Sunday, October 4, 2015

Back in Kathmandu

On the 30th, we began the chore of packing up camp.  First we took down the tents that were non-essential - communications, shower, storage - and packed everything into 30 kg loads for the porters to carry to Samagaon.  This was an arduous task, and I was sad to see our base camp dismantled and our expedition come to a close.  Late in the morning the telescope was packed, shortly after we watched Sherpa from another team push the route toward camp 4, crossing the troubling crevasse that had temporarily swallowed Namgel a few days ago. 

Porters from Samagaon arrived early the next morning, accompanied by some of the seemingly stray dogs from the village.  I tried to give one of them a piece of bacon, but he looked at me like I was crazy.  Maybe he was a vegetarian.  Nearly all of our porters were young women.  Most of the men from Samagaon have traveled across the newly-opened border with Tibet to purchase household goods at much cheaper rates than they can locally.  When we arrived in Samagaon strings of donkeys and yaks strolled through the single "street" carrying their purchases ... blankets, rugs, re-bar, plywood.

Porters claiming their loads
Photo:  Lisa White
I descended the steep, rocky path and arrived in Samagaon before lunch.  I spent the next several hours waiting for all of our loads to arrive.  Due to the shortage of porters, many of them had doubled their loads, eager to make some extra money and to accommodate all of the descending climbers.  These double loads proved to be too heavy for some of the porters, so they temporarily abandoned part of them on the trail, went ahead with the rest, and then walked back up hill to retrieve the abandoned parcel.  This process of course delayed the final delivery in Samagaon.  If more than ten porters are used, a foreman, or Nike, is required.  Our Nike was sympathetic to the situation.  She carried a dirty white puppy with her and she was worried that he would get squashed by a load in the tiny stone courtyard of the lodge, so she put it to work as a guard dog by plopping it on top of one of our barrels.   Unfortunately the puppy didn't comply for long and fell asleep.


Our guard dog and Lopsang
Photo:  Lisa White

In the morning I enjoyed my favorite breakfast, Tibetan bread (which is most like the elephant ears  that I ate as a kid at the county fair) and fried eggs and made my way to the helipad.  Although their frequency has increased since the earthquake, helicopter landings are still a big deal in Samagaon.  In my experience,  they are always chaotic as locals compete for the space of paying customers by stuffing grain sacks of potatoes into any open spot. Occasionally locals will stow away on a heli or concoct a medical condition which requires treatment in Kathmandu.  For this reason, my surly Austrian pilot hid a machete on his floorboard.

Although Nepal is currently experiencing a fuel shortage, the roads of Kathmandu were still disorderly and crazy.  Motorbikes, cars, busses, cows, pedestrians, and occasionally monkeys all move about noisily on their own agenda and pace, paying little regard to anyone else.  At least the stray dogs seem to have enough sense to stay out of the streets.

I sat in my hotel room for a while, still stinky and sunburnt from the mountain, and contemplated things.  Not having to stare at Manaslu made it a bit easier, but I still felt empty.  Although none were this significant, I have missed lots of summits before, but this time it stung more because I felt like I hadn't given it my complete effort.  I felt like I was giving up prematurely.  It's not that I doubted the decision to forego another summit attempt, it was just difficult to let go of a dream that I had worked hard to achieve; I had more fight left in me.  But mountaineering is a gamble and the mountain doesn't care if I've trained for months and made sacrifices, and have more to give.  It has the final say.

In the following days I would learn of several successful summits, and one fatal accident on Manaslu, causing my emotions to swing from selfish jealousy back to sadness.

I don't know of I will return to Manaslu.  My goals for this climb were to climb to 8,000m and to use oxygen; I may set my sights on another 8,000m peak in order to achieve them.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Coming to an End

After much deliberation, a lot of analysis, and some tears we have decided to cancel the 2015 Manaslu expedition.  The conditions at 24,000 feet, between camps 3 and 4 are too unstable to safely climb.  In addition to the 12 foot crevasse, this section of the route has become heavily loaded with snow in the past few days, making it avalanche prone.  While we could wait for the avalanches to naturally occur, high winds over the next week will also prevent safe climbing.

With a very heavy heart, I have begun packing gear to be taken back to Kathmandu, where I hope to be in a few days.

Reluctantly packing up base camp
Photo:  Lisa White

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The return to Basecamp

I woke up comfortably at base camp this morning instead of at camp 4 with freezing fingers preparing to climb to the summit.

Our summit attempt went according to plan ... we left base camp and climbed to camp 2, spent the night, then climbed to camp 3.   Both days of climbing were unbearably hot.  I wore a wool tshirt and slathered sunscreen on every hour to avoid a burn.  I found myself fantasizing that there would be a Slurpee machine at camp 3.  There wasn't. Just wind-blown snow slopes and more blazing sun.

As our team climbed to camp 3 our amazing Sherpa team was climbing to camp 4 to fix the route and establish camp.  Unfortunately just before camp they encountered unstable, deep, sugary snow that wouldn't support snow pickets.  Shortly after they decided to turn around a snow bridge broke sending one Sherpa into a crevasse.  He was excavated and sustained a recoverable shoulder injury.

With high winds forecasted, the safest thing was for all of to descend back to base camp, where now the only topic of conversation is how to safely get around that monster crevasse, which is buttressed on one side by ice cliffs and yawns into an ever widening abyss on the other.

Some Sherpa from another team will climb up to inspect it tomorrow.  Until we know more, we're all waiting patiently.

Monday, September 21, 2015

A lot has happened since my last post!

A lot has happened since my last post!  Weather determines the course of mountain expeditions, and on the morning of the 15th, I woke up at 4 to the sound of thunder, flashes of lightening (which I first though was someone shining a flashlight in my tent), and serac fall from the peaks opposite camp.  I continued to listen and eventually my groggy brain registered an unfamiliar sound against my tent.  During my stay at Manaslu base camp I've become adept at recognizing the various sounds of rain hitting my tent's nylon fabric.  There's the soft pitter patter of light rain, and the invasive pelting of hard rain, but this was different.  Like the sound of salt being sprinkled on popcorn.  SNOW!  I frowned and went back to sleep.

Photo:  Lisa White

By late morning, though, analysis of the latest weather forecast determined that there was a small period of good weather on the mountain during which we could spend a few more days acclimatizing above camp 1.  So I hastily packed my backpack and started for camp 1 in the damp, cold rain.
The route to camp 1 has now become familiar, and even with fresh snow the fixed ropes navigated me around crevasses.  I slept better at camp 1 (18,200 feet) than during my first stay and was happy to see partly cloudy skies when I awoke in the morning.  The sun can be brutal in the mountains, zapping my energy and frying my skin.  So, even though I normally curse cloudy weather at home, I was thankful for it today.
The route between camp 1 and 2 is probably the most challenging due to the walls of ice and snow that must be climbed, but this time I knew what to expect.  From camp 1, the route leads up two small hills; at the top of the second are more tents from other expeditions.  From here there is a flattish spot before the route moves up a serac and continues along a flat traverse to the left.  This section is easier on the lungs, but is probably the most dangerous spot on the route as it passes underneath a series of lurking seracs, not a spot to stop for photos!  Next comes the first of five snow/ice walls to climb with the aid of a fixed rope and jumar.  The first one is the most daunting but I timed myself on the steepest part and it only took 10 minutes.  I can do anything for 10 minutes!  After this wall the route meanders for a bit and comes to an intricate section of broken snow and seracs, which is spanned by two sections of aluminum ladders.  One ladder is vertical and climbed normally, the next is horizontal and each wrung must be delicately stepped on, balancing each foot the flat metal bar of my crampon.  Thankfully the ladder was only four feet long, so only a couple of steps were across the wide-open mouth of the crevasse.  The route continued this way ... winding between crevasses and up snow/ice walls of varying steepness until finally the tiny dots of tents at camp 2 (20,500 feet) are visible.

Sunrise at Camp 2
Photo:  Lisa White

After a restless night of sleep thanks to the altitude and a stuffy nose (I'm concerned that some of the stuff coming out of it should be sent to a crime lab for analysis), our small team set out toward camp 3 for more acclimitization.  The weather was thankfully cloudy again and we moved at a slow pace.  We made it probably 1000 feet before the snow became deep and unconsolidated and we returned to camp to relax, melt snow for water, and play cards.
Wet snow continued to fall throughout the day with little accumulation, but that changed overnight.  When I awoke at 6 am, there was probably 15 inches of new, wet snow on the tent.  We decided to descent to base camp, I was thankful that other teams left before us to break the trail and dig out the fixed ropes.
Now the team is back at base camp, we're officially acclimatized, although my lungs still heave in protest when I walk up the hills around camp. The storm predicted to arrive this afternoon has, which will keep us here until probably the 24th, plenty of time to rest, recover, and prepare for a summit attempt.

Some recovery yoga at base camp

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Back at base camp :(

On the afternoon of the 10th, we left sunny base camp and headed for camp 1, carrying extra clothes and food and hoping that the weather would allow us to spend a night at camp 2.  I made the now-familiar climb to camp 1 in good time, even with the heavy pack, proof that I am acclimatizing.  At camp 1 we had an early dinner of soup and semi-appetizing ready-to-eat meals.  Just as the sun set over the jagged peaks surrounding camp, snow began to fall lightly, creating comforting pitter-patter sounds on the nylon tent.

We hit the trail early, headed for camp 2, 2,000 feet above.  My toes and hands were chilled, but I knew that would soon change as the sun rose.  The route meandered for a while and eventually I could see a daunting headwall in the distance, with tiny black dots representing people moving up and down the ropes affixed to it.  Soon enough it was my turn to climb the snow/ice wall.  At sea level this would have been fun, but in an oxygen-deprived environment, it was very challenging.  About this time the sun stopped being my friend as my skin started to sizzle under its heat.  I focused on kicking the front points of each crampon into the snow and ice, taking 3 or 4 deep breaths, then sliding the jumar up the rope and breathing again.  Kick, kick, breathe, breathe, breathe, slide, breathe, breathe, breathe, kick, kick ...

The route continued to meander around crevasses and menacing seracs, punctuated by four more steep walls and one ladder.  Thankfully the clouds shielded the sun for part of the day.  Eventually I rounded a corner and could see a handful of tents perched on flat-ish ground.

Carefully moving up the vertical ladder among the seracs

Sadly, though this would not be our home for the night, the clouds were increasing and we made the right decision to descend and avoid deep, wet, avalanche-prone snow.

I'll be at base camp for at least the next two days "enjoying" Seattle-like weather: 40 degrees and rainy!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Back at base camp

Aside from an intense badminton game, made exponentially more difficult by the thin air, today was a day to rest, read, recover, and dry laundry in the sun.

Base camp badminton
Photo:  Nick Cienski

Our cooks, Puri, Lakshu, and Moma never have a rest day, though.  They are constantly busy in their make-shift high altitude kitchen.  They have turned out amazing treats like apple pie with creamy custard, steamed salmon, sizzling lamb chops and fresh bread.  I couldn't possibly make these things in my own kitchen, even if I tried.

Puri hard at work in the kitchen tent
Photo:  Lisa White

In addition to feeding the climbers, they feed our exceptionally strong Sherpa team.  Yesterday Puri spent part of the afternoon making a fresh condiment for the Sherpa - ground chilies, garlic, salt and vinegar that was so aromatic, my eyes watered as I watched him.

Moma and Puri preparing dinner
Photo:  Lisa White

Tomorrow we will climb back up to camp 1 to spend the night, and climb to camp 2 the following day.  This schedule is slightly amended from our original plan as a storm is expected to arrive on the 12th & 13th, and we need to be back to the comforts of base camp before it gets here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Still building red blood cells!

Still building red blood cells!

Today we completed our first rotation from base camp (15,700 feet) to low camp 1 (18,200 feet).  There will be at least one more rotation like this before moving further up the mountain.  Then the rotations will repeat between camps 2 & 3, and so on, until I've built enough red blood cells and strength to safely summit.  I can tell that I am making progress; though, when I arrived at base camp a few days ago my oxygen saturation at rest was in the upper 70s, now it's in the low 90s.

Rather than returning directly to base camp this morning, we had a little extra acclimatization and climbed up to 19,000 feet in order to get our first taste of moving through the icefall that sits between camps 1 and 2.  When I arrived at today's high point I looked up to see the route.   I think that the first word out of my mouth started with "f".

This first rotation also provided the opportunity to cache some food and gear at camp 1, lessening the load that I will have to carry when we move.   But, I'm still worried a out how I am going to get all this crap plus climbing gear up there!  One step at a time!

Tomorrow we will take a rest day to recover.