After my adventures on Broad Peak in 2011, I decided that I needed a break from the Karakoram. For my next climb, I wanted to go back to Nepal. My preferred choice was Manaslu, a giant of 8163 meter. This mountain is becoming increasingly popular as a “first 8000-er”, especially since Cho Oyu has become less accessible due to political reasons. I called my project the Opteon expedition 2012.
I always outsource the logistical and administrative preparations to a specialized organization. That allows me to focus on my strengths: the physical preparation, the funding, the climbing itself and the inspiration of others with my experiences. For Manaslu I decided to work with Himalayan Experience.
At the end of August, I took the airplane to Kathmandu where I met the staff and the other members of this expedition. The team was pretty oriental with six Japanese and three New-Zealanders. There were also one German, one American and – obviously – one Belgian.
I hadn’t been in the Nepalese capital since my Everest-expedition in 2007. Not much has changed in the mean time: same friendly people and same traffic chaos. I couldn’t enjoy the pleasant insanity of Kathmandu for long because after one night we flew with a helicopter to Samagon, a small village at the bottom of Manaslu at 3500 meter. We spent four days there preparing ourselves for higher altitude with acclimatisation trips in the surroundings and getting to know each other better.
The fifth morning, we were woken up by the chatter of the porters. They were going to leave for basecamp with our equipment before breakfast. We, on the other hand, were going to fill our stomachs first before we took off. After a strenuous hike, we all arrived in basecamp in good health.
The next couple of days we let our bodies acclimatize further to this new altitude. That is best achieved by doing as little as possible. We enjoyed the excellent meals and gathered around the pitch that Himalayan experience had set up in basecamp to watch the volleyball and badminton matches that the Sherpa’s of our and other expeditions were playing.
But soon the time came to get back into action and climb higher. First we made a short hike to ‘crampon point’ at 5000 meter. This is the entry point to the glacier and hence also the point where we would put on the crampons on our way to camp 1.
The next day, we climbed to camp 1 at 5500 meter in four hours. Even though I could seriously feel the altitude in the last 100 meter below camp 1, I continued on beyond camp 1 for a little while with a few team members. The higher you climb, the better and faster you acclimatize. At 5600 meter, we called it a day and returned to basecamp for a late lunch.
Camp 2 was our next target. We would climb to camp 1 to spend the night there. The next day, we would then continue to camp 2 at 6300 meter and return back to camp 1 for the night, allowing us to return to basecamp early the next day. It seemed like a solid plan, but it didn’t quite work out like that.
Halfway between crampon point and camp 1, the fun abruptly ended. As I was walking across the glacier, suddenly I fell through the snow and ended on a block of ice 4 meters lower. I realized very quickly what had happened. I had stepped upon a snow bridge that covered up a crevasse. The combination of sunshine and my weight had made the bridge collapse.
At that moment, I was not in danger. My fall in the glacier had been stopped by this block of ice and if the block hadn’t been there, the rope that I was attached too would have caught me. With a little help from my friends, I managed to get out of this crevasse quickly and continued to camp 1.
What I didn’t know, was that the fall had broken my left ankle. I would only find out about this when I got my ankle X-rayed upon my return to Belgium.
The next morning, I got up in good spirit to climb to camp 2. But suddenly, my ankle hurt a lot more. I got out of my tent, but I realized quickly that I was not able to walk normally without pain. I knew I needed to let my ankle rest, but on the other hand I needed the acclimatization. So I decided to give it a shot anyway. The pain however was so bad that I was worried that I would make things considerably worse. After about 100 meters, I turned back and returned to camp 1.
In the evening, my foot was still painful and I was worried about the descent the next day. That was bound to be a painful experience, but I was mainly worried about what that would do to the recovery of my ankle.
In the end, the first part of the descent went better than expected. My pain killers kicked in and in the morning, I could put on my boots quite easily. Descending through the snow from camp 1 to crampon point went reasonably smoothly.
But then the descent continued over rock and it was obvious that the recovery of my ankle was not permanent. I slowed down and very soon, I was in agony. Fortunately, a number of Sherpa’s came to my aid. One by one, they carried me down on their back at high speed. For those that didn’t know yet: these Sherpa’s are insanely strong.
Back in basecamp, I was forced to let my ankle rest. In the mean time, basecamp started looking more like a sports camp, mainly because of Darryl. Darryl was the American team member and he was a professional golfer. He had brought two golfclubs and about ten golfballs and was giving free golf lessons. Unfortunately, I could not enjoy those either with my broken ankle.
Because my ankle hadn’t recovered enough after 2 days, the next acclimatization trip up the mountain took place without me. Pretty annoying, because I actually needed more acclimatization. I was the only one in the team that was going to climb Manaslu without supplemental oxygen.
But there was no point in being frustrated about this setback. Years of mountaineering have thought me that it is better to accept what you can’t change and focus your energy on what you can change. Like the recovery of my ankle for example.
When the team returned from their trip to camp 3, my ankle felt much better. I wanted to catch up on acclimatization but that plan got disrupted by snow. It snowed for five days and hence, it was unsafe to climb. So I had no other choice but to rest and wait more. It became obvious that my summit attempt would need to take place without further acclimatization. I was running out of time and couldn’t wait another 7 days until I was fully acclimatized.
On 22nd September, it had stopped snowing for two days, which was long enough for me to get started. The intent was that I would climb one day ahead of the team together with Sherpa Rita Dorje. That would grant me a bit of extra acclimatization. I would then spend an extra night in camp 3 where the others could catch up with me.
But as I was sleeping peacefully in camp 1, disaster struck again.
And it struck harder than ever before. A humongous avalanche wiped out camps 2 and 3. Those who were spending the night in camp 2, got away with mostly material damage. Those in camp 3 were not that lucky. I first checked whether I could provide any help to other climbers and as that turned out not to be the case, I returned to basecamp.
In the mean time, a huge rescue operation was set up with three helicopters. Before lunch time, all injured climbers were evacuated. But despite all the efforts, 12 mountaineers passed away. This makes 23rd September 2012 one of the darkest days in the history of mountaineering.
The expedition members all over basecamp spent the next couple of days looking at options. A large number of mountaineers decided they had seen enough and returned home. But our team was convinced that safety had actually improved after this avalanche.
On 25th September, I left basecamp for a new summit attempt. In less than 3 hours, I climbed 700 vertical meters to camp 1 with Rita Dorje. I got in my tent, drank as much as I could and went to bed soon after dinner. The next morning, we were ready to go at 6.30 am to head to camp 2.
Climbing to camp 2 is much tougher than climbing to camp 1. Not only is the altitude gain 100 meter more, but there are also quite a number of steep sections and crevasses. The more technical part is knows as “The hourglass”. 200 meter above camp 1 we already bumped into the first crevasse that needed rope and ice axe to cross.
After this small, personal victory we had set the trend for the rest of the day. Jumping over a large crevasse was probably the scariest bit, especially with my broken ankle. But it all worked out OK and five hours later I could enjoy some relaxation in my camp 2 tent.
The next day, we climbed higher again to camp 3 at 6700 meter. The recent events made this part of the climb difficult. The route between camp 2 and 3 had been wiped away by the avalanche. Here and there, you could still see the leftovers of the destructive forces that a mountain can unleash: a tent, cooking pots, a sleeping bag, … silent witnesses of the drama that had taken place here. In camp 3, I spent two nights for better acclimatization. On the second day, the rest of my team joined us.
The next morning, we geared up and set off for camp 4. My team members – like most other climbers on Manaslu – switched on the oxygen for this part of the climb. But I continued climbing without supplemental oxygen. Despite my lack of acclimatization, I managed to overtake several climbers that were on oxygen.
The climb to camp 4 starts with slope that continuously gets steeper. At 7100 meter, there are a number of short, nasty sections on hard ice. They hurted, but after 5 hours I reached camp 4 nevertheless. 763 vertical meters were all that stood between me and the summit at this stage.
Rita and myself were good to go at 6 am the next morning for this last section. I left without oxygen. Rita did use oxygen and also carried a bottle for me, in case that would prove necessary. The first part went relatively smooth and we managed to overcome slope after slope.
Little after 9am, I got the first reports of success: the other members of my team had reached the summit. My progress however was getting considerably slower. The lack of acclimatization was starting to hurt badly.
At 8000 meter, I met the expedition leaders on their way down and we discussed the situation. Camps 3 and 4 would be packed the same day. That meant that after reaching the summit 200 meter above where I stood right then, I would have to descend all the way to camp 2. I needed to make a decision not only in the interest of my safety, but also the safety of Rita who would be left alone to deal with my issues if I got into trouble. Hence, I decided to switch on oxygen.
But even with oxygen, the last vertical meters to the summit turned out to be quite epic. We climbed over large boulders of snow and finally arrived on a small ridge with hundreds of meters of free fall on either side. The summit lay 20 meters above us. Carefully, we got onto the ridge and step by step we reached our goal: the summit
All my efforts were rewarded by an amazing view over the Himalayas. The summit of Manaslu is barely big enough for two people, so we only stayed there for a very short while. A bit lower, there is little plateau so we took a short break there before we started our second but most important task of the day: the descent.
That descent was very tiring but quick. Before 2pm, Rita and I had reached camp 4. We picked up our gear and continued to camp 3. We met more climbers – going up and down – so the usage of the ropes became harder. But around 4 pm we were able to pick up our gear in camp 3 and continue down to camp 2. At 5pm, we could crawl in our tent in camp 2 for some well earned rest and recovery. I ate and drank a little and crashed almost immediately in a very deep sleep …