Mazamas in Nepal

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Four climbers from the Mazamas, Portland’s climbing club, reached the summit of 22,500ft Ama Dablam in Nepal. Ama Dablam sits about nine miles south of Mt. Everest and has considerably harder climbing than many higher peaks.

Chris Cosgriff, 40 and Monty Smith, 43, summited on October 29 and David Byrne, 38 and Nancy Miller, 39, summited on October 31.

Monty Smith, 43, self-employed investment manager, has been climbing for 23 years. He has been a volunteer climbing instructor for about ten years. Below is our interview with Monty.

1. Where in Nepal is Ama Dablam? How high is it?
If you go on the Solu Khumbu (Everest Base Camp/Kala Pattar) trek, Ama
Dablam is the huge mountain that is overhead pretty much the entire trek
from Namche Bazar onward. It’s 22,500ft (6860m) and sits just a few miles
south of Everest.

2. How many people were in your group? Where is the group from?
There were nine of us from Portland Oregon’s climbing club, the Mazamas. We
are more a less a group of mostly weekend warriors who decided to go try a
‘big one’. We wanted to do all the organization and then climb it without a
guide or any support on the mountain.

3. Why did you decide to climb this mountain in Nepal, especially since none
of us had been there before?

Ama Dablam is one of the most beautiful mountains in the world, and it’s
impossible to miss it if seeing anyone’s trekking photos. It’s also quite
technical, with thousands of feet of vertical rock, ice and snow so it
offers better climbing than many other peaks, but it’s not so high that
oxygen and the extreme altitudes of 8000m peaks becomes a huge issue.

4. How long did it take you to summit? As an experienced climber, how do you
rate Ama Dablam in terms of being technical?

From arriving in base camp, it took us 12 and 14 days to summit (we had two
summit teams). This included many trips up the mountain to acclimatize and
ferry loads. Other (guided) groups acclimated by climbing Island Peak and
Lobuche (both considered trekking peaks and just a bit over 20,000ft). This
prior acclimatization, along with having porters bring all their gear up and
set up their tents, allowed them to summit in 5-7 days.

This was by far the most technical climb I’ve ever done, the top 3000ft
being considered ‘technical’. I’ve been climbing for 23 years and Ama
Dablam was my 100th summit – the previous hundred summits had less combined
technical than Ama Dablam – it has 1000ft of vertical rock, over a 5,000ft
drop, hundreds of feet of mixed rock/snow/ice, and a long knife-edge ridge
with a 6000ft drop on your right/left.

5. What kind of special gear did you use for this trip?
Typical mountaineering gear – ropes, harness, crampons, ice axe and ice
tool, ascenders, helmet, etc. We didn’t have to place the fixed lines
(previous teams had just finished fixing the mountain when we arrived) but
had we needed to place or replace any, we were ready with ice screws,
pickets, carabiners, pitons, and a full rock rack with cams, nuts, etc.

6. Why did you choose to not take any guides or sherpas? Would you recommend
this to other experienced climbers?

We wanted to climb it OURSELVES. Guides and high-altitude porters have the
well-deserved reputation of doing all the work for you – climbers then need
only get from camp to camp and then to the summit. That’s, well… having
someone else do all the work for you!

Our club teaches a class on expedition climbing and how to do it yourself,
and since most of our team were either instructors or students of the class,
it was only natural that we didn’t use guides. We did have a full base camp
staff – we afforded ourselves the luxury of having our BC meals cooked for
us but all support ended once we started climbing.

I would highly recommend this to others if they have the time, strength and
experience. It means heavier packs, more time spent ferrying loads, and
more work, which also takes from the energy available to summit. Previous
unguided trips to easier mountains like Aconcagua or Denali would be a

7. How many climbers reached the top?
Four out of nine. One was sick and left base camp after about three days,
and another four had problems acclimatizing at 18-19,000ft so went no
higher. Each was sick and miserable at multiple attempts at sleeping up
high and retreated back to base.

8. What are a few pieces of advice for anyone considering Ama Dablam?
First, be very comfortable with being exposed for days on end to HUGE
dropoffs. Be proficient with ascenders and fixed ropes (including using
waist/foot loops to climb the rope) and be comfortable with vertical rock
(to 5.8), mixed rock/ice and vertical ice. Plan enough time to acclimatize,
and if possible, do the Island/Lobuche/Ama Dablam progression.

9. What other major peaks have you climbed?
In addition most NW peaks (Rainier 3x, Hood 20x, many others) I’ve climbed
El Pico de Orizaba in Mexico, Aconcagua in Argentina, Denali in Alaska, and
a handful of 4000m peaks in the Alps.

Veterans of the Mazamas’ Expedition Climbing class, the group of nine
climbers decided not to use guides or any porter support above base camp.
Most groups hire porters to carry the loads up the mountain and guides to
lead the hard climbing. John Youngman, trip co-leader, described it as
“much more challenging without guides or porters, but we wanted to say we
climbed it ourselves. We’re just a bunch of average weekend climbers, so
are very pleased with having put four members on the summit.”

The summit itself took twelve days after reaching base camp at 15,000ft.
Much of that time was spent establishing four camps higher up the mountain,
ranging from 18,000ft to 21,000ft. Ferrying loads and setting up camps
allowed the climbers to acclimatize to the altitude, then once camps were
established, the team rested at base camp and then climbed for four days to
reach the summit. But difficulties such as altitude and sickness hampered
efforts, leaving team members fatigued and in some cases unable to continue.

“We were completely spent. But reaching the top and seeing Mt. Everest
staring back us, I totally forgot how tired I was” says Smith.

The climbing team included David Byrne, Keith and Heather Campbell, Chris
Cosgriff, Cendrine deVis, Steven Heim, Nancy Miller, Monty Smith and John
Youngman. The climb was sponsored in part by the Mazamas, ClubSport and
Climb Max.

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