Weary climbers back at base camp after scaling 22,494-foot peak

January 06, 1991|By Chris Warner | Chris Warner,Special to The Sun

AMA DABLAM, NEPAL — Chris Warner, a project director with Outward Bound in Baltimore, has traveled to Nepal to climb Ama Dablam, a 22,494-foot peak in the Mount Everest region. The ascent by Warner, 26, and Glen Dunmire of Estes Park, Colo., is the first of its kind on the mountain's west face. Periodic reports from Warner have been appearing in The Sun.

AMA DABLAM, Nepal -- After five days of struggling up and down from the summit of Ama Dablam, Glenn Dunmire and I are all too happy to be among friends and food in base camp.

FTC My frostbitten fingers are in a pot of hot water. The setting sun paints the 7,000-foot west face a subtle pink, and the route of our ascent stands out, in our minds, as the proving ground of our strength and friendship.

On Dec. 18 at 2 a.m., we shouldered our 25-pound backpacks and scrambled up the loose rocks and onto the glacier. Like a river tumbling over a precipice, the glacier was broken up into towering pinnacles of ice and deep and dark crevices. Navigating by head lamps and winding through the ice jungle tied together by 50 feet of climbing rope, we moved upward toward the start of our route.

The west face of Ama Dablam has three main fractures. Two arc gullies are overhung by small glaciers. Deafening avalanches rumble down the gullies. Three parties have challenged their fate by ascending these vertical bowling alleys. Because no one ever had attempted this ridge, which was safer yet much more technically demanding, we convinced ourselves that it was the only way to climb the hill.

The first day, we ascended from 17,400 feet to roughly 20,000 feet. The snow was so poorly consolidated that our ice axes barely held. In places, the snow rested on a pocket of air above the rock, ready to peel away with our body weight. Small bands of rock crisscrossed the path. Scraping on the rock like %o fingernails on a blackboard, you would reach even higher.

The first night, we carved a ledge out of a 60-degree slope of snow and set up our tiny tent. Since dawn, we had not seen a square foot of mountain that was less than 55 degrees off horizontal.

Dec. 19 dawned slowly, with the warmth of the sun not touching us until 10:30 a.m. With temperatures reaching about minus-10 degrees, we climbed through a band of rock 200 feet high. I was wearing only light gloves, for dexterity, and the cold creeped into my fingers. That day, we ascended only three- to 50-meter rope lengths and set our tent on top of a small hunk of glacier at roughly 21,000 feet.

Dec. 20 passed, like the 19th, with roughly 9- to 50-meter rope lengths being climbed. One person would climb from his companion, who anchored himself with ice screws. For 1 1/2 hours, you would battle for every inch. Sometimes you would pass 20 feet with ease, only to be confronted by 30 feet of rock thinly streaked with ice. You would summon all your courage, technique and wits, catch your breath and delicately search for thickness, fissures or edges to hold the teeth of your ice ax. Progress was slow above 20,000 feet.

The night of Dec. 20 was our coldest yet, with the tent perched on another carved shelf, at 22,000 feet. The summit lay all too close. As on every night, we melted two quarts of water with a small Butane stove suspended from the roof of our tent. Hydration is so closely related to performance at altitude that we dared not fall asleep until our water bottles were filled. For dinners, we either ate a pot of chicken noodle soup or a bowl of noodles. Breakfasts and lunches were candy bars, if you had the appetite for one.

It was so cold on Dec. 21 that it took more than an hour just to put on our boots and take the tent down. The summit was so close, though, that once we shouldered our packs, there was no stopping us. We climbed onto a rib of snow that wound upward, in and out of the shadows.

At 22,000 feet, however, it was so difficult to climb quickly through the shadows. If you stopped to hyperventilate or to catch your breath, the shade stole the heat from your bones. It took us 2 1/2 hours to climb the remaining 500 feet.

At 11 a.m., I stopped three feet below the summit, anchored myself to the slope and pulled in the rope as Glenn climbed. By 11:15 a.m., we hugged on the summit, finally reaching the point we had been striving for all too long.

After 3 1/2 days of struggling to climb every inch of the west facof Ama Dablam, scaling new ground, deeply tapping our emotional and physical resources and cementing our friendship through shared risks, we stood on a tiny bump of snow at 22,494 feet. We were in the middle of a storm-tossed sea of mountains, including five of the eight highest.

With the wind tearing at our clothing and our fingers numbingwe turned our back on the beautiful scene and began the descent. One and a half days later, we put the ropes in our packs and scrambled down the final slopes to meet our friends.

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