Tuesday, December 8, 2009

More than we bargained for – (Cho Oyu (8200m), Tibet. September /October 2008)

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” - Helen Keller

Life seems to have its many twists and turns and in many ways we create these ourselves. Blaming others for our misfortunes or things that don’t turn out as planned seems a pointless exercise. We all have a hand in the creation of our little worlds and it is up to us to extend ourselves beyond these microcosms beyond our own limits and concepts of what is possible.
Climbing mountains is something I choose to do for the challenges and experiences encountered.

For some reason, I had delayed writing this story until now, nearly 12 months after our return from a mountain that took its toll on my mental and physical state. The experience affected me in so many ways that it was difficult to adjust when I returned to everyday life back in Australia. This has often been the case after I have returned from an arduous expedition. Reality doesn’t really seem real anymore and my friends and family back in Adelaide could never really understand the transition required from the mountains back to working life in Adelaide. I just try to get back into the swing of everyday life again, which isn’t always easy after the single-minded intensity of mountain life. I’ve mostly recovered from the effects of the trip to Cho Oyu but the experience will stay with me for many years as I’m sure it will haunt some of my fellow team mates who shared the good times and the tragedies that we endured on the mountain.

There are many missing details to this story, but I have tried to capture the essence of my experience. Everyone’s experience is different and valuable. Each person’s experiences opens their own doors of perception. Memories fade with time and the haze of altitude. This is just my story as I remember it…….

Ever since I began climbing, I had read books about the climbing in the Himalaya and dreamed of climbing there myself one day. There are fourteen mountains over the magical height of 8000m in the world, all of them situated in the Himalayan chain stretching from the Karakorum in Pakistan to Tibet and Nepal.

Nima, my trusty, incredible agent and friend in Nepal let me know that he was organising an expedition to Mt Cho Oyu in Tibet for a company called Field Touring. The trip was being led by a guy called Stu, who I had met previously on an expedition to Ama Dablam in 2005. Ryan Castel, my keen climbing partner on a few previous Himalayan trips didn’t need much convincing to sign up for the trip. We would be sharing base camp and logistics with the Field Touring team. Above base camp, we would be on our own. We planned to climb a different route on the mountain than the rest of the team to make things a bit more interesting, just in case 8200m wasn’t interesting enough.

Due to escalating troubles in Tibet, the Chinese authorities were reluctant to issue permits and although we remained hopeful, it was looking grim. Thankfully one week before departing Australia, we received our permits to climb the mountain.

We all arrived in Kathmandu in early September and prepared to travel overland to Cho Oyu via the Chinese-built friendship highway. Our international team bus weaved its way from the warm Nepalese forests to the arid Tibetan plateau. 6 days of gradual ascent through the ghost towns of Nyalam and Tingri gave us an opportunity to get to know each other and sample the local cuisine and toilets.

A week after leaving Kathmandu, we arrived at advance base camp (ABC). ABC was perched at 5700m on the moraine wall of a massive glacier overlooking the Northeast face of the mountain. A kilometre from the camp across the Nangpa La pass lay the lush green valleys of Nepal, a world away from the dusty cold Tibetan Plains.

After a few days of adjusting to the altitude at ABC, Ryan and I set of on a reconnaissance mission to have a look at our intended route on the mountain, the South West face. We watched it for a few hours through the obscuring clouds and hoped the conditions on the face would be conducive to a safe and fast ascent once we were acclimatised. The face looked steep intimidating and foreboding. A great adventure in the making.

We planned to acclimatise to the high altitude on the mountain’s normal route. 5 hours from ABC across the moraine of the glacier and up a few hundred metre scree hill lay camp 1 at 6400m. We pitched our small tent in a small hollow below the snow ridge, hoping to find some protection from the typical strong winds found at that altitude. After an initial load carry to camp 1 we headed up again to spend 3 nights at camp 1 and hopefully one night at camp 2.

On arrival at camp one, we witnessed the devastation on other expedition’s tents from the previous day’s storms. Tent poles were snapped, tents were ripped to shreds and some tents and all their contents had simply blown off the mountain. For some people on the mountain, this spelt the end of their expedition. The first night at a new altitude always hurts. Headaches and lethargy were the order of the day. Time at camp was spent reading, listening to music, cooking and reinforcing the guy lines on the tent. Killing time is an amazing skill to have on expeditions. As the body gradually adjusts to the altitude, the strength returns and the urge to venture upward is renewed.

After 3 nights at camp one, Ryan and I gathered the minimum of equipment and headed up the mountain with the intention of staying a night at camp 2 (7100m). The weather showed signs of changing for the worse. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too bad! The route to camp 2 followed a steep ridge followed by 2 steep ice cliffs. The hard blue ice through the ice cliffs made the lungs burn and calves ache with every effort. Camp 2 was a desolate wind swept little plateau littered with tents from the many other expeditions on the mountain. Our tiny single skin tent was a battle to pitch in the wind storm that had been brewing. With freezing hands and faces we crawled into the tent and tried to warm up despite the wind blown spindrift that filled the tent. With thumping headaches and 50 - 60 knot winds hammering the tent all night, there was not much sleep to be had. When morning arrived, we collapsed the tent and gratefully headed down the mountain and back to base camp; our acclimatisation complete. Ryan declared it his worst night ever in the mountains.

Now all we needed was a 4 day weather window for a summit attempt. With the large amount of snow and bad weather that had pummelled the mountain, we decided against the SW face in favour of the NW face route.

After about 4 days rest and preparation in advanced base camp, we headed up the mountain hopefully for the last time, but uncertain what the next few days would bring. Climbing at high altitude requires constant attention to one’s own health and the conditions on the mountain. Ryan and I had never been this high and were stepping into unknown territory. This was why we came to climb this mountain.

Camp 3 was perched on a steep incline above some rocky cliffs at 7500m. No one stays here long. The human body is continually dying at this altitude and time up here is borrowed time. We only had a few hours at this camp to brew up and prepare for the summit attempt. All movements were laboured at this altitude, even lacing up our boots took minutes. We slept fitfully for a few hours in all our clothes, sharing a single sleeping bag to save weight.

At 2 am, Ryan and I left camp 3 for our summit bid. I carried a camera, 2 litres of water, some energy gels and an ice axe. Ryan and I chose not to use supplementary oxygen on the climb so we wore only the clothes on our backs. Other climbers and Sherpa’s from other expeditions that were using oxygen romped past us on the initial slope above camp 3. We were forced to wait for about an hour at the base of the crux rock band. The cold crept into my feet and fingers, threat of frostbite very real. I planned to go home with all my fingers and toes, even if it meant not going to the summit. As long as I could feel and move my fingers and toes, they would be OK. Finally through the rock band I kept moving and stayed warm, moving by the light of my head lamp and desperately waiting for the sun to rise add some warmth to the -30 degree dawn hours.

5 steps, 10 breaths 5 steps 10 breaths was the rhythm I followed for most of the day. I was wrapped up in my own little world of determination and perseverance. The bitter dawn wind was freezing my eyes, the damage only noticeable a few hours later when the vision from one eye turned blurry.

Movement created warmth and the summit loomed closer as the sun rose in the sky. As Ryan and I leapfrogged upward, we passed other climbers descending. Most of these climbers were in guided groups and using supplementary oxygen to climb the mountain. By using oxygen, these climbers were able to climb faster and stay warmer, a luxury we didn’t afford ourselves. Ryan and I wanted to experience 8000m in all its rawness to gauge how our bodies would react at that altitude. Cho Oyu was intended as a stepping stone for bigger peaks in the future.

Upon reaching the summit plateau, the summit was still a long way off. We would know when we reached the summit because we would be able to see the other Himalayan giants, Everest, Lhotse and Makalu. After an hour, the unobscured view of Everest and Lhotse came into view. It was midday on the 2nd October. I was on the summit. Emotion welled up inside me. It had been a long, hard road to get to here and it all seemed worth it. I looked behind me to see where Ryan was and there was no sign of him. Looking back on summit day, there were whole parts of the day that are missing from my memory. Last time I checked, he was right behind me. Eventually he arrived and we exchanged a wearied summit hug. We had climbed together on all our Himalayan trips and the friendship had grown into a loyal and solid partnership. It was great to share the success with a great friend.

After the obligatory photos and Snickers, we headed down, well aware that we were far from safety and the descent would require the utmost care. The 2 litres of water in my jacket had frozen solid so I was getting a bit thirsty. On the descent around 230pm we came across a jovial Canadian from our team called Guy L. He was moving too slowly to make the summit that day and descend safely, so we let him know that the summit was at least 4 hours away at the pace he was moving. He continued upward confident and enjoying this amazing day in the mountains. Something didn’t seem quite right, but no one seems to think to clearly at that altitude so we continued downward toward the tents and safety. Little did we know that was the last time we would see Guy L and experience his big smile.

After a few abseils through the rock bands, I reached the final slope leading to camp 3. For the last few hours I had been bursting for a piss but felt the urge to keep moving downward. Finally a few hundred metres from camp and on a low angle slope, I couldn’t wait any longer. 3 layers of clothing made the task extremely difficult. I didn’t succeed but the layers of fleece and polyester wicked away the fluid. I was beyond caring at this point.

After reaching the tent I ate and melted snow for water. The 2 litres I had carried with me had frozen solid inside my jacket in the cold dawn hours leaving me dehydrated and thirsty. I made the decision to wait for Ryan and then continue down to camp 2 as soon as possible. Staying up high only succeeds in destroying the body further. Ryan was exhausted and wanted to stay at camp 3 that night so I headed down to camp 2 and moved into a tent with Guy and Kit, feasting on Beef jerky and feeling contented after a long and demanding day.

Meanwhile, at camp 3, Justin poked his head into our tent, his face covered in feathers.

“I’ve just had a shit of a day”.

Ryan awoke from his slumber in astonishment. Justin had managed to drop his figure 8 descending device somewhere on the descent and made a mistake on the final abseil. What ensued was a 400metre slide past camp 3 into a massive snow bowl. Lucky to be alive with feathers leaving from his torn down suit, Justin made his way back to camp 3 and crawled into Ryan’s tent.

Stu radioed in at 8pm to let everyone know that Guy L was with him and they were due in camp 3 about 9pm. It was great to hear they were both safe so the radios were switched off.

We were awoken at 8am the next morning by Stu unzipping the tent. He was almost unrecognisable. His face wearied by cold and fatigue, icicles a few inches long clung to his beard and his eyes carried that distant stare.
“Guy is dead, he slipped on the descent”

We dragged Stu into the tent and he collapsed. He had been out all night, coaxing and doing everything he could to get Guy L down safely. He had slipped a few metres from safety. There was nothing anyone could do.

We were all in shock, but needed to regroup and descend the mountain. I escorted Ben and Kit down to camp 1 and filled my pack with everything I could carry. The autopilot kicked in and I continued toward base camp. It soon got dark and I tried to remember the way in the maze of moraine and ice. Somewhere along the way, I encountered another down suit clad climber sitting on a rock. He fell in behind me happy to have someone to follow back to base camp. It turned out he was originally from Adelaide but now living in Seattle. Small world!
Eventually, we made it back to base camp and safety. Exhaustion overwhelmed me as I entered the cook tent and was welcomed by Ratna with a big plate of fried rice and soup. I slept the sleep of the dead that night fully clothed.

Ryan and some of our team were still on the mountain so I took charge at base camp trying to coordinate who was where and trying to work out what was happening. Ryan was making his way down with Justin, who had sustained some serious frostbite to his toes. I had known Ryan long enough to know that he was well up to the task of getting Justin down safely and told him so over the radio. Sometimes you just need to hear that someone has confidence in you. With his hands full trying to get Justin down the mountain, Ryan came across a Slovenian guide called Miha Valic. Miha was in a bad state, slowly dying of pulmonary oedema, but trying to descend under his own steam. Ryan called me to ask for advice on how to treat Miha. Drugs, water and immediate descent were administered. Now Ryan had 2 casualties on his hands.
Something happened to Miha on the abseil down the 1st ice cliff that left Miha tumbling down the slope still attached to the rope. Ryan down-climbed the ice cliff and started CPR in a bid to revive Miha. The reality of giving CPR at 7000m is extremely harsh. It is hard enough to breathe by oneself, let alone try to save someone else. Unfortunately, all efforts were unsuccessful so I searched base camp for Miha’s team mates to break the news. It was a heart-wrenching job to have to do. It was almost unbelievable that a seemingly super-fit and strong guide who had summitted the previous day had now perished.

Ryan and Justin eventually made it back to base camp the next day, exhausted and physically wasted. The whole experience had been traumatic for Ryan. We spent a lot of time talking about the events over the next few days. The experiences will no doubt stay with Ryan for a lifetime. The entire experience brought the whole team together. It was privilege to be a part of such a close knit bunch of guys. No one went to the mountain thinking that it was an endeavour without risk. Losing someone is never part of the plan and I hope it never happens again but inevitably accidents do happen in the mountains.

People have asked me
“Will you go back to the mountains after what happened?

I will always go back to the mountains as long as I am able to. Inevitably events beyond my control will happen. The risks are great, but then so are the rewards. Everyone knows the risks and accepts them to a certain degree. We feel more alive for these experiences and the choices we make.

We chose to travel to the mountain and climb and endure what the mountain handed us. I am stronger for the experience and achieved what I set out to do on the mountain. Why we climb the big mountains is not always clear but sometimes it is better to not ask the question. Sometimes the mountains seem to call me or maybe it’s just where I feel most at peace.

Thanks to all the team Ryan, Stu, Ben, Italo, Guy L, Guy H, Lyngve, Tsering, Ratna, Justin, Kit, John, Eric, Moma and Antonin who made the trip a success with lasting friendships.

1 comment:

  1. A good report Rob. Feels like a long time ago this happened, have tried to block it out from my memory..