This time I am flying in from Thailand after a great week with some chums in a villa on Koh Samui. Once at Kathmandu airport, I get the usual demand for tips from some chap who has managed to wrestle my trolley away from me for the 30 second walk to the transfer bus, but I only have Thai coins or nothing less than $5 (which I am certainly not giving him) and he turns up his nose at them so I give my best confused, tourist face and he soon wanders off to harass someone else.
Shortly after that we head into town and it is quite a surprise to see how little Kathmandu has changed since I was last here about 12 years ago - the dome of brown smog still sits over the city. Kathmandu remains a very poor town on the outskirts and the living conditions really aren't great - it is very hot, dusty and chaotic.
After a bit of a drive, and a lot of near misses, we get to the hotel which is in the centre of the tourist district, Thamel. The hotel provides a lovely, quiet retreat from the noisy bustle of the area although the rooms are really basic with the 'ensuite bathroom' little more than a toilet with a shower stuck on the wall and a sink behind the door. Still, there is probably little that is better here and the better hotels are quite a way from this area which also has all the infrastructure for outdoors tourism in Nepal.
Most of the rest of the group arrive a bit later in the mid afternoon and after a quick pit stop to dump bags etc we head off for a bit of a wander and to change some money. Whilst out, one of the chaps wants to pick up a local SIM card to make calls home on the rare occasions that we have reception. However, for a foreigner to get a local sim, they need to provide their passport along with a passport sized photo for the retailer to keep. He doesn't have one and but I have one left over from the ones I brought for my visa and so we get a photocopy of my passport from the lovely ladies next door and the chap seems happy to accept my passport and photo for someone else to get a SIM card. The next issue is that the phone is locked (ie it can't accept a Nepali sim card) but a quick call later and we are told that this man has a brother nearby who can unlock the phone for a very cheap price if we leave the phone with him for the next hour.
After that, and with no small amount of trepidation, we head back for a beer in the hotel garden and to meet the local agents. They seem nice enough but soon say the dreaded words 'cultural show', an event which I have come to dislike intensely over the years. I am trying to work out a means of escape when someone mentions that it is a half hour drive to get there which unfortunately is not possible for us as we need to pick up the unlocked iPhone shortly and so we have to drop out.
After a quick supper and couple of beers, a combination of jet lag and missed sleep catches up with the group and we head to bed. With plans for the next day of kit check and sightseeing.
The downside of an early night is waking up early and I get up at about 6 to catch up on a few things before we head off for breakfast at about 8. This is followed by meeting the Himalayan records team who try to meet all groups doing one of the big climbs - my first but hopefully not last inclusion in this august database.
After this, we discuss the trip in a bit more detail and the useful tweaks to the usual mountaineering gear and equipment. I have also just bought a Go Pro and so happily spend the remaining time up until we head off for a spot of shopping setting it up. My plan is to take quite a bit of footage on this expedition and to try and make a video of it and my upcoming expeditions.
A key bit of kit is turning out to be a pair of cheap but warm gloves that you can wear on descents when there is a lot of letting ropes run through your hands as this will break gloves quickly and you don't want to do this to your £200 high tech ones. So we get to one of the more reputable shops in town to buy a pair of their cheap knock-offs which seems a little strange and, although they claim to sell genuine gear as well, you do wonder how strict they are on keeping the two apart. After that we head for a perfectly nice but ridiculously overpriced Westernised cafe for a spot of lunch before returning to the hotel for our final preparations for the flight to Lukla tomorrow morning. Lukla is the main starting point for much of the trekking and climbing here. Our flight is at 10 or 11 am so we will have plenty of time for a leisurely morning and final packing tomorrow but things frequently don't go as planned or expected here so we mostly finalise our packing tonight.
Again we meet at 6 for an evening beer before meeting our local agents for the rearranged cultural show - I have not managed to come up with a polite way of avoiding it and our agents have asked so nicely it would need a really good reason to get out.
The promised 10 minute drive obviously becomes a lot longer and we then pull into the largest and best built building that I have seen in Kathmandu and there is a lady giving Tikkas to everyone going in. This has all the hallmarks of the usual poor quality and expensive charade that is so common. However, once in, the food is actually both pretty authentic and tasty and the dancers are actually enjoying what they are doing rather than being embarrassed by the old fashioned dances that they are having to perform for the foreigners. I am sitting next to the owner of the local travel agency and it is fascinating talking to him about the development of his businesses after being a trekking guide. He set up his travel company, opened a restaurant in the middle of Thamel and is one of the two partners in the hotel we are staying in. His future plans include opening a 5* hotel in Katmandu that is Nepali owned and run and setting up a hydro electric power station!
As is the tradition here, we have left our shoes outside the performance / dining room and on the way out my flip flops appear to have disappeared. That is pretty strange as the Nepalis all have pretty small feet and none of the other guests appeared would have suited them either. We have a bit of a comical search for them in the narrow corridor where the shoes were left and are joined by a rather drunk Japanese man whose main contribution seems to be laughing uproariously at jokes - usually his own but ours as well regardless of whether or not he understands them.
It is all a bit of a mystery until we see the band wandering through and putting on clearly too large flip flops to head upstairs to what is presumably their green room. I head up there with the local agent and to my relief and everyone's amusement (including the poor embarrassed young chap who had used them by mistake) my flip flops are on the rack of spare footwear that they use.
On the way back to the hotel the agent breaks the news that in fact we are now on the 07:30 flight and so we need to be ready to leave the hotel at 05:45 am. A bit of a change of plan for those still tying to catch up on sleep and so looking forward to an early night and a bit of a lie in as well. Since breakfast won't be ready at that time and, to aid a swift departure, the hotel will prepare us a packed breakfast.
Therefore it is a last beer and final packing when we get back to the hotel before an early night.
We get up for 05:30 meet but there is no one in the hotel to meet us and nor can we find our pack breakfasts. After a bit of wandering we unexpectedly find that a full breakfast including hot dishes has been set out so we sit down to that whilst we wait for our team who amble in at about 6am.
The domestic airport for our flight to Lukla is in its usual chaotic state so we just hang around for a bit before check in whilst our fixers go off to do their stuff - given we already have tickets for a specific flight it is not clear to us what this is. However this simply shows our naivety of the Nepalese flight system. It soon becomes clear that although they sell tickets for specific flights, in fact all you have is a vague indication that you might be put on a plane if you turn up with a well connected person with a fistful of dollars. We are clearly not on our 07:30 flight as we don't check in until about 07:15 and there are a number of trekkers in the airport without local fixers who don't seem to be getting anywhere near check in and nor are they able to find out from anyone there which flight they are actually booked on and what they can do about actually getting on it. Presumably in a few hours time when the main rush for all the groups is over there will be some flights for all those remaining - as long as the weather holds!
The are quite restrictive baggage allowances (15kg check in and 5kg hand luggage) and considerable charges for going over the weight (something like $20 per kg) on the flight so we have played the game of wearing much of our heavy gear which we will need to repack in Lukla as it will be far too hot to trek in. However, having seen what was happening prior to check in, it seems far from likely that something as lucrative as excess baggage won't be used as a cash generating exercise when there are so many people desperate to get on planes. So our luggage is taken off to the plane and then we are told that we are considerably over the limit and have to pay excess baggage on something like 140kg over. We knew we might be a bit over but considerably over at $20 per kg was going to be an issue so we start having a bit of an argument and our fixer gets involved but it is not that clear what he is saying and whose side he is on - this is actually rather amusing as the whole situation is rather farcical.
The baggage allowance has been changed so that it is now 15kg per person rather than the 15 + 5 which leads to an odd discussion when I produce the ticket which clearly shows the weight allowance of 15 + 5 to which he just smiles and says that it has changed, to which I counter that such a key term to a contract can't just be changed unilaterally without at the very least informing us. He again just shrugs his shoulders and smiles which is rather annoying. We are then interrupted by another official who comes to apologise since it appears that another group’s bag was included with ours so they have just knocked 40kg off the total weight and so the overall charge is now $40 less. This leads to a lot more confusion as we are demanding that a lot more than just $40 is knocked off and after a few minutes it becomes clear that the other change which they have not informed us of is that whilst the baggage allowance has come down significantly, so have the charges which at $1 per kilo are really not a problem. So we pull the $100 together and head off to security.
This is a bit of a farce with all sorts of people wandering about, many bags not going through the scanner and the chap watching the scanner having far more fun chatting to his chums rather than actually watching the bags that are going through. Unfortunately, one of our group has managed to leave a knife in their rucksack and despite the odds, this does get picked up. After a bit of a discussion, they accept that this was just an oversight and then offer to pass it on to one of the crew who will give it back to us at the far side. We assume that this will be the last we see of it.
Then after a short wait we head out to the plane which is pretty small with only about 12 seats.
Going over the mountains, this is bound to be a rough ride and in a plane this size we will be bouncing wildly which is terrible for news for those of us susceptible to motion sickness. However, two things brighten our mood. First, we are going to be looked after by the lovely Bumika
and secondly I find the knife which has been put into the seat-back pocket in front of me!
There is quite a bit of low cloud so the view goes from nothing to spectacular every few minutes for the half hour flight. The approach to Lukla is pretty stunning as we come over a ridge and drop steeply into the next valley before landing on the small airstrip on the far side. I was sitting at the back next to the emergency exit and shortly before landing a bit of turbulence jolted the door open and I was left holding the handle to prevent it from opening. The runway is very short indeed and has been positioned on a steep incline to make up for it - it really is up there with the most dramatic landings I have ever had.
Once the airport formalities are completed, we head through the village to a local hotel. Lukla is a funny little place where pretty much every building is tourism related and has some stunning mountains as a backdrop.
We head to one of the hotels, organise ourselves, have what is for some people their third breakfast of the day and then start our trek up the Khumbu valley.
This is a great trek; the valley is very green, the sky is blue and the sun strong and it is great to see the little Nepali villages that dot the side of the valley.
There is also a lot of excitement from all the groups starting out on their various trips today - mostly they are trekking groups but we spot one or two others who are heading up the mountains as well.
We don't have far to go today, given that we are acclimatising and you can't predict what flight you will be on and so how much time you will have today. We move at a leisurely pace and have a long stop for lunch where we have the ubiquitous noodle soup (instant noodles with added vegetables) which is a great energy rich, healthy easy meal at a nice little cafe in the sun with views back down the valley.
We get to Phadking at about 15:30 and have a leisurely afternoon and evening of chatting, drinking tea and a bit of organising before an early supper at about six before bed at the conventionally acceptable time of 8pm. I have a ginger chicken dish for supper but given the size and quality of the chicken pieces I would imagine that we won't be having much meat on this trip. This is a Buddhist area and so they won't kill any animals here and all meat comes in from Kathmandu and so is rarely fresh.
There is little camping in this part of the valley so we are staying in tea houses. These have come a long way over the years and are now like very basic hotels but are significantly more comfortable than camping - although I have not been in any others as yet my impression is that we are staying in a pretty decent one. So far the local agent seems to have been pretty generous with the budget in that we can order whatever we want for meals. Oddly though, they do not cover drinking water and toilet paper whilst we are in the teahouses. It will be interesting to see how the water part works out - I would imagine that now people will end up relying too much on the hot drinks at meals and that people will get dehydrated which may impact walking in the day but will impact the ability to acclimatise - this really is not a sensible policy!
It turns out that the husband of the couple who own the teahouse used to guide Japanese clients and still has quite a large Japanese clientele staying there and so does a Japanese breakfast. There can't be many people who can claim to have had a Japanese breakfast in the Himalayas!
Today we are continuing up the valley with a gentle height gain until lunch. The added fun today is that we are hiking at the same time as a few buffalo / donkey trains. These are groups of animals carrying packs, equipment and supplies up the valley.
I spend a bit of time overtaking them to take pictures and video whilst they pass. This is also quite dangerous as the paths are narrow so if they sway they can knock you down the drop into the river or if you are a bit further ahead gore you with their horns. This all goes well until my overtaking leaves me facing an oncoming train that has just come round the corner! Faced with horns both in front and behind me and a long drop to me right, my only option is to jump onto the cliff to my left and perform a rather risky traverse above the oncoming train.
After these antics, I am quite a bit ahead of the rest of the group and so come across a couple of checkpoints alone. The first one is only for those who are trekking so I walk past it and the guard shouts at me which causes all the waiting trekkers to look up in awe as I casually mention that in fact I am climbing Ama Dablam and am given a smart salute to send me on my way! I don't even see the second checkpoint and nor am I seen by the guards so walk straight past that as well. From there it is a few more undulations until the restaurant where I end up waiting about an hour for the rest to arrive - they have stopped at the second check point and been part of a long queue for our permit to be reviewed.
Lunch is a Chinese / Nepali fusion chow mien on a sun terrace next to the path with views back down the valley. This is a lovely place and we stay there for quite a while and end up being the last to leave the area.
From lunch we have a wire bridge over the river. There are many of these as we head up the valley and although beautiful, they are terrible for vertigo and it takes me quite a bit of mental effort to control my fears as I cross each one.
and then a steep climb out of the valley up to Namche. This gives me an opportunity to really push on and boost my acclimatisation - quite luckily this is well below the treeline so there is quite a bit of shade from the sun. Then all of a sudden I get to another checkpoint and this time I am unable to bluff my way past which is a bit annoying as the others are some way behind but then I notice that this is actually the Namche gateway and the end of the day's trek so I would have to wait here anyway to reconvene before heading to our teahouse for the night.
There are a few others who have also arrived a bit ahead of their group so we chat and play ball with some of the young children who live on the outskirts of Namche. There are a number of porters here as well, one of whom is not wasting the opportunity to impress the others with the ringtone on his phone (Gangnam Style) which he lets continue for a rather long time when he is called which is oddly frequently.
A bit later on the rest of the group turn up and we got though the paperwork and head on to Namche. This is the old market town in the region where Tibetans and Nepalis would come to trade. As such it is by far the wealthiest area in the region and this was then boosted when it became the launch point for most of the trekking and climbing in the area.
Apparently one of Namche's highlights is the German bakery, so we drop in there for some apple pie - apples grow pretty well in these valleys and the pie is very good indeed.
We stay there for quite a while and have to head through the back streets in the dark to find our teahouse - there are quite a number of new ones in the village but there hasn't been the same investment in the streets that lead to them!
After that it was a similar relaxed evening with a trio of stir fries (rice, potatoes and vegetable) for supper.
Today starts off with a wake up call from a lost cow enjoying the view on its morning stroll.
Later we head to the local Sherpa museum, which is a collection of domestic implements, a slideshow and display of photographs. The entrance fee is double if you include the slideshow but no one mentions that pretty much all the slides are also in the exhibition! Still it is fun and interesting to gain a bit more understanding about the Sherpas and the region and have good view back over Namche Bazaar.
This also provides us with our first view of Ama Dablam.
After that it is back to the hotel for some rope work and to set up our gear for the mountains.
After a few days of Nepali food, there is an undercurrent of desire for something a bit different and we get pizza - these are pretty good and covered with yak cheese - or to be more accurate (and probably quite important here) nak cheese.
After lunch we head to the shops for yet another little shopping trip and then back to the bakery for tea and cake. I am still trying to get into shape and manage to resist the temptation.
Then it is back to the teahouse where magic tricks and chess take us through to dinner and then off to an early bed. After our foray into international cuisine, Nepali food makes a come back with a large Dahl bhat for supper.
As usual we are pretty much the last to head off in the morning, but soon catch up with some of the trekking groups on the ridge above Namche which has great views both up and down the valley.
Shortly after, we round the corner and as we approach a small Chorten (a small Buddhist shrine) the valley opens up to provide a superb view of the near mountains and those ahead at the end of the Khumbu valley. They are Ama Dablam to the right which we will soon be climbing, Everest (which I will be climbing next year) on the left and Lhotse (another 8k peak in the middle).
until we come across a cafe with a wonderful sun terrace giving us a new sideways view Ama Dablam. The large ridge on the right hand side is the one that we follow up to the summit.
From there we descend to the valley floor where an unseemly rush starts to get to one of the few places for lunch. It is quite fun as a lot of people are squashed into a small space and it is not possible to avoid hearing the conversations taking place at other tables which come from the complete range of people on the mountain from tired, out of shape trekkers to experienced climbers. We have a rather large lunch of fried noodles and these are bound to sit heavily for a while.
After lunch we have a pretty steep slope covering the 500 mtrs or so up to Tengboche (3,860 mtrs) This is another chance to really push but it is a long, long way and I am pretty knackered and hot by the top. I spy the famous bakery from the far side of the plateau and head over there to sit in the sun and take in the view whilst waiting for the others. Unfortunately some afternoon clouds come in and the view is quickly obscured before I get round to taking any photos. I remain good whilst the others are ordering cakes and brownies restricting myself to a forkful of the rather good apple pie.
From there it is apparently only a 20 minute or so stroll to Pangboche so we set off at a leisurely pace. Our local guide, Nir, has gone ahead to organise our teahouse and Paddy, our UK guide who coincidentally was training me in the Lakes in May, stays on a bit to make some phone calls. After about half an hour of a rather steep descent there is a bit of concern that we don't seem near any villages at all. Then we come to a bridge across the river apart from the fact that it has fallen into the river - I take this as vindication for my concerns when crossing these bridges!
After that it is a steep climb out of the valley to Pangboche which is quite taxing at the end of a long day!
There we come across Nir in a teahouse courtyard. It turns out that the one we were heading for is full and he is seeing whether we can use this one instead. Starting late and taking long stops for lunch, hot drinks and cake is making us finish each day’s trek quite late on. This one is not great and whilst we don't mind too much he seems keen to leave the decision to us after we look at one of the rooms. After a couple of circular discussions about this he mentions another one further up the village which is nicer and has space for us - this is the first time he has mentioned this and it seems to coincide with the first time that the owner is no longer next to us. I think I see a hint here (although I am not sure what it is or why it is being made) and agree that if there is a better one we should go there. On the way he tells is that he is not happy with us staying in rooms of that quality (he thinks that they were 'smelly') but that he knows the lady so needed to leave the decision to look at somewhere else up to us.
We move to a much nicer tea house at the top of the village with a warm and busy general room. I head out back to the bottom of the village (braving yaks and the cold) to get to the Internet cafe to see if I have become an uncle again. However young Jemima (this may or may not be her real name depending upon the tricks and games of her parents) seems reluctant to leave her warm, comfy resting place and join the real world regardless of the range of birth accelerators that my sister has been experimenting with.
After that I get stuck in a yak jam in the narrow streets of Pangboche. The two yak drivers seem to be randomly lashing out with switches and throwing stones and it is little surprise that the poor beasts are confused about which way to go. This continues for a couple of minutes and I am not sure I am helping matters by chuckling at the ensuing chaos. After a couple more minutes, the yaks seem to sort it out amongst themselves and I potter back to the teahouse for chatting, reading supper and bed. Supper is a duo of stir fries (rice and potato) and some boiled veg.
A few people have headaches which are being put down to the altitude but the real problem is that none of us are drinking enough water. Usually on trips everyone gets two litres of out water at the end of each day which can be used as hot water bottles overnight and then provides drinking water for the next day. But this is not being done and so people are relying on the hot drinks we are getting at stops and with meals. This is not enough to cope with the heat whilst trekking and our acclimatisation.
Tomorrow is a pretty easy day - or at least it appears so from the map. We are just following the valley with a gentle inclined climbing up about 500 mtrs over about 10k of distance. The plan is for a late (8am) breakfast although we are all likely to be ready for it by about 6am and then getting to the next guesthouse at about lunchtime where we should be able to get some hot water for a wash and a shave!
Quite remarkably we all sleep in late today - 07:30! Over breakfast it turns out that our chat about water has lead to some behind the scenes discussions about expenses and it has now been agreed that water will be provided on the trek as well as whilst at the mountain camps.
We head off at about half nine and follow the main path. There is a very significant change in the valley that really started back at Tengboche. We are now above the tree line so the valley is now rocky and dusty with only a few gorse bushes. There are many fewer people here as it turns out that most of the trekkers turn round at Tengboche and as a result, there are no longer teahouses and shops every few minutes. The tourism element seems to have died away with people (both foreigners and locals), infrastructure and conditions being a lot more serious and the views more spectacular now.
Instead we are walking past lots of small stone walls dividing the land up which are marking out fields - this part of the Khumbu has lots of small farms growing the root vegetables that people here live off.
The teahouses that there are, are also a lot more rudimentary than before without the attention to detail and atmosphere that competition in the lower Khumbu has given rise to.
This all combines to make it a much sparser trek and you can really feel that things are getting a bit more serious now. It has also got quite a bit cooler although still hot when the sun is out.
We are now walking past Ama Dablam and have a good view of the route that we will be taking - looks pretty interesting!
The group naturally breaks apart over the next hour as we are all chatting and after an hour or so a couple of us stop to let everyone else catch up. After about 25 minutes we get a bit concerned and start looking about but there is no sign of them. Then another group comes down the valley and gives us the answer that we are expecting in that we have just gone past a small turn off leading down to the river which is the path we want. So we head back and pick up the trail and half an hour later come across a village. This seems a bit early as we have only been walking for 1.5 hours but we can't see anything else for a long way up the valley which could mean a long way still to go. However, then we spot a building in the middle of the village with 'Welcome to DB' painted on the roof and then, as we walk through the village, all the signs refer to Pangboche which is a bit confusing. We still aren't fully convinced until we see one of the rest of the team waving at us out of a window.
I feel like something different to noodles and dumplings for lunch so try to get people interested in some meat. However while others like the idea in principle there is concern about how long it will have taken for the yak steaks to arrive. Hamburgers are the next option but again the quality of the meat proves and issue so we end up with veggie burgers - not really what I had in mind originally! We tend to order the same things for everyone as we are a group of 7 and it would take a long time for the kitchens in the tea houses to produce a number of different meals.
After that, we get the showers we have been looking forward to as well as a chance to do a bit of washing. This is a bit novel for me as it is not possible to wash on most expeditions as once you are on the mountain both water and fuel are too precious to use for washing either your clothes or yourself and wet wipes can't really be compared to a hot shower. The difference here is the long trek that we have before we get to the mountain and the fact that there are tea houses all the way along the valley that have the necessary equipment - ie a gas bottle and a water tank.
As we move into the afternoon, clouds come up the valley and the temperature really drops. It now resembles a moor in the UK - not much to see, cold and damp. The village empties as everyone takes refuge round the unusually early lit stoves. Then relaxing and dinner until bed.
Accounts and photos of completing the Explorers Grand Slam - 2 Poles and 7 Summits. By Sebastian Merriman. Aconcagua, Ama Dablam, Carstenz Pyramid, Denali, McKinley, Elbrus, Everest, Kosciusko, Kilimanjaro, North Pole, Arctic, South Pole, Antarctic, Antarctica, Vinson, vertigo, climbing, mountaineering, skiing to the pole, skiing to the poles, seb2poles7summits, seb27, Seb Merriman, seb2poles, mountains, poles