After five days of trekking through epic valleys, pine tree covered mountains and fast-flowing rivers, we split into two groups. The group of 12 climbers were to stay in the town of Kakkot and attempt to climb the mountain of Putha Hiunchuli at 7,246 metres. We were to continue trekking and aim to complete a high pass at 5,200 metres.
Part of me was sad to be splitting into 2 groups. We had spent 10 days together since leaving the UK and we were bonding well as a group. Part of me was also looking forward to the split.
This was the real start of our expedition.
But we weren’t really just a group of 12 people. We had porters, donkey handlers with 12 donkeys, a cook and a guide as part of our team. These hardworking Nepalese people had made the expedition possible. The donkeys saved us from carrying heavy packs and the porters also carried equipment in ginormous baskets that they supported with a piece of cloth over their forehead. The chef had the ability to make amazing meals from tinned food and locally sourced rations. All of these people were now part of the trekking team and we were growing stronger as a group.
We set off on our first day without the climbing team at a blistering pace. The plan was to cover 20km and climb almost 2,000 metres so we made the most of the perfect weather conditions. The sun was blazing. The Nepalese guide decided to stop our group for 3 hours at lunchtime. I think the porters were struggling in the heat and the 3 hour break allowed them to rest during the hottest time of the day.
Once we finished the lunch break, the weather started to close in. The on/off routine with Gortex jackets happened a couple of times before the rain started to come down hard. As we continued to ascend higher up the mountain, this rain turned into snow. We were now at 4,000 metres, contouring on the biggest mountain I had ever been on, overlooking an epic valley. The towering peaks above us soon become obsolete as the snow was accompanied by heavy fog.
Some of the team members were physically struggling with the steepness of the climb and the altitude. Morale dropped because of the heavy snow. What started as a jovial day with a 3-hour lunch break in the sun had turned into a day not too dissimilar to what we experienced in the Welsh mountains in the Snowdonia National Park before heading to Nepal. You would think that 12 British Army Officers and Soldiers would be used to trekking through worse conditions. Some of us were. But some of the group were employed in roles where they would rarely spend time out of their office.
The snow was starting to settle. I had never seen such large snowflakes. It’s probably because what we were in wasn’t fog. It was a cloud that was snowing straight onto the mountain.
We continued to plod on until we could see the silhouettes from the tips of the Buddhist temples of the nearest peak. We had found our destination, just as it was getting dark. The town of Seri was starting to become covered in snow. Our guide managed to find us shelter in the local school.
Shelter in a school
The school was built of stone, with mud used where cement would normally go. There were 3 rooms. One was the main entrance. The second had 4 wooden benches that were likely made in the village. The door frame was particularly low. As I am only 5ft 7in, I am not used to ducking to get into rooms. Much to the amusement of the rest of the group, I banged my head pretty hard into the door frame. The third room was where the magic happened. There was a small fire surrounded by old pots and pans. Smoke was billowing out and made the room difficult to stay in for too long. The smell of the smoke from this room lingered on my clothing for about a week after that day. Standing next to the warmth and the smell of the cooking food was worth a few days of smoky smelling clothes.
As it started to get dark we had still not seen our bags. We trekked with a rucksack carrying essentials for the day but we had a larger bag that contained our sleeping bag and spare kit either on a donkey or with a porter. Shiva, our guide, came into the room to tell us that 4 of the Porters had not turned up and were missing. The snow was falling hard at this point. We were not too worried about our bags but more about the guys stuck out on the mountain. Shiva had sent a group of villagers to look for them to no avail. We all hoped that they were somewhere safe and dry.
Settling in for the night
That night we ate a delicious pasta, rice and vegetable dinner and were then shown to our sleeping room which was one of the school classrooms. As we only had 4 of the 12 sleeping bags for the group, most of us had to find blankets. I was one of the team members without a sleeping bag so I shared a wet, itchy blanket with another team member called Ryan. It was a pretty rough night. Using my arm as a pillow and struggling to keep warm with the sodden blanket, I struggled to fall asleep and spent most of the night shivering. I looked over to one of the lucky team members in his sleeping bag and felt pretty jealous.
The next day
The door to the classroom was thrown open and with it, the morning light penetrated my eyes. It was 0530 and at the open door frame, a young, scruffy Nepalese kid stood, staring at me like I was a strange man sleeping in his school classroom (I suppose the kid had a point). I’m not a morning person. I sat up and kindly asked the child to close the door. I was freezing cold after sleeping with just a damp blanket. The child remained motionless. I raised my voice, “go away!”. The child closed the door and scuttled off. Peace again.
At 0610 the Porters arrived with the usual offer of ‘chia’ and ‘tatopani’ (tea and hot water). I asked if the missing Porters have turned up. No such luck. He informed me that they were still missing and the search was about to continue.
I was pretty worried and angry. Angry that the guide, Shiva had allowed this to happen. He was in charge of his staff and responsible for their welfare. I also felt that we had not done enough to ensure that the porters were well looked after. If I had lost 4 of my soldiers on the side of a mountain at 4,000 metres, I would likely be facing a court marshall.
The Army had paid vast sums of money to the tour company for the guide and the porter’s support. Even so, Shiva was highly unprepared. He had never been to the area, didn’t carry a map and even if he did he would likely not know how to use it. It seemed that these vast sums of money had gone to the head of the company who was sat in Kathmandu and only a small fraction had made its way to the staff that needed it the most. Whilst the fat cat in charge of the trekking company was warm in the Captial, we were now coming to the realisation that the porters could be seriously injured on the mountain or possibly even dead. We had no way of contacting them. They had to be found. This whole situation could have been avoided.
At 0930 the missing porters arrived at Seri.
We were told that they had found shelter in a village called Ghiring only 30 minutes away. It was a big relief to see them all back in one piece. They looked more rested than us. Our night of drama had turned out to be a worry over nothing. Still, it demonstrated to us how quickly the weather can change at 4,000 metres in the mountains. From that day on, I carried a few more layers in my rucksack. We also ensured that we set rendezvous or checkpoints for the porters so we wouldn’t loose them again.
Before we left the school, we spent some time with the children at the Shree Jana Jagriti school. We were told that the people from this village are ethnically more Tibetan than Nepalese. Their school programme is heavily language driven with multiple lessons daily in Nepalese, Tibetan and English. The children were very similar to English kids in the way that they play and want to have fun.
I gave one of the young boys my GoPro to use and he quickly worked out how to record and take pictures with it. He was only about 7 years old. The kids started copying my actions and what I was saying so I lead them into a chorus of head, shoulders, knees and toes. They loved it. I even got them to sing a rendition of the Oasis song, ‘Don’t look back in anger’.
Speaking to the locals and seeing how they live, cook, eat and spend time together was one of the most rewarding moments of the whole expedition. The children were amazing and filled me with hope for the rural communities. Even after the drama of the missing Porters, sleeping with a wet blanket and the blizzard, I was having an amazing time.
The school had a stunning view of the mountains. This is one of the highest settlements in the Dolpa region so the weather can be unpredictable and tough. Still, the children were just like any other children in the world. They had a thirst for knowledge and seemed to enjoy having a group of strange Westerners staying at their school for the evening.
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