billi bierling female mountaineer and journalist from Germany

Makalu update – The waiting game

I am lying in my sleeping bag at base camp and it is feeling cold – but maybe not as cold as two nights ago when I was shivering in my tent at an altitude of 7,900m, where it was about -20C. A lot has happened since then and I am not sure whether we will get another chance to reach the summit of Makalu….. but there’s still hope.

makalu-billi

Makalu towering above base camp

 

When we left BC on 24th September, we left with the intention to reach the top of the fifth highest peak in the world but as it is so often with high altitude mountaineering, a lot of things have to work out at the same time, such as mental and physical strength, weather, conditions on the mountain, team spirit, etc. etc.

All these things seemed to be right and everyone was doing well at altitude, which is rarely the case with a group of our size. As we did not get the chance to spend a night at the Makalu La at 7,400m during our first acclimatisation phase, we decided to stay two nights at this cold and windy place to acclimatise better for our summit attempt. During our rest day, which involved lying in the tent melting snow for almost 24 hours, our five Sherpas ascended further to establish what they thought would be our camp 4. The problem was that none of our Sherpas had been to Makalu before and even though they had looked at pictures of the route, they completely missed the way.

“Suzanne Didi, we cannot find a safe route from here,” I heard Pemba, our Sirdar, say to our guide over the radio. Suzanne shrugged her shoulders and said that she would come up earlier the following day to have a look.

The next day, we all started quite late due to the cold and we thought that the distance to our C4 would be quite short – but little did we know. “When I saw that big wall in front if me I was a bit confused as I was sure that we should have traversed to the left,” said Yuri, and he must have known as he was the one who had the pictures of the route on his computer. “When we got to the top of the pinnacle, I knew that we were on the wrong side of the mountain,” he continued.

Everest and Lhotse seen from Camp 2 makalu

Everest and Lhotse seen from Camp 2

And he was right. Unfortunately our Sherpas had got the way wrong and we ended up sleeping on a little pinnacle, which could actually almost be a false summit of Makalu. However, we knew that a summit attempt for the following day was out of the question as we were too far away from the northeast ridge, the ‘normal’ route we were intending to climb. Our bodies and the bodies of our Sherpas were simply too tired and wasted to carry on, and so we decided to descend to base camp the following day.

Disappointment

For me, this decision was initially a disappointment as I felt so close to the beautiful summit, however, I also knew that my legs would not have been strong enough to carry me to the top the following day. Existing at altitude is a very weird thing and your body just does not want to do what it should be doing, namely eat, drink and sleep. I remember lying in my sleeping bag with my lips sticking together due to complete dryness in my mouth but being unable to drink the sweet sticky mixture I had made with the water I had been melting for hours. Just the thought of getting a sip of this beverage dow my throat made me gag even though I knew that drinking is the most important thing up there – much more important than eating, which is another issue.

“I think I’ve lost at least 10 kilos so far,” our Austrian team member Hannes shouted out of the shower after we had returned to base camp. I personally think that food is overrated and we worry far too much about eating up there. It is a well-known fact that eating, or developing an appetite for anything above 7,000m is almost impossible and that anything you would die for at sea level does not tickle your fancy up there. However, most of the time our bodies manage to push through these hard and excrutiating couple of days and achieve wonders.

Drinking, however, is a different story and those who know me also know that my daily fluid intake is way below average. My friend Chrissie Wellington used to call me a camel when we were biking from the Tibetan capital Lhasa to Kathmandu six years ago. And things haven’t changed since then, which of course poses a real problem for me up high.

I don’t know how much I managed to drink up there but I am still feeling dizzy 24 hours after my return to base camp and despite drinking regularly all day, I have only peed once. I also don’t know whether it is because my body had been exposed to a very high altitude for three nights or whether it is the dehydration that I felt like being in a dream all day, but one thing is certain – my body needs to recover and regain strength before it can go back up again.

Current plan

After having spent most of the day eating, drinking, washing and updating various websites, Suzanne checked the weather forecast for the next few days. The Jetstream, which usually drops down to an altitude of 8,000m at the beginning of October, is supposed to hit this region around 4th October. In order to catch this window, we would have to leave tomorrow but our bodies are not be ready to be strong enough to reach the summit yet. I am still struggling to coordinate my moves and just the thought of walking for one hour to see my friends Adrian and Monica of Alpenglow Expeditions farther up the hill makes me feel exhausted.

Of course, it is a tough call and we don’t know whether the weather gods will open another window for us but for the time being we are looking at the 7th or 8th October for a possible summit attempt. For a few minutes I was contemplating to pack it all in and join my friend Hannes, who is leaving the expedition, on his walk back to Tumlingtar from where he will catch the plane to Kathmandu. However, I feel that I have been so near to the top of this mountain and I would really like to give it another try before I turn my back to the black rock, and this is what I’ll do even though I know that a big part of my life and my friends are waiting for me in Kathmandu. However, I hope that my friends as well as Miss Hawley will understand that I will have to give this a good shot before I return to my real life.

Last but not least I’d like to thank all of you for your lovely text messages of encouragement for Makalu and commiseration and concern for the avalanche on Manaslu. I guess some of you were confused about the mountain I was on but my heart goes out to the friends and families who have lost someone in this disaster. I knew or have met some of the people who have died in the avalanche and I am very sad about this. However, like with all accidents or sad events it hardly ever stops us from doing what we love doing – and that’s why I am still here trying to reach the beautiful but tiny top of the 5th highest mountain in the world.

Thanks for bearing with me and sending your support – you have no idea how much it means to me!

4 Responses

  1. Ashley said on October 2, 2012 at 5:08 am

    So glad for this update! So sorry the summit has eluded you so far. Sending you energy and strength … and REALLY looking forward to seeing you soon in Islamabad. xoxo

    Reply
  2. Ellen said on October 2, 2012 at 2:19 am

    Hi Everest sister! Stay strong Billi, and know that I am sending you energy! Cheering you on from Colorado!!

    Reply
  3. baba said on October 1, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    Good to hear you’re safe! Endulge yourself with everything that seems tasty and keep up the drinking and you will be running up that mountain in no time in a few days! big hug xx baba

    Reply

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