“Running over the same old ground, and the same old fears”
The jetlag is still fresh, but I managed to get up early and put on my running shoes when this gentle voice queries over my shoulder: “Excuse me, do you know where 5th Avenue is ?”. With a little sense of pride and a confidence as if I have been living here my whole life, I reply that he has to take a right on 55th and go straight down for one block. For some odd reason, this city feels a bit like home and I am getting too quickly used to this life. On my way to Central Park I was thinking of and looking back at my trip to the Himalayas with great feelings of joy.
Sunday, October 9th, impatiently, I am scanning the horizon of Heathrow terminal 4 for other mountaineers. There is something about airports that give me a feeling of freedom, the start towards the unknown. I am finishing my standard airport food supply of water, chips and triangular sandwiches, until I spotted the first Jagged Globe sew-on badges. Time to go. Not that I don’t enjoy flying, but being stuck for 8,5 hours between a little window and crying babies, is even too much for me. But the relaxed atmosphere, good food and Kungfu Panda 2 on the small screen made it all up. Almost done now. Another 2 hour flight to Kathmandu and a crazy busride to the hotel. Here I was, Nepal, the country where Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay wrote history (I am leaving the Mallory discussion out of here) and home of the 8000m peaks. The least I could say it is a humble experience to be here. Not much time to rest, since we had to repack our bags, meet the teamleader and get ready for tomorrow.
I do not have a lot of heroes, and if I had them, they are already long gone. But I just want to dedicate the next paragraph to our teamleader: Pasang Tenzing Sherpa. He is 28 and youngest of 7 brothers born and raised inNepal. They are in the Guinness Book of records for all summiting Everest. Not did he Everest once, but 8x. There is more: 3x Ama Dablam (Himalayas most technical mountain), 3x Cho Oyu, 1x Shishapangma, 1x Baruntse and numerous times on Island and Mera Peak. The least I could say, I was in good hands. If he had been European or American, he would have been famous, had sponsor patches all over his down suit, written 2 books and got a school named after him. But here, he was just a Sherpa, there to look after us.
Time for the last vegi curry and a good midnight sleep, because we were off the next day to Lukla. Another day, another airplane. Anyone recall the flying doctors ? We had to fly exactly the same plane to one of the highest airstrips in the world. There is a dog on the runway. Nobody seems to care. A noisy flight with great views. Our pilot was reading his newspaper. Occasionally he pushed some buttons and pressed the throttle to give the engines that extra horsepower. He was discussing local soccer result with his co-pilot. But don’t be mistaken, these are the best pilots in the world. Before you are allowed the land a plane in Lukla, you must have acquired 10.000 flying hours. We were soon to find out why. After a calm 30 minutes, things were stirring in the cockpit. The newspaper got wrapped up and more buttons were pushed. The pilot took the nose down. I felt like a Junkers 87 Stuka from the Luftwaffe going in for the final attack. The engines were howling. I looked to my right and I was crossing my fingers that the wings were not going to fall off. But there it was, the Lukla airstrip. We touched solid ground. I couldn’t help it, but I was so happy to get out of the airplane. In the middle of nowhere, surrounded by rocky giants. You only get one chance to set a plane down on this strip. After we landed, we got informed that this was the most dangerous airport in the world, with the most accidents and fatalities on an annual basis. Good. We survived.
We were welcomed by our 2 other sherpas: Tsering (4x Everest and Cho Oyu) and Dawa (7x Island Peak). We even got our own yaks, with a yakboy included. Time to repack again. Climbing gear goes up separately and we loaded the kitbags on the yaks. No time to lose. We have to make it to Phakding today, a small village on the well-worn Everest Basecamp trail. This would also be our itinerary for the following 3 weeks. Part of the deal was also we were going to sleep in the so called tea-houses, comparable to mountain huts in the Alps. Basic accommodation with common toilets and for a few rupies you could take a shower, which I currently postponed to ‘later’. This was an expedition, so you are not supposed to take showers nor change underwear. Drink, eat, climb and rest. Everything else is optional. After a nice 3 hour trek, the occasional suspension bridge and amazing views, we arrived at our first tea-house. Earplugs in and goodnight.
One of the things we soon realized, is that the higher you go, the more expensive everything gets. A Snicker or Mars bar was ‘only’ 2 EUR at this stage. I was not too confident on the boiled drinking water we were provided every night, so the water snob in me forced me to buy a fresh bottle every day. The holes in the floor that represented the toilets did not really invite to get sick up there.
As we continued our way up, making our way through endless legions of yaks, donkeys and porters, we were stopped at a viewpoint. In the distance, there she was: Chomolungma, top of the world, 8848m of pure beauty and despair. The fierce winds blowing the snow of the summit. This was a special moment. I caught myself making a little bow to her. We will meet. Soon. But first things first. With my head still in the clouds, we arrived at Namche Bazaar at 3400m, a magnificent Sherpa trading village and the capital of the Khumbu valley. We stayed here for 2 nights to get acclimatised. Time to get some rest and look at the souvenirs you we’re planning to buy on the way back. I caught a glimpse of the Ama Dablam summit, by far my absolute favourite mountain. We will meet her tomorrow. Exciting times coming up. Oh right, time for tea now.
To be continued…
“Waking up, with sunbeams in my eyes, and the world outside, seems to pass me by”
This was only day 4 of the expedition, and this is just amazing. I am enjoying it so much I do not even think of the altitude. Although still at a very moderate height of 3440m, 2 members of the basecamp team had to be helicoptered down because of altitude sickness. My body is adapting well, so far so good, I am not even considering taking Diamox at this stage. We are leaving Namche today and set off to Deboche at 3820m.It wasn’t too long until we could gaze upon the beauty Ama Dablam: the Mother’s Necklace and the monarch of the Himalayas. Its difficulty graded 5D, by far the most technical and demanding mountain in the whole Himalayan range. Everest South Col is graded 4E. So go figure. Although with a moderate height of 6856m it dominates the view today, overclassing Everest and Lhotse with ease. I eat the best high altitude chocolate cake ever and we spend our night in the Rivendel lodge. Only Gandalf and the Fellowship are missing.
An early wake-up call, we had a lot of height to gain today to Dingboche at 4410m. More suspension bridges and I see 2 cows washing a man’s hair. Weird. The paths are steep and the pace is slow, but I always catch myself being ahead of the group. I have to slow down. I am just too excited I guess. We have lunch at one of the local villages and have the extensive choice between rice, omelets, pasta and noodles. And this is the menu for the upcoming weeks until Island Peak basecamp. I am even surprised we are offered a choice of food. I thought it would be a gigantic pot of blurry porridge to share with the group every day. Obviously, I am not complaining, and Jagged Globe takes very good care of their teams. We order dubble portions of everything. And it’s even tasty. After lunch we make a little detour to the Pangboche Monastry. All expeditions members are blessed with a blessing scarf by the head monk. I am not a believer, but I do believe these things bring luck. For some reason, I kept the scarf for the rest of the expedition close to me. A little Hillary feeling was flowing through my veins. I gave the manes an extra spin and I was ready for the rest of the climb. We arrive at our lodge in the afternoon and I postponed the shower again. Luckily there are wetwipes. I already decided I was letting the beard grow. After a double dinner, I enjoy the moon and observe a large veil of mist protecting Ama Dablam.
Today was a ‘leisure day’, but we quickly understood that the sherpas had other plans. They take us up to Nankar Tshang for an acclimatisation trek. With a strong pace, we walk up the hill, enjoy the views and prayer flags. I pinch myself regularly to check if I am really here. I think we walked up to 4750m and decided to turn back to the lodge. On our way back we see this gigantic bolder, with possible climbable routes. I am absolutely not a boulder expert and without rockshoes this is not easy, but after a lot of encouragement the sherpas convinced me to give it a try. I think it was a 6B+ route, just not hard enough to be a 6C, but I topped it after 3 tries. I was exhausted. The altitude is mercyless.
The next 2 days we gain 500 vertical meters and arrive at Gorak Shep, the first Basecamp of Everest. Although I am trying not to, but I keep catching myself being obsessed with the altitude. We are now at 5140m. This is 330m higher than Mont Blanc. It is getting serious now.We have a quick lunch and with the the guardian eyes of Nuptse on our backs we set off to Everest Basecamp.
Honestly, I tought this was going to be a stroll in the park. Basecamp is at 5350m so the net height gain is very reasonable. At yet again, this was a very needed realitycheck that nothing is easy at this altitude. Rockfall is iminent and we need to get going quickly on some traverses. As we make our way through the glacier morains, we realize the underground isn’t safe at all, and Pasang orders us (firmly!) to stay close and keep away from the edges. After 2 hours we arrive at our first goal of the expedition: Everest Basecamp. Check. We catch a climpse of what it would be to live here for about 1 month before attacking the Khumbu icefall. We ball our fists, take the ‘I’ve done it’ pictures and make exclusive high altitude phonecalls to our loved ones. Hillary should have seen this. It will get cold soon so we need to go back. I am suddenly urging for my sleeping bag and food. I need some rest. The way back is hard. One of our teammembers is taken back down to Lebouche with altitude sickness. We trekked just over 7,5 hours today. The whole team was exhausted. The stoves are lit again and yak dong is used to keep it going. Now this is recycling! I can’t stand the smell no longer and I am going to bed with a 1mg Dafalgan Forte. Someone is drilling a hole in my head. We measure the temperature around midnight: it’s -19°C. Inside the room. Goodnight.
“He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary”
I hesitate. Should I or shoudn’t I. The choice is killing me. My bladder is protesting. I have to get up (again). It’s 3 o’clock in the morning and there is a line for the toilets. I can’t believe it. I have to go outside because I just can’t keep it up. It’s -10°C and I am standing in my t-shirt watching the moon litting up the summit of Everest. What an epic pee. Only 3 hours later I get up for real because we need to get ready to climb Kalapathar: a trekking peak of 5550m. This is great to get acclimatised and I am looking forward to it. The climb is going really well and in less than 1,5 hour I reach the summit. I am not tired, my body is getting used to the altitude. Pumori (7161m) is in the background and all of the sudden you feel so little. And so seems your achievement reaching this summit. Patience, patience. This is all part of the training. ‘Learn to walk first before…..’, yeah, you know the saying. On our way down we discuss the route for tomorrow. Choices need to made. They predicted snow for the following few days but we need to cross the Kangma La pass at 5535m to get to Chukkung. This reminded me of Gandalf having to decide whether to take the pass of Caradhras or take the long way down through Moria. We decide to take the long way, we could not take the risk being caught in a snowstorm.
I wake up the next morning, the windows of our lodge our frozen and indeed, it had been snowing all night and it is still falling down. It is cold, but finally, I could use my Mountain Hardwear down SL parka jacket ! These things are hot. Snow goggles and La Sportivas on, and off we went. On the map it looked like an easy walk of 3 hours down and 2 hours of moderate height gain up. After 2 hours I start to feel really bad. I am going through my medical checklist in my mind to see what is wrong. Altitude sickness: no. We just came from 5550m and are at 4620m now, so impossible. My stomache is acting really bizar. I am losing my strength quickly. They dose me with Immodium and Cyprofloxin. Holy crap, what is going on ? It was hurting so bad I almost couldn’t walk. Frustrating. After 5 hours I have to swallow my pride and ask Pasang to carry my backpack for the remaining hour. I must have eaten something wrong earlier today. My body is not happy and is demanding for fruit, vegetables and vitamins. I immediatly go to sleep.
I still can’t figure out what was exactly wrong with me then, but the next morning I was feeling alright. Strange. Today we stay at Chukkung to refresh our ropeskills and learn how to tie a prusik with down mittens on. But seriously, that’s impossible.
I was excited for the next day because this is where the real expedition starts: we head off to Island Peak basecamp at 5000m. We repack our kitbags to reduce the weight to half and only take what is really needed. The trail is quite and we pass no more than 3 teams. To route up is a garden of boulders and I want to climb each an every one of them. Later. I must concentrate and minimize my efforts to be fully charged for summit day. After a few hours we arrive at basecamp and with the sun being out, I take off my softshell and enjoy the rays of vitamine D on my skin. We are at 5080m but it is not cold at all. The basecamp almost looks abandonned. I enjoy the environment and soak it all in. But I can’t sit still and every excuse to gain some extra meters are good to go out there. I climb up the ridge to Lake Imj. What a view. I take more pictures of our tents and go to sleep.It’s -23°C inside. Tents looks so cool.
Good times coming up because we move to high camp of Island Peak at 5600m today, our final point before attacking the summit. We are very lucky with the weather and the sherpas say a little prayer to have the same weather tomorrow. As usual, not being able to sit still, I scramble up a ridge to have a look at our basecamp from yesterday. It all looks so tiny. I have my final meal before the summit: lentil soup with rice, curry, potatoes and vegetables. Finally, I got my vegetables. This was so good. What a meal. Shortly after dinner I go to sleep, clock set at 1:00am. Oh crap, I just can’t sleep. I am overexcited. My top baselayer is killing me and I wisely decide to take it off. Countless thoughts are flashing through my mind, including the Kili flashbacks. This was it, I am so close now. ‘Hello’, says a gentle voice outside my tent. It’s Pasang. I didn’t sleep a minute. ‘Time to get ready, we go in 30 minutes’. Great. Headlights on. I literally almost trew up my porridge (I just can’t eat it) and off we went.
I am the only one of the team who is not wearing plastic boots and I am so happy for it. The scramble up the first section goes smoothly and the others already envy me for my comfortable boots. Thank you La Sportiva. I have to make a little compromise and have colder feet. After an hour or 2 we reach a small ridge: this was crampon point. The change-over goes relatively unclumsy and before I know I have a figure of eight around my waiste and am attached to 3 other team members. Time to cross the glacier and make our way through the numerous crevasses. We are at 5850m but we lose a team member to altitude sickness. A sherpa needs to go down with him, so we are left with 2 sherpas. I am feeling really good and I enjoy it to the fullest. The sun is spreading its beams over the glacier and we take off layer by layer. I am left with just a t-shirt, soft top and soft shell. I changed my down mittens for liners. This was good news for the ropework. We are at 6000m now. This is the highest I have ever been and the hardest part was to come now.
We fix our lines and attach the jumar, gradually we make our way up on the icewall. This was good fun actually. Island Peak is climbed by around 60 people a day, 100 a day during high season. We are the only team on the wall and the sun is out. This could not get better. After 4 pitches we reach the summit ridge. Wauw. This was mountaineering. We fix our safety lines for the final bit, only 3 pitches to go now and 150m to go. The final pull on the rope and there it was: Island Peak summit at 6189m. I made it. I just couldn’t stop smiling. Congratulations to everyone. Hugs, celebrations and a lot of pictures backed up by stunning 360°C view on Lothse, Baruntse and Ama Dablam. There are no words on how to describe how epic it is here. I want to stay.
Unfortunately, at some point, you have to go down, so we set off and clip in to abseil down. It takes us a few days to get down to Lukla. We party hard to celebrate. That was it. Island Peak 2011. What’s next? I think I already have a next in mind..