To Baruntse – the ups and downs

After the Mera Peak summit day we did not have a long to rest: already the next day we packed all things up and started the trek towards Baruntse basecamp.

Breakfast table at Mera basecamp

The dining tent had been taken away and only the tables and chairs remained for the last breakfast at Mera Peak basecamp

In the morning after the summit day we woke up in clear, but very windy weather. When we headed for breakfast to the dining tent we were surprised to see no dining tent at all. The staff had already packed it up and only the tables remained with several thermoses of water and tea to keep the tablecloths in place. Still malnutritioned from the previous day’s strains, we took quite a few additional rounds of everything. We knew that the day’s walk would be mostly down – though it did have quite a bit of steep ascending too – and took our time packing things up, refreshing ourselves and then leaving the basecamp.

The views just outside the Mera Peak basecamp

Baruntse (back left) came into view almost as soon as we left Mera Peak basecamp. The huge mountain on the right is Chamlang.

Almost immediately, as soon as we left the basecamp and descended down the snow cover lessened and the path was mostly on rocks. There was one quite a steep downhill that was on a northern slope and still covered in snow and slippery ice. It wasn’t too long though and I had a quite a good flow and almost ran it down. There we had a little break next to a teahouse, which we thought shouldn’t even exist. In one of my pre-trip posts I mentioned the mysterious teahouses in Hunku valley. This was one of them and it certainly is a tea house. We didn’t go in, but by the look of it, they at least sell general items and I bet you could get a place to sleep in there too. Apparently someone has figured that there is enough trekking here to make a living out of it.

The first mysterious teahouse

The first mysterious teahouse. This is at the bottom of the first long descend from Mera Peak basecamp. It apparently has a small shop and most probably some basic sleeping facilities too.

Crystal clear mountain lake in Hunku valley

This, the most magnfiicent mountain lake, was almost perfectly teardrop-shaped and the oddly rocked shores made it look almost like a tropical reef. It would be colder for sure, though. Chamlang is looking down at the background.

After the break we continued our trek downwards to the bottom of the valley. Just around the corner there was one of the most magnificent mountain lakes I have ever seen. It was perfectly teardrop-shaped and the water was clear with a turquoise hue. I had to stop and seep in the atmosphere for a moment. We had already achieved more than half of the day’s share, but the last few stretches of the day were on quite a difficult terrain with jumping over and circling rocks and boulders. Eventually we arrived to our campsite called Rato Oral which means “rathole”. I wouldn’t go that far in describing it, but the nasty wind and humid and foggy air did not make it a real paradise either. Quite a long while after all the others had arrived, Alan arrived with Stef who had been helping him along. For Alan, with the stiff and akward leg, the boulderous section was quite hard going. He did however make it to the camp well before nightfall.

Rato Oral at the Hunku Valley

Rato Oral in Hunku Valley, our only camp in there. It was quite a windy place.

The next day we would have a long stretch to cover. Arnold had decided that we would skip the next camp and go straight to Baruntse basecamp from here. It would be a long day, but it would be a pretty gentle slope up the valley. After the breakfast we started, but could not get far when just outside the camp the path turned around a bend and many superb mountains came into view and quite a few people took more than a one-photo-stop there. Peak 41 was on the left and Chamlang to our right. We could even see Everest and Lhotse rising at the end of the valley. Enjoying the views we walked on for quite a bit on an easy going path until we reached our lunch stop at the campsite we decided to skip. It was very windy there and the sun shining from the clear blue sky did not do much to warm us up. We used most of the break for resting and trying to find a place the wind would not reach, but in vain. Here, by the way, was the second mysterious teahouse. It is much smaller than the one we had passed the previous day, but still much more than I had understood there would be. I’m quite sure you could find a few berths to sleep in here, but if nothing else you will get at least something to eat. We did not use the facilities, though, but ate outside in the wind.

The second mysterious teahouse at the Hunku valley

Our lunch stop and the second mysterious teahouse in Hunku valley. The views are not too bad, though the place is very, very windy.

Having eaten well we started the second leg of the day’s trek in small patches. I started last with the dutch Jan, but soon passed Alan and Steve. Despite being able to pass them, I felt very, very odd almost immediately I had left the lunchspot. I really couldn’t put it in any other words than just plain “odd”. I knew something was one or two notches off, but could not place it anywhere. I wondered about the “fishy momos”, but those had been two days ago. I just carried on, but it was constant struggling for the rest of the way. I had to take breaks quite often, but every time after a small break I could continue for a few minutes until the “odd” feeling creeped in. Eventually I made it over the two small ridges you have to cross to reach the basecamp, but I was very tired when I got there. There had been some kind of an argument about the sleeping arrangements, because there weren’t enough tents for everyone to have individual tents at the basecamp and then double tents at higher camps. I would have been ok with staying in double tents all the way, but the ultimate decision was to have single tents at the basecamp and then double tents after all at the higher camps. However this meant that the sherpas would have to bring some of the camp 1 tents to camp 2 which would be troublesome to say the least. I was too tired really to have an opinion and was just happy to get my gear stashed somewhere and have a little lie-down.

The panorama of the Baruntse basecamp

The panoramic view of our Baruntse basecamp. My tent is the leftmost tent in the picture, third to the left from the green dinig tent.

The first morning at Baruntse basecamp broke with a slight headache. I also had the same kind of “heat” on my forehead as I had had at Mera highcamp (or basecamp, can’t remember anymore). I thought it must be the altitude as we were, however, at 5350m. The breakfast was served to the tents because we were missing most of the tables. Some of the porters had some disagreements at the previous day’s lunch point and had decided to leave the expedition. The tables and chairs had then been left there and had not yet arrived here by some other porters who had gone to fetch them. The breakfast tasted quite the same inside the tent too. After eating we hung around the basecamp and I also discussed the feelings I had with both Mia and Noora and Arnold too. A little later we measured my blood oxygen saturation which was around 72-74%. That is a bit low, but not too worrying. Later I told Arnold about the forehead heat I had had and then he thought it might just be a regular flu. Lots of liquids to drink was the advice and that was exactly I did.

Puja at the Baruntse basecamp

Steven Etchen Puja at Baruntse basecamp. The altar is covered with prayer flags and food and various alcoholic drinks. On the right side of the altar there is our gear waiting to be blessed.

The sherpa dance after the puja

Richard Bryars Most of us participated in the "mandatory" sherpa dance after the puja. It is more difficult than it looks like because the pace fluctuates. You can see the flour patches on our cheeks that we received during the puja.

For the rest of the day we had two activities planned: the puja and a Gamow-bag demonstration. The puja was held around noon by the closest resemblance of a lama they had – a kitchen boy cum sherpa who had been in a monastery for a few years some time back. So, now the fast rising star, Jangbo’s niece by the way, in addition to being a kitchen boy and a mountain sherpa, now was a lama too. The puja involved some chanting and burning of twigs and eventually indulging various liqours like chang and whisky and finally we were blessed with a toss of flour to our face and with a necklace that should protect us in the mountain. Before the puja all of us had brought some item that we would use on the climb to the altar for blessing. Most people brought an ice axe (like myself) or crampons, but there was some odd headlamp too. After all the blessing we then had to do the sherpa dance, which was incredibly simple, but unbelievably difficult to maneuver. Arnold had done this quite a few times but was still struggling like the rest of us. All blessed now, we were ready to go.

The Gamow bag demonstration

Jan Van den Bose The Gamow bag demonstration. I am inside that red tube.

After the puja and some late lunch, we had the day’s second activity. That was the Gamow-bag demonstration. The Gamow-bag is basically just a plastic bag in which you put a person suffering from altitude sickness. Then you pump air inside to generate an artificial pressure rise which has the same effect as if the person would go to lower elevation. This way you can buy some precious time for the help to arrive to treat the altitude sickness properly, which almost certainly means evacuation to lower altitudes. Because I was a bit low on the saturation levels, I was chosen to be the guinea pig for the test. I got the oxygen saturation meter and an altimeter with me inside the bag. Then it was closed and Arnold started to pump some air inside. Within just few minutes I was artificially transported to an elevation more than 2000m lower. At the same time I could see the effect of the “descend” as my oxygen saturation rose at the same pace as the artificial atmosphere got lower and lower. I wasn’t in the bag for long and then I was again at 5350m for real. The rest of the day and evening went by with the normal chatting and resting and waiting for dinner and bed time.

The next day we had planned to hike to camp 1 above the West Col at a bit over 6100m. After the breakfast, which we now had in the dining tent, we packed the stuff we wanted to stash to camp 1 beforehand and of course everything we would need on the way. I measured my oxygen saturation again and it showed 78-80% which was an improvement. Arnold told me to take it easy and go just as far as it felt good. How the day went and what happened during the few next days I already wrote about in my previous post, but I will provide a recap here anyway.

At around 10am I left the camp, felt good and the going was easy. I was able to walk quite long distances without stopping which was a good thing. I was purposefully walking rather slow so as not to strain myself too much. Some people who had started off a bit after me passed me by, but I was taking my own pace. After an hour or so I passed Robert who was feeling queasy. He was having some stomach problems or otherwise just feeling off. I continued forward and got to the halfway tent. It was there so that we could stash crampons and ice axes on the way down. I took a little break and continued onward. A little later I reached Steve who was taking some pictures. At the same time, all of a sudden, I began to feel worse every moment and walking began to feel heavier and heavier. When I was looking at the West Col at the end of the valley, it seemed quite a distance away still. I continued again for a while, but had the feeling I should turn back. I sat down next to the path to rest for a minute. Steve passed me and continued onward. I was wondering what I should do now. Should I continue or turn back?

The road to the West Col

Daniel Newton On the way to the West Col. This is about two thirds of the way. That first hill ahead is the last steep ascend before the col. I took my "thinking stop" just short of that. The route up the col is through the leftmost v-shaped couloir.

The couloir up the West Col

Daniel Newton The couloir up the West Col as seen from half way up

After a while of self-debating, I decided to continue. I thought, if I would get at least to the bottom of the col, I could stash some of my gear there, so I wouldn’t have to carry them all the way back there later. After I got on top of the last longer ascend, I met first Markus and then Jan who were already coming back. I asked them if there was any place where I could stash my gear. They could not say, but there might be something, so I continued onward. Finally I reached the bottom of the West Col at 3:30pm. It had taken me 5,5 hours to reach the col. It would still be another 200m and maybe 1,5 hours of climbing to get to the camp. I really didn’t have the energy to climb up there and I was beginning to worry about the time too. It would get dark in a few hours and I had foolishly left my headlamp at the basecamp. When I reached the col, Dan and Rich where down there packing up their gear and getting ready for the trek back to the basecamp. Noora was just about to come down too. I looked for a place to stash my gear. I didn’t want to leave them just under the col and grabbed a few bamboo strings that were lying on the snow and walked a couple of dozen meters back the path. I dug up a hole a meter or two off the path and shoved my gear there. I had put the things into two waterproof bags to protect from the snow. During the hiding process Noora had reached the bottom of the col. We exchanged a few words and she continued down. I had some second thoughts about if this was a good place to hide my gear after all, and for a while looked for a better place. I found none and by this time also Mia and David had come down from the col. It was getting quite late and they were as worried as me about the time. Neither of them had the headlamps with them either and we had to head down pretty fast. I was tired and could not keep up with them, but managed to reach the midway tent soon after them. They were waiting for me there and getting their crampons off in the meanwhile. Once I got there, I said that I had to take a little break here and that I couldn’t possibly keep up with them. They asked if I had anything to eat or drink or if did I need anything else. I was out of snacks and got a pack of nuts from Mia and Dave had an extra Gore-Tex jacket which he gave me. Then I bid them farewell and they continued down the path to reach the basecamp before dark. I went inside the tent to have some rest and waited for the next people to come down from the col. Later I heard that Mia (mostly) and Dave had also asked me various questions like when is my sister’s birthday or who is the president of Finland. This was because they suspected that I might have AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) as I was a bit delirious and my fatigue and other symptoms could have indicated for that as well. I could not remember anything of the questioning, for reasons which will come alight later on.

I don’t know for how long I had waited, but there was still some light when the next persons got to the tent. It was Andy and Viv, and Stef was not far behind. I explained my situation to them and headed down beforehand because you could still see without a lamp and I knew they would catch me soon. I had made it to the top of the steep descend before the wide semi-flat area and the final small drop to the basecamp when Stef reached me. He went pass me and helped me by showing some light on the descend. I got down the slope without any incidents. I could then see some lights approaching  from the direction of the basecamp. When I met the lights I saw that it was two sherpas from our kitchen staff and they were carrying a thermos of juice. I took the juice gladly. They must have come thanks to Mia and Dave who had probably told that there will be people coming very late and tired. As I was sipping the juice, Andy and Viv arrived for some juice too. We gulped it down and started going again towards the basecamp. It was getting increasingly dark every moment and walking became more difficult. Both Andy and Viv walked naturally faster than my fatigued pace and I had to ask them to slow down quite a few times. Also they for some reason did not want to use their headlamps until I finally said that it would be vice to turn them on. I did not have the strength to do much else than follow them, trying to get some help from the light that was always a bit too much ahead. I do not know why, but we spent a very long time on the last few stretches of the way. There are quite a few paths there and it was completely dark now, but it seemed that we wandered very randomly for the last kilometer or so. We could also see the headlamps of the last people coming down on top of the steep slope.

Finally at 7pm I arrived to the basecamp, tired, but very happy to be there. Arnold who came with the last bunch came just 5 minutes or so after us. He asked us when we had arrived and when I told that it had been just a few minutes ago, all he said was “Oh god”. That didn’t sound too good. After a short rest I went to the dining tent where almost everybody else already was. I ate and then went to sleep. Quite a few others also looked quite tired from the day’s journey.

The next day we had a rest day. The following day the plan was to head back up to camp 1. After the breakfast I went back to the tent and took some rest. I could not stop thinking about what had happened the previous day. Somehow I got the idea to measure my temperature. I am very notorious of going on with full speed without even noticing a one or even two degrees of fever. I also generate quite a high fever if I’m going to have any. Some people might be totally devastated at 38 degrees, but sometimes I hardly even notice that. My hunch paid off this time. The meter read 37,2 degrees which is slightly – about a half a degree – on the high side. Then suddenly all the things from the past few days, all the way to Mera Peak high camp, started fall into place. The heat on the forehead, the odd fatigue and everything else. I tried to rest as much as possible and drink a lot of liquids. The day went by trying to watch Jangbo and others on the summit ridge who were fixing the ropes there. Rich had a binoculars that we shared.

Dinner time came. Just before the dinner I had measured my temperature which had been 38,1 degrees. As you can imagine it felt quite bad to see that, because I immediately knew that I could not possibly go up the next day. After dinner I told about the fever to Mia and Noora and soon after also to Arnold and let him know that I would not be leaving tomorrow. Arnold was quite positive though and said that you never know how things go and that I should just rest and he would do everything to get me as high as possible on the mountain. I knew it was over for me, but it was quite nice to hear such encouraging words. I was also wondering if I should use Noora’s satellite phone to call home and tell about my situation and that they should not wonder why my Spot tracker does not move from the basecamp when we were supposed to be heading up the mountain. It was quite an eye watering call to my wife, but I was glad that I did it. It was good to hear her voice and she still had solid faith that I would be able to conquer Baruntse. But I knew I wouldn’t.

The next morning almost everybody else was busy packing all the things for the summit bid. Only me, Alan and the 70-year-old German Erik would stay behind. Alan did not want to risk himself or the others with his broken leg and Erik was just happy to be at the basecamp and had no need to go any higher. When everybody started to leave we got a few heart-sinkening farewells and then they were off. It was my heart that was sinking, not theirs. Without much else to do I just rested and read my books. Lunch came and then the dinner. Now we had only one dinner tent because the other one had been hauled up to camp 1 to serve as a kitchen tent. Before hitting the bed I measured that I had still 37,6 degrees fever, which proved my decision to stay at the basecamp right.

Panorama on top of the West Col towards Makalu

Richard Bryars Panorama on top of the West Col towards Makalu

The second day at the abandoned basecamp came. It felt like the illness had gone deeper into my lungs and sinuses. I decided to start taking some antibiotics to kill the bugs as we would still have quite a journey away from here, eventhough I wouldn’t be climbing any more. Before breakfast we saw Kaji, the sirdar aka camp manager, outside trying to radio the teams at camp 1. I also spoke a few words first with Arnold about my condition and the gear stash I had near the bottom of the col. Then I also spoke with Mia and explained to her too the location where my gear was stashed as she had been with me there although I had not shown the exact location to her. The problem was, that I had gear worth more than a thousand euros buried in the snow up there and nobody else couldn’t find it. Arnold had promised to bring down the gear for me before he left. Apparently they had looked on the wrong side of the path and we had had a classic misunderstanding of “which left”. What we hadn’t obviously established was whether it was on left side when you look up or down the path. Now this should have been clarified. Later I heard that there had been basically two major topics in the radio conversation: how is the weather forecast and where the fuck is Mikko’s stash 🙂 Allan told me at breakfast that three people had already been up at the summit, which was a bit surprising as they were only supposed to go for the summit bid the next day. Apparentely some of them had had a little too boring a time at the camp and had decided to do some morning walking. Now we also had a new topic to discuss, or to guess to be more precise: who were the early summitters? Our guess was Markus, Jan and Rich.

On the summit ridge

Jan Van den Bose The early bird climbers on the summit ridge. Markus and Rich in the front and Jangbo at the back.

Jangbo and the rugged route on the Baruntse ridge

Markus Stählin Jangbo and the rugged route on the Baruntse ridge

For the rest of the day we did not do much. When the day was already setting, Markus came back to the basecamp. He confirmed that the three summitters truly were him, Jan and Rich. He said that Rich might still come to the basecamp the same day. He was also guessing that not everybody would make it to the top the next day. The route had been very difficult and Jangbo had still had to work on it on the way up. Just before dinner Rich too arrived to the basecamp. Jan had stayed at camp 1 for the night. We talked a bit about this and that, but soon retired to bed.

The next morning was the summit day for the rest of the team at camp 2. When we got to the breakfast table we heard the news that the Finnish ladies, Mia and Noora, had just summitted. Just in time for the breakfast also Jan bumped into the dining tent from camp 1. After the breakfast we spent most of the time looking through binoculars and trying to see how people progressed on the summit ridge. Both the binoculars and the telelens on my camera were just a notch too short and it was quite difficult to make much out of it. We could see basically different colored blobs here and there and we tried to remember what colored downsuits everybody had to be able to guess who they were. At noon there were no other summitters, but just before that the kitchen boy/lama/climbing sherpa came back from the mountain. I was happy to see that he dragged after him my two bags of gear. I did not have to go after them myself after all 🙂 At lunch time we heard that two more had reached the summit, though we did not know who they were. Arnold also said that everybody had started the descend back to the camps. At the same time Andy and Viv came back to the basecamp and Robert soon after them. The British couple had turned back quite soon after leaving camp 2 because Viv had been very tired and bit nauseous. Robert had not left camp 2 at all because he had had some stomach problems. The afternoon passed as we watched the blobs moving slowly down the ridge, maybe even surprisingly slowly, but it was very hard to estimate the progress up there from down here. Just before the dinner Mia and Noora came too to the basecamp after a very tiring journey. They were unable to tell anything more about the other possible summitters. During the dinner we heard that everybody else had stayed at camp 2 for the night. This was also quite obvious as almost everything from camp 1 had been brought down by the sherpas, including the other dinner tent which was erected adjacent to the other as it used to be. The following day everybody should come down to the basecamp.

The route on the Baruntse ridge

Daniel Newton Here you can see much of the route high up on the Baruntse ridge. The real summit is the last peak you can see.

The next morning started up lazily. After breakfast many people used the luxury of the shower tent and washed some of their clothes. I skipped both activities and planned to shower as soon as we get to the Khumbu valley, perhaps 😉 All in all, there wasn’t much to do at the camp. Alan and Erik were going to leave for the Amphulapcha already today and split the trek into two. The rest of us would follow the next day. The sherpas arrived at a steady flow to the basecamp during the morning and afternoon. The first of the others to arrive were Arnold and Stef and they enlightened us that the other two on the summit had been Stef and David. David was also the last to summit and had only arrived to camp 2 at 6pm being very tired. After lunch also the rest of the members – Dan, Tak, David and Steve – arrived to the basecamp. Not much else happened the resr of the afternoon. At dinner we had a quite a bunch of people again at the table, which was a nice change.  For the dessert we got the mandatory summit cake, like we had had at Mera Peak. Quite soon after the dinner people retired to their tents, but before following them I took a glass of chhang as it was served warm this time.

The SummitClimb Baruntse 2012 official cake

Mia Graeffe The SummitClimb Baruntse 2012 official cake. The spelling is a bit off as is custom 🙂

That was basically the end of our tima at Baruntse basecamp. The next day we left it behind and trekked to the Amphulapcha La and then onwards to the Khumbu valley.

The Team Finland at Baruntse basecamp

Mia Graeffe Team Finland at Baruntse basecamp. Two of them summitted Baruntse, one of them just got high on fever.

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