View from the top for Aspen trio
December 6, 2008
Weary and sleep deprived, Dirk Bockelmann crawled out of his sleeping bag, dressed in the dark and stuffed half-frozen bottles of water and other gear into his pack. Then, he stepped outside the cramped tent, situated precariously on a small ledge at 21,000 feet.
Ahead, nearly 300 meters of bulletproof blue ice in sustained 50-degree pitches awaited. So, too, did steep sections of deep snow ” the last remnants of monsoon season sweeping across eastern Nepal’s high country.
Ahead, the summit of majestic Himalayan peak Ama Dablam awaited.
“It’s almost like you’re on autopilot at that time,” said Bockelmann, chief operating officer for local guiding outfit Aspen Expeditions. “You’re cold, you’re miserable, you haven’t had much sleep. You wake up, and it’s time to go.”
Such an opportunity was one Bockelmann and fellow Aspenites Ted Mahon and Christy Sauer thought might never come. Their recent month-long trip to the Khumbu region of Nepal (Bockelmann and Sauer’s first, and Mahon’s first since summiting Everest in 2003), one three years in the making, had an ominous start.
Two weeks earlier, the group, which included friend and Alpenglow Expeditions founder Adrian Ballinger, his wife, Lissa, and four military men from Vermont, among others, reached Ama Dablam base camp. Buoyed by an eight-day trek from the town of Lukla through the Khumbu, the group was in good health and good spirits as they settled into a camp teeming with activity during the height of climbing season.
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The mood shifted drastically, however, when a thunderous roar interrupted a meeting soon after their arrival. After evacuating the tent, the group looked up to witness the peak’s Dablam, or large hanging snowfield, collapse, spewing snow in every direction. The debris rendered Camp 3 inoperable and drastically altered conditions on the traditional Southwest Ridge summit route.
The sight was both spectacular and unsettling.
“It was what some would call a catastrophic event,” Bockelmann said. “It was literally thousands of tons of ice and snow. … It definitely set the tone. I was thinking ‘Oh, God, are we going to go up there and face this thing or what?’ It was a crap-the-pants kind of moment.”
“At first I didn’t realize the significance and the impact this would have on our trip,” wrote Sauer, assistant development director at the Aspen Art Museum, in an e-mail to The Aspen Times. “But as the days went by and teams started leaving base camp, saying the peak was not climbable this year … it really started to sink in that a successful summit might not be a reality.”
With a tentative summit date still nearly two weeks away, the group continued with preparations. While others abandoned their summit attempts, and the Dablam continued to shed (Mahon remembers hearing intermittent falls as he lay in his tent at night), the local climbers stood pat.
They participated in the Puja ceremony (a religious ritual showing respect to the gods) and began the long and often tedious acclimatization process. From base camp at 15,000 feet, they made trips to Camps 1 (19,000 feet) and 2 (20,000). They traced and retraced their steps and contended with unsavory, high-altitude conditions.
“I can’t say it was pleasant sleeping up there,” Bockelmann said. “There was nothing flat. If you could find a position where your back was only contorted in four positions, you were doing good.”
Bockelmann said he rarely slept for more than two hours each night. But adrenaline took over.
“We were just psyched to be on the mountain and have good weather,” he added. “It’s not like you were getting up and doing some boring march.
Far from it. The ascent out of Camp 1 included exposed, treacherous traverses and category 5.5 to 5.8 climbing on both rock and snow, not to mention a headwall right before Camp 2. Such would have been a formidable obstacle under normal conditions, let alone while being attached to a flimsy rope (“You definitely don’t want to fall. It’s for peace of mind only,” Mahon said). Or while wearing oversized hard-plastic mountaineering boots and a cumbersome 30-pound pack.
“That made things interesting and a little spicy and taxing on the body,” Bockelmann said. “It’s a technical and interesting peak. Every section requires thinking and being on your game.”
While they weren’t in the so-called dead zone, Mahon said there were times when he was out of his comfort zone.
“It’s tough. People are going up and down, snow is flying and things are hard to figure out,” he added. “The rocks are loose, there’s ice and snow, you’re on old ropes and people are descending. It’s clumsy.”
Crampons were mandatory above Camp 2, which is situated near a steep couloir and rock outcropping known as the Gray Tower. The trio would learn that, on their summit day, two Frenchmen lost there lives there. Another climber perished a few days later.
Before the harrowing push to the 22,349-foot summit begins in earnest, climbers must negotiate exposed Mushroom Ridge. Mahon remembers making his way across the loose snow there and feeling uneasy when beams of light shone through each of his footsteps.
Mahon calls Ama Dablam, which loosely translates to mother’s necklace, his toughest challenge to date. That’s high praise from a man who has reached the top of the world.
“Everest may be high, but there’s not a lot difficult about it,” he said. “The challenge is dealing with the altitude and acclimatization. This didn’t have a lot of the suffering, but it did have immense technical challenges.”
And uncertainty. After familiarizing themselves with the route and finishing acclimatization, the group returned to base camp to rest up before the final push. They had been on the mountain for nearly nine days, yet no one had reached the summit in that time (or up to that point all year, for that matter).
They weren’t about to abandon their bid just yet, however. Ballinger and a group of sherpas had secured a small, valuable campsite (later dubbed 2.7) just below Camp 3, which was buried. The Dablam had been stable for nearly a week, yet heavy snow still existed above the snowfield, compounding efforts to fix ropes on the path to the summit.
A group of three Romanians passed Ballinger and the sherpas when they were setting up Camp 2.7, seemingly poised to reach the top. Mahon remembered following their headlamps across the Southwest Ridge from a safe perch below.
The Romanians made it higher than any group before, but ultimately turned back.
Bockelmann, Mahon and Sauer were undaunted. On Oct. 29, they spent the night at Camp 1, then climbed to Camp 2.7 the following day in preparation for a Halloween-day summit push.
Bockelmann remembers that morning well.
“There was nervous apprehension,” he said. “… I was feeling a little weak and starting to second-guess myself.”
With Phurba Tashi (coincidentally Mahon’s head sherpa on his Everest expedition) leading the way, the three Aspenites began the final push.
First, they headed up a steep pitch of ice, front pointing with their crampons in an area that, prior to the Dablam collapse, had been covered in snow. Above, ice turned to snow as the group trailed sherpas fixing a line as they climbed.
At 11:45 a.m., Mahon and Sauer set foot on the summit.
They paused to take photos with the sherpas, all of whom had grown up in the shadows of Ama Dablam yet had never seen the view from the top. Sauer even pulled out an Aspen Art Museum flag.
Bockelmann followed minutes later.
“The views were absolutely sick. We were looking straight over to Lhotse and Makalu. The peaks were peaking through the clouds,” he said. “It was surreal.
“We had always said the trip was going to be the amazing thing, and the summit would be gravy. We got the gravy ” and it was really good.”
As winds swirled and snow flew, the group huddled for 10 minutes, enjoying a view no one to that point all year had witnessed.
The respite was short, largely because they had summited far later than anticipated. Consequently, they had to stop at Camp 2.7 instead of descend to Camp 1, as originally planned.
Sauer awoke in the middle of the night with a nasty cough (a telltale sign of altitude sickness), making a retreat to base camp a pressing issue. The ensuing day, as the Ballingers and three of the four men from Vermont summited, Bockelmann, Mahon and Sauer embarked on an 11 1/2-hour excursion.
“It was something we didn’t plan for but something that could have happened to any one of us,” Mahon said. “It was the hardest day of the whole trip.”
Sauer’s cough improved soon after returning to base camp. Finally, all three took time to reflect on their good timing and the good fortune.
They’re still letting the weight of the experience sink in one month later.
“The summit wasn’t the high point, only in the literal sense,” Mahon said. “I know it’s cliche, but the journey really was more memorable than the destination.”
Bockelmann, Mahon and Sauer said they will remember this jaunt for much more than the summit. They will remember spending the night with Tashi at his home in Khumjung, then traveling to the small village of Phortse to spend the afternoon with the sherpa’s mother and three sons. There, they sampled tea and yak yogurt with three generations of sherpas.
They will remember trekking through the Khumbu, staying in tea houses, visiting temples and taking photos of towering peaks, colorful prayer flags and mani stones inscribed with traditional prayers.
They will remember crowding around a small television at the Everest Bakery in Namche to watch president-elect Barack Obama deliver his acceptance speech.
“There is something truly remarkable about the Khumbu valley and having experienced it once only makes you want to go back and see other valleys and more of these majestic mountains,” Sauer wrote.
The group is already planning a trip to neighboring Pumori in the fall of 2010.
“We’re home and all settled in and now that I look back on it, this is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” Mahon said.
“I still can’t believe it,” Bockelmann added. “With all the things against us, I can’t believe it worked out. It was worth everything.”