The flight from Kathmandu to Lukla is always special. It doesn’t matter if you are gazing out of the port side towards the snow-capped Himalayas and beyond into Tibet or towards India across the terraced fields that defy gravity and occasionally get so close to the plane as it skims through the passes, anxious glances are always exchanged. To be deposited in such a short space of time into this magical mountainous amphitheatre is a shock, as the smog and incessant honking of car and motorbike horns is replaced by the gentle clanking of the neck bells of the yak train and the clear, cool mountain air. We arrived only slightly delayed by the mysteries of Nepalese airline scheduling and met our eager trek crew. Unfortunately, the baggage handlers had not been quite so eager and most of our bags were absent, so we headed off to a tea house for lunch and to await the arrival of the bags.
Lukla has several excellent coffee shops that occupied the afternoon as last attempts at carbo loading (well, chocolate brownie loading if we are honest) were made by several team members. The bags arrived as the sun was setting and the chill of the evening made us grateful for our duvet jackets, even inside the tea house. The following morning everyone was up and eager for the off as we trekked downhill and away from the mountains to start our slow circle first over the Pankongma La towards Mera Peak.
Early on the third day of trekking we caught sight of our first objective, Mera Peak. Mera is the highest of the slightly misnamed “trekking peaks” and gives amazing views of several 8000m mountains, north to Everest (8848m) and Lhotse (8516m), east to Makalu (8463m) and if the weather is kind Kanchenjunga (8586m) far off, and west to Cho Oyu (8201m) although we would have to wait another 10 days to drink in this panorama.
Cameras clicked almost constantly as the views of the mountains changed as we drew nearer each day. Blessed with good weather every morning, we could awake and drink our bed tea to stupendous views before the ritual of porridge and omelette to start the day. Each day proved different, from lively villages to Tolkinesque forests draped in moss and monkeys chattering in the trees until after a week of walking we left the forests and fields behind and entered the alpine meadows below Tagnang. We made a brief visit to the tiny Gompa of Gondishung where, if banging your head on the low wooden doorway brought good luck, virtually the entire expedition were ‘blessed’.
Our rest day at Khare saw us take a brief acclimatisation walk behind the village and gave us excellent views of Mera before a memorable descent path led back to the village and in the afternoon, we familiarised ourselves with jumars and abseiling in preparation for the climbing ahead. The following day, a steep moraine path led us to the snow just below the Mera La and, crampons on and clutching ice axes, our rope made good progress zigzagging upwards. Our efforts were rewarded by atmospheric views of Cholatse as we gained the Mera La, before the swirling cloud reduced the horizon to our feet. We dropped a short distance down the other side to the welcoming smile of Purna our chef and warming drinks in the mess tent. Barry was feeling the altitude and after some lunch he descended back to the thicker air of Khare.
A short walk from the Mera La over easy glacier slopes took the remainder to high camp where rest was the primary objective before an early morning start. Crampons squeaking and every inch covered against the piercing wind, the team made excellent progress with Richard, Paul, Emma and Dave reaching the summit just before 0700. The bitter cold made for a very short summit stay before a tiny abseil and a longer walk to the warmth of the sleeping bags at high camp. After a short rest and refuel the team descended first to the Mera La where we had to wave goodbye to Richard who needed to head home and then down to Kongma Digma and an early night.
With 7000m mountains as our guardians, we made our way over the next two days to the foot of the Amphulapcha pass. Guarded by seracs on its southern side it looks a formidable obstacle however a devious route sneaks through, avoiding most of the difficulties and depositing you in only a few hours on what feels like the roof of the world. With Lhotse dominating the view, a careful descent via abseils and lowers leads to snow and scree on the north side and the end of any difficulties. The porters celebrated with a yak dung fire, which seemed only to make them cough more but as they seemed cheery enough we left them to it.
It was tired souls that once again levered themselves out of bed in the early hours two days later. From the majestic eyrie of high camp on Island peak, the flicker of head torches of other parties starting from basecamp could be seen, as we threaded our way upwards through the rocks. The crenelated rock ridge deposited us on a glacial shelf where a line of fixed rope vanished upwards into the darkness and was our guide through the maze of crevasses. As the sun rose, an unexpected ladder spanning a crevasse, gave the morning a big mountain feel as crampons had to be balanced delicately over the aluminium bars. The headwall a few hundred metres further was a spaghetti of fixed ropes, although as a team we moved quickly and escaped the carnage of people abseiling down the up ropes! Richard, Emma, Paul and Dave arrived at the summit only 5 hours after leaving high camp.
Lured downwards by the promise of more pizza, chips and the possibility of some warmer temperatures, a dust trail marked Emma’s route to Chukkung and the remainder of the expedition were close behind. The pizza and chips did emerge, together with slightly warmer temperatures and this was the theme all the way back to Kathmandu with a celebratory pizza in Fire & Ice.
My thanks go the excellent trek team of Purna (cook), Major (HA Sherpa) and Taman (Sirdar) for making everything happen so smoothly and also to the Adventure Peaks home team slaving away in Ambleside without whom none of us who have got anywhere near the mountains. Lastly a big thank you to Emma, Dave, Barry, Richard and Paul – it was a pleasure to spend a month wandering the mountains of Nepal with you and I hope our paths cross again soon.