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Prayer flags above Dingboche. Lhotse and Island Peak in the background.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Manaslu climb recap

I am finally home in Lincoln after a magnificent trip and climb.

After a false start in late September which we aborted due to too much snow, we sat at base camp in miserable weather for several days. Things finally cleared up, but we needed to both wait for the new snow to consolidate and for an appropriate good weather window. Phil decided things were good for an October 1 departure with an October 5 summit. Eight of the team members left on 10/1, but I and Anne-Marie waited to the 2nd and went directly to Camp 2, thus avoiding an extra night up high with it's associated lack of sleep and food. The tradeoff is that you are pushing yourself harder. Fortunately the plan paid off and we spent a total of 6 hours and 50 minutes climbing vs 12 hours total when we weren't very acclimated two weeks prior. The weather was quite warm and I climbed in shirt sleeves.

I slept pretty well, but food was still a big problem. I lost most of my breakfast. The climb on 10/3 to C3 only took 2:20. The snow looked ripe for skiing! We hung out in our tent all day (my teammate on the mountain is a friend from the Czech Republic named Karel Masek. I met him last year on Everest.) which we shared with Pasang Gombu Sherpa. He made water and generally helped us, along with being a fun companion.

The next day we headed up to C4. This was described to us as being not much harder than the C2-C3 day. I doubted this for several reasons and boy was I right (unfortunately!). The climb seemed endless, was very cold and at times was very steep. I was wearing ski boots and my feet became very cold. Two times I stopped, took them off and warmed them by putting them into either Karel's or Pasang's jackets under there arms. Yes, not something you relish, but when you are desperate... I thought I had them under control, but then in a very tough, steep area we found ourselves caught behind a very slow Japanese lady and my feet got too cold. I was desperate to warm up and finally took a chance, unclipped from the fixed rope, pulled out and passed about 7 people. I finally started to warm up, but it took a huge amount of my reserve. Upon finally arriving at C4, I vomited again. During the night I coughed so hard that I vomited again.

We were scheduled to head for the summit at midnight, but it was very windy and the group all felt we should wait. Things improved at daybreak and everyone but me left around 6 am. I decided to wait till 8 in light of my cold feet issues. (Mountaineering boots are dramatically warmer than my ultra lightweight ski-mountaineering boots). Pasang Gombu and I took off, but it was very slow going. I decided that now that I was wearing my down suit and was using oxygen, my feet would be okay. The problem would be that we may not have enough time, especially if the weather started to change.

Pasang Gombu (PG as I nicknamed him) carried a second oxygen bottle for me plus my extra water and also my skis - I did carry them up to C4! - and yet I couldn't go as fast as him, this in spite of him not using oxygen. The Sherpa people are truly super men at altitude.

After two hours, my hypoxic brain is doing the math and I realize we won't reach the top till 4 or 5 pm, much too late to be safe. I gambled and had PG crank up the flow rate from 2.5 liters per minute to 4 lpm. Immediately I was going faster; almost double the rate of ascent. It seems like my body requires oxygen!

Doubts would come and go as I watched the time vs my altitude. At one point, a member of the team that left a 6 am gave up and this almost caused me to return, but I decided to not turn back until 2:30, weather permitting. About 600' below the summit I found two of our team rescuing a stranger who had collapsed and lain in the snow for perhaps an hour or more. We later learned more about this ego-maniac and I will tell you more later. Anyway, Anne-Marie gave him an injection of dexamethasone directly through his down pants (we all carried this medicine, she was the only team member not using oxygen but is a professional marathoner). Ian gave up his own oxygen tank and mask and went down without it. This is highly dangerous as his body was depending on it and the shock of suddenly losing your oxygen can kill you. Greater love hath no man than to lay down his own life. Truly an amazing thing to watch.

Anyway, all that drama ended well and PG and I hit the afterburners and went as fast as we could for the summit. We were blessed with unbelievable weather and reached the final short ridge at 2:25. Another small gamble and we went up the final 15 minutes thus breaking my 2:30 rule. We savored our summit. I felt like crying. We took pictures. We were overwhelmed by the beauty. For about ten minutes we were the two highest people on the planet, not counting airplane passengers.

We couldn't push our luck any more so we started down. PG had left my skis about 50' below the summit and with enormous difficulty I put them on and headed down. The snow was mostly rock hard, some ice, lots of wind ridges, breakable crust and a tiny bit of avalanche debris. Not good when you can breathe, really tough when you can't. It was also very steep in places and of course you need to be aware of crevasses. I needed one hour to get to C4 2,800' below.

I rested and tried to eat for an hour and decided to carry my skis down the dangerous part on the way to C3 and then light permitting, ski to C2. I was so tired and slow that it was well and truly dark by the time I hit the skiable portion and I walked all the way to C2. I slept pretty well and headed down again at 7 the next day. I skied part of the way to C1, but down climbed much of it. I was really beat. I then skied all the way from C1 to crampon point (the place where the snow and ice ends and you remove your crampons). I put my skis on my pack and slowly walked down the rocky trail to our base camp, completely used up.

During these five days, I vomited four times, ate one cup of soup, 1/4 of a freeze dried dinner and perhaps 4 or 5 candy bars. I drank maybe five liters of water in total. Towards the end I went almost 24 hours without going to the bathroom. I was so thirsty my tongue hurt, yet I couldn't eat or drink other than in tiny portions.

Five of our team turned back anywhere from C2 to above C4 for various reasons. Karel who summited Everest last year says he would rather climb Everest 10 times than Manaslu once because it was so hard. I don't know if his memory is faulty, but it is an indication of the difficulties involved.

I know all of this doesn't sound like fun, but somehow it all is good and I had a wonderful trip. Your brain has a way of minimizing the pain and maximizing the pleasure. The beauty was inspiring, the group got along very well and our base camp was about as good as you could reasonably expect in such a high, remote location. Phil was an amazing leader.

On 10/7 we walked down to the village of Sama Goan and then this morning we got up early and caught three helis to Kathmandu. I was able to claim the co-pilot seat and had a wonderful ride. After 42 minutes of flying we were in Kathmandu. Twenty minutes later, Karel and I walked into the Hyatt to take full advantage of their all-you-can-eat breakfast. We made it like our climb with the first trip through being base camp, the second trip being Camp 1, etc. BC, C1, all the way to the summit meant six laps through with a full plate each time. We were hurting after that, but were so craving good, tasty food after 37 days away from civilization and 28 days at or above 16,000'.

I enjoyed Kathmandu from 10/8 to 10/12 roaming the streets of Thamel, buying a few pieces of art and some gifts and doing what I can do to help Lhakpa Gurung (my daughter Soni's half-sister) who has some serious problems with her eyes. We also enjoyed some fantastic meals. Kathmandu is unlike any other place in the world and I love the place. It is exciting, fun and there are a million things to do.

My tent at Base Camp

Base Camp


Preparing to ski down after first acclimatization trip to Camp 1

View from Camp 2

Snow at Camp 1 on first failed summit bid

View down the valley from Base Camp

Manaslu from crampon point on a rest day

Anne-Marie and I about to leave for our summit bid

Looking at Camp 3 from C2

Camp 3

On the fixed ropes between Camp 3 and C4

Pasang Gombu with my skis on summit day

The final few feet to the summit

Trying (but failing!) to look cool for my summit photo

Pasang Gombu at the summit

Getting ready to ski down to Camp 4 from just below the summit

Back at Base Camp after summiting. I was exhausted.

Saying goodbye to Pasang Gombu on October 7

Our climbing Sherpa crew. What a bunch of amazing athletes!

Sunrise on Manaslu, taken from Sama Goan

Refueling at the Roadhouse Cafe in Kathmandu

Mark D., Karel, Mark H., Steve and me in Kathmandu

Hanging out with Lhakpa in the hotel's courtyard.

Patty was able to change my flights and get me home almost two weeks early. I'm now enjoying all the comforts of being home with Patty and catching up with her and my friends. Thanks for following along.

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