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.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Rest day at base camp

Although it was a rest day, there was a lot of activity in base camp.  Thankfully the weather was clear in the morning, which seems to be the normal pattern.

Our base camp consists of multiple large tents plus individual sleeping tents.  The large tents function as: shower/storage, Sherpa sleeping, Sherpa dining, cooking, climber dining, communications/medical, and toilet.

Tents at base camp
Photo:  Lisa White

Water is very plentiful here, the constant sound of water flowing from melting glaciers envelops camp.   Our team is using some of that water to generate electricity.  Water is diverted to a hydroelectric generator, which is attached to a cable that runs up the hill to a series of batteries that are used to power computers, satellite modems, and other electronics.  When it warms up during the day, and the volume of water flowing through the generator increases, electricity is plentiful.

Our water system at base camp
Photo:  Lisa White

Each morning, camp starts to come to life around 6:30, which is when the best views of the surrounding mountains are available, today was no different.  After eggs, toast, and yogurt for breakfast I took advantage of the sunny weather to do some laundry.  Along with one of our Sherpa team, Namga, I scrubbed dirty clothes on rocks and rinsed them with the water diverted from a waterfall into camp.

Before the clouds moved up the valley, we set up a volleyball net and watched the Sherpa teams compete.  They were the only ones acclimatized enough to play!  I used the volleyball game to memorize the names of our Sherpa teammates - Lakpa, Geljin, Namga, Nima, Noang.  Things were going well until the ball bounced out of bounds end down the rocky hill out of sight.

Volleyball at base camp
Photo:  Lisa White

Tomorrow the plan is to move to camp 1 to spend one night in order to continue our acclimatization.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Moving to camp 1

Whew ... I miss oxygen!  I woke up early this morning - at 5 to the gentle voice of Moma, one of our cooks saying "Dee Dee, milk tea."  Dee Dee is the Nepalese word for older sister, he serves the steaming, syrupy drink each morning from a thick thermos and I fear that I will need to go to milk tea rehab when I get home.

At 6 our small team of 5 headed up the rocky hill adjacent to our camp.   Going from sipping milk tea to hiking up hill at 15,700 feet is a difficult transition, especially at 6 am, and my lungs screamed at me for the first 30 minutes.

After about an hour the rocks gave way to glacier and we stopped to put on crampons and harnesses.  I was happy to be on snow.   We moved pretty quickly through the crevassed  Larkya glacier.  Instead of traveling as a rope team, we each clipped into the fixed line that the Sherpa anchored to the glacier yesterday.  Clipping in is accomplished by attaching a carabiner to the fixed line; that carabiner is attached to a short rope, which is attached to my harness.  If I should fall, using this system would keep me anchored to the surface of the snow, preventing me from falling into a crevasse or sliding down an exposed slope.
Moving to camp 1
Photo:  Lisa White

Camp 1 is positioned at 18,200 feet - a little lower than expected - we arrived there in good time, just under two hours.  After staying for just a few minutes, I reversed my path and returned to the comfort of base camp and the familiar sounds of yak bells and the whistles of their drivers.

The plan is to rest at base camp tomorrow - and if it's sunny I may even wash my hair again!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Hike to crampon point

It has been a busy day - a good contrast from yesterday when I spent most of the day in my tent since it was raining.   To continue our acclimatization, we hiked up the rocky moraine to the point where it meets the Larkya glacier.  My lungs were definitely feeling the effects of the altitude as I made the hike up to 16,400 feet.  It was a short trip, though, and we were back at base camp in less than two hours.

Since it was still sunny, I took the opportunity to take a much needed shower and do some laundry.

Our Sherpa team had a productive day as well, they left camp at 7, each one stopping at the chorten to breathe juniper smoke and throw rice in the air.  They hiked up to camp 1 in order to set the circuitous route through the broken glacier.

Our Sherpa team at the Chorten
Photo:  Lisa White

If the good weather continues, tomorrow's plan is to climb up to camp 1 at 18,700 feet for some more acclimatization and then return to base camp.

Samagaon & Puja

We finally arrived in Samagaon on August 30th, after endless hours waiting in the domestic terminal of the Kathmandu airport.  The 45 minute flight was breathtaking, the pilot navigated through a labyrinth of lush, green valleys, all of which were sliced with white, frothy waterfalls.

Landing at Samagaon
Photo:  Lisa White

The village of Samagaon is situated at 11,500 feet.  The stone houses of its inhabitants are connected by a maze of cobbled walkways, used equally by people, yaks, donkeys, and dogs.  I can frequently hear the bells hanging around the necks of the yaks and donkeys.
Yak in Samagaon, loaded with supplies to take to base camp
Photo:  Lisa White

We took a short walk to a glacial lake after we arrived, I felt lucky that local lamas unlocked the doors to their temple and let us take a look inside the tiny square building.  Every inch of the walls inside were brightly painted and a few butter candles lit the dim interior, creating shadows across the Buddha statues inside.

Alter in the Temple
Photo:  Lisa White

This morning the clouds cleared just long enough for Manaslu to make it's first appearance ... the mountain looks beautiful and daunting!

Manaslu peaks through the clouds
Photo:  Lisa White
After an fried egg and toast breakfast, we took a short acclimatization hike to a nearby waterfall.  We walked through green fields dotted with flowers and rocky stream beds.  Along the way we passed locals carrying firewood in hand-made baskets strapped to their backs.  Occasionally we encountered children wearing traditional clothing, playing in their muddy yards.  They all screamed namaste!  namaste!  when we walked by.

Photo:  Lisa White

We gained about 1,000 feet of elevation, and I definitely felt the effects of the altitude as we neared the waterfall.

Tomorrow we will stay in Samagaon again and take another acclimatization hike.

September 2, 2015
Samagaon 6:37 am

I woke up this morning to the smell of juniper burning.  The juniper is meant to ward away bad spirits and every morning the female proprietor of the lodge walks through the open hallways and courtyard with a rusty, perforated coffee can stuffed with burning juniper branches.  Today is the day that we leave the relative comfort of Samagaon and move to base camp.

14:32, base camp 15,580 feet

We arrived at base camp just as the rain started, we have had such good weather so far, I can't believe it!

After breakfast we walked through the chaos of porters, Sherpa families, yaks, dogs, donkeys and mud to begin our trek to base camp.  The route wound through lush, green forests dotted with wild flowers and paved with mostly mud.  Up ahead I could see the brightly colored loads of the yaks and porters.  Their position above me told me that the route was about to get steep.

Porters carrying our loads to base camp
Photo:  Lisa White
I focused on breathing as the air got thinner.  Eventually the terrain changed from green to brown and rocky.  I looked down to see the glacier-blue lake that we had visited two days ago and marveled at the volume of water sliding down slick rocks and falling into it from the terminal end of the glacier to my left.

Looking back at Samagaon on the way to base camp
Photo:  Lisa White

I was higher now than the summit of Mt. Rainier, and my lungs noticed.  I focused on breathing and the feeling of my feet finding firm footing along the rocky ridge that lead to base camp.  Before long we were enveloped in clouds, and around me was the sound of the Sama locals whistling at their yaks and donkeys to keep them on course, mixed with gongs from the animals brass bells.  I continued to think about breathing, and before long I looked to my right to see the bright yellow tents of base camp.  This will be my new home for the next four days, and I am happy to be here.

September 3, 2015
14:08, base camp 15,580 feet

It has rained most of the time that I've been at base camp, but we managed to complete out puja ceremony today.  The puja is conducted by a local monk in order to ask the mountain to allow us to safely climb.   The puja involves a lot of praying, rice throwing, whiskey drinking, more rice throwing, some more praying, and some dancing.