Attempt on Mera Peak – November 2018
Looking back as I headed towards Security I waved briefly at my daughter and sister and taking a deep breath quickened my pace to get out of sight and swallowed hard fighting back tears. What was I doing here ? Should I be here at all ? Less than 48 hours ago Paul, Rebecca and Natasha’s beloved Dad, had had a massive heart attack and died aged just 59. My trip to Mera Peak had been planned for months and I had been collecting sponsorship for the Arthur Rank Hospice where my dear friend, Tim, had died in August. Could I have let down all my generous sponsors? On Thursday I had driven to Ipswich in a daze knowing Paul had already died and almost Natasha’s first words had been, “You MUST still go to Nepal. Dad would have wanted you to go.” To be honest I was incapable of making any sort of decision and so, unable to decide to cancel, here I was heading to Nepal in a state of numbness and disbelief of all that had happened in the last two days.
This whole trip had been my idea. Coming back from a failed attempt on Chimborazo in January, despite having said my high altitude trekking days were over, I had quickly decided I wanted to try Mera Peak. I found a trip with a company I had not heard of and contacted all my mountaineering friends to ask if they knew anything about them. Several people advised me against the company in question and then Tom Furey had said if we could get a team together he would be happy to lead it. On our summit day climbing Karbu Ri, my second unclimbed peak, Tom had been on my rope along with Dorje Sherpa and Catherine. It was largely down to his patience and skilful encouragement that we both reached the top and so I was thrilled at the opportunity of another trip with him.
Catherine was also in Kathmandu so, soon after arriving at our hotel, I phoned her to arrange a quick catch up as I knew she had a meeting that evening and the next morning we would be leaving on an early flight to Lukla. By our evening meal our team of 12 were already bonding. Phil ran a group of like minded individuals, called ‘Three Peaks and Beyond’ and he had employed Tom to instruct them on a scrambling course and now he and two other members, Steve and Damian were part of Tom’s Mera team. Three brothers were long standing friends of Tom and had brought along their Londoner friend, Gary, who shared their crazy sense of humour. They were only known by their nicknames, Neil was Nelly and Mike had been known as Nuis, short for Nuisance, since childhood as he was the youngest sibling. They called Tom a variety of nicknames but most often called him ‘Youth’, a fitting name as he is much older and wiser than his youthful 27 years. Matt, a friend of Tom and Chris, also answered to a number of nicknames, mainly ‘Coco’ following a clown like fall and ‘Forest’ after he pointed out a line of people trekking up a distant hillside only to have it pointed out to him in fact they were trees ! He also told us as a youngster he was known as ‘Snowball’ as he was the only white boy living in his street in Dudley. Chris was keen to give out nicknames to the rest of the team and Andy who had been a body builder became known as Conan (the Barbarian) or Eric for some unknown reason. His girl friend, Olivia became ‘Bambi’ as she bounded up the hillside.
Later in my own room, having managed to repack into a single kitbag leaving anything remotely surplus to requirements behind, I felt sad again and spoke to my daughters on Whatsapp admitting to them through my tears I had no idea what I was doing here.
We had an early start next morning and were handed disappointing breakfast boxes although I managed to swap my hard boiled egg for a second sandwich before we set off to the chaos of Kathmandu airport for our flight to Lukla. We piled up our still over weight kit bags and rucksacks and then formed a circle around them as we waited and waited.
People wandered off and bought coffee but as minutes turned to hours nothing happened other than more and more people arriving, more piles of kit bags being formed and everyone waiting for something to happen. Eventually an official beckoned us over and at last they started weighing our luggage. Several of us had stowed our big boots into our ‘hand luggage’ rucksacks but for the first time ever according to Tom, they chose to weigh our total luggage and we were all promptly fined $10 each. Finally we moved on through to ‘Departures’ where we bought more coffee and dozed on hard chairs as more and more people flooded into the room although there was no sign of any actual departures. Very soon Steve was asleep sitting up on his chair, a pose he would be found in many times in next couple of weeks.
After several hours we finally boarded the tiny 15 seater plane and prepared for take off behind the pilot separated from us by just a curtain. It was deafening as he revved and revved the engine until the whole plane was vibrating and virtually rearing up on the brakes, then suddenly we were speeding down the runway and almost immediately were airborne. I was disappointed to be in a middle seat but still the views to our left were stunning as we flew along side the mountains. Suddenly Tom shouted back at me pointing out Karbu Ri, our peak from November 2016. I was too slow to get out my camera but seeing it was an amazing experience. All too soon, suddenly our speed slowed until it almost felt like we were hanging in the air but as we landed it was still incredibly fast as the brakes screeched and the plane spun on the corner at the top of the unbelievably short runway. Lukla’s reputation as one of the most dangerous runways in the world was not unfounded.
The town of Lukla is basically one street and it is like a tiny upmarket version of Kathmandu. We had lunch at a hotel and then were free to wander around before meeting again at 2pm for the ‘short 3 km walk’ up to our first tea house. The path was immediately uphill as we climbed out of Lukla and crossed 2 suspension bridges but it was good to be walking. To start with it was fine although the pace of the others was faster than I was happy with but the hill was relentless and at times very steep. On and on we went, it seemed like forever and by the last half hour I was struggling. I’m sure it was much further than the 3km we were promised ! Eventually, tired and gasping, we reached Chutanga Teahouse which became nicknamed Chattanooga Choo Choo.
It was a rough tea house with soil floors in the rooms and the most horrendous stench eminating from the horrible long drop. Now I learned Steve was to be my room mate and Damien and Phil commiserated with me as they laughed and warned me about his infamous snoring. As I sorted out my stuff I realised I had left my fleece hat in Kathmandu but Steve kindly lent me a sensible one opting to wear his ‘silly one’ himself. The main room had a wood burner in the middle with benches and tables around the edge but the large lady in charge had plonked herself on a plastic chair in front of the fire where she sat blowing bubblegum bubbles. Several of our group were feeling ill with headaches and Forest was already asleep lying stretched out on one of the benches but looking pale and ill. The brothers and Gary did not join us until dinner was being served but we then learnt they had bought a jetboil with them and had been cooking noodles and making tea and bovril in their room. They had their own supplementary food supply which was amazing and included chorizo and even jif lemon to make lemon tea and Bovril. I vowed to follow their example on future trips or if camping. Our evening meal was not great and barely warm but given the conditions our hosts were cooking under I felt our group’s moaning was a bit unfair. We met Guiness, our Sirdar, and although his English was not great he seemed very pleasant. Our other guides were Chile, Dorje and someone’s whose name sounded like Miaow and when this was explained to him he kept mewing like a cat which was to become quite disconcerting when we were trekking though the forest.
Soon after dinner we retired to our rooms which were freezing and I regretted us not being in tents which would have been so much warmer with the limited air space to warm. I struggled to get to sleep thinking about home and then slept only fitfully as strange dreams filled my head . Apparently I was talking in my sleep and although Steve, my room mate, slept through it I woke up our neighbours in the adjacent rooms. Steve also had a bad night getting up loads of times to have a wee and then suffering from diarrhoea but he managed not to wake me on any of his excursions outside. I did sleep despite his snoring which alternated between a gentle hum punctuated with something more like an angry walrus ! Steve was lovely and we were already getting on well so sharing a room was not going to any problem for either of us.
Tuesday morning we woke to sound of anguished voices outside. It had snowed in the night which was not only not forecast, but a month earlier than expected at this altitude which did not bode well for our summit attempt.
Setting out on our acclimatisation climb, our pace was slow but steady and the weather cold and gloomy. I was feeling tired but thankfully was avoiding the headaches which several of the team were suffering from. Early on I was dropping back but half way through the morning was in the front of our group. Scrambling up the damp rocks and in the mist my skinny gloves were soaked and my fingers cold. Too late I tried to force wet rigid bent fingers into my Rab gloves. Lesson learnt ! We met a group whose leader was known to Tom and they told us how they had summitted Mera and conditions had been ‘good’. We congratulated them profusely and now for each of us summiting began to seem a realistic possibility. Eventually we stopped by a big rock and rested for while before setting off again hoping to gain Tom’s ‘magic’ altitude gain of 500 metres a day. Now the path was very steep but I was coping fine.
After about an hour we stopped again which I thought was for a rest but Tom announced this was our highest point for today. We sat on the rocks eating snacks and relaxing in order to spend some time at the altitude before heading back down through the misty forest. Going down was easy and everyone was more chatty. Andy started telling us about how he intended to summit Everest unsupported and from the North side. This from someone with no comprehension of high altitude mountaineering although he had trained very hard for this trip and clearly was very competitive and determined. We all felt he was naïve and possessed a dangerous arrogance as he did not yet realise mountaineering was not just about physical prowess. It began as a discussion but things soon became tense and awkward and Andy did not appreciate Chris’ forthright attitude. Phil, Tom and I tried hard to be diplomatic and discourage Chris from ‘pissing on his fireworks’ but Chris is a 100% genuine person and you can always rely on him to be completely honest and ‘say it how it is.’ I loved this about him and found it amusing although Andy was clearly offended. As we descended the group spread out again and the tensions were relieved. Later I found myself chatting to Tom and Chris about my previous expeditions and some of the issues I had faced especially on Elbrus and for the first time started to think about it it a different light. Back at Chatunga teahouse it was not long before Andy was asleep cuddled up to Olivia in the main room. This would become standard, as soon as we got in to any tea house or whenever he got the opportunity Andy would sleep. At dinner we were joined by a group of Ukranians and Russians who asked us to join them singing Happy Birthday to one of their team members.
The next morning we rose at 6am in time for breakfast at 6.30am, planning to set off towards Zatra La at 7am. We knew this was going to be a tough day and I tried to doubled up on breakfast but did not manage to force down all my second pancake. Again it was misty and cold and it did not seen too long before we had reached our high point from yesterday so the acclimatisation walk had obviously been beneficial. I was going slowly intentionally but was worried I may be holding the others back although I understood the wisdom of a slow pace and conserving energy while acclimatising. We plodded on upwards and I realised Matt was struggling. As he was not drinking much I tried to encourage him to keep sipping his water. By now Andy had gone off ahead and then Olivia followed him but the rest of the group stuck pretty much together although Phil and Damian were a little way ahead, then Steve, then the brothers with Gary followed by Tom, Matt and myself at the back. Now we were on a very slippery staircase of icy rocks stretching infinitely upwards into the gloom and it took all our concentration to try to climb safely.
It was very cold and my Camelbac pipe and mouthpiece had frozen. Matt was breathing heavily and shook his head in desperation as he struggled. I fell in slow step beside him and told him he was my buddy and so he had to get me up the hill as well as down safely and we would do it together. He was angry with himself as he had previously climbed beyond 5500 metres without any problems. Nuis, Chris, Nelly and Gary were great at the back taking me and Matt under their collective wing and were very encouraging. Tom was doing an amazing job as leader and seemed to know instinctively when to kick ass and when to hang back and let the others take the strain. He encouraged us to rest frequently but to move on again quickly. It was a relentless climb and in the gloom our leaden legs became heavier and heavier and our pace slowed. My mind was empty and I simply concentrated on reaching the pass and helping Matt. Now I was angry with myself as clearly I was not fit enough and I had only myself to blame. I kept talking to Matt as much to motivate myself as him and divided the climb into small attainable targets. We had seen no views all day and finally the top was in sight and we could see the prayer flags at the ‘summit’ but it was still a long way ahead and never seemed to get any closer. I struggled to remain positive for Matt’s sake and kept assuring him we were doing this together and so so slowly the fluttering flags became more distinct and grew larger as we approached the pass. Gritting my teeth and taking Matt’s arm as the path turned slightly to the left I silently resolved to make it to the pass ‘in a oney’ with no more stops. Step, step, heavy step, so slowly but surely and then …………. we were there under the flags and Matt and I touched the stone cairn together. Managing a weak smile, I turned to him and declared, “We’ve f***ing done it!” Relief flooded over me and I immediately felt fine, no nausea, no headache, just very tired legs. WE HAD MADE IT. Chris shouted out to me to do a dance and I performed a silly jig flailing my arms around and whooping.
The others had already moved on and as I glanced ahead the awful truth hit me like a bolt. We were not at the pass. Ahead we could see a path winding its way steadily upwards and around the crater, we still had a long, long way to go. There followed lots of ascents and false summits but the going was easier now and when we finally reached the pass I almost walked straight through it, although when Chris came over and hugged me I felt tearful. Then we were heading downwards, down, down, down on a rocky path and then zigzagging across a slippery scree slope. It was horrible as I was tired and very worried about slipping but I was running on empty and on ‘autopilot’. Mechanically I took step after step in a daze and not thinking about anything. Now Nuis had taken over responsibility for Coco and was helping him down towards the teahouse.
As we neared Thuli Kharka wisps of juniper smoke curled into the misty air as they kept juniper burning all day at the teahouse. We were greeted by a small Papillon type dog and went up the steps into a very warm dining room where Phil had already bought a flask of tea. I ordered another one and we all sat around in a daze drinking tea in silence, all exhausted. Someone opened the door leading into the corridor and we were hit by the icy blast. We ate our lunch at 3.30pm and at the same time chose our dinner which was to be served at 7.00pm. The menus in all the teahouse were fairly standard and I usually opted for fried potatoes with cheese which seemed like a safe bet but for this evening I chose to try the fried vegetable momos, still avoiding any meat. I struggled to eat much as I was so exhausted and feeling a bit nauseous now. After lunch I purchased some Wifi and found I had received 33 emails and Natasha had sent Paul’s Post Mortem report. I retreated into the freezing bedroom and, as there was no electricity, read the report under the light of my head torch. It was harrowing reading and I cried for a while and felt very selfish that Natasha and Rebecca were dealing with all this on their own and I questioned again if I should have come on the trip. I contacted them via Facebook and WhatsApp but somehow that made the isolation seem worse
The squat pot toilet at the end of the corridor was horrible, the floor an icy sheet of frozen urine with coins frozen into it. Later that night when I got up at 3am to use the toilet I found it had been cleaned and the coins were gone !
At dinner we sang Happy Birthday to the same member of the Russian and Ukanian team and it seemed they were saying that according to their traditions they would sing Happy Birthday every day for 10 days. Guiness then gave us a pep talk and insisted that from tomorrow we must stick together and work better as a team. His comments were clearly directed to Andy and Olivia but I was not sure the message had sunk in. Soon after we had all retired into the freezing rooms there was a commotion and the crashing sounds of heavy beds being moved together. With a knowing look we guessed it was from Andy and Olivia’s room although it was probably just in an attempt to keep warm.
When he got up Steve checked his Oxygen Saturation level and was depressed to find it only 67%. Suffering from asthma as well as struggling with the altitude was tough but he then realised he had forgotten to take his Diamox last night and immediately downed 2 tablets. At breakfast I had ordered ‘Sherpa Bread’ but again could only manage half of it. As we went outside we were surprised to find a warm sunny morning and wandering around a collie type had joined the ratty little dog we had met yesterday.
I hastily applied suncream and attached my solar panels to my rucksack to charge my Powermonkey but within 5 minutes the cloud had rolled in and and it was freezing again. It was a tough start immediately heading up hill along a rocky trail and again the pace was too fast for me. I was depressed that I was not doing as well as I had hoped. Steve was struggling too so I concentrated on sticking to a slow pace for him and encouraged him to take small steps and to zig zag.
At a rest stop I dropped my ‘virtually indestructable’ Nalgene bottle and broke the lid which was hugely frustrating as I would need it for summit day as it fitted into an insulated case and I knew my Camelbac would quickly freeze. After a while we were heading through a rhodedendron forest on an icy rocky path, down, down, down. It was a beautiful trail and despite the ice I was coping well. Phil was not so lucky having fallen over twice and then, where it seemed safe, my concentration lapsed for a second and I slipped over. “2:1,” I called out to Phil and within 5 minutes I slipped over again, 2 all ! Steve had been taking Diamox on his last few expeditions after huge problems on Aconcagua. Phil commented that he believed in a ‘clean body’ policy for himself, he was convinced that a good diet and exercise routine was all that was needed. I think I offended him when I said that that alone could not prepare everyone for a challenge like this. Despite seeming to scorn the use of drugs he took my comments in good heart.
The group had become quite spread out but as I came to a corner into a bit of the clearing in the rhodedendrons I found Damien staring intently into the misty distance. He told me Andy and Olivia, who had rushed off ahead of the team again, had actually seen and photographed Mera Peak from here. Damien had already been waiting a while for the skies to clear. Soon he gave up and moved on and I waited a while myself, glad of the rest. Slowly the cloud progressed across the sky and a mountain came into view but the guides told us it was not Mera which remained stubbornly enveloped in cloud.
I too moved on and continued the steady down hill plod. After a while I realised I was starving as I had not managed much breakfast and stopped to eat a cereal bar but it turned out I was only 10 minutes short of the teahouse.
By the time I arrived at the tea house Andy was already asleep having ignored Guiness’s instructions and rushed here with Olivia ahead of the team. Every day he would sleep during our lunch break and again as soon as he reached our teahouse where we would be staying overnight. We had a long rest for lunch in the cold, draughty tea house and as we came out in the snowy air it felt like we had spent too long there. The wind was bitter and cut into us as we continued down, down, down towards the river. My back suddenly felt icy cold as I realised my leaking Nalgene bottle had soaked my clothes and so now I had to carry it. It was drizzling now and cold so I put on my paramo but very soon I was too hot and had to drop a layer and vent the jacket as I don’t function well if I am too warm.
One of the porters had taken Steve’s daysack and now he was finding the going so much easier. I was also coping much better this afternoon but suddenly a wave of tiredness enveloped me but on we trudged and finally we were at the foot of the valley and trekking alongside the river. It was a lovely walk but each uphill section was a struggle.
After lunch Andy and Olivia had sped off ahead of the team again and although Tom did not condone their actions, he had not tried to stop them going off without guides. By 3.30pm the rest of us had reached Moson Kharka (3691m) and very quickly Steve was asleep sitting up at the table. He certainly was an excellent power napper ! It had been a good day and I realised I was very happy, relaxed and content although I felt bad that I was not wracked with guilt about leaving Natasha, Rebecca and Wendy to cope with everything at home. I was still in shock and struggling to believe the reality of Paul’s sudden death and the fact I was now thousands of miles away in the Himalayas
At this teahouse the rooms were cold and draughty with holes in the walls but the dining area which was reached up a steep set of wooden stairs was very warm with a large stove and plenty of strings to dry towels and clothing.
For two days I had been trying to dry my socks and gloves on the back of my rucksack which had failed totally in the damp misty air so it was good to dry them out properly. While his team mates slept or just chilled out writing journals or reading, Phil had done some washing and ‘treated’ himself to a shower where the water was heater by a tiny gas boiler. The lack of washing water did not bother me, in fact I rather enjoyed it although I did miss the routine of washing my feet as soon as we got into camp on my previous trips when we had been staying in tents. Looking after your feet is way more important on expeditions than washing elsewhere and every day I was carefully drying my feet and applying loads of foot powder. I bought some wifi and was delighted to have received a message from Jen and her son, Mark. Jen’s husband Tim had died in August and I dedicated my trip to him and was raising money for the hospice who had cared so well for him in his last few weeks. Coco (another of Matt or Forest’s) nicknames had had a good day and Tom described him as ‘a new man on drugs’ now he was taking Diamox. It was a long afternoon waiting for dinner and while Coco, Nelly and Steve slept everyone else relaxed and some of the others followed Phil’s example by braving the ‘shower’ Later the banter started up and Phil became labelled as ‘Dobbie’ which seemed fitting as he organised his ‘housekeeping’ tasks.
Outside the dining room was a roofed area with a phone which seemed to ring constantly day and night, and there was a charging point but as it was exposed to the elements and froze at night it was pretty useless. We all retired to bed and I thought again how much I would rather be in a cosy tent ! Although I woke several times in the night I got back off to sleep quickly and despite some weird dreams involving Damian I woke feeling well rested. At breakfast Tom informed us he had made the decision to stay put today as several people were struggling a bit and he felt a day resting and not gaining altitude would do us all good. I completely understood the sense in this but was disappointed as I knew doing nothing all day would mess with my head. Suddenly a wave of sadness swept over me and I felt tearful and lonely. I was not in a good place and half of me wanted to be alone and half craved to be embedded within the supportive team. I went to buy more wifi although I weirdly wished it was not an option. It was easier to accept being out of contact when you had no option rather than knowing you could get in touch but when I needed to talk everyone I wanted to contact would have been asleep anyway. Feeling low and miserable I sent some emails and was pleased to get an almost immediate reply from Elysse in the States. Although an amazingly accomplished mountaineer who had since summitted Everest, Elyse had been very supportive when I had met her on Elbrus and talking to her came easily. I sent off an email pouring out my heart to her. Gary came over and asked if I wanted to join him, the brothers and Damian for a gentle stroll along the river and I jumped at the chance immediately feeling better for being included. Nelly was a keen photographer and had purchsed a new mobile for the trip on the strength of the quality of the camera. Every day he took loads of pictures and today would be no exception. I sincerely hoped he would be sharing them once we were home. We set off wandering along the rocky path and looking around the beautiful scenery we felt priviliged to be here.
We were chatting happily when suddenly the air was filled with the juddering noise of a helicopter and looking back we saw it landing at our tea house. This was always a sobering sight. No one we had met after the group on Day 1 had successfully summited and later we would learn the helicopter was picking up someone who had made it to Base Camp but had got into difficulties there and been rapidly escorted down the mountain to Moson Kharka. We watched in silence as it rose back into the sky and turned away down the valley, each of us thinking our own thoughts. Soon our mood lifted again and conversations sprang up as we wandered down the path in this beautiful valley and a couple of vibrant orange butterflies danced around us. Looking up at Mera Peak far, far away we took pictures of each other pointing to ‘our’ peak.
I was chatting away with Gary when the subject of a healthy diet came up. Suddenly my thoughts turned to Paul’s diet which had never been good, unable to control the tears I hastily struck off to a big rock away from the track and sat there crying quietly. After a while I had collected my thoughts and felt able to head back to Gary who had moved on only a short distance and smiled gently at me saying nothing but I felt the warmth of his kindness and again realised how lucky I was to be part of this lovely, compassionate team. We wandered on, the group breaking up, splitting into pairs or individuals and then reforming, every one mixing easily and every one feeling relaxed and content. Nuis and Nelly had got ahead now and were lazing on rocks in the sun admiring the view. Walking on my own I climbed up onto a rock and stood for ages looking at the water and watching delightful purple wren like birds hopping around at the rivers edge. Another orange butterfly landed on my rock and as it fluttered off I sat down and continued to drink in the soothing atmosphere of the gurgling river. I was feeling so much better now, healed by the tranquil water, my mind empty but I knew my head was in a good place. Grateful for the therapeutic effect of the water I got to my feet and slowly headed back towards the teahouse. Looking up, I saw Andy striding out coming towards me, his walking poles angrily striking the rocks as he hurried along. As he drew near I noticed how rough he was looking and thought he was being foolish pushing himself so hard and against advice. I knew his attitude must be a very real worry for Tom and I was concerned he would burn out before summit day. He told me he was heading to the lake and was annoyed Guiness had initially sent him in the wrong direction. I watched his figure quickly receed into the distance as he carried on head down in rigid determination.
Coming back through the village I was able to purchase a new Nalgene bottle for 1000R. Back at the tea house I joined some of the others relaxing in the warm sun and when they told me they were waiting for chips I quickly ordered my own. While I was waiting I checked my emails, apologised to Elyse for my earlier miserable message and thanked her for her kind response and encouragement. Suddenly I shivered as I realised the cloud had rolled in and now it was cold and dull. I pulled on my windproof but soon decided as it was nearly lunch time, I would head indoors but was disappointed to find it was even colder there as the fire had not yet been lit. Tom came in and announced Matt had HAPE (high altitude pulmonary oedema) and would be evacuated by helicopter tomorrow. His words were met by total SILENCE. We were all stunned. Finally Phil spoke, “ It really brings it home to you.” he said quietly. We all understood exactly what he meant and sat silently each lost in our own thoughts. Lunch, when it came, was a subdued affair but for the first time I managed to eat all my meal of potato soup and chips. Obviously a day resting at the same altitude was doing me good. After lunch Steve who was feeling better asked if I fancied a very gentle wander down to the shrine which had been pointed out to us the day before. We wandered down slowly armed only with our cameras and carefully negotiated the rocky path across the stream chatting happily.
We jointly decided to challenge ourselves to take the short flight of stone steps to the shrine ‘in a oney’ albeit very slowly. It was cold and damp but the misty air gave the intersting place a slightly ethereal atmosphere. Nepalese shrines always felt very special peaceful places although we did not understand the significance of the neat piles of flat stones or the heiroglyphics.
Steve was good company and I appreciated being asked to join him on our stroll. As we arrived back I offered to buy him a hot chocolate which he gladly accepted. However, as I only had high denomination notes which no one could break down for me and the teahouse had no ‘change’ he ended up having to pay himself !
Matt spent some of the afternoon with the rest of us in the dining room and was looking a bit better, even joking about trying not to fall out of the helicopter as it took off and maybe having to sell his body in Kathmandu to raise his fare home ! I felt very sorry for Tom realising how hard this must be for him. He also spent a lot of the afternoon having a hushed conversation with Olivia who seemed to be having issues. Olivia had a 5 year old daughter at home and leaving her behind while undertaking such a dangerous challenge was causing her great anguish. Added to this her relationship with Andy seemed to be becoming quite strained. Apparently she was considering joining Matt in the helicopter and heading back to Kathmandu and home. For dinner I had ordered mixed chow main noodle soup but when it arrived I could stomach very little of it although overall my appetite had been slightly better than on some of my previous trips. Here in Nepal the teahouses now all offered very similar fare and plenty of carbohydrate heavy options revolving around potatoes cooked in various ways, eggs and cheese. The thought came into my head that we would only be staying in two further teahouses before our summit attempt. Time was passing too quickly. I was very content in this cosy bubble in the wilds of Nepal and did not want this adventure to end.
Next morning the plan was for the team to set off with the guides leaving Tom and Matt behind and then Tom would catch us up after Matt had left on the helicopter. However we were all still there when the now familiar whirr of the rotor blades filled the sky and we were able to see Matt off, promising to get the summit for him. We took in stunned silence, giving him a ‘thumbs up’ as we watched the helicopter rise up and disappear into the valley. Tom looked shattered having sat up all night with Matt to keep him upright as the pulmonary oedema meant he could not safely lie down as fluid filled his lungs. Tom must have been devastated to have had to evacuate his friend and lovely team member.
It was a subdued team who set off retracing our steps from yesterday along the rocky path beside the river but it was not long before I felt my mood lift. I could not help but feel positive about life in this serene place.
Yesterday and today I had been thinking about Paul’s funeral and had already written his eulolgy in my head. Although a desperately sad thing to be thinking about I felt happy in myself and here my head was clear and it was easy to put my thoughts into words. After such a devastating event it was hard to understand how good I was feeling and the peace this trek was giving me.
After a while we heard a helicopter again and realised another climber was being evacuated from Mosum Kharka. Olivia was struggling a great deal today and had a crushing head ache. Andy had got ahead of group early on but when he saw Olivia had sat down he came back to take her rucksack and help her. The rest of the day he stuck with the group and gently encouraged Olivia. Beside the path I saw a pretty blue alpine flower, certain I would see others I did not photograph it and so was disappointed not to see any more. My head was in a very good place and I felt soothed by the tranquility of water which always made me feel better and today it was good to feel the warmth of the sun. A yellow butterfly fluttered past and I watched a large bird on a rock preening himself enjoying the sunshine. We were climbing steadily and I was coping well, having gained 370 metres we stopped at a teahouse for tea and biscuits bought for us by Tom which we all appreciated. Later we climbed steep steps to a shrine where Guiness pointed out a natural rock formation in a cave which accurately depicted the main Himalayan peaks in minature form. It was amazing and seemed surreal. We passed by massive boulders and photographed a beautiful frozen waterfall.
The terrain became steeper and steeper and then there were a series of small hillocks that seemed to go forever. At one point we were mocked by a darting crow maybe trying to distract us from his mate or maybe young. I was loving today and it was only in the last half an hour that I started to feel tired. Steve was also feeling much better today and doing well although today it was Phil’s turn to feel rough and he was very aware of the altitude gain.
The teahouse at Thagnag (4356m) was newly built and smart but very cold. Almost as soon as we had arrived the mist rolled in as it did every day and any views of the massive mountains we were surrounded by were lost in the cold cloud. Right at the edge of the mist we watched a bird of prey effortlessly drifting in and out of the gloom. It was a very long wait for lunch and waiting for my cheese pizza I realised I was starving although when it finally came I was disappointed. Olivia still had an awful headache and soon after lunch she was asleep stretched out on the bench. Andy, who was always asleep if he wasn’t exercising or eating, was also sleeping. I found my notepad and effortlessly wrote out Paul’s eulogy which I had been composing in my head, the words flowing easily onto the page. Later in the afternoon Tom read the messages we had received on the tracker. I was pleased to hear from my work colleagues and also received a message from home which included a clever grammatical joke from Daniel (Natasha’s boyfriend who is a Barrister’s Clerk and a bit of a grammar nazi) about a semi colon who broke the law and got two consectutive sentences. It made me smile and I felt close to my family.
In the morning I was disorganised and slow to get going but was still ready to leave at 8am as planned. I was already panicking as Tom had told us we would be load carrying because the porters would not be able to go onto the glacier. This was a massive blow to my morale and I was questioning the point of going on at all. On Karbu Ri I had only managed a few yards with my full kit and I was certain I would be unable to manage to load carry this time. It was difficult to motivate myself to get going and I was immediately struggling as my head was in a bad, negative place. I slowed my pace and dropped back to join Chris. “ Hey Mate, I’m needing a kick up my arse,” I explained. Chris was lovely and always knew the right thing to say, he gave me a hug and teasingly told me I needed to get my arse in gear but was kind and compassionate.
Chris was a great team member with a wicked sense of humour and revelled in telling us tales of pranks he had been involved in. When the police had refused to close the road to enable a friend’s funeral cortege to progress unhindered he had driven the route just before the funeral and covered all the traffic lights along the route with black bin bags. Early on in the trek he had seen a poorly translated sign stating ‘Red Pandas Available’ and at every opportunity he mentioned this, jokingly asking what they were available for ! Phil had dropped back now and also reassured me. I told him how I had been to a talk by Ant Middleton (of ‘SAS Who Dares Wins’ fame) and been hugely inspired by him. He had explained the concept of a ‘Fear Bubble’ where you break down situations into components and then only allow yourself to be fearful for very brief periods of time when it is really justified. This simplistic attitude made complete sense and it could be applied to so many situations and not just the truly dangerous exploits of the SAS. Trying to rationalise my fears and strengthened by the support of my team mates I almost immediately started to feel better and soon was making steady uphill progress following the river valley. We were certainly a good team and most of us appreciated the importance of the bond between us which meant so much.
After a while we were walking on the grey sand of a ‘beach’ along side the river and then later on a rocky path high above it. It was stunning scenery and just looking around I realised just how lucky we were to be here and now my head was in a good place again. Often today we all walked in silence and even the brothers and Gary were quiet but several times Olivia and I found ourselves walking together and we chatted easily. She told me she feels she is an emotional wreck but in reality we are all facing and fighting our own demons on this expedition.
I felt I was doing well overall, always taking it slowly but steadily, and although I would gradually drop back I would usually catch up with the forerunners when they stopped to rest. I was happy, happy, happy plodding on. On the uphill stretch gradually pulling away from the river I was carefully watching the rugged path under my feet when I glanced to the side and noticed far in the distance the snow covered North face of Mera Peak rising into the sky.
Clouds sped across the sky round the summit and we realised the wind speed must be ferocious at the top. For ages Mera Peak remained in our view and we all kept glancing at it in disbelief that its summit could ever be attainable. Eventually we turned a corner and it was lost from our view although from here though far ahead, finally we could just make out our tea house. Before heading for it we had a long rest and Gary was soon dozing in the sun. Here we watched large black birds and were mobbed by them. An intense discussion ensued as to whether they were choughs or crows.
After a long time relaxing we struck off up a very steep 60 metre ascent. It was very tough and soon I was gasping for breath. Once we had breached the top there was a short downhill section and then another ascent and another and another as we continued going up and then down again and again but overall gradually gaining height. I was tired now but coping ok despite having to stop to catch my breath. Finally Khare came into view and with renewed vigor we strode out towards it.
Now I was at the back but fine going at my own slow pace. Onward and upward but the village never seemed to get any nearer and the gap between myself the rest of the team widened as I went slower and slower. After what seemed like an age I finally reached the ten steep steps leading up to the recently built teahouse. I was completely spent and stared at them for a moment before resolutely raising my foot up onto the 1st step followed by the other foot and then resting before double stepping each step. “I’d better be sleeping downstairs !” I announced. I staggered into the teahouse exhausted and out of breath and collapsed onto the bench by the window. The sun was shining through the window onto my back and almost immediately I felt great, delighted to have reached almost 5000 metres. This was the teahouse which boasted the German Bakery we had seen advertised at the last teahouse at Thagnag which was owned by the same person. The poster had showed a lavish display of delicious looking cakes although the reality was a disappointing choice of three very dry looking cakes but there was a hot chocolate machine ! The others had already ordered hot chocolate and cakes but I decided to wait for my lunch. I regretted that decision as we waited and waited for it to arrive which in the end was two hours later.
Having done nothing since arriving at the teahouse after lunch I went to our room to sort out my kit, lay out my sleeping bag, change into thermals under my clothes ready for bed and prepare for tomorrow which despite being a rest day I had also designated it as a Clean T Shirt Day ! It was hard to believe we would only have one more night in a teahouse before heading to Base Camp and then High Camp before the summit. From here we could see our summit but as we watched the high clouds rushing across the sky it seemed unlikely a summit attempt would be possible with such high winds.
Nobody had summited for 6 days now and the guides spoke of rumours of 150 mph winds at the summit ! Later we heard that High Camp had been obliterated. Everyone we had met who were coming down we had asked about conditions higher up and one German lady had said to Chris and Nelly it was ‘f**ing, f***ing, f***ing, f***ing cold’!!
Despite my worries about reaching Base Camp and the prospect of load carrying I was feeling good and in a very positive frame of mind. This was exactly where I needed to be. My appetite was not great although better than it had been and some of my previous trips. I was in a routine now of omlette and toast for breakfast, although a few days ago I had enjoyed the Tibetan Bread, and either fried potatoes or chips with cheese for my other meals and soup when it was available. The cheese pizza I had tried had not been very nice so now, simply thinking only of getting enough calories in, I stuck to what I thought I would be able to eat. It was a boring diet but I didn’t care. I planned to have cake for dessert tonight but when it came to it I could not even finish my first course. Although I was struggling to get to sleep and waking frequently in the night I was feeling rested and doing ok. I spent my afternoon relaxing, writing my diary and purchased wifi again to contact home. It was cosy in the dining area now the fire was lit and suddenly I noticed the whole room was bathed in an orange hue. Looking out of the window we were treated to a fabulous sunset and most of us went outside to watch the sun go down and Nelly, our own ‘David Bailey of Mera Peak’, took some amazing photos.
At 1am I woke with an urgent need to wee and the moonlight was so bright it was like day and I did not need to use my headtorch. I felt slightly nauseous as the parafin fumes in the toilet filled my nostrils. In most teahouses the toilet floors were dowsed with parafin in the hope they would not freeze and become dangerously icy but here it reaked more strongly than ever. It felt like only a short time later that Steve woke me up to tell me it was 10 to 8 and nearly time for breakfast. Soon after breakfast we heard a helicopter coming in which was worrying but it turned out 3 French people who did not get on with the rest of their team had chosen to fly out rather than walk out with them. Chris and Tom had talked to various guides and had learned that Advance Camp had indeed been obliterated and now Sherpas had gone down and dismantled Base Camp planning to take the tents to Advance Camp to rebuild it. However it had been too windy and now they were on their way down again. Looking up we could still see how fast the clouds were moving. We also heard how we had been the last team to get to Lukla as the weather had been so bad no flights had been possible and as many as 38 teams were still stuck in Kathmandu. Up here we had experienced two clear days so it had been lovely to actually see the views and we had been blessed by stunning sunsets.
Today was a rest day but we had the option to go up to some prayer flags at a view point behind the teahouse. I was keen to do something and carrying just some water, set off with Damian, Phil, Nelly, Nuis and Andy. It was very steep at first and very windy.
Immediately Andy defied our instructions to ‘take it easy’ and strode out ahead. I worried about how far he would go and what risks he would take. There were amazing views all around us of mighty peaks, rugged ridges and glistening glaciers. Looking up at Mera we saw massive seracs hanging from the face although thankfully we would approaching from ’round the back’.
To our left we looked down the other side of the ridge to see a rubbish dump on the glacial moraine which was disappointing and we wondered whether it would be burnt or just remain there for ever.
A stone cairn marked 5000 metres and then we trudged on up to prayer flags where we took photos and rested for a while. Andy had long since disappeared from view and we scanned the distant ridges wondering how far he had gone. We saw people on Mera glacier but quickly realised they were coming down. Nuis and Nelly decided to stay put but Damien, Phil and I carried on a bit further to the top where we found many of the pillars made from piles of flat stones decreasing in size.
We were delighted to come across Andy here who very sensibly had been resting there for an hour. Having ascended 300 metres, which was plenty on a rest day, we sat down to drink, have a snack, enjoy the view and most of all acclimatise to the altitude while relaxing together. On the way down we met two Russians who had the same plan as us. They congratulated us on our good English and assumed therefore we must all be Londoners ! One of them had spent some time in London working at Lloyds.
I had enjoyed my morning and was very glad to have made it up to the beautiful view point although it seemed a very long way back down. We arrived back to find the guides were wanting to check everyone’s kit for the glacier and the summit and they had organised rope work and abseil practice after lunch. The plan now would be to head straight for Advance Camp tomorrow, in effect a double day, rest there in the tents which hopefully would have been erected and go for the summit in the early hours of Wednesday morning. It was still very windy even at this altitude and the wind howled in short bursts tearing washing off the roofs of the houses. Looking up towards Mera Peak the clouds still sped by at great speed and as the temperature dropped and snow came mixed into the wind, things did not look good for any summit attempt at all.
The abseiling practice was fun although I did not lean back far enough so was not very good at it, unlike Damien who was deemed ‘excellent’ and Gary received a round of applause for his efforts. Suddenly Nuis gave a sudden gasp and we turned around to see him retreating at great speed down the hill. Minutes later Chris followed him. Later Chris recounted his experience of only just reaching the toilet in time and his graphic description contained way too much information. Nuis had been less fortunate and not made it in time ! Nelly had been suffering with a dodgy gut for several days and had not been able to eat much of anything other than eggs. Although lean at the start of the trek his trousers now hung from him and he looked smaller than ever cocooned in his massive yellow and blue down jacket which was the envy of everyone. Back at the teahouse I sorted my summit kit again and again, finding decision making impossible but was grateful to hear there was a possibility of the Sherpas carrying our big boots to the glacier for us. I was feeling great now with my head in a good place and thinking only of the present. Tomorrow was another day and I would face that when the time came.
I returned to the dining room where the stove was lit although it was not throwing out much heat, I ordered hot chocolate and cheesy bread and bought some wifi. Now Matt was not with him, Tom had abandoned his plan for paragliding and had a large stock of Rupees so we were all able to visit the Bank of Tom to exchange our dollars. Tom had been waiting for news of Matt and today had heard he was out of hospital in Kathmandu but was not going to be allowed to fly home for a week as he was not fit to fly on an international flight. It was at least good news he had been discharged from hospital. Tom, Gary, Nuis and Chris were playing cards, Damien and Steve were reading and Phil was scribbling furiously into the notebook I had lent him when he had asked if any one had a piece of paper. As I wrote my own diary I hoped he wouldn’t have used it all if I filled this notebook and needed more paper myself. Olivia as always was on her phone and we assumed Andy would be asleep. The couple seemed better now although no longer as lovey dovey as at the beginning of the trip. After dinner Tom told us the porters WILL load carry and take our sleeping bags, thermarests and food to Advance Camp. AMAZING NEWS ! A massive weight lifted from my mind. Now I felt even more positive and a little excited about the prospect of getting to Advance Camp but this news necessitated another repack ! Olivia meanwhile had been agonising all day and decided not to head up to Advance Camp. Thinking of her young daughter at home she felt unable to take the risks involved in a summit attempt. I was disappointed for her but completely understood her reservations, I would have felt the same when my girls were small.
As I retired to bed I thought, ‘This is it ! Tomorrow I’ll be kitted out in my big boots and making my way to Advance Camp.’ It really was going to happen. I fell into an unsettled sleep. Next morning came too quickly and after breakfast I was right ready to leave when I tried to shoulder my rucksack.
It was very, very heavy and I realised I had forgotten to empty my Source (water bladder) and so would be carrying an additional 3kg of useless ice ! Angry with myself I attached a further litre of water in my new Nalgene to my ruck sack waist strap. I staggered slightly under the weight but adjusting the waist strap onto my hips I still felt positive. There were very big steps leading steeply out of the village and then a very steep climb onto the ridge. I was struggling but reassured myself that the first half hour was always tough. Once on the ridge the going was easier and I was coping ok albeit slowly although I tired quickly. One of the Sherpas offered to take my rucksack which I gratefully relinguished without hestitation despite feeling it was a bit of a cop out. If this was the help I needed to get myself to the summit of Mera Peak I was happy with it. The path became more and more rocky which was very tough especially in big boots as they allowed no flexion and cut painfully into my shins. I was struggling but doing OK making slow but steady progress. It was all going to work out. Nelly was struggling hugely, he was weak from lack of food and now even the smell of food made him nauseous. We had joked he was a shadow of his former self as his clothes hung from gaunt body but I admired his determination in setting off with the rest of the team towards Advance Camp. I was quite happy going very slowly but my legs were very very tired in my heavy boots even though I was not carrying my rucksack. I looked ahead at the distant glacier glistening but daunting as it rose out of the moraine. I was keeping pace with Nelly and Steve was only a little way ahead of us as we trudged steadily uphill towards the glacier.
It was tough going but I was happy I was making progress although Steve was now drawing ahead as Nelly and I were going slower. Eventually Tom spoke to Nelly and me and asked if we wanted to turn around. I was devastated, another dream about to be shattered because I was too slow. I felt cheated as I had been moving continuously and making progress albeit slowly. Nelly agreed to go down straight away but I asked Tom if he was ‘sending’ me down. “No,” he replied, “It is your decision. But you are going very slowly even though you are not load carrying and remember you will have to load carry on the glacier.” In my heart I was certain I could manage the glacier if only I did not have to load carry although I had always doubted my ability carrying a heavy pack. Fighting back tears of despair I asked Tom’s advice. He told me he would advise me to go down as we still had more than 5 hours to go and we were setting ourselves up for a massive day tomorrow. There would be little chance of much rest let alone sleep during our few hours at Advance Camp before our summit attempt, but he added kindly, “Only you know what you can still achieve physically.” I appreciated his honesty but could not face the decision to just give up and go down. My fitness had let me down again, I was so disappointed in myself. I asked that if I was able to keep up with Steve would he let me go on? Tom said, “Ok” so I took my rucksack back, heaved it onto my back, gritted my teeth and set off again determined to keep up with Steve. I was going as fast as I possibly could and was devastated to see the gap between us widening again. I closed my mind to the reality and carried on just one step at a time. I could do this. I would do this. Head bowed I struggled on resolutely, my mind was empty, just step, step, step. Just like on previous expeditions I knew it was simply a case of one foot in front of the other and keeping going, not letting my mind think about anything except the next step. I raised my gaze momentarily and seeing the massive glacier ahead and the steep climb onto it a wave of fear suddenly swept over me. I knew now I would not manage the glacial load carry. My empty mind flooded with crazy thoughts – What if things went horribly wrong ? What if my children lost both their parents within a fortnight ? Once I had allowed that thought into my head I knew I was beaten. I knew I would have to go down. I called ahead to Tom saying I wanted to turn back.
I knew I simply was not fit enough. I was gutted my head was stronger than my body. Having suffered no ill effects from the altitude at all, it was completely my own fault. So, with massive disappointment in myself, I tearfully hugged Tom and turned around with Chile to retrace my difficult steps back down the mountain. He insisted on carrying my rucksack and left his own behind as he planned to call down to Nelly’s guide to wait for me and then he would head back up to join the others. They were far, far below now and failed to respond to his shouts. I kept assuring Chile I was ok but he insisted in guiding me down until I was off the rocks. Down, down, down. I could not believe how much ground we had covered.
The descent went on and on and finally the very rough path strewn with large rocks gave way to safer rocky terrain and with a clear path visible ahead. Chile gave me back my rucksack and warmly shook my hand. I thanked him for all his help and then we parted company, him heading back up to join the others where I so wanted to be and me, heading back into camp defeated and dejected. There was still a long way to go and now I was alone I dropped my pace in no hurry to return to camp. On one hand I desperately wanted to get back to the teahouse and rest, and on the other, it was the last place I wanted to be. Getting back would mean facing the reality of the end of my dream of summiting Mera Peak. As I neared the village I was very, very tired and wandered almost in a daze looking for the path down. Totally exhausted I straggered slightly on my weak legs and heard a voice asking, “ You ok ? Do you need help?” Confused by exhaustion I slowly processed the question. Did I need help ? I barely understood the question as I shook my head, mumbling something like, “ I’m fine.” and stumbled down the steps. The stranger came over concerned for me and offered again to help but now I knew my way back I declined and tried to walk on with conviction although I could feel their gaze on me as they watched my progress still worried for me.
Back at the teahouse I found Nelly was asleep in my bed as he had found the warmest room where the sun shone through window. I decided we should now swap rooms and found the room he and Nuis had vacated which was empty except for 2 hard boiled eggs which they had stashed on a shelf between the beds and forgotten about. I thought it best to remove them ! I dumped my rucksack and went back out into the sun. Olivia was there scrolling through her phone and I explained how I had turned back. She was very kind and reassuring and said I had clearly made the best decision for me. I bought myself a hot chocolate and sat in silence sipping at it with my mind empty unable to comprehend how I was here while the rest of the team were now almost certainly on the glacier and heading to Advance Camp. My team, my adventure and now I wasn’t part of it.
I bought wifi to email my family and went onto Facebook. Every one was very kind but I felt a failure. I started question my future. ‘What was there for me now ?’ ‘Would I ever come to the mountains again?’ ‘I can’t go on doing this and failing.’ I was bitter that my ‘bad’ day had been the crucial day and hated myself for not getting myself fit enough to succeed. Perhaps I needed to find a new way of pushing myself. I thought longingly of Natasha and Rebecca and wished I could go away with them, perhaps to the Dolomites which our friend Mick had loved so much, perhaps to Ireland which we had promised to return to together or maybe Finland or Norway where Rebecca and I had had so much fun. Now I knew high altitude was not for me any more. I had lost the motivation to push myself. I had not achieved what I came to do and now I just want to go home. I’m sure the walk out will be lovely and hopefully the weather will be better and hopefully we will be able to see and enjoy the views but I knew I would need to force myself to appreciate it. I was already bored back here at the tea house and my mind was churning with negativity.
I went and checked on Nelly. I knew Tom had had some concerns about his breathing and as his chest heaved despite his rapid shallow breaths I sought out Guiness and asked him to check him over. Later sitting by stove I got talking to a guide who had been involved in rebuilding High Camp. He told us how incredibly windy it had been and how they had advised 3 people per two person tent to prevent them blowing away. He had decided it was too cold and dangerous to stay there so had come down. Our own guides had also come down to sleep and would be heading back up early tomorrow morning to lead the team from High Camp to the summit. One of the Americans was in the dining room bemoaning the fact the zip on his down jacket had broken and he was trying to hire a replacement to take to Advance Camp and the summit. It was already cold here and as our sleeping bags had gone to High Camp Nelly, Olivia and I were given duvets and chose to sleep in the dining area which was really cosy. Outside a full moon shone out and the clear sky was filled with innumerable stars lighting the distant glacier where somewhere we knew our team mates must be high, high above us.
Next morning I woke still snug under the duvet and the room already flooded by sunlight. Back in my freezing room my wipes and toothbrush were frozen and the powermonkey was dead having failed as it so cold. I was glad we had enjoyed a much warmer night in the main room. Hopefully the others will already be summitting although I had a feeling they may have just had to come down from High Camp which would have been hugely disappointing for them. It was a beautiful clear day and I sat in the sun writing my diary and hoped my power monkey would be charging from the solar panels. Later I may go for a walk and stretch my legs. Every day I had been religiously applying suncream before I got dressed although yesterday and today, the only days when it would have been justified as it was the first time we had seen the sun, I had forgotten. I always wore my cap anyway but now with my shorter hair cut I needed to be careful to include my ears ! Nelly, Olivia and I sat in the sun reading, writing and dozing when suddenly we saw Andy arriving back. He was moving slowly for him and looked totally wasted but his weak smile told us he had succeeded. “ Congratulations Mate,” I said as I gave him a hug, genuinely delighted for him. He had put so much into this although he was first to admit it was so much harder than he had expected. He told us how only he and Damian had summitted. Damian had always been the dark horse of the group always quietly confident, always near the front and despite being constantly cold just taking everything in his stride and never seeming to struggle. His success came as no surprise. Slowly over the next few hours the others returned, each looking dreadful and telling horror stories of their endurance in reaching the camp. Phil described how he had been sure he was already hypothermic and was so exhausted he had trudged blindly on genuinely convinced that if he stopped he would die.
Steve had struggled onto the glacier and was certain that if his porter had not taken his rucksack he would not have made it. Gary had had to be dragged into the tent and the others had removed his boots and wrapped each other in the sleeping bags, each too tired and too cold to look after themselves. A little voice in my head asked if I would have persevered if I had known someone would have carried my rucksack like they did for Steve and would I have made it? Now was not the time for regrets. I had made my decision and had to live by it. I had given up and turned back. The opportunity was lost. Now I would never know if I could have made it. Steve and Phil explained how as soon as they reached High Camp they knew they would go on no further and had no intention of attempting the summit. They were resigned to the fact that next day they would be turning their backs on the summit and heading back across the glacier and back down to the teahouse. In the morning Andy and Damian had set off for the summit with one guide and Tom had set off with Gary. Sadly Gary had not managed to get very far when Tom realized his duty was to turn back and get his buddy down safely forgoing his own chance of summiting. In a selfless act of leadership he had lead him back into the camp and then they would all head back down the glacier. As each team member returned I hugged them and congratulated them warmly. Each had succeeded in making a massive achievement although only two team members had summited the whole team had surpassed their expectations and all had now returned safely to Khare.
I had a bad night, tossing and turning in my despair having failed in my objective and thinking I just wanted to go home now although I knew we still had a long and difficult trek back to Lukla to face. I hoped the weather would be better and perhaps we at least would see the views we had missed in the gloom of our ascent. It was very sunny and hot as we set off but soon a breeze picked up which improved things. However despite the sun several of the streams we crossed were still frozen and I noticed how every time I tentively went to step onto the icy stepping stones a guide would appear and take my arm to help me. At times the path was rocky and as we headed down, down, down I spent most of the day walking on my own.
I noticed an omnious creeking from the cliffs to my right and small stones kept tumbling down. At one point a small rock about 2” in diametre bounced off my shoulder, it would have been much more painful if it had struck my head. Now the path was littered with large boulders, many of them with no vegetation on them indicating they were from recent rockfalls making us feel very vulnerable on the path. Eventually we reached the river and walking beside it realised the rockface on the opposite bank was much more unstable as there was the constant plopping of stones falling from its face and dropping into the water.
Every now again there would be a larger rock fall as scree would cascade into the rushing water. I came across Andy stripped to the waist sunbathing with Olivia on a rock. On a narrow bit of the path a train of yaks were plodding resolutely towards us and in turn we all had to scramble off the path out of their way.
Our team became very spread out. Phil, Damian and one of the guides were striding out ahead followed by Steve who was moving a bit faster than me. I was perfecting happy plodding along on my own though at times I could not see any one else either in front or behind me. The brothers, Gary and Tom were moving very slowly. Nelly, already weakened by weight loss, was coughing badly now and Chris was ill and not at all himself. Gary was still wiped out by his summit attempt and Nuis and Tom who was also coughing badly kept to a slow pace. Tom had been an awesome leader and had shouldered a huge amount of stress and responsibility on his own but now it was taking its toll. His appetite had been waning for days although he kept assuring Guiness he was ok and now his cough was much worse. I waited for an opportunity to speak to him in private. “ What advice would you be giving yourself now if you were a client ?” I asked, “ You have done an amazing job, but you have plenty of competant people around you and now you need to look after yourself.” We were indeed a fortunate team with lots of experienced people all willing to help the rest of us and Chris especially had been a great support to Tom and an inspiration to me. Mosum Khara was in sight as I left Tom leaning on a rock in the sun waiting for the stragglers to catch up again. Soon after I arrived at the teahouse I heard a mighty roar and saw a huge rockfall on the opposite side of the river.
We were sitting in the sun still waiting for the brothers, Gary and Tom when suddenly we felt the chill of the mist rolling in and the visibility dropped to zero in 2 minutes. We headed indoors for a long afternoon reading and writing up our journals. Phil chose to do his washing again and later when he returned to the stove wearing a too large hat we commented how apt his nickname of Dobbie was, both his behaviour and his appearance were not unlike the fastidious house elf. The brothers, Gary and Tom were setting up the Jet boil in one of their rooms and armed with noodles and playing cards invited me to join their ‘party’. “ Shy babies get no candy,” Chris told me when I declined. Much later when the guides came round asking for our dinner choices I hastily made my choice and dashed off to warn them to hide the Jet boil before they were rumbled. Although Damian, Phil, Steve, Andy, Olivia and myself all sat around the dining room together nobody spoke, the situation felt bizarre and surreal. We had experienced so much together and had often chatted aimlessly about nothing but now it seemed there was nothing left to say. It was a weird feeling of both isolation and togetherness at the same time. The afternoon dragged and I was bored, struggling as always with doing nothing. I wished we could have arrived here, had lunch and a rest and then gone on again and made more progress on our route back.
Olivia disappeared for a bit and came back to tell us she had overheard a conversation about going all the way back to Lukla tomorrow and asked us what we thought of the idea. It sounded like an reasonable plan as we were all ready to go back and the time spent at the tea houses was tedious although in truth we had all forgotten just how long a day that would have meant. Only Phil voiced his reservations. Later Tom came in and we asked him about the plan. He assured us he had only considered it for a moment after it had been suggested as it would be far too tough and even the guides who notoriously under estimated how long things would take had said it would be at least an 11 hour trek and likely more. He also warned us there were still problems flying into Kathmandu which had been swathed in smog for 4 days. He had been looking at our options and there was the possibility of us having to fly into somewhere else and then have a 9 or more hour bus journey back to Kathmandu. Tom and I had very bad memories of our dreadful bus journey on our last trip to Nepal and sincerely hoped the smog would lift before we got back to Lukla.
The last time we had been at this teahouse on our way up Nelly had stupidly left a power pack under his pillow. Knowing its value would have been a fortune to the locals he was not at all hopeful of seeing it again but when he asked the tea house owner he immediately retrieved it from the kitchen and proudly presented it to Nelly. We felt humbled by the honesty of these lovely people who had so little but when they had the opportunity to take a valuable piece of kit the thought never entered their heads.
After dinner the brothers, Tom and Gary asked me to join them playing cards in the dining room which I happily did. It was great to be involved. We played much later into the evening than normal no one wanting to leave the stove and retire into our cold rooms where the wind blew in through the fist sized holes in the walls. Later in my bed 2am came and went and still sleep alluded me.
It was a struggle to get out of my sleeping bag the next day morning and when we set off I was very very tired and slow and trudged along at the back of the group. The path took a tortuous undulating route, up and down, up and down but always gradually descending deep into the base of the river valley and then up, up and up back through the the rhoderdedron forest and past the juniper bushes and occasional blue petalled alpine flower.
Going down I was scared of falling and as I struggled up the rocky path I grew depressed at how tough I was finding it and feeling I was just too tired to appreciate this amazing place. Unlike on our way up the sun was shining, the sky clear and the views were beautiful although only during our rests, which we took every 30 minutes, was I able to look around and appreciate them and realise how hard it is to feel down in this lovely environment.
Early on Olivia, Andy and Damian had set a faster pace and quickly drew ahead of the rest of the team. Later Dobbie, feeling he had rested long enough, set off before the rest of us and then we never caught up with him again until we reached the teahouse at Thuli Kharka. I was ‘leading’ the slower group now but finding it very, very tough but joked to them I was doing them a favour by going so slowly by shortening their otherwise long and boring afternoon. We had climbed to quite a height now but kept topping a ridge only to go down the other side and up and over another and another and another, rapidly losing hope of ever reaching the teahouse. Looking ahead the geography did not lend itself to a settlement having been built anywhere as each ridge was too close to the next one with no space for a village and each ridge ran down parallel to its neighbour deep, deep into the valley further than the eye could see. Tom attempted to reassure us that the teahouse was now only half an hour away although in reality it was another hour and a half before it came into view. I was feeling down about how much I was struggling and questioning my future plan to climb Mont Blanc. Were my high altitude days really over ? Should I be looking for different challenges ? By the time we reached the tea house we were 1000 metres above the river but we had ascended much more than that in total with all the ups and downs. How could we ever have considered doing a double day and getting to Lukla today ?
Sitting on the wall we breathed in the juniper smoke which was kept burning here all day, a respected and trusted good omen in the mountains. As people arrived at the teahouse we hugged and congratulated them. Today had been a very tough day. Before long we were treated to a fabulous sunset above the cloud as we looked down onto gold topped mountains poking though the ruffled sea of cloud.
Most of us took photographs and met an Australian whose name we never discovered boasting about his camera. He then went on to tell us his plans of summiting Mera Peak, Island Peak and Labouche during this expedition. We told him the accounts we had heard of the high winds on Mera which he swiftly dismissed claiming to have climbed in 137mph winds and been fine ! Various alliterative adjectives and others sprang to mind but we let him witter on seemingly oblivious to the fact we all knew him for what he was. Maybe sensing his audience had lost interest in his arrogant rubbish he moved off and found another ‘victim’ who we heard him telling he was going to sit it out here for 10 days or more or however long it took to ‘wait for a window’. It was sad really as everyone else we had met had been lovely, humble people, people keen to encourage us, pass on useful information and with a genuine love and respect for both the mountains and other mountaineers. Sadly within our own team there were also issues which Tom had tried to hide from the rest of us. Someone had posted some totally unjustified, hurtful, rude and unnecessary posts on social media attacking the whole team and in particular Tom. Most of us were disgusted by it although by the time I heard about it the most offensive bits had been removed. Most of the team sprang to Tom’s defence and to his credit he rose above it seeing it as immature ranting by someone with no justification for his remarks but it was to slightly sour the final days of the expedition.
Again the stove in the dining area was very hot but the bedrooms were freezing and had no electricity. After dark I was trying to transfer water into my source and managed to spill it on my bed. Steve and I had both been struggling with our appetites and I had not eaten much in the last couple of days but ate better today at dinner. For the first time ever on an expedition Tom had been suffering with gut issues had not eaten much despite Guiness encouraging him. Almost everyone now had a hacking cough which was another first for Tom. We were intrigued when Chris mentioned he may become £10 better off. He then went on to explain how, several years ago, he and Tom had struck a bet on which of them would die first. He said how they both carried a £10 note in the spine of their rucksacks so the debt could be paid in the event of the demise of the other ! By now we were used to Chris’ forthright attitude and wry sense of humour and all found this highly amusing in a rather sad way. Tom had got out of the habit of reading the messages on the tracker despite me reminding him twice in last 2 days. After dinner Dobbie suggested he should update us on all the messages from home so it was good for us to hear the messages friends and families had sent.
Our final day of trekking began with an agonisingly slow trudge up to the pass. As soon as we started the very steep ascent we realised how stupid it would have been to have attempted doing a double day and aiming for Lukla in a oney from Moson Kharka and we were all grateful for that decision. It was a bleak landscape but here above the clouds we were able to enjoy the wonderful views which had alluded us two weeks ago.
Nelly, Nuis, Gary set a slow pace as Steve and I slowly walked on together taking plenty of short rests. We reached the massive cairn and breathed a sigh of relief, but this was not the true summit and nor was the ridge where we passed under fluttering prayer flags, but finally we reached the top and stared down into the valley at a massive stair case winding its way down hill and into the cloud.
On our struggle up I had not realised how much of a staircase it had been and Guiness told us how it had only been completed 4 or 5 years ago. As I headed down I joined Olivia and Andy on the steps and we chatted happily. We trekked on and sometimes there were uphill sections even though overall it was down, down, down. It was weird to see far, far below us there were silent planes flying into Lukla. This was a welcome sight although of course we did not know if they would be flying out again to Kathmandu.
By the time we reached the tree line it was very hot in the sun and we were grateful for the dappled shade the rhoderdenron forest offered. Much lower down odd fir trees grew between them and lower still the trees were predominantly fir. Suddenly I noticed Gary was no longer with us and I looked back but could not see him. “Gary,” I called out, squinting through the trees, “Are you ok ?”. “Yes,” came the reply as I suddenly noticed his pink bottom exposed and realised he had hoped not to be seen in the bushes ! Later both Chris and Nuis would recount how they had gone off the path into the trees to relieve themselves but found the ground littered with discarded soiled underwear from fellow trekkers who had obviously not managed to retreat out of view quickly enough ! The path was steep and rocky and Dobbie took a painful fall as his feet slipped from under him. As the trees thinned out we gambolled down a steep hillside zig zagging as we went and finally at 4,000 metres we came to a deserted teahouse. Here the first to arrive were seated on the plastic chairs left outside while the rest of us perched on the walls. We all rested together and then set off again down, down, down and straight through ‘Chatanuga Choo Choo’ with our heads down trying to ignore the stare of the bubble gum blowing Mama who clearly hoped we would stop and buy refreshments. On, on, on we walked. It seemed to go on forever but there was no hurry although we commented again on how could we ever have thought of doing the last 2 days as a single trek ? The group had become spread out again but eventually we came upon a grassy area where we found Tom, Nuis, Chris and Nelly asleep in the sun. We too stretched out on the grass for a while and shared some sweets before setting off down hill again. It was a lovely walk and we enjoyed the scenery which we had not been able to appreciate on our way up two weeks earlier. At last the suspension bridge came into view and at a steady pace we slowly made our way down to it and then across into the edge of the trees and then onto a better path passing the stupa keeping it to our right and finally into Lukla.
It was an emotional moment as Nuis, Nelly, Gary, Steve and myself all came into the village ending the trek together just as we had begun it early this morning. As I walked towards our hotel in Lukla a train of yaks were coming towards me and showed no sign of diverting their course as I tried to step to one side scared of being pushed into the fence topped with barbed wire at head height.
Back at the hotel we were all tired as we hastily chose from the lunch menu. When the food finally arrived someone had ordered ‘sizzling chicken’ which looked amazing so every one except Olivia immediately put in their order for that at dinner. The afternoon was spent ‘relaxing’ in Lukla. Most of the team headed enthusiastically for an Irish Bar and after wandering around for a bit I decided to go and find them. A tatty sign directed me down a very dark stairs into an even darker room seemingly lit only by dim coloured lights ‘shining’ hazy circles onto probably the world’s smallest disco floor being no more than 6 foot across. The brightest thing in the room was a television on the wall showing a football match and a parafin stove stood in the middle of the ‘dance’ floor. Staring into the gloom I could see Tom and others playing pool on a battered table. After a brief chat I headed back out in the street blinking in the unfamiliar light and, avoiding the train of ponies weighed down by clanking gas cylinders, headed to a coffee shop. The cheese danish sounded exciting but proved inedible.
I was ready for dinner and eagerly awaited my sizzling chicken. One by one the waiters carried out the fiercely spitting hot plates but when Chris’s arrived the wooden plate was also smouldering and thick smoke filled the room. As windows were flung open we noticed a quiet Chinese guest on the other side of the room put on his facemask ! At 7pm we called together all our support team and gave out our tips shaking hands warmly with all the sherpas who had been so supportive. It was an emotional time for everyone and seemed to mark the end of the expedition.
The next day we headed to the ‘airport’ building in the hope of there being flights to Kathmandu. Very soon the cramped room was full of travellers and rumours abounded of diverted and cancelled flights and still the possibility of having to fly elsewhere and then face an horrendous bus journey was very real.
Every one sat around waiting and nothing at all happened for hours. Then finally a plane came in to land. Sudddenly the tiny room was buzzing with anticipation, everyone retrieving bags and speculating excitedly about where it would be heading. The door was opened and an unbelievable number of boxes of provisions, presumably from Kathmandu, were unceremoniously thrown onto the hand pulled carts which were skilfully stacked high and dragged away with their unstable loads swaying. More and more boxes and sacks emanated from the tiny but tardis-like plane. Someone took mugs of tea out to the pilot who stood by his plane as we all watched from inside the building. Soon three planes had arrived but there was no news as to whether they would be flying back to Kathmandu or not. The excitement subdued and nothing happened again as a further hour passed. Eventually planes did load and leave but all headed to the right which we knew was not towards Kathmandu. Finally after about 5 hours we were queuing and jostling for position at the glass doors with another team after someone had heard the plane on the runway would be heading to Kathmandu. To our surprise we were called ahead of them and, pushing our way through, went out onto the runway to board the tiny plane along with a load of boxes and sacks as well as all our kits bags. When there was truly no more space the door was slammed shut and almost immediately the ear bursting revving began. We looked ahead at the unbelievably short runway that fell away a few yards ahead of us and probably a few prayers were uttered. The shuddering plane screamed more loudly, suddenly we started to move and immediately we were airborne and heading straight towards the mountainside before swinging left and down the valley towards Kathmandu.
Back to Kathmandu and back home. Back to reality, but tragically a reality which would be forever changed. I had found solace in the mountains surrounded by strangers with whom I had formed an intense bond. Soon we would be separated by many miles but more important separated emotionally as well as physically. How could I face daily life without this wonderful supportive team around me ? Everyone would return to their families and their own worlds and this team which had been our whole lives for the short time we had been together would be broken up and remain just a memory. The thought scared me. I knew without these friends around me the next few weeks and months were going to be incredibly tough. Struggling up those steep ascents had been tough, forcing myself onward when I was exhausted had been tough but we had done it together. We had had each other to support, to respect and to emulate and together we had achieved so much.
Thank you to an incredible team who had shared this great adventure and helped me more than they will ever know to face a different future and a world without Paul.
And Tom (Youth) who made it all possible
Thank you too to Phil, Damian and Nelly who kindly allowed me to ‘borrow’ some of their great photographs