With the Mountain Company.
“Yes sir, Kathmandu has indeed improved considerably over the last two years” This is what the taxi driver told me once he had established that it was a couple of years since my last visit. “The roads have been widened and everything is much better”
I looked out of the car window past the crush of vehicular insanity, true the roads had been widened but the resulting widening had just created areas of rubble alongside the carriageway that I would be reluctant to mountain bike over let alone drive a car into. The dust that emanated from this as the never ending motorbikes and buses swept by covered everything, the colours of the flowering Jacaranda and Bougainvillaea were suffocated underneath it, 40 percent of the people walking along the pavements wore face-masks to protect their lungs from it, at night it was like a fog through which the car headlights ( or at least the cars that had lights ) shone.
At some points the widening had damaged sewerage pipes which bubbled the escaping black gunge into big pools of god only knows what, at other places deep holes were left gaping into some deep subterranean area, the exact contents and inhabitants of were probably best left unconsidered.
I must admit to being a bit confused as the what the improvements were and how KTM had benefitted. Kathmandu’s current problems started with the Maoists. Large numbers of people fled their tyranny in the countryside to the relative security of KTM. This swelled the population from 500K to in excess of 1M in short order. The infrastructure which was dodgy to start with had no hope of coping. People live and cook and sniff glue and beg on the streets alongside the rats, monkeys and cows. The rivers are a vision from Dante’s inferno, calling them open sewers does not come close. The smog and dust is suffocating and the never ending cacophony of car and motorbike horns just wears your nerves down. Improved considerably, no I do not think so but before I put you all off going there let me just comment that in all this mayhem and filth you are unlikely ever to hear a raised voice or see violence on the street. Tolerance is a way of life, without it the city would implode, the people are fantastic and as much as I hate KTM I love being there ( for a couple days anyway )
However encamped in the gardens of a nice three star hotel with the never-ending traffic noise a genteel susurration in the background we organised ourselves and prepared to depart for our expedition to Mera Peak the next morning.
This is the first issue/obstacle, the flight to Lukla, its one of the most dangerous airports in the world, there are regular plane crashes ( in which generally everyone dies ). It scares me shitless, to see why click HERE. It may look reasonably ambivalent but once you have done this a dozen times or more it gets worrying as statistically your odds shorten with each flight. On top of this there were two pilots in the group who had taken pains to explain to me why it was so dangerous, in terms of lack of options if something went wrong.
Once down on the ground and your sphincter has returned to normal preparations are set to get the show on the road. Walking/climbing team and support crew assembled we headed off on the first of the four stages on this 18 day “trek”
Phase one “Acclimatise”
There are two main ways to get to Mera from Lukla, for walkers anyway. One is to get out of the plane and go straight over the Zatwra La, a 4600m pass above Lukla via an overnight at a wee village called Chutang. This in my opinion is a bit suspect as it gives you little time to acclimatise and is a hard climb on legs that may be unaccustomed to the exertion required in the first two days of arrival. The other ( our route ) is to take six or seven days and circle around on the GHT Sub trail into Khote.
This approach is no lightweight alternative as everyday consists of generally around about 800-1000m of ( sometimes bloody steep) ascent and decent, gradually gaining altitude as you go.
The beauty of this route lies in the terrain through which it winds and undulates. It takes you through some beautiful areas of the Himalayan Magnolia and Rhododendron forests that cover the foothills.
This trail winds it way up and down and through some lovely little villages in which the way of life has scarcely changed for hundreds of years, the cloud comes and goes as the day progresses giving an ethereal feel to the proceedings. You could be anywhere at any time in its history really. The only things that ground you to the present day are the electric cables hanging from trees in the early stages of the trip and of course the omnipresent packets of pringles in the little shops along the way.
Gradually the snow covered tops appear as you breach each proceeding high pass until before your decent back into the main valley you come to a lovely (looking) spot to camp for the night. This place is called Khola Kharka and is around the 4400m mark. It sits right under the main Mera ridge in a high bowl shaped hanging valley. You just need to look at the place to know it is going to be cold and this time around it excelled itself.
This time it was bloody freezing and a real taste of what lay ahead for us. Patrick recorded the temperature inside his tent at a balmy -15 that night. With no wind to speak of the cold air just gathers in the bowl, the sun does not come onto the camping area till well after you have left giving you lumps of wood to start your days perambulations on, its a bit of a pig.
The day ahead of you after this rude awaking is not that easy either, the Sherpas sometimes refer to it as the “bastard decent”
Once up out of the overnight camp area the views to Kyashar are fabulous but then, once you have traversed along the top of the slope its a steep drop of just over 1000m to Khote, however this time around we benefitted from an improved path and no snow/ice on the steeper sections. We were down in the rich, thick air of Khote ( 3200m) by 1600hrs, phase one of our trek behind us.
Phase two “Approacheth your mountain”
Acclimatised and warmed up we started our approach to the hill, the first day out of Khote takes you back out of the forests into the alpine type terrain surrounding the little hamlet of Tagnac, which sits jammed in the valley between, to the south, the towering north face of Mera itself and on its north side the equally unfathomable heights and ground of the south ridge of Kyashar.
No sooner had we arrived than there was a mighty “crump” from the back of the village. Outside I witnessed a large serac collapsing and gradually engulfing the slopes behind us in a cloud of “rapidly approaching” snow. There were a few minutes of genuine worry ( ohshitohshitohshit lets runaway ) but by the time the cloud hit us it was little less than wind driven spindrift.
See video HERE
Next day we spent on rope practice on the steep ground behind the campsite. There is also an acclimatisation walk that you do but this year the snow started some 200m above the village and we had not yet done our crampon training, we left this for Khare.
From Tagnac you ascend to Khare, this is generally across the ruin of the moraine wall which collapsed in the late 90’s, unleashing a big glacial lake which destroyed several villages below it, from there its up the side of the lateral moraine coming down from the Mera La, across some lovely alpine type meadows to a final little steep pull in Khare.
This year however it was snow and ice from just after the lateral morraine. There had been a big cyclone in India earlier in the month and this had resulted in a major dump of snow, which had consolidated beautifully, over the Himalayas. By the time we arrived in Khare there were several feet of snow in places and little room for tents. It was also getting increasingly cold, -5 is about usual for Khare, this year it was pushing below -15.
We however had a nice wood-burner heated room to hide in, keep feet and hands warm and to stop our meals from becoming unpalatably cold as soon as they were put onto a dish.
Next day we played on ropes with Jumars, figure of eights etc whilst wearing out full mountaineering kit. The sun on the snow was fierce, cat 4 sunglasses and factor 50 were not just desirable, they were prerequisites.
We were now ready for phase three.
Climbeth the hill.
The ascent to the Mera La was not straight forward, usually there is a bit of steep moraine path to give you access to the glacier, this year it was snow and ice, some of it steep but most of it busy with teams of porters and climbers on their way up and down.
This is what worries me the most, not our abilities and the level of our training competence, its the fact that you have porters in flipflops ( Not the TMC’s I hasten to add who all had crampons) carrying 20kg bags of rice and metal tables etc etc slipping about some 100m above you. It scares me silly, helmets are of limited protection, however we made it onto the glacier without mishap and were presented, for out troubles with a most amazing view.
To the southwest we looked back down the valley to three of the most amazing peaks, then ( once you have crossed the glacier) from the Mera La itself you look down into the Honggu valley as the sun sets to Chamlang and a range of peaks disappearing into the Makalu national park.
Its an awesome view but the cold that sets in when the sun slips below the horizon is brutal, it send you scurrying for sleeping bags.
The next day is a short gentle plod up to high camp at around 5800m, again the view from here is outstanding, its one of the best in the area but the cold is fierce and the thought of an 0200 departure for the summit is enough to make you hide in your down in the hope that the Sherpas might forget to wake you up.
Summit day is again a hard experience, its cold, it seems to go on forever and the altitude is difficult. The group summited in drips and drabs around 1000 in the morning but it was not until 1600 hours that they returned to Khare, tired and exhausted but happy.
This only left phase four “Run Away”
Memories made, objectives overcome, there was only the issue of the three day forced march out to Lukla for our dice with death (flight) back to KTM.
This running away requires walking back to Kote, not really an issue as its all downhill but the next day requires climbing up and over to the Zatwra La, a steep and uncompromising ascent of over 1200m on tired and weary legs is not that simple.
The view however is worth it. Then after a night at the pass its down the steep icy/snowy slopes on the other side to Lukla and our return to civilisation.
So.. Is it a trekking peak, yes, there is nothing technical about it, however do not take it for granted, its 6500m and is probably too high for your first trip to altitude. The trekking is 18 days of hard core ascents and descents, the rest days are taken up with rope and glacier training so you need to be fit, not the kind of short burst fitness needed for say a half marathon but more the type that will keep you going for almost three weeks of constant hard work, there is no real respite from the outset, on top of this the cold and the altitude wears you down.
This year it was unusually cold with a capital C, It was brutal, some people got frostbite on the hill and it was probably around -35 in the wind on summit day. Being appropriately prepared is paramount to your own safety and success.
The hill is also unfortunatly getting dirty through overcrowding and lack of sanitary provision and something needs to be done about this otherwise its going to get rather unpleasant pretty soon.
However it is an outstanding adventure, have a go if you have the experience, contact the mountain company about their 2014 trip.