Ama Dablam FAQ
Nepal
22,494 feet 6828 meters
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Ama Dablam is one of the classic Himalaya climbs. Admired by every trekker in the Khumbu it tests all of a mountaineer's skills. I am focusing on the Southwest Ridge since it is the normal route and the one I took in 2000. I am asked many questions about climbing especially since I am not a professional climber. So here are the most popular questions with my answers. As always, this information is based on my experience and are my opinions so always consult with a professional before making any serious climbing decisions.

About Ama Dablam Training, Gear & Communication Expedition Basics My Experience

About Ama Dablam

Q: Where is it
A: It is located in Nepal. Ama Dablam stands tall above all the other mountain peaks in the lower Khumbu Valley. The standard itinerary is to fly to Katmandu and then on to Lukla, a tiny Himalayan village, to start the 20 mile walk to base camp. View Larger Map

Q: When is it usually climbed?
A: As with most Himalayan peaks, Spring is best since every day it gets warmer with less threat of snow. However since winter can still be around so it can be quite treacherous with frozen precipitation.The Fall season is just the opposite with colder days and increasingly unstable weather. I climbed in September and had great weather. Most guides climb in the Fall since they are occupied with Everest in the Spring.

Q: How hard is Ama Dablam?
A: It's technical. This means ropes, ice axe, crampons, ice screws, cams and jumars. The rock climbing can be 5.7 and the ice, WF4. You really need to have ice and rock climbing experience plus some high altitude experience. My personal experience was difficult but not impossible. I found the rock and ice climbing challenging - I wish I had had some deeper experience, especially on rock. Since I had the Cho Oyu experience to learn from, the altitude was not difficult, but I am glad it was not my first time above 20,000'.

Q: How does Ama Dablam compare with Denali or Aconcagua?
A: It is a serious technical climb where climbers need rock climbing experience at altitude in order to feel comfortable. Everything is carried on your back in your pack, not on a sled, so loads can be heavy. It shares a few long steep snow slopes like a Denali but the weather is not quite as cold in a normal year. Finally it is quite a bit more dangerous and risky than the West Butt route on Denali. It is a completely different climb from Aconcagua and not really comparable.

Q: How does Ama Dablam compare with Everest or other 8,000m peaks?
A: Ama Dablam is often climbed as a great climb independent of other 8000m plans. It is significantly more technical than most of the normal routes on 8000m climbs including Everest but the overall atmosphere is similar. It is a shorter climb by time.

Q: Is an Ama Dablam climb dangerous?
A: Absolutely. You should only attempt Ama Dablam if you have the proper experience and logistics for emergency situations. 6 climbers were killed in November 2006 when part of the large distinctive serac (the Dablam) collapsed hitting Camp 3. The Dablam has further collapsed in late 2008. As of 2012, teams continue to climb without serious incident but many choose to bypass Camp 3 and have a very, very long day form Camp 2 to the summit.

Q: How many people have summited and how many people had died trying?
A: An estimated 1900 people have summited and 18 have died as of 2008.

Training, Gear & Communication:

Base camp

Q: How did you train for this climb?
A: I did a lot of running for aerobic conditioning and used the Grand Teton as a training climb prior to leaving.

Q: Was altitude a problem on this climb?
A: Yes, it is always a challenge on climbs above 15,000'. Altitude can be a problem for anyone above 8,000', much less when you are going above 22,000'. To acclimatize en route, the travel to base camp takes about a week along including a few side climbs. As usual when you climb big mountains, you follow the climb high, sleep low routine. On my Ama Dablam climb we had one climber who became sick at base camp, 17,000', and never really recovered.

Q: Can you prepare for the altitude?
A: Not really. The common approach is to move slowly up the mountain (1000' a day maximum) spending your days at a higher altitude than where you sleep up until your summit bid. The human body simply does not function well at high altitudes and especially above 8000m (26,300'). As you go higher, the barometric pressure decreases, although the air still contains 21% oxygen, every breath contains less molecules of oxygen.

Everest legend Tom Hornbein explained it to the American Lung Association this way:

The lower oxygen stimulates chemoreceptors that initiate an increase in breathing, resulting in a lowering of the partial pressure of CO2 and hence more alkaline blood pH. The kidneys begin to unload bicarbonate to compensate. Though this adaptation can take many days, up to 80% occurs just in the first 48 to 72 hours. There are many other physiologic changes going on, among them the stimulus of low oxygen to release the hormone, erythropoietin to stimulate more red blood cell production, a physiological and still acceptable form of blood doping that enhances endurance performance at low altitudes. Adaptive changes are not always good for one’s health. Some South American high altitude residents can have what’s called chronic mountain sickness, resulting from too many red blood cells; their blood can be up to 84-85% red blood cells. The increased blood viscosity and sometimes associated pulmonary hypertension can result in right heart failure.

You cannot do much to acclimatize while at a low altitude but there are companies that claim to help the acclimatization process through specially designed tents that simulate the reduced oxygen levels at higher elevations. I have no personal experience with these systems but you can find more details at the Hypoxico website. They cost about $7,000 or can be rented for about $170 a week. Outside Magazine posted an article in 2013 questioning their effectiveness.

Q: What kind of equipment did you use?
Click for a larger view of my Everest gear. A: Mostly I use the same gear I used on Everest. I use a 3 layer system: base, warmth and wind/cold. My personal technical equipment included a long handle ice axe, harness, carabineers and crampons. It is always critical to protect my toes, fingers and face since these were most susceptible to frost bite. See my gear page for a complete discussion and my gear list updated for 2013. I am very pleased with all my gear but had a few standouts that I note on my gear page.

Q: Anything special in your gear for Ama Dablam?
A:Since it is technical, you will need to focus on aerobic capacity, muscular strength and attitude. The elevation will stress your lung capacity needed to provide oxygen to your muscles. You will carry heavy loads down the mountain after the summit, so make sure you core is in good shape. I run, lift weights, stretch and use visualization techniques to address these areas. For ideas on training for big mountains, please check out my Everest training page. Also I highly recommend having strong rock climbing skills up to 5.7. While there is a fixed rope on the Yellow tower which is usually set by Sherpas The climb is challenging at this altitude. I used everything on my gear page under Everest including the full down suit. It can be extremely cold and windy so multiple down layers are required. My boots were the Everest One Sports.

Q: Did you use Sat Phones?
A: I climbed it in 2000 so Thuraya was not available which is what I (and other Ama Dablam) teams use today. For details on my expedition communications, please see this tutorial.


Expedition Basics

Q: Which route is most popular?
A: The Southwest ridge is the most popular. However with the recent instability of the Dablam, this route has become deadly. A modification was put in during the Fall of 2008 which takes the route further to the right of the Dablam. This somewhat avoids the avalanche danger but now is over steep blue ice making the summit bid more difficult. As of 2012, teams continue to climb without serious incident but many choose to bypass Camp 3 and have a very, very long day form Camp 2 to the summit. Of course snow conditions are different each year thus the route will vary accordingly. The other routes include: North and Southeast Ridge. These are extremely technical and subject to avalanches and not offered by almost any commercial company.

Q: How long will it take?
A: 2 weeks on the mountain plus another week get to base camp and about 4 days to get back to Katmandu, depending on flights out of Lukla.

Q: How much does a standard climb cost with and without a guide?
A: The costs can range from $5000 to $10000 depending on who you use. If you do everything yourself cut the highest cost in half or more. See my Guide page for more details.

Q: Do I need a permit to climb?
A: Yes. A permit is required through the Nepal Ministry of tourism in Kathmandu. There is a climbing fee as well.

Q: Do I really need a guide for Ama Dablam?
A: Some teams do not use western guides however almost everyone employs the services of Sherpas at a minimum. The route is straightforward but can be confusing especially now with the modification mentioned earlier. I would not want to navigate it by myself in harsh conditions. Also new ropes need to be fixed on the Yellow Tower and perhaps in the Grey Couloir so you must have the skills to do this if you are the first on the route. Never, ever trust old ropes.

Q: Are there local guides for Ama Dablam?
A: Yes. There are local logistics companies in Kathmandu that can provide local Nepalese (Sherpa) guides and base camp services.

Q: How do you get on an expedition to climb Ama Dablam?
A:
Most reputable guides ask for your climbing resume and require some serious climbing experience. Ideally they want to see climbs of Denali or Aconcagua. But most anyone can get on a Ama Dablam commercial expedition these days without many questions so be careful who you select since you may get caught up in a mess.

Q: What is involved if I plan my own climb?
A: Basically everything: permits, travel, hotels, food, gear, routes, communications, emergency contentions - everything. There are local companies in Katmandu who can provide some services such as getting food or heavy tents to base camp. And some can provide a Sherpa at low costs. You can save a lot of money this way but as I said before, consider your skills in the event that something goes wrong - are you 100% self sufficient? What are your medical skills? HAPE and HACE are really possibilities on Ama Dablam - do you have the proper medicine and training to deal with it? And a hundred more questions. See my guide page for more. Again, climbing alone or in small teams is never a good idea. Saving a few thousand dollars is not worth your life.

Q: What is the biggest problem most people face?
A: Ama Dablam is a difficult mountain. With it's relatively low altitude for the Himalayas, some people underestimate the difficulty. However, the challenges presented by the rock and ice climbing plus the altitude creates a serious challenge for anyone.

My 2000 Experience

Ama Dablam Q: Did you summit?
A: Yes. It was a relatively quick climb from Camp 3 and was rewarded with an amazing view of Everest, Cho Oyu and Makalu.

Q: Why did you choose Adventure Consultants as a guide service in 2000?
A: I had developed confidence in Guy Cotter and believed in him and his company at that time.

Q: How did they perform?
A: Very good. The lead guide, David Hiddleston was fun and competent. The Sherpas were excellent as was the overall group gear and food. Sadly Dave was killed on Mt Tasman in 2003.

Q: Which route did you take?
A: The standard Southwest ridge. We had camps at 17K, 18.5K, 20K, 21.5 to the summit at 22.8K. The route is an amazing mix of rock (5.7) climbing plus steep snow ridges, ice walls and the final steep slope to the summit. It tests every skill in a mountaineer's inventory. The route between Camp 1 and Camp 3 is the crux of the climb. From C1 you experience some class 3 and 4 scrambling until you reach the Yellow Tower, a 20-30 foot rock climb at 19,200'. This rated somewhere between 5.6 and 5.8 YDS and is fixed. Usually you send your pack up on a separate line and then jumar up the tower. Camp 2 is perched a top the tower and is the famous picture you usually see for Ama Dablam climbs. From there the route follows the Grey Couloir or Tower, also called the bowling alley, which is usually snow filled to Mushroom Ridge - a short but steep snow ridge with lot's of exposure. This takes you to Camp 3 just below or beside the Dablam. From C3 to the summit the route usually consists of a moderately steep (40 degrees) snow slope.

Q: What kind of weather conditions did you have?
A: We had excellent weather but it was cold at the High Camp and on the summit.

Q: Do you think anything is different now in 2008?
A: Ama Dablam has become a very popular mountain and has been extremely crowded. However with a large part of the Dablam avalanching off in 2008 and the the avalanche from the Dablam in 2006 it is not consider quite as safe as it once was.

Q: Did you use bottled oxygen?
A: No. Bottled oxygen is usually only used above 8000m.

Q: Would you climb Ama Dablam again?
A: No. It is too dangerous given the avalanches off the Dablam. While climbers summited in 2008, many did not given the new difficulties. The only safe route is probably and this is a wild guess, the north ridge route but it is significantly more technical and difficult.


Bottom Line

Ama Dablam is a fantastic climb by any definition. In many ways it is more satisfying than the 8000m climbs with the rock, ice and snow sections. But it is a very dangerous climb today (2008) with the instability of the Dablam. If you are experienced and comfortable on extreme mixed routes above 20,000' then this is a must climb.