Lobuche East; Nepal
I wrote this article about a small expedition to the Himalayan peak, Lobuche East in 2005. I was 59 years old and extremely fit, reasonably experienced as a mountaineer, and with lots of family connections in Nepal on my wife’s side. We began the trip as a family with my wife, my daughter and husband, each returning to Kathmandu at 12,000ft and 15,000ft respectively as I continued. What transpired in the remaining 6000+ feet is hilarious to say the least and led to the title of what I wrote for SummitPost so many years ago. (“I’m a celebrity get me out of here” was a reality TV game show, so ………. read on!
A Family Beginning
We began our trip on 26 September 2005 in Kathmandu, taking the 30min flight in a Twin Otter to Lukla. Our party comprised myself, my Nepalese wife Champa, her brother Madan, our daughter Sharon and her partner Michael. We were using the “services” of our family connected agency Sherpa Expeditions & Trekking Ltd.
The first five days we followed the regular Everest Base Camp trail which we have travelled many times and made many friends along. There is something quite warming about arriving in mountain villages in the Himalayas and knowing that you have friends who will be surprised and genuinely welcoming when they see you. The first night we stayed at Phakding only three hours or so from Lukla and lodged at the Namaste Lodge run by Nima Dorje. Within minutes of arriving we have coffee, rakshi wine and pizzas “thrust” upon us. The only danger in this village is an expanding waistline and the morning’s hangover. My standard excuse now to Nima is that I only drink alcohol on the way down. Our two nights at Namche Bazaar we spend at the Panorama Lodge high on the slopes above the main town. Run by Serap Sherpa this is also a place of great welcome to us and my wife is soon engaged in conversations about the differences between Newar (her caste) and Sherpa cooking as well as sharing knowledge of secret ingredients. Our third stop is just beyond Thyangboche monastery though this is the point at which our group splits up. My wife and her brother are now returning back to Lukla. This is the furthest and highest she has been and I am extremely proud of her. No altitude sickness so far, everyone is drinking up to 4 litres of fluids per day, eating well and getting a good night’s sleep.
A Change Of Scenery
This is where the landscape starts to change, very few trees, only stunted attempts by gnarled and twisted species here and there, rhododendron bushes getting fewer and less vegetables being grown by villagers and lodge owners. In the last 48 hours between Namche Bazaar and Deboche though we have seen more wildlife, especially flocks of Bharal, the hairy wild Himalayan goat, and lots of huge Lammergeyer Falcons wheeling in the sky above us. The general mountain views have also changed with Everest peeping over Lohtse constantly drawing one’s eye away from the closer majesty of Ama Dablam, Thamserku and Kantega. We pass through the villages of Pangboche and Somara on our way to Pheriche where a cold wind and airborne dust are now added to altitude as something to beware of.
Pheriche is our base for the next two days at an altitude of 14,042 ft, a place to rest and allow our bodies to acclimatise further. It is also the first place to get a sighting of my summit goal, Lobuche Peak at the head of the valley in the distance. It looks magnificent from here with the false and main summits clearly visible. Other peaks also take the breath away; Ama Dablam has now completely changed shape with it’s twin peaks taking on a sharp and pointed appearance replacing the rounded and inviting shape seen from the trail earlier; Tawoche and Cholatse which are seen for the first time look awesome, the epitome of what one imagines a Himalayan peak should look like …… unassailable!
We are staying at the Himalaya Lodge and after our first nights rest scramble up the slopes behind the village to look down on the adjacent village of Dingboche and along the valley to Island Peak which I had climbed three times before, the latest being the year earlier with my late friend Mingma Sherpa. Poor Mingma had been killed in a building site accident in Kathmandu just 6 months ago and it seemed hard to believe that he wasn’t here with me looking at Island Peak and laughingly reminding me of every slip and error I made on each trip. As we looked across the ridge slopes we saw a group of about 20 Yaks and 30 or so people following the high level trail from Dingboche towards Dughla, our next goal. We were curious and walked a few hundred yards towards them before meeting two people with very large cameras and sound equipment. They explained that they were filming a large group from Poland who were on their way to climb ……………. Lobuche East! Oh bugger, so many on the peak at once! My only hope that they would be at least two days ahead of me and possibly off the mountain by the time I was attempting the summit. I couldn’t have been more wrong or completely innocent of what the TV programme was actually about.
On descending from the ridge Michael started to complain of a headache and a couple of hours later when it hadn’t decreased we paid a visit to the Pheriche Medical Post which is also an altitude medicine research station. This place is funded and run with western aid and provides a source of medical support for locals as well as conducting it’s research. I always call in and pay a small fee, around $1-2 to have my blood oxygen level measured. Today the results were: (My SummitPost username was fdoctor!)
Oxygen level (%)
|Heart Rate (bpm)|
The worrying figure here is Michael’s very low saturation level of 77% and he decided to go to a lower altitude at Pangboche or Deboche immediately. I felt extremely low watching Sharon and Michael trudging off on the trail we had arrived on just the day before. Michael had done everything right drinking MORE than 4 litres per day, eating plenty and getting lots of scheduled rest. He is also extremely fit and a good climber, his job as a roofer keeping him in shape. However this proves yet again the lack of any link between fitness and rate of acclimatisation at altitude and his decision to descend rather than start taking Diamox was one I approved of.
The next morning we set off for Dughla, just a couple of hours along the trail but an altitude gain of 1100 ft. At 15,170 ft Dughla is not a place that many people overnight at, preferring to continue to Lobuche at over 16,000 ft then spending two nights with a blinding headache. I have always stayed one night at Dughla despite it being a bit of a shit-heap with just two lodges and only a short trek from Pheriche, but the end justifies the means if the outcome is no headache. Later that day, much to my delight Sharon and Michael arrived after spending the night at an altitude 1500ft or so lower than Pheriche; once again the end justifying the means. The rest of this day we spent discussing our next moves. Sharon and Michael were continuing on the classic trail up to Everest Base camp and the small peak of Kala Pataar whereas I was branching left towards our base camp for Lobuche East. Ang Pasang my Sherpa, now did a complete check on our supplies and equipment and redistributed loads between himself and our two porters, Sankar and Biresh. The next morning we were up at dawn and watched the sunrise lighting up all the peaks around us. I didn’t know what to look at most, Lobuche East in trepidation, or the jagged outlines of Cholatse which is really “in your face” at this point. After a quick breakfast Sharon, Michael and I split up again, promising to meet up 3-4 days later somewhere on the trail back down to Lukla.
On The Mountain
Our base camp for Lobuche East was at an altitude of 15,800 ft with a total ascent of 2000 ft and total descent of 1300 ft from Dughla and we arrived after only 1hr 6min. The sight that greeted us was both colourful and thought provoking; we counted around 30 tents as well as several large mess tents with smoke and steam rising from cooking pots. The Polish group were still at base! Ang Pasang greeted their head Sherpa who he had climbed with on Lohtse and Everest and discovered that they had already established two higher camps and everyone was going through the classic acclimatisation process of carrying a load up to a higher camp then returning to sleep below etc. He also said we were welcome to use their fixed ropes as we wished which would certainly save us a lot of time and effort. Meanwhile I had introduced myself to some of the Poles and discovered that they were making a reality TV programme with two teams competing on the mountain for the final prize! Oh great, 36 amateurs all posing for the camera and trying to out-summit each other, just what I came to this peak for!
After a classic Nepali lunch of noodle soup, yak cheese sandwiches and apple pie we decided to head up to the Poles first high camp on a rock plateau beside a hidden lake at 17,150 ft. We took only 1hr 10min and suffered no altitude effects. We met with a friendly reception from the Polish group and were soon sharing their coffee and some stew listening to their story of how they won their semi-finals of the TV show which had been held in the south of Nepal in the Chitwan safari park. Whilst fascinated with the story my mind was racing with how we would cope with 30 or so of them all trying to summit the same peak as us via a sharp ridge and a tricky abseil down an ice notch followed by ………….. oh shut up and stop worrying about it!
Back down at base camp that night it was my turn to cook and Pasang, Sankar and Biresh were looking forward to my “English stew” which they had sampled on previous trips. We settled in our sleeping bags that night having scoffed the entire panful (two tins of mutton, and as many fresh vegetables as we had including potatoes, carrots, onions, spinach and some chillies.)
The next morning after our usual breakfast of porridge and omelette we packed up our camp and set off to establish our own high camp. The weather had changed quite noticeably, it was colder, there was a heavy ground frost, it had snowed above around 19,000ft and the cloud base was approximately 20,000ft. Not very promising. My diary for that day reads as follows:
October 5th 2005, 6.00pm
Too bloody cold to write much, everywhere frozen solid. We arrived at the standard high camp plateau which is Camp 1 for the Polish group since they have established a Camp 2 at around 18,500ft with fixed ropes leading up to it from around 18,000ft. As you can imagine the area was very congested so we decided to continue to establish our own camp at 17,700ft. So here we are, perched on rock, snowing, in cloud, wet, bloody miserable. Decided to set our alarms for 2am for a 3am summit bid. This is it! No it isn’t, we’ve been in our sleeping bags less than an hour when we hear a voice outside crying: “help me, is there anyone in there, please help me” Guess what, it’s a Pole, lost in the cloud and blizzard trying to find his way, alone, from Camp 1 to Camp 2. We calm him down before Pasang gets his down suit on and helps him back down the mountain to their Camp 1. A taste of things to come! ”
Not very imaginative prose but it reflects how I was feeling at the time.
Got up at 2am, went back to bed at 2.10am. Snowing hard, cloud so thick I cant see the mess tent from my own tent. Ang Pasang laughs and starts snoring again. We awake again around 5.30am and nervously peek outside to see 3in of snow and a clear blue sky. So we shout to Sankar and Biresh to get the stove going for a quick brew as we start dressing. After 30min we are on our way and can just see the Polish group setting out from their Camp 2 at 500ft or so above us. After 15min we have reached the first of the fixed ropes and we are sure glad to use them. The first phase of the climb is over rock slabs varying between 30-50 degrees slope. Under normal conditions this would be a walk in the park but when covered in ice with a powder snow coating, not so easy. After 1 ½ hours of this we reach the foot of the snow wall that will take us to the top of the main ridge and the position of the Polish camp 2. We continue to use jumars on the fixed rope and I look around me with some exhilaration only slightly out of breath. On reaching Camp 2 the remaining Sherpas offer us hot drinks which we decline, pushing on seems more important as we have become enveloped in cloud in the space of a few minutes and it has started snowing.
We are now on the peak’s main ridge which undulates over the false summit, down the notch and back up again to the main summit. I am really looking forward to this as I want a close look at Lobuche West which is classed as an expedition peak and is a much harder proposition, something to ponder for next year’s trip? The next hour or so is a complete blur both physically and metaphorically. A complete whiteout eliminates all views except of the rope and our own feet, following a fixed rope is a great comfort. My breathing is getting harder and I am resting more frequently though not excessively. Pasang encourages me by telling me that we are now on the final slopes of the false summit just as the first Pole descends out of the gloom above us. He is attached to the fixed rope and virtually glissading half standing, half sitting on his backside, almost out of control. He doesn’t know how to pass on the fixed rope so we make the necessary moves to help him around us. Pasang and I look at each other and are almost thinking the same thing “only 35 of them to go!” We plod on for another 10 mins when a group of four slide towards us. The lead person is almost in shock to find something barring his way and starts gesticulating and screaming for us to get off the rope. “No problem Polska” I tell him as Pasang begins hacking a platform for us in the snow. We bury our axes and clip into them, sitting down to wait and watch. Remember we are in a complete whiteout and can’t see them until they are less than 5m away from us, but nor can they see us and almost jump out of their skins as they fly by us. This could now get very repetitious, I think you’ve got the picture as we waited for them all to pass getting colder, but having a welcome break. After 30min or so and a couple of hot drinks later we continued on our way. Up, down the notch, up the final slopes, take a photo with a very white background, then turn round and start to follow the fixed rope again. However the drama isn’t over! Remember the rock slabs below the summit ridge? Within 20m of starting down these slabs we come across one of the Poles, with his boot and calf trapped in a crack in the rocks. He is very distressed naturally but thankfully not injured being more scared by the prospect of no-one descending to find him for several hours. You’ve got to laugh! We did and still are.
I suppose the rest of the trip was uneventful by comparison, except to report that the leader of the Polish group was Krystof Wylicki, the great mountaineer who has completed all fourteen 8000m peaks. The programme is being shown on Polish TV over Christmas 2005, perhaps I’m in it!!