Sunday, 8 May 2011

Pisang Peak and an impostor called Graham

Day 12 - Lower Danaque (2210 m) to Chame (2710 m) 4 hrs Teahouse
The route this morning followed a scrappy track crudely cut into the hillside which would some day, in the not too distant future, become a road. But soon the track turned into steep steps and made several hundred metres of ascent. We now had a second porter with us who Gopal eventually found last night. Ramesh looked young and like he could be in a Nepali boyband. He spent a lot of time looking in any mirror he could find.

James was starving at 10.30 am, as usual, and when Gopal suggested stopping for lunch half an hour from Chame. I wanted to carry on but was out voted despite my reasoning and the gathering clouds.Whilst we waited for lunch to be cooked I did however have some success in finding some vaseline for James's chaffing which he had been complaining about but had not treated it. The vaseline came in a very dusty pot and had clearly been used but I bartered the price down accordingly. As I had predicted it soon started to rain and by the time we'd finished lunch it was torrential. James got the blame as we pulled on full waterproofs and walked full pelt to Chame.

The rain stopped early evening and we wandered around town. Red hammer and sickle flags fluttered in the breeze and teenage monks in traditional red robes but with hoodies beneath them walked aimlessly through town on their mobile phones. The mules were being unsaddled and given their dinner in nose bags. Chame is the provincial capital and has amenities such as a bank (no ATM) and internet cafes, which feels strange as it is at least 3 days walk from a road.. The shops understand the trekkers market and are well stocked with knee supports, woolly hats and Factor 50 suncream. James bought a replacement hat for the one he lost the day before on the pass. We were also surprised to bump into Sean, one of the Aussies. They had made the decision to cross the pass a day early which was lucky as, with all the recent rain, the Larkya La would have been impassable.

Children in Chame

Day 13 - Chame (2210 m) to Upper Pisang (3310 m) 5 hrs Teahouse
The trail was much prettier today and the weather had improved. As acclimatised as we were we whizzed by other trekkers. We had a leisurely lunch stop then walked the final part of the trail to Upper Pisang.

There was no time to take a breather as we needed to sort out all the kit for the start of our ascent of Pisang Peak tomorrow. Then disaster struck, as I was talking James through how to put the tent up there was a loud crack, one of the pole had broken in two. Cue a lot of swearing, but using a bit of gaffa tape and spare parts from the tent repair kit we managed to repair the pole - it would have to do.

Other disasters were also averted that afternoon. Our guide discovered that his crampons didn't actually fit his boots. Between us we swapped our crampons around until we each had a pair that fitted our boots.

That evening we sat down to a big dinner of Dal Bhat with the Aussies. Gopal briefed us on the plan for the following day. His idea was to head straight to high camp, missing out base camp. We expressed concern for Ramesh as he hadn't had the benefit of the acclimatisation we had had by trekking over the Larkya La. For the first time Gopal was quite short with us telling us that the porters were his concern not ours. We let it be. We weren't overly optimistic of getting very far anyway. There had been a lot of snow and Pisang Peak was not often climbed so we would have to break trail through the fresh snow which would be hard going and the weather would need to be better than it had been over the last few days. It was possible that the monsoon had arrived early and we had missed any chance for summitting this season.

Bridge out of Chame

Day 14 - Upper Pisang (3310 m) to 4310 m 6 hrs Camping
As intrepid mountaineers we were the last to leave the teahouse in the morning. Gopal was never keen on early starts.

Following a loggers trail up the mountain behind Upper Pisang we noticed we were being followed. We told him where we were going and advised him to turn back but he was determined to join us. He wasn't particularly forthcoming with his name so we called him Graham. Continuing up out of the treeline we got our first views of Pisang Peak but became increasingly worried about Graham. He was not equipped for this sort of expedition but he wouldn't turn back.

We reached base camp in deteriorating weather and waited for the porters. Encumbered with all our climbing equipment they were considerably slower than us and we retreated into the group shelter. When we emerged the porters were pushing on up the hill. Graham was gnawing on a yak carcass. We followed the porters and Graham followed us.

Above base camp, and as the weather worsened further, the porters had clearly (and understandably) had enough and insisted on stopping. This meant we had to camp at a less than ideal spot and on an uncomfortable slope.

That evening Gopal tried to persuade us to go for the summit from our current camp. This time we put our foot down. The ascent would be too much, we knew we wouldn't make it. He didn't try to change our minds.

Our concern that evening was for Graham, he had no food or shelter with him. We gave him some biscuits and Gopal and the porters let him sleep in the porch of their tent.

James with Graham

Me using the GPS to mark the trail

Me, Gopal and Graham waiting for the porters at base camp.

Day 15 - 4310 m to High camp (5134 m) 4 hrs Camping
We woke to a beautiful day and stunning views over the Annapurna Himal on the other side of the valley, as well as Pisang Peak. Even better news was that both our tent and Graham had survived the night. Pisang Peak looked really close and I had pangs of regret that we hadn't gone for the summit, tomorrow the weather might turn and we would have missed our opportunity.

High Camp did not look far off but it took us double the time we had anticipated and was not without drama. Just below High Camp the snow covered loose shale making the going difficult. Gopal was rightly concerned about the porters and so we took our tent and headed up to the Camp with the intention of pitching the tent so we could empty our bags into it and then return to help carry the porters loads. However before there was time to do this Gakul had left his load and was walking back down the mountain. Our team was abruptly reduced to 4 (+ Graham who was still following us).

The Peak looked closer than ever and after lunch Gopal ran through the basics of fixed ropes and the methods we'd use on our ascent. Then the wind got up and it started to snow again so we retreated to our tents.

That evening, after eating dinner, we coaxed Graham into the porch of our tent, making him a bed from the rope and a bivi bag and hoping that that would be enough for him to survive the night.

I slept badly and woke to ominous rumblings in my stomach. Two trips to the loo in quickly succession confirmed my suspicions. Graham didn't move as I clambered over him in much urgency. I lay awake waiting for the alarm.

Waking to perfect views of Annapurna II

Frost on the tent

The porters tent with Pisang Peak in the background

James and Annapurna II

What the guidebook said about Pisang Peak (6091 m)
I had chosen to climb Pisang Peak for several reasons. Firstly, it was en route. Secondly, it wasn't often climbed so we were likely to have it to ourselves - which we did. Thirdly, it was over 6000 m at 6091 m and finally it was meant to be easy. The guidebook gave it a grade of -PD (basically a walk in the park) and described it as a snow slog with a steeper final section. Hahahahahaha.

Day 16 - High Camp (5134 m) and back again 18 hrs Camping (unplanned)
At midnight the alarm sounded and we tore ourselves from our sleeping bags. We swiftly evicted Graham, much to his disgust, and lit the stove. I was feeling decidedly ropey and couldn't manage anything more than cups of hot chocolate. Pulling on every item of clothing we had, with headtorches illuminating the way under a starry night sky, we set off up the hill (making sure we confined Graham to the porters tent so he didn't follow us).

Trudging through the snow at a painfully slow pace the summit didn't ever seem to get closer. Eventually we got to a ridge which at least provided some interest to the otherwise relentless snow slog. Two large pinnacles on the ridge were avoided by traversing them to the left and then another long snow slog followed. My new down mitts were just about keeping my hands functioning but I was willing dawn to break and some warmth from the sun. We eventually got to the final steep section. There were fixed ropes up some horrible loose shaley slabs and Gopal headed straight up them. We struggled up the fixed ropes, a torturous route, until they ran out. Gopal then got out the rope we had brought with us and set off, with no explanation of what he was intending to do. The 200 m rope got hopelessly tangled to the point that if we were able to communicate with Gopal we would have said that we thought we should head back but he was out of ear shot. Eventually he stopped and after more confusion of actually what he wanted us to do we decided we had no option but to head on up and find him. We found him perched above the last rocky section with what looked like the summit in view. Gopal reckoned it would take another hour to get to the top - at which point James had a sense of humour failure. I wasn't convinced and got Gopal to carry on, but alpine style (I'd had enough of fixed ropes) to save time, to see if it was the summit. Much to my relief the summit (6091 m) was just beyond. Gopal and I took some quick summit photos and returned to James. We had to move quickly as we'd taken much longer than expected and, although the weather had been much better than previous days, it was now closing in. 

Descending the fixed ropes was horrendous due to the loose rock. We were glad to be back on the snow, but now it was very late and the weather was worsening all the time. I had manged to sustain myself throughout the day on just a handful of sweets and a mars bar due to feeling sick and I was now getting cramp from dehydration. We were completely exhausted by the time we got back to the tents in the dark at about 7pm. 

There was no chance of descending to Upper Pisang as planned so we had an additional nights camp. Ramesh cooked us a very welcome dinner and Graham seemed pleased that we were back. And then we  collapsed into our sleeping bags.

Looking down the fixed ropes

James high on Pisang Peak and unimpressed

The summit - 6091 m

Descending to where James was waiting (in the orange shelter)

Day 17 - High Camp (5134 m) to Upper Pisang (3310 m) 3 1/2 hrs Teahouse
We woke, still exhausted, and stumbled about camp, our limbs not wanting to work. Graham got in the way as usual. Apart from being flea-ridden and having weeping sores, he also had a truly disgusting habit. When he saw you reach for the toilet paper he'd follow excitedly. He'd sit next to you far to close for comfort and then once finished, and despite best efforts to bury anything deposited, he'd tuck in. The most disgusting part however was when he'd return with poo in his beard. Trying not to get too close to him I'd crush biscuits up and mixed them in the snow in an effort to get him to clean up.

Due to being a porter down our bags were extremely heavy. We stiffly edged our way down the mountain, our knees creaking. Just below base camp we'd spotted the deserter. He saw us and sat down, waiting for us to reach him. We redistributed the loads and carried on.

Ramesh had melted snow for my drinking water the previous night, but when I went to drink it I saw that it was grey, tasted of kerosene and had dog hair in it. I contemplated putting iodine in it to improve the taste but in the end resigned myself to another day of severe dehydration. Feeling sick and completely exhausted we stumbled into the Manang Hotel in Upper Pisang, too tired to even boast of our success. We were shown to a room and collapsed on the bed and then noticed that there was 3 of us in the room - Graham. We threw him out and he curled up outside the door. Ramesh had found a mirror and was closely inspecting his face.

Later I found that the shower Gods were on my side and I managed to wash in water the warm side of hypothermic. As I was heading back to the room I got Graham in trouble with the hotel owners. They threw stones at him and chased him up the track. The last we saw of him he was following two trekkers up the the hill through Upper Pisang.

Packing up camp

Back in Upper Pisang

Upper Pisang

Graham the flea-ridden, poo eating mountain dog.

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