This is the first properly cold morning. The condensation on the window has frozen pretty solidly but luckily we are still moving up the valley pretty slowly and so we have another relaxed start with breakfast at 9am. I have struggled with the amount of sugar and grease in most of the breakfast dishes so far and go for a cheese sandwich this time - this is actually really good. Decent bread, plenty of strong melted nak cheese and some potatoes from last night that you can pop into the sandwich to offset the strong cheese. The late start also allows a bit more time to dry our clothes from the wash yesterday as we have the usual blue sky and strong sun in the morning.
As we head up the valley we get changing views of the mountains
but the valley floor gets pretty barren with only a sparse covering of gorse and some very tough, dry grass.
It has continued to get colder up the valley and there is now widespread snow. For the first time I put on a second layer after a longish rest when we only have about 20 mins to go.
We get to our teahouse in time for lunch and I lead a mini revolt against fried vegetarian food and a few of us have rather good 'meat' curry and boiled rice. Even better is the chilli sauce they have which is both tasty and really rather hot.
After lunch we brave the usual cloud / mist and significant drop in temperature to play around with ropes for a bit but after about 1.5 hours we retreat to the warmth of the teahouse for cards / reading / chatting etc. Supper is a mushroom and garlic soup then a large plate of spaghetti in tomato sauce and a rather large spring roll. We are heading up Island Peak in about 30 hours from now, so it is time to start carbo loading!
After supper we are playing cards in the common room when all of a sudden the porters / guides start getting out pillows and duvets to make little beds on the benches and someone then 'accidentally' turns the lights off and on - we take the hint and retire to bed.
It has snowed quite a bit overnight which adds character to the village we are - it is going to be interesting to see what this does to conditions further up the mountain.
Again we only have a short trek today - about 2.5 hours or so - so it is a pretty relaxed morning but everyone else has left the teahouse by the time we have breakfast. I am still struggling somewhat with the usual breakfast fare but enjoying the toasted cheese sandwiches.
The trek itself is fairly gentle and the trains of yaks and people ahead of us have cleared a handy path through the deep snow - I doubt we will be so lucky heading for the Island Peak summit!
The path heads up from the main valley and then circles the base of the peak
to base camp in the narrow valley between Island Peak and the neighbouring large ridge and close to the start of the main route up the mountain.
I say close, but in fact there are a lot of people here so we end up quite a bit further down the track than we had expected!
There is no mess tent at base camp as we are only here for one day so we are brought food and drink in our tents. After a high carb lunch of pasta, potatoes and vegetables we do some fixed line rope work on the steep slope next to the camp. This is ascending with a jumar and coming back down in either full abseil mode, light friction mode or just with the rope wrapped around your arm to control the descent. The downside to the quicker modes of descent is the damage done to your gloves as the rope feeds through them - hence the cheap counterfeit gloves we bought in Kathmandu.
After that we prepare our gear for tomorrow as we will be leaving at 1 am (after a number of lazy days the expedition is getting serious!) and it is surprising how long it takes to get organised and make good decisions at that time and when newly arrived at altitude. The camp will be packed up and taken back to Chukung whilst we are on the mountain so we will need to pack everything we are not taking as well. Supper is brought to our tents at about 6 and we invite Paddy to join us for a friendly chat but then spend the time grilling him about gear. After supper he heads off to check on the rest of the group as a few people seem to be struggling with the altitude. By about 7pm we are all in bed trying to get some sleep in preparation for getting up at midnight for our long day ahead.
This is definitely a different style to Aconcagua and the North Pole where we had to be much more self-sufficient - pitching our tents, cooking for ourselves etc. Even on the climbing practice the Sherpas were expecting to do all our carabiner and rope changes. However it is all done in such a nice and friendly way and the Sherpas, porters and cooks all seem to enjoy showing you their country and helping you enjoy it.
Up at midnight and jump into my warm clothes as it is pretty chilly in the tent and delaying get out of your sleeping bag in such conditions just gets harder and harder. At quarter past breakfast is brought round whilst we are packing up. There are the usual last minute issues where something, having been carefully placed in one pile or bag, has mysteriously moved but in general things go pretty smoothly and we set off at 01:09. It wont get light until about 6am so we are walking with our head torches - this means that we will see very little of our surroundings for a while. We start out walking along the valley floor to get to path leading up the mountain and it is a great deal warmer than we feared it might be. Soon we turn up onto the steep path up the 'nose' of the mountain as opposed to the much longer but more gentle one that leads round the back. Very soon the group starts to split as the lead Sherpa sets a pretty quick pace and only I and one other, Simon, are able to keep up - Simon has excellent technique and it is a bit of a struggle to stay with them. The major issue is that I don't feel that I have acclimatised that well as yet - our recent days have been short walks at low altitude - and I am really puffing which does not bode well for the rest of the day!
Despite the lack of air, the trek is really enjoyable including a variety of gradients as well as moving over snow, rock and ice. However we really aren't moving that quickly and start to get cold. I have bought a new pair of gloves for this trip but really struggle with them - it is something I will have to look into more for future trips - and soon revert to my tried and trusted warm liner gloves and 8,000 mtr mitt shell. At about 3 am the temperature seems to drop again and a bit of wind picks up and so we put on our down jackets and I add my new face mask - it is remarkable how much more enjoyable climbing is when you are nice and warm rather than a bit too chilly! This combines with the crampons going on as we have now cleared the final rock outcrop and are walking on snow and ice on much steeper sections. We are struggling a bit as neither of us wants to be the one to slow things down! But this does mean that we pass other groups ahead of us which should mean that we will be ahead of the crowd when we get to the summit.
At about 5am or so we came to the final headwall which is about 150 mtrs high leading up to the summit ridge. The climb up the face takes a long time (about an hour or so) as we need to take a breath every three steps or so - force / fitness are now more valuable which enable me to get ahead and enjoy the chance to take in the view a look back over what I have just come up. It was a very tough ascent as we are getting up to 6,200m with pretty minimal acclimatisation. Still its very reassuring to know that I can cope with this.
I follow the ridge up for a bit to a small plateau and a couple of minutes later the Sherpa arrives to confirm that this is indeed the summit. The view is spectacular - Island Peak is so named as it appears like an island surrounded by a ring of larger mountains including the 8,000 mtr Lhotse to the North (blocking the view of Everest) and Ama Dablam (our main objective) to the South.
After a few photos we need to head down as Simon is feeling pretty terrible and other people are now starting up the ropes and we want to avoid congestion on them. I am trying my go pro for the first time in real action and it will be interesting to see what the footage looks like.
We reconvene at the bottom of the ropes along with someone else from the group who doesn't feel great and start the long journey back to camp. None of us are moving that well and soon we are out of the snow and onto the loose scree and rocks which I really dislike in my big 8,000 mtr boots - it takes us quite a while to get back to camp. I got to the summit in 5:30 and then it was about 3 hours back down; setting off at a bit after 1 and getting back a bit after 10:30.
Once back at base camp, we have a quick drink and a bowl of noodle soup before stretching out on some mats - unfortunately the camp (except for the kitchen tent) was packed up whilst we were on the mountain. We fall asleep in the sun for a couple of hours until the rest get back in the afternoon. Unfortunately for them we still have a good 2 hour walk back to Chuckun and so they don't have much time to rest if they want to avoid the cold, dark and wet weather that arrives in late afternoon here.
The walk back is a bit of a schlep in the end - it is not that tricky but a long way after the summit and we end up getting quite strung out - the low cloud and wind really don't help either. There does not seem to be much recovery by supper which turns out to be a quiet affair with people heading to bed soon after.
The plan was to sleep in but I wake up at about 6 which gives me time to catch up on my notes and read a bit before actually getting up at a more socially acceptable time of 8 am to organise my bags before breakfast. A long night's sleep seems to have done the group a world of good and there are much higher spirits as we head down the mountain - pleased that yet again we are the last group out of the teahouse!
We are having lunch at the teahouse in Dengboche where we stayed on the way up and whilst waiting for lunch meet the 3 or 4 year old son playing with a ball in the garden by himself as his sisters are clearly not interested. Feeling an immediate kinship, I join in the fun and introduce him to the joy of throwing the ball onto a sloping corrugated iron roof and then being surprised as to where it comes off. The kid has a decent arm and, despite the ball being made of rubber, it is not a surprise when his mother shouts at him (rather than me) to stop when he starts getting the ball up near the windows - hopefully Dad will be more supportive when he sees the new game!
I am quite keen on some non-fried food for lunch and whilst that proposition gets support I am not sure that veggie cheeseburgers and chips is quite what I had in mind. Still this seems to fuel the afternoon's walk down to Pangboche where a few of us go at a pretty decent pace which is great fun and good practice as the path is far from smooth and so good footwork is crucial. This wouldn't be Nepal without a few adventures along the way whilst overtaking yaks as well as trekkers, but a couple of new ones are dodging mountain goats as they head straight down the mountain that we are traversing (unfortunately the rest of the herd seem reluctant to follow having seen the near miss of the first few to attempt it so I can't get any footage which is a shame as the slope is very steep here and their ability to navigate boulders and shrubs at that speed is very impressive) and having to jump over a garden wall, much to the surprise of an elderly Nepali lady who is busy in her garden, when faced with two approaching yaks taking up the entire narrow path with their rather large horns at groin level!
Having dropped off my gear at the tea house, I head straight to the Internet cafe to endure the agonisingly slow Internet speed to find out what has happened back in London since the 'tremors' had started last Saturday and was very proud to be able to tell the rest of be group that I had become an Uncle again – Matilda Hemming being the first girl in the next generation of our family. I felt that this deserved something a little special and so was pretty happy when I saw that the teahouse had some bottles of whisky; however, when the lady who owned the teahouse found out that we were heading off to Ama Dablam she refused to sell me saying that whisky on the way up was very bad but that whisky on the way down was very good and she looked forward to selling me a bottle then to celebrate both the birth and our success on the mountain!
More bad news was to follow when it turned out that the very late and heavy monsoon had left a lot of snow on Ama Dablam and that no one had managed to get far up the mountain yet and that groups were even heading back to Kathmandu realising that there was no chance of conditions improving sufficiently before they needed to fly home. This is a real worry as the monsoon ended over three weeks ago and it is hard to be sure that the next week or so will see a big enough change in conditions. Still we are going to head over tomorrow and have a look.
The sad side of this is that we are saying goodbye to the local team who have been looking after us so well until now - especially our trekking guide Nir who is a real character. We have a little ceremony to hand out the tips and he provides the local tipple which is local wine mixed with coffee and honey - it is certainly interesting and I make the usual mistake (for me anyway as I don't like coffee) of drinking it and showing appreciation and so being given a refill at the expense of one of the locals who would have loved it. Suitably fuelled by the brew, Nir makes (what appears to be) a genuinely heartfelt speech of thanks for how much fun the trip has been and how easy we have been! He then starts to recollect how things went badly on a prior trip where he had one young lady as a client who took a shine to him and took his refusal of her advances (he has a wife and kid as he explained to her) very badly. By this time the whole of the teahouse is listening to the story as he continues with how he was summoned to Kathmandu to explain to his boss after she had complained about him - he had told her, then his boss and now us that this wasn't part of his job and the whole thing seemed to be getting really rather serious and a bit maudlin so I made a joke along the lines that this was one of the downsides that us handsome chaps had to put up with in life - quite luckily both he (and the rest of the teahouse) found this very funny and he was very proud of the underlying compliment so the mood lifted quickly and reverted to its more celebratory nature.
After a few more speeches with each of us saying how wonderful everything and everyone was (this was after minimal alcohol!) we retired to bed, looking forward to heading off to AD base camp in the morning.
The temperature really seems to have dropped today and getting out of a warm bed into cold clothes really isn't fun - you don't make the same preparations as while camping to deal with this. At breakfast (I have a rather good but small cheese and tomato sandwich) people seem a bit subdued as even though we have descended quite a bit people are still getting over the shock of the summit day and perhaps the booze from last night!
We are told that it is traditional to get a blessing from the local monastery (in exchange for 20 rupiah which is about 15p) so we decide to head up after breakfast. While waiting to go, it turns out that all the zokyo (cross between a yak and a cow that do most of the carrying in the valley) have gone. Apparently they are left to forage outside the villages at night and they have got fed up and headed back home. Whilst this may have been an accident, the less charitable amongst us feel that the driver sent them back to get him out of coming to base camp with us and so save himself a day or two of work - this would also explain why he was so insistent that we tip him last night rather than at the end of his work as we are doing for everybody. Still the idea of 'homing' zokyo is so funny that we don't mind that much and poor Nir has to head off and find some replacement ones to get the equipment up to BC whilst the driver comically loads all his saddles onto his (rather handily) one remaining zokyo and heads back home.
Then we head up to the monastery. I don't have the best of relationship with organised religion, but determine to keep a lid on it if things go well but at the same time presume they won't. Outside the monastery is a poster providing advice to tourists, much of it is generic and useful but my favourite instruction is "Please don't give money to begging children but please give as generously as you can to monks." Whilst there may be good reasons behind the first part especially, the juxtaposition of the two is rather amusing. We are then shown into the main part of the monastery for some bowing with the Llama (presumably preceding the blessing) but are then shown a little cupboard which is opened with a bit of ceremony to display what looks like a leather cap with some died hair sewn into it. We are a bit bemused until we are told that this is a yeti skull / head and what the monastery is famous for. From there we are shown into another room which has a few pieces of art but most prominent is the donations box and so after a couple of minutes of looking at the art we put some money into the box and return to the main room. However the llama has now gone and it appears that we are not going to get our blessing after all. So, a little surprised at the recent events (and a couple of us with headaches after banging our heads on the low doorways) we head back to the teahouse to pick up our bags and on to BC.
Shortly after setting off, Paddy pops into a building to chat to a friend which leaves us poised outside the local bakery. A few of us are a bit hungry after breakfast and others realise that this is the last time we will be near a bakery for some time and so we decide to pop in - much to the apparent displeasure of our new guide. All we are doing today is trekking to BC which is about 3.5 hours or so and given the snow issues we are not doing much tomorrow so there is no real rush in any case - even so the trek is quite a steep one which will challenge the legs and lungs especially after the past couple of days. I am feeling pretty low in energy so, rather than hanging back as I have done before, get a rather large slice of Black Forest gateau. At about 11am we finally head off (only about two hours later than originally planned) and I struggle a bit for the first hour as I just have no energy but then some large clouds threaten to engulf us and my cake kicks in so I lead a charge to camp. In fact this only takes about an hour (timing estimates have not been that great on this trip to be honest) and we get into the mess tent for some tea and then lunch before the clouds arrive.
Base camp is a large flat area surrounded by a number of peaks and cols. There are a number of expeditions here which provides quite a bit of colour against an otherwise white, grey, black and brown backdrop. We are probably going to get to know some of the other groups quite well as given the conditions it is not likely that anyone will be heading up anytime soon.
Lunch is a fried spam with a rather good vegetable curry and excellent chapati. I realised that we would eating spam on this trip but had hoped that we might have a few days of fresh meat first - perhaps it is just that they did not know when we were going to arrive and so spam was the easiest way of getting us some lunch quickly ...
The afternoon is getting settled into the camp and trying to find out a bit more about the conditions. There isn't any real update as yet, but our Sherpas have a number of friends here so will be going around tomorrow to get a better idea.
Supper is pretty good although vegetarian (curry) but luckily one of the rare internet opportunities recently showed me that a big steak evening is being organised for when I am back - something I will no doubt dream of tonight! We get three courses which makes it quite a social meal which uses up the rest of the evening. Part of the evening has been talking about avalanches. There is little risk of one on AD that hits base camp (and even then there is a real moment of nervousness when we hear a deep rumbling shortly after getting into our sleeping bags) the real concern is of a big one near the top which would take anyone up there off with it!
Off the back off a few 'tough' days we are having a rest day at AD BC - this was in the original itinerary but it looks as though we will be having a few more given the problems with the conditions.
The cook crew had been keen to bring us some 'tent tea' so we all just lie in bed reading and dozing expecting to be roused at 07:30 but nothing happens and a few of us lose track of time making us late for the 8am breakfast - not a big issue but amusing. In fact I have been awake since about 5 am - not a great night's sleep but tomorrow should be better.
Our Sherpas have been talking to their friends and it is still the case that no one has yet been above camp 2 but a group is heading up today to have a look so we will hopefully find out soon what conditions are like and then will start the horse trading to try and 'book' some space at camp 2 (which is a very small ledge on the ridge) later in the week. There are no rules for this and we are one of the most recent arrivals, however we are also partially acclimatised so should be able to move quicker through the lower camps. However as more time passes, more of the other groups are acclimatising on this mountain so it is likely that as soon as conditions clear, there will be a bit of a bun fight. We have a bit of spare time so probably won't be one of the first groups to go up but Paddy knows quite a few people here and has been involved on a few of these before so we should get a reasonable spot in the queue but that is likely to be after a few more days at least at BC. When things become a bit clearer we will probably head up the mountain to help acclimatise, drop off some equipment and not the least actually do something rather than sitting around waiting.
The weather here is quite frustrating. For 10 mins there isn't a cloud in the sky so you overheat and worry about burning then some low cloud and wind arrive and the temperature drops about 30c almost immediately. The morning is pretty lazy, hanging round camp and doing a few chores
but after a lunch of frankfurters with cabbage and beans (better than it sounds) we head off to a nearby rock to do some more rock and ropes practice to prepare ourselves for the upcoming two towers - these are the large towers on the ridge that are both technically difficult and have about 1,000 mtr drop which makes tackling them pretty challenging. The skills are the ones that I have been using on some of my trips and it is pleasing to see that I still remember them and more so that I am becoming increasingly comfortable with them - although this is when the drop is 15m rather than the 1,000 mtrs when I will be doing this in anger slightly later.
After a bit a really cold fog comes in and anyone not wearing a down jacket gets chilly pretty quickly if they are not climbing and so we start to head back to the tents to warm up and get ready for supper. As I walk over to supper the mist has really come in:
and both temperature and visibility have dropped even further. Paddy has been trying to make a call a bit down the valley and commented on entering the mess tent how disorientating it is once you get any distance away from BC.
Supper starts with a rather large quantity of veggie pasta and once we have made quite a dent in that some dumplings arrive. There is not that much enthusiasm initially as we are all quite full but then it turns out that they are meat dumplings and perfectly good meat at that so we start to tuck in but struggle to do much justice to them. A couple of the chaps then decide to try and phone home so head out down the valley to try and find some signal. After about an hour someone jokes that they are lost but the prior conversation soon resumes. Another hour later a similar joke is made as they still have not returned and, given the mist and the cold, the possibility is taken quite a bit more seriously. We discuss what normally happens in such circumstances and the range of possibilities of what might have happened and it soon becomes clear that they have probably got lost and we need to do something. Paddy, being the guide and also next to the door and being dressed for the outside (having just come from there), ducks out to have a quick look for them. Time goes by and we start discussing what the next steps should be if they don't return soon. We think it unlikely that Paddy had got lost but if he is long either he has got lost as well or the situation is serious and needs help. We decide that in 10 mins we will go and get properly dressed so that if we need to do anything we will be ready to do it and start discussing what action we should then take - given conflicting issues such as the need for safety but speed, numbers but both language barriers and the fact that most people have gone to bed. However, with a few minutes to spare, Paddy and the others walk in; everyone has rosy cheeks but luckily the temperature has risen so in fact there is nothing that a good cup of tea won't fix. All in all, quite an exciting an amusing evening - especially for those of us who didn't quite need to leave the heated mess tent!
I wake up very shortly before the bed tea arrives at 07:30 am. This is great in theory but does not work so well in practice. The cook boy (that is his job title - and stage one on the way to becoming a Sherpa) opens the two layers of my tent and gives me an empty mug which he proceeds to fill to the brim with boiling hot liquid. I now have open flaps letting the cold air in, am slightly off balance as I was having to reach for the cup and have a cup that I can't put down as the floor is unsurprisingly not level and the liquid will spill and get my gear wet and I can't drink any of the tea to lower the level as it is too hot. Quite an amusing predicament to find oneself in!
Anyway with slightly wet gear and a slightly burned mouth I head off to breakfast where we discuss our climb. It seems that the fixing team (the Sherpas who go up and fix ropes on the mountain for everyone to use) headed up yesterday afternoon and so the mountain will soon be open. The groups that we have talked to seem to be planning to go up to camp 1 and / or 2 and then back to base camp. This should give us the opportunity to follow them up and then stay up and summit when they come back down - this would be remarkably convenient if it pans out! Then we head out to the rock to do some more climbing practice before a lunch.
The afternoon is pretty lazy as well - I have a shower and shave which is pretty nice - and then we meet at 4 for tea and some rather good brownies courtesy of Mrs Alastair Burns. After that we read and chat until supper which is mushroom, garlic and pepper soup with pink prawn crackers and then an interesting mix of cheese, tomato and mushroom pizza, tandoori chicken and roast potato all served on a sizzling plate.
We find out that our Puja has changed. Before each ascent of a mountain, the mainly Buddhist Sherpas want to get a blessing from the local llama to ensure their luck and safety on the mountain. This is a longstanding tradition that is popular with climbers as well and you normally give between $20 and $50 to the llama and Sherpas to cover the Llama's costs as well as some special food and drink for the ceremony. We have been discussing our Puja for some time given the delay of our start on the mountain and have just found out that rather than as we were told when handing the money over (admittedly a bargain at $15) that the Sherpas were going to into Pangboche to buy supplies and bring the Llama back with them, they are in fact heading in to have the Puja themselves in the Pangboche monastery. This is the monastery we visited a couple of days ago and were pretty unimpressed at the time.
Then after dinner we play cards for a bit. Despite not doing a great deal it is amazing how tired we are each night and how difficult that makes even easy things like arranging your hand in suits.
Accounts and photos of completing the Explorers Grand Slam - 2 Poles and 7 Summits. By Sebastian Merriman. Aconcagua, Ama Dablam, Carstenz Pyramid, Denali, McKinley, Elbrus, Everest, Kosciusko, Kilimanjaro, North Pole, Arctic, South Pole, Antarctic, Antarctica, Vinson, vertigo, climbing, mountaineering, skiing to the pole, skiing to the poles, seb2poles7summits, seb27, Seb Merriman, seb2poles, mountains, poles