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“Epic” Blog from Monica!

Two mountaineers navigating a glacier on a Gasherbrum II Expedition
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Well hello there everyone!! 
I’d like to begin this exceptionally belated blog with a big apology to all the friends and family of Jenny, Scott and Emily who were earnestly told that there would be regular detailed updates on the Alpenglow Expeditions website of everything that was going on. We have clearly failed miserably to keep that promise BUT….my 100% legitimate excuse for this is that for the past seven days we have had almost no way of easily communicating with the outside world. The cellphone service at base camp is almost non existent, and our satellite internet unit is with Adrian and his half of the group who are currently trekking through the Gokyo Valley. Even this missive is destined to sit in my unconnected outbox for a couple of days before being launched onto the worldwide web. SO, please accept my apologies for the silence.
Throughout the trek we did have internet access and although we never got around to posting a formal newsletter, I know that the social-media-happy members of the team kept you well supplied with beautiful images from our meanderings up the Khumbu valley. As always, the walk in to Ama base camp was beautiful, exhilarating and fun: and, as always, it offered a perfect few days to transition from our worlds back home to the world of the Himalaya. This world is one of outstanding beauty (and although I cringe at the cliché) I don’t think I will ever tire of being a part of it. Steep, green slopes that are loosely stitched together by impossibly high and long suspension bridges, flank the sides of raging glacial torrents. These rivers are as much a part of Nepal’s essence and natural richness as are the innumerable, omnipresent, giant peaks. The mountains that whilst still low in the valley, simply overlook and frame the towns and villages progressively envelope you as you ascend such that without really realising when it happened you suddenly find yourself at the heart of some of the most impressive mountain scenery in the world. 
For Adrian, Emily and myself, the trek up the Khumbu was sweetly sprinkled with familiar faces. Every town and every trail is the home of sherpas and their families who have become friends of ours through years of working together in these mountains. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that we will often also bump into and catch up with great friends from all over the world whom we only see over here in our common stomping ground. Scott and Jenny also heard some familiar names despite it being their first time in Nepal…but mostly they just enjoyed the walk and the scenery and, Scott in particular,  spent a good amount of time getting his bearings and familiarising himself with the trail map so that when the girls began their climb, he’d be able to stretch out his legs and do what he does best: RUN!
After five days of trekking we arrived at base camp: for Adrian and myself, a sort of homecoming and for the others a great surprise, a welcome break from the daily moves and sense of achievement at the completion of the first phase of the trip. Base camp itself was, of course, impeccable thanks to the hard work of our Sherpa team (Dorji Sonam, Tenzing Gyalzen and Pasang Renji) and of course, Tashi our cook. They had cleared snow around all of the tents…no mean feat given that over of a metre fell just one week prior to our arrival. They had generally set up a camp of the highest standard in the best spot at base camp. There are many teams camped on the flat plateau below Ama Dablam, but our camp takes the best location right at the head of the valley where nothing lies between us and an incredible view of the whole of the south face of this majestic mountain.
The first few days always include rest, ceremonies and tentative reconnaissance walks: rest, in order to acclimatise to the new altitude; a Puja, the Sherpa ceremony to show respect to the mountain gods and request permission and safety for our ascent; and the first few forays onto the mountain. The day after we arrived Adrian and Pasang left by helicopter to meet the next group of climbers on their arrival in Kathmandu and Dorji and Tenzing carried some loads up the hill. The following day Scott and Jenny made a day trip to Yak Camp. Emily and I chose to do some passive acclimatisation at base camp: the best sort of acclimatisation in my opinion…but one that most of our over achieving athletic climbing members can’t abide! This gave us the opportunity to decorate our Slingfin dome and be social with friends on other teams, meet and watch the antics of the “Everest Sky Dive” crew, and be treated to a mini sight seeing flight over base camp by our good friend and formidable high altitude helicopter pilot, Maurizio Folini…big smiles all round…kinda like kids with their hands in the cookie jar…!
The 1st of November saw Scott trot out of base camp to do his first big three day run. Jenny, Emily and I walked slowly and steadily up to yak camp for the first night of acclimatisation. The walk up to yak camp is always stunning, but this year it is even more so as almost everything is covered with a blanket of pristine snow. Snow that makes everything look so beautiful and pure, but that makes the mountains more treacherous than ever. Nonetheless, the trail to Yak Camp was well trodden and the snow didn’t make it much more painful than usual. It’s the thin air that limits pace…not the slippery hard packed snow underfoot. We arrived in good time and settled into our tent in good spirits. Our afternoon entertainment was provided by a few visitors and by lengthy conversations covering every topic under the sun….well…every topic of interest to three girls stuck in a tent at 5500m! 
Acclimatisation to altitude is a funny old process. There is little rhyme or reason as to who will do it well and who won’t. However, it doesn’t really matter who you are, if you move up from 4600m to 5500m…after somewhere between 6 to 12 hours, you will start to feel a “little peculiar”. For some, a “little peculiar” stops at a mild headache and a bit of lethargy, for others (myself included) a “little peculiar” means an unrelenting vice-like headache, complete loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting and a total inability to sleep but an overwhelming lethargy that does not allow anything resembling activity. It is rather ironic that I chose to become a high altitude doctor given that, to date, I am one of the worst acclimatisers I have come across! I try and deal with the pain by telling myself that it is good to be able to truly empathise with my patients!
The three of us had a fairly uncomfortable night; Jenny faired the best with only some mild discomfort, Emily fought The Headache from Hell all night…and I just resigned myself to being IN hell for 12 hours. Pain is all relative though; at 5am I couldn’t bear it any longer, so, overcoming the lassitude I got out of the tent at first light and went for a short wander. Dawn in the mountains is a truly magical experience. The wind was brutal and I’d guess that the temperature with wind chill was close to -20°C, but still, what took my breath away was the exquisite perfection of my surroundings. Proud peaks held up by impossibly vertical buttresses and aretes, huge ominous faces ribbed by flutings of snow, and endless jagged ridges etched into the fragile dawn sky like the fierce black teeth of an angry beast. The night and its horrors are slowly pushed away by a tentative sun whose rays caress and cajole life back into the sentient beings to be found up there….it’s an incredible spectacle to behold. I know that this all sounds totally over the top and romantic and perhaps painfully poetic, but for me it is truly difficult to describe the beauty that is hidden up there where the air is so thin and so cold…and even if it is just for myself, trying to put this show into words seems to help justify why I keep coming back for more.
After my early morning amble everything felt a little better and by 9am we had packed up our belongings and were ready to go; Jenny and Emily moving on up the mountain to Camp 1 and me trotting on down back to base camp where there is just enough oxygen for me to at least maintain a facade of normality! Dorji and Tenzing met us at Yak Camp carrying everything necessary to establish a safe and comfortable Camp 1 for the girls.
Base camp feels great! And from here I feel like I can give conscientious medical advice and effective logistical and emotional support to the girls at Camp 1. It also allows me to speak with Adrian and his team over in the Gokyo valley, to talk with our Sherpa about how things look for progress up the mountain and to make arrangements for the days that lie ahead. The girls have required very little input from me since I left them. They spent another, somewhat less painful, night at high altitude and today both made the trip from Camp 1 to Camp 2 in spectacular time! I spoke to them not long ago on the radio and they were tucked up in their sleeping bags counting down the hours until they can come back down to the comforts of base camp. Adrian, who has the luxury of an internet connection and as such has probably been boring you all with chit chat and endless photos of himself and his group having lots of fun on their trek through the Gokyo valley. Our Sherpa have kept me up to date with progress (or the lack thereof) high on the mountain with the rope fixing. The huge snowfall of two weeks ago is creating havoc up high. Several attempts to continue fixing the ropes beyond camp 2 and along the Mushroom Ridge have been thwarted by the dangerous and unstable nature of the snow. The rope fixing team has deemed the conditions at present too dangerous to continue. This signifies the end of attempts for many teams who have run out of time. For us, at present, it doesn’t change much. We are still in the early days of our expedition and we have time to allow snow to settle and stabilise and perhaps the mountain will offer us a chance that other teams will be left without. Fingers crossed…!
Tomorrow, the 4th of november, Emily, Jenny and Tenzing Gyalzen will come back down to base camp from Camp 1. Scott will run back up to base camp from Gokyo where he is spending the night with Adrian and the “boy half” of the team. By the 8th of November, the entire team should be reunited at base camp and ready to focus on Emily and Jenny’s summit attempt, and Greg, Jim and Neal’s first round of acclimatisation on the mountain.
From then on, communications should be easier with our in-house internet device back on site (although up here, anything can happen!). Nevertheless, we should be able to keep you updated more frequently thus eliminating the need for another such EPIC blog!
For those of you who have made it to the end of this rant, congratulations and thanks for reading! It’s another 24 hours before I’ll be able to post this online, but it’s hardly in real time anyway, so I’m assuming that that doesn’t really matter!
Thank you.
Monica Piris
Expedition Doctor
Alpenglow Expeditions Ama Dablam 2013