After 6 months of preparation and years in my wildest dreams, the mountain climbing has finally begun! Although not one of the Seven Summits, I decided to warm up to my year of climbing with a Trekking Peak called Mera Peak in Nepal. At 6,474m Mera Peak offered a great chance for me to road test my gear and fitness on a real mountain ahead of the real deal that is Denali.
So, on the 23rd of April I headed off to Kathmandu where I met my 11 fellow climbers and took the always thrilling flight to Lukla, deep in the Khumbu Region of the Himalayas. While sitting in a tea house for a final dose of civilization before heading off on foot, we couldn’t help but notice a steady stream of ‘broken’ trekkers and climbers arriving back from places such as Everest Base Camp with filthy clothes, matted hair and some with suspicious symptoms of the notorious Khumbu cough. We had all this to look forward to.
As a real contrast to the congested route North towards Everest, we had our trail to the south almost entirely to ourselves, however it frequently took us up high over passes and ridgelines to then frustratingly drop down sometimes over 750m vertically to the valley floor to cross a small river before ascending again. After hours of ascending up a trail there are few things more frustrating while trekking than discovering the trail now descends, effectively undoing all your hard work. Although tougher on the body, this process of ascending and descending while at altitude works wonders for the acclimatization process. Sadly it didn’t work wonders for a blister on my foot that promptly formed as we departed Lukla on day one and became a grotesque infected mess by lunch time on day 2. Limping around I was dealt a clear reminder of how something so incredibly simple can derail any trip regardless of the preparation. Carrying on up the Valley for 12 days we reached the village of Khare which is also known as Mera Peak Base camp. The entire team was fit and well and ready to get down to the serious business of climbing.
The climb was divided into 2 days; an ascent to high camp at 5,900m and then a long day that would hopefully see us summit and return to base camp. During the first day we plodded on up slopes of rock and snow while sleet and snow that seem to only fall sideways found its way inside any open part of my jacket, buff, beanie, glove etc. At 5,000m the reduced air pressure means that there is 50% of the oxygen in each breathe as compared with sea level. Watching my heart rate occasionally, it was clear we were no longer at sea level negotiating the foothills of Muscat. As soon as we would move, even at a snail’s pace, my heart rate and breathing suddenly made me feel like an elderly chain smoker. The sensible strategy at these times is to listen to your body and patiently moderate your pace to allow your breathing to keep up with your body’s increased demand for oxygen. The less sensible strategy is to attempt to keep pace with a Sherpa that is capable of running up such a mountain. Opting for the later, I arrived into the High Camp with a well-earned altitude induced headache.
With no river on the mountain and so no easy source of water, we began melting snow to hydrate, a miserable task due to wind and frigid temperatures that takes hours rather than minutes. Believing I was on top of things, I attempting to get a few precious hours of sleep. I say ‘attempted’, because there was really no chance of such peaceful luxury given that we were not acclimatized to 6,000m and so sleeping is almost impossible. Knowing that we were heading for the summit at 1am, I woke up at 11:30pm to start melting some snow for a second water bottle however the joys of mountaineering struck and I discovered my stove wouldn’t stay lit. Without a working stove, there wouldn’t be enough water, and without water there would be no summit. Again something so simple was nearly about to bring it all down on the day when it mattered.
We finally got ourselves roped together and heading in the right direction at 1.30am trudging through 8 inches of fresh snow. Roped together in groups of 4 so as to ensure no team members were surrendered to a crevasse, we followed foot prints of an eager group that had set off earlier. After 1 hour following the trail of foot prints in the dark, we met two shaken climbers that were descending sheepishly down their own trail after one fell into a crevasse. We took over the task of breaking trail and pushed on to the summit ice cap. A final steep slope provided a great photo opportunity and the job was done. Fellow climber Jen and I tucked into a small bottle of Nepal’s finest Rum, Kukuri and took in the panorama that included 5 of the world’s 14 8,000m peaks including Everest.
A huge acknowledgement must be given to the 4 Sherpa’s and several Porters whom without we would have never got close to the mountain let alone climb it as well as our guide Dave that provided plenty of mountaineering anecdotes and advice along the way.
The end of a trip means it is back to the training. With less than two weeks before Denali, I have to fast track some weight gain to replace the few pounds that the mountain took; I already have the Indian restaurant in Muscat informed and I am very excited. It also means back to the dreaded Stairmaster to regain some muscular strength and I am less than excited. With a 50% success rate (and those that attempt are not your Sunday hiker), Denali is a huge undertaking for anyone, so complete focus mentally and physically is critical. We will soon see if it was all enough! Stay tuned for the first real test.