Sunday, October 21, at about 12.15pm. The group is climbing steep but routine terrain. Without warning, without a slip or a misstep, pain like a knife blade in my left knee and I collapse in agony on the ground.
This had happened to me before so I knew immediately what was wrong. I’d torn my medial meniscus. I couldn’t walk; I could barely even stand. Based on previous experience I knew I was going to need surgery.
Just another case of Murphy’s law? Rather more than that I’m afraid. This particular dose of merde had chosen to make itself manifest at 4,300 metres halfway up to one of the most remote passes in the Himalaya, almost five days travel from the nearest village over some 5,500 metres of total ascent. There was no running away from the fact that this was a serious situation.
If we thought, however, that this was the limit of the day’s bad news, we were soon to be proven horribly wrong.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take you back to the beginning and tell you the whole story properly.
IntroductionMy old university friend Tony regularly organizes trips in Nepal that try to stay as far from the tourist routes as possible. The principal objective of his latest trip was Thorong Ri, a 6,000+ metres peak above the high pass, the Thorong La, on the Annapurna circuit. Not for us though the standard approaches from Jomosom or Besisahar. Oh, no, we’re much tougher than that. We would start from the tropical village of Khadarjung and make our way northeast over seldom traveled cowherd tracks or old trade routes which run roughly parallel, and to the south of the massifs of which Machhapuchhare and Lamjung Himal are the principal summits. Roughly a week’s travel, gradually gaining altitude, would get us to the valley of the Miyardi Khola from where we would access the Namun Bhanjyang. The Namun is a high (5,560 metres) and difficult pass formerly used for migration and trade between Tibet and the Gurung (Ghurka) Nepalis of the region but now virtually unused by anyone other than the occasional trekking party. Once across the Namun, a long 1-2 day descent would put us on the tourist path at Timang and it would all be plain sailing from there.
Whichever way you look at it, it all looked like a damned good trip to me. So I duly signed up along with Alan, John, Rob and Taylor from the London Mountaineering Club, Mark from Midland, Michigan and, of course, our leader Tony.
A local Kathmandu company, High Country Trekking, organised all the permits, transfers, porter hire etc. We had 20 or so porters led by Chandra, a kitchen staff of 5 headed by Birkha Tamang our cook, Krishna Tamang our trekking guide and, last but by no means least, Taschi and Phanden our climbing Sherpas. Phanden, as Sirdar, ran the whole thing. Like all good leaders, he did so by dint of experience – both he and Taschi are three-time Everest summiters – and by example, as we would find out.
Victoria to KathmanduIt’s a long convoluted way from Vancouver Island to Nepal. I left home on the evening of October 7th and after the obligatory overnight in Bangkok didn’t reach Kathmandu until the 10th.
No rest for the wicked though. My wife is her own one-woman NGO as far as Nepal is concerned. Word of the arrival of her proxy had preceded me and a succession of visitors soon began to arrive at my hotel, all enquiring after the whereabouts and health of “Gwen didi”. She sends clothes and equipment here, she sponsors kids in vocational school in Kathmandu, she has a special interest in the school in Thamo (between Namche and Thame) that has been already described on SP and the list keeps growing. This time even before MY trip started, I had to organize the transport of new shoes for the Thamo school English teacher and wart treatment for the kids there, as well as meet the headmaster of the vocational school in Kathmandu (and pay the kids annual fees). All this is accompanied by endless cups of tea and other obligatory social niceties, so it was quite a relief when the rest of the group arrived on the 13th and we could actually go trekking.
Rain and Leeches
On October 15th we took an early flight to Pokhara and, after breakfast there and a stroll around town, were soon off to the start of our route only a half hours drive up the valley of the Seti Khola to somewhere in the neighborhood of the village of Khadarjung at an altitude of about 1,100 metres.
Because of Yeti Airlines’ restriction on baggage weight, our luggage had gone from Kathmandu to Pokhara by bus a couple of days earlier and there were our porters busy lashing it all together into the mountainous loads that they are accustomed to carry. For those of us who have seen this before, it’s still a humbling experience to see these guys carry the tremendous weights that they do. The “Himalayan virgins” in the group just stood aghast with expressions somewhere between awe and guilt.
Our afternoon was a pleasant stroll in warm sunshine along well-trodden paths up the east side of the valley of the Sardi Kola to the village of Ghalageon where the enterprising locals greeted us with beer and Pringles.
At these low altitudes and with lots of cows and other targets around, it didn’t take long for the genus Haemopis to make its appearance. The Himalayan variety of leech – or “jukka” - in these regions isn’t as bad as other places I’ve seen them – in the rainforest of New South Wales for instance – but they’re bad enough. An idyllic first night campsite was soon ringing to yells and shrieks as the little buggers began to crawl over boots and up legs. Dinner in the mess tent was punctuated by constant boot checks – yes there they were – and a competition to see who’d get the most bites. Mark won it hands down on this and every night after. I’d learnt in Australia that the thing to do is to spray your inner socks liberally with deet. I’d brought my own supply with me and it worked a treat. Not a single bite. Taylor bought some locally under the absolutely marvellous trade name “Wack Off” and it worked similarly well for her. Poor Mark tried both and got bitten anyway.
A peaceful night was interrupted about 2am, when everything lit up like it was noon and the first crash of thunder woke me up with a start. The heavens soon opened and the rain came pouring down. If you’re going to tackle the jungles of the lower slopes of the Himalaya and if you want to maximize the “jukka experience” in the process, then you might as well do it in a downpour. I got my gear re-organised for a wet weather day and went back to sleep.
It was leech Nirvana as we packed up the wet tents and left at about eight the next morning in pouring rain. Initial sniggers at Rob’s and my umbrellas were soon muted as the steady rain began to find chinks in everyone’s gortex armour. Starting at 1,850 metres we made our way mostly east up cowherd tracks through the jungle to a high point of 2,650 metres before beginning a long descent towards Parje, Siklis and the valley of the Madi Kola. This was mostly a head-down plod watching the scores of jukka waving about trying to find an attach point. In fact, we needn’t have worried. They were just using most of us for practice before leaping aboard Mark across huge distances. At about 12.30 a cowherd shelter provided somewhere dry for one of Birkha’s splendid hot lunches and enabled the porters to catch up. They’d had a hard time of it that morning in steep, slippery conditions and, of course, so early in the trek, load weights were at their maximum.
It was a lot of map distance and a long 635 metres descent to Parje that afternoon. At least the sun came out late in the day and provided us with the first views of Lamjung Himal dominating, as it would for the next 3 or 4 days, the skyline to the northeast. We arrived in Parje by headlight at 6.45pm. Phanden then collected all of our lights and went back to help the porters down. As soon as the western members were safe, his thoughts turned immediately to his crew. The last porter only came in at about 9pm. It had been a long, tough day and we weren’t even into the mountains proper yet.
From The Tropics to The Alpine
We bade Parje farewell at about 8 and, after a stop for photos in Siklis, the main Gurung village in the region, we began the 650 metres descent to the river crossing at the confluence of the Madi and Gnach Kholas, followed by the 950 metres climb up the ridge between the two rivers to the only viable campsite en route.
On the way down to Parje the previous evening, we’d noted that all the villages in view were obviously supplied with electricity. The source for this is a hydroelectric generating station on the Gnach Khola. It’s a simple but interesting affair and obviously does an excellent job for the valley. A rickety bridge gave access to the station and our onward route. At the level of the river, we were only marginally above our starting altitude and in a steamy and tropical environment.
The afternoon was a bit toilsome as we laboured up the ridge in the sun but we eventually emerged onto what was quite clearly a cow pasture at about 2,400 metres at just after 4pm. John immediately named the place “Cowpat Camp”. Once again the porters had some trouble with the route and, once again, the last ones came in by headlamp.
Every western member on the expedition had a duty over and above simply being out there and walking. Mine was first aid officer. I’d already patched up several members’ cuts, scrapes (including my own) and leech bites but now I received my first porter “patient”. The poor lad had severely swollen tendons above the knee and was in obvious discomfort. I dosed him liberally with “vitamin I”, fitted him out with a tensor bandage and thought it 95% sure that he’d be going down in the morning. Which is precisely what transpired.
“Cowpat” didn’t have an awful lot to recommend it. But what it did have were glimpses of Machhapuchhare and Lamjung framed in the trees on the edge of the pasture where the ridge dropped off. That evening we were treated to both in excellent alpenglow light. Even at this distance we could hear the boom of avalanches peeling off the south aspect of Lamjung.
Once the sun went down, it got damp and cold very quickly and, after dinner, we were soon in bed. Jukka activity was now noticeably muted compared to yesterday.
We had at this juncture been joined on the route by two Indian gentlemen and their crew. They were also aiming to cross the Namun but to return directly to Besisahar from the other side. They seemed rather miffed that we were there, declined to speak to us very much and rather pointedly pitched their camps as far away from us as they could. They were also moving very slowly.
Onwards and upwards from Cowpat the route ran always northeast from semi-tropical to high bamboo forest and eventually to rhododendron forest. The only place to go was up the ridge and the next possible flat place to camp with water was on a high summer grazing pasture 1,200 metres above us. In fact this was the only water available anywhere that day. If you didn’t carry it from Cowpat, you didn’t get to drink. However, map distance was relatively short and, after an 8am start and a good break for lunch, we arrived tired but not exhausted shortly after 2pm with the porters thankfully not far behind. For the first time in 4 days, the tents went up before dark and had a reasonable chance to dry. We had an afternoon to relax, dry what gear we could and generally re-fuel after 4 long days. The terrain was now open and decidedly sub-alpine. Lamjung Himal was hidden by the continuation of the ridge above us but the continuous thunder of avalanches let us all know it was there.
The sun went behind the ridge about five and the mercury promptly fell out of the bottom of the thermometer. By 5.30 my damp tent was covered in a layer of ice and out came the down jacket. Balmy climes were now behind us. As I knew from experience, when the sun was gone, it was going to be unrelentingly cold. Birkha outdid himself with an excellent Chowmein for supper and I retired to my frigid nylon palace by 8.
Compensation for a cold night arrived the next morning with the sun but mainly after re-attaining the ridge just a few minutes above camp. A spectacular and uninterrupted panorama from Machhapuchhare to Lamjung Himal and everything in between. We had this visual feast constantly in view as we contoured the grassy ridge east for a couple of hours before turning northeast once more and into a high valley which looked from this aspect like a cul-de-sac. Gradually gaining height on the west side of this valley we could eventually make out an exit on the right (northeast) side. Our route took us almost to the back of the valley and we pitched camp on snow by a small lake at 4,000 metres. After a sunny morning, it had now become quite cold and began to snow lightly.
Just down the valley from the lake was the inevitable herdsman’s hut and quite close to it the remains of a snowman. We paid this little mind at the time but later began to think of the snowman as a vital clue in what transpired later.
The Death March
I don’t know which member of the expedition came up with this name but it certainly described the day accurately and was almost prescient in terms of what came later.
Our objective for the day was the Namun La base camp in the valley of the Miyardi Khola at about 4,000 metres – almost exactly the level we started. In between, however, was an un-named 4,500 metres pass that connected the valleys. There would be no water on the route other than what we carried from camp or obtained by melting snow.
We left the lake camp at 7.45 in cold, clear conditions and were soon climbing snow slopes towards an obvious shoulder that led out of our present valley.
Surprisingly, although by now we had reached a fairly remote spot, why was the trail, such as it was, strewn everywhere with paper garbage? And some of it looking remarkably fresh. To be sure there were still cowherd huts and other structures at almost every open spot but we’re still talking just a handful of folk ever coming this way.
By 10 am we had the pass in sight and were traversing a shallow bowl in blistering sun. Insufficient fluid intake and unaccustomed altitude had most of us in various degrees of pain during this phase.
By 1.15 we had summited the pass. Our efforts were rewarded by cloud, mist and light snow. Views back or ahead were now severely limited.
The day earned its name, however, by what followed. A long, long traverse at 4,500 metres, around the shoulder of the mountain to the head of the pass that gave access to the Miyardi Khola. By the time we had our objective in view it was getting on for 5 pm and the snow slopes down to the river had already turned icy and dangerous.
Everyone carefully inched their way down, heel-booting in and helping the porters whenever and wherever we could. Always leading by example, Phanden even took a porter-load from one kid who was having particular problems. As it was, we didn’t get down to flat terrain until almost 6 and the last porters over an hour later. Once again we surrendered our headlights as Phanden, Taschi, Chandra and Krishna brought the porters safely into camp.
Compensation for dehydration and tiredness was all around. The usual afternoon cloud had cleared during the descent from the pass and before it got dark we were treated to stupendous views of Manaslu and Peak 29 to the east and the Namun La across the river to our north. It looked difficult but not impossible. I did wonder, however, how we were going to get the porters over it.
Injury, Tragedy and CrisisAfter the long day yesterday, we got up an hour later at 7 after the sun was on the tents. It was such a fine morning that we had breakfast in the sun outside the mess tent feasting on the views of Manaslu. We were camped at an interesting and historical spot. This was where Tibetans and Gurungs would meet to trade when the former came over the Namun with their salt and other goods. There was a stone hut there but this probably dated from more modern times.
We moved off from camp at 9.15, initially west before turning north down the steep, eroded sides of the Miyardi Khola. The river at this point is braided and each branch is fast flowing but we were soon across with minimum difficulty and continued north directly towards the sheer cliffs that guard the Namun. As we got closer the route up revealed itself as a steep but eminently do-able ramp right under the cliffs. After a brief break at the bottom of the ramp, we headed up at about noon. The kitchen staff had gone on ahead and the porters were strung out behind us.
Fifteen minutes up-slope and for no apparent reason, my knee collapsed. I was in agony. I could bear no weight whatsoever. I was, in short, helpless. The crisis was upon us.
Tony’s reaction was immediate and effective. Stop all movement on the mountain. Send someone up to bring the kitchen staff down. Get me down to somewhere horizontal. Set up a camp. In general, consolidate our position and ensure everyone’s safety.
This was all relatively easily achieved except for moving me. However, even this was accomplished after an excruciating 15 minutes being piggy-backed down steep snow by Phanden and Taschi in turn. Somehow we found room for all the tents on various degrees of slope and took stock.
We were at least 5 days away from the nearest village.
The Indian group had already turned back and it was unlikely in the extreme that anyone else would come this way.
We were not carrying a satellite phone but Phanden had a cellular phone that he had been able to use from the lake camp 2 days before.
We had 5 days supply of food left. Easily enough to cross the Namun and pick up supplies on the other side, as originally planned, but barely enough to reverse our outward route.
It was decided that Phanden would leave immediately for the summit of the Namun and determine if he could get cellular service from there. If so he would summon a helicopter to evacuate me as well as Hari. If only things had been that simple....
We watched Phanden climb up towards the cloud but then stop for a long conversation with Birkha who was on the way down. The reason for this became apparent as soon as Birkha reached us. The kitchen staff hadn’t in fact received the instructions to come down. They’d turned round of their own volition. The rainstorm we had endured 5 days ago had fallen on the Namun as impassable levels of snow. But there was worse – much worse. There was a body on the route! A recent death. Birkha was far too upset to be that rational, so we just prayed that he was mistaken.
When Phanden returned several hours later, however, we had to accept the truth. Someone – a Nepali – had died just a few hundred metres above us. He was “buried” under stones. Another group had preceded us, had been caught in desperate conditions and one member had succumbed to the elements. Suddenly the fresh garbage on the trail and the snowman below lake camp began to take on extra significance.
As devastated as we were by this discovery, we forced ourselves to focus on the fact that we had a crisis of our own to manage. There was no prospect of crossing the pass. Neither had Phanden had been able to get a signal from the highest point he was able to reach. He was confident, however, that travelling light and fast, he could go down as far as the lake camp, make the call for a helicopter and return to where we were in a day. There really wasn’t any option.
MaroonedPhanden had already left before any of us were awake the next day. My knee was excruciatingly painful. All I could do was lie in my tent or suffer the humiliation of having to be carried to the latrine or anywhere else for that matter.
I was also desperately worried about Hari. I was no longer able to get out to look after him and his sores needed re-dressing. Fortunately, Mark volunteered to take over my duties in this respect even though he’d had no formal first-aid training. So they both came to my tent and I showed Mark what to do and explained the necessity of breathable dressings. Between us, we would manage Hari’s and others’ injuries this way for the rest of the expedition.
After breakfast the whole group, along with Krishna and Taschi went off to prospect for a landing site for a helicopter. They duly returned with the good news that they’d found, marked and cleared a site but that it was 200 vertical metres below and that I’d have to be carried down there.
This time, the Sherpas rigged up a sling on the same kind of tump-line that they use to carry loads and hauled me down there with the minimum of fuss and without any discomfort. Krishna took the last shift and while he was still carrying me I noticed that he had a bootlace undone – so rather than have him trip, I told him about it. With me on his back he just bent over and did it up. Krishna is about five foot four or five tall and all of 110 lbs!!
Again we set up camp wherever we could find flat spots close to the landing platform. Phanden returned just before dark. He’d contacted Ang Rita, the owner of High Country and the helicopter would arrive at 7 in the morning. He’d even spoken to the pilo