Equipment Advice: Manaslu

Photo: Archiv Alix von Melle/Globetrotter Ausrüstung
An eight-thousander and more than 80 things to pack: Germany’s most successful extreme mountain climber Alix von Melle tells us what she took on her Mount Manaslu expedition – and gives helpful tips suitable for the »normal« alpinist.

Alix, last spring you went on a Mount Manaslu expedition with your colleague Rainer Jäpel from Globetrotter Dresden and the DAV Summit Club. You had to return before you reached the 8,163 meter high summit because of a thunderstorm. What was your most important piece of equipment on that day?

I guess I would not be sitting here if I hadn‘t had my GPS. We couldn’t see anything on our way down but had to find the two fixed rope traverses. We would never have found them without the GPS – it was worth its weight in gold.

What was your protection against the storm and cold?

Alix von Melle (40) is Globetrotter Munich’s press spokeswoman and has already climbed five eight-thousanders. | Foto: Archiv Alix von Melle
At a high attitude the first layer I usually wear is warm underwear made of merino wool. Over it, a jumper and pants out of power-stretch fleece. To keep the trunk warm, I wear a Prima Loft Jacket. The top layer is my down suit, I don’t take it off once I’m above 7,000 metres not even in my sleeping bag. I put a Buff around my neck, protect my face with a neoprene mask and snow goggles. Never without my Beanie, of course.

Here is Alix' complete packing list for the Manaslu expedition.

Your packing list includes a hard shell jacket and pants, known to every outdoor person as protection against wind and rain. Why don’t you wear them at high attitude?

Hard shell clothes protect you perfectly against bad weather. I only wear Gore-Tex clothes up to 6,500 metres though. Higher up it is important to have real insulation, you don’t need one hundred percent waterproofness at such an altitude. The outer fabric of my down suit is pretty waterproof. I leave my hard shell clothes at the mid camp.

The notorious death zone lies between the last camp and the summit. What is in your backpack at that time?

A thermos flask with a hot drink, handkerchiefs, another pair of goggles, a spare pair of gloves, a little bivouac sack and a first aid kit. Some mountaineers don’t take a backpack at all on the last climb. I don’t like putting a bottle in my down suit though. I only put a little camera in my pock­et so the batteries won’t cool down. I always have a muesli bar with me that I carry in my down suit as well, so it stays edible.

Why do you bring a spare pair of gloves? They don’t get wet in the cold, do they?

They don’t get wet but they are easy to lose. At Denali in Alaska, I clamped my mittens between my legs while taking a photo. When I got up I totally forgot about them. Of course they flew away immediately. My husband Luis was luckily able to lend me his overmittens. Ever since, I tie my mittens on my wrist. And in addition, there is always another pair of warm gloves in my rucksack.

Nobody likes cold feet. Especially not in the Arctic cold of the eight-thousanders. How do you prevent your feet from freezing?

»Close to the summit I always use heated insoles in my boots.« | Photos: Globetrotter Ausrüstung
Right on the skin I wear Falke’s thin Double-Dry socks. They keep your feet dry and protect against rubbing and blisters. On top of them I wear the thickest merino wool socks we have in the program. As soon as we leave the base camp, I use special expedition boots. They have specially integrated gaiters and the aluminium lining keeps you nice and warm. They also have warm soles and inner boot. The boots cost more than 700 euros but are worth every cent if you want to keep your toes. I also use heated insoles…

You use heated insoles? Like any alpin skier who is not used to the cold?
Exactly.

The cheapest model is the best one. Simply connect the wire and put the box with the four AA-batteries with the inner boot. They keep warm the whole day if you use lithium batteries on medium level – rechargeable batteries would flag quickly in the cold. Sometimes I put a heat pack on my toes. There is enough space in the boots for it.

Approaching an eight-thousander is a slow but steady climb. There were four camps on the Manaslu, the high camp at an attitude of 7,400 metres. Is there no sleep­ing bag for such attitudes or why did you sleep in your down suit?

Weather changes very fast – and so the quipment, too. | Photos: Globetrotter Ausrüstung
I do use hardcore sleeping bags like the Western Mountaineering Bison, but only in the base camp. At that stage it is important that you sleep comfortably and relaxed. For the high camp I reduce the weight and only take a light sleeping bag with a comfort zone of -20 degrees. That is enough in combination with a down suit. The same for the mat: luxury in the base camp, light in the high camp. I took the new NeoAir xTherm to the Manaslu: super light, little pack space, and the layers of reflective material re­cycle the body heat.

So, air mattresses do not get damaged when the moisture of your breath freezes inside?

That is what many people say but I have never had a frozen matt­ress, even though you have to blow the XTherm up hard. Maybe that‘s because the volume of the air reduces in the cold and therefore the mattress is softer in the morning.

What else do you have to be aware of in a high camp?

First of all: always try to keep weight down, for example with oral care chewing gums instead of tooth brush and paste. Secondly, everything that might freeze has to go into the sleeping bag like contact lenses, cam­era, headlight, and thirdly, the pee bottle.

Why a pee bottle in the tent?

Dinner is ready! Alix’ husband Luis Stitzinger. | Photo: Archiv Alix von Melle
I drink a lot, at least four litres a day. The better I adjust to the attitude, the more water naturally goes out again. I have to go pee three times a night. I used to go outside but when I came back into the tent I was chilled to the bone. If I did not go I would not be able to sleep properly. The pee bottle and a Whiz Freedom Urinal are the perfect solution.

In the high camp, you have to melt snow to gain water. Why do you use a fuel stove? Apparently they don’t work very well in the attitude or the cold…

It is fun to melt snow with the Reactor MSR. Thanks to the large burner and heat exchanger you get the optimal heat for lit­tle fuel and therefore you again have little weight. Furthermore, the base of the pot serves as a wind protector. The mixture of butane, isobutane and propane are very efficient in the cold. At night, we kept them in the tent.

Reinhold Messner wouldn’t leave without his Speck Alto Adige (dry cured ham). What did you eat?

During the day, I also eat speck and cheese, as well as dry fruit, energy bars and choc­olate. In the lower camps we had a lot of freeze-dried food and muesli. The higher we went the worse the food got – we ate pureed baby food because it is easily digestible. Often you don’t have any appetite and only drink soup because of the liquid.

Your husband Luis and you slept in a single-wall tent. Why didn’t you take an expedition tent with an inner tent?

Climbing follows nine days of trekking. | Photo: Archiv Alix von Melle
A single-wall tent is lighter and takes up less space. You usually have to hack a platform into the ice anyway. On the Manaslu, some climbers used double-wall tents in the higher camps. They were torn up aft­er the first couple of storm nights because the wind got under them better. Our tent was in mint condition. A disadvantage of a single skin tent is how­ever that exhaled breath freezes immediately on the tent wall. You turn around and it basically snows down on you inside the tent. Very annoying.

Before you set foot on the Manaslu you had to walk to the base camp for nine days. How did you carry all your luggage?

Sherpas and donkeys carried our main luggage to the base camp. So I only travelled with a light backpack. In it I had a drinking bottle and rain clothes, as well as a spare shirt. In case it gets cold when we take a break I always have a Power Stretch Hood­ie and a Primaloft jacket with me. Sun cap, a Buff, a pair of windstopper gloves and a Beanie are compulsory. Often we were at the camp before the Sherpas arrived so we had to wait for our tents.

So the food was probably much better in the base camp than in the high camps…

There was a chef with us who even baked bread. Two kitchen hands took care of the supplies during those four weeks. They brought chicken and fresh vegetables from the valley.

There is a lot of waiting around on an expedition like this. What do you do?

Read. Last year we spent ten days in the base camp at Broad Peak, we were ready but the weather wasn’t. It would be awful for me not to have enough books.

After physical exercise you long for a shower. How does hygiene work in the base camp?

When I happen to take a shower I use the biodegradable body wash from Sea to Summit sparingly because the water runs straight into the snow. Often, cleaning wip­es are good enough because you hardly sweat in the cold. When I want to wash my hair I use a bucket of warm water from the camping kitchen.

What happens with the rubbish?

It gets separated in the base camp and returned to the valley. Even the toilet, which takes the form of a barrel with bin liners hung inside.

On top of the mountain you are dressed like polar adventurers, in the base camp like trekkers. Does your wardrobe offer some­thing in between?

»A few tents were torn up after the stormy nights. Our tent was in mint condition.« | product photos: Globetrotter Ausrüstung
Absolutely. The equipment from the base camp to the high camps is similar to normal alpine tour equipment that you use in the Alps: long underwear, a layer of Power Stretch Fleece covered by another layer of soft or hard-shell clothes. As additional insulation, I always bring my Prima Loft ­Jacket.

Do you need special climbing equipment for an eight-thousander?

Usually not. Near the glacier I wear a harness with the usual equipment attached: carabiners, accessory cord, ice screws and of course crampons and an ice axe. I didn’t wear a helmet in the Manaslu because ­there is rarely a danger of rock or ice fall. Unlike when in the Alps, on a high altitude tour you clip the jumar onto a static rope.

Your Manaslu packlist combines luxury and minimalism. Did you really bring an inflatable pillow?

Sure. Perfect for the breaks and the even­ings in the cold dining tent of the base camp. Expeditions are a little material battle. You are outside for many weeks, you do not want to suffer all the time.

What is it like to pack a normal backpack after such a material battle – just like any other alpinist?

Fantastic. I often get asked if I train for such big tours with an extra heavy backpack. No way! It’s enough when I have to carry the damn thing on an expedition.

Here are more pictures from Mount Manaslu.

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4-Seasons Info

Manaslu – Mountain of the Spirit

The Manaslu (8,163 m) is located in the Mansiri Himal in West Nepal. To the southeast there is the Ganesh Himal and to the Northwest the Annapurna (8,091). The name Manaslu comes from the Sanskrit meaning Mountain of the Spirit. In addition to the main peak, another two peaks rise from the plateau: the east (7,992 m) peak and the north (6,994 m) peak. The mountain was first successfully ascending by a Japanese expedition. It is said to be a bad weather mountain because of many storms and heavy snowfall.

Ascent

Approaching the mountain up northeast face, the base camp (4800 m) is located at the lateral moraine of the glacier. Camp 1 (5,700 metres) is set in mixed terrain. The route to Camp 2 follows a long glacial ramp and a steep section of ice. Beware of ice falling from séracs. The second camp (6,300 m) is located on a glacial plateau below the north col. The next steps lead along steep snow slopes and a short ice slope to the great plateau. Camp 3 is set up in a protected hollow at 6,900 metres. A fourth camp is situated at 7,400 metres before climbing the exposed ridge to the summit.
Trekking in the Manaslu region
The Manaslu Circuit Trek is one of the great trekking classics in Nepal. It takes two weeks and includes the Larkya-Pass (5,135 m) amongst others.

The trek leads through several types of vegetation and civilisation, still in its most remote and original landscapes. A permit is compulsory. DAV Summit Club offers the route as a guided Lodge-Trek. Information on the tour and the booking: dav-summit-club.de.

Literature

Reinhold Messern: »Sturm am Manaslu – Drama auf dem Dach der Welt«, Malik-Verlag, ISBN 978-34 92 40 33 51, Globetrotter Order Number: 16.51.08, 11.95 euros.