Show me the calendar on the left frame.
Go and see the altitude graph.
Mountaineering is undoubtedly
my favorite occupation besides my job at Esker
- and, honestly, a little bit ahead of it. And after ten years of practice in
the Alps, trying to reach the summit of the mountains that excited my imagination
the most, the narration and images of Himalayan expeditions was turning my curiosity
on. I was looking for any occasion to bring a little bit of adventure and a
great amount of wilderness to my life, and "Himalaya" sounded a good synonym
With this state of mind, the discovery of an advertisement for a French expedition on Mount Ama Dablam made my heart beat faster. Yvan Estienne, a French mountain guide and a friend of mine, was intending to go back to the mountain after having done the first ascent of its north ridge, twenty years ago. The idea was driving me hard. It must be said that Ama Dablam is one of the most photographed mountain in the world because of its beauty. And its easiest route, besides the fact that it's not easy at all, has once been qualified as "an almost perfect route on an almost perfect mountain".
My decision was made immediately despite the doubts that such an ascent can raise. My experience of high altitude was limited to the ascent of Mont-Blanc, 4808 meters, the highest point in western Europe, whereas Ama Dablam is reaching 6828 meters high. Above all, the technical difficulties of the route, would certainly require to give my best.
|North-West face of Ama Dablam, seen from the head of Khumbu glacier. The stones in the foreground are in memory of the Sherpas dead on Mount Everest.|
September 29th , '99
Here we are, everything is packed and ready for adventure. The whole team is gathered at Charles De Gaulle airport, Paris, for the first time. Three women and ten men, focused on the image of the same mountain. I met four of them a few weeks ago, in the French Alps during a training with Yvan regarding the techniques that will be used during the ascent. Today, I discover with surprise that one of the other members is a friend of my brother. It is a small, small world. The group looks strong with some highly skilled mountain guides, willing to entertain themselves on this reputed mountain, and a lot of people that already faced the high altitudes. But a lot of things may happen from now to the end of November. Everybody's unsure of the success and that's where adventure begins !
Yesterday was a long travel. Today will be the first in-depth visit of Katmandu. Fortunately, Tenji, a sherpa involved in the construction of a Nepalese school with the collaboration of a French association, welcomes us and shows us the various aspects of the city. I met him in France a few months ago and it's a real pleasure to spend this day with him. The sherpas are living according to Buddhism's principles and are demonstrating a great sense of hospitality and charity. Tenji is no exception and his cheerfulness is heart-warming. During this time, Yvan is spending a few hours to the ministry of tourism to achieve the usual stuff about expeditions.
After a whole day spent
at the airport waiting for an unlikely flight, the weather conditions today
have allowed us to land at Lukla airfield. This airfield, lost in the Dudh Kosi
valley at an altitude of 2800 meters, is the most practical way to join the
Khumbu, the area of Nepal where are situated Mount Everest and Ama Dablam among
a lot of other famous mountains. However, the valley is so narrow at this place
that the pilot must proceed to a spectacular approach plotting a very tight
S in the air before landing. This is very different from what you can experience
into a Boeing 747 !
Anyway, we're now in the mountains and I appreciate it. We encounter a Swiss expedition coming back from Ama Dablam. They resigned because of the snow but managed to fix the ropes until 6300 meters, which is a major part of the work to do. I hope the last remains of the monsoon will disappear soon and that we'll have some better chances to reach the summit than they have had. We have scheduled a seven days long trekking before arriving to the Base Camp and it should be enough for both acclimatization and weather, but one never knows.
This morning at last, the
clouds have disappeared, revealing stupendous sceneries. Especially, we have
find out during breakfast that Ama Dablam was now right above us, 2500 meters
higher than our poor, fragile, human bodies. And the whole day has been an uninterrupted
discovery of faces, ridges and spurs that I saw so many times in the magazines
: Lhotse, Nuptse, Makalu, Pumori. "And look at that one ! Do you think anybody
climbed this face ? It looks so hard".
However I'm a little bit worried tonight. I have had headaches during the whole day. They are not really painful but they are a symptom of bad acclimatization and could evolve into high altitude sickness if I am not careful. Yvan says it's normal. We are now at an altitude of 4900 meters, having gained 500 meters between each night. And this is a little bit more than the what is recommended. For the moment, I'll just take some aspirin and rest tomorrow. The others will go to the Kala Pattar, a 5500 meters high hill which is the nicest sightseeing on Mount Everest, and we will go back together in the valley until Dingpoche.
Arrival to the Base
Camp. A pretty meadow with comfortable grass to set up the tents and a nice
river in the middle of it. A little piece of paradise where our sherpa team
prepares everything that will make life easy during the next fifteen days.
I think it is a good moment to boast the quality of their organization and describing a rest day at the Base Camp should do for it :
|Ama Dablam Base Camp. Our tents are the blue ones. The mountains in the background are: Kang Tengpoche - with snow - and Khumbila.|
Rest day at the Base Camp. It's true that yesterday has been exhausting and the body needs a refill. We climbed up to 5700 meters to bring part of our technical gear near to Camp One. It's a very usual tactic to do so : You are taking advantage of the acclimatization period to bring to the altitude camps most of the things you will need later. It is quite demanding at the beginning, when you are not totally accustomed to the altitude, but it will save you some energy during the bid for the summit. Of course, the sherpas are an essential help to achieve this task. They are usually in charge of the tents, most of the food and sometimes, the fixed ropes, which are the heaviest items to bring up. Tomorrow, we will set up a tent at 5400 meters high and four of us will sleep there in order to go on with acclimatization.
|West face of Ama Dablam, seen from Base Camp at dull. Our route is the South-West ridge on the right of the mountain.|
These past few days have
been very profitable for the expedition. Thanks to Pemba
and Pema, our two climbing sherpas, we now have
one tent at 5400 meters, three tents at Camp One, and another one at Camp Three.
I have spent one night at 5400 meters with three other members and the good
news is that I am starting to feel real good. No more headaches. And a strong
urge to climb that f...... mountain ! Two of us, Serge
and PO, stayed at Camp Three
at 6300 meters yesterday night. We contacted them tonight by radio. They
have passed the last point reached by the Swiss expedition and reached 6600
meters at 11:00 am today. But they were obliged to give up because of a lack of fixed
rope. Three Spanish climbers who intended to finish the ascent in so-called
« alpine » style, i.e. without the aid of fixed ropes, gave up too. They will
wait there until somebody reaches Camp Three and supplies the lacking gear.
It is a surprise to learn that the final slopes are not easy 45-50° snow slopes like it can be heard or read from time to time, but really 60-65° steep ice-flutes. These are not too difficult to climb but would make a descent in alpine style hazardous. When going to the mountains, the thrill of adventure must be balanced wisely with the risk that can be accepted. And in my opinion, the balance should always favor the second side.
Yvan scheduled our bid for the summit to allow two groups to go on the mountain with one day delay. I'll go with the first one tomorrow, and the other group will follow us the day after. This way, we will optimize the occupation of high altitude tents.
Dominique and I made a very short attempt this morning to go to Camp Three. Actually, the weather has changed during this night at Camp One and put some snow on the ridge. The sherpas warned us that it could be unsafe to climb the grey tower with these slippery rocks. So we just made a one hour climb before returning to Camp One in order to train ourselves a little bit. At 11:00 am Serge and PO joined us. With the bad weather, they understood that it was useless to wait for the rope today, and after three nights at 6300 meters, it was time to go down and rest for a while at Base Camp. If the weather gets clearer, we will do another try tomorrow. So the only thing to do now is waiting. Two Norwegian that equipped the highest part of the route with Serge and PO have joined Camp One late in the evening. It was their last chance to reach the summit before leaving. Yet Another Unsuccessful Expedition...
|Dominique Astier, climbing the ridge just after Camp One. The snow has covered every inch of rock.|
Alas, it has been snowing
all night long and the space available into the tent has reduced significantly
because of the snow accumulated between the rock and the tent. The message from
the mountain is now perfectly clear: Get out of here ! This is easy to say
but even the way to Base Camp has become difficult with the snow. Roland,
one of the mountain guides, explores a few possibilities to go down from the
ledge where Camp One is located to the snow slopes below. We cannot use exactly
the same route as before because some fixed ropes are now entirely covered by the snow.
Pema finds the safest way and starts breaking the tracks into a thick powder snow. In the first part, it is not rare to step into a hole between the underlying rocks, and to be unable to stand up without leaving the backpack. And then, the orientation became the problem. Into this uniform white world, nobody could be sure of going the right way, however, our sherpas managed to find it very well. Except in one moment, where I felt that the right way was slightly to the right. We went up a few meters until a ridge which proved to be the right moraine.
Six hours and a half will be necessary to go down instead of three hours previously. During the dinner, Yvan announces that we will give up the Base Camp for Pangboche tomorrow morning. I am beginning a sad countdown until the end of my holidays and feel a little bitterness against the weather.
|Base Camp after a 50 centimeters snow fall.|
The sun shows up just before
we leave. We learned yesterday that the Sherpa from the Spanish team has got
no news from the members. The only sure thing is that they slept in Camp Three yesterday and Yvan
asks if anybody is motivated to break the tracks until 5000 meters in order
to help them to join the Base Camp. Everybody agrees immediately and it is a
numerous team of ten people that heads up to the mountain. The sherpas that
are not telling us it's foolish and impossible are probably thinking the same.
Fortunately, the wind has moved part of the snow off the path in certain areas,
and with members like Pascal, the team arrives
at 5400 meters at 14:00 PM. We discover that at least some of the Spanish have
reached Camp One. They will benefit of the tracks and manage to join the Base
Camp late in the evening after a bivouac between Camp One and Camp Two.
We lost one battle yesterday but definitely took a revenge today. Back to the Base Camp, it's clear that we must go for another bid if the weather allows it. Everybody demonstrated a strong motivation and a major obstacle was suppressed today. We are able to go up to Camp One again, without a lot of efforts thanks to the tracks. The wind have probably removed most of the snow on the ridge and the fixed ropes should be usable. The critical factors now are the weather and the remaining time. Our flight to Katmandu departs from Lukla on the 27th, and we need to rest the whole day tomorrow after the efforts we made today. Thus the only possibility is to go altogether by Camp One the 22nd, by Camp Three the 23rd and by the summit and back to Camp One or even Base Camp the 24th. The least issue, bad weather, sickness from one member, problem to find the necessary rope and snow bars, will make the attempt fail.
Never say never. I thought I would never go up along this moraine. And here I am with all the other members. Heavily loaded with all the gear and food for the ascent - we brought everything down during our withdrawal. We dispatch ourselves among the tent at 5400 meters and the three tents at Camp One. Reaching it takes a lot of time because of the weight and the snow but I feel in very good shape. Very well. I arrive first at Camp One and begin to remove the snow from the tents. It will take two hours to three people ! The others will melt the snow, prepare the food, melt the snow again and again, and it's only at 10:00 PM that we can get into our sleeping bags and shut our eyelids.
The route from Camp one
to Camp Three is the most wonderful climb I ever did. It begins with some nice
fourth degree pitches followed by a granite wall that broke apart my ambition
to climb it free. It is true that the weight of the backpack and the lack of
oxygen are making this sixth degree pitch quite challenging. My admiration for
the Swiss guide that headed this part of the route. But this rock climb is followed
by an even more enjoying snow and ice climb.
The south west ridge that didn't gained a lot of altitude until now, brings us to the foot of a huge yellow tower that would be a very serious obstacle without one weakness. An ice couloir is starting on its right and traversing to the left to a narrow snow gully which directly goes to the summit of the tower. The idea is rather straightforward but the implementation is more complicated. The first traverse to enter the couloir, in a soft snow straighten up to 70°, the breathtaking couloir hanging on the middle of the south face, and the traverse between the top of the couloir and the head of the snow gully, are certainly unforgettable memories for the people who went there.
I appreciated very much the last traverse. You've got a vertical rocky wall on your right, a snow slope, not exactly vertical, to your left. And your route is using the top of the snow slope, flattened in a small platform. Obviously, this platform is not exactly as wide as your feet are long ! And needless to say, this is the exact place where the fixed rope choose to hang loosely at your feet. Murphy's laws do not suffer any exception. Then, when you feel the difficulties are behind you, comes the « mushroom ridge ». The mushrooms that you can find there can hardly be part of any recipe, but eating small pieces of them will take your thirst away. They are between one and three meters tall and are exclusively made of snow ! They are not eatable and may even become poisonous when their snow becomes wetter. You may like them or not, there's just one possible route to Camp Three, and it goes right above them. This year, they were not particularly difficult but many expeditions went back here.
After all these wonders, setting up the Camp Three for the night was not as much exciting. However, it is essential when you end up such a climb, when the wind starts blowing faster, when you start feeling the frostbite on your fingers, to get quickly into a tent, get on your warmest clothes and melt snow to prepare some hot tea.
October 24th , Summit day
05:15 am : -9°C inside the
tent this morning. It's easy to wake up, I have been sleeping only during the
first two hours. A lot of questions was awaiting an answer, an the night didn't
help. We are heating the little water we managed to make yesterday evening.
One cup each of hot tea and it is time to go for it. My friends would like to
melt some snow to drink more before going up. I feel like it will take too much
time. It is strange how everything takes long when you are in high altitude on
a cold morning. We should be back at noon and it will be more easy to heat some
water at this time. Eating some snow should be enough until then. Anyway, we
must let some distance between everybody on the fixed ropes. So, I am attaching
my crampons very carefully and heads for the summit. A lot of silly accidents
happened because of crampons loosely attached by people already victim of high
altitude sickness or merely exhaustion.
Just above the camp is a 60° ice slope of 150 meters that requires a good technique to avoid pulling on the rope, which is much more tiring than just pushing on the feet. This is the only part of the route exposed to the dangerous seracs, these ice cliffs at the end of the glaciers that falls into blocks the weight and size of a big truck without much of a warning. The ice slope is located just below the right end of the Dablam, the suspended glacier of the west face. Obviously, the less time you spent here, the better it is, and I am speeding up until the top of the Dablam. The sun warms us a little bit, but the cold and the wind are still strong. I have lost the sensitivity into my feet and I spend a few minutes moving my toes to make the blood come back and avoid frostbites. I will learn later that Yvan and Marc chose to gave up the summit because they were too cold. The recent snow have made the bergscrund easier to cross and Yannick and I are joining Pascal, Roland and the Spanish who are heading the last wonderful ice-flutes before the summit.
We reach the summit at 11:00 am. It is a strong feeling to achieve this goal that was prepared during one year. And, how lucky, it is cold, but the wind is over and there is absolutely no cloud. We admire the most beautiful sightseeing I ever saw. The Mount Everest is just in front of us. But we also can see all the 8000'ers of eastern Himalayas : Kangchenjunga - 120 kilometers away, Makalu, Lhotse, Cho Oyu, Shishapangma. Stupendous. At 6800 meters, these giants are even more impressive. They overtake everything else while in the valley, Ama Dablam sometimes looks higher.
A few pictures later, it is time to rappel down. I am crossing the rest of the team shortly before they reach the summit. Nine of us will succeed out of twelve. The most unlucky was Isabelle that made a lot of efforts with this idea in mind and was stuck at Base Camp with a bad bronchitis. Rappelling down allows to go back quickly to Camp Three where I try to find my stuff into the only tent remaining. At 13:30 PM I am starting the descent to Camp One. I notice that the mushroom ridge is even more delightful to pass during the descent because you're facing a tremendous void. After the couloir I remove the crampons and try to take my thirst away with some snow. No way. I am arriving at Camp One at 17:00 PM. Yannick, Pascal and Roland are leaving for the Base Camp. I will melt the snow and prepare some tea for the other members. The sun sets and after two hours preparing hot water, I get into my sleeping bag. Wilfrid will arrive the last at 21:45 PM with the help of Pema who waited on the ridge with Pema to secure our descent on Yvan's request.
|Roland arrives at the summit.|
Today has been the longest day of the trip. We needed to go from Camp One to Namche Bazaar, 20 kilometers ahead and 2300 meters down. The first 500 meters took us more than 2 hours instead of 45 minutes because of the exhaustion of some of us ! Fortunately after a lunch at the Base Camp, where the tents and luggage were already gone, everybody was ready to go on. I took my first beer in Namche tonight but the first shower will wait another day. Let's go to sleep now !
Namche is a strange mixture of middle-age and internet era. In the middle of this village, five days away from the closest road, you can find an Internet café where you can send e-mails for 60 Rupees (6 FRF, 1 USD). The explanation is a combination of an unbelievable dynamism of the sherpa people, and the development of tourism that allowed the Khumbu valley to benefit from the progress of one century in less than twenty years. Some houses that were under construction when we arrived are now completed. Who knows how will be the valley in ten years ? For the moment, It is time to leave. I will take all my time today to go back to Lukla. The beautiful weather adds wonderful lights to the sceneries we discovered weeks ago and I want to print them deep inside my brain before going back to France.
October 29th , The End
Charles-De-Gaulle airport, Paris. Three bags and a lot of other stuff are declared "missing in action". Waiting to come back to their owner. Lost somewhere between Camp One and France, they will arrive little by little. There's a lot of housework to do and in a few days, it will be business as usual. This is the end... Maybe, or is it a beginning ?
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