The Account on June 3
June 17, 2009, 1925hrs, Kathmandu
I was peering down from my comfy seat at 2nd floor of the Food Court. The bustling street of Thamel, a popular touristy district at downtown Kathmandu, has never ceased... rickshaw peddler touting for passengers, shopkeepers gawking their products for last-minute buyers before, cars and motorbikes honking at each other, and live bands checking their sound system from pub-rooms across the streets, commencing the night-life of Kathmandu's most lively district.
There were 6 of us. But, Jenny and Kumaran flew back to Singapore yesterday, and this morning Hui Yun, Hui Xin and Su Ling went for canyoning. I excused myself though. I prefer to be alone as I can then spend my time contemplating upon the trip. Slowly my mind is drifting back to that a particular date throughout our 18-day adventure in Khumbu wilderness. Two weeks have passed since then, but I can still vividly remember moment-by-moment that fell on that eventful day.
June 3, 2009
0000hrs, Island Peak Basecamp (5089m)
I had been trying to sleep for the past 5 hours, but the most I could get was just a 2-hour of restless sleep. For most of the time, I just lied there, eyes closed, sometimes half-awake... so much thought was in my mind... Would the weather be good up there? Had I carried enough water for the team? Have I packed the repair kit? Which pocket did I keep the extra batteries?... and the excitement too. Kumaran, my tent-mate were more or less shared the same insomnia problem. Probably both of us were just too excited for the summit push. And the wake-up call came!!!
Tea and breakfast were served. No hot water to wash the face. Nobody cared anyway. We were all busy for last minute check and re-check. The night was starless, but once a while the moon peeped down from openings among the clouds. Albeit windless, I could feel the chilling cold of the night air penetrating through my 3-layer garments nonetheless.
The journey started. The summit push. All 1-year of training was meant for this very day. It would be 1000m over ascent to the peak, and we had to be there before noon to avoid going back in the dark. As Jenny was experiencing problem with altitude and walked the slowest, we decided to let her with Pasang (our climbing Sherpa) and Kabit (our doctor-guide) form an advanced team and moved 15-minute ahead of the main team, while the rests of us with Tenzeeng (our Sirdar) and Jangbu (our Sherpa leader) were in the main team. As such, we all would reach the crampon point altogether at the same time.
It's a gentle slope, but long way up. Under the cover of darkness, I couldn't see much. Every time I looked down, it's as if the darkness engulfed the beam of light from my head-lamp. Kumaran was experiencing some discomfort with his heavy boot, but I knew he could keep up. Jenny was doing very well. I could see her head-lamp (or probably the guides' headlamp) was always dancing in a dark pitch night ahead of us (reminded me of a firefly). Su Ling was obviously very excited. No sign of breathlessness problem that she experienced 3 days ago. Okay. Everyone is in good spirit tonight, I nodded satisfactorily.
Overall I felt that the our pace was quite fast and we were progressing pretty well. 2.5 hours to reach the High Camp (5600m), then the terrain started to change. It's getting steeper and more treacherous with sharp-edged rocks, zig-zag-ing around the contour range. But the good thing was the sky was getting brighter (FYI, it is summer in Nepal, hence first light appears at about 4.30 AM and the day would last till almost 8 PM). The clouds were clearing up and we could start to see the sillhoutte of the mountain ranges surrounding Island Peak. It was another 2.5 hours hard and steep climb before we finally reached the crampon point, which from then on we would have to put on our snow gears.
Resting for a while, I glanced up. By then the morning sun was already up. The sky was almost cloudless, except for a few patches of cumulus at the distance. Seems like gonna be a good day, I thought. I stared down. I remember the first thought that came to my mind was, Oh, we have climbed so much in the dark. Indeed we were already quite high, probably about 5900over meters. I could see Imja Tsho (tsho = lake)... it looked so small from this angle... and our base camp were somewhere nearby the lake, thus our base-camp had to be somewhere down there. We gonna have a long way down after the climb..., I noted, but quickly put aside the thought. There was a commotion among the girls about finding a toilet spot. The so-called crampon point was nothing but a narrow ridge connecting the rocky terrain to the snow terrain of the mountain. It's a few hundred meters drop on both side, thus made finding a hidden toilet spot a difficult task. I didn't bother though. It shouldn't be my business, should I? =P
"Did you see my crampon bag?"... "Bring along your helmet!" (I think that was Jangbu's voice)... "Don't look here!!" (should be one of the girls I guess). I put on my snow-boots, but then I remember that I left my rucksack on the other side. I hastily went over to other side to retrieve my bag, absentmindedly and regrettably bashing Hui Yun's knee along the way, which I didn't even realize in the first until she lodged a complain. Purely my absence-of-mind. Fortunately, nothing happened to her. A mountaineer can't afford to make such blunder., I made a mental note to myself later on.
Standing at the edge of the crampon point. We lined up along the main rope, securely fastened to our harnesses. Crampons were fixed to our boots , ice axe ready at hand. There were 2 groups. Jangbu - Su Ling - Hui Yun - me - Kabit, we shared one main rope and we moved first. The rests shared the other main rope. I can't remember the sequence in the second group. I think it should be Pasang - Hui Xin - Jenny - Kumaran - Tenzeeng. Up the mountain slope there we went.
The slope wasn't very difficult, a little bit of up and down. We didn't have much difficulty and we could still progress relatively easily. Then we reached our first major obstacle: two crevasses about 1-1.5m wide each, gaping wide-open on the ground, as if ready to devour any careless climber. What made thing difficult was that that the 2 crevasses lied next to each other, separated by a flat ground about 2m wide. We had to make a leap over the crevasses consecutively, making use the flat ground in between as some sort of stepping stone. Jangbu crossed the first crevasse, set a snow achor to secure himself. Then Pasang was to cross the first crevasse, secured himself, and helped Jangbu got over the second crevasse, set another anchor and secured himself. So now, Jangbu was on the other side of the 2 crevasses, while Pasang was ready at the in-between flat ground, both are secured to the anchors. After that each of us took turn to jump over the crevasses under the watch of our guides. Not much of a problem. This obstacle we had anticipated long ago.
What we never anticipated, however, was that the suppose-to-be-1-hour journey from crevasse point to the ice wall took us full 3 hours to traverse. After we crossed the crevasses, we could immediately see the peak within walking distance from where we were. However, the snow condition was bad. Real bad! We expected little snow (it was summer after all, we thought most of the snow would have melted by then); we found thick soft powder-like snow. Whatever snow storm the befell on this place recently have wiped out any trail made by previous expeditions. We had to break a new trail. And at such snow condition, breaking a new trail was a super long ardous labor as every step we made we were buried knee-deep. Even Jangbu could only progress a few steps before he soon got exhausted. I was stumbled upside down on a slope as a result of my crampons getting caught in the snow. I had to dig deep to get to the frozen layer, kick my crampon firmed to the ice for good grip, balance and hoist myself up with Khabit and Hui Yun pulling me... sigghhh...
The sun went up high in the sky. Its reflection on the surrounding snow, combined with the chilling high-altitude wind, gave a uncomfortable cold-burn sensation on my face. But, even more disturbing to my mind, was the change in the mood of the team. Nobody spoke anything, but I could feel that everyone's struggling with their steps. By then, Jangbu was already so exhausted that Kabit had to replace him breaking the trail (later, back in base camp, Kabit admitted that it was the most tiring day in his life).
The worst was yet to come. As we scaled up, I kept on looking up to the peak (probably as a mean to push myself, It is just there. A little bit more, I told myself subconsciously). At the same time I couldn't help but to notice that clouds were amassing above us. My guess was that the hot morning sun had evaporated snow from the surrounding giant peaks, forming a low-hanging-over-the-surface clouds, before the wind swooped them down toward us. It was no longer a clear blue sky. And before we fully realized when it started, we were engulfed by a white-out.
Now I fully grasp what it means by being in a white-out... and how scary it can be. Immediately the visibility went down to about 50m. I couldn't see the summit any longer. I was disoriented, unable to judge the distance, unable to tell ground from sky, mountain face from cliff. The only way I could do was just to follow the trodden footstep, guided by the main rope. Temperature plummeted, and worse still, it started snowing.
Then we finally the reached the ice wall. It's a 100-over-meter, 70-80 degree steep wall. It was the 2nd and most major obstacle of this expedition. The original plan was for the guides to advance first to fix the rope and we would slowly scale up the wall, with the help of the fixed rope. Once we reached the top of the wall, it would be a relatively easy walk along the ridge-line to the summit. But there was no way we could climb that bloody ice wall in this kind of weather. And the snow condition would not get any better up there, possibly even worse. And I think we all somehow knew this long before Jangbu finally ordered us to stop and get a quick rest before he was going to ask us to make a decision.
I recoiled the rope so that I could get near to Hui Yun who was in front of me, then my heart sank as I literally sank in to the snow. We were just beside the ice wall, about 150m short from summit. I remembered a story in the Bible when Jesus calmed the storm, and I made a silent pray that a miracle would happen with the weather this time.
Alas! It didn't. In fact, it worsened. The snow got heavier. Then Jangbu explained the situation. I didn't really pay much attention to what he said, except that his last sentence, that we had to make a decision quickly weather to continue up or head back down, rang hollow in my mind for quite some time. It's a rhetoric question, because obviously we all knew the answer. But I just simply refused to accept that we have spent the whole night climbing in the dark, and suddenly it came to naught, when we were so close to the summit. Already I was deep in my own thought...
6050m above sea level.
Late morning local time.
We had to continue... We could still go as planned... No!! We would freeze ourselves to death if we wait here for the guide to set up the fixed rope. We had to keep on moving somehow... Wait!!! Probably we can somehow scale up the wall together. Help the guide fix the rope... Cannot! Too dangerous. We are too inexperience to handle this situation... We can! We have to! Those who are confident can continue up, those who are not can head back with 1 guide... Nonsense!! Out of option!! The team must remain together no matter what. Besides, who wants to head back...
... so much conflicting thoughts, I can remember, were swirling in my mind at that moment. It's like... a part of me screaming and kicking to get me up there... but somehow, my rationale told me to go otherwise. And, I was just like that for quite sometime I guess. I was quite oblivious to my surrounding... until, Hui Yun's voice sort of snapped me up back to reality. She sounded calm (I admire her for her self-control in such situation... worthy of an MIR leader). I recall she said something about being proud of ourselves for being able to get up there, and we should give ourselves a clap. It was a silent clap though, as I could see Kumaran and Hui Xin clapping, but I didn't hear any sound, and absentmindedly I followed them clapping.
But, I guess, it was either the tingling numb sensation of my palms hitting against each other... or probably, a result of a snow-flake that, I remember, dropped in between my eye and my sunglasses... but at that moment I was able to overcome my emotion, got fully back to my senses, and started to analyze our situation. What's the chance the weather will get better? Slim!... Is there any possibility of us going up at this weather? Can give it a try.... But even if we can reach the top, so what? We'll see nothing... But going back down will be dangerous if the weather worsen...
Then I remember Su Ling asked whether we could try another summit attempt. Jangbu didn't really give a definite answer, but from his voice I know today was definitely not our day. Even if we forced our way up, the guides would simply refuse to bring us for our own safety, even though they probably could do it themselves. After all, our safety was their main concern. They probably didn't want to say no explicitly because we were customers, and I didn't want to put them in difficult position either. So I made up my mind (at least for myself), and now the main issue was to get down as soon as possible before the snow wiped the trail out.
I made sure that the team had their rest and eat something from their packed lunch, although none had the appetite apparently. I thought I had to say something... some words of encouragement... something to break the silence to the very least. Strangely, I could hear my own shaky voice. Was it because of the cold?... or the emotion? I said something about the weather not being in our control... I called their name one by one, and congratulate them for their feats. Indeed, I was and am still very proud of them. Hidden behind their snow-goggles or sunglasses, I couldn't see their expression... or guess what's inside their mind. I just hoped that it's going to work.
We took a group photo with the banner and NUS flag at that very spot. Kumaran took another shot with NUS Medical flag. Then we started our journey. It's a tough journey down; tougher than going up in my opinion. The rocks had become very slippery because of the snow. After passing the crampon points, we walked separately, each at his/er own speed. Su Ling and Pasang rushing down ahead, followed closely by Hui Xin, Kumaran and Jangbu. I walked alone way behind them, still thinking of our failed summit attempt. Kabit, Hui Yun, Jenny and Tenzeeng were way behind me.
I reached back the Base Camp. I changed my attire and lied motionless inside my tent. Exhausted, Kumaran was sleeping beside me. I was also tired but somehow I couldn't sleep, still thinking of the summit attempt.
That evening was probably the gloomiest dinner we ever had throughout the expedition. Jenny and Hui Yun skipped dinner. The guides were quieter than usual. Even Tenzeeng, somewhat upset, also skipped the dinner. Exhausted... disappointed... upset... a mixed feeling, I couldn't really guess what's in everyone's mind. I myself was happy enough that we all managed to get back to base camp safely, after such long treacherous going down. My bum was still painful after so many falls on the way down.
I wanted to discuss with the team what we should do next, but we decided to postpone it till the next morning as not all of us were present. Over the night I paid close attention to the weather whenever I went outside the tent. It was definitely more cloudy than the night before. Hidden behind the mist, I couldn't see the peak.
June 4, 2009. 0930hrs.
That morning, during breakfast, we discussed weather we should try another summit attempt. Kumaran and Su Ling wanted to go up again. Jenny wanted to get down, as low as possible, as quickly as possible. Hui Xin couldn't really make up her mind yet. Hui Yun was OK with anything. I took a long look once final time over to the looming peak above our base camp. It was still hidden behind the thick grey cloud. God only knows what's happening behind that cloud... it's probably snowing there, or even worse... but it could also be a clear blue sky above that cloud. I consult my barometer watch. The pressure has reached its lowest point. We were probably at the so-called eye of the storm, which meant an impending bad weather was on its way. The last thing we needed now was being trapped in the Base Camp, neither going up nor down. I made up my mind.
It turned out that it was snowing heavily that very night, except that we were now comfortably safe inside our sleeping bag, back at Chukhung ^_^