Rugged Tales

Wherever my feet may take me…

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What’s it like to climb Everest?

Trekking is one thing; climbing mountains is quite another. I blogged about my trek to Everest Base Camp with my awe-inspiring friend Victoria Tracey and her summit expedition team. While I trekked back down they stayed high in the mountains, making their preparations and – many long weeks later – attempting to reach the summit. So what’s it like to climb Mount Everest?

Far more rugged than anything I’ve done, or can ever imagine attempting, here is the account Viki wrote of her bid to stand on top of the world’s highest mountain.

It began in the early hours of the 13th May. Breakfast at 04:00; crampons, harness and headlamps on; out into the night for our last trip up through the Icefall. Ice and rock crunch beneath our crampons, the sherpas hum and chant – praying for our safety – we breathe hard and we keep climbing. I am overwhelmed by how much the route has changed since our last trip through. Crevasses yawn deep and wide, teetering seracs loom above our heads, ladders have multiplied and are perched at ever more improbable angles throughout the route, and avalanche debris is visible seemingly everywhere. I marvel at the power of nature and hope it stays quiet as we thread our way through. It does, and we reach Camp 1. We rest.

At 06:00 on the 14th we gear up for the move to Camp 2. The journey takes us through the relatively low angled Western Cwm where the heat and sun is the biggest fear. To date we haven’t experienced that, in fact, I have had some of my coldest moments here. I put hand warmers into my mittens and we set off. It’s never warm, but the weather is benign and we reach Camp 2 without incident. We rest.

The 15th is our big move up the Lhotse Face to Camp 3. It’s steep blue ice – careful and concentrated footwork is needed – and it’s unrelenting. The last time we did this it was tough. Very tough. My stomach knots in apprehension. I say nothing and put on my crampons. The climb is hard, I am slower than last time, my hacking cough (now 40 days old) is hurting me. I get to Camp 3 and Justin puts a hand on my shoulder and asks how I am. I try to talk and breathe and not cough and not cry (Why am I so weak?) and my throat closes and I start to wheeze. I am too tired to be frightened that I cannot breathe. But Mingma and Justin are there and an O2 mask is pushed on my face and I can breathe again. I move impossibly slowly up to the tent 20ft away. (Where is the girl that everyone always laughs at for walking so quickly?!). But the oxygen is magic. I feel better and better and eat and eat. My tentmate arrives and we commiserate and hug; “Isn’t this meant to get f***ing easier”?! Sometime later Peter is there. He checks my O2 saturation… 90%. At sea level I would be intubated, at Camp 3 it’s outstanding. We smile at each other. My climb will not end today. We rest.

The 16th begins hours before dawn. The move to Camp 4 (the South Col) is huge. It’s our first time climbing on oxygen and I am nervous about whether my goggles will fog and how hard it will be to climb when I can’t see my feet. In the final analysis it’s much less bad than I feared and today is wonderful. I climb to the top of the Lhotse Face, traverse over to, and surmount, the Yellow Band and head for the steep Geneva Spur. My feet follow the path beaten by my climbing heroes and I can’t believe I am here. It is hard work, impossibly hard work, but I feel amazing. I see Adrian, my Guide from Ama Dablam and we hug and share a joke. This place is amazing. I pull over the top of the Geneva Spur and realize we have a long rocky traverse to get to the South Col. It seems to take hours to complete, but finally I am there; the South Col… arguably the highest campsite in the world. It’s barren rock… I could be on the moon… the wind is howling… tents bend at improbable angles in the wind, their flies torn and flapping… debris is everywhere. I am tired now. Incredibly tired. But I look up. For the first time, I can see the route to the summit of Everest. I have a picture of this view pinned above my desk at work and now I can see it with my own eyes. I am impossibly proud of myself for getting here. But there is no time for that, Phunuru urges me toward a tent. It’s about noon and if we are going to leave for the summit I will need to start getting ready at 7pm for a 9pm departure. I have expended thousands of calories in energy and injested very few and need to work to try to address that.

Time passes and Justin is in the tent. The winds are set to drop later and if that happens we will go, if not, we may spend an extra 24 hours at the Col. This is a daunting prospect, even on oxygen we will weaken here. Our fragile bodies are not meant to be at 26,000ft. But I am not worried as we have this conversation in the tent which is bent almost double in the wind. My friends are with me. Justin and Peter are here and Greg is at EBC and whatever will be, will be. Justin will bring us the final decision in a few hours so my tentmate and I settle in. We pretend to rest.

It’s a GO! The wind is howling, there is not a star in the sky and I am at 26,000ft about to head 3,000ft up. But I am calm. My mind is clear and I think about risk. Mingma comes to help me change oxygen bottles. There is hissing, the regulator isn’t sitting right and oxygen is being released. But I am calm. I look at Peter, we’ve talked about this, “We need hot water”, I say. “We need hot water” he agrees. Phunuru disappears and then returns with a new regulator. I feel a flicker of apprehension, but the new regulator makes a solid seal. With Mingma’s help, I shoulder my pack and turn into the wind.

Almost immediately we are heading up a slope of blue ice. I concentrate hard on making good steps and not slipping. The wind seems to be picking up and snow and ice start to blow in hard from the left. I refuse to be distracted and the ice eventually gives way to a steep snowy slope; the Triangular Face. We keep moving. The wind keeps howling and the snow keeps blowing. I am covered in rime ice; a thick layer forms on my down suit, my jumar (which keeps me from sliding back down the safety rope should I fall) and on my clear goggles. As the ice on my goggles builds, my field of vision decreases (next time you’re on a flight in a storm, look at the windows… that icy covering is exactly what, and all, I could see). Part of my brain cackles with laughter; ‘You’re approaching 27,000ft and you cannot see a bloody thing!’. The vaguely lucid, not maniacal, part of my brain just implores me to be cautious. The route steepens and snow starts to be interspersed with rocky steps that require careful navigation. The wind keeps howling and the snow keeps blowing. The rime ice is now thick on the fixed line and my jumar (which should only slide upwards and so stop me falling down the mountain) is no longer gripping the rope. (The teeth which bite the rope are full of ice so the device can now slide bi-directionally, effectively rendering it useless). “Better not fall”, I think to myself and grab hold of the rope with my other hand. We keep moving and the wind keeps howling. I do an extremity check (wiggle fingers and toes) and all is well. Justin and I had talked extensively on how to keep hands and feet warm a world away in Ouray earlier this year. That plan is working well and I allow myself a small moment to feel pleased with myself. It’s very brief. My vision issues are now further hindered by the fact that my headlamp is almost out of juice. The new batteries that I had dutifully put in a few hours ago are being sapped by the cold. I have spare batteries tucked into the chest pocket of my down suit but they may as well be on Mars… it’s infeasible that I could stop, take off mittens and change the batteries. But I do slide one hand out of a mitten and scratch at the surface of the goggles. Mercifully the ice is all on the outside and I can sort of see again. Joy! I quickly thrust my hand back in my mitten and wiggle everything frantically. The chemical handwarmer in there is doing its job valiantly and everything feels good. I allow myself a(nother) small moment to feel pleased with myself. But now headlamps are turning and descending towards me. The wind is not dropping and the snow is not stopping and people are turning back. We keep moving. Then, as he always is, Justin is there. He’s just been up to the Balcony a couple of minutes above us (~27,600ft) where the wind is gusting to 50mph. “It’s time to turn around VT”, he says. I can see his eyes. He looks utterly bereft to be ending our team’s summit dreams. I feel nothing.

We turn and start down. The wind keeps howling and the snow keeps blowing. It’s steep and treacherous and suddenly all I can think about is how much my body hurts, how terrifying descent is and how incredibly, mind bogglingly far away the South Col is. My eyes fill with tears, “Oh my God VT do not lose your sh*t now”, I think to myself. Mingma must sense my anguish and puts his hand on my shoulder. He stays behind me and Justin stays in front of me for what seems like the eternity it takes to make our way back to the South Col. As we return, the sun is starting to rise. The lifting of the darkness brings no joy. We are hours of climbing away from real safety. I clamber into the tent.

Sometime later Justin is in our tent. There is an (unexpected) option to try again for the summit tonight. I know in my heart that I haven’t got enough to get to the top and back down again safely. I promised myself before the trip that nothing is worth risking my life (or someone else’s life) for. I am done. I look miserably at Justin, wishing more than I have ever wished for anything before it was different. He agrees with me. I am utterly, utterly, utterly ashamed. I have failed. I am so physically and emotionally destroyed I can’t even cry, I just sag in the sleeping bag. My tentmate concludes it’s the end of the road for her as well and discussion turns to descent. We need to leave at noon… about 3 hours hence… and descend the 5000 treacherous feet to Camp 2. This is not a surprise. But the reality is horrifying. I have never been so tired in my life.

It is noon. It is time. Peter goes with our small band, Justin stays with our other two members who are still debating if they will go up. We head out into the wind and start the long journey down. “I don’t think I can do it”, I say to Peter, my eyes swimming with tears. “You must”, he responds implacably, all trace of the gentle, joking friend of the last two months gone. He is right. I must. So I do.


4 days later, stranded in Lukla (I clearly offended the weather gods in a previous life), my heart feels broken. I have dreamt about standing on the highest point on the planet for years… even when I was feckless, dissolute and 235lbs it was something I wished for… and I have failed to do it.

My heart is broken.

But I am not.

My fingers and toes are grubby but utterly unharmed. My hacking cough (and cracked ribs?) will heal. And the 20lbs I’ve lost will (undoubtedly) come back with a vengeance. I am alive.

For this, and for all the joys of this amazing, awful, incredible experience, my debts are enormous…
… to Mingma; who was always there, just ahead, or just behind, me keeping safe. Patience personified.
… to Justin and Peter; who always were there for all of us. Unflappable and inspiring of confidence even when everything felt like it was going to hell in a handbasket.
… to Angela; for her friendship and kindness under the most extreme duress; the complete antithesis of the selfish ‘every man for himself’ mountaineer. I owe you six Fruity Snacks and my sanity.
… to my family; who have helped forge in me the strength of will that I needed to keep my promise not to kill myself or anyone else. And who make me want to come home even when it’s agony to do so.

My heart is broken.

But I am not.

Thanks for joining me on this wild ride.


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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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.


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?

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Feeling the height

It turned out I was altogether too eager to get into my thermals. Although the air was cool when we set off from Pheriche, with the edges of the slower moving streams fringed with ice, the wind had dropped and the sun was hot. The valley – and I – quickly heated up, and half an hour after we started I had to stop and take off several of my tops or risk collapse from heat stroke. My long johns had to stay, however: the flip side of the unobstructed views of the valley that we enjoyed was that everyone else would have an unobstructed view of me in my knickers if I tried to take them off.

Leaving the Pheriche valley behind.

Leaving the Pheriche valley behind.

Slightly cooler, we made our way slowly to the top of the valley. At the bridge across the river at Dughla we waited for a dzopkio train to pass…then we waited for another…and another….and then several more. I had never seen so many dzopkios and yaks all in one place and lost count after the first couple of dozen. Ten minutes later they were still filing by. But eventually the seemingly limitless column of animals came to an end and we could take our turn, climbing up a short way on the other side for a break at the tea- house before heading off the main trail to Lobuche Base Camp.

The terrain became steeper and narrower on this side path, with a series if short switchbacks leading up and around the base of Awi Peak.

The steep climb up to Lobuche Base Camp.

The steep climb up to Lobuche Base Camp.

With one final glance back down the wide valley to Pheriche we turned the corner and headed into a much narrower one with the snow-capped Tabuche (6,495m / 21,310ft) and Cholatse (6,335m / 20,784ft) towering above us and the dramatic curl of the Chola Glacier sweeping down to the frozen Chola Tsho (lake) below. Another turn, and we made our way down a path slick and muddy with melting snow to Lobuche Base Camp (around 4,900m / 16,000ft).

A small cluster of tents tucked into a sheltered corner of a valley surrounded by snow-capped peaks I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful setting, or a more peaceful one. With just our group there it made a relaxing change from the bustle of the peak-season tea-houses that we’ve stayed in since arriving in the Khumbu.

Home sweet home: the beautiful remote setting of IMG's Lobuche Base Camp.

Home sweet home: the beautiful remote setting of IMG’s Lobuche Base Camp.

But the wonderful setting was not without cost. That night I developed my first altitude headache, the dry cold triggered a nosebleed, and the thin air interfered with my breathing and prevented me from sleeping. Come the morning I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle the acclimatization hike 300m (1,000ft) up to Lobuche High Camp. But after a slow start I felt better and made it all the way up to see the compact area by the side of a small frozen lake. It was covered in several inches of snow and I was glad I wasn’t camping up there – though our climbers will be back in a few days to tackle the peak as part of their preparations for Everest. I hope the snow has melted for them by then – although being much hardier than me they are probably less bothered by such trifles!

Meanwhile, after a better night’s sleep with my headache gone, and the tactical application of lotion stopping any further nosebleeds we set off on the final stretch to Everest Base Camp. After 12 days of hiking I can’t wait to reach our destination, and see where our climbers will be staying as they mount their campaign to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain.


A touch of frost

Today we leave the tea-houses behind and start camping. We trekkers will be spending six nights under canvas; for the climbers it will be more like six weeks. I’m hoping my sleeping bag will be warm enough as the nights are pretty chilly even here at Pheriche (4,240m / 14,000ft). We awoke this morning to a thick frost on the ground, and a thick layer if ice inside our window. But this is balmy compared to Everest Base Camp, where it can get down to -18C (0F) overnight at this time of year, or indeed the summit, where -18C would be a warm day, and -40C (-40F) not unusual. The climbers are obviously substantially hardier than me!

The hike up from Deboche (3,820m / 12,500ft) in our shirt sleeves is now just a pleasantly warm memory. The valley was still lush as we headed up the valley to Pangboche, and the atmosphere was spring-like: the fields around the village were a bustle of ploughing, planting and fertilizing.

Spring planting of the potato fields in Pangboche.

Spring planting of the potato fields in Pangboche.

We payed a visit to the genial Lama Geshe in his home at the top of the village. Now a sprightly 81, he has been bestowing blessings on climbers and trekkers for many years, and duly tied a brightly-coloured sungdhi (string) around our necks. He presented each of the climbers with a personlised card of additional protective prayers, and one wall if his prayer room is papered with pictures of climbers holding up similar documents on the summits of just about every mountain in the area. I hope pictures of our group will be up there soon, and that the Lama will be bestowing his blessings for many years to come.

After a leisurely lunch in a sun-trap courtyard in the village of Shomare we resumed our ascent. As we crested a ridge the temperature immediately dropped and I was happy I’d left an extra layer on. In fact, I wished it had been two as we approached Pheriche in a freshening wind with the sun hidden behind the afternoon clouds.

A cool, cloudy trek to Pheriche.

A cool, cloudy trek to Pheriche.

Fortunately, although still cold, the sun was back in the morning and there were fantastic views for those of us who hiked the 300m (1,000ft) up to La Jung – the pass that separates Pheriche from nearby Dingboche.

A well-earned rest at the top of La Jung. (Left to right: Mingma Nuru Sherpa (behind), one of our guides Peter, Viki, Martin  and Julie).

A well-earned rest at the top of La Jung. (Left to right: Mingma Nuru Sherpa (behind), one of our guides Peter, Viki, Martin and Julie).

When I was here in 2009 we hiked up to this same pass from Dingboche and I took a tumble after slipping on the loose sandy scree and tripping over my trekking pole. Luckily I wasn’t badly hurt and this time I was luckier still and managed to keep my feet. Hopefully that’s a good omen for the rest of the trip. Or perhaps it’s just that since that earlier incident I’ve never walked with poles again!

Either way, I’m looking to stay upright despite the tougher terrain ahead as we head up to Lobuche Base Camp (4,880m or around 16,000ft) for the next couple if nights. Thermals on….

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Having walked just over half of the Capital Ring (not that you’d know it, since I’ve only blogged about 10% of it – but still planning to catch up – eventually!), I’ve suspended that project in favour of a bigger and better one: trekking to Everest Base Camp.  More scenic, more interesting, more altitude, more…well…just about everything really, I am very excited to trade walking round London for walking around in Nepal.

The first improvement has been the weather.  When I left London it was -5C with the wind chill, and snowing.  On the shady roof-top terrace of my hotel here in Katmandu, prayer flags fluttering overhead in the balmy breeze, I am comfortable in cropped trousers and flip-flops.  It must be around 27C.  Bliss!


True, the pumping baseline of a ‘Gangnam Style’ remix blaring from an adjacent building, with occasional interjections from a selection of barking dogs and honking car horns in the street below, might not be to everyone’s taste.  I’m just happy to be able to take my coat off.  If it’s any consolation, Kathmandu is more than usually dusty and dangerous to walk around at the moment as a major road widening project has replaced the pavements with rubble and some sizeable holes, forcing pedestrians perilously close to the rather ‘lively’ traffic.


Nor is the prospect of a 3.45am wake-up call tomorrow in preparation for a 5am trip to the airport for our flights to Lukla likely to make my list of trip highlights.  Sadly, my flip-flops won’t be required in Lukla: today’s forecast predicts an overnight temperature of -7C and a high of 4C tomorrow, and it will only get colder as we climb. I suspect the coat will be going back on.

But I’ll worry about that in the morning.  Today is all about making final preparations – and then (hopefully) a bit of lolling to recover from a hectic last few weeks.  In the cause of the former we have already had a team meeting, my first opportunity to meet the guides and the rest of the group.  Unsurprisingly for a trip run by American company IMG, the majority of the 20 or so people in our group are Americans, with four Chinese and myself.  Around half, including my friend Viki, are climbers hoping to make it to the highest point on earth in seven or eight weeks’ time.  The rest of us are trekkers for whom base camp is the summit of our present ambitions, many of whom, like me, are here with a climbing partner or friend.  I’m looking forward to getting to know them all over the next few weeks.  Right now, however, I’m still processing being introduced to quite so many people who have (repeatedly, in some cases) and/or plan to climb Everest.  Listening to the guides explain the plans for the coming days and weeks, highlighting preparations that need to made, protocols we need to follow, and checking everyone has the gear they need makes me realise that all these guys have taken a mental leap that I – and probably most people – have not: from viewing ‘climbing Everest’ as a euphemism for an endeavor of such enormous proportions as to be almost impossible, to seeing as it as an achievable goal to be worked towards as I might plan to move house, or going travelling.  I guess to a certain extent we are capable of what we believe we are capable of.  Certainly, it will be a privilege to be along for part of the ride.  And so I’d better get back to making sure I’m ready to go…

My plan is to blog every few days as opportunities present, so watch this space.  You might also be interested in the official IMG blog which is updated most days.

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A perfect ending

As my journey drew to a close I met another hiker just setting out to walk the entire Coast Path in the opposite direction.  He did it last year, he told me, and enjoyed it so much he was back to do it again in the opposite direction. I couldn’t help expressing my surprise, and may even have included the phrase ‘glutton for punishment’, but he was confident I’d feel the same way.  “Not right away, of course, but give it a month or two. You’ll see.” he added, with a sage nod. Standing there on my sore feet, legs stiff and aching from yesterday’s exertions – not to mention those of the preceding 620 miles – I was more interested in finishing than in starting again, and the end was getting closer by the minute.

A few easy miles and a low hill brought us to Swanage beach, crowded with families excited that summer had finally started


We joined the happy throng with my sister, brother in law and their two children. It was a lovely reintroduction to home life after so long on the road: eating a picnic lunch, chatting with my family, jumping over the waves with my niece and watching my baby nephew discover that sand is fun in your fingers but not in your mouth. I could have sat there all afternoon but there was the small matter of the last six miles to attend to.  Brushing the sand off my feet, I put my boots back on for the final time and headed back to the Path.

It was a perfect summer day, and as I climbed up to the top of Ballard Down I was grateful for the breeze to offset the heat of the sun and the walk up. Two paragliders launched as I approached the top, and wheeling low above my head in the thermals of the cliff we waved to each other as they glided by.  A little further and I rounded The Foreland, my final headland, Old Harry rocks shining bright white in the late afternoon sun.


But my gaze was drawn the other way: to my first glimpse of South Haven Point, the end of the Path. I walked on to Studland and catching sight of a board outside the Manor House Hotel advertising Dorset cream teas in their stunning gardens overlooking Studland Bay it was as if fate had brought us together. I was in! But a quick call to check they were still serving revealed that, while they were open, they had sold out of scones and clotted cream after an unusually busy day. I was crushed! I walked on around Studland Bay, contemplating an ice-cream instead to console me, and there were plenty of kiosks: but my heart wasn’t in it.

When the National Trust cafe at Knoll Beach hove into view a flicker of hope was rekindled. I approached the door, hardly daring to look inside for fear of another blow: but yes!  There were scones!  I scanned the menu board, and there it was: “Dorset cream tea – Large (2 scones) £4.95”. Relief flooded through me; to have finished the walk without a final cream tea would have been to have left things somehow incomplete. The cream tea itself was not the best I’ve ever eaten: after a long, hot day the scones had become a little dry, and the queue to get them was tedious. But sitting in the sun on the back of the beach, just two miles from the end of the Coast Path, it was still an entrant in the cream tea challenge that will always have a special place in my heart.

Back on the trail, licking the jam off my fingers, I found the sands of Studland Bay were an altogether calmer affair than the happy chaos of Swanage Beach. Boules seemed to be the amusement of choice – I counted three separate games within 50 yards of leaving the cafe.  As I moved further away from the car park the crowds thinned still more until it was just me with the oystercatchers and stints probing the sand at the waves’ edge.  Oh, and some naked people.


Studland Beach, it turns out, is a popular spot for naturists.  “If you’d been here a minute or two earlier I’d have posed by that sign for you,” called out a man pulling on his shirt a few metres away.  I told him I thought that was above and beyond the call of duty, but it was very kind of him to offer.  We parted on a less bold note – an agreement that it had been a really beautiful day – and in fact I couldn’t think of a better end to the walk.  As the tide went out a wide, firm, flat expanse of sand was left beneath the clear blue sky. It couldn’t have been better for walking. Rounding the final corner I felt I could go on for ever, or at least, until I got hungry again. I was almost sorry to reach the monument marking the end.  I couldn’t quite believe that, just like that, it was all over. The struggles, the frustrations, the appalling weather and the terrible conditions of the last weeks melted away under the hot sun of a perfect English summer day.  I looked at the sign pointing back towards Minehead.  Maybe….


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Stone cold

Today’s stage was a circuit of the Isle and Royal Manor of Portland, Gateway to the Jurassic Coast. I was puzzled as to how a place can be a ‘gateway’ to somewhere it’s in the middle of, but at least this conundrum gave me something to think about during the tedious three mile trudge along the edge of the A354 that links the island to Weymouth.

When I arrived in Chiswell another, physical, gateway greeted me, more traditionally placed at the entrance to the island, and I went over to read the inscription.

“By the great generosity of the brethren of the six Portland Lodges of Freemasons under the auspices of…”

Wait a second – the tiny Isle of Portland has six Masonic Lodges? Who would have thought a population of just 13,000 people would support so many? Perhaps the Freemasons have more to do with masonry than I previously realised; quarries were by far the most striking feature of the island. At one time there were apparently over 80 working quarries whose products can be seen in numerous impressive edifices including the National Gallery, the British Museum and, most famously, St Paul’s Cathedral. It is still a major industry but many of the old quarries are now abandoned and the Coast Path runs right through them.


The discarded blocks and abandoned faces of Tout Quarry have become an al fresco gallery, adorned by numerous sculptures left there by the departing artisans. I would have liked to spend longer pottering round the quarry looking for them, but the weather didn’t encourage me to linger. Cool, windy and drizzling it was a day for brisk walking not dawdling. And after a few heavy showers I started to wonder whether I wanted to walk at all. My guidebook makes the Isle of Portland sound almost optional, and as I approached Portland Bill I saw there was a tempting bus service directly back to Weymouth – but not for another 45 minutes. To kill time I walked down behind the lighthouse to explore the tip of the Bill and saw a Coast Path marker: Minehead 581 miles to the left, Poole 49 miles to the right.


I hadn’t realised how close I was to the finish line! I decided not to cheat after all: after coming so far I could surely manage another 49 miles, especially if I had a good lunch. With that in mind I headed into the Lobster Pot restaurant for ham, egg and some excellent chips. As I ate I noticed a sign advertising cream teas, based on their famous award-winning scones made to a secret recipe handed down through the generations. How could I pass that up? But how could I fit one in when I’d just eaten such a large lunch?! Fortunately, it turned out they did a takeaway version for just this eventuality. Relieved, I popped one into my rucksack for later and set off up the east coast of the island.

It was an interesting route, beautiful in places, that I would have enjoyed in better weather. As it was, by the time the path rose to the highest part of the island I was walking in thick fog and couldn’t see a thing – ironic, given that on a clear day you can apparently see a quarter of the Coast Path from Portland Bill, more than from any other point. In the swirling mist I couldn’t even see Portland Harbour – one of the largest man-made harbours in the world – directly below me. I hastily skirted the old Verne Citadel, a fortress until the end of the second World War, now a medium security prison and an eerie desolate place to be this afternoon and hurried down to the harbour where a more cheerful sight greeted me. Osprey Quay and the adjacent athletes village were decked out in party colours ready to host the Olympic sailing next week, a welcome splash of colour on a grey, miserable day.


Less welcome, however, was the detour round the security cordon: back out onto the main road again. Still, since there’s only one way on and off the island it was coming sooner or later. Of all the sections of the Coast Path to have to walk twice, this had to be one of my last choices, but spurred on by the thought of the cream tea in my bag I made it back to the tent in double quick time. Chilled and tired after the damp 16.5 mile walk my take-away cream tea hit the spot and the scone was just as good as they’d claimed. But the logistics of eating it out of a box with only a spork and a folding pocket knife to assist me were a challenge. Several hours later, still discovering crumbs in my sleeping bag, I concluded that cream teas are better enjoyed in a proper tea shop.