|Report Name||Mera & Island Peak - 2 to 31 Oct '10|
|Team Member||Lieven De Vlaminck|
- ‘Goodmorning, Sir!’, a familiar voice sounds outside.
We both sit upright immediately. We weren’t asleep, not really, neither of us.
- ‘Tea, Sir?’
- ‘Yes please, one sugar, one no sugar.’
A gloved hand reaches through our tent door, handing us two steaming cups of hot tea. It’s 1:30am, Monday Oct 18th. We are at about 5800m altitude, at Mera Peak high camp. Our little tent is quite precariously pitched on the edge of a steep snow slope – good tent space is at a premium up here. But the surface is relatively flat, and because we’re sharing the tent in which I’ve slept alone up until now, our combined body heat has made the inside surprisingly warm. All in all, I’ve been able to spend a relatively comfortable night, and I even managed to get some sleep. Outside however, that’s a different story. It’s been snowing quite heavily the past few days, and as we settled into our tents last night, thick snow was falling and we were mentally preparing for a hard slog through mist and snow. But then, around 9pm, there was a strange, brief wind, which cleared the sky from the heavy cover of cloud. And made the temperature plummet.
I take a sip from my tea. It tastes strangely sweet.
- ‘John, I think I’ve got your tea, the one with sugar.’
- ‘Nevermind’, he says. He’s already rummaging through his kit, spread all over the cramped space in our tent. And yet, it’s immediately obvious that it isn’t just a mess he made. Everything is right where it’s meant to be. ‘This guy’, I think, ‘knows what he’s doing.’ Well he should, he’s our expedition leader.
Be both sip our tea, mine with sugar, his without, and glimpse through the little spyhole in our tent door, out into the night.
- ‘The weather has cleared.’
- ‘Yeah, looks like it’s going to be a fine night.’
I wince, thinking of the cold, reluctant to get out of my sleeping bag.
- ‘Breakfast, Sir!’, the same voice rings, as the same gloved hand reaches us two bowls of porridge. We fumble with our cups of tea, taking care not to spill any hot drink onto our stuff, accepting the warm breakfast. I don’t really feel like eating, not here, not now, but I know I’ll have to keep going the whole day on this, so I stuff down the whitish sludge and finish my tea.
- ‘Respect to the kitchen crew’, I say to John.
- ‘Yeah, they’re amazing’. Our conversation is brief, we’re both trying to jumpstart our brains into focusing on the task at hand.
Within minutes, John has put his shoes on, packed his gear and is out getting everything ready for the climb to the top. As our leader, he has some more things to do. I, on the other hand, spend a lot more time getting everything sorted. My fingers go numb as I fumble with the frozen shoelaces on my plastic boots. I’m still adjusting the straps on my backpack to fit it over all the clothes I’m wearing when I hear John calling from a distance ‘Lieven, are you ready? We’re waiting for you!’. ‘Goddamned’, I whisper, ‘everybody’s ready already?’, as I stumble over to the rest of the group, the heavy plastic boots feeling awkward on my feet.
And I think of Joe. Last night, at around 10pm, a female voice called out to John just outside our tent. It was Amanda, Joe’s wife. ‘Joe’s in a bad way’, she’d said. The words cut like a knife through the icy night. I knew immediately what that meant. We wouldn’t be leaving with the whole team. And as I joined the others to be paired into climbing teams, I did a quick count of faces, ghostly lit by their headlights. Although his face was completely covered by his balaclava, I could recognize Karma, our sirdar, at the head of our team. Sherpa Tenzing and John were also there, preparing the ropes. And I counted seven more faces. That’s one short. ‘So no Joe’, I thought.
Karma went first, taking three climbers with him on a rope. Then came Tenzing, followed by Dennis and then me. Behind me came John on a third rope, along with three more climbers. So I would be climbing with Dennis. ‘That’s good’, I thought, ‘he’s on his fourth expedition, this is nothing new for him.’ Although I’ve done some climbing before, for me this is my first experience in the Himalaya. I raise my thumb at him, as a “good to go!” sign. There is no response. I want to ask him if he’s alright, but the teams are going up, the climb is starting.
We’re the first teams to set off, other teams are strategically tarrying, because they know the first ones to go have to break trail. I immediately notice that the fresh snow really is deep, and pushing through it is quite hard work. Often, the soft snow would give way, making it difficult to keep my balance, and causing me to ‘backpedal’. It won’t be until daylight comes that I fully realise that there really was no track at all, and that our sirdar Karma had to break trail is this soft snow from high camp all the way up, a truly herculean effort. But right now, in the darkness of the night, all I can see in the light of my headtorch is the bit of snow ahead of me, and the rope indicating the pace I should move at. And I don’t like that pace at all. Every few steps, I have to stop, and so do the people behind me. I try to look up and enjoy the stars and the fact that I’m finally doing it, I’m climbing Mera Peak! But the intens cold creeps through every possible seam and chills me to the bone. I have to keep moving! I look ahead and I see that Dennis is struggling. The first group, led by Karma, seems to be making good time, but we’re just going very slowly.
I turn around and explain to John that this is just too slow, and that Dennis appears to be having a hard time. In the dark cold, there isn’t much time to discuss matters further. As a matter of fact, I’m having trouble speaking clearly at all because the cold numbs my cheeks and my mouth. So we decide that I should join John’s team, and Dennis can go on with Sherpa Tenzing at his own pace.
As we pass Dennis, I pat him on the shoulder, but again, there is no response. I feel a pang of guilt as I climb on.
The pace is better now, John keeps a slow but steady rhythm, and I finally get to enjoy the climbing. As the first light of dawn shyly illuminates the snow slope we’re climbing on, the lights of the headtorches of the first team dart across the glacier above us. John allowes only brief pauzes to enjoy the scenery, but still I take a moment to look back to the most amazing view of Himalayan summits behind us. The sensation of really climbing in the greatest of all mountain ranges, surrounded by the most famous mountains of the world, some towering more than 8000m into the sky, is truly exhilerating. And just in that moment, a bright, blueish shooting star, straight as an arrow, pierces the morning sky.
The climbing goes on. The intens cold numbs my feet, my toes, my fingers, but I try to ignore it. The sun comes up, turning the sky from pitch black, over bright gold, into deep blue, and I hope it’s heat will bring some warmth. But the deep snow keeps my feet sollidly frozen, and I notice that some of the people in my team are struggling to keep up. I’m slightly surprised to see Rob, an experienced marathon runner, calling the team to a halt as he struggles to catch his breath. Honestly though, I have to admit that I too find the climbing quite a bit harder than I had expected. I thought Mera Peak was supposed to be an easy climb?
After a while, we take a break. We’ve been working hard, and we’re only about 130m under the top, so I’m thinking it’s looking good. Amanda, climbing just behind me, seems to be very cold. I’ve never seen anyone wearing so much clothes, and still feeling cold. I realise that, even more than me, she’s very light, and up here that’s not always an advantage. I make a mental note to put on some more weight if I ever do something like this again. John sits down and tries to warm her feet by putting them in his armpit. Another thing I’ve never seen before. Regardless, she decides she’s had enough and wants to turn back, stating that she would prefer walking down facing the awe-inspiring view, rather then grinding her way up, facing the snow slope. Somehow, that sounds very reasonable. Rob, also, decides he’s had enough. By now, Dennis has caught up with us and with a raspy voice he, too, announces he wants to go down. I can see by his face that he really isn’t feeling well. Finally, Andy throws in the towl as well.
That leaves just me. And even though turning back sounds very appealing, I’m not here to stop just short of the summit, no matter how cold or tired I am. I am here to climb this hill, all the way to the top! I ignore the little voice calling in the back of my mind that my toes have been cold and numb for several hours now, and say to John that I want to go on. And so John ropes up with four people heading down, while Sherpa Tenzing ropes up with me, heading up.
‘So, it’s just me and Tenzing now’, I think. ‘I’d better give it everything I have, because during the practice ropework we did before it has become clear that his leitmotiv is “fast is good”.’
And that proves to be true. He sets a brisk pace, and it’s all I can do to keep up with him, continuously battling my way through the deep, soft snow. The distance between us and the first team shrinks steadily, and I realise that we’re just underneath the summit as we come into shouting distance of eachother. By now, it has become clear that our original target is unattainable.
- ‘No possible!’, Tenzing shouts as he points to the western summit of Mera Peak, the highest point of the mountain.
- ‘We go to other summit!’, I shout back in agreement.
Karma, still leading the climb, comes to the same conclusion and continues to break trail, heading for the central summit, which is just a few meters lower than the western summit.
And just like that, we reach the summit of Mera Peak under a perfect blue sky. As the slope eases off, I stagger onto the summit, where I am greeted by my fellow climbers. I shake hands with Charles, Ian and Mark and we congratulate eachother on ‘a job well done’. I shake hands with Tenzing and Karma as well, thanking them for their tremendeous efforts. For them it’s not the first time they’re up here, but they seem happy to be here anyway.
After spending about half an hour on the summit, taking pictures and enjoying both the view and the accomplishment, it’s time to go down again. I’ve spent quite a lot of energy on the way up, and so I’m not looking forward to going passed high camp, all the way down to basecamp again. Even though it isn’t long before clouds start moving in, the weather is good, and I try to convince myself that there is no hurry. Ian and Mark – the latter fueled by Diamox - start off, and they seem to be having more energy left than me, as they quiclky shoot down the slopes and soon dissapear out of sight. Charles is stuck behind me, and he has to put up with my slow going, stopping often as I just feel too tired to keep going. But he’s patient, or maybe just as exhausted as I am, and after what seems like forever we reach high camp again, where we had set off in the middle of the night. I feel too tired to actually go into camp, so I just sit down in the snow, exhausted. It isn’t long until a member of the kitchen crew, waiting at high camp until we came down, comes racing towards me with hot juice and noodle soup. I want to thank him, but he’s off already, handing out soup and juice to the others.
- ‘Hey, are you allright?’
I startle, waking up from the slumber I had fallen into, just after finishing my soup. - ‘Yeah, I just needed a little sleep, I’m really exhausted’.
- ‘Yes, me too, I’m going down slowly, you’ll catch up with me’.
That was Ian, ready to go down to basecamp. It’s good to see I’m not the only one who’s tired.
As I get up from my ‘power nap’, Charles is smiling at me, ready to go as well. So slowly, we both set down the mountain we came all this way to climb.
Report posted by Lieven De Vlaminck
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