During the spring this year I went on a trekking trip to the Himalayas in Nepal. The weather was the worst that had been experienced in decades. Both I and my tent partner separately fell down crevasses and we both had to be helped out.
I have written a short account of my exploits with a humorous bias. The title is called ' The Wrath of Mera ' by Bal Sanghera. The mountain is Mera Peak at 21,000 feet and my name is Bal Sanghera (notice the title rhymes, surely a good omen).
In reality I have never done any real mountaineering before and lied a bit when I signed up with the tour company to go to Nepal ! It was great fun for a hill walker like me to embark upon such an adventure trekking up a mountain in fabulous scenery and at altitude.
Please let me know if my Himalayan adventure is the sort of material which is desirable to your readers and editorial board.
Bal Sanghera PhD
Radiological Sciences Unit
Du Cane Road
London. W12 OHS.
Tel : +44 (0)181 383 2403
Fax : +44 (0)181 383 2400
The expedition members consisted of 11 brave souls including the tour leader. Normal, healthy, hardworking people like you and I who had signed up for the 3 week adventure of a lifetime. Our occupations ranged from a student to a baker. We even boasted the presence of a consultant physician amongst our privileged ranks. Accordingly our ages ranged from a mature 17 year old to a youthful 67 year old. The majority of expedition members met for the first time at Gatwick Airport, on the day of departure for Nepal. Like eager pupils in a school yard at lunch time we quickly scrambled to introduce ourselves. After overcoming some initial shyness I engaged in polite conversation with other expedition members. I found the light-hearted banter entertaining and instantly recognized that the group would get along well.
The flight to Kathmandu was long and uneventful. A memorable highlight was a stopover at Frankfurt airport at midnight. It is a rare combination to find a deserted airport building housing so many people in transit with so much time to do so little. At times I wish I had listened to my mother's advice and taken up knitting.
Upon arriving at Kathmandu we were met by Steve our expedition leader. He was calm despite all the noise, heat, odor and chaos that engulfed us. He charged us, along with our baggage, onto a coach headed for our hotel. Steve is a short, very strong, ex-Marine with mischievous blue eyes and short cropped sun bleached blonde hair. He is a hardy and most cheerful soul with many years experience under his belt. His broad, enthusiastic grin and cheeky humour touched all our hearts during the trip. In times of doubt, of which there were many, his reassuring manner bestowed us with renewed hope and strength. As expedition leader he was doing a job he truly loved in the great outdoors. Steve would definitely be out of place with the 9-5 PM suit brigade.
We raced through the darkness towards the hotel. As we approached our destination I noticed our speed had significantly decreased. Luckily for us the coach driver was adept at negotiating ever narrowing alleys through which we now permanently intruded. At one point we all held our breath while the coach inched through a gap apparently too small to inch through. Her flanks scored from a million previous close shaves. On arriving safely at the hotel we applauded the driver's deft touch. As a research physicist I mused on his innate ability to deflect the space time continuum through cramped passageways. Einstein would be proud.
I remember with some amusement the advice given concerning not drinking the hotel tap water. This was due to the presence of some dreaded infectious lurgy lurking deep in the local water supply. We were also instructed to close or TAPE OUR MOUTHS whilst taking showers. In the showers of Kathmandu no one can hear you scream...........Be afraid, be very afraid ! At one point in this hot-bed of contagion, commonly referred to as the shower, I almost suffocated in an attempt to keep my lips firmly closed. Consequently, while gasping for air, I inhaled a significant quantity of the said liquid pollutant. Despite coughing and sputtering to remove any remnants of contamination I knew I would later suffer the consequences. Such is the way of mountain men.
After a good night sleep the expedition members made ready for the airport and our internal flight to the mountains. Everyone was full of anticipation and the air was rife with laughter and merriment. The weather was far from ideal being overcast, misty and wet. However following the usual lengthy delays and customs formalities we eventually boarded the Twin Otter light aircraft after what seemed to be an eternity. In our naiveté we actually believed we would take off that very day for the mountains. We strapped ourselves into the bucket seats and the engines roared in anticipation of take-off. Without warning a solitary darkly clad figure mysteriously appeared off the wing. He announced that the weather in Lukla had just worsened. The flight was delayed. I could swear he had a devilish smile on his face as he gave us the disappointing information. So that was that. Somehow I sensed that was a portent of things to come. Like everybody else I just laughed it off at the time. However deep down my suspicion of ill omens was already established.
The following morning at the crack of dawn we left for the airport. The take-off was successful. We flew past many impressive snow-capped peaks. The stupendous views on the port side set my imagination to overload. Our destination, Lukla, is a small, thriving, staging-post perched precariously on a steeply inclined hillside at 2800m in the mountains. The 'runway' there simply consists of a small rectangular section on the surface of the steeply angled grassy slope. It is an exhilarating experience as the Twin Otter swoops down and the wheels gently kiss the small tongue of green on landing.
Lukla reminds me of a typical mid-west frontier town during the last century. This ramshackle sleepy village relies on trading with trekking groups passing through the area. Every other building in town is either a dusty wooden shop front selling all and sundry or a cheap hotel housing a predictable saloon. There are also several poorly illuminated, dingy, eating establishments. Hygiene had long been sacrificed in favor of ambiance. Such breeding grounds for bacteria could only appeal to the insanely adventurous. Funny, I did not notice a single certificate of hygiene proudly displayed on any wall. Perhaps the altitude was affecting my eyesight. I later discovered it was a national holiday. Through a process of inspired deduction I assumed it was the national favorite, 'National Stomach Pump Day'. A picture conjured up in my mind of restaurant proprietors polishing their hygiene certificates in the sanctity of their sterile kitchens in celebration. No doubt Egon Ronay knew better.
In such villages, gone are the tobacco chewing pioneers with their arrow-peppered wagons heading west to fame and fortune. They have been replaced with hordes of ice-axe toting tourists hiring adventure by the hour. Like me. The sound of wild horses has been substituted with the mechanized hum of horse-power; namely the ubiquitous Twin Otter and even more versatile Russian helicopters. Air transport is the life-blood of Lukla. When the weather is praiseworthy there is a constant hum of air traffic arriving and departing. Without fully understanding why, I found this noise to be particularly comforting. No roads have yet cut a swath this far into the mantle of the mountains. Lukla has a warm mystical heart hidden deep beneath its surface, belying it's dishevelled sleepy outer skin. All you have to do is close your eyes and taste it. This is a fitting arena to stage an adventure.
After disembarking from the Twin Otter we collected our bags. This was followed by a ceremonial introduction to the small army of Sherpas, porters and kitchen staff who would accompany us. The head Sherpa was named Ampu. He was a big, proud, lean man, 6 feet tall and unlike any other Sherpa. Most Sherpas were small and wide, designed for the rough terrain. His prominent, weather-beaten and scarred face was chiseled from granite. Ampu had earned his features after a lifetime of hardship grafted from the inhospitable peaks. He possessed the air of an all knowing mystic while gliding with elegance upon snow and ice. A strong, strong man in every sense of the word. A person one could jest with but always with respect. Ampu had been above 8000m twice on Everest as a Sherpa and survived. They call this elevation the dead zone for obvious reasons. During the expedition I tried talking to the Sherpas and porters and found my Punjabi background a very useful tool in breaking barriers and gaining friendship. Despite the earlier bad weather the trek had truly started. We were all relieved to be under way at last. Little did we know what was in store for us.
Quite by chance, or perhaps deceptively, the first full day of the trek started well. Bright blue skies abounded, bathing us in the sun's magnificence. The pace was relaxed and leisurely. All previous anxieties forgotten. I found this the ideal time for idle chit chat. The temptation to bore others with tales of my previous sedentary exploits was just too great. By the end of the day we had passed through some magnificent undulating mountain scenery to arrive at our first nights campsite, Poyan at 2835m. My tent partner was an experienced 17 year old climber who had 'bagged' many peaks in his already distinguished career. Raj had the potential to go far in the world of mountaineering. His youthful looks already corrupted with a few minor battle scars which he proudly paraded. I secretly noticed his frown as I randomly tossed all of my gear onto my sleeping bag in a fruitless bid to find my favourite sleeping top. His optimised movements under canvas showed me up for the novice I truly was. I could but improve.
During the evening I did spy some billowing mist ploughing curiously down from the mountain tops. Later that night the mist thickened considerably and was followed by a little sleet. I almost missed the loo tent when I strayed out in the middle of the night to let nature run its course. Luckily for me my third eye, namely my head torch, was working. That very night I christened the tent loo with the 'mother of all turds'. A fitting tribute to my first day as a trainee mountain man.
Each morning we were woken and served tea by the shaky voices and pigeon English of the kitchen boys. I came to both love and despise this morning formality. Bed tea was commonly served at 6 AM. It was welcome, being the first vestige of warmth to herald the new day. It was a nuisance as it meant having to crawl out of my protective down cocoon into a hostile frozen world. Soon, tea would be followed by a partially filled bowl of piping hot washing water. I challenge anybody to wash more than a few grubby fingers before the water became stone cold or frozen. Once the water was served I knew that every second counted before the Sherpas would arrive and tear the tent away from beneath me for packing and sending on to the next campsite. There never seemed to be enough time to pack everything away and also perform other duties in the mornings. I was constantly the last one to get to breakfast and never really managed to cope with the timing. A feat which some, like my tent partner, seemed to manage with consummate ease.
The mist clung around ominously all day. We continued ascending and descending through similar undulating terrain. Low cloud blinded any views we made have had. The fog became a shroud, protecting us from any severe drops in temperature. I found the day remarkably atmospheric and strangely soothing. Our destination, Pangkongma (2846m), was a small settlement with a tea house and nearby school. It had just started raining as we arrived in the gloom. The temperature was dropping rapidly. The majority of expedition members has sensibly opted for a warm beverage in the tea house. Rumour had it that there was beer to be had. Without hesitation and in a moment of true sacrifice I volunteered myself to sample the devils brew, for the benefit of the group of course. Accordingly Steve and Collin did likewise. Collin was an amicable and supremely fit guy from the North of England. He was a young experienced climber who knew mountains well. His fitness and ability placed him on a pedestal above us mere mortals. For some reason the three of us had mistakenly gained a reputation as 'pissheads' during the trip. The reason why escapes me.......hic, hic !
The day started with fine weather. We began by tackling a steep ascent leading to the Zattara Danda ridge which we would follow during the day. One of the group, Tony, felt a little queasy so I helped with his backpack for a while before Steve took it for considerably longer. Tony was quite a character. His quick fire northern accent and eagerness to help warmed him to all. His white hair and beard were a testament to his maturity and worldly experience. However his outward features were obscured by the youthful spring in his step and the poignant child which still resided within his eyes. Tony had his own distinctive style and his company was enjoyed by all.
We lunched high on a ridge. Clouds sailed past me as they hitched rides along vast invisible currents of air. Numerous cloud demons mesmerized me with their intoxicating dance of developing shades, texture and light; leaving me feeling light headed and disorientated. Transfixed, I meandered precariously close to the lip of a rock ledge to get a better view. These cruel Sirens of the stratosphere held me firmly in their grasp. They were toying with me. Abruptly Steve, who was alert to all hazards, yelled to get back. I snapped out of the trance. Realizing my predicament I retraced my steps to safety. The spell was broken. My respect for the mountain had just grown tenfold.
We camped on the Zattara Danda ridge at 3500m. After supper I recall a small group of us elected to play scrabble. This was a scrabble altitude record for me. The phrase 'Only mad dogs and Englishmen' somehow seemed appropriate. Furthermore as the temperature plummeted I lost in style.
Day 4 - Bad Day at Black Rock !
Steve informed us that we definitely needed our plastic boots and gaiters today. Great, a chance to wear my new two hundred pound plastic mountaineering shell boots. I had only worn them indoors on carpet before. In the snow they felt uncomfortable and alien on my feet. I visualized myself plodding along like Frankenstein, unable to fully flex my ankles while these clogs were clamped around my toes. Many of us were plastic boot virgins and I was not alone in my awkwardness. Jed was a sprightly 67 year young veteran of the Alps. His experience, enthusiasm and eagerness impressed me. His fitness and stamina were the envy of many in the group. I noticed how Jed dealt with the difficult terrain by using the edges of his boot for traction. I learned a great deal from him during the trek.
It was going to be a tough day. There was a 1000m climb to negotiate wearing uncomfortable plastic boots. The uphill trek became gradually more taxing. Flurries of snow fell early that day. We gained height slowly with legs aching under the strain. The mist had been quietly gathering ranks all morning. Suddenly, in full battle-dress, it attacked from all sides. Fog instantly smothering our eyes. We continued cautiously under the onslaught, aware we should not stray from the path. Visions of Dorothy from the film 'Wizard of Oz' sprang to mind. A short while later we stopped for lunch. One of the group called Joe was not hungry and handed me his food. He was a doctor with a wise head on his shoulders, earned after a distinguished lifetime of service to medicine. Joe's relaxed bed side manner and superb sense of humor endeared him to all. His wife, a physiotherapist called Deborah, was an equally likable and caring soul. They both grinned as I devoured my second helping.
The ascent during the afternoon became increasingly difficult to negotiate as the conditions deteriorated. Dense snow hampered our progress at every step. Light flurries had increased to steady snowfall. For the first time I donned my waterproof for protection. The temperature dropped, sending a shiver down my spine. A bitter wind drove the vengeful snow upon us. Ice crystals burned my cheeks. The deteriorating conditions inevitably took their toll on the porters. Their task was the hardest. Apart from carrying tremendous weights they also cut a trail for us to follow. On numerous occasions I saw them betrayed by snow and ice. They slipped often, crashing down with despair amid an icy ocean of white flakes. Each heavy load they carried was transformed into an albatross about their laden necks. My heart went out to them. Their dignity, strength and quiet determination only angered the mountain gods further. It snowed more heavily. The light had begun to fade. Still there was no remorse from the elements. I looked across at Steve. He camouflaged a serious look on his face with a friendly grin in my direction. I recognized his concern instantly. The dreadful conditions had slowed us down considerably and our campsite was still far away in the increasing gloom. Steve was aware we were desperately tired after the long days arduous haul. The importance of reaching camp before dark was paramount. He coaxed our spent legs ever forward into the gloom. We voiced our protests silently, cursing the day we ever signed up for this expedition. At one point confusion reigned supreme as we lost our Sherpa guides at the front and back of the group. Steve did not conceal his expression of concern as footprints ahead were being cloaked under the weight of freshly fallen snow.
The light began to fade rapidly and a chill set in. This was getting serious. We had not expected this. No one warned us it would be like this. Shorts and tee shirts. Pack shorts and tee shirts for the trek and you will be fine ! The memory of the conversation was vivid in my mind, etched there permanently. Doubts began to creep insidiously across my weary brain. What if one of us was to have an accident in these ferocious conditions ? I did not dwell on the prospect for long. For the first time it dawned on me where we were. We were at the mercy of a storm high up a mountain in the Himalayas. This was no glossy brochure picture. This was the real thing. What on earth was I doing here ? I had never done anything like this before. Who was I trying to kid ? I was no mountain man. In the sobering reality of that moment all illusions were vanquished. In their place returned old acquaintances, my doubts. They flooded back with a vengeance.
I was not alone in my concern. Alan plotted a course throughout the snow towards me. He was a knowledgeable, widely traveled, American who was working in Europe as a government financial consultant. His communication skills were finely tuned and his ability to spin a yarn was unparalleled. From a distance I could see his furrowed brow freely advertising his apprehension. He commented on how serious the conditions had become for novices like us. I agreed we were lucky no one had been injured.
Jane walked at a steady pace behind us. She commented on the cold. I willingly lent her a lightweight fleece sweater stuffed in my daysack. Jane was a school teacher with a panache for making friends. Her diminutive frame masked her true resolve and determination. We chatted amicably hoping the incantations we cast would ward away any demons lurking nearby.
It was dark and bitterly cold now. We trudged wearily in each others footsteps, eyes glued down to calculate the location of the next tired step. The snow cascaded down without sound. In total silence after what seemed to be an eternity, Steve leapt up and shouted that the campsite was around the next corner. This comment was greeted with a tumultuous roar. Our destination was Tuli Kharka at over 4000m. I recall from the map that there were four houses situated there. I imagined warm tea houses boiling over with locals rejoicing in the warmth. At last I could envisage an end to the days madness. I would soon be able to pry those accursed plastic coffins from my deceased feet and enjoy warming my frozen toes by an open fire. My imagination knew no bounds. A feeble smile crossed my face for the first time that day.
As we passed the corner I eagerly screened the horizon for signs of civilization. To my utter dismay there were none. No warm fires. No locals ready to greet us for the heroes we truly were. Steve must have made a mistake. Surely heaven must be waiting around the next corner. All I could see was a huge boulder in the mire. It's top coated in a thick layer of snow. Just a solitary damned black rock, that was all. About 100 feet high and sharply inclined inwards from its white top to its black circular base. I ruefully mused that it resembled a god-sized glass of Guinness leaning towards me. The altitude was affecting my eyesight again. I convinced myself that we had not yet reached Shangri-La. As my eyes grew more accustomed to the dark I spotted some figures at the base of THE ROCK. A wave of despair washed over me. No, this could not be what we struggled for all day. This was not the end of my rainbow. It just could not be. I still did not want to believe it as we approached the base of THE ROCK. All my horrors were confirmed when I saw the porters huddled together at the base. Damn this day. Damn it for eternity.
The porters begrudgingly set up the mess tent. They were exhausted after the days toil. Using chilled fingers and much lethargy we dipped into our down jackets which had arrived with the porters. Steve suggested we all dive into the mess tent for warmth. We duly complied. Soon afterwards I stopped shaking, even my teeth stopped chattering in protest against the cold. Great clouds of condensation billowed up from sodden socks as plastic boots were divorced from feet. The ice melted from our clothes and equipment. Everything became damp. This was hell. The cramped conditions in the tent made me feel nauseous. I agreed with Collin we should set a couple of tents up. Unfortunately I had never erected a tent before. We escaped from the confined warmth of the mess tent into the void of a snowy inferno. We put on our boots and began stomping the snowy ground to make a level surface for the tents. My hands were still numb but somehow I managed to fumble with the tent fabric in accordance with Collin's instructions. I followed his lead, relying on his experience to guide me through the process. The dense snow continued to whip our faces with unrelenting fury. We must have greatly displeased the gods that day. Eventually, after much effort and to my great relief, my tent was standing. Collin had already erected his. Raj was fast asleep in the mess tent so Alan shared with me that night. I was so tired I did not even change clothes as I collapsed into the security of my down sleeping bag. The continuous pitter patter of snow flakes upon the tent conducted a lullaby, gently rocking me into the sweet world of dreams. I slept wearing my waterproofs. Apparently I snored like a pig and vaguely recall feeling a sharp unwelcome elbow to my ribs during the night. All too often in the darkness I would emerge from my shallow slumber to hear the muted rumblings of avalanches nearby. By then I was beyond caring.
I awoke the following morning with stiff aching limbs. A legacy to the previous day's exertions. The storm outside had abated. The one within my head was raging. A consequence of the altitude. I took some aspirin. With the conviction of a reborn atheist I praised the laws of nature for allowing me to see this glorious new day. Today was a special day. I could not explain it in words but somehow I felt different. The experience of the preceding day had changed me profoundly. Gone was the amateur trekker with immature thoughts of adventure hand reared on novels and Hollywood films. The slow and painful transformation into something new had started. Much to my surprise I found I had matured into an apprentice mountain man.
Today's trek was short in comparison to yesterday's all day epic struggle. Similar weather assailed us during the four hour trudge. Most of our gear was still damp as we reached camp near Mosom Kharka (3200m). A fire was lit and we dried assorted items of apparel after supper. The bitter odor of wood smoke still regaled our soiled clothing weeks later. We huddled close to the flames and I recall looking up at the myriad of bright pinpoints illuminating the Cimmerian sky. A few members of our group pointed upwards into the dark jewel above and recited the name of star clusters. I quietly hid my ignorance under a veil of silence, nodding occasionally in a vain attempt to impress. A flaming satellite dashed across the speckled black tarpaulin of night. Sleep was indeed a welcome friend here.
Our destination was Tangnag at 4356m. We encountered the usual weather pattern. Mornings were fine but the midday threshold heralded hellish conditions. Slowly we were becoming acclimatized and accustomed to life here on the mountain.
That afternoon the snow was particularly heavy. As we ascended the going became tougher. We were used to snow licking at our knees by now. My visibility was restricted to occasional glimpses of the back of Collin's hat. He was only four feet away. All else was obscured by blinding snow. Plodding along with eyes pinned down I was oblivious to my surroundings. They were hidden from display all around me. Numerous unseen avalanches could be heard thundering down steep valley walls, perilously close. The experience was surreal and eerie. It filled me with dread. I likened the encounter to floating on the high seas in shark infested water. The danger was present but one could neither see nor prevent it. Our fate was in the hands of the gods.
I was soon reduced to the familiar routine of following the deep footprints of the person ahead of me. The trudging required concentration. I developed a rhythm which minimized movement, allowing me to go from footprint to footprint in the most efficient manner. Frequently I would lose my concentration and miss the step ahead. Being off balance, my leading foot would plough into thick virgin snow while my trailing foot would be firmly ensconced in the appropriate footstep. Invariably I stumbled or fell over. The extra effort then required to regain my rhythm annoyed me. Each time a sharp pain would rise from my shins. My new plastic boots were causing me bruises. They had obviously made a pact with mountain demons to eat me alive from the feet up. I knew there was nothing I could do to avoid the discomfort. I would have to wait till we made it to camp.
Hours later we arrived at Tangnag and funnelled into the first tea house we saw. The dark, barren interior was inviting after long hours spent trudging in snow. Tangnag was set in a bowl shaped hollow amid the peaks. In good weather the views would have been simply stunning. The porters had already erected our tents. After supper in the tea house we all retired early for the night. My mother would have been proud of me. It was very cold. At some stage I happened to come upon my zip thermometer. It read -25degrees centigrade and did not know how to lie.
By morning the inside of the tent was layered with ice crystals that hung precariously to the fabric. Any slight movement sent them scattering down on our heads. Collin and Alan kindly donated an assortment of specialized plasters to me. These were rapidly sacrificed to my suffering shins. I prayed these auspicious offerings would not further anger the deity whose temple, dedicated to pain, was now firmly established within my boots. After trying them on for a few minutes I despaired. My supplication had fallen upon deaf ears.
Today was a rest day. We had a planned acclimatization excursion to Sabai Tsho lake at 4450m. Some of the group fatigued by the constant battering from the elements decided to celebrate today as a true rest day. The less intelligent marched up the mountain towards the lake. The azure sky stood solemnly above us. The bright warm sun did not fool us either. We knew the peace would end by midday. We reached the frozen lake after an hours hike. A superb photograph opportunity presented itself. Steve declared he wanted to inspect the conditions closer to Mera. He rushed off at pace recommending we stay with the Sherpas. The thought of seeing Mera overpowered me. I followed Collin who had the same intention. Steve disappeared with the speed of a jaguar. His footprints betrayed him in the snow. He soon realized we were in hot pursuit and he kindly slowed down for us. A few times I crashed into rocks hidden by the dense snow. Their secret purpose of sabotage was clear to me now. War had been declared and my shins were unwilling to forgive me. We moved quickly over uncertain ground for some distance. The snow was deep and Collin was experienced in this terrain. I found the going tough but enjoyed the challenge. Eventually we caught up with Steve. He was taking photographs of Mera's exposed upper peak in the distance. My breath was short and I was panting considerably, unlike Collin. Steve grinned and then congratulated us for making the effort. Judging by Collin's composure I think the comment was for my benefit. I beamed inanely. Just like an eager school boy clinching gold in the 100 meters sprint final in front of his proud parents on Sports Day. The added excursion had taken some time as we had climbed to 4700m. We hurried back down, aware of the threat imposed by the large cloud build up. The remainder of the group had already made their way back to the safety of the camp. We did likewise as the first snow of the day fell.
I awoke to the pulsing of an undecided headache. The indifferent throb in my brain was deliberating whether to become a full scale nuclear conflict or to remain a minor conventional skirmish. Sensing hesitation in the ranks of the enemy I unleashed my own arsenal, swallowing two aspirin. Within half an hour the battle was won. However my private war against the many deleterious effects of the altitude was far from decided.
During the night my shins exacted their revenge against me for the rough treatment they had received. Every time I moved in my sleep they sent hammer blows of pain reverberating up my leg. In the morning I scavenged some foam inserts from my trainers. I placed these above the plasters on my shins, to lie between socks and boots, in a bid to alleviate the pain. In the morning we hiked steadily upwards. Our fitness was improving. We made good progress in the dense snow which covered the difficult terrain. The cloud slept late that morning. It made its first drowsy appearance at 12 PM. We continued to climb steadily in the afternoon. By then advancing malevolent cloud loomed furtively below, trying its best to engulf us.
The foam inserts were frequently jarred loose from their ideal damping positions. Many times I was forced to stop and grit my teeth. On numerous occasions I attempted to remove my boots and reposition the inserts. My stiff laces had long since formed a pact with occult forces. They had been transformed into oriental dragon serpents guarding the gates to the temple of pain located within my boots. The serpents battled my lead fingers often refusing to untie. Again I wondered why I had paid so much money for the privilege of so much pain so far from the comfort of home. Subconsciously had I pierced, nailed, whipped or hammered my masochistic tendencies into submission below 4000m ? I was still pondering the same question when we arrived at our campsite in Khare (5000m).
During the night I finally succumbed to the stomach bug which had ravaging so many in our expedition. My body ached and I developed hot and cold flushes. Suddenly and without warning I began to experience an overwhelming sensation of nausea. Whilst still in my sleeping bag I instinctively lurched for the entrance. Barely managing to unzip the tent flap in time as the foul taste of bile erupted from my cheeks. That was close, too damned close. I cursed the gods for having afflicted me. Then I thanked my lucky stars the zip had not jammed as it regularly did in the cold. With the aid of antibiotics it would be many days before I would be back to full strength. This annoyed me as I knew I would not be at my best for the summit attempt in a couple of days time. By morning I had thrown up again and suffered from diarrhea several times during the night. I was never at my best in the mornings. This one was no exception.
Foolishly I enlisted on the rest day acclimatization excursion. During the night the demons had been busy. They had laced my path with Kryptonite. My super human reserves of energy were being sapped by the second. While all the time they grew ever stronger at my expense. Again I cursed the demons for their vile cunning. It was clear to me now they would never let us climb Mera unscathed. This premonition filled me with dread. What horrors lay ahead ? During these morbid thoughts I realised the same demons had replaced the contents of my backpack with rocks. I could not go on much further under this continuous onslaught. My resolve weakened. An hour later we stopped for a drink break and to rest. I knew I could not continue and had to turn back. I explained my predicament to the rest of the group. My head hung in shame as the words escaped.
The return leg of my journey took an eternity. I frequently stopped to rest. The thin air strenuously evaded my desperate attempts to embrace it with my hollow lungs. The sensation of nausea was never far away. A slower pace began to make sense. I was worn out when I finally stumbled into camp. My sleeping bag silently called out my name. I obeyed in my exhausted state, mesmerized by the prospect of rest. By the time the zip had been drawn I was asleep. I slept through lunch and dinner. The deep slumber that consumed me was both compassionate and healing. It warded off further attacks from mountain spirits and soothed my pain. During the night the innate genetic mechanic, who resides within each of us, gently jump-started my battered body back into gear.
Day 10 - Penultimate summit day
Breakfast did not appeal this morning. It was going to be a long day. I reluctantly forced down a spoon of muslei in anticipation. The mouthful of anti-matter tasted like cardboard. It exploded spontaneously upon making contact with my stomach. Some time later I emerged from the loo tent to see the expedition heading off. I did not have the energy to pursue them rapidly. Instead I kept to my own pace. Frequent stomach cramps and swollen shins sabotaged my progress. Jane and Joe were on guard duty at the rear. They were happy to maintain a leisurely pace. By the time I reached them I was wheezing from the exertion. A minor irritation in my lungs had now magnified to become a full chest infection. What next, was there no mercy from the accursed demons ? All I knew was too plod on. Eyes fixed on footprints ahead as stomach spasms churned my guts over. The theme for the day had been set. I was oblivious to the scenery around and recall nothing of its grandeur between snow flurries amid the constant cloud cover.
The snow had come and gone many times that day as we approached our high camp. Both external and internal conditions had tired me out. Energy reserves were low due to the lack of food and the hard conditions prevalent at altitude. Steve wanted to camp higher up in the mountain to optimize our chances of getting to the summit the following day. The Sherpas had developed spontaneous deafness. Apparently a common ailment for Sherpas. I was secretly glad we did not have to continue. The camp was already set by the time I reached it. We were to shelter in high altitude tents designed for three occupants. My room mates for the night at the Hilton were Alan and Sandy. I was impressed with Sandy's style and dress code. You would never have guessed that Sandy had never camped before. He coped admirably with everything the mountain threw at him and was always friendly and considerate. Sandy had grown a goatee beard. His coolness knew no bounds and I envied him.
As I approached the tent Alan appeared and asked if I would return Deborah's bag to her tent nearby. How dare he ask me. I snapped angrily at him to do his own dirty work. The moment those guttural words were uttered I knew I had over-reacted. I was worn out and he was not to know how I was suffering. Unfortunately I was not man enough to apologize for my remarks at the time. Later in Kathmandu we joked about the incidence and he very kindly let it pass. I still feel remorse for my behavior that day.
The evening meal was high altitude dehydrated food consisting of 'boil in the bag' lamb, potatoes and peas. A subdued voice in my head kept reminding me that the food would act like rocket fuel to my delicate inner parts. Another stronger voice prompted me to eat. Hunger screamed the loudest and attacked in hordes, taking no prisoners. Unconditional surrender ensued. It took one mouthful to realize that I should have battled on to the bitter end. It was so cold, I felt that my extremities were on the verge of freezing. I had to keep warm somehow. Again the deceitful voice spoke to me tempting another lukewarm mouthful. I was helpless to resist and gulped down more jet propellant. Again the same reaction. The order came from within, I must continue to eat. My third mouthful silenced hunger but it also awoke the sirens in my stomach. The countdown to blast-off had begun.
The kerosene lamp in the mess tent did its best to nauseate me. Vicious fumes stalked me without respect of wind direction. Combined with it's sibilant hiss I imagined deadly vaporous vipers emanating from the lamp. Their only intention to suffer me further indignity. My clothes were already a victim to their venom. A dry choking sensation developed in my throat. I was suffering from olfactory overload. My head started to spin and I became dizzy. Was I to fall prey too ? The only solution was to escape to the numbing chill of the atmosphere outside. I took a deep breath from the shallow cold air. Slowly my senses came back into focus. The snow had finally fizzled out and the clouds had ambled home. It was cold.
Suddenly I could clearly see the grandeur of the panorama. It was freely on display to any fool who ventured this high into the realm of the gods. They must have felt remorse for their earlier actions and were now displaying a rare sign of sympathy. At almost 6000m above sea level the view was one which I had never imagined in my wildest dreams. There was the snowy black magnificence of Everest caressed in iridescent shafts of adolescent light which toyed in the late afternoon. The colors were soft and vibrant containing interwoven hues of pink and gold. An incredible sight never to be forgotten. Picture postcard scenes for real in my back garden. Again the privilege of being there overjoyed me. My elation was short-lived. The sirens in my stomach were at mach 2 now and soon they would leave Earth's atmosphere. That was bad news. I had seen Apollo rocket film footage as the spacecraft left the planet. I had to find a rock to hide behind to await jettison of spent fuel pods. To my dismay there were no rocks here, only ice and snow. Again the demon parasites of Mera grinned in anticipation of the live stage show which was commencing. I looked around forlornly for something to hide behind. The tents were visible but people constantly milled round them. Only one thing to do. Head into the darkness nearby and hope that the soot of night camouflaged me while I attempted re-entry.
If any of you have experienced diarrhea at altitude then you will know I am not lying when I say it's status should be elevated to an Olympic event. I surpassed any expectations I may have had of the distance involved when jettison occurs. When the painful, computer controlled, re-entry was completed successfully I looked back with a sense of satisfaction and achievement. Night had fallen and the temperature was piercingly cold. Without warning an overwhelming sensation impelled me to gaze upwards to the heavens. I was astonished by the spectacle that greeted me. Shimmering above and smiling down on me was the huge nebulous head and enormous ethereal tail of the Hale-Bopp comet in the night sky. She was close enough to taste. That evening my eyes had feasted well on some of nature's most beautiful of beheld banquets.
My tent mates had already become one with their sleeping bags. I did likewise. There was no cloud and it was incredibly cold. My zip thermometer had finally given up the ghost. It refused to budge from 0 degrees centigrade. It was lying badly. I could not stop shivering. Steve was right when he claimed at this height one did not sleep, one survived. Several expeditions were challenging Everest's peak at the same time that we were struggling on Mera. I wondered how they were able to survive in even more extreme conditions. Before turning my head torch off I entered the days events in my journal, much to the barely disguised annoyance of Allan and Sandy. Muted sighs and muffled groans from their sleeping bags combined with the cold made that evenings entry a rapid one.
Night breathed down heavily on the expedition. Its chilly ebony claws freshly sharpened just for us. The dark chill pervaded all in its sight. Nobody slept everybody shivered. I donned my thermal gear and my down jacket to keep the cold at bay. No matter how often I turned or shifted my position comfort evaded me. The hours gnawed slowly through the night with blunt teeth. Each agonizing second determined to live out its brief life fully. This was an excellent culture for my old nemesis, the doubts. They multiplied rapidly feeding in a rich medium of anxiety. It was impossible to drown all their voices in the obscure ocean of my subconscious. A million memories flooded back. With despair I relived each footstep of the day we reached the damned ROCK. My collective fears convolved into one entity. It was dark and foreboding. All the omens were ominous. What else had Mera in store for us ?
Sleep deserted me in the blackness. The best I could achieve was a disturbing state of limbo for brief periods. After what seemed an eternity my watch called to me. It whispered 3:15 AM. The night was over for us. It was time to get ready. With much reluctance I wrenched myself from the embryonic warmth of my sleeping bag. A frigid stillness beyond the tent flap beckoned. The day of reckoning had finally come.
Day 11 - Judgement Day
I recall sitting at a desk in a huge hall with two hundred other students during the finals at University in 1985. As usual I had missed most lectures during the term due to prior engagements. Consequently I had undertaken a crash course through the night. Cramming was my forte and coffee was my friend. The alarm clock hated me and refused to work that morning. I was almost late and had to run fast to be there before the hall doors were closed. My breath was still a little short. The pencils I had borrowed were broken, the rubber was stolen and grimy. My favorite pen had disappeared. Luckily I managed to scrounge a battered Biro. My limp wooden ruler had long since been splintered through numerous duels. The Eryl Flynn school of fencing had a lot to answer for. With this unfamiliar makepiece armory I sat eagerly awaiting the battle to commence. The war was imminent. The enemy was Geophysics.
All the other students assumed I was good at this subject. I knew better. I was resigned to the fact I would probably fail. But it would be a close thing. There was always the possibility that the exam average would bump me up to a pass. I wondered if everyone else had prepared for the exam.
The same uncertain intuitive feelings that stirred within me 12 years earlier, now coursed through my body again. The frozen night air hid its dark soul under a jet black veil. It's oppressive proximity weighed heavily on my mind. I looked across at Allan and Sandy. Surprisingly, Sandy had decided to stay at the base camp instead of attempting the summit. Unlike the rest of us he had nothing to prove. Sandy's decision was courageous and it had impressed me. I found a new respect for him growing in my heart.
Steve had organized everybody into groups for the ascent of Mera. Members in each group were roped together for protection. The first group consisted of two Sherpas with Collin in-between. This 'Sherpa Sandwich' was set to slice a painful trail up the steep snow laden glacier. I assumed they were adept at Russian Roulette, had full insurance and enjoyed emergency helicopter flights. Steve, myself and Allan followed in the second sortie. The remainder of the group were split into two and they followed behind. Each group was staggered by thirty minutes. Crampons were not required due to the deep snow. Ice axes were at a premium. Squabbles were quickly resolved over who possessed which tool. The axe had now come into its own and was regarded as a personal and cherished gift from the gods. I envisaged myself as the immortal Mighty Thor beside his mystical hammer. Without it Thor was another mere mortal, feeble and without strength or magical powers. Bereft of his mighty weapon he would easily fall prey to any foe. With that thought I clenched my ice axe even harder. The whites of my knuckles gleamed under the shroud of my gloves. I hoped the arcane knowledge I earned through a youthful addiction to comic book heroes would be my salvation in the hours to follow. As a time served day-dreamer I was conscious that dreams can mature into reality. This is especially true when one is at an altitude of 6000m.
I was startled back into reality as Collin's group dashed up the slope at top speed in the pitch black. Their shadowy arched postures resembling hungry black panthers leaping wildly amid the deep snow. Light radiated defiantly from their head torches but was soon devoured by the jaws of darkness. Reflections from snow and ice dwindled as they ventured directly into the lair of the demons above. Before long night had consumed them. It was now our turn to challenge the gods and face the wrath of Mera. An involuntary shiver escaped from my back and shoulders. It's destination was the demon stronghold ahead. Once there it would fill their vile heads with my fears and weaknesses. Again doubts had conspired to betray me.
Gauging apprehension in the air, Steve proclaimed it was time for our group to finally face the enemy. With quiet determination he began the perilous ascent. He lead, climbing straight up a steep slope ahead. I followed from my waist as I was dragged up by the rope connecting us. The slope was too steep. The air was incredibly thin. Within seconds my lungs ached for atmosphere. It was impossible to maintain any rhythm. The chest infection which assailed me before was now in it's element and began tightening it's asphyxiating grip. It evicted air from my fragile lungs and selected pain as the new resident. The mountains amplified the fiendish sound of demons chuckling with glee at my feckless display of inadequacy under the onslaught. However I would not give up and let the spirits have the satisfaction of seeing me surrender. They would never take me alive. Just as I was on the verge of collapsing under the strain, Steve slowed down and we rested briefly. Light from my head torch flickered erratically. The batteries had struggled bravely against the cold but now knew their time was up. Both Allan and I were panting heavily.
During the speedy ascent Steve had constantly encouraged me. He employed his vast reservoir of experience to seduce me into learning new climbing techniques as we sailed uphill. Steve continued to praise Allan and myself as we paused to catch breath. Somehow his enthusiasm unleashed a new spirit within me which shredded the ambient cloak of night with radiant hope. To the dark heart of demons, hope is a deadly sabre. I wielded hope with pride and slashed away with venom. For once the vile spirits were not laughing at us, their wicked smiles hacked from their repulsive faces. The carnage that followed engulfed me and I emerged with renewed vigour and a strong sense of purpose. Mera was now alert to our parasitic presence. We were too close to her icy pinnacled peak to be ignored any longer. This was her territory, we were trespassers. I only hoped she could forgive the intrusion. The vision of water birds picking detritus from the deadly jaws of compliant crocodiles avalanched through my mind.
Steve beckoned for us all to continue. Allan and I reluctantly prepared ourselves mentally for more punishment. The urge to cast my eyes eastward was overwhelming. Light had just burst over the horizon. We all stood still and silently gaped at the wonderful, throbbing, pink orb as it relegated the nightmare of night to the shadowy spirit world below. As the sun rose so did our spirits. The sky was cloudless and free from imperfections. Again I was struck by the awesome beauty of the scene evolving in front of our eyes. Everest was still there, she had not moved during the night. She greeted us with a cold smile as the first precious rays caressed her dark flanks. Distance became distorted due to the altitude. It felt as if she were only a stone's throw away rather than a few miles. I wondered if she had been kind to the intrepid climbers who had dared to trespass on her hallowed steeple. Our body temperatures were cooling rapidly after the heavy physical exertion of climbing. Cold embraced us once more with it's icy tentacles, knowing that we were distracted. Steve was aware of the situation and stressed that we should carry on. We obeyed as we always did. A familiar arduous uphill struggle in deep snow ensued.
We were careful to avoid the many treacherous crevasses concealed along our route. Heavy falls of fresh snow masked their existence under a fragile white mantle. Hidden was their shimmering broody interiors, whispering in chameleon shades of blue green. Their abundance was alarming. These camouflaged icy pits of despair were Mother Mera's last line of defense. Each frozen cavity resembling a chilly vaginal void plunging down to a frigid womb, deep below the surface of the snow. Individual hostile wombs were host to a plethora of the most repulsive aborted demons and ghouls. This was their last refuge and Mera's most potent of weapons. The sole intent of these occult forces was to capture fresh souls, at any expense, to add to their hellish hordes. Both Ampu and Steve had driven the message home hard, avoid crevasses at all costs. We kept our eyes peeled in the dim light. On this expedition vigilance had grown to become a close friend.
The slope we now struggled up was exposed. A bitter wind decided to take advantage of the conditions to thwart our invasion. We battled on as our heavenly ally the sun rose higher to shine ever brighter in the wakening sky. Our goal was now in sight up ahead. However, no matter how hard we pushed forward the distance to the peak never seemed to diminish. This was quite a daunting prospect. The grand scale of nature had become both awesome and annoying. A forlorn sense of insignificance breezed through me with a chill. Non-the-less we were not deterred and continued to climb slowly in the thin air. Every inch in height gained was achieved through the tiring process of breathing heavily twice between each painful step up. Secretly I swore revenge upon my corrupted lungs and praised god that I had never smoked. I wondered if Allan who was behind me was suffering too.
Mera's summit was spectacularly close now. Under her impressive peak demon voices once more violated my psyche with their insidious taunts and threats. This time they spoke to us all. " BEWARE, RETREAT NOW OR SUFFER THE FULL CONSEQUENCES ! " Along with Steve and Alan I chose to ignore the warnings. The adventure meant too much to us. We had each come too far. Communal deafness spontaneously afflicted our group. It was a mutated version of the same ailment the Sherpas suffered from earlier. We continued climbing for what seemed to be hours. By now we were 400m below Mera's sacred spire. Steve looked cautiously ahead. He stopped and pointed to a crevasse nearby. Before continuing he explained what I must do if he fell in while attempting to bypass it. The scheming crevasse overheard our conversation. It lay in wait and sucked Steve down to his waist just as he thought the danger had past. I looped our connecting rope around my ice axe and plunged it hard into the snow and ice by my feet. I grazed my thigh quite badly with the sharp edge of my axe as I attempted this downward maneuver. This was something he warned me about. Again I was learning the hard way. Steve had stabilized himself and managed to climb out without great difficulty. This crevasse had special dietary requirements and after a quick sample it coughed up the unsavoury morsel on offer. It knew the main course was yet to be served. All it had to do was wait for the large body of the expedition to pass over. No doubt one dish would be to it's liking. I wondered who it would choose from between us.
Steve's urgency to displace himself from the potential death trap was all too apparent. It was the first time I had heard him raise his voice or swear. The seriousness of the situation was beyond doubt. I waited till he shouted for me to follow. As instructed I took a wide detour around the crevasse. To no avail as I also sank down to my waist in the outer reaches of the same fissure. I quickly climbed out, happy in the knowledge that I too was unappetizing in the eyes of cavern below. I swear I could hear the cavern secretly chuckle as it spat me out of it's demon den. Alan took an even wider detour and was spared the role of starter dish. Deep down I was taking notes. Mera was like a dormant volcano which had been woken from a deep slumber by noisy intruders. She had just opened her eyes and taken an instant dislike to her amateur tenants. An unmistakable warning shot had just passed our bows. Mera was at war.
We crept forward gingerly alert to the subterranean menace. Our pace had reduced considerably and we could see Collin's group nearby. They had witnessed our mishap and also slowed down accordingly. I hoped that those behind us were fairing better. We were a mere 250m from the summit as we joined up with Collin's group. I felt the pace and resumed the familiar technique of breathing heavily twice for every footstep. My chest infection did it's best to sabotage any progress. We were so close to the top, we were going to make it. All the previous pain and suffering meant something at long last. The sun beamed down on us celebrating our determination with lucid radiant energy.
Suddenly Steve directed his gaze in the opposite direction of the peak. He had sensed something that the rest of us had not. To my surprise, far way in the distance below was a speck moving towards us at speed. As the speck approached I began to distinguish muted yells above the wind's blasts. The speck moved closer and developed into a blob. A little later the speeding blob matured into a body. With the passage of more time the body grew discernible features such as limbs and a head. Much later, the body ripened into a recognizable face. The face belonged to Ampu and his large frame was unmistakable. We instantly deduced that an emergency had arisen below. Ampu had gambled his own safety by dashing uphill at speed. He was fully aware of the crevasses and the jeopardy they imposed. Ampu looked exhausted but kept waving his arms in warning as he advanced. He was still a great distance away but he now knew he held our collective attention. Curiously he began gesturing to us. I could not identify the hand signals because of the distance between us.
A terrible thought assailed me. Within the femtosecond of it's brief existence it had deposited a frightening idea in my mind. What if Ampu wanted us to turn back for some reason ? No he would not dare. Under no circumstances could he ask for the ultimate sacrifice. Surely not. We had struggled so long in extreme trekking conditions to reach this point here. We were only 250m from Mera's soul. Immortality beckoned above. I shut the nefarious thought out instantly. Too late, it had already registered and refused to die. Meanwhile Steve was starring hard at Ampu below. He was the first to recognize the hand signals. Our leader's pensive look spoke to me before any words escaped. To my horror and dismay I realized that my fleeting thought had escaped into the real world to hijack reality. It was true, we had to go back down the mountain. Chris, Allan and I looked at each other. Each of us was hoping for the other to declare that we could attempt the summit and then descend rapidly to help in the emergency below. However we knew the remaining 250m climb contained the steepest gradient. It would take us at least 2 hours to negotiate. By the time we had reached the emergency it would probably have been too late.
Mera had won. We silently screamed out our despair through defeated eyes. Thankfully we were still in one piece. Mera had not taken any of us prisoner of war. Despite having lost we could still hold our heads up high. Without the emergency below we knew we would have made the summit before bad weather moved in. Only 250m separated us from our dreams. It may as well have been a mile. Like ourselves Steve was also disappointed. However rather than deliberate how things may have been, he instantly ordered the retreat back down to help in the emergency below. We followed willingly knowing there were no options in this case. I recall giving Mera one last resentful glimpse before retreating. Just to annoy her I stuck my tongue out in childish defiance. She acknowledged my gesture without emotion. I instantly wondered if I had been foolish in my actions.
The pace downhill was frighteningly fast. Steve led, he was followed by Collin and I came behind with Allan at the rear. All of us were roped together. We flew down retracing our previous steps. However both Steve and Collin were familiar with this terrain. Allan and I were not. Many times I missed the footprint ahead and became bogged down in thick snow, shortly before being sharply jerked forward by the connecting rope between us. It was impossible to maintain a rhythm and the pain in my shins had suddenly escalated from the rough treatment. Both Allan and I found the going very difficult. At one point my harness slipped down from my waist. The prospect of falling down a crevasse without being attached to the connecting rope did not appeal. I was thankful for the break as I refastened the harness around my waist more tightly.
The sun bared it's bright teeth and beat down fiercely on us. The reflected heat from snow and ice accumulated under our skins. I was glad for another pit stop to remove our bulky down jackets. We continued on with the same sense of haste. Steve noticed a crevasse ahead. He cautiously went around and again fell in up to his waist. Collin faired no better. For my turn I took a much larger detour around the cleft. My goodbye tongue to Mera prevalent in my mind. I was not taking any chances. Scanning the surface for tell-tale signs of activity below, I moved slowly out. The ease with which I too fell in up to my waist was alarming. Perhaps I should have kept my tongue where it belonged. I struggled out and inched my tired body ever further around the gaping hole. Being on all fours my weight was evenly distributed on the surface. There was no way I could go down again. Just as the thought had sunk away, so did I. One minute I was crawling on the surface. The next minute I was up to my temples in the tight jaws of a yawning cathedral of a chasm. The speed with which this transition occurred was frightening. I was initially intoxicated by the myriad of subtle shifting tints of turquoise which enticed my eyes. These emanated from an infinite number of phantom diamond points glistening within the illusionary walls of the cavern. This demon dance of sublime alternating light textures held me captivate. The strange sensation of dangling from my harness made the whole experience unreal. My previous efforts combined with a heavy chest infection now left me exhausted. This new unfamiliar surrounding had purged my brain of the ability to focus clearly. Demons were toying with me once more. Again I had missed the warning signs and was unable to resist. With a detached air I slowly gazed down below me. To my lower left was a conical ice pit. This narrowed about 8 feet below me into a small opening. The opening was just wide enough for a foot to get lodged into with potentially horrific results after a fall. Beyond the small opening there was blackness. I wondered if the ice on this side was thick. Slowly I swung my head round the opposite way and observed the right side of the crevasse. I looked in wonder at the vacuous cavern below. The ice graduated from turquoise to navy to black in a bid to hide it's chilly secrets far below. I stared into the blackness for what seemed ages, defying it's occult occupants to reveal themselves. I resolved they must be hiding in wait. It was the only logical conclusion. Suddenly I was shocked back to reality. What on Earth was I doing. I was hanging below the mouth of a huge crevasse with only a rope preventing me from crashing down.
With this realization I struggled to raise myself. If anything my efforts had the reverse effect and I slipped down a little. Presumably my sudden movements surprised Steve and Collin above who held me in place by the rope. Luckily my backpack had wedged itself in the ice behind me due to my weight. That mere effort had tired me out. After a short while I tried again but the response was the same. Suddenly I heard Steve shouting. He had progressed to a closer safe distance of the crevasse while I was in a trance. He was yelling for me to get out, to get the f*****g hell out quickly. What did he think I was doing ? I did not need telling that this could develop into a very serious problem. However the intensity of his cry and my indignation was enough to encourage adrenaline to flow. This was just what I needed. I pushed my elbows into the narrow cavern walls about me and tried pushing myself up. Again Steve shouted. Did he think I was deaf, what was he playing at ? I became angry and wondered if he thought I was stupid. The extra adrenaline shoved tiredness aside for a few moments. I tried again and managed to raise myself a couple of inches with the aid of Steve and Collin pulling on the connecting rope. The effort had worn me out and I tried to stabilise myself. I could just see above the surface now. Again Steve shouted at me. This time I was incensed. The adrenaline tap was truly opened. My axe was still attached to my wrist by a cord. I grabbed it and swung at the ice above the surface to get a hold. Borrowed energy was flooding through my veins. I had nearly ten attempts before the edge of the axe caught slightly. This leaning position was enough to enable me to raise my left leg to make contact with the crevasse wall. The extra leverage this offered allowed me to push up at an angle with much greater force. After ten minutes of pure struggle I emerged back into the real world, feeling totally exhausted. I forced down some water and devoured a bar of chocolate. Before long the chocolate had began to work it's way into my system. I ate a couple more bars. Soon my arms and legs stopped shaking from the sheer physical exertion required to escape. With a little more time my mental faculties began to thaw. It then slowly dawned on me that Steve had used his considerable experience to goad me into direct action. He knew full well that his behavior would act as a stimulus upon me. The additional energy he triggered within me facilitated my escape from the ice pit. I never fully appreciated how cunning Steve was until that moment. In the small time we had known each other he had judged my character well. He knew how I would react in this situation. I thanked the gods for his army training. Something stirred in the back of my mind as I ruminated over these thoughts. The reverberations quickly magnified to earthquake proportions in my subconscious. Suddenly I remembered we were on a mission. The 'real' emergency still existed below.
We sped down and met up with the other groups by the first crevasse that Steve and I had originally fallen into. True to form it had claimed another victim as I had suspected. It's main dish turned out to be an Indian delicacy named Raj. By the time we arrived he had been digested for almost two hours. He had stopped responding to questions. Thankfully John had used his ski pole to anchor Raj in his uncertain position when the accident occurred. He also prevented Tony from becoming a victim to the crevasse as Raj's weight would have swallowed him too. The Sherpas had then constructed some makepiece roping to secure Raj against further slippage.
Steve instantly took charge and used our connecting rope to assist in retrieving Raj. He ordered each of us to take the rope and heave. It required the extra numbers and rope to facilitate Raj's rescue. Within ten minutes his head emerged. He was a well built lad and it was hard work to drag him up the 12 feet vertical distance to the surface. His hair was covered in tiny ice crystals lending him a gray-haired distinction. Raj was severely dazed. We dusted the snow and ice off him. It was obvious that the experience had exhausted him. We held him firmly as we slowly walked him back to the base camp. His lack of coordination reminded me of a newly born fawn taking its first few tentative steps in a new wilderness. At base camp we put Raj in the mess tent next to a fire. I removed his ice filled boots. He had complained before of cold feet. His toes looked slightly black. A sure sign that frostbite was setting in. The urgency was to stop any further damage. Joe fed Raj with antibiotics to stop any further damage. I forced him to down copious quantities of water and chocolates. After resting for a short while the priority became to get Raj down back to safety. The Sherpa crew were also eager to get down to a lower altitude. At this elevation everybody was uneasy. The camp was dismantled and the long haul back to Khare (5000m) began. Jane, Dorothy, Joe, Ampu, another Sherpa, Raj and I headed back behind the rest of the expedition members. Our pace was dictated by the speed Raj could accommodate. The demons made Raj tread treacle while we walked on snow. His energy reserves were very low and he could not communicate effectively or co-ordinate his movements with any great accuracy. For him it would be a very hard journey.
One of the diminutive Sherpas was called Mongma. He was a good looking, bright eyed, lad who spoke a little English and made friends quickly. Mongma walked closely behind Raj and held him firmly around the waist to prevent him from falling forward down steep inclines on the descent to Khare. I traveled directly in front of Raj. I think my role was to act as a final barrier if Raj did fall. During the downward journey I tried to coax Raj into eating and drinking as often as possible. Many times he would be on the verge of toppling before Mongma would tip him back. It had been a long, long day and it had taken it's toll on everyone.
I was greatly impressed by Raj's determination and will power to keep going. In such conditions I believe many would not have stood up with such pride. I was also touched by the aid and support the rest of this group gave to Raj in his lonely trek back to reality. During our hasty retreat from danger I noticed that the snow cover had decreased considerably. This made a travesty of our ascent where the going had been so difficult. The gods had one last rub of salt into our gaping mortal wounds. However I dared not retaliate back. We were all too tired and resigned to defeat. The prospect of a sudden avalanche, landslide or flash flood just did not bear thinking about. I had seen enough of goblins, demons and such like.
Many agonizing hours later we saw Khare in the distance ahead. A vision of beauty greeted our eyes as we approached camp. Our tents stood proudly erect. They waved us a warm welcome as they flapped happily in the chilly buffeting wind. That night we all slept like we had never slept before.
My tent partner Raj recovered well from the previous days ordeal. The condition of his toes did not deteriorate any further during the night. Today's destination was the likeable settlement of Tangnag (4356m). It involved another long haul with numerous valleys and ridges to tackle. The improving weather assisted us in making good progress. Raj was tired but coped with the route admirably. Many hours later we arrived in Tangnag and sank into our tents. The chance to rest our weary feet and to warm up was uppermost in our minds. A good deal of the earlier snow cover had now melted. The wind was cold. In the late afternoon we emerged from our cosy shelters and headed for the barren tea house. Light snow had begun to fall again. Flurries penetrated through the dilapidated roof of the flimsy building with regularity. At times this surreal sight resembled a fine lace curtain, hung from the ceiling, which billowed with the wind. I wondered what the exact purpose of the roof was. It did not matter, we were used to the raw conditions by now. Joe had the excellent idea of purchasing wood to burn for a fire. After the previous few days torture we deserved some luxuries. The heat warmed us through thoroughly for the first time in eons. We stayed there drinking bottled beer till supper was called.
The Sherpa cook was called Lidko. He was a spritely, mischievous soul with a sharp brain hidden behind his cheeky smile. He was very light on his feet and looked like a man of the world. One day I expect he will be either very wealthy or in prison. I am not absolutely sure which it will be. I suspect there was some friction between Lidko and Ampu over who was the more dominant figure. The cook has a very high place in Sherpa hierarchy. Perhaps too high in Ampu's mind. During the evening someone announced it was Raj's 18'th birthday. To our surprise Lidko produced a birthday cake following the meal. It was a marvelous gesture and a magnificent feat in these conditions. After dinner the Sherpas were in a jubilant party mood. They wished to celebrate the fact that no one had been seriously injured on the trip. Somehow the Sherpas had acquired copious quantities of a lethal local brew called Chang. Judging by the speed and quantity they consumed, I deduced they believed this was to be their last night on Earth. The innocuous looking drink resembled milk in color and texture. However the similarity ended there. The alcohol content was exceedingly high. Children, I do not recommend adding this to your cornflakes at breakfast ! The Sherpas sung and danced the night away. They performed with a spiritual zest for life which only hard working people from the land can manage with ease. The kerosene lamp continued to hiss. It failed miserably to adequately illuminate the cramped interior. Mysterious shadows licked the walls. They pranced and flickered to their own invisible tune. Some of the expedition members were enticed into this revelry of fun and merriment. Vibrations from this celebration of life echoed up through my boots to rock the table at which I perched. That evening was a wonderful release for all of us. We felt like triumphant soldiers returning after a heroic battle to a huge welcoming feast in our honor. After a long while I retired to my tent to write my diary. Song and laughter gently drifted away from the tea house to caress my ears. With my head torch on and my hand shaking I scribbled away. In the real world it was bitterly cold.
The weather had finished with it's fiendish plans to send us to our maker. Presumably because we had failed and were descending. I'm certain the climate was saving it's savage surprise for more unwary travelers who were ascending. It was a little chilly in the morning but I elected to wear shorts and trainers. Optimism was the name of the day. The cursed plastic boots were hurled into a corner. My shins felt swollen and I dared not look at them. Small comfort, the plasters were still in place. The days downhill trek was relaxed and leisurely. We arrived at our destination of Chorte after half a days walk. Everyone was in good spirits. We had passed through this same spot on the way up to Mera. Although then it had been under 2 feet of snow. The snow had all but melted along our route now. It lent a new freshness to the surroundings. I suspect today was what 'proper' trekking was all about !
Raj and I washed some clothes in the stream nearby. Ampu arrived singing and coughing. His presence overflowed the tent site. He resembled an experienced, if slightly aged, mountain lion. His wicked giggle reminiscent of a schoolboy prefect exercising his authority over younger dumbstruck pupils. Ampu instructed nearby Sherpas on the numerous activities to be performed. He had the air of a Commander in Chief instructing his generals during battle.
After dinner Collin remarked how curious it was that there we no permanent male residents in the group of dwellings to one corner of our camp ground. They were permanently resided by women only. Though men came and left with frequency. My damp clothes slowly dried by an open wood fire during the late evening and night. I kept one eye on my clothes and another on the dwellings close by. Throughout my vigil I observed the same repetitive pattern developing. Men COMING and going. This procedure began to fascinate me. Then suddenly it struck me as to what Collin was implying. My naiveté was swept aside when I realized the situation. We were in the esteemed presence of women who practiced, with much regularity, the world's oldest occupation. I'm sure Margaret Thatcher would be proud of their free market economic policies of capitalizing on their basic assets. By 11:30 PM my clothes were damp free but not smoke free. As I entered my tent I heard a familiar wicked giggle. It made it's way from the notorious dwellings over to the Sherpa tents, in the dark. I grinned and fell asleep.
Day 17 - World's most tedious day
The morning woke to a bad mood. It was cold. The porters hurried us to pack and have breakfast. They were eager to return to civilization and see their families. I did not appreciate their rush. My stomach had deteriorated overnight. Even worse, we were warned to wear those plastic infernal instruments of torture on our feet again. The start of the days trek was chilly and I struggled to keep warm. Eventually we climbed high enough in the steep valley to catch the sun's warming rays. Jed had developed a chest infection and was taking it easy. We chatted and Joe kept close by in case antibiotics were required.
The climb was persistently steep and showed no sign of abating. My stomach kept complaining. Eventually after an hour of grumbling it shouted 'Drop your pants big boy........ and quick !' I did not need telling twice and discreetly found a sheltered alcove. After giving birth to the contents of my rebellious stomach I joined the rest of the group and we continued trekking uphill. The fierce gradient inflicted pain on everyone's legs. The slope was relentless and we all suffered from fierce aches. Whenever we came to a flat section our spirits would rise. Only to be smashed as we rounded the corner to see virgin incline yet to be scaled. The route developed into a monotonous uphill struggle. With no marvellous unknown destination ahead our heads all began to sag. This was taken as weakness by the elements. Suddenly a drizzly mist decided it had been absent from our lives for long enough. It swayed in with the arrogance of a monsoon with a misspent youth. The conditions fluctuated continually from chilly to damp. Accordingly we put layers of clothing on, only to remove them shortly later. This process slowly began to wear us down. During this war of attrition I began questioning why I was punishing myself in this way. What was the point of all this ? Surely I could have spent my holiday fortune on less fatiguing exploits. I later discovered that everyone felt the same way. I was not alone in my thoughts.
We were all hungry and devoured lunch when it arrived. With replenished energy levels we reached the top of the last steep incline. We had escaped from the valley of despair. Jane too was suffering from a bad chest infection now. She found the exhausting uphill toil very demanding; we all did. I chatted with her to lift her spirits. Joe decided antibiotics were needed. As we cleared the steep valley the snow began to fall lightly. Up here there was still considerable snow lying on the ground. The plastic boots came into their own again. After a few hours ploughing through snow I spotted our tents in the distance. There was something dreadfully familiar about the sight. I could not quite put my finger on it. As we rounded another corner it all became clear me. In front of me was a large black rock. Not just any rock. It was the damned 'ROCK'. It grinned at me with rotten black teeth. I only wish I had some dynamite to hand with which to silence it's smirk for all eternity. We had struggled all day to arrive here of all places. I laughed out aloud. An insane, involuntary laugh which was totally inappropriate. I did not care any more. Jane was slightly taken aback by my response. However she understood it's significance.
Everybody eat fully at dinner. The day had left us all tired. Allan and Joe versed their entire repertoire of humorous anecdotes, much to our pleasure. Again a surprise was in store. It was Tony's birthday and Lidko had cooked another cake. We ate a piece each and retired to our tents happy. In the distance I spotted the 'ROCK' bare it's black fangs once more as it sneered at me. How dare it, after what I had been through. In disgust I flung a large stone towards the 'ROCK' with all my strength, totally oblivious to the Sherpas who were camped below it. The 'ROCK' widened it's jaws and roared with laughter at my foolishness. It had won again. In the commotion which followed I quietly crept under canvas and pretended to sleep.
The night had been remarkably mild. Perhaps we were better acclimatized to the conditions. We climbed steadily out of the lair of the damned 'ROCK'. The thought of finally escaping from this location filled us all with joy. I glanced back ruefully at the cursed monolithic monument dedicated to despair. It was my most sincere wish never to set eyes on it again. With much restraint I overcame an intense desire to make an unsavory parting gesture. Recent history had left it's mark on me.
Today's hike was through snow and we needed our plastic boots once more. The journey was fatiguing but lacked the repetitiveness of the previous day's toil. Mist hung low to annoy us. We were getting closer to Lukla buy the hour. There lay salvation and our passage back to normality. Closer to home, our immediate goal was the Zatrwala Pass (4400m). Snow had started to fall in small flurries again. The closer we approached the magnificent pass the heavier the snow fall. At one point we observed a large black bag taking to the air as it cascaded down the pass. It earned a perfect 10 for achieving every level of difficulty known to gymnastics as it thundered it's way down the incredibly steep gradient. The porter responsible for this 'accident' was later thoroughly chastised. In his tatty boots I would probably have done the same thing too. I do not think Raj was too impressed. It was his rucksack. Again fortune had decided not to smile on the poor fellow.
The pass itself was precariously steep. Guiding ropes were set down by the Sherpas to help in our descent. Thick snow was not deemed an adequate deterrent against slippage and potentially serious falls. Collin led and I followed with Allan and Sandy immediately behind. The remainder of the group were in close proximity. We flew down the hazardous gradient. We let our momentum guide us down rather than take accurately steps. Previous experience had now taught us to be proficient in this environment. The downhill dash was about 200m long and it was most exhilarating.
Beyond the pass the landscape began to shed some of it's grandeur. The magnificent views we had taken for granted for so long were now becoming merely a fond memory. I felt a pang of remorse at having to leave such awesome beauty behind. There was no guarantee I could ever afford to return to such a visual paradise. However pain and suffering were still firmly etched in my mind. As we continued down the pace became more relaxed. I decided to take things more slowly and to savor the last real day of trekking. Joe and I had a long conversation about medical issues. As the afternoon progressed dank mist began to infiltrate the panorama. The air temperature increased and we knew we were close to home. I tagged on to Jane and we chatted about our experiences.
At one point we came across a wide, swiftly flowing, stream. I chose to cross via a crudely fashioned footbridge. This consisted of a series of damp, narrow, planks loosely fastened together. The structure swayed as I stepped on. The slippery surface of the footbridge was almost as narrow as the wooden beam used in gymnastics. This did not strike me as being a good idea. However I did not want to appear a coward in front of Jane. After all I had my fearless reputation as 'The Houdini Of Crevasses' to uphold. No I was a veritable hero. Indeed I would challenge this insurmountable obstacle even if it meant certain death. As I spoke the bridge shuddered again. Ampu stood on the far bank and grinned with anticipation. Meanwhile Jane had used the rocks in the stream below to purchase a foothold for crossing over. Midway across I heard Jane's whimper below. She was unbalanced on the wet rocks and in danger of slipping in to the gushing stream. I attempted to turn around and help. Unfortunately my actions caused the bridge to tremble violently. In desperation I swung my arms around in wild exaggerated circles to maintain balance. Phew, that was too close ! I was still facing the wrong way on this slimy wooden trampoline. No matter how hard I tried turning the maneuver always left me in a dangerous position. Thankfully Ampu stepped in to save Jane from peril. The mountain lion was reliable as ever. Now that the emergency was over I composed myself and cautiously limped along the grease pole. As soon as I was within jumping distance of the opposite bank, I leapt. The landing was successful and my knees flexed under the heavy impact. I docked with terra firma mere centimeters from the edge of the bank. Ampu laughed with a mighty roar. His eyes ablaze with intense delight at the live circus tightrope performance on display. I rose with a grin from ear to ear. No doubt he was thoroughly impressed by my manhood. Living in a delusionary state often has its advantages.
Within minutes we approached a second speeding stream. This time we both decided to use the footbridge. I lead holding Jane's hand behind my back. She followed closely behind. Her eyes glued to my back, fearful of looking down. We slowly edged along the planks and negotiated the hurdle with ease. Meanwhile Ampu had loomed off into the distance and was out of sight. With no one ahead we were uncertain of the exact route to our destination. Choosing the wrong path could lead to a lengthy delay in reaching Lukla. With much hesitation we continued down, selecting tracks almost at random. Thoughts flooded back of the film 'The Wizard of Oz'. I wondered if Frank Baum would liken Jane to Dorothy's role. Judging by my body odor and unkempt appearance, befitting that of a mountain man, Toto's part seemed more appropriate. A short while later we both realized that somehow we had indeed detoured from the elusive 'Yellow Brick Road'. After a considerable time spent wandering in limbo we suddenly heard Ampu's voice hailing us in the distance. His beacon of sound directed us to the correct path. We were grateful for his intervention. The mist had descended fully now and darkness was following in close pursuit.
The mist overflowed into a warm drizzle. Drizzle gushed into a heavy downpour. It was time for the waterproofs again. Having paid so much for my equipment I was happy to have the opportunity to use it. It only took 20 minutes to join up with the other expedition members. They were in jubilant mood. We were obviously close to the Emerald City and there were no Munchkins in sight. The group cheered at our approach and mockingly insinuated that Jane and I were having an illicit relationship in the hills. We both turned red as beetroots and denied all charges strenuously.
During the walk into Lukla the downpour reverted back to light drizzle. I asked Jane to take a photograph of Ampu and myself on the outskirts of the village. I recall gazing fondly at Lukla with much affinity. Lukla was the essence of hope, a gateway to luxury. She was the last port of call and a safe haven. Arriving here meant no more struggle. No more fighting against the elements. She embodied everything civilized. A far departure from my thoughts on first arriving here. That seemed such a long time ago. We were different people then. As we strode into her warm heart a reassuring sense of familiarity overswept me. I was overjoyed we had all made it back in one piece. Once upon a time our adventure began here. Appropriately it was now ending here.
We headed straight for the largest tea house open. An intoxicating libation was top of the list to celebrate our safe arrival. The skies honored our return with an altogether different deluge. Heaven's floodgates were truly opened. Torrents of rain descended with unabashed fury. We rejoiced in the cozy warmth of the quaint timber structured tea house drinking bottled beer and reliving our exploits. All the previous pain and anguish instantly forgotten, like waking from a bad dream. The ground crew meanwhile had the unenviable task of erecting our tents in these foul, sodden, conditions. I felt remorse for not having somehow helped the crew more during the trip. The thought quickly passed as brain cells surrendered under the alcoholic onslaught.
During the evening we dined and drank even more. We related our experiences to any stranger who did not have anything better to do. There were plenty of strangers in town. The Sherpas put on a wonderful dancing display for us after the food was consumed. They were joined by Jane, Dorothy, Collin and Steve who by now were dab hands at improvised capers on the dance floor. The fun really began when the Sherpas invited our group to sing traditional British songs. The expedition members recited every lyric from every song imaginable. Unfortunately nobody actually knew all the words to any single song. We soon deteriorated into a drunken unholy cacophony of noise emanating audible discord in all directions. Luckily there were no representatives of Amnesty International present or we could have been in trouble. However the odd cat and dog did join in with backing vocals.
The Sherpas saw us for the incompetent fools we truly were. Although I suspect they had already come to that conclusion long ago. Our feeble attempts of symphonic spontaneity soon faded into obscurity. The Sherpas then decided to show us how it should be done. Their communal voices combined to form one vibrant harmonious entity. They sang with deep conviction. Their simple joy for life radiated from their bright eyes louder than any song. They were so generous in their exultation that we soon joined in with their lyrics. Non of us understood a single word we sang. It did not matter. More alcohol flowed. I greedily finished my second pint of Chang and coolly remarked that the alcohol was having no effect. I rose to go outside for a pee which was long overdue. The rhythmic swaying of the floorboards did nothing to aid my erratic path towards bladder heaven. Somehow my legs had lost the ability to follow a straight line. Perhaps the tea house had been washed to sea by a flash flood during our celebrations. I deduced this would be consistent with the wave motion swell of the floor. Luckily I compensated for my lack of sea legs by ricocheting off every sharp corner between our table and the door. It obviously had nothing to do with the minuscule volume of Chang I had sampled. When I reached the outside world I was disappointed to see the mirage of dry land. I rushed to the nearest dark corner. The floodgates to my bladder were then unleashed. It amazes me how such simple acts can produce so much bliss. My return path to the tea house was every bit as erratic. Pure coincidence no doubt.
This procedure was repeated several times during the night. Finally we had all drunk enough and decided to head for our tents. Raj was as sober as I was. It was later claimed that we were the source of considerable noise as we steered towards our tent. I deny everything. All I can recall is having a sizable pee outside my tent. Somebody rushed by in the dark to take a very quick photograph of me, as nature took it's rather lengthy course. I suspect that Allan or Sandy were the likely culprits. Apparently it was still pouring down with rain. Both Raj and I were oblivious to the elements by then. We crashed into our sleeping bags and slurred about things that guys slur about when they are inebriated in the middle of the night. I am sure it must have been very important at the time. We slept soundly through the remainder of the night.
This was our last day in the mountains. Tomorrow we would fly back to Kathmandu. The day started late for most of us. Raj and I received some curious looks and a few giggles flew our way. Apparently we had woken up a Danish group camped next to us during the night. In annoyance they woke up especially early this morning and purposely made a clatter in the early hours. How thoughtless. After breakfast Steve organized the porter's pay-off. This resembled an army ceremony with Steve presiding as general. Ampu looked on at a distance to see his troops received their fair share. We all donated items of equipment which we no longer required. Steve put aside the best items solely for the use of the Sherpas and top kitchen boys. The class system was blatantly in evidence once more. I saved my head cap for one young porter who always worked hard. He owned a serious little face and had lost his youth somewhere in the hills. He was only a child. I placed the cap on his head and his eyes lit up with gratitude. I thought he would appreciate my present and I was willing to make the enormous sacrifice. My generosity knew no bounds. Allan commented on how nice a gesture it was to hand him my favorite cap. I was happy with the world again.
There was plenty of time before lunch to wander around. We each spilt into groups and generally just walked about sampling the simple village life on offer. I came across a band of young boys with a catapult. They were aiming at a large, thin, tin plated sign situated on top of a pole. One pretended to aim at me. I pretended to look afraid but he could see through my disguise. The cheeky youngster had red cheeks, a runny nose and holes in his fake American trainers. He smiled with a profound innocence only children are capable of. His smile melted the adult in me and I joined in the fun. The challenge was to hit the sign. Each of the boys was adept at such skills and unerringly hit the target about it's center. For my turn I pretended to have bad hand spasms. The children burst out laughing. Before the cries of joy had ceased I pulled back the elastic, aimed and fired in one motion. To my astonishment the stone leapt at the sign as if magnetized. The impact made a distinctive clanging noise. I was triumphant. I leapt with delight and sang out my own praises. The grown ups I was traveling with noticed the commotion and joined in the hullabaloo. I gave my apologies to the young boys and retired with a perfect score.
The expedition members all met up for lunch shortly later. We relaxed in each others company and enjoyed the meal. Helicopters and Twin Otters resumed their familiar routine as we ate. Following lunch we ambled along in small groups. Now that the adventure had finished I was suffering from a lack of purpose. I did not know what to do. I strolled along the narrow dirty main street once more. The boys with the catapult had disappeared. Everything else was as it was before. After aimlessly wandering around dusty shop fronts I headed for my tent. It was time to fill in my diary again. On the way back I saw the serious faced young boy to whom I had given my best cap. To my surprise he was wearing another one in it's place. My pride and joy had been swapped for a fake American baseball cap. Is there no justice in the world ? I retreated to my tent and contemplated the meaning of life. After a while the light began to fade. Soon dinner was called. The evening followed a similar pattern to the previous night.
Today was the last day of 'real' Nepal. Steve hosted the same pay-off ceremony for the Sherpas. Lidko grabbed my imitation American daysack which I purchased inexpensively in Kathmandu. Ampu's son chose my old canvas and leather trekking shoes. All the donated gifts were quickly snapped up. The usual group photographs followed.
After breakfast we had a little time before our flight back to Kathmandu. I was becoming more despondent at the thought of heading back. The noise, pollution and filth of the capital did not appeal. Here the air was precious. The views in every direction whet the appetite. There was a timeless quality to Lukla that was hard to sacrifice. We all packed our equipment away into our rucksacks. Departure was in 1 hour's time. I was eager to savor the ambiance just one last time. I grabbed my camera and hastened down the grimy main street. I was greeted by the familiar sight of traders steering laden yaks. At least I think they were yaks. Someone said they were a cross between a yak and other cattle. Who was I to argue ? Whenever one came across these animals it was a wise precaution to keep a good distance between them and yourself. They had a notorious reputation for goring passers-by or even their handlers with shocking regularity. The one ahead of me was eyeing me up carefully. I did not give it the chance to impale me as I dived into a dark shop front for cover. The shop owner was alarmed by my sudden action. He rapidly swung his eyes to the open door and scanned the scene outside. He smiled in my direction with a knowing nod of his head. I grinned back in recognition.
With the danger past I returned to the brightness outside once more. The sun was smiling down on Lukla. I followed the familiar route down the main street. After 5 minutes I had passed through the village. I emerged at the other end and followed a path to an unknown destination. After 10 minutes walk I stopped to search for a flower or two for pressing in my diary, as a token of Lukla. I went off the path for a short while and selected some promising specimens. The air was still and I let a little time pass as I watched brightly colored birds flit from tree to tree. A magnolia tree was in full bloom below me in the distance. Two large dragon-flies weaved about erratically. They proudly displayed numerous rainbow tints whilst exhibiting insane flying skills. The location was ideal for any amateur voyeur. Time stood still. Much later I casually glanced at my watch. Suddenly time had accelerated to warp speed. I returned back to the path with haste.
On the path I was surprised to meet a German couple who I had encountered at the beginning of our trek. The tall young man could not disguise his typically Germanic features. He was slightly gruff in manner unlike his female companion. She was tenderness personified. Whenever we had chatted before she was the one who had communicated freely. Her fine features were darker than her Aryan colleague's. Her smile was delightful and those beautiful blue eyes sparkled as we talked. He looked irritatingly down at the ground and shuffled his feet in agitation. I found her company very enjoyable. Both she and her partner had attempted to climb Mera with a few hired Sherpas. However like our expedition they were doomed to failure. We had a common talking point much to the annoyance of her travel partner. After 15 minutes of enjoyable banter he decided enough was enough. He stormed off abruptly up the path heading to a new future. This left the poor girl with no option but to follow. Smiling at me apologetically she shrugged her shoulders as if to say 'what a total jerk !' Her smile disguised a resigned look of subservience. She was betrayed by her eyes which spoke loudly to me in the quiet of the day. It saddened my heart to think that such a sweet person had been snared by such a sour soul. I bid her a fond farewell and started back towards the village. After a few seconds I turned around, just in time to see her doing exactly the same. We waved heartily to each other for a few more precious seconds before heading towards our own destinies.
Back in Lukla we went through the usual informal airport formalities and headed for the airstrip. Some of us had walked the full length of the strip the previous day. We were disappointed that one end was not a sheer precipice as we had imagined on the plane as we entered Lukla. In fact a fence had been constructed to prevent fools like us from investigating any further. There was a gentle incline for many yards before a sheer drop presented itself on the opposite side of the barrier. In contrast to our inbound airplane flight our return trip was by helicopter. I had never flown on one before and was very excited at the prospect. The middle section of the helicopter was used to store luggage. We presented our boarding passes and proceeded to sit in little metal bucket seats. These were situated in two rows which faced each other along either wall of the craft. We strapped ourselves in and grinned at each another above the luggage between us. The engine roared into life and the rotors were gradually coaxed into circular motion by the experienced Russian pilot. The deafening whine increased in pitch as the rotors picked up speed. The whole helicopter began vibrating with unstoppable power. Then we were off into the air. It was an unmissable experience. I quickly glanced out the window to see if I could spot the German girl in the countryside below. I did not.
Inside the whirlybird it was very humid and warm. The noise and vibration permeated everything and everyone. The unsavory smell of diesel was always present. The journey back seemed to last forever. We all nodded off at some stage only to be shocked back into warm suffocating air by irregular vibrations or turbulent air. Gradually I became accustomed to the noise and learnt to ignore it. After an infinity of time in the air we recognized the outskirts of Kathmandu. We were close to real civilization once again. Our landing signified the end of our experience in the mountains. We descended like adventurous giants who had seen and done everything that life had to offer. We were Colossals in our own minds. Somehow even though we had failed to climb Mera I felt a great sense of accomplishment. After passing through the usual formalities we boarded our coach back to our hotel. It was very warm and bright in the streets of Kathmandu.
During the worse parts of our trek we had often joked one day we would return to our hotel, order our favorite meal and drink beer in the warm sun. The time for that dream had arrived. The order was given for 11 'Club Sandwiches'. This was a house specialty and very filling. We savored every delicious hard earned mouthful. The beer flowed freely as we basked in the heat. After satiating ourselves it was time for shopping. The urgency was now to find presents quickly as we would leave Nepal the following day very early. Collin, Jane and I took a taxi into the shopping quarter of Kathmandu. In Thamel we split up and did as much shopping as we could manage. We met up later at a predetermined spot to compare results. Both Jane and Collin had everything they needed and headed back. I stayed for a further hour searching for a few more precious gifts. Eventually I was satisfied and jumped into a taxi for the short 15 minute drive back to the hotel. I did not want to be late as the expedition members were having a meal at a restaurant later.
In my ignorance I had overlooked the fact that today was a religious festival. Within seconds of entering the vehicle a dozen policemen rushed past our car. They damaged the side mirror in an attempt to clear the road of all obstacles. A huge procession had suddenly materialized ahead and was heading down the road towards us. The implications of this were clear. I could get out and try walking back. Or I could stay in the taxi and wait till the cavalcade passed. My tired legs spoke the loudest and my weary brain listened. I stayed put. The parade slowly idled forward. People thronged around in religious ecstasy. Many people's eyes were oblivious to their surroundings. Everyone was staring in hope at a young child wearing a brightly colored robe. This single boy was the focus of the religious frenzy. His face was covered in paint and flowers festooned his pedestal. He was being transported on a high platform and was carried by devotees. A highly decorative picture depicting people undergoing holy experiences was precariously hung on a fragile altar behind his turbaned head. The fervour of the massing throng was apparent. As the center attraction passed by I looked the boy in the eye. His eyes met mine and we scanned each other as he passed by. I smiled but got no response.
I looked ahead and was stunned by the mass of people who had gathered. A wall of faces and a flood of expressions stared back. The narrow street was plush with bodies. People squeezed to get through but were lost in the multitude. There was no way we could pass through this crowd. The number of car horns and over-revved engines behind us dictated that we must somehow attempt to make some progress. My taxi inched forward into the horde. Within minutes the road was gridlocked with a million eyes. I could not get out even if I wanted to now. Tempers flared in the oppressive heavy air, laden with equal measures of humidity and religious frenzy. For the next hour no vehicle moved. Faces were pressed hard to the windows of my cab as space was squeezed from the road. A truck tried reversing and only succeeded in knocking a stationary cycle over. It's owner stood by and complained. The crowd turned on the driver. He cowered in his vehicle as the insults hurled past his dirty windows. People climbed over car bonnets in a bid to follow the procession. Pedestrians scrambled over any obstacle without hesitation to get closer to the altar. Some climbed up drainpipes to get a better view. Surprisingly no one was injured in the stampede. There was order within the apparent chaos. Here the priority was for human life. The car was not given pride of place, people were.
Another half an hour passed with the same cycle of events. Slowly the masses began to thin. Vehicles began to inch forward slowly. Then suddenly the procession came to an end. It was without warning and I was unprepared. The taxi driver shot forward past a junction where a cart was emerging. There was no collision but we came so close I could smell the animal pulling the load. The driver was attempting to make up for lost time. He sped along on worn tires skidding wildly around bends. I gripped the dashboard with some determination. Two hours after first stepping into the cab we finally reached our destination. I tipped the driver a considerable some of money. He had earned it. The meal that evening was good. We celebrated in style as the restaurant had one of the few proper flush toilets in Kathmandu. After the feast I rushed to pack my belongings. Raj had already done his and was fast asleep. Somehow this all seemed so familiar. The following morning we left early for the airport. Our destination was a world away.
The distinction between a trek and an expedition was later brought to my attention. In the latter one is totally self-sufficient and dependent upon one's own ability to deal with exacting circumstances as they arise. An important distinction when one is above 6000m.
None of us could have expected or imagined the extreme conditions that the heavens were to unleash upon us. One could not blame us for thinking that in some past life we had all committed grave offenses against the gods and cunningly we were now being punished for our previous misdemeanors. Strange how these thoughts feel totally alien now that I am safe and sound back in Britain. However in the midst of despair, high on a cold icy mountain, surrounded by Buddhist temples all possibilities assume the mantle of reality. Cynics may claim such thoughts of reincarnation and divine retribution were purely a consequence of the altitude, of being a little 'light-headed'. For my part I could not possibly comment, one never knows who is listening !
All I shall say is that each of us undertook our own baptism of fire somewhere on the mountain. The experience touched us each in a very personal and distinctive way. A transformation did take place for me on the icy slopes of Mera Peak. Not so much a phoenix from the flames scenario. More of a gradual metamorphosis from ignorant, wealthy, care-free western tourist to a human being who saw the sanctity and simplicity that life has to offer. A rare gift, one to be cherished and reflected upon for the rest of my life.
Written by Bal Sanghera