On the 01 OCT the WWTW team set off for their second summit attempt of Manaslu, the 8th highest mountain in the world. The first having been abandoned due to an unexpected snow storm forcing a perilous descent from Camp 2 the week before. Everyone had been going stir crazy down in Base Camp and were eager for another crack. However, it was with some hesitation that the team left the comforts of Base Camp, wary of a repeat of the last attempt when Mother Nature stole the glory from us. However, the last push had given us the edge of extra time at high altitude and therefore bonus acclimatisation. So everyone stormed up to Camp 1 and the nightmare journey of Camp 1 to 2 was much less of a stamina-sapping epic than it had been previously. That is not to say that it was a ‘walk in the park’ , the hour glass is still a punchy ascent but everyone arrived at Camp 2 feeling like they could get up the next day and carry on – instead of feeling like they were about to drop into a coma!
The night at Camp 2 was especially cold with temperatures dropping to minus-20 C and the whole team were boiling up snow as fast as they could to make hot water bottles from their drinking bottles to make it through the night without freezing solid in their sleeping bags. People roused slowly in the icy morning with thick frost covering the inside of the tent and all our equipment where the moisture from our breath had frozen wherever it landed and they started the steep climb to Camp 3.
From Camp 3 upwards we were in ‘personal best’ territory for the whole team in terms of height climbed. It was a great feeling that we were climbing a route we had never experienced and we were looking forward to continuing to push our bodies to their limits. We had been warned that the trip from 3 to 4 was going to be very long and very hard. However, we were now taking on extra oxygen through our breathing apparatus. We were receiving 2 litres a minute through our masks and one could immediately notice the difference as we were instantly warmer and had a great deal more energy. It had snowed over night and the WWTW team were the first to exit Camp 3. This meant we were breaking the route through the fresh snow. A painstakingly slow and tiring task that involves ‘kicking in’ our crampons into the slope to create a series of steps. These are invariably unstable and therefore for every foot climbed, one tends to slip 6 inches. However, we were soon on a long stretch of ice face that was way to steep to hold the new snow. Our crampons bit well into the frozen surface and it was just a case of putting one foot in front of the other, for several hours, to make it up the intense slope. Our muscles were crying out for mercy as we rounded an impressive ice bulge at the top but they were granted no quarter as round the corner was yet another ice slope, thankfully only about a third the size of the first. Unfortunately, due to the severity of the slopes there was no where that we could safely perch and take a breather – it was just a case of gritting our teeth and carrying on. Finally, after several hours of hard work we were rewarded with a gentle traverse for 750m into Camp 4.
The skies were clear, and at 7400m the views from Camp 4 were fantastic. The camp sits in a col between two high features so inhabitants are treated to vistas on both sides of the mountain for the first time. The summit was now within reach and a new confidence filled the team as we realised for the first time that we might just do it. The climb from Climb 3 was just as punishing as we had anticipated but now that was out of the way there was a real belief that was almost tangible that ran through the team. Tomorrow was ‘Game Day’ and nothing was going to stop us from bringing out our A-Game and taking the summit.
That night the wind shook our tents with ridiculous violence with gusts up to 40 kph and temperatures dropping well below minus-20 C. Very little sleep was had by anyone as it felt like every minute or so someone was kicking our shelters simultaneously on all sides with all their might. Our time for leaving was pushed back to 0600 as the high winds would not relent all night and into the morning. The winds did slacken slightly but were still gusting up to 30 kph and temperatures still very low as we emerged from our tents wearing every item of warm clothing we had on us. Our oxygen masks and goggles combo made us look like some kind of futuristic set of space men as we linked up with our Sherpa’s and set off for our final ascent. Fingers and toes suffered with the extreme cold and any patch of uncovered skin were soon numb and in danger of becoming frost bitten – most prone were the tiny patches of cheek between our goggles and the oxygen mask.
The route was laid in front of us for all to see – it was a series of long steep ice faces with three dips creating annoying deceptive ‘false summits’. However, we were all massively up for it and we raced out of the starting gate at Camp 4, energised by 4 litres of oxygen a minute flowing through our masks. It was amazing to be racing up the mountain with peaks passing by below us that had for so long been the dominating features that had looked down on us for so many weeks. I had a chuckle to myself as the spire-like pinnacle of the secondary summit drifted through my periphery vision to my left, now several hundred metres below me. That pinnacle dominates the whole valley and is the feature most associated with Manaslu.
The wind was still howling as we changed oxygen cylinders at the base of the final ice slope on the summit push. There was still over an hour to go and fatigue was starting to set in – the low temperatures were starting to take their toll as it requires a great deal of energy just to keep the body at a workable temperature. However, we were absolutely storming up the mountain. The fitness, endurance and resilience of our soldiering background was evident as we passed dozens of other climbers, all trying to fulfil their goal of summiting. Some of the others really looked like they were struggling, some on their hands and knees gasping for air and suffering greeting in the poor weather. We found out later that rescues had been conducted to get some of these off the mountain. Climbing to 8000m is inherently dangerous and these people just didn’t have it in them to make it and would have died very quickly had it not been for the kindness of others – there is no international mountain rescue up here!
Three times I turned around to my Sherpa to ask if this was the top as false summit after false summit mocked my efforts with their tantalising promise of finality and glory but each time I was denied and told to push on. Then eventually, one last false summit acted as a wind break to a short traverse and the wind died completely. The sun came out as we were no longer in the mountain’s shadow and we were there. Just a pleasant stroll along the traverse and a short 10m climb up to a tiny pinnacle of snow and rock and that was it. We were there. We had done it – the summit of the 8th highest mountain of the world, Manaslu 8163m.
There was barely enough room on the summit for 3 people at a time, so it was a precarious situation of manoeuvring to take pictures whilst being terribly conscious that a stumble or wrong footing at this point would result in a fall of thousands of metres straight down. For the first time since starting to climb we were at the highest point for 50 miles around (the nearest higher peak being Annapurna) and were therefore afforded outstanding and breathtaking panoramic views from our tiny little crow’s nest at the top of the world.
Due to the tiny summit point, we could not spend a lot of time at the top as a queue was forming beneath us. We were now in a race to get down. For the slow members of the group, another night on the mountain was waiting. The strong members of the group were promised with a night of beers back in base camp, but you had to make it down in time. We had already summited and got back to Camp 4 in a crazy fast time. It is usually a 6 hour round-trip; we had completed it in just 4 hours. A quick stop for a hot drink and to pick up any kit we had left was all we could afford before we started again on our speedy descent.
The whole team made it down the mountain without having to stay at Camp 2 for the night. This is a feat in itself as the guides told us that only around 25% of climbers make it down in the same day as summiting – another demonstration of the pluck/stupidity of the British Soldier! However, bodies were extremely tired, knees aching and heads extremely dizzy. We had set off at 0600, summited before 0900 and the whole team was down by 1815 – twelve hours of solid marching including summiting the 8th highest mountain in the world (not bad for a day’s work).
I don’t really think it has sunk in yet what we have achieved. We are all still very tired and are now wrapped up in all the logistics of packing up Base Camp and getting off the hill. However, it is indescribable how chuffed to bits we are and I personally am astounded at how close the team has become in such a short space of time. Having spoken to the lads, we are all looking forward with anticipation to Everest in the Spring. Due to the team spirit that now resides within this body of men, it matters not who makes the final summit team, as long as that team is successful.
Thoughts now are of getting home – ASAP.
See you all soon,
David (Wisey) Wiseman