WARNING: This post is long, full of words, pictures and films. Not suited for the short attention span of the internet reader but where else do you write a blog? Good for readers with 15 mins to spare.
I think I finished my last post with “never say never” on whether I would do another Himalayan expedition. Well, that proved to be quite apt, as here I was at the beginning of September about to set off on my second such expedition. This time I hoped things would be a bit more fun!
The previous winter season which was rapidly fading hadn´t really been ideal preparation to try and climb and ski a 7,000m peak on the Tibetan/Nepalese border, 8km to the west of Mount Everest. Our house (which I am still renovating) had turned into a labour of love and a black hole of my personal time. So, I had done next to no snowboarding at all all winter, apart from going to the local hill in Drammen to skin up and down. One thing I have learnt about mountains since I´ve been in the Oslo area is that a mountain is as big as you make it which translated into going up and down Drammen ski hill 6 times to turn it into a soaring 1800m mountain once or twice a week to keep some form of fitness and get some form of fix. So the board skills might well have been a little bit rusty to say the least on arrival at Pumori.
I had decided to give these Himalayan trips one more shot if only because this time some of the variables which were present last time and which had bothered me weren´t present this time. And I just wanted to make 100% sure that these sorts of trips were or weren´t for me without any lingering doubts.
My very first attempt at organising a trip to the Himalayas had been in 2007 with my friend Seb de Sainte Marie. He had been the instigator and chosen the very ambitious mountain Nanda Devi East in India. That never came to anything but it was the beginning of Seb heading to the Himalayas on a fairly regular basis. I then tried to drag Seb along on my first expedition to Laila Peak last year (read post here) but that wasn´t to be. So when Seb said that he was organising a trip which would be sponsored and paid for by Mammut bar my flight ticket and the team would consist of good friends, there was not a moment´s hesitation on my part. I was in!
Things were never going to be quite so straightforward. The group of friends slowly whittled down to just me and complications started to arise regarding the financing of the trip with the sponsor to the point where the trip was no longer a certainty. This limbo persisted for months until, sure enough, with weeks to spare, Seb worked his magic and the trip was finally back on track. We were going to Nepal.
At this point, I would normally fast-forward to the face and I wouldn´t normally talk about the logistics of getting there as it´s a trip that´s been made thousands of times before. On this occasion, our trip or the “epicness” of it is an integral part of the story and had consequences for how this trip turned out, both physically and emotionally.
For someone who has a brain like a sponge and an almost control-freakish need to understand his surroundings (especially when unfamiliar), flying on long flights surrounded by unfamiliar faces and arriving in Kathmandu, surrounded by even more unfamiliar faces (both people´s and dogs´) and the cacophony of noise from cars, people and dogs that accompany it, I couldn´t sleep! Not on the flight and not in Kathmandu. So the early start at 5.30am to get our flight to Lukla was the continuation of the exercise in sleep deprivation which had been running for three days now. Fine to a point. As long as I get some sleep soon! And that´s just the thing with these sorts of trips. You never know…… I finally got some sleep three days later.
The flight to Lukla was duly cancelled due to bad visibility in Lukla and you don´t mess around with Lukla in bad vis. (for those of you who don´t know, this airport is supposedly one of the most dangerous airports in the world. Certainly the most dangerous airport I´ve been to). We then found out that there had been no planes in or out of Lukla for 4 days which did not bode well for our prospects. It would be an additional two days if we took a jeep and trekked to Lukla instead. That seemed like the most sensible thing to do. Lock in a two day loss instead of a potentially infinite amount of days waiting for a flight. And that´s what we did.
I already had the bone-jarring 26.5 hrs non-stop pleasure ride in a tin can on the Karakoram Highway in the memory bank from last year, so this would surely be a doddle in comparison. In some respects, yes. In others, no.
The scenery was just stunning. Lush green jungle. Water and water falls everywhere. My idea of heaven to be honest. In stark contrast to the dry and arid landscapes we experienced in Baltistan, last year. We left Kathmandu at around 14.00 (without a guide who was off on another trip to Manaslu with his girlfriend. Priorities…?) and it was long dark before the first problems found us. The jeep was burning up…. which was sorted out with some trusty water in the radiator. Then anything that was illuminated in and on the jeep decided to blink for the rest of the night (lights, dashboard, everything). Thankfully, no one was epileptic but there were some very tired eyes. This became known as “Disco lights”. Then the front left brake decided to give up the ghost in the middle of nowhere (generally everywhere seemed to be the middle of nowhere to be honest) at around 01.00 in the morning. Yes, we were still on the go! After an hour of fixing, what looked like a night spent in and around the jeep was avoided and we were able to move again, find somewhere to sleep for a few hours before getting up at 06.00. Four days and little sleep and my humour was not quite as radiant.
We had encountered some pretty torrential rains during the night. I wasn´t sure if this quantity of rain was normal for the region or not. The first landslide we came across in the morning told me it was not. Hours spent with the locals removing tonnes of rock did the trick and we were on our way again only to find a tree blocking our way another 15 mins down the road…… thankfully removed by a local bulldozer soon thereafter. And finally after 24hrs bar a few hours kip we arrived in Ghurmi where we got out of one jeep and into another for another 12hrs of fun (river was too big for our jeep to cross), this time on roads which were more like trenches due to all the recent rainfall which made for very slow progress.
So what was the damage so far…… Our camera man had been sick from the motions of the jeep along with one of the porters who had been sick for long periods. And everyone else….? Not sick but hardly a barrel of laughs either, especially on a diet of biscuits and not enough water. By the time we were finally able to get out of the jeep and head to bed for a few hours sleep before the trekking was to start the next day (at 06.00!), we were already two days in on a trip which was only supposed to take two days! Needless to say, Seb was not a happy bunny and we were now eating into the time we were supposed to be spending on the mountain which in turn led to Seb driving everyone that much harder. This seemed to set the tone for the rest of the trip.
The fact that we only had four porters who were young, spindly and half my size and who were contracted to carry 30kg each looked like a hopeless scenario. I´d flagged this a couple of times with Seb but to no avail. This was going to be problematic! It seemed, at least, that mine and Seb´s approach to dealing with problems was very different; I would see problems and try and solve them before they happened. Seb would see problems, hope they didn´t happen and then try and solve them when they did, the lack of porters being a case in point.
Needless to say, the porters weren´t able to go 20 steps without having to stop and have a break due to the weight of the loads…… to our frustration, as we saw immediately that we wouldn´t be getting to Lukla any time soon at this rate. We soldiered on hoping to hire some porters on the way, having some luck finding one who was completely pissed and lasted an hour before his urge for a drink overwhelmed him and we had to find another one to replace him. Guideless and to help take the strain off Seb, I took responsibility for the porters, staying behind with the slowest and trying to keep them in line until we met up with our guide who was three days away by foot.
To keep things nice and neat and continue with the “epicness” of it all, we put in as long days as possible of course, up at first light, trekking all day until last light and then finding a lodge, dinner and then to bed (read: 2 days trekking for 12hrs and one day trekking for 9hr). We were having a riot! Little did I know it but this was the beginning of groundhog day for 7 days until we got to Base Camp (BC). When we finally met up with our new guide just south of Lukla, we had taken five days to do what was supposed to have taken two! And thanks to our “epicness” we were no slouches.
The sense of urgency to get to BC was now starting in earnest. As opposed to making the most of the shorter trek times which gave us all the time in the world to get to the next village, we for some reason had to be there in record time every day, just so that when we arrived we could eat lunch and then sleep through till dinner to recover from our brisk pace, then eat dinner and then sleep again til morning. Clearly, this made no sense to me. Where was the element of fun in this? Aren´t there supposed to be some smiles along the way, not just brave faces….? I think I looked at my feet more than the scenery, trying to navigate through the rocky trails. We never stopped to take in the views and enjoy the surroundings. Which made even less sense, as by this stage, Seb had got himself a cold and of all people he would have benefited most by taking it easy until we got to BC. What can I say…? I just couldn´t get my head around it? Asking Seb for an extra hour´s sleep one morning to be rested for the mountain was vetoed. Asking to stop the jeep at an earlier stage in the trip to eat was vetoed, even though we had only eaten once that day and it was now or never for meal number two that evening. Asking to be allowed to do things which were basic was starting to wear on me to be honest. There was no real sense of team here. But I was in a difficult position.
My hands were very much tied over how much influence I could have over proceedings on this trip. Seb was the sponsored athlete, had organised the trip, got it paid for, dealt with all the problems to make it a reality. This was never going to be a team effort even though it was just me and him. He had invested too much of himself to be able to relinquish any control and I could feel that, so I didn´t push it when I saw bumps in the road and he didn´t want to listen. It was quite clear that I was only going to be a passenger on this trip. As much as that was understandable, it did prove difficult at times, especially when all the decisions were affecting me, including any decisions made on the mountain.
Anyway, onwards and upwards. We weren´t far off from BC before the first headaches hit. Headaches at altitude really have a habit of making you feel like death warmed up, especially after over 130km of trekking in your legs the last 6 days. Both me and Menk, the cameraman, were sidelined from the evenings entertainment which was watching the Nepalese having a good time! I had been taking Diamox from around 3,000m but it didn´t hinder the headache after 1,000m gain from 3,900m to 4,900m in one day. Nothing that a bit of Ibuprofen couldn´t handle though. We were both soon back on our feet and after our first day´s rest to acclimatise we were ready for the final day´s trek to BC. Thank God, Groundhog was almost over. According to my map, we had put behind us somewhere in the region of 130km to 150km in the space of 6 days along with the most delightful off-roading and at a guess went up and down something like 6,000m (certainly up anyway). Not a world record by any stretch but we certainly weren´t fresh with energy abounding! Climbing the mountain would be a piece of piss after this as long as we could muster some reserves.
For those interested in getting to Pumori, we followed the Everest BC trail from Lukla all the way up to the last lodge at Gorakshep (5,100m) and then started heading West away from Mount Everest. The trail is easy to find. It´s only about another 2 hours from Gorakshep and 300m up at (5,400m). For those who have not been on this trail and who like their creature comforts, you will not have to forsake much. There are lodges everywhere, fully stocked with every kind of sweet and drink you could want and a westernised menu and mobile phone coverage. Quite a contrast to what I expected and had experienced the year before. It´s a real tourist trail and the tourist money is evident. Below is a clip of the lodge at Gorak Shep with Seb and Menk and too much chatter, boys!
And on 14th September, we finally arrived in BC. It was nice to finally have my own tent, both for the sense of freedom it offered and to have a bit of time to myself. The first two peaks you see in the clip below are of Everest and Nuptse over Seb´s shoulder and then it pans up to the face of Pumori and then round to where we gained access to the moraine to find a way onto the west face. Very nice weather!
It wasn´t long before we got down to business though, trying to find a way onto the west face. Seb had gathered as much info on the mountain as he could and it appeared we would be able to simply march up the west face directly from the moraine, so we set about laying the foundations of a path through the big boulder field the day we arrived, ready to try and navigate the glacier and get onto the actual face the next day. After about three hours of faffing around on the moraine, finding the way, making cairns, I was done. This coupled with the hike to BC from Lobuche and all the previous days´hiking had taken its toll. I was due for a few days´rest which I duly took for the next two days.
But not Seb of course! He needed to push on and would not rest until he had found a way through the glacier to get onto the face and establish ABC. It seemed to me that Seb was putting himself under a lot of pressure and allowing the presence of a sponsor to get to him and ultimately me. They were like the pink elephant in the room. Never present but always there. The mountain was not giving up her secrets easily though and after two days of exploring various alternative routes, we were none the wiser. This was starting to feel like Laila Peak all over again where the hardest part had been finding a way up. We could end up losing precious days just trying to find a way through. On all accounts, accessing from the west was proving fruitless, so we changed our angle of attack and decided on another way which we had briefly discussed on arrival; the south west face with its small glacier ending in a ridge which stared down at us every day (See very first picture for position of ABC). The unknown was whether we would be able to get down the other side of the ridge to join the west face…..? And on the day of my birthday after four days at BC, we set out to explore. Unfortunately, this would prove to be the end of my trip.
My back had been causing me a few issues from the intensity of the trekking and the lack of rest days. Suffering from (what I consider at least to be) pretty bad scoliosis, my back is always causing me problems. In fact, every waking moment is accompanied by some discomfort. So it is just something I have to deal with and the problems I was facing now were just problems I had to deal with. It just meant digging a little deeper and getting there. My back had never stopped me before and to just keep going was a tactic with a 100% success rate. Until now. I struggled from the outset of the climb with a heavy pack and could feel my back protesting as soon as I put it on. Unfortunately, it just got worse and worse as I started the relatively easy climb up the 300m ahead of me. My back has a tendency to bend out to the side and want to walk next to me, causing me to have problems fully inflating my diaphragm, losing some coordination of my legs and thus balance and all my core strength. Just perfect! So here I was, breathing like I was at 8,000m, using ridiculous amounts of energy to get my legs to push me upwards, my back spasming and just hating every moment, digging so deep I was losing grip of the spade! It was just a hopeless task, especially in the face of another 1,500m when we actually got on the face at higher altitude! With only 12 more days to climb, there would be no miraculous recovery for me. Simply not enough time. No chance. So while I had a private moment, wrestling with my disappointment that my trip was over and I hadn´t even put my board on and the guilty conscience of telling Seb and letting him down, Seb carried on up to the ridge to find it was passable and scrambled down with the good news.
Base camp was decidedly deflated when we finally got back down from ABC. My decision to pull out was taken as well as could be expected (or at least it appeared so) and I was naturally feeling bad for putting Seb in a difficult position; both to continue on solo and with regard to all the effort in organising the trip and his obligations to the sponsor. But what can you do? Somethings you can work on, other things you just can´t, especially with so little time. The length of the expedition had been planned with no room for unforeseen problems. Acceptance has been a big part of getting older for me and this was another one of those situations.
So, Seb continued carrying up to ABC to get ready to climb the face and had decided to ski the triangle just beforehand to ensure some footage for the film and to build some confidence before the big day. I just pottered around base camp, washing my clothes, reading and then reading some more, rearranging my tent and then rearranging my tent some more. I felt guilty watching Seb continue on his own and the prospect of another 12 days in camp with nothing to do was not very appealing, so I decided to leave camp early on 23rd September, an week earlier than planned, for the trek home.
But that was not before some sweaty-palm moments watching Seb ski the triangle through binoculars at base camp. This ended up being survival skiing of the first order. It took Seb 1 hour to ski 400m and he put in maybe 4 turns on the whole face, the rest of it agonisingly slow slide slipping. The sun was not able to thaw the snow due to cloud which had formed on that part of the face for some reason every day we had been there. Despite this, I couldn´t get Seb to admit that the skiing was terrible. Unbelievable! That was not what I considered to be skiing or fun. We clearly disagreed on what was fun, on what was skiing. Had I not had a bad back, Seb would have fully expected me to come with him and not understood if I had not gone on that face to only slide down it white knuckling my ice axes, a totally pointless and dangerous exercise. If I´m going to risk my life, the reward has to outweigh the risk. There´s no reward for me in slide slipping down mountains.
This disagreement seemed to be one of several over the days before my departure which led to a frosty atmosphere, and the long, protracted silences at dinner were deafening. No chance of Menk making any conversation. A lovely guy but not the world´s best conversationalist! We were too far apart on too many things and there was a blatant personality crash lurking, had I not shown some restraint. We were simply at different ages and at different stages in our lives wanting different things. So it came as some relief when I finally set off to head home on my own with the poor porter carrying my load. Four days to Lukla and then the most exciting plane ride I have ever had to Kathmandu (not forgetting the reputation of this little airport)! And you wouldn´t believe who I bumped into on the way there but Luca Pandolfi who had come to Pakistan with me the previous year and who was just about to head off on his own adventure with TGR and Jeremy Jones. It was really good to see him and condolences once again, mate, for your loss Jeremy seemed like a lovely fella too.
So, what do we reckon…? “Never say never….” or Never again! I think the latter. As much as I try, I just cannot understand why I would want to do another expedition in the Himalayas. It just doesn´t make sense to me. There are so many mountains around which are so much more easily accessible for skiing, have enormously better odds of success, cost a lot less to get to, require so much less personal investment in time and where you don´t have to erect a small village to live there and bring a small village along to live with you. Oh…., and where you don´t have to contend with the problems of altitude (at least not over long periods) and eat crap, processed food (our cook was terrible), be jumbled about in jeeps, sleep deprived and generally feeling like shit for long periods (and I paid for all this!). And this is purely from a skier´s perspective but I like the ratio of up and skiable terrain to be equal or as close to as possible (call me anal!). That is impossible on these trips. Loads of up and a little bit of skiing down, probably on shit snow Well, at least I didn´t get diarrhoea this time.
So, why do people go on trips to the Himalayas as opposed to other mountains…? Because they grew up reading about the stories of legend and mystic and want to relive those moments? Because they want to increase their profile and this is where the world´s attention is honed? Because the Himalayas are established as the mountains to rival all mountains and that´s where a sponsor´s focus lies and consequently where your focus and the sponsored athlete´s focus lies? The most fertile grounds for an ego to grow? Or do they lend an air of credibility to the climber, a sort of graduation or rites of passage to elevate you into the elite? There´s probably some truth in there somewhere and some of it has certainly applied to me in the past. All I know now is that it doesn´t make sense for me anymore.
As a side note and in the context of our obsession with nurturing a picture perfect Facebook existence, I´ve tried to portray things in as true a light as possible without going into sordid details for all concerned. There´s nothing wrong with reality and its imperfections. That´s all there is.
And Seb? I got word from Menk that they have since left BC and that the weather was too bad after I left and Seb never got a chance to go back on the face. I haven´t heard from Seb since this trip unfortunately.
Despite my mixed feelings about these trips, I am very grateful to Seb for putting it all together. A big thanks again to Vicki at Power Traveller for the solar equipment. I added the Power Gorilla to the collection this time and what a difference it made. One charge lasted all the way to BC and one more charge got me all the way home.
And then there´s John Keffler, founder of Phantom Splitboard Bindings who was kind enough to donate his lightest bindings yet to the project. A lovely guy and I wish I had held up my end of the deal by putting some turns on Pumori for him. These bindings are the best thing since sliced bread for hard booters. There will be plenty more opportunities this winter.
The name of the trekking agency is conspicuous by its absence. Not very impressed.