When I was 12 my friends dragged me, rather reluctantly, to the local scout group. I was ushered into a room to meet the leader. He welcomed me warmly and announced that we were going climbing that evening at a local quarry. The quarry was a damp and dismal place, but as soon as I did my very first climb I was hooked. For someone who had never enjoyed traditional team sports climbing offered a door to another world. The week after I was back at scouts and went to the leader’s office to pay my subs. As my money was counted I glanced around the room and my eyes fell on a poster showing a magnificent mountain with the most perfect shape and features. I was still gazing at the picture when the leader turned to give me my change and he saw the look in my eyes. “That’s Ama Dablam,” he said. “I think it’s the most beautiful mountain in the world.”
30 years later and I was booked as an expedition leader for an Everest Base Camp trek and an ascent of Island Peak in Nepal. I’d never forgotten Ama Dablam but I’d never got around to climbing it either. Over recent years my regular partners had shown interest but work, families or finance had always stopped play. Then a chance conversation with a work colleague changed all that – Toby had time, money and no family, and Ama Dablam was his dream mountain too.
At about 6850 metres Ama Dablam is classed, under the Nepalese permit system, as a climbing peak. Toby and I needed to either apply for a permit or, more easily, join an established expedition. We both wanted to climb the mountain as a team of two rather than being part of a larger group, but were also short of time to organise the logistics so joining another team had a lot of benefits. Luckily, we found the perfect compromise and managed to buy into the permit and logistics for a guided team from the Lakes.
By any standards Ama Dablam is a gorgeous mountain. Firstly, it’s a classic mountain shape with pointed summit and steep, sculpted sides and ridgelines. Add to that its dominant position at the head of the valley and its interesting standard ascent line. It’s the perfect package. I also think the name is evocative and enticing. Research its origin and you’ll find several possibilities. My favourite is that it refers to the turquoise or coral necklace usually worn by married women. If you stretch your imagination you can visualise shoulders and a head with the huge lump of blue ice (the Dablam) in about the right spot for a necklace.
Expeditions to the mountain usually acclimatise in traditional style. A gentle walk up the Khumbu Valley to base camp followed by lots of upping and downing to the camps before a summit bid. My work commitments required a different strategy but I was confident we would have a perfect acclimatisation profile. A circuit up from Namche to Gokyo, over the Cho La Pass and up to Everest Base Camp and Kala Pattar. Then over to Island Peak for an ascent before the trek round to Ama Dablam Base Camp. Hopefully, at that point we’d just need a rest day before working our way up the mountain using camps established along the route.
The Khumbu trek was stunning and Island Peak, a classic 6100 metre trekking peak, was great fun. There are great views everywhere you look in that area but I was particularly inspired by the views of Lhotse South Face from the summit of Island Peak and the great vistas across to Everest, Nuptse and Pumori from Kala Pattar. Ama Dablam is different. It can be seen from just about anywhere in the valley and its presence was always there. I was itching to get across and get started on it. I was also nervous.
Soon enough we trekked up to Ama Dablam Base Camp. It was great to catch up on the news from the Lakes team and enjoy the luxuries Base Camp offered. They were all at varying stages of ascent and Toby and I would be the last ascent team on the mountain. We had been on the go for 18 days by the time we hit Base Camp but we could only spare one rest day before our ascent – and even that day looked set to be dominated by packing and sorting logistics.
The classic ascent route for Ama Dablam is the South West Ridge. After a slog up to Advance Base Camp the route follows a boulder field and slabs to Camp 1 which is situated at the far end of the ridge. Spectacular scrambling then leads to the technical crux of the route, the Yellow Tower. Climb it free and it is said to be HVS. Use the fixed ropes and you get to swing in a spectacular position above a vertical sea of perfect yellow granite. Either way you end up at the picture postcard location of Camp 2. This is situated on a small rocky pinnacle with sheer drops on all sides. From Camp 2 some people bolt straight for the summit but it is more usual to use a third camp as a staging post. In 2006 a tragic avalanche killed several climbers at Camp 3 and some expeditions now use a camp further right that is often referred to as Camp 2.9. The final ascent day is a long haul past the Dablam and up steep icy slopes to the eventual top out on one of the most aesthetic summits on the planet.
Toby and I packed as minimally as we could but still managed to fill 50 litre rucksacks. As always the equipment we chose was a balance between the things we knew would be essential and the things we thought we might need. It was useful to talk to other team members and a recurring message was that the early part of summit day remained in the shade for a long time. Infact, freezing feet and hands during this section had been show stoppers for several people we spoke to – we packed plenty of insulation layers, extra mittens, hand and foot warmers and neoprene overboots just in case.
After packing I went to bed early but I never sleep well before starting a big route and tonight was no exception. The night was filled with those ‘what ifs’ that climbers always battle and I was glad when the streaks of sunlight started peeking over the surrounding peaks and hit the tent. In the end I needn’t have worried about day 1. A long slog up a steep ridge path led us to Advance Base Camp. We’d opted to spend a night here to aid acclimatisation and we were treated to a beautiful sunset. It felt great to be heading up.
The ascent to Camp 1 is also technically straight forward. Hopping across a huge boulder field and a slog up easy angled slopes leads to a bleak site right at the end of the South West Ridge. Our tent was on a small platform with several inches of the groundsheet overhanging the slabs and big rocks sticking up through the floor. Even so, it was still a cosy spot once we got settled in. Even better that we both still had good appetites and there was a mountain of food left behind by previous teams. We spent the evening feasting and rehydrating on everything from dried sushi to Nepalese baked beans.
After Camp One things get more technical. The route covers interesting scrambly terrain that’s a mix of something like the North Ridge of Tryfan and some lovely Chamonix granite route like Papillons Ridge. I loved this day and got totally involved in the scrambling, the views and the knife-edge ridge. Even if I’d gone no further that single day would have made it all feel worthwhile. This day also culminates in the Yellow Tower. I loved jugging up in the sunshine with the exposure and the brilliant situation. I’d only brought one ascender to save weight so I backed it up with a prussik loop on a second rope and it felt safe enough.
After the tower a short section of ridge led us to Camp 2. This is an iconic campsite that I had seen in many photos. The reality was every bit as good as the photos. We settled in to the tent and battled to get things organised in the limited space. As soon as the sun left the ridge the temperatures plummeted and we got the Jetboils fired up while enjoying the sunset. The views from Camp 2 were simply amazing and I couldn’t have been happier – what’s not to love about Himalayan climbs.
We woke to find something not to love. We were enveloped in thick cloud and a layer of fresh snow coated the tent. Toby was also suffering with altitude and a hacking cough that had troubled him for weeks. We needed a rethink. Lhakpa Sherpa was heading to Camp 2 and Toby kindly offered to wait at the camp while Lhakpa partnered me to the summit. A lot of time and effort had led to this point and, although I was reluctant to leave Toby, I was also really keen to give the summit a shot. The conditions weren’t great but we decided to head up and see what the weather decided to do.
After Camp 2 the main feature before high camp is the Grey Couloir. I’d been woken several times by the sound of rocks tumbling down this intimidating feature and I knew it wasn’t a place I wanted to spend much time. As we ascended it nearly ended in tears when Lhakpa dislodged a TV sized block 10 metres above me. I was just happy to get to top camp.
Having said that top camp was a shock too. This site, which occupies a small ledge tucked under large ice cliffs, is quite sheltered from the wind but has large ice bosses overhanging the tent that must have weighed a few thousands tonnes! I felt sure it would be another long night and I wasn’t wrong. Creaking noises from the ice and apprehension about summit day kept me awake for hours. It was also bitterly cold and I spent a lot of the night focussed on trying to stay warm. Most of all though, I lay awake wondering if tomorrow would be the day I turned my thirty year dream into reality?
Ama Dablam’s summit day follows ice slopes to the right edge of the Dablam before more steep slopes lead to the flat summit. The section up to the Dablam remains in shade for several hours and is very exposed to the wind. This means there’s no point in starting summit day too early, as it’s better to maximise the amount of time in the sun. We decided to leave at 8am. I struggled to force down some breakfast before wrapping up in every scrap of insulation I’d brought with me. I also took a light rucksack with some liquid, food, goggles and spare gloves. Before leaving I also radioed Toby to see how things were below. It turned out he’d had a difficult night with strong winds buffeting the tent. We hadn’t noticed these winds in the sheltered haven of camp 2.9 but I wondered what it would be like when we moved round to the face.
As with many summit days the memory is a blur of emotion, exhaustion and tension. The wind was bitter and occasionally we’d get slammed into the face and have to wait until the gust passed. I had to stop several times to warm my fingers and once or twice I wondered whether they were getting too cold to continue. I earn my living with my hands and permanent damage wasn’t an option I wanted to consider. But, most of all, it was the scale of the mountain that is my overriding memory. Of course I shouldn’t have been surprised. If I could sit miles away and view the Dablam why wouldn’t I think it was a massive feature that would take hours to surmount? But eventually the slopes opened out and the angle eased. I couldn’t see the summit due to the swirling spindrift but I had the feeling it was close. As it is so flat it actually arrived very suddenly and I climbed the last easy angled slope to the summit. A stumble over a surprise crevasse and there I was – stupendous 360 degree views as far as the eye could see. Everest, Pumori, Lhotse and Nuptse. Himalayan giants in every direction and everything I’d hoped it would be.
I wanted to enjoy the moment as long as possible but the bitter wind and apprehension about the descent drove us down after 25 minutes. I’ve always treated descents with great respect and this was no exception. Every rappel double-checked and fully focussed on the features we passed. The visibility was even worse at this stage and I knew we couldn’t afford to make a mistake. Eventually we passed the shredded tents that marked Camp 3 and weaved around to our peaceful haven at 2.9. A couple of hours rest, plenty of fluids and we carried on down. I was keen to get back to Toby.
There seemed to be more loose rock than ever in the Grey Couloir but we made it through. Toby had seen us descending and was waiting with food, hot drinks, smiles and handshakes. It had been a long few days for him and it was great to be reunited. After a final night we headed for the valley. Another full day of descent and eventually we walked into Base Camp. As I dropped my rucksack and lay down on the lush grass a few tears rolled down my cheeks and my mind wandered back to that poster on the scout hut wall. Above the photo was a quote from Henry David Thoreau. ‘Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined’. A 30-year dream had been realised through an adventure every bit as intense as I’d hoped. Now….what was next?!
Posted by Paul