Ama Dablam, a gorgeous, perfectly shaped, iconic mountain in Nepali Himalaya, towering at 6812m or 22,349ft, seen from every step of the popular Everest Base Camp trek. A mountain of my recen
Ms. Olga Dobranoski Ama Dablam SOLO EXPEDITION
Ama Dablam, a gorgeous, perfectly shaped, iconic mountain in Nepali Himalaya, towering at 6812m or 22,349ft, seen from every step of the popular Everest Base Camp trek. A mountain of my recent trainings, preparations and dreams, countless nights in my Hypoxico tent at home to get pre-acclimated prior to my solo expedition.
Ama Dablam. All it takes is everything I have. But then the Cyclone Fani came.
I reached the Ama Dablam Base Camp on April 27, 2019, on the third day after I flew in to Lukla. Ama Dablam base camp is a huge, comfortable, grassy meadow from where, you have an amazing, unobstructed views of Ama Dablam. I set up my tent and went to collect water from the nearby stream. I boiled it really well to kill possibly any Ecoli or any other living organisms that are usually not gut friendly and then I made my Italian steak and pepper dinner. If I served it on a fancy china a with a glass of wine, you would never guess that it is a dry freeze dinner from Mountain House. I then made some tea for my thermos, sat back, relax and was ready to admire the views. Ama Dablam means “ mother’s necklace” in Sherpa language: two ridges on each side like the arms of a mother protecting her child, and the hanging glacier in the center, which looks like a classic pendant worn by Nepalese women. After staring at photos of Ama Dablam for months, I have been waiting for this moment when I can finally see it up close, in person. Except... I could not see anything. Thick clouds covered the entire mountain that day. I kept waiting and waiting and staring in the clouds and yet, nothing.
The next morning I tried to pack all my gear into my biggest pack, it did not fit. It wasn’t even close. I strapped a summit pack onto my backpack and I strapped my tent and more gear outside my pack. I looked like a crossover between a camel and a climber's Christmas tree. I tried to lift it up and nearly collapsed. Few Sherpas were standing nearby and looking in disbelief. “Even if I have to crawl to camp 1, I will get there”- I thought. And I did. It was a long and heavy day though. The trail initially follows an easy grassy path crossing river, meadows; slowly becoming more and more rocky; then turn into a giant boulderfield and finally, the last 150m is scrambling broken slabs just before reaching camp 1.
Camp 1 is less comfortable than the base camp. It fact, it really sucks. The tents are set on tiny ledges on a broken slab. You have to scramble to get from one tent to another. Some of the best sites are occupied by “permanent” tents set up by big expedition companies for their clients. I was thankful that my MSR tent is small and can fit anywhere. You have to search high and low between rocks to find clean snow or ice to melt for water. It gets dark and cold around 6:30PM so I crawled into my sleeping bag with my thermos with hot Chamomile tea, hot water Nalgene bottle to keep me warm and all my electronics to keep them warm. I sent few InReach updates to family and friends. Once I warmed up my hands, I put a pulse -oximeter on my finger. Surprisingly good numbers- I thought. I am at 19000 ft elevation or 5800m. I arrived here 4 days after arriving to Nepal, without climbing any big mountains recently. My only protection is my fitness training and having sleeping in Hypoxico tent every night for 4 weeks prior to my expedition. The physician in me says: “This is not safe. You would not recommend such a fast ascent profile to anybody. You may develop HACE or HAPE and not wake up”. The researcher in me says: “This is cutting edge technology, this is the future of high altitude climbing. You have to experiment it on yourself.“ Since I felt really good, had no signs of altitude illness, I listened to the latter and fell asleep.
The next day was a much needed rest day. I spent it taking pictures, refueling and rehydrating.
On April 30, my third day on the mountain, I set off to move to camp 3. It is not much elevation gain but it contains the most technical rock climbing of the entire mountain including Yellow Tower. The rock climbing was fantastic: some of the best quality granite and movements I have ever done on elevation. The rock was dry.The day was warm, partly cloudy and no wind. Almost perfect. In fact, it was a perfect rock climbing weather and I would have enjoyed so much the freedom that comes with rock climbing if it was not for that bittersweet 60 pound weight on my back throwing me off balance. During my breaks, I contemplated my options: abandon it, kick it and watch it fall down the mountain, haul it using the fixed line or suck it up. If you know me, you know I again opted for the latter. The big, double, mountaineering boots were not helping the few precise movements. When I got to the Yellow Tower, I clipped my binner to the fixed line for questionable, marginal protection. “If I fall, at least I do not fall off the mountain”- I thought. Camp 2 is located in the tippy top of the Yellow Tower. You have to look at the pictures to actually believe it. If you thought camp 1 was somewhat challenging, the mountain is going to challenge you even more at camp 2. After I found my microscopic tent ledge overlooking the cliff, I had to spend a good hour securing my tent to anything around so I would not roll off the cliff. I was thinking “living on the edge” every time I was getting in and out of my tent. Let me be honest, I will not be buying real estate property here. I briefly socialized with few fellow climbers and set for my afternoon routine. It’s even more challenging here, at camp 2 to find clean snow for water, and at this elevation, it takes a lot more time, fuel, and energy. However dehydration is your biggest enemy, in fact you have to drink more than at sea level because of much increased insensible losses. A night at this elevation is usually not a blissful good night sleep. You wake up at least few times a night to pee, drink, toss around, put on extra layers, take off layers, move all the electronics around your sleeping bag, etc. One of the first altitude adaptation symptom is increased respiratory rate, which makes our body more alkalotic; in turn, the body wants to balance it out by increasing urination. I did not take any Diamox during this trip (altitude medicine that is a diuretic) but I still peed like a horse. You don’t get out of the tent to pee, you pee in a bottle instead. There are different “she wee” type of devices for us women to make it feasible. The cycle would usually go: I wake up, pee in a bottle, drink some hot tea, cough a little or listen to others cough (“Khumbu cough” is a very common phenomen in Everest region), move some electronics from underneath me, fall back asleep. Sleep few hours, wake up, cycle repeats.
The next day was acclimatization, rest, rehydration, making friends kind of day. The clouds burned out by the evening and we got to watch one of the most gorgeous sunsets.
I kept looking up at the couloir mixed section above the camp 2. “It looks hard”- I thought. It looked hard and intimidating. “Is that why people say that Ama Dablam is harder than Everest?”- I have heard that from many people who climbed both. Obviously Everest is higher elevation, but requires less technical climbing, and when climbed with supplemental oxygen, maybe it is easier?
On my day 5 on the mountain, May 2, I got up at 4AM and climbed to just above the camp 3. I wanted to practice the mixed climbing section during the daylight. The Great Couloir and the Mushroom Arrete (very exposed but easy traversing) are two distinct features during this day climb. It was such a relief to only carry a day pack. It was a calm, sunny, perfect day. It fact, it would have been a perfect day for a summit bid. On my way down back to camp 2, I chatted with three Russian climbers and their two Sherpas who were moving up to camp 3 to spend the night there and start their summit bid from camp 3. Up until that day, no one has summited Ama Dablam this season yet. Many people tried and turned around and got weathered off. In fact, the fixed lines were not yet finished to the summit and most climbers climbing Ama Dablam rely 100% on fixed lines.
On May 3, 2019, my day 6 on Ama Dablam, I got up at 1AM and brew some coffee, ate few bites, pack my summit backpack and started climbing at 2AM. The initial section was familiar since I climbed it the day before, now done with a headlamp, it almost was going faster. I reached camp 3 at dawn. Took few sips of hot tea, reset my altimeter that was going crazy and kept going. It was very windy, I noticed, and was getting increasingly colder and winder the higher I got. I stopped to put on my expedition down jacket, to change my gloves and add hand warmers. From now on, I will only be climbing ice and steep snow, no more touching wet, cold rock. I was staying mostly warm but it was harder and harder to walk straight up in the wind.
I had few crevasses to cross. Unfortunately, with recent warm, sunny days, the snow bridges were deteriorating and collapsing very quickly. I approached the first crevasse and probed with my ice axe. Soft, collapsing snow, not supportive, not good at all. I looked down into the black abyss. A fall would be fatal. If you’re jumaring the fixed line, it’s less of a concern, however if you’re free climbing or are clipped into a rope with only a binner, than it could be a serious problem. I knew from my experience, that if I fall roped into a crevasse, I have more chances extricating myself quickly if I have a pre-rigged rope ascender. Without hesitation, I clipped my ascender to the fixed rope both times crossing open crevasses. Safety first.
By the second crevasse crossing, I caught up with the Russian climbers. They let me pass. They were jumaring the ropes but looked very tired. They started at 2AM from camp 3, the same time I started from camp 2.
The last 200m before the summit I was seriously struggling with the wind. I looked up and the clouds were moving crazy fast over the summit, almost swirling. What the heck?-I thought. It was not until later that day that I found out about the Cyclone Fani. I didn’t get the weather warning. Cyclone Fani hit the Everest region on May 3 at 11AM. I stood on the summit that day at 11:45AM. On the summit, there were only two Sherpas who just finished fixing the lines and set up the summit anchor. I was very thankful for their hard work to keep everybody safe. I immediately clipped in myself and my pack into the anchor. Otherwise, I’m sure I would get blown off the mountain. I felt exhilarated and happy. I made it! I was one of the first persons to summit Ama Dablam this season. It was a very special moment for me and yet, I didn’t really have time to enjoy the summit. Now my job was to safely descend as quickly as possibly. “Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory”- I reminded myself again.
I grabbed few summit photos, shared some hot tea I have left with the Sherpas and started descending. For safety, I clipped my binner to the fixed line and use a hand wrap technique. The snowstorm rolled in very quickly and it was almost zero visibility. The wind never ceased. In long four hours I reached my tent in camp 2. My initial plan was to pack and go down to camp 1 but I quickly realized it will not be possible in these conditions. It will soon get dark; I have been climbing for 14 hours in very hard conditions, and it will be easy to make a mistake or a false move in these conditions. I stayed for the night in camp 2 but it was not a peaceful, restful night. The blizzard continued and with every wind gust it seemed like my tent was going to rip. I had to force myself out of the tent, back into the blizzard, to melt snow to make some tea. It is a hard call between wanting to stay warm in the sleeping bag and the need to rehydrate. I also run out of food. I had some emergency bars left but no warm food to make. My extra stash of food was at camp 1 but I did not make it there. I finally settled in my sleeping bag to get some rest. Many delayed InReach messages started coming in. “Are you in the base camp yet?”, “Are you rushing down to get off the mountain?”, “ I am very concerned”, “I hope you know about the Cyclone Fani” etc. Well, that is how I found out about the Cyclone Fani. Perhaps it is a good thing I did not get the memo on time. There is no way I would have gone up knowing that a cyclone is about to hit this region and my mountain.
The next morning, I woke up to 4-5 inches of fresh, wet snow, which made the rock slippery wet, almost impossible to downclimb with my huge backpack. The snow storm continued with strong wind and poor visibility, it was difficult to find the trail and the footing, but I was very much alert and focused. It was a slow downclimb, I was being extremely careful and meticulous. At times, I was almost crawling. The fact that I didn’t break my leg or twist my ankle is a miracle. I descended to camp 1, then to the base camp and then, after being joined by my porter, down to Pengboche. A very long day.
From the base camp, knowing that I am back down to safety, I looked at the mountain one last time.
After all, Ama has been kind to me, she has allowed me a safe passage despite the blizzard and the cyclone; she has allowed me the summit and the safe return home. I thanked her for that and offered some blessed wild rice I got for her from Lama.
The technical aspect of the climb was fulfilling, intricate and dedicated, everything I had hoped for.
I was proud to be one of the first people to summit this season. I was proud to have done it rope solo and unsupported. My mini scientific experiment with Hypoxico tent worked: I submitted Ama Dablam on the 6th day on the mountain or 9th day after arriving to Nepal, without use of any altitude medications and without getting any altitude illness.
Ama Dablam. All it took was everything I had, and some more. And the Cyclone Fani.