Exclusive excerpt from In Some Lost Place, by Sandy Allan.
In Some Lost Place is Sandy Allan’s book about the team’s first ascent of the Mazeno Ridge of Nanga Parbat (8,126 meters) in 2012. A team of six—Sandy, Rick Allen, Cathy O’Dowd, Lhakpa Rangdu, Lhakpa Nuru and Lakpa Zarok—reached the Mazeno Gap, before Sandy and Rick went on to the summit. Cathy and the three Sherpas made a difficult descent down the Schell route, while Sandy and Rick—by this point out of food and water—descended the Kinshofer Route on the Diamir face. The ascent earned Sandy and Ricky a Piolet d’Or in 2013. The following excerpt picks up as Sandy and Rick descend from the summit on July 15.
The Edge of Extinction
I wanted to stay and take more photos but Rick was pushing to leave. We probably spent fifteen minutes on the summit and then made our way down. It was obvious then that we had to get back to the snow cave. It was now after 6 p.m. and all of a sudden the wind was blowing and night was falling; the benign summit was changing into one of the most hostile places on Earth. We tried to delay putting on our head torches but eventually darkness forced us to stop and dig them out. It began to snow as I was looking for our line of tracks coming up, and I found a trace of them eventually. I tried to follow them with the beam of my head torch. Then I peered behind me to make sure Rick was following.
We were still roped up, but the place felt isolated and imposing. I felt as though death was following in our steps, lurking just out of sight. It frightened me, and so I looked around, checking my friend was still there. We were the only two people in the world, alone in this hellish place of windblown snow and darkness. I dug deep inside myself, thinking how it was only as bad as the Cairngorm plateau in a whiteout on a freezing January night. I could feel energy from Rick, willing me to stay on course and find the snow cave. I kept moving, sometimes steeply downhill, plunging my boots into the snow, searching frantically for a hint of our upward track. Like an albatross on the Southern Ocean, I simply followed my natural navigational instincts over the wide expanse of snow and finally came to the cave. Relief washed over me. Finally we could escape the wind and driving snow. Soon we would be inside our sleeping bags and, with luck, the temperature inside would be closer to zero and we would be fine.
Inside our cave it was relatively calm; the anxiety and turmoil of struggling through the dark became a memory. The thick white walls of our home muffled the sound of the wind. Inside our sleeping bags, the cave entrance half-closed with our rucksacks, Rick went to light the stove. Nothing doing. He tried again. His lighter wasn’t working. It didn’t offer a single spark. He searched his pockets for a spare but there was none. My lighter, I knew, had gone down the mountain with Cathy.
I remembered my storm matches and found them in the deepest corner seams of my down clothing, but the box was ruined and the little emery strip gone. I thought of the summit and could see in my mind’s eye an action replay of that flick of my frozen handkerchief throwing out the dilapidated cardboard matchbox. Bugger, I thought. Surely we can strike these matches on something? We considered the abrasive surfaces available. Nothing doing. Our food had completely gone the night before. We had finished our water during the climb to the summit and were now unable to melt snow for more.
We decided sleep was more important and we would address the problem again in the morning. It would only be one more day. We should be able to get down to Base Camp by the following night. We’d sleep and try harder to light the stove in the morning. I changed my socks and then jammed my rucksack more carefully into the cave entrance to prevent too much spindrift from blowing in, while still allowing a breath of air to enter so we didn’t suffocate. From inside his sleeping bag Rick sent a text to Samandar using the satellite phone to say that we had summited, were okay and would be heading down the Kinshofer route in the morning. To save the battery, he kept the message short and quickly turned the phone off again. Both satisfied we had done enough, we settled down to sleep. I was comatose in minutes.
The next morning the usual ritual started: reach out of the sleeping bag, light the stove and put on a pan of snow. Only we still couldn’t get the lighter to spark. We tried again and again. Nothing doing. Rick’s lighter seemed completely dead. In the cold light of day, our situation became frighteningly clear. We were already dehydrated from our climb, and now there was no prospect of water. It was a disaster. Dehydration at these altitudes can soon debilitate the body. Blood thickens to treacle. The risk of stroke or some other dangerous condition was very real.
Rather than let these fears overwhelm us, we decided it was simply best to get our boots on and start moving down the mountain. I thought about our descent in 2009. Two or three hours would get us down to the site of Camp 4. It was then another two hours to Camp 3, and another two to Camp 2 at around 6,300 metres. The air would be thicker there. The afternoon sun would be shining there. We would be able to take our gloves off and fiddle with the stove. I thought too that we would likely meet climbers attempting the Kinshofer route. There would be tent platforms dug out in the snow and people with stoves and masses of food. The priority was to keep moving down; we had to escape this death zone.
In the freezing cold it took us a while to get ready. It felt as though the air was scalding my face as I squeezed out of the narrow entrance of the snow cave. I breathed cautiously through the fabric of my neck scarf, filling my lungs. It felt refreshing, like an advert for spearmint gum. The sky was overcast and I assessed the weather for a moment: not great. I discussed it with Rick as I stood first on one leg and then the other to clip on my crampons. I felt okay but was desperate to get moving.
Rick’s mittens were frozen and it took ages for us both to do the simplest things. I struggled to fasten my parka zip, and threading the buckle of my lightweight climbing harness was causing havoc with my fingernails; it was always desperately difficult to tease the faded orange belt through the double buckle. I had to hold it apart with my fingers, and in the cold tore the top off my nail. Blood seeped up from the wound and I cursed in pain. All these simple tasks had become an exhausting hassle in our state of hypoxic exhaustion. It’s now you really find out just how well designed climbing gear is.
I began to wonder whether what we were doing was humanly possible. We had climbed the Mazeno and reached the summit, but we both knew that we had wasted too much energy searching out the top in the misty conditions. In among conflicting emotions, exhaustion and elation, we both knew that our bodies could not sustain this amount of time at altitude for much longer, especially now we had no water. The slow trickle of attrition had turned into a flood; it was simply a matter of time before our bodies went into spasm and simply stopped functioning. Which one of us would succumb first? Would the other have enough energy to get both of us down to thicker air?
We roped up, more from force of habit and camaraderie than necessity, although it made carrying the rope easier. It didn’t take us long to realise the going was slow, painfully slow. For long sections of the descent the snow was a firm slab, the frustrating sort that almost supports your weight but, just as you weight it, breaks, and your leg sinks into the powder beneath, in this case up to our knees and sometimes thighs. It made it all desperately hard work. Pulling my foot up would bring a chunk of slab with it, and that would begin to slide, giving us something else to trip over.
Rick led the way but had to rest constantly; walking was awkward and exhausting. I offered to take over for a bit. It was tediously slow and hours drifted by in a kind of featureless silence. We were too tired to engage with one another and seemed to be making hardly any progress at all. The ground was quite steep and we curved our way around in a long S-shaped arc that would lead us to the site of Camp 4 on the Kinshofer. The weather deteriorated, clouds inflated powerfully in the sky above and snow began to fall. So much for my weather prediction, I thought. Rick had a compass in the top pocket of his sack so we stopped and he pulled it out. We sat on our sacks while I estimated a bearing from my rudimentary map and sketchy memory of the last time we were there. Then we shouldered our sacks again, just as the cloud enveloped us and the snow fell more heavily.
The situation felt serious. Was our predicament overwhelming us? I’d been exhausted before but I’d never been so long at altitude without food or water. I had no idea how quick our demise might be.
Pick up a copy of Sandy Allan’s In Some Lost Place today!