Of all the exploits and climbing efforts in the spring 2019 season, we at Musa Masala feel pretty strongly that one of the most outstanding accomplishments belongs to our friend and fellow Musa, Dr. Olga Dobranowski. Olga just completed a solo, rapid ascent of beautiful and mesmerizing Mt. Ama Dablam. If you have been anywhere around this mountain, it will become your favorite. It holds you and you will never forget seeing it.
We will let Olga tell her story but first, two things:
We cannot imagine how her night at Camp 2 on her descent must have been. Cyclone Fani was knocking on the door with winds that were blowing buildings over! Can you imagine placing yourself at over 20,000 feet in that storm by yourself, with your communications messed up by the storm?
Second, this is the third of Olga’s rapid solo ascents. Aconcagua and Denali before were first and now Ama Dablam, Olga is using these climbs to help fund-raise for the Wongchhu Sherpa Memorial Hospital. All funds raised go to the hospital. Olga pays for these expeditions out of her own pocket, not like many fundraisers that you can see that help pay for clients’ vacations and they wave a flag on top. (Sorry if that sounds a little judgmental.)
We are so proud and quite in awe of her accomplishments. We also would like to thank Pasang Kajee Sherpa, who was with Olga from Lukla to Basecamp, and again met her at Basecamp for the trek back. An amazing effort was put in by the team at Wongchhu Peak Promotion to help facilitate Olga’s climb in such a short time window. Jam Jam, Musas!!
*The following stems from Olga’s public Facebook posts about her experience, with only minor edits for flow.
Before the climb
Ama Dablam, a gorgeous, perfectly shaped, iconic mountain in the Nepali Himalaya, towering at 6812m or 22,349ft, seen from almost every step of the popular Everest Base Camp trek. A mountain of my recent trainings, preparations and dreams, countless nights in my Hypoxico tent at home to get pre-acclimated prior to my solo expedition.
I have been mesmerized by the beauty of this mountain for a while now, staring at the photos of her with almost religious awe. Honestly, I am intimidated by the mountain and the unknown and yet, I feel her pull like a strong magnet.
I made the decision to climb Ama alone and to climb fast. I will attempt a solo unguided climb of SW ridge, testing my fitness, strength, climbing skills, physical and mental endurance and altitude adaptation. The usual time frame to climb Ama is 30 days, which allows for safe and slow acclimatization and increases the chances for a stable weather window. I only have 12 days in Nepal, including travel and trek time, leaving me with a very short 5-day window on the mountain. It is enough to get a taste of her, get intimate to admire her beauty from up close, but will it be enough to summit and return safely? My mantra, as always, will be “getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory.”
We’ll soon find out.
Ama Dablam. All it takes is everything I have. But then the Cyclone Fani came. I reached the Ama Dablam Base Camp on April 27, 2019 ,on the third day after I flew in to Lukla. Ama Dablam Base Camp is a huge, comfortable, grassy meadow from where you have amazing unobstructed views of the mountain.
I set up my tent and went to collect water from the nearby stream. I boiled it really well to kill any E. coli or any other living organisms that are usually not gut-friendly. Then I made my Italian steak and pepper dinner. If I served it on fancy china with a glass of wine, you would never guess that it is a freeze-dried dinner from Mountain House. I then made some tea for my thermos, sat back, relaxed and was ready to admire the views.
Ama Dablam means “mother’s necklace” in Sherpa language. Two ridges on each side like the arms of a mother protecting her child. The hanging glacier in the center looks like a classic pendant worn by Nepalese women. After staring at photos of Ama Dablam for months, I had been waiting to finally see it up close, in person. Except…I could not see anything. Thick clouds covered the entire mountain that day. I kept waiting and waiting, staring in the clouds, and yet, nothing.
The next morning, I tried to pack all of my gear into my biggest pack, but it did not fit. It wasn’t even close. I strapped a summit pack onto my backpack and my tent and more gear outside my pack. I looked like a cross between a camel and a climber’s Christmas tree. I tried to lift it up and nearly collapsed. A few Sherpas stood nearby, looking in disbelief.
“Even if I have to crawl to camp 1, I will get there,” I thought. And I did. It was a long and heavy day though. The trail initially follows an easy grassy path crossing river and meadows, slowly becoming more and more rocky. Then turn into a giant boulder field and finally, the last 150m was scrambling broken slabs just before I reached camp 1.
Camp 1 is less comfortable than the basecamp. It fact, it really sucks. The tents are set on tiny ledges on a broken slab. You have to scramble to get from one tent to another. Some of the best sites are occupied by “permanent” tents, set up by big expedition companies for their clients. I was thankful that my MSR tent is small and can fit anywhere.
You have to search high and low between rocks to find clean snow or ice to melt for water. It gets dark and cold around 6:30pm, so I crawled into my sleeping bag with my thermos with hot Chamomile tea and hot water Nalgene bottle to keep me warm, and all my electronics to keep them warm.
I sent a few InReach updates to family and friends. Once I warmed up my hands, I put a pulse oximeter on my finger. Surprisingly good numbers, I thought. I was at 19000 ft elevation or 5800m.
I arrived here 4 days after arriving to Nepal, without climbing any big mountains recently. My only protection was my fitness training and having slept in the Hypoxico tent every night for 4 weeks prior to my expedition. The physician in me says, “This is not safe. You would not recommend such a fast ascent profile to anybody. You may develop HACE or HAPE and not wake up.” The researcher in me says, “This is cutting edge technology. This is the future of high altitude climbing. You have to experiment it on yourself.” Since I felt really good and had no signs of altitude illness, I listened to the latter and fell asleep.
Day 3 on the Mountain
The next day was a much needed rest day. I spent it taking pictures, refueling and rehydrating.
On April 30, my third day on the mountain, I set off to move to camp 2. It doesn’t involve much elevation gain, but it contains the most technical rock climbing of the entire mountain, including Yellow Tower.
The rock climbing was fantastic. Some of the best-quality granite and movements I have ever done on elevation. The rock was dry. The day was warm, partly cloudy with no wind. Almost perfect. In fact, it was perfect rock climbing weather and I would have enjoyed so much the freedom that comes with rock climbing, if it was not for that bittersweet 60-pound weight on my back, throwing me off balance.
During my breaks, I contemplated my options: Abandon it. Kick it and watch it fall down the mountain. Haul it, using the fixed line, or suck it up. I opted for the latter. The big, double mountaineering boots were not helping the few precise movements. When I got to the Yellow Tower, I clipped my carabiner to the fixed line for questionable, marginal protection. “If I fall, at least I do not fall off the mountain,” I thought.
Camp 2 is located in the tippy top of the Yellow Tower. You have to look at the pictures to actually believe it. If you thought camp 1 was somewhat challenging, the mountain is going to challenge you even more at camp 2. After I found my microscopic tent ledge overlooking the cliff, I had to spend a good hour securing my tent to anything around so I would not roll off the cliff. I was thinking “living on the edge” every time I got in or out of my tent. Let me be honest. I will not be buying real estate property here.
I briefly socialized with a few fellow climbers and set for my afternoon routine. It’s even more challenging here, at camp 2, to find clean snow for water. And at this elevation, it takes a lot more time, fuel, and energy. However, dehydration is your biggest enemy. In fact, you have to drink more than at sea level, because of much increased insensible losses.
A night at this elevation is usually not a blissful, good night’s sleep. You wake up at least few times a night to pee, drink, toss around, put on extra layers, take off layers, move all the electronics around your sleeping bag, etc. One of the first altitude adaptation symptoms is increased respiratory rate, which makes our body more alkalotic. In turn, the body wants to balance it out by increasing urination. I did not take any Diamox (altitude medicine that is a diuretic) during this trip, but I still peed like a horse.
You don’t get out of the tent to pee. You pee in a bottle instead. There are different “she wee” type of devices for us women to make it feasible. The cycle would usually go: I wake up, pee in a bottle, drink some hot tea, cough a little or listen to others cough (“Khumbu cough” is a very common phenomenon in the Everest region), move some electronics out from underneath me and fall back asleep. Sleep few hours, wake up, and the cycle repeats.
The next day was an acclimatization, rest, rehydration and make friends kind of day. The clouds burned out by the evening and we got to watch one of the most gorgeous sunsets. I kept looking up at the couloir mixed section above the camp 2. “It looks hard,” I thought. “And intimidating. Is that why people say that Ama Dablam is harder than Everest?” I have heard that from many people who’ve climbed both. Obviously Everest is higher elevation, but it requires less technical climbing. When it’s climbed with supplemental oxygen, maybe it’s easier?
Day 5 in the Mountain
On May 2, I got up at 4am and climbed to just above the camp 3. I wanted to practice the mixed climbing section during the daylight. The Great Couloir and the Mushroom Arrete (very exposed, but easy traversing) are two distinct features during this day climb. It was such a relief to only carry a day pack. It was a calm, sunny, perfect day. It fact, it would have been a perfect day for a summit bid.
On my way down back to camp 2, I chatted with three Russian climbers and two Sherpas who were moving up to camp 3 to spend the night there and start their summit bid from camp 3. Up until that day, no one had summited Ama Dablam this season yet. Many people tried and turned around and got weathered off. In fact, the fixed lines to the summit were not yet finished and most climbers on Ama Dablam rely 100% on fixed lines.
Day 6 on the Mountain
On May 3, 2019, my day 6 on Ama Dablam, I got up at 1am and brewed some coffee, ate a few bites, packed my summit backpack and started climbing at 2am. The initial section was familiar since I climbed it the day before. Now done with a headlamp, it almost went faster. I reached camp 3 at dawn, took few sips of hot tea, reset my altimeter that was going crazy and kept going.
It was very windy, I noticed, and getting increasingly colder and windier the higher I got. I stopped to put on my expedition down jacket, to change my gloves and add hand warmers. From now on, I will only be climbing ice and steep snow—no more touching wet, cold rock. I stayed mostly warm, but it was harder and harder to walk straight up in the wind. I had few crevasses to cross. Unfortunately, with recent warm, sunny days, the snow bridges were deteriorating and collapsing very quickly.
I approached the first crevasse and probed with my ice axe. Soft, collapsing snow, not supportive, not good at all. I looked down into the black abyss. A fall would be fatal. If you’re jumaring the fixed line, it’s less of a concern. However, if you’re free climbing or clipped into a rope with only a carabiner, it could be a serious problem.
I knew from my experience, that if I fell roped into a crevasse, I would have more chances extricating myself quickly if I had a pre-rigged rope ascender. Without hesitation, I clipped my ascender to the fixed rope both times crossing open crevasses. Safety first.
By the second crevasse crossing, I caught up with the Russian climbers I’d met. They let me pass. They were jumaring the ropes but looked very tired. They started at 2am from camp 3, the same time I started from camp 2.
The last 200m before the summit, I was seriously struggling with the wind. I looked up and the clouds were moving crazy fast over the summit, almost swirling. What the heck? It was not until later that day that I found out about Cyclone Fani. I didn’t get the weather warning.
Cyclone Fani hit the Everest region on May 3 at 11am. I stood on the summit that day at 11:45am. On the summit, there were only two Sherpas who had just finished fixing the lines and set up the summit anchor. I was very thankful for their hard work to keep everybody safe.
I immediately clipped in myself and my pack into the anchor. Otherwise, I was sure I would have blown off the mountain. I felt exhilarated and happy. I made it! I was one of the first persons to summit Ama Dablam this season. It was a very special moment for me and yet, I didn’t really have time to enjoy the summit. Now my job was to safely descend as quickly as possible.
“Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory,” I reminded myself. I grabbed a few summit photos, shared some hot tea I had left with the Sherpas and started descending. For safety, I clipped my carabiner to the fixed line and used a hand wrap technique.
The snowstorm rolled in very quickly and created almost zero visibility. The wind never ceased. In a long four hours, I reached my tent in camp 2. My initial plan was to pack and go down to camp 1, but I quickly realized it would not be possible in these conditions. It would soon get dark. I had been climbing for 14 hours in very hard conditions, and it would have been easy to make a mistake or a false move.
I stayed for the night in camp 2. It was not a peaceful or restful night. The blizzard continued and with every wind gust it seemed like my tent was going to rip. I had to force myself out of the tent, back into the blizzard, to melt snow to make some tea. It is a hard call between wanting to stay warm in the sleeping bag and the need to rehydrate. I had also run out of food. I had some emergency bars left, but no warm food to make. My extra stash of food was at camp 1 but I did not make it there.
I finally settled in my sleeping bag to get some rest. Many delayed InReach messages started coming in. “Are you in the base camp yet?” “Are you rushing down to get off the mountain?” “ I am very concerned.” “I hope you know about the Cyclone Fani.”
Well, that was how I found out about the Cyclone Fani. Perhaps it is a good thing I did not get the memo in time. There is no way I would have gone up knowing that a cyclone was about to hit this region.
The next morning, I woke up to 4-5 inches of fresh, wet snow, which made the rock slippery wet and almost impossible to down-climb with my huge backpack. The snow storm continued with strong wind and poor visibility. It was difficult to find the trail and the footing, but I was very much alert and focused. It was a slow down-climb, as I was being extremely careful and meticulous. At times, I was almost crawling. The fact that I didn’t break my leg or twist my ankle is a miracle.
I descended to camp 1, then to the base camp and then, after being joined by my porter, down to Pengboche. A very long day. From the base camp, knowing that I was back down to safety, I looked at the mountain one last time.
Ama has been kind to me. She allowed me a safe passage, despite the blizzard and the cyclone. She allowed me the summit and a safe return home. I thanked her for that and offered some blessed wild rice I got for her from the High Lama.
The technical aspects of the climb was fulfilling, intricate and dedicated, everything I had hoped for.
For the past two months, I spent 90% of nights sleeping in various tents. For 6 weeks prior to my Ama Dablam expedition, each night, for a minimum of 7 hours, I slept in hypoxic tent, partially suffocating with ear plugs covering the generator noise, waking up frequently to check my oxygen saturation and making sure I was still alive. Every other or third night I would increase “the elevation” which translated into even less available oxygen.
All of that to reduced my risk of altitude illness with my very rapid ascent profile on Ama Dablam. It worked better than I expected. Only 12 days in Nepal, 7 days on the mountain, a successful summit of 6812m or 22,349ft on a technical Himalayan peak, solo and unsupported, with no symptoms of altitude illness at all.
Each night on Ama Dablam got more interesting: a mini tent ledge at camp 1, then a micro-ledge at camp 2, then a night in my tent after summiting, during the cyclone Fani and a snowstorm, each minute thinking I was gonna get blown off the mountain in my sleeping bag, together with my tent.
Thankfully I didn’t. I was able to come back home to tell my story. I love my MSR tent but I think I enjoy my tempurpedic mattress in my own bedroom even more. Good bye, my tents. So long. Until next time!
I was proud to be one of the first people to summit Ama Dablam this season. I was proud to have done it rope solo and unsupported.
After being joined by my porter, Pasang Kajee Sherpa, I trekked back to Namche, leisurely drank a cappuccino, flew back in to Kathmandu and was warmly greeted with a khata and flowers by the amazing people and friends from the Wongchhu Peak Promotion.
Feeling safe, grateful, accomplished and extremely happy is an understatement.
Ama Dablam. All it took was everything I had and more.
Wongchhu Sherpa’s dream
Beside me in the picture above is Lakpa Sherpa, a daughter of the Late Wongchhu Sherpa. She is a strong, smart and brave young woman who continues on her father’s mission to bring healthcare to a rural area in Nepal. I had the privilege of meeting her during this trip to Nepal and my climb of Ama Dablam would not have been possible without her help.
Her father, Wongchhu Sherpa, unfortunately prematurely died of cancer at age of 47. He was a climber, a mountaineer, a social activist and a visionary whose dream was to bring healthcare into the remote valley of the Solukhumbu region and to establish a well-equipped hospital at Khamding ward-10, Soludhudkunda municipality.
This remote valley, which unlike the main Everest base camp trek region, does not get many tourists or trekkers traffic. A much needed hospital will serve around 30,000 local Nepalese people, who now, have to travel by foot for 3-4hours, when sick, to be seen by a nurse and not even on a every day basis.
This is how the Wongchhu Sherpa Memorial Hospital was born. Today, thanks to the hard work, dedication and support from donors like you and me, the hospital is in its final stage of the construction. Only internal finishing work remains, which will be completed soon, hopefully in October 2019.
As a physician and a climber, who came to Nepal to climb Ama Dablam, this mission is very close to my heart. Please help me make a difference. Help me celebrate my successful climb of Ama Dablam and safe return by donating to the Wongchhu Memorial Hospital fund. One-hundred percent of donations go directly to the construction of the hospital and none to overhead, marketing or ever to me.
I am requesting that everyone of you make a donation that is meaningful to you. I promise that it will be meaningful to me and to all future patients of the Wongchhu Sherpa Memorial Hospital.
Please donate now and thank you very much.