A Girl Gone Mountaineering: Third Despatches From Ama Dablam

Tuesday 16th April
This morning we’re heading to basecamp, and most importantly to no wifi for two weeks. I wake up at 5 am to the speediest internet I’ve yet to experience above Kathmandu and spend two hours on social updates. Sitting in front of the best porridge and masala chia, I meet again the Americans who are heading to Everest and Lhotse. One of them has a bronchial infection and they’ve descended here to get better. We chat about climbing, running from bears (that’s a No-No apparently) and Seattle. They are lovely, friendly and light-hearted, wonderful breakfast company.

8:30 our team mozy upwards, I feel a little stale walking through the town’s stone steps and still have the hanging feeling of incompetence from my slowness. Things to work on when I get home I suppose.

We turn right, off the main drag to a dirt path which hugs a cliff. Cross a river, and up big slopey grass fields. I watch a woman ambling up the hill wearing a fluoro pink puffer jacket and matching yellow pants. She’s collecting yak dung by frispbying the sun-dried cakes into a wicker basket attached to her back. We move upwards, have tea at the Ama Dablam Lodge which dispells the romance that we are so far from civilization and arrive at basecamp 15 minutes later.

Basecamp is clean, organised and empty. We’re the first to arrive. There are eight brand new giant tents for sleeping, all lined in a row. A large dining tent complete with heater and solar electricity, a kitchen tent, sherpa tent, shower, and toilet tent (which I’m happy to be the very first to use).

We take lunch and afterward I head to my tent, which I’m sharing with Georgie. Lying on my foam mattress I hear the others arrive. Eruptions of laughter and loud chatting tell me they’re a close-knit team already. They are the Czechs. I emerge wanting to introduce myself, and meet Sam, a young English Lawyer with a big grin, and the nine Czechs. They’re making a film about a famous Czech climber who put a new route up on the West face of Ama Dablam in 1986. They all look like proper climbers. Wirey physiques, faces seasoned from the mountains and that air of competence that mountaineers have. Hard to describe but maybe it’s the way they walk? I later learn some of the guys have soloed K2 and Everest without oxygen, Ama Dablam being a ‘fun’ expedition for them.

They spend their excess energy by setting up a ring for a fight scene, with ropes tied to ice axes and trekking poles. They have three fight rounds, each fighter emerging with a fantastic costume; high altitude mountain boots, stripy underwear or bright yellow sleeping bags draped over them like boxers silks. They McGregor style monkey arm swing their way to the ring, chest puffed and chin high. The referee Honza bolsters the audience, and the bout begins. Only lasting a few minutes, mitts flying off and men writhing on the ground, the winner’s hand being flung in the air with accompanying applause.

At dinner smoking juniper swirled around the stone stupa moving the energy around for the puga ceremony in a couple of days time.

I went to bed happy to be at basecamp, a part of a bigger team, feeling very much out of my depth, and looking forward to a rest day tomorrow.

Wednesday 17th April
It snowed last night. I woke up at 5am to pee and the whole landscape had changed. Everything blanketed in a clean white veil. The ground, the tents, the panorama of other mountains, all white. The sky was ultramarine blue, and Ama Dablam looks glorious.

I had no appetite this morning but forced down a bowl of porridge and two pieces of toast. I want to go back to bed and feel dizzy.

I perk up a little after fussing around in my tent, I sort out my tent and wash my hair, t-shirtless, in the middle of camp as a sherpa pours warm water over my bent head. It’s hot and sunny and everyone at camp is washing clothes and drying sleeping bags. The weather changes abruptly, it starts snowing again as clouds swirl out of nothing and envelope on the camp.

We have potatoes, chapati and vegetables for lunch and play card games in the orange-lit tent. A heli delivers more gear, and when departing it hovers wobbling in mid-air, only a few meters off the ground, a minute too long that all watching unconsciously take a step backward. It’s easy to see how accidents happen in the mountains.

In the afternoon Ong Chhu (the Czech lead sherpa) checks our gear. My crampons don’t fit on my new double boots. Georgie kindly swaps her crampons with mine, I’m a little bummed that I won’t use mine, they are super great with two aggressive front points for ice climbing. But very happy that things work out in the mountains and Georgie’s crampons fit snug. I finally get my hour nap and wake up to play more cards. We all tumble outside the dining tent to watch a naughty yak jiggle jogging through the camp, weaving in between tents evading pebbles and shouts being thrown from the kitchen staff.

I ate too many biscuits and have spoilt my appetite for the pizza and pasta dinner. I battle through.

Ong Chuu introduces the team after dinner. There is Aasthani, a newly accredited international mountain guide, he’s summited Ama five times. Old Laa Kpa sherpa, submitted fifteen times, he is bandy-legged and had calm milky eyes. Young Laa Kpa is tall and handsome, less experienced but holds an air of competence. Subin (the company owner) is coming in three days and tomorrow we train.

Thursday 18th April
This morning we’re having a Puga ceremony, the Lama has arrived but has to eat breakfast too, so we are holding the ceremony at 10 am. The basecamp buzzes in preparation, we are instructed to get our climbing gear to be blessed, so pile boots, crampons, helmets, and any talisman we have in the stone stupa which sits on a small rise overlooking our camp. The lama is robed in maroon and orcha, on his feet white and blue Asics. He sits cross-legged on a green tarp logoed MADE IN KOREA, holds a necklace of prayer beads and mumbles chants “dum lam dum bhrum”. He changes the Buddhist mantra cards, which are long and rest on a silk cloth, like a musician turning the pages of music during a concert.

Juniper smokes behind the grey stone stupa, around the Christmas pile of climbing gear at its base. A silver pole made longer with a tree branch shoved in the bottom is erected on the stones, a juniper twig at it’s top. New giant prayer flags are taken out of plastic and strung at three points across the camp from the silver pole. The team scurries around and takes photos and film footage, standing in the glaring sun with Ama Dablam our captive audience.

Three trekkers stand at the bottom of the hill, unsure of a polite way to interact with the ceremony. They’re ignored at first, but after an hour are offered tea and stand on the rise of the hill with us smiling.

At the end of the ceremony, we throw flour in the air, following the lead of the Lama. One. Two. Three. Throw a little flour out of your hand. More flour is rubbed on everyone’s chin and touched on shoulders with “Good Lucks” being said through smiles. Blessed biscuits and beers are offered, I take a grape juice instead, and lastly, we line up to kneel in front of the Lama to receive a red cord knotted around our neck. I kneel in front of him and feel the warmth of his presence as he mutters chants through the swirling smoke haze.

After lunch, we are told to put our harness and helmet on, bring our jumar and go to the big boulder which is a five-minute trot away. Ong Chhu has fixed a rope up to the top of the 10-meter boulder and swiftly demonstrates how to jumar up it. We take it in turns to follow, and the Czech party have arrived by the time it’s my go. I fumble a bit on the beginning overhang, only gaining centimeters as I push out from the wall, not up. I keep at it and the second half becomes easier and I top out panting with a smile on my face. I belay down the other side and we repeat a few more times from both directions. (The rope is slung around the circumference of the boulder.) Tobias flips over on his first belay, there are some Nepali shouts and he recovers well after a second. I think it’s easy to get a foothold wrong and make a mental note to never let go of the rope even if I’m upside down.

This is fun. I also think it’s going to be hard at 6800m.

After we finish Ong Chhu says he is very happy with my belays. I think I’ve got some work to do with my jumaring.

The Czechs finish off by bouldering the rock. Honza topping out in jeans and panting a smile behind his buff. I watch, try a little section, only get one move in and head back to camp. Today has been fun, tomorrow we head to Camp 1.

Friday 19th April
I’m told to pack my crampons and harness. Really? I’m also told that we are going solo to Camp 1, without a Sherpa guide. I immediately relax and think this is going to be a good day. I ditch the harness, thinking that if we’re not roped up, there’s no need (to later find there’s a fixed line on the last section). Tobias and I set off at 8:30, walking slowly up the ridge which overlooks basecamp. In half an hour Georgie passes me and then starts to head off Tobias who is now walking horizons on ridges ahead.

Sherpas with 30+kg overtake me, and they are pausing every ten minutes on a rock before shuffling forward again. They disappear into the hills. When they passed, they asked if I was okay. I’m having the time of my life here alone in the hills. Slowly walking into the clouds, music in my ears and the Himalayas surrounding me.

I stop each hour and time myself a five-minute rest. I jam in biscuits, sweet juices, sunscreen reapplications, and Spotify playlist changes. I walk on, so slowly I sing at 5000m.

Hours pass.

The clouds which were hovering low on the mountains this morning now close in. I’m on my fifth hour. They said it would take four. Surely I’ll make it this hour. It starts to snow, the wind picks up, it’s cold and I’ve all my layers on. My hands have been an ugly red colour for a while, and I didn’t bring gloves. Camp 1 must be soon.

I see Tobias move over boulders out of the mist. Finally! We exchange big smiles and I ask how camp 1 was. He said it was great, a little exposed and still an hour away. It’s now 2:15 pm. Georgie appears too, I say I might go another half an hour up, reach the fixed lines and come down. They tell me that’s a good idea and head off descending into the mist.

I walk ten steps, scrambling over large boulders and turn around. I can’t see Tobias or Georgie anymore. Snow is starting to fall and I suddenly get scared. I lump my pack off, try to make a quick video (which I ended up not hitting record) jam a cold snickers bar into my mouth, stretch on my baby crampons and run back down the hill. Thoughts of the snowfall the last two days swirl in my head. If the snow falls heavier now I’ll lose the trail and I’m in ten meters of visibility. I’ve no lamp and only a gortex top. I run faster.

I placate myself a few times, telling myself that panic will not help me, just do the job. Get down. Each time I spot footprints on the other side of a rock section, I say out loud “Good girl”. I run to the track and try and spot the next marker down.

Soon enough I spot Georgie’s fluoro green pack cover. I sigh a “yes!” And trot down, managing to scare the shit out of her in the process. We move down together, not as fast as before but I’m so relieved to have company again. Tobias is ahead but we can’t see him. It’s just us. We pass Marek on the way down, he’s heading up with a massive pack ahead of the Czechs. He’s the one who’s been to K2 three times, he’s also a retired professional MMA fighter. Why did he retire? He got sick of beating 20-year-olds.. We expect to see the rest of the Czechs. But we never pass them.

Georgie and I are lost.

We figured it out when we both turned to each other saying “I don’t remember this bit”. The visibility is shit, and we try and go up another ridge to see what’s beyond. We see nothing but brown rock silhouettes and more grey mist. We keep right, heading down the next valley and over huge movie style boulders. I’m trying to keep up with her and it’s making me pant and I’m sure I’m wearing the face of pain I’ve seen on less acclimatized, less fit trekkers. Another two ridges we mount, Georgie says she found the outlines of advance base camp and I’m now wanting to cry. I think will they send a rescue party out? Will we bivy here? When do we just give up? Shameful helpless thoughts. I would have had a meltdown if wasn’t going to tarnish my reputation as a competent Ama Dablam climber. We decide to try another ridge to the right, and I keep high as Georgie parallels me lower down.

Wooeee!! I shout, “I’ve found the trail!”. Verge of meltdown dissolved, we are close to basecamp, I take off my baby crampons, Georgie pees, and we’re off again, this time I’m smiling as I can see our tiny tents in a line, fleeting glimpses of cheer through the fog.

We have dinner and laugh about it later. It’s funny how things seem more dramatized here in the mountains.

Saturday 20th April
Today we have a rest day, I shower, wash some clothes and at lunch Subin pops his head in the dining tent. “Subin!” He’s finally arrived! To introduce Subin; he is the company owner (of the Nepali company I’ve booked with), and he’s a friend of my colleague at work, and I climbed here with him last October. He’s always wearing a megawatt grin and is a man who can make things happen in the mountains. An all-round wonderful person to know. He’s arrived with another team member from Romania, Mehi, and our team is almost complete.

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