Articles - Expedition Climber: Ama Dablam
Photo: Chris Goddard
Tom Briggs - Posted on 03 Mar 2009
Since its first ascent in 1961 by an Anglo-American-New Zealand team, Ama Dablam has been climbed frequently and by many different routes. As you might expect for such a mountain, some of these routes are of the highest order of difficulty.
By far the most popular route is the original line of ascent, the South West Ridge. This gives a fine and varied climb, sustained at a reasonable level of difficulty and with good camp platforms at strategic points. The climbing provides interest on rock, snow and ice and is a realistic proposition for mountaineers with experience in the Alps on mixed routes of Alpine ‘Difficile’. These days, fixed ropes are in place on the entire route, though they should of course be treated with caution. There is some objective danger from stone fall, and in recent years, teams have become more sceptical about how solid the huge hanging serac, or ‘dablam’, above Camp 3 is.
Following a catastrophic ice fall in November 2006, teams have opted to place Camp 3 out of the firing line of the dablam. In the 2008 post-monsoon climbing season, a harder, mixed route to the right of the ridge and away from the serac was followed.
Permits, Agents, Liaison Officers and Sherpas
Ama Dablam is an ‘Expedition Peak’ requiring a climbing permit from the Nepalese Ministry of Tourism. You also need to pay an environmental deposit and have a Liaison Officer. To get all of your gear to base camp, you need to employ yaks and porters. Sherpas are used by commercial teams on the mountain to fix ropes, put camps in place and assist team members, once they are on their summit pushes. All of this can be arranged through an agent, or if you book with a commercial company you don’t have to worry about any of it. How you plan to organise your expedition will depend on the level of support that you think you require and how good a chance you want of getting to the top. It can be difficult to know exactly what you do need if this is your first Himalayan trip. At the very least, make sure you have all the relevant permits, support to base camp and it’s a good idea to have some base camp staff, as much for security as for cooking you your dinner!
Most teams attempting Ama Dablam do so in classic ‘expedition style’, using Sherpas and placing three or four camps above base camp. They climb higher on the mountain in order to acclimatise, then descend to base camp to rest, prior to a summit push. With base camp situated at 4,570m and Camp 1 at 5,700m, the difficulties of acclimatising slowly on Ama Dablam are immediately obvious. Some teams make use of an Advance Base Camp at 5,300m to break this big height gain. There is no definitive strategy for climbing a route such as the South-West Ridge of Ama Dablam, but this would be a typical plan:
|1-9||4,570m||1,770m from Lukla||Fly to Kathmandu, then to Lukla and trek up the Khumbu Valley to Pangboche, arriving at base camp on day 9||Base Camp|
|11||5,000m||430m||Puja ceremony. Fixed rope practice and afternoon walk to 5,000m on ridge||"|
|12||5,300m||730m||Walk to Advanced Base Camp||ABC|
|13||5,700m||400m||Carry light load to Camp 1, descend to BC||BC|
|14||4,570m||0m||Jumaring practice for the crux Yellow Tower||"|
|15||4,570m||0m||Rest and organise equipment for mountain||"|
|16||5,300m||430m||Move to ABC||ABC|
|17||5,700m||400m||Climb to Camp 1||C1|
|18||5,800m||100m||Foray onto the ridge and fixed ropes towards C2. Afternoon rest.||"|
|19||5,900m||200m||Climb to Camp 2, including the Yellow Tower – a 15m crux rock section||C2|
|20||6,300m||400m||Climb to Camp 3, including the ‘Bowling Alley’, traverse under the Grey Tower and double-corniced Mushroom Ridge||C3|
|21||6,856m||556m||Summit day. Steep face below the Dablam, tricky bergschrund and 40° summit slopes. Return to C3||"|
|22||4,570m||–1,730m||Descend to camp 1 and preferably all the way to base camp||C1/BC|
|23-31||---||---||Spare days and return to Kathmandu. Another typical strategy is to sleep at camp 1 and return to base camp, prior to a summit attempt. This strategy might have you summiting on Day 24, spending just one night at camp 1 on your 3rd visit, en route to camp 2, camp 3 and the top.|
Tech tips for climbing Ama Dablam
SeasonMost of the commercial teams on Ama Dablam climb in the post-monsoon season, as historically their Sherpas are being employed on Everest in the Spring. As the South West Ridge has become more popular, some teams opt for a winter ascent, when it is quieter. The weather in Nepal during November and early December is frequently cold and stable, but it does mean that climbers have to beef up their clothing and equipment for the colder temperatures. At this time of year, frostbite is a very real danger.
Rock climbing on Granite up to British Grade ‘Severe’ is encountered on the route to Camp 2, with a 15-metre section of ‘HVS’. Above Camp 2, the infamous ‘bowling alley’ is a steep couloir, with 80-degree snow and ice. Even for those used to this level of technical difficulty in the Alps, this can feel extremely tough with the added strain of carrying a big rucksack. It’s important to pack this carefully, so as not to over balance on delicate moves. Climbing rock in crampons is also a feature of the climb, as it’s more efficient than constantly putting them on and taking them off, during the mixed sections of snow and rock. More people on guided trips are climbing with just one technical axe, due the presence of the fixed ropes and using a jumar. There can be some excellent sections of snow ice high on the route, so a good compromise for a more aesthetic climbing experience, is to climb with an axe and hammer, but have one leashless, to make it easier to also manage the jumar on the fixed rope.
Climbing steep ground
Personal organisation is incredibly important in Himalayan climbing. One aspect of this is having easily accessible food and drink available when you are on the move. At altitude, even getting into the top of your rucksack can feel like a chore, especially if it’s cold and you don’t dare take your gloves off. Insulating a water bottle and having this within reach on your harness is a good idea. As is having easily digestible snack food in various pockets of your outer clothing. An easy mistake to make when you feel pressured to reach the next camp is to keep pushing on and not take time to hydrate and eat.
Eating and drinking on the move
From the horses mouth
"On Ama Dablam preparation is everything. It's technically demanding (HVS rock climbing and steep mixed ground) on both the mind and body. Having the right equipment is essential – don't rely on sourcing gear in Kathmandu because you won't find it. The approach and the climb itself require a high level of fitness – not single day fitness – but multi-day ascents with a heavy pack. In my mind the most important thing would be the best gloves you can buy...as handling jumars all day requires great dexterity and is cold work. Wrapping all metal objects with insulating tape is also a must to keep the cold at bay. Take two 'large' handle jumars and make sure your gloves fit the handles! You also have to be mentally prepared to sleep in the most precarious campsites – perched on rock pinnacles and cut out of steep snow slopes. A comfy Therm-a-rest is a must! Go very warm and very light with a layering system that is flexible. Ama Dablam is a totally amazing mountain that demands respect but the rewards are outstanding".
Gerry Arcari (37)
The South West Ridge of Ama Dablam gets a lot of sun. Up to Camp 2 (5900m), you can expect to wear a standard shell/fleece layering system. Above Camp 2 the Sherpas will slip on their down suits and Millet Everest boots. This gear list assumes you are attempting Ama Dablam ‘late season’ (November/December), when you need boots which are warmer than standard plastic double boots, as well as a down jacket and the warmest gloves you can find.
• La Sportiva Spantik double boots or standard plastic boots with an insulated overboot.
• Lightweight technical axe and hammer e.g. Grivel Air Tech Evolution (Code: 510937)
• Semi-technical crampons e.g. Grivel G14 Newmatic (Code: 51093) or Petzl Sarken
• Petzl Elios helmet (Code: 510739)
• 70L lightweight rucksack e.g. Macpac Ascent (Code: 390390)
• Full shell trousers e.g. Mountain Equipment Karakorum Pant (Code: 130097)
• Hard shell jacket e.g. Mountain Equipment Ogre Jacket (Code: 110086)
• Mountain Hardwear Chugach insulated trousers (if climbing late season)
• Rab Neutrino Endurance Jacket (Code: 150242) or Mountain Equipment Annapurna Jacket (Code: 150206)
• Black Diamond Guide Gloves (Code: 271085)
• Petzl Expedition Ascender (Code: 510373) or Black Diamond Nforce Ascender for larger hands
• Wild Country Ropeman V2 for the ‘Yellow Tower’ (Code: 510362)
• Mountain Hardwear EV2 tent
• Rab Summit 900 (Code: 450015) or Summit 1100 sleeping bag
• Go System Thermotech Stove (Code 610148)
*Cotswold Outdoor product codes are shown in brackets for stocked items. Got to cotswoldoutdoor.com
The final part of the expedition series focuses on Manaslu. Click here to read on.