Like so often in the mountains, things did not go to plan for our first summit attempt. We were all ready to go for the top in the coming days; everyone had prepared and packed their food, their oxygen equipment and their gear for their summit bid, the Sherpas had prayed and burnt incense around our base camp altar, the Chorten, just before the team left for their mission (this ritual is very important for the Buddhist Sherpas) and the weather forecast looked promising for the 26th and 27th September. The first team, which consisted of the ‘Walking with the Wounded’ (WWTW) lads and Sergey, our skier from Russia, left base camp for Camp I in glorious sunshine on 22nd September, and Group No 2 followed them the next day in heavy snowfall. It all went to plan….until the snow came.
During the night of 23rd September it was precipitating non-stop at all camps – even at base camp. “We got about 5cm of fresh snow down here and some people have even built a snowman,” Russell reported over the radio. While the base camp crew was playing in the snow at 4,700m, the teams at Camp I and Camp II were spending the night banging their tents to stop them from collapsing under the heavy snow. “It is actually not a bad thing that we are up here as otherwise we probably would have lost some tents,” our guide Jaime said. And he was right – some of the tents of other teams who had not been at the high camps had completely broken down under the heavy weight of the snow.
During the night it became clear that too much snow had fallen to continue our way up the following day. “I guess we have about 15cm to 20cm fresh snow and I don’t think we should be going up in the dark,” Narly reported to Russell over the radio at about 3.30 in the morning. Adrian agreed from Camp II saying that the avalanche danger would be too high, especially higher up. “I think the slope to Camp III would be ok but I can’t see us continue to Camp IV the next day,” he said. So, we all went back to sleep, which was rather intermittent due to our ‘snow banging duty’. The next morning, three of our Sherpas arrived at Camp I, who found the relatively easy ascent pretty hard due to the fresh snow. “The fixed rope is completely covered and breaking trail was very hard,” said Tashi, immediately grabbing a shovel to dig out all the tents. So, it was decided there and then – neither team would be moving on the mountain that day. “I had to go out a few times to dig out my tent just to get some exercise,” said Wally happily shoveling away. Most of the members in both camps stayed in their tents and were all hoping for the constant precipitation to stop in order to continue upwards the following day – but all the hope was in vain.
At around 5pm on Saturday – the team was just about to get ready to settle in for the night – Jaime called out to all the members: “You’d better get ready to go for a walk!” First everyone thought he was joking but looking at the weather we knew that it was time for us to go down. “The weather map has changed completely in the last 24 hours and I don’t think it would be safe to go up in these conditions. There is avalanche danger and our tentative summit dates are now looking too windy,” Russell told the guides over the radio. There was no point in staying another night at 5,570m (18,300ft) and rather than having another evening meal of ‘boil-in-the-bag’ or cheese and crackers we went down to the comfort of base camp.
While we were getting ready to go down, we heard Adrian and Russell on the radio, discussing the plans for the Camp II team. “I can’t see the snow stopping in the next 24 hours, so I think the team also needs to come back down tomorrow,” Russell said and the guides at Camp II agreed. In the meantime, the Camp I team had arrived at base camp, where our wonderful kitchen team consisting of Lacchu, Phuri, Lhakpa and Kur Bahadur had been waiting for us with a hearty meal and the traditional ‘hot towel’. During dinner, Russell explained why things had not gone to plan. “The day you left, the weather forecast had changed completely, and it has been very volatile since then. It is the same every year – we think we can finish early and then the weather just plays a trick on us.” “So, when can we go back up?” a keen Pierre wanted to know. But nobody can answer this question at the moment. First of all, the snow has to settle to minimise the avalanche danger and then, of course, we need a good forecast for our next summit attempt. “We were cruising for the bruising. Unfortunately, we got the bruising and are now back to Square One,” Russell said.
On Sunday morning, the Camp II team started their descent back to base. “It is pretty precarious up here as it must have dumped about 70 to 80cm of fresh snow,” Adrian said over the radio. The most difficult section of the descent was the so-called Hourglass, which is a steep section that covers about 200 vertical metres between Camp I and Camp II. “I was so relieved when everyone was off that steep slope and I was very happy to see Narly waiting for us at the bottom,” Adrian said. From there, the way down was a lot easier and everyone was back at base camp for a late lunch, where Russell and the rest of the group were welcoming the team. “I am glad everyone is down safely and even though we did not need them, conditions like this show again the importance of everyone wearing avalanche transceivers,” he said. “The descent was pretty hairy but the team was doing great and everyone was working very well together,” added Ken, our cameraman who ended up working as an assistant guide that day.
However, having to abandon a summit attempt was certainly not easy for the team members, especially for those, who had already reached Camp II. “I am happy to be back here even though it would have been good to go up, but I guess the mountain was not ready for us,” said Andy from WWTW referring to the deep snow and difficult conditions on the mountain. “The way down was pretty punchy and I certainly felt the limitations of my injury. Crossing the ladder leading over the crevasse took me about four times as long as my fellow climbers as I just don’t have the balance with one arm,” said Martin of WWTW, who had lost use of his right arm after being shot in Afghanistan four years ago. But despite the precarious conditions, the members felt safe and well looked after by our guides. “It felt dangerous at times, but the guides were great and actually triggered a few avalanches on purpose to clear the mountain – and it obviously worked well,” said Henry Chaplin, the wounded soldiers’ mentor. And it did work well as everyone is now back at base camp safe and sound waiting for the sun – not only to dry their clothes but also to make the mountain safer. “We need at least two good days of sunshine for the snow to consolidate. It will then still be hard work for the Sherpas to pull out the fixed rope and re-open the route,” Adrian observed.
As Russell had mentioned, we are back to Square One and have to wait for a good and solid weather forecast that hopefully will not change as rapidly as it did in the past few days. For the time being the team will remain at base camp to regain strength for their next summit attempt.
Billi Bierling, Manaslu Base Camp