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Account of the Makalu expedition – The Final Ascent

It has only been about 2 weeks since I’ve been back home but the thoughts of the mountain seem so distant suddenly. There had been minimal connection to the outside world while at base camp and I would like to thank my wife for updating this blog from the bits and pieces of information about the climb I told her from our very infrequent sat phone communication.

Makalu is a HUGE mountain! Its area is around 170 km2 (including its subsidiary peak Chomo Lonzo). This is about the same area as the Everest Lhotse complex. (Both areas measured using google earth using the polygon tool with perimeter measured at the valleys of each mountain complex). The whole of the Makalu Barun conservation area is around 1500km2 while Singapore’s total area is around 720km2 (just for comparison). Just seeing Makalu from the heli into BC was one of the most spectacular sights ever. It is a massive, almost perfect 4 sided pyramid located 20km east of Everest with 3 of its 4 ridges located in Nepal while 1 spans eastwards towards Tibet. We tried to climb the normal route which is the south west ridge. It was also one of the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever climbed and the most peaceful one as well as we were the only team on Makalu this season.

The classic view from the South East ridge Makalu BC where Yak Hotel is located. The memorising massive beautiful Makalu seen from a completely different angle from where we were at the South West ridge BC

 

Even though we had to turn back just 100m from the summit, it was one of the most proudest climbing moments for me as we achieved the near impossible by climbing in the season of less success probability (post monsoon as compared to spring) and with a team of only 14 people (6 foreign climbers and 7 sherpas and 1 trying to be the 1st Nepali female to climb the mountain). Getting so close to the summit would never have been possible without the extremely strong and brave Sherpa team, namely Jamling, Nima, Kami, Dhakipa, Pempa (speed), Duk Chung and Nurbu. They worked hard as a team and set fixed ropes nearly all the way to the start of the French couloir. My utmost respect and awe for their determination, perseverance, motivation and strength. Also a shout out to the kitchen staff namely this porter we fondly named ‘rescue’ who would walk daily from the South East ridge’s Makalu BC to our BC to get food supplies from a lodge (Yak Hotel) located there. This walk took me a 4h descent and a 7 h ascent on loose, exposed moraine and scree during 1 of my rest days in between my acclimatisation rotations. One experience on this route and everyone in the team never wanted to walk on the trail ever again. However, ‘Rescue’ would take this walk almost every without complaining.

The brave Makalu team. It was an honour climbing with these gentlemen and the lady. Standing in the back row from Left to Right: Pascal, Jamling, Nima, Jiandan, Me, Fransua, Meidi, David, Duk Chung, Nurbu. Seated from left to right: Kami, Dhakipa, ‘Rescue’. Missing from picture: Pemba and Maya.

 

Below is short account of the whole time I was in BC with some detailed facts about the climb including pictures and maps. I realise that there is a severe lack of information available online about Makalu and I hope that this account will help to augment the info already available.

We flew into Makalu BC (5700m) on the 14th of Sept. It was an amazing heli ride flying past Ama Dablam, Island Peak and just over the saddle between Num Ri on the left and Baruntse on the right. This ride inspired me to take my family to the Khumbu one day to share with them the beauty of the mountains that I had spent almost 10 years of my life appreciating. The massive Makalu was standing right in front of us and staring as we approached BC. It was scary and awe inspiring at the same time.

The massive Makalu as we saw her from the heli flying into BC. What a sight it was indeed.

 

After the Pooja day, my first day of acclimatisation had me touching C1 (6150m) and coming back to BC on the same day. The 4 French (Meidi, David, Pascal and Fransua) arrived on the 18th of Sept by Heli. My next 4 day rotation plan was to sleep at C1, then sleep at C2, then climb as high above C2 the next day and return back to C2 again and then come back to BC the next day. However this plan had to end early as it was very bad weather from the word go. It started snowing when we reached C1 at about 2pm and it continued snowing heavily all the way for the next 2 days. We made it to C2 (6400m) in the poor visibility and snow conditions. However we could not proceed as planned as we had to descend back to BC the next day as it had snowed in and avalanche risk was high. We made it back to BC in knee deep snow and poor visibility. This 2nd rotation was initially meant to be our final rotation as the summit weather window was approaching and would not allow for another cycle. I was quite uncomfortable now with this arrangement as I felt that I wouldn’t be acclimatised enough for the summit push. The French who were attempting without O2 would do another rotation halfway to C3 in the coming days as they were on a different schedule.

Sherpa Shepherds was the team I and Jamling joined. However Jamling runs his own company at everquest expeditions (http://www.everquestexpeditions.com/). The exact height of Makalu is also contested between different sources. Here is says 8485m, but i’ll use the more commonly accepted 8463m as the height of the summit in my writings.

The main team that was present during the Puja before the French arrived. Not in photo: Pemba, Maya and the kitchen staff

The heavy snow that poured for 2 days that made us wake up to this state in C2. Decision was made to descend immediately in view of avalanche risk from the surrounding slopes and while descending as well.

 

We were following the weather forecast very closely as it would decide when we’d leave for the summit push. 30th Sept and 1st Oct looked like good days. During the rest days, some of the Sherpas took turns to lay fixed lines from C2 to C3. After fixing for 2 days, the progressed to about 200m just shy of C3. The Sherpas could not fix any further as they needed to come to BC to rest to attempt the summit bid together with the rest of the team. So the terrain after C3 was mostly unknown. From the team, only Kami had summited Makalu and Norbu had reached C3 during past expeditions. It was the first time on the mountain for the rest, so we heavily depended on Kami to lead.

We also took a day’s rest at the Yak hotel at South east ridge BC (4700m) during one of the rest days. That trek proved to be one of the most challenging treks I’ve done to date and it was far from a relaxing rest day. After that exhausting experience, I was so grateful that we didn’t have to trek out of BC once the expedition was over. We finally started the summit push from BC on the 27th of Sept. There would be 2 teams. The first team would comprise of myself, the Chinese lady (Jiandan), 2 French (Meidi and David) and the first team of Sherpas (Jamling, Nima, Kami, Dhakipa, Duk Chung). Kami, Dhakipa and Duk Chung had left a day earlier to finish fixing the lines to C3. The plan was them to join the main team when they reached C2. The 2nd team would comprise of the other 2 french (Pascal and Fransua), Pemba, Kanchi Maya and Nurbu who would follow 2 days behind.

Huge moraine and scree filled slopes as we walked down to Yak Camp from BC

En route to Yak Hotel during our rest day. Makalu looked different from all angles that we saw her from

 

We left BC to C2 on the 27th of Sept. It was my first time climbing straight from BC to C2 and skipping C1. I was feeling super anxious about this push and there were already a lot of instances of self doubt that flashed across my mind thus far. It was as if I was going for the summit push of an 8000m peak for the first time. Perhaps it was due to the bad experience I just had on K2 and the pre-knowledge of a low probability of success during this expedition which filled my head with such negative thoughts. I had doubts about my physique and abilities although I clearly felt much stronger than ever before; I doubted the safety and possibility of summiting with such a small team with no knowledge of terrain and no fixed ropes after C3; I doubted the weather forecast if it would hold true unlike that in K2 and the biggest thing that made me doubt everything was the voice inside my head that kept telling me that I couldn’t do it as it would be too difficult. It was already becoming a challenge to gear up my mind to get myself started in the first place.

 

The detailed Makalu climbing route. This picture was taken by myself in 2012 from the South East ridge of Everest as I was descending from the summit.

Google earth map of the route from BC to C3

Google earth map of the route from C3 to the summit of Makalu

 

Route from BC (5700m) to C1 (6150m)

The trail from BC to C1 starts off with loose moraine that requires scrambling on all 4s at times. It also requires some simple near vertical rock climbing and crossing flowing stream before getting a chance to walk next to the huge glacier that originates from the southern ridge of Makalu . Getting onto this glacier is relatively easy with crampons and fixed lines but is really quite a challenge without a pair. The initially towering glacier will eventually even out with the level of the moraine as one walks further towards the south west ridge. Trying to simply hop onto the glacier from the moraine would mean that the climber would have to struggle through extremely loose moraine all the way in and this takes up much time. Once on the glacier, it’s a relatively straight forward walk on a sustained gentle slope all the way to C1 which is nested in the centre surrounded by the high head walls of the ridgeline. The weather at C1 is similar to that of the western cwm on Everest. All 3 walls of the ridgeline reflect the sun rays onto the centre of the glacier exactly where C1 is located just like a microwave oven.

Just starting to head towards C1 from BC on the extremely loose moraine

The huge headwalls surrounding C1

 

I felt strong as we left BC and was leading the whole team just before crampon point. Only the French had stashed their crampons away in a duffle bag at crampon point. Thus they were fast to mount the glacier and were quickly on their way to C1 thereafter. I and Jamling on the other hand, had left our crampons in C1 and it just seemed too difficult and dangerous climbing onto the glacier with no harness or crampons. So we decided to take the slow walk up the irritating loose moraine till we found a suitable spot to safely climb onto the glacier. This slowed us down and made us both very tired. The snow from the previous storm about a week ago which had melted away by now had formed an icy crust. At times, we would step through the crust and go knee deep into the slush of ice, water and snow beneath and this took away a lot of our energy. It was a tiring hot slog to C1 which took 4h. Each time the sun was up, I wished the clouds would come and each time a passing cloud obscured the sun, it felt awfully cold. This fluctuating temperatures didn’t help much in regaining our lost energy. We had lunch and rested and started heading towards C2.

 

Route from C1 (6150m) to C2 (6400m)

Almost immediately after C1, one has to head towards a vertical snow/ice ridge. This is the first set of essential fixed lines that one would encounter. After about 200m of vertical jummaring, the slope flattens out, exposing the huge fields of snow all around. As the trail turns right (southwards), it bypasses huge crevasses before heading up north again over a gentle snow slope till it reaches C2 which rests at the foot of Makalu II (7678m).

The first section of fixed lines on the snow slope just after C1

The large snow fields after the initial fixed lines ended on the route from C1 to C2.

 

The French had reached C1 an hour before us and had started heading towards C2 an hour before we even left C1 leaving me and Jamling the last in the team to ascend. It was refreshing being the only ones on the mountain. It was a long time since I experienced absolute solitude on the mountains which left a deafening silence. It was just me with the mountains, my thoughts and god. I was once again reliving the unforgettable moments like this that first made me start climbing. It was an irony, however, that I finally was managing to experience these rare moments once again only during my last 8000m peak. I knew I would miss the mountains much.

The section with fixed lines was straight forward and we managed to clear it relatively fast due to the lack of traffic. Then it was a slow slog on the snow slopes till we finally reached C2 in about 3.5h which was faster than what we clocked during the previous rotation. As we climbed higher in the clear weather, just before reaching C2, we could make out the peaks of Everest and Lhotse towards the west. Very rarely does anyone get to experience the view of an 8000m peak that he has climbed before from another 8000m peak that he’s currently climbing and I was fortunate to witness Everest from an angle that few have seen. We reached C2 about 9h after leaving BC. I had overcome the first day of my mental barrier which had me fearing the long climb from BC to C2; something that I was not able to do on K2 (to climb from BC to C1, skipping ABC). The rest of the Sherpas (Kami, Dhakiapa and Duk Chung) who had left a day earlier than us had just finished fixing all the lines to C3 and had returned to C2 for the night. We were happy that the lines to C3 had finally been fixed.

 

Route from C2 (6400m) to C3 (7500m)

The route from C2 to C3 is considered the toughest part of the climb. After about 250m of gradual slope from C2, the trail reaches the base of the wall leading to Makalu La on the South West ridge. This is also where the 2nd mandatory set of fixed lines start (6650m). It’s a difficult, technical, almost 900 vertical meter mixed climb up rock, ice and snow on this eastern wall all the way till the trail flattens out at Makalu La which is where C3 is sited. C3 is located on a saddle between the summit of Makalu (8463m) on the south and Malaku II (7678m) on the north. Technically, Makalu la is the pass and the border between Nepal and Tibet and reaching C3 would mean that one is officially in Tibet. The rest of the remaining climb from C3 to the summit would be in Tibet. Wonder if the Chinese government knows this?

The difficult slog up to Makalu La gaining abt 900 vertical metres from the start of the fixed lines

 

We left later than the rest of the team and once again were at the rear which I didn’t mind at all. The fixed lines started again at the bottom of the eastern wall which led to Makalu La. It was a really difficult climb. Kami kept saying that the summit is guaranteed if we reach C3 and that motivated me to keep going knowing that I was experiencing the toughest part of the journey. Jamling had asked Duk Chung to standby an O2 bottle for me in case I was too slow on this segment as it was a long steep climb. Fortunately, I was able to keep up with the rest of the team ahead and didn’t need to use O2. Most parts of this segment were steeper than the slopes of K2 but were easier to climb as there weren’t that many rocks on the route and the weather was perfect. There wasn’t any flat ground to take breaks either. Jamling was right behind me and said my pace was strong. We made sure we didn’t slowly lag away from the team in front. As we approached the pass, I was really slow. Each step would get me extremely winded and progress was at a snail’s pace. Finally the slope flattened out at Makalu la and even though C3 was just about 100m away from the cliff edge, it took me another 15 mins to get there. The climb from C2 to C3 took me a staggering 9h and I was totally exhausted when I reached C3. From C3, the views of Everest and Lhotse were crystal clear. We could see Chomo Lonzo (7804m) to the north and the whole Tibetan plateau. This was the highest I had been without supplemental O2 – my personal record. A proud moment for me.

Jamling and I with Everest and Lhotse in the background from C3. Just like the inseparable mountains, so is our friendship.

The false and true summits of Makalu and the french couloir seen from C3

From C3 with Makalu II in the background. I had no idea how deep the snow fields were at that juncture

 

Before me and Jamling arrived in C3, the rest of the Sherpas had recced abit of the trail out of the camp and reported heavy snow all the way to C4. We were told that it may be impossible to pass to C4 and that that would try breaking trail the next day. So the next day turned out to be a rest day for the 4 foreign climbers while all the Sherpas tried breaking trail to C4 and fixing lines above that. The initially planned summit day was pushed back by a day. This meant that we would be short of food on summit day and if the weather changed, it would be disastrous. I was happy that there was O2 available and slept with it. That night, Duk Chung complained of a headache and after he had some paracetamol, he developed an allergic reaction which had him itching away the whole night. He woke up sick the next morning. By mid-day, he had lost his motivation to continue and planned to go down the next day. A big blow to our team’s morale as the small team of 5 sherpas had become even smaller.

 

Route from C3 (7500m) to C4 (7650m)

Some climbers choose to skip C4 as the elevation gain is minimal and try to attempt the summit bid from C3 itself. Many expeditions have turned back from C3 due to deep snow conditions and risk of avalanche. From C3, it’s a largely flat but extensively snowed in trail that has climbers going eastwards further into Tibet until they reach the icy steeper slopes just below the summit. The placement of C4 has to be with care. If pitched too close to the ice slopes, there is a risk of avalanche from high above. From C4, Kanchenjunga can be seen clearly towards the east.

The massive Everest and Lhotse in the background dwarfing us as we make our way from C3 to C4

 

After our unplanned rest day in C3 on the 29th Sept, we set off for C4 on the 30th knowing that the route has painstakingly been broken by the 4 brave Sherpas without O2 the day before. It was perfect weather as we walked from C3 to C4. Both I and Jamling used O2 while the rest of the team went ahead without. It was an easy walk (thanks to the work of the Sherpas) which got us to C4 in about 2.5h. After setting up C4, Nima, Kami and Dhakipa went ahead to recce and fix lines above C4. We had ran out of solid hot food by now and were mainly sustaining ourselves on liquids, sugary drinks and energy bars. The 3 brave Sherpas returned after about 6 hrs at about 6pm with good news. They said that the terrain above C4 was very good and that they had fixed lines all the way to just below the French couloir. They were in high spirits as they believed that there was a very high chance of summit success. We were extremely encouraged by this news and went to bed knowing that D-day would be in a few hours.

Setting up C4 on the slopes in the knee deep snow. Makalu summit can be just made out in the distance

 

Route from C4 (7650m) to Summit (8463m)

The route begins with about 200 m of gradual slope which continues to become steeper and leads onto a large sheet of blue ice. After some technical climbing on the blue ice, the trail opens up at about 8000m to a huge sloping field of snow. This is where there is a high risk of avalanche danger in the event of heavy snow. Just above on the left, there are 2 large and wide seracs which one has to overcome by climbing on the snow slope just adjacent to them. Once above the seracs, the trail veers left towards the bottom of the French couloir (8350m). This is the last technical part of the climb before hitting the summit ridge. Turning right, the trail follows in the south west direction to the false summit and after passing that, the true pyramid summit.

We set off from C4 on 1st Oct at about 0030h. O2 made such a huge difference and it got me and Jamling way ahead from the rest who were climbing without O2. Jamling led, I followed and the others followed behind. The French were much slower and more tired as they had spent 2 nights at 7500m without O2. We ended up waiting for the rest of the team to catch up for most of the time as there was no point moving fast. The 3 shepras below had to fix lines above from where they had stopped the previous day. The terrain was indeed good. It was a gradual slope with only the occasional knee deep snow. Even when we hit the segment with blue ice, the snow had covered most parts of it making it easy for us to use crampons on it. I had no idea how the 3 of them had managed to fix so far the previous day and still had the strength to push for the summit with a few hours of rest. I and Jamling finally made it to the point where the fixed lines stopped. It was the only relatively flat segment since we left C4. We reached there at about 0530h and waited in the cold till the rest arrived. The sunrise was beautiful and we could see Kangenjunga clearly in the east and the whole of Tibet blanketed with a thick layer of clouds. By the time everyone arrived, rested and settled down, it was 6.30am and was completely bright. Only then did we see that the area above was avalanche prone as there were huge chunks of ice which had broken off and had littered the snow slopes towards our right. We also saw that we were far below the French couloir. Nima was focused on carrying on and took the risk. I urged Jamling to carry on as well. So Kami and Dhakipa took the ropes and started breaking trail. There was not a single chance we could have made it so far without these solid guys.

Photo taken from the end of fixed lines above C4 at about 8000m where me and Jamling were resting for the rest of the team to arrive. Chomo Lonzo in the background with the sun rising from the right (we could see Kanchenjunga as well as the sun rise form the east)

 

The French became exceedingly slow and decided to turn back as they knew they would not make it due to the deep snow ahead. Dhakipa turned back with them. So it was just 5 of us left and the trail seemed impossible to break. The snow was really deep and all of us just kept sinking in when the top layer of crusted snow gave way each time we took a step. Nima was leading at this time and was dragging the last coil of Korean rope we had – ready to fix it along the way if we really had to. After the slope leading to the path above the 2 large seracs, Kami decided to turn back even though Jamling had requested him to stay and help. I didn’t know how this commitment to climbing worked. Could anyone just turn back anytime they wanted to?

So it was just down to the 4 of us now – Jamling, myself, Nima and Jiandan. Jamling was getting tired so he helped with trail breaking only from time to time. The French couloir was just metres away but every step was so difficult as we kept sinking into waist deep snow with each step. Jiandan was very fast for someone without O2 but still was much slower than the 2 of us. Even though it was already close to 1400h, I knew I was safe and could spend the whole day in the ‘death zone’ as we had enough O2 and could make our way down to C4 in the dark if need be. I wasn’t too sure about the Nima (who seemed to be stronger than us even though he wasn’t on any O2) and Jiandan.

Finally as the slope got too steep and we were just too slow, Nima started fixing our final length of rope to just below the French couloir and while the 3 of us were jummaring up, he went to recce above the couloir by himself. As we reached the start of the couloir, he came back down and said that there was no way we were going to make it. Nima is an extremely strong Sherpa with so much determination that he almost single handedly led us from 8000m to 8350m in the toughest of terrain when everyone else had turned around. When someone like him said it was not possible, I believed it was truly not possible. The snow was too deep above the summit ridge and we had no more ropes. The summit ridge usually doesn’t require much fixed lines but due to the current conditions it was too dangerous to move above the French couloir without fixed lines. The heavy snow storm a week ago probably had left the summit in this bad condition.

It was already 1530h and we were only 100m from the summit but yet, we had no choice. It was a difficult decision. I and Jamling were extremely disappointed that this was not going to work even after the hardest of fights put up by the team. Everyone chipped in, everyone worked so hard and the weather was perfect but it was not meant to be. With a heavy heart and tears in our eyes, I and Jamling turned decided to turn back. It was truly sad.

The final photo taken from 8350m at the start of the French Couloir. Jiandan is seen here discussing further with Nima if it was still possible to go up. Jamling and me had descended a considerable distance by then.

 

We made it down to C4 in 2.5h where we saw Pemba and Maya with the other 2 French from the 2nd team. There was a lot of discussion but in the end, everyone decided to come down the mountain the next day. The winds were predicted to pick up the next day, there was not enough manpower, no more ropes and the terrain would be worse with the winds having covered up whatever trail that we broke up there. That was the end of the season on Makalu for everyone.

I love this shot. Jamling and I forcing a smile even out of disappointment and trying to hold it together even though we were exhausted. Even if we didn’t summit, the friendship between us grew stronger and that was one of the biggest take aways from the climb. Picture taken as we were returning back to C3 from C4.

BC in a mess a day after we returned to BC from the summit push. All the tents seen here being dried.

 

Looking back, I am extremely disappointed that I didn’t manage to summit the mountain even though we were so close. However, it was one of the proudest climbing moments for me as we achieved the near impossible by climbing in the season of less success probability and with such a small team (attrition down to 4 climbers close to the summit). Makalu was one of the biggest and most beautiful mountains that I’ve ever climbed and I thank god for giving me the opportunity for allowing me to have gone so far. For me, the mountains are and will always be the most awe inspiring and beautiful wonder of nature. I will be sad that this would be my last 8000m peak for many years to come (as promised to my family) but the memories of me having climbed 4 8000m peaks would always stay fresh within me for all time.

I am still raising money for my 2 beneficiaries, the Singapore National Stroke Association (SNSA) and the Home Nursing Foundation (HNF). The money for HNF will go towards its pioneer care givers program and funds raised for SNSA will go towards stroke education among the public as well as rehabilitation and reintegration of stroke patients back into the society to be working adults once again. My fund raising efforts will go on till the end of the year. Please do click on either of the logos to donate any amount. No amount is too small as every cent will be used for improving the quality of life for the caregivers of patients as well as stroke survivors.

 

When you’re in the great Himalayas, you experience something beyond your self. You realise that the mountains are indeed immovable. Ego must give way to the truth that we’ll never be above nature, we’ll never be in complete control of faith and we’ll never withstand the grip of time. We are as fragile as the frost on the slopes on which we trod upon. Overcoming the mountains within is more difficult than overcoming the mountains ahead. There is nothing that you conquer when you climb other than that within yourself.

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Posted by on October 27, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Unfavourable conditions

Kumaran just called me from camp 4 yesterday. Their team tried their best to reach the summit. It was so close… only about 150m away. However, the weather was horrendous… so much so that the ropes could not be set. and it was unsafe for them to proceed further. All the other teams left and started to descend while their team, Everquest remained. Eventually, they too had to descend. Kumaran is now on his way back to base camp.

– Written by wife, Gayathri

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Makalu summit push

Kumaran is on his summit push currently on Makalu. Only briefly spoke to him last night. Wishing him all the best and we are praying for his safety…

– Written by wife, Gayathri

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Makalu climb update

Kumaran has completed his cycle of climbs up Makalu camp 1 and 2. Currently, the team is waiting for the window of good weather for the summit push.

There is no internet connection and he intermittently manages to contact us via the satellite phone.

This climb appears to be more serene as compared to K2. Perhaps its the familiarity of being back in Nepal..

For updates by the company, visit: http://www.everquestexpeditions.com/ever-quest-expeditions-makalu-expeditions/

– Written by Gayathri, wife aka personal secretary

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Acclimatisation before the climb

I’m now back in Lukla after an eventful 1 week of acclimatisation in the Khumbu. The reason we had planned for this type of program instead of the traditional trek from Tumlingtar airport to Makalu base camp was due to the lack of high elevations during the trek and the fact that base camp would be situated at 5700m. I wasn’t too confident of getting myself directly to that altitude even though i had just been on K2 for the last 2 months. So the plan was to acclimatise in the Khumbu valley for a short time before taking a helicopter to Makalu BC.

I arrived in Lukla on the 7th. We were luckly to have flew as i was told that there had been no flights into Lukla for the past 12 days due to bad weather and the 1st flight had just flown in the day before. Even though i had flown this route numerous times, this flight into Lukla was probably the most memorable of them all. It was extremely cloudy and there was so much turbulence that i thought the wings of the plane would break off at any point. No one (probably including the pilot) knew where the airport was as the runway was all shrouded with clouds. Suddenly, through a break in the clouds, we saw the runway appear immediately below us. I really thought it was too late and that the pilot would steer the plane around and attempt another landing but he didn’t. He descended fast as if it was a free fall but managed to land smoothly. All the passengers had no words to describe the relief they felt and only could be amazed at the skills of the crew. We were the last flight in that day, as after we landed, the weather turned bad. There were no more flights for the next few days as well. How lucky we were.

The monsoon wasn’t over yet. It was cloudy and raining for most of the time and there were very few tourists around. Our initial plan was to climb Kongde peak (6187m) for acclimatisation. There were a couple of reasons for that. We had to return to Lukla by the 13th to catch the heli to BC on the 14th. So we had to stay around the Lukla area and couldn’t venture too deep into the Khumbu. There were only a few peaks that were in the region that were above 5500m. However, there was also a problem of a too rapid ascent. Lukla (2860m) to 6000m+ in 4-5 days just wasn’t going to be safe even for someone like me who just came back from K2. So we had to change our plans.

Atop Namche but still no reception?

After staying in Phakding for the first night, we went to Namche (3440m). It felt like a ghost town compared to the busy streets I always remembered it to be. The next day, we were at Thame (3800m). Our plan was to cross the Bhote Koshi river towards the Kongde slope and climb one of the ridges up to a height of 5500m + and sleep there. However as we were travelling towards Thame the grass and shrubs on the other side of the river (where we intended to climb) was noted to be overgrown. The cloud line was also too low for us to make a proper assessment of what lay above the tree line. The walk to Thame was beautiful and Thame village was even more beautiful. I highly recommend anyone to visit this path less traveled away from the over trampled EBC trek.

Beautiful Thame valley and Thame village as we walked down from the Thame monastry

When we reached Thame, we abandoned our idea after speaking with our lodge owner. He suggested that we climb Sunder peak (5300m) instead. Plans got modified there and then once again. We decided to climb Sunder peak and sleep in Thame the same night (climb high sleep low principal) and climb and sleep atop of Tashi Lapsa pass (5700m) over the next few days. So we took on the challenge of climbing Sunder peak right after we arrived in Thame from Namche. That was going to be almost a 2km increase in vertical elevation within the same day. We left at 2pm after lunch. It took us 4h15min to reach the false/commerical summit (just below 5000m). It was a wonderfully pleasent climb with great views. The clouds parted from time to time allowing us to view the majestic Thamserku and Kongde ranges. The path was well maintained and it was a slight scramble on big boulders close to the summit. It was getting dark and the true summit seemed really steep and the path wasn’t clearly defined any longer. We decide to stop where we were and descend before it got more unsafe, having our main objective in mind – to acclimatise only. It took us another 1h45min to get back down in the dark. It was a tiring 9h day but the climb instilled alot of confidence in me. I was feeling fitter and faster than when i was trekking in K2. I knew i was more physically prepared for the upcoming climb.

View from Sunder Peak commercial summit. The Kongde range in the background

We got some rations, packed light and headed westwards towards Rolwaling village. The valley got more remote and we didn’t see another trekker all along the way. Finally we reached high camp (4800m). We were prepared to sleep in our tents but were pleasantly surprised to see that there was a shelter built. It was going to be our private getaway for the night. We brewed hot tea and watched a movie from Jamling’s iPhone as we warmed up in our sleeping bags. Perhaps it was because we were so hungry or perhaps it was because we all chipped in to cook but dinner was awesome with the simple yet extremely tastly instant noodles. Another movie followed before we slept.

As i lay in my sleeping bag with a zinc sheet over my head with the sound of raindrops hitting the roof, i closed my eyes with a smile on my face. I had never been this happy in many months. Although i had nothing much with me at that time, I felt that i had everything i needed. I left all my cares and worries back at home and without a mobile phone to remind me of reality, it was wonderful to have my mind blank. I forgot how beautiful the mountains were. I forgot how beautiful Nepal and its people were. The place i was at now, was a stark contrast to where i was a month ago – in the Baltoro glacier in Pakistan. I knew i was in familiar settings with familiar faces. I was in the company of a trusted friend and climber – Jamling. The moments were much more enjoyable with his cheerful, lively and simple character. It was warm inside my sleeping bag and cold outside. I fell asleep that night happy.

Our cozy high camp shelter that pleasantly surprised us

Our delicious yet simple dinner under the shelter in high camp

The next day was a relatively challenging climb that had no flat ground to rest. We soon hit the Tashi Lapsa glacier and it reminded me of the endless days i spent on the Baltoro glacier. The last part up was scrambling on loose rocks and scree. There were numerous occasions of rock fall that we experienced. Jamling finally made a decision to stop ascending just about 100-200m from the top of the pass due to the increasing danger of rock fall. We made camp at 5500m under a sheer vertical cliff which was relatively free from rock fall. Surprisingly the climb was smooth and the night went by well without any signs of AMS. With more confidence instilled in me, it was a walk back to Namche the next day and back to Lukla the day after.

Pachermo Peak (6273m) seen in the background with the Tashi Lapsa pass seen in the foreground. Picture taken from our campsite which was free from rock fall

I had gone from 1300m in Kathmandu to 5500m on the Tashi Lapsa pass in 5 days. I highly don’t recommend anyone who’s not acclimatised to follow this crazy acclimatisation schedule of mine. Luckly for me, I still had some bits of altitude memory in me and i hope that this week of acclimatisation as well as my previous stint on K2 and all the training that I’ve put in between comes to good use on Makalu.

I fly off on the 14th and i’m quite certain that internet connection will be close to negligible in BC. So i hope to update this blog when possible. I really hope that the weather clears up so that the heli ride in will be filled with incredible once in a lifetime views.

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Makalu Go Go Go

3 weeks resting back home after K2 seemed to fly by too quickly. I was basically eating and sleeping for most part of the first week. The subsequent week, i was meeting up with friends and the final week, i was preparing for my next climb.

I’m in the Khumbu currently and getting ready for my next climb – Makalu (the 5th highest mountain in the world). This will be the last 8000m peak that i will be attempting as i wish to concentrate on family and work after this 6 months of no pay leave is over. I’ve been wanting to climb Makalu ever since i saw her majestic peak from the summit of Everest in 2012. The Makalu massive looms on the background in the eyes of every Everester coming down from the summit. For most part of the descend down the South-East ridge, Makalu is obvious and when u can no longer see the mountain, you know that you’re going to reach Camp 4 on the South Col real soon.

The giant pyramid shaped Makalu in the background as climbers decent from the summit of Everest

Going away from home after already spending so much time away on K2 is taking a toll on me. I feel sad to leave my family and the comforts of home and yet I’m excited to climb. However, I felt much more at peace parting with my family this time. I don’t know why. Maybe, its because they themselves are calmer as they know this will be my last climb. Maybe its because i survived and made a responsible decision to turn back and come down alive on K2. Maybe its cos i know that the summit is not important and that I’m already extremely lucky to be living my dream of climbing. I’m at peace with myself for just having the opportunity to begin the climb.

 

I thought i would be resting after K2 but i was hitting the gym soon after getting back home in preparation for Makalu. Gym sessions 4x a week and staircase climbs and Bukit Timah Hill climbs 2x a week

 

The climb will take me 6 weeks. Jamling Bhote, whom i climbed Ama Dablam with in 2011 will be my personal sherpa. We will be travelling to Lukla and acclimatizing near Kongde peak before returning to Lukla. Then we take a helicopter and fly straight into Makalu base camp. I’m looking forward to the wonderful views when flying over the Ampulapcha pass, Sherpani col and Baruntse. In fact, our plan initially was to take the difficult trek through the Ampulapcha pass, sherpani col, East col and then descend onto Makalu BC. After the availability of a cheaper heli ride in, we changed our plans completely to what it stands at currently.

Many climbers choose not to climb Makalu in autumn. The season of choice and that which has the greatest success is always spring. As we begin the climb just as the monsoon season ends, heavy snow on the slopes is expected and there is still a possibility the monsoon persisting bringing along with it heavy snow and winds. I’ll be going with a team no larger than 6 foreign climbers including me. We will rely on 7 sherpas to set lines, transport equipment, break trails and guide us. It will be extremely challenging for them to take on this task all by themselves. But unfortunately, Makalu is neither a popular mountain nor has it a good success rate. Then why then am I climbing you might ask. I’m climbing because it has been a dream ever since 2012. Its my last chance to climb a 8000m peak. Summiting or not doesn’t matter to me any more after all the climbs that I’ve done. But I’m not going to give up that easily even before challenge begins. I’m going in with a mindset to summit but also a mindset not to get disappointed if I don’t.

The 2 beneficiaries I’ll be raising money for are the Singapore National Stroke Association (SNSA) and the Home Nursing Foundation (HNF). The money for HNF will go towards its pioneer care givers program and funds raised for SNSA will go towards stroke education among the public as well as rehabilitation and reintegration of stroke patients back into the society to be working adults once again. My fund raising efforts will go on till the end of the year. Please feel free to click on either of the logos to donate any amount. No amount is too small as every cent will be used for improving the quality of life for the caregivers of patients as well as stroke survivors.

There will be very limited internet access at Makalu base camp. I hope to be able to update my blog periodically, else updates will still follow on my Facebook page. Thank u all for your support.

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

K2 summits and no summits… Glad to be back at home

I was back from my summit push on the 26th. However I did not make the summit. I decided to turn back from C2 due to a couple of reasons which I thought compromised safety. It was a difficult decision to turn back but at that instant, I thought it was best not to push on.

I finally reach Home just before Singapore’s birthday and currently resting and recuperating from my 2 month stint in Pakistan. Mainly eating and sleeping and trying my best to get rid of the chronic fatigue. From the comforts of home, I write this retrospective entry on what happened during the summit push.

We left to ABC on the 22nd. By this time, the icefall had dissolved and melted to become something totally unrecognizable. The ropes which had been threaded through the ice had become loose and the path towards ABC was no longer there. Kami and I spent about an hour figuring out and constructing a new way through the ice fall. We were almost about to turn back as it was starting to get dangerous with melting ice from high ice towers starting to randomly collapse. However, Kami managed to get us safely past the technical segments and to ABC. What a start to the summit push. The easiest segment of the climb was turning out to be a challenge in itself.

We were on our way towards C1 on the 23rd. From the word go, the weather was not the best. Even though I felt stronger than the previous rotations, my timing from ABC to C1 was about the same due to the weather and terrain. Historically, late July has seen the best weather to summit but it didn’t seem so in our case. It started snowing heavily and winds started picking up halfway through the climb. When we reached C1 in the blizzard, we found that most of the snow beneath our tents had melted and the tents were either sliding down the slope or lopsided. We had to readjust and re-carve the ground in the howling winds and snow storm which drained a lot of our energy. Finally when we were in the tent, I was wondering how we would climb to C2 if this horrible weather continued the next day. Vanessa, Jang Ga and myself stayed in C1 while Hari, John, Ah Jung and Cheng Xue proceeded straight to C2.

Going up in crappy weather on the 24th of July from ABC to C1

Kami re-pitching our tent in the blizzard on C1

When we awoke on the 24th, it was a splendid clear day. The plan was for everyone to move to C3 straight, skipping C2 to keep in track with the rest of the team. As we proceeded to C2 the weather started getting worse to a point where I couldn’t figure out what was 20m in front of me. It was the worst weather I had ever climbed in. Footsteps from the climbers just 5 mins ahead of me were nowhere to be seen as I passed them as the snow filled in the tracks. By this time in the season, the top layer of snow on the slopes had melted away exposing the blue ice beneath which had now been laced with a layer of sugary snow. The terrain was impeccably difficult to tread on, even though this was the 2nd time we were there. Rocks were loose and we had to take extreme care not to step on or hold those rocks in case they fell onto the climbers below. Every step that we took was precariously slippery as we struggled to kick into the virgin blue ice masked by the deceptively easy layer of snow. It took us a lot of energy by the time we got to C2. Jang Ga had decided to proceed to C3 in that terrible weather. I and Vanessa decided to stay in C2. As I rolled into my tent, I was surprised to see Hari there. He became sick the previous day and decided to rest in for the night. His plan was to proceed to C3 the next day.

Ascent from C1 to C2. The winds were starting to rip above even as we left C1.

The weather was horrendous when we woke up on the 25th. 50kmh winds and the snow was flying by horizontal to the ground. The tents were rattling as though they were going to rip apart. It was totally different from what the weather reports had predicted. Mingma confirmed that the weather reports were not tallying any longer. This was when I had to make the decision that would cost me the summit. To proceed or to stay put. I knew that if I didn’t reach C3 by that day, it would mean the end of my summit bid but I also knew that pushing on in that weather was also dangerous. Hari made the wise decision to turn back and my heart was with him to get down as well. Vanessa on the other hand summed up all her grit and will and began to proceed to C3; what would take her 8 hours to complete in that weather. The 4 Austrian/German climbers from Furtenbach adventures, turned back on the Abruzzi route from C2 due to the weather and terrain conditions. We heard that all the Himax climbers on the Cessan route also turned around. The 2 Mexicans had not started with the summit bid and the Polish had their own plans in BC. Which left only our team, Fredrich from Sweden and the Mongolian behind on the Abruzzi route.

A lot of thoughts were running through my mind by now. These were some of the reasons I decided not to proceed with the summit push.

– The weather prediction was no longer in unison with the reports and the summit day on the 27th looked questionable as well.

– Even if we had summited on the 27th, the weather on the 28th was looking extremely bad and it would be dangerous coming down from the summit.

– Fixed lines halfway from C3 to the summit had not been laid and it was questionable if the huge avalanche a few days back had destroyed whatever lines that had been laid from C3 to C4.

– It was also unsure if the avalanche had swept away the stash (O2 and other climbing equipment) stowed above C3.

– The weather was so bad on the 25th that the sherpas could not ferry up any loads to C4 and return to C3 as planned and that meant that not all O2 cylinders would be available at C3 and C4. The Sherpas were also not proceeding on to check the state of the lines and equipment above C3 due to the weather.

– There seemed to be too little time to do all these by the expected summit date which was set on the 27th.

– The 26th seemed to have reports of high winds and this would mean very little time for the sherpas to work on laying the fixing the lines above C3.

With all these strong reasons against proceeding, I just thought that the risks were too much to take and the chances of success were very slim. Furthermore, I wasn’t as strong as my team mates and my health wasn’t the best at that point. I knew my reserves were thin and would have struggled if anything were to have happened on the way up or down.

I decided that I’ll push as far as I could and then return back to BC instead. However the next day on the 26th, it was foggy and visibility was extremely bad. We could not see anything more than the tent in front of us. We thought that there was no point in proceeding up and decided to descend back to BC in the fog. The Mongolian also followed suit. The ice fall below ABC was again different as compared to when we were going up. We somehow manoeuvred our way around and ended up in BC that afternoon. Although I was disappointed that I could not be with the rest of the team, I thought that it was the best decision to make at that point of time.

Descending from C2 on the 26th

Rappelling back to ABC through the thick fog below

This is what happened to the main team in the days to come.

– Vanessa reached C3 on the 25th in the bad weather. The team decided to push upwards from C3 to C4 in thick fog and winds on the 26th. Even after climbing till 6pm, they could not find the true C4 site and decided to pitch camp about half hour below the actual C4. There was thick snow all around and they had to dig away 1.5m of ice and snow to construct their tents.

– At this time, the team received news that the rope that Fedrick said he was going to transport to C4 was going to be placed along the way between C3 and C4 as Fedrick decided to turn back due to bad weather and terrain conditions.

– The team decided that they could not make the summit on the 27th due to time constraints and decided to push for the summit on the 28th instead. They choose to rest on the 27th at C4 with O2.

– While the clients rested for the whole of the 27th, the sherpas (one of the was sent down to collect Fedrick’s ropes) fixed lines above C4. They managed to fix up to just below the bottle neck due to thick snow conditions.

– The team set off for the summit on the 27th at 10pm and slowly made their way up in winds. The plan was to turn back on the 28th noon regardless of the outcome of the climb as the weather was predicted to turn very bad after noon on the 28th.

– The sherpas started fixing the bottle neck on the 28th at about 9am and the clients followed closely behind the sherpas. The weather report that arrived that moning mentioned that the high winds that were predicted that afternoon had died down and that it would be much better weather. Mingma took the risk and pushed on hoping that that morning’s report would be accurate.

– After a 17h push in the waist deep snow, poor visibility and winds, the weather cleared up amazingly just as the team was reaching the summit and finally after braving all odds, the team summited K2 at about 1535h on the 28th.

– They made their way safely to C4 by 2000h and back to BC by the evening of the 29th; some as late as 11pm.

Vanessa, Cheng Xie and Jang Ga were attempting K2 for their 3rd time. John was attempting to be the first Icelandic to reach K2’s summit and Ah Jung was on his quest for all 14 8000m peaks. They took risks and pushed really hard. In the end, it all paid off. They had put their heads in the lions mouth and had returned successful and unscathed. Hats off to all of them. They deserve all the praise and accolades for making it up on such a difficult season. My heartfelt congrats to the 5 of them.

We also had 2 Pakistani records. Amin was the 4th Pakistani to complete all 5 8000m peaks in Pakistan with his successful completion of Broad Peak. Fadzeel became the 1st Pakistani to climb K2 twice successfully and probably he is the first in the world to summit K2 twice without supplemental O2 as well! The 28th saw 5 clients and 6 sherpas (all of them summiting K2 for their first time except Mingma who has summited now twice with this success) and Fadzeel on the summit.

We exited the range via the Gondogoro la pass which was shorter than the old route but would encompass us climbing again to 5600m and descending down a steep dangerous ravine with no crampons and harness. Coming down was just as scary as going up K2. It was a 3 day journey to the village of Hushe where we got a jeep back to Skardu. Finally the expedition was over!

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A final farewell to the mighty K2. A view from Concordia.

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Approaching the top of Gondogoro la pass

 

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From the top of Gondogoro la pass. The hundreds of peaks appeared magically in front of us

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Laila Peak seen from Seisho camp. Very technical

I was really disappointed that I turned back on the 25th but I keep telling myself that things could have turned out much different from what materialised. As I mentioned in my previous post, I am happy that I was able to live out my dream of climbing K2 and even more glad that I had gotten this far. No regrets on that. No looking back. I probably will not attempt K2 again but the stories from this expedition will always stay fresh in my mind.

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2017 in Uncategorized