Writing Even in the Death Zone – Manaslu Summit Push Dispatch #7

For those who have been following along the story, I’m absolutely delighted to say that I summited Manaslu on 27 September at 6:30am exactly! 8,163m, the eighth highest place in the world. I can hardly believe it.

But the summit is only a tiny part of the story. This summit push was, without a doubt, the hardest experience I’ve put myself through physically. Imagine deciding to run three completely uphill marathons in a row, and then one down hill ultra marathon. Mostly in a place where there is too little oxygen to support life. While carrying a heavy backpack. And some idea begins to emerge. But for the full story, read on… be warned, it’s quite the epic!

Base Camp to Camp One (5,750m) – Sept 24th

The news that we were heading up came relatively late on Sept 23rd – but what a hugely welcome surprise. The weather window that had seemed so wide had actually shortened dramatically and the heavy snow was due to return again on the afternoon of 27th Sept- 28th September. That meant Mingma David (our head guide for this expedition) quickly put a plan in place to put us on the summit on the morning of the 27th. It would mean skipping a camp (camp 2) in order to make it, but would give us the best opportunity to summit. With the weather so changeable at the moment, who knows if we would have another shot? The team was raring to go anyway, after a lot of down time at base camp.

After a slightly fitful night’s sleep for me, we left base camp relatively late in the morning, about 11am – after a good breakfast and lots of packing (and repacking) to make sure we had everything we needed for the summit. There was also palpable excitement in the air as we’d had confirmation that Nims had summited Cho Oyu and was on his way back to Manaslu. That meant he would likely be able to join us on the summit push. Yay! We were also given our Sherpa partners for the summit – mine was Galjen Sherpa, one of the most experienced Everest ice doctors, all around mountaineer extraordinaire, and one of the warmest/funniest people in camp so I was delighted.

Passing the site of our puja ceremony, we tossed a little rice in the air, asking for good luck. It felt truly real now, that every step we took was bringing us closer to the mountain top. The journey to camp one first of all crosses a small rocky patch to crampon point, where it changes to a big wide snow field with some crevasse danger, before heading steeply uphill to the campsite. I remained pretty firmly middle of the pack for this part of the journey, not trying to push too hard but neither wanting to fall behind. It definitely didn’t seem as long as the first time we did it – I didn’t cry this time! – but it was still quite the slog. The difference however was the absolutely stunning views we had on arriving at camp. You could see all the way to Tibet, staring at other huge mountains – but none in view as big as the one we were about to attempt.

The Long Walk to Camp Three (6,800m) – Sept 25th

Wake up call today was 4:30am – thankfully, with a welcome cup of tea. We were on the move by 6am. One of the most frustrating aspects about being on the mountain is that everything always seems to take so long at altitude. Putting on those huge triple layer boots is a gargantuan effort. Brushing teeth. Putting on deodorant. Heck, even finding the energy to sit up out of the sleeping bag. Never has “be bothered” been such an important mantra. You have to force your body into every little move – and once you get moving, it’s okay. But you have to really want it, or else it’s so easy to simply wile away time that will simply go on without you.

This was always going to be a big day. It had taken us six hours the first time round to make it from camp one to camp two, and we had to make it all the way to three this time. I actually was feeling good again and took up position at the front of the team. We approached what I had nicknamed the “wall of doom” (the Sherpas call it the “hanging place” – also quite ominous!) but again, it was not quite as challenging as the first time round, since there were more deeply formed steps in the ice – but still hard.

The conditions were really changeable today – from boiling hot sun to complete whiteout, where I almost couldn’t see the path in front of me. As I was in front, my jumar kept jamming up with ice and snow from the rope and slipping. The idea of a jumar is that you push it up the rope and then it catches with little tiny teeth, so you can pretty much lean back on it and it will hold no matter what. At least, that’s the idea. When my jumar clogged, I couldn’t rely on it. And it kept happening. I was so frustrated I wanted to throw the bloody device down a crevasse. It made it so much harder to get up the big hills, and no matter how many times Galjen or I scraped the thing clear of ice, it kept happening. The only way it stopped was by moving back down the team, so I wasn’t first on the rope. Small sacrifice 🙂 I wasn’t about to complain too much to Galjen though. He was not only carrying an enormous backpack, but also a ladder! I’ve never seen anything like it. But the crevasses were widening and shifting on the route and one of the ladders needed repairing – so off my Sherpa went to fix it. Absolute legend. They all are.

So, jumar issues aside, we made it to camp two in really good time – about four hours.

It was an additional 3/4 hours anticipated for camp three, so we left camp two at 12pm after a decent rest. Still, I was quite knackered at this point, and I was having some issues with my stomach. This was now a higher altitude than I had climbed this trip, so I was no longer acclimatised. I fell back into the middle of the pack again, taking it at a really slow and steady pace – literally counting 10 steps and then taking a rest.

The way between camps two and three is relatively simple apart from one very big technical section – a steep hill. We approached with some trepidation as there were lots of people coming down as we were attempting to come up. We were trying to figure out how to navigate this part (when there are people abseiling down, they need the rope clear) when who should join – Nims! Yay! He’d made it in lightning speed from Cho Oyu summit to meet us. It was a big morale boost before a very tough section.

As we were constantly passing people on their way back down the mountain (some still on their acclimatisation routines), I sometimes caught sight of people I’d met at base camp or Samagaun. We passed a Canadian guy who cheerfully told me that the worst was yet to come on the way to camp four – thanks a lot, dude! Really what I needed to hear.

We finally made it to camp three – 6800m. I was absolutely exhausted, with barely enough energy to crawl into tent. It was much colder temperature, but here we had our summit suits. Honestly, changing into my summit suit was an almost hour long effort. It felt impossible. Camp three is also a funny one because huge walls of ice stretch up all around you. It’s absolutely beautiful, but chilling at the same time. Although this isn’t the same “camp three” that was wiped out by an avalanche in 2012, killing many people, it’s still a stark reminder of the ever present danger of the mountain. You feel both incredibly privileged to be there and also that you are there on borrowed time. You don’t want to linger. You want to move.

All I could think was that there were still at least three more hard days left before any semblance of relaxing could take place. With my muscles wasted, shivering in my sleeping bag, begging to eat the Sherpa food so I didn’t have to stomach a rehydrated meal, it felt… insurmountable. That’s the word I used, underlined, in my journal. But I also wrote that I will keep pushing. Keep pushing. This is what I came here for, what I trained for, what I spent ludicrous amounts of money for. Come on Amy. Just a few more days.

Project Impossible: Camps three to four (7,400m), Sept 26th

Our leaving call was 7:30am but it was 8am by the time we were all ready and our team leaders were annoyed. It just took us so long to get going in the morning. I’d taken one look at my rehydrated “custard with freeze-dried apple” in a bag and promptly vomited up all the water in my stomach (thankfully made it to outside the tent before doing so – that wouldn’t have been pleasant with three of us sharing!). Lots of teams were leaving camp three this morning and it looked as if we were going to be last in the queues. Not a good start.

But by 8am the sun was out and I was absolutely roasting in my summit suit. I mean quite literally cooking. I had my black merino wool base layers underneath and it was way too much. Not that we had a choice – camp four was likely to be freezing and there would be no opportunity to change en route. I just had to suck it up, open every zip possible, and endure.

We also were give oxygen upon leaving camp three. With the tank weighing down my backpack and half my face covered in the mask, I thought I was going to suffocate. My body still shaking from throwing up, I had the beginnings of a panic attack, wanting to rip the thing from my face. On 0.5 pressure, it felt like I was better off just breathing the 6800m thin air (even though of course, I wasn’t). My upper lip and cheeks were sweating underneath the mask, leaving me feeling clammy and gross.

I can’t stress this enough but I took five steps out of the tent at camp three, stared up at the huge hill we had to climb in front of us, with the ant-like line of people making their way up, and I thought there was no way I could do it. No way I could walk another step. Nims was just ahead of me, and I was thisclose to throwing in the towel.

The oxygen mask was suffocating – I felt like I could hardly breathe. It was boiling in the down suit, and my buff and helmet strap felt as if they were suffocating my neck. I’d opened every vent in my suit, my Merino base layers exposed to the air. But the air was bloody boiling. Inside my boots, my thick socks were causing my feet to swelter. I honestly honestly didn’t think I could go on.

One step. Though. That’s all I needed to do. One step, one step, one step.

Not to mention the wall up from camp three is bloody demoralising. It seems endless, a semi-steep climb up, up, up. I knew I was going slowly, but I couldn’t will my body to go any faster. God I was in such a miserable state for that first hour.

About half way up the interminable hill, we passed some friends from base camp, who were coming down having summited that morning. Great! Good for them. One of them asked how I was feeling.

“So-so,” I said, not willing to admit my truly misery.

“Already?” He replied, arching an eyebrow. “Long, long way to go yet.” And off he continued down the hill.

You think I don’t know that, guy?

I raged in my head once he’d left. Honestly some hatred of him fuelled me for at least the next hour.

The funny thing about me and my body, is that I DO start to get better the longer the day goes on. For the first hour (okay, maybe two), I’m stuck in my own head, thinking of all the ways I’m going to fail, thinking of all the ways I’m brutally uncomfortable, thinking of the long, long way to go yet. But give me hours four, five and six, and I settle into the zone. I appreciate the beauty of my surroundings (and holy crap, is it beautiful – the sun might be sweltering hot but it makes the snow sparkle all around us, and the blue skies show us just how far we’ve come – if I turn around I can see all the way down to base camp). I start writing in my head, my novels and my blog posts (yes, this blog post!) trying to record every part of this experience for posterity because whether or not I go on to do any other mountains, this is my first 8000m experience. This is Manaslu. And I can guarantee you I’m not going to do this exact trip again.

The thing with Manaslu is that this year it is inordinately popular. 260 people applied for the permit this year, not including Sherpas and guides. Many people summited the morning we were climbing to camp four, which meant lots of people coming down as we climbed up. There’s only a single fixed line most of the way, so sometimes that causes bad traffic jams. For stronger climbers, I know this must be incredibly frustrating, but actually for me a little jam enabled me to catch my breath and keep up with the people in front of me. Admittedly though, by hour seven, with the end in sight, even I – mediocre amateur climber that I am – was getting a bit frustrated. I mean who am I to think this, but I was getting so annoyed with climbers in front (not on my team, I stress!) struggling to attach their jumar to the line. I mean isn’t this the approximately one millionth time you’ve had to do this on expedition? Why is it taking 10 minutes? This is extremely ungenerous of me, but after trudging for so long I was feeling ungenerous to the max. Just let me past! Grumble, grumble. When I wasn’t grumbling, I concentrated on just walking. It wasn’t even about one foot in front of the other at this point. All I knew in my head was that if I kept moving forward, and time kept moving forward, then I would eventually make it to camp four. Hopefully the rotation of the Earth would keep up its end of the bargain. Which meant all I had to do was keep up mine. If I was moving, I would make it. Whether that was in five hours or ten – it would happen. What else better did I have to do at that point?

Arriving at camp four after eight hours, I felt surprisingly good. Actually, I felt disbelief. I couldn’t believe I’d made it. But there you go. I honestly thought I’d hit my limit at camp three, but eight hours and 900m and 7400m of altitude later and I was still standing.

It was about 4pm. Now just one other long long day to go – potentially 7-8 hours to summit and then back.

The worst at this point was eating. Getting enough fuel to keep going. Nims had already ended one of our team member’s summit plans so he was serious on his threats. If we didn’t eat, we didn’t get to summit. I’d had a bad experience with breakfast but was hoping that the “Chili con carne with rice” option would be more palatable. Nims clambered into the tent with us during dinner to give us a debrief and let me use the satellite phone to call home. I swallowed down mouthful after mouthful of chilli. Then Nims turned to Deeya and told her to force down her food. Okay, that was it for me. Yup. You guessed it. I threw up all the food back into it’s disgusting white bag. (I’m sorry for all these gory details, but you wanted to know what real mountain life was like, right?!). Somehow I was extremely discreet and actually no one noticed?! Nims turned to me. Eaten your dinner? He gave me a look. Yes, I lied. Bare faced. Oops. He believed me, so I guess I got away with it? Thankfully my tent mates didn’t dob me in. When he left, I stuffed my face with cashew nuts, dairy milk and some granola bars instead, polishing off my snacks. It wasn’t that I didn’t have an appetite, it’s just that those horrid white bags of rehydrated food were almost instantly triggering of stomach clenching cramps for me. Not going to happen. Snacks were going to have to do. Good intermittent fasting training? I drank lots of water too, to make up for it. At least I could stay hydrated.

Mingma David came by with the plan. 12am wake up call, 12:30 departure. That gave us about four hours of rest. There was also a slight change in Sherpa plan – Galjen, as one of the more experienced Sherpas, was going to be held back with Nims, in case of any rescue situations. My new partner was Kasang Sherpa, Mingma David’s younger brother. He was the youngest Sherpa but also super strong and so friendly. I didn’t mind. All of the Elite Himalayan Adventures team were great, and I’d be lucky to have any one of them as a climbing partner.

I slept with oxygen, a strange sensation. Also, a bit frustratingly, I absolutely had to use the toilet in that four hour period. The rest of the camp was deathly quiet as I crawled out of the tent, but I could see some lights making their way up to the summit already. That would be me in a couple of hours. I rushed back to bed.

Summit Push (8,163m) – September 27th

There was no faffing in the morning. I’d slept in my down suit so all there was to do was pull on the boots and get moving. We’d pack down on our return. I found Kasang, and he helped fit my oxygen again. I filled my little half litre Nalgene with hot water and stuffed it into the inside pocket of my down suit – helping me stay toasty warm. I doubled checked I had snacks, my flags, my camera and my head lamp. Then we were off. 12:45am and we were moving.

The night was full of stars. I looked up toward the summit route, seeing a few head lamps in front of me, but not as many as I expected. I know this probably sounds basic, but I saw Orion hanging almost directly over the route, and my spirits lifted immensely. In some of the darkest times in my life, in many different parts of the world, I’ve looked up to see Orion and always felt better. He’s like a guardian angel for me. So I was very glad to have him with me here, on Manaslu summit night.

I was also bumped up to 2 points of oxygen, which really helped. In fact, Kasang said at one point he thought I was going too fast! Whoops. I was undoubtedly excited. And the route was relatively easy compared to what we’d done before, in the previous days. I could imagine it would be so much more difficult had there not been so many people though. The snow was firm under foot, but at some point the trenches we were walking through rose to two feet of snow on either side of us. If you were breaking trail in that, it would have been so hard.

I did end up passing quite a few people on the way (admittedly – many of those people were not using oxygen like I was, so they were really doing the hard graft!) but the problem with passing people is that I then had to keep up the speed despite wanting to rest! I didn’t want to be one of those annoying souls who overtake and then instantly slow down. I also couldn’t stop obsessing in those first few hours about whether I was catching up with people or whether they were catching up with me – it’s not a race, I kept telling myself, but I also couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Eventually though, I did calm myself down. And started worrying about sunrise instead. We seemed to be making really good time but the last thing I wanted to do was summit in the dark. Kasang and I stopped to eat for a bit – he had an apple, which was so much better than my energy gels – I don’t think an apple has ever tasted so good! I recommend one at 7900m. A few teams passed us as we sat in the snow, but I was feeling mellow about it now. It didn’t matter. I was going to summit. I knew it now.

Then the sun did come up, at about 5:30 am, and illuminated a proper wonderland around me. We were high above the clouds, only the tops of other mountains visible. It was as if I’d been transported to another planet, or as if I’d moved into a fairy castle in the sky, like the one in the Potion Diaries. I was looking down on the world and I choked up with wonder. Then the sky gradually turned into a blaze of orange, then dazzling blue. It was 6:20am and I was waiting for my turn on the top of the world.

I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. The rumoured three hour queues to get onto the summit hadn’t materialised, despite the record number of people on the mountain this year. There was one group ahead of me, on the summit, including my teammates from Lebanon. I was so happy for them. Kasang tapped me on the shoulder and showed me that Nims had just arrived, on the ridge just below. All of us who had set off for the summit that morning had made it, including the incredible Stefi – tentmate extraordinaire – who had summited without oxygen.

And, at 6:30am exactly, it was my turn. I stepped up to the jumble of Nepalese prayer flags that mark the summit and raised my hands in the air. I’d done it. Of course – the priority is to take pictures! And it was cold up there, approaching -30, but thankfully no windchill. Still, the batteries of my camera and phone were quickly dying so we took a few snaps for posterity and a few selfies as well. It was a picture perfect summit and I was elated. I couldn’t have dreamt of a better experience.

But… isn’t there always a but? … the summit is only half (or in this case, a third) of the battle. You also have to get back down.

I clambered down off the summit and headed a few paces to the ridge. When I got there, I hugged all my teammates and their Sherpas – Stefi and Dendi, Nims, Steve and Mingma, Deeya and Sonam, Sandro, Avo, Khodr and Kalden. It’s amazing to make it up with such a great team of people, and for a while it felt like we had the place to ourselves.

You know what? I thought. At 8,050m, this seems like the perfect place to do some writing. I pulled out my all-weather notebook and pen (a Sharpie – it worked!) and jotted down a few lines that I’d been working in my head on the way up. I hope these will form part of what will be my 8th published novel.

Writing my 8th novel in the death zone of the 8th highest mountain in the world. Doesn’t get more special than that.

We were back in camp four by 8am, but we weren’t offered too much rest. We had to get moving – all the way down to base camp. Now the sun was up fully, it was hot again – but for some reason it didn’t bother me as much this time 🙂

Getting down was quick but also incredibly stressful – I have some pretty choice bruises on my arms from arm-wrapping my way down the mountain and there were some dicey abseils. I did take a little tumble – or rather a slide – which was scary, but I wasn’t hurt and was kind of an efficient way down! I was attached by my safety line but as I didn’t have my ice axe (we’d left them at camp two), I couldn’t stop myself naturally. Oops.

Still, like I said, no harm no foul and we still had a long way to go! My body was shaky and exhausted, we hadn’t had much (if anything) to drink post-summit and the only choice was to keep moving. I was so casual about things going down, I stomped over the ladders as if they were nothing and leapt over other crevasses that had opened. We made it back to base camp in time for a proper cooked meal – and I have never been so grateful.

About half way down (on that mega hill up from camp three), one of the climbers making their way up stopped me for a chat. He was in head-to-toe Kailas, with his name in Chinese script embroidered on his jacket. Likely he was from the Chinese Seven Summits team, whose WiFi we had been commandeering most of the expedition.

“Have you come from the summit?” He asked.

“Yes, I summited at 6:30am this morning!” I replied through my oxygen mask. “Now it’s all the way back down to base camp.”

“Wow!” He said, clasping me on the shoulder. “You are such a strong man!”

And the hysterics I had from laughing kept me going at least another couple of hours down the mountain. Sometimes it’s the little things. Even when you’ve just accomplished the biggest physical achievement of your life.

My first 8,000m peak.

I’ve never felt more like absolutely anything is possible in life.

But now, I could really do with a good hot shower!


Snow Falling on Canvas – Manaslu Dispatch #6

September 18-21st

The snow has been falling heavily at base camp, coating everything in a blanket of white. Periodically throughout the night, my tent would shake as the Sherpas attempted to keep it clear of heavy snow – tent collapse is a real hazard, and our cook was almost a genuine casualty! We will have a few days, maybe a week, here at least – which for me means reading and writing a lot, just like at home, only without the distraction of Twitter! Some people might head down to Samagaun but I’ve aggravated a bit of an old knee injury so I’m staying put to give it as much rest as possible. I didn’t fall but just twisted a little in my crampons – so I’m hoping a bit of rest is all it needs. We shall see. I seem to have brought with me a lifetime supply of Cadbury chocolate for the trip (and then panic bought more at the airport!) so I’ve made friends by sharing it around as we play rounds of President (at one point we had 14 players!) to pass the time. Our base camp is quite sociable, with lots of people from other camps stopping by, and often some quite famous climbers from all over the world. All these people I’ve read about on mountaineering forums and websites and in books coming to life in front of me – pretty cool.

On 20 September, the skies finally cleared and the sun shone brightly. Almost everyone was up at 5:30am to look at the stunning views. The sky now was as blue was I remember it from the Annapurna Circuit, an impossibly deep cerulean, the colours made even crisper by the altitude. It also meant sunshine, which meant heat, which meant we could shower! My first high altitude shower! I cannot tell you what bliss it was to wash my hair after 15 days of it turning into a grease ball beneath my tuque. Combined with some mega sunburn across my nose and cheekbones, I was truly looking my best. Mountaineering is not for the super vain that’s for sure (although vanity meant I walked around base camp for two days with a buff over my face covering a second-skin layer of aloe vera – probably for the best frankly as now I’m mostly healed and look more human!). The shower consisted of a bucket of hot water and a scoop in a steamy tent, but it was good enough. It was also hot enough to do some much needed laundry and hang everything to dry in the blazing sun. This kind of admin day was sorely needed (not just because of smell!) as it definitely lifted everyone’s mood. The power of feeling fresh! (I still hesitate to say clean).

The other positive of a blue sky day is that the fixing team have been able to return to the mountain. They’d reached camp 3 early in September but hadn’t been able to move beyond owing to the snows. Their plan now is to hit camp three straight away, then fix lines to camp four and the summit by 23rd most likely. Our EHA Sherpas will be following behind to deposit our oxygen supplies at camp four. Then the client team (including me) will follow in four/five days, stopping off at each of the four camps along the way for a night – with a potential aim for summit on 27 or 28 September. We’d then descend to camp two, and then base camp the following day. So in 10 days, it could all be over! Why the wait and then the gradual altitude gain if the lines will be fixed by 23rd? Because there are so many people on Manaslu at the moment, it isn’t really advantageous to be among the very first teams to summit. For one, if we allow a few teams to go ahead then the route will be more trodden down and we won’t have to worry about breaking trail. The weather window looks so far to be quite wide, so we don’t have to rush. And taking extra time allows us all the best opportunity to summit. One of our team is attempting without oxygen, so she wants to minimise the time spent in a queue above 8000m. And finally, we want to wait for Nims for as long as possible. Obviously we will move if the timing is right, but it would be great if he could be with us.

So for now, it’s the waiting game! We’ve occupied time by hiking to WiFi mountain (aka another branch of base camp about 15 mins away) to check in with family and friends. Honestly the sight of all of us huddled in the snow around a tiny router (sometimes under an umbrella if it is snowing hard) is pretty hilarious! Like little internet hungry penguins. The team over there takes pity on us and feeds us tea. We’ve also spent some afternoons learning about crevasse rescue and moving on glaciers – not so much of an issue here since there are fixed lines, but it’s been great to take advantage of the expertise of our Sherpa team to learn how to behave in other alpine situations.

And of course – there’s the eating! Oh so much eating. And the food here is really quite yummy, filling and happily diverse. No endless rounds of dal baht like I was expecting but pizza, pasta, potatoes, fried rice, stir fried meats and lots of green leafy vegetables. Yum.

How fancy is this? We even watched a movie last night. There was popcorn with dinner and we huddled in a corner of the dining tent to watch a truly terrible X-men movie, but it was fun. I know these next few days are going to seem so long, and yet I will appreciate every moment’s rest once I’m on the mountain and making that summit attempt. Trying to have a little patience! And to occasionally step outside, stare at the beautiful mountain, and remind myself that this is a true once in a lifetime experience… so I shouldn’t simply wish the days away.


Puja, Party and Acclimatisation Routine – Manaslu Dispatches #4 & #5

September 12-14th, 2019

I’ve grown accustomed to falling asleep to the patter of rain on the tent roof, as it’s still the tail end of the monsoon season in the Gorkha district, where Manaslu is. It’s rained almost nonstop from 8pm to 8am, causing rivers to run through the base camp and some of the tents to flood. Thankfully mine has stayed dry but I’m not taking anything for granted with this amount of rain!

Yesterday (Friday the 13th) at 6am my alarm went off for the puja – the traditional blessing on the mountain. Almost as if it was planned that way, it was a beautiful morning, with sunshine bearing down and the east pinnacle of Manaslu coming into view. As the Buddhist lamas chanted in Tibetan for about an hour, asking the mountain for its blessing for us to climb, I drifted off into a meditative state. It’s so strange to contemplate the path it took me to get here, the choices I’ve made and people I’ve met and places I’ve been. But yet at that very moment there was no where else I wanted to be. I felt incredibly privileged and lucky and content. A nice way to feel. When the colourful prayer flags went up, it really felt like our journey to 8000m was underway. We dusted each other’s faces with flour to say good luck, and the ceremony was finished.

Following the puja was a big party! An unexpected touch of fun. Nims had invited a few other teams from base camp and there was lots of dancing and a fair amount of drink flowing even at 8am. There is a great sense of camaraderie and friendship on the mountain – since everyone has the same goal, there’s no real sense of competition. And everyone wanted to stop by and say hello to Nims – the true celebrity of the mountain (even if he would hate me for saying that!). The party continued well into the afternoon and by the time dinner finished I was as exhausted as if we’d climbed to camp three!

I’ve jumped around the days a bit, but before and after the puja day we’ve also been doing a lot of training on the mountain. A few people on the trip are using Manaslu as a way to prepare for bigger expeditions (I am still TBC on that front!) so it’s been great to use the expertise of Nims and his team to learn how to move on the mountain. They set up a fixed line on a nearby steep section of glacier, so we practiced using the jumar to climb and then abseil back down. We even did some practise ladder crossings and climbs. Even though it’s not been too cold, I did all the training in my big thick gloves, attempting to replicate conditions up high. It was actually great fun (in addition to hard work!) to be on the side of the mountain. It definitely boosted my confidence for later in the trip.

Manaslu has been noisy and active – serac falls thundering around base camp. There is apparently a fair amount of snow above us but not so much as to bury the lines that have already been fixed. Tomorrow we are hopefully moving to camp one to start our acclimatisation routine but it’s all dependent on the weather! Until next time…


Acclimatisation routine – Manaslu Dispatch #5

September 15-17, 2019

Maybe one of the strangest aspects of mountaineering is this need to head up and down the mountain to acclimatise, following the same paths you will eventually use to get to the summit. You become familiar with the route but also all too aware that any tough sections you have to do over again in the coming weeks.

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from Manaslu – again, Aconcagua is sort of the only point of reference that I have. We set off from base camp wearing our big boots, harnesses, and carrying enough food and gear for three nights but the likelihood was that we wouldn’t need ropes and a jumar on the way to camp one. Still, I hadn’t climbed with such a big backpack in a while (even training seemed like a distant memory at this point) and I could feel the pressure of the weight on my neck. Setting off with a headache is never fun, and we had a little ways to go yet.

It did feel good to finally get on the mountain, and we soon reached “crampon point”, where the snowline started. It was blazingly hot, and most of us had stripped down to a single layer. Even with that, I felt like I was melting.

About 5 hours later, when we reached “lower camp one,” I was so done. Emotionally and physically exhausted but not entirely sure why – I know that I could walk a lot longer and further than that. (We’d gone about 5.5hrs and maybe 8km). Still that last 1/2 hr slog up to our camp was made through a sheen of tears. The mountain is definitely humbling. Trying to cut myself some slack, an 880m to 5800m height gain at this altitude isn’t to be underestimated. Camp One here is higher than we ever slept on Aconcagua. This is why you acclimatise, so that hopefully the next time you so the route, you are stronger.

I had a surprisingly OK night (and didn’t have to stomach rehydrated food yet, so ate well), and woke up with a lot more energy. We could already see a line of people snaking up the mountainside – it looked a lot steeper and more technical than the previous days’ walk, so we ditched our walking poles for ice axes and jumars. This is actually the kind of climbing that I prefer – steeper but not such a long slog. That being said, there were some extremely tricky sections where I really felt like I was using all my energy to haul my body up the steep cliffs and I didn’t have much energy to begin with! At one point we had to wait to climb one at a time, or else snow and ice hailed down on our helmets. I was concentrating too hard to be scared, and I didn’t rest much after. I just wanted to keep plodding on, and after a while ended up leaving some of the team behind.

For a few hours, I walked alone with Tenjin Sherpa, surrounded by this eerie half light where the sun was obscured by snowy cloud (though absolutely not to be underestimated – I’m ashamed to say my face is badly burned despite constantly applying factor 50 and wearing a buff up to my eyeballs. I don’t understand what I did wrong and, yes, I cried about that too. Don’t go thinking you’re reading the blog of some strong mountain woman here! Most of the time I feel incredibly pathetic). Strange shapes loomed out of the snow, huge arcs of glacial ice – sometimes that piercing blue but most of the time just ghostly white. We crossed several ladders over yawning crevasses, the bottoms of which were swallowed up by darkness. I fell into a rhythm of clipping in to the line, clipping out – fingers fumbling with the carabiners in my thick gloves and feeling sure that I was the last idiot on earth able to work those fiddly devices. But when I looked up and around, I could see no one but Tenjin’s bright backpack in front of me. I kept plodding on.

Stefi soon caught up with me, but then it wasn’t long until Camp Two. After arriving it was tea and toilet breaks, until the rest of the group arrived about 45 mins later and we had dinner. I still can never quite stomach those rehydrated meals, despite being hungry. The sunburn was catching up with me too, and it wasn’t long until I retreated to the very cosy three person tent! (Me, Stefi and Deeya). The plan was to touch camp three, spend one more night at camp two and then back down, but the snow fell heavily overnight so we ended up heading back down to base camp today – a 12 hour trip up but half of that on return, with a long stop for tea. Also we had a few good reminders not to take that fixed line for granted – we watched one guy (not from our team) abseil straight into a crevasse (he wasn’t looking behind him) and needed rescuing, and a few booted feet went through snow bridges on the way. Still, I was sort of amazed by my own turn around – from last into camp on day one to first on day two, but Mingma David Sherpa kindly reminded me that I seem to find my strength at 6500m! Let’s see how I do at 8000…


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!


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!