Going Home

05 November

 

I wish that I had two more days to get healthy, but I don’t.  My respiratory infection is slightly better, but I’m not 100%, and I need to be before I climb Ama Dablam.  I am very disappointed, but I know that the best decision is to go home. 

 

Although I would have relished the chance to climb Ama, there is nothing to be disappointed about, I feel incredibly privileged to have stood where only six other people – all friends – have stood.  I feel fortunate to have experienced such a quiet, solitary place, and I feel lucky to have climbed such a beautiful, pristine peak.

 

Every summit teaches me something, if I am paying attention, and I believe that I learned at least two important lessons on Tharke Khang. 

 

First, acclimatization is important (duh!)  I am very, very thankful that I was able to safely summit in such a short window (five days after arriving in Kathmandu).  But, I could have enjoyed the climb more if I was acclimatized.  A lot more.  Last year, a friend asked me how I know what my limits are as a climber.  It is a simple and fundamental question, and it really bothered me that I didn’t have a solid answer.  I don’t know that I do even today.  There are certain ethics that are important to me as a climber, like “listen to your body”, and “don’t let your ambition outweigh your ability”, but it is still difficult for me to articulate my limits.  On Tharke Khang, I felt like I was closer than I wanted to be to the line that separates safe from not safe.  This was completely due to my lack of acclimatization, which forced me to climb slower than I wanted, and stressed my body more than I anticipated.  For me, being on the edge felt like I didn’t have enough reserve if something had gone wrong, and that’s not a position that I want to be in.  It’s not something that I would intentionally do again.

 

Second, I am more resilient – we are all more resilient - than we realize.  I am very prescriptive about the foods that I consume when climbing.  Every bar and electrolyte has been tested previously so I know that it won’t upset my stomach and that I will find it appetizing at elevation.  Thanks to delayed luggage, I didn’t re-connect with any of my food until after the climb.  (And, was also missing a very handy thing called a pee funnel.  It’s complicated when nature calls at 20,000 feet and you’re wearing a harness, mits and layers of down.  Jussayin’.)

Huge thanks to the rest of the Madison Mountaineering team for playing along with my tent-to-tent trick-or-treating at base camp!  I wouldn’t have had any food if it weren’t for your eagerness to share – thank you! Thank you!  So, the lesson is that I am resilient and resourceful enough to still be successful when things don’t go exactly as planned.  

 

Finally, I am really grateful to the rest of the Madison Mountaineering team for welcoming me.  I know that it’s disruptive when someone joins a team late, and I am thankful that I was able to fit in so quickly and easily.  I am still missing a few key details of a couple stories, though ;) 

 

<pic of team at dinner>

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Back in Kathmandu

04 November

I woke up today at 18,000 feet, snuggled inside a minus forty degree sleeping bag while wearing a layer of down clothes, and now am wearing a dress and flip flops at 3,000 feet.  How crazy it is to move so quickly from one extreme environment to another. 

I am back in Kathmandu, not according to schedule, but because my lungs are tired and not interested in continuing to climb.  I am sad and frustrated, but I have to listen to my body, and right now it is telling me that I need to rest.

Shortly after summiting Tharke Khang, congestion started to settle in my lungs, and even taking a short walk at advanced base camp became laborious.  I was actually worried by how quickly it came on, and by the funky sounds that my lungs were making when I exhaled, but thankfully it appears to just be an infection.  My plan is to rest, enjoy Kathmandu, and make a final decision about climbing Ama Dablam tomorrow.

 

Prayer Flags in Thamel, Kathmandu

Prayer Flags in Thamel, Kathmandu

Summit!

On November 3rd, we started out just after two AM; the whole team walked in a single line across the glacier to the base of the steep slope that signifies the beginning of the route.  Within 30 minutes my lungs were heaving.  Not that the climbing was difficult – I was just walking up a steep snow slope – but my body isn’t used to 18,000 feet yet, so I had to take it slower than I wanted to.  After about two hours, I reached the cornice, which now contained the notch that the Shepa team cut into it.  I pulled myself up and looked over the other side to see only early morning darkness.  It hit me then that there weren’t people around for miles.  Miles and miles and miles.  I liked that solitary feeling. 

Next, just as I had visualized, the route rose three times, the first time snaking along the edge of the cornice that I had just climbed over.  Walking on cornices makes me edgy so I moved as quickly as possible, avoiding eye contact with the ice axe holes that exposed hundreds of feet of air below me.

Above 20,000 feet, my lungs felt challenged, and I had to remind myself to find a rhythm.  My brain and legs really wanted to move faster, but my lungs were the limiting factor and I focused on simple things:  breathe, breathe, breathe, step, breathe, breathe, breathe, step.  Eventually I stopped thinking about the mechanics of breathing and moving, and instead thought about why it was important for me to climb today.  November 3rd would have been my Father’s 71st birthday.  No one planned to attempt the summit on this day, it just worked out that way, and it seemed like a gift to have this personal motivation.  So, with each step I would say something that he used to say: “I always did like you the best”, “no one said that everything in life is fair”, “just put one foot in front of the other”, “don’t wish that it was easier, wish that you were better”.  These anecdotes kept me focused and pushed me, especially when things were difficult.  Eventually, at the top of a vertical ice wall, I looked to my right and could see prayer flags hanging over the highest lip of snow, and I knew that I was less than an hour from the summit. 

I arrived there, to the sound of Dandi singing Nepalese pop songs and celebrating our team’s success.  Although I was worn out and hypoxic, it occurred to me that today was a celebration … of firsts, of birthdays, and of lives - human and feline - that that touched many people.  I was grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it.

 

<summit pic>

 

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Still Exploring

Unfortunately, Purba, Pasang, and Dandi weren’t able to make it to the summit yesterday.  After the first steep slope, the route follows a ridge to the summit.  The ridge is exposed, with steep rock on one side and snow cornices on the other.  We’re sticking to the snowy side, which is deep and sugary in places, making climbing slower than expected, so it  will take another day to finalize the route. 

Somehow, Purba, Pasang, and Dandi are able to continue their arduous work again today.  I really don’t know how they do it, day after day.  Always with a smile.  From camp we can occasionally see their outlines on the route, and watching their track helps me to study what lies ahead.  Normally, I spend hours studying a climb by reading blogs and watching online videos, it helps me to mentally prepare.  But, in the case of Tharke Khang, the only information that I have comes from aerial photos so it is difficult to visualize exactly what I will be climbing.

On the ridge I can see three large steps, then a difficult-to-navigate bulge, followed by a descending slope and finally a steady rise to the summit.  This is a very general description, and there will be hundreds of tiny details like crevasses and steep snow pitches that I can’t assess from my comfortable position on the glacier, but any information that I have helps me to prepare.

The plan is to leave this evening, sometime between midnight and two AM for the summit.  It is always hectic before a summit bid, it seems like endless hours are spent packing and re-packing, assessing every glove and piece of food to be sure that I’m taking just what I need and nothing more.  Fueling is key to climbing safely on big days in the mountains, and although my body has gotten comfortable exercising for multiple hours without fuel, I still need to be prepared for tomorrow, so I have stuffed both my pant and jacket pockets with mostly candy bars and electrolytes.  The wrapper of each piece is already opened so that I can easily grab it with gloves tomorrow.  It makes a bit of a mess … the bottoms of all of my pockets will be filled with chocolate crumble … but it’s worth it.  Plus, how awesome is it to find chocolate in all of your pockets?!  It's like a childhood dream come true.

 

Finding the route

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As soon as the Madison Mountaineering team arrived at advanced base camp on Wednesday, the Sherpa team geared up and headed across the glacier in search of the route to the summit.  The rest of the team took breaks from setting up camp to monitor their progress.  From camp, Purba, Pasang  and Dandi look like tiny dots slowly moving up the slope.  At the very top they will reach a cornice, and I can only imagine how difficult it will be to hack through it with an ice axe and then carefully maneuver on top of it.  Their strength and hard work amazes me.  Purba is our team’s Sirdar, so he leads the Sherpa team, he wears a constant smile beneath a sparse mustache.  Purba is optimistic about the route and believes that they can read the summit today.  Fingers crossed!

There are beautiful peaks surrounding two sides of advanced base camp, some of which are in Tibet; others, like Tharke Khang, are in Nepal.  I wish that I could name each of them, but aside from Tharke Khang, I am only familiar with one ... Everest.  I haven’t seen this view of the north face before, and it looks cold and unrelenting.  It’s hard to believe that I was on the summit eighteen months ago.

Everest's north face from Tharke Khang advanced base camp

Everest's north face from Tharke Khang advanced base camp

Advanced Base Camp

Part of the allure of attempting an first ascent is the unknown.  There isn't a tested and documented route for the Madison Mountaineering team to follow to the summit, it is up to us to determine the best and safest route.  Unfortunately our Sherpa team encountered miles of broken and tenuous ice on the way from base camp to advanced camp.  Here's a Google Earth shot:

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Navigating an icefall isn't impossible, it's done on Everest every year.  The trick is climbing through it safely, and the team didn't feel that we confident that we could safely climb through the miles of teetering ice.  So, we chose to fly to ABC instead.  

Here's what the icefall looked like from the air:

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Before I left base camp, I took a minute to reflect on the challenge ahead of me, and to ask for a safe climb by throwing rice into the air three times and walking clockwise around our stone alter.   When there are climbers on the mountain, the team remaining at base camp will continuously burn juniper at the stone alter, after several trips to the Himalaya, the smell of juniper smoke is comforting to me.  

 

Time to start climbing!

Tharke Khang base camp!

I was eager to get moving this morning, to see how my legs and lungs would respond to a little exercise.  It was a leisurely walk from the Gokyo Resort and Bakery, which is located at the fourth lake in the Gokyo valley to the fifth lake, which is where we've made base camp.  

Check it out:

Why is Tharke Khang unclimbed?  The Nepalese Ministry of Tourism grants permits to climb peaks within Nepal.  Historically many peaks were off limits.  In 2014, likely as a way to attract climbers back to the region after a deadly avalanche on Mt. Everest, the Nepalese government opened 104 previously off-limits mountains; Tharke Khang is one of them.  This doesn't mean that someone didn't climb without permission, but I don't believe this is the case, we'll know more when we get to the mountain.

Our extraordinary Sherpa team has already begun scouting the route to from base camp to advanced base camp (ABC),  the plan is for everyone to join them tomorrow.

Nepalese Travel

I don’t always understand how it works, but I am always amazed by how well travel logistics come together in Nepal.  Because it is far different from the scheduled, published plans in the US, traveling in Nepal can be stressful and unnerving sometimes.  Today, after a short sleep in Kathmandu, I traveled by myself via car, fixed wing aircraft, and helicopter to Gokyo.  Along the way I was looked after by the company Himalayan Guides, who somehow ensured that there was a smiling face waiting for me at each new location.  My bags didn’t always travel with me, but when I arrived in Lukla (where I transitioned from fixed wing to helicopter) they were waiting for me on the corner of the helipad, and the heli pilot somehow knew that they were mine.  It probably helps that there aren’t many blonde American women around ;) 

 

To recap, I have traveled from sea level to 15,600 feet in 36 hours.  Adjusting quickly to such a jump in altitude was one of my biggest concerns about this trip, and so far (fingers crossed), I’m feeling good.  That’s not to say that my body isn’t reminding me that it is stressed by the altitude, but so far my appetite is strong (today I ate: croissant, omelette, chocolate doughnut, yak burger with fries, garlic soup, spaghetti, more garlic soup, chocolate cake), and I don’t have a headache.  Fingers crossed that I continue to feel strong when I trek to base camp (16,500 feet) tomorrow.