Our support staff in the climb were: Sirdar and climbing guide: Shyam Pun, assistant sherpa: Tenzing, cook: Lakhpa Sherpa, cook boys: Lakhpa Sherpa, Norbu, Ganesh and Ashok and Sherpanis: Lakhpa Dolma and Lakhpa, to herd the five sterling Zopkios, the cross between a yak and a cow. There were several Lakhpas but we were never confused.
Climbers/trekkers from the west: Warren Storkman, David Meinhardt, Arun Mahajan and Ron Karpel (Calif, US), Azfar, Jennie and Stewart McNeill (the UK)
Short version: We started the trek on 7th October. Warren trekked upto Khumjung and turned back on day-3 to meet us again in Kathmandu as planned, Ron, Arun and Azfar summitted Island Peak on the 15th of Oct, Dave Meinhardt summitted Kala Patthar also on the 15th, Jennie (Azfar's wife) trekked to Island Peak BC, as planned and then walked out with the group and Stewart McNeill climbed to Island Peak high camp but had to forgo the summit attempt due to ill health (altitude induced).
3rd Oct 04: Kathmandu was warm and muggy. Tamding Sherpa was present at the airport to receive us and a short drive got us to the Tibet Guest House in the touristy Thamel district. The TGH provides decent and clean accomodation at a moderate price. The staff is friendly and competent. There we met the great Babu, Warren, our organiser and Stewart McNeill of the UK. Stewart is quite experienced in Nepal trekking and this was his fifth time here. He had already summitted Mera Peak and Chulu-east on previous excursions. Azfar and Jennie were to join us later on in the trek. That day and the next were spent in acting tourist. We visited the temples of Pashupatinath and Bodhnath as well as the ancient city of Patan. The Thamel district is a blast and great place to shop for Nepali and Tibetan knick knacks.
5th and 6th Oct 04: Lost two days, waiting at KTM airport, hoping to get the flight out to Lukla but the clouds and rain were preventing any landings at Lukla. An emotional roller coaster for us all.
7 Oct 04: Finally a clear day and we got on the Lukla flight. Landing at Lukla, 2642m/8800ft, is as exciting as the stories you may have heard from others. The little twin engined Otter somehow finds this little band-aid of an airstrip that is up-sloping on the approach and nestled between two cliffs and at the edge of a ravine. Suffering Swamis, we are going to crash into a wall!! but just before that happens, the expert pilots make the plane do an abrupt ice hockey stop and every body claps in relief. After some great breakfast at Pawan's 'North Face Lodge and Panoramic View Restaurant' (Pawan is another of Warren's friends) we met Shyam Pun, our climbing guide-cum-sirdar and then we were finally off. Warren, me, Shyam, Ron, Dave, Stewart and Warren's porter, Jit Bahadur. The trail passes through scenic villages and some snow covered peaks started to show up. The trail goes downhill for quite a bit. Laden animals, porters and returning trekkers passed us by. My heart was light with song. I was finally in the Himalaya! We had lunch at Phakding, 2610m/8690ft and had the first major river crossing on a swaying but solid bridge over the turbulent Dudh Kosi. Since we had burned up two days at Kathmandu from our already short schedule, we decided to make up for lost time by hiking more every day, till we had made up the time. So, we decided to continue on upto the village of Monjo, 2840m/9460ft, on day-1 instead of staying at Phakding. Monjo is outside the boundary of Sagarmatha National Park.
8 Oct 04: Monjo to Khumjung, 3780m/12,590ft: By 8am, we were walking, then past the park entrance where Shyam did the permit formalities. It was 10am or so, when we arrived in Namche Bazaar, 3440m/11,460ft, the administrative center of the Solu-Kumbhu region. The walk is steep and climbs relentlessly and we were all feeling it. It was cloudy, wet and cold at Namche which is a very nice town, horseshoe shaped and nestled amongst the hills. All paths climb up steeply to the various tiers on the mountain side where the dwellings are. We had a long break including lunch and snacks at Namche and then we set out for Khumjung. The trail rising out of Namche was steep also. It was cloudy and we had no views and it was a dreary slog up to Syangboche and it's 'airstrip' (somewhat flat piece of gravel on a relatively flat plateau). In about an hour and half, we dropped down into the beautiful town of Khumjung. We saw our first yak on the hill above Namche.
9 Oct 04: Khumjung to Devoche, 3771m/12,560m: The great Babu departs with Jit.
This was the first day when the skies were clear at dawn and we were blessed by our first view of the most beautiful mountain I have ever seen, Ama Dablam and this startling peak always dominated the views throughout the trip. After breakfast, we all hiked to the upscale Everest View Hotel and for the price of a 90 Rupee a cup of tea, got to sit on their deck and see Everest, Nuptse, Lhotse and Ama Dablam, perfectly arranged by God in collusion with the Nepal Board of Tourism and the picture postcard industry to fit into the view finder of most cameras. Then, it was time to say goodbye to Warren and he was saddened to part. I can say this much, the great Babu has a soft heart. After Warren disappeared from view, we turned around and now, with Shyam leading the way, dropped back on the trail. Initially, the trail meandered down to yet another crossing of the Dudh Kosi but then rose sharply and relentlessly till the scenic monastic town of Tengboche, 3860m, with its large Gompa. We spent a little time inside the monastery. Again, the clouds covered the peaks and the general atmosphere was one of gloom. A pattern that was to be with us for several days, clear skies at sunrise and clouded over by mid morning. From Tengboche, the trail dropped down to Devoche where we spent the night. At the lodge, on whose grounds we got permission to camp, we took the sage advice of David Dugan, an Irish mountaineer and trip organiser who was staying there with his group and decided to slow down our march and that those in the group wanting to do Island Peak (me, Ron and Stewart) would punt on Kala Patthar and do lesser amount of hiking per day and go towards Island Peak directly whereas those wanting to do Kala Patthar only (Dave Meinhardt) would branch off from Dingboche and we would all meet back at Dingboche after our respective trips. By doing this, we would have the time to set up high camp instead of attempting Island Peak directly from Base Camp.
10 Oct 04: Devoche to Shomare, 4050m/: We paid a visit to a monastery in Devoche, populated by nuns and then walked further uphill till the small town of Shomare. It was a short day. There was of course, a steep section.
11th Oct 04: Shomare to Dingboche, 4360m/13,490ft: Another short day with some uphill. It was in Dingboche that we got our first view of Island Peak. It is a startling view and Island Peak looks quite impressive. It seems to stand right at the lowest point of a valley formed by Lhotse/Lhotse-Shar on the left and Baruntse on the right. This was also a short day for us. We also paid a visit to the lodge owned by Chhuldim's father. They had a poster there for the now defunct Palisades School of Mountaineering, Bishop, Ca!. We did a short hike to a stupa on a ridgetop and got our first views of Cho Oyo on the left and Makalu on the right with Lhotse and Lhotse-Shar dominating the view in the front and Tawoche and Cholatse on the back and left.
12th October 04: Dingboche to Chukung, 4750m/15,820ft: Dave split for Kala Patthar. He was to go over the same stupa-hill to Dughla and then Lobuche and Gorak Shep, before attempting Kala Patthar. We took off towards Chukung. The scenery got more barren as we left behind the barley fields of Dingboche and climbed gently towards the last village on the route, Chukung. Ama Dablam, always an amazing sight, presents a different visage from here with a subsidiary summit and a NE ridge. A friend, Dot Riley, had recommended hiking up to Chukung Ri, 5550m/18,490ft as an acclimatization step and for its views. I was not able to spur any enthusiasm from Stewart or Ron, so with some directions from Shyam, took off for it myself. After a river crossing, the trail starts to climb steeply till a plateau. From there, I could make out the two summits of Chukung Ri seperated by a saddle. I figured that I had come up close to a 1000 ft above Chukung. But I was concerned about the available daylight and it had started to snow a little so I turned back and returned to camp. It snowed heavily for a few hours not long after that. At this point I had recorded my personal highest altitude, so everything was going to be gravy after this....
13th October 04: Chukung to Island Peak BC, 5151m/17,150ft: We woke up to a winter wonderland. A few inches of snow everywhere, even on the backs of the yaks and our zopkio's. Ama Dablam looked magnificient in the morning sun with the fresh snow. We started walking towards base camp. There was an initial rise and then we stared down at a large barren plain with a small stream, milky with glacial silt, snaking through. We were all feeling the altitude. Slowly, we made our way to the point where a narrow valley opened up into this plain. There was a large hut there and several tents spread out, further up along this narrow valley. Island Peak BC, at the place called Pereshaya Gyab, is indeed a depressing place. We were made to feel home by the joyful chatter of our porters and cook and as usual, they cooked another great dinner.
14th October 04: BC to HC, 5682m/18,920ft: Sky looked bad. Surprisingly, I was feeling very good. After breakfast, we headed up the talus fields following a trail. It began to snow. Slowly at first but then picking up to be a full fledged storm. We stopped at some flattened platforms. It took the porters a little while to come up to us in the snow and we sat around, huddling inside our Gore-Texs. Finally a single porter and cook came up. The rest had remained at BC. They set up the cook tent. This would serve as cook tent, dinner tent as well as a tent for sleeping for Shyam, cook Lakhpa and the porter, Norbu. Lakhpa ran off (rightward, when looking down) to find water. Apparently there is a trickle someplace. But otherwise, this is an unfriendly place. There were tent platforms at various places nearby. The porters and Shyam, with some help from Ron and I, set up 2 more tents. One for Ron and I and the other for Stewart. As we waited in our tents for dinner, we were hailed by the arrival of two more people who would be joining our party, Azfar, who lives in London and his guide, Lobsang. After introductions, Azfar was put in Stewart's tent. He and Jennie had walked from Lukla to Chukung in a much quicker time than us, so he had even lesser time to acclimate. Amazing! At dinner call, Ron decided to skip since he wasnt feeling too good. Azfar, Stewart and I enjoyed a hot meal of noodles and sherpa-stew (a kitchen sink of stuff like potatoes, vegetables, yak meat and whatever). Lobsang, who had summitted Cho Oyo, twice (in this year alone!) was not feeling well at all and seemed to have caught a bug and decided that he would go down to BC tomorrow and not go for the summit with us.
15th October 04: HC to summit and back to BC: Up at about 2am and after breakfast and gear check, moving at about 3.15am or so. Stewart decided to stay in the tent as he was really unwell, so it was Shyam our intrepid sherpa-guide, Ron, Azfar and me. Ron and I had put on crampons right away as there was snow on the talus. It was cold and I had light poly pro layers and then down on top and a heavy gore-tex jacket above it. The climbing was steep as we zig-zagged up into a gully as just as the sunlight was breaking out over Makalu, we topped out near a chorten adorned with prayer flags and onto the glacier. This was the top of what looked like an ice-fall but nicely covered over with deep snow. We all roped up. Ron on lead and then Azfar and me and Shyam with the rest of the rope, behind. It was a beautiful day.
Far ahead, we could see the large party of Germans who had overtaken us and further ahead, to the right, we saw the steep headwall that led to the long summit ridge of Island Peak. Lhotse was in the view, dominating everything as usual. The summit of Island Peak is at the end of a long long ridge. One may get to the ridge in multiple ways. For us, this time of the year, the smooth headwall presented the best option. It may have been 45-degrees or so, but it was all snowy. We followed a trail in the snow from the climbers before us and were soon at the base of the headwall which had a few fixed ropes from the various parties. A party of climbers guided by Mountain Experience from the day before had left their fixed rope for us so we put on our harnesses and clipped in our jumars into our fixed rope. The rope that we jumared into was a strange polyster type pool line. There was a 7mm climbing rope parallel to it but we did not jumar on that. There were three rope lengths (not sure if it was 60 or 50 meters each) and were attached to snow stakes driven deep into the snow. It felt exhilarating to climb this high angle slope. Momentarily anyway, my altitude sickness vanished. The route was well stepped out and the axe was sinking in nicely and the jumar was there to back us up, so it was not really difficult to climb. The biggest problem was the exertion at that altitude. However, this is a steep slope, so it should not be taken lightly, especially when it is icy. Ron and Shyam got to the ridge top probably twenty or thirty minutes before Azfar and I.
By the time I got to the top, Shyam had already fixed rope on the ridge, all the way to the summit. The summit was clearly visible from this point. A nice, narrow cone with a narrow beaten path leading to it via the narrow ridge falling away steeply on both the sides. A hand-line was not at all necessary here but Shyam was doing all he could to make it easy on us. While the summit was not far away now, it was a series of 3 bumps to get to, the second one being the steepest, sort of like three Mt Shasta Misery Hills for those familiar with Mt Shasta. I started up, followed by Azfar and Shyam. Ron was already at the top by then and in another thirty minutes I reached the top, slowed down by exhaustion. I figured that it was 9.30am by then, six hours from high camp. The day was clear. The south wall of Lhotse soared almost 8000 feet higher from us, to the front and left, completely blocking out Everest. To the right-front (north, north-east) was the red tinted wall of Makalu (5th highest peak in the world) with snow blowing off the summit, dead right was the wall of Baruntse (7129m) and south of that, a beautiful ridge system culminating in the summit of Ama Dablam. Directly behind us was the barren plain leading to Chukung which was ringed by the summits of Kantaiga, Tamserku, Tawoche and Cholatse. In the distance, left of Lhotse, was the summit of Cho Oyo, 6th highest peak in the world. Shyam pointed out Mera Peak. It would be hard to top this view...certainly the best I have seen. We took photos and posed. It had been 30 mins at the top.
I started to feel dizzy and disoriented due to the altitude combined with the head cold and cough that had been bothering me for the past few days. So, we headed down. Back to the ridge and to the point where we had topped out on the fixed rope. I was feeling quite weird and disoriented by now and knew that I had to really focus on the down climb. We decided to rap off on the fixed lines. After a cautious rappell, especially at the junctions where one fixed rope ended and the other began, we all met at the bottom and roped up for the glacier traverse. I requested Ron to go slowly on the descent and after a little bit, we were at the point where we had to descend down the gully. We got off the ropes and the crampons came off as well. Ron stayed with me all the way down the descent to high camp, for which I was very grateful. It was hard to shake off the feeling of disorientation but I got better as we rested a little at high camp. Some one served up some hot tea. Felt like the best thing in the world! Then we all dragged ourselves down to base camp. It appeared to have grown more populated with more climbing parties. We hardly looked the part of returning heros as we stumbled into our tents. It had been a 13 hour day at altutudes higher than 16k feet. Ron went to sleep right away and slept for 15 hrs and no amount of prompting from me would make him get up to see yet another stellar sunset. We learnt that Stewart had gone on to Chukung with Lobsang and Jennie hiked up from Chukung to meet Azfar at BC.
16th October 04: BC to Dingboche via Chukung: We hiked slowly to Chukung. It was another beautiful day but I was past caring. I just wanted to get down where the air was thicker. We lunched at Chukung where we met up with Stewart who was feeling a little better and he congratulated us on our success. We were all concerned about Lobsang and he decided to go, post haste, to his home in Khumjung and get himself checked out (he would be OK). It was a jolly party, me, Ron, Shyam, Azfar, Jennie and the porters, that made its way after lunch to Dingboche. On the way, we saw a most amazing sight, a large avalanche took off on the west face of Amadablam. Ron and I were able to get a few photos off. At Dingboche, we also met Dave who had come back triumphantly after summitting on Kala Patthar.
17th October 04: Dingboche to Devoche via Pengboche: The next day, from Dingboche to Devoche, via Pangboche had its share of uphill climbing but there was more downhill. We lunched at Pangboche and spent some time at the old Gompa there. We had heard stories of a yeti scalp being present at the small Gompa in Dingboche but it was shut when we were there.
18th October 04: Devoche to Namche via Tengboche: Lunch at Sanasa. This time, Tengboche looked much better without the low clouds during our way in and we could see Everest as well as Lhotse and Ama Dablam. Then, we went directly to Namche, skirting Khumjung and camped near the Sherpa Museum. The museum is a great place to visit and we even saw the picture of one of the owners of Mountain Experience, Chhuldim Sherpa, in the museum as an Everest summitter (twice).
19th October 04: Namche to Lukla: Goodbye to the staff at Phakding. This was a long day. We were also tired and was to be the last hiking day of the trip. At Phakding, we all assembled and said goodbye to the group. This was the last we would see them all together. The porters and cook and the sherpanis had all been so nice and helpful. Ron, Dave and I took off down the trail for Lukla since we had a flight out next morning. Azfar, Stewart, Jennie and Shyam were to go out a day later so they remained for the night at Phakding. The walk seemed endless but eventually the three of us go to Lukla by evening. At the lodge in Lukla, Pawan and his wife served us a large meal and we were more than happy to pay Rs-200 for a shower, first in about 13 days!
20th Oct 04: Lukla to Ktm: The next day, we flew out. The flight out was even more exciting. Now the twin Otter follows the downward slope of the tiny airstrip which ends at the edge of a ravine. Lamenting Lamas! we are going to fall into the ravine....but just as it seems likely, the plane smoothly takes off into the skies and eventually the snowy peaks are lost from view. We went back to the Tibet Guest House in Thamel where we were greeted and congratulated by Warren and the staff. How sweet the thick milky chiya (tea) tastes in Kathmandu....especially after a great trek!
21st Oct 04: Stewart, Azfar and Jennie arrived in the morning and Tamding treated us all to some traditional Nepali food at the Thamel restaurant as the final good bye.
22nd Oct 04: The Nepali staff at the guest house put scarves around our necks to wish us adieu. The propreiter gave us t-shirts as a parting gift and at the airport Tamding gave us another good-bye scarf and we were off.
While we were there, the only obvious sign of the Maoist insurgency was the presence of military at certain junctions and at the airport. Didnt seem to get in the way of our enjoyment of the mountains. I would happily go there again and perhaps the troubles are a bit overblown. Mountain Experience does a great job of running trips, their guides are some of the best and their support staff, helpful and always cheerful and having Warren, the great Babu, as our organiser, helped out in many ways and made it seem easy.
Thanks to all my friends here in California who gave me great advice about Nepal and the gear to take. Rick Booth lent me a book on Nepal, Dee Booth gave me detailed advice on the gear and on the trek and Dot Riley offered advice on the trekking peaks and routes in the Kumbhu region and on other treks to do while over there.
A big Namaste to all whom we met in Nepal. It is a wonderful country and the people are kind, friendly and generous. They have little but give so much and expect nothing in return. It has been great, or as they would say in Nepali, ramro chha!