In spring 2019 I was allowed to take part in an international expedition to Ama Dablam. Undoubtedly one of the most iconic and beautiful mountains in the world, Ama Dablam is a landmark of the Khumbu region and all of Nepal. While its standing height of 6814m may not have the size of other giants in Khumbu like Everest, Lhotse, Cho Oyu, or Makalu, it is still certainly one of the most photographed mountains in the region. Ama Dablam is prominently visible from Namche Bazar and the Everest Base Camp Trail and is just as scenic and exhilarating as any other peak the region has to offer.
Our goal in spring 2019 was to get to the summit via the normal route, i.e. through the southwest ridge. In the spring season, there would be fewer teams on the mountain than in the autumn season, and hence the trails would be much quieter. But this absence of mountaineering traffic is not without reason — the weather during the spring is more unstable and the volatile snow storms make the ascent more complicated than later in autumn.
At the beginning of April, we flew from Kathmandu to Lukla. First, we hiked to the stunning Gokyo Valley passing through Namche Bazar for better acclimatization. On a freezing but crystal-clear morning, we walked up to Gokyo Ri, a popular vantage point with spectacular 360° views of the mountains and glaciers of the Khumbu.
We then crossed the Cho La Pass and made our way towards the Ama Dablam Base Camp, located at about 4600m. We settled into our cozy little tents that would be our home for the next few weeks. The very next day a Lama (Tibetan monk) came from the valley to base camp in order to hold a traditional Puja. In this ceremony, permission is obtained from the gods to climb the mountain. During the puja, expedition members and their equipment are blessed. It is an essential part of Himalayan expeditions and is of paramount importance, especially for the Sherpas.
After a few days at base camp, we began our rotations up the mountain to bring gear to the high camps and to acclimate our bodies to the thin air. I first climbed up to camp 1 at 5800m, took a long break there, and descended back down to base camp later in the afternoon. The next day I and the rest of our team would go back to camp 1, this time to spend the night there. In this way, we adapted our bodies more and more to the altitude. The sunset we got to witness from camp 1 was one of the highlights of the expedition — the interplay of clouds, mountains, and the setting sun was an unforgettable sight.
After camp 1, Lhakpa, one of our climbing Sherpas, and I wanted to advance towards camp 2 at 6100m. This stage is the most technically demanding of the entire route, parts of the way are very exposed and steep. The final section just before camp 2 is particularly tough: the “Yellow Tower”, a vertical, partly overhanging rock passage, required a lot of effort to safely navigate at an altitude of 6000m.
At the top of the Yellow Tower is camp 2, a campsite that can hardly be surpassed in terms of exposure. Space here is very limited and the camp is notoriously crammed with a sparse number of tents for various teams, especially in the busy autumn season. Luckily for us, when Lhakpa and I got there, we were the only ones. But the weather was closing in, and we could only afford a short rest before commencing the descent to base camp.
The next day was a rest day at base camp, dedicated to preparing us for the upcoming summit push. The gears were checked again, batteries were recharged, strength was gathered and the excellent food from the base camp chefs enjoyed. Then the time had finally come for the summit push. Ideally, we would spend a night at camp 1, continue to camp 2 the next day, and then on to the summit. Thanks to the rotations, I felt reasonably fit and acclimatized to the altitude.
The way to camp 1 was familiar from previous rotations and quickly mastered. Again, the sunset was spectacular, and hundreds of photos and selfies were taken. The trail from camp 1 to camp 2 was quickly navigated without incident. In the evening tea and noodle soup were prepared. We retired early ensuring that we got some rest before we would start summit day at 2 a.m. At this altitude and the uncomfortable temperatures, deep sleep was out of the question anyway.
Our Sherpas wanted to go ahead, they carried ropes with them, since the last stretch before the summit had not yet been fixed with ropes. No one had been to the summit this year hence there were no worn tracks in the snow to facilitate our climb.
At around 2:30 a.m., about 30 minutes after the rope fixing team, we set off from camp 2, trekking in the dark. In the faint light of our headlamps and millions of stars in the sky, we made our way up the mountain, over the ridge. The route was daunting and everchanging. Sometimes more, sometimes less exposed.
I struggled with every step, slowly feeling weak from the thinning air and lack of sleep, maybe I was dehydrated as well. The climb had continually been growing more difficult. At sunrise at about 6200m, I decided with a heavy heart to turn back to camp 2. Arriving at camp 2, I received news through the radio that our Sherpas, who wanted to fix the last meters of rope on the mountain, had also decided to turn around at about 6600m. Older snow that had frozen over under a lot of fresh snow slowed them down. There was no point to continue in such dangerous conditions, and eventually, my teammates also gave up their attempt at the summit.
In the meantime, I was resting at camp 2 with warm soup and tea and soon began to feel better again. Sometime later, the others arrived at camp 2, as did the Sherpas. It was still early in the day, and I decided to descend all the way to base camp. Every now and then I needed to abseil steep passages, constantly reminding myself to remain 100% concentrated, knowing perfectly well that most mountain accidents happen on the descent when strength and concentration dwindle.
I reached base camp in the late afternoon and was welcomed by our cooks with hot tea and a delicious meal. My disappointment about not reaching the summit slowly subsided and I was able to enjoy this magnificent mountain environment one last time. I felt happy for the many experiences on the trip, for the things I learned on the mountain, and for the new friends I made. Taking part in this adventure, in the middle of the Himalayas, in my favorite country Nepal, and sitting back safe and sound at base camp, I felt a deep sense of gratitude and satisfaction.
“Getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory” – is a popular trekking quote by mountaineer Ed Viesturs. The mountain is not going anywhere anytime soon, and one thing I know for sure: I will be back to Ama Dablam.
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