|Our treks||Expeditions||Contact us||About us||Old photos & Diaries|
5 Sept to Shishapangma BC
It is just me and the Tibetan driver and my gear - two barrels and two large kitbags, a pack and a small kitbag. We pass beautiful Tibetan villages as we crawl up to the top of the first pass. At 5150m the panorama is stunning, the Himalaya spreading along the horizon, and pure Tibet to the north. Since the border the climatic zones have changed distinctly, not just with the change in altitude, but also because we were passing thru the main Himalayan chain onto the Tibetan Plateau, and here it is at its most dramatic. Prayer flags bedeck the pass but the day is slightly cloudy and Shishapangma hidden.
To the north the landscape is rolling, rough and dramatic in places, soft and with that incredible feeling of huge space that cannot be explained just because it is treeless. We turn off the main road close to a second small pass. From a wide graded but dirt road, we drop onto a track, a way that has never been worked on, merely driven by a knowledgeable Tibetan and as the wheel ruts developed, become a common route. We bump along with an incredible feeling of freedom, the driver careful to steer left around the chortens that marked the ancient walking trail. Then over a small pass we descend into a tight valley, the Landcruiser leaning over heavily, and to those unused to what they are capable of, probably rather alarmingly. In the early 1990's I lead Tibet tours for a dodgy English overland company, and the main road was barely one. In the bus we packed the gear on the floor at the back, and made sure the heavy stuff was on the bottom, it would be this that might perhaps stop the bus from rolling on some of the worst stream crossings. Often as we canted over I would nonchalantly stand with a foot on the floor, the other on the door. I really did expect that we might go over a few times but it never happened.
The view ahead was breathtaking, a broad grassy plain extending west forever lined by textured hills. As we reached the valley base there was a bridge, a token acknowledgement that this was indeed a Tibetan road. One day returning from Kailash, we took a shortcut from this bridge, joining the main road much closer to the pass, a short but exciting four wheel drive adventure. There were some wheel marks to use as guides, but we couldn't tell if they had turned back or not, ie whether the route would go. Half way up there was a movement on the hill, and a wolf glared at us in broad daylight. We stopped and he trotted away, turning every few steps to glance at us.
Along the plain we suddenly turn off the main ruts and bump south, towards Shishapangma. Eventually there is a mess tent, the TMA liaison officer's home for the expedition season, and a scattering of colourful climbing tents. There's also a stone plaque and chiselled in is the altitude, 5000m. As a guide I am going to look very silly if I get serious altitude sickness here. There is not a lot I can do, and it isn't worth worrying either, it won't do any good. Instead over copious cups of green tea, I catch up with Nawang, who by chance was the Liaison officer for Cho Oyu last year. He is a TMA official and in the blurred way that government and semi-private companies work, also the Chinese government's representative. There appears to be no conflict of interest, and he is a pleasant person that you know you can rely on, but break the law and you know also that he will have to be tough, to live up to the official duties. I enjoy chatting and he introduces me to his senior, a Tibetan climber who has scaled Shishapangma, Cho Oyu, Dhaulagiri and Everest, one of the only Tibetans I have met that is a real mountaineer.
I have everything I need for a night or two here in my pack and put up a small fly only. I can feel the huge jump in altitude, and have a mild headache that comes and goes. I am definitely at the limit, a little higher and it would be a thumper.
6 Sept - Shishapangma ABC
I had an altitude disturbed sleep, but hardly surprisingly. So today I relax and drink lots, and pee even more.
Some nomad girls and women from one of the nearby camps come over, not so much to see the foreigners, but to beg to watch a video. I guess the generator-powered TV-video helps with the boredom. But first they have to persuade Nawang, so we joke around with them. Perhaps they have been to a city once, but probably not, there is no town near here, only small villages without electricity. Basically, they have spent their whole life in the black yak wool tents, tending yaks, goats and sheep. Inside there is probably a small cabinet, a steel trunk or two, a fire (the roof has a slit to let the smoke out, and have probably only ever burned yak dung.
Eventually Nawang gave in. It was some American crap that could be partly followed even if you didn't understand the language. But what they could certainly understand, even the 12 year olds, were the two sex scenes, what was causing such amusement was the fact that they took place during the day. Nawang translated that they never have sex during the day, but it didn't seem to be a cultural taboo, indeed they couldn't come up with a reason, other than the obvious that somebody might see them, being very open country. So we offered, mostly in jest, but I think that if we had worked on it or if I spoke more Tibetan, I might have been taken up.
In the early evening the yaks turned up. The other tents were a French commercial group and Nawang suggested I go to ABC with them. The sirdar also had to be pleased with this since I could take three yaks but only needed two, and they had far more equipment than the three yaks per person up that you are allowed as part of the contract.
7 Sept - to Shishapangma ABC
The French set off early leaving their sherpa team pack camp up. It was an incredible scene, the yaks milling around, the simple Tibetan canvas travelling tents, smoke of the dung fires and the wild Tibetan men. I walked up with them feeling like someone looking in at the scene, at least until yaks started dropping their loads, then it was time to help. This other world-ness is part of the adventure of getting to ABC, and a favourite experience.
8-11 Sept - Shishapangma ABC
I have set my tent up well away from the others, but plainly visible. It is well staked out, already it is windy. The French invite me over and their sherpas ply me with hot drinks. They are five people and Dennis, their mountain guide. Once I spoke (bad) French, but that is all forgotten, luckily most of them speak good English and don't mind using it. I had dinner with them one night in their comfortable North Face 2 metre dome, but can't return the favour with my limited food and small 3 person tent. They are well stocked with Ouzo, whisky, brandy and the like, and have many fine French delicacies. The sherpas are a good team too, joking aside very solid. They invited me over for dal bhaat another night.
Also at ABC is a Jagged Globe group. They are well into the expedition, having had the mountain to themselves for two weeks until we arrived. There is an air of seriousness around their camp and while I get to know the sherpas quickly, it takes longer for the clients and Steve, the guide.
I am happy to relax for a few days, I have come up from Kathmandu (1350m) to ABC at 5550m in only six days and know that I should acclimatize well before going higher. There is no rush. Also this is the first time I have been able to really relax in a long time, the first time I can bury my nose in a book without guilt that there are emails unreplied to etc.
On the 9th I take a walk up the moraine to explore the route to the glacier. Although I am carrying nothing and have drunk plenty, I still get a headache from the exertion at altitude, virtually a first for me. Almost no matter what jump I have taken, I have never had a headache, only ever pressure. Yep, I am close to the limit. So I will spend one more day before carrying a load up.
The French and their sherpas have a puja ceremony and invite me afterwards to partake in the blessed food and drink. I tie the kata from Gyalgen and Pemba to a rock cairn above my camp. Later another expedition's sherpas use the rock to string a very long set of prayer flags and thoughtfully tie the kata onto it, where it flutters in view of Camp 1, Camp 3 and the summit.
11 Sept load carry
As most mornings, I lie snuggled up in my bag until the sun hits, then I light the stove for a big cup of milky coffee. There is no rush and without sun it is cold, but it strikes fairly early. Unfortunately the sun leaves at around 3pm, so then it is time to visit people in their dining tents or retire to read.
I open a barrel and kitbag and start loading stuff into my pack, making a list of what has gone on my small computer. When it is between 20 and 25 kilograms I stop, whatever else I need will have to go tomorrow. Before I leave the sherpas ply me with hot drinks, which I am grateful for. I don't take water with me, instead rely on drinking from streams along the way, but the water is so cold it is hard to drink a lot in one go.
I move slowly and stop frequently, I am fit enough but want to - have to - take it easy at this altitude. After nearly two hours I come across the depot tents of the Jagged Globe team, the end of the rocky moraine bashing. The glacier is pinnacles of ice, penitentes, I am assured is the proper name, although that confounds even the spell check, and it is time to put on the One Sport boots and crampons. The ice is hard and I have to look carefully sometimes to ensure I am on the correct route. It would be very easy to get lost here twisting thru and over them, and not pleasant if you did. They have flagged the route but many have melted out and they are spaced well apart. Abruptly the fins end and the glacier is smoother, in fact it is another glacier, hence the change in character, but there is no moraine between them.
Nearby is an ice cataract that occasionally falls, snow fields and steep faces that look ready to avalanche, but ahead is a gently rising plateau. I dump the contents of the backpack into a kitbag, mark it with two wands and stash it where the sun won't melt it into the glacier. I have put a sleeping pad as the base also to protect against this.
Returning, I am tired but heading downhill is much easier.
12 Sept to glacier camp
Another brilliantly fine day. I wake feeling really good so I wash all the important pairs of undies and relax with the sherpas while they dry. Then finally I get around to sorting the rest of the gear. With the list I made yesterday, it is easy enough. I take approx 11 days supplies so that hopefully I won't have to return to ABC until after summitting, at least that is the plan if the weather is kind. So I empty the two barrels of food and throw back stuff that I'm not taking, the same with the kitbags, and finally the mess becomes manageable. In my final search I still find medicine and a few odds and ends that were nearly forgotten. Finally, I am ready by 3pm with perhaps a 30kg load. Although I feel fit and strong, I stop frequently, the endless hot water from the sherpas is still passing thru and, while the load feels comfortable, it is straining my oxygen capacity to move continuously. The moraine is tedious but at the end I stash my leather boots under a rock in plastic, and I try to imagine how it will shift over 10 days and hope my judgement is good. Both the other teams offered their storage tents, but here I can get away without; more importantly I plan to use their camp 2 tents as a depot for a night.
In the soft light I put on crampons; to fall awkwardly with that load into a water runnel would be disastrous, and they bite reassuringly on the crusty surface. At the depot I put Michael's tent up, since it is close to free-standing. I miss the faint path back and the puddle of water I made such careful note of, and instead race in the near darkness to the main stream, fill up four and a half litres and race back, ironically passing the puddle. Unlike a few friends I know my sense of direction well enough that I won't miss the tent too badly.
Michael's tent is spacious for one and I marvel at the strength; he uses it specifically for the notoriously windy tent-destroying South Col on Everest. As always my mind plans a few improvements. I sleep so well that only the hot sun on the tent wakes me. It is fine again, so don't have to rush. But since I will camp at C1 I can't forget an essential so by the time I set off, some of the sherpas have already passed me. I feel strong and comfortable, although it is the first time at this altitude on the expedition. Sleeping at my glacier depot definitely helped. The reflected sun, off snow and fluffy benign clouds is burning hot and I wished I had put on the white silk top bought for just this occasion, instead I take it more slowly and when I can see a cloud coming, wait patiently until it arrives. There are several sections of fixed rope over some surprisingly hidden crevasses. The sherpa who first broke trail up here probably had a few close calls, for it is hard to get them to rope up on familiar territory. At the C1 cluster of tents I see that the tents are around and over a subtle huge old crevasse, probably well filled in, but still not good site. They don't agree with me but Geoff of the Jagged Globe team, returning from an acclimatization trip said that the lines of 4 huge crevasses were horribly obvious from higher up with the right lighting. The sherpas prod around a bit and shrug, they have already laboriously dug platforms and got some of the tents up, and, after all, the Jagged Globe team had been wandering over the area with abandon for nearly a week. I feel the risk is very low, so I don't stick my neck out, it is not my group anyway, but I site my tent 30m away (safety in numbers against the birds stops me from putting up in an entirely new location). The sherpas respect the fact that I mentioned it, and let them decide. I am sure that if their guide was here, they would have extra work, but he can only comment tomorrow.
In situations like this, careful judgement of the scene, and tack and respect go along way. When it comes to safety judgements, nearly all climbing sherpas bow to western guides' mostly superior training. For the grunt work of fixing ropes they care much less. Sure there will be a huge tangle of knots from a snow stake to the fixed rope, but they have tested it will hold, and anyway, the first part is how a yak's load it tied on. There is one voluble French guide who during peak season with perhaps 50 people on the mountain raved 'Non, Non, Non. Theez ez no correct. It is like thez, you stupid sherpas.' Luckily I was on Island Peak at the same time the next year and the year after. Not trusting his sherpas, he had fixed the ropes the day before, only to arrive and find no rope. Perplexed, at least the first year, he raved that 'Somebodi haz stoelen our ropez', only to find that there his rope was strung along a higher section, knotted perfectly, all his gear intact, and choruses of 'Non, Non, Non. Theez ez no correct. It is like thez, you stupid sherpas,' ringing around the mountain, and fifteen or so sherpas scattered around convulsing in the snow. He was silly enough to return the following year and despite watching everyone carefully, the same happened, and now with many of the groups in on it too, the laughter brought him to tears. But he still didn't apologise, stupid guide.
I don't sleep well, eventually around midnight I turn around 180 degrees, almost sure that my head slopes down, but I do get to sleep. For the next two nights I have the same dilemma; I really check and cannot tell, except when trying to sleep.
14 Sept C1
Another glorious day, and since I had missed the cool early morning there was no rush. With the white silk on I descended back to the glacier depot and began loading up. I couldn't quite get everything in, so a day's food and snow shoes were discarded, perhaps for a later carry. The lightly loaded French passed me as I packed but I gained that hour easily and despite the heavy load beat all but two into camp. It is heart-breaking to see how people toil first time at altitude, every small step an agony and a shallow breath. Two sherpas descended with hot drinks and snacks to the stragglers and the offer to haul their gear up was appreciated.
There is no question that adapting to sleeping at 6000+ for the first time is tough but what I have trouble understanding, with every commercial group I have met, is that they persist in these huge jumps of altitude, in this case 5550m to 6400m. Breaking it up is not difficult, after all, everyone has a depot camp in precisely the right position. Then to compound their mistakes, everyone arrives hammered and gets a shite sleep, so they go down after a single night. The majority of people, if given a second night (and lots of fluids) would recover and feel like they have began acclimatizing. This first acclimatization trip inevitably leaves many clients unnecessarily demoralised.
16 Sept still at C1
Again my sleep wasn't perfect so once I drowsily realise that it is still snowing, I doze off again. My body should be ready for coffee, a big steaming milky mug, and more of that wonderful fruit bran cereal. I make another half litre or so of water but don't feel thirsty. Rather it is time for a dump. It is warm so I suit up with only the Activent (The North Face wind suit) and the wet but light snow clumps up on the One Sports. Digging minimally around the other team's tents is strangely tiring - I have let myself get dehydrated, and I should know better. Probably that is why I didn't sleep well. Back under the fly I down the little water I have and build out the sag in the sleeping platform (sorted, finally), then get to water work. After over a litre of weak decaffeinated green tea, I pee something very similar, and feel better. It is still snowing lightly and wetly. It turns to water on the tents, for although it is cloudy with perhaps a couple of hundred metres visibility, the glare from the sun is reasonably strong and warming. A flock of sparrows circle then amazingly enough, a pair of elegant Hoopoes, garden birds with long pointed beaks for sucking nectar and insects out of flowers. They are obviously lost up here, endless circling the tents, the only point of reference their eyes can focus on in the flat white out conditions and I whistle to attract them. Eventually they land on top of the tents, sliding on the unfamiliar surface. They wait there until I go for a second dig and they see the flags leading down valley.
After clearing the entrances of all nine tents at Camp 1 (there is nobody else here), I have a divine lunch, a German Camembert cheese, stored in an aluminium can as light as a soft drink can, and inside impressively delicately wrapped. I try warming it, but only partially successfully, accompanied by sun-dried tomato and basil crackers and part of a tin of Saba (fish) in tomato sauce. It is still snowing, not particularly heavily, but a slight change in conditions could precipitate a major dump. There is enough flat semi-wet snow between me and the slopes likely to avalanche but strangely I have yet to hear any slide down.
17 Sept C1
Washed my feet!
Late in the afternoon the five Ukrainians arrived, and they are hard men all of them too. They had tent platforms dug, the tents up and even a toilet made in moments. They are the first to make a toilet. I normally dig a small hole each time but most people just walk a little way from camp and go, which is potentially more of a hygiene problem. As it turned out though, wind blown snow filled in their toilet quickly and covered everyone else's mess so C1 stayed relatively clean for the entire expedition.
Vadim invited me over for dinner. They said don't bring anything so I put a big bar of chocolate in my pocket. The snow started blowing as we piled into their great Marmot tent, that I swear looked new despite the fact it has experienced one Everest expedition.
What would you expect for dinner? I really didn't know, but they are of course all hard men and all have wives who have time for them, not to mention being on a budget. All the same I stepped into another culture when the brandy came out. Each had a sack of dried bread cubes which were delicious with the 3 litre bowl of instant mash. I was the only one civilised enough to have a bowl and a spoon. Two were eating using the refashioned tuna lids, another simply scooping stuff with his bare fingers. But the feature of the meal was undoubtedly the salted pork, something your grandmother would know about, but is now a long forgotten art. No dehy rubbish, this was the real thing, cubes of fat with some skin on, Full of forgotten flavour with the salt and with the mash.
It was really getting foul outside now. While the jelly was boiling, they mentioned that they had a sauna down at ABC, and had dragged Russell Brice in when they had it set up on Everest. The jelly was a childhood favorite they said, but as communist as it gets, being of indeterminate flavour, but a dash of brandy livened it up, as did the chocolate.
Staggering back to my tent I reflected that it is these moments that I treasure the most on an expedition.
18 Sept - to C1.8
Oh man, what a hard day. I left late and slowly caught up with the Ukrainians to share the trail breaking. Slava is ahead on skis but that doesn't help us much, we sink in with every step and the cold snow sticks to our boots and refuses to consolidate properly. Bastard stuff, and common on the big Himalayan peaks too. They have come to dump supplies for Camp 2. The French and the English have marked the route with flags, but the French's are short and mostly covered by the snow and Jagged Globe's run out. I have brought a bundle of mine up - they warned me that they stop, but that doesn't help us now. We are unsure of exactly where we should be heading and are too tired to scout. Knowing that there would be other expeditions on the mountains, neither of us have a picture of the mountain with us, or indeed a clear idea of the route since this section isn't visible from ABC, ie where the sherpas could describe it well. So we settle on a spot that we know is on the route and think is safe from avalanches. They partially bury the supplies and I dig a tent platform out. The snow is soft and semi-unconsolidated, there is no harder layer to help so we all stamp it down.
It is a relief when the tent is up. After a good poo - it must be the bran cereal - I flop down out of my boots, time for a snack, first a Clif Bar, these really are the dogs bollocks at altitude, then some protein powder and milk powder. I get the proportions wrong and it is a bit thicker than a milk shake. Oh well, it will do me good all the same.
The next chore is another special high altitude one that probably isn't mentioned too much for reasons that will become obvious. The body is around 72% water, and as I am fond of saying, at altitude, the other 28% is snot, well it feels like it. It is only when trekking the miracles of snot become obvious. There are a multitude of kids, and even my good friend Sam, who hang a dribble from their nose to their upper lip, and at that point of elasticity, won't go any further. Of course under motion it can be felt and a quick sniff takes it back to it place of origin, but like a cheeky Pika, it soon reappears. Luckily most trekkers don't have this problem, otherwise the sport might appeal to only the most masochistic, instead most have a runny nose. But extreme altitude is a little different for it is almost always bloody and, in my case above 6000m, there are always two large chunks deep in there which I must try to remove before I feel that I can breath thru my nose. Today, try as I might, I could not remove these regular features in the morning, so once at camp finally I had a good go, and digging is not what it is all about, I might add, although there is some little stuff that does respond to gentle digging. Nope, lots of blowing with fingers pressed high, and sometimes the breathing of hot water vapours. After about 15 minutes of intermittent trying, eventually these two satisfying large chunks flew out, absolutely sticky as can be. And at last I could breath solely thru my nose when at rest, the whole aim, of course. Breathing thru your mouth only is not so pleasant after a day of it.
The next chore is water, or rather making it, for there is only snow at 7000m, and to help adapt to this ridiculous altitude, drinking lots is essential. So I set the stove up in the tent, and luckily the tent has a curious hole at the end that is a good vent and also perfect for sticking a cup out of to shovel more fluffy stuff in. I guess I spend around an hour a day preparing water. And still, many days I think that perhaps I haven't drunk enough.
To be truthful the weather doesn't look good, there is a band of grey cloud a little higher than I am that looks ominous. I have dug a minor platform using the Ukrainian's shovel but the position isn't the best, there is a mountain face nearby, and although the debris cones are well to either side of me, in unusual conditions I might be in the line of a powder avalanche. Although there has been plenty of snowfall, there have been virtually no avalanches even in places where you would expect them, eg on a couple of our trails that are the ideal 30-40 degrees. One reason is that the snow has had time to bond, and with the heat this is a relatively fast process, and often what has been falling, has been those beautiful crystals that interlock well. And of course there has been the wind.
Tonight was windy and snowing, perhaps 25cms.
19 Sept - C1.8
I awake to another blowy, snowy, indeterminate sort of a day, so I laze around seeing how it develops. It does improve marginally, so I kit up and go and test the trail. Although snow has blown over it, when I am on the Ukrainian's ski and foot trail it is ankle deep, step off though, and it is shin deep or more. I am surprised to see a tent has appeared perhaps a kilometre down the trail, as I get closer, I guess that it is a VE25 of the French group, a Camp 1.5. Although there are trails around, there is nobody there, as far as I can tell. Clouds scud around and it is windy, still unpredictable so I stay put and wait. Many companies recommend avoiding dehydrated food meals at high altitude. Well, my Mountain House Oriental style spicy chicken with veg was simply delicious, and lightly boiled for 10 mins, as perfectly cooked as could be, sea level or 7000m.
I have a nervy sense of freedom. There is nobody at Camp 2, nobody near me, and only a few people at Camp 1. Here I am, really 'out on a snowfield' where almost anything can happen. I hope that it will dawn perfectly fine, then I could shift everything to the real Camp 2 and aim for the summit. Success on big peaks is a large part luck, being high enough up so that when the fine weather arrives you can take advantage of the window. This means having all the camps set up and stocked, which is largely a sherpa superjob, except in my case. Of course I have an ego and would dearly love to summit first, and if it has to be, solo. I don't like to ride on other people's backs, and that was what was so satifying about Cho Oyu in 1999, for the summit push, I pulled more than my weight.
It dawns a rough sort of fine, and could go one way or the other. I eat breakfast, clear my nose and wait. I begin packing, for whether I move everything up, or retreat, I must pack. It seems that an ominous frontal system is about to move overhead, the sky is threatening in colour and the clouds huge, and with the moon as reference, I can see that it is gaining. I will retreat, taking only the essentials I need for Camp 1, sleeping bag, mat, stove head and down jacket. It is a light pack. Breaking trail is a chore but I am fit and well rested. I pass the mysterious tent, yes it is the French, an old VE25, and nobody is home. I guess yesterday a sherpa or two raced up, set it and beat a hasty retreat.
By the edge of the plateau, the weather has worsened with a rough, snow-blowing wind and intermittent cloud, but I admire the perfect turns of Slava's skis. He has neatly cut the foot trail indicating that it was whiteout conditions - the only point of reference on the flat snow are the lumps of the other's trail, an impressive feat that a day later and lower, I could still admire those perfect turns. And as far as I could see, he hadn't fallen, even once.
Half way down I meet three sherpas and Steve from Jagged Globe and his unspeaking Norwegian client. They are heading up to C2 in preparation for a summit attempt. Back in Camp 1 two more of the Jagged Globe clients, Geoff and Jeff, are about to set off to a tent that the sherpas are about to stick in beside the French tent, ie C1.5. They are loaded with big packs, not particularly heavy, but enough to slow their already snail's pace. Personal kit with sleeping bag, is still too much for some clients. They both return an hour later, the weather is deteriorating and they are afraid of avalanches, as well as, what is the point, if the weather is shite, they won't be going anywhere anyway. So now they think a potential bottleneck has formed, because Anne and Nick have arrived at C1 as well. There is plenty of tent space here, but what about tomorrow? After I quiz their sherpas, we work out that there are tents a plenty at C2. Many people need to worry, needlessly I might add, in most situations.
I am worrying too, and there is an easy solution. I have snow shoes, but they are at my glacier dump, and over the last few days, I reckon that they would have been useful. Although Steve has reassured me that his sherpas would stamp out a trail and that it would be a highway of his clients, and so implying that I should thank him for that as well as the fixed ropes, I am not so sure. In fact I know I will be making my own trail so at 3pm I decide to race down, after all, it has fined up again. After making water, I pack with the worst in mind, I am already wearing a silk top with the sleeveless fleece bodysuit, and I toss in my down jacket and down gloves, and take crampons just in case. There is nobody on the trail. Clipped on. I stand on the edge of a crevasse, and silly me, the edge gives way. I plonk on my butt, my feet pushing against the other edge. That was very stupid of me, luckily only my ego is bruised and nobody is watching. On the way down I find every known crevasse and perhaps two more that I was not aware of. Most don't appear to be very dangerous, but alarmingly, everyone has been taking a shortcut, avoiding a section of rope that guards a smallish but deep and dangerous crevasse. The reason is that section is not flagged, and if the truth be known, the ropes are not well set. The sherpas who set the ropes have set the stakes 10 degrees the wrong way and left a good 15-20cms of the snow stakes protruding. Best practice says that they be tied off lower down, and of course be at an effective angle, where a fall can only drive them deeper. I mentioned the state of the ropes to Dennis, the French guide, assuming that he would be arrogant enough to refix them, but he didn't. I know that, sloppy as they are, they should hold a fall, so I won't reset them, at least until Steve leaves. Also I am surprised that the other teams have not fixed additional sections, because, as Steve admitted, he didn't have enough rope, and there are some gaps that would be better filled. If I was in ABC I would enjoy organising this.
My glacier dump hasn't been touched by man or bird over the last week, and I restock a little and strap on the snow shoes. They bite reassuringly, and are light enough, but a third of the way up, the snow is too steep and soft, so I walk in boots, then as I hit an unroped section, I fit crampons, wary that if I fall in a crevasse, I shall most definitely have to get myself out. I don't but I step over a few, wary of soft edges. The sunset is spectacular and I wish for my camera. I didn't realise, but approaching C1, you can clearly see the central (ie highest) summit.
Today was decision day for Jeff and Geoff of the Jagged Globe group, here at Camp 1, and also for the infrastructure only clients, Nick and Anne. The night had been windy, and the morning was too, but it had that look that it might finally clear to be gloriously fine. One of the sherpas had a radio and the Radio Nepal mountain forecast was not as optimistic, snow and wind for the next three days. So all except Geoff bailed, knowing it was their last chance.
Nick is pissed off. He wanted to climb independently so as to give himself the best shot possible, and now he is being herded off the mountain, unable to extend his stay. This is frustrating for me too, because on any other Jagged Globe expedition, I would have been able to arrange for him to stay, but this year they have used a different agent, and he will have none of that.
Two Spanish and their sherpa descended too, as part of their acclimatization. Most climbers from Spain are not Spanish, they are Catalan, Basque, Andalusian etc, but these two were proud to be Spanish from Barcelona.
I was left a dump of food by Annie, and I could barely control myself with the spicy dried turkey (pure protein, I was assured).
I cleared my chunks and by lunchtime it appeared certain that the day was shaping for the worse, the gusty wind howled and threw snow everywhere, so my and his (Geoff's) camp 2 plans looked an increasingly long shot, and not even the Ukrainians had arrived, although there was still time. By way of consolation I passed 'Captain Coirelli's Mandolin' to him, as it turns out, a book he has been meaning to read for a while. So at least he won't be bored.
Later the weather looks better and some Jagged Globe sherpas come down from C2, making a clear trail thru the snow and, more importantly, showing that the avalanche risk is not excessive. So I pack quickly and head up to my higher camp. I arrive strong and with plenty of time, so pack it up and climb towards the Camp 2 location of the Jagged Globe group. It is very windy and I struggle to put up the tent, even though I have anchored it and the pole system is simple. It takes me more than half an hour of hiding when gusts strike and when I finally fall in it, I am exhausted, badly in need of water and food.
23 Sept - C2
The night was cold and very windy but it is fine and the tent warms up once the sun hits. After a leisurely breakfast I spy the Ukrainians in the distance and descend to help them, although they refuse all help, other than shovelling a platform and helping put up their tent in the wind, which by now has picked up. They fall in exhausted but happy. Their camp is nearly a kilometre before where I am camped. They don't feel the need to be around others and have spotted the same gully that I had admired previously, one that runs to temptingly near the summit. I don't know whether it is a feasible route, but they know that Alan Hinkes climbed it to the summit. Although Geoff assured us that it is better in spring (he has done his research), they still wonder, and anyway, there is little gain between their and my camp.
I stay a second night here hoping that the wind will stop, but I guess that it won't. I am in position for the summit, now I must decide how to tackle this. I have another two days food, perhaps it can be stretched to three, but it definitely won't go further. So should I stay and hope, or descend and pick up more supplies so that I can stay longer. I will wait to see what tomorrow brings.
24 Sept - to C1
If I thought yesterday was rough, today the wind is severe, clear skies, but what plumes are arcing off Shishapangma. When the gusts momentarily abate, there is a roar like an avalanche, and I check that it is not the Ukrainians, but it is just the roar of the jet stream on the upper section of Shishapangma. No hope of climbing in that so I slowly eat and pack and head down to C1.
There the wind is gusting so hard that it is pushing around my sleeping bag in the tent.
25 Sept - to ABC
Yep, my small two hooped tent is tough, although I imagine the only reason it survived last night was because it is embedded half a metre in the snow. Certainly the wind tried its damnedest, and even I, who can normally sleep thru anything was surprised at the savagery of the gusts, and nestled deep in my bag, couldn't shut them out, the quivering of the fly transferred itself to my sleeping bag, and ice crystals scattered themselves thru the tent. Why the ice crystals don't shred tents I don't know, and luckily there were no flying chunks to hole the tent. In the morning I had to recover my bowl from the Ukrainians, and the chore of suiting and booting up, I didn't appreciate, but at least it got me outside. The wind was horrible and like moving sands, the snow murmuring across the plateau looked surprisingly beautiful and less benign that it really was.
Even to me, the optimist, it was obvious that this wind might not give in for a while - for days, perhaps so it was a sensible time to escape. The two Spanish and three French guides (another group recently arrived) had the same thoughts, and we all descended.
I guess Camp 2 received similar merciless treatment.
On the way down I met two sherpas heading up for the first time, and much further behind, three Greeks, all in red TNF (the North Face) jackets. I was surprised when the sherpas arrived in ABC not too long after myself, having set up the tents at C1. 'We are Khumjung sherpas' in explanation, and were obviously competitive, especially towards the Rolwaling sherpas. I didn't fuel the rivalry needlessly, but as groups, they are quite different. The Rolwaling lads, although one was cheeky, are serious old school do what they are told and get it done, no fuss and little communication. The Khumjung men were bigger, those vitamin tablets and Hillary health care does show, and they seemed less likely to suffer fools or orders that didn't make sense, their better education showing thru, and not just in more confident English. Of course they knew Tenzing Gyatso, who had come on the Kangchenjunga trek with us, but it seems to mean less to them than knowing a Rolwaling cousin, not that it matters. You know that they will do the job 100% but are less likely to smile if they have to get you out of the shit. Or perhaps they will be more realistically expectant. Certainly their better education and grasp of everything means that I would expect them to progress more quickly thru the ranks - but perhaps they are more likely to fall heavily too, if they become too big for their boots.
26 Sept - ABC
Today the English, as everyone calls them, left. In fact the Jagged Globe team were caught by surprise as they expected the yaks to arrive in the afternoon and head back down tomorrow. It would have been better, for after the members had left, two yaks repeatedly threw their loads and no doubt would arrive at BC after darkness. Additionally they had too many loads anyway, had had to leave 6 yak's worth of loads behind with a sherpa for tomorrow. Today Denis's group (French) headed out for their slow summit push, adding to the restlessness at ABC; if you drew a start line then fired a pistol, everyone would have started running. There are no telescopes at ABC, and the binoculars don't reveal much, certainly not the whereabouts of the Ukrainians, which since I have talked so volubly about, more people are interested.
There is an excited nervousness also because today is one of the first calm days at ABC, there is no wind, and even in the afternoon when some gusts come in, they are in the opposite direction to usual. A weather change is happening.
I too have been restless and talkative, and that sidetracked me from my original aim, the 6520m peak more or less behind camp. Lhakpa, the sirdar of the Jagged Globe expedition is wonderful old school and was very instructive on what holds staff to the best companies, and all this while the yaks were being loaded. And what a sight that was. The Tibetan men are rough traditional types that look as ready to knife you as load a yak. Their skin is a burnt brown-black, and their faces pockmarked and rough but made more handsome framed by the red band they tie into their hair. The women have so many clothes of indeterminate colour on, it is only when they can't lift some of the loads that I realised how diminutive they really are. Their faces are burnt too, although they partially protect themselves with scarves. Although they are undoubtedly cheeky, with the many foreigners around they are out of their depth and shy. Apart from the North Face logos, the scene could be from any time in the past 15 or 20 centuries. Unlike the sherpas they seem resistant to change, and certainly it is hard to imagine the men fitting in anywhere elsewhere. The yaks are huge and in their prime, and as strong as they get, with the warmer nights and abundance of rain-fueled lush grazing. When a yak threw its load, they piled on more, perhaps hoping that the 100+kgs would calm it (a normal load is 60 kgs).
As ever, the sherpas are welcoming. How does a cook make instant noodles so appealing? An old hand with his finger ends chewed by frostbite gave me a selection of dehy food the Jagged Globe had distributed to them, he was a traditional school sherpa who had been on many expeditions, perhaps losing a few friends, but exuded solidity and reliability, no matter what the situation.
The French's long suffering cook inflicted himself with more work by asking me to dinner, a dal bhaat that I gratefully accepted, after last night's debanacle - the Mexican turned into a mess. The sherpas have been playing 'timepass' cards, and swear that they haven't been gambling, although at the beginning, they did occasionally.
27 Sept - to C1
Time is tight, I have arranged to meet some friends in Kathmandu at the beginning of October but the weather has yet to change. Big peaks are real waiting games, and already I know that I will arrive late in Kathmandu, sorry Nikki and Rachel. And I have no way of telling them this. Then excitement runs thru the camp, the French have spotted three climbers heading to the summit, very small, but distinct in the binoculars, at least against the snow. It can only be the Ukrainians. Summit conditions look horribly windy but still they push on, it must be tough up there. Today, if the weather looked promising higher up, I had planned to head up, and to skip C1, going directly to C2. I pack hurriedly, almost everything I need is already up there, I only take a few special food items and set off. A good hour up the trail I realise that I have forgotten my down mittens, an absolute essential. Damn. I curse my stupidity in not looking thru everything in the tent prior to leaving. Leaving my pack by the trail, I speed back, embarrassingly having to pass many of the people I had just said goodbye to, and they all knew I was beginning my summit attempt. The mittens were under a pile of gear, and now, at least I could set off secure that I hadn't forgotten anything. So I would only make C1 today. I had hoped to save time and also to get ahead of the French by going direct to C2. Never mind.
28 Sept - to C3
The night was windy and cold, although I was snug enough, sleeping in thermals and the fleece bodysuit. My bag, probably bought in 1992, is almost dead, about half the thickness that it once was, its only saving grace is the lack of a zip, and so much warmer than otherwise. Gear dies, most of mine in alarmingly short time spans, but this bag really has served me well. It is a Rab bag, a UK company, and from an Everest expedition. Even then it would have been a $300 bag second hand, except that being without a zip, it was proving hard to sell. So I picked up a comparative bargain for $200. On my first trek it was so warm that I couldn't use it in the lodges until above Namche, and even then only if the room/dorm was cold. And still I would be half out, but it really came into its own outside. I spent perhaps 20 nights out on that particular 2 month trek, no bivvy bag, and no tent. The little thermometer I had said most nights were at least -15C, and I was still sleeping in a t-shirt only. At perhaps -25 I wore socks as well to be toasty. So one night at Cho Oyu base camp above Gokyo I was surprised to feel the cold. I changed the t-shirt for a thermal, but still this wasn't enough, so the full thermals went on, and socks, and at last I was warm and comfortable. Rather surprised by the necessity of all these clothes, I glanced at the thermometer and was surprised to find it was off the scale but probably -35C. I encountered a few more -35C nights and was always snug. It was an incredibly warm bag. My philosophy was I shouldn't be limited by gear, only my ability or guts.
The morning was chill and windy but if the Ukrainians could climb in the wind, so might I be able to, perhaps, and also the weather had to change soon? So with a light pack, I set off to C2. I made good time, passing the French guides and the Swiss guy. Nearly at C2, I met the three successful Ukrainians, they had simply climbed thru the terrible winds, taking something like 10-12 hours from C3 to C3, although they had belayed each other over many sections which slowed them down. The other two Ukrainians had now headed up to C3 for their attempt tomorrow, and they had a shovel up there, which saved me carrying one up. So at C2 I fuelled up and considered the options. Basically I was pushing against the limits of time so I must go to C3, and the second reason was some more very embarrassing forgetfulness. I had forgotten to throw in the gas stove head at C1. Very stupid. I had gas, but no burner. I couldn't beg from the French since they were using BlueGaz, not the Coleman fitting and although they might lend me a whole stove that would inconvenience them. If time wasn't so tight I didn't mind returning to C1, but the easier option was to get to C3 and use the Ukrainians. They had the right stove head, I knew, and I had helped them enough that they would be happy to return a favour.
So I packed up C2, for it was also my C3 gear to save weight - not so much for getting stuff up the mountain, more for getting it down. I knew from my Cho Oyu experience that after the summit ferrying gear down was the most undesirable of tasks. I left a stuff sack of non-essentials with the French. The wind was howling so I awkwardly sat half in a vestibule to avoid taking crampons off chatting with them briefly.
Although Camp 3 was not far, it was a stiff climb. Jagged Globe had left one rope there and hauling up with a jumar speeds the climb. It is steep, not particularly so, but carrying a heavy pack and being buffeted by the wind, the fixed rope is useful.
On top of the ridge the wind is howling, giving the Ukrainians' tent a hard time. I start to dig a tent platform but know that I will have terrible trouble getting my tent up, simple though it is, then I see the Ukrainians above, descending slowly. They look tired so I open their tent to get the stove going. Their tent is a mess, there is a small mountain of snow that I clear out, their inner is torn. The fly is ripped and flapping and it surprises me that the whole thing doesn't simply tear off. Basically their tent is close to destruction. They made the summit and collapse happy, glad not to have to melt snow. They invite me to stay in their tent as they want some more warmth. Last night they were cold, and not surprising given the quality of their sleeping bags either. I gratefully accept the hospitality, for outside the wind is still fierce.
All they want is tea and more tea. I managed to stuff some chocolate in them and once the gas finishes, I swap to mine and cook a good dehy meal, and dessert, then more drinks. I haven't made a plan for tomorrow, they suggest that I need light otherwise I might get blown off and nobody would notice. It was windy up there and they were glad to be roped up.
29 Sept - to the Central summit 8008m and return to C1
I wore a down suit up to C3 and slept in it as well, only needing to pull the sleeping bag up to my chest. Although it was cramped and was I huddled against the wall, I slept surprisingly well. At 5am I notice that the wind abates. It could be good day after all? By 6am the wind has completely stopped, I am very lucky. I melt snow, eat heartily, and keep drinking. I am ready at perhaps 7.30, dumping my stuff in the snow under some ice, and head off. I have a down suit on, a fleece body suit and two medium weight thermal tops and a thin down jacket. I tie a sling around my waist and put a water bag with one and a half litres of carbo drink inside the suit. The sling stops it falling down. In my pockets I have Clif bars, Mars bars, chocolate and a small camera. The ridge is wide and I have no trouble climbing around the various small obstacles. Off the ridge though, the snow is deep and with the layers seems dangerous. I have to stop every 20 or 30 steps to catch my breath and think that my work rate must be much less than Cho Oyu, where although I had to take two or three breaths with every step, we were breaking trail in thigh deep snow.
Climbing one steeper section, I guess that there must be a rope under it, but the snow has hardened in such a way that I climb it without difficulty. At a sheltered spot, I rest to eat and drink. I feel good but slow. Higher is a horrible section. At every rest I look around looking for an alternative. I looks like it would be possible to turn this to the left and I explore out, but get frightened by the snow, it is deep and loose. No, I must stick with the ridge. There is a tattered rope and I gingerly pull on it. I don't want to commit to putting my full weight on it then I remember Vadim saying that the yellow rope was OK, but not the red. I have to rely utterly on it. if it broke at this moment, I would definitely fall. I am nervous and wonder how I will make the reverse moves down, perhaps not being able to see where to place my feet because of the down suit and jacket. The angle eases slightly but now it is more exposed, that fall would kill me, without a doubt. So I move cautiously testing every foot step. Gaining the top of the ridge I am horrified. It is knife-edged. The Ukrainians obviously kicked steps in it but they were protected by a rope. If I want the summit I have to climb this. I a sure-footed climber and more comfortable on steep ground than most, but I have only climbed on a few bits of snow that were this exposed. Up here at virtually 8000m I am aware that every move is more difficult and that I may not be thinking entirely clearly. I find that I can lean over and drive the shaft of my axe into the opposite side. It feels secure and might hold a slip, but I only have one tool, and so have to rely on holding slippery snow only with a mittened hand to move. That was not secure. Time slowed, I am not sure how far it was or how long it took, but it seemed like an eternity before I could climb up on the ridge crest where it was wide enough. Cloud had been billowing up hanging on the northern side threatening to engulf the mountain and now gusts started blowing. I was in a precarious position, a big gust could easily throw me off.
Hurriedly I clawed to the summit. I could only hang on the side, ice axe driven in, for it was again knife-edged and the wind meant I had to shelter, couldn't even attempt to stand on top. Looking down there were footprints in a steep gully, later I found that was the Koreans climbing from the south. It was Mr Park's third or fourth attempt at getting to the real summit of Shishapangma. I had a good look around and I realised that this was the smaller summit. Of course, everyone had talked about the difficulty of getting to the real summit, and now I was looking at it. The real summit was perhaps 10 metres higher and perhaps 300m along the ridge. At first I thought that I might be at the same height, but the more I looked I realised that the far summit was slightly higher. Damn. I couldn't see the Koreans foot marks anywhere further along, but that is not to say they didn't climb. The gully was relatively sheltered, but if they had walked on top of the ridge the wind would have torn their foot prints off by now. (In fact later I worked with Sherap Zangbu, who climbed with the Koreans and he assured me the did get to the true summit, but climbing directly there from the south side, so apparently, these could not be Korean foot prints.)
My position was precarious so I traversed back along to a small spot that seemed to catch less wind and where I could sit aside the ridge comfortably and drove the axe in hard, so that I had little fear of falling off while snacking. It was somewhere around 10.30am. In the distance peaks poked thru the clouds, I was floating far above them all and snapped away in an amateurish fashion until the film was almost done. I could see the alternative route to the summit, instead of climbing the ridge there were steep snow slopes that could be climbed across, but not in these conditions. The whole lot looked very unstable and particularly steep. I knew that with these conditions, I didn't have a hope of getting to the real summit. I guess I spent 30 minutes there, it could have been more, until the increasingly strong wind gusts reminded me that I should get out down before being blown off.
While traversing the knife edge the more I looked at the sheltered slope on the east, the more I was tempted. Almost anything should be better than the ridge. So when there angle was marginally less, I rolled over and jumped down. The snow was very steep, but good and my heels plus axe sunk in well. A few metres down I had to turn inwards and down-climb, but still felt secure enough. If I tripped I would slide to my death, but if I was careful it would be no problem. Gradually the angle eased and the snow became softer. SHIT. Ahead was a huge step where an avalanche had recently broken away. I couldn't remember if I had seen it there earlier this morning. The edge was loose and even worse, the layer I jumped onto was soft and loose. Although it had just gone, it felt more than ready to go again (although, I now realise, untrue, since the tension had been relieved). All it needed was the weight of an unsuspecting climber. Shit. I said "shit" three times a step and delicately, so gently, tiptoed along towards the ridge. Phew.
Back onto my own footsteps and away from the difficult section, I descended quickly, although I still had to stop sometimes to catch my breath. Thru the cloud I could see a climber below me. it was ???, the French man. He was alone and wearing an old down suit. Although he was moving slowly, he assured me he felt strong. I felt for him, he was going to have a more difficult climb than me, the wind was almost constant now and clouds raced in and away, often cutting visibility right down. I arrived back at camp at 1pm. I had been up there for only five and a half hours, and had stopped at the summit for at least half an hour. Since I didn't even have to take a tent down I was packed very quickly and I dropped off the ridge. At the French guide's tents I chatted with ??, the Swiss guy. Nobody else seemed interested in talking. I didn't realise it at the time, but they had all intended to climb from C2 to the summit that day, but it was so late by the time they were ready that only ??? had set off. perhaps they were pissed off. Also it was their first time up this high and they were hammered, suffering.
I picked up the stuff sack of gear I had left with them and headed down. The Ukrainians were gone so I continued down. At Dennis's camp 1.5 I could hear many voices from inside the collection of tents, but the wind was howling and I would either stop and chat and stay (and therefore have to beg a stove head or head and gas) or simply walk past silently and flop into C1, where I wouldn't have to set up a tent or worry about gas.
Hugs and congratulations all round, and lots of tea with Vadim (Ukaranian).
30 Sept - to ABC
I awoke to bright sun and it was still, for a change. The night had been a lot colder than previously. Finally the weather had changed, this was the summit window that everyone had been looking forward to. I packed slowly and it took a good half an hour to excavate the fly from the ice, and I still put a few holes in it.
I was loath to pack everything because I knew that the perfect conditions would remain and would have happily set up Camp 3 again to get the real summit, all I needed was a rope partner for the tricky bits of the ridge and for the final summit ridge. But time was against me, already I would be arriving in Kathmandu several days later than expected.
I had brought the kitbag up from the glacier depot and put most of the gear in that, put a plastic bag on the outside and towed it, or rather guided it downhill, rather like walking a pulling dog. This was a great system and less tiring than carrying the huge load.
At the glacier depot I added the rest, I still had a gas there and a couple of other things, and found I couldn't walk the dog thru the pinnacles. So I repacked with heavy stuff in the pack and the bulky stuff in the kitbag and set it on top. I was glad of two walking poles, it was probably 40kgs and the ice was slippery, although the crampons bit well.
1 Oct - ABC
There is a 6520m peak close to camp and I guess the views of the mountain must be stunning. Once on top, I find they are. Great spot.
2 Oct - to BC
Nawang Dorje, who works for Great Himalaya messes me around with yaks. There are a few sherpas that you just can't trust.
ABC has a relaxed atmosphere with most people who tried to summit now back down, but everyone is ready to get back to Kathmandu, instead of enjoying Tibet.
3 Oct - to Zhangmu
Nawang and Mr Goh, the LO's are really hospitable.
Tuesday night and the discos are full! So full we can't get in. Only the brothels aren't full, apparently.
4 Oct - to Kathmandu
Adventures getting back...