Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Welcome to the Jungle

So after getting back from trekking in the Khumbu, I spent a few days in Kathmandu catching up with some friends and fellow trail mates I had met along the way. Then it was off to the Chitwan National Park in the south of Nepal and not too far from the Indian border (about 50km away) for some rest and relaxation.

Due to the proximity to the border the local Tharu villages contain a mix of Nepalese hill people and migrant North Indians, so they have different cultures, houses and even languages.

On my first evening in the resort we were treated to a local Tharu stick dance, it's like a form or Nepalese Morris dancing but with bigger sticks, quite entertaining.

The following morning I went for a jungle walk, after a short walk up river I boarded a canoe with my guide and 2 boatmen that double up as body guards! We spotted some crocodiles and a whole menagerie of bird life, then it was time for the walk, but first I was given a "safety" briefing, which went something like:

Welcome to the jungle (in my head the Guns N Roses song started playing) there are some dangerous animals out there, there are a few rules if we encounter some types of animal.

    1. If we come across a rhino and it charges, runaway in a zigzag pattern or climb the nearest tree, rhinos cannot change direction very quickly or climb trees, but they can knock them down!
    2. If we encounter a sloth bear, huddle in a group to make yourself look big, make lots of noise and beat sticks on the ground. Under no circumstance climb a tree as bears are very good at this as well.
    3. If in the unlikely event that we come across a Bengal tiger....... Pray! Do not climb trees, play dead, runaway or fight back. It all depends on the tigers mood and how hungry they are if we live or die.

With that the safety briefing was over, I was handed a stick and off we set into the jungle. Unfortunately, we didn't encounter any of the afore mentioned rhinos, bears or tigers, but I did see monkeys, deer and some fresh tiger tracks, eek! I think the main danger came from the leeches and bugs.

In the afternoon I got to test drive the ultimate off road vehicle.... An elephant. This baby went anywhere, 3m high grass, through dense undergrowth, sticky mud and deep water, it would put any Landrover to shame. Sadly it's top speed is not very high, it has trouble reversing and requires a ton (literally) of fuel everyday, so I'm not sure it would be practical around Bristol, that said you could park it anywhere.

After getting used to the lumbering, rolling gait, it was quite relaxing to just sit back and watch out for wildlife, again I was not lucky to see any of the big animals, after 2 hours the sun was setting so we headed back, what a great end to the day.

The next morning I decided to have another attempt of spotting some rhinos with another elephant ride, again it was an unsuccessful trip, but I just love wandering around the jungle, crashing through the undergrowth on these magnificent, gentle animals.

Note to self: don't play hide and seek with one horned rhinos in the Chitwan NP, they are the masters at hiding, the smaller animals such as deer and mongoose are easy to spot, but the rhinos must have some great hiding places (that they do have 932 sq km to hide in!)

All in all this was a great experience, one that I'll never forget and the elephant riding is a must for anyone coming to Nepal.


Monday, 29 October 2012

Gorak Shep to Namche Bazar

So I'm in Namche resting up after an epic couple of weeks trekking in the Everest region. This will be my final update for this part of the trip as I only have one small 6 hour walk back to Lukla to get my flight back to Kathmandu.

22/10/2012 Gorak Shep to Dzongla (via Kala Patthar)

My alarm started to bleep, it's early, very early. 4:15 to be precise, I couldn't ignore it as was the start of a very long day!

Pre breakfast we were to climb Kala Patthar, the "hill" behind Gorak Shep. It only rises 400m above the village, so at sea level this would be nothing. However, I'm starting at 5140m and its cold and dark.

I quickly got dressed and headed out into the blackness at 4:30. There was already a stream of head torches dotted up the hill. The initial bit was a bit steep, but soon the gradient eased out and the going got slightly easier. I guess that I was up around 5300m and could see the silhouette of the summit another 200m above me. By now the sun was coming over the horizon (5:30) and we are able to switch off our head torches but I still concentrated on the 3m in front of me, I'm in my own world of pain. Struggling to breathe and put one foot in front of the other.

The defined trail came to an end and became a jumble of blocks. My fingers and toes were getting cold and a bit numb, I was only 50m from the top, at this point I was literally crawling on my hands and knees to the top, nothing was going to stop me. At 6:00 I was on the summit at 5550m, this is the highest I've ever been on foot!

Around me other peaks tower above me, from where I stand Everest is still over 3km higher. It's taken a mammoth 2.5 hours to get here, I take some photos and then it's time to descend, my index fingers by now have gone totally numb.

Our descent is rapid and as we get lower and the sun gets warmer, I get painful hot aches in my fingers, a good sign as this means they are going to be ok. After 1 hour we are back in the tea house in Gorak Shep, time for some breakfast.

After an hour break we leave Gorak Shep and head back over the moraine we crossed the previous day to Lobuche. Again we make light work of the journey and take 1.5 hours. My original schedule says we will be stopping here for the night. Unfortunately, it is really busy in the Everest region and there are no rooms, we must do a double day and head on to Dzongla. We take a break before continuing.

The path from Lobuche to Dzongla is not hard going as it contours around the hillside. However, I should point out it is very narrow, less thank 50cm in places with big drops to my lefthand side. Soon I see Dzongla in the distance, the good news is that it's at the same height as the path I'm on, the bad news is that there are 2 valleys to descend and reascend before I get there. At 12:30 we reach Dzongla I have been walking 7.5 hours, Epic!

I spend the rest of the day trying to let my body recover, my muscles and joints ache, I just want to go to sleep.

23/10/2012 Dzongla to Thangnak (via Cho La)

If the previous day wasn't big enough, I have to do a similar trek again today.

Another early start up at 6:15 and on the trail by 6:45. It was nice that the sun was already warming up the valley. After a short climb u p from the tea house I was faced with a wide flat valley, at the end of which I could see the days main challenge, the Cho La pass some 500m above me at 5330m. We made good progress until we crossed a small river then it was up, up, up along the old moraine. Finally reaching the head wall of the valley, from here the path became more like a scramble (a mix between walking and easy rock climbing). At the top there is a small glacier that needs to be crossed, not difficult as the ice was firm and crunchy and as long as to stay to the left side well away from the crevasses.

At the end of the glacier we made a short rock climb to the pass and my first view into the next valley. I could see the path winding its way into the distance. We had only taken 2.5 hours to get to this point but there was still quite a bit of work to do.

On leaving the pass I was faced with a very steep downhill section, which was rocky and had loose scree. The map stated that this area was prone to rockfall so we had to move fast. After 50 mins we reached the bottom of the danger area with no issues. From here it should be all plain sailing I thought......Wrong!

Next come some energy zapping boulder hopping. This went on for ages and I jarred my left knee. Eventually, we reached the winding path that I saw from the top of the pass, but due to my knee, which was now ready to explode made it hard going, each step causing more pain, bringing tears to my eyes, I was wishing for the village to appear around every corner.

After 2.5 hours since leaving the top of the pass we entered Thangnak, it had been another hard day and I had been walking for 5 hours 45 mins with very little rest, food & water (I ran out during the boulder section).

I rested my knee and took some anti-inflammatories, I was totally wasted and its taking my body longer to recover.

24/10/2012 Thangnak to Gokyo

I woke at 6:15 with a hacking cough and sore throat, I had been coming down with something for a few days now, as many Trekkers in the tea houses were also ill. This must be the famous Khumbu cough caused by the cold, dry air.

The journey from Thangnak to Gokyo is relatively short, only 2 hours with minimal climbing. However, we had one major obstacle to deal with the Ngozumba Glacier, which we had to cross.

After an easy 30 min walk along the lateral moraine we dropped steeply onto the glacier itself. You wouldn't believe that you were on ice as it is covered in rubble, sand, big boulders and other debris being transported down the valley. Also I should point out that glaciers are NOT flat!!! We had to negotiate huge hills and valleys as well as make our way around glacial lakes. The ice creaks and every so often rocks fall into the lakes, just to remind you that the river of ice is alive and moving.

At the top of the glacier some 50km away, i can see my final 8000m peak of this trip, Cho Oyu at 8188m. On the for side of the glacier I can see the well defined trail up the steep moraine that leads to Gokyo. After a short climb, we round the hillside and I see the 3rd Gokyo lake, turquoise from all the minerals and on the bank is the small village of Gokyo.

At the opposite end of the lake to Gokyo is the Renjo La pass (5340m) which I will cross in a few days.

We arrive at the tea house at 9:45, but by 10:30 the wind picks up, the temperature plummets and the clouds roll in. Later in the afternoon it begins to snow....

I go to bed early fully dressed as I couldn't get warm, my cold had gotten worse.

25/10/2012 Gokyo (Rest Day)

Had a really poor nights sleep due to my hacking cough and had zero energy, but decided to try and climb Gokyo Ri, only a 500m climb up from the lake to 5360m.

I found the path hard going, my chest was tight and I was coughing constantly. After making it a third of the way up I called it a day and made the tough, but correct decision to descend. I was pushing myself beyond my physical limit and I didn't want to jeopardise the rest of my trek. I was a bit gutted.

It was back down to the tea house to rest up.

26/10/2012 Gokyo to Lungde (via Renjo La)

This was my final "hard" day of the trek as we would be passing over the Renjo La at 5340m, but I wasn't feeling 100%, my cough was making it hard to breathe, but on the other hand my throat wasn't too sore.

We left shortly after breakfast at 7:00 and I let Pasang lead the way. He sets a very slow but steady pace and I'm happy to follow in his footsteps. Initially the path is easy going rising gently above the lake on my left. After about an hour, the fun started as we hit the steep zigzags. Due to my cough I was finding it hard going and I spluttered my way upwards.

At the top of the zigzags the trail levelled out and I thought we had reached the top, how wrong I was.we entered a flat bowl about 1km across, after which the trail climbed steeply to the true summit which I could see about 150m above me, this depressed me a bit and it became a process of putting one foot in front of the other in order to get to the top. After a slow 3.5 hours we made the top, my lungs were sore from all the coughing.

However, I was rewarded by the best views of the Everest range of the whole trip, I snapped away, then it was time to make the long 1000m descent to Lungde.

From the top there are stone steps that drop quickly to the valley floor, then the path is easy all the way down to Lungde. We made a quick 2.5 hour descent.

We arrived at the tea house at 13:00 after a 6 hour walk that included 500m ascent and 1000m descent passing over the Renjo La at 5340m.

This would also be my final (10th) night sleeping above 4000m!

Early to bed as this had been another BIG day.

27/10/2012 Lungde to Namche Bazar

Over breakfast I spoke to Pasang about the possibility of walking all the way to Namche in a single day rather that stopping the night at out scheduled place of Thame. I got his usual answer of "We'll see"

We set out at 7:45 and walked at a steady pace only halted by a frozen river which we had to find a safe place to cross. The path was mostly downhill and easy going, except for the odd landslide!!!

After 2.5 hours we reached Thame. This is the birth place of Tenzing Norgay, the first Sherpa to summit Everest. However, there is nothing to recognise this fact. Only his old house exists. We had a short break at a tea house that was owned by Apa Sherpa. Apa holds the record for climbing Everest the most times (21). The tea house was like a museum to his achievements, Guinness world record certificates, photos, posters, etc adorn the walls, stark contrast to that of Tenzing Norgay.

We had descended 500m and the air was getting warmer which was helping my cough and we were now moving fast. I was still early so we decided to make the last push to Namche, the path was wide, relatively easy and mostly in a downhill direction. We passed through the Sherpa villages of Thamo and then Phurte, the day was getting hot, then we rounded the corner and Namche came into view, this would be "home" for the next couple of days before heading on to Lukla for out flight back to Kathmandu.

I quickly dumped my stuff in my room then headed for my first hot shower since starting the trek some 17 days prior, it was a great feeling.

28 & 29/10/2012 Namche Bazar (Rest Days)

So for the past few days we've been getting up late, eating lots and generally doing nothing, that what I call a rest day. Only one day of trekking to do to get back to Lukla and out flight back to the chaos of Kathmandu.

* I will update this post with some photos when I get back to Kathmandu when I get some faster Internet access. *

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Dingboche to Everest Base Camp

19/10/2012 Dingboche to Thukla

Another short day and awake around 6:45 and on the trail by 8:00 after breakfast. Again we climb the hill behind Dingboche to the stupa which takes 15 mins and cross into the wide valley turning out backs on Ama Dablam, heading deeper into the Khumbu.

From here the the trail is pretty easy going and heads over a relatively flat valley, after 1.5 hours we see Thukla on the other side of the river that flows from the bottom of the Khumbu Glacier.

We drop down to a small metal bridge and cross the river and make the final 5 min walk to Thukla. The whole walk has only taken 1 hour 40 mins. The place only has one tea house/restaurant. We are to stop here tonight rather than heading up higher to Lobuche as it is getting quite busy with other trekking groups going up and down to Everest Base Camp.

The rest of the day is spent resting and talking to other trekkers.

20/10/2012 Thukla to Lobuche

It was hard to get out of bed this morning for 2 reasons:

  1. It was a cold night and my sleeping bag was warm and cosy. The thought of leaving this cocoon was unthinkable.
  2. The other reason was that I had done the sleeping bag zip fully up and cinched all the draw cords tight making it difficult to find my way out. I was trapped!!!

I was finally driven out by the need to go to the loo, it was 5:30.

After breakfast we waited for the sun to creep down the hillside and hit the trail we would be walking on, we left at 7:45. It's nicer to walk in the sun.

The initial part of the trail was all uphill, Pasang said that this section normally takes an hour, so we were both surprised when we reached the top in 35 mins. At the top, there are numerous stone memorials to climbers who have lost their lives pursuing their dreams on Everest and other Himalayan mountains. Quite a humbling place. We take a 15 min rest then continue on the now flat trail to Lobuche. We arrive at 9:20, only 1 hour 35 mins after setting out. This normally takes 2 to 2.5 hours, I must be getting fitter!

We check in to the tea house and I find an Internet cafe to send birthday greetings to my long suffering and very understanding girlfriend. I cannot call home or send a text as I have no phone signal.

21/10/2012 Lobuche to Gorak Shep (inc Everest Base Camp)

Early start today and we leave Lobuche at 6:45. The trail is initially very easy as the path follows the valley that has been carved out by the Khumbu Glacier. The sun has not yet hit the path, but we can see it in the distance. When we reach the sun it warms my body making it easier to move, I can dispense with my gloves. Also at this point I cross over the 5000m mark, the air is cold, thin and dry. My lungs are screaming out for more oxygen and my thigh muscles are burning, due to the fact I only have 50% of the oxygen than I do at sea level.

One hour and 15 mins into the day the trail changes and the hard work begins with a steep climb up the moraine, the piles of rubble left behind by the glacier. We cross one hill after another which saps my energy quickly. Finally we reach Gorak Shep after 2.5 hours. This will be be only night of the trip that I will be sleeping above 5000m above sea level.

We take a 30 min rest drinking some tea and getting some snacks, we are heading up to Everest Base Camp (EBC). From Gorak Shep we head past a frozen lake then up on to the moraine that flanks the mighty Khumbu Glacier, in the distance I can see some tiny orange tents of the few expeditions that are attempting to climb Everest. The moraine seems to go on forever, undulating and rocky. Eventually the path descends sharply onto the glacier itself, after 20 mins of walking on the glacier we reach some prayer flags that signify the start of Base Camp at 5364m.

I take some photos, eat some snacks and collect some mementoes (rocks). By now the wind is starting to pick up, so after some final glances at the icefall we turn around and head for "home". The return trip to base camp from Gorak Shep has taken 3:45, which is pretty quick. It was such a privilege to be able to visit such a place it's pretty cold and bleak, but all the same it's the bottom of the the top of the world!

For the remainder of the day I rest up and call home to send birthday greetings. Great to hear a voice from home, which makes me a bit homesick.

Tomorrow is a massive day....