On 22nd of October we arrived at the Mera Peak basecamp. It is situated on a valley floor on the Eastern side of the Mera La about 250m lower than the basecamp that other parties aiming for Mera Peak are using. This location was advertised to us as warm and lush green, and it was supposed to be much better than the regular basecamp higher up. Although the location was convenient for us considering the onward journey to Baruntse, it did not exactly match the other advertised features.
What we had as a basecamp was a windy and cold valley which had about 15cm of snow all around. Not something you would call lush by any standards. We were told that snow here at this time of the season was quite exceptional. Nonetheless, our basecamp was quite nice still. We now had our dining tent up for the first time. It basically consists of sheets of fabric suspended on a metal frame. It had been brought from the Baruntse basecamp by a few quick porters who had been ahead of us. It was stashed there after the last expedition as there is no point of hauling it over neither the Mera La or the Amphulapcha La at the other end. We actually had two dining tents which were put together one after another to provide seating for all the 19 of us eating there. We also had the toilet tent that had been introduced already earlier and the kitchen tent, but now the porters had a sleeping tent too. It was basically a another “dining tent” where the porters huddled in a pile and slept. I really don’t envy the arrangement they had. At the basecamp we did not have our individual tents either – as opposed to what was promised – but I didn’t mind unlike some others who were grumbling about it. I think it is actually more fun to share a tent because you have someone to talk to. Even though we did not have the grassy floor at our camp, we did have quite nice views of the surrounding mountains. We could actually see Mera Peak’s central summit – the one we were heading at – and also most of the route from the high camp to the summit. Only the final summit plateau was blocked from the view. Towards the Hunku valley we could see some of the 7000m peaks there and just behind us was the Peak 41, though the actual peak was blocked by a jagged rigde before it. That is pretty much how the basecamp was.
The next day we went to a nearby ice wall to practice some fixed rope and abseiling. This time we had very good weather for a change. Everybody pulled their harnesses and axes out for the day’s work and in a perfect line headed up the nearby snow slope. Close to the end of the trail we also had a tiny experience on queueing in the mountains as we had a traffic jam in the steep final meters. It sure felt dumb to stand there and move half a step every minute or so for just a few meters’ cause. Finally we all made it up and started to gear up. The thing that many – me included – hadn’t done ever before was climbing the fixed rope. For that we used a carabiner and an ascender attached to the harness. The
ascender was used on the steep sections and the carabiner on the more level sections. At all times one of them had to be attached either to the fixed rope or to one of the anchors. Also for quite a few people this was the first time to climb ice of any kind and we saw a whole range of ice-climbing styles. I already had some experience in ice climbing, but this was a bit different as we only had one axe for one hand and the ascender for the other. That is something that requires getting used to. The sherpas had set up two lines – one more gradual and one more steeper – which we were supposed to climb up and then abseil down next to them. The rope wasn’t a regular climbing rope, but a thin plastic rope and the handling of that, especially on the abseil, was also something quite different from what I was used to. Overall the training session was very fun and useful. I managed to climb the lines in a somewhat respectable style which I cannot say for all of us, but everybody still managed to do them. Having trouble with these lines wasn’t too much of an issue as they were much more steeper and technical than any of those that we would have to climb for real. When we thought we had climbed enough we were allowed to return to the basecamp at our own pace.
The good weather also meant that hordes of people at the high camp and probably some at the normal basecamp had been eagerly waiting for such a weather window. The weather was clear, but the winds were quite strong. Despite that, we could see tens and tens of black dots of people slowly inching up the slopes towards the summit plateau. There really was a lot of people trying to reach the summit. We do not know how many succeeded, but considering the wind, I’m sure that some people must have turned around.
After the second night at the basecamp we headed up to high camp with a leisurely schedule. We ate breakfast and packed the final things we would need at the high camp. I left the camp among the last few people and walked together with Alan who had some trouble with his leg he had hurt when descending to the basecamp two days earlier. I really could sympathize with him as I had had my own troubles with my ankle for the past two months. Again we had great weather and this time the views from the Mera La were truly stunning. We could see mountains like Kantega, Kyashar, Peak 41, Chamlang, Ama Dablam, Baruntse and Makalu. Not too bad a view at all 🙂 The route we took led us up the same way to Mera La that we had descended earlier. From there we headed up the steady snow slope up a rock formation where the high camp was situated. The whole way from Mera La to the camp there was a well trodden path which was very pleasant to walk. We went about halfway together with Alan, but I felt much more stronger than him and I headed ahead. He was not left alone, though, as he had a sherpa to keep him company. I really seemed to have found an extra boost as I passed quite a few other team members on the last stretch. Still, many had already made their way to the high camp when I got there and almost all the tents were also put up. Again my pairing as tent buddies with Markus paid out as he had been (again) the first on the spot and the first to pickup the tent spot. We had definitely the best spot of them all at the center of the biggest ledge and perfectly level floor. All of the others were not so lucky and the most unfortunate was the Brit couple Andy and Viv who had got a spot where many would have used a harness while sleeping. After all they didn’t use one nor did they fell of the egde, which was good. The rest of the day was spent resting and eating to get more energy for the following days’ trial. The high camp itself is quite a spot. It is situated on the very egde of the face dropping to the valley where we had our basecamp. The views were magnificent from here too. While sitting in our tent we could even see two 8000m peaks (!) – Makalu and Kanchenjunga far to the east. On top of that there were some 7000m peaks to look at. We were not the only ones at the high camp but there was perhaps four-five other teams there, though smaller ones than ours.
As we were now at 5800m it was very important to eat as much as you could. The altitude can affect the appetite of some people, but I had a very good appetite even there. The food here of course wasn’t as varied as at the basecamp, but it was very good nonetheless. Mostly it was noodle or pasta soup at higher camps. You also have to drink a lot and that too was managed well by the kitchen staff who probably had a constant fire for boiling water for all of us. Luckily for them, they didn’t have to melt the water from snow as there was, conveniently, a glacier stream pushing out just some 10-20 meters away from the camp site.
Then the summit day came. As planned earlier, we had our “wake up tea” at midnight which was served to our tents. I also ate some porridge they served for those who wanted. Apparently some others did not have the appetite for sticky, semi cold porridge in the middle of the night after a very short sleep 😉 I had slept quite well the few odd hours we had, although I had some weird heat on my forehead which I could not fathom, but the probable reasons for that would come apparent a few days afterwards.
At 1:30 am we were all gathered outside ready to leave. I had put on my very thin technical underwear and on top of that one thicker merino wool layer. The next layer was my Gore-Tex trousers and one longsleeved sport shirt. As the final layer I had the Marmot 8000m pants and parka. On my head I had a fleece cap and a helmet with storm goggles. On my feet I had a pair of fresh trekking socks and Millet Everest boots. For nutrition I had 1 litre of water, a few chocolate bars and a flapjack. It was completely dark outside and we left in a single file a bit before 2am with our headtorches lighting the way. The weather was quite pleasant with very little wind and it was quite nice and warm. The first part of the route is a quite gentle snow slope and we even had a path of some kind to follow. Maybe after an hour or an hour and a half since I was left to walk alone as some people were a bit slower and some went faster and I could not keep up with them. At this point it wasn’t probable to loose the track as you could see headlamps ahead of you and the path was quite clearly visible.
When I started to reach the steeper section of the route, I caught up the 67 year old Tak – a japanese living in Canada. He had his semi-personal sherpa with him who was helping him to get along. For quite a bit we walked at the same pace, me keeping in the front. At some point on the steepest part the sherpa and an american Robert passed us. Not long after Tak lay down on the snow to rest after a sprint. He looked very tired and I had to ask many times if was he ok. He replied that he was ok and stood up. He did, though, want me to go in front as he said he could not see the route. He must have been very tired, I was too, but not that tired. Earlier the helping sherpa had given Tak some juice by pouring it straight to his mouth, which had looked quite worrying considering that he did not manage to drink by himself. I have to admit that the path here was nonexistent at best and you had to make the best out of it. A little later we caught up with the sherpa who was waiting for Tak. The whole affair wasn’t very well judged by the sherpa, I think. Here the weather had also got a bit worse as the wind had caught up and it was blowing snow which obscured the visibility. Luckily the bad weather did not last for long, but for the time being it was certainly made the progress quite a bit harder with wind and snow blowing to your face.
After the steep section I left Tak behind and spurted ahead. When I reached the start of the summit plaeau the sun was already rising above the skyline. For the first time you see where you where, instead of just guessing by the vague features around you in the dark. I could see the summit and some people already on top of it. It was around 6am now and I still had some distance to go. I ate the other half of my Twix bar here, which then turned out to be a wrong move. It made my mouth or throat produce a lot of phlegm and I had to spit it out every now and then. The plateau seemed to continue forever. I tried to keep up with my routine of walking some 25 to 50 steps before having a break, which I had done through the night. When I was nearing the summit cone, I was passed by Markus on his way back down. He wished me well and cheered me forward to do the last hundreds of meters.
Finally I arrived to the summit pyramid, where I saw Rich already down from the summit and the Finnish ladies Mia and Noora abseiling down when I arrived. Andy and Viv were waiting for their turn to climb up. I was quite exhausted here. I was at a bit over 6400m, the highest I had ever been and now I had only 10m to go to the summit. This was the only technical part of the climb, as we had to climb some 5-7m steep ice wall up to the summit bump. When I had caught some breath and the ropes were free, I began to climb up the ropes. There were sherpas helping on both ends of the rope so you did not really have to take care yourself that you set up the gear properly – not that it would have been very difficult. The climb wasn’t very long nor was it very difficult, but when I got to the top I had to take quite a few deep breaths to steady myself. I walked the last few meters to the summit and accepted the congratulations from Arnold, our expedition leader, with joy. I was at the summit now. 6461m or something like that, depending on the source. It was 7am so it had taken me 5 hours to reach the top.
They say the view from the Mera Peak is one of the best in the Himalayas and I wouldn’t argue against that. You can see both the planes of Nepal and the high mountains of Himalaya. On clear weather you can see 6 of the 14 8000m peaks and that kind of locations are quite rare. I enjoyed the vistas for a while and then I was joined by Robert and we took the mandatory summit pictures with Everest in the background. Eventhough the views were excellent, I did not have the energy to seep in much more and started to head back down. At the same time Alan and Tak made it to the top too. I did not waste much time and started to walk back down. As I was reaching the end of the summit plateau I met people from other expeditions coming up. They were all roped up, perhaps not so much because of safety than for keeping the clients walking at a fast enough pace. They had most probably left almost at daybreak and had to get to the summit fast as the weather would always get worse during the day. I took a little break and let them pass. I then continued down again, wearily but steadily. Because of the fatigue I stumbled a bit with the crampons on the melting path slushing under my feet. I even took a half of a somersault when my crampons got caught up on each other. No harm or damage was done though. Further down the sun started to really heat things up and I had to take my down suit off at one point. Now with daylight you could also see the many crevasses around the path of which you did not have any clue about on the way up.
It took me almost two hours to get back to the high camp. Quite many of us had already packed things up and left for the basecamp at that point. I crashed into our tent to have some rest. Soon the kitchen staff brought me some soup and juice, which were very welcome. I packed my things, having little breaks in between. When I was done I tried to get some more water, but the kitchen had already closed and all the things were already packed. I had no choice but to start heading to the basecamp. I did not have many breaks on the way as I just wanted to get to the basecamp as soon as possible. The sun was scorching and I had very little water left. I took a little break at Mera La where I took my crampons off and sipped the last remaining water I had. Luckily the way down to the basecamp wasn’t as slippery as it had been the previous time and I had little trouble other than fatigue.
I finally reached the basecamp at 12:30 being very thirsty which was soon cured by the juice brought by the staff. It so took me 10,5 hours from high camp to the summit to the basecamp. Quite a long day it was. Almost as soon as I had put my pack down they had the lunch ready – I had arrived at just the right time 🙂 The rest of the day went just resting and relaxing. Alan and Steve arrived three hours after me and were the last ones to come in. Both of them were quite tired, Steve perhaps a notch more. He didn’t even show up for the dinner later and had caught up with a terrible cough. Many others were in heavy sleep when they rang the dinner bell which is quite understandable. After the dinner I apparently wasn’t the only one tired as everybody vanished into the tents as soon as they had finished their plates. I followed the cue and lay down for the well deserved rest.
That was my Mera Peak summit day. It was long, but exciting at the same time. Like many others said, too, it was much harder than they had anticipated and climbing the Mera Peak is definitely not trekking in any sense of the word. I was quite pleased that I managed to do that and was very satisfied with the expedition already at this phase. I’ll continue the story in the next post with our walk to the Baruntse and then back to the civilization.