Adventure to Misadventure

There is a difference between adventures and misadventures. When Amundsen reached the South Pole, that was an adventure; when Shakelton got his ship ice bound in Antarctic waters, that was a misadventure.

Adventure: So Reuben and I set off yesterday to climb to Ama Dablam’s base camp. The plan was to backtrack down the same trail that we came up from Lukla. After approximately 2 hours, we would reach Pangboche, then cross the river and head up the trail to Ama.

Misadventure: At breakfast before setting off, I asked our head man from the HRA, Gobi, about the trek. He recommended that I talk with one of the lodge owners in Pheriche, who has a lot of knowledge of trekking in the region. So Reuben and I walked over to his lodge, and discussed our plans with him. He recommended that we travel over to Dingboche and cross the Imja Khola River to the east side. We would then find a trail and ascend. Following this trail, we would pass through a couple small Sherpa communities, and then end up half way up the trail to Ama Dablam’s with an easy final hike to the basecamp.

We were somewhat dubious; although this is the trail my friend Jenn had taken the previous season. We asked if there wasn’t too much snow, and if anyone had been on the trail, but we were assured that the trail was well used, and would be the best way for us to get to Ama Dablam.

So off we were, over the hill to Dingboche. We found the bridge and soon crossed. Things were well. It was a beautiful day, and we had a choice of two sets of tracks, which would surely lead us to the trail to Ama.

Reuben crossing the bridge at Dingboche.

Reuben crossing the bridge at Dingboche.

Wait…! Where did the trail go? We decided to break trail through the snow. Surely if we kept going, we’d find something that looked trail like.

Breaking trail with the town of Dingboche to our left.

Breaking trail with the town of Dingboche to our left.

This doesn’t seem to be working. Maybe we should drop down to the river, and we could cross to the other side, and then follow the trail out of Dingboche to Pangboche, like what we were going to do initially.

The Imja Khola

The Imja Khola

We are now hoping from rock to rock across and down the Imja Khola. There’s got to be a way across somewhere!?! We keep on. We know that if we keep following the river southwest of Dingboche, there is a place where the trail goes down by the river. Surely we can pick up the trail there.

Finding a trail of snow among the thorns and rocks by the riverside.

Finding a trail of snow among the thorns and rocks by the riverside.

Four hours, and we’re still just opposite of Dingboche. Doesn’t it only take two hours to hike from Pheriche to Pangboche?

 

Did you know that if we had gone the other way, we would probably be at the Ama Dablam basecamp by now?

We get to the spot. Look, there’s a trail going up the ridge! We decide to follow the trail. All seems good. Pace quickens. We are now following a trail. Someone has been here before. Who? Who was this person, and where were they going? It becomes clear that we are not just following one set of tracks, but someone has gone up, and then come back down in the same tracks. Fatigue is setting in, concentration lacking.

We follow the tracks to Rala Kharka, a small group of Sherpa huts with rock fences to differentiate small farm fields. The tracks stop in front of one of the shacks. All are locked. Nobody is home. No trail continues on from this village. We’ve been hiking for 6 hours.

The huts at Rala Kharka.

The huts at Rala Kharka.

It is still beautiful, but clouds are coming in from the south. A breeze picks up. We sit on the rock wall near the shack. A Snickers satisfies the hunger inside of me.

We keep punching on. There is a vague outline of a trail, and a monument of stone, more refined than a mere cairn. We head for it. According to the map, if we simply keep following this contour, we should end up on the trail from Pangboche to Ama Dablam.

Ama Dablam is no longer the objective. We are getting exhausted, dehydrated; the afternoon weather is kicking up. We are now seeking the warmth of a lodge in Pangboche. Just get there!

We keep post holing through snow. The first field is shallow with plenty of rocks protruding. Not likely to slide. We keep moving. We take turns. Reuben is wearing his mountaineering boots, with knee high gaiters. I am wearing a pair of light hikers. They aren’t Gore Tex (I don’t believe in that stuff in hiking boots, after all…). I’ve got a pair of permetherin coated ankle high gaiters made for keeping rocks and insects out of your shoes and pants. They would work great for Africa. Not made for Nepal. I will have to write a nice review of them online at Backcountry.com. My mountaineering boots are still in a bag on its way to Pheriche. My shoes feel like swimming pools. I can move my toes around, and see water slosh out of the canvas near the toes. I have already saturated 2 of my 3 pairs of sox.

The terrain gets sketchier. The snow is punchy, feeling like it might just support your weight, but then you break through a firm layer to the softer snow underneath. The lighter snow on previous slopes has given way to knee-deep snow that sometimes goes as high as your hip. There is no evidence of slides, but we kick off small snowballs with each step. I don’t have a slope meter, but estimate the slope to be approximately 45 degrees. It’s warm. It’s 2 in the afternoon.

Crossing snow fields that are looking ever more threatening on our way to Ama Dablam base camp.

Crossing snow fields that are looking ever more threatening on our way to Ama Dablam base camp.

Looking back from where when came.

Looking back from where when came.

We are walking above a forest of Rhododendron. These terrain traps are called “cheese graters” in the Avalanche community.

Knowledge is power. Knowledge is a dangerous thing. Nothing about this situation is good. This is where avalanches happen. This is where people disappear. The most common terrain to slide is 38-45 degrees. Slides are more likely to occur in the afternoon, when the sun has warmed the snow, in the spring. If the avalanche doesn’t seriously hurt us, being run through the forest below at 50 miles an hour won’t do anything good.

We come across a south-facing slope where all the snow has melted off. We can see a trail in the distance, but two more snow slopes, even scarier looking than the last separates us from this point.

We make a decision. We descend back to the river. We hike down the slope. When we enter the Rhododendron forest, the ground is again covered in snow. We slide from one tree to the next, slowly making our way back down.

Here we trade one bad situation for another. Post holing through a snowfield is hard work, but so is travelling among the boulders at the side of a quickly moving glacier fed river. The right bank of the river looks tempting, but there are no places to cross. There was a bridge at Dingboche. The next is at Pangboche.

At times large boulders completely block the left bank, forcing us to climb back up the slope to go around. This is not easy. In fact at one point, I find myself holding on to dried grass with my left hand, with bad footholds of soft snow. No tree trunks in reach. I am able to punch my right fist in the snow to make a questionable hold. This is the worst moment of the trip. I reached some more secure holding, but if I had started to slip, there’d be no stopping me, and I would have been in the river.

We were beaten down by the snow slopes; we are beaten down by the river. A few hundred yards away, we can see the hikers, yaks and porters travelling along the trail. The trail we were planning on taking that morning, until we listened to the worst bad advice I’ve ever listened to. They are on one side of the river; we are on the other. I curse the lodge owner. My anger does not stem from getting bad advice, but from bad advice that turned out to be incredibly dangerous.

We keep crawling along the boulders of the river. Dehydration is making me weak and mentally drained. I have only peed once today, and it was the color of Ale. This is when mistakes happen. Occasionally a porter sees us down in the river valley and calls out to us. This does not make anything better.

The tension eases in a subtle way: we come across yak dung. If there are yaks here, we must be close to a trail. Yaks have pretty free rain over the hills and pastures of this land, but they still need to get there. We walk along, following the pies of yak dung. Where a yak can go, we can go.

"Where a yak can go, we can go!"

“Where a yak can go, we can go!”

The next piece of evidence is trash. Candy bar wrappers and Coke bottles. Garbage has never looked so good. The going gets easier. Soon the bridge to Pangboche is in site.

Crossing the bridge is like the end of a nightmare. A trip that should take approximately 2 hours by the standard route has taken us 8 hours by our ridiculous alternative route.

Pangboche is on top of a hill, and we slowly make our way up the steps. Reuben knows of a good place that he has stayed in before. We enter and ask for lodging. After looking at us, they want to put us in one of their outdoor rooms. We insist to be inside. After some long consideration on their part, they reluctantly agree.

I quickly change out of my wet socks, and wring dirty water out of them. I am very grateful for the down booties I had been carrying all day. I change into a world of down: down jacket, down pants, down booties.

We head upstairs to the dining room. The custom in the Khumbu is that the lodges cost almost nothing (my stay cost me Rs 100, which is approximately 1 USD), with the understanding that you will eat there. We order a large pot of Honey Lemon Tea, and as we each drink cup after cup, my dehydration headache slowly dissipates. Since we get food free at the HRA post, I am eager to eat things that we don’t get there. I order chips with egg, which is French fries with an over easy egg on top. The egg yolk and fries are a great combination. I also order a freshly made apple pie, which was full of cinnamon-y goodness.

We sit around the stove talking with a firefighter from Melbourne, Australia, and a guy from Portsmouth, England, who have both left their trips early because of high altitude illness, before heading off to a much deserved rest.

Misadventure to adventure

Ama Dablam and Mount Everest, looking north toward Pheriche and Dingboche.

Ama Dablam and Mount Everest, looking north toward Pheriche and Dingboche.

We awake early in the morning to try a second attempt on Ama Dablam base camp. Just like yesterday, the view of Ama this morning is spectacular without a single cloud in the sky.

Breakfast is Tibetan toast with butter and jelly. Tibetan toast is a deep fried pastry that is somewhat like a doughnut. We pack our bags, and head off back down the trail to the same bridge that we were so thankful to cross the evening before.

Down the hill from Pangboche, cross the river, up the hill to Ama Dablam. We find a place to stash our excess gear under a shrub so we can travel light. Base camp is at about 4600 meters (15,100 feet), which is only about 300 meters higher than Pheriche, however we have to climb from the river, and so have a gain of over 600 meters from the river. Luckily for us, someone knowledgeable about the trail has recently been up to base camp, and we have a solid trail to follow. Plus, in the early morning, the snow is still firm enough that we don’t break through. Another day of breaking trail would not be an option.

Prayer flags on the route to Ama Dablam

Prayer flags on the route to Ama Dablam 

The approach to base camp

The approach to base camp

We get to basecamp around 10:30 am. There is nothing there but snow, cairns with prayer flags, and a few “long drop” toilets. But the views are spectacular! Ama Dablam continues to impress, but from this vantage point you can appreciate that it is on one side of a cirque of incredible peaks. In the background sits Everest, unassuming from this location, with its famous strand of cloud drifting off into space.

Prayer flags and Ama Dablam from basecamp

Prayer flags and Ama Dablam from basecamp

The author with Ama Dablam in the background.

The author with Ama Dablam in the background.

The other peaks that share the Cirque with Ama Dablam

The other peaks that share the Cirque with Ama Dablam

As we head down, we meet a guided group of Chileans and Spaniards heading up. By now the snow is softening, and the ground is turning to mud. They are already too late, as days quickly age in these altitudes. How funny to be just two people freely trekking around, among all these groups of guided tours.

The trip back to Pheriche is relatively uneventful. We passed several trains of yaks heading up to Everest with gear to support one of the Everest expeditions. One of the yak handlers told us that this expedition would use 60 yaks to get all their gear to basecamp. Multiply that by the number of various groups sending teams up the mountain, and it is clear why Everest is big business indeed!

Reuben and I shook hands as we crossed the bridge into Pheriche. The first hiking goal of the trip was accomplished. In the end, we bought more than we bargained for, but not more than we could handle.

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