I do not know why I like mountains so much. I lived all my life at sea level and even during my childhood I rarely visited mountains. Anatoli Boukreev once said “mountains are my cathedral where I practice my religion”. Guess I can understand what he meant. I set out to conquer the highest trekking peak in Nepal, Mera Peak. Although not technically difficult, it's relatively high altitude presented all sorts of other challenges which could be significant for city person sits in the office chair every day.
I landed in Kathmandu International Airport on April 25th. I opted to take the trip towards the end of trekking season trying to avoid crowds. This means more unpredictable and rather bad weather as monsoon season is closing in. Kathmandu, in spite of being located in relatively hight altitude, is hot and dusty this time of the year. I spent my first spare day in the city roaming in Thamel district a heaven for street, travel and documentary photographer.
Next morning I took flight to Lukla, the starting point of all treks in Everest area of Himalayas. The reputation of Tenzing-Hillary Airport is in my head and I cannot avoid slight tickling in the stomach. After I got through seemingly chaotic check-in process my flight was called and I boarded my plane. Little more than hour later I landed safely in Lukla.
After I collected my baggage I met my guide Ngawang. For the day we stayed at Tara Lodge and aimed to set out day after. Lukla is about 2800m altitude and it is good idea to go up slow and properly acclimatise.
First day of trek took us to small settlement of Chutanga just shy of 3500m. There are 3 families living in Chutanga during trekking season. Off season they move down to their permanent home in Lukla. This is usual practice for most of the tea houses along the trek.
Next day we gained extra few hundred vertical meters when we climbed up to small settlement of Kharkateng at 4000m. Tea houses on this trek are not so developed and equipped as on Everest or Annapurna Base Camp treks. They are more basic, raw stone buildings. The one we stayed in was very small stone Sherpa house. One corner was equipped with very simple fire place used for cooking. Sleeping was “dormitory” style in the back of the hut on platform built from flat stones. A nice glimpse into real Sherpa life.
Next morning we set out to climb fairly steep face up to Zatrwa Pass in 4600m. Interestingly when one plans the trip from office chair, everything looks so easy, morale and confidence is high. However after few days into the trip the burning in the tights, hard breathing, pain, cold or heat rings the bell. After lunch at Tuli Kharka we continued further and descended all the way below tree level. It was a long day and descent on steep rocky mountain side was hard on thighs and knees. Good trekking shoes saved my ankles on several occasions.
During the next two days we walked through villages of Thangnak and finally Khare. Day started in the rain and we finished in Thangnak in full blown snow blizzard. Relaxing rest day in Thangnak allowed me recover pretty well. Trek to Khare was surprisingly easy in a nice sunny weather. Along the way I could observe Mera Peak in full glory. Peak has 3 summits. South summit that is possible to reach just by walking, Central summit that is usually subject of all climbs and North summit that is few metres higher then Central summit but is is usually not climbed due to avalanche and crevasse danger. Ar day of climbing training in Khare made me feel more excited. Morale is high.
Going for summit
Next morning we packed only necessary things for the climb. Weather was little bit of issue at this point. Monsoon season was knocking on the door hard. We met many climbers coming down from the mountain, that didn't make the summit mostly due to altitude sickness or bad weather. That was little concerning but I was determined to get to the summit.
Soon after leaving Khare early morning the weather played bad on us once again. Surrounded by thick fog we pushed towards high camp. We opted to pass the base camp and continued a gradual climb on a huge snow field with lot of fresh snow, that made the progress quite difficult. At least for me. For Sherpas it was “just another day in the office”. Whenever I tried to keep up with them I lost the battle right at the beginning. As we closed the high camp I stopping stopping more often to catch my breath. Legs feel heavier and harder to move. At the times I found myself alone in complete whiteout. Only recognisable thing was the trail in the snow that blended into white fog after few metres. Everything is still, absolutely quiet. A manifestation of solitude.
Eventually I made it to high camp at 5800m. It was the highest altitude I ever been before. The camp is well sheltered from wind by a massive rock, thus it is not so cold. I immediately crawled into sleeping bag to regain at least some of the strength needed for tomorrow.
Summit day started about 12:20 morning with quick tea and breakfast. We melted glacial ice for some water. Then we started gearing up for the climb. Put on harness, crampons, headlamp. Tie the rope between Ngawang and myself so we can belay each other. He was leading and I followed. I was pleased by weather. Sky was crystal clear and thanks to no light pollution we were able to see Milky Way. 3 teams set out for summit that morning. A Japanese group of two with three supporting Sherpas, a German climber and his Sherpa and ourselves. We left the camp as last at about 2am morning. Soon after 20 min or so we passed by the Japanese group. There was a fresh snowfall again, which made the progress slower and harder. Since the “German group” left first they had to break trail in fresh snow. At some point we overtook them and it was us who worked hard in the fresh snow.
At about 5 morning we turned of the headlamps. The weather held up nicely. Snow was knee deep at the times but we moved forward with determination. We were climbing up on huge glacier covered with snow. Glaciers have crevasses that present high degree of danger. Little did I know what is going to happen about an hour later. This place is not as safe and peaceful as it appeared to be. There was an avalanche just below high camp last night. Also the disaster on Everest just little more than 3 weeks ago was still in my head. This place is beautiful. But it can be deadly.
At about 6 am we had the South summit in sight, when German's Sherpa suddenly disappeared from sight. Ngawang and I run about 20m (if you can run in deep snow above 6000m) towards the German. We found his Sherpa hanging about 3m deep in crevasse.
I am not experienced climber and I didn't know what to do in situation like this. Best I could think of is to grab the rope they were connected with and hold tight. Ngawan fixed a snow bar with rope and secured the sherpa. Sherpa in the crevasse seemed to be all right as he communicated with Ngawang who dropped him a rope which we used to pull him out of the crevasse. Soon after we continued our ascent by stepping over the crevasse at the place where we knew for sure how wide it was. A hour later we reached the South Summit without any other incident.
Weather was beautiful and so was the view. Central Summit was still another hour away. 30 min walk on the ridge led us to 5-8m 90% ice wall which we had to climb in order to reach the summit. Ngawang went first and fixed the rope. Then it was my turn and in few minutes I leaned over the edge. I picked myself up ready to continue just realising there is nowhere else to go. I was on the South Summit. North Summit (few metres taller) was near and it seemed to be very much reachable, however it is not climbed due to high crevasse and avalanche danger. In the moment of victory adrenaline kicked in and I didn't feel tired at all. View was magnificent. Entire Everest Himalayan range and even further with five of the world's tallest mountains visible. Mt Everest, Kanjenchunga, Lhotse, Makalu and Cho Oyu. Few other recognisable mountains were visible notably Nuptze, Ama Dablam and Pumori. We did some mandatory summit shots. I had a long shot list to do on the summit but in the heat of the battle and excitement it got lost somewhere in my head. Maybe due to low oxygen level (about 44% to that on sea level). We are the only team reaching the summit that day. Often, as a small boy I dreamed of the moment like this. I used to watch documentaries and travel stories religiously. I never thought I am ever going to have chance to do this on my own and now, here I am. All the pain and struggle is forgotten now. Bring on the next challenge.
After half an hour on the summit the clouds started to roll in. It was time to descent to High Camp. We followed our own trail thus avoiding unseen crevasse danger. In two hours we pulled in, had a quick meal and continued to Khare.. As we descended to lower altitudes it started snowing again and visibility dropped rapidly. 10 hours since we set out for summit bid we reached Khare injury free. Every piece of my body hurts. I crawled into my sleeping bag and forgot about everything for next few hours.
On the way back
Next day we set out for Kothe and yet again ended up walking in the rain. Day after that came the climb from Khote to Tuli Kharka. Good 4-5 hours up on the steep slope. We reached Tuli Kharka exhausted, even Ngawang. Night at Tuli Kharka was probably the coldest night of the whole trip. We slept again in “dormitory” style stone house together with other sherpas who were returning from unsuccessful Barutzee expedition. In the morning I woke up full of energy and I literally run up nearly 800 vertical metres. Towards 10am we reached Zatrwar pass, the last high altitude obstacle. From now on it is only straight down. About noon I walked into Tara Lodge in Lukla, 3 days ahead of schedule. Not bad for an office rat. I earned myself a full day rest before finally leaving for Kathmandu.
Note about Sherpas
The most embarrassing question I heard a tourist ask a guide was “When did you become a Sherpa”. Most of the people have no clue that “Sherpa” is not a job. Sherpa is an ethnic group that migrated to Nepal from Tibet hundreds of years ago. They do not become Sherpas, they are born Sherpas. I think this notion comes from early years of himalayan mountaineering when they were used as porters and thus manny people connect the word Sherpa to a porter or guide.
That being said, Sherpas are unbelievably strong and resilient people living in harsh environments that most of us could not take for very long. In spite of their relatively smaller body frame they are unbelievably strong and well suited for life in the mountains. They are very kind and friendly people who take care of their families well. I met and befriended few of them on my trips. Notably by guide Ngawan and my porter Sonam who were great companion on my trip.
I cannot stress the importance of choosing a good company when going trekking or climbing. Of course you can go on your own if you want. It can be easy to get around until you make your first mistake that can be fatal. Experienced guide can make a world of difference. When I return to the story of Sherpa in crevasse, who knows what would happen should Ngawang not be there at the time. And last but not least, you giving somebody a job which is big especially in country like Nepal.
Nepal Trekking is run by Sherpa and employ Sherpas. They are officially registered trekking company and all the guides have necessary training and experience to ensure your safe trip. As for me I also like to learn about culture of people I am with. Guide is a great source of knowledge that I would miss if I was on my own. So if you ever consider trip to Nepal, give a though to Nepal Trekking. Owner Pasang Sherpa is based in Kathmandu and he answers emails promptly.
Wherever you go enjoy it and be respectful to local people and culture. What you get in return is lifelong friendship, knowledge, and smiles.
I wish everybody happy journeys and safe returns.