The Mighty Manaslu

The tour of independence, a bird’s eye view.

Back in November 2011 Rolfe and I passed each other in the valley below Namche Hill, like we do, going in different directions with our respective groups to and from Everest Base Camp. A quick hello and a catch up before he threw into the conversation….’hey we are putting together an exped to Manaslu, you should come’…to which I mumbled ‘let’s talk about it’, thought nothing of it but the seed was planted.

12 months later the email came around from Marni with the trip dossier and after much protestations like ‘how can I afford it’‘it’s so much time not to be working’, along with my normally very supportive parents nicknaming it the ‘is it really worth it’ tour, I finally changed the ‘why’ into ‘why not’ and signed on the dotted line. I then spent the next 8 months wonder what the hell I’d let myself into!

After a great weekend at 360 HQ in the Pyrenees in May, where Rolfe put us through our paces on Pico Aneto and put our minds at rest with a great pre-exped briefing over a beer or two talking about avalanche transceivers, crevasse rescue, climbing hardware and the like, we were in no doubt that this was going to be an adventure, extremely hard at times no doubt and we were certainly going to be experiencing a more independent side to expedition life. No stopping after an hour to take a break, being able to take off to each camp on our own, with support not far away and not needing to stay in a group, it was a more grown up approach to being out on a mountain and one that I was very much looking forward to. As an expedition leader myself, I’m used to being Mother Hen so this was my time to do a bit of independent travel, so to speak.

So the time had arrived for us to meet up at Heathrow and off we went to Kathmandu, our merry group of 4, full of nervous anticipation. After a day in Kathmandu of packing and repacking, exped briefings, high altitude meal choosing (dehydrated hi-calorie nosh) and Rolfe signing his life away with the Ministry of Tourism, we headed off to Arughat for the start of our trek. Getting to the trail head is sometimes more of an ordeal than the actual expedition itself and we weren’t disappointed! A very comfortable minibus ride for 3 hours on Nepal’s notorious roads ended abruptly in Dhading and then turned into a 6 hour cross country 4×4 bus ride on the even more notorious mountain track, packed to the rafters with our kit, crew, 2 Slovacs and our shiny clean selves. ‘Travelling on the roof is the safest place’ (honest Mum) were the words coming from up top and I finally joined Rolfe and Peter for the last 45 minutes bumpy ride to our digs for the night. All good fun!

For the next 5 days we trekked through sweltering humidity, heavy rain, overflowing mountain streams, little villages from a Dickens novel and the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen in a long time. We followed the donkey poo and stayed in very basic but comfortable tea houses, never quite catching up with our bags until day 5 so soggy clothing was the order of the day. We played a lot of Shit Head (of course), didn’t see another Westerner until about 2 hours from Samagaon, our final tea house before Base Camp, and got fitter and stronger as we went along. Seeing Samagaon along the valley was a great sight, knowing we were to have a rest day before heading up to Base Camp and a month of camping.

We had trekked in with Bhola, our Sirdar and Aang Phurba, our head climbing Sherpa, who were both as uncomfortable with the heat and humidity of the trek in as I was. Roll on the snow and colder climes! We met Khumba, our cook and Moni, our highly entertaining cook boy (and the worst cheat at cards), at the tea house in Samagaon who had trekked up a few days in advance with the rest of our amazing crew, LB (assistant cook boy), and Sidi and Pemba, our 2 other climbing Sherpas, to set up Base Camp. The amount of kit and equipment needed for an expedition of this type is quite unbelievable. From vital bottles of oxygen, tents for each camp, cooking equipment, toilet and shower tents to a 32” TV and DVD player, it all came up by donkey to Samagaon then by porter higher up to Base Camp. When we arrived at our tented village for a month, we were pleasantly surprised by the facilities available, nothing plush but comfortable none the less. A tent each greeted us so room to spread out and have some down time alone with a big mess tent for amazing grub and more sociable occasions, and more shit head!

The itinerary from this point on had a basic structure with slow acclimatisation but had to be fairly fluid depending on the weather conditions and our attitudes needed to reflect this. Try and be too much into the detail and you’ll drive yourself mad. Take each day as it comes and all will be well.We’ll get there when we get there became our motto.

Our Puja was set for the next morning, 8th September, and it snowed/rained and was generally miserable through the hour long ceremony until finally at the end the sun came out and we were dutifully covered in flour and had shots of rum passed to us (all part of the ceremony apparently!) Our climbing Sherpas suddenly seemed a lot happier as the mountain had given us its blessing and it was on with the expedition. No teams Sherpas would go higher than Base Camp until a Lama had performed a Puja and we hearda good number of them going on around camp that day and for days after.

Our first foray up towards Camp 1 was a good day out. An hour of walking on rocks and moraine took us up to Crampon Point, where you take your first steps onto the Glacier donned with your high altitude boots, crampons, ice axe and a steady mind. Ropes had already been fixed up to lower camp 1 so we plodded steadily up for a couple of hours, over and in between crevasses, up steep ice slopes and along flatter sections before hitting the end of the fixed ropes and the snow field and a steep but steady climb up to the Himex tents at lower camp 1. We had spread out quite alot by this point as each climber walksat their own pace. As our Camp 1 was an hour’s walk and 200m higher and with no fixed ropes ahead and crevasses on the way Rolfe decided to call it a day and turned us around, catching each other up as we went down. A good day out all in all, great acclimatisation, good to see what was ahead of us and nice knowing that we had a rest day ahead too.

After a day of sleep/eat/chill and some ice climbing practise on the glacier nearby it was time to head back up to camp 1 for our first overnight stay. Packs fully loaded and raring to go, we would head up after an early lunch.Setting out together we again spread out fairly quickly with Peter and I in front and plodding on nicely. Our camp was in a fantastic position, the highest of the tents and with amazing views…when the clouds parted! Nice to be up there early afternoon and settled in the tent, melting water and getting used to life at 5800m.

The original plan was to climb higher to C2 at 6400m then head back down to BC. Flexibility is the key and the Ice Doctors were on their way up to fix the ropes to C2 and C3 so we decided to stay an extra day and night at C1 for additional acclimatisation as we couldn’t go higher. I am amazed at how hot it is when the sun shines brightly on snow and soon the tent turned into a sauna and our nice solid base turned into slush. A relaxed attitude of c’est la vie was the order of the day so we sat around, drank coffee, ate our dehydrated loveliness of calories, read and listened to music. The day seemed to pass very quickly and soon the sun was setting, the temperature heading towards zero and beyond and our tent base turning to a solid platform again. Time to hunker down and turn in for the night.

The next day brought bright sunshine and buoyant moods.  We packed up our kit, storing what we were leaving behind in one of the tents and headed back down to BC with a bit of crevasse rescue/extrication practice on the way and a lovely late breakfast when we arrived in camp. The rest of the day was chill out time as was the next before we were due to head up to C1 and C2, things were starting to get a little more serious but after all, this was the reason we had come here!

On an expedition like this you learn by doing and can make adjustments accordingly. Having left after lunch on our 2nd trip up to C1 I decided to leave straight after breakfast and try to miss the heat of the day by walking earlier. In the end Rolfe and I left BC at 9am and although I had felt great the first 2 times up, I left camp a little on the quick side and my body decided to retaliate, although enjoyable things were abit of a slog this time round. Still making good time and nice to be walking on my own for a few hours I made it to the last snow slope before our higher camp 1 where Rolfe came down to shoulder some weight and give me some encouragement for the last 20 minutes. I was pleased none the less with my decision to leave earlier and ate my packed lunch whilst looking at the most amazing views of the valleys below. The boys followed on later in the afternoon and we were all reunited for more high-calorie dried food, yum! With slight nervous anticipation we settled down for the night, ready for an early start and our first foray through the ice field.

They say expect the unexpected on expeditions and it certainly happened today. Just after our Sherpas arrived before we were due to leave Mike announced to Rolfe that he had had enough and was going down. Slightly surprised, the rest of us left, leaving Mike to head back down to BC on his own, or so I thought. Only 30 minutes later Peter decided to call it a day too, before entering the ice field and he too headed back to BC. With the seriousness of the job in hand staring us in the face, the show must go on and we had a rather interesting climb ahead of us including a couple of ladders over crevasses and steep ice climbs ahead. This was part of the reason I had come, to get into more technical conditions and boy did we have it here. I approached each section with nervousness but a keen eye with Rolfe infront of me giving encouragement and the odd choice word. It was great fun, hard work and hugely rewarding. Reaching C2 was a slog, the final slopes biting back but getting into camp was a relief and the views were spectacular. We could just see C3 in the col above us, a mere 400m or so higher but at this altitude it makes a huge difference.

The next day saw us take a short trip half way up to C3 without the weight of our packs, passing super guide Hiro on the way who gave us an update on the weather window for a clear summit only 7 days away, we then scooting back down to C2 to pick up our heavy loads and headed back down to C1. The need to keep moving was quite evident, especially as the heat of the day was nearly upon us and the snow and ice conditions start to become even more unstable. There was quite alot of traffic as we descended with climbers doing exactly what we had done the day before. Heading back through the ice field was exciting and nerve wracking in similar quantities and a huge sense of achievement was felt as we got back to C1. After dropping of some kit there we headed back to BC for a well earned rest.

We arrived at BC to be greeted by super smiley Peter and Mike. They were heading out in the morning to be choppered back to Kathmandu and then fly home a few days later. It was a shame to be losing half of an already small team but your head has to rule your heart in places such as these and they knew they had made the right decision, as had we to carry on.

There was much chat over the next 24hrs about the weather window, its speed of movement and just how long we were to stay at BC. When we arrived back from our C1/C2 outing we were advised that a weeklong stay at BC was in order but to pack our kit and be ready to move if things changed quickly. A day off followed and we woke up the next day to be told we would be staying another 24hrs at least, but don’t unpack your bag! I had mixed feelings about staying for another day let alone a whole week, we were primed and ready but life on expedition is sometimes about waiting it out and hopefully hitting the right conditions at the right time…..and then the call came, we were off! At 10am Rolfe came into the mess tent and told me that lunch was in ½ hour and we would leave by 11am….and I suddenly felt very sick! This was it, this was what all the preparation had been for. This was what the 8 months of thinking ‘what the hell’ had come to. It would take 4 days to get up to C4 and we were due to summit on 25th so it was a long burn ‘holy cow’ moment but still an effective one none the less!

So this was it, time to haul anchor and leave Bhola and the guys at BC. They had been so instrumental in our preparation that it was a shame to leave them holding the fort. They still had an important job to do and we knew they were with us in spirit. Packs on, we slowly left our home for a few weeks and head higher and higher. The sun decided to blast us this time and having got quite burnt lips and neck from our last trip up I had to cover up. The heat was immense, like being in a microwave, the intensity of the rays was overwhelming at times and life on the glacier suddenly got quite hard. I reached camp first to find the tents almost buried. Not a sight that I had expected or was happy to see as after a long slog up just setting up and boiling water was a chore. However, it’s all part of the process and having borrowed a snow shovel from our skiing tent neighbours I started the big dig. Fortunately Rolfe joined me shortly afterwards and with a joint effort we dug out both tents, boiled a couple of pots of water and got things straight for Arthur and Phurbas arrival.

The sun kept his hat on with vengeance the next day too and although we left nice and early, the ice field was turning into more of a slush field. The heat of yesterday had taken its toll on me slightly and I was feeling the effects. That, coupled with the collapse of a house sized serac which had squashed the ladder and filled in the crevasse it was covering, the odd ‘drop’ of snow coming down from higher slopes and Rolfe shouting ‘bloody hurry up, we don’t want to be here any longer than necessary’ made for a racing heart rate and a rather sick feeling. He was obviously quite right though and I was very happy when I caught up with him above the messed up jumble and on to slightly safer terrain. I slogged on to C2 and arrived feeling pretty rough at around 1pm. Rolfe had jogged on and put the ice on to melt, a vital but very dull job! Getting much needed calories down your neck when you want to do anything but eat is hard work. Still feeling rough later on in the day despite food and what felt like a whole gallon of water Rolfe suggested going onto Diamox. I haven’t taken this drug for many years as I always seem to deal with altitude well but my body was calling out for something. The sickness finally subsided but the need to drink more increased so more and more ice was on the boil.

We woke up early at C2 to another glorious and potentially hot day. Life in camp is slow and steady and it can take up to 2 hours to ‘get your shit together’ in the morning. Boiling more water, packing kit and making sure you’ve got enough snacks around you to last another 4-5hrs. Arthur left a while before me with Rolfe and I was being shadowed by Phurba today. He’s an ace climber, super nice chap and happy to let me get on with things. I’d tell him ‘up the next steep slope and we’ll break’ and he seemed quite happy with this strategy. I wasn’t in to breaking records or seeing how fast I could go, I just wanted to get there and get there well and in one piece. It was a very sociable day today, lots of folk to talk to and lots of encouragement along the way. I walked for a while with some chaps from another group who were fully kitted out in their down onesies…..bad move they decided (on the advice of their guide). One more short but vertical ice climb up to a long snow slope to camp is all that stood in my way to another afternoons rest. Another quick rest, some jelly babies and another slug or two of water and I carried on up, through lower C3 and to our little ledge of tents. Arthur had arrived shortly before me and Phurba had overtaken me on the final leg. Great to be in camp, exhausted, fed up of being microwaved but happy to be there! More water/food/sleep beckoned for the afternoon/evening and a chilly night ahead. At sometime during the night we woke up to the sound of an avalanche, a fair distance away but a scary sound none the less when you are camped on a snow slope. Thoughts of last year’s disaster ran through our minds then everything went quiet and we fell back to sleep.

Another early morning, more water to boil, more high energy custard to consume, bags packed and off we went. This was the final push up to C4 and a really tough one at that. I started out with cold feet, same as every morning but this time they were not getting any warmer and I was worried. Frostbite is serious and turns people around if they are sensible. Fortunately before I had to make that decision my feet started to get some life into them and I was a happy chick again. The route up to C4 is tough but fairly simple. Up a long snow slope or two, around a serac, up a couple of steep ice climbs then a long gradual but gruelling trudge up to C4. The people who cut and imprinted the steps obviously had longer legs than mine, something that Rolfe and I both commented on at the same time. Each step was an effort and seeing the Himex team steam by on lovely O2 didn’t help my morale. We passed our Slovac friends who looked pretty beaten up. They’d been hauling all of their own loads and had spent a long time up high. Rolfe had a chat with them about the weather forecast and they then followed in our footsteps for a while. Conscious of being at the front, I stopped and let them pass, not wanting the pressure of having to keep going when all I wanted to do was stop. This bit of the climb really hurt, physically and mentally and I was struggling. Rolfe was singing behind me, trying to encourage me but all I wanted to do was shut him up! I needed to drink more, eat more and keep going but everything was a battle. Finally about 10 minutes before camp, just before we came over the last rise, Sidi, one of our amazing climbing sherpas came and took my back pack. ‘Strong Didi’ he said which was great to hear and being relieved of the weight of my pack was a huge relief but by that point my body was in freefall and it took all my strength to get to our tent, home for the 3 of us for a long afternoon and a short night. It’s amazing how the body can recover and as soon as I lay down in the tent I felt raring to go again! Arthur, Rolfe and I shared the little space, like the 3 Wise Monkeys, and basically slept or read until we were due to wake up again at 1am. It was cramped but warm and even with the inside of the tent covered in ice crystals when we woke up, we all slept amazingly well, despite of the lack of O2 at 7400m.

And this was really it….the big day ahead….what we’d trained for, slogged our guts out for, hoped and dreamed for….getting to the summit of the worlds 8th highest mountain at 8163m…..!!

When we woke there was some confusion about what time we were to head off. 2am had been bantered around but finally, after the Himexsherpas had left to fix the final set of ropes to the summit, we were off. We donned our now very light back packs with just an oxygen bottle and a litre of water, pulled on our Top Out masks and sucked in the 2ltrs a minute of O2 that would aid our ascent to the top. Still at this stage a successful summit is not a given. You have to earn it, work for it, slog it out and hope that everything goes your way. Fortunately for us it did. We left at speed and quickly Phurba had let me walk on as he and Rolfe were helping Arthur sort his clothing. I walked on my own for a long while, up the steep slope, along the short plateau, up another very steep slope, waiting on the ropes for the higher ones to be fixed. Excitement and anticipation ran through my veins along with an amazing feeling of life now that the Os were flying around my weary body. My feet, cold to start with, had warmed up and I was feeling good, great! I waited at one point for the boys to catch up and we plodded on together with Sidi and Pemba, in a great little 360 team. At the lower col, we changed oxygen bottles and went from 2ltrs to 3ltrs a minute. The difference wasn’t felt that much but it all helps none the less. Within half an hour we had joined the summit queue and were waiting for our chance to stand on top. This took another 1½ hrs before we made our final bottom clenching steps up to the tiny snow platform about 3 meters from the actual summit. It was scary, exhilarating and mind numbing all at the same time. Phurba was already waiting for us, camera in hand, to celebrate our achievements. Rolfe went up first, as was right, then Arthur and finally me. Passing Arthur he said ‘careful Jo, the snow is unstable at the top’. Yikes I thought, it’s a steep ridge, I’m scared and I want to go down! It took all of my mental strength to climb up to the end of the rope and then tag the summit on all fours! No standing on top for me, I was happy to be there, horizontally or vertically but I wanted to get down in one piece too!

It’s not all over once you get to the top. I’m always saying to clients, save something for the way down, and boy we had a long way to come down. Retracing our steps back to C4 through the now very sludgy snow, we collected our kit and then abseiling and walked down to C3, still on O2 which made abseiling quite interesting! Stopping to wait for the boys at C3, I had time to collect my thoughts, drink some much needed water, chat with afew fellow climbers before we started our descent to C2. A fairly easy schlep usually but as one of the snow bridges had collapsed under a guide who was not clipped onto the safety rope and fell 15feet, lucky for him the snow bridge came to a halt otherwise he would have been in big trouble. A short climb down, cross the unstable snow bridge then a quick climb up is all that it took….easy peasy said Rolfe…right oh! Back at C2 fatigue was really starting to set in and with more kit on our backs, we knew the most difficult part was to come. The route from C2 to C1 is fairly technical, the most dangerous section, and takes alot of concentration. Thankfully the temperature was dropping rapidly, making conditions a little more stable but we still needed to hot foot it through the icefall as speedily as possible. Just as we thought we were in safety we came across a rather wide crevasse. It had been do-able on the way up but was looking rather scary now. The chap in front of me flung himself across, landing on his front and scaring himself somewhat so I decided to wait for Rolfe to catch up for abit of assistance. He leapt across, realised that some of the edge was fairly unstable and then gave me very specific instructions on how to jump. Still clipped onto the safety rope but fairly anxious I jumped and grabbed Rolfe’s hand and landed safely, as did Arthur. That was it, or so I thought…again!

At C1, the light was fading and so was our energy. We had been on the go for 15hours by this point with less calories in our bodies than a toddler can last a day on and we were feeling the pinch. Just another 2 hours to Base Camp, ‘you got that in you?’ is what Rolfe asked. All I wanted to do was to curl up in our tents but I knew it was the right decision to keep descending. Lightening our loads a little by leaving some kit in the tents to be picked up the next day by Sidi and Pemba (these boys worked their socks off for us) we trudged down the long snow slope to the fixed lines, clipped in and walked in silence through what seemed like some very unfamiliar territory. Walking in the dark with only head lamps for guidance, the glacier had seemed to have changed considerably since our ascent only a few days before. I followed Phurba and Rolfe stuck with Arthur a short distance behind. Finally we made it to Crampon Point, pulled off our climbing gear and high altitude boots for the last time, put on our very light walking boots and started the final ½ hour along moraine to BC. Met a short distance away by LB with a fabulous can of Pepsi (I never touch the stuff at home but here it is amber nectar!), he insisted in taking my pack and who was I to resist! We finally reached ‘home’ Base Camp and the lovely smiles and warm welcome of Bhola and team at 9pm.

The rest, they say, is history. So much still happened on the way down. Slovacs being rescued from the higher reaches of the mountain, huge amount of snowfall that stopped alot of teams reaching C4 let alone the summit, 7 days walk out in 4 days, feet that have only just recovered, hard days, tears, smiles and laughter, alot of shit head, new friends, great times with old friends, and the wonderful memories that no-one can take away from me. A huge thanks to all who were involved in the climb, on the mountain and in the office, a true team effort!

I never thought I would climb Kilimanjaro, let alone an 8000m peak and life has changed so much in the past few years. Writing this, I still can’t believe that it’s all over and I am wondering what is next….who knows!