Ganesh I: Things That Fall

The shadow of Ganesh II on Ganesh I

In just a couple of days after locating Camp I, Phil, Sami and the Sherpas leave base camp in search of a safe route to Camp II. Although it is still very early in the morning – cold and, at least for yours truly, nearly impossible to get out of the sleeping bag – I am wide awake, listening to the clanking of the reconnaissance team’s harnesses as they prepare to leave. Then, it’s all quiet again, except for my heart, whose excited, impatient beating I can hear clearly. ‘What will they find on the glacier?’ I wonder, wishing I was only strong and fast enough to have joined them on their exploratory climb. I am not – not at all: still sick, I cough as much as before the first climb to Camp I, and the illness I can’t seem to shake off is slowly draining me of energy.

When I finally summon the courage to unzip my -40C sleeping bag, the bitter morning cold instantly makes itself felt on every exposed bit of skin. I loose feeling in my fingertips as I go through my very basic ‘beauty’ routine, and the little mirror I am holding in my hands is useless, clouded and frosted as it is. In fact, it is probably best this way… At breakfast I listen for Phil’s voice on the base camp radio station in the kitchen tent, but hear nothing. ‘It’s 8 am,’ I tell myself, ‘too early for any major news.’ After 9 am, sun finally reaches base camp, and the climbers emerge from the dining tent to ‘worship’ it, standing in line and basking in its warmth, which will not last.

The seracs on the approach to the start of the route

I go to the telescope to try and spot the team on the mountain, but they are hidden from view by the rocks and seracs above Camp I. I then attempt to distract myself by reading but cannot for the life of me focus on the imaginary adventures described in the book. ‘Well, I have to do something,’ I muse, and deicide to go and search the glacier for a lake to swim in. It is a beautiful morning, clear and crisp, and the fall colors of the grass and small bushes under my feet, powdered with dry snow, are a soothing site. As I begin to descend towards the glacier, I suddenly feel the ground shake under my feet. Within seconds, I hear cracking sounds come from the seracs on the surrounding mountains. A large avalanche rolls down the steep face of Ganesh II in front of me but it is what I see when I turn to face our Yangra that makes me hold my breath: a cloud of snow is engulfing the same slopes we climbed on our way to Camp I. I stand and stare at the floating snow as several smaller slides occur on Ganesh II and IV.

Avalanche cloud over the start of the route

‘They must be ways above Camp I now,’ I keep telling myself as, stumbling on rocks and slipping on dry grass I run back to base camp to find out if the scouting team is alright. Our cook, Da Pasang, looks at my flushed, worried face with an eyebrow raised in amusement, and tells me that everything is fine and that the climbers are safe. Taking a deep breath of relief, I return to my book and my milk tea in the dining tent. Later in in day I walk to the scope and, locating the team on the face of the mountain, watch them descend. Their backpacks look enormous, and something attached to their side straps glitters as it reflects the setting sun – it’s the snow bars the team had carried up to fix rope on the glacier. My heart sinks as I put two and two together and realize that the climbers must have come across a very serious obstacle during their search for Camp II. By the size of their backpacks it is also clear that they are bringing back down some of the gear they’d been carrying to Camp I for storage. The route, then, is a no-go. I hold my tongue and try to avoid sharing my guesses with the rest of the climbers at base camp, but they soon see what I have seen, and a bit of a panic starts by the telescope.

‘The expedition is over,’ the boys voice their thoughts, bewildered.

‘Now, how do you know that?’ I ask the loudest person in the group.

‘There’s been no news on the radio, they’re carrying the rope and the snow bars down – obviously, it’s all over.’

‘Why don’t we hold off this kind of conjectures until Phil, Sami and the Sherpas descend? They’ll tell us what’s happening. And then you can freak out all you like,’ I suggest.

‘But…’ he protests.

‘But what? Did you think there was going to be a highway to the summit once we got past Camp I? Really? So, we might have to try another route. And then, another one before we find the way. This is an exploratory expedition. We’re exploring our options here,’

‘But we won’t have the time for all that now!’

‘You don’t know that; you won’t know until you try. You run out of time – you don’t wait for the time to run out, doing nothing,’

‘There’s gotta be another way we can go,’ another climber steps in to support me.

‘Exactly,’ I smile, relieved, ‘and if there is one, there’s no reason we shouldn’t find it. We have experienced leaders, strong Sherpas and a good team. Let’s not give up before we’ve heard the news from Phil himself.’

Phil on his way to Camp I, by the rockfall couloir

When the reconnaissance team arrives at base camp, looking exhausted, I have very little interest in whether or not they have found the way, or what it was that blocked their passage: seeing our route in the cloud of avalanche snow earlier makes these things all but irrelevant. This being my 4th expedition with Phil Crampton’s Altitude Junkies and 7th with some of the AJ Sherpas, I care a great deal more about the safety of these people, all of whom I consider to be my friends, than I do about climbing the mountain. I am concerned, if not really surprised, when I listen to Phil’s account of what’s happened: just above Camp I there was an area of heavy rockfall that the team could not get around; they tried to climb over it on steep rock, but it was so rotten that it would break away from under the climbers’ hands and feet; as they began to retreat, a falling boulder the size of a table was a meter away from hitting one of the Sherpas. The route above our present Camp I would be deadly dangerous and, therefore, a no-go, so we must search for an alternative way to reach the glacier. Meanwhile, we plan to climb to Camp I once more in the morning to retrieve the gear we’d left there.

I go to sleep that night with a bad, bad feeling: I feel like the mountain we thought we could tame on first attempt is awake, alert and angry with us for our arrogance. I understand her, and have no doubt that we will not reach Yangra’s summit; I doubt it, however, that I will make it back down after picking up my stuff from Camp I: at night several snow slides from one of the surrounding mountains echo through base camp and penetrate deep into my mind, filling it with fear. ‘Perhaps, I could ask someone to bring my things down for me, as one of my team mates, ill like me, has done,’ a little voice whispers inside me. Unfortunately, I can’t afford the luxury of taking its advice: some of my ‘closest friends’ are made of rock and ice, and I won’t loose them to fear.

With Phil and Pasang, our sirdar, gone to explore other route possibilities, it is Sami, who leads the group to Camp I. I follow him at first but, getting cold as we wait for the others, I decide to keep moving up slowly on my own. I listen to the creaking and cracking of the seracs, which seem to be a lot closer to me than they really are, and move with the ‘music’. I climb at a normal pace and wait for the rest of the climbers to catch up, but the cold and the adrenalin won’t allow me to stop for long. When I enter the rockfall couloir, the sound of sliding and falling rocks distracts me from the seracs as I scramble up cautiously. I am above the couloir, in the middle of the final steep rock section on the route, when a loud crack coming from up high leaves me ossified on fixed rope. It is the same sound I’d heard on Manaslu the night before one the most injurious avalanches in recent Himalayan history. ‘The serac’s gonna go now,’ the little voice whispers, ‘hold on!’ Perched on a little outcrop on the rock face, I sit and wait for the wave of snow to wash over and drown me. ‘What are you doing?’ I ask myself after a couple of minutes when, naturally, nothing so dramatic happens. ‘This route is perfectly safe. You wouldn’t even get ‘dusted’ where you are now, no matter how many of those cracking seracs collapsed. Get up and get going!’ But I can’t. I close my eyes and see the empty Camp 3 on Manaslu: I am utterly helpless against the memories of grief, and voidness, and confusion this image brings me. ‘It should have been me,’ I echo the words I repeated so many times on Manaslu, thinking of the lost climbers and their families. Then, I open my eyes and look down at base camp far below. My fear-filled gaze retraces my steps downwards in search of someone from the team: there is nobody anywhere in sight, no one to distract and, thus, rescue me from my shame and my fear. I know it is pointless to wait to be ‘rescued’, and I can only play a damsel in distress for so long. ‘Either up or down, but you have to get moving. Get up!’

Zoom-in on base camp from Camp I

When I reach the top of the rock and look at the over-hanging serac slightly above and to the right of me, I notice that it’s changed shape: a piece must have broken off. I sit down to drink some water and catch my breath before stepping onto the rocky ‘minefield’ – the last section on the way to Camp I. While I rest, one of my team mates catches up to me, and we carry on together. At Camp I I recover from the climb, gather my gear and begin the descent. It is after noon now, and the morning cold has loosened its grasp on rocks and seracs, making our way down objectively more dangerous than the ascent has been. However, my fear seems to have melted away in the sun, and, in no rush to get off the mountain I now like better than ever, I follow my two slower team mates down. I feel calm and content, pleased with myself for not having lost my little battle against two of the greatest human fears: this of death, and of loneliness. It was Ganesh, who granted me this small but personally meaningful victory – a gift I accept with a lot of gratitude, and promise not to ask the mountain for more, as much I still want the summit.

Sunset on Ganesh II

Back at base camp Phil informs us that there is a Plan B, the possibilities of which are to be explored the next day. The team still has the time, the gear and the desire to look for the way to the summit of Yangra. It is good to see everyone excited and hopeful again. However, it is at least equally good to see the mountain, which has laughingly shaken us off its slopes, stand so majestically against the starry night sky.

Ganesh I: Into Tsum Valley

(left to right) Ganesh I, Ganesh III, Ganesh IV and Ganesh II

The Ganesh I expedition leaves Kathmandu early in the morning on the 22nd of October. The air is cool, and there is hardly any traffic in the usually bustling streets. It is Dashain, time of many pujas and sacrificial ceremonies in Nepal, and our bus drives past countless houses and shops with goats tied outside or buffaloes being skinned, their blood – an offering to the ever-thirsty gods. A relatively short bumpy ride brings us to Arughat early. Next morning we trek to Soti Khola and Machhakhola the day after. The trek is familiar to me as in its initial stages it passes through the same towns and villages as the Manaslu trek, which I have already done twice. Thus, I know that it always rains in Machhakhola. On the 25th of October, my birthday, we arrive in Jagat, which happens to be one of my favorite villages on the trail. Its location in a narrow gorge, the charming cobbled main street and the blue doors of its small houses set it apart from the other settlements in the area. I spend the evening playing with (and losing to) my new camera, snapping endless photos of the picturesque Jagat, followed across town by the curious local kids.

Jagat

After dinner our cook Da Pasang brings out a cake, decorated on top with what looks like my ‘portrait’ – a round smiling face with five hairs sticking out. My team mates and the Sherpas sing a cheerful Happy Birthday to me and the latter put white khatas around my neck. I am very touched by this impromptu celebration and by the gift our liaison officer hands me at the end of the evening – wrapped in shiny foil is a six-pack of Red Bull, to which I am notoriously addicted. Back in my tent at night I sit and tell myself that I am now 26. What does it mean? I reach for a little mirror somewhere at the bottom of my backpack and look at my face when it doesn’t smile like the face on the cake. I don’t regret seeing what I see: too many wrinkles for 26, sunken eyes, thin lips that curve naturally downwards… I ask myself then if I would trade my experiences, my extreme highs and lows, for youth, and beauty, and normality. The honest answer is yes, but the better answer is no. So it’s a no again, and tomorrow I will trek higher.

Jagat

Next day we enter Tsum Valley, an area of Nepal, which has only been open for trekking for about 5 years now. We spend our first night in Tsum in a tiny village called Lopka. I am surprised to see that we are not the only westerners in these remote parts as there are two or three other small trekking groups or individual trekkers staying at the local tea-house. We arrive early and I wander off into the woods for a little hike. As I climb higher, I try to look past the gathering evening clouds into the valley to spot at least a glimpse of Ganesh I, the mountain we come to climb. However, the more I look around me, the more I forget what exactly it is I am looking for – Tsum Valley is fascinatingly beautiful and quietly majestic. Only when the air gets too cool for what I am wearing do I remember to check my watch, and retrace my steps back to the campsite.

Lopka

We leave Lopka for Domje after breakfast next morning. One of my team mates and I decide to turn the trek to our lunch stop in Chumling into an uphill race, so we reach the village earlier than expected. After waiting for the rest of the climbers and the kitchen staff to arrive, I opt out of lunch and choose to carry on to Domje on my own – to have the trail and the views to myself. Whenever I find myself alone and in doubt while trekking, I tend to ask locals or other hikers I meet whether or not I’m going the right way. The first people I run into just outside Chumling are two young Canadians, one of whom says that finding the way to Domje is tricky:

‘You turn off the main trail somewhere up there; then, you cross that bridge; then, you go under the bridge and there’s another bridge; then, there’s lots of little trails – just keep going up…’

My facial expression probably speaks eloquently enough of the extent of my confusion because he asks me if I have a map.

‘No,’ I reply guiltily, like a schoolkid who shows up to class without having done the homework.

‘But you do have a guide, at least?’

‘Yes, of course, more than one, even – but they’re not trekking guides and they’re ways behind, anyway.’ Now it’s my interlocutor’s turn to look puzzled. ‘I’m on a climbing expedition, you see,’ I explain.

‘A mountaineer? Then, you’ll find your way around these hills no problem,’

‘Yes, sure…’ I mumble less than confidently as we part and wish each other a good day.

Walking to Domje

‘The Mountaineer’, then, has to consider her options: to keep going and very likely get lost, or to sit down and wait for my team to finish their lunch and catch up to me. The former could be either miserable or fun, while the latter would certainly be pathetic, long and boring, so I continue along the trail. Across the river I soon spot a village I believe to be Domje, but I cannot see the proverbial bridge to the other side anywhere. Then, fortunately, I meet another, much larger, trekking group with porters and guides. ‘They would know,’ I tell myself. As it turns out, they know no more than I do, so, reluctantly, I entrust myself to my navigational instincts alone and walk on. Amazingly, I easily find the bridge, cross it triumphantly, feeling like I’ve just discovered the sources of the Nile, and follow a blurry trail under the bridge just like the Canadians have told me. Then, indeed, there’s that other small bridge they mentioned. Eventually, following a tiny path upwards, I find myself in Domje. I’d arranged to meet with the rest of the crew at the Domje health post, which is what I guess the building before me to be.

‘Domje? Health post?’ I ask the two locals emerging from the house. Several more are glued to the dusty windows, staring at me and giggling.

‘Yes,’ one of them replies.

‘Ramro,’ good, I grin, looking around me for a comfortable spot to wait for the boys. As I try to read, more Domjeans emerge from their hiding places to observe me. They appear very serious and almost scared. Of me. I certainly get them. So I smile – they smile, too; I stop smiling – they begin to look concerned. It’s seriously awkward, and an eternity seems to pass before our Sherpas arrive at the health post to distract my spectators from the Mila-show.

Near Domje

‘Phil is looking for you everywhere,’ one of my team mates says, as he drops off his backpack and sits down to rest.

‘But why?’ I wonder.

‘He thinks you’re lost. This big group we ran into said they’d met a blond girl on the trail looking lost.’

‘What? A blond looking ‘lost’? Unbelievable!’

‘You did ask them about Domje, didn’t you?’

‘I did ask. I never said I was lost, however.’

‘Well…’

‘Well, now, because nobody has any faith in my navigational instincts (khem…), I have to run and look for Phil,’ I complain grumpily as I put my boots back on and prepare to leave.

‘You weren’t lost, then?’ he asks, sneering.

‘Were you? It took you awfully long to get here…’ I retort.

Luckily, Phil, the expedition leader, arrives at the health post before I leave in search of him. The day turned out to be quite a long and tiring one, and after dinner we all quickly go to sleep in our private tents. We hope to reach base camp by next evening and need a good rest before the big ‘jump’ in distance and elevation.

Ganesh II in the distance

We start walking early, while it is still cold. After climbing some 500 meters above Domje we see Ganesh I clearly for the first time. It looks ridiculously tall. From Gumba Langdang, where we stop for lunch, the views of ‘our’ mountain, holy to the locals, are simply breathtaking. There is a small monastery with a dark prayer hall in Langdang where I go to make light offerings and pray for our safe passage on the still-unclimbed Nepal side of Ganesh I. An elderly nun is chanting prayers with me, and her quiet voice quivers a little like the flames of the 16 butter-lamps burning before the bronze Buddha statues and the old photographs of accomplished lamas. Each butter-lamp represents one of us on the expedition team: the two leaders, the five climbers, the five Sherpas and the four cooks. All I ask for as I watch the small flames is that we all return safely. It is, nevertheless, with a heavy heart that I step out of the dark prayer hall back into the afternoon sun. I know the feeling: I felt exactly the same before attempting Cholatse last February. I think, I already know what comes next as I look at Ganesh, rising majestically above the valley.

Ganesh I from Gumba Langdang

Yet, our main concern now is getting to base camp. The trails leading to the foot of Yangra from Gumba Langdang are small and confusing, hard to navigate for an expedition, accompanied by numerous porters and heavily-loaded mules. The forward progress of our stubborn donkeys is not speedy enough for us to make base camp before dark. We decide to camp on a spacious clearing in the forest for the night, and leave for base camp early next day.

Arriving at the foot of Ganesh I

At 9 in the morning we reach our destination at the foot of the 7422-meter Ganesh I. The place where we set up base camp, at just over 4000 meters, easily counts amongst the most stunning mountain settings I’ve been in. Mules and porters drop off their loads and leave us face to face with the stunning Yangra and her imposing ‘brothers’ Ganesh II, III and IV. I waste no time and climb to the top of the moraine to have a look at the glacier, hopeful to spot a large enough lake in which to do my planned swim. To my disappointment, all I see are two tiny frozen pools. I tell myself to focus on the climb and think of the swim later as I return to the tent town that is the Junkies neat base camp. Coils of rope to be fixed along the route, ice screws, snow bars and other mountain-taming tools and instruments lie spread out carefully on the tarpaulin outside the kitchen tent. ‘It’s a lot of stuff’, I say to myself, looking at the summit of Ganesh I, ‘but will it be enough for you?’