Monday, 27 August 2012

Mount Sajama by Paul O’Connell

The journey from base camp to high camp wasn't as arduous as I'd expected. Not because I was any less out of breath as I struggled up the scree slopes, but because I was getting used to feeling like I was perpetually sprinting, and starting to realise that eventually the guide would stop for a breather. The porters had gone ahead and erected our tents on a precipitous ledge at around 5700m. Spirits were high as we arrived and began melting down penetentes for drinking water (ice spikes unique to these mountains). Preparations were made for a 6pm bed time and a 1am start for the summit attempt. Sleep was illusive mostly due to nervous excitement and I was fully awake before midnight. The 18 of us had organised ourselves into rope teams of 3 for the summit but one of my team became increasingly ill with AMS during the night and decided not to attempt the summit. I moved to join the guide on his rope team. A slight delay in departure left the guide impatient to get going. We started out with crampons and ice axes but not roped together. The first hour was an arduous slog through penetentes and steep scree to the start of a narrow ridge where we all huddled from the icey wind whilst we roped into our teams. Head torches lit a small patch of snow in front of each climber. I was aware of my team mates but very alone with my fear on the snow ridge. The blackness of the night was the main saving grace allowing me to pretend that there were no plummeting drops either side of me. The ridge steepened and the suddenly rose into a snow and ice climb. This was the long section where we had been promised that a fixed line would be in place making the climb much easier and safer. The fixed line wasn't there. About 10m into the climb I had a sudden and very cold realisation that I was totally out of my depth. I was endangering myself and the team because I didn't have the necessary skills to do this climb even in daylight and with normal levels of oxygen. We hadn't prepared for this. My crampons were in danger of cutting the rope, I couldn't get the ice axe to grip the wall, I was cold, nervous, tired and would have to down-climb this slope if I continued. I turned to my rope partner who had been recently starting to feel nauseous and said 'do you think it would be a massive inconvenience if I told the guide I was not feeling safe?' To my immense relief his reply came 'I'm right with you buddy'. The guide quickly untied the two of us and replaced us with 2 more experienced climbers. This new team of 4 was the only one to go on to the summit. The down climb and ridge crossing in the dark and now gusting wind proved that I had made the correct decision. We picked up another climber on the way down to make a team of three and luckily our decision had very little adverse effect on the others. We passed another team on the way down who told us that we had reached 5950m, higher that Mt Kilimanjaro, not bad for a first summit attempt over 6000. The route back to high camp was harder than expected. Thankfully there were 4 people already there one of whom had hung a tiny glow stick on his tent, without this I'm not sure we would have found the camp. We followed the red glow down the scree and across the penetentes with a few heart stopping falls and eventually we literally collapsed into our tents at around 5am. I woke to the sound of another team returning and it was daylight. They had turned back at around 6300m due to the cold and altitude effecting one of the team's vision. After a bit more sleep I left the tent. The base camp group was transfixed watching the mountain and one of our teams who were visibly stuck and not moving at the top of the climb section. They were mainly stationary and would occasionally move one way and back across the top of the climb. We speculated for hours as to what might be happening. Were they lost, injured, ill from the cold? All we could do was prepare high camp as best we could. Those who were ill at high camp went on down to base camp. Eventually the team on the mountain began to make moves down the slope, some climbing, some abseiling. A team of 3 medics from high camp decided to go up to the ridge to meet the descending teams taking fluids and medication with them. Eventually and after some help from the medics the remaining 9 climbers trickled back to high camp around 13 hours after we set-out. They were met with snacks, fluids and TLC. It transpired that the group we had been watching on the slope had had one of their team members almost completely blinded due to the altitude. This had massively slowed their return once they had realised the seriousness of the problem and they had then had to wait for reasonable sight to return before attempting the down-climb of the steep section. At high camp priority groups were organised to return to base camp whilst the rest of us and the porters packed up the camp. The last bedraggled team member arrived into base camp after 5pm, 16 hours after setting out from high camp. All recovered to health and full eye sight after a day or so. For some of the team to have summitted was an achievement shared equally among the whole team at high camp, base camp, Sajama village and back in the UK even though we weren't all stood on the summit with them. It was an adventure that will stay with me forever as will the feeling of connectedness with the team members.

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