By The Numbers…
|Length of runway at Lukla Airport||500 metres|
|Height of Kathmandu above sea level||1,300 metres|
|Height of Lukla Airport above sea level||2,800 metres|
|Maximum height above sea level during trek||3,870 metres
|Minutes taken to ascend mountain to Tangbouche||185 minutes|
|Minutes taken to descend from Tangbouche||65 minutes|
|Maximum climb in single day||645 vertical metres
(Monjo to Namche)
|Time taken to walk from Monjo to Namche||Over 5 hours|
|Total kilometres trekked in 5 days||Over 60 kilometres|
|Total number of hours on foot||Over 30 hours|
|Approximate weight loss||Approx 5 kilograms|
|Number of breaths we took||Countless|
|Number of moments which took our breath away||Infinite|
A Merry Band of Himalayan Wanderers
The four of us met up at the Yak & Yeti Hotel in Kathmandu on the evening of 16 December 2011.
Huckelberry B and I had traveled from Sydney to the Nepalese capital via Melbourne and Hong Kong.
Our sister-in-law, C, and our niece, MC, had spent a week in Hong Kong and arrived in Kathmandu eight hours ahead of us. They said they had trained for our Himalayan trek by walking constantly – and spurning the MRT – during their stay in Hong Kong. Only time would tell whether this training regime would prove effective.
Meeting us at Kathmandu Airport was our cheerful guide, Kercha. We liked Kercha immediately. He was eternally patient when we made slow progress on our trek. Any question was met with a lazy smile and a carefully considered answer.
We were joined, at Lukla, by our assistant guide, Laksman. With a slight resemblance to Rahul Dravid, I can easily imagine Laksman as an Indian middle-order batsman. Short in stature, but both hard-of-muscle and loose-of-limb, I can picture Laksman whipping a cricket ball from outside off stump to the square leg boundary, before lazily walking down the pitch to shake his batting partner’s hand and raising his bat, acknowledging the applause of the crowd.
Laksman’s assistance during our trek would prove invaluable. More about that later.
Our merry band was rounded out by two porters. Both were of moderate build, but of limitless stamina. How they carried 30 kilos each for distances exceeding 15 kilometres defies understanding.
Because It’s There
Fifty-eight years earlier, in 1953, another band of adventurers gathered to make a serious assault on the Everest Summit.
Standing over 8.5 kilometres above sea level, Everest was yet to be conquered, although many brave souls had tried, including George Mallory who, in the 1920’s, famously said he would climb Everest `because it’s there‘.
Whilst our trek would take us to less than half the height of the world’s tallest mountain, I decided to prepare myself for the journey by reading Sir Edmund Hillary’s autobiography.
I knew that Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first men to reach the Everest Summit. What I did not previously know was that two other climbers from Hillary’s extended team made an assault on the Summit several days earlier but failed. Those men were considered the A team, whereas Hillary and Tenzing were the B team. Had Hillary and Tenzing failed, a third (and final) team would have made one final attempt.
Hillary describes, in detail, how difficult it was to carry loads of supplies to strategic points near the peak, to find a sufficiently large area of relatively flat ground to pitch a tent and to simply get some sleep in conditions extremely short of both warmth and oxygen.
However, once at the Summit, Hillary details the satisfaction he felt at being the first man in history to accomplish such an extraordinary achievement. When Sherpa Tenzing joined him, Hillary offered a handshake – in `Anglo-Saxon fashion’, as he described it – only to have his comrade step forward and hug him in unrestrained joy. Tenzing, Hillary wrote, felt it important that a Sherpa be a member of the party to first reach the Everest Summit given the support Sherpas had given both this and previous Everest campaigns.
Whilst at the Summit, both Hillary and Tenzing performed rituals relevant to their differing religions. Remarkably, much like Neil Armstrong sixteen years later, Hillary photographed his triumphant partner but left the scene without a photograph of himself.
Once back at an altitude where ordinary men might walk, controversy raged as to which of Hillary and Tenzing had reached the Summit first. Tenzing, at the time illiterate, had been pressured by his countrymen to sign a document which proclaimed that he was the first to the top; before assisting Hillary to join him. Local Nepalese political activists produced a poster which depicted Tenzing on the Summit dragging a fatigued and prone Hillary behind him.
Faced with both sensitive political and cultural issues, Hillary and Tenzing agreed to say that they reached the Summit simultaneously. That line was adopted during the official lecture tour which followed their triumph. Hillary clearly describes in his autobiography, however, that he was the first to take the final steps to the top of the world. That said, I observed during our tour of Nepal that where both names were employed – in posters or place names – Tenzing’s name customarily came first. For example, the airport at Lukla is called the `Tenzing – Hillary Airstrip’.
This controversy was one of the topics which rattled around my head during the long hours on foot in the days which would follow. My conclusion is that it matters not which man took the final stride to reach the Everest Summit. The fact is that neither would have made it to the top without the assistance of the other. The honour is deservedly shared.
Landing on a Wing and a Prayer
We have heard that the airstrip at Lukla is the second most dangerous in the world.
Having now experienced it, we can readily understand why!
Cut into the side of a mountain – 2,800 metres above sea level – the runway is only 500 metres long. At the end of this shortest of short runways, stands a very solid rock cliff face. As if these danger factors were not enough, the runway has been built so that it runs uphill.
I have never landed an aeroplane.
However, even if I was an experienced pilot, I anticipate that I would be daunted by each of the following factors which I would have to take into account whilst executing a safe landing at Lukla.
First, I would be anxious to avoid coming in too low and crashing into the side of the mountain below the airstrip.
Second, I would be vigilant in ensuring that my airspeed was `just right’; namely slow enough to allow me to bring the aircraft to a safe halt on the short airstrip yet fast enough to avoid stalling and crashing into the said mountain.
Third, I would want to set the wheels of the plane down as close to the start of the airstrip as possible – to give myself maximum stopping range – whilst, again, avoiding coming in too shallow and crashing into the cliff face below the airstrip.
Fourth, I would endeavour to keep the nose of my aircraft up, even whilst landing, in order to avoid the nose cutting a canal through the centre of the upward slopping airstrip.
Fifth, even after safely setting the wheels of the plane onto the tarmac, and avoiding the nose ploughing into the incline, I would be keen to hit the brakes at the earliest opportunity, and maybe even fishtail somewhat, to avoid careering into the cliff-face lying in wait at the end of the 500 metre airstrip.
Finally, I would keep a watchful eye for the sharp right hand turn in the L-shaped airstrip and to come to a final safe halt.
Considering each of the above factors, it is little wonder that each of the passengers in our small aeroplane – including the hostess and the co-pilot – applauded upon safe landing.
Whilst we were frustrated by a prolonged delay at Kathmandu airport – extending over two hours – as we waited for the weather at Lukla to clear, we were ultimately grateful that this safety measure was taken. I can’t imagine how dangerous it would be to try to land a plane at Lukla whilst that precarious airstrip was shrouded in clouds.
A Hard Slog
Let’s face it. Trekking the Himalayas was tough going. I don’t think any of us truly understood what we were getting ourselves into. Like George Mallory, however, we trekked the Himalayas because they were there.
It was a thrill to walk in the footsteps of Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, Reinhold Messner, Ed Viesturs, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer; following the same route Everest climbers throughout the decades had followed on their way to Base Camp and beyond.
But it was hard work. In the last two years, I have completed five half marathons. Thanks to a weakness to foods I should avoid – most notably milk chocolate and blue cheese – I remain on the tubby side. However, after countless solitary hours running the hills around home, I have attained a good level of cardio-vascular fitness. Yet it wasn’t long into the first day of our trek that I knew that our tour of the Himalayas was going to be even harder than I had feared.
For most of our five days on foot, we were walking over three kilometres above sea level and, quite often, well over three and a half. At that level, the air is thin and the oxygen is precious. Any physical exertion causes the heart to thump violently against one’s chest.
Walking downhill or on level ground was easy enough, but even the slightest incline was arduous. When ascending the side of a mountain – as we did on three of the five days – we purposefully and consciously slowed our walking pace. Even then, however, we had to stop every five minutes or so to catch our breath, before proceeding, once more, towards the heavens.
After the first day, MC asked me which was more draining; a day trekking in the Himalayas or running a half marathon. My spontaneous response to her then is the same I would give if asked now; I’m not sure.
The Heart of a Warrior
I must pause at this point to pay tribute to my wife.
Huckleberry B started training, in earnest, for this trek in August. We both knew that we had to be physically fit to walk five hours or more every day for a week at altitudes over three kilometres into the sky.
However, B’s training was curtailed when – whilst running during her lunch break – she twisted her left ankle. Since then she has been hobbling around, at the best of times, making training next to impossible. Whilst I urged her to consider very carefully whether to proceed with the trek, she was determined to go. I suspect that she didn’t want the others in our group to miss out due to her own misfortune.
Several hours into the first day of our trek, from Lukla to Monjo, Kercha mentioned that because our morning flight to Lukla had been delayed, we would probably not reach our destination before nightfall. From that moment on, Huck B was determined to forget her sore ankle and her lack of optimal cardio-vascular training and steam towards Monjo – whether downhill or up – at maximum speed.
It was during this period of elevated exertion that B strained forward with her right leg to accommodate a large step and tore a muscle in her groin.
At this point we were still several hours from Monjo with no alternative than to press on.
Not only did Huck B make it to Monjo – the last 45 minutes by torch light in complete darkness – but she persevered for four more days.
For most of those four days, I was walking behind B whilst our dutiful assistant guide, Laksman, held her by the elbow and assisted her as she shuffled along, I could see that she was often in pain and that each step was difficult. Rather than stride forward she would take a small step with her left leg and swing her right leg forward, often hitting a rock along the way. At times Laksman would stand in front of B and hold both her wrists in order to assist her by essentially pulling her up a steep incline.
I have never been prouder of my wife’s determination.
After several days, it became obvious that Huckleberry would not be able to complete the scheduled 8 days of trekking; at least not without causing herself a permanent injury. We jointly decided that we would, at some point, call into aide a helicopter to take us back to either Lukla or Kathmandu. After some discussion with Chet, the tour guide operator, a helicopter was arranged for 23 December.
It was at this point that my beloved B’s courageous heart became most self-evident.
After four days of trekking we found ourselves in Tashinga, in the shadow of Mount Everest. We could have easily stayed there an additional night and waited for the helicopter to pluck us to safety.
However, B knew that there was one more day’s trekking in front of us before we started to retrace our steps back to Lukla. In other words, there was one more day of new unforgettable sights which we would never again have the opportunity to see.
With that knowledge in mind, Huckleberry resolved to cover the 15 kilometres from Tashinga to Mende – a journey of over 7 hours – rather than take the vastly easier option of resting until the helicopter arrived. She even insisted upon embarking upon the more difficult of two optional routes.
And so it was that Huck B set off – one arduous step after another – on her painful trek.
I have never been prouder to be Huckleberry B’s husband.
Stairway to Heaven
I have already described the pain we all experienced – except, perhaps, youthful and exuberate MC – in long days of trekking along a meandering path of either dust or stone, up and down (mostly up) steep mountains and across only relatively stable suspension bridges.
I must also emphasise the profound pleasure we each experienced.
There is something strangely uplifting – even spiritual – about seeing our planet at its most majestic.
From our second day on foot, soaring mountains kept a watchful eye over our progress. They were our constant friends. For the most part, we were walking along paths which either cut through a pine forest or zig-zagged up the side of a mountain. Our immediate surroundings were frequently of a greyish-green colour.
However, beyond the peaks in our immediate vicinity stood towering, snow covered mountains which were – literally and without any hint of exaggeration – the highest in the world. The tallest reached over 8 kilometres above sea level. Given that we were typically standing between 3.5 and 4 kilometres above the level of the sea, the highest peaks which dominated our view rose a further 4 kilometres or more above us into the heavens.
Of course, Mount Everest was the highlight. Seeing Everest so close that you felt like you could reach out and touch her made the heart soar. I paused to contemplate, once more, the enormous courage and sense of conquest which took men like Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay up the Lhotse Face, across the South Col and all the way to the distant Summit.
But Everest was not alone. To her left stood the Nuptse Ridge leading to Lhotse on the right, with Everest’s south-western ridge peaking over the top. But my favourite peak was probably Amadablam – which towers over Tangbouche Monastary – with it’s twin secondary peaks sitting in beautiful harmony with its central tooth shaped peak.
Thankfully, we were blessed, throughout our journey, with ideal weather. Once we started walking we were rarely cold. Moreover, the perfectly crisp winter days allowed us an unimpeded view of the snow clad Himalayan mountains set against a deep blue sky. Truly spectacular!
At times all I wanted to do was stand, with arms outstretched, and a let out a primal roar of unrestrained joy (which I actually did when alone more than once).
Whilst often short of breath and tired of limb, the experience of walking for hour upon hour also had its pleasures.
During these times, I would allow my mind to wander from one subject to another. Somehow, the experience allowed my mind to become uncluttered and free. At times I simply daydreamed. At other times I developed strategies for files I was working on back in the office. I even refined some of our strategic business plan. Given another day of so, I would have given global warming a crack… followed by a stratagem for world peace.