Manaslu Take 2 No O2
Updated: Nov 20, 2022
Manaslu has been in the back of my mind for the last 10 years. I had previously made the “summit” with Dawa Tenzing in 2012. We had a spectacular day with clear skies and no wind. The year before we had summited Everest together in a whiteout and extreme winds. I was so scared; I had never experienced that level of fear before. Climbing towards the summit of Manaslu was like a dream in comparison. Views across the Himalaya and out towards Tibet. It was the summit day I had dreamed about on Everest but had got a nightmare instead. There are two reasons why I had Manaslu on my mind since that day. Firstly, my goal was to climb without the use of supplemental oxygen. Due to the conditions on the mountain, we were not able to establish a Camp 4. We had a very short weather window so had to go from Camp 3 at 6800m to the summit. It was a very long way for me, and I didn’t feel acclimatised enough to make it without using oxygen. I used the one emergency bottle we had and Dawa climbed without oxygen. Secondly, I did not make the true summit. The ridge to the summit is very narrow and exposed. What you see when you get closer to the summit is the false summit. Most people stop on the false summit and do not continue to the true summit which is perhaps only 30m away and a couple of meters higher but very difficult to get to. I stopped on the false summit because I was too scared at the time to continue further. This year I decided to go back with the goal of reaching the true summit without using oxygen. Many climbers went back to Manaslu this Autumn that had previously climbed it to reach the true summit. In fact, there were around 400 permits issued for the mountain. I knew it would be busy and it was a big expense for me to go there so I decided I would attempt Dhaulagiri afterwards. There were a lot less permits issued for Dhaulagiri so I was looking forward to the relative serenity after our Manaslu climb.
Since returning from Annapurna and meeting Kristin Harila, I had made the decision to climb all 14 of the 8000ers. I previously had that dream after returning from Cho Oyu, my first 8000er in 2007. I made the summit on my own without the use of oxygen at the time. I was the only one to climb to the summit that day. I felt that I had found my path in life, and I dreamed to do all the 8000ers without oxygen. I was working as an outdoor guide in Australia which was one of the lowest paid jobs in the country. I was not able to see a path to make my dream a reality as I didn’t believe I could gain the finances I needed to complete my project. Since then, I have only focused on one expedition at a time. I have received some sponsorship funding however I have predominantly financed my own expeditions. Since meeting Kristin however, my way of thinking changed. She believed in me, and she has trusted my advice for her own 14 peaks project. I asked myself what is holding me back? The answer I got when I looked deep inside was me, I was holding myself back. It was a sad but liberating realisation. I don’t feel I have wasted my time up until now and I certainly don’t feel it is too late to complete my project. In fact, I feel like everything I have done in my life up until now has been training for my project. I am at a time in my life that I can be committed to it, and I have the experience under my belt. I aim to climb all 14 peaks to the true summits over the next three years without the use of supplemental oxygen. In doing so, I hope to be the first Australian to complete this project .
After our Annapurna expedition, Dawa Tenzing and I had kept in contact. We decided to climb together again and not in a team which meant less work for him. On Annapurna he was working with the Sherpa team as well as climbing with me. He had to carry extra loads because of this, and we weren’t always free to climb the way we wanted together. I made the decision to go back to using Seven Summits Treks for my logistics on the mountain. I had used their Base Camp service previously on my Lhotse expedition with Mariano Galvan in 2007 and my Makalu expedition with Vibeke Sefland in 2019.
Since I was busy guiding mountaineering courses this Winter, I was not able to fly to Kathmandu until September 9th. Most climbers were already acclimatising on the trek into Base Camp or at Base Camp at that stage. I was worried because I wanted to summit at the end of September so I could head to Dhaulagiri before the season ended. Dawa and I decided to fly to Samagaun 3600m, which is the small village at the base of the mountain. Kristin and her friend Alexandra had flown in a couple of days earlier. I could not wait to finally see her after months apart. We shared the helicopter with other climbers and the flight was spectacular. This was the first time I had been to Nepal in the Autumn season. I could not believe how green it was! There were giant waterfalls cascading from the mountains into surging rivers. I recognised villages that Dawa and I had trekked through on our way to Manaslu 10 years earlier. When we arrived at Samagaun I was surprised by how much the village had grown. I hardly recognised it as there are now so many lodges that weren’t there before. We landed around 7am and I immediately headed to find Kristin. I found her Lodge which was busy with porters getting the loads ready to take to Base Camp. I found her room, knocked on the door and woke her up! Thankfully she was as happy to see me as I was to see her. It is difficult to describe the connection we have together. It is like we are sisters; we can talk about anything, and we understand each other. It’s like we were meant to be in each other’s lives. We lift each other up and we see the best in each other. This type of connection is rare, and I feel blessed to have found it with someone that has the same passion as me. It’s a gift to have a friend that is like a mirror who reflects who you truly are, so you can see it clearly in yourself. She is so inspiring to me and I am so grateful to have her in my life now.
Dawa and I decided to gain some altitude that day so I could begin to acclimatise. We saw a trail on a ridge from the Lodge so decided to see where it went. At the start of the trail a sign said to “Milarepa Cave”. I was finding it hard to breathe as we headed up 500m of altitude. We arrived to a plateau and seemed to lose the trail. Dawa saw some Buddhist flags in the distance, and I followed him downhill to a large rocky outcrop. We found an empty shack built into a rock face. It had prayer flags blowing in the wind outside it with a view over the valley. We opened the doors to a small temple. We could see that monks had recently been there. Dawa decided to light some incense bushes and pray while I sat and watched. I felt so happy to be back in the mountains in Nepal. To me it is more than just a climbing expedition, I have a spiritual connection to the mountains, to the people and to their customs. We headed down a trail through the jungle into the valley and returned to the Lodge.
Before every expedition it is important for the Sherpa to do a puja ceremony. This is a Buddhist ceremony in which a Lama reads prayers and gives blessings for a safe expedition. We knew we would probably miss the puja at Base Camp. So, the next day we headed to the old monastery together with Adri Brownlee and Gelje Sherpa to do our puja there. Since my father passed away in 2020, the ceremony has become a more emotional and meaningful experience for me. He was an extremely spiritual man and I know he would have loved to witness one. As the Lama was chanting and reciting his Tibetan scripts, I started to cry. I couldn’t hold back my tears. Grief is one of those things that doesn’t ever go away and turns up at different times in my life. At the end of his prayer, I asked to light a butter lamp for my father which I left burning on the altar. We then headed to the new monastery where there was another younger Lama outside. He also gave us blessings for our climb and a necklace each with a folded prayer attached to it.
I felt that I needed to acclimatise more before ascending to Base Camp which is at 4800m. I asked Dawa how far away it was to Larke Pass. I was a bit disappointed about not trekking in to Samgaun, as I wanted to complete the section of the Manaslu circuit I had not done before. I was keen to at least go to Larke Pass which is at 5100m. Dawa said it was around 15km away which didn’t sound too far. The next morning, we headed off along the muddy trail. We were grateful to have umbrellas as it was raining. After around 15km we arrived at a couple of Lodges, and I asked Dawa how far from the pass we were. He checked on his phone as he had internet and found that we still had 7km to go! I was tired, but I was committed, so we continued on. As we got closer to the pass, I was unable to string a coherent sentence together due to the altitude and my lack of acclimatisation. I thought we would never get there but thankfully after around 7 and a half hours we made it and it felt like a summit! It was a whiteout and raining so we had no view. We took some photos and began our long journey back to Samagaun. I felt fine until it got dark around 6km from the village. At that point my legs began to hurt, and I really wanted to stop hiking. We finally arrived back to the lodge after a 13 hour day. I sat down next to Adri in the dining room and had a little cry! It was not the day I had prepared myself for. Thankfully when I woke up the next morning I didn’t feel too bad, I couldn’t believe it. We had a rest day then headed up in the rain and mud to Base Camp the day after.
The umbrella turned out to be an essential piece of equipment this expedition. We arrived at Base Camp in the rain which continued through the next day and as we headed up the mountain for our first rotation. We both used our umbrellas on the glacier all the way up to Camp 1 at 5710m. Dawa had carried our tent and a load to there the day before. He put the tent up and put the load inside it. Unfortunately during the night it dumped down with wet, heavy snow. This destroyed a lot of tents at Camp 1 including ours. Thankfully Dawa had friends in the camp with spare tents that were still standing. We were able to stay in one of these so we didn’t have to use our only other tent, a small summit tent. That whole day and during the night it had been snowing. The next day we had a rest day and no one climbed beyond Camp 1 because of the avalanche risk from the new snow. It was cloudy all day but thankfully it only lightly snowed. I needed a rest day in any case to help me acclimatise. I was pushing my body this expedition acclimatising faster than I usually would. I was getting headaches at night which I normally don't have. We woke up the next morning to beautiful weather, we were above the clouds. It was the first time we saw the mountain since we arrived to the Base Camp. We packed our bags and headed up to Camp 2 6200m.
There are a few steep sections on the route to Camp 2. The most dangerous section though is a traverse that passes under a giant ice cliff. Dawa ran through this section, but I was not acclimatised enough, so walked as fast as I could and met him on the other side. As we got closer to the camp Dawa went ahead to either find a place for our summit tent or see if he could find an empty larger tent. I arrived at the lower part of Camp 2 and Dawa had found an empty tent for us at his friend’s camp. I was feeling the altitude so was very happy to crawl straight in a tent rather than put one up. That night I had a terrible sleep with a splitting headache. I had planned to move higher the next day to Camp 3. I knew that wouldn’t be a good idea so instead moved up to higher Camp 2 which was only 110m of altitude gain. Kristin and Alexandra arrived at the camp and it was great to see them on the mountain. They were on their way to the summit as they had already done one rotation and were using oxygen during the summit push. The next morning the weather was clear and we headed up to Camp 3. There was a fair amount of traffic that day on the ropes so we got held up a few times. We had heavy bags but managed to arrive at the camp in 2:20min. Camp 3 is at 6650m and is no longer in the same place it was in 2012. Dawa and I climbed in the Spring of 2012 and our Camp 3 was at 6800m under a small ice cliff. In the Autumn season of the same year an avalanche hit the camp during the night and killed 11 climbers. Since then, the camp was moved to a safer location lower down.
As I arrived at Camp 3 Hilaree Nelson was the first person I ran into. I had met her and her partner Jim at the Bozeman Ice Festival in 2019. We talked about the new snow and how difficult it would be for a summit push as the ropes were buried above Camp 3. She was missing home because she had been on the mountain for a long time. Her and Jim and the Sherpa were discussing whether to go down or head up. She told me that she was really missing her boys and she was keen to head home and see them soon. Dawa managed to find a friend who was about to head down the mountain. They said we could sleep in their tent! I found out that Kristin had decided to push for the summit that night. As there was so much snow it was not going to be easy. They had a small team including Alexandra and a few Sherpa. I wanted to tell Hilary and Jim that they were going up as it may have influenced their own decision. However, their team had made their minds up and already started down.
We woke up to clear skies, no wind, and an amazing view. We sat outside and drank our tea looking out over the valley below. We could see down to Base Camp and to Samagaun. It was the perfect weather for Kristin and all the climbers that had left the night before to the summit. We decided to follow their trail and gain some altitude before packing up and heading back to Base Camp. We followed the route up to 7015m which went between two avalanche paths. I felt fine at that altitude which was good sign. We headed back to the tent to sort out what we wanted to leave at the camp. We left a duffel bag with our equipment and food that we carried up for our summit push then began our descent to Base Camp. We arrived back to Base as the sun was setting.
Dawa and I had planned to have at least two rest days before we would head up for our summit push. It was raining when I woke up the next day. Kristin arrived back to Base Camp after a successful however very long, summit push. I went to her camp to congratulate her, have lunch and help her pack her bags. Alexandra was not with her as she was rescued from Camp 3 and was in Kathmandu in the hospital. She had problems with her asthma during her summit attempt. Kristin understandably wanted to see her as soon as she could. In the afternoon the clouds cleared enough for the heli to fly in. It is always sad when we say goodbye to each other. At the time we didn’t know when we would see each other again as she was hoping to go to China to climb the last two peaks of her project.
Our weather forecast did not show a good upcoming weather window for Dawa and I. Either it was snowing, or the winds speeds were high on the summit. As I wasn’t using oxygen the conditions need to be good for a summit push. This is not entirely the case with an oxygen ascent. Dawa and I summited Everest and Annapurna in storms when we used oxygen. On Everest we estimated the wind to be around 60km an hour on the summit ridge. Without the use supplemental oxygen it’s almost impossible to climb that high in those conditions. Apart from how much slower it is to climb, it is extremely difficult to stay warm. For me that is the hardest part of climbing without oxygen and when you add wind to the already low temperatures, there is a very high risk of getting cold injuries or worse. So, we waited at Base Camp and monitored the forecasts daily. The problem with the forecasts though was that they didn’t seem very accurate probably due to how unstable the weather was. Climbers were reporting stronger winds as well as weaker winds up high than what was predicted. It was not an easy decision to know when to head up for our summit rotation. On our fourth day at Base Camp, September 26th, we heard news on the radio that there had been an avalanche above Camp 4. Many people with injuries including broken bones, were arriving to Camp 3. There was not a lot that could be done for them apart from provide care until they the helicopter rescue could be initiated. Sadly, one Nepali Anup Rai died in the avalanche and around 12 other Nepali’s that were carrying loads to Camp 4 at the time suffered injuries.
That evening when I walked into our dining tent a lot of Sherpa were gathered around the heater. One of them told me straight up that Hilaree had fallen while skiing off the summit that morning. It was a shock, and I didn’t really know how to process it. I had seen her five days earlier and assumed her and Jim had flown home. I burst into tears and the entire tent went silent. I am a North Face ambassador and Hilary was our team captain. I looked up to her and she was an inspiration to me. I was mentally exhausted when I went to bed from all the bad news that day.
Over the next couple of days many expeditions decided to leave the mountain because of the unstable weather. Dawa and I decided to stay. We believed the conditions would improve over time with less snow in the forecast. It looked like the 3rd of October would have low summit wind speeds. But it was a very short summit window as on the 4th it was predicted to snow heavily and continue snowing for a few days. It seemed to be the best and the last weather window of the season. We decided to head up the mountain after six days spent in the Base Camp. The climbers that were still there had the same idea, as it was also their last chance. Some had previously reached Camp 4 and turned back due to the wind. On the 29th of September Dawa and I headed to Camp 1. I felt strong after so many rest days and I walked faster than the first time I went up. We knew a lot of people would be going to Camp 2 the next morning, so we got an early start. We managed to beat the queues on the fixed lines, and it turned out to be my best day of climbing on the mountain. We stopped at Camp 2 for lunch then continued up to Camp 3. I was happy with how I was feeling when I arrived at the camp. We had planned to have a rest day the next day before we headed up to Camp 4 and the summit. Surprisingly I then had the worst sleep of the entire expedition that night. I woke up three times to take painkillers for my headache. I attributed it the fact I gained 900m of altitude the day before. I was very grateful for the rest day. Our forecast predicted 2-5cm of snow that evening however it started to snow in the afternoon. Dawa and I packed our bags for the summit push and we set our alarm for 3am. We wanted to head to Camp 4 early so we weren’t on the route in the sun when there would be a higher risk of avalanches occurring. During the night the snow did not stop. We had to keep waking up to hit the snow off the tent. When the alarm went off it was still snowing heavily. We looked outside and it was a blizzard. It wasn’t possible to go up in these conditions so we set the alarm for 6am to see if it would be clear then. We woke up to a lot of new snow on the ground. The predicted 2-5cm was more like 40cm. There was no way we could climb to Camp 4 in those conditions.
As climbers started to get out of their tents there was a lot of discussion about what to do. As the morning progressed most teams chose to go down and abort their summit push. Dawa and I didn’t want to head up or down in all the new snow. We were in a safe place at Camp 3 so decided to stay there. It was still lightly snowing and a whiteout for most of the day. There were some climbers left at the camp. We were all considering whether to head up that night and try climb from Camp 3 to the summit. The heavy snowfall was now predicted to start in the afternoon on the 4th. We were now not so trusting of the forecast so perhaps it would start earlier. News came in that there had been an avalanche under Camp 2 that swept through the route while people were heading down. One Sherpa was missing, later to be confirmed dead. It was one of the Seven Summits Treks lead guides Dawa Chirring Sherpa. Two of the owners of SST Dawa and Mingma were in Camp 3 as they were planning on going to the summit. This news was absolutely devastating to them. That evening, after a lot of discussion they decided to call off the summit push. The other teams in the camp came to the same decision. I was disappointed because it meant the end of our expedition as it was the end of the season.
The next morning, we packed up our gear and headed down the mountain. That was when I realised exactly what had occurred the day before. Almost every slope that could avalanche had avalanched, it was almost unbelievable. I had never seen anything like that before on a mountain. Some climbers chose to pay a heli to take them to Base Camp from Camp 2. It was stressful going down where the avalanche crossed the route a day earlier and swept Dawa Chirring away. They discovered when they found his body that morning, he had not clipped the fixed rope. The other climbers that were clipped into the rope were swept off their feet but not down the mountain. Dawa and I heard this news on the radio so we made sure we clipped every single rope on the way down. We were both relieved to arrive at Camp 1 as from there on the route is safe from avalanche danger.
We had a lot of gear to carry off the mountain. Thankfully Dawa’s brother-in-law had room in his pack and offered to carry a load to Base Camp for us. We arrived back in the middle of the day and a lot of the Base Camp had already been packed down. We had planned to head to Dhaulagiri after Manaslu but there had also been a lot of snow in that region. The climbers on Dhaulagiri hadn’t managed to get above Camp 3 and had all aborted their summit attempts. I had in my mind that if I couldn’t go to Dhaulagiri, I would use my time to climb Ama Dablam. The mountain stands at 6812m and is the most prominent peak on the way to Everest Base Camp. I had hiked around the base of it many times but never stepped foot on the mountain. This was the end of one journey but my time in Nepal was not yet over.
I left the mountain unable to process my experience there. It was a rollercoaster of emotions for me from extreme joy from being in a place where my spirit is truly free, to grief and to disappointment. Now I am back home, and I am still processing it. One thing I do know from my expeditions is that if I only focus on summit when I am climbing, I am not fulfilled by living in the moment. This expedition had a lot of special moments that will stay in my heart forever. I met so many amazing and inspiring people on Manaslu that I am grateful to now call friends. The people are what make the journey.
I am so grateful for all the support I receive during my expeditions. Knowing that people are following my adventures means a lot to me.
I have started a Go Fund Me page if you would like to support my project by making a donation you can.
Onwards and upwards!