I woke up to the clanking of harnesses, and looked at my watch: it was just before 7 am. Reluctantly, I loosened the string around my sleeping bag’s hood, and popped my head out into the icy air of the tent. The sun would not reach base camp until after 8 am, and I could not imagine getting out of my sleeping bag and changing in such cold, but I would have to: the three climbing Sherpas were heading up for what I’d told them would be the last attempt to fix rope up to Camp 2 – it was too cold to linger at base camp and wait for the weather window, which might or might not open before we freeze and the morale sinks below sea level. ‘Don’t risk anything,’ I told the boys as they walked away.
Later in the day, I went to the frozen Pumori lake to look for a spot to swim. I walked to the middle of it, gliding on the thick ice, looking away from Pumori, over whose summit clouds rushed at ridiculous speeds, and onto Everest on the other side. She was black, and rocky, and beautiful, and the sole sight of the mountain made me feel content, but also deeply sad. ‘If there was just one more thing I could do before disappearing, I would climb back to touch my forehead to your icy, white brow, Chomolungma,’ I whispered into the strong wind. ‘Can you see me, standing again before you? Can you hear me? Would you have me back?’ In his book Everest: The West Ridge Tom Hornbein describes the exact feeling I had standing there in the middle of the lake between Pumori and Everest: ‘It is strange how when a dream is fulfilled, there is nothing left but doubt.’
After 12 hours on the Southwest Ridge of Pumori, the climbing Sherpas would come down, and the expedition would be over. I would not have my team risk their lives or almost certain frostbite for my doubt to go away – because it wouldn’t, no matter how many summits I reached. After leaving me to celebrate a success, it would come and sit by me when my friends have gone to live their lives; doubt would hold my cold hands and whisper in my ear: ‘you were just lucky, Princess; you are unworthy, unworthy, unworthy…’
Tired of that voice in my ear, I made an announcement to the Sherpas before I went to my tent that night. ‘I have an idea,’ I said… I told them they would go home, while I would stop in Pheriche on the way down, wait for the permit to be issued, and then go to climb Cholatse – solo. They laughed my ‘idea’ off at first, but when they realized I meant what I was saying, they began to worry.
‘You’re not going anywhere alone, Mila,’ Dorje said to me sternly. ‘How are you going to fix rope? How are you going to carry everything? How…?’
‘I started climbing long before we met,’ I replied, ‘and I actually know how to fix rope, and hammer in pitons, and place ice screws, and pitch tents. Not that I’m great at it, but I can do it. I can certainly carry more than you usually let me do.’
‘How are you going to come down?’
‘Slowly and painfully, but carefully.’
‘No, if you go to Cholatse, we all go to Cholatse.’
‘No, I want to climb alone,’ I insisted.
‘You won’t be climbing alone. We’ll plan something now, and we’ll go together.’
Touched as I was by this display of loyalty, I truly didn’t want any of the Sherpas climbing with me anymore. For them, climbing is a job, for me – a passion; thus, while I can, perhaps, be justified in pushing past my limits, they should not feel compelled to follow where only a madman/woman would go. I didn’t want the responsibility – it weighed too heavily on my shoulders. For once, I wished that it would be just my doubt and I, climbing together as far as we dared. It was not to be, however. When I woke up next morning and prepared to go for a swim in Pumori Lake, one of the Sherpas was assigned to follow me and make sure I was ok.
After the swim
The swim was cold and invigorating, and gave me the strength to stay calm and collected when the expedition team left base camp next morning. On descent, I was again accompanied by one of the Sherpas, who would look concerned every time I would stop to look at a possible route of ascent on the fascinating Cholatse. ‘What do you think?’ I asked him about a line I painted on the mountain. ‘Looks fine. But you can’t do it alone.’ Down in Pheriche, where we stopped for the night, the wind was wild, ceaselessly throwing sand and dust in one’s face. It was still early in the day when we arrived, which gave us much time to talk about my newest bad idea – Cholatse solo. The conversation made me realize that there was no way I would be allowed to stay and climb on the mountain unsupported. In the evening the rest of the team arrived with the yaks, carrying expedition gear, and, looking at my team’s tired faces, I said nothing of Cholatse. The sirdar observed me questioningly, ready for almost any craziness to come out of my mouth, but I simply smiled. Of course, I would not drag the boys to Cholatse after a failure on Pumori – the whole point of leaving Pumori was to deliver them safely home to their real lives and their families. I told myself before going to sleep that night that that was what I would do: return to Kathmandu with my team, take a rest, and come back – alone – to Cholatse. However, that, too, was not to be.
The winds blew strong and cold across our small base camp of three sleeping tents and one large kitchen tent. The rope fixing progressed well, but, still acclimatizing at 5300 meters, I was worried every time the climbing Sherpas would leave for the Southwest Ridge, steep and exposed to the winds. Hopeful, I monitored the weather forecast texted to me every day: all it would say would be that the wind speeds would keep increasing. After three freezing-cold days and nights at base camp, I could no longer wait for good news, and decided to climb up to Camp 1 at 5900 meters to take a closer look at the route and spend one night at that elevation to acclimatize.
As I slowly climbed higher on wobbly rocks and past the white teeth of the icefall’s seracs, I felt the fatigue of the three nights I’d spent without sleep. My -40C sleeping bag is wonderfully comfortable, but my metabolism is too slow to warm it up when the levels of oxygen in my blood drop – as they inevitably do in thin air – so the down always remains cold, as do all the layers of clothes I wear ‘to bed’. What I usually do, then, on those cold nights in the mountains is curl into a ball and focus on the warmth in my feet – the chemical warmers stuffed between two pairs of thick socks – until morning. The problem with winter mountaineering is that even when the sun does rise and touch the icy tent with its rays, most of their warmth, filtered through the cold air, is stolen by the wind, and the little that’s left must suffice to help one get out of the sleeping bag and get to work. Another frustration is that everything is frozen in the morning: sunscreen, face wipes, water in the water bottle from the night before – and it takes forever to warm things up.
I found Camp 1 suspended over the most stunning Himalayan scenery on a serac that creaked unpleasantly as it greeted Dorje and I for the night on the ‘mattress’ of winter ice. We pitched our tent in a safe and sheltered spot, and from there I could see the route to the summit of Pumori; I couldn’t help grinning in anticipation of the hard mixed climbing the Southwest Ridge promised. The three climbing Sherpas would try to fix rope up to Camp 2 at 6500 meters that day, but I was not sure it would be possible for them to accomplish the task, given the wind speeds and the low air temperatures. I warned them to be careful, and stayed behind only to see them come down in a few hours, almost literally blown off the ridge.
It would be a bad, bad night at Camp 1. Late in the evening I received a new weather forecast, which suggested that the wind speeds would continue to increase, with hurricane-force winds settling down for the winter above 6500 meters. ‘We can’t climb in the jet stream, Dorje,’ I told my tent mate and sirdar of 8 expeditions, ‘and we can’t wait for the jet stream to lift off in this cold for weeks, either.’ As I looked at the wind speeds on the screen of my phone – 70, 85, 100 mph on the summit of Pumori – the thought first entered my mind, clear as the night, that we would not reach that summit, that I would not get what I want – again – and that once more I would have to swallow the bitter, humbling pill of defeat. Everyone who’d ever doubted me would be right, and would be justified in saying: ‘oh, but of course you couldn’t do it, not even with the strongest team in the Himalaya. You’re just not a climber, Princess, and certainly no expedition leader.’ As the night in the tent turned from dark blue to black and the creaking of the ice underneath our tent grew more frequent, I just kept sitting there, in my down suit and sleeping bag, staring at the numbers which translated into one word – ‘impossible’ – and listening to the sounds, which reminded me of the Manaslu avalanche. I was scared to stay and scared to leave, as if again suspend over my fears like I was on the way to Camp 1 on Ganesh, paralyzed, helpless. After what felt like an endless succession of hours, the light in the tent began slowly to brighten, and at 6 am Dorje was up and the water was boiling, announcing the start of a new day on the hill. We considered climbing towards Camp 2 but eventually descended to base camp.
There we were welcomed, warmly as always, by the three climbing Sherpas and the two cooks, and I instantly felt encouraged to carry on in spite of… everything. As some of the Sherpas left for Gorak Shep to have a rest from the cold and monotonous life at base camp, I stayed in the kitchen tent, sipping milk tea and chatting with my remaining climbers about our plans after Pumori. We spent hours daydreaming and when in the evening I ‘woke up’, I knew but one thing: no matter how I might feel about another defeat and what silent reproaches and condescending comments I would face when I returned to reality from the enchanted kingdom of Chomolungma, I could not allow the people I climbed with and considered my true friends to get hurt just for me to feel better about myself. They were the people who mattered, while those who judged me on the length and color of my hair could think what they would. What I wanted – the summit – I could not have without endangering the lives of my friends, who would carry on working on the route in spite of almost certainly getting frostbite in the process of rope-fixing. As much as I wanted the summit, I would never have it at a cost to anyone else but me. Thus, slowly and carefully, I began to let go of the beautiful objective that is winter Pumori via a stunning and tough route as I suggested: ‘Let’s wait a while longer, perhaps, a couple of days, and if the weather stays the same, and the forecast doesn’t promise any improvement in the conditions, we’ll see what we do.’
‘We will leave,’ I added to myself, ‘we’ll just have to leave.’
I look at the men sitting around me in the kitchen tent, lit only by the climbing team’s and the cook’s headlamps and… a small candle. The three climbing Sherpas, who have just come down from the Southwest Ridge of Pumori after battling 60-70mph winds trying to fix rope along the route, look utterly spent. Their faces are gaunt and sunken in the scarce light. They are warming their hands, which my whim to climb Pumori in winter could have cost them, against aluminum cups of steaming hot tea. ‘If the wind is too strong on the ridge, come down with your gear, don’t risk anything,’ I told the three Sherpas over 12 hours ago in the morning when they were leaving base camp to work on the route. The winds, weather forecasts predicted, would only get stronger above 6500 meters from that day on, and climbing would be impossible anyway. A long wait at the frigid base camp would also be difficult for the boys and, perhaps, too difficult for me. I hoped the forecasts would, perhaps, be wrong, but the faces of my Sherpas tell me the winds were indeed as relentless as expected. The bulky backpacks they brought down are unequivocal signs that we are not returning to the route. I am relieved to see everyone healthy if tired and disappointed, but I am also sorry to witness the end of what could be my last Himalayan dream.
‘I’m sorry, Mila,’ Dorje, the team’s sirdar, tells me, thinking that it is the impossibility of climbing Pumori that casts a shadow over my face.
‘Don’t be sorry,’ I say – to both him and myself. I then thank the boys wholeheartedly for their hard work fixing rope on the steep and exposed Southwest ridge, for waiting for days at the lifeless windy base camp when the weather halted their progress, for truly believing that I could, in fact, climb such a technically difficult route in winter and for putting their lives at risk to fulfill my dream. Six pairs of eyes look at me, six men hear my voice, but they don’t listen.
‘A waste of money and gear,’ Dorje sums up the sentiment.
‘Just money and gear, though – not fingers or anything else irreplaceable,’ I insist. ‘If we still have all our fingers and the will to climb together, we can try this again at another, more appropriate, time. Meanwhile, I have another idea…’
I like my voice that night – I recognize it again, at last. It sounds calm and certain; it knows what’s important. When the expedition was leaving Kathmandu, my voice and my whole attitude were different.
‘I can see that you have a strong team,’ someone, whose opinion counts, told me a few days before departure.
‘Yes, it is a strong team, except for me,’ I said.
‘I can see that, too,’ was the response of my interlocutor – a vocalization of what people see when they see me: someone, who is carried to the summits in a basket on the backs of her climbing Sherpas. Past my appearance and countenance people all too rarely see how much I actually love to climb and how hard and seriously I work at doing it well. Leaving Kathmandu before the Pumori expedition, I was not, as I used to do, simply setting out to scale a mountain that attracted me but also to prove that I was equal to the hardest of mountaineering tasks. I’d forgotten that to reach the summit is, in reality, not at all ‘the hardest of mountaineering tasks’.
Trekking to Pumori base camp at 5300 meters took us 6 days. It was cold, hard to walk and even harder to breathe – as always. The busiest trekking trail in Nepal leading to Everest Base Camp looked empty – disappointingly so, as the winter sun was still friendly and welcoming, and the weather, if windy, was clear. Many of the mountains I passed I recognized as friends: the gloriously steep Thamserku, towering above Namche Bazaar and the trail to Tengboche, Ama Dablam – the most beautiful mountain I have climbed yet – standing tall and proud across the river from Pangboche, Cholatse on the way to Lobuche, which taught me to appreciate the people I climb with more than the mountains I crave to climb, and, of course, Everest, where a part of me fell asleep somewhere below the Second Step, and never woke up. I feel at home walking amongst these stone bodyguards of the mountain gods, whom I worship, and who don’t know I exist. It is, however, with a heavy heart that I step onto the site of the Everest Memorial, where out of the frigid ground small chortens grow like brunch-less, bloodless tree trunks, decorated with memorial plates, telling trekkers and climbers about those who came before them – and would never leave now.
It is from here that I first see Pumori in her full stature. She seems to be one of the chortens, and I wonder briefly if she is waiting for my name to be inscribed on her Southwest Ridge. There have been no successful ascent of the mountain in 2012, and it doesn’t feel to me like we will be granted passage to her summit, either. Nevertheless, the beauty of Pumori fascinates and draws me like a magnet, and when next morning I stand at our base camp at the foot of the mountain, I forget all about my fears and premonitions; I am ready and excited to go climbing.
My climbing team and I returned from the icy Everest region yesterday, after unsuccessfully attempting to climb Pumori by the mountain’s southwest ridge. Not surprisingly, if still sadly, the winter winds and the bitter mountain cold made it impossible to reach the 7161-meter summit safely. Nevertheless, the expedition has been a great experience, with the SW ridge route providing some of the most scenic, challenging and exposed climbing I have done so far. As always, I will tell you all about the climb after a little rest here in Kathmandu.
For now, let me wish you all a beautiful, warm and happy holiday season! Merry Christmas from Nepal!