The trouble with expeditions is you never can tell how it’s all going to work out...
(pic Matt Helliker on the walk-in, day 1. Credit NB camera Samsung NX 10.)
It's the beauty and the pain, the agony and the ecstasy, it's taking the rough with the smooth...
...If it were easy, everyone would do it right?
High above Pokhara, late afternoon the blond god and I reached the dead end of the rough rubble road. The wind picked up and stirred dust into dervishes. The chewed field looked like an inner city football pitch, ragged and raw and scuffed, litter strewn. Tents pitched, brew on, dark descended and with it heavy drops of thunder-rain thud into the dust.
We were on our way. The morning would be the start of the walk in. Well, that was if we had enough porters, three had already bailed and apart from the four who had travelled with us from Kathmandu, the rest were shouting and haranguing Katak, one of our guide/serdars.
The bad feeling I had from the start of this expedition remained. Bracey had pulled out ten days before flying due to circumstances beyond his control. Pete Benson came on-board only to be delayed along with the camera man Ian Burton, Laura, Pete’s wife, Helliker’s boots and all of the electrical gadgetry due to volcanic ash. They were hopefully going to join us at BC but delay after delay after delay and still no take off date.
The rain pounded lifting the dust. The porters shouted and the voice in my head joined in ‘We should have delayed, we should have delayed, it all feels wrong, volcanic dust, Bracey bailed, kit strewn everywhere around the world, climbers strewn everywhere around the world’, but expeditions take a lot of organisation and once they have momentum they are like steam rollers, difficult to stop, difficult to control, crushing all in their path, including ego and ambition and best laid plans.
The morning arrived abrupt; dawn lifted above the surrounding tree covered hills. Our camp sparkled bright and clear and fresh. My mind felt cleansed and the imminent arrival of exercise made me positive. At last we were leaving behind all of the mishap and mayhem.
Paddy fields, ploughed steppe, vibrant purple flowers and cheerful locals… And in the afternoon we stopped in a field bordering the forest. A very steep spur covered in jungle now confronted our band which had decreased by another 7 porters, but that was for tomorrow, for now, the relaxing meadow with chickens and cows, exotic bird song and fresh green grass felt friendly and relaxing.
The second day of the walk-in was steep, humid, and physical. Our band of happy (the cook, the two guides and the four porters from Kathmandu) took on the challenge, smiling and laughing and singing. In direct comparison the local Pokhara porters complained and looked sullen. Later cloud swirled, rain and hail hit, the wind gusted… I shouted and whistled to help guide the porters to our shrouded camp which was a boggy flat spot cut in the spur. A pool of stagnant water was the water supply. Quickly we set up a large BC tent for the porters, then another for the cook and the kitchen boys, then our own. It was like a rough night out in the Welsh hills… Matt and I ate outside with feet lifted off the ground; the leaches were hungry. Matt grabbed the cutlery and popcorn and salt and pepper pots as they blew from the table… We had to laugh, it was a sorry situation but the weather was far from convincing… Helliker had received a text earlier in the day saying the volcanic ash stranded trio were due to fly on the 26th. Another kick in the teeth as this meant they would not reach BC for an age putting our acclimatisation out of sync and the film of the walk-in lost and Helliker without boots for acclimatisation.
Day three started clear, but soon the clouds rolled in and the hail began. Juggernaut, (pronounced juggernat but we thought that Juggernaut suited him better) was a tall well dressed (smart brown cords, stripy orange shirt) wiry porter from Kathmandu who sported a Lee Van Cleef moustache attached to a gaunt face with deep knowing eyes. Juggernaut was as strong as an Ox. He smiled readily even though he was now carrying a double load as the Pokhara porters were ditching gear quicker than seeds blew from a Dandelion head. The caravan of cheerful and sad, of singing and grumpy stretched along a misty cold moor until we found a dribble of water and an exposed camp site. Hail pummelled through the night and thunder rattled the tents.
(First pic above is THE Juggernaut, credit NB. The second shot is Camp 3 looking at the Fishtail/Machhapuchhre morning of day 3, credit MH. The shot below is one of the female porters with the Fishtail behind, credit MH. All shots taken with a Samsung NX 10.)
“STOP, STOP NOW!” Matt screamed at the cook and the local guide (a guy who had been employed as he had convinced our agent’s men,a month previous on their original fact finding mission that he regularly completed the walk to Annapurna III BC) who were cutting steps into a small steep snow patch as Matt and I and several porters stood in the middle of a terminal moraine slope. Boulders tumbled and dirt flowed. Above us rocks rattled. The problem was after the snow patch a smooth steep glaciated wall of rubble continued for another 50 metres. The chances of getting across this safely were minimal, the chances of getting across with a 25 kilo load were impossible. The local guide sunk into soft snow nearly falling and screamed and turned… “Looks like he has eventually come to the same decision as us then!” Both he and the cook decided enough was enough for one day and tomorrow things would look better.
couloir of death. Check out the footsteps in the snow and think of continuing with 25 kilo on you're back while wearing a pair of running shoes! Credit MH, taken on a Samsung NX 10)
In the cloud and the swirling snow Matt and I checked out all other possibilities and decided there were none that could be attempted without fatality. We were then informed that 14 of the porters were leaving in the morning, only leaving six porters to carry twenty-one loads across a death couloir then onto, and over, a steep technical ridge followed by a 4400 metre snow covered col before dropping into the Seti Khola valley and BC… Hmm, game over!
It took 2 days to return to Pokhara from our ice encrust camp. A roof-top bus ride – swaying, screaming, jostling, laughing, ducking electrical cables, singing, mingling with the locals was the highlight of the whole trip…
(Nick Bullock on the roof of the bus returning to Pokhara. Credit MH taken with a Samsung NX 10.)
Pokhara Lake. The surrounding hills swayed in the heat haze. Tourists and locals walked the quiet Pokhara street…
“We need to come back in October, it can’t be left like this, we cant just give up?”
(Above, Matt Helliker on the roof of the bus. Below, clearing the electric cables on the roof of the bus. Credit NB and MH Taken with a Samsung NX 10.)
“Yeh mate, but how do we get in to the mountain…?”
“Helicopter, we can hire a helicopter!”
Helliker in Pokhara kicked and bruised but not down, checking out the prices of helicopters ready for a return match in October . Credit NB taken with a Samsung NX 10)
Back in Kathmandu we will visit the ministry later today. It looks very doubtful they will postpone our permit until October, (it’s against the law they say!) so $2800 for nothing. $2000 for the LO even though he didn’t go in as he was waiting for the half of the team which were volcano affected, looks to be lost also, (but he was booked they say!). £1200 for two flights, £600 for change of flight costs, approximately $14000 for agent fees, (hopefully we will come to some arrangement over a part of this, although travel and cook services and porters and guides and porter insurance and Lobens time, etc, etc, etc has been used)… it’s a pretty big bill for a 5 day reccy that told us nothing apart from you cant get in the original way due to a glacier that no longer exists.
… But hey, never say never and when the going gets tough the tough get going, its never over till its over, try, try and try again, where there’s a will there’s a way… and one of my own, don’t let the bas***ds grind you down… (OK, maybe someone else used that one before)… but watch this space, October isn’t that far away and already we have permission for the express way in!