Manaslu 2012: The Fall, Revised

In response to a couple of my friends’ requests, I have revised the post to include a few  more details about the summit day and the descent. I hope that those of you, who wanted the last installment in the Manaslu series to be ‘more’, are now ‘more’, if not entirely, satisfied ;). 

On the Summit of Manaslu

The Junkies left Camp 4 for the summit at 2 am. It was a cold night. The trail to the summit from the day before had been almost entirely erased by the strong wind, and I would hardly have found my way across even the first of the wide plateaus above Camp 4, if it wasn’t for following my climbing Sherpa, Pasang Wongchu. There were a few clouds in the otherwise clear sky, and an occasional flash on the horizon, ahead and to the right of us. The flashes were extremely bright and vast, which made me believe they were lightnings, but it was quiet around us, and my heartbeat, heavy breathing and the creaking of the solidly-packed snow under crampons were the only sounds in the world.

‘Please, don’t let a storm start,’ I begged somebody somewhere, ‘not now! Not after all that, not when I’m this close to the summit…’ as if summiting would make ‘all that’ go away.

Just like I’d hoped it would, oxygen made climbing easier for me than it had been the day before. I was quite alert and, at first, even warm, but that illusive warmth lasted me precious little in the strong wind. We moved relatively slowly, and I enjoyed the feeling of not being in a race: I was almost certain I would make it – until my toes began to freeze; they would not warm up now, no matter how much I wiggled them in my boots. I would look up at the sky frequently, waiting for at least a hint of dawn, and when I could finally see it, I felt calmer, but even colder. The pre-sunrise hour is always the iciest hour of the night, but I had no warmth left to give.

We’d been moving steadily: I could already see the false summit, and was getting near it as the blue air gradually filled with light. By then, in spite of the very reasonable pace, I was tired. Two team mates had passed me with their Sherpas. As I lingered at another stop, with the traverse to the sharp summit ridge within reach, I was searching for but finding no energy or even desire to make the final push. I still don’t quite know why it was that, after walking in the night, occasionally bending double to hide from the gusts of the angry wind, after living through nightmares, after days of cold and exhaustion, now, on the vertiginously narrow ridge leading up to the true summit, I didn’t want to carry on to the end. Minutes later, crouching on the small top of the stunning Spirit Mountain and tying khatas for friends to the string of prayer flags, I felt the opposite of joy. In the summit snow I buried a photo of Christophe, to whom I had dedicated my climb, whispering as a prayer the words of ‘I Promise‘ – the poem his partner had recited at his funeral just a month earlier. There was no sense of accomplishment when I fell silent and looked at the impressive peaks below me or into myself, just loneliness as big as the frozen, timeless space all around. I’d silenced my shame of surviving where so many died, and stepped over them but also over myself to be standing where I was now. I wasn’t sure, however, that I had the heart to retrace my steps back ‘home’.

Coming down from the summit (photo credit: Martin Belanger)

I left the summit quickly, forgetting to look at the team mates I passed on the descent from the ridge. After the ridge came the exposed, windy traverse, which had scared me on the way up but which was now a welcome sight. ‘If I fell here, it would be an accident…’ I thought, stopping, considering my ‘options’: there were no ropes to keep me, nor, frankly speaking, much else. I didn’t want to have to celebrate my dubious ‘conquest’ at base camp – I may have wanted what I’d ‘conquered’ but I certainly missed what I’d ‘defeated’ in the process. I looked down but, suddenly, my climbing Sherpa turned to me and, reaching for my safety sling, clipped it into his own without a word. I hated him then for his impeccable timing because now I couldn’t fall, and would have to tread carefully. Fixed lines, which began after the traverse, re-connected me with reality, pulling me out of my grim dream. Climbers on their way up, friends and strangers, nodded their mask- and hood-covered heads and patted me on the shoulder. They reminded me of the fact that across the long slopes and wide crevasses between the summit and base camp, there were real people, not ghosts, waiting for me. And if they keep waiting, then, I cannot fall.

Looking down towards Camp 4

The descent from the summit back to Camp 4 took us little time. The air had warmed up, but the wind was growing stronger. We could not afford to linger at Manaslu’s highest camp as the weather forecast had predicted a serious increase in wind speeds in the afternoon, but we would still take a couple of hours to rest in the tent and boil some water. Our destination for the day would be Camp 2, given that base camp seemed impossibly far away for how tired we were. E and I both decided not to use oxygen on descent so as to have lighter backpacks; I also wanted to get rid of the gas mask, which hindered my sight somewhat, especially coming down. E left before me and Pasang, and I would only follow reluctantly when the Sherpas started taking down the tents to carry them to Camp 2. Walking without oxygen proved hard, and I was very slow, so Pasang insisted I use it in spite of my protests: ‘I have no space in the pack!’ The oxygen bottle took the place of my sleeping bag, which was now tied on the outside of the Sherpa’s backpack, already ‘heavily decorated’ with other group and personal gear. I felt like the biggest, most useless whinge stumbling behind him, a little more lively now thanks to the O2. Just minutes later we caught up with E, and continued the descent together. After briefly resting at Camp 3, where I could finally stop using oxygen, we staggered down to 2. On our way we passed a small group of Sherpas, who had recovered another body from under the avalanche debris, and were preparing it for evacuation. I felt lucky to be short-sighted, but even luckier to have a tired heart.

As we approached Camp 2, I heard an all-too-familiar sound – an avalanche on a nearby slope. It was small, ways away, and the trail was completely safe from it, but I still shuddered. ‘A few hours ago you considered walking off into thin air, and now you’re scared of an avalanche? What a little hypocrite!’ I said to myself as we began moving again. Camp 2 was already in the shade when we reached it; it was going to be a cold evening. In the tent the trio shared what was left of our food supplies to make ‘dinner’ and went to sleep at about 7 pm. I had worried about spending one more night at Camp 2, but neither tears nor nightmares would disturb me – I was fast asleep before I knew it after the long summit day.

Packing away Camp 2

In the morning we packed up Camp 2 and began the descent to base camp. Concerned about the wide crevasses, which cut through our route, Phil would lead the team down himself, and we would all climb together. In spite of the precautions, two of us couldn’t help exploring the insides of two different crevasses; yours truly, of course, had to be one of them. Fortunately, one of the Junkies had a ‘magic sling’ to help out climbers in just such embarrassing situations, and that day the sling came in very handy indeed. Passing Camp 1, where I loaded my backpack with more gear, we soon arrived at Crampton Point. There our kitchen staff were already waiting with tea, juice and a can of Red Bull for me. I was surprised and somewhat disappointed at how energetic I felt, when we reached base camp a little later. I felt nothing like after summiting Everest, the descent from which had been so unbearably exhausting. Paradoxically, I felt physically stronger now, after returning from the summit, than I had when I first arrived at the foot of Manaslu. I remembered, however, my little episode on the traverse, and it worried me that I should have let myself grow so mentally tired and weak that such thoughts as I had would even come into my head… I knew that I could still trust my body to do what was required of it more or less efficiently. Could I also trust my mind not to yield under the pressure of all-too-many memories and fears?

At base camp we had a beautiful celebration, with champagne and laughter, and, in spite of my expectations, it felt good and right to be celebrating a summit. I was grateful to Phil and the whole Altitude Junkies crew for providing me and the rest of the clients with the opportunity and the support to reach the top and descend safely. The expedition had been an intense experience, and, ultimately, a very positive one. It took away yet another of my 9 lives, but gifted me with an increased appreciation of the remaining one(s), and another 8000-meter summit. I was glad to have stood on the tiny top of Manaslu, which I had not been able to do a year earlier. When I left base camp and at last allowed myself to walk all the way down the trail to Samagaon, I felt free and calm. However, I was missing the mountains, harsh and cruel as they sometimes are, even as I was walking away from them.

A pre-predarture swim in Birendra Tal

I am back in Kathmandu, having left the high-altitude winter for the stunning autumn now reigning in Nepal. I am still processing my latest climbing experience but already preparing for the next one. This time I will do more than climb – and, hopefully, for more than my own pleasure. I will post an update about the new project in a couple of days. Thank you for ‘climbing’ with me on Manaslu! Drop by if you’re curious to learn about the upcoming adventure, and take care!

Love,

Mila

Manaslu 2012: Thoughts and Steps

Dawn at Manaslu Base Camp

After a day or two of rest at base camp, I resumed my daily walks up to the first fixed rope. They were no longer quiet: helicopters hovered above Manaslu, people were talking, tents – rustling as they were being packed away by the departing teams… Five members of our group, too, decided to leave the mountain for various reasons, all of them perfectly understandable in the light of the recent tragedy. I would miss my new friends, especially my climbing buddy K. who had been so very supportive all along. He left his camera (mine had gone swimming at the start of the trek to base camp) and Z-rest for me to use, and shared his high-altitude snacks with the team, which caused us to ‘fight’ over Shot Blocks and chocolate. It was sad and discouraging to watch some of the Junkies – all of them strong and able climbers – depart.

For me, however, leaving was not an option, and so, sticking to my savior routine, I made my way through the agitated base camp towards the first fixed line. Suddenly, I noticed two people on the trail ahead of me, with a large professional camera. ‘Here come the vultures,’ I thought, pulling the Buff over my face and hiding under the hood of my jacket. One of the reporters pointed his camera right in my face, and followed me without a word, until I – to him, apparently, an inanimate object – began climbing steeply up the path. The journalists’ obnoxious bluntness and insensitivity upset me. There were many people at base camp in those early days after the avalanche, keen on taking the most gruesome pictures or having their photo snapped in the epicenter of events. Like any tragedy, the Manaslu avalanche had its true as well as its self-proclaimed heroes, easy to tell apart even in the unhealthy excitement which followed the painful events of the 23rd of September. For my part, I wasn’t feeling like either a survivor or a victim – certainly, not feeling like any outside attention – and was simply trying to keep the resolve to carry on.

Some of the Junkies’ stellar crew

When I reached my destination at the foot of the steep rocks, I saw a group of Sherpas coming down from Camp 1 carrying enormous backpacks. ‘Time to go home,’ one of them said to me, grinning. ‘Not yet,’ I replied quietly, talking to myself rather than him. But why was I so sure I had to stay, when so many people all around me were leaving? For several simple reasons: I was alive and physically unhurt, I was a climber, and the mountain I wanted to climb was right in front of me, its slopes made safer than ever by the recent slide. It helped, too, that I wasn’t afraid to stay, since the avalanche to me had not been something surprising or unusual in the ultimately unpredictable mountain environment. Mountaineering is an extremely dangerous sport: to human error or freak accident, almost every climber I know has lost at least one friend. I know that I, too, am not immune to mistakes or ‘bad luck’; I, too, can one day be referred to as somebody’s ‘lost climber-friend’. I accept and embrace this risk: I could not love the mountains as whole-heartedly as I do, if I didn’t trust them to know my time to go. If anything, the avalanche had made me value my time more than ever – so much so, I was not going to waste it waiting or hiding.

Camp 1

In describing my reasons for staying, I speak, of course, only for myself. I don’t know how my team mates, who also stayed on the expedition, had really made their decisions or what their motivations might have been. The fact was that, in spite of the confusion around us, Phil Crampton’s Altitude Junkies, unlike most others, had the leadership, the support and the resources to allow those willing to try for the summit to do so. We stayed calm and focused, we rested, we waited for the right weather and, on the 27th of September, launched our summit push.

Need I say that it wasn’t easy to walk back up to where I had run from just a few days ago? That I couldn’t close my eyes at Camp 1? That I cried all night long at Camp 2, pressing my mouth shut with my icy hands? That, as I climbed alone from there to Camp 3, it was not the thinning air that made me breathe erratically and try to move as quickly as my legs would carry me, but the biggest shame for being alive? That the night at Camp 3 – such a beautiful, clear night – was invaded by more ghosts and thoughts than my mind could contain? Yet, in spite of all this, of the mental and physical exhaustion, I was strangely happy to be where I live at my fullest: somewhere between love and loss, and good and evil, where there’s nothing to be afraid of anymore.

I was the first to leave Camp 3 for Camp 4 on the 30th of September. I knew it would be the toughest of the days on the mountain for me: the steep climb is made long and exhausting by the decreasing pressure of oxygen in the air, the strong wind and the cold. I expected it to take me about 6 hours to climb from 6800 to 7450 meters, from where the Junkies would be leaving for the summit in the early hours of the next day. Four of the injis, including the leader, would climb without bottled oxygen. Our Sherpas, who would also climb without O2, all passed me within just minutes after I’d left Camp 3, all – smiling and moving unbelievably quickly under their heavy backpacks. I could never keep up with them, so I focused on making sure I could, at least, maintain my own slow but steady pace. It was very windy, and I climbed with my head down. Where a thick crust of wind-licked ice covered the slopes, I would hide under my down suit’s hood from the pieces of ice being kicked down by the climbers above me. Higher up, the wind felt even stronger, ceaselessly throwing clouds of snow in my face. When I reached the long traverse into Camp 4, cold and tired, I started to meet climbers on their way down. They looked feeble on their feet – as, undoubtedly, did I – and complained about the cruel winds up high. Stumbling at last into Camp 4, I knew exactly what they’d been talking about: the tents flapped noisily, disturbingly, and people’s voices sounded loud above the wind. My second time at Camp 4, I realized, would be colder than the first one a year ago. I was happy that in the evening I would start using supplemental oxygen to help me preserve the remains of my warmth and energy. Once in the tent, I made sure I was as warm as I could be to provide for a good rest before leaving for the summit. Eating was out of the question but, following my climbing rules, I would drink a much as possible. It was great to have my summit day climbing Sherpa, Pasang Wongchu, help my tent mate, E, and me to boil water. At 6 pm he set up our oxygen systems, and the three of us went to sleep – actually sleep and not toss and turn annoyingly in the sleeping bag, thanks to the O2. At 1 am we were to start for the summit of Manaslu. As I listened to the angry wind outside the tent, I wasn’t sure we would really be going.

Camp 3

Manaslu 2012: Second Rotation, Part II

Views from Camp 2

I was trying to look up, but tears were crowding my eyes, and I couldn’t see anything. A Sherpa, who had stumbled down from Camp 3 bare-foot, was being wrapped in a sleeping bag and examined for shock and frostbite by Phil and my team mates. Boot-less and, therefore, useless, I sat out of the way in the snow, in a cloud of sleeping bags, with E next to me. Everything was cold, and solid, and white, and empty. I looked into the Sherpa’s eyes, wide with dread, and then up again, towards where he had come from, where there was nothing now but snow and the remains of the night, melting slowly off the sky. Just a few minutes had passed since the avalanche had struck, when a group of Sherpas from lower Camp 2 began making its way towards where Camp 3 had been. ‘Up there…it should have been me,’ a thought crossed my mind and lingered, as I stared at the spot.

I couldn’t sleep that night, as I never really can at high altitude, unless I’m on oxygen. Again, thoughts fought for the best seat in my mind, muscles twitched, and the cold was impossible to ignore. Again, I waited for the alarm to give me the excuse I needed to start moving at 4:15 am. Then, I got up, lit the stove and changed from my down suit into the Gore-Tex jacket and pants I would wear on the way down to base camp. I wanted to leave Camp 2 at about 6 am to have the time to descend leisurely before lunch, take a shower and do some much-needed laundry. It was still dark and very cold, so, while getting my things ready and throwing chunks of ice into the pot, I stayed in my sleeping-bag. E got up soon after me, and a couple of familiar voices sounded from the surrounding tents: in the tent to our right, Dorjee, our sirdar, Pasang Nima and Nuri were awake; Junior’s and Gordon’s sleepy mumbling came from the left. An then, there was this other sound…

“Avalanche!” E whispered, as if her and I could keep it secret in our tent.

“Far above us,” I had the time to reply – and the audacity to sound certain.

Hardly more than five seconds must have passed between the initial loud crack and the moment it turned into the deafening roar, which hit the tent and sent it tumbling down the slope: our nylon home, loosing its familiar shape and structure, spun around E and I in confusion.

“If we stop before we fly into that crevasse, we’re gonna have to get out as soon as possible,” I thought, pushing the sleeping bag off my legs and shouting for E to do the same. I thought, too, that I had to find and keep hold of the zipper, in the unlikely event we should, after all, grind to a halt before reaching the crevasse. And then, I simply thought that that was it: I was prepared for something to hit me, or pierce me, or crush me any moment. Just then, we stopped. Immediately, I unzipped the tent, expecting – absolutely irrationally – for snow to flood in, and thinking that E and I would now have to dig ourselves out from under the avalanche debris. As I looked out of the destroyed tent, I saw stars against the still-dark sky. The air was cold and quiet, and I crawled out into it, amazed to be free. Beams from the head-lamps of my team mates hovered on the snow of the curving slope slightly above what used to be E’s and my tent. I counted the lights: they were as many as I thought there ought be; my team mates, then, were all fine; E was alright and so was I. Together we dragged the tent, heavy with our gear, as far back up the slope as we could, and began to search for the missing items. On my way I picked up some crampons, and put them where other such recovered pieces of equipment were being carried by my team mates.

It was Dorjee, who pointed out to me that I was freezing – I was wearing boot liners but my boots were gone, and it was way too cold for Gore-Tex. “Where is your down suit? Wear it!” he ordered. He found two mats for E and I, wrapped us in sleeping bags and commanded that we keep warm. Phil was already co-ordinating rescue efforts for the victims at Camp 3, and the rest of the team were either waiting patiently for their boots to be found, trying to fend off the pre-dawn cold, or searching for those missing boots, crampons, ice-axes and other things with Dorjee, Pasang Nima and Nuri.

As we sat and waited for the sun to rise, we watched many people rush past us on their way to help, and listened to Phil reporting on the situation on the hill and making rescue arrangements on the radio. It amazed me how efficiently everybody worked together to locate, stabilize and evacuate as many survivors as possible.

Before we knew it, almost all our climbers’ essential gear had been located by their peers or the Sherpas. I was still missing one boot when my feet became alarmingly cold, and I was taken into another team’s tent lower down at Camp 2 to warm them up – under a team mate’s armpits. ‘Bye, Mila!’ E’s voice briefly brushed past the tent I was in as she and most of our other climbers started down towards base camp. Out of our group only my climbing buddy from the day before (partially boot-less, like me), another ‘Junkie’ (a paramedic) and myself remained at Camp 2 with Phil and the Sherpas.

Once the air had warmed up sufficiently, I limped back to the site of our Camp 2, where Phil and the Sherpas were building a helipad for the chopper, due to pick up the injured Sherpa from Camp 3. Soon, helicopters started flying above us, and in under an hour one of them came for the victim our team had been looking after. The helicopter also dropped off a pair of boots for my climbing buddy to use on the descent and some hot juice to keep those remaining on the hill hydrated – welcome ‘gifts’ from the Junkies’ base camp staff. By then, my missing boot had been located in the vestibule of one of the tents at the lower Camp 2, and delivered to me by Dorjee – I was ecstatic to have it back!

I had no idea what time it was, but when the helicopter had left, Phil said it was time for me and the other two climbers, one now wearing ‘new’ boots, to begin descending to base camp. There was nothing we could help with; certainly, not me, who for some reason felt completely drained. Thus, we bid good-bye to Phil, Dorjee and Pasang Nima, staying behind to continue with the rescue, and wobbled away with Nuri.

Every step I made away from Camp 3, away from death and injury, I said to myself: “It should have been me.” It was hard to walk with the burden of that thought, and I descended carelessly, as if waiting for the avalanche to engulf me, too, after all. Down at Camp 1 I waited for my two team mates, and we crossed the glacier together. At crampon point we were met by two of our kitchen staff with tea, juice and snacks. Base camp was quiet when we arrived sometime in the afternoon. The Junkies’ Sherpas, who had been waiting for us and worrying, smiled quietly and watched as we dropped off our packs, drank hot milk tea and talked to each other.

I had nothing to say, except that ‘it should have been me’, so I quietly went to the shower. It took me forever to undress, and then I just stood there, naked and cold: “It should have been me!” And I was still waiting for it to be me, so I delayed for hours before finally calling home.

“Hello?” my mother’s voice, clear and warm, sounded from across the world. It cost me a lot of effort to keep it together.

“Have you heard about the avalanche?” I asked, adding immediately that I was perfectly fine.

“No, I’ve heard nothing.”

“Never mind. I was just worried you were worried,” I said, sighing with relief. It felt great, for once, to have a family that didn’t care the least bit about climbing, and only followed the official expedition blog.

“What avalanche?” Now she was worried.

“A large serac apparently collapsed from about 7400 meters early this morning, triggering an avalanche. 8 dead, 3 missing, many injured, they say – at Camp 3. We were at Camp 2, though, so we’re all fine. Our tents got damaged, my mug went missing, a team mate lost a boot – that’s all.”

“Where are you now?”

“At base camp for a few days. I’ll call you again in a little while. I have to go now.”

“Are you coming home?” she asked quietly after a long pause, clearly knowing the answer.

“No. I’m climbing on.”

“And then, are coming home?”

“I am,” I replied, as cheerfully and reassuringly as I could.

I hung up and left the communications dome for my tent. There, I prayed in my native tongue and recited mantras for the dead, the missing and the injured. Counting away the beads of my white mala, I whispered to myself what I could not have said on the phone – that it should have been me. I felt that if I could, I would trade places with any of the climbers, lost in the avalanche. Perhaps, they had children, and loved ones, and things to live for; surely, their lives were about more than just putting one foot in front of the other on a mountain somewhere… They must have been – had to have been – unlike me, whose little nieces and nephew think that auntie Mila lives ‘in the house next to the Sun,’ so far away, she can only visit them once or twice a year. When she comes, she tells wonderful stories, and then, leaves without saying good-bye. It should have been her. It should have been me.

Manaslu 2012: Second Rotation, Part I

Manaslu

It was the 21st of September. We had been pinned at base camp by bad weather for over a week. Although we were not going to leave for Camp 1 at 5700 meters on our second acclimatization rotation before 1 pm, I put my 8000-meter boots on almost first thing in the morning. Having started the day with 2 cans of Red Bull, I was entertaining myself by packing and un-packing, running to and from my tent for no reason whatsoever and reading nervously until lunchtime; naturally, I was completely exhausted by then. The rest of my team mates were no less eager to start climbing again but somehow managed to look less crazy than yours truly.

Thus, my sane companions were still chewing their lunch, when I had already begun snailing up the hill behind one of the group Sherpas, Pasang Nima. He set the perfect pace, and, hopping across the many crevasses’ gaping mouths, we arrived at Camp 1 after just over two hours of climbing. I crawled into my tent and began melting snow for the evening meal and tea to share with my tent mate (the expedition’s other female member, E) and going through my gear to choose the things I would need at Camp 2 the next day. I had to pack as light as possible, but it was no less important to have enough stuff to keep me warm at 6400 meters – the elevation of Camp 2. I would use a 0F/-20C sleeping bag at all higher camps, and wear my down suit at night as a ‘pajamas’. Given my ridiculously bad circulation, I also sleep wearing two layers of the thickest socks I can find, with large chemical foot warmers stuffed in-between. When E joined me in the tent and saw my sleeping arrangements, she said there was something wrong with the way my body reacted to cold. ‘No kidding!’ I replied, sipping hot instant soup from my new mug. She looked at me compassionately, and passed me an energy bar for breakfast. Given that I had been planning on living off Mars and Snickers bars and soups, E’s offering was truly welcome.

Camp 1

I was freezing cold at night, cursing myself for only bringing one Z-Rest (insulating mat) instead of two. ‘They weigh nothing, you lazy cow, and you could have been sleeping now as opposed to counting hours till morning, had you brought another one along!’ As coughing gave way to snoring in the auditory space of Camp 1, I listened to it jealously, wishing that I, too, could sleep, ignoring the cold, the twitching in my muscles – a side effect of Diamox – and my too many useless thoughts.

Needless to say, when the weak alarm lit the green screen of my wrist altimeter at 4:15, I was nowhere near sleeping, and perfectly ready to start another climbing day. Having wiped the frozen condensation off my sleeping bag, I opened the tent flap and got the stove going to melt some snow for breakfast. E was up, too, going through the simple high-altitude ‘beauty’ routine, and packing her backpack for the climb to and the night at Camp 2. We swallowed the energy bars with hot water without much of an appetite, boiled some more water to carry during the climb and cleaned up the tent. At 6 am I was outside in full gear, frozen solid but excited to get going. Soon the rest of the team emerged from their tents and the most over-eager ones (hi :)!) were allowed to start climbing.

Seracs on the Way to Camp 2

I began the day by breaking one of my most important climbing rules: ‘do not follow the fastest person in the group.’ Doing just that, I was out of breath right away, and considering turning around by the time he and I reached the higher Camp 1. ‘Camp 2 is at least another 5 hours away from here, you idiot!’ I continued the ‘pleasant’ conversation I had started with myself the night before. ‘What are you going to do now?’ Just keep going. That’s always the answer. You put one foot in front of the other, breathe, repeat – until you get to your destination, or until you drop. It’s easy, especially after you get so exhausted that you stop thinking completely, which happens to be my favorite part of any day on the mountain and, perhaps, the reason that I climb. And so I kept going. The climbing conditions were good, the Hourglass – steep, and beautiful, and busy; the ladder across the route’s widest crevasse looked solid, and my climbing buddy and I were soon walking equally slowly.

‘How much longer?’ he asked me when we’d crossed the ladder and negotiated another steep slope.

‘Two hours,’ I guessed, looking at the route. ‘We’re over half-way now.’

In an hour we could continue no longer, and sat down to rest and hydrate.

‘I can see the tents!’ my buddy told me.

‘They’re about an hour away,’ I guessed again, wrong this time, as it only took us about 30 minutes to get to the Junkies’ higher Camp 2.

‘I thought you said it was gonna be a six-hour climb…’

‘Oh, I’m sorry it only took us 4.5,’ I smiled as we rested before retiring into our tents.

‘This was tough,’ he admitted.

‘This is the second toughest bit of the route.’

‘And what’s the toughest, then?’

‘Camp 3 to Camp 4, at least for me, is the hardest. But don’t ask me questions like like this – you know you could never get an answer you would like.’

‘I know: where some say it’s three hours, you say it’s six…’

‘They’re very fast, I’m very slow, and all you gotta do to get the real answer is work out the average.’

We laughed; we’d had a good climbing day and felt content and relaxed. I remembered, however, that Camp 2 was a place, where few people could keep happy long, avoiding strong altitude-induced headaches, so, as soon as I had the stove and the pot, off I went to melt snow – to keep myself and my tent mate well-hydrated. When E arrived and settled into the tent, I made sure we drank as much as possible: soup, tea, instant juice – anything. Pasang Nima passed by our tent and gave us some of the delicious pastries our base camp cook, Da Pasang, usually makes for the team to snack on at Camps 1 & 2, where they are carried by the group Sherpas. We swallowed the yummy apple pie without chewing, and fell asleep listening to E’s iPod selection. When we woke up, the head-aches made themselves felt, and I insisted on another 0.5 liter of liquid each before we went to sleep.

Towards Camp 2

‘I don’t think your hydration regime will allow me to sleep tonight,’ E complained as she finished her tea. I had to give her the ‘hairy eyeball’ in response to that – and another cupful of hot water.

Lower Camp 2

Before going to sleep at about 7 pm, I went out of the tent to look at the sunset. It was not yet too cold outside, and I thought I could watch the colors of dusk change forever. I stared, mesmerized, at the solid black foundations and the white ethereal summits of the mountains around me, sinking slowly into the clear night. Then, my eyes followed the slope on which we camped downwards to the tents of the lower Camp 2; there was no one outside. Turning around, I looked up towards Camp 3, where colorful tents seemed to hover over a wave of snow. Above them rose Manaslu’s East Pinnacle, sharp and dark, piercing the evening sky. And I was smiling because I didn’t care about the annoying headache, or that I would spend another night shivering in my cold skin, or that I didn’t feel the energy to jump across the countless crevasses on the way down to base camp the next day. Nothing mattered here, where I was in my element: alone, at the edge of the indescribably beautiful world. I returned to my tent happy.

Manaslu 2012: In the Clouds

The pre-expedition Puja

The first acclimatization foray up Manaslu, a carry to Camp 1, on which the team went after the obligatory puja, was very invigorating. I found crossing the hot white expanse of the glacier easier than I’d expected, at least psychologically. I knew the way, and it helped; I knew that our destination for the day, the yellow tents, perched up on a slope above the glacier, looked deceptively closer than they really were, and it, too, helped; I knew it would not be easy to walk for about three hours above 5000 meters with a heavy backpack, and it helped that I was not surprised. When we reached ‘Crampton Point’ – the spot on the way to Camp 1, where climbers normally stop to put crampons on their boots – I shut away all my thoughts, lowered my head and simply followed the trail in the snow.

The Junkies’ Base Camp

The glacier was dark, and the mountain looked drier than I remembered. It made for easier walking because the snow layer was so thin, but the crevasses were wider than the year before, forcing one to tread as cautiously as possible and to clip into the safety ropes fixed along the route. After walking for about 2 hours, I raised my eyes from the trail – I was at Camp 1. There I dropped off the gear I would later use higher on the mountain: a light sleeping bag, my long-suffering down suit, goggles, extra-warm mitts for the summit day, some chocolate, etc. When the rest of the team had arrived and rested, we made the descent to base camp. At lunch we exchanged our positive impressions about the rotation, and began planning the next one, during which we would spend two nights above base camp: one at Camp 1 and one at Camp 2. We would then be acclimatized and ready for the summit push.

The first fixed rope on the way to Camp 1

All climbing plans on the mountain, however, depend not only on the readiness of the mountaineers but also – and to a great extent – on the weather. Meteorological services providing detailed weather forecasts, though expensive, are nowadays used in expedition planning by all reputable commercial mountaineering companies to give their clients a better, safer chance to reach the summit. Our forecast was calling for patience, promising several days of heavy precipitation on the mountain. I remembered well how in 2011 we spent over a week at base camp between climbing days, watching snow turn into rain, then, snow again. When the sun came out at last, we had to sit tight for another two or three days to let the new snow consolidate on the slopes of the mountain to avoid the risk of avalanches. Thus, I fished out of my duffel bag whatever books I had brought with me, and got ready to wait for Manaslu. Yet, I knew I could not simply sit around: I had to find a way to keep my body active and ready for when the mountain’s grim mood would change. Rain or snow, every morning I would go for a 40-minute walk from the Junkies’ base camp up to the first rope, fixed to the steep rocky section on the way to ‘Crampton Point’. I used those walks to observe myself: how my breathing would get easier day by day but then, for some reason, harder again; how my legs would feel heavier one morning and lighter the next. My daily walks were anything but exciting, but I felt them to be necessary – I had to move to counter the staleness outside.

Another ‘snow day’

One day I decided to join a few of my team mates who were going down to Samagaon for the afternoon, for a change of scenery. Wet, heavy snow had made the already muddy trail very slippery indeed, and we descended carefully from our base camp in the clouds. After negotiating about 600 gray, damp meters, I decided to go back up: I realized that I didn’t need a ‘change of scenery’ – it was at base camp, at the foot of Manaslu, where I wanted to be. I didn’t care if it rained or snowed for another 10 days: I would wait right there for as long as was necessary; then, I would go to the summit, or crawl, if I must; only after that would I follow the downward path away from the mountain. It was my second time attempting Manaslu, and I didn’t want there to be a third because I loved, and hated and dreaded the Spirit Mountain too much. I wouldn’t give her a chance to ‘escape’ me again, nor give myself an opportunity to run away from her. That day, climbing stubbornly back up into the cloud of depressing weather, breathing in the wet, thin air, I believed my determination to reach the top of Manaslu to be immutable. I thought stupidly that the only obstacles the mountain could put between me and the summit were bad weather, exhausting climbing and icy, sleepless nights. I’d forgotten Manaslu’s other name was the Killer Mountain; I’d forgotten what mountaineers should never forget – that the risk they take, when they climb ever higher after their dreams, is real. On the morning of the 23rd of September, at the end of our second acclimatization rotation, I – and the rest of the climbing community – was violently reminded of it.

Manaslu gone hiding