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The Braille Monitor – October 2000 Edition

Climbing Next Door to the Top of the World:
The Ama Dablam 2000 NFB Expedition

by Didrik Johnck

Ama Dablam base camp.
Ama Dablam base camp

From the Editor: Twice now we have heard Erik Weihenmayer tell convention audiences what it is like to climb high mountains, rock faces, and ice fields without being able to see what is happening. People have been moved and energized by what Erik has said and by what, with our help, he is trying to accomplish. But I have thought all along that it would be interesting to hear from one of Erik's climbing team what it is like to have a blind team member on one of these arduous expeditions. So several months ago Didrik Johnck volunteered to give Braille Monitor readers his perspective on the Ama Dablam climb of April, 2000. This is what he wrote:

Trying to balance yourself, you reach out for the nearest object. What's it going to be this time? Cold, finger-numbing rock, ice, or snow? Thousands of feet of air between you and flat ground. Blowing wind spitting icy needles of snow on your face. Swirling clouds allowing only a few feet of visibility. Which way is up? Where, exactly, was the edge of that cliff?

Now imagine, in this precarious and potentially perilous situation, that you're actually having a good time. Imagine that you've traveled halfway around the world, hiked for two weeks, and spent the last few months preparing and thinking about this moment. This was the world inhabited by the climbers on the 2000 Ama Dablam NFB Expedition.

The 2000 Ama Dablam NFB Expedition team after Eric Alexander was air lifted to the hospital.
The 2000 Ama Dablam NFB
Expedition after Eric Alexander
was air lifted to the hospital.

The team, composed of blind climber Erik Weihenmayer andhis seven teammates, spent a month last spring in the Himalayas of Nepal climbing a beautiful 22,423-foot mountain called Ama Dablam. Weihenmayer, a thirty-one-year-old rock climber and mountaineer who had scaled such peaks as McKinley, Aconcagua, and Kilimanjaro, had his sights set on Mount Everest and was attempting Ama Dablam as a training climb.

"I believe that, if a blind person is seen succeeding safely on an arduous peak like this one [Everest], it won't just shape people's perceptions of blindness; it will shatter them," Weihenmayer said to the 1999 convention of the National Federation of the Blind.

Most of the team was from Colorado, including the expedition leader, forty-five-year-old Pasquale Scaturro, a three-time veteran of Everest who lives in Lakewood. The rest of the team included Eric Alexander, thirty, from Vail; Luis Benitez, twenty-eight, from Boulder; Brad Bull, thirty- two, from Denver; Chris Morris, thirty-four, from Wasilla, Alaska; Dr. Steve Gipe, forty-six, from Bozeman, Montana; and me, Didrik Johnck, twenty- eight, from San Francisco, California.

After months of planning, team meetings, and last-minute packing, the team left the United States for Kathmandu, Nepal, on March 17. Four days later, as we landed on the tiny airstrip in Lukla at 9,000 feet, the sun was shining, lighting the way to Ama Dablam Base Camp. We trekked through the sub-alpine pine forests to Namche Bazaar, the capital of the Khumbu and home to the Sherpa culture. Days later we merged into the near-treeless landscape of the alpine regions from 12,000 feet up. Our caravan of thirty yaks, fifteen porters, ten trekkers, and eight climbers was filled with the anticipation of seeing Ama Dablam. The yaks and porters carried much of the team equipment. The trekkers, consisting of several friends and acquaintances of the climbers, were planning on hiking to base camp before heading back to Kathmandu.

On the fourth day of the trek, like an island rising out of the clouds, there she was with her arms stretched out, almost saying, "Welcome ... I'm glad to see you again."

Ama Dablam as seen from Khumjung
Ama Dablam as seen from

In the Sherpa language Ama Dablam means "mother with a charm box." Some of us who had been to this region before for Everest expeditions had stared at this peak many times and had all secretly wanted it. For those of us who had only seen pictures and heard about this beautiful peak, Ama Dablam held the same lure. Hiking out of Namche Bazaar and seeing this hulking mass of snow, rock, and ice rising vertically out of nowhere with the jet black south face of Everest peeking over the Lhotse-Nuptse wall in the distance forced us all to stop in our tracks. Some of us even had to sit.

"I love to have a teammate describe the colors and the alpine glow and all the mountains around us," Weihenmayer said. "And it's pretty cool to get the description of the world through the eyes of another person." But no one needed to tell Erik what was going on around him at that moment. Between the silence and the gasps, he knew.

Ama Dablam did not leave our sight for the rest of the expedition. When we ate lunch, when we went to bed, when we woke up, there was Ama Dablam. When we attempted a small, 18,000-foot peak called Imja Tse (Island peak) to acclimatize, there was Ama Dablam, staring us down.

Six months earlier, at one of our team meetings in Denver, we talked about all the information we had received from other climbers who had summited this mountain. "Piece of cake; shouldn't take more than two weeks," said one source. "Camp One to Camp Two is a bitch, but after that it's smooth sailing all the way to the summit," said another friend.

Months later, high on the mountain, Weihenmayer and Alexander were cursing those same people when they were stuck at Camp Two for the fifth night, unable to move due to the downpour of snow and the onslaught of furious wind.

After arriving in base camp on April 1, it took about a week for the team to put in the route to Camp Two. Most of the time the team climbed together, although whoever was directly in front of or behind Erik gave him route instructions when needed. "Every time I looked down between my legs at the thousands of feet of exposure and then at Erik calmly moving over the fixed lines, oblivious to danger, it gave me great inspiration and confidence in us and what we were setting out to accomplish," said Benitez after spending a day with Weihenmayer.

The route provided different challenges to everyone on the team. In a dispatch to Quokka Sports, who provided daily live coverage of the climb, Weihenmayer wrote, "Today Eric Alexander, Steve Gipe, and I climbed 1,000 feet from Yak Camp to Camp One over nightmare boulders. It was one of those days when I wonder to myself why I like climbing." Between Yak Camp and Camp One there are 1,000 feet of rocks piled on top of each other ranging in size from baseballs to trucks with treacherous gaps between. Higher up the mountain, just below Camp Two, was a section we named the Abject Terror Traverse. To move across the Abject Terror Traverse you step out onto a wall with about 3,000 feet of air beneath your feet; there are two bomber hand holds, but no foot holds. To make the move work, you must grab the hand holds, point your butt out into the air, and smear the bottoms of your shoes against the vertical slab of rock. Then you shimmy along the wall until you reach the next platform at the base of the Yellow Tower.

At sea level the Yellow Tower would be a pretty simple and relaxed eighty-foot climb. Change the location to the Himalayas and put yourself at 20,000 feet with freezing temperatures, climbing vertical rock with a 50-pound pack and plastic boots, a 3,000-foot drop beneath you, and life is much different. Most of us called it fun.

We had been enjoying the great weather as we trekked in and established base camp and the first part of the route up the mountain. But as the days wore on, the clouds were coming in earlier and earlier and beginning to drop some light snow. By the end of the expedition we were allowed only a few hours of decent climbing in the morning before the weather moved in at 11:00 a.m.

After reaching Camp Two, we were short on rope and food and needed to make a trip down to base camp to resupply. In talking it over, Weihenmayer said, "If I have to go back through that boulder field beneath Camp One, I am not coming back up." So Alexander volunteered to stay with Weihenmayer at Camp Two, anticipating our return in two days and then a push on to the summit. Little did we know that Mother Nature had other plans.

That afternoon, as we ran down to base camp, rappelling down the Yellow Tower, navigating the Abject Terror Traverse, moving quickly across the fixed lines to Camp One, then hopping across the boulder field and finally arriving at the hiking trail that leads into base camp, it began to snow. Not a big deal, I thought, since it was snowing most afternoons by now. This time, however, it didn't let up, forcing us to stay in base camp while leaving Weihenmayer and Alexander trapped for six nights at 20,000 feet at Camp Two.

Our two stranded and extremely bored teammates passed the time by counting the number of Werther Original candies that could fit into a zip-lock bag, listening to audio tapes, and strolling around the minuscule platform surrounding the tent. The tent was perched on the edge of a 3,000-foot cliff, so any time spent outside required being clipped into fixed rope. In a half-joking radio dispatch to Quokka Sports, Weihenmayer said, "Our team has abandoned us and gone down to eat Momos at base camp, while I've just eaten a can of sardines, a Snickers bar, and a bowl of oatmeal." Momos are tasty meat-and-vegetable-filled dumplings that we constantly talked about when up on the mountain. Our base camp cook, Tenzing, always enticed us over the radio by saying he would cook up some Momos upon our return to base camp.

After our fifth day at base camp the weather appeared to be clearing, and the six of us in base camp dashed up to Camp One, then on to Camp Two to meet Weihenmayer and Alexander. Our plan was to spend a night at Camp Two, move to Camp Three the next day, and then make our assault on the summit the day after that. The only major obstacle was the Grey Tower above Camp Two. The Grey Tower is another rocky outcropping similar to the Yellow Tower, except filled with snow, ice, and rock. Most climbers strive for climbing pure rock, pure ice, or pure snow, but when confronted with a mixed bag of all three as on the Grey Tower, the most proficient climber can be reduced to a quivering baby. Past the Grey Tower a knife-edged ridge leads into Camp Three, sitting on a snow mushroom next to the Dablam. The Dablam is the well-defined ice bulge that appears to be hanging just below the summit face. From Camp Three to the summit there are beautiful, high-angled, fluted snowfields that we were all looking forward to spearing with our crampons and ice tools.

Up to this point we had been thrashing our way over and around ice- encrusted rock and had not found any good snow. On day twenty-seven of the expedition (April 14) Scaturro, Benitez, Morris, and Kami Tenzing--one of the climbing Sherpas on our expedition--were leading the way up the Grey Tower. Meanwhile Weihenmayer, Alexander, and Bull were packing up some things in Camp Two, and I was making a trip down to Camp One to get some more rope. We all stopped at about 10:00 a.m. to answer Scaturro's radio call. When he asked us to switch over to a private radio channel, I knew something was up.

What was up was this. In the two hours they had been ascending the Grey Tower a steady stream of rocks and ice (some the size of basketballs) had been pouring down the chute. They had spent most of the time playing dodge ball with rocks and ice rather than climbing. Scaturro, Benitez, and Morris began wondering about the safety of the team on the Grey Tower-- particularly Weihenmayer.

It is dangerous enough to place a sighted person in the path of flying rocks and ice, but for Weihenmayer the risk would have been elevated tenfold. Earlier in the week one of the members of a Mexican team on Ama Dablam was hit in the head by a small rock traveling at high speed. The rocks coming down were also smashing into the climbing ropes, which were being gradually severed. Was the risk worth the reward? As we exchanged thoughts over the radio, I couldn't help feeling what was coming.

Then Scaturro finally said the words we dreaded hearing. "Fellas," he began, "we have done our best to climb this thing. I have never been with a stronger team, even on Everest, but as much as I hate to say this, it's over."

Continuing upward at this point was too risky. Being extremely low on food and fuel also meant we would not have another chance to try again. It's difficult to describe the emotions one feels after fighting and struggling to reach the seemingly unattainable and persisting and trying harder, then being forced finally to back off and walk away.

We didn't have much time to get emotional because the clouds that had been creeping up the valley all morning suddenly arrived with driving wind and snow. The team was now trying to descend and was caught in the storm at the Yellow Tower. With half the team below the Yellow Tower and the other half above, we decided to split up. Scaturro, Weihenmayer, Benitez, and I retreated back to Camp Two while Bull, Morris, and Alexander descended to Camp One in a whiteout.

As I was erecting my tent at Camp Two, all I could think about was crawling into my sleeping bag and warming up. At that same moment the other half of the team was fighting its way down the mountain through iced-up ropes and blowing snow.

The fun was not over yet. Only twenty feet from his tent at Camp One, Alexander discovered that the sled-sized rock he was standing on had decided to take off, carrying him as well. Alexander tried to surf the rock for a bit, but ended up being tossed off, falling 150 feet. Miraculously, he suffered only a few bruises and some torn clothes.

Later that night Alexander began having breathing trouble and exhibited symptoms of high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). This is a very serious condition in which the lungs slowly fill up with fluid and eventually suffocate the victim. Dr. Gipe, the expedition doctor, was in Camp One and helped Alexander down to base camp the next morning. The treatment for HAPE is to descend, and Alexander appeared to be getting better in base camp, 4,000 feet lower than Camp One. However, the next day Alexander's symptoms became worse, and we evacuated him by helicopter the morning of April 18 to Kathmandu.

Even though the team was thwarted in our attempt to summit Ama Dablam, none of us felt this expedition was a failure. "I kept glancing up through the clouds and wondering, wondering why the summit was so important, wondering if we were letting go too easily," Benitez wrote in a dispatch to Quokka Sports on April 16. "Yet at the same time I realized we had accomplished all we set out to do as our primary goals: come together as a team; get ready for Everest; be with Erik in the Himalayas; and, well, just plain try to do our best."

In the end trying to do our best meant fixing almost all the ropes on the mountain despite previous plans. Initially the work of putting in the route was to be split up among the seven or eight teams climbing the mountain this season, a common practice. This idea sounded great prior to arrival, but once on the mountain, things didn't go as planned. Our team set almost all the fixed rope for the season. One other team managed to get slightly past our high point, and when all the teams cleared off the mountain by early May, not one had reached the summit. Later, however, unconfirmed reports surfaced that a small Russian team came in very late in the season and summited.

Hearing the news that a team had made it to the top prompted different emotions as we spoke about it back home. A bit of happiness and disbelief that someone had made it, a little jealousy that it hadn't been us, but mostly the realization that successful climbing in the Himalayas takes more than a mentally and physically strong team. It takes Mother Nature's cooperation, a climbable route, of course Ama Dablam, and even a little luck. All these factors must come together for a team to reach the summit, and even then there are still no guarantees. Correctly predicting the future is a crapshoot. You make elaborate plans. Then changes are made to those plans. Decisions are made on the fly in the most sublime, stressful, relaxed, or even threatening conditions. After everything was said and done, whether we had summited or not, each of us felt a little twitch inside, knowing without a doubt that we will be back someday.

The question many people ask is, "Why?" Why bother if the chances of summiting are slim, and all these different elements must come together for it to happen? Everyone has individual reasons. When asked about his reasons for climbing, Weihenmayer mused: "It's sort of shallow if my reason for climbing is to prove that blind people can do this or that, but I will say that it's a great, great side benefit to be able to use these climbs to broaden the message beyond the ambition of just one person--to use these climbs to shatter people's perceptions about what's possible and what isn't and about the capabilities of people, whether they're blind, disabled, or unimpaired."

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