This is an article I recently wrote for Outside Magazine.
If you’ve ever walked in to Everest Base Camp, you can’t miss her. Standing like a sentinel above the Sherpa village of Pangboche, Ama Dablam is one of the most recognisable mountains on Earth. With fluted, soaring ridges and near-vertical and seemingly impossibly snow-clad faces, she offers no easy way to the top. Every cliché and superlative has already been used to describe her, and so I shall say no more other than to describe her as a truly beautiful mountain.
My first meeting with her, nearly a decade ago now, was not the most pleasant of affairs. Young and brash, believing myself to be somewhat infallible, I didn’t truly appreciate the dangerous cocktail that is illness and altitude. I’d been on previous expeditions to the Himalayas and performed quite strongly, but this trip up the Khumbu seemed ill fated from the start. Overworked and under-prepared in the frantic lead up to the expedition, a seemingly innocuous head cold I’d brought with me from an Australia winter had morphed into something more sinister as I passed through Kathmandu and headed for Lukla. By the time I’d reached Namche the only thing louder than my chesty cough was the rumbling of avalanches peeling off the upper slopes of Thamserku and Kangteka.
In the hope that a strong dose of antibiotics would clear up my chest infection, I persisted higher until I could go no further, eventually succumbing to a serious case of high-altitude pulmonary oedema on an acclimatisation push to around 6,000m. From the confines of a sickeningly claustrophobic Gamow bag (an inflatable device used for the short-term treatment of altitude illness), I realised that my dreams of success on Ama Dablam were just that; dreams and nothing more.
Now, nearly a decade later, I’d been asked to go back and lead an expedition to her. In the interim years I’d built up a reasonably successful Himalayan climbing resume. I’d been lucky enough to build lasting friendships with local Nepali climbers, and I’d experienced success on a number of big mountains, including multiple 8000ers. The streets of Kathmandu now felt akin to a second home for me, rather than the alien and dusty landscape that they had seemed to be on my first visit all those years ago. I had started leading teams to climb lower, less technical 6,000m peaks and so I was confident in my leadership and teamwork skills, but… Ama Dablam?
When my friend Sumit had mentioned Ama Dablam to me I was at once excited and scared. It would be great to be back in the Himalayas again, but was I really prepared to go back to a mountain on which I’d almost lost my life? Of course, it didn’t take too long before I was convinced and about 9 months later we all found ourselves at Kathmandu Domestic Airport, waiting to board our flight to Lukla.
Trekking and climbing in the late post-monsoon Himalayan season is one of my favourite things to do in life. Much of the hustle and bustle and crowds of the peak season months of September and October have diminished and by late November and early December a sense of calm returns to the trails of the Khumbu Valley. Although the days are noticeably shorter and colder, it’s not uncommon to get extended periods of stable weather and beautiful clear blue skies – perfect conditions for mountaineering.
The walk up through the Khumbu is always a beautiful experience and on this occasion it certainly didn’t disappoint. Instead of taking the standard trail through Tengboche we deviated via the small and incredibly pretty village of Phortse. The following day’s traverse across to Pangboche, high above the treeline, has got to be one of the most enjoyable days trekking in all of the Himalaya.
After a pleasant 10 day walk we’d set-up at the foot an adjacent mountain on which we planned to acclimatise. Lobuche East is a technically straight-forward 6,000m trekking peak and offers fantastic views of Everest, Lhotse and Pumori in one direction and back towards Ama Dablam and Makalu in the other direction. It’s the perfect mountain on which to focus on team building and to acclimatise, not only to the low-oxygen environment but also to get back your head for heights after too long spent in a flat city-landscape.
A successful summit of Lobuche East sees us heading back down the valley towards Pangboche and across the narrow bridge spanning the Imja Khola before arriving a few hours later at Ama Dablam Base Camp. It’s one of the most pleasant base camps that you’ll come across in all of the Himalayas. During one of our rest days we conduct a special puja (Buddhist ceremony) with the local lama to request the mountain spirits for safe passage – for those on the team who’ve not climbed in the Himalayas before, this is a real highlight.
After a few days resting in our new surroundings we turn our attentions higher up the mountain. The first day’s climbing is not actually climbing as such, as we walk up straight-forward non-technical terrain. It’s only once we get above Camp 1 that the real climbing begins. Having said that, everybody in our team finds it to be a long day as we ascend more than 1,000m in elevation.
The route between Camps 1 and 2 features beautiful and surprisingly good quality granite – something that is pretty rare in this part of the Himalaya. Oh, what joy it would be to spend the day climbing on this rock in nothing but lightweight summer clothes and rock shoes! But of course this is not possible, as we’re broaching 6,000m now and it’s starting to get cold. As such, we’re climbing in thick clothing and heavy double-lined mountaineering boots. This makes climbing the Yellow Tower – the crux pitch on the route graded at around 16/17 AUS or 5.7 US – rather difficult and as such the fixed lines make it significantly easier. As we haul our exhausted bodies over the lip of the Yellow Tower we can look up and see the tents in Camp 2 awaiting our arrival. It’s time for a rest!
The next day’s climbing between Camps 2 and 3 is probably the most difficult of the entire route. We begin by dropping briefly into a small col and traversing eastwards before then ascending to the base of the Grey Tower, a steep 100m section of mixed rock and ice. All up it’s about 3 pitches, but it takes us a few hours to get up this section. We top out of the Grey Tower by crossing an exposed traverse that brings us to a long and convoluted snowy ridge, known as the Mushroom Ridge (due to the bulbous, mushroom like cornices that hang out over drops of more than 1,000m on either side). From here we climb up on this steep and narrow ridge along o Camp 3. Moving over this incredibly exposed terrain certainly keeps your senses alert!
We’d placed our tents underneath a small windblown cornice at about 6,300m, meaning that we’d have just under 600m of climbing the next day to reach the summit.
As with any Himalayan early morning alpine start, I always find it hard to reconcile the warmth and safety of my sleeping bag with the cold realities of what awaits us outside of our tents. Inevitably on a Himalayan summit day, it involves discomfort and suffering. But that’s what we’re here for, and that’s the price we’re prepared to pay.
We’re under way by about 4am in the morning, and after the initial discomfort of cold and exhaustion I settle into the familiarity of excitement and anxiety as we push through the darkness on our summit push. By 6am the darkness backs off and we see the long final summit ridge ahead of us. It’ll be another 5-6 hours of exhausting climbing up unrelenting snow slopes before we top out onto the final summit ridge and then make our way across a narrow and airy traverse to the main summit at 6,856m.
And this is the moment that we’ve worked towards for so long! It’s pretty cold and windy up on the summit, but the views are spectacular. Immediately in front of us is the vast east face of Nuptse and Lhotse, and of course behind that the immense bulk of Mount Everest. To the left is Cho Oyu and to the right is Makalu; in the distance on the Nepali-Indian border is Kanchenjunga – that’s five of the world’s highest mountain all within view! But we can’t let our guard down – we’ve still got a long descent ahead of us.
So it’s time for a quick photo or two, and then we drop back down off the summit ridge and start abseil after abseil, losing altitude as quickly as we can. It’s another two days before we are off the mountain and safely back in Base Camp, happy to be toasting our summit success.
For me, it’s a great moment to stand in Base Camp and look back at the summit, and know that I’ve come full circle over the past decade. Ama Dablam is certainly not an easy climb, and compared to a lot of the standard routes on the more commonly climbed peaks of the Himalayas she’s relatively difficult. For any technical mountaineer who’s keen to explore the Himalayas for the first time, she’s certainly a worthwhile objective.