NEWSLETTERS - Manaslu 2013

Newsletter #1027 September 2013

From Russell:
"Apologies, I omitted Shinji Tamura who also reach the summit at 08.51 on 25th September."

5 days of our lifes

The expedition has suddenly shortened to 5 crucial days where the summit of Manaslu is now the ultimate goal and the main objective. Every team member will push far beyond his physical and mental limits. Far beyond where some would have expected when signing up for this wild dream, climbing Manaslu, an 8000m peak. But the magic spell with Russell's expedition is the delicate mix of a straight organisation and the care for each individual. A subtle combination indeed, but it has worked for more than 29 years now.

An impressive and well planned organisation to success

Climbing with Russell's company is somehow like being part of an orchestra. Location, partitions, musicians and instruments are planned months in advanced for the final representation. The logistics are impressive and the organisation is well planned. The weather seems to be the only random guest that ironically rules the life of the team and plays havoc with Russell's tight organisation. Camps are set long in advanced, Sherpas are sent to altitude to fix ropes and to put ladders over open crevasses... until a sudden avalanche buried everything under deep snow and massive blocks of ice and all this has to be set again to be ready for the summit attempt.

For days, the weather forecast has ruled the life of Base Camp. Every afternoon, Russell analyses the colourful charts and graphs depicting the evolution of the weather both at Base Camp and at altitude. A delicate task to determine the start of the expedition as the weather is constantly changing. This year, the weather window is early and short. 

The summit day is crucial. We may leave the camp in the rain to make sure that the summit day is the ideal one to ensure everyone's success. At dinner, Russell describes the lines and colour of the satellite photos over Nepal. We feel the tension of decision making as, once we have left the camp it is a 5-day plan that cannot be changed. Finally, the date is set. It will be the 19th September! The weather at Base Camp will still be grey but it promises to be a bright sunny summit day with no wind. Russell follows the lines of the graphs with his finger and warns that after summiting, the clouds and precipitation will close in on the mountain, and that all members have the be down to Camp 2 or Base Camp. A very long day in perspective after 4 days of ascent and a night climbing to the summit, but we are well acclimatised and ready to follow Russell's calculated climbing program.

En route for the summit

We're off again but this time for the summit. We leave the camp after an early lunch and head once more to Crampon Point.

We are in constant contact by radio with Russell at Base Camp, with Hiro, Shinji and Bruce our guides and with the Sherpas that are moving up with us. Each member has his own radio set and can call or be called at any time. One frequency is set at Base Camp and the crackle of the radio conversations slowly becomes part of our climb. 'Safety first' claims Russell at one of our briefings, 'you have to report where you are, when you leave and when you arrive at camps and also at some mile stone points like the Hour Glass.' For him, it is a great indicator of everyone's pace on the route.

The route to Camp 1 is completed within a few hours, it is routine for us now. One night there and we wind through the jumble of ice, hanging seracs and dark crevasses that block the way to Camp 2. It is a long day on a dangerous route. There are more ladders to cross this time as an avalanche has buried the initial route that had to be set again by the Sherpas. The pace is slow but steady. Bruce is leading the way ahead, Hiro is with the Japanese group and Shinji closes the track with the slowest. The radio cracks again as each member reports to Russell his arrival at Camp 2. Nothing is left to chance; the time is recorded in a large notebook where Russell meticulously records everything, from the serial number of your oxygen mask to the radio log and the rope fixing logistics. At mid-day, Shinji sends the message that we are all at Camp 2. The afternoon is spent preparing our bags with down suits and gear for Camp 3. The sun goes down over the peaks on the horizon and some kill time by listening to music or watching a film on their iPod.

7.00 am, the team leaves the Camp for a short day walk to Camp 3. Nima, our Doctor reports on the radio that he has just left Base Camp to Camp 1 to catch up with the Sherpas that are coming down for some rest. He is following us to the summit to be close to the team if Russell requests him for any emergency. Safety and efficiency are the main focus on that tight climbing schedule. Nima will finally meet us at Camp 2 and then climb directly to Camp 4 to catch up with us before successfully reaching the summit of Manaslu with all of us. A pretty impressive Mountain Doctor that always welcomes you with a bright smile when you need him.

Another day has gone by and Camp 3 is slowly reached in the afternoon. The long and impressive icy face that leads to the summit plateau higher up is glittering under the afternoon sun. Tension gets higher as we prepare the oxygen mask, the regulator and the cylinder for a very tough day above 7000m. Camp 4 is towering at one end of the large plateau and faces the summit on the opposite side. The route promises to be long, strenuous and the blue seracs that overhang the route will require confidence with the Jumar and on the fixed lines.

It was not a good night! Little sleep and lots of apprehension. We leave early all dressed in down suits, a cylinder in the rucksack and a Summit Oxygen mask on the face. We look like extraterrestrials moving in slow motion along the fixed ropes. The sun gently caresses the horizon and the moon is lazily sliding over the Tibetan sky. The decor is magically beautiful. As the route gets steeper the regulators are set to 2 liters oxygen per minute through the mask. The brand new system designed by Summit Oxygen delivers to the body the right flow of oxygen and ambient air when breathing in. There is no loss of oxygen during the breathing out process. The mask includes a hard and a soft shell that perfectly imbricates to fit the climber's face and its shape allows to comfortably wear goggles, which is often a major issue. 'Such a great help!' Fenton shouts at me during a brief stop on the slow ascent. It is indeed... and the teams that have left camp with no oxygen between Camp 3 and Camp 4 are struggling to keep the pace. An option that surely will cost the summit to some of them as they give their last strength on that very hard day...

Camp 4 at last! Such an exhausting day with fixed lines screwed over hanging glaciers, sheer icy trails, and steep slopes with hundred-metre heights. There was no place for mistake. Each step requires full attention and a maximum focus when changing the lines. Camp 4 is a superb spot above the clouds facing the snowy plateau that leads to the summit. The Sherpas, led by Purba, are sorting the oxygen cylinders for the following day and the ropes for the summit push. We leave at 3am on the 25th September!

The camp is shaking under the gloomy light of the head torches. 7450m and it is pitch black outside. We all had a short night wearing our down suit, our boots and breathing oxygen with the cylinder on one side. A quick change of the bottles. We put our crampons on. Ahead, Purba Tashi and our guide Hiro are breaking the trail for us followed by the stream of fading lights. It is a hard and strenuous work in half a meter snow, breaking the layer of crust, digging into the snow, making steps and fixing ropes and pickets on the steepest parts.

The sun finally comes up and the peaks light up in bright orange glows. The view over Nepal and Tibet is breathtaking. The weather is clear with no wind as predicted by Russell, the perfect conditions for our summit attempt. An ocean of snow-capped peaks unfolds across the valleys and the shadow of Manaslu slowly shapes the horizon. A breath of wind raises some snow crystals. At 8am, the team and each personal Sherpa reach the col just under the true summit. Purba, Ngawang and Bruce make a daring traverse to the instable pinnacle of snow that stands at 8163m. A platform is made, a line is fixed and all Himalayan Experience climbers step to the hanging cornice to memorize the moment. A radio call from Russell to compliment each of us and we all rush down to Base Camp, exhausted but so happy to have all made it.

Time to celebrate

Champagne, Whisky, music and plenty of Nepali dance the next day to celebrate our complete success with some other expedition teams. We were fairly drunk, surely happy, we went to bed too late and the headache that some did not experience at altitude hit them the next day.

Last words from Russell:
"This is our last newsletter. Fenton, Jeff, Rob and Susumu have already left by helicopter directly from Base Camp to Kathmandu. Tomorrow, the rest of the members will descend to Samagon and will fly with Simrik Air the following day. Hence the adventure, we will be over in a few days. Today loads were packed and the final dismantling of the camp will be carried out by the Sherpas once the members have left."