Water is the best medicine
Steve’s ‘all female expedition team’, as we were soon to be known, came from different corners of the UK to merge in Kathmandu for the start of what proved to be an expedition full of twists and turns. Gail was here to do EBC and Kala Patthar and would say a fond farewell to myself, Saskia, Maxine, Lucy, Jen, Kala, Steve and Anna before we were due to head up to Lobuche East but that was a long way off yet!
As I stand in front of a group to do a briefing about any expedition at altitude I’m pretty straight, encouraging, informative, but straight, front loading a host of information and aiming to alleviate any concerns about our forthcoming exploits in the land of limited oxygen. Life at altitude is very simple. Walk slowly, don’t waste any energy, every 1% counts, eat plenty, rest well and water, I say, is the best medicine.
Briefing done, kit bought, hired, packed and re-packed (a 15kg weight limit can be testing!) it was time to head to bed before the alarms went off at 4am, ouch. Said alarms did go off early doors and I gradually saw one rather sleepy climber after another gathering in reception ready for the off.
Maxine came to find me to say that Saskia wasn’t doing to well so I went over to their room to find out what was troubling her. She had picked up a stomach bug over night from what could have been a number of things but bless her, she wasn’t well. The med kit raided, Saskia’s only job was to get from A to B and we would do the rest. I really felt for her, at just 17, the youngest member of our team, she was suffering in silence.
Immersed into the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu domestic airport (and new toilets thankfully), we were whisked through and onto the plane within minutes, taken off and had landed in Lukla well before 7am, it must have been a record and a blessing for our walking wounded.
So, it was time to start our trek. Everyone’s nerves were a jangling, the fear of the unknown, the concerns of how they were going to do at altitude, had they all got the right kit, was their fitness up to par, time to heed advise and just walk slowly and drink plenty, the rest would take care of itself.
Before we knew it we were in Phakding, our village for the first night, well before lunchtime. A record for sure, Phurba and I pleasantly surprised and very happy about how smoothly everything had gone for day 1. You can sometimes wait for hours, if not days, to fly the 40 minutes to Lukla which is the gateway of the Khumbu Valley so that was one challenge out of the way. Saskia was making a remarkable recovery, such a strong young lady with an attitude that belies her years.
Onwards and upwards we went, meter by meter, footstep by footstep, breath by breath. Next stop was Namche Bazaar, a buzzing town nestled into the hillside at around 3500m (depending on where you stand!) On our way up Namche Hill we had met up with Vernon Tejas (Google him, he’s quite an impressive chap). What a character and amazing to bump into such a legend en route, a real treat for both me and my group. On arrival at our tea house head aches had started, breathing was getting harder, simply walking up the stairs was a chore, it’s all part of being at altitude and our wee mantra of ‘water is the best medicine’ was bandied around the group, not being loved much by Lucy who definitely would have gone into the Guinness book of records for the most pee stops!
An acclimatization wander up to the Tenzing Memorial the following day and Lady Luck was shining on us again with amazing views of Ama Dablam, Lhotse, Everest and Nuptse to name but a few of the big ones. As I walked up to the memorial site, Gail said – my gosh, you’ve been up there – and we both giggled somewhat. I’m now going from ‘can’t believe I did that’ to ‘yes I did!’ No sooner than had we taken our shots and marveled at the views did the clouds come rolling in and that was it, show over. We’d had our special moment with no one else around and when other trekkers arrived, Lady Luck closed the curtain, banishing the views to our memory boxes. A wee final shopping trip in the afternoon to see ‘Mr Rab’ as I know him and to source some snacks and toilet paper to keep us going higher up. Prices are not cheap here but when you consider how everything gets there, day upon day either on the back of a yak or porter, you understand why.
Time to head higher, firstly to Debuche with the obligatory cake stop and visit to the monastery in Tengboche at 3800m en route then higher up to Dingboche at 4300m. A couple of long and slow days of walking, gaining height as we go, really testing the spirits and ability to simply walk more and more slowly, drinking plenty of water and working as a team, everyone keeping each others spirits up. The views were stunning and we were walking in the footsteps of the stars of high altitude climbing, the weather perfect and with memories of the last couple of days keeping us going (star angels, yoga, hot chocolate, cake and films to name but a few) some concerns were still playing on people’s minds. Am I fit enough, what happens if? Some things you just can’t do anything about once you are on expedition, some things you can so we concentrated on the things we could do something about and kept wandering on.
Another acclimatization day followed and Kala’s body was not adjusting to the altitude as we had hoped so she stayed in the comfort of our tea house whilst the rest of us took a wee walk up a hill to gain a few hundred meters and to do some training for our forthcoming Lobuche climb. A fun time and some great training had by all and we headed back down for lunch and an afternoon’s rest. I kept an eye on Kala but I was starting to have concerns with symptoms that simply weren’t adding up.
The next morning before breakfast I did my rounds. Usual morning headaches were reported from a few members of the team (water, they said, is the best medicine!) and headaches were alleviated over breakfast. Kala, however, had reached her personal summit and it was time for her to head down. Although she had made the decision to turn around herself it was one that I fully agreed with and would not have allowed her to head any higher. With the group en route to Lobuche, I sorted Kala’s trip down to a greater source of oxygen and my final words being – drink more water.
Life on expedition, especially at altitude, can be changeable and things don’t always go the way you want but safety first, always. The mountains will always be there and sometimes it’s just not your time to be there. Something that everyone in my team understood, something that everyone heading up high should understand. It doesn’t matter what your chosen objective is or how much money or time you have put in to it, if it’s time to turn around, it’s time to turn around. It’s all about the journey they say, and they are so right. Enjoying every day in it’s own right is all-important.
So, onwards and upwards we went, with an early lunch of Ra Ra noodle soup (think Super Noodles but better!) in Thukla, we started the climb up to Memorial Pass. A site where memorials have been placed for those who have lost their lives on Everest, it’s a sobering and poignant place to stop and wander around. Onto Lobuche we slowly walked, right underneath our objective in the coming days. We all wished Gail was coming up higher with us too.
We’d had a long chat about our itinerary a few days before and the team asked if we could head to EBC from Lobuche rather than doing Kala Patthar that afternoon. The weather had been pretty predictable, with the clouds rolling in in the afternoon covering up the mountains and the team wanted to have good views of Everest from KP, understandable. So the itinerary was amended and off we went. It’s a tough walk from Lobuche at 4900m to Gorak Shep at 5100m. Only a couple of hundred meters of height gain but with many ups and downs, every meter counts at that altitude. We still had another 250m to gain from Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp and it was an effort to get the team out of our teahouse to reach our goal for the day. Digging deep at this stage was the order of the day and dig deep is exactly what the team did.
With bright sunshine, clear skies and jelly babies on the go, we took the route one step at a time and before we knew it, with banner set up, my team were stepping on the Khumbu Glacier and touching ‘the’ rock that denotes that you have made it. Emotions were running high and energy levels taking a temporary dip but we had time to wander around, to take in the views, to imagine what it was like in the climbing season. It was great to be back, exactly 5 months (not the 6 that I thought it had been!) to the day that Rolfe and I had stood on the summit. What a day.
Everyone looked shattered when we arrived back at Gorak Shep but I knew that this was normal for this stage of the game. Phurba and I had discussed another slight change of plan for the next couple of days and tomorrow would see us head up to the summit of Kala Patthar then head lower back to Lobuche village for 2 nights with a much needed rest day before we headed up higher. Phurba was keen to push on but I was adamant that we have a rest day, as per our itinerary. The weather forecast was stable and we had been tracking it for a while so knew the patterns emerging.
Kala Patthar beckoned and off we went. It’s a fairly brutal start with a very steep incline to begin with and with breakfast not fully digested, a tough start to the day! KP is 5550m so a 350m-height gain to reach the summit and it’s a tough 350m too. Again the weather was stunning but nerves and fears were creeping in again. Am I able (yes you are), can I do it (yes you can), it’s tough (yes it is). Just before midday we were all sat on the summit of this inconspicuous mountain sat next to the Khumbu Glacier with stunning views of Everest and all that surrounds her. We were met just below the summit by a mountain dog taking a nap, waking up to see if a snack was on offer, then off to sleep again he went.
Roll on another day, roll on to more bright and sunny weather and it was time to say goodbye to dear Gail. A strong team bond had formed and losing another member, all be it planned this time, felt odd. Goodbyes were said, hugs were given and Gail headed down the trail with Deepen whilst the rest of us were planning a relaxing day of rest. Only 20 minutes later I was called by Lucy and Phurba to say that Gail had fallen over and to come quickly. A short run down the trail revealed Gail in tears and terrible pain, saying that she had tripped over a rock, fallen on her right arm and that it felt funny. Not a good sign. A helicopter was called, I dosed up Gail with painkillers and carefully strapped up her arm to keep it stable, we put her on oxygen and helped her to walk the 15 minutes back up to Lobuche village. She had left us on foot at 9.30am with a smile on her face, looking forward to walking back to Lukla and by 12.30am she was being whisked down the valley by a rescue helicopter, off to hospital in Kathmandu. It transpired that she had dislocated her right elbow, ouch!
The day wasn’t over yet and with Steve suffering from a bad stomach that had come on that morning and Jen extremely low on energy, ‘sliding doors’ was mentioned a lot. Thankful of our rest day, I put my nurses hat on and kept doing the rounds.
The following morning we said an emotional ‘see you in 3 days’ to Anna, Steve and Jen. Both Steve and Jen had perked up but decisions were made that they had reached their summits and for them not to attempt to summit Lobuche East. Anna (Steve’s girlfriend) had decided to head down with Steve, a tough decision for her to make but the right decision at the time. Our now rather depleted team of Saskia, Maxine and Lucy headed up to High Camp with myself, Phurba and Pasang to meet up with Amrit, our fabulous chef and Kanxa Nuru, our third climbing Sherpa. Whichever way to head to LE high camp, it’s a tough climb and this time it was no different. However, being greeted by Amrit handing us chips, coleslaw, beans, toasted cheese sandwiches and sausages, the tiredness was replaced by complete food heaven!
I say to climbers ‘don’t let the fear get you, it is just another day on the hill’ and this rang true with my nervous trio, words of wisdom and calm that I hoped would stick with them. With final boot and crampon practice done, climbing kit check, what to wear and what to expect chats had, we headed for our tents to get some shuteye before our 1am start. It’s amazing how quickly 1am comes around and we were off! Walking up the rock section from lower high camp is a nerve wracking thought for clients, in the dark, in a strange place, at high altitude, following the boots of our highly experience Sherpas. The fear was rising and with encouragement flowing we completed the rock section in a very respectable 2 ½ hours. Crampon point was reached; time to don those big boots, put the spikes on and head up higher and steeper to the summit.
‘I don’t think I can do this’ came from Maxine shortly after we hit the snowline. ‘Sure you can’ I said, ‘you’ve had 3 children, this should be easy!’ She mumbled something under her breath; I’m not sure what it was! Encouragement was in full flow – Keeping ‘the fear’ in check is so important. All you are doing is putting one foot in front of the other. You are in safe hands, with super experienced guides, we are here every step of the way. It’s only 3 more hours out of your whole life.
We hit the fixed lines as dawn started to break. My favourite part of the day when on a summit push, it breathes new life into climbers, watching the sun come up behind Everest to our right, watching the amazing light change from dark blues to deep purples to orange and reds to our left, it kept the minds from thinking ‘gosh it’s steep’.
Saskia had paired up with Phurba and they were off up the fixed lines gunning for the summit. A nose bleed (quite common at altitude) didn’t stop her and Phurba just put some tissue up her nose to stop it and they kept going. Next was Maxine with Kanxa, her guardian angel for the summit push. His quiet confidence gave her much support and with her pack on his back, her load lightened, she just kept plodding on. Bringing up the rear was Lucy, so strong throughout the whole expedition, the fear was creeping in. It’s just walking I kept on telling her, just another footstep. Pasang, with 20 years experience and 7 Everest summits under his belt, was with her every step of the way and when I passed him some pills to give to her, he said ‘open your mouth’ and in said pills went. Her inner strength kept her going.
‘Just 10 more steps’ I shouted up to Maxine when I could see the summit. Saskia as already on top with Phurba who was being moviemaker. Maxine reached the summit and flopped down onto the snow with Lucy just a few steps behind, exhausted but elated. We had made it! 7am, Sunday 23rd October 2016. The first time that Phurba had stood on top with an all female team and one that he was very proud of and so was I.
To reach the summit of a 6000m peak is a huge effort for anyone but for a 17 year old, namely Saskia, what an superb achievement it is.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Every expedition has its surprises and this one was no exception. Flexibility is key; ‘it’s all about your attitude, not the altitude’ is a saying that I use often. Some things you can control at altitude but some things you cannot. The weather, your fitness, the way your body deals with the ever decreasing oxygen, illness, walking slowly, drinking plenty, fueling up, emotions, expectations, it’s all part of a huge melting pot of expedition life and I certainly learn something new about myself every time I head up high and feel that clients go on such a huge learning curve that often it takes time for our achievements to sink in, whether your ultimate goal is reached or not. Signing up on the dotted line is a huge step, putting in the valuable time to get fit, buying kit, researching your trip and then stepping on the plane are all part of the journey and what a journey.
A huge well done to my whole team…..next stop Elbrus!