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Mera Peak


 

by Barry Cartwright

March 18, 2002

Mera Peak is a small peak (by Nepal standards) near Everest. It is nearly 6500m high, or over 21,000ft. But before you can try and climb Mera you have to get to Mera which is an adventure in itself. It all starts with a plane ride to the small Sherpa village of Lukla. Here they have a very interesting runway which is built at a steep angle so planes can use gravity to stop and start fast enough for the short space.

Once in Lukla we are aghast to find that one of my bags is not on the plane with us (the one containing much of the climbing gear, such as harnesses, crampons, and my plastic boots). We were assured that they would be coming in on the next flight. Although worried, there was nothing we could do but wait. Waiting was not a problem for the three of us doing the climb because we had thought that we were spending that day in Lukla anyway. So we settle down in a local guest house and are drinking some hot drinks when all this activity starts in the next room.

It turns out that our guides have decided there will be a change of plans and we are leaving as soon as my bag gets here! So a day we had anticipated using as a rest and acclimatization day (Lukla is at almost 10,000ft) where we would repack from the flight for actually trekking turns into a mad rush to get everything ready for the porters within the next hour. Luckily my bag does arrive on the next flight as promised and we get under way just after one in the afternoon.

As I said there are three of us planning on doing the climb and because there are few open lodges on our route we have to carry everything we will need for the next 16 days in with us. So in addition to the three of us; we have a trekking guide, a climbing guide, a cook, three kitchen helpers (who carry incredible loads containing stoves, kerosene, pots and pans, and all sorts of other kitchen gear), and NINE porters (who also carry huge loads)! We make up what I think looks like quite a formidable expedition. Even with all these porters each of us is still carrying 20 - 30 pound backpacks. Even with starting later than anticipated our guides want to still get to their planned resting place for the first night. It is almost a 5 hour walk away, first steeply down and then steeply up (such is walking in Nepal!).

Considering we weren't planning on walking at all on that first day it was quite a shock, and almost too much for one of us, who was coming up from sea level and already having trouble with the altitude (one of the reasons we were planning on staying in Lukla and resting the first day). We never did find out why our guides were so insistent on moving this first day (the first of many questionable decisions they were to make in the days to come). Right around sunset we all manage to make it to Puyan, a little tired (or very tired) but feeling good about what were able to do that day.

The next morning our friend from sea level isn't feeling real great but thinks she is OK to walk that day. We are told that day will be shorter and easier than the day before which reassures her. This turns out to be absolutely untrue! Many Sherpas seem to have a very different sense of what is hard and easy and they have no sense of time, so you can't really trust a Sherpa when they tell you how far away something is or how hard the trail is.

As the day progresses and gets harder and harder our friend gets more and more tired and more and more sick (she can't eat and is feeling nauseous). By the end of the day it is all she can manage to get up the final hill. This day ended up taking us seven and half hours and the trail was just as hard if not harder than the day before, though by the end of the day we still are at an altitude of around 10,000ft. Knowing now that our friend can't continue until she is better acclimatized we insist to our guides that we take a rest day. We are in a very cute little Sherpa village known as Pangam and the next day one of the Buddhist monks is getting married (Buddhist monks obviously can marry, at least in some sects). So we are happy to stay the day and see the wedding. The groom it turns out is quite old and this is going to be his third marriage (and yes, his third wife, the other two still being alive and married to him). The wedding though is not that spectacular with just a bunch of people sitting around all dressed up.

By the end of the day our friend decides that she is sick enough, and not able to walk well enough, to do the climb. We decide that she should take our trekking guide and one of the porters and go back to Lukla, and if she is feeling better then she can do an easier trek going up to Namche Bazaar. We say our goodbyes and plan to meet up again in Lukla in two weeks. Now down to just two of us along with 14 support people we head up the valley towards Mera peak.

For the next few days we spend our days hiking through what turns out to be an enchanted forest with lots of rhododendron trees, bamboo trees, and a few pine trees thrown in. Our path is often covered by a think layer of leaves and it all looks like we are hiking in Autumn instead of the end of December. But we do have reminders of the true time of year when we come to a north-facing section of trail and it is encrusted with slick ice and also as the temperature plummets as soon as you lose the sun and we huddle in heavy parkas getting warm by a fire or sitting in our sleeping bags at night at 8:00 because it is too cold to be out of the tent.

Once we reach the base of Mera peak we are at an altitude of well over 14,000ft and decide to take another acclimatization day. We have a very relaxing day and once the sun hits it is very warm so we decide to be very luxurious and wash some clothes and more importantly wash ourselves (we have barely managed a couple of wet wipe sponge baths in the previous week).

The next day we head out refreshed and a little rested. The day is slow going as we are now getting into some real high altitude. That day we ascend from 14,500ft up to 16,000+ feet. Even with the altitude gain it is not a long day and we arrive before lunch. Our climbing guide then decides that he and a porter should go up to our high camp to drop off some supplies we will need. He wants to do this because it turns out none of the porters have crampons to climb on the glacier with (I never did find out why they arranged porters for us who didn't have crampons or why they didn't provide crampons for the porters who needed to go on the glacier). So our guide and a porter head out after lunch for high camp on the glacier.

As the temperature drops and we settle into our sleeping bags the guide and porter who went up to high camp still haven't returned. We aren't too worried because they have lights and there is a very bright and clear moon for them. Finally sometime after 8:00 PM we hear them come into camp. They said it took them about 5 hours to get up to the camp and then just 2 hours to come down. Because they have taken this load up to the next camp we are committed to getting up there, with no stops in between. The next day our guide says we don't need to leave until late morning, so we delay our departure until after 10:00 AM. The morning turns out to be a pretty rough scramble up some rock scree that takes us over 2 hours at which time we reach the head of the glacier. We still need to have several of our staff go on with us to high camp and since they only have two sets of crampons our guide says he will be on a rope with them to help keep them safe.

The first 200 vertical meters to get on to the top of the glacier is fairly steep and VERY icy. So our guide and our porters take off with us following them, but very soon they are well out of sight as we are moving much more slowly. Feeling rather abandoned and a little scared about being on the ice with a novice I carefully lead us up the glacier.

After about another hour and a half we finally struggle to the top of the glacier and see our staff about a mile out in front of us! Since the going now is much safer our guide has left our porters and cook to come back and see how we were doing, this effort was too little too late as we were now off the worst section of the climb where we needed him the most! As he sees we are doing OK he takes off again and gets way out in front of us (we are thinking that he is headed up to get our camp all set up and then will come back down to help us again).

For the next 3 and half hours we slog our way up the slope of the glacier getting more and more tired. Occasionally we stop to look around at the magnificent view but pretty much we are just walking slowly zombie-like up the glacier. In all of this we pass a few places where we could have stopped and camped or have rested, but with all our staff way ahead we have to just keep plodding on. We are still climbing as the sun sets and we are treated to one of the most gorgeous sunsets I have ever seen, with views of Everest and Cho Oyu and many other of the highest mountains in the world all reflecting the reds of the setting sun.

Mera Peak High Camp Finally at around 6:00 we struggle into camp (no one came to help us up until the last 100 or so meters). Dehydrated and exhausted we collapse into our tent. We are now at an altitude of almost 19,000ft. I am feeling a little nauseous and very tired. I can also feel a good headache coming on. The joys of altitude, esp. of coming up too high too fast in the last day. We never figure out why we skipped some of the lower camp sites, though our guide says the weather was so good and we were looking so strong he thought that we should push really hard for the summit.

For many reasons though this response did not make sense, the most compelling of which is that from the very first day our guides had told us we would go directly from the camp at 5000m to the camp at 5800m, skipping those in between. We are supposed to start climbing again at 3:00AM for the summit. We have another 700 or so meters and this will take us about 8 or 9 hours to get to the top. As we get up (we didn't really wake up as neither of us really slept) we find out that our guide is now too exhausted himself to go to the summit but that a porter will be going up with us (a porter who is not trained as a mountain guide and who has never been to the top of Mera Peak before).

Luckily, this is not really an issue because the two of us are also too exhausted from the day before to push for the summit; just packing up to get ready to leave took most of the strength I had left. So deciding to err on the side of caution and not push ourselves over the limit, we crawl back into our sleeping bags until sunrise. Sunrise is almost as spectacular as sunset and now we are able to get a few pictures. At this point we have two options, to stay where we are for the day and try for the summit tomorrow or to head back down. We are debating this as breakfast comes, and just one look at the food makes me feel sick, and along with the headaches and the cold we decide that we are too miserable up there to stay any longer so we pack up and head down.

Barry and Sonam descending Mera Peak As we head down we look back up towards the peaks and notice that even 6,000m peaks have huge plumes coming off their summits (often this happens with Everest or the other 8000m peaks) which is an indication of very high winds (and we are very glad not to still be on the mountain as the conditions must now be miserable). We take a slightly different and shorter route back to Lukla going through Namche Bazar.

When we get to Namche we call about our flight and find out that the Kathmandu Airport might be closed the day we want to returns so it is recommended that we try to get onto a different flight. The next morning we call about trying to get on an earlier flight and they say they will try to do that for us, so we now have to get back to Lukla that day. On the way down we have to pass many Yak trains (as Yaks move much slower than us) and as we are passing one such train, one of the yaks decides he doesn't like something about me and tries to gore me but luckily sticks his horn between my torso and my arm and misses sticking it into any flesh. A little shaken, we do make it without further incident back to Lukla.

Usually wind and clouds make flying onto Lukla an exclusively morning affair, but as we come into town we can still hear planes landing and taking off. We check about our tickets and they say they are still trying to get us on tomorrow's flight, so we sit back and are having something hot to drink when this big woman comes to us breathless and says we can't get seats tomorrow, but there is one last flight today and we can get a seat on that plane, so we quickly get everything packed up and get down to the airport (the trek ending in the same type of hustle and bustle that it started with). The plane arrives just 15 minutes later and we are on our way back to Kathmandu.



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