STDZ has recently been in touch with Dr Simon Ulyett, who is a GP trainee in the Grampians. Simon completed the Diploma in Mountain Medicine in 2017. Here he describes his experience on Annapurna IV...
"Annapurna, to which we had gone emptyhanded, was a treasure on which we should live the rest of our days. With this realisation we turn the page: a new life begins. There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men."
Maurice Herzog in Annapurna
Back in October 2018 I travelled to Nepal with the intention of climbing Annapurna IV (A IV), a peak which was last officially climbed by a Japanese team in 2015, but more on that later! Prior to this, the last successful ascent was by a Nepali team in 2011 when 8 people reached the summit. In the intervening period there had been 12 unsuccessful expeditions with the reasons for failure variously cited as illness (1), difficulties along the route, e.g. crevasses (3), earthquake (2), route uncertainty (1), and bad weather/extreme cold (5). The latter reason was something I can now vouch for!
I was part of a commercial expedition organised by Adventure Peaks. Along with our leader Di there were 6 other clients (Pablo (my tent-mate), Dave, Alan, Debs, Nick, George (the other medic) and myself. Little did I realise at the outset, that within four weeks I would have frostbite, one of us would have developed high-altitude psychosis and all of us would be wondering what we had taken on!
Annapurna IV appealed because it was off the beaten track and a relatively unknown entity - it was definitely not a run-of-the-mill commercial trip! Since it was first climbed by Heinz Steinmetz,Harald Biller and Jürgen Wellenkamp in 1955 there have only been a further 35 ascents. The name also appealed - Annapurna. It conjured up a sense of the epic and has a rightful place in mountaineering history - although regretfully I didn't read Herzog's heroic tail until after I had arrived in Nepal. This would be my first trip to Nepal and the Himalaya proper. I had previously done a reasonable amount of high-altitude stuff, something I had always liked. Although the highest I had been in the past was Korzenevskaya (7105m), one of the snow leopards located in the Pamirs of Tajikistan.
The plan was to climb A IV from the north along what is essentially the north-west ridge. After taking a helicopter flight from Pokhara to Chame we trekked along the Annapurna circuit to Humde, all the time trying not to draw too much comparison between ourselves – the ‘real climbers’ and all the other casual trekkers and gap year students meandering along what is now little more than a dusty, albeit scenic road. After Humde we took a left following the Sabje Khola (a tributary of the Marsyangdi) towards base camp (BC) (4,800m).
Eyeing up the mountain
The summit of Annapurna IV
Of our Sherpa team only one had been to A IV before – on the 2015 Japanese expedition (later this Japanese expedition was to become infamous within our group). However, the point reached on that occasion and therefore the current focus of the Sherpas’ attention, didn’t seem to be the summit, rather a subsidiary peak of A IV! We looked at what was in front of us, looked at the map, looked at the GPS and again looked back at what was in front of us and we all came to the same conclusion – even the poor Sherpa who had been here before. That was not the real summit, not even close! The real summit lay way over to the south-east, perhaps as much as 3km away and 6-700m higher. It was clear that this was going to be a larger prospect than we had anticipated and our team of Sherpas were going to have their work cut out scouting and preparing the whole route.
To Camp 1 (5,420m)
An hour of moraine plodding brought us to the base of the 1st significant challenge, the rock wall. This was roughly a 500m ascent from base to top. There were 3 significant pitches, including a gully with super-loose rock, which had a nasty habit of detaching itself from the mountain. It was definitely a good idea to maintain some distance along here. But the Sherpas had done a great job laying fixed rope the whole way. As it topped out the going got a bit easier and camp 1 lay sheltered off to the left.
To Camp 2 (5,850m)
This was probably the easiest bit. After a bit of scree this relatively easy snow plod ramped up towards the end. Finishing with a cheeky little ice climb. Camp 2 was on a flat area of snow just above this ice climb, and it was cold!
To Camp 3 (6,400m)
This was a long, long day! I started the day feeling pretty strong. Once we started climbing there was the odd crevasse to clamber over and we continued to climb up moderately steep terrain. After about 5 hours or so I realised that we had not yet passed the steepest part of the climb (from previous discussion I knew that the Sherpas needed to use a couple of ladders at the bottom of a steep ice climb to cross an overhanging section). I passed Dave who had just vomited a cereal bar that didn’t agree with him. This proved useful for route finding on the way down!
Eventually we reached the steepest part of the route. Which I scaled, then descended to untangle myself from the fixed-line, then ascended again. We were now on the plateau. I naively thought at this point that I must be quite close, but I was wrong. The plateau was bleak, windswept and seemed to go on forever – feeling more like an arctic tundra.
Eventually I arrived at about 4pm. There was only one solitary tent as the rest of the team were still below us. I crawled into the tent and found Alan shivering. Soon enough there were about 5 of us crammed into this tent desperately trying to get warm.
During that evening, perhaps even earlier in the day, I had noticed my toes were beginning to feel pretty cold and even a little numb. Nevertheless, I decided to ignore this and tried to sleep, with Nick crammed on one side claiming I was encroaching on his space, (although I think the opposite was true!) and Pablo on the other.
The route Simon's team took on Annapurna IV. Their approximate highpoint on the north west ridge is marked to the right of the summit
Summit day (7,100m achieved)
It was cold! I don’t know how cold it was, but the pre-trip mountain weather forecast had predicted -30C at 7,000m on neighbouring Annapurna II, so in my mind it was definitely at least this cold, if not colder. However, at least it wasn’t not too windy. Four of us and Sherpas set off at around midnight but Dave was quick to turn around because of the ridiculously low temperature. After a long, long traverse along the plateau I was definitely getting cold, although I did feel quite strong so I pressed on ahead with Norbu Sherpa hoping to warm up a little (but by now it was definitely -40C). We started to gain ground now and this felt good: I was both keeping warm and gaining vertical metres. Eventually, however, things slowed down. The fixed ropes ran out, and I think the route was becoming less certain. We waited and after around an hour the others caught up. We were now at 6750m. I think Pablo was asking where I was, although the significance of this was not yet grasped.
We climbed on, quite slowly and stuttering now as more fixed-line was laid and the best route was considered. At about 6900m the sun had risen but it didn’t seem to improve the temperature at all, since this part of the mountain was in shade for most of the day. At around this point we started to discuss our options: do we carry on or go down? We had this same conversation 2 or 3 times and each time agreed to press on a little further.
At around 11am we were at 7,100m. A this point we all came to the same conclusions: the distance to the summit was still too great to cover within a reasonable turn-around time, we were all tired, it was very cold and we were not getting any warmer. So, with a little reluctance we turned around and started heading down. Pablo asked me if I had seen the fire work display, I said “no”. Not even considering the absurdity of this question. Further down the mountain he started to question his recollection of events, yet even at this point I don’t remember seriously questioning him – sure, fireworks on A IV. Later on he would tell me that he experienced a vivid firework display above the summit of A IV and had just assumed that I was celebrating on the summit.
The toe situation
Pablo and I had spent an extra night at camp 3, it being too late and us too knackered to go all the way down in one go. My toes (both 1st and to a lesser degree 2nd toes) were numb. However I didn’t dare take my socks off and so I just tried to ignore it. It was only back in BC the next day that I looked. The distal half of both 1st toes and the tips of the 2nd were pale and insensate but looked a little better than what I was anticipating. I was also grateful to George who has a lot more experience dealing with frostbite and was able to offer some very sensible advice.
As I was now hot and sweaty having walked down to BC we decided further warming in a water bath was probably unnecessary. For the remainder of the journey I tried to keep them as warm and aired as possible. I also started to take ibuprofen, although as my frostbite injury was quite mild this was probably a borderline indication.
Day 2 to 3 - Shortly after arriving back at BC. The first time I dared to look at them. Initially the just looked pale and only began to discolour 36 hours after the initial insult. A clear line of demarcation can be seen. The distal half of both hallux was insensate.
Day 14 - I had developed blistering in the intervening days. Initially this was clear, but eventually turned blood stained. Further demarcation can be seen. The damaged areas remained insensate.
Day 19 - Good news! The necrotic skin had begun to slough off. The damaged areas remained insensate.
Day 23 - As before.
Day 32 - Sloughing continued. At some point around this time I began to regain sensation.
Now - Sloughing is complete. Sensation is still improving. I have developed hyperaesthesia in cold weather. This affects both hallux, more so on the left.
Would I do it again?
At the time I would have said no, although by the time we were back in Pokhara I was starting to think about it. Now it feels more like unfinished business. As George said: “the worm is turning”.
What would I do differently?
A relatively large group would be helpful as without many Sherpas fixing rope, etc it would be very, very challenging.
Spring, not autumn or at least a little earlier in the year. November at 7,000m is COLD.
This probably goes without saying. I had La Sportiva Spantiks, if (or when) I go again 8,000m boots all the way.
I would be happy to return with some of the same guys, but I suppose it depends on how much that little worm is turning in their heads!
Many thanks to Simon for contributing to STDZ.
A post on high altitude psychosis is in preparation!