Ascent of KARBU RI 6010m
After a difficult two years and especially difficult few months preceeding the trip I was finally on my way back to Nepal to attempt another Unclimbed Peak. I was less well prepared mentally and physically for this trip than I had ever been before and was unsure about joining it right up to the last minute. I was even more concerned when I realised how different a team we were to the six of us who had set off two years ago to climb Nar Phu Peak. This large team of thirteen was in general much younger and half of the members worked in the Outdoor Industry and we had no less than six Mountain Leaders. I worried how this was going to work out and predicted a big divide between the ‘Young Turks’ and the OFs which either stood for the ‘Over Fifties’ or more often, the ‘Old Farts’. Also with so many very experienced people there was potential for all sorts of tensions and competition between them. How wrong could I have been ? All my fears proved to be totally unfounded and we proved to be an amazingly cohesive team and I will be forever grateful for the great support of all the team members.
After a couple of days in Kathmandu we were to set off along the Rolwalling Valley, following in the footsteps of many illustrious mountaineers as this had been the original route to Everest. Our target was a snowy peak we had named Karbu Ri which we understood was close to the Tibetan border.
Although sight seeing in Kathmandu was interesting we were all keen to get going and begin our great adventure. I had hardly slept on the flight, had slept only fitfully the first night in Kathmandu and was thankful to retire to bed early ready for a 5.00am start the next day. We knew we would have no mobile reception after the next day and I was a little sad not to have had the chance to speak to Roger, my partner, before setting off on my latest adventure. Again I struggled to get to sleep but finally I drifted off only to be woken startled by my phone at 12.30am. It was great to hear Roger’s voice but a little bit of me wished he had remembered the five and a half hour time difference and the fact we were leaving at 5am !
The nine hour bus journey was horrendous, being thrown around as the roads became rougher and narrower, perched against the hillside overhanging deep ravines. Sounding your horn in Nepal infers you believe you have right of way and are going anyway, regardless of whether the road is wide enough or safe. We lurched around corners, crashed into potholes and several times the rear passengers were airborne smashing their heads onto roof before landing heavily on the rigid seats. Simon’s ‘Fitbit’ recorded him taking 2500 steps and climbing 450 flights of stairs on the bus journey ! When we stopped for lunch I felt too nauseous to eat a meal and tried to buy some crisps. Opening the packet to be hit by the overpowering odour of artificial cheese flavouring of the wotsit like contents did nothing to help my queasy stomach. Finally we arrived at Chet Chet and staggered relieved out of the bus, donned our day sacks, stopped for a brief team photo on the suspension bridge and set off over it and then immediately steeply uphill. This was it. Our trek to Karbu Ri had begun.
As soon as I started walking my knee began to hurt and I broke into a sweat. Exhausted from lack of sleep, the dreadful bus journey and now tackling a steep path I was surprised how well I was coping and how good it felt to to walking. Allan already had a cold when he had arrived at Heathrow and two days in dusty Kathmandu had done nothing to improve things. Now we were walking he was clearly struggling and falling behind so we quickly divided into two groups so the slower people did not get demoralised. Tom Furey took it upon himself to stay at the back and help Allan. We had all taken to Allan who was very pleasant and hoped he would be ok, although everyone rather hoped they did not catch his cold and tried to discreetly keep their distance for fear of infection. Already we were bonding as a team and those sensible enough not to have put all their snack bars in their main bags generously shared their goodies with those of us who had showed less forethought. Ben and Simon soon became the Sweetie Kings, always breaking out new varieties of sweets when the going got tough !
We trekked upwards through a wood and then through millet crops into the small settlement at Simigaon where the tea house had been newly built following the earthquake. From here we had our first view of a snow capped mountain which was awesome ! Our bags did not arrive until after nightfall and so the first time we set up our tents it was in the dark but already I felt I was in the swing of things and the weathered so ‘crispy’ yellow tent felt like ‘home’.
By now we were already getting to know each other and deciding if our first impressions were correct. There were two Toms, both Mountain Leaders and working in the outdoor industry. Tom Carrick was very pleasant and immediately struck me as very sensible, trustworthy and reliable. He was always there with gentle encouragement and reassurance for anyone struggling. Tom Furey was younger and totally crazy though extremely driven and adventurous, he was also a brilliant leader.
Gwyn, a good friend of Brian’s and an Advanced Paramedic with specialistic knowledge and experience in Mountain Medicine, was quiet but had a dry sense of humour which took you a while to appreciate. Along with Ben, he was appointed as an ‘assistant leader’ by Brian. Ben, in his mid thirties, fell between the the two groups of Youngsters and Old Farts, although sadly his crumbling hips should have restricted his activity but with dogged determination he was pushing them to destruction. Despite obvious limited flexibility in his hips and strange gait you would never have known the underlying pathology given his steady pace and how much he helped other members of the group. All these participants were hugely experienced, qualified and extremely capable but all were happy to fall in behind Brian as team players and follow his leadership. Unfortunately the same could not be said for Cat who had joined the team late as a replacement for Hannah who had had to drop out following unsuccessful surgery on her foot. Despite claiming to have led various trips herself, sadly Cat had little understanding of team bonding, challenging Brian’s leadership and isolating herself from the group. It was clear from the outset that Brian and her would clash and he would struggle to keep the team cohesive. Kieran was the last member of the younger half of the group who, although an extremely accomplished snowboarder and windsurfer, had no experience of high altitude trekking. Kieran, a truly lovely bloke, so gentle and so friendly with a patient ear for everyone, was fundraising for Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation as his son, Reuben, has Type 1 Diabetes.
Kieran and Tom Carrick
How strange that in a group of 13, 4 of us had diabetic children as Simon and Phill both had daughters with diabetes diagnosed in adolescence just as Natasha. The less experienced members of the team all fell into the OF category ! Gary was a good friend of Brian’s whose passion was ice climbing and who had worked for many years in the Charity sector. Catherine, a lawyer living in Hong Kong who had been a good friend and trusted buddy on Nar Phu, always faced adversity with calm determination. She also knew Simon as they had trekked together in Ethiopia on another Expedition Wise trek and in fact she had suggested he join us on Karbu Ri. Despite suffering from Rheumatoid Arthritis Simon was a keen runner and and also gave the impression of being calm and resourceful, always taking the slow but steady approach. Phill, a builder from Selby Bill, had come on the trek not knowing anyone else and had seemed quiet at first but soon his dry sense of humour became evident and we all enjoyed his company.
And of course our leader was wonderful Brian who I admire hugely and who takes great pride in motivating people to exceed their expectations, taking them way beyond their comfort zones. The other two vital members of our team were PW, Piggy Wooler, a small stuffed toy pig who travelled with Simon and was included in all team activities and Tom Furey’s stuffed elephant who was normally to be found tied to the back of his rucksack.
Gary, Allan, Catherine and Phill
Brian explained how the itinerary had changed again and how once again he was considering an attempt on Langdung. This seemed odd as on the recce in April he and James had thought it would be impossible although now we were a different team with a group of much fitter and more experienced youngsters hungry for a challenge. As Langdung was the peak on our permit he said he didn’t want to go back to the Ministry for the second time in a year to say he had failed in his primary objective. By 8 pm we were all ready for bed, excited by the prospect of our first full day trekking tomorrow. Happy in my tent I slept quite well but was too hot sleeping for most of the night without my bag zipped up.
I woke with an achy knee but over the course of the day it was to ease up. We set off with Dowa Rita Sherpa leading us wearing his down jacket which was rarely to leave his back ! We were accompanied by three dzos who seemed very small compared to those we had used on our last trek and a number of Sherpas including several Sherpani. We Westerners felt uneasy about the Sherpani and asked if it was only since the earthquake they had been working. However apparently there are more female guides everywhere now including in Africa and of course in these cultures females usually are responsible for collecting water and often do a lot of carrying of heavy loads. Although they do carry lighter loads than their male counterparts we all felt it was a tough on these lovely ladies. One of our porters, Benod, the son of Trijan , our Sirdar, was deaf but he communicated effortlessly with every one.
He had a great sense of humour and by signing shared jokes and funny stories with us all. As we set out I was in the lead group and despite my lack of training coped well with the pace. I was happy and content plodding along when I saw a pretty flower and stopped as I usually did to photograph it to show my Mum. Immediately I realised my Mum would not be there to see any photographs and grief overwhelmed me. Although I had prewarned the group my Mum had died two short months earlier I felt alone and unable to tell anyone why I was upset. I put a decent gap between myself and the person ahead, kept my head down and wandered on. At the next rest stop I sat alone and sorted my head out. I came to realise this trip was about me and for me and even though I would not be able to share the stories of it with my Mum I had wanted to do this before she died and must now concentrate on fulfilling my dream. As we set off again I felt happier and determined to enjoy every moment and to make the very most of this wonderful and privileged opportunity. It was a varied trek passing over a small suspension bridge spanning an amazing waterfall and later stepping gingerly along a rickety metal path tenuously secured to a huge boulder high above the river, bridges made of rough logs and others of rotting planks.
The scenery was beautiful as we trudged on but suddenly tiredness overtook me. I felt like I was running on empty despite the porridge and eggs on toast at breakfast so I was pleased as we all stopped for a rest. After a few minutes Dowa asked, “Ready to move on ? We have 3 minutes to go ! “ Surely not ! But indeed it was true, in three minutes we turned a corner to see Mankarji and our cooks with lunch ready. After four hot cheese and tomato sandwiches, two helpings of roast potatoes, cauliflower and spam ( which in any other circumstances I would hate) I felt revived and vowed that tomorrow I would eat a bigger breakfast. In the afternoon we continued through the forest and crossing over a wooden bridge we had a beautiful view of Gaurishankar, a mighty 7000metre peak.
Brian drew our attention to a near by 6000metre peak. It looked so high, so far away it seemed impossible we could ever reach that height.
Tom Carrick had been the back marker today sticking with Allan who, although he looked better, still had a gruesome cough and was clearly struggling. Later Ben dropped back to encourage him along. After lunch most of us were walking together and all was good. By 2.15pm most of us were heading down a few steps into a clearing where Brian turned round to greet us all as we arrived and shook our hands saying, “We’ve arrived”. Everyone appreciated the welcome handshake as a lovely gesture on Brian’s part but Cat refused to shake his hand saying, “I haven’t done anything to deserve a handshake. It’s been too easy !” Clearly she totally missed the point. We were all surprised to have reached our camp so early. Our cooks cooked in the cook house/tent but we ate indoors in the recently rebuilt teahouse and slept in our tents in the grounds. Past the cook house down some rocky steps there was a rather unpleasant toilet hut where the triangular hole was poorly positioned not really over the dug out pit. It would be a risky trip in the dark and I vowed to use our own toilet tent from now on which was freshly dug each day.
As I relaxed in the afternoon I realised I felt happier in myself than I had for a long time. Despite wanting so much to trek with Roger, today I had been thinking about how it really would have been had we been on this trek together. We would probably have walked separately as he is naturally sets a slightly slower pace than me and I realised we may both have got frustrated by each other’s shortcomings. Probably holidaying together would be better than something more challenging where we both had to push ourselves and besides I’m not sure if he really has it in him to face a challenging trek at the moment. It was disappointing not to have phone reception and already some of the others had received messages on the tracker but I felt confident Natasha and Rebecca would be thinking of me and hoped they realised I was thinking of them despite the lack of contact. At the moment I was thinking how lovely this place was and how content I was feeling.
Tonight, for the first time, I changed into my thermals before dinner which meant I could get into my sleeping bag warm and get undressed without getting cold. Over dinner Brian read the messages on the tracker and as there would be every day, Kieran had a lovely message from Dawn. It was soon to become a joke that every day Kieran got messages and even his Dad made contact most days sending us a daily bad joke. Initially we thought the other message we received today may have been a joke, but as we heard it from several sources it was obviously true, Donald Trump had indeed been elected President of the United States !
Even at this early stage I was worrying about the plan for High Camp where we would sharing tents as I did not want to be paired with someone who may not prove a safe and reliable buddy. Cat had already shown reluctance to ‘buddy up’ and consistently isolated herself from the group spending much of her time with the sherpas. I felt bad approaching Brian so early in the trek with my concerns but he completely understood and immediately reassured me that she would not be paired with anyone inexperienced and that Catherine and I would be tent buddies. I felt greatly reassured by that and looked forward to enjoying each day as it came rather than worrying about the future. Each evening Brian set out the itinerary for the next day which began with being woken by the sherpas with ‘tent tea’, having an hour to get up, prepare ourselves and decamp before breakfast and then leaving three quarters of an hour later. Tonight Cat announced she did not wish to be woken that early as it left far more time to get ready than she needed and also she would not be joining us for breakfast. Cat suffered from a gut problem which resulted in her having to have a very restricted diet which Mankarji valiantly accommodated although it must have resulted in a huge amount of extra work for the cook team. We all felt that even if she wasn’t eating she should have joined the team at breakfast but when we all went outside afterwards she was already waiting to leave with her rucksack on her back having collected her own water.
Phill and I were chatting as we prepared to leave and he commented on how he never saw his buddy, I asked who his buddy was and he replied, “Cat”. It is funny to joke about buddying up and I’m sure we’ll all be looking out for everyone else but it is still good to have one person as a buddy so I suggested Catherine and I should ‘adopt’ him so we became a three person buddy team.
Today had dawned beautiful again without a cloud in the sky and we set off through the forest parallel to the river far below us although its gentle roar stayed with us all morning. We trudged through the forest and at times the paths were icy where the sun had not yet penetrated through the trees but we always passed back a message to the person behind if we found a slippery place. We crossed several streams and one bridge was especially icy. I waited for Cat who was behind me to catch up to warn her but shortly afterwards Catherine unsuspectingly slipped on the ice and was swiftly caught by Tom. As we crossed another particularly treacherous place I concentrated hard on the ground and as I was also wearing my peaked sun cap failed to notice the jutting out post which I cracked my head on. Reeling I staggered forward as stars spun before my eyes. I did not realise that a while back we had passed Allan who, still poorly, had set out an hour before the rest of the team with Ben. Some of the paths were steep and rocky so we had to concentrate hard but still we all chatted together moving around the group getting to know everyone. I spent some time talking with Gwyn although his strong Welsh accent made him hard to understand at times and so I did not always appreciate his great dry sense of humour as sometimes I failed to catch his ‘oneliners’. Gwyn had mislaid his boarding pass at Heathrow causing a panic as we queued to board our flight and so he became the butt of a lot of jokes about losing things. He was a lovely person, so safe and kind and having run Ultra Marathons was amazingly fit. His leadership skills were exemplary and he was always very calm and reassuring, encouraging anyone who was struggling. Gwyn and Tom C were both Welsh speakers and, along with Tom F who also understood the language, often spoke in Welsh together.
Steeply up, then steeply down we wandered through the cool forest, always hearing the river often far below us to our left until finally we emerged into the warmth of the sun. We had crossed several bridges, one of which was particularly hairy and I realised Catherine was not happy, I reassured her and asked if she wanted a leader behind her, she said, “No” and with steely determination walked slowly across, eyes glued to the planks. Later, on another long bridge built of logs I quietly suggested Tom go behind her, this time Catherine struck out with confidence. Once out of the forest the going became tougher but with fabulous views of the snow capped Gaurishankar and other high peaks inspired us as we headed towards an isolated teahouse literally in the middle of no where.
A rockfall after the earthquake eighteen months ago had taken out the water supply so water had to be brought up from the river far, far below. As we sat on plastic chairs and drank tea beside this very remote stone shack, I kept thinking what a good place my head was in. We all individually wandered off into the tall scrub to find our own secluded toilet spot a little way away from the others then each returned to marvel at the stunning views and count our innumerable blessings. After a relaxed half an hour or so we set off again and it seemed in a very short time were scrambling down a slope off the path towards the river now on our right. This had to be the most perfect lunch spot. Here Brian told us Simon had dropped back to join Allan and Ben as he was struggling following two sleepless nights when he had had to get up very frequently to urinate.
We lounged by the river, marvelling at the views and as a tortoiseshell butterfly came to land on my knee I took out my notebook to write ‘Happy Happy Happy’. I realised I had hardly thought about home or Roger and was truly living in the moment in these fabulous surroundings. I had loved my trek along the Annapurna Circuit two years previously but this was so much more beautiful and felt so much more remote. The Unclimbed Peak seemed unimportant now as I felt totally content and thought I could have stayed by the river for ever. We ate a leisurely lunch and rested for a long time but we all felt a bit concerned that Simon, Allan and Ben had still not caught us up and after lunch as we set off, led now by Gwyn and Tom as Brian headed back along the path to help them along their way.
It was very hot now and I looked forward to the bits where we walked in the shade of the trees but we were entering much more open countryside now as we headed uphill towards Beding. Part of our walk took us along a beach and then past abandoned houses some crushed by huge rocks where whole families had died and survivors had fled the valley in fear after the second earthquake whose epicentre had been here in the Rolwalling Valley. We passed a tiny house which had been built under a massive rock which had saved it from the rockfalls. The river was a long way away and much lower than our path but debris and sandbags now hanging forlornly in trees showed how high the waters had come. Later we would see vibration monitors on posts which would sound a horn if vibration was detected but even if people had remained here they would not have known where to run for safety and now the whole area had been deserted. Finally ahead we could see inhabited buildings and saw boys in school uniform at an isolated school high on the hill and then the village of Beding. Here there was a monastery where renovation had been started before the earthquake and although the structure had been badly damaged and huge cracks appeared in the wall it had provided safe sanctuary for all the village and no lives had been lost in Beding.
On the low ground a saw mill had been set up where wood was being cut for the repairs and there was one aid tent with ‘Islamic Aid’ printed onto the canvas, we had passed two or three what looked like greenhouses on the outskirts of the village but other than that we saw no other evidence of any external aid having reached this area.
Soon after we arrived Tom C led a dynamic stretching and cool down session. Tom was a qualified sports masseuse which led to lots of teasing but his physiotherapy knowledge proved very useful to the team. Ben, who had now caught us up calmly took charge, checking every one was ok and then some of us took up the Foreman’s offer to show us around the monastery which was now being rebuilt. He told us how all the artefacts had been being stored in the middle of the monastery and despite rocks pounding down all around and the walls cracking and falling into the centre part of the building the precious artefacts remained unscathed. He described how falling rocks that had hit faces of rock higher up the mountain should have ricocheted into village but miraculously they had bounced off at unexplained angles and no one had been injured. Now craftsmen had been bought from other valleys and were renovating the structure and carving the woodwork but there was only money for one more months work and they would be unable to do much more than make the building sound once more. We admired amazing ancient paintings and mantras made of yak skin which were painted with paints made from ground up precious stones from Tibet to which they would never have access again.
A large broken prayer wheel would also remain unrepaired. The lovely man was so proud of the work he had overseen and his tour and stories were so interesting. Returning to our adjacent camp we found Ben had done a brilliant job organising everything but then he broke the devastating news that Allan would be helicoptered out tomorrow. This was a massive blow to the team and we all felt so gutted for him, I struggled to hold back my tears. It was true we had all tried to avoid sitting too close to him in case he was infectious and obviously as his pace had been so very, very slow he had never really had the chance to be part of the team but this felt so bad and everyone’s moral plummeted. Meanwhile there was no news of Simon either. It was a sad demoralised group that sat largely in silence at tea time drinking tea and eating biscuits, each of us thinking our own thoughts. This was a huge reality check for us all.
We retired to our tents subdued and I changed into my thermals, redressed including my paramo jacket, got into my sleeping bag and wearing silk gloves struggled to move my cold fingers to write in my diary. At 5.30pm I heard Brian’s voice as he escorted Simon into camp then I heard Ben assuring him we were all fine and all the necessary checks had been done. We were certainly in very safe hands when Brian set off again back to rejoin Allan and help him into camp. Later I overheard Simon saying how poor Allan could only manage three steps at a time before having to stop, gasping for breath. Later still, I heard Brian’s voice again but felt it best to leave him in peace to deal with the crisis. He had arranged for Allan and Munal to stay in adjacent rooms in a teahouse in the hope Allan would be warmer and Munal could monitor his breathing. At tea I asked Kieran if he had a chain for his wedding ring as there was risk of his fingers swelling at altitude but he assured me he intended to leave it at Basecamp. I had also noticed Phill wore a wedding ring and intended to give him the same advice tomorrow. It felt like it had been a long, emotionally draining day but I was feeling positive in myself although my spirit was a little dampened.
After breakfast the next morning it was a very sobering moment as Allan walked slowly to the helicopter. We all had tears in our eyes but then as it took off I could hold them back no longer and sobbed quietly as I waved him off with a thumbs up even though it felt like our team was fractured.
Today, November 11th,was always going to be a difficult day, my dear friend, Jan would be getting results and finding out how they were going to treat her metastatic breast cancer. We set off at a slow, steady pace, all the group together with Simon in the middle. Simon, who had had a very long and slow day yesterday, seemed to benefited from it and was feeling better although everyone’s mood was quiet and we all seemed immersed in our own thoughts. Today was only to be a half day trek and so there was no hurry and we wandered along happily enough. Soon after leaving camp the mighty Beding Go came into view with it’s three peaks, two of which lie in Tibet and the phenomenal views around us bought comfort.
We wandered beside the river and although lost in my own thoughts the sight and sound of the river felt strangely healing. It was an amazing river with beautiful waterfalls cascading into it, massive rocks caused eddies and yet some small pools were completely still and I felt an overwhelming feeling of peace. I reminded myself this trip was about me. I had booked it when I found out my own breast lump was benign and I had vowed to follow every dream with new vengeance. I knew there was no phone signal so I could have no contact with home or Roger and so there was no point in worrying about them. I was privileged to be here in this remote place that felt like the ‘real’ Nepal. This was a very sacred valley considered to be looked over by three Gods which were represented by three large prayer-flag clad rocks along our path. By coincidence it was after 10.30 when we arrived in the sacred area of the 3 rocks and we rested for a while a little way away from our Sherpas.
As Brian prepared to leave at just before 11 I suggested we wait and have our own Minute’s Silence here at this auspicious place at 11am on 11th day of the 11th month (Nepal time). We stood in a circle, heads bowed and paid our Remembrance to the Fallen and then after explaining the ceremony to our Sherpas we shouldered our rucksacks again and set off, the reflective poppy on mine glinting in the sun. Being in such a special place at the significant time of 11am was very moving.
While we were there we saw a group of three trekkers walking closer to the river heading up the same valley. These were the only other people we had seen today. We continued on our journey under the ever clear blue sky surrounded by the beautiful scenery and after a while Dowa pointed out a cave high on the hillside where monks, including him, had spent two months meditating. Onward and upward and, in a while, we arrived at Na and continued through the village until we came to our camp site beside a teahouse where our cook team greeted us with hot orange to drink. A week before I had left for Nepal I had developed a Baker’s Cyst behind my left knee which had caused me to have a huge panic, now as I sat on the wall and rubbed the back of my aching legs I was shocked to discover I now had a swelling behind my right knee as well. But the rapidly arranged scan just before I left had found small cysts in my right knee so it was not totally unexpected.
There was a choice of toilets at this tea house both offering an ‘interesting’ experience. A low, roofless shack build against the front wall contained two ‘toilets’ although the left hand one was double holed so you could chose which hole to squat over and when standing the user was visible from all directions. The toilet around the back of the tea house was a more conventional squat pot but without any water to ‘flush’ although the ground outside was flooded and so the route to the toilet was a sheet of ice by nightfall making any visit there treacherous after dark. I seemed to be visiting the toilet very frequently to wee but at least that meant I was well hydrated.
Simon was especially delighted when lunch was served and it turned out to be cocktail sausages and chips along with vegetable pasties and other vegetables and then an apple. After lunch we were given water to wash our feet although Catherine took the opportunity to have an all over wash and later turned up to tea at 4pm looking very comfortable in her pyjamas saying she was debating whether or not she would ‘dress for dinner’. The afternoon was very hot and I chose to lie in my tent to write my diary. It was quite nice having nothing to do all afternoon but with the prospect of a rest day tomorrow I thought I would be bored and hoped someone would be wanting to walk up to the lake. Today, as every day so far, the sky had been a rich blue and completely clear but this afternoon we saw very beautiful wisps of cloud high in the sky. Brian described them as High Cirrus although higher than they are normally seen.
As these were the first clouds we had seen since starting trekking every one photographed them. Later fluffy clouds rolled in the valley below us and again we all took photos. As it turned out this was the only cloud we saw all trek. Everyone lounged around, some of us in our tents and some, like Kieran, sunbathed. Luckily for him before he fell asleep Brian reminded him to put sun cream on the soles of his feet as sunburnt feet would make very painful trekking. I had my own sun cream issues as I realised my sun cream stick had broken off and was now stuck in the cap. It was going to be a real effort to apply it now. Ben, as every day, produced another different variety of sweets and offered them around. Having taken a lot of cereal bars home after my last trip I had bought fewer this time as I had forgotten we had been sponsored by 9Bars last time and so had not eaten our own. With only 12 bars to last all trip this time I was going to have to ration myself at least until Base Camp.
As I relaxed and half listened to the banter between Gary, Gwyn, Brian and the two Toms suddenly a strange sound filled the air. To our amazement a helicopter was flying down our valley and landed close by. As far as we knew we were the only people heading up our valley so who could be coming down it ? Simon joked perhaps it was Allan feeling better and coming back and Tom Furey said he hoped it wasn’t one of the French ‘cuties’ we had seen earlier but the thought it was a rescue helicopter was a salutary reminder to all of us of the risky nature of a trek like this. When the helicopter took off again and returned up the valley towards our Base Camp Brian and the others became concerned. Almost immediately rumours emerged, was it one of the French group being evacuated and if so why had the helicopter returned up the valley ? Soon afterwards word reached Brian via the Sherpas in the village that the helicopter was bringing a team down from our base camp ! Brian was very concerned now and after it returned again he went down to the lower part of the village to investigate. The remaining team started to speculate on the possibility our peak may have already have been climbed and I listened to their concerned voices as they discussed this. To be honest I was not really perturbed at all and I wrote in my diary, ‘I’ve been so happy so far I’m not really fussed if we are not the first to climb Karbu Ri. I’m content just being here. The summit doesn’t feel like a big deal at the moment.’ My main concern was hoping Brian didn’t decide to opt for climbing Langdung or nothing because I wanted the chance to do the one I had greatest chance of succeeding at !
Eventually Tom F returned saying, “We’re OK”, but when we asked what they had climbed he said, “I’ll let Brian explain, we’ll be having a meeting at 4pm at tea”. It turned out that a group of three girls had used our proposed basecamp area and climbed two peaks but not the one we had named Karbu Ri or Langdung. They told Brian how they had looked across to the snowy dome of Karbu Ri and said it had looked ‘awesome’. One of their group had wanted to descend quickly and so had paid for a helicopter to bring them down leaving their Sherpas to walk out. We were all amazed that someone would hire a helicopter to do that little knowing what the future held for our group. The teahouse owner also told Brian that an American had tried to climb Langdung five days earlier via a different face to Brian’s planned route but within 25 metres of the summit had failed to top out and had to descend defeated.
I had been suffering from a headache which was getting worse despite drinking 750ml of water so I forced down 3 cups of tea which went down a bit easier than the water and then retired to my tent and tried to sleep. It had seemed a long afternoon with nothing much to do. I only managed to doze but suddenly I had an urgent need for the toilet tent where I had a long wee and then an upset gut. Even afterwards my gut did not feel right and I thought the fact tomorrow was a rest day was probably a good thing. By now I was feeling chilly but couldn’t muster the energy to open up my second kit bag and find my down jacket so got into my sleeping bag and rested, lying on my back thinking of nothing until dinner time.
By the time I went into the tea house to eat I was feeling better and was ready for dinner. Mankarji had excelled himself again producing pizza and potato cakes along with a marrow like vegetable but with more flavour. I tried to drink well at dinner and drank extra juice from the tinned pineapple. I filled my camelbak hoping I would drink more over night and hopefully stave off the headache. There was lots of mountain talk at dinner and discussions of various routes and ice climbs which rather excluded Simon, Phill, Gary, Catherine, Kieran and myself who neither knew the people or the mountains the others were discussing but it was good just listening and feeling part of a prestigious band of crazy people. Tonight as Brian read out the messages on the tracker Phill’s son had made contact which made a welcome change from only Kieran getting messages from Dawn. The rest of us privately felt pangs of disappointment that no one had sent us messages and tried to console ourselves by assuming our friends and families did not realise they were able to message us. Despite knowing it was unlikely, every day I hopefully checked for phone reception although in some ways it was strangely empowering not to be able to contact anybody. I wished I knew what updates Brian was sending to Facebook and hoped people at home were at least following our progress. We were disappointed there was no news from Allan either although he would have been liaising with Harriet at Expedition Wise in the UK and then Harriet informing Brian via the tracker.
As we left dinner we were greeted by a beautiful moon that gave a light almost as bright as day light and the mountain tops all around us glowed bright. It was already freezing and the route to the outside toilet was lethal so I headed for the ‘open view’ toilet and laughed at the image I must have made admiring the amazing night sky from my squatted position.
Although suffering from HAFE (High Altitude Flatulent Emissions !) my gut was much more comfortable now as I settled into my sleeping bag. I dreamily imagined the holiday I wanted to plan with Roger and soon fell asleep. I did not wake in the night to drink which was just as well as my Camelbak had frozen and also leaked. (Tomorrow I would need to check if it leaked when the tube and duck bill valve was not frozen.)
I had a good night and woke refreshed and content to find my headache gone although I was not desperate for a wee which was probably not a good sign. I always struggled to drink enough water overnight especially when it was cold. Today was to be a rest day and so there was no pressure to be organised. Somehow I lost my toothbrush in my tent and then generally faffed because I could. I struggled to chip off hard bits of sun cream which had frozen in its lid after the stick had broken and tried to rub the gritty pieces into my face. I intended to struggle with this and save the new one for summit day when I would need to be very efficient. I wasn’t starving this morning for breakfast but definitely ready for it.
Brian had prewarned us that at some point he would interview each of us for the film he would be making and would be asking,“What do the mountains mean to you ?” and “Why do you want to climb an Unclimbed Peak ?” I hoped he wouldn’t interview me today as I had not had time to collect my thoughts. Kieran was feeling rough today and was very quiet but Gary, who had been breathing heavily yesterday, was better today and keeping us entertained with his dry sense of humour delivered in his strong Irish accent. Everyone else seemed on good form and I joined Ben and Tom C. for a wander along the river towards the lake.
Initially I had hoped to walk all the way to the lake but was quite happy to walk for about an hour and then relax by the river chatting generally. Tom was an excellent swimmer who had almost made it into the Welsh team for the Commonwealth Games but had found it hard to continue to commit to a single sport and now enjoyed wild swimming and a great variety of outdoor activities. As we sat there Tom F ran past us on a training run to the lake, he stopped for a while then set off again promising to be back in time for the Boys All Over Wash in the river before lunch. Tom F was amazingly fit and keen to push himself at higher altitudes. We wandered back to camp learning more about each others lives and there was an air of total relaxation. At this moment it felt more like a holiday than an expedition. Back at camp I got Ben to show me how to use the baffle on my sleeping bag which I would probably need as it got colder although I felt sure I would find it too claustrophobic. I discovered why I had failed to work it out last night as a toggle was missing and the other broken but Ben made a very worthy repair for me. So far I had been fine at night sleeping with my buff on my head as I had not bought my fleece beanie. In fact I had thought it seemed less cold here as I been so warm and cosy so it had been a shock to find even hot water had frozen in my camelbak early in the night although luckily Brian had suggested putting it into a dribag in case it leaked so protecting my sleeping bag.
As we arrived back some girls were laying out the yak dung to dry ready to use as fuel for the stove. Kieran, who had been looking and feeling rough earlier was now feeling much better and we had a long chat about how he had represented his country at wind surfing and snowboarding and how it had dominated his and his parents lives travelling all over Europe every other weekend to compete. I am certainly in with a band of illustrious people. Ben had now bought his amazing mattress out of his tent. It was very thick and could be bent in half to provide a back support for sitting and we were all envious. He admitted it would have been heavy to bring had we not had the yaks to carry some of our kit for us but with his ‘broken’ body it did mean he could sleep slightly more comfortably.
As the boys set off for their wash in the river, meeting Tom on his way back from his run, I decided to walk down to meet Brian and the others who had gone to the other teahouse in the village but by the time I was about to leave they were just arriving back and Simon was looking decidedly dejected. They had been looking at video footage of Karbu Ri taken by the other group and it had looked like a knife edge ridge and very difficult, Simon was worried he would be too slow for the rest of the group or may be not be able to make it. Catherine and I tried to ‘talk him up’. We both explained how we had far exceeded what we had ever thought we were capable of on our last trip with Brian to Nar Phu Peak. We told him you had to be totally selfish and realise your summit was just about you and never worry about who was behind you or sharing your rope. By going slowly you may well be helping them and improving their chance of success. Success in the mountains is at least 80% in your head and I was grateful my head was in a really good place. We advised him not to set out with any preconceptions, take it one step at a time, just appreciate what is around you and enjoy every minute. I said, “The journey is more important than the summit”, and I really meant it. I can honestly say I’m not even thinking about the summit.
After lunch it was still very warm and I tipped water over my hair in a vague attempt at cleanliness and really hoped it would dry before sundown mid afternoon when the temperature would plummet drastically. Brian had suggested we should sort out our kit and all leave surplus food and clothing here at Na. I only left my spare pair of trousers, my second light paramo top and a lighter pair of socks but as a group our ‘excess’ filled one kit bag which would not now have to be carried to basecamp. During the afternoon I read, wrote my diary and chatted with the others. We were all happy chilling in holiday mode but it was all in the cause of acclimatisation and an excellent day for team bonding. True to form Cat had excluded herself from this having gone off alone in the morning supposedly running but not returning until 4.10pm. She later confessed to also climbing and scrambling which was totally irresponsible.
During the afternoon Brian received an update about Allan who had a further hospital check up tomorrow but was apparently doing well in Kathmandu. He also spoke to everyone about logistics for High Camp and summit day. Catherine and I would be buddied up in one tent and for the summit attempt would be with Tom Furey. We were very happy with this arrangement and felt we would be completely safe in Tom’s capable hands. Well ahead of sundown I remembered to change into my thermals under my clothes before tea and then went to the toilet. As I tried to squat I was horrified to find I was unable to flex my knee due to a solid mass behind it. I immediately thought I would be unable to continue the trek and almost in tears straightened my leg to feel the swelling which I assumed was another Baker’s Cyst. But as I did so it disappeared and almost laughing out loud with relief I realised the offending lump was my bottle of hand gel in my pulled down trouser pocket !
We had all enjoyed our rest day but there had been no rest day for the cook crew and unbelievably they served sushi for dinner, although thankfully without raw fish, there was also momos with vegetables followed by apple pie. They are truly amazing. Brian then started reading the messages on the tracker and after the predictable one for Kieran he said there was one from Kerstin. I work with a Kerstin but did not think it could be from her and actually it turned out to be a message for Gary from his old PA. Gary had already received several messages, all from females none of which were his wife, so he came in for a fair amount of teasing ! Steph, Brian’s wife, had sent a message and there was one from James saying, “If you think the scenery is good so far just wait until tomorrow!” Actually the scenery so far had been stunning and we did not think it could get any better. Every day as the messages were read I waited in eager anticipation for one for me and today at last it was my day ! I was delighted to receive a message from Rebecca. She said, “Remember, one step at a time,” which made me smile as it was something Brian had said several times on previous trips and I had recounted it to Rebecca. I wondered sadly if Roger was actually following our trip as he does not have a Facebook account but I think the posts on the Expedition Wise page are public. I wished I could contact my family and Roger and tell them how good everything was and the happy place I found myself in.
We came out of the teahouse in to the camp brightly lit again by the beautiful and almost full moon. It seemed all I had done all day was eat, drink and relax but I was tired and it was not long before I was snuggled into my sleeping bag. Sleep did not come easily though as I started to question what would happen if Catherine or I couldn’t make the summit and in turn jeopardised Tom’s ascent. He would certainly have succeeded without us and I would be devastated to have spoilt his chances of reaching an Unclimbed Summit. I tried to put the thought out of my mind but still tossed and turned in my sleeping bag. Suddenly a weird glow appeared on my sleeping bag which was very disconcerting until I realised I had somehow laid on my phone and switched it on. All my electronics were in my sleeping bag to keep them warm(er) but overnight they became scattered inside and I often woke lying uncomfortably on something hard. I suddenly thought I should keep them all in a net bag together in my sleeping bag and wondered why I hadn’t thought of this before. I was not confident enough to put my water bottle in my sleeping bag to keep it warm as Brian had suggested and instead filled it was hot water and used the neporene cover but it still froze. I woke uncomfortable and was surprised to be lying on something uneven, assuming my theramarest had deflated tried to feel its thickness under my sleeping bag but found I had rolled off it in the night and now my top half was directly on the tent floor.
The water in my camelbak had frozen so when we set off I had an uncomfortable, irregular two litre lump in my rucksack digging into my back. Obviously I would need water to drink until it had thawed out and so also packed my three water bottles, two of which were full though only partly frozen so I would be able to get some water to drink. Ben warned me about the extra weight this would mean I would be carrying but I was used to carrying a lot of water as I tried to drink very frequently at altitude which generally worked well to stave off headaches. Also I was loathe to throw away water which had been collected and boiled for me. Brian had assumed we would follow an easy path on the far side of the river which he and James had taken on their last trip but Dowa led us along what he called The Yak Track. It was very rough and rocky and we were constantly crossing icy streams. Once I slipped but managed to save myself but only by plunging my hand into the freezing water. It was a great path and fun to negotiate the water crossings, I was happy and loved this terrain and although she struggled with the crossings Catherine was coping fine. Quite early in the walk we stopped to rest and I thought simply ‘all is good’. This was such a beautiful valley, I found it hard to imagine that James could be right about the scenery getting better.
Dowa often set off too fast and so on other days Gywn had often taken over the lead and usually Gary and I would be near the front and the others seemed to like our pace, but today I was struggling a bit. Today we had three guides, Dowa, Trijan who was the Sirdar in charge of the expedition and at the back there was always Munal with his constant smile, always so kind and helpful.
Later we would meet our two Climbing Sherpas, Mingme Dorje Sherpa and Mindu Sherpa who had set off in advance to find a suitable camp on the glacier and then to recce routes and find a site for our High Camp.
It was all great fun today and time passed quickly as we crossed the rocky terrain and pushed through dusty brown bushes which threw up clouds of spores as we brushed against them. As our path hugged the rock face I noticed a clump of beautiful ‘alpine type’ trumpet shaped blue flowers. Rather than stop to get out my camera I thought I would take pictures of them later but this turned out to be the only clump we saw. Dowa pointed out the massive overhanging ‘Rock of Life’ which, if you pass under it, gives you life unless it falls on you ! Later high up on the skyline we saw rock pillar shaped like a face. This was a sacred valley and often when we stopped Dowa would be meditating and chanting.
So far today it had been a rough walk but with only a gentle uphill gradient but as we set off up a rocky slope suddenly tiredness swept over me. As I struggled I started to worry about tomorrow which was going to be a long day, in fact a double day, to Base camp. I tried to focus just on the moment, telling myself to enjoy every minute, to live for today. I must not let fear of tomorrow spoil today. I found myself plodding very slowly, breathing through my mouth so the back of throat felt sore and dry. I realised Ben had been right about the extra weight of the water and he kindly offered to take one of the bottles for me. He is so kind and a real inspiration. My breathing was shallow and fast and suddenly walking at all was a real effort. I felt disappointed in myself as I felt it was lack of fitness rather than the altitude which I was struggling with. Brian had said we would be stopping ‘soon’ and everyone else seemed ok but I knew I needed to stop now. I asked Catherine if she needed a rest but she was doing fine as was Gary in front of me. I paused for a moment and Brian looked back saying we would be stopping in 20 yards but I said I needed to stop now and would slot in at the back. I had a drink and concentrated on slowing my breathing, by the time Tom Furey who was the end of line reached me I was fine. I waited for the porters to pass then started again and within 30 yards reached the others who had stopped to rest. Now it seemed silly to have insisted on stopping so close to the rest place but at the time I had felt I really could not go on any further at all. I was surprised how quickly I recovered my strength after having a good drink and now I was ready to go on to enjoy the rest of the day.
Soon we reached the end of the valley where the route to Everest turned to the right towards the lake and we were to turn the left. Soon after this we stopped for lunch in a hollow and got out our packed lunches which consisted of an egg, which I gave away, potatoes, cake, jammy dodgers and an apple. I was slightly perturbed as if I tipped my head back to admire the view I got a headache and a dull pain was present most of the day but it was not a huge problem at all. I tried to drink more frequently. As we went on the valley opened up and there were amazing mountains all around us, the views were truly phenomenal, James had definitely been right, the scenery was stunning.
It seemed not long after our lunch stop a lake came into view which we would be camping at the far end of. As we made our way down a rocky path to the shore we could see it was half frozen and tiny yellow dots at top of the lake showed our tents were already up.
It was a lovely walk alongside the lake and we noticed the tiny island on the far side with a Buddist shrine from which prayer flags fluttered extending to a rock high up on the cliff. This camp, called Dudh Pokhari, was unbelievably beautiful and I took loads of photos all the way round. We were greeted with warm sweet aromatic masala tea and later soup after which I realised my earlier headache had now gone. Sadly Tom C was not so lucky as he had had a headache from the start. All the ‘seniors’ were sitting together on a rock drinking our soup along with Ben who we joked was either an interloper or perhaps just bridging the gap between the Young Turks’, as Simon called them, and the Old Farts when suddenly there was commotion from Tom F’s tent. Tom C was struggling to get out of his friend’s tent only just making it outside before he vomited. He reassured us he immediately felt better.
Although I knew Brian had wanted to interview everybody I had not given much thought to my responses to his prearranged questions although I knew what I wanted to say. As we sat together on a rock by the lake I was nervous and tongue tied and was disappointed not to include the phrases I had originally planned. I had been inspired by Brian’s first film night of his first First Ascent of Chhubohe and had wanted to say how I had thought this type of expedition was way beyond what someone like myself would ever be capable of, an ordinary hill walker who liked ‘a bit of a challenge’. I had signed up for this challenge as soon as I received the results that the breast lump I had had removed was benign and saw this as a second chance and that we should all live for the moment and take every opportunity offered to us. I knew it was a selfish attitude but I felt this trip was very much about me and for me although I was pleased to have the opportunity to raise money for a Nepalese charity and be able to give something back to the country that had given me so much. It was a huge privilege to be able to be in this wonderful environment and although the prospect of standing where no one had ever stood before was very special, just now the journey was almost as important as the summit. I loved the team camaraderie as well as the challenge of pushing myself beyond my comfort and confidence zone. Phill summed it up perfectly on film by saying “If you want to lead a full life you need to push yourself and step out of your comfort zone.”
The sun blazed but it was quite breezy so I sat in my tent porch writing and reading. My tent was already laid out, my feet were washed and my powermonkey was charging, I realised all was well in my simple world. I was very, very happy and could not ask for anything more. Until today I had not written much in my diary and wondered if my ‘writer’s block’ would mean there would be no blog from this trip but today words came easily and as I relaxed in the afternoon jumbled memories flooded back as I remembered lots of things that had happened over the last few days and kept going back to my diary to note them down. Somehow I managed to lose my glasses in my tent and panicked that I would accidentally kneel on them as I searched for them which would definitely scuppered any chances of a diary. I checked all my first aid and toiletry kit tubes which had expanded due to the drop in air pressure at this altitude and the pierceable seal of the Voltarol tube had almost been pushed out by the pressure of the contents and bulged ominously. I had to pierce it to relieve the pressure and in the process lost a significant amount of the gel. Luckily this was the only tube with a seal and all the others I could release the pressure every day by loosening the lids.
Brian received the news from our climbing Sherpas, Dorje and Mindu, that there was not enough water to sustain us at our proposed glacial camp and so our plans had changed again meaning tomorrow would be a double day to Base Camp. He also confirmed arrangements for High Camp where Cat and Ben were to buddy up. He had warned us there was a lot of kit to get to High Camp and I was worried about the prospect of load carrying but was trying to ignore this at the moment and, remembering Rebecca’s message about ‘one step at a time’, vowed to take each day as it came.
In general I had been surprised how unbreathless I had been except for when using the toilet tent which was always an effort trying squat and then pull up my trousers, struggle with the tent zip and clean my hands with hand gel while clutching my ‘toilet bag’ under my arm. Each day part of my evening routine was topping up my ziplock ‘toilet bag’. I tore lengths of three sheets of toilet paper and folded them ready for use into the bag along with the essential hand gel and another ziplock bag for any toilet paper from ‘open air’ poos. As it was getting towards tea time I decided to change into thermals before we went to the mess tent in case the sun sank behind the ridge while we were at tea. It was nauseously hot in my sundrenched tent and I was panting like a dog as I struggled to put my trousers back on. Lying on my back with my legs in the air to pull them up was a big mistake ! Feeling sick and exhausted I had to get back out into the fresh air quickly.
By 5pm it was very cold despite wearing thermals plus my day clothes, additional long sleeved T shirt, mountain pullover, gloves and mountain hat in my tent. Today I rediscovered the tent light I had bought and was disappointed to find that although it was fine for general illumination it was insufficient to read by and as I would still need to use a headtorch bringing it had been of little benefit. The mess tent was freezing at dinner and as usual Brian read the messages received on the tracker and that was how Simon first heard of his daughter’s engagement which she had announced while on holiday in Thailand. Once I was in my sleeping bag I finally got warm but when I needed to wee it was the first I had had in my tent porch so I only needed to put on my down jacket over my thermals so I did not get too cold. I am not sure how well I slept but I certainly rested and was ready for the next day which again dawned clear and bright although very cold. Mankarji had been excelling himself providing great food including cooking especially for Cat with her complex dietary requirements but breakfast today looked decidedly weird. The black ‘omelette’ had a cooked egg in the middle and most people could not even face trying it although in fairness it tasted better than it looked having little taste anyway. Today was going to be a tough day and we all needed to be ‘stocking up’ at breakfast.
We set off already cold into an icy wind and quickly our path became steep. Despite the exertion I was still cold especially my feet and before long I had lost the feeling in my toes which was a cause for concern given my previous frost bite. Painfully I tried to repeatedly curl my toes inside my boots but it was not helping and walking was difficult as we trudged in silence in the shadow of the surrounding mountains.
The sun taunted us as it lit the valley far far ahead as we hunched our shoulders and rubbed our gloved hands in an attempt to improve our circulation and warm our aching bodies. It was over an hour before we took our first break close to a little hut under a rock where Dowa told us monks came to meditate.
As Dowa collected and lit some juniper to bless our journey, I took off my boots and rubbed vigorously at my rigid toes, I was unable to flex them but Brian tried to bend the inflexible joints forcibly which was very painful.
It was only 9am but I was hungry and made a start on my packed lunch ! Now we had stopped we all got cold quickly so after hurriedly eating a snack we set off again along the grey sandy path and later onto the moraine which was very rocky with huge boulders. It was quite challenging but fun and now my feet were warmer I was enjoying the rugged route. The bitter wind cut into us and I was grateful for my windproof jacket. After two or three hours we came to the site of our previously proposed camp. It was a grim, bleak grey bowl and we were glad not to be staying there but there was a horrible climb out in all directions.
The wind continued to cut into us although the sky was clear and blue, but as the terrain got worse and worse our mood dampened. Each time we stopped to rest we had to move on quickly before we became chilled and at one such time I looked ahead towards a steep scree slope hoping against hope we would not be tackling it. But as I looked at it I noticed tiny specks making slow progress up it and realised they were our porters. As we moved on again I tried to ignore it and put the fear of the scree out of my mind and concentrate instead on enjoying scrambling over the boulders.
Partly looking down for safety and finding safe footholds but also to avoid seeing what lay ahead I continued onward balancing from rock to rock when suddenly we stopped and I realised we were at the base of the scree slope. It towered steeply above us looking menacing. Suddenly I felt very scared and emotional, I bent forward hands on my knees so no one saw my tear filled eyes. I took deep breaths but my voice quaked as I said to Tom, “This is my worst nightmare”. Now the leaders were setting off cautiously up the slope dislodging the stones and throwing up the grey sand and I knew I had to follow on. I quickly gained confidence but then would slip and the panic would return but each time Tom would reassuringly grab my rucksack and I felt safe. Actually the anticipation proved much worse than the actual route and quite quickly we were all past the steepest and slippiest section. We halted in single file on a narrow path before setting off again traversing the slope but on a more secure footing. We were moving slowly as a group but a gap had opened up ahead of Gary who was in front of me. Suddenly he staggered and fell back towards me, instinctively I ‘spotted’ him pushing him forward towards the face of the rock. He turned his ashen face to me to thank me and said he felt drunk. He looked dreadful. Brian caught us up and took Gary’s rucksack, encouraging him to drink while he rested. Ben now took the lead and we set off again. Later when we had stopped for a rest Gary and Brian caught the rest of the group up again but he still looked rough.
We went on and on but as we were concentrating so hard on where we were placing our feet time passed quickly although there was little conversation between the group. Suddenly Ben stopped and pointed out tiny yellow specks ahead, our tents. Initially relief flooded over the tired group as he went on to spoil it by adding, “An hour and a half to go !” Even at this early hour we could see the camp was already in shadow. On and on we struggled over the rough terrain ever upwards when suddenly Brian who was leading stopped and held out his hand to each of us to shake our hands as we passed him. He did this every day as we arrived at camp but this was special as he told us we had just reached 5000metres. It was a massive morale boost and a special moment. We continued on buoyed up with satisfaction of topping 5000metres and for a while it seemed easier climbing over and around the huge boulders and later as we rounded a corner we saw two porters coming towards us. They had bought hot orange juice which was a godsend, never had juice tasted so good. It had been a long, long rough walk and we were all tired but refreshed by the very welcome orange we struck out again with renewed enthusiasm.
Catherine had really struggled today starting out initially with two poles and then taking Ben’s advice to try with only one. Really her main problem is her confidence as most of the time taking it slowly she is quite secure. I was much safer without poles relying on all five ‘limbs’, two feet, two hands and my bum ! Although at one point Catherine had slipped and fell crashing into Tom F who saved her. It had been a tough day and now as we struggled up a particularly difficult slope with Brian helping and encouraging Catherine and Gwyn helping Gary, suddenly we came to a ridge. It was 3pm and we realised we had arrived at our camp. It was sitting in a slight bowl, a hideous jumble of massive rocks. Looking up and beyond, it was surrounded by unbelievable beauty but now we were all exhausted and fell into our tents with little appreciation of the fantastic views around us. Ben and Brian helped get our bags into the tents and later bought us soup.
Probably I should have slept but apart from feeling tired I felt good and had no headache so instead decided to ‘sort things out’ before resting. For the last half an hour of the trek in I had wanted a wee but now in my tent faffed around for ages achieving very little. When I headed out of the tent I could really appreciate just how rough this camp site was although Sherpas Mindu and Dorje had done an amazing job building flat platforms for the tents. Between the tents it was very dangerous and we would need to wear proper boots all the time to hopefully provide some ankle support. The toilet tent provided a genuine (very) long drop but the Sherpas had built an excellent stable platform around the slightly alarmingly large hole. I carefully picked my way back across the horrendous boulders feeling I would be risking life and limb every time I ventured out of my tent.
Suddenly I realised it was 5.50 and as dinner was at 6.00 I quickly got into my thermals and paramo trousers, my mountain pullon with my down jacket on top. Every one was shattered and I also felt a bit nauseous so was unable to face much food or drink. I had two helpings of soup to try to take onboard plenty of fluid but only managed to pick little bits of potato and cauliflower out of the curry, one slice of spam and hardly any rice. It was a real struggle to force down the daily Dioralyte to attempt to replace lost salts although I had definitely not sweated today. We were a tired sombre group tonight. Catherine was depressed, worrying she had injured Tom when she had fallen into him and was frustrated with herself and her lack of confidence on the difficult terrain. She knew she had successfully negotiated similar routes plenty of times before but today had been especially difficult. Catherine was also struggling with lack of appetite tonight. Gary said he ‘didn’t know how he felt’ but he certainly looked better and was now taking Diamox.
By 8pm we had all retired to our tents. As I had forgotten to bring my fleece hat to wear in bed, up until now I had been wearing my buff as a beanie or if I needed more warmth, my peaked mountain cap. I had now found my balaclava. My previous full face one had made me feel claustrophobic and although this one had a more open face and was not so close to my mouth I was still unsure about it. I made a mental (and written) note to self to look out for a hooded merino base layer for my next expedition which would eliminate the cold neck which I suffered when wearing the buff beanie. Yesterday I had forgotten to charge my camera and so tonight I had it charging off the power monkey all in my sleeping bag. I also had a hot water bottle in its neoprene sleeve. I was not as cold as I had expected and was very warm in just silk thermals and bigger socks although Brian had told us he was wearing his primaloft socks night and day now. The Sherpas had been collecting juniper and now I could smell it burning outside and could hear chanting. Late in the night I would hear someone walking around the camp and discovered it was Dowa who every night went to each tent chanting prayers for us.
Suddenly around midnight there was a massive whoosing noise which sounded like gas under high pressure being released from a cannister, it went on for ages but warm and cosy in my sleeping bag I chose not to investigate. I had a sip of cold water and settled down again. Later I woke to another strange noise, this time I took the opportunity to have a ‘porch’ wee but again did not look outside.
I must have slept well as in the morning I found I had hardly moved at all in the night. My morning kit and electronics had been wrapped in my down jacket in the bottom of my sleeping bag but still some of my wipes had frozen presumably because the end of the sleeping bag had fallen off the thermarest in the night. Today we had a late wake up call at 8am as it was to be a rest day and would be spent preparing our kit to take to High Camp and acclimatising. Coming out of our tents we were all struck by the amazing beauty around us. I stood for a moment in awe just looking around and then realised outside most tents someone else was also standing there in wonderment. Yesterday we had had our first views of Karbu Ri which looked like a little snowy hump in comparison to its mighty neighbours but it was very beautiful and we realised perspective was playing tricks making the surrounding peaks seem bigger than they were. Suddenly there was a whoosing noise again as a small avalanche cascaded down one of the nearer mountains. I carefully made my way across to Brian and asked him about the rushing gas noise at midnight, “Yes”, he replied, “That was an avalanche. A spectacular one and there were several others in the night”. Brian had apparently heard it and looked out of his tent and then watched mesmerised by it in the clear moonlight. Over the next few days hearing avalanches became a routine occurrence.
My sleeping bag was wet from dribble and condensation from my breath and so I tied it down to the top of my tent to dry off and picked my way carefully over the rocks to the Mess Tent for a leisurely breakfast. I ate a hearty breakfast and drank well as my urine had been dark showing I was not well hydrated. Gary came to breakfast but was still feeling unwell despite the Diamox which had caused massive diuresis and he had urinated 4½ litres since yesterday evening. Soon after breakfast he developed ataxia, a cardinal sign of cerebral oedema, and so there was no option but for Brian to arrange another helicopter evacuation. This news was a huge blow to the team, I was especially upset as he had been so kind to me when we had walked together in Wales. Gary retired to his tent and the rest of us chatted for a while and then drifted into our tents to sort out our kit for High Camp. I needed to find my second headtorch and second, still intact, sun cream stick, a spare bottle of handgel and prepare plenty of toilet paper. I was feeling very content and not even thinking about the summit although I was trying to ignore my concerns about the load carry to High Camp. Most of the time I was still feeling fine and only breathless when using the toilet or drinking.
Our Sherpas had been busy collecting flat pieces of rock and had built an amazing Puja ready for the ceremony later in the morning. It was hard to believe they had found enough suitable slabs of rock as there seemed precious few around but the Puja was a perfect structure with three triangular rocks to signify the three gods of the Rolwalling Valley. Mankarji had made interesting pastry effigies and three pastry shapes were significantly stuck onto the blade of a cleaver. We wished we understood more of what was going on and the significance of all the artefacts and ceremonies.
We had collected all our sharp objects and boots to place on the Puja to be blessed and to ask the mountain gods for forgiveness for ‘injuring’ the mountain. I tied the ribbon from my Mum’s funeral to my ice axe so it could also be blessed before going to the summit. It was an emotional time as I watched it gently fluttering in the breeze. We sat around the Puja on the rocks as Dowa lit the juniper and he and Dorje sat close together next to the Puja now covered with our kit and started chanting the mantras.
It was a privilege to be part of ceremony and a special time for all of us as it cemented the bond we felt as a group. During the ceremony the prayer flags which had been wrapped around the Puja were unfurled and tied out in three even directions on to rocks and then the middle section of the Puja was raised. From now on we would always be careful to walk under the prayer flags out of respect. As Dowa worked his way through the mantras the Sherpas passed us biscuits and popcorn and then whiskey at appropriate times. A small rock platform had been built directly in line between the Puja and our intended peak and the Sherpas placed offerings of food and whiskey there too. Juniper was dipped in water and whiskey and then it was sprinkled over the Puja and towards our peak. We donated money and the notes were also placed on the Puja as an offering. Although I had no idea what Dowa and Dorje’s chanting meant or the significance of all the actions I felt very involved and it was an emotional time. Several times I glanced across at Karbu Ri and feel sure the others did too. This all felt very right and I felt a peaceful confidence that we would reach that beautiful summit safely. Mankarji rubbed buckwheat flour onto everyone’s faces and Catherine reminded him he should include PW who was Simon’s mascot.
At the end of the ceremony Dowa carefully wrapped his precious mantras into their cloth and for a while we all continued to sit in silent contemplation looking at the kit clad Puja and then up the snowy dome of Karbu Ri far, far away.
After the Puja Ceremony three Sherpas set off to explore a route to High Camp which Brian had spied and thought may be better than the one he and Dowa had previously discussed. Meanwhile the team was to have a jumar training session and practise abseiling on a Figure of eight. This was something we had learnt many months ago in Wales. As we practised walking with an ice axe Brian noticed how ridiculously short Simon’s hired axe was, it was not long enough for even the shortest member of our team to use as a walking axe. For the practice we fell into two distinct groups, those who needed the reminder and practice and those to whom the techniques were second nature. To some extent Kieran fell between the two camps and advised me during the jumar practice. I was still struggling with the mechanics of using the jumar one handed and at one point when transferring to the Figure of eight very stupidly managed to completely disconnect myself from the system. I was glad this had happened in the safety of a team practice but realised how serious it could have been on summit day. Then as I abseiled I swung out, painfully crashing my back into the rocks which shook me up and I was ready to cry. I felt useless and inadequate but more importantly a liability to the team.
At the end of our practice Gary emerged from his tent. Obviously he was gutted to be going down and it was difficult to know what to say to him. He was an ace ice climber and would be leaving the team before we had even got to his favourite bit. I hugged him and said we would get to the summit for him and Gwyn assured him there was now snow in Snowdonia. Until now most of us did not realise our hard working Sherpas had also built a helipad on the edge of the ridge. Brian had been informed the helicopter would be with us in an hour so after emotional hugs and well wishing Gary was helped up to the ridge by two porters supporting him to wait for the helicopter. Time passed and eventually our lunch was ready and still Gary was waiting. He must have been frozen sitting on the exposed ridge and Brian began to worry it may not arrive.
I normally ate well at breakfast and lunch and today was no exception. As we ate, Brian updated us on his thoughts and suggested he may opt to stay at Base Camp for another day. He was under time pressure to get all the plans in place and with us needing to get prepared tonight to move on we couldn’t afford to make mistakes and leave vital things behind. Also a second night at 5200metres would be good for our acclimatisation as well helping the cooks as we had plenty of water here. It seemed like a good plan and we were all happy with it. This had been a tough trip for Brian with lots of difficult decisions to be made and he was obviously upset about having to send two people down especially his very good friend Gary.
Soon after lunch the sun disappeared and the temperature plummeted and as the wind got up again it was very cold and we all retired to our tents. Alone in my tent I felt very sad. Tying Mum’s ribbon to my iceaxe had been very emotional and hearing Gary was to go down, falling on the abseil and my stupid mistake with the Figure of eight all added to my deflated mood. It was some time later that finally we heard the helicopter and grabbing my down jacket and camera went outside to see Gary off. The helicopter only landed briefly or possibly hovered inches above the hastily constructed helipad on the ridge before seeming to fall into the valley as we all held our breath willing it to start to gain lift. We all waved and I held my thumb up to my friend as I burst into tears, in seconds he was gone and I returned to my tent sobbing alone. Gary had been such a good friend in Snowdonia and an integral part of our team, it was devastating to see him go.
Before long I pulled myself together and concentrated on making a list of essential things to go to High Camp and at the same time trying to force myself to drink. We needed to limit weight as much as possible but include all the essentials. I would need to take both sunglasses and goggles, head torches, big socks, two water bottles but not the camelbak which would freeze, some snacks and very importantly Mum’s ribbon to go to the summit. I reduced my first aid kit careful to include enough ibuprofen, compeeds, dioralyte, sun screen and after sun. I was still worried about my hands having suffered frost bite on my last trip and had sought Ben’s advice again on what glove combination to use as I would only have one chance to get it right ! I was concerned that if it was wet so I couldn’t use the down mitts, my primaloft gloves may not be warm enough. We would only be taking our big boots which we would be wearing all the time after leaving Base Camp.
Simon and I had discussed the renewed possibility of the group attempting Langdung after all as we were both concerned the plan would not include the whole group and this would mean the rest of us may be stuck at High Camp for 5 nights. It appeared Brian intended to stay at High Camp after Karbu Ri and not pack up camp on the way down and descend all the way to Base Camp. We both felt the plan was likely to be for only the most experienced members of the team to attempt Langdung but we had hoped that Brian would bring us all back down to Base Camp after Karbu Ri and then attempt Langdung from there with a small group of the experienced climbers. However it was pointless speculating until the Sherpas returned from today’s recce of a site for High Camp. Brian had also mentioned the possibility of going up tomorrow and dumping gear. The logistics of this trip must have been very hard for him given the diverse ability of group. We fell into two distinct groups with Kieran falling between the two and to some extent Phill who was very able although with much less experience. Kieran was apparently feeling much better now as was Tom C who was now on Diamox and Ibuprofen although he still suffered a constant headache which he described as 3/10. Despite this Tom was always checking up that everyone else was ok in his quiet caring way.
I was trying to drink well despite the fear that the consequence of this would be having to risk life and limb frequently having to make the toilet trek. I was feeling better hydrated now but I knew the difficulty of drinking enough would be further exacerbated at High Camp. This is a very cold camp and now the wind was howling around the tents, even inside and wearing gloves my fingers were cold as I wrote my diary and I realised how hard my shaky hand writing would be to decipher later. Suddenly I heard another avalanche, this time sounding very close, I rushed outside with my camera. It turned out it was on one of our potential routes which our Sherpas had come off half an hour earlier, a salutary reminder of the dangers we could face.
At tea Brian updated us on the plan. The Sherpas had found a suitable site for High Camp although it was not on the glacier and 300 metres lower than planned at 5350metres. We were told we would be heading there tomorrow after all, and they anticipated it would take us two to three hours to reach it. They also reported Karbu Ri now looked more difficult and also further away than they thought although they had seen two possible routes which they would explore tomorrow on our Rest Day. They had also considered going into Tibet and approaching the summit from ’round the back’. Despite the Sherpas saying Langdung still looked ‘impossible’ Brian was still keen to ‘give it a go’ although he assured us Karbu Ri remained our main objective. The perspective makes the height of mountains appear very deceptive, next to Karbu Ri Langdung looks so much more the 300 metres higher and it is hard to believe its mighty neighbour is only a further 300 metres higher still at 6600metres. I do worry Brian feels under pressure to top 6000metres and to at least attempt the mountain for which we have the permit. For me the journey so far has been amazing and I am already content with what I have achieved but this makes me question my determination to summit. I certainly do not want to let anyone down, least of all Catherine and Tom, but in my heart the summit does not seem so important now. After tea I joined Catherine to discuss the new plan. I was gutted that we were now going up to High Camp tomorrow. I had banked on another day at this camp which despite the dreadful terrain felt safe and peaceful under the fluttering prayer flags. As we spoke I got tearful as today had been a very emotional day and my confidence had ebbed away. I really wish the idea of a further day acclimatising here had never been mooted. Back in my own tent I finalised my packing for High Camp and as my feet were already cold in my normal walking boots wondered if having to wear double boots from now onwards would be a good thing after all. I decided today I would change from silk thermals to merino wool ones but I was still very cold in the mess tent at dinner. As ever I hoped there would be a message on the tracker for me. Although I was not lonely I was hoping everyone at home was following our progress but really wished I could contact them and let them know I was fine and very very happy.
Back in my tent it was lit up yellow by the amazing light of the moon which was almost as bright as daylight. I quickly got myself into my sleeping bag but then the worries started tumbling into my head. What if we were avalanched ? What if there was an earthquake ? Is the team suffering from Summit Fever and oblivious to the dangers ? Will we heed the Sherpas advice ? It was a noisy night as more avalanches crashed outside and I worried our route may have been taken out. I was panicking about the load carrying, what if I couldn’t carry my kit to High Camp ? I could hear zips being undone and people walking around, it seemed everyone was unsettled and in trepidation of what tomorrow would bring. My head was spinning around worrying about tomorrow, High Camp and the summit and then I began thinking about my life at home questioning my relationship with Roger, struggling with the memories of losing my Mum and the days and weeks after her death and how I had pushed everyone away and really had not come to terms with it. So many doubts, so many regrets. Memories, plans, invented conversations cascaded through my mind as I struggled to make sense of my feelings. Now, the night before a difficult trek to High Camp and the great unknown prospect ahead of us, was not the time for ‘sorting out my life’. But as I tried to bring my thoughts back to the ‘task in hand’ more panic filled my brain. I planned the conversations I would need to have with my family and Roger and vowed all these unspoken thoughts needed to be brought out and talked about. I tried to think rationally about tomorrow and beyond and reassure myself we had embarked on an incredible journey and trusted Brian to take us there safely. Still hoping tomorrows plan would be changed but with my wild head slightly calmer I finally fell into a fitful sleep.
I felt bad as soon as I woke up and my head was not in a good place. I was very, very tired but needed to get organised and pack my daysack with everything I would need at High Camp except our sleeping bags and thermarests which would be put into kit bags to be carried by the porters. Our days sacks would be absolutely stuffed making them very heavy and we would be wearing our big boots. The prospect of the day ahead filled me with dread. Already fully dressed as the temperature rose in my tent I felt nauseous as well.
By 10am we were ready to leave and with great difficulty I hoisted my rucksack on to my back bracing myself against the weight, although once on my back and the weight properly distributed through the hip strap it was not so bad. Perhaps it would be ok after all. Gwyn led off and I took my first few faltering steps but almost immediately Brian caught up with us and said for $10 two porters had offered to carry Catherine’s and my rucksacks. For a fleeting second I felt like a fraud and a weakling but immediately gratitude took over and I happily relinquished the bulging rucksack. Very soon after we started off some more porters came back offering to take Phill’s and Simon’s bags which they willingly handed over and later Brian also gave up his. Even without my load I was exhausted, struggling in big boots over the huge rough boulders. This was really tough.
Looking around it seemed everyone was struggling although Cat had again struck off on her own with her duffle bag. I felt so exhausted I scared myself. Initially Trijan helped me, even carrying my packed lunch and water and later Tom C who bizarrely seemed to be feeling better and better as we gained altitude. My head down and struggling to lift my leaden legs I hardly looked around at the amazing scenery although at one point I noticed an ice cave with such a perfect horizontal roof it did not look natural. Progress was slow and we rested frequently but there was little conversation. I felt I had no energy at all. Although I felt sure it was due to my lack of fitness and the altitude, the feeling of total exhaustion scared me. It felt horribly similar to the early stages of the Altitude Sickness I had suffered from on Elbrus which had suddenly progressed to what could have been life threatening HACE ( High Altitude Cerebral Oedema). When we rested and I was not concentrating so hard on just keeping going and finding safe footholds on the treacherous terrain, I felt panicky and told Tom F about my fears and explained about Elbrus. He was kind and reassuring. I felt safe with him and as we set off again we took an even slower pace together. When we were moving I felt better but at the next rest stop I started to panic again. This time I could not control it, I was hyperventilating and fighting for breath. Through a veil of tears I found myself looking into the blackness of Gwyn’s jacket as he stood over me talking quietly his hands resting gently on my shoulders. I do not know what he was saying but his calm voice was soothing to my troubled brain and his compelling calmness quickly reassured me. I soon felt stupid for getting into such a state and Brian came over for a chat. At this point Brian’s forthright attitude was what I needed to get things back into proportion and be able to set of again with renewed confidence. It had truly been a team effort to sort out my head !
Catherine had been doing brilliantly today, valiantly just getting on with dealing with her most hated terrain, and now as we walked together she was very encouraging and reassuring. Again Sherpas came back to meet us with juice which was very welcome and after a further twenty minutes Catherine and I came into camp together. For the final five minutes of the climb I had felt great ! We fell into our tent and I felt like I could have just slept but soon tea and biscuits were bought to us by the cooks. Here at High Camp we were sharing tents which was very cosy but too small for us to lay out our kit around us as we had before. Catherine and I took it in turns to take every thing out, sort it and repack our rucksacks in some sort of order.
The mess tent had not been erected so rather than eat in our tents we descended into the cook tent for dinner at 5.30pm. It was a dreadful experience as the arid kerosene fumes stung our eyes and caught in our throats. As soon as we had eaten and Brian had updated us on Gary’s progress we retired to our own tents. Gary had been kept in hospital over night but had now been released and was due to fly home tomorrow. Back in our tent Catherine told me how she had arranged for a helicopter to fly us all from High Camp back to Na after our summit attempts so we could all avoid the dreadful route down. This was unbelievable, I was shocked and amazed. What an incredibly generous gesture, I was lost for words. Only myself, Brian, Catherine and Trijan, who was responsible for organising it, knew of the plan and we would keep the secret until summit day.
I thought back over today and how great Gwyn had been but realised until that point he had seemed very distant today. True he often chose to be alone but today he had seemed more withdrawn than usual until his expertise was really needed to deal with an idiot who was falling apart when, in true Gwyn fashion, he immediately threw himself into action dealing with the problem calmly and efficiently but with great compassion. Pondering on this I was soon asleep and slept soundly until 10.30 pm. Waking I appreciated just how well I had slept, realising it was the first time I felt I had really slept rather than resting and dozing, this was bizarre at this altitude when normally proper sleep alludes you. I had an excellent night and at times was properly asleep but as I did not drink much overnight I woke with a bit of a headache. Drinking at night was difficult as I hated drinking hot water but even putting hot water into a bottle in a neoprene cover it was cold by midnight and frozen by the morning. I could not decide whether it was worse drinking warm water or very cold water but consistently struggled to drink much of either. In the toilet tent I noted my wee was quite light in colour so I was not particularly dehydrated so perhaps the headache was also partly due to the kerosene fumes from last night in the cook tent.
We ate breakfast al fresco and admired the amazing scenery around us. Behind our camp a vast rough ragged glacier stretched out looking impassable and then mighty rocky scree slopes rose up towards the ridge and there Karbu Ri sat, a beautiful snow dome. On the opposite side of the camp was a perfect mound for photos. The camp was very dusty and the fine grey sand particles got everywhere but it was an awesome place. All of our water was being bought up from the glacial river flowing out of the glacier where we would be going after breakfast for glacier practice. I was hoping for a full rest day today but the crampon practice was necessary as the plan was to set off for the summit at 1 am tomorrow morning. I was not sure how I felt about that and wished it was not so soon. I did not feel ready for the summit attempt. Brian assured us he thought Karbu Ri was definitely doable and our climbing Sherpas had already put in some fixed ropes although he seemed less convinced about Langdung now. He had finalised the plans for the groups we would climbing in and Catherine and I were to be roped with Dorje and Tom F. This worried Catherine as we had climbed with Dorje on Nar Phu Peak where he had been fast and his impatience on our descent had resulted in Catherine falling, injuring her knee and sustaining horrible painful bruising from the rope and her harness. However we felt reassured we would also be with Tom Furey in whom we had total confidence and felt we would be in safe hands.
With only our double boots to wear we were moving around this camp wearing just our inner boots which I was not happy about. The sharp grey sand here was very abrasive and I was upset about damaging the inners. But wearing double boots all the time would be very uncomfortable and exhausting and besides things like squatting in the toilet tent would be impossible in rigid plastic boots.
All too soon I was putting on my outer boots and heading down to the tongue of the glacier to practise climbing up onto the glacier and then moving safely. I found it difficult climbing the rough ice and realised this would be the very start of our summit ascent in a few hours time. We practised jumaring and Brian insisted that, although there were many valid techniques, we should all tie in in the same way and use the same standard method not least to make it easier for the the Sherpas and leaders to check we were all safe. Cat, defiant as ever, refused to conform insisting on doing things her own way. Ben tried to reason with her to promote team cohesion but she had little time for being a team player. It was a fun session and I managed quite well but I felt tired, had a headache and felt slightly nauseous. Ben, despite helping us all and supporting Brian was also feeling rough today. Gwyn belayed us off the glacier which I found difficult, although Gwyn assured me I could ‘just step down’ it was much further than I could ‘step’ with my short legs.
I was very tired after the glacier practice and fell asleep in our tent. Lunch was bought to our tents and afterwards I slept again. I felt like I would need to sleep for at least two solid days before going for the summit. Catherine was still a bit worried about us being roped with Dorje and his lack of patience on Nar Phu and the unsustainable pace he had set. I sought out Tom and explained our reservations and he was very reassuring, promising us we would move at a comfortable and safe speed for the slowest member of the team. I adjusted my inners again as they fitted very differently with the socks I had worn today and I would need to alter things again for my thicker summit socks. Dinner was early at 5pm and afterwards we retired to bed, I felt relaxed and happy snuggled into my sleeping bag and slept soundly. Despite the impending summit I had none of the worry and panic of last night. I was totally content and ready for tomorrow’s challenge.
We were woken at 1am with tent tea and a little later porridge. I did not feel like eating anyway but finding something slimy in my porridge which made me gag meant I could not eat any breakfast. I dressed quickly and felt well prepared as with 15 minutes to spare all I needed to do was put on my outer boots. I loosened them off and tried to push my foot into them while still in the tent. Quickly I realised this was just not going to happen and so crawled out of the tent to stand up to push my feet in but it was completely impossible. Even after fully loosening them I could not force my foot down into outers and I rapidly became breathless with effort and near to tears with the frustration. Brian was already gathering the team together when luckily Tom came to my rescue. He struggled to loosen them further, supported me as I tried to stand down in the boot and then he tried to pull away the tongue and sides of the boot and coax my reluctant feet in. How could this be so difficult when yesterday I had put them them on with little effort ? But now it was 1.30am, it was very cold, the boots very stiff and I was tired and feeling weak. This was not the best start to a summit attempt. By now Tom was also out of breath and I was close to despair when finally we succeeded. Quickly lacing them up I stumbled back into the tent to collect my rucksack with no time for calm reflection or even a final check of what I was taking. I was already exhausted. I stumbled down towards the others to find Phill also having boot issues as the zips had broken on both of his new £600 boots. This was his third, and fourth zip problem as he had already had a broken zip on his down jacket and his tent !
As I left my tent I noticed the reassuring smell of juniper smoke and realised Dowa had placed burning juniper outside each tent. He would be muttering prayers as we ascended and I was not sure whether I found that reassuring or not. It was -19° and everyone was keen to get moving and set off towards the base of the glacier. I followed on and when I arrived Tom noticed my water bottle was leaking and Dowa insisted I should abandon it. Everyone else was already attaching their crampons but with my already cold hands I could not wrench the clip closed onto the back of my boots and Mulan had to help me and do mine for me. I felt pathetic and dejected. I could not even put my boots on or my crampons and my paramo trousers were wet from the leaking water bottle. This was the beginning of a great challenge and I had failed before even starting.
Brian was clearly frustrated by the delays but finally with our head torches lit but hardly necessary in the bright moonlight the first group started ice climbing up onto the glacier. On our rope Catherine was tied in behind Dorje, then me with Tom at the back. Dorje set a painfully slow pace, probably at Brian and Tom’s insistence. He looked bored as he took a few slow steps and stopped and then a few more. It was draining to keep stopping and I wished he had set a slow but continuous pace. This seemed to go on for ever and my energy seemed to ebb away. The terrain was very difficult, partly rock and partly ice which meant you had to concentrate constantly watching every step and the mindless plodding of previous summits was impossible. This was exhausting mentally and physically. In the dark I struggled to get into a rhythm with the constant stops and my muscles tightened in the cold. I tried to concentrate on where I was putting my feet and at the same time tried to clear my mind of negative thoughts or indeed any thoughts. Every ounce of energy needed to be directed at my feet and the slow slow zig zagging ascent. Time passed without words and everything became blank as we took a few steps and stopped, a few steps and stopped, over and over and over again. Would it ever end ? Would it ever get light ? Would anything ever change ?
At one rest quite early on Dorje heard on the radio that Gwyn had turned back unwell. I couldn’t believe it and was gutted for him. I had never had any doubts about Gwyn reaching the top. Despite being one of the weakest in the group, now I was on my way I never doubted I would reach the summit. How ever slow, I just knew I could keep going and would reach the top. On and on and on. I was very aware of avoiding frostbite this time and was constantly clenching and wriggling my toes but although my feet were cold my hands were much worse. They were painfully cold despite warm liners and down mitts, I made a great effort to squeeze and wriggle my fingers but it became more and more difficult. Sadly I began to think I as not sure if I would ever be able to do this sort of thing again. I banged my hands together and hit my arms against my body but all it did was sap my energy and as the pain subsided I realised I had lost feeling in my fingers. I was scared now. Please not again. Please do not let me damage my fingers. Despite all the pain and inconvenience damaging my toes again would be preferable. I knew I needed help and spoke to Tom. He held my wrists and violently pumped my arms to improve circulation to my extremities and then vigorously rubbed my hands and finally engaged Dorje’s help placing my pale rigid hands into their armpits inside their cosy down jackets. Some feeling did return and again I could painfully flex my fingers a bit but now the numb pain returned as we all set off again.
We crossed back and forth on the glacier gradually winding our way up the ramps making our way to the scree slope of moraine to the left and once on the rock we stopped to remove our crampons. It was steeper here and we struggled up the rough scree, through large boulders and then much later finally back onto the ice of the main glacier. As we looked up we were overshadowed by the mighty Langdung as she loomed to our left, huge and imposing. Looking around now we could just discern the dark shadows of the amazing mountains and closer the dark cracks of crevasses and ice caves as we slowly continued our zig zag path. Every now and then we heard cracks and bangs from within the glacier just as we heard overnight in our tents. Then they had sounded ominous but somehow we now felt part of the landscape and the gentle groans were almost reassuring. Slowly the sky brightened almost imperceivably as we plodded on and on thinking of nothing except watching our step and trying to keep the rope from going slack.
On the main glacier we continued to zig zag but here it was much wider and there was more snow on it. Now in better light we could see glistening crevasses, so beautiful and pristine. I was sad not be able to stop to take photographs and hoped I would have the chance on the way down. The dawn bought a little warmth and lifted our spirits. My body had been warm all along and now, although still cold, my feet and hands felt better. Far, far ahead a snow covered double hump came into view as we made our way onward and upwards on a great expanse. In all directions there were amazingly beautiful mountains and on our left the massive craggy Langdung, a great inspiring mountain but clearly an arduous rock climb. As soon as Brian and the others saw the ominous rocky towers they immediately dismissed any ideas of a summit attempt.
Suddenly I realised it was broad daylight as the night had retreated without me even realising it. I was on a beautiful white sea of snow and everywhere was bright and fresh. Leaving Langdung behind us we headed to our right again along a broad ridge and realised the ‘summit’ we had seen from basecamp and had been aiming for was not the true summit at all. Far far ahead and to the left lay the highest point on a second peak and on it were three tiny, tiny black specks. Brian, Tom C and Munal were already there on the summit. Munal had been feeling ill and, aiming to summit and get down as quickly as possible, had lead Brian and Tom storming to the summit arriving by 5.30 am ! There was still a long, long way to go but the summit was in sight. We only had to keep going, keep putting one foot in front of the other, we would make it. We all would make it.
Now we all knew we would all be standing on top of Karbu Ri, standing where no one had ever stood before. We would all be First Ascenters. Karbu Ri would be ours. I didn’t feel relieved or even elated. In truth, once I had overcome the hassles of getting prepared and made those first faltering steps up onto the glacier I had known in my heart this moment would come. I felt at peace and content. How ever long it took now I could just keep walking and I would get there. I tried to be realistic and make myself appreciate the task ahead, the relentless uphill slog and the massive distance still to reach our goal but my thoughts resisted any concept of doubt. I knew it was simply a matter of time be it minutes or hours. Instinctively I quickened my pace and resolutely strode out. I was on my way to the summit of Karbu Ri. In that moment I was completely happy and I felt almost weightless as easily I almost wandered onward and upward. In reality it was difficult and I was tired but now my mind was in charge ignoring my exhausted aching body and carrying me towards the summit. We were now walking along the ridge dividing Nepal from Tibet and heading towards the true summit of Karbu Ri which stood in Tibet and soon we looked down into the vast expanse of the Tibetan Plateau.
The Sherpas pointed out Cho Oyu in the distance and I gazed in wonderment at the sight of one of the 8000m peaks. On and on we trudged and finally we were all together on the summit at 9am. There was a huge crevasse between us and the actual top and quickly Sherpas drove in iceaxes and ensured we were all securely tied on to them. There were emotional hugs and a few high fives but I was totally awe struck and after hugging Brian stood looking around me in wonderment, drinking in the amazing view. Mighty mountains, the desolate plateau, the pristine glistening snow and us, Team Karbu Ri on top of our summit. It did not feel like an achievement now, it just felt right. Time stood still as did the silent empty world all around us. Brian was talking to Munal who was pointing across the valley and suddenly Brian let out his characteristic whoop. I half heard one word and immediately thought I must have misheard it. ‘Everest.’ What were they saying ? Brian’s face was beaming as he came over waving his arm behind him repeating the word, ‘Everest.’ I’m not sure who asked the question but suddenly we were all talking at once and struggling with cold hands to get out cameras and photograph the highest mountain in the world.
I had thought I would never have the chance to actually see Everest for real and now I was standing on top of my second unclimbed peak with a unique view of Everest. This was totally amazing. Brian was now pointing out the other mighty peaks, Cho Oyu, Pimori, Lhotse and in Tibet, Shishapangma, although looking across several valleys they looked much less imposing than I had expected.
Brian was now organising ropes, stakes and our blessed prayer flags and saying five of us could join him to try to get around the crevasse and on to the slightly higher true summit.
I gave Brian my Mum’s ribbon and watched through tear filled eyes as he carefully tied it to the prayer flags and promised he would take a photograph of it for me. Brian, Cat, Kieran, Phill and Tom Furey roped up and set off carefully climbing down to where they could cross safely and then slowly and painstakingly up the other side.
The rest of us on short ropes tied in to our ice axes started to feel cold but could not move around much to keep warm but soon Brian, letting out another even greater whoop, was opposite us on the true summit and tying down the prayer flags.
Despite the gaping crevasse dividing the team it still felt like the whole team was together at the summit. A few photos and then they were heading back to us. Brian recorded the summit as 5998metres and lined us up for various team photos with different cameras, we raised our arms, cheered and smiled and only much, much later would we realise that had we faced the other way we could have had Everest as our back drop ! We were a depleted team of 14 including our 4 Sherpas and with a twinge of regret we remembered our team mates, Allan, Gary and Gwyn who weren’t sharing this moment with us. Brian congratulated us all and then told the team about Catherine’s amazingly generous gesture providing us all with a helicopter ride from High Camp back to Na. At first most of the team were lost for words as it sank in, then thanks and hugs and smiles. Brian told us that while we were summiting our porters back at camp had been charged with levelling an area to build a suitable helipad.
All too soon we were turning away from our fluttering prayer flags, turning our backs on Everest and heading down. I felt confused. I felt I should be sad to be leaving the summit but I was just content and happy. The whole ascent, the time at the summit, the descent was rolled into one awesome experience. One time of feeling at peace with myself and at peace with the world. I had no real thoughts, no feelings. I was just existing in the moment feeling fulfilled and at peace.
As we set off, just as before, only taking a few slow steps before stopping over and over again, it seemed less frustrating on the descent. There was no urgency now and Catherine, Simon, Phill and I were happy to go slowly, appreciate the scenery we had missed on the way up and did not mind waiting while each of us took the photographs which we had been unable to do on the ascent.
Brian was less content with the pace bullying Catherine to speed up and discouraging especially Simon from taking photographs assuring us he had taken loads which we could all share. It was not the same though so we resisted his encouragement to keep going and defiantly photographed the beautiful glacier, the ice caves and wonderful icicles.
Later we came to a plain where the ice had been whipped into shapes which resembled wave like ripples on sand. Catherine was freaked out by coming down but except for an occasional slip she was doing fine. The youngsters had bounded off ahead and Brian, who had spent a long time on the summit waiting for the rest of us, was keen to get down quicker, so eventually he left Catherine and I with Dorje and a young Sherpa from Lukla to come down together. It was a slow but happy descent and even as all of the rest of the team were lost from view below us we trudged on contentedly. Back on the rough glacier Catherine felt less confident again.
The smaller Sherpa carried her rucksack as well as a huge rope bag and initially kept trying to take my hand to steady me as well. But I was fine on my own so they walked either side of Catherine and I followed on behind quite happy, slowly and carefully watching my step. Eventually Trijan came to meet us and we noted with amusement he was not wearing crampons. He insisted on taking my rucksack and sent our young Sherpa on ahead. For a while he walked with us then he too headed back to High Camp leaving just Dorje to accompany Catherine and I. Now I was leading on the ice and as Dorje had a very quiet voice every now and again Catherine was calling out his instructions from behind, “More left,” “More Right,” “Head upwards”. I was feeling amazingly well and confident but was happy to accompany Catherine who was tense and fell a few times on the moraine and then on the glacier. We were moving very slowly but it was fine. We had all the time in the world and Catherine and I were true buddies and glad to share the whole experience of summit day together. Far below us we could now see people back at High Camp patiently watching us as we made our way slowly down.
Suddenly a crash rang out behind us and looking back we saw the dust cloud accompanying the rockfall onto our earlier route. I swallowed hard and tried to ignore the worrying thoughts creeping into my brain.
Most of the team had been back at High Camp by 4pm but as we trudged into camp much later they all came to greet us. Brian held out his arms to hug Catherine but winced in pain as she accidentally ‘cramponned’ his foot now clad only in his inner boots. Gwyn came too despite looking dreadful and suffering with a bad gut, he hugged us both warmly and congratulated us. We hugged him back but felt guilty that he had helped us so much earlier on but had been unable to share the elation of reaching the summit himself. We were so disappointed for him, and for the team which a few hours ago had stood together and triumphant but incomplete. Following the team members was Mankarji and his cook assistants bringing us lovely soup which was very welcome. We guzzled it eagerly suddenly realising how hungry we were.
We had not had time to read any of the Good Luck messages on the tracker before we had set off but Brian told us he would share the 26 we had received later. I got into our tent, removed my heavy boots and changed into thermals under my clothes. When Catherine got undressed I noticed both her legs were very badly bruised, testimony to her falls on the way down. I endured the horrors of the toilet tent and on my way back spoke to Phill who had had to cut both his boots off because the zips were broken and unmovable. On getting back to camp Brian had checked that the helipad was ready but now he gave us bad news. He had been informed that the helicopter would now not be coming to High Camp as they would only fly that high in an emergency but we would be walking down to Basecamp and the helicopter would take us from there to Na. I did not want my rice and dahl so my dinner consisted of soup followed by jammy dodgers. Retiring into my sleeping bag I was soon in a deep dreamless sleep. I woke feeling thirsty, needing the toilet and as my hip was aching I needed to turn over. I pressed the backlight on my watch, it was 2.30am. Next thing I knew it was 7am and I had done none of those things obviously having fallen back asleep straight away after checking the time !
Tent tea arrived at 8am and we assembled for a leisurely breakfast at 9am. Gwyn’s gut had been improving last night and Brian had hoped that today with one Sherpa he would be able to summit after all but it was not to be. Gwyn had woken with respiratory problems and had collapsed when trying to get up. He was suffering from HAPE and Brian had already organised another helicopter evacuation so a helicopter would now be coming to High Camp after all. Brian told us Munal, our lead climbing guide who had summited first with him, was also being evacuated having been been coughing up blood yesterday on the summit !
At breakfast Brian read all 37 Good Luck messages which had now arrived including one from Rebecca and one from Ali, who I had randomly met on the Glyders in Wales and become friends. I was a little sad not to have heard from Natasha or Roger. Kieran, of course, had several from his wife, Dawn, telling him about all the publicity on local radio for his fundraising campaign for JDRF supporting her diabetic son, Reuben. After breakfast we relaxed and waited for the helicopter which was due at 10am. By 9.40 Gwyn was waiting at the carefully constructed helipad built by the Sherpas yesterday as we were summiting. Some of us read, some wrote our diaries, while others just relaxed and drank in the atmosphere admiring the scenery and the quiet contentment of yesterday’s success. I was feeling cold today despite the perfect clear blue sky again and my throat was sore. Brian received news that the helicopter would be another hour and a half and led Gwyn the 25 yards back to his tent. He stopped repeatedly as Gwyn could hardly walk, but despite looking awful he was still cheerfully talking to the rest of the team. By the time the helicopter finally arrived Gwyn was much weaker and staggered to the helipad half carried by Brian and Tom. It was very worrying to see his deterioration and especially knowing there was no medic on board for the one and a half hour flight back to Kathmandu. As we watched the helicopter fall into the valley and held our breath willing it to gain lift, we had heavy hearts.
With Gwyn gone and the summit day over there was nothing to do but relax and we were all feeling a bit deflated. A slight air of despondency descended over the camp. We all felt tired and weak. There was little conversation though inwardly I thought every one was wishing we were descending today. In some ways I wanted to move on, but in others I was totally content sitting here, still out of touch with the real world. Despite having reached the summit I was feeling flat, reality had not sunk in. My head was empty and I could not decide how I felt. I knew if I thought too much I would get emotional. Overall I had been fine although early on on the trek I always felt emotional when talking to people and could hear my voice wavering despite feeling fine inside. Later Brian insisted on a post summit interview for the film and as usual I cried although I was not the only one as Phill was also overcome with emotion.
It seemed an age ago when, at the first two camps, Brian had reluctantly agreed for people to leave the camp so long as he was told where they were going but after that he had insisted no one should leave the camps at all. Today Cat had insisted going off climbing with a Sherpa, who Brian said was to be in charge, but they still took a route Brian had explicitly advised against. We were not sure if Brian had relinquished responsibility for Cat but Phill, taking a photo of them, wryly remarked, “in case it’s the last time we see her.”
Looking around us we marvelled at the glacier we had climbed yesterday, it looked impossible and I couldn’t believe we had successfully conquered it never mind what we had achieved higher up the mountain. Later, taking a picture of a minuscule Cat and her guide on the scree I was amazed at how long the scree slope was in reality.
The rest of us talked together about our achievement. Brian felt it had been harder than Nar Phu Peak although the weather this time had been infinitely kinder. I did not agree as I had found it easier but was still immensely proud of our success and actually seeing Everest had been awesome. We all felt sad for Gary and Gwyn and also for Allan even though his early departure had been before the team had become so firmly bonded. Tomorrow held a certain dread for all of us, especially Catherine, and we were all thinking about the dreadful prospect of tackling the horrible bouldery moraine in our big boots although we had been promised plenty of porters to carry all the kit down. There had already been lots of changes of plans and now Brian told us he was thinking of staying in the teahouses on the way down partly to put some money into the local economy but also as our kit may not reach us until late.
I had eaten at breakfast and lunch but, as had often been the case, could not face dinner and my sore throat was getting worse. Catherine was a kind tent buddy but as I lay in my sleeping bag sad thoughts crept into my head. I thought about my Mum who had died 2 months earlier, worried about my Dad who was so lost without her and the family rift with my brother and then thoughts about Roger and the worries about our relationship. Jumbled thoughts, genuine worries, imagined worries and improbable scenarios cascaded through my mind and finally I fell into a fitful sleep punctuated by bad dreams. I woke with a burning throat and crunched on Tyrozets while longing for morning and the chance to escape my overactive brain awash with conflicting emotions. I tried to relax, tried to close my mind. I really wanted to sleep but it alluded me.
Finally morning came and although chilly again there was a clear blue sky devoid of clouds. Despite sleeping badly I was in a positive frame of mind today and ready to face the two hour rocky descent back to Base Camp. The plan had been for porters to carry all our kit down including our day sacks so I had packed accordingly, stuffing my coat pockets and aiming to just carry my water bottles. But now there were insufficient porters so all our sleeping bags and thermarests went into a big bag with all the climbing kit to be carried by porters and everything else we would carry ourselves in our daysacks. A quick repack was called for but somehow I struggled to pack efficiently. Today I could not face porridge for breakfast but managed two chapatis and some omelette. By 9am we were ready to leave and Ben leading set a good slow pace. I was tired but happy and quite enjoyed the terrain. It was difficult weighed down by our big boots, not knowing how big your feet were and struggling to balance while being unable to flex your ankles.
At the start Brian helped me over the difficult bits but quickly I gained confidence and was happy on my own. I had little memory of this route on the way up other than having felt exhausted as that had been my bad day. The terrain was not as bad as I expected although I remembered it heading straight up and so was surprised to find it undulating up and down repeatedly. Strange how my memories of that difficult day were so inaccurate.
Most of the way down we could see our Base Camp, tiny, tiny yellow blobs far, far below. Although it was only a 200 metre drop it seemed much more. Two thirds of the way down a Sherpa came up to meet us. He walked close to the group but did not speak although I think he was hoping to be given bags to carry to earn a tip. I was feeling confident and coping fine at my own slow place but when he tried to help me by taking my arm, this threw me off balance. I wanted to be alone but did not want to offend him as he was so keen to help. Full of admiration I watched the Sherpas skilfully descending. How did these people get to be so footsure, instinctively stepping onto secure rocks and deftly kicking out unstable ones ? It was a tiring walk as we had to concentrate so hard and it felt longer than the two hours it took us. Catherine who had worried so much about the descent was helped by two Sherpas but still reached the camp ahead of the rest of us. As we arrived back at Base Camp we remembered the dreadful terrain there but actually it did not seem so bad now. Ben reminded us to thank the Puja as we passed it for keeping us safe and to always go under the prayer flags. I staggered to the Puja and placed both hands on it. A warmth permeated through my body. I felt very emotional, safe and happy. We were home. Home at Base Camp.
As people had already claimed all the tents in the front row I ended up with a longer walk from mine to the mess tent although I would be closer to the toilet tent. Later, reunited with my kit, I was excited to find a clean T shirt, pants and socks for tomorrow ! Catherine came over for a chat and told me Brian had asked her if she and I wanted to fly all the way back to Kathmandu tomorrow. I must have looked shocked. What had made Brian suggest that ? Didn’t Brian think I could do the walk out ? I was very disappointed and confused. I did want to do the walk out and, as I don’t really like Kathmandu, the two days planned to be there would be plenty. I remembered that last night Catherine had said that assuming Gwyn was discharged from hospital he would probably only wait in Kathmandu if someone else from the team was going to be there too. I did not want to have any impact on his decision to stay or not and did not want to foul up any plans Brian may have made, but I did want to trek out. On our way to lunch Catherine joined me again and assured me Brian hadn’t meant anything by it and it was only an idea. At lunch we all signed the Expedition Wise banner ready to be framed and hung with pride at Brian’s office. Afterwards I went to talk to Brian and he assured me I would be fine walking out and there was no way any one would be flying back to Kathmandu unless they wanted to. I told him how happy I was and he responded with, “Well, you know the plan for next year is a much easier peak with no glacier – a genuine trekking peak !!!” He was already recruiting for the next Unclimbed Peak Expedition !
At 2.10pm the sun disappeared and the temperature plummeted as though a switch had been turned off. I quickly changed into thermals under my day clothes and back in my tent thought about how I was feeling. Of course I am tired and sometimes had felt breathless especially when using the toilet tent and when drinking cold water in the night but overall I felt well acclimatised and my head was in a very good place. I am only occasionally thinking about the problems at home and most of the time I am only thinking about me and this wonderful place. This is MY time. I feel this is selfish but I now I have come to realise I cannot support anyone else until I am strong enough to support myself and perhaps this Me-time is what I need. It seems crazy that now, nearer to 60 years old than 50, I chose to spend my Me-time forcing my battered body (and head) up to 6000 metres on a difficult glacial trek. Today I am feeling much better about the summit and a little proud of myself although not wanting to admit that once we had started, I never doubted that I would reach the summit. I know it sounds arrogant but I had felt confident. To think I had stood at 5998 metres in Tibet in view of Everest where only us 13 people may ever stand. People will say, “Congratulations” and “Awesome” but they will never understand the huge emotional weight and the physical and mental burden of achieving what, in the cold light of day in Suffolk, had seemed an impossible dream. As one of Kieran’s messages said ‘We were standing on top of our worlds’.
Now I started to think about the publicity in the local papers and on local radio which would hopefully help my fund-raising but really it is not about publicity at all, in fact the publicity would embarrass me. I have done what I set out to achieve. I am happy in myself and don’t care if no one else ever knows about this. This is my dream and my fulfilment. This is ME. This is who I really am. It is so hard to be a good daughter, sibling, mother, partner or even colleague. I have never felt I have succeeded in any of those roles, probably because they are roles you can never truly be successful in. But this was different, this was a challenge I took on myself and achieved. I feel good inside. I am, for this time, truly happy. I know the feeling will fade which is why I need to write it down now. But I was also part of a great team, I haven’t achieved this on my own and I hope I will never have the arrogance to write anything that suggests that. From Brian saying, “Of course you can do it,” to my family and Roger saying, “Go for it,” and then on the actual trip, the gentle pat on the shoulder, the reassuring hand reached out as I felt unsteady and the quietly muttered encouragement from my team mates. The camaraderie of being in this together and every one wanting so much for everyone in the team to succeed. A few days ago I was writing that the summit didn’t really matter but having achieved it, it does matter. It matters so very much. All ten of us and our four sherpas had all reached our personal summits and stood together on top of Karbu Ri. I can’t thank everyone in the team enough for making this possible. And it is with huge sadness that I remember two great inspirational team members were not there with us in our moment of glory. Although without their encouragement and enthusiasm I’m not sure that I for one, would have made it without them. Gwyn and Gary, you were there on top of Karbu Ri in my heart.
During tea another avalanche crashed down the mountain side and we all rushed outside to watch it as it went on and on gathering in intensity. Brian told us another porter had had to go down because of HAPE, the unfortunate lad came from Lukla at 2000m and with so little work around he had not been able to acclimatise properly. We had also heard Gwyn had now been discharged from hospital. Most of us stayed in the mess tent all afternoon playing the Two Truths One Lie game learning bizarre facts about our team mates. Ben had done a Health and Safety Assessment on a toilet for Prince Charles, Phill had told Keith Chegwin to ‘F. Off’, Catherine had been given a lift by Richard Branson and Simon had developed a strong Australian accent while living there as a boy. I did not have much appetite for dinner and declined the eggs in sauce but managed about half my soup, two potato croquettes and some prawn crackers followed by a little piece of pear. It was strange really but I had been fantasising about food for the last couple of days and had planned things I really fancied for when I got home. I was yearning for roast beef with dauphinoise potatoes and a ciabatta roll stuffed with Greek salad and feta cheese !
This camp was very, very cold and in the mess tent my feet in trainers were frozen and even on the table the temperature was only 2º. At 7pm I headed for the toilet tent aiming to retire to my sleeping bag immediately afterwards. As I waited for the toilet tent, I noticed the amazing moonless sky, a fabulous dome of more stars than you could imagine. It was so beautiful but I realised we now took these wonderful sights for granted. Soon I was wearing all my clothes including my down jacket. I had pulled the toes of my thick socks off my feet leaving a pocket of warm air at the ends and had gloves on as I sat in my sleeping bag reading. Having packed away my balaclava and fleece lined mountain hat I was back to wearing a buff beanie. Once I settle down I will remove my down jacket and nestle my feet into it inside my sleeping bag. However I struggled to fall asleep and so by 9.45pm was writing my diary, recording my thoughts and thinking about how I looking forward to drinking Lassi and eating crisps ! Having not managed much dinner I now felt hungry so ate a cereal bar. By now I was warm and tried to undo my sleeping bag zip but caught the fabric in the zipper and it took me ages to free it. This was the first night I had not fallen asleep early but I was not unhappy. I thought about my friend Jan who had just been diagnosed with secondary cancer and realised for the first time I was now looking forward to having phone reception again in 4 days time. I felt some slight trepidation about the next few days as I was unsure about sleeping in the teahouses and started to worry about the possibility of infestations of bed bugs. I had thought I would get a gift for Tom to thank him for his support but instead decided to help him pay for the extra night at the Malla Hotel in Kathmandu as he was keen not to have to stay elsewhere and split up the team but was struggling on a very tight budget.
We were now all in single tents again spread out over a wider area. So far tonight I had not heard any snoring but there was a lot of coughing all around the camp. All night long avalanches crashed but they were so frequent we hardly noticed them now. I must have slept but not soundly because I woke up some how twisted in my sleeping bag and falling off the edge of my thermarest.
The next morning after breakfast we were just waiting around for the helicopter with nothing to do as everything was packed up. Some people were reading or writing diaries, some chatted but everyone seemed tired and a bit deflated. Kieran looked especially exhausted as he had been struggling with his appetite from prior to summit day and seemed to have exhausted his reserves of energy and enthusiasm. Now he had decided, with some encouragement from Brian, to return to Kathmandu with Catherine having successfully summitted Karbu Ri, our Unclimbed Peak. Job done.
Initially we were told there was a two hour delay for the helicopter but time stretched on without news. I had expressed an interest in the rocks on the ridge and Catherine suggested I asked Cat who then gave me an impromptu geology lesson which in truth was more detailed that I needed. She showed me the large rocks she had collected and secreted in her duffle bag to take home. Finally we heard the gentle buzz of the helicopter which drew nearer and louder and finally it came into view at the edge of the valley. We all stood up alongside the ‘helipad’ build on the ridge and waited as it seemed to pass us by far away to right. It seemed strange it was not flying directly to us but as we were the only bodies exposed in the middle of a deserted valley on a blank ridge surely he could not miss us. Too late we started to wave and Brian commandeered Tom’s red jacket. In disbelief we watched it fly higher and higher up the valley to our High Camp before circling it twice and then heading back down the valley. We waved frantically as it passed us by descending back to Na. Finally it reappeared after the pilot had dropped off his co pilot and picked up Phurba, the teahouse owner, to help him find us. Phurba climbed out of the helicopter and Brian, Phill and Simon clambered in with as many bags as the pilot would allow and then they were gone. The two Toms and Cat made up the second load and then me with Ben and Mankarji leaving just Catherine, Kieran and Phurba on the ridge with the remaining kit. There seemed to be a lot of confusion over how many people were to be flown down and it appeared the pilot was expecting 7 people (3+4) rather than 12 (3×4) ! It was not clear how the confusion had arisen as Trijan had made all the arrangements. At Na young girls were refuelling the helicopter while the engine was still running, pouring fuel through a crude plastic spout made from half a water cannister. Beside his helicopter the pilot was saying he was short on oxygen and so would not make the final run. Mankarji came out with some masala tea for every one and the pilot posed in front of the helicopter for photos. Then without further discussion he climbed back in, presumably refuelled by the masala tea, and flew back to Base camp to collect the others. On their return the helicopter was refuelled again and all too soon Catherine, Kieran and Phurba, who had randomly decided he needed to go to Kathmandu, took off again and they were gone. We waved rather forlornly, shouting messages for Gwyn and promising to see them soon and then, standing together in front of the tea house looked one to another……. and so then there were 8.
We went into the Phurba’s teahouse and looked around. It seemed surprisingly comfortable although I was still worried about bedbugs, lice etc. I decided I would be sleeping in my sleeping bag and not using the provided pillow. Behind a door marked ‘Toilet’ there was a proper toilet bowl on a floor built of small rocks which you ‘flushed’ with a bucket of water but there was no evidence of where anything would drain to ! There was also a room marked ‘Shower’ which was intriguing but simply consisted of the same rock floor, a bucket and a pair of flip flops to wear. The Sherpas walking down with the rest of our bags did not arrive until late afternoon. We ate lunch and then played cards, a Nepalese game called Doma which got very competitive and became a favourite pastime on our descent. As we chilled out it felt weird being a depleted team of only 8 and we all felt a bit flat and sad. But we were still a good team and looked forward to being reunited with Catherine, Kieran and Gwyn in Kathmandu. During the afternoon the yak dung stove was lit which was very warm but uncomfortably smoky. We were all tired despite having done nothing all day but when I retired to my room and realised it could be locked from the outside my sleep was fitful and punctuated by nightmares about being trapped or imprisoned.
The next morning we set off on the long trek to Kylache, the youngsters set off very fast while the OFs and Cat went slower but still at reasonable pace. Brian started off with us but later got ahead and we all ended up very spread out. Every one was quite content plodding along at their own pace admiring the amazing scenery as we followed the Rolwalling Khole. The porters soon passed us weighed down by massive loads of our kit which even though they seemed so small and young they managed with apparent ease. We felt uneasy and wished we could help but knew there was no way we would manage.
It was a beautiful walk but it soon got hot and I felt under pressure to keep up with everyone else and so tired quickly. As we descended my knees protested, first my right knee was screaming then the left.
We came to a huge pine tree, the tallest in the area, which was surrounded with mani stones like a stupa so we respectfully passed by on its left side. Beding Go came into view towering majestically to our right and behind it mountains which stood in Tibet. As we walked close to the river I noticed the green fronds like cobwebs which hung draped from the tree wafting in the slight breeze were long and luscious on the far bank where as on our side they were pale and stunted only hanging down a few inches.
At Beding we passed between both cows and dzos grazing by the river and found the rest of our group already rested and waiting for us. I had the donations we had collected to give to the monastery and also wanted to show Brian the inside which he had missed when he was bringing Allan into camp what now seemed so long ago ! A huge amount of work had been achieved in the monastery since our last visit and we admired the craftmanship of the carving. Many more artefacts had been moved into the living quarters and the monks planned to move everything back into its proper place in the next 2 weeks. As I came out of the monastery the others were preparing to set off again and I realised I had had no chance to rest.
Again we quickly got spread out and Phill set a fast pace ahead of the rest of the OFs. We came to the place where the leaders had crossed the river via a low bridge but Simon and I chose to climb up to the higher suspension bridge.
Soon we were in a desolate area and felt sad and depressed as we passed through the abandoned villages and noticed two houses destroyed by the earthquake which we had missed on our earlier trek up the valley. As we walked, the river always thundered along beside us although it was not always in sight as we wove along the lovely forest track. Later we passed through the bamboo area where the plants towered over our heads and suddenly we came across a shrine in the middle of nowhere adorned with orange flowers and petals.
For ages now the rest of the team had been out of sight but now I was really struggling with the pace and felt totally exhausted. Despite worrying about how far behind we thought we were I suggested a break and Simon and Cat seemed pleased to join me. I hungrily ate some jelly babies and then started my lunch. It was only a short rest but I felt rejuvenated as we set off again and within a few minutes the path opened out and we came upon the remote tea house where the rest of the team were already resting and had ordered milky teas and canned drinks. Brian told us he had stopped and waited for us to catch up and it turned out he had been waiting around a corner only about 50 yards ahead of where we were also stopped for our Jelly Baby break. As butterflies fluttered around us I also drank milky tea which was made with hot sweet milk. I would have preferred masala tea but this still made a nice change from water or black tea.
When we left the remote tea house Ben and the two Toms rushed off again but the rest of us set a slower pace. Despite my knees aching I couldn’t help but love trail through the forest, the smooth lichen covered boulders and the beautiful views which opened up before us every time we came out of the trees for a while.
Phill was struggling now and looked totally worn out but his ‘knackered’ pace was a good normal pace for me. The next time we caught up with the youngsters was at Dovan where they were soaking up the sun lying on the dry grass. I was far too hot and sought out some shade. After a rest we set out again and Brian insisted on taking Phill’s bag. We set off uphill again on steep steps and soon we were back passing the place where I had hit my head and this time one of the guides nimbly walked over the roof, effortlessly balancing on the narrow logs. It was only 40 minutes to Kylache and after a bit more up and down we arrived to find only a tiny patch of sun left as the rest of camp was in shadow and already getting chilly.
Rooms were allocated and I was the only one on the ground floor where the walls had been damaged by the earthquake and the deep cracks had been plastered over.
The upper storey had been rebuilt and it boasted a new balcony which later Brian and I leaned on staring out at the darkening mountains counting our innumerable blessings. The sky turned vivid blue via purple as the sun painted the mountain tops golden which contrasted starkly with the black skeletal trees in the foreground. We felt hugely privileged to be here. So many people will never see this or feel the peace and tranquillity this experience brings. I felt supremely happy but also very, very sad that this was all coming to an end. Tomorrow we will have a 3 or 4 hour trek and have our last night in a teahouse. Then the next day will be an early start for a steep downhill trek and in less than 2 hours we will meeting our bus and heading away from this place of pure peace to the chaos of Kathmandu.
Tom and Ben chatted about Cat and joked about me ‘taking one for the team’ by succumbing to the geology lesson while waiting for the helicopter. By the time we assembled for tea Phill had recovered and looked fine now. I opted for milky tea again. As it got dark Trijan realised some of our bags had still not arrived and sent out porters to meet the Sherpanis and young lads who had apparently stopped at Dovan when it got dark as they had no head torches. They had walked all day, the lads carrying 45kg, the women 30kg on their heads, some of them with neither food or water despite it being a very hot day. We hoped they weren’t struggling with Cat’s kitbag in which she had stowed her huge rock haul. As we sat down for dinner we eyed up what looked like chocolate brownies but they turned out to be lovely croutons to go in our soup. This was followed by pizza, vegetable pies containing potato, cheese and grated carrot along with spaghetti and sauce.
Today while I had been walking often on my own I had had plenty of time to think and had been looking back over last couple of years. Initially there was the frostbite sustained in Nepal on my last expedition followed by a surgery on a breast lump which thankfully turned out to be benign, investigation of a suspicious cervical mass and then the horrible deterioration of Mum’s health and her slow passing passing away in September and the fact I had not been able to grieve, trying desperately to hold it all together for everyone else especially my Dad. I had my long standing knee injury and then hurt my back trying to train for this trek with a weighted rucksack and had seen a physiotherapist 3 days before flying out to Nepal. I had the ongoing worry of a daughter in a bad relationship and was unsure about my own relationship with Roger. And yet here in Nepal everything seemed clearer, I could rationalise things and understand my feelings. Here I could think straight and make plans. I realised I needed to live for me and do my thing. I hope I can go back with a better attitude and more determined to be content and follow my dreams.
I was feeling quite tired and retired to my bed thinking what a bizarre existence this was. I was wearing my down jacket sitting in my sleeping bag in a room that could only be locked from the outside as it did not close well enough to lock from the inside, writing my diary with the aid of my headtorch and still listening to the thundering river deep in the valley. No one who had not been on an expedition could ever understand the contentment and peace I was feeling. Admittedly I was hoping that in two days time when we had phone reception again I would get lots of messages as I was feeling a little neglected and forgotten although I also felt strangely liberated by not being able to keep in touch with home and Roger. By 8.25pm I was ready for sleep.
Next day we set off to trek to Simigaon. Our trail took us through beautiful forests filled with birdsong and past huge waterfalls.
Beside the path I noticed a fascinating rock glistening with papery flakes of silver which you could peel off and flex like plastic.
We passed porters carrying large 6’x4′ boards tied to their backs taking them all the way up to Beding. There was lots of descent but also some very steep ascents up steps and today it was my shins which ached.
Phill was struggling today but Cat who was with us was reassuring and helped him, but when we caught up with Brian she tried to tell Brian how he should be treated and another disagreement ensued. Simon was also hobbling due to impressive blisters which Brian carefully dressed for him although Simon managed not to show him his other foot which was in a much worse state with an infected bleeding ingrowing toenail ! We passed a twisted suspension bridge crumpled like paper by the earthquake last year.
Coming out of the forest we looked across at a single house nestling on the mountain on the opposite side of the valley and terraces of crops. Just before camp we came across planted cereal on our side of the valley and when we reached our camp millet had been laid out to dry on large sheets.
Our lunch of sausage, egg and chips delighted Simon and there was also coleslaw and crispy pieces of bread. As there were only two rooms available in the teahouse there was much discussion as to arrangements but in the end Brian made the decision and arranged to move beds so the 5 other blokes along with their 10 bags shared one crowded room. Cat and I shared the other and Brian had his tent to himself. As I lazed around in the afternoon I was very stiff and my hip was hurting but I was still very happy although beginning to feel a little sad that all this was coming to an end. It had been a relief leaving aside all my worries about stuff at home and Roger because there was nothing I could about any of it here and now I felt stronger and more confident about facing everything that awaited me at home. Later we heard an altercation outside as a fight erupted between two of the young Sherpas and we deduced a girl had been at the root of the disagreement. Mankarji intervened but later it started again and both Dowa and Trijan were involved in sorting it out. Once it was resolved all the porters and cooks came into the dining room and Brian thanked every one for all their help and the tips were given out. Then we retired to our beds for the last time on the trek and prepared for tomorrow and the most dangerous part of the whole expedition, the long bus journey back to Kathmandu. We planned an early start hoping to reach Kathmandu in daylight as we were told many vehicles do not use headlights to try to save fuel !
We set off at 6am with our headtorches but they were unnecessary and so we switched them off. We began walking through the millet and passing through villages as the cockerels greeted us, crowing in the early light and all too soon we were descending what seemed like the everlasting stair case and finally back to our waiting buses at Chet Chet.
Two extra passengers joined us on our bus and soon we were on our way, horn blaring, swinging wildly around corners and crashing through potholes. Tom Furey did not say a word but suddenly we noticed he sat with a smug grin on his face having quietly put on his climbing helmet ! Memories flooded back of just how bad the journey had been on the way here. Our driver was skilful but we all wished he was not driving one handed while shouting down his phone as we clung precariously to the rough narrow road cut from the cliff. It sounded like a domestic argument with his wife and later in one of the towns she boarded the bus and the row seemed to continue. Dowa had lit incense on the bus to bless our journey although Binod was taking no chances as he crossed himself each time we clattered over the suspension bridges. There were amazing water falls coming off the cliffs to our right one of which we drove under which was spectacular. We followed the route of a very, very turbulent river to our left and at times clung to the road hundreds of feet above it. At one particularly scary point we met two lorries on a precipice and our driver had to skilfully reverse to allow them to squeeze past. As we reached each check point the bus boy would get off and without fail the driver would set off before he returned so he had jump aboard swinging himself back into the moving bus. At one narrow place an argument ensued after we were cut up by a lorry and there was a lot of shouting and gesticulations between the drivers although we did not understand what was said. However we realised the seriousness of it in the next town when our driver went off to report the road rage incident to the police. In another village Mankarji got off the bus and we drove off. By the time we reached Kathmandu it was dark and as expected many vehicles were without lights. The traffic was manic and cars, vans, lorries, buses, motorbikes, bicycles and rickshaws surged forward with no regard for any other road users, people were squeezed out and responded with the inevitable horn blasts but miraculously there were no accidents. There were no traffic lanes and no one used indicators just the accelerator pedal and the horn. On minute we were next to the central reservation and suddenly we were weaving through the mess of traffic towards the pavement and briefly drew up along side ……. Mankarji who swung himself up into the bus with his happy grin. It seemed it had been a couple of hours since we had abandoned him in a random village and now we had found him again in this crazy jumble of manic traffic in dark Kathmandu !
Back at the Malla Hotel everything seemed surreal. So much had happened since we had left here less than 3 weeks ago, we were different people each with an amazing experience to recall but nothing here had changed. We felt bizarrely out of place in this alien world. It was great to be reunited with Catherine and Kieran but we were disappointed to find Gwyn had flown home. It was good to shower and wear clean clothes and my room was quickly festooned with all my gear airing. I tried hard but unsuccessfully to clean my kitbag which had been tied to the roof of our bus close to either a leaky stove or fuel canister which had left it reeking of fuel which I was slightly worried may cause concern at the airport. We were doing ‘normal touristy things’ but I felt that I was watching myself from afar and not really part of this world. I felt I had achieved what I had come to do and now given I couldn’t be in the mountains any more I wanted to go home. Three long days and nights in Kathmandu stretched ahead of me.
I slept late the next morning and so had to breakfast alone and then headed into the town.. I realised I felt lost without the team around me. Even though during the trek I had spent many hours alone in my tent I had never felt lonely. Now in a this crazy, dusty city I felt sad and empty. By day we wandered around the dusty streets of Kathmandu and as we all frequented the same haunts we often met up with each other by chance and many sociable coffees were drunk before returning to the Malla to relax, read or attempt to decipher some of my diary entries. By night we all ate out together often returning to the hotel to play Doma late into the night. At Rumdoodle after a competition to see who could get the cheapest taxi fare from the hotel, we made our foot to hang proudly from the crowded ceiling marking our achievement.
On Saturday I made my way to Durbar Square to see the devastation caused by the earthquake which was sad but poignant to see how the local people had cleared the rubble, shored up the remaining buildings with rickety struts and now were trying to rebuild their shattered lives with very little support from either their own government or the outside world. Proud, resourceful and wonderful people, people with virtually nothing but willing to share what ever little they had.
Our celebration meal was at Third Eye which was lovely as we all relaxed, savouring delicious food and remembering special moments of our amazing adventure. By now Brian had analysed the data on the tracker and we all knew we had actually topped 6000 metres as it had recorded our altitude as 6010 metres. That was a huge psychological boost to an already ecstatic team. Brian asked each of us to describe our most challenging moment. For me, without doubt, it was waving goodbye to 3 team members as they were evacuated by helicopters. Every one had faced their own personal challenges but Cat said for her the most challenging part was having to go slower for other team members and then went on to add that she had realised that it was necessary as Ben was less fit and able than herself !!!! Stunned silence followed. Ben, who had always been there along with Gwyn, as one of Brian’s right hand men. Ben, who had been there for everyone else always supportive and helping, always patient and reassuring, always cheerful and upbeat. We looked one to another and slowly conversation resumed but an awkward cloud hung in the air for a while. Despite the amazing cohesion of the team under Brian’s leadership the ‘team’ had only ever had 12 members. It was a sad moment in an otherwise lovely occasion but neither Brian nor Ben passed comment and soon spirits lifted again and cheerful banter resumed.
Catherine flew back to Hong Kong that evening and Tom F in the very early hours but mid morning the next day the remaining team piled into three taxis and set off across town to Mankarji’s flat where he and his cousin gave us lunch. First he mixed a red paste and putting a silky scarf around each of our necks he then smeared the paste onto our foreheads. We ate loads of bacon and bottles of beer kept appearing and then when we all felt full the main course arrived which we were not expecting ! It was a huge delicious meal but typical of the generosity of Nepalese people who had so little but wanted to treat us to amazing hospitality.
And so our amazing adventure came to an end. Ten of us had reached the summit Karbu Ri at 6010 metres although in our hearts we had also carried Gwyn, Gary and Allan with us. It had been an awesome achievement and each of us had fought our own personal battles along the way and supported each other often in almost imperceivable ways but we had done it together. We had learnt a lot about each other and probably more about ourselves and now we were all returning home to family and friends slightly different and hopefully better people and yet we had each left a small piece of ourselves on top of Karbu Ri.
Thank you to every member of our amazing team. Without each of you I could never have achieved this. I could never have stood with our team were no one else had ever stood before and looked across at Everest, the highest point on earth, knowing we were each at the top of our own worlds feeling totally fulfilled and for a while completely at peace.
Our unique view of Everest from Karbu Ri