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 base camp life

Who knew that “rest days” could be so frustrating?

It’s the weather. It appeared that a window was going to open up on Sunday but soon, 60+ km p/hr winds were in the forecast. Now, it looks like Tuesday 18th is going to be the attempt – fingers crossed, the weather looks much better, the wind calmer, the skies bright and clear.

We just need to have patience and wait for it.

That being said, many other teams headed up the mountain a few nights ago – only to return this morning, some via helicopter. Only 3 people have summited this entire season. The winds were brutal last night, and even in our 10-person dorm, the wind battered and shook our tent until the door fell off (repeat this about seven times, until we had to rope the door shut!). I can’t imagine what it would be like at Camp 2, 1000m higher. I’m glad we’re safe and relatively comfortable down here.

So I thought a little blog about what base camp life is like might be interesting to those at home!

Plaza de Mulas is not a beautiful place – there are exceptions, like when the sun sets and paints the rock around us in a rosey hue, or in the dead of night when the skies are filled with more stars than I have ever seen. However, during the day, it’s a bit like living on top of a big quarry – dusty, rocky, sparse – nothing green for miles. Long drop toilets stand like sentries at the edge of the valley, which drops down to a small lake and then rises up again to the eerie site of an abandoned hotel. Chris and I are walking over there today to stretch our legs – others have come back with reports of menus still laid out on tables, flags hung on the walls, books on shelves – as if the inhabitants of the hotel just walked out one day and left. Calling Michelle Paver – I might just have found the site of your next remote ghost story.

Lunch and dinner starts always with a bowl of the same virtually tasteless vegetable soup (improved with chilli sauce and another necessary way of ingesting fluids). This is Argentina though, so we’ve been treated to a couple of delicious asados (barbecues) with round after round of delicious meat. Not going to lie, I’m looking forward to a huge plate of broccoli on my return! But the staff here do a great job of making sure we’re kept full and healthy on a mountain diet.

Harder to deal with are the extremes in temperature – from boiling hot in a sun-baked tent to freezing cold if the sun disappears. When boredom sets in, we read (I read A Lot!) or play cards (I haven’t played that many rounds of President since high school), or nap or take a stroll. By 9pm, we’re snug as bugs in our sleeping bags and praying we don’t have to go to the bathroom too many times in the night.

Does it sound like a hard life? Probably not, but it’s amazing how quickly frustration sets in. Still, all the decisions that have been made have absolutely been the right ones, and we are at the mercy of the mountain. For me, I can’t help the anxiety and anticipation that grows every moment I stop and stare up at the summit of the mountain, knowing that despite all the rest days, one day soon I’ll be waking up and climbing that huge Stone Sentinel once again. So I’m trying to enjoy and make use of the rest days as much as possible, practicing patience and storing up as much hydration and energy as possible.

Because before too long, I’m going to need every ounce of energy I’ve got.

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