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.

Everest: The Nerves

It is only natural that one should be nervous before any climb, not to mention an Everest expedition. And nervous I am; so much so that I have managed to make myself physically ill only a month before the team’s planned departure to base camp.

Having returned to Kathmandu from St. Petersburg yesterday, I must quickly make amends for letting my anxiety influence my readiness for the climb. As those of you who have been following my Everest posts know, I believe that the best training for a climb is another climb. Given that I am short on time, however, I do not want to risk undertaking another expedition before the Big One, so I will go trekking instead – for a bit of a last-minute workout and acclimatization. I will head back to my favorite Khumbu tomorrow to cross three famous mountain passes: Renjo La, Chola and Kongma La. This trek usually takes 17-20 days but my guide, Dorjee, and I will only have 13 days before he must return to Kathmandu, while I will stay on in Phakding to do a little bit of teaching. I expect it to be very challenging indeed, as I am not currently at my strongest.

If all goes to plan, I will be back to post my last pre-Everest article and – inevitably 🙂 – some poetry at the end of March. Before I leave, let me thank my readers for keeping track of my adventures and wish them peace, good health and good luck this spring!

Love,

Mila

At the Foot of Cholatse

View Over Phortse

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

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

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

Cholatse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After a Dip In Gokyo in a Blizzard

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

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

Talking Storms

On the sixth of February Dorje and I climb up to Phakding Monastery for a Buddhist prayer ceremony, a puja, to be performed by the monks to protect our team, separated by bad weather and other circumstances. One of the climbers, Pasang, is still in Kathmandu, another climbing Sherpa, Chongba, and the cook, Jangbu, are in Lukla, and I am planning to trek to Namche Bazaar early next morning to acclimatize to high altitude.

The day of the puja is beautifully sunny and the monastery, perched up on the hill overlooking the village of Phakding, is quiet and peaceful. During the long ceremony held in the cold prayer hall, I feel like I am in a dream. The sweetness and warmth of milk tea on my palate, the clear sound of the bell and the guttural chanting in the dim air as well as the icy numbness of my suddenly still body seem alien, far removed from whatever it is that I am. When the ceremony is over and we receive blessings from the lamas, I feel unassailably happy and prepared for what is coming. A Hurricane.

The day after I arrive in Namche, a storm hits the Everest Region with surprising force; it tumbles trees and moves rocks, howling and growling, while I, the only guest in a limbo like lodge, read The Wheel of Sharp Weapons stubbornly, over and over again; when I can’t hear my own thoughts because of the wind, I read aloud. The lights go out, and I turn my head lamp on to keep reading, to stay awake. The morning after brings little relief as the Hurricane takes a quiet breath before the next blow.

After the Storm

‘I will not stop until you understand,’ the Hurricane seems to whisper to me, ‘that I am not some external force, a storm you can sit out or hide from; I am your mind. I will tear, and break, and hurt everything you care about until you find the strength to tame me. ’

‘What am I to a Hurricane? I don’t have that strength.’

‘Then, make it out of something you have in excess.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘‘Dance and trample on the head of this betrayer, false conception;

Mortally strike at the heart of this butcher and enemy, Ego’’

 [‘The Wheel of Sharp Weapons’, translated by Thupten Jinpa]

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Of course not; that is exactly why I want you to think about it.’

At four p.m. my phone is working again, and I can finally call Dorje: I want to let him know that tomorrow I will start down, and that the expedition is over: I will not risk my team’s safety for something I want, no matter how badly. Before I have the chance to say a word to Dorje on the phone, however, his tired voice tells me that he is already on the way to Namche. When he and Jangbu arrive I learn that, after six days of waiting, Pasang was able to fly out of Kathmandu by helicopter and will be joining us next morning. Strangely, instead of joy, I am overcome with grim anxiety: I had given up on Cholatse, I had decided to forget my insatiable ambition, but the Hurricane, true to its promise, will not stop until I’ve learnt my lesson well.

Above Cholatse Base Camp

‘If you hadn’t come and Pasang had still been in Kathmandu, I would have simply walked back tomorrow morning, you know…’ I tell Dorje at dinner. It would have been easy, too easy.

‘That would have been hard, Milarepa,’ he smiles, ‘the trail is completely blocked by fallen trees after the hurricane. Our yaks couldn’t pass. It’s a mess.’

‘Oh…’ I am hardly surprised to hear that the way back to ‘before the storm’ is impassable. I must walk a full circle before returning home, and it is my fault, undeniably, that four good people have to join me on this eerie adventure. My desire to climb Cholatse will now have to turn into a quest to keep the team away from it.

‘Remember, Dorje,’ I ask after a moment’s pause, ‘how I told you I was an ice swimmer? Well, if we get to base camp and don’t like the look of the Devil Mountain, we’re gonna go swimming instead. In Gokyo. You can make me a hole is the ice and I’ll sit there and pretend I’m on the summit of Cholatse.’

Whatever you like it, take it,’ is Dorje’s response, his trademark, accompanied by laughter, ‘but,’ he adds, ‘we have to try.’

That night, for the first time ever since I began to live and to want, I pray that we fail.

If I were a Mountain…

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

Many things happened in February 2011: I successfully passed my GUE Tech 1 course in Puerto Galera, Philippines; I returned home and was forced to stay; on a bad, bad night I went climbing alone – in the morning I woke up at the hospital, somewhat broken and completely dispirited; then, I started this blog.

The sole possibility of February 2011 and the pain of the months that followed it repeating itself in 2012 is nothing less than horrifying to me. February is fast approaching, and I must find a way not to have ‘a February’ this year. Where better to hide and sit out a storm than in a tent on a mountain which your friends refer to as ‘The Devil Mountain’? I know, it makes perfect sense, right?

The mountain my team of Sherpas and I are going to climb this Febuary is called Cholatse. It grows out of the frozen ground of the Everest Region like an enormous claw. At just under 6500 metres, Cholatse is not the highest of peaks but it is considered to be one tough cookie. Due to its reputation as an ‘evil’ mountain, it is climbed much less often than the other prominent Khumbu peaks. Very few of the few ascents on Cholatse have been successfully completed in winter, which is when we are going to climb. Again, it all makes sense, non?

View of Cholatse from Gokyo Lake 3, December 2009

I expect the weather to be one of our most serious issues during this expedition. In February spring comes knocking on Nepal’s door, bringing with it strong winds, heavy clouds and snow. It is unlikely that we should have a good weather window to get to the summit, and climbing a peak as tough as Cholatse in less than perfect conditions is a ridiculous and hopeless undertaking. Other problems will include my favourite steep winter ice, vertical rock and… me: it is a problem when someone so depressed finds herself on a mountain that has killed or injured many with a healthier mindset; it is a problem because I’ve been seriously ill for the past month and, thus, will not have my usual physical strength going for me. And this, too, somehow makes sense.

How does it make sense, exactly? It makes sense to me because I know that in order to survive this February I must have an opponent who wants me not to: in order to win, I must be made to fight. I have always thought that if I were a mountain, I would be Cholatse and, therefore, there couldn’t be a more fitting adversary… or a better friend.

I am very excited about the upcoming expedition and hope to tell my readers all about it when I return to Kathmandu at the end of February. For now, take care of yourselves and keep your fingers crossed for me!

Love,

Mila