2007 Ama Dablam Climb, Everest Trek, and Lobuche East Climb Trip Report
by Justin Merle
Note from Justin Merle: I've led IMG's Ama Dablam climb and associated treks and climbs for the past couple years, as well as having climbed the mountain once just for my enjoyment. I have a pretty good idea of what makes for a good climb on the mountain... I hope that what I write below will not only be a summary of this year's trip but also a good resource for those who are interested in joining IMG's future Ama Dablam climbs and treks.
Why IMG's Ama Dablam climb is good:
When I look at the mish-mash of expeditions in Ama Dablam's base camp it's just like most of the big mountains in the Himalayas. There are a lot of groups getting set to climb the mountain; some are well prepared and others just look like a junk show. Among the subset of guided or professionally outfitted expeditions there is a similar spread of groups-some are well organized and others are a joke. As you might guess, the pattern among these trips follows the "you get what you paid for" rule. I'd put all of IMG's trips in the category of well organized and generally near the top of the game for guided and fully outfitted trips in the Himalayas. IMG probably also has the best value for your money spent... of course, I'm probably a bit biased.
Here are a few things that make our trip different from the other high quality guided trips out there:
- We acclimatize by trekking into Everest Base Camp and climbing a 6000m peak prior to getting to Ama Dablam base camp. Really, we have three objectives that mesh well into one trip. I personally think this is way more fun than going straight to base camp and sitting around there, then doing acclimatization cycles on the same terrain or creeping more slowly up the mountain. We show up at AD well acclimatized, having already spent a bunch of time above 17,000 ft. and having climbed above 20,000 ft. already. At this point we're well prepared for a summit bid on Ama Dablam. That being said, we still have several extra days in our itinerary for weather or recovery. In short, we see more interesting things, and don't have to spend a lot of time covering the same terrain on the lower slopes of Ama Dablam (the climb from BC to camp 1 is kind of a slog).
- IMG's sherpas are the same ones we work with all the time. They do a great job and they know what it takes to make the climb happen.
- The IMG trip, once we reach AD base camp, is structured to allow a certain amount of flexibility with the climbing schedule. Though with a small group we prefer to climb together, we can accommodate different climbing schedules for different members (within reason of course). We make sure that there are IMG guides or sherpas with each group, and we are in constant contact by radio to coordinate our efforts if we are split up on the mountain.
- Though we don't call our climb a "guided" trip and instead categorize it as "professionally led," we work hard to be certain that our customers are as prepared as possible and that they receive as much guidance as we can give to help them have a safe and successful climb. This is a realistic approach to leading a trip in the Himalayas, unless you hire a personal, one-on-one guide.
The 2007 climb and trek:
The members of the 2007 climbing and trekking group started trickling into Kathmandu in early October. The trip actually started on the 9th, but some chose to show up early to see the sites of the Kathmandu Valley and to recover from jet-lag. Three of the crew had just finished up an expedition on Cho Oyu and were doubling up for even more fun.
Our group was made up of the following folks:
Trekking to Everest Base camp: Steve Werfel, Andrew Jaquays, Amelia Nelson, Dawn Boney, Veronica Vazquez, Miguel Fuerte, Gerardo Lopez, Taylor Peck.
Trekking to EBC and climbing Lobuche East: Chris and Ann Peck.
Trekking, climbing Lobuche, and climbing Ama Dablam: Charlie Peck, Jan Van Den Bos, Ken Cragin, Ben Kurdt, Justin Merle.
Climbing Ama Dablam only: Naim Logic.
After some time spent preparing for the trip and being tourists in Kathmandu the group headed to the airport on the 11th of October for our flight to Lukla. We spent the whole day in the Kathmandu domestic terminal waiting for the skies over Lukla to clear before our flights were actually cancelled and we could return to our hotel. This put us a day behind schedule on the trek, and since this was the third day of all Lukla flights being cancelled we were all a bit worried that we would end up losing more time to the weather delays. Luckily the next day we were able to fly in and start our trek.
This first day of the trek, walking to Phakding, is pretty easy. It took the group a grand total of about 3 hours of walking. In keeping with the style of trekking in the Khumbu, we stopped halfway through the walk for a hot lunch. It's pretty amazing to see the quantity of food laid out by our sherpa cook staff at each meal. They do a great job, and often it seems like they're trying to stuff food down our throats too often during the day. Personally I like it.
The next day we went up to Namche Bazaar. I think we took about 4 hours this year. The day challenged us with our first big uphill climb, the "Namche Hill." As on most days of the trek, we tried to take it easy and conserve our energy. Usually just acclimatizing to the increasing altitude is hard enough on our bodies. We got to Namche pretty early in the day and had time to explore the town and eat some pastries at the tasty bakeries. I was surprised to find that the internet, while more expensive here in Namche, was significantly faster than it had been in Kathmandu. I remember it being quite slow here on previous trips.
Our itinerary included a rest and acclimatization day in Namche. Most of the crew went for easy day hikes and spent some more time poking around the town and looking at the Tibetan market (the Tibetans bring their good by yak over the Nangpa La pass this time every year). Some folks hiked up to the nunnery in Thamo during the day; others went up to Kumjung and the Everest View Hotel.
As it gets dark at about six o'clock every night, and also gets cold, it's worth bringing something to entertain yourself with. Along the way some of our crew started using popcorn kernels as poker chips in games of Texas Hold 'em. Others prefer to catch up on sleep after having scrambled to tie up loose ends at work before the trip. Regardless a good book or an Ipod full of music goes a long way.
Our walk the next day took us through the town of Tengboche. Here we were lucky enough to see some monks working on a sand mandala in the monastery. We also got a chance to have an audience with the Tengboche Lama (one of the head monks), and he gave us his blessing for the trip. Not much talking happened between us and the Lama though (I'll have to work on speaking more Nepali).
We camped in Deboche that night. Generally on our treks we stay in tents in the fields beside teahouses-this is usually nice because the teahouses can be quite loud and noisy and not any warmer in the rooms than a tent. Either way it's an excellent idea to bring earplugs. I remember a couple times in the villages down low the stray dogs were yelping at the moon all night... Often we'll take our meals in the teahouse dining rooms, but sometimes we set up a large dining tent at our camps.
As we hiked to Dingboche the following day we briefly lost Jan as we went up the hill to see the Pangboche Gompa. Jan had charged ahead, thinking he'd fallen behind. We caught Jan at the lunch stop farther up valley.
On the walk to Dingboche I was surprised to see a group of kayakers filming their descent of the Imja Khola. That's a pretty long way to bring a boat-maybe they got them in by helicopter. During the time that we'd been trekking from Lukla, Naim Logic (who'd just come off the IMG Cho Oyu expedition) had been at Ama Dablam preparing to climb. He was climbing with two of IMG's sherpas and they'd been working hard to install fixed lines on the mountain. Today we heard by radio that he and the sherpas were at Camp 2 and hoping to summit the next day.
That next day the main trekking group had an acclimatization day in Dingboche. It had snowed the night before in a pretty impressive thunderstorm. The weather was clear in the morning and Naim and the sherpas were making a summit attempt, but finding tough going with deep snow (they were the first team to make a summit bid this fall). As the morning progressed, the wind picked up high on the mountain and the weather began to look pretty nasty. Considering their slow progress so far and the look of impending doom in the skies, the summit team decided to turn around and try again later. The group in Dingboche found the day to be pretty chilly, and we were glad we weren't 8000 feet higher on Ama Dablam just yet.
After a day of rest and some short acclimatization hikes around Dingboche, the trekking group was feeling rested and ready to walk to Lobuche. This day of walking took us on a traverse up the valley above Pheriche to where the trail climbs up the terminal moraine of the Khumbu Glacier. At the top of the moraine we stopped to take in the memorials to all the sherpas who've died while working on Everest. There are too many of them. An hour past this point we were at our camp in Lobuche preparing for a hike to Everest base camp the following day.
On the trek, the visit to base camp is kind of like a summit day-we walk up the valley, see the camp, and head back down for a night in Gorak Shep. If you're not feeling good, you don't necessarily have to go all the way. We had a great period of weather while we were up high on the trek-good views all around. Up in base camp we took a look at the Thai climbing expedition which was the only group climbing the big E this fall. It's spectacular to look up the gut of the Khumbu Icefall and a bit disconcerting to think about climbing through that jumble of ice towers.
The weather delay flying to Lukla had left us a day short on the trekking itinerary. Rather than miss out on either seeing base camp or climbing Kalapattar (where the actual views of Everest's summit are had) we decided to shuffle the itinerary a little and cut out a night in Lobuche on the descent. This meant that the descending trek group had to do a morning hike up Kalapattar before descending down valley to Pheriche. This was a bigger day, but not at all unreasonable. The Lobuche climbing group had a shorter walk that afternoon to Lobuche base camp.
This was also the day that Naim and the Sherpas made their second and successful summit bid on Ama D. I was pretty impressed with their climb-they left Camp 2 at three in the morning, climbed to the summit and back then descended all the way to base camp by 7 pm. That's a long day!
I was climbing with the Lobuche group so ended up at the Lobuche BC for the night, after having said goodbye to the eight trekkers earlier in the day. The base camp we used is at 15,800' or so, and on the south side of the mountain, more toward Zongla. There are other base camps on the Lobuche side, but ours was nice. Our base camp was less than 2 hours from Lobuche town, and lower in elevation. High camp is by a tarn about and hour and a half up the hill at about 17000--pretty nice location. Yaks can get to high camp, so it's an easy day for the members.
From Lobuche base camp we had a short day (less than 2 hours of climbing) to the high camp at about 17,000' that's situated by a picturesque alpine lake. The rest of the day we spent resting and preparing for our summit bid the next morning.
The 2 am wakeup and a beautiful full moon set us up pretty well for a great summit day. The temperature was brisk in the morning as we climbed up the moderate granite slabs with an occasional scrambly step leading to the glacier that crowns the mountain. It took the crew 2 to 3 hours to get up to the snow. The sunrise was a welcome sight as we put our crampons on and roped up. We enjoyed the warmth of the sun as we traversed the edge of the glacier to the base of the fixed lines that ascend to the summit ridge. The glacier is pretty mellow but there's a chance you could fall and slide off over the east face and that wouldn't be good, so were glad to be roped up. It took less than an hour to get to the base of the fixed lines. There were about 400m of line ascending the ridge to the false summit on slopes from 40-50 degrees at times. The true summit of Lobuche is seldom climbed; it would apparently take a rappel into a notch in the ridge and a trickier ascent beyond the notch. The ascent was smooth. Jan and Ken blazed up ahead to the top in record time and Charlie, Chris and Ann followed in fine style. The views from the top were incredible! After lots of photos, we descended to high camp in time for a hot lunch at high camp, then descended back to the base camp for dinner and rest.
After our Lobuche climb we had an "extra day" left in the Lobuche itinerary. We thought about just heading straight to Ama Dablam, but decided that since we'd already done a fair bit of acclimatization, that day would be most useful spent down low in Dingboche resting and recovering. Some of the group was suffering from the "Khumbu cough" and colds, and the best chance to recover is down where there's more oxygen and warmer air.
The day in Dingboche seemed to treat everyone well-we spent it mostly lounging around. Some folks did laundry, most of us washed up, and we ate a lot of food in an attempt to fuel up for the coming climb.
The following morning we packed up again and headed up to Ama Dablam base camp. This hike includes a forty-minute walk in the "wrong" direction to get to the bridge crossing the Imja Khola. After crossing the river, we end up walking right back down on the other side until we're only a few hundred meters from where we started in Dingboche, but at least we haven't drowned in the river...
The walk to base camp was particularly hard for a couple of us; we attribute it to something in the previous evening's meal. As one of those two people, I can confidently rank this day as the hardest day of the entire trip (for me).
We reached base camp, where Ang Passang and Kami (our climbing sherpas), had been working hard to get everything set for us. We were happy to move into the individual tents (it's nice to have your own space to spread out and organize), and we were all glad to see the posh dining tent and have the ability to charge our cameras and Ipods. Ang Passang had taken the effort to haul up our propane space heater from Pangboche. (That was really nice; it does get chilly at night).
In the morning we said goodbye to Chris and Ann, and spent the rest of the day organizing our gear and preparing to move up the mountain. The weather had been great and we were all feeling like we'd be well rested, so we planned to head up the mountain the following day after our puja.
For the puja, a local monk came up to base camp and performed a ceremony complete with prayers and throwing of rice and burning of juniper. The idea is to bless our attempt on the mountain. We'd hoped that we could do the puja on the previous day so Chris and Ann could join us, but apparently it wasn't an "auspicious" day on the Sherpa calendar.
Midmorning, after the puja, we grabbed our packs and headed up the hill to Camp 1. Most of this day of climbing is on pretty easy trail, with a little boulder-hopping, then low angle slab-climbing at the very end. The climb to C1 covers about 4000 ft. of vertical. We got up to C1 in good time, though we were reasonably tired after the long ascent. We felt pretty good about continuing on our summit bid the following day as the weather was still excellent.
The day climbing between C1 and C2 was spectacular. The route is so much fun! It climbs on and beside a sharp, serrated ridge, on solid granite and occasional patches of snow. For the most part it's 4th and low 5th class climbing which is super fun and do-able. There are a couple sections that would rate mid 5th class and a short 5.9 bit-these are also significantly less intimidating as they're well protected by fixed line. Most people end up simply ascending the rope on the 5.9 Yellow Tower, as we're climbing with reasonably heavy packs at near 20,000 feet. Anyhow, we all got to C2 on its airy perch above the Yellow Tower shortly after noon and took the remainder of the day to rest up for the summit bid. At this point Charlie made a tough call and decided not to continue above C2-his Khumbu cough, which had never fully gone away for the entire trip, was getting in the way of his climbing and it just wasn't fun.
On the upside for Charlie, he got to sleep in the following morning, whereas Kami, Jan, Ken, Ben, and I woke up at 2:30 am to start our summit day. The day was clear and cold and a bit breezy, but all within the realm of safety. Again the climbing is pretty spectacular, ascending mixed snow and rock, then steep snow and a knife-edged ridge to the site of Camp 3. On all three of my ascents of Ama Dablam we've decided not to use C3-while it would give a shorter summit day (a necessity for some), it sits up high, in the cold, and is exposed to significant icefall hazard. As I passed through the camp this year, I pondered the question of whether or not it's a safe place to spend a night. I decided that I could convince myself that any icefall would all funnel off down the gulley to the left and that the icecliff isn't very active, but I could just as easily tell myself that I'd never want to camp there because it's obviously not safe.... The reality is that ten days after we left the mountain last year, six people were swept off the mountain by falling ice as they slept at C3, and I'd prefer not to sleep there ever. At the same time, several respectable outfits still use the camp and it seems reasonable, almost.
Enough about C3... Above that point the route ascends snow and ice around the upper "Dablam" icecliff. Ama Dablam, by the way, translates roughly to "Mother's Charm Box," with the icecliff being the charm box that a sherpa mother might wear around her neck. Above the Dablam the route ascends a steep fluted snow slope via a less steep ridge that cuts it in two. This ridge ends at the summit, which we ended up reaching at about 10:30. We spent about an hour on top, snapping photos and enjoying the view: from the summit you can see Shishapangma, Cho Oyu, Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, and Kanchenchunga, six of the world's 8000m peaks.
Our descent went quickly and without incident, though we were all pretty tired by the end of the day. We were back in Camp 2 by 3:30 pm, and we spent the night there. In the morning we packed up camp and descended the rest of the way to base camp, where we could finally relax and enjoy our accomplishment.
The final days of our trip were spent walking back to Lukla, then flying to Kathmandu and on to home. Charlie had caught a helicopter out of Pangboche which also transported two of Ang Passang's children to Kathmandu. It looked like fun! We all spent a couple days in Kathmandu trying to catch a flight out-flights that time of year tend to be booked solid.
Thanks to all who participated in this year's trip and helped make it a success. I enjoyed the time spent with everyone!
Justin Merle, IMG Guide