop,’ I say as cheerfully as I can, clipping my safety karabiner back into the fixed line. Yet, resolve is not enough to get down: one actually has to move their arms and legs to achieve that – which is problematic if they have no strength left at all. None. At all.

I try to use my figure eight to help me control the descent but the rope is too tight as there is still some climber traffic up and down the mountain. Thus, I simply down-climb/ stumble vertically down holding the rope with both hands. ‘Oh, I have progressed a little,’ I note to myself, spotting the oxygen bottles I’d passed on the way up. When I am at the same level as the colourful mass, I stop to rest and examine it more carefully. ‘Oxygen Bottles’ has boots on with a pair of crampons attached, and he is dressed in red and black – he is the corpse of the Russian mountaineer who’d died on Ama Dablam five or six days before our summit push. Realising that, I stare at the body, hanging off the icy rope in the most unwelcoming place in the world, in an uncomfortable position, and my heart begins to ache. I stand and pray for the man – in Russian, in English, in Tibetan… yet, no words can express the pain I feel thinking of the climber’s family and their suffering. ‘It’s just a mountain,’ I say in the end, angry with myself, ‘just rock, and ice, and nothingness,’

‘Mila!’ Dorje is calling, ‘Mila, come on!’

I turn away from the body and continue down. I do so because there is one person in the world who trusts me to keep walking wherever I am, whether exhausted, or injured, or dying. She trusts me not to put her through the torture of having to refer to me as a corpse on a mountain/in the ice/under the sea. My mother deserves a daughter who never gives up, and although I am not that daughter at all, I pretend to be.

When my guide and I reach Camp 3, I half-expect him to reproach me for not letting him bring sleeping bags and food to spend the night in case of an emergency, which our situation is beginning to resemble. Time is passing and our downward progress in painfully slow. It’s 4 pm, which gives us just over two hours of daylight to get to Camp 2, and we both know that we won’t make before dark.

‘It’s fine,’ says my guide, ‘we have headlamps…’

‘We sure do,’ I agree, ‘I even have spare batteries in the pack somewhere.’ We laugh together and step onto the Mushroom Ridge. I use my figure eight to rappel where possible, and Dorje helps me clip my safety karabiner into fixed rope; I am soon too tired even for that minor task and he performs it for me. Thus, we reach the Grey Tower.

‘The rope is too tight,’ he says, his expression worried and apologetic, ‘you can’t rappel.’

This means I have to down-climb with just my safety karabiner clipped into fixed rope for…psychological comfort. My arm muscles are numb and could not hold me on the rope if I slipped – all I can use them for is balance. My guide and I climb down quietly and carefully, and reach the bottom of the Tower by sunset. Camp 2 is close now: a couple more sharp ridges, and we stumble into the dark campsite. The Austrian guides are already asleep in their tent, and their Sherpa is melting ice for us. He tells me that Christophe had to abort his summit push and descend. I am genuinely sorry. I am also dead-tired. Inside the tent I sit on top my puffy sleeping bag holding a cup of tea; I am a broken doll. The two Sherpas talk outside in their tongue, then, Dorje bends and passes me his mobile. On the other end of the line is our mutual acquaintance and one of my dearest friends in Kathmandu. She tells me I am awesome, and so very strong to climb Ama Dablam so quickly, and that everyone misses me at ‘home’, and many other wonderful heart-warming things. I try to protest, but she wouldn’t listen. I want to tell her how badly I did on the descent and remind her – and myself – that I’m still on the mountain, still descending… I’m want her to know that I am not the unyielding woman people sometimes make me out to be – that I am truly very weak. Yet, she doesn’t hear me.

Dorje crawls into his sleeping bag and bids me good-night.

‘You are very strong, Mila,’ says the man who has just spent his day saving me from my own recklessness. I choke on my shame and say good-night, too, still sitting up, holding that same cup of now cold tea; it feels heavy.

Ama Dablam, Part III

Glacial Lake at the foot of Ama D

‘Chop-chop,’ Dorje echoes, and we begin the traverse along rocky ridges towards Camp II and the dreaded Yellow Tower. Surprised, I find myself taking the greatest of pleasures in gliding over sun-lit precipices and among sharp rocks, their edges of ice glowing beautifully. The going seems easy and my guide and I laugh and joke. A thought creeps into my mind, carefully and shyly at first, that I might be able to pass the rock test of Ama Dablam after all.

‘So, Dorje, where’s that Yellow Tower? Have we passed it yet?’

‘It’s around the corner – we’re almost there now…’

In a few minutes Dorje points up and my heart falls all the way back down to base camp. I have climbed rock like that – and steeper – before but without a heavy pack and certainly not wearing clumsy old trekking boots. The other Sherpa and his two clients, the alpine guides, catch up with us while, doubtful, I stand at the foot of the Tower. They climb up with ease and throw me a rope to tie myself to for extra safety. Then, I clip my jumar into the fixed rope and step onto the smooth vertical face of the Yellow Tower.

Beginning of the route to Camp 2

‘Ok, I’m coming,’ I say. Except, I am not really able to move. I look around me for something to hold onto or a place where to put my slipping feet but can’t see anything fitting; I reach left and right – nothing. I am breathing heavily, trying to pull myself up the fixed rope but my arms, numb with effort, can’t hold my weight and I slip, swinging all the way to the left of the rock face. As quickly as I can I glue myself to the wall, finding holds for both my hands, and gather myself. Embarrassed, I look up and see a large group waiting for me to get off the fixed line; one female climber looks particularly annoyed with my ‘monkey-ing’.

‘Sorry!’ I call out. She says nothing and turns away. Busy and tired as I am, I can’t help giggling at the solemnity of the lady’s expression.

I swallow my nervous laughter to keep working upwards, slowly and anything but surely, giving up hundreds of times in my mind. Finally, I reach the top of the Tower and look at the alpine guides’ Sherpa. ‘How long…’ I gasp for breath, ‘how long was I there for?’

‘Half an hour,’ he says. ‘Go on; Camp 2 is not far away.’ 20 metres, 30 minutes – I did horribly bad!

Ama Dablam Camp 2

I thank him wholeheartedly and stumble away, like a defeated boxer off the ring, following the fixed ropes. A couple other tricky sections delay my progress momentarily but sooner rather than later I see Camp 2 with about five tents placed at reason-defying angles on the tiny rock plateau. When my guide arrives, he immediately trots off to get some ice for our ‘cooking’, while I crawl into another little yellow home for another cold night.

In the dark the tired Christophe arrives and I try to revive him with a can of Red Bull: my guide is carrying plenty of it for me as it is my main source of energy on the mountain; it is also a source of endless jokes among my peers and the Sherpas who are quite certain I couldn’t make a step without my ‘magic potion’.

Christophe, the guides and I discuss the upcoming summit day. He and I are slower than the long-legged Austrian duo and, therefore, we choose to leave Camp 2 several hours ahead of them, at 3 am. None of us will stop to spend the night at Camp 3, which will make the summit day a long and truly exhausting one: 3-4 hours of technical mixed climbing in the dark to Camp 3 (the famed Grey Tower and the Mushroom Ridge are both there), another 5-6 hours of slightly easier climbing to the summit and at least another 3-4 hours to get back down to Camp 2.

Austrian Feet at Camp 2

‘Are you sure, Mila?’ my guide asks. ‘We can take food and sleeping bags with us to stop at Camp 3. I’ll carry it all. We’re in no hurry.’

‘No,’ I reply decisively, ‘we’re going to climb light to save time and energy. I don’t want to stop at Camp 3.’ As I say this, I already know I am making a mistake but I feel like I want to make it – need to make it for some strange reason.

Before going to sleep, we set the alarm for 2 am, pack and try to eat but the sole thought of it makes me nauseous: more instant soup and tea, then.

‘You need to eat something,’ Dorje insists. ‘Tomorrow’s a very long day.’

I tell him that I know but, really, I have no idea…

Ama Dablam, Part II

My Mountain

Still zipped inside the -40 degree sleeping bag, I rub my eyes in disbelief: I can see the sun on the green walls of my room in Pangboche. At last! I laugh, cough, laugh again and then, suddenly, I feel fear creeping into my warm cocoon full of feathers and dreams. ‘I’ll see it today,’ I think, ‘my mountain…’

Mt. Taboche on the way to Ama D base camp

I get up and pack my duffel bag and backpack keeping the thin curtains on the window shut for now. When I am ready to leave, I push the door open and the icy morning air, tens of mountains hovering in it like clouds, pierces my lungs. In front of me, above the roofs of the village, above all others, towers she, my mountain, Ama Dablam. She is too tall, too steep and now, after days of wandering in the mist, I can see it all too clearly. ‘I cannot climb it, I cannot climb it, I could never ever climb it,’ I whisper to myself, but something inside me refuses to be persuaded by the voice of reason.

Christophe and Sabine are outside as well.

‘What do you think?’ I ask Christophe.

‘Wow,’ he whispers in reply, his eyes as bright as the sunny autumn morning.

Climbing up to base camp is quick – about 2 hours – but not easy, and the three of us are happy to arrive at the simple but clean lodge at 4600 metres above sea level. The good weather doesn’t last, and together with the evening cold mist is once again crawling towards us.

‘Mila, would you like to have a rest day at base camp?’ my guide asks but he already knows the answer.

‘No way, Dorje!’ I say, ‘chop-chop to the summit!’

Why? Because I am silly. Christophe and the alpine guides have no time to rest and, therefore, no choice but to ‘chop-chop to the summit’ while I could easily wait, prepare, acclimatize…

The lodge at Ama D base camp

Thus, the next day I get up early with the rest of the climbers, and sounding a ‘chop-chop’, set off with my laughing Dorje. However, my high spirits are soon ripped right off me by gusts of wind so strong I barely manage to stay on my feet, without exaggeration. My glacier glasses are plastered with grains of dust, as, I fear, are my lungs, and the scree rolling under my feet makes walking upwards feel quite desperate. Terrain eventually changes: we are now climbing grey boulders straight up with no concept of direction on my part. Soon we stumble upon the first fixed safety rope on the route and my exhausted gaze follows it vertically up towards the yellow tents of Camp 1. ‘I have no strength left to get there,’ the voice of reason whinges while one of my hands grabs the rope and my legs begin to move again. Forever later I am sitting on a large cold boulder while Dorje prepares the tent for us. ‘How on earth am I going to even move from this spot tomorrow?’ the voice of reason enquires; the other voice is quiet, simply resting, here and now.

Dorje melts ice for our evening meal. I am not hungry and nor is my guide so all I have is instant soup while he settles for black tea. I drink as much liquid as possible hoping it might fend off the impending high-altitude headache. It works and I sleep well if little, getting up early in the morning to pack up and get ready to set off for Camp 2.

Camp 1 on Ama D; the long-legged alpine guides holding a council of war

‘Chop-chop?’ Dorje suggests but I am in no joking mood, mindful of the fact that the climb from Camp 1 to Camp 2 is where one of the most technically difficult sections of the whole route to the summit is found. It is called the Yellow Tower – a vertical rock face of about 20 metres in height which requires solid rock-climbing skills to pass. I dread it because I was never great on rock. I am not scared of a fall but of the fear of falling. ‘You have nothing to prove to anyone,’ my voice of reason tells me, ‘it’s ok to be scared; it’s fine to crave safety…’

‘Chop-chop,’ I say to my guide.

Ama Dablam, Part I

Kathmandu Domestic Airport

I wake up again, my head still resting on the cardboard boxes full of beer bottles with which I share the back seat of the helicopter. Hopeful I look out the window at the gray, foggy and stale weather outside, and sigh: we’re not flying out of Kathmandu today and my guide is going to have to keep waiting for me in Lukla. Then, I smile as I watch my new friends, Christophe and Sabine, sleeping in the front seat, so peacefully it makes me happy and calm, too.

Soon, at around 2:30 pm, the helicopter pilot arrives accompanied by our trekking agency representative, and they confirm my ‘guess’ that we’re staying grounded. Christophe, Sabine and I climb into a little truck and drive back to the domestic terminal of the Kathmandu airport; we leave our luggage on the chopper to avoid the possibility of other hopefuls getting out of Kathmandu ahead of us the next day: the heli’s booked for days ahead as the small planes which regularly circulate between the capital and Lukla cannot handle the bad weather conditions which have surprised Nepal this November.

The three of us are disappointed but try to get some enjoyment out of the situation. We spend the evening talking in ‘Franglish’, circumambulating the famous stupa at Boudhanath and lighting butter candles in order to generate some good karma for the next day. Then, we have dinner at my favourite place in Boudha called Flavours and by the end of the evening all seem quite pleased with the extra day in Kathmandu.

On November 14th we get up early again and leave for the domestic airport at 5:00 am. Although it is still dark outside, I can see the fog in the air and yet, I know we are flying sooner or later. We dance through the airport formalities with grace that only experience can give, find seats in the waiting hall, fetch coffees, get our books out the packs and begin our morning exercise in patience.

While we wait, I meet with one of the Sherpas from our Manaslu team who has two clients with him: both professional alpine guides headed, like me and Christophe, for Ama Dablam. They are… very tall indeed :). As I watch them walk away on their long legs, I despair: I am neither as tall nor as good a climber as these men and yet our goal is the same – this couldn’t possibly be right.

At around noon our departure is announced and we are once again driven to the chopper. The pilot is already inside, his leather gloves and serious expression on, and instead of the compact beer boxes I am now sharing the back seat with three men. It’s still foggy and the visibility leaves much to be desired but we take off and fly: the chopper shakes – the pilot smiles. An hour later we are in Lukla and I, happily – inappropriately – hug my guide, one of the most respected Sherpa climbers who was also our chief Sherpa guide on Manaslu. Since Christophe will only meet his mountain guide at Ama Dablam base camp, my guide offers him and Sabine to trek with us. I am beyond pleased as I have grown very fond of my new friends.

It is late and we decide to trek only as far as Phakding that day. We stop at the lodge my guide owns and have a warm evening all together, planning our trip to the foot of ‘Mother’s Necklace.’ The next day we walk a steep and dusty trail to Namche Bazzar, where the three of us go to the local clinic to get advice on how to treat Sabine’s ‘Khumbu Cough’ (the advice + meds costs $105) and later spend more money shopping. The trek to Pangboche on the 16th of November is a beautiful torture: the visibility is zero and it is snowing. The day is cold and damp but the humid dust still manages to take off the ground and fly into one’s lungs gasping for oxygen at over 3600 metres. My guide and I run ahead, struggling to keep warm while Christophe and Sabine walk somewhere in the mist behind us. The dusty trail to Tengboche – the village housing the famous monastery by the same name – is painfully long and exhausting to climb. I begin to feel I will never arrive but here I am in front of a white-and-gold chorten growing out of the fog to greet me. ‘Just another hour to Pangboche,’ my guide announces as we stop for lunch at a local bakery. I am too cold to be hungry but the tasty smell and variety of desserts tempts even me to have… tomato soup, at least. My guide has a yummy-looking pizza, and we’re back in the mist in no time, running up and down dusty paths again, towards Pangboche.

When we finally arrive, I feel drained. Christophe and Sabine, also tired and cold, join us at one of the local lodges in a couple of hours. The lady of the house starts a fire and the few guests gather around the stove with cups of hot tea. We are quiet, smiling. My guide talks to our hostess and, suddenly, points at me.

‘Ama Dablam?’ the woman asks, looking me up and down with laughing eyes. I don’t speak Sherpa but even I can hear the scepticism in her voice. I have already heard it many times on this trek in the voices of people my guide has been sharing our ambitious plans with.

‘…Manaslu…’ he defends me, but the woman just keeps grinning.