Friday, August 28, 2009

On the roof of the world

In October 2008, a few days after I ran the Melbourne half marathon in a time of 1:51:06, I flew to Kathmandu for a planned five-week trek to Everest Base Camp and through the Annapurna mountain range. I had visited Nepal in 1991, but this would be my first walk on the roof of the world.

I was with a group of a dozen trekkers from Australia, Scotland, Ireland and Canada who met for the first time at the Kathmandu Guest House. The next morning, we flew by small plane into Lukla, a village high in the Himalayan foothills, to commence our trek. It’s a very tricky approach through a canyon, with just one shot at landing uphill on the tiny strip before making a hard right-hand turn. We were all relieved to land safely. Just ten days before, an identical plane to ours – a Twin Otter – carrying sixteen trekkers had crashed and exploded as it attempted to land.

Our first night at altitude was spent in a teahouse in the village of Phakding. The scenery is very alpine, with Nepalese/Tibetan details. Prayer wheels, prayer flags and chortens (piles of stones on which prayers are carved) line the rocky trail. Our sherpas carried our large bags in woven baskets that were slung from a cloth strap around their forehead. We carried our daypacks and trekking poles.

The following are extracts from my diary:

20 October: 'No hurry, no worry'

Today was a very strenuous walk of about seven hours from Phakding to Namche Bazaar, at 3443 metres. Most of our route was up or down steep, stony paths. Ram, our trek leader, and our three guides remind us constantly that the safest way to walk at altitude is slowly.

We crossed five suspension bridges, some of them slung across very deep canyons. The rivers are a beautiful milky green. The air is filled with the sounds of bells (they differ according to the type of animal), rushing rivers, waterfalls, flapping prayer flags, rotating prayer wheels, and hammers chipping away at large stones, which are used for building purposes.

The trail, lined with inns and teahouses, was very busy until we entered Sagarmatha National Park, which encompasses Everest and other areas well be walking through. We had a very brief glimpse of Everest, far off in the distance, before it was obscured by cloud. Namche Bazaar, the main trading post for the region, is a centuries-old Buddhist settlement that’s been built up the side of a steep hill.

21 October: Namche’s bizarre

Today was an acclimatisation day. To accustom our bodies to the altitude, we climbed to 3880 metres. We had very clear views of Everest and other peaks, which looked much closer than yesterday. The Hotel Everest View, unexpected in such a difficult location, was the obvious place to stop for a drink. At the back of the hotel is a large terrace with postcard-perfect views of Everest. We continued on to Khumjung village, which supplies many of the sherpas who support Everest expeditions, where we visited a school (closed) set up by the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation and the Khumjung Ghompa (monastery), which has a relic supposedly of a yeti's skull.

As it’s my birthday, back in Namche I bought myself a necklace made of turquoise and a new trekking pole, and had an hour-long massage before dinner. The village is very funky, with a real sense of being an outpost filled with adventurers.

22 October: What goes down, must go up

Today was a hard walk to Photse. The landscape is very barren and stony. We made a steep descent to a river crossing, then climbed straight up the other side to the village, the entry to which is along very narrow lanes lined with waist-high stone walls. I have fallen in love with a mountain called Amadablam.

23 October: A walk on the moon

Our walk today brought us to the village of Denboche, which feels like it’s on the moon. We have another acclimatisation day tomorrow, before our two-day push to Everest Base Camp. Our teahouse is very snug and warm. I’ve been very lucky with my trekking companions. We’ve had a lot of laughs out of Dermot, a very funny Irishman, and I’ve enjoyed spending time with the others in our group.

24 October: The prayer wheel turns

Today has had an unexpected outcome. Five of us made it to the top of Nagarjun Hill (at 5000 metres). The climb was very difficult. It was such an effort to keep putting one foot in front of the other and to haul myself up what seemed like a never-ending climb. The views from the top were astounding, though. I had a little cry – it was so, so beautiful. I said to Dermot that this was the high point of the trek for me (and not just literally). Before starting the descent, I placed a small stone on the chorten on the summit.

Twenty minutes later, as I was clambering down the steep slope with Dinesh, one of our guides, I lost my footing and fell backwards, landing badly on my left hand. When I tried to stand I felt faint. After the dizziness had passed, Dinesh and I walked very slowly back to the teahouse, where Ram said I needed to see a doctor.

Amazingly, just an hour’s walk from Denboche is the Himalayan Rescue Association clinic at Pheriche. During the Everest climbing season, this clinic supports a temporary clinic that operates at Everest Base Camp. Otherwise there is nothing in this vicinity. Ram and Dinesh walked with me to the clinic, which is being manned during this trekking season by two volunteer doctors, a husband and wife from Colorado. They examined my wrist and diagnosed a possible Colles fracture. This has changed everything. I have no choice but to return to Kathmandu for treatment. I cried for the second time today. My wrist is now in a temporary splint. Tomorrow I’ll set off at dawn with a porter and a guide to return to Lukla and Kathmandu.

25–27 October: Au revoir, Everest?

I may never again be as close to Everest as on the day I had to turn my back and walk away. What had taken us four days to walk in, we covered in two long days out on the trail. A detour via Tengboche Monastery gave me the opportunity to say goodbye to Amadablam. From Lukla we flew back to Kathmandu this morning.


On 29 October, after two days of X-rays and tests at a clinic in Kathmandu, my broken wrist was set during an operation under general anaesthetic at OM Hospital. During the week I spent in Kathmandu arranging a return flight to Australia I met an English trekker, Wendy, who was a welcome support and has become a great friend.

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