Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Island Peak, Everest and Gokyo Trek

Back in Kathmandu, we're enjoying the creature comforts of hot showers, a varied diet and even BBC World on the TV. We felt very removed from it all, watching the UK weather in our sun drenched hotel room. The power cut quickly bought us back to reality.

Here's a collection of words and photos from our recent Khumbu trek.

Everest Trail
People along the way
Island Peak - Ice Climbing
Island Peak - Preparations
Island Peak - The Ascent
Views of Everest and surroundings
Gokyo Valley
Yaks and other animals


Our trip to Island Peak started from the village of Chukhung in the next valley over from the Everest Base Camp trail. For our third and fourth night on the trail, we headed to Dingboche. It's a farming village with lots of fields and animals where a lot of people on the Everest trail come to acclimitise instead of Periche.

We needed to acclimitise more for Island Peak, so on our rest day in Dingboche, we climbed up to 5,000m on the slopes of a mountain behind the village. We got wonderful views of Ama Dablam and the glacier lake below it. The mountain looked even more spectacular after the moon appeared over it.

Once it was time to move to Chukhung for our mountaineering course and Island Peak attempt, we walked along the Imja Khola riverbed crossing big bourderfields. We spent the next four nights in Chukhung acclimitising, practising jumaring (ascending up a fixed rope) and ice climbing. We also climbed Chukhung Ri (5,550m) which brought us very close to Lhotse. Chukhung Ri's summit ridge reminded us of scrambling on the Cuillins mountains on Isle of Skye in Scotland.
After our Island Peak attempt, we came back down to Dingboche to rest and do our laundry which was long overdue. From there, we continued the Everest Base Camp trek and headed for Lobuche.

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Everest Trail

Visiting Mt Everest must be every mointaineer's dream of a lifetime. It was that to us, so after our trip to Island Peak, we rejoined the Everest Base Camp trail from Dingboche. We'd already walked along the trail from Lukla via the famous Namche Bazar village and Tengboche monastery.

The airstrip at Lukla is world famous, most recently for the plane crash in October this year that killed 18 people. We'd read about the airstrip in mountaineering books, so getting to fly there was very exciting. The experience totally lived up to expectations, and the landing was pretty spectacular. It looks like you're heading straight for the mountainside, but then out of nowhere, this tiny airstrip appears. I'd glad our pilot was so good at aiming for the 20-meter wide strip!

As we were already acclimitised to a sleeping height of about 4.2km from our trek in the Annapurna region, we were able to walk as fast as we wanted on the Everest Base Camp trail. We spent the first night in Monjo at an altitude of 2.8km. The next day we climbed the steep uphill to reach Namche Bazar at 3.5km.

We stopped there for lunch and then continued to Tengboche for the night.
Tengboche village is famous for its monastery, the highest in the world. We took time to visit the beautiful building in the morning while the lama and monks were performing a ceremony. They were getting ready for the annual spectacle of Mani Rimdu (masked dance) that we missed as it took place on the day we were attempting Island Peak.

As the Sherpa people who live in the Everest region are Buddhist, the Base Camp trail is full of Buddhist monuments such as Stupas and mani walls. You also see prayers carved into stones.
For our third and fourth night, we walked to Dingboche which is a farming village with lots of fields and animals.

This is where our Island Peak trip started from so we left the Everest trail for Chukhung. After our Island Peak attempt, we rejoined the Everest Base Camp trail from Dingboche. We walked along the high path to Lobuche that we used as a base for two nights. This allowed us to climb Kala Pattar as a day trip.
On the way down, we stopped for lunch in Periche. The music in the very European style logde was Western and reminded us of home 15 years ago. Andy commented that we could've been anywhere in the Western world. But just then, a yak stomped across the path - very definitely Nepal and not Europe!!

Our last stop on the return trek to Lukla was Namche Bazar. Our new friend Lhakpa has a lodge there, so we stayed the night. Lhakpa was unwell with the cold, but we managed to have a quick chat with him and also to meet his lovely wife Kanchi. In the morning, we took a tour of the Sherpa cultural museum and The Mount Everest Documentation Centre. They both have fascinating photographs of local life and Everest expeditions! We particularly liked the portraits of Sherpas who have worked for expeditions over the years.

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Everest and around

We reached Kala Pattar (5,550m) on the 17th November. This is the main place for seeing Everest. We chose the left-hand path from Gorak Shep and were rewarded with some easy scrambling to the lower summit, made slightly more difficult by the altitude. Every couple of moves, we had to remember to rest in order to avoid becoming dizzy. Not easy when you're not used to it!

Although Everest Base Camp was nearby on the Khumbu Glacier, we didn't specifically go to visit it. The climbing season for Everest is now finished for the winter, and the site can be hard to find with no tents or people there. You can't even see Everest itself from Base Camp, so we didn't see the point in going there. It would've been nice to have taken a closer look at the famous Khumbu Icefall, but we didn't want to have to walk for the whole day just to get there and back.

On our way to Everest, there were some chilling memorials to people who had lost their lives on the mountain.

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Gokyo Valley

We had intended to cross over the Cho La pass (5,368m) from Everest Base Camp trail to Gokyo Valley, but we changed our minds after hearing of a couple trekkers slipping on ice. We thought it was too risky to try and cross just the two of us without crampons and a guide. If we'd got a broken ankle, that could've meant helicopter rescue – not something we wanted to have to deal with.

Instead, we walked to the village of (Upper) Pangboche where we took the winding and spectacular trail to Phortse – the gateway to the Gokyo Valley. The village sits on the shoulder of a long ridge on the eastern side of the valley, occupying a great location for growing potatoes and buckwheat on a level surface. This is quite a premium in the Khumbu where mountainsides are very steep.

Every morning in the Gokyo Valley, we would breathe in the sweet smell of burning juniper branches, offered by families to please the gods. The weather was very autumnal, with crisp and cold but sunny days. It even snowed a tiny bit one morning.

The path on the eastern side of Gokyo was very hard work, as it went in and out of numerous re-entrants and also up and down (we fondly call this phenomenon a 'Nepali flat'). We ended up crossing over to the west side of the valley to stay at Phangga.

Earlier that day, we'd been telling a group of British trekkers that we'd had no health troubles so far on the trek. That same night, we both got ill with 'Khumbu quickstep' and had to stay an extra night to try and recover.
We were feeling considerable weaker than before, but still determined to Gokyo village.

The village was very much worth the visit, even though the walk there was a struggle for us. There are five lakes in the Gokyo Valley, and Gokyo village sits on the third one. We stayed at the comfortable Gokyo Resort (not quite as glamorous as it sounds like) that had a beautiful view of the turquoise lake.

The next day, we climbed up Gokyo Ri (5,357m) for magnificent vistas of mountains: Cho Oyu (8,201m) to the north and Pumo Ri, Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse to the east. The Gnozumba Glacier, Nepal's longest, extended in front of us. It was a very special place to be.

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The Ascent of Island Peak (6,189m)

We were woken at 1am to the sound of our guide, PK, calling our names. My tentmate, Jens (Sweden), had guessed that the temperature inside the tent would be 0°C by this time, rising from -3°C when we went to bed. Unfortunately he was wrong. Inside the tent was now -7°C whilst outside it was -10°C and windy. The full moon illuminated the tents huddled amongst the rocks at base camp.

After a thin porridge and thermos of tea, we began our ascent at 2am. The wind was blowing strongly in the dark, and we were wrapped in down jackets and gortex for the uphill. From base camp at 5,100m, we gained 700m over the next four hours, walking and scrambling over a well defined path. Just below the crampon point, Jen decided to abandon her summit attempt. She had been very cold for the whole walk and was nearing hypothermia. Lhakpa, our cook, turned back with her and insisted on carrying her bag down – not something she's used to! [After a brief rest and a cup of hot tea at base camp, Jen walked to the lodge in the village of Chukhung to wait for the rest of the team to return.]

We reached the crampon point just as day was breaking. The sun warmed and boosted morale. Putting our crampons and harnesses on took almost 20 minutes. We then walked for almost an hour over hard glacial ice to the foot of the fixed ropes. Jumaring up the fixed ropes took me around two hours. It was exhausting climbing the 300m - angled at around 45 degrees. All the time, taking care to place feet and iceaxe securely. At one point, I over took a Japanese mountaineer who was doing the peak Alpine Style. I was the slowest in our group, and by the time I reached the summit ridge, PK and Jens had vanished. For a moment I panicked, thinking I had been abandoned at 6,000m. Then, on the left, our second guide Mingma was waving at me to clip into the safety rope which led to the summit.

A further 45 minutes of slow ridge walking led to the summit, the rope arcing in the wind. To my left, Lhotse towered with the wind blowing plumes of spindrift into the sky. At 9.30am, I reached the summit. People were taking photos as I emerged from the ridge. Fortunately, my goggles hid the tears in my eyes – I think they were tears of relief that the draining uphill had finally ended. It was great to see Lhakpa Sonam and everyone on the summit.

Spending around 20 minutes on the summit, we took photos and then began to make our way down. This time we abseiled down the fixed ropes and reached the crampon point at 10.30am. We shared some Toblerone before making our way back down the path. The effects of altitude began to hit me, and I felt nauseous during the descent. Reaching camp at 12.30pm, there was time for a brief sleep before our cook, Lhakpa, woke me with noodle soup and hot orange tang. Still feeling nauseous, I managed only a few mouthfuls before I began the march back to Chukhung and Jenni.

(Coincidentally, Mingma smoked like a chimney and had climbed Island Peak two days in a row!)

***Additional photos from Jens and Mia***

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Island Peak – Ice Climbing

In true Nepal style, we had our baptism of fire on a 10m vertical icefall, in the shadow of Ama Dablam. And this was our easy “introduction” to ice climbing...

On the wall (pictured Jen centre and Andy on the left and right).

Abseiling down.

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Island Peak Preparations

As part of our preparations we had to learn how to jumar up a rope.

The journey to Base Camp took about three hours. Rivaling the capacity of our friend Jim's BMW estate, our three yaks – Dole, Kendo and Sou – each carried 60 kilos of camping and climbing equipment.

Our international team started off with five members: us, Mia and Jens from Sweden and Ina from Germany. Mia developed a chest infection, so unfortunately couldn't take part in the summit bid and left Jens on his own to represent Sweden.

The day before leaving for base camp, we got news that we'd be joined by a new member. This strong addition to the team was Lhakpa Sonam Sherpa, a researcher, photographer and lodge owner from Namche Bazar, who is related to the late Tenzing Norgay. He was great company and took some impressive photos of Island Peak.

In the end, Lhakpa, Andy, Jens and Ina made the summit. Jen was doubly gutted at having to pull out, as it meant Sweden beat Finland - its age old competitor!

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Mr Annu Sherpa, who we needed to meet in Namche Bazar to help us hire plastic boots and crampons, had been on the support crew for the 1996 IMAX Everest film.

Photos signed by the late Anatoli Boukreev.

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Meat transportation Khumbu style. After having been on the back of a porter for several days, baked in the searing sun and pecked by sparrows, your 'yak steak' arrives ready to eat.

Yak dung is an important fuel source in the Khumbu. Here it's being dried on the walls before being loaded into the fire. Note the hand prints on the dung.

Laundry day after Island Peak. Jen joined the local girl for some washing action in the icy cold water. They were right on the main path through the village, so had a lot of curious onlookers. A couple of German girls even stuck their fingers in the water to see if it was really cold... What a pair of wimps, Jen says.

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