Although this year has led me to four pretty respectable mountains, anticipation of Manaslu has consistently weighed on my mind throughout the year as the first 8000m mountain. Given that there are only 14 mountains over 8000m in the world, all of which are in the Himalayas, climbing any one of these is no doubt a formidable achievement that pulls on far more than physical fitness. Whilst Everest has seen over 7,000 summits from around 5,000 different people, Manaslu as the world’s 8th highest mountain plays a far lower profile and as such has been summited by just 771 people since its initial summit in 1956.
During one of my early trips to Nepal in 2002, I trekked along a route known as the Annapurna circuit with a friend that could be credited with introducing me to my love for Nepal and the Himalayas, Trev Stanton. The route passed to the west of Manaslu through a valley where I distinctly remember seeing this enormously impressive giant towering above us. I stood and stared for ages taking in the first 8000m mountain I’d ever seen and imagined an insane breed of people climbing on the upper flanks, a place no human is supposed to go. What I didn’t realize was that at this very moment I’d just been injected with a fascination for climbing high mountains.
Fast forward 15 years and back in Kathmandu, after meeting the team and our very experienced guide Dean, we flew off to the Manaslu area to end nearly a year of talking about climbing the mountain and starting the business of actually climbing the mountain. As a team of 5, we completed a week of careful acclimatization in a village 1000m below Manaslu base camp that at times roused the impatient Jon within as dozens of climbers from other teams headed up to the excitement of base camp. The value of acclimatization early in the trip is often underappreciated as climbers succumb to eagerness to get up the mountain often influenced by the movements of other teams, leaving their bodies playing catch-up for the rest of the climb. That being said, while patiently acclimatizing down in the valley, a different gremlin lives and that is the ever present risk of becoming sick with various germs that float around amongst people living very close together. Due to the body’s difficulty in recovering from any sickness at altitude, a mild cough contracted in the valley will almost certainly follow you to the end of the climb and likely escalate into night after night of coughing fits in the cold dry air. So given such high stakes it was not totally unexpected that when 12 clearly sick German’s sat down in the tea house kitchen for dinner, the 5 of us either pulled our buffs over our mouth and nose, moved to a farther seat or left the room entirely as though the plague was back.
During approximately 1 month we slowly acclimatized ourselves in preparation for the summit push while taking various loads of personal gear up to camps set on the mountain. Although moving between each camp only took 4-5 hours, the effect of altitude, steep terrain, a heavy pack and the blistering hot sun left us completely spent once we rolled in to camp. This, in turn leads to a more unsettled sleep and that leads to a tougher following day and down things spiral. On short climbs, a really hard day is often expected and all part of the fun, however on a one month climb it is really about the long game where avoidance of becoming fully wasted at the end of a day is critical. Between Camp 1 and Camp 2, the route moved through an icefall that was sadly the location of an avalanche that took out a dozen climbers in 2012. This poses the only technical challenge of Manaslu with a series of steep icy sections and numerous crevasses and then in some cases, steep icy sections with crevasses. Crossing deep crevasses that appear to have no bottom with ladders was a new one for me and without doubt not the same as climbing a garden ladder to get on the roof of the house as a kid. Often when in the middle of a swaying ladder several meters from solid ground, I would have a moment of ‘mate, what the #$*@ are we doing here?’ Somehow you’d get it done and with each pass through the icefall we felt more and more like pros giving each other advice as though we actually knew what we were doing. After we passed through the icefall for the last time I am sure no one was happier than my tent mate Phil who scored the largest bruise I’ve ever seen following a leap across a crevasse.
During our final acclimatization rotation up to camp 3, I passed a man and a Sherpa that were descending down a steep snow section attracting my full attention. The Sherpa had tied a short rope to the man’s harness and was pulling him down the mountain as though he needed constant coercion to remain moving. I’ve seen weak people short roped before, however in all those cases the Sherpa would stand behind the client to prevent a fatal slip while the client descended under their own steam, but in this case the Sherpa was below the client pulling him down similarly to a farmer controlling cattle. As I passed he said ‘Hi’ and they continued down leading me to believe that although in a right state, he was just another tired climber that was digging himself out of a hole. I learned an hour later than he had died just below as the effects hypoxia had taken a grip. In the coming days as the full story came to light it became clear that his guide had neglected his deteriorating condition 2 days earlier up at Camp 4 and carried on with another client to the summit. No oxygen was given and the rescue response was far too late. Even when passing me and other Sherpas, no request for help or oxygen was made by his Sherpa and so we all carried on as we had when passing dozens of other weak climbers that day. Incidentally 11 months earlier when sorting through the vast number of options available to climb Manaslu, I nearly considered this group due to its very competitive cost.
By the end of September and thanks to a brilliant stint of weather, a large number of teams had made their summit attempts; some successes, some not but had ultimately headed off. Having steadily completed our acclimatization whilst trying to ignore the movements of other groups, it was starting to look like we would have the mountain to ourselves and so for the last time we packed up our gear and left base camp for the summit push. We patiently slept a night in each camp slowly moving up whilst attempting to retain as much energy as possible for summit day. During the afternoon at camp 3 we noticed a lone man stumbling down the final stretch into camp as though he had found the stash of Nepalese moonshine and finished the lot. Collapsing next to our tents unable to talk or move we gave him oxygen, water and a shot of Dex (steroids) whilst wondering where on earth his team was. Our trusty Doctor Phil confirmed he was not suffering cerebral or pulmonary edema and that he was likely severely hypoxic having spent far too much time in an oxygen deprived state. After some time when he became able to speak, he was able to confirm that he was from the German team that coincidently had been doing there best to pass on the flu to us a month earlier in the valley. Interestingly once we tracked down his guide and team on the radio, it was apparent that he had been mistakenly left behind while the team carried on down. After the sad end for the British climber a week earlier that could have been easily avoided with oxygen, it was very satisfying to watch the staggering improvement in this man’s condition over the few hours until his guide and Sherpa returned to pick him up. Thankfully Manaslu’s fatality statistic did not change that day.
Having felt particularly strong during the climb up until this stage and feeling as though my body had acclimatized well, I floated the prospect of an additional challenge come summit day; a no Oxygen ascent. Generally above 8000m, the vast majority of foreign climbers and Sherpa use bottled oxygen due to its ability to combat the low air pressure leading to reduced oxygen inhaled with each breathe. The additional oxygen offered not only helps to fuel the muscles while climbing but also to better resist the horrors of frost bite and to permit restful sleep. I planned to carry a bottle in my pack and use it if required but essentially see how far I’d get without. The other members of the team planned to use oxygen from the night in camp 3 and continue using it to climb and sleep until returning back to camp 3 two or three days later. After a pretty challenging day climbing from Camp 3 to 4 at 7500m with all my personal gear, I crashed in my tent in need of some rest, however without bottled oxygen and now at an altitude that I was not acclimatized to this was fruitless. Phil climbed into the tent and enthusiastically said, ‘well that was a nice walk’ and then started energetically hunting through his pack for some food. Having felt faster and stronger than Phil all trip, it was amazing how much I disagreed with his statement and wished I had the energy to hunt around through my own pack for some food.
As the sun started to descend over the horizon I lay down and began the frustrating task of trying to fall asleep at 7500m. Within minutes my mind became fixated on the wonderful sounds of a roommate snoring as Phil slipped into a deep sleep with his 1 litre/min flow of oxygen. With ear plugs and an eye mask I tried for hours and hours to calm myself while my heart beat like a hummingbird and wind battered the tent. Occasionally I would drift into a light sleep, my breathing rate would drop and bizarre thoughts would start entering my head. While barely conscious I started seeing strange bottles of water being passed to me by someone sitting down near my feet wearing a cloak and then I would suddenly feel really thirsty all while my entire body ached with a feeling of discomfort that I could only describe as similar to being held underwater. After 8 of the longest hours of my life I started to worry that with all of this discomfort, even if I get through this night, I would be so weakened that reaching the summit may not even be possible. Additionally, unsure if this was all early signs of cerebral edema (often victims experience hallucinations and strange thoughts) I reached for my oxygen mask and decided this wasn’t going to be a no-O’s climb. As the night transpired, high winds raged on which made our first summit attempt impossible. When our luck changed 24 hours later I headed for the summit knowing that although I may have been able to hold on through one night without bottled oxygen there would have been no way I could have held on another night and still had the energy to summit. Since this trip I have discussed the subject of no O’s with a far more experienced mountaineer and learned that my reaction during the night was totally normal and that sleep is simply not possible; all part of the 'sufferfest' as he stated that is climbing without bottled oxygen.
The summit day began at 2am and saw Ket, Phil, Dean and I along with our Sherpas on the summit for sunrise, alone and in perfect conditions. It is hard to describe the feeling of summiting as perhaps arrogantly I always knew I was physically able to get there and the recent weather had been very consistent, so I wouldn’t say it was a sense of relief to summit the same way Elbrus was, neither was it an appreciation that I was standing on the 8th highest point in the world. The overriding feeling was a fairly simple sense of peaceful awe with what I was looking at. A feeling of literally standing in the heavens looking down at the world with every mountain that had towered above us during the last month now below. With fairly severe drops on all sides (as most Himalayan summits have) of over 2000m and being blasted with freezing cold wind, Manaslu demanded some serious respect. Remembering the story of a poor woman that had fallen from the summit last year, I carefully took out my camera and gained the all-important summit shot before Phil stated eloquently ‘let’s get the hell out of here’ and we made our way off the summit ridge.
Despite a group plan to return to camp 2, the thought of real food rather than boil-in-a-bag and a mattress drew me to persevere through the 3600m descent to base camp. Collecting all my personal gear and uneaten food at each of the camps during the descent, my pack weighted an unappreciated 35kg by the time left camp 1. Two hours from base camp and around when I thought Manaslu was happily seeing me off, the glacier below my right foot gave way and I fell into a crevasse. Luckily my pack was so enormous that I became jammed between the walls of the crevasse with my head just above ground. Although clipped into a fixed line, had I not become jammed I would have fallen a fair bit further before the rope would have gone tight (if the end of season snow pickets held at all.) Beyond exhausted I surmounting energy I never thought I had and wrestled my way out and continued on to Base camp and effectively the safe end of the trip.
Well, my intention with a climb of Manaslu was to see if I was ready physically, technically and mentally for Everest rather than to just saunter up and give it a go. Satisfied in that respect, Everest is booked in for April 2018 and the countdown has begun!