Manaslu expedition – lessons learnt

grey Manaslu expedition   lessons learntI had many important lessons when on my Manaslu expedition with Mal in October last year, not least of which are the four golden rules of good mountain communication:

1 Thou will not assume knowledge in others.

“The sat phone does not work on the hill babe, but we’ll be right”

2 Thou will always consider the other person on line.

“I’m in some tricky terrain man”

“Can you get back up to camp 2?”

“I’ll try” *Radio silence, Mal exhausted but starts preparing for a rescue*

3 Your voice changes at altitude.

“Is thith Yeh-the?”

“Yes, who is this? What has happened”

“Is thith Yeh-the…”

4 Thou will never assume the worst.

“Melanie, I am in Kathmandu, call me soon”

grey Manaslu expedition   lessons learntIn October last year I climbed a mountain called Manaslu in the Gorkha region of Nepal. Manaslu is 8162 meters high and quite remote, for me it was an incredible adventure and the fulfillment of a life long dream. I learnt a lot about what to (and what not to) tell loved ones before, during and after such a climb. I climbed with Mal Haskins who is a serial adventurer, world class paragliding pilot, professional mountaineer and (I am proud to say) a good mate. My experience is embryonic compared to Mal. Mal has had his head firmly in the clouds for years since he shelved a promising career as an electrical engineer with the Australian armed forces to, as he says; “Get into the hills Bro” He has guided in Nepal numerous times-most notably on Lhotse which is an imposing 8000 meter high lump of ice and rock very near Mt Everest. Mal has lead climbing trips in Peru and is constantly dragging paid clients around his now native New Zealand. For Mal a climb of New Zealand’s Mt Cook is just a standard day at the office. Me? Well, I have survived a ten day mountaineering course in New Zealand, climbed to just over 6000 meters in Nepal and turned back just below the summit of Cotopaxi in Ecuador due to bad snow pack conditions. Embryonic.

You are wondering, no doubt, what was I thinking when I signed up to tackle this intimidating beast with a small team of four climbers. Put simply, I love being on mountains, even without the plan of getting to that final pointy bit, I love prancing around in crampons, swinging off ropes and looking at the view from high places. Like many people I find peace in the hills. In big hills I find inner peace flavored with awe and wonderment. My initial goal was to climb to a camp at 7450 meters and to film Mal flying past me. On this mission Mal was planning to not only summit but to also launch from the top with a speed wing and skis. Speedflying is a sport where people use a small version of a paragliding wing and skis to zoom down mountains occasionally kissing their slopes with skis while reaching speeds of up to 120 kilometers an hour. In the thin air above 8000 meters Mal was expecting to go much, much faster than this and no one has attempted such a feat. On the climb I felt strong, conditions were not right for Mal to fly and he didn’t need a cameraman so I pushed on to the top. I would have been really happy to reach my initial goal of 7450 meters so when I found myself enjoying half an hour at the pointy bit gasping for air and snapping self portraits I was beyond ecstatic.

As little as I knew, my girlfriend and emergency contact Jette knew even less. While Mal and I were crunching onwards to the top Jette was frantically chewing her nails back in her native Denmark.

‘Thou will not assume knowledge in others’

When I sent Jette an email casually mentioning that the phone did not work on the hill I assumed that she would figure we had regular scheduled radio contact with base camp (base did have contact with the outside world should we need to order an emergency KFC bucket or even rescue helicopter). However, Jette thought that Mal and I were bumbling about on an 8000 meter high hill without any communications at all, this caused her significant angst.

The second communication law involves use of radios. Mal and I reached camp three fairly late in the afternoon, we were extremely tired after four big summit days, however I decided to continue down to camp two with the understanding that Pemba was planning to follow shortly with a load. I happily set off in the afternoon light and Mal crawled into his tent, comforted that I would soon be in good company. However, Pemba changed his mind and instead of descending with gear he went to bed at camp three, completely exhausted he didn’t tell anyone. This would have only meant a lonely night for me at the abandoned camp two…had I not got off trail. As the sun set I veered too far to the left and what started as ankle deep and supportive snow became soft, thigh deep snow. Each time I broke the thin, icy crust I would lunge, pull myself up, roll onto my belly and stand to take a few more steps. Every few steps the crust gave way and I fell back into thigh deep snow. Now, every time the crust broke and I broke through I was convinced that I would fall into a deep crevasse. After four days going up and one down I was understandably exhausted and very, very scared.

I sat in the snow watching a truly spectacular sunset paint nearby peaks while trying for about half an hour to get Mal, or anyone, on the radio without success. I gave up and prepared for a very lonely and cold night out in the elements alone. Survival is not guaranteed when outside overnight on big hills, even inside our highest camp with four people crammed into one tent we recorded minus twenty-eight degrees. Finally Mal, who unknown to me, had been trying to follow my progress visually without success, turned on the radio and we had a crackly conversation:

“Ben, you there? Do you copy Ben?”

“Mal, when is Phemba coming down? I’m a bit off the track and in some pretty deep snow…”

“Um …. it appears that Phemba is not coming down tonight bro … Can you manage your way back to the track and come back up?”

“%^**….$%^^% – I’ll try man….”

I turned off my radio to save batteries and backtracked, comforted that Mal was now aware of my predicament.

‘Thou will always consider the other person on line’

Mal grew increasingly concerned at my lack of radio contact and decided to send Sidi Mama (our other climbing sherpa) down to get me. In my own little world of pain I did not consider Mal and had not even turned on my headlight in the dusk light. I did not have the presence of mind to realize that a bright light on my head may help both Mal and Sidi to find me. Finally back on the trail I was met by Sidi who aided a very exhausted (emotionally and physically) me down towards camp two.

When Sidi reached me I still had not thought to turn on my headlight or radio and all that Mal could see was a lone headlight (which he knew was Sidi’s) going down to camp two. With the limited knowledge available to him Mal grew concerned that I had fallen into a deep crevasse and was in real trouble so he started quickly preparing his gear for a rescue. Finally down at camp two Sidi thought to radio Mal;

“Mal, this is Sidi – Ben and I are now are C2″

“Whew, thank F#$K, goodnight”

Sidi and I had a very cold, hungry night under a single sleeping bag at camp two. I was more than happy to only be a bit cold but in good company. When Mal came down to the following day he spotted the tracks from my little adventure and commented on how close to the trail I was. This brought home just how easy it is to get confused and scared when at altitude and beyond tired. Next time I’ll just stay at camp and drink a cup of tea. Lesson learnt.

Mal’s finance Sophie was stationed at bast camp where she radioed us weather reports and updated the expedition website (www.speedfly8000.com) with information, she also kindly offered to send Mum, Dad and Jette personal emails of our progress to keep everyone in the loop. During our descent Sophie was kept very busy retrieving useful weather information for us and with monitoring progress so for the two days of our descent she did not have a chance to contact the outside world with an update.

When I did arrive at base camp and despite telling her I would only ever email, the first thing I wanted to do was to call my normally unflappable girlfriend. At the time of my call she had not had any news for two sleepless nights and was at a conference, it is kind of ironic that the conference was about her employer’s safety protocols. Jette sat next to a mountain climber who spent the entire morning gleefully telling her countless stories of missions gone wrong on descent and with ensuring she was fully conversant with the fact that descent is the most dangerous part of a climb. Right before she had to do a role play about the dangers of staplers her phone rang and displayed “Manaslu Emergency Phone” Understandably concerned Jette grabbed her phone and ran into the hallway. This is where I managed to unwittingly upset her further. ‘Your voice changes at altitude’

Standing beside my tent at base camp I had bad reception and my voice was different due to exhaustion, altitude and emotion. Mostly my voice was unrecognizable due to a recalcitrant tongue. Numerous blood noses caused by the thin, very dry air had blocked my nose and forced me to mouth breath while climbing. With UV’s flooding in my mouth my tongue had become sunburnt and was swollen, red and sore. I sounded like a patient after root canal surgery. She did not recognize the voice that repeatedly asked;

“Is this Jette?”

I could not recognize the voice squeaking

“Who is this?”. Finally I managed to convince Jette that it was really me calling with good news of a successful climb. Lesson learnt.

The last communication lesson was not a first hand one. My sister Mel was relying on both our expedition website and on Mum for news. She had noted no updates for a few days during our ascent and had emailed Mum asking for news of her little brother. A day after sending this email Mel received the following message;

“I am at Kathmandu, call me now”

Mel immediately assumed the worst, picturing Mum in Kathmandu weeping over my corpse she found a teaching aide and left her classroom quickly to contact Mum. When Mum picked up she asked Mel,

“What size is your son wearing these days?”

“Why are you in Kathmandu? What has happened! Is Ben OK?”

“What, Yeah, I am just buying your kids some clothes, what size does Ameer take now?”

“Oh…thank F#$K, Kathmandu, the clothing shop, yeah?”

“Yeah, where else?”

‘Thou will never assume the worst’

Buy this book!
The Red Rucksack - Available now

This business partnership has expired.” Ben has no idea what adventures are in store when he sets out to discover what lies over that next mountain.

This week's popular posts
My favourite video
Sometime getting home is the best bit!