It rained for a week, non-stop rain, we never saw the sun.
It was the tail end of a monsoon that just wouldn’t wring itself out, dumping metres of snow on nearby Manaslu, with avalanches pouring down like waterfalls.
At Base Camp far above us on Himlung Himal, a mètre of snow fell. Tents disappeared on the mountain and any semblance of ropes were long buried.
Then the weather forecast predicted 10 days of smiling suns, low winds, with a high pressure system moving in overhead and staying just where it should.
So we added umbrellas to our kit list and scuttled up by jeep from Kathmandu to Koto on the Annapurna Circuit, then set about hibernating under the eaves of the lodge by night and strolling up the trail by day. At 2,576 metres, we convinced ourselves we were acclimatizing in Koto, kind of.
Ron and Paul had been through this all many times before, with far more Himalayan expeditions than we could count. A week of rain was nothing they assured us, two weeks might be grim, but this would also prepare us for the challenges ahead. Patience, particularly in the heights, is a virtue.
So Lisa began perfecting her hot chocolate recipe and Andy introduced snakes in Africa stories, while Mark searched for light, any light at all, to photograph our dreary existence. We read, we dined. We waited for even a sliver of sun to appear. It didn’t. The day was gray enough to be called night at times. The rain on the metal roof reverberated bassoon-like, playing only the low notes.
Nary a complaint was heard. Early days on an expedition one learns the mettle of a team. Our team had mettle, lots of mettle. The ability to cope with frustrating weather and the delay in a spirited and resilient way foretold strength in the heights.
We would just arrive later in Base Camp, and climb faster. A simple climbing strategy is often the best.
And for Pem Chirri and I it was both our first time on the mountain, so we actually had to to work out a plan, the camps, the carries, and just how to condense our rapidly shrinking schedule into the remaining weeks and still reach the top, somewhere so far above the clouds.
Pem had been my Camp 2 Cook on our successful Everest expedition 20 years before, we knew how to climb mountains together. And Pems 16 successful Everest climbs and a recent ascent of K2 in winter had given him years of valuable experience. Balanced with his humble nature and natural people skills, him and his Sherpa team were the perfect compliment to our group and our success.
As the weather cleared, ever so slowly, Pem Chirri rallied the Sherpas and villagers to help fix the trail, so our 18 errant and now slightly bedraggled mules could get up the hill. Finally the rain faded, it was down to a drizzle, we marched up the trail to Meta, the real Meta, not an AI version, and then up the gorge and through the gates of Phu, where the magic started.
Phu draws its heritage more from Tibet than Nepal, with its slate homes, terraced fields and yaks arriving back in town every evening, bells ringing, from the grazing fields high above. In Phu, we entered into a different time and a different land.
We went shopping but there were no shops, we went up the hill to the monastery, where a lone monk showed us around. Inside it was radiant red and gold, lined with prayer books. There was nothing for sale, there was no fee unless we longed for extra blessings, there were no ‘rent your horse here’ signs. Lattes were not part of the language. We were a very long way from Nepal’s popular tourist destinations, and were grateful for it.
Phu is a lost village on the fringe of time, well worth a visit whether climbing a mountain or not.
Finally we made the final 400 vertical mètres of ascent up to Base Camp. It was teaming with 100 plus people. Normally set on a grassy terrace alongside the glacier, all that fall radiance was now buried under 30 cm. of melting snow. It was all rather winteresque. With hints of Covid about, we kept to ourselves, kept healthy, and were happy with our own company.
At night the temperatures plummeted and we came to dinner in down jackets. With pizzas, chapatis and chips to fortify us, we whiled away the evening with stories from afar, our collective experiences extending across the Seven Summits, to Eastern Europe, the depths of Africa, to the Alps.
Himlung Himal has two or three high camps, depending on how enthusiastic you might be. Different teams had a range of strategies, from using 2 or 3 camps, to going to Camp 1, and never coming down. To simply climbing as high as possible, then going back down, then doing it all again.
Few of these strategies in retrospect worked very well for most, or they resulted in 20 hour days struggling up and back from the summit. 7,000 metre peaks aren’t that easy, but neither is there a reason to make them even harder. For some, less camps were obviously cheaper, with less equipment needed, less load carrying, and with less support.
One group that had that approach went 0 for 8 on their summit bid. Not such a good plan perhaps, unless you just want a month’s holiday camping out in a pretty high place, and then to turn around and go home without summiting – all rather disappointing.
Two days after arriving at Base Camp, we crossed the troublesome glacier, rocks strewn over ice and frosted with snow, before clambering up a hand held rope on a 10-mètre vertical dirt slope to reach the meadows on the far side. Himalayan glaciers all have their unique and troublesome personalities, just to remind us we are in the Himalaya after all.
An amble, all-be-it, a high altitude amble, took us up a series of short ridges and dips, then finally up to Camp 1 at 5,400 metres.
The next morning, sun hit the tents at 8 a.m. and we were off at a civilized 9:30 a.m. for Camp 2. A steep slope led straight out of camp, around a corner and into a hidden gully that rose steeply up above the icefall, avoiding a series of crevasses and séracs on the glacier below. Traversing along a shaky, loose, rocky terrace we rejoined the upper glacier and ascended over hill and icy dale to our 6,000 mètre Camp 2.
From our tent window the sun set directly over the Annapurna range, Dhaulagiri glistened on the western fringe, as the peaks of the Himalaya glowed burnt orange in the sunset. We were higher, it was colder, and the tents glistened with frost on the inside in the morning to prove it.
Tsampa porridge rallied us for breakfast and a quick walk towards Camp 3, then a retreat for a morning bowl of noodle soup and the long romp back to Base Camp. Everyone was fit, healthy and happy. The first round had gone without fanfare, our rapidly decreasing resting heart rates and increasing oxygen saturation confirmed what we felt. We had a group of strong and talented climbers, arriving with crampons fixed tight to boot soles, ice axes at the ready, buffs matching our jackets, most of us anyway. We were ready.
The weather was too blue to be believed, clouds struggling to even form, only a wisp of spindrift was seen on the heights. A few more climbing teams arrived, while a few who had arrived early and faced the brunt of the snow retreated, all while the snow solidified nicely into place on the slopes above.
Three things distinguished Himlung right from the start, and they were good things:
- Rare daytime climbing – with no icefall to freeze and thaw, no avalanches overhead, the climbing was a very civilized and comfortably warm 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. day. The sun warmed the tents in the morning, we made camp before the sun set – it made for convivial climbing into the heights.
- Following a route along glacial terraces, over snow slopes and up hidden gullies, the climb was about as free from objective dangers as a Himalayan peak could be. With perfect weather for days on end and the early season snow consolidated, the slopes were hard snow and a solid track was soon packed into place.
- The route was a natural, flowing line along the glacier, onto a ridge and up and around numerous corners, keeping it interesting. And thankfully, the route wasn’t laced up with fixed ropes the entire way. We used ice axes, we climbed where mistakes would have real consequences. Steep sections were roped, but then they finished and we pulled out our axes and actually climbed the real mountain.
At Base Camp after our successful rotation into the heights, we rested, and then we rested some more as the weather burned continually warm and sunny. Breakfast was nak cheese omelets and apple pancakes, with chips and sausages for lunch, popcorn and coconut biscuits for afternoon tea, and dinners from chicken curry to veggie pizza, all ensuring our rest days were well fortified.
My only advice before we left was to just climb perfectly for five days. Every step, every move, every ice axe placement. It is so rare to have a simple goal, achieve exactly that, and return home. And for a short and rare period of time, do it as perfectly as possible.
Our weather was perfect, the route was varied and fine, our approach and strategy all set and the mountain beautiful – add a little personal perfection, a bit of luck and up we climbed.
On the fifth day after returning to Base Camp we made our move for the summit before we gained any more weight.
Day 1, not a cloud in the sky, we clambered off across the glacier, up the feared vertical wall of dirt and toppling stones and onto the snowy trail into the heights. Acclimatized, we made easy time, climbing higher, crampons biting. To remind ourselves of the importance of perspective, we were trailed by a large black Tibetan Mastiff, lured on by the pepperoni snacks in our packs and trotting happily alongside us.
At Camp 1, sunset burned orange over the Annapurnas, we feasted on Sherpa stew brought up from Base Camp, a hearty mix of potatoes, carrots and dumplings in a steaming sauce. As darkness settled we tucked deep into our sleep bags and the dog howled goodby and galloped off back to Base Camp.
Day 2, the sun touched the tents at 8 a.m. and by 9:30 we were zig-zagging up the steep trail and around into the steep hidden gully. The rocky terrace beyond was melting out, we tiptoed across, crampons scraping stone, before we rolled up over the final snowy rise and into Camp 2 at exactly 6,000 metres. Our single line of four tents faced down the mountain, over the glacier 1,200 metres below, then into the dusk and darkness of the valleys we had ascended on the trek in.
Beyond the dark valleys, all 4 of the Annapurnas rose up, in a wall of ice and snow and black rock ridges, extending far across, forming the horizon leading to the sky. At the western end, Dhaulagiri rose singular and white high into the afternoon cumulus, framed by the clouds.
Day 3, at dawn the way to Camp 3 was clear, a few dips, a long traverse under an ice wall, and a final climb up to a high col. The clarity of air foretold a quick journey, but with the sun soon warm and the thin trail through the snow weaving up and down between the ice cliffs and the crevasses, we wove our way but slowly upward.
A 20 mètre ice wall soon barred our way, shedding dinner plates under our crampons to liven the day. Andy scrambled up saying it was the best part of the day – it was certainly the steepest.
We crested the ridge above, treading delicately along, the Tibetan Plateau fading away into browns and rolling mountains to the North. A final climb took us up to the lip of the cornice and along to where our bright new yellow tents nested in the snow, backs dug in and front porches hanging out over the glacier, now hovering in the depths far below us.
With steaming pots of noodle soup cradled between our legs, we settled in for the night, feet dangling in the afternoon sun rays, while tents warmed up at our backs.
The weather, if it could be possible, improved yet again with winds forecast for less than 5 km. overnight. The Milky Way was a solid sloth of white sweeping from one horizon to the next, surrounded by stars bright enough to touch.
Summit night would be our one early start of the entire climb, yet still a relatively mild Himalayan 2 a.m. wake-up.
Day 4, Sampa porridge and sugared coffee arrived at the door, our team option to go native. To remind us where we were, the nights ice crystals filtered down from the ceiling and in the dark my tent mate Paddy commented “it’s like a torture chamber.”
It was a bit grim, but outside the billion stars graced the heavens, nary a tent flap fluttered, and our custom porches, compliments of ur Sherpa team, allowed us to put on our crampons before we even needed to take the first step into the bright night. It was cold but crystal cold, stunning with its clarity.
There were no headlights ahead or behind us, the mountain was still sleeping. There were no ropes, we left camp with axes in place and crampons biting deeply. Only our headlamps flickered on the lonely mountain.
We would climb like this all day, nary another soul in sight. Only the dark, the stars, the reflections on the ice and the mountain looming black and glistening overhead. I’d calculated 100 vertical metres an hour would put us on top by early afternoon. With everyone climbing strongly, we tiptoed heavenward, ahead of schedule, searching for the sun.
The two hours until dawn stretched out, those interminable steps leading inexorably upward in the darkness. Then a faint line of yellow to the East formed, single sun rays began touching the peaks around, behind and above. But there was no heat. We still climbed in the shadows, shivering upward.
Ropes came and then went, it was good to be climbing alone on the mountain. We had now been together 3 weeks as a group, knew our pacing, styles and even breathing as we collectively willed ourselves upward. Without the distaste of oxygen hissing, tubes flopping about and masks obscuring the view, our connection to the mountain was unimpeded.
At last the sun broke through over the ridge above, a single, slanting, warming, blasting sun ray coming straight into our eyes. We crested the summit slopes and turned right along the ridge for the final 100 metres to the top, ice axes in hand.
We took the final sweeping, curving steps up a last steep ice slope and stepped directly onto the summit.
Right in front, seemingly touchable, soared the slopes of Manaslu, an immense snow cone bathed by the sun. The Annapurna’s stretched broadly across behind us, framed by Dhaulagiri at the end.
Tibet to the north, Nepal to the south, the heavens above and the entire mountain below us. We were perched alone on a singular summit in the midst of the Himalaya, not another person in sight.
Nary a wind blew, nary a cloud stirred, nary a face was without a smile.
With the sun now blazing, we snapped photos without our gloves, pulled our hoods back, revealed in a bit of rare high-altitude luxury.
7 1/2 hours climbing from Camp 3 up had put us on top, 3 hours more and we would be back to our comfy warm tents.
It was all pretty much perfect.
From the Jagged Globe 2022 expedition to Himlung Himal, Nepal
Robert Mads Anderson and Pem Chirri Sherpa
Lisa, Paddy, Mark, Andy, Paul, Aga, Ron
Mani Bahadur Tamang
Pasang Temba Sherpa
The all star cook team and staff:
Kanchha – Chef