It’s blowing a hoolie and the fixed line, tight like a piano wire is curved like a huge bow above us. The snow stake anchors that are holding the rope in place are rattling merrily inside ever-widening holes. It’s hard standing up and despite wearing multiple layers of down the minus 41 temperature is beginning to creep in… I look up through my goggles, the summit is just there. The footprints of the 2 Frenchies who summited only yesterday are clearly visible as pigeon holes on the summit ridge. Ang Pholba and I exchange looks; the answer he is looking for is obvious, we cannot go on like this.
It’s our 3’rd attempt in as many hours to nail the lingering 250 or so meters to the summit of the uber iconic Ama Dablam. (6812m). We have cracked all the technical climbing and it’s only the hands in the pocket snow-slope that lies between us and this goal we have so long been looking up at.
Mother Nature has different ideas. And the mountain does not give itself easily. It doesn’t care about our efforts over the last 3 days to drag our loads up its steep ridges and faces. Secretly I can hear it laugh as we are denied the prize.
“It’s over mate…” I yell at Simon through the howling wind… I know he realises it but he still shakes his head in dis-believe… I know what he is thinking: “All this f*****g effort”…
Simon has taken this thing seriously. He trained hard and over the years has gained enough experience with us to climb this mountain on its own terms. Filling in his insurance form he had to list previous alpine experience. Seems that in order to attempt Ama Dablam the requirements are very different from the Nepali trekking peaks. With pride he had filled in the column: Mt. Blanc, 2 routes on the Matterhorn, many grade 5 ice routes in the Pyrenees, North face Mt Kenya, Pt. John, Aconcagua, Island peak, Kilimanjaro. Yup… he knew steep and he knew altitude. He had been ready for this beast.
However In order to get the most out of the Himalayas and to acclimatise to the very best of his ability he had joined our Everest base camp and Island peak groups. The notion of sitting at Alma’s basecamp, trudging 4 times to camp one and hoping that the weather god gives you a chance at the month’s end was not for him.. He had felt that our trekking itinerary would allow him to gain fitness, acclimatise and to see a fantastic part of the planet. And he had proven to be a key team member setting the pace for the ladies fundraising for charity and sharing his tent with a despondent Jerry when his best mate Chris needed to be choppered out from Island peak base camp with chest problems. Simon had been patient and taken the whole build up to Ama Dablam happily in his stride. Un-selfishly his highlight had been summiting with 65 year old Jerry on Island peak and reaching Kala Patar with the charity ladies. He was that kind of a guy.
But the alpinist hunger always gnaws at your guts when the objective looms like a spectre above every single move you make. When you are in the khumbu valley there is no ignoring a certain mountain. Ama Dablam; It’s always there drawing the eye. Throwing down the gauntlet.
For anyone taking on a challenge like doing 12 rounds with Tyson or climbing Ama Dablam Alpine style, the preparation needs to be something more than just logistical and physical. Sometimes there is the need to cover all the bets and I for one felt better for having seen a Buddhist Lama before we committed to the climb. Ang Pholba, Simon and I were granted a special audience with the Phanboche Lama… the old man had given us each a postcard to leave on the summit for the deities that reside there and we’d each received a fist full of rice to throw at any rock-fall or avalanche that might thunder our way. Thus armed we crossed the bridge over the Khumbu River to start up the trail to Alma’s base camp. We were fit, acclimatised and mentally cool; we knew that the summit was going to be ours.
The forecast had fore-told our lot: no stuffing about, move from BC to C1 and then up to C2 and C3 and top out. The weather will hold. Clear but cold.
On arrival to BC we met other teams who had trudged the relentless scree to Camp 1 four times. These guys had now been here for a month and had just been given the news to take another rest day. This wasn’t an option for us, we had scrutinised the forecast carefully and knew it was now or never. The season was dragging on and climbing in the end of November means you need to make the most of the meagre offering the weather god throws your way. Another days rest would mean summiting in 125 kph winds and -38c temps: imagine the wind-chill factor on that baby!!
After a fantastic breakfast of tuna and boiled potatoes we begin to put our plan into action.
Camp one: Easy climbing although Simon suffers from a bug and the heavy loads. I climb ahead to melt ice and get a brew on before he gets to camp. The brew is cold when he gets to there.
Camp two: Simon having slept well is feeling a million bucks. Up we go tackling surprisingly good rock on a great ridge and the hugely exposed yellow tower: at least all the holds are there! Hey, it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun… We make the most of a vacant tent and crash into the half on half off jobbie. I get the half on bit as Simon the suffer-machine wraps himself around a rock and spends the night holding on for dear life. Bless him.
Camp C2.7: camp three is not used nowadays: it got wiped out in 2006 and continues to be wiped out by blocks of ice breaking from the huge serac looming above it. The climb to Camp 2.7 is a heavy duty climbing day. Neither Simon or myself trust the shitty fixed line; we are accustomed to Alpine style climbing and know bad tat when we see it. We just free-climb the golden rock and steep snow and slide the jumar up behind us, a token bit of pro. Ang Pholba with his rucksack and pockets stuffed with blessed rice scoffs at our struggles and swings like Tarzan from fixed rope to fixed rope. Pity the un-believers. Super exposed ice-arêtes and Jesus what a camp site!! Then after a long night at C2.7 listening to the impending end from the over-hanging ice that is cracking and straining above you, the home run to the summit.
But Noooo!! Mother Nature changes her mind…. My God from the sound of it Mother Nature is out of her mind!! I shout to Simon… It had all gone so well but we have no choice but to descent. Simon knows the score. I hold up my mitten, thumb firmly pointing down. It begins to sink in. Tonight we’ll be down-climbing in the dark to camp one. We’ll have to ruefully answer the questions about summiting with a shrug and excuse about having done the hardest bit.
We both understood that nobody will get this… Once while hitch-hiking in New Zealand I got asked by the driver if I had climbed Mt.Cook after a hugely successful season where I had climbed everything but. I had told him no and got an in-comprehendible silence for my season’s worth of effort and now will I expect the same. Ama Dablam gave us the tough stuff but not the cherry in the pie. But I know that Simon can be happy by what we have achieved. This guy climbed the mountain on its own terms. Maximum respect to him I shout, even if everyone else has missed the point.