Project 314: Blog #5 – A poignant reminder of the dangers

May 10, 2023

Jake Meyer

Client Accounts' Director
Photo of Jake with Nuri the Sirdar or Head Sherpa

Days 5, 6 and 7 – Ilam to Yamphudin to Tortong

Graphic showing the journey from Ilam to Tortong

Thursday 13th April – Day 5

We left Ilam early in the morning, as we had a long distance to cover to Yamphudin (the end of the road, and what would be the start of the trek). Before we left we had a chance to walk briefly in the tea plantations, and watch the women (generally tea pickers the world over are women) at work. It’s always amazing to see people at work doing a job which essentially hasn’t changed for hundreds of years – perhaps the only difference now is that the ladies all have their smartphones in one hand whilst picking with the other.

The jeep hadn’t got any more comfortable overnight, and was made even worse when after a couple of hours we swapped into another jeep, which whilst it had slightly softer seat cushions in the rear, this was at the expense of head hight – so the number of times I cursed as we hit a particularly big bump and my own resonant frequency sent me crashing into the bars of the roll cage above. Michal, who was sitting in the back with me made the mistake of wearing his sunglasses propped up on top of his head, and one particularly vigorous crash launched him with such force that his sunglasses cracked in two.

There is only so much I can do to convey the roughness of the ride, so rest-assured, when we arrived in Yamphudin in the dark at around 6pm, we were all very glad to have reached the end of the road.

We hoisted our dufflebags on our shoulders (fortunately we’ve just got a relatively lightweight ‘trekking bag’ with only essentials at this stage), and walked several hundred metres up through the village of Yamphudin in the dark. This is not a mountain village of the like which you might find in the Khumbu or elsewhere on the more well-trodden trekking routes throughout Nepal. No bakeries, bars, wifi reception here. This is a proper traditional Nepalese subsistence farming village – which other than a few solar panels on some of the roofs, it probably hasn’t changed significantly since it was established.

We were staying in a simple trekking lodge, and Semba San (from Japan) and I opted to share a room together. There was another small group of Hungarians there as well, who we found out would be joining us for our trek into basecamp. There was electric light available, however this was attached to the solar powered battery system – so we used the light in our room sparingly. The main light also had the unintended consequence of attracting cockroaches – but they were harmless enough. I acutely remember staying the night in a ‘hotel’ in Nylam in Tibet on the way into Everest, and waking up in the middle of the night to find rats crawling over my sleeping bag… after than experience, a couple of well-meaning cockroaches were practically pleasant company.

The final thing that I did before going to bed was to fish out the little wrapped present that Saskia had popped into my bag the day that I’d left for me to open on our anniversary. It was small and box-like, so I was intrigued as to what clever little thing that she might have got to both represent 10 years (tin) and also which might be useful for the expedition. Opening it up, I was not disappointed (she is a clever little sausage!) – it was a little tin with a small wrapped bar of exotic French soap. I hope that it was in anticipation for something that would be useful for basecamp, rather than direct feedback itself – but either way, very gratefully accepted. She also wrote me a lovely letter, which I had to smile to myself whilst reading it, as I’d used a series of almost exactly the same phrases in my equivalent to her… great minds think alike, and I suppose that we’ve both shared the same 10 years!

Friday 14th April – Day 6

Rest day in Yamphudin. A chance to explore the village – which took a total of around 15 minutes, and mainly consisted of a visit to the ‘monastery’ – which was a rather small, modernish building with statues of the Buddah, prayer-flags and a faint smell of incense.

The monastery did however have something which was particularly poignant, and sadly relevant. On one wall were two plaques to two climber who’d died on Kanchenjunga in 2013. They were both Hungarian, and the younger of the two (Peter) was only 25 when he died, descending after a successful summit.

Our new Hungarian friends in the lodge were here for a very personal reason. Petr and Attila were the father and brother of the late Peter, and on the 10th anniversary of Peter’s death, they were visiting the mountain on a very personal pilgrimage. The other two members, Gabi and Adam were a reporter and videographer from one of Hungary’s biggest channels, who were documenting this journey.

Talking with Attila, it was plain to see that he and his father were both incredibly proud of Peter, and that following his death they had started various initiatives to remember him, including a series of adventure races. I have no doubt that this will be an emotional journey, and I hope that it brings them some acceptance in seeing Peter’s resting place for their own eyes.

It does seem rather banal to try and follow that with anything of significance – so I’ll leave it there, but it will be an honour to share the journey into Kanchenjunga basecamp with them.

Saturday 15th April – Day 7

The trekking starts. “0630 for breakfast, 0600 duffle bags ready outside for Yaks” – Nuri our Sirdar had said the previous evening before we all went to bed. There was no need to set any alarms – at 0500 we were woken by the clanking sound of yak bells, and we peered bleary eyed out into the grassy courtyard to see our hauliers and their herders.

It was clear to see that there are ‘good yaks’ and ‘bad yaks’ – ones that need to be tied up to have the kit strapped to their backs, and the ones who just stood there absentmindedly as the herders heaved and hawed to tighten up the cords which held the bags to the saddle frame. Technically our yaks weren’t pure ‘yaks’, but a cross between a cow and a yak – giving a slightly more docile temperament.

Following Nima, one of the other Sherpas who was part of our team, we gently started walking out of the village up into the steep-sided forest-clad hills surround Yamphudin. We carried ruck sacks containing everything that we might need during the day, including food, water and warm/wet weather clothing. I also had my folding foam sleeping pad and a pair of croc shoes. The former for something comfortable to sit on during breaks, and the latter in case we had any river crossings, or for me to wear on arrival at the next camp if we were there in advance of our kitbags.

Photo of Jake with Nuri the Sirdar or Head Sherpa

Photo of Jake with Nuri the Sirdar or Head Sherpa

Our route to the next camp would take us over a high pass (or ‘La’ in Nepalese) at around 3500m, before dropping down into the next valley to the Tortong Camp at 3000m. The horizontal distance wasn’t that far (probably around 8km as the crow flies), but our ascent profile meant that there would be a lot of zig-zagging up the steep sided mountains, and we’d be walking significantly further.

Whilst we all started together, it didn’t take long for the group to start to spread out according to each person’s natural pace. Some, such as 21 year old Zadim, would have quite happily run on ahead even with their bigger personal backpacks. Others were taking a much more leisurely approach, stopping regularly to take pictures and soak up the environment. I stuck to Sherpa pace, following closely on the heels of Nima for most of the day.

For the most part, the trail was clear, well-built and obvious – however there were a few forks in the route where it wasn’t always obviously which was the best direction to take. We stopped on average once every hour to take on some water, and perhaps a quick snack from our supplies. Before we’d left Yamphudin, we’d all been given a little ‘packed lunch’, consisting of a small packet of biscuits, a miniature banana, an apple, a chappati, two boiled eggs, and a mango juice box.

No matter how many trips and expeditions I’ve been on, I still learn new things from others, and today’s top-tip came from Luis – the art of squeezing the contents of your juice box into a half full water bottle, thus making a large bottle of ‘squash’ rather than a small box of sickly-sweet juice. It seems like an inconsequential action, but I’m banking that as an adventurous life-hack!

The trail, whilst steep, was incredibly beautiful as we climbed through bamboo and rhododendron forests up the hill side. The rhodos were in full bloom with bright red, pink and occasionally purple flowers, and were even interspersed with occasional sweet-smelling magnolia and dogs wort. Purple primroses (or at least a flower which resembled them) provided a ground blanket of colour. The air was alive with a wonderful chorus of bird song and calls – with cuckoos being the most recognisable.

We stopped for lunch in a clearing very near to the top of the pass. Surrounding this clearing were huge trees, which looked like something out of a Jurassic Park or King Kong movie. These were some sort of fir tree, but some with trunks up to 5/6 feet in diameter and hundreds of feet high. There was a tea house here – although ‘house’ is a bit of an overstatement, it was much more of a shack – where the proprietor boiled water on an open fire inside his cabin. That gave everything a very strong aroma – even the water that we refilled out bottles with had a particular ‘smokey’ flavour to it!

After crossing the pass, which was a narrow ridge line, we had to climb several hundred feet higher still to avoid a treacherous area where a huge landslide had peeled back the mountainside like an onion. Finally we got to our highest point (just over 3500m), and we started winding out way down into the next valley. The bamboo and rhododendrons were replaced by a significant forest of substantial trees – which apparently in Nepalese are known as ‘Som’ trees. Cue a very confused conversation between me and Nima as I asked about what the trees were called, and he replied – “these are some trees”

“Yes, I know they are some trees, but what are they called?” I replied

“Yes, Som trees…” came Nima’s slightly exasperated retort.

This went on for quite some time before I eventually got the gist of what he was actually trying to tell me.

We arrived into Tortong camp just after 1600 – just over 8 hours after setting out, and according to our GPSs having covered around 18km. Vadim and Michal had been there for some time, and the last of our group would arrive closer to 1900. Tortong lies at 3000m, above the raging Simbuwa Khola (river) which carries the melt water of the Yalung glacier, which forms at the base of the south face of Kanchenjunga. The camp consisted of two tea houses, which whilst they are entirely separate enterprises, are practically built on top of each other. There were a couple of large grassy terraces, on which you could pitch tents, but we could all fit into the team houses themselves.

It was a relatively close squeeze, as we weren’t the only team in the camp. In fact, this was our opportunity to meet two of the other teams who would be on Kanchenjunga with us. First was a team of about 8 climbers from the Assam Mountaineering Association in India, who had a large team of Sherpas from the Arun Trekking company accompanying them. Second was a mixed international team (like ours) which was around 10 members and 5 Sherpas from 8K and Satori Expeditions. No doubt we’re get to know them all much better over the next few weeks.
Our tea house consisted of an accommodation block, which was made up of a series of 8ft x8ft ‘bedrooms’ each with two beds in them and not a lot else. Semba San and I bunked up together again, and there was a slightly awkward moment where we were both trying to change out of our (sweaty) clothes at the same time, politely facing away from each other, and very nearly had naked arse-cheek to arse-cheek connection. Fortunately contact was averted, and we both laughed about our particularly close ‘bonding’ experience that our modestly-scaled surroundings provided.

The other building was the ‘kitchen/dining’ building – a single storey wooden cabin, again with open fires, in which the proprietor staff boiled water constantly and cooked for us. There was a small ‘shop’ from which you could buy coke, sprite, beer, cigarettes and basic food like dried noodles and biscuits. You could also get ‘toomba’, which is a local alcohol brewed from millet. This is served in large wooden or metal insulated goblet – and then drunk through a wooden straw so that you don’t drink the millet in the mixture. You keep topping it up with hot water, and it has a slightly strange (but not unpleasant) grainy flavour. Whilst it’s a very different flavour – the method of consumption isn’t unlike drinking maté in South America.

We had a filling supper of chicken soup, popcorn and rice and dhal with cooked vegetables, washed down with endless cups of milk tea or ginger and honey tea, before retiring to bed. Fortunately this time Semba and I were able to coordinate our changing to ensure that the risk of international incidents was minimised!

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