Mountaineering can be a frustrating business and exceptional weather conditions across the Karakoram and Himalayas has made this year one of the most frustrating in recent times for high altitude climbers, with a hugely reduced number of summits on all of the big peaks. This was epitomised by conditions on Cho Oyu (8201m) this autumn. Considered by many the safest and most reliable of the world’s fourteen 8000 metre mountains to climb, it usually enjoys hundreds of summits every season by experienced and inexperienced climbers alike. This autumn it saw just two, in snow conditions experienced mountaineers likened to playing Russian Roulette.
I was one of the climbers on Cho Oyu this year who didn’t make it up. The decision to leave the mountain was easy. There had already been three major avalanches involving climbers on the main route, and although there were many injuries, by a miracle no one had been killed. It didn’t take a particularly active imagination to deduce that anyone caught in a fourth might not be so lucky. Viewed in this light, failure to climb the mountain isn’t quite so frustrating. It’s just one of those things you have to accept: there’s nothing you can do about it.
Then there’s what happened to me and Mark Dickson on Baruntse (7129m) a month later. This autumn the hump-backed ridge of a mountain just south of Everest claimed the life of one of the greats of high altitude mountaineering. In some ways weather conditions were no better than they had been on Cho Oyu: powder snow which looked ready to avalanche, very high winds, and much colder temperatures, yet in spite of this many people made it to the summit, just not us. And although a great many things seemed to go against us at crucial stages, there remains a niggling feeling that had we been less cautious, maybe, just maybe we should have made it up there, too.
We arrived at Camp 1 on the Baruntse Plateau at 6140m on Wed 27th October, having waited a day or two longer at our first base camp below East Col due to wind speeds in excess of 45 kmh, which we knew would have prevented any summit attempts. Indeed, we discovered there had been no summits to date, and the wind had also prevented Sherpa teams from fixing ropes on the summit ridge. We learned that on Sat 23rd October, Chewang Nima Sherpa, who had climbed Everest a remarkable 19 times (more than anyone else in history except Apa Sherpa, who has climbed it 20 times), had died after falling through a cornice while fixing rope on the summit ridge.
It had been our intention to establish a kind of advanced base camp at Camp 1 on the plateau, with a kitchen tent and enough supplies to see us through several days while we waited for a summit window. It was quite clear as soon as we arrived, however, that setting up a kitchen tent was out of the question due to the extremely high wind speeds on the plateau. We sent the majority of our crew down over West Col to establish a second base camp on the west side of the plateau, and spent an uncomfortable night at Camp 1 being buffeted by the winds. This failure to establish an advanced base meant that any summit push would take a day longer than we’d hoped, as base camp on the west side lies some 700m below the plateau across the formidable barrier of West Col.
On Thu 28th October, Dawa, Mark and I ascended to Camp 2 at 6425m, from where we could see a good part of our route to the summit. We were in good condition and made quick time, climbing the short steep snow slope rising from the plateau to a wide saddle beneath Baruntse’s summit and two outlying smaller peaks in just 1 hour 45 minutes. It was immediately obvious, however, that the snow was not in good condition, consisting of deep powder snow with a hard outer crust – a very similar consistency to the snow which had proved so dangerous on Cho Oyu. We met two climbers on their way down from a summit attempt, who told us they had made it as far as the first summit, but conditions were too dangerous beyond that.
Satisfied with our acclimatisation, we returned to Camp 1, then packed up our things and descended all the way to our new base camp at 5440m on the west side, intending to await better conditions on the mountain.
We rested at base camp on Fri 29th October. Our weather forecast predicted further snow on Sun 31st, but clear weather thereafter. Crucially, wind speeds of 45 kmh were predicted to fall to 25 kmh or lower on Monday, so we made tentative plans to start our summit push on Sunday. Four Sherpas from the SummitClimb team decided snow on the summit ridge was now safe, and fixed most of the route to the summit. On Sat 30th October two Czech climbers took advantage of the new fixed ropes and reached the summit. However, conditions were still extremely cold and windy – one of them made it at the expense of frostbite in his leg, and later had to be flown out of base camp by helicopter.
By Saturday evening our weather forecast was predicting heavy snow on Sunday afternoon, so we decided to delay our summit bid until we could see just how much fell. Unfortunately, it proved to be a great deal: at least a foot at base camp, and even more higher up, several feet, in fact. So much snow fell that day that it became impossible for us as a small team to break a fresh trail, dig up the fixed ropes and reach the summit on our own. We now had to rely on the movements of larger, better resourced teams to re-establish a fresh trail.
We learned that the SummitClimb team, with their 18 clients and 10 Sherpas, were intending to leave on Monday with a view to summiting on Tue 2 November. With time running out for us to catch our flight back from Lukla to Kathmandu, we decided to ascend to Camp 1 or Camp 2 on Tuesday, with a view to summiting on Wednesday, taking advantage of the fresh trail broken by SummitClimb’s Sherpas.
Then circumstances changed again. On Monday 1 November SummitClimb failed to make it from Camp 1 to Camp 2 in the new snow. With no time left we had to leave on our summit push on Tuesday, but were now facing a night on the summit ridge following behind the SummitClimb team in cold and windy conditions. It wasn’t an inviting prospect and when we learned that the Adventure Peaks team were abandoning the mountain after two nights at Camp 1 because they now feared avalanche conditions on the summit ridge, and with further snow forecast for Thursday, we decided to call it a day. Dawa took some porters up to Camp 1 on Tuesday to take down our tents, and discovered one of them had been trashed by the high winds. We made plans to leave base camp on Wednesday 3rd, and had no regrets about our decision when we woke up to temperatures of minus 30 degrees celsius. With wind speeds still high, it must have been closer to minus 50 on the summit ridge. Depending on your circulation and attitude to frostbite, it’s questionable whether this can be regarded as a summit window.
But there was to be one more surprise in store for us. High on the summit ridge that morning, some small black figures were crawling towards the summit. There were around 15 of them, and I counted at least 7 of them reaching the summit, while the rest turned around near the second summit (SummitClimb later reported on their website that 8 Sherpas and 8 clients reached the summit that day, but Mark and I were studying them with great interest all morning while our crew broke camp, and this isn’t what we saw!). Dawa made one last attempt to persuade us to change our minds, but no matter how many times we counted the days and considered which route to take back to Lukla, we were two days short if we wanted to reach the summit and make our flight on time.
Even more frustratingly, while we were packing away our base camp, the Scottish mountain guide Sandy Allan passed by on his way to the summit with his team. Their flights were on the 12th, while ours were on the 9th. If only we had those 3 extra days, too!
“Good luck, Sandy,” we said to him. “You’ve got a good chance – we’ve just been watching seven people reach the summit.”
We later learned that Sandy and his team made it to the summit, but for us, it wasn’t to be. Was it, like on Cho Oyu, just one of those things you have to accept, where there’s nothing you can do about it. Or did we make the wrong decisions – were we too cautious?
One thing we do know is that we made it back safely and the mountain is still there. Frustrating, yes, but there’s a different way of looking at things. It’s at times like these that I have to remember my original motivation to climb. I’m originally a walker rather than a climber, and although I can’t claim that I’m not a peak bagger (what mountaineer can?), I can claim that my original motivation comes from a love of the outdoors, a joy that springs from simply being in the mountains.
We may not have reached the summit, but we spent four weeks among some of the most breathtaking scenery on Earth, and it’s this that will keep me coming back again and again no matter how many times it snows at crucial moments.