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Manaslu Expedition 2018: 8163 metres without oxygen

Manaslu is the eighth highest mountain in the world at 8163 metres (26,781ft) above sea level. It stands majestically in the Nepalese Himalaya.

The lead up to the summit push

Having climbed on the mountain for two weeks, we waited patiently back at Base Camp, and after 5 days the mountain kindly graced us with a weather window to make our bid for the top of the world's eighth highest mountain.

Up to this point, not a lot seemed to be going to plan. We had been delayed by a couple of days getting to Base Camp because of a helicopter crash that killed 6, which stalled expedition supplies from reaching the mountain. Then on what turned out to be our only rotation to acclimatise on the mountain, we had got only as high as Camp 2, at 6250 metres in altitude -- slightly less than 2 kilometres below the summit in vertical height.

The day we pushed to go up to Camp 3, the snow conditions were bad. We made a safety-conscious decision to turn back a little higher than Camp 2, but a couple of teams tried to push on. They didn’t get far; an avalanche swept a Dutch climber and a Sherpa. They were hit about 20 minutes further up from where we had turned around. They were lucky and were only partially buried and quickly dug out by fellow climbers, suffering just fractured ribs and a swollen ankle, but it was a sobering reminder that hubris has no place in the mountains.

Down to my t-shirt at 6000m, the steep slope making it hot work. The section between camps 1 and 2.

We spent the night at Camp 2 and descended down to Base Camp the next day. The skies unloaded with snow, and it dumped down on the mountain for the next 5 days. We could hear the continuous roars of avalanches (about 3 a minute) from the peaks around us.

The mission from here was to get to 8163 metres… having only been up to 6250 on rotation and spending just two nights there, as well as losing strength to a stomach bug while at base camp waiting for a weather window (the exact time that I was supposed to be gaining strength for the summit push). Now, off the back of that, I was supposed to climb an 8000 metre mountain without oxygen. I knew my chances were slim, but I would give it a try.

The view from camp 2, 6250m (20,505ft)

A strategy for the summit

We knew that everybody on the mountain would want to use the same few days of favourable conditions. Meaning that 90% of the of base camp would move up to camp 1 the next day, so in 3 days’ time, almost every team on the mountain were going to be at camp 4 to make their attempts at the summit.

I had no interest in literally dying in a queue where everybody else had oxygen and I didn't, so we made a decision; a bit of a gamble to do something different, in the view of giving ourselves the best chance of success.

We would make our assault for the summit directly from Camp 3, skipping Camp 4. This is unusual and is of course a far more demanding challenge. It meant that we would have to climb more than 1.5 kilometres in vertical height, and then descend the same height, in one straight push.

The summit push

We left Base Camp, and two days later we made it up to camp 3. Having slept/rested about 4 hours in camp 3 that afternoon, we set off at 10pm on 26th September, at an altitude of 6700m. Of our 4 person team, only I was attempting it without oxygen.

Sunset at Camp 3, 6700m (26,781ft), just hours before our summit bid.

We climbed through the night in -30C. I had to keep swapping the hand that I was using the jumar with, as I kept losing feeling in the fingers that were separated by the metal grip. I knew not using oxygen would make me more prone to cold injuries - I wiggled my toes every step to keep the blood flowing, but they started to go too.

In total, it was 18 hours of straight climbing. My memory of it is fragmented and grainy because of the lack of oxygen (at 8000 metres there is just 36% of the oxygen that's available to you at sea level). Of those 18 hours, I remember little snippets totalling approximately an hour.

I do remember the profoundly strange sensation of permanently having an out of body experience, as if the whole thing was a dream. I remember looking up to the summit fairly often, gauging how far I was... and driving, pushing, digging deep with such fortitude and determination to get there.

I took this photo just into the death zone, over 8000 metres. The cold had frozen my breath to my moustache and downsuit. My lips were chapped and bloodied, the tip of my nose had begun to freeze, and I was struggling to get enough oxygen.

I remember losing my team when I arrived to camp 4 in the middle of the night. It was so debilitatingly cold, and the whole camp felt abandoned. I felt abandoned… and incredibly vulnerable. I found Prakash and after a quick break we pushed on. Anup and Suman followed.

I lost all feeling in my toes about 10 minutes after leaving camp 3 that night, and it took more than three months for the circulation to eventually come back.

A little less than 100 metres shy of the summit, I wanted to turn back. I was dehydrated, I had exhausted my body's glycogen stores (what marathoners call "hitting the wall"). My body was shutting down from the altitude. I was absolutely spent, but I didn't feel the cold anymore. I was ahead of my team by about 20 minutes so I sat in the snow, I just wanted to wait for them to catch up to me, take a bottle of O2 and head down.

Prakash was the first to reach me. His words of encouragement were invaluable to me and they are what got me those last 100m. We left our bags in the snow and headed up with only what was in our pockets. I owe my summit to that man; thank you Prakash, I am forever grateful.

We reached the summit of Manaslu shortly before midday on 27th September 2018, having left at 10pm the night before. We had the place to ourselves. We spent about 30 minutes sitting at an altitude of 8163 metres (over 5 miles into the sky). That day we were the highest people in the world, literally.

The highest person in the world. The summit of the eighth highest mountain, 8163m (26,781ft)

It's difficult to describe where I went within myself that day. All I can really say is, if you're not sure who you are, climb an eight-thousander without supplemental O2... you won't come down with many questions unanswered.

During the descent I was so exhausted I fell asleep three times when taking breaks to have water or try to eat a chocolate bar. It was only a few seconds each time (I think) but it definitely got me standing up again in a hurry!

We made it back to camp 3, and the next day we packed up and headed all the way down to Base Camp (we were going down to BC while the rest of the mountain were standing in a 2 hour queue in the death zone, waiting to get to the summit). Our strategy had worked. Between the 4 of us we had the experience to make a decision that went against the grain, luckily it turned out to be the correct decision, but it didn't come cheap; I've never pushed my body so hard.

I lost 9.7kg of body weight in little more than 3 weeks, having only weighed 65kg going into the climb.

I became the youngest British person to climb Manaslu without bottled oxygen, and only the 7th Brit to do it.

Our 2018 Manaslu expedition:

  • Simon Ferrier-May, UK, (summit without oxygen)

  • Prakash Gurung, Nepal, (summit using oxygen from camp 4)

  • Anup Gurung, Nepal, (summit using oxygen from camp 4)

  • Suman Gurung, Nepal, (summit using oxygen from camp 4)

  • Santa Bahadur Gurung, Nepal

Be sure to follow me on Instagram for training and expeditions.


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