As we are having breakfasts the leader from another group pops by for a chat. Basically the conditions in the mountain remain dangerous and so everyone is coming down. There is very little expectation that they will improve sufficiently in the next week or so and a number of teams are making plans to leave. We discuss this and the new plan is to head up the mountain as far as we can (probably camp 1 and camp 2) and then head back - once you can't summit, the enthusiasm really wanes and we are also hearing that there are problems with the flights at Lukla so we want to be there as early as possible to ensure that we can get back to Kathmandu in time for our flights home.
The problem is that a large amount of snow fell late in the monsoon season. That has left a thick powder layer of snow and over the past couple of weeks the top has formed a crust. That crust is preventing much change to the powder layer. This layer is very dangerous as it is difficult to walk in or fix anchors for safety but there is also the possibility of avalanches when one layer of snow is not binding well to the layers around it.
Rock climbing (listening to music and climbing in the sun) and lunch - salad, beans and toasted cheese sandwiches. Pretty good really. The news at lunch is that there has been bad weather at Luckla for a few days and so no flights have been coming or going. This seems to be the cloud that comes up the valley each day hitting us in the early afternoon. This seems such a stable pattern that there is concern when this will lift and Luckla will operate again. There is also a large backlog after such stoppages so it is usually a number of days before it is back to normal - hopefully this will be about the time that we will be getting there, but if not we will still have a few spare days as we are not climbing AD. So nothing to worry about now but it could become a problem if the closure lasts much longer - Lukla is normally closed for over a week once a season and this has not happened as yet!
The Puja. At about 4 pm we are called to the mess tent to perform the apparently very significant Puja ritual of blessing to seek safety from the gods on the mountain - we have already paid about $100 for this and then found out that the llama can't be bothered to come up to BC for it.
The Sherpas have been down to Pangboche to organise this and present what they have brought - some cheap material in a plastic bag that they need to borrow a knife from the kitchen tent to cut up into suitable lengths and 6 bottles of coke. Each person is solemnly given a length of material round their neck and a bottle of coke.
There is a bit of giggling when they realise that there are only 6 bottles of coke and 7 of us so one of them runs off to the kitchen tent and comes back with a small pack of mango juice to make up for it! They try to explain that Pangboche has run out of coke but this is a clear, barefaced lie as we only left there a couple of days ago and all the shops had plenty of bottles of coke then and there are nothing like the number of tourists in the area to go through that amount of coke in the meantime.
It then comes out that the Llama has said that one of the Sherpas should not climb to the summit and he laughs it off saying that he never listens to the llama in any case. So far we are pretty unimpressed. We are only going through his ceremony for them and then for them to have such little respect for it is really annoying some members of the group whilst others are just laughing at the stupidity of it all. Things deteriorate as it becomes clear that the Sherpas have been drinking which explains where some or much of the money went to.
We start to talk about the next few days which are a little tricky as set out above. The Sherpas, clearly looking forward to a 'fun' night tonight, don't want to do much tomorrow and so are keen on only going to what is called 'Yak Camp' - a camp site that is rarely used as it is only a couple of hours from base camp. For us this is a waste of a day and so I ask why. The response is that it is better for acclimatisation to which the response is that we are already acclimatised as we have just summited Island Peak - which they know. There next reason is that in order to summit it is better to start slowly to save energy for the tougher days ahead. Whilst this is true, it is wholly irrelevant as they know as well as we that rather than summiting the mountain people are coming off it and going home so there is very little, if any, chance of us going for the summit. I lose my temper at this point as it is very irritating to have the painful topic of the summit, which we have only recently found out that we can't go for, used as an excuse for their laziness. He then goes onto a long, rambling and drunken monologue about some of his climbing experience. On another occasion and if understandable this might be interesting but now it is just annoying. Finally, Paddy pretty much physically removes him from the tent and takes him back to the other Nepalis who left some time ago.
The whole affair has left us pretty fed up and it will certainly be interesting to see how the rest of the expedition goes - I have very little patience left for the Sherpas now.
We retreat to our tents for reading / writing until supper which is a rather good yak curry and apple pie. The last session of the Puja is Mustang (probably misspelled) Coffee which is coffee, sugar and some local wine and we have arranged to have that after dinner. The Nepalis come in for this as well and our friend the drunk Sherpa decides that this is the appropriate time to demand a fourfold increase in his tips - especially the summit tip!! After a couple of circular discussions it becomes clear that he is either incapable or unwilling to listen so Paddy takes him outside for a bit of a talking to. Despite the sensitivity of the topic, I feel more disposed towards him as it is clear that he is just a young man who has had too much to drink. Normally the Nepali teams will have a Surdah (big boss) who would be the person to step in, grab him by his collar and send him to bed but our group doesn't seem to be structured that way. Anyway, a bit later he and a couple of others come back for a chat and he is all smiles again.
Just before bed I get a few rumbles in my stomach and the beginnings of a sulphurous / eggy taste in my mouth. This doesn't bode well and sure enough I am up most of the night - as are the Nepalis who carry on dinking and dancing all night.
I feel pretty miserable when we get up and need to decide whether to go up the mountain with the group or rest. The two key factors are that there is virtually no chance of getting anywhere near the summit and that I am heading off to Antarctica soon for a month and am now prioritising that expedition over a couple of days on the lower slopes of AD. I have got a couple of niggles - a minor on/ off ear infection and a cold / cough which I am very keen to shake and camping at altitude in the cold won't help either especially as bad weather is forecast in a couple of days. It is also handy to have a bit of a break (especially as it is no fun being ill when cold and high) and to start looking forward to being in remote, cold places again. Therefore, whilst I could go up I have decided to concentrate more on the bigger picture - I also still feel pretty poor late in the day and so would probably not really enjoy the trip in any case.
The rest of the day is spent mostly in bed, when not dashing off, and as such lunch is just a bit of soup. I treat myself to a shower and wash my clothes in the afternoon but the clouds come in very quickly after that and the evening gets very cold.
I have supper (a bit of soup and rice) and a chat with the base camp manager and it seems that our descent is going to be complicated. Firstly, he thinks that for some reason we should be camping - I tell him that his is not the case and that he need to ring his boss in the morning to clarify this and that if his boss thinks that we are meant to be camping to call Adventure P eaks to sort things out - not that I would really mind camping it is just that this will take time to resolve and there are bound to be other implications which will need sorting out as well. Secondly, he doesn't think that the yaks can make the journeys we will be making in the same time as us and so we will risk being separated from our main bags for the descent and even worse, them not arriving at Lukla on the same day and so there being difficulties or risks in getting them back to Kathmandu. The solution for this is to ensure that the yaks get to BC early on departure day so that the yaks can head off as early as possible. There are probably a couple of other issues but we talk through these and what he needs to do over the next couple of days to ensure that things to smoothly. I am left with a bit of a sinking feeling about this which unfortunately is more than just my insides still churning!
Unfortunately even the rice seems to have been a bit aggressive so I have another very poor night. I decide to head back to Namche today hoping that the more luxurious surroundings will be better for me. From memory, the trek isn't too bad so even in my current state I should be ok on the route.
The cook sensibly won't take no for an answer to his offer of breakfast and makes me eat an appropriately bland noodle soup before I head off at about 08:30 - although my pack is a bit heavier than I anticipated at just under 20kg as I need to be self-sufficient for the next few days.
This carries me through the first couple of hours and the steep ups and downs past Pangboche up to Tangboche - I am feeling pretty good and make pretty good time - less than 2/3 of what our guide suggested without pushing it at all. However at that point everything seems to give way and the rest of the walk including quite a few steep hills becomes really rather difficult. I have no energy at all really; my ears, nose and throat all start to play up and rather then benefitting from the lower altitude I am continually short of breath (not struggling to breathe more that my breathing doesn't seen to do much good) which is a bit of a mystery as I am walking at well below the altitude I am acclimatised to and the uphills become a real challenge. I have a few, bland muesli bars and I decide to chance my stomach as this can't go on. Marvellously, they seem to kick in just as I reach the top of the final hill (about two hours after I eat them!) only leaving the half hour or so of flattish traverse to Namche. There is still time to have an encounter with a yak (who seems to be offended when I overtake it after it has passed me struggling up a hill earlier on) who stages a mini charge and his tossing horns very narrowly miss my chest and rucksack as I jump to the side and away up the hill.
Namche is on a steep hill and the final few hundred metres to the teahouse (despite being downhill) are pretty painful as there is nothing left in my legs at all. After settling in, I pop out to find some wifi and catch up with people and the world, then back for some tomato soup (the only food I can stomach) and then an early (7pm) bed. Luckily I have a couple of days to recover before the rest of the group arrives and we head on down to Lukla and our flight back to Kathmandu.
I wonder how much of my troubles, especially my breathing difficulties comes from the fact that I am severely dehydrated. When I get to Namche I drink 4 litres of water in the afternoon and have soup and a coke before bed - all of which leads to only one small and very dark brown pee just before going to bed.
This expedition has been rather bi-polar so far. Most days have been very relaxed and easy except for the summit of Island Peak and then today which were both really rather difficult. Although I suppose I could have gone a lot slower on both and found then much less of a struggle - but then that's not me really.
Still feeling pretty ropey today - physically tired, dehydrated and pretty nauseous. I potter about and have a look in the shops - always in need of new gear!
I spend a bit of time in the bakery (it is warm and has free wifi!) and it is interesting to see people about to set off on trips up the valley as well as those on their way out. The naivety of those on their first 'expedition' (and now trying to work out what it will be like and what they will need) and the false confidence of those who have completed (presumably their first) and are now receiving plaudits for handing out advice unaware that they have been lucky or unlucky on their trip and that as a result their advice will be of limited use at best to those on a different type of trip or who will face differing conditions.
The afternoon is reading in the sun and drinking in hopefully a non-futile attempt to rehydrate - food is still tricky but there is only one day of walking down to Lukla which should be manageable. And then an early bed. Recovery days aren't that interesting really.
Similarly relaxed day - until lunchtime. I am having dinner on the 'terrace' (dirt ground area outside the teahouse but with a superb view of the mountains surrounding Namche) when a local cow (?) decides it wants some of my lunch. The salad I can understand, but less so the chicken with rice. Unfortunately I am sitting on a rather weak white plastic chair and am holding my tray with my right hand just leaving my left free to fend off the cow. There is clearly a power imbalance here and, much to everyone else's delight, my chair doesn't last long and soon I am sprawled on the ground with the cow licking the remnants of my lunch off my legs - as usual I am wearing shorts and the cow's rasping tongue is not that pleasant although fairly ticklish which makes it rather difficult to mount any serious defence. Things get a little more serious when it spies some of the larger chunks on the far side of me and I am concerned about being trampled and so quite roughly force myself up. At this point one of the Nepalis comes out of the kitchen and heads towards us shouting 'bad' and there is a rather comical moment when the cow and I look at each other to see who the chap is saying bad to (this a strong Buddhist area and you are not meant to harm animals) causing another round of laughter amongst the other guests. The cow is lead away but not very far and comes back a few minutes later so everyone starts laughing again - this is doubled when one of the local crows lazily flies overhead and manages to land some guano on the cows head - perhaps there is such a thing as Kama and rather instantaneous Kama at that!
I have been trying to contact our base camp manager who will apparently be accompanying us out - there is only one route so it is more as the logistics man than a guide really - but have not been able to get through to him all day. Eventually I give up and decide to head to the bakery as the sun sets for some warmth and web time. Quite amazingly I find 2/3 of the rest of the group having cake there having just finished their walk down from base camp - and with quite a story!
Their plan on heading up the mountain was to walk up to camp 1, possible staying at the intermediate Yak camp if the group was too tired to carry on and then head up to camp 2 and see if they could get much further before coming back to base camp and then down to NB. Somehow, a mixture of the rather varied speeds in the group and some rather hungover Sherpas meant the slowest two ended up alone at Yak Camp by themselves - luckily there was a spare tent from another group there but they had no fuel or stoves to make any hot water (for hot drinks and for the freeze dried mountain food) and so had a rather chilly night and a supper of their lunchtime snack bars. The next day there was a bit of a retreat to base camp whilst a couple of the others went a bit further up the mountain before coming back to camp 1 and then back to BC the next day.
Back at BC, most prepared to come down to Namche whilst one of those who had only got to Yak Camp decided to have another go up the mountain. At which point our super Sherpas excelled themselves with two of them flatly refusing to go up with her - which was what they were being paid to do - again they had been drinking and were hungover again which contributed to their own laziness. Eventually one of them was told he was jolly well going to do it and eventually set off an hour or so later.
The others in the meantime were waiting to head down, save for Paddy who was going to wait up at base camp, whilst the yaks were being loaded up but eventually set off as there was little sign of them starting. Now at Namche there was little idea when or if the bags and our 'guide' would arrive. Anyhow, I showed them to the teahouse and introduced them to the lovely lady running the place where we had some supper and then bed.
The next morning at breakfast a rather portly but smiling and moustachioed man arrived asking for us. There was quite a bit of confusion as he did not speak much English but it turned out that he was our Liaison Officer. Every trekking / climbing group in Nepal has to pay for a Liaison Officer who is meant to help and look after them - the ongoing joke being that you have the meeting with them in Kathmandu and never see or hear from them again.
He seemed to be in contact with our guide and eventually after a few phone conversations he arrived - and did so in a wonderful display of confusion. Firstly he did not have any money, or credit agreements in place with the teahouse so we now had to pay for everything and could ask for reimbursement when we got to Kathmandu. The teahouse owner did not want to be paid in USD and so we head off to find a money changer - unfortunately it turns out that today is a public holiday and so all the official money changing locations are closed - but luckily some others (with discounted rates obviously) have sprung up. We now just need to make sure we get reimbursed in USD as we don't want to end up with a fistful of Nepali Rupiah just before we leave the country.
Secondly, he wasn't sure where the yaks were, but they had been very late setting off from Base Camp and so would probably not make it to Lukla today - as such our bags would probably need to go on a later flight to us and he might or might not be on that flight so who knows where or when they will end up. Things have a habit of working out of chaos here but just as frequently going completely wrong!
Anyway, we set off at about 10 and are accompanied by our Liaison officer who is wearing four heavy layers compared to my one thin shirt! This could be tricky as we were planning a fairly quick descent given the inability to set off promptly. In fact he seems to be able to move pretty decently and, although we naturally spread out quite a bit, we make pretty good time on the way down. We have a long wait for lunch and it is of pretty mixed quality except for the chips, some of which come with a form of hot (temperature as opposed to spicy) but rather good salsa. This is not the best preparation for a fairly long uphill slog into Lukla and my stomach is ominously uncomfortable for much of the rest of the trek.
It has been quite a tough day and towards the end I seem to be relapsing a bit - ears, cough and cold all vying to make a bit of a comeback - not helped by the fact that my pack is really rather heavy for the speed at which we are going! Quite a few days of not eating properly mean that I run out of energy towards the end combined with having an oddly full stomach!
Once there, I head to the hotel (prior to joining the others in the local Starbucks) and meet our guide (who had gone on ahead) to discuss the arrangements - more amusement (although I am getting a bit tired of this type of amusement now) ensues. Firstly I am told that 4 of us are sharing a room. However it turns out that the room only has two beds!! I look at our guide who smiles inanely. I tell him as politely as possible, in terms of the tone of my voice although not necessarily the language, 'Don't be silly. Go and sort it out!' He grins again and says that the hotel is full; less than impressed I point back down the stairs and repeat 'Don't be silly. Go and sort it out!' He potters off and meets one of the ladies running the place who says (something along the lines of) 'ok, I'll get them rooms in the hotel over the road' and does so in about 2 mins!
Secondly, flights. We have had to change these as we are flying out early and have previously been told that we are flying at 8am. Apparently, this has now changed to 9. There is no problem with that, it is just that it doesn't seem clear what or why this has changed and therefore how much faith we can have in the new time. So we agree that he will let us know if there any further changes that day but provisionally will have an 8am breakfast for a 9 am flight - seems tight but it is only a 5 min walk to the airport which is tiny. During supper we double check on the flights and are told that nothing has changed and that we have plenty of time in our schedule. One of the waitresses overhears our discussion and says 'No, 11am'. So our guide corrects himself and says 'Yes, flight at 11am'. Quite where this has come from, and why our waitress seems to know more about out flights than our guide just isn't clear.
Realising that there is little more we can do now we head for a few beers in the Irish bar - albeit there is a real difference in spirit between those who have completed their trip (various trekkers) and those who have not made their objective (us climbers). I am still in less than tip top shape so it is a bit of a struggle to stay enthused.
We have not heard of any further changes and so head off to breakfast at 8. Our guide finally pops in to say hello and that he is off to make a phone call. We ask him about the bags and it turns out that are still only half way if that from Namche to Lukla; half jokingly we ask if he will be flying to Kathmandu with them later on that day and he says maybe. We then ask what time the bags will arrive in Katmandu and how they will get to the hotel; to which he answers that probably about 4pm and that he will stay in Lukla to ensure that they get on the plane and that someone from his company will pick them up and deliver them to the hotel, finally admitting that he will not be on the plane with them.
He still isn't back at about 10am which is rather concerning as our flights are pretty soon. I ask one of the girls working at the hotel who seems competent and speaks reasonable English. She says that they have been trying to change our tickets from their original date to today and that she will take us down to the airport at 11:30 for a flight a bit after that. Despite the fact that this is yet another unexpected and unexplained change, for the first time I feel that I have spoken to someone who actually knows what is going on and so we head off to the bakery for a mid-morning coffee - letting them know where we are in case of any change.
Getting out of Luckla can be difficult and having an efficient and connected agent acting quickly is vital - frequently the weather deteriorates during the day and so it is pretty important to fly as early in the morning as possible. We now have a good idea of the competency of our chap and are not sure how much can be rectified at the last minute by the hotel - quite why this wasn't being organised over the past couple of days of our descent is beyond us.
About an hour later our guide turns up with a very proud smile stretching from ear to ear. He announces that our flights have been delayed but that he has got us spots on a helicopter heading to Kathmandu quite soon. Having checked that this does not include a significant (or in fact any extra payment on our behalf) we hotfoot it to the airport chastising ourselves for our continuing criticism of the complete shambles that the expedition has descended into. However, there are a few wise words in that none of this salvation has as yet come to pass and we should see what actually eventuates. Unsurprisingly, we get to the airport to find confusion reigning again and are eventually told that in fact we do not have spots on the helicopter - in fact it is not clear that there is any helicopter to have spots on. Our guide disappears again leaving us in the departures hall with no idea of what is going on.
Quite luckily, the girl from the airport turns up with a list of names of the whole group and asks which of us are here for the flights (Paddy and another still being up the mountain) says wait here for a few minutes and heads off, soon returning with the news that we are on the 20th flight and that the one that has just left is the 16th. We are to wait where we are and will be called through to check-in in a bit.
Someone else from the hotel then arrives to say that we have not paid the bill and need to do so. Obviously our guide is nowhere to be found and eventually it turns out that, despite the local agent having an arrangement with the teahouse to pay the bill later, they have reverted to not paying for our water (he has the correct number of drinks and we are so disenchanted with the local agent so we think that this is probably genuine) - rather than risk any further problems we pay the chap who then heads off. Our guide then turns up and announces that we also have to pay airport taxes (again which are meant to be included in what we have paid already) yet another previously unadvised cash cost and we delve into our last few Rupiah to cover this.
Lukla is a pretty tricky airport to fly out of but, through the whole time we have been waiting, we have seen groups come in, wait for 10 mins or so, check in and then get onto plane 20mins later so it really does seem that our experience is exceptional rather than the norm. Before any further issues arise, we are called through to check-in and then the long wait in the departure lounge for our flight. Very luckily the weather looks to be good all day so despite the disorganisation of the local agent we are hopeful that both we and our bags will get to Kathmandu today.
An hour or so later, no more planes have come for quite a while and then we hear that the weather has started to deteriorate and the flights have been put on hold due to high wind. All of a sudden our previous confidence in getting to Kathmandu today (especially with our bags) is starting to recede. After a bit we are let out onto the plane parking area
for a bit of exercise and some time in the sun (sounds a bit like prison!) as it is remarkably cold in the waiting lounge - many people are wearing down jackets! After 20mins or so the wind changes direction allowing flights to leave Kathmandu. We come in and find out that there are five flights coming and that we are on the last of those five flights. That is a relief in that it means we should get to Kathmandu today but also that there is no chance that our big kit bags will get there. Given that there is plenty of flying time left today, this raises that possibility / probability that there was never any chance of our bags flying out today as there were no later flights for them and that our guide was 'optimistic' about that!
Four planes arrive and empty out most of the departure lounge but then about 15 of us are left. It is impossible to find out (for sure) if the last plane has or had not left Kathmandu and therefor if we are going to leave here today - quite frustrating especially as it is so cold in the lounge.
Finally, it turns out that there is no final plane so we and the other passengers head out to pick up our rucksacks and then head up to the departure lounge to get our tickets and airport tax vouchers for our next attempt at leaving Lukla. We head to the ticket office in town to find a mad scramble in front of a small desk. We have heard stories about the difficulty of getting attention in such queues so, when our apparent local (Lukla) agent from the hotel hangs back, I head in using a mixture of British charm and being a good foot taller and twice as big as pretty much everyone else. I get a lucky break when someone who has just finished turns the right way for me to slip into his place. Somehow being unshaven and unwashed for a few days daws the attention of the lady behind the counter and I get helped quickly. Unfortunately, everyone here is confirming their clients' bookings for tomorrow and tomorrow looks like being a very busy day so her only advice is to wait for half an hour when they will be sorting out the wait list for anyone else trying to fly tomorrow. Anyone booked for a certain day has priority for those flights - even if your flight is cancelled you join the general list of wait-listed travellers trying to get out of Lukla over the next few days.
Then just as I go back into the wait list queue, the wonderfully competent girl from the hotel turns and tells us that she has already placed us on the wait list for tomorrow and that we can head off to the hotel for some food - in fact we are in a different teahouse today as theirs is full. The teahouse is right next to the airport, very new and really not too bad.
As we are sitting down to some tea having just ordered supper, our Lukla agent turns up with a suggestion for us although he speaks virtually no English. So whilst I think I understand the details of the deal, there is plenty of scope for confusion - our confidence isn't helped by the can of Tenants Extra that he is drinking and, from the smell, is not his first! There is a chartered plane coming in and they can get us seats on the return journey for $200 each and we can get a $100 refund for our existing tickets. This will mean that we will get to Kathmandu tomorrow morning rather than at some unspecified point over the next few days! There is still no sign of our bags so we still need to sort that uncertainty out. There has been somewhat of a reduction in enthusiasm for Nepal and our local agents over the past couple of days amongst the group which is making having a productive discussion of this option tricky - both amongst ourselves and with the agent. I decide that having the most experience of developing countries and how things work that I will take over here. So, having agreed in principle that we are keen to do this, I head back to the prior hotel with the Lukla agent to go through the details and make it happen whilst the others have supper. As we are about to leave, the agent gets a call from our trekking guide - our bags have reached the other hotel and despite knowing that we are now in a different one he has unloaded the yaks and there is no one left to bring our bags across town. He seems more concerned by the fact that there is something very wrong with one of the bags - yet another cause for ire amongst the group with how things are being handled! As we are leaving, we pass the Liaison Officer who had been with us at the airport, who is on the phone but appears very keen to speak to me before we leave. It turns out that he is on the phone with the trekking guide who has been telling him (and asking him to convey to me) about a big problem with one of the bags - this is getting quite worrying!
When we get to the other hotel, I try to get our trekking guide to help with the discussion on the flights as we probably need to move quickly to ensure our places. However, he is keener to look at the bags which is annoying as there is nothing that we can do about them now and 5 minutes delay will not make any difference there. Again, I am not at my politest in dealing with him but we finally manage to clarify all the details and I give the Lukla agent the $500 to head off and reserve our places. We will then see him and our trekking guide at 06:30 am at our hotel to make the final payments, cancel our existing tickets and get to the airport in time for our plane at about 9 or 10 am - it all seems relatively straightforward so I am hopeful that things will work out.
Now we can turn our attention to the key issue of the day (which I am sort of dreading) which is the serious problem with one of the bags - I have visions of my gear scattered in a trail down the mountain where my bag has been ripped open following a clash between two yaks! I am shown the bag in question which does not appear to be damaged but has a crowd of locals standing round it and our trekking guide very carefully puts my hand on a certain part of it so I expect to feel something clearly broken - in fact it turns out that someone's electric tootbrush has been inadvertently turned on and so there is a small vibration in the bag! Rather unimpressed by this and our guide's fixation on it for the evening, I help sort out the bags and then carry mine together with the sharps (ice axes and crampons) back across town to our hotel. From there we have circular discussion about the past few days and our fears and hopes for tomorrow before an early bed in preparation for an early start tomorrow.
Today, and the mess over the past few days, is all annoying but not that serious as we have not been able to summit and so have plenty of time. A much bigger concern is for my Everest trip next year. This level of uncertainty, irresponsibility, disorganisation and incompetence is just not acceptable or permissible on such an expedition. AP have recently changed their local agent and, whilst a certain level of teething problems is unfortunately to be expected, these issues have far exceeded that and I will need to have some pretty tough conversations with them and then take a decision whether to use them for Everest or leave them for my final expedition and chose another company instead.
Up at 05:30 today to drive the potentially risky process of getting our flight. The kitchens look closed first thing which is a bit of a worry, but then we can see a young chap beavering away in there and we have a wonderfully, typical chat in there at 6am "'Breakfast 6am, yes?', 'Yes', ' Now 6am.', 'Yes, 6am. Breakfast in 15 minutes'" And so at about 06:20 breakfast for five appears.
In fact, and unsurprisingly, this delay is not that relevant as neither our guide not the hotel agent arrives as promised. I knock back my cheese and tomato omelette and head off to find them - I bump into the Liaison Officer (not sure why he is up this early as he is not coming with us) and get him to call our trekking guide who, it turns out, is at the airport. So I head over there to find him with the agent and it is completely unclear what they are up to. Nevertheless, this gives me the chance to confirm that everything is ok for the day and reconfirm our plans.
First up is to get our tickets cancelled; for some reason this cannot be done but I cannot understand why so we move on from that, contact the 'big boss' back in Kathmandu who says it is not a problem. He will reimburse us the $100 anyway and the tickets can be cancelled by our guide tomorrow. So we head back to the hotel to sort out the final payments. Whilst we have been dealing with the tickets a 'discussion' over who pays for the teahouse and meals has started. The teahouse, despite being the sister teahouse to where we were last night, knows that our guide has no cash but has for some reason forgotten that the agency has an arrangement for settling the account. We resolve that, make the final payments for the flights and then with everything seemingly in hand sit down and wait for the first wave of flights to be completed before heading to the airport for our flight in the second wave.
The airport check in moves as smoothly as one can expect out here, but we are told that some weather has come in at Kathmandu and that there are not going to be any flights for a while - maybe 1 or 2 hours, but that our plane will be in the next batch coming over.
Whilst sitting in the departure lounge, the hotel agent comes running in saying that security want to look in our checked in bags but they are locked. We give keys and combinations to one of the group who goes out to watch the inspection. They chose one stuff sac from each bag to go through and our colleague helps them somewhat. It seems that they are looking for lighters which they then chuck in a bin. When it comes to my stuff sac, he opens it and finds a small plastic bag which emits a cloud of white powder when opened which he hurriedly and worriedly puts it back in before security can see it! He is rather concerned at what happened until the inspection is over and he is back in the departure lounge, where I can reassure him that it is only talcum powder! Otherwise, as yesterday, we spend the morning waiting in the airport as other groups get onto their plane and are whisked off to Kathmandu.
Again, after four planes in the second wave, they stop arriving as it is apparently too windy. We ask a number of people for some information about this as it is not really that windy here. Eventually, we are told that it is not too windy here or in Kathmandu for landing or taking off, but that it is too windy in the middle for flying. This causes quite a bit of laughter from people in the departure lounge who know that this is rubbish - it always appears to become windy from about 12 until 2 when presumably everyone connected to domestic flights heads off for lunch. The again at about 2pm we are let out onto the tarmac as we have got pretty cold waiting for the past 6 hours and at about 3pm are ushered back into the waiting room to great cheers as we are told that the planes are coming. The problem is that there are bout 5 or 6 planes of people waiting and it appears that only three planes are coming - 2 plane loads have already been told that their flights are cancelled, so there is a lot of nervous chatter abut what will happen and what people have been told by various airport officials. I manage to talk to three such officials and they all seem pretty certain that our plane is on its way here, but other passengers seem equally certain that their planes are coming as well / instead. But it seems as though the people on the waitlist for today are not going anywhere today and it makes you wonder when they might actually get on a plane as given the long lunch break each day not all the flights for that day get off let alone the waitlisted ones - there is quite a continual departure of helicopters to Kathmandu (presumably where the airline owners make their real money) but it turns out that we probably have too much baggage for them.
Anyway and finally, our plane is the first of the batch to come. Our relief is quite pathetic really as we were coming to realise just how hard it was going to be for us to get back to Kathmandu and we weren't that keen on spending more days waiting in the airport at Lukla!
There is quite a bit of cloud so we can't see a great deal on the way back - until one of the other aircraft heading for Lukla shoots out of some clouds overhead and can't miss us by that much - queue some very relieved laughter from the cockpit! Then on landing the pilot tries to take a short cut to the domestic terminal only to end up in a game of chicken with a jumbo jet that is taxiing for take off. We can see the pilots calculating whether we could fit under their wings and probably the answer is yes but this was too much even for Nepali Health and Safety and there is a vey loud blast of officialdom over the radio. We do a three point turn - fairly sure that the pilot is gunning for a hand brake turn - and then squeeze in between the various landing aircraft to head up the runway to the other end of the airport.
Still, there was more to come. Instead of being met by a mini bus, a yute arrives so we pile into the back with the luggage for the transfer to the terminal which is actually rather pleasant given the heat. And, lastly to cap an interesting day off, there is no transfer to meet us at the airport so we had to get a taxi back into town. Not normally too much of an issue but, there were five of us with a lot of luggage and we had used all of our cash in Lukla. Finally, we managed to get a medium sized estate car with our luggage everywhere and our knees round our ears which turned out to be pretty painful given the bumpy roads of Kathmandu. Nevertheless, this got us back to our hotel in one piece.
There, we showered, shaved, organised flights and sorted out the cash with the local agent before heading out to the Everest Steak House to sate our appetites for meat
followed by a few beers in one of the rather stereotypical backpacker / foreigner bars there before flying out early next morning.
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