With three more days before we fly home from Kathmandu, it seems like a good time for a quick round up of the trip.
So many emotions are still fresh, including intense enjoyment from the range of experiences of travelling and climbing in Nepal, but also disappointment at not achieving what we set out to do. Throughout the two months, Dawa and the team at Dream Himalaya Adventures have provided great logistical support for the expedition. We fully recommend them (and will certainly be using them) for any future trips.
After the two day bus ride (around 30 winding, bone-jarring hours) from Kathmandu to Taplejung in the far east of Nepal, we were certainly keen to start walking. With our staff Ang Nima, Sangay and Tenzin, and 20 porters carrying around 700kgs of food and equipment for base camp, we followed the Ghunsa River for 10 days, passing through small villages, farmland and forest. Sometimes we stayed close to the river, crossing narrow wire bridges over tight gorges, and other times climbed steeply up to high terraces that allowed views of the mountains ahead. To say we were amping would be an understatement!
John got sick at Sekathum, initially complaining of a stomach bug but which soon deteriorated into a very high resting pulse, high fever, vomiting, diarrhoea and delirium. This continued for a number of days. At one stage Shelley and Paul discussed whether John would need to be evacuated, but a satellite phone call to Dr Dick Price back in New Zealand and a change of antibiotics saw John slowly on the mend (thanks Dick!).
To keep the trip progressing (and to ensure we didn’t lose our porters and gear!), Paul needed to go on ahead with Ang Nima. Once hearing that John was getting better, he waited for the others at Kambachen, the last small summer settlement before heading up the side valley Ramdang to the site of basecamp. Kambachen offered amazing views of Jannu (Kumbhakarna), at 7711m one of the world’s most incredible mountains. The Wall of Shadows in particular looked rather intimidating if considered as a climbing objective.
A long slow height gain from Kambachen (4145m), including seeing fresh snow leopard prints on the track we were following, saw us establish basecamp on the moraine rubble of the Ramdang Glacier at around 4800m. The most suitable site, it still offered plenty of visual excitement with countless rock falls off either moraine wall above us and the occasional collapsing serac from high summits to the south. We all quickly calculated (trying to convince each other and ourselves) that no flying missiles should be able to quite reach our tent sites!
So far the weather had been mostly stable, with afternoon cloud bubbling up from the valley but with little wind or snowfall.
With everyone feeling rested and relatively comfortable at the altitude, and after John and Shelley did a load carry to a potential site for Camp 1 at around 5200m, we jammed our packs with essential food and climbing equipment and set off for our first acclimatising climb. Everyone seemed fine at the Camp 1 site, underneath the main icefall below Anidesha Chuli, but by the time the tents were erected Paul was showing signs of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Over the next two hours he deteriorated markedly, to a point of suspected High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), and John and Shelley decided to try and get him back down to basecamp as quickly as possible. Over the next few hours they managed to help Paul down the glacier, arriving back at basecamp around 9pm. With the loss of altitude, Paul’s condition improved, although he was still feeling unwell over the next day.
The next morning, John and Shelley continued their acclimatising, pushing up to a site for Camp 2 at 5400m. Snow conditions were poor through the icefall, with unconsolidated drifts up to thigh deep and little visibility due to low cloud. By this stage the weather forecast was for a mix of stronger winds and snow showers. The following morning they continued up to 5600m, sometimes forcing through waist deep snow (at one stage a 90m height gain took over two hours). When a thunderstorm hit, followed by heavy snow, the pair decided to retreat back to basecamp.
Over the next week, the weather was poor, with snow every day at basecamp and varying wind strengths. With already dubious snowpack stability, the team was concerned that extra snow was only exacerbating conditions. Numerous avalanches were seen and heard on the lee slopes above camp. The forecast for the following week was for more of the same.
It was estimated that at least six days would be required to climb and descend Anidesha Chuli. With days running out, Paul suggested that he remain at basecamp on any future attempt, hopefully allowing a higher chance of team success as John and Shelley were moving more efficiently at altitude. If John or Shelley were unable to attempt a climb, he would become the second team member.
John and Shelley decided to attempt a climb as soon as a small break in the weather appeared. In the afternoon they returned to Camp 1 to spend the night. It snowed that evening, but the next morning was clear, so they pushed up towards 5700m, trying to find a way through the icefall to reach the upper neve. Again they were faced with unconsolidated snow, sometimes chest deep now, and they were unable to find a way through the next tier of icefall in deteriorating visibility. Another storm hit that afternoon with more snow, and they decided to abandon the climb.
In hindsight, and despite major disappointment at the time, it was clearly the right decision to descend from the mountain. Conditions higher on Anidesha Chuli would likely have been much worse that what John and Shelley experienced at 5600-5700m. We have since found out that this has been a particularly high snowfall season in the Himalaya, with heightened avalanche risk across the range. And indeed the tragedies on Everest and Kanchenjunga (both due to avalanches) have further illustrated just how risky things were this season.
We love climbing mountains, and reaching their summits, but these goals are not as important as making prudent decisions about risk and about the value of life. Coming home safely is the most important goal of all.
There are many people and organisations to thank for helping us make this expedition a reality. Along with our three main sponsors Sport New Zealand, The North Face Adventure Grant and Bivouac Outdoor, we also appreciate the support from the New Zealand Alpine Club, Mount Everest Foundation, Earth Sea Sky, Back Country Cuisine, Eight Ranges Wines and The Muscle Mechanics. Big thanks to Clayton Garbes for providing us with online weather forecasts and rugby scores and updating our Facebook page. Thanks to family and friends for ongoing support, and to all those who followed our progress and sent us words of encouragement.