Rowan Castle - Travel & Photography
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Rowan Castle on the summit of Mera Peak, Nepal.

Nepal 2003 - Diary

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Day One - 6th October 2003. From Abu Dhabi we flew in a Gulf Air 767 to Kathmandu. Uneventful journey until we reached Nepal, when the Himalayas, bathed in the last rays of the setting sun came into view on the port side of the plane. Unfortunately our seats were on the starboard side (we had no choice as to where we sat because we had been checked in as a group. The view of the mountains was stunning (I could see by looking through the windows on the other side of the aircraft). As we descended into Kathmandu we flew into some cloud. On exiting the cloud the aircraft hit turbulence and dropped quite a way. People screamed a few seats away from me. It was still light when we landed at Tribuvan Intl Airport and taxied past several old and scrapped Soviet made helicopters. Once we were through the airport (I got my visa with no problems) we were met by Mick (another KE guide). Some in the group were on a different KE trip – going to do the Annapurna Circuit. We were driven by bus through the streets of Kathmandu to our hotel (The Vaishali Hotel in Thamel). By now it was dark (when we left the airport) but it was still fascinating to see all of the little shops and stalls [lots of soldiers at the airport + armoured personnel carrier – because of Maoist uprising]. Got to hotel checked in, then were taken by Dave (our guide for Mera) to money changers before they shut. Back at hotel had a very nice buffet style dinner of curry and rice. Met others in group – Dave (KE guide), Jose (KE guide from Granada, Spain), Roger (on plane), Tom (on plane), Mark (on plane), Chris (on plane), Bill + Myron (from Colorado) and Klaus (Austrian from Vancouver, BC). I was sharing a room with Chris. Charged up my camcorder batteries ready to leave the next day. Day Two – 7th October. After a 5.30 a.m. start, we were taken back to Tribhuvan airport for our domestic flight to Lukla. Airport was quite chaotic but our local agent got all our kit bags through very efficiently. Flight took off from Kathmandu and headed east to Lukla. I was sitting in one of the front LH seats, and I could see the Himalayas out through the window as well as the pilots in the cockpit. Did about 150 kts. The views were sensational. Took some video footage. Aircraft climbed to 12,000 ft – quite high for an unpressurised cabin. Could feel the air getting thinner and colder. We had climbed to clear several high ridges. Going over one we flew low over the top – could see the trees zipping past. Very exciting flying. Suddenly started to descend, I was filming out of the side window and could see the mountainside approaching – looked out of the front window and the runway was dead ahead! Lukla is one of the most dramatic airfields in the World. The runway sits precariously on the side of a deep valley, surrounded by high mountains. At one end of the airstrip is a near vertical drop off down to the valley below, and at the other is a high stone wall. The runway itself is just 500 metres long, so there is little margin for pilot error during the landing. The upward slope of the runway, which is tilted at twelve degrees, assists braking aircraft. Lukla used to be a gravel strip, and it was only very recently that the tarmac was put down. Because it slopes upwards it looked like we were diving straight into it. As soon as we touched down we braked and then turned sharply to the right onto the apron. After collecting our packs, we trekked up the hill to a large wooden lodge. We would be sleeping in the rooms that night. Chris and I shared a room with a view right out onto the runway 24. Great for watching the aircraft land and take-off. In the afternoon we went for a walk out of the village. It was sunny and warm. Walking on a stone track through trees and shrubs + some wild flowers. Passed lots of Yaks (or cross breeds between Yak and Cow) on trail. Had to be careful of their large sharp horns as they passed us by.  Later on I walked down through the village with Jose and Dave to try to phone Kathmandu to send Mark’s Thermarest up on a morning aircraft (it had accidentally been left behind). When we went to use the phone the agent in Kathmandu was out to lunch so they would have to try later. Lots of soldiers in Kathmandu because of the insurgency. Airport surrounded by emplacements and razor wire (that had beer cans tied to it to warn of intruders). Spent most of the day watching the aircraft coming and going until late afternoon when the cloud came in. Had a very nice meal in the evening and then went to bed. Difficult to sleep at night because of incessant barking of dogs, plus rats scurrying around in the ceiling. Day Three – 8th October. Fairly relaxed start to our first day of trekking. Left at about 10:15. It was an easy trek of only a few hours, with a long break for lunch on a forested hillside. Then it was just a short walk to our camp site at Chutanga. Chutanga was a fairly small meadow, strewn with some very large boulders. We arrived at about 16:00, just as it started to rain. The porters and Sherpas put up our tents very quickly. Not much else to do but crawl inside. I fell asleep on my camping mat and woke up feeling very chilled. Fortunately it was soon time for hot tea in our mess tent and then dinner. We had a paraffin lantern which provided a good light and a lot of warmth. After dinner we all went back to the tents for the night. It was still raining, cloudy, and very cold. Day Four – 9th October. It was still raining when we woke up, and had been all night. The conditions underfoot were very unpleasant because the black earth of the meadow was saturated. The entrance to the tent I shared with Chris was very churned up. Dave decided to delay the departure time for our acclimatization trek to see if it would stop raining, but it didn’t. So at 10:30 we set off up the hill behind the camp to a point where it forked. The RH fork went to the Zatwra La where we would be going tomorrow. We took the LH fork which goes up to the Zatwra Teng La. We climbed for a couple of hours in total and this took us to about 11,500 feet via muddy, exposed and slippery trail. We stopped at a small plateau area that was nearly at the tree line, and then headed back down to camp for our lunch. Bill discovered that he had picked up a leech in his sock during the acclimatization trek! Day Five – 10th October. Today we crossed the Zatwra La. Climbed up from Chutanga along same deforested trail. On way got good views of the peaks in Lukla valley and could even see Lukla itself and an aircraft landing on the runway. Stopped for a juice at a lodge at the foot of the pass. Coca Cola also available there. From there it was a very long and steep climb. First to the false pass with prayer flags, where we had lunch, and then another short section to the top of the pass at about 14,600 feet. Very out of breath at the top with a pounding headache. Glad to drop down to our camp at Tuli Kharka which was at 13,500 feet. Cloudy when I arrived – couldn’t see any views at all. Day Six – 11th October. I awoke at about 5:30 and found that the zip to the tent had frozen up. The thermometer on my watch read 2 deg. C. but it was colder outside because there was ice on the tent and the ground had frozen up. I took some photos of the spectacular cloudscape below (the day had dawned clear). I was feeling much better this morning and my head was clear. We had to pack away our stuff very quickly because the porters needed to make an early start. We ate breakfast at our mess table but without the tent because it had been packed away. The sun was slowly making its way down the hillside, but we were still in shadow. We set off at 8, and contoured around the edge of the mountainside to the left (roughly north). Spectacular view of Naulek, and further on we had our first view of Mera Peak, but it was quickly obscured by cloud. Then began a steep descent, first through rhododendron bushes and then into the trees. Passed a long and beautiful waterfall [after a collection of lodges where the other party [Peregrine] stopped). After dropping down into the forested slope of the Hinku valley, we stopped for lunch. After lunch the trail went up and down over some very steep sections, before finally dropping down to the sheer edge of the valley floor which had been gouged out when the glacial lake at Tangnag broke its banks [when an avalanche crashed into lake]. From there the trail went up and down a lot once more. I was very tired by this point and very out of breath, even though we had descended from 13000 ft at the camp to about 11,200 ft. Finally I caught up with the rest of the group and we reached Gotay. I was able to buy a Twix chocolate bar and a cup of tea from the lodge. As I was eating and drinking we learnt that there were Maoists in the area and that the party member at Gotay was demanding that we pay 1000 Rupees each, as protection / extortion money. We all had to pay up, and each got a receipt! It was only 14:30 when we arrived. When we had our afternoon tea, Jose invited the two girls who were camping next to our group to have tea with us. Anne and Melissa were gardeners from Aspen Colorado and were climbing Mera Peak with one guide / climbing Sherpa. In the evening we had a very nice dinner of pasta, fishcakes, vegetables and rice. I stayed up in the mess tent talking with Tom, Mark and Roger, then wrote my diary went to bed. Day Seven – 12th October. Trek from Gotay to Tangnag. Day Eight – 13th October. Acclimatisation trek above Tangnag. Day Nine – 14th October. We had enjoyed our stay at Tangnag, especially our time spent in the warmth and comfort of the lodge. Now it was time to move on to our last camp before the snow – Khare. The first leg of the day’s walk took us out of the collection of huts and lodges, over a narrow footbridge and into the boulder field of the valley floor. As we reached this point, we stepped from the frosty early morning shade of Tangnag and into the glare of the sun. It was often difficult to spot the path as it weaved between the huge rocks. Sometimes there was enough dust to make out an old footprint, and in other places small rock cairns had been built to guide the way. The deposition of these boulders was due to the cataclysmic flooding of the lake above Tangnag and the amount of energy released must have been almost incomprehensible. Immense blocks of stone that had been scattered like pebbles now made for difficult trekking. Emerging from the boulder field, the path climbed up and along an old moraine ridge. Day Ten – 15th October. Other than the guides and Sherpas, most of us on the trip had very little experience of using ice axes, crampons and ropes. To help with safety and increase our chances of reaching the summit, it was necessary to do an acclimatization trek from Khare up onto the start of the Mera glacier so that we could practice. After we had eaten breakfast, Pemba and Jangbu worked very hard to set up a rope course on the steep hill above the camp. This was designed to mimic the very last section of Mera that leads up to the summit, where we would need to use a fixed rope to safeguard our ascent. Jose and Dave told us that the morning would be spent walking up to the glacier and practising our mountaineering skills and then in the afternoon we would be taken around the rope course. I was really looking forward to getting up onto the snow for the first time. We had been able to see the tongue of the Mera glacier that drops towards Khare from Tangnag and now it was very close. However, we soon found that getting up to it was not all that easy. After it passed the upper lodges and huts at Khare, the route climbed very steeply up a narrow path that was covered in scree and loose rocks. Keeping my footing required paying a lot of attention to every bit of the ground. Eventually, the track levelled out at a small hut, before descending a short way over some large boulders to the start of the snow. It was then time to put on our mountaineering equipment. I was already wearing my salopettes, but I had to take off my cargo jacket (with my camcorder inside) and my SLR camera and stow them under a boulder. Next, I sorted out my tangled climbing harness, put it on and tightened up all of the safety buckles. Then I changed out of my fabric walking boots, retrieved my cumbersome SCARPA plastic mountaineering boots from the communal kit bag and put them on. The plastic boots are designed to offer the maximum protection against the cold of the snow and against water. First to be put on are the inner foam rubber boots that insulate the feet. Once these were laced up, I could slide my feet carefully into the hard and completely waterproof thin plastic outer shells. Because they are designed to accommodate crampons, these types of boot have extremely rigid soles, making them very difficult to walk in on hard ground. This is why they were carried for us on the trek until we needed them; for the rest of the time we wore our normal walking boots. The other main disadvantage of plastic boots is that they are terribly heavy. Having got my boots on, I then had to fit my Gore-Tex gaiters, which stop snow from melting on my socks and wetting them out. A cord that passes under the instep of each boot holds the gaiters in place. I had replaced the original cords with longer ones, so that they would fit over the larger plastic boots and had even tested them out before leaving the UK, but for some reason I now found that the cords were slightly too short. I had to bend over backwards and apply an enormous amount of force to get this thin cord under each boot and it was murderously hard work at seventeen thousand feet, especially as I was balancing on several icy boulders. When I finally got both gaiters on, I was gasping for breath, sweating, shaking and completely exhausted. Unfortunately, I was not yet finished. I still had to get my crampons out of their bag, take off the rubber point protectors, step into each one and attach them to my boots using the straps and bindings. Luckily, the crampons were much easier to set up than the gaiters. Finally, all that remained was to put on my waterproof shell jacket and leave my rucksack behind on the rock. At the bottom of the snow slope, Jose told us that we would first practice the basics of walking with crampons and ice axes. He showed us how to zigzag up the slope, taking steps with the toes pointing outwards so that each foot was angled away from the other. The ice axe was held with the pick facing to the rear, so that the adze could easily be brought up and into the shoulder to arrest a fall, with the shaft across the chest and held at the point with the other hand. Once we had practiced climbing upwards, traversing, changing direction and descending we were roped up in two separate teams and repeated the exercises. We soon found that walking roped together required a lot of co- ordination, in order to maintain the right amount of distance between each member of the team and to be able to move in unison. It was then time for us to find a smooth but steep section of the slope and take it in turns to slide down it, arresting our ‘fall’ with our ice axes. This exercise started with the most basic type of fall, which was sliding face down with our legs pointing downwards. Then we progressed to sliding on our backs, legs first and finally, the most difficult was a fall backwards and head first down the gradient. In each case we learnt how to get our axes into the correct position very quickly in order to stop the fall as soon as possible. Luckily, we all got the hang of it and then it was time to head back down to the boulders, get changed out of our mountaineering gear and retreat back to the Khare camp. After lunch, the day got decidedly colder and it took quite a lot of willpower for me to get out of the tent and back into my climbing kit, ready for the rope course. First of all, we each were given an ascender (or jumar) to attach to our climbing harnesses. An ascender is a metal mechanism with a handgrip that locks onto the rope. When correctly set up, it will slide easily up the rope, but not downwards. So if someone is climbing up a rope and they fall or slip badly, it locks in place and because it is attached to the climbing harness, they will not go very far. Once my ascender was attached to the rope, I set off up the steep hillside, using the ice axe (with the pick facing forwards and the point of the shaft touching the ground) to steady myself. When I reached the top of the hill, I had to follow the rope and traverse across it until I was at the top of the descent rope. Here, Jangbu helped me unclip my ascender, and replace it with a prussik loop. This is basically a short piece of climbing cord with a knot that wraps around the rope to be down-climbed; the other end is attached to the climbing harness. By holding onto the main rope with your hand above the prussik loop you can slide the knot easily downwards and descend, but if you fall, the knot will tighten and bring you to a stop. By the time I got back down to the bottom of the hill, I was really feeling the cold and was extremely glad when we had packed the equipment away and I could go back to my tent. Day Eleven – 16th October. There would be no more acclimatization treks from this point on; we would be heading for the summit via the Mera La and High camps. After packing up the camp at Khare, we made our way up the loose and slippery path once more, to the tongue of the Mera Glacier. I had learned a lesson from the day before, and decided to put on as much of my mountaineering equipment as I could before leaving camp. That way I hoped to avoid a lot of the struggling around on the boulders that had taken so much energy during the acclimatization trek. There were an incredible number of people on the trail to the glacier with us, consisting of several other climbing groups plus all of our Sherpas, porters and kitchen crews. It was a short but hard climb up to the snow, but this time, I was much more organized and it wasn’t long before I had my plastic boots, crampons and ice axe in place and I was ready to start climbing. I was surprised when Jose and Pemba announced that we would not be roped together for the climb up to the Mera La camp, especially after the practice that we had done as a rope team the day before. It was felt that because the trail was so well travelled, there was no need. As I started up the steep snow slope, Roger kindly filmed me with my camcorder. My first steps were quite slow and hesitant because I was still not used to using my ice axe and crampons together. It was less tiring to take a zigzag course up the glacier rather than challenging it head on, but it was still exhausting. At the end of each traverse, it was necessary to stop, turn and swap my ice axe to the other hand, so that it was in the correct position should I need to arrest a fall. During the climb, I had my camcorder clipped to the shoulder strap on my rucksack so that I could shoot footage without too much difficulty. Eventually, I reached the top of the Mera La, where the path followed the saddle-like ridge, at ninety degrees to the glacier tongue that reached down towards Khare. The whole group took a few minutes to rest here for a while and take some photographs. Then we set off once more, along the snow covered saddle ridge and slightly uphill towards the camp. By this point, the cloud that rose up the Hinku valley every morning had caught up with us. The whiteness of snow and sky and the almost complete silence was very eerie. Unfortunately the cloud cover was not total, and I was still getting quite badly sunburnt both by the sun from above, and the reflected light from the snow. Before long I found myself in the middle of the Mera La, and looking down a very steep ice wall onto the site of the camp. Already, I could see that the porters had managed to start putting up some of the tents. In order for our party to get down safely into the Mera La camp, the climbing Sherpas had fixed a rope. It was firmly anchored to the top with three large metal snow stakes. There was quite a queue of us waiting to trek down the rope, and it was a while before it was my turn. The climb down was actually not too bad and the rope was really just used as a handrail for us; it was more important for the porters who had much heavier loads than us and only instep crampons. Reaching the bottom, I removed my crampons and picked my way over a confusion of boulders to reach the tents. What struck me about the Mera La camp was the strange silence. The puffy white clouds that had come in to the north seemed totally still, as if they had been painted onto the sky. We had plenty of time to take in our surroundings, since only a few of the tents had been put up when we arrived. Many of the porters were still bringing their loads down the ice incline, and Jose busied himself cutting steps with his ice axe to make it easier for them. The tent that I was to share with Chris was eventually pitched on a very flat and comfortable spot next to the cook tent. For the first time on the trip, we had switched from using the basic A-frame low altitude tents to modern ‘Mountain Hardware’ high altitude ones. These weren’t as spacious, but were very sturdy and comfortable. When darkness fell, we congregated in our big yellow mess tent to have our dinner. The metal chairs and long table that we had enjoyed up to Khare were too big and bulky to be carried all the way up here, so we either sat on the floor or stood up to eat. We were all wearing our warmest clothing by this stage, but it was amazing how much warmer it could get in the mess tent due to the heat from the kerosene lamp. We all found eating at this altitude to be a real chore. Not only did we have much smaller appetites, but also chewing and swallowing food meant that you could not breathe as hard as was necessary to get enough oxygen. I often found that taking enough time to chew and swallow my food left me gasping for air. After dinner, I went out into the darkness with my camera and mini-tripod. I clambered around over the boulders, looking for a spot where I could perhaps take some long exposures and capture the trails of the bright stars. First, I took some photos of our mess tent shining brightly yellow due to the kerosene light from within. I then set up my tripod with the camera aimed at what I hoped would be a good spot to capture the stars above the mountains. Unfortunately, there was a problem. To capture the trails I would have to leave the shutter on my camera open for perhaps as long as an hour. It was very cold and I didn’t want to sit with the camera for an hour, but on the other hand, to find it again would mean using my head-torch and would spoil the shot. I wasn’t sure whether to bother, but the decision was made for me when there was a loud rock-fall from the escarpment nearby. It sounded uncomfortably close and I decided to retreat to the tent for the night. Day Twelve – 17th October. The day dawned with not a cloud in the sky. It was a chilly start, but the night had been nowhere near as cold as we had been expecting. I had been warned that temperatures could fall as low as minus thirty degrees Centigrade, but I guessed that at the Mera La camp we had not experienced much worse than a few degrees below zero. It had certainly been freezing cold in the night, because the grotty puddle next to our tent was covered in a thick crust of ice. As we busied ourselves packing away our things and preparing our packs for the trek, I got out my camcorder and filmed the clear view of the mountains on the other side of the Mera La and also the view up to the top of Mera. The clear air and lack of cloud meant that the central summit was easily visible, with the North summit to the right hand side. I could also see the large rock outcrop which was where our high camp would be located. There were already several tiny figures to be seen, making their way slowly up to the high camp. We learnt that from our party, Ngima Sherpa had made a very early start, in an attempt to be one of the first up there and secure places for our tents. When we were all ready to go, I moved out of the camp and carefully crossed the boulders until I reached a spot with enough ice and snow to put my crampons on. Then I used the fixed rope that the Sherpas had left in place overnight to climb back up the steep snow slope and onto the glacier. We had been told that we would not need to rope up today either, because the trail was still so clearly defined. So, we all went at our own pace and made our way slowly but surely towards the high camp. The high altitude made for frequent rest stops, but the walking itself was not difficult. About half way up to the camp, Tom pointed out that we now had our first view of Mount Everest – the World’s highest mountain. It had just become visible above a ridgeline, with Lhotse to the right hand side. I was amazed at how close it looked, and at just how clear the view was. I could even faintly make out the famous ‘yellow band’ rock stratum that runs across the face of Everest. Looking back down at the Mera La camp, I could see that a new mountain had come into view, and Tom told me that this was Makalu (the World’s fifth highest peak). He was also able to tell me that the other mountain which we could now see very clearly, and which had dominated the view from the Mera La camp was called Chamlang. I managed to get some good camcorder footage and still photographs of all of these peaks. We had so far been very lucky with the weather to get such clear skies. At last I arrived at the large rock that sheltered the high campsite. Ahead of me, the path continued up the snow slope towards the summit but to the left, a track branched off and went between a face of the rock and a steep bank of snow. Following this track, I reached a small and rocky ledge on the other side of the outcrop. Luckily, Ngima had indeed managed to get there early and had already set up the cook tent on a precarious platform on the scree slope above, which was nestled underneath the face of the rock. Below this, several of our high altitude tents had already been set up on the few small areas that were clear of rocks. This ledge that we were camping on terminated in a sheer drop of perhaps three thousand feet, down onto another glacier below. Next to the ledge, to the right of the entrance track, was another drop off and an impressive wall of snow, with great hanging icicles. The main problem with the high camp on Mera is the lack of space on the rock ledge. Soon after I arrived, the campsite began to fill up. Thanks to Ngima, all of our tents were located either on the ledge or on the scree slope underneath the rock, but other parties were camped along the entrance track (between the path and the snow slope) and even out on the glacier. The shortage of space also meant that there was virtually no privacy, especially during daylight hours.  I could see that recently, people had been to the toilet on the rock ledge itself, and the outer perimeter of the camp (even the lower scree slope) was strewn with piles of excrement, toilet paper and patches of conspicuously yellow snow. All told, the high camp was cramped, dirty and not a particularly pleasant place. Unfortunately, my stomach was giving me trouble and I had to find somewhere reasonably private where I could go to the toilet. The only solution was to take my ice axe, trek out of the camp, and walk a short way back down the glacier. I was dismayed to find that even back on the glacier there was no privacy, because there was a German party camping higher up the slope. To go to the toilet, I had to dig out a large pit in the snow with my ice axe. Digging out the latrine at that altitude took an enormous amount of effort. I had also made the mistake of leaving my high altitude sunglasses back in the tent, and by the time I was ready to go back to the ledge, the intense glare from the snow was making my eyes water and sting very badly. A few hours later, my stomach was still no better and I had to make yet another trip out onto the glacier! Once again, I had to struggle in the deep snow to dig another latrine, but at least I had my sunglasses on this time. It was terribly hard work, but I suppose it’s not often that you get a spectacular view of Mount Everest from the toilet! That evening, we had the unusual luxury of dinner being brought to us in our tents. The kitchen crew did this because the mess tent was too large and heavy to be brought up to the high camp and it was rather too cold for us to eat outside. We had also been told that we would be woken up at 2 a.m. to get ready to start the summit climb by 4 a.m. Chris and I had been last to lay claim to one of the high altitude tents, and so ours was the one that was right on the edge of the spectacular drop off. My side of the tent was nearest the precipice and when I was lying down inside, I was probably no more than a couple of feet from the edge. I noticed that even though I was sleeping with all my warmest clothes on, and inside a five season down sleeping bag, my feet felt cold and clammy. I discovered that the thick walking socks and foam rubber mountaineering boot inners that I was wearing were wet. The moisture had either come from the boots not ‘breathing’ enough, or perhaps from snow getting in while I had been digging the latrines in the snow and had not been wearing my gaiters. Whatever the reason, it was important that I try to dry them as much as possible before the long cold summit climb, so I took off the socks and inner boots and kept them next to me inside the sleeping bag. Finally, to see what the true air temperature was, I took off my watch and tied it to the roof of the tent, so its thermometer would get an accurate reading. The night was the coldest yet, and the temperature combined with the discomfort of the high altitude meant that I got little sleep. I lay awake for most of the night, wondering what the weather would be like for tomorrow and how the summit climb would go. I felt a mixture of apprehension and a great eagerness to just get on with it. The night seemed to last forever. Day Thirteen – 18th October. I sat up in my sleeping bag and shone my head-torch on my watch. The thermometer read –3 degrees C and the time was 01:30 a.m. I didn’t want to lie there listening to the wind ruffling the tent for a moment longer, and it was near enough to our wake up call to start packing my things away and to get ready for the summit climb ahead. Despite my efforts to dry them out, my inner mountaineering boots were still damp and it was a great struggle to put them back on in the confines of the tent. The effort left me breathless. Half an hour later and everything was more or less stowed away. Suddenly there was a light at the door, and there stood Temba, with hot tea and biscuits. I went to offer him Chris’ mug as well, but we discovered that it was still half full with the tea from last night, which had frozen solid. By then Chris was awake too, and we hurriedly gulped down our tea and ate our biscuits, both keen to be ready to go as soon as possible. Climbing out of the tent, I found that the night sky was completely clear. The stars were shining with incredible brightness and the pale arc of the milky-way swept overhead. The drop off next to our tent looked much less dramatic in the darkness, and in fact, it was hard to make out where our ledge finished and the glacier far below began. There was no sign of activity from the other tents as Chris and I quietly emptied ours, and struggled into our climbing harnesses. Although I had almost all of my warm clothing on, it was still bitterly cold, and I found that I had to stamp my feet and wiggle my toes to stop them going numb, even though I was wearing my plastic mountaineering boots. Gradually, there were increasing signs of life from the other tents, and Temba reappeared with hot porridge for breakfast. I ate as much of it as I could, but found that I didn’t have much of an appetite. By now my feet were so cold that I had taken to repeatedly climbing a few feet up and down the rock and scree slope in an effort to keep warm. I was extremely glad when we were finally all ready to move out of high camp and up towards the summit. I picked my way carefully over the rocks to the edge of the snow, and struggled to put on my crampons. When we had all got our rucksacks and crampons on, we had to line up on the snow in single file, so that Pemba and Jangbu could rope us together. There were two rope teams in all. It took a while for the climbing Sherpas to sort out the ropes and clip each of us on, but eventually everyone was ready and we at last set off for the summit; it was just after 4 a.m. We emerged from behind the high camp rock and onto the trail, and found that a biting wind was driving spindrift over the snow. We had gone no more than a few hundred yards when Tom, who was at the back of our rope team, announced that he couldn’t go any further. He had suffered a bad recurrence of the nausea that had plagued him the day before, and even as we had been readying ourselves at high camp, he had been sick. It’s very difficult to walk in those kind of conditions if you feel really ill, and it must have taken tremendous resolve for Tom to set off with us from high camp. It was a sad moment when he un-roped and trudged back down to the high camp, because we all realized that whatever happened next, we would not all make it to the summit as a team. As we climbed higher, the experience of walking at night under the stars became ever more surreal. I could see quite clearly by the light of my head- torch, but beyond the circles of our lights it was very dark. In the far distance, I could see the lights from the head-torches of another group as they wound their way towards the summit. Occasionally, we saw brilliantly bright shooting stars race overhead, or drop vertically towards the horizon. One that I saw was so clear and so large, that I could actually see that it was a burning rock hurtling across the sky, rather than just a white streak. At this altitude, everything in the heavens was incredibly clear. It just seemed so strange to be trekking at this time of night. After perhaps an hour of slowly plodding over the snow, Mark, who was immediately in front of me on the rope, told me that he didn’t want to go any further. He was exhausted and also very cold. We all stopped, and I gathered up the slack in the rope and made my way over to him, to try and persuade him to carry on. It has to be said that walking while roped to other people is even more exhausting than just trekking on your own at the same altitude. If you get out of breath and have to stop suddenly for a rest, the person in front of you is still tugging at the rope as they try and move uphill. On the other hand, if you feel strong and try to make rapid progress, you tend to be pulled backwards by the person behind deciding they need a break. We were all finding it very hard work. However, I believed that Mark was going as strongly as any of us, possibly more so. I pointed out to him that the sun would soon rise, making it warmer. We could see the orange glow on the horizon already. Also, it was probably only another couple of hours trek to the summit. I managed to persuade him to carry on, but unfortunately, after another half an hour he decided he was definitely turning back. I could see that this time, there would be no talking him out of it. He had decided that he couldn’t face several more hours plodding uphill to the summit, to then have to down-climb all the way back to Khare. So he too unclipped from the rope, and headed back down to the High Camp. Shortly after Mark’s departure, the sun rose and cast an incredible golden light on the mountain and gave the snow a beautiful orange glow. Behind us, the first rays of the morning sun were lighting up the face of Mount Everest. I got out my camcorder for the first time that day, and filmed the scene. To operate the video camera, I had to take off my thick mountaineering glove on my right hand. Even though my hand was only exposed to the wind for about a minute, I lost all feeling in my little finger. Even when I put the glove back on, I couldn’t get the circulation going again for a while. Not long after the sun had risen, we reached a steep climb up a short slope. It was at about this point that Chris too decided to turn back. He was finding it very difficult to keep his pace because of the chest infection that he had picked up. As Chris headed back to join Mark and Tom at High Camp, only Klaus and I were left on Jangbu’s rope. After this, we were all clipped together as one big rope team, and Pemba replaced Jangbu at the head of the line. Now that it was light and I was getting thirsty, I discovered a major problem. The drinking line from my hydration system (the collapsible water bottle inside my rucksack) to the outside of my pack had frozen solid, so I couldn’t drink anything. It would also be far too much hassle to take off my pack and drink directly from the bottle, because it would mean stopping the whole team on the rope. In any case, it was likely that the water inside the plastic pouch in the backpack was also frozen solid. After we had climbed up and around the steep slope, the view began to open up even more. As well as the panorama of Everest and the other high peaks behind us, we could now see a curving ridge to our left hand side (the east), and beyond that an impressive view down onto the clouds. We also passed a couple of crevasses on the right hand side of the trail. By now, my altimeter was reading above 20,000 feet and the air was very thin. When we decided to sit down by the side of the trail and rest, we came across an Irish climber who was so exhausted that he was crawling through the snow on all fours! As we made our way higher and higher up the snow slope, Klaus was finding the going difficult, and asked to be unclipped from the rope so that he could set his own pace. However, not long after this, he found that he was falling behind the rest of the group and announced that he was going to turn back. I’m not quite sure what happened to Klaus immediately after that, but at some point he must have changed his mind and caught up with us again while we were resting on the snow. Not long after that though, he decided that he would head back down after all. Dave was also suffering, from very bad nausea. Often when I looked back down the rope, I saw him bent double over his trekking poles. By this time only myself, Roger, Bill, Myron, Pemba, Jangbu, Dave and Jose were still climbing towards the summit, and it was getting progressively harder. The gradient had lessened as we neared the summit, but the high altitude was really beginning to take effect. We appeared to be walking in slow motion, taking only a few steps up the slope and then resting for what seemed like an eternity. I began to feel quite muzzy, and most worryingly of all, I started to suffer from micro-blackouts at the rest stops. These were rather like nodding off and waking with a jolt, except that the whole experience only lasted a fraction of a second. I hadn’t heard of this as a symptom of AMS, so I put it down to a lack of oxygen. The track began to level off a bit, and slowly the snow dome that is the central summit came into view. Our progress was still extremely slow, but mainly because we found we were ‘giving way’ to quite a few climbers who were coming down from the summit. The main difficulty was that the snow immediately either side of the path was still quite deep and soft, and if you stepped off the more compacted trail you soon sank up to your knees. As a result, the people coming down didn’t want to leave the trail, and it wasn’t possible for us to keep walking as they filed past, to avoid them tripping over our rope. Finally, we reached a level spot right below the snow dome. By this point I was feeling very strange indeed. Everything seemed dreamlike, and I felt detached from my surroundings and what was going on. Ahead of us, was the final climb up the dome to the summit. I stood there staring at it for a while as Pemba unclipped us and coiled up the rope. I found it difficult to judge the scale and steepness of it. I wondered how dangerous it would be if I blacked out on the way up, but I soon put these thoughts to the back of my mind. I hadn’t come all this way to give up with only a few feet to go. We all took off our packs and left them on the level snow, and I started up the slope. The snow had not been compacted here, and was still quite deep. This made the going difficult and hard work. Halfway to the summit, this first slope was bisected by the big crevasse that opened up in 2001. As a result, the path curved to the left to edge around the lip of the chasm. Unfortunately, also to the left was a very steep snow slope, which terminated in an enormous drop off the mountain. This first slope before the crevasse was not exactly exposed, but it definitely was not the sort of place to slip, because there would be very little time to arrest the fall. I reached the lip of the crevasse, and found that the route contoured around it via a fairly narrow ridge. As I made my way cautiously across (I was aware how easy it would be to trip on my crampon points) I got a very good view down and along the crevasse. It was earily beautiful with its icicles and strange blue shadows. Approximately half way along it was an abandoned ladder that one group had previously used to reach the summit. I would like to have taken a photograph, but I didn’t feel comfortable lingering there. On the other side of the precarious path, to my left, the snow sloped away steeply to an awesome drop off. It was by no means sheer at the top, but I could see right down onto the clouds far down in the valley below. As a conservative guess, I would say that the drop must have been around eight thousand feet! Reaching the other side of the ridge around the crevasse, I found myself on a small ledge of compacted snow, and there was Jangbu waiting to help me clip onto the rope he had fixed. I attached my ascender to the rope, kicked my crampon points into the snow, and began to climb. It was just a matter of feet now. As I went, I held my ice axe in my left hand, and dug the pick and point of the shaft into the slope to steady myself, as I had been taught in Scotland and on the Mera La. The slope was between forty and fifty degrees in gradient and I found it exhausting to climb. More than once I collapsed against the mountain, my forehead resting on the snow, and stayed like that until I had regained my breath. When I wasn’t climbing, I occasionally made the mistake of looking to my left and seeing the great sweeping view down the drop off and across the mountains. After what seemed like an eon of exertion, I reached the top of the rope and found Pemba waiting patiently to unclip me. I carefully stood up, looked around, and found myself on the summit of Mera Peak at 21,197 feet above sea level! It was just after 10 a.m. The top of the mountain turned out to be a nice flat oval of snow, with a small metal cross and some prayer flags at the far end. It wasn’t at all exposed, although there was a sheer drop down the face of the mountain on the southern side. Roger was already on the summit and standing by the prayer flags, so I made my way over. I congratulated him on getting to the top, and we stood for a few minutes, admiring the spectacular view. To the north was the dramatic pyramid of Mount Everest, with Lhotse to the right and the long, lower ridge of Nuptse on the left. In the far distance on our right hand side we could see the Kangchenjunga massif – the World’s third highest mountain. Looking back down towards the Mera La and beyond we had a good view of Chamlang, with Makalu further back still. Over to the left of Everest and out on the horizon was Cho Oyu, covered in snow that seemed slightly more yellow in colour than the other peaks. To the south was a sea of low cloud over the foothills of the Nepal Himalaya, which largely obscured the views of the route we had taken to reach the mountain. I had put my camcorder in my fleece pocket during the climb up the summit dome, so I took it out and began to video the view. I had saved the second (and last) battery that I had exclusively for the summit day, but with the cold I wasn’t sure how long it would last. I was relieved to see that it appeared to be working well. I flipped out the LCD screen and turned it over so that I could film Roger and I on the summit. With my sunglasses off, I had to squint against the incredible glare from the sun and snow, and at first I couldn’t see an image. As my eyes became more accustomed to the light, I could faintly see Roger and I on the screen and managed to do some filming. Next, I panned round the whole panorama for a few minutes while Roger and I talked about what we could see, and the climb up to the summit. I had also brought my SLR camera with me, which had been in its case and slung over my chest and shoulder during the climb to the top. Roger very kindly took some photographs of me on the summit, either kneeling or standing next to the prayer flags. I found that photography up there was quite a challenge, because my thick mountaineering gloves were far too bulky to allow me to operate the camera’s fiddly controls, and if I took a glove off, my hand quickly began to go numb in the biting wind. Unfortunately, I only had four shots left on the film, and changing it was not really an option. It was lucky that Roger had thinner gloves and took the photos of me on the summit, and then I was able to take one photo of the incredible view before the end of the film. It wasn’t long before Dave and Jose joined us; followed by Bill and Myron. We congratulated each other on reaching the summit, before posing for some group photographs. Finally, I asked Bill to take some video of me saying a few words about reaching the summit, with Everest in the background. We had a long descent ahead of us to get right back down to the Khare camp, so we didn’t spend too long on the summit. I made my way back over to the top of the rope, and Pemba clipped me back on and set up my prussik loop. As I looked down the very steep slope and the rope I had to descend, it seemed much more precarious than it had on the way up. I held on tightly to the rope and used my ice axe to steady myself once again. I was very careful to dig my crampon points hard into the snow and ice to make sure I wouldn’t slip. I was more than a little relieved when I got down level with Jangbu and he untied me. I negotiated the ridge back around the crevasse without any problems, but within a few steps on the easier slope below, I tripped on my crampon points. I was right above the steeper incline that led to a drop off, and my heart leapt into my throat. I dug the shaft of my ice axe firmly into the snow and dropped forward onto it, and luckily managed to avoid taking a tumble. After that I very carefully made my way back down to the level spot where we had left our rucksacks. By that stage, I was eager to start heading down from the mountain as soon as possible, and Dave was happy for Roger and I to go on ahead, following the compacted trail. I realized that I was severely dehydrated, having drunk nothing for at least six hours. I hoped to be able to get something to drink back at the high camp. So, Roger and I set off quickly downhill, and found that the going was quite easy. Roger tried to glissade down one fairly steep section, using his ice axe as a rudder, but couldn’t really get a lot of speed going. Unfortunately, as we descended, I began to feel worse rather than better. I was worried that I might pass out altogether. Thankfully, we made it back to the rocky ledge at high camp and found that many of our porters were still there. Ngima came out of the cook tent to greet us, and gave me a big KE mug full of hot lemon juice, which I drained in a few seconds. After two more mugs I began to feel slightly better, but I had to leave the bowl of noodle soup that he gave me because eating it made me feel sick. While we were at the camp, we learned that Tom, Chris, Mark and Klaus had already gone down to the Khare camp. Leaving the high camp behind, Roger and I made quick work of descending to the Mera La, and continued along the glacier towards Khare. As we trekked, a bank of cloud rolled in and we experienced a complete white out. It was only thanks to the obvious trail underfoot that we were able to maintain our fast pace. Finally, just as we began to descend the final tongue of glacier that led down off the snow, the mist cleared. Climbing down the section of slope that we had used for mountaineering skills practice a few days before proved more awkward than expected. Where powdery snow had been before, there were now quite a few large patches of loose ice. Eventually, I caught up with Roger at the bottom of the slope, and we stepped off the snow for the last time. After taking off our crampons, we made our way up and over the jumble of boulders to the small hut nearby. Here, we found that thanks to Pemba’s co-ordination, our normal walking boots were waiting for us in a KE kit bag that was being looked after by the lady who ran the shop / hut. It seemed strange to see the bottles of San Miguel beer lined up for sale all the way up there in that lonely spot. Having left our clumsy plastic boots behind at the hut, we were able to make fairly quick but careful progress down the very treacherous and crumbly path back down to Khare. I still did not feel normal. Everything I did was dreamlike and remote; if I said something to Roger then a few seconds later I couldn’t remember if I had said it or just thought it. To this day I don’t know if these very strange sensations were due to dehydration, the high altitude or a combination of both. Eventually, we arrived exhausted at the Khare camp, at about 3 p.m. Thanks to the efforts of our porters, all of our tents were already up and I was able to collapse inside mine for a few hours sleep. When I emerged it was time for dinner in the mess tent, the whole team was reunited again and we exchanged stories about the summit day. I found that I was already beginning to feel a lot better and seemed to be returning to normality. Over dinner, we discussed where we should spend our rest day. We had a spare day because there had been a reserve in the itinerary for a second summit attempt, which we hadn’t needed to rely on. We all thought that the best idea was to spend it at the Khare camp, so that everyone could choose either to rest or to explore the beautiful side valley. Day Fourteen – 19th October. I began the rest day at Khare with a lie in, before joining Roger and Chris for a walk up the side valley. There was not a cloud in the sky over to the west, and we had superb views of the Malanphulan group once again. We decided to head across the floor of the valley, scrambling over the jumbles of rocks and boulders, until we reached the small lake. There were stupendous views of Mera Peak from there. The lake itself was a bit of a disappointment, being very shallow and having a languid, stagnant look about it. Trekking carefully along the muddy banks, we headed up the valley and found the slow flowing river that fed the lake. Evening – Tangnag. Day Fifteen – 20th October. Evening – Gotay. Day Sixteen – 21st October. Evening – Tuli Kharka. Day Seventeen – 22nd October. Evening – Lukla. Day Eighteen – 23rd October. Morning – flight Lukla – Kathmandu. Overnight at Hotel. Durbar Square. Evening – in hotel (Hotel Vaishali). Meal out in evening – agonizing stomach pain! Day Nineteen – 24th October. Sightseeing day in Kathmandu. Afternoon transfer to airport. Flight GF401 Kathmandu to Abu Dhabi departed 18:00