Manaslu 2012: The Trek

The monsoon was slowly coming to an end, but the weather was still wet and hot in Kathmandu when, on the 1st of September, Altitude Junkies set out on the Manaslu expedition. We were 13 western climbers, including the expedition leader, Phil Crampton. For once, I was not the youngest of the group, with another 25-year old – a whole 8 months younger than yours truly – joining the team. At least half of the climbers, including the other female member, E, were planning to make the ascent without using supplemental oxygen. After freezing and turning around at Camp 4 in 2011, I had no such ambitions: my circulation issues will, probably, never allow me to climb above 7500 meters without O2. My only wish was to see if, after my most recent injury, I still had it in me to reach another 8000-meter summit.

The Drive to Arughat

A long and infamously bumpy truck ride took the Junkies to Arughat at about 500 meters above sea level, where our Sherpas immediately went to work setting up tents in the rich, heavy afternoon air. It was impossible to stay inside, however, as one felt as if their skin was turning liquid and melting off them. It would be that hot and humid for at least another 3 days of the trek, until the team reached the cooler air of higher elevations; we were keen to get going.

I had done the Manaslu trek the year before, and considered it to be the most beautiful and unspoilt of the popular trekking routes in Nepal. I had hoped naively that if I surrounded myself again with the lush post-monsoon colors, the tall waterfalls and the loud, powerful rivers, I could, perhaps, turn back time and start afresh right where I had left off. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Part of a very strong and well-prepared team, I felt I was its weakest link. I missed my strength and conviction of the year before, when I found it relatively easy to follow the fastest climber in the group. Now, I staggered, doubting every step.

Minor Obstacles πŸ™‚

‘I have read about you in Mark Horrell’s book about Manaslu 2011,’ E told me after a couple of days of trekking.

‘And what did he say about me?’ I wondered.

‘He said you changed shirts every day. And that you were very fast…’

‘Well, you’ve seen the T-shirts… but I don’t think I can show you me at my fastest, unfortunately…’

The trek got cooler and, thus, easier, after the team had reached Dyang (Deng), where I bathed in the cold river by the village, washing off at last the heat and the fatigue of the previous days. Walking back to the campsite in my wet clothes, the refreshing evening breeze on my skin, I smiled because I was feeling the first shy touches of cold again – this meant that I would soon be in my element.

Β 

Another day of trekking took us to Namrung, and one more – to Samagaon at 3500 meters above sea level, where we would spend three nights acclimatizing before following a steep muddy trail up to Manaslu Base Camp 1400 meters higher. This being my second time in Sama, I was pleased to see how it had changed. For instance, the tired little lodge where we stayed in 2011 was turning into a much larger structure of grey rock and timber. Although still in the process of construction, the rooms were made available to our group by the lady of the house, from under whose traditional dress was showing a new pair of Nike’s.

Samagaon from the Trail to Base Camp

There was not much to do in Samagaon, except wait, drink sweet milk tea and read. Luckily, I remembered the way to the beautiful glacial lake at the foot of Manaslu called Birendra Tal, where I went for a swim a couple of times, the more reckless of my team mates joining me in spite of the very low water temperature. Phil and most of the Sherpas left for Base Camp a day ahead of the rest of the team, to get the place ready for our arrival. I must say, I dreaded following them because in retracing my footsteps from the year before, I was walking along the same path that had led a much stronger me to a very painful failure. What was I expecting now, I, whom I hardly recognized: slow, and clumsy, and awkward, and miserable, and ‘whole’ no longer? I was a ghost in a rusty machine, which refused to perform up to standard – like one of those outdated robots from the sci-fi movies of my childhood. At base camp, I would sit in my tent every night for the first week, with tears painting faint lines on my face for no particular reason. I don’t believe I cried out of self-pity; I was simply a mirror to the rainy weather, mourning the passage of time, the weakening of ties, the disappearance of things from my body and of warmth – from my heart; things loosing support, things missing, things not being missed… It was a bad time, that first week at base camp. I couldn’t wait for the climbing to start, for the moving to replace the thinking.

Back from Manaslu

Good-bye to Manaslu

My Dear Readers,

First of all, let me thank you all for your support and concern during this past Manaslu expedition. Your kind words and prayers meant the world to me while I was on the mountain.

I returned to Kathmandu yesterday, late in the afternoon, after the Junkies’ expedition was successfully completed. 15 of us, climbers and Sherpas (yours truly included), reached the summit of the Spirit Mountain early in the morning on the 1st of October. After the very eventful expedition, it feels wonderful to be back home, in the warm and sunny Kathmandu. I will take a couple of days to get some sleep and gather my thoughts before I begin writing and posting the story of the climb. Drop by soon if you’re curious :)!

Love,

Mila

P.S.: I dedicate the story I am about to tell to those who never made it to the end of it – the victims of the recent Manaslu avalanche. May they rest in peace on the glowing slopes of Manaslu under the clearest of skies – the eyes of the mountain gods.

Manaslu Update 25.09

Dear Readers,

This is the last blog I will write at Manaslu base camp during this expedition. The next one will be posted after the avalanche hype has died down.

A lot has been said in the media about the avalanche on Manaslu on 23.09. It hit at around 4:40 am. It wiped Camp 3 off the face of the mountain, killing over 8, leaving 3 missing and injuring a large number of climbers. Our team was at higher Camp 2 when the freak accident occurred. Still in our tents, we were thrown down the slope by the avalanche blast towards lower Camp 2, and showered with debris of snow and ice. It seemed like we fell forever, although, the whole incident lasted, perhaps, a minute. Our gear was scattered on the slope, and we were a little bruised and shocked, but otherwise unhurt when we emerged from the tents into the cold morning air. Immediately, rescue efforts to assist climbers at Camp 3 started…

The rest has been reported – more or less accurately – in the media. I have no wish at this time to contribute my impressions or opinions to the all-too-many others that have already been voiced. Therefore, I will write about the avalanche and the expedition outcome when I return to Kathmandu.

Most importantly, I would like to offer my heartfelt condolences to the families of the climbers lost on Manaslu on the cold autumn morning of the 23rd of September. I pray for them as well as for the safety of those of us, who remain on the slopes of the Spirit Mountain.

Love,

Mila

The First Rotation

The rain was falling monotonously onto the orange tent. I was trying to read – ‘The Life of Pi’, a marvelous book, by the way – when, suddenly, I remembered why it was that I, too, had been as tearful as the weather at Manaslu base camp, weak and alienated, these past few days. The orange fabric, the quiver of water, quiet but persistent, the cold… – surrounded by these familiar sights and sounds, my mind traveled from Manaslu back to the base camp of Khan Tengri, where, I think, a part of me was destroyed permanently in the course of just three nights of extreme pain and utter helplessness. I couldn’t cry then. Now, I could and I did, without realizing why. However, now that my tears had a reason and a name, I would cry no longer. And the rain, too, would stop when the day warmed up a little.

Yesterday, on the 14th of September, our team left base camp to do a carry to Camp 1 at 5750 meters. We left after breakfast, and were on the glacier by about 8am. Immediately, I noticed a stark change from last year: the glacier was a good deal drier than I remembered, darker, and the gaping crevasses were wider and greater in number. The route, too, had changed a little: it seemed to me to have veered somewhat to the left of where it had beenΒ the year before. When we started moving up, I lowered my head, and, focusing on my breathing and pace, followed the fixed rope towards Camp 1, where tiny yellow tents were visible already. I tried not to look up, not to think, not to count, not to hope, not to fear – just walk , for as long as need be across any terrain I might encounter. The slope leading up to Camp 1, neither too long nor too steep but utterly annoying, took the remains of my breath away. At the top of the slope our Sherpas were busy making platforms for the tents. I was very happy to allow myself to sit down next to the future campsite and rest at last. Soon, the rest of my team mates joined me, looking tired but pleased with their good performance.

After treating ourselves to a long rest and some snacks, we headed back down to base camp for lunch. The weather was changing and we seemed to be descending into a cloud as we crossed the glacier once again. When we reached crampon point, it began to rain. In the evening, as I lay in my tent, unable to sleep, I finished ‘The Life of Pi’, and listened to the rain until early on the morning. My eyes were dry that night – not because I forgot about Khan – I never could -, but because I was no longer afraid to remember.

In a few days we will head back up the hill for another, much harder, acclimatization rotation: we will spend a night at Camp 1 and Camp 2, and return to base camp, ready for our summit push. See how it goes…