a few steps too far in nepal
Read Mike Collin’s autobiography, A Few Steps Too Far, and it strikes you that this is one man who has left his indelible footprint on the world. His adventures at home have been many and he’s sought out incredible experiences in a lifetime’s worth of travels. And not one to slow down, in his 78th year it was a combination of good writing and good fortune that led him to an Intrepid Nepal trip. Would this be 3rd time lucky for his attempt at Everest Base Camp?…
“In late 2008 I entered a competition set by the magazine of the Royal Geographic Society to write a five hundred word essay on “That Special Moment” – something that had been a life-changing experience. I have been lucky enough to have several special moments, but the one that really meant something was meeting the elderly Monk in the hills above Taunggi while I was working in Burma. I have tried to portray this meeting in the section above describing my International Red Cross employment. Making something readable and sensible in only 500 words was the challenge of course, but in February ‘09 we were very surprised to hear that I had won the “Mountain” category. The prize was two-fold – an excellent Gore-tex Arc’teryx climbing jacket and a highly subsidised trek to Everest Base Camp and an ascent of Kala Patthar for the incomparable view. – Decision time!
The offer to have another go at completing the 1995/6 trek and to experience those beautiful mountains again, was balanced against the facts that I was now 14 years older, would almost certainly be with a much younger group of people and the personal expense, which was quite significant. However, surprise, surprise, the thought of completing the earlier effort won! In fact, on meeting the other eleven members of the party, I was about twice the age of the next oldest! Jo [my wife] put up no objections, which was very good of her, although I know that she was somewhat worried about the physical effort involved. Eventually, I did get home very tired, but this was mainly on account of the last leg of the return journey between Heathrow and Wolverhampton! My contact at the UK office of Intrepid Travel, who had donated the prize, was very helpful, and it was all booked for me to travel on Qatar Airlines, on 25th September…
On 27th September, feeling that I was up for it, I met the other eleven trekkers, plus our Sirdar, the trek leader, at the Kathmandu Guest House. This, quite large Hotel, despite the Guest House name, is an historic building that used to be the mansion of the Rana, the 19th –20th Century oligarchy rulers of Nepal. Meeting the rest of the team, in the garden, with a beer, Chitra the leader went through the do’s and don’ts. Chitra is not a Sherpa, but a Tamang, one the other racial groupings in Nepal who are involved in the trekking business. He is a very pleasant man, and full of local knowledge, as were our Sherpa guides in ‘95/6 and ’04. He had one idiosyncrasy soon discovered on the trek – to call “Come, Come, Come” when he was ready to move on, usually the last thing one wants to hear after a too short rest break!
It was intriguing to find that of twelve trekkers, four guides and four porters, I was the only Brit. Eight were Australian, with three Americans, one of whom lives in Honolulu, so quite a mixed bunch, with five men and seven women – all much younger than myself. Intrepid Travel is an Australian Company based in Melbourne, so the Southern hemisphere contingent was not surprising.
There was also a mixture of jobs, including two members of the Australian Air Force, one male and one female, whom I liked very much and hope to meet again. My background, and current work, were the subject of verbal investigation, and seemed to attract interest! With a little “give and take” and patience we all got on very well together. In a mixed party like this, particularly during a physically demanding 15 days, one is exposed to the pleasures and frustrations of travelling in a group, but on this occasion the dynamics were great – better than some that I have been on. My being slowest on the steep hills, a point that had worried me when deciding whether or not to go, did not cause a problem, not noticeably anyway. Of course it could be that everyone except the guides was happy to have a good excuse for a slightly longer break! We always got to places on time anyway!
Early (very) next morning, Sunday, we arrived at the internal flights section of Kathmandu Airport, which was the usual chaotic scene that local flight check-in areas often are. Chitra, obviously having done this many times before, got our bags weighed and checked in one enormous pile, and we boarded the twin engined Dornier with only a short delay – waiting to get to Lukla can be days! These are times when it is good to have a local leader. The flight was still a great experience, and rather more comfortable in the small aircraft than it had been in the ex-Russian helicopter in 1995! What was not particularly comfortable for me as a pilot of over thirty years was seeing the approach at flying speed onto a tiny, upwards inclined airstrip, apparently only a few yards in length and ending in a sheer cliff face. However, they are good at it! After claiming our bags and meeting our porters and the three Assistant Guides, we were on the march by midday. First day on a trek is usually an easy one, and we did only about seven kilometres, slowly and comfortably, to Phakding, following the “milk river”, the Dudh Kosi through green fertile country, reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands.
I noticed a big increase in the number of Teahouses and Lodges since ’95. Tourism was obviously booming, with a service industry to match. This was a pleasure – good for Nepal and good for us as well! The Tea-House was comfortable with twin rooms – I shared with Mark, a young man from Sydney who had been working for Barclays Bank in London, and was now trekking around the world on his way home. Washing was a bit primitive, a cold tap in the garden. However, the night was better than one in a shared tent! Next day was a festival so we all had a “Tikka”, the red forehead spot for good luck, before setting off on the 9 kilometres to Namche Bazaar. Over six hours to cover 9km seems slow, but I found this to be one of the hardest days. The climb up to the town from the bank of the Dhud Kosi was steep, rough and long! It did take up most of the six hours, with a gain of nearly 3,000 feet…. We were sharing the Hotel – rather bigger than a Teahouse, with a group of Monks, in town to celebrate the festival day. This was great, and interesting, although none of them spoke English, but we were woken at about 5am by their horns – sounding rather like Swiss Alpenhorns. The Hotel was comfortable, with a hot shower room and western toilets!
Namche Bazaar is a small town but with no motorised traffic at all – except perhaps a motor bike or two but I didn’t see one either now or in ’95. It has many substantial buildings, the materiel for which has been carried up either on the backs of men or animals, or found locally or perhaps flown into the tiny airstrip above the town. I suspect that most of it was carried up by men, as we had already seen porters bent under huge loads- things like sheets of corrugated iron or double sized bed frames. Later both I and Shane, the Australian soldier (Air Force Regiment) tried to lift the “smaller” ones carried by our own porters. I could not lift one at all, while Shane could just about stagger with it on the flat. Obviously there is a lot of technique as well as strength and endurance involved – but what a way to earn a crust.
The streets of Namche are narrow, paved in part, with many inclines and steps; it is built into a corner of the mountainside. Instead of cars one found dubchuks, half yak, half cow, around every corner! We were staying two nights in Namche, for acclimatisation. I spent the evening badgering Chitra for Nepali words, and ended up with at least a survival vocabulary. Next day, after the Alpenhorn arousal we discovered that his idea of acclimatisation was two strenuous climbs to local viewpoints, allowing first views of the Everest Group, Nuptse, Sagarmatha and Lhotse in the far distance. When recovered from this exercise and taken lemon tea – very refreshing and available in every Tea House (sadly I can’t find any of the right flavour in the UK). I enjoyed a gentle stroll without backpack, and experienced something which says a lot about Nepali people. I had decided to buy another towel and a few other things, and finding these in one of the many shops catering for people like us, asked the lady in charge if I could use a credit-card instead of rupees. “Yes, of course” she said “but we have to go upstairs to machine”. After quite a climb to the top story (funny place for the machine, but that is neither here nor there) we found that it was not working, as the telephone line had crashed. “Okay” I said “no problem, then I would like to pay with dollars. But I will need to go to Hotel to fetch dollars”. “Yes, you take things to Hotel, and come back with dollars to pay”! Wow! Wouldn’t happen in Wolverhampton! How nice. I wonder, did she think that all trekkers were trustworthy, or have a fondness for the English, particularly after Johanna Lumley’s campaign for the Gurkhas, or did I look so honest? Maybe a bit of each and I do so hope that she never gets taken advantage of.
On day five, Wednesday, we started early for the six to seven hour trek to Phoriche. Four hours on, and a lot of Nepali flats (ups and downs) and also a lot of “Come, come, comes” we had lunch at Nom La, a handsome village high above a Gorge, with a long rough descent to the foaming white river. By now I had realised that in Nepal every “down” is followed by an “up”, so that as you welcome the release from the pull of gravity, you know that you will have to pay for it soon! And so it proved, again. The village of Phoriche was a welcome sight at the top of the climb from the river. The Lodge at Phoriche was again comfortable, the stove in the dining room was lit and after a good meal Mark and I spent a good night. The owner of this Lodge looked about sixteen, but was an experienced guide, had summitted Everest and was due to do so again in 2010. He knew one of our leaders from 95/6, Serap Jangbu Sherpa, who is now also an established Everest summit guide. It was good to be able to send him “Regards from Mike”as we left next morning for the 8km trek to Dingboche…
Our Lodge at Dingboche was not the most comfortable, as it was cold with poor lighting, but better than a tent in the snow as we had used thirteen years ago. While crouching round the stove I broke my specs, one arm coming adrift! Remess, one of our assistant guides, saw what had happened and said “Super glue, I fix!” Where the tube of glue came from I cannot imagine, but it does seem that most things have been carried up to these remote villages. Anyway, he did “fix”, and it lasted for most of the rest of the trek!
Dingboche was another acclimatisation two night stop, and next day, with lots of “Come, come, comes” we climbed to Ama Dablam Base Camp. This was a challenging scramble on a steep winding turf and gravel track, gaining about a thousand feet. It was icily cold on top, but spectacular, with a lake fed by streams from the mountain. I dread to think what a dip in the lake would have been like. I found an Internet café as we returned to the Lodge, and was able to phone home again, this time without the audience! This acclimatisation day was hard work, but I was really pleased see Ama Dablam at closer quarters…
Then came the big one! It was a long trek to the Base Camp, passing Gorak Shep and the foot of Kala Patthar, often in or just under cloud, so no beautiful views to encourage us. The scenery was mainly grey scree and rather grim, until we actually found Base Camp and then it was all grey granite, ice, boulders, grit and large scree and very grim! There is nothing there, except a cairn and some prayer flags and a home-made inscription, giving the height, 5369 metres – 17,614 feet. What a difference to the Northern Base Camp, coming in from Tibet, where there is practically a village. However, the difference did not matter, the achievement was all, and lots of fists punched the air.
The one spectacular sight was the Khumbu ice fall, with huge pinnacles, or seracs, of ice, grinding their way from just above above Base Camp to where the glacier can thaw and flow into the Milk River, the Dhud Kosi. This becomes the Imja Khola, then the Kosi River and eventually joins the Hindu Goddess Ganga, the Ganges, and thus into the Bay of Bengal. The ice fall is one of the most dangerous parts of the western ascent, as it is moving at 3 to 4 feet a day, and the seracs collapse and crevasses may suddenly open. Blocks of solid ice as big as houses have crashed down on climbers.
We were able to get a good photo of our whole group, as there were several other people there. We then had quite a long walk back to our Lodge at Gorak Shep. This used to be the site of the first Everest Base Camp, and the Lodge is a good sized Hotel, warm and comfortable, sitting at the foot of our next objective, Kala Patthar, or “Black Rock” in Sanskrit. This is an ugly mountain, very correctly named, with no permanent snow or ice but giving incomparable views from the summit towards the Himalya, north, east and west. It is the point from which many of the famous photographs are taken. At 5645 metres – 18,516 feet, if we reached the summit, it would be the highest point of our trek. This is small fry by the standards of its neighbours, but still much higher than anything in the Alps. The latest measurements have placed it three metres higher than Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus, which is the highest mountain in Europe…
I spent a pleasant evening in the meal room at Gorak Shep talking to some German trekkers. After getting to bed early we were woken at 4am, and started the climb up Kala Patthar in the dark, aiming to miss the early morning cloud and be at the summit for sunrise. This was not real climbing or scrambling, just a long, very steep winding gravel and grit path in clouded darkness. I found it really hard, and was certainly the last of our group to reach the summit. But, we all but one got there – one of the girls had decided to stay in the Lodge. It took two and half hours, not enjoyable as there were no views. But in those conditions you just keep plodding on, and suddenly as the summit appears, I was above cloud with unlimited visibility and the view, all round was glorious – the only word for it.
The lovely face of Pumori rose so close as to be almost touchable, Nuptse, Sagarmatha and Lhotse were now visible as the triple conjoined sisterhood only a few kilometres away, with Ama Dablam and Kantega standing heads up to the south east. To the north, into Tibet was a range of tumbling icy peaks against the dark blue sky, and a layer of white cloud beneath me foaming up from the valley below. My photographs are spectacular – they cannot help but be. Kala is a twin summit mountain. From my position I was able to look across and down a little and see the tiny figures of other insignificant human beings on the northern peak against the distant snow and ice. This gave, and gives on the photographs, a realisation of the immense, gargantuan scale of it all.
A place for the Gods.
The gravely path had given way to big rocks at the peaks. They were iced over and a lot of care was needed to keep ankles intact; a broken ankle or leg up there is unthinkable. The only way to descend is on foot or on a stretcher. Maybe helicopter rescue is possible, but it would not be easy. But we all survived, and too soon really, “Come come come”, was heard, and it was time to descend to the real world for breakfast at Gorak Shep. The views of the three sisters continued on the way down, the clouds had shifted, and Sagarmatha, hiding a little behind her companions, was easily identifiable by the crown of cloud around her head. Mark took a splendid photograph with my camera on the descent which is only spoiled by my presence in it! It had been a truly wonderful experience, better even than reaching Base Camp…
Day Thirteen, Thursday, was an easy trek to our last Lodge at Lukla, giving a chance to explore the village and to shop for those who wanted to. Early next morning, Day Fourteen, was the return to Kathmandu day, not at all the end of the enjoyment, as the view of a substantial part of the Himalayan range was visible through the Dornier windows. I had worked out which side of the aircraft would be best to sit, and fortunately got it right, as my photographs, in unlimited visibility, even through the windows, are superb…
[Kathmandu] has grown so much since 1996, and even since 2004. Narrow streets filled with a multitude of pedestrians, trekkers trying to spend their rupees, Nepalis trying to earn a living, and all manner of wheeled and four legged transport. The pedestrian is at the bottom of the pecking order, and fair game for anyone. I took some interesting photographs of the chaos to illustrate a road safety article, one with a policeman admonishing someone under a “Yeti Airways” sign.
We had another night in the Guest House, and all went out for a final party to “Rum Doodles”! Rum Doodles is well known, and is the place where one is expected to boast of trekking or climbing feats on a very outsize cardboard footprint, which is then stuck to the walls or ceiling. Rumour has it that Sir Edmund Hillary was the instigator of this tradition, and that the footprint is an outline of his climbing boots!…
The “Express and Star” did do a feature on the trek, making quite a lot of the disparity between my age and the others in the group, and the fact of the winning essay. It was obviously discussed in Wolverhampton, as I received many comments and being asked, by people that I did not know, where the next climb would be! I have dined out on it a few times since. The trek and climbs were a great experience, and so rewarding and satisfying to have completed what could not be completed in ‘95/6. Many good memories, of the guides, the Nepali people and the mountains are left and will remain, plus the wonderful photographs inspired, even for those with no artistic skill, by the mountains.”
This great account is an extract from A Few Steps Too Far, by Mike Collins, publisher Memory Lane, Pearl Press 2011.
Mike says that “the Intrepid trek was a great experience, with a good “international” group which gave the chance to complete an unfinished love affair with Sagarmartha/Chomolungma.” If you were amongst the group who joined in this great journey, Mike would love to regain contact. You can post a comment here and it will be passed on or please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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* photo by Mike Collins.