2 am – 12th October
Ben wakes me from my hypoxic daze …. "Mal – I’ve run out of oxygen …. What do I do?"
I look at him a bit confused, "You’ll just need to deal with it bro, sit up, try to relax, don’t panic. You’ll be ok. We’ll be starting to get ready to go in a few hours." I lie back down and try to relax myself. It’s very cramped in the tent and I’m pressed up against the door and it’s cold. Very cold. The inside of the tent is covered in frost, any movement sends tiny snow showers down on us. My sleeping bag is frozen on the outside and a quick glance at my watch shows a temperature of -28 degrees.
Time to rouse myself and start getting more water ready, fill my water bottles with so called boiling water and stuff them into my boot shells, get my feet warm and try to eat some food. It’s still windy outside and the tent is shaking. Every 15 minutes or so I put my oxygen mask to my face and draw on a flow of 2 liters a minute for a while – it clears the fog from my mind and makes me feel warm. In the glow of my headlamp I can see Sidi Mama, Phemba and Ben all curled up and trying to stay warm and to doze.
My MSR reactor is now charging along, sending out a warm glow and slowly melting water in the deep freezer that is C4. We’re sitting at 7450m – it’s still windy – it’s damn cold but we’re all keen to go for the summit.
There is suddenly a sound of somebody outside the tent. It’s the first of the 3 Sherpa’s bringing up the Bangladashi climber – they’d started from camp 3 at 10pm the night before – it must have been a very cold and windy climb at that time in the morning. We’re all now moving around – getting into our boots getting our packs ready, drinking fluid and trying to cram food into our mouths – it’s hard to eat. The wind is still strong but there are no clouds to be seen anywhere – we make the choice to wait a bit longer to for the early morning sun and to see if the winds drop.
Outside – the air is bitingly cold and it tears at the back of my throat. We’ve climbed into our harnesses, put on our crampons and are just about to head off. A quick check of our packs, and turning on our oxygen systems and we’re ready to go. Sidi Mama is climbing without using oxygen, Phemba is on a flow rate of 1.5 liters a minute and Ben and I are using 4 litres a minute – it’s still hard work.
We’re off – slowly walking away from C4. I’m out the front walking through some very nasty breakable crusty snow – at times almost up to my knee. My feet are already cold and very painful – so long as they stay painful I can keep going – if they go numb I might have to turn around. The horizon is getting slowly brighter but we’re walking in the shadow of the summit ridge. We all look longingly towards patches of sun …
The summit ridge of Manaslu rises in 3 separate plateau’s before coming to the final summit ridge crest. We come across the Bangladash team on the second plateau. They are moving pretty slowly and seem to almost be about to turn around. We give them a silent nod as we walk past them, moving up a short slope of pretty hard slab and finally into the sun. My feet almost start to feel merely cold – they still hurt. Ben is about 10m behind me and Phemba about 15 behind him. Sidi is sitting down in the sun and waves us on. He’s moving slowly without using oxygen but I’ve worked with him a few times – I trust him to make the right choice for himself and to not push himself beyond his limits.
I’ve been breaking trail now for almost 2 hours and I can finally see the remains of the old track that the previous summiters had made. We start to make our way towards it and Ben takes over the lead for while – it’s a relief to be walking in somebody else’s track. Ben and I occasionally exchange glances – we’re both looking pretty haggard but give each other the thumbs up – we’re still good to go.
We’re not measuring time via our watches but instead by the amount of pressure we have left in our oxygen bottles. We’re more that 1/2 way to the summit and we’ve still got more than 1/2 of our first bottle of gas left. The sun is now out – and we sit down for the first time to have a rest, drink more fluid and cram some chocolate into our mouths. We’re sitting at the final steep slope that leads up to the summit and we estimate about 2 hours to go.
The Bangladashi sherpa team want to turn back – we can see their client gesturing towards the summit and they shout up to us to find out what we are planning – we point up!
Ben has this look to him – it’s almost like he can’t believe where he is. What looks to be the summit is about 150m above us – I keep on comparing it to the hill behind my house in Wanaka, Mt Iron. It’s only as high as that – we can keep going.
The wind is quite variable and the snow is covered in sestrugi and wind slab – I keep looking around to evaluate if I could have made an attempt to fly. The wind is all wrong, the snow looks horrible to ski, I put my questions and regrets out of mind and keep on plodding.
We’re now at the base of the what looks like the summit – I know that it’s actually a false summit and that beyond it there are a series of small sharp crest and cols before the final 30m high knife blade ridge that reaches the true summit. Most people only reach the final col but this year the Himex team had fixed lines all the way to the top – it’s a very exposed final 15-20m. But there are still obstacles to overcome. The winds had again buried the fixed line – I spend some time trying to clear it before giving up – I look down at Ben, shrug and then continue to go up. His footwork is good enough for this and Phemba is right behind him. Sidi can be seen below us – he’ll take about another hour.
We’re now sitting on the final ridge, at the Col that is normally regarded as the summit as the final ridge isn’t normally fixed. Ben is happy to sit here and call this his summit – Phemba and I keep going. It’s very very airy and from this final short climb you can look out to the west, down on almost 8000m of air to the plains far below.
The very final push to the top is a short, narrow steep series of steps and the summit itself has just enough room for two people to stand. Phemba and I exchange a handshake – we call the news that we’re on the summit back down to basecamp and it’s great to be able to talk to Sophie on the radio. We take off our masks and take pictures of each other. The view is simply amazing. The wind is still quite variable but it seems to have calmed down. It’s time to start making our way back down off the steep, exposed summit ridge and back to the relative safety of the Col where Ben is.
Ben and I exchange handshakes – but we have to start getting down. Oxygen bottles changed and were moving down the hill – it’s so much easier than going up but in many ways far more dangerous. We pass the Bangladashi team and Sidi Mama. I stop for a bit to ask him how he is and he’s got a smile on his face – he’s still keen to keep on going. A quick handshake with him and then we’re off again.
Down back through the old hard tracks and then back into our foot prints and broken snow from hours before. Back down over the short drops until we’re finally back at C4.
Back at C4, 6 1/2 hours after we had left it. Time to again get some more fluid into ourselves and try to eat, pack our gear and get ready to descend to C3. What is probably the most dangerous part of the whole day lies just in front of us. The hard blue/green ice of the start of the ramp. A small error here and you could easily be back at C3 a bit faster than you’d like. The wind is still blowing across and down the hill. Sidi arrives at C4 just before Ben and I leave. He’s got a huge grin on his face! He also made the summit.
As I lead off down onto the ramp Ben reaches down to clip the first of the fixed lines – he manages to knock out the anchor! It wouldn’t have held a thing. He tells me this AFTER we had reached basecamp…… The descent back to C3 takes about 1.5 hours – all the way down the fixed lines and finally back down to a flat ledge. The air here is thicker and it’s slightly warmer but the wind is still down the hill – totally in the wrong direction to make a flight attempt.
Ben is choosing to drop down even further to C2 as he feels that he really needs to get lower. I’ve spoken with Sophie and whilst the forecast for the next day has lighter winds they’ll still be blowing the wrong way to be totally comfortable to launch my speed wing. I settle into my tent – totally shattered but hopeful for the opportunity to make a speedriding descent the next day …..