Sunday, June 18, 2017

7 lessons I learnt from a failed mountain climb

So, I failed...I didn't even come close...

Last month I flew to Kathmandu, my fourth trip to that country, with an aim to climb a 6189 m high mountain - Imja Tse aka Island Peak. All excited and well prepared for the climb - or atleast I thought so at that time.

After my inability to climb Cho La and Kongma La last year, I had prepared hard for this climb. Every weekend I was in town, I would go hiking to Nandi hills and climb 2000 stone steps - two to three times. Two times if I was carrying my 9 kilo backpack and three times if I was carrying only my day pack. I continued my Insanity workouts and increased the weights of the dumbbells I use for my strength training days. I worked out every single day and I had every intention to make it to the top.

So, what went wrong? Many things...

Lesson one: Research well and prepare & plan accordingly

I didn't do enough research on how hard this undertaking would be. Only after I landed in Kathmandu and met with the owner of the climbing company, did I realize that climb is going to include a 200 m headwall at 80 degrees incline. Over the course of days, as I met many climbers who had attempted or summited Island Peak, I also came to know that amateur climbers like me take 2-4 hours just to climb this wall.

Had I known these facts upfront, I might have considered less technical (albeit higher) Mera Peak for my first climbing expedition.

Moral of the story: Do your best to know what you are getting yourself into. New exercise or new hobby or new job...whatever you your research first. The last thing you want is to get completely blindsided and end up injuring yourself…or realizing that you have chosen the wrong peak for your first attempt.

Lesson two: Change plans when circumstances change

I had done 4 extremely high-altitude hikes and on all of these I crossed 14,000 ft and on two of these went beyond 16000 ft. And my experience had led me to believe that altitude gets to me around 16000 ft. However, this time while hiking to the base camp, I got severe headache at Dingboche (14,500 ft.) itself. But I, incorrectly, assumed it was just sinus headache (as it responded to sinus medication) and continued to Chukhung the next day that lies at ~15,500 ft.

In hindsight, I should have started a course of Diamox AND stayed another night at Dingboche to acclimatize better. An acclimatization walk to nearby Nagarjuna Peak the next day would have helped me acclimatize even better.

Moral of the story: Make corrections and adjustments along the way. Even with good research, you will encounter problems along the way. Whether you anticipated them or not, these require you to make adjustments. Ignoring them won't help and circumvention is rarely possible.

Lesson three: Listen to others but also to your own "gut"

1000 ft climb to Chukhung was fairly flat but I was breathless the whole way. Once we got there, we went for an acclimatization hike to about 16,100 ft. After this short hike, which was tough for me, as I was having trouble breathing, my previous night's headache returned with a vengeance.

I contemplated starting Diamox - but the climbing Sherpa felt that it wouldn't help much as we were already above 4000 m. Another climber said it would take 24 hours to have effect and hence I should start it right away. My climbing partner suggested to wait the night and take it next day if I still had the headache. I was super confused with these conflicting suggestions but somewhere I knew that if I didn't start Diamox now, I wouldn't reach even the base camp of the Island Peak. So I started the medication right away.

Yes, it did take 48 hours to fully kick in and yes starting the course at Dingboche (4410 m) would have been better but I am glad that I started it when I did.

Moral of the story: Experiential wisdom matters the most. You will meet many experienced folks in your journey to the top (mountain or otherwise) who will share their true experiences with best of the intentions. But all may not apply to you.

I had seen a fellow hiker take Diamox when he was turning blue (he had decided to run at 14000 ft.) and I had noticed that the medicine started its work after a few minutes. Hence, my decision to take Diamox, even though it was a bit late, was the right one. It was based on my own experience and it worked out fine for me.

Lesson four: Be merciless in seeking information

The itinerary from Chukhung to base camp to high camp to summit and back to Chukhung wasn't really detailed out to us. Like, I didn't know the altitude of base camp or high camp. I had read about them on the internet but the climbing company and the operator in Chukhung were very vague about the exact details.

Had I known that high camp was just 200 m higher than base camp, I wouldn't have chosen to include that in itinerary. I had read online and in paper maps that high camp is at about 5500 m (as against 5100 m altitude of base camp). And at that attitude it means that I would shave off 2-2.5 hours off the summit bid. And hence, I agreed for same even though it meant limited water, bad food and cramped accommodations and overall tired body due to lack of rest.

But it took us only one hour from base camp to high camp because staff established high camp at 5300 m. Given summit day would have been 15 hours long, this wasn't a significant saving. At the high camp, we had two tents - one for staff and one for climbers. It was snowing all the time - so climbers were all cooped up in one tent with all the gear. If we were at base camp, we could have sat in the dining tent on comfortable plastic chairs.

Plus, there was no water source, so we were on limited water supply and finally at 1 am, instead of hot breakfast we got frozen bread and jam as the stove wasn't working. At base camp, this wouldn't have happened.

Lack of rest and no breakfast (I couldn't eat that bread) was one key reason that I didn't make it to the summit

Moral of the story: If you feel something isn't transparent, it is probably true.  We weren't informed about the height or challenges of high camp and I was very uncomfortable with lack of information from the time we left Chukhung. It's not that I fear new experiences but this team was doing this daily and knew everything to minute detail but inspite of questioning many times, they chose to not share all details with us.

I should have persisted in seeking information and might have avoided the very uncomfortable and expensive night at high camp.

Lesson five: Know your limitations and don't take foolish risks

We started at 2 am (delayed start due to stove issues) for the summit bid and reached the crampon point, that lies at about 5900 m, by 5:30 am. It wasn't bad at all as it even included 10 minute delay due to my fellow climber misplacing his merino wool socks.

At crampon point, as we pulled on the harnesses and tied our crampons, my fingers went numb with the lack of activity (and my gloves weren't good enough for these low temperatures). Plus, I was really tired by now as the climb to this point was very steep - made tougher by the snow on the rocky trail.  Lack of breakfast further aggravated matters. But I felt that I would be able to complete the glacier walk even if the wall would prove too tough for me.

However, half way into the walk, I realized this wasn't same as walking on HMI glacier - the slope was atleast 45 degrees and some places even more. Fresh snow, finger hurting cold and blisters on my feet - all were making this "walk" very hard on me. But I was trying even though I was literally screaming at each step I took. Finally, I reached a point when I knew that even if I reached the wall, I wouldn't have the energy to climb it and infact, it is possible that I might not have the energy to go down either.

Months of prep, many days of hiking and then turning back less than 250 m from the summit?...Add to it the guilt of taking the chance away from my climbing partner (as we had only one Sherpa amongst two of us). All this played on my mind as I asked myself if it would be worth it to make it to the top but require a rescue team or helicopter team to bring me down? The answer was a big resounding "NO".

I was already tired and could endanger my fellow climber if I made a mistake while crossing a crevasse or slipped on the high incline slopes. Thus, with heavy heart, I informed my Sherpa and my fellow climber that I need to turn back. It wasn't an easy decision and it wasn't made lightly (though it may appear so to my climbing partner) but I knew that it was the right one.

As we started the descent back to high camp, I realized how treacherous the route was (while going up it was all dark and we could only see a few feet ahead of us with help of our headlamps). I found the descent tough even though we had turned back without summiting. Had I pushed further on the glacier, probability is fairly high that I would have made some dangerous mistake during the descent.

Moral of the story: Take risks but not the ones that you would regret. Once we reached the base camp, my fellow climber was quite sick with headache and tiredness. I realized then that he had serious headache even at the crampon point but he had continued to push because he termed it as cold related headache even though it was due to altitude. In hindsight, my decision to turn back was good for him too - who knows what would have happened to him had we continued to climb up.

Lesson six: Do it for the journey

I love having a bed, running water, plumbing and Netflix. And I certainly had moments of “I wish I was home” while on this adventure, but looking back, I’m so glad I did it.

Anything I do - be it part of being start-up or hiking in the cold desert landscape of the Himalayas, I ask myself one question: Does this have the potential to be a great journey? If the answer is YES, then I take the risk and roll the dice.

Moral of the story: Don't be afraid to do something that scares you. Adventure is out there, and great journeys are waiting to be experienced. So get off your couch and start your company or open that café or climb that mountain...whatever it is that you have put on hold because of your fears

Lesson seven: Failures don't break you...they actually help make you!

"what if I had pushed a bit more?" or "what if I had better gloves?" or "what if I had known about high camp being actually a hindrance?"  All these questions haunt me even now and sometimes keep me awake at night. Sometimes I even wonder if I have the mental stamina for such an undertaking.

But one thing I am sure of is that I did the best I could with what I had and where I was.  Yeah, I am bummed that I didn't summit the Island Peak. I am sad that I didn't get to cross crevasses or try my hand at ascending an 200 m mountain wall. The blisters still hurt and my nose is still a bit sun-burnt.

But I am also glad that I made this attempt - now I have a better understanding of my physical and mental limits, my gear's challenges and most importantly a good idea of what all I need to fix for a much higher chance of success the next time.

Yes there would a be a next time :) even though I vividly recall telling myself and my fellow climber and my Sherpa (at the time I decided to turn back) that I am never coming back - to this mountain or to any other one...Ever!!!

Moral of the story: Failure doesn't mean that you won't reach your goal - you will just be a bit late. I failed and learned many lessons from it. And even though, at that time, I felt that I am not going to climb ever again, the reality is that I have signed up for another climb already. Yes, it is not as technical as Island Peak and not as high as Mera Peak but it will be a good learning ground before I attempt Mera Peak or Island Peak (again).

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