One of my favourite ghost films is ‘The Haunting‘. Based on the wonderfully written book by Shirley Jackson, it tells the story of a house which is haunted by a ghost you never see. Door handles move and people feel strange presences, but there is no visible spectre. Why am I writing about this when I’m mountaineering in Nepal..? Well, an old ghost came to visit me on the hill one night…
We started our assault on Himlung by forcing a route to Camp 1. A French team had passed us the day before, and were well established in a camp across the Pangri Glacier. They had made a wise move. We soon found that crossing the Pangri any more times that you needed to was going to be a bonus. Half a mile wide, it turned into a frozen version of the River Styx in Hades. It was bordered by steep sides, which threw rocks and avalanches at you with abandon. It was a piece of purgatory on ice.
We walked past the French camp and broke trail for a couple of hours, but this was another torture, as the thin crust broke with every step, revealing dry powder snow underneath. Thankfully there was no risk of avalanche, but the work was exhausting. Turns were taken to break trail, and after a couple of exhausting hours, we attained a ridge and called it a day. The Sherpa’s constructed Camp 1 and we crossed that damn glacier again. I was almost struck by a falling rock, and a Sherpa standing just behind me took a glancing blow to the head. It was getting bloody dangerous, but we safely walked into camp after a ten-hour round trip, eat and collapsed into our beds.
During the night I was sick. All that sun must have got to me, regardless of the factor 60 cream, long sleeves, big hat and sunglasses I had used. All the next day I felt awful, and spent every hour trying to force a little food down when I could. I sat in a sickly daze, wondering what the rest of the trip might bring. I didn’t have long to get back to 100% fitness, and that was a tall order. Then the bombshell hit. The weather was closing in and we had to go the next morning. No more rest days and no more feeling ill. If I wanted a chance at Himlung I had to get myself and my shop in order, and sharpish. I forced a little food and drink down and re-packed for the final assault.
Miraculously I felt much better the next morning and headed up the glacier, overloaded with gear, but feeling in a better mood to climb. I wasn’t at 100%, but there was enough energy inside me to at least get to Camp 1 at 5300m (17300ft). The camp was perched on a wide ridge, and overlooked a frozen lake. In the evening the sunlight illuminated the surrounding peaks in a beautiful golden light, and all looked well. My sickness was now gone, but the summit timetable was punishing. There would be no time for rest days and the weather was at our backs.
We navigated a tortuous section of heavily crevassed glacier the next morning, and crossed a deep crevasse to enter Camp 2. The maze reminded me of the icefall on Mt. McKinley all those years ago, with so many possible pathways, with only one route. Many of the crevasses seemed bottomless, and I was glad to be free of them and secure in the camp. We spent two nights in Camp 2 – 5800m (19000ft), with an acclimatisation walk to Camp 3 the following day. Himlung looked perfectly covered in pristine snow, and the day we arrived at Camp 3 – 6100m (20000ft) everyone was itching for the climb. The Sherpa’s laid fixed ropes over the difficult sections of blue ice and all looked well. Surely nothing could go wrong..?
As I lay in my bed that night, I heard distant thunder and felt snow falling on the tent. Talk was of abandoning everything because of this change in the weather, but by 01:30 the skies were clear and we were preparing to go. I felt strong, happy and ready. Our procession of head torches left camp at 02:20 under perfectly starlit skies with no wind. It was a perfect summit day. My Sherpa Birkaji was confident of a successful climb and roped together we headed out into the darkness.
When half of your feet are missing, traversing across iron-hard ice is difficult. I struggled for every step as we crossed the lower ridge, before tackling the main slope of Himlung. Though I initially felt well, an old ghost was about to haunt me. No matter how well equipped I was, my right foot began to feel cold. I protested to the Sherpa’s that I had to do something right now, but I was ignored. Now I’m not a man to shout or be forceful, but it soon became apparent that the only way this situation would resolve itself was by me raising my voice. Eventually notice was taken and a sudden rush of people appeared, stripping off my right crampon and boot as I lay in an awful position on a sloping ice face. Heat pads were applied, but they failed to work. It was obvious that I had to take the only decision available to me – to go down. We were only two hours into the climb, but my head remained focused on what could happen, should I stay on the peak. My boot and crampon were replaced and I could do nothing, but let my friends pass me by on their way skyward. I wished them well as I began my retreat and in the darkness, kneeled down on the ice, covered my eyes with mattered hands, and cried a faceful of frozen and frightful tears.
The next two hours down were some of the most frightening of my recent life. ‘Had frostbite set in again..? If it had, what would I do..? What could I do..? How would I explain it to my family..?’ It was a cold morning, but I wasn’t shaking from the temperature. I felt sick and ashamed. I entered camp and immediately jumped into my sleeping bag. Unfortunately the sun hadn’t reached the tents, and it was still freezing, even inside my thick down bag. Birkaji made a bottle of warm water and I held it between my sock clad feet for a good half an hour. I feared removing the sock, knowing what might face me, but eventually I had little choice but to peel it off. I wanted to keep my eyes shut, but I had to face my fears. I was confronted with a bright red foot, devoid of nerve response, but looking borderline okay. My mind went into automatic after the excellent treatment I had received in America and the UK after my epic on Mt. McKinley. The foot had got cold quick, so I could warm it quick. I photographed it every 30 minutes to monitor progress and kept it elevated and warm. Time was now my friend, or my enemy.
Thankfully the foot was fine. Normal skin colour returned after a couple of hours, as did the nerve response. I had been very lucky that morning, but a sane decision had saved me. It would have been so easy to soldier on, but that could have only brought tragedy. I watched Himlung for the rest of the day, counting the little black dots that were my friends, as they fought for every breath to attain the summit at 7126m (23300ft). Everyone returned safely that evening, but they looked shattered and cold, but happy. I helped them as much as I could upon their return, but no-one was for talking. Everyone wanted to sleep. As I lay in my sleeping bag later, part of me felt a charlatan for not putting myself through the climb with them, but another part of me said ‘Nigel, enough…’
We retreated to Camp 1 the following day, and then to Base Camp for a well needed rest. Mentally and physically I felt exhausted, and I stared into the hills, wondering what my mountaineering future would hold. I couldn’t risk further frostbite with injuries like mine, yet my heart yearned for the cold mountains of the world. Time was needed to reflect and consider my future, before any decisions could be made. It would be winter when I returned home and some serious downtime would be needed. Unfortunately the western world doesn’t like people who reflect, just people who perform. Well, they’re going to have to learn…
On a very sad ending note, the walk down to Koto brought a valley we could not recognise. The beautiful walk in had been shattered by innumerable avalanches of ice, snow and rock. The entire landscape was devastated and from what we can tell, seven people lie under the solid ice. Unless there is a very mild winter, I cannot see them recovering the bodies until at least spring, if at all. It was an awful end to the trek, until. The final shock came…
When we entered the village of Koto, I telephoned home and spoke to my mum and dad, who informed me that the national press had reported me lost in the mountains..!