What is it about Ama Dablam?
It has been described as the most beautiful mountain in the world, its silhouette is the logo of a global insurance company, and the 6,812m peak was once described by Edmund Hillary as being “unclimbable”.
Trekkers and mountaineers on their walk up to Mt Everest Base Camp have for decades marvelled at the chiselled sculpture that dominates the trail. Many have vowed to return to climb it one day.
One of them was Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulla Al Thani of the Qatar royal family who was among dozens who climbed the mountain last week during the peak of the pandemic in Nepal.
Sheikh ‘Moe’ Al Thani said in an interview that he had been obsessed with climbing Ama Dablam ever since he was trekking in the area ten years ago, and after climbing Mt Everest in 2013.
The very next day, on 12 November, not only did eight more climbers make it to the top, but four of them were Nepali siblings who run Seven Summit Treks that handled the expedition.
Mingma Sherpa, Dawa Sherpa, Tashi Lakpa Sherpa and Pasang Sherpa are experienced climbers, and Mingma and Chhang Dawa have climbed all 14 eight-thousand metre peaks in the world.
The Sheikh was part of a multinational team led by Madison Mountaineering that put all 13 climbing members on the summit including seven Nepali, four American, and a Canadian mountaineer.
Besides the sheer grandeur of the peak is its technical challenge with a knife-like ridge and a perpendicular face leading to the top. Added to that are the dangers of avalanches and rockfalls that have killed dozens of climbers.
Since climbing first began in the region in the 1950s, 32 people have been killed on Ama Dablam, mostly in falls and avalanches, and one Russian died three years ago while jumping off from near the top in a wingsuit.
Lead guide of the Qatari Prince’s team, Garrett Madison, first tried to climb the mountain in 2003, but had to turn back due to technical difficulties on the southwest ridge, but returned to summit twice in 2012 and 2014.
Madison wrote in a blog post last week: “We had a beautiful clear, perfect day up on the summit … it has been a wonderful, successful and safe expedition here in Nepal, we are very happy we got to come and experience the wonderful people with warm hearts.”
What is surprising this year is that these climbs of Ama Dablam have happened during the middle of a pandemic, and Nepal has been closed for trekking and mountaineering since March until foreign teams were finally allowed back in mid-September.
Even before that, a Bahraini military team got special permission to climb Mt Manaslu, and an all-Nepali expedition climbed Baruntse. And during the pandemic in spring, the Chinese climbed Mt Everest and Cho Oyu from the north. Besides the expeditions in Ama Dablam this autumn, the only others were a Nepali team on Gyalzen Peak and two trekking teams on Himlung.
“Ama Dablam is a very attractive and challenging mountain, everyone who has been on the Everest trail dreams one day of climbing it,” says the president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association Ang Tshering Sherpa, adding that while most expeditions go for Nepal’s 8,000m peaks in spring, they prefer to climb Ama Dablam in the autumn.
In fact, last November a Kuwaiti expedition got into trouble with the authorities for unfurling a giant flag of the country from the summit and draping over the west face of the mountain. It was visible to the naked eye from Khumjung, which is 3,000m below and 12km away. The Kuwaitis said they were just trying to break a record, and did not know a permission was required.
Alan Arnette, a mountaineer and blogger climbed Ama Dablam in 2000, and describes the allure: “Ama Dablam is a fantastic climb by any definition. In many ways it is more satisfying than the 8000m climbs with the rock, ice and snow sections. But it is a very dangerous climb today with the instability of the Dablam.”
Ama Dablam means ‘Mother’s Pendant’ in Sherpa because its summit makes the mountain look like a mother hugging her young, and the ‘dablam’ is the massive hanging serac near the summit which looks like a holy locket.
Mountaineers try to avoid climbing and camping below this serac, but despite that some have been killed by chunks breaking off. In 2006, a piece of the hanging ice fell and killed six climbers in Camp III at the point where the southwest ridge meets the top of the face. Three more were killed below the serac in 2014. Nepali climber Thundu Sherpa was killed when an earthquake in 2016 triggered an avalanche on the face.
This year, despite the pandemic and the dangers of climbing via the traditional southwest ridge route, mountaineers could not resist the temptation of climbing Ama Dablam. What helped was the relative ease of organising an expedition at short notice compared to the complicated logistics on big 8,000m peaks in Nepal.
Those who made it were rewarded with mountains devoid of other climbers, and a spell of good weather that has lasted more than two months now.
Nepal’s Minister of Tourism and Civil Aviation Yogesh Bhattarai himself helicoptered to Ama Dablam Base Camp on Monday just as another 12-member expedition arrived to climb Ama Dablam. That team is led by Himalayan Guides and British climber Kenton Cool who has sumitted Mt Everest 14 times.
“We were glad to run into Kenton Cool and other mountaineers at Ama Dablam Base Camp, and also happy that Nepal’s climbing sector that has been badly hit by the pandemic, is getting back to normal,” Bhattarai said.
Despite the minister’s remark, it is clear that Nepal’s trekking and mountaineering has suffered from the Covid-19 crisis. The country usually makes $20 million in royalty and other fees from climbing, and this year the count is only $3.3 million.
Besides this, many Nepali guides, porters, trekking companies, hotels, airlines and helicopter companies have lost business. Last autumn there were 210 climbing expeditions in the Nepal Himalaya, but this season there are only seven.
Minister Bhattarai also hosted the Qatari team in Kathmandu last week after their climb, during which Prince Al Thani said: “I have always been enchanted by Ama Dablam, and I have been struck by the scenic beauty of Nepal and the hospitality of its people. I promise to return very often."