The alarm on my iPhone startles me awake at 1am. Our plan was to leave basecamp by 2am and attempt to reach camp 1 by mid afternoon. Unfortunately, it’s snowing outside so PK and I decide to go back to sleep for another two hours.
In a way, this is a huge relief because I’ve only slept 2 and a-half hours, yet at the same time I’m conflicted because I know that leaving this early is the safest way to climb. It’s now 3am. Once again, my alarm wakes me up from a dream that I can’t remember and yet again, it’s still snowing outside. Like clockwork, we return to our cocoons and reset our alarms for 530am. This time, the snow has ceased to fall and when the alarms sound, we rise and prepare for the long arduous day ahead.
By the time we reach the top of the couloir it’s nearly lunchtime. We feast on energy bars, hard-boiled eggs and an egg sandwich before heading up towards our cache (deposit) point at 5900m. The sun is up and the snow is soft which means that we’ll be suffering all day long as we make our way to the point where we turned back just a few days before.
This is by far the hardest climbing I’ve even undertaken. The Monsoon season is beating us up pretty badly. Our tracks are covered. The fixes lines we set are buried. Every step we attempt to gain, we sink to our waists in soft snow. The thin air and lack of acclimatization isn’t helping either. I’m panting and breathing incredibly deeply, gasping for air, with every step that we take. My heavy pack is also weighing me down, causing me to sink deeper than PK and Kusang, which is making my job even harder. In tremendous pain, I stop, rest my head/helmet in the snow and desperately try to consume oxygen from the atmosphere. “This is impossible”, I think to myself. And then I remind myself that you don’t achieve a goal like without a certain amount of intense suffering. There is no room for negative thinking here. I create a positive internal dialogue and remind why I’m doing this. Like a good soldier, I carry on with the mission, one excruciating step at a time.
It’s 3pm. PK is in the lead, I’m in the middle and Kusang is in the rear. We are all attached to a main 50m long pinkish/reddish rope. Should any of us fall, the other two can break the fall. We’re all so focused and lost in flow, that we all climb without making a single error. There is no room for mistakes on this climb.
“This should be much easier”. I think to myself. After all, we put in the fixed safety lines last time we were up here. Because of the fresh snow dump and the incessant bad Moonsoon weather, it’s even harder than the last time we ascended this route.
PK shouts down to me: “This is harder than climbing Everest! It’s like we climbed Everest two times and we hardly started”. I nod in agreement and keep treading upwards. Sometimes speaking consumes too much energy in these kinds of situations so a simple nod or thumbs up does the trick. I’d much rather be climbing Everest right now, I think to myself. It would certainly be a lot easier!
I check the altimeter on my watch and it reads 5900m. The weather has once again completely deteriorated and it’s already 6pm. It’s going to be dark soon and I sense we’re going to be in serious trouble unless we act accordingly and make some very difficult decisions.
“Pasang, what do you want to do?” I shout ahead.
“We need to climb up, I think there might be a way”. He replies.
At the rate we are climbing because of the deep snow, I know it will take him another 45 minutes to gain 50m of altitude. By that point, the temperature will drop even further and it’ll be nightfall.
“Kusang, how are your fingers?” I ask.
“Very cold”, he replies.
My fingers are quite cold as well and I’m exhausted from the ascent and the challenge of the deep snow so I yell up to PK who is now 20m higher and suggest we carve out an emergency ledge into the side of the mountain. It’s either camp out on a dangerously exposed steep wall of ice/snow or climb down in the dark with our headlamps. Neither option is a good option, but I prefer the emergency ledge. We’re in this situation because we’re desperately trying to reach camp 1 and the snowfall this morning delayed our start time. According to our meteorologist friend in Kathmandu, this is the good weather forecast.
After a few moments of discussion, we all agree that this is now an emergency situation, so we begin implementing the plan to camp out on the side of the steep mountain, carve out ledge with our ice axes and shovel and sleep in a tent under a dangerous overhanging serac. It’s not ideal. It’s not ideal whatsoever, but we have no choice. This is now about survival.