How NOT to Train for Everest 2.1: Thailand

The view down from Crampon Point
The view down from Crampon Point

I still distinctly remember letting go of the last fixed rope on my way down from the North Col on the 20th of May, and looking forward. Between me and the ‘safety’ of Advanced Base Camp at 6400 meters there lay a vast ice plateau and moraine slopes covered with moving rocks. Crampon Point was where ice and scree joined together. There, I knew, our kitchen boys would be waiting with tea; I could rest there; I could close my eyes at last and just breathe and drink, and not worry about dying alone in the snow. But could I get to Crampon Point? All but my mind was telling me I couldn’t. I started walking, dragging my rag-doll legs behind me. My oxygen bottle gone, the cough was strangling me as I struggled to breathe through my bone-dry mouth. The wind was cold but the sun – relentlessly hot, both beating me down to the ground. I knew that if I stopped walking then, I would not be able to get up again; I had to somehow continue putting one foot in front of the other. Thus, focusing on the dark scree far ahead of me and thinking about cups and cups of sweet hot milk tea, I kept staggering forward. ‘Don’t you dare die now! Not f***ing now! You’re almost there!’ To make it back to safety the day after the summit was one of the biggest surprises of my life – greater, perhaps, than reaching the summit itself. If on summit day or the day of the descent I have just described I wasn’t using supplemental oxygen, I am quite certain I would not have had the strength to make it back down alive. Well, this spring I intend to climb without bottled O2…

I titled my last year’s article about physical preparation for the Chomolungma expedition in Tibet ‘How NOT to Train for Everest’. I believe, it was a good name for the post, which stressed heavily the importance of mountaineering training and gaining climbing experience over physical conditioning. Indeed, I climbed quite a lot in 2011-12, and it certainly served its purpose: I was mentally and physically ready for the ascent of the world’s highest mountain, and not even a severe chest infection prevented me from reaching the summit. However, as climbers well know, that’s only half way, with the descent being the much harder half. No doubt, mountaineering experience and knowledge are still very important at that stage but physical strength – no less so.

Everest and Nuptse
Everest and Nuptse

My climbing adventures after Everest have been… interesting. From the disastrous avalanche and hungry crevasses on Manaslu to the beautiful unclimbed Yangra and the heartbreakingly cold Pumori, the post-Chomolungma expeditions have, as they always do, taught me many tough lessons and given me much food for thought. The Himalaya hurt and soothed me, invited me in and pushed me away. Pumori in particular proved a short but intense climb that left me feeling like I should give my crampons a break. Yet, I still had to train, and train hard, for the unprecedentedly challenging spring climbing season.

I decided on training Muay Thai in Thailand for many different reasons, with the most important one of them being that I simply needed to change. I had changed many times before, as my long-time readers know, dressing up as various ‘characters’: from ballerina to bullfighter, from tech diver to high-altitude mountaineer (here’s a recent short interview, which focuses on my climbing: http://holikenoli.com/liudmila-mikhanovskaya-mountaineering-himalaya/ ). What I have never been is someone who is able and willing to hurt another sentient being. ‘But bullfighting…’ you could reproach me. All I did was attend a bullfighting school for two years to write a paper on the ethics of the sport/art, and I never fought in the ring. I was about 20, and I was curious. Now I feel like I know something about different kinds of pain, and I would not wish to inflict any kind of it on any kind of creature. Perhaps, that is where I fail myself – in that I am ultimately defenseless, both mentally and physically. After Pumori I had to learn to be different.

I had my doubts and reservations before I left Kathmandu for Bangkok, so I watched movies and videos about Muay Thai to get myself all excited about the upcoming training. Ready and eager to learn, I showed up to my first private class in the north of Thailand. To no surprise of mine, I was completely terrible: I couldn’t stand up right, punch or kick, or knee, or elbow, or ‘teep’ or… anything. What was surprising was that some western students from the gym had the brilliant idea of videoing my first session on pads (which wasn’t pretty, for sure) and playing it back adding commentary, sighs and outbursts of laughter where appropriate. My trainer, too, looked at me in amazement at how much of a ‘beginner’ I really was. His countenance was understandable as most Muay Thai students come to Thailand to work on the skills they began developing at home; few people just walk into a training camp and say: ‘I know nothing, teach me everything’. That, anyway, was my introduction to Muay Thai: learning to ‘walk’ at 26 to the sounds of laughter from my much more advanced peers and incredulous stares and smirks from Thai trainers and fighters. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was up for it all – again. I had been the funny beginner too many a time before and knew exactly how hard it would be to fight for what I still wasn’t sure I really wanted. I attended one more training session at another gym, which went as badly as the first one, and decided to leave the idea of learning Muay Thai for a while, dedicating some time to travel in the pretty Thailand. Yet, Muay Thai had already conquered itself a place in my mind, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. ‘How easily you gave up,’ I kept scolding myself, ‘how quickly you threw away a beautiful idea – because somebody laughed at you and thought you were an old, clumsy white lady. And so you are, but you’re more than that. Or are you? Get back in there and find out!’ Oh, it is wonderful when stubbornness replaces reason and talent, albeit temporarily!

Instead of finding a relaxed, unassuming camp by the beach, I decided to train in the heart of Muay Thai, Bangkok, at one of the city’s and, therefore, the world’s top camps. There, I thought, the training would be harder, the demands – higher, the trainers – better, and the example set by some of the best nak muays (thai boxers) out there – fantastic motivation to train hard and progress quickly. The laughter, of course, would be louder, too, because, although the camp, as almost every camp in Thailand, ‘welcomes’ beginners, the trainers find us hard to deal with… That, too, is understandable, because there seems to be some confusion as to what a ‘beginner’ is. Some people refer to themselves as such after years of training; others, like me, wish they could be so humble!

Training
Training

I certainly wished I had been humbler with my ambitions when the first day of training started – at 5.30 in the morning, with a 10k run. Running has to be the most painful form of exercise for my body’s many injuries, and doing so much of it every day sounded like a grim prospect. I only managed 5k on the first day, after which, out of breath and energy, I slowly walked back to the gym. There Muay Thai training proper started with a session on pads. One of the trainers called me into the ring and told me to ‘shadowbox’. ‘Yes, right,’ I thought, ‘but HOW?’ Recalling what I’d been shown at the two previous training sessions I’d attended, I started staggering across the ring waving my hands – boxing gloves and all – in the air. I imagine it must have been rather a disturbing sight for the eyes, which are used to watching the best of thai boxers. Next, the trainer put the pads on his hands and, throwing his right arm forward yelled ‘Yaaaaaaaap!’ ‘I don’t know what to do!’ I yelled back at him, eliciting but another ‘Yap’ in response. So, swallowing my shyness and confusion, I just punched the pad, and another one was instantly offered up for punching. I hit that, too, pretty pleased with the fact if not the way I was was actually punching something. But then something unexpected happened: the trainer stepped away, bent slightly forward, and, placing the two pads in front of his abdomen, yelled ‘Kick!’ Kick? Right. Umm. What would Chuck Norris do: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f67LgpJBPPE )? Well, what I did looked, perhaps, a little different but certainly had similar visual – if not physical – impact on my audience. I was hopelessly bad. I kept on trying however, ever-conscious of how embarrassing it all looked. When I left the ring, it was time to punch and kick the bag for a few rounds. Again, I was, of course, a mess. Luckily, the 1-hour training came to an end. A different trainer trainer led a session of conditioning exercises, and a foreign Muay Thai student was put in charge of the stretching.

When I was finally by myself in my room, I was happy the training was over for the morning (there would be another 2-hour session in the afternoon), yet totally crushed by the clear understanding that a) I could never be good at Muay Thai because I’m simply too old to learn; b) I would keep trying regardless just because I’m stubborn; c) what little self-esteem I had would be punched out of me. I asked myself then if I should stay and commit fully, as I do, to this pursuit, unnatural for me, or leave and try to save some confidence in myself for Everest without O2, where I will doubtless need it. Well, I was way too curious to leave yet…

Everest 2012: the Descent

Passing Camp 1 on the way down

On our way down from the summit Pasang and I meet Mark Dickson and Ang Gelu, Ian Cartwright and Kami, and Mark Horrell and Chongba – all already negotiating different sections of the summit pyramid. We shake hands, and part ways. The only inji-climber from the Junkies’ team I am yet to see is my friend, Margaret Watroba. I tell myself that, perhaps, we’d already passed but failed to recognize each other due to our single-minded focus, on the summit on the way up and survival on the way down, or just exhaustion. Besides, with climbers dressed in nearly identical down suits and boots, with goggles and oxygen masks over their faces, it’s hard to tell friends from strangers…

 I let go of all the thoughts which could worry me, and carry on down, slowly and carefully, but soon find myself loosing all ability to focus. My body feels like it is made of lead, and my mind, too, is heavy like a sleeping elephant. It is when we reach the Third Step that I realize just how sick and exhausted I really am. My legs are so limp that they won’t support me and my arms – so weak, they can’t hold me on the rope. I make myself look at the corpse in the snow under the vertical Step for ‘motivational’ purposes before I begin the descent. Once at the bottom, I can only bring myself to make a couple of small steps, and sit down to rest and cough. It’s not a safe place to stop, as the body behind my back reminds me. I must get up and continue downwards; this thought and the movement it eventually triggers – everything is in slow motion.

 When we reach the top of the Second Step, I finally see Margaret. The chest infection we both caught in the tent village near base camp has taken greater toll on her than it has on me (Margaret summited Everest from the South Side in 2011; she is 62 years old, I am 25). My friend is struggling, running out of energy, oxygen and time to make it to the summit. We sit down behind her, Cheddar and Nima Nuru to rest – again – when Margaret, very quietly and gracefully, decides to turn around. Knowing exactly how she feels, I am humbled by her courage and integrity. It is not only for her own sake that she makes the choice to descend now: it is for the sake of her Sherpas and the whole team, who would have to put their lives at risk if a rescue in the death zone was necessary. As she turns her back on the summit, I sense that she will return for and get it next year.

 I look down from the top of the Second Step at the long drop to the Rongbuk Glacier underneath – again, for ‘motivation’ – and begin climbing down. Slightly past the foot of the Step my knees bend under the weight of my exhaustion once more; then, I must get up again. When at length Pasang and I reach the top of the First Step, I’m finding it nearly impossible to get back on my feet after taking a ‘cough break’. Seeing how weak and unfocused I am, Pasang suggests that I rappel instead of down-climbing. My fingers are ‘dumb’ with fatigue, and my climbing partner has to help me with the figure 8. He climbs down first. Then, I get in position to rappel; I can’t do it as my arms will not hold any weight at all. There are people immediately behind me and I cannot go back, so I simply let myself tumble to the bottom of the rock face, slowed down a little by the rappel device. Pasang looks at me and, it seems, cannot believe what he’s just seen. ‘I know, I know…’ I mumble into the mask. Anywhere else I’d be embarrassed for such a display of climbing skill, but at over 8000 meters embarrassment is too long a word to pronounce and too small a feeling to bother with.

 We are now between the First Step and the Exit Cracks. The yellow tent town of Camp 3 is in clear view below us, seemingly close, but I don’t believe I’ll make it there. I am now staggering rather than walking, lingering at every rope anchor and, finally, I am unable to make another step. ‘I can’t do this,’ I whisper into the mask repeatedly, as if this unhappy mantra was my breath, and lie down. Resting on dark rocks under warm afternoon sun, I listen to the lullaby my mind is singing me: ‘You need to rest, to close your eyes – just for 15 minutes. A little bit of sleep will give you strength. Go to sleep, go to sleep…’ It’s a peaceful death: falling asleep in the warm sun, and never waking up again; or not so peaceful: waking up to an empty oxygen bottle at night and stumbling off the mountain in confusion. Suddenly, my daydreaming is interrupted as an array of faces appears out of the black emptiness of my mental exhaustion: my mother, my niece, my friends… Last night, as I was going for the summit, they were praying and cheering for me, sending me their love and strength from all over the world. And what did I do? I let myself get carried away by summit fever, and now I’m going to sleep. What a selfish pig! They love me and trust me, and I’m… what?… tired? Just tired?! Angry at myself, I wake up from what could have been my last dream. ‘Hey?’ I hear Pasang’s worried voice. ‘Sorry!’ I apologize. Still, I can’t find the energy to get up. ‘I can’t do this!’ every cell in body is screaming, so I slap myself on the face as hard as I can. Again, Pasang is looking at me like I am completely crazy. ‘I know, I know…’ I say, and we carry on down.

 The steep Exit Cracks pose the last obstacle on the way to Camp 3. I can’t remember how I make it down, but I’m guessing it wasn’t pretty. From the foot of the Cracks all we have to do is follow the slope to the campsite; we sit down again before my climbing Sherpa believes I’m ready to take on this ‘monumental’ task. Although I’m only the third inji to make it back to Camp 3, tired as I am, I cannot continue the descent to the North Col. I sit by the tent like an abandoned rag doll, my whole body numb with exhaustion, pain and shame. I am thinking about the dead of Everest – of climbers just like me, with the same dream; with mothers, and children, and friends, and a home somewhere – about how they will never walk into Camp 3 like I just have, or get into a warm sleeping bag like I soon will, and then, in a few days – go home to be happy at times and unhappy at times and just alive, like I still am. This summit day, one of the hardest of my life, will never end for them, and I am so, so sorry for those climbers and their loved ones! Sitting there, in the loneliest place in the world, I remember how close I was to going to sleep, too, and I recall what – who – made me open my eyes again.

 Pasang takes my crampons off for me, and we crawl into the tent. We doze off for a while, then, he begins to melt ice for our tea and soup. Soon, all the Junkies’ injis and Sherpas return to Camp 3, all – too exhausted to go any further. We spend a cold and windy night in the death zone, but nobody can sleep: the wind all around is too loud and angry, the exhaustion is too great, and the bright flashing images from summit day keep the mind working. It’s only in the early morning, after coughing for hours, when I finally see nothing and feel nothing – I must be asleep. It will not be long, however, before I open my eyes again and see that everything inside the tent is covered with a thin layer of snow. My feet are seemingly frozen and my hands are cold, too; they’ll have to warm up as I continue the descent to ABC almost 2000 meters lower. Quickly Pasang melts some snow to make water and tea before we leave the tent.

 Pasang and the other Sherpas have a tough day ahead of them: taking down Camp 3, the Junkies’ one remaining tent (and its contents) at Camp 2, and a part of our North Col Camp 1; then, they will carry all of that down to ABC on their backs. I cannot fathom how the Sherpas can do it – I can hardly imagine getting myself with a half-empty backpack down to 6400 meters… Someone like me could never reach the summit of Everest and come back to tell the tale without the help of these mountain supermen. All I can do in thin air – and not very well, and not always – is put one foot in front of the other and, wasting my breath, whinge about how hard it is. Everything else that had to be done for me to succeed and survive was done not by me but by the Junkies’ leader, Phil Crampton, and his team of Sherpas: sirdar Dorjee Sherpa, Pasang Wongchu Sherpa, Pasang Nima Sherpa, Kami Nuru Sherpa, Ang Gelu Sherpa, Nima Nuru Sherpa, Cheddar Sherpa, Chongba Sherpa, and our awesome cooks Da Pasang Sherpa and Pemba Sherpa. In fact, I think I have contributed ridiculously little to my own summit success, so I am very grateful for it to all the staff and team members of the Altitude Junkies 2012 Everest expedition.

 My descent through the vast, windy Everestland on the 20th of May is uneventful: still very weak, I fall once, getting entangled in an old rope between Camp 3 and Camp 2, but the safety line holds; then, I get severely windburned on the long, exposed snow ramp leading to the North Col – I’ve always wondered what windburn was, anyway; then, I think I’ll die of exhaustion (yes, again) as I ‘arrive’ at Crampon Point, but our kitchen boys are there with hot and sweet milk tea, and I’m back to life after drinking six cups of it. Eventually, Margaret catches up to me, and we stagger into ABC together, coughing in unison; after a light dinner, we drop half-dead in our tents.

1
At ABC after descending: sunburn, windburn and joy!

The next day is a rest day at ABC. Then, we head down to Base Camp, walking along the Miracle Highway for the last time; it’s melting. At BC we celebrate with a gorgeous dinner and sparkling wine. I am persuaded to have a little bit of the latter and, although I don’t drink, I agree, happy to entertain my entertaining team mates. We rest and pack for the next two days, and on the day before our departure for Zhangmu I go to my turquoise glacial lake for a good-bye swim. The lake is bigger than I remember but not warmer: it looks different, yet, it feels the same.

With me it’s vise versa: now back in Kathmandu, I look the same after as I did before Everest, but I don’t feel the same: there’s something enormous, dark and cold stuck in my chest and, no matter how much I cough, it won’t come out. Everest is now a big part of me, with its conquerers and its victims, its icy nights of millions of stars and white windy days, with its hypnotizing power… I will never forget smiling at the rising sun on the Second Step of the sometimes merciful but, really, wrathful Chomolungma, or weeping for Her dead, who welcomed me. What can I say? I have summited Everest, but it remains a dream to me, as, perhaps, it should, to a mere human.