Jamie Annetts is an expedition leader and director of Exped Adventure, an expedition company based in Staveley, Cumbria. For his big personal challenge in 2016 he had set his sights on Annapurna II – a rarely climbed mountain in central Nepal.
We had planned to reach the top of the 7,937 metre peak unsupported and without bottled oxygen – but the mountain had other ideas.
After three weeks of everything going to plan, high winds, freezing temperatures and ultimately a medical emergency forced us to make a retreat.
We had planned the siege tactic of advanced camps to conquer Annapurna II, climb high, sleep low for acclimatisation, and to move fast and light on the ridge to the summit.
At base camp we heard six avalanches a day; there were massive explosions as they fell. The wind reached speeds of 160 kilometres per hour and it was way colder than you can imagine.
So few people have been up Annapurna II that there is a limited amount of information available, and we found that all the research we had done before the climb was out of date because of the way nature changes our mountain environments. The glacier had retreated a mile further than had been described, and we had to reach the end of it to start the ice climb. Here we found ourselves tackling ex-glacier scree which was rock-hard ice, no snow. The terrain was bullet-hard, frozen mud, every step was slipping away.
We were expecting a snow ridge and we found a hanging glacier which felt more than vertical, so the terrain was way harder than previous expeditions had described.
Only 15 people have stood on the summit of Annapurna II, with the first ascent made by fellow Cumbrian climbing legend Sir Chris Bonington, 56 years ago. The mountain range is described as one of the most dangerous in the world, and it has the chilling title of being the deadliest mountain, as it claims the lives of 40% of people who climb it.
Things turned bad
At 6,200 metres, having reached camp two, things turned bad. I have been a lot higher on mountain climbs in the past, but the physical challenges of the mountain were the toughest yet. We were carrying 25 kilogrammes and climbing Scottish Grade Two to Three all the time. Every day we were going through deep snow, wearing the heavy packs and breaking in deep. There wasn’t enough time to recover, to rest. I only had one symptom of altitude mountain sickness and that was that, I didn’t sleep that night. When we got up after a freezing night in the tent, I felt totally smashed. Matt led the climbing and on the walking sections I was breaking through snow that was chest-deep.
Couldn’t move fast enough to keep warm
At this point I would take five steps and then stop to cough. The wind was howling; we couldn’t move fast enough to keep warm. We made it to our next camp – in a cave – and Matt said we needed to have a chat. By this point my breathing was 30 to 40 breaths a minute and Matt could hear a spluttering on my lungs when he pressed his ear to my chest. We rang the Remote Medical Support and I took the drugs they recommended and their advice to descend 500 metres as quickly as possible.
The descent was very hard, it was steep and icy, with avalanche risks on either side of us. I had to abseil off camp two on a short rope and Matt then down climbed, retracing our steps. There were many hard sections as we retreated to camp one. That night was the worst, we were a long way from help and we knew we still had a long way to get back to civilisation.
Although I was ill, I was still carrying my own pack; we abseiled down the face and at 5,100 metres it was like someone flicked a light switch in my head. I felt much better. That day we got down to 3,200 metres, carrying the heaviest bag of my life – 35 kilogrammes – we had no porters because we were leaving earlier than planned. We had to walk about 15 kilometres carrying everything we brought for the expedition – two climbing ropes, boots, tents, the stove, water, food, a full climbing rack, ice screws…
We were forced to make our attempt too early in our planned programme because of the weather conditions. We went up anticipating everything that could go wrong and we had control measures in place. When things didn’t go to plan, we dealt with it and we got back down in one piece.
We’ll share what we’ve learned so any future expeditions can benefit from our knowledge. I couldn’t have done a course that prepared me to deal with this situation with clients – recognising and understanding the symptoms and acting quickly. I am looking forward to helping other people achieve their mountaineering ambitions in 2017.
Exped Adventure run expeditions in high-altitude, trekking and polar destinations with a focus on goal-setting, training and developing skills for self-sufficiency in the extremes.
After Annapurna we will start our winter season. March and April will see us heading to Norway, first to the Hardangervidda for an eight-day expedition pulling a sled across the high plateau, and then to Svalbard for a 13-day ski crossing of the polar wilderness. These two trips can be done on skis or snowshoes and involve being self-sufficient as well as being able to protect yourself from polar bears in Svalbard!
Get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in joining any of our trips.