Small bears with big brown floppy hats! This thought crossed my mind as I walked down the street. I looked around but there was not one bear to be seen. It was 5.30am which I fancied was to early even for bears. Reaching the tube station, I discovered that I was on the wrong side of the road. I boarded the tube on the Paddington – Heathrow line and sitting with my haversack I studied the London Underground map and confirmed to myself that this was definitely the correct train. After two stations I had confirmed without doubt that this was a different line altogether. I deduced that it was the train which was on the wrong line rather than me on the wrong train. An old lady sitting next to me said that this was a bit confusing. I agreed, happy now that I wasn’t the only person experiencing mild panic.
Stage One: India.
It was gone midnight when we reached Delhi and after the relief of finding our luggage we went to the airport Prepaid Taxi Booth, where we paid for a taxi to the hostel. Leaving the terminal we were met with a barrage of taxi drivers all claiming to be our prepaid taxi. After a few chaotic and confused minutes we located our taximan! My initial impression of Delhi was to get out of it – quickly. Even buying a meal in one recommended Indian restaurant involved the following – order drink and pay at one counter, bring slip to second counter and collect Pepsi, go upstairs to third counter and pay for food, bring slip to fourth counter and collect all but one part of order, go to fifth counter and collect last of order. The next time we went to Wimpy.
Agra was much nicer, even though my autorickshaw driver brought me to a totally different hotel to the one I asked for. I enquired about the reason for his navigational error and he explained that there had been a big riot at my hotel, that it lay in ruins and that the police had sealed off the whole area. I explained that my name was Bond, James Bond and that I was a Good Walker and had been on many missions and that I’d prefer to stroll to the Taj Mahal after all. Five minutes later my driver had found the hotel just outside the Taj Mahal and it appeared to have recovered from the big riot very well! Varanassi, the Holy City was my next train ride on an overnight sleeper. The boat trip down the Holy Ganges River to see the Ghats at sunrise when pilgrims came to bathe was interesting, if not a little crowded as there appeared to be more pilgrims in boats then there were pilgrims bathing.
Stage Two: Nepal
The bus trip to Kathmandu (KTM) took two days and the journey from the Nepal Border to Kathmandu was so scenic that I enjoyed every minute of it and for an eight hour journey that’s saying something. I met Ollie and Maria at a pre-arranged place for a meal. They had been in KTM for five days as they had flown directly from Delhi. They appeared well but were excited about something and within two minutes they were explaining about a climbing course and expedition to Imja Tse (Island Peak) at 6189m or 20305ft. What did I think about it? After considering all the factors carefully: the cost, equipment needed, altitude, how crazy it was and my total lack of experience with ice axe and crampons, I agreed to the plan in about 30 seconds.
The Bus from Hell
Two days later we boarded The Bus from Hell to Jiri which was the beginning of the trek. For a start 3 people could not physically fit into the 3 seats allocated to us by our tickets and because of the laws of space, time, volume and quantum physics our laden haversacks were definitely not going to fit as well. Something just had to go, so I lay down and relaxed in the aisle. Soon however the bus from hell ground to a halt behind a line of buses, trucks and jeeps all happily grounding and halting. We had reached the Bridge from hell! It was 10.00am and a protest had just started blocking all traffic from crossing. It couldn’t last too long could it? Six hours later Ollie was making chicken noises at a passing hen much to the amusement of the local children. I had just bought some bananas and encouraged Ollie to eat some, hoping that this would distract her from the chicken antics.
The Riot Police finally arrived complete with their bamboo vests and before long we were moving again. At 4.00pm we moved off while a guy with two barrels of kerosene jumped on and started smoking. The bus wound it’s way in the dark around a particular steep section of the hill and on reaching the top it tipped to one side with a jolt. It took a minute or two to realise what had happened and why all the local Nepalese people were jumping off the bus. The bus had slipped off the road into a dyke and was now balance precariously neither fully on the road or fully in the dyke. Much pushing ensued and eventually the bus was on the road again. We were relieved to reach Jiri and after sixteen hours (for a 6 hour trip) we were glad to get off. As the driver swung around in his seat to say goodbye I’m sure I saw two hooves on the pedals.
Finally we were on the trek, we passed over Lamjura Pass, Thrakshind La Pars, forests, valleys and eventually we got our first glimpses of the Himalayas. Ollie tried to teach me “Ride On” by Christy Moore on the tin whistle on one of our “short” days but no matter how hard I tried, I seemed to lose it completely half way through the tune, causing the yaks in the field beside the lodge to stampede.
Our Little Friends
After crossing the Dudh Kosi by means of a suspension bridge we were attacked by the dreaded leeches which attached themselves with vigour to various parts of our anatomy. Feet were top of the menu, followed closely by the hands and the back. On reaching the village at Khari Khola we discovered just how many of our little bloodsucking parasitic friends had accompanied us on the trek to the village. We burned them off one by one but not before we gave them all names, none off which I feel I can repeat here.
Nine days had passed on the Trek before we reached Namache which is a large Sherpa village. It was necessary to stay here for two nights to aid acclimatisation but on leaving Namache the views just got better and better. Everest, Naptse, Lhotse and Amadablam were just a few of the mountains that could be seen. After a few more days of fabulous walking and having visited the famous Tangboche Buddist Monastery on the way, we arrived at Dingboche. Before climbing to Pheriche at 4280m, the Himalayan Rescue association have a post staffed by volunteer doctors who give lectures on altitude sickness and its treatment. We spent another two days there before going to Tuggla Boom which is higher but we had kept well within the recommended rate of ascent. However the following morning, Ollie woke up feeling not at all well and so we decided to go back down to Dingboche which was 300m lower and we would take a rest day the following day.
We met a HRA Doctor at Dingboche who said that we had done the right thing and that if there was any worsening of Ollie’s condition that we should go lower again. At 2.30am that morning footsteps approached the door and there was a series of rapid knocks. Ollie’s breathing had become very bad but there was nothing to do only drop down. About twenty minutes later with headtorches on we left Dingboche for the four hour descent to Pangboche. The trail wound around the edge of spurs and along the valley with many exposed drops which anyone in a weakened condition should not really have been travelling but we had no choice. We arrived at Pangboche at about 6.00am and we got a room and some breakfast. That night Ollie’s condition deteriorated again suddenly and we barely slept all night. Maria with Ollie wrote a note to the doctors in Pheriche explaining what had happened and the action we had taken. Within an hour of receiving the note, 3 doctors had arrived at the lodge and after chatting with Ollie they were satisfied that her condition was High Altitude Pulmonary Odema. If we had not made that walk down at 2.30am the previous morning, Ollie may not have been able to make the walk. The doctors were impressed by the acclimatisation programme we had taken and by our well timed pace but unfortunately they could do no more for Ollie except to order her to rest and recuperate. They warned her not to go higher and to take it easy going back to Namache. Ollwyn’s and Maria’s Island Peak expedition was over.
It was over a 3000 ft. climb to Chukhung Village, where I was to meet Phil from Scotland, the instructor on the climbing course. He was an ML, Winter ML and Mountain Instructor Award Holder! Very impressive credentials. I explained what had happened to Olwyn. He understood fully saying that he had not had a full course yet due to altitude problems! The following day we made the Acclimatisation climb to Chuckhung Ri at 18,238 ft. (5559 m). The top section of the climb was over rough rocky ground to the summit. The views were brilliant with the massive Nuptse-Lhotse Wall right in front of me, Island Peak, Malalu and Ama Dabcam across the valley! The rest of the day we spent going over rope work, knots, belays, prussiks and I got my climbing equipment for the trek to base camp tomorrow. The walk to base camp 5100m followed a hidden valley, before crossing to the lower slope of Island Peak, across a dry lake bed to finally reach the campsite. Here we practised crevasse rescue techniques, ice axe and crampon use. The following day after lunch we made the climb to high camp at 5700m, the views were spectacular. After erecting the Wild Country Mountain Quasar Tent we went in search of water which involved a thirty minute climb to the base of a glacier to find a stream. After some food and a game of cards I set the alarm for 4.30 am next morning – summit day! By 5.30 am we were walking up the side of a gully, avoiding actually going in to it. After 15 minutes, we crossed the gully and continued around an exposed rocky spur before climbing zig-zag up to the snowline. Stopping we put on harness, crampons, helmet and roped up for the glacier crossing. Winding our way over the glacier past crevasses we eventually reached the bergshrund and the “Wall”.
The Summit Bagged
Phil had told about this 300m more or less vertical wall of snow and ice to the summit ridge. As it turned out I quite enjoyed the climb and before I knew it we were on the ridge! The last section involved a winding ridge walk twisting left and right up and down. We stopped halfway along the ridge at one section which was particularly exposed involving a climb to a false summit. I belayed Phil, who in turn belayed me up the section. From here I could see the summit, the route ahead was along a narrow winding ridge to what looking a very sharp summit. Ten minutes later I was there at 20305 ft, the Himalayas stretched out all around me. In my right hand I held a bear which in turn held our specially made national flag. I knelt down and tried to take in the awesome scenery around me. I was ecstatic – a dream come true, a Himalayan peak.
“All men dream: But not equally.
Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds
wake in the day to find it was vanity:
But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men,
for they may act their dreams with open eyes,
to make it possible”.
T.E. Lawrence – The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
(From the book, “Touching the Void” – Joe Simpson)
Meanwhile Ollie and Maria were making their way back to Namche and had stopped at Tangboche for some lunch. They got talking to a chap who pointed out various mountains to them. He detailed how to climb them, where the camps would be, and how this was his 35th time in Nepal after many expeditions. Maria asked this obviously very knowledgeable climber “Did you ever attempt Everest!! To which the gentleman replied..”Oh yes I climbed it with a guy called Messner! His own name was Peter Habeler who along with Reinhold Messner in 1978 had made the first successful attempt of Everest without oxygen.
The Rules of the Road
Back in Kathmandu after a one hour helicopter ride from Lukka, I met up with Olwyn and Maria at our little hotel called Moms Place. Over the next few days we visited the Tibetan Bodnath Stupa, the Nepal National Scout HQ, (had a chat with the first Chief Commissioner) and went to Patan an old city near Kathmandu and of course the great mountain bike ride to Bhaktapur!! We hired out the bikes for the day and quickly learned that the basic rule of cycling in Nepal on roads occupied by buses, trucks and jeeps far bigger than you is just to do your best not to get killed. The truck/bus drivers are very helpful though, when approaching at speed from behind they will beep their horns, announcing their intention to roll over you. This is your cue to get out of their way.
The Bumpers in Tramore
We reached Bhuktapar where a guy said he would “mind” our bikes for us, kind chap (for 100 rps). Bhaktapur is just an amazing village of temples. We decided to take a walk shown in the lonely planet guide, which it turned out was the best walk I have ever had through a Nepalese town. It lead through small paned narrow streets, all the houses with ornate wood carvings, no tourists, just Nepalese people going about their daily work. Brilliant – real Nepal.The cycle back was spectacular, the Himalayas could now be seen to the north glowing pink in the setting sun. This was another problem – the setting sun. We were only barely heading back to Kathmandu before dusk and by the time we got to the outskirts of Kathmandu it was completely dark. The following cycle through Kathmandu’s rush hour around roundabouts with no apparent rules of the road, made the chariot race out of Ben Hur look like the Bumpers in Tramore.
We got back to the hire shop and went straight for the usual banana chocolate milkshake and coffee. The nicest milkshakes in the entire universe, one cannot explain spasms of sheer joy your tongue goes through when drinking these milkshakes. I’m coming back to Nepal just to have the milkshakes at this one place!Before the girls left for India, we had one last meal at the Rum Doodle, the 40,000 ft restaurant based on the book, – ‘Ascent of Rum Doodle’, where they serve the nicest chocolate cake and coffee in Nepal.
Over the next day or two I sorted out my trekking permit for my Langtang/Helambu trek, a VISA, which I don’t need apparently and got my photos developed. Feeling like a stroll, I walked to Swayambhanah, the Holy Buddhist Stupa and Gompa at the top of a hill overlooking Kathmandu, once said to be an island in the Lake of the Kathmandu Valley! Here I stayed several hours exploring the various Stupa features, temples and the Gompa. I entered the Gompa, the monks were busy singing, chanting, banging drums, blowing trumpets, oboe like instruments, bells and the like. I sat down on a bench between two monks and watched all the goings on, it was really amazing and the music was brilliant.
David Attenborough and the Bear Hunt
The soldier ordered me to open my rucksack! What could I possibly want to smuggle into the Langtang National Park I thought. I fumbled for my keys as the whole bus looked on to see what I was smuggling. What was that?, the soldier enquired pointing at a suspiciously cling filmed package. “My raincoat” I answered surely looking guilty. The search over, the bus was free to continue on its merry way to Druncre, the starting point for the Langtang trek!
On the bus I met Glynn, a teacher from Canada on a sabbatical and Celia who was a physiotherapist originally from Newry, she had moved to Canada 16 years ago. She had married Glynn 6 years ago, and they now lived very close to the Rocky Mountains. We started trekking together, the first day to Syabru was easy. There we met Caroline, a world champion snowboarder from Holland, she asked could she join our group since the guide on her “organised” trek seemed to be a total fruitcake!It took 3 days to get to Kyanfin Gompa at the end of the Langstang Valley at 3800m. The views on the way up were good but at Kyanfin Gompa right in the heart of the Langtang Kimal they were breathtaking. We spent three days there. The following day we walked further up into the valley into the heart of the mountains to the glaciers, stopping en route at an idyllic picnic spot for some yak cheese and Tibetan bread.
The following day we climbed two peaks behind Kyanfin – Gompa Brana Chumbu at 13451f and Menchamsa at 15091 which were connected by a ridge. The glaciers coming of Langtar Lirung could be seen clearly, everywhere you looked mountains could be seen. That night was our last in Kyanfin Gompa, and by chance it was a festival night which meant there was much singing and dancing and rum drinking by the porters at our lodge! They eventually demanded that the trekkers should lead in a song and I duly obliged getting them all into the swing of the “Bear Hunt” and “Singing in the Rain”, much to their delight! On our way back down the valley we spotted some Langur monkeys in the forest and in an effort to see them at closer quarters and take a few photographs we set off into the jungle. Going into “David Attenbourogh” mode I sneaked up behind one huge boulder and sticking my head around it, I saw a whole family of Langur monkeys swinging from the trees and generally wandering around. Happy with our nature watching for the day we rejoined the trail with Rimiche our destination for the day.
The plan for the rest of the trek was to descend to Syrabru before climbing to the Gosainjund lakes and going over the Laurinbina Pass at 15,100 ft., to the Helambu Region. In Syrabru we stayed at the Peace Lodge where there was a cross on top of the roof, which I thought was a bit odd. Inside the kitchen large pictures of the Ascension could be clearly seen. In an area that was totally Buddhist this was an unusual sight, the story behind it was even more bizarre! The owner of the lodge was Gyaltane Taman, it was quickly evident he was extremely intelligent, he had very good English and was very knowledgeable. Eventually, he mentioned in the course of conversation that he was Christian. We asked why he had converted to Christianity from Buddhism, his family’s religion for generations. He handed me a typed testimony of his conversion for me to read. His family and ancestors for many generations had been Buddhist. When he was young, he lived in an A Frame Shelter which was portable for following the Jummo (cross breed between cow and yak). One day while looking after the Jummo, he dozed off and dreamt he a had a vision of two “Shadowmen” who brought him to another place. They appeared to him many times and showed him the many gods of Buddhism. This went on for 3 years. A god called ‘Yesu’ (Jesus) appeared at the end of the list and worked its way up the line of importance of gods. At the same time he had visions on a type of ‘screen’ during these dreams which he would write down in a notebook. The stories he wrote down were basically from the Bible old and new. Eventually Jesus came to the top of the list and the two shadowmen said not to pay heed to the Buddhist gods. Two Gospel missionaries arrived in the village, and talked with him telling him the “good news” but he had already heard of these stories from his notebook and the visions. All his immediate family and his parents converted to Christianity because of his visions. Most of the local people in the village dislike that he abandoned Buddhism for a ‘foreign’ religion.
The walk along the ridge up towards the Gosainkund lakes was magical, with the clouds way below and the trail winding its way along the edge of a steep embankment we passed the first of many Gosainkund lakes – a dream walk! Behind us lay a spectacular panorama, probably the best in Nepal. In one glance you could see the Annaparna Range, Manaslu, Ganesh Himal Range, the Tibetan Mountains and the Langtang Himal from one side of the horizon to the other! The lakes of Gossainkund village were really beautiful. I have seen many beautiful scenes in the mountains at home and in Nepal, but few can compare with the sight that greets you in Gossainkund. I sat down in a sheltered sunny spot, below me was a green-turquoise lake, cliffs towered to the left and were reflected in the still water. In the distance the Annaparna Range was very clear and closer black forested ridges could be seen barely rising above the blanket of fluffy clouds. They were like a sea of white horses with nothing but blue sky above.
Fire and Ice
The following day it was time for the short climb over the Laurinbina Pass at 15,100 ft. into Helambu, involving some walking on snow but it was well compacted and a very enjoyable trek. It took two days to get to Kutumsang. Going by the guidebooks they say it is possible to get to the trail in one day but most people take two. We naturally went for the one day option, the thought of delicious pizza in “Fire and Ice” owned and run by an Italian lady, which also has the nicest ice-cream in the world, was enough to spur us on. We started walking at 7.00 am taking very few rests. We arrived at Sundarijal at 3.30 pm. It had been a marathon day with close to 1000 m’s of ascent and 2000 m’s of descent, my legs were wobbly by the time we reached the bottom of hundreds of thousands of steps! But it was worth it, the pizza and ice-cream was out of this world! The following Wednesday I had organised a meal at the Rum Doodle Restaurant (where all the trekking/climbing groups go) for all the people we had met on the Langtang trek! In the end we had 12 for dinner! Once back in Kathmandu I met Celia and Glynn regularly for dinner and once again I discovered a place that had delicious chocolate croissants. Celia and Glynn brought me to a restaurant called the ‘Yak’ where I had some Kashmiri rice which was rice cooked with fruit! it was delicious and very unusual. I went with Celia and Glynn to Bhaktapur (my third time there) and to Swayambutnaty to see the sun set. So basically the last 10 days or so in Kathmandu have been fairly relaxing, eating at nice restaurants, drinking tasty milkshakes, nibbling chocolate croissants, sipping cappuccinos and licking the nicest Italian ice-cream I have ever tasted! Any weight I may have lost is well back on now, I assure you! I even found time to finish Joe Simpson’s book, ‘The Game of Ghosts’ and started reading my Thailand and Vietnam Guides in preparation for the next stage!