Up and down, up and down. Climbing big mountains is hard work. But even the rest days require attention to detail. Day 18 on Ama Dablam, a rest day:
The frost is thick inside my tent so when I roll over in my -40F sleeping bag, it "snows" inside the tent. Another night at base camp and another rest day. In between trips up Ama Dablam, one must rest and work hard at resting.
Nature's lamp is shining brightly on my tent and encouraging me to wake up. I went to "bed" at 8:00 last night and now at 6:00 any normal person should be well rested and ready to go. But at 18,000' after climbing to over 20,000' the previous day, I need rest. And today is a day to rest.
When climbing big mountains the game is to climb high and sleep low. Over the past week, we have climbed to Camps 1 and 2 and retreated to lower elevations to rest and allow our bodies to create more red blood cells that will carry the much needed oxygen during the summit attempt. Thus another day of hanging out.
Just as I find the perfect position in my bag - one without lumps in my back or the feeling of claustrophobia; I hear Dawia banging the frying pan. Breakfast at base camp. By now, I have perfected the art of dressing quickly - in my bag with minimum exposure of my bare skin to the frozen air. The irony is that the less you wear in the bag, the warmer you sleep. Of course having water bottles filled with hot water before you go to bed and placing them at the foot of your bag is key to the "no-clothes" strategy!
I stagger out of my tent and complete the hydration process that becomes an obsession during these climbs. Putting as much water in creates the need to get the water out. While the infamous "pee bottle" serves it's purpose during the night, if things are going well it is full and disgusting by dawn while the need remains. I begin the rest day with a critical function for a successful climb.
Breakfast today is similar to all the other days and all the other climbs. Omelet, toast, jam and if you are lucky, bacon or ham. Sherpa milk tea is the norm while instant coffee is available. One by one, the team arrives in various states of grunge, funk and malaise. After all it is a rest day. Conversation at breakfast is usually slow but warms up as everyone awakens. Soon individual reports come in on how you slept, what hurts this morning, what you dreamed and, most important - who you miss. Honesty amongst friends and strangers is strong in this environment.
One by one, we leave the dining tent with differing objectives. A rest day is designed for serious rest. No fooling around. No aclimization hikes. No unnecessary expenditure of precious energy. I go back to my tent and take a long look in my 2X4-inch mirror attached to my compass. OK, I crawl back in my bag and let my mind wander. How am I doing? Am I strong enough? What hurts? Who is most vulnerable on the team? How many days to summit? What is Cathy doing? Has anybody died in my extended family? Work? Well I focus on the job at hand. Rest.
A new team has arrived in camp and has all the energy of a schoolyard full of six year olds. The yaks are snorting and putting up a prize fighter quality tug of war with the yak herders to get the load off their backs. They fight when it goes on; they fight when it goes off. Go figure. Tents go up and the newbies wander around meeting the veterans and checking on the conditions. How many on your team? How are the ropes? What is the ice like? Anyone famous around? The last question is a true give-away of experience. The competitive environment is real. Everyone sizing up everyone else.
Sleep takes up another hour. I take all my climbing gear out of my duffle and pack and repack to make sure I have exactly the right gear. No more, no less. The frying pan gongs again. Lunch.
Everyone arrives on time. Dawai expects promptness and we feel compelled to deliver. Lunch. It is normally like breakfast but Dawia surprises us today with a lunch of fried potatoes, salad and eggs.
Rest. Sleep. Dream. Stare. Rest. Read. Sleep. Wander. Rest. Focus on creating red blood cells. The afternoon passes quickly. I sit alone in the middle of basecamp staring at the mountain. It's surprising all the sounds in the middle of nowhere. I think of the saying "if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there does it make a noise?" Well in these environments there are constant noises. The cracking of ice. Moving glaciers. Falling rocks. And then there are the animal noises: Yak bells, birds. And of course the occasional human laugh or struggle with a tent or conversation .
Soon one teammate wanders by, then another. We chat about gear, family, condition, other mountains, dreams and a million other areas. Conversation comes easy. Bonds are made. Pausing, I look around to breath in my environment. The grassy field ends abruptly at the terminal moraine of the glacier. Peaks all around. Snowcones actually. And of course, Ama Dablam standing guard over everything. Pictures capture the image but not the feeling.
Bright sun today. Warm and comforting knowing the harsh cold that is waiting for us 4,000 feet above. The sunset is incredible. Deep reds and purples against the pure white snow and rich sky blue. Warm turns to cool. Cool turn to cold and cold turns to Well time to add three layers and get to dinner.
The radio talk was frantic telling them of the storm on Pumori was moving quickly toward Everest. "Get off the mountain!" they screamed at the radio, but silence was the haunting response. David was on Pumori in '96 when the Everest disaster killed 8 people including guides Hall and Fischer. His story was poignant as Dinner conversation. Dinner. Similar to breakfast, similar to lunch but different in feeling. Social in nature, formal in feeling.
Dark. Very dark outside with clouds hiding the reflection of the full moon off the snow on the surrounding peaks. Cold. Very cold with the sun's warmth below the horizon and a gentle breeze blowing. In all our layers, gloves and hats; we sit in our canvas chairs next to the cloth covered aluminum table. The same mugs we used for breakfast and lunch sit on the table waiting to be filled with a hot lemon drink, milk tea or water.
Dawia, Laphka and Tasi bring our meal into the tent. Unzip the door. Duck low while carefully balancing the tray of food. Smiles abound. Amazing, the same Sherpas that will keep us safe on the mountain are serving food with all the care of a five star restaurant career waitperson. Another reminder that the Nepalese can be pure, caring people that feel privileged to serve and happy to be, well anywhere. We can only aspire to be a good as clients as they are "Sherpas".
Dinner never last that long. I fill my water bottles with hot water to keep my feet warm during the frigid night, say goodnight and navigate the zipper to leave. Colder. Much colder and now it is clear. Stars that have never been seen show themselves tonight. So many stars that the constellations are blurred. Even with the full moon, the stars shine bright. No blinking lights from airplanes, no city lights. Pure. Simple. And inspiring. I stand by my tent looking up. Accelerated thoughts fighting with frozen toes compete with the winner drawing me into the tent after a few moments.
Quickly strip off the clothes, well not all - after all it is cold. Very cold. Leave the socks, leave the shirt and always leave the cap. Crawl in and push the foot warmers to the opposite end of the bag. Wiggle. Shift. Push. Ah that's it. No sharp points. No uneven surfaces. Smooth, warm and comfortable. A unique moment that brings a smile to my face. I put on the headphones and turn the CD on. Hey, there are sacrifices for weight and then there are real sacrifices. Anyway, The absolute silence gives way to a favorite tune that makes home not so far away on this rest day.
Rest day. Yesterday was hard climbing. Tomorrow will be day one of the summit bid. No more rest days. No more rest. Push for the top and push to return. And then no more rest days.