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Ama Dablam the Clean Way

(Text appeared originally in CAJ 1992)

by Kobus Barnard

(all photos copyright by Kobus Barnard)

The bus hits a bump and my gut ache throbs. Last night in Kathmandu I had a fever so high that  I was hallucinating. Last week I parted with a mountain of money, including my share of $2000US, deposited into the bowels of a third world bureaucracy, only to resurface if we proved that we left the hills clean. This was a new rule, inflicted upon us at the last minute, adding to the immense stress and effort to get us where we are;  sick and broke on a bus, on a rainy day, in the middle of nowhere.

Why would a humble, not particularly talented,  recreational climber go to the Himalaya to climb? Good question. Trekking I can understand. For much less money and effort you get the views, you get to see the place, and you get to be warm most of the time. Climbing on the other hand requires vague philosophical gains to balance the books which are immensely imbalanced in favour of staying home. Although I can go on and on about things like personal discovery through pushing oneself, and the fun of doing wild things in wild places, the truth of the matter is that I don't know why I answered "yes" to the invitation to go. But I knew, right from the beginning,  that I  could not say no.

The plan was to trek into the Everest region of Nepal, followed by an ascent of Imja Tse (Island Peak). Finally, being well acclimatized, some of the group would attempt the second ascent of Ama Dablam's South-East ridge. Being a Himalayan (and high-altitude) novice, I figured that perhaps the standard route would be a more reasonable objective, but in hind-sight the route choice was bang on. The original planning (organization is too strong a word) was done by our leader Richard Howse. The other Ama Dablam climbers were Matt Godbold and Ray Vran from Australia.

Confusion rules upon our arrival. At the airport, guys dressed in dirty grey grab for our baggage. We struggle into a cab and begin driving in the middle of the road, swerving around cows, rickshaws, and pedestrians, honking every few seconds (standard Nepalese driving). We switch hotels, try to pick up two more trekkers, and explore Kathmandu. We are accosted continuously. "Hello, change money?", "Hello, buy hashish?", "Hello, buy knife?", "Hello, buy tiger balm?". Negotiations with our trekking agent go on forever. This is the strangest beginning to a trip I have ever known.

"Definitely not a Coast Range trip" I thought to myself, as I was served tea in bed  by a member of our staff. So far various efforts to climb Imje Tse, our acclimatization peak, had failed. Would we have to move onto the "real" objective having failed on a trivial 6000m bump? Fortunately, due to improving weather and conditions, we were spared this embarrassment, putting all nine Himalayan hopefuls on top at the last minute. Phew!

Now it was time to focus on Ama Dablam. Could we handle it? Would it be safe enough? Would the altitude give us problems? I thought back to Thyangboche where an intensely loud, olive green, military helicopter had picked up the body of a Korean climber; the victim of ignorance or machoism. He had died from the effects of altitude. The smell of the jet fuel and the intense sound seemed out of place in the unbelievably clear morning, as did the tragedy amidst healthy individuals celebrating life.

I remembered Periche: We were just beginning to think of the Korean death as an isolated incident, when dinner was interrupted by three guys carrying a Nepalese high-altitude porter dying of altitude sickness. We placed him in a Gamow bag, and he improved dramatically. Richard, Ray, and Simon (a medic from a British army expedition) took first watch. The rest of the team went to bed, anticipating a carry-out the next morning. It was not to be. Another absolutely clear morning brought news of another death. Richard matter of factly described the final moments, with CPR hampered by pulmonary fluid, and the knowing look in the victim's eyes as he died. A second preventable tragedy in the space of a week. The trio who brought this fellow down had found him gasping for breath in a tea house in the presence of the Korean party who had already lost a member! In each case the victim did  not go down far enough soon enough, and in each case there were people available to help them get down. I always assumed that climbers died of altitude sickness either in bad weather, or on terrain that compromised rescue efforts, not on A1 trails with plenty of help all around!

Our strategy of taking plenty of time to acclimatize seemed to be paying off, I thought to myself, as I bounced up the trail towards Ama Dablam. Hang on!

"What the hell is base camp doing here?" I asked.
"The yak herder refused to go any further." Richard replied.
"Look on the bright side. This is a paradise," Ray added.
"Sure it's a paradise, but it is a useless paradise." I retorted, anticipating loosing time finding a new base camp, and playing porter to get our loads up to it. So it would be another week before we were ready to start climbing. Then it was time to sink some tools!
As we are not hard-men, we had brought along a whole bunch of rope to fix the first half of the route. So, we went up, and we went down. Up and down. Up and down. Up and fucking down! And then we went up.

At the point where the ridge abuts onto the face, we were well above the fixed lines. It was getting late, and it was beginning to snow.  We had not seen any bivi site on the way up, and none was available here. Ray had seen what was possibly a cave 70m below. Normally one would write this off, but in the previous camp Richard had cleared some ice at the base of a snow mushroom, and discovered an amazing ice cave with all sorts of passages and neat ice formations. So Ray and I rapped down to check this one out. We bashed our way into another world. Imagine: You are on a 55 degree ice slope and then you crawl through a hole onto flat ground, protected from the wind, snow, and exposure. All around you is a delicate mass of perfect hexagonal ice crystals, several feet thick. We called our new home the crystal palace. In it we found a French food wrapper. Interesting! The only other party that had been on this route reported only miserable bivis. They did mention a fantastic cave they found after they had reached the standard route. Perhaps the cave location was mis-reported? Or perhaps someone snuck the route?

The rock is like clay. Always near the end, when the light is fading, things get tricky. Stemming between ice and clay, I place a pick in snow. Nope, try a glove on rock. Better! I'm out of rope? "Well I'm not belaying here. You guys start climbing". I heave myself onto the rib. No stance, no anchors. Ten feet up, the rock is more solid. The sun has set. I bring Richard up to the hanging stance. While I  belay Ray up, Richard takes the lead (with his seconding pack) on a single nine mil rope. One rope is being let out, the other is being taking in. The tangle is growing. The light is fading. Ray is unbearable uncomfortable wearing his pack at the hanging station while belaying Matt. Any attempt by Ray to get comfortable locks Richard's rope. I'm sure the rope is being cramponed repeatedly. Richard started on good ice, but now he is on bad snow, and his steps are disintegrating as he tries to hurry. Finally he is over the crest,  but he needs snow stakes from below to set up an anchor. He gets really cold while we untangle the rope so Ray can climb. He does so without his pack due to the marginal belay. Ray's pack jams on hauling. Finally everybody and their gear is at the bivi site, having connected with the standard route.  By the time we get to sleep it is 2:00AM.

The next morning we offered tea to people trudging up the standard route. This way up is not easy, but it sees many parties, and it is often guided. This year the route turned back several attempts until one of the guides fixed a rope to the top. Then the flood gates were open, and people summited daily. Once we found the energy to follow the steps it took only an hour to make the summit. The views were great and it was warm enough to spend a fair amount of time taking pictures and admiring ourselves. In contrast to our leisurely stay on the summit, once we turned around there was  no wasting time. We imagined ourselves zipping down a nicely prepared route, and then lying in the meadows. Soon!

 Reality is never quite like that! The frayed 7mm polypro rope we followed into the dark did not inspire confidence. The anchors were at least as bad. Old fixed lines emerged from the snow and re-entered again a few feet lower down. These sections were used as the anchors for the "new" fixed line. Working by headlamp we traversed and rappelled, traversed and rappelled. We came upon many places where there were many ropes, not all of them going the same way! No doubt it would have been easier if we had been this way before ...  if there was light ... if we were not so tired!

In the daylight the crowds and the mass of garbage, old fixed lines, and shitty anchors, brought home the point that this beautiful line up this elegant peak was trashed. Being able to contrast the two routes underlined the importance of cleaning our fixed lines. It went beyond the $2000US, which we could get back regardless, since our Liason Officer never got near the route and never saw our fixed lines. Although we had always intended to collect our junk, we were even more committed now. The reality of this commitment was sobering. Matt and Ray had to leave right away, which left the bulk of the cleanup for Richard and I. But we did not have much time either. The bottom line was that I would have to clean between camps two and three in a single day, and Richard would have to clean up to camp two the following day. In addition, many loads would have to be carried down (three hours each way). At least we weren't tired. No!

Darkness. I had saved weight on the way up. I have no warm clothes. I'm using the fixed lines I'm cleaning for rappelling. This meant that I had just rapped from two 150m ropes, on varying, mixed terrain, not all of it particularly steep. That's right. I'm on a sloping stance with 300m of rope, all of it tangled up. My back and stomach muscles are aching from the heavy, poorly packed pack. Meter by meter I work through the tangles. I would soon find out if we were really committed to cleaning up. Perhaps an hour later, I make another rappel, and face another tangle. The pack gets noticeably heavier with each rope I claim, and with each cache I collect. I must be masochistic, because I clean some of the previous party's lines that we had not pulled on the way up. Finally I reach camp two, and I can just descend, not clean. But throughout the descent my back and stomach muscles are screaming from controlling a heavy, poorly packed pack, while hanging from a harness. I crawl into advance base camp at 2:30 a.m.

The next day Richard did the cleaning while I carried loads. I got back to advanced base after dark to collect my second load. Richard was still way up there, working by headlamp. I verified that I should take his stuff back, hoping that he could  do the rest in a single load. (We were to break base camp the next morning). I got back to base at 11:00 p.m. Our cook-boy heard me come in and made me dinner--what a saint. Richard did not make it back until 8:30 the next morning! We were already packed. He said there was one more load. There was only one candidate to carry it. Groan!

Even though it nearly killed me, I'm glad that we left the route roughly in the condition we found it. Ama Dablam is a beautiful mountain, with beautiful lines. All were worth climbing originally but one is now trashed. If you want to do one that is not, consider the "Lagunak Ridge". It is not that much more difficult than the standard route, only more sustained. Just keep it clean!

Concluding Notes

The summit of Imja Tse was reached in late October by: Richard Howse, Matt Godbold, Ray Vran, Kobus Barnard, Emily Butler, Russ Turner, Kwon Kim, Dave Wilkinson, and Nancy from Connecticut. Emily Butler also made an ascent of Pokalde, another trekking peak. The summit of Ama Dablam was reached on Nov. 1 by Richard Howse, Matt Godbold, Ray Vran, and Kobus Barnard.

More Photos (could be slow)

Thanks To:

Pelion Mountain Products who supplied us with fine Serratus Super Guide packs, and large bags for porter loads. (These items are now available to other expeditions through the Canadian Himalayan Foundation)

Mountain Safety Research who supplied us with stoves, snow stakes and water filters.

Lipton foods, the makers of Pemmican bars, and Cold Buster Bars, each of who helped us with the most important item of mountaineering gear: food.

Lamjung Treks and Expeditions for their fine service and support during our entire stay in Nepal.