Why People Don’t Summit Ama Dablam
(or why they fail)

I’ve been asked not only for details of the route and itinerary over the years but also, increasingly, people want to know what are the pitfalls to be aware of when on the trip and how best to prepare for the expedition. There are going to be a lot of generalisations because sometimes it is difficult to differentiate between, say, the person who hasn’t acclimatised very well and the person who succumbed to illness part way through the trip. Basically they both may have been successful if they had more time – but there isn’t more time. They have flights to catch, jobs and family to get back to and bills to pay.

I’m afraid I’ll start with the very sobering subject of fatalities on the hill that have occurred on other expeditions. Other than the awful avalanche in 2006 it would appear that most of the other fatalities have mostly been down to human error. I don’t have an exact history of who, where and how, but there have been a number of fatalities where I have been able to piece together the probable circumstances and come to rational conclusions. Without mentioning people by name I’ll just give the following examples of where things have come undone:

  • A German guide clipped to a single rope on The Yellow Tower, leant back and it turned to dust. The unfortunate thing here is that there were 6 other ropes in place that he could have used as a back up. I don’t know whether he had cows tails, or was solely using a belay device / Fig 8, but for the sake of using a cows tail system where you can clip to other ropes that are in place he would have survived. As soon as this accident happened Climbing Sherpas were on the hill and cutting out all the old ropes (there had been an accumulation over the years) and tidied things up significantly (and that remains the case). The lessons here are not to be complacent, that ropes need to be tested before committing to them and, where possible, other ropes should be clipped as a back up.
  • A couple of years later there were 2 fatalities within a couple of days of each other in The Grey Couloir. Both people died from falls and ended up in pretty much the same place. Everyone assumed it was a repeat of the situation above, but when the Climbing Sherpas inspected The Grey Couloir there were no loose ends and no broken ropes. There was a glove found behind a rebelay and other than that no evidence of what had gone wrong. One happened at night and the other very late in the day, neither person had a pair of cows tails – both employing only a single sling and karabiner – and both happened in descent. Now without rushing to conclusions it is easy to start envisaging what might have gone wrong – the glove behind the rebelay giving a hint of the fact that perhaps this was user error whilst transferring across from one rope to another. I’d presume that neither person had a safe, methodical system for dealing with rebelays and that they either fumbled whilst at a stance and were not attached at the time, or that they could have incorrectly threaded their belay device (perhaps not engaging the rope in the karabiner correctly) and that this only came apparent as they leant back to abseil. Whatever the reasons it would appear that both accidents were avoidable.
  • Another year and another accident in descent resulted in another fatality whilst at a stance, the client having successfully abseiled down to a rebelay. We are unsure of the exact circumstances but the client was either in the process of swapping across from one rope to another, or abseiled off the end of the rope whilst arriving at the stance (the rope had just been fixed but hadn’t been tied off at the bottom to the next rebelay). Tragically a Climbing Sherpa had said that he would assist (it was their first foray across the ropes towards C2 on a familiarisation visit) and the client stated that he was fine and the Sherpa should go ahead. Again an avoidable and unnecessary accident.
  • There have been a few (not many) people who have succumbed on summit day for a variety of reasons. This may well be the heart attack that was waiting to happen – if not now then perhaps 4 or 5 months down the line – it was a ticking time bomb. Alternatively it may have been HACE or some combination of high altitude / exhaustion / dehydration / frostbite (rendering hands inefficient which, in turn, makes for a slow descent) or hypothermia. These cases have usually been by people who were clearly going too slowly and were too high, too late and they should have been turned around by their expedition leaders (except they didn’t have one) / Sirdar or Climbing Sherpas. One was a chap who still hadn’t summited by 6p.m. (!) and ended up dying around 9p.m. only a couple of hundred meters down from the summit. Had no one in that team seen the tragedy unfolding? Unfortunately not – they were with cheap Kathmandu operators who provided no Western leader, scant Base Camp and mountain facilities, very inexperienced Climbing Sherpas, inefficient Sirdars, no radio comms and no medical back up. These are operations where the tragedy very gradually unfolds but there is no one in a position to be able to do anything about it or advise accordingly.

So … other than having a tragic accident what other reasons are there for people not summiting Ama Dablam? Generally speaking most people who fail have probably underestimated the mountain and overestimated their own ability.

There are a few cases of shear bad luck (illness at exactly the wrong time in the expedition (is there a right time to be ill?)) – but most are due to lack of personal preparation and attention to detail and, with better training and planning before the trip the clients may well have fared better with a successful summit under their belt. So in no particular order I have consistently come across the following situations over the years :

1. ‘It was colder than I thought it would be.’

Okay folks – I don’t want to be too harsh here because there are some extenuating circumstances – but it is a 22,000ft snowy mountain in The Himalayas. What did you expect? Yes, some seasons are slightly colder than others, but in the general scheme of things there isn’t that much in it really. So what can you do to prepare for the cold nights and the potentially cold summit day (most other days on the hill are reasonably warm or at least easily manageable)? Well first off a good grounding in Scottish winter mountaineering where you are out in all conditions will stand you in extremely good stead. Not just the nice blue sky days (not that there are many of those anyway) but out in all weathers, come snow or shine regardless of how windy it is (without compromising safety of course) and for decent quality hill days. Don’t kid yourself that trekking in to Sneacdha and out again, or mooching to the CIC hut and back down, is a quality day. If you have had a lie in and / or are back in time for lunch you are not building a significant mountaineering cv and you are kidding yourself that you are a seasoned Scottish winter mountaineer. Long arduous days on the hill, in a whole variety of conditions, over a number of seasons will stand you in good stead. It’s arguably some of the best training that you can do for any expedition. A good grounding on other expeditions will obviously serve you well but not everyone has the time, money and inclination to be going hither and thither so don’t worry too much if you haven’t been to altitude before. But do bear in mind that, as you go higher and there is less oxygen so, in turn, your circulation may well be compromised. To that end if you are a cold person you will inevitably feel colder at altitude. Regardless of that make sure that you bring decent quality clothing and equipment (don’t settle for 2nd best) that you are well acquainted with, have good quality spare mitts (and use them before your hands get cold), use foot and hand warm up pads on summit day as a default, don’t have snug boots or you will get cold feet and remain hydrated. Knowing instinctively when to layer up, when to keep moving because you are in the shade and the sun is just over there, realising the importance of concurrent activity and remembering that the best way to not get cold hands is to not let them get cold in the first place are all the sorts of things that should have been learnt over the course of an extensive number of years out in the hills.

2. ‘It was harder than I thought.’

This is a difficult one because unless you have been there you don’t know what to expect. Or do you? By building a comprehensive climbing and mountaineering cv you can start to prepare yourself for most eventualities and turns of events. At the end of the day on Ama Dablam there is a lot of scrambling, some Diff to Sev pitches, a bit of HVS climbing, some grade 3 terrain and lots of Alpine style ground. Put this together in to a 6,000m environment where you are digging deep for a number of days on the trot and you can see the importance of being able to deal with an ever changing mountain environment (see note above re Scottish winter). But remember, the route is fixed and to that end you aren’t needing to be able to lead HVS – just be happy on that steepness. As long as you are happy in the vertical environment and able to look after and manage yourself in the ever changing mountain conditions then you will stand a good chance of summit success. If you can get reasonably well acclimatised to C1 then you will probably be fine at C2 (it’s only a hundred and fifty or so meters higher) and if you are fine at C2 you’ll probably fare ok at C3 (again only a 200m or so height gain). And if you can get to C2 then you have the ability to get to C3. If you can get to C3 then you have the ability to summit (weather and illness notwithstanding).But this is only possible by digging deep and a lot of it comes down to whether you have the inclination, drive, stamina, mental tenacity and a positive mental attitude – a lot of which comes with experience (see note above re Scottish winter!).

3. ‘How can I climb THAT when I feel like THIS down here?’

 Well, unless you have a go you’ll never know. People forget that when they first arrived at BC (circa 4,400m) they felt awful, everything was a chore and they weren’t sleeping particularly well (altitude is great isn’t it?). But after a visit to ABC (where they felt awful, everything was a chore and they weren’t sleeping particularly well) when they returned to Base Camp it was a much better place to be. And then when they had had another night at ABC and a couple of nights at C1 (guess what – they felt awful, everything was a chore and they weren’t sleeping particularly well) Base Camp, by comparison, was a very +ve place to be, rest was forthcoming and they had the best night’s sleep of the trip thus far. So when you hearken back to how you initially felt at BC and compare it with the BC experience 7 or 8 days later you then need to have the self belief that a similar process will happen for your experiences at ABC and C1. A positive mental attitude (and a certain faith in the words of your illustrious expedition leader) will go a long way.

4 ‘I’m missing my wife / husband / girlfriend / dog / children.’ (not necessarily in that order).

You need to put your life on hold for a fortnight before the trip (you will still physically be at home but mentally you’ll be away with the fairies), as well as for the 4 weeks’ that you are away and then for another week or so when you get back (post trip high). If you don’t have the support of your friends and family then it is difficult to be away. And if you have what I call ’emotional baggage’ you will find it very difficult to make upward progress. I’m not suggesting that you be a heartless soul and just forget about your family … but you do need to be able to concentrate on the job in hand because it’s a risky venture and you can’t be having distractions whilst on the hill.

5. ‘It’s such slow going at altitude – I thought I was fit.’

Yes it is slow. And whenever I see people going what they think is slow I have to tell them that they should be going slower. Invariably it is a case of the hare and the tortoise – those who power ahead will stop every 10 to 15 minutes whilst the slower people (usually me) will catch up and cruise past without breaking a sweat.Perseverance will go a long way as will managing yourself along the route. Adjusting zippers, hats, gloves, applying lip salve, drinking etc can all be managed on the move and concurrent activity at stops will also help to save a lot of time. You also need to realise the importance of looking after yourself on arrival at the next camp. Rather than sitting down and recovering what about popping a cooker on the go to melt some snow … and then recovering? Once recovered ‘Hey Presto!’ you have a drink. And remember, drink is more important than food and food more important than sleep. You can go in to deficit when you are on the hill for a few days and then when you get back down to BC it’s time to rest, rehydrate and recuperate before the next foray.

6. ‘No pain, no gain.’

Well actually it’s usually a case of the first person to get to camp is the first to get a headache. Go slowly (see above), drink plenty, take photos and enjoy the trip. It’s a shame to have come all this way and not to actually see anything because you are so intent on proving something to the others around you. All that you will prove is that you are stubborn and not looking after yourself appropriately.

7. ‘I can’t sleep at night.’

Some people really struggle with sleep apnoea (cheyne-stokes breathing) which is a by product of going to altitude. It’s to do with pH imbalances in the blood and how our brain adjusts our breathing when asleep. It basically involves periods where you aren’t breathing and then, when there is the right level of CO2 in the blood, the brain tells you to start breathing again – which means you wake with a start and a gasp. All a bit unsettling but if you remember that a) it is normal b) it’s happening to most of the other people on the trip and c) you were doing it at BC when you first arrived and now you aren’t (see 3 above) then you will hopefully become accustomed to it. You will feel that you haven’t slept but in fact you have just spent 12 hours or so in your bag and are, despite everything, probably well rested. Have faith.

8. ‘I am ill / don’t seem to be acclimatising / am struggling with the altitude.’

Again a certain amount of faith that you will get better / feel better / adjust to the environment may well will see you through. You know what it’s like at home when you have a bout of flu – how will I ever go back to work feeling like this? And 3 days later you are out of bed and within a week you are running, jumping, laughing, working, socialising. You have to accept that fact that illness often takes longer to recover from at altitude but, fear not, you’ll get there. The itinerary is generous enough that you aren’t out of the loop and I have various tricks up my sleeve to maintain as much flexibility to allow for individual ascent profiles right up until the day we are trekking out. Plus I have the biggest bag of medication you have ever seen.

9. Anxiety.

Some folk can be very anxious because of the stories they hear from other climbers. It isn’t necessarily scare mongering … just excited summiteers coming down to recount the tale of their ‘ordeal’. Just because they lost a glove, their crampon came off, they had a piece of ice whizz down past them doesn’t mean that the same will happen to you.Probably best not to listen to their stories in the first place – but this can be a bit difficult if you are in the same mess tent. So don’t read more in to it than there is and, if anything, learn from their errors and experiences.

10. ‘I thought there would be better logistical support on the hill.’

Well … you should have signed up with me then! I’m not suggesting that what I provide is absolutely perfect – but it’s not far off it. There are obviously a few variables that change year on year (people, weather etc) but I have a tried and tested system that has stood the test of time which is modified every season to the group, their acclimatisation, the conditions etc.But there are some strange goings on that happen with other groups. Recently I heard someone comment that they could understand the idea of having an Advanced Base Camp except there’s no water. So what exactly did they think was in the locked barrel we had placed by our tents at 5,400m? Scotch mist? There is a spring above ABC but sometimes it freezes … in which case we then get water portered and we had a whopping 40l available when I overheard this comment. Better to have an ABC and stock it accordingly than to be at the mercy of a 1,400m jump from BC to C1 which is a bit brutal. Then there’s the group who arrived at BC knackered having run around The Khumbu who’d summited Island Peak (yes, it’s a 6,000m peak but they only spent a night at its Base Camp which is only at 5,100m). After a day at Ama BC they went to ABC (fine) then jumped to C2 – which was not so fine because there were no tent spaces. Tail between legs the leader told the group to drop down to BC that day. The next day they went home – with 5 days to spare!! Then there’s the leader who insists that the group stays together every day. Everyone to C1 & back to BC. Everyone to C1 to sleep. And back to BC. Everyone to C1 & on to C2 and if you can’t keep up you are sent to BC to sit out the rest of the trip (or go home). No room for manoeuvre, no flexibility and no chance for people to develop their own ascent profile. And at a whopping US$9,500 a complete disservice to the clients. Then there are the cases of people arriving at camps where there are no group tents, not enough gas, no food etc and with no radio comms there’s no way to resolve the issue.

My belief is that the expedition should not only be safe and fun but should be run as a tight ship with a perfect handle on logistics. This should be done in conjunction with a proficient Base Camp crew and experienced, competent and trustworthy Climbing Sherpas. This then needs to be underpinned by a Western leader who understands acclimatisation and has a grasp of Wilderness First Aid who works alongside an experienced Sirdar. And lastly the expedition needs the safety net of having one of the best agents in KTM who can organise helicopter rescue at the drop of a hat and who can then deal with an evacuation and look after clients and their needs accordingly.

You get all that, and more, with my trip.

So there you have it – a variety of reasons why people don’t summit this magnificent mountain. Yes there will always be the unfortunate cases where people literally will never acclimatise (a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage by the way), and there will also be the bouts of illness or injury where folk just don’t make an adequate recovery.

There are a whole load of things that I can do to help with getting camps established, having some loads carried and assigning Climbing Sherpa support where necessary, but at the end of the day it is down to you to make sure that you are physically and mentally prepared. Invariably I would put 85 to 90% of failures on Ama to be down to lack of personal preparation.

It’s all very well sending me a comprehensive mountaineering cv and getting accepted on to the trip – but unless you follow that up with some vigorous training (hill training is far better than gym training and outdoor climbing more tangible than indoor) leading up to the trip you may well be in for a short sharp shock.

Only you can put one foot in front of the other – it can’t be done for you.

Time to get out on the hill.