JP and Ella headed off on their first visit to the Himalayas in November 2003. They were both experienced walkers in UK conditions and just felt the Himalayas had to be done – if they could bag a peak great but the main purpose was to simply experience trekking in the greatest of all mountain ranges. Click here for the Jagged Globe expedition they took Both accounts are included below.
As I floundered about in the powder snow I was on the edge of crying with frustration. I couldn’t see any of the rest of the group, cloud kept rolling in and out and the classic ‘one step forward, slide two steps back’ scenario was going on under my feet. I got cross instead which helped me to struggle up to the col, although I probably should have kept my cool at over 5,400 m altitude. It was really annoying me that I had to go up to retreat and we hadn’t even got close to the summit of Mera Peak. What was I doing here – about to cross a glacier, after fresh snow had covered our tracks from the day before, in mildly dodgy visibility? No escape possible as we were three or four days from any type of civilisation. Was this really going to be the culmination of almost eighteen months preparation?
Why choose the trek to Island/Mera Peaks
It all started with a love of mountains – especially skiing and hill walking – the natural ambition had to be a 6,000m peak. Despite my five seasons working in a ski resort, dabbling with ski touring and a Munro-bagging (now compleater) husband I had never put on crampons or done any rope work. So first step was a winter mountaineering course in Scotland run by the same organisation that we had our eye on to go to the Himalayas with. I quickly learned the joy of crampons on a snowy slope and the basics of winter climbing on a weekend that had typical Scottish weather one day i.e. blowing a gale and horizontal snow, followed by one of the most glorious days ever in Scotland – yes full sunshine, perfect visibility and no wind on a snowy Beinn a’Bhelthir. Thus initiated I signed up for a circular trek starting in Lukla with the aim of climbing both Mera and Island peaks with a crossing of the Amphu Laptse ridge inbetween – billed as the most technical part of the trip. My instructor in Scotland had assured me I was technically competent – all I had to do now was get fit. And so it began – we purposely booked the autumn trip to have the light summer evenings leading up to departure for fitness training. Typically I rode a minimum of 60 miles a week on a mountain bike, making sure to include a couple of ascents of the local North downs on each ride. (Anyone thinking the North Downs are easy should think again – the hills I am talking about have at least one and sometime two arrows on the OS map!) Swam a kilometre in the pool, rode my horse three or four times and tried to go for a long walk with a backpack on at the weekends. Looking back, I’m not entirely sure how I fitted it all in as I was working full time too. The training turned out to be just about enough!
Lukla & Preparation
Talking of gradients – flying into Lukla is interesting as the runway is a short 12% slope – slows you down on landing, speeds you up on take off. The ‘town’ is perched on the side of a mountain in a stunning location and quite green and lush. A wander along the main street assaults the senses – mud and stone underfoot, yaks, goats and chickens everywhere, lots of shops selling hats and maps and other trekking paraphernalia, unfamiliar smells and odours. Groups of trekkers of all nationalities were setting off straight from the ‘plane, closely followed and being overtaken by porters with massive loads. Lukla is at 2800m so instantly you are aware of the altitude – breathlessness, blood pumping in your scull and a headache threatening when doing anything more than strolling very slowly. Naturally the first part of the trip was all about acclimatisation and so our first day on the trail started with a hour and a half’s descent, before a gradual climb up to the first campsite, stopping for lunch en-route. Quickly the pattern of the days became established. ‘Bed Tea’ arrived anytime between 5.45 and 6.30am depending on the itinerary for the day. This was closely followed by ‘wash water’ – a small bowl of water with the chill taken off for you to wash as best you can in. Next you had to pack everything in your main kit bag so that the porters could get going for the day. I was interested to learn that porters and sherpas are definitely two different things, have different roles accordingly and never deviate from them. Porters carry loads, Sherpas have jobs like mountain guide, sirdar etc. and are the ones that know how to climb, and have the task of setting up camp including erecting all the tents and digging the hole for the latrine tent. After breakfast we would start walking with many stops to admire the view or have a drink of water until lunch around midday or slightly earlier. This was followed more walking until getting to camp for tea and biscuits – generally we were on the trail for six to seven hours a day. After this we had ‘free’ time, but in general we were encouraged to gain even more altitude before coming back to camp for the evening meal – the ‘climb high, sleep low’ principle.
The superlatives get used up quickly when trying to describe the views and mountains in Nepal, safe to say they are stunning, amazing, stupendous and beautiful. Your whole horizon has to be adjusted – i.e. tip your head back and raise your eyeline as the mountains are just so tall! Alongside the paths are gigantic holly and rhododendron, with lots of pretty, delicate ferns growing on the trees. Many of the villagers grow flowers too which was unexpected – dahlias and nasturtiums lent colour and familiar plants like geraniums grow through the forest and often the tree trunks are covered in lush emerald moss.
Starting the Trek
After four days we had reached Chalem Kharka at 3500m. Highlights so far included a game of football between the tourists in their heavy walking boots and the local children, half their height, in bare feet or flip flops. Prayer flags by the dozen wrapped around certain trees, carved mani walls or rocks and our first view of Mera Peak from the top of the Pangkoma La (pass at 3100m). This was followed by a long descent down a ridge spur with wondrous views to the Hinku river at a mere 1800m. The locals were drying corn and other grains as the harvest had just finished and the tiny terraced fields were being ploughed – either by hand or using jockeys (cross between a yak and a cow). At the river we came across our first vertiginous suspension bridge – then climbed up to Nashing Dingma at 2600m. A little rain overnight then onwards and upwards. Until this point I had been feeling pretty good in terms of acclimatisation and fitness, but it started to get tougher as we approached 3500m along a ridge shrouded in cloud. It was also noticeably colder. A slightly shorter day time-wise was appreciated as we’d come up a big height gain. By the time I got to camp I had a headache and was feeling pretty nauseous, but after an hour or so of rest and a drink of water these feelings abated and I was able to climb a little higher to a viewpoint before coming back to camp for the evening without feeling too ropey.
Panch Pokari &the Hinku Valley
The next high point was a pass at 4,400m – we had clear skies at first and a view of Makalu in the distance. Fortifying noodle soup for lunch before another small pass and the camp at Panch Pokari or ‘Five Lakes’ – a pace of summer pilgrimage for the Shamen religion. The lakes were very beautiful and had lots of tridents stuck in cairns around the lakeside – placed there by pilgrims – but no-one seemed to know why? The day ended in a beautiful camp in a cwm at 4200m where the skies cleared that night to give us a great starscape. More walking over the next few days took us back up to 4400m before descending into and trekking along the Hinku valley, via Khote to Tangnag. The terrain was different here as a natural dam at the head of the valley had broken a few years previously and completely devastated the valley, so we were walking over a dramatic scenery of landslides and their aftermath of mashed trees, broken ground and ‘slagheaps’ of stone and rock. More headaches but no lasting effects once in camp. A visit to a tiny Buddhist monastery tucked under a rock to give a donation and make a wish for a successful expedition and we had been on the go for eight days.
Impossible conditions on Mera Peak
Next stop, Dig Kharka opposite the North-West face of Mera peak with avalanches tumbling down it on a frequent basis all afternoon – a magnificent spot and ‘awesome’ in the true sense of the word. Attempted some bouldering which sent the pulse rate rocketing. Then on to Khare at 5000m for a couple of nights to sort out climbing kit and have an ‘ecole de glace’ on the edge of the glacier at 5200m. This was an hour and a half’s slog away – noticeably less oxygen and several of the party developed stonking headaches (my husband included and he missed lunch so must have been feeling bad). We awoke in the morning to a light dusting of snow, but made our way back up to the Mera glacier and the Mera La (col) at 5487m. A short drop down the other side of the col and we were in base camp with a tantalising glimpse of the uninhabited Hongu valley beyond. Sadly the weather deteriorated and it just went on snowing overnight. Twenty-four hours produced 60 cm of snow so it was decided that we should retreat back to Khare. So there I was making a meal of the short slog back to the Mera La – and seriously doubting that I would ever had made it to high camp let alone the summit of Mera peak. Back in Khare we discovered that the poor weather was forecast to last for three days, everyone was pretty miserable, wet and cold so after some soup to bolster us we retreated further to Tangnag which took an age and we ended up walking into camp in the dark with head torches on. Our attempt on Mera Peak and with it the crossing of the Amphu Laptse La was abandoned and our itinerary well and truly messed up.
Return to the Khumbu
There was light at the end of the tunnel however – our Sirdar, Kharma, suggested that Island Peak was still achievable if we hot-footed it back to Lukla by a different route and followed the Khumbu valley to the base of the mountain. The team was in full agreement to give this a go, so then followed some days of serious yomping. We retraced our steps a little and then crossed the Zetra La at 5010m which had quite a bit of snow on it making life tricky for the porters but thankfully keeping Maoist activists away. Then we dropped back to Lukla and headed up the Khumbu valley, famous for the Sherpa tribe and passing through Namche Bazaar – their capital. The feel of the Khumbu was completely different – it is significantly more populated than the Hinku, with tea houses and dwellings around every corner, appreciably more cultivated ground and, of course, lots more tourists. There were just four of us in the group now as the original party had included several people that were on a shorter, Mera Peak only, trip and as such I often found myself as tail-end Charlie. In effect I would get stuck some distance behind the others with a Sherpa ‘sweeper’ on my tail that didn’t speak very good English and seemed only to be in that position by virtue of being our Sirdar’s nephew. He would literally be almost stepping on my heels and I would rather have been left alone to get on with it. I recognise that everyone has a different turn of speed that is comfortable for them and am happy to go at my own pace as I know I’ll get there in the end. One of the frustrations of the trip was that sometimes our Kiwi guide would go hell-for-leather and arrive at the next stop before the cook was ready for us (which I think meant loss of face for him), or, as was the case in the Hinku when crossing the area devastated by floods, be so far ahead that route-finding was difficult for those further back. These were minor grumbles though as we were now following the Khumbu and feeling relaxed and acclimatised enough even to have the odd beer of an evening when it was available.
Preparing for the climb of Island Peak
The highlight of the upper Khumbu valley has to be Tangboche and its monastery – in a terrific spot – Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse at the head of the valley and overlooked by Ama Dablan which became our constant companion for the next few days. Eagles overhead and animated monks all dressed in shades of red. Yak trains are a frequent sight (we’d seen none in the Hinku) and the opportunity to eat in tea houses rather than the mess tent. On to Chukung – notoriously cold – and so it proved to be – ice had formed both on the inside of the tent and the outside of our sleeping bags overnight. Next stop was Island Peak attack camp at about 5500m and after a long day crossing an outwash plain ended with an hour and twenty minutes of brutal ascent to the tents I was feeling pretty nauseous but without a headache and thankfully felt better after a rest. We were encouraged by meeting several groups that had successfully summited that day, but the route up from camp looked quite steep and daunting.
Summitting Island Peak
Summit day started with a rude wake-up call at 2.30am and was followed by an unwanted, but necessary and forced down ‘boil-in-the-bag’ meal. We set off into the night with our climbing sherpas – i.e. the ones that really know what they are doing on the mountain – proved by their impressive route-finding in the darkness up a gulley with some scrambling required. I just went really, really slowly and made it to the glacier at dawn. We donned harnesses and crampons and then the day just got tougher. I was setting the pace, but it just meant that everyone got cold as I was moving so slowly, the glacier was not enormous and thankfully the sun came up just as we reached the fixed ropes. I suggested that everyone now needed to go in front of me as I was concerned about my ability to get to the top. I started up the fixed ropes, taking just 5 steps at a time before stopping to get my breath back. I found that concentrating on the ice axe in one hand and jumar in the other took my mind off the lack of oxygen and I eventually got to the top of the first fixed rope on a 50 degree slope and collapsed in a heap. After water and a Mars bar I set off again along the summit ridge with time to take photos of the others ahead. On the final pull to the top (6189m) I was down to taking only three steps at a time, but finally made it at 8.45am. It was a beautiful day – windless, with blue skies and sunshine and fantastic views to Makalu, Baruntze, Mera Peak, Ama Dablam and of course Nupste-Lhotse – the last still towering above us. After the obligatory summit photos we dropped back down for lunch at the edge of the glacier then it was back to attack camp to change our footwear for walking boots before trekking to camp all the way back down the valley at Chukung – arriving tired, but happy, eleven hours after we had set off.
Ending the trek
The rest of the trek was celebratory in nature, but still with added interest. We visited the medical central at Pheriche where the doctors obviously find their experience very rewarding, took in views of the upper Khumbu Valley including Lobuje and the route to Everest Base Camp and visited the Pangboche monastery, the oldest in the region. We headed back to Namche Bazaar at breakneck speed, had a welcome shower (only the second of the trip), visited the museum and drank beer, rum and rakshi in a lively bar with a surreal selection of rock and blues music. Our final night in Lukla involved more partying with all the staff that had looked after us for nearly a month and the ceremonious division and handing out of the tips by our Sirdar. It must have been a good party as some lads from the army barracks came to tell us to go to bed!
Ella’s Reflections on the trip
So was trekking in the Himalaya all it is cracked up to be? Yes absolutely. Would I do it again? Yes absolutely. I am still gutted that we didn’t get into the uninhabited Hongu valley or cross the Amphu Laptse ridge. I am delighted that I have ‘bagged’ a 6000m peak. I am glad we didn’t go to Everest base camp as I am told it is very overpopulated and full of litter and rubbish, however I can now see the appeal of the trip as the Khumbu valley is beautiful and if you got to the top of Lobuje East you would get a grand view of the route up the highest mountain in the world. I would love to go trekking in Nepal again – it’s a cliché, but the Nepalis are wonderfully welcoming and their country is stunningly beautiful. What’s the best advice I was given before I went? ‘Don’t get sick and don’t fall off’!
The names are exciting. Kathmandu. Pokhara. Everest. Ama Dablam. Makalu. Nuptse. Annapurna.
Having spent a summer getting fit…ok, not getting flabbier… Ella and I took off for a month with Jagged Globe (google). We bounced out of Doha (nothing to recommend) and into Kathmandu. The Summit Hotel welcomed us, we met our Sirdar Kharma, guide Sarah and the rest of the posse. All grand folk – if in different ways, how would we all get on?
Flight to Lukla: small turboprop butted through the clouds and eventually landed easily on the tarmac shelf half way up a mountain. Nigh on 3,000m it was an introduction to altitude. We puffed over to the bar to organise ourselves. Next morning we left civilisation, electricity and all that and marched off south. It was slow, we felt a little groggy and slightly nauseous as the altitude showed it’s teeth. Keep well hydrated, plod on slowly with hearts beating faster than usual. The sun was out and we were in the hills, yeehah. It was a long old haul to Mera Peak, with a lot of acclimatisation and vertical to cover. The trip was circular for four of us. Anticlockwise from heavily garrisoned Lukla, round to Mera (circa 6,300m), into the Hongku and over a high pass to Imja Tse (Island Peak 6,189m), jutting off Lhotse and high in the Khumbu. Then back out via Namche Bazaar. Easy. Scheduled 22 days or so, mostly over 3,000m.
Verdant greenery, drystone ‘Lake district’ housing surrounded by small fields, happy Sherpa kids scampering about. I was amazed at the weight the porters carried, and pleased at the efficiency and organisation of Jagged Globe. Kharma ran a tight ship, our every need catered for (as long as you like camping and are fit). Grub was good- the spuds were great. Bit odd that spam was considered necessary. Maybe we are meant to like that? Up and down and on and on, we ten or so punters acclimatised and got to know each other (most were doing only Mera). We got used to camp routine. Our daily wash was taken every morning in a tepid bowl of water, teeth first, body-wash then finally nether regions. Do it quick before the bowl froze over. The throne was a stand up tent over a newly dug hole. All normal stuff, remember that we’d left all mod cons well behind. Took the locals on at football in Pangkongma, think we took a political draw (they were all smaller than us). After several days we went over the top and dropped 2,000m down a good track into the Hinku Valley. Visibility had been limited by highish cloud but the weather had been ok, with a bit of night frost.
It was in Pangkongma, half was up the other side, that Jungle (Greg) joined us. Our “other guide” had been delayed somewhere. Up an onwards, down and up and round, Jungle got lost (or did he Rum Doodle it?). We climbed out of the verdant zone into something like Sutherland, all damp browns and mossy greens bounded by cliffs. Panch Pokari, the 5 lakes, is a Bhuddist pilgrimage site. The faithful leave tridents everywhere – watch your step! After a night in Chumbu Kaka the tailend of the monsoon broke. The clouds evaporated, we were on the ridges and had sun overhead. Everyone was going well. Slight headaches in the morning for some but the up and down routine was sorting that out quickly. We chatted as much as single file walking allowed. Nowhere were the tracks broad enough to allow 2 abreast. After dropping through the steep and spooky rhodedendron forest back to the Hinku, we had a couple of pleasant days wandering up the valley, and we starting to get up close and personal with big mountain views. Glorious vistas of vertical rock, icecaps and glaciers abounded. We stopped at 5,000m at Khare. So far it had all been a long and pleasant walk, but now we were high, the air was thin and it was onto the ice.
Crampons on we went up to high camp. Bit heady here, at 5,300m ish. Cold too. Pulses hammering we settled in for the night. Camping at this height means boots inside bags, and hoar frost on everything. It’s not comfortable. That night snow descended and we were forced to retreat right back to the Hinku. I’d been worried that the height would beat me, and what to do if Ella succumbed first. At 5300m I did not feel good; ok, but not good. As it was the Hongu and Amphu Laphsa was off the menu, and dropping a few metres sorted out the bad heads. The Island Peakers had a choice, stay and siege Mera or highspeed back over to Lukla and further acclimatise up the Khumbu? Seen Mera, wanna see Everest – easy choice, off 5 of us went. No idea where Jungle was, but we did meet him in a bar in Kat later). James had to go home, but Marty, Guy, Ella and I were hungry. We raced from the Hinku back over Zetra La 4800m with Sarah, Kharma and Chedda in a tight knit group, no altitude problems now . The porters were all happy, they had several festivals to celebrate and where better to do that than in the Khumbu? Good times through past Namche: all very civilised with much singing; fitness came, and our beards grew long (I’d better say Ella was a disappointment in this area). Past the brilliant Tyangboche monastery, views of Kang Tega, Ama Dablam and Everest, peaking over Nuptse’s shoulder. Outstanding.
Another couple of days and we were in high base camp for Imja Tse (Island Peak). View back south over Amphu Lapsa to Chamlang and Mera in the distance, Baruntse in the fore. Early night and off we set in the dark. Step by step, slowly, make sure of what you are doing and don’t overcook yourself. Dawn, which always raises the spirits, saw us through the rocks onto the high glacier, and we shortly pulled up over the ‘berg onto the ridge. Three ice steps of hard puffing and there we were, Makalu to the left, Lhotse (8,501m) close behind and only blue above. Amazing to be over 20,000 feet and yet behind us Lhotse rose another 8,000 feet. The top was average living room size, with drops off all sides and awesome views. Very satisfying.
Well done Sarah, Kharma and his sidekick Chedda and all the staff. They and the porters made it easy for us. All we really had to do was get there, the camp and dinner would be waiting. Savouring the descent we marched back off to Namche. Showers and shaves were required. Sweeney Todd saw to the shaves in Namche, then a silly night in the bar topped things off. Other expeditions were in town and much fun was had. It was an enjoyable walk back to Lukla for one last party. A few grand days in cultural Kat being tourists, a trip to Bhaktapoor (unmissable) and suddenly we were home.
Great memories. This sort of trip does not set out to be comfortable. You have to be relatively fit and be used to camping and make sure your boots fit. If you are overly worried about hygiene or are a fussy eater then don’t go. Sensible expectations make Jagged Globe’s Mera and Island Peak brilliant trip. Highly recommended.
A few weeks later at Xmas we went up Skiddaw with Guy and the owner of this site. We were treated to snow and the ‘brokken spectre’. A few days later Ella and I were near Decin on the Czech/German border, amongst the sandstone spires. Marty, a proper climber, eventually tried Everest itself. He didn’t quite make it, too bloody high, but turned his eyes to Ama Dablam. I don’t know how he got on, but he just had to go. It’s there, isn’t it?