Sunday, May 11, 2014

Makalu 6000's | First Ascents | 2014 Saldim Ri Expedition - Postponed

The Saldim | Peak 5 | Yaphu massif. It's up to you to learn which of these peaks is named which, just as the old Tibetan man at the base of the mountain did with us. Laughing as he remarked that many climbers had come before, and all had failed. A lesson in the way.

We are back in Kathmandu early from our attempt on Saldim Ri.  For thirteen days it snowed and rained on our approach and retreat, with no indication in several forecasts of things changing at our climbing altitude of 6000 meters. I like it, a well guarded range that will only allow perseverance and scouting. We are going rafting now for a week on the Kali Gandaki, and postponing the climb until spring of 2015.  The fun factor must always be at play, and as always, we'd never compromise on safety and put ourselves in danger with avalanche conditions.  It simply was not the season for an ascent of Saldim, a peak that demands good conditions that can't be forced.  Patience and respect are rewarded in the mountains with a lifetime of positive mountain experience, and we are not in the mindset of climbing at any cost. It is not worth it. My notes below give brief insight into the region. We hope you enjoy browsing through them and taking away some tidbits about the area. 

Was the climb we were undertaking extremely difficult climbing at high altitude? Yes.  The purpose of our Himalaya alpinism trips is to push a revival in the Himalaya of a new way, without employing others to carry your loads up the mountain, and with the ideals of human power and ascents by fair means being paramount.  This sort of trip is only for truly devoted climbers with previous alpine experience in the worlds Alps, Rockies, Himalaya, or Alaska.  We are excited to continue pursuing this style, and we hope that it inspires you to learn new skills and push your own limits. Life is about new experiences, and learning and growing and working through processes.  The journey is most certainly the reward. Get in touch with us, and learn more about your potential for setting new goals in the mountains, a richly rewarding experience.

Num | 1700m | 26 April 2014 | 1759
Mr. Kunssang Sherpa, holding wild harvested greens for the evening meal. 
We are in!  A late morning flight brought us to Tumlingtar mid-day where the crew had a hot lunch ready for us; then on to Num via jeep; a short and smooth four hour ride; quite the contrast from last Autumn's 8 hour epic in window deep mud to reach a half-way point at Chichira.
Gombu Sherpa, NMA climbing guide and a powerful human being. He is one of the guys you want to go with in the Himalaya, and we are proud to work with such a humble and skilled fellow.
        We've brought 20 water filters for the village here, and will store them tonight and distribute them when we return.  Locals were already asking about them when we arrived, our camping behind the same house as time past.  It's much quieter this time in the village, with our last trip to the region being auspiciously between national election time and the Dasain holiday.  There wasn't much sleep to be had last time with the constant fireworks, chanting, and drums; not to mention the rakshi.  
        Excited to get walking tomorrow after months of planning and preparations for the year back in the United States.

Sedua | 1780m | 27 April 2014 | 1735

Fresh greens for lunch harvested from the forest, and renewable source of vitamin B, called ningro by the locals and "fiddleheads" in other parts of the world. Essentially, they are the fresh spring shoots of ferns, a nice treat during spring trekking in Makalu.
A drop to the Arun river and then up to Sedua today.  It's a bit disheartening to look across in the morning at Sedua from Num and know that you have to descend all the way down and then back up to the same elevation.  A solid warm-up, we made it in good time, stopping in a Rai hamlet partway to have a hot lunch cooked up by the crew.
        We checked into Makalu-Barun national park here, and are now ready to head up onto the Khongma Danda for a crossing of Shipton Col to the Barun river valley.  The crew and Jerry are feeling healthy.  Locals planted corn in the past month, and it is quickly shooting up to knee height, with the remainder of the fields bare and ready for planting.  It looks quite different in the area compared to harvest season last Autumn.

Tashi gaon | 2100m | 28 April 2014 | 1757

We left Sedua today at 0845, stopping for lunch at 1230, and arriving in Tashi Gaon at 1500.  Rain continues this afternoon, a pattern that started yesterday.  It is clearing at night with no clouds, and then afternoon showers with clear sunny mornings.
        There is a German couple we are leapfrogging with on the trail, heading to Makalu base camp.  Local guides we are passing report multiple expeditions in Makalu base camp.  We noticed stickers from an Indian "Giripremi" expedition plastered on the walls of the lodge last night in Sedua.
Mr. Jhiban Rai, masterfully cutting the days bread, and all while singing and planning the workflow for the day with the crew.
     Santa, Kussang, and Gombu are the staff. Santa has a leg problem, and will be heading to Kathmandu tomorrow, as we can't risk taking someone further with an injury, which I believe may have happened yesterday on the trail, but I'm not sure if he re-injured an old injury or it is something acute.  We now have 8 porters, an energetic crew from Sedua who are moving well.
        Gombu has located a goat in the village, and we will have meat tonight in preparation for the climb up and over the Khongma Danda over the next couple of days. We are 13. Two foreigners, 3 staff, and 8 porters.
        Locals are growing corn this time of year, with most crops looking to be about 8 weeks old.  The rice has been planted as well in the past few weeks and is now shooting up.  There is an interesting variety of banana here, with large seed pods and a good taste.  There are a lot of new houses springing up along the trekking route, a sign of prosperity among the locals.
        While there were reports of a tainted alainchi crop harvest, it doesn't appear the locals are suffering with their new construction.  I'm sitting with two porters here now, asking them what the main sources of income for the area are. They explain its yercha gumbu, alainchi, and satua.  Medicinal, potency, and spice.
         We'll head higher onto the Kongma Danda at 0630 to avoid the afternoon rain showers that are becoming a pattern.

1 KG Yercha Gumbu =  112,000 rs
1 KG Alainchi (Cardamom) = 2000rs
1 KG Satua =  4000rs

Kongma Danda | 3500m | 29 April 2014 | 1537

Thick clouds and temperature gradient snow on the Khongma Danda.
An early start, we climbed to 3500m today, and are relaxing in our tents while the crew rests and prepares dinner. Gombu brought a bamboo stick from the nearby jungle that we can use to mount the camera to while we are climbing.  We are in the clouds currently, on the ecotone between the alpine tundra and cloud forest.  Climbing higher tomorrow, crossing the Shipton La and dropping down into the Barun river valley.  The final pitches of the trail today held snow from winter past, something we didn't encounter last Autumn this low in elevation.  There will be snow tomorrow, and we'll take advantage of the earlier part of the day when conditions are firm.  The rhododendrons are in  blossom, peaking several weeks ago and still holding their multi-colored blooms.  I noticed several small colorful forest birds flitting about in the morning light, with flashes of cerulean blue and deep red.
        We could see some of the peaks of the Arun river headwaters today, shrouded in mist and masked of their detail.  There is so much moisture in the air here, certainly not lacking in humidity and dampness that you can feel in your bones.  The sahuni lodge owner here reports successful crossings of Sherpani Col this season, which indicates favorable conditions for our climb. Promising, and we must stay healthy and get the weather window we need when it's time.  If there is anything I've learned from years in the mountains, when an opportunity presents itself, even if you don't "feel" right or it isn't the scheduled time, you must take it. Especially in the Himalaya.
        If we feel good at this elevation tomorrow, we'll head on to Dobate.

Kongma Danda | 3500m | 30 April 2014 | 1655

A rest day today, we decided to slow our approach and ensure our health when we arrive to base camp.  Clouds today which started in the morning, they've continued throughout the day with occasional bouts of sun.  I spent the morning sharpening crampons, preparing gear, and streamlining the climbing rack, removing longer ice screws which are tedious to place and seldom necessary.  I reviewed our kit for the climb with Jerry and Gombu, and everyone is organized and prepared.
        It is yercha gombu picking season, and locals are passing through enroute to the high alpine pastures where the peculiar mushroom-festooned worms can be plucked from the snowmelt moistened earth.  The sahuni proudly displayed  a handful her son dug recently, and mentioned that many more people will be passing through to seek their own prize.  A kilogram of yercha gombu sells for around US$1000 in China's major cities.
          The weather is similar to what we experienced last Autumn, with clouds and occasional sun.  I expect we'll find clearing weather approaching the Barun river.  Let's see in the morning, as we'll rise early to trek to a small prayer flag covered pass before wending along the Kongma Danda ("kongma ridge" in Nepali) and then up to the Shipton La, a pass that saves us from several more days of trekking along the Arun and then Barun rivers. Thanks Mr. Shipton, much appreciated.

Dobate | 2700m | 1 May 2014 | 1624

Fresh rhodendron blooms in the mist of the Barun Khola.
Snow is falling on the new rhododendron flowers.  One of a  German couple in the room adjacent complains of altitude sickness. I think it's a headache, and the smoke from the woodfire in this room isn't helping her.  We're camped outside, where the air is cleaner and we continually shake the moist falling snow from the fabric hourly.  The route in excellent condition, we made good time today in 4 hours from Kongma Danda, last Autumn the same journey taking 8.
        Thunder and snowfall, an anomaly in most parts of the world and a commonality I've come to find in most parts of the Himalaya when storms pass.  Cold toes, my leather boots are fairly wet from today's passage, and I can feel it will be a calm night with good sleep. Jerry is well and in good spirits with occasional laughter coming from his tent as he listens to podcasts on his i device.
        Gombu and I just completed a review of Langtang on the map, making plans for next year and a new exploratory route. An addiction, the trips that make the most sense as a business are far from appealing to me. Wild, remote, far flung. The more difficult and challenging the better.  I'm hooked on numerous cups of nescafe each afternoon and thoughts  about new trips in wild areas.
        I'm not sure about the current weather pattern as it appears.  We receive afternoon clouds and moisture each day, and I'm curious as to what 5000 meters will bring.  The morning view of Chamlang was clear, and there wasn't any new snow from past days weather that we've walked through. I think we'll rise above this weather pattern, but I won't know until we're there of course.

 Yangla Kharka | 3640m | 2 May 2014 | 1640

The overlying clouds obscure the view higher into the Himal of the Barun Khola, yet Yangla Kharka still holds its mysticism; with Nepalis traveling from far and wide to give alms and offerings in hopes of bringing a daughter or son into the world. Two local mountains, in close proximity of each other, are believed to represent Shiva and Parvati; along with the Buddhist equivalent.  
Gombu approaching Yangla Kharka, notice the glacial flour that colors the river greenish-blue. 
Rain all day today, starting this morning after a great breakfast of fried eggs, pancakes, and muesli with espresso coffee from the excellent crew.  Trail conditions were far better this spring than last Autumn (November), with thick water ice covering most of the trail last time. We made quick work of the descent to the Barun river, with the porters moving well even after we sent two of them back yesterday. Each one is now carrying ~30kgs, the high standard in Nepal (Kilimanjaro = 20kg, Indian Himalaya= 25kg).
Veteran climber Jerry Clayton on the trail to Yangla Kharka, he is an excellent climbing partner for high altitude climbing, with his first climbs in the Himalaya in 1978 when Reinhold Messner was hanging around as well.
        The German couple we left behind in Dobate this morning, her waiting for a helicopter rescue and claiming altitude sickness, which doesn't seem to be more than a severe and persistent headache.  I expect she'll recover with time ( I later learned she did and hadn't heeded my advice, having to eat the cost of a US$7000 helicopter flight), and be able to continue trekking as a helicopter will not be able to fly in the current and ever-present weather.  A Russian team of two is here tonight, working their way along the "Great Himalaya Trail".  They've just crossed the Amphu Labtsa, Sherpani Col, and West Col; reporting hard blue ice on the climbs, and deep snow on windward aspects.
        We met a Korean trekker on the trail today, his experience reporting snow above 4800m and his photos of Makalu Base camp showing simply a dusting.  There were a lot of colorful passerines active in the forest this morning, species I don't recall seeing last Autumn.  The porter team is well and strong, and Gombu is doing fine. We haven't seen much of the cook, Kunssang, today; and others report him sleeping on the trail and getting into the "sauce".
        This valley, even with the wind and rain, is truly extraordinary. Fired up to be here again amongst the spindly pines, erratic boulders, granite walls, and icy peaks.  Tomorrow we'll pick up the snow pickets, ep gas, and extra food we stored here and trek up to Langmale Kharka, our base camp for climbing Saldim Ri.  Once we are in base camp, we'll set to work climbing.

Langmale Kharka | 4449m | 4 May 2014 | 1701

The  daily clouds and snow moving in after a characteristically clear morning.
It's snowing. Again. It's different this time.  The weather shifted this morning and a true low front appears to be moving through.  We made our Advanced Base Camp this morning at 4787m on the Saldim Glacier, after following the right lateral moraine to the point where it hit Saldim, and then descended to the glacier over rubble and mud.  We are 8 now, with three porters going home last night after dropping their loads here in base camp at Langmale Kharka. An old Tibetan man and his wife are inhabiting the shelter here this season, and have been coming up here to grow potatoes and graze their yaks for as long as they can remember.  They both smile easily, and pass the day talking with trekkers and guides passing by (we've seen four others so far), checking their potato crops, and watching the weather move through with afternoon glasses of barley beer, popcorn, and Khukuri cigarettes.
        The old man reports that an Italian team came about ten years ago and climbed the smaller peak to the left of our objective, and he calls it "Rong ri".  The Rai porter boys came with us this morning, hauling food and climbing gear for the mountain, some of them seeing a Tibetan snowcock for the first time, and looking wide-eyed at the big mountains that could clearly be seen this morning before the clouds characteristic of this expedition moved in.
        Yesterday was calm and cloudy, moving through the pine forests and up here to the terminal moraine of the Barun glacier.  It's quiet here, with 200 people just a four hour walk up valley in Makalu base camp, we've got the place to ourselves and are busy talking about the world, sea kayaking in Thailand, and some of the wilder areas of the United States.  It seems that wherever you are you are thinking about somewhere else, and looking for similarities in the unfamiliar around you.  The snow is really accumulating now, the first we've seen yet on this trip, with most other afternoon showers bringing graupel, hail, and rain; and nothing but a trace of white to mark its passing.
        There is a pattern to the weather. Each morning the sun comes and the mountains are visible, then the clouds coming rolling in at mid-altitude and then aloft. The clouds roll through till around 1300-1500 where the precipitation begins, and continuing until the sun sets and then tapering off to patches of starry sky around ~2000. Dawning clear. Repeat. The mountains only teach patience. ~

Langmale Kharka | 4449m | 5 May 2014 | 1053

Persistent cloud cover in Langmale Kharka.
The weather is still here.  Weighing the options, Jerry currently has a chest infection that will need at least two more days to recover, while it continues to snow on our route, and a new slab avalanche is visible across the valley, with no sign of the weather pattern changing, and we haven't even been able to see our route yet, having only about an hour of clear weather each morning before the clouds roll in. Perhaps the weather will change, but will the fun factor still be at play?  I'm starting to think no.
        We will watch the next couple of hours, and perhaps change our course this afternoon and go for a section of the GHT, finishing in Num.

Dada Kharka | 2900m | Wednesday 7 May 2014

We received a forecast that couldn't disprove our own. The weather will continue until the 12th May.  With the fun factor being paramount, we are cancelling the climb and now trekking back to Tumlingtar to salvage a rain and snow stricken trip, maybe heading to the Annapurna Sanctuary or going rafting.  This spring climbing season simply isn't meant to be in Makalu for the type of climb we want to do and at a moderate relative altitude.  On top of that is Jerry's chest infection, and we realized that it really wouldn't be that fun to trek a portion of the GHT in pouring rain with occasional snow.  Onwards to new territory.
The teahouse in Dada Kharka. It's possible to teahouse trek, albeit with basic Nepali meals of rice and dal, the entire way to Makalu base camp and back to Tumlingtar. Note the food being cooked over an open fire, a practice forbidden by the national park for trekkers but allowed for locals. The purpose of this is to cut down on fuel wood, a practive that has deforested many of the regions below the most popular Everest trekking region.

        Yesterday we left basecamp in Langmale Kharka after cleaning our ABC from the base of the mountain, and trekked to Dobate in pouring continual rain.  Questioning locals, they say this isn't normal weather (kinda figured).  We now have a few items to take care of in Num, with the distribution of 20 water filters to the community.  We've talked with a lot of locals about the smoke in their homes, and I'm curious to see if their are any active projects to bring chimneys around.  It's really bad.
Dawn in Dada Kharka, clear mornings characterized the entire approach and retreat to Saldim Ri base camp in Langmale Kharka.

Sedua | 1510m | 8 May 2014 | 1742

Sedua mornings; the rooster crows, the pig grunts, and the baby waddles next to your tent. Hosting the national park headquarters, most folks stay the night here en route to the Barun Khola and Makalu.
The healthy Arun River flowing with spring runoff.
We made our way down from below Khongma ridge today.  Rain fell intermittently as we walked, with no sign of the pattern changing.  Sedua is alive with village life, a young water buffalo calling for its mother for most of the afternoon beneath a bamboo canopy with fresh leaves to eat bringing no relief for the need of its mother.  Chickens scratch and call, roosters battle for constant position, mules claim the upper yard and swish their tails to swat flies that can't be seen, babies crying and mothers talking and working their hands through each other's onyx hair in search of pests that find their way in the night.  Crickets hold the background, and we had a beer this afternoon, the first of the trip after continuous antibiotics for a chest infection for Jerry.
        I'm not sure how I feel about this expedition, being that we ended it before it even began.  It is a part of the game to deal with unfavorable weather and even sickness but I felt we really were going to climb this peak this trip. Perhaps it's better to jettison feelings and focus on the the objective perspective. The weather was never there and won't be for this spring climbing season.  We'll have to return.
Looking out from a clearing in the cloud forest.

Tumlingtar airport | 518m | 10 May 2014 | 1151

On the tarmac in steamy Tumlingtar.
We are queuing in the terminal, with unfinished business in the Himalaya on our minds. I've found reports of poor weather across the Himalaya this spring, compounded by the tragedy on the Nepal side of Everest with 16 climbers losing their lives.  We'll arrive in Kathmandu this afternoon and grab a long-awaited cheeseburger at Gaia restaurant, then to do a weather check before heading into the Kali Gandaki for a three day river trip.
     Yesterday we delivered 11 water filters to the school in Num, which houses 600 students and will supply clean water for their classrooms. In addition, we've instructed teachers on installing more water filters on all village taps, supplying the rest of the village with water free of giardia, amoebas, and intestinal parasites.  We are excited about the future of this project. We have a few weeks until our next trip into the Spiti region of northern India.  Stay tuned.  -Luke Smithwick, guide, Himalaya Alpine Guides