The Adventure Begins
Fly to Lukla and trek to Chutanga -3,060m, 10,039 feet
We left Kathmandu around 0700 this morning and luckily, our flight was on time, which is a rarity and we spent less than 45 minutes at the airport. Our destination - Lukla. The flight is 40-minutes which includes dodging mountains, turbulence, unpredictable weather, and white-knuckle flying. There are no navigational aids. The pilots must use their knowledge of the terrain and keep a visual on the weather in order to make this journey. I know you have seen the runway in the movies or the Travel Channel. Lukla Airport has been dubbed the most dangerous airport in the world. This strip of asphalt sits precariously upon 9,300-foot elevation cliff. It is only 65 feet wide and 1,700 feet in length. Pilots have only one chance to land or take off. If they fail the takeoff, it is a 2,000-foot drop into the abyss.
I intently watched the mountains as we flew through the passes. Truly stunning aerial views of snowcapped Himalayas kept me glued to the window in amazement. The peaks were thousands of feet above our flight path. I was literally looking up to the peaks of the majestic Himalayas, and deep inside, hoping the pilots were wired tight for this flight. Below us, there were green and lush valleys, terraced farms, and rivers fed by the snow caps above. The Twin Otter aircraft was jostled a bit by the thermals rising off the valley floors and the wind gusts whistling through the mountains, but nothing to cause a panic, at least in my mind.
Finally, down below the Lukla Airport appeared. I was amazed at just how perilous this landing was going to be. One of the folks I was traveling with closed their eyes as we began our descent. My eyes were wide open and I thought to myself, “Hell, if I’m going to die now, I’m not going to miss this, it will be spectacular!” The plane began its dive to the runway. Eyes peeled, heart racing, we swooped down to the airport and touched down. It was over before I knew it. The aircraft slowed to a stop before it would have collided with the stone wall at the far end of the runway. My utmost respect to the pilots.
Once on the ground at Lukla Airport, we gathered our gear, met our porters, and Sherpas. Even though everything was going super smoothly there always has to be a glitch. Three of the bags did not make it off the aircraft and flew on to another destination. Also, as a result, we had lunch in Lukla and began the long wait for the flight that would return our gear. Now, as a FYI, Sherpas are a Tibetic ethnic group native to the most mountainous regions of Nepal, China, Bhutan and India, the Himalayas. The term sherpa or sherwa is a portmanteau that derives from Sherpa language words shar ("east") and wa ("people"), a reference to their geographical origin in northeastern Tibet. They are known for their extraordinary mountaineering skills. So, not all Sherpas are porters and not all porters are Sherpas.
At this moment, we are still waiting and the weather has become a bit chilly. The clouds are rolling in. I’ve changed to long pants and long sleeve shirt.
You’ve already seen the photos which relate to what I am writing now, but I might go snap some more. There are teams using yaks to carry their gear, we will just have porters. These men are machines. They live at altitude and can carry tons of weight. I saw a little old lady who was carrying a barrel of water on her back. Water weighs 8 pounds per gallon and I would guess the barrel to be at least 10 gallons. She wasn’t even breathing heavy!
I have to share this with you, I woke up at 1:00 this morning after having a dream about too much weight. I dreamed that my cell phone had most of the weight, so I deleted messages to lighten it. This dream inspired me to repack my gear, which I did, never getting back to sleep. And so, a nap is in order. We have been waiting 4 hours for our gear to show up and it will probably be two more. I think I will take a nap and write again one we reach our destination for the day – Chutanga.
Trek from Chutanga to Thuli Kharka - 3,900m, 12,795 feet
This morning our spirit dog made the rounds and apparently was saying goodbye to everyone, as he took off down the hill back to Lukla.
Today we gained an extra two thousand feet as we climbed up to the small settlement of Kharkateng at 3,900m. The day was extremely difficult with about 7 hours in trek time. Our path we followed included a very steep climb up the Kalo Himal Ridge where we reached a prayer flag festooned notch at 4444m which opened to a more forgiving climb to the notch at Zatrwa which separates Khumbu from the Hinku Valley. From this notch we took in breath-taking views of Karyolung Mountain and the Lumding Himal. After a few minutes rest, we climbed down to Thuli Kharka. An exceptionally large boulder probably four stories in height dominated our overnight site.
This is how the hike looked, climb a very steep incline to 15,000 feet. Ass kicker. Image stair master times 1,000. Climb down to 14,000 feet, climb up to 15,000 feet through a snow field where crampons were required. This is where I took a spill on the ice and fortunately there was a large rock which stopped my descent. Apparently, I completely tore out my left rotator cuff and am now sporting a sling.
After all that excitement we then dropped from the high pass to 13,000 feet for our overnight.
The day started sunny but quickly deteriorated to overcast and eventually snow and sleet. When you are hiking like this you are constantly adding and taking clothes off. You drink all the water you can hold and then some.
We are over nighting at a facility which serves meals, provides beds, and has a porcelain toilet (squatter). Of course, the only heat is provided by a wood burning stove in the dining area. The bed rooms lack heat, electricity, and the cold permeates the not only the rooms, but the hall, and the bathroom (only one), no running water. To cheat the heat, we use our water bottles and fill them with boiling water which then winds up in the sleeping bag. Of course, there isn’t any insulation and you can actually see the go undo through the cracks in the floor.
So, you might be wondering, why climb up and then down to sleep? The answer is simple, the overnights at lower altitudes than your highest point of the day allow your red blood cells to recover and increase in oxygen carrying capability. This is a must for reaching the summit. I recall when I climbed Kilimanjaro a couple years ago how a team of German climbers raced past us on day two of a six day climb and apparently had no idea how to acclimate. The next day they were coming down the mountain, some on stretchers, some coated in vomit, trying to retreat to an elevation where they could fend off the symptoms of altitude sickness, which can be fatal.
The tea houses on along this route are basic, primitive stone buildings. There was a stop for tea at a small stone Sherpa home. In one corner there was a basic open fire place used for cooking and warming the water. We settled in for sleep in a “dormitory” style barracks in the back of the hut on platform of flat stones. Chai is the drink of choice.
Dinner tonight was rice, momo and hot chai. It is now 7:30 PM and the bed is calling. I hope that tomorrow we are near WiFi. Good night.
Trek from Kharka to Kothe - 4,095m, 13,435 feet
Khote is located at the bottom of the Hinku Valley. In order to reach Kothe we had a half-day walk, maybe 5 hours and a bit. Now, while we are losing elevation, the trek is called Sherpa flat. We gain 500 feet, lose 700, gain 300, lose 100, etc. From the trail we descended to a vantage point where there is a tremendous view of the Hinku valley. The pine trees are extremely tall and a river runs through the valley. The soils smell rich and among the moss-covered house-sized boulders are clusters of five pedals and a wonderful shade of purple with a yellow center.
On the way to Khote Heather slipped and fractured her left wrist. We are now the gimps in the group. This puts our summit at risk. Either injury, hers or mine, might prevent use of the ice axe which usually is required. We did encounter a group who had been on Mera a few days ago and they said the temperature is zero degrees centigrade, which means axes aren’t needed, just ropes and crampons, and will power.
About four hours into our trek thunder began booming and as expected the rain fell and eventually turns into sleet. I found out my North Face gortex isn’t worth a damn. Soaked through and through.
Khote is a beautiful little village which consists of a dozen structures. I’m pleased that our little hotel has a large stove loaded with wood and we all huddled around it in an attempt to dry out. Even more pleasing, an eclectic light in the bed rooms and WiFi, which isn’t working at the moment. Some of the team will be taking showers which consists of a bucket with a spicket, hot water, and an outdoor stall. No shower for me, I used baby wipes yesterday.
Tonight’s meal will be onion soup and yak pizza. I have been eating pretty much local food which is pretty tasty and tends to greatly reduce your time in the squatting toilet.
Now that all my clothes have dried, dinner will be served and then off to bed. I am wiped out. The Sherpas say this climb is much more difficult than Everest Base Camp, due in part to the killer days of trekking in this terrain. No doubt the most challenging physical thing I have ever attempted.
As a side, as night fell and the mist cleared we had a clear view of Mera Peak which towers above us. It is still four days away, but the enormity of it is overwhelming.
Trek from Kothe to Thanknag – 4,358 – 13,074 feet
Today we trekked from Kothe to Thanknag. The trail is a gradual climb which follows a river. Every once in a while, there is an elevation gain, but all in all it was a pleasant walk. There is a lot of stepping over boulders and crossing of streams which feed the rushing river. Gigantic boulders are strewn about and washes are everywhere.
What was really cool was stopping at a monastery for a blessing before we climbed. The Lama who resides at the tiny location was in Kathmandu, but knew we were coming and had pre-blessed prayer flags for us and threads which are used as a necklace which must wear off, or if you grow tired of wearing, you may cut off and bury on a mountain pass. The Sherpas take this very seriously and have these ceremonies every time they climb. I was given a blessed scarf, which I will bring home to Fort Collins.
After the ceremony we pressed on. I must have caught my wind today, as I was at least a half-mile ahead of my compadres all the way in. I arrived at Thanknag just as the sleet began to fall. I am anxious to see the mountains that surround this location. They are obscured at the moment. In the morning they will be visible.
As aside for all the above I have Sherpa assigned to me. Purpha (Wednesday)is his name. He calls me “Old Man.” “You are strong old man!” It is considered a compliment.
Day 5 - Into Thin Air
Trek from Thagnak to Khare - 5,054m, 16,582 feet
Last night was not a fun time for me. The sleeping room eventually warmed up, but earlier in the day while trekking with my two Sherpas, we had a misunderstanding in regards to drinking water. The people in Nepal have a strong intestinal fortitude when it comes to their water, we, on the other hand, must have our water boiled before consumption. My water bottle had electrolyte additive and during a break on our hike I asked the Sherpas if they’d like to try it. Unbeknownst to me, they mixed our waters. Arrgh. I got to spend the night, all night, improving my aim with the squatter, Diggs “Sure Shot” Brown.
The morning found me worn out, as you can imagine, but feeling much better after slamming Peptol Bismol. As the sun came out we began our trek to Khare. The approach to Khare, around 2,000 feet in elevation gain, brought a clearer view of Mera Peak. The route is scattered with high alpine lakes, glaciers and extraordinary views of the mountains surrounding us. Other than the views, it was pretty much an uneventful day.
We did stop at the alpine lake which 20 years ago a side of a mountain slid into it and caused a massive flood which killed many downstream. Here we built a charon, which will stand among the hundreds of others which were previously erected.
The last mile to the hotel was killer, near vertical and the air is getting thin. The snows begin at this elevation in the afternoon. At night the cold mountain air pushes the clouds down into the valleys and then as the days warm the valleys, the warm air pushes the clouds up the mountains. This of course, depending on your elevation results in rain, sleet, or snow. A heavy snow began just as we arrived at the hotel.
The highlight is the hotel where we are staying the next two nights. Real food, real windows, carpet on the floors. Still have a squatter and still no heat. I bet my room is 40 degrees. Our plan is to stay an extra day in Khare in order to review climbing techniques and to give all a chance to recuperate from the altitude gain.
So, tomorrow we review techniques and I will see if I can finish my climb with this shoulder injury.
Day 6 & 7
Rest In Khare - 5,054m 16,880 feet
Our schedule has changed a bit for the better. Originally, we were going to stay two nights in Khare and then move to the base camp (tents) which is three hours up the mountain, then stay there for a night before moving on to the high camp from where we would summit Mera. Jeff had a brilliant idea for us to stay in Khare three nights since the food is good, it is a fixed shelter, and we can rest up, then bypass base camp and go straight to the high camp. From high camp we begin our summit attempt starting at 2:00 AM.
The day started with two helicopters coming to our location to drop supplies and then evacuate a couple casualties. One was an 80-year-old German man who had bitten off more than he could chew. The other was a local child. There are no roads here, everything has to be flown in or man carried in for miles.
We hiked up 1,000 feet in altitude and then returned to Khare in order to stress our bodies so more red blood cells are produced. We also worked on rappelling, rope movement, and other mountaineering skills. Our objective, Mera, is directly across the valley and from our vantage point we could see three teams, looking like dots, moving up the face of the mountain. We could also see Mera Peak, our final objective. It seemed so far away, and of course, 5,000 feet higher than our elevation.
I’m looking forward to the next couple days. Last night was the first night I slept warm, even though the room was in the 40’s.
Khare to Mera High Camp (Advanced Camp/AC) - 5,790m, 18,996 feet
After two nights of acclimation the movement to Mera High Camp began. The first hour was spent negotiating an elevated and very steep boulder field covered in snow and ice, in reality this as the scariest part of the trip up until now. One false step or slip and bam, you were toast. Our goal was “Crampon Point” where you removed your hiking boots and donned your mountaineering boots and crampons. We also created our Alpine climbing teams (rope teams) mine being the geriatric team, 64, 62, and 54. The other team, B team, was Jeff, Mike, and Heather. The Alpha team (my team) had a Sherpa, Angular, as a guide, then me as lead, then Greg, Paul, and a Sherpa as tail end. They always give the best-looking guy the lead position. 😉
Once our teams were roped together everyone took in the sight of The Mera La Glacier which loomed before us and just for a few moments we stared up at the obstacle. Such a steep climb through fresh deep snow which seemed to go on forever. You think at some point our trek was going to level out, but that was a false hope, the entire day would be uphill, anywhere between 40 to 70 degrees in rise. So much beauty and so much pain. Every direction you looked, majestic mountains covered in snow. The thought ran through my mind that surely the architects who designed the grand cathedrals in Europe had been inspired by such a sight.
This day’s journey took over 7 hours of steady movement. Thin air made the trek strenuous beyond the altitude and steps. At times it seemed each step was an eternity. As the day starts you are freezing cold, then with movement, you over heat and strip off gear, once you take a break you begin to freeze again…it is a never-ending cycle of pain. For about 2 hours we walked though whiteout conditions, unable to see more than 5 feet in any direction. Paul got sick, dizzy, maybe altitude sickness. Greg was having difficulty keeping his pace and would call out “rope” to slow the pace, we started with a full step, went to half step, then baby steps, then half baby steps. When asked me to slow it down even more I almost responded, “Any slower and we will be going backward.” Of course, I did not say that.
Eventually we made it to the high camp.
The high camp was windy, cold, and exposed to the elements. It set precariously on a ledge. The tents were covered in fresh snow, maybe a foot or so. My heart sank as I saw my tent was hanging off a rock ledge. A two-man tent could only hold one person safely. Imagine this, a nylon tent, with a nylon sleeping pad, a nylon sleeping bag, on a slope. I spent most of the night curled up in a ball clinging to a tent stake to avoid slipping off into oblivion. Needless to say, I did not sleep. A meal of hot tea and porridge was brought to the tent, but I had little appetite, which is common at altitude. Everyone tried to sleep at this point even though it was only 5 PM. I don’t know if anyone got any sleep. I did not. It was cold both in and out of the tent. Really cold, but little did I know, I had not experienced cold to this level, ever.
Our departure time from camp was to be 1:00 AM.
High Camp - Summit (6,476m, 21,247 feet)
As I mentioned, I did not sleep last night. Hot tea and porridge was delivered to my tent around midnight and even though I had not an appetite I ate the porridge knowing I would need the energy.
A lot of gear is required for this summit attempt. Ropes, harnesses, crampons, ice axe, and headlamp. I also used my heavy plastic boots with a thick liner and extra heavy socks.
Stepping outside of the tent and I took a few moments to observe the absolutely clear skies above, the Milky Way stretched across the heavens, the full moon, and the large glacial wall which stretched out directly above me, the moonlight giving a blue hue to the centuries old ice. The beauty of the moonlit mountains, as far as one can see, served as a reminder of just how insignificant we are in the cathedral of nature. We are here for a brief moment on this earth, the mountains are forever.
We got off late as did the B team, who left an hour after us as part of the plan as we knew these speed demons would catch us. As it turned out, they did catch us about three hours into the ascent.
The entire climb was uphill. No level ground at all. Steep would be an understatement. Compounding the situation was the very thin air. At this altitude we are somewhere around 50% less oxygen than at sea level. Breathing, as best as I can remember, was four quick breaths for every step. No joke.
As we moved though the calf deep powder the full moon lighted the mountains and our headlights made the snow sparkle like a field of diamonds.
Greg was having issues with his energy level and I told him to hang on until the sunrise and his spirits would improve.
The sun began to peek over the mountain range around 5:00 AM and we turned off our headlamps in anticipation of some warmth soon coming our way, well, however warm one can be when the temperature is in the negative numbers.
The snow was knee deep at times which resulted in us “fence posting” our steps. Beneath us was a huge glacier covered with snow. Glaciers have mazes of crevasses that present high degree of danger and watching out for these death traps is of utmost importance at this point. As beautiful as the surroundings are, they can can be deadly.
The view was magnificent. The entire Everest Himalayan range stood behind us and five of the world's tallest mountains were visible, Mt Everest, Kanjenchunga, Lhotse, Makalu and Cho Oyu. To our front was the objective, Mera, who’s summit still was not visible to us the only thing we could see was thousands of feet of snow which we would have to climb to reach one of the three Mera peaks.
At some point when our two teams linked up, I removed my gloves to make an equipment adjustment. My hands immediately froze. They lit up like they we on fire and for a few moments I believed I was I the process of losing some, if not all of my fingers. The next ten minutes were spent holding them in my arm pits trying to save what might be lost. Needless to say, they did recover, but that was a reality check.
Our two rope teams moved upward falling into a line of other teams moving towards the summit. Some of the teams were already turning back, the lack of oxygen and the sheer magnitude of the climb was taking its toll. Greg was still having issues and I felt my team was faltering with too many stops to catch our breath. There are only so many times you can start and stop, the whole idea is to get a rhythm going, we were not.
MAKING THE CORRECT DECISION
Finally, Jeff called the two rope teams together to discuss strategy. Greg was ready to head down the mountain, he had had enough. I weighed my options. I was smoked, no doubt, as tired as I have ever been. In my mind my options were take Greg down, continue after a break and summit, continue with no break, holding up everyone with a weakened pace and fail and as a result jeopardize someone else’s chance at summiting or even the whole team. Jeff would support my decision, he is that kind of guy. I spoke and knew my choice, make sure Greg was going to be escorted down, take a 20-minute break and then continue. To my dismay, when I tried to articulate my decision, it came out garbled., like a Steve Martin movie. I was clearly out of it. I heard what I said as compared to what I intended to say and realized that my best choice was to descend and keep everyone else’s options open. I had reached 21,060 feet, 187 vertical feet from the summit, another hour of climbing. My decision was sound and yet disappointing. I pointed at myself and then down the mountain.
In my mind it was more important for the team to succeed rather than risk being the source of failure for any one member or team.
I did beat my old altitude record, Kilimanjaro, over 19,000 feet.
Our lead Sherpa, Angula, myself, Greg, and another Sherpa rope teamed it back to camp over the next four hours while the rest of the team summited.
Once everyone retuned to camp we packed and began the descent as two teams. To my surprise, the lead Sherpa, Angula, went to the back of the rope and left me in charge. Clearly, he was impressed with my decision and leadership. For five hours we moved down the mountain sometimes in sunshine and sometimes in whiteout.
We reached crampon point after having to rappel down two 100-foot ropes. Changing into our trekking boots we had to now maneuver through the boulder field which was covered in ice and fresh snow. One wrong step and it was a 1,000-foot drop. Maneuvering through this field back to our tea house took over two hours and in my humble opinion, was the most dangerous part of the entire adventure. So, when it all comes together, the day was 16 hours of movement. Returning to the tea house, everyone fell into their beds for a well-deserved sleep.
The next day we would begin our three-day trek back to Lukla, hop a flight and head back to Kathmandu to celebrate Jeff’s birthday and the adventure we just shared.
Return to Kathmandu
Stuck at the airport in Lukla. The clouds are too heavy for a plane to attempt to land. Stuck at the airport in Lukla in the only gate area with 100 people who really need a shower. Stuck at the airport in Lukla with a flight line of people who have been waiting two days to get out.
Solution, take helicopter for $300 a person. Moved to helipad. Non-stop traffic as people are willing to pay in order not to miss their flights home. The helicopter companies are making a fortune today.
Great ride with super views of the ground that were missed when flying in on a plane. Turns out to be worth the price.
All good things on this trip. We supplied an orphanage with wheelchairs, computers, and medical attention. We had a tough climb though the Himalayas. Everyone made it back in one piece.
What is next?
Not sure, but whatever it is, it will be a challenge and rewarding.
Until then….Rāmrō alavidā