In High Places 3

“Walk quickly past this boulder, because it may dislodge and fall on you at any time.”

It was a big boulder, and I was on the Khumbu glacier, which is in imperceptible but constant motion. Raj, our guide, was not one to over dramatise and he stood by the rounded lump of Everest that had been pushed and rolled down the Western Cwm to meet us on the way up to Everest Base Camp. Gingerly, I negotiated the narrow gap, trying not to touch the boulder, trying not to even disturb the air around it too much. Immediately beyond it was a short but steep descent on gravel. I would normally have used the boulder to steady myself on the way down. Instead, I went for it and made it without falling. Or being fallen upon. I managed to clear the danger zone and carry on.

This is the third recollection of my trek to Everest Base Camp in 2007. On 20 November 2007 I trekked from Lobuche to Gorak Shep and on to Kala Patthar, which was my goal and motivation. Everest Base camp itself would come tomorrow. From Kala Patthar, there would be a fantastic panorama of Himalayan mountains, including Everest itself, Lhotse and Nuptse. I would be able to look down into the site of Everest Base Camp and the outfall of the Khumbu Icefall. All of these images I had seen on the internet when doing my research, and every time I struggled on a training hill or exercise, I would imagine them and how much I wanted to see the view for myself and take my own photos. This would always give me the extra incentive to get to the top of the hill or complete the number of repetitions of the exercise. It would get me out of bed on cold, dark mornings and keep me going when the rain or snow started falling.

We left Lobuche in the dark. I thought I had experienced cold on the way up but this morning was a new level of chill that battered its way through the layers of fleece and thermals I was wearing and directly into my bones. A dry wind was blowing down the valley, along the glacier and straight into my face. It came from the Everest area and the ice of the glacier sucked every last drop of moisture from it, making it dry as well as cold. Every breath I took in was icy and my body had to work hard to warm it up and moisten it, losing water as it did so. This is why drinking lots of water at altitude is important.

Although I was wearing gloves, my finger tips were feeling numb. Over the last couple of days I had taken part in a drug trial (with the approval of our trek doctor) and at Lobuche they had measured by blood oxygen level at 75%. While I was generally feeling fine, this was manifesting itself as poor circulation and I stopped briefly to pu on a pair of liner gloves as well as the thick insulated ones I had. I looked at my thermometer and it was telling me the temperature was -10c. Infact, it was much colder as the gauge didn’t measure below -10c. The tube of my water bladder froze despite insulation and it running under my armpit. Our trek doctor had measured it as -20c during the night and the sun was yet to make an appearance to warm things up.

Walking helped and I soon got into a rhythm. The first ascent of the day helped and by the time I’d got to the top of what was no more than a pimple, my body temperature had risen and I could feel my fingers again. And I was out of breath for the first of many times today. At over 5000m above sea level, there is around 50% of the air in every breath you inhale. Acclimatisation over the past few days had helped me cope but not completely and I was finding even the simplest climbs hard. But a slow pace and plenty of rest stops would mean getting there. nevertheless, the thought of the climb from Gorak Shep to Kala Patthar was daunting.

We were a slow group and had been all the way. Today was no exception and while about half the group were lagging behind as usual, the rest of us were waiting for them at every stop. As a result, we took four and a half hours to trek to Gorak Shep, the fuel stop before Kala Patthar. It was touch and go whether we had time to do it and to say I was frustrated as we made our way along the undulations of the glacier would be an understatement. But with 15 minutes to spare, we got to the lodge and second breakfast. Without waiting for the others, the ‘front’ group set off towards the slope leading to Kala Patthar.

To say the going was tough is an understatement. Up until summit night on Kilimanjaro in 2014, it remained the toughest thing I had ever done. Towards the end of the climb, I was counting the steps between stops to breath. Our guide was taking it easy but even so I found it difficult to keep up and most of the time my head was down, looking at the path ahead. I didn’t realise until more than half way up that I was in the lead; through no choice or effort but just because others had stopped for more or longer breaks. It gave me a little boost of confidence but I was drawing on every ounce of mental and physical strength to keep plodding on. The guide understood, having done this before, and was taking plenty of stops. Eventually, we stopped and I felt I couldn’t go on. I looked upt o see the grinning face of the young Nepali pointing to the flag pole and prayer flags. We were there.

I had made it to my personal goal. I can’t describe the feeling and to be honest, at first it was just one of ‘thank f**k that’s over’. A few minutes later, when I was breathing a little easier, I started to take notice of the things around me. Most notably, of course, was the absolutely stunning view of so many snow covered mountains. Everest lay ahead, it’s dark peak standing out against the white of the other mountains. A plume of spindrift was blowing from it’s summit as the jetstream scoured the rock of any loose snow. The air was so clear that Everest felt close enough to touch. The sky was a dark blue and the sun was harsh. All around, streams of prayer flags flapped in the string wind. It was cold, and only after a few minutes being stationary did I begin to notice. In photos, I have my rain jacket done up and the hood up, with a fleece hat underneath.

At one point, the wind blew a few of us off our feet and we sought shelter in the lee of some rocks. Our trek doctor, from West Wales, sang the Welsh national anthem and that was quite emotional. I finally remembered to take photos and spent a few minutes snapping away, followed by a few more taking photos of others. Below me, the Khumbu Icefall spilled out of the Western Cwm and turned to head down south the way we had come. The site of base camp was clearly visible; there were no expeditions this late in the season. South, all I could see were more mountains. I could have stayed there all day.

But I couldn’t, because we had to descent before darkness. The path is quite slippery with gravel and buried rocks to trip the unwary. It’s well known that most accidents on the mountain happen on the way down and I didn’t want to end the trek being carried out on a stretcher. It took a knee crunching 90 minutes to descend and we strung out as we each found our own pace. It was certainly easier than the ascent, but it wasn’t easy as I tried to avoid slipping on the gravel and kicking up too much dust. Eventually I walked into the dining room of the lodge where cheers and applause from those who had stayed behind accompanied each person as they entered. A hot drink was most welcome, and an early night was inevitable.

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In High Places 2

I arrived in Kathmandu in the evening of the 11th November 2007. The journey had been long and uncomfortable and I was glad to be out of the plane. As we checked through the customs desk, a jingle advertising the Rum Doodle restaurant played over and over again. And as it took a long time to get our visas issued, the jingle became a torture.  But eventually we were through.

I emerged, with my kitbag, into the chaos of the arrivals hall where hundreds of locals tried to take my baggage from me. Their aim was to get me to use one of their taxis, for which they’d get a commission. Our hotel had sent a bus with several of our trekking group that had arrived before us and they swiftly grabbed our luggage and stowed it safely aboard. Nevertheless, I was accosted by several of the teenage baggage boys trying to get me to give them dollars. Not a good start. Just before I climbed onto the bus, I looked up at the sun setting behind some hills and wondered what I’d let myself in for.

The journey to the hotel was mostly in the dark. I was tired and a bit dazed after around 17 hours of traveling and the comfort of the bus seat was most welcome. Shortly after we left the airport, we entered the built up area of Kathmandu and it was lit up with what looked like thousands of candles. Diwali – the festival of light – was being celebrated and our local guide told us that this was the third day of the festival. It was beautiful, and a magical welcome to the this new world I was entering. Every window had at least one tiny light shining and in the near total darkness it felt like we were being driven through a forest of candles. Only the occasional silhouette of a building or the odd wall lit up by vehicle lights spoiled the effect. Being in that jet lagged state made everything a little surreal.

The bus stopped and we all trooped out. It turned out that we had another 10 minute walk to get to the hotel, which was situated down a narrow street in which the bus wouldn’t fit. The bags went ahead, transported by hotel porters, and we made our way along behind them. Even in the evening, the traffic on these narrow streets was busy and for the whole walk we were assaulted by horns and revving engines as we braved the non-existent pavements. I’m glad it was dark so I couldn’t see exactly how close we were to the traffic.

At the Kathmandu Guest House, we were assigned rooms, and in a blur of activity we unpacked and all met in the restaurant for an evening meal of Dhal Bhat. I don’t remember much of that evening as the jet lag was no longer lagging. But at some point in the early hours I was woken by a number of pigeons all of who wanted to get into my room.

The following day was best described as a pleasant assault on the senses. We had a whole day to explore the city and in the morning we went on a tour of the main religious sites. The place that stands out in my memory was the Pashupatinath temple, a Hindu religious complex of great importance. The Great Hindu god Shiva takes many forms and as Lord Pashupati, he is worshipped here. As non-Hindus we were not allowed in the main temple but as we crossed the sacred Bagmati river we saw a number of cremations taking place on the opposite bank.

The river is sacred because it flows into the Ganges, and the ashes of the dead are scattered in the river so that they may also joint the Ganges. I watched, fascinated, as boys waded and swam in the filthy water to pick through the remains for any valuables. The smell was of sweet incense, as it was in so many parts of the city despite the piles of refuse, mud and water in drain free streets.

Thamel is the busy tourist hotel area of Kathmandu and it’s narrow streets and colourful shop displays were exciting and frantic and brash. I walked back from Durbar square to the hotel, all the while fearing the seemingly inevitable collision with a motorbike or rickshaw. But they are much better than I gave them credit for and they know how to deal with an inexperienced westerner like me. A range of horns and bells warned me if i strayed into the flow of traffic and I soon learnt to walk confidently and make no unpredictable moves into the street.

I managed to avoid the street salesman with a tiny violin and bow for sale with a sharp ‘no thanks’ and avoidance of eye contact, which made him try his luck with the next person. I chatted with a local who just wanted to practice his English. To my shame I assumed he was distracting me so his mates could pick my pockets. Of course that wasn’t the case – too long living in London taught me the wrong assumptions. All through the trip I found the sincerity and friendliness of the locals was so evident that it was almost too good to be true. Cynical western ways were suspended for a couple of weeks.

Power lines and telephone cables were strung haphazardly from telegraph poles and the sides of buildings as if someone had draped them in advance of their being tidied up. The fire risk was unimaginable as most business had cloth or wood signs advertising their wares. And the buildings were so close together that a fire in one would be disastrous for all. The signs themselves were amusing, with almost all of them in English but with bizarre spelling or grammar.

My first day immersed in a new culture was an amazing experience but I think it took a couple of days to realise how different everything was, by which time I was experiencing even more differences on the trail to Everest Base Camp.

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