In November 2013 I was following Brian’s progress as he and two friends attempted the first ascent of Chhubohe in Nepal. I was so proud to know someone doing something so amazing and checked their blog daily, telling any one who would listen that I knew someone who was climbing an unclimbed peak ! In January, I watched in awe the film of their amazing expedition and thought this was clearly an adventure for real mountaineers and something I could only dream of. A few weeks later I emailed Brian asking his advice about climbing Mera Peak and he replied with, “Thousands of people have been there, you should join our Unclimbed Peak Expedition and go somewhere no one has ever been.” I laughed weakly and kept browsing websites for high altitude trekking peaks. But his words kept nagging in my head. Was he serious ? Did he really think I could do it ? I remembered the film, the real mountaineers struggling through difficult snowy conditions and battling the cold; real mountaineers not enthusiastic hill walkers like me ! I dismissed the thought and spent more hours looking for a new adventure, one which would be challenging but achievable. But, my mind kept turning back to Brian’s comment and eventually I emailed him again asking if he was serious. He had seen me fail in spectacular fashion on Elbrus, heroically rescuing me, leading me down as I suffered with altitude sickness. Surely he didn’t think I could climb an unclimbed peak. Surely he didn’t want a liability like me in his team. But apparently he did, and so, on November 9th 2014, I found myself heading to Nepal to attempt to summit the unclimbed peak, Nar Phu Peak, with Brian and four other team members. It was to be the most amazing adventure with all six of us and three Sherpas beating the odds, pushing ourselves beyond what any of us thought was possible and reaching the summit at 5930 metres on November 22nd to stand where no else has ever stood before.
We flew to Kathmandu via Oman where we tried to rest on the huge reclining chairs in the ‘sleep rooms’. As the thick curtain ceiling blocked any air flow from the air conditioning it was unbearably hot and sleep was impossible. Brian reminded us this would be good practice for being at altitude when ‘Rest is important, not sleep’. On the second flight I purposely secured a window seat to get the views as we flew into Nepal but completely forgot it would dark and so I saw nothing. By the time I reached the Hotel Malla I was exhausted and had lost all concept of time but thought a shower would make me feel better. I turned on the water without noticing the shower head was pointing at the end wall. A ferocious blast of water burst out of the shower, more powerful than any fire hose and in seconds my bathroom was flooded with the dark brown water which looked horribly as if it was being recycled directly from the toilet !
The next day we were summoned to meet Elizabeth Hawley, the amazing ninety-one year old ‘Keeper of the Mountains’ who had met every famous mountaineer and recorded every first ascent in Nepal for over 50 years.
We were so privileged to meet her, the most famous lady in Nepal and renowned throughout the mountaineering world despite having never climbed a mountain herself. Brian and Rhiannon travelled in Miss Hawley’s famous blue 1963 Volkswagon Beetle which in itself was an adventure
We sat in her cluttered room, full of books and maps as she chatted to us as if we were old friends. She asked, “How many Sherpas ?” “Are you taking oxygen ?” “How many base camps ?” and recorded our replies in her notebook and checked the proposed route with Brian. After a long chat she looked up at us all and said, “Remember three things. Be healthy. Be safe. Enjoy. Any thing else is a bonus.”
Kathmandu was less manic than Delhi had been the previous year and I much preferred it. Still motorbikes, bicycles and brightly painted rickshaws wove through the traffic and the streets rang with the constant cacophony of horns as everyone battled across junctions in a free for all with apparent disregard for any traffic laws, if indeed there were any. In places uniformed police men, all wearing face masks against the pollution, blew whistles but seemed impotent in the chaos of the Kathmandu streets. The shopping areas were a maze of narrow, dusty streets full of small densely stocked shops. We visited the Buddinath, the main Buddhist temple, and watched as a team of men ‘painted’ the dome by forming a human chain on ladders, passing up buckets of whitewash which the top man threw down over the roof to coat it in paint. Here Brian bought prayer flags and asked that they should be blessed before they accompanied us to our base camp and hopefully to the summit of Nar Phu. As we walked around the temple we heard a strange wailing noise and looked down on a monk wearing bright robes and a black fringe around his head which hung over his eyes. He sat cross legged on a wooden platform blowing into an animal horn while a young girl sat meditating close by.
We continued around the building, turning prayer wheels, gazing at the brightly coloured, but ramshackle buildings, absorbing the atmosphere. Back at our taxi we piled in and headed off through the dusty, crazy streets again. It was November 11th and just before 11am we asked our driver to stop. The six of us got out and stood in a line on the pavement, our heads bowed, as we observed a one minute silence. It was a minute of pride in being British, feeling humble and emotional, but also feeling bonded as a team. We drove on to visit the Pushpatinath, a Hindu temple and place of cremations where bodies are prepared for cremation on plinths beside the river and afterwards the remains of the pyres are pushed into the river.
I expected to feel uncomfortable watching what we Westerners would consider a private ceremony. However the locals seemed to be going about a normal, every day routine, quietly and reverently but with no awkwardness or outpouring of grief, clearly confident of better things to come as the circle of life perpetually turned. As we entered the grounds of the temple we passed three Sadhus sitting serenely on a low wall in contemplation. However, they were happy to be photographed, for a fee, inviting us to sit with them as they wrapped their amazing dreadlocked hair and beards around our heads. We moved on up the steps into the temple grounds looking out for the monkeys who lived there although only two revealed themselves.
Our lunch at a roof top cafe was a typical vegetarian Nepalese meal served on a large metal platter. Various small portions of other dishes were arranged around a central mound of rice.
I reacquainted myself with Lassi, a yogurt based drink which I had enjoyed in India although here it was described as ‘mango energiser’.
In the afternoon we moved on to visit the Him Ex offices to meet Pasang, our guide. We all immediately liked him.
Clearly hugely experienced, with a number of successful Everest expeditions to his name, we felt at ease with his calm efficiency as he explained that, due to recent bad weather, four or five feet of snow now lay on our proposed route through the Nar Phedi area making it impassable. Already a new plan had been formulated which meant we would be approaching our base camp area from the South and avoiding the ‘bowl’ where they expected very deep snow. We poured over the maps noting we would be ascending what was marked as ‘Steep Descent’ so called as it would not normally be used as an ascent route. Pasang’s eyes twinkled as he explained that Nepalese ‘steep’ would be very, very steep to us and even worse it would be on scree which sounded horrendous. He also discussed the various degrees of ‘flat’ which he termed as ‘Sherpa flat’, ‘Nepal flat’ and ‘Flat flat’ or ‘Westerner flat’ which he assured us would not exist on our trek ! Speaking of the ‘Steep Descent’ he reassured us that they hoped the snow would not have stuck to the slope and it would be too steep to avalanche anyway. Pasang told us we may have the chance to practice some ice climbing where he had been training Him Ex guides two weeks previously. As Pasang questioned us on our kit, talked over safety issues and explained the new itinerary, I felt increasingly excited about the trip and also very confident in the leadership.
We all felt some disappointment that we would not now be going into the so called ‘Lost Valleys’ of Nar Phu and also missing the beautiful day trek Brian had described which would have included crossing seven suspension bridges in one day. Of course, we all realised that if the new itinerary had been the planned route all along we would have been just as happy with it.
We spent the afternoon shopping in the overstocked outdoor shops where anything not in the shop was available ‘very close by’. After hasty, garbled instructions, a youngster would be dispatched, running off to who knows where, to return loaded down with down gloves, different coloured jackets, different sized boots or any item you had expressed even the vaguest interest in. However, finding down mitts for me proved a problem initially but in a tiny shop on the way back to our hotel, I found a bright green pair, a little smaller than ideal, but a bargain at 1350 R (less than £9).
Back at the hotel I got frustrated with myself as I faffed around getting organised for the next couple of days. I hoped I’d be more organised once we were trekking and I was in my tent. Worried my fitness was ebbing away and keen to get into the mountains, I really wanted to get going now and start trekking. But before that, we had an 8 drive tomorrow to look forward to. Thankfully, due to the change of plan we’d only be driving on one day and the day after tomorrow the trek would start for real. Before going out to dinner I had everything sorted for tomorrow’s 7am start. A day sack was packed for trekking, one large bag with summit stuff and cold weather kit and my main bag with everything else.
I thought a lot about Roger and how things would have been had we come to Nepal together. I wrote my postcards and then licked the stamps, realising too late that was not a good idea !
That evening we ate at the Third Eye Restaurant sitting on raised platforms, some of us with our legs splayed out, while others sat cross legged on the big cushions. We began with fruit skewers which interestingly included onion along with banana and other fruit. The starter plate had a pile of sweet flakes in the middle with four small portions of vegetables including spinach around it and hot dahl. There was a tasty soup served with a shot of rice wine which to me tasted like meths. The main course was another circular platter, this time with rice in the middle and six smaller bowls arranged around the edge. One bowl contained very sweet stodgy rice and only after I had eaten it with my vegetables did I discover it was the dessert.
I didn’t sleep well again having read late into the night and then tossed and turned as my brain churned over so many aspects of my life and tried to formulate plans for the future all based on so many unknowns it was a pointless exercise.
It was still well before 7am and a long line of matching Expedition Wise bags extended down the lobby and we were all ready to leave on our great adventure. We were a great team and from the first time we had met at Brian’s for a training weekend it was clear we would all get along well.
We all already knew Brian from previous treks and Rhiannon worked for Expedition Wise. James was an experienced mountaineer with Aconcagua under his belt and Denali in his sights for his next adventure. With his dry sense of humour he kept us well entertained but also was very supportive, able to provide useful tips and advice and always knowing just how much encouragement and reassurance the less experienced females of the group needed. He was deceptively fit for a big guy and just plodded on resolutely never seeming to tire. It was good for Brian to have another bloke around but also someone he could discuss the technical side with. Early on Brian had told us his lovely wife Steph had cancer and would be having surgery while we were away. Brian was amazing throughout the trek and none of us could understand how he managed to give so much of himself for us and our expedition with so much else going on his life at home. He is a true professional, an awesome guide but most of all a true friend to everyone in the team. Catherine, a lawyer in Hong Kong, and Dawn, an amazingly fit tri-athlete from Darlington, had met Brian on a trip to Ethiopia. Catherine had led a fascinating life and trekked all over the world but like all the females in the group had no experience of ice climbing. Dawn was very fit and took everything, except the cold and the toilet facilities, in her stride. Even at the toughest times she strode out seemingly effortlessly. Cleanliness was to be very low on our list of priorities with only limited water available for washing and, as Brian explained, this was primarily for our feet as it is essential to look after your feet when trekking. But Dawn did not seem ready for the basicness of the trek and was unable to contemplate the idea of not being able to wash her hair each day and was already asking if showers would be available in the tea houses where we would be camping in their grounds. In fact, early on in the trek both Dawn and James showered in the tea houses although with varying degrees of success and not in much comfort. Rhiannon, the baby of our group, had packed a huge amount of adventure into her 32 years and was fit and confident but always there for the rest of us with an encouraging word or smile. Working for Brian put her in a slightly difficult position, being on one hand a client, and on the other a confidante, along with James with whom Brian could discuss things as circumstances changed, problems had to be resolved and logistics rearranged. There were to be many difficult decisions to be made during the trek but they were all resolved with amazing professionalism and efficiency and without the rest of us having the slightest idea that there were any problems.
By 7am we were driving out of the hotel gates in our mini bus back into the already crazy street but within two minutes our driver had been ordered out of the vehicle by five armed policemen and a heated discussion, apparently about paperwork, took place on the other side of road out of our earshot. Soon we were climbing steeply out of Kathmandu and suddenly we noticed the blue sky. I realised we had not seen the sky since arriving in Kathmandu as the city sits in a bowl permanently shrouded in dull yellow smog. Looking to the horizon the distant mountains looked unreal as if painted on the monochrome canvas of the sky.
I dozed a little on the long journey as we gained height and then zigzagged down deep into a valley to drive along side a river before climbing again. We saw a couple of monkeys in a tree by the road, some yellow butterflies with orange wing tips and a large bird of prey with forked wings and a dark tail. At one point Brian pointed out the majestic Manaslu standing proud at over 8000 metres.
We stopped for lunch and sat on benches at a long table with our metal platters. The food was very spicy and peering through into the grimy kitchen area with its open fire I didn’t have much of an appetite. After lunch a young boy got onto our bus and played a small upright stringed instrument as he sang beautifully, presumably in his own language but throwing in two random English words, ‘trekking’ and ‘rafting’ which he repeated several times in each verse. At our next stop he got off the bus presumably to catch another tourist bus in the opposite direction and earn more tips on his way home. We drove on to Beshisahar where we pulled into a large area with a toilet building at the edge. Brian and James headed for the male side and the females to the other side only to find the door locked and a local lady demanding an extortionate fee for using the toilets. Catherine was obviously used to these situations and had asked Pasang what a reasonable charge would be and while she bartered a deal Brian and James had slipped in for free. Meanwhile after we’d used the facilities, the lady seemed to think we would be paying the agreed amount each and as we left she was still shouting angrily at us. By now all our kit had been transferred to four wheel drive vehicles and the next stage of the journey began. The road rapidly deteriorated and it became a death defying journey as the vehicles lurched over massive boulders and crashed into potholes as we were flung around the vehicle. Certainly this was a scariest drive of my life until finally we arrived three hours later, exhausted, bruised and battered at Syange.
For the next few days we would be camping in the grounds of tea houses so our cooks could use the camping kitchens and we would be able to eat indoors. It felt a little bit like cheating but at least it was good to be finally sleeping in a tent and looking forward to starting trekking tomorrow. Standing by our yellow tents we watched the sun set over the jagged peak of the rocky cliff which formed the side of the deep river valley and mused over what the next two weeks would bring.
Immediately I fell into the camping routine. We were provided with a foam mat which could provide an extra layer of insulation under our thermarests or under our kit bags to protect electronics from freezing although later these would need to be in our sleeping bags at night. I laid out the mat, thermarest and sleeping bag in the middle,with my main kit bag to my left and summit bag to my right. This would provide some insulation and also stop me rolling off the thermarest onto the cold floor in the night. I would sort my clothes for the next day, putting them in my sleeping bag and pack my day sack and put it with my boots on my right by my feet. I laid out my wash bag and the bag for my ‘camp’ shoes as I wouldn’t want the soles of those touching the contents of my main bag ! At dinner we would be given water which I would purify with my ‘Allclear’ and then, after cleaning it with antiviral wipes, put it in my day sack ready to use on any water provided at lunch time. I always surprise myself at how organised I am when trekking and ruefully wondered how it would be if Roger and I were sharing this tent. How would it be in a very confined area with two of us being methodical to the point of pedantic? Would we tolerate each others idiosyncrasies and not expect each other to do stuff our own way? Every one had been advised to have a double tent to themselves which was good advice as it was difficult to imagine how you could fit twice the kit and two people into them.
Every tea house had wifi so people could use their iPhones but as I had an old fashioned mobile I was disappointed to have no phone signal. I had known we were unlikely to have signal for much of the trip but still felt lonely and isolated, unable to update Roger and my family. We had a good dinner and then sat in the tea house as we got to know each other better. Listening to the others I started to feel poorly prepared and inexperienced. Each evening we would be briefed on the next day and reminded of the morning routine, woken at 6.00am with ‘Tent Tea’, breakfast at 7.00am, leave at 7.45am. After the briefing we chatted happily and Pasang regaled us with stories of mountain disasters especially on Everest, accidents he had witnessed and about finding dead bodies. Possibly not the best conversation to have at the start of our expedition into the unknown ! Back in my tent I snuggled into my sleeping bag and lay in the dark listening to the river. This is it ! This is the life ! I felt completely content and unjustifiably confident about the expedition.
It was great to finally be trekking and our first day on the Annapurna circuit, walking along side the river, was beautiful. The views were spectacular and we passed so many amazing waterfalls.
Although Catherine walked very slowly, her pace was steady and determined and I still felt I was the least fit of the group. Each day on The Circuit would be similar. We would walk for a couple of hours, passing through colourful Nepalese villages and then stop at a tea house for sweet masala tea.
Often during our ‘tea break’, if not before, we would see our heavily laden mules pass us and by the time we reached our lunch stop the cooks would have our meal already prepared which today included home made bread ! At each tea house and at other places along the road we noticed the low ledged walls which we discovered were at a convenient height for the guides to rest the heavy bags which they carried on their backs but supported on a headband across their forehead.
The road was very rough and dusty and as the temperature rose to 28° it was a hot and sweaty walk. We passed through colourful Nepalese villages with poinsettia trees and African marigolds in the gardens and beside the road we saw banana trees as butterflies danced, sunbathing lizards scuttled away and noisy crickets chirped.
Vertical prayer flags, the colours representing the elements, fluttered in the breeze, always hung with blue at the top to signify the sky then descending through white for air, red for fire, green for the earth and yellow for water. In one village we passed a primary school with Est. 2045 painted on the wall. Pasang explained how Nepal has three calendars. Although we in the West believe it is 2014 years since the birth of Christ, in the Sherpa calendar it is 2137 years from the birth of Buddha and the Nepalese calendar counts in 28 day lunar months and so it is the year 2071.
The road was very undulating but eventually we crossed a suspension bridge and followed a rocky path with lots of stone steps eventually descending down to the beach area at Tal. Here there were many piles of flat stones beside the river and someone had constructed a large spiral pattern of grey pebbles. We trekked on marvelling at the beautiful waterfalls and stunning scenery before crossing the river again on a suspension bridge and finally arriving at Dharapani.
Everyday when we arrived at camp the cooks supplied hot orange juice and then we would stretch down together before retiring to our tents to wash our feet and sort things out before tea at about 4pm. After they had been unloaded the mules were taken away to somewhere else in the village but this evening they kept returning and trying to get into the tents so had to be shooed out again. I had already established my routine of washing my feet, sorting out my tent and stuff for tomorrow and charging my electronics. Then I would mix up a pint of Dioralyte which I would drink every evening to replenish salts lost during the day trying to ward off headaches, before writing my diary or reading and relaxing. This meant that after dinner I could relax knowing everything was already prepared for the next day and I could go to bed whenever I wanted. Today, before our 6.15pm briefing I got out my diary and wrote ‘HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY.’
Again I had no phone signal which was disappointing, later I was to discover I could not connect to any network and so would be unable to use my phone until we were back in Kathmandu. I was also to find my Power Monkey would neither charge consistently when the solar panels were attached to the back of my rucksack or worse still would not charge my electronics as the cable had been damaged. I seemed to be blighted by technology. Luckily Brian, James and Pasang had excellent solar panels and chargers and so helped me out. Brian and Rhiannon also lent me their phones to text Roger and home occasionally.
When we arrived for the 6.15pm briefing Brian, Rhiannon and Pasang were already there looking troubled. Him Ex had informed Pasang that the Government had announced today they would be commandeering all the helicopters for 3 days from 25th November and so our helicopter flight from Ngawal would no longer be possible. Amazingly since finding this out they had already formulated a new itinerary, provisionally booking a helicopter a day earlier as well as reserving rooms for us at Hotel Malla for an extra night. We were so lucky with Him Ex and to have such excellent leaders otherwise we could have found ourselves stranded at Ngawal for 3 days. As it was, a disaster had been averted and a logistical nightmare resolved without any of the clients having the remotest idea there had been a problem.
Although we were only sleeping at 1930 metres, tonight it was noticeably colder with the temperature dropping to 4° but in my cosy sleeping bag I was actually too hot. Unfortunately Dawn was not so lucky and was already complaining of being cold. Luckily Brian discovered she had slept on the mat provided and not her thermarest which he assured her would make a big difference. He also suggested making a pillow of your sleeping bag stuff sack with the down you had just taken off and tomorrows clothes, and placing it above your thermarest so it would not be too high or slip off the mat. James and Brian were a valuable source of numerous ideas and tips for trekking and, on James’ instructions, I would be airing yesterday’s socks on my walking poles rather than struggling to tie them to my rucksack.
Our second day of trekking was even more amazing than the day before, beginning with spectacular views of Manaslu in the morning and then Annapurna II and IV in the afternoon.
It was a varied day with much of the morning on steep rocky paths and steps in a beautiful forest, crossing the river over delightful wooden bridges and then later in the day on a ‘road’ although it could only be described as a ‘road’ in the very broadest sense.
Only 4 x 4 vehicles and motor bikes even attempted it. We kept to a slow but steady pace, lead by Catherine who was feeling much better than yesterday, and enjoyed the cooler temperature as well as being in the shade more.
We saw many more waterfalls but were no longer stopping to photograph every one. In each village we walked to the left of the stupas and turned the rows of prayer wheels reverently.
Lunch today was in Tamang where we sat on the roof top staring in wonder at the mountains all around us. A truly stunning location. We were joined by a very pleasant hardcore mountain biker who was cycling the Annapurna Circuit on his own having borrowed a bike from a friend. We all played a team bonding game where you had to tell three stories about yourself, two had to be true and one false and the others had to guess which one was a lie. One of James’ true stories was perhaps the least likely when he claimed John Prescott had slept in his bed ! As a child James had once had to give up his bed when John Prescott stayed at his parents’ house.
Arriving at our camp at Koto we were all very happy after two incredible days trekking. Brian kept promising us it would get better but that seemed hard to believe. As we started our stretch down we were joined by a group of small children who copied our actions, giggling hysterically.
As we were early into camp we were able to air our sleeping bags on top of the tents for a while. Getting everything ready for the next day I was excited to realise tomorrow was to be a clean pants day and felt I had to share this fact with the others. We had been very limited on how much kit we could bring and so everything had to be reworn for several days, although the socks we aired for a day on our walking poles or tied to our rucksacks before reusing them.
Late in the afternoon the cyclist we had met at lunch time pushed his bike into the camp site with a broken chain. As he did not know how to repair it and had no spare links, Brian did what he could to help. He suggested taking out the derailer although this would drastically reduce the gears making the cycling even more difficult. It appeared the bike was poorly maintained with very little tread on the tyres and had not been properly serviced before setting off. Brian had certainly not expected to be a bike mechanic on an Unclimbed Peak Expedition. The cyclist was very grateful for his expertise and planned to cycle into Chame the next day where there was a motorbike shop which he hoped would be able to do a more permanent repair.
Talk at dinner, as always, turned to our toilet habits. It is vital that the leader is aware of any problems we might have and with these light-hearted chats Brian made it easy for us to open up to him. Even Dawn, who initially was adamant she would be unable to talk about personal things with the rest of the group, was becoming less reticent about the toilet discussions. I was doing well having had two number twos today and seemed to weeing an even larger volume than I was drinking ! Was that possible ?
I lay in my tent that night looking back over two great days, very happy and content although slightly worried by the 5 hour trek before lunch tomorrow ! I slept fitfully and had weird dreams which often happens at higher altitudes. When I woke it was a frosty morning and I looked out at the magnificent mountains already excited about the day ahead. By now I was getting into the morning routine and not forgetting to apply my sun-cream before getting dressed although I always got very cold doing it. I was even remembering to comb my hair before packing away my wash bag although it already looked horrendous whether or not it had seen a comb !
It was a short walk to Chame along a dusty road and as vehicles passed us, many of them decorated with plastic flowers, we were enveloped in a cloak of acrid dust and fumes. We pulled our buffs up over our noses but they still smelt of smoke from yesterday’s poorly ventilated cook house. To our right we saw a path leading to the small Nar Phu gate which should have been our route had the plan not been changed.
I set off down the path to take a photo but immediately policemen came out of their building although, as I turned back, they did not challenge me. We heard that several bridges on the route to Nar had been swept away by the recent snow and avalanches. As we passed through Chame we noticed a delightful water powered prayer wheel sitting in a stream, gently jangling as it turned.
Soon afterwards we met the cyclist again who was now having to walk to the next village after the chain had broken in a different place and no one in Chame had been able to help him. He kindly agreed to take our team photo at the ornate gate and then strode off pushing his ill fated bike.
I had borrowed Rhiannon’s phone yesterday to text Roger and Paul. I was missing being in contact and kept thinking Roger and I should have been doing this together, although his heart had been set on a 7000 metre summit and the lure of an unclimbed peak did not excite him as it did me. Besides, we were planning our trips early in our relationship and it would have been a big commitment to have agreed to when we were just getting to know each other. Rhiannon came over to tell me she had had a reply to my text from Roger, reading it cheered me up as I felt close to him again.
Both James and Dawn seemed quiet today. Dawn was sleeping better now she was using the fully inflated thermarest but she was still feeling the cold and was already wearing her down jacket all the time. James seemed to be happy in his own space today walking ahead of the group with his head phones on. When we stopped for tea at Bartan he had passed the tea house and was already heading out of the village when Brian ran after him. There was no masala tea here but we enjoyed lemon tea instead as we sat outdoors over the dusty road. Some people arrived on horse back and tied their laden horses to the rickety rail outside the tea house. Just as we were leaving a jeep roared past very close to them and they broke free, galloping off down the road in the direction they had come from. Someone half heartedly gave chase but they were soon out of sight and it seemed there would be little chance of them stopping before they reached their home !
Initially our walk followed a zigzagging road but at times we veered off it, taking steep short cuts up paths.
In places we walked under huge arches of stone with the straight channels where dynamite sticks had been placed when the path was blasted through the rock.
It was a good walk but seemed difficult with lots of steep ascents and descents and today my legs felt heavy and tired. At one point there was a big drop down to the river and later we waited by a suspension bridge for a motorbike to come over. We passed through a lovely pine forest with views of Pisang peak and then Pasang pointed out a beautiful serene looking mountain, Sorga Dharr. A rock formation near the summit supposedly led the way to heaven and so was known as Heaven’s Gate.
It was one of the fifteen holy mountains in Nepal which no one is allowed to go on to. I had to keep reminding myself to look back and not miss the amazing views of the mountains which looked a bit unreal against the blue sky. Catherine led us up the steep sections keeping a very slow but steady pace and we were definitely ready for lunch at Dhikur Pokhari. Our cooks were doing an amazing job and today’s lunch included pasties and butter roasted potatoes. Our head cook, Mankaji, known as ‘Man’, was providing us with plenty of carbohydrates, even making his own bread, vegetables which usually included a selection from spinach, beans, cauliflower and carrots and protein often in the form of tinned fish like sardines and pulses like dahl. Man and his team even provided pizza, chips and the dumpling like momos. The only meal I had not enjoyed was a bitter spinach dish last night.
After a long lunch it was an easy flat walk to camp following a forest path. Suddenly we came upon a more open area where a huge swathe of dirty snow five foot deep would have blocked our way had a path not been cut through it.
High up to our left we could see the path of the avalanche which had deposited the snow here some time ago. A short distance further on Pasang pointed out the village of Upper Pisang on the hillside which, with its Tibetan influence, looked very stark compared to the colourful Nepalese buildings.
Although scheduled as an hour and a half walk to camp, we were there in forty five minutes. Again it had been a great day. I was feeling good and my head was in a happy, happy place as I sorted my tent and put on my thermals under my day clothes before dinner so I would get less cold later when getting ready for bed. By now we were all keeping our batteries and electronics in socks in our sleeping bags to protect them from the cold.
Actually this camp proved to be less cold especially as the cloud was coming in. This meant we were to be denied the amazing star scape of previous nights when the clear skies were filled with an unbelievable number of stars. This sight always made me feel emotional and humble but so privileged to be able to enjoy this amazing experience. During our evening meal Rhiannon pointed out the poster on the wall with the inspiring quotation ‘If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.’
After dinner the talk between Pasang, Brian and Shika turned again to mountain disasters and what difficulties we could potentially be facing. It wasn’t helpful as Catherine and Dawn listened in silence looking petrified. Rhiannon tried to steer the conversation to less worrying subjects and later we all talked together about the need to take one day at a time and not worry about potential problems which might not even arise. We had complete faith in Brian and Pasang keeping us safe but wished they had kept their discussions out of our earshot.
As usual by about 8pm we had retired to our tents. It made it a long evening and I was grateful for my kobo which I was enjoying reading in my sleeping bag. I heard dogs barking several times in the night but still woke feeling rested and ready for the trek to Ngawal where we would have our first experience of real wild camping which was exciting.
I woke to a temperature of -5° but had had my best night’s sleep so far, having slept from 9.30pm til 1.30am and then not waking again until 5.30am when I was desperate for a wee despite only drinking once in the night. We were able to lie in today as our trek would only take about 5 hours and so I slept again until woken for tent tea at 8.00am.
At breakfast Brian checked our stats and I was disappointed to find mine were poor despite feeling fine. I thought it may have been because my fingers were cold but it still preyed on my mind and I resolved to get Brian to check them again later in the day. As it turned out my stats were consistently the worst of the group every day.
Early in our walk we came upon the magical Mring Tso (Tso is Tibetan for lake) where the vivid green surface was interrupted by pools of turquoise.
Photographs could never do justice to this beautiful lake.
We had been warned today would be steep but actually it was fine as Catherine led us at a steady pace weaving our way through fragrant forests of pine and juniper. Today was the first day I had an outdoor wee, the scent of the pine forest making the perfect toilet freshener ! By now we were getting blasé about the stunning views which were all around us but every now and again you would go around a corner and just go “Wow”. The views of the Annapurnas and Sorga Dharr were stunning. Later as we rested we heard a distant roar and as someone shouted “Avalanche”, we looked across to Annapurna 1V to watch a huge avalanche cascade down its face. It was an awesome sight as even so far away, you could sense the power as a serac broke off causing a massive ball of snow to career down the mountain leaving a cloud of swirling snow hanging in the air for minutes afterwards.
In one village we met a pleasant Australian who was loving his trip to the Annapurna circuit which was his 21st birthday present from his parents ! As we descended into a valley we looked up at a suspension bridge, its sagging metal frame spanning the valley high above us, and down at a small wooden bridge just above the river. Catherine and I chose to head downwards while the others chose the higher option. Little did they know that, having climbed high to their suspension bridge, they would quickly be dropping down again to join us in the valley bottom on the other side. Later we climbed to a pass where we posed for photographs beside the massive white chorten with the Annapurnas as a back drop. What a totally amazing place to be !
We descended into Ngawal which was more of a Tibetan type of village with the walls of buildings built of small stones interspersed with planks of wood. Our chosen tea house for our customary masala tea boasted a proper pink flushing toilet in a pink flowery tiled bathroom, completely at odds with rest of the rather stark décor ! From the top of the tea house in the village we got our first view of Nar Phu Peak far, far away. It was very emotional to see our target and as tears filled my eyes, I could not believe we could ever be there on the tiny rocky peak poking out of the snow.
As we climbed out of the village of Ngawal we only had a 20 minute walk to our camp which was very exposed, lying in the middle of a flat and very windy plain.
As we set off towards our camp we looked down into the valley far, far below us where we had come from a few hours ago. After a short time in camp we realised James was no longer with us. Brian walked back to the village to find him, only to discover he had walked into camp behind us with the cooks. It was out of character for James not to be a ‘team player’. Brian had been quieter yesterday, probably as he was worried about Steph who had had her surgery the day before, but we still couldn’t believe his amazing strength of character as he held it all together, remaining focussed to lead us so professionally. Today he was more his normal self and suffering from flatulence which enabled him to take the lead with plenty of childish jokes.
Today we had seen several lammergeiers, their huge black and white bodies hanging majestically in the air as they hunted over the ridge lines, and now two were circling high above our camp. We had arrived in camp early and by 2.45pm I was bored so returned to my tent to read. I thought how I was loving this life and so far had been fine without a tent mate although I had expected to find it a bit lonely. I was missing Roger and his daily reassurance but thought contentedly that ‘In order to be happy together we need to be happy apart’, and as I wrote in my diary, ‘I am happy, very happy’. I realised we only had three more days of ascent left and felt a bit sad. I didn’t want this time to end.
After another amazing dinner of momos, battered cauliflower, curry sauce and spiced potatoes I sat in my tent looking back over another great day. Every day had been great and I worried slightly as to when a down day might be. Everything couldn’t go on being this good ! I was suffering no effects from the altitude so far, although I realised we were only at 3,850 metres, still lower than in Leh where I had stayed before climbing Stok Kangri. However, my tubes of toothpaste, sun-cream etc had already expanded because of the drop in pressure and so I had to loosen all the caps to release the pressure.
Next morning we were up early again ready to set off for Intermediate Camp. I was disappointed my stats were poor again despite eating and drinking well, in fact I was slightly concerned I might have been drinking too much. As the toilet tent was occupied I snuck behind a wall for my second ‘wild’ wee of the trip. James led us away from our camp at a steady pace up a steep path, rapidly gaining height, climbing through the scrubby juniper bushes as we had left behind the pine forests of yesterday.
Again we saw lots of lammergeiers as they circled high above us and then swooped down deep into valley. At one time we were treated to six of these beautiful birds cruising the sky above us. Although our progress was slow and the path very, very steep, we ruefully realised this was not the infamous ‘steep descent’ of the map which was yet to come ! After 30 minutes we rested and took photographs of our camp far below us and compared it 30 minutes later from higher still. Further on we reached the snow line and James and Brian laid down in the snow for photographs pretending they were on the ridge of K2 ! There was no pressure today as it was only a three hour trek and although it was tiring it was made easier by the amazing views.
The joking continued as Brian filmed us from behind moving up the slope and I suggested swapping rucksacks which would confuse people trying to identify people by their rear view and my rucksack would be above a smaller bum ! As we arrived in camp the tears welled again as they had at every camp ! Now finally we were higher than Leh having ascended 700 metres in 3 hours and now we had reached 4370 metres. Shika, a trainee guide and the son of the boss of Him Ex, filmed our stretch down joking that my bum could be appearing on Him Ex’s website !
We laid on our backs in the warm sun, shading our eyes with our sun hats and rested for a while. Some time later we retired to our tents to sort our kits. As the mules had never been as high as Kangla Pass, the plan was for them to take half loads early tomorrow morning so we left out our ‘Base Camp’ kit bags meaning I had lost my bedside table in my tent ! Several of the tent zips were causing problems but the guides went around loosening the tents and waxing the zips as well as using pliers to get them running smoothly again. Now we would be leaving the tents up all day so would need to loosen them as well as letting some air out of our thermarests to prevent problems as they heated up during the day. By the time the hot water arrived, supposedly for washing our feet, I had already powdered mine and changed my socks so was able to wash my face and hands. Brian decided to test the walking talkie and, while James visited the toilet tent, hid the receiver in his tent. Later James was perturbed at the growling noises coming from inside his tent ! I sat in the front of my tent rewriting my diary as the sun streamed in and thought how it was so, so amazing to be able to glance up and be looking at the beautiful Annapurnas. We could see a few blue sheep on a ridge not far from our camp and later we’d be joined by several yaks who clearly felt at home at this camp which was an old yak kharka. Meanwhile the mules kept trying to steal their nosebags and as one of the muleteers tried to chase them off, he repeatedly coughed and gagged making horrendous noises as he cleared his throat. He had done this at Ngawal but here at Intermediate Camp he seemed much worse and the noise he made, even more revolting.
From here we could see Kangla Pass which loomed in the distance up what looked like an impossibly steep scree slope. We had met some people earlier today who had come over the pass and described four feet of snow and their guides, despite wearing only trainers, cutting a path through it ! Tomorrow was to be a rest day but I hoped we would do something at least. I felt sad as I realised we only had two more ascents. I did not want this to end. I was loving the day to day existence, being with a great team and living in this fabulous environment. All my worries had evaporated as I realised there was nothing I could do about any of them anyway !
As we were having tea we heard another avalanche but this time no one rushed out to watch it ! The time between tea and dinner was always the hardest time of day. As the sun went down it was like turning off a switch as the temperature suddenly plummeted. It was tempting to get into my sleeping bag but I didn’t want to take my dirty trousers off. This proved to be a mistake as I tried to write my diary wearing gloves and sitting on my feet to keep them warm. I ended up cold, stiff and uncomfortable ! Besides, I always tried not to sleep during the day, hoping it would mean I would sleep better at night. Getting into my sleeping bag would make it much easier to drift off. This evening, well before dinner time, the temperature had already dropped to below freezing point. Going to dinner I was wearing silk thermals, a long sleeved base layer, my paramo grid top and primaloft as well as a hat and woollen gloves but given there was already ice on the inside of the mess tent it was very, very cold. By the time we left the mess tent after dinner the sky would be full of the stars, denser and brighter than you ever thought possible but so, so cold.
Once in my sleeping bag I began to think about things and analyse my life. Everything seemed so clear during the night in a tent on a remote mountain in Nepal ! I thought about how well everything was going, no nausea or headaches, all body functions good and I was sleeping better than I’d ever slept on a trek before, probably because my head was in a good place. It was also good that the rest of team were also doing really well. As I lay warm and comfortable in my sleeping bag, listening to the wind whistle around the tents, I quickly drifted off to sleep. I had a good night although I had a mental battle around midnight when I was so warm and cosy but knew I should have a drink. It was getting more and more difficult to make yourself drink in the night which meant sitting up and getting your arms out of the sleeping bag and then drinking the freezing water which literally chilled you to the core ! Brian advised us how to hold the water in your mouth while breathing in heavily through your nose to warm it before swallowing. Two hours later I woke again but only managed to force down a couple of sips of water. However, when I woke much later I did not have a headache so obviously I was not too dehydrated. Of course we were also keen to avoid the treacherous journey to the toilet tent in the night so tried to drink more earlier in the day and make visits while it was still light. Now we were sharing tips on keeping warm and remembering to get the toilet paper ready before going to the toilet tent, it was amazing how cold your bottom could get as you struggled to get toilet paper out of the zip lock bag once you needed it ! Overnight I would gradually get warmer and shed layers through the night, usually ending up in just my silk thermals and gloves although now I was wearing thicker socks in bed as the freebie airline ones were no longer warm enough.
The next day was to be a rest day at Intermediate Camp. I ventured out to the toilet tent at 7.00am but quickly returned to my sleeping bag to keep warm while waiting for ‘tent tea’ at 8.00am and then breakfast at 9.00am. The tent tea was very welcome as all the water in my camelback and bottles had frozen in my tent. I was wide awake and keen to get up but, although it was completely light, it would remain very cold until the sun emerged from behind the mountains. At 8.15am it was as if the sun had been switched on as the tent was flooded with the warm, yellow glow. Now I was able to take off my thermals and apply the sun cream properly to my upper arms rather than doing it while wearing a t-shirt. I was feeling good and ready for breakfast now. It was nice not having to pack up the tent totally but I still felt I needed to organise it as usual but today I would be airing my sleeping bag on the top of my tent.
Worried conversations were being had outside as it appeared one of our mules was missing although later we realised that actually we were two short as the muleteer was unable to count. This meant they would not be taking our summit kit to the base camp and instead, the camp assistants would be carrying the first loads. As we ate breakfast one of the missing mules just wandered into camp totally unperturbed with the attitude of ‘I’ll come back when I’m ready.’ Brian immediately named him ‘James’ who in Kathmandu was always the last to arrive for meals and meet ups. However, now we were trekking James was great and always ready to leave well before the appointed time. As we ate our porridge with apple chopped into it, the yaks came down off the hillside and, looking bemused, wandered around the camp.
The yaks took a great interest in the mules’ tack as they licked at the salty, sweat soaked blankets. As I came out of the toilet I saw the pandemonium unfold as one of them got caught in a strap and panicking, stampeded through the camp crashing through the guy ropes of the toilet tent which I had just vacated !
Later, as we assembled by the mess tent ready for a short acclimatisation walk, we realised none of us had even bothered to look at the view ! Our walk was only half an hour with 130 metres of ascent but it was steep, with scree in places, and my calves ached. Yesterday and today there had been little conversation as we walked, each of us plodding on content in our own little worlds. We were all in good spirits with no doubts about the summit although we knew after a very hard day tomorrow over Kangla Pass we would probably feel differently. We watched ‘our boys’ carrying our kit as they crept up the slope in the distance getting smaller and smaller.
They are amazing, so strong, so reliable and so committed. We really have no right to claim we ‘climb’ mountains when we see how the guides do it and make it so easy for us. Later today they may be cutting a route through for us on the far side of the pass.
At the top of the walk we lazed on our backs looking at Annapurna 1 and through Catherine’s binoculars marvelled at the 4km ridge at the back leading to the summit. Dawn was the first to see the avalanche but, fumbling to get my camera out, I missed most of it and was too late to photograph it. As we sat in the sun under a pure blue sky looking at Annapurna we thought surely this was the best view on earth. We were all happy, content and confident.
Back at camp we had a lazy afternoon and all felt lethargic. I sorted my stuff, rewrote some of my diary into a slightly more legible form and read some of Andrew Grieg’s book ‘Summit Fever’. I was loving it as I could really relate to his feelings. He was a writer who almost accidentally discovered the wonderment of the mountains when he was offered the chance to be ‘writer in residence’ on a trip to Mustagh Tower. I was interviewed by Rhinannon for the film that would be made of our trip and borrowed her phone to text Roger. There was so much I wanted to say to him and share with him but felt I couldn’t on someone else’s phone. Later, when interviewing James, Rhiannon couldn’t keep it together and fell about laughing when he responded to the question, “Why did you join this trip ?” with “I won it in a raffle!”
The plan was made for tomorrow. 6.30am wake up, 7.30am breakfast, 8.15am leave for Base Camp. It felt like we were nearly there. Coming out of the mess tent and looking up at the star packed sky, more brilliant than you can imagine, I felt happy and excited. Tomorrow we would be at Base Camp. Nar Phu Peak was within our grasp.
We had spent two days at Intermediate Camp looking up at the horrendous 50° scree slope. It looked dreadful and the thought of us making our way up it had messed with my head. It was a very, very long and very, very tedious slog but overall it was not as bad as I had expected. At times on paths clear of snow, and sometimes walking on frozen snow, we plodded on. Plod, plod, plod. Head down, trudging in a slow rhythm, unaware of our surroundings, totally ‘in the zone’. I was using my poles for the first time and it felt like a summit ascent where you mechanically trudge on with an empty mind, in total but happy isolation, almost unaware of your team mates around you also slogging onward and ever upward in their own silent, lonely worlds.
The only problem with this ascent, there was no real reward at the end of it. We met some of our mules coming down and they were struggling. The muleteer was letting them make their own way down and was not attempting to drive them but some stood petrified on the steep slope, quaking and refusing to move. The final section for us was very difficult as the prayer flags and chorten never seemed to get any closer. At last we reached the top and I burst into tears, partly with elation, partly with exhaustion and partly at the amazing views that spread below us.
We looked down into the deep snow filled valley with the tiny path, cut through by our porters yesterday, winding away to our left and into the distance. Scattered in the snow below were our bags and kit. Our porters had already carried two loads to the camp and the remaining mules had bought up half loads. However, they had been unable to cross the pass so the kit had been unloaded and unceremoniously thrown down to be collected by the porters later.
We looked across at the Chulus and then towards Nar Phu Peak, although our peak looked just as distant as it had from far, far below in Ngawal. It was a day of amazing views from the Annapurnas and the beautiful Fish Tail Mountain and now the Chulus.
We rested briefly and then set off down towards Base Camp. I am sure we had been told from the pass we were an hour from Base Camp and, although tired, we set off with renewed enthusiasm. This dissipated in seconds as we sank into the snow, often falling thigh deep and unable to kick in at all. It was exhausting as every step sapped energy. We saw the pools of blood where injured mules had turned back a few yards from the pass. The beauty of our surroundings was now completely lost on us as we tried to move through the white blanket. There was no chance of getting into a rhythm as we slipped and fell in the snow. As you stepped confidently into a footprint it would collapse beneath your boot and you would fall thigh deep again.
My boots were soaked through and full of snow. This was not fun. On and on we stumbled, on and on and on, and still the faint path wove away through the snow and out of sight. Shika was leading and although carrying some of the dumped kit, he was too fast for us and the gap between him and us widened. Brian and James at the back each carried a bag with 3 mats in each of them but they too were struggling and Dawn relieved James of his after a while. I was following Catherine trying to be encouraging but was unable to pull her up as she fell into the snow. This was grim and miserable. I was totally exhausted and every step was as much of a mental struggle as a physical one. It was hard because you could not close your mind and trudge on mindlessly as we had on the way up to the pass. Now you had to concentrate all the time and muster all your strength to pull yourself up every time you fell through the snow. Although the path now wove uphill and disappeared over a ridge, Shika encouraged us, “Only twenty minutes to go,” he told us.
On and on and on. For a few steps you wouldn’t slip and were able to step into the footprints made by the porters earlier. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad, this was ok and after all we were nearly there. But then the snow would give way again, you’d sink down and as you struggled to pull yourself out, the other foot would sink, and then your arms too, pushing cold wet snow into your clothing as you writhed helplessly trying to regain your footing. Exhausted you’d lay there for a moment and finally muster the strength to get up again and start moving. On and on and on. Would it ever end ? Shika was back with us again now, “Only twenty minutes to go,” he said, again ! By now we were heading uphill making it even harder. I had no energy left at all. I was tired, unhappy and unable to even look up. I reminded myself each step was a step nearer camp, but as we rounded each corner the camp never came into view. On and on and on. Head down and struggling with every step now, I did not see the lake at first but when I did, I consciously thought, ‘It is beautiful but I don’t care!’
We trudged on and finally the camp came into view but I felt no elation, just total exhaustion. My head ached and I felt a bit nauseous as I, almost blindly, staggered into camp. I sat down on the first piece of exposed rock with James, feeling absolutely nothing. We hugged each other as the porters struggled in thigh deep snow trying to level platforms for the tents. I don’t think either of us spoke as we sat there, dazed and exhausted. Rhiannon was feeling ill but Dawn was jolly and helping move the bags to the tents as they were erected. I was allocated a tent and tried to drag my bag to it.
But I had no strength left, I was too exhausted and a porter kindly carried it for me and put it in my tent. It was all I could do to crawl in after it. I laid out my thermarest, took off my boots and laid down. My boots were full of snow and I had brought a lot of snow into the tent but I didn’t care. In seconds I was asleep, still fully clothed save my boots. Earlier on the trip, talking about summit days, James had said, “Every one has one hard day in them,” and I think that might have been mine !
Some time later I was woken by a porter bringing me soup and popcorn. I threw the popcorn into the soup and managed to get it down. Slightly revived I changed out of my wet clothes and into my thermals. Brian made his way around the tents checking we were all alright. He suggested I should inflate my thermarest more although I doubted I could even muster the energy to do that. Where I had crawled into the tent my knees had sunk in and made deep holes and troughs in the floor. It was going to be uncomfortable to lie on, it was a lesson learnt but too late !
Now in dry clothes and having had some soup, I organised my tent as usual before falling asleep again. I woke needing the toilet and set off on the major expedition to the toilet tent which was pitched what seemed like miles away, along a path cut through deep snow.
It was a precarious toilet dug out on a slope with two sloping slabs of rock either side of the hole which, especially if icy, would be too slippery to stand on. This meant that an awkward squat was called for, without even the confidence of being able to hold the tent pole for stability as the whole structure was rickety and insecure. It would be far too dangerous to try to reach the toilet tent after dark and so we would all be using either our tent porch or, if very brave, venturing just outside our tents. In fact one of the depressions made by my knees turned out to be useful when I was unable to get out of the tent in time for a wee in the night. As it was so cold in the night, by the morning the contents were frozen and could be removed easily and thrown outside !
We were brought dinner in our tents as the mess tent would not be erected until the day after tomorrow when the guides had dug out 4 foot of snow to make a platform for it. Unfortunately I couldn’t face eating and, after three spoonfuls of rice, regretfully put the plate outside and fell asleep again. During the evening I slept only fitfully as my brain flitted from topic to topic but later I fell into a contented sleep only waking up to wee three times, twice in the porch and once inside the tent. It was always a surprise to open the zip into the tent porch and see the snow, it was as if I had forgotten it was there ! Each time I woke I felt ok but as soon as I sat up or tried to move, a headache would flash across behind my eyes and I felt out of breath and shivery although not cold. In fact every time I woke up I was far too hot and shed another layer which was amazing as the inside of the tent and my sleeping bag were covered by a layer of ice and if you touched the tent you could create an indoor snow storm ! Brian recorded temperatures of -17° in his tent and -25° outside but despite that I ended up sleeping in just my silk thermals in my sleeping bag. I woke confused by what sounded like a huge explosion. It was only later, at breakfast, that we discovered it was the sound of the ice cracking in the frozen lake. My morning routine was curtailed by finding my wipes were frozen solid as were yesterday’s socks ! I was still not feeling quite right but joined the others for our breakfast ‘al fresco’. The porridge and toast with jam was welcome but my stomach drew the line at a hard boiled egg. I tried to drink plenty of tea as I was struggling to drink enough during the night especially as it was so cold. It seemed surreal sitting at our table surrounded by walls of snow cut out by our guides and surrounded by the mountains. Even in our ‘dug out’ and in bright sunlight it was a bit cold as this camp was quite exposed and the wind was icy.
At breakfast, Pasang informed us that today was an auspicious day and so we would change our plans and hold our Puja ceremony today at 10.45am. This would involve placing all our sharp objects and safety equipment around the stone ‘altar’ which had been built by the Him Ex guides last year for their training expeditions.
This would signify us apologising to the mountain for harming her and asking her blessing for our expedition. Juniper, laboriously collected by our guides as we made our way up the mountain, would be burnt and our camp team would ensure it would continue smouldering until we all returned safely from the mountain.
Dorje, our mountaineering guide, who had previously been a monk for seven years, conducted the Puja squatting down and chanting mantras from a pile of papers held down at the side by a flat stone. He chanted quietly, clasping his hands in a significant way and ran beads through his fingers.
As my ice boots were part of the offerings for blessing I was wearing my still wet boots from yesterday and so my feet were cold and I was very uncomfortable. It was a long ceremony and as I got colder and colder, suddenly a warmth swept over me and, scared I may pass out, I squatted down to sit on my heels. I hoped it did not appear disrespectful but I was worried I would fall over. Rhiannon was also feeling unwell today and Dawn, who seemed very quiet, leant against the stone altar holding the rock throughout the ceremony. I rested for about five minutes and then was able to get to my feet again feeling much better.
As the wind cut around us Pasang struggled to keep the juniper burning, but the fragrant wisps of smoke still curled upwards. Food was blessed and then thrown towards the mountain as well as over the fire, the altar and our equipment.
At times we were invited to do this too. Dorje dipped fronds of juniper into water and shook the water droplets over us and our kit, rice was thrown into the air three times as three is an auspicious number. We drank Coco Cola from our hands and then some fiery alcohol before sharing bread, popcorn, biscuits and fruit. None of us totally understood the significance of all the rites but we all felt a huge respect for our guides and their gentle faith and found it a spiritual experience, binding us as a team. It was a long ceremony and gradually Dorje’s pile of read prayers grew taller than those still to come as he reverently chanted the mantras.
All our kit and prayer flags were blessed and, hoping our offerings would appease the mountain gods, we wiped soft sandy buckwheat flour onto each others heads. Supposedly this is a symbol of hope that we all would live to see each other again when we were old and grey. Pasang told us we should not wipe off the flour until after lunch and also our kit should remain in place until then, taking on the distinctive aroma of the juniper smoke. Then three lines of prayer flags were tied out from the altar each starting with the blue flag in the middle.
Back in my tent after the Puja ceremony, I took off my boots and realised I could neither feel or move my feet. I put on my thick ‘sleeping’ socks, wrapped my feet in my fleece hat and sat on them in an attempt to warm them up.
In the afternoon we would be doing ice axe and crampon practice, walking roped up and refreshing our jumar technique, last practised in Brian’s back garden in Wales. It looked like a long hard walk in so I was not keen on the prospect although it did mean that tomorrow would be a total rest day. We also needed to practice putting on our harnesses and crampons which we would be doing in the dark on summit day. Keen to keep my paramo trousers dry for summit day I was wearing gaiters and my waterproofs as an extra layer but it was still cold as we set off.
It was difficult trying to step into Brian’s foot steps as his stride was too long but if you didn’t land your boot into his footprint you would sink thigh deep into the snow. By the time I had got back to my tent and taken off my ice boots and harness there was not time to change into my night clothes before tea.
Pasang, Brian and James had been looking through binoculars at our route for summit day, surveying the two massive glaciers and our necessary descent into the valley as soon as we left Base Camp. Far, far away we could see the tiny rocky tip of Nar Phu Peak which looked almost like a cairn and Pasang told us he estimated it would take us 11 hours to reach the summit. Brian advised us to take one ice axe and one pole for the summit along with a figure of 8 and a jumar in our sacks. This would have been good advice but in the event Pasang decided the jumars would not be necessary. He told us we would be wearing helmets, harnesses and crampons on the glacier and warned us we would get very dehydrated on our summit attempt as our water would freeze. This worried me a bit. He also suggested trying to regulate our ‘bodily functions’ to train yourself to eliminate at night making things easier on summit day.
I was not sure how I was feeling other than cold but I was warming up now with four layers consisting of short sleeved T shirt, long sleeved T shirt, cambia top and primaloft. I wondered how Roger would cope with this and whether his base camp for Mera would be similar and as cold. My breathing was less laboured than I had expected but I had absolutely no energy today. I was moving very slowly and had to stop to rest on my way to and from the toilet tent and the mess tent. I hoped I would feel better tomorrow. I asked myself, “Am I happy?” Content, yes, but I wondered if suffering this much discomfort could really be considered a ‘holiday’. Everything earlier on the trek before Base Camp, seemed a long, long time ago now. The Annapurna Circuit, the rivers and bridges, the tea houses, all felt like a different world now. Now we were here at Base Camp we were just existing in our environment but I was very happy.
I had decided that after dinner I would go to the toilet and then straight to bed. I was looking forward to a rest day tomorrow and thought ‘I may just stay in my tent all day.’ I still had very little energy and would be quite content to rest in my tent, day dreaming, writing and reading. Although we were spending much less time together than the groups on previous treks, we felt bonded and very much a team. This had been especially evident on route to Base Camp when Rhiannon and I had been totally wasted. Each member of the team was a very individual person and happy to retreat to our own tents to do our own thing, whether that was sorting out stuff, reading, writing, listening to music or even just lying back enjoying the solitude. Rhiannon was not feeling great and was now taking Diamox. Although Dawn admitted to not enjoying herself and was taking Ibuprofen for her headaches, she was great at being positive and was expecting to summit. Catherine was philosophical about summiting having loved the trek so far and already exceeded her expectations. James was very experienced and I was certain he would make the summit, weather permitting, although he admitted to having struggled up to Kangla.
Today I had made a new dip in my tent near the door in case I had another urgent need to urinate without time to get into the porch. I still did not have much of an appetite and only ate a little at dinner and then retired to bed early and was soon warm and snug in my sleeping bag despite the frost forming on the inside of the tent and over my sleeping bag as the temperature dropped to below -20°C.
I was disappointed that breakfast included boiled eggs again and wished we could go back to having omelettes. Today, for a change from the usual porridge, Man and his team provided rice pudding with sultanas, apples and nuts. I only managed half of my rice but enjoyed two chapatis made into a jam sandwich. Brian talked us through our summit day kit list and I worried about what I should wear. I suspected I would be too hot but would need good protection from the wind. Brian questioned if I would need silk thermals under my paramo trousers.
I retreated to my tent and sorted out what I needed for the summit tomorrow, packing snack bars and jelly babies into pockets so they were easy to reach. James gave me some cord to make wrist loops for my down mitts and I reduced my first aid kit to the essentials in an attempt to lighten my pack as much as possible. As I got prepared I thought about how James, who we now almost thought of as Brian’s second-in-command, was referring to it as ‘technical’ and it occurred to me it was now much more of a mountaineering trip rather than a trek. I began to question whether I was up for this. Brian had said it would not be like Kilimanjaro where you can get into a rhythm and just plod, plod, plod mindlessly. Here it would be very different and require constant concentration and he went on to warn us this would be the hardest thing any of us had ever done physically, mentally and spiritually. He was predicting a 14+ hour day with long a uphill at the end. But we needed to remember to take the whole expedition not just ‘one day at a time’ now but ‘one step at a time.’ Brian was still concerned we may be beaten by the snow conditions on the far side which could not be seen from our camp. As we prepared ourselves, Pasang and Shika were doing a recce and exploring the glacier to consider possible routes.
Once I had sorted my kit and clothes for the next day, I started to write my diary. I was finding it difficult to write now and was feeling isolated from the real world, although very content in this detached existence. I felt sad as I thought it will all soon be over. The fact there was only one more ascent and only two days of walking left seemed incomprehensible. I could not imagine not waking up in a tent, not being in our quiet, beautiful environment, not being with our happy band of friends but being surrounded by different people and doing every day things. I worried that on his own trip Roger might be reassessing his life and afterwards may feel differently about us. But I knew I could only hope his solitary contemplation would lead him to the same conclusions as mine !
The rest of the group had been outside watching Pasang and Shika through binoculars and were now looking dejected as they saw them returning, assuming they had been unable to find a route. So, so slowly they made their way back to camp as we awaited the bad news. However, they returned with good news as they thought it might be possible to summit and even better, the early slopes were not as steep as they had expected. The depressed mood in our camp immediately gave way to excitement and nervous anticipation. Although now I worried that if I did not make it to the summit I would feel even worse as it now seemed it was to be ‘easier’ than expected. Brian had spent most of the morning watching them, getting increasingly depressed about the prospects of them finding a route but now he was already planning the end of our film as the credits would roll past the picture of us all on the summit ! It was for real now, we really were getting ready to go !
At lunch Pasang advised us to wash our feet very well today and cut our toe nails ready for the summit attempt tomorrow. All trip both Brian and Pasang had emphasised the importance of looking after our feet. He also told us on our summit attempt to make sure we kept wriggling our toes and fingers to maintain good circulation. We talked again about our summit kit and Pasang suggested we abandoned the jumars and figures of 8. After washing my feet in the very hot water which was supplied, I lay in my tent and dozed as one of the Sherpas, maybe Dorje, chanted rhythmically. All trip I had tried not to sleep during the day as I thought I would then be able to sleep better at night. The nights were very long and cold and any sleep was welcome in those dark, chilly hours. Today I needed as much rest as I could get in anticipation of tomorrow’s efforts. I was content and happy and thought hopefully that by this time tomorrow we could have all stood on top of a previously unclimbed peak. At 5.15pm suddenly the wind got up and by 5.30pm it was completely dark and very cold. Despite my four layers of clothing and being in my sleeping bag I was cold and my fingers numb inside my gloves. It was going to be very cold in the mess tent and I planned to add my primaloft and hat for dinner at 6pm. I snuggled further into my sleeping bag when suddenly clanging pots announced dinner being served early at 5.40pm.
After dinner I rechecked my kit and wrote my diary noting this would be my last entry until we had either conquered Nar Phu Peak or not. Somehow it hardly mattered either way. Everything felt strangely unreal and my head was empty. It was probably a good thing as it meant I wasn’t panicking. I consciously thought how I needed to remain this detached from reality. I read a little of Summit Fever which I was loving and then settled into my sleeping bag to rest and hopefully sleep. There would be tent tea at 1am and then breakfast at 2am, before leaving Base Camp for the summit at 2.45am. Was this real ? Was it really going to happen ? Warm, confident and happy I drifted into a semi sleep, faintly aware of my surroundings but totally relaxed and resting. I wasn’t excited, I wasn’t scared, I just knew this was exactly where I wanted to be. Tomorrow was another day and on that day, I would take it one step at a time and go as far as my single steps took me.
I was awake before my tent was rattled and the familiar call of “tent tea.” I sipped on the warm liquid and resolved to stay in my cosy sleeping bag as long as possible. But I was still early to the mess tent with sun-cream already applied under my long sleeved wicking top, primaloft and paramo trousers and jacket. We ate porridge, drank black tea and filled our camelbacks with near boiling water to which I added Dioralyte in an attempt to lower the freezing point. By 2.45am we were leaving Base Camp and tramping downhill, trying hard to step into the footprints made by Pasang, Dorje and Shika. Their strides were long and as we made our own footprints, our boots broke through the frozen crust into the fine powdery snow below sometimes sinking a few inches and sometimes more than knee deep. It was very cold at about -24° and the dark sky was crystal clear lit by billions of stars. After a long downhill trudge we climbed back up to the same height again but before we reached the edge of the glacier the familiar scent of burnt juniper wafted through the icy air. Yesterday Pasang and Shika had burnt juniper on a rock and left it to smoulder there hoping to appease the mountain gods so they would allow us a safe passage to the summit of Nar Phu Peak. Here we stopped to put on our crampons, helmets and harnesses and got out our ice axes. Brian and Pasang checked our crampons and harnesses then, after sticking our walking poles into the ground and abandoning any excess kit, we climbed the steep 8 metre face onto the glacier. Our leaders set quite a fast pace and I was already too hot and as a wave of nausea flooded over me I took off my buff and unzipped my jacket a few inches. I immediately felt better and fell into step as we trudged by starlight, hardly needing our head torches, steadily uphill out across the glacier.
Just before dawn the wind started to get up and its icy blast hit our faces. The sun rose from behind us and we could just make out the faint outline of gloomy mountains in the purpley pink sky. Later we would see the sun touching the faces of the mountains in the distance painting them golden, but it would be many hours before the sun itself would emerge from behind the Annapurnas.
Despite the increasing light it was much colder now as the wind bit into us and we trudged onward. This glacier was largely featureless with just a few crevasses but the snow had been whipped up and frozen into peaks like rough icing on a massive cake. Many hours later, on the way down, we would notice beautiful ice formations in the crevasses looking like fairytale forests and sculptures, and the distant glacier to our left striped with layers of a mystical green hue, but for now we trudged blindly onward and upward, unaware of the majestic beauty around us.
Almost suddenly we were faced by a massive hanging glacier. Despite Brian surveying our route on Google Earth from the comfort of his home in Wales, the enormity of it was a shock as the hazy white blob on the computer screen in reality looked infinitely more daunting. Using binoculars from Base Camp and on Pasang and Shika’s recce yesterday they had chosen a route up an ice ramp to the right. This was all virgin territory now and we had no idea what lay beyond the glacier before us. Roped together we set off up a 45° slope, kicking in and gaining purchase with our crampons. I was feeling confident now and all was going well, my head was in a good place and this was do-able ! The wind was cold but I was warm and religiously kept wriggling my fingers and toes as Pasang had advised. Quickly though I started to tire as the slope rapidly became steeper and each upward step was accompanied by a slight slip downward as I struggled to securely place my crampons.
The ice was hard now under the snow and James advised us to use the ice axe as a dagger but as I did this my arm sank deep into snow and rarely did I find purchase on that long struggle upward. Moving quickly was the only way to stop a gradual retreat down the slope and I worked out my own rhythm to keep moving upward but it was exhausting. The slope rose above us seemingly forever, the top never in sight. By now the wind had strengthened further and slashed at our faces as we climbed on and on. This was different to the other summits I had climbed. Rather than plodding on mechanically, here every step required complete concentration and constant vigilance, every step had to be accurate and every plunge of the ice axe careful. Every slip downward, however slight, sapped energy as you struggled to regain purchase deep under the snow. Despite my dwindling energy and draining mental strength, I was totally happy and content, and even confident that each step was a step nearer the summit and that eventually we would get there. That unfaltering belief never wavered. I realised no one had spoken for hours now. Each of us totally absorbed in heaving our bodies up the unforgiving slope, each of us probably fighting our own mental battles, each of us using every ounce of mental and physical reserve to reach our goal.
Although warm in my down mitts, it was impossible to undo the karabiners at each ice screw without taking them off and soon I stopped bothering to put them back on. Wearing just silk liner gloves, already wet from snow, I squeezed at the cold metal clasps but did not notice how cold my hands were. The tingling had stopped now but still I clenched my fingers into fists frequently. At one point while we rested briefly, Rhiannon told Brian she was feeling ill and could not feel her feet. Brian and James removed her boots, tried to massage her feet and then warm them by placing them in their armpits. Dawn was also so cold that she was worried she may pass out. Catherine, who after the first glacier had almost been ready to give up, declaring, “This might be my summit,” was now filled with steely determination and, sticking to a slow but steady pace, was resolutely battling onward.
The wind continued to intensify and, full of shards of ice, it cut into us. Later Brian told us he estimated the wind speed had been about 30 mph and taking into account the wind chill, we had been climbing in temperatures of near -40°. It felt like I had been on that ice slope for ever, I had no memory of anything before, my whole past was the recurring memory of kicking in my toes and plunging in the ice axe and it seemed that was also my future, but I was happy in that world. Finally and without warning, suddenly the top appeared and I saw the person above me disappear from view.
As I struggled onto the plateau I saw Pasang looking worried. As I went to join Catherine who was sitting down, he came over to us and said, “This is your summit.” I was totally exhausted but these words hit me like a sledge hammer. NO ! How could this be our summit ? We had come so far and above us the summit looked tantalisingly close. Surely we could do it. From nowhere angry energy surged through my veins. I for one was not ready to give up. Already I had far exceeded my expectations but I knew I could do more. Tears stung my eyes as I prepared to fight my case. We couldn’t give up now. By now Brian was crawling onto the plateau. His face was ashen and without any expression. He flung himself to the floor and with his eyes closed and gasping he exclaimed, “That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done !” We were all sitting or lying down now, all gasping greedily in the thin air. Our water had long since frozen and most of us had drunk little or nothing in the last few hours. We tried to eat a snack but even the effort of chewing a cold cereal bar was too difficult. Only after a few minutes did I look at our surroundings. Ahead a narrow snow bridge rose steeply between two mighty crevasses. And beyond that slope ? We could only guess what lay beyond or how far away the elusive summit could be. Only Pasang and Dorje were on their feet now and were talking quietly together. As Pasang wandered over to Brian, I was shocked to realise that Brian may be ready to quit as he was offering the prayer flags to James to take to the summit. Brian had the huge emotional burden of Steph’s illness and leading the group must have been draining, but surely he would go on. My head ached as I tried to formulate my argument. What if Pasang wouldn’t let me go on ? I really believed I had more in me and now the summit really did matter. I wanted to go on so badly. After talking with Brian and James, Pasang and Dorje moved to the bottom of the snow bridge and Dorje started up the slope, tentatively at first, then faster and faster like an insect on a window pane, confident and slick.
In no time he was out of sight and securing an anchor at the top. Quickly now we were lining up to tie in and thankfully, without having to plead for a chance to go for it, we were all going to head up the delicate snow bridge and hopefully to the summit.
In hushed discussions it had been decided that we could all attempt the summit and still hopefully be off the most dangerous part of the descent before night fall. And so we set off again with Pasang leading us from the front and Brian coming up last encouraging us from behind.
Having rested for a while we had quickly got cold, and, in the thin air and cruel wind it was difficult to start again and focus your brain on the monotony of kicking in and plunging the ice axe. This was a near vertical climb and shards of ice and balls of snow pelleted each of us from above as they were dislodged by our team mates ahead, and all the time the wind, full of ice and snow, whipped into us from the right. Time and time again I floundered as my arm sank shoulder deep into the snow as I desperately thrust in the ice axe and it pulled through the snow, never making a grip on the ice below. Exhausted from hours of exertion and mentally drained, I gritted my teeth and battled on, trying ever harder to make each step count. I tried to turn my head slightly to my left to avoid the painful lashing of the wind but resolved not to look up but just forward at the slope in front of me. Concentrating on concentrating, my mind was totally focussed, there was no room for other thoughts, I did not think about how cold I was or the fact I could no longer feel my fingers or toes did not even register until hours later.
I was so focussed on each move I made, it was a shock to see the ground level out before my eyes and realise I had crossed the snow bridge and now faced a broad, safer slope hopefully to the top. Above we could see the rocky tower of the summit but had no concept of what may still lie between us and it as the next slope topped out short of the summit.
There could be further crevasses and still the summit was not in our grasp. The last climb was technically easier but with the air ever thinner, the biting wind and our weary bodies aching, it was a struggle but finally, just after 2pm, we had all crawled onto the tiny summit plateau and tucked ourselves in against the rocky tower.
We had made it ! Our complete team of nine all huddled together on the summit of Nar Phu Peak, standing where no-one had ever stood before, the proud 1st Ascenders of Nar Phu Peak.
It was a strange feeling as we all shook hands and hugged. I had expected to feel great elation and relief but in truth I felt very little. It would take a long time for the enormity of our success to sink in. Yes I was happy, yes I was proud, but for someone who had cried on seeing each camp site and on every summit or significant landmark, I was remarkably unemotional. Brian tied out the prayer flags and we posed for photos and took a few of our own.
We briefly surveyed the rocky tower and then looked down the steep slopes on all sides and then out across to all the amazing mountains which surrounded us.
Nine of us all so close together both physically and spiritually on a tiny peak with the vast mountainous expanse around us, totally alone and at total peace with our worlds. This was a truly beautiful moment.
Brian and James checked GPSs and altimeters and confirmed our altitude as 5930 metres. I offered round celebratory jelly babies and then sat with my back against the craggy rock and tried to absorb the atmosphere of this precious moment, a truly unique moment in human history. That was an awe inspiring thought. In our own small way we had made history and each of us we had reached the pinnacle of an amazing journey.
We had taken longer than anticipated to reach the summit and still had a long and dangerous descent ahead of us and certainly would be returning long after darkness had fallen. We needed to remuster our strength and start that descent to ensure we were out of danger before nightfall.
For inexperienced and tired climbers the descent was even more difficult than the ascent. We all slipped and fell frequently. At one point as I slipped I stuck in my axe and hung from it, shocked but jubilant at my success at halting my fall, and for a second forgot I needed to secure a foothold ! Smiling I realised I had actually, almost instinctively, used my ice axe for the intended purpose and succeeded ! I was being a ‘mountaineer’ ! The 80° slope of the ice bridge was precarious and all the time the edges were dropping away into the crevasses and, as the others above me slipped and struggled to find footholds, hard snowballs and shards of ice plummeted onto us below.
But all the time I leaned back, trying to dig in my heels and unceremoniously half climbed, half slid down. I was clipped into the rope and in naive bliss felt completely safe and secure. This was fun, it would get easier now as we descended and breathing would take less effort. Pasang, Brian and Dorje seemed more agitated now and forced us on urgently. Catherine, Dawn, Rhiannon and I, who had no experience of this sort of climbing, struggled to keep up their pace, resenting their forceful ‘encouragement’ to keep moving. At one point Dorje was over zealous with the rope attached to Catherine who overbalanced and fell crying out in pain. At first she struggled to get to her feet but soon was valiantly down-climbing again. The next day we would be shocked by the injuries she had sustained to her to knee and the dark bruising demarcating the leg loops of her harness. I was supremely happy and gambolled on in blissful ignorance of the fears Brian, James and our guides had for our safety and the urgency to get down.
We collected our rucksacks from the plateau below the ice bridge and continued down, down, down. I was shocked by the steepness as my mind had completely blocked out the struggle to the top and looking at the slope I questioned, “Did I really climb up this?” Now I could look around me more and appreciate the scenery. I couldn’t believe I had hardly looked to either side in all the long hours of ascent, just focussing on the snow and ice directly in front of me and concentrating completely on every step. Now I noticed the myriad of frozen spikes of ice created as the icy wind had swept the snow up into pointed peaks.
Much later on the lower glacier I stared in wonderment into the magical, miniature landscape I could see in the crevasses. I could imagine fairytale towns and forests carved in ice. Looking across at the more distant glaciers I now saw the vertical green stippling and huge icicles and ice formations, still majestic although on a smaller scale to the ice fields on Cotopaxi, and a previously un-noticed vibrant square lake. I hoped Brian would have taken some photographs of them.
On and on and on in what seemed like unseen territory as I remembered none of this from earlier. Had we really walked this far? On and on and on. Hours later and as the light was failing we reached the lower glacier.
The group had got spread out now with Brian, James and Rhiannon ahead and Catherine, Dawn and I some way behind. The sky was slowly taken over by mauve tints and over the mountains a beautiful multi layered sunset of pale purple merging into layers of light pink formed and gradually darkened in colour, until all the sky and clouds over Annapurna were a deep purple haze. It was a very, very long walk out and ahead the glacier stretched on endlessly and now the others were lost from view. We trudged on in the cold, dim light. Eventually we noticed tiny shadows making their way towards us and were finally able to make out Man and one of his assistants who had walked out to meet us bringing us hot orange juice and biscuits. Catherine and I were moved to tears by this kind gesture. We were so tired now and this gave us a real lift. Man offered to carry Catherine’s ruck sack and gave her his poles as they joined us on our slow trudge back to the edge of the glacier. By now it was dark and, in the wisps of smoke from the still smouldering juniper, we took off our crampons and harnesses and collected our poles before heading back down into the valley. I felt like we were nearly back now. From memory it had been a short walk to here in the dark many hours ago and so I felt uplifted by that thought. But my memory was playing tricks. It was a soul destroying trudge and now totally exhausted I struggled to keep motivated to keep going. My heavy boots dragged through the snow as we dropped down into the valley. Finally as the path started to rise again I thought I remembered the short drop from the toilet tent to this point. Wrong again ! Plodding on in the dark and now up hill was so difficult, we were all too tired to speak and each was longing to see the outline of our infamous toilet tent indicating the edge of our camp. Eventually it seemed to drift into view through the gloom, subconsciously we slightly quickened our pace but no one mentioned what we could see faintly in distance. But, when we finally drew close enough to realise that it was not the familiar yellow tent but instead a rock, the disappointment was palpable. I was so tired now I could have happily laid down in the snow and slept, every step was a huge effort and, without a goal to aim for, seemed pointless. Twice more we saw shapes which we believed to be the toilet tent before finally the most recent apparition was indeed the yellow, lopsided toilet tent and after 16½ hours we were ‘home’. Even the walk, still uphill, from the toilet tent to our own tents seemed interminable. James, Brian and Rhiannon came out to greet us and after brief hugs we all collapsed into our tents to sleep before we had chance to really appreciate the amazing feat we had all achieved together.
The next morning I woke to find my boots were frozen to the tent floor. Even though our goal had been obtained we still had our routine of tent tea and then getting up and packing up the tent before breakfast. But breakfast this morning had a difference as James produced a packet of Tetleys tea which was a real treat. He then posed with the packet pointing at the far distant summit of Nar Phu and declaring, “Tetleys gets you to the top !” Could this become their latest slogan ?
This morning my toes felt painful and numb as if they were bruised and my finger tips were also numb but tingling, unperturbed I thought they were just cold. Rhiannon was very subdued and in great pain from her frostbitten feet which Pasang had already started treating. Catherine was also suffering with a very painful knee which had now swollen to twice its normal size after her fall yesterday. And so this motley crew set off very slowly from the beautiful and serene base camp heading back up to Kangla Pass.
At first I felt quite bright but quickly my energy ebbed away as waves of exhaustion swept over me. At times I felt I had no energy at all and as the path was icy I tried to walk on the snow, but as I kept sinking in, it quickly sapped my energy. Nobody said much as we were all in our own little worlds. It was a long and tiring trudge back to the pass and then down the steep scree slope on the other side. We were all very slow and poor Catherine was really struggling with her painful knee and her confidence. Brian’s gentle encouragement gave way to more forceful persuasion and eventually he suggested she hold on to his rucksack and keep to his pace. To be fair there was only one way down and in reality we all had to make it more or less under our own steam. Progress was very slow and the terrain very steep but we continued in this fashion for quite a while. After a brief rest Pasang took over helping Catherine. James had got ahead of the rest of the group, then Brian who was now carrying Rhiannon’s ruck sack, Dawn and me were a loose group making our way down although not really talking to each other. It was a long, long descent but we were all starting to feel better as we got lower and eventually all of us except Catherine and Pasang, reached a grassy area slightly below what had been our Intermediate Camp. We rested there for a long time, eating snacks and sweets while waiting for the last two to catch us up. Dawn, Rhiannon, Shika and I left our rest spot together and continued our descent and after a while Dawn and I had pulled ahead and were happily chatting until we had almost reached Ngawal. We waited until Rhiannon and Shika caught up and then deliberated as to whether we should go to a tea house for masala tea or wait for the rest of the team. It did not feel very team spirited not to wait for them but they were far behind us and out of sight, besides we had to chose between a cold, windy camp site or a teahouse and warm tea.
The tea house won although the experience was tinged by a nagging feeling of guilt. As we left and headed back up out of the village we saw the others on the hillside so walked up to meet them and so finally all the team walked into camp together. Our descent had been so slow we had missed lunch but soon we were tucking into popcorn and cookies.
Back in my tent and taking off my boots, I realised my toes were still numb. I asked Brian to look at them and testing my lack of sensation he called Pasang over who told me off for not telling someone sooner. I also had frostbite but much less severely than Rhiannon. Pasang bathed my feet in painfully hot water, prescribed 400 mg Ibuprofen four times daily and warned me that we would both have to go to the hospital in Kathmandu. The hot water soaking would be continued two, three or four times a day for several weeks and I must not rub my feet dry but gentle squeeze them in the towel. At this stage they were numb and uncomfortable but the real pain would come later.
Our celebration dinner, the last cooked by Man and his team, was all our favourite things, pizza, potato cakes, cauliflower fritters, carrots and beans followed by a cake iced with the inscription ‘Nar Phu Virgin No More 22.11.2014’. We had bought the crew some beer and gave them half of the cake and the ‘party’ in the kitchen was already getting noisy !
I borrowed the satellite phone to phone home but only got the answer phone which was disappointing although I knew my family would be keeping up to date on our progress via the Expedition Wise reports on Facebook. I texted Roger on Rhiannon’s phone and retreated to my tent disappointed this would be my last night under canvas. It was good to have a flat floor to lie on and to be off the snow, but this camp site was very exposed and cold and it was already freezing despite being much lower at only 4000 metres. I lay in my sleeping bag thinking back over the last two days. The enormity of our achievement had not really sunk in yet. It was sad to think that tomorrow we would leave this isolated existence and be back in Hotel Malla in Kathmandu but it would be good to get clean again and wake up in a warm room. I was also aware how difficult it would be getting back into the routine of ‘normal’ life.
The next morning we took off from our Ngawal camp site by helicopter, flew low over the Annapurna circuit and on to Pokara. Here we feasted on as much sugar and salt, in the form of pringles, chips, chocolate and fizzy drinks, as humanely possible while watching locals playing football and practising martial arts on the edge of the runway, before getting onto a tiny plane and heading back to Kathmandu. Brian took Rhiannon and I to the hospital where our frostbitten feet and hands were assessed and dressed. With huge bandaged hands I asked how I was supposed to eat, drink and go to the toilet. The doctor looked across at Brian and said, “You’ll have to help her !” We wondered whether he thought Brian and I were a couple and maybe Rhiannon our daughter !
As we shuffled back into the hotel our team mates dissolved into fits of laughter but afterwards they were very supportive helping us around the town and offering sympathy.
The next day we visited Elizabeth Hawley who, since our previous visit, had celebrated her 92nd birthday.
We gave her the good news of our safe and successful ascent and she looked over her glasses at us with a wry smile as she took notes of our route and checked Brian’s video footage. We thought of all the illustrious mountaineers who had sat with her before us and described their adventures. Now it was really sinking in, we were genuine First Summiters and our endeavours would go down in history forever in The Himalayan Database. That night we ate at the famous Rumdoodle Restaurant and our ‘foot’ is now hung there along with hundreds of others denoting other first ascents and significant achievements.
Here Brian led the debrief and for the first time Rhiannon, Dawn, Catherine and myself became aware of how worried he, James and Pasang had been on summit day. We were all blissfully unaware that Brian and James realised our anchors were not secure and in fact they were able to pull them out without any effort. Although we had struggled with the technique of ice climbing we had felt confident, secure in the knowledge we were ‘on a rope’. With amazing cool professionalism they had surreptitiously placed themselves close to the less experienced climbers to enable them to limit the momentum we would gain if we fell and so hopefully be able to arrest our fall. This has been done completely without our knowledge and until now we had been totally unaware of the potential danger we were in. In fact Dawn had felt so confident she admitted she would have been happy to climb without a rope. It was a huge shock to us that we had ever been in any danger, we had all felt completely safe and confident throughout the climb.
And so our great adventure drew to a close. It had been the most wonderful experience shared with a brilliant and inspiring team. We had all pushed ourselves way beyond what we thought were our limits and fulfilled a dream to stand where no other person has ever stood before. A truly remarkable feat. Every one of us played a part in every one else’s success. This was a team effort in every sense of the word. I think each of us had reached our own summits at some point long before we all stood together on top of Nar Phu Peak. We drew strength from each other and Team Nar Phu made it united to summit.
Thank you to Pasang Sherpa, Dorje Sherpa, Shika Pandey, James, Rhiannon, Catherine, Dawn and especially Brian and to our wonderful support team at Base Camp. None of this would have been possible without every one of you.
Nar Phu Peak (5930 metres)
Virgin No More
22nd November 2014