I recall the scent of autumn in the sky…
I remember how the wind sang of hope…
Rocks, changing their shapes in the sun…
Mountain springs, equally present and gone…
I remember how it felt
On that day I was light, water and wind,
Speaking their language — body and mind,
Crying shamelessly and wildly when I
Heard them whisper: “you are not a mistake”;
I remember how it felt
To be alive;
I remember reaching the Earth’s
Very burning heart with my fingertips;
My eyes being one with the sun,
I could see without attachment;
That day was pure joy
Beyond good and evil –
That one day
Could fill a whole life with meaning;
The day that I stepping over
From a crumbling dream
After a day or two of rest at base camp, I resumed my daily walks up to the first fixed rope. They were no longer quiet: helicopters hovered above Manaslu, people were talking, tents – rustling as they were being packed away by the departing teams… Five members of our group, too, decided to leave the mountain for various reasons, all of them perfectly understandable in the light of the recent tragedy. I would miss my new friends, especially my climbing buddy K. who had been so very supportive all along. He left his camera (mine had gone swimming at the start of the trek to base camp) and Z-rest for me to use, and shared his high-altitude snacks with the team, which caused us to ‘fight’ over Shot Blocks and chocolate. It was sad and discouraging to watch some of the Junkies – all of them strong and able climbers – depart.
For me, however, leaving was not an option, and so, sticking to my savior routine, I made my way through the agitated base camp towards the first fixed line. Suddenly, I noticed two people on the trail ahead of me, with a large professional camera. ‘Here come the vultures,’ I thought, pulling the Buff over my face and hiding under the hood of my jacket. One of the reporters pointed his camera right in my face, and followed me without a word, until I – to him, apparently, an inanimate object – began climbing steeply up the path. The journalists’ obnoxious bluntness and insensitivity upset me. There were many people at base camp in those early days after the avalanche, keen on taking the most gruesome pictures or having their photo snapped in the epicenter of events. Like any tragedy, the Manaslu avalanche had its true as well as its self-proclaimed heroes, easy to tell apart even in the unhealthy excitement which followed the painful events of the 23rd of September. For my part, I wasn’t feeling like either a survivor or a victim – certainly, not feeling like any outside attention – and was simply trying to keep the resolve to carry on.
When I reached my destination at the foot of the steep rocks, I saw a group of Sherpas coming down from Camp 1 carrying enormous backpacks. ‘Time to go home,’ one of them said to me, grinning. ‘Not yet,’ I replied quietly, talking to myself rather than him. But why was I so sure I had to stay, when so many people all around me were leaving? For several simple reasons: I was alive and physically unhurt, I was a climber, and the mountain I wanted to climb was right in front of me, its slopes made safer than ever by the recent slide. It helped, too, that I wasn’t afraid to stay, since the avalanche to me had not been something surprising or unusual in the ultimately unpredictable mountain environment. Mountaineering is an extremely dangerous sport: to human error or freak accident, almost every climber I know has lost at least one friend. I know that I, too, am not immune to mistakes or ‘bad luck’; I, too, can one day be referred to as somebody’s ‘lost climber-friend’. I accept and embrace this risk: I could not love the mountains as whole-heartedly as I do, if I didn’t trust them to know my time to go. If anything, the avalanche had made me value my time more than ever – so much so, I was not going to waste it waiting or hiding.
In describing my reasons for staying, I speak, of course, only for myself. I don’t know how my team mates, who also stayed on the expedition, had really made their decisions or what their motivations might have been. The fact was that, in spite of the confusion around us, Phil Crampton’s Altitude Junkies, unlike most others, had the leadership, the support and the resources to allow those willing to try for the summit to do so. We stayed calm and focused, we rested, we waited for the right weather and, on the 27th of September, launched our summit push.
Need I say that it wasn’t easy to walk back up to where I had run from just a few days ago? That I couldn’t close my eyes at Camp 1? That I cried all night long at Camp 2, pressing my mouth shut with my icy hands? That, as I climbed alone from there to Camp 3, it was not the thinning air that made me breathe erratically and try to move as quickly as my legs would carry me, but the biggest shame for being alive? That the night at Camp 3 – such a beautiful, clear night – was invaded by more ghosts and thoughts than my mind could contain? Yet, in spite of all this, of the mental and physical exhaustion, I was strangely happy to be where I live at my fullest: somewhere between love and loss, and good and evil, where there’s nothing to be afraid of anymore.
I was the first to leave Camp 3 for Camp 4 on the 30th of September. I knew it would be the toughest of the days on the mountain for me: the steep climb is made long and exhausting by the decreasing pressure of oxygen in the air, the strong wind and the cold. I expected it to take me about 6 hours to climb from 6800 to 7450 meters, from where the Junkies would be leaving for the summit in the early hours of the next day. Four of the injis, including the leader, would climb without bottled oxygen. Our Sherpas, who would also climb without O2, all passed me within just minutes after I’d left Camp 3, all – smiling and moving unbelievably quickly under their heavy backpacks. I could never keep up with them, so I focused on making sure I could, at least, maintain my own slow but steady pace. It was very windy, and I climbed with my head down. Where a thick crust of wind-licked ice covered the slopes, I would hide under my down suit’s hood from the pieces of ice being kicked down by the climbers above me. Higher up, the wind felt even stronger, ceaselessly throwing clouds of snow in my face. When I reached the long traverse into Camp 4, cold and tired, I started to meet climbers on their way down. They looked feeble on their feet – as, undoubtedly, did I – and complained about the cruel winds up high. Stumbling at last into Camp 4, I knew exactly what they’d been talking about: the tents flapped noisily, disturbingly, and people’s voices sounded loud above the wind. My second time at Camp 4, I realized, would be colder than the first one a year ago. I was happy that in the evening I would start using supplemental oxygen to help me preserve the remains of my warmth and energy. Once in the tent, I made sure I was as warm as I could be to provide for a good rest before leaving for the summit. Eating was out of the question but, following my climbing rules, I would drink a much as possible. It was great to have my summit day climbing Sherpa, Pasang Wongchu, help my tent mate, E, and me to boil water. At 6 pm he set up our oxygen systems, and the three of us went to sleep – actually sleep and not toss and turn annoyingly in the sleeping bag, thanks to the O2. At 1 am we were to start for the summit of Manaslu. As I listened to the angry wind outside the tent, I wasn’t sure we would really be going.
I was trying to look up, but tears were crowding my eyes, and I couldn’t see anything. A Sherpa, who had stumbled down from Camp 3 bare-foot, was being wrapped in a sleeping bag and examined for shock and frostbite by Phil and my team mates. Boot-less and, therefore, useless, I sat out of the way in the snow, in a cloud of sleeping bags, with E next to me. Everything was cold, and solid, and white, and empty. I looked into the Sherpa’s eyes, wide with dread, and then up again, towards where he had come from, where there was nothing now but snow and the remains of the night, melting slowly off the sky. Just a few minutes had passed since the avalanche had struck, when a group of Sherpas from lower Camp 2 began making its way towards where Camp 3 had been. ‘Up there…it should have been me,’ a thought crossed my mind and lingered, as I stared at the spot.
I couldn’t sleep that night, as I never really can at high altitude, unless I’m on oxygen. Again, thoughts fought for the best seat in my mind, muscles twitched, and the cold was impossible to ignore. Again, I waited for the alarm to give me the excuse I needed to start moving at 4:15 am. Then, I got up, lit the stove and changed from my down suit into the Gore-Tex jacket and pants I would wear on the way down to base camp. I wanted to leave Camp 2 at about 6 am to have the time to descend leisurely before lunch, take a shower and do some much-needed laundry. It was still dark and very cold, so, while getting my things ready and throwing chunks of ice into the pot, I stayed in my sleeping-bag. E got up soon after me, and a couple of familiar voices sounded from the surrounding tents: in the tent to our right, Dorjee, our sirdar, Pasang Nima and Nuri were awake; Junior’s and Gordon’s sleepy mumbling came from the left. An then, there was this other sound…
“Avalanche!” E whispered, as if her and I could keep it secret in our tent.
“Far above us,” I had the time to reply – and the audacity to sound certain.
Hardly more than five seconds must have passed between the initial loud crack and the moment it turned into the deafening roar, which hit the tent and sent it tumbling down the slope: our nylon home, loosing its familiar shape and structure, spun around E and I in confusion.
“If we stop before we fly into that crevasse, we’re gonna have to get out as soon as possible,” I thought, pushing the sleeping bag off my legs and shouting for E to do the same. I thought, too, that I had to find and keep hold of the zipper, in the unlikely event we should, after all, grind to a halt before reaching the crevasse. And then, I simply thought that that was it: I was prepared for something to hit me, or pierce me, or crush me any moment. Just then, we stopped. Immediately, I unzipped the tent, expecting – absolutely irrationally – for snow to flood in, and thinking that E and I would now have to dig ourselves out from under the avalanche debris. As I looked out of the destroyed tent, I saw stars against the still-dark sky. The air was cold and quiet, and I crawled out into it, amazed to be free. Beams from the head-lamps of my team mates hovered on the snow of the curving slope slightly above what used to be E’s and my tent. I counted the lights: they were as many as I thought there ought be; my team mates, then, were all fine; E was alright and so was I. Together we dragged the tent, heavy with our gear, as far back up the slope as we could, and began to search for the missing items. On my way I picked up some crampons, and put them where other such recovered pieces of equipment were being carried by my team mates.
It was Dorjee, who pointed out to me that I was freezing – I was wearing boot liners but my boots were gone, and it was way too cold for Gore-Tex. “Where is your down suit? Wear it!” he ordered. He found two mats for E and I, wrapped us in sleeping bags and commanded that we keep warm. Phil was already co-ordinating rescue efforts for the victims at Camp 3, and the rest of the team were either waiting patiently for their boots to be found, trying to fend off the pre-dawn cold, or searching for those missing boots, crampons, ice-axes and other things with Dorjee, Pasang Nima and Nuri.
As we sat and waited for the sun to rise, we watched many people rush past us on their way to help, and listened to Phil reporting on the situation on the hill and making rescue arrangements on the radio. It amazed me how efficiently everybody worked together to locate, stabilize and evacuate as many survivors as possible.
Before we knew it, almost all our climbers’ essential gear had been located by their peers or the Sherpas. I was still missing one boot when my feet became alarmingly cold, and I was taken into another team’s tent lower down at Camp 2 to warm them up – under a team mate’s armpits. ‘Bye, Mila!’ E’s voice briefly brushed past the tent I was in as she and most of our other climbers started down towards base camp. Out of our group only my climbing buddy from the day before (partially boot-less, like me), another ‘Junkie’ (a paramedic) and myself remained at Camp 2 with Phil and the Sherpas.
Once the air had warmed up sufficiently, I limped back to the site of our Camp 2, where Phil and the Sherpas were building a helipad for the chopper, due to pick up the injured Sherpa from Camp 3. Soon, helicopters started flying above us, and in under an hour one of them came for the victim our team had been looking after. The helicopter also dropped off a pair of boots for my climbing buddy to use on the descent and some hot juice to keep those remaining on the hill hydrated – welcome ‘gifts’ from the Junkies’ base camp staff. By then, my missing boot had been located in the vestibule of one of the tents at the lower Camp 2, and delivered to me by Dorjee – I was ecstatic to have it back!
I had no idea what time it was, but when the helicopter had left, Phil said it was time for me and the other two climbers, one now wearing ‘new’ boots, to begin descending to base camp. There was nothing we could help with; certainly, not me, who for some reason felt completely drained. Thus, we bid good-bye to Phil, Dorjee and Pasang Nima, staying behind to continue with the rescue, and wobbled away with Nuri.
Every step I made away from Camp 3, away from death and injury, I said to myself: “It should have been me.” It was hard to walk with the burden of that thought, and I descended carelessly, as if waiting for the avalanche to engulf me, too, after all. Down at Camp 1 I waited for my two team mates, and we crossed the glacier together. At crampon point we were met by two of our kitchen staff with tea, juice and snacks. Base camp was quiet when we arrived sometime in the afternoon. The Junkies’ Sherpas, who had been waiting for us and worrying, smiled quietly and watched as we dropped off our packs, drank hot milk tea and talked to each other.
I had nothing to say, except that ‘it should have been me’, so I quietly went to the shower. It took me forever to undress, and then I just stood there, naked and cold: “It should have been me!” And I was still waiting for it to be me, so I delayed for hours before finally calling home.
“Hello?” my mother’s voice, clear and warm, sounded from across the world. It cost me a lot of effort to keep it together.
“Have you heard about the avalanche?” I asked, adding immediately that I was perfectly fine.
“No, I’ve heard nothing.”
“Never mind. I was just worried you were worried,” I said, sighing with relief. It felt great, for once, to have a family that didn’t care the least bit about climbing, and only followed the official expedition blog.
“What avalanche?” Now she was worried.
“A large serac apparently collapsed from about 7400 meters early this morning, triggering an avalanche. 8 dead, 3 missing, many injured, they say – at Camp 3. We were at Camp 2, though, so we’re all fine. Our tents got damaged, my mug went missing, a team mate lost a boot – that’s all.”
“Where are you now?”
“At base camp for a few days. I’ll call you again in a little while. I have to go now.”
“Are you coming home?” she asked quietly after a long pause, clearly knowing the answer.
“No. I’m climbing on.”
“And then, are coming home?”
“I am,” I replied, as cheerfully and reassuringly as I could.
I hung up and left the communications dome for my tent. There, I prayed in my native tongue and recited mantras for the dead, the missing and the injured. Counting away the beads of my white mala, I whispered to myself what I could not have said on the phone – that it should have been me. I felt that if I could, I would trade places with any of the climbers, lost in the avalanche. Perhaps, they had children, and loved ones, and things to live for; surely, their lives were about more than just putting one foot in front of the other on a mountain somewhere… They must have been – had to have been – unlike me, whose little nieces and nephew think that auntie Mila lives ‘in the house next to the Sun,’ so far away, she can only visit them once or twice a year. When she comes, she tells wonderful stories, and then, leaves without saying good-bye. It should have been her. It should have been me.
This is the last blog I will write at Manaslu base camp during this expedition. The next one will be posted after the avalanche hype has died down.
A lot has been said in the media about the avalanche on Manaslu on 23.09. It hit at around 4:40 am. It wiped Camp 3 off the face of the mountain, killing over 8, leaving 3 missing and injuring a large number of climbers. Our team was at higher Camp 2 when the freak accident occurred. Still in our tents, we were thrown down the slope by the avalanche blast towards lower Camp 2, and showered with debris of snow and ice. It seemed like we fell forever, although, the whole incident lasted, perhaps, a minute. Our gear was scattered on the slope, and we were a little bruised and shocked, but otherwise unhurt when we emerged from the tents into the cold morning air. Immediately, rescue efforts to assist climbers at Camp 3 started…
The rest has been reported – more or less accurately – in the media. I have no wish at this time to contribute my impressions or opinions to the all-too-many others that have already been voiced. Therefore, I will write about the avalanche and the expedition outcome when I return to Kathmandu.
Most importantly, I would like to offer my heartfelt condolences to the families of the climbers lost on Manaslu on the cold autumn morning of the 23rd of September. I pray for them as well as for the safety of those of us, who remain on the slopes of the Spirit Mountain.