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Thursday, 31 October 2013

Day 12 - Ama Dablam Base Camp ( 4,650 mtrs)

The temperature really seems to have dropped today and getting out of a warm bed into cold clothes really isn't fun - you don't make the same preparations as while camping to deal with this. At breakfast (I have a rather good but small cheese and tomato sandwich) people seem a bit subdued as even though we have descended quite a bit people are still getting over the shock of the summit day. 

We are told that it is traditional to get a blessing from the local monastery (in exchange for 20 rupiah which us about 15p) so we decide to head up after breakfast. While waiting to go, it turns out that all the zokyo (cross between a yak and a cow that do most of the carrying in the valley)  have gone. Apparently they are left to forage outside the villages at night and they have got fed up and headed back home over night. Whilst this may have been an accident, the less charitable amongst us feel that the driver sent them back to get him out of coming to base camp with us and so save himself a day or two of work - this would also explain why he was so insistent that we tip him last night rather than at the end of his work as we are doing for everybody. Still the idea of 'homing' zokyo is so funny that we don't mind that much and poor Nir has to head off and find some replacement ones to get the equipment up to BC whilst the driver comically loads all his saddles onto his (rather handily) one remaining zokyo and heads back home. 

Then we head up to the monastery. I don't have the best of relationship with organised religion but determine to keep a lid on it if things go well but at the same time presume they won't. Outside the monastery is a poster providing advice to tourists, much of it is generic and useful but my favourite instruction is "Please don't give money to begging children but please give as generously as you can to monks." Whilst there may be good reasons behind the first part especially, the juxtaposition of the two is rather amusing. We are then shown into the main part of the monastery for some bowing with the Llama presumably preceding the blessing but are then shown a little cupboard which is opened with a bit of ceremony to display what looks like a leather cap with some died hair sewn into it. We are a bit bemused until we are told that this is a yeti skull / head and what the monastery is famous for. From there we are shown into another room which has a few pieces of art but most prominent is the donations box and so after a couple of minutes of looking at the art we put some money into the box and return to the main room. However the llama has now gone and it appears that we are not going to get our blessing after all. So, a little surprised at the recent events (and a couple of us with headaches after banging our heads on the low doorways) we head back to the teahouse to pick up our bags and on to BC. 

Shortly after setting off, Paddy pops into a building to chat to a friend which leaves us poised outside the local bakery. A few of us are a bit hungry after breakfast and others realise that this is the last time we will be near a bakery for some time and so we decide to pop in - much to the apparent displeasure of our new guide. All we are doing today is trekking to BC which is about 3.5 hours or so and given the snow issues we are not doing much tomorrow so there is no real rush in any case - even so the trek is quite a steep one which will challenge the legs and lungs especially after the past couple of days. I am feeling pretty low in energy so, rather than hanging back as I have done before, get a rather large slice of Black Forest gateau. At about 11am we finally head off (only about two hours later than originally planned) and I struggle a bit for the first hour as I just have no energy but  then some large clouds threaten to engulf us and my cake kicks in so I lead a charge to camp. In fact this only takes about an hour (timing estimates have not been that great on this trip to be honest) and we get into the mess tent for some tea and then lunch before the clouds arrive. 

Base camp is a large flat area surrounded by a number of peaks and cols. there are a number of expeditions here which provides quite a bit of colour against an otherwise white, grey, black and brown backdrop. We are probably going to get to know some of the other groups quite well as given the conditions it is not likely that anyone will be heading up anytime soon.

Base Camp with Ama Dablam in the backgroun

More people heading out
 
Lunch is a fried spam with a rather good vegetable curry and excellent chapati. I realised that we would eating spam on this trip but had hoped that we might have a few days of fresh meat first - perhaps it is just that they did not know when we were going to arrive and so spam was the easiest way of getting us some lunch quickly ...

The afternoon is getting settled into the camp and trying to find out a bit more about the conditions. There isn't any real update as yet but our Sherpas have a number of friends here so will be going around tomorrow to get a better idea.  

Supper is pretty good although vegetarian (curry) but luckily one of the rare internet opportunities recently showed me that a big steak evening is being organised for when I am back - something I will no doubt dream of tonight! We get three courses which makes it quite a social meal which uses up the rest of the evening. Part of the evening has been talking about avalanches (although there is little risk of one on AD that hits any climbers) and there is a moment of nervousness when we hear a deep rumbling shortly after getting into our sleeping bags!

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Day 11 - Pangboche (3,940 mtrs)

The plan was to sleep in but I wake up at about 6 which gives me time to  catch up on this blog and read a bit before actually getting up at a more socially acceptable time of 8 am to organise my bags before breakfast. A long night's sleep seems to have done the group a world of good and there are much higher spirits as we head down the mountain - pleased that yet again we are the last group out of the teahouse!

We are having lunch at the teahouse in Dengboche where we stayed on the way up and whilst waiting for lunch meet the 3 or 4 year old son playing with a ball in the garden by himself as his sisters are clearly not interested. Feeling an immediate kinship, I join in the fun and introduce him to the joy of throwing the ball onto a sloping corrugated iron roof and then being surprised as to where it comes off. The kid has a decent arm and, despite the ball being made of rubber, it is not a surprise when his mother shouts at him (rather than me) to stop when he starts getting the ball up near the windows - hopefully Dad will be more supportive when he sees the new game!

I am quite keen on some non-fried food for lunch and whilst that proposition gets support I am not sure that veggie cheeseburgers and chips is quite what I had in mind. Still this seems to fuel the afternoon's walk down to Pangboche where a few of us go at a pretty decent pace which is great fun and good practice as the path is far from smooth and so good footwork is crucial. This wouldn't be Nepal without a few adventures along the way whilst overtaking yaks as well as trekkers, but a couple of new ones are dodging mountain goats as they head straight down the mountain that we are traversing (unfortunately the rest of the herd seem reluctant to follow having seen the near miss of the first few to attempt it so I can't get any footage which is a shame as the slope is very steep here and their ability to navigate boulders and shrubs at that speed is very impressive) and having to jump over a garden wall, much to the surprise of an elderly Nepali lady who is busy in her garden, when faced with two approaching yaks taking up the entire narrow path with their rather large horns at groin level!

Having dropped off my gear at the tea house I head straight to the Internet cafe to endure the agonisingly slow Internet speed to find out what has happened back in London since the 'tremors' had started last Saturday and was very proud to be able to tell the rest of be group that I had become an Uncle again. I felt that this deserved something a little special and so was pretty happy when I saw that the teahouse had some bottles of whisky; however, when the lady who owned the teahouse found out that we were heading off to Ama Dablam she refused to sell me saying that whisky on the way up was very bad but that whisky on the way down was very good and she looked forward to selling me a bottle then to celebrate both the birth and our success on the mountain!

More bad news was to follow when it turned out that the very late and heavy monsoon had left a lot of snow on Ama Dablam and that no one had managed to get far up the mountain yet and that groups were even heading back to Kathmandu realising that there was no chance of conditions improving sufficiently before they needed to fly home. This is a real worry as the monsoon ended over three weeks ago and it is hard to be sure that the next week or so will see a big enough change in conditions. Still we are going to head over tomorrow and have a look. 

The sad side of this is that we are saying goodbye to the local team who have been looking after us so well until now - especially our trekking guide Nir who is a real character. We have a little ceremony to hand out the tips and he provides the local tipple which is local wine mixed with coffee and honey - it is certainly interesting and I make the usual mistake (for me anyway as I don't like coffee) of drinking it and showing appreciation and so being given a refill at the expense of one if the locals who would have loved it. Suitably fuelled by the brew Nir makes (what appears to be) a genuinely heartfelt speech of thanks for how much fun the trip has been and how easy we have been - see all my above references to ordering the same food for all the group to make things easy for him and the teahouse cooks! He then starts to recollect how things went badly on a prior trip where he had one young lady as a client who took a shine to him and took his refusal of her advances (he has a wife and kid as he explained to her) very badly. By this time the whole of the teahouse is listening to the story as he continues with how he was summoned to Kathmandu to explain to his boss after she had complained about him - he had told her, then his boss and now us that this wasn't part of his job and the whole thing seemed to be getting really rather serious and a bit maudlin so I made a joke along the lines that this was one of the downsides that us handsome chaps had to put up with in life - quite luckily both he (and the rest of the teahouse) found this very funny and he was very proud of the underlying compliment so the mood lifted quickly and reverted to its more celebratory nature. 

After a few more speeches with each of us saying how wonderful everything and everyone was (this was after minimal alcohol!) we retired to bed, looking forward to heading off to AD base camp in the morning. 


Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Day 10 - Island Peak (6,189 mtrs)

Up at midnight and jump into my warm clothes as it is pretty chilly in the tent and delaying get out of your sleeping bag in such conditions just gets harder and harder. At quarter past breakfast is brought round whilst we are packing up. There are the usual last minute issues where something, having been carefully placed in one pile or bag, has mysteriously moved but in general things go pretty smoothly and we set off at 01:09. It wont get light until about 6am so we are walking with our head torches - this means that we will see very little of our surroundings for a while. We start out walking along the valley floor to get to path leading up the mountain and it is a great deal warmer than we feared it might be. Soon we turn up onto the steep path up the 'nose' of the mountain as opposed to the much longer but more gentle one that leads round the back. Very soon the group starts to split as the lead Sherpa sets a pretty quick pace and only I and one other, Simon, are able to keep up - Simon has excellent technique and it is a bit of a struggle to stay with them. The major issue is that I don't feel that I have acclimatised that well as yet - our recent days have been short walks at low altitude - and I am really puffing which does not bode well for the rest of the day! 

Despite the lack of air, the trek is really enjoyable including a variety of gradients as well as moving over snow, rock and ice. However we really aren't moving that quickly and start to get cold. I have bought a new pair of gloves for this trip but really struggle with them - it is something I will have to look into more for future trips - and soon revert to my tried and trusted warm liner gloves and 8,000 mtr mitt shell. At about 3 am the temperature seems to drop again and a bit of wind picks up and so we put on our down jackets and I add my new face mask - it is remarkable how much more enjoyable climbing is when you are nice and warm rather than a bit too chilly! This combines with the crampons going on as we have now cleared the final rock outcrop and are walking on snow and ice on much steeper sections. We are struggling a bit as neither of us wants to be the one to slow things down!

At about 5am or so we came to the final headwall which is about 150 mtrs high leading up to the summit ridge - dawn has broken although the sun is still behind the surrounding mountains.


The climb up the face takes a long time (about an hour or so) as we need to take a breath every three steps or so - this is where the lack of acclimatisation is really hurting us.

It was actually a lot steeper than it looks and absolutely exhausting!
Looking back along the summit ridge

But eventually I get to top of the ridge and then follow the ridge up for a bit to a small plateau and a couple of minutes later the Sherpa arrives to confirm that this is indeed the summit. The view is spectacular - Island Peak is so named as it appears like an island surrounded by a ring of larger mountains including the 8,000 mtr Lhotse to the North (blocking the view of Everest) and Ama Dablam (our main objective) to the South. 





After a few photos we need to head down as Simon is feeling pretty terrible and other people are now starting up the ropes and we want to avoid congestion on them. I am trying my go pro for the first time in real action and it will be interesting to see what the footage looks like. 

We reconvene at the bottom of the ropes along with someone else from the group who doesn't feel great and start the long journey back to camp. None of us are moving that well and at times the route is pretty tricky so it takes us quite a while to get back to camp. I got to the summit in 5:30 and then it was about 3 hours back down; setting off at a bit after 1 and getting back a bit after 10:30. 

Once back at base camp we have a quick drink and a bowl of noodle soup before stretching out on some mats - unfortunately the camp (except for the kitchen tent) was packed up whilst we were on the mountain. We fall asleep in the sun for a couple of hours until the rest get back in the afternoon. Unfortunately for them we still have a good 2 hour walk back to Chuckun and so they don't have much time to rest if they want to avoid the cold, dark and wet weather that arrives in late afternoon here. 

The walk back is a bit of a schlep in the end - it is not that tricky but long after the summit and we end up getting quite strung out - the low cloud and wind really don't help either. There does not seem to be much recovery by supper which turns out to be a quiet affair with people heading to bed soon after. 

Monday, 28 October 2013

Day 9 - Island Peak Base Camp

It has snowed quite a bit overnight which adds character to the village we are - it is going to be interesting to see what this does to conditions further up the mountain.



Again we only have a short trek today - about 2.5 hours or so - so it is a pretty relaxed morning but everyone else has left the teahouse by the time we have breakfast. I am still struggling somewhat with the usual breakfast fare but enjoying the toasted cheese sandwiches.
The trek itself is fairly gentle and the trains of yaks a people ahead of us have cleared a handy path through the deep snow - I doubt we will be so lucky heading for the Island Peak summit!


Island peak is on the left
The path heads up from the main valley and then circles the base of the peak



to base camp in the narrow valley between Island Peak and the neighbouring large ridge and close to the start of the main route up the mountain.



I say close, but in fact there are a lot of people here so we end up quite a bit further down the track than we had expected!



There is no mess tent at base camp as we are only here for one day so we are brought food and drink in our tents. After a high carb lunch of pasta, potatoes and vegetables we do some fixed line rope work on the steep slope next to the camp. This is ascending with a jumar and coming back down in either full abseil mode, light friction mode or just with the rope wrapped around your arm to control the descent. The downside to the quicker modes of descent is the damage done to your gloves as the rope feeds through them - hence the cheap counterfeit gloves we bought in Kathmandu.

After that we prepare our gear for tomorrow as we will be leaving at 1 am (after a number of lazy days the expedition is getting serious!) and it is surprising how long it takes to get organised and make good decisions at that time and when newly arrived at altitude. The camp will be packed up and taken back to Chukung whilst we are on the mountain so we will need to pack everything we are not taking as well. Supper is brought to our tents at about 6 and we invite Paddy to join us for a friendly chat but then spend the time grilling him about gear. After supper he heads off to check on the rest of the group as a few people seem to be struggling with the altitude. By about 7pm we are all in bed trying to get some sleep in preparation for getting up at midnight for our long day ahead. 

This is definitely a different style to Aconcagua and the North Pole where we had to be much more self-sufficient - pitching our tents, cooking for ourselves etc. Even on the climbing practice the Sherpas were expecting to do all our carabiner and rope changes. However it is all done in such a nice and friendly way and the Sherpas, porters and cooks all seem to enjoy showing you their country and helping you enjoy it. 

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Day 8 - Chuckung (4,750 mtrs)

This is the first properly cold morning. The condensation on the window has frozen pretty solidly but luckily we are still moving up the valley pretty slowly and so we have another relaxed start with breakfast at 9am. I have struggled with the amount of sugar and grease in most of the breakfast dishes so far and go for a cheese sandwich this time - this is actually really good. Decent bread, plenty of strong melted nak cheese and some potatoes from last night that you can pop into the sandwich to offset the strong cheese. The late start also allows a bit more time to dry our clothes from the wash yesterday as we have the usual blue sky and strong sun in the morning. 

As we head up the valley we get changing views of the mountains



but the valley floor gets pretty barren with only a sparse covering of gorse and some very tough, dry grass.



 It has continued to get colder up the valley and there is now widespread snow. For the first time I put on a second layer after a longish rest when we only have about 20 mins to go. 

We get to our teahouse in time for lunch and I lead a mini revolt against fried vegetarian food and a couple of us have rather good 'meat' curry and boiled rice. Even better is the chilli sauce they have which is both tasty and really rather hot. 

After lunch we brave the usual cloud / mist and significant drop in temperature to play around with ropes for a bit but after about 1.5 hours we retreat to the warmth of the teahouse for cards / reading / chatting etc. Supper is a mushroom and garlic soup then a large plate of spaghetti in tomato sauce and a rather large spring roll. We are heading up Island Peak in about 30 hours from now it is time to start carbo loading!

After supper we are playing cards in the common room when all of a sudden the porters / guides start getting out pillows and duvets to make little beds on the benches and someone then 'accidentally' turns the lights off and on - we take the hint and retire to bed.

 

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Day 7 - Dengboche (4,300 mtrs)

Quite remarkably we all sleep in late today - 07:30! Over breakfast it turns out that our chat about water has lead to some behind the scenes discussions about expenses and it has now been agreed that water will be provided on the trek as well as whilst at the mountain camps.

We head off at about half nine and follow the main path. There is a very significant change in the valley that really started back at Tengboche. We are now above the tree line so the valley is now rocky and dusty with only a few gorse bushes. There are many fewer people here as it turns out that most of the trekkers turn round at Tengboche and connected to that is that there are no longer teahouses and shops every few minutes. But there are more spectacular views now.

Morning view back down the valley

Instead we are walking past lots of small stone walls dividing the land up which are marking out fields - this part of the Khumbu has lots of small farms growing the root vegetables that people here live off.

View up the valley

View down the valley


The teahouses that there are, are also a lot more rudimentary than before without the attention to detail and atmosphere that competition in the lower Khumbu has given rise to.

Teahouse common room

This all combines to make it a much sparser trek and you can really feel that things are getting a bit more serious now. It has also got quite a bit cooler although still hot when the sun is out. 

We are now walking past Ama Dablam and have a good view of the route that we will be taking - looks pretty interesting!

Ama Dablam ridge to the summit

The group naturally breaks apart over the next hour as we are all chatting and after an hour or so a couple of us stop to let everyone else catch up. After about 25 minutes we get a bit concerned and start looking about but there is no sign of them. Then another group comes down the valley and gives us the answer that we are expecting in that we have just gone past a small turn off leading down to the river which is the path we want. So we head back and pick up the trail and half an hour later come across a village. This seems a bit early as we have only been walking for 1.5 hours but we can't see anything else for a long way up the valley which could mean a long way still to go. However, then we spot a building in the middle of the village with 'Welcome to DB' painted on the roof and then, as we walk through the village, all the signs refer to Pangboche which is a bit confusing. We still aren't fully convinced until we see one of the rest of the team waving at us out of a window. 

I feel like something different to noodles and dumplings for lunch so try to get people interested in some meat. However while others like the idea in principle there is concern about how long it will have taken for the yak steaks to arrive. Hamburgers are the next option but again the quality of the meat proves and issue so we end up with veggie burgers - not really what I had in mind originally! We tend to order the same things for everyone as we are a group of 7 and it would take a long time for the kitchens in the tea houses to produce a number of different meals. 

After that, we get the showers we have been looking forward to as well as a chance to do a bit of washing. This is a bit novel for me as it is not possible to wash on most expeditions as once you are on the mountain both water and fuel are too precious to use for washing either your clothes or yourself and wet wipes can't really be compared to a hot shower. The difference here is the long trek that we have before we get to the mountain and the fact that there are tea houses all the way along the valley that have the necessary equipment - ie a gas bottle and a water tank.

Shower block, complete with solar heating system or simply bucket on the roof....
 
As we move into the afternoon, clouds come up the valley and the temperature really drops. It now resembles a moor in the UK - not much to see, cold and damp. The village empties as everyone takes refuge round the unusually early lit stoves. Then relaxing and dinner until bed.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Day 6 - Pangboche (3,940 mtrs)

As usual we are pretty much the last to head off in the morning but soon catch up with some of the trekking groups  on the ridge above Namche which has great views both up and down the valley.


View back down the valley over Namche
Shortly after, we round the corner and as we approach a small Chorten (a small Buddhist shrine) the valley opens up to provide a superb view of the near mountains and those ahead at the end of the Khumbu valley. They are Ama Dablam to the right which we will soon be climbing, Everest (which I will be climbing next year) on the left and Lhotse (another 8k peak in the middle).




The path then undulates for a while

 
 


until we come across a cafe with a wonderful sun terrace giving us a new sideways view Ama Dablam.




From there we descend to the valley floor where an unseemly rush starts to get to one of the few places for lunch. The large ridge on the left hand side is the one that we follow up to the summit.

It is quite fun as a lot of people are squashed into a small space and it is not possible to avoid hearing the conversations taking place at other tables which come from the complete range of people on the mountain from tired, out of shape trekkers to experienced climbers. We have a rather large lunch of fried noodles and these are bound to sit heavily for a while. 

After lunch we have a pretty steep slope covering the 500 mtrs or so up to Tengboche (3,860 mtrs) This is another chance to really push but it is a long, long way and I am pretty knackered and hot by the top. I spy the famous bakery from the far side of the plateau and head over there to sit in the sun and take in the view whilst waiting for the others. Unfortunately some afternoon clouds come in and the view is quickly obscured before I get round to taking any photos. I remain good whilst the others are ordering cakes and brownies restricting myself to a forkful of the rather good apple pie. 

From there it is apparently only a 20 minute or so stroll to Pangboche so we set off at a leisurely pace. Our local guide, Nir, has gone ahead to organise our teahouse and Paddy stays on a bit to make some phone calls. After about half an hour of a rather steep descent there is a bit of concern that we don't seem near and villages at all. Then we come to a bridge across the river apart from the fact that it has fallen into the river  - I take this as vindication for my concerns when crossing these bridges!




After that it is a steep climb out of the valley to Pangboche which is quite taxing at the end of a long day! 

There we come across Nir in a teahouse courtyard. It turns out that the one we were heading for is full and he is seeing whether we can use this one instead. Starting late and taking long stops for lunch, hot drinks and cake is making us finish each days trek quite late on. This one is not great and whilst we don't mind too much he seems keen to leave the decision to us after we look at one of the rooms. After a couple of circular discussions about this he mentions another one further up the village which is nicer and has space for us - this is the first time he has mentioned this and it seems to coincide with the first time that the owner is no longer next to us. I think I see a hint here (although I am not sure what it is or why it is being made) and agree that if there is a better one we should go there. On the way he tells is that he is not happy with us staying in rooms of that quality (he thinks that they were 'smelly') but that he knows the lady so needed to leave the decision to look at somewhere else up to us. 

We move to a much nicer tea house at the top of the village with a warm and busy general room. I head out back to the bottom of the village (braving yaks and the cold) to get to the Internet cafe to see if I have become an uncle again. However young Jemima (this may or may not be her real name depending upon the tricks and games of her parents) seems reluctant to leave her warm, comfy       and join the real world regardless of the range of birth accelerators that my sister has been experimenting with.  

After that I get stuck in a yak jam in the narrow streets of Pangboche. The two yak drivers seem to be randomly lashing out with switches and throwing stones and it is little surprise that the poor beasts are confused about which way to go. This continues for a couple of minutes and I am not sure I am helping matters by chuckling at the ensuing chaos. After a couple more minutes the yaks seem to sort it out amongst themselves and I potter back to the teahouse for chatting, reading supper and bed. Supper is a duo of stir fries (rice and potato) and some boiled veg. 

A few people have headaches which are being put down to the altitude but the real problem is that none of us are drinking enough water. Usually on trips everyone gets two litres of out water at the end of each day which can be used as hot water bottles overnight and then provides drinking water for the next day. But this is not being done and so people are relying on the hot drinks we are getting at stops and with meals. This is not enough to cope with the heat whilst trekking and our acclimatisation. 

Tomorrow is a pretty easy day - or at least it appears so from the map. We are just following the valley with a gentle inclined climbing up about 500 mtrs over about 10k of distance. The plan is for a late (8am) breakfast although we are all likely to be ready for it by about 6am and then getting to he next guesthouse at about lunchtime where we should be able to get some hot water for a wash and a shave! 

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Day 5 - Namche Bazar Rest Day

Today starts off with a wake up call from a lost cow enjoying the view on its morning stroll.




Later we head to the local Sherpa museum, which is a collection of domestic implements, a slideshow and display of photographs. The entrance fee is double if you include the slideshow but no one mentions that pretty much all the slides are also in the exhibition! Still it is fun and interesting to gain a bit more understanding about the Sherpas and the region and have good view back over Namche Bazaar.



This also provides us with our first view of Ama Dablam.

 

After that it is back to the hotel for some rope work and to set up our gear for the mountains.

 

After a few days of Nepali food, there is an undercurrent of desire for something a bit different and we get pizza - these are pretty good and covered with yak cheese - or to be more accurate (and probably quite important here) nak cheese. 

After lunch we head to the shops for yet another little shopping trip and then back to the bakery for tea and cake. I am still trying to get into shape and manage to resist the temptation. 

Then it is back to the teahouse where magic tricks and chess take us through to dinner and then off to an early bed. After our foray into international cuisine, Nepali food makes a come back with a large Dahl bhat for supper. 


Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Day 4 - Namche Bazaar (3,440 mtrs)

It turns out that the husband of the couple who own the teahouse used to guide Japanese clients and still has quite a large Japanese clientele staying there and so does a Japanese breakfast. There can't be many people who can claim to have had a Japanese breakfast in the Himalayas! 

Today we are continuing up the valley with a gentle height gain until lunch. The added fun today is that we are hiking at the same time as a few buffalo / donkey trains. These are groups of animals carrying packs, equipment and supplies up the valley.

 
 

I spend a bit of time overtaking them to take pictures and video whilst they pass. This is also quite dangerous as the paths are narrow so if they sway they can knock you down the drop into the river or if you are a bit further ahead gore you with their horns. This all goes well until my overtaking leaves me facing an oncoming train that has just come round the corner! Faced with horns both in front and behind me and a long drop to me right, my only option is to jump onto the cliff to my left and perform a rather risky traverse above the oncoming train. 

After these antics I am quite a bit ahead of the rest of the group and so come across a couple of checkpoints alone. The first one is only for those who are trekking so I walk past it and the guard shouts at me which causes all the waiting trekkers to look up in awe as I casually mention that in fact I am climbing Ama Dablam and am given a smart salute to send me on my way! I don't even see the second checkpoint and nor am I seen by the guards so walk straight past that as well. From there it is a few more undulations until the restaurant where I end up waiting about an hour for the rest to arrive - they have stopped at the second check point and been part of a long queue for our permit to be reviewed. 

Lunch is a Chinese / Nepali fusion chow mien on a sun terrace next to the path with views back down the valley. This is a lovely place and we stay there for quite a while and end up being the last to leave the area.



 

From lunch we have a wire bridge over the river

 
 


 and then a steep climb out of the valley up to Namche. This gives me an opportunity to really push on and boost my acclimatisation - quite luckily this is well below the treeline so there is quite a bit of shade from the sun. Then all of a sudden I get to another checkpoint and this time I am unable to bluff my way past which is a bit annoying as the others are some way behind but then I notice that this is actually the Namche gateway and the end of the day's trek so I would have to wait here anyway to reconvene before heading to our teahouse for the night. 

There are a few others who have also arrived a bit ahead of their group so we chat and play ball with some of the young children who live on the outskirts of Namche. There are a number of porters here as well, one of whom is not wasting the opportunity to impress the others with the ringtone on his phone (Gangnam Style) which he lets continue for a rather long time when he is called which is oddly frequently. 

A bit later on the rest of the group turn up and we got though the paperwork and head on to Namche. This is the old market town in the region where Tibetan and Nepalis would come to trade. As such it is by far the wealthiest area in the region and this was then boosted when it became the launch point for most of the trekking and climbing in the area.

 

Apparently one of Namche's  highlights is the German bakery and so we drop in there for some apple pie - apples grow pretty well in these valleys and the pie is very good indeed.



We stay there for quite a while and have to head through the back streets in the dark to find our teahouse - there are quite a number of new ones in the village but there hasn't been the same investment in the streets that lead to them!

After that it was a similar relaxed evening with a trio of stir fries (rice, potatoes and vegetable) for supper. 

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Day 3 - Off to Luckla and Phadking

We get up for 05:30 meet but there is no one in the hotel to meet us and nor can we find our pack breakfasts. After a bit of wandering we unexpectedly find that a full breakfast including hot dishes has been set out so we sit down to that whilst we wait for our team who amble in at about 6am.
 
The domestic airport for our flight to Lukla in usual chaos so just hang around for a bit before check in whilst our fixers go off to do their stuff - given we already have tickets for a specific flight it is not clear to us what this is. However this simply shows our naivety our the Nepalese flight system.It soon becomes clear that although they sell tickets for specific flights, in fact all you have is a vague indication that you might be put on a plane if you turn up with a well connected person with a fistful of dollars. We are clearly not on our 07:30 flight as we don't check in until about 07:15 and there are  a number of trekkers in the airport without local fixers who don't seem to be getting anywhere near check and nor are they able to find out from anyone there which flight they are actually booked on and what they can do about actually getting on it. Presumably in a few hours time when the main rush for all the groups is over there will be some flights for all those remaining - as long as the weather holds!

The are quite restrictive baggage allowances (15kg check in and 5kg hand luggage) and considerable charges for going over the weight (something like $20 per kg) on the flight so we have played the game of wearing much of our heavy gear which we will need to repack in Luckla as it will be far too hot to trek in. However, having seen what was happening prior to check in, it seems far from likely that something as lucrative as excess baggage won't be used as a cash generating exercise when there are so many people desperate to get on planes. So our luggage is taken off to the plane and then we are told that we are considerably over the limit and have to pay excess baggage on something like 140kg over. We knew we might be a bit over but considerably over at $20 per kg was going to be an issue so we start having a bit of an argument and our fixer gets involved but it is not that clear what he is saying and whose side he is on - this is actually rather amusing as the whole situation is rather farcical.
The baggage allowance has been changed so that it is now 15kg per person rather than the 15 + 5 which leads to an odd discussion when I produce the ticket which clearly shows the weight allowance of 15 + 5 to which he just smiles and says that it has changed, to which I counter that such a key term to a contract can't just be changed unilaterally without at the very least informing us. He again just shrugs his shoulders and smiles which is rather annoying. We are then interrupted by another official who comes to apologise since it appears that another groups bag was included with ours so the have just knocked 40kg off the total weight and so the overall charge is now $40 less. This leads to a lot more confusion as we are demanding that a lot more than just $40 is knocked off and after a few minutes it becomes clear that the other change which they have not informed us of is that whilst the baggage allowance has come down significantly, so have the charges which at $1 per kilo are really not a problem. So we pull the $100 together and head off to security.
This is a bit of a farce with all sorts of people wandering about, many bags not going through the scanner and the chap watching the scanner having far more fun chatting to his chums rather than actually watching the nags that are going through. Unfortunately, one of our group has managed to leave a knife in their rucksack and despite the odds, this does get picked up. After a bit of a discussion, they accept that this was just an oversight and then offer to pass it on to one of the crew who will give it back to us at the far side. We assume that this will be the last we see of it.     

Then after a short wait we head out to the plane which is pretty small with only about 12 seats.


The team!
Going over the mountains, this is bound to be a rough ride and in a plane this size we will be bouncing wildly which is terrible for news for those of us susceptible to motion sickness. However, two things brighten our mood. First, we are going to be looked after by the lovely Bumika



and secondly I find the knife which has been put into the seat-back pocket in front of me!
 
There is quite a bit of low cloud so the view goes from nothing to spectacular every few minutes for the half hour flight. The approach to Luckla is pretty stunning as we come over a ridge and drop steeply into the next valley before landing on the small airstrip on the far side. I was sitting at the back next to the emergency exit and shortly before landing a bit of turbulence jolted the door open and I was left holding the handle to prevent it from opening. The runway is very short indeed and has been positioned on a steep incline to make up for it - it really is up there with the most dramatic landings I have ever had. 

Once the airport formalities are completed we head through the village to a local hotel. Lukla is a funny little place where pretty much every building is tourism related and has some stunning mountains as a backdrop.


View up the valley from Lukla

We head to one of the hotels, organise ourselves, have what is for some people their third breakfast of the day and then start our trek up the Khumbu valley.

This is a great trek; the valley is very green, the sky is blue and the sun strong and it is great to see the little Nepali villages that dot the side of the valley.



There is also a lot of excitement from all the groups starting out on their various trips today - mostly they are trekking groups but we spot one or two others who are heading up the mountains as well.  

We don't have far to go today given that we are acclimatising and you can't predict what flight you will be on and so how much time you will have today. We move at a leisurely pace and have a long stop for lunch where we have the ubiquitous noodle soup (instant noodles with added vegetables) which is a great energy rich, healthy easy meal at a nice little cafe in the sun with views back down the valley. 

We get to Phadking at about 15:30 and have a leisurely afternoon and evening of chatting, drinking tea and a bit of organising before an early supper at about six before bed at the conventionally acceptable time of 8pm. I have a ginger chicken dish for supper but given the size and quality of the chicken pieces I would imagine that we won't be having much meat on this trip. This is a Buddhist area and so they won't kill any animals here and all meat comes in from Kathmandu and so is rarely fresh. 

There is little if any camping in this part of the valley so we are staying in tea houses. These have come a long way over the years and are now like very basic hotels but are significantly more comfortable than camping - although I have not been in any others as yet my impression is that we are staying in a pretty decent one. So far the local agent seems to have been pretty generous with the budget in that we can order whatever we want for meals. Oddly though, they do not cover drinking water and toilet paper whilst we are in the teahouses. It will be interesting to see how the water part works out - I would imagine that now people will end up relying too much on the hot drinks at meals and that people will get dehydrated which may impact walking in the day but will impact the ability to acclimatise - this really is not a sensible policy!

Monday, 21 October 2013

Day 2 - Kathmandu

The downside of an early night is waking up early and I get up at about 6 to catch up on a few things before we head off for breakfast at about 8. This is followed by meeting the Himalayan records team who try to meet all groups doing one of the big climbs - my first but hopefully not last inclusion in this august database. 

After this we discuss the trip in a bit more detail and the useful tweaks to the usual mountaineering gear and equipment. I have also just bought a Go Pro and so happily spend the remaining time up until we head off for a spot of shopping setting it up. My plan is to take quite a bit of footage on this expedition and to try and make a video of it and my upcoming expeditions. 

A key bit of kit is turning out to be a pair of cheap but warm gloves that you can wear on descents when there is a lot of letting ropes run through your hands as this will break gloves quickly and you don't want to do this to your £200 high tech ones. So we get to one of the more reputable shops in town to buy a pair of their cheap knock-offs which seems a little strange and although they claim to sell genuine gear as well you do wonder how strict they are on keeping the two apart. After that we head for a perfectly nice but ridiculously overpriced Westernised cafe for a spot of lunch before returning to the hotel for our final preparations to the flight to Lukla tomorrow morning. Lukla is the main starting point for much of the trekking and climbing here.  Our flight is at 10 or 11 am so we will have plenty of time for a leisurely morning and final packing tomorrow but things frequently don't go as planned or expected here so we mostly finalise our packing tonight. 

Again we meet at 6 for an evening beer before meeting our local agents for the rearranged cultural show - I have not managed to come up with a polite way of avoiding it and our agents have asked so nicely it would need a really good reason to get out. 

The promised 10 minute drive obviously becomes a lot longer and we then pull into the largest and best built building that I have seen in Kathmandu and there is a lady giving Tikkas to everyone going in. This has all the hallmarks of the usual poor quality and expensive charade that is so common. However, once in the food is actually both pretty authentic and tasty and the dancers are actually enjoying what they are doing rather than being embarrassed by the old fashioned dances that they are having to perform for the foreigners. I am sitting next to the owner of the local travel agency and it is fascinating talking to him about the development of his businesses after being a trekking guide. He set up his travel company, opened a restaurant in the middle of Thamel and is one of the two partners in the hotel we are staying in. His future plans include opening a 5* hotel in Katmandu that is Nepali owned and run and setting up a hydro electric power station!

As is the tradition here, we have left our shoes outside the performance / dining room and on the way out my flip flops appear to have disappeared. That is pretty strange as the Nepalis all have pretty small feet and none of the other guests appeared would have suited them either. We have a bit of a comical search for them in the narrow corridor where the shoes were left and are joined by a rather drunk Japanese man whose main contribution seems to be laughing uproariously at jokes - usually his own but ours as well regardless of whether or not he understands them. 

It is all a bit of a mystery until we see the band wandering through and putting on clearly too large flip flops to head upstairs to what is presumably their green room. I head up there with the local agent and to my relief and everyone's amusement (including the poor embarrassed young chap who had used them by mistake) my flip flops are on the rack of spare footwear that they use. 

On the way back to the hotel the agent breaks the news that in fact we are now on the 07:30 flight and so we need to be ready to leave the hotel at 05:45 am. A bit of a change of plan for those still tying to catch up on sleep and so looking forward to an early night and a bit of a lie in as well. Since breakfast won't be ready at that time and, to aid a swift departure, the hotel will prepare us a packed breakfast. 

Therefore it is a last beer and final packing when we get back to the hotel before an early night. 

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Day 1 - Arrival

This time I am flying in from Thailand after a great week with some chums in a villa on Koh Samui. Once at Kathmandu airport, I get the usual demand for tips from some chap who has managed to wrestle my trolley away from me for the 30 second walk to the transfer bus, but I only have Thai coins or nothing less than $5 (which I am certainly not giving him) and he turns up his nose at them so I give my best confused, tourist face and he soon wanders off to harass someone else. 

Shortly after that we head into town and it is quite a surprise to see how little Kathmandu has changed since I was last here about 12 years ago - the dome of brown smog still sits over the city. Kathmandu remains a very poor town on the outskirts and the living conditions really aren't great - it is very hot, dusty and chaotic. 

After a bit of a drive, and a lot of near misses, we get to the hotel which is in the centre of the tourist district, Thamel. The hotel provides a lovely, quiet retreat from the noisy bustle of the area although the rooms are really basic with the 'ensuite bathroom' little more than a toilet with a shower stuck on the wall and a sink behind the door. Still, there is probably little that is better here and the better hotels are quite a way from this area which also has all the infrastructure for outdoors tourism in Nepal. 

Most of the rest of the group arrive a bit later in the mid afternoon and after a quick pit stop to dump bags etc we head off for a bit of a wander and to change some money. Whilst out, one of the chaps wants to pick up a local SIM card to make calls home on the rare occasions that we have reception. However, for a foreigner to get a local sim, they need to provide their passport along with a passport sized photo for the retailer to keep. He doesn't have one and but I have one left over from the ones I brought for my visa and so we get a photocopy of my passport from the lovely ladies next door and the chap seems happy to accept my passport and photo for someone else to get a SIM card. The next issue is that the phone is locked (ie it can't accept a Nepali sim card) but a quick call later and we are told that this man has a brother nearby who can unlock the phone for a very cheap price if we leave the phone with him for the next hour. 

After that, and with no small amount of trepidation, we head back for a beer in the hotel garden and to meet the local agents. They seem nice enough but soon say the dreaded words 'cultural show', an event which I have come to dislike intensely over the years. I am trying to work out a means of escape when someone mentions that it is a half hour drive to get there which unfortunately is not possible for us as we need to pick up the unlocked iPhone shortly and so we have to drop out.

After a quick supper and couple of beers, a combination of jet lag and missed sleep catches up with the group and we head to bed. With plans for the next day of kit check and sightseeing. 
The expedition is roughly structured as follows:
  1. Fly to Lukla which is the nearest airport to the Khumbu valley which has a lot of Nepal's climbing and trekking. 
  2. Trek up the Khumbu valley (past Ama Dablam) to Island Peak which is one of the most popular trekking / easy climbing peaks and summits. 
  3. Trek back to Ama Dablam for our ascent of that - we should do this much quicker than normal as we should be pretty handily acclimatised after our ascent of Island Peak. 
  4. Trek back to Luckla and fly back to Kathmandu. 

Some of you may be thinking, hang on a minute, Ama Dablam is not one of the 7 Summits; why are you climbing it. There are probably 3 reasons for it:

  1. The 7 Summits are more physically tough than technically difficult and I wanted to have climbed a properly technical mountain. 
  2. Everest is the most technical of the 7 Summits and also you are dealing with that at significant altitude. This is the weakest part of my mountaineering and I wanted to push / prepare myself here by climbing a rather more technically difficult mountain at a lower altitude. 
  3. I will be climbing Everest from the Tibetan rather than Nepalese side and as such will miss out on the iconic trek up the Khumbu valley to the mountain. This trip will give me most of that.