Manaslu – Heavy Lessons in Thin Air


By Uphill Athlete Jon Lawrie

Manaslu – Heavy Lessons in Thin Air

 I am not a climber.  In fact, until recently, I had never climbed a single mountain.  So when I made the very ambitious decision to leave my job, my beautiful fiancée and all the securities I have known to spend a year following my dreams to climb the highest mountain on each continent, I knew it would be a monumental endeavor, not to be taken lightly.  My training and preparation led me to the very thin air of Manaslu- the 8th highest mountain in the world.

My fascination for climbing high mountains began during a trip to Nepal in 2002 when I trekked the Annapurna circuit with a good friend.  The route passed through a valley west of Manaslu where I distinctly remember seeing the enormous and impressive giant towering above us.  I stood and stared for ages, taking in the first 8000m mountain I’d ever seen.  I  imagined an insane breed of people climbing high on the upper flanks, a place no human is supposed to go, and I was hooked on the dream of becoming one of them.

Fast forward 15 years.  I sought out an experienced coach to help me achieve the grand goal of climbing some of the biggest mountains around the world.  It was that decision that led me back to Manaslu, the giant that, when I saw it, altered the course of my life.  All these years later and back in Kathmandu, I was ready to put many months of training and newly acquired skills to the test.  I met the team and our guide, and we were off to the Manaslu area to end nearly a year of talking about climbing the mountain and actually start climbing the mountain.

After leaving Kathmandu, our team moved up to a village at 3800m, approximately 1000m below the Manaslu base camp to complete a week of careful acclimatization.  The value of acclimatization early in the trip is often unappreciated and overlooked.  Many climbers, anxious to get to the top of their long sought summits, rush this stage of the expedition; this can result in compromised health conditions the remainder of the trip.  Spending time in the high Himalayan villages carries its own risk as well, increasing your exposure to exotic bacteria and various illnesses.  This, compounded with the body’s reduced ability to defend and heal itself at high altitude, can be enough to keep climbers from even making it to base camp.  Given such high stakes, when obviously sick climbers came into our tea house for dinner, the five of us acted as though they were carrying the plague.  We pulled our buffs over our faces, moved to the far side of the room, or left the room entirely to avoid suffering their fate.

For about a month we slowly acclimatized ourselves in preparation for the summit push, taking various loads of personal gear up to camps set on the mountain.  The most technical challenge of Manaslu lies between Camp 1 and Camp 2 where the route moves through an icefall with a series of steep icy sections and numerous crevasses.  Happily, we moved through it without incident.  Along our final acclimatization rotation up to camp 3, I passed a climber and a Sherpa who were descending a steep snowfield.  The Sherpa had tied a short rope between himself and the climber’s harness and was pulling him down the mountain as though he needed constant coercion to remain moving.  To me he looked like any other weak climber being helped by his Sherpa and no request for help or oxygen was made as they passed.  An hour later we learned that the man had lost his life just below us due to the effects of hypoxia.  We were shocked. It was a rude awakening to the harsh realities faced in the highest of mountains.

After completing our month long acclimatization process and having a good weather window, we packed up our gear and left base camp for the summit push.  We climbed from camp to camp spending a night in each, steadily moving closer and closer to the summit.  Since I had felt particularly strong and well acclimated up until this point, I floated the prospect of an additional challenge come summit day:  A no-oxygen ascent.  I planned to carry a bottle in my pack and use it if required, but I wanted to see how far I could get without using supplemental oxygen.

Approaching Camp

After a pretty challenging day climbing from Camp 3 to Camp 4 at 7500m with all my personal gear, I crashed in my tent in need of some rest.  As the sun dropped beneath the horizon I lay down and began the frustrating task of trying to fall asleep at 7500m.  Within minutes my mind  fixated on the wonderful sounds of my tentmate snoring.  I tried for hours to calm myself while my heart beat like a hummingbird and the howling wind battered the tent.  Occasionally I would drift into a light sleep, and as my breathing rate dropped, bizarre thoughts entered my head.   Barely conscious, I started seeing strange things:  Bottles of water being passed to me by a cloaked figure sitting at my feet, then I would suddenly feel really thirsty,  while my entire body ached with intense discomfort that I could only describe as similar to being forcibly held underwater.

After eight of the longest hours of my life I started to worry that with all of this discomfort, even if I got through the night, I would be so weakened that reaching the summit might not even be possible.  Additionally, unsure if these were early signs of cerebral edema (often victims experience hallucinations and strange thoughts) I reached for my oxygen mask and decided this was no longer going to be a “no-O” climb.  As the hours slowly marched on, the wind continued to howl and the morning brought no respite. The  wind that day was so strong our first summit attempt was impossible.  Hunkering down and waiting it out was all we could do.

24 hours later our luck changed and the wind settled. We emerged from our tents and headed for the summit.  Not long thereafter, my teammates and I, along with our Sherpas, stood on the summit just in time for sunrise – alone and in perfect conditions.  We had made it!  It is hard to describe the feeling of summiting, but overriding everything was a sense of peaceful awe,  as we literally stood in the heavens looking down at the rest of the world beneath us.  There on the summit, with nothing but an empty void on all sides, blasted by freezing cold wind, I knew that Manaslu demanded more respect than I had thought.

Despite a group plan to return to camp 2, the thought of real food and a mattress drew us to persevere through the massive 3600m descent all the way back to base camp.  I collected all my personal gear and uneaten food at each of the camps during the descent and my pack weighed a whopping 35kg by the time I left camp 1.  Just when I thought Manaslu was happily seeing me off, the ground beneath my right foot gave way and I fell into a crevasse.  My pack was so enormous that I became jammed between the walls of the crevasse; fortunately my head stayed just above ground.  Beyond exhausted, I found energy I never thought I had, wrestled my way out of the crevasse and continued on to base camp, safely ending my trip.

My intention to climb Manaslu was to see if I was ready physically, technically, and mentally for Everest as part of my quest to complete the Seven Summits.   Manaslu turned out to be perfect training.  I’m satisfied that I was able to climb the mountain;  Everest is booked for April 2018 and the countdown has begun!