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Because it’s there...or.. Climbing to 5000 metres in a Himalayan winter.

NEPAL | Thursday, 27 January 2011 | Views [1833] | Comments [3]

The first title is from the English explorer George Mallory in 1924 who was asked why he wanted to climb Everest.  They found Mallory’s frozen body on the mountain in 1999.

I arrived in Nepal via with New Delhi almost 3 weeks ago and it has turned my head every day. Kathmandu is a crazy city and not unlike Indian towns with the similar crazy traffic and load shedding of electricity meaning there is only power for 12 hours a day. Kathmandu was once part of the hippy trail and remnants of this are still very visible especially in Thamel where I am staying. I managed to squeeze in some quick sightseeing before I headed off to the mountains and now have a few more days up my sleeve to look around now I am back from trekking.

Let me start at the beginning of the hike, while I did take some notes throughout the trek I am not going to do a day by day account but instead simply describe the entire trip and some highlights.

Firstly we flew, myself and my guide Raj, from Kathmandu to Lukla which is where many people begin their trips in the Himalayas. I consider myself a good flyer and reckon I have racked up a few miles in all variety of planes but this was a new experience.  I boarded the twin prop’d Otter seating a dozen people for the 30 minute ride. This bit was fine but the touchdown in Lukla where the landing strip is at a 15 degree angle to help the planes stop was a little worrying. Once we stopped Raj leaned over and was visibly relieved and he mentioned that Tara Air (our airline) lost a Twin Otter plane a month earlier killing 19 people…. Ohhh nice and that was one of three accidents in Nepal in the last 12 months which gives Lukla that title of one of the most dangerous airports in the world. Yipee !

Once we collected out bags we also met Himart our porter and started the trek immediately. Winter was in the mountains and I was cold. Within the first hour or so it began to snow and only stopped a few times for the next 16 days trekking from Lukla to Kala Pattar and back again.

Each day we would start the day with a hearty breakfast (porridge for me) and trek around 5 hours from one small settlement to the next. The track varies as we moved from the lower mountains to the upper sections. At times the track was up to 8 feet wide and in other sections as narrow as 1 or 2 feet.  The ground is generally rock and dirt although in some sections stone steps have been carved to make it easier given the steepness.  For our trip I would say we saw more ice and snow then the underlying rock or dirt as the track was frozen solid.

We began in the lower sections of Lukla at 2800 metres and climbed to the upper sections of 5000 metres, but unfortunately I didn’t make Base Camp (5365m) due to weather and illness, but more on that later.

The lower altitudes are beautiful trekking as we weave our way through big tree forests with the Dudh Koshi Nadi river running rapidly through the valley. We crossed this river using wire bridges a number of times in most days. I am thankful the old rope bridges have been upgraded as they must have gotten the heart racing.  There are no straight lines in trekking and we spend our times climbing up over one ridge only to descend to the valley and then climb again. I have read that by the time you get to base camp you have actually climbed some 9000 metres.

During the peak summer season I have believe that as many of 700 trekkers enter the Sagarmantha National Park each day. I think the number was closer to 7 while I was there although the airport closed the day after I arrived and didn’t reopen for 14 days due to bad weather. I guess most people are worried about the snow and ice on the track and the overall cold…smart people.

Each evening we stayed in tea houses which are small family run places with a common dining room central to which is an old wood stove to provide warmth.  The food is simple but tasty and generally provided in large portions given then long days of trekking.  The buildings are not insulated which means that if you get more than a few metres away from the wood stove the temperature drops a lot.  There is no running water (more than two weeks with just baby wipes to stay clean) and squat toilets. As we get higher the lack of trees meant the wood burning stove becomes a Yak Patty burning stove.

With each day we climb higher and higher in altitude, this means the views begin to change as we move from forests with huge old cider and pines into less and less oxygen. The trees give way to smaller shrubs, then horrible small spiky thorn bushes before all vegetation stops at around 4000m. This altitude and lack of oxygen also began to impact of me. Altitude sickness or AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) is common above 2500 metres and for me I started getting headaches at around 3500 metres. The symptoms were treated with Diamox along with ensuring we climbed to higher altitudes then we slept each day. AMS can prove fatal and I saw a lot of people impacted by it including one fellow that had to get helicoptered off the mountain.

I recall a conversation with a friend in Hong Kong who asked if it was sensible to climb in the Himalayas during winter and now after doing it I am please to say “no Nikki it is not sensible”.

Kathmandu had a minimum temp of around 1 degree when I left and each day with greater height came greater cold. By the time we reached TengBoche (see photos of Monastery) it was -16 degrees inside the teahouse.  At LoBoche it to dropped to -20 degrees and finally Gorak Shep was lower than -25 degrees but by how much we don’t know as the gauge didn’t go low enough.

The Muay Thai training in Phuket paid off for my fitness as I kept a good pace throughout the trip and aside from my dodgy knee getting sore on the descent I suffered very little muscle soreness. This didn’t mean it was easy as some of the ascents were steep and took up to two hours of solid high step climbing to reach the top. The lack of oxygen means that most simple tasks results in me huffing and puffing as my lungs burst for more air. Sleep is often only a few hours as again you wake in the middle of the night struggling to breathe deeply enough.

As we got higher and higher my altitude sickness got worse and worse until the headaches were getting harder to handle. On top of that, reports coming through that base camp was around -30 degrees and iced in. We heard the Annapurna Circuit (to the west) had been closed due to the weather and perhaps the same could happen to EBC. We made the tough decision not to go to Base Camp and instead climbed to the Summit of Kala Pattar (5550m) and then began the descent to lower altitudes .

So after some 2.5 weeks of trekking the Himalayas in the middle of winter I have now returned to Kathmandu for a few days rest before I head to Dubai.

 I thoroughly enjoyed the trek and think it was a once in a lifetime experience. I learnt a lot of things; especially about being cold (us Queenlanders that now live in Honkers have little snow and cold experience). I learnt that anything not put in your sleeping bag overnight will freeze. This including cameras, babywipes, clothing and simple things like sunscreen and toothpaste. Given the teahouses don’t have running water once things are frozen you are stuck like that until your body heat can thaw them out. I learnt you have to ensure the Yaks pass on the outside of the track so they don’t accidently knock you down a 1000m ravine.  I know you have to walk carefully through ice as you end up on your end very easily even with the use of trekking poles.  I know that once you get to -20 degrees even 3 pairs of wool socks, two full fleeces, plus thermals and a down jacket and gore-tex layer doesn’t keep the cold out. And finally for any proper trek you must have good boots. I invested well in a pair of North Face boots in Thailand and my ankles are thankful.

This was a once in a lifetime adventure and I am proud to have climbed to 5550m in a Himalayan winter. 

Tags: everest, himalayas, kathmandu



Hi matt_whitmell,

We really liked your story and wanted to share it with the World Nomads community so that others can enjoy it too. Check it out on the WorldNomads Adventures homepage this week.

Happy travels,
World Nomads

  World Nomads Feb 21, 2011 10:33 AM


Matt, your story is amazing! Very insightful :)

  tizleilani Feb 27, 2011 3:48 PM


I am doing the exact same trip in three weeks time .... hopefully I will make EBC as it will be April when I begin and not quite so cold. Getting excited and a little nervous as I am not fit and a little concerned about altitude effects but it should be one hell of an experience!

  Tim - London Mar 15, 2011 7:55 PM

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