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!



Everest 2012: the Descent

Passing Camp 1 on the way down

On our way down from the summit Pasang and I meet Mark Dickson and Ang Gelu, Ian Cartwright and Kami, and Mark Horrell and Chongba – all already negotiating different sections of the summit pyramid. We shake hands, and part ways. The only inji-climber from the Junkies’ team I am yet to see is my friend, Margaret Watroba. I tell myself that, perhaps, we’d already passed but failed to recognize each other due to our single-minded focus, on the summit on the way up and survival on the way down, or just exhaustion. Besides, with climbers dressed in nearly identical down suits and boots, with goggles and oxygen masks over their faces, it’s hard to tell friends from strangers…

 I let go of all the thoughts which could worry me, and carry on down, slowly and carefully, but soon find myself loosing all ability to focus. My body feels like it is made of lead, and my mind, too, is heavy like a sleeping elephant. It is when we reach the Third Step that I realize just how sick and exhausted I really am. My legs are so limp that they won’t support me and my arms – so weak, they can’t hold me on the rope. I make myself look at the corpse in the snow under the vertical Step for ‘motivational’ purposes before I begin the descent. Once at the bottom, I can only bring myself to make a couple of small steps, and sit down to rest and cough. It’s not a safe place to stop, as the body behind my back reminds me. I must get up and continue downwards; this thought and the movement it eventually triggers – everything is in slow motion.

 When we reach the top of the Second Step, I finally see Margaret. The chest infection we both caught in the tent village near base camp has taken greater toll on her than it has on me (Margaret summited Everest from the South Side in 2011; she is 62 years old, I am 25). My friend is struggling, running out of energy, oxygen and time to make it to the summit. We sit down behind her, Cheddar and Nima Nuru to rest – again – when Margaret, very quietly and gracefully, decides to turn around. Knowing exactly how she feels, I am humbled by her courage and integrity. It is not only for her own sake that she makes the choice to descend now: it is for the sake of her Sherpas and the whole team, who would have to put their lives at risk if a rescue in the death zone was necessary. As she turns her back on the summit, I sense that she will return for and get it next year.

 I look down from the top of the Second Step at the long drop to the Rongbuk Glacier underneath – again, for ‘motivation’ – and begin climbing down. Slightly past the foot of the Step my knees bend under the weight of my exhaustion once more; then, I must get up again. When at length Pasang and I reach the top of the First Step, I’m finding it nearly impossible to get back on my feet after taking a ‘cough break’. Seeing how weak and unfocused I am, Pasang suggests that I rappel instead of down-climbing. My fingers are ‘dumb’ with fatigue, and my climbing partner has to help me with the figure 8. He climbs down first. Then, I get in position to rappel; I can’t do it as my arms will not hold any weight at all. There are people immediately behind me and I cannot go back, so I simply let myself tumble to the bottom of the rock face, slowed down a little by the rappel device. Pasang looks at me and, it seems, cannot believe what he’s just seen. ‘I know, I know…’ I mumble into the mask. Anywhere else I’d be embarrassed for such a display of climbing skill, but at over 8000 meters embarrassment is too long a word to pronounce and too small a feeling to bother with.

 We are now between the First Step and the Exit Cracks. The yellow tent town of Camp 3 is in clear view below us, seemingly close, but I don’t believe I’ll make it there. I am now staggering rather than walking, lingering at every rope anchor and, finally, I am unable to make another step. ‘I can’t do this,’ I whisper into the mask repeatedly, as if this unhappy mantra was my breath, and lie down. Resting on dark rocks under warm afternoon sun, I listen to the lullaby my mind is singing me: ‘You need to rest, to close your eyes – just for 15 minutes. A little bit of sleep will give you strength. Go to sleep, go to sleep…’ It’s a peaceful death: falling asleep in the warm sun, and never waking up again; or not so peaceful: waking up to an empty oxygen bottle at night and stumbling off the mountain in confusion. Suddenly, my daydreaming is interrupted as an array of faces appears out of the black emptiness of my mental exhaustion: my mother, my niece, my friends… Last night, as I was going for the summit, they were praying and cheering for me, sending me their love and strength from all over the world. And what did I do? I let myself get carried away by summit fever, and now I’m going to sleep. What a selfish pig! They love me and trust me, and I’m… what?… tired? Just tired?! Angry at myself, I wake up from what could have been my last dream. ‘Hey?’ I hear Pasang’s worried voice. ‘Sorry!’ I apologize. Still, I can’t find the energy to get up. ‘I can’t do this!’ every cell in body is screaming, so I slap myself on the face as hard as I can. Again, Pasang is looking at me like I am completely crazy. ‘I know, I know…’ I say, and we carry on down.

 The steep Exit Cracks pose the last obstacle on the way to Camp 3. I can’t remember how I make it down, but I’m guessing it wasn’t pretty. From the foot of the Cracks all we have to do is follow the slope to the campsite; we sit down again before my climbing Sherpa believes I’m ready to take on this ‘monumental’ task. Although I’m only the third inji to make it back to Camp 3, tired as I am, I cannot continue the descent to the North Col. I sit by the tent like an abandoned rag doll, my whole body numb with exhaustion, pain and shame. I am thinking about the dead of Everest – of climbers just like me, with the same dream; with mothers, and children, and friends, and a home somewhere – about how they will never walk into Camp 3 like I just have, or get into a warm sleeping bag like I soon will, and then, in a few days – go home to be happy at times and unhappy at times and just alive, like I still am. This summit day, one of the hardest of my life, will never end for them, and I am so, so sorry for those climbers and their loved ones! Sitting there, in the loneliest place in the world, I remember how close I was to going to sleep, too, and I recall what – who – made me open my eyes again.

 Pasang takes my crampons off for me, and we crawl into the tent. We doze off for a while, then, he begins to melt ice for our tea and soup. Soon, all the Junkies’ injis and Sherpas return to Camp 3, all – too exhausted to go any further. We spend a cold and windy night in the death zone, but nobody can sleep: the wind all around is too loud and angry, the exhaustion is too great, and the bright flashing images from summit day keep the mind working. It’s only in the early morning, after coughing for hours, when I finally see nothing and feel nothing – I must be asleep. It will not be long, however, before I open my eyes again and see that everything inside the tent is covered with a thin layer of snow. My feet are seemingly frozen and my hands are cold, too; they’ll have to warm up as I continue the descent to ABC almost 2000 meters lower. Quickly Pasang melts some snow to make water and tea before we leave the tent.

 Pasang and the other Sherpas have a tough day ahead of them: taking down Camp 3, the Junkies’ one remaining tent (and its contents) at Camp 2, and a part of our North Col Camp 1; then, they will carry all of that down to ABC on their backs. I cannot fathom how the Sherpas can do it – I can hardly imagine getting myself with a half-empty backpack down to 6400 meters… Someone like me could never reach the summit of Everest and come back to tell the tale without the help of these mountain supermen. All I can do in thin air – and not very well, and not always – is put one foot in front of the other and, wasting my breath, whinge about how hard it is. Everything else that had to be done for me to succeed and survive was done not by me but by the Junkies’ leader, Phil Crampton, and his team of Sherpas: sirdar Dorjee Sherpa, Pasang Wongchu Sherpa, Pasang Nima Sherpa, Kami Nuru Sherpa, Ang Gelu Sherpa, Nima Nuru Sherpa, Cheddar Sherpa, Chongba Sherpa, and our awesome cooks Da Pasang Sherpa and Pemba Sherpa. In fact, I think I have contributed ridiculously little to my own summit success, so I am very grateful for it to all the staff and team members of the Altitude Junkies 2012 Everest expedition.

 My descent through the vast, windy Everestland on the 20th of May is uneventful: still very weak, I fall once, getting entangled in an old rope between Camp 3 and Camp 2, but the safety line holds; then, I get severely windburned on the long, exposed snow ramp leading to the North Col – I’ve always wondered what windburn was, anyway; then, I think I’ll die of exhaustion (yes, again) as I ‘arrive’ at Crampon Point, but our kitchen boys are there with hot and sweet milk tea, and I’m back to life after drinking six cups of it. Eventually, Margaret catches up to me, and we stagger into ABC together, coughing in unison; after a light dinner, we drop half-dead in our tents.

At ABC after descending: sunburn, windburn and joy!

The next day is a rest day at ABC. Then, we head down to Base Camp, walking along the Miracle Highway for the last time; it’s melting. At BC we celebrate with a gorgeous dinner and sparkling wine. I am persuaded to have a little bit of the latter and, although I don’t drink, I agree, happy to entertain my entertaining team mates. We rest and pack for the next two days, and on the day before our departure for Zhangmu I go to my turquoise glacial lake for a good-bye swim. The lake is bigger than I remember but not warmer: it looks different, yet, it feels the same.

With me it’s vise versa: now back in Kathmandu, I look the same after as I did before Everest, but I don’t feel the same: there’s something enormous, dark and cold stuck in my chest and, no matter how much I cough, it won’t come out. Everest is now a big part of me, with its conquerers and its victims, its icy nights of millions of stars and white windy days, with its hypnotizing power… I will never forget smiling at the rising sun on the Second Step of the sometimes merciful but, really, wrathful Chomolungma, or weeping for Her dead, who welcomed me. What can I say? I have summited Everest, but it remains a dream to me, as, perhaps, it should, to a mere human.

Everest 2012: The Summit Push, Part II

Sunset on Everest, view from BC

I’m sitting in the tent at 8300 meters, bent over my sleeping bag. Every time I lean back for a rest, angry cough immediately makes me sit up again. I drink as much water or tea as I can, and check my watch often – I am waiting for 10:30pm, when I plan to start getting ready to leave – for the summit of Everest. Meanwhile, I talk to my summit day climbing Sherpa, Pasang Wongchu, with whom I was previously climbing on Manaslu, Ama Dablam, Ganchenpo and Cholatse, about our ‘strategy’: times, oxygen etc… It is never mentioned in the conversation that, sick as I am already, I could get worse while we’re climbing, and helping me down would be desperately hard work. The very narrow traverses over vertiginous drop-offs of 3000 meters and steep rocky pitches, such as the notorious Second Step, make rescues in the death zone impossible: one has to reach the summit and return on their own two feet, or stay on the mountain; no one could ‘carry’ you to the summit or back down – it is ignorant and cruel of people, who have no mountaineering experience, to suggest otherwise. Pasang and I are both well aware of the risks that pushing for the summit entails for each of us, but, having climbed together before, we know that we can trust each other’s judgement: I would turn back if I felt I absolutely had to; I would turn back if he said I should. Yet, as the sun sets, and the icy evening descends upon the highest campsite in the world, turning back is not what’s on my mind. I choose to think only the most trivial thoughts, and sit, wait and hope that, when I start walking, I feel stronger and warmer than I’m feeling now.

It takes a small eternity to put my boots, harness and crampons on, but at 11:15 pm I am outside the tent, ready to leave at our team’s departure time 15 minutes later. The weather is cold, naturally, but not the coldest I’ve had to climb in, and the wind is not too strong. Headlamp beams of the climbers who have left Camp 3 before us dance along the route to the top of the world. I can’t see any features of the route – just this dance of scattered lights, some close to me, and some – too far away.

At 11:30 pm on the dot we take our first steps towards the summit. They are so unbearably hard on my drained body that I have to shut my mind down completely – all it can do now is tell me to please, please stop this torture and turn back, and I don’t want to hear that. The pace I’m walking at is, perhaps, a bit too fast (not in sea-level terms, of course) as I have to sit down and rest at almost every other rope anchor. Yet, I have to push myself, or the ‘reasonable Mila’ I’ve been trying to silence will start talking again: ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this…’ – she is such a whinge!

Soon we reach the famous Exit Cracks – the steep rocky pitch which leads climbers onto the North Ridge. I have been warm until then but, stuck in line behind slow, inexperienced climbers I begin to freeze: I am loosing feeling in my hands in spite of wearing two layers of gloves plus down mitts, and my toes are painfully cold; I massage my palms and move my toes non-stop. I cough and shiver for some 30-40 minutes, until it’s my turn to go. Pasang and I climb onto the Ridge, and continue up. On our way we pass a few climbers; most memorably, a young Chinese woman with her guide. She is slow and insecure on her legs, and he shouts at her angrily. I am sorry for her, and I wonder how she can carry on like that.

Another long traverse – crampons against cold, bare rock, a couple of cold rest stops, a mouthful of cold water against my cold, aching throat; cold, cold, cold – and we reach the First Step. It is a famous feature of the North Side geography – a steep rocky pitch, similar to the Exit Cracks but a bit longer and harder. I have no recollection whatsoever of climbing it on the way up – I must have been struggling too hard to remember…

‘The Second Step should be close now; perhaps, another hour,’ I tell myself. The Second Step is a long, difficult climb up vertical rock, rock with as much history as the mountain itself. Its technical difficulty is such that two ladders have been anchored to it: one small one at the foot of the Step and one tall one, which leads to the top. It is between them, where climbers tend to struggle as they get past a couple of large, protruding rocks, which requires some skill and, perhaps, a bit of courage. The problem is that the Second Step is very exposed – there’s a 3000-meter drop off all the way to the Rongbuk Glacier under your feet, and all that’s standing between you and a ‘speed descent’ is 8.5mm rope, an aging ladder and your strength. It’s an intimidating thought, so I chase it out of my mind, and start for the Step. It will be another 20-30 minutes before I reach the first ladder – the climbers ahead of me are moving up the Step very slowly. It is the coldest hour of the morning, right before sunrise, when the first pale, bloodless-pink strip of light cuts through the still-dark sky. I wish I had my camera, but I’d given it to Pasang to keep warm, so I simply stare at the white peaks, all far below, at the sky, shedding its night skin, and at the light, which will soon bring a little bit of warmth to the death zone’s unwelcome visitors… Climbing the first wobbly ladder is no problem. However, the rocks, hovering over the white abyss, require me to abandon all half-hearted attempts at graceful climbing: pulling hard on the rope, I straddle one of them, cough a piece of something up, get on my knees, and go for the second ladder – but not before I’ve looked around me. I’ve never seen anything more special: already higher than any mountain on Earth, I am standing at the edge of the sky, a part of this mellow dawn and of the great, harsh Chomolungma… ‘Will it be worth it?’, I remember asking myself on the way to Camp 3. ‘Of course, it’s worth it.’ The second ladder is no trouble to climb.

From the top of the Second Step I can see the Third Step – the last one on the way to the summit, now also in clear view; it looks so close… As Pasang and I approach the Third Step, I notice someone I know sitting in the snow to my left. Inside his red hood his face is black – I cannot make it out but I recognize the suit and the posture. He is one of the dead of Everest, one of the many bodies, which rest on the mountain; he is also the ‘visitor’, who woke me up on my first night at Base Camp. That night I was very cold, but his nights up here, how cold they must be! It hurts me to look at him. Suddenly, I am freezing, too; I can feel the pathetic remains of my strength and determination leave my body as I cry quietly into my dark goggles. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I whisper into my mask, ‘I am so infinitely sorry!’

Under the Third Step another body, dressed in a yellow down suit, lies in fetal position, very close to the rope leading up the Step. Having waited, as usual, I take my turn climbing up. When I’m almost at the top, I see a climber come to the edge of the Step, with his Sherpa behind him, and sit right on the rope. I try to get around him but the rope won’t let me do so without unclipping: there’s already one corpse at the foot of the Step, so I won’t do it. As the climber watches me struggle, he also directs my efforts to get past him – he simply won’t move. ‘Move back, please!’ I growl at him in my sick, gurgling voice, angered by his insolence. Immediately I have to giggle when the human obstacle almost jumps back and, effectively, out of the way. Never knew I could be quite so scary!

‘Now, up the snow ramp, and there it is, the summit,’ I tell myself at the top of the Third Step. Silly me! The way does lie up the ramp but that’s not the end of the way. After the snow ramp there’s still a very exposed, narrow traverse to negotiate, then, another small rocky ramp to climb, and then, the summit is just up the slope – and it feels like such a long slope to me. As we make our final steps towards the summit, we meet Pasang Nima, Grant and Phil, on their way down. We shake hands and chat briefly before going our separate ways. Several more steps, and I stand in the strong summit wind, which dances dementedly around me; I can see the whole of the sky.

Yours Truly and Pasang Wongchu Sherpa on the Summit of Everest (19.05.2012)

Here it is – the world’s most famous ‘mountain’ of prayer-flags and khatas, which marks the summit of Everest. I have seen it so many times before – in movies, in pictures – and now I can touch it, touch the very spot where Light first touches the Earth. It’s 8 am, and there are about 8-10 people on the summit, taking pictures, laughing. Pasang takes my camera out of his pocket and snaps a photo of me next to the prayer-flags. Then, I take my backpack off, and reach for a small bag of white cotton, where I’ve been keeping things to take to the summit: a khata from Pema Choling Monastery’s kids, a thread bracelet from a friend, who dreams of climbing Everest, and something from my mother – these three things I leave for Chomolungma to bless, and pray that She take care of the people whom they belong to. Then, Pasang and I take another summit photo with my camera (the battery in his is frozen), and agree to head down. We change our O2 bottles, look around one more time, and leave.

Although we’ve only spent about 20 minutes on the summit, it’s enough. Now, on the way down, I feel strangely calm – in spite of the cough, and the wind, and the utter absence of strength in my limbs, and the fact that I am hours away from the relative safety of camp… In fact, I feel so calm, I am almost falling asleep as I’m walking along the terribly narrow traverse on the side of the summit pyramid. I think, I’m as calm as someone dying in peace.


To the (too) many dead of Everest

Good-night, good-bye!
At last, the soft dawn’s here for me;
On its broad wings it bears
The warmth I need to live
It lifts me briskly up
And carries me away
From where you sleep your timeless sleep,
Which knows not nights from days
Good-night, good-bye!
I can’t sit by your side and rest:
My racing heart, my ticking watch,
The dream, which lights my face,
Must lift me briskly up
And carry me away
From where you sleep your timeless sleep,
In the thin air encaged
I taste your night: cold, heavy, deep…
I spit it out and crawl
Towards the sun, towards the top
Of the awakened world
Good-night, good-bye!
May Chomolungma keep your soul from harm!
Good-night, o faceless dreamer,
My clone of ice and stone!

Ama Dablam, Part IV

Ama D Summit Pyramid

My dive computer/watch beeps weakly at 2 am announcing the beginning of summit day. I wake my guide up and, sleepy and tired, he automatically lights the small gas stove and places on it a pot of ice to melt for our pre-departure tea. I have a Red Bull, put my puffy Primaloft pants on top of the fleece under layer, an enormous expedition parka, a thick balaclava over my head, and reach for the inner booties of my three-layer 8000-metre boots. Although I am an ice-swimmer, cold air gets to me all too easily: after all, it was the very real risk of getting frostbite which chased me down from Camp 4 on Manaslu. I hope to have learnt my lesson: in addition to thick gloves, I am carrying chemical hand-warmers and am generally over-dressed for a speed ascent of a 6800-metre peak.

At 3:30 am my guide and I are ready to set off. Dorje is carrying everything we expect to need on summit day while all I have to drag up the hill is me; it seems like a lot. Standing outside the tent with my head-lamp shining on the cold rocks, I am waiting for Christophe.

‘Go on, don’t wait for me,’ says he.

‘I’ll see you on the summit,’ I suggest in reply, trying to sound warm and confident, and trod off. Almost immediately challenging climbing begins. Here in the dark is the famously vertiginous Grey Tower with its long pitches of mixed climbing leading vertically into the night sky. ‘Is there one or are there two of these Towers?’ I wonder as a thin ridge leads from the top of one icy rock face to the foot of another. ‘Let there be more,’ I say to myself, enjoying every move I make, suspended off a thin line over the hope of soaring and a possibility of crashing. I am smiling at the night, at the rocks and the flashlights of my friends dancing far, far below; like them I am waltzing in the air with my fears for partners, obscenely happy.

The Mushroom Ridge leading into Camp 3 is stunning at dawn. My feet on the left and right sides of the abyss underneath, I stop and stare in awe at the sunrise, blushing over the Himalaya. ‘Sunrise…’ I muse, ‘I have no time to waste,’ and I climb on. It is very windy and cold at Camp 3 when my guide asks me about how my hands are feeling, making me focus on something I want to ignore – that I have had no feeling in my fingers for a while now. I smile at Dorje apologetically, admitting to being a little cold. He immediately gets me to put hand-warmers into my gloves and, still not satisfied, fishes out the backpack his own enormous expedition mitts that won’t even fit into my jumar.

‘No, Dorje!’ I protest, ‘I must have some mobility in my hands! I have to climb somehow!’

‘That’s if you have hands, though,’ he reminds me.

I let him put a mitt on my left hand which seems frozen. In the process of manipulating my glove, he lets it slip out of his grip for an instant – and it’s gone, headed for base camp. Then, he starts to massage my fingers angrily, and in a few minutes they are filled with stinging pain of the blood rushing back in. Now we can go on.

We begin to move again, but the joy of climbing of the first three hours is gone while the summit looks not an inch nearer than when we started. The wind has been biting into my throat and lungs; my chest is cold from the inside; I cough uncontrollably. In front of me there are more ropes dripping down the blindingly white face of ice leading to the summit. The ice won’t accept even the tip of my axe – only the front points of my crampons seem to penetrate its unyielding surface a little. A little is enough, and we keep climbing. For hours. Other climbers, who started from Camp 3, catch up to us. Soon, the Austrian duo and their Sherpa pass us, too.  I look up and feel tears well up under my glacier glasses, under my glassy stare of determination. ‘No more! I can’t do this anymore! No more! Please!’ the whinge inside me begs. I listen to this inner voice of pain like music which sets the rhythm and keeps me going.

‘Dorje, where’s the summit?’ I ask every other minute.

‘It’s close. Another half-hour, maybe.’

And so it goes on.

‘Dorje, what is that?’ I am looking at a colourful mass hanging off the fixed rope to my left.

‘It’s… just oxygen bottles,’ he replies, ‘the summit is close. Keep going.’

On the Summit of Ama D with Pasang and Dorje

I pass the bottles without pausing and, following the rope, struggle up the last pitches towards the summit. At noon I am finally on the spacious, even, windless, perfect summit plateau of Ama Dablam. The Austrian duo, another climber and our Sherpas are on the summit with me. People take pictures, laugh, have snacks…  I try to do the same and to look less drained than I really am; I force myself to feel the joy I expected to feel but there’s only a small spark of contentment which is growing cold, too. Getting back on my feet, I stare at Mt. Everest in the distance and at all the other peaks I would have smiled at familiarly if only I wasn’t blinded by fatigue. I sit back down again sensing that I will not make it down Ama Dablam: my neck and spirit broke under the weight of Mother’s Necklace.

‘Chop-chop!’ my guide says, but I barely hear him. ‘Do you want a Red Bull?’ he jokes, observing me, and pulls a can of my ‘magic potion’ out of the backpack. I can’t help laughing, and try to scrape myself off the summit plateau.

‘Chop-chop,’ I say as cheerfully as I can, clipping my safety karabiner back into the fixed line. Yet, resolve is not enough to get down: one actually has to move their arms and legs to achieve that – which is problematic if they have no strength left at all. None. At all.

I try to use my figure eight to help me control the descent but the rope is too tight as there is still some climber traffic up and down the mountain. Thus, I simply down-climb/ stumble vertically down holding the rope with both hands. ‘Oh, I have progressed a little,’ I note to myself, spotting the oxygen bottles I’d passed on the way up. When I am at the same level as the colourful mass, I stop to rest and examine it more carefully. ‘Oxygen Bottles’ has boots on with a pair of crampons attached, and he is dressed in red and black – he is the corpse of the Russian mountaineer who’d died on Ama Dablam five or six days before our summit push. Realising that, I stare at the body, hanging off the icy rope in the most unwelcoming place in the world, in an uncomfortable position, and my heart begins to ache. I stand and pray for the man – in Russian, in English, in Tibetan… yet, no words can express the pain I feel thinking of the climber’s family and their suffering. ‘It’s just a mountain,’ I say in the end, angry with myself, ‘just rock, and ice, and nothingness,’

‘Mila!’ Dorje is calling, ‘Mila, come on!’

I turn away from the body and continue down. I do so because there is one person in the world who trusts me to keep walking wherever I am, whether exhausted, or injured, or dying. She trusts me not to put her through the torture of having to refer to me as a corpse on a mountain/in the ice/under the sea. My mother deserves a daughter who never gives up, and although I am not that daughter at all, I pretend to be.

When my guide and I reach Camp 3, I half-expect him to reproach me for not letting him bring sleeping bags and food to spend the night in case of an emergency, which our situation is beginning to resemble. Time is passing and our downward progress in painfully slow. It’s 4 pm, which gives us just over two hours of daylight to get to Camp 2, and we both know that we won’t make before dark.

‘It’s fine,’ says my guide, ‘we have headlamps…’

‘We sure do,’ I agree, ‘I even have spare batteries in the pack somewhere.’ We laugh together and step onto the Mushroom Ridge. I use my figure eight to rappel where possible, and Dorje helps me clip my safety karabiner into fixed rope; I am soon too tired even for that minor task and he performs it for me. Thus, we reach the Grey Tower.

‘The rope is too tight,’ he says, his expression worried and apologetic, ‘you can’t rappel.’

This means I have to down-climb with just my safety karabiner clipped into fixed rope for…psychological comfort. My arm muscles are numb and could not hold me on the rope if I slipped – all I can use them for is balance. My guide and I climb down quietly and carefully, and reach the bottom of the Tower by sunset. Camp 2 is close now: a couple more sharp ridges, and we stumble into the dark campsite. The Austrian guides are already asleep in their tent, and their Sherpa is melting ice for us. He tells me that Christophe had to abort his summit push and descend. I am genuinely sorry. I am also dead-tired. Inside the tent I sit on top my puffy sleeping bag holding a cup of tea; I am a broken doll. The two Sherpas talk outside in their tongue, then, Dorje bends and passes me his mobile. On the other end of the line is our mutual acquaintance and one of my dearest friends in Kathmandu. She tells me I am awesome, and so very strong to climb Ama Dablam so quickly, and that everyone misses me at ‘home’, and many other wonderful heart-warming things. I try to protest, but she wouldn’t listen. I want to tell her how badly I did on the descent and remind her – and myself – that I’m still on the mountain, still descending… I’m want her to know that I am not the unyielding woman people sometimes make me out to be – that I am truly very weak. Yet, she doesn’t hear me.

Dorje crawls into his sleeping bag and bids me good-night.

‘You are very strong, Mila,’ says the man who has just spent his day saving me from my own recklessness. I choke on my shame and say good-night, too, still sitting up, holding that same cup of now cold tea; it feels heavy.