Chris Burke's Annapurna Summit Push
Annapurna is such a beautiful mountain. I really want to post lots of photos just of the mountain from every angle…On 3rd, before I flew out of base camp (BC), I looked up from BC to the mountain and realized that Annapurna BC is one of the few BCs where you can walk out of your tent and look straight up at the mountain from close proximity and feel its power. Many others of the Himalayan giants are hidden behind ridges until you start to climb on them for some time (eg. Everest, Lhotse, G1, G2). For Cho-Oyu or Manaslu, from their BCs there is still some distance between you and the bulk of the mountain. With Annapurna, being so close, from BC you can hear a humming noise frequently, and then realize it is the jet stream winds pounding the upper slopes. Amazing.The ExpeditionAs much as I found the expedition physical, it was also a real mental challenge. It might have been different, or easier, if I was oblivious to Annapurna’s history and the toll it has taken on climbers. Statistically, according to Wikipedia, Annapurna is the most deadly of the 14 x 8,000m peaks. But, this year, she (as Nepalis refer to their mountains) let us all go home.
There were several helicopter evacuations and a number of cases of frostbite from mild to severe, but with her good grace, we all can go home.
The Summit Push
For our team, we pushed for the summit as follows (with approximate altitudes):
27th – C1 5,100m
28th – C2 5,700m
29th – C3 6,400m
30th – C4 and start for summit 10pm 7,100m
1st – summit 10.30am 8,091m
The re-established camp 2 with avalanche debris
On 1st, most climbers reached the summit between 8.30am and about 1pm. As Boyan Petrov (Bulgaria) the first climber to summit (on 30th) said to me: ‘It is a very long way’. From what I have seen, he is one of the best high altitude climbers around.
The summit area is tiny, fitting 3 people or 4 people with a squeeze so we had to queue before advancing our final steps. The lovely Carlos Soria and his team were not far ahead of us (with the Korean team and a few others behind them), followed by another 2 climbers, then us. Though relatively close together physically, the time between the Spanish team’s summit and ours was nearly an hour. So much happens in slow motion at such altitudes.
As can happen, planned fixed ropes ran out en-route to the summit. Most climbers climbed in either rope teams or in pairs about 40mins from below the start of the couloir. Lakpa and I always carry rope. Another Sherpa asked Lakpa and me to hand our rope over once the fixed rope ran out, with the intention to join any remaining personal ropes together for fixing. Pema and Matt were ahead with another rope. Lakpa and I handed over our rope. Soon, it was cut. Then, it disappeared up the mountain attached to other climbers in an apparent mix up… Lakpa and I used our safeties as a ‘rope’ for the remaining traverse and then once we approached the couloir Lakpa acted quickly to recover some rope from a Sherpa directly ahead for the two of us to use in the couloir.
When we reached the summit, I just wanted the photos and to descend. The wind was blowing spindrift so we only had intermittent visibility and it was so cold. With other climbers waiting to summit, I did not want us to delay them. We managed that Lakpa, Pema, Matt and me could kind-of stand on high together, but we could not all fit in the same photo. It was all rather rushed due to the winds.
As we were delayed descending behind other climbers, I spent most of my time glissading a few metres at a time on my bottom (with ice axe in hand), humming to myself since I was not moving very far fast. I was trying to think of what my first meal off the mountain would be. I also watched chunks of ice fly past me, easily dislodged from above.
Route setting done by Sherpas from:
· Himalayan Ascent
· Seven Summit Treks The Crux
In a previous blog, I said that the crux of this mountain is between C2 and C3. It is very steep and technical in this section. But, this year, the route from C3 to upper C4 was also quite technically challenging with a couple of really tricky sections. The crux for me became an overhanging 2m section at the bottom of a vertical 6m ice wall inside a huge crevasse. It was 2m that tried to break my spirit. OMG!
The crux vertical ice wall above Camp 4
A higher C4
We decided to move our C4 up higher, to the more ‘regular’ location to give us a better chance on summit day, and to shorten the day by 2-3 hours. It meant a difficult ice section would be behind us, but we still had a lot of pain in front of us. Moving to upper C4, I decided to use O2 from lower C4 (where maybe 50% of climbers set their final camps). I spent about 20mins putting the O2 on, then within 2mins I decided I was better without it. Argh, it was now snowing heavily, and I was wasting time and burning valuable energy. I took it off again. I moved up to upper C4.
Lower C4 appeared to get a lot of rockfall. As we ascended a big rock flew past, missing Matt, Lakpa and I - just. The location of upper C4 is tricky too but has a slightly lower risk of flying saucers… but rocks are scattered on snow all around the tents.
I was certain I was going to be turning around on summit day if I could not keep myself warm enough. It is a perennial problem I face with my physiology. The wind was unexpectedly high and pounding us all without reprieve. But, I kept asking myself if I would be prepared to come back to Annapurna another time and climb from C2 to C3 again and the answer was a definite ‘no’. So, if the answer was ‘no’ then my 14 peaks goal would be down to 13 peaks, so I needed to push as hard as I could to keep warm enough until after sunrise. I was hoping the sun would provide enough warmth. If I turned around, it had to be for a genuine reason relating to a real risk of harm. It was a close call.
At base camp on 3rd, as we waited to exit, it was slightly confronting to see the cases of frostbite on other climbers and know they have a recovery period ahead, and for some of that number to know that follow up treatment or operations may be required.
One climber with 2 prior cases of frostbite turned around on summit day, unprepared to accept a third case. I feel so happy for him with his decision, as does he.
Chris Burke and Lakpa Sherpa share the small area on the summit of Annapurna
I’m still trying to absorb the fact that I did actually manage to reach the top of Annapurna on an expedition that I found to be so extremely challenging, both mentally and physically.
This season, more than 26 people reached the summit of Annapurna. I estimate there have been somewhere around 220-230 summits of this mountain to date, relying on statistics that exist to 2012.
I spent longer on this expedition from BC and above than I did on Mt Everest. 6 weeks above 4,000m is incredibly tough on the mind and body.
The ever-present avalanche risk can play with your mind. I remember many nights on the mountain when I barely slept because I was listening for avalanches. Then, when I thought my imagination was working overtime, during the following days I walked or climbed across fresh avalanche debris that passed across the route at many places.
But, with many movements on the mountain, both this year and last, one can garner quite a bit of knowledge about where the risks are and to time movements as best as possible. But, well, you just never know.
Return to BC
The descent to BC was hard in the face of such exhaustion. A lot was likely mental stress due to so many sections requiring keen focus, being under looming seracs, in or over crevasses, hidden or visible, or on avalanche paths. Once I entered BC I felt I could finally let my guard down.
It was sad to leave but exciting at the same time because it marked the end of the expedition. For climbers and trekkers planning to go to the Annapurna base camp that services the ‘normal’ route of Annapurna, expect to see some amazing natural beauty. The Tatopani village area (from which the trail is now built) is a beautiful launching pad for entry into this area. Maybe try the hot springs!
Annapurna is one mountain I will make the effort to go back to in order to see it again in my lifetime…
Thank you to everyone for your support and lovely messages. It really helps to know you are there with your support. I don’t have strong internet where I am currently so if I do not reply to emails before we head to Dhaulagiri, I will do so after the expedition
By Chris Jensen Burke
Find out more about Chris at her website www.chrisjensenburke.com/