15 May A Girl Gone Mountaineering: Fourth Despatches From Ama Dablam
Sunday 21st April
This morning we are heading up to Camp 1 for a sleepover. The Czech party went up last night, and have come back with mixed reviews. I’m apprehensive and deal with my stress by overpacking. Overpacking my bag, which I myself will not carry, but it’s to be carried by one of our running Sherpas. I heave the duffle onto the ground outside the kitchen tent, Ong Chhu’s eyes widen. “You have all this Stephie?”, I bashfully shrug and explain that I only have a day pack and no backpack. “Are you going trekking or climbing?” he askes.
Not a good start to the morning. I go to the toilet, (which after one week of use is now beginning to ripen) and want to cry. I feel like a fool. I was told a backpack would suffice, and in my naivety didn’t think to question that. Of course, this is a brutal mountain, and I should be relying on myself! Everyone else has carried their own loads to camp so far. I try to do some yogic ‘lion’s breaths’ into the toilet to relieve my frustration, but it’s super gross, so I head back out. Ong Chhu is brushing his teeth in the sun, and I tell him through froggy voice and welling eyes, I’m sorry and feel very silly about the whole bag situation. He smiles and says don’t worry, it is okay, and to let it go. Concentrate on the climb today. I smile at his kindness and let it shake off me.
We head off, soon Georgie, Tobias, and porters overtake me, fading from sight into the sun. Old Laa Kpa Sherpa comes up behind me, and I think he is on the way up, but he stays with me the whole day. At times he walks hands clasped behind his back, ambling behind me, or waiting for me on the next rock ahead. I feel him watching me all day and a few hours in he takes a litre of water out of my bag. It doesn’t make me any faster, but it definitely feels nicer! I feel really rubbish the whole way. Initially, I thought it was just me warming up again, but the whole time is a slog and much harder than the first day we came up to ‘touch’ Camp 1.
We reach the point where I turned around last time, and I am solaced by the idea that this is the final hour. It, however, becomes the most painful. We scramble higher through three-meter boulders, this seemingly endless escalator of rock. Laa Kpa builds fresh cairns while he waits for me, sticking a little bit of toilet paper under the final top rock, make do silks signaling in the wind. He signals like an air hostess the next part of the route, and by the time I look up again he is at the next cairn, watching me. We reach the fixed lines, a lovely 1000 meter slab of rock angling off beneath it into the valley north. I take my time, gingerly stepping over icy sections and finally, finally, after ten puffs a step we arrive at Camp 1.
Georgie is in the tent, I clamber in and bluster about, undoing shoes, stripping off puffy jackets, trying to wrestle my sleeping bag out and blow up my mattress. Georgie is bemused and tells me to breathe. I can’t really. We’re at 5600m. I blow on my delivered hot garlic soup as I peer outside the tent in disbelief. It is stunning here! We have a panorama of the mountains, a stunning sunset, as the panorama turns from pink and gold to ashen and lilac. I sleep well and manage to pee three litres during the night, (easy to measure when you have a Nalgene as your toilet) and sleep happy that I am hydrated.
Tuesday 23rd April
We have a rest day today, and I head down the valley a little in search of wifi. On the way, I bump into Tobias, and we stand and chat for a few
minutes. As I continue walking I think how much I love the simplicity of being here, bumping into a friend on the hill, chatting, mozying around. This is my type of holiday.
Wednesday 24th April
There has been a change of plans. We were scheduled for two more days bad weather, and in my mind Tobias, Georgie and myself would be the second team to have a summit push after the Czechs. Maybe on Saturday? I hear of the Czechs moving up today though, and I ask Miri (aka Didi) across the breakfast table if they are indeed heading up today. She says we all are. I laughed and she looks at me, though smiling Czech eyes, and says “It’s not a joke”. I laugh again, this time nervously. Ong Chhu enters the breakfast tent, confirms the good weather window and the climbing plans. Am I mentally ready he asks? I shake my head and say “Yes”. We are leaving at 10am.
The air has now changed at basecamp, everyone is quiet and getting prepared. Coffee drunk, teeth brushed, last minute bags packed. It’s 8:00am, I ask Ong Chhu if I can head off earlier. He says of course and in thirty minutes I leave, walking across the basecamp alone, heart fluttering and Hamilton soundtrack playing in my ears. I am not throwing away my shot.
It takes me seven hours this time. The accent feels better than our ‘sleepover in Camp 1’ climb, but I must look a wreck, because Ong Chhu offers me tea, to take my bag, or to rest as he observes me the last hour of the rock scramble. (He took over from Laa Kpa’s babysitting duties). The Camp is full this time, and Georgie is standing around laughing and talking. I try to make an arrival video as I stand outside my tent, but feel light headed and instead tumbling inside it, blow up my mattress and drink fresh tea out of the Nalgene. (Yes, the same one..). A few hours later, dinner is ready, I’m told to get out of the tent to eat, dinner being served outside the ‘kitchen’ tent. I want to cry at the thought of getting out of my tent, but Ong Chhu is a mind reader and godsend, and delivers me instead a bowl of soup and (at my request) only half a cup of fried rice, which I force down at the obligation I feel from Ong Chhu’s hospitality. I feel pretty wrecked, and lay in bed after, waiting for it to be dark. I can’t even be bothered to poke my head outside to see that view again.
I don’t sleep at all. I just lay in bed, minutes drag into hours, replaying word for word the Hamilton soundtrack in my mind as well as having altitude induced fantasies. All night I imagine the whole pile of rocks that we are camped on avalanching down the side of the mountain, us along with it, into the valley below. My Mcguevered ‘she pee’ is on it’s last legs, having accompanied me through many a hydrated Diamoxed night, and when I try to pee in my bottle, I manage to get a good half cup in my sleeping bag. Through my cracking headache, I am not super bothered, brush most of the pee off and just lay back down.
Thursday 25th April
I’ve been laying in bed forever and debating what to do. I want to go to Camp 2. Not to sleep, but to at least touch it. That way, nobody has to carry my stuff up, the team can have more space up at Camp 2, and I will have pushed myself to a point where I still feel safe. I tell Georgie this, lying in bed and she says “Nooooo!” She thinks I should at least go to Camp 3 (which is a site, no longer used as a camp due to avalanche danger), so basically go for a summit push. I am warmed by her belief in me and think to what she said a few days ago. “It’s just three days of really hard work”. It doesn’t seem that bad when you look at it like that!
I talk myself into getting out of my sleeping bag and finding a toilet spot, that I won’t topple over and die from, and get to stare at Ama Dablam in the morning light. Some hand sanitizer later and we head over to get out muesli breakfast, from the Sherpa tent vestibule. Already I am feeling out of breath and light headed from the six-meter climb. I think Camp 2 is another 294 metres of climbing. It reels like a dolly-zoom perspective in my mind. I lean and perch on a rock, trying to look like I have it all together, and not show signs that I am feeling like rubbish and/or already a failure. I ask Honzer who is making water, squatting below, if he is staying at Camp 1, he squints up at me monosyllabic yes. He’s not so good in the mornings but manages to wryly say I should have bought the cards.
I keep up the “I’m totally fine” act, by trying to make the muesli I’m eating look like an enjoyable experience. I already have made up my mind,
however. I call to Ong Chhu who’s bent over in his tent a few meters away. “Ong Chhu, I’m not going up”. Honzer squints up at us as I tell Ong Chhu through tears, that I am not feeling good, and it is not safe for me to go up. I can feel my eyes burning blue as I rub stinging tears from them with my thumbs. I feel so upset. He asks me if I need a guide down, I say no, and head back to the tent to wrestle my sleeping bag into my daypack. I’m unsuccessful and strap it to the backpack, a lovely swinging counterweight to any movement I make.
Everyone is getting ready. Boots, harnesses, clinking carabineers and ascenders, sunscreen applied. I am not really a part of the story anymore. I make a video, alone, sitting on a rock above the camp, trying to process the reality that the climb is over for me. I take some last images with Georgie, hug her and head back down the fixed lines, and Ong Chhu watches me. I stop every few meters and see more of the team disappearing over the ridge onwards to Camp 2. I can’t see him but Ong Chhu yells “I love you Stephie!”, I yell back “I love you too Ong Chhu!” and make my way back to basecamp alone.
I get back to an empty basecamp, bar the cooks, and am told lunch is at 1pm. I lay on my mattress in my tent, tired and sad. I let out a solitary fart. Except it’s not a fart. It is the beginning of explosive diarrhea which first got Sam (the grinning Brit) heli-vaced to Kathmandu hospital two days ago. I’ve just shit the bed. I clutch my bottom and try to act normal as I walk briskly to the toilet tent. I am in there for some time. Firstly, well you can only imagine, then secondly to take my underwear off without my pants or feet touching the toilet tent ground. There is a lot of wobbling and verbal “Whoaaa, whooaa” commentaries of my balancing act.
The ordeal is over, and I manage to eat a bowl of Sherpa stew at lunch, only to meet with it again moments later. This continues all afternoon, and in between trips to the toilet, I lay in my tent relieved that I have come out of the climb alive, and my fear of death on this trip was not fulfilled. I also wait to hear news of the team, who should now be at Camp 2, and hope the weather holds out.
Friday 26th April – Summit Day
I set my alarm for 3am, and crawl out of my tent. Looking up at Ama Dablam I can see three headlights moving up from Camp 2. This must be Marek (one of the Czechs) and the two Sherpa. They are going up to fix the last ropes above Camp 3.
There was an independent rope fixing team, employed by the Nepali Government who were meant to fix ropes the whole way, but after a month of work, they were unable to fix the last section of the route. Our Czech team are dynamite and said they will fix the last section, so we all can have a summit bid. I crawl back into bed happy to see them moving up.
I wake up again at 5:30 and it is a beautiful morning, clear with no wind. At 8:00 I stand with the kitchen staff, as we all hold our tea looking into the sun at Ama Dablam, trying to spot climbers. At 8:30 Ong Chhu is on the walkie talkie “Basecamp Basecamp”. He speaks Nepalese to the cooks, and I’m told after that they are at the rockband, two hours away from the summit.
I take a shower, (a bucket, filled with scalding water, strung up with prussik rope inside a ‘shower’ tent) and whilst mid hair wash hear Nepali, Czech and some more broken English on the walkie talkies. Various sherpas being told to “Come in Come in”. Back and forth, the relays go on for at least half an hour. I hear Honza (not the one at staying at Camp 1) say “impossible to fix ropes”, and that Aasthani and Marek are near the summit.
The wind is picking up, and the routine meringue clouds have started to whip themselves up from the air in the low valley. Ong Chhu is back on the walkie talkie and telling everyone to turn around. The weather is coming in. I get the rundown from Tenzing, the cook. Tobias got sick a little after Camp 2, he is coming down to basecamp alone. Marek was near the top, Georgie not far behind. The ropes could not be fixed, and they have all turned around. Honza (the photographer) who was staying at Camp 1 is also coming back to BC tonight.
Tobias, Honza and even Marek (who was close to the summit) return that night. All sunburnt, glassy-eyed. Honza makes a notable entrance by coming in the tent by first fumbling with the dining tent zipper, clumsily dumping his heavy backpack down with walking poles and muttering and exhausted and relieved “Shit” as he sat down.
I later learned that out of seven expedition teams, there has yet to be a summit. There is a massive three-metre bergschrund (google image darling) 200 meters from the summit, and maybe this is not the season for the top.