Thursday, 24 September 2015

Peaking Man

A film currently bringing the soaring spectacle of the Himalayas and the panoramic flatness of the Kiwi vowel sound to the big screen also movingly evokes a tragic event in New Zealand history.

We saw Everest recently, and despite the fact that everyone knows the ending, and perhaps can even recall the very words of Rob Hall's final, heartbreaking message to his wife, it is a gripping and spectacular film. We have never set foot on Everest, but were fortunate enough to spend almost two months in Nepal, a year and a half before these tragic events.

We elected not to visit base camp, which is (as the film suggests) something of a rubbish tip out-of-season, but instead aimed for a prominence on the east side of Pumori (the peak facing Everest which Guy Cotter is shown leading a commercial expedition on) called Kala Patthar (Hindi for 'black rock'). This would take us as high as we can ascend without a climbing permit, and also give a spectacular view of the Great Mother Goddess of the Himalayas.

I kept a diary of our entire time in Nepal and dug out the entry covering the 'summiting' of our trek. My writing is far from stellar but surprises me with it's frankness, particularly the opening which made me believe that I was experiencing a true enactment of Jon Pertwee's famous line about why Earth-bound Doctor Who stories are more frightening - "There's nothing more alarming... than finding a Yeti on your loo in Tooting Bec"

We were far from London, of course, and the other reason for the sleepless nights was the scarcity of high-altitude oxygen: sudden whooping gasps for air often shocking us awake as sleep's shallow breathing starved our depleted lungs even further.

Despite such tribulations, and the fact that my constantly upset digestive system eventually led to kidney failure on our way home, this day remains one of the best experiences of our lives.

8/12/94 - Lobuche (4940m): Day 13 of Himalaya trek

Star trekker - Rose enroute to Lobuche the previous day

It's another bloody sleepless night. The snoring, the cold, and to top it all off, my stomach decides it would be great for a game of soldiers to start playing up again. During one of my undeniable nocturnal visits to the out-house, I push the door open to find it partially blocked by a copious amount of the substance which is usually meant to fall through the hole in the floor.

I'm still trying to recover from the shock of this when I realise that the tiny hut is also occupied, but not by anything human. A huge, shaggy, heavy-breathing figure starts stamping on the wooden floor and shoving the door closed again. What scant control I still had over my bowels almost completely disappeared - and I still don't know how or why there was a Yak in the toilet. Needless to say, I took my custom elsewhere.

Anyway, today is the big day - we reach the final and highest point of our trek - Kala Patthar at 5,644.5 m (18,519 ft). The view of Everest is apparently the best available for non-climbers.

Dawn finally arrives, and with it comes cryogenic temperatures. Mainly because of this, we hit the track as soon as possible, not wanting to risk hypothermia by sitting around inside.

Eventually the sun reaches us and our extremities thaw. It is yet another gorgeous day and we're enormously relieved that we are going to have the best views of the entire trek under a clear blue sky.

After a long and exhausting walk over moraines (the high altitude is really telling and breathing is difficult) we finally arrive at Gorak Shep around 10.00am. (This tiny settlement at the foot of Pumori is at the outer edge of human habitation, perched at 5164m and apparently the original Everest Base Camp)

There is usually a lake here, but in these drier months it now resembles a small desert plain. Not having to worry about getting our feet wet, we walk across it to the base of Kala Patthar, and to our dismay feel completely knackered already.

Walking across a 'lake' at Gorak Shep. Kala Patthar stands at the far shore,
and Pumori looms beyond it.

The final 500m of the climb itself is probably the most prolonged, strenuous effort we have ever made. Muscles and lungs cry out for oxygen which just isn't there, legs feel as if they're wading through thigh-deep mud, and, in Rose's case, a headache (the very first, but not critical in itself, sign of altitude sickness) also joins the party.

We begin by taking a brief stop after every 25 paces or so, but the strain of having to start again leads us to discover that it's actually easier to keep going with deep, rhythmic breathing and very short, mechanical steps.  Any interruption in our breathing cycle sends us straight back to square one.

The final part of the climb is a gigantic pile of rock slabs which lie across each other like enormous collapsed dominoes. This rock climb at least allows us to use our arms as well as our legs and - very out-of-breath, we finally reach the top.

The view is also breath-taking, in fact it's the most incredible thing I've ever seen.

The view across the Khumbu valley to Everest (left-most peak)

Everest is easily identified as it has an aura of wind-blown snow behind its peak - the only mountain high enough to have this 'halo'  We also hear and see various small avalanches, tumbling from the flanks of nearer mountains.

Was the view worth the literally heart-stopping climb? Absolutely, definitely, positively! A fitting climax to our trek.

We share some of my Islay single malt - a miniature kept for just this occasion, gorge ourselves on food, collect various candidates for Dad's rock collection, and then head back down. The rest of the day is spent back-tracking and is quite insignificant in comparison.

(And that's it - obviously I was suffering from complete clueless-ness as to how to sum up or bring the account of such an incredible day to a fitting close. As with almost everything, I'm going to blame the thin oxygen - but will say that I recall we managed to sleep relatively well that night!)


  1. Nice Post Al, it was an amazing time in our lives and one looked back on fondly and surprisingly frequently, I'm so glad to have shared it with you!

  2. Wonderful post Al ...and great pics! What an adventure!