Climbing atop the 7th highest mountain on earth, Dhaulagiri got off to a jagged start. My second 8 000 er was far tougher mentally than physically. I climb on.

Audio ~ Digging Deep on Dhaulagiri

My idea to boot pack to Macchupure Base Camp and head up skiing from Annapurna Base Camp the following morning was abolished when I woke up vomiting in the night. More than 24 hours later it continued leaving nothing inside but mind games and self doubt. I had had the dominos aligned meticulously to maintain fitness and work towards acclimatization in anticipation of Dhaulagiri (8 167m), the world’s 7th highest peak and my 2nd 8 000 er. I aimed to be as fit and strong as I was on Manaslu; more so in fact.

Every delay disrupted the potential flow. Trying to recover while gaining altitude is a backwards concept while backward planning saw the timeline impossible to play out with any benefit. I chose to stay in Kathmandu for the remaining 10 days leading up to our trek towards Dhaulagiri Base Camp. 

Had my health not taken a dive, I would come back from skiing leaving only time for a quick turn around. I had created two scenarios, each trekking in from a different side of DBC. Just the two of us trekking like good times past, I had my gear set and duffels arranged to send with the Imagine Nepal support team who would fly from the city days after we set off on foot. I called him trying to talk through possibilities and dates, sent scenarios and schedules. Nothing.

With hopes of high altitude skiing turned to extended time in the city, trekking turned to taxis and tractors before helis entered the plan, 8 000 m number two was off to a jagged start. 

After 12 sweltering hours between 3 cars we stopped in Drabang, Myagadi. Just the two of us and, working to let go of the disheartening lead up,  things felt normal. Though hot water was not an option and I had no towel, a shower was essential. Quiet dal bhat then to bed in the unassuming Tea House. 

First night in Drabang, Myagadi

Seeing the Imagine Nepal support team loitering around a massive bus was joy to start day 2. Their smiles shadowed doubts of the company I would keep for the next 6 weeks. We started in a taxi that could not pass the raging river so we set off and crossed on foot. Belly laughs like better days felt good. 

On the other side, we picked up a jeep with a hoard of school kids then jumped out as Takam came into view. Due to the low snow line,  we would have to heli from there to Base Camp, the team’s energy and welcoming nature sparked my spirit. Shifting the loads of gear that had come by bus and tractor to the local helipad attracted the attention of every villager within sight. The team would take turns in a tent alongside the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment. When I felt there was nothing more to help with and droplets of rain began to fall from the hovering grey sky, I took a long slow walk much to the intrigue of kids rarely exposed to foreign women walking alone. With the change of itinerary, this would be the last day before reception would be lost; my excitement grows.

Getting to Takam was its own adventure

I prefer walking to wheels and hiking to helis. As such, this would be my first chopper ride in the Himalayas. Along with the time necessary to shuttle humans and supplies for two months on the mountain, the combined excitement of getting the expedition underway, unparalleled views and the teams’ energy shadowed earlier frustration. Arriving to an empty Base Camp ignited. Magic would not happen before dark so a makeshift kitchen and dining tent were priority as the loads could be temporarily stored until the sun came up and a more stable base with an intentional layout plan could be set up. 

Most of the guys had been part of our Manaslu expedition and having spent most of the previous 3 years in Nepal feel comfortable and welcome. The two of us started sharing a typical 2-person tent that we use at higher camps, each of us adjusting with slight headaches. 

After sharing coffee in the morning sun, I journaled thankful for the time to move slow, serenity and sunshine. Short lived, he came and told me to grab some gear for blessing as we were going to have the *puja momentarily.  The ceremony fills me with gratitude and anticipation often to the point of a watery eye. I think of my Dad, I feel closer to him in the mountains, also of family and those close to me with hope they keep healthy while I am up high. After lunch, I took a walk towards the French Pass (5 370 m). Being so early in the season there was not a trail and, though I knew the general direction, with my leg going right through the snow multiple times and significant rock fall, did not feel safe so I retraced my steps back to Base Camp. Restless, I helped build the box tents for the remaining climbers who would start arriving in a week. 

A hike up towards the French Pass together felt like I hoped the entire expedition would: altitude, fitness and conversation. Later in the day, moving into my own tent creates distance with questionable benefits. More time alone triggers thoughts of Kanchenjunga where he will not be joining me. Daunting yet deep within I know I will be good; perhaps even better. Everything makes sense when I scribe in my journal. I write alot; often throughout the expedition. 

Day 8 was penciled to see us touching Camp 1 yet when the Sherpa team changed their plan, he changed ours. I wrote of gratitude for the guys and guides who included me as we set up more tents and of angst among worrying thoughts of losing strength and fitness. 

Sunshine fills me on the ninth day under layers of sunscreen as we finally moved higher. The Ascent Pro 2 is a tiny MSR tent and, with weather forecast was coming in, we built a snow wall to protect us from the wind beating on Camp 1.

Home at Camp 1

Starting the day with a camp stove that would not light did not bring out the best in him. The cursing in Nepali triggered self blame because technically it was my personal stove. Thankfully we could borrow from the team who were along to set up ropes to C3 and bring gear up ahead of their clients arrival. My energy seemed burnt, not unlike the stove. Self talk was tough to counter as we approached Camp 2 (6 500 m) and followed enroute back to C1 for the night while severe wind moved in. When the rope fixing team did not make it back before dark and the radio revealed they had lost the way, he went out with a gps, whistle and extra headlamps to help direct them back. Definitely a couple daunting hours.

The night was frigid and getting packed up to move back down to Base Camp was sloth like. When we did begin descending there were snow bars that needed to be moved requiring his ice axe. Trying to be helpful, I attached his tool back as we continued dodging crevasses; much larger than the way I felt when his ice axe went missing. I took the blame with countless apologies yet he continued to curse in Nepali before telling me to keep walking down and he’d catch up after he found it. Seconds later, he changed his mind and told me to wait. I sat on the ground and it all came out, sobbing all I could do was wonder who else he would ever speak to in such a way. 

Within twenty minutes he returned. We walked all the way to Base Camp in silence. The mountains of my mind were steep. Returning to the Stupa to thank the mountain for safe passage he tried our usual fist bump, high 5, hug combo yet I could not let it go and said, “We need to talk about this.”

He looked around as if to check to see who was watching us before he replied, “Sometimes anger and crying (?!?) happen at altitude. Do you want me to explain how important an ice axe is? If you fall in a crevasse and I don’t have it, you could die.”

Crushed, through a voice cracking, “I am sorry. I absolutely understand the importance of our gear and safety. I take the blame, I apologized. When you were telling me to ‘go go go’ as I attached the tool back on your pack, I clearly was focused on doing it quickly. I am sorry.”

He replied, “Ok ok,’ as he began walking away. 

Devastated, I asked, “Can you try to imagine how I am feeling right now?” He then glanced back at me and continued walking.

“Is it not obvious I didn’t do it on purpose?” Nothing. 

Getting myself to lunch minutes later was a battle. Would he speak to his mom, sisters, Nims, Sophie, or Manish like that ? I cannot find value in voicing that. Really hurt. Really sad.

Time alone in my tent I journal about tipping points. I am disappointed for allowing myself to be treated with such disrespect. I need to let go. I need to focus on myself: my self worth, my self respect and goals. I am ready for Mingma to arrive to open conversation about climbs ahead. This cannot continue.

Day 13 brings 7 climbers from 6 different countries, a combination of some gems I have climbed with previously and others who are new to me. Chris brings a spark of character and compassion. I had heard of him for weeks. His energy was light. Having Mingma arrive brings some reassurance. He also brought me a new down suit thanks to Himali. It’s big but I love it as much as the thoughtfulness behind it. 

More than two weeks in and camp was full as it could be. He had no interest in postholing the blownover trail up. We were slow to start yet reached C1 hours faster than our first rotation. 

Leaving Base Camp

Day 16 – C1 – C2 – again slow leaving camp but passed the others and got the bigger MSR tent set up at lower C2. More small crevasses are opening up yet I am hesitating less and moving more efficiently over them. He spent the remaining daylight hours trying to get mobile reception that is known to exist in the vicinity of C2. I allowed his lack of focus to distract me. Another battle to fall asleep. 

Day 17 – While we went to bring a load to C3 it got extremely windy. He actually commented on my strength; a few encouraging words can move mountains. Beyond upper C2 begins a long, steep, relentless climb and, about 95% of the way, he decided it was unsafe for me to keep going considering time, pace and weather so he dropped the O2 and I started back down with Tsering. What a different relationship. Tsering wanted to help and at each anchor tried to change my rappel device for me. I definitely do not need nor want such coddling though the contrast was ‘eye opening’. When he caught back up we descended together into the darkness. It was 8 pm when we arrived back at C2 when it got crazy windy. Unsure if the tent would hold up, we had a disgusting dehydrated meal and both sipped  a hot lemon for colds drink with hope to sleep soundly.  One of our better days yet I still am not settled and sleep evades me. 

The wind hardly eases as we try to pack up to head down back to BC. 

Day 18 – 22: He left to take a load to C3 and never told me. I struggled seriously hard. I walked, I sat, I journaled, I wrote a letter I would never send. Mingma said, “There is reception at C2, of course he went.” Absolutely disheartened. The person I came here to climb with cannot communicate that he is leaving for 3 days. Livid.

Those 3 days included too much stillness of body and too much turbulence of mind. I moved in safe places, had more bucket showers and hand washed more clothes than necessary. Notes of feelings connected to food, fitness and fat fill my journal amoung notes of frustration connected to lack of communication. I actually turned to audio recording as a tool to help me cope. Listening now, I recognize why I did not perform physically as I am capable of. 

I struggled through the rest of the expedition. The mental drain, the slow pace of extended time at Base Camp nothing added up to set me up for a strong summit push. I could say the list sounds like excuses but it is actually only now, months later that I can see the impact of what I tried to hide. 

Approaching Camp 2, I noticed a climber descending taking my photo. Antonios Sykaris, a well known Greek climber, asked a few questions, told me I looked strong and wished me the best for the summit. We had our deposit at Lower Camp 2 with only Chris and Tsering choosing to stop beside us for the night. Chris’ wave from his resting position was another spark. The following day was a long slow slog to Camp 3. The other climbers had left a day earlier and spent the night at upper Camp 2. We watched them leave so likely an hour ahead of us. I felt empty though I knew there was no point in trying to rush. We had our own tent at Camp 3 and all we would do was eat, hydrate and rest for a few hours before heading to the summit. Regardless of the speed, tents were fewer than what I had been told and 6 of us would share but ‘only for a few hours’ because the rope fixing team we were sharing with would leave ahead. However, space, time, and anticipation left no window for sleep. Not sure I had any at all before others were starting to move out from neighbouring tents. The slope and tent combination left no private space to pee at all and, absolutely over any attempt to hide, was squatting amoung countless moving crampons and headlamps. 

The final leg towards the summit begins steep before it turns a maze of rock and snow. I had trust in direction but he was suffering from the bonechilling wind so much that he asked me to turn up his oxygen to try to get more blood flowing to his extremities. The equation is difficult to balance as any flow rate increase could haunt us hours later. The sun helped yet it also revealed why there are so many varying routes to the summit. There were hours of traversing ahead yet the daylight lifted me and we slowly started to catch up and pass other climbers who had started earlier. I bolted with a surge from seeing the summit though soon thereafter was halted as a handful of the first summiters were starting to descend through an extremely narrow ridge with unstable rock under some loose snow and ice. I actually thrive in the intensity while some coming down froze in fear. I’m thankful. The ridge towards the summit; amazing. Seeing Mingma sitting atop the cornice that is the peak triggered the watery high and ‘holy *uck’; gitty. 

My final steps towards Dhaulagiri’s summit, 8 167 m

The descent was quiet. I thought alot about Dad and crave conversations with him so play them in my mind. Hot spots on the shin of my boots, mountains in my mind while unsure when I had last slept solid, maybe I could digest the summit if I ever arrived at Camp 3. When we eventually did, I was done. He was done. We agreed that some sleep and fuel would make the descent much more safe and efficient. Relief was short lived as suddenly Sherpa were taking down tents and rushing people out. Yes, the next day would be shorter if we continued to push down  Camp 2 yet I was depleted and wholeheartedly felt that making the following day longer day distance wise would be safer. I’d have slept, fuelled and had more daylight. We actually agreed on something. Took off our oxygen and slept.

The following morning, like most, we had coffee and whatever snacks we could find before heading down. Given the time and cold, the radio had died so we had no way to check in and inform BC of our departure. It was slow with steps staggered though I found a spark in the morning sunshine and seeing other humans. Within a few hours we again crossed the trail with Antonios; only this time he was on his way to the summit. He asked about time, distance and told me he was struggling with extremely low energy in the long steep stretch. 

I moved downward, encouraging him to “Stay safe.” I later learned these would be the last words he heard from anyone beyond his climbing partner. He died at Camp 3 the following day.

Packing up our tent and the collection of everything that had been deposited in it at C2 was closer to an hour. Starting the final stretch to Base Camp, baffled by what I witnessed in the clean up, there was a spark to get it done. Having skipped C1 on the way up there was nothing left to pick up. 

Daylight turned to darkness and lights from Base Camp appeared. We spotted two headlamps moving from BC. So damn thoughtful. Jit and Kili chose to come meet us with hot juice and biscuits in their running shoes obviously. The last ones to arrive back at BC came with a tsunami of emotions. He literally dumped shared gear in front of my tent and said nothing. Nothing.

We flew out the next morning.

Moving on. 

*puja – ceremony to pay respect to the mountain and offer blessings for safe passage before heading up to climb

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