Friday, January 04, 2013

Thirty Years Ago

If you will forgive a wallow in the past, I'd like to reminisce on what I was doing exactly thirty years ago. I had spent Christmas and New Year walking across Nepal, and early in January was nearing the Khumbu region. It was the adventure of a lifetime. The years have dulled the memories just how hard it was at times, although I recently found the journal I wrote during the trek and details came flooding back.

That's my diary on the left - a little notebook bought in Katmandu!

I need to back up a little and explain what took me to Nepal. I had loved hills and mountains ever since a school friend took me up my first Munro, Ben Narnain in the Arrochar Alps. A geography teacher began a hill walking group and his enthusiasm inspired me, especially when we spent five days in the Christmas holidays based in the Crianlarich Youth Hostel, must have been 1963-64. The weather was clear and dry, although cold. We climbed all the surrounding hills in near perfect winter conditions every day, before returning to Glasgow on the train. 

Over the years that followed, curling might have been my winter sport, but hill walking and exploring Scotland was my summer occupation. In 1980, my friend Johnny McFadzean, a hill farmer from Galloway, decided he would like to see Mount Everest! Well, it took two years before we managed to make it happen - and in the interim we walked the West Highland Way as a 'warmup'. Exodus (one of the original adventure holiday companies, still going strong today, see here) advertised a trek to the Everest region, not in the usual spring or autumn Nepal trekking seasons, but in December-January. I could get off work then, so our adventure became possible.

Our trek began in the far south of the country and we walked over the next three weeks pretty much due north through the foothills of the Himalaya, well away from other tourist routes. We got lost a couple of times, but that just added to the adventure. There were seven paying customers, a leader, three guides, a cook and his helpers, and a variable number of porters who carried our tents and personal kit, leaving us to walk just with day sacks. Luxury indeed.

Still, keeping well was the priority. It's no fun having even a simple stomach upset while walking every day. Towards the end of the trek, there was the effects of altitude to contend with.

Above are some scribbles from my Jan 7, 1983, diary entry. We had camped two nights at Dingboche, which is over 14,000 feet, as we attempted to get acclimatised. The day before we had gone much higher, then back down. In the middle of the night, I realised I would have to go outside and empty my bladder. It was toasty warm inside my winter season down sleeping bag, and the prospect of a nighttime 'excursion' was not something to look forward to! However, I threw on my jacket, ripped open the tent flap and plunged out... straight into something warm and furry. It turned out to be a large village dog which had been lying across the front of the tent to take advantage of the small amount of warmth that was seeping through the flap! It wimpered. Mind you, so did I!

Our target was to reach the top of Kala Pattar. At more than 18,000 feet (5,500m) feet this is a pimple by the standards of the surrounding mountains. It's not technically challenging, but whether one makes it to the top or not depends on how well you have acclimatised to the altitude. Getting used to the altitude is the biggest problem of treks in the Khumbu. My diary is full of comments about being breathless, and awakening at nights in a bit of a 'panic'. The dangers of altitude are well recognised, see here. People are affected differently. Two of our party were stricken quite badly.

I was lucky, I made it to the top of Kala Pattar on Saturday, January 8, from our camp at Lobuche. I recall this being physically the hardest day of my life, and reading my diary again, the details flood back.

So, where are the photos? Yes I took some. I didn't have a particularly good camera. 35mm slides were the thing back then and  - in pre-internet days - the only way of sharing your photos and your experiences was to invite 'friends' round to your home, get out the slide projector, rig up a screen, and bore them to drink with your stories! These days there are lots of photos to view online, so much better than any I took myself. I'll show just one - the view of Everest from the top of Kala Pattar:

This photo was taken by Jerome Ryan, an amateur photographer who loves mountains. He is happy to have his pix used for personal, non-commercial use. His website is quite amazing, see here. He has a set of twenty-three photos from Kala Pattar, some taken with a long lens, in beautiful conditions. Do have a look at the collection here. The pix are spectacular!

The conditions on January 8, 1983, were not quite so spectacular, but once I had recovered somewhat on reaching the top, it was one of the best days of my life! Made me realise and admire what real mountaineers accomplish!

A week later we were flying out of the little airstrip at Lukla, back to Katmandu and home to Glasgow. There are now lots of YouTube videos showing planes landing and taking off from Lukla. Don't watch any of them if you are a nervous flyer! Here's a video from the above mentioned Jerome Ryan from October 2009.

It's a busy place these days, as most trekkers to Everest simply fly in and out via Lukla. Tarmac was only laid on the landing strip around 2000. When I was there in 1983 it was just dirt. A photo here gives an impression! That's not the only change in the region, to judge by all the photos on the Web. I'm glad we went when we did.

In 1983 I was thirty-five years old. Now I'm sixty-five. Where have the years gone?

1 comment:

  1. Wow - quite an adventure - bet it makes Laverhay seem like a stroll!
    About 35 years ago my friend and I did a 'As The Crow Flies' walk from Orchard, over the Annan and up hill, and down dale to Laverhay and back via Wamphray Glen - our wee adventure . . we were in our early teens . .