Maybe sometimes it is better not to know what to expect, to expect the unexpected, and to just go with the flow. “To remember that your present situation is not your final destination, that the best is yet to come, and that fortune favours the brave.” (Quotes found inside Yak Hotel, Makalu BC).
With no reception and no credit on the satellite phone at the base camp, all we could do was wait and hope that our guide, porter and gear would come around the corner of the moraine. We tried to make alternative plans but all routes seemed even upon sight to be too hard. Isuwa La, our great exploratory ambition, looked like yet another kamikaze project. So it was either walking all the way back to Num and then the low route until we could start heading north to Lukla and Namche; or the appearance of a guide and an attempt on the high passes.
Yet as things evolve in Nepal, with a token of bad news comes a good thing to make up for it. The Yak Hotel is run by an incredibly sympathetic Sherpa family whose kindness and good mood seems to know no limits. They obviously felt bad for us, sitting there without knowing anything, and at the sight of every person cornering that moraine enthusiastically glanced “Maybe your guide?!” at us. Days went by and we spent many hours with them around the stove, making the atmosphere more and more amicable.
Makalu Base Camp is at least as much, if not more, frequented by Nepalese as by western tourists. Parties went on in the Nepalese headquarters until the late hours to spontaneously burst out again in the dining room at 10.30 in the morning. There was most often music playing, there were people singing and clapping and dancing. As soon as one of us would make a move they’d all rush in to watch the spectacle. This place at the end of the world became a home, a safe shelter with friendly faces which we left with sadness.
We arrived at base camp on the 11th of October. On the 12th, Marylene and Marie Caroline went up to a viewpoint over Everest, Lhotse and Makalu together with many other peaks (5,6 and 7 amongst them). PJ and I stayed put to acclimatise, do laundry, and just chill. No guide came that day. On the 13th it was our turn to head up on the mountainside, until we came up to 5400 meters and that same view. Three of the world’s highest mountains towered up in a clear blue sky. Even though it was freezing cold up there, we sat there for over an hour.
Upon return to camp the unthinkable had happened: there stood our guide and our porter, but with only 3 harnesses and not 4. That caused some frustration which we explained was not aimed at them at all but at the agent, to whom we gave the harnesses personally in a single bag in Kathmandu. It was PJ’s one that was missing, which was the nicest one. They assured us that we could go ahead anyhow. So suddenly, it was real. Three passes, up to 6200 meters above sea level. The number became less of a number and more of a reality. I ate a giant lunch of fried potatoes and peed twice within half an hour upon the realisation.
To our surprise the guide, Pemba, had never crossed the passes before, but the porter, Mingma, had been that way 4 times. Nevertheless, Pemba wasn’t worried at all. He had summited Everest 3 times together with Manaslu and Kanchenjunga. “Passes, ah, easy. Very easy.” With that we felt secure enough. Pemba inspected all of our individual gear with a special eye for gloves and socks.
A group of Nepali engineers out on a friend’s trip wished us all the best of luck. One of the them gave us the invaluable advice: “As long as you have the willpower, you will get across.” A final meal of dhal and eggs, pancakes for breakfast, and off we went at 07.00 without a clue about what we were getting ourselves into.
Before I continue, I feel I must explain a few things. Every single day I was certain I wouldn’t make it, yet every day I did. Pemba and Mingma: they were patient and kind beyond borders. I could not have done it without their guidance. Marylene and Marie Caroline never stopped encouraging. And then there was PJ: always there, always saying how proud he was, even though I could not understand why. He pitched the tent when I couldn’t, he fetched water when I couldn’t. PJ has come to mean safety and security, someone who will always be there, a rock in a tumultuous branding, a person I trust with my own life.
I realise that the story to follow might not always be as pleasant to read and might disturb or even anger some people. I know and I admit beforehand that I am a fool. But darn, a stubborn, hardy and strong one, and I will say that I am proud that I dragged myself and my own gear up there and down again.
We all expected the hardest part to be the passes themselves, but it didn’t take more than an hour to become clear that the way to Sherpani Col is not for the faint hearted either. In the endless valley of the deflated Barun glacier, what is left is piles of rumble on unstable mountain sides and crumbling moraines. The way climate change affects the routes through the Himalaya is massive, making it increasingly more dangerous to travel places where the ice is receding.
Up to Swiss Base Camp and Sherpani Col Base Camp, we clambered on and over loose rocks, up to the point where we were almost free soloing upwards. With little previous mountaineering experience to benefit from and still going Alpine style (carrying all our own bags and having everything to be self-sufficient. The porter we had hired to carry ropes, ice screws etc.) the start was rough. Trial by fire, some might say. The weather was incredible though: Makalu still towered above us, Everest and Lhotse still gleamed in the distance. At night these giants got a ghost-like appearance that made them seem even more powerful.
We arrived early at Swiss Base Camp and Pemba suggested to go straight to Sherpani Col Base Camp, something I was happy the whole group protested against. It was clear they wanted to cross while the weather was still good, but going from 4870 straight to 5688 was a rush for us. Spread over two days, I could still feel the altitude. I became less coordinated, very easily exhausted, and nautious as hell.
I never had headaches at camp though, some of the others did. As soon as we stopped, I felt fine. Still, I felt the burden of the altitude again. I asked the others a few time if they thought I should turn and the answer remained no. Going back through that endless maze of rockfall and loose scree did not appear to be a great option, anyway.
Those first two campsites are some of the most amazing places I have ever slept: with 3 of the world’s highest mountains in view for one night, and just out of reach from the seracs of the glacier leading up to Sherpani Col for another. The nights became icy cold with temperatures falling below -10. I was happy that I picked the sleeping bag I picked: I never felt cold. The worst were the frozen boots early in the morning, torturing our feet.
I started eating badly: just the smell of food turned me off. Our stove was malfunctioning so they proposed to cook noodles for all of us before heading up to the passes. Pemba set the starting time at 5 AM and wake up call at 4. He put it an hour later than it initially was after a rock fall nearly took them both when they set out to scout out the route. I suspect he rather climbed back on that moraine with a glimpse of daylight.
Because of the cold, the little stream running from the glacier had frozen entirely solid and they worked all morning melting ice to make water. That pushed the starting time out to 6.30 AM. I stomached what I could of the noodles and gave the rest to PJ.
I dreaded the day because I did not feel good at all. But I understood that we should cross while we had a window of good weather. So up we went, up and up and up on the glacier. It was hard, and I kept saying that I wasn’t going to make it. PJ kept insisting that I could. I wasn’t more than 50-100m away from the others, but that distance seemed unconquerable at all times.
I kept playing the mantra in my head: “As long as you have the willpower to cross, you will cross.” I refused myself to think thoughts such as “Why am I doing this?” but “I’m not going to make it” crossed my mind regularly. PJ kept encouraging and always waited. By the time we reached the bottom of the pass I was dead. I was nauseous and dizzy, I walked like a drunk. I had no strength left: all that remained, was willpower.
Altitude does funny things to your mind. As the atmospheric pressure decreases, so does the oxygen your body can absorb through your lungs. This means less oxygen to the muscles so less efficiency and less oxygen to the brain. At 5000 meters, the oxygen is around 55% of what we can breathe at sea level. At 6000 meters, this has gone down to 45%. For those, like me, who are sensitive to the effects of that judgement will be impaired, logic disappears, and even the state of mind can alter. I had AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) and this influenced the events described below.
They put harnesses on us but to our surprise did not attach us to a rope. There was only a handline (a fixed rope we could hold on to), a bunch of loose rocks and 100-150 meters of vertical wall to get up on. I couldn’t quite solve the puzzle though it actually wasn’t that hard and Mingma kindly took my pack. Somewhat shocked from our kamikaze ascent we all reached the top of Sherpani Col at 6180 meters. The view over the surrounding mountains and the Lower Barun Glacier was breathtaking.
Objectively both Sherpani Col and West Col are incredible places. They are some of the most beautiful things I have ever and will ever see. Emotionally though, from the top of Sherpani Col everything clouds into a struggle to stay on my feet, to not collapse then and there at over 6000 meters, out of reach of helicopters. I realised that most of us were too height sick to realise something was wrong with me and I wasn’t sure if Pemba and Mingma could get me down if I couldn’t make it on my own. From that point, an ever present fear exists in my mind of not making it over West Col, of having to sleep up there and considering it was already freezing in the bright of daylight under a brilliant sun I’m not sure if I would have managed. Up there, my body felt like it was turning inside out.
The descent of the razor blade ridge that is Sherpani Col is 200 meters of fairly vertical wall to the Lower Barun Glacier. When I imagined taking on a climbing guide I figured they would have some sort of security of belay on us. They didn’t. Marie Caroline and Marylene each brought a little rope and could make a prusik knot for extra safety, but PJ and I only had a figure 8 for rappel. Those who know some climbing know that there is no break on a figure 8: if you don’t manage the rope well, nothing will stop you from plummeting down. With a head full of fog and this knowledge, I was fairly distressed starting the rappel.
I wasn’t coordinated. Pemba followed me quite a ways down and Mingma met me at the first point where I had to switch ropes. A bit below that they had set up the rope so we had to follow sharply to the left, but the rope logically wanted to go straight down and had a strong pull to the right. Weak and disoriented I couldn’t counter the pull enough. I took a big swing to the right. All I remember is desperately holding on to the rope so that it wouldn’t slip through the figure 8 and drop me 50 meters below. I landed on a little ledge of rock, first crashing down on my pack and then slamming my head backwards. According to Marylene it was at least a few meters down.
I saw Mingma rush down and I yelled that I was OK, because I just wanted to get down and not stay there. That was a mistake since then everyone assumed I was alright, but I instantly knew I was not. As soon as I hit firm ground I fell down on all four and threw up. I barely had anything in my stomach but whatever was there came out nonetheless. I knew that something was wrong because as soon as I fell any pain that was present before was magnified by two. My brain wanted to break through my skull. I just wanted to lie down and stay there.
Pemba and Mingma didn’t say much but started preparing to rope us in to cross the glacier with its monstrous crevasses. It felt cruel at the time, that they were just dragging me on, but I soon realised I had to get over to and down from West Col to sleep at lower altitude. The 2-3 km to the col were luckily not too hard, but they went slow nevertheless. I vomited again on the way: now I had nothing left but water and bile. I thought I would throw my intestines up. Over at West Col, Mingma took over my pack and sent me down the line first. “Sister go down, sister feel better”. I stumbled 200m down a snow field, and another 150 down rocks.
We turned the handlines into abseils for convenience. Once, in between two lines, some loose rocks slipped from underneath me and I almost tumbled down with them. PJ was right next to me but didn’t notice I was hanging on to the line. I knew I could only hold it for a few seconds so I cried out and he helped me up again. Mingma carried my pack again for the final bit of steep abseil. Then Pemba ordered that I put my crampons back on and we continued around gaping crevasses to get off the glacier and reach our camp at Honku Basin.
It was late already. The sun started setting and that sunset was amazing. Even I, in no state of mind, realised that the golden light over a mountain panorama featuring a prominent Ama Dablam was quite something. But then it got dark and going over slippery stones became too hard. I had nothing left to give. Pemba took me by the arm and supported me until Mingma found what could serve as a campsite, still 1,5 hours away from Honku Basin. Finally, at around 19.00 or 15 hours after waking up, I just lay my head down and slept.
The next morning brought no relief. I just wanted to remain there but again couldn’t. The campsite had no water. I was freezing cold. Everyone except PJ and the guides were still drunk in altitude. Marylene ordered me to take a Diamox, still suspecting I was simply altitude sick and did not have a concussion. Surely, I still had AMS, but there was something else going on. At first though, the Diamox worked and I thought I got away with it. Two hours later it’s effect disappeared and at Baruntse Base Camp the headache came back with a vengeance. My vision blurred: one peak became two, I could barely stand on my legs anymore.
We had descended 800m from the pass by now. We doubted if I should stay there and press the SPOT. In the end, we agreed that I should continue down. I had no clue how long it would take for a helicopter to arrive here, at 5400m (in Lukla, we learned from an Englishman that GEOS does not guarantee they can come and get you above 4500m). So rather than sit there and wait for maybe nothing, going down seemed like the better option. There was a phone two days away. If I didn’t feel better the following morning, PJ would stay with me while the others would continue and arrange emergency transport.
Pemba and Mingma had decided that we would not attempt to cross the third pass, Amphu Labsta. Sherpani Col and West Col: they were the easy ones, it was Amphu Labsta that was dangerous. The pass claims a few lives every year. Considering how things were, they were entirely right and I’m fairly certain that in the state I was in, there was a high chance I would have died up there.
So instead we took the easier route towards Lukla by the famous Mera Peak and over Mera La pass. I kept walking, and decided that as long as I could walk I would not send an S.O.S signal. I could still not see entirely sharp. Even with all the hundreds of hours I’ve spent rock hopping in Norway, rocks became unsolvable puzzles. I walked in the back and Pemba stayed right behind me at all times: pointing out where to step, ready to grab a hold of my pack, block a fall or reach out a hand when needed. Mingma carried most of my things. The headache, the nausea, the dizziness: they did not disappear. I kept walking because getting down was the only safe and sure way to survive. To sit and wait at 5700 or 5400m for a helicopter… no, that was not.
At the sight of Mera La my heart sank. It took me a long time to get up there. Pemba and PJ were still eternally by my side. Once up I was so stunned, I temporarily forgot how bad I felt. That place, it was amazing. It was amazing in such a pure and non life-threatening way. I felt fear disappear. We walked down the glacier freely, passing hordes of westerners roped in on their way to Mera Peak. None of us felt that we needed a rope: there was a path on the glacier and no crevasses. Any fall though would have shot us off into the depths and would have been 100% lethal, yet no bad thoughts crossed my mind. Any fear, it had been beaten out of us. For the first time in days I could think clearly, fear nothing and just enjoy.
The hordes of westerners with their tiny day packs puffed their way up besides us. Then, for the first time, it struck me how super-human (for my personal humble reference) this effort had been. I had felt so slow all the time, but looking at them, actually I wasn’t. We carried up our own loads, 15-16kg each, to over 6000 meters, through AMS and concussions and down again on shabby ropes. For 3 days now I had persisted, to keep going on my own strength, from 6000 meters down to 4700 and over another pass.
Fools! Fools we had been! To cross some of the Himalaya’s most technical passes kamikaze style. Hardy fools, stubborn fools, brave fools. For the first time, I felt some pride over what we had accomplished. When I was at the lowest of low, physically and mentally, I had expressed regret for crossing the passes. I wished I had never gone. Now, I felt we were strong. It is one thing to have the willpower and to believe. It is another to endure and to persist.
Coming down from Mera Pass we found more luxury than we could have imagined. The beds: they were not just wooden planks anymore but they had real mattresses now and real pillows. The menu extended from dhal bat to include pasta, pizza and fried noodles. We had arrived at the Khumbu side, the touristic side of things. I ate macaroni with cheese and eggs for days. A pure mix of carbs, proteins and fats was such a blessing for the body.
At Khare Camp we met a Dutch couple, Wendy and Thierry. They were heading up to Mera Peak over the next couple of days and we started chatting with them about what we had done, going above 6000m etc. I ended up telling them the full story and soon I noticed Thierry was starting to ask some very medical sounding questions. The universal odds for staying in the same teahouse on the same night as a doctor who speaks the same language were tiny, but sometimes the universe rules in your favour.
He offered to have a checkup and investigated my head. He concluded that by now, the medical emergency existed no more. I had been lucky: things could have developed in a much more dramatic manner from that moment at Baruntse Base Camp. But given that the symptoms would not worsen I could walk out to Lukla and take rest there.
So I kept the honour to myself and walked my way down. Of course down sometimes means up and that was tough. For three more days after Mera La I kept my head down and walked, sometimes in agonising pain, with the promise of rest in Lukla. We walked through beautiful valleys with crystal blue rivers, through charming villages with green gardens, over more passes decorated with prayer flags and down endless stairs into valleys again. After some days I had to go and sleep because I could not bear it anymore. But slowly and steady I could see better and got my appetite back.
Upon arrival in Lukla I smelled like an old cat. I ate like a wolf and doubled up on at least one, but more often two, of the three meals a day. In the final tea house before Lukla we ran into a Danish physiotherapist who explained to us the effects of losing so much weight so fast. He continued how a lack of carbohydrates can upset the digestive system, and the low nutritious value of boiled white rice. All that information was the start of an eating frenzy that would last three days before the first time we actually felt full.
Finally I had phone coverage and I could call my family, something I had longed for since weeks now. Physically I have been further away from home but I have never felt as far away. Here I would like to thank everyone who tried to get in touch during the past month. It was so nice to read through the messages and the emails, all the comments on that one post, to know that people were with us in thought. There were many times where I wished I could have contacted several of you, because I know you would have said the right thing at the right time. It was hard not being able to do so.
This ordeal is over and until my head is better we will remain put. In the end, all the pain and all the suffering, they will fade into memory. What will remain are images: of Makalu towering behind Sherpani Col, of the sunset over Ama Dablam, of Mera La and the white mountains around.
“Keep the earth below my feet
From my sweat my blood runs weak
Let me learn from where I have been”
Total ascent: 16190
Total descent: 15290 m
Distance covered: 222,5 km
Weight lost: 8+ kg
Days without a shower: 30