Audrey Gariepy - Schooled

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Himalayan School of Alpinism
Story by: Audrey Gariepy

In Mid-December, I flew to Nepal with Ines Papert (Germany), Jen Olson (Canada), Cory Richards (USA) and Chris Alstrin (USA). Our goal was to try to open a new route on the North Face of Kwangde Lho (6187m). I was very excited about the trip because it would be my first time to try something big like that and to be in high altitude. I knew I’d learned a lot, especially doing it with these two great and experienced women.

After a couple days in Kathmandu, we flew to Lukla. The landing there has to be mentioned…anyone that has ever been there will know what I’m talking about! Being in a tiny little airplane flying toward a narrow valley and the only thing to avoid crashing into the mountain is this 350 meters long air stripe, there’s no room for a second chance, I really
thought that was it!!!

It felt so good to be away from the craziness of Kathmandu and to be in the mountains. I was amazed with everything I saw. First of all, there are no roads there. Everybody is walking. When the supplies arrive in Lukla people carry it by foot all the way to villages. The houses are built with men and women’s power only, breaking rocks with hammers. Everybody helps each other and it seems to work perfectly.

After a day of walking, we reached Namche Bazar, the biggest village of the Khumbu region. From there, we got a really good view of the North Face of Kwangde Lho. Unfortunately, the conditions were not as great as we had expected. The whole season has been unusually warm and dry and the face has been affected. First impressions gave us no hope of opening a new route and very limited possibilities to climb at all. After thinking about it, we decided to explore around to try to find something else that would be in better shape.

After three days of walking in the middle of those giant mountains and going over the Chola Pass (5420m), we were back to plan A! The conditions were the same a bit everywhere so we realized we would just have to deal with it and make the best out of it!

The next day we walked with all our stuff (with the precious help of the yals and porters) toward Thame where we set the base camp at 3800m. We agreed on a line on the right end side of the face that has been climbed already, but seemed to be in good condition. A couple days of rest gave us enough energy to be able to carry the gear to the base of the climb.

More than once we were fooled by the size of the mountain and the effect of high altitude. On the way up, I told Ines that the route didn’t look so long and hard. That I was sure we could do the whole thing in a day if we went light…without the camping gear. She thought the same thing than me! We changed our mind really quickly when we tried the first pitch in the afternoon! We went very light and without packs to go fix a rope on the first 60m. It took more than an hour to do it and what we thought would be only 60m long turned out to be 120m. We than realized that we would have to be careful with the mountain. Everything seems so much smaller and easier from a distance!

After two nights up there, we left all our gear at the base (5100m) and came back down to the comfort of base camp. We rested a few days and made up a plan.

When we felt ready to give it a try, Jen, Ines and I started the approach in late morning. We spent the night at our ABC and started to climb very early the next day. Our backpacks were very heavy and the effect of the altitude made us progress a lot slower than what we are used to in this kind of climbing. The first 120m were steep followed with a long traverse on steep snow. After that, we had another 180m of steep and thin ‘ice’ climbing to a long snow slope. After a full day of effort, we were very lucky to find a perfect ledge to set up camp at 5600m.

The view was really amazing at night. The bottom of the valley was filled with clouds and we were above them. The sunset light directly on Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Ama Dablam and all the others…it was spectacular.

I was surprised to be able to sleep a little bit, even with three of us in a really small tent. Maybe I was very tired! The next morning we woke up in the dark and started to climb with our day pack only. We thought that we would be able to reach the summit and come back to this camp for the night. As we started, the summit seemed so close. Our energy was high and we were moving pretty fast across these snow slopes.

The last 80 meters before reaching the ridge to the South Face turned out to be the crux of the climb. The rock was very loose and there wasn’t so much ice or snow.

It was 2 pm when we finally reached the ridge. We thought that the South Face would be walking terrain but NO…it wasn’t. It seemed to us that if we’d keep going, we would summit after sunset and then we’d have to rappel pretty much all night long. We realized that we should have carried the tent another day and sleep close to the ridge and keep going to the summit the next day. We have been fooled one more with the size of the mountain….hahhahahaa!! We decided that it was safer to turn around, so at almost 5900m we started our way down to the upper camp.

The next morning, when I change my socks in the daylight, I saw that two of my toes were blue. I was so surprise to see that because I never felt it coming. I was so nervous since I didn’t know much about frostbite and I was scared that I would lose a part of my toes. The only thing that we could do up there was to keep rappelling, crossed my fingers that everything would go fast enough so we could reach the base this day. We made it all the way to the base camp that day, very tired, happy about our effort and hungry!

On the way back down, I was so exhausted that it was sure that I wouldn’t try another attempt on that face, but after a couple days of rest, I wish I could’ve given another try! My toes didn’t allow me to do so. The tips turned black and I couldn’t feel them at all. The only thing that I could do was to rest and wait 5 days before starting to walk back to Lukla.

There were a lot of new things for me in that trip. Being at high altitude, sleep on a mountain, climbing with such heavy pack… I’m happy with what we have done on the mountain even though we did not reached the summit. The conditions were hard and it was cold, but we gave the best of ourselves. We made a lot of mistakes on the planning and I learned a lot from it. The mountains are huge there and we should have carried the tent one more day to make it possible to summit. But when I look at my toes that are still black even after almost three weeks, I’m actually very happy that we turned around that day!

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