Baruntse & Mera Peak Expedition 2011 Part 2
Arriving at Baruntse
The arrival at Baruntse was impressive one, as BC, the moraine, and the towering Southwest face of Baruntse opened out in front of us. This was our home for the next 10 days.
During the rest of this day and the next, the first rest days we had had for 17 days, we got straight down to business. We only had a scheduled 10 days on the mountain so every day counted. The two days were spent organising piles and many barrels of food, equipment for high on the mountain, and our own itineraries. We were given a free range with respect of how we would tackle the mountain, and it was eventually agreed by everyone that we would climb to camp 1 the following day and use an upwards itinerary with 1 rest day and 3 climbing days. On this day, we also had our puja, the blessing ceremony to ask the mountain gods for permission to climb on their mountain. A slightly cold but somewhat ethereal experience.
The ascent of Baruntse
On the morning of the 1st November, we started the long haul up to camp 1. I was blissfully unaware of what lay ahead of me. Simply, the next 10 hours were utter hell, the hardest day I had ever had on a mountain. Everyone gets a bad day during an expedition, and this was mine.
The Sherpas had taken a lot of our kit, but we were still left with heavy packs. My 70L pack was full to the brim, as I was aiming to take 6 days of food for the full time up on the mountain, with a few spare days; just as everyone was. As soon as we set off, I knew I was struggling under the weight of the bag. I couldn’t understand this as at sea level I was fine even carrying my own body weight, however at altitude, I was just crippled. I couldn’t keep up with anyone, and it was just me in my own little world, closely followed by Mark who the only thing was keeping me going. Eventually after countless hours of agony, I passed Mark who was waiting on a rock and climbed on for 40 minutes. 3 minutes later, Mark caught me up having been sitting on the rock for the full 40 minutes. I was simply crawling along, a step and then 2 breaths. It was clear to see I wasn’t going to make the camp at this pace, so I took out all my food and left it in the snow for the Sherpas to bring up the next day. Mark carried on and soon caught up the others guys, whilst I plodded on, this time at least double the pace I had been previously doing. Reaching the bottom of the fixed ropes, I was pleased to catch up most of the other guys who were in a queue waiting to climb the final section to camp 1. Everyone was finding this equally as tough, however seemed to cope much better at load carrying. A testament to Mark’s fitness was the weight of his bag, which made mine feel relatively light.
Unfortunately I was at the back of the queue for the fixed ropes and waited for at least 30 minutes before starting the rock section. At this point the sun was already getting low in the sky, so I put my head torch on and just hoped I wouldn’t need it.
Once on the fixed ropes, only one person was climbing on each rope at a time to minimise the risk. There were 3 very long ropes up the snow gully, and this explained the long waits. Mark climbed up ahead on a second rope to help people up ahead, and I was once again at the back. Roughly half way up the fixed ropes which would eventually take 2 hours to climb, it got dark. As soon as the sun went down, the temperature dropped, and it became unbearably cold. I was only wearing a helmet, a thin pair of gloves and a fleece, it was dark and everyone had finished the climb and was presumably already at camp 1. I felt very small and insignificant hanging on the end off a rope half way up a steep snow gully. I had to get warm just to continue, so found a tiny ledge and managed to put my warm kit on without dropping my bag into the black abyss below which was an achievement in itself.
Climbing on, it was no longer the cold, but the lack of oxygen that slowed down proceedings to a vertical plod which would have made even a sloth look highly energetic. Jumar up, step up, 5 breaths, repeat.
It was slow work, but eventually by some miracle I reached the top of the gully, and saw Paddy just sitting on a rock waiting for me. After gladly giving him my bag, I sprinted the rest of the way to camp 1 (joking).
Fortunately, given my lack of food, I was sharing with Hannah who kindly donated a meal, and even cooked it for me. This was a relief since I was struggling even to take my boots off; lighting a stove could have been disastrous. A very heavy sleep later, we awoke to a very frosty tent and proceeded to get on with our rest day. This involved laying in the tent and continuously melting snow which took on average an hour to make 1 cup of water. On this day, as I had been suffering with what seemed like an encroaching throat/chest infection, I decided the best course of action was to self-prescribe a course of amoxicillin in order to prevent a flair-up high on the mountain. Previously on the Lenin expedition, I had to take drastic action with a self-prescription of ciprofloxacin, which was also a successful self-administration. With this in mind, I think the only obvious next step is to learn to share my apparent gift with others by taking on a Master’s Degree in pharmacology. (Just joking mum) A lot of chatting later (according to our tent neighbours on both sides (!)), it was time for another sleep. Once again we awoke to a frosty tent, however this time we would be leaving for camp 2. I made every effort to lighten my bag, including leaving most of my clothes in the tent and even removing the rucksack lid.
The Sherpas who were meant to be coming the previous day turned up just before we left. I naturally asked for my food, and was slightly bewildered when the response came back that it had been eaten. The best part was it had been eaten by huge black crow like birds, who had even managed to get through the strong aluminium packaging of 7 days worth of freeze dried food, leaving only scattered remnants strewn across the snow which I would find 4 days later.
Fortunately the Sherpas had brought up some more spare food, which I took onboard before starting the climb to camp 2. With a much lighter bag, I was able to keep up with everyone and even managed to perfect a pace which I could use on the summit climb. The aim was to walk quick enough so ground was covered, however slow enough that the pace was maintainable, and no stops were needed. On the whole climb to camp 2, I stopped for breath roughly 3 times.
Reaching camp 2, I just sat with Gordon and a few of the girls in an effort to recover from the climb. Eventually and reluctantly, I managed to get up and move into my new home with my tent buddies Roy and Ian. The night proved to be much more exciting than any of us had planned, when I set fire not only to the cooker, but also the gas canister itself. After painstakingly melting snow for the previous 2 hours, I essentially threw the whole contraption, including the pan of water into a wall of snow in front of the tent, which subsequently melted my gloves. At this point, Ian was preparing to escape via the back door, and after I shouted a few expletives, Roy dived through the tent and rather heroically switched off the gas and prevented an explosion at camp 2. Unfortunately, when we put the cooker back together, it wouldn’t relight, so we called for Mark and told him the cooker had mysteriously packed up all of a sudden. Apparently some ice had become trapped on the gas tube; although how this had happened we hadn’t a clue.
Sleep wasn’t easy to come by that night, with 3 in a tent all kicking and pushing each other into the side of the tent which was completely saturated. Waking up at 1am for the summit attempt, we tried our best to get ready as best as possible, which took 45 minutes to simply put on a coat, trousers, and a pair of boots. We were set to leave at 2am so piled out and geared up with crampons, ice axes and harnesses. This was it, the start of everything we had been training for. It’s hard to describe the anticipation of what lay ahead of us. As everybody got ready, myself and Roy who had been first out the tent stood and waited in the freezing cold. As we looked across, we saw some movement in the Sherpa tent. Then all of a sudden three Sherpas emerged kitted out in full Rab Everest suits, it was an awesome sight to behold.
Leaving slightly before the rest of the group, Roy led the way and I followed at the plodding pace I had perfected the previous day. It was slow going; however we had to keep moving to keep out the freezing cold that surrounded us in the pitch blackness of 2am. As I looked round, a trail of head torches pointed in our direction was beginning to form.
I took my turn to lead after about 30 minutes, and that was the last time I would see Roy until base camp. I lead for around another 5 hours with Paddy, Nicky, Debbie, Andrew and Dawa right behind. As the sun came up, a similar view appeared as on Mera Peak summit day, however this time I was too tired to stop and take in a quite frankly stunning view. As my pace began to wane, Andrew and Paddy overtook and disappeared into the distance. Climbing up with Nicky, we ascended countless fixed ropes and ice steps, and on summiting the main ridge, had dramatic 3500ft drops on either side. At one point, Dawa told us we still had a further 6 hours to go for the summit, having already climbed for 7 hours. This took us way beyond the 10 hour limit to reach the summit, and I began to have doubts whether I would actually make the summit at all. We carried on regardless, however this news seemed to make the climbing even harder, and I regularly found myself falling to my knees under sheer exhaustion. As I continued slowing, Dawa who was behind me on the fixed rope started walking in front of me and literally hauling me up. This wasn’t the most gracious take on mountaineering, and fortunately not long after, Dawa went ahead to help Nicky. Just after this, Paddy came down towards me and to my sheer elation, told me that I was nearly there and the summit was in fact just at the top of the snow slope I was on, only 15 minutes away. This news was indescribable; I just stood there and hugged him. With this in mind I carried on to the top of the snow slope and to a final step bridging a crevasse. Nicky had already reached the summit with Dawa at this point and I met her on her way down where after more hugs were exchanged, she told me to watch out for the crevasse having just fallen in it herself…
Dawa came up with me to the summit, and the euphoria was overwhelming, as was the exhaustion. At this point Eoin, Mary, Sonam and Nuru caught up and we all summited together, 9 hours after leaving camp 2, at 11am on the 4th November 2011. It was an indescribable feeling walking up to the summit that will stay with me forever.
A few photos and congratulations later, it was time to start the descent. As I abbed over the summit step, one leg managed to reach the other side of the crevasse, however the other refused to move. Gracefully I did the splits at 7129m, and then found myself stuck. Dawa, breathing heavy after Nicky’s close shave hauled me up and over to the other side, and I expect was quite thankful not to lose anyone to the crevasse.
I was into uncharted territory now as the exhaustion showed no signs of letting up, even on the descent. This time, I was much more aware of the amount of fixed ropes, and was shocked at the distance we covered on the ascent. At this point I was just surviving, making steady ground down to camp 2, but it never seemed to come any closer. The weather came in above our heads, and fortunately we were just low enough to avoid being caught in a whiteout. After around 2 hours, we abbed down a particularly large ice step, one of the most prominent features of the route, and at the base stopped for the first time of the day for some fluids and food. After a quick drink, I was too tired to open my stash of food, so took out some Lucozade dextrose tablets, and promptly ate the whole pack. This gave no noticeable effects, so with Sonam leading, I stumbled down to camp 2. Fortunately Paddy had stopped at camp 2 for the night, so we all collapsed into the tents without having to face an extra descent to camp 1. Without even taking my huge down coat off, I got into my sleeping bag and slept for 16 hours.
The following day, we all set off for base camp at different times. Nicky, Mary and Andrew left, then Paddy went with Eoin who had frostbitten hands from the previous day’s efforts. I left camp last and walked down to camp 1, then base camp alone.
It was spectacular as for the first time I could really appreciate the beauty of the place I found myself in. I abbed down the fixed lines which were even more impressive in the light (!), and walked past my pile of crow eaten food which was now only a few scattered crumbs and packets.
Still exhausted from the previous days, I stopped and ate another whole packet of Lucozade dextrose tablets, before carrying on and meeting a young cook boy who had dragged up one of the large thermos flasks full of orange tea. With the tea and dextrose tablets, I quickly found myself absolutely wired, so thought it would be a good time to make use of the sudden energy rush and make haste to base camp. The whole descent from camp 2 to base camp had taken 5 hours, compared to the 14 hour climb from base camp to camp 2 spread over 2 days.
I met Mark, Paddy and the Sherpas as I entered camp and after a few hugs and handshakes, headed for the mess tent and collapsed into the nearest available seat. Over dinner Mark informed me that he almost turned me around on the climb from base camp to camp 1, because had I not offloaded my food, I would never have made the camp 1 perhaps before the next morning, and a night out on the fixed ropes simply wasn’t an option. I clearly owe him for his trust and perseverance.
Sleep came easy that night, as the summit replayed over in my mind.
Rest days at Base Camp
The following 5 days were taken up with a few random incidents, a lot of sleeping, eating and not much else. The night after reaching base camp, I called mum on the sat phone which was the first contact I had had with anyone since leaving Lukla. The 2 minute phone call cost £12 on the sat phone, but it was worth it!
After battling Baruntse in a pair of liner gloves, Eoin with his frost bitten hands needed to be evacuated from base camp as soon as possible so a helicopter was called for which finally came after a few days of waiting.
At the same time, the guys who didn’t quite make the summit the first time including Roy left for a second attempt on the mountain. Also worth noting is Nuru’s 5 minute rant down the phone when the helicopter which came to rescue Eoin didn’t deliver any of the chickens that he had bartered for our evening meals…
During the days which followed, everyone left at base camp stuck to the same routine which went roughly as follows: Wake up, have breakfast, go back to sleep, wake up for lunch, back in the thoroughly roasting tent, back to the mess tent for afternoon tea, back to sleep, mess tent again for dinner, then back for a long sleep.
This routine lasted 5 days, and was great at the start whilst there were After 8 Mints, Pringles, Galaxy hot chocolate and Lint chocolate on the table. Eoin also left a few packets of truffle chocolate which were essentially devoured by a few greedy people, maybe or maybe not including myself, in a matter of minutes. Once the luxuries were gone, there was nothing left to do except lie in the tent and listen to the iPod. Once this finally gave up the ghost, reading a book was the only thing left to do. A few banterous evenings followed with Paddy, Nicky, Debbie, Gordon, Mary and Andrew, and I’m pretty sure it was only thanks to the other team members that I stayed relatively sane.
As the days started blending into one, I decided I needed to do a walk to get the blood pumping. I had been getting quite stagnant and was even getting out of breath walking to the toilet tent… This was not a good place to be panting. So I picked a route up a near hill and set off with my big boots, crampons and an ice axe. After 2 hours of falling in snow covered holes, I came to a relatively secluded mini valley out of the sight of base camp. Here, I saw a few animal tracks in the snow, and convinced myself they were that of a snow leopard. Feeling a little silly, I retreated back to the safety of base camp, looking over my shoulder for much of the way. Having done a little research however, I may have not been so silly since snow leopards can kill prey up to 3 times their size. In hindsight, there was a slight chance the prints came from a mountain hare though I personally prefer the snow leopard theory.
During one of the base camp days (I lost track after the third day), the climbers high on the mountain started out on their summit attempt, and we were happy to hear that Mark and Roy of Wigan made the summit. Roy is perhaps the first person from Wigan to ever make the summit, a fine achievement for his little country.
Apart from reading Shackleton’s remarkable account of the Endurance expedition and meeting up for daily banter with the guys at base camp, not much else actually happened. Incidentally it was at this point that I realised Andrew preferred to go by the name of Andrew, and not Alan as I had been calling him for most of the trip.
On Roy’s return, we were glad to finally have the group back together and ready for the final voyage to Lukla. The journey took us over the Amphu Lapcha pass, around island peak and down onto the main Everest trail. We were initially told to wake up at 4am as we were planning to do the two day climb of Amphu Lapcha and down to Chukhung in a single day, however as the whole group were utterly horrified at this prospect, the guides changed the time to 6am. This was great news for me, since I would be doing all of the walk up to the Amphu Lapcha in trainers, just as I had for the whole walk in, so a 4am start may have just been the final nail in the coffin for my feet.