Baruntse & Mera Peak Expedition 2011 Part 1
This blog is to mark the expedition to climb Mera Peak and Baruntse and all the events that subsequently unfolded.
Since making a crazy return from the Himalayas on the 17th November, the last few weeks have been nothing short of hectic. I have struggled to completely piece this blog together, since how do explain the euphoria of reaching a summit such as Baruntse, or even Mera Peak and the Amphu Labtsa, when I can’t totally understand the feelings myself.
Ironically, I found writing the Peak Lenin blog much easier to write, even considering things didn’t go exactly to plan. A consolation is that I found this easier to write than my dissertation, and this is infinitely more interesting (considering no one fell down a crevasse in my dissertation)…
Arriving in Kathmandu, Nepal
After packing, which amazingly took only a day to complete, the 2am journey to Heathrow Airport began on the 14th October. After a quick scout of terminal 4, I endeavoured to check in for the flight. The Indian lady at the desk for Jet Airways seemed baffled when I handed her my ticket and after scanning the computer, she simply asked “Where is Roy?” She clearly thought I looked a bit too young to be taking a flight, which perhaps explained why she made a quick phone call after looking over my passport, although that could have equally been to check where and who Roy was… Was he the pilot?! After checking my bags, the first of the group started to arrive, and eventually, most people on the expedition were at check in. There were the two guides, Mark and paddy, then the members, Debbie, Nicky, Eoin, Gordon, Ian, Roy (expedition engineer, telecoms expert, and electrical generator supervisor) and myself. We would meet Hannah, Mary and Andrew in Kathmandu.
The first part of this adventure began with the flight to Mumbai, where I had the pleasure of sitting next to none other than Roy who was fortunately not the pilot since we were in roughly 25 rows from the front. I learned many things about Roy on the 9 hour flight, such as his home town of Wigan, his dislike of accountants, his telecommunications background, and his ambition to build a shed. After a strange set of circumstances a few days later, Roy became my expedition dad…
On arriving in Mumbai where literally everybody spits on the floor and looks like Freddie Mercury, we searched for somewhere to stay for the night. Eventually after a bit of scouting, 5 of us found chaise longue type seats which were a slight bonus for the 9 hour overnight wait. None of us got much sleep.
Unbeknown to most of us, it was Paddy’s birthday, which was unceremoniously spent in Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport.
The following day, with jetlag rapidly encroaching, we got underway for the remainder of the journey, and finally landed in Kathmandu.
After a quick kit explosion in the Hotel Manaslu, we ventured out into the city for the evening meal. The next two days sent me back into culture shock 101. This city was crazy, so fast and chaotic, yet the chaos seemed to be controlled. There may be 10 motor cycles hurtling towards you, and a further 50 behind, but by some miracle they seemed to just miss each other, perhaps due to the incessant horns that blare out. There are also the street sellers who approach you literally every 30 seconds to sell amongst other things, full sets of ukuleles, Ghurkha knifes, chess boards, and a complete orchestra of flutes, perhaps to go with the ukuleles. Apart from the street sellers and towering buildings which seemed to lean towards each other at disconcerting angles, one of the most noticeable features was the city wiring. Certainly an electrician’s nightmare.
Kathmandu seemed in some ways very similar to Bishkek and Osh, yet in many ways, they were completely different, with Kathmandu seeming to have an endless buzz of life which after some getting used to had an addictive quality.
Following a stop at Shonas the famous gear store, and a quick browse through the endless streets of fake gear, it was time for the flight to Lukla. So far all I had heard about were people’s horror stories from ‘the most dangerous airport in the world’, but this part of the journey was one of the bits I was most looking forward to. The flight was relatively straightforward; we took off, the pilots did some adjusting, we possibly saw Everest, the pilots did some more adjusting, we landed, we departed. As flights to Lukla go, it was pretty smooth.
Arriving to find some of the bags weren’t quite yet at Lukla meant we had the whole day to look round instead of starting the walk in. I was still feeling the effects of jetlag quite heavily so this came as quite a relief. I spent the rest of the day with Gordon, drinking hot chocolate and eating brownies in Starbucks.
That night we stayed in the Paradise Lodge where the highlight was watching Andrew summon Kenton Cool over to our table, who subsequently sent the girls, mainly Debbie, slightly crazy. In fairness, he did have unbelievably good legs…
So on the 18th October we left Lukla and headed for Poyan, the first stop on the long trek to Mera Peak which went by the longer Surke La route rather than the shorter Zatrwa La. The first days walk went well, and took away the apprehension I had prior to starting the walk in. It was clear from where the route went on the map that the acclimatisation was extremely steady, not going above 3600m for the first 7 days. These initial trekking days gave us a great chance to get to know each other, and also get to know the Sherpas. We had a great team including Nuru (Sardar/Head Sherpa), Sonam, Dawa, Surendra (cook), and Mungalae. In the initial days, Sonam and Dawa spent the most time with the group, and given their youth and enthusiasm were great people to be around. A favourite saying of Sonams in particular was ‘zoom zoom’ each time we set off. This was translated by Roy as ‘Jum Jum’ and for the rest of the trip Sonam was known as Jum Jum, hence the phrase ‘Jum Jum, zoom zoom’. The gesture was repaid soon after however, as Roy tried to explain the phenomenon of ‘bingo wings’ to Sonam. This led to Roy being known as ‘Bingo Wings’ by seemingly every Sherpa in Nepal.
From Poyan we continued the trek to Pangkongma, and from there to Nashing Dingma. This day was particularly tough, reaching the pass of Pangkonngma La (3173m), before dropping down to the valley below, then climbing the steeply through the forest to Nashing Dingma. Here we could buy small bottles of Coca-Cola for the bargain price of 3000 NPR, approx £3… It was also here that Hannah decided her hair was too long, so the afternoon was taken up watching Nicky rather skilfully cut her hair with the smallest pair of Leatherman scissors available. As soon as this entertainment had finished, the next started with a neighbouring group practicing mountain yoga. Later that evening, we ate dinner which was a huge pizza in a rather smoky tea house. As Roy was keen to point out, the Sherpas were definitely trying to smoke us out.
The next day we woke up to drizzle and mist, weather typical of a UK summers day. The walk involved climbing over the Surke La pass to Chalem Kharka. It was at the beginning of the walk that Paddy demonstrated the best way to wear a coat in the humid Himalayas. Wearing the coat only by the hood with the rest of the coat over the rucksack allowed plenty of venting and kept the bag contents dry. This was a vital part since I had brought along my phone, an Earnest Shackleton book, and my wallet complete with driving licence, just in case… Most importantly, you also look cool…
Along the way, Eoin had a close and personal encounter with nature after a leech took a liking to his neck which explained why Mark suddenly asked for a knife and told him to hold still. The evening meal at Chalem Kharka was a particularly cold affair, which perhaps somewhat affected our communication skills since the post dinner conversation revolved heavily around stories of, for want of a better word, getting caught short in the most inconvenient places… vis-à-vis Everest North Ridge.
The next day, we headed for Chanbu Kharka. The initial climb led us into the coldest weather we had yet experienced, and once at the summit of the climb, a thunder storm started overhead. For the final few hours of the walk, a huge graupel storm engulfed us as tiny avalanches slid down the sheer slopes all around us. This was incidentally the only day we experienced snow on the whole expedition. Once at Chanbu Kharka, the conditions were taken advantage of as best as possible, and a snowball fight ensued. Having previously had a snowball fight at Nottingham Uni with the Chinese, who are utterly abysmal snowballers, I thought this would be straightforward. Unfortunately, the super fit porters and Sherpas clearly had more experienced knocking people out with snowballs. The evening at Chanbu Kharka was also a good opportunity for Roy to read out extracts from his diary on the back of a map, from a previous attempt on Mera Peak. It wasn’t the first time we had heard Roy’s comical matter of fact excerpts, and definitely wasn’t the last. An extract included “Now at Chanbu Kharka. Very cold. Warmer in Wigan. Pen froz..”
The following 6 days passed without too much occurrence. A few of the more notable incidents however included having a post walk river bath at Kote and subsequently paying £5 for a pack of Pringles; washing my boxers after the river bath which promptly froze solid whilst drying; having a puja by a monk in a rock side monastery on the way to Tangnang; and the story of Debbie who dropped her sunglasses into the Tangnang toilet, only to be subsequently retrieved by Paddy and Mark, washed in a river, and worn again for the rest of the trip… It’s also worth mentioning at this point the state of Nepalese mountain toilets. They are essentially a hole in the ground filled with excrement and a good floor if you’re lucky; that’s it. The last incident was pure comic genius. Picture the scene; everyone is sitting down for dinner in a freezing tea house in Kote… that is everyone except for Ian who was tending to his kit explosion in his tent. The next minute, Ian walks in to the tea house and everyone just stares. Wearing his boxer shorts on his head, with his head torch over the top, everyone is perplexed by his choice of dinner attire. It seems whilst sorting his stuff out, he hung his boxers up in the tent, which somehow ended up on his head. Now not being able to find his boxers, he gave up the search, put his head torch on and wandered off for dinner. Definitely a ‘you had to be there’ moment, but comic genius nonetheless! From Khare, we got onto the Mera La glacier and had the first chance to don the crampons and ice axes. A steady climb took us to camp 1 on Mera Peak, just below the Mera La. This camp was at 5400m and was the first time I really felt the altitude.
The next day however was the climb to Mera High camp which was up at 5750m. Here the effects felt at camp 1 were exaggerated, and everything from eating to using the ‘toilet’ was a mission. When I say toilet, I actually mean snow ledge under a rock, exposed to the coldest wind, littered with years of human excrement; unfortunately the reality of life at high altitude camps. Once at high camp, we spent the afternoon resting, for we would be waking at around 3am, and beginning the summit attempt at 4am, so needed all the rest we could. I happened to be sharing a tent with Ian and Roy, which also happened to be great fun. After a dinner of sorts, we took the opportunity for a spot of timely singing. Classics belted out from our tent included Silent Night and the theme tune to Dad’s Army. All the while competing with the girl’s tent who considering the altitude gave a rather impressive rendition of Lady Gaga’s Edge of Glory… An apt choice perhaps since we were on the cusp of summiting the second highest trekking peak in Nepal.
The assent of Mera Peak
After the initial difficulty of gearing up with 3 people in a tent covered in bulky down clothing, the assent of Mera Peak itself began around 4am. We set off in the dark with Sonam leading my rope and Gordon, Andrew and Ian behind me. Head torches shining, we headed off into the darkness. Even with the rope joining us which let you know you were not alone, the constant climbing sent you into your own personal realm where you were truly alone in a cold and dark world, just staring down at your feet. The pace was very high, and we found ourselves at the front of the 3 ropes in our group.
The route was well defined into the snow, however it was deceptively narrow. At one point in the darkness, I stepped off the side and sank up to my waist in deep snow. Thoroughly weak from the altitude, I was barely able to lift myself out without the assistance of Sonam.
In the darkness, the cold biting wind whipped across our route, and very quickly my hands got extremely cold. I realised that I should have had my mitts on, since the altitude simply accelerates the onset of frostbite as cells struggle for oxygen, before succumbing to the cold, and literally freezing solid. For an hour I desperately tried to keep my hands warm, constantly keeping them moving, keeping one at all times in my pocket, and trying to hang on till sunrise. Fortunately we stopped before the sun rose, and I was able to put my summit mitts on. Not realising how much of a difference they would make, I almost instantly started getting hot aches, an agonising pain as your hands re-warm. At this point I could barely hold the ice axe, but fortunately this soon subsided and I was able to look around to the most awesome view I had ever seen. Towering Himalayan peaks as far as the eye could see, a deep blue/black sky almost space like, and a sunrise glistening over the clouds far below.
The sunrise was a relief since it took the worst of the cold away. The climbing continued. Towards the top of the climb, the new pain came from the desperate lack of oxygen which is such a crippling force, movement is restricted to only a few steps before rest. This slow movement considerably slowed our pace; however we were so close to the summit. Eventually we reached the bottom of the fixed ropes, and we knew we could make it. Jumaring up to the summit ridge, all that was left was a 10 meter walk to the summit. I reached the summit with Nicky, and after 4 hours climbing, it was just total elation. On the summit, the concentration of oxygen was around 44% that of sea level. As we were all talking on the summit, an unexpected person joined us. Mark had had to go back to high camp after leaving; however in an effort to join us on the summit, he essentially ran up in around 2 hours, an incredible show of fitness.
Getting down was simply the reverse but much quicker, reaching high camp in around an hour. Along the way however, Hannah who was on my rope managed to drop her water bottle which rolled gracefully down the snow slope before coming to a rest on the lip of a crevasse. Thinking it was a lost cause, we resumed our descent. Once we were parallel with the bottle however, it became clear that Paddy had other ideas, and on a tight rope, managed to edge over and rescue the bottle from certain death. I was unsure what to think as Paddy gradually edged over, since I was tied to the end of his rope and didn’t want to end up being eaten by a crevasse… As the bottle was rescued though, my thoughts quickly changed, and Paddy was clearly a hero.
Reaching high camp, we were treated to some more of Surendra’s awesome cooking with a quick bowl of soup before we started the remainder of the descent to Camp 1. The rest of the descent was in thick cloud which gave a slight challenge to navigation however luckily there were old tracks to follow. If new snow had have fallen whilst we were higher on the mountain, navigation would have been impossible without using a GPS.
Once below the whiteout, we had a quick stop at Camp 1 to change boots and off load the sharps, and then made for Kongme Dingma. A few slippery slopes later, we slid down to Kongme Dingma and the relative shelter of a few stone buildings, and our already erected tents. There was also a massive boulder, literally more massive than any boulder I have ever seen before in the whole of Lincolnshire…
That night, even after every other awesome meal we had received, we were all shocked at what the cooks brought out. Popcorn and soup for starter, a main I can’t quite recall, and for dessert, an absolutely massive chocolate cake that rivalled the size of any boulder. The cake was complete with candles and icing. It’s truly amazing what the Sherpas and porters can create in a tent with a pressure cooker and steamer. It’s certainly important to mention at this point just how good our cooks really were. Every single meal was different, and each day we were spoilt with the unbelievable standard of cooking. We even had deep fried snickers at Baruntse BC. The fact that no one was ill, their cooking would put many restaurants to shame, and that Eoin a London based chef was forever praising the cooking, was simply testament to Surendra and his team.
Leaving Kongme Dingma the next day, we trekked further up the Hinku Valley and caught our first glimpse of Baruntse. It was a beautiful sight, a mountain with an impressive Southwest face. The thought of climbing the mountain at that point however was slightly stomach-churning considering it looked much larger than Mera Peak, and even that had been a relentless struggle.
The final night before reaching Baruntse base camp we camped by a beautiful lake along the Hinku Valley, which although was a stunning location, was one of the coldest camps we had stayed in. This was also the first time our own mess tent was used, and on entering, it seemed everyone else had the right idea by wearing their sleeping bags for dinner.. Icicles formed on the inside of the tent as we ate. It was bitterly cold.
The next day, the final day of the walk in, I woke up feeling rough. Many of the group members had colds after the Mera climb, and reluctantly I joined the club. This made the walk to BC strangely difficult, however fortunately Roy had thought ahead and brought a pack of Fisherman’s Friends as his luxury food item. To the best of my knowledge, the purpose of Fisherman’s Friends is to help you breathe better, however after eating the first one I was struggling to even see through the tears, let alone breathe. The only way I can describe Fisherman’s Friends is like eating an extremely hot, mint flavoured chilly… Nevertheless, surprisingly addictive once the initial paralysis is overcome.