Early in July 1997, I was invited to join a Himalayan Ski Expedition. It sounded too good to miss, so without hesitation I agreed to go. After a few weeks organizing and packing, we were sitting on a comfortable plane heading to Bangkok and later to Katmandu.
The capital of the Kingdom of Nepal greeted us with hot and humid weather and hordes of taxi drivers offering their services. Two friendly Sherpas were waiting for us among the crowd and after introductions and greetings we loaded two minivans with gear and headed towards our hotel.
We didn’t spend too much time in Katmandu. Our plan was to go around Annapurna Massif to acclimatize to high altitudes, come back to Katmandu and head towards Khumbu Glacier in search for skiable areas. After four days of repacking, organizing trekking permits and hanging around Thamel, we headed to Pokhara and the next day flew in a small twin-engine plane to Jomson to start an incredible trek around the Annapurna ranges. We left behind the sweat of the hot city and the world as we knew it. Jomson welcomed us with a cool breeze and our first glimpse of Nilgiri, a 7,000-meter peak right next to the airstrip. That was our first exposure to real Nepal, a place that has changed little in centuries. Colorfully dressed people were gathered around the airport building to greet the tourists and offer hotel or porter services. Small houses, pushed against the massive mountain were all made out of stone. The complete absence of vehicles of any kind, including bicycles, explained the clarity of the sound of the wind passing through the village.
It appeared to me that we were already at 2,700 meters without any effort! Acclimatizing had already started. It is crucial for the success of any Himalayan expedition to get used to high altitudes. You just have to spend enough time walking gradually higher and higher, about 300 vertical meters a day. There have been many people who died or got severely sick just because they went too high, too fast. In some cases, the villages are too far apart to stop at 300 meters, so you have to use your own judgement and watch yourself and your trekking partners closely. Any headache, lack of appetite, or even clumsiness can be a symptom of altitude sickness. Then, you must slow down, stop, or, if you feel really bad, go back down, wait and try again.
The beauty of slow and small ascents is that you have that time to admire nature, meet people and learn about your surroundings. We learned very interesting facts about this beautiful country during this period. Everybody knows about Mt. Everest, located right on the border of Nepal and Tibet, but this magnificent mountain is not there by itself; there are over a thousand peaks exceeding 6,000 meters. But peaks are not everything. Nepal is a land of records; the deepest gorge in the world, highest lake, deepest valley, animals, people and bacteria living at the highest altitudes, and the highest-situated waterfalls, parks and hotels. It is also a land of wondrous flora and fauna, 850 species of birds and over 5,000 species of flowers peacefully coexist with their rugged setting.
After a night spent in Jomson, we loaded our gear on the backs of hired horses and with light backpacks departed for the next village, Kagbeni. The whole village is built of stone, the only available building material, but narrow streets and corridors under the buildings give it an almost urban character. The altitude difference between Jomson and Kagbeni is only about 100 meters we didn’t even feel tired. Again we were wandering the streets, trying to sound and behave like Nepalese and greeting everyone on a street by putting our palms together and saying ‘Namaste’, meaning, loosely, ‘good day’. I think it must have sounded a bit off as everyone replied with a good laugh. Oh, well, we had to work on our accents a bit....
The next day greeted us with sunny weather, and we hit the trail to Muktinath. It would be our first challenge, as there is an almost 1,000-meter vertical climb between the two villages. Following the example of Himalayan goats, we walked slowly along the beautiful valley of the Jhong Khola River. You could easily become dizzy just by looking to the other side of the vast valley. From the cold river at their feet, cave-studded slopes rise steeply, cut by terrace-like plateaus, and vanish into the clouds, just to reappear against patches of stormy sky as white peaks towering over the world. It took us close to five hours to get to Muktinath, the last village before crazy Thorong La Pass (actually la means pass in Nepalese). We were at 3,800 meters, and not yet bothered by the altitude. After introductions with our village hosts, we were free to explore.
Muktinath is famous for its monastery, one of the holiest places in Nepal for both Hindus and Buddhists. We counted 108 different small, wall-mounted bronze figures, with open mouths gushing spring water, which is thought to bring salvation after death. Another holy attraction is fire in the water of one of the small shrines, where Brahma, the god-creator, is believed to have made a sacrifice, starting the fire. Indeed, if you look carefully, you can see a small flame of a natural gas on the water. Less spiritual in nature, but no less interesting, is the Bob Marley Restaurant, in which the owner’s teenage son plays reggae music to happy villagers and tired trekkers.
After two days of relaxation, we decided to cross the pass. Thorong La has a special place in my memory. The morning we were ready to departure I woke up with mild cold and I decided to stay and catch the rest of the expedition in the following day or two. I was about to cross the magical 5,000-meter line for the first time and I was to do it alone. The morning I was ready I left Muktinath about 8 am. The climb started almost immediately. After you cross the 5,000-meter line, you feel that your once-light backpack just got heavier. Eventually you think a whole yak has ended up in your pack. The thin air does not meet your oxygen needs; you stop more often just to calm down your breath and get the yak off your back. You look around, and for the hundredth time you realize how tiny and insignificant you are. At the same time, untamed happiness dances inside you as the great mountains welcome you to their home. I looked around in search of the ultimate run. We had brought all our ski and snowboard gear to Nepal for that reason, after all. Unfortunately, the lack of snow and the danger of avalanches on the steep glaciers would make skiing attempts on Thorong La irresponsible at the very least. I had to be patient.
Two weeks spent in Annapurna region gave us a nice primer to high altitude mountaineering. We were ready to explore Himalayan glaciers and passes.
Getting on a plane back to Katmandu is a challenge in itself. High winds and almost constant overcast during monsoon season make flight scheduling almost impossible. A small crowd of anxiously waiting passengers passed around sad stories of people waiting for a week or longer for weather clearance. With time the stories got crazier and eventually some of us started to loose hope. But it wasn’t meant for us to spend night in Jomson again. Several unsuccessful take off attempts didn’t discourage seasoned pilots and soon we were admiring the beauty of Kali Gandaki valley from the air.
After a few days spent back in Katmandu, we met two interesting people who wanted to join our expedition. After consulting with friendly trekking agency, we decided to fly to a small village called Lukla in Khumbu region. Within two days we organized permits and rented the necessary gear for a journey into the unknown. Our goal was to climb and ski some beautiful terrain.
The four of us made interesting internatinal team. Martin, a 24-year-old Englishman, was a soft-spoken, clean-cut snow-boarder. He was in Nepal on a university environmental assignment, but he quickly arranged his duties around our newly planned trip. Gulli, on the other hand, was a fast-spoken Icelander, who was very proud of his origins. My original companion, Peter, was a 39 year old Polish Canadian adventure filmmaker with a take-no-prisoners enthusiasm for this trip. With my two snowboards and untamed love for the mountains I brought to the expedition the spirit of Poland, where I was born and Canada, where I live.
We jumped on a plane to Lukla, a small village on the way to Everest Base Camp, where we met a man with a broad smile who invited us to his hotel. We ended up in a nice big stone house next to the airstrip, with electricity and satellite television. We quickly cut a deal with the man who brought us in and hired him and his cousin for 4,000 rupees each for 12 days to help us carry the gear.
The next morning, we repacked our gear and loaded our porters Dandi and Kaila, with two heavy packs. In the high mountains where there are no roads, everything has to be carried in by porters or animals. In many cases, hiring animals is more expensive than hiring porters. Everywhere you go, you see porters carrying heavy loads in baskets hanging from wide straps around their heads. The strength of these small people is quite amazing. A normal load for a seasoned Sherpa is 100 pounds or more. Our friends smiled at the 40-pound packs we gave them, but the smiles faded quickly when we explained that we were not normal trekkers, seeking instead the thrill of the high glaciers.
The first day welcomed us with ferocious rain, which turned into a beautiful sunshine before 10 am. The trail was well traveled and fairly wide. The scent of wet grass, the beautiful valley and singing birds filled our senses with wild happiness. It felt so good to be a part of this scenery. Smiling people, animals and the whole landscape seemed to flow and vibrate in a calm harmony. Every piece of land that could be cultivated was blooming with different colors. Back home, on the West Coast of Canada, we are so painfully used to seeing the profit-oriented abuse of our natural resources. In Nepal, on the other hand, although existence is strictly dependent on firewood, communities manage the forests in such a manner that this ancient culture will enjoy trees forever. It was very refreshing to see the wisdom and understanding of this "third world" nation.
We had decided to enter Sagarmatha National Park, go through Namche Bazar and head to Gokyo (4750 meters) through a few smaller villages. According to the map, we could find several accessible glaciers and high lakes close to Gokyo.
The four-hour trek from our first overnight stop, Monju, to Namche Bazar (3440 meters) was our first experience of a steep climb in the Khumbu region. First you go down to Jorsale, cross the suspension bridge, and then the climb starts. Half way up, the sky cleared and we had our first good look at Mt. Everest. We were happy to see it, although in reality it is only the highest of many mountains in the region as beautiful, interesting and free of heavy tourist traffic.
At one point during our climb I approached a caravan of loaded yaks. I wanted to pass the animals, but each time I neared the leader yak, he turned his head towards me and tried to poke me with his horn. The trail grew really narrow. On the left side was a vertical wall. To the right there was a cliff. I could not stop as other yaks were watching me closely, and I couldn’t pass the leader yak, as he was ready to kill. To make thing worse the killer-yak was trying to squeeze me against the rockface. To his surprise, I grabbed his horns and pushed with both legs against the wall. The yak must have sensed we were getting dangerously close to the edge of the cliff and let me go. I promised myself a nice yakburger dinner.
Namche Bazar is the main Sherpa town and the most populated village in the Khumbu region. This was the last place where we could gather missing climbing gear, and the local mountain shop was very well equipped. Returning expeditions leave the used gear behind or trade it for food or local art. Two later, our packs were heavier with crampons, ice axes, ropes and fuel.
The valley that opened up past Namche Bazar was utterly beautiful. The trail led us along a funnel-like green wall, shrouded mystically in low-hanging cloud. We decided to walk as far as we could that day. Just after sunset, still free of altitude sickness, we made it to a hidden in fog guesthouse at Mon La Pass, at 3,900 meters.
The morning came fast with a gorgeous view on Ama Dablam (6,856 meters), one of the most amazing peaks I have ever seen. The red morning sun illuminated the mountain from behind, making it glow with incredible ray formations. We all felt drawn into the breathtaking vision and filled with its energy. It felt like spiritual sun tanning. After this breakfast of the soul came the physical one, and we started trekking right after.
Our goal for the day was Gokyo, a small village 800 meters up. The weather had changed. Thick clouds and rain came down on us just after Pongkha, the last village before Gokyo. Martin, who blazed the trail until this time, had a headache, a first symptom of altitude sickness. We considered going back to Pongkha, but Martin felt he could make it to the village. It was cold and wet, and the trek seemed to take us much longer than the map indicated. Eventually, we saw the first of three lakes that we were supposed to pass on our way up. The turquoise water looked magnificent but we were too tired to enjoy the view. We were above 4,500 meters and feeling very beat up. Gokyo looked like an abandoned village at first, until I noticed a trace of smoke coming up from one guesthouse up the hill. Soon after, we were having hot tea. Martin, his headache worse, went straight to bed without touching his food or drink. We were all tired so we went to bed soon after the meal.
I couldn’t sleep. I was rolling in bed all night trying to find a comfortable position, but the thin air didn’t let me sleep. In the morning, it turned out that I had not been the only one having trouble sleeping. Martin hadn’t slept much either, nor was there much improvement with his headache. It was obvious that he would have to go back lower. Dandi, our young helper, took Martin’s pack and they went back to Pongkha. We arranged that he would come back, or we’d meet in Lukla or Katmandu. The rest of us gave ourselves one more day to acclimatize.
In the morning, when the visibility was the best, Peter and I climbed a little hill to have a better view of the area. We looked around, searching for the best slope. After all, we were there for a reason. At first we concentrated on the peaks and glaciers on the other side of Ngozumba Glacier, but all looked either too far or too inaccessible to explore in a day. Finally we decided on the gentle-looking Machhermo Glacier whose base touched Renjo Pass to the west of us. We could see only a small, flat portion of the glacier. After lunch, Gulli, Peter and I went to find the best way up the glacier. At first, we thought we could make a shortcut by climbing straight up from the other side of the lake, but soon we realized that the only sane way up would be to follow the invisible at first trail, obscured by shifting boulders.
At dinner that evening, we met Juri, a young fellow from Belgium who wanted to join us on the next day’s climb. The more of us the merrier we would be, we figured. We packed the necessary gear, distributing the load equally.
The next morning welcomed us without sunshine. At 5 am we were ready to go. The five of us, Kaila, Gulli, Juri, Peter and I passed through the damp morning chill like ghosts. As we entered the uneven, steep terrain towards Renjo Pass, Kaila was ahead. We didn’t even try to compete with him. Born and raised in the high mountains he didn’t even bother to wear proper shoes; he had flip-flops! Our new friend Juri was right on his tail, both a good 5 minutes ahead of us by the time we climbed the first ridge. By 8 am we reached the snowline. Low clouds covered higher portions of the glacier, but we could still see a wide white field veined with crevasses. The weather was getting worse and suddenly it was snowing. Without any hesitation we jumped into our parkas and snowboarding pants. We quickly decided to tour on our skies rather than use crampons. My brand new Nitro splitboard (a compromise between snowboard and skies) split nicely into a pair of touring skis. It was my first time ski touring Himalayan glacier. The company of my friends and the radiating energy of the mountains made me high.
Flat at the beginning, the glacier grew steeper. Now we could see the shape of it, a steep and narrow couloir, which went all the way up the mountain. The surface of the glacier was spotted with smaller and bigger boulder-shaped blocks of ice and cracked with deep crevasses. We stopped to calm our pounding hearts and choose a route. By then it was snowing heavily, and the snow on the steep part of the glacier was heavy and unstable. After an hour of struggle, we ended up at a huge, vertical ice wall blocking the couloir. It was time to re-assemble the splitboard into a snowboard. It is an awesome idea, a snowboard that splits into skis when you need them.
A few minutes later, after some deep breaths, I was flying down on my first Himalayan descent. Below me, Gulli and Juri were taking action shots. Of course we had to document it. My new split-board handled surprisingly well. The snow, on the contrary, apparently unaccustomed to snowboards, didn’t stick to the icy surface of the glacier at all. Each turn triggered a slide. Luckily there was not enough snow to cause a serious avalanche. The run didn’t last long. Exhausted but beaming with mountain energy, I threw myself to the ground and lay there for a few minutes to catch breath. Then it was Peter’s turn. Years spent in high mountains touring and skiing impossible terrain showed clearly in his turns, smooth and effortless. We cheered our first Himalayan descent loudly, and headed down the glacier to the place where Kaila was waiting for us.
When we came back to Gokyo, Martin and Dandi were waiting for us. Martin felt fine. The 300-meter altitude difference between Gokyo and Pongkha cured his altitude sickness within a day.
The next morning our path led us through moon-like Ngozumba Glacier towards Chola Pass. Ngozumba Glacier is a very interesting place. It is a mix of loose small and big rocks, small glacier lakes and beach-like sand patches. Glaciers are alive, and this one was no exception. The green valley hidden in the fog was home for a few families, and we were greeted warmly by a young woman and her three year old son. Two hours later, we enjoyed a hot meal of potatoes and some spinach-like vegetables. It was an unusual place to live. The house, entirely built of rock, was blended into the background of the huge, 1,000-meter rock rising straight up from the valley. A carefully managed small field supplied the family with fresh vegetables for the most of the year. This was our last stop before going to Chola Pass, where we intended to stay for a few days and find some other glaciers.
We were getting mixed messages about how far away the pass was, ranging from three hours to two days of trekking. It was obvious that Kaila and Dandi had no better idea where we were going than we did. According to the map, it looked as if we could make it in five to six hours, but that was a very loose guess, depending on the terrain and the weather.
Three hours after bidding farewell to our last hosts, we approached a ridge marked with prayer flags. We could not believe that we were already at 5,420 meters and that this was a pass, but both Sherpas assured us that it was. Low dense clouds impaired our vision, but we still could see a green valley below us. Martin and Gulli walked slower this time, and by the time they arrived at the ridge, Peter had found a flat, soft place for a tent. A big rock right next to it served as a windbreak. The small overlap on the rock was big enough to fit the stove under and protect our kitchen supplies.
When we woke up the next day, we could see the wonders previously hidden in fog. In front of us, across the valley, we saw a wall of high mountains. White peaks and glaciers reflected the morning sun, forcing us to don sunglasses. To the north, there were two glaciers; one of which seemed to be accessible enough to climb the same day. This time, Gulli was the one not feeling right. He hadn’t slept well, but wanted to make the climb. At first we walked along the grassy valley floor, but closer to the mountains, the ground changed dramatically. Now we were jumping from one rock to another, trying to keep our balance. As the terrain got steeper, it was not much fun any more. Several times, I stepped on a TV set sized rock which rolled down sending other rocks with it. To make matters worse, it started to snow and the rocks became slippery. We were getting closer to yet another mountain phenomenon, a stonefall. Loud, echoing in the valley, the thud of flying and rolling rocks curled our hair. We kept a safe distance, but your perception of safety and danger changes in the Himalayas. You are at risk practically all the time, whether you trek, climb or sleep.
Dandi, Kaila, Peter and I made it to the snowline at almost the same time. Gulli and Martin stayed behind. It was almost a complete whiteout. We put our touring gear on and carefully moved into the white zone with a safety rope hanging between Peter and me that gave us a little comfort. The low clouds limited the visibility to 5 meters, and I could not see Peter on the other end of the rope. Crevasses and ice blocks turned the glacier into a labyrinth. Cold, drenched and disoriented, we started to lose hope for a good run. It had taken plenty of effort to climb this glacier and now we were bailing out back to our cozy base. Decisions like this can save you live.
Down at the snowline, Dandi and Kaila were waiting for us with hot tea. To our surprise, neither Martin nor Gulli had shown up yet, so we started to descend. Martin was waiting for us in the tent. He had turned back as he was getting a headache, and had found a note in the tent that read, ‘Feeling worse. Gone to porter’s lodge. See you soon. Gulli.’ Four hours later, we heard someone screaming down in the valley. After ten minutes of scanning the green infinity, we spotted a small red dot far away. The dot was not moving, not even screaming any more. We knew Gulli was wearing a red Marmot jacket, but what was he doing here? Peter and I went down and found Gulli in a pitiful state, unable to walk or scream any more. His face was pale and he was breathing hard; cracked lips and dark-circled eyes indicated his dehydration. The water bottle in his pack was untouched. He was happy to see us, for he was thinking this was his last trip. We forced him to drink his water so that he could talk. Trusting the Sherpas’ judgement that we had crossed Chola Pass, Gulli went down the valley in search of a village that was supposed to be two hours from the pass. He wandered about the mountains for nine hours, not knowing where he was, even after deciding to come back to our camp. By that time, he was really sick. Apparently we had not crossed the pass, and neither Kaila nor Dandi knew where we were. I walked Gulli down to the village right after sunset, and he left us then.
Back on the ridge, Peter had a serious discussion with Kaila and Dandi. They did not want to admit that they didn’t know where Chola Pass was, but after Peter’s long lecture on safety and trust in the mountains, they understood the potential danger we are in when we don’t know where we are. After this incident I realized that it was our sole responsibility to know where we were and where we were going and our porters were not the ones to blame. Now I knew how easy it is to vanish in the high mountains. The Chola Pass question remained unsolved for now. The wall on the other side of the valley looked as if it could not be crossed without technical climbing. The map, however, inaccurate as it was, indicated clearly a pass in front of us. A huge steep mountain range was there.
Dandi and Kaila instinctively found the trail. Next two hours were the physical and mental torture for all five of us. Treacherous trail, with ice and rocks flowing, sliding, rolling and flying in our vicinity didn’t look safe at all. Reward was waiting up above. We stepped onto a smooth, spectacular glacier. We decided to stay overnight.
It was three o’clock in the afternoon and it was snowing heavily. We put up our tent right in the middle of the snowfield, next to the shallow crevasse, ten meters from the cliff. We all crawled into the small tent and began a slow process of time killing. Perspective of 15 hours wait in a small, wet tent borders upon a mental massacre. Suddenly the glacier moved and our tent slipped a little towards the cliff. Awake, my heart pounding, I anchored it with the climbing rope by tying our skies and snowboards together and dropping them into crevasse. At night falling rocks and moving glacier woke us up a few times.
At 6 am, the sky was gray, but the weather was fair. According to the map we were at 5,400 meters. Towering mountains around our camp greeted us with the roars of falling stones. On the south side of Chola Pass was a steep yet accessible glacier leading about 400 meters up. A few crevasses were more of the visual effect then real obstacle. Cold at first, our moves slow Peter and I put on our touring skies and headed towards it. Although technically not difficult the climb was very demanding. We run out of breath every few minutes. It took us over two hours to get to the top of the glacier. Around us, as far as we could see were white peaks. It was the best Himalayan experience yet. As usual, skiing down took a fraction of the time we spent climbing up.
At the bottom I looked up again. Nice regular lines marked our descent. I looked at Peter. Suddenly we started to laugh. We were rolling and bursting with laughter like kids with bedtime giggles, guffawing out the stress of the last several days. This was our last glacier in the Himalayas this year, and it was our way of saying good-bye, our farewell to the great adventure.