The Mountain of Spirits


My face has no skin, but has become a leather-like layer that has begun to crack. It is going to fall off. My toes feel like a numb row of something hanging at the tip of the feet. My ribs are torn every time the coughing starts. The spare tire around my waistline that was generated two years ago is reduced to a racing cycle tire. It is early morning in Manaslu base camp at the end of April and three days since we reached the top — 8183 m. Except for this, we are remarkably well fit after three days in co-existence with 'The Mountain of Spirits' — one of the toughest '8000 meters' in the world. We have climbed Manaslu in only 17 days and we have been lucky once again.

Base camp (4800 m), which only consisted of two small clusters of tents when we assembled our little camp at the beginning of April, has been transformed to an entire little village. And we thought we would be alone. There are climbers from all over the world here; the United States, Australia, Japan, and Europe. All divided into seven different expeditions. We are showered with congratulations in all kinds of languages — and everybody wants to know what it was like being up there.

And what else can we say? It was steep, cold, stormy, long, and hard, but in spite of that, it was a great experience — we will probably not repeat that in near future, but who cares... Later, we were told that only three other expeditions were able to get people to the top. Most of them came back with serious frostbite. Well, Manaslu has quite an infamous track record. Only about 200 climbers have been to the top, 50 people have died and an unknown number of people have lost fingers and toes trying to climb the mountain.

When you read this, we will have fully recovered. Again, the big and small challenges of everyday life occupy most of our minds. The pain and risk thresholds are back to normal after being raised to a high level by intense mental preparations throughout more than a year. Just a few months after our return, the journey to Manaslu is already about to become a window I would have to climb up to look through.

The first thing I see is that climbing the mountain must have been quite dangerous. We tiptoed through 40-60 degree steep virgin snow between ice towers and hanging snow and ice walls that avalanched just after we passed between camp one at 5800 m and camp two at 6700 m zigzagging up through vertical runnings of ice hard as steel. The wind so strong that even our burly Sherpa Dawa Chhiri was blown off the top table in his first attempt to reach camp three at 7500 m, and took Chilu Pemba with him in the fall (Luckily they were only tumbling from snow shelf to snow shelf, receiving only a couple of bruises when the ropes caught them about 150 m farther down). Throughout the first night in camp three, five men fully dressed in snow suits and double boots slept in a three man tent tightly tied to a snow drift that had piled on top of the clear steel ice only 50 m from the edge of the 500 m drop down between main peak and the north peak. In the ice cold and windy night when we climbed without ropes and oxygen until the morning and we finally — after nine long hours — at 09:30 could put our sore feet on the top; Sven, Dawa, Chhiri, Chilu Pemba, Andrew Lock — an Australian — and I. And then, another stormy night in camp three with aching toes that did not want to slip back into the double boots the day after but had to be put in a pair of quilted shoes straight into the winter boots. Down the steep glacier with dozens of long rappels on ropes covered in snow, and then, again, on needles the deep snow towards camp two (fortunately, the avalanche didn't occur until the day after, taking another Sherpa and a Japanese man that narrowly were able to dig their way out). We met up with our aide and close friend Singej, who had walked to camp one with his backpack filled with thermoses and fruit so we could eat and drink with both hands while hoping that the journey down to base camp would not end in another crevasse (I had almost been left dangling at the edge of a crevasse at one of the spots where we had made a space between our 1700 m of attached ropes).

The other thing I see in the Manaslu window gives a much larger and much more serious perspective — that our fight for our lives up in the mountains with a lack of oxygen and cold and unpredictable weather condition results in that we find ourselves spiritually and materially on top of another pyramid; the American psychiatrist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs that describes five levels of human needs. At the bottom is the need for food; then there is the need for safety and then comfort. At the top is the need for self-accomplishment and self-realisation. In short, Maslow's theory argues that we don't reach for a higher level of needs before the basic needs are satisfied.

Walking through the Budhi valley on the way to Manaslu is a walk through a comprehensive landscape. Between rice and cornfields in an open landscape. Through narrow paths carved in steep mountainsides several hundreds of meters above the blue green river that twists the bottom of the valley. Suddenly into pine forests. Out in an open landscape with rhododendrons in full blossom where the Budhi valley turns westwards and into the Nubri valley. Through primeval forest covered in moss with fir trees so huge it takes four men to hold around them, and rivers that have washed their way through the mountain that it looks like a (connected) cauldron.

But it is also a walk through Maslow's hierarchy of needs. From the most extreme poverty far down the valley, where the struggle to survive is clearly present in every little village, to the Tibetan settlements in the Nubri valley (that is more Tibetan than present Tibet since it has not been influenced by the Chinese). Here, Buddhism and monastery life is predominant, and even though it is just as primitive as in my native Norway 150 — 200 years ago, its seems like the hunger is somewhat more distant. Then we approach our own journey to Manaslu's — and Maslow's — peak where our challenges start.

In Sama Gaon, the village at the foot of the mountain, we are fortunate to meet the head lama in Sama Gompa (the monastery), Gyurme Ringpoche, one of the few high ranking Buddhist lamas who was not appointed lama as a child, but showed such strong intellectual capacities during his studies of prayers that he was appointed lama anyway. He is a kind man and invites us all the way into his private residence where he offers us butter tea and rakshi (a quite mild, homebrewed Nepalese type of liquor).

I would like to hear his thoughts on Maslow's theories, and I start jolting them down on a piece of paper. He seems quite interested, and laughs his light braying laughter several times during my explanations. Before I am halfway through explaining the hierarchy, I realise how ridiculous it really is — to draw a picture of our westernised selfish pursuits towards higher levels to a man whose life is dedicated to contemplation of prayers and where the highest level is located in another world — only to be reached through humility and unselfishness. Still, the lama asks me to continue. I reach the top of the hierarchy. After a pausing for a while, he says, 'I think that the more needs you satisfy, the more needs you generate.'

And where is the goal when you have reached the top? As climbers we are closer to the answer than most people: From the top the only way is down! It is only our ability to set new goals that decides how long the descent is going to be.

Is there going to be another expedition? There might be. But the first goal is to find the goal — at home. That might be challenging enough — for us that live on the top of the pyramid and are not sentenced to struggle for our daily bread, but to choosing our goals.

Facts about Manaslu:

Height: 8163 m
First ascent: 1956
Second ascent: 1972
Total number of climbers who have reached the top: Approx. 200
Total number of fatalities: Approx. 50

Facts about the Norwegian expedition 'Manaslu Himalaya 2002'

Norwegian climbers: Jon and Sven Gangdal (47)
Nepalese climbers: Dawa Chhiri (31) and Chilu Pemba (22)
Total number of climbers who reached the top: Everybody — 21 April at 9:30 a.m.
Main sponsor: Atello AS (Salewa, LaSprtiva, Masters, Edelweiss)
Route up the mountain: The northeast face
Route to the mountain: Gorkha — Arughat — Sama Gaon
Route from the mountain: Over the Larky pass (5230 meters) together with a Norwegian trekking group of eight members.
Number of porters going to Sana Gaon: 45
Number of porters going to Base camp: 41
Lengths of fited ropes: 1700 m (left behind for other expeditions)

Manaslu tactic: 'Slowly hurry'

In Kathmandu we met the legendary Ang Rita Sherpa that climbed Everest ten times without carrying any extra oxygen. We asked him what advise he would give us on the way to Manaslu:

'Slowly hurry,' he replied.

This became somewhat of a slogan en route, and was, without doubt, a contribution to us reaching the top of the mountain. In addition, the expedition taught us once again the importance of taking on a humble but proactive approach to a difficult mountain. In brief, we met the challenges in the following way:

  • How fast can you make it? (not how much time do you have?)
  • What is the best route? (not where have others gone before?)
  • How high the camps can be put? (not where is it most pleasant?)
  • With how little equipment can we manage? (not how much can we carry?)
  • With how little sleep can we manage? (not how much do we need to sleep?)
  • How much cold can we take? (not how will we keep warm?)
  • Take joy in one step at the time (not think how many steps you have left)
  • Be humble to men, animals and the mountain (do not believe you are the boss!)

Warning! This tactic is only for highly motivated climbers with comprehensive experience and in-depth knowledge of their own behaviour during extreme conditions.


The ascent of Manaslu (8163 m) by a Norwegian team on 21 April 2002.


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