A Delicate Line
Story by Anna Tybor // Written by Martyna Małysiak // Photography by Piotr Drzastwa
A second night at over 7,000m above sea level. Again, someone suggests additional oxygen. Despite extreme fatigue and anxious thoughts, Anna refuses – I have to go without. Moments later, she falls into an exhausted sleep, squeezed between other climbers, for a few hours. At this altitude, her dreams are chaotic, threatening, and fleeing fast – just like the clouds racing over the summit of Manaslu so far above.
Surrounded by the major peaks of the Mansiri Himal range in Nepal, Manaslu is the eighth-highest mountain in the world. Anna Tybor wants to reach the summit and to descend on skis – to become the first woman to do so without supplementary oxygen. As a five-time Polish champion in ski mountaineering, Anna knows a lot about both skiing and snow-covered mountains. But this is not a competition. In the highest mountains there is no stopwatch. Everyone must listen to their own body and make their own choices.
Though most of the other expeditions on this mountain have already summited and gone back down, climbing in conventional style with porters and support, Anna’s climb is a very different one. Her team is small: friends Federico and Marco, plus Piotr with his camera. No Sherpas or support of any kind above base camp. They must carry everything they need themselves – down as well as up. And it’s so much tougher than she ever expected.
Anna is discovering the hard way that these mountains are not the Alps, and that her dreams of a single-push alpine-style ascent are so very fragile. She feels alone and her body is teaching her hard truths. She had known that she would not recover well at altitude – one reason why she wanted to make the final summit push in a single go. And yet here she is, forced to try to get some rest at Camp Four. After feeling sick and weak at Camp Two, she’d already spent the previous night at Camp Three. But the ski down? She can visualise it so clearly: a swift flight over the snowfields and glaciers, descending from the suffering of altitude to the comfort of base camp in one unbroken elegant line.
But the doubts are crowding in.
Before the summit push
Days at base camp passed by slowly. Heavy rainfall, wind, and fog shrouded the mountain, confining their world to the cluster of tents on the smashed moraine rubble above the glacier. Views of Manaslu were fleeting and mysterious – teasingly tempting before vanishing again. They spent most of their time in the main tent, but Anna hiked up to the first and second camps to acclimatise and get acquainted with the route she had chosen to ski. One night at 5,800m above sea level and back. Another pushing 1,000m higher.
Meanwhile, she listened to the enthusiastic reports of people passing through the communal dining area. Together with their Sherpas, teams from all over the world prepared the same sweet tea here, played the same card games to pass the rainy hours, and supported each other. Hoping and planning for their own summit stories. Everyone watched the weather obsessively. Most of the other groups were much larger, already bonding over new mountain friendships. She felt thankful that Federico and Marco were here, very experienced ski mountaineers and guides who knew each other from prior Himalayan expeditions. ‘What do you think about making a start?’ she would ask them, feeling the pressure to begin their ascent, and they would scratch their heads or grin after checking the forecasts and talking to the Sherpas. ‘Not yet. Give it a few more days.’ She valued their opinions on the snow. But the longer she waited, the more her anticipation warred with the thoughts of ‘what if?’ every time she looked out through the flapping tent door and saw nothing but cloud and rain.
On September 27th, Anna left base camp a few hours after her companions. The plan was simple: she would meet Federico at Camp Two and Marco at Camp Three. Piotr, meanwhile, would be on hand to take pictures higher up the mountain.
The ascent to Camp One passed uneventfully, but on the way to Camp Two things began to unravel. She felt slow, her energy levels depleting more rapidly than she had hoped as the uneven seracs of the glacier barred her way, and although she had expected to reach Camp Two by sunset the light soon began to fail. Snowflakes began to whirl out of a darkening sky. What if you fall into a crevasse? Maybe it’s better to wait for returning Sherpas. But no figures moved on the horizon. She felt utterly and completely alone. All she could hear was the moaning of the wind and the thoughts rumbling in her own head – fears about the rest of the climb. She had invited Federico and Marco on this expedition because she did not want to face Manaslu alone, but she was beginning to realise that any journey to this altitude is an isolating experience.
Finally she saw the faint lights of tents at Camp Two through the snowstorm. Relief flooded her. As she trudged through the deepening snow into the camp, she made a decision: I will wait here until the snowstorm passes. It felt like a small compromise, but it was a compromise nevertheless. Would it ruin her ideal of a one-push, alpine-style ascent? But there were more important considerations now. She felt ill and shattered.
Federico met her with a hug. ‘How was it?’ ‘…Yeah.’
Just as disasters in the mountains are often the cumulative results of minor decisions that snowball out of all proportion, sometimes the smallest choices can be what lift climbers from peril into a safer path.
As Anna lies in her sleeping bag at Camp Four and tries to will her body to recover, she thinks back to the choices that she has made on this climb – and thinks ahead to the choices yet to come. Choices that now seem clouded with more doubt, more nuance, than they ever seemed back at Base Camp.
At Camp Two, she had chosen to wait out the snowstorm. And though visibility did improve, she was already feeling ill. The journey with Federico to Camp Three at 6,900m had gone smoothly enough at first, but she found it impossible to catch her breath in the thin air, and could feel her goal slipping away. A night of rest had been the only option. And again at Camp Four. Strong winds and spindrift made everything harder too. The fatigue settled in and made itself at home. The sapping cold and exhaustion never left. A night at over 7,000m above sea level is a major challenge for both body and mind – especially with food and water in short supply.
Anna gnaws over the final choice in her mind: the decision to stop and attempt to sleep at the third and fourth camps, never part of the plan, and it still feels like a small but stinging defeat. Federico and Marco helped her to see this rationally. With no Sherpas for support, she had to rely on their perspective, but still she works over the choice in her mind, probing its ramifications. Am I doing the right thing? Could I have kept going? What would have happened to me if I had? Two alternatives to her current path remain open, but she knows that the moment for making those choices has not yet come: to accept supplementary oxygen, or to give up and descend. She has never been more aware of the delicate line between achieving what she has come here to do and her own survival.
Can I still make the descent I’ve been dreaming of? She can’t help but question her own skills and endurance. The knowledge that it is no longer about her abilities, but about making the right decisions in the mountains, doesn’t help. But clarity cuts through her exhaustion as she probes this web of choice and consequence. This is where determination must act as a counterbalance to the forces acting against me. Never give up. Fight for the dream that is so close despite seeming so far away. Both influences, she realises, must guide her.
When sleep finally comes to her racing mind, she is in balance – dominated neither by fear, nor by motivation to reach the top at all costs.
At 3.00pm, September 29th, Anna stands on the summit of Manaslu with Federico and Marco. Emotion, determination, and good choices have won out over the fatigue that still claws at her. But she has made it here without supplementary oxygen, and as she stands dazed on the summit, 8,163m above sea level and barely able to take in the blur of a view all around her, a thought works its way through the overwhelm and the gratitude and the craving for thicker air: I am only halfway. And I must make more good decisions if I am to finish this.
Out with the skis. Down, down, down, from plateau to plateau. Over the pitches where they had roped up on the ascent. Everything that had been so hard on the way up now dissolves into the easy flight she comes into the mountains for. From struggle and pain and doubt to bliss – yes, yes, this is the best moment! Federico whoops. Conditions could hardly be better, with 20cm of fresh powder for their turns. But although her body is no longer fighting hard for survival, and although her breathing grows easier with every turn she makes, she realises that this will not be the single continuous flight part of her had always thought possible.
But, of course, it never could be. They have left equipment at Camp Four and Camp Three. They have no Sherpas to carry everything back down while they have fun on their light racing skis. Other expeditions might be content to leave gear behind, leave rubbish behind, but Anna has always known that their packs would get heavier again as they clean up after themselves – and that means stopping at the camps. It feels like a more honest connection with this mountain and she knows that they are doing the right thing, out of love for the mountains and respect for those who live in their shadows.
Struggling in the low-oxygen air to stuff a bulky sleeping bag into a rucksack that already weighs almost 30kg is not how Anna had imagined her time on Manaslu, but she does not resent it. The guys help her, help each other. The pauses at the camps exhaust her and the descent is slower than she expects – partly thanks to the burdens, the long pauses to pack gear, but also the changing conditions. Lower down, they get the rope out again to navigate a maze of crevasses hidden under the snow, and as they struggle with their heavy bundles she realises that they look a bit like Sherpas themselves.
It’s after dark by the time Anna, Federico, Marco, and Piotr approach Base Camp. She feels herself smiling now. Exhausted but content. As she realises that the complete journey is almost at an end, that she has done it – and on her own terms, at peace with the choices she has made – she feels the bond with this mountain of spirit growing strong. Manaslu may be a silent observer, but it is also a participant.
First published in Sidetracked Volume 26