Thoughts and Adventures From Greenlite Heavy Industries

Friday, March 18, 2011

Manaslu Part 25

Getting Up the Thing

Manaslu is neither easy nor safe - one out of four climbers die in pursuit of its summit. The summit was first reached in 1956, and would remain undisturbed for another fifteen years. Few have ventured from the “standard” 1956 route where a mixture of ice fall and avalanche hazard continually threatens the hopeful climber. Above high camp the route broadens into a featureless plateau; one particularly gruesome aerial photograph shows this icy expanse littered with the bodies of climbers who became disorientated during a tragic storm.

We made the climb in three camps: the first, at 18,700 feet, was dug into the saddle between North and Naike Peaks, the second was located on the lip of a crevasse at 21,700, and high camp was anchored onto the burnished ice at 24,500. Using only three camps to climb an eight thousand meter peak left us a bit spread out and the temptation to place an intermediary camp between one and two certainly presented itself. Between one and two you were either picking you way through an icefall or hurrying across avalanche slopes. Camping in the icefall was clearly out of the question, but so long as it didn’t snow a camp on one of the avalanche slopes might be fine, but you would be na├»ve to think that you could go to the Himalaya and not worry about snow. I’m terrified of the prospect of being buried alive, waiting for your oxygen to run out, and consequently voted for longer days and safer camps. Unfortunately there was no safe place for high camp. The summit plateau is a featureless wasteland of callous blue ice, and if the wind is going to blow there is no place to hide. At Camp three we anchored our tents with ice screws and boulders and hoped for mercy.

Manaslu challenged my ideas on how to climb a mountain. My experience has been to steadily move yourself and your gear up the hill and when you finally reach summit position you go fast and light, touch the top and drop back down: you climb the mountain only once. Here, due to acclimatization forays and load carries we each accumulated nearly sixty thousand feet of vertical gain. The up and down nature of the climb meant that we would routinely return to base camp where we could rest, eat and drink. Above base camp I continually suffered from sleep apnea, meaning that you stop breathing when asleep. I had experienced this on Denali where my silence followed by a series of gasped breaths only bothered my tent mate – in other words I was completely unaware of the fact that I had to wake up to breath. In Alaska I always rose in the morning unaware and refreshed. In the Himalaya I wasn’t so fortunate. Every night I struggled to fall asleep and whenever I did I would be quickly awakened to discover myself choking for air feeling as though someone was pushing a pillow into my face. This would occur throughout the night, and often I would lie awake for hours waiting for the sun, which would give the green light to start the stove. Returning to base meant that I could sleep, but just as important it meant food and drink.

Though we ate quite well on the mountain our dehydrated meals were paltry and putrid in comparison to the nightly feasts staged by chef Krishna. Krishna regularly sent Preem, Mayla or Potem, his three kitchen boys, down to the Nubri Valley with orders to bring back a leg of a goat or a chunk of yak - yak and water buffalo have the taste and consistency of boiled leather, but goat is surprisingly tasty – and we ate our way through a mountain of high calorie food every night. The exertion combined with the high altitude conspired to erode our bodies and only through gorging ourselves into a nightly stupor could any of us prevent a sunken stomach and exposed ribs.

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