West face of Manaslu as seen from just below Larkye La (5140m)

West face of Manaslu as seen from just below Larkye La (5140 m.)

Mike Galbraith, mountain safety guru and a long time member of CORE, was the leader of the Canadian Manaslu Expedition in the summer of 1992 – here is his story.

Manaslu is number eight in the world of peaks over 8000 meters, which means it’s the eighth highest peak in the world. It is in fact 8165 m. (26,788 feet). In terms of oxygen content, the top of Manaslu has roughly 30% of what you’d find on any average beach, which is where you’d rather be when you’re near the top of Manaslu.

And before I go any further, we didn’t quite make the summit, but we had a lot of fun along the way, so read on!

Kathmandu is full of Nepalese in August – as opposed to October when it’s full of tourists. True, the odd European and Japanese shows up, but nobody told them about the Monsoon, so I guess they’re excused. The Monsoon means that it rains most days. So when we arrived in mid-August, our shiny new golf umbrellas were put to the test right away. Golf umbrellas are de rigueur on a walk like we did. They not only cover you, but your pack, your camera and your lunch when you stop for it. They also provide great comfort while you are in the traditional squatting position but this is a family publication, so we won’t dwell on that.

There were 6 of us – all from Western Canada – all experienced climbers with previous Himalayan adventures of various sorts under our belts. Your reporter had just come from Moscow and two weeks in India without exercise and had more under his belt than the others, who joked mercilessly as the belt tightened over the next few weeks. I should explain that I have a mild case of MS and therefore walk with two ski poles for balance – not to assist in the transport of a large waistline, as was suggested.

Buri Gandaki Gorge

Buri Gandaki Gorge

The preliminaries lasted a week in Kathmandu, as we went our various ways in search of kitchen equipment, tarpaulins, radio permits and various other peak and trekking permits. Each permit was acquired after the soon to become familiar ceremony of outrageous price asking, vehement complaints and Nepalese compromise (we were always the ones who were compromised). There is a saying that “Nepal is there to change you, not you to change Nepal.” We concluded that Nepal was there to take our change!

Finally we were ready. The bus arrived. Porters and Sherpas appeared. Gear was tied on and we were off – on the scariest bus ride I’ve ever had. When the rocks along the roadside broke through a window, and we stared out the other side at a 1000-foot drop, we were more than ready to start walking. And walk we did. For two weeks. Through some of the loveliest country I’d seen in Nepal.

Village of Jagat

Village of Jagat

Hot days, rainy days, through the rice paddies, then up the steep-sided valley of the Buri Gandaki, a large river in full monsoon flood. The path was often a small river itself, filled by the streams rushing down the steep flower-filled hillsides. Denis, the doctor, probed, cut, sutured, dispensed and treated the regular lineup of local people each morning and evening. We walked, swam with the village children, sunbathed, sorted out our porter strikes, ate well, drank and were generally merry.

On the fourteenth day we reached base camp at 4800 m. (16,000 feet) where a Korean group had arrived a week before. The local Lama offered the appropriate Buddhist prayers. Yours truly delivered a “come back with everything you have now” lecture. And my job as leader became more sedentary as our climbers filled their packs and slowly cramponed their way up the hill.

Manaslu Base Camp – 4895m

Manaslu Base Camp – 4895 m.

Camp 1 at 5600m on Naike Col, Camp 2 at 6100 m., and Camp 3 at 6500 m. – 12 days flew by and our climbers were doing well. Then a gas cylinder at Camp 2 leaked. Geoff got two lungfuls of butane and coughed his way back to base camp. Denis and Dave were ready for a summit attempt from Camp 3, when two members of a Bulgarian/Italian expedition arrived late in the day, unable to find their tents (which were about another hour or two up the mountain). So after two or three hours of foot warming and other treatments for hypothermia, Denis and Dave enjoyed a cold night, having donated sleeping bags to the unequipped, unexpected guests.

A day’s rest at 22,000 feet is not really a rest. Denis reached the summit plateau at 25,000 feet the next day, but succumbed to a full blown case of pneumonia and was helped back to base camp. Soon everyone arrived for a shower, good food, all day card games and general conviviality.

Manaslu Peak (8163m) from Base Camp

Manaslu Peak (8163 m.) from Base Camp

The Koreans were on a tight schedule, so sent their summit team off the next day. Around 7:00 pm, two evenings later, the Korean and his Sherpa radioed to base camp with the news they’d reached the summit. Much Korean whisky was consumed while we wondered how well they would sleep at 26,000 feet. Late next day we found out when they walked awkwardly into base camp. They didn’t have a doctor so ten minutes later, with the Korean’s boots off, we were looking at the worst case of frostbite any of us had ever seen. There was nothing to do, except gentle warming, bandaging and radioing for a helicopter. Two porters arrived to carry him down to the village next day – helicopters couldn’t land at base camp.

Climber near Camp 3 (6800m)

Climber near Camp 3 (6800 m.)

Our final attempt with Dave and two Sherpas was a moderate success. We gained an altitude of 8000 m. – about 2 hours from the summit. The exhaustion of our members and the late hour meant it was time to go down. Meanwhile Geoff and Peter had taken a right turn at the North Col and made what we think is the third or fourth ascent of the North Peak of Manaslu (7300 m. – 24,000 feet).

The final episode on Manaslu was unfortunately the death of two members of the Bulgarian/Italian expedition between Camp 3 and Camp 4.   As in life, one person’s triumph can happen at the same time as another’s tragedy and ironically those two people died on the day we walked down from base camp on our long way back to Kathmandu.

So we came home. We’d put two members within two hours of the summit, climbed a 7300 m. peak, all of us were still friends, and we’d suffered no injuries. We’d learned a lot too – the kind that comes out years later – and usually far from the mountains that taught us.