Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mera Peak, Amazing Sherpas

I just returned from a jaunt up Mera Peak. "Jaunt" is a fair describer of the climb...there were really no technical challenges on the way up. The last 50 meters or so is a bit steep, so they've got a line onto which you can attach a jumar, if you wish. The line is interrupted by a snowbar or ice-axe or something at some point, so it's necessary to detach and reattach your jumar at that point. Never mind, though...they've got a Sherpa stationed right there, ready to take care of those pesky details for you. The immediate impression I got was that of being on a scary amusement park ride, where operators check that you're properly harnessed before the ride proceeds. Honestly...that's what passed through my mind at 6,450 or so meters!

The lines disappear quickly over a course of days or weeks. A mountain like Everest must have thousands of ice screws, pitons, and snowbars embedded in her rock and ice. The really dangerous work is to re-establish a grip on these mountains. These days, that work is accomplished almost entirely by Sherpas. With the lines already set, the clients need only be bright enough to make sure their jumars are simultaneously attached to their lines and harnesses. Hmmmmm.

From my own count, few folks failed to make the summit. Some of those who made it did not have the most impressive physiques. The speed at which one can adjust to the altitude does not seem to be easily gauged beforehand. One pleasing fact: older folks seem to handle the altitudes better than young folks. Hooray! Where else does age give one a physical advantage? A mid-aged German guy spoke with joy of his encounter with a super-fit young Canadian climber who needed assistance down to a lower camp.

I don't mean to poo-poo the experience of climbing Mera. Having woken around 3:00 AM, you walk up a decent slope with less than 50% of the atmospheric oxygen available at sea-level. Depending on your speed, it could take 3-5 hours from high camp. Even my Everest-conquering guide Nima vomited on the way down. Rust-colored. I think it was the canned tuna fish our porters fried up for us. In the week we spent trekking toward the peak, it was obvious that the climb had taken a toll on many folks via seriously chapped lips, sunburn, a gimpy gait, whatever.

The weather is a huge factor in your chances of success. We enjoyed perfect weather on the summit. With the sun reflecting off the snow, I could have shed a layer of clothing. The next day was sour, however, with one Czech dude suffering frostbite on his toes. He was worried that the docs might have to do some snipping in Kathmandu, though I do believe he'll be OK.

More than anything, the appeal of Mera is the view. Everest and Makalu are right in your face. Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world, looks like a fortress in the distance. There's Cho Oyu, beautiful Ama Dablam, Pumori, and more. Hopefully, you'll retain enough consciousness to appreciate it all in the rarefied atmosphere.


Unbeknownst to the morons at TITV here in Thailand*, there are good reasons why folks don't climb Everest in October. The lack of action on the monster peaks at this time of year means that you'll meet some really amazing Sherpa climbers guiding expeditions on the lesser peaks. Let me tell you a bit about these guys:

Most impressive was Dawa Sherpa. If you watch the Discovery channel, you know that your typical Everest expedition requires a base camp and four higher camps. The whole process might take 2 months for a foreigner, who shells out as much as $100,000 to reach his dream. But Mr. Dawa simply began his adventure at the base camp on the Tibet side of Everest, reached the Summit, and traversed down to the Nepali base camp in a total of 20 hours. He told me he was a bit disappointed, since he was shooting for 18 hours. All told, Mr. Dawa has summited Everest 8 times.

Then there was Danu Sherpa. Our trek paralled that of Danu and his two wonderful clients, Christian and Chantal (sorry, no photos), so we had plenty of chances to interact with Danu. Not only has he summited Everest 11 times, and Annapurna I once (which is enough, given a 50% death rate), but he's also a radiantly friendly individual.

I shouldn't neglect my own guide, Nima. At the age of 22, he organized and led a Nepali team up Everest.

Finally, there's the story of a Sherpa whose name eludes me who loaded up on Nepali rakshi (a hard alcohol that Sherpas sometimes refer to as "oxygen"), left his home in Pangboche, summited Everest, and returned home to Pangboche in a span of 30 hours.

High altitude climbing, not to mention high-altitude portering, will never be an Olympic event, but I find the accomplishments of these Sherpas to be truly mind-blowing. It was about 30 years ago that Tenzing Norgay surmised that Reinhold Messner must have cheated on the way to the first ascent of Everest without bottled oxygen. Since then, however, it seems that the Sherpas have discovered their almost unhuman high altitude talents, and I'll be a bit surprised if any non-Sherpas come close to duplicating the above feats.

*The Thai TV station TITV sponsored an Everest expedition in October-November of 2007. The unusual timing was supposed to honor King Bhumibol, whose birthday falls on Dec. 5. You could see updates and live reports amidst bombastic music nightly on TITV. The team failed about 800 meters below the summit. In May of 2008, the first Thai reached the summit. He had failed to attract any sponsors whatsoever, but later managed to minimize his costs by joining a Vietnamese team. The accomplishment was met with surprisingly little fanfare in Thailand.

Despite the comparative ease of climbing Mera, no Thais have done it! We scoured the records! Below, I attempt to advance the cause. Pardon the fractured footage...apparently, Nima found my video camera to be more challenging than Everest.

1 comment:

nepalwriter said...

Sherpas are the true heroes of Everest. Without their assistance, very few would reach the summit. To learn more about this amazing tribe, read Beyond the Summit by Linda LeBlanc. Details of Sherpa culture and religion are interwoven in a tale of romance and high adventure. The story has something for everyone: a love affair between an American journalist and Sherpa guide, conflict between generations as the modern world challenges centuries of tradition, an expedition from the porter’s point of view.

Below are selections from reviews. To read the complete ones and excerpts go to www.beyondthesummit-novel.com

Beyond the Summit, is the rare gem that shows us the triumphs and challenges of a major climb from the porter’s point of view. The love of two people from diverse cultures is the fiery centerpiece of a novel that leads its readers through harshly beautiful and highly dangerous territory to the roof of the world. Malcolm Campbell, book reviewer

Conflict and dialog keep this gripping story of destiny, romance and adventure moving from the first page to the last paragraph. LeBlanc has a genius for bonding her readers and her characters. I found I was empathizing in turn with each character as they faced their own personal crisis or trauma.
Richard Blake for Readers Views.

A gripping, gut-twisting expedition through the eyes of a porter reveals the heart and soul of Sherpas living in the shadows of Everest. EverestNews.com

A hard-hitting blend of adventure and romance which deserves a spot in any serious fiction collection. Midwest Book Review

LeBlanc is equally adept at describing complex, elusive emotions and the beautiful, terrifying aspect of the Himalayan Mountains. Boulder Daily Camera

LeBlanc’s vivid description of the Himalayas and the climbing culture makes this a powerful read. Rocky Mt News Pick of the Week

A rich adventure into the heart of the Himalayan Kingdom. Fantastic story-telling from one who has been there. USABookNews.com

This is the book to read before you embark on your pilgrimage to Nepal. The author knows and loves the people and the country, and makes you feel the cold thin air, the hard rocks of the mountains, the tough life of the Sherpa guides, and you learn to love them too. This is a higly literate, but also very readable book. Highly recommended.”
– John (college professor)

Memorable characters and harrowing encounters with the mountains keep the action moving with a vibrant balance of vivid description and dialog. Literary Cafe Host, Healdsburg, CA

This superbly-crafted novel will land you in a world of unimaginable beauty, adventure, and romance. The love story will keep you awake at night with its vibrant tension and deep rich longing. Wick Downing, author of nine novels

Such vividly depicted images of the Everest region and the Sherpa people are the perfect scenario for the romance and adventure feats narrated. It’s a page-turner, so engrossing you end up wanting to visit Nepal! Not just novel, but perfect for those seeking to get acquainted with the culture of this country.
By Claudia Fournier (América, Bs. As., Argentina)

Available through Barnes and Noble, Borders, amazon.com, Chesslerbooks.com, and the web site