Himalayas Day 13 – Dingboche to Kyangjuma

So today was a very up and down day, both literally and emotionally. I would wake up at 4,400m, and end up at 3,740m, but covered a heck of a lot of ground inbetween in every way. Let me explain:

There was firstly only Mo, who was suffering badly from a sinus infection and AMS, and myself, with just mild AMS, staying in the Friendship Lodge in Dingboche last night. It was a very weird feeling having stayed in full lodges all the way so far, so walking into the dining room here it was so strange to be the only person there.

Inside the Dining Room at the Friendship Lodge at Dingboche

I awoke at about 6, and got ready for our departure to Tengboche at 7. The idea of Tengboche was that it would be the stopping place of the rest of the group, including Mo’s husband Dave, who remained with the rest of the climbing group at Island Peak. I was to accompany her, and we were accompanied by two guides, Pasang would look after Mo until Thursday when the rest arrived, and Saroz would come with me all the way to Lukla. Today though we would just go to Tengboche, at 3,940m, a journey of about five hours.

The weather turned today, and we walked in cloud practically the entire way. The mountain tops were largely obscured, although there were occasional glimpses of Lhotse, Ama Dablam, Pumori, and even Everest herself along the way. All were fleeting though, and as we were walking away from them all, and also predominantly downhill, it really was not a sightseeing sort of day.

Already out of the snow and ice, our descent down the valley was well and truly underway now.

It was actually a great walk though, although I was helped by feeling better as I descended into more oxygen rich air. Mo was still feeling terrible, and it was sadly just a chore for her. We walked along the Khumbu river, which flowed like the torrential white water that it is, about 200 feet below us.

I could have done with one of those horses on the way up!

After an hour or so, the path split to the high path on the one side, where we had come from Phortse last week sometime, and to the left for us, down and across the river towards Tengboche. The bridge over the Khumbu way below us was breathtaking, if thankfully just a short walk of faith:

About to cross the Khumbu before heading to Tengboche

Saroz seemed to be pushing along the pace, and secretly hoping that this was a challenge of some sort (I certainly did not want to just stop at Tengboche if I could get away with it, I wanted to go lower) I went with him. We left Mo and Pasang some way behind, and although I felt sorry to be not walking with Mo, she was in safer hands than mine alongside Pasang.

Not long after we crossed the river, I noticed that we were down to about 3,600m or so, and knowing that Tengboche was at 3,940m, and wasn’t too far away, it would mean a steep climb. It was indeed a bugger of a climb. We stopped at the start of it, and realising also that we were going to get to Tengboche before noon, I chanced my arm with Sarod. I said “it’s a real shame that we can’t go further down the valley today”, hoping that he would sense what I wanted from the statement. He clearly did, and just said in reply “let’s see when we get to Tengboche”.

The next 30/45 minutes were brutal, and if he wasn’t testing me out before, he clearly was now. He just walked up that steep hill “Sherpa style”, and if you have ever been to the Himalayas before then you will know just what that means. I knew I had to try to keep up. I couldn’t of course, but neither was he at full tilt, and I felt really strong now, and just gave it all I had. We got to the top without stopping, and I was breathing as hard as I ever have, but we were in Tengboche inside four hours, for a journey at we were told would take five, and so I just hoped that that would win me a further walk this afternoon.

By the time Pasang and Mo arrived at our lunch stop in Tengboche, Sarod had already come to me with the news I hoped for. He said we could go on today to Kyangjuma, some three hours further down the valley. I was delighted, although again sad to have to leave Mo on her own. I knew that Mo was in good hands with Pasang though, and also she desperately needs rest, so a couple of days with little to do (although Tengboche does have the most attractive Gompa in the whole of the Khumbu region to while away a little time) will no doubt be good for her.

After a delicious lunch (my usual of Spaghetti with Tomato sauce in case you are reading this Ben :)), I wished Mo a speedy recovery, a Happy Birthday for Thursday, and a fond farewell. I hope to be able to keep in touch with her and Dave, and in fact with everyone on the trek. It really was a great group, with no issues between anyone at any time. I also wished Pasang goodbye, and thanked him for everything and asked him to say the same to Ngima for me. Everyone at Exodus really has been faultless, but more of them in a later post.

And so we were off, now just Saroz and me. I was on my way home, sort of. After Tengboche there is a huge descent, going quickly down to about 3,500m, from 3,940m at lunch. We raced down it, and that was good as far as I was concerned – it was all progress to get nearer to Lukla, and the plan now was to try to get there inside a further two days, which would be tough.

As we mowed down the hill, past mainly knackered trekkers on their way up, Saroz was almost continually on the phone, making arrangements for me to change my flights out of the Himalayas, my accommodation in Kathmandu, and also my international flight back to the UK. At one point we had it sorted that with a heap of good fortune (and also my legs and lungs holding out on me), I could be on a flight out of Nepal as early as Friday (this is now Tuesday). I was overjoyed, the thought of a shower, a bed, a shave, another shower, followed by a bath etc, were just so exciting to me. The hotel in Kathmandu might get the surface layers of dirt off, but I really needed a lot more than that.

Then came the bad news. As we almost ran our way through the clouds, Saroz got a call to say any plans would have to be shelved. Apparently Lukla airport has been closed all day, and there are no flights out of the mountains scheduled tomorrow either. Worse, the bad weather is expected to last four days, and so there a no point in planning for anything. If this happens, there will also be a backlog like no tomorrow at Lukla itself of people trying to get out. Saroz explained further that accommodation may be a problem, and that I might be lucky to get a place on a floor in a lodge somewhere, and that he would try for me. Bummer. It was so disappointing, but what can you do? I would get a flight when I could, and the weather might change for the better, although of course it could also get worse!

For now I concentrated on my second big uphill stretch of the day. At 3,500m we had to get up to about 3,780m to the lodge in Kyangjuma. It was again a horrible hill, but it was helped by the fact that the weather was so overcast. We reached the lodge before 3, just one and a quarter hours from Tengboche. It is supposed to be a three hour journey. Saroz is a great guide, very patient and very friendly, and very quick!. My bags would take another two hours to arrive by porter, and so I sat in the lodge room drinking hot lemon by the fire until dinner time came.

I would need to sleep tonight. The journey to Lukla from here is normally a two day trek, and we are now aiming to do it in one. Sarod could do it walking on his hands of course, but he tells me that it will be for me “around nine hours”. That is him judging me on today when I busted everything I had to get me a chance at tomorrow. I will need to do it all over again to hopefully get myself a place on someone’s dining room floor for maybe one, two three or four days depending on how long this weather lasts. Apparently these things are not that uncommon at Lukla, but I feel a bit narked that I am going to be caught up in it nonetheless.

Oh well, just another day in the Himalayas I suppose. Overall I am still so enormously happy and privileged to be here at all, so I will take whatever I get, and just continue to enjoy my time in the greatest mountain range on planet earth. It is all just part of my greatest adventure ever, and every day is so different still.

We leave at six in the morning……

Himalayas Day 12 – Up or Down? (Or Lobuche to Dingboche)

Yesterday was such a remarkable and fantastic day, seeing Everest in absolutely perfect and breathtaking conditions (see yesterday’s blog post), but of course the trip is only half way through right now. Today, day 12, should be the day that we start ascending again, towards Island Peak. But for me, it wouldn’t be a day of ascent at all.

I thought that today would be tinged with some sadness and regret when I woke up, due to the fact that I had already decided (in my head at least) that I was definitely going down today and not up. I thought that perhaps part of me would wonder about whether I should have continued upwards. As it turned out, I needed have even bothered wondering, due to waking up with the mother of all headaches, and dizziness to boot.

I had gone to bed last night after a reasonable dinner with a lot of thoughts in my head. The briefing given by Ngima had contained a choice for the next day (i.e today), which was to involve the high pass route over the Komgma La pass (5,435m) to Chukhung. It would be a difficult walk, and so Ngima had offered the choice of instead walking down to Dingboche (4,400m) and then back up to Chukhung at 4,700m. Everyone bar myself and Maureen opted for the high pass, and if I had felt better under different circumstances, I would very definitely have done that too.

I was surprised in fact that Maureen was going to be able to walk at all. As well as her sinus infection she was now suffering from AMS like me. After discussing with Ngima and also Val, an Exodus leader of over 25 years who was to join the group for the rest of the trip, they said that if I needed to go down then that was all fine, and that my health was the most important thing. It’s a very comforting thing to hear, when you so want to push yourself to do what you set out to do in the first place.

Having gone to bed last night at around 8pm (sad really, but most people do in lodges) and read for a little while, I was actually delighted when I woke up at 3am. It was the longest stretch of sleep I have had in about 5 nights. It was also freezing cold however, and my bottle of water had frozen on the bedside table. My head though, despite wearing a hat in bed, was throbbing with a headache and I felt simply sick. This despite having gone to bed with Paracetamol and Diamox, was at best really annoying.

I surfaced from bed at around 5.45, ready for the walk, and could hardly walk in a straight line. Breakfast was just a blur, and packing my bag an ordeal, but I got there. Seeing Valerie at the breakfast table I told her that I just needed to get out of altitude, and she agreed. The others duly trekked over the glacier for their trip to Chukhung, and I and Maureen got ready to descend. I didn’t say goodbyes to the others at this time, there didn’t seem any point in anyone trying to persuade me against my decision, or for it to be a distraction to their day ahead. I did feel like I was letting the team down a bit, but my body told me that it was time to go.

Leaving a very cold Lobuche for the last time - the clouds just creeping up ahead in the valley.

We walked through cloud, accompanied by assistant guide Pasang, for most of the journey to Dingboche, ironically the first time we had not had a clear and sunny morning. Maureen was clearly weak, but managed the walk of about three hours without incident. I was so happy to be entering more oxygen rich air – we would go down about 1,600 feet or so.

Maureen shared en route that she was most concerned on the way that her not continuing onwards would mean that her husband Dave would not continue with the climb. She knew that he was so determined to do a 6,000m peak, but she would now not see him again to be able to tell him this. She was also concerned that not seeing him would mean that she would spend her 60th birthday (this coming Thursday) alone. Both of these it seems had been taken care of by Pasang. In respect of the former, he (Pasang) would go up to Chukhung after dropping us off in Dingboche and tell Dave that Maureen was in good hands, and that he should continue his climb. In respect of the latter he had arranged for Maureen to go to Tengboche on her way down and to wait for the others at the lodge there. Dave would arrive on the 4th November, her birthday, in four days time, so that made her happy, and me too for her, as I felt guilty for leaving.

Our walk took about three hours to get to Dingboche, probably half or less than the time it took us to get up the same stretch some three or four days earlier. We walked again through the memorials at Thukla, which was again a very moving experience. It was still mid morning when we arrived at Dingboche, but Pasang advised us both to just rest and take it easy. It is amazing just how descending only around 600m can so rejuvenate you though. From feeling so dizzy up and above 5,000m, I now felt almost as if I could run a marathon – well maybe not quite, but you get my drift!

Arriving back in Dingboche, and my last view of Island Peak.

Once we were wettled in, Pasang trooped off back up the next valley to Chukkung, in order to make arrangements for both Maureen and I, and we stayed at the Friendship Lodge, the same tea house we had been to about three days previously on the way up. Pasang would all being well return later that evening with my climbing gear (which at this point in time was up at Island Peak having travelled thee by Yak). He would also talk to Ngima and Val about getting a porter to take my bags down the mountain, and make arrangements for me to stay in various lodges on the way. The remaining journey down should take about three days to get to Lukla. All being well they would be able to sort out an earlier departure for me on a plane, otherwise I would have a lot of hanging around to do, about four or five days worth in fact. I then had to think about how or if I might be able to change my flight back to the UK, but that could wait until the weekend – I had to get out of the Himalayas first.

My mind was now just on getting down to breathable air, and then to getting home. I spent the rest of the day just sitting around in a cold lodge and hoping that I would get a smooth and speedy trip back. Coming down would always be an anticlimax compared its the going up, but I felt a renewed sense of purpose, a new lease of life, a reason to be coming down. That kept me going.

The day was very odd compared to the days before. The lodge was empty apart from Mo and I, and instead of the challenge and excitement of Everest and all around her, it was all of a sudden just a quiet and almost eery experience. It was nice though, after expending so much energy, just to simply be able to take it easy. My thoughts though naturally turned to the others – they would be by now in Chukkung, and preparing to go to Island Peak Base Camp the next day.

In the evening, Pasang arrived back with Saroz, an Exodus assistant guide who we would be assigned to me alone to get me down the mountain. We would get up at 7am the next morning and (also armed with a porter to carry the bags) begin the trek to Tengboche, and that was great as far as I was concerned – it would get me another few thousand feet closer to the base of the Himalayas, and to air that I could breathe more readily. I would head to bed early and hopefully sleep really well………

Himalayas Day 9 – Dingboche to Lobouche

So I woke this morning for the second night in Dingboche at 4,370m or so, and my head was thankfully reasonably clear, despite not the best night’s sleep I have ever had. Nights at this altitude when you listen to your heart beating and you cannot properly get your breath are just not easy, and certainly not condusive to restful sleep. My terrible dreams (like really horrific grisly nightmares) seem to have abated slightly however, which I was having slightly further down the valley.

Yesterday we did an acclimatisation walk up to around 5,100m, which involved my first ever Himalayan peak, called Nangkartshang. It was stunning in every way, if very hard work at this altitiude.

The morning was again totally beautiful, without a cloud in the sky, and barely a trace of wind. We would again today get to an altitude of around 5,000m (16,500ft), with our destination being Lobuche, the final resting place before Everest Base Camp on Saturday.

Ready for the off to Lobouche, and a very cold start despite the sunshine.

The walk begins at around 7.20am with a fairly steep uphill section, the start of the same trail that yesterday took us up to Nangkartshang Peak at 5,050m for our acclimatisation walk. It then flattens out into a valley, and is a beautiful walk between the peaks of Cholatse (6,440m), Taboche (6,376m), and Pokalde (5,749m), mountains that we haven’t seen before, but are breathtaking the whole way.

Not a bad spot for a cup of tea......

After about an hour and a half the path then descends and reaches the Khumbu river and crosses it at Thokla (4,600m). We stopped here for tea before a brutal uphill section which takes us up a further 300m or so. During this stretch I thought on several occasions that my heart was going to literally burst out of my chest, and that was walking almost as slowly as I possibly could. It made me think (or should I say ‘know’) that I will struggle even more than this when more than one and a half kilometres higher and on a 50 degree ice wall.

I did make it to the top however, alongside my now very regular walking partner Mo. She and I are ‘on a par’ I would say in the struggling stakes, although I should give her the benefit of the doubt as she is feeling terrible with a bad cold and sinus pains. She christens us the ‘tail end Charlies’, which is very apt I have to say.

Reaching the top I had my biggest (in terms of emotions) ‘moment’ to date. At the top of the pass, at 4,840m (15,479ft), there are a large number of memorials. These are to the climbers who didn’t make it back down Everest, including Babu Chiri, a very famous Sherpa who summitted Everest 11 times, but died in 2001, and Scott Fischer, a legendary climber who was one of the eleven who perished on that fateful night in May 1996 (and to anyone who hasn’t read “Into Thin Air”, I would heartily recommend that you do so).

The memorial ground to Everest's fallen heroes

The Scott Fischer Memorial

The Babu Chiri Memorial

At this point my emotions come out totally, and I have to walk to the other side of the plateau so the others do not see me shed a tear. I realise that here am I, struggling to walk up a path to 15,500 feet, and here I stand, totally unworthy, in what is effectively a graveyard to the greats of mountaineering. In total, 162 people have lost their lives on Everest. At this point in time I want to be at home, with a glass of wine. I stand here, inadequate, but very humbly respectful and in tribute to the people who have succumbed to the mountain.

The views from here are breathtaking too, and composing myself I take a few shots (click to expand these, as you can actually with all the photographs in my blog).

Looking back down from the memorial ground towards Thokla

And a wider shot back down the valley again. I think this photograph is going on my wall as a picture somehow.

From hereon upwards the walk changes perspective quite considerably. We are now in the main part of the Khumbu valley itself, in what is principally miles of moraine (debris, rock etc) from the glacier as it originally was. It is again stunning, and we are now in the shadow of even more staggering peaks. In front of us looms Pumori, at 7,165m, and on our right the towering mass that is Nuptse (7,851m). In the distance now also are Lingtren (6,813m) and Changtse (7,583m). We are looking in fact now directly at Tibet (Changste is in Tibet, as in fact is half of Everest) which just makes me have yet another gasping awestruck moment.

We cannot yet see Everest or Lhotse as they are hidden behind Nuptse – they will (hopefully) be tomorrow’s reward, but today’s rewards are more than anyone could wish for in a normal lifetime. Around every corner everything gets simply better and better and better. I probably uttered the word “fuck” (excuse my French here, but if you were here you would too, believe me) in total astonishment about 30 or 40 times this afternoon.

Heading towards Lobouche, with Pumori (23,494 ft) left and Nuptse (25,790 ft) right

Further up the Khumbu Valley towards Nuptse as the clouds start to descend

We reach our destination, the Eco Lodge in Lobouche, in the early afternoon. We start early and finish early to get the views and the best of the weather, as in the afternoon the clouds always roll in up the Khumbu valley. I sadly have a crippling headache when we get here, and immediately take two painkillers. I’m just grateful it didn’t really affect me during the walk itself. Thankfully my appetite is ok, and I wolf down a rather enjoyable (and surprisingly good) Spaghetti Carbonara. The lodge here though is not terribly nice, and has outside dirty squat toilets with icy floors where you fear that you are going to slide through the hole. I have to say it didn’t bother me, but just thought I would mention it in case you expected something else!

The "Eco Lodge" at Lobouche, 16,400 feet - pretty it certainly wasn't.

The settlement of Lobouche, a desolate place indeed

After sorting our stuff out in our rooms and a quick half hour’s sleep (I am exhausted), at 3pm we walk up to the glacial moraine to the right of the lodge, so gaining another 75m or so in height to around 5,050m. Sadly the clouds have rolled in by now, but all the same the sight is totally incredible. The swathe cut into the valley by the Khumbu glacier is incredible, the blueness of the now receding glacier itself still shining through in places.

The swathe cut by the Khumbu glacier below us

Better still, there up the valley, clearly visible, is snow on the Khumbu glacier itself, alongside Kala Pattar, the iconic viewpoint for Everest herself, and in the far far distance, Everest base camp. It is not really visible from where I stand, but Tony points to me where it is. We will, I hope, stand there tomorrow morning.We are nearly there! For now, I feel like I have almost made it. I am at 16,700 feet, and I can ‘see’ Everest Base Camp. The Khumbu Icefall, about which I have read tens of books in the last six months, will be there in front of me tomorrow. I feel like I can almost touch it, that I can smell it, feel it.

Looking up towards the head of the Khumbu Valley, and the Khumbu Icefall itself.

Back at the lodge, and after dinner, we are informed that tomorrow morning we will get up at 5am for our trip to Everest Base Camp. It will be a very long day, the longest day so far in fact, but this is the reason I am here. I so want to be able to be there. I know it will be an incredibly emotional day whichever way it goes.

The feelings I have here right now stagger me, I can’t even describe them to you, but if you ever hanker to go into the Everest region, all I can say is do it, experience what I did this day, and you will get the biggest buzz of your life.

From everything that I have now seen, and knowing that tomorrow is Everest Base Camp, I know full well that if this were a world of superlatives, then tomorrow would be the day when the world simply came to an end.

Himalayas Day 8 – Dingboche to Nangkartshang Peak, and return to Dingboche

I woke up very early this morning in the Friendship Lodge in Dingboche. The temperature on my watch showed -1 C, and the water beside my bed is partly frozen. For the first time on the trek I slept with clothes on in my sleeping bag. Slightly too much information there perhaps, but normally I never ever wear clothes in a sleeping bag, no matter how cold. I even wore a hat. And this is inside, so I cannot imagine how cold it is outside. In under a week, if I make it that far, I will find out, as by then we will be camping, on a glacier, and at 1,200m above where we are now.

I said above “if I make it”, as if you have seen my previous entries you will know that for the last day or so I have suffered from mild AMS symptoms, and they aren’t pleasant. They aren’t exactly the end of the world either, being bad headache, nausea, dizziness and shortness of breath, but the point is you can’t let them get worse.

There are only two worse types of AMS, and without wishing to overdramatise the situation (although I have been called a drama queen many times in the past :)) they can both result in death within a day if not treated immediately. One is called HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema), the other HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema). With one you drown as your lungs fill with fluid, the other is fluid on the brain. I don’t want either, funnily enough.

Anyway, I won’t be getting any of those for two reasons. One is that we are being very well looked after on this trip by our guide Ngima and his assistants. They carry full medical equipment including a Gamow bag, which is used to pressurise the air and relieve symptoms, and also oxygen and dexamethasone. Secondly I know my body well enough, I think, to know when to cry for help. I don’t want or need to summit Island Peak that badly that I want to put my health at risk. I am reminded of the quote that Ed Viesturs (Ed has climbed all 14 of the World’s >8,000m peaks ) uses often in his excellent book “No Shortcuts to the Top”, which goes something like “getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory“. That’s an ethos I won’t have to try too hard to follow, believe me.

Anyway – back to today. We are now at 4,360m or so, having arrived here from around 3,800m yesterday, and so today it is very important to acclimatise. You can do this in one of two ways – either you stay put for a while (a day or so) before moving any higher, or you can do an acclimatisation walk. This means that you climb higher, and then you come back down so that you utilise the ‘climb high, sleep low’ philosophy. With this technique you are (even though you have just ascended higher than you would wish to stay), coming back down to more oxygen rich air, which your body craves. We took this latter approach.

The morning was yet again clear and crisp, and also very frosty, and offering beautiful views of the surrounding peaks. It is now cold enough to merit down jackets, gloves, and hats are essential at all times. This was the view I woke up to in fact, of Lhotse in the distance:

Sunrise on Lhotse from the Peaceful Lodge in Dingboche

We began our ascent of Nangkartshang Peak (5,050m) at around 7.30am. The walk is steep, almost unremittingly steep, and a struggle for me right from the start. Very quickly however, some spectacular views were on offer, including our first proper view of Island Peak, nestling below the gigantic Lhotse. It still looks a fairly fearsome peak in its own right, and the snowy summit ridge was clearly visible.

Lhotse (distance, left) and Island Peak (centre in the distance) over the top of Dingboche

As we got higher, the massive soaring Ama Dablam was to our right, Lhotse in front of us, and gradually we got sight of Makalu, at 27,765 feet the fifth highest mountain in the world. Around every corner in the Himalayas you see something different, and as you get higher into the upper Himalayas the views get more spectacular still, as the panorama of ridiculously tall peaks gets more and more impressive. I have in fact now seen four of the top 6 mountains on the planet (Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Cho Oyu) today alone.

The westbound view from here alone also shows just how substantially the landscape has changed:

Looking up the Cho La Valley from the ridge above Dingboche

The climb up also showed the difference in walking abilities/fitness in our group quite markedly. For example, Tony reached the summit in 1 hr 25 minutes, Rob in 1 hr 40. I brought up the rear with Maureen at a shade under 3 hours. How telling this is for Island Peak I do not know, but I am sure that Ngima has it figured out. I asked him on the way up (at a rest point where I could breathe) as to the ‘success rate’ on this trip. He said it was a little over 50%. If I’m terribly honest with myself I will be amazed if I make it, but we will see – I’m not giving up yet by a long chalk.

The summit itself of Nangkartshang Peak is very small, and adorned by prayer flags. I did manage to take a couple of panoramic shots, shown below. If you click on these they will expand and look more impressive….

West panorama from Nangkartshang Peak, 5,080m

South/East panorama from Nangkartshang

The whole vista was simply magnificent – and very cold, but I was very glad to have made it to over 5,000m – my watch showed 5,100m or so as seen below:

Made it to over 5km vertically!

Looking down from the summit towards Dingboche in the valley below

And the northbound summit shot, just to prove I got there.

The walk back down was straightforward, and it was nice to get to more oxygen rich air. The climb up was over 700m, and actually took us higher than we will get to tomorrow, which is a place called Lobouche, at 4,940m. I got back in around an hour and a half, the same time as it took Tony to get up. I really hope, that if I do get to attempt Island Peak, that I don’t hold these guys up. I got back with nothing more than a sharp headache, which after a couple of Paracetamol abated significantly.

After a lunch back at the Friendship Lodge we were treated to a demonstration of how a Portable Altitude Chamber (PAC) bag works. It was fascinating, and Ngima showed how just by pumping air in with a foot pump, the effective altitude reduced from 4,400m to 2,600m by placing my watch inside.

The PAC bag demonstration back in Dingboche

After a quick walk through the village with Rob to kill a bit of time (where we were afforded a great view of Island Peak) it was back to base for dinner.

The best view so far of Island Peak - starting to look intimidating!

A very enterprising bakery in Dingboche offering hot and cold showers - not sure I fancy the cold ones though.

We then had our evening briefing for the walk to Lobouche tomorrow. It seems a reasonably straightforward affair (if anything can be straightforward at 5km up in the air), albeit punctuated by a pretty stiff climb in the middle.We will also apparently see a number of shrines and memorials to the many people who have lost their lives in and around Everest. That will be a very emotional experience I am very sure.

In just two days time now, I hope, I pray, I will be at Everest Base Camp, staring at the Khumbu Icefall, surrounded by Nuptse and Lhotse, and treading in the footsteps of giants, both animal and mineral, and getting no doubt even more nostalgic than I have been so far.

You have so much thinking time in the mountains, whether just when walking, or during the inevitable numerous times that you are awake in the night due to the altitude. I will share some of those deliberations another time. Bring on tomorrow.

Himalayas Day 7 – Phortse to Dingboche

Today was one of those days when you try to get your head round things, but never really manage it. The cause – altitude. AMS or Acute Mountain Sickness has several forms, and at their most extreme can kill. At its mildest, AMS means a bad headache, loss of appetite, a feeling of nausea, and dizziness. Sadly I was to get all four of those symptoms today.

I had what I think was actually a reasonable night’s sleep, and was woken by the porter bringing bed tea at about 6.15. Looking our of the window down the valley we were greeted by another cloudless sky, and this time a very sharp frost. We are at 3,800m after all. After a quickish breakfast, we were on our way for the longest walk so far, to Dingboche at 4,350m.

Leaving Phortse behind on another gloriously cloudless morning.

The walk began very steeply on frozen ground, and I struggled from the outset. Getting clothing right was hard at first too, as it was extremely cold in the shade, but already warm in the sun’s rays, and so walking uphill meant you would perspire very easily no matter what you were wearing. After about half a mile I felt very much out of breath, and hoping that this wasn’t going to be a very bad day. I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest at one point.

Looking back down towards Mong La (on rocky outcrop middle right) as we head up the Khumbu Valley

The path however was a spectacular one, traversing a hillside with precipitous drops on the right hand side, and much easier overall than the first half hour or so. My fear of heights meant I looked to my right (where the drop was) a lot less frequently than I perhaps should have done in order to best appreciate the scenery, but this was already becoming a head-down sort of day in more ways than one. The views though were again breathtaking. Ama Dablam edged ever closer to us and I had to stop myself taking photographs every five minutes or so, but this mountain is just so tantalising and mesmerising in every way.

Ama Dablam in the distance as we traverse the mountainside

A mountain goat on the rocks behind our path

It's that Ama Dablam again - it keeps creeping up on you...

We stopped for a tea break at Pangboche (4,000m), and by this time I was feeling pretty crap. My headache had started, and I was struggling at times to place my feet in the right places, which is dangerous at best on a walk with a sheer 2,000ft drop on one side of it. We then carried on towards Shomare, at 4,120m, which would be our lunch stop. By this time I was feeling decidedly worse, and actually wondered for much of this section if this would be as far as I got in the Himalayas. I was just so frustrated at this point.

At the lodge at lunch I told Ngima, our guide, how I was feeling. He gave me some Paracetamol, and whilst they did not remove my headache, they allowed me to function enough to make me know that I could carry on at least for the shorter afternoon session. I tried to eat (and in fact did) my normal lunchtime order of Spaghetti with tomato sauce, but was not at all in the mood for it.

The quite staggering bulk of Lhotse (28,000 feet) comes into view in the distance

By this time the clouds had rolled in up the Khumbu Valley, and with them a stiff breeze, which though thankfully at our backs, made me feel cold for the first time since I have been here. We all thus layered up, with a fleece, a buff and a woolly hat now essential.

This last section of around 2 hours was pretty much all uphill, as opposed to the more undulating terrain of the morning, and was slow going for me. It was hugely rewarding though, as we were now greeted with the enormous bulk of Lhotse right in front of us. Lhotse is just gargantuan in every way, seemingly as broad as she is wide, and at 8,501m, the fourth tallest mountain on earth. Lhotse now became the mountain where there just weren’t enough superlatives to describe it. Oh and yes, peaking just above Lhotse and Nuptse’s mass was a glimpse of the summit and snow plume coming from Mount Everest herself.

The landscape began to change quite significantly now too. We were now well out of the tree line, and in the high Himalaya.

Woolly hat and fleece time now.....

I reached Dingboche walking on my own, well behind the rest of the group, but supported by both Ngima and Pasang, our guide and assistant guide respectively, so I was in good hands.

And Dingboche (4,400m, or 14,500 feet) finally comes into view.

Upon getting to the Peaceful Lodge in Dingboche, our home for the next two nights, at about 3pm, I went straight into my sleeping bag and slept for about two hours. I did not feel at all good upon waking, and I tromped to dinner wondering if I could manage to eat anything, and whether this would be the highest I get here.

So the ‘making sense of it all’ bit at the start of this post was about reflection. On life, and why we are here, and what we, or I want to do with my life. I spent some considerable time thinking about it today, I suppose because feeling ‘ill’ (I’m not ill of course, I’m just feeling sorry for myself) makes you feel a little more remorseful/contemplative, or makes you want to put things into perspective anyway.

In my fuddled attempts at conclusions on the above, my thought processes came to the following conclusions:

1. I don’t want to put my body through this again. I was walking looking at the south face of Lhotse, and realised to myself that I am at best delusional if I think I could ever aspire to get as high as that, and I simply know that feeling as I do right now, it is not going to happen ever.

2. I suddenly want to be at home, be in a nice garden, and to get settled down again, in a pretty place, and still travel when I can, but not alone.  Deep huh? Well mountains can do funny things to you (not that there is anything funny there, but you know what I mean), and this is what this one did to me today.

Tomorrow will I think be a make or break day for me. We will be heading up another 700m or so, to above 5,000m, or 16,500 feet. We will climb to a peak called Nangkartschang and then back down again on what sounds like a brutal acclimatisation walk, and it will be at the crack of dawn too, like 5.30am. I’ll be there.

I wanted most of all this day just to feel better, to be able to better appreciate all that is around me. I love my surroundings, they are utterly stupendous, and you should be able to take them in better than I was able to today. I’m not giving up though, I have to see Everest up close at the very least. That may be my revised goal on this trip, we will see….

Himalayas Day 6 – Kyangjuma to Phortse

I awoke on day five of the trek proper with a nervous feeling for two reasons. Firstly I was worried that my stomach had not settled properly after yesterday’s diarrhoea, and secondly I was concerned about altitude, as yesterday I had my first altitude headache, and had taken paracetamol to alleviate it.

To help with the first of the above I had been given two sachets of hydration salts by Ngima, our guide, and I had drunk most of this with one and a half litres of water, during the night. The effects of the water, coupled with the fact that I am taking Diamox for the altitude, made me want to pee like a Russian racehorse, and then about every fifteen minutes. Trouble is, that even in a teahouse, the temperature gets pretty cold at night (we are talking below zero), and so you really don’t want to get out of your sleeping bag if you can avoid it. I managed in the end with just one trip at about 3am and a lot of willpower.

I felt thankfully actually better on both counts by the time I had looked out of the window. We were greeted by perfectly clear skies and a view of the colossal and majestic Ama Dablam (22,500 feet), staring right at us. This view could clear the sickest and sorriest of souls I can promise you.

After a breakfast of the now ubiquitous watery porridge and toast, we were set for the off at about 7.30am. Today was to be a short day in terms of distance, and practically speaking our second acclimatisation day since reaching Namche Bazar. This was great as far as I am concerned, as there is no such thing as either walking too slowly or too much acclimatisation for my liking.

After a brief group photograph (see below) we set off first downhill, and then crossed the river to begin a steep uphill climb towards Mong La, the highest place we have been to yet at 3,975m (13,117ft).

Kjangjuma, Solokhumbu, Himalayas. Life doesn't get an awful lot better than this.

So in the above you will see, from left to right, Ngawang, Ngima (kneeling), Ram, Rob, yours truly, Ben, Stefan, Pasang, Tony, Bruce (kneeling), Dave, and Mo.

The walk is the most picturesque we have been on yet. There were simply staggering views of Ama Dablam, which has now surpassed the Matterhorn as my most photographed mountain (are you reading this Paul?). But better, there is just magnificent scenery all around us. We can see the trail that we will start to take in two days time towards Dingboche, we can see the Gokyo River far below us, we see snow capped Himalayan peaks stretching into forever. It is magical.

On the way towards Mong La

We have a tea stop at Mong La, and are afforded the best views yet. Just look at this:

Staring in wonderment at the majesty of the Himalayas

I just don't need words to describe this.

This is by far the best view I have seen yet. I stand here and get all misty eyed all over again. I could have stayed there for days on end.

After our rest we descend steeply around 300m to a break in the Gokyo River, at a tiny hamlet called Phortse Tenga. On the way down we see mountain goats, pheasant, a peacock, and a musk deer! I had not expected to see anything but Yaks on this journey, and so this is a huge bonus.

Mountains goats below our path

Following lunch we have to gain the majority of the altitude we have just lost, and walk up the other side of the Gokyo River. Again it is stunning. The trees are lichen covered, and the sun shines like a perfect summers day. As we ascend we are afforded a view of Cho Oyu behind us, the sixth highest mountain in the world at 26,900 feet. It looks even bigger than that, if that is at all possible. How good can the views around here get? I want to stop every twenty yards at times to take photographs, as it is just so ridiculously wonderful.

Lichen covered trees looking back up the Gokyo Valley

In fact let’s just pause for thought a minute here. Imagine you are walking up a gorgeous path, with a glacial river in the valley below you coming off Mount Everest. You have deer, pheasant, mountain goats around you. The sun is shining, the air is still, and for miles in any direction you see nature at its most majestic, and that is an understatement, including the tallest mountains in the world. Do you laugh or cry? I can tell you I did a pretty damn good job of doing both at the same time this day.

Eventually we reach our destination of Phortse, at 3,840m. This will be the highest we have yet slept, but I feel now comfortable at this altitude. Our guide Ngima is brilliant at a practically making us go as slowly as we wish. Seven of the eight are happy with this, but one, Stefan, wants to get ahead most of the time, and I really hope for his sake that he doesn’t pay for it as we get higher.

The settlement of Phortse, at 3,900m

The one thing that I have learned as possibly my most valuable lesson in the mountains is that you have absolutely nothing to gain, and possibly everything to lose, by going up too quickly. That is perhaps an excuse, or a justification for the fact that I am probably the slowest of the whole group and lingering at the back most of the time, but that is just how it is, and doesn’t bother me one iota. I am just happy (the understatement of all time) to be here.

Aside from that fact, by going quickly you don’t get to stop, look up, and take in the sights like we did today. There are always things above you, around you, and below you. They are to be treasured. I am reminded of what someone told me when I did Kilimanjaro, which was ‘the worst thing you can do is put your head down and end up looking at the boots of the person in front of you – stop, look around, take it all in!’.

After we arrived at our lodge, the Namaste Lodge, there was a huge treat in store – a shower! The shower consisted of standing in an outside cubicle under a bucket of hot water, but the word hot was all that mattered, and it was my first shower in four days, so it was hugely welcome. In fact to have a shower you first ask the kitchen staff at the lodge to boil some water for you. They then take a big kettle, climb the ladder outside and fill up the bucket on the roof of the hut below. You then pull a chain inside and the water comes down. It works!

It is about -5 degrees outside, but the water is in fact hot from those buckets!

The Namaste Lodge in Phortse

The yaks arrive with our bags in Phortse

You may notice that up against the wall in the above picture is some brown stuff. That is in fact yak dung. They dry out the pats in the sun, and then use it for both heating the lodge dining room, and also for cooking – all kitchens that I saw had a nice big bucket of yak dung in there for fuelling the oven. Nice!

Dining room in the Namaste Lodge - yak dung heater essential!

After a dinner which was as welcome as the earlier shower, we had the briefing for the following day. Tomorrow’s walk is a tough one, both in terms of distance covered and most particularly (combined with) the altitude. We will leave for Dingboche, at 4,400m (14,500 feet) at 7am. Hopefully we are blessed with the same clear skies as we have had for the first four days. We must be due some bad weather at some point, and I just hope it holds as long as possible.

Today’s walk was simply the best day’s walking I have ever done. I may have better to come, but even if I don’t, I will always treasure this one very dearly. I feel so very blessed indeed. In fact it can’t get any better than this – can it?

Island Peak

So having decided to climb Island Peak (or Imja Tse, to give it it’s correct name), I thought I’d put some information up here for those who (like me as of a month back) haven’t heard of it before.

The mountain of Island Peak is 6,189m (or 20,305 feet) high. It is officially a spur, or ridge extension coming off part of Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain on earth (the other three being Everest, K2 and Kangchenjunga). It was apparently named in 1951 as it appears to look like an island in a sea of ice when viewed from Dingboche, a popular trekking stop en route to Everest Base Camp. It was first climbed by a British team as a preparation for the first successful Everest trip that same year. One Tenzing Norgay was part of the team, apparently.

Imja Tse......

It is classified as a PD+ climb. PD stands for Peu Difficile in Alpine terminology, and a list of Alpine and other terms are included in the link below:

http://www.mountaindays.net/articles/item/snow_ice_alpine_grades_explained/

There are apparently two ways to the top. There is a base camp at about 5,100m from where you can make a summit attempt, or a high camp at 5,600m, leading to a shorter summit day. As far as I understand it , where you start from depends upon the conditions at the time and also the group doing it (i.e the climbing sherpas will assess snow conditions etc. and the liklihood of the group being able to sleep at the higher altitude). When I did Kilimanjaro the highest we slept was at about 4,800m, which was a struggle, and so this will in either case be a step up for me. We will stay in tents whilst there. All being well we will be reasonably acclimatised as we will get there after having been to Kala Patthar (5,545m) at Everest a few days before.

After base camp there is a climb and a scramble to get onto the glacier, after which it is a crampon and ice-axe approach. The final 250m or so is on fixed ropes, involving jumars and harnesses. A climbing sherpa will fix the lines for us, and the slope is at about 55 degrees on ice. The final ridge up to the summit looks terrifying to me, I cannot describe it in any other way.

Here is a picture that someone took on the summit:

I so want to be stood where they are....

From the top, as long as the weather doesn’t hamper the view, there will be views of Makalu, Lhotse, Kangchenjunga (three of the five highest mountains on the planet). Everest itself will be hidden behind Lhotse, which at 8,500m or so, will still tower some 2.5km above us, even at the height we are at. Staggering!

The descent is an abseil down from the summit ridge over the headwall, and back over the glacier. Apparently there are potentially crevasses which may need the use of ladders to get over.

From there the trek back goes back over what is apparently a really fantastic ridge to a place called Phunki Tenga, and then eventually back to Namche Bazaar and the airport at Lukla. That will be day 20 of the trek, so there is a huge amount to get done in that time, including Everest Base Camp on the way.

If I told you here and now that I was excited about this, then it would be the biggest understatement that I may have ever made. I actually never thought after Kilimanjaro that I could ever rekindle the feelings that I had then. Little did I know that I would be doing this so soon afterwards, or that it would be as much of a thrill as it is to be heading out to the Himalayas.

So that’s Island Peak then. It is beyond my ability level, and will be way beyond my comfort zone when I am there, no matter what I do between here and then. I want to push myself though, as hard as I can, and this will not, I already know (or should I say I hope!), be my last trip to the Himalayas……….

Bring it on – I am already counting down the days.