During the month of October, 10, almost complete strangers came together to make an attempt on a 7246m peak in a remote region of Nepal – The Lower Dolpo. Joining us were another 11 Nepali Staff. These men had worked together in the past but to us they were also strangers. On the 5th of October we departed Kathmandu, full of high hopes, dreams and expectations. Some of us were there to learn how our bodies work at altitude, others there to pursue a common dream of high places, good people, exciting times and adventure.
We got all that in spades.
Unfortunately for the expedition in terms of Summiting Putha Hiunchuli, we were stopped in our tracks by the tail end of a large cyclone that laid waste to the central Himalaya’s and in which over 40 people lost their lives.
If every time we venture into the mountains we were assured of a successful climb it would be called summiting, and not an expedition. Part of being on an expedition is the expectation that you will be faced by challenges and hurdles; you may at times feel afraid, bored, frustrated or alone. It takes a special kind of person to put themselves into these situations and on this trip we were surrounded by people with the qualities and stamina to overcome what was thrown at us.
The lower Dolpo is a harsh, dry region and the people that live there are hardy, if not a little bit harsh themselves. As we made our way up from the lowlands via Juphal and Dunai to the town of Karkot, we were slowly entering a different world, a dry and dusty world of amazing contrasts, huge mountains, laughing grubby children, Yaks and a people that must have looked at us perhaps with some amusement – Are these westerners really going to go and try to climb a mountain for pleasure?
After 4 days of trekking we had arrived at Karkot where we started to acclimatize for the climb ahead. At approx 3200m Karkot is just on the edge of an altitude high enough to give many people problems. A slow approach to both walking and acclimatization is needed and over successive days the team made its way to 4300m, which would then allow us to make our first real move up into the mountains to Pangi Camp at 4550m. The plan was to spend 2 days there before moving onto Putha Hiunchuli Basecamp. This was where the expedition plan went awry.
On our way to Pangi Camp a brief weather forecast was sent to us via sat phone – it talked of upto 50cm of snow reaching us by the following evening. This was of major concern and in conjunction with this were rapidly changing skies and clouds, strong winds and a general sense of oppressive humidity. I was sent a full forecast by the Jagged Globe office and co-incidentally called by another expedition leader. The forecast was grim. A large ex tropical cyclone was bearing down on us and upto 1.5m of snow was forecast for our location over the next 36 – 48 hours – things had just become really serious, really quickly.
The reality was we were located in a broad bowl with grass on all the slopes around us, at a perfect angle for avalanche hazard. Besides the now 21 members of the expedition we also had 10 Yakmen and 26 Yaks from Karkot. These men could not be persuaded to descend right then and there as the day was now waning and the hour late. It would have meant that we would have had to descend with the tired yaks; down steep terrain in the dark … the Yakmen would not budge.
This is where the Expedition team really showed what they were made of and how well they could pull together. As the light faded the team shifted all the essential expedition gear to a safe location – balanced on a narrow ridge, well out of any avalanche hazard. It was hard and tiring work, added to by the fact that we were all at 4500m for the first time and tired from a 1300m climb already.
As the light faded and the snow began to fall we had set up camp and settled down to an uneasy sleep – how much snow would fall?
The next day the snow continued to fall and by the evening as the storm started to clear, approximately 70cm had fallen. The yakmen had made the decision to descend earlier that afternoon and no amount of discussion could persuade them to stay. They had descended down through quite dangerous avalanche terrain, a few yaks had been hit by loose snow avalanches as well, we could see them as they crossed the gullies below us as the storm cleared but there was nothing we could do. It was with some luck that nobody or their animals were injured …
So there we were, effectively stuck. No way down and no way up. As the storm cleared helicopters started top= fly past us up the valley to evacuate trekkers stranded with no food or fuel and to carry out rescues for those less fortunate than ourselves.
After a few days we tried to make progress higher up but it was apparent that the yaks could not cross the now deep snow and avalanche debris below us – nor was it likely that they could continue above us through the deep, loose snow on the shady aspects leading to the col and the route to Putha Basecamp.
We hatched a plan to do a series of load carries to a camp called Yak Kharka where I could take the team through some training and perhaps climb a small subsidiary peak. To do this however we would need permission from the Nepal Government as all climbing peaks in Nepal are governed by the Ministry of Tourism. This permission was not forthcoming and after another week or so of load carrying, training, acclimatization, good food and laughter, the team made the choice to descend back to Pangi Camp where the Yakmen had said they could try and make an attempt to reach us. By the time we had reached Pangi Camp the next day’s weather had started to deteriorate. As we climbed down through the yak gulley the team got an appreciation of the hazard that the Yakmen would be facing with their yak teams – steep icy terrain with poor run outs. Great terrain for mountaineering and certainly adventurous but not so good with a yak weighing almost a ton!
After descending to Karkot the team spent a few days getting clean and eating fresh vegetables whilst waiting to the Yaks to descend and the Donkeys to come up. The walk out back down to Juphal was cooler than our walk in and we finished the trip in Juphal with a night of dancing and a small party with our Sherpa Team before flying back to Kathmandu.
Over the 3 ½ weeks the team had worked well together, overcome a number of unexpected obstacles, laughed and played hard.
We didn’t achieve a summit or even reach basecamp, but the expedition was a success in terms of adventure, team work and keeping everybody safe.
Thanks from me to all the western team members for maintaining a positive attitude and to our fantastic Sherpa Staff.