The Himalayan Challenge

As the Twin Otter roared through the mountains, I could see the altimeter in the cockpit. We were at 10,000ft but the mountains on either side were higher than us! I saw a small dirt airstrip below us, “How sweet” I thought, then I suddenly realised that was our landing strip.

Browsing a hard-drive from a long decommissioned family computer, I found this report of a Himalayan trek that my Dad wrote in 1999. He did the walk in aid of the Frimley MacMillan Nurse Appeal.
Our party of thirty-three arrived in Kathmandu after a seventeen hour flight from London via a stop at Doha in Qatar. We were tired but excited. We were met by “The Captain” — the Specialist Trekking Co-operative’s (STC) representative. The good news — a night’s sleep in an hotel. The bad news — we have to be up at 6 am, and by the way we will have to cut the weight of our bags from 25kg to 14kg, for the flight in a small plane up into the mountains. Panic! Out went all the changes of clothes, toiletries and other little luxuries we had allowed ourselves. (And I left my money in my trouser pocket!).
A s the Twin Otter roared through the mountains, I could see the altimeter in the cockpit. We were at 10,000ft but the mountains on either side were higher than us! I saw a small dirt airstrip below us, “How sweet” I thought, then I suddenly realised that was our landing strip. Our pilot was reducing power, losing height. An enormous mountain was appearing larger and larger out of the front cockpit window, when we performed a sudden left turn to see the airstrip, now ahead of us, looking rather like an aircraft carrier perched on the side of the hill . In a cacophony of reversing engines, stones and flying dust we seemed to bunny hop to a halt to the relieved cheers of the assembled company. We had arrived at Phaphlu 2,400m above sea level.
At Phaphlu we were introduced firstly to the twelve Sherpa guides who were going to lead us on our trek, and then to the thirty-four porters. One of the Sherpas had climbed Everest five times. The porters were to carry our bags, the tents and all the cooking utensils, food and paraphernalia required for the trip. They would cook our meals, wash up, break camp follow us on our walk, pass us and set up the new camp. They would then welcome us with a hot mug of tea, as we wandered wearily into camp!
Our first expedition was to Ghunsa, a school that Doug Scott and STC had helped to found. Initially we followed the main “A” road, a rocky, uneven, dirt track that followed the side of the hill and passed through some small towns. We met laden porters carrying the world on their backs in pyramid shaped wicker baskets held up by straps over their heads so the neck muscles take most of the strain. They are the long distance “juggernauts” of this land, thinking nothing of walking many days with their loads. Everyone we passed would put their hands together and say “Namaste” (pronounced Nam-as-stay), the Nepalese word of greeting and welcome. I thought it sounded as though they were saying “Have a nice day?!”
Passing to the left (always pass on the left) of a large Chorten or Buddhist shrine we left the main track and took a steep path down to the valley bottom. We crossed the river over an old bridge and started on the steep climb up the other side. For our first day with no real acclimatisation to altitude this was tough going, but with true bulldog spirit we all gritted our teeth and somehow made it to the top of the ridge from where we could see the school still some forty minutes walk away, but all downhill. Through my binoculars I could see two lines of children already assembling to welcome us. By the time I reached the threshold of the school gate which had been garlanded in green leaves, the children were still standing quietly, patiently in line. They still had at least another forty minutes to wait. Through my binoculars I could see the tail end of our party just arriving on the top ridge and about to start on the downward path. Those kids had not moved for at least an hour and a half when our tired but triumphant band finally walked together under that arch. We were cheered and welcomed. Garlands of fresh rhododendron flowers and white scarves were placed around our necks, red paint applied to our foreheads. We walked between the two rows of children who pelted us (Rather too enthusiastically? Perhaps they were getting their own back for being kept waiting so long?) with rice and flowers and there was singing and dancing and great welcoming and merriment and I truly learnt the meaning of Namaste.
After the prolonged ceremonial dancing, singing and speeches and handing over of gifts including volley ball equipment, we turned in to our sleeping bags in our tents, under a crescent moon. Because of our latitude, it lay tilted on its side, rather like a smile in the sky. With a brilliant Venus and Mars prominent in the twinkling heavens, the beautiful starlit night contrasted absolutely with the pitch blackness of the surrounding hills. Not a light could be seen, and only the distant drumming of some late night revellers returning to their homes high on the hillside and the occasional dog barking proved that we were not on an island in the middle of the ocean.
T here was a knock on the tent. It was 6.00am. “Tea” and time to get up. Breakfast was served in the food tent. Hot porridge with all sorts of added nuts and fruit, just the job for filling us up and getting a carbohydrate load for today’s exertions. The more foolhardy of us were going to try to trek to the other STC sponsored school at Lapcha. I was committed to go this way as Doug Scott had asked me if I would do a “home visit” and see the brother of one of his sherpas who had been ill and losing weight for some months. The rest of the party were going to retrace their steps of yesterday, back to Phaphlu. We set off just after 7.30am. The first half hour was up all the way from the school. We followed the path round the side of the mountain, following the contours of the side of hills though generally climbing steadily. As we climbed we kept coming back to the spectacular view of Ghunsa. I trained my binoculars on the camp. The others were still there, taking their time over breakfast — lazy b******s! After a good two hours of walking we turned the corner into the next valley and we finally said goodbye to Ghunsa. It was now getting pretty warm. The sun was beating down… The atmosphere was hazy. No significant rain had fallen for over two months and the whole of the Kathmandu valley to the foothills of the Himalayas were like a dust bowl. We were walking at altitude nearly 3000m, and we were certainly looking forward to reaching the school at Lapcha for a rest and a quiet picnic lunch.
As we approached the school we saw a crowd gathering and a garlanded archway. “Uh-Oh”, we knew what that meant. Our intrepid party of nine were going to be the guests of honour at some more welcoming celebrations. Again we were garlanded with flowers and white scarves. Again our foreheads painted with red dye. In the heat of the day we were sat down, plied with a hot tea drink, biscuits and other savoury and spicy snacks, and serenaded with dancing and singing. We were made most welcome. I felt I was royalty. I could get used to all of this celebrity status. The only thing was, we were now beginning to burn up in the midday sun. We were a long way from home and I was not entirely sure about the sterility of the food and drink. Those celebrations went on … and on. After a brief speech, we handed over some volley balls and wished them luck in their bid to beat their arch-rivals Ghunsa, and we finally made our farewells and started out from the village some three hours after our arrival. Before we could go we had to see the foundations of the new Lapcha school, being built by STC, further on up the hillside. We set out followed by pretty well the whole village. There must have been nearly a hundred people, mainly children walking, singing, laughing and skipping up that steep slope, all the time accompanied by the sound of pipes, rather like the pipers from the American Civil War. It was a magical occasion. Having inspected the workings on the new school, we finally took our leave from the villagers and continued our trek. But rather like the flotilla of boats that accompanies a big ship out of harbour, many children continued to walk with us. One by one, over the next half hour they would shout “Namaste” and take their leave, till there was just the last few hanging on. At last we were finally by ourselves again, but all the time we could still hear the piper in the distance playing his repetitive but musical refrain, and buoyed on by that sound, echoing in the mountains we continued on our way. By the time we reached Phaphlu we had been out on the mountain some ten hours, but some of the most unforgettable hours of my life.
The next day was a gentler “stroll” following the river, the Beni Khola to Ringmo. The scenery was spectacular. Everywhere lay terraced farms which have been carved out of every possible piece of land except the most steep or rocky outcrop. In the hills small settlements of stone houses dot the landscape. As we walk I see the porter carrying my tent (No.7). He is barefoot. I have a lovely time spotting the colourful birds in the trees. Round the corner I suddenly get my first view of the white capped snowy peaks in the far distance. The mountains are stunningly spectacular and awe inspiring. I find out I am looking at Numbur, a mere 6959m, just a baby really! We reach Ringmo where the porters have set up camp and made us lunch. In the afternoon some of us decide we will follow for a short way, the main route which eventually would get us to the Everest base camp, up to a high pass at Tragsindo La (2931m). At the top is a Buddhist monastery.
There is also a cafĂ© where we recuperated. I ask in passing if there was any way I could obtain a porter’s stick… The proprietor rummages around in the back of the shop and appears with one, obviously well worn. Gurung, our guide, haggles for me. I give 2 rupees, and it is mine. I swagger back down to camp. Two young girls are taking their half dozen cows down the path, which at this point is cut into the hillside and banked on both sides. I feel as though I am running with the bulls of Pamplona as I walk amongst them, but I don’t feel any danger and when one cow decides she wants to try the delights of the bush off the beaten track, I use my new found possession to guide her back to the path.
At the Ringmo Camp I used the “facilities” of the local hotel. This was a stone outhouse on stilts. There were large gaps in the wooden planked floor, between which one had to aim. The produce fell into a heap, some 6ft below. Each such fall was accompanied by a blizzard of buzzing flies…
” To-morrow we will get up at 5.00am for an early start, it will be a long day “. I could still hear Doug Scott’s words ringing in my ears. We had left Ringmo. We had to drop 800 ft to cross the river via a fantastic old rope suspension bridge. Now we were climbing the hill on the other side. We must have been going a good hour and we had only just regained our lost height. I found it easier to get into a slow rhythm and, as in football parlance take “one step at a time”. We climbed on, ever upward… The hot morning sun beating down on our backs as we proceeded westward up the East facing slope. The farmland changed to a rhododendron landscape. The beautiful flowers were in abundance. I could have been in Surrey (?!), though the predominant colours were white/pink rather than the purple of home. We then passed through an ancient forest. It was gloriously cool after the heat of the sun. It was quite difficult to see the path and I was happy to be sticking close to the leading Sherpa, I wouldn’t want to get lost in these hills. Just as I was wondering how much further, the darkness of the forest lightened and we appeared in a clearing on the top of the ridge at Yak Kharka. Guess What? The tarpaulin was already out., tea was brewed, cook had got there first, brilliant!
As we sat around eating our lunch from our boxes, a raven appeared and sat on a pole surveying the scene. He sat very patiently for quite some time, but as Jean walked away from her lunchbox before you could say “Thubten Chhuling” the cheeky bird swooped down and pinched the cookie from her box and flew away. He had obviously done that before.
From this lunchplace at Yak Kharka, most of the party were going to continue down the other side of the mountain to our campsite at Mopung, via a Buddhist monastery. Four of us John, Bernie, Ian and myself decided we would make an assault on Konglemu Danda Ridge (13,604ft), hoping that we would get a spectacular view of Everest. So with a “We may be gone sometime” speech we left the relative safety of the camp and set off, with our Sherpa leading, on our adventure. As we climbed higher the terrain changed from alpine forest to scrub, to high pasture. As we walked I found the breathing becoming more difficult. I still felt strong, but I started to find that 15-20yards would be enough to start heavy breathing and my heart thumping in my chest. I would recover quickly with rest, but the symptoms quickly returned. Then the clouds came down, and we were in a swirling mist. We finally made the summit after an hour of tough exertion. We were exhilarated by our achievement. We shook hands, took photos, I could have been standing on Everest itself, I felt I was on cloud nine. The only thing was, we were engulfed in cloud. There was no view. Visibility was down to 20-30 yds! We ate our chocolate bars and imagined. I took a small stone that was lying just on the North facing side of the summit. I imagined for the last million years it had been in view of Everest. After one last longing look in that direction we started back on our downward trek.
The journey down was notable for two events. Firstly I had to leave my mark on the mountain and I went behind a rock, a couple of hundred feet from the summit. My highest deposit at approx 13,500ft! A memorable moment! Secondly we came across a yak, high up in the mountain pastures. She was sitting peacefully right by the path and did not stir as we approached. It was not till I had passed her that it became obvious why — She was in labour. There was already some dilatation and swelling issuing from the nether regions. I did not know whether everything was about to explode out any minute, or whether it would be another few hours. How do you explain my dilemma to a Sherpa who does not speak English? We left her there, rather frustratingly, I’ve still never seen a yak being born.
We descended and visited the monastery at Thubten Chhuling. An incredible place, before reaching the camp at Mopung School.
Dawn broke on our final trekking day. A lovely clear morning. Looking back I could see the high ridge of the Konglemo Danda Ridge, clear of cloud, and I sniffed an ironic, regretful sniff to myself. We set off down the valley following the Junbesi Khola. Another wonderful walk through rhododendron clad hills. We visited the monastery in Jumbesi, which is several hundred years old, a fascinating place. We continued down the valley. I was particularly interested to see what looked like a family, building their stone house. Mother and mother-in-law were carrying stones in a hod from large pile to the building site. The wife was knee deep in mud, digging out the soil that was to be the “cement”, and the men of the family were sitting on the emerging structure very importantly placing the stones, one on top of another, doing the actual building. A true division of labour.
Lunch was at the confluence of the Jumbesi and Beni Kholas. A spectacular area where the two rivers meet. It was hot. The water looked cool and inviting. I stripped to my pants and waded in. A quick swim, just long enough for Val to take a picture, then out. The mountain river water was cold! My escapade unfortunately had not persuaded any of the others to go in. Pity, I was looking forward to seeing a few wet t-shirts!
After lunch we embarked on our final push back towards Phaphlu. Again the more intrepid ones could take a detour up to Chiwang Gompa, another monastery situated on the top of a cliff face with wonderful views of the surrounding countryside towards Phaphlu. Yes, you may have guessed, I was one of the group! A real glutton for punishment.
The end of the trek, but not the end of the holiday. There was still a lot of eventful happenings. Mavis fell over a tent guy rope and broke both elbows and needed to be placed in slings. The next day we flew back to Kathmandu, but not before earnest discussions between pilot and STC staff about the weight limits and how to get everyone on the ‘plane. Kathmandu was something else. Very dirty, hot, dry and dusty. An amazing place with obvious terrible poverty yet with an overabundance of beautiful, ornate temples and shrines. Eight of us had dinner in a rooftop — terrace restaurant overlooking the city, another unforgettable experience. It cost 1775 rupees all in, incredible.
And Everest? Well I did get to see the mountain — from a plane at 29,000ft, — and what a spectacular, stunning sight it was. My first sight of it through the front cockpit window is a memory I will always cherish. It looked magnificent, a wisp of cloud trailing from its summit, its steep sides relatively free of snow. Doug Scott had never seen Everest from the air. Dougal Haston may have been with him on the summit of Everest in 1975, but I was in the ‘plane with him when he first flew past the mountain in 1999.