Pumori 2012: The Wind

Pumori
Pumori

The winds blew strong and cold across our small base camp of three sleeping tents and one large kitchen tent. The rope fixing progressed well, but, still acclimatizing at 5300 meters, I was worried every time the climbing Sherpas would leave for the Southwest Ridge, steep and exposed to the winds. Hopeful, I monitored the weather forecast texted to me every day: all it would say would be that the wind speeds would keep increasing. After three freezing-cold days and nights at base camp, I could no longer wait for good news, and decided to climb up to Camp 1 at 5900 meters to take a closer look at the route and spend one night at that elevation to acclimatize.

Pumori Base Camp
Pumori Base Camp

As I slowly climbed higher on wobbly rocks and past the white teeth of the icefall’s seracs, I felt the fatigue of the three nights I’d spent without sleep. My -40C sleeping bag is wonderfully comfortable, but my metabolism is too slow to warm it up when the levels of oxygen in my blood drop – as they inevitably do in thin air – so the down always remains cold, as do all the layers of clothes I wear ‘to bed’. What I usually do, then, on those cold nights in the mountains is curl into a ball and focus on the warmth in my feet – the chemical warmers stuffed between two pairs of thick socks – until morning. The problem with winter mountaineering is that even when the sun does rise and touch the icy tent with its rays, most of their warmth, filtered through the cold air, is stolen by the wind, and the little that’s left must suffice to help one get out of the sleeping bag and get to work. Another frustration is that everything is frozen in the morning: sunscreen, face wipes, water in the water bottle from the night before – and it takes forever to warm things up.

Near Camp 1
Near Camp 1

I found Camp 1 suspended over the most stunning Himalayan scenery on a serac that creaked unpleasantly as it greeted Dorje and I for the night on the ‘mattress’ of winter ice. We pitched our tent in a safe and sheltered spot, and from there I could see the route to the summit of Pumori; I couldn’t help grinning in anticipation of the hard mixed climbing the Southwest Ridge promised. The three climbing Sherpas would try to fix rope up to Camp 2 at 6500 meters that day, but I was not sure it would be possible for them to accomplish the task, given the wind speeds and the low air temperatures. I warned them to be careful, and stayed behind only to see them come down in a few hours, almost literally blown off the ridge.

Ama Dablam from Camp 1
Ama Dablam from Camp 1

It would be a bad, bad night at Camp 1. Late in the evening I received a new weather forecast, which suggested that the wind speeds would continue to increase, with hurricane-force winds settling down for the winter above 6500 meters. ‘We can’t climb in the jet stream, Dorje,’ I told my tent mate and sirdar of 8 expeditions, ‘and we can’t wait for the jet stream to lift off in this cold for weeks, either.’ As I looked at the wind speeds on the screen of my phone – 70, 85, 100 mph on the summit of Pumori – the thought first entered my mind, clear as the night, that we would not reach that summit, that I would not get what I want – again – and that once more I would have to swallow the bitter, humbling pill of defeat. Everyone who’d ever doubted me would be right, and would be justified in saying: ‘oh, but of course you couldn’t do it, not even with the strongest team in the Himalaya. You’re just not a climber, Princess, and certainly no expedition leader.’ As the night in the tent turned from dark blue to black and the creaking of the ice underneath our tent grew more frequent, I just kept sitting there, in my down suit and sleeping bag, staring at the numbers which translated into one word – ‘impossible’ – and listening to the sounds, which reminded me of the Manaslu avalanche. I was scared to stay and scared to leave, as if again suspend over my fears like I was on the way to Camp 1 on Ganesh, paralyzed, helpless. After what felt like an endless succession of hours, the light in the tent began slowly to brighten, and at 6 am Dorje was up and the water was boiling, announcing the start of a new day on the hill. We considered climbing towards Camp 2 but eventually descended to base camp.

Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse from Camp 1
Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse from Camp 1

There we were welcomed, warmly as always, by the three climbing Sherpas and the two cooks, and I instantly felt encouraged to carry on in spite of… everything. As some of the Sherpas left for Gorak Shep to have a rest from the cold and monotonous life at base camp, I stayed in the kitchen tent, sipping milk tea and chatting with my remaining climbers about our plans after Pumori. We spent hours daydreaming and when in the evening I ‘woke up’, I knew but one thing: no matter how I might feel about another defeat and what silent reproaches and condescending comments I would face when I returned to reality from the enchanted kingdom of Chomolungma, I could not allow the people I climbed with and considered my true friends to get hurt just for me to feel better about myself. They were the people who mattered, while those who judged me on the length and color of my hair could think what they would. What I wanted – the summit – I could not have without endangering the lives of my friends, who would carry on working on the route in spite of almost certainly getting frostbite in the process of rope-fixing. As much as I wanted the summit, I would never have it at a cost to anyone else but me. Thus, slowly and carefully, I began to let go of the beautiful objective that is winter Pumori via a stunning and tough route as I suggested: ‘Let’s wait a while longer, perhaps, a couple of days, and if the weather stays the same, and the forecast doesn’t promise any improvement in the conditions, we’ll see what we do.’

‘We will leave,’ I added to myself, ‘we’ll just have to leave.’

Pumori 2012: Khumbu

Pumori Base Camp. Weather before team departure.
Pumori Base Camp. Weather before team departure.

I look at the men sitting around me in the kitchen tent, lit only by the climbing team’s and the cook’s headlamps and… a small candle. The three climbing Sherpas, who have just come down from the Southwest Ridge of Pumori after battling 60-70mph winds trying to fix rope along the route, look utterly spent. Their faces are gaunt and sunken in the scarce light. They are warming their hands, which my whim to climb Pumori in winter could have cost them, against aluminum cups of steaming hot tea. ‘If the wind is too strong on the ridge, come down with your gear, don’t risk anything,’ I told the three Sherpas over 12 hours ago in the morning when they were leaving base camp to work on the route. The winds, weather forecasts predicted, would only get stronger above 6500 meters from that day on, and climbing would be impossible anyway. A long wait at the frigid base camp would also be difficult for the boys and, perhaps, too difficult for me. I hoped the forecasts would, perhaps, be wrong, but the faces of my Sherpas tell me the winds were indeed as relentless as expected. The bulky backpacks they brought down are unequivocal signs that we are not returning to the route. I am relieved to see everyone healthy if tired and disappointed, but I am also sorry to witness the end of what could be my last Himalayan dream.

‘I’m sorry, Mila,’ Dorje, the team’s sirdar, tells me, thinking that it is the impossibility of climbing Pumori that casts a shadow over my face.

‘Don’t be sorry,’ I say – to both him and myself. I then thank the boys wholeheartedly for their hard work fixing rope on the steep and exposed Southwest ridge, for waiting for days at the lifeless windy base camp when the weather halted their progress, for truly believing that I could, in fact, climb such a technically difficult route in winter and for putting their lives at risk to fulfill my dream. Six pairs of eyes look at me, six men hear my voice, but they don’t listen.

‘A waste of money and gear,’ Dorje sums up the sentiment.

‘Just money and gear, though – not fingers or anything else irreplaceable,’ I insist. ‘If we still have all our fingers and the will to climb together, we can try this again at another, more appropriate, time. Meanwhile, I have another idea…’

Kangtega from Pangboche
Kangtega from Pangboche

I like my voice that night – I recognize it again, at last. It sounds calm and certain; it knows what’s important. When the expedition was leaving Kathmandu, my voice and my whole attitude were different.

‘I can see that you have a strong team,’ someone, whose opinion counts, told me a few days before departure.

‘Yes, it is a strong team, except for me,’ I said.

‘I can see that, too,’ was the response of my interlocutor – a vocalization of what people see when they see me: someone, who is carried to the summits in a basket on the backs of her climbing Sherpas. Past my appearance and countenance people all too rarely see how much I actually love to climb and how hard and seriously I work at doing it well. Leaving Kathmandu before the Pumori expedition, I was not, as I used to do, simply setting out to scale a mountain that attracted me but also to prove that I was equal to the hardest of mountaineering tasks. I’d forgotten that to reach the summit is, in reality, not at all ‘the hardest of mountaineering tasks’.

Ama Dablam
Ama Dablam

Trekking to Pumori base camp at 5300 meters took us 6 days. It was cold, hard to walk and even harder to breathe – as always. The busiest trekking trail in Nepal leading to Everest Base Camp looked empty – disappointingly so, as the winter sun was still friendly and welcoming, and the weather, if windy, was clear. Many of the mountains I passed I recognized as friends: the gloriously steep Thamserku, towering above Namche Bazaar and the trail to Tengboche, Ama Dablam – the most beautiful mountain I have climbed yet – standing tall and proud across the river from Pangboche, Cholatse on the way to Lobuche, which taught me to appreciate the people I climb with more than the mountains I crave to climb, and, of course, Everest, where a part of me fell asleep somewhere below the Second Step, and never woke up. I feel at home walking amongst these stone bodyguards of the mountain gods, whom I worship, and who don’t know I exist. It is, however, with a heavy heart that I step onto the site of the Everest Memorial, where out of the frigid ground small chortens grow like brunch-less, bloodless tree trunks, decorated with memorial plates, telling trekkers and climbers about those who came before them – and would never leave now.

Pumori from the Everest Memorial
Pumori from the Everest Memorial

It is from here that I first see Pumori in her full stature. She seems to be one of the chortens, and I wonder briefly if she is waiting for my name to be inscribed on her Southwest Ridge. There have been no successful ascent of the mountain in 2012, and it doesn’t feel to me like we will be granted passage to her summit, either. Nevertheless, the beauty of Pumori fascinates and draws me like a magnet, and when next morning I stand at our base camp at the foot of the mountain, I forget all about my fears and premonitions; I am ready and excited to go climbing.

Blog Update: Another Cold White Christmas

Pumori (photo via Wikipedia)

This season winter came to Kathmandu and the mountains early. The capital of Nepal is now already as cold as it usually gets in January, and our October/early November Ganesh expedition was about as cold as my winter ascent of Ganchenpo. A winter ascent would be a serious trial in such unusually low temperatures, which only makes it more interesting for me to try. And what could be more exciting for a true altitude junkie than to attempt a winter ascent of one of the most beautiful and recognizable peaks in the world – the stunning Pumori in the upper Khumbu region just 8 km away from Everest? This is not a rhetorical question. The answer to it is, to try to scale the same mountain – a dangerous climb even on the normal route – via the notoriously difficult and steep Southwest Ridge. A scene of several accidents, the route has taken more climbers to failure than success. In terms of technical difficulty, it will be by far the most challenging climb I have ever attempted: it features overhanging terrain, long vertical walls of rock and ice and exposed traverses. My greatest enemy in the mountains – the cold – will be another serious obstacle on the way to Pumori’s summit at 7161 meters. It will take all my luck and courage to succeed – in summiting or deciding to turn around before I get myself or any of my friends in trouble. The reason my team and I chose the more difficult route over the normal one is that the latter, although technically easier, is well-known for its high avalanche risk. Those of you, who have read about my recent Manaslu expedition, will understand why I particularly want to avoid at least this danger.

Pumori, photo from EBC trek 2009

Why Pumori? Why such a ridiculously technical climb in such a cold season? Aren’t there other mountains to climb: lower in elevation and, thus, warmer, with easier routes? And, speaking of warmth, how long has it been since I’ve been to the beach or gone for a long dive in the sea? Well, it is Pumori because, in addition to being a most alluring peak its own right, it is close to the unforgettable Chomolungma. In fact, it was George Mallory, who died tragically on Everest during the 1924 expedition, who gave Pumori her name, and mountaineers often refer to the mountain as ‘Everest’s daughter’. As such, it is part of Everest, which, although I have climbed it, is still a dream, that somehow feels unfulfilled. Thus, I climb on. It makes sense to me to try a more challenging climbing route now than I would have dared do before: it’s not that I am a better mountaineer now, but I am calmer, and I can enjoy the challenge a little more – even if I loose it. As for the beach… there’s a glacial lake at the foot of Pumori, so I’m bringing my swimsuit :).

Leading the expedition will be my regular climbing partners and friends: Dorje Sherpa and Pasang Wongchu Sherpa. Sangye Sherpa and a ‘newbie’ on our team, but not on the Southwest Ridge, Dawa Sherpa, will also climb with us. Our cooks, Pasang Nima Sherpa and Pemba Sherpa, will make sure we are eating well while off the mountain. On our way to Pumori base camp, which follows the same trail as the famous Everest Base Camp trekking route, we will stop by the Pema Choling Monastery above Phakding, where I hope to see the kids in good health and deliver my friends’ donations. Many thanks to all of you, who have shown interest in the project! The donations page for the monastery is not yet up and running, but, if you would like to support the cause, please, check back once in a while, as we’re only a few days away from getting things working:

https://sixthsymph.com/pemacholing-monastery-khumbu-nepal/

Millions of thanks in advance!

We leave for Lukla on the 4th of December, and expect to reach base camp within 7-8 days. To keep my friends and readers updated on our progress, I will tweet occasionally throughout the expedition. You can follow the climb here:

https://twitter.com/Liudmila_M

Given that we expect the expedition to last about a month, I will most likely be on the mountain for Christmas and New Year, as well as the season’s other big event, the end of the world on the 21st of December. For all three of them I wish you love, warmth, courage and happy new beginnings! Thank you for following my expeditions in 2012! I hope to be back in 2013 with better poetry and more exciting adventure stories for my readers. Drop by if you’re curious ;)!

Love,

Mila

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.