MOUNTAINEERING

CLIMBING LOBUCHE – MY FIRST 6,000M MOUNTAIN

6,119m is high. That’s more than 20,000ft. The O2 concentration at that altitude drops to around 9.6%. At sea level it’s a bountiful, lung-filling, blood-enriching 20.9%. Every single step up there is laborious. Each breath leaves you wanting. You can feel the pulsation of your heart, as it struggles to deliver oxygen to your cells, your temples, wrists and throat.

I was vertical kilometres, thousands of metres, away from the so-called Death Zone (something I struggled to comprehend even as I looked across at Sagarmatha, aka Mount Everest, a not-to-distant hulk of rock, looming large on the horizon). My summit was a mere hill compared to the big-uns across the way. But ascending it was no small feat.

I’d spent two weeks trekking to the base of Lobuche over ‘Nepali flat’ terrain (I’ll explain that later). I’d slowly edged my way up a steep, snow-covered face on an empty stomach, with freezing fingers struggling to catch my breath. And I had another five days of trekking to look forward to, before I could finally give my feet and lungs a break. But each laboured step was worth it. Standing on top of Lobuche looking out at Everest, Nuptse, Lhotse, Cho La, I felt I could achieve anything. I felt like superwoman! I was sublimely happy. The happiest I’ve ever been.

I felt like superwoman!

But let’s rewind a little.

Before I started climbing I had no idea of the challenges mountaineers face. Like everyone else, everything they did looked insane. I wondered why they wanted to continue to ascend, even when it was steep, scary, cold, windy and potently dangerous.

But as soon as I started climbing, a little switch flicked. I realised it is for precisely these reasons that mountaineers continue to climb. Without the risks, challenges and fears life would be a flat plane. It would be mundane, prosaic, routine. It would be ordinary.

Climbers seek out the extraordinary. We push ourselves to see what we can achieve. We test our limits. We live on the edge. My limits are obviously significantly lower than the likes of Hillary, Messner, Mallory or Bonatti. But climbing has something for everyone. I wanted to seek out my limit. I wanted to see how far I could go, both mentally and physically.

Nepal has long been a must-do for me. After travelling through Asia when I was in my early twenties I resolved to come back to the region and explore further and higher. It ended up taking more than a decade, though, with the final push coming from an urge to beat my parents to it (they were there in March of 2018 and I was there October 2017).

A decade ago I’d never even considered climbing a mountain. Now it seems wasteful to go to Nepal and not climb a mountain. Now it’s a question of which mountain should I climb? The answer came easily.

I’m the kind of person that if I’m going to do something, I’ll go all in. I had to be realistic though. I’d never dealt with extreme altitude before and I’d not had much experience mountaineering. So I settled on Lobuche, as although it’s only a so-called ‘trekking peak’, it’s regarded as the hardest of them.

The term ‘trekking peak’ is an oxymoron

Don’t be under any illusions, however. The term ‘trekking peak’ is a bit of an oxymoron. When I think of a trek, I think of a long, arduous but relatively flat journey, with no more than undulation, perhaps the occasional incline. I don’t, in any way, visualise an obvious summit. But that’s just what trekking peaks are. In Nepal, when you’ve got the likes of Everest to compare your mountains to, these 6,000m peaks are mere mole hills.

According to the broad and most accepted definition, ‘trekking peaks’ are the “group B NMA Climbing Peaks” classified by the Nepal Mountaineering Association. Lobuche is one of just three PD+ trekking peaks and the second highest of the three. It’s also the least climbed and has some sections of more technical climbing than Island Peak/Imja Tse, the highest of the three PD+ peaks (by a hair’s breadth of just 70m). It was this combination of fewer people and challenging climbing, coupled with the fact it was over 6,000m (the third PD+ on the list, Ganja-la Chuli/Naya Kanga is 5,844) that I settled on Lobuche.

My mind was already in the mountains long before I saw them

Arrival

Even before I landed in Nepal I was in love. Its mysticism was alluring. I’d read so many mountaineering and climbing books in the run up to my trip my mind was already in the mountains long before I saw them. As I flew in over terraced fields, forested hills and sprawling, smoggy Kathmandu with giant – and I do mean giant – mountains framing the distance, my heart swelled. Up there, in that harsh world of rock, ice and snow I knew there were people picking their way up faces, ridges and high passes. It was a world I was about to enter.

I had a few days in Kathmandu breathing fume-heavy air, trying to stay healthy, negotiating my way through traffic to urban-oases in coffee shops, restaurants and air-conditioned gear stores. It had been a long time since I was in Asia. I’d forgotten about the heat, the noise, the pollution, about the energy, life and buzz. Many people hate Kathmandu. But in just a few days I grew to like it. Its soul, like the soot and dust that swathed its streets, got under my skin. Yet it was nothing compared to what I was about to encounter – the real reason I fell head of heals for Nepal.

Nepal’s Khumbu Valley in October is so beautiful it brought me to tears. The colours were so vivid and the landscape was on a scale I’d never seen before. Standing nervously on the long, swaying bridges I craned my neck upwards to see the snow-covered mountain tops and then peer down, hundreds of metres below me to see the torrent that is Dudh Koshi River flowing below my feet.

Up and down the valley there was movement; people were busy selling, carrying, playing, cleaning, eating, drinking, laughing, chatting, sleeping – living. Up high it was silent. Up there it was the mountains that spoke, and they whispered. The valley was filled with trees, rhododendrons bursting with vivacity, cypresses and pines standing tall and proud, filling my lungs with their piney fragrance.

Up high it was silent. Up there it was the mountains that spoke, and they whispered

Right from day one I encountered what our guide, Pemba Sherpa, called Nepali Flat. Basically, there isn’t anywhere that’s flat for long in mountainous northern Nepal. So when the terrain is relatively flat the locals call it Nepali Flat. It was more psychologically challenging than physically, to be honest. I kept thinking, yes finally we’re going down, only to go up again and then down again. I’d see a tea house that was our lunch stop, and it was at the top of the hill. We’d start going up, getting closer and closer, only to be faced by a long downhill before the final ascent. Frustrating is an understatement.

It took two weeks of trekking to reach Lobuche basecamp. And that two weeks was magical. But my gosh, it was challenging. Climbing high passes involved serious scrambling.

Luckily, I coped incredibly well with the altitude; in fact, I had no problems at all. I was eating like a horse, up to two Snickers bars a day as well as two or three portions of Dal Baht, Nepalese lentils, rice and vegetables. I was begging for food at every break. I still can’t comprehend how I was able to eat several thousand calories a day and still lose 3kg.

Summiting

But the main event was the ascent of Lobuche. We arrived at our basecamp at around lunchtime on the 16th of October. The 17th would be a full day of rest. I wasn’t looking forward to that. I was restless. Being so close to the mountain made me even more eager to climb it. I would have to wait an entire day before ascending to advanced basecamp.

When that time came, however, I was nervous. The hike up was hard, I felt the lack of oxygen acutely. We’d be sleeping at 5,400m, beginning the push to the summit at 2.30am on the 19th of October.

The sky was alight with a billion stars

I hardly slept that night. Ironically it was the first time on the entire trip that I struggled to sleep and eat. Under clear skies, alight with a billion stars and on an empty-stomach and with cold fingers we began our summit push.
The first two and a half hours were mostly spent scrambling over rock. At times the exposure was immense. A sheer drop into a gaping black hole awaited us if we wrong footed. But we were well guided, our two Sherpas – Rinje and Dorje – taking good care of us, warming my hands and feet when they started to chill.

By dawn we’d made it to the snow line and were on target for a 9am summit. At first the slope was relatively gentle, more of a traverse really. But after about 45 minutes things stared to get real. Here were the fixed ropes. This is when we used a device called a jumar/ascender to basically pull ourselves up the face. It was tiresome work. My arms tired quickly – long before my legs did.

My energy level plummeted. I forced half a Snickers bar down my throat to help me carry on. We pushed and pulled our way up the steep – up to 65° at times – slope. As we got closer and closer to 6,000m my paced matched that of a snail’s. I managed to take 30 steep steps before I need a 15 seconds pause to catch my breath. Onwards and upwards we continued.

I was on top of my world

Two and a half hours later I was on the summit, a good 30 minutes before 9am on Friday 20th October 2017 – a day I’ll never forget. Standing there, 6,119m up, looking out at Everest and its mighty brothers and sisters I felt on top of the world – or, at least, on top of my world.

Physically and mentally I’d been challenged. But I’d risen to it. I’d stuck with it. I looked at pain and fear and walked on by, instead embracing freedom and presence. I now believe that I can do anything I put my mind to. It’s a cliché; but after more than 30 years on this planet I now I truly believe it. The only thing holding me back is a lack of imagination and motivation. As soon as Ms Inspiration hits me, she wakes up Mr Motivation and together they lead me to where I want to be.