THE WEEKLY #274: SUMMIT PUSH ON MANASLU

A couple of days at basecamp to sit idle served us well. Clouds, rain, and snow passed through intermittently until our summit window appeared and we were told to pack and get ready for our Manaslu summit push. Our plan was to sleep at Camp 1, Camp 3, and Camp 4 and then come all the way back down to base camp on the same day as we summited.

Heading back up to Camp 1 felt like a route I knew well by now. It was my third time and the easiest climb up to the first camp of Manaslu with favorable weather conditions. The first climb was a snowstorm and the second climb was searingly hot. This time, the journey from base camp to Camp 1 was in overcast conditions and at a very slow pace, we traversed our way through the crevasses to reach our sleeping station for the night in four hours.

We woke to snowed-over tents and a quiet buzz in the air. Slowly the crisp snow fell off the tents to reveal a colorful garden of temporary homes beneath the towering wall of white snow. Our journey to Camp 3 would be a long, hard day. The route included numerous technical sections of jumar, crevasses, ladders, and steep inclines. Most of our team took 6-7 hours to reach Camp 3.

This was a tough day for me. I had never touched Camp 3, so climbing up all the way from Camp 1 in a single day applied a lot of pressure on my body. Camp 3 is almost at 7000m and I developed a slight headache and some stomach issues that gave me quite a battle through the night, even with some vomiting outside of the tent. Luckily, the plan was to get started on the oxygen in the morning for the climb to Camp 4, which was at 7,400m. As we left Camp 3, I did my best to keep shooting despite the heavy fog and blizzard conditions and my weakened state. What I didn’t know is that this is one of the most beautiful campsites on the route, we just couldn’t see further than a few meters. On the way back down from the summit, it was clear as day and I could appreciate the backdrop of Camp 3.

From Camp 3 to Camp 4, there weren’t too many technical sections to encounter. Instead, it felt like a very slow, long slog up an extremely steep slope. There was no express route, just a slow trudge, ascending upon an aggressive angle with a long line of other climbers. This was a mentally challenging day as you could see exactly where you were headed and it seemed as if it would take forever. 

Snowy winds rocked us from the right side. Luckily, we were in our summit suits already and felt ready to handle conditions exactly like that. The climb up involved continual experimentation of open flaps, closed flaps, hood on, hood off and multiple adjustments of gear until we reached Camp 4. It seemed real now. Camp 4 sits beneath a little peak of its own and is directly at the bottom of the ridge that leads up to the summit. 

Arriving in the early evening meant we had a quick window to fly the drone for an aerial perspective of the camp. We then had some noodles and made all of our gear arrangements in the tents. Sleeping three to a tent, wedged in with all of our gear while hooked up to oxygen bottles as we slept made for an interesting night of sleep. Surprisingly I managed to collect 5-6 hours of shut-eye, which was great fuel for a big summit day to follow. 

I’d been hooked into the oxygen for almost 20 hours by the time we woke up at 2 am for our summit push. Never having used oxygen before, I was surprised at just how much impact it had. While at Camp 3, I was unsure if I could make it up any further. Once plugged into the oxygen tank, I felt that only a natural disaster or a big mishap could stop me from summiting as everything felt perfect. 

At 2 am we began to fumble around in our tents, grabbing gear and organizing cameras. All the while still connected via a tube to our oxygen tanks like hospital patients. It’s actually quite complicated and hard to move about when you need to shuffle the tank in conjunction with your every move. 

It’s not an easy job putting on crampons, tying up boots, selecting gloves, and arranging all of my batteries and cameras in areas where they wouldn’t freeze. Normally getting ready can take a few minutes while trekking but on summit day, finishing up within an hour is an achievement. By quarter to three, we were ready to roll and began our long walk up the summit. 

Our expedition was split with half on oxygen and half attempting a no-oxygen summit. Unfortunately, part of our job was to document those who weren’t on oxygen. This means we were at a dramatically slower pace than felt possible for us while we were breathing freely from our tanks as our compatriots suffered heavily. It meant that to make our photography and videography work happen, we had to suffer in the cold at a very slow pace shooting the no-oxygen climbers. We ended up being the last group to summit that day but all is well that ends well.

The route to the summit is not technical at all and we didn’t clip in once on the rise to the top except for the very final summit ridge. It’s a constant ascent that gives you no respite from the very steep climb. The undulation only allows you a peek at the summit after you have completed three-quarters of the climb so you must blindly push on until that point.

The sunrise was a beautiful, hazy purple, giving a soft glow to the plentiful peaks of the Himalayas. Shooting the pre-sunrise periods was my favorite of the morning and at that stage, we were still a long way off the summit. 

Eventually, our team leader allowed us to push on away from the no-oxygen climbers and we climbed our way up to the plateau below the summit ridge. The weather was perfect with a strong sun and no wind making it a comfortable morning. I had my gloves off at the summit ridge and was able to take it all in rather than battling to survive amidst a snowstorm. Here we waited for our group to catch up and used the time to attempt a drone flight above 8000m. 

The drone didn’t take to the first two batteries, complaining they were too cold. But third time lucky the drone finally took flight and I was able to capture some unique angles of Manaslu Mountain. Many of the angles actually show distinctly the true summit of Manaslu, which has become a popular topic of debate amongst mountaineers who argue that most climbers stop before the actual summit. The actual summit appears to be five to ten meters higher than the regular summit most climbers stop at. This year a number of climbers built a precarious line down and around the regular summit and then up to the true summit, which will surely cause even more debate amongst those who hold records and compete within the mountaineering world. For me, it was just a great drone flight and journey to the summit, whether it is true or false, higher or lower. It felt pretty damn high to me.

Finally, our team arrived and we headed off to the summit while they waited at the plateau. The narrow ridge to the summit is the most exciting part of the summit day and the view opened to make us feel truly on top of an 8000’er. At the summit, there can often be a line or a bit of jam as it is a narrow little area and you never want to unclip unless you are certain of your footing to let another pass. It gets awkward but you try your best to take in the moment and the views despite the mayhem atop Manaslu. We weren’t permitted by our team to head down the new line to the ‘true’ summit but many of our team did. We enjoyed the views from the regular summit as we sat beneath the Tibetan prayer flags blowing calmly in the breeze. We had made it!

It was now mid-morning and we were beginning to descend from the summit. The sun was my enemy at this point as I sweltered with the down suit. All flaps were open as we slid and skidded our way down the slopes back to Camp 4. There were a few parts of the descent where we clipped in but mostly, it is just a mission to stay upright in the slushy snow as you zoom back down to camp. 

At Camp 4, we had a quick chance to pack up our gear and had a short tea break. I think our expedition team actually forgot to give us breakfast on this day, which was a little odd for such an important and high-level effort day. We had just a coffee at 2 am and then were offered a tea or coffee when we arrived back at Camp 4 at 11 am. We then had no food or drink until we reached base camp at 7 pm that night. It had essentially been twenty-four hours without any meal.

After midday, we began the long journey back down to basecamp. From the summit (8,163m) to the base camp (4,800m) the descent is about 3400m. It’s a huge day on the legs and you need to pass back through all of the technical sections you encountered on the way up. While it may seem like a long and arduous journey after the summit push, it actually passes by quite quickly as you zip down the slopes you climbed up. 

Camp 3 to Camp 2, in particular, is a very quick part of the journey and took just 40-minutes. We gathered our belongings from the tents at each camp and kept on pace. Our aim was to make it back to base camp by dark so we could enjoy dinner and finally rest our legs and have a good sleep. Many climbers who encounter trouble or run out of energy will sleep at Camp 3, Camp 2, or Camp 1 if they simply can’t make it back down in one day. There is no right or wrong, but it is sure good to make it back down to base camp by the night.

Just before dark, we made it back to ‘Crampon Point’. This is the spot where you take on or off your crampons depending on which direction you are heading. It was a great moment for us as one of the kitchen staff, Santos, had been waiting for us with Coca-Cola and beer to perk us up for the final 40-minute, rocky path back to base camp. It was just the motivation we needed and we were thankful to see his bright spirit waiting for us there as we removed our crampons for the final time on the expedition. 

As dinner was being served, we arrived back at base camp in a tired state but happy to have accomplished our goal and to have been blessed with a safe passage through the mountains. Simply enjoying a beer and getting my feet out of the climbing boots were a due reward for a long day of climbing up and down Manaslu Mountain. Mission complete.

To read my full article about the expedition you can click here: CLIMBING MANASLU MOUNTAIN (8163M)

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