Thoughts and Adventures From Greenlite Heavy Industries

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Manaslu Part 24

Welcome to the Himalaya

I’ve been on a number of Alaskan and Patagonian expeditions, and I figured that I knew, logistically speaking, how to get to the top of a big mountain; little did I know how much I had to learn.

In the spring of 2002 Petemba Sherpa worked as sirdar for a Japanese businessman who hoped to reach the summit of Manaslu. Petemba, the cousin of our trekking agent Tashi Sherpa, is extremely experienced, and he proved invaluable when it came to actually working out the logistics of our expedition. We Americans had arrived at Manaslu base camp with the stated understanding that the sherpas and the “members” as we were known to our staff, were all members of a single team – the sherpas simply being unusually strong members. It was with this mindset that we set out on our first carry to Camp 1: everyone carrying a load, with the sherpas carrying slightly heavier loads.

On our first rest day Brian and I noticed Petemba holding up a sheet of notebook paper and talking with our sirdar Nawang. With nothing better to do Brian and I butted in. Nawang pointed to the sheet of paper saying that Petemba had drawn up a logistics plan for our team and that he wanted to discuss it with us. Eager to see what the guru thought Brian and I snapped at the piece of paper. What we first noticed was that Petemba had made two schedules: one for the sherpas and one for the members. Brian immediately set to putting Petemba right. “We’re used to climbing in Alaska and the Cascades,” he said “we carry our own weight. We’re all one team here; there are no sherpas and members, just teammates.” Petemba flashed a knowing smile and replied, “welcome to the Himalaya.”

Petemba correctly pointed out that given the amount of time we had and our desire to climb with fixed camps that it would be impossible to both acclimatize and stock the three camps. “You acclimatize” he said, and then he pointed to Kusang, Ki Kami and Khan Cha and said, “they carry.” Brian furrowed his brow, visibly uncomfortable with the us and them approach. “You have to put your boys to work,” Petemba continued, “the trip to Camp 1 is nothing for them, but you, you must first make your body used to this altitude.” He was right of course, the sherpas could make it to Camp 1, at 19,000’, in two hours; on our first carry it took me nearly six. Acclimatization is the foundation stone of an 8000m expedition. If you go too high too fast your brain swells, your lungs fill with fluid, you become disoriented, you begin to drown in your own fluids, you then die.

Our original logistics plan, based on experience climbing at much lower altitudes, had grossly overestimated the amount of weight we could carry while underestimating the amount of rest we would require. It quickly and painfully became obvious that if we wanted to climb this peak we would have to put our boys to work. However, if I was going to climb this mountain with any sense of accomplishment I had to set some ground rules, and I came up with two: never would allow a sherpa to carry my personal gear, and would fill my pack with as much group gear as I could carry.

We shared the mountain with four strong Australians who proved that it is possible to climb Manaslu using fixed camps without the use sherpa climbers, for us, however, Kusang, Ki Kami and Kha Cha made the difference between success and failure. We climbed the mountain on the backs of these three kind, loyal and incredibly strong mountaineers

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