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SOS Africa 'On Top Of The World' by Andrew French
06 Feb 2012
Nearly two years ago I put together a Bucket List, it coincided with my 50th birthday. I finally completed the list on Christmas Day, with what was probably the most physically challenging thing I had done in my life; go higher than Base Camp, Mt. Everest.
I was part of a 16 person group who trekked in Sagarmartha (Everest) National Park, Nepal, culminating in climbing Kala Patar, a peak at 5545m (18,192 feet). We arrived in Katmandu and spent a couple of days acclimatizing and purchasing much needed gear. The predictions for base camp temperatures on Christmas Day, the day we were climbing Kala Patar, were hovering around the -27°C.
From Katmandu we flew in to Lukla, which is an experience in itself. It starts with an early morning wake up call, then waiting around in what is not much more than a shed, for the mists to clear so that the ‘planes are able to take off. We were lucky, and were away within a couple of hours. Some travelers wait for days. Although the ‘planes are able to take 18 passengers, pilot, co-pilot and air hostess, (laughable – a lady who gave us a boiled sweet on takeoff, but couldn’t move down the six rows of the ‘plane because it was too cramped), the new regulations state that the aircraft can only take 16 passengers. The idea of this is reduce the number of crashes at what has been described as the world’s most dangerous commercial airfield. I don’t think it does, it just reduces the number of people killed on one flight.
The 45 minute flight was spectacular, showing us what we were taking on. All those hours spent in the gym suddenly didn’t seem enough. It was daunting. Lukla airfield is cut in to a mountain. The runway is about 450m long, and uphill. The idea is for the ‘plane to slow to an almost stall as it hits the runway, then slam on the brakes, which along with the incline, will stop the ‘plane before it hits the mountain at the end of the runway. If you go too fast you hit the mountain; too slow, and you stall and fall out of the sky. The last fatal crash was caused by cloud suddenly coming in at a stage when it was too late to turn around. Without sophisticated instrumentation, the pilot had to guess, and guessed wrong; hitting a fence at front of the runway.
The disembarking was quick. The propellers still whirled around and literally as the last person got off the first person of the return flight got on. The window for flights is very small, and every minute is valuable to the airlines. However, we still had a few seconds to view our surroundings. The airfield was encircled by mountains and the view whetted our appetites for the trek to come.
Our yaks were loaded and we started our trek. As a group we were well prepared; we had very experienced Sherpa guides, (two had climbed Everest, one, Pasang, was a legend among the local people), we had yaks to carry our equipment, we had our own cooks to reduced the chance of illnesses, we were well briefed on our health and had enough medicines to run a hospital. We had additional equipment and alternative plans should anything go wrong. This may seem like overkill, but things frequently go wrong in the area, and there is no second chance. We were going to enter an area known as The Death Zone. This is an area where helicopters can’t reach because the altitude is too high and the air too thin. It doesn’t matter what it says on your insurance form, you are in trouble if things go wrong. Where we were going there would be 50% less oxygen than at sea level. Altitude sickness kills and can hit anyone.
We walked to a place called Phakding. It was a nice first day walk, about 3.5 hours, and allowed us to acclimatize. Already the walk was spectacular. The hills were brown, with lots of pines. Around each corner we glimpsed the snow capped mountains in the distance, enticing us in. Along with the thinner air we all noticed the much colder nights. Phakding was a lower altitude than Lukla, and that is the secret to trekking; go up during the day, then come down for the night. It helps reduce the chances of altitude sickness. The other thing to do is to walk slowly and not rush; again the body better acclimatizes to the thinner air. I was the champion at walking slow!
Our first day was to lull us in to a false sense of security. Day two we had a massive climb to a town called Namche. After a couple of hours walking along a magnificent valley and crossing some wonderful bridges, we were at the foot of Namche Hill. The bridges by the way were not for the faint hearted. Some were as high as 150 feet above the gorges below and were made of wires and thin metal strips for the flooring. To walk across them you take a big breath and don’t look down. You also pray you don’t meet a string of yaks coming the other way. Ascending 850m altitude wise doesn’t sound impressive, but the winding climb was a killer. Perhaps it was so tough because it was our first climb at altitude, but I think even starting from sea level this would have been hard.
Namche is 3440m, (11285 ft). We had an acclimatization day, wandering around the small town, (it would be a village in the UK). The town seems to be dependent on the trekking trade passing through. Namche even had a decent bakery with Danish pastries and hot chocolate. In the afternoon we took a two hour walk up to the Everest View Hotel to get our first view of the mountain. There was a row of impressive peaks with a small peak in the background; Everest. That was a theme for much of the trip, (other than the climb up Kalar Pater); remarkable mountain ranges with a glimpse of Everest in the background. This is because the mountain is about 10 miles behind the main range, and so most of the views give the impression the mountains in front are bigger and more spectacular. Mt. Everest was the only mountain that didn’t have a local name when the British arrived. This was because it was so remote it didn’t have any significance to the people.
To put our trip in to some sort of perspective, there is a landing strip at Namche, close to the Everest View Hotel. The idea was for tourists to be flown in to the hotel, cutting out the need for a two day trek. However, after the death of a few Japanese tourists due to altitude sickness, the flight up was stopped. Those wealthy enough can hire a private helicopter for the trip, and the hotel provides oxygen for its guests. I personally wouldn’t risk it, as nearly every accommodation on the trek advertised hot showers but none even had warm water for a face wash in the morning!
Another day’s trekking took us to Tengboche, via the highest monastery in Nepal. It was so cold. We had to take our shoes off to walk around on the stone floors. It was at Tengboche I started to get sleep problems. My mind was convinced I didn’t sleep at all, but I must have done because my body was fine. I guess I must have kept waking up for a minute or so during the night and this became endless in my mind. Some people are known to have very vivid dreams and frightening nightmares. This sleep, or lack of sleep pattern went on for the next five nights but it didn’t affect my walking. The next day we walked to Dingboche. A grim reminder of the dangers of the area was a crashed helicopter a hundred yards from our accommodation. It had crashed only a month before.
We had another acclimatization day at Dingboche. This involved a walk up to Ama Dablam Base Camp, 4900m, (16,371 ft). It was one of my favorite days. We set off fairly early and the walk involved a climb straight up. When we got to the top we had a magnificent 360° panoramic view of the mountains, including a closer view of Everest. Below us was a frozen lake. Pasang, our 72 year old Sherpa guide, and still climbing, was a very religious person, always observing mountain traditions. He set out a series of prayer flags and said his prayers. He did this at each peak we reached. The mountains certainly made me feel closer to God, both physically and spiritually. At each peak we reached I brought out my 4m SOS Africa banner.
The 4:30 am wakeup call was the start to a 13 hour walking day. We wearily wished each other ‘Merry Christmas’ over a breakfast of black tea and porridge. We set off in the dark towards the Khumbu Glacier. The glacier is where Base Camp is set up during the climbing season, we were going higher. The walk was long but not too arduous, and we arrived at a place for another breakfast before our climb. I found it difficult to eat, but I managed a few cups of sweet tea. The climb was in three parts, a steep climb up a pathway and a flat walk followed by a very steep last few hundred meters climbing up and over massive rocks and boulders. The first part I didn’t find too difficult, although yet again I was slow. During the middle bit I started to find it a bit more difficult to breathe, and the stops became more frequent. The boulders were the challenge. There were gaps of several feet between some of the boulders and drops that were concerning. I’m sure it would have been a breeze at sea level, but at altitude even a step from one rock to another of no more than three feet became a challenge. Slowly but surely I made it to the top, 5545m/18,200 feet. Of the 16 who started, 12 made it.
It’s difficult to describe my emotions when I got to the top. I didn’t feel as elated as I thought I might. It wasn’t an anti-climax, just more of, “Well here we are then.” I had my photo’ with my SOS Africa banner and Everest clearly in the background, and after a couple of group photo’s, I sat alone. Along with my 50th birthday, my bucket list was compiled shortly after my wife’s death. The final leg of my two year journey was more than the physical climb for me, and there was no better place to clear my head than on a 12 day trek in the Himalayas.
Andrew would like to thank ‘Himalayan High Treks and Expeditions’ and Pasang for making this possible.
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