I’m sorry that I have been away from the Blog for so long. I have been in Nepal ! To be honest I was very nervous about going back to the Himalaya after all the sadness I saw during the earthquake. I felt I owed it to the people of Nepal and to myself to go back. I think the best way you can help people is to give them work, so this time no expense was spared! We went on a camping expedition with a full compliment of cooks, porters and guides. It was the first time I have ever been on such an expedition, we had 12 staff for the three of us and even though we were trekking in one of the remotest corners of Nepal the team made sure we were pampered all the way.
Kathmandu is in a much better state than when I left it 18 months ago, a lot of the rubble has been cleared away but little restoration has begun. The greatest tragedy of the earthquake is that only the oldest and most beautiful buildings have been destroyed. Ancient temples, historic squares and lovely old houses took the brunt of the earthquake. There are some silver linings! Temples that collapsed have revealed shrines that they have hidden for decades, markets have sprung up in the rubble like poppies after a war and the Nepali government have seized the chance to repair all the drains as part of the reconstruction process. What struck me was the optimism of the locals, people who had clearly suffered huge personal loss were still smiling and positive. Our guide for the trek (Bihre Sherpa) had been half way up Everest when the earthquake killed off a load of his friends but even when talking about the disaster he was cool about it. Life is tough in Nepal, hard and short lives filled with graft and danger. The Nepali people face their daily challenges with smiles and laughter. They take huge pleasure in the now, living for the moment. I feel we have a lot to learn from them.
Our “mission” for this trek was to get to Kanchenjunga base camp. Kanchenjunga is on the eastern border of Nepal and the summit is shared with India. Just to start the trek was a bit of a mission! Now I have to warn you that every drop of hardship was alleviated as much as possible by our awesome team. We were mollycoddled through the internal departures terminal of Kathmandu airport. This is normally one of the most stressful parts of any trip. The quiet chaos of the airport is a nightmare if you try to negotiate it on your own! With little or no fuss we were soon flying past all the greatest mountains in the world. Sharp white teeth set against the impossibly blue sky, rising straight up out of the lush green plains of the Terai and forested folds of the foothills.
We touched down in the brutal muggy heat of the flat lands. Our team had travelled ahead of us by bus and were waiting at the airport. We were quickly loaded into a “luxury bus”. The road into the hills was a blur of tea plantations and death defying corners. Our senses constantly bombarded by wonderful sights and smells. Nepal is full of people but at the same time still a wild place. The villagers who live in the hills live with nature, bending it to their needs rather than carving civilisation out of nature. The air is filled with the smells of jungle. Wild spaces surround every village. the wild still has value to Nepali people, herbs, vegetables and bamboo are gathered from the wilderness, fields are planted but the wild jungle is still valued. We arrived in Taplejung in the dark after 9 tough hours in the bus. The view the next morning was worth the slog, our first glimpse of the mountains!
Our trek was still a day away we packed the team and all our 1/4 of a ton of supplies into a couple of 1950’s series 2 Land Rovers and bumbled off along one of the sketchiest roads I have ever seen. We stopped every couple of hours for a leg stretch and a fag. I think everyone was happy to start walking after 6 hours of that! We only walked a couple of hours that first day but it was great to be in the hills again. The three foot wide trail (sometimes only 6 inches wide!) was to be our only connection with civilisation for the next 3 weeks. The lower hills were still hot but with each day trekking up into the mountains the air cooled and the walking became more pleasurable. I’m a very fat guy and walking in 30 degree heat and jungle humidity is pretty sticky work!
It took us a couple of days to get out of the jungle and into the hills proper. Following the little path up the valley, criss-crossing the huge roaring river on steel suspension bridges a couple of times a day we climbed into the low alpine forest. Our days quickly settled into a rhythm. 06:30 one of the kitchen lads would wake us up with a cup of black tea, simple ablutions in a bowl of warm water, a huge breakfast, more tea and while we were faffing the rest of the team would be packing up and setting off. We decided early on that we would camp and lunch at the same spot each day. This meant our mornings were tougher than normal but our afternoons were fantastically lazy! Lunch would be followed by some tea and yoga. Books and naps were disturbed by tea and biscuits. Then cards, dominoes, ludo or backgammon would be interrupted by dinner and an early night.
Simon and Nick made for good company. I have know Nick since I was born and would consider him as close to me as a brother, we had been to the arctic together 16 years ago and I knew I would be happy travelling with him. He’s a super motivated, highly intelligent, fit, driven guy. Considering I’m ultimately laid back, passive and overweight it’s amazing we get on as well as we do! Nick would yomp ahead each day, testing himself against the hills, revelling in the wilderness, keeping up a wonderful pace matched only by our guide and the kitchen team who always made sure they got to camp before us. I’d not met Simon before we hooked up on the flight out but instantly took a liking to him. Classic ageing Alpha male, funny, fat and spectacularly unprepared. He had all the kit but his training had consisted of cutting out the booze for two days a week and walking the dog! On the first night he admitted to having only spent two nights in a tent in his life and that he hating camping, I was in stitches! I kept Simon company at the back of our group the pair of us puffing along happily!
The climb up through the Alpine forest was stunning every couple of hours we would pass incredible waterfalls hundreds of feet high. These mighty columns of water power out of the wilderness far above us, filling the huge river that was our guide up the valley. The narrowness and vertical walls of the valley blocked our view of the high mountains with a curtain of forest and vertiginous meadows. Occasionally we would glimpse a mighty snow capped mountain only to be told that it was a foot hill of merely 4000 m. It took us nearly a week to get to the larch forests around Ghunsa 3500m. These deciduous pines signalled the the start of proper high alpine country and the start of my little lesson in Nepali! On the briefing notes from Ghunsa onward we were going to trek one day and then rest the next day. Acclimatisation, I assumed, involved lazy days basking in the sun recovering! Sadly rest has a different meaning in Nepali, our rest days were MERELY 500 vertical meter ascents to help acclimatisation. These 3 to 4 hour slogs up the steep valley walls were great for views and acclimatisation but in no way shape or form rests! Ghunsa was a tiny taste of civilisation, a gas powered hot shower and satellite phone. Basic and expensive but huge pleasures all the same. 20 years ago when I started wandering around the high places of the world post could take up to three months to get home, phones were non existent and washing , at best, involved a bucket of tepid water in a toilet shed.
After Ghunsa the trail climbed steeply out the the forests and within a couple of days we got above the forests and into the wild barren landscape of the mountains proper. Proper peaks 6 and 7 thousand meter monsters towered above us. The Himalaya are living mountains with a dynamic energy, the landscape is in a constant state of flux. Rivers, landslides, ice falls and glaciers are ripping the mountains apart even as the mountains continue their inexorable climb into the stratosphere. Our trail would disappear into a landslide and we would slog up hill for hours to get round, across and down the other side of it. Boulders would come bouncing wildly out of the meadows hundreds of meters above us, knocked off by a blue sheep or the warming touch of the morning sun. The temperature was dropping fast. Well below zero over night, the waterfalls would be cathedrals of ice in the mornings. Rivers frozen solid in the mornings would melt in the midday sun, to freeze again as the sun disappeared behind the mountains at three.
Kambuchen at around 4000 m marked the start of the toughest part of our ascent. Nick had a cold, Simon and I were beginning to feel the thin air and the cold that relentless, wearing cold began to take its toll. Kambuchen was also the start of some of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Vast glaciated valleys surrounded by sheer cliffs to snow and ice. Vertical walls of blue and white, black and grey. Inviting, tempting country, countless untouched summits, valleys and ridges rarely visited by anything other than snow leopard and blue sheep. Yak country, an inhospitable wilderness, briefly inhabited by seasonal herders for a few months a year. The grass cropped short by the relentless munching of the yak herds. The few locals scratching a living out of this wild land were already preparing to head south for the winter. The smell of snow on the wind warning that a tiny change in the weather would see them slogging through waist deep snow with their herds.
We pottered up to see Jannu a pretty, golden rocked mountain in a circus of fin like ridges towering above a dusty rocky glacier. Another freezing night, on to Lhonak, water bottles froze in our tents over night. Yaks and ice, there is no wood up there so our dining shed was warmed with Yak poo we had collected during the day. The cold was brutal, trips to pee in the night a sweet mix of freezing purgatory and astral bliss. With no moon, the sky an inky black canvas painted with thousands and thousands of stars. The temptation to linger and revel in the beauty of the Himalayan night sky tempered by the bone crunching cold. Nick had recovered from his cold by now but both Simon and I were suffering terribly. Breathing is difficult at 4500 m but nigh on impossible with streaming noses and wracking coughs. Our pulses were resting at 120 and sleep was becoming difficult. The next 3 days were purgatory, we made it to base camp at 5200m and barely slept. A squalid night of suffocating in snot, heart racing, freezing cold and mild panic. I declined the kind offer to join Nick on his 4am yomp up to Dromo Ri and spent the morning wrapped up in all my gear reveling in the weak sunshine. It’s hard to describe my mind at altitude, I revert to a state of almost constant meditation. The enormity of the landscape belittles any inner commentary. The basic tasks of survival are challenging enough to remove the ego. A zen like state of equanimity, a perfect balance between the difficulties of existence and the small pleasures of that existence. A cup of tea at 5000 m is finer than any wine of Burgundy. A calm breath bliss. The sun on your face sweeter than any loving touch. The cold and wind are tempered by the awesome views and simple comforts. Simon and some of the boys set off early but i chose to stay and be while I waited for Nick and Bihre to come back. Our whole trip had been filled with these magical moments of tranquillity but somehow in this cold, brutal place I felt content just to be.
Nick and Bihre tramped back into camp having been up to 6100 m, above the 20,000 feet target Nick had hoped to achieve. The trek back to Lhonak was tough on Nick he’d been pushing himself so hard for so long that he was starting to show the strain. We took the walk slowly, stopping often, reveling in the sunshine and beauty of the peaks around us. Lunch under a rock out of the wind, lazy chatter in the meadows. The first sight of yaks a lovely sign that we were getting back into country where people tougher than I could thrive. Our descent down into thicker air and warmer climes was blissful. Hard days marching through similar but different country, our views were now filled with the valley falling away in front of us. Snow covered peaks still surrounded us but the warmth of the pains beckoned. The forests and jungles of the hill country spoke to us of warmth and comfort. Simon was very ill, his cough and cold raking his body a constant source of worry for all of us. By the time we got back to Ghunsa Nick Bihre and I were starting to fret. We had planned to cross another pass into an even wilder corner of the Himalaya but trying to get over a 4500 m pass was was becoming less and less likely. We had a bit of a chat an decided to take the decision out of Simon’s hands and cancel it. Bihre was inclined to get Simon Heli-Vaced back to a hospital in Kathmandu. But after a proper rest in Ghunsa we decided to push on into the jungles hoping that a bit of warmth and thicker air would help him recover.
Day by day Simon recovered and by the time we got to permanent villages he was significantly better. The warmth of the high hills was a balm to all of us. Long days walking through the warm forests and sleep filled nights in warm tents washed away the strain of the high country. Nick and I spent a lovely afternoon swimming in the freezing river then basking in the sunshine on the sandy river bank. Huge spider webs in the trees and paddy fields told a story of lush fertile lands. Gangs of school children shared our trail. Villages with shops and thriving communities hinted at the teaming masses of the plains. It took many days to get back to Taplejung, the little town that marked the end of roads on our way up, had seemed so provincial . Now it was a bustling cosmopolitan city, teaming with people, shops and cars. I think we were all a little shocked by the sights and sounds of civilisation after so long in the wild! We said our fond farewells to the team here each of us setting off home. Some of the lads were to head home through the mountains retracing our steps back to their villages high up in Sulu Kumbo, others would get the bus back to Kathmandu. Our Guides,Simon, Nick and I would go by jeep down to the tea plantations for a night and then on to the plains to fly back. The manicured beauty of tea plantations hinted at Tuscan vistas, the roadside jungle reminded us how far we were from home. Always far far in the background the canine spire of Jannu reminding us of how far we had come. I’d arranged for us to stay away from the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu central for our last few days there but even then the roaring smoggy madness of the city came as a shock to all of us. We based ourselves in Boudnath, a Buddhist temple high up on a hill in the outskirts of town. Normally Boudnath is a haven of calm tranquillity cut off from the madness of Kathmandu by a labyrinth of lanes. The Stupa had been damaged during the earthquake and was now being reopened after 18 months of restoration by the faithful.
The streets and main square were packed with the faithful. An endless human sea of worshippers and monks, constant chanting of OM MANE PADE HUM. The Budhist mantra washing over everyone a balm for souls trapped in this realm of suffering. Even in the heart of crowds of thousands, being crushed in the surges of people desperate to see their spiritual leaders there was a clam serenity similar to, but so different from, that calm morning up at 5200 m where I had waited for Nick to come back from his side trip. I spent 4 days at Boudnath, circling the Stupa with the faithful, lost in the sounds and smells of the thousands swimming in the gentle waves of devotion, losing myself in the every present repetition of the Mantra OM MANE PADME HUM !