Ama Dablam Expedition Trip Report – October 2011 – David Hyland & Eric Larson
Everest, Lhotse, and Ama Dablam (l. to r.)
It all felt good. It was all very exciting: Kathmandu; the Bodhnath Stupa, one of the holiest of Buddhist sites; the flight to Lukla, ‘gateway to the Khumbu’; trekking up the valleys of Solu Khumbu towards some of the greatest peaks of the Himalayas and the world; visiting all the villages and monasteries; seeing Mt. Everest and Lhotse for the first time; getting up high and higher still; the successful acclimatization climbs of Pokalde and Kongma Tse, each just over 19,000 feet; being blessed by the revered Lama Geshe at his home in Pangboche; my conditioning; my health; my confidence. It all felt really good. And then Ama Dablam, the ‘Mother’s Necklace’, 22,500 feet of Himalayan rock and ice and snow stood before me… …But à la the Boulder, Colorado mountaineer, Cory Richards, and his recent award-‐ winning documentary film, Cold, all I could think of was, “what the f*** am I doing here?” Kathmandu I landed in Kathmandu on a warm, sunny, fall day, with that little anticipatory nervousness-‐in-‐the-‐pit-‐of-‐the-‐stomach you get when arriving in any foreign city that you’ve never been to before. It took a good long while to get through passport control, but it was all fairly orderly and without a lot of fuss. Eric was a day ahead of me so he was there to greet me and help collect all my gear. That made my arrival much easier. We negotiated for a taxi and headed to the Thamel district where we were staying at the Hotel Manang. Driving through cities in developing countries is always an interesting affair. Kathmandu is a riotous, teeming, and unfortunately, pretty polluted yet beautiful place with no semblance of traffic control, whatsoever. It seems there might be no more than
half a dozen traffic lights in the entire city of 4 million. Signage is minimal and what there is seems to be consistently ignored. There are tons of tiny taxis and motorbikes, buses, trucks, tempos (3-‐wheeler auto-‐rickshaws), bikes. You name it. And of course they drive on the “wrong” side of the road, which makes crossing the street an interesting exercise in head swiveling. What’s more is that all of these vehicles are pretty much continuously honking. But it’s a polite honk. It’s not a “what a jerk, you just cut me off” honk. It’s more of a “here I come, be careful” kind of honk. And even though everyone comes literally within a few inches of each other, there are surprisingly few wrecks and it all seems to work. We settled into the hotel and then went out for that first refreshing beer. Of course it had to be Everest beer with a picture of the famed mountain on the label. How appropriate. We also had a list of last minute errands involving changing money, getting Primus fuel for our stove, arranging our flight to Lukla, and meeting Jiban, our in-‐country fixer and logistics man. It was hotter than I imagined it would be. We walked the maze of narrow, never-‐ straight streets and alleys that make up the Thamel district and got to know this confusing area of shops, restaurants, and bars a bit better. I was amazed at the number and quality of trekking and climbing shops in Thamel. They carry every kind of gear and kit you can imagine. Much of the gear and technical clothing are Chinese knock-‐offs but it’s not half bad. You could arrive in this country with the clothes on your back and within a day be fully outfitted to take on Everest. Incredible. Then we took a taxi over to the eastern outskirts of the city to visit the famous Bodhnath Stupa. The Bodhnath Stupa is the largest stupa in Nepal and the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. It’s not known when this UNESCO World Heritage site was built but it certainly has stood there for many centuries. It’s an incredible place. The space, the energy, the people, the prayer flags and wheels, the monks. All quite amazing. We sat there for hours taking it all in, people watching, and spinning quite a few prayer wheels ourselves.
But we were here for the mountains. Flight to Lukla The next day we headed back to the airport for a 45-‐minute flight to Lukla, which is the gateway to Solu Khumbu and the big mountains of the Eastern Himalayas. Of course you can’t expect things to always go smoothly. The domestic terminal at Kathmandu is separate from the international terminal by only a few hundred yards but it’s a world unto itself. Essentially it consists of a large hall with small booths around the perimeter, which may or may not be staffed by the representatives of the various small airlines that operate there. You may have purchased a ticket ahead of time and think all is fine, but don’t be so self-‐assured about your situation, because quite likely you will be bumped literally and figuratively—as we were a couple of times—in the scrum that ensues as soon as an airline representative shows up. And you don’t want to be bumped because the flights are, shall we say, a little precarious. Clouds often move in in the afternoon and obscure the small landing strips scattered throughout the country. Pilots must have a visual on the landing strip. The mountains mean that there is no room for error and they will not put down a plane using only instruments. Consequently flights can easily be canceled. In fact, a day after our return to Kathmandu all flights to and from Lukla were canceled for nearly a week stranding hundreds if not thousands of trekking tourists. The flight to Lukla is an adventure in its own right. As my sister pointed out to me, Lukla is considered to be the most dangerous airport in the world. (So I guess I can check that off the proverbial bucket list.) Most of the planes flying to Lukla are Twin Otters. Twin Otters are high-‐winged, unpressurized, durable workhorses that seat about 18 passengers in a cabin that is not quite five feet high. I did not expect a flight attendant, but there she was passing out shreds of cotton to be used as earplugs. The flight winds its way east through a number of mountain passes shrouded in clouds and mist. Often you look up, not down, to see the mountains. At each pass the land rushes up quite quickly from below. With the mountains floating up above it begins to feel as though you are surrounded on all sides by land, as though you are flying through land, not air. You wonder how close you’re going to get. The answer is: pretty dang close. The landing is even more adventurous because there is only one, short airstrip situated on the side of a mountain. The plane lands heading uphill on a runway that terminates in a solid and high wall of stone. Departure is equally adventurous given that you take off going downhill and off a cliff. They quickly get the passengers and baggage off and
on and turn around the planes so that they can get in as many flights as possible before the afternoon weather moves in. It’s quite an efficient production and fun to watch. Porters Upon landing in Lukla we each hoisted a 70-‐pound duffel of expedition gear onto our heads, while also wearing backpacks, and headed for a local teahouse where we could offload our gear and hire a couple porters. As we walked by a group of locals they immediately began laughing at our inept way of carrying a heavy load. The economy here is literally driven by the porters, who essentially are the truck drivers of the region. Absolutely everything you see, consume, and use: food, canned beer, bottled water, crates of eggs, towering stacks of Pringles, gas cylinders, snooker tables (I kid you not), all sorts of building materials, clothing and shoes for the shops and markets, as well as the gear of trekkers and climbers, is carried into the region on the back of either a yak or a porter. There are no wheels of any kind, anywhere. No bikes, no wheelbarrows, no carts. No wheels, period. The porters are phenomenal. They are typically fairly young, not big, and wearing flip-‐flops, often with a cell phone in one hand. Anything and everything they carry is trussed up and carried via a tumpline across their forehead. You can give them a fancy pack with hip belt, shoulder straps, and compression and load stabilization straps, but they will still carry it with a tumpline. The loads they routinely carry are truly unbelievable. I’ve seen them carry loads equivalent to or greater than their own body weight up rocky trails from altitudes of 9,000 feet on up to 15,000 feet. The owner of one of the fancier lodges in Namche told us she had ordered 20 pieces of ¼-‐inch plate glass for the tables in the dining room of her teahouse. She said there was only one porter in all of Solu Khumbu she trusted to carry her glass without breakage. He carried them four at a time (100 kilograms) from Lukla (9,300 ft) down to Phakding (8,500 ft) and on up to Namche (11,300 ft). That’s 220 pounds on the back of a guy wearing flip-‐flops who weighs maybe 140 pounds. It’s almost unbelievable what they are capable of. And they do this day in and day out, which of course comes with some consequent long-‐term health issues. It’s rare to see an older porter. It would be very difficult to mount a climbing expedition without porters. All of our expedition/climbing gear, food, and fuel was contained in two 70-‐pound duffels. We hired a couple of porters to carry these on up to Namche as we wouldn’t need anything in them for a few days.
Trekking Trekking was much simpler and more comfortable than I had ever imagined. I had thought we would be doing a fair bit of backpacking and camping with all the attendant gear, but that’s not how it works at all. It’s actually pretty easy and straightforward. Each day you get up, have a nice breakfast, do a 4–6 hour day hike, and then stop in the afternoon at the next teahouse down the trail for dinner and a bed. Not much is required. You only need a sleeping bag (and even that’s not strictly necessary), minimal clothing, a few toiletries, and your personal gear (water bottle, camera, headlamp, etc.). Our packs didn’t weight anymore than 25 pounds or so, if that. And the longer you are there the more you pare down and realize you really don’t need much. It’s really quite easy. You simply go from teahouse to teahouse. How nice. The Teahouse Because there are so many trekkers come to see the mountains, and Everest Base Camp in particular, there are teahouses scattered about in every little village. They are very similar in most respects. The central gathering place and physical heart of the teahouse is the dining room, and there is a basic plan to which they all adhere. Usually the room will have a continuous row of windows on at least two if not three sides, so by day it is bright and welcoming. In the center of the room is a wood/dung-‐burning stove. A continuous bench—covered in an impressive array of Tibetan rugs—runs around the perimeter of the room such that when seated your back is against the wall and you face towards the stove. Directly in front of the bench is a series of narrow wood tables each long enough for two or in a pinch maybe three people to sit behind. Almost always they have a solid front such that your legs are hidden. Then there’s generally a succession of small rooms each with two cot-‐size platforms covered with a foam pad and blanket. Normally, there is one, lone, very low wattage, curly-‐cue fluorescent light bulb per room for illumination, though there is no power until evening. And you won’t find any electrical outlets in your room. For hygiene’s sake there is usually a squat style toilet and sink at the end of the hall with water plumbed in from the local creek. It might sound a bit crude and it certainly is basic, but it actually functions quite well.
That’s it, and this basic layout is repeated in every teahouse, both large and small, fancy and plain. You simply wander from teahouse to teahouse, though admittedly your wandering is taking place at elevations often well above 10,000 ft. If you prefer, you can hire a porter to carry most of your gear from village to village. Very civil. Maybe too civil. But one has to remember that the teahouses and the trekking trade form the bulk of the economy in these parts. So, development or pristine nature? Which do you choose? Never an easy answer to that one. It’s not black and white; more often there are a lot of nuanced greys. In the practical, cultivated world a balance of some sort is required, for people everywhere have aspirations and need to make a living. On The Trail The trails and the people on them were all quite captivating. The very first thing that struck me was just how vertical the world there is, and how unworldly and mystical the mountains are. They seem to float above the clouds with no connection to terra firma. And they are huge. The scale is off the chart. Photos can be gorgeous and even impressive, but they communicate little of the massiveness of the place. If ever there was a place where you are continuously filled with awe it is the Himalayas. They are truly impressive, daunting, striking, and awe-‐some, in every sense of the word.
Lhotse (27,940 ft) and Lhotse Shar (27,559 ft)
Ama Dablam (22,494 ft)
The next thing that strikes the eye is the mani stones, which are everywhere; and then the prayer flags; and then the prayer wheels. All of these represent forms of prayer in Tibetan Buddhism. The stones are found all along the trails and form mounds and long walls. Mostly they are plain, but some are painted white and a very few are painted in a rainbow of colors. All are intricately carved, most with the message, “om mani padme hum,” which translates as “hail to the jewel in the lotus.” If you are respectful of the religion and are trying to amass as much karma and good will as possible for the impending climb, you always pass them on the left as though you were going around them in a clockwise direction. And of course there are the trekkers, climbers, and porters, all of whom made for great people-‐watching: the Germans and Italians in their tights and purposeful gear, the Russians wearing butt pads so that when they sit for a rest their behinds are well-‐ cushioned (I have no idea how this hilarious fad began, but it certainly provided for some trail humor), and the Koreans ensconced in Gore-‐Tex from head to toe and wearing the latest ice-‐climbing boots. Surprisingly, the few Americans we encountered were generally the least impressive in terms of gear and clothing, and that included
ourselves. I like to think it meant we were doing more with less. Well, at least the climbers certainly know how to do more with less. The trekkers tend to overdo it, not realizing how little they truly need. But in terms of people-‐watching, the porters were beyond doubt the most phenomenal and certainly earned my respect. We passed through many towns and villages: Lukla, Phakding, Namche Bazar, Khumjung, Khunde, Pangboche, Dingboche, Chhukhung, Lobuche, and Pheriche. All were unique, all fascinating (well, almost all), and some had Buddhist monasteries, including the famous ones at Pangboche and Dingboche. It’s hard to generalize (actually being human it’s all too easy), but the people were nearly always cheerful, humorous, polite, industrious, and sometimes a little shy while being direct at the same time. I was amazed how entrepreneurial and well-‐traveled they are. You might think some small business person operating a family restaurant in the hinterlands of Nepal has never been far from home but you would often be entirely wrong in that assumption. But still, one must realize that it’s one of the poorest countries in the world. The non-‐tourist areas of the country are quite poor indeed. But as interesting as the people and the culture are, we were here for the mountains. The Plan The plan to climb Ama Dablam was hatched in the summer of 2010. I had just returned home after climbing the Grand Teton with Eric Larson of Exum Mountain Guides when he proposed a climbing expedition to Nepal.
Grand Teton, Wyoming (13,775 ft)
Summit of Grand Teton
Since I was a kid I’ve always read and dreamed about Nepal and all the famous climbers of the Himalayas. It was certainly on my list of places to visit, but I never really thought I’d get the opportunity to climb there. At the same time I had long been thinking about taking a year off from work to travel and explore. So the stars aligned and my chance was now right in front of me. I gave up being chair of the Biology Department; my term as president of the Faculty Senate was coming to an end; and my much beloved pet cat of almost 17 years, Pesta, passed away. Perhaps she was telling me, “There is moss under your feet. You need to get out of here. Go, go.” So all the strings that tied me to home were successively cut, one by one. Ama Dablam was going to happen.
So I rented out my condo, built a storage unit in my basement into which I moved all my worldly belongings, put all the finances in order including writing out that long-‐put-‐off will (you know, just in case there was an avalanche or 3,000 foot plunge out there with my name on it), and on Labor Day pointed my car—full of outdoor gear and related toys—west to Colorado. The plan was to set up shop at my brother’s house north of Colorado Springs and focus on training for the month of September. His house sits at 7,200 feet so the thinking was that that would give me a bit of a head start on the acclimatization process. I climbed Mt. Yale (14,200 ft) and La Plata Peak (14,336 ft), did the Manitou Incline—a 2,000 foot staircase locally used by Olympians and other athletes for training—outside of Colorado Springs a few times, and biked and hiked a ton. I felt pretty good. I felt ready.
In the distance: Everest, Lhotse, and Ama Dablam
Acclimatization Climbs – Pokalde and Kongma-‐Tse On the third day in the Solu Khumbu district we took an acclimatization hike up above Namche Bazar. We crested a grassy, park-‐like hill and stopped for a short break. Eric then says, “there’s Ama Dablam.” I was in disbelief. Then he says, “and over there is Everest.” I had not expected to see either for several more days as I thought they were still too far away and hidden by other mountains. But again, their scale is huge. They can be seen from quite away off. I felt very privileged, very small, totally stunned, and giddy as a school-‐girl. They were real and we were here. Now you just can’t charge up a mountain that towers well over 22,000 feet and stands 10,000 feet directly above the village of Pangboche, which sits just across the river from
its base. It requires acclimatization, and acclimatization requires successive climbs of some lesser yet still sizable mountains. So we put into place the well-‐tested adage, which encapsulates standard mountaineering procedure for optimizing acclimatization at extreme elevations, “climb high, sleep low.” After a couple nights at Namche (11,286 ft) and a day hike to Khumjung (12,402 ft) we headed deeper and higher into the Khumbu. At Pangboche we caught up with our climbing gear previously stashed by our porters at a teahouse. We loaded up our packs with gear and supplies to last us a few days and hiked up trail to the village of Chhukhung (15,518 ft), which sits impressively at the edge of a glacier just below the enormous Lhotse face and near Island Peak. Our goal was the nearby mountains of Pokalde and Kongma-‐Tse, each of which are just a tick over 19,000 feet. We hiked up to the area of Kongma-‐La Pass, located between these two mountains, and established a high camp at a little over 17,000 feet. Kongma-‐La Pass is a little off the beaten track that most of the trekkers take, which in part, is why we chose the area. It is absolutely gorgeous, a bit remote, and surrounded by mountains of gargantuan proportions. And at that altitude I was surprised to discover that there were even several beautiful alpine lakes nestled between our two objectives. The climbs of Kongma-‐Tse and Pokalde were much more straight-‐forward and easier that I had imagined. We had to skirt a small but beautiful glacier below Kongma-‐Tse before climbing a snowfield, gaining the northeast ridge, and making for the summit. On Pokalde, though the usual route is the north ridge we thought it looked a little rotten and decided to go for the southeast ridge. It too, was fairly straight-‐forward.
Pokalde, North Face (19,049 ft)
Kongma-‐Tse, South Face (19,094 ft)
I was excited. I had never been so high. I had had no problems whatsoever with the climbs or the altitude. Pokalde and Kongma-‐Tse were good confidence boosters. Maybe I was ready for Ama Dablam after all. We descended Pokalde, struck camp, headed over Kongma-‐La Pass, and made for the village of Lobuche on the other side of the enormous Khumbu Glacier. This made for a long and arduous day. Unfortunately I hadn’t fueled up properly and pretty much bonked on the way down from the pass. Bonking doesn’t just hit you physically. It also
made me a bit more timid in my judgment as I descended the steep pass and then headed up the 200-‐foot high berm of the glacier. So I took my time. I couldn’t do otherwise. The Khumbu Glacier is indescribable, otherworldly, a little spooky, and just plain huge. It consists of piles upon piles of enormous boulders and unconsolidated debris all underlain by unseen but moving ice. It looks like the world’s largest construction site gone totally awry. Of necessity the trail, such that it is, is marked by cairns and is constantly reconfigured to avoid drop-‐offs and icy chasms. Once across, you descend the other lateral moraine and regain terra firma.
Preparations and Blessings We felt good. We felt ready. Our health was good, and we had acclimatized well. So the next day we headed down to the village of Pangboche to begin our attempt on Ama Dablam. Now the apprehension begins to slowly creep in. Am I really ready? Am I up for this? We spend two nights in Pangboche resting our bodies, but the idleness allows the mind to wander and question. Overall, I still feel pretty good and ready to go, notwithstanding the group of Italian research doctors studying the pulmonary function of the locals all the while themselves hacking and wheezing all over the teahouse. On our rest day we make arrangements to see Lama Geshe at his home just above the old and venerable Pangboche Buddhist Monastery. For decades climbers have been visiting Lama Geshe to receive a blessing for their safety. It is a fairly lengthy and private ceremony with many prayers, incantations, blessings, singing and drumming. You receive a small packet of rice that has been blessed and is to be thrown in the direction of danger should a perilous situation arise, a cord tied around your neck signifying the blessings that have been bestowed on you, a khata ceremonial scarf which invokes good luck, and a personalized card to be taken to the summit. In return, your climbing partner takes a photograph of you on the summit while holding the card, and upon your successful return this photograph is then sent to the Lama. In his home there are dozens of photographs of all the famous Himalayan mountaineers holding up their cards on the summits of these gigantic mountains. It was cool to see all the pictures but also slightly intimidating.
The Mountain – Ama Dablam W.H. Murray, of the 1951 Scottish Himalayan Expedition wrote: “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets.” Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it! When we arrived at Base Camp I felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel Murray’s Providence moving. My confidence was waning. I was no longer amidst the gawking and admiring trekkers. I was now in the company of climbers and mountaineers from all parts of the world, some of whom have lengthy Himalayan resumes. Hmmm, is this where I belong? And while Ama Dablam is certainly beautiful and iconic, up close it is damn huge, high, and steep. It is one of the more technical and demanding climbs in the Eastern Himalayas, so much so that when Sir Edmund Hillary laid eyes on it he said it was unclimbable. This from the man who with Tenzing Norgay was the first to summit Everest! Base Camp at Ama Dablam is not quite what you think it might be like. Ama Dablam is one of the few technical mountains in the Himalayas where Base Camp is not on some rock-‐strewn glacier. Here it lies in a large, level, grassy meadow the size of several football fields immediately below the southwest ridge and west face. It’s a rather comfortable location and quite a few trekkers come up to check out the climbing scene and for a close-‐up view of the mountain. When we first arrived I was surprised by how large and level the area is and amazed to see nearly 100 tents pitched. There were quite a few large expeditions on the mountain and typically each climber has his/her own tent. Plus there are the porters and Sherpas coming and going. So it’s a bit like a small village. Some of the expeditions are pretty deluxe with roomy tents, cots, showers, staffed kitchens, the works. The clients of these expeditions don’t even have to set up their own tents. The Sherpas do it for them both at Base Camp and higher up the mountain.
But alternatively you can also go fast and light, alpine style. It’s not as easy or comfortable but ultimately it’s more rewarding. This is what we did. We had porters carry our gear up to Base Camp from Pangboche, but after that we were on our own. It gives you much more flexibility and speed, and speed generally equates to safety. After a comfortable night we packed our gear and humped it up to Camp 1, which is nearly 4,000 feet higher and overlooks Base Camp. We spent two nights at Camp 1 acclimatizing and while we were there we climbed about halfway to Camp 2. Then it began to snow. We were scheduled to descend back to Base Camp the next morning but when we woke we were staring at about 6-‐10 inches of new fallen snow and it was still coming down. We had some weather days built into our schedule so we weren’t too concerned and it was the dry season so most likely we wouldn’t be snowbound for long. Late in the morning it seemed to let up just a bit and we decided to go down. Problem was we had not yet brought up our mountaineering double boots and had on only lightweight approach shoes, basically a heavy duty tennis shoe. And immediately below Camp 1 is a section known as the “Slabs.” The Slabs are just that, a series of flat slab-‐like rocks angled up at about 45 degrees. There is no way around them and now they were covered with snow. There are some fixed lines there to help with the descent, but they don’t cover the entire route. So we gingerly began to descend/slide in the snow. I went for about a 30-‐ foot ride on a particularly slick stretch but perfectly stuck the landing in a little gully. Almost like sled-‐riding. Then we had to negotiate the boulder field, which consists of giant boulders stacked against each other with leg-‐breaking gaps in between. In the dry we would normally just leap from boulder to boulder with no problems. Now it was all covered in snow. After making it through the boulder field there is a trail that goes all the way down to Base Camp. Home free, but now with it still snowing and limited visibility, we lost the trail. We knew the general direction and figured we’d hit the trail at some point. But striking off in a general direction and not following a trail usually means the terrain is going to be rough. And so it was. Finally we regained the trail and made it to Base Camp. I felt a little sketchy on the practice/acclimatization climb above Camp 1 the day before while dangling my butt over a rather lengthy piece of air, and now back in Base Camp for a rest day my mind decided to do a total number on me. Suddenly, I wanted out. I was scared. I regretted the time and money spent. I questioned my every ability, but mostly I questioned how I was going to hold it together. Eric said nothing, but I figured he knew. Other guys we met in Base Camp sensed my trepidation and told me to take it
a step at a time. It’s the world’s oldest, simplest, seemingly trite yet most sage advice, and so hard to carry out. There were plenty of others there who didn’t make it, but they at least made an attempt. I wasn’t sure I could even do that much. At this level it isn’t so much about physical skill, talent, and prowess. Everyone up there had talent in spades. At this level the climb is mental, and my mental capacities had just fled for the hills, or rather the lowlands. But I had to at least make an attempt. I couldn’t let myself down or Eric or friends and family back home. I felt that all too human and destructive emotion, shame, flooding into me. Incredibly I had really sunk myself. At that moment I’m not sure if I was more afraid of failure or success. All I knew was I was in a stew of my own making and I wanted a way out. And just a few days before I stood on top of two 19,000+ foot peaks and was brimming with confidence. Go figure. I focused on the one-‐step-‐at-‐a-‐time mantra. I figured I could make it back up to Camp 1 and then I’d reassess. The new snow was now mostly gone and the trip up to Camp 1 went smoothly. So in my mind I now repeated the process and figured I would try for Camp 2. It was now time to gear up: double boots, crampons, ice axe, harness. There’s a section between Camps 1 and 2 that is really fairly easy but it wigged me out. You’re clipped into a fixed line but you have to lean out and traverse along a very airy section. The holds are there. The line is there. It should be no problem. On a similar yet more technical section of the Grand Teton I had had no problem whatsoever and even enjoyed it. My brain was deserting me. Somehow I made it through. Now we were perched in the aerie that is Camp 2. Camp 2 sits on a pinnacle of the southwest ridge and unlike Camp 1 has room only for a very few tents. It is surrounded by air and huge drop-‐offs, but it felt more secure than what I had thought based on photos. The next day would be our big push. We would bypass Camp 3 and go for the summit. Was I ready? I knew the next section featured what some thought of as the crux of the entire climb, Mushroom Ridge. Mushroom Ridge is a snow-‐covered, knife-‐edge ridge with a drop-‐off of about 3,000 feet on one side and about 5,000 feet on the other side. I had heard stories of guys breaking down in tears and turning around. I knew that just a few years ago a German climber fell to his death here. Was I ready? We would be going up the ridge at night, which is not so bad because you can’t see the abyss. But we would be coming down it during daylight.
Now it was truth or dare time. In reality it was both. We set our alarms for 2:00am with hopes of being out the tent and on the route by 3:00. I still wasn’t brimming with confidence but I was moving forward and on the mountain as well as in life, that’s what’s important. You don’t really sleep at that altitude in those conditions and with that level of anticipation. You rest. Or at least you try to rest and maybe doze a little bit. Rarely do you really need an alarm. The alarms went off and of course you try to squeeze out a few more moments of warmth from your sleeping bag. Eric was in mid-‐ doze so I told him it was now 2:15. Actually for a moment I wondered if I just fell back to sleep and if he was sleeping, then perhaps it would be too late and we’d have to call off the attempt. But something in me made me wake him up and we started our preparations. The weather was pretty much perfect: not much wind, no new snow, and probably around 0˚F. Earlier we had heard forecasts calling for 50 mph winds on the summit, but we had been watching the clouds and thought we had a go-‐window. We strapped on the crampons and started up at 3:30am by the light of our headlamps. I was feeling mildly more confident about our chances but the Mushroom Ridge was out there waiting for us. There was a fair bit of ice and snow on the route. Usually there is a little more rock. But the crampons were biting well and actually the extra snow probably helped. It’s up and up and up and the air gets thinner by the moment. The legs just simply want a little flat spot to rest. And that’s what the Mushroom Ridge is, a flat spot. I was actually grateful for it. I looked at it and thought, “Oh, I can just walk across this. Hardly any climbing to it at all.” Never mind that it’s maybe 18 inches wide with thousands upon thousands of feet of air on both sides. So I used it as a way to rest my legs and cruised right through it. Then it’s all vertical again until Camp 3 at a little less than 21,000 feet. Although I didn’t realize it, we were making great time. It was 7:00am and a group of Germans who spent the night at Camp 3 were just rolling out. We took a short break and then jumped on the route to stay ahead of the Germans. There were just two of us and we both move well so we didn’t want to get stuck behind a larger group. By now it was light but the sun was still hiding and it was still somewhere around zero degrees. I kept wishing the sun would peak over the ridge and bathe me in its warmth. We pushed onward and upward. I hadn’t taken any photos and really had not even looked around. I didn’t have the mental strength to and I didn’t want to be wigged out by anything I might see. My entire focus was on an area of about a square meter or two.
Just keep moving. Just keep moving. At some point I wanted to look around. The views had to be amazing. But I just kept going and focused only on the immediate. Finally I snuck a peak at the huge, gorgeous snow flutes that grace the upper slopes. At some point on the summit ridge above the hanging glacier known as the Dablam, I felt like my body was giving out. My strength was ebbing. We had been climbing in the cold, thin air for nearly six hours. I was dead. My legs ached. And I knew we still had to descend. I also knew that most accidents happen on the way down when fatigue sets in, judgment wanes, and you’re entirely dependent on the gear. On the way up the gear is there to protect you from a fall but mostly you are relying on yourself, not the gear, to ascend. In climbing there are many sub-‐ disciplines, from gymnastic bouldering and sport climbing all the way up to alpinism. The popular saying about alpinism is that it’s more suffering than climbing. And this was that. A real suffer-‐fest. I was played out. I stopped and said to Eric, “I don’t know if I can make it. I don’t want to endanger us. And we still have to get down.” His response was, “Keep moving.” Evidently he knew something, saw something, that I didn’t. We kept moving. Suddenly, at 10:00am the slope lessened and then there was no more up. We were there in the bright sunlight of a Himalayan morning on top of the world. Incredible. There was no whopping and hollering. There was no conquering. There was no energy for that nor were we done. Even if you summit, you haven’t successfully climbed a mountain until you get down. Perhaps we felt mild elation that we summited. We had made great time (6½ hours from Camp 2) and done it in style. We lingered for a half hour, took our photos with the cards Lama Geshe had given us, and began the long journey down. Going down involves rappel after rappel after rappel after rappel… Continually clipping in, unclipping, clipping in again. And you must watch the footwork, which is hard to do since generally you’re descending backwards. And fatigue envelops everything. And Mushroom Ridge is waiting once again. But I took it down the way I took it up, as a way to rest my legs and just simply walk. Well that might be oversimplifying it a little bit, but essentially
that is what I did. And it worked. Then more down and down and down. We got to Camp 2 around 2:00pm. It was almost done. We were back at Camp 2. I was still altogether in body and mind. I hadn’t cracked. I thought we would spend the night at Camp 2 and descend to Base Camp the following morning, but since we got there in such good time Eric floated the idea of packing up and continuing down to Camp 1. I was leaning toward remaining at Camp 2 for fuel and rest but agreed that I thought we could make it down to Camp 1. But first we had to strike camp and pack it all up. We had summited with the bare minimum. Eric had taken a pack with hardly anything in it. In a quest to be as light as possible I went with even less. I didn’t wear a pack on our summit push. I just basically stuffed food, water, camera, sunscreen, goggles, etc. in my pockets. So after packing up all of our gear we left Camp 2 at 3:00pm and headed for the barn. But that is when I bonked like I’ve never bonked before. I was entirely spent. I had given every piece of mental and physical energy to Ama Dablam and I had no more. I had felt exertion as severe as anything I have experienced. We were about halfway between Camps 1 and 2. We were so close. Even though gravity was now on my side I could barely move. Eric went on ahead. I simply needed to follow the route and fixed lines over a section I had been on three times before. No problem. I could only move three steps at a time and then I’d have to stop for a rest. Otherwise I feared I would misstep and simply topple over the side. Keep moving. Keep moving. And I did. It seemed as though it took days to cover the final stretch into Camp 1. When I got there I literally tumbled into the tent and didn’t budge. Embarrassingly, I couldn’t even sit up to take off my boots. Eric pulled them off for me, got me wrapped up in my sleeping bag, and handed me a hot drink. The hardest day of my life was over. We did it. We were done. In the morning, Camp 1 to Base Camp would be a piece of cake. Now I just needed rest. Camp 1 is rather sizable and everyone pretty much knows who is coming and going. They know when you were on your summit attempt, so when you come down they ask if you made it. If you did, there is always congratulations all the way around. They know what it takes. Then some might ask you for particulars, like how long did it take. That’s when I finally learned that we were sprinting up and down that giant icy rock. I had no reference—though I knew Eric was much faster than most and we had passed a few groups—and no clue how well I would do at 20,000+ feet. I hoped I wasn’t on the slow side and thought maybe I was at least of average speed. When you are up there giving more than you have to give, you certainly don’t feel fast or even average. You feel slow. But everyone’s eyes got big and jaws slightly dropped when we told them that we summited in 6½ hours from Camp 2 (not the usual Camp 3) and then descended, pausing at Camp 2 for an hour, all the way to Camp 1. In total, it was a 15-‐hour sprint. Now I knew why I bonked. Plus I had caught whatever the Italian docs had been spewing as well as developed the inevitable high-‐altitude “Khumbu” cough, which is known to break ribs of those severely afflicted. The next morning we packed up and headed for Base Camp. We both felt strong. We blitzed down the trail and paused at Base Camp for my favorite hot milk tea and then
kept on rolling all the way down to Pangboche for some well deserved R&R. We stayed two nights but really didn’t need the rest day. Our legs wanted to keep moving, and although the cough and cold would take some time to abate, we were in fine form. We kept moving. We could hardly stop. We breezed into Namche in time to catch Market Day with the thought of spending two nights, but the next morning we were on the move again. By evening we made it all the way down to Lukla. That night we finally celebrated into the wee hours. Teahouses lock up pretty early but usually there is a back way in. However, the back way into our teahouse was also locked up tight. Eric was about to start banging on some doors when I said why don’t we just climb. There was a deck open to the outside on the upper level of the courtyard. If we could make it to that we’d have access to our room. So we made one last climb. The next morning we caught a flight out of Lukla back to Kathmandu. In the end, it turned out to be a good thing we sprinted down to Lukla. The day after our departure they closed the airport for a week due to weather, stranding hundreds if not thousands of trekkers and climbers. Our luck, our karma had held, and Ama Dablam had given us a perfect trip.
Published on Dec 5, 2012