Rugged Tales

Wherever my feet may take me…


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Rewind

Trekking down was rather like seeing the trek up on fast rewind. The altitude it had taken us nearly a fortnight of exertion to acquire was lost again in just three days: being better acclimatised, the absence of any limits on the speed at which your body can adjust to decreasing altitude and, of course, the assistance of gravity will do that. The second time round my impressions were different, however. We were very fortunate with the weather throughout the trek but on our return to Pheriche we awoke to a light dusting of snow across a valley that we had seen overcast and misty/unexpectedly warm and sunny on the way up. Suspecting – correctly – that the snow would soon melt away, our cameras went into overdrive to capture a few last ‘Kodak moments’.

The only snow of our trek, adding a picture postcard touch to an already picturesque farm just below Pheriche.

The only snow of our trek, adding a picture postcard touch to an already picturesque farm just below Pheriche.

The intervening experiences at Lobuche and Everest Base Camps had altered my assessment of the tea houses we revisited. Despite the ice on the inside of the window (and the snow on the ground) my room in Pheriche now seemed cosy and warm. Beds that had felt a little hard on the way up now seemed luxuriously soft. Scenery that had seemed barren now appeared quite lush compared to the desolate rock and ice of the glacier.

The season had advanced while we’d been at Base Camp. Crops that had barely sprouted when we walked up were now grown tall. Fields had been planted and – best of all – yak calves had been born. I saw several of these little guys between six and 12 days old (thanks, Mingma) and they were so cute! I considered smuggling one home before remembering how large they grow; I suspect a yak would not thrive in my small London flat, even if I refrigerated it. And I’m not so sure I will either, to be honest, now that I’ve become accustomed to so much open space, fresh air and spectacular views wherever I look – all commodities in short supply back home.

The scenery certainly bore a repeat view, especially when we came upon them at a different time of day. A view that we’d enjoyed in the morning took on a totally different aspect when we passed back that way in the late afternoon.

The Tenzing Norgay memorial stupa again - but different in the softer afternoon light.

The Tenzing Norgay memorial stupa again – but different in the softer afternoon light.

Unsurprisingly, though, it was a journey without too many surprises as we encountered the reverse sequence of villages and vistas that I recalled from the trek up. But on the last afternoon, on the final stretch back to Lukla, I heard someone call out my name and I turned to see three friends I’d first met on a trip in Africa in 2009 walking the other way on the trail. ‘Surprised’ would be more than an understatement. Last I’d heard, they were in London and Singapore (where I’d visited them last year) respectively. It really is a small world, and meeting them in Nepal was an amazing piece of serendipity. According to Lonely Planet, between 35,000 and 37,000 people trekked in the Everest region last year so the odds of seeing someone I knew were tiny!

My chance meeting was all the more enjoyable for being so completely unexpected, but as we got back within sight of the airport I reflected that that was enough of a surprise to be going along with. What I most wanted now was a predictable and reassuringly uneventful flight back to Kathmandu…


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What goes up must come down

Everest Base Camp is a watershed: your choices are to climb up or walk back down. Climbing (as the attentive reader will have spotted from my last post) is not for me, so down it was.

The day of our departure dawned sunny and mild. I drank in the views from my tent for the last time as I packed up and headed for a final camp breakfast. The climbers were also leaving that day, heading back down to climb Lobuche for the next phase of their preparations. We all walked out of camp together, pausing by the entrance sign for a team photo before heading off back down the trail to Gorak Shep.

The IMG Hybrid team and their trekking companions - together for the last time!

The IMG Hybrid team and their trekking companions – together for the last time!

As we descended, the weather – and my mood – clouded over. I was sad to say goodbye to the climbers, and although I had nothing to add to the proceedings it felt somehow wrong to just abandon them to the challenges ahead. But abandon we must: a little past Lobuche, they headed up along the right hand side of the valley and back to Lobuche Base Camp, whilst we climbed the left hand side back to Dughla and Pheriche. It started to snow as I watched them grow smaller and smaller in the vast mountain landscape until, finally, they disappeared round the curve of the hill. I already missed their company, and wondered when I would see them all again.

In the chilly, gloomy weather and this sombre frame of mind I came upon the largest concentration of memorials to those who have lost their lives on Everest. Rising stark against the leaden sky on a hilltop above Dughla they were an unwelcome reminder of the risks my friends will face in seeking to achieve their ambitions.

The memorials to those who have lost their lives on Everest.

The memorials to those who have lost their lives on Everest.

I remarked to my fellow trekker, Dale, that I would prefer not to be passing so many memorials just after having said goodbye to everyone. “Why couldn’t we have come upon monuments celebrating all those who’ve climbed successfully instead?” I grumbled. “Well,” he replied, “for one thing there isn’t nearly enough room.” And it’s true: the thousands of successful summits dwarf the fatalities, the ratio is still improving and IMG has a particularly impressive safety record. Thankfully, there has never been a safer time to climb Mount Everest.


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Preparations

For me as a trekker, arriving at Base Camp was all about admiring the scenery, taking lots of photos, and trying not to lose my footing on the ice. But our climbers had more serious concerns – preparing to climb Everest, for example.

First up was a puja ceremony to bless the expedition: an essential prerequisite for the Sherpa team, an opportunity for the climbers to bring items of their equipment for the blessing, and a chance for trekkers such as myself to join in with the wider team and gain a fascinating insight into Sherpa culture.

The morning of the puja dawned bright and sunny, but with an icy cold wind that made me wish I’d put on a few more layers for the long ceremony. Even in my down jacket, my hands buried deep in the pockets, I was distinctly chilly. Needless to say, the Sherpas were made of sterner stuff: most didn’t even bother with gloves, so presumably they have much better circulation than me. Or perhaps it was a strategic cradling of cups of hot tea that enabled them to keep their extremities bearably warm.

Prayer flags are strung out over the whole camp from a flag pole erected in the centre of the altar as part of the puja ceremony.

Prayer flags are strung out over the whole camp from a flag pole erected in the centre of the altar as part of the puja ceremony.

The strong breeze fanned the smoke from burning juniper branches, and the lama’s chants, across the crowd. Handfuls of rice and tsampa (roasted barley flour) were thrown into the air. Sungdi strings were tied around our necks. A flag pole topped with more juniper branches was erected on the centre of the puja altar, and prayer flags run out in all directions to spread the blessings over the whole camp. Ceremonial food and drink (including beer, coke, tsampa cakes, Tibetan biscuits and Mars bars) were offered around, and enthusiastically consumed. More tsampa flour was smeared on our faces (apparently to symbolise a grey beard and hence long life). A good time was had by all.

Viki and I sporting fetching tsampa flour beards - and plenty of warm clothes!

Viki and I sporting fetching tsampa flour beards – and plenty of warm clothes!

Suitably blessed, fed, and defrosted after the ceremony our climbers turned their attention to the technical skills required for the mountain. And as they strapped on climbing harnesses and compared carabiners the climbers underwent a transformation. While we’d been walking in to Base Camp the group had seemed relatively homogeneous. The climbers, being generally fitter, tended to walk a bit faster and they shared more climbing anecdotes over dinner, but the casual observer would have been hard pressed to tell the difference. With the introduction of climbing gear into the mix, however, the sheep were rapidly sorted from the goats, and the most striking change was in our guides. During the trek in Justin and Peter had proved to be congenial and effective tour guides. But once the climbing gear was broken out it was clear that only a small percentage of their skills had been visible during the trek whilst, like an iceberg, the greater part of their talents had remained hidden below the waterline.

Fixed line training session for the IMG hybrid team climbers on the Khumbu glacier.

Fixed line training session for the IMG hybrid team climbers on the Khumbu glacier.

Whilst the guides took to this new environment like ducks to (frozen) water, I watched with a mix of awe and relief that I would not be called on to participate, as they put the group through their paces. The climbers practiced crossing ladders (which I understand will be plentiful in the Khumbu icefall) and, the following day, ascending a fixed line on one of the glacier’s large ice formations and repelling down the other side. It was great to watch the guys in action, but seeing them tying complicated-looking knots, ascending with a gadget resembling a staple gun and doing clever things with some kind of figure eight thingy, only confirmed me in my view that I was born to walk rather than climb. I would be happy to trek around the Himalayas until further notice – just so long as I don’t have to clip in to do it.


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En suite

Comfortable as the IMG camp was, only so much is possible in the creation of convenient restrooms from scree, boulders and ice. The camp toilets were an impressive feat of civil engineering: constructed from rocks artfully piled into a seating platform over a strong plastic sack (to enable all waste to be packed out), topped with a fluffy seat cover – presumably for insulation rather than purely decorative purposes! – and covered with a roomy tent, the toilets were all a trekker could hope for from a campsite on a glacier.

The closest 'throne room' to my tent in the IMG Everest Base Camp.

The closest ‘throne room’ to my tent in the IMG Everest Base Camp.

They were, however, situated a hygienic distance from our sleeping quarters and getting to them was a bit of a palaver. As one climber quipped “We’ll have to repel to the bathroom!”. And when the distance and tricky terrain were combined with darkness and frigid temperatures only the hardiest soul would be game to visit them at night. The IMG kit list accordingly recommended bringing a pee bottle. But how are we women to get the pee into the bottle without the advantage of inbuilt apparatus, so to speak? Enter the pee funnel…

After some internet research, I purchased a Shewee, the UK’s top-selling brand, and practiced at home as recommended by the manufacturers. So far so good. But when I arrived at our first camp I realised I’d made a fundamental error in my preparations: all my practice had been done standing up but the IMG tents, while commodious, offered only enough headroom for kneeling. On the first night I lay wakeful in my sleeping bag, weighing the evils of getting dressed and hiking to the toilet in the freezing cold against the risks of making my first kneeling attempt in a tent full of essential (and difficult to launder or replace) gear. As nature’s calls grew louder and the temperature fell another few degrees I decided I had to at least give it a try.

The first obstacle was the uneven ground, which meant Viki and I had rolled together into the centre of the tent. I cringed as I opened my sleeping bag, jostling her all the way while an infeasibly loud ‘ziiiiiiiiiip’ shattered the silent mountain air. I clambered out, pulled on my head torch, and folded my sleeping bag out of the way as Viki (a pee funnel expert) had recommended. I assembled my apparatus, assumed what I hoped was the correct position…and was seized by performance anxiety. I waited…and waited…and tried to relax, but it was no good. I tried to think of something else, then tried some visualisations, and finally some reassuring internal monologues. Eventually the deadlock was broken, but what I would normally expect to accomplish in less than a minute took around a quarter of an hour.

But it was done! I carefully screwed the lid back onto my pee bottle, checked it, tidied up, checked it again, put it carefully away in the corner of the tent, checked it once more for luck, and prepared to get back into bed. A little shaky – though whether from the cold or the adrenaline I couldn’t say – I tried to straighten out my sleeping bag, but managed to somehow get it both upside down and the wrong way round. Impressive! Muttering to myself (very quietly) I flipped it over, only to clout Viki on the way past with the hot Nalgene bottle I’d forgotten was still stuffed into the foot box. D’oh! Finally getting it straight I climbed back inside, turned off my headlight and repeated the whole noisy, jostling zip procedure before settling back down, my heart pounding. I was relieved (in all senses of the word) but also mortified at the kerfuffle I had caused over a simple biological function. All in all, I reflected, it would have been quicker and less disruptive to have got dressed and gone off to the toilet tent.

In the morning, however, only the sight of my full pee bottle prevented Viki berating me for insufficiently hydrating (an essential part of successful acclimatization to high altitude): she had slept through the whole thing and thought I hadn’t needed to use the facilities in the night. While I am immensely grateful for all the advice I received about pee funnels from Viki (and other women on the trek and on the net), at that moment I was most appreciative of her ability to sleep through an in-tent commotion of almost Armageddon-like proportions. Thus reassured, and after a bit more practice, I am now completely converted to the benefits of en suite facilities I can enjoy in even the remotest corners of the planet.


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Home base

I’ve never camped on a glacier before, or even stood on one come to that, so staying at Everest Base Camp was quite an experience. I expected it to be cold and was not disappointed. Thankfully my sleeping bag proved up to the job, and the nights were not as cold as they could have been. Even so, by the time we went to bed (around 7:30 or 8:00pm) there was usually a thick layer of frost on both the outside and the inside of the tent fly sheet. During the night, my breath condensed on the outside of the sleeping bag in front of my face, the droplets freezing so that by morning the red fabric appeared to be adorned with a stylish sprinkling of rhinestones.

While I’d expected it to be cold I hadn’t expected it to be quite so noisy. Avalanches and rockfalls from the surrounding peaks were frequent, and sounded rather like a rumble of thunder. The often strong winds made a similar sound as they barreled up the valley, so that it was sometimes only possible to tell the difference when the wind buffeted the tent – or not. The shifting of the glacier itself made sounds ranging from the gentle creaks of an old house when the heating goes off, to the slam of a car door, to a gunshot – the latter more than a little disconcerting when it came from directly beneath my tent, and doubly so when I could feel it. I consoled myself that the Khumbu is a ‘dry’ glacier, so a crevasse was unlikely to open up beneath me. But there was still the regular sound of a ball smashing through a greenhouse whenever the movements of the glacier cracked the ice on one of the many frozen pools. With all that racket, I can’t say I slept well while at Base Camp!

But sound effects aside, the mere existence of the camp is actually pretty amazing. An estimated 1,200 climbers, sherpas and support staff will be staying at Base Camp this season, and the facilities provided for this small town are impressive – doubly so considering that every single item in the camp has been walked up the mountain, on the route we’ve just trekked, carried by an animal or a person, or helicoptered in.

The IMG Classic team tent area.  My tent was the leftmost one of the four just to the right of the big green tent (behind the solar panels).

The IMG Classic team tent area. My tent was the leftmost one of the four just to the right of the big green tent (behind the solar panels).

The IMG camp has separate tent areas for each climbing team, each with its own kitchen, (carpeted) mess tent and toilets. The toilets, paths and tent bases were works of art, constructed by the sherpa crews by hefting piles of rock and scree into position. There are also a couple of hot (gas-powered) showers, solar powered charging for all your gadgets and wifi, though it’s (understandably) not cheap. Shared facilities include a helipad and a medical clinic.

A helicopter delivering medical supplies is waved onto the helipad at Everest Base Camp.

A helicopter delivering medical supplies is waved onto the helipad at Everest Base Camp.

All in all, I was astounded at how an apparently inhospitable glacier in such a remote corner of the world can be remodeled into (relatively) comfortable living accommodation for so many people. As I walked around exploring, and admiring the spectacular ice formations, I was tempted to try a little remodelling of my own….

Attempting a little 'remodeling' of my own on the Khumbu glacier!

Attempting a little ‘remodeling’ of my own on the Khumbu glacier!


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Rise and fall

The hike up to Everest Base Camp got off to a bad start for me when I fell over in the first five minutes. The paths that had been soggy and muddy when we arrived at lunchtime were frozen and icy when we walked out in the early morning. One minute I was walking along admiring the views, the next a sneaky patch of black ice sent my foot shooting sideways and the rest of me sprawling in the snow. Luckily, my pride was the only thing hurt and, brushing myself off, I set off again with as nonchalant an air as I could muster given the rather large number of spectators.

Fortunately, as the sun came up any remaining ice on the paths melted and I made my way to Lobuche without further incident. Or so I thought… When we stopped for a break at the Lobuche Pass I realized I’d left my packed lunch on a wall some 90 minutes back. It now promised to be a hungry as well as a long day. I unearthed a food bar I had thankfully managed to keep hold of, and pressed on to Gorak Shep (5,140m / 16,865ft), the last stop before Everest Base Camp.

While the terrain had been getting progressively less lush as we moved up the Khumbu valley, there was a distinct change at Lobuche where the path begins to run alongside the Khumbu glacier. Villages, fields and high alpine moors gave way to a barren, rocky landscape, increasingly icy as we traced the glacier back to its source. The terrain underfoot also became more challenging, with rocky, dusty scree replacing the flat paths that were typical lower down.

A high ridge along the glacier’s edge gave us our first views of Everest Base Camp, perched on the first bend of the Khumbu glacier at the foot of the Western Cwm icefall.

My first view of Everest Base Camp - you can just make out the yellow splashes of the tents in the bottom left corner.  Everest is the dark triangular peak at the back trailing a small cloud plume.

My first view of Everest Base Camp – you can just make out the yellow splashes of the tents in the bottom left corner. Everest is the dark triangular peak at the back trailing a small cloud plume.

As we made our way down from the ridge to the glacier itself and I was inordinately excited to see Base Camp for the first time. In 2009, my trekking group arrived there in a white out and we could barely see the sign, let alone anything beyond. I was astounded by the view: a huge natural amphitheater with clusters of brightly coloured tents dotting the uneven surface of the glacier. I couldn’t wait to get a closer look and headed down the main path, goggling at the ice formations and glacial pools. The Khumbu glacier is without doubt one of the most dramatic and striking landscapes I have ever seen. But my enthusiasm proved my undoing. I trotted eagerly towards a particularly pleasing array of ice spires ringing the back edge of a frozen pool…and found myself sprawled on the ground again. I had failed to take account of the fact that the glacier is, fundamentally, made of ice, and what looked like a good patch if grippy dirt was in fact a thin film of grit over a melting ice slab. At least the rest if the group had gone on ahead so I had fewer witnesses this time. I hastily got to my feet, brushed myself off and carried on up the path towards the IMG camp hoping no-one had noticed.

IMG's Everest Base Camp.

IMG’s Everest Base Camp.

Finding the camp was just the first step, however. IMG has a large team and their camp covers a commensurately large area. Happily, it is full of friendly Sherpas who waved me cheerfully towards the hybrid team mess tent, in the manner of airport staff lining up an incoming plane with the right gate. I climbed the last few feet to the tent with relief and excitement – I’d made it!

I put down my pack down outside the door and began to straighten up when a strong gust of wind almost knocked me off my feet. Happily, I narrowly avoided a hat trick of tumbles – but I hastened inside before any further gravitational disasters could befall me.

Fortified with soup, tea and biscuits I felt sufficiently brave to venture back out to find my tent. The risk was entirely worth it: I can safely say I have never slept in a tent with such a breath-taking view before. And best of all, I can enjoy it while (intentionally!) lying down.

The view from my tent - not bad, eh?

The view from my tent – not bad, eh?