Project 314 Blog #9 – Puja Ceremony and first push up the mountain

May 15, 2023

Jake Meyer

Client Accounts' Director
Holding our Puja ceremony - including blessing our climbing kit

Day 16, 17, 18 and 19 – Basecamp to Camp 1

Graphic showing route to Camp 1 on Kanchenjunga

Monday 24th April – Day 16 – Basecamp 5500m

Another rest day (I suspect that we might have a few more before we start our first rotation onto the mountain). As well as washing myself yesterday, I’d also washed some of my clothes, but it had been too late for these to dry properly before the sun went down. I’d hung a couple of t-shirts up inside my tent overnight, and this morning they were frozen rock-solid, stiff as a board! Once the day starts to heat up, it won’t take long for them to thaw out and dry out.

I’m now getting reacquainted with the bizarre temperature changes during the day. Over night it’s cold – probably around -10, and certainly below freezing inside the tent. As the sun starts to come up in the morning you can start to ‘un-cocoon’ yourself from your sleeping bag by about 0700. By 0900 (after breakfast) the sun is really doing its thing on the tent, even if it’s slightly overcast, and if you’re in your tent, wearing much more than a t-shirt is over kill. In fact this morning, I decided to have a shave in the porch of my tent, and ended up spending the rest of the morning wearing only a pair of shorts – such was the lovely warmth. After lunch is very similar, but as it clouds over in the mid-afternoon, the temperature starts to drop rapidly. By 1600 you definitely want long sleeve on, and by 1700 you’ll need to add a fleece – even within your tent. By this stage of the afternoon, if you’re still in your tent, you’re probably snuggled in your sleeping bag – and when it comes time for dinner at 1900, on go the down salopettes and jacket and woolly hat.

In the evening, along with light in the mess tent provided by the generator, there is also a gas heater which helps make the temperature at supper more bearable. After whatever feast you’ve had, it’s back out into the dark (normally around 2000) having filled a water bottle with boiling water to act as a hot water bottle in your sleeping bag. I’ve taken to filling two 500ml bottles, one for my feet, and one to clutch close to my chest or tummy. In the lower camps, I would just sleep in boxers and a long sleeved t-shirt, but now I’m wearing fleece trousers and top over those as well, and probably sleeping in a woolly hat to keep my head and ears warm.

Tuesday 25th April – Day 17 – Basecamp 5500m

Another rest day in BC – not much to report from today. Some of the team went a few hundred metres up on the fixed rope. I’m keen to wait for the Puja first before I start heading up onto the mountain. I never really thought that I was superstitious, but reflecting on all of my 8000m mountain expeditions so far – all of the ones that have been successful have had a Puja first, and both of the ones that weren’t successful didn’t.

Wednesday 26th April – Day 18 – Basecamp 5500m: Puja Day.

Best night’s sleep thus far last night. Head down at 2200, and woke at 0600. Perfect temperature in my sleeping bag all night – even though I think that it was our coldest night so far, and I’d managed my fluid intake before bed (even with that birthday beer) so that I wasn’t having to get up in the middle of the night to pee.

The significant event of the day was our Puja ceremony. This is a Buddhist ‘service’ conducted by a lama (Buddist equivalent of a priest) which amongst other things, is to bless the expedition and the Sherpas and members for a safe and successful time on the mountain.

 

The Sherpas had previously built a chorten (a pile of rocks almost like an alter) in the centre of our camp. One side of this had a small stone fireplace, in which incense and pungent plants are burnt throughout the ceremony. Sticking out of the centre of the chorten was a tall piece of wood, which had large prayer flags, white scarves and more of the plants tied onto it. From this central mast, three long guy lines of prayer flags spread out over 30m in each direction. Anyone who has been to Nepal (or similar parts of the world) will recognise prayer flags as a wonderfully familiar symbol. Whilst they come in different sizes, they contain a repeating sequence of blue, white, red, yellow and green flags, which have Buddhist prayers printed on them. As the flags flutter in the breeze, the wind carries the prayers aloft.

The ritual lasted about 90 minutes (we had the full version!) – and consisted of the Lama chanting prayers nearly constantly for that time. He was reading from a book, so I can only assume that each section was very specific, and every so often he would use a small handbell and a small drum as an accompaniment.

All team members and Sherpas placed key climbing equipment at the base of the chorten, such as ice-axes, harnesses, helmets and boots. Offerings of food and drink are made – with the throwing of rice, and the flicking of rum, whiskey, beer and cola towards the central chorten. A dry paste of flour and butter (almost pastry like) is also shared around – first a pinch of it is eaten, and then it is scattered on your shoulder and smeared on your cheeks. We then were asked to come up one by one, and the Lama placed a white scarf over our shoulders and presented each of us with a small roll of prayers on a string, to be worn around the neck for the expedition.

The ceremony always concludes with a brilliant celebration, where food and drink is handed round, and inevitably, someone starts playing some Nepalese music on a speaker and dancing ensues. Shots of whiskey, bottles of coke and cans of beer (San Miguel again!) are shared generously, and we tuck into the large platters of food which the kitchen staff have produced – fruit, breads, prawn crackers, chocolates, biscuits – all shared around. By this stage pretty much all of the other Sherpas from all the other teams in basecamp have joined us – so there is a real party atmosphere. Of course, the sign of the times is that whilst everyone is enjoying it, they’ve also all got their phones out, taking endless photos and videos of the festivities. Whilst it does take away from the ‘presence’ of the event, I can’t really complain, as I was also doing exactly the same with my phone.

Hopefully we’re heading up the mountain tomorrow, so I spend the late afternoon prepping my kit for our first bit of climbing. Checking that my crampons fit my boots; charging various camera batteries; getting clothing that I haven’t needed thus far, like shell trousers and gloves out; creating a little picnic of mountain snacks and packing it all into my rucksack. Whilst getting to basecamp 4 days ago seemed like a big step, of course it’s now that we start doing what we came for… actually climbing the mountain!

 

Thursday 27th April – Day 19 – Up to Camp 1 – 6300m

And it’s on – finally setting foot on the mountain. Big boots on. Crampons biting. Harnesses jangling. Ice-axes unsheathed. Gaining some well-needed altitude and acclimatisation. It does seem as though there has been noticeably ‘worse weather’ and more snow than normal this season. I use inverted commas, as when you sitting in basecamp basking in the sun, the idea of ‘worse weather’ seems a strange choice of words – however most evenings we’ve ben getting a dump of snow, and that’s made things more challenging, especially for the fixing team to get up and put the ropes in.

The fixing team isn’t necessarily a specific group of individuals for the whole expedition, however for each section of the route (basecamp to C1, C1-C2 etc), a small squad of Sherpas drawn from all of the teams will be put together to place the ‘fixed ropes’. These fixed ropes provide a safety line for nearly everyone on the mountain – both Sherpas and non-Sherpas alike. Whilst often the slopes and sections of the mountain are relatively straight forward and not too technically challenging, having a safety line provides a bit of reassurance. It’s a bit like wearing a seatbelt in car – 99.99% of journeys it hasn’t done anything, however if you were to have an accident, you’d be very appreciative of the seatbelt.

I tend to find that greatest reassurance that the fixed ropes give is on the descent – where you know (or at least you hope), that you have something solid which you can use to aid your movement back down the mountain – either by rappelling (abseiling) on the steepest sections, or the rest of the time just ‘arm-rapping’. The latter is a simpler and easier way of coming down, by attaching yourself to the rope with just a carabiner. This in itself doesn’t provide any friction or braking power – if you were to trip or fall, unless you can stop yourself, you’re likely to fall as far as the next rope anchor point, which could be up to 50-100m. The convenience of arm-rapping is that you hold onto the rope, or even wrap it once around your forearm, and this should provide enough friction to steady your descent. Obviously, the steeper the ground or the more tired you are, the more risky this becomes, however it is a quick and efficient way of coming down. Whilst abseiling is the safest, it’s also slow, as you can only have one person on a rope at any one time.

Back to reality, and us heading up the hill. Our plan for today was just to ‘touch’ camp 1. This meant that we’d try and get to it (or as far as possible), have a bit of a break, and then return to basecamp. A chance to stretch our legs, practice our skills and to gain a bit of acclimatisation ahead of a proper push up the mountain in due course.

The initial phase out of basecamp to the start of the route was interesting for the first time. It wound it’s way up over our rock outcrop towards the start of the fixed ropes. On some mountains, there is a really clear ‘crampon point’ – this is the place where you stop trekking, and put on your gear ready to climb. It’s not just about attaching the crampons to your feet, but also putting on your harness and helmet, and getting your ice axe or walking pole out ready for action. It tends to be a clear delineation of the ‘line of departure’. The LoD is a military term, from which you can expect to be in contact with the enemy – and it’s not too different on a mountain. The reason for all the kit, is that this is the point from which the risk and danger increases significantly.

However on Kanch, there wasn’t really a clear LoD – there were certainly a number of places where I could have stopped to put on my kit, but even as the slope angle increased, and there was a fixed rope alongside, I felt comfortable continuing until I got to a convenient place to gear up. Ironically, it’s at times like this, when overconfidence can get the better of oneself – it’s easy to slip on even the most gentle of snow slopes when you don’t have your crampons on.

I was following another climber who I knew had been up here a couple of days before, so I thought that I’d take their lead and gear up when they did. On reflection, I reminded myself that I was responsible for my own safety and comfort, and that I shouldn’t have waited for them – I should have geared up at the point that I felt was most appropriate. A useful reminder that there is no common standard of personal safety when it comes to mountaineering – everyone faces the risk in slightly different ways, and you have to do what’s right for yourself.

I found a handy spot to put the crampons on, and attached myself to the fixed rope using an ascender – a mechanical rachet device which slides up the rope, but then has small teeth which grip onto the rope when downwards force is applied. I also clipped an additional safety line onto the fixed rope – sometimes this might be considered overkill – but it is key when changing ropes at an anchor point – always ensuring that you are attached to a rope. Sadly, there are too many stories of people slipping when they are changing ropes, and if you don’t have a secondary safety attachment, then the results can be fatal. I also put my helmet on. Whilst there was minimal risk from rockfall on this bit of the route (unlike somewhere like K2 where you feel like a 9-pin at the end of a bowling alley), climbers above you might dislodge chunks of snow and ice, or drop equipment, and it can hurt if that hits you.

The steep climb to Camp 1 Throughout the day, I saw too many people who had their helmets clipped to their rucksacks and not on their heads. I remembered something that I was taught when I first started climbing – “the only thing worse than not having a helmet, is having one and not wearing it”. The mind boggled as to why if they’ve got their helmets, they don’t put them on…

The route itself was relatively straightforward and uneventful for the majority. Steepish slopes – generally ranging from 30-40 degrees, however as the fixing team and a number of other Sherpas and members were in front of me, there were pretty good footsteps in the snow – making the climb less tiring and much more methodical.

There was a small moment of excitement when the Sherpa in front of me tried to avoid an obvious hole (crevasse) by stepping to one side, and promptly fell through a snowbridge into said crevasse. It certainly wasn’t anything major – he was only in up to his waist, and was attached to the rope, so it was an inconvenience rather than a specific danger. I was only a few metres behind him, and whilst he righted himself relatively quickly, I elected to step over the original hole, rather than trying to be too clever and attempting to go around it. Sometimes it’s better the devil you know (and in this case, can clearly see!).

I was feeling good and moving quite fast – relatively speaking. You get into a good rhythm of – slide ascender up; move one foot up, plant walking pole (or ice-axe) further up; move second foot up – repeat. Each element of this 4-beat dance in accompanied by a deep breath – ideally in through the nose and out through the mouth. The trick to maintaining momentum is to just keep going – however slowly – rather than trying to do your 4-step quickly and then stopping for a breather. It’s the old adage – ‘slow is smooth, and smooth is fast’.

I overtook a few people – usually the courtesy is if you’re aware that someone is closing on you, that as soon as possible you should at least offer them the opportunity to overtake. When doing so, the risk is always on the part of the person doing the overtaking – ultimately, they’ll need to unclip to then move past, and then clip back in. Hopefully the person allowing the overtaking will help by stepping slightly to one side (whilst still attached) so at least the other person can make use of the relative security of the footsteps in the snow.

After several hours of climbing, I reached a bit of a backlog of climbers. Directly in front of me was a nice group of Spanish and Andorran independent climbers. Note – independent in that they didn’t have Sherpa support on the mountain – rather than their particular political viewpoints. I’d met them during the trek in, and whilst I hadn’t had a chance to catch up in basecamp, it was nice to see them again. They indicated that we’d all caught up to the fixing team, and therefore inevitably things would slow down, as we were now limited to the speed at which the fixing team could climb the virgin snow slope, place the anchors (snow bars or icescrews), fix the ropes and then move onto the next section.

The final climb into camp one was very much at the speed of the fixing team – and I’d say that we probably spent an hour longer that we would have done had the ropes all been in place and I’d be able to maintain the previous pace. However it was nice and gentle, and there was no rush at all. In fact it became rather sociable, chatting to the Spanish, or to Catharine a French climber, and soon Semba San caught up as well.

Camps on mountains aren’t always fixed locations – inevitably, if you’re camping on snow and ice, the locations of the camps can change with the changing nature of the mountain. Camp 1 on Kanch was a good example of this – ‘our’ Camp 1 was actually around 100/150m higher than where it had traditionally been in previous years. Arriving in Camp 1, having seen the sight of where it might have been, we could clearly understand why it had moved. The old site was now on a steep slope, festooned with crevasses – not a particularly inviting location. The new site was in a lovely little bowl, with a protective bergschrund (wall of ice) on the uphill side. This gave protection from wind, rock fall, avalanche etc. There was one large crevasse at the base of the bergschrund – but is was nice and obvious, so you just kept well away from it.

Semba and I dropped out packs, and sat down in the snow to rehydrate and eat our lunch. Every moment longer we spent up at this altitude (6300m) would help towards our acclimatisation, so there was no rush to immediately head back down the mountain. Some other climbers were staying in C1, so we watched them put up their tents and make themselves comfortable. Vadim (from our team) had a tiny little single skin high-altitude tent – which looked puny in comparison to the larger more robust 3 person dome tents that many of the others were using. However his weighed 1.2kg, as apposed to 4-5kgs, and as an independent (solo) climber – that would make a huge difference to him.

After an hour or so, Semba and I headed back down – mainly arm-rapping, with one abseil on a particularly steep section. Many of the Sherpas were also coming back down – having deposited equipment and supplies at Camp 1, ready for further pushes up the mountain. Despite their strength and climbing prowess, Sherpas tend to not particularly enjoy sleeping on the mountain, and at every opportunity will come back down to basecamp to sleep – even if that means having to commute back up the mountain the following day. Each to their own!

It took around 90 minutes to get back to basecamp. At the base of the route I stashed my helmet, crampons and ice-axe. There was no point continually carrying them backwards and forwards on a section that didn’t require them. I would have left my harness as well, although I was worried that if it got wet it might freeze, which would be uncomfortable next time I came to put it on. I made a mental note to ask Nuri that we place a barrel or duffel bag at the base of the route for us to keep all our kit in between rotations.

By the time I got back into basecamp, I’d been out for 6 hours, and to be honest, was pretty pooped. It was a pretty average day in terms of length, but was the first proper push up the hill, and I knew that I was dehydrated – so the first order of the day was to get some fluids on board. I forced several cups of tea down. It’s strange how when you’re not particularly thirsty you can drink endless cups of tea, but when you’re dehydrated and exhausted even trying to get through a single cup can be a challenge.

All of the team (Sherpas and members) got back down safely to basecamp in dribs and drabs (save for Vadim, Waldi and Luis who were staying up in C1), all very pleased that we’d had a good day out on the hill.

At this stage, our plan was that we’d be heading back up tomorrow – ideally straight to camp 2 to stay the night. However over dinner, Nuri informed us that the fixing team hadn’t got as far as they had hoped, and that there was more snow forecast – so we’d be delaying out next push. Whilst we were excited about the chance of getting to C2 (and spending a night on the mountain), I must admit, that I wasn’t completely disappointed at the forced delay in our return up the hill. The whole point of being down in basecamp is to rest and recuperate, and to get in the best possible condition for your rotations on the mountain. An extra 24 hours would give me time to get on top of my dehydration so that I was fighting fit for this next push.

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