I first climbed in Khao Sok National Park in Thailand while on vacation with my best friend. I had just finished my uni/army combo and was at a crossroads between a career in music/film and everything else I’ve never done. I’ve played music since my early teens and, as I grew up, I tiptoed around the different ways I could turn that into a career – it’s tough in Egypt, but not impossible. I think I was very frustrated to discover I didn’t have the drive to pursue it, but this very decision cleared up the way for more activities my parents wouldn't approve of, like mountaineering.
After two weeks of traveling around the north of Thailand, my best friend and I split up so I could visit the jungles in the southwest. I came to settle by a beautiful lake in Khao Sok National Park and pitched my tent by the lakebed; within 20 minutes I was bored and restless. My eyes had been accustomed to the immense beauty of the lake and surrounding limestone cliffs, so, as always, it was time to find something to do. Perhaps my only sin is that I demanded more from nature. Coincidently, there were groups of people scaling the limestone cliff towers protruding from the center of the lake. Much like my cat, Batates, my curiosity got the best of me. I followed them to a small adventure outfit when they returned inland, which was comprised of two bamboo shacks and a couple of worn out kayaks. It took about 10 minutes for us to reach a deal where I am required to offer tea and coffee and prepare the equipment each morning for their clients, and they would maybe allow me to tag along. They also offered a dollar per day for my services, which allowed me to extend my stay for an extra day.
Perhaps my only sin is that I demanded more from nature.
After four days of coffee, tea, and questionable equipment, I was introduced to the world of climbing. It was more like a punch in the face. I was overwhelmed with the amount of information; how could I have gone this long without ever coming across this magic? The future was bright again, but it was time to learn my first real lesson in climbing.
I rose with the sun on my last day at the lake and prepared a sandwich and a playlist. After a quick breakfast, I met with the fisherman with whom I had reached an agreement earlier to take me to a specific formation I found aesthetically pleasing (to this day that's how I choose my mountains), oblivious to the difficulty of the climb. The type of climbing I went for is called deep water solo, which means you don’t use anything but your climbing shoes and depend on the water below to protect your falls. Not that it was a conscious decision but more of a lack of equipment from my end; really, I was forced into it.
We arrived to the cliff after a 20-minute ride on the fisherman’s boat. I studied the holds and imagined where I would place my feet, where I would rest, and how I would transition from one position to the next. Visualization, as I learned, is the most important practice before a climb, and one that works in many different activities too. The first two moves were difficult and my body was awkward. A few minutes later, I was lost in the rhythm and karate -chopped my way up finger pockets and big, limestone jugs. After about 20 meters of character-building placements, I moved my right foot on a small rock outcrop that looked strong enough to support the full weight of my body. It wasn’t that strong, as I found out, and I remember slipping into the full void that is 20 meters of anticipation and horror. My body braced itself, and the next thing I remember is coming to by the lakebed with a few surprised faces above me, including the fisherman. According to him, I fell to the water at an angle and must have lost consciousness breaking surface tension. It took more than two minutes for him to dive down and bring me back up. The force of the impact blew the air out my lungs and I was unable to swim in my unconscious state.
I was lucky. A fall like this could have seriously injured me, but I only came out with a sprained neck. Leaving the lake behind, I didn’t realize how important this experience had been and how it had changed my life completely.
It didn’t take long after that for me to get back to climbing. Through a couple of chance encounters, I met Hassan and Marco – my partner and my mentor, respectively, and now two of my closest friends. I learned a lot about climbing, but more about friendship and trust. These excursions paved the way to my second lesson in climbing. As with any hobby, you begin to grow an ego as you develop your skills, especially when there are so few others in the country who do this sort of thing. I thought I knew mountaineering, but Nirekha was about to show me that, like Jon Snow, I knew nothing.
It started when I read Prisoner De l’Annapurna by Maurice Herzog – an account of the first expedition to reach the summit of an 8000-meter mountain, followed by Meru, a documentary on the three-year quest to complete the first ascent of the Shark’s Fin on Mt. Meru by Conrad Anker, Jimmi Chin, and Renan Ozturk in 2015. What really got to me was the common ground shared by the two accounts, regardless of the 60-year difference between them. The climbers traversed snow slopes as well as the entire spectrum of human emotion. On these expeditions, they experienced the full life cycle of an average adult; loss, defeat, effort, success, and consequence, compressed to the density of a black hole.
We arrived just before the sun dipped below the jagged horizon of the Himalayas to find our tents ripped to shreds, gear scattered over the valley floor.
It was going to be my first time seeing snow, so I wouldn’t want to be on a mountain like Meru or Annapurna. Still, I wanted it to be different, so I was not interested in climbing anything with more than two climbers on the mountain. A few months went by and I found the perfect objective: Nirekha, a 6,169-meter mountain at the foot of Mt. Everest. It has been climbed a total of seven times, and there was very little information on the route (west ridge) due to the inaccessibility of it. For the average alpinist, this would have been a straightforward climb; for people like Conrad Anker, this would have been a walk in the park; for me, this was going to be the most mentally and physically grueling experience thus far.
We established base camp in the valley directly below the ’S’ shaped ridge of Nirekha, our intended route. (via Jonas Spillmann)
I hooked up with Chhewang, a local guide who wanted to attempt the peak to see if it is something he could add to his offering. We estimated it would take us two or three days on the mountain, and 12 days to arrive to base camp from Kathmandu. We got our first glimpse of the mountain after crossing the Cho La pass and I remember thinking "this thing is fucking huge." There’s only so much you can learn on rock that will prepare you for the conditions at these altitudes. Mind you, the highest I’ve been before that was about 1,500 meters above sea level; the sight of the 6,000-meter giant caught me off guard and there was an air of negativity around base camp. Nevertheless, we moved up the glacier and established camp one on our second day, deposited a cache of gear, and returned back to base.
As on any high altitude climb, we needed to acclimatize our bodies to the decrease in pressure and lack of oxygen. Everything I did, no matter how small, took huge amounts of effort. As we began our descent to base we noticed bad weather approaching, so we took shelter in a crevice on the glacier until it passed, but most of the storm was below us (we were already above the cloud layer at camp one) and we expected base camp to feel it the most. We arrived just before the sun dipped below the jagged horizon of the Himalayas to find our tents ripped to shreds, gear scattered over the valley floor.
It was so cold my camera froze.
We salvaged a bag of almonds and some tea bags. At night, temperatures dropped to -20 C, so we huddled up together in our sleeping bags and shared a hot brew. None of us got any sleep that night, but I was comforted by the fact that it was all over. We gave it a shot but the mountain had other ideas. Tomorrow, we would wake up with the sun, thaw, and begin the trek back to Kathmandu. A little before midnight, my stream of thought was disrupted by Chhewang’s voice.
C: You get ready now. We go at 12. Carry water.
H: Go where? No food, no shelter.
C: Six almonds each. We go for 15 hours. All we need. We go high and see path for next year attempt.
H: We go alpine style? Take no gear, just rope, sling, and water?
C: Yes. We move at 12.
I was convinced.
We were on our way a little after midnight, with our headlamps illuminating a small patch of the terrain across from us. It took a little more than three hours to arrive at camp one, which took more than six hours on our first rotation. We were fast, efficient, and worked well together - each in their own world but doing exactly what needs to be done for the team. We arrived at the start of our route on the west ridge and took a break to discuss the rest of it. It took us well over three hours to cover 250 m of the ridge, but now the difficult sections were behind us… or so I thought.
We untied, and Chhewang launched into space with 1,000 meters of air beneath him.
The ridge turned into a snow shelf and the climbing became more comfortable. As we slogged our way knee-deep through snow, we arrived at the intersection between the west ridge and north face, which our route traverses to arrive to where we would have placed camp two. We were stopped dead in our tracks by a 10-15 meter section of near-vertical, knife-edge sugar snow. The thing with sugar snow is that, if you're not delicate, it will collapse with you in it. We discussed our options and realized there is no other way around it.
This is where I should have made the decision to turn back.
These 10-15 meters were beyond my acceptable level of risk vs. reward. To this day, I'm not so sure what made me continue. We untied, and Chhewang launched into space with 1,000 meters of air beneath him. Once he passed around the arête (outward facing corner), there was no possibility of communication between us – I couldn't see nor hear him. He disappeared, and I followed. With every step I took I would fall back two more, getting closer to the void than I wanted to. The exposure was huge; I could see the clouds far below me and the valley floor even further down from the clouds. By some miracle, the snow kept itself together (I wish I could say the same for myself) and it took me well over two hours to arrive to camp two sans camp to find Chhewang preparing a hot brew.
Enjoying a cup of tea with views of the striking south face of Lhotse, the 4th highest mountain in the world.
Maybe it was what he said, or how he said it, that made me I realize I was way over my limit here. I had become a liability to both Chhewang and myself, and it was time to turn back. I admit, it was a little too late to make this decision. As I looked behind me over the easy angled snow slopes, I saw the ridge leading to the summit, penetrating the sky without a care in the world for us. I estimated another three hours to top out. We might as well go for it.
All in all, it was a 15-hour round trip. We spent about 10 minutes up there on the 1x1 snowcap, taking in the views around us. Everest looked beautiful from our position, six vertical kilometers from sea level. We arrived back to the valley and spent one more night in -5 C, which seemed quite warm now, with no almonds left to chew on. I was filled with happiness, gratitude, and ecstasy. I owed the climb to myself and Chhewang’s combined efforts, and completely disregarded how unbelievably lucky I was to make it back down in one piece. Looking at it now, I shouldn’t have even been on that mountain in the first place.
Breathtaking view of Everest and neighboring peaks from the summit.
Before climbing Nirekha, Omar Samra was kind enough to sit with me and offer his personal equipment and the knowledge he has acquired as a mountaineer over the years. He continues to do this whenever I climb. When I returned, he offered to include me in the Wild Guanabana family.
It’s been more than two years now and I’ve led climbing journeys around the world for clients from all across the globe, and completed more of my personal climbing objectives in the Himalayas and beyond. These opportunities not only allow me to share my experience directly with like-minded people, but to connect with them and myself at a deeper level. The moments I share with them on the mountain are more important to me than any summit I will ever reach, and I learn from them as much as they believe they can learn from me. My climbing objectives now are about the mountains that will allow me to live to a ripe old age yet still pose a challenge. I am more interested in difficult and technical routes than easy but high risk climbs. Looking for the balance between these two elements has been a challenge, but, like the jellyfish, I will let the current take me to new and exciting places whenever possible.