The Himalayas are so high that the most that can be achieved on many general treks in this great range of mountains is to climb over high passes, or to glimpse the snowy summits from the heads of the valleys. Certainly, this had been the extent of previous treks that I had done in India and Pakistan. However, I’m sure that many trekkers (myself included) have stared at the wind-blown summits far above, and wondered what it would be like to stand on them. Of course, a large number of Himalayan peaks are very technical climbs, requiring a great deal of rock and ice climbing skill, not to mention daunting logistics and large sums of money, to have a hope of success. Fortunately though, there are several mountains in the Nepal Himalaya that have come to be known as ‘trekking peaks’. These are serious high altitude ascents, but require only basic mountaineering skills and a good level of fitness to be able to summit them. The highest of the Nepal trekking peaks is Mera Peak, which stands in the Solo Khumbu region of the Nepal Himalaya. Mera is 6461 metres or 21,197 feet high, which puts it in the ‘extreme altitude’ bracket, and yet, it is only the final 100 feet or so that is at all technical – requiring a fixed rope to safeguard the 40 degree snow slope that leads to the summit. Apart from the attraction of climbing the highest Nepali trekking peak, Mera has one other feature that makes it very popular – the spectacular view from the summit, which takes in many of the World’s highest mountains, including Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse, Kangchenjunga, Cho Oyu, and Makalu.I had wanted to climb Mera Peak since at least 1998, when I traveled to Glencoe in Scotland to do a ‘basic winter mountaineering course’ which was aimed at teaching exactly the skills required for the trekking peaks of Nepal and the long glacier treks of Pakistan. On the slopes of Stob Coir Nan Lochan, I learnt how to arrest a fall on snow using my ice axe, how to ascend and descend steep snow slopes, how to dig a snow cave shelter in an emergency, and how to trek and climb while roped to others. Unfortunately the snow was too mushy to use our crampons, so mine remained strapped to my backpack. My original plan had been to do this course while I was at University (when I couldn’t afford to travel outside the UK) and then use the skills I had learnt to do the Gondogoro La trek in Pakistan some years later, when I had got a job. This trip involves a trek up the Hushe valley in North Pakistan and over the Gondogoro La (Pass) at around 19,000 feet. The route then drops down to Concordia on the other side, offering spectacular views of K2 (the World’s second highest mountain), before continuing right down the Baltoro glacier to Askole. The basic mountaineering skills are needed to climb a 50-degree snow slope at the top of the Gondogoro La, and for the long descent of the glacier. The Gondogoro La trek is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular on the planet in terms of scenery. Unfortunately, by the time I came to be looking at the Gondogoro La trek seriously, the events of 9/11 and the subsequent war in Afghanistan made Pakistan off limits except for essential business (according to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office), which meant that most trekking companies stopped travelling there because getting insurance became impossible.This was a problem for me, because I had hoped to do the Gondogoro La trek before attempting Mera Peak. The main reason for this was that I was very wary about trekking at such high altitudes and wanted to build up to Mera by seeing how I coped at 19,000 feet. My caution was due to seeing one of my friends very nearly die of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) during the trek that I did in Pakistan 1994. Everyone on that trek had realised just how serious the effects of altitude could be. I didn’t particularly want to rush straight into climbing Mera Peak, without at least experiencing how I fared on a long trip, camping on snow and ice, at a slightly lower altitude, first. Now, this was out of the question, and I decided to book my place on the October 2003 Mera Peak trip with KE Adventure Travel anyway. My first high altitude climb would probably also be my highest!I chose KE Adventure Travel because they had run both the basic mountaineering course that I had been on, as well as the successful ascent of Pico da Neblina (Brazil’s highest mountain) that I had done in 2002. The trek description stressed how careful their acclimatization program was during the ascent of Mera and claimed that this had given them a very good record of successful summit bids. I was also reassured to learn that the group would have a Gamow bag available in the event of an emergency. A Gamow bag is basically a portable compression chamber, operated by a foot pump. A climber who has fallen victim to AMS can be placed inside the bag, which is then pressurized to a pressure closer to that found at sea level, until they recover or descend. They are not used by many expeditions because they are so expensive. With this level of care to avoid altitude sickness, I didn’t feel too apprehensive about signing up for the Mera trip.
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Note: This diary is currently incomplete,but does contain a full account of thesummit climb.