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Canadian women first to conquer Manaslu

photo328.jpgEarlier this fall, Canmore residents Helen Sovdat and Val Pitkethly accomplished something no other Canadians have managed to do.

They stood on the summit of Manaslu.

Poking 8,156 metres into the thin air of Nepal’s Himalaya, Manaslu is the world’s eighth tallest mountain. While several Canadians had previously attempted the peak, they were thwarted by stormy weather and high avalanche hazard.

But in September, Sovdat and Pitkethly were granted favourable conditions. While vaguely aware they might be the first Canadians, the idea had no impact on their motivation.

“It’s not about the mountain, it’s who I climb the mountain with,” Sovdat said.

As a professional trekking guide who regularly leads trips in Peru and Nepal, Pitkethly has guided clients on the 20-day Manaslu circuit 10 times. After many days of looking at the mountain, she asked Sovdat if she’d be keen to climb it.

One of seven Canadian women to hold international ACMG/IFMGA mountain guide certification, Sovdat has guided heli-skiers with Canadian Mountain Holidays and climbing adventures for the Alpine Club of Canada for more than 20 years. She is one of few women guiding technical climbing adventures internationally. For 2010, she’s planning her third expedition to Mongolia.

“My best trips are when I can guide in a new place and have a successful trip,” Sovdat said. “I feel privileged and lucky to find people wanting to go there with me.”

In 1996, Sovdat and Pitkethly planned a dream trip – to climb 8,201-metre Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest mountain, with two other experienced climbers: Calgary’s Marg Saul and Karen McNeill, a Canmore climber who died in 2006 on a difficult route on Alaska’s Mount Foraker. Just as they prepared to leave, Pitkethly experienced a nasty leader fall while climbing “Reprobate” on Mount Rundle.

With several broken bones, including three thoracic vertebrae, Pitkethly suffered serious injuries requiring a lengthy rehabilitation. Sovdat, Saul and McNeill made the trip, becoming the first Canadian women to summit Cho Oyu. Coincidentally, the first Canadian men succeeded that same season.

Three years ago, despite painful joints and fall-out from multiple knee surgeries, Pitkethly climbed Cho Oyu. This year, with both women marking their 50th birthdays, they decided to climb another 8,000er. Like Cho Oyu, Manaslu can be ascended by a standard route that is not considered technically difficult.

“If you do the standard routes on these big peaks, they’re big snow climbs with pitches of ice,” Sovdat said. “They’re not technically hard; you don’t need to be a superstar – just a good base of fitness. But the objective hazards are greater – avalanches and icefall – the things you can’t control.”

The other biggest challenge, she added, is the cost.

“The thing about climbing in Nepal is it takes time and money, and some kind of group,” Sovdat said. “If you can’t find enough friends to go with you, you join a commercial group.”

They hired a Nepalese outfitter, Himalayan Guides, which looked after permit fees, base camp meals and cooking, porters, high altitude Sherpas and oxygen. Once in Nepal, they made staying healthy a priority by drinking lots of water and eating well, and becoming accustomed to feeling sluggish and unwell at altitude.

“It takes mental determination; it’s hard to keep working your way up and down the mountain when you don’t feel good. I feel perfectly fine at altitude if I’m not moving,” Sovdat said with a laugh.

They journeyed from Kathmandu by private jeep, switching to 4WD transport truck after becoming stuck in a mud bog. Starting on Sept. 5, they trekked for seven days in pouring rain, staying at guest houses along the way. When they reached base camp, populated by 100 people comprising 11 groups from the U.K., U.S., China, Chile and Mexico, the weather cleared.

Climbing with Mel Proudlock, a British client of Val’s with Himalayan experience, they began working their way up the mountain, following the schedule of another team, carrying loads, sleeping at progressively higher camps and returning to base camp to recover.

“The icefall hazard between camp one and two was an active icefall,” Sovdat said. “We had to run under an unpredictable serac fall. It came down twice while we were there and covered our track. Those are the hazards of climbing big peaks. In the Rockies, we would choose to go around places like that, but on those peaks, those are the easiest routes.”

One of the highlights for Sovdat was starting early one morning with some of the other guides with ropes, pickets, ice screws and carabiners to fix rope, working all day to connect a safe route through crevasses. For safety, and to avoid the permanently debilitating effects of altitude, they used oxygen above 7,000 metres.

Then, on Sept. 28, they walked for six hours from Camp 4 to the summit.

“I was surprised and relieved to end up on the summit,” Sovdat recalled. “It was a long hard walk, but we all felt pretty good and spent over an hour hanging around near the top.

“The name Manaslu translates to ‘Spirit Mountain’ and I really felt as if we were blessed by the spirits. We were almost giddy, but exhausted at the same time. We got a good 360-degree view – above a few puffy clouds – of unclimbed summits, the Tibetan plateau, the Annapurna group, Dhaulagiri and Shishapangma.”

On her way down, Sovdat hit the wall, her legs feeling like lead.

“It was hard to move. The motivation was gone, but survival mode took over,” she said. “I had to get to Camp 2 where a tent, stove and food were waiting for us.”

Through it all, Sovdat said she never stopped feeling admiration for Pitkethly, who is currently in Nepal guiding trekkers and volunteering with Cochrane-based Basic Health International, stopping in remote villages delivering supplies and providing basic medical assistance.

“A couple of Tibetan villages rely on her to bring medical supplies,” Sovdat said. “It’s her way of giving back and helping. A simple burn can become infected just because the villagers don’t have basic supplies – or knowledge.”

What’s even more remarkable is that Pitkethly does so even as she suffers pain daily as a result of her own accident.

“Val’s accident was a near death experience and for a while it looked as though she would never climb again,” Sovdat said. “It was a long, slow recovery and it’s a lesson in determination and grit that she has come back to lead a life as a full time guide in the mountains.

“I admire her so much.”

Lynn Martel
Special to the Fitzhugh

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