Mountaineering in Nepal, my longest chapter, and I’ve possibly fallen between three stools by adding more stories … as some asked for, but retaining descriptions/content about the subject of the chapter. Again though, let me ask everyone stopping by here for help, do please comment, reblog, Facebook it, etc etc., all will be accepted, acknowledged, replied to. Here’s the fifth chapter regarding our time in the mountains of the Himalaya: (You should start from previous chapters published so far here Our Book, A Year in Nepal)
“…..the essence of the sport lies, not in ascending a peak, but in struggling with and overcoming difficulties.” Alfred F Mummery (1855-95)
My first foray into the mountains of Nepal was an unmitigated disaster! We had just attended 7 days worth of a family wedding, one of my nieces, and I was going out of my mind cooped up in Kathmandu. My good (and famous) friend, Tirtha Man Maskey thought it would be a good idea to have a short trek, 5-7 days up to Namche Bazaar in the Solu Kumbhu region. The objective was to see Everest and get some experience of Sherpa life. It sounded like a good idea at the time! Except ………. it was mid January and bloody cold, I was unprepared regarding clothing etc, I was unfit, and fat! What could possibly go wrong? My allocated Sherpa guide from the family Sherpa Expeditions company in Kathmandu and I flew to Lukla in the classic Twin Otter and trekked to Phakding on the first day. I was cold, knackered, and had a blistering headache; not very mountaineer-like as we were still only at 8000ft! A horrible night at Namaste Lodge, but at least it was the beginning of what was to become a very long friendship with the owner, Nima Dorje Sherpa. The next day we made it up to Namche Bazaar, the major settlement and “capital” of the Sherpa people, staying overnight at Panorama Lodge. I have very little memory of that day or night, I felt so ill ….. headache and peeing all night. I thought I was dying and/or had altitude sickness, but I subsequently learned from a little research and experience that it was nothing more than severe dehydration PLUS an altitude headache probably caused by not breaking the Phakding to Namche Bazaar journey into two chunks. But at least I saw Everest and the magnificent Ama Dablam which influenced and motivated me to trek into the Himalaya 11 more times in 3 different regions. It also motivated me to lose weight, get fit, and completely upgrade the mountaineering and ice climbing skills of my youth. I subsequently organised and led a total of 5 treks into the Solu Kumbhu and Annapurna regions with each of them being fund raisers for charity. Two were raising money for Cancer Research UK, and the others being for our own registered charity and NGO, Nepal Schools Aid. Generally, trekking in Nepal can be a wonderful experience …… or an absolute nightmare if you are underprepared. Unhygienic food, dirty toilets which are nothing more than a hole in the ground, dusty insect ridden bedrooms, a lack of clean water, cold and dry weather conditions, and of course the altitude. But the great positive is the local people you will meet, very few of whom are deliberately trying to create “harm”. Many of the problems we actually experience are self inflicted such as choosing the wrong foods, not drinking enough fluids, not enough attention to personal hygiene, ascending too quickly breaking some well known rules to name but a few. I learned so much from my first two treks plus listening to really experienced trekkers that in 8 subsequent treks I never once experienced any discomfort, not even in summiting several peaks above 21,000ft. So how about some shared experience here and a little advice: During my later mountaineering days I started to notice a few important things about myself, my fellow trekkers or mountaineers, my environment, my equipment or tools. Here is just a few:
- I was achieving more in the Himalaya than the Alps ….. strange!
- My general suffering from fatigue, headaches, minor ailments was reducing.
- I was slowing down and deliberately planning longer schedules.
- Many first time trekkers ignored general advice from local guides.
- Daily altitude gain is a more important factor than distance gain.
These were all observations from trekking to Everest Base Camp EIGHT times overall, trekking 3 times to Annapurna Base Camp in the Annapurna Sanctuary and once deep into Langtang Region for a couple of peaks. I also stood on top of SIX Himalayan peaks above 18,000ft, three above 20,000ft as well as numerous French and Swiss Alps summits above 13,000ft. Lots of experiences to learn from, provided we reflect and change, and now to distil and pass on to others:
- Two different items are basically an altitude trekkers best friends: the metal Sigg bottle x 2 @1.5 litres for water, and the humble spud when boiled as a rapid source of glucose due to its high glycaemic index. But let’s put them in context first with some golden rules.
- Once you are above about 8000ft never trek and sleep at an altitude more than 1000ft higher than the previous day. If unavoidable, sleep for two nights at the new altitude to average out the gain over two days instead of one. As an example the altitude gain between Phakding and Namche on the Everest trail is about 2600ft and this is why guides insist on two nights sleeping here. Calling it a “rest day” is not entirely accurate and tempts too many young trekkers to think they don’t need a rest and to carry on. Really it’s an acclimatisation day and is allowing your body to adapt to the new altitude and less oxygen availability. The really difficult day for the inexperienced trekker to understand is trekking from Pheriche/Dingboche to Dughla only rather than going on to Lobuche. This is where many trekkers fail, because the altitude gain is 800ft vs 2000ft, but it only takes a couple of hours to reach Dughla and to now be over 15,000ft! The only thing waiting for you at Lobuche is a big headache and potential failure! Slow down, relax, enjoy the magnificent and majestic peaks around you, especially Cholatse.
- Drink SIX litres of water per day! I’ll repeat that …..drink SIX litres of water per day! Sounds crazy but is based on the fact that most altitude headaches are NOT altitude sickness as HAPE or HACE but are caused by dehydration. Think of the worst hangover you’ve ever had …….. dehydration. To achieve so much fluid intake you will need two 1.5litre metal Sigg bottles and a disciplined schedule roughly as follows. At the end of your first day trekking drink as much tea, juice, water as you can. Fill both Siggs with boiling water, put a sock over each and use as bed warmers. Next morning when cooled add a little powdered flavouring to taste and store in your rucksack. At breakfast, morning break, lunch and afternoon break drink tea or juice at the lodge or rest stop. As you trek drink from your bottles too. On arrival at your nights destination make sure you have drunk ALL the liquid from your Siggs. During the evening drink more juice or tea too, add it all up and you should be 5+ litres. Now before you go to bed, repeat the schedule.
- Use the humble potato, boiled in their skins, as a rapid source of energy to feed your tired limbs and rejuvenate yourself. To understand this you need to read a little about the glycaemic index, a scale of 1-100 indicating the speed at which a particular food releases glucose into the bloodstream. The higher the score of a food the faster it releases energy. So, at the end of a days trekking fast energy is needed and a readily available source is boiled potato with a GI of 80+. Conversely at breakfast a food of a low GI is best as you want something that releases glucose slowly as you trek, and …….. porridge fits the bill with a GI of 46. Now, you may not need or feel like having boiled spuds every day, and that’s fine. But if you have a bad day and need a boost remember the humble spud.
Many people are now venturing into altitude trekking as part of their bucket lists, Everest Base Camp, Kilimanjaro, Machu Picchu to name a few. Sadly not all will make it because they are underprepared for some of the simple realities including the human body adapting to altitude at a rate to suit itself, the altitude literally sucking the fluids out of you mostly from increased breathing rates rather than sweating, and the body’s need for glycogen at varying rates of supply. Understand these issues and follow these golden rules and you will increase your chances of success dramatically. Before I get on to the mountaineering expeditions to climb a variety of peaks in the Annapurnas, Langtang and the Solu Kumbhu, it’s worth pondering a little more about the issue of mindfulness related to trekking, making yourself slow down, being more in tune with your surroundings and especially the people you meet. Make the effort to communicate with people even though you have different languages, try and experience as much of THEIR culture as you can. By doing this I made several friends in the Solu Kumbhu region amongst lodge owners, Sherpa guides, and the humble but brilliant porters. So here’s a little about mindfulness and travel, see if you can apply it to trekking:
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness. It’s a pretty straightforward word. It suggests that the mind is fully attending to whatever is happening, to what you’re doing, to the space you’re moving through. That might seem trivial, except for the annoying fact that we so often veer from the matter at hand. Our mind takes flight, we lose touch with our body, and pretty soon we’re engrossed in obsessive thoughts about something that just happened or fretting about the future. And that makes us anxious. As Buddhists it is something that comes naturally to us, but we aren’t trying to stuff Buddhism or meditation down people’s throats; far from it, our thoughts are merely based on our own experiences of travel, people, different cultures. It’s really all about focus, and having one! So here is our most meaningful quotation from a Buddhist perspective that can apply to life generally: “All states of being are determined by mind, it is mind that leads the way”. Think about it! Now specifically imagine you are on a trek to Everest Base Camp …… and think like this: • Be still: Slow down, take your time over EVERYTHING like adjusting your rucksack, tightening your boot laces, buying a cup of black tea, taking a breather. Relax in your surroundings, don’t rush to the next sight to see. • Be aware: Look around you, take in the details as well as the big picture such as the shape of a tree, the length of the wire bridge, the clothing of your guide or porter, the stonework of the buildings, the incessant hammering of the stone-masons, the clouds, the prayer flags and their message. • Be non-judgemental: Don’t keep comparing things with the way they are back home, be accepting of the way things are done here, the food, the customs, the language, the people. And don’t judge yourself, stop beating yourself up over things. • Be in the here-and-now: Focus on the moment, put yesterday and tomorrow out of your mind, forget work, college, the exam, the project. The only thing that matters is time and place, here and now. Be grounded. Certainly this focus helped me to see and experience much more in all my mountaineering trips than I thought possible, it brought out the “inner poet” in me too! Here and Now (My own version) (With thanks to William H Davies and his poem, Leisure)
What life is this if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare;
No time to watch the mountains grow, or wonder where those rivers flow;
No time to speak with Didi or Dai, except Namaste! passing by;
No time to stand beside the tracks, and empathise with burdened yaks;
No time to see the porters fed, or safe at night within a bed;
No time to feel the prayers ascending, from flags on bamboo poles a-bending;
No time to demonstrate respect, by passing Mani on the left;
So when you hear those monks at prayer, think how their lives are full of care;
And take some time to ponder how, to make the most of here and now! Dr B (2003)
Time now for a slight change of tack, an upgrade from trekking to climbing ……. to climbing really BIG things in the Himalaya. Trekking can be hazardous, especially if one is alone in a wilderness or in poor weather, but climbing on rock or ice takes one to a whole new universe, one where risk assessment and management is key, followed by a completely different skill set. Mountaineering at its finest in the Himalaya needs trekking skills to get to your mountain, climbing skills on rock, snow, ice, and a mixture of all of them. Do NOT be seduced by the lure of what are called “trekking peaks” in Nepal, they involve a hell of a lot more than trekking and are only separated from “expedition peaks” by altitude mostly rather than technical difficulty! I once met a small group of Australian girls who had were trekking to Everest Base Camp and who were being guided to attempt the summit of Imja Tse, commonly known as Island peak at an altitude of “only” around 21,000ft! Chatting to them over a mug of tea they told me they had never had any training in using ice axes or crampons, didn’t know what a fixed rope or a jumar was ….. but just knew it was OK because it was only a trekking peak! I hope they’re still alive! It reminds me of the quote from Edward Whymper, the famous Victorian pioneer Alpine mountaineering. These words are EVERY mountaineer’s mantra:.
“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.” (Edward Whymper, Alpinist)
Before I write about a couple of specific mountaineering expeditions I’d like to pay tribute to my late friend Mingma Sherpa, an outstanding mountaineer who partnered me on several climbs on a number of peaks in Langtang and Solu Kumbhu districts, some of it I hope you will find quite funny!
A Tribute to Mingma (Donut) Sherpa Bad News:
In the summer of 2005 I was extremely saddened to hear of the untimely death of my friend Mingma Sherpa. The circumstances are that he was killed on a building site in Kathmandu rather than being involved in a climbing accident. The purpose of this trip report is to remind me of the man and to pay tribute to him as a friend and professional guide who kept us safe in pursuit of our dangerous sport. We first met him on a trip into the Langtang Region, our goal being to climb Naya Kanga after a warm-up on Yala. Ged, a climbing partner for almost 40 years and I were with him on this trip with Yala being successfully climbed but the snow conditions on Naya Kanga being too difficult for a summit bid. Since this trip Ged has used the photo of himself and Mingma on Yala summit as the screen saver on his laptop. “I see him every day” said Ged. On the return trek he was one of the team who introduced us to Mustang Coffee (lots of rakshi with a little coffee added to it) and danced and sang the louder as more and more cups were consumed. After this trip he led a charity trek to Everest Base camp and a charity climb on Island Peak. We were raising money for cancer research and the Nepal Trust as well as trying to break the world altitude record for Extreme Ironing. I think he understood the fundraising but not the carrying of an ironing board up a serious Himalayan Peak! In April 2005 he was on Island Peak again with me, and this trip report is of that climb.
The Trek and Donut Incident:
Earlier on this trip we had trekked as a group up to Namche Bazaar, including my wife and some of our Nepali family. My wife was really struggling, especially on the return journey down Namche Hill and typical Mingma, he literally held her hand all the way down and most of the way back to Phakding, this was his level of care for other people. One afternoon on a rest day during this family trek Mingma Sherpa, Bhakta Tamang and I decided to have a bit of an eating contest in the German Bakery at Namche Bazaar. The plan was to pick batches of three different cakes, eat them, and then vote on which one was the best for future reference! First round, Bhakta picked a thick slab of chocolate cake, I picked a sticky apple strudel,and Mingma picked………. a donut!! Bhakta was disgusted with him as I tried to coax him to pick something bigger. “No sir, donut please”. So a donut he picked! Then I carefully cut each choice into three pieces so we could all taste each one and start the judging. The look of horror on his face was incredible, it was HIS donut and he didn’t want to share it with anyone, no matter who was paying. From that day onwards, and forever, he has been known to me as Mingma Donut. Goodness only knows what name he had for me. We continued our trek up to Dingboche then Chukkung without incident, hiring most of our equipment and tents at Chukkung. On our rest day we clambered up Chukkung Ri and had fantastic views of the Lhotse Face and Island Peak itself. We then continued on to our base camp, which was only a couple of hours from Chukkung, to find it fairly quiet. In fact it was relatively deserted this being the end of the Spring season. The weather was encouraging and we spent a restful day just eating and generally messing around. At this stage there was just four of us, my two friends Mingma and Bhakta, and one porter Ramesh we had hired at Lukla. The next morning we set off for Island Peak high camp which is at about 5500m and once again only a couple of hours from Base Camp. This is situated on some rock ledges below a gully, the only problem being a lack of water depending on where the snow line is situated. This year it was well above us so we were really short of water for 24 hours, not ideal at this sort of altitude. Everywhere was clear, no clouds and great views which was a good omen for the next day. Earlier a Japanese group had left for the summit at 2am, yet didn’t return till around 5pm! It seems they were painfully slow but extremely determined to succeed. As the sun went down that evening I sat outside for a while watching the sunset and listening to ACDC on my mp3 player. Over an evening meal of the usual dhal-bhaat we made our plans, checked equipment and agreed on a 2am wake-up. I lay in my tent that night with lots of adrenaline pumping, struggling to get to sleep, completely unknowing that this was to be my last summit with Mingma Sherpa.
As agreed we were up at 2am, tea already brewed by Ramesh and supplemented with a couple of chocolate bars. We set off up the rock gully, transferring to the ridge to the right which was quite icy. We had decided to wear trekking shoes up this first part carrying our plastic boots to the top of the ridge where we stopped after about 45min of ascending. We sat down in the snow by torchlight, probably unnecessary in a good bright moon and started to boot up. What shocked me after a few minutes was that Bhakta was struggling! He was panting, said he felt weak and had a headache. His day on Island Peak was over, and he woefully began to return to our tents as we moved on. This just goes to show that these fantastic Nepalis are just as likely to be struck by altitude related illnesses as the rest of us. I later suspected that he hadn’t been drinking enough and had probably given his share to me! The next part of the climb involved a small glacier crossing before reaching a snow wall on the left which takes you up to the peak’s main ridge. The sun was now up with a perfect blue sky and not another person in sight as we sorted out rope and snow stakes to ascend this wall. The first step was to cross the bergschrund which we negotiated easily with the snow being frozen solid. Mingma had decided to fix a rope while I had a hot drink from my thermos. Twenty minutes later I began to jumar up the rope, reaching Mingma he moved on again to the top of the ridge fixing a doubled rope in a way that we could retrieve it and re-use it to ascend the final ridge and small pyramids. I reached him after a ten minute effort and was surprised on looking down behind me to see another group of six had reached our rope and were starting to climb on it. This really pissed us off as we now couldn’t pull the rope up to continue our climb and had no option but to sit down and wait for them to reach us. Needless to say there was an “exchange” of verbals when they arrived and we really couldn’t believe the arrogance of the Portuguese group who seemed to think using our rope was fair game. We decided to wait ten minutes or so to cool off and let them get out of our way, which on reflection was a wise move. Roped together we completed the ridge and used two axes each to ascend the splendid final two pyramids to the summit, now deserted with the Portuguese group having descended immediately. The views in all directions were truly amazing as we put up a few prayer flags and took the obligatory picture, me with a photo of my late son and Mingma with one of his wife. (It was only a year later after his death that I discovered that Mingma had TWO wives and a bucketful of kids! You old dog Mingma!) We were back at High Camp by 11am to find Bhakta fully recovered from his malaise after a few hours extra sleep and some cups of tea. Less than a week later we are back in Kathmandu sharing pizzas in Fire & Ice, still laughing about the donut incident and plotting our next trip. So, in true Buddhist principle, have a good next life Mingma, and everybody be very careful next time you think to swat a fly in Nepal, it might be Mingma Donut! How will I ever climb Tharpu Chuli, Singhu Chuli and Cho Oyu without you?
I’m a mountaineer get me out of here. Lobuche East; Nepal
And so we come to the final expedition before I hung up my ice axes, it just wasn’t the same without Mingma. Trust is earned in mountaineering, and I was finding it difficult to build trust again with a new partner after Mingma. The title of this chapter is contained and revealed in the story of summiting this peak, but for those who have no inkling at all it’s based on the UK TV programme called “I’m a celebrity get me out of here” a reality game show set in jungles, mountains etc.
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 very mixed:
- Michael: Heart Rate 80, Oxygen Level 77%
- Sharon: Heart Rate 82, Oxygen Level 88%
- Dr B: Heart Rate 53, Oxygen Level 87%
The worrying figure here is Michael’s very low Oxygen 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 I set off for Dughla without them, 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 sleep at overnight, 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 new 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: 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. Summit Day 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 1⁄2 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 because we are STILL in a whiteout. The earlier views of another climber making the summit have gone!
We 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 was being shown on Polish TV over Christmas 2005, perhaps I was in it!! But ….. my final thoughts were about dear Mingma as I wrote this poem during this expedition:
Along The Ridge To Lobuche (Inspired by a fellow Cumbrian, William Wordsworth)
- I wandered lonely as a cloud, that floats on high o’er peaks and crags, When all at once I saw a crowd, a host of Buddhist prayer flags, Tied to chortens, some to trees, flapping strongly in the breeze.
- Continuous as the stars that shine, and twinkle in the Milky Way, They stretched in never ending line, along the ridge to Lobuche, Five colours come into my view, red white and green, with yellow and blue.
- Their printed prayers soar high with hope, for karma gained for lives to be, Yet trekkers pass without a thought, of dharma and eternity, And Buddha’s Middle Way of life, releasing mankind from all strife.
- So often now I sit and think, of absent friends or mountains high, Those flags I see within a blink, flash across my inward eye, So if my spirit ever sags, my heart recalls those Buddhist flags. (Dedicated to Mingma, Ged and Andy …….. together now and hopefully waiting!)
This chapter/post has been relatively eclectic. Built around the treks and climbs of very big peaks, it covers some expeditions, some personal experiences, friendships, and some advice for those venturing above 10,000ft in Nepal. It meanders a bit, but so did I all those times with my mountaineering friends, Ged and Andy from England, Mingma and Bhakta from Nepal. Only Bhakta and I remain, at times we were lucky to remain, survive, escape. Blizzards, rock falls, collapsing bridges ….. and one day a wild rampant yak butted me from behind and I was falling from a wooden bridge into a raging torrent below until Bhakta threw his whole body on top of me and our combined weight stopped my slide. The longest I ever spent away from Dr C in the mountains, leaving her behind in Kathmandu, was for 6 weeks. I showered only once in that time and didn’t shave at all. Complete suffering in pursuit of adrenaline thrills! I was 60 years old when I finally stopped, and its only by writing this post 12 years later I realise how much I miss it. If I continue this book, future chapters will be much more sedate, but personal experiences nevertheless. Festivals, weddings, running an aid organisation, rotten education and endemic corruption will all figure.
MOUNTAINEERING: REMEMBER AND UNDERSTAND
- Trust is earned!
- In Nepal, “Trekking Peaks” are complete misnomers, they require real mountaineering skill.
- In Nepal most trekkers do NOT get altitude sickness as understood by pulmonary or cerebral oedema, they get dehydration sickness.
- Above about 10,000ft do NOT ascend more than 1000ft per day, forget distance, it’s not relevant.
- Ensure you have ALL the skills required for what you are attempting, and the fitness.
- The objective is NOT to reach the summit …… it’s to get back down safely!
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