I think I’d forgotten the excitement felt only amidst the chaos in the streets of the far east. As motorbikes weaved between the cars blaring their horns, and saffron dust filled the air around us, I was brought back to my time backpacking through Southeast Asia, hopping between countries with my camera in hand. But this was going to be an all together different type of journey.
I stepped out of Tribhuvan International Airport (Kathmandu) and jumped into our transport through the city towards Thamel where the bustling streets were alive with the five-day Nepalese Hindu festival of Tihar. We’d arrived on the Dog Tihar, day two of the festival, which is known as the Khicha Puja by the Newars. People offer garlands, tika and delicious food to their dogs and acknowledge the cherished bond between man and animal.
Over the next few days the festivities continued around the narrow streets of Thamel as we made the last arrangements for our expedition north into Langtang Region.
As the valley began to unfold ahead of us, six hours into our drive towards Syabru Bensi the start of our journey, it became apparent everything I’d read about the dangers of the mountain routes through the Himalaya was correct. Poorly maintained dusty roads wound their way up the mountain with just inches of dirt between me and a sheer drop to sure death.
We continued upwards through vast paddies flourishing with bright yellows and greens and through eccentric mountainside villages hanging hundreds of meters above sedimentary cliff faces, past locals out working their fields and young children playing merrily amongst ruins and rubble. Finally we arrived in town safe and sound, thankfully unscathed if not just a little shook up.
Due to the events of the Tihar coming to a close the previous night I think it was safe to say the majority of the team hadn’t got much sleep. The street parties had continued late into the night flooding our homestay bedrooms with light and sound. Regardless, as planned, we awoke around 7:30am and wandered downstairs for some breakfast and lemon tea eager to begin our trek Eastwards through the Langtang Nation Park towards Kyanjin Gompa to attempt a summit of Naya Kanga (5846m).
Over the passing days the footpath which had so far led us over immense wire bridges, through wild cannabis plantations and monkey inhabited jungles skirting the river Langtang, began to give way to rock as we rose further up above the torrent.
We’d soon left behind the quaint tea houses of Rimche where we took our first nights rest, and on day two led by our team of porters, cooks and pack-mules, began the day climb up towards the town of Langtang where I witnessed first hand the devastation that had befallen Nepal during the earthquake in 2015. There’s still plenty of evidence of its disruption amongst most the villages and towns I encountered and Langtang was no exception. Crumbling buildings topped with rusty corrugated rooftops now stood in place of a town which used to house a community of over 400 people before a massive expanse of ice fell thousands of feet, creating an avalanche that wiped out the entire area.
After cosy nights sleep in Langtang using my summit sleeping bag for the first time, we awoke to omelettes and lemon tea, and spent our first hour huddled around the cast iron log burner centred in the room until the sun rose and we stepped out into crisp morning air ready for the day ahead. As we continued on trekking through the surrounding areas which can only be described as having likeness to a moonscape created by fallen rock and glacial ice, every step wafting dull grey dust into the air, we began the 4 mile hike to Kyanjin Gompa plodding on up the valley in awe, this would be our last acclimatisation stop with a solid roof overhead before we began our climb of Naya Kanga which now hung in the distance looming behind the mountains, with light scattering over its icy peaks in the mid-day sun.
Kyanjin Gompa (3864m) is no doubt one of the coolest alpine villages I’ve seen with its brightly coloured buildings and quirky inhabitants. The town sits on the northern side of the valley centred between Naya Kanga and Kyanjin Ri and serves as a stop-by for porters, climbers and yak farmers.
During our stay in a fairly new building up behind the monastery at the top of the village, I spent my evenings wandering around exploring the local area with my camera and sketch book. There’s only two lovely little coffee shops and a couple random shacks made from corrugated steel selling yak produce to keep you entertained, but around the dusty outskirts of the village were countless opportunity’s for shooting some really special images. I’d quite often stumble across yak and horses grazing on the higher banks of the valley during the sunset hours and sit patiently for a photo-opportunity to arise.
Over the past six days we’d climbed around 2000m with very little issues. So far I’d felt no ill-effects from the altitude, there was an obvious increase of fatigue as the oxygen levels in the cold air now stood around 35% less than normal but I was still feeling great and filled with excitement as we left for basecamp.
Prayer flags whipped in the wind as we made our decent back down into the valley to cross the river onto the foothills of Naya Kanga. After leaving the lower valley we climbed up through a forest of rhododendron and ancient oak strewn with mint green old mans beard, taking our time moving up towards the top of the tree line where eventually trees gave way to heather and foot trodden pathways carving through the open landscape. Here the crimson lower hills could easily be mistaken for the fields of the Peak District in England. Lichen covered rocks oosed with vibrant lime and purples, and everywhere still in the shade of the morning sun lay a thin coating of frost which began to thaw under my feet as mid day closed in and we clambered on higher passing what looked like the remains of an old stone settlement cast randomly on the mountainside, perhaps used for farming before the earthquake.
The final push to basecamp was easily the steepest and made that much more difficult with the altitude. We’d become spread apart walking and resting between each 10m climb but were rewarded tremendously after the final push as I walked over the rounded lip of the mountain to squint in the afternoon sun across the valley to see basecamp (4300m).
Unexpectedly this year the snow levels seemed to have dropped dramatically. So from our point of view we was blessed with dry warm ground to sleep on at basecamp. However this did cause a couple issues for the cook team who now unfortunately had to trek to a nearby frozen lake to find a water source, although that didn’t stop them from serving us fried hand-cut chips within an hour! The team had spared no effort bringing up all the necessary ingredients needed for the next few days on the mountain and I was more than satisfied with every meal we ate throughout the expedition… When you’re used to boiling up pre-packaged food and drinking it out of the bag on most wild camping trips, a three course meal with actual cutlery really makes the difference!
Around 3:00pm the sun had already began to fall behind the surrounding peaks and the temperature with it, by 3:30pm we were all wrapped up in our summit jackets ready for a bitter evening. I spent most of my afternoon shooting moody landscapes down the valley and attempting to get stuck into my book. By evening the clouds had risen through darkness and as I stepped out to locate our makeshift toilet I noticed the clouds had given way to a beautiful clear sky which was all the excuse I needed to put my book down and capture some images.
Although my conscious brain was dealing with the adjustment to altitude it would seem my unconscious brain wasn’t, that night I lay restless for what felt like hours. Dreaming of what I can only describe as non verbal way to communicate calculous, a combination of an LSD hallucination and mathematical equations that my body was trying to respond to through movement. Eventually I dosed off into a very short lived dreamless sleep and awoke the following day in my frozen tent feeling confused and thankful we had a day of rest planned before the climb to high camp.
We spent the majority of that day lounging around camp preparing our packs for the next day. Unfortunately dark cloud had rolled in around mid-day and so naturally I was limited to what I could capture. I turned back to my book and wandered back down to an obscure little ditch sat just outside camp I’d found earlier that day, to kick back and enjoy a smoke as the sun set somewhere behind the clouds.
Our day trek up to high camp (4950m) started the same as most days; a delicious freshly cooked breakfast and a quick briefing for the day ahead. We began our accent ahead of the porters, but as usual it didn’t take them too long to catch us up, even carrying close to 30kg on their heads! The stamina and strength these guys have at altitude is just unbelievable.
The beaten track had now given way to segregated sections of lightly trodden areas masked by scree and fallen rock, the only sign of an actual route up was marked by the occasional cairn. It was obvious that the air was getting thinner and the strain was beginning to show with some of our team. The gaps between us grew ever wider still as we clambered through boulder fields approaching camp. As the wind swept thick white clouds across the sky above I caught a glimpse of Naya Kanga peak for the first time that day, somehow it seemed to have doubled in size and the reality of what we was facing began to dawn on me.
Up here everything seemed miniature in size compared with the peaks towering around us and the glacier ahead which lay plastered against the rock face above us. We scrabbled up the last of the scree to a lip of an enormous crater, and peered down into this natural colosseum past jagged boulders to see our little blue cook tent being erected at the edge of camp, its fly sheet along with ours pinned to earth with heavy rocks to hold against the wind.
As we descended into camp the temperature dropped dramatically and within a few minutes the sun dropped behind the mountains creating a sudden chill to air. I threw my bag down and reached for my summit jacket and buff, noticing that Steve’s nose had already began to darken with frostbite.
That evening no one stayed up past 8pm. I wolfed down my last serving of ‘sherpa soup’ and with my pack fully prepared for the following morning I buried myself into my sleeping bag and managed to keep my head down until the 2am wake up call for summit day.
Head-torches flickered on in the darkness as murmurs across camp signified it was time to crawl out of our tents for a quick breakfast and brew. I threw my camera batteries into my breast pocket, hurled my rucksack onto my back and took off into the night.
What felt like an hour was spent just navigating our way up out of the other side of our crater. It was proving difficult to move with haste between the boulders and sand littering the ground around us.
As the gradual incline began to sharpen powered rock and boulders began to give way to scree. Each step was having to be placed with precision on the loose stones, and more often than not would send you sliding back two steps with each one forward.
Through the blackness the air began to thin, we’d been climbing for three hours already and hadn’t yet reached the traverse around the glacier. Each movement became a challenge, more than a thoughtless action, with each step I forced oxygen into my body breathing hard and deep, stopping every few minutes for a sip of icy water and squinting up the mountain side attempting to map my next route now my eyes had adjusted to the light.
Five hours into the ascent light broke over the mountain tops behind us as we stopped to regroup at sunrise and discuss our progress so far. After a short debate Barry and Elaine decided to head back to C2 with one of our guides after struggling with AMS (acute mountain sickness). Other than the strain on my body physically from the climb I felt good, thankfully I hadn’t felt any symptoms from the altitude at all so far. So feeling quietly confident the rest of us continued our climb upwards into the morning sun.
We approached the snow-line around 5400m and threw on our crampons and gloves for the final stage to the summit with the sun beaming furiously down on us from above.
The views below us were magnificent, but not quite enough to keep my mind off the pain my body was now fighting. With each step I kicked into the snow I forced three icy breathes into my lungs, and hauled my leg up for the next movement attempting to keep my mind from wandering.
Up here I felt humbled with clarity. Other than the soft hum of snow glistening like tiny fragmented diamonds as is rolled past by my feet, and the rattle of my own harsh breathing, there wasn’t a sound to be heard. There wasn’t a plane in the sky to be seen, nor other persons on the mountain, up here we was completely alone with nothing to help us but our hands and our own head.
Around 7am we made the challenging decision to call it a day, just ninety metres from height of the summit we decided that to make a safe decent of the mountain we should use our remaining time and energy to begin heading down rather than fighting on for another two hours under the furious sunshine.
Exhausted and dehydrated we took a seat on the ridge line dropping off into the valley below and took some quick snaps whist fighting against a -25 degree Celsius wind chill. Eager to begin the decent each of us clipped into our fixed line and started with good pace now back down off the mountain towards C2.
Four or so hours later I stumbled into high camp light-headed and completely drained yet filled with an enormous sense of achievement. With my mind at peace knowing we only had a days walk back down to Kyanjin Gompa, and legs which no longer felt they could hold my body upright, I threw down my pack and collapsed into my tent satisfied and still fully dressed, drifting off within seconds into a dreamless sleep.
Our journey was finally at a close. After a cosy night spent back in our plywood lined guesthouse celebrating and reflecting on our adventure so far, we packed up our bags for the last time and headed down to the heli pick-up centred in a yak grazing field on the outskirts of town. This would be our lift back to Kathmandu.
I kicked some dried yak droppings aside and pulled a rounded stone towards me for a pillow, kicking in a ditch into the dry earth below my feet to bask under the the early afternoon sun. Until finally an unmistakable chopping sound broke the still air and our helicopter rose from the horizon cutting up the valley towards us.
As we loaded up the helicopter what seemed like the whole town had come out to see us off. Soon the prop began to roar sweeping thick clouds of dust into the air and we took off down into the valley below.
What had taken us a days drive and four days to trek up, took a whole twenty five minutes flight back to Kathmandu. Rugged snow capped mountains quickly gave way to forests, many of which still lay flattened by the earthquake, and soon we was cruising over luscious rice paddies and farmlands heading south towards the city. Our journey was finally over. Tired yet blessed with memories we wouldn’t soon forget it was safe to say we was satisfied, and eagerly awaiting a hot shower and a good rest back in Thamel.
– I’d like to say a huge thank you to Alexander Adventures (https://www.alexanderadventures.co.uk) and Montane (https://www.montane.co.uk) for personally supporting me on this expedition. Without their assistance, funding and equipment this trip wouldn’t have been possible.
– Thank you to all of our support team in Nepal and to everyone who assisted with the planning and execution of this journey. Also to our cook team & porters for keeping us safe and positive throughout!