The trek to Mera Peak basecamp

It truly has been too long since I wrote anything, almost three months. I could blame it on my trip to India right afterwards or on the work/holiday trip to London a little later or on all the festive season celebrations we have had recently, but even those are long past. Mainly it has just been my lazyness, but behold – here I am again.

My last post was mainly about how the malady got the better of me at Baruntse, but that is a bit of skipping ahead of the story. Let’s first start from where my second last post left us – the flight to Lukla. My wife did a splendid job recounting the SummitClimb posts so you probably have had an idea about what was going on, but surely there are some gaps here and there and I’m trying to fill those as best I can.

So where should I start… my last post before hitting the “blackout zone” was on the last day in Kathmandu, now more than three months ago so I’ll start from there.

Early in the morning on 14th October we headed to the airport for the flight to Lukla. We had been mentally prepared for hours of waiting, but everything went surprisingly fast and smooth. We couldn’t fit in on one flight and I was lucky to be on the first. The people on the second flight had to wait for a few hours for their flight and they missed the breakfast we got in Lukla at the Namaste Lodge. Our initial plan was to stay for the night in Lukla, but the leaders had decided to continue onwards the same day. This would give us one extra day to pass the Zetrwa La that was looming above us and more time for better acclimatization.

The street of Lukla

The only street in Lukla

After a quick stroll back and forth the only street in Lukla we headed toward the hills. It wasy a leisurous 2-3 hour walk to the village of Chutanga where we spent the night. Not much worth mentioning here, people just chatted and got to know each other. This was the first night in the tents and people divided into “tent couples” relatively smoothly. I was sharing a tent with the Swiss Markus, who appeared to be a very good tent partner indeed. He has quite extensive experience in climbing, including the Ama Dablam and one 8000m peak called Hidden Peak in Pakistan and a big bunch of peaks in the Swiss Alps. He was probably one of the most experienced guys in thegroup if not the most experienced. In the evening we got a three course menu served in the tea house’s common room and everybody seemed to enjoy it.

Chutanga

Chutanga. Our first camp site tents still to be pitched.

The next morning we were woken up by warm cups of tea or coffee – a tradition which continued through the whole expedition. The wakeup drink was followed by a breakfast and furious packing of things back into the duffel bags so that the porters could start going on. Usually the breakfast included porridge, muesli, cereals or pancakes  – which became more common later on in the trip – or alternately some toast and fried eggs or actually any random combination of any of these! Everything was washed down with tea and coffee which were available usually throughout the day exluding the walking times, but sometimes even on those. We started walking again in the mid-morning upward to our next stop at Charkateng. I’m not actually sure if that is the official name, but anyway it is the village/tea house between Chutanga  and Zatrwa La situated at a bit over 4000m. Nothing interesting on that leg really. At the tea house there was a young girl who really seemed to enjoy our precense. She started to playfully threathen us with some kind of a long root vegetable which was quite weird, but fun at the same time. After the first glimpse she actually appeared to  somewhat retarded, which might in this country put both the family and the child in an akward position where nobody knows how to deal with the matter. Luckily she has at least the possibility to live with the rest of her family.

Charkateng

The panoramic view of the Charkateng village

On the third day out, we started towards the summit of the Zatrwala Pass. The porters left as soon as the bags were assembled and created a long line up the hill. Halfway up we turned around and and saw for the first time the mountains around us, as the last two days had been quite foggy. We saw many mountains and among them the Cho Oyu on the Tibetan border. Everybody reached the pass well and for a few people it was the highest point they have reached in their lives.

View from Zatrwa La

The view from Zatrwa La. The rightmost large snowy mountain at the back is Cho Oyu.

After a packed lunch at the top – a slice of cheese, an egg and an orange – we headed over the pass and then down to the foggy Tuli Kharka for the next night. Again we stayed in the tents and ate inside the tea house. This time they did not put up the toilet tent for some reason and all the number two matters had to be done either behind the rock (better) or in the tea house’s toilet booth (worse). The toilet tent is just a simple tent about one square meter in size and so high that you can stand up in there. To the floor there usually is dug up a hole for the fecies and some stepping stones put on the sides of it. One would think this is not a too complicated facility to use, but judging by the stories we heard it actually is for quite a few people. It should not be too hard to miss the hole with your droppings, but people do. Apparently squatting is not in everybody’s capability list. But it just got better as we heard that in some expeditions people have not just missed the hole, but they have missed even the floor and sprayed the walls or even the roof with their things. Ok, the roof sounds like a bit of an exaggeration, but I have to say that even I was quite careful not to touch too much of the insides of the toilet tent 🙂 I too actually had some problems with a loose stomach during the expedition and took some antibiotics for a few days, which seemed to do the trick.

Shower and toilet tents

Stef Wolput The shower tent in the foreground and the toilet tent at the back (sorry I did not have better picture)

Tuli Kharka

The foggy Tuli Kharka

Hinku valley and Mera Peak

The descend down to Hinku valley and Mera Peak in the distance

From Tuli Kharka the trail was mostly downhill – or Nepali downhill. That means that when something is “Nepali downhill”, it most probably has almost as much up- as downhill. It was quite  a tiring day for the legs because of all the ups and downs we had to walk, and the rest at the end of the day’s walk in Kothey was much desired. The route descended again into the vegetation and most of the day was actually spent between bushes and – in the lower parts – trees. We had now arrived in Hinku Valley. What was perhaps more noteworthy than the winding trail, was that we now saw Mera Peak for the first time. From our vantage point we only saw the north side though, which has been climbed too, but we would be going up the northern slopes via the standard route. So, we still had to wait for a while to see where we were headed at.

Kothey really is a proper village compared to the ones on both flanks of Zatrwa La. This is most probably due to the fact that most people who come climbing Mera Peak do not cross the pass, but instead spend two-three more days to reach Kothey by going around the hills separating Hinku Valley from Lukla. Here there were many teahouses all looking quite the same and most probably all providing the same services of board, lodging and hot shower. Most of them also have a small shop attached to them where you can buy all kinds of suplies from beer to Pringles and toilet paper. The hot shower is in fact a small wooden structure, a bit larger than our toilet tent, and the shower feature is provided by bucket hot water. I personally did not try this at any point of the trek, but all who did, seemed quite happy with it. At least they didn’t think the 200 rupees (around 2 euros) was a bad bargain at all. For the evening meal our cook had bought some meat butchered  on the spot, which I of course was happyly excluded from. I am a vegetarian, if you didn’t know that.

Kothey

Our tents at Kothey

Being a vegatarian on this kind of a trip is really not much of an issue. Most of the food is ok at least if you are eating eggs and milk products. I love eggs and I was getting some kind of unwanted reputation of eating loads of fried eggs during breakfasts. I must have eaten something like 100 eggs in total during the expedition. Something you perhaps wouldn’t do at home, but at there it didn’t seem much of an issue. Usual menus included a random selection of rice, pasta, smashed potato, vegetables, mushrooms, various sauces, momos, soups, dal and such. On top of that there was the meaty stuff like beef and more common sardines or tuna or something like that. More than once – usually for breakfast – the meat eaters were treated with Spam 😉 Sometimes we all got popcorn for an apetizer snack which was fun. The cooks prepare all the items into separate containers so you can have what you want even without having any special diet, but usually you are hungry enough to eat everything they throw at you. Even if the kitchen boys don’t know that you are vegetarian, they will quite nicely pick it up after a week or two of skipping the meat on every course 😉 One word of caution, though, for the vegetarians. Be precice to inform that you are a vegetarian and if any “surprises” arise you should inform the expedition leader who can then forward the message to the personnel. I had one surprise in Mera Peak basecamp when we were served veg momos. I had I think three momos (large ones) and the first tasted quite funny, a bit fishy I was thinking. The next two did not though, but after a moment my neighbour – one of the two Finnish ladies on the trip – said that “by the way the momos have some tuna inside”. Well… I had definitely eaten tuna without knowing, but what was done was done. It didn’t kill me, but it sure didn’t feel nice. I informed the expedition leader about it and he took it as his errand to strongly advice the kitchen staff to keep the meat (or fish) really separate. That one incident then remained the only one.

Super carb combo meal

The super carb combo meal. Probably no one else than Nepali sherpa cooks could put smashed potato, rice and pasta on the same plate.

From Kothey we had probably one of the best trekking days of the whole trip. The route was nice, gradually inclining up the valley and there were no big up- or downhills on the way. And the sceney… it was awesome. Almost the whole day we could see great mountain faces on both sides of the valley, Mera Peak’s summits peaking in to view every once in a while, but even better was the sight of the angular Kyashar peak and next to that the massive Kusum Kanguru. Both of them being very beatiful and very difficult mountains to climb. I walked most of the way on my own which I slightly wondered, as for a long part of the day I could not see any of our porters or group members and only a few other trekkers. I figured out that the porters had been using a different route which followed the dry riverbed down below and at the camp I heard that most of our group had also taken that route. Shame for them because the top route scenery was totally awing and I had that all by myself, so no complaints on my side. I took my time on the route and chatted a little with a Norwegian who had been climbing the Island Peak and was now going for the Mera Peak. At the end of the walk I arrived to Thangnag at 4350 meters, which was the place for our first rest day. Thangnag is a bit smaller than Kothey, but there still was around 15 teahouses to choose from. Ours was the last one of the village. Again – like after almost every trekking leg – there were hot drinks waiting for us. Usually it was tea, but sometimes also lemon juice which was a nice variation. For the rest of the day the sun was shining and everybody just relaxed and enjoyed the surroundings.

Hinku valley

Hinku valley with a view of the magnificent Kyashar

Thangnag

Thangnag and the western face of Mera Peak.

Showring at Thangnag

Noora shower fresh at Thangnag. The smaller hut is the shower.

Our rest day started off a bit later than usual as we were in no hurry anywhere. We had the whole day to do different things, so people washed cloths (me included), some took another hot shower and many went for little acclimatization hikes around the village. I went on one too with the Briton Rich and we headed for the nearby hill where our leader had told was supposed be a nice high altitude lake. We got to almost 4900 meters when the clouds started to roll in and we decided to turn back. We could not see the lake yet, but hunger was also starting to creep in as we hadn’t had lunch yet. We barely made back for the lunch and on the way we saw others who had already eaten and now headed for the lake too. Apparently only one or two eventually got to the lake which had still been quite a bit of walking away from the point from where we turned back. Apparently you had to go to well over 5000 meters to reach it. Anyways, the rest day was very welcome for everyone and did good. Also it seemed perfect for Viv – a Brit too – who was feeling quite sick and nauseous in the morning and didn’t even manage to get to the breakfast table. Luckily, after the rest day she was back in shape.

Hinku valley and Mera La

The view from our acclimatization hike. Thangnag is the small orange blobs at the valley floor and Mera La is just behind the mountain on the right. The lake is Tso Sabo which flooded the whole valley in 1998.

The following day – the seventh of our expedition – we headed up towards the Mera La. Some of us had already seen it from the aclimatization hikes, but now it opened up for everyone. The hike was quite gentle with a good path and no great obstacles on the way. The sun was shining and it was quite a pleasant day out. Way before lunch time we reached our destination, Khare, at 4900m. It is the last village on the way until the Khumbu valley, still quite a many days away. It has around ten teahouse on a sloping hillside. From here you can also rent the gear for climbing Mera Peak and even buy the permit to do it! So, this is the place for some ex tempore mountaineering 😀 If you like, you could even do some off-piste skiing here, at least I saw some old “atomics” lying against the teahouse wall. I would still recommend for you to bring your gear from Kathmandu, because by the look of them the gear have seen more years than many of the sherpa staff we had… From the village you could not quite see the Mera La, but you could instead see the massive face of Mera Peak and the beautiful views back down to Hinku valley. You could also see the Mera Peak central summit peeking behind the forefront rigde.

Khare towards the Hinku valley

View from Khare towards the Hinku valley

Here we shared the teahouse common room with a Jagged Globe group during spare time and dining. The Jagged Globe seemed to have a wee bit better everything… better tents, better drinks, better food, better utensils and so on. This might have caused the incident during dinner, which we thought might have been done to pun the Jagged Globe stuff. The JG group had almost eaten their dinner when our kitchen staff brought us no other than oven fresh pizza! It didn’t need much pushing to make those slices disappear. It still remains a mystery whether the ceremonyously presented pizza really was planned ahead or was it just to make fun of the JG staff. Well… we didn’t mind either way 😉

The next day our initial plan was to head over the Mera La to the basecamp, but that plan was rendered futile as about 15cm of fresh snow had fallen during the night. The expedition leader did not doubt if we could cross the pass, but the problem was the porters. They would have had some serious trouble with their canvas shoes they use in any terrain or any weather. Those porters really are some crazy guys. The right decision was to have an extra rest/acclimatization day. The weather also rendered null the plans of the people at the basecamp or at the highcamp. The snow and the wind made it impossible to reach the summit, though a few people had tried, we heard, until the weather had forced them to turn back. This meant, for many, that their expedition was over as they did not have an extra day (if any for starters) and many summit attempts where then left undone. Among the victims of the snowfall were friends and neighbours of the Swiss Markus, who just by chance were there at the same time. They both had made their plans to come here separately, without neither of them knowing of the other. Markus got to know about his neighbours from his wife at home, who, again by chance, had heard the plans of these other guys. Unfortunately they did not have that extra day and had to turn back. So, when and if you come here (or any other region in Nepal) for some trekking or climbing, do take a few extra days as you never know what might happen. It is much more troublesome and costly to go back next year to try again.

Khare the next day

Khare the next day

Most of our group spent the day doing some hikes in the surroundings. Some hiked up the trail we were going to continue along, but we went the other direction to a nearby lake at the end of the Hinku glacier. There was no ice though, but the views from the dry river/lake bed were quite nice. At the other end there was the crossing of two upsteam glacier streams which then joined to be the Hinku glacier. At the junction rises the very prominent and magnificent Malangphulang with steep faces and arêtes. On the side there was the Mera Peak face where we saw a few avalanches plummeting down. The rest of the day was spent playing cards, reading and trying to hunt the mysterious creature that walked around the tents during the night. Later it turned out to be a small cow from one of the teahouses just wandering around.

Us by the lake near Khare

Us by the lake near Khare. From right to left: Noora, Markus and Me

Finally, the next morning, we were able to move on again. The ground was still covered with snow and the path that usually is just rock and dirt was now a snowfield. Eventhough the porters would cross the pass with just their sneakers on, we were going to use the crampons. Many of us did not have such crampons that would fit the trekking shoes, so we were forced to take out our big boots. Luckily the porters carried the 2,5kg boots to the start of the steeper section where we could change into those. Eventhough the ascent was very steep up there and now quite slippery with the snow cover, we managed to get up unscatched. The same did not go with the JG team: during the ascent we saw just a few hundred meters out of the village one of their group member lying beside the path covered with a jacket, wimpering and holding his leg. He was already being attended by a few others and their head guide was rushing in, so we passed him without further delay. Later we heard that he was evacuated with a helicopter later that day and he had apparently twisted or broken his knee. Not the best way to end your trip.

Going up to Mera La

Going up to Mera La. Alan (in front) and Steven with a bunch of porters.

Jangbo and the Millet showroom

Jangbo and the Millet showroom

The small group I was walking with was taking all the time to reach the pass with no rush. We changed into our climbing boots and crampons and headed up the short steeper section up to the pass. At the top of the pass I suddently felt quite exhausted eventhough I had felt very strong and good at the beginning. I tried to eat a little to get some energy, but the lethargic feeling stuck. Despite of that we reached the pass, but the clouds had started to roll in and blocked the view in almost every direction. I was still quite happy as this was the highest point of my life at 5400m. The normal basecamp is right below the Mera La, but we were going to have our basecamp about 200m lower on the valley floor. This side of the pass was more treacherous and it was covered with a slippery icy coating. I was quite tired coming down the path, but managed to do it without any incidents. Sadly, the other one of my trekking mates for the day, ex-scostman Alan, slipped halfway down the path. He twisted his leg, but still managed to come down on his own. It did not seem too bad at the moment, but did give him some nuicance later on. After skipping and slipping down the path we arrived to the bottom of the pass and the basecamp was already waiting there all set up. Again we were greeted with some hot beverages which were very welcome on this much cooler side of the pass with cold air seeping from all around.

Ice walls at Mera La

Ice walls at Mera La. The route goes around from the left.

Looking down from the Mera La

Looking down from the Mera La. The first tents of the normal Mera Peak basecamp can be seen behind the people. We descended into the clouds and further 200 m down.

So, this was the first part of the journey. I will try to continue from here sooner than I managed to put together this post!

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