6856m, A mountain in the Khumbu region of Nepal. The name means "Mothers Jewel Purse" which refers to to the clean summit glacier that dangles above the rest of the mountain when viewed from the SW.
The following recounts a climb me and some friends made up the North Ridge a few years back. Names have been changed.
The dreams come mostly during the first period of sleep. A claustrophobic gumbo of dark never ending pitches and belays. I always attribute them to the cramped inside of the tent and oxygen deprived interior. The second chunk of sleep always came as a bit of rest from the first.
Base Camp for the north ridge of Ama Dablam sits at 5200m in a high grass field on the RHS of the Ama Dablam glacier moraine wall. Encapsulated by the mountains that comprise the left of the Ama Dablam glacier and the Lhotse wall on the other side of the Imja Khola , it makes for an inspirational backdrop to the morning tea that arrives at my tent door by a smiling Panchar. Progress has been slow over the past week and our high camp has finally been established at 5850m at the start of the mixed ground proper. Daily snow dumps of 10cm or more come at about two to give a quiet soundtrack to the afternoon snooze but hamper fast progress for the upper team. Our small supply of fixed line and personal ropes thread over buttresses of clean rock on the lower third of the climb but now with high camp stocked, ready we stand to cut the umbilical and desert base camp and its comforts.
Popping over the edge of the snow gully I look up and see a near vertical horrorshow of mushrooms and dry rock and make the decision not to lead from here on. Already we are cutting into the agreed turnback time but I get the sense that there is no turning back for some. The puppetmasters have assigned the roles and eagerly we dropped into the skin of our characters, despite their two dimensionality. Jen hollers for someone to follow and I upsticks and jumar along the line to her pad on the ridge and belay her as she follows Mike and Rob into that place where you become a little less real.
The route can practically be divided into thirds
. High camp sits 3 pitches below the tip of the pyramid
of rock which is makes most of the visible route from Base Camp and the first third of the climb. Our route meanders
up the left edge of the pyramid before turning the corner into the second third, a chunk which took us 5 days of crawling progress to navigate. Climbing
style is initially pure snow and ice and then after Captain Crunch, typified by scratching along in crampons
over difficult mixed ground. Captain Crunch
(dubbed thus by the 1981 Australian
expedition) is a large bivvy
cave that sits at about 6100m on the LHS
of the ridge inside a rock tower that could sustain two tents as part of a larger scale ascent, but instead provides us with some unusual evening entertainment
. While climbing out ahead in the afternoon Rob finds some old wooden snowstakes
which we suspect were left by the 1980 New Zealand expedition which are promptly burnt that evening along with some rubbish from the cave. The world’s highest wood fire maybe, but certainly not the highest act of vandalism
. That honour must be shared amongst a thousand expeditions worldwide. Maestri
and his compressor come to mind. Half a dozen pitches out from the cave an insitu
ladder helps us through a nasty overhang
. Progress till now has been as mainly two teams but with the increase in difficulty we combine with Mike and Rob leading, and either me, Jen or Andrew following closely, swapping our two good leadlines while trailing the third as a fixed line for the two who stay at the bottom of the cycle. Being the cleaner has to be most hated job as this involves following on a line with no back belay and some heinous traversing
. As a pre-monsoon
climb the snow levels are low and many old lines lie exposed which provide occasional extra security for the leader
but this doesn’t mitigate
in any way the fierce exposure
on either side of the ridge.
Dusk is wrapping its cloak around the ridge and I reach the top of the fifth pitch for the day. No obvious campsite is anywhere and I collapse exhausted into the snow. Bursting into tears seems only to make the fear and the tiredness grip harder. I turn my head away from others but they are held by their own exhaustion and probably wouldn’t notice anyway. Rob disappears into the mist below us on the search for a place to dig out, a few minutes later a call floats up and we drop under a mushroom and cut a platform. This is the fourth night out from high camp and retreat is now too difficult to contemplate. Our alpine style accent has become very committing. With a meal inside me, the warmth of the pit makes me dozy as Jen melts water for the morning. Here come the rainbirds to carry me off to sleep and the nightmares.
I follow the others to a hole under the mushroom and expect a Lorax to jump out at any moment such is the shape of the terrain. The daily storm has started early at about 11am but wet and sticky. We are about to turn the corner into the last third and Purple wriggles slowly out with Rob on the end. I’m the cleaner today and hum a nowhere tune while waiting for the others to follow, the storm increasing in intensity, coating everything in slush. Warm and quiet, it’s a peaceful place to be.
The climbing in the last third is all snow and ice and we traverse along in the lee of the ridge about 20m down which avoids most of the difficulties of trying to get over house sized mushrooms. Camp for that evening is a readymade site at the base of an ice cliff. The snow falls again that night and covers our camp in a few cm of snow making getting up that much more difficult. Rob and Mike have almost run out of food and still we don’t even seem to be near to breaching the Guardian, a huge serac that demarks the summit snowfields from the technical ridge. A huge notch is bypassed with no difficulties at its base but by now another storm is rolling in as usual but as we are now traversing on the windward side of the ridge we are caught in the compression as the wind crosses the ridge and speeds up. One pitch out from the shelter at the base of the notch I am belaying Mike in increasing cold and wondering how we get out of this one. The lack of food and fuel means that we can’t simply stop for the duration. Mike comes back for his pack and disappears promptly again looking very cold, rimed on eyebrows and beard. I’m fourth out of the end station and by the time I reach the forward belay it’s very evident that we have lost any semblance of control and some shelter is needed. Like manna from heaven, looking behind and down in a clearance of the mist a likely spot appears and I clip in the spare line and drop down sinking up to my hips in soft snow, but its calm and there’s enough space for both tents with a bit of work. Camp Six finds a name in “Storms Reprieve”.
As I make the last pull over the top of the overhang that marks the top of The Guardian, open fields of flat snow expand my mouth into a rare smile. Rob greets me with a camera lens. Feeling mischievous at being able to move more than 3 steps in any direction I stamp a large rude word into the snow. Jen is taking a while to clean the pitch and Rob drops down to find her scared, dangling upside down after taking a big swing with an overweight pack. The others disappear up the easy slope to find a place to camp for the night. In the space of 30 minutes they cover more ground than we have made in the past two days. It seems as though the prize is near but with our last meal sitting in our packs and still the descent to manage. The next morning we split the rock hardware amongst us and ascend up easy ground to an obvious arête on the right. A final pitch sees us onto the huge summit cone. Cloudless in all directions, Everest over there, Annapurna sits far in the east. Windless and warm, some days it’s worth getting out of bed.
Abseiling down into unknown ground we drop off the summit as the afternoon storm rolls in. Cheap titanium screws found in a cave in the Cordillera Huayhuash make the sacrifice for our descent. Fixed lines start at the top of the Dablam which seems to be the high point for this years parties on the SW ridge. Small comfort, as they are overtight, well weathered thin polypropylene lines. A nervous hour sees us at Camp 3 on the SW at sunset. Rob and Mike are about an hour ahead somewhere below. We camp and shiver foodless the night away. Dawn sees us quickly away with no point to stay and we drop down the endless lines. Light-headed and exhausted my entire life revolves around making safe changeovers. The day is thankfully warm and calm and rather than a survival epic it just seems to blur past in medium grade discomfort. I don’t notice Camp 2 pass and by the time Camp 1 comes into view, some good hallucinations are kicking in. I can pass minutes at a changeover just trying to manage the brainpower to work out who I am and what I’m doing. The afternoon rolls round and I’m spinning down the valley towards the SW base camp when a man appears over a ridge top walking towards me. A climber out for some acclimatisation I figure but instead he stops, congratulates me on my ascent, hands me some chocolate and offers to carry my pack.
Ten minutes later his friend arrives with hot lemon drink. Truth is often stranger than fiction and many thanks to the Austrian team who put themselves out for us and feed us in our hour of need.
It doesn’t end there as we still have to get back to our own base, clean high camp, each which comes with its own set of trials, and a deadline to match for getting back to Lukla for our flights out but with the past 10 days in perspective it all happens. Walking down from Thangboche through the Rhododendron forest in full flower, the brown dusty towns between Namche and Lukla transmogrified into green fields, a thousand smells and colours and already the scars are fading and I imagine where I will heading next.