The past few days had been spent training on the Manaslu glacier and setting up fixed lines. We were now pretty well acclimatized to base camp, and in a few days were now about to start the real acclimatization phase. It was all about a balance between rest and recovery and acclimatization. We spent a lot of time just lying about thinking and over-thinking. It’s not healthy. I spent a lot of time worrying. Hoping everything was OK at home. Wondering if my wife and daughters were missing me. Agonizing about the size of my ice screw. That sort of thing. We played a lot of cards in the evening, listened to music and read books. We Tinkered with gear, tied prussics, and set up crevasse rescue scenarios. You began to look forward to the small things. Going for a wash in the glacial stream below camp. Washing your gear. Morning coffee routines. The simple things became important and all-encompassing. I was lucky I had a Garmin inReach Device, and could text home. These small bits of correspondence became hugely important. Be it a message from Flick, my wife, with news on the kids, or reassuring me about the size of my ice screw. Or a message from Jackie Kenyon telling me about foot and mouth on Mogwooni. Or my friend Sean asking me if I would shag a Yak. You began to crave the text message beep. For any titbits of information about life away from the frozen pile of the screen that had become home.
Today we started out on our main acclimatization push. We were to head up to Camp 1 and sleep there, to Camp 2 and three and then back down in stages. Suddenly it all. We were going to start stashing oxygen at strategic points for the ascent, as well as tents in the various launch camps. Basecamp to camp 1 was a long but relatively gradual slog over an ice field. There were large crevasses everywhere, and fixed lines had been set up to maneuver through this ever-changing minefield. Moving with crampons is laborious at the best of times, but as we snaked up to 22,000ft the feet became torturously heavy. Over 10 yards or so you would have a mild hyperventilation episode, where you gasped like a stranded goldfish for 10 seconds.
The climb to camp 2 was hard and technical. The entire route was Steep serats that tested my vertigo to the full. Sometimes you were cutting holds with your ice axe. Sometimes just relying on the fixed line screwed into the ice (I hoped that the line was anchored on a longer ice screw than mine). It was ridiculously hot in the sunlight and freezing in the shade and you could never quite adjust. At one point, on a ledge waiting to climb a small wall, Pete slipped. It is always good to know how you react in a crisis – and I acted thusly, by throwing myself on top of him thereby adding to his momentum as he fell. Luckily he was clipped into the fixed line, as was I. After providing a fairly frank character assessment of me, he was able to pull himself up and continue on, but the lessons on the importance of staying on the fixed line were well learned.
After a long hard day we got into camp 2 at about 3oclck. I wasn’t feeling well at all, and was beginning to get a headache. I managed to swallow a bit of tea and then went to lie down. In about 20 minutes, I was in agony. My head felt like someone was boring into it with a corkscrew, and my gums and nose were bleeding. I had blurry vision and was dry heaving. I was now genuinely frightened, and strangely depressed. I was in a tent with Pete, who managed to get some water into me and some Diamox, and within about 20 minutes, everything had subsided. The down side was the Diamox had made me piss like a racehorse. In our tiny tent, inches from his face, poor Pete had to endure me trying to extract my willy from my down suit every 10 minutes and piss in a bottle. It wasn’t easy, but the upside was that in comparison my ice screw now seemed less puny. It was a nuisance, but I was eternally grateful the pain had gone. For the first time on the expedition, after hours of climbing and walking, I had felt genuine despair that I might not make it.
The next day we climbed on to camp three. This would be the furthest we would go without oxygen (apart from Adam who was attempting to summit without). At the camp we found an American climber coming down from Camp 4. “Go down” he warned us. “there’s been an avalanche above and 2 climbers and their Sherpa have been buried”. These last few days things had all become a bit real.
We decided to turn back, and get back to camp 2, spend the night and make our way down to base camp.