EB athlete Calum Mallory recently undertook an expedition to summit the Himalayan giant Ama Dablam. In his second of two posts, he discusses his fight with altitude sickness, and the obstacles that greet mountaineers at the roof of the world...
Read Part 1 here
Ama Dablam Advanced Base Camp (ABC) sits at 5,500 meters above sea level and 1,000 meters higher than Base Camp. This is a substantial gain in height when acclimatising, so we knew it would be a long and slow ascent. The last 100 meters to ABC were the slowest, and my body wasn't coping well to the acclimatisation. That night in ABC after forcing down three courses of ready meals and litres of boiling water, I got my head down for what would be the worst night's sleep of the expedition. Due to a pounding headache and a sore throat from the altitude, I had just a few hours of interrupted sleep and found myself staring at the canvas tent roof for hours. When the sun finally rose I got ready and decided that I would not spend another night at ABC and would instead tag Camp 1 and head back to base camp for needed rest.
This was to be the hardest day of the expedition. I arrived at Base Camp and didn't feel right at all. I was dizzy, felt sick, was completely out of breath and felt knackered. I had pushed myself too hard and in doing so got AMS. I felt like this for the next 36 hours. It sucked and many times I remember sitting there with the rest of the team saying "this just isn't fun anymore". I had suffered from AMS before on previous expeditions but never like this. With time, good rest and lots of fluids I was back to myself again after a couple of days and ready for round two.
After a full recovery I was ready to hit the hill again for the second rotation of our acclimatisation plan. The plan was to climb straight up to Camp 1 at 5,800 meters to spend the night, then in the morning along with our Sherpas we would climb along the ropes and tag Camp 2 at 6,000 meters to adjust further. Clipping into the ropes again this time felt different. I had lots of energy and felt fantastic - something I definitely did not feel before. I enjoyed climbing the next 100 meters to Camp 1 and took my time to have a good look around at my surroundings. I couldn't quite believe I was here and couldn't stop smiling. I arrived at Camp 1 and was greeted by the best view I had ever seen in my life. I was standing way above the clouds with the hot sun shining down. The only sound I could hear was my own heart beating from the thin air and the sound of the wind. I was excited to spend a night up here and after finding my tent and rolling out my sleeping bag, went about preparing the stove by gathering as much snow and ice for melting for water as I could.
At altitude it is extremely important to stay hydrated as this helps with the acclimatisation phase of the expedition. At this altitude it took roughly an hour of melting snow and ice to fill a one litre bottle and we needed at least three litres each, so a slow night was ahead. After dinner it was dark and with not much to do and feeling very cold we got into our sleeping bags and got our books out. I was asleep by 6pm. I woke in the middle of the night with a dying need for the loo.Camped on an exposed rock ledge with a very long drop below it was too dangerous to get out of my sleeping bag and go for a pee outside the tent, so to save ourselves the hassle we brought along a glow in the dark bottle to be our pee bottle - probably the best item I had brought on the expedition! I tried to get my head down again for the night, but straight away knew this was not going to happen and I would be in for another extremely cold and long, boring night. After staring at the canvas roof of the tent for five hours I managed to drift off before the sun rose and it was time to get out of the tent and get warm again.
We clipped into the ropes and began climbing the two hours up to the base of the Yellow Tower just below Camp 2. I was climbing with Mollie, her Sherpa Lakpa who she also summated Everest with and my Sherpa Jabu. Jabu's a very funny character. He hailed from the Makalu region of the Himalaya so looks slightly different to your Khumbu Sherpa. He also isn't the slimmest of Sherpa's, he makes his money guiding clients on big mountains such as Everest in the climbing season then in the monsoon season heads to Kathmandu and spends his money on good food and drink hence his gut. Nethertheless Jabu is a machine and a super strong climber and doesn't feel altitude. He powers up any ice pitch or rock band in front of him without a struggle or a pause for breath. He made the whole experience for me that little bit more amazing. With his great personality and laugh it was enjoyable climbing with him and really took my mind off of what lay ahead.
The climbing from Camp 1 to 2 was incredible - long rope traverses followed by snowy tight gully climbs on super exposed rock. Once we were at the base join the Yellow tower we stashed our gear and turned around and returned back to Camp 1.
It was now time to descend back down to ABC for the night to once again rest and recover in order to acclimatise as well as we could for a potential summit attempt. At ABC we went out the daily tasks of collecting snow and ice to melt for water and food and mostly lay around. After the first good night's sleep in a while we defended all the way down to base camp to rest with the rest of the team before we made our summit attempt.
At base camp we were called into the warmth of our mess tent by our expedition leader Jon. From day one of the expedition we had been surveying the Dablam. The Dablam is a large overhanging snow and ice bulge high up on the face just above camp three. It rests about 300 meters below the summit. It was not in good shape and since the start of the season had been lose and throwing out large boulders of ice that cascaded down the face of the mountain. Due to the unstable Dablam the mountain had already claimed two lives since we had been there. A Sherpa had been hit and killed by falling ice and a climber had fallen due to ropes being damaged. The team had been surveying the Dablam through a telescope in base camp each day and each hour. The Dablam hadn't changed in any shape or size and would only become stable again if it were hit by an avalanche from the upper slopes or extremely high winds. Both of these options were extremely unlikely as the winds would have to be hurricane force and the snowpack above the Dablam on the upper slopes was solid.
Jon sat us down and explained that due to the unstable conditions on the mountain and the lives it had already claimed that he was not prepared to take any risks and that we would not be attempting a summit on Ama Dablam this season.
We were all gutted but in a way slightly relieved. We were all experienced climbers and mountaineers and part of the game is accepting when it is too risky. It made no sense for us to be ignorant of the dangerous conditions on the mountain. For us the risk of death or serious injury was not worth the summit.
We had each spent around five thousand pounds each to get to the mountain and to be told that we would not stand on top was gutting. However an expedition is not all about the summit, but about the journey. We had travelled to an amazing country, trekked through beautiful lush forests passing through villages alive with culture and interesting people. We were immersed in the Himalaya, one of the most jaw-dropping places on earth and even climbed high on an incredible mountain. What would be the point in carrying on to the top and dying now? An expedition is so much more than just a summit; it's an adventure in an amazing and beautiful place with friends and memories to cherish for the rest of your life. It didn't matter if we didn't summit because we had all had a huge amount of fun getting to this point.
It was a good decision made by Jon and it is because of his knowledge and strong leadership that we fully agreed and respected his decision to not summit this season.
Instead of packing up there and then and heading home, we decided to stay on the mountain and climb to the highest and safest point possible, Camp 3 at 6,400 meters - just 400 meters shy of the summit. There were still amazing views from Camp 3 and some amazing mixed climbing, so with our new plan we regained our enthusiasm. Camp 3 sits just out of the firing line of the unstable Dablam, it is the last plateau before heading up to the summit and would make for the best turn around point.
The plan for the next day was set. Mollie and I would climb up to Camp 1 where we would stay the night. With an alpine start we would climb straight to Camp 3 as we both preferred to have one mega day of awesome climbing.
The next day we loaded up with food supplies and for the final time started the long slog up S**t Hill 1. We arrived at Camp 1 and settled in for the night. Waking at 4:00am was hard, but we had both slept really well. After boiling some water and forcing down some bland porridge we turned on the head torches clipped into the ropes and started climbing up the exposed ridge to the base of the Yellow Tower, a 25 meter vertical and featureless slab of rock. This is the most exposed part on the mountain with sweeping drops below of over a thousand meters. Using our jummars, and feeling the effects of the altitude we slowly ascended the Yellow Tower and arrived at Camp 2, feeling pumped and out of breath.
Camp 2 is the strangest campsite I've ever seen. It is balanced precariously on a small rock pinnacle of about 10 square meters suspended thousands of meters above the ground. After a small rest break it was time to change out of the approach shoes, warm the nearly frost nipped fingers and toes and change into the big boots. After about ten minutes of traversing out of Camp 2 along the ropes we came to the base of the Grey Couloirs. This is by far the most nerve-wracking and scary climb on the mountain. The Grey Couloir is a mixed climb of rock, snow and ice in the extremely cold shade leading up to Mushroom Ridge. The views from here looking down into Camp 2 are incredible and the long sweeping exposure below makes the climb that little bit more hair-raising.
We carefully ascended the ropes changing at the many re belay points that are anchored into the mountain by pegs and ice stakes. The climbing was extremely slow going due to the effects of the thin air and we were both very cold. We would manage only 3 steps at a time before slumping onto the ropes for a rest. Thirst was ever present and the back of my throat hurt from the dryness. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and it seemed no matter how much I drank I could not get rehydrated. This is when the mental side of climbing has to take over to keep pushing on.. After about an hour, we crested the ridge and began the slog to Camp 3.
After a couple of hours we had climbed as far as we could. We had reached Camp 3 and looked up to observe the Dablam. It looked horrendous and extremely unstable. We knew that we had made the best decision in deciding to not go for the summit.
After taking in the views of the surrounding peaks and the giant that is Everest looming over our shoulder, we turned around and began the series of abseils back to Camp 2. With every abseil I felt more and more energy coming back. The altitude had made me very tired and clumsy so I was relieved when I started to feel good again. The abseils further down were fast and extremely enjoyable. Although we had not summited I couldn't help but smile. It was a superb achievement and an incredibly amazing trip to be a part of.
At Camp 2 we took our time to rest, rehydrate and force down some food. We had not eaten properly for a couple of days now as the altitude had taken our appetite away. After a power nap, we clipped back into the ropes and descended to the start of the traverse back to Camp 1.
We collapsed into our tents totally exhausted. We couldn't even talk. We both knew what the other was going through and slowly started the boring and long task of melting snow and ice. We would have to wait hours to have enough litres of water to rehydrate us, but we just didn't have the energy to do this. We fell asleep but woke every hour gasping for water. After interupted sleep we woke to a beautiful but extremely cold day on the mountain. We felt good again and took time to eat well and pack up our things for our last trip back to Base Camp.
With the thought of hot showers, water and good food we zipped up the tent, clipped into the ropes and began the long trudge down. Taking in the incredible views the whole way back we arrived at Base Camp four hours later. We were happy to be back, scoffed our faces with the amazing food from our expedition cook Pemba, and enjoyed a hot shower.
The next day we packed up all of our gear, loaded up the yaks and began the five day walkout back to Lukla. As we had called off the summit attempt we now had an extra two days to play with, so decided rather than sit at Base Camp or fly home early we would take the opportunity to trek back to Lukla, taking a different route from the one we had walked in from. The track was quiet and we only saw a couple of people on the trail a day as opposed to the walk in where we saw hundreds. As we were walking through the meadows I reflected on the expedition and the previous two years leading up to it. I had trained hard, saved harder and quie my job all for the chance to climb this beautiful mountain. Although my summit attempt was taken away from me, I couldn't help but feel perfectly content with the decisions we made and the mind-blowing place that I had travelled. The next four days flew by filled by beautiful views, good food and good conversations with local villagers. We returned to Lukla and drank the best beer I have ever tasted, ready to fly back to the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu the next morning.
We landed back in Kathmandu and headed straight for our luxury hotel. After hot showers it was time to explore the town for much needed shaves, haircuts and best of all, a much needed trekker's massage. The day was spent spoiling ourselves and pampering ourselves from head to toe. After a big night out to celebrate an incredible expedition in Kathmandu's weird clubs, the team flew home the next day and back to the normality of home life.