Expeditions to the Khumbu valley start even before you land on the nerve-wracking flight to Lukla. It’s not just the extremely short uphill landing but the shallow flying zone that makes it so exhilarating. The 5 hour wait for the last of our luggage could have been worse had it not been for the mountain views and the unusual yak burger lunch. Apparently, they only serve yak if it has fallen off the hill, according to our climbing Sherpa, LB. There is a long version of his name but everyone knows him as LB or Lalu from Jiri. Having photos taken of him throughout the trip we soon realised he was a local celebrity (the first Jiri to climb Everest).
It was a lovely short downhill walk to Phakding, but the following day was a wake up call as we climbed the 800m up to Namche Bazaar. It didn’t take long for the team to get to know each other. Food and music seemed to be the binders. Me playing my eclectic wedding playlist (chosen by the guests – hence eclectic), and Phil’s insatiable appetite were taken to new heights with both deep fried Mars and Snickers bars. The Snickers won! Namche is a wonderful last stop before the real trail begins; it is filled with outdoor shops (real and fake), coffee shops (all good), a pub and a huge number of tea houses. I particularly liked ours, The Hill-Ten.
Phil and his dad Malcolm were trekking to Ama Dablam Base Camp, whilst Charlie and Jamie were in for the long haul: Island Peak (6189m) and Ama Dablam (6856m). We used our rest day to acclimatise by visiting the Everest View Hotel. There wasn’t much of a view when we first arrived but the clouds duly parted as Charlie muttered a few obscenities, “We’re climbing that, holy …., it’s huge!” as Ama Dablam came into view. She wasn’t wrong, Ama Dablam is one of those mountains that simply towers over the valley. Everest in contrast received a mere “Is that it?” remark from Phil on first viewing it.
The following day we had even better views from Tengboche as the clouds completely cleared. We left Phil content running his SD cards dry. Our timing was perfect as we also caught the monks’ ceremony at the monastery. The day was long as we climbed up the hill into Pangboche to a warm yak dung fire and great food. Phil and Charlie somehow had room for the apple pie/cake/pasty million-calorie affair. It looked jolly good though.
We said our farewells as we left Phil and Malcolm and headed up the valley to Dingboche and one of our favourite teahouses that boasted ensuite toilets and served Seabuckthorn tea. It’s one of those drinks that is both sour and sweet and tastes like it should be really good for you. Check out the list of uses and remedies online. Neither Jamie or Charlie were keen, they stuck to what was to become our staple hot drink: lemon, ginger and honey. Our acclimatisation walk was stunning from here with views up to Island Peak and the huge face of Lhotse. We were getting excited.
A day up to Chukkung and we did some jumar ascending and descending practice watched on by two French guys who asked, “Should we know this stuff?” – Yes, if you are climbing Island Peak! We continued up to Island Peak Base Camp and were in bed by 7pm. It’s all very well climbing into a sleeping bag at 7pm in the knowledge that you will be woken at 1am, but your brain doesn’t properly compute this and all 3 of us couldn’t sleep. Nerves?
1am arrived and we whimpered out of our bags to breakfast and headed out at 2am, head torches blaring. It’s surprisingly warm at 2am but as the night wears on the temperature drops. Both Jamie and Charlie began to really feel the stresses strains of climbing at altitude. With some persuasion we reached the top of the rock band and got our first glimpse of the glacier and headwall. This energized everyone and we finally crossed the crevasses and ladders. “Why is everyone going so slowly?” Charlie asked. Two hours later it was apparent that at 6,000m the going is slow and extremely tough. We were late onto the summit but the bonus was, we had it to ourselves. It was beautiful and after photos and cheers we made our descent to BC where the porters were eagerly waiting to help carry bags all the way to Chukkung.
Feeling a little battered from the climb, we descended to Pangboche for more good food and a good night’s sleep. Rita, who runs the Namche Lodge, gave us a tiny cap of an ancient Buddhist flower for luck on our climb and made me promise to return to my 2 year old. A heartfelt moment as I know she lost her husband on Ama Dablam to an avalanche, and a moment of realization for me too.
“Base Camp is as good, if not better, than I was expecting” are Jamie’s remarks. Base Camp is very good; the food, tents and especially the heated mess tent kept us warm and spirits were high again. It was a buzz of activity, not least the three long-rope helicopter rescues we witnessed in the first two days. All of a sudden it was real for Charlie and Jamie and we all went to bed after a day’s rest feeling eager and apprehensive.
The next day, disaster struck for Jamie as he came down with a cold. There was no way he was going to join us acclimatising up to Camp 2. So, he decided to drop back down to Pangboche and be nursed back to health in the warmth. Meanwhile, Charlie, LB and I spent a night at Yak Camp (me reading my utterly rubbish Clive Cussler novel out loud to much amusement), Camp 1, with superb views and phone signal (it’s better in the Khumbu valley than most of the UK’s wild spots) and finally, we climbed the brilliant granite arête leading up to Camp 2. The climbing was so much fun on fixed lines and even better without a loaded rucksack. Charlie did however have to learn to double jumar in-situ, which she claims was good fun! Definitely for the photographic enthusiast and not the faint-hearted or acrophobic.
Jamie was waiting at BC and feeling better, so after a day’s rest he set off ahead of us to Yak Camp. We joined him the next day and we all headed up to Camp 1. Food at altitude has always been my Achilles heel. I’m not a fan of rehydrated food, and neither was Charlie so it seemed. Our plan was to carry fresh food from BC; I know it’s heavy but it actually tastes of something. Jamie on the other hand tucked into his spag bol with no qualms. Then we hit gold at Camp 2 – the Korean team had left behind their noodles. Excellent, we thought. …I can still feel the burn now. Hot doesn’t do it justice. Mind-blowing about sums up what Charlie and I ate. Unfortunately we couldn’t share the giggles with Jamie as his cold had got the better of him and he descended after Camp 2. He wanted to at least enjoy the climbing everyone was talking about.
The anticipation was over. At 1am we set off through the fabulously technical mixed terrain on the Grey Tower. There were even a few cheeky overhanging bulges to contend with, which saw some swearing from Charlie as she hauled herself over them. It was slow going and teams in front weren’t scared of knocking a few chunks of ice off down on us. But eventually the sun rose and we topped out on the mushroom to be faced with the final 500m headwall passing the famous Necklace, the hanging glacier that gives this mountain its name. Good cop, bad cop tactics persuaded Charlie it was a good idea to continue. The wall is pretty relentless but the views and the feeling of euphoria made it all worth the hurt. “This was the hardest day, ever” – Charlie Green (this was the third, no, fourth time she muttered these words on this trip).
We didn’t hang around much on the summit. LB pointed to all the mountains and named them. The list is way too long, but there are some big boys up there. The 800m descent was mixed, from fun vertical drops to downright scary as the ice screw wobbled just as you leant over the edge. We made Camp 2 in the dark and drank everything in sight from juice to tea and back to Horlicks. It was a long day with the odd frozen boiled egg, cheese, nuts and a million chocolate bars.
After a slow breakfast and the mandatory photoshoot at Camp 2 (it really is silly) we headed to Base Camp to dinner and a fabulous cake made by Lalu. The walk down through the Khumbu was really special; the grass was definitely greener, the coffee and cake in Namche were pure bliss and then we walked with a spring in our step all the way to Lukla and on to Kathmandu for some really, really good food and shopping. I just hope Charlie remembered everyone – there were quite a few presents bulging out of her kitbags.