Tag Archives: Mountains

Base Camp, Bad Booze, and Bad News

[Continued from the previous post]

It is a short 90-minute saunter up the side of the glacier to get to Everest Base Camp, the jumble of tents at the bottom of the infamous Khumbu Icefall apparent from some distance.

Given the uncertain nature of glacial terrain, the path doubles back and forth past crevasses before suddenly entering the compact area of tents. This year, it is home for over 600 climbers, supporting sherpas and porters, their tents perched improbably on the ice on stone-built platforms.

The risks are ever-present. A couple of days before my visit, an avalanche had swept down the Khumbu Icefall, killing one Sherpa climber and injuring two others, the snow-dust cloud reaching well into Base Camp itself. The Icefall, which moves about a metre down the hill each day, is always dangerous – and particularly unpredictable this year. The snow piled up on the forbidding slopes to North have made it more treacherous than usual – to the extent that at least one expedition leader has put a time limit on climbers getting through. If you can’t make it in time, tough – you’re back down, no climb.

But I had work to do – 8 days earlier, across a couple of mountain ranges ot the West, I had been given a letter to deliver from a Sherpa whose son was at Base Camp. I started asking around to locate his expedition. “Alpine Ascents?” I enquired. The familiar answer – “Go straight” with a vague wave of the arm in the direction of the main camp – wasn’t particularly helpful.

In fact, somewhat predictably, Alpine Ascents was the furthest possible set of expedition tents right at the top of the temporary village by the foot of the icefall. Knowing that expeditions were not always that keen on the distraction of visitors, I entered gingerly.

“Errrr… I’m the postman – anyone know Nima Nuru Sherpa?” A few shouts and grunts later, and the 19-year-old Nima wandered out, toothbrush in hand.

It was a great moment – in an age of instantaneous communication across continents, there’s something deeply satisfying about delivering a letter by hand over 30 miles and eight days. After he had devoured the letter, I sat quietly drinking tea with Nima for half an hour. He must have offered me more tea about very 30 seconds. I will stay in touch with him.

I spent a further couple of hours at Base camp, chatting with the leader of the Jagged Globe expedition (Adele, pictured in front of the Icefall, with the ominous hanging ice on the slopes to the left/North) and one of the climbers, Doug (Everest will complete the “Seven Summits” for him). I did a climbing course with Jagged Globe in the Alps in 2006. Adele was, amusingly, recovering from a massive party put on my the Kazakhstani Expedition the night before.

I also managed to enjoy the incredible apple pie in the Base Camp Bakery (set up by a climber-Sherpa Steven Dawa Sherpa – all the profits go towards an initiative to remove plastic waste from Base Camp) before eventually dragging myself away from this fascinating human drama.

The challenges of Everest 2009…

As I returned to Gorak Shep, heavy snow started to close in. It would snow for the next three days. Summit attempts this year have already been postponed once (orignally May 10th), and the snows are threatening to do so again. As I write, many expeditions have set off with the aim of summitting on or around the 20th. You can read about their progress here. With so many expeditions, the chances of queues for the top along the final stages is high.

After a quick wander up the 5600m peak Kala Pittar, I reluctantly started heading back down the Khumbu valley. 4 days of sickness (plus the deteriorating weather) put paid to my plans to walk over a third pass to the fifth valley.

As I descended, a series of strange incidences occurred which only made sense later. A Sherpa complaining of severe kidney pain in Gorak Shep; an expedition leader passed me running down from Base Camp to the medical camp at Pheriche and back (2 hours round trip); a higher-than-usual number of helicopters buzzing up and down the valley.

The full story is quite remarkable, and very sad. Essentially a bad batch of moonshine booze from Kathmandu (methanol masquerading as whisky) killed one Sherpa cook and severely injured another. The activity I had witnessed was an amazing (successful) 48-hour battle to save the second Sherpa. It is recorded, by the climber whose cook he was, in a compelling blog here. The doctors had to innovate above and beyond normal practice, eventually (bizarrely) putting him on an alcohol drip, to combat the methanol. Incredible.

Return to Namche and beyond

Within two hard days of walking through the snow, I was back in Namche Bazaar. I returned to the hut that I had started from. I was happily explaining my route to the owner and casually mentioned the Japanese climbers that I had bonded with over the local rice-beer Chang 15 days earlier. I was shocked to hear that 2 of them had been killed in their attempt to climb Kawande, their rope being cut by a falling rock as they ascended a ridge. It was a final reminder of how dangerous proper climbing in this region can be.

I returned, bearded, to Kathmandu for the inevitable night out in Thamel, and reflected on a rewarding, fascinating and sobering 20 days. Taking the path less trodden across the passes) had given me a broader sense of the region and it’s culture than I could have hoped for; and travelling without a guide or a porter (I carried all my own gear) increased the physical challenge, and gave me a very liberating sense of freedom.

Finally, the trek served as Phase 2 of my unintentional weight loss programme (Phase 1 being qualifying as a Yoga Teacher). Getting ill at altitude is a fine way to shed the pounds (though probably not medically recommended). While not quite a rake yet, I definitely am erring on the slender side for the first time in a few years.

I leave for Tibet, overland, on Tuesday; with only a 15-day one-man “group” visa for Tibet, I then have the challenge of entering China via the Lhasa-Qinghai railway, and trying to extend my visa – apparently not as easy as it sounds.

Leave a comment

Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, Nepal and Tibet '09

On Porters, being Present and route Planning

It’s not often that you get the chance to connect to the Internet at 3500m. I am in Namche Bazaar, the stepping-off point for Everest Base Camp Trek. Most people spend a couple of nights here for acclimatization, hence the rather smart internet facilities I am now sitting in.

I flew into Lukla’s aptly named STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) airstrip on Saturday, the first plane to arrive at 7am.

The benefits of an early start were immediately apparent, as I set off immediately on the two-day trek to Namche. From Lukla, the path snakes up through villages and tea-houses, past pine trees and plentiful rhododendrons, and crossing the occasional steel suspension bridge over rushing green glacial water.

It wasn’t long before I met the first group of porters coming down with improbably large and precariously balanced loads. The way they carry these is extraordinary – rather than using rucksack style shoulder straps, the entire weight is carried on a single band looped across the forehead, with a forward-leaning stance presumably ensuring that the entire spine is used/damaged rather than just a few vertebrae. It is an amazing sight. They are frequently carrying 2-3 100 litre kit bags, fully loaded, and strapped together. Others carry bundles of thick planks of wood or large boulders for construction work, held in specially designed carrying contraptions.

But you don’t want to stand amazed for too long – there is no chance of the porters giving way, and at the pace they are moving, flattening yourself against the shrubs on the inside of the path is the wisest policy. The load-carrying Yaks (called Dzubjoks or Dzongios) are equally impervious to the weak-kneed wobbles of terrified trekkers.

Today, on visiting the remarkable Hillary Foundation hospital at Khunde (3800m), I was amused to read No.11 in the list of injuries that they typically see, which emphasized the risk if a Yak gets out of the wrong side of the cattle-shed:

11. FALLS OFF STEEP TRACKS. Always keep to the inside of the tracks and out of the way when passing load-carrying dzubjoks who might be in a bad mood

Yesterday I got my first glimpse of the highest point on the planet. I had to stop myself for a moment to remind myself that I was actually here, and savour the extraordinary sight of Everest, flanked by the equally impressive Lhotse and Nuptse. This morning Everest itself was in cloud for the first time in a few days – hence in the picture, it is the aggressive peak of Ama Dablam to the South that is in the background.

There is a wide variety of trekkers here, from the late middle-aged Japanese trekking not much further than Namche for a glimpse of Everest to one group of school-children having the time of their lives. And the occasional runner. Yes, runner.

Some are slightly clueless – yesterday, I was very surprised to see again a French Swiss guy who I had met on the India-Nepal border last week. He was on his way down at a rapid pace. It didn’t make any sense… he looked fit, but with acclimatization there was no way he could have been all the way to Base Camp and back. I quizzed him on why he was descending. When he told me he had got to Namche and was surprised that he couldn’t use his debit card, all my sympathy evaporated. The rapid pace was due to the speed of his (understandably furious) unpaid porter-guide.

The vast majority of people here are on the standard route to Everest Base Camp, which you can see on this map – the route goes North East from Namche before turning North to finally getting to Gorak Shep.

A couple of friendly Nepalis guiding other parties have helped me to establish a longer, more esoteric and exciting (but perfectly safe) route which goes West, in the opposite direction. For the map-minded among you, I will be going across to and up the Bhote valley, across the Rhenjo La pass (La means “pass”) to the Gyoko Valley, across the Tsho La to Gorak Shep, and finally down to Chukkung, before returning to Namche. The highest point on the passes will be about 5450m or 18,000 feet.

I will be back in Namche in about a fortnight’s time and will post again then.

Leave a comment

Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, Nepal and Tibet '09

To Everest with a flat cap

The last three days in Kathmandu have been dedicated to pulling together a rag-bag of gear before leaving tomorrow morning for Everest Base Camp. (Exploring the city properly will have to wait – all being well, I will have 5 days in Kathmandu before leaving for Tibet).

My flat cap, as always, travels with me in a nod to climbers from a not-so-distant age. For other kit, a friend tipped me the wink that “Shona’s Alpine Rental” was the sensible choice. Run by a Brummie called Andy and his (Nepalese) wife Shona, these two have built a reputation for honesty and straightforwardness, in a town of sharpsters selling amazingly accurate copies of North Face and other branded gear.

While Andy gave typically Brummie advice (“Oh yeah, yew’ll be foyne with those”), Shona took a quick look at my North Face jacket (bought in Darjeeling for 25 quid) before announcing “Ahhh…. Is very interesting… Bangladeshi fabric, Chinese zips… thank you! I do not get chance to see Darjeeling work often!”

My flight to Lukla (the staging post for the trek to Everest Base Camp) leaves early in the morning to avoid the winds that gather later in the day. With ample time for acclimatisation, I should reach the base camp in 8 or 9 days time. It will be a fascinating time of the year to be there, with all the climbing parties getting close to the summit. The exact timing of summit attempts will be dependent on the increasingly mercurial gulf stream.

I may even meet these enterprising cricketers on the way down, who just completed a cricket game at 5164m, close to Base Camp, yesterday.

You can track the progress of all the climbing parties attempting Everest this year at this remarkable website, which keeps a live check on where they all are.

I will return to Kathmandu on or around 15 May.

Leave a comment

Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, Nepal and Tibet '09

An A to Z of a trek in South-West Sikkim

I arrived back in Darjeeling yesterday. It was a superb experience. I covered 120 miles in 8 days of walking, with a rest for 3 days at a Buddhist monastery after the fifth day. Online maps are hard to find, but my route was vaguely circular, with the furthest point from Darjeeling being the Buddhist monastery at 7000 feet. Some of the highlights and dominant impressions are captured below.

Ascent. Since South-west Sikkim is the foothills of the Himalayas, the hillsides get impressively steep in places. Jeep tracks zig-zag back and forth with monotonous regularity over climbs of thousands of feet. Tracking down the old mule roads from the 1920s was an adventure in itself. Sometimes these were covered by new “motorable” roads. In other places, the mule tracks took a more “direct” route, and detective work by Shrada (my guide) and I with older villagers was required to establish where they were. We did this the night before the next day’s walk. By a rough calculation, there was 26,000 feet of ascent in total in 8 days walking. Because the route starts at 7000 feet and goes down to river valleys, the old adage is reversed – “What goes down, must come up”. The final day (when I covered the last two days of my grandfather’s trip) was a 6000 foot climb back up to Darjeeling.

Bhutia Busti. “From Darjeeling we descended from the Bhootia Busti to Lebong…” So starts my grandfather’s account of the 10-day route. The Bhutia and the Lepcha are two of the main tribal groups in Sikkim (both predominantly Buddhist). Busti means village. These days, the ramshackle roofs of the houses in the Butia Busti are covered with drying clothing; you are as likely to hear Hindi music as Buddhist chants. There was still, for me, a whiff of romance about setting out through the same area 87 years on.

Chakung. There is something uncompromising about the sound of the word Chakung. It didn’t take long to work out why. This was the destination Day Two, and the 1922 notes warned that “this was practically our most tiring day, partly because of the fact that our muscles were not yet used to the climbing…” It was indeed a significant challenge, over four hours of solid, unrelenting climbing. On arrival in Chakung, the guide Shrada had found a retired teacher for us to stay with, there being no hotels or hostels. It was my first introduction to the warmth of Sikkimese hospitality.

Dak Bungalows were constructed as rest houses for travelling imperialists all over the hills of Old British India. My grandfather and his companions stayed in Dak Bungalows every night they spent in Sikkim. They are simple, sturdy constructions, normally 2 mini-dorm bedrooms, a sitting room, and a kitchen. Amazingly these all still exist, although not open for public accommodation. They are predominantly now in the hands of the Indian government, and still serve as rest houses/retreats for weary government servants. It was possible, however, to replicate some of his photos of these beautifully situated buildings, which was fun.

Elections are taking place across India. In Sikkim, the main effect is a number of jeeps resplendent with one or other of the party flags and packed to the gunnels with supporters careering around the hills. While snooping around the Dak Bungalow in Namchi Bazaar, two VVIPs emerged. They were official election observers, here to oversee the election process on behalf of the central government in New Delhi. No trouble is expected in Sikkim, although there is still a residue of tension from a population indigenous pre-annexation/merger with India in 1975 (Sikkim was an independent Kingdom), and a flood of Bengali immigration thereafter.

The Five Poisons. The furthest point on the route was the (Buddhist) Pemayangtse Monastery. A fascinating Buddhist monk Yapo Yongda has set up a small school close to the monastery for tribal children. Alongside teaching the traditional government curriculum, Yapo believes that it is essential to create good human beings too. This is largely based on avoiding the Five Poisons – Desire with attachment, Anger, Ego and Pride, Ignorance, and Jealousy. The children displayed a distinct lack of venom.

Guru Rinpoche is the “almost universal spiritual ancestor of Himalayan Buddhists“ (Barbara Crossthwaite, “So Close to Heaven“). He was born 1000 years after original Buddha (Shakyamuni). His life is a whirlwind of mythological tales, show-stopping miracles, and incredible feats as he brought tantric Buddhism across the mountains and plateaus of the Himalayas, travelling through the air on a Lotus flower. He is also known as the Lotus-borne Buddha, or Padmasambhava.

Hydro Projects are myriad in Sikkim. In a brief meeting with a Sikkimese man now living in San Francisco (but returned on holiday), the sense of how contentious these are was palpable. Not only are there environmental protests against them, but they are considered by some as a way for the Indian government to create dependency among the people in the North. I asked how many expats there were in San Francisco. Not that many was the response. I pushed for an exact figure. Two.

Impermanence is a concept at the heart of Buddhist philosophy. Since human beings are blessed with the ability to analyse and discover (and since we are only passing through this world), it is the duty of all humans to care for others.

Jorethang is a dusty town at the confluence of three rivers – the Little Rangeet, the Rangeet, and the Ramman. We passed it on the secind day. It does not appear in the photographs from 1922, much to the amazement of locals. The population is now approximately 5000.

The “King’s Road” or “Reza Go Bhatto” was a phrase that got me through the second half of the trek. My guide’s father was taken very ill, so she left me at Pemayangtse. The second half was therefore on my own. Identifying the old roads (often constructed by the former King or “Chogyal”) was difficult. When I asked for directions I was often told it was impossible. It never was, but often the roads were infrequently if over used, superseded by routes of longer distance but more suitability for motor transport. his made for some exciting journeys through old cobbled tracks in overgrown forests.

Lebong sits on the hillside just below Darjeeling. The final climb up to Lebong from the Rangeet river was tough enough for my grandfather and his friends to take ponies for the last 30 minutes from Lebong to Darjeeling. By then I was so tired that I just kept walking. Today, in conversation with Major Rana (the secretary at the Planters’ Club where I am staying), I found out that the army used the climb from the Rangeet to Lebong as a punishment.

Maps have always been an obsession for me. One of the wonderful things about this trek was the complete lack of them. Travelling through foreign countryside with only hand written instructions and hand drawn maps (and where available relying on local villagers vague hand gestures) is to be highly recommended.

Nuclear War. Yapo Yongda told me that there is a place on Kanchenjunga (3rd highest mountain in the world and a sacred place) which is reserved for Buddhists when nuclear war strikes. One of the sacred texts mentions this “Hidden Home” (Muyal Liang) as a refuge when the “heat of seven suns” comes to the Earth.

Oatmeal, 2 tins was one of the items on the “STORES” list in the 1922 notes. Other more obscure items included “23 tins IDEAL milk, 9 lbs sugar in tins, 1 pkt Bromo, 1 tin kippers, 1 tin Quaker Oats, [and] 4 bottles lime juice (more required)”. Everything was supplied from the Army & Navy Stores, Calcutta.

Pamionchi. In my grandfather’s pictures, there were photos of monks at a monastery called Pamionchi. Before leaving the UK, my research into this place drew a blank. It was on the train from Varanasi to Agra when it suddenly dawned on me. Pamionchi monastery was the same as the famous Pemayangtse monastery, the transliteration having changed over 90 years. That realisation gave me great hope of tracking down much of the route my grandfather took, hope that proved well-founded. The paintings on the ground floor of the monastery were called “extremely crude and pagan” by my grandfather. Of the monastery, he wrote: “The old monks take pleasure in showing it off, and for Rs10 the treasures are displayed in the room upstairs. Remembering that we were Scotch, and had a reputation to keep up, we contentd ourselves with seeing downstairs only.” Yapo Yongda was very amused to hear this – in 1997, it was he that reintroduced this “tourist charge”, now 20 rupees. The charge was waived for me. My “Scotchness” remained untested.

The last Queen of Sikkim was an American lady called Hope Cooke. She married the last Chogyal (King) in 1963. Given the heightened tensions in the region at that time (and given the “lively imaginations of Indian policymakers”) she was suspected of being a CIA plant. She left the Chogyal and Sikkim in 1973, two years before the Annexation/Merger with India.

Rinchenpong was where I spent the third night of the trek. The views in the morning across to the Kanchenjunga range were stunning. That morning, a series of strange coincidences led me to the house of the sitting Raja Sabha (India’s Upper Chamber), O.T. Lepcha. It was a bizarre hour, first with him and then with his sister and nephew. He imports flowers from Holland which he grows in greenhouses.

The SDF (Sikkim Democratic Front) is the ruling party in Sikkim. They are likely to be returned again in the current elections. Most people I spoke to were pretty apathetic about politics, but felt that at least the top man, Pawan Chamling, was trying to do the right things.

The sight of Unicycles on the seventh day came as something of a surprise. There were about 10 Australians riding in a group. For a while I thought I had been dreaming, but rumours of their existence were confirmed by a cyclist that I met the following day. Sadly I never found out what they were doing.

Varsey is a Rhododendron sanctuary above Dentam, where I spent my fourth night. The following morning I set out guideless to climb the 4000 feet to see it. April is blooming month at Varsey. After 3 hours I was on a ridge and must have boon close. However, I was thoroughly lost in a maze of paths. I decided, reluctantly to turn back. I heard later that a hailstorm a few days earlier had probably ruined the bloom anyway.

William Boyd is the author of one of the 5 books I carried with me. Mr Boyd’s Book “Bamboo” is therefore at least partly responsible for the Bleeding Blisters on my Boot-clad toes (maybe this should have been the “B” entry). The A to Z is a favourite literary device of his too, so blame him if you are bored.

I carried Xerox copies of photographs from 1922 with me, and reproduced a number of them. They were a wonderful way to engage people and draw out stories. Another route that my grandfather and grandmother did together in 1938 took them into East Sikkim and over the Tibet border. Given political sensitivities on the border with Tibet/China, there is no way that I can cross the border. However, tantalisingly I have discovered that much of the trek may be possible with some planning and a special permit. Another time.

Yapo Yongda is a Monk at Pemayangtse, and the director of a school for deprived tribal children. I was stayed in his house, on the grounds of the monastery. He is a remarkable man. He was Aide-de-Camp to the Chogyal (King) in 1975 at the time of annexation/merger with India; was imprisoned by the Indian Government, had his cause championed by Amnesty International, and now runs a school committed to integrating Buddhist philosophy, Sikkimese history and the Indian national curriculum. It was a privilege to have met him.

The Zandog Phalri is an intricate 15-foot high wooden structure in the top floor of the monastery. It is a representation of the abode of Guru Rinpoche, and was built over 5 years by Dugzin Rinpoche in the 1960s. As Pemayangtse was the furthest point from my start point in Darjeeling, and the Zandog Phalri was the highest point in the monastery, it is a suitable way to end this A to Z.

There are also some photographs (that I find amusing) here.

Leave a comment

Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, India '08-'09, North India

Haute Route and Mont Blanc

Long absence from posting, due to silly work pressures. Anyway, 2 weeks in the Alps in August resulted in completion of the Haute Route (across the glaciers, Chamonix to Zermatt), and summitting Mont Blanc, from the “esoteric” Italian Route (14 hours). Pic below is me, Rob, and Brydie on the summit, 8.45am. More to come.

Leave a comment

Filed under All posts