Racing to the Top

There’s nothing like a bit of spousal rivalry to spur you on in the morning. It was five in the morning and I had been listening to the wind shriek through the cracks in the tin roof for the last two hours, it didn’t look very promising for my attempt to reach Mardi Himal Basecamp that morning. It was so tempting just to roll over and snuggle down in my sleeping bag but Steve’s success the preceding morning spurred me on. Definitely the right course, as outside the wind sounded far less threatening and was starting to drop and I had an apple pancake waiting. It was time to make for the top, now could I just do it 5 minutes faster than he did, just to bug him.

With Steve’s return from London with his Pakistani visa a few days early, I had decided we had just enough time to squeeze in a quick trek. Poor man, just 16 hours off the plane he was strapping on his boots and heading for the hills. It promised to be worth it though, with amazing views of Machapuchchhre and the Annapurna range, as we trekked up a forested ridge to the bottom of Mardi Himal. A relative “hill” at 5587m compared with its neighbours, some of which make the world’s top ten for height.

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The first days trek, mirrored the trek that we had done the previous week. The first hill was just as much of a killer as before, maybe even worse as we knew how long it went on for. We spent the night in the same basic but quirky teahouses we stayed in before. We reclaimed our triple bed room, with just enough space for the beds and looked fondly upon the tarp and lose plank walls. That night we even listened nostalgically to the chorus of snores from the other rooms, it was good to be back in the mountains. The lovely lady remembered us too, greeting us with smiles and the kids with hugs. This time the weather was glorious and instead of huddling around the fire away from the storm, we sat outside enjoying the warmth.

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The next two days was pleasant hiking through rhododendron forests. It was hazy so no mountain views but the forest was full of ladybirds. Up until about 3 years ago the Mardi Himal trek was only for those hikers with tents and their own supplies, they then built a few small tea houses. Since then it has become a lot more popular, Dil had to call ahead to the teahouses to secure beds for us. It was a good idea, when we arrived at Low Camp there was a bit of an uproar with hikers trying to claim booked beds. They were still trying to finish another building, they had promised the room to a group of German guys but still hadn’t put in any windows or concrete on the floor. The workers busted a gut till dusk making it habitable. The owners of the teahouses were very good at trying to accommodate everyone, putting people together to share. There was always overflow space with everyone bunking down in the dining room with the staff and the porters. The advantage is that is nice and warm but not good if you don’t like snoring. Like the last trek, we usually had 3 beds pushed together for the 4 of us. Away from villages and any road, these teahouses were far more basic with just a few rooms separated with plywood walls. The Dining Rooms were sociable places though, filled with trekkers, guides and porters warming up around the fire. We met so many interesting people from around the world, the girls particularly loved chatting and playing cards. So much so that Alisha didn’t even complain when her kindle ran out of electricity (recharging wasn’t an option in the higher places), usually we can’t separate her from her beloved books for too long. The cooks also manage amazingly cooking up tasty, hearty dishes for everyone out of the most basic of supplies.

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The corridor looking into our room at High Camp, yes that is 2 extra beds end-to-end in the passageway.

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High camp was way above the tree line and at last we started to see the mountains through the haze. Alisha powered ahead of us all, while Lucy kept to a steady pace telling me stories. They both hiked amazingly and cheerfully, even overtaking many adults. Lucy lost her “cutest on the path” crown to a sweet and very blonde Canadian baby, being carried up by her parents. Hiking with them, people we passed all cooed over her, I think Lucy was just relieved that someone else was getting all the cheek squeezing.

That afternoon as we huddled in the dining room at High Camp the rain started to lash down; followed by a massive hail and thunderstorm; and finally snow. We were in bed by 7.30, even cosier in just 2 beds, listening to the storm around us. At 5am, I came back from the loo with information for Steve, “The good news: it’s clear! And the bad news: it’s clear – time to go.” We’d agreed the previous evening that the girls shouldn’t try to make it to Base Camp but that one of us should try. Through some sort of wonky logic, Steve reckoned it should be him. He set off up through the snow by himself determined to make it to the top. The girls, Dil and I followed him soon after. Our climb up to the second viewpoint was filled with breathtakingly stunning views of Machapuchchhre (Fishtail Mountain) and the Annapurnas. After an hour of tricky climbing we arrived at the viewpoint. While I marvelled at God’s creation and the way the sun was sparkling on the snow, the girls got busy. While many hikers were gasping for breath in the thin air, those two were humping around huge snowballs to make a huge “Korean snowlady and her dog Tommy Boy”. Which of course came with a personality and back story.

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Steve meanwhile was making great progress towards the top through the ankle deep snow. He returned to High Camp glowing and triumphant 5 hours later. We had planned to descend some way that afternoon but knowing how disappointed I was not to do it, he said I must try it the following day. We could just about squeeze in another day if we then hoofed it down to the bottom of the trail the same afternoon. I have to say I was beginning to regret our decision by mid-afternoon as another storm whipped around the exposed ridge. We are by now all very stoic about grim toilets but the thought of another visit to the stinky squatter was not attractive, especially as we were all having to drink a lot to help with the altitude affects. Mind you venturing down out into the storm wasn’t attractive either, it was time for another mug of sweet milky tea.

The wind started howling at 3am the following morning, I rolled over sad but a little relieved that my attempt at making Base Camp wouldn’t be possible as the walk along the ridge was treacherous in high winds. By 5am the wind had calmed down and Dil and I were off before the kids had even risen to find their Easter eggs left by the high altitude Easter Bunny. It was a stunning walk up crisp underfoot; with the mountains perfectly clear in front of us; and a blanket of cloud below us. There were several other hikers and guides from the camp working their way up the path, we even had enough breath to chat a little. At the top viewpoint, I came across the most welcome sight I have ever seen in the mountains – a man selling tea and chocolate bars!! Yes!! Unbelievable though it may seem, every morning in the season he hikes up 800m with flasks and sets up shop on a rock at 4000m. Still going well and now with the chance of teasing Steve about his time to the top, we kept on. At last 2 1/2 hours from High Camp we got to Base Camp, it was stunningly beautiful, just time for a few photos before the wind threatened to restart. We were ready for the tea and mars bar on the way back down, it tasted so good!

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Back down at High Camp, Dil and I were still going strong, so after a quick tea and teeth brush, we continued down. Physically, ascending to Base Camp and descending to the jeep track at Sidling, it was going to be challenging. We refuelled with our usual dal bhat (Nepal’s national dish of rice, lentils and vegetable curries) 2 hours further down. Then it was down, down, down on a steep leg-punishing forest path to a promised hot shower and western loo. We made it to Sidling in the late afternoon, Dil and I had been walking for 10 1/2 hours. We had ascended 1000m and then descended 2500m, over a distance of 18km which tells you how steep it was. By 7pm, I was ready for bed and slept like a log.

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We thought the excitement was over with the end of the trek but hadn’t counted on the jeep ride on the scraggy track scratched out from the mountain. The track even beat some of the crazy roads we’ve taken the truck on over the years. With dodgy paths past landslides; deep mud holes; and 4 river crossings including one driving along in the river, we were very glad the driver was very competent and careful. We picked up vegetables and people on the way, piling them on top of the jeep when we ran out of space inside. At last we made it back safely to Pokhara it had been a short sojourn to the mountains, just 6 days, but it had been well worth it.

Oh yes….I made Base Camp 10 minutes faster than Steve;) but he claims his ascent was in the snow so I guess we are equal. In the end it’s not how fast you but it’s all about seeing and enjoying some of the most amazing views.

2 thoughts on “Racing to the Top

  1. You guys are fantastic! Amazing is not only what you are doing but also that you have the energy to write about after many hours of trekking and hiking. Looking forward for your next story!!!

    • Thanks Lioudmila. To be honest Gilly and I are feeling the fittest we have been for many years. I hope you are enjoying Crete.

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