In late Spring of 2015, I was up high on Ama Dablam, shivering and staring up at a vertical couloir. I struggled to find my voice to ask for what I needed. “I need to go down,” I whispered to myself. “I need to go down.”
With tears on my face, I finally said it loud enough for Pemba—my friend and Sherpa—to hear me. I told him the truth: “I want to go up, but I need to go down.” Making the right decision doesn’t always feel good.
There were a number of things that contributed to my failure on Ama Dablam, but the biggest was that I didn’t have a solid enough base of fitness and I lacked confidence. When we came down from our last rotation on the mountain, we were supposed to have three days to rest. But with a windstorm coming, we had to go right back up the next day. After climbing up to Camp 1 the following day, I was already feeling delirious. I kept on trying, but above Camp 2 everything fell apart. I was dehydrated, improperly dressed, exhausted, and to be honest, unprepared for the terrain. A rock whizzed past my head; I heard what sounded like a picket clinking down the gray couloir. I got scared. I was overcome with doubt and fear.
I was disappointed for sure. But this failure was more of a hitch in the plans than giving up. I knew I would be back. And so, in January of 2016, I called Scott Johnston. I told him what happened, that I wanted to try again, and that I was looking for a trainer. I thought I was fit enough, but wanted to be confident that I could make the climb a second time.
I did three 8-week Custom Training Plan sessions with Scott, climbing on my own during the rest of 2016. In June of 2017, 19 weeks before my return to Ama Dablam, I called Scott again. I wanted to get serious and give myself the best chances at success.
Building a base is totally boring! On early, dark, cold, and rainy mornings I would find myself barely jogging in my neighborhood. Snot ran down my face as I tried to maintain nose breathing (this was before I got my heart rate monitor). I’d yell, frustrated, “I’m training! That’s why I’m going so slowly!” On the rare occasion that I felt an energized runner’s high, I knew I was working outside of my prescribed zone and felt guilty for not sticking to my heart rate.
I did some climbs in spite of Scott’s recommendations to hold off. Of course he asked me, “What’s your goal?” and talked of delayed gratification. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but I knew Scott was right. Training this way required a discipline I wasn’t used to: pushing myself to not push myself. I told my partners that I could only join them if I obeyed my heart rate monitor. Fortunately I have good climbing partners who respected my training plan and adjusted their sights to go with me.
Still, after eight weeks, my results in TrainingPeaks looked random. Scott even tried to fire me! “See a pattern?” He asked me. I didn’t, and neither did he. But I assured Scott that although my graphs looked off due to my inability to input data correctly, I had been sticking to the workouts and I was on track. I asked him to trust me, and to send me my final weeks of workouts before heading to Nepal.
Fast-forward to November 6, the day before my birthday. I’m squatting there in a primitive “bathroom” in Chukung, projectile vomiting and dealing with diarrhea. I hadn’t even set foot on the mountain yet. Really? Is this how it’s going to end?
Fortunately, I started feeling better right on time for an acclimatization climb on Island Peak. In 2015, that climb had left me feeling like my heart was going to bust out of my chest. This time around it was still hard work, but felt much more like regular climbing. I knew immediately the training had paid off.
And I felt equally good on Ama Dablam. The last time I didn’t fully know what I was getting myself into, but this time it was much more fun. I felt much more confident. I was generally warm. I was moving at a great pace. I was so physically prepared for this mountain. Everything was going great until we reached the bergschrund, which is just above the dablam, the sometimes deadly hanging glacier.
What on earth is this hole doing here? I wondered. I was shocked to find this in my way and instantly felt like an idiot for not knowing the route. Here I was, unprepared, again. We knew where we had to go because of the fixed lines, but my Sherpa, Pemba Bhote, and I couldn’t figure out how to get up the overhang on the other side. I wondered if part of the bridge had recently fallen in as there were no signs of steps going up the overhanging section in front of us. He tried climbing it, and fell. At this point, he asked to borrow my ice axe. “You don’t have an axe?” I was starting to lose it.
Eventually, Pemba got up and over. I then made a couple of attempts and just couldn’t seem to find the strength to pull myself up. The snow kept crumbling under my axe and crampons. And below me was just a big, huge hole. I had one ascender on a single rope and kept thinking that it must not break because falling here would be deadly. I am used to climbing with backups and redundancy and I felt foolish now at this point for solely placing my trust in the fixed lines. Somehow I pulled it together, found some strength, and jumared over the bergshrund.
The final summit slope was still in the shade, and I began to develop a cough. But Pemba and I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. Looking up, I could tell we were getting close. But I couldn’t tell whether it was “15 minutes” close or “an hour” close, so I just kept moving. All of a sudden, we crested a little ridge and there we were on top.
Being on the summit of Ama Dablam was overwhelming. I just sat there and realized I had actually done it. I started to cry. It was sunny and beautiful. It was even still, which was nice because it had been so windy from Camp 3 all the way up. We were the only people on the mountain above Camp 2 that day, and that was really special.
Going down seemed even harder than going up! I was so tired and the rappel ropes were tight and difficult to manage. Some of the sections we just descended hand-over-hand.
I am proud of my accomplishment. To me, Ama Dablam is the most beautiful peak in the world. I succeeded in climbing it because I worked hard, but I know the fixed lines made my ascent possible.
When I returned to the States, Scott asked if I thought I could climb it without using the fixed ropes. Right now, the answer is no. But with more technical training, who knows? And that is part of my goal for 2018. I want to become a more competent and independent climber and work on my technical skills. After 2015, I wanted to have greater physical reserves in case of a setback. Now, in 2018, I want to build my technical ability in order to climb big mountains in better style.
People ask why I climb. It’s not because I can, or because the mountain is there. I like it because I like persevering. I like getting through the suffering and the challenges. It doesn’t feel good but it pleases me.
-by Uphill Athlete Carrie Kavanaugh
Scott Johnston, Carrie’s coach and Uphill Athlete co-founder, was part of the team that made the third overall ascent (and first alpine-style ascent) of Ama Dablam back in 1981.