Altitude and solitude
We're all back down safely from our acclimatization round on the slopes of Gurla. Yesterday, we made the long trek up to Camp I, picking up our cache of equipment we had left two days before. From the cache, we climbed a steep, 100 meter gully up to 20,000 foot Camp I. For Stu, Kirk, and David, it was the highest night they had ever spent, and a new set of experiences: cooking in the tent, dragging bags of chipped ice to melt into water, and generally trying to survive as comfortably as possible.
We awoke this morning to both a spectacular view coupled with a biting Himalayan wind. To the southwest, we could see the jagged peaks of the Api and Saipal Himal which towered above us weeks ago in Humla. Due west, the barren, brown hues of the Tibetan Plateau stretched out to Tholing and Guge. And, to the north, those same brown hues ended abruptly at the vivid, surreal blues of Raksas and Mansarovar. We all commented that the scene looked like an unbelievable backdrop to some B-grade spaghetti Western movie for the '50's…It just could not be real, but, there we were, gazing out at it.
From Camp I, the mighty Chaglung'mlungha Glacier winds its way upward toward the summit of Gurla Mandhata. While Panuru, Mingma, and Karma Rita had been to Camp II two days before, the winds and snow had already all but erased the tracks upward save for the tomato stakes topped with red duct tape I brought from the USA to mark the route. We loaded our packs with high altitude necessities – down suits, heavy gloves, balaclava, extra food, etc. – tied into the rope, and began walking. While heavily glaciated, the route from Camp I to II is quite nice, and relatively benign: Huge, gaping crevasses open their mouths off to the south, but with the right eye you can pick your way through them, finding snow bridges which allow access from one side to the next. As a result, the route becomes a tad circuitous, winding along the glacier while make steady and deliberate progress.
Despite the fresh, windblown snow, the going was quite nice; I only had to break trail through significant (shin to knee deep) snow on a couple of occasions. After about 3 hours, we crested a steep knoll north of a large icefall and, off in the distance, was the cache of gear for Camp II at roughly 21,500 feet. We dug a pit to store our gear, and began our descent to Camp I and then on to ABC. At Camp I, we met our stellar climbing Sherpa, who are sleeping at Camp II tonight and will scout the route to Camp III tomorrow.
I was struck by a couple of things on this acclimatization foray. First, I was reminded about the rigors and challenges of altitude. I have been fortunate enough (or just dumb enough!) to go on many Himalayan expeditions, and thus the realities of life at high altitude have become somewhat normal for me. But, the reality is that even the simplest of tasks takes a huge amount of effort. Dragging a 20 pound bag of snow to the tent at home would not be a big deal, while at 20,000 feet it requires heavy breathing and labored walking, and perhaps even a rest break before the tent. If you have to get out of the tent at night for a call of nature, you reach naturally into the vestibule, pull on your boots, close the Velcro gaiters, and then sit and pant for 30 seconds to catch your breath. Even eating becomes a challenge as you fight between swallowing food and taking in oxygen.
Altitude – and its effects on the body – is a fickle thing. I am one of the fortunate ones: my body seems (knock on wood) to adjust quickly and effectively to the rarified air of high altitude, and I rarely suffer from headaches and other altitude related issues. But, many others are not so lucky. Many people, when spending time at high altitude, will have headaches, nausea, lethargy, and general malaise, referred to as AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Some will come down with more severe altitude ailments such as HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema) and HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema), which are both fatal if not treated immediately. There are other strange symptoms of altitude as well, such as Cheyne-Stokes breathing, where the body, while asleep, will actually stop breathing for 2-20 seconds, and then try to make a rapid recovery with gasping breaths, waking the person from their slumber in a most disquieting way. Combine all of this with the cold and hard work of a Himalayan expedition, and it makes you wonder why anyone would do such a thing…
But, as we climbed up and down these past few days, the reason we climb, and the reason we are climbing Gurla Mandhata specifically, was not lost on any member of the team. It is rare these days to go to a mountain and have it all to yourself. This season, Cho Oyu, the world's 6th highest peak, has some 25 expeditions on it. (Cho Oyu is a wonderful peak, and is guided by International Mountain Guides.) Everest averages probably 15 expeditions on the north and south sides each spring. It is difficult to go for 30 minutes on those peaks without seeing members of another expedition.
Conversely, here on Gurla, we can count all the people on the mountain on two hands: Pemba, Panuru, Mingma, Karma, Bal Bahadur, Stu, Kirk, David, Cynthia, and me. The nearest other people are our liaison officers, Norbu and Aping, and driver, Dorje, who are some 5 miles down valley. The mountain is ours, in all its grandeur and magnificence. Camps are new, with no signs of previous expeditions. (Well, not quite – the French team left behind quite a bit of garbage at ABC which we will haul away for them.) And, one of the most remarkable things: we have been filling our water bottles en route to Camp I from the rivulet coming out of the Chaglung'mlungha Glacier…and drinking it down without iodine or any treatment. I cannot remember the last time I was in a place so clean, so pristine, that I could drink right from a stream. It is quite a unique experience, and one of the many things that makes Gurla Mandhata such a special place and a wonderful climb.
Tomorrow, we will rest at ABC, and, weather permitting, begin our summit push on the 24th!