Part 1: Climbing of Mera Peak (6476m)
08.10.2010 - 07.11.2010 -20 °C
Like many people I have been wanting to go to Nepal and more precisely the Himalayas for ages. I had the plane ticket for a while but was undecided which mountaineering trip I wanted to do. I ended up doing the highest trekking peak, the Mera Peak 6476m which was definitely a life time experience.
Being at altitude
How was it? Nice is not a good word. Luckily I had no problems with the altitude in the sense that I had no altitude sickness. However, you feel miserable most of the time. Eating is as difficult as walking, your energy seems rather low and your body simply tells you that it does not like what you are doing. Eric Shipton describes in "Upon that mountain" quite well the feeling:
"I doubt if anyone would claim to enjoy life at high altitudes... There is a certain grim satisfaction to be derived from struggling upwards, however slowly; but the bulk of one's time is necessarily spent in the extreme squalor of a high camp, when even this solace is lacking... Eating tends to make one vomit; ... there is nothing to look at but the bleak confusion inside the tent and the scaly, bearded countenandce of one's companion - fortunately the noise of the wind usually drowns out his stuffy breathing;... I used to try to console myself with the thought that a year ago I would have been thrilled by the very idea of taking part in our present adventure, a prospect that had then seemed like an impossible dream; but altitude has the same effect on the mind as upon the body, one's intellect becomes dull and unresponsive, and my only desire was to finish the wretched job and to get down to a more reasonable clime."
Due to our good acclimatisation we all could go up. One girl had to go down because she was so miserable including vomiting etc but rejoined us again the next day with a big smile and seemed to be feeling best of us all! Some took diamox, some did not.
The start: getting to Lukla not easy
We lost two days because we could not get on a flight to Lukla. Getting to Lukla is probably more dangerous than the actual trekking. Lukla has an airstrip of ca 300m and the adrenaline is definitely pomping through your body while flying straight at the wall/mountain before landing. We had spent one day waiting at the local airport of Kathmandu. A plane had crashed at Lukla so we could not fly: very reassuring.
800 other mountaineers also wanted to get on one of the planes (which seats in general ca 16 people). Since the 3 previous days there had been no flights either. So let's say it was 'a little bit' busy at the small airport. In the end we were willing to rent a helicopter to get there after hearing every half hour 'you might be leaving soon', 'it might take a couple of hours', 'you are leaving within half an hour', etc all with the same result: no departure. Anyway, after 2 days of waiting we got a flight and arrived in Lukla.
There is great security at the local airports: no passport needed, your boarding pass has no name, seat, or any other details, just a stamp with the destination, security furthermore means measuring the bag, a quick touch over your clothes and thats it.
Interesting to see how ones opinion can change depending where you come from. Arriving in Lukla it seemed like a bit dirty, very poor (100 men waiting at the airport hoping to get a porters or other job) little place. Well, after 3 weeks in the mountains Lukla suddenly seemed a very clean, beautiful, well kept, large town with electricity, shops etc...
Trekking in Nepal means going through forests for ages. There are trees until 4000m and snow in general starts in October only above 5000m. So, in case you are interested in mountaineering you have to go high, very high. Going to the Mera Peak took us almost 2.5 weeks whereas going down took us only 3 days. You have to acclimatise all the time which means that you are only walking 3-4 hours a day, are basically doing nothing and just sitting around most of the time.
The day starts already at 6.30 with tea in your tent (yeah, room service!!) and a washing bowl. The higher you get, the more difficult it is to leave your warm sleeping bag in the morning (advise: take a bottle for relieving yourself at night.... this avoids going into freezing cold at night, stumbling to a stinking pooh tent). You pack your stuff and leave the bag for the porter. At 7.30 breakfast is served and at 8.30 you start walking until ca 11.00 when you stop for lunch. In the middle of nowhere the crew makes a warm lunch for you and after lunch (ca 13.30) you continue for maybe an hour or so to arrive at your destination of the day and acclimatise further. Basically you are being treated as a princess as you do not have to do anything yourself, except walking and eating and especially drinking. I have never been drinking sooo much tea in my life. You need to drink constantly to avoid to get dehydrated. Furthermore our highlight of the day was to play 'uno' with our fellow Dutch group. Dinner is at 18.30 and bed time is 20.00-21.30.
It is amazing how little varied our discussion was during the trekking. The main topics are endlessly about toilet visits (or basically trying not to go and grading the toilets), about the altitude (if you are ok, how you feel), about the food & drink (what interesting combination this time, what do you manage to eat this time), about your material (what you will wear, if it is ok (remember that the porters have basically no material at all... and you sit there next to them talking endlessly about coats, mittens, etc)) and of course summit day (how it will be). That is about it.
The first time we saw the Mera Peak in the distance, far above us, it is just another mountain. The closer you get, the more awe you get for this immense mountain and you just cannot believe that you will be on top of that mountain in a week time, a few days time, the next day, that day. The closer you get, the more respect you get for the mountain and the more you are wondering why you are actually wanting to climb this mountain.
At summit day we got up at 2.00 and left at 3.30 (things go much slower at altitude). Basically the sherpas started dressing several of us and checking if all the gear (crampons, harnass, jumar, etc) was well attached. Jeroen discovered that his overmittens of more than 100 Euro were not going over his gloves... so he had to go up with rather cold fingers. We left in the dark but the moon was giving lot's of light. In a silent struggle we ascended slowly, slowly, slowly (biztare) the mountain. What had seemed a not very steep trail, felt actually as a very steep and endless trail. Each time you looked up it just seemed to stay as far away as before. I discovered that whereas my coat had kept me warm until 5800m, it did not seem to manage to warm me now at all. I had put an extra woolen layer so did I dressed too warm or was it just f* freezing cold? I do not know if it was - 20 degrees celcius or colder or warmer but I have really never felt so cold in my life. I guess it must also have been the exhaustion as the day before I had had a tough day going from 5300m to 5800m. I had to use all my willpower to get myself to 5800m and it absolutely felt as a victory to have gotten to High Camp at 5800m. Anyway, soon Jeroen, Thundu (sirdar) and I were walking together: we walked like 20 steps and rested. When we managed to get some energy from somewhere we did another 20 steps. and so we continued. until 6250m, which we thought was the end of the climb, the middle peak as we call it. Arriving there it appeared it wasn't and another steep slope was waiting for us.
Nanda and Richard were already for a while at 6250m. When I got there I learnt that Nanda's toes were senseless, no blood in them anymore and getting a frostbite. Thanks to the rubbing of the toes done by Minga the toes were saved. However, this was clearly the end of the summit day for them. Personally I felt that it had been enough. I had reached 'middle peak' and that was great. We were too exhausted and confused to even make a 'summit picture'. I had to rub the battery of my camera warm before it was willing to make pictures from the view.
The view was splendid. You could now see the Mount Everest arising above the other mountains and also the Lhotse, Makalu and other 8000ers were in sight. Amazing. Also the clouds down below were so beautiful. The sunrise had been wonderful and it is a picture that I cannot show to you as I was too exhausted to grab my camera and make a picture.
In 'Into Thin Air' is also written that turning around just before the highest summit because you know that you have otherwise not enough energy left to descend, is actually almost more impressive than going to the summit and simply crash afterwards. In my case I had really gone over my limits which I discovered the next day. Going down at summit day - descending 1250m to 5000m - was ok. We were still digesting the day and you can see us really smiling at the pictures. However the next day, which was a reasonable easy day - descending from 5000m to 3700m - I just had no energy left whats-o-ever and had to sit down regularly before I could continue. I skipped lunch and just fell asleep where they let me sleep. My body was really not pleased...
The next 2 days we had to ascend again to 4600m which we did slowly but steadily. I started to regain a bit of energy and arriving in Lukla was an absolute victory. Suddenly Lukla was such a beautiful city and I just was in awe for all these beautifully coloured buildings, electricity, being able to sit on a chair, having a room with a bed, etc etc etc.
In the evening in Lukla we had a our goodbye party which was REALLY nice. The goodbye party was also the moment to give the tip to the team of our 8 porters, 4 kitchen staff, 2 sherpa's and our sirdar (guide) who had all worked so hard. Within our group there were a few who wanted to give less than the normal amount, which I felt was a real insult since they can really use every penny. Next to that they had done an excellent job.
When I think back of the people there are so many people who come to my mind.
I still think for example very fondly of our 'kitchen staff' Geljen who took care of us the whole time and made sure we would eat and drink enough. As soon as you had taken your first bite of your meal he would ask if you wanted some more. He was always smiling and after trying to convince us to eat/drink some more he would soon pass us with his impressive load of cleaned kitchen tools together with the equally smiling and very friendly Tekbhadu.
Our sirdar (guide) Thundu was very good with the staff and always there to advise and support them. New porters would get extra attention and support from him. He would simply sit with them and talk with them and you could see that they have great respect for him. Thundu had always his medicine box at hand whenever anyone had something. On summit day Thundu frequently tried to rub me less cold and even lended me an extra layer (his overcoat). The picture of Thundu's brother Nima Gombu Sherpa is on all 'Everest' beer bottles as he and his 7 brothers have all climbed the Mount Everest several times. Thundu has been 4 times to the summit of the Mount Everst... I actually borrowed boots from Thundu that have been twice to the mount everest already...
We chatted a lot with our ambitious climbing sherpa Lhakpha who was going to be promoted to sirdar after our trip and who with his 20 years has already a very impressive CV and is really good with people as well.
Unfortunately it was much more difficult to talk to our porters since our Nepali was so poor. It is actually quite shocking to see how many porters and sherpa's have to turn around because they are having problems. It appears that there are quite some porters who come from the lowlands who are often having problems with the altitude. We saw one sherpa being transported down because he had lung oedem. One of our younger boys had to turn around because of altitude sickness. Basically you can see every day people (either tourists or sherpas/porters) being helicoptered out. Either with frozen toes, tooth ache, etc etc. At the beginning of our trip I had asked if porters were having sufficient clothing. I know now that when selecting an organisation you have to check the following elements: 1) what kind of clothing do the porters get (warm (!) coat, trousers, shoes, crampons, sunglasses), 2) what kind of accommodation is being provided for the porters (porters slept often in caves where they could make a fire that would warm them instead of in the dinner tent (where we were so they would have to wait to be let inside and where there was no floor), 3) do they get a sleeping bag, 4) do they have to carry their own food? (very often porters have to carry bags of 2 clients (supposed to be 12.5kg which is often exceeded by tourists: in our group 1 guy had 20kg!!!), stuff for the whole group and their own stuff (food!!, clothing, sleeping material): as a consequence the porters hardly take anything for themselves with them and you see them walking around in half shredded clothing).
Chatting with the other groups who were also going to Mera Peak was really nice. I have chatted a lot with the wonderful Australian group with whom I have had a lot of laughs: Juan, Amanda, Jo, Sandy, Kathy, Dilip and Peter. It really was a pity I could not celebrate the goodbye party with them! Juan always managed to say something nice about the rubbish stones that I had picked up :-).
Since we had no Dutch/UK guide we often turned ourselves towards especially Hans from the other Dutch group who has tons of experience. He convinced us that going from Khare (5000m) to High Camp (5800m) and a few hours later to summit (6476m) within basically 26hours was absolutely madness. So thanks to him we discussed with our sirdar Thundu that we wanted an extra night at Mera La base camp (5350m). Both Hans and Jo really cared for us and gave plenty of useful advise if someone was not feeling well. Thundu made a very good decision that Annemiek had to go down (who rejoined us the next day) and he quietly observed us all and took very good decisions.
Playing 'Uno' with Hugo, Bram, Kees and Tanja with Hans and Evert watching us, was an absolutely highlight of our days... Especially to see certain people lose who could not bear to be losing... :-). An extra element was that they managed to sit always in warmer spots than we seemed to be.
Thanks to Jeroen we had a lot of laughter in our group. Jeroen walked at a calm pace and always threw in some jokes and was always interested in others. He has managed to calm me (and others!) down and cheer us up at the most difficult moments for which I will be grateful forever. Also Nanda and Richard were very good companions in the group. I was really happy for Annemiek that she felt so much better and could come back after she had to descend and this must have been great for her partner Erwin as well and seeing her learning Nepali was really nice. Quite impressive how fit our 'oldest' team member was (60 years) (although competition seemed to be the only thing that was important for him. On day 1 he started with remarks like: '... will never make it to the top', which obviously does not really help in creating a positive group spirit...). However, after three weeks together we were rather happy to say our goodbyes. Although we have had a lot of laughs together, our group never became 1 group and stayed individuals who happened to be together.
The surroundings and the villages
The villages we passed were poor and are living mostly from agriculture and the tourists. There are hardly any facilities at all. There are primary schools around but apparently the teachers are of bad quality because they have not received good training and thus it happens a lot that children learn for example the alphabet but are not capable in applying it. The region you walk through is really remote.
Nepali people are extremely friendly, polite and nice. I think they are in general also very beautiful.
The trip in detail
10-11 Oct Kathmandu. 11 Oct briefing in hotel (no equipment check, we did it a bit among ourselves and hired/bought some extra stuff at Shona's)
12 Oct Waiting at airport from 6.00 - 16.00. No flight to Lukla
13 Oct Decided to go on a hike to Champa Dev (2278m) in Kathmandu valley instead of probably waisting another day at airport
up ca 700-800m, down idem: total cal 1400-1600m. lowest point 1700m, highest 2392m. hike 3h30 (excl breaks)
14 Oct Flight to Lukla!! (2950m) - hike to Surke (2290m) - Puyan (2775m).
Sun. up 610m, down 566m: total 1176m. lowest point 2280m, highest 2832m. hike 3h30 (excl breaks)
15 Oct Puyan - Kari La (3145m) - Kharte lunch - Panggom (2850m)
Sun+Rain. Up 985m, down 844m: total 1829m. Lowest 2400m, highest 3145m. Hike 4h05
16 Oct Panggom - monastery - Naijing (3100m)
Rain. Up 1493m, down 1357m: total 2850m. Lowest 1900m, highest 3113m. Hike 4h30
17 Oct Naijing - Surke La Pass (3045m) - Danda Kharka (3500m)
Rain. Up 1454m, down 599m: total 2053m. Lowest 2650m, highest 3500m. Hike 3h10
18 Oct Danda Kharka - Zair La (4480m) - Panch Pokhari (ca 4200m)
Rain. Up 901m, down 258m: total 1159m. Lowest 3500m, highest 4480m. Hike 3h47
19 Oct Panch Pokhari - beautiful views in morning - slippery path down in afternoon - Khote (3700m)
Sun+rain. Up 398m, down 978m: total 1376m. Lowest 3400m, highest 4400m. Hike 4h20
20 Oct Khote - cold and rainy lunch - Tagnag (4300m)
Sun+Rain. Up 715m, down 29m: total 744m. Lowest 3700m, highest 4394m. Hike 3h36
21 Oct Tagnag - acclimatisation and exercise day (4300m) - cloudy
22 Oct Tagnag - lunch in sun! at Dig Kharka - Khare (5000m)
Sun! Up 610m, down 58m: total 668m. Lowest 4300m, highest 5050m. Hike 3h36
23 Oct Khare - acclimatisation and exercise day at glacier (5278m) - Khare (5000m)
Sun+clouds. Up 278m, down 304m: total 582m. Lowest 5000m, highest 5278m. Hike 1h50
24 Oct Khare - Mera La pass (5400m) - Mera La base camp (5350m)
Sun+clouds. Up 454m, down 66m: total 520m. Lowest 5000m, highest 5400m. Hike 2h38
25 Oct Mera La Base Camp - High Camp (5800m)
Sun. Up 480m, down 59m: total 539m. Lowest 5350m, highest 5800m. Hike 2h46
26 Oct SUMMIT DAY: High Camp - Mera Peak (6250m) - High Camp - Khare (5000m)
Sun. Up 450m, down 1287m: total 1737m. Lowest 5000m, highest 6250m. Hike 8h30
27 Oct Khare - Tagnag lunch - Khote (3700m)
Sun. Up 33m, down 1274m: total 1307m. Lowest 3700m, highest 5000m. Hike 5h30
28 Oct Khote - Thuli Kharka (4300m)
Sun+Clouds. Up 1100m, down 500m: total 1600m. Lowest 3500m, highest 4342m. Hike 6h30
29 Oct Thuli Kharka - Zatwra La pass (4610m) - Lukla (2950m)
Sun. Up 329m, down 1804m: total 2133m. Lowest 2950m, highest 4610m. Hike 6h49
30 Oct Flight to Kathmandu (1440m) - visit to Everest steak house...