Dispatches from a Himalayan climbing expedition

1. Landed

Our objectives are two Himalayan peaks. However, the most hazardous day is today; the flight to Lukla. An airport with a dangerous reputation, due to the short runway that abuts a cliff with a 2,000-foot drop. Aircraft have to stall the engine in order to land safely. My knuckles still appear to be white when I find myself in the foothills of the Himalayas, spinning prayer wheels with the throngs of trekkers on the first section of the Everest Base camp trail. I spot a Nepalese porter carrying coffee. All bodes well for the miles ahead.


2. Trek To The Everest Bakery

Today the real trek begins. With over 900m of ascent to the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar. A place I had long dreamed about seeing. Although the bigger dream lies way ahead of us on the trail. Our expedition will attempt to climb Island Peak, a 6,189m mountain lying in the shadow of Everest. Walking breathless through the foothills I try and put it’s towering altitude to the back of my mind. The fascinating flow of Nepali life in the villages we pass provides a welcome diversion. As does a vertigo-inducing hanging bridge we have to cross. Three hours of ascent later I’m breathless and standing outside the Everest Bakery in Namche. Heaven.


3. ‘Rest’ And Retail Therapy In Namche Bazaar

The clue is in the inverted commas. ’Rest’ actually means a trek to a higher altitude to acclimatise. Most are feeling the altitude now as we pass stupa after stupa, some with visible cracks from the recent earthquake.  At this altitude, we’re too breathless to join a group of Nepalese kids in a game of football. Or too scared of losing. We amble back to Namche to indulge in some retail therapy in the Sherpa Adventure Gear shop.


4. Everest And Yak Horns

I knew the first view of Everest would be special. One minute you’re labouring up the trail and the next your gazing in awe at Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse through prayer flags. A photo many feel compelled to take, including me. To many people’s horror, the trail soon descends to a lower altitude of 3,250m to cross the Dudh Kosi river. Leaving 600m of breathless ascent to the calm beauty of Thyangboche monastery. Throw in a few close shaves with fully laden Yaks (Keep to the left!) and you have one exciting day.


5. Espresso At 4000M

Today the Everest trail leads us to Dingboche, a village that sits at a lofty height of 4300m. Dingboche boasts a bakery with an Italian espresso machine and a full size snooker table. The cafe owner tells me that both items were helicoptered in at great expense. The shops are well stocked with western snacks and Ibuprofen. I stock up on both.  I’m feeling the altitude now. The villagers are well kitted out here. A couple of elderly Nepalese ladies sport high spec North face walking poles. Apparently, Everest expeditions come back through here and off-load some of their supplies on the way back to Namche. We camp in the grounds of a teahouse. The sky at night is clear and full of stars. Another ‘rest day’ tomorrow.


6. Campsite With A View

Today we diverted off the Everest basecamp trail to head higher into the mountains. Can you make out the little yellow tents towards the bottom left of the first photo? Our campsite for the next two nights has a spectacular view of Ama Dablam. The main activity during the two days we spent here was eating, drinking (water only!) and looking at Ama Dablam. This is our last camp before the climbing phase of the trip begins. We check over our climbing equipment while looking at Ama Dablam.


7. Feet In The Clouds

My tent mate wakes me at 3am from my light sleep on the hard glacial moraine of basecamp. We pull on our climbing boots and emerge into the freezing Himalayan pre-dawn. Around us our the group is preparing for our first Himalayan climb to the 5800m summit of Polkade. It’s exciting to be finally climbing, although I’m feeling nauseous from the altitude today. The ascent only takes us a few hours but every minute of it feels like toil. I take frequent rests and Pemba, one of our Sherpa guides waits patiently. The sun rises as we climb the fixed ropes to the small rocky summit. I sit in exhaustion and suddenly the full beauty of a Himalayan sunrise hits me.


8. Way To Island Peak

I awake with euphoria and a headache. We slept at a just below 5000m last night. In the excitement of climbing Polkade I had forgotten my to drink enough water. Still, we’re descending to the village of Chukkung today. I hope that a rest at a lower altitude will help. As we descend down into the valley our main objective of Island Peak suddenly comes into view. All eyes look to the 6189m summit. Then to Everest, Nupste and Lhotse looming over it. Perhaps for the first time we realise just how big these mountains are. We set up camp and take tea and biscuits at Chukkung. Tomorrow we head for Island Peak basecamp.


9. Summit Day

The last dispatch. But no triumphant summit shots. I wake up feeling bad. I’m swaying as I walk to the dining tent for breakfast - a symptom of advancing altitude sickness. I decide to give up my chance of making the Island Peak summit and descend 1500m to Dingboche. The rest of the group head to advance base camp. I breakfast alone at a table overlooking the Imja valley. Waited on by the remaining Nepalese crew - feeling like some old colonial explorer. Later, I walk back down the valley with Pemba, the expedition cook. I realise that I hadn’t spoken to him for the whole trip. Perhaps being too pre-occupied with my goals. We walk slowly and talk about Buddhism, climbing Everest and westerners ‘unquiet minds’.  A special day for me. Just not in the way I had imagined.


Photography: Canon 5D/Ricoh GR/iphone