This time last year I was asking around on the UKC forum looking for advice, and planning my first trip to the Himalayas. I got some really good tips from some of the other members and really enjoyed my trip so I thought I'd pass some of it on by writing an article.
We were a group of four looking to climb something in the Himalayas, all experienced UK climbers, with some summer alpine climbing experience and plenty of ambitious ideas. After some discussion we selected two peaks, booked a guide and flights, packed our kit and set off to Nepal.
We chose Tharpu Chuli (5700m) and Singu Chuli (6495m), both situated within the Annapurna sanctuary, the idea was that being close to the Annapurna base camp trekking route, access and logistics would be easier.
The trek to MBC was easy enough and we ate well and relaxed in the surprising luxury of the tea houses as we ascended. By this stage some of us were feeling the effect of the fish momos but we weren't bothered by the altitude yet so despite the occasional disappearance into the bushes we got to base camp keen and eager to bag our first Himalayan summit.
Having asked for the bare minimum from the guides company we were amazed to find the 10 porters, 2 base camp tents, a kitchen tent and a dining tent complete with table and chairs were all ours. The next morning the mountain of kit was packed up again and making its way up the hill ahead of us.
We had planned some places to camp and looked over the map with our Sherpa guide who assured us he'd been up both peaks before and led us down the moraine, across the dry glacier and up onto the slopes the other side. We continued to follow on enjoying the steep grassy slopes, beautiful views of the Annapurna range and the easiness of climbing with a guide and not having to navigate for ourselves. Later on we stopped for a lunch break and had a look at the map; things didn't really fit with where we expected to be and the numbering of the camps seemed to be different every time, but still feeling fine we continued on.
A little bit later in the day we were all starting to feel quite tired and out of breath but were told we were nearly there so carried on a bit further to reach 'camp 1'. Camp 1 was typically enveloped in cloud and was a small rocky area with a few prayer flags scattered around, from our views of the hill earlier that day we worked out that we must be at the spot on the map labelled 'possible high camp'. This meant that we must have walked past the bits labelled 'camp 1' and 'camp 2' without realising earlier in the day. Trying to confirm this with the guide, through his bad English and our even worse Nepali didn't really help but he did manage to tell us we would reach the top. Tomorrow!
Later that night most of the team had headaches, and the weather was looking bad so we reluctantly agreed on a 3am wakeup call on the condition that if it was still snowing or anyone still felt ill we would go back to bed. A few hours and not much sleep later we awoke to mugs of tea and bowls of rice being presented through our frozen tent zips, time to go...
We scrambled up some rocks in the dark, and onto the snow. After walking for a while by torchlight on the snow (and asking twice if we were on the glacier yet and did we need to rope up) it got light enough to realise that we had walked across most of the glacier unroped and were approaching the crux section of the route. We stopped for a rest and while we tried to drink water and moaned about our headaches and nausea a bit more, the guide soloed up 250m of steep snow at running pace trailing a fixed rope behind him. We slowly gasped and swore our way up the cheap nylon rope and slumped onto the flat sunny shoulder of the mountain with numb hands and feeling like s**t. Nice view though.
Now, applying medical knowledge and common sense tells me that members of the group were suffering from AMS and that this would have been a good time to go back down. For some reason, at the time, ambition got the better of us and as we were nearly at the summit we carried on. We continued up the summit ridge and luckily all got to the top and back down to the camp safely. In our absence the porters had tidied it all up and had left one tent and 2 guys who spoke no English with a flask of hot orange drink. I'm sure it's a trick of my fatigued brain but in my memory it was one of the tastiest drinks I've ever had. We crashed for a bit before realising that there wasn't enough equipment to stay here comfortably and we'd better get moving to get back to base camp in the daylight.
Feeling much better sitting back at MBC we added up that we had climbed from 3700m to 5700m and back in 36 hours, when we had plenty of time to spare. No wonder we felt bad. The next morning when we were feeling less ill but still completely knackered, the guide was encouraging us to move our base camp a bit further on to get ready for the next peak. We refused and sat in the sun eating and drying our stuff instead.
After insisting on 2 rest days we were ready to move on to attempt Singu Chuli, this was bigger, harder and more intimidating. We scrambled over more steep moraine and up into a different valley to make the approach. Feeling much better with the altitude this time, we made it up to the next base camp - complete with our full entourage of pots, pans, tents and porters.
This time they reluctantly agreed to leave the table and chairs but did still insist on the tinned food. We sat in the tents listening to the avalanches thundering down the other side of the valley and decided to set off early again to make our summit attempt.
We made our own decisions about when to rope up and feeling confident we made it to a flat area high on the glacier. This was surrounded by a deep bergshrund and the steeper ground we would have to cover to make the ridge. There seemed to be a lot of snow, and the snow bridge proved more solid than it looked. After a few pitches of broken rock the snow got progressively worse and as we approached the ridge we were wading in waist deep. We got to the ridge with a lot of effort and not much protection as the snow became too soft for even snow stakes to be much good.
Sitting on the summit ridge at this point we made that difficult decision that all climbers have to make from time to time, concluding that the cloud was coming in and summit slope looked threatening. If the snow there was as soft as the stuff we were sitting in then the avalanche risk was more than any of us were willing to take and being stuck here in bad weather wasn't a nice prospect either. We began our decent and made it back to base camp before the bad weather set in.
It's always difficult to turn back when you've put so much time and effort into getting somewhere but for me no mountain is worth dying for and even without getting to the top it was a great experience.
Some advice I was given and thoroughly agree with:
- The Himalayas are big. Everything takes a lot longer.
- There is no nice guide book, photo-topo or OS quality map.
- Getting to base camp without feeling ill is an achievement in itself.
- You will get headaches, diarrhoea, vomiting, dehydration, a cough, sunburn, cold hands and feet, minor injuries and general lassitude.
- Take the obvious steps to avoid them - sensible ascent rate, food hygiene, hand washing, sunblock.
- Take a decent first aid kit for when you get them anyway - your usual kit plus painkillers, rehydration sachets and antibiotics.
- Check your vaccines are up to date and see a dentist before you leave.
- You can buy any climbing kit you might need in Kathmandu (except boots for some reason), expect very limited supplies or nothing in smaller towns.
- You will have problems with porters, guides, permits, kit, roads, vehicles and logistics.
- Be firm with local guides; don't take risks just because they do.
- Be nice to your porters, they're stronger than you but not as well equipped. They may come from lowland areas looking for work so can still get altitude sickness. Pay attention if any of them start getting unwell.
- When the weather's good you won't be acclimatised enough to go where you want to.
- When you feel ready to move the weather will have got worse.
- Choose something technically easy, you won't be climbing anywhere near what you can do in the Alps.
- Get fit before you go.
- Read the advice about altitude sickness (and try and stick to some of it!)
- Get insurance in case something really nasty goes wrong, it's also handy for when the airline lose you kit. (BMC is my favourite)
- Weigh your bags and wear as much as you can on the plane - nothing pointy in hand luggage though.
- It's not about the technical climbing, it's about the journey.
- It's still awesome even if you don't get to the top
Despite all this you'll have a great time; you'll have stories, memories and photographs. You'll sit at work thinking about it and planning how you're going to get the time and money for the next trip.
Thanks to everyone who contributed to the original forum thread!