Practice Run No.3: A Bittersweet Ending

In Practice Run No.3by Steve

Trip Wrap Up.

Taken me a while to sit down and write this post. Was debating whether to write it at all.

It’s been a bittersweet end to the trip.

The sweet….

After summiting Ama Dablam on Tuesday 22nd November, I had a rest day in base camp then packed up and trekked further up the valley, headed for Lobuche East Peak (6119m). Namgal, a climbing Sherpa from Pangboche, was accompanying me on this additional little foray. We overnighted at Thukla then head straight to Lobuche high camp on Friday. Saturday morning we were up at 03:00 and on our way by 04:00. It was a cool morning with clear skies and no wind. Excellent climbing conditions. Already acclimatised, we pushed up quickly and were on the summit just before 07:00. It was pretty straight forward climbing with the first half on rock and second half on hard packed snow / ice, although the upper slopes were relatively steep. The view from the top was spectacular, surrounded by big 8000m peaks including Everest and Lhotse. We hung out on the summit for 15min or so then descended straight down, getting back to high camp at 08:30, then continued on down, arriving at Lobuche lodge in time for lunch. It was a great morning, a super fun little climb.

Down at Lobuche lodge, I was content to just put my feet up for a day and then have a leisurely trek back to Ama Dablam base camp to meet back up with the rest of the group. But I got chatting with Matt Eakin, another Aussie bloke, and he was keen to attempt Island Peak (6189m). From where we were, to get to Island Peak and for me to still make it back to the rest of the group in time was going to be a push, but why not give it a go.

So the following day we trekked up another branch in the valley to Chhukung, a small cluster of tea houses. Island Peak base camp was still a further 2hrs up the valley, but we weren’t carrying a tent for this last little bit so had to stop in a tea house in Chhukung. It was going to add extra time to summit day but we had no choice.

I set my alarm for 00:01. There is basically no difference between 23:59 or 00:01, but mentally it felt better knowing the alarm was set for the “morning”. At 00:50 we left the tea house and pressed off once more into the cold night. Although this time the winds were up making it much less pleasant. We trekked through the valley to base camp, then climbed the lower rocky slopes, reaching the start of the glacier around 04:00. Here we stopped to put on our alpine boots, crampons and harnesses. I took my gloves off for better dexterity but quickly lost feeling in my fingers with the bitter cold and wind and suffered the rest of the morning.

From crampon point, there was one crevasse to cross, which had a ladder over it, and then it was straight up the final headwall to the summit ridge. All night had been windy, but I didn’t realise we were actually sheltered from the worst of it. The second I reached the top of the headwall and gained the summit ridge it was like getting hit by a freight train. The winds made standing upright near impossible. Fortunately it wasn’t far along the summit ridge to the true summit. We tagged the summit just before 06:00 and then descended straight down. The weather wasn’t conducive for hanging around.

By 09:35 I was back in the tea house drinking hot chocolate and trying to warm my fingers up (my finger tips are still a bit tingly almost a week on, but should come good). Also inhaled a 200g block of Cadbury chocolate (a nice healthy breakfast). Unfortunately I couldn’t stop there though. After several more hours of trekking, I eventually arrived back at Ama Dablan base camp at around 15:00. It had been a very long and punishing day but a great way to end the trip. Glad I did it. Three times up above 6000m in the one week had been a great test.

The bitter….

Upon arriving back in base camp, the mood was very sombre. I immediately knew something was wrong. I hadn’t felt it, but that morning at 05:20 there had been a 5.4 magnitude earthquake. At the time, I was high up on Island Peak, on the final headwall above 6000m battling gale force winds. The earth could have fallen down around me and I wouldn’t have noticed. In hindsight, I was incredibly lucky though. A steep snow face is the last place you want to be during an earthquake.

Across on Ama Dablam, two guys from our team, Ciaran (a Brit) and a Lakpa Thundu Sherpa were on their final summit push. They were on the upper face just below the Dablam (the hanging glacier). They were climbing together only a meter apart. The earthquake caused the side of the Dablam to break off sending a barrage of ice tumbling down the face. They were caught directly in its path. Tragically, Thundu sustained fatal injuries and died on the mountain. Ciaran was also injured, but miraculously survived and was rescued and taken to hospital. They were doing everything right, it was just pure bad luck. Wrong place at the wrong time.

Our thoughts are with Thundu’s family at this very difficult time.

Also, two days earlier, another member of our team was going for the summit when he collapsed from high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and also had to be rescued and taken to hospital.

It had been a bad couple of days. It goes to show how quickly things can change in the mountains.

It’s been a wonderful trip, but a very unfortunate end. I am now on my way home, currently in Hong Kong, next stop Perth. I am looking forward to getting home, having a bit of rest and then resetting for the next objective.

Stay tuned…