We had spent seven days trekking from Lukla to the base camp at Ama Dablam. Another 7 days were spent establishing 3 High Camps on the mountain and getting our bodies adjusted to the altitude. I had prepared hard for this climb knowing that it would test my fitness given the mixed rock climbing environment at 22,000'. The time had come to climb Ama Dablam:
Come on up yelled Dave, 100 feet above me on the Tower of Ama Dablam. After double-checking that my ascender and cows tail were properly attached to the fixed rope, I gingerly place my right boots crampon points on a tiny rock edge. In a blink, I go sprawling into the empty space that defines exposure.
I was a late bloomer in the field of mountain climbing. My first big mountain was Mont Blanc at 15,771, in France in 1995. I thought it was terribly difficult at the time but in hindsight it was just a big snowball. I had gradually moved to more difficult mountains and more extreme altitudes. With Cho Oyu at almost 27,000 under my belt two years earlier, I wanted to test myself on difficult terrain at a high altitude; thus the Himalayans Ama Dablam. At 22,494 with descriptive words such as extreme exposure, steep snow slopes and great mixed climbing this seemed like a nice next step in my climbing career - late as it was.
I considered my options as I hung by my ascender with nothing but air under my crampon points for three thousand feet. My back had settled hard against the rock wall making up the tower and my inexperience on rock was totally exposed. Looking left and right showed fifty feet of smooth rock in either direction. Up was two hundred feet of near vertical mixed and down was, well down.
Hanging like a turtle on his back, feeling nothing more than embarrassment, I looked at Dave and taking his que, I moved back to my starting position and with new-found knowledge I started back up the tower. I conquered my own personal mountain after another half an hour to meet Daves Well done greeting.
Somewhat exhausted by what might have been rather than what was, I continued to climb the steep and sharp snow ridges to our cozy Camp 2.
C2 is perched on a rock ridge that is no wider than a good highway. Our two tents are positioned to take advantage of the precious flat ice or rock ground. The view is incredible but we must be careful with the extreme drops at every edge. The night is passed comfortably and the next day brings the climb to Camp 3 and then the summit.
Today is the couloir, a 200-foot V shaped gully complete with rock, snow and ice. We arrive about 9:00 in the morning and begin the ascent. This year, 2000, the snow has lagged so our climb is mostly ice and rock. I follow our Sherpas, Laphka and Tasi up the route careful to be clipped in. If I fall here, it is a non-stop slide four thousand feet to the U shaped floor below. The trip would clearly result in serious injury and most likely death.
We continue the climb appreciating any tiny crag, ledge or spot to rest. The top of this leg has a five-foot snow bulb blocking an easy access to the natural top. I continue to use my ascender to make progress while eyeing the snowball in my way. I look to go around only to be coached by Lhakpa to go directly over it. I lean back on the fixed ropes to get a better look. A straight drop below, a huge snowman above and a grinning Sherpa serving as my coach. This is what climbing is all about in the Himalayas. I plant the front points of my crampons, reset my grip on the ascender and pull with all my strength. With one quick motion I scurry over the snowmans bulging stomach and flop on the top of the couloir. Taking a moment, I gather myself and review the last hour.
Camp 3 is still 2 hours above and I soon continue my climb. More steep snow, more knife edge ridges and more awesome views. I soon see the flat infield size area that will be home for the night and help to set up the tents. The wind is howling here at 21,000 and with the cold temp, we hurry to enjoy the shelter of our nylon tents. I take out my down sleeping bag and consider using my down suit as the temperature drops with the setting sun. Soon I am joined by 2 of the climbing team thus generating a balmy atmosphere in our thin shelter. We melt snow and talk of the world before ignoring the howling wind while going to sleep.
About 3:00 in the morning I hear voices and think I am dreaming. After we begin the snow melting ritual at 4:00 I learn that the voice belonged to a Spanish climber that was illegally on the mountain - that is without a permit from the Nepalese Government. He had begun before midnight from Camp 1 and was making incredible progress to the summit under the cover of night. He had summited Cho Oyu a week before and was benefiting from his aclimization and obvious strength to bag another peak. Amazing!
We began the tedious process of putting on multiple layers of synthetic and down clothing that would protect our fragile skin from the -60 degree wind chill. Everything is in slow motion: the melting snow, zipping a zipper, tying a shoelace, attaching a crampon, answering the call of nature before the final zip.
At 5:30 our team of 7: 3 guides, 2 clients and 2 Sherpas begin the ascent. I am following Lili, the 28 year-old French-Canadian mountain guide from Banff. Twenty minutes up the 70 degree slope, Lili is stopping and slapping her hands against her legs. My fingers and toes are freezing she responds to my question. I am also cold but wanting to go faster to generate the necessary heat within my suit. Go around me she politely offers but I stay in my place. 15 minutes later I pass her as she gets a pair of spare gloves from Dave. This saves her climb and serves as a valuable reminder to all of us on having the best equipment possible in these extreme conditions.
It is difficult to believe but I am now in the lead of our strong team. This order continues for another hour before the inevitable happens, Lhakpa and Tashi pass me with ease. We all continue our vertical progress as the sun rises over the Nepalese landscape. I remember my thoughts of the rising sun in Tibet on Cho Oyu and how tired I was and how I estimated my reserves at 40% when asked how I was doing. This time is different.
I feel good, not tiring as quickly. I am careful and confident. Each ridge brings another and each slope ends with a brief plateau that brings another hour of steep climbing. We are lucky that the snow is firm and supports each step. The sun has risen but we climb in the shadow of this mountain making it very cold.
I look down and see Dave 30 meters below me. He smiles, points up and shouts summit. I smile back and begin to let it sink in that I will make this summit. I will stand on the top of Ama Dablam, the Jewel of the Khumba. The mountain that stands guard over the Sherpa villages and serves as the focus of thousands of photographs each year.
Another steep slope and I can feel the summit. I continue to take each step carefully. The snow softens and my left leg goes limp. This is not what I need when I am so close. The softening snow is making the summit a challenge. Each step requires careful consideration as to whether it will support my weight or simply give way. I gather myself and reset my position on firmer snow. Continue the climb. Each step taking me closer until I am there. On the summit, the top, no further to go.
I take off my pack and have a seat. First things first. I have some water and food and then look around. Everest. Lhotse. Nuptse. Makalu. And a hundred unnamed 20,000+ snow covered peaks. The sky is a perfect blue. More blue than you would ever see in any city. The wind is still howling and the temperature is still low but it doesnt matter. I am on the summit.
All the preparation. All the mental discipline during the climb. All the work. It has all paid off with a successful summit. I remind myself quickly during this self-congratulatory moment that I also must get down safely. After all that is the definition of a summit. But I enjoy the moment. I can see forever or at least fifty or more miles. I can see into Tibet. I can see into Nepal. It feels like I can see whatever I want to see. I feel great. I feel strong and ready for the down climb. But I want to stay. Dave offers to take a picture and I gladly agree. One with Everest in the background and one with Makalu hiding behind me. I take one of him and then look for the rest of the team. Dave and I are alone for a while until Paul arrives, then Lili. I feel great. On the summit.
After about an hour Paul and I begin our journey back to Camp 3. It takes about half the time it took to reach the summit. I dont want to leave. I want to enjoy the moment. But with a wind-chill well below -50 I know I need to get down. We start by clipping into the fixed ropes leading to the summit. Walking forward, going backwards we retrace our steps one at a time.
As I settle back into my tent at Camp 3, I think about the day. What it means to me and what I have learned and what to climb next.