Our stories are written both as we live them and as well tell them. Since arriving home Monday evening, I have been telling and re-telling the story of my recent Ama Dablam climb and I learn/reflect on the experience with each telling. My understanding is deeper and more nuanced each time and I’ve begun to catalogue all of the lessons to take forward from the expedition. No doubt, the stories and my understanding of them will change as I tell them further but I’m ready to share, as Paul Harvey used to say on the radio (and perhaps still does) “The Rest of the Story.”
Ama Dablam, named for the hanging glacier seen in the picture above, is a both beautiful and terrifying mountain (as mountains so often are). Dablam means “jewel box” and Ama means “mother” so Ama Dablam is “Mother’s Jewel-Box named for being reminiscent of the amulet that some Sherpa women wear around their necks. The Dablam has always given mountaineers pause and this season, especially so. Dendi Sherpa was killed and three other climbers injured, when ice from the Dablam fell and struck them in early November just before I was leaving for the mountain. I knew in that moment that my climb and my goals for that climb were changed. I’ve always been (and always hope to be a conservative decision maker in the field). I chose to continue onto the expedition because I knew many of my goals for the climb could be met below the Dablam/summit.
The trek in went smoothly, it was great being back in the Khumbu, and we hiked into our Ama Dablam base camp on day five (4400 meters). We’d slept in Monjo, Kunjuma, and Pangboche. We had our puja and a technical skills training day and then we began to carry up the mountain. In hindsight, I think I would have chosen another night in Pangboche before coming up to 4400 for more acclimatization time. I’d noticed I was dragging a bit on most inclines and perhaps was a bit slower to acclimatize overall on this expedition than usual. The expedition leader apprised the team that summits might not be possible this year due to the state of the Dablam but assessment of the hazard would be ongoing.
The first carry up the mountain to Advanced Base Camp (ABC) was tough for everyone but the second carry was even tougher for me. I was feeling like I had nothing in my legs or gas tank. Andy, my climbing partner was kind enough to relieve me of three pounds or so and it made a huge difference (go figure) and I made it up to ABC (5400). We settled into our and started melting snow into water. There were lots of headaches about camp as people tried to cope with less oxygen.
First nights are a new altitude are long and this one was no exception. Not much sleep, coupled with getting up frequently to pee, pounding headaches, nausea, needing to hydrate, etc. makes morning a time to latch onto. We left our gear in the tent and made our way slowly up to Camp One to introduce our bodies to that altitude. I felt like I was moving slow again but in hindsight, I have no real clear idea of how I was moving because my reference group had changed for this climb (i.e. I was climbing with faster folks than usual so naturally this would make it seem like I was slower).
In terms of the reference times we were given for times between camps, I was solidly in the middle (i.e. my first climb to ABC was 3.6 hours when the range given was 2-6 hours) but I labelled myself as “slow” and I was by comparison. I squirm as I type this because I recognize that I was stuck in a mind trap of labelling/shaping my experience by thinking I was slow/less than/inadequate because I happened to take my time going up the hill. I squirm because I can see that it was my ego talking…that it really didn’t matter how long it took to go from BC to ABC because there were absolutely no hazards requiring speed to minimize exposure to danger.
In fact, I could (here and now) argue that going slow is good because it doesn’t tax you as much, doesn’t build us as much of a hypoxic debt, and requires less recovery time…but all I could see/think/feel into those moments, surrounded by via speedy/active/macho teammates was that I was SLOW. My lesson to be taken…drop the story line, drop the ego, and just climb…only consider travel time as info, not weapon against self. I’d thought I’d already learned that lesson in 2007 but alas, some lessons need to learned more than once.
After tagging Camp One (5700), Andy and I spent a second night at ABC and then headed back to BC for some rest days. Five of the team went up to Camp One and spent the night. We were now in two waves/teams which fit well since higher camps would have less tents and we had been told we had lots of time to acclimatize and could go up/down the mountain on our own schedules. We spent two nights down and the expedition leader asked us all to stay down until the rest of the team got down so we could make a plan.
No real planning happened the evening Team One came down from the mountain. The leader didn’t initiate any and folks were just glad to be in the thick air. The four of us in Team/Wave Two made plans to go back up in the morning. Andy and I liked to leave early to allow plenty of time to melt snow and hydrate lots. As we were heading out, the rest of the team was discussing a potential plan to climb Island Peak ( a trekking peak 1.5 days walk up valley). We left them to it and starting up the hill once again arriving at ABC slightly faster than the first time. The views were awesome and all of us felt better being up the mountain the second time.
At radio check that evening, we were asked if we wanted to climb Island Peak and were told the rest of the team would join us the following evening at Camp One. We were surprised because they’d only had one rest day down low and we’d looked forward to being a small group at Camp One (and we’d assumed there were only spaces for about half the team). We said we’d give our decisions about Island peak in the morning and signed off. I don’t think we had a clear picture of how the Island Peak plan would derail our time on Ama Dablam at that point.
In the morning, three out of the four of us in Team/Wave Two said no to Island Peak. We packed our things and climbed up to Camp One. As usual, the going felt hard, arduous, and slow but in reality, I climbed faster on this second go to Camp One than I did on the first. I trailed the rest of the guys but got there in around 3 hours. The staff member who usually helped out by melting snow wasn’t yet back from his day off to Camp One so we boiled up, had some snacks, and headed out on the fixed lines towards Camp Two. Andy was moving particularly well so he made it all the way to the base of the yellow tower.
It was great to be out on the technical terrain that had formed the basis of my goals for the peak (I’d wanted to train/experience/climb in more technical high altitude environs). I climbed in this section alone but felt very confident and didn’t mind the solo time (the climbing sherpas hadn’t yet reached Camp One from base camp). Because I’d had climbed up from ABC, I set a limit of one hours out over the fixed line. At the one hour mark, I turned myself back. It turns out I returned very quickly so likely could have climbed another 30 minutes and perhaps reached the bottom of the yellow tower.
When I got back to Camp One, Kumar was there melting snow and I appreciated the cup of tea he provided me and then went to set up my things in our tent. Other teammates began to arrive from below and the guys came back from their foray up the ropes. As we started brewing up, we noticed that there was sh#t in the vestibule of our tent ( a wee bit disgusting) and we should likely of changed tents but there were no open ones left. Two of the sherpas went up to retrieve tents from Camp Two and brought them down to Camp One so there ended up being enough “beds” at the inn but it all started to unravel a bit with sherpas and members coming and going and sorting and with Camp One being a ledgy camp with tents fairly spread out it was tough to communicate. The ridge took the sun away at about 4 pm so then it got very cold and folks all piled into their tents for the night.
I learned several days later that both our expedition leader and sirdar were down in Pangboche on this day and this added to the complications of communication/plan making for everyone. I was made a bit uncomfortable by all the chaos/lack of leadership and said I would see what direction ( i.e. up or down) I would go in the morning. I had hoped to camp at Camp Two-that was my new goal for the mountain when the Dablam took the mountain out of condition. The morning was still a bit chaotic with small teams leaving at different times than arranged and I realized that I didn’t feel comfortable proceeding in the current set-up so I said I would head down. I had realized that I might need some assistance in carrying my load over the more technical terrain to Camp Two but knew the expedition was now in this “hurry up and get off the mountain so we can go to Island Peak” phase so I never expressed that need/want/goal. Big lesson number two from the climb…have a voice, ask for what I want/need, take up space, don’t always take it for the team.
As I descended, I felt truly disappointed in myself and the expedition/leader that I/we didn’t make Camp Two happen for me (it’s truly one of the more outrageous spots for a camp). When I heard that all but one of the tents had been pulled from Camp Two so the entire team could be at Camp One to try for high spots, it was hard to then say-“Please put the tents back up there.” Looking back in hindsight, when we left to climb to ABC in the midst of the decision, we forfeited our vote/voices for staying put on Ama. By the time, we’d reached ABC, the decision was made and we were left to decide how we would react to it. Ultimately, I chose to go trekking rather than bag a summit on Island Peak (and that was a good decision for me).
In the end, three team members went to Island Peak. Three caught a helicopter home early and three of us completed a 7 day trekking route over the Cho La before rejoining the Island Peak climbers in Kunjuma. Two team members climbed to the Grey Couloir, three or four to Camp Two, and the rest to various spots below Camp Two. The Island Peak hurry-up plan deprived some teammates of much needed rest and they were bagged (exhausted) when they climbed back up to Camp One on only one day of rest. I suspect, without the distraction of relocating the expedition for the peak bag, many members would have reached a high point of Camp Three but we’ll never know.
In reflecting on the expedition, I see it as humbling, as filled with lost potential, as disappointing, and/but on a brighter note, as one of celebrating perseverance. This one was a tough go for me. The hills were tough both physically and mentally…from the Namche Hill on…but I kept climbing. Every day. Through the toughness. Finding the foot steps. Finding each and every one of them deep within myself and putting them into the world. Every day felt tough like a summit day. Lessons of pushing hard, digging deep, finding strength, finding weakness, finding my frailty and climbing anyway. Lessons of lost voice and lost choice and lost opportunities and missed goals. Lessons of compassion for self and other, this moment and that. Moments of stunning beauty and uplifted wonder…as usual a rich and unfolding prayer flag filled time. And I so, so, so missed sharing each day of it with Marian (the Great Big Walk expedition spoiled me so).