By Jon Gupta
Ama Dablam, to me, is quite simply the world’s most beautiful mountain. Every face and every ridge is steep, high and laced with beautiful ice sculptures and impenetrable rock bands.
Arriving into Ama Dablam base camp fully acclimatized, having been in the Khumbu for nearly 30 days, I decided I needed a few days of rest to recover, refuel and prepare for the climb ahead. I had a plan and it was going to require a lot of energy.
I’ll be honest, I was intimidated by the mountain, by the unknown that lay ahead and by the sheer beauty of its south-west ridge. The long sweeping line soars high into the sky like an eagle, from the edge of base camp to the summit. I could feel its pull like a magnet drawing me closer.
I had made the decision to climb alone on Ama Dablam, 6,812m, and to climb fast. I wanted to totally immerse myself in the climbing and focus everything I had on a safe and successful climb.
I left base camp around mid-afternoon and, after saying goodbye to the rest of the team, I set foot towards camp one for the first time. I put my music on as the cold clouds enveloped me and the mountains disappeared. I suddenly felt very alone.
Being fully acclimatized, I was keen to push myself and, after just two hours, I was nearing the base of the slabs below camp one.
As I entered the boulder field, a vast expanse of huge boulders scattered carelessly across the mountainside, the final light from the day faded away as I rummaged for my head torch. Up above I could see a few tents glowing a deep, warm orange as the occupants, warm inside their sleeping bags, melted ice and chatted anxiously about the day ahead.
I crawled into my tent half an hour later and quickly set about getting sorted. It was slightly later than I had hoped. Snow in pot, stove on, sleeping kit out, get in sleeping bag, unpack bag, crampons, axe, helmet, harness in porch ready for the morning, clothes, gloves, hats inside ready for the morning.
Once I was all sorted, I set about eating and drinking as much as I could. Melting ice is a laborious task but hydration is essential. Confident that I was as prepared as I could be, I switched off my head torch, changed the batteries and drifted off to sleep, excited about the next 24 hours.
With just the lightest puff of wind, I entered into the dark night. It was just after 4am as I left my tent and clipped in the first of Ama Dablam’s fixed lines. I drew a long deep breath and looked around at the surrounding peaks, sparkling and glistening under the bright stars, and began my ascent.
The climb was intense and unrelenting; between camp one and camp two I rarely stopped for a minute. All of the south-west ridge is steep, to both sides and above and below, but with 7,000m boots and good kit on, I felt safe and protected from what ever the mountain could throw at me.
But Ama Dablam remained quiet for now, letting me silently climb higher and higher up her slopes. The rock is some of the best granite I have ever climbed on and at times it is quite technical; Yellow Tower giving a superb pitch at around HVS if led. The short patches of snow and ice were hard-packed, wind-blown rime and neve, allowing my crampons to grip it like a fork in sticky toffee.
As I pulled up and over a short rock section to camp two, the sun was just beginning to rise and the faintest glow of morning promised to bring warmth and hope to the day.
At camp two, half a dozen precariously pitched tents probably housed a number of climbers from all corners of the earth, most of them making their way to camp three later that day. They were still sleeping and I passed them quickly and quietly, then took five minutes to refuel and enjoy the sunrise.
Being alone on mountains is a unique experience and one that can be very powerful. It gives you a chance to think, a chance to forget the trials and tribulations of everyday life and, for a short period of time, you are completely free.
High above, I could see camp three and I knew it was going to take a further two to three hours to reach it. Remaining clipped in for the duration of the climb, I was constantly having to assess the fixed lines and switch ropes, adding and removing jumars and karabiners as I made my way further up the ridge.
Shortly after camp two, there is a fabulous section of snow and ice called the Grey Couloir – 100m or so at 70+ degrees. My calves screamed as I my front points dug deep into the snow, but superb conditions allowed me to make good time and I soon found myself at the foot of Mushroom Ridge.
The climb was really getting exciting and I could feel myself smiling. I even looked around to see if anyone was watching. Obviously not!
Mushroom Ridge is a sensational winding narrow crest that rises like a serpent connecting the Grey Couloir and camp three. With careful haste, I made my way along the ridge, a fall along here could have catastrophic consequences.
As I climbed the final slopes to camp three, I realised that I was now in the sunshine and beginning to feel warm for the first time since starting out nearly six hours earlier. I radioed down to base camp to report my progress and take the opportunity to lose a layer and take on some water and food.
Above camp three, I could see four climbers en route to the summit who had left camp three only an hour before. Already, they looked tiny, small dots on the gigantic white summit slopes that reared up above camp three, an imposing face of thick ice.
Once past camp three, the summit slopes unveil themselves and present some of the steepest and sustained climbing on Ama Dablam. On steep snow and ice, unrelenting for almost four hours, I climbed though small weaknesses in the face up and up until I got to the final snow ridge.
I passed one climber who had called it a day and was descending and, then higher up, I passed another, but this one was not moving and had not done so for four days. I had known that I going to encounter this body and had no idea how I would feel about it. So, focused on the summit and the ticking clock, I passed by, desperately aware that only a few days earlier he had been alive. Why had he died? I kept asking myself. Why?
At nearly 6,800m, I took a short break to allow the climbers I had seen from lower down pass me on their descent from the summit. I sat facing out, looking across a vista of mountain giants. I could name only a few and the peaks seemed to extend to the furthest corners of the earth in every direction.
Why do we do this, I thought, as I looked at the thin, 8mm cord that was my lifeline and then down the 2,000ft face below me and the very long fall I would take should I come off. Why put myself in this position?
Before I had time to answer my questions, the climbers were beside me and with an exchange of a nod and smile we continued in our opposite directions. I was only too aware that available time to me was running out.
Alone again at 6,800m, I found my rhythm, one step and four cycles of breathing, one step and four more cycles of breathing. I had been moving for nearly ten hours non-stop at above 6,000m.
I was tired, of course, and I was alone, but I had the entire mountain to myself. With energy slowly seeping away from me, small elements of doubt crept into my mind, but finally, at 2.40pm, I stood on Ama Dablam’s summit and fell to my knees. I had done it.
The views are quite simply breathtaking and, standing on the summit, I took time to take it all in. I had climbed alone to the summit and I suddenly realised I had not spoken a word all day.
I gave a nod of approval towards Everest. I’m not sure why. Perhaps a sign of respect, or a message that she was next?
I couldn’t tell you now what emotions I felt as I stood up there alone, but it was a very special moment for me. I looked out across the vast expanse of mountains that I could only dream of climbing one day and, with that thought, turned to go down.
Only too aware of what was still to come, I began the descent. I was tired but very much alert and focused, and the words of Ed Viesturs sounded loud within my head: getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory.
The descent was slow and laborious and full concentration was required, as it is steep and unforgiving. A single mistake and no one would ever see me again.
With a combination of arm wraps and abseils, the descent towards camp three did not take too long and an hour later I was starting down the final ropes of the summit face.
I endured a long, cold night at camp three and, just after sunrise, continued on the descent, retracing the steps I had covered only 12 hours before.
Almost immediately, I fumbled and dropped my abseil device, and it was gone. I watched it slide down the mountain at an incredible speed. I hung on the mountain side, clipped in, and cursed myself.
From here on, I was forced to abseil dozens of fixed lines using an Italian hitch, a more time-consuming method. Nonetheless, it was amazing seeing the route I had taken only a day before from a different angle and in a new light. Abseil after abseil, I carefully descended the mountain until, eventually, just before midday, I arrived back into camp one.
Removing my crampons, helmet and harness was like taking a shower after a day in the hills. I felt refreshed, lighter and a little energy crept back into me. I knew I was safe now and the walk back to base camp would be easy.
Later that evening, at base camp, I took some time out to sit and watch Ama Dablam change as the sunlight faded to mark the end of another day and the stars slowly appeared in the sky.
I looked hard at the mountain, almost willing it to talk to me and, as I turned to walk away, I smiled and nodded my head. Ama Dablam had been kind to me, she had allowed me safe passage, calm weather and the ultimate goal, the summit, and I thanked her for that.
The climb was everything I had hoped for: intricate, dedicated, committed and enthralling. I had never in my life felt so alive.
* Jon Gupta is a freelance outdoor instructor and expedition leader. He runs his own company, Jon Gupta Expeditions. Follow him on Twitter @JCGexpeditions