Pumori 2012: Solo

I woke up to the clanking of harnesses, and looked at my watch: it was just before 7 am. Reluctantly, I loosened the string around my sleeping bag’s hood, and popped my head out into the icy air of the tent. The sun would not reach base camp until after 8 am, and I could not imagine getting out of my sleeping bag and changing in such cold, but I would have to: the three climbing Sherpas were heading up for what I’d told them would be the last attempt to fix rope up to Camp 2 – it was too cold to linger at base camp and wait for the weather window, which might or might not open before we freeze and the morale sinks below sea level. ‘Don’t risk anything,’ I told the boys as they walked away.

Everest
Everest

Later in the day, I went to the frozen Pumori lake to look for a spot to swim. I walked to the middle of it, gliding on the thick ice, looking away from Pumori, over whose summit clouds rushed at ridiculous speeds, and onto Everest on the other side. She was black, and rocky, and beautiful, and the sole sight of the mountain made me feel content, but also deeply sad. ‘If there was just one more thing I could do before disappearing, I would climb back to touch my forehead to your icy, white brow, Chomolungma,’ I whispered into the strong wind. ‘Can you see me, standing again before you? Can you hear me? Would you have me back?’ In his book Everest: The West Ridge Tom Hornbein describes the exact feeling I had standing there in the middle of the lake between Pumori and Everest: ‘It is strange how when a dream is fulfilled, there is nothing left but doubt.’

After 12 hours on the Southwest Ridge of Pumori, the climbing Sherpas would come down, and the expedition would be over. I would not have my team risk their lives or almost certain frostbite for my doubt to go away – because it wouldn’t, no matter how many summits I reached. After leaving me to celebrate a success, it would come and sit by me when my friends have gone to live their lives; doubt would hold my cold hands and whisper in my ear: ‘you were just lucky, Princess; you are unworthy, unworthy, unworthy…’

Cholatse
Cholatse

Tired of that voice in my ear, I made an announcement to the Sherpas before I went to my tent that night. ‘I have an idea,’ I said… I told them they would go home, while I would stop in Pheriche on the way down, wait for the permit to be issued, and then go to climb Cholatse – solo. They laughed my ‘idea’ off at first, but when they realized I meant what I was saying, they began to worry.

‘You’re not going anywhere alone, Mila,’ Dorje said to me sternly. ‘How are you going to fix rope? How are you going to carry everything? How…?’

‘I started climbing long before we met,’ I replied, ‘and I actually know how to fix rope, and hammer in pitons, and place ice screws, and pitch tents. Not that I’m great at it, but I can do it. I can certainly carry more than you usually let me do.’

‘How are you going to come down?’

‘Slowly and painfully, but carefully.’

‘No, if you go to Cholatse, we all go to Cholatse.’

‘No, I want to climb alone,’ I insisted.

‘You won’t be climbing alone. We’ll plan something now, and we’ll go together.’

Touched as I was by this display of loyalty, I truly didn’t want any of the Sherpas climbing with me anymore. For them, climbing is a job, for me – a passion; thus, while I can, perhaps, be justified in pushing past my limits, they should not feel compelled to follow where only a madman/woman would go. I didn’t want the responsibility – it weighed too heavily on my shoulders. For once, I wished that it would be just my doubt and I, climbing together as far as we dared. It was not to be, however. When I woke up next morning and prepared to go for a swim in Pumori Lake, one of the Sherpas was assigned to follow me and make sure I was ok. After the swim

After the swim

The swim was cold and invigorating, and gave me the strength to stay calm and collected when the expedition team left base camp next morning. On descent, I was again accompanied by one of the Sherpas, who would look concerned every time I would stop to look at a possible route of ascent on the fascinating Cholatse. ‘What do you think?’ I asked him about a line I painted on the mountain. ‘Looks fine. But you can’t do it alone.’ Down in Pheriche, where we stopped for the night, the wind was wild, ceaselessly throwing sand and dust in one’s face. It was still early in the day when we arrived, which gave us much time to talk about my newest bad idea – Cholatse solo. The conversation made me realize that there was no way I would be allowed to stay and climb on the mountain unsupported. In the evening the rest of the team arrived with the yaks, carrying expedition gear, and, looking at my team’s tired faces, I said nothing of Cholatse. The sirdar observed me questioningly, ready for almost any craziness to come out of my mouth, but I simply smiled. Of course, I would not drag the boys to Cholatse after a failure on Pumori – the whole point of leaving Pumori was to deliver them safely home to their real lives and their families. I told myself before going to sleep that night that that was what I would do: return to Kathmandu with my team, take a rest, and come back – alone – to Cholatse. However, that, too, was not to be.

Sunrise on Ama Dablam
Sunrise on Ama Dablam

At the Foot of Cholatse

View Over Phortse

Our team, now complete, finally leaves Namche Bazaar on the tenth of February: we will stop in Phortse Thanga and Thore before establishing base camp at around four thousand seven hundred metres on the Cholatse Glacier. The weather is sunny during our trek, and the sky is cold and clear, comfortably distant. However, the destroyed roofs of the small houses we pass and the countless trees, lying, dead, down in the valley are vivid reminders of the Hurricane and the proximity of danger.

I walk slowly and somewhat aimlessly as I no longer have a summit to reach for. I have decided that we would not be climbing Cholatse but I know the mountain has something yet to show me, so I must get to its foot, at least.

After breaking trail through over-the-knee-deep snow towards the glacier, we finally see the Devil Mountain, and an almost extinguished flame begins again to flicker in my chest. Cholatse is glorious, and I want it more than any other before it. Its ridges curve at wonderful angles, and under the bold sun the ice encrusting the summit glows like an enormous sapphire. The slopes and the summit, however, are also covered in clouds of thick fresh snow; it would require rare luck rather than skill not to cause an avalanche in such conditions.

Cholatse

While the boys unload our yaks and put up tents, I sit on a large brown rock and stare at Cholatse, now temptingly close to me. I look, and listen, and feel for ‘a sign’, for something that would make me believe that my team can ascend to the summit and return safely, but the mountain is looking down on me in silence, its two sharp ridges like open arms reaching for the people I have brought with me to climb it. ‘You can’t have them,’ I whisper to Cholatse or to myself, I hardly know, ‘I won’t let you have them.’

Pasang and Chongba climbing the first section of the route to Camp One

‘We’ll go off to explore the route to Camp One tomorrow,’ Pasang and Chongba tell me in the dining tent in the evening, and I cringe at the thought.

‘Remember what I told you: the moment you feel uncomfortable, you turn back. I’ll happily go swimming instead.’

‘We have to try,’ Dorje interrupts me, ‘it’s our job.’

‘But it’s also just a mountain. I don’t care if we climb it or not. Training for Everest is what this expedition is about; we can’t afford to get hurt now, none of us.’ I’m lying, I do care. I don’t want to think about Everest yet because that’s in April, or never; what do I know? It is Cholatse I want now, and my team would climb it for me if I asked them to; it’s their job, they say, and they take it seriously. In all honesty, if my team were a group of less decent people, I would have insisted that we climb. These men, however, have proven to be my friends, and their safety is sacred to me.

Pasang and Chongba promise me that they will be careful, but when I see them moving steadily away from base camp towards the South West Ridge, my heart seems to shrink to the size of a small pearl. I remember why I prefer to walk alone: because this way I can afford to be fearless.

To distract ourselves, Dorje and I talk about the upcoming Everest expedition until at four pm Pasang and Chongba return, and Dorje and I can now both sigh, relieved. In my mind I thank Cholatse for granting the boys safe passage. While they are resting and having tea, we all look at the pictures of the route which Pasang had taken.

‘We can climb up to Camp One. There’s a lot of vertical rock-climbing involved, but we can manage. Beyond Camp One, however…’ he points at the gaping mouths of the wide crevasses lining the way to the summit.

‘No,’ I say, ‘enough. We’re going swimming.’

‘But we can tag Camp One, at least. Chongba and I have to go anyway because we left some rope and snow anchors up there.’ The Sherpas all nod in agreement.

‘Forget the stuff you left up there. I don’t want anyone on the mountain; I don’t want to go to Camp One. We’re done here.’ I almost choke on my words as I force my mouth to let go of them. ‘Let’s talk Everest instead…’

After a Dip In Gokyo in a Blizzard

The next day the winds return. At base camp we are waiting for the yaks which would take our gear back down to Lukla. I leave the boys to chat in the kitchen tent and climb up the moraine to get closer to Cholatse. Gusts of wind throw snow and sand in my face, and the Devil Mountain, dark-grey, stands proudly among low clouds. When I feel far enough from base camp, lost enough, I sit on the cold ground behind a large boulder, watching the storm dance over Himalayan peaks. Soon, I become part of the scenery – a rock among rocks. It is a strange and peaceful feeling – this of being Cholatse and not the greedy girl who craves to climb it; of being the strength the Hurricane had ‘told’ me to search for. As I get up to return to base camp, I am not the same person who’d left it just over an hour earlier: I am the storm, I am the mountain, and I am nothing.

Early next morning Dorje, Pasang and I say good-bye to Chongba and Jangbu, our cook, who will return to Lukla with the expedition gear. Our mini-team, travelling light, will cross the Ngozumba Glacier over to Gokyo in a blizzard so that I could go for a ‘swim’ in my favourite mountain lake in the world, Dudh Pokhari.

Talking Storms

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.

After the Storm

‘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.

Above Cholatse Base Camp

‘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.

She Said ‘No’

Cholatse, view from Base Camp

When did I know that Cholatse was saying ‘no’, that we weren’t going to climb it? It wasn’t during the long, beautiful puja [Buddhist prayer ceremony] held for us at the Phakding Monastery. Nor was it when, after five days of waiting, one member of my climbing team was still at Kathmandu airport, unable to fly to Lukla and join us due to bad weather. It wasn’t even when the hurricane, the strongest in years, was dancing outside my window in Namche Bazaar in vortexes of dust, and hail, and snow. I knew on the sixth day of our team’s separation, on the morning after the hurricane.

The sky was heavy, leaden; it was a moment’s quiet before the storm would return; the phones were silent, the rooms in the lodge were dark, and there was nobody outside. As I lay, shivering, in my sleeping bag, I suddenly felt… happy. Dorje was safe and warm in Phakding, Pasang was at home in Kathmandu, Chongba was with me in Namche, and Jangbu, our cook, was waiting in Lukla. All safe. That storm, that mountain and I, we hadn’t hurt anybody yet but we would have if we’d had our way. If things had gone according to our climbing schedule, the storm would have caught us on Cholatse, and then… then, I don’t know.

I wrote in my previous post that if I were a mountain, I would be Cholatse. Perhaps, it’s the reason why it was so hard and yet utterly necessary to say ‘no’ to the climb. The more I looked at its ridges from base camp, the more I wanted that mountain. I had to find something else to want so that I could turn my back on Cholatse and myself, and walk away. Fortunately, I did… More about that and the expedition in the upcoming posts.

Love,

Mila

If I were a Mountain…

Cholatse, on the way to Everest Base Camp in October 2009

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?

View of Cholatse from Gokyo Lake 3, December 2009

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!

Love,

Mila