Entry 5: yak attack, coppers in choppers, Germans, poopsicles
Travellers, you soon notice, 'do' countries in the way that other people do drugs. They will say things like 'Last month we did Laos and Cambodia' (well done!) before asking 'Have you done India?' To you which you might reply, 'No I haven't done India properly yet' (perhaps you didn't inhale) adding that you have nonetheless done a number of other recreational countries, some of which were pretty mind blowing and addictive.
For good reasons Nepal is on many 'to do' lists. And, when doing Nepal one is expected to do (natch) a trek, as the country contains most of the world's ultrahigh mountains. Here, incidentally, is another semantic oddity. Those over the age of 20 will probably remember when going for a walk was referred to as exactly that, maybe a hike if it was particularly arduous. No longer - in these days of ubersports, the walk and the hike have been usurped by the altogether more extreme sounding trek.
We had opted for the Everest Base Camp trek. Naturally, our main reason for choosing this as opposed to, say, the equally rigorous and far more attractive Anapurna Circuit, is that everyone has heard of the former and would be suitably impressed when we mentioned it over dinner. There is also the trifling matter of social consideration: do any other trek and you will have to spend valuable minutes of conversation explaining what you're on about while your friends pretend to be interested.
Assuming that, like us, you are lazy enough to fly into Lukla (2700m) - home of the world's shortest airstrip - the walk divides into three sections. The first is up to Nanche Bazaar, a nice little town and the last place you can get decent coffee, donuts and use the world's most expensive cybercafe. Nanche also boasts the world's highest solar powered hot-tub, ideal for a spot of high-altitude swinging but sadly inoperative during our visit. The next stage takes you up to Pheriche, whose attractions include a phone and a nice collection of superannuated Michael Crichton novels. And the final stage takes you up to Kalar Pattar, a peak just above Base Camp where everything is cold and bleak and breathing is notably difficult.
porters, we started walking and presently came to the entrance of the
park. Judging from the book we signed when we paid our fee, numbers
were markedly down on the previous year. As we would later discover
there was a good reason for this: the Marxist guerrillas who hang around
in these scenic parts had been getting frisky. Indeed, the whole South
Everest Region was on the list of places the Foreign Office recommends
that Britons avoid. Which certainly accounted for all curfews and the
soldiers, some of who were wearing really cool arctic camouflage gear.
The first stage is both literally and figuratively a walk in the park. Pleasingly dramatic scenery, a gentle gradient, air not too thin and the only real trouble we encountered was the yaks. Yak trains are the main source of congestion in the roadless Himalaya and, typically, a yak train will move 0.5 km/h slower than you. To be stuck behind one is extremely frustrating. But, once you pass the yaks - a feat in itself - you can't stop to rest or they'll catch you up within a minute or two necessitating again stepping aside while they pass. When they do you must stand uphill of them; Jane learned this the hard way when a (comparatively) gentle yak horn in the rump almost sent her off the edge of a precipice.
Despite - or perhaps because - of this, I was slowly developing an affection for these shaggy, malodorous beasts of burden. A yak is a sort of off road cow and, in the way that Land Rovers are better than Fords, Yaks are more stylish than their field-bound brethren. Indeed, it occurred to me more than once that the yak might be the obvious pet of choice for Notting Hill types looking to upgrade their pot-bellied pigs.
But my rose tinted view of the yak changed after speaking to Tim, a charming Pakistanti-Canadian who told us how his porter's mate had been gored to death. With a casual toss of its horns, a rogue yak had disembowelled the unfortunate fellow. Well, after hearing this, I just couldn't look at a yak the same way and spent the rest of my trek in mortal fear of these goofy looking creatures, watching every twitch of their beady little eyes and spending much time pondering which of the various forms of yak horn would most effectively relieve me of my guts. Worse, my yak wool jumper was starting to smell strongly of its former owner, the yak what if I became a magnet for amorous males at higher altitudes where the lack of oxygen affects dreams yaks invaded my sleep and I woke regularly in the night rigid with fear, head filled with nightmares of an unprovoked yak attack.
Once in Nanche and safely out of the yaks' way, you are advised to stay put for a couple days, doing small day hikes up from the town to aid the acclimatisation process. One such walk took us up to the Everest view hotel, a Japanese owned enterprise which felt like how the future was expected to look, circa 1965. Compared to the lodges in Nanche the Everest View is a pretty swanky establishment and charges $270 a night - roughly 200 times the going rate, although to be fair, it does have real toilets. But the EV, despite its impressive V has a problem: its intended clientele (who have included the likes of Robert Redford) aren't the kind of people who'll suffer a two-day hike up from Lukla.
So it flies its guests in. Trouble is, at 3900m, it's located some way above the level where many people start suffering altitude sickness without acclimatisation - such as that afforded by the hike up from Lukla. The EV does have oxygen in its rooms to counter this but that doesn't seem to have done much for business: after all, a great view is hard to appreciate when you're awake all night vomiting, praying for God to put you out of your misery. So these days it seems to exist mainly to exist to serve pricey tea to curious hikers from Nanche and retains the melancholy air of someone's failed dream. I asked the manager if there was anyone staying. He said no, but the hotel would be full tomorrow. His voice lacked conviction and I don't think either of us really believed this.
At Nanche, I'd noticed that a number of our fellow trekkers had bought those expensive metallic sticks that are a bit like adjustable ski poles and cost fifty quid a go. Of course, I'd been rather grandly pooh-poohing these, smugly asserting that only kit obsessed twits owned such things. But a day out of Nanche we found ourselves walking down a river of frozen mud. A group ahead of us almost skipped down, ably assisted by their hi-tech poles; Jane trudged down, steadied by her trusty stick. After a couple of shaky steps, I went down on my arse, in a puddle of mud, in front of at least ten people, two of who statistically must have been cool and / or good-looking. While I'm eating humble pie, I also seem to remember badmouthing Stetson hats. Well I'd like to take that back too: the Stetson may look stupid on America's chief executive, but in places with plenty of sun and wind, it is not to be sniffed at.
Up at Pheriche (4270m) I started getting the most horrendous headaches, real skull-in a-vice stuff. I went to bed and matters improved a bit. But the following morning, it was still pretty bad and Jane was certain I had altitude sickness. For my part, I was positive I didn't, not that either of us had any real idea of what we were talking about. Then Jane looked in my mouth with a torch and noticed that my tonsils were the size of golf balls and covered in white gelatinous slime: tonsillitis Luckily Pherice had a doctor, a volunteer from Montana. Poor woman - she had come out to the Himalayas hoping to find all sorts of exciting altitude-related ailments. Thus far she had treated mostly sprained ankles. With my rather mundane childhood disease, I was her most exciting case to date.
I didn't get altitude sickness, but Jane did. While I convalesced, we'd already spent a couple of extra days in Pherrice, where there is nothing to do except read the aforementioned Michael Chichton novels and sit around getting cold. So, having acclimatised for a full three days we tried to ascend 600m. At around 400m Jane had a headache - no big deal - but 100m higher this was joined by pins and needles, a numb face, a splitting headache and nausea. Then she went crackers and just wanted to sit down on a big rock.
When this happens you have to frog-march them down. A person with altitude sickness is like a really annoying drunk you're trying to walk home. We descended 200m and a mountaineer called Ian we'd met earlier gave Jane some altitude drugs, but after half an hour things hadn't improved. So we descended another 200m and with scarcely believable swiftness she was normal again, if a little tired. Still there are few things more depressing than losing that much hard-won altitude, even if it is to stop your girlfriend from having a brain haemorrhage. We went back to Pherice again, which was rapidly becoming our own Groundhog Day.
three-day delay was causing another problem: despite having taken twice
the cash a guidebook recommended with us we were running out of money.
We'd taken reserves in the form of large denomination Indian notes.
But due to a counterfeiting problem, these weren't being accepted anywhere.
We counted our cash: there wasn't enough to last another three days,
let alone six. For the want of $40 we were going to have to turn round.
Still on the subject of altitude sickness (a surprisingly engrossing and prevalent topic of conversation above 4000m) and we'd discovered the identity of the 'motivational gang.' They were not, as we'd thought, high-achieving corporate types. Rather, they were a group of policemen from the Midlands who all worked out in the same gym - which would explain a lot - and they were doing the Base Camp Trek for charidee. So I guess I really shouldn't take the piss, but I will anyway. The first time we met them since the airport they were putting on an impressive impromptu display of machismo. One was down on the deck, doing one armed press ups at 4100m while his mates compared rucksack weights, the gist of their conversation being that light rucksacks are for poofs, whereas real men pack plenty of stuff they don't need.
One had a shaven head, which was slowly purpling in the Himalayan sun. A concerned American girl asked him if he shouldn't put a hat on; he replied 'don't like hats.' Perhaps then, she countered, he should try some sunblock. 'Don't need any came the reply.' You have to admire a man who can face down reality like that. That evening we would learn that the police also drank heavily - a ridiculous thing to do at this altitude, nobody does. And booze gave one of them the confidence he needed to sprint up a snow-covered hill in the dark. Back at the lodge and our boy promptly bought up his Nepalese lager and spent the next day in bed. Were we impressed? Hell yes! These guys were the Britain's finest and would have been wearing 'I shagged a Sherpa' T-shirts if they'd been available.
Best of all was their ascent plan. Perhaps they hadn't noticed that everyone - from the rankest amateurs to real mountaineers went up at exactly the same rate (around 300-400 m a day). For one very good reason. Indeed, altitude sickness tends to affect fitter people more as they often go up faster. But to the boys in blue, slow ascents looked pretty queer, and, despite the obvious signs of altitude, they pressed on at a pace which can only be described as moronic. With so much testosterone rushing around, I had to wonder what it would be like to be arrested by them.
Despite this, compared to self-obsessed tossers touristing Katmandu, you generally find a better quality of visitor in the mountains. It may smack of sentimentality to say so but three or four days in, you have a sense of community with the people you keep meeting on the way up. And everyone - bonded by doing the same stupid thing - looks out for each other, as evidenced by the concern Ian showed Jane. Aussies, Brits, Canadians and the odd American and Frenchman (complete with a rucksack full of delicious saucisson) rubbed along pretty well.
There were of course exceptions. The Japanese seemed to keep largely to themselves and looked faintly ridiculous, wearing white gloves and Tokyo facemasks in some of the cleanest air on earth. Our favourite was a tiny woman who had employed two porters and four yaks to carry her kit. Decked out entirely in powder pink she had bought all her food from Japan, not wishing to take her chances with the notably bland but safe local cuisine. With her lack of interaction with her environment it occurred to me that she might have been happier spending a fortnight in a chilly decompression chamber in Tokyo.
Then there were the Germans. Now, I tried, I really did, to be open-minded. And to be fair about half of them were OK; by far the nicest was a guy from Berlin, a former Ossie (East German), the type many West Germans tend to look down on. But the other half well they really should take their holidays in Bavaria: they are rude, arrogant, inconsiderate and selfish. What is most unpleasant though is their attitude to the natives of the countries they visit. Now I know the Brits have a bad reputation abroad, but this is largely confined to pissed up larger louts in Spain and football hooligans; from what I can see with Germans this contempt for foreigners seems to extend well into the middle classes.
One such fellow we had the misfortune to meet was getting a room in the same place as us. Because of the perverse economics of the mountains, lodges make almost all their money from food - therefore a double room for two costs 50Rs whereas for one it costs 150R - two will eat more than one and meals are (relatively) pricey. But even though the owner patiently explained this to him our German friend wasn't having any of it - no way was he paying more than 100Rs. I tried to reason with him, adding that, in a country where the average income is around US$300 per year such petty meanness wasn't on - he was arguing over less than a Euro, about 50p. He looked at me, all Teutonic humourlessness, waggled his finger and said: 'No, no, you mustn't spoil them.' Fucking wanker. I experienced a strong desire to 'spoil' him by stamping his windpipe with a crampon.
washing and going
Above Pherice, the already low standard of accommodation deteriorates sharply and personal hygiene goes out the glassless window. For one thing, it's not very right on to take 'showers' - all that firewood required to heat the water has the lodge owners deforesting the hills, depriving the cute indigenous animals of their natural habitat. And, for another, having a shower is a pretty unpleasant proposition: it usually involves a big bowl of tepid water, a jug and you naked in a damp, slimy, freezing concrete cell. After a while, I just found one set of clothes I liked and stuck with them, a bit like those Victorian urchins who were sewn into their clothes at the beginning of winter.
The flip side of the cleanliness coin is of course a scatological one. Where do you poo in the mountains? The answer is usually in an ice-bound outhouse with a hole in the floor. Naturally the higher you go the chillier and less salubrious these become. Indeed, due to the solidifying effect of low temperatures, by the time we'd reached Loubouche (4910m) you could usually see a large frozen poo pyramid almost up to the level of the hole in the outhouse floor - a sort of Mont Blanc de merde, a poopsicle. You'd add your own contribution then sluice your undercarriage with water sharded with little daggers of ice. In the way that smells are said to be the strongest triggers of memory, the whiff of frozen faeces will for me forever evoke the majesty of the Himalayas.
room at the top
In the end, rather to our surprise, and despite my tonsils, Jane's oxygen-starved brain and my cash starved wallet, we made it to the top of Khalla Pattar (5550m), a small peak that looks remarkably like a colliery slagheap, just above Everest base camp. The final ascent is lung shearingly painful: the air above 5000m is half what it is at sea level and every breath is rarefied and lacking in all nourishment; you take ten steps then stop gasping. Something you could run up in ten minutes at sea level takes hours. But we just pressed on and after a while it became inevitable. A couple of hours after starting we hauled ourselves up to a throne-shaped summit draped in prayer flags.
We shared our moment of unexpected triumph with an Aussie, a (very pleasant) German and a Scot called John who, to his immense credit, had a fag at the top, joking that they lasted twice as long three and half miles up. The weather - which had been cold enough to freeze our water bottles lower down - turned out nice and we spent an hour at the top, engaged in worthy self-congratulation and mutual backslapping. The views are pretty spectacular too, though Everest itself is nothing special: there are plenty more photogenic mountains about, most of which appear higher. Then you turn round and go down. Is it worth it? Well, I wasn't so sure until we met an English couple a few hours later on their way up. They asked me what it was like and, as I said, 'Well .' an unbelievable sense of smugness and self-satisfaction came over me.
coppers in choppers
The descent is really just watching a video backwards, done at breakneck speed, two days instead of nine. All you want is civilisation and that is enough to make you run down. Altitude doesn't affect your descent, perhaps because each step is easier than the last. When you get back to the world of running water, you do realise quite how terrible you smell. Somehow the aroma's not too bad when it's cold and dry but the second you touch water it all rehydrates and your hit by just how high (in the other sense) you are. I was a tramp to Jane's bag lady.
The other high point of our descent was bumping into the remains of the police - as unsubstantiated rumours of the crazy English policeman had been blowing around the mountains for days. One whose scabby, flaking face suggested that he'd once been too tough for sunscreen related their misadventures.
By the end all but two of their eight had suffered from altitude sickness and had to go down. One had got to the stage where all he did was sleep, puke and climb. His guides and porters had begged him to descend, but what the hell did they know? His had been the rescue helicopter we saw thudding down the valley to Kathmandu hospital a few days earlier. Apparently the enchoppered cop had come pretty close to killing himself.
5100m, he had been put into a gamma bag, a pressurised plastic sack
which simulates descent. Unfortunately he was claustrophobic and manfully
fought his way out. His long-suffering porters had then run down to
an Italian research station to get oxygen before radioing the whirlybird
to take him down, a snip at 3500 quid plus, of course his hospital fees;
I wondered if his insurance had a stupidity clause. But the good news
was that he was now recovering nicely and despite all his efforts to
the otherwise, would live to pass his genes on.