Home from Home – Manaslu Dispatch #3

Seeing the “Mountain of the Spirit” definitely lifted everyone’s spirits, and so the excitement at the prospect of moving to base camp was definitely heightened. Well, maybe for everyone except me. I’d woken up that morning feeling rough – a dull but persistent headache at the base of my skull pounding away, and some nausea roiling my stomach. The prospect of a long slog to base camp wasn’t exactly appealing. The symptoms weren’t surprising – we’d jumped about 2000m in a day and gone even higher on our hike. But no one else seemed to be suffering so I was also feeling a bit sorry for myself.

Food seemed like the last thing I wanted, but surprisingly I ate my chapati breakfast with vigour and felt a lot better afterwards. It seemed like all we’d done on this expedition so far was eat, but a good appetite is a good thing!

So, thankfully, by the time we came to leave (and a couple of ibuprofen later), I was feeling strong again. Which was good, because I had 1400m of ascent to get up! The walk followed somewhat the same route as the day before, but then meandered upwards. We crossed several gushing rivers and the track for the most part was well worn – I guess that’s the impact 400 climbers will have! There was a sort of temporary tea house at half way, so we stopped for some tea and potato momos for extra energy. Yum.

I suppose I only really have Aconcagua base camp to compare to, but on arriving at Manaslu base camp I was amazed at the sprawl of tents and camps in front of me. They seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see across the rocky moraine, some fenced off, some with huge banners indicating either the team or the company that was climbing. Incredible. Even after arriving at base camp, we had a fifteen minute walk to get to the Elite Himalayan Adventures camp (their motto: always a little higher), and we were all tired and eager to stop at that point.

But what a welcome to the Elite base camp! The dining tent was lavish and warm, with a “faux grass” carpet, comfortable chairs, and of course plenty of tea and juice waiting for us. There was a charging station in the vestibule, a giant communications tent, a cooking tent, two toilets and – of course – our individual tent homes. I was surprised and delighted to see the tent decked out with a foam base, mattress and pillow – no need for the thermarest yet. It was also so comforting to have my own space. I spent the next few hours sorting through my bags, arranging the tent “just so”, and changed into some new clothes since I hadn’t had access to my main bag in three days. Joy! It’s also a lot warmer here than when I was on Aconcagua, which makes it a lot more comfortable too. No need to wear a summit suit right off the bat.

I’m sure these are the details that you’re looking for, but I know people are curious so I will describe the toilet situation! Essentially… it’s a bucket in a hole in the ground, surrounded by rocks. Yes, you still need to squat. But it’s concealed within a windproof tent for privacy so I promise it’s not so bad! Just no looking down… Also, as it poured with rain in the middle of the night, I decided to make use of my sheewee and pee bottle set up. Um – I won’t go into details here but it was a bit of a disaster! Hopefully practice makes perfect? Got a month to find out.

Dinner was roast chicken and veggies, really delicious. After dinner we were treated to welcome cake and introduced to all the climbing Sherpas. I don’t know yet who will be “my” Sherpa, but they’re all incredibly accomplished and experienced guys so I’m not worried at all.

Apparently there is a shower tent also somewhere in camp, and my plan is to check that out later today! We’re having a rest and catch up on personal admin today, double checking all our climbing gear, remembering knots before our training on the mountain. Tomorrow will also be the puja ceremony – the blessing that will wish us good luck on the mountain. I’m also remembering that base camp life is a lot of rest, patience, and down time. Sometimes I’ll jog a few steps – like when I took a self timing photo! – and remember how high we are and how difficult catching your breath can be. Mountain life!

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There’s a Mountain at My Gate – Manaslu Dispatch #2

September 6, 2019

I am feeling thankful for small blessings at the moment, especially an unexpected extra rest day in Kathmandu. Our planned chopper was grounded due to inclement weather, so we got to relax and enjoy another day in the fancy Fairfield by Marriott hotel. The extra time also meant I could meet with the Himalayan Database, who noted down my details so my climb could be recorded for posterity. I’ve spent a lot of time researching and reading about Himalayan mountaineering history, so I felt a jolt of excitement at having my name entered into the database. It’s been recording climbs in the Nepalese Himalaya since 1903, so truly a rite of passage for mountaineers.

The hotel was on the edge of Thamel, so I went for a little explore in the afternoon. Thamel is the tourist district of Kathmandu – think the Khao San Road of Bangkok or Piccadilly Circus in London. Its winding network of streets is crammed with souvenir stalls, bars, restaurants and Internet cafes; pedestrians and scooters and taxis all vie for space on the narrow roads. Amazing how quickly you get used to having cars brush past your elbow, or jumping out of the way of rickshaws. It’s chaotic but it works – tangled-but-somehow-still-functioning, not unlike the myriad wires that twist their way around the telegraph poles on every corner. Colourful prayer flags are strung across the roads, and at night there’s a dazzling array of neon lights, plus music blaring from every corner. It’s not for everyone – I certainly wouldn’t want to spend more than a couple of nights there – but the food options are plentiful and delicious, inexpensive, and I was able to find a cafe to write in for a few hours – with great coffee. Bonus.

September 7, 2019

But, let’s face it, I’m not here for the coffee! The next morning was an early start and we were all praying that the helicopter would fly this time. I was itching to get to the mountains. Thankfully, we weren’t disappointed, and by 9:30am we took off from the airport and flew low over the sprawling city of Kathmandu. The jumble of houses soon gave way to rippling green terraces and dense jungle as we followed the meandering river below, dodging clouds and rain. Every now and then, the green was punctuated by the sky blue tin roofs of dwellings – even though it wasn’t exactly clear from the air how people accessed those remote homes! After a brief pitstop to change helicopters, the scenery shifted again: this time to stunning pine forests and mountain ridges as we headed higher in altitude, waterfalls cascading from the rock on either side of us. Honestly, I think the views from that helicopter alone were worth the price of admission!

Our destination was Samagaun (approx 3500m), the main village at the base of Manaslu. It’s a village that’s growing rapidly with the popularity of the mountain, so there is lots of construction going on. There were quite a few teams already getting acclimatised, so we settled into our busy teahouse Mt Manaslu Hotel, and I had my first meal of garlic soup and dahl bat – of course! Acclimatising is also all about staying hydrated, so taking in lots of water and tea. Thankfully there is a bit of WiFi so I could get out this dispatch! Apparently there is internet at basecamp too, but it is likely to be very slow.

Deeya and I took a short walk up to a convent, and watched some painters painstakingly add decoration to the inside of a newly built monastery. They’re planning on finishing by 2020 – and according to the monk it’s been a process already six years in the making!

It doesn’t yet feel quite real that we will be mountaineering in a few days. We haven’t even seen the mountain, as it hides stubbornly behind a bank of cloud, this being the tail end of monsoon season. But the anticipation is building. Lines are already fixed to Camp 3 on the mountain – good progress this early in the season.

September 8, 2019

This morning being an early bird paid off again, as I had an incredible view of the mountain at 6am! Wow – it’s a great feeling to have the target in sight. After breakfast we set off on an acclimatisation hike up to just over 4000m, following the path up to base camp but turning off to follow a steep woodland path to the top of a lookout. The walk was astonishingly green, punctuated with bright indigo flowers and startlingly red berries. As we reached the top, the forest thinned to a meadow of baby pink wildflowers. So delightful and unexpected. We rested about an hour at the top, generating those red blood cells. Himalayan vultures soared overhead, but Manaslu remained hidden behind a cloud. We did have a great view of a glacial lake – Biendra Tal – and the glacier itself, active and gushing water.

We’ll be trucking all the way up to base camp tomorrow and then the hard work will really begin!

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Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (Manaslu Dispatch #1)

After a bit of a whirlwind week, which has included a wedding in British Columbia, white water canoeing, and some last minute shopping at Cotswold Outdoors in London, I’ve finally arrived in Kathmandu. It’s as chaotic and busy as last time I was here, less than two years ago. Is it really so short as that? It’s hard to believe how deeply a place can burrow into your heart after only a single visit. But Kathmandu, and Nepal, always called to me. It was inevitable I’d be back.

I just could never have imagined in 2017, that when I returned it’d be to attempt an 8,000m+ summit. Manaslu, the mountain of the spirit, 8163m, and the first big mountain I ever laid eyes on.

It’s hard to explain the profound impact this mountain has had on my life. In 2017, I’d chosen Nepal as a destination for some solo trekking as a way of processing some monumental events in my life. Nepal gave me an opportunity to consolidate my feelings and contemplate what the future might hold, while putting one foot in front of the other in a place of extreme and other-worldly beauty. It was a trip all about facing forward, turning to the positive, and going alone proved to the only person that was sceptical (ie, me) that I was capable of moving on. I blogged while I was there, writing proving my most valuable outlet, as always. One of my most vivid memories of that time was recorded on my November 21, 2017 blog:

I did creep out at 2am to look at the stars though, and I was met with an almost overwhelming sight: as vast a glittering sky as I’ve ever seen! And there, too, was the enormous Manaslu, blocking out a portion of the sky with its bulk and its peak wearing the stars like a crown.

Nepal had me hooked on mountains, and I wanted to see how far I could go. Was I capable of more than I could ever have imagined? Going on to summit Aconcagua late last year showed me I was. So when Nims Dai (legendary mountaineer and our Aconcagua leader) suggested back in January that Manaslu might be a good follow-on peak from Aconcagua (especially as I still entertained Everest dreams at that point), it felt a bit like fate. I knew exactly what mountain he was talking about. Not many people outside the high altitude mountaineering world do. But that is changing. The eighth highest mountain in the world, and one of the most striking, the Manaslu Circuit trek is becoming an ever more popular alternative to the more traditional Annapurna Circuit that I did. And, according to mountain expert Alan Arnette, over 400 people will be attempting its summit this September, along with me. Not a small number by any means.

But despite the fact that climbing Manaslu had a sort of mythic appeal to me, I wasn’t sure I felt ready to tackle another mountain after Aconcagua. That was a monumental challenge in itself, physically and mentally, one that I hadn’t quite recovered from at the start of the year. Despite that, I talked the idea of Manaslu over with lots of people – notably with my friend and fellow author Amie Kaufman in Australia, and even with Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to summit Everest and complete the seven summits! She told me back in April that it seemed like way too good an opportunity to pass up, and that I had to do it. Her words stuck with me – even though I wasn’t yet ready to commit.

What opportunity was she talking about exactly? Well – by choosing to do this expedition now, I had the chance to join my friend Nims Dai on a leg of his mission BREMONT PROJECT POSSIBLE. His aim is to summit all 14 8000m+ peaks in seven months (smashing the previous record of nearly eight years). Follow him on Instagram for videos of his wild adventures! Back in April, before he’d set foot on Annapurna, it felt like an impossible goal… but only if you didn’t know Nims. His drive, determination and relentlessly positive attitude filled me with confidence, and I knew I wanted to throw my support behind him in anyway I could. Annapurna, Everest, K2… he topped them all (and 8 others!), despite incredible hardships and even some high altitude rescues. Manaslu will likely be 12/14, the start of phase 3. What better way for me to support than to join his expedition, and watch mountaineering history in the making first hand. It’s no secret that I love the stories of those great explorers of the early twentieth century – Scott and Shackleton and Hillary. Or even of more modern mountaineering legends like Messner and Anker. I like to believe that if I had seen that ad in the paper asking for volunteers for Shackleton’s Voyage (and, let’s face it, had I been a young white man at the time), I’d have joined. Now was the chance to put my (err) money where my beliefs were. Not that this is a pioneering mission for me by any means – I’ll be using oxygen and having Sherpa support and all the comfortable equipment offered to me! But Nims is pushing the boundaries of what is possible in mountaineering, and I couldn’t pass up a front row seat to the action.

Amy with Nims Dai

Still, none of those things I mentioned above were quite enough to make me press “go” on the expedition. It took another change in life circumstance for that. In May, I once again found myself facing the future alone, unsure of where life was leading me.

If you love someone, let them go, right? I cut the line, feeling as ruthless as Yates in Touching the Void, but didn’t realise that by doing so, I’d left myself at the loose end, staring into the abyss. Now I was untethered to anything but my own grip on the rock. Free soloing, as Alex Honnold might call it. But now that I was free and solo, what was I going to do with myself?

I decided the best thing for me to do was to return to where I’d felt bright and optimistic about the future. And along with that, I had a new mantra, inspired by Nims: Aim High.

So I did. Pretty much as high as you can go. Well, the eighth highest place you can go, in this whole big beautiful world. I booked the trip and threw myself into training hard, climbing mountains in Snowdonia and Scotland, doing laps of Box Hill in London, running, swimming, training and lifting weights and generally getting myself into the best physical shape I could.

Manaslu, here I come. I think I’m in for the biggest challenge of my life – but I hope that I am ready. We’re about to find out!

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Aconcagua Summit Push

At 8:18am on Tuesday December 18, 2018, Victor – our guide – made the call. We were turning around at 6390m.

“Team A” (Chris, Fraser – a young Aussie guy – and I) had left Camp Two at 2am, an hour before everyone else, trudging in the darkness for over six hours. Even when the sun came up it was little consolation – it was overcast and we had been battered by wind and snow showers. Now we were huddled inside a broken down hut known as Independencia at around 6390m, the wind howling around us, waiting for the promised break in the weather that had been the whole reason for this summit push in the first place. All that waiting in base camp and it seemed like we’d picked the worst night to set off.

After forty-five minutes of huddling against the wind, eyelashes frozen (my goggles were so frozen I couldn’t see out of them), fingers and faces getting very cold, Victor had had enough. He made the call. We had watched two other major commercial, highly experienced teams do the same thing, turn around at Independencia, the only people forging on two Russian guides with no clients.

Chris and I were disappointed, of course. Despite the long night hike (and the hike up to Camp Two the day before), we were feeling strong. And there wasn’t likely to be another attempt. But we had to trust in the judgement of our guide, so we crawled out of the hut and made our way back down the mountain.

About ten minutes downhill however, we came across the second half of the team. The other two guides weren’t so sure about the decision to turn around, so we went back up to where the hut was situated as a whole group. Another team was up there – they were taking a final group picture to signal the end of their trek. But clearly Nims thought we were made of sterner stuff. We pretty much all had giant summit suits, down mitts and big triple layer boots – so frostbite wasn’t so much of a concern. Only our endurance. And now that the three guides were together, the decision was made to press on, relying on that hoped for weather window.

Bit of a rollercoaster of emotions for us!!

The first hour after choosing to continue was beyond miserable. Nims guesses the winds might have hit 90+km/hr as we traversed the mountain; thankfully Mingma David Sherpa (another of our guides) gave me his goggles so I could protect my face and eyes. It really seemed like the mountain was against us. Even the snow poles seemed to groan as we pressed on ever higher. But then, as we headed toward midday, we did get that lucky break. The sun came out, the winds died down and the views over the Andes were absolutely spectacular. Already, we were higher than almost every other peak we could see in the distance. This is what we had come for. Incredible.

Now, I’d done my fair share of reading about Aconcagua before coming out here (basically I’ve read every blog and trip report on the internet!) so I knew perhaps the worst was to come. Just before the summit is an intimidating slope known as the “Canaleta” – a steep jumble of rock and scree that is the final hurdle to cross before reaching the summit. The hardest part right before the end – who on earth designed that? We took a long break at “la cueva”, a big cave with lots of nice rocks to sit and rest on. I sucked down an energy gel – from here, the summit looked tantalisingly close but there was still a good two hours of hard effort to go. We could see the two Russian guides ahead of us – they were about halfway up. Now, it was our turn.

Is it always hardest right before the end? I mean, I’d found it pretty hard at about 4am, in the dark, only two hours in and knowing there was at least 10 more to go, with Victor shouting, “Daniela, you have to push!” And me replying, “My name is Amy and I CAAAAAN’T”. Still, that Canaleta pushed us all right to our limits. The altitude now was approaching 7000m so the air was paper thin, each lungful a struggle, each step a hardship. Chris and I alternated in pushing each other forward, knowing that the end was so close but also that we were totally depleted – a whole day of walking on half an expedition breakfast (which I almost threw up), three Dairy Milk bars and two energy gels not quite fuel enough. For the most part, I was pace setting (being the slowest), so Nims would nip ahead, making every step look easy, and I would follow laboriously behind.

But eventually, three big rock scrambles later, and there we were! The summit! We’d made it against all the odds and in the most extreme of conditions. I burst into tears – it was emotional. 6962m. The highest point in the Western and Southern Hemispheres. One of the Seven Summits. The highest mountain outside the Himalayas. And the hardest experience I have ever, ever put myself through.

Yay! Photographs and flags and hugs and celebrations all round. We’d arrived just before 2pm so almost a full twelve hours after starting out from Camp two. 1600m of elevation gain. It felt truly epic.

But now we had to get back down again.

Getting back down is no joke. It seemed to take us forever to pick our way down the Canaleta, and the decision was made to short rope the entire group for the rest of the journey to Camp Two. Another new mountaineering experience! The weather had turned on us again and the conditions were almost white out. The idea had been to get back down all the way to basecamp but the team was beyond depleted – Camp Two and a sleeping bag would be good enough.

Somehow, after getting minorly lost and coming off the short rope, half-sliding down on my bum and watching a stunning final sunset, we made it to Camp Two. It was 9pm.

The whole summit day had been twenty hours. Twenty hours of non-stop walking, barely any eating, and not a single bathroom break! To say I’m now dehydrated is an understatement.

But we did it. We made it to the summit of Aconcagua.

I wish I could say that was our struggles over! I’m currently writing this huddled in our three man tent at Camp Two the morning after, waiting for another weather break so we can get outta here and down to basecamp and out to Mendoza! Aconcagua, let us go!!

Get us to Mendoza as fast as possible – a juicy Argentinian steak and a nice glass of Torrontes is calling my name.

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