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Fatal Attraction

Fatal Attraction

Mar 2016

Words Matthew Holt, Pics Fiona McIntosh and Matthew Holt

Trekking up the Khumbu Valley toward Everest Base Camp, you’ll be enthralled by a shimmering white peak on your right, almost touching the sky. A shade under 7 000 metres, Ama Dablam is stunning and steep, and many a passerby has vowed to come back and climb it. There’s a big difference, however, between being beautiful to look at and beautiful to climb.

Last October, Fiona and I joined a commercial expedition attempting its Southwest Ridge. It was one of the few trips on which I’ve departed with my affairs in good order, sending my will to my sister and telling her where the house keys were hid. This clearly precipitated bad karma.

Flying into Kathmandu, we got caught in a thunderstorm—spending over an hour circling the city, hoping for the clouds to clear. Eventually, running low on fuel, we went in to land, emerging through the cloud base just above the rooftops and slithering down the runway in a sheet of spray. That night, we went out in Thamel to celebrate our safe arrival. And the next morning, we woke to the news that Cyclone Hudhud had killed more than 40 climbers and trekkers.

No matter how many times you’ve been to Kathmandu, it’s still an assault on your senses: the smell of incense and fetid rubbish, the elegant saris and hennaed feet, the emaciated dogs and beggars in the gutter, and the sonorous chant of “Om Mani Padme Hum” playing from every shop.

Puja ceremony with Ama Dablam in the background.

After a couple of days we flew up to Lukla, a small runway suspended in the clouds and generally credited as the world’s most dangerous airport. Weaving up a narrow gorge surrounded by cliffs, a short strip of tarmac suddenly raced up to meet us. Nepal is no country for aviophobes.

We spent the next five days hiking up the Khumbu Valley, zigzagging across the Dudh Kosi on swaying suspension bridges. It was a leisurely prelude, though we were kept on our toes remembering the correct way to walk round ‘mani’ stones and dodging yak trains that stampeded down the narrow trail, horns swinging like Pamplona bulls.

Our group wasn’t your typical gnarly climbing team. Besides Fiona and me, there was Hamish, a burly Antipodean decorated with colourful tattoos like a Maori warrior, who claimed to be the chief executive of a mining company; Tina, a well-stacked Californian who wore skin-tight leotards and danced along the trail to her iPod; Terri, an angular triathlete who jogged ahead in her running gear, keeping us updated on her lactic-acid breakdown rate; and Mary, a mild-mannered English rose who’d studied monkeys at Cambridge. Some level of credibility was provided by our two guides—Tim, a gingery Kiwi with an absent-minded air; and Andrew, an athletic rock climber from Nevada—plus our four climbing Sherpas, who all had multiple Everest summits. Nonetheless, lunching in a teahouse in Monjo next to a four-man Austrian team—all hard bodied and bearded, in matching salopettes—we looked more like the church hall aerobics class. 

Just above Namche Bazaar, we got our first view of Ama Dablam, which means “mother’s necklace” in Sherpa. The two long ridges supposedly resemble the mother’s cradling arms, with the hanging glacier (or dablam) just beneath the summit being her pendant. You mustn’t get carried away with this nurturing image, however, with the dablam regularly avalanching onto the route below—most disastrously in 2006 when it hit Camp Three and swept away six sleeping climbers.

Looking down on Base Camp.

On the sixth day, we reached Base Camp, a large, grassy meadow at 4 600m. As we laboured up the final scree slope, a helicopter flew overhead, with a body suspended from a long line. We later learnt it was a Russian climber who’d been killed when his abseil rope snapped. There were a dozen teams in situ, their brightly coloured tents set out in orderly rows like a medieval army camp. Befitting our less hardy demeanour, we checked in to a fully catered lodge in the parallel valley. 

We spent the next few days settling in and practising jumaring (technique climbers use to ascend a rope) up and down large boulders behind the lodge, to the amusement of passing trekkers and yak herders. Before testing ourselves on the actual mountain, we required a puja (prayer ritual) and duly awaited an auspicious day for a ‘lama’ to hike up from Pangboche monastery. The ceremony began with the lama solemnly chanting mantras, while our Sherpas diligently stoked the juniper fire, and quickly progressed to quaffing red wine and liberally smearing each other’s faces with tsampa flour. This was my fifth puja and I’m still none the wiser.

Physically and spiritually prepped, we trooped past the smouldering puja fire, where our cook dutifully showered us with handfuls of rice to assist our safe homecoming. The climb started gently with a three-hour hike to Advanced Base Camp, to where yaks had ferried most of our gear. The next day was more onerous, tottering under full packs across a giant boulder field and then jumaring up some greasy granite slabs to reach Camp One at 5 800m. 

We spent several days here, via a combination of planning and necessity. With limited space at the two higher camps, we were sharing tents with other teams and had to wait until beds became vacant. By now the altitude was showing its hand, with Fiona’s sinuses swelling up so she looked like a chipmunk, and my bowels emitting gases so I smelled like a schoolboy’s chemistry experiment. Armchair mountaineers don’t always appreciate the joys of high-altitude climbing.

Arriving at Camp Two.

The grizzled Austrian team were also in camp, each day meticulously inspecting and rearranging their armoury of climbing hardware. Scornful of our strategy to proceed up the mountain camp-by-camp, they were planning a blitzkrieg from here to the summit and back in one go. “It is only 1 000 metres,” explained one of them patiently, “which is nothing for experienced alpinists.”

Above Camp One, the route became increasingly exposed and intimidating. When the rescue helicopter flew past, dangling the corpse of an Italian climber, it seemed less like an instrument of salvation and more like the Grim Reaper collecting his toll. The final obstacle on the way to Camp Two was the Yellow Tower, a 20m vertical rock band, above a daunting drop into the valley below. The exposure was so huge, it was more like looking out of a plane window. 

At least all we had to do was jug up the fixed lines, whereas the first party to venture this way, in March 1961, had no guarantee it was even passable. Mike Gill, Wally Romanes, Barry Bishop and Mike Ward were members of Sir Edmund Hillary’s Silver Hut Expedition, which arrived in the Khumbu with ambitious plans to study acclimatisation, scale Makalu (8 470m) and find the yeti. While they failed in respect of the latter two goals, and Sir Ed went home early with altitude sickness, they did bag the first ascent of Ama Dablam, which had hitherto been considered unclimbable. That so little was made of their achievement was largely because they didn’t have a permit for the peak, and the Nepalese authorities were furious.

I knew I’d reached Camp Two when I popped my head over a ledge straight into a pile of human faeces. It was like arriving at a squatter camp, with a dozen tents precariously perched on a thin rocky ridge, some half-hanging over the edge, so the occupants had to sleep clipped into safety lines. My tent was comparatively salubrious, with enough space for two occupants to lie down, and the back vestibule opening onto a 1 000m drop—which was handy for emptying pee bottles. By now, we’d lost Hamish, Tina and Terri to various ailments and, while I was sorry to see them go, the selfish part of me welcomed the extra tent space. 

Climbers skirting the dablam.

The hardest day was moving up to Camp Three, which involved steep climbing interspersed with airy traverses. Jugging up the Grey Tower, snow and ice rained down on me from a climber above, and an ice block the size of a beer crate dented my helmet. Somewhere in the fug I twanged my right leg and, as the day wore on, it started to ache. 

The traditional spot for placing high camp was on a plateau almost directly beneath the dablam, but after the accident in 2006, most teams were reluctant to stay here. Accordingly, we pitched camp 150m lower, on a tiny ledge offering just enough space for three tents. It wasn’t a carefree abode, however, located right under a roof laden with giant icicles, which would intermittently melt off and fall down like spears. By the time we’d moved in, one of the tents had already been destroyed, prompting Andrew to head back to Camp Two. The rest of us spent several hours dislodging the more fearsome-looking prongs, until we were able to convince ourselves we might survive a few hours in the two habitable tents. We then settled down for a brief rest—wearing our helmets. 

Just after 3 a.m., we were woken by our Sherpas, who’d climbed all the way from Camp One, picking up Andrew en route. After forcing down some lukewarm coffee and a handful of painkillers, I was as ready for this summit day as I was going to be.

Though it was cold and windy, we soon warmed up, battling up a steep ice chute that led onto the plateau. A large commercial team had chanced it and camped here, and were outside their tents preparing to depart. Our appearance precipitated an unseemly race for the single fixed line, which we won by a nose. 

Shattered on the summit.

Above was some 500m of mixed climbing on slopes between 55 and 75 degrees. Soon, both teams were bunched up, with as many as 10 climbers hanging off the same section of rope. As anchors started to pop in the softening snow, we screamed at the climbers beneath us to wait. But, of course, no one did, and all we could do was plough on and hope. At 10.30 a.m., after climbing flat out for nearly six hours, I flopped onto the summit. From my prone position, I could make out Everest and Lhotse glinting in the haze, but frankly I didn’t care and just wanted more painkillers. 

The descent involved over 30 abseils: thread the figure of eight, clip in a karabiner, check and lean back. Abseil after bloody abseil. On reaching Camp Two at dusk, Mary, Fiona and I squeezed into one tent, and Tim and Andrew into another, while our Sherpas carried on down. It took two hours to scrape and boil a pan of snow, which I then accidentally knocked over and spilt. When I also knocked over the second pan, we abandoned thoughts of dinner.

After an uncomfortable night, I awoke sore and dehydrated. I heard someone outside saying that the dablam had avalanched that morning, killing one climber and injuring several others. I was too exhausted to question why they, and not we, had been so unlucky. Not long after came the drone of the rescue helicopter heading up the valley.

Several days later, back in Kathmandu, I stood in the Tom & Jerry Pub, unenthusiastically chewing a beer. I’d just bumped into the Austrian team, who’d aborted their summit bid—considering it too dangerous. As for me, my body seemed to have developed a disconcerting allergy to alcohol and my right leg was too stiff to sit down. It was only when I got home, I discovered I’d torn ligaments, damaged my femoral nerve and contracted hepatitis. For such a beautiful mountain, Ama Dablam can be quite a bruiser. 

Source: The Intrepid Explorer

The Intrepid explorer