The biggest failure in life is the failure to try…a great mantra for so many things in life and to climb a mountain such as Mera Peak, at 6456m, you need to try very hard!
Life in the mountains is always changeable, flexibility is essential, and a relaxed outlook is a desirable trait. When the leader gives the briefing at the start of any expedition you lay out the plan, saying that this is plan A and that we may need to move down the alphabet somewhat depending on what goes on. How people adapt to altitude, the weather, personal hygiene, personal strength both physical and mental and don’t be the trip Bambi’ the person who thinks it won’t happen to them, the person who bounces around going I’ll be fine’ all have a big influence on an expedition. Thankfully my group took heed of the advice and understood that it’s a long haul to get to the summit of Mera Peak and that a lot can happen along the way.
Hannah, Harry, Andy and Brian met me at Heathrow, bouncing with enthusiasm whilst Trevor and Emma flew from Australia and Wim travelled from Sweden and possibly had the most frustrating journey of all with delay after delay, new flight tickets but landed in time for a group get together in Kathmandu.
Once through the essential kit check to determine how much stuff was to be left in Kathmandu (Brian had packed enough kit for 3 expeditions), what needs to be bought at Shonas and what kit isn’t quite suitable for a mountain such as Mera Peak, we headed out for a great dinner and trip briefing at the famous Kilroy’s restaurant. After a good feed, some discussions on various aspects of the expedition and meeting up with old and new friends it was time to hit the sack and get our last night in a hotel and a proper bed for 3 weeks.
A very early start and the joys of the craziness of Kathmandu domestic airport saw us flying early and arriving in Lukla safely and in fine fettle. Once the final sorting of kit had been completed we started off on our 18-day trek. Down, down, down, we went! Nepali flat I said and Nepali flat it was! The first 6 days to Khote in the Hinku valley are somewhat ‘undulating’, taking the less trodden path through smaller villages via the Hongu valley and on a greater acclimatisation trail than the traditional route straight up out of Lukla. We only saw 2 other Europeans during the 6 days until we met up with the main route and how lovely it was to have the whole place to ourselves.
We split in to 2 groups fairly early on. I stayed at the back with Trevor and Emma whilst Harry, Hannah, Brian, Wim and Andy, being of a slightly faster ‘bistari’ (slowly) pace, stayed ahead of us until each break. No hurry no worry is a great mantra to have in the back of your mind, it’s not about being at the front, being first into lunch, breaks or camps, it’s about enjoying the journey not just the destination. The trail to Khote is stunning, beautiful, isolated, and quiet. Life goes on around us which is not reliant of tourists and it’s something very different for groups to see. Lots of ups and downs, each briefing is along the lines of ‘we’re climbing, descending and climbing’ all good fitness, all good acclimatisation and all good team bonding!
Shit-head is a great expedition card game and we played it to the max with the local crew all through our expedition. At camp in Narjing at the end of D3, I was sat in our tea house (tents outside!) playing cards with the crew whilst listening to ‘Daddy Cool’ and drinking hot chocolate after an interesting day of leeches, rain, a little client vomiting, suspension bridges and views that will stay in my memory back forever. Diversity to the max!
Day 5 to Khula Kharka via Panch Pokhari, the 5 sacred lakes, was a challenging one. A huge storm had hung over us for 8 hours in Chalem Kharka, our camp for D4 and was responsible for the horrendous weather in the Annapurna region and the tragic deaths there. For us, it meant thunder, lightening and torrential rain from our arrival in camp to the early hours of the morning. The pass we were to trek over, our highest point so far at 4,200m, had been snow free the day before but was now covered in the white stuff. More challenging conditions is something that the front group relished but alas it put paid to Trevor and Emma’s efforts on the expedition. A gammy knee and altitude sickness that just wasn’t settling were the deciding factors to see our Antipodeans friends fly out the following morning, and left us with 5. A very sad loss to our small group but onwards and upwards as Trevor used to say and onwards and upwards we went.
From the Hongu Valley into the Hinku Valley, more beautiful views and our first glimpse of the mighty Mera Peak itself from Khote. Andy’s birthday landed on this day and a fabulous cake was baked by Khamba, our amazing chef. Alas no beers were allowed by Aang Phurba, our Sirdar and head climbing Sherpa, but the cake was a great treat and lifted the team’s spirits.
Off up the valley we went the next day, up to Tagnac and our first rest day of the expedition. Rest I suggested and rest we did. A saying I use on altitude trips is to ‘bank it’. Bank the energy, bank the rest, bank the calories, bank the hydration, bank everything as you will certainly be drawing on your internal savings the higher you get.
A day later we headed farther up the valley to Khare, at 5,000m the last village before we reach the glacier and on to the summit phase of the expedition. Brian had been feeling the effects of altitude for a couple of days, his sunny personality seemed a little cloudy, his usually amazing appetite was on the wane and worry had set in. These are all signs that your body isn’t adapting to altitude no matter what you do to help it and if your body says no, it means no. Alas, time for another evac as walking him back to Lukla was out of the question and the following morning Brian took the fast route out of Khare. Another great loss for our group but again, onwards and upwards!
Today’s rest day in Khare was interspersed with technical training. A very convenient boulder just up the hill from our tea house offered a good spot to sling a rope around, nicely secured and off the team went to practice harnessing up, jumaring and abseiling, vital skills for our final ascent onto the Central Summit and off again. It was a first for all bar Harry but the whole team enjoyed the little excursion after which we sorted boots, ice axes and crampons and we were set for our next phase.
For the 2 higher camps, Mera La at 5,400m and High Camp at 5,800m, you pack light and bunk up with your fellow trekkers to minimize the amount of kit needed to be transported by the porters on the glacier. Hannah had the pleasure (or not!) of sharing with me whilst Wim, Harry and Andy got cosy in the tent next door. Weather forecasts were confirmed, kit not needed went into storage and the day we headed out of Khare, the sun was shining and due to be set fair (mostly) until we descended back to Khare.
The walk up to the glacier from Khare is a steep one and with clumpy high altitude boots and thinning air, it’s a toughie too. The snow was packed firm, icy and rocky in places so great care was taken and a helping hand given when needed. The final climb up onto the glacier is a tricky one with a large rock wall looming over us and scree to scramble up, you need to be fast and careful which at higher altitudes is always tricky. My safety brief of ‘don’t muck around’ was understood by all and with everyone safely onto the hard white stuff, we had a short break and checked out our route for the next couple of days up to the summit.
With crampons and ropes attached, a short walk of 45 minutes took us winding around crevasses and to the short descent down to Mera La. A snowstorm had blown in so we all took refuge in our tents and spent the afternoon being fed and watered by the crew, resting, playing shit head and banking that energy.
The following morning, Dawa, one of our amazing climbing Sherpas who is also a Lama, performed our all-important Puja, a Bhuddist religious ceremony seeking safe passage for us all to the summit. Bright skies surrounded us and the group relished the short moments of peace, quiet and reflection. Onwards and upwards to High Camp! The girls vs. the boys was the order of the day. Hannah was roped up with me and the boys had Phurba and Dawa as their guides on another rope for our 3hr trek. Dendi had left at 4am to reserve the good spots at High Camp, which is a very small rocky outcrop with huge drops below so we were very grateful of his early start to pick the flatter less exposed tent spots.
More banking, acclimatising, being fed and watered in our tents and a final brief by me for our summit plans for the following morning were the order of the afternoon. Phurba and I discussed and agreed on a plan that would have Wim and Andy out in front with Phurba, Dendi and Dawa. They planned to hit the summit col ahead of us, the Sherpas would fix the ropes and Harry, Hannah and myself along with Amrit would meet them in time to summit together.
Early morning came and we were woken up at 2am with a cup of tea and porridge. Getting into your summit clobber is a challenge at altitude with sleep still in your eyes and not much oxygen in your lungs. After a struggle with kit here and there and finally all roped up as planned we set off at 3.30am. The sky was clear, the stars were out and it was about C-15, toasty! I lead my little team and could see in the boys forging ahead in the distance. We kept our pace for about 2 hours before our first short rest break, all be it about 2 minutes but enough time for my team to grab a drink and a snack before we began the grand plod up ‘Heartbreak Hill’. This particular section seemed to go on forever and was fairly steep so a huge effort every step. The path we followed was solid but only 2 feet wide and if you deviated you ended up thigh high in soft snow. A Japanese team, who were happily following us, came steaming by and then stopped abruptly, causing me to lose my temper and my team to start getting chilled. It’s easier to stay warm that get warm, oh how true! Once we had got going again it was hard to warm up our fingers and toes but as the sun started to appear over the horizon with a beautiful glow of forthcoming warmth, hope was restored and our bodies started to come to life again.
As we headed up towards the South Summit Phurba’s voice crackled over the radio to tell me that they had fixed the lines and that he and Andy were standing on the Central Summit waiting for us. A great spur on for my team and on we plodded. We met Wim on the way back, his summit being the col just below the Central Summit and he was happy with that.
Finally arriving at the col we dumped our packs and got onto the fixed lines for a short but sharp jumar climb onto the summit. Hannah was keen to get on with things and shot up the final climb to summit 2nd. Harry’s language had deteriorated somewhat by this time, quite entertaining to hear and with a ‘crack on’ from me he followed me up to the summit. Standing on top of Mera’s Central Summit, we were the first team this season to do so. A great achievement by the whole team and with the obligatory satellite phone call to 360 HQ to report our success and some great shots, we abseiled back to our kit, picked up our packs and started on the long walk down, via High Camp, back to Khare.
The rest, as they say is history. A 3 day return trek to some kind of oxygen and we had a great time along the way. It’s the ‘moments in time’ that make the differences on trips. Dancing to ‘Happy’ with Wim, Hannah and Amrit on our way up to Chetera camp. ‘2, 3 and 10 Brian’ whilst we are teaching him how to play shit-head, Andy’s birthday cake, leech-gate with Trevor and Emma, Harry getting emotional at the summit, so many memories and so many great times. Well done to the whole team, where next?!