As we sat in the tea house, considering an apple pie masquerading as a Cornish pasty, we began to wonder exactly what it was that we had got ourselves into. We were 50m away from Lukla’s airstrip – aka the World’s scariest airport, and several days walk from Everest Base Camp via a lot of “Nepali flat”. It seemed a long time since the posters had first been put up around the Battalion advertising “the trip of a lifetime” to Nepal. With just 12 places available for members of 103 Bn REME, the selection involved a classic English trudge across the South Downs one delightfully damp weekend in November 2012, followed by an extreme weekend in Brecon doing the Pen y fan route in Force 8+ winds in Feb 2013. Suddenly the training weekends we’d completed in the UK didn’t seem preparation enough when considering the mountains we could see out of the window.
We’d been in the country for 4 days at this point, and were already 2 days behind schedule. After sitting in the chaos of Kathmandu domestic airport for 2 days waiting for the weather to clear, we’d given up on the airplane and arranged for a more exciting and possibly less terrifying helicopter flight. Our first experience of a tea house (trekking phrase for a youth hostel really) was something of an eye opener. The rooms were basic but nice, and the beds had what looked like mattresses on – they even had sheets and blankets, although you probably wouldn’t want to sleep in them without the protection of your sleeping bag. But it was just so cold. This turned out to be one of the themes of the trip, with the temperature decreasing as the altitude increased. By the time we got to 5545m at Kala Pattar most of us were dreaming of being on a beach in the Bahamas. But the experience was outstanding.
We made it to Namche Bazaar at the end of Day 2, the main town of the SagamarthaNational Park, the Nepalese name for Everest. This was our last real sign of civilisation for the next 8 days, and sold almost everything you could wish to buy. The most amazing part of this is that everything is carried up to Namche either on a Porter’s back, or using Donkeys or Zos. A Zo is a cross between a Yak and a cow. We even passed a porter carrying a full sized fridge freezer on his back. This humbled us somewhat as our measly 15kg rucksacks didn’t really compare. From Namche our route quickly took us away from the crowds, as we headed North to the beautiful Gokyo lakes. We had a poignant two minutes silence on Remembrance Sunday next to one of the lakes, surrounded by a thin layer of snow. The following morning, we had a 0330 hours start in order to climb Gokyo peak in time for sunrise, which was by far the coldest moment of most of our lives, but an incredibly satisfying achievement and a real experience to see the sun rise on Mount Everest. And we soon forgot about the cold that day, as our route took us over a swelteringly hot glacier. Crossing a glacier was another first for many of us. Because of the amount of rock debris that the glacier had collected it took a while for most of us to realise there was any ice at all. And the huge peaks and troughs on the surface meant that there was little air movement. The next day was another big marker in our trek, as we headed East to cross the Cho La Pass. While the group had known this was likely to be the most challenging day of the trek, the sheer scale of it surprised many of us. It took 4 hours just to get to the top and the last part involved climbing up a wall of snow that was at the limit of what we were able to trek without crampons. Stepping into the sunshine at the summit of the pass and feeling the heat from the sun was glorious.
We then wound our way through the valleys as we headed towards Everest base camp. The altitude was starting to show in everybody. Energy levels were generally sapped while the body worked hard just to keep the vital functions going; loss of appetite meant that eating anything was becoming a real effort; and trying to drink 4 – 5 litres a day was getting harder and harder. Reaching the summit of Kala Pattar became an even bigger highlight, because the rest of the trek was then spent walking down to lower altitudes where simple tasks such as breathing were so much easier. Four days later we found ourselves back at Lukla airstrip, although this time we were allowed to pop into the Irish bar to see what the breweries of Kathmandu had to offer. As we flew back into the city and said goodbye to the mountains, the rose tinted glasses were already coming over. With the odd comment of “well, it wasn’t that hard really”, and “Cho La Pass wasn’t that cold”, and with the prospect of a hot shower, a bed with a duvet, and more than Dal Bhat to choose on the menu, that contented feeling was starting to come over all of us. All round a fantastic trip, and very much the challenge of a lifetime.
If you are interested in joining the REME please visit http://www.serfca.org/en-gb/reservists/ta/rhq103bnreme.aspx