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  • Writer's pictureAllie Pepper

Annapurna 1

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

I flew to Kathmandu in the second week of March. I was greeted at the airport by two staff from 8k Expeditions, the company I chose to use for my logistics on the mountain. When I arrived to the Hotel, I met Kristin Harila from Norway who was with the same company. We almost immediately became friends. Two days later we took a small plane into Lukla, both with plans to begin acclimatising for our 8000m expeditions. I planned to trek in the Khumbu region on my own as I am very familiar with the area. Kristin and I met up in Namche and stayed at Panorama Lodge owned by a mutual friend, Mingma. Together we went to Namche Gonda and were blessed by the Lama for good luck before we started our climbs.

Getting blessed by the Lama at Namche Gonda

I continued up the valley towards Everest with the plan to cross a high pass I had not done before, the Kungma La 5540m. Kristin and I met in Dingboche again before I headed off to Chukkung, Chukkung Ri 5570m and then crossed the Kungma La to arrive to the village of Lobuche 4940m. At this point I felt like I had a cold and did a covid test which unfortunately was positive. I was very upset and believed my entire expedition would be over. The next day I trekked 28km back down the valley to Namche to recover at Panorama. Thankfully after 4 nights my symptoms got better, and I was able to hike back to Lukla and fly to Kathmandu. Some climbing Sherpa from 8k Expeditions and a young female climber from India Kasturi, were all waiting for me in Pokhara so we could travel to Annapurna Base Camp together. Dawa Tenzing Sherpa, who I previously climbed with on Everest and Manaslu, had decided to climb with me again on Annapurna. He was already at the Base Camp and was waiting for me to arrive. I flew to Pokhara after one night in Kathmandu and met up with the team. We then travelled to Dana by bus with a large load of expedition food and equipment. The next day we flew via helicopter into Annapurna Base Camp which is at 4200m.

Annapurna Base Camp

During the next week Dawa and I started to carry loads up the mountain, and we completed our first rotation staying at Camp 1 5030m, for one night and Camp 2 5585m, for two nights. The first time we went to Camp 1 we were confronted by one of the more dangerous sections on the mountain. The route passes underneath a giant hanging glacier that can carve off huge chucks of ice at any moment. Dawa was faster than me so he would go ahead to spend less time in this avalanche zone. My heart rate and anxiety levels were always very high in this section.

A week after arriving at Base Camp, Kristin flew in and joined me. We were so excited that we would be climbing the same mountain and sharing a Base Camp together. Annapurna would be the first mountain in her 14 x 8000m peaks in 6 months project. A few days later it was an auspicious date, so we had we had our Puja ceremony at Base Camp. The leader of the Sherpa team, Dawa Onchu Sherpa had studied to be a Buddhist Lama so he performed the ceremony for us. It was a special day and we invited everyone in the other camps to join us. We had quite the party at the foot of Annapurna which towered close to 4000m above us.

Kristin and I during our Puja Ceremony

A day later Dawa and I headed back up the mountain straight to Camp 2. A group of Sherpa had fixed ropes to around 6200m so we planned to climb them to acclimatise. That route on the Dutch Rib hit a dead end below a vertical ice cliff. So, the Sherpa had decided they would not continue to fix ropes on that route. We left our tent at around 5am and headed under the Crosshair Couloir up towards the start of the ropes on the rib. Dawa was ahead of me and we probably spent close to 2 hours in extremely dangerous avalanche terrain. We both questioned what the hell we were doing as the sun was coming and about to hit the ice cliffs (seracs) above us. We decided to turn around so we would not have to come down in the heat of the day. This short outing made us rethink our whole plan for the mountain. We were faced with the reality of how dangerous the mountain is and there was no way to avoid hazardous avalanche terrain no matter what route we took to Camp 3. We decided we would climb to Camp 3 in the middle of the night to decrease the risk. We headed back to Base Camp to get ready for our summit push.

The fixing team left from Base Camp to rig the ropes on the route up the German Ridge to the left of the Crosshair Couloir. All expeditions headed up after them with the plan to summit on the 19th of April which was forecast to be perfect weather. Unfortunately, as we got close to our tent at Camp 2 a snowstorm began and dumped around 30cm of snow. The next day the fixing team were not able get far in the new snow so they turned back. This meant we ran out of time to make the summit window. Everyone went back to Base Camp apart from the fixing team, Dawa and I, another Taiwanese climber Fish Tri and Eddy her climbing Sherpa. We decided that if the ropes got fixed the next day, we would climb to Camp 3 in the night to acclimatise then come down the night after. We left just after 2am as the fixing team had managed to get to 6425m that afternoon. It was nerve wracking crossing underneath the couloir in the dark. At around 4am a huge chunk of the serac broke off above the couloir and an avalanche passed below us. We were happy to have chosen to leave early so we were high enough above the danger zone at that point. The route was difficult in the new snow and had a 30m vertical section of ice at around 6300m. This was tiring to ascend with our back packs. We made it to where the fixing team had stopped and they were about to head down. They were not able to find a way any further, so had halted and established their tent on a small ledge underneath a huge serac on the edge of an ice cliff. This way not an ideal and safe camping spot! Not long after we arrived the team left and Dawa and Eddy went to fix more rope. Dawa managed to find a route that led higher through the seracs but had to come back to the tent when a blizzard began. We woke up around midnight, packed up and headed back down to Camp 2. It was difficult in all the new snow. We then continued back to Base Camp to wait for the next summit window.

The plateau below the route to Camp 3

After 3 days rest in Base Camp we headed back up the mountain. I had to change my flight home to make the next summit window. The forecast predicted April 27th and 28th as a good window with low wind speeds and not a lot of precipitation. All expeditions headed back up to Camp 2, then again we had a snowstorm which halted progress the next day. The next day all climbers apart from Dawa, Eddy, Fish and I left from Camp 2 to go to Camp 3. We chose to wait until that night so we could climb in the dark as it was safer and we would not have to wait on the ropes. We left around 2am and this time the going was a lot easier following the steps of other climbers. When we arrived at the ice cliff most climbers were camped below it and were having breakfast. We continued higher to 6425m where we had camped last time on the ledge under the serac. I was happy to meet up with Kristin there. She was very tired because there were 5 of them all sharing one tent. There was no safe area to camp on the small ledge. We set up our tent that was for the four of us. In the night Dawa and Eddy woke me up to move the tent as they could hear the ice cliff breaking away underneath us.

Heading up onto the Sickle Glacier

The next day we ascended onto the Sickle Glacier. We discovered that most climbers had made their Camp 4 at 6700m. This was too low for us as both Fish and I were attempting to summit without the use of supplemental oxygen. We continued higher to 6850m and dug a ledge below a small steep ice step for the tent. The weather was perfect, no wind and no afternoon snowstorm as was predicted. We only had a few hours to rest before we began to get ready for our summit push. At around 11:30pm Dawa and I left the tent. Not long after we got stuck behind a large group of climbers that was going very slow. As I was not using oxygen this slow pace was making me very cold. The terrain was too difficult to pass them so we had to wait. Finally, the slow climbers pulled over to the side and we could go ahead. It was awesome to finally be able to climb at a steady pace. We were climbing alongside others that were also not using oxygen as the sun was coming up, Giampi Corona, Josette Valloton and Tim Bogdanov. Those climbers did not have any Sherpa support. We shared an amazing sunrise together with views to Dhaulagiri. I was feeling good at this point and we were making good time. As we continued on, we came to the end of the ropes and the start of a very long traverse that ends at a couloir that leads to the summit. This traverse is over a kilometre and begins at around 7700m and goes to approximately 7900m. At this point some climbers passed us that had turned around from their summit bid due to the cold and exhaustion. Usually, Camp 4 is made much higher, around 7200m. However, due to the new snow it took much longer to fix the ropes the day before, so no one had been able to make their camp that high. This made for a very long summit push. Some climbers using oxygen began to overtake me and others behind me turned back as they were too tired to continue. It was such a long way but as we got closer to the end of traverse, I began to see climbers finally reaching the summit. Kristin passed me on her way back from the summit and gave me a lot of motivation to keep going, She told me the summit was close. However Lakpa one of her climbing Sherpa, then told me it would take around 4-5 hours without oxygen to reach the top. I didn’t even register what time it was and just continued to plod along like a slow snail. At around 1:15pm I was just above 7800m when Dawa told me I was going too slow. The clouds were building up underneath us. When I looked at the time, I realised that I would make the summit very late. Before our summit rotation we discussed the dangers of the mountain and the summit bid. We had decided that Dawa would use oxygen on summit day so he would be stronger in case of an emergency, and he would carry one bottle for me as well. I had decided that if I could not make the summit without oxygen, I would use it because I did not want to come back. I had not made that decision on my Makalu or Lhotse expeditions. I had chosen to turn around and to attempt them again without oxygen. However, Annapurna was the most dangerous mountain I had ever been to. I didn’t want to climb through the dangerous sections of the mountain again.

On the long traverse to the summit.

At this point I made the decision to summit using the spare oxygen bottle Dawa had carried for me. As soon as I put the mask on, I began to feel warm. I then I went from only managing to say one-word sentences to talking normally. It was a total game changer, and I was able to climb without stopping and at twice the pace. We continued on towards the start of the fixed ropes. When we reached them, the clouds began to surround us. As we headed up towards the summit it began to snow heavily, then lightening started to strike around us. Other climbers were coming down from the summit and passing us as we were going up. We made it to the summit at 3:57pm in a whiteout, blizzard and lightening storm. Dawa and I had previously summited Everest in 2011 in similar conditions however without lightening and with stronger winds. At this point my battery packs in my chest pockets were attracting the electricity in the air and I was feeling electrical shocks through my body. Something I had never experienced and I was very scared thinking I had been struck by lightning. As we descended from the summit Eddy came up but without Fish. He passed us to go up, I almost couldn’t believe that he would be climbing to the summit at this time but saw he had oxygen. Another 200m lower we encountered a climber also going up. Alone with no oxygen and no backpack. Dawa recognised that it was Jerry, a Mongolian climber with the same company we were with. I couldn’t believe it! Where was the Sherpa he was with? Where was his oxygen and backpack? Thankfully Dawa managed to talk him into turning around.

Dawa, Eddy, Jerry and I were at the base of the fixed ropes and it was a blizzard and a whiteout. We had over a kilometre to go along the traverse with no ropes to follow but we had no idea which direction to head. I honestly thought that we were going to spend the night there and it wasn’t going to be a good outcome. Dawa and I agreed we had to wait until the storm cleared and we could see the way or we would get lost. We waited for over 2 hours and it was extremely cold and frightening not knowing when it would or if it would clear. Thankfully the clouds eventually parted and we were able to see the direction we needed to go down. We then managed to make out the line of the trail in the new snow. As we followed it, we found Jerry’s pack left on the side of the trail. I could not understand what had happened and why he was on his own. He did not speak English well enough to tell us. We continued down as it became dark and we saw a group of lights to the right up above us. It was a group of other climbers that had gotten lost in the storm. We waved to them to follow us as we had found the way down. One of them went very fast ahead and found the ropes. The rest came down behind us, they were an Indian team with their guides. Once I found the ropes I went as fast as I could and got back to the tent at 9:30pm, 22 hours after we left. Dawa came shortly after me because he had stopped to talk to a Sherpa that was climbing up to help deliver oxygen to the Indian team. We later found out that they did not make it back to their tents until 2am.

On the summit in a blizzard and lightening storm.

The next morning at around 6am we woke up to Hans Wenzl a climber from Austria at our tent door. Him, Giampi and Tim had put their tents a little higher than us. He told us that Giampi and Tim had not made it back to their tents the night before. We could not believe it, I was very upset. They must have gotten lost in the storm. They both separately went past us coming down from the summit in the blizzard. Tim was with the Indian team at that point. We radioed to Base Camp to initiate a rescue. Dawa and I started to pack up to go down to Base Camp. This was against what we had agreed on earlier as we would be going through the avalanche terrain in the daytime. We were hoping that as we were going down, we could go fast through that area. It was very cold as I descended before Dawa. At the main Camp 4 lower down, most groups had already left but I quickly caught up to them. I didn’t feel my feet for around an hour and unfortunately got some frostnip on my big toes. Dawa caught up to me and we were stuck behind the climbers on the ropes. This meant that we were going to be crossing the avalanche area in the middle of the day. I was abseiling down the fixed ropes and realised I was very close to the middle of the couloir. In that moment I had the thought that it would not be a good place for an avalanche. Then I heard a very loud cracking sound from above and looked up to see an enormous chuck of ice break off the serac at the top of the couloir and it headed straight towards me. I only had a few seconds so moved as far as I could from the middle of the couloir and ducked under my helmet. I was blasted by snow and small pieces of ice. Thankfully the large blocks of ice stayed in the middle of the gully. It was the closest we had come to being in the line of fire. We were lucky to not be 100m lower. In fact, there was no one at that time in the middle of the avalanche zone. Everyone in that area was extremely lucky to have survived that one, it was almost unbelievable that no one was hurt.

The stress levels that were already high were now at extreme after that, and I could not relax until I reached Base Camp. We arrived at Camp 2 and packed up our tent then headed down. I passed under the hanging glacier below Camp 1 one last time and the dice rolled in my favour. I was grateful and felt extremely lucky to make it not only to the summit but also back down safely. It was over, and we had run on adrenalin for so long. But it was not over Giampi and Tim. They were still up high above Camp 4. Earlier that morning a helicopter went to rescue one of the Indian climbers from Camp 4 that had pulmonary oedema after the summit push. Dawa, the owner of Seven Summits Treks went in the helicopter and saw Giampi and Tim slowly moving down the mountain. He thought they would make it back and Giampi had radioed him and said he did not want a rescue. However, they lost communication so the next morning a long line rescue was initiated for the climbers. I flew out of the Base Camp just before they were rescued. Thankfully Tim had made it to his tent the night before and had only spent one night out in the open. However, Giampi had spent two nights out. They both had cerebral oedema and suffered frostbite on their fingers and toes, Giampi’s frostbite was severe. But they survived, so thankfully no one was left behind on the mountain this season. The statistics historically are that 1 out of 3 climbers that make the summit did not make it back.

I was proud of my efforts on the mountain even though I ended up using supplemental oxygen to make the summit. Dawa and I made decisions that kept us safe and allowed us to return home with all our fingers and toes. I had not been to altitude for just under 3 years and had caught covid before my ascent, but I managed to overcome those obstacles. I met some amazing and inspiring people on my journey that I now call friends. My spirit was free, and I felt I was where I was meant to be.

Onwards, and upwards!

Heading up the German Ridge to Camp 3.

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