What had started as a trip about a mountain ended up being more about a struggling nation, the people we met and enduring and as a family together.
"A week before leaving the UK, we had found that our planned trek to the Tibetan North Face of Everest had been closed to foreigners without reason and all that was permitted would be the far longer, and more arduous, East Face Trek which was rarely done because of its gruelling route.
On hearing this we had paused, our planned trek would have been a relatively straight forward 5 day journey with altitude being the main challenge, but this alternative route would be an isolated 13 days of endurance. Our Tibetan agent urged us to accept the East route quickly as he was certain that this too would be closed imminently to foreigners. So we did and we soon found ourselves in Tibet, at the end of a tarmac road and venturing on to a dirt track where our journey began.
The track wound its way along the steepening valley sides, narrowing as the valley became a canyon, the walls of which rose vertically. The brown tumbling waters were several hundred feet below, or a moment of distraction away, if the driver didn’t concentrate! We tried to hide our white knuckles and muffle our ‘don’t look down’ comments.
We unloaded our bags with a sense of relief at finishing the drive, but also with a relief that we had made it this far as numerous army check points had been negotiated during our three day drive from Lhasa.
Our new route was to trek over the mountains to the valley that ultimately reached the Eastern Face of Everest - the same route taken by the first British Expedition in the early 1900’s. It was one big loop, with us finishing off at the North Face – the distance unknown as maps were illegal in Tibet so we would be relying on our Tibetan guide's local knowledge. For the next 13 days it would be just the four of us, our Tibetan guide and cook along with 2 nomads and their 5 Yaks."
"I thought it would be a gradual stroll up a valley, but it’s been 3000ft of climbing today and around 4000ft yesterday! It’s like big days in the Scottish hills with socks stuffed in your mouth, which is the only way to describe how it feels to have 50% less oxygen to breathe and half the atmospheric pressure. We’ve climbed today up to almost 19,000ft and have been gasping for air almost every step, it is slow going but it gives us time to marvel at the hanging glaciers that are peaking out of the mist.
The tents are awful and a lack of fly sheet means the rain is getting in and soaking our sleeping bags. The cooking tent is so small we’re eating and sleeping in our two tents - using umbrellas to shelter the food. We've had no food poisoning yet which is a miracle considering the hygiene levels of the cooking - you’re best not to look in the cooking tent! We’ve not seen a soul other than nomads in their blanket tents, and they say there have not been tourists in these parts for weeks.
We had a restless night caused by buffeting winds, horizontal rain and the worry of nomads stealing items which we couldn’t fit in our tent with us. Water was breaching the tents and our makeshift tarpaulin was in danger of blowing away. The next morning I wriggled out the tent in the damp clothes I had been sleeping in and my jaw dropped - the clouds had cleared and the dawn light was casting shadows on the towering spires of Makalu (the fifth highest mountain in the world) which loomed over us. It was spectacular. The snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas were to the east where the sun was rising and then to the west the clouds parted to reveal Lhotse another 8000m+ peak.
After enduring another couple of ridges today, we looked down on our destination for tonight right at the end of the east face of Everest’s Glacier. It was still some distance away but before any of us got a chance to complain the clouds parted and there it was, Everest's snow-capped summit gleaming in the sunshine - it was quite a moment. Tomorrow we climb up the north side of the glacier on to one of the ridges.
It was a restless sleep; not because of the monsoon rains again (!), but rather the lack of oxygen as we all found ourselves waking up gasping for air with deep heaving breaths - your body wakes you up from a drowning dream but there is no reprieve, you have to stay calm and not panic.
After our usual breakfast of barley pancakes and fried eggs, we headed off to reach the head of the Everest glacier, it was a gruelling 7 hours of breathless walking as the altitude reached close to 20,000ft, the sun shone with an incredible intensity and we could hear the glacier shifting and grinding below us. At the end of our energy we reached the head of the valley and gazed beyond at the ice grey moraines stretching 180 degrees around us.
The rain came, soaking us through for our long, stumbling trek back to our tents. One symptom of being at altitude is a reduced appetite, so energy levels were low from a lack of lunch and we have to force ourselves to eat. Ghandi, our cook, tries his best with lunches but it’s a challenge when fundamentally it’s the same as what was for breakfast, the only variation being a dubious boiled egg instead of fried to have with a stale barley pancake.
We collapsed back in our tents leaving our soaking legs and feet to hang outside whilst we drank warm tea and dunked a packet of rich tea biscuits. This had become our end of the day ritual and was our only decadent escape to allow us to momentarily forget the damp and cold. We exchanged our saturated Gore-Tex for our down jackets and extra thermals, and huddled together in our tents at 19,000ft having discussions about hot baths, favourite foods, writing diaries and playing chess. All with a shrouded Everest as a back drop.
We have reached the East face Base Camp and there is nothing there. It is as far as you can go without crossing glaciers and crevasses and the sight was desolate yet spectacular. We had camped on the exact same spot as the early British Expedition had camped when they tried to find a route up Everest. There are random stones around us with names roughly chiselled into them - a memorial to some of those who died on the mountain above us – it's so moving to see.
We retraced our steps yesterday down the glacier to reach the route up over the northern mountains that would lead us on to the North face of Everest. It's been an exhausting climb and have stopped after ascending over 3000ft today - I thought by now we might have acclimatised, but definitely not. I checked my heart rate on the way up and it was at a fairly constant 160bpm! We had hoped for clear skies but had low level mist that every now and then opened to reveal peaks and glaciers. We're now in our tents, recovering with a cup of tea as the monsoon rain pours. 2 more days until we reach the North Face Base Camp and the end of the trek! We're all dreaming of warm beds!
It took us 4 hours to reach the top of the pass at just under 20,000ft. It was so dramatic with the multi coloured prayer flags fluttering brightly against a back drop of snow and craggy peaks. We stopped to add our Perth YMCA t-shirt to the fluttering display and started the long descent of around 4500ft.
By 6pm we had reached a dusty track that lead down to a lonely Tibetan mountain village, at the edge of which we found a derelict, windowless house and pitched our tents in one of the drafty rooms for the night. Naomi and I smiled at each other ‘knowing, satisfied’ smiles when the girls both exclaimed that sleeping on a concrete floor wihtout a tarpaulin roof was a luxury! We had made it to the end of our trek, and in the morning we would get a lift up the North Face base camp of Everest, completing our 13 day loop.
It’s too difficult to articulate in a text the journey we’ve been on as a family - slowing time, capturing moments and enduring together. We’ve seen more of God’s spectacular creation and at the same time felt so humbled by glimpsing into the Tibetan and Nomad’s way of life. It’s been a treasured time."