"There have been joys too great to be described in words, and there have been griefs upon which I have not dared to dwell, and with these in mind I say, climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste, look well to each step, and from the beginning think what may be the end." Edward Whymper.
Ama Dablam is considered to be one of the most beautiful peaks in the world, situated in the heart of the Khumbu region in the Himalaya range of Eastern Nepal and dominates the skyline for many a trekker on the Everest Base Camp (“EBC”) trail. Ama Dablam literally means "Mother's necklace" - the long ridges on each side like the arms of a mother (ama) protecting her child, and the hanging glacier like the dablam, the traditional double-pendant containing pictures of the gods, worn by Sherpa women. Due to its shape and steep faces, the mountain is sometimes referred as the "Matterhorn of the Himalayas”. I’d first set eyes on it when I was in the Himalayan town of Namche Bazaar back in April 2017 on my way to climb Kyajo Ri (see blog here) and like many others before me had fallen under its spell, vowing to myself to summit its elegant peak one day.
We would be attempting the summit at 6,812m (22,349 ft) via the South-West ridge. For me being on the mountain combined the thrill of an exposed and technical rock climb with the challenge of a high-altitude expedition. For months beforehand I’d been training to ensure I’d be in the best possible shape for what lay ahead and psychologically prepared for living on the mountain for weeks, including long days on difficult terrain in the Welsh hills, honing my rock climbing skills, and building endurance through cycling and ultra running (see blog here).
My flight landed in Kathmandu on 11 November 2018 and as we drove into the town from the airport I was immediately transported into another world in the hustle and bustle of the Nepalese city – the weaving and winding of the cars and brightly painted vans, pavements overflowing with people, and narrow streets lined with shops selling everything from “yak wool” shawls, to wooden boxes of tea, bulky sleeping bags, rows of turquoise jewellery, and fake North Face jackets. However as much as I love the atmosphere and buzz of Kathmandu I couldn’t wait to escape its streets for the serenity and clean air of the Himalayan mountains.
The team was led by Tim Mosedale (who has summited Ama Dablam 16 times and Everest 6 times, among others). Tim’s approach is that the expedition is not a "guided" ascent but that team members are suitably experienced and confident in their mountain skills to be self-sufficient enough to move between camps. He has a great reputation among the mountaineering community and I felt in safe hands. Tim was supported on the mountain by Chris (who had summited Everest with him some years earlier), our Sirdar Sherpa guide Karme (who managed the other Sherpas) as well as Iswari who managed the logistics in-country. There were 11 others of us as clients in total ranging from various places (England, Ireland, Scotland, Poland, Slovakia, Gibraltar) – 9 men and 2 women. Everyone had different backgrounds, ages, and experiences but we were joined together by a passion for the mountains and in the common goal of summiting Ama Dablam. Additionally, three people were meeting us later in the expedition (after summiting Island Peak) and three people were joining us for part of the trek into camp along the EBC trail.
After a couple of days in Kathmandu bonding with the team (i.e. over a few Everest beers and dinners in Thamel, the bustling tourist epicentre of Kathmandu) it was time to get going. I awoke at 5.30am and enjoyed what would be my last hot shower for some time then hauled my bags down the hotel steps to meet the rest of the team. I had sorted my 36kg of kit into two bags – one for the trek in and one for the mountain (to be taken straight to our Base Camp by a team of yaks).
Tribhuvan Airport was as usual a manic experience but despite the perceived chaos things somehow seem to run smoothly! However the weather wasn’t on our side with poor visibility in Lukla so we elected to pay a bit more for helicopters ($100 each) and after a two hour wait sitting on the uncomfortable cream plastic seats at the airport gate we lifted off. I got to sit at the front and enjoyed the spectacular 45-minute journey, flying over valleys with views of the Himalayas to my left. The last time I’d been there it had been a hairy landing by plane onto the infamous airstrip perched on the edge of a cliff so I was quite relieved to be taking a relatively safer aircraft this time. This was the airstrip built by Sir Edmund Hillary to service the Everest Region when he began his work of building schools and hospitals for the Sherpa people.
We followed the EBC trail, winding through villages scattered with little teahouses, zig-zagging up dusty paths, and over suspension bridges covered with colourful prayer flags flapping in the wind over the Dudh Kosi (literally translated as milk river because of its colour). We also passed mani walls – beautifully carved stone tablets, each with the inscription 'Om Mani Padme Hum' which translates to 'Hail to the jewel in the lotus', a mantra venerated by Buddhists. Even though it wasn’t my first time in the Himalaya the scenery took my breath away and I felt a sense of peace just being out there. Every now and again we’d stop to let a herd of donkeys or, more often, dzos (a cross between yak and horse) take the path whilst we clambered up to safety onto nearby verges. I chatted to my teammates en route – sharing expedition and climbing stories and getting to know each other better.
As it began to get dark we reached the town of Monjo (2862m) and stayed in one of the local tea houses. Our bags hadn’t arrived yet from Kathmandu but the teahouse luckily had some bedding for us and apart from not having my contact lenses (a bit of a blurry hike the next day!), I didn’t have any problems with it not being there. It’s strange how quickly we can get used to not having so many material possessions and living more simply.
The teahouses in each village we stopped at along the EBC trail were all very similar with a large communal area for sitting in with a central yak-dung burner providing heat and basic twin-sharing rooms. Some the bedrooms were even en suite, although the water pipes couldn’t be relied upon not to freeze by the morning! The food was always sufficient and very varied, and I soon got used to having the large thermoses of hot lemon tea, fresh garlic soup, traditional dhal bhat or “yak” sizzler, and delicious apple pancakes for breakfast to fuel my trek in.
The next day we entered the Sagarmatha National Park and continued along the trail steeply uphill, passing through pine forests and our first view of Everest, to reach Namche Bazaar just over two hours later, the unofficial capital of the Khumbu region and a major stop off point for mountaineers and hikers passing through. Namche is a huge horseshoe-shaped bustling market town with a maze of hundreds of buildings balanced on a precipitous mountainside - teahouses, cafes, bars, souvenir and kit shops, and the famous German bakeries. After filling our bellies with apple pie and chocolate doughnuts we set off to Kyangjuma at 3600m just over an hour later. The owner of the next teahouse, Tashi Sherpa, knew Tim well so welcomed us with open arms and lashings of hot lemon ginger tea. I was also thankful to get my bag and have a wet wipe “shower” to rid the dust already caked on me from the trail and change into a fresh set of clothes.
We took a gentle acclimatisation walk the next day to the Everest View Hotel (3880m), which did just what it said on the tin, with amazing views of Everest, Lhotse, and Ama Dablam as we sipped our thick hot chocolate on the terrace. From here the mountain looked so near yet so far, and I wondered if we would ever grace its snowy peak.
We walked steadily uphill along the side of the valley, with the Dudh Kosi River below us, and through pine forest to Tengboche (3860m) the following morning where we reached a Tibetan Buddhist monastery on a large plateau. The monastery was re-built with the assistance of Sir Edmund Hillary after it was destroyed by fire in 1989. Although unfortunately it was closed to visitors at the time the courtyard was very peaceful to sit in, and I almost fell asleep in its stillness. Of course we also visited the local bakery for slice of cake! After lunch we set off again along the EBC trail via Debouche (3820m) to Pangboche (3930m) – a fairly gentle walk for an hour past beautifully carved mani stones with views down the valley to the river and Ama Dablam gleaming tantalisingly ahead of us.
Finally we reached our teahouse, Sonam Lodge, at 3950m and were rewarded that evening with a beautiful pink sunset over Everest and Ama Dablam from the balcony. We also met with the three new members of our team: Steve, Rob, and Jan who had just been on Island Peak (6189m) to help acclimatise. Steve and Jan had attempted Ama Dablam before but both had had to turn around due to weather and acclimatisation issues respectively so were keen to successfully summit this time around. They were friendly and shared with us their past experiences, so we were happy to extend the group.
The next afternoon we set off to Ama Dablam Base Camp and said goodbye to our three trekking companions. We gained 700m up a steep dirt path but kept a solid pace and reached our campsite a couple of hours later. Although I felt a little light headed getting into the camp I hadn’t been suffering from any serious effects of altitude and after hydrating and resting felt absolutely fine again. Tim had given us all a briefing a few days earlier on the signs and remedies for altitude sickness including the potentially fatal HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) and HACE (high altitude cerebral edema), as well as HAFE (high altitude flatulent emissions!). So far, apart from a few people getting “Khumbu cough” from all the dust on the trail and one member of the team with a chest infection (who had elected to stay in Pangboche an extra night to aid recovery), we hadn’t had any major health issues.
Base Camp at around 4600m was going to be our home for the next few weeks, on a large plateau with the imposing peak of Ama Dablam watching over us. From here on in we would be following the simple rules of acclimatisation - climb high, sleep low. We each had our own yellow 2-man tent lined up alongside each other, facing a communal mess tent, a food store tent, two kitchen tents, a basic camp shower (from a bag!), and a few Sherpa tents. Most days we would have hot drinks and a snack (usually from Tim’s infamous cheese selection) late afternoon then dinner around 7pm in the mess tent which would be anything from pasta and rice with some form of meat and veg to pizza and chips! Napoleon had it right when he said an army marches on its stomach and we certainly never went hungry.
Our support team from Base Camp consisted of a number of climbing Sherpas, who had over 60 Everest summits between them, including Dorgee who had summitted Everest 17 times and Ama Dablam 16 (!), and our kitchen staff including Laxman who was in charge of our water and seemed to have a permanent, engaging smile on his face. In the evenings we played games such as cards, monopoly deal, connect 4, and chatted in the mess tent. Sometimes there was even a movie night on Tim’s laptop. It was nice to snuggle into my cosy sleeping bag at night in my tent and I began to sense the mountain and imagine what lay ahead.
On the first day in Base Camp we had a traditional puja ceremony, which is an important landmark for all expedition peaks in Nepal (usually 7000m+) to pay respect to the mountain and offer blessings for a safe passage. A monk (or Lama) came from the nearby monastery to lead the ceremony - chanting and throwing rice around a small stone stupa, under which there were food and drinks as offerings to the gods as well as some of our climbing equipment laid for blessing. Smoke swirled from a fire and incense sticks up into the mountain air as the climbing Sherpas attached strings of colourful prayer flags to the top of the stupa and we sipped on rice wine and rum. Finally we were blessed by the monk one by one with a kurta (scarf) and a red string tied around our necks to bring us luck. I hoped it would be enough to protect us all on our climb.
I slept badly the first two nights and by the second morning had such a sore throat it was like there were razors in it and my glands were so swollen I could barely talk. After having glandular fever out in Dushanbe a couple of years earlier (see blog here) I didn’t want to take any precautions and so started antibiotics straight away to clear it up. Tim reassured me I still had time to recover and get up the mountain, but I still felt frustrated with myself for feeling ill and wiped away tears of self-pity falling down my cheeks. We spent a day practicing some climbing skills for the mountain (e.g. jumaring, abseiling) but I felt sapped of energy and that night spent most of it awake feeling awful; coughing up greeny-yellow phlegm and blowing my nose. The next day when everyone set off for Advanced Base Camp I elected to stay behind and rest. Although I was disappointed, it was actually quite nice having the camp to myself and I sorted kit, napped, and hydrated as much as I could. A few hours later one of the team returned who had been struggling with altitude sickness and turned around about 500m later. In the afternoon the others returned successfully from ABC but said it had been a tough day.
The next day I was determined to go up and left after breakfast with one of the team, Iggy from Slovakia / London, whilst most of the others went up in the afternoon as they were planning to sleep at ABC that night. Two of the team were suffering from edema / altitude sickness so they had to descend to Pangboche to see if they could recover. Despite still being on antibiotics I wasn’t feeling too bad and Iggy and I kept a steady pace and chatted en route, reaching the camp at 5400m three hours later. The final slog uphill had seemed so close but went on and on! After a 30min rest in one of the tents and some pepperami and malt loaf to refuel our energy levels, we ran most of the way back down the trail to camp.
After breakfast the next day I set off again up to ABC with Iggy and his wife Martha, this time with a bag full of food and my kit to sleep further up. The rest of the team were already up there from the day before and it was nice to see them again and feel part of the group. The camp was fairly flat but rocky and Laxman had brought up water from a lake below to fill a barrel between our tents. Given the odd number in the team I was in a tent on my own, and set to work making dinner for myself. However as I leant over the jetboil flame I caught my down jacket sleeve on it and immediately a hole appeared, sending feathers flying everywhere! Managed to resourcefully fix it with the glue from my thermorest repair kit although cursed myself for being so inattentive. Up here small mistakes could mean the end of an expedition.
After a day’s rest at ABC we set off upwards to Camp 1. The route took us through a boulder field for about 1.5 hours then up a steeper rock section (aided by fixed ropes in place) for just under an hour, reaching C1 at 5800m. The camp consisted of around 10 tents scattered up a slope, perched in between large rocks. The Sherpas had done a good job securing them so I felt reasonably safe although heard one of our team, James, had fallen through a rip in the light fabric of his porch the previous day! Luckily he was unharmed. At this altitude it was hard work moving around from one tent to another, especially on the terrain, with oxygen saturation levels 20% below that of sea level. Laxman brought up water in another barrel from the lake below so I was able to fire up a jetboil and make some pasta soup for dinner in my porch (a little more carefully this time!). Thankfully my chest no longer felt infected and I was sleeping a lot better, although like many of the others in the team had a bit of a dry cough.
Pemba and Pasang, two of our climbing Sherpas arrived the next morning at camp and Iggy, Martha, and I went with them along the fixed ropes towards C2. It was a mild, sunny day and I really enjoyed going along the route, which very exposed with huge drops down to the lake below. Martha and Iggy were keen to turn around after an hour but I wanted to practice on steeper ground so we carried on until we reached a wall around 15m or so high. I managed the section fine although still feel a little nervous about the Yellow Tower, an infamous steep climb, further on (although Pasang reassured me that he can do it in 4 minutes with a heavy pack!). The Sherpas carried on to C2 whilst we turned around and I led the others back to C1, practicing our hand wrapping and abseiling en route.
I prepared to descend to Base Camp the next morning so left most of my kit in the tent (e.g. my big down jacket, warmer sleeping bag, roll mat, summit clothes, warm gloves, and cooking gear). However as I was about to depart, Rob, Jan, and Steve emerged from their tents and were heading off to C2 for their summit bid. They appeared tired and were complaining about how much their bags weighed and how much kit they had to carry up to the next camp, which surprised me a little. I wished them well for their summit bid then set off on my own down to camp. Ended up losing the trail further down and had to walk through a difficult bolder field before reaching Base Camp, but in all it took about 3 hours so was back just in time for lunch! Back down, I checked in with Tim for the weather forecast but it wasn’t looking good in terms of high winds at the summit for the days we had planned (>100 kph) so unfortunately it looked like we might be down here a few days waiting for our window.
We spent most of the next morning outside with binoculars transfixed on watching the five dark dots (Rob, Jan, Steve and two Sherpas) contrasted against the white slopes, slowly ascending the mountain. Finally, at 1.30pm we heard on the radio they had reached the summit! I felt so happy for them, albeit a little jealous I wasn’t up there too already. I was sitting next to Tim in the mess tent when the news came through so heard Rob's voice crackle through to us on the radio - although he noted it had taken a long time for them to get up there they seemed in good spirits and were taking some photos before heading down to Camp 2. It was only the next morning we found out what had later happened on the way down; Steve had had trouble breathing after getting into C2 that evening and stopped breathing overnight. He’d been given some drugs for HAPE (to clear the fluid from his lungs) and the Sherpas had been down to C1 and back to collect oxygen and done chest compressions, but to no avail and sadly he passed away. It appears the pulmonary edema had come on quickly and there wasn’t anything more they could have done. There was absolute silence in the mess tent as this sunk in and we searched each other’s faces to make sense of what we had just heard. I just felt in shock – although Steve and I hadn’t been particularly close he had been friendly to me, and the news stirred by own sense of mortality.
Tim and Chris needed to sort out the logistics of extracting Steve from C2 and notifying his family, so most of us decided to head down to the bakery in Pangboche for the day to give them some space. As we walked down we saw a helicopter fly towards the camp. It’s too small an area to land a helicopter so instead his harness was attached to a winch and I watched, frozen to the spot with a wave of emotions flowing through me, as his body hung lifelessly on the rope below and was flown away above us.
Down at the bakery, some of the team started complaining we hadn’t got our weather window so the summit was out and I almost lost it; not only had someone just died and it was a time to reflect on that rather than personal goals, but I felt strongly that we were still lucky to be here on the mountain and should make the most of our time left. An expedition isn’t just about the summit but the journey itself. I walked back up to camp alone to get some head space and, lost in my own thoughts, ended up missing the turning to our Base Camp and arriving in another one! Luckily one of the Jagged Globe staff there pointed out the route across to ours which wasn’t too far away.
Rob and Jan arrived from C2 back to Base Camp that evening. I gave them both a big hug and sat next to Rob at dinner. They looked understandably shattered and hollow but Rob said despite the sadness they were also happy they all summited together. Tim had earlier phoned Steve’s daughter to let her know, and she had echoed this sentiment – that at least he’d died doing something he loved. It reminded me of the Abraham Lincoln quote: "And in the end it's not the years in your life that count; it's the life in your years."
I set off with Chris, James, and Bill late the next morning and we reached ABC just over 2 hours later (evidently the acclimatisation routine has helped as it was an hour quicker that the last ascent). All three were strong climbers and had spent a lot of time in the mountains previously so I relished talking to them about their experiences and getting advice, plus they were all great company! We had a break in one of the spare tents – chatting and eating - then carried on up to C2 across the bolder field and up the fixed ropes for a couple more hours. Still in a tent on my own and hadn’t got a jetboil for some reason, so I scrambled down to see James and Ed in their tent below later that evening. Both are former army men and their tent was unsurprisingly very organised and warm. They kindly boiled water for my Nalgene and fed me cheese, biscuits and hot tea! Felt a little jealous I don’t have a tent buddy to share the experience with and it was a bit lonely sitting in my tent alone afterwards with just my kindle for company.
Only six of us in the end decided to carry on to C2 – the rest elected to go back down and meet us back in Kathmandu in a few days’ time. I understood and respected their reasons; we all felt more vulnerable about our own mortality following Steve’s death but for the family men the reality of the risks involved had hit hardest. For others they were either feeling unwell or there was the realisation that the route to C2 was a stretch too far technically from their comfort zone. For me I wanted to carry on, not only to get more out of the experience but also to prove to myself that the mountain could be an affirmation of life rather than just a sentence of death.
The climb to C2 ended up being the best day of the trip so far. It was another sunny, though windier, day than before. Although very exposed in sections I felt well within my comfort zone, and enjoyed the parts where I had to use my scrambling and climbing skills. For a lot of it I was unsupervised (as I’d set off slightly behind the others) and it was a rush to feel alone up at 6000m, my fingertips clasping onto holds in the rock, huge drops below, but with my jumar or cows-tail on the fixed rope protecting me. Chris kindly hung back for the more tricky sections to make sure I was ok such as on a traverse (where I had to lean back on the rope and walk my way sideways across the rock on tiny footholds), around windy pinnacles covered in snow, or up the infamous Yellow Tower. I’d heard so much about this pitch that I was feeling quite nervous about tackling the 12 metre rock climb. As I approached I saw the others go up and over the lip one by one which gave me some confidence. Once I got on it, it was absolutely fine! Probably a HVS and I found plenty of footholds despite my boots so with the double jumars it wasn’t a difficult climb in the end. Only issue I found was getting a bit out of breath with altitude, however the couple of pauses midway provided opportunity for some selfies! After a few metres of scrambling after the top, I’d reached C2 at 6050m. It had taken about 3.5 hours and I was elated and really proud of myself for getting there.
C2 is such a unique place, an outcrop on top of a large tower with just 5 tents perched in-between the rocks. I felt very lucky to be able to experience it. I elected to share a tent with James on a flattish ledge below. He collected some snow (avoiding the yellow patches!) then I set about boiling it over our jet boil to fill our Nalgenes and make some pasta. It ended up being one of my favourite evenings of the trip – sitting in the tent chatting about climbing, adventures, and home. We even watched a film with jelly babies from our sleeping bags (although had to warm the ipad up every 30 minutes to keep it working!). At 1.30am I was awoken by rockfall, likely a combination of the lack of ice from recent warm weather and the strong winds - ominous given it would have been on the route we would have taken up to the summit around that time, and an Australian had died after being hit by rocks just a couple of weeks previously in the same spot. I reminded myself that getting to the top is only half the climb but getting back down safely is the main goal. Part of me of course had wanted to be on that summit, but in this instance there was no question about turning back given the risks involved.
We set off the next morning back down to Base Camp with some fun abseils back down to C1 (making sure we had a “buddy” check us before each one) then onto ABC. For some reason I struggled at this point – I’m not sure if it was the added weight or general tiredness but felt I had little energy. My teammate Martin walked with me however and we chatted along the way, which was really nice, eventually reaching Base Camp about 5 hours later in total. Descending 1400m, the air felt rich and saturated with oxygen so I soon felt better. Had a celebratory beer with Tim and the six of us remaining then packed up our bags ready to leave the next morning.
Over the next couple of days we trekked down to Kyangjuma, Namche Bazar (for a bakery visit and a couple of beers!) and onto Pangboche. The weather was looking bad so we elected to fly out of Lukla the next morning and it was an early (4.30am start) to get there in time. Again I lost the route as was at the back but James and Martin luckily had realised and came back to find me! If there’s one thing I’ve got from this trip it’s to stick with the others and focus on the route! 3 hours later we reached Lukla. Of course the yaks with our bags were no where to be seen and so we had some tea whilst they were retrieved, then spent another 3 hours sitting around the airport waiting for a flight (with no communication in the meantime as to what was happening or when we would be going – although my teammate Craig’s games of i-spy somewhat passed the time!). The flight itself back to Kathmandu was worth the wait though, with mountains peaking above the clouds and lush green fields below, not to mention finally getting back to the hotel and having the best hot shower after three weeks away. I relished the last few days in the city with the rest of the team, enjoying our downtime and decompressing after a tough expedition with a few “Everest” beers, iced coffees in Himalayan Java, tourist shopping in Thamel, and lazily lounging by the hotel pool.
It took a while for the impact of the expedition to sink in once I was back in London. Going straight back into work and with Christmas and New Year soon after it was some time before I could process how I felt about what had happened. Climbing any mountain brings with it its own risks, whether subjective (e.g. fear or weakness) or objective (e.g. hazards outside our control such as storms, avalanches, rockfall). This expedition certainly made me feel more vulnerable and reflect on why we climb despite this. I’m in a position without huge responsibilities at home and understand how my views may change in time, but for me I feel it can be answered threefold:
Firstly, understanding what is within your control and what is not is key. Subjective risks can be overcome and even objective ones can be largely mitigated by technical knowledge and training - spending time in the hills and mountains, practicing rope work and camping skills and honing a robust mental attitude, which allows a climber to anticipate and/or react quickly to hazards (especially when hypoxic!). The dangers may still remain but experience, contingency planning, and strength of character make these risks "calculated" and therefore acceptable to an individual.
Secondly climbing a mountain is a personal quest - one of self-knowledge, self-awareness, and discovery of what I’m physically and mentally really capable of. I believe that challenges and adversity are what really stretch and shape you as a person. As such, the journey becomes both internal as well as external. As the American writer, William Ward once wrote: "Risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing. He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he cannot learn, feel, change, grow or live. Chained by his servitude he is a slave who has forfeited all freedom. Only a person who risks is free." The novelist Jack London beautifully echoes this: "I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of a man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time".
Last but not least, there’s nowhere that makes me feel more happy and alive and allows me to put life into perspective; the breathtaking scenery is both beautiful and humbling yet the peacefulness in the air provides time and space to think clearly and prioritise. It’s also down to the incredible people you meet along the way – from the welcoming and humble mountain locals to the supportive teammates that I can now call friends. There’s a word in the Welsh language “cynefin” which means a place where a being feels it belongs, and for me that’s being in the mountains; no where else cements my passion and appreciation for life in the same way. Ama Dablam still remains in my thoughts and dreams and one day I’ll be back there again to climb its majestic slopes, hopefully to the very top. Perhaps George Mallory summed it up best when asked why he wanted to climb Everest: “What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.”