LIKE most Kiwis, I grew up on stories of our celebrated mountaineer and humanitarian, Sir Edmund Hillary, who together with Tenzing Norgay was first to summit the mountain we all knew as Everest in 1953. I pored over his books and read his autobiography Nothing Venture, Nothing Win several times. In the foreword he writes, “I discovered that even the mediocre can have adventures and even the fearful can achieve.” He repeatedly emphasised his humble origins and the fact that anyone, even those with mediocre talents, can achieve a lot if they drive themselves. “You don’t have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things — to compete. You can be just an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated to take challenging goals,” Sir Ed told his interviewers. I thought about his 1953 conquest of Mt Everest with primitive mountaineering equipment by today’s standards, and the challenges he must have encountered.
People sometimes refer to this camp as the Nepalese or Southern Base Camp for Mount Everest, as there is also a base camp in Tibet for the few who try Everest’s northern faces. However, I don’t go into Tibet in any of the travels in this book. So, I will just generally refer to the camp as Everest Base Camp, or Base Camp if it is obvious which mountain I’m referring to.
I was drawn to Mount Everest, known to the Tibetans as Chomolungma and in Sanskrit, the ancient Hindu liturgical language of India and Nepal, as Sagarmāthā, not only because of its beauty but all the other mountains that surrounded it as well. All of them fascinated me. It was as if everywhere you looked were mountains.
My training began at the Auckland Tramping Club. What did I expect? After nine hours of presentations, I was prepared for yak poo, dust and small bowls of water to wash myself. Not exactly a great first impression. The Auckland Tramping Club members who had been to the Everest Base Camp had stayed in tents and done it the hard way, with some of them suffering from altitude sickness. One guy I met had shown me his blackened hands from frostbite after a failed attempt to climb Mt Everest from the Chinese side. He thought that would have been an easier route.
I had registered with Trek and Tours, a Nepalese-owned adventure company, and received their itinerary. The trek itself was a total of thirteen days, but they had also included sightseeing trips in Kathmandu. We were to stay in tea houses along the trail, which I was quite happy with.
It was my first time in a country with such high mountains and I liked the idea of being on a guided trip with a team of twenty people. It was a gentle introduction.
The tramping club presentations recommended that people take care to acclimatise slowly to the altitude. It was important to let your body take the time to adjust to thinner air. Some people arrived in Kathmandu, which is at an altitude of 1,400 metres or 4,600 feet above sea level and would only then stay one night before flying to Lukla at 2,860 metres or 9,380 feet, thus gaining altitude far too quickly for the body to adapt.
Not letting yourself acclimatise can lead to serious problems, like blood clots in the brain. Why would people risk it?
My loyal travel companion was my medical kit. I normally stay away from medicines (even Diamox, which is used for altitude sickness) but altitude sickness can be a killer and I didn’t want to be sick in Nepal. To avoid intestinal problems, I also became a struggling vegetarian for the duration of the trip. My drug kit contained the diarrhoea stopper loperamide, some ciprofloxacin antibiotics, packets of Gastrolyte rehydration solution, Tramadol, Tiger Balm, Vaseline for dry skin, tea tree oil, iodine and bandages, and, finally, plain old paracetamol. Not exactly a romantic set-up, but realistic, nonetheless. Someone joked that I would probably be able to walk out if I had a broken leg!
We left for Nepal via Hong Kong on Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. This was quite unnerving given the disappearance of another MH370 flight earlier that month. A more improbable coincidence awaited as I was transiting at the Hong Kong airport. I ran into Lydia Bradey, a New Zealand mountaineer who summited Mt Everest in 1988 at the age of 27 without oxygen or a permit. In fact, she’s the first woman to ever climb Everest without supplemental oxygen. I had heard her being interviewed on New Zealand National Radio.
Because of the lack of a permit, Bradey’s achievement was denied by her team-mates Rob Hall and Gary Ball, a denial which Bradey herself reluctantly went along with for a while and has only recently been acknowledged. I’ve included a link to a 2013 media story at the end of this chapter. In 2015, Penguin Books published an autobiography by Lydia Bradey with Laurence Fearnley. It’s called Lydia Bradey: Going Up is Easy. I’ve read the book; it’s tragic that her feat was not recognised until the last decade. Her ascent of Everest and subsequent falling-out with team-mates Hall and Ball and the New Zealand mountain-climbing establishment is covered from Chapter 12 onwards in that book.
That afternoon, I was surprised to see Lydia at the Hong Kong Airport. A friend of hers, Nick, had previously done a High Alpine Skills Course with me on Aoraki/Mt Cook in New Zealand, and had told me about her. I was in the departure lounge, and she approached me and asked me if she could borrow my Sunday Star-Times. I gave it to her and asked if she was Lydia Bradey. She was very surprised and asked me how I recognised her. I told her she was a friend of a friend and that I had heard her on New Zealand National Radio. I also said that it was dreadful that it had taken so long for her to be recognised for summiting Mt Everest without oxygen. We also talked about my plans for a trek in Pakistan with Patricia Deavoll, another leading New Zealand mountaineer. Lydia told me she had recently been to the capital city Islamabad with Patricia, and that they had witnessed bombs exploding, but she assured me that I would be safe while in the Himalayan districts of Pakistan.
When we arrived at the airport, the disorganisation was overwhelming. There were people everywhere loaded up with hiking and mountaineering gear. It was a small airport, not big enough to support the huge crowds arriving to climb mountains or whatever else they were there for. There were only two conveyor belts in the airport which would every now and then just stop and then a few minutes later start up again loaded up with luggage. If you needed to weigh your luggage, they had some ancient-looking scales. I thought that was quite funny. Out the front of the airport there were rickshaws everywhere! (Recently, the airport has been upgraded to six baggage conveyors; progress marches on.)
After we eventually got out of the airport, we were ushered into a bus for a long ride into the city. The fumes from the road were unbearable; carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide — a choice between sweltering heat with the windows closed or having the windows open and being poisoned! Not a choice, really. Pedestrians wore masks to protect themselves from the fumes.
Here is a video I made about a taxi ride in Kathmandu!
(These days, I highly recommend the great many videos that are now on Youtube, and elsewhere, as the next best thing to being there wherever ‘there’ might be, and as essential preparation, these days, for going there!)
I also noticed that Kathmandu seemed to be full of knockoffs of North Face and other Western labels. You find them across the city. I preferred to buy Nepalese-made brands which are original and last longer. Sometimes it pays not to be hip. I bought shirts, trousers, gloves and hats made from yak wool there: a very famous product.
Trekkers in Nepal can go freely in many areas as a ‘Free Individual Trekker’ or FIT, or as an informal group. However, in parts of Nepal known as Restricted Areas, trekkers (and climbers) must travel in formal groups, with permits and guides. In general, the Restricted Areas are the more elevated, dangerous and ecologically or culturally sensitive areas. Many of the permits are quite cheap and seem to be aimed at ensuring group safety, though for a few exotic areas such as Upper Mustang, an isolated Himalayan kingdom-within-a-kingdom until 2008, the charge is quite steep and presumably aimed at limiting tourism’s impact.
It was my first visit to Kathmandu. The capital city has a total population of three million, out of Nepal’s total population of 29 million people. The roads were gloriously chaotic, with no traffic lights to maintain order. Power blackouts were a fact of life, and people had solar power panels hooked up everywhere. Even a small solar setup was useful for keeping things like wifi alive and charging mobile phones through blackouts, which were quite frequent.
We stayed in an area in the inner city called Thamel, a popular area where all the tourists and travellers stayed. The guiding companies and eateries were there too, and you could see tours advertised on big boards, expeditions to climb Mount Mera and every possible place you could go, along with massages for the hikers and mannequins dressed in all the latest gear outside shops that sold the same.
The streets were thin, dirt-lined paths, so narrow I don’t know how anyone managed to get down them in a truck. All the streets were lined with shops; there were shops with wooden knick-knacks, yak clothing shops, shops with hats and gloves — everything was woollen — jewellery shops and hiking shops. It was quite marvellous how they crammed so much into the tiny streets, which were alive with commerce.
I got a chance to get out and have a wander around. Everywhere you looked wires were just jumbled together and hanging off buildings or across streets. Some hung so low you could have caught your head on one. ‘Om’ chants blasting from the sound systems of stores selling Buddhist mandalas and other religious artwork could be heard everywhere. There were Buddhist shrines and Hindu shrines on every street corner, and sometimes it was hard for a traveller to tell the difference.
Electric power cuts were so common there that the locals didn’t bat an eyelid when they happened. The power would go out any time of the day without any warning! I found out that most of the factories only operated from one a.m. to seven a.m. because most of the people were asleep then; that was the time when power supplies were most reliable. I was also told by my guide that India owned the power companies, as strange as that is.
We visited Lalitpur, historically known as Patan, an ancient royal city known for its Durbar square, a combination of temples and palaces. Lalitpur is located just across the Bagmati River from Kathmandu and is effectively a suburb of greater Kathmandu these days.
Taking a roundabout and scenic route to Lalitpur from downtown Kathmandu, we visited the ancient Buddhist stupas of Boudhanath and Charumati, which feature painted eyes that represent the all-seeing nature of Buddha. Although Nepal is over 80% Hindu, Boudhanath is perhaps the most recognizable of Nepal’s heritage buildings to outsiders, in view of its striking appearance.
The word ‘stupa’ literally means mound or heap; a stupa resembles an old-fashioned burial mound of the kind heaped up in many cultures, and is erected over a sacred Buddhist relic, as a place of meditation.
Around Boudhanath, I saw more shops that sold mandalas and other Buddhist symbols, and taught students the art of painting them as well. We also went to Swayambhunath (the Monkey Temple). It was one of many fascinating Tibetan Buddhist sites, and was an amazing area to visit.
The Boudhanath Stupa lost its golden steeple for a time as a result of the disastrous April 2015 earthquake, which killed 9,000 people and inflicted great damage to Nepal’s architectural heritage as well. The earthquake happened after I was on this tour; it destroyed many old temples in the Kathmandu Valley, including the Shankar Naryan Mandir in Patan Durbar Square, and an ancient temple called the Kasthamandap that predated the Norman conquest of England (!) and gave Kathmandu its name.
Fortunately, many other historic temples and other ancient buildings survived or suffered only easily repairable damage, including the Krishna Mandir, probably the most finely worked stone temple in all Lalitpur. David Ways has an excellent, illustrated ‘Guide to Temples and Buildings Destroyed in the 2015 Earthquake’, on his website, thelongestwayhome.com.
Easily accessed online: Michael Daly, ‘Everest’s history marked in blood’, 29 May 2013, stuff.co.nz/world/8729630/Everests-history-marked-in-blood. Not so easily accessed online: In addition to Lydia Bradey: Going Up is Easy, see also Nicola Russell, ‘Reaching Great Heights’, New Zealand Women’s Weekly, 15 July 2015.
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