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.
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!