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

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 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: http://altitudejunkies.com/dispatchganesh12.html 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: https://sixthsymph.com/pemacholing-monastery-khumbu-nepal/ 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!

Love,

Mila

Everest 2012: Decisions

I am gasping for air. A million long needles seem to be piercing my body through my skin’s every pore. My eyes closed, I focus on my breath: inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale – slowly, deeply. When I open them again, the beauty around me makes me smile. I am on the steep bank of one of the small icy lakes scattered across the Rongbuk Glacier, near Base Camp. The turquoise water in which I am immersed up to my neck is glowing in the bright afternoon sun, and small pieces of ice glitter here and there in the corners of the lake. I push myself away from the shore and swim towards the other one which, given the water temperature, seems miles away. However, when my feet touch the bottom of the lake again I am no longer cold – there’s just some fiery liquid energy running through my veins. I laugh and stop for a little rest; then, I swim back to where I’d left my clothes, and get out of the water. The wind is strong and, I think, cold, but I am certainly colder. Dressing takes a while because my fingers and toes are frozen. Once finished I climb back on top of the moraine, and stare, mesmerized, at Chomolungma, standing gloriously against the clear sky. I know, I have been looking at the mountain every day, but here, away from everyone, it feels like Everest is looking back at me. I will return to the lake tomorrow – and every day while we are resting at Base Camp before the second acclimatization rotation to ABC and the North Col.

My private swimming pool

It will be hard to walk from BC directly to ABC, and it will take me 8 hours to get to 6400 meters; it will be hard to climb the North Col again, even in perfect weather; the hardest thing, however, will be coming back to Base Camp after the successful rotation knowing that the next venture into thinner air will be the last one – the summit push.

Camp 1 on the North Col, second rotation: (left to right) Dorjee Sherpa, yours truly, Mark Horrell, Phil Crampton, Margaret Watroba

Before the summit push it is the daily weather forecast that brings the team together in the communications dome at 11 a.m. – we are waiting for the ‘weather window’ which would permit the team to climb to the top without freezing or being quite literally blown off the mountain. The most important factor for those climbing from the Cold Side is the wind – we are looking for something around 30-40 mph. For days now the forecast has been suggesting that the 18th, 19th and the 20th (perhaps, the 21st as well) will be good days to go for it, with relatively low winds and manageable temperatures. We initially decide to make the 20th our summit day: we would get in position for the summit push at ABC, rest there for one whole day after the tiring trek from BC and then climb to the North Col; this would be followed by a night at Camp 2 at 7800 meters, then, Camp 3 at 8300 meters, and late in the evening on the 19th we’d leave for the summit.

Jet stream blasting the summit of Everest

‘You just have to stay healthy now, be careful,’ our leader, Phil, tells the team. ‘No swimming, Mila!’ I will not go to the lake again. However, just to keep active Margaret and I, warmly dressed, with Buffs over our noses and mouths, will go on little walks around BC – they will have to be short because of the strong, cold wind. All is well until we decide we want to see the nearby monastery and send some postcards to our loved ones from the China Post office in the tent village some 45 minutes away from BC. Before we leave BC on our unnecessary mission I ignore my instinct warning me not to go. When, three or four hours later, Margaret and I return to Base Camp, I already know I’m falling ill. We drink tea with ginger and honey but its warmth can’t chase the cold wind and the dust out of our lungs. Soon, we both have a persistent chest cough; I become congested and feel my body temperature rise. ‘It’s fine,’ I tell myself, ‘I still have two full days at Base Camp to recover.’

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. On the 13th of May we don’t get our daily weather forecast – perhaps, the most important one of the season. After we go to sleep in our tents, however, Phil receives the forecast and asks the team to gather in the kitchen tent. All the Sherpas and the inji, sleepy-looking, are passing the computer with the forecast from one person to another. We all agree that the 20th does not look so good anymore – we’ll have to aim for the 19th. If we are to have a rest day at ABC, we have to leave the next day, but we are not ready. The Sherpas, after doing two carries to 8300 meters back to back, are down at BC for a more than well-deserved rest, and they certainly still need another day at base camp; as for us, the inji, we need that day before we leave for the mountain to pack, make our last pre-summit push calls/write blogs and just get mentally prepared for some of the most exhausting days of our lives. Thus, we decide to skip the rest day at ABC and give ourselves another day at BC instead: we will be leaving for 6400 on the 15th of May.

The route to Camp 2

That night I start another course of antibiotics. I know that what I have is not the so-called ‘Khumbu cough’, which is superficial, but a full-blown chest infection. I am coughing a lot, and my body feels sick, limp and heavy. At sea level it would take me about a week, perhaps, 10 days, to recover from a sickness like that; after spending some 40 days at over 5200 meters, I dread to think how long for and how seriously i’ll be ill. I have one day – just one day before I have to leave for the summit push on Everest – something I’d dreamed of and visualized for years – and now I know that I probably won’t make it to the top, maybe, not even ABC…

It is a long, bad night at Base Camp for me.

Cold Water

Perfect Swimming Weather

The four men – Dorje, Pasang, the lodge owner and the cook – stare at me in disbelief. We are in the mountain village of Gokyo by the side of Lake Dudh Pokhari at four thousand seven hundred metres. Our boots are soaking wet from breaking trail in a blizzard and we are drying them and our damp clothing by the large metal stove in the dining hall.

‘You didn’t think I was joking, surely, about swimming in the lake?’ I ask my Sherpas. ‘I don’t have a sense of humour.’

‘But there’s no water,’ Dorje protests.

‘Of course, there is – under the ice.’

‘We’ve had very cold December and January this year,’ the lodge owner informs us with a grin, ‘The ice would be very thick.’

‘We have ice tools, right?’ I call to my boys for support, but they say nothing for a couple of minutes.

‘Maybe, it’s better to go tomorrow, when it’s not snowing quite so hard,’ Dorje tries to bargain.

‘Today or tomorrow, I’m still going to do it. Now, at least, we’re all wet and cold already.’

‘Ok,’ Dorje says at last, ‘what do you need?’

‘Two buckets of hot water in the shower for when I return, a blanket, and for the fire in this stove to keep burning.’ The lodge owner nods and instructs the cook to make the necessary arrangements. Dorje and Pasang quietly pick up their ice axes, two ropes, and we are ready to go. I can’t help smiling as I observe their tense, worried expressions.

‘It’s fine,’ I say cheerfully, ‘I know what I’m doing,’ but my tone fails to convince the brave mountain men.

We walk through the deep snow lying on the icy shore of the lake and stop when I think we’ve reached the point where I’d gone for a swim three years earlier in December. Granted, the weather was very different then, and there was a bit of water in the shallows. Moving some five or six metres away from the shore, we begin to hack at the ice with our axes, but I already know by the sound of the ice that it’s over a metre thick.

‘Right, stop; we need to find a place where there’s some movement of water, ice will be thinner there.’ We head back towards the lodge and soon realize that the only place where it would be possible to go for a dip is the crossing between the village and the lake. Using shovels, ice tools and boots we make a hole in the ice large enough for me to lie down.

‘The previous record was two minutes,’ the lodge owner tells me, as I take off my membrane pants and parka; I will be wearing long underwear in the water. ‘Is it true that your heart is supposed to stop after two or three minutes in zero-degree water?’

My Little Ice Pool

‘Not in my experience,’ I reply, and step off the ice and into the shallow water. My heart begins to race as my body becomes submerged, but it regains its calm rhythm in a few seconds. Cold crawls deeper and deeper under my skin, and I welcome it; I am at home in the water, never afraid of it.

‘Five minutes,’ Dorje announces, and I wake up from my cold dream. I know that my toes are frozen solid and my fingers are barely moving. I am dying, slowly.

‘Eight minutes,’ Dorje says, worried, and I know it’s time to go; reluctantly, I crawl out of the water. With my rigid fingers I try to change into dry clothes, and it takes forever. Dorje and Pasang carefully put boots on my unmoving feet and rush me back to the lodge, where two buckets of hot water are waiting in the shower. I stagger slowly behind them because I don’t want to get back to warmth – between the lake and the lodge I walk a fine line between the quiet of death and the violent, painful shivering of life which, I know, will soon invade my body. I am very tired.

In about an hour I stop stammering and can hold a cup of tea without spilling any on the blanket wrapped around me. The boys are playing cards, while I, warm by the stove, stare at Dudh Pokhari through the falling snow, already soaked in twilight. I miss home.

Leaving Gokyo

In the morning I wake up feeling incredibly strong. As the boys and I break out of the deep snows of Gokyo towards lower elevations, I feel no fatigue, no hunger or thirst: I believe I can walk forever. We reach our destination for the day all too early, so I suggest that we continue on to Namche Bazaar; in total, the trek that day takes us nine hours.

Then, we descend to Phakding, where we make some arrangements to support the monastery where we’d had our puja before the climb. After a night of rest, we hike to Lukla, which we will leave in glorious weather next morning.

Cholatse

Back in Kathmandu I will think of the Cholatse expedition as the most interesting and challenging of the season. Instead of helping me escape from February, it showed me that I could live through it, maintaining my integrity and strength. No successful ascent would have been better mind training for my next climb, the climb of my life – Everest this spring.