Monday, December 10, 2012

Trekking Part 2: Everest

Once back in Tumlingtar, a week earlier than planned, I realised that I had a whole heap of time to spare, and that rather than follow my original plan of trekking up to Lukla, and then out to Jiri for a bus back to Kathmandu,  I had the option of punching North from Lukla and up into the Khumbu, Everest region, home of the Sherpa's, and the greatest mountains on Earth. To maximise my time in this mystical region however, I would have to get there quickly, so bins were stowed away in my backpack, and I absolutely missioned it through the lowlands (anything below 3000m is classed as lowlands in Nepal), and within a week I was at Namche Bazzar,  the gateway to Everest.
Looking up the valley on the trek up to Namche

Here the birding began in earnest. A 'rest' day in Namche to acclimatise had me chasing Himalayan Monals and Blood Pheasants up and down steep grassy slopes, eventually getting incredible views of these stunning species.

Blood Pheasant

 Top quality raptors were frequently seen, Golden Eagle and Himalayan Griffon Vulture patrolling the high ridges, and I even saw a Lammergeir overflying Namche from my Hotel room!
Himalayan Griffon and Taboche

After the agonising, upping and owning crossing passes between Tum and Namche, the trekking up here was a doddle, just gently following valleys uphill, gaining no more than 400metres a day to prevent AMS. By the time I arrived in Gokyo I felt really quite fresh and rested, despite being st 5000m, I had acclimatised well by now, and seen a whole heap of good birds on the way up, flocks of Grandala, the males an unbelievable plush blue velvet, Guldenstadts Redstart, hopping around the edge of a sacred lake (complete with resident Ruddy Shelduck), Alpine, Altai, Robin and Rufous-breasted Accentor strutting about like the pimped up Dunnocks they are, and Tibetan Snowcock feeding around village edges like chickens.
Altai Accentor

Tibetan Snowcock

Taboche Tso

The village of Macchermo, with Cho Oyu in the distance

And the moutains, oh, the mountains. There was always one particular peak dominating the skyline at any given time, changing as my perspective changed as I moved up the valley. First was Thamserku, then Ama Dablam (If Everest is 'mother goddess of earth' then Ama Dablam is her vindictive little sister, a real vicious looking mountain, put on this earth to kill people with too much of an adventurous streak), then Taboche, Cholatse, and up above Gokyo, the mighty ice wall of Cho Oyo. Trekking up the valley from Gokyo was a spectacular way to spend an afternoon, culminating in my first close (relatively speaking) views of Everest from 'scoundrels viewpoint' above the sacred lakes, where I filled my water bottle with ice-cold water, milky with sediment eroded from these great peaks.
Hunchhi from the top end of the Ngozumpa Glacier

Sunrise over Kantega

Thar she is!! Everst, Sagarmartha, Chomolongma, Mother Goddess of Earth, whatever you wants to call it. Probably as close as i'll ever get. It was nuts to think that was still another 3,800m up from where I was looking!

Ama Dablam at dusk

Looking across the Ngozumpa Glacier to Cholatse, just before I had to pick my way across the moraine. It was as tricky as it looks

From Gokyo came what was always going to be a tough trek over the Cho La, a 5460m pass complete with glacier. Knowing that, as an ice-novice, traversing the glacier alone would be silly, borderline reckless, I gave myself a lie-in to allow the couple of groups staying in the same village as me, a chance to get there first and their guides to make out the path over. 2 hours I gave them but after just 90 minutes trekking I had overtaken them, they just trekked too damn slow, even with porters carrying their heavy gear. So as it was, I was first man up to the pass that morning, with a beautiful, pristine looking glacier to negotiate. Sod it, how hard can it be I thought, and pressed ahead. Really flipping hard it turns out. After just a few minutes I found myself off the crisp, grippy snow and on clear, blue ice, slippy as hell as the morning sun warmed it. I knew I was in a bad bad place, but I was too far to turn back and I thought that if I took it easy I could make it over. Next thing I knew I was on my arse and sliding downhill at gathering speed, I was desperately trying to perform a fingertip self-arrest but the ice was too smooth, I was rocketing downhill at a hell of a rate, towards the big icefall at the end of the glacier . Suddenly, SMACK, a large, conveniently placed, and very painful lump of ice slowed my descent and I managed to grab hold of some icy ridges. From there, a quick shaky scramble saw me safely on the right side of the glacier. It had all happened a bit too fast to be scared, but looking back, lets just say I was in quite a spot of bother, probably the worst situation i've been in in all my travels, and thats saying something!
The views from the Cho La

I took this self portrait just before my 'little slip'. Check out the angle of that ice, then imagine sliding down it with a 20kg pack on, fun times!

After that experience, I hurried down to gentler slopes, but 2 days later found myself climbing up to Chhukung Ri, at 5546m, a 'personal best' for altitude, and with stunning views up at Lhotse and Nuptse, and down at their respective glaciers, with a novel new view of the backside of Ama Dablam.
The Nuptse ridge from Gokyo Ri

Ama Dablam, Nuptse and Lhotse
Downhill back to Namche I stopped 2 days at Tengboche, with its famed monastery, but to be honest, I wasn't all that impressed with this much acclaimed place. Back to Namche it was for more pheasant watching, and then down to Lukla, where the weather had me stuck for a few days waiting for a plane out. Eventually, I was booked onto the first flight of the day, and I was waiting nervously at the airport gates at dawn under clear skies. After a delay due to flog at KTM, the plane, a tiny old Dornier eventually made it in and we were hurried onto the tarmac and up into the tiny aircraft. The reason for the hurry became apparent as we rocketed down the runway and over the cliff edge before rising up into the valley, a massive bank of cloud was piling up towards us from the lowlands. We ploughed through it, and after an hour I stood relieved in the haze of Kathmandu, possibly the only flight to make it out that day!
White-winged Grosbeak

White-throated Redstart

Himalayan Tahr

Well thats me up to date from Nepal, for now. Tomorrow i'm off to Pokhara to start it all over again in the Annapurna region. There will be more hastily written nonsense when I return in god-knows-how-many weeks. I should probably take this opportunity to wish you a Happy Christmas, and a bird (or whatever it is that interests you) filled New Year. Cheers

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Trekking part 1- Makalu Base Camp

Phew, where to start...... the beginning I 'spose.

So, from Kathmandu I flew out to Tumlingtar, right out in Eastern Nepal. The flight was spectacular in itself. Stunning, though distant views of the Himalaya, it was like a 'who's who' of mountains; Gauri Shankar, Thamserku, Nuptse, Lhotse, and of course, just peeking out from behind the Nuptse ridge, with the legendary South Col just visible, Chomolongma, Mother Goddess of Earth, Mount Everest herself! Soon enough though we were whizzing low through valleys, with impossibly steep, lush green  terraced fields seemingly little more than arms length out of the window, and the Arun Koshi winding its milky blue way southwards below us. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, a runway perched on the clifftop receiving us for a bumpy landing. An absolute helter-skelter of a flight, and never to be forgotten i'm sure. Makalu awaited.

Tumlingtar Airport

For this first leg of the trip I did the unthinkable and hired a guide, forced by an apparent total lack of trekking infrastructure. The first few days of the trek were a bit of a nightmare to be honest. The lowlands were hot and humid, and we mainly followed a dusty road through fields of millet, with little forest. A lightning strike by some stomach bug did little for my strength and moral, without going into the gory details.
Lush lowland fields

The locals having a look at Himalayan Griffon Vultures through bins for the first time

Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-babbler

 Day 3 saw us drop down to the river, and then climb back up, to my delight into some fantastic primary forest, which continued for a few days. You know the sort, misty, mossy, orchids growing out of standing trees, and filled with birds. Absolute crackers like Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler, Chestnut-headed Tesia, Scarlet Finch, and the stunning Fire-tailed Myzornis. The area above Tashigaon in particular was awesome, especially for thrushes with Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush, Plain-backed Mountain Thrush and Grey-winged Blackbird all on show at once, with Great Barbet and Red-billed Leiothrix providing the soundtrack.
Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush

Scarlet Finch

Further uphill we emerged into the Rhododendron zone. The stuff which i've previously assaulted so viciously in attempts to remove it from Brownsea Island (the sensible Dorset Wildlife Trust part, the National Trust like it on their land for it's scenic value, fools), here was a wildlife haven, Himalayan, White-browed and Rufous-breasted Bush-robins, Fulvous Parrotbills and Rufous-bellied Eagle being the stars around Kongma.
Fulvous Parrotbill

White-browed Rosefinch

 From Kongma the trekking got tough, up and over the 4216m Shipton La, named for the great explorer himself, who discovered the pass with the equally legendary Edmund Hillary during the 1952 Everest recce. It truly felt a privilege to be following the footsteps of such men. High up here, the vegetation was as thin as the air, and the birdlife reflected this; Upland Buzzards soared eagle-like above flock of Snow Pigeons and Plain Mountain Finch, while solitary Rufous-breasted Accentors eked out a sparse living amongst the rocks. Dropping down to the relative oasis of Yangle Kharka (via the cold dark hole that is Dobato), more birds appeared in coniferous forests, though were a bugger to see.

Yangle Kharkha

Basic bedroom

Basic kitchen/dining room

White-throated Fantail

White-tailed Nuthatch

Blue-fronted Redstart

Brown Dipper

 White-winged Grosbeaks noisily cracked seeds deep in juniper bushes, Brown Dippers whizzed up streams, and Red-headed Bullfinches called softly from the centre off rhody bushes. A flooded clearing above Jak Kharka held one of the best birds of the trip, the globally vulnerable Wood Snipe, but this was pretty much the last bird of the climb. A long breathless day saw us reach 'the throne of the gods' Makalu Base Camp. A squalid patch of gravel on glacial bed, but surrounded by the immense, towering peaks of Baruntse and Makalu and various subsidiaries. Here, at around 5000m I was feeling the affects of AMS so after enjoying the views, a hasty retreat was beat, and with worsening weather we were back in Tumlingtar in record time.
Approach to MBC

AVALANCHE!! The other side of the valley fortunately

Taking a well earned break at Makalu Base Camp

Thats all I have time to write for now, but there's plenty more to come. From Tumlingtar came an absolute mission up to Lukla and up into the heart of the Khumbu. I'm back safely in Kathmandu now, but my god, a hell of a lot has happened over the last 6 weeks, I only hope my feeble tapping on the keyboard can come vaguely close to describing it.