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The Ascent


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It was still dark when we struggled out of bed on “summit day”. Of course, it was only a summit in our minds. Our goal was merely the starting point for a fully-fledged mountaineering expedition, but we would need to cope with danger, exertion and altitude to get there. As we stumbled around by the light of our headtorches, we were daunted at the prospect and far from certain we would reach our goal.

By the time we were ready to leave, it was getting bright. The strange light of dawn had an eerie beauty to which we were unused. We were soon onto snowy ground, a very pleasant surface to walk on in its frozen state. We diverged from the normal path and crossed a makeshift bamboo bridge to avoid the first avalanche area. There had been two or three avalanches here the previous evening, audible from our lodge only a couple of hundred yards away. It looked innocuous now – the avalanche falls came from the slopes of Hiunchiulli, directly above but out of sight. There were no visual clues to the danger that would resurface once the sun hit the higher slopes.

We carried on up, recrossing the river on a particularly unsteady bridge. For me this was more nerve-racking than any of the avalanche zones. The danger felt more real, more plausible, than the avalanche risk. I couldn’t really imagine that I could be killed in an avalanche. That seemed too romantic, too dramatic, for me. Falling off a bridge, though, that I could picture. Soon the last moraine area was behind us, and to our left a wide valley opened up. We had reached Machhapuchhare Base Camp, danger was behind us for today at least, and it was time for breakfast.

Fortified by a huge breakfast and gallons of tea, we set off for Annapurna Base Camp around 9.30am. The sun was well and truly up, beating down on us from a clear blue sky and bouncing off the snow on all sides of the bowl-like valley. The navy thermal top that had been so well suited to the chill of the early morning now absorbed the rays all too effectively. I felt good though, and remarkably fit, as we followed the line of a ridge up the valley. Caelen was starting to experience the breathlessness and fatigue of altitude, though, and stopped to rest more and more frequently as we progressed. It was a new experience for me to feel fitter than Caelen, to be the one ready to push on while he panted and bent double over his stick. I knew it wouldn’t last long.

ABC came into sight as we rounded the ridge, but for a long, long time it didn’t seem to get any closer. Eventually we were there, and a cheer rose up from the small group who had arrived ahead of us. We had done it.

In most mountaineering epics, the trouble doesn’t really start until the way down, so it doesn’t do to get too complacent at the top of the mountain. As we sat around drinking hot lemon and admiring the view, my brief interlude of physical superiority over Caelen came to a fairly abrupt end as the symptoms of altitude sickness began to manifest themselves. A splitting headache and nausea indicated that I should go down. We enjoyed the respite from the sun as the clouds came in, but the mist that followed was less welcome. The sun had turned the surface snow to slush, and I kept sinking up to my knees. My boots had no chance, and soon my socks and feet were sodden.

Eventually we arrived back at MBC and I crawled fully clothed into my sleeping bag. Although we had descended quite rapidly, I felt no better, indicating that I was still above my personal “acclimatisation line”, the point beneath which I needed to descend in order to feel better. We had set out that day from Deorali, at 3,230m to reach our high point of 4,130m at ABC. Symptoms of altitude sickness can take some time to appear, making it difficult to determine the height that problems began, and the height to which the sufferer should descend. I just hoped that my line was at or around 3,700m, since I could not descend below MBC until night had once again frozen the slopes and the avalanche zones were safe to pass.

An hour or two later things looked brighter. The weather had steadily worsened, but I felt fine and it felt pretty cosy in the dining room with a big cup of hot lemon. Our only worries were that we’d get snowed in or pass out from kerosene fumes. And, of course, about the gauntlet we would run again the following morning.


Pictures - click to enlarge
Clouds blow in at 12 on the dot

A Guide looking happy near the top

MBC

The way to MBC

Machhapchhre

The way to ABC

Sucking on water Here at last