I don’t know that I ever had a bucket list. At least, not one that was clearly defined. I did, however, love tramping. I’d tramped many of New Zealand’s great tracks and had a growing desire to branch out by going overseas. I’d even begun thinking vaguely about places like the Andes in South America, Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa and, of course, somewhere in the Himalayas—this was particularly appealing.
When my friend Bernie Knowles casually mentioned his plan for a trek to the Himalayas, he had my full attention. And so it was, some two years later, that I and four others—Ross Richards, Rob Perry, Greg Knowles and Nima Sherpa—made our way to Nepal to do a 21-day trek, with the ascent of the 6500-metre high Mera Peak as our goal.
We travelled with Nepal Myths and Mountain Trails, a company committed to paying porters and guides a fair wage and ensuring that villagers along the way earn income by providing travellers with food and lodgings (www.nepalmountaintrails.com).
We arrived in Kathmandu full of expectation and excitement. The city was a bustling metropolis, a mix of chaotic traffic, tooting horns, narrow and dusty pot-holed streets, lively shopping markets with many bargains, and exotic Buddhist and Hindu temples. After a few days we flew to Lukla Airport, a compact airport perched on a mountain side. This airport is one of Sir Edmund Hillary’s many legacies in the area.
From Lukla, our trek really began. Initially heading south—the opposite direction from the path to the Everest Base Camp—before rounding the end of one mountain to head north up the valley that led to Mera Peak. No cars or any other traffic. Bliss!
Well, perhaps not total bliss. This part of the track was state highway number one for the Sherpa villages. Donkey trains of between 20 and 50 donkeys would periodically pass, carrying all kinds of furniture, goods and kerosene—the most common fuel for cooking around these parts. Not to mention the obscenely large loads carried by many porters transporting goods for trekking companies or provisions to and from the various villages along the track.
This part of our journey was a surprise and something to be treasured. Nima, a naturalised Nepali now living in Upper Hutt, was coming home to the place of his childhood. Because of this, unlike other tourists, we were welcomed into the life of these isolated mountainside villages. What a privilege! In Cheboche, Nima’s home village, the openness and warmth of the hospitality shown to us was overwhelming.
We left Cheboche with full hearts, ready to head into the mountain valleys that led to Mera Peak. The next few days were planned to allow our bodies to adjust to the high altitudes as we climbed from around 2800 metres to nearly 4500.
At Tangnag (4359 metres), I experienced a night of breathless-ness and became anxious about my capacity to go on. But the acclimatisation regime our guides had arranged for us seemed to work and I never again felt that level of breathlessness.
By day 15, after a day of light snowfall, we made High Camp at 5800 metres. It was with real expectation that we went to sleep that night, as tomorrow was ‘the day’ we would make our ‘final ascent’.
It was not to be. That night a snowstorm came through with powerful winds, destroying a number of tents and almost burying others. Thankfully, our tent was largely untouched other than having copious amounts of snow pressing in on it from all sides.
There were three trekking companies at High Camp, and in the morning the guides from each met and determined the risk of avalanche was so great that we needed to return down the mountain immediately. We later learnt five trekkers had died in an avalanche that night, just two hours’ walk from our location.
We travelled all day with limited visibility. Mercifully, the wind had abated, but it continued to snow. The Sherpa guides worked tirelessly to make a track through the now very deep snow. Without a defined path to follow, they skilfully negotiated their way through difficult terrain, attempting to avoid the many mountain crevices. Their skill and courage is something I will always remember.
We walked all day, and into the evening used our headlamps for light after darkness fell. Eventually, the reality had to be faced. We were lost. Not only that, but those tents not destroyed the previous night had been left behind, frozen to the ground. We had just three or four tarpaulins for 30 to 40 people … and nothing else for shelter. And the snow continued to fall. I don’t think I fully realised how precarious our situation was until that moment.
Our guides dug out the snow to provide some protection from the elements, using tarpaulins to partially cover everyone. What an uncomfortable and distressing night it was! Some people experienced degrees of hypothermia. Others felt claustrophobic under the tarpaulins, or trapped because their legs were encased in snow.
I shivered uncontrollably through most of the night. My breathing was laboured and I felt a degree of claustrophobia as well. People handled the physical and mental stress differently. At various times during the night I heard one of the neighbouring groups arguing acrimoniously about where they could sit as they attempted to cope with their anxiety and the bitter cold. Others periodically called for support from their guides, who worked tirelessly to care for their parties while also trying to look after their own survival needs. Thankfully, there was little wind—our tarpaulins would have been of little use as there was nothing to secure them with.
I can’t remember one moment of sleep during the night, although I admit morning came sooner than I expected. So maybe I did sleep a little. When morning did arrive, I was optimistic, expecting we would break camp and get on our way again, I would warm up and we would soon find our way to shelter and warmth.
This was the hope that had carried me through the night.
I cannot begin to describe the despair and bone weariness that came over me when the guides indicated that due to the continued lack of visibility we would likely need to stay put for another night. With the loss of hope I felt in that moment allied with my total physical weakness, I could not conceive how I might last another day and night. After all, I could barely summon the strength to stand up!
The encouragement of our guides, a good cup of tea, a bit of a rest, and then the news that we were actually going to set out to look for the way back revived my spirits immensely.
We travelled, linked together by rope, throughout another day. Visibility remained low, but our spirits appeared reasonably high. Our guides carried out their tasks with an air of confidence and we stayed warm through physical exertion.
As the day neared its end, our line of people came to a standstill and the reality hit home that we were still lost. Our leaders were trying to make a decision about which way to go, perhaps with the realisation that this might be ‘the last roll of the dice.’ A wrong turn could have dreadful consequences. We remained stationary for close to an hour, people’s anxiety increasing as guides and leaders debated the pros and cons of taking this or that path.
When no clear direction appeared discernible, we experienced what remains with me as one of the most beautiful ‘God moments’ of my life. After three days of low visibility, with not even a glimpse of the sun, there came the briefest of openings in the clouds. And there, basking in the spectacular red rays of a sunset, was a mountain. Dante, a South African trekker, later expressed well what many of us probably thought: ‘That to me was a miracle—the windows of Heaven had opened.’
In that instant, the air was filled with the cries and shouts of the Sherpas. Unintelligible to our monolingual English-speaking ears, but clearly conveying the wonderful news that they now knew where we were. And if they knew where we were, they also knew where to go for shelter and sustenance.
With a new energy in our steps, we made our way through the darkness for a further two to three hours of relatively hard slog through deep snow until we made it to a Nepalese tea house. There we were given a meal and, with the warmth of a fire, had what had to be one of the most wonderful nights of sleep ever. It didn’t even matter that we were ‘cheek to jowl’ with other trekkers on rock-hard beds.
The next morning was spectacular! Not a cloud in the sky and the brilliance of new white snow everywhere. Leaving the tea house behind and still marvelling at our survival, we were surprised by the sudden arrival of a rescue helicopter. Almost before we knew what was happening, our tour party was whisked away to safety. Flown first to Lukla and then all the way back to Kathmandu.
All sorts of emotions ran through our minds. Disappointment at not completing our trek, but mostly immense relief and perhaps even some pride at having survived such an ordeal. Most of us suffered some degree of physical or psychological affects, which in some cases persisted for a time, including touches of frost bite, recurring dreams or feelings of claustrophobia.
We remain extremely grateful to the people of Nepal Myths and Mountain Trails for looking after us so well. This included negotiating with our travel insurance companies for a rescue helicopter to take us out of the mountains. Other trekkers, with their guides and porters, were not picked up for another day or two because their companies didn’t react as promptly.
Despite the ordeal, my passion for the outdoors remains strong, although I think I might go quietly for a while. (Well … at least until next year!) This journey was, in and of itself, a spiritual experience. The miracle when ‘the windows of Heaven opened’ was an answer to prayer for those of us on the mountain, but also for those I later learnt had been praying for us back home.
The fact that my life as a Christian is built on Christ, who is literally ‘the hope and light of the world’, was highlighted for me in this experience:
By Lt-Col Ian Hutson