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!

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2 Comments

  1. Mark September 28, 2019 / 9:35 am

    Absolutely brilliant, well done!

    Will you have rehydrated snacks at the launch? 😀

  2. Angus September 28, 2019 / 2:00 pm

    Fantastic. Your best writing ever. Really captured the moment. Incredible!

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