Alarms went off at midnight, and we were off by 1h. The clear night air, free of clouds except for some low fog down the valley towards Namche, was nevertheless more clement at -15°C than the bitter post snow storm -20°C of the previous night. A light wind blew across the icy landscape, helping us to keep a steady temperature despite the effort. We crossed the top of the dying glacier, a jumble of unstable blocks from a old rock slide, and zigzagged up the rocky outcrops following the cairns Véro and I had placed the night before. A nearly full moon made the 5 climbers feel less intrusive on this spectacular environment. Above the high point reached by Véro and I yesterday we were quickly moving up a tongue of snow. Harness, crampons, axe and rope came out of our sacks. We hoped to traverse the glacier above and gain access, via the rocky arête on the right hand bank, to the main glacier that would appear (on our map) to lead all the way to the summit. However, the lower wall of the ridge, above the glacier, hidden from our vantage point yesterday, was very compact, mostly overhanging and protected by a deep bergshrund. We were not to be beaten after so little effort! We headed up the glacier in the unreal moonscape of the monochromatic light to the highest tip of an avalanche cone from which Julien led off to the left in an attempt to find a way through to the SW ridge. I joined him only to agree that no obvious line was visible, and from my recollection of yesterday's reconnaissance outing it would be many technically difficult pitches before we arrived at our objective via this steep and loose South face.
So at 4a.m. from a high point of 5815m we retreated back to Camp 2. In less than an hour we were warming ourselves with a cup of tea. A little later we were all off again, this time following my hunch that by dropping all the way down to the sea-like Kyajo glacier (at the foot of the valley) we could follow a deep gorge that seemed to lead to the SW col and the foot of the SW ridge. We had scarcely left camp when, Véronique, along with Julien and Laurent pulled out, exhausted and demoralized by the night's efforts. A bitter blow for the team, harder still for the individuals concerned, knowing they had sacrificed their last chance. As Vincent and I headed off they offered us their last chocolate bars, as if handing us their remaining resolve and courage: "Thanks guys, you'll be with us all the way!"
No time to lose. Vincent raced off on this new route; I hoped he’d have something left for later when the going was sure to get tougher. The sun was already licking the summits around us, and by the time we had to negotiate the first delicate passage, beneath an unstable serac, the ice was glistening with the sun's heat. At least the biting -15°C cold of the night had gone and the climbing was pleasant in the warm sunshine. 8am found us established on the SW col, and roping up we got our first proper view of the difficulties ahead - the ridge appeared fairly uniform in slope, steepening here and there between rock outcrops, threatened by a few small seracs higher up, but apparently leading all the way to the summit. Old avalanche debris at the col reminded us chillingly of the advancing hour, and we were soon moving together up the ridge.
We changed leads as the terrain varied from 55°-60° snow and ice to a compact rock outcrop, sharing the difficulties according to our respective strengths. The 6000m threshhold was now below us, but the excitement of reaching this altitude for the first time brought little relief to the breathless fatigue. Our hope of reaching the summit by 11am had melted, and each rope length seemed to take an age. Only one more chocolate bar each, and the water bottles almost empty - but the promise of my altimeter reading kept us focused on our goal. As Vincent joined me on what we expected to be the last belay before the summit, he looked tired and dizzy. “Are you OK?” “Yeah, I think so, just feel like I’m hearing things through a fog, a bit like what the high altitude boys describe in those books we’ve been reading” At once my mind flooded with unpleasant recollections of “Into Thin Air” and “Touching the Void” that had been circulating at Base Camp. “If you’re in a bad way we’d better head down right now” I offered, not really believing my own words. “No, let’s do one more length and see how things are then, hey?” I certainly wasn’t going to argue with that, confident that we were so close to our goal, and set off immediately up the final snow slope, steep at first, the climbing delicate on a soft and sugary layer of ice, barely covering the rocks. Each step took 10 breaths to recover, and I soon found myself setting goals: "That block of ice in 10 minutes"; only to discover to my tremendous delight that in just 3 minutes I was there! I buried the deadman, knowing very well what little resistance it would provide against my weight in the event of a fall. “End of rope” I hear Vincent yell up from below. So this is the summit fever we’ve read about. Just above me the slope is flattening off as we approach the summit ridge, and I know nothing can stop us now – well, we’ll just have to top out moving together, and now neither of us is allowed to slip! Suddenly I'm there, perched precariously on the highest point of the mountain, a 40cm wide ridge of snow, separating the steep S and NE faces. Vincent joins me after what seems like an age, in the pit I've dug on the roof of our little world, exhausted and a little hazy from the altitude. “Well, that's our first time above 6000m, our first new route, and our first unclimbed summit, all in one!” I spurted out, the emotion overwhelming me. “I hadn't noticed on the map - Kyajo Ri is the highest peak in its massif - these views are fantastic!” replied Vincent breathlessly. “I feel I could just reach out and touch Everest - Ama Dablam seems almost insignificant from here!” The summit offered fine unrestricted views across the Khumbu, the few clouds lapping harmlessly around the valleys. And yet we felt vulnerable up there, so far from our friends at camp 2, a world away from the small base camp visible deep down in the shadows of the Machhermo valley, almost 2000m below. Trying to hold back our emotion, we shared our thoughts of the events that had led us to this point; the yaks that had deserted us one night during the walk in, the beautiful puja ceremony at base camp when Dawa our Sirdar had presided over the blessing of our expedition, throwing rice to the gods, through the thick smoke of burning juniper, the technical route we had forged from camp 1 to camp 2 with the rest of the team, all three of them now in the safety of camp 2 anxiously awaiting our return from the summit, all three very much with us during this extraordinary moment spent on a virgin summit.
For an hour we ate and drank our remaining provisions, took no end of photos, unrolled and partially buried a string of prayer flags, sat back and took in the fantastic landscape of impossibly steep ice faces extending in all directions: Everest, Cho Oyu, Makalu, Shishapangma, even the Annapurnas and Manaslu visible in the distance. The wind blew lightly, never enough to cool the sun's heat, lifting the prayer flags in short breaths, carrying those Buddhist chants to the far corners of the world. For a while a thin misty veil covered the summit but 5 minutes later it had evaporated. By 3pm we were off, down-climbing in 100m lengths between precarious belays on the few rocky outcrops, wary of making errors after 14 hours of climbing and 3 days above 5500m. Each pitch seemed to last forever as the sun raced towards the western horizon. With the coming night the temperatures plummeted to -25°C, and my toes lost some feeling that they failed to recover even after painful rewarming. That worried me. Fatigue and lack of sleep, nutrition and water were taking there toll - “Vincent”, I forced myself to say, as we headed to the top of the steep rock wall that had barred our way during the previous night, “be careful - I'm very tired - you're going to have to make decisions for both of us from now on...” However difficult it was to admit my exhaustion, I was damned glad to have Vincent on the other end of the rope!
Fortunately Vincent had recovered from his difficulties near the summit, and he safely led the tricky abseil down the overhanging rock face that had rebuffed us 15 hours earlier on the way up. The final hour's walk back to camp 2 was warmed at last by 3 bobbing headlamps coming to meet us. What a welcome sight! The reunion with the others was tearful, joyful, hot and cold all in one. Now past 9pm and we shared rapidly our impressions and experiences of the long day while swallowing whole pieces of deliciously welcome French comté cheese and dried sausage, secretly brought all this way by Laurent, before heading for the warmth of our sleeping bags. We still have over 1100m of descent tomorrow, some of it over technical ground, before reaching base camp and rest. Falling into a fitful sleep, buffeted by a violent snowstorm, my mind wandered over our achievement, mixed with the regret of not getting everyone to the summit. At least tomorrow we’ll all enjoy a good Dhaal Bhaat in base camp, and be awoken the following morning with a piping hot mug of sweat tea, served in the warmth of our sleeping bags! Just time to think of a name for the route: a Franco-British team, lying now in harmony in our little tents, after a historic (for us at least) first ascent – “En Tente Cordiale” of course!
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