Manaslu 2011: Ice axe and Cramptons

The story of Manaslu, autumn 2011

Sir Ranulph Fiennes eventually reached the summit of Everest on his third attempt. After suffering a heart attack during his first one in 2005, turning back with exhaustion during his second in 2008, and setting various records for number of bottles of oxygen consumed (typically he went through 20 to 30 per expedition, where most climbers only need 2 or 3), he would have been forgiven had he concluded high altitude mountaineering wasn’t his thing and given up. But he didn’t, and in May 2009 he tried again and succeeded.

The twin peaks of Manaslu from Samagaon
The twin peaks of Manaslu from Samagaon

Of course, arguably Britain’s greatest living explorer isn’t known for giving up easily. He’s travelled to the North Pole unaided, trekked across Antarctica, climbed the north face of the Eiger despite missing all of his fingers, and in 2003 ran 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days following a triple heart bypass operation. He once famously got fed up waiting to have his fingers operated on after suffering frostbite during an expedition to the North Pole, that he decided to conduct his own DIY amputation using the microsaw on his Black & Decker vice.

I’m not made of quite such strong stuff myself, and my threshold of suffering is set a little lower, and after three failed attempts to climb 8000 metre peaks – Gasherbrum I and Gasherbrum II in 2009, and Cho Oyu in 2010 – I too might have been forgiven if I’d jacked it in. But when my two occasional climbing partners Mark Dickson and Ian Cartwright announced they would be attempting Manaslu in Nepal this year, just like Sir Ran I decided to give it another go. Two more pleasant and entertaining climbing companions can rarely be found (said only slightly tongue-in-cheek), and unlike Sir Ran I only had the weather to blame for my previous disappointments. If you try enough times then eventually the weather’s going to be favourable, surely?

Our expedition operator had already been selected by my two friends, but I was more than happy with their choice. We’ve all climbed with Altitude Junkies before – Ian and I on Gasherbrum – and although their owner and expedition leader Phil Crampton has a reputation for only accepting clients he thinks he’ll get on with, as a New Yorker born and raised in the UK, he’s amply qualified to deal confidently with our British sense of humour. This was demonstrated when we met him at the Courtyard Hotel in Kathmandu at the start of the expedition. He was sporting a haircut which resembled Charles I, the 17th century British monarch best known for being beheaded by Oliver Cromwell. Although we hadn’t seen him for over a year, instead of shaking hands with him our first reaction was to burst into roars of laughter. Unfortunately for Phil his flowing tresses never ceased to provide us with mirth throughout the expedition, but he took it all with good nature.

Trail climbs high above the gorge on a rock staircase
Trail climbs high above the gorge on a rock staircase

Unlike many of the teams on Manaslu this year, we chose to start our expedition by trekking in from Arughat, following the first section of the Manaslu Circuit, rather than flying by helicopter to Samagaon at the foot of the mountain. This meant an extra six days of walking, but it was six days that I wouldn’t have swapped for anything. Arughat is situated in one of the lowland parts of Nepal, and is only 600 metres above sea level. This makes Manaslu one of the few 8000 metre peaks that you can sensibly climb virtually from sea level (by contrast, for example, if you’re climbing Everest from the north side then you can drive to 5200m). Samagaon, on the other hand, sits at 3500m, which means if you fly straight in then you still have to spend the first few days sitting around acclimatising before you can go any higher.

More importantly, the first few days of the Manaslu Circuit trek are absolutely stunning, and for those of us who like walking as much as we like climbing, it formed a fantastically diverse introduction to the expedition, as different from the actual climbing as it’s possible to be. Starting out in jungle on the fringes of civilisation, the first day was spent passing through village after village on a route accessible to 4×4 vehicles. They still don’t see many western trekkers on this particular trail, and I experienced the indignity of being laughed at and called a monkey by some of the children in one particular school we walked past. I soon discovered why when we saw some real live monkeys swinging from the branches of the trees a little further up the trail – the grey-haired langurs in those parts all have white faces, so I concluded the kids were actually making a racist joke, rather like racist football fans throwing bananas at black players during the bad old 80s days of football hooliganism. On the plus side their joke provided a theme which enabled Phil to get revenge with a few jokes of his own at my expense over the next few days.

As the trail increased in altitude we passed from jungle into mixed forest of bamboo and rhododendron, then Himalayan birch and alpine fir and pine trees. Most spectacularly of all, the vast majority of the trail was set within the most impressive of river gorges, the Budhi Gandaki. Often the path clung precipitously to cliff faces high above the river, and we ascended some of the most splendid rock staircases hewn into rock that I’ve ever come across. Parts of it reminded me of the Naar Phu valley in the Annapurna region a little further west, a similarly narrow wooded gorge that I was lucky enough to walk up a few years ago. That particular gorge took just a single day to pass through, but the Budhi Gandaki is a much longer affair, passing through a number of different climate zones. It made me want to come back and complete the Manaslu Circuit another day.

Slate-roofed mediaeval stone houses in Samagaon
Slate-roofed mediaeval stone houses in Samagaon

Eventually we rose above the tree line into Buddhist country. Prayer walls, stupas and stupa arches started appearing at regular intervals along the trail, and eventually we arrived at a long, broad hanging valley full of wheat and tsampa fields. In the middle of the valley was Samagaon, an old Tibetan village full of mediaeval slate-roofed stone houses. This was our home for three nights as we settled into a tea house at the top end of the village while (it seemed) most of the population of the village came to carry our equipment up to Manaslu Base Camp.

Base Camp itself was a 1400m (3 to 4 hour) climb above the village, through woods, moorland, and eventually a long steep ridge of moraine above the vegetation zone. We finally moved up there on 11 September, and monks from the monastery came up to conduct our puja ceremony the following day (a blessing asking the mountain gods for good weather and safety during our climb).

For once the story of our eventual ascent is a straightforward one, although there were one or two hiccups along the way, and the weather gods inevitably toyed with us from time to time. Manaslu Base Camp is at quite a low altitude for an 8000 metre peak (4840m), and it seemed to be neither above nor below the cloud line, but right inside it. For pretty much the first week or so it rained more or less all day every day, and we saw nothing of Manaslu until we climbed above it. We didn’t have to climb very high to do this, however, and our first few forays up the mountain found us above the clouds and enjoying fine views up the Manaslu Glacier to the mountain’s East Pinnacle, North Col and North Peak.

The first hiccup happened to Ian during our first foray up to Camp 1 (5770m). Ian, Mark and I were climbing together up the gentle incline of the Manaslu Glacier, with Ian walking just ahead. He seemed to struggle on a slightly steeper section of seracs and crevasses, and when we approached him his right arm was sticking out in front of him at a curious angle.

“I think I’ve dislocated my shoulder,” he said in a very matter-of-fact way.

After convincing him that we were perhaps not the best people to have a go at popping his arm back into its socket, he set off back to base camp where there was a doctor in one of the other teams, and Mark and I resumed our climb to Camp 1. It wasn’t until I was nearly at Camp 1 when I looked back and saw a familiar figure behind me and quickly catching up. It turned out that Ian had only descended a short way before he decided to have a go at popping his shoulder back in himself. Satisfied he’d performed the operation correctly, he put his rucksack back on and headed back up.

Ian on the Bottleneck between Camps 1 and 2
Ian on the Bottleneck between Camps 1 and 2

At Camp 1 he was clearly still in a lot of pain, so Phil gave him some tramadol, an analgesic drug used for treating severe pain, and told him he’d be high as a kite and feeling nothing in a few minutes time. I returned to Base Camp with Ian and one of our Sherpas Tarke. Ian remained in pain all the way down, and it wasn’t until he got back and visited Monica, a doctor with the Himalayan Experience (Himex) team, that he discovered his shoulder was still dislocated. He hadn’t in fact popped it back in at all, and had climbed most of the way to Camp 1 carrying a heavy backpack with a fully dislocated shoulder. Monica completed the operation for him, and although his shoulder was sore thereafter, it didn’t stop him climbing.

After that, things could only get better. We climbed up to Camp 1 and slept there on 16 September, and the following day had our first experience of Manaslu’s intricate serac maze between Camps 1 and 2. This 400 metre labyrinth of steep climbs, fluted ice walls, snow ramps and crevasses forms the most technical section of climbing on Manaslu. The hard work of finding and fixing a route through it had been done by Himex’s team of Sherpas long before we got there, but we still had to climb it. On the first occasion I found it exhausting, and was glad when the steepness slackened off towards the top, but arriving at Camp 2 was a big confidence boost, knowing that the most technical section of the route was behind me, and that the climb was likely to be much easier on subsequent occasions. We spent a night at Camp 2 (6400m) and returned to Base Camp the following day.

The next big hiccup occurred on 24 September. Although we had been at Base Camp less than two weeks, our weather forecasts suggested a possible summit window, so on 23rd we set off for Camp 1 on what was to be a first summit push. To be fair one of the weather forecasts had reported a storm over the Bay of Bengal that might hit Manaslu, but many people were keeping their fingers crossed that it wouldn’t. Some of us in the Altitude Junkies team, including myself, were anxious about this push because we were slightly concerned that it was too early and we weren’t anything like acclimatised enough.

Robin, Steve, Karel and Mark descend in a blizzard
Robin, Steve, Karel and Mark descend in a blizzard

As it turned out, our prayers were to be answered by the mountain gods. We emerged from our tents on 24th to find nearly two feet of fresh snow, and it was still snowing heavily. The slopes up to Camp 2 looked horrible, and we had no option but to return to Base Camp immediately and await another window. We descended in a blizzard and our Sherpa Gombu deserves great credit for managing to keep to the trail after all the fresh snow. Twice I fell into crevasses which had become hidden, although I was clipped into a fixed rope both times and wasn’t in any danger.

Back at Base Camp it was a very different scene. The days of heavy rain had ended with the drop in temperature which had produced snow, and everything was covered in a white carpet. The 300 metre rock band between Base Camp and Crampon Point (or Crampton Point as we christened it in honour of Phil), the place where the Manaslu Glacier began and we always stopped to put on our crampons, was now covered in snow and remained so for the rest of the expedition. The snowfall continued for the next couple of days, and we knuckled down to a period of waiting. To keep exercising we did the odd day trip down to Samagaon, where the alcohol proved a little too much of a temptation for my companions.

When it came, our eventual summit window proved to be a perfect one. We set off for Camp 1 in overcast conditions on 1 October, but a good summit window was predicted between the 3rd and 6th, with clear skies and light winds. Above Camp 1 the serac maze was in much better condition. Where previously each step gave way beneath us in powder snow, now the steps were a firm crust and much easier to climb. We were also much better acclimatised, and I climbed to Camp 2 in just 3½ hours where previously I’d taken five.

Above Camp 2 a broad snow slope leads up to Camp 3 (6750m) just beneath the North Col. It’s a slope which can be avalanche prone, and we had needed to wait a few days for it to consolidate after the fresh snow, but it was now safe. We climbed it in just 2 hours and had almost a full day resting. Unfortunately for my tent mate Mark it wasn’t such a happy experience. He arrived with frozen fingers, despite wearing down mitts, and was concerned about getting frostbite. It wasn’t especially cold that day, but after various hand injuries throughout his career, Mark has less manual dexterity than most climbers, which means he needs to take his gloves off more frequently to complete routine tasks such as putting on boots, crampons and harness on a cold morning, something I’m usually able to do myself while still wearing my dextrous leather Marmot gloves.

At the bottom of the endless snow slope above the North Col
At the bottom of the endless snow slope above the North Col

Camp 3 was also the first time I shared a tent with Chongba Sherpa, who would be looking after me on summit day. Summiteer of Everest on no fewer than 12 occasions, he has also climbed Kangchenjunga, Dhaulagiri and Cho Oyu of the 8000ers, but never Manaslu, so would certainly be keen to help me get to the top. As Mark and I dozed away the afternoon, he kept us hydrated by boiling up water for hot drinks, soup and the few bits of food we were able to get down at the high altitude. Sherpas are known as the Tigers of the Snow, and while they’re undoubtedly the elite climbers of the high altitude mountaineering world, performing feats few western climbers can match, they also have great humility. When Chongba left the tent briefly to get more snow to melt for water, Mark made a very telling remark to me in his usual inimitable way.

“He’s climbed Everest 12 times, and he’s boiling f—ing water for us!”

Day 4 of the summit push up to Camp 4 at 7460m was a very hard day. There was nothing technically difficult about it, but it was physically exhausting on slopes which were relentlessly steep. Once we had reached the North Col shortly after setting out, there was nowhere to stop and rest anywhere which wasn’t on a 45º slope staring back down the mountain. Above the col was a feature I soon termed the Endless Snow Slope. Yes, it did end eventually, but there were plenty of moments that I imagined it wouldn’t. Featureless all the way up to a series of seracs where the path veered left, it was possible to climb a very long way up it, then look back and realise you still weren’t very far above the col. In fact, it often looked like you hadn’t moved at all. It was also a bit of a bottleneck, with lots of climbers going up at the same time. Towards the top the train of people ground to a halt when one of a number of elderly Japanese ‘climbers’ – I use the term in quotes because as it turned out, they couldn’t actually climb – getting short-roped by a Sherpa (ie. pulled along on a very short rope) got stuck.

When at last we reached the top of the Endless Snow Slope and passed along a gap between the seracs, we found ourselves on a similarly endless steep traverse into camp, where the horizon rose a few dozen metres above us but never got any closer. It took me 7 hours to reach Camp 4, and I was exhausted. The bad news is that Mark decided his fingers weren’t going to get any better, and turned back some distance up the Endless Snow Slope. Ian and I were gutted for him. We’ve done a lot of climbing together, and between us experienced many disappointments on 8000m peaks. When our summit window eventually came, as we always knew it would, we had hoped to all get there together. While Ian and I were in a strong position to summit the next day, our confidence would be tempered by the disappointment we felt on behalf of Mark, who would have to wait for yet another opportunity.

At Camp 4 beneath the East Pinnacle and main summit
At Camp 4 beneath the East Pinnacle and main summit

I shared a tent with Chongba and Tarke that night. Our intention had been to leave for the summit at midnight, but as the time approached our tent was getting battered by the wind. Throughout the night Tarke would sit up and bark some phrases in Nepali through the wall of the tent to Sherpas in other tents, then lie back down again. Then at 5.45, with no warning, he looked at me and said, “Are you ready? We go now.”

I wasn’t ready, but I didn’t hang around. I had everything ready inside our tent, so by 6.05 Chongba had strapped on all my oxygen apparatus and the two of us were leaving camp. I found the oxygen awkward to begin with, never having used it before, and I walked across the snow plateau above camp very slowly indeed, half gagging on the mask which I almost felt was inhibiting my breathing rather than improving it. After a few minutes of walking Chongba stopped me and fiddled about behind my neck. I don’t know what he did, whether there was a blockage that he corrected or whether he just increased the flow rate, but after that I shot off and didn’t look back.

Camp 4 to the summit is a straightforward climb. Loosely described there were three plateaus followed by three snow slopes. Each plateau increased in angle, with the first quite flat and the third almost as steep as the three slopes, so even with my oxygen apparatus it eventually tired me. Halfway up Ian caught up with us, and we eventually approached the summit together. The third slope leads up to an area I termed the summit crown, with three separate summits – two small snow domes and the final one being a short snake-like ridge up to the true summit itself. We reached it at 11.30. There was very little wind, and although it was cold, it must have been positively sweltering by 8000m peak standards, for my summit photo shows that I must have taken my gloves off, yet my fingers suffered no damage.

Chongba Sherpa on the summit of Manaslu
Chongba Sherpa on the summit of Manaslu

The descent to Camp 4 included a short diversion to help out another climber in difficulty, which I have described elsewhere in this blog. The main problems for me now were my neck and shoulders, which were beginning to become quite painful. Although I hadn’t been carrying much weight in my pack, primarily just the oxygen bottle, it seems that I’d been carrying it at an awkward angle and hadn’t noticed until it was time to descend. I needed to stoop in order to avoid pulling my mask off my face, and as we approached camp I was holding it to my face so that I was able to stand up straight. By the time we reached Camp 4 at 1.30 I was fed up with the awkward oxygen apparatus and glad to get it off my back.

We left again for Camp 2 at 3 o’clock, this time carrying all our kit with us as well. For me it was to prove a bit of an epic. Exhausted and now in significant pain from my neck and shoulders, I found myself unable to descend more than a few metres on the relentlessly steep slopes without having to sit down and rest. I eventually reached Camp 2 at 7.30, having completed the last hour and a half by the light of my head torch after darkness had descended. The following day I felt a little better, but I still had Manaslu’s serac maze to negotiate, a task that required great care and attention, and turned out to be as mentally exhausting as it was physically. Worst of all were my neck and shoulders, which were extremely painful all the way down, and towards the bottom I was having to stoop again to lessen the pain. I must have been a sorry picture to my team mates as I staggered into Base Camp, the last of us to get back safely.

But we’d done it, and now two weeks later it’s starting to sink in. We had been well looked after by a very professional Altitude Junkies outfit that at times had even felt luxurious, as the video below demonstrates. We had a communications tent containing 3 laptops with internet connection, two hot shower tents, plenty of storage space, a tent each at base camp, a comfortable dining tent and pretty good food. We even had red wine every dinner time. Phil liked to rule the roost at dinner time from his chair at the head of the table, but he’s an entertaining character who is very experienced at high altitude. More than anything else we had a great Sherpa team, without whom we’d never have got anywhere near the summit. I’m very pleased and proud that I didn’t turn back, so that Chongba was able to summit Manaslu for the first time. To him I owe my good fortune more than anyone besides Phil.

I was exhausted, though, and it took me a long time to recover. I think I’m still recovering even now. But I’d do it again, for sure.

You can see all my photos from the climb here, and the complete video playlist here. And if you have a Kindle you can read The Ascent of Manaslu, the ebook of my diary from the expedition.

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