MazAma Dablam

8 Oct - 15 Nov 2004 - by Monty Smith (view roster page)

The following is a writeup that I did for the 2004 Mazamas Annual (mountaineering organization based in Portland, OR).

Photos can be found online at:

Ama Dablam, at 22,500 ft, is one of the most beautiful mountains in the world. It lies about nine miles south of Mt. Everest, in the Khumbu region of Nepal. The easy route has four thousand feet of near-vertical technical rock, ice and snow, a mile of fixed lines, and constant exposure. After mostly non-technical climbs of Aconcagua and Denali, Ana Dablam offered the chance for a more technical route with a great climb team, as well as the opportunity for the first Mazama expedition to the Himalaya in decades.
The team consisted of Mazama members David Byrne, Heather Campbell, Keith Campbell, Chris Cosgriff, Cendrine de Vis, Steven Heim, Nancy Miller, Monty Smith, John Youngman, and logistics organizer David Christopher. Planning began ten months in advance, as we considered issues such as Sherpa support, schedule, food, equipment, and finances. The team agreed that we would neither use guides, nor rely on any support out of base camp. We wanted to say we climbed the mountain ourselves, without relying on porters to set up our camps or to cook for us, or anyone outside of our team to lead the hard sections.
Himalayan climbing with a base-camp staff is the way to go. Every morning, we were awakened at sunrise with hot tea served in our tents and warm water for washing. Then breakfast, a hot drink before lunch, a hot lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, and evening tea. We had a staff of eight Sherpas at base camp, consisting of a sirdar and two assistants, and a head cook with four assistant cooks. They made the month as comfortable as possible, offering hot showers, a heated dining tent, and generally accommodating our every wish. Food was delicious and abundant; generally Nepali in nature with lots of potatoes and rice, but also pizza, apple pie, and birthday cakes. We quickly overcame the language barrier and enjoyed their easy-going manner, humor and song.
After six days of trekking, our entourage of 29 people and 34 yaks reached base camp, located in a broad, grassy plain at 15,000 feet. We began moving up the mountain at our own pace, dependent upon energy, sickness and acclimatization. Some pushed ahead to haul loads and establish camps, while others rested and recuperated from sickness. Ailments, ranging from persistent colds to intestinal problems, were common, as were symptoms of altitude, such as constant headaches, nausea and fatigue. Each of us was hit at least once with some bug that forced a few days of recovery, though acclimatization to altitude proved the biggest obstacle. Five climbers (Heather, Keith, John, Steve and Cendrine) were stopped at Camp1 and eventually retreated to base camp, abandoning hopes of climbing any higher.
We arrived with almost 1,000 feet of rope and all the rock and snow gear necessary to replace any questionable fixed lines. However, other groups who had arrived earlier had completed this entire task for us. Last year, an old fixed line failed, and a guide fell to his death. Earlier this season, a guide ordered every existing rope cut; he then led the re-fixing of the entire mountain, using over a mile of new rope. So when we arrived, not only was the fixing nearly complete, but we got to climb on brand-new rope. Each team then contributed gear, rope, or cash to the teams that did all the work.
The fixed rope would tell us what was coming. Easy sections were protected with 3/8 twisted nylon, aptly described by one of the Brits who exclaimed We're climbing on bleedin' clothesline! When climbing became more difficult or extremely exposed, it would transition to 1/2 twisted nylon; but when the climbing went completely vertical and a huge drop, then we'd get real kernmantle climbing rope, usually with lines for both climbing and rappelling.
After a week of acclimatization and ferrying loads, the first team (Chris and Monty) was ready to head for the summit, followed two days later by Nancy and David. It took each team four days to reach the summit and another two to return to base. The climb to Advanced Base Camp (ABC) and Camp1 is through glacial moraine and boulders, ending with fixed lines up some easy slabs. Camp1 sits at 19,000 feet, in a large boulder field at the top of a cirque, just below the ridge. Tents are placed anywhere there's a relatively flat spot (usually no larger than the tent itself), then anchored firmly to the surrounding boulders. The real climbing started above Camp1, alternating between traverse, a vertical section, another traverse, and so on. The route remains just below the ridgeline so you're climbing the face' of the ridge, but with a 2000 foot drop immediately under your feet. The rock in this section is mostly easy and fun 4th class with the exception of some traverses that lacked footholds, requiring a tenuous smearing' with climbing boots on the rock. At the end of this section, sits the Yellow Tower, an 80-ft vertical pitch ranging from 5.6-5.8, but with a straight 2000 foot drop below. I set up to climb the rope if necessary, but found the Tower to be mostly climbable (OK, so I did make liberal use of the ascenders!).
At the end of the Yellow Tower was Camp 2 the most exposed campsite imaginable. It straddles the ridge on the only flat' spot around, just big enough for 4-5 tents with multi-thousand foot drops on all sides. Immediately out of Camp 2 is the technical crux of the route the Gray Tower, consisting of 400 feet of mixed climbing on vertical rock and ice. Not being a great mixed climber, I was intimidated going into this, but it truly was fun! Not overly difficult; the greatest danger was falling rock from climbers above. After some hundred feet of steep snow and ice, the next challenge is the Mushroom Ridge -- a knife-edge, crested with snow, overhung on both sides. Although it looks dicey, it seemed quite stable, the climbing alternating between a sloping ridge-walk and near-vertical ice/snow. At this altitude, progress is slow, as most of your time is spent panting instead of climbing. The large snowfield of Camp3, at 21,000 feet, was directly ahead, but it took another half hour to ascend the last couple hundred feet.
I was recently asked, While climbing, aren't you just blown away by the surroundings? Well, no, I barely noticed We're climbing 60 degree snow and ice, completely exhausted, with 7,000 feet of exposure -- focused entirely on our feet, the rope, and ice-tool placement. There's cognitive realization that other mountains are around us, but for the time being, they're completely blocked out. The next morning, Chris and I headed for the summit over steep snow (45-60 degrees) and short sections of vertical ice. Neither of us was prepared for the bergschrund above the Dablam, which after some flailing around, we both managed to cross. This placed us on the final 1,000 foot ridge to the summit, just a couple of hours away.
The fixed lines led straight to the summit, and immediately upon reaching the end of them, Everest appeared -- big, black and forbidding -- as the next peak north. Clouds were rolling in, so we had only a brief opportunity for pictures before departing (two days later David and Nancy got superb summit shots). Similar to the other times that I've been above 20,000ft, there was no feeling of elation or accomplishment upon reaching the summit just exhausted panting and a need for rest.
By now, the clouds had completely enveloped us, and it began snowing heavily. Time to retreat! It took almost three hours in the whiteout to reach Camp3, rappelling on the skinny, icy nylon. Even with an autoblock, I tumbled over backwards more than once, as I couldn't brake hard enough to check my speed. The next day, we rappelled another 2,000 feet to Camp1, where I spent the night. Steve Heim and I cleaned out Camp1 and began rappelling the fixed lines toward ABC, each carrying over 100 pounds as we descended. Halfway down the last roped section, my worst fears came to life as the rope gave way and I began free-falling down the granite slabs, calmly thinking Great. After all this and NOW I'm going to die Fortunately, as it was just friction slabs, I skidded to a stop with only bruises. It took a few moments to recompose myself emotionally and continue the descent to base camp.
As each climber returned to base camp, the entire staff and team came out to greet us what a wonderful welcome! While resting, we watched through binoculars as Nancy and David summited, and days later greeted their return to base. The fatigue most if us felt was unlike any other peak; I lay in my tent for two days, not moving, having to muster energy even to go to meals. Chris, on the other hand, was out bouldering the day after returning from the summit! The expedition was a great success. We got team members to the summit; all returned without serious injury; and after five weeks together, we never had a disagreement or harsh word between team members.
We would like to thank our sponsors the Mazamas, Climb Max, and ClubSport; and our gear sponsors Kelty, Metolius, Montrail, Outdoor Research and Petzl/Charlet Moser. And we can't forget thanking our Sherpa staff: sirdar Ramji Tamang and his assistants Dome Sherpa and Wangchhu Sherpa; cook Wangchhu Sherpa and his assistants Phurba Sherpa, Dendy Sherpa, Geli Sherpa, and Tenji Sherpa. We couldn't have accomplished this climb without you!

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