Tag Archives: Nepal trekking

To Lukla In Limbo – Nepal – Chapter 18

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Debuche (3820m) – Namche Bazaar (3440m) – Lukla (2840m)

Date = 02-06 April

Everything is streaming.  D&L wake up to bedclothes wet with condensation and their noses running.  Descending from the cold dry air of the high Himalayas, it seems that everything’s now melting.

Sunlight dapples the well-paved trail through a forest of tall rhododendron.  This morning the main Everest Base Camp route is swarming with trekkers, moving busily in both directions.   The monastery and village of Tengboche sits perched on a ridge, its buildings encircling an immense open clearing.    Towering peaks form spectacular backdrops in all directions.  In front of the monastery a man lies face down on the ground.

D:  Is he praying?  Prostrating himself?

L:  No.  He’s taking a photo.

On the monastery steps a woman with a selfie-stick tries out various expressions on her fully-made-up face.  She’s a creature from another world – L&D have hardly seen a mirror for a month.

P1030589 (2)Despite the bustle outside, the elaborately decorated monastery complex is all but deserted.  A dog lies flatly on the warm paving stones and four ponies amble through the grounds.  D&L circle the gompa, spinning all the prayer-wheels, and admire the deceptively ancient-looking interior, dating back only to 1993.  This monastery, originally founded in 1919, burnt down 70 years later and was carefully rebuilt.  There is a beautifully serene Buddha, eyes half closed, meditating on the altar, and a wall of prayer books behind.  They study a large painted wood panel.

Angtu:  It’s the Buddhist Wheel of Life.  Right there at the centre of the wheel you see three animals.  These animals are at the centre of every person, and we need to get rid of them to reach enlightenment.  The pig is ignorance.  The cockerel, desire.  And the snake, anger.  One leads to another.  If we are ignorant, then we desire things, and then we get angry.

L:  Where’s the Buddha?

Angtu:  He’s outside the Wheel.  Because he’s enlightened.

They descend steeply, with many other trekkers, on a crumbling sandy trail, dust rising, to the river 600 metres below.  Above the torrent are a series of perpetually spinning water powered prayer wheels.  Beside the river is a large outdoor café where they sit with hot chocolate and croissants.  It’s now April and peak season, and it’s packed with people resting in the sunshine, most of them just setting out at the start of their trek.  It’s like a trendy pub garden on a Sunday afternoon.

P1030608 (2)L:  Just look at them!

D:  What’s wrong with them?

L:  Nothing.  They just look so clean!  Look at their clothes!  Their tangle-free hair.  Their plucked eyebrows.  I can’t stop staring!

D:  Stop staring.

L:  I can’t.

They set off again, walking strongly and enjoying the novelty of abundant oxygen in their lungs as they lose altitude.   High season has brought a wider variety of people onto the trails, including a few less fit, or less appropriately dressed, or less courteous (to their guides) than those with whom they have shared the mountains for the last month.

An astonishingly smooth engineered trail winds its way along the contours of the vertical hillside, high, high above the river, all the way back to Namche Bazaar.  They pass an old man on a deck chair with a collections box.

Angtu:  He needs donations from trekkers to continue building the trail, and to keep it maintained.  His family started the project years ago and it’s grown from there.

Back in Namche, they apologetically hand over trousers and thermal tops, stiff with grime, to their hostess to launder.  On the roof of their lodge is a stylish bakery with squashy sofas, cappuccino, cake and free wifi.  Everything is a treat.

***

D walks out of the bathroom in his boxers.  It’s 12°C and the first time in a month it’s been warm enough to stand around without clothes.

L:  Oh my god – you’re so thin.

D:  Get out of bed.  So are you!

They weigh themselves.  Despite all the porridge and pancakes and dal bhat and pizza and Snickers for medicinal purposes, they’ve lost 10 lbs each.

***

In Namche Bazaar’s monastery, a monk offers them a blessing.  One by one he takes their right hand in both of his own, and solemnly wishes them “good luck”.  He knots a length of red string around each of their necks and gives L a woven wool bracelet.  He presents them each with a cream prayer scarf.

L:  D’you think this’ll help us survive our flight from the world’s most dangerous airport?

D:  Bound to.

***

P1030672 (2)Descending from Namche to Lukla, they pass trekkers panting their way up the long ascent.   In the valley fruit trees are bursting with white and pink blossom and the vivid green of buckwheat patchworks the fields.  Rhododendron trees are in flower.   They trail is teeming with trekkers and porters and donkeys and yaks.

L:  We’ve literally passed hundreds of people today.  In both directions.

D:  I miss the emptiness.  And the hugeness of the views.  And the snowy backdrops.  I miss my mountains.

Despite D&L being fitter than ever, today’s 22 kilometres take their toll.   Lukla’s one main paved street seems to stretch on for ever.  At the far end of town is the airport, its ludicrously short runway sloping steeply downhill and off over the abyss.  Tomorrow they will climb into an 18 seater plane and motor off the edge.

D:  We’ve made it!  Shall we celebrate?

L:  It doesn’t feel like the end yet.  We’re sort of hanging in limbo.  The walking is over, but the journey is not.  There’s tomorrow’s flight out to get through first.

***

P1030694 (2)The day dawns grey.  It’s almost the only really overcast morning they’ve had in five weeks.

Angtu:  The planes fly by sight.  Right now the cloud’s still OK for them to land.  But the flight will take longer – one hour instead of 40 minutes – because the pilot will have to follow the river.

From the window at breakfast they watch the first batch of four tiny aircraft land at first light.  Ten minutes later they are off again, having unloaded and reloaded both passengers and luggage.  By 7.15am, D&L are in the airport, sitting on their luggage in a sea of people.  Planes land and planes take off.

An hour later a rumour ripples through the crowd.  The planes have stopped arriving.

D:  Angtu – what’s happening?

Angtu disappears, confers and returns.

Angtu:  The airport is closed.  The cloud is too low.

The energy in the room begins to buzz as several hundred people work out what to do next.  A dapper Indian gentleman approaches them to discuss sharing the cost of a helicopter.  A young American couple nearby overhear and say they’d be keen too.  That makes six people – a full load.

L:  How much?

Angtu:  I think about $250 each.  Maybe a bit more.

American:  I heard $300.

Angtu speaks to the airline.  D&L should get a refund for their cancelled flight, of around $160 each.  But the price for a heli seems to be rising by the minute.

Angtu:  They say $300 to $350.  It will happen after 1 o’clock, once the airport have officially decided to run no more flights today and can approve the flight ticket refunds.  So we wait.

They wait.  No planes arrive.  Other helicopters land, fill with people, and leave.  The Indian guy gets impatient and finds a seat on another flight.  There is a rising tension among the passengers to leave, to bag themselves a ticket out, whatever the cost.  As the departures hall steadily empties, those remaining dig deeper into their budgets.  No-one wants to be left behind.

L:  I don’t understand.  It’s so much money.

D:  They’ve probably all got flights out of Kathmandu to catch.

L:  But everyone knows that getting out of Lukla is weather dependent.  All the advice is to plan in an extra day.  For exactly this.  It happens all the time.

Another rumour ripples through the clumps of people still waiting.

D:  Angtu – what’s happening?

Angtu disappears, confers and returns.

Angtu:  The airport is open.  The weather is better.

D&L look doubtfully out of the window where the cloud still hovers just above the village.  The airline optimistically checks them in and they move into a chilly waiting room with over 100 other people.  At 18 people per plane, a lot of planes need to arrive.

No planes arrive.  More helicopters land, fill with people and leave.  They wait.  Angtu disappears.  The tension rises.  The crowd thins.

At lunch-time, Angtu reappears.

D:  Angtu – what’s happening?

Angtu:  The airport is closed.  No more flights today.  The airline will give us a refund and find us a heli.

By now the airport seems to be entirely empty of people.  Everyone else seems to have known this already and found space on a helicopter or made alternative plans.  Angtu takes L&D across the lane to a lodge for lunch.   The lodge is just as cold as the airport, but with more comfortable seats.

P1030692 (3)They wait, watching the runway through the window.  Helicopters continue to arrive, fill and leave.

After lunch they go back to the airport where they continue to wait.

D:  Angtu – what’s happening?

Angtu talks to the airline guy.

Angtu:  He can’t find a heli.

Right outside the window, half a dozen helicopters are doing a roaring trade, busily touching down, filling with passengers and taking off again.

At the end of the afternoon they walk down to the dirt yard where the helicopters load up.  The tension is tangible as the last passengers are vying to get out before nightfall.  Everyone is being swept along on a rising wave of irrational panic.

Angtu:  I have got us a place!  On a heli!

L:  Brilliant!  Let’s go!  How much?

Angtu:  A thousand dollars.  For two people.

L:  Err…no!  I don’t think so!

The seats are quickly snapped up by other people and the heli takes off.

L:  Has everyone gone mad?

Angtu:  I have got two more seats!

L:  How much?

Angtu:  Seven hundred dollars.

L:  And you?

Angtu:  No space.  I will come tomorrow.

After five weeks together, D&L consider that leaving Angtu behind now would be highly bad form.

D:  No thank you.  We’ll get the plane tomorrow instead.  Together.

Angtu looks puzzled but resigned.

The last helicopter of the day takes off, leaving L&D in Lukla.  Having saved $700, they splash out $8 on a snug little room with a private bathroom.  Angtu and D close the episode with a glass of local chang each – rice beer with the strength and taste of sherry, served by the half pint.  It hits the spot.

***

P1030693 (2)They are back at the airport at 7am.  The clouds are swirling, but higher, and the skies are much clearer.  Planes arrive and leave.  They check in again.  Planes arrive.  Planes leave.  The cloud builds and lowers.  The planes stop coming.  They wait.

D:  Angtu – what’s happening?

Angtu disappears, confers and returns.

Angtu:  Quickly – we are going.  Follow that man.  We must hurry!.

They are led at a brisk trot onto the runway and squeezed onto a plane with 15 other passengers.  They strap in.  And wait.

D:  Angtu – what’s happening?

Angtu:  The pilot says we can’t take off until the Prime Minister’s plane has left Kathmandu.

D:  When will that be?

Angtu:  Now!

Suddenly the engines roar, the tiny plane bounces forward and hurtles steeply down the slope towards the edge of the cliff.  L grasps her prayer scarf and lucky red string.  It works.  The plane takes off smoothly over the abyss, a tiny white speck suspended in thin air, dwarfed by the world’s biggest peaks.

***

L:  D’you know what didn’t happen on this trip?

D:  Oh dear.  What didn’t happen?

L:  We didn’t get stressed.

D:  No.  Or ill.

L:  Or altitude sickness.

D:  Or blisters.

L:  Or food poisoning.

D:  Or lost.

L:  Or rained on.

D:  Or snowed on.

L:  Or robbed.

D: Or injured.

L:  Or attacked by dogs, or donkeys or yaks.

D: Or yetis.

L:  We didn’t lose anything.

D: Or leave anything behind.

L: Or break anything.

D:  Whatever will we tell people?

L:  Nothing.  We’ll have nothing to say.

D:  We can show them 2,000 photos of mountains instead.

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The Puja, the Yeti, and the Travelling Tailor – Nepal – Chapter 17

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Pangboche (3980m) – Ama Dablam Base Camp (4600m) – Debuche (3820m)

Date = 01 April

L:  So?

D:  6°C.

L:  Plus?

D: Plus.

L:  Plus!

After a fortnight at over 4000 metres, D&L revel in sleeping under real sheets, unrestricted by the confines of a sleeping bag and layers of clothing in bed, and by being able to get dressed without sub-zero temperatures nipping at their skin.  The toilet flush works because the water isn’t frozen, and there’s warm water in the basin tap.

Today they are heading to the foot of the alluring beacon of Ama Dablam.    The sky overhead is a milky blue and the ground is crisp and white.  On the edge of Pangboche, a coating of snow sits prettily on top of dry-stone walls and bushes and trees, reminding them incongruously of the English Cotswolds.

P1030496 (2)They cross the river below the village on a steel bridge strewn with prayer flags, and follow a wide path leading up to an open plateau.  The sun streams from behind Ama Dablam’s peak, throwing it into silhouette and making the broad snow-field sparkle.   Two other small groups, half a dozen trekkers each, are admiring the views back to Pangboche.  L strides away across the plateau.

D:  It’s not a race!

L:  Of course it’s a race.  But we’re winning.  Hurry up.

The route rises in stages, alternating between steep climbs and swathes of flat upland meadows – always open to magnificent views.   It’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous and Angtu waits patiently while they take photo after photo filled with dazzling white landscapes and soaring snow peaks under a brilliant blue sky.P1030504 (2)

L:  It’s so beautiful.

D:  It really is.

L:  It’s all about the sunshine.

D:  What is?

L:  Everything.  How we feel, how we’re experiencing what’s around us.  However magnificent it is, the sunshine affects everything!  Whether we’re warm or cold, whether it’s nice to stop and rest, how many photos we take, how far we can see, the colours that feed into our brains and leave imprints, memories.   Our serotonin levels – how happy we’re feeling.  It’s all down to something as fickle as whether there’s a cloud in the sky.

D:  We’ve been lucky then.

L:  So lucky.  Hurry up – the clouds are building.  And people are catching up.

She charges off again, across the final rubble-covered plateau, to reach Ama Dablam Base Camp.  The huge level bowl, with a stream cutting through it, could accommodate hundreds of tents, but at this time of year there’s just one expedition aiming for the summit.  Angtu shows them the long ridge that the climbers will follow, over the course of 3 days, before attempting the final steep exposed push to the summit at 6,812m.   He also points out the unpredictable hanging glacier below the peak.

Angtu:  The mountain is not so high, but not so easy.  The glacier is very dangerous – it can fall at any time.  When it does, it usually falls to the left, which is why climbers take the ridge route on the right.  But not always – in 2006, it fell to the right and six climbers were killed.

P1030535 (2)They walk towards the little cluster of expedition tents.  A dozen or more people are standing or sitting in a group.

Angtu:  D’you want to talk to them?

D:  No – let’s not interrupt them.  I think they’re having lunch.

They walk on by.  There’s a whistle and a shout from the camp, and they are beckoned over, welcomed, and offered seats and mugs of tea.  The expedition members are not having lunch.

Angtu:  They’re having a puja.

D:  Really?

Angtu:  Yes.  Prayers are offered for blessings, to help them to climb the mountain.  To gain merit.  To clear away any obstacles – on the mountain and in their heads – which may block them in making the summit and returning safely.

On a canvas sheet sit five Norwegian climbers, and between them a Buddhist monk is reciting prayers and mantras from a prayer book.  In front of them a rough rock altar displays climbing equipment to be blessed – helmets, boots and ice-axes, and offerings of sweets.  In a cleft on the altar, juniper sprigs are being burnt.    Four Nepali climbers stand beside the altar, and hand out sweets, chocolate, and fizzy drinks to everyone, including L&D.  A mouthful of Red Bull is poured into every open palm, and then drunk.  A bottle of spirits is produced and everyone is encouraged to knock back a capful.

L&D solemnly follow Angtu’s whispered explanations and think fervent good-luck thoughts for the climbers.

The monk continues to chant as he gives each climber a small handful of grains of rice that he has blessed and they all throw them at the altar.  He gives them each a tiny pinch of grain for them to carry on their climb.  He lights a yak-butter candle.  He rings a bell.  He wraps his prayer book carefully in a cloth and blesses each climber by touching the wrapped book to their bowed heads.  He ties a piece of orange string around each of their necks, and places a white prayer scarf over the shoulders of the expedition leader.  Lastly, one of the Nepali climbers marks every face with flour, on both cheeks, climbers and support staff and audience alike, and everyone cheers and claps.

D&L greet the climbers and wish them luck.  They’ll continue to throw out good-luck thoughts at Ama Dablam for the rest of the week.

By the time they leave, the other trekkers are just arriving.  Patches of grass are appearing from under the melting snow and the sky has clouded over.   Blue and white morphs to grey and brown.  They swiftly retrace their steps to Pangboche for lunch, faces still proudly covered with puja-blessed flour.

D:  So d’you think it’ll make a difference – the puja?

P1030557 (2)L:  I do actually.  I’d really like to think so.  The thing is, this landscape is just so enormous, and the weather and conditions up here are so powerful, that it makes one – well, me anyway – feel very tiny and at the mercy of my surroundings.   And if you can’t control your environment, it’s instinctive to want to do all you can to stay on its good side.

D:  So, taking proactive steps to positively affect your own outcome.

L:  Exactly – but up here, practical steps, such as having all the right experience and equipment is not always going to be enough.  We’re too small, and it’s all too big.

D:  So, what?  Spiritual steps?

L:  Yes – to encourage your environment to be kind and merciful and not give you a hard time.  To appease the powerful spirits, or whatever you believe, by walking the correct way around mani stones, spinning prayer wheels, putting out a string of prayer flags, and by being good, or thankful or respectful.  Or by hoping that each action of a puja ceremony is meaningful.  Because really, those climbers, and all of the rest of us too, are at the mercy of our environment.  What d’you think?

D:  I’m thinking.

L:  OK.

D:  Can we go and see the Yeti now?

L:  I thought you were thinking about spiritual things.

D:  No.  About Yetis.

L:  Oh.  Come on then.  Though it’s not a whole Yeti.

D:  Still.

P1030561 (2)The way up to the 16thC Pangboche Monastery is lined with mani walls.  Lots of them.  D&L carefully pass them all to the left.   Terraced fields are dotted with neat piles of manure and women are preparing the ground for planting potatoes.  Pangboche is the oldest Sherpa village in the region, and this is its oldest monastery.

L:  Apparently the monk who built this place could fly.

D:  Fancy.

The warm terracotta and yellow colours of the building are welcoming.  Inside it’s dark and laid out with a Buddha altar in the centre of the long rear wall, with a high monk’s chair on each side.  The entire wall is set with niches filled with prayer books and the arms of two long raised meditation platforms reach into the room, laid with thick cloaks to keep the monks warm whilst praying.

D:  Where’s the Yeti?

Near the door is a plain, white-painted plywood box on a stand.  A monk unlocks the padlock and opens the door.  Inside is the skeleton of an immense hand with elongated fingers, and a pointed skull covered in short-cropped rich brown hair.

L:  Apparently, it’s real.

D:  Right.

L:  It’s been DNA tested and identified as human or nearly human.

D:  That hand is twice the size of mine.

L:  What can I say?  But this is actually a replica.

D:  Where’s the original?

L:  Nobody knows.  People were so excited about it, that it kept being stolen.  It went for good in 1991.

D:  That’s a pity.

L:  Apparently the actor James Stewart stole it once.  Though he may have been smuggling it back.

D:   Now you’re just making things up.

L:  I’m not!  Wikipedia says so.

D:  Well then.

The mani-walls and stupas and prayer flags continue to line the trail away from the monastery.  A path above a steep wooded gorge leads them gently down to the river and then through a pretty forest of rhododendron.  At the tiny medieval-looking hamlet of Millingo, a travelling tailor sits on the ground on a tarpaulin with an ancient manual Singer sewing-machine.  He is making a child’s padded jacket from offcuts of a sleeping-bag.  Angtu is delighted.P1030571 (3)

Angtu:  Time for tea!

D:  But we’re nearly there.

Angtu:  Time for tea.

He sets down his pack firmly and orders them tea.  He then delves into his rucksack and retrieves two pairs of walking trousers, worn out at the crotch.  He hands them to the tailor and demonstrates the problem helpfully on the trousers he is wearing.   By the time their mugs are empty the trousers are mended.  Angtu is beaming.

As they walk on, Angtu attempts to explain the complexities of the Nepali caste system.

Angtu:  So he’s a tailor.

L:  Yes.

Angtu:  But even if he wasn’t a tailor, he’d always be a tailor.

L:  Ummm.

Angtu:  And his daughter will be a tailor.

L:  What if she’s not a tailor?  What if his daughter wants to work in a bank?

Angtu:  Even if she does not work as a tailor, she will still be a tailor.  And she can only marry within her own caste.  Or she will have to leave her village forever.

Caste discrimination has been illegal in Nepal since 1962, with free education available for all.  But social identities persist.  Society is divided into religious and professional strata.  Jobs are given to people of similar caste, which reinforces the income divide between castes.  Someone born into a service caste such as a tailor will still find it almost impossible to work or marry beyond the confines of their caste.

They meet up with Phurba, sitting on a wall in the village of Debuche.  Without the detours to Ama Dablam and Pangboche monastery he has had a leisurely day.  The lodge is smart and clean with a Lavazza coffee sign on the exterior wall.  Their room is cosy with crisp linen sheets and even a double bed.  Their own spotless bathroom has soap and towels.  It would be the height of luxury but for one thing – there’s no electricity.

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From Temper to Trees – Nepal – Chapter 16

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Gorak Shep (5160m) – Kala Pattar (5550m) – Lobuche (4910m) – Pangboche (3980m)

 Date = 30-31 March

 L&D get out of bed reluctantly.  It’s minus 5°C indoors and snowing outside.  Angtu has booked breakfast for 6.30am.  They’ve got a 400 metre climb to the top of Kala Pattar.

They inspect the sky, which does not look promising.

D:  I really want to climb the mountain.

L:  I don’t seem to mind if we do or not.

D:  I want to see if it clears at all.  If it does I’m going up.

L:  OK, if it does, I’ll come too.

There is a French boy at the next table.  Despite the fact that it’s still only 7am, he says he’s already been to the top and back this morning.

D:  How was it?

Boy:  It was super-cold and not worth it as there was nothing to see.

D:  I think it’s clearing.  The sky’s lightening.  It’s stopped snowing.

Boy:  That’s so not fair!

L:  (joking)  You’ll have to do it again!

P1030397 (2)They leave him to his breakfast and set off.  There’s a thin crust of snow, a bitter wind and a leaden grey sky which is slowly shifting and cracking.  Without the sun the landscape is monochrome and harsh.  There is rock and snow.  Black and white.  Cold and colder.

A helicopter thuds up the valley.  It lands in a snowfield below them.  Three tourists get out, take photos of Mount Everest, get back in, and fly away.

The path up Kala Pattar is clear and unchallenging but steep, until the last 50m of bare rock.  It seems that at 5,500 metres L has reached her temper threshold.  D&L stand just below the summit and bicker.  Angtu looks uncomfortable and pretends he can’t hear.

L:  You go. I don’t even care about getting to the top.

D:  But I want you to be with me.

L:  I can’t breathe.  I’m too cold.

D:  Come with me.

L:  I don’t want to.

D goes ahead on his own and reaches the summit.   L comes slower.  D is delighted.  L couldn’t care less, although through her sulk she recognises that on a clear day the views would be unequalled.  Just behind them, looking close enough to touch, towers the peak of Pumori.  Below them lies Everest Base Camp, and the Khumbu Icefall, and beyond the glacier soars Everest – today glimpsed only fleetingly through the shifting cloud.

P1030423 (2)D:  It’s amazing!  Take photos of everything!

L:  I can’t.  My hands are numb.

She hands the camera to Angtu.

D:  Here – have a celebratory Snickers!  We’re at 5550m!  The highest we’ve ever been!

L:  It’s too cold.  Let’s just go.  Let’s celebrate later – somewhere warm.

D:  Oh.  OK.

L:  Have I ruined it?

D:  A little bit.

L:  It’s just so cold.  And grey.  And cold.

They start down.  L’s mood and fingers thaw a fraction.

L:  Sorry.  I think it’s the altitude.  Now we’re a bit lower, I’m less horrible already.

But she continues to feel negative all the way down.  Bad vibes are streaming out of her.  She’s worried the mountain will feel her antipathy and be offended and cause her to strain a knee or an ankle or fall.  For an hour she mutters “thank you Kala Pattar, thank you Kala Pattar” over and over under her breath, a mantra of gratitude to drown out the rest.

On the descent they are overtaken by a youth, skipping down the mountain.  It’s the French boy, who has summitted a second time that morning, and this time been rewarded with views.  L is pleased for him, and continues her muttering.  “Thank you Kala Pattar, thank you Kala Pattar”.

They arrive back at the warmth of the lodge in Gorak Shep and drink hot chocolate and eat pancakes.  It’s taken nearly 2 hours up, and just over 1 hour down.  D is glowing with a sense of achievement.  L feels nothing – she’s just been for a brutally cold walk and come back again.

P1030431 (2)They set off back to Lobuche.  Without the sun to melt the dusting of snow, the landscape stays monochrome and the windchill is biting.  Once again they across the chaotic maze of glacial moraine.

L:  What’s the most overpriced thing you’ve come across up here?  Bearing in mind that everything’s justified somewhere this remote.

D:  It could be the 4 dollar Kit Kat?

L:  Yes.

D:  Or the 400 dollar horse – for a day’s hire?

L:  Also yes.  One could surely buy a horse for less than that.

They join the wide, dusty, well-trodden corridor of the main trail and stride onwards and downwards.

L:  I think being at altitude might be good practice for extreme old age.  I imagine it’s just the same.

D:  In what way?

L:  Walking everywhere really slowly, with sticks.

D:  OK.

L:  And being always out of breath.

D:  I suppose.

L:  And needing to pee all the time.

D:  I think that’s pregnant people, not old ones.

L:  And not enough personal hygiene.

D:  That’s not old people or pregnant ones.  That’s just us.  I’m not sure this analogy is working.

L:  Oh.  You could be right.

D:  How long ago did we shower?

L:  Does a bucket of warm water attached to a hose count?

D:  Yes.

L:  10 days.

D:  And wash our hair?

L:  Two weeks.

D:  Nice.

L:  Quite.

***

It’s minus 4°C in their bedroom this morning, but outside the sky is clear.

P1030438 (2)A team of yaks, heavily laden with equipment for Everest Base Camp, drink from Lobuche’s stream.  A helicopter lands outside the lodge, throwing up a mini blizzard of fine snow which sparkles in the bright sun.

L is cheerful at the prospect that later today she will have a hot shower.  They have splashed out a shamefully enormous sum for a night of luxury tonight and she’s looking forward to washing two weeks of dirt from her hair.

The blue sky above adds welcome colour to the rock and snow of their surroundings.  As the valley widens, the horizon opens to display a succession of jagged distant peaks, and closer to, in the foreground is a similar series of turrets and pyramids, standing a couple of metres high.  They are spread out across the snow-encrusted plateau, with prayer-flags flying from one to another.  It’s a memorial field to climbers lost on Everest and elsewhere.  Many names are Sherpa, others are from all over the world, and they include some of the biggest and most respected names in mountaineering.

P1030449 (2)Among them is Scott Fischer, the American mountaineer and guide known for ascending the world’s highest peaks without extra oxygen.  In May 1996 he led a group of clients up Everest, assisted by two other guides.  After helping others, he summitted Everest late in the day and during his descent was caught in a violent blizzard that took the lives of 8 people, including Fischer.   In this spot there is also a memorial to Anatoli Boukreev, a respected Russian Kazakhstani climber and one of Fischer’s fellow guides on that day.  After rescuing others, Boukreev did manage to reach Fischer, but he was already dead.  Boukreev survived, but was killed in an avalanche while climbing Annapurna 18 months later.    One of the largest memorials is to Babu Chiri Sherpa, who climbed Everest 10 times, holding the record for the fastest ascent (under 17 hours), and for the most time on the summit without auxiliary oxygen (21 hours), as well as summitting twice in two weeks.  He died on his 11th summit bid of Everest, falling into a deep crevasse in April 2001.

P1030459 (4)From the memorial field, the trail descends through rock-strewn mayhem to the valley floor.  The clouds build, settling on the peaks and draping everything in grey.  The temperature drops.  Porters toil their way up through the boulders under enormous weights bound for Base Camp.  Angtu leads L carefully across an ice-bridge spanning the river, the pair of them slipping and dancing in unison, holding opposite ends of a walking pole.

The broad flat valley floor stretches on forever.  They glimpse the tin roofs of Pheriche at the far end of the plain, but the village remains resolutely distant.   They are now at around 4,300 metres.

L:  Look – juniper!  Actual alive growing things!

They realise that it’s been 10 days or more since they’ve seen a plant higher than a centimetre.

L:  And people living their lives!  Not just looking after trekkers.

They are passing tiny stone cottages, used only seasonally and empty this early in the year, and a patchwork of stone-walled yak paddocks.  A stream runs through the valley and the peak of Ama Dablam soars overhead.  In the sunshine it would be stunning.

In Pheriche they pause in a large lodge to rest and get warm whilst Angtu books rooms for a future group.  On their way out of the village, they spot their kit bag sitting on a wall, and from the interior of a dark tin hut comes a peal of laughter and a quack-quack-quack.  Phurba has found some friends.

P1030470 (2)Over a rise they look down into the next valley, a steep-sided groove cut by a fast-flowing river.  As they drop lower, the vegetation gets taller.

L:  No way!  Real trees!

She points.  On the opposite side of the valley, the hillside is cloaked in woodland.

D:  Oh – how we’ve missed them!

L:  Look how lovely they are.  Even though they’re not in leaf.

The tiny village of Shomare is a cluster of proper homes.  There are hens and little veg plots.  They stop for lunch in one of the only lodges.  The dining room is beautifully draped in wall hangings and the floor is spotlessly swept.  Outside the window a tiny girl toddler stands on a narrow ledge.  She puts her head through the open window and roars like a lion.  Then laughs.  She tries to climb in through the window, gives up and disappears.  P1030476 (2)She potters through the door curtain and climbs up onto the bench next to L.  They stare at each other for a bit.  She puts her face right up to L’s, and laughs.  She pokes L.  L smiles and pokes her gently back.  She giggles and pokes.  And giggles and pokes.  And giggles.  The soup arrives.  Her mother shoos her off the bench.  The little girl tries to climb out of the window, gives up and disappears back through the curtain.  She makes herself busy in the yard throwing cups of water at hens.

The onward path is narrow, high above the river.  They’ve not got far to go, and so amble leisurely behind a train of yaks.  A man scrambles up the bank from the river, hauling a sack of hay.

Man to Angtu:  It’s my mule.  He fell.

They peer over the edge.  On a faint trail 15 metres below them stands a brown mule.  He seems miraculously unharmed by his fall.   Two boys try unsuccessfully to pull and push the animal back up to the trail.  But the mule has had quite enough excitement for one day.  He’s going nowhere.

Pangboche is big and spread out.  There’s the first bit they come to, the bit round the corner, and the bit up the hill.  Their luxury lodge is in the first of these.  The extortionate price buys them a warm welcome with a hot towel, a cup of tea and a large slice of chocolate cake.  After the last fortnight, it’s paid for itself right there.  The room is surprisingly cold, despite the fact that they’ve dipped down to just below 4,000m, and the quality is of European 2-star level.  But it’s easy to forget that this village is still a week’s walk from the nearest drivable track.  It has comfortable beds and proper bedclothes.

P1030501 (2)Lodge:  The hot water bottles are free.  Would you like some?

L:  Fantastic – yes please.

Lodge:  Great.  How many?

L:  Oh – umm….

Lodge:  As many as you like.

L:  I think three.

Their en-suite bathroom has hot running water.  They launder some essentials and then lower the tone by hanging them up to dry in the corridor window.   The loo is all their own.  The gas powered shower is weak and fills the room with noxious fumes but the water is scaldingly hot and doesn’t run out and they both wash from top to toe, thoroughly.

L:  It’s so wonderful to be clean.

D:  Though our clothes still smell.

L:  Who cares?

Angtu urges them not to waste yet more money on forty dollar meals in the hotel so they follow him to the lodge opposite.  D is feeling queasy from the gas fumes.  L orders a cheese & tomato pizza.  Angtu returns from the kitchen.

Angtu:  They have no tomato.  You could have just cheese.

L:  A cheese pizza would be great, thank you.

The pizza arrives.  The kitchen have decided that just cheese won’t do.  They have compensated for the lack of tomato, with alternatives.

D:  What’s on your pizza?  That’s not just cheese.

L:  No.  There’s cheese…and carrot…and cabbage.

D:  Good luck with that!

He smirks and tucks into his dal bhat, though the gas has dulled his appetite.  L is hungry and starts on her pizza.

D:  How are you doing?

L:  It’s OK.  But it’s not right.  It’s great to eat cabbage and carrots, and it’s great to eat pizza, but combining the two should be illegal.

P1030441 (2)

Awesomest Everest – Nepal – Chapter 15

 

P1030273 (2)Gorak Shep (5160m) – Everest Base Camp (5364m) – Gorak Shep (5160m)

Date = 29 March

There are two inches of snow on the ground when D&L set off from Gorak Shep for Everest Base Camp, but the going is easy.  They wend their way gently up the edge of the Khumbu glacier, the rock and dust beneath their feet covered in clean crunchy snow.  The temperature is minus 6°C but the sky is blue and clear, and the sun is warm on their faces.  On every horizon white peaks soar skywards.  They share the path with few porters and Nepali expedition staff heading for Base Camp, but almost no other trekkers.

The guidebook is unenthusiastic about today’s walk.

“Many people have unrealistic expectations of Base Camp and end up being disappointed….there are no views of Everest…and cloud often rolls down from the peaks, obscuring everything in a grey fog.  The main reason to go there is to say you have been there.”

P1030258 (2)Instead of starting from Gorak Shep, most guided groups walk for 3 hours from Lobuche, pausing for an early lunch in Gorak Shep before arriving at Everest Base Camp in the early afternoon, and then heading back to Gorak Shep for the night.  It saves a day, keeps costs down and reduces the time spent at over 5000m.

L:  But it means they’ve walked for 5 hours to get to Base Camp, instead of 2.  So everyone’s exhausted.

D:  True.

L:  And they’ve gained 450 metres in altitude instead of 200.  So they’re probably not feeling so great.

D:  Also true.

L:  And they’ll get to get to Base Camp in the afternoon, after the clouds have built up.  So they might not see anything.

D:  You’re right.  I agree with the guide book.  Could be a pretty rubbish sort of day.

P1030343 (2)They descend onto the Khumbu glacier at around 10am – the landscape a heavy rolling sea of snow-sprinkled rock-strewn peaks and troughs.  Ahead a train of yaks weaves its way calmly through the chaos.  The path leads them to a small hillock strewn with prayer flags.  They are approached by a tall bearded man speaking heavy accented English with some difficulty.   D&L they recognise the accent and switch helpfully into Italian.

Man:  Ahh!  You are Italian!

D:  No, we’re English.

Man:  But you speak Italian!

D:  Yes.

Man:  Fantastic!  So where is the Base Camp?

They confer with Angtu in English.

D:  Umm…here, sort of.

Man:  But where is the sign?

They confer again with Angtu.

D:  Err..there is no sign.

Man:  But for my photos. I must have a sign!

They explain to Angtu.  The Italian has seen pictures of trekkers posing triumphantly in front of a big yellow sign.  And a huge engraved boulder.  Angtu shrugs and walks away.

Man:  So why d’you speak Italian?

D:  We have a house in Italy.

Man:  Oh!  Where in Italy?

D:  Abruzzo.

This is usually the end of the conversation.  The relatively unknown region of Abruzzo in central Italy is not on most people’s radar.  Except, it seems, for today.

Man:  No!  It can’t be true.  I come from Abruzzo!  Where in Abruzzo?

D:  The Majella National Park.

Now they will lose him.  Almost no-one lives in the beautiful mountains of the Majella, with its harsh winters and lack of jobs.  He will live on the coast, in the region’s capital maybe.  But no, it seems, he does not.  He spreads his arms wide.

Man:  Aah!  It’s not possible!  I come from the Majella!

P1030282 (4)They grin at each other stupidly in disbelief.  Angtu returns and leads them over to the pile of stones and prayer flags, where he has dusted the snow off a couple of small rocks on which people have written EBC and the date, in crayon.  It’s good enough for the Italian.  He gets out his camera phone and then delves once more into his rucksack, bringing out a fist-sized rock on which is written “Majella – Abruzzo – Italy”

Man:  Look!  I brought this here!  To Everest Base Camp!  All the way from the Majella!  From my mountain!  He places it reverently on top of stony pile and photographs it proudly.

L:  That’s some dedication.  You’re going to make me cry!

He hugs her.

Man:  I’m crying a bit too!

They leave him taking hundreds of photos of himself and his trek mates, accessorised with Italian T-shirts, hats and flags.  At this point most trekkers stop, take a few selfies, and then retrace their steps.  But the expedition tents for those attempting to summit Everest are spread out along the rocky glacier for a mile or so beyond them.  L wants to see more.

L:  Angtu?  Can we go on?  Up to where the tents are?

Angtu:  This way.

P1030302 (2)He leads them on through Base Camp.  On their left, Nepali expedition teams are clearing rocks and carving flat platforms in the ice on which to set up tents.  Clusters of tents are already in place, and set apart from the rest are tiny latrine huts balancing on pedestals of ice or rock – a loo seat suspended over a plastic drum.  Beside them, sculptural shards of ice thrust upwards through the debris.   On their right flows the Khumbu Icefall – close enough to touch and unfathomably huge.  Tumbling steeply down from the Western Cwm is a kilometre wide torrent of dazzling house-sized blocks of ice.  It’s on the move, flowing at the rate of about a metre a day, constantly shifting and collapsing, opening yawning new crevasses.  It’s beautiful and terrifying.   Helicopters skim along the glacier, over the camp and back again, providing photo opportunities for non-trekking tourists.  The Icefall is so enormous that the little aircraft dip down behind it, lost to sight from where D&L are standing.

A man emerges from a tent and shouts to Angtu.

L:  Are we in trouble?  What’s he saying?

Angtu:  He’s asking if we’d like some tea.

It’s warm inside the expedition kitchen tent despite the smooth ice floor.  Folding tables support large thermoses and cauldrons.  Soup is warming on a kerosene stove and a tower of egg boxes stands in a corner.  They perch on folding stools, sipping peach tea out of tin mugs and happily pretending they are part of an Everest ascent team.

On the return to Gorak Shep, the trail is now bustling with traffic heading up to Base Camp.   Bunches of slow-moving trekkers, strings of high-piled head-swinging yaks, and porters bent double under the weight on their backs.  A mountain of mattresses walks by.  There’s a guy with a half dozen long steel and wood folding tables.  They step aside for a man carrying a large fridge, and for another with a full size cooker.  One porter has 4 x 15kg gas bottles on his back.  Another is entirely buried under an immense roll of carpet.

P1030278 (2)D:  Base Camp was so clean.  I thought Everest was notorious for being strewn with rubbish.  But it was entirely litter-free.

Angtu:  Base Camp is managed by the SPCC – the National Park pollution control guys.  They do a good job.  But higher on the mountain it’s a different story.

D:  In what way?

Angtu:  The SPCC clear up all the rubbish as far as Camp 2, at 6,600 metres, above the Icefall and the Western Cwm.  They supply the Icefall Doctors too.

D:  The Icefall Doctors?

Angtu:  The guys who fix all the ladders through the Icefall at the start of each season.  They pick the safest route and put maybe 50 or more ladders across the crevasses.  So the climbers can get through it.

D:  Sounds dangerous.

Angtu:  It is.  Very dangerous.  Those guys are the real experts.

L:  It’s impressive that the SPCC are keeping the mountain clean all the way up to 6,600 metres.  That’s some seriously extreme litter picking!  Miyolangsangma, goddess protector of Everest, must be happy.

Angtu:  No.  I think she must be very sad.

L:  But why?

Angtu:  Further up – above Camp 2 – it gets bad.  Very bad.  Climbing teams leave a lot of rubbish in the higher camps.  Equipment, oxygen bottles, ladders, food wrappers and a lot of toilet waste.   Even branded stuff like tents – they just cut their company name off and leave it up there.

D:  But don’t they pay a big garbage deposit which they’d lose?

L:  Think about it.  The deposit’s probably been charged to the client, who won’t be expecting it back.  And if it’s easier for the companies to leave stuff up there and not reclaim the deposit, they exert minimum effort and lose nothing.  The next client’s fees probably pays for all new equipment.

Angtu:  There are supposed to be exit checks.  Counting the equipment going up and coming back down.  To make sure all waste is removed from the mountain, and so they can return the garbage deposits.  But the exit checks aren’t done.

D:  Isn’t every expedition member also supposed to bring 8kg of extra waste down with them?

Angtu:  Yes.  But again – no-one’s checking.

L:  That’s so sad.  It shouldn’t need to be about checking – it’s about respect and common sense.  The companies who come every year are quite literally crapping on their own doorsteps.  It’s ludicrous!  And the clients – how can they spend months in this most awesomest of landscapes and then have so little respect for it as to leave waste behind?  What’s happened to basic human conscience?

D:  You’re really shouting now.

Angtu:  It’s different up there.  The priority is to stay alive.  Get to the summit.  Get down again.  And come home.   It’s a problem.

D:  And I’m not sure “awesomest” is even a word.  Though it should be.

P1030303 (3)

A Dangerous Gamble with AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) – Nepal – Chapter 14

P1030230 (2)

Italian Pyramid (4970m) – Gorak Shep (5160m)

28 March

 Angtu:  Everest Base Camp!

D&L have been walking, under an intense blue sky, across high meadow plateaus with open views.  Now they stop and follow Angtu’s gaze to where the distant rubble river of glacier becomes an immense strip of blue-white ice.  This is the Khumbu Icefall, and at its edge are the infinitesimally tiny yellow flecks of tents at Everest Base Camp.  From this viewpoint they have the world at their feet, and all to themselves.  100 metres or so below them is the busy main trekking trail, a rocky ribbon of dust on the valley floor pinched between the foot of the hill and a wall of glacial moraine.  But up here there is no-one – just sunshine, solitude and stupendous Himalayan peaks.  It is soul-singing stuff.

P1030237 (2)The bliss ends abruptly as their route converges with the main path at a junction of two glaciers.  The meeting point is a monumental mess of rubble and rocks and boulders.  It’s less than a kilometre across the glacier to Gorak Shep on the far side, but it takes them an hour.  The dusty, stony trail weaves and undulates through the maze.  Every step is uneven, the ground loose, and dust rises to coat their faces.  New paths are forged as old ones fall away, crushed by slabs of dirty grey ice and dragged underground by slow-moving debris.

Finally, the blue tin roofs of Gorak Shep appear below them, on the shore of a dry sand lake on which yaks lie resting like clumps of driftwood.  At 5,160m, Gorak Shep provides the highest altitude accommodation on earth.  Most trekkers spend one night only here, warned by guide books that they are unlikely to sleep soundly due to the altitude and the cold.  D&L are in no rush and are well acclimatized – they are here for two nights.   The settlement is scruffy and has the tough frontier feel of a place with purpose but no community.  No-one lives here year-round.

Angtu has set them some homework.

Angtu:  We are really high now.  Over 5000 metres.  You may get sick.  Not sleep well.  This afternoon, you must walk at least 100m higher than here, to help you acclimatise.

They promise to do their homework and Angtu heads off to find Phurba who has been banished to the village Porters’ Lodge, despite L&D’s protestations.

Angtu:  All the porters have to sleep there.  The lodges aren’t allowed to give them a room.

D&L cross the sand-lake desert.  A man is galloping to and fro on a palomino pony.  It feels more wild-west than ever.  On the far side, at the foot of a steep slope, people are gathering water trickling slowly from a spring.  Up here clean water is a hard earned resource not to be taken for granted.

P1030252 (2)They climb the hill, checking their altimeter, breathing heavily but otherwise comfortable, and stop once they’ve reached 100m.  From here they can see the Porters’ Lodge.  It is set apart from the other buildings – a long low corrugated-iron barn with no windows, but skylights in the roof.  It looks a lot like a cow shed.

Later they ask Angtu if Phurba is OK in the Porters’ Lodge.

Angtu:  He’s happy.  He says it’s not so full so there’s plenty of blankets for everyone.  And the kitchen is warm.  He’s found friends.  He’s been playing cards.

***

Back at their lodge, a woman reels into the dining room, looking confused and breathless.  After hovering in the centre of the room, she sits down at a table.

L:  Are you OK?

The woman speaks little English but says that her breathing is bad.  A Nepali man joins her.   He tells D&L he is the assistant guide of a group who left Lobuche this morning, heading for Everest Base Camp.  They had lunch here and left him behind with one member not feeling so well.  She needs to lose altitude – returning downhill is the simple remedy.  He suggests to her that they should walk back to Lobuche.  She refuses – she’ll be fine to get to Base Camp tomorrow.  The lodge owner appears with a bottle of oxygen.

Owner:  Would you like some?

Woman:  What is the cost?

Owner:  One hundred dollars an hour.

Woman:  Maybe 15 minutes.

She lies down on a bench.  Hours later she’s still on oxygen, her breathing now audible and laboured.  The assistant guide begs her to return to Lobuche.  She refuses.  The rest of her group get back from Base Camp.  The head guide informs her she needs to lose altitude.  He talks about a horse back to Lobuche.  She refuses – tomorrow she will get to Base Camp.  Her husband implores her.  The guide calls his boss in Kathmandu.  He insists that she leaves, for her own safety.  She refuses.  It gets dark.

In the evening she rallies, walks around, eats a little.  L smiles at her.

L:  How are you?

Woman.  Fine.  A little better.  Thank you.

She returns to her bench, lies down, coughs a lot, cries a little and goes back onto the oxygen.

After supper, D&L’s room is bitterly cold.  They pile three quilts on top of their sleeping bags.  Outside it is snowing and they fall asleep to the jingle of yak bells.

***

They are woken at 5am by noises from a nearby room.  There is a rapid and constant wheezing and rasping and moaning, interspersed by bouts of wracked coughing.  It is the woman and it sounds as though she now has full-blown pulmonary edema.  Her breathing is shallow.  Her lungs are filling with fluid.  If she’s not treated soon she could die.  She needs to lose a lot of altitude.  Now.   They lie there feeling helpless, and fretting.

L:  Should I go and sit with her?  Hold her hand?

D:  I can hear voices.  She’s with people.  She’s not alone.

For the last 12 hours she has been trapped by the darkness.  The helicopters fly by sight, and it’s now way too serious to potter back down to Lobuche on a horse.  She needs to be in hospital.  Urgently.  D&L twitch the curtain from time to time, listening to her terrible, laboured, painful breathing and waiting for the sky to lighten.  As soon as it does, a helicopter will come.  They lie and wait.  She pants and moans and coughs.  They wait and twitch the curtain.  She rasps and wheezes and coughs.   D checks the window.

D:  It’s getting light.

L:  Thank goodness.  The helicopter will come.  She’ll be rescued any minute.

D:  No.  She won’t.

L:  Why not?  Why would you say that?

D:  We’re in the cloud.  And it’s snowing.

L:  Oh no.

At breakfast, L frets and they watch the sky.  Angtu tells them the assistant guide sat with the woman all night, administering oxygen.  She’s in good hands.  She’s with her husband.  They are waiting for the heli.  There’s nothing more to do.

Angtu:  Some clients tell me they’d be happy to die in the Himalayas.

D:  But not before their time!

At this altitude, during the busy season there are medical evacuations almost daily.  There is a question of whether trekking itineraries are too fast to allow all members of a group to acclimatise.  With a medical evacuation there is money to be made by helicopter companies, private hospitals and tour operators.   However, putting all that aside, Nepali guides and tour operators tread a tricky line.  They have wealthy, demanding clients with high expectations who have paid a lot of money for an experience.  Culturally many of these clients will be much more comfortable with confrontation than the gentle courteous Nepalis, who are reluctant to deny their client the experience, or to argue with them.  The Nepalis may be the experts in their environment but a paying customer gets what a paying customer wants – right?  But the paying customer doesn’t necessarily know best – they’ve probably never had AMS before, and one of the symptoms is confusion – their judgement may well be impaired.   In this case, no-one benefits here from letting the client get their way, least of all the client themselves.  A client determined to ignore advice and their own physical symptoms, and subsequently becoming life-threateningly unwell, both puts themselves at risk and places a huge burden of responsibility on trekking companies, local guides and others with little or no medical expertise, such as a lodge owner who provides oxygen or a herder with a horse.  Not to mention the trauma and disruption inflicted on the rest of the trekking group.  Where to draw the line?  Who draws it?  And how to ensure it’s adhered to?   There are no easy answers.

It’s another three long hours before the sky lightens and the clouds lift reluctantly.  Eventually, D&L hear, and then see, a helicopter land at the edge of the village.  Finally the woman will be rescued.   They hope it’s not too late.

P1030363 (2)

The Forgotten Pyramid – Nepal – Chapter 13

P1030206 (2)

Lobuche (4910m) – Italian Pyramid (4970m)

Date = 28 March

L:  So?

D:  Minus 5°C.

The cold is getting colder.  D&L are snug in their bedroom with sleeping bag and duvet and thermal clothing.  They need to cover their heads at night, wearing hats and pulling sleeping bags tight around their faces.  In the mornings, the inside of their window is coated with ice.  The air temperature in their room makes the water in their water bottle freeze when they open it to clean their teeth.  The loo cistern freezes overnight.  Even to flush the loo from a bucket they need first to break the ice in the bucket.

They slurp milky porridge soup at 8am while the lodge cleans around them.  All the other trekkers left hours ago.   Angtu shrugs at the staff.  He’s been trying for weeks to get L&D to set off early like everyone else, with very little success.

Half an hour up the valley they stop at a sign saying “8000 Inn” and pointing off the main trail.

Angtu:  Is this the turn?  Is it a hotel?

They are looking for the Italian Pyramid.  Angtu has never been there.  His clients have always been in too much of a rush to get to Everest Base Camp.

L:  I don’t think so.  It’s supposed to be a research centre.

D:  It says it’s just 5 minutes.  Why don’t we go and have a look anyway?

P1030212 (2)In a little barren side valley a solitary low stone lodge is half buried into the hillside and topped by a large glass pyramid sheathed in solar panels.  Behind, in a perfect mirror image, rises the white peak of Pumori, and opposite, a glacier tumbles straight down the mountain into the valley.   A few dumb-bells and makeshift gym equipment sit on a low wall.  They are definitely in the right place.

The catchily named Pyramid International Laboratory/Observatory High Altitude Scientific Research Centre was built in 1990 by a pair of Italians – a mountaineer and a geologist – to measure the exact height of Everest and K2.  It has been used for scientific research ever since, and is commonly known as the Italian Pyramid.

They are met by the softly spoken manager who speaks very good English and looks very Italian, with fashionably shaved scalp, designer stubble and blue eyes in a deeply tanned face.  After weeks of being immersed in incomprehensible Nepali, L&D prepare to break into a language they can actually speak.

L:  Hello!  Are you Italian?

Kaji:  No, I’m Nepali.

L:  Oh.

Kaji Bista welcomes them, makes them tea, settles them in front of a huge TV showing a cricket match, rustles up a plate of egg & chips for another visitor, and then shows them around.

Inside the pyramid a number of small rooms are crammed with scientific equipment, paper files and work spaces.  In one room a large yellow body bag lies on a table.  Stairs climb to an upper floor and a ladder to a space in the pyramid’s peak.  The glass is not glass – it is flexible Perspex.  The whole building flexed comfortably during the 2015 earthquake, remaining undamaged and protecting the equipment within.  There are Italian electronics labels and stickers everywhere.

L:  Look – it’s just like being at home!  We’re English, but we love Italy!  We live there half the year.

A look passes fleetingly across Kaji’s face, like a twinge of sudden toothache.  He says nothing.  Having clearly hit stony ground, D changes the subject.

D:  So what exactly do you do here?

Kaji:  We collect meteorological data, about the weather, from here and also from Namche Bazaar.  And from the top of Kala Pattar.  Have you been there?

D:  Next week.

Kaji:  You’ll see our weather mast up there.  Webcam too.

He walks to a monitor and clicks his way to live weather info and an image.  It looks cold.

P1030210 (2)Kaji:  We also collect geological seismic data – any earthquake activity.

L: Including the earthquakes in 2015?

Kaji:  Oh yes.

He waves at an information poster.

Kaji:  We gather climate change data on nearby glaciers – how fast they’re retreating.  Every month I go back to see what’s changed.

L:  And the gym equipment?

Kaji:  Yes, we get physiological data from people – on how they are affected by altitude.

D:  And what happens to all the data?

Kaji:  It’s sent back to Italy.  All the data can be accessed and transmitted remotely.  Even the lights here can be controlled from Italy!

The whole place is astonishingly high-tech for somewhere so very remote.

L:  And the yellow bag – is that a decompression chamber?

Kaji:  Yes – we have a portable hyperbaric pressure chamber and oxygen.  This month we’ve treated 7 people.  But the lodges and trekking companies don’t like to bring people.  We don’t charge, so no-one makes any money from it.

L:  And now you’ve opened the place up as a lodge for trekkers too?

Kaji frowns.

Kaji:  I had to.  I’ve not been paid a salary for 3 ½ years.

L:  Sorry – what did you say?!?

He gently explains.  The Italian government stopped funding the centre without warning.  His Italian boss in Bergamo took the government to court, and won, but still no money has arrived.

L: (thinking to herself)  Me and my big mouth.  That explains the tooth-ache face.

D: (thinking to himself) L and her big mouth.  “Oooh we love Italy!”

Kaji:  We used to be a team of 14 people.  Now I am the only one still here.   I collect all the data myself.  If I left, the research station would close.  So now I use the empty accommodation as a trekking lodge.  To bring in some income.  Sometimes scientists visit too.

The lodge is cosy, the rooms thickly insulated.  The enviable bathrooms are tiny gleaming white plastic pods straight from an Italian motel.  D finds a tip-box and discreetly feeds it, attempting to compensate for the behaviour of his adopted country and his wife.

L:  Is there nothing you can do?

Kaji:  I hope the new Italian government will free up some funds.

L:  Couldn’t someone else take it over?

Kaji:  Maybe, yes, we could sell our data to richer countries such as China, but until now it has always been Italian.  For 29 years.  It would be nice if it could stay that way.

L:  How long have you been here?

Kaji: Eleven years.

L:  And does your family come to visit you?

Kaji smiles and shakes his head.

Kaji:  No.  It is too far.  Takes too long.  I have four children studying hard in school and college and I go to see my wife twice a year.

They leave Kaji living alone in his valley at 5000m, gathering data from glaciers and mountaintops, running a research lab and a trekking lodge, and saving lives on the side, working for no pay for a far-away country which has forgotten him.

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Danger: Crampons Recommended – Nepal – Chapter 12

 

 

 

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Tagnag (4700m) – Cho La Pass (5420m) – Dzongla (4830m) – Lobuche (4910m)

Date = 26-27 March

 D&L’s trekking map includes helpful annotations, mostly indicating things such as viewpoints and mani walls.  On today’s route over the Cho La Pass the notes read: “difficulty icy crossing”, “slippery path”, “possibility of rocks falling”, “danger of crevasses”, “glacier crossing stay on left side”, and “crampons recommended”.

Angtu is taking no chances and insists that they leave at first light.

They are joined for the day by Marion, a young French woman who is trekking alone.  She explains that she got lost the day before in the maze of unstable rubble whilst crossing the glacier from Gokyo.  This is her first solo trek and she didn’t realise how tricky the terrain would be.  With the glacier behind and the pass ahead, she is quite literally stuck between a rock and a hard place.

P1030020 (2)They set off at 5.40am.  From behind Tagnag, a cleft climbs and widens, the shallow stream turning to ice as they gain altitude.  Their fingers and toes become numb with cold.  L fumbles to unscrew the lid of her water bottle.  The cold air rushes in and the water quickly freezes.   The temperature registers as minus 7°C.  The sun rises and tantalisingly floods the mountainside above them but does not reach the trail.  They reach a first pass of grey shale, at 5100m, then drop down into a huge parched-grass valley sprinkled with boulders.  The views are magnificent but they remain in deep shade.

Ahead is a great wall of scree.  Their onward route is across, and then up the swathe of loose stones.  Up close, the steep slope is more rocks and boulders than stones.  There is barely a path.  Though not climbing, this is not walking either.  It is vertical rock-hopping.

P1030050 (2)Angtu:  It’s better early, like now, before the sun.  Later, when the ice melts it can be unstable.  Sometimes there are rockfalls.

L:  If I’d have seen a video of this route, I’m not at all sure I would have done it.

D:  But you’re doing it.

L:  And it’s excellent!

Above them there is sky and prayer flags.  They reach the pass and are suddenly in bright sunshine and dazzled by an enormous glacier snowfield spread out at their feet.

D:  Stupendous!

They scrunch up their eyes against the glare and scrabble for their sunglasses.  Angtu grins and looks at his watch.

Angtu:  3 ½ hours.  We are strong!

P1030058 (2)They sit in the sun at 5420m, feeling happy and healthy, and munching yak-cheese chapati sandwiches and Snickers and watching brightly jacketed ant-like figures making their way up the snowfield towards them.

D&L are pleased for an excuse to use their Yaktrax crampons, and carefully put them on.  Angtu produces some serious spikes – the sort one could use to walk up vertical ice walls – in orange.  Phurba has none but they lend him a walking stick, which he uses as a ski pole.  He slides gracefully down the snowfield and disappears.  Marion has neither crampons nor walking poles.

Marion:  I’ll be fine.

L:  Take a pole.  Or two.  We don’t need two each.

Marion:  No, really, it’s OK.

They set off slowly down the smooth icy slope.  The crampons are brilliant.  Marion falls over.

Marion:  OK.  One pole.  Or two.  Thank you.

They continue.   D gains confidence and goes ahead.

Angtu:  Not too low!  Crevasse!  Stay this side!

Unseen by D, on the featureless glittering field of snow there’s a faint blue shadow.  He doubles back.

At the bottom of the glacier, Phurba is waiting.  Sliding is quicker than walking.

P1030092 (2)They take off their crampons and negotiate a narrow rocky snow-covered ledge high on one side of a steep valley wall.  They should have kept the spikes on.  It is icy and slippery underfoot and the fall would be long and uncomfortable.  D watches nervously as ahead Angtu holds L’s hand as she skids and trips and wobbles along the path.  Angtu leaves her wedged securely between two boulders while he doubles back to help a pair of independent trekkers also unsteady on their feet.

Lower down the snow peters out and they reach the upper edge of a huge slope strewn with slabs of rock and car-sized boulders.  The rock here is all colours – white and green and red and black.  Far below them is an immense valley floor and beyond that the delicate spire of Ama Dablam and the rugged pyramid of Cholatse.

Picking their way carefully down, they meet a guide heading upwards, trailing in his wake a panting middle-aged client.  She does not look comfortable and has a long way to go.  Even lower and later, they come across a pair of independent trekkers also heading up.  By now the sky is clouding over.

P1030126 (3)On the far side of the valley, they come over a rise and arrive at Dzongla, a small cluster of scruffy corrugated iron farm-like buildings lying in a bleak little bowl.  They are tired and hungry but triumphant to have survived despite the dire warnings of ice and falling rocks and crevasses.  The lodge is busy but neither clean, warm nor fragrant – its only redeeming feature a beautifully crafted floor-to-ceiling tower of yak-dung in the hallway.

After lunch clouds swallow the village, and by mid-afternoon it is snowing.  A lone yak stands outside the window, looking cold and resigned, long black coat turning white.  L frets about the trekkers they saw heading up to the pass so late in the day, worrying that they have been caught in a blizzard.  They are grateful that Angtu had made them start early, with plenty of time and the best of the weather.

L:  I didn’t realise how much I’d appreciate having a guide and a porter.  I mean I knew it would be blissful not to have to carry a pack – and it is.  But it’s way more than that.

D:  I agree.  There’s no stress about decision making – on which route to choose…

L:  Or getting lost…P1030459 (4)

D:  Or when we should leave…

L:  Or what the weather might do…

D:  Or where we might stay…

L:  Or asking for what we need…

D:  Or paying bills…

L:  Or what to do if anything goes wrong…

D:  Or if we’re ill or get injured…

L:  Or how to communicate in Nepali…

D:  Or finding out about things we see as we go along…

L:  And we’ve been able to learn a little about Angtu’s life…

D:  And you’re relaxed…

L:  And you’re relaxed…

D:  Because you’re relaxed and not freaking out all the time about getting lost, stranded in a snowstorm, struck down by altitude sickness, attacked by a yeti….

L:  What?  Oh.  How.  RUDE.

D:  (grinning)  You know I’m right.

L:   Let’s just say that having a guide and porter may cost a bit but it’s definitely worth it!

D:  Yes.  Let’s just say that.  And forget about the other thing.

L:   Let’s.

D:  Let’s.

***

P1030124 (2)From the warmth of their sleeping bags, at 6.00am, they check the temperature in their bedroom.

L:  So?

D:  Minus 4°C.

L:  There’s snow!

D:  An inch.

L:  We’d better wear our gaiters – just in case.

D:  In case of what?

L:  I’m not sure.

The skies are stormy-looking, and they realise how lucky they’ve been with the weather for weeks.  Soon the clouds clear and they are bathed once more in sun.  The snow quickly melts.  For the first hour or so the route is unclear.  Marion walks with them and they are also stalked by a lone trekker pretending that he’s not following them.  The trekker soon gets bored of their slow pace and frequent photo stops and overtakes, and then Marion’s onward path becomes visible and Angtu points her on her way.  She’s heading down.  They’re heading up.

P1030145 (3)On a meadow-like spur they stop to admire the views.   A woman walks past, driving her three yaks.  She is wearing a traditional full-length skirt and headscarf and carrying a high-tech trekking backpack.  The river meanders down the valley, back towards Lukla.  To their left is an immense dam of glacial rubble – the stony front end of the Khumbu Glacier.  At its foot, seemingly right in its path, cower the buildings of Dughla.  To their right towers the craggy shoulder of Cholatse.  Angtu and Phurba strike poses and photograph each other.  Then they sit and eat biscuits.

L:  Isn’t this glorious?  I could stay here all day.

Angtu stands up cheerfully.

Angtu:  It’s boring now.  Let’s go.

L:  Oh.

P1030147 (3)They turn their back on Cholatse to the west and Ama Dablam to the south, and head north towards perfect peak of Pumori.  There are only a very few other people on their path, but below them they can see strings of tiny figures zig-zagging their way slowly up from Dughla, climbing the rough tongue of the glacier.  This is the main Everest trekking route, and it’s busy.

Slowly but inexorably, the two routes converge, as D&L descend their private hillside to join the main trail paralleling the glacier – flat and wide and sandy and bustling with trekkers and porters.  A strong wind is blowing down the valley, hurling grit into their faces and mouths and eyes and making breathing and walking frustratingly hard going despite the flat terrain.

They reach Lobuche early, but are pleased to go no further.  A dozen yaks are idling in front of the lodges, saddled but unladen.  A pack of dogs roam and brawl in the dust.  Members of an expedition team in red padded onesies wash their feet in the stream.  There are lots of people looking busy, sorting equipment or talking earnestly.  This feels like a village with a purpose.  It’s not somewhere people live their lives.  It’s too high and too cold.  Nothing grows.  Though at one time it sheltered summer yak herders, now all the buildings and people are here for one reason only.  To service trekkers and climbers and Everest expeditions.P1030174 (3)

In the afternoon, the dog pack follows D&L up the slope of the glacial moraine, but dwindles away in boredom one by one, leaving a single four legged guardian behind who settles down for a nap.  They find a sheltered dip, in the sun, out of the wind, on a warm boulder, and bask.   Half a dozen helicopters fly busily to and fro over their heads, heading for Everest Base Camp, delivering supplies or evacuating trekkers with altitude sickness.

Unusually, the sky remains clear right through till nightfall.  They stroll back.  Their cosy and clean lodge bedroom has been warmed by the sun streaming through skylights in the roof.  At sunset the temperature plummets dramatically, but the dining room has lit its yak-dung stove and is toasty.

Soon, in their room it is too cold for L’s biros to write.  She switches to pencil.

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