An out-of-the-ordinary Himalayan expedition
Autumn 2019 was unusual for the Himalayas. In Nepal, the best climbing seasons are post– and pre–monsoon – in other words, autumn and spring. This year, unfortunately, the monsoons persisted throughout the entire Himalayan range. This caused a range of problems for all of the expeditions, and not only our own.
Out of a total expedition time of 37 days, we only had three days of good, stable weather. In other words, just 72 hours without precipitation. These three aside, the best days were those when the rain stopped from evening until late morning and the skies cleared partially. It was not all bad news, though. The unstable weather meant that, even at high altitudes, temperatures never dropped too low nor was the wind ever too strong.
Our expedition had two objectives:
- The first was to reach the summit of Pangpoche, alpine style, via a new route up the north–west face, using the village of Samagoan (3500 m) as our base camp.
- The second (albeit in chronological order only) was Manaslu which, at 8161 m, is the eighth highest peak in the world. With Manaslu, the idea of a speed climb immediately came to my mind, which I saw as a logical development of what I had been doing in the Alps in recent years. Before me, Andrzej Bargiel completed the ascent on 25 September 2014, summiting and then descending (partially downhill on skis) in 21 hours and 14 minutes.
Our expedition began with some truly awful weather, setting the tone for the rest of the trek. We chose the shortest route for our approach. One day by jeep, followed by four on foot, taking us to the village of Samagoan, our base camp for the ascent of Pangpoche. We planned to climb the lower peak first, using it to acclimatise for Manaslu. We started exploring the Pangpoche area right away, with the idea of opening a route up the north face, heading in the direction of Manaslu. Yet, in the end, we decided that the north–west ridge would allow for a safer approach and immediately made this our goal.
With the rain falling down, we set off right away and brought part of our gear to the base of the ridge, at approximately 5100 m. We then descend to the village to rest for a couple of days and await good weather. Unfortunately, after several days without any improvement, time started to become an issue. At that point, we made a risky call and opted to turn our schedule on its head, ascending directly to Manaslu base camp and starting our acclimatisation on the normal route. Without further ado, we prepared our gear and on 13 September we were at base camp. The following day, we were already back out on the trail, climbing straight up to camp 2, at 6400 m. On 15 September, we got up to 6600 m before going back down to the base to rest. There was a lot of snow on Manaslu, but luckily conditions on the normal route were good. That said, there was absolutely no question of attempting another route. A week later, we had completed our acclimatisation, reaching 7200 m and sleeping at 6800 m. All that remained was to rest and wait for a window – even a brief one – of dry weather. At last, the weather gave us a helping hand, and an opening emerged for us on 26 September. Although the window of opportunity was short, excellent weather conditions were forecast for that day, with no wind, reasonably clear skies and favourable temperatures from midnight to the midday. It was on, and it was up to us to make the most of the chance.
Marco, Francesco and Emrik planned to set off on the morning of the 25 September, ascend to camp three, rest a while before leaving for the summit at midnight. Andy and I, on the other hand, would start at 9pm from base camp, aiming to summit the following morning.
At last, 25 September had finally arrived. Psychologically, it was really tough to see our companions set off while we stayed behind at base camp. During the day, my mind was consumed by a whirlwind of thoughts. Would I make it? And had I made the right call?
The evening finally arrived. We ate with my friend Mario Casanova, who was full of encouragement. We finished off our preparations and checked our gear for the umpteenth time, making sure that nothing had been forgotten. Leaving the tent, we headed for the chorten, tossing a handful of rice into the air to bring us good luck for the ascent. Looking up, we could see the stars out in the night sky. We bid farewell to Mario and made for the stone marking the resting place of the Iranian mountaineer Jafar Naseri, lying in the upper part of the base camp. As the only fixed reference point, we decided to time our ascent and descent from here.
We shook hands and started the stopwatch. We were off, with Andy taking the lead and me in close pursuit. Mario followed us both, taking photos and shooting videos. After a while, however, I could no longer make out his headlamp behind me. We set off at a good pace and after an hour we got to camp 1. Conditions were good – it wasn’t cold and, all things considered, it felt nice to be alone on Manaslu. We came up beneath the serac known as "The Eye". We cramponed up, had a drink and set off once again. In around two hours and fifteen minutes we made it to camp 2. As it was beginning to get cold, we decided to put on our warmer gear: down trousers and 8000 m boots, leaving our lighter boots behind. Andy picked up the pace, arriving around five minutes ahead of me at camp 3. By that point, we were running around one and a half hours ahead of schedule and had made good progress. We put on our high altitude down jackets and set aside some food and coca cola for our descent. We quickly reached 7000 m, at which point the wind suddenly picked up and things got a little more challenging. There was a great deal of snow and every gust felt like a blizzard. But the worst thing was that our path, which up until then had been perfect, was filling up with snow, forcing us to stamp it out again. With snow at times 20 or 30 cm deep, it made progress much more tiring.
Despite taking it in turns to tread out the path, we slowed down significantly. By the time we arrived to camp 4 (7400 m), all of the time advantage that we had built up had vanished. We are back in line with our schedule. We opted to climb the last section without our backpacks, leaving them behind at the camp. We climbed a first ramp and realised that dawn was on its way. There was a wonderful moment when, finally, we were able to make out the summit and, in the distance, our friends. It gave me a huge boost. Feeling in the zone, I picked up the pace to join up with Emrik and Francesco. We chatted briefly, had something to drink and set off again. My aim was to catch up with Marco who, a hundred metres or so ahead, had begun to take photos of me.
I stopped for a moment when I got to Marco and noticed that Andy had slowed down. I set off again with Marco, but kept turning around to look for Andy. I shouted a few words of encouragement, but the gap between us was only growing. I told myself that Andy was slowing down because it was his first time climbing at such high altitudes. Finally, things sorted themselves out when Andy got to Francesco and Emrik. Comforted by this, I relaxed. I would tackle the last 500 metres with Marco, while Andy – no longer on his own – would do the same with Emrik and Francesco. This sense of relief allowed me to focus on the task at hand. It wasn’t easy leaving Andy behind having climbed together for so long, but now the conditions were different and each person had to look out for themselves. I fell in behind Marco, who was setting an excellent pace. We were consistently managing 30 or 40 consecutive steps at a time, no mean feat at these altitudes. As we were coming up to the final ramp, I went ahead and took the lead. I was feeling good. I forced the pace a little to overtake a small group of climbers and Sherpas. Although Marco was a little behind, he was keeping up without any major difficulty. All of a sudden, I found myself on the final summit ridge. Ahead of me, I could see my friend Pemba along with two clients. As soon as he saw me, he dived into his suit and offered me a sip of his coke. Belaying his clients, Pemba let me pass – a priceless gesture at 8000 metres that ranks among the most special I have witnessed. By then, I was able to make out the summit. Pemba’s words of encouragement spurred me on as Marco, who was now on the ridge, started to take photos. This was it. I was counting each step in my head, as the ridge gradually topped out before me. Suddenly, I was in among a flutter of Tibetan flags. I had made it! I looked at my watch: it was ten o’clock on the dot. My journey from camp base to the summit had taken me thirteen hours. I turned around and, as I looked down, I took some shots of Marco and Pemba.
Marco was the first to arrive. We hugged. It was a wonderful moment, our second 8000–metre peak together. Pemba joined us and we took lots of photos. Feeling euphoric, we drank, ate and took in the moment. More than half an hour went by at the summit before Marco looked at me. He told me to get a move on and to start our descent! We said goodbye to Pemba and set off again, retracing our steps back along the ridge and down the final slope. To save energy, I sled down on my backside. At around 300 m from the top, I saw Andy, Francesco and Emrik. I spurred them on, telling them they were almost there, and to grit their teeth for the final push. I asked Andreas how he was doing. "It’s okay now" he replied in French "Ça va maintenant, je suis avec le copain, descends tranquille". We exchanged a brief glance, we hugged and off I went again!
I descended swiftly to camp 4, but from that point on my feet began to ache. My progress down to camp 3 seemed slow. I went into the others’ tent, I grabbed my gear, had a drink of coke and set off again. My feet were sore. It felt as if time was standing still. Finally, I made it to camp 2. I changed my boots and had something to eat. It seemed as if my feet were feeling better. All things considered, I was making good progress. I pressed on, telling myself that I was almost home and that I needed to tough it out. From time to time, I even managed to run a little. Heartened by this, I started to descend at an even quicker pace. It started to rain. Soaked to the skin, I had to get down. I reached C1 but I didn’t stop, carrying on to the end of the glacier, where I removed my crampons. I was almost there! Walking quickly but carefully – I had no intention of risking a fall and injuring myself at this juncture – I broke into a run when I saw the first tents. I finally arrived at the memorial stone. I stopped the clock at 17 hours and 43 minutes.
Soaked to the skin and cold, I set off once more. When I got back to the camp, I headed straight for the kitchen tent – the warmest in the camp! As I entered, everybody was staring at me, with stunned looks upon their faces. "Back already?" I guess they were thinking to themselves. They gave me some coffee and I began to warm up. Mario came in and pulled me towards him for a hug. "Do you have any idea what you’ve just gone and done?" he asks. "Can't say that I do", I reply. "All I know is that I'm freezing and need to eat". The cook put some potatoes on and Tashi, the head of our agency, turns up with a crate of beers. The party kicks off. I’m beginning to feel better already as a big crowd of Sherpas arrives. Everyone is hugging me. Another three hours or so go by and then, all of a sudden, Marco walks in. We hug and drink a few more beers. At around 6:30pm, Andy arrives. We change and eat as we await the arrival of Emrik and Francesco for one more toast before getting stuck into a delicious cake decorated with the words "Manaslu summit". The best thing about this adventure was sharing it with a special group of friends who met every challenge with a smile!
Happy as we were, it dawned on us that it wasn’t over yet: Pangpoche lay in wait.
To be continued...