Summit day

Chukhung Travel Blog

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3am breakfast. Chef Nima right, Sherpa Sumba, centre
We had been in our tents by 7.30pm the night before, so in theory we could get a solid 6 hours or so of sleep before the 2.30am wake-up call. In practice I think I dozed for about 30 minutes - a combination of excitement and apprehension keeping me awake. As we sat in the mess tent eating porridge and eggs at 3am (never a good time to eat breakfast), the first problem of the day arose - it was too bloody warm!! After Mera we had expected to set off somewhere around minus 15 celsius or colder, but it can't have been more than -8. Back home, with the added moisture this would have been utterly freezing, but in the dry Nepalese air this was positively balmy so, post-breakfast, there was a flurry of activity as down jackets were removed and re-packed - the climb ahead would be hard and that would warm us up.
Crampon Point. Sherpa Gyalzen in high spirits in the background.


Three miserable hours of scree-slogging in the pitch darkness followed before we hit our first marker - Crampon Point (no prizes for guessing what you do here) where the scree ended and the glacier began. We arrived in darkness and departed in the early dawn, back in down jackets as the temperature had fallen again. It was my first time roped up alpine-style and I've no photos of the early part of the glacier traverse - Pemba was keen to get us moving up to the plateau, aware that most of us were alpine novices. I though this was a bit cautious until I looked down to see a small crack which disappeared into the blue depths below.

So, we had to be content with just enjoying the dawn views as we walked. If I thought that the sun rising on Ama Dablam was beautiful yesterday, then a day later, a thousand metres higher and a different angle revealed an even more impressive natural display - photos wouldn't have done it justice - you have to see this for yourself.
Dawn hits the summit, with two French climbers descending along the ridge to the left. From here the sunlight seemed to rush towards us.


Eventually we rounded a wide arc and came out onto the gently rising plateau that stretched out to the headwall. Above us we could see two French climbers who had climbed in the dark to spend dawn at the summit, with just an sliver of sunshine on the last few metres below the top.

The dawn seemed to speed up from then, and we trekked on towards a head on collision with the line of brightness. As soon as it hit, our world changed - Cat 4 glacier glasses on to hide from the glare, and down jackets away for the last time. Our timing was perfect - Pemba had got us to the bottom of the headwall at first light and ahead of the other groups.

We de-roped from glacier travel mode and clipped into one of the two ropes which disappeared up the headwall.
Bottom of the headwall
Happily in first place, I lead off up the slope and the next 40 minutes or so were probably the hardest physical exercise in my life. For three weeks I'd been going "slowly, slowly" as instructed, conserving energy all the way as I acclimatised. All change here though - for the first time on the trip I had to go at the problem with all my strength, which is perfectly OK at sea level, but at 6000m+ this got very exhausting, very quickly. But we're cool - it's only 100m - get up to the ridge, take a breather, then enjoy the last bit. Which is when I had a bit of a moment. Deciding to cross to the other side of the snow groove we were ascending, I swung the front points of my right crampon into the firm snow, pushed up - and my dodgy knee decided to take a break on me.
On the ridge
..

It doesn't really hurt - the knee simply collapses for a second, then resets itself. Which is OK (if a little embarrassing) if you're walking around a supermarket, or dancing - both of which had happened before - but when you're halfway up the last bit of a bloody big hill in Nepal it's rather inconvenient.

As I was attached to the rope with both a jumar and a second safety line, there wasn't any falling-down-the-mountain drama here, but christ was it a shock to drop even a couple of feet - not what I imagined for my first 6000m summit day! It took me 60 seconds or so before I could bring myself to even try and put weight on my knee - I was absolutely wetting myself with worry that, after a year of planning, it might all go wrong with the summit tantalisingly close.
Up!


Well, it hurt, but it was OK. From this point I'd be going very slowly, and trying to squat over a drop toilet for the rest of the trip would not be enjoyable! 15 minutes later, I was at the top of the headwall and clipped onto the safety rope which led along the ridge to the summit. Whilst there was one steep section yet to go, this was it - the 150m or so of ridge traverse that I had been dreaming about for a year. And it sooo didn't disappoint. Clear blue skies with no wind plus for now we had the summit ridge to ourselves, surrounded by a perfect set of mountain views - Ama Dablam, Lhotse, Baruntse... I even forgot to have a look for Makalu out in the distance!

I snapped off a couple of shots looking up to the summit, then happily let a couple of my teammates overtake me so I could take it easy up the final metres.
Last bit
Even though this was a very, very simple ridge traverse in alpine climbing terms, the sense of exposure was total, as the flanks of the mountain dropped near vertically off to either side - a perfect combination of fear and excitement. Pemba skipped past me on the final section and I handed my camera over to him for a vanity shot as I took the last few steps to the top - 6189m and a new altitude PB!

My photos on the summit are utterly pants, but I love them - they're bad because I was as excited as a small child on Christmas morning, and that doesn't happen very often to grown-ups. As we enjoyed the moment, other groups arrived and, with the summit top on Island perhaps 3 metres square, I had to unclip from the safety rope to get out of the way.
Looking down
I thought this would be terrifying but it was exhilarating - standing free on top of the world (well, 2,669m below the actual top of the world, but who's counting?).

All too soon it was time to get back down again, which we did with great care - whilst there was less effort involved, there was a lot more balance needed. With congestion on the ropes down the headwall, I ended up last down and had a few moments to myself as I caught the others up. Now that the drama and hard work were over I was a little surpised at how emotional I felt - there were definitely the beginnings of teras in my eyes. Definitely a special moment.

Roped up once again and the summit in the bag, it was downhill all the way from here, and we all enjoyed every step of re-crossing the glacier in the warm sunshine.
Final few steps
At Crampon Point there was even the luxury of changing out of heavy plastic boots into our lightweight trekking boots - ever thoughtful Pemba had arranged for a sherpa to bring them up for us, together with flasks of tea and other teams looked enviously on at our solid sherpa support.

Arriving back at high camp in the early afternoon, the precarious scree slope behind me, I could feel heatstroke coming on again, so happily sat in the shaded mess tent to eat my noodles, before negotiating the last few hundred metres of vertical trails down to the Imja Tse glacier to the start of the long walk back to the lodge. With my knee stiffening up nicely, the others left me far behind, but Gyalzen kept me company and it was the best afternoon's walking of the whole trip - I had got myself to the top and down again safely so could relax. At about 5.30pm we were back in the lodge after a long day, with my own room this time. Job done...
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3am breakfast. Chef Nima right, Sh…
3am breakfast. Chef Nima right, S…
Crampon Point. Sherpa Gyalzen in h…
Crampon Point. Sherpa Gyalzen in …
Dawn hits the summit, with two Fre…
Dawn hits the summit, with two Fr…
Bottom of the headwall
Bottom of the headwall
On the ridge
On the ridge
Up!
Up!
Last bit
Last bit
Looking down
Looking down
Final few steps
Final few steps
Up!
Up!
Looking down...
Looking down...
Ama Dablam
Ama Dablam
Summit
Summit
The top!
The top!
Sherpa Ghorma, Sirdar Ang Pemba an…
Sherpa Ghorma, Sirdar Ang Pemba a…
Back down
Back down
Across the glacier
Across the glacier
Down the valley
Down the valley
Chukhung
photo by: cja17