The following day we moved up to High Camp (3800m) with the rest of our gear. Another scorcher of a day, with blue skies and bright sunshine all the way to the top. The conditions underfoot were amazing with snow that makes that awesome crunchy sound and your boots really seem to stick in place.
Despite that, every step I took felt in my calves as if someone had wound a guitar string so tight it was about to break. I used the rest step technique the entire way up. Upon arrival at High Camp we discovered that we couldn’t sleep in the hut we had left our gear as another group hadn’t descended yet due to poor conditions higher on the peak. We were moved into the porters hut instead which was fine, and had dinner of buckwheat and stew before going to sleep.
Next up was another acclimatisation day, up to Lenz Rocks (4800m). A 1000m ascent was always going to be a tough day but wow, I had no idea how tough. Waking up I could feel how stiff my calves were from the previous day, so massaging Tiger Balm into my skin I wished for my muscles to hold out for me.
Plastic boots, crampons and harnesses on today; we were going onto the glacier. Now if you recall, only 3 of 11 of our team had any previous mountaineering experience. This means that today we set off from 3800m to 4800m on glaciated terrain with 8 people who had either never used crampons, never worn a harness or didn’t know an ice axe from a toffee hammer. There was a delay setting off as one of the party had his harness on backwards.
As soon as I stepped outside the hut I knew it wasn’t going to be my day. I had only walked about 50m and I felt unusually out of breath, dizzy and my legs were so heavy. I figured I was just warming up; I’m not a morning person. We roped up in teams (a first time in a roped team for 8 people), and set off up the mountain.
I was in the final team, second last on the rope. One of the things I learnt during my glacier skills course was about keeping the tension on the rope just so to be in the best position for recovery should one of the team fall into a crevasse. (Check out this article if you want to learn more about roped travel). It turned out that none of the team I was roped up with knew about this, and it wasn’t explained by the guides before we set off (I suppose they assumed everyone knew it).
As I noticed the rear team mate creeping up a few feet behind me I tried quickly to explain the concept of avoiding too much slack on the rope. As I ran through the basics, I noticed the person in front grab hold of his rope to take in the slack he’d built up behind the guide! As I was found myself stuck between two slack ropes and we negotiated our way around an enormous crevasse I wondered to myself, “will today be the day I die?”.
Do you remember in the first part of this story I mentioned that being in the mountains is sort of like my therapy, my place to experience peace and calm, to enjoy the beauty of our planet and to escape from the daily worries and responsibilities. Today put paid to that.
The route itself was challenging. I knew it would be steep, you could see that from camp but I had never experienced terrain where there was literally no let up, not even a slight undulation, just constant, increasingly steep, calf-burning uphill. As we turned the corner I noticed a bump in the terrain which led onto what looked like a small plateau before continuing uphill. I felt my body relax as I imagined the moment my now agonising calves could enjoy a few minutes relief. I was wrong. The bump was an illusion and the terrain I was looking at was the steepest part yet. Not only was each step like an icy dagger splitting each fibre of my gastrocnemius one by one, but with my upset stomach cramping and churning, I didn’t know which I was more worried about – tearing a muscle or shitting myself.
I continued to drag my body up the hill. I had to stop the team a few times to ease off the pressure building in my legs. I didn’t think I’d make it up to Lenz Rocks and told the guide as much. We were close though, so I pushed on through and stopped at the base of the rocks with a few other struggling team members while the rest continued the 200m slightly above us to where camp would be, to complete their acclimatisation. All I could think of was about getting down, using the bathroom, and how on earth I’d get back up there for the summit push.
As we descended, we found ourselves in a storm of what’s known as ‘thunder snow’. Little tiny polystyrene ball looking snow which comes from a thunder cloud. As soon as this started to fall, our guide picked up pace, yelled at us to hurry up and we legged it down. One of the team slipped momentarily, and what would be the only time I laughed on the trip, the Russian guide shouted “THERE’S NO TIME TO FALL!”. People were commenting that their hiking poles were vibrating and buzzing in their hands, and it was only later I’d find out that the type of lightning that’s associated with thundersnow storms is positive polarity, which means it can be significantly more dangerous. With us being on a featureless snowfield with crampons, ice axes and metal hiking poles, we were in a considerable amount of danger. We made it down in one piece and moved into our new digs, the climbers hut, before having another bowl of buckwheat and stew for dinner.