Sunday, 2 December 2012

Thoughts On The Trek

Since it's been a while since I last got the chance to post here, it feels like high time to write a little something about Nepal and our weeks in the mountains. It is safe to say that in the Sagarmatha National Park lie easily the most epic and mind-bogglingly huge bits of scenery I have ever encountered. The eye sweeps in one smooth motion from blue glacial rivers in narrowly incised valleys up through gnarled rhododendron and fragrant pine forests and brown-green juniper shrubs to impossibly tall and jagged peaks rising seemingly out of nowhere. Ama Dablam, Cholatse, Lobuche, Makalu, Cho Oyu - to name but a few peaks - and of course the Nuptse/Lhotse/Everest massif were our constant companions for the best part of 3 weeks. 

Our first glimpse of Ama Dablam's sublime summit pyramid
Cho Oyu's gentle-ish summit ridge - probably still tough at 8200m...
As for life in tents during the first half of our trek, which peaked in our ascent of 6189m Island Peak, the first word that comes to mind (and the second) is "cold". From Namche Bazaar (~3450m) onwards, I wore most of my clothes in my sleeping bag at night - this included lycra, thermal base layers, powershirt and, at Island Peak High Camp (5450m), even my down jacket. Everything left outside the sleeping bag would freeze solid overnight. This includes pee bottles, a less-than-savoury concept which becomes a necessity when it's too cold to leave the tent during the night but extreme hydration levels are required to cope with altitude. They are distinguished from water bottles by a band of gaffa tape to ensure we don't use the wrong bottle in the dark at night. Even solids would be covered in a dusting of frost from the condensation from our breaths. The coldest temperature we measured inside the tent - again at High Camp) was -14C. Needless to say, sleep came increasingly fitfully with altitude, and always riddled with decidedly odd dreams. These ranged from the merely bizarre to ones I will not elaborate on here - the main thing all these dreams had in common was their startling vividness. 

On the whole, Steve coped with the altitude significantly better than I did; I moved very slowly on even the slightest uphill gradients above 4000m or so, and very nearly didn't make it on one of the longest days. A mild bout of food poisoning at Deboche (~3750m) meant that I ate nothing and drank little the next day - one of our biggest hiking days. We descended from Deboche to a river at 3400m before ascending to Ama Dablam Base Camp at 4600m for an acclimatization and climbing practice day. After I started dry-heaving while crossing the river, one of our guides asked Steve to take my day bag; he had offered before but I had obviously refused - this was very much a last resort. From here onwards, my progress is best described as "crawling". I barely stayed on my feet and stopped, gasping for breath, every handful of steps. Fortunately Chris, an experienced mountain guide who has been on a number of eightthousanders, stayed with me and kept me going. He saw that I was not suffering from altitude sickness but was just weakened, which justified his decision - and mine - not to go back down, and I am grateful to him for this. I stumbled into Base Camp a good hour after everyone else and spent a good while just lying on the ground in an attempt to recover. 

It took a good many visits to the Base Camp outhouse - made particularly sketchy by previous users' poor aim and resulting frozen mess on the ground - to restore my health, but fortunately I was good to leave Base Camp for higher ground with the rest of the group. All these misadventures aside, though, Ama Dablam is a mountain of singular beauty: any serious climber wanting to try their hand at a really big mountain would do well to consider this 6856m colossus. Its flanks, ridges and moraines towering over Base Camp dwarfed all my previous concepts of size and scale, while from a distance the very same flanks give the mountain a peaceful look, almost like a mother's embrace. Indeed, it's name translates as "Mother's Necklace". 

The tents at Ama Dablam BC, coated in frost just after breakfast. The route to the summit is via the right-hand ridge. 

Maybe the trickiest thing to get used to, though, were the porters and cookboys who accompanied us. I was a little uncomfortable with the colonial overtones which came to light when these guys worked their way up the mountain in flip-flops with backbreaking loads of up to 100kg while we skipped along (well, trudged laboriously) carrying only day bags with water and cameras. The whole master-servant relationship only got worse when we got served a steaming mug of tea and a bowl of hot wash water at our tent flaps before getting breakfast in the mess tent half an hour later. While the sherpas do earn good wages for what they do, the extent to which we relied on their incredible strength, tenacity and above all humility made the whole experience very humbling. High-mountain expeditions would be all but impossible without these guys, and the number of times foolhardy - or just unlucky - mountaineers have been saved by their sherpas completely fails to be reflected in the plethora of adventure literature surrounding the Himalayas. 

Anyway - more hopefully soon on the actual climb up Island Peak, which I reckon warrants a post of its own, and then on our first days in India! Any feedback/requests for specifics/photos are more than welcome. Below a few more impressions from the trek...

Prayer Stone, Prayer Drum and mountains in the background
At the entrance to Sagarmatha National Park - a small mountain in the backrgound sets the mood for the weeks to come...
The single most incredible sunset I have ever seen, at Island Peak BC...
Same sunset, Island Peak on the right with the Lhotse South Face to its left wreathed in clouds. We would stand on top of that thing in 48 hours' time...
The classic shot from 5545m Kala Patthar: Lhotse (8516m), Everest and Nuptse (7855m) at sunset
Another one from halfway down Kala Patthar - this time including the Khumbu Glacier and the Khumbu Icefall on the left. That's the route up Everest, and the riskiest section on this side of the mountain.

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