04. Makalu

April 19. Yangri Kharka Rest Day. 0 km. 0hours. 0m up. 0m down. When we arrived in Yangri Kharka yesterday we were all tried, filthy, and wet and so was most of our equipment, especially the sleeping bags. So today was only going to be a day of rest and drying things out. Ramesh and Santos had the tent up and the sleeping bags out to dry before breakfast in the sunshine in front of the teahouse without being asked. The reliability of those two never ceases to impress.

I had a simple breakfast in the freezing cold dining room of the lodge and then set about getting the emails ready to update the website on Section 03. Arun Nadi River. Selecting the 37 photos from my camera and Bharat’s camera and putting captions to them alone took about seven hours. I just prepared the emails, like those from Section 02. Kanchenjunga which I prepared two weeks ago, when I eventually get online they can just fly out of the outbox.

In the afternoon I thought it best to practice a little with the harness, ropes, jumar ascender, and the figure of eight descender. Bharat and Santos were not that familiar with the gear and Dawa’s small brother did also not seem too acquainted with it. Dawa took everyone over to a small crag to practice. Dawa himself is a climbing guide and a Makalu Sherpa and I was immediately impressed with his competence and his emphasis on safety. He had all the harnesses set and instructed everyone with calm confidence. We played around on the crag for about two hours before heading back across the meadows to the lodge.

There were the odd snow flurries during the day but it was nothing like the last week. Indeed much of the day seemed to be in sunshine. The meadow was set under impressive snow covered mountains rising some 2-3 km above us. There were no yak in the pasture yet as the snows were just clearing. Around the meadow were Silver Firs rising up the flanks of the mountains for a few hundred metres until the rock and snowfields took over. On the meadow itself there were about 4-5 herding huts and also a small monastery. Running through the meadow was the Barun Nadi river which was now just a stream.

In the evening, a family of Bavarians arrived at the lodge, and I spent the evening chatting with them. They were the first real bit of non Nepali conversation I had had since leaving the Ghunsa some three weeks ago and I lapped up the conversation.

April 20. Yangri Kharka to Langmale Kharka. 9 km. 4 hours. 790m up 20m down. Today was our first day as a team of seven now, and reality first hit when I paid the bill at Yangri Kharka and it was over US$200. This did include some 30 meals though. We spent a while sorting out the gear and distributing it among the porters. It seemed Dawa’s 16 year old brother got a light load compared to Ramesh and Santos.  I set off before the others and sauntered up the meadow past the tiny monastery and into the forest with its birdsong and resinous smells. There were hardly any other people on the trail and it was pleasant sauntering through the forest. The path continued along the valley floor for about 3-4 km beneath vast rock walls before it headed north up a side stream.

085. Heading up the Barun Nadi Valley from Yangri Kharka to Langmale Kharka en route to Makalu Base Camp.

It climbed steadily through the forest for almost an hour beside a clear tumbling stream until it emerged on a meadow with a small stone shack. Again there were no yak here despite it being clear of snow. Ramesh and Santos caught me up here and we had a small chat before I headed off and they waited for the others to have a lunch of pre-boiled potatoes.

It was a further easy km to another meadow, Marek Kharka, through the last of the pines. At Marek there was a very small and rustic lodge, which would be more of a bhatti really. Ahead of me the valley was scared by a recent event of Biblical proportions. I learnt that part of a mountain, Peak 5, just up ahead on the north side had had a landslip into a lake. This had caused a wave which swept over the moraine walls and surged down the stream bed ahead. It picked up boulders much larger than houses, and swept down the valley obliterating everything in a swathe which initially was 200m wide and then only 100m wide. It was about 10-15 metres deep. It was responsible for all the carnage we had seen in the last two days as we walked up the Barun Nadi river. Apparently a couple of hundred yaks perished as this muddy, bouldery torrent swept down the valley and across the pastures.

There was a new path through the devastation marked by yellow paint, and it led to a area of undisturbed pasture above the Biblical carnage. This pasture was called Langmale Kharka and there was a lodge here run by a Sherpa family, who had a distinguished mountaineering pedigree, with two of the uncles being the first siblings each to complete all 14 of the 8000m mountains, and father who owned the lodge had done about eight of them. The parents who ran the lodge had left their 19 year old daughter to run the place, as it was quiet, while they went up to Makalu base camp to run another lodge their which was busy.

I was here for a good two hours before any of the others arrived after their extended lunch. But in that time the mist and snow showers had arrived. I got a freezing room, and hired a kitchen – meaning that Ramesh and Santos could cook for all, and we did not have to buy meals. It was only about US$6 to rent the kitchen, and we had to buy the raw food on top of that. The six guys could also sleep in the kitchen at night.

The lady put the stove on around 1600, earlier than usual, and filled it with yak dung and juniper scrub so it gave off its distinctive incense like smell. The stove quickly became the focus and everyone crowded round it. We were joined by a young Austrian couple.

April 21. Langmale Kharka to Makalu Base Camp. 8 km. 3 hours. 490m up. 120m down.  I had to go out in the night and it was a glorious night. It was slightly below freezing with a full moon. With all the snow about reflecting the moonlight it was bright enough to cast shadows. All the mountains in the area were crystal clear. By morning however, my hopes of a full moon bringing a change in the weather were dashed as the valley was full of fog and freezing cold. To everyone’s delight however the sun soon started to burn it off and by 0800 it was gone.

In one corner of the meadow at 4400 was a small walled off area where the teahouse owner’s family grew potatoes. At the moment there were none, but there was a cluster of Kongma, or Himalayan Snow Partridge who were leking, or courting, and the dozen or so birds were chasing each other in pairs. The returning sun raised the spirits of my team and everyone moved outside to finish their breakfast tea. I paid the bill and noticed that the hiring of the kitchen was an enormous saving, with our total bill only coming to US$50 for the seven of us, with me accounting for half.

I left with the others around 0900 but soon overtook them as they were laden. It was a very easy walk up the north side of the Burun Nadi which was a mere stream now. To the south, Peak 6 dominated, with its ramparts of fluted snow and its hanging glaciers perched on shelves high up on the mountain side. I walked up on the north side of the terminal snout of a glacier and could not look over the moraine wall, but according to the map there was a glacial lake hemmed in by the moraine walls at the end of the glacier. I was surrounded by near 7000 metre mountains, in glorious sunshine with very little snow around, on a near level path in a great mood when I stepped onto the meadow at Shershong. It was something of a Shangri-La in the warm sunshine, with more clusters of Kongma playing on the dried grasses between boulders.

Dawa’s brother, Chirring, caught up here and I chatted with him as we walked. He was just 16, had recently left a monastery in Boudha, Kathmandu and this was his first trek. I was quite surprised Dawa had brought him. If I wanted a thanka painted he would have been the man to ask, but to go over Sherpani Col as a porter on your first trek was something else. However I later found out a number of porters had let Dawa down, and as a last resort he turned to his brother, who was in for a baptism of fire.

We chatted as we sauntered across the meadow and I found his monastery education had been quite thorough, and included English which he was quite good at. I had previously noted how dapper and well dressed he was compared to the others. Whether he will be after the high passes remains to be seen. He stopped for a break and I carried on across the meadow, turned north, and started a gentle climb up grassy ridges to Makalu Base Camp.

According to the map Makalu was ahead of me in all its glory, including the summit, but the clouds had returned and the whole spectacle was lost. Slightly to the east though, the cloud was more patchy and out of the top of it poke the summit of the enormous Sherson NW which was approaching 7000m. I strode towards it on the easy path, then crested a rise and saw a floodplain below me, with the buildings of Makalu base camp at the far end surrounded by a sea of yellow tents.

I made my way down across the moraine to the warm dry floodplain, crossed the Barun nadii on stepping stones and then climbed the sandy bank and reached the rustic hotels. The yak hotel was the best and run by the same family as Langmale. It was at nearly 5000m but what struck me most was the lack of snow and warm temperatures. Just a few days ago we were only 30-40 km to the east and up to our thighs in rotten snow formed from a metre of recent hail and sleet from thunderstorms. I think the valley we are in is in some sort of rain shadow caused by the large mountains to the south. All the bare brown earth absorbed the sun to create the warm air. There were no yaks here as they were all waiting around Tashiigoan waiting for the snow to clear a bit more before a few hundred of them were driven over the Khongma La pass to the pastures along the Barun Nadi river.

Most of the yellow tents seemed to belong to people who intended to climb Mount Makalu. They came in and out of the dining hall, but few looked like they had any chance of reaching the summit. They seemed to be clients of Seven Summits Expeditions. I got a rustic room in a corrugated iron annexe to the building with Bharat, Dawa and four porters rented the kitchen again. It was a large bare room with a gravel floor. It looked bleak but they all insisted it was great. They bought some kerosene, rice and other foods and cooked a meal. In the evening they said they would put the tarpaulin down and then the thin foam mattresses on top of that. I wrote in the dining room mid afternoon which was largely deserted.

April 22. Makalu Base Camp to Swiss Base Camp. 7 km. 3 hours.470m up. 120m down. I did not sleep well at Makalu Base Camp. I had to get up on the hour every hour to go to the toilet because I had drunk too many teas to try and keep hydrated. It was perhaps also the body coping with the higher altitude and shedding water. I vowed not to bother with hydration and not to drink anything after 1800 after my disturbed sleep. However on the positive side, during one of the visits the sky was crystal clear and there was almost a full moon. The brightness illuminated the whole of the south side of Makalu to the extent I could easily see all the flutes of snow and even the seracs. The mountain virtually started to rise from where I stood at the base of it. It rose almost four vertical kilometres over me.

We had a lazy start as it was just a short day and Ramesh had a lot of supplies to organize. We went through the small shop to see what he needed, like rice, dahl, noodles, spices, cooking oil, biscuits, and seven litres of kerosene. The whole bill came to over US$150 but that was enough for the seven of us for six or seven days until we reached the luxury of Khumbu, or the Everest Region.

I was quite glad to be leaving Makalu Base Camp. The teahouse hosts were very nice, but the place was overrun by expeditions to climb the mountain. There were self-important men with walkie talkies strutting about the place overwhelming any conversations, there were climbers with big egos laying down tales for others to match, and there was general business with dozens of aloof Sherpas and busy porters making up loads to carry up to Advanced Base Camp. When we had all eaten, it was a delight to leave the turmoil of the place to start heading up the valley, now with the infant Barun Nadi river flowing through a series of glacial lakes surrounded by the rubble of moraine.  As we left a helicopter arrived to drop off another batch of climbers and supplies.

Initially the path kept on top of the moraine ridge which was left by the now retreated Barun Glacier and we could look down and see lakes in the trench of rubble. They were still frozen. Across the valley was the opposing lateral moraine, and then Makalu rose relentlessly, displaying its awesome south face right to the lofty summit where a plume of snow was blowing off it in the jet stream. The path was pleasant for a good 3 km with the off snippet of meadow between the boulders, and it was easy to follow.

However after a good hour the path ran into a hillside full of rubble and boulders. It disappeared but its route was marked out by a series of cairns. Some of the boulders were car sized and one had to be very careful when weaving a path amongst them. Our speed slowed right down to about a km per hour as we hoped from the top of one boulder to another. There was plenty of opportunity to twist and ankle or bash a shin. We picked our way through these boulders for a good hour and a half, and at some point passed the junction to Makalu Advanced Base Camp where everyone else was going. Their path crossed the bouldery glacial trench while ours continued to traverse the west side passing two small side valleys which once housed the glaciers which had deposited the stones on which we were now gingerly picking our way forward.

By now the clouds were covering the tops and the mist was building in the valley. Indeed there was the odd snowflake. Unusually it was coming down the valley from the north rather that the prevailing south. We reached what we thought was Swiss Base Camp – a sandy, small side valley, strewn with enough boulders to make pitching the tent difficult. Some wanted to camp here but I pointed out tomorrow was a huge day and the more of it we did today the easier it would be. Ramesh and Dawa agreed so we pushed on. However after just a short km we reached another side valley with a glacier in it higher up. It had a sandy floor with plenty of campsites. It led up to East Col, a seldom used alternative to Sherpani Col. However the path which Ramesh and Dawa remembered had changed dramatically and it now climbed a rocky spur from here to enter the next valley. The old path seemed to have vanished in a landslide of the moraine wall.

086. The valley of stones and boulders from Swiss Base Camp to Sherpani Col Base Camp

With it now snowing more constantly we decided to put the tents up here for fear of climbing and not finding anything for hours. We put both tents up, the six Nepalis in the big tent the four of us had exclusively used, while I christened the lightweight three man tent nearby. Once we had tea I withdrew to my tent to write while four of the others took a load of equipment up the steep climb and beyond perhaps even to Sherpani Col Base Camp at around 5700m which was estimated to be three hours away. The snow stopped soon after they left as we suspected it might, but the sun never really returned to warm the afternoon. What really shocked and delighted the four of us who endured such misery in the deep snow last week was just how little there was here. We were obviously in a rain shadow because at 5150m there was no snow at all bar the 5cm which fell this afternoon, and that was melting fast now.

April 23. Swiss Base Camp to Sherpani Col Base Camp. 9 km. 4 hours. 540m up. 80m down. Dawa wanted not only to get to Sherpani Col Base Camp today, but to go up to Sherpani Col itself to set the ropes up. He intended a very early start tomorrow and wanted to do both Sherpani Col and West Col in one day, which is normal practice. Due to this we needed an early start and I pushed for up at 0300 and away by 0500, knowing it would get negotiated to 0400 and away by 0600. The main consideration was how cold it would be for Santos and Ramesh to make breakfast for all at that time.

We got up at 0400, and it was a glorious end to the night with the large moon shining on the whole of Makalu. But it was very cold. I eventually packed my tent at 0600 and we all set off pretty much together. It was to be a very stony day. The first path was a steep climb up moraine to get out of the valley where Swiss camp was, and round the spur.  We got great views over to Makalu and up the Barun valley to the glacier to the mountains on the Tibetan border. There also seemed quite a good route up the valley Swiss Camp was in up to East Col, but we could not see East Col itself. According to Ramesh who had been here before, this was a new route, the old route dropped to the glacier before climbing up the valley where Sherpani Col Base Camp was, and this climb went through a deep valley with rockfall on each side.

Once we gained the spur there was a traverse round it into the valley above the rockfall areas Ramesh mentioned. However it was all moraine, initially stable for the first km or two and then newly exposed or a fresh landslide which was much less stable. Much of our path was covered in a couple of cm of new snow. It was very slow going, and every step had to be taken with care. There was no scope to nonchalantly saunter along with your hands in your pockets. As the path met the moraine covered valley floor we reached the stash of ropes and kerosene the four dropped off.

Above us now, the glacier coming down the valley forced up to the north side, and we started a rising traverse up moraine for a good hour. We were all tired and breathing heavily on this stretch due to the altitude. The weather was still fantastic and Makalu loomed beside us, even its summit crystal clear. Eventually we could spy a cluster of cairns on the ridge and knew the end was near. On reaching them the ground levelled off, and we could walk across easy sandy soil to a sandy basin at the bottom of a steep bit of stationary ice in the glacier which was now melting as it was not being replenished. At the bottom of this ice was Sherpani Col base camp which could take 10-15 tents.

088. Ramesh in his kitchen made out of wire crates and old tarpaulins left at the campsite. The homemade windbreak made the kerosene stove more efficient.

We had the place to ourselves and put the tents up and made a wind proof kitchen from the debris and detritus of other groups. Ramesh then cooked a meal. After the meal Dawa, Ramesh, Pinzu and Bharat when up to the col to fix the ropes as the weather clouded over.  I had a snooze and Santos kept the eagle eyed chuffs away who were scavenging for an unattended bag of food. Dawa and crowd returned around 1800. However it seemed the landscape had changed in the last seven years since Dawa was last here. The snow fields on each side of the pass had retreated and there was more climbing and abseiling involved for all seven of us and the seven loads. Secondly the glacier between Sherpani Col and West Col was now riddled with crevasses and it would take more time. As a consequence Dawa did not think it possible to do both cols in one day, and we would have to camp at 6000m. It meant the early start was postponed from 0100 to 0300.

April 24. Sherpani Col Base Camp to Baruntse Advanced Base Camp. 9 km. 7 hours. 590m up. 200m down. Today was the big day where we hoped to do at least one 6000m pass. The alarms were set for 0300 and as usual Santos and Ramesh were up soon after in the bitter cold making breakfast for everyone else who were still in bed. It had all the promise of a beautiful morning when we set off at 0530, having had to abandon a few tent pegs in the frozen soil. Our first task was to gain the smooth glacier above the camp and we did this as the sun lit up the first peaks in front of us. The huge bulk of Makalu just behind us blotted the sun for a while, but eventually we were in the bright sunlight with steep snowy mountains on each side. The temperature rose quickly and I had to stop to remove all my thermals.

The route up the glacier was a very simple one, and in the bright morning light it was all laid out in front of us. However we were all feeling the effects of the altitude as were approached 6000m, and I was gasping for breath. We slowly plodded up the glacier in a large crescent as it curved for the best part of two hours until we reached the foot of the rocky col which was called Sherpani Col and supposed to be 6180 metres. Dawa had already been here last night and rigged up a fixed rope up the rocky climb. The first half was a steep snow field at just 40 degrees, and the second half went up the rocky slope also at about 40 degrees. The fixed rope was a bit unnecessary especially as there were some wire cables in place – like a via ferratta but thinner. The porters ignored Dawa’s fixed rope and used the cable instead. I used Dawa’s fixed rope out of obligation.

089. Looking up the glacier to Sherpani Col which is just right of centre. The height of Sherpani col given as 6180m on the map.

Curiously there was a single Russian camper here, thin and wiry and 57 years old. He had an enormous Tatonka rucksack, perhaps 130 litres, and it was full. He had camped here for a couple of days. The porters reckoned his rucksack was 40kg. He was obviously hanging out waiting for a group to come along and help him over the col. We felt a kind of duty to help him. He had met Dawa last night and had been ferrying loads up the col before we arrived in anticipation. I thought it was a bit irresponsible of him.

090. Looking back down the glacier to our campsite. The mountain dominating the background is Makalu, the 5th highest in the world at 8468m.

The view from the top of the col was fantastic. Down the valley we’d come up was Makalu, beneath a clear blue sky. On the other side of the col was a fantastic vista over to the gentle pyramid of Baruntse. At 7152m it is one of the easier 7000m peaks and it had a nice symmetry. However what really astonished me was a vast bowl of ice perhaps 2km wide and 5km long into which all the surrounding mountains’ glaciers flowed. It was a kind of Himalayan Konkordia Plass as in the Bernese Overland. The glacier which collected from all the mountains and filled the bowl was called the Lower Barun Glacier. Its smooth surface stretched 2km to the west to West Col – our next 6000m pass. It looked a relatively easy crossing without much height loss or gain. The only problem is we had to get down from Sherpani Col and onto the glacier.

091.Going up the steeper snow slopes to gain the rocky ridge on the right which leads to Sherpani Col. The route up the ridge is secured with old rusty cables like a poor man’s via ferrata.

092. Santos, ever the joker, rejoices after hauling his enormous load to the top of Sherpani Col.

093. Looking across the Lower Barun Glacier from Sherpani Col to the slightly higher West Col at 6190m. The distance is about 2 km.

The descent was not easy. It was perhaps 70 metres in all to the bottom of the steep rocky 45 degree slope. The slope was made of fragmented rock which had been recently exposed by the diminishing Lower Barun Glacier. To make it worse, the bottom of the slope was a deep ice trench with a few crevasses in it, and we had to cross this too before reaching the smooth glacier beyond. Dawa abseiled first on the rope he set up and checked for loose rock and ice, then he climbed back up.

I volunteered to go next, hoping to show off some of my 15 years as an industrial abseiler and using a figure of eight. Dawa however wanted to lower us all using a stich plate. I bowed to his diligence and he started lowering me. I used the existing cable to clip into as a back up. Ofter Dawa would lower me past the point where I could unclip from the via ferratta, so I would have to haul myself up to unclip. Eventually we got the communication sorted and with five minutes I had slithered and crashed down to the bottom of the trench in an inelegant fashion. I sent my harness back up for the next, found a way across the crevasses to the main glacier out of danger of rock fall and watched the others and baggage descent for the next two hours.

096. Me descending the 80-90m steep slope from the crest of Sherpani Col to the Lower Barun glacier which was heavily crevassed at the bottom of the slope.

It was quite frustrating watching the others come down in the same bouncing manner. Santos managed well, Bharat was cautious and then positioned himself midway to direct the loads. The loads were simply pushed off the top, with at least two tied together. This was recipe for disaster as there were so many rocks for them to get caught in. The rope was at least 130 metres, and it would have been easy to clip the loads onto the tail and then Santos and Pinzu, who was also down, could have pulled the tail and helped bunch the load in a poor mans Tyrolean. In retrospect on the rise the other side of the crevassed trench we could have used four snow anchors, a jumar and a couple of carabiners to set up a perfect Tyrolean, and Dawa could have lowered the loads one at a time very quickly. It was the loads which took the time, with Bharat moving gingerly from rock to rock  to give each load a boot when it got wedged. I shouted some advice but it was too far to be understood, so I lay on the glacier and watched.

The most spectacular incident was when my yellow bag, containing my sleeping bag, became detached from a load and slid and bounced down the rocks, destined for a crevasse. Santos, who was clipped into the cables, ran across the slope and launched himself like  a goalkeeper and just grasped the bag. It was like a penalty save. Eventually all and everything was down, including the enormous Russian rucksack which was particularly stubborn. I vowed I would be involved in the next lowering of baggage as it was lucky no one was hurt or baggage lost.

094. Bharat on Sherpani Col with the Lower Barun Glacier in the background.

We regrouped on the glacier in the sun as some clouds were building. We were all tired, especially Dawa. We decided we would just walk the 2km to the top of the next descent, West Col, 6190m and camp there and then descent tomorrow. It was an arduous 2km walk across the glacier which was largely crevasse free. But in the early afternoon the snow was soft. We look it in turns to make footsteps with Bharat gallantly doing the lions share. The tents were up by 1500 and everyone withdrew into them. I had heard this was a particularly cold place to camp so I put on all my clothes and I was still in exile in the single tent.

097. Pinzo at the bottom of the descent west of Sherpani Col waiting for the first packages to come down to hopefully divert them away from the crevasses where they might become stuck.

098. After the descent from Sherpani Col we walked across the Lower Barun Glacier to West Col. It was only 2 km but the altitude and deep snow made it hard work. Here we are having a rest.

099. The large tent which the 6 Nepalis occupied under the glacier covered pyramid of Barruntse at night. This camp was at about 6150 on West Col.

25 April. West Col Camp to Seko Pokhari. 19km. 10 hours. 230m up. 1200m down. It was a bitterly cold night. Inside the tent I measured -17 and in the vestibule it was -22. It was a completely still and starry night without the slightest wind to take my vapours away so they all condensed on the inner tent in a cm thick layer. I had all my clothes on including my Gore-Tex jacket and balaclava, and it just kept the cold at bay and I slept well. It was way too cold for us to start early and even the kerosene stove was partly frozen. I think we all wanted to stay in our sleeping bags until the sun rose and where we were camped it should be early around 0600.

100. The large 6 man tent on West Col during the day. The large glacier covered pyramid in the background is Baruntse.

The Russian who was camped nearby came over and passed us and went to the old descent route. He was dwarfed by his enormous rucksack and looked quite frail. He spent a good half hour looking at his options and they must have all horrified him as he offered Ramesh 1000 rupees to help him. It was Dawa who would eventually be the helper and he scoffed at this. I suggested US$100 and this seemed to be accepted grudgingly by Dawa who would essentially be rescuing the guy. I felt we were partially to blame by helping him over Sherpani Col yesterday and essentially trapping him between two very difficult and potentially dangerous cols. He was essentially way out of his depth. It was agreed.

102. Our campsite on West Col after the very cold night which got down to minus 26 outside the tents and not much less inside. The pass centre left is called East Col, 6146m.

We packed up the tent in the sun with Baruntse and Makalu dominating the large array of mountains. Then we all made our way up to the new descent point. The problem was the glacier on the west side of the descent had shrunk sufficiently that the abseil was longer, more stones and rocks were exposed and there were crevasses at the bottom of the abseil which was about 160 metres now. Climate change is making these cols more difficult. We had to negotiate a couple of crevasses on the top of the ridge as we made our way to the new anchors of the new abseil point.

I thought the whole abseil was down a 60 degree snowfield. However the abseil went down a rocky ridge beside a snowfield which had quite a few rocks in, and a couple of small crags at the bottom. Rinzo and Santos went first and I went third, without my rucksack, which I thought would just be lowered down the snowfield. This time I used my figure of eight for abseiling but the rope was a second hand fixed rope from a previous expedition. It had frequent anchor points and I could not get a good rhythm. I dislodged a stone which built up speed as it tumbled down building up speed. It missed Santos by about 10 metres! The ridge was full of loose rock which was all covered in 5cm of new snow.

With the three of us down the Russian started. He was very cautious and took ages. Santos, Rinzo and Myself each took 10 minutes but he took well over half an hour. And we had to wait for him to finish before we could start lowering the loads. Ramesh impatiently got one ready and lowered it 10 metres in anticipation but inadvertently released a small avalanche of the new powder snow which mush have been 15-20 cm thick by the time it hit the Russian, but it was light and fluffy and swept round him. He eventually got to the bottom and joined us.

The first baggage was my big red bag containing all the sleeping bags and two holdalls of climbing gear. Its descent was smooth until it reached the crags at the bottom. Here it failed to divert down a small gully and arrive at our feet and instead carried on down through a small crack and went into a lateral crevasse at the side of the glacier. Santos reacted quickly and took my harness to climb up to the top of the junction between the gully and small crack but he could not manhaul the bags himself, and Dawa had to down climb some 150 metres, rig up ropes and haul the baggage out.

105. Santos on the ridge just above the abseil point down the west side of West Col, 6190m. The old abseil point is a few hundred metres to the north but is not considered safe anymore.

While he was down Ramesh sent his treasured basket with the camp kitchen. About half way down it got stuck and turned upside down. I saw a huge rock hurtling towards us and expected it to break up into 20 pieces the next time it hit a crag. To my relief I realized it was the sack containing all the dinner plates. It missed a crevasse and came to rest on the snow. Then I saw the pressure cooker spinning high in the air. It landed at out feet slightly dented.

109. Dawa keeping a watchful eye on me while I start the 160m abseil down the west side of West Col. The route goes down a ridge with lots of fractured rock beside a long snowfield.

Santos stayed put at the top of the gully dodging kitchen gear as it came down while Dawa climbed up again to lower the final load. It went smoothly until it got to Santos who spent a lot of effort guiding it into the right gully. However there was a bit of miscommunication and Dawa suddenly let out two metres of rope and the three packages slipped into the crack above the crevasse. I could see Santos’s frustration as he had done everything to prevent it and could do nothing now. Dawa had to climb down for the final time taking the ropes, while Ramesh climbed down with my rucksack.  Soon all the baggage was assembled, the Russian presented with his rucksack and the group could move on.

The weather changed very quickly from a beautiful blue sky to snow showers as we made our way down the glacier towards Baruntse Base Camp where we assumed there would be food and lodging. It was a taxing descent with soggy moraine and deep wet snow. It took a good two hours to weave out way down. At the base camp we were disappointed to see it was just a lot of empty tents and no one was there. Between us and Amph Labsta base camp where we hope to be tomorrow was the vast trench of a glacier with a crumbling moraine wall on each side. The latter made it impossible to cross.

107. Our climbing guide to help us across these 4 high difficult passes was Dawa Sherpa. Here in his element on West Col.

We would either have to go above it across some very looking terrain of boulders and crevasses which looked unchartered even though the map showed the GHT went this way. Alternatively we would have to walk some 8-9 km south down the moraine wall to a lodge which Dawa and Ramesh had been to at Seto Pokhari at the end of the moraine. We chose the latter. The walk was frustratingly long as we would have to come up the other side tomorrow. However the walk was in the valley between the moraine wall and the original mountain. It is a place of stable rock and vegetation and was pleasant to come down. It was tired as my breakfast muesli had long been burnt. All the guys were tired, even the indomitable Ramesh and Santos.

104. The route west across the Honku Basin to Amphu Labsta Base Camp is much shorter than the previous picture but involves a heaving crevassed glacier and sections of loose moraine and is somewhat risky now.

We eventually got to the lodge as it was getting dark at 1900. It was a long stone shelter some 40 metre by 10 metres. At one end was a kitchen with kerosene stoves and at the other as a large U shaped sleeping platform made of stone and turf onto which mattresses were placed. It was actually very characterful and cosy. It was very expensive with Dalbhat at 1000 rupees however they let us cook ourselves. The guys bought some dried meat to replenish their bodies, and Ramnesh cooked it. He also made me a great garlic pasta. His day had started in the freezing cold of our West Col camp before 0600, and here he was at 2100 still going. If we are a car, Ramesh and Santos are the engine. I wrote the blog while the others played cards and joked with the owners who were not Sherpa, but Rai from Gudel, who were running this tea house at about 5100m.

112. From the bottom of West Col we decided to take the longer, safer route involving a long detour to the teahouse at Seko Pokhari, which was like a small stone barn.

April 26. Seko Pokhari to Amphu Labsta Base Camp. 8 km. 4 hours. 490m up. 70m down. I went to bed at one end of the main hall on a soft mattress. Ramesh was not far behind and grabbed a mattress nearby on the sleeping platform. The others seemed to be playing cards and digesting some of the 5kg of pork Dawa had bought for them. I was out like a light. In the morning I woke early after a great nights sleep and Ramesh promptly got up and made a tea for all. It seemed all but Ramesh and the young Cherring, Dawa’s young 16 year old brother on his first trek after leaving a monastery, were the only ones who did join in the drinking session last night. It seemed the two passes we did were a major cause to celebrate as there are something like only four or five trips a season over these cols.

In the morning Ramesh made everybody breakfast, very much at home in the kitchen he was borrowing. Dawa and Bharat played music and the whole group suddenly erupted into dance with Ramesh sometimes joining in with frying pan in hand. Everyone was relieved and delighted to have got over these two cols without incident. It seems the next two big cols Amphu Labsta and then Trashi Labsta are not so challenging or dangerous. Morale was very high in the team. Ramesh made me a huge pasta for breakfast and then boiled a vat of rice to have with the other half of the pork. Breakfast was a slow affair and Santos especially was the worst for wear. After breakfast I set off before the others as I wanted to get up to Amphu Labsta Base Camp before the weather closed in as it did most afternoons.

114. Spirits were very high in the team having crossed Sherpani and West Cols; two cols Nepalis find formidable. There were frequent impromptu dances and backslapping during breakfast at the relief of having crossed them.

This time I went up the west side of the piles of moraine in the valley. It was a very pleasant walk for about 3km as the path followed the stream across the alluvial plain below the large glacial lake, then meandered across the valley floor from small frozen lake to small frozen lake across a series of braided gravel channels. Ahead of me the glacial valley was starting to open up and I could see our route from yesterday. At the km long frozen lake, at the end of the rubble at the glacier’s snout, the path started to climb up the crest of the lateral moraine, slowly gaining height above the lake. I could see where Baruntse Base Camp was, where we were disappointed there was no one yesterday. However I could also see there was no way across the glacial trench between it and where I stood now, less than a km away.

115. Walking up the west side of the Honku glacier en route from Seko Pokhari teahouse to Amphu Labsta Base Camp which took about 4 hours.

The only way across this glacier, probably called the Honggu Glacier, was either up at the top where it was crevassed and covered in boulders, or below the long lake, though not necessarily all the way to the Seko Pokhari teahouse. However the extra 60-90 minutes last night and again this morning were probably worth it for the comfort and luxury after three nights in a tent over 5000m. The kitchen charge was 4000 rupees, and this meant Ramesh and Santos could cook for us and save me a fortune as a Dalbhat here was nearly 1000 and I would have needed to buy 14 for us in all.

The more I climbed the more I saw just how tricky it would have been to go round the top of the glacier and the small steep rocky ridges. This way would have taken 4-5 hours anyway not much shorter than the extra time we used. As the path climbed, more and more of the route yesterday was revealed until it was possible to see the whole of the West Col descent. It did look formidable from here. The gently climbing path now climbed more steeply for a bit and delivered me to the edge of a crescent shaped lake.

116. Looking across the moraine trench of the Honku Glacier to the alternative route from West Col to Amphu Labsta. on the right is West Col and the steep descent, then the crevassed glacier, then the moraine piles and small glaciers. We deemed this route unsafe.

There were huge 6000m mountains on all sides all with hanging glaciers clinging to the sides which were covered in fluted snowfields. Beneath them was this crescent shaped lake which was one of five on this plateau. At the end of the lake, which was still frozen, I could see the curious ice steps, which must have been the remnants of a glacier. I recognized them on photos I had seen of the Amphu Labstsa pass. The path went round the north side of the lake climbing above the snow onto a hillside of old stones embedded in soil. The stone were all covered in the yellow geographicum lichen which grows at a millimetre a year and some of the patches here were 250mm meaning it was a while since the glaciers and ice exposed these rocks.

I at last arrived at the tea house. It was four stone walls with a tarpaulin roof and two rooms – in all about 30 metres by 6-7 metres. It was run by a single Rai man who was also a guide. He looked quite rough and practical. His tea house had none of the charm or tidiness of Seko Pokhari. Around it was the debris of building materials and plastic. However it was in a very remote place and even now at the end of April it was surrounded by snow so it was difficult to manage, especially as it probably only got one group of visitors a week.

I ordered a tea, established the price for Ramesh doing the cooking which was 2000 rupees and another 2000 for the seven of us to sleep here. 4000 seemed a good deal not to puts the tents up as we needed an early start tomorrow. I wrote the blog for a good hour until the ever reliable Ramesh arrived and started cooking. The others arrived through the rest of the afternoon.

April 27. Amphu Labsta Base Camp to Chhukhung. 18km. 9 hours. 560m up. 1260m down. It was quite cold in the stone shed with the tarpaulin roof, perhaps just marginally warmed than outside. What really set the place apart was the dirt, detritus and filth of the cooking area. It was lucky Ramesh was cooking, as the host looked as filthy as his shed. The alarm went at 0400 and I got Ramesh up to get the stove going. The others barely stirred despite saying then wanted to set off at 0500. Even when I gave them a cup of tea at 0430 everyone sat in bed like dazed children as Ramesh prepared breakfast which was spaghetti soup for them and hot muesli for me. We eventually left approaching 0600.

It was a short walk over to the start of the climb which went up a vague ridge towards some curious ice formations. You had to take your hands out of your pockets towards the top of the ridge which alarmingly seemed to be squeezed between nearly sheer buttress and the ice formations. In the end there seemed to be no way through, and indeed there wasn’t, as I spotted a cable going up onto an ice shelf. The ice shelves were like terraces but each one was 10 metres high with vertical sides covered in icicles. There was no way up the sides! The tops were nearly flat with a rim round the edge, like a terrace. Occasionally a bank of snow had connected the top on one with a higher adjacent on and it was up these ramps the path went. I can only conclude the flat tops melted during the day and froze at night keeping them flat while excess water in the day dripped down from the edge to form the vertical icicles of the sides to perpetuate the structure.

117. Ramesh on one of the curious ice shelves, almost like terraces, on the way up to Amphu Labsta pass.

118. Bharat strolling along the top of one of the ice shelves near the top of Amphu Labsta pass.

We pulled ourselves up the first one with cables to gain the flat top, and then wove our way up the rest using snow banks. In all we had to climb some 100 vertical metres to reach the uppermost one in the vicinity of the pass, although they carried on up the mountainside to the west of the pass. Dawa and Pinzo went storming up the terraces while the rest of us plodded up in the near 6000 metre altitude, and I for one was gasping with the effort in the early morning sun. Suddenly the cables led to a rocky ridge a few metres away and soon after I was peering over the south side of the pass and looking at Island Peak across the valley in the eye. It was a magnificent view in all directions, especially in both directions along the crest of the ridge we were on. Bharat and I high-fived but looking at the challenge of the descent I thought it was a bit premature.

119. Santos just approaching the top of Amphu Labsta pass with his huge load.

120. Bharat tying his ‘good travels’ scarf to the top of Amphu Labsta pass and adding to the colourful tangle of prayer flags and previous scarfs.

121. The view from the top of Amphu Labsta Pass, 5845m, northwards to Island Peak, 6189m. Island Peak is a meter shorter than West Col.

Dawa was nowhere to be seen, after we descended to an eyrie platform a bit lower down we could see Dawa a bit further on preparing ropes for us and the baggage. It seemed although the descent was much higher than the previous cols, the rope part of the descent was only about 50 metres, and that was right at the top. The first man down was Ramesh who had already done this twice and was confident. He abseiled down diagonally to the bottom of a buttress where there was a wider snow ledge. He would stay here and receive the baggage. From here the baggage would be carried by the relevant porters along the snow shelf at the bottom of the buttress and then down a series of straight steep descents and exposed traverses across open convex slopes above further buttresses. Most of the dangerous sections were protected but it was with old rope, which apparently was from this year!

122. Dawa just checking out the harness and equipment for Ramesh before he make the relatively short 40-50m abseil down the steepest top section on the north side of Amphu Labsta Pass.

I followed Ramesh down the abseil, (which was on our new rope) just as he received the big red bag Santos carried. He secured this and I went past him to put my crampons on as they had been unnecessary up to now. From here I followed the snow ledge under the buttress for some 50 metres hardly losing height until there was a fixed rope going down for 50 metres. The anchor looked good, but it was an older rope; a bit frayed, the colours were a bit faded and it looked only 8 or 9mm and not the satisfying 11mm we had. I used it to abseil with my figure of eight but was careful not to shock it. From here the route continued down through a series of steep traverses. My crampons were very aggressive so I was slow and cautious. There were also a few stones coming through the snow which were easy to catch. It was roasting hot now, so I stopped on a more level bit to take off my harness, helmet, jacket and crampons. As I did, the others caught me up and carried on down. After about an hour since I first reached the pass I finally got to the rock where everybody was gathered.

123. Amphu Labsta Pass seen from the bottom. Our tracks can be seen coming down the centre, then skirting right under the rocks, before descending straight down again before veering right.

Again spirits were very high and everyone was a bit emotional. I thanked Dawa for getting us all over the last three passes safely and was almost overwhelmed. Bharat also admitted his emotions were overpowering. There was lots of cheering and celebrations as people ate the packed lunch Ramesh had made late last night. Most people had their boots off and looked settled in for a long and well deserved rest. The only casualties were Dawa’s sandals, which slipped off his rucksack and into the abyss as his rucksack was being lowered. It was a very happy content team at the foot of the pass in the sun filled valley. Our only task now was to walk down it for about 4-5 hours until we reached Chhukhung, where I had decreed a day off.

124. A happy team at the bottom of Amphu Labsta pass in the sunshine. It was only about 10 in the morning and we had an easy 4-5 hour descent to Chhukhung ahead of us to reach the luxuries of the Everest Region.

The four porters were eager to head off and they all crouched down and put on their head bands where they lifted their loads. They set off first, me second, and Dawa and Bharat ambled down after me chatting. It was a beautiful moraine top walk with the moraine covered glacier on one side and a quiet valley with old vegetation on the other before the hillside rose up into mountains. Island Peak was soon consumed by mist but the huge glacial devastation continued to make me feel insignificant. Especially powerful was the glacial lake of Imja Tsho which was about 2km long and hemmed in on all side by a moraine wall. I had heard about the lake before, as it was a danger for those living down the valley when the moraine wall collapses.

I entered a small quiet sandy side valley and saw all the porters flaked out on the soft vegetation out of the wind. They were just waking from a snooze. They told me how comfortable it was but I knew it was like the sirens and once I lay down I would be seduced by the comfort. Within five minutes I was asleep, only to be disturbed ten minutes later by Dawa and Bharat falling for the charms of the warm hollow. I think we all slept on the earth for a good hour. I was reluctant to get up and move off but the others were abandoning me having rested their fill.

The remaining 5-6 km to Chhukhung was a bit of a trudge. I just wanted to get there. I overtook the other while they had a biscuit break and plodded on down the dull valley. The only redeeming feature was the ramparts and misty ridges of Ama Dablam which completely dominated the south side. Its fluted ridges heavy with snow were playing with the winds up there and causing spirals and jets of mist and the moist air was forced into streams of condensation.

I reached Chhuckhung and went to the Sunrise Lodge as I think I had stayed there 12 years earlier and liked it, and Bharat and Dawa mentioned it.  It was easy to find and still looked cosy compared to the larger resorts which had been built at the bottom of the village, one of which looked like a prison.  I went for a meal while the others arrived. When they did they confirmed I should stay here and told me they had found a bhatti to hire. It was simple but it would do them for two nights. I went for a sleep in the afternoon at the end of which all six of the team piled into my room for a chat.  It seemed Dawa wanted to come with me round the Three Passes of Everest route I wanted to do next week while the others wanted to go to Namche Bazar and Thame and wait the three or so days for us to turn up. In the evening I managed to log in and delete most of the 500 or so emails waiting for me after 43 days. I managed a few more office chores, uploaded photos and went to bed dirty. It had been over a month since I last had a wash and that would be tomorrow’s luxury. I also managed to speak to Fiona on WhatsApp who had been worried about me wandering in the terrain which Google Maps showed from my tracker.

28 April. Chhukhung Rest Day. 0km. 0hours. 0m up. 0m down. Today was purely a day to recharge and catch up. Ramesh as always did my laundry, the sleeping bags were dried off, the tents where put up to dry and I spent 10 hours on my phone typing in the warm dining room of the lodge with the sun flooding onto my back. I also had the long awaited shower and managed to hack five weeks of growth from my chin. It was all done by 1900 after which I could relax and repack for the next section, Section 05. Everest Region, with Dawa with a lightweight rucksack and comfortable teahouses.

Section 04. Makalu. had been absolutely stunning and the highlight so far. I was expecting the worst with deep snow and foul weather except in the early morning but we must have moved into a different weather region as there was hardly any snow lying below 5000m and at last the long awaited stable Spring weather seemed to have arrived. The thunderstorms and thigh deep snow of Section 03. Arun Nadi Valley were long forgotten. However along with the stunning scenery, challenging passes around 6000m, and good weather, what really made this section stand out was the team. Bharat has pooled together some of the nicest, toughest characters Nepal has to offer and his quiet charm has not only kept the ship afloat but absolutely buoyant. Without them I am nothing.

Section 04. Makalu.  87Km. 44 hours.  4160m up.  3070m down.     

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