An Auspicious Ganesh
Nepal is Sandwiched between India and Tibet, most of its people live on a long flat sea level plain called the Terai, but most interest is in the capital Kathmandu, the Himalaya ("himal" means "mountain range") and the mountain tribes, especially the Sherpas and Gurkhas. There is a fundamental difference between most of Australia and most of Nepal, the former is flat and the latter is vertical. There are very few vehicular roads, they are spreading out from Kathmandu but monsoons and landslides are currently keeping them almost at bay. All traffic in greater Nepal is on foot, there is some animal portering but nearly everything is carried by pedestrians. Goods are carried in conical baskets made from stripped bamboo. The baskets hang down the porter's back stabilised and attached only by a forehead strap, they regularly weigh forty kilograms, the design looks impractical and neck wrenching but it works incredibly well. The tracks are rough hewn, often comprising paddy levies or rock steps near villages and slippery creek beds or narrow pads elsewhere, and nearly always precipitous: Nepal is a land where the wheel is an impractical device.
This trip was lead by Tim Macartney-Snape, a climber of note. Tim speaks in a dry matter of fact tone, all that is needed, for his awesome accomplishments make the tirades of enthusiasm of lesser beings over lesser deeds seem just so. Our trip was a challenge for we mortals and it was to make all of us better people: better able to let stress wash past, better able to accept a wider perspective of life. The party consisted of 9 men and 4 women, all from Australia. Our Nepali support crew comprised a sirdar (manager), three sherpa guides, a cook crew of six and forty, dwindling to twenty, porters. Kasi, the sirdar and Durgar the cook spoke reasonable English, the sherpas had a smattering, the porters and cooks had very little, usually none. Of the Australians Tim has an effective grasp of Nepali and I can almost get by. Despite the limited verbal channels, communication was generally easy, there was a lot of pointing, body language and smiles.
We didn't really know where we would be going, Tim's first act when we met in the bar of the Hotel Kathmandu was to tear up the "itinerary". He said "This is an exploration not a trek, it is likely no foreigners have ever been to some of the places we will go, particularly in the Ganesh Himal. The maps are probably wrong and we will be navigating by sight". He was to prove correct on all counts, the support staff were expedition (as opposed to trekking) staff, used to dealing with more hardship and unexpected events than a normal trek would present.
Nearly two weeks into the trek we arrived at a lake. It was a beautiful lake, the scene, we were told, of an occasional religious festival. That may have been the reason that track to it was in fair condition for we were a long way off the regularly used routes. We hadn't seen a sign of habitation or any "locals" for the preceding four days and apart from the cubic piles of rock called chortens and the ruins of two stone huts, the lake was pristine. The last villagers we had met could not understand why anyone would want to go up "there", "How will you survive the cold at night ?" they had asked. We also were advised that "the Gods will be angry if you invade their domain without due ceremony"É maybe we should have brought Indiana Jones along. There were signs throughout the area that there had once been a few sparsely distributed shepherds huts, low rock rectangles amidst stubby alpine vegetation, but these looked to have been destroyed long ago, the summer herdsmen must come here rarely now. We had spied the lake the day before from a summit far above. That day had been, a "rest" day so some of us had climbed a "hill" twelve hundred metres above camp to get a glimpse of what lay beyond. This was essential, because, as expected, the trekking map had proven very inaccurate, missing rivers, ridges, valleys and indeed this lake. We had also spied "the peak", a minor high point on a spur running up to "Kabil" one of the major peaks of the Ganesh Himal . Tim decided that "the peak" would be our target, it has no name but it is on the map as near as we can tell, since very few the heights marked on the map agreed with our altimeter readings.
The lake reflects a dramatic and vast amphitheatre in its quiet surface, it is a magic place. Since "flat" and "rockless" are two favoured qualities of camp sites and two rare qualities in the Himalayas and we had a large expanse of both together on one shore of our lake, everyone was very pleased, especially since the last camp site had had a vertical separation of one hundred metres between the tents. One of more spiritual group members who read auspiciousness, or at least supernatural portent, into just about any event that enveloped her, had been overjoyed when she learnt we were going to the Ganesh Himal, the namesake of one of our Sherpas and also the Hindu God of Wisdom. Indeed we would all come away from the Ganesh Himal a little wiser about others and especially about ourselves.
Three of our group decided to stay at the lake with most of the cook crew, nearly all the porters and one sherpa for four days whilst the rest of the group went off to establish an advanced camp and try the climb. That afternoon while we were still at the lake, snow clouds lowered over the peaks and we got a small side order of corn snow as well as some large fluffy flakes, not enough to stay, but enough to remind us that the weather is a key player in the mountains, a warning to the wise from Ganesh.
Morning dawned bright and clear, we set off around the head of the valley to a saddle in an iron grey range across from us. Two hours later we were at the saddle. Amidst its guard of chortens we looked out into a vast vista. A valley, three kilometres deep, plummeted steeply from our feet, the major Ganesh peaks comprising its opposing wall. Swinging our gaze leftwards past towering ice ramparts we could see our peak amongst the range that defined the western edge of the visible. The only way down was by a fortunate collision of rock strata. A long traverse over loose rock on a narrow ledge iced with a smattering of snow made the descent "interesting". Eventually this preciptous route let us out into the alpine grasslands at the valley head.
From our vantage point at the saddle we had planned to traverse half way across the head of the valley then ascend to camp under a glacier, but, as usual, we underestimated the scale of things, a thin black band of rock we planned to hurdle turned out to be a fifty metre high cliff line which we would have to circumnavigate. The bypass took us almost all the way around the head of the valley to a huge rock spur, sharp and brutally serrated, rising steep to our peak. Fortunately the black cliff line relented before we were faced with this greater barrier. We had lost a lot of height trying to get around the rock band, to regain it meant a hard slog straight up a steep grassy bank. The day had been long already and the air was thin, the rests were becoming more frequent. "GTA" Tim would say, "Good training for the Alps". After another hour and a half the camp came into view. Tim and the sherpas had previously gone on ahead to locate a suitable camp site and had started landscaping works by the time we arrived. The site was well above the last grasses set amongst glacial moraine and talus but still well below the ice edge of the glacier itself. Clearing four tent sites amidst the rock proved a long and arduous task but it was more or less complete by the time our three porters arrived with the tents and climbing gear. The porters immediately turned back towards the lake even though the light was already fading and the trip would take them a good five hours, it would be warmer and far more comfortable there. Fortunately for the entire venture, the moon was full and the skies stayed clear at night, so, in this instance, the porters would have had no difficulty in finding the lake, in any case, their track finding skills and surefootedness seem supernatural.
The warm sunny day had changed the snow conditions causing numerous avalanches to roar down from the Ganesh peaks far across the valley. The sight and sound of them was separated by many seconds, reminding us of the scale of the scene and reassuring us of our safety. The final avalanche was a huge event, a vast ice wall collapsed from near the summit of Kabil, the ice and rock fell over two kilometres vertically into the valley behind that serrated spur beside which we had ascended. The billowing cloud of snow continued to rise into sight as the avalanche crashed several kilometres further down along the valley... "over there" Tim said with typical laconic understatement "it is dangerous".
The cook crew provided a three course dinner as usual. It consisted of our staples, rice, lentils and potato, supplemented by warming clear soup and canned mango. The professionalism of the cook crew could not be faulted at any time on the trip, they were always up before everyone else in the morning, preparing "bed tea" then breakfast, cleaning up then generally racing past us while we washed or rested. We would catch up to them later on cooking lunch for us. When they arrived at the next camp, they immediately prepared afternoon tea and dinner. The cooks' day was never shorter than fourteen hours and often nearer twenty, they kept up an excellent standard of cleanliness, cooking and friendliness all day every day for a month. The porters and sherpas were similarly conscientious at their tasks. Our Nepali crew contained many teenagers, the youngest about sixteen, some of slight stature, both boys and girls. They had to fend for themselves for a month in the wilderness, often without tents or sleeping bags. The cooperation, generosity, conscientiousness and toughness of these Nepali people is a cut above anything else I've seen in the world, it is a rewarding experience just to be involved with them.
Another beautiful morning to usher us into the world of real mountain climbing. We left the cook crew at camp and climbed up to the glacier. The ascent took about two hours, and there was more climbing, less walking and more loose rock the higher we went. Most of us had no experience with crampons and ice axes, indeed some of the group had little experience of snow and ice. Consequently we had a "learn to walk" session and then a "how to self arrest using an ice axe without embedding it in your chest" session, hosted by Tim, on the first piece of snow we came across. The next stage was a roped ascent of the glacier, it was very steep but the snow was hard which is good for climbing. Twelve people, ten from oz and two sherpas, roped together is probably too many for efficient coordination, especially with only five metres separation between each person. Everyone has to move at the same pace and this is difficult as the terrain varies considerably over just about any sixty metre stretch, hence progress was slow.
We had not been sure if we could continue our trek in this general direction, we would have had to cross the ridge we were now on further down to avoid the glacier and that looked difficult, but we had heard there was an old trading route to Tibet up here, so there might be a way although we could not see any signs of one. When we came to the top of the ridge we realised that we could not go any further this way, the other side was a steepening to sheer drop plummeting into a deep obviously unused valley below, the only thing you could trade here would be hang gliders. This discovery was of mixed blessing for it meant that the entire group would have to retrace the route to the camp before the lake, but we could also clearly see another ridge running towards the valley of the Bari Gandaki river which lay between us and our next high adventure, the Manaslu Himal, a majestic range now clearly visible for the first time, but that was yet another week and half away. A quick lunch of cheese and bread and it was past time to descend.
Tim lead us down an "easier" way which turned out to involve our first crevasse field and a slippery descent amongst the loose rock and random streams below the glacier, eventually we arrived at advanced camp. During the descent, individual decisions had to be made at the foot of the glacier. Our route had brought us within close sight of the spur we would have to ascend to "the peak", it was very rugged, not at all a "walk up" as we had hoped. Those of us who would attempt the climb would leave our gear at the foot of the glacier, to save weight energy and time when returning the next day. All but four of us and the two sherpas decided, now on the basis of a little experience, that the climb was beyond their capabilities. Tim was a very good leader in this regard, he would wait until individuals had a taste of a challenge and could make an informed decision for themselves, before requiring a commitment to the task: "Challenge by (informed) choice".
Bed tea was at 3 a.m. we were up and gone by 3:30, breakfast would be a cold boiled egg at 11 a.m. much further up. The weather was excellent, clear and still but very cold, even the down jacket and body heat generated by our steep fast ascent could not entirely keep that sort of cold at bay. We reached the gear at the foot of the glacier at morning glow. The sun rises fast here, especially when you are gaining height too, so we were barely on top of the leading edge of the glacier when dawn broke. It wasn't long before the warm gear was stowed. Reflection from the snow and the thin air helped transform cold to warm quickly. Thin air cannot convect as much as thick air, so the difference in temperature between shadow and sunlight is usually appreciably greater at altitude. We reached the base of the spur to our peak and left the glacier for rock, still wearing the steel crampons on our boots. Climbing with crampons was a new experience for me, I found that the crampons were different but no worse to climb with than bare boots, the reduced flexibility due to the unyielding steel being compensated by the tenacity of grip due to pressure of the crampon teeth on the rock.
The climb varied between rock and snow, the rock was often very loose, Tim noted that there would have been signs of previous ascents but the fact that there were none meant that it was reasonable to expect that we were going where no one had been before. It soon became evident that we should fix some ropes to make the ascent safer. Tim lead and fixed two pitches, it was intriguing to see one of the worlds best mountain climbers in action and very fulfilling to be able to follow him. No one needed to rely on the rope, however it did give a measure of confidence, especially once for me when I kicked a little too hard and the snow bank I was climbing caved in. Roped together, we ascended a very rocky section bringing us to the ridge line. As he reached the top, Tim ,in the lead, jumped back, we all saw why shortly thereafter. The spur line, like the glacier we were on the day before, dropped steeply away, but here it was concave for a long, long way down, the loose rock defining the ridge top could therefore not be trusted. We ascended a short distance to a summit on the ridge then had to move across a snow and ice cornice about a metre deep, uncertain if it was supported adequately by underlying rock. Despite an "interesting" crack that widened as we traversed we all got across safely, the rope wrapped around anything that looked stable, just in case. We then had to contour under an overhang on the concave side of the ridge, again it was most edifying not to plummet into the void.
We rested on a small glacier four hundred vertical metres below our peak, but alas we would go no further, we had past the turn back time an hour ago. The return journey, all the way back to the lake, would be very long and we did not crave returning across the glacier at night. We estimated that the remaining four hundred metres would take another three hours, thus adding five or six hours to our climb. We reconciled ourselves that we had already reached two minor peaks on the way up and another on that rest day that now seemed an aeon ago. After a few photo opportunities we retraced our steps, the cracked cornice held while we crossed, then a slow careful descent over the rocks brought us to the top of the double pitch snow bank. Rather than descend roped together we decided to sacrifice some pitons and slings to abseil down. Abseiling is much safer but slower than a roped descent, since only one person can use the rope at a time. The second rope became wedged as we tried to retrieve it and it took some valuable time and some re-climbing to release it. Traversing back across the glacier was a lot easier than anticipated but we were all very tired when we reached its foot and removed the crampons.
I lagged behind on the descent, having stopped to fill my water bottle at a drip from the glacier, the streams were freezing up as the temperature dropped, so this took a while. Tim's warning about the descent being the most dangerous part of a climb came to mind many times as I noticed that my climbing was becoming very clumsy and I had to force myself to concentrate on the task at hand. The climbing over, the descent was still steep I wandered slowly downwards. A porter suddenly appeared from behind a rock, five had come up to take our camp and climbing gear back to the lake and had decided to help the climbers down the last part. I gladly handed over my pack and was ushered down to sherpa Ganesh who had a kettle of warm sweet cordial and some cups, we were not far from camp, but I did not expect to find the cook crew still there let alone the huge "lunch" (it was now very late in the afternoon) they had prepared for us.... great guys! All those who had not attempted this days climb, save one, had returned to the lake earlier in the day.
The twilight ended when we got to the saddle separating "peak" valley from "lake" valley, but the moon was already high in the sky and so bright that we cast shadows. The moonlight coloured the entire Himal a haunting glacial blue. At 10:30 p.m. we arrived back at the lake tired but feeling a sense of accomplishment, we had not reached our planned peak, but had reached summits that we believe no one had climbed before. For Tim this could hardly have been a challenge, he has climbed Everest twice without oxygen and it is over two kilometres higher than we managed, however he did say that our climb was harder than he had planned and for that my ego thanks him.