Ganesh I: Plan B

Thinking up a Plan B

I look at my altimeter, showing me to be about 200 meters below base camp, then, at the long grassy slope leading possibly to the glacier, but maybe to another dead end, and sit back down on a warm moss-covered rock. From the top of the moraine by the dry glacier I am facing what is our Plan B – another way to get onto the glacier above 5000 meters. In the past couple of days our previous Camp I location and the route leading up to it have been cleared of rope and other remaining gear, and we must now search for a new spot for Camp 1. Phil and most of the other expedition members are on the moraine with me, looking up and guessing, like I am, about what lies beyond the line, which cuts off our view of the route. We are all hoping that, as it does in the Google Earth images, the slope meets the glacier; we hope, too, that the dangers and obstacles of the new route may prove more manageable than the ones, which have chased us down Yangra just a few days ago.

‘It would be a long way,’ one of us voices a sentiment we all share about the ‘Plan B’ route, ‘down, and then back up…’

‘It’s fine as long as we get to the glacier this way…’ another voice expresses another shared hope.

The next day Phil and the Sherpas leave base camp at 6 am and reach the glacier following the new route. It is heavily crevassed, we are told in the evening, and the ridge along which we were to proceed to the summit is corniced and narrow – too dangerous to camp on, which couldn’t be avoided. However, another attempt is to be made to cross the glacier and take a closer look at the ridge before any decisions are made. This time, everyone will go climbing together. The chances of actually finding the way around the newly-encountered major obstacles are slim, so the climbers will not carry any gear up for storage. We realize that, in all likelihood, this will be the team’s last foray up the mountain.

The beginning of ‘Plan B’

The night before the climb I feel sick and choose to stay behind as, early in the morning, the inji and the Sherpas leave base camp. I hear them walk away, and, knowing what news they will bring from the glacier at the end of the day, tell myself that the climbing part of the expedition is almost definitely over. There is nothing surprising or sad about this thought. Ganesh I, after all, has never been climbed from Nepal – for a reason.

I get dressed, put a towel and a change of clothes into my backpack, and go for a hike down the glacier – to search for a lake, which would not be entirely frozen, for my swim. I walk alone, making my way across the grey ocean of rocks and boulders, as if frozen in motion, climbing up and descending the ‘waves’ under the cool fall sun. Every tiny lake I encounter on my way is all solid ice, and I can walk and jump on the glassy surface without fear or hope of breaking it. After over an hour of searching, I feel exhausted and disappointed. Lowering myself onto a large boulder by one of the lakes of ice, I stare at the unassailable fortress that Ganesh has proved to be and at the frozen water under my feet. While the remains of determination to keep looking for the route and for the lake leave my body, I begin to feel increasingly like old rag doll, thrown away by her puppeteer, my motivation – gone. ‘This could be my last climb,’ I remind myself, conscious of the fact that I cannot keep putting my family through the torture of having to let me go – let go of me – every other month. ‘You’re too old for this. You have to stop, grow up and focus on your job,’ the same voice continues, ‘you must walk away, eventually, and the sooner – the better. This is no place for someone like you, and never was, really.’ These words sound to me like a cold sentence to the part of myself, which has been the defining one for a long time now. To walk away now would be like walking into a prison cell, acknowledging and accepting my sentence, and I cannot summon the strength to leave my seat in the middle of the vast Torugumba glacier. When I finally find the strength to pull myself up and start stumbling in the direction of base camp, I move slowly, and it takes me a small eternity to return to my tent.

A frozen lake on Torugumba Glacier

It is after 6 pm when the first of my team mates returns to base camp by the light of his head lamp. ‘Are you alive?’ he asks, coming up to my tent. ‘You’d been coughing so much at night we decided not to wake you when we were leaving.’

‘I’m fine,’ I say, ‘but how did you do today? How far up the glacier did you guys manage to progress?’

‘Far enough to see that the glacier is a no-go. The crevasses are huge – we’d need ladders to make it across them. And the ridge, too, doesn’t look so good…’

‘Oh,’ I mumble, crawling out of my cold nylon home into the much colder air outside. ‘Come have some tea in the dining tent and tell me all about it.’

We go to the yellow tent, where the gas heaters are burning, and the sweet milk tea is waiting on the table. Soon, the rest of the team arrive, cold and fatigued after 12 hours of climbing, and join us for dinner. We look at pictures of the glacier and the ridge, and it is clear to me from what I see that we’re done with Yangra – or, perhaps, that she’s done with us. We had a plan C – ascending a very steep couloir of about 1500 meters in vertical length, which would shorten the distance we’d have to cover on the ridge to the summit – but it would have been unfair to ask our Sherpas, already working very hard indeed, to climb in such dangerous conditions, given that several seracs threaten the couloir, and we have already seen more than one collapse… The expedition is over, and we begin discussing our departure arrangements.

‘I could get a helicopter to come pick you up tomorrow,’ Phil tells the four of us, who want to return to Kathmandu by air.

‘No, please, let’s make it the day after,’ I jump in before my team mates have a chance to respond.

‘But why?’

‘I still have to do the swim, and the Sherpas have told me they’d seen a lake from high on the mountain, which wasn’t frozen…’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Mila…’ one of the boys intervenes.

‘I’m not being ridiculous – just trying to make the most of my time here. I would really like to go for a swim, and there seems to be a puddle for me to do it in.’

‘I haven’t seen a single lake from above that wasn’t frozen…’ says another climber.

‘Just give me one more day, if you can. We have to pack, anyway. It’s too late now, and in the morning you wouldn’t have the time because helicopters usually fly early…’

Eventually, I persuade the team to give me another day to try and find the lake. I ask one of the Sherpas how to get to it, but, instead of explaining, he suggests to walk with me and make sure I come back in one piece. ‘Bring some evidence, if you do go swimming,’ my team mates request before I leave for the lake next morning. My companion and I then trek down for about an hour, cross the moraine onto the glacier and find ourselves by a tiny turquoise lake, glittering with thin ice on its sides but otherwise perfectly suited for a short swim. ‘It would be hard to do two kilometers here,’ I muse as I estimate the distance between the shores to be a maximum of 10 meters, ‘we’d be here until spring.’ Thus, I decide to simply enjoy a little refreshing dip of about 20 minutes. ‘Be careful,’ my ‘babysitter’ warns me as, breaking the thin film of ice and sinking thigh-deep into silt, I step into the perfectly blue, perfectly cold water. I feel the cold intensely as I cross the lake slowly for the first time. The warmth of my body is still too much of a contrast against the near-zero water temperature for me to be comfortable. In a couple of minutes, however, my bodily warmth retreats deeper under my skin, and cold becomes an integral part of me. Then, I can swim, it seems, forever. When I finally crawl out of the water, the midday sun feels warmer than it ever has in a long time. I sit and rest on a rock by the water, waiting for the inevitable onset of shivering to start and pass. When it does, I change, and start stumbling back up and across the moraine behind my Sherpa guide. I am slow and clumsy because my muscles have not yet warmed up sufficiently, but it doesn’t matter: I feel calm, relaxed and cleansed of all my disappointments – and cannot help smiling at the feeling.

In good company with the Altitude Junkies' Ganesh I Expedition team
In good company with the Altitude Junkies’ Ganesh I Expedition team

It takes us a long time to return to the tent village of base camp, but we make it by lunchtime. I am too excited and energetic to eat, so I simply gulp milk tea, cup after cup, until the time comes to start packing. It takes me no time at all, as stuffing whole periods of my life into shapeless bags, not to mention a couple of weeks, is something I’ve had a lot of practice in. At dinner my team mates and I watch the videos of the swim, drink champagne, and share our future climbing plans. We have all had a great time climbing on Ganesh – another safe, exciting and unique expedition with Altitude Junkies, whose leaders and Sherpas have done everything in their power to find a safe route to the summit, and had the integrity to stop and turn around when such a route did not reveal itself in spite of their efforts.

Ganesh I, still unclimbed from Nepal

A helicopter picks up four of the expedition members at 3800 meters next morning, and, as it takes off, I look at Ganesh not with sadness or regret but with genuine gratitude. It has reminded me that I was not at all a ‘conqueror’ of mountains but someone, who simply loves being in their presence – unconditionally. Mountains and high, remote lakes are, to me, spacial representations of power and sources of energy. Like people, who live high in the Himalaya, I believe that a force dwells in them that can elevate or shatter into pieces the strongest of human spirits. Sometimes it grants one a safe passage to the summit against all odds, sometimes – unexpectedly defeats all one’s expectations for success; in either case you can rely on it to teach you a lesson in humility and patience. I appreciate the lessons Ganesh has taught me, but I might need a refresher soon :).

P.S.: A couple of videos from the swim:

Getting into the water:

The views around the lake:

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 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: 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: 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!