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September 20, 2012 – So near and yet so far

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Why do we forget how hard high altitude climbing is? I’m not sure but I guess it is the same reason why women have more than one baby or ├╝berathletes like my friend Chrissie do more than one ironman. I guess the difference between high altitude climbing and an ironman race is that at the finishing line of the race someone gives you a tasty drink of whatever you fancy whereas at the high camps of a big mountain you boil some snow and try to make it tasty with some powder or syrup but it never tastes right. I have been lying in my sleeping bag after having come down from (almost) the Makalu La at 7,300m trying to force some magnesium water down my throat after not having drunk for 12 hours but it’s so hard. Not sure whether a banana lassi or a mango frootie, which is ubiquitous in Nepal, would go down more easily but I guess so.

makalu from camp 3 billi bierling

But enough about food and drink, let’s get down to the nitty gritty of the second rotation phase, which started on 16 September. We moved back up to our camp 1 at 6,150m having to negotiate the huge boulders again but it seemed easier this time around as we were having lighter packs without sleeping bags, crampons, ice axe etc. When I say ‘we’ I talk about our group, which consists of Suzanne, our guide, a German, a very funny Austrian, a Swiss, a south tyrolian and a very lovely Mexican couple, Yuri and Laura, who I met on Everest 3 years ago.

The weather was great and we arrived there in good time leaving us the afternoon to relax and rest. The following day we climbed up to camp 2, which was also pretty straightforward as our five Sherpas had fixed the ropes for us the previous day. Climbing a big and humbling mountain like Makalu becomes a lot easier for people like us with the Sherpas finding the way, fixing the ropes and carrying some of the essential gear like tents and stoves.

Of course, everyone had to set one foot in front of each other themselves and reaching an altitude of 6,750m at our camp 2 it becomes harder with every step. However, the best reward is always arriving and even though we were in a big cloud and could not see the beautiful giants around us, there is nothing better than getting out your sleeping bag and mat, stretch out and have a snooze! Of course, boiling water for a mediocre drink and getting some food down is the less enjoyable but very necessary part of the deal!

Rest Day

The following day we woke up to beautiful sunshine and the scenery that was awaiting us upon opening our tents was stunning. First I was not aware that I was looking straight over to Lhotse and Everest, two big mountains I’ve climbed, but I guess mountains are like people – they look very different from behind ;-).

While all of the members could remain in their warm and cozy sleeping bags ( thanks to Niels from Valandre in my case), Suzanne and the Sherpas were making their way up through the mixed terrain towards our next camp, the Makalu La – a cold and windy pass at an altitude of 7,400m. As we were sweltering in our tents – the temperature gauge on my watch showed 35 C despite some flurry of snow outside – we watched the six climbers inching their way up fixing the rope.

I felt almost guilty lying around while they were working so hard but of course I would not have been of any help up there and was better off acclimatising my body down here. However, I do take my hat off to the work and the strength of the Sherpas, without which our team would not stand a change to get up the fifth highest mountain in the world – thank you!

Moving up

But the rest of us were not spared the journey and together with the sun hitting our tents at about 9.30am the following day, we leisurely ambled out of our camp with our relatively heavy loads containing food, down gear and sleeping equipment for one night.

Getting going is always hard, however, once you have found a rhythm it gets easier. A rhythm at high altitude – well, at least mine – is very slow and very different from my pace at sea level, which is reputedly rather quick. I try and develop a scheme, whereby I do 10 steps for let’s say my late father, my mum, the love of my life, my friends, my robot etc. and then I pause. The breaks in between though are about one minute long and are filled with a lot of panting with an open mouth, which often ends up in my tongue getting burnt as it has now!! It all sound very hard but when you turn around and suck in the stunning views the pain subsides immediately you enjoy (almost) every step.


Ah, here is that word again ‘almost’, which I used at the very beginning of this update referring to the Makalu La, our next camp. When most of us had reached the crest of the climb at about 7,200m and were getting on the plateau to the left that would lead us to the Makalu La, I heard Suzanne’s voice somewhere in the fog. I was surprised as she and another member were far ahead of us together with the Sherpas. “We’ll probably have to go down as we’ve run out of rope,” I heard her say to Yuri and Laura, who were a few metres ahead of me.

And that was it! Even though we had planned to stay the night at the La at 7,400m to be better acclimatise for our summit attempt without the use of supplementary oxygen, we had no choice but to make our way back down to spend another night at our Camp 2. The poor Sherpas were very apologetic but none of them had been to this mountain before and they were probably surprised how far Camp 3 was away.

So, we slowly inched our way back down again and arrived at Camp 2 at about 4pm. It is now 2am and due to the lack of sleep, which is amazing given how tired I was, I decided to write an update on my iPhone, which I will hopefully be able to send some time tomorrow when we will descend to base camp to a much needed shower and the good food of our cooks Pasang and Damtratz. There we will also hedge another plan for the summit attempt.

In the meantime, the rest of the teams should have arrived at base camp, among which will be my good friends Adrian and Monica and I’m really looking forward to seeing them! Their Sherpa team will probably go up to the pass soon and fix the rest of the way.

As far as our acclimatisation plan is concerned we will have to see what the weather and our strength and fitness will allow us to do but I hope that the lack of one night over 7,000m will not thwart out plan. I hope the mountain and the weather gods will be kind to us. Keep your fingers crossed!

Thanks for all your support and positive thoughts! And thanks robot for all your work too!


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