The culmination of over a years' dedicated and highly specialised training, Montane ambassador Becks Ferry found herself and her team the only three people on the iconic 6802m peak in December 2020: 2020. For so many of us it could only be described as an annus horribilis. As I write this, 2021 hasn't got off to the best of starts either. Personally, my year had more ups and downs than the Mendip Hills. To find myself bringing it to a close in the Himalayas was simply magical. I have written
The culmination of over a years' dedicated and highly specialised training, Montane ambassador Becks Ferry found herself and her team the only three people on the iconic 6802m peak in December 2020:
2020. For so many of us it could only be described as an annus horribilis. As I write this, 2021 hasn't got off to the best of starts either. Personally, my year had more ups and downs than the Mendip Hills. To find myself bringing it to a close in the Himalayas was simply magical.
I have written previously about my ambition to try to climb Ama Dablam (see here) - a 6812m peak in the Eastern Himalayan range of Province 1. For many years, I have gazed adoringly at her but had never expected to be contemplating trying to climb. In between the numerous lockdowns and restrictions, I embarked on a steep, accelerated learning programme with 10-time summiteer and Montane athlete, Jon Gupta. I spent a number of days in North Wales on an 'Ama Dablam specific' programme, spending long days out , moving over technical terrain and trying ( and mostly failing) how to use the Jumar.
Fast forward to November 2020 and Nepal was finally allowing foreigners back but only issuing visas for mountaineering and specific treks. Arriving in an eerily quiet Kathmandu was quite a unique experience. There had been many hoops to jump through to get into the country and multiple covid tests but we had finally made it. The ordinarily bustling airport was all but deserted. Driving through the streets to the hotel ( where we quarantined for several days) was an equally different scene to the Nepal that I had become acquainted with. Shops were boarded up and streets deserted. It was apparent that this was going to be quite a unique and very different experience.
Quarantine completed and multiple covid tests later (and many games of tennis lost), we found ourselves in Lukla ready to embark on our trek to Ama Dablam base camp. The ordinarily bustling trails were gloriously quiet. No yak or donkey trains nor any other tourists. Ensuring we adhered to all covid protocols whilst walking through villages, we were greeted more warmly than ever by locals who seemed pleased to see us. The peace on the trails and the relative solitude was a welcome relief after a year of such disruption.
For the first time in an age, it felt like I was able to take a proper deep breath and enjoy myself. The mountains seemed to be more majestic and beautiful than ever. It was like being greeted by an old friend, embraced in a warm hug - something that the new social distancing measures had precluded. Each day, the further we trekked, Ama Dablam became this almost omnipresent vision. I was still grappling with the idea that was going to try to climb her. How was I meant to climb that? If I have learnt anything from life and this year, it is to keep the faith and trust the process. You have got to be in the arena and give it your best shot.
After a few days trekking, we finally arrived at base camp which was to be home for the duration of our expedition. What I soon learnt is that base camp becomes a sanctuary and it's amazing how far you'll trek to get back to base camp! After a few nights acclimatising here, we embarked upon a series of 'rotations' which saw us going along the fixed ropes to camp two. I watched in slight awe at the effortless way that Lhakpa Sherpa and Jon moved up, down and along the ropes. I followed along behind in a slightly less elegant manner! It was new territory for me as a runner. My upper body not accustomed to carrying weight and using my arms. It was a climbing baptism of fire!
Safely ensconced back at base camp, it was a waiting game with Jon and other team members keeping an eye on the weather. After a few days and a considerable quantity of chocolate later, our moment to climb had arrived. The winds looked like they had dropped and so back up the mountain, we went. Our first destination was camp one for the night and then, camp two. The night at camp one, I listened as the high winds ( they were back!) whipped against the tent, feeling like it might pick us up and catapult us over the side of the mountain. I was just hoping that they would abate before we continued on our climb up to camp two as this part of the mountain has some quite exposed areas.
Happily, come the morning it was back to blue skies, interspersed with the occasional cloud. The journey to camp two was on. This was to be my first encounter of the mythological Yellow Tower. This is often known as the more technical crux of the route. It probably has a techie climbing grade assigned but I can only describe it is steep.... very steep... I watched as Jon and Lhakp made light work of it. Needless to say, I was the complete antithesis of grace and invented a new climbing move known as 'hauling' your way up. Effective though and you are regraded with this breathtaking view of the Himalayas. The quietness was surreal. I felt so fortunate to be on that mountain. As I glanced down I could now appreciate the vertiginous nature of this particular part. On arriving at camp two, it was food, drink and sleep as an early wake-up call was on the cards. I ensured I ate extra chocolate and got my kit ready for the morning.
Summit day had arrived. Two of the other team members had gone ahead with Jon, Lhakpa and I following half an hour later. There was a slight wind with a considerable chill. In conjunction, the wind was accompanied by the gentle fluttering of snowflakes. Leaving camp, it was apparent that this was going to require a Herculean effort on my part as pithing the first five minutes we were greeted by a near-vertical wall with what appeared to be very few feet and handholds. If I wasn't awake, I certainly was now!
Time ticked by and as it did, the winds picked up and the snowfall got a little heavier. Unperturbed, we climbed on until we reached the mostly unused camp 3. It was here that the two team members who had set off ahead of us, radioed down informing us that the weather was just too bad to continue. It was apparent that, so tantalisingly close to the summit, that we would need to abort and return to camp.
Later that day, as Jon and I made our way back down to base camp, I started to think about the possibility of going back up. I was tired but I started to do some calculations in my head knowing that we had a flight a few days later. Maybe.... just maybe there might still be time. I briefly mentioned this to Jon but I knew that if it was feasible, I wanted to have another go - after a base camp sleep and a fried egg sandwich!
The next day, waiting for the other teams to return to base camp, we put in motion plans to return to the mountains. It was going to be tight on time but we had just enough if we pushed from base camp straight to camp two. Not only this but it would be just myself, Lhakpa and Jon as the other team members decided to return to Kathmandu. It was on! Again... I watched as our once bustling camp was dismantled around us before setting off just after breakfast. The weather this time was just perfect. The winds had abated and the now-familiar hike up the mountain seeming so much more hospitable. We saw only a handful of other climbers making their way down the mountain. The realisation that now, we were the only people on this spectacular mountain. It is quite hard to articulate exactly what this feels like. To be one of three people on one of the most iconic mountains in the world? Indescribable. Priceless. This was something so uniquely special and to be sharing it with two people who had become your friends over the weeks - wonderful.
Arriving at camp two (again!), Jon had clearly learnt that I 'live to eat' and had bought cold pizza. This transpired to be one of the best pizzas I have ever eaten! Summit day part two was on..... I wish I could say that I woke up that day feeling incredible but I felt anything but. Mother Nature was determined to make this as hard as possible. I forced myself to eat a meagre breakfast and gave myself a mental pep talk. I had the kind words from my fiends reverberating around my mind. I knew this feeling from endurance racing. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. I just needed to enjoy every moment
I climbed on, supported every step of the way by both Jon and Lhakpa. I mustered all the positive thoughts that I could think of. As the sun rose, we were greeted by the Himalayas in all her glory. This is why I came here. The mountain felt like she was giving us a warm, motherly embrace unlike days before where she had given us a bit of slap! We climbed on past the place where we had turned back days before. Each step I counted friends, family, my dog. Eventually, whittled down to just my children followed by a long(er) pause! I watched Lhakpa, climbing towards his 26th summit with Jon willing me forward and laying a trail of chocolate to entice my up the mountain! I was going to this summit and it took as long as it took.
That feeling of standing on the summit felt surreal. Even writing this now, it feels like it wasn't me. It's quite strange to describe. I can feel the ground now and taste the air. Memories. There is a famous quote by Anatoli Bourkreev where he states that, "Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion". All my hopes, all my faith, all my patience and all that is me I took up that mountain. I left a little piece of me up there too. If found, please do not return. I'm very happy up there."