We snuck it in…
We awoke at 1:00 AM on the 26th. Our plan was to begin climbing immediately if the weather was calm, or wait if it was windy. No sense in expending too much energy if the day would not work for us. Fortunately, the night air was relatively warm (-5F or so) and calm. Logic would say that heating up some water for a cup of Java Juice (the best stuff on earth, by the way!), eating a bit of breakfast, putting on boots, and tying into a rope would not take more than 30 minutes or so. But, as I mentioned before, at altitude things take longer. So, it was not until 2:45 that we began walking out of our high camp at roughly 22,500 feet.
Our route proceeded up the seemingly endless Chaglung'mlungha Glacier, with benign icefalls on our left and the sweeping wall of the West Ridge to our right. As we climbed, eerie sounds continually emanated from the slab snow beneath our feet. Panuru and I discussed the conditions several times, both fearful of setting off an avalanche. We decided to bank left and gently traverse to higher, more wind-swept ground where we knew the hazards would be lessened.
By dawn, we had crested the final rise and entered the final valley of the Chaglung'mlungha. To the left, the forehead of the North Face of Gurla Mandhata rose like Yosemite's Half Dome, while the sweeping crest of the peak's east, south, and southwest ridges formed barriers in all other directions. As the sun rose, so did the wind, which had been pleasantly absent up to that point. Suddenly, angry gusts would come from nowhere, picking up pellets of ice and thrashing them against our faces. Granted, we all need a good exfoliation, but at 24,000 feet….? Anyway, despite the wind, we kept moving upward, across the vast stretches of glacial terrain.
The snow had deepened significantly, its windblown mass now waist-deep in places. Panuru, who had been in front breaking trail for most of the day, relinquished the deep-snow lead for the young bucks – Karma Rita and Mingma. But, trail breaking did not make it simple for everyone behind. The wind, carrying all the snow it could up, down, and across the glacier, would maliciously fill in each step once a foot was removed. By our calculations, this is how it worked out: The leader had waist-deep snow; the next 2 people struggled through thigh-deep snow; #4, which was often me, had about knee deep snow to work with; Stu and Kirk, toward the back of the line, still had shin-to-knee deep snow. So, we all got a workout!
Upward we plodded, pushing higher and burning our summit window. I was getting nervous: we were so close, the summit was just ahead, and yet desperate snow conditions were making us move horribly slow. I had decided that, given the conditions (it would be a slow descent), we needed to be on the summit by 11:00 AM. Panuru agreed, and as time ticked away the top seemed to remain distant.
But, finally, after climbing two steep rolls of about 60 degrees (we put fixed line on these pitches), I could see Panuru laying out prayer flags he brought from Kathmandu and took on the Kailash kora. We were at the summit! The views, in all directions, were spectacular: to the north, the stunning hallmarks of Kailash, Raksas, and Mansarovar; to the east and west, the barren plains of the Plateau aglow with their auburn hues; and, to the south, a jumbled, jagged mass of peaks, one atop another, glaciers, faces, cliffs, valleys, rivers…most unclimbed, many unnamed, the anonymous battalions of the Nepal Himalaya. It was, simply put, breathtaking.
We allowed ourselves only a bout 20 minutes on top before beginning our descent – it is a long way back down. But, Kirk and Stu, as always, were strong and stalwart, and kept plodding downhill with determination. After a brief stop at our high camp we continued down to Camp I. Panuru, Mingma, and Karma were headed down to ABC and blasted past us, determined to make it to ABC by tea time. The three of us, less strong and more fatigued, moved slowly, but finally made Camp I by 2:30 PM. As we thought about it, as good as our mountain food was, we decided Pemba and Bal Bahadur's dinner would be far more satisfying, and we again packed our backpacks and began the 3 hour walk down to ABC. It was not easy, and definitely came with lots of grunts and groans under heavy packs…But, at 6:30 PM, we stumbled into ABC, tired, happy, and ready for a good dinner.
As usual, Pemba and Bal did not disappoint, stuffing us with pizza, pasta, salad, fried, and a big cake for dessert. And, to top it off, Pemba pulled out a special bottle of Chinese red wine (Great Wall brand – the best in the region!) and a handful of Lhasa beers – the last thing we needed in our dehydrated state, but one of the first things we wanted! And, with that, we celebrated our climb with the entire team: David, Cynthia, Pemba, Bal, Stu, Kirk, Panuru, Mingma, and Karma. And, then, a good night's sleep, one that comes from awaking at 22,500', climbing to 25,500', and descending that day to 16,700'.
Tomorrow, we begin our drive across the Plateau and on to Kathmandu which, with luck, we'll hit on the 1st. We are all happy, and feeling lucky to have squeaked in the summit. Gurla is a mighty mountain, a tough peak, and one which we succeeded on only with great fortune and help from many. And, so far as we know, we were the first American team to make the top!
Before I sign off, I want to give a special thanks to David and Cynthia, who, as we climbed, faithfully monitored the radios, kept in touch, and David even made real time dispatches to his blog as we climbed. His efforts are greatly appreciated by us and by those who followed the climb. I wish David could have been there with us on the final summit push; he was there in spirit, certainly. Dhanyabhad, David-dajou!
OK, time to pack – I'll be in touch again soon…