The alarm went off at 4am (I heard it through the plywood wall) and the refreshing interchange of
“I feel like shit.”
prompted another 15 minutes’ kip.
We finally dragged ourselves out of the hotel, layered with thermal undies and equipped with torches, at about 4.45am. We were climbing from 2,890m to 3,210m in the dark.
The next hour was harder than expected, most likely due to sleepy metabolisms and no breakfast, but we didn’t find it as hard as some. When taking a break, the eerie sight of a caterpillar of head torches creeping a slow concertina procession up the hill was an oddly welcome distraction from the heels of the person in front, which was all you could see when walking.
The guidebook mentions the ‘stampede of sunrise seekers’, but it was difficult to imagine the full meaning of that phrase until we got to the top. The sheer number of people was staggering; and it quickly continued to fill up. A little stall sold hot black tea with mole-hills of sugar in it. The metal observation tower ached and screeched under the weight of its passengers and their cameras. Everyone had a camera: some on tripods, some against their faces and some, as is common these days, at 3/4 arm’s length, as if trying to get as far away from the reality of their subject as possible.
Were it not for the clouds, the view would have been mind-numbingly wonderful and awesome (I’m annoyed that those words don’t mean “filled me with wonder and awe” – perhaps I should say wonder full and awe full). As it was, the view was just your common-or-garden staggeringly breathtaking: as the sun rose behind us and illuminated the mountains hundreds of kilometres in front of us, a sense of unimaginable scale became momentarily imaginable. And then I saw a kilt.
Heathrow Man, as he had become known, was one of the many people we were surprised to see at 5am, 3km up into the Himalayas. It felt like everyone we’d seen or met over the last two weeks was here. But Heathrow Man was the only one in a kilt.
I first met Heathrow Man in the queue for check-in at an airport. I forget which. He (the only other person in the queue) asked if this was the flight to Delhi, which it was, and lo! our destinies were entwined. I next saw him on the plane; then in Delhi Arrivals security; then in Delhi Departures lounge; then sat leisurely in business class on the flight to Kathmandu; then on the streets of Boudha, more than once. Then I didn’t see him for the few days that we went east; but then I saw him in Pokhara, more than once. Then we didn’t see him while we were trekking; and now here he was, on Poon Hill. In a fucking kilt.
And I am really not making this up: he just walked in to the café I’ve been writing in for the past few days and sat down at the table across from me. I really want to talk to him, but I’m afraid I’ll break the spell: me and Heathrow Man, destined to always be in roughly the same place at roughly the same time, but never to know each other. I haven’t even made eye contact with him since he first graced me with his lilting Scottish serrated knife of a voice, back in Heathrow Terminal 4, all those aeons ago. The only thing I know about him, and ever want to know, is that in the cold damp pre-dawn hours of this day in late September 2011, Heathrow Man wore a kilt to climb a mountain called Poon Hill. In the dark. And he didn’t look very impressed with the view.
Once we’d managed to get our cameras to expose correctly for the dawn light on our faces and the bright sunshine reflecting off snow hundreds of kilometres away, Ben suggested we leave before everyone else, if only to jump the queue for the showers (of which there were two).
Once we got back to the hotel, we decided there was no point to showering, what with another eight hours of trekking ahead of us. We sat down (having already done a three-hour trek over 640 vertical metres) for breakfast at 7am. We’d already done a trek comparable to the World Peace Stupa; before breakfast. This was going to be a long day.
We took a very leisurely couple of hours for breakfast and packing, wanting to be as ready for the day ahead as we could. The first hour or so after our departure at 9am was a climb to the same height as Poon Hill, but not as steep. One would imagine this to be easier, but legs tired from a pre-breakfast hike and full packs completely outweighed the slight decrease in steepness. This was harder.
Our ascent was through a sea of yapping Chinese and loud, aggressive, staccato Russian – two large groups that, I mumbled to Ben, had turned the mountain Red.
At the rest point that marked what looked like the top, I began to feel a little vertiginous for the first time. As we progressed across the rising ridge, this was not a feeling that left me until we got back in to the jungle; mainly because the track was thin, my legs were tired, my pack set me off-balance and the clouds occasionally would suddenly clear, exposing a 1,500m drop through dense undergrowth into a rocky ravine. Ben was caught slightly off-guard when his regular trill of
“How we doing, buddy?”
was met with a matter-of-fact
“Really not happy: quite terrified… Let’s just keep going.”
In the forest we finally started going down; and the roles reversed. On our descent from Poon Hill, I’d discovered that Ben came down hard and jarring on his front foot, as he transferred his weight forward with each step – as you do when walking on the flat or ascending. I suggested he try keeping his weight on the back leg and bending it in a kind of in-the-middle-of-sitting-down-cross-legged-my-trousers-have-ripped-and-I’m-not-wearing-any-knickers way. He quickly saw the advantage of lowering his centre of gravity into the hill and we saved him a lot of knee pain.
While we’d found a way to give Ben some knee-relief, that didn’t mean he was happy with the whole process. I was now the fast one, employing years of delighted youth, skipping across Mediterranean boulders, rock-formations and stones in flip-flops, sure-footed as Billy Goat the Superglue Salesman.
Ben’s superior strength and fitness meant he could bear the punishment a slow descent has on your legs; a skipping, trotting, jogging approach is much easier on the muscles and joints – but also more dangerous. The steps were wet and he rightly feared that skipping down was more likely to kill or seriously maim, him if he slipped. Stupidly, I felt no such fear, so had a lovely time skipping down through astonishingly beautiful scenery, decidedly oblivious of the horror that would befall me if I fell.
The descent got steeper and steeper until it was almost vertical. We pitied those coming up the other way, who had to suffer steps that were waist-high for some. And then it started raining; out of nowhere came rain like someone had just emptied a lake out of the sky.
I slowed down. Ben slowed down. I didn’t slow down as much as Ben. Our exhaustion caused a little bickering – just a little – but we both noticed. Here is another reason why I was fortunate to be with Ben: we both instantly recognized what was going on and stopped to marvel at the scenery. We had descended about half way into an incredibly deep river gorge, the sight of which, when we looked back up, was superbly restorative. It was beautiful and, as we were now getting used to, beautiful in a way quite unlike anything we’d already seen.
Everywhere you look in Nepal (at the natural scenes) is magnificently beautiful, but each new place is completely unlike any of the previous. As we took stock of this new beauty, our spirits raised enough for us to continue joking and laughing and we quickly arrived at the bottom of the gorge.
We settled in for a decent break, but quickly realised we were running short on time. Almost everyone else was finishing their day in Tadapani, but we had decided to break the back of the descent today, to give us an easier time tomorrow, our final day: we were going another 2-3 hours further than everyone else. If it was another 2 hours to Tadapani, we’d be getting in to Ghandruk (assuming an hour for lunch) just before nightfall. We decided to shove some Snickers down us and charge on, aiming to get to Tadapani for 2.30pm, giving us some leeway for lunch and the final descent to Ghandruk.
We set off across the levelled-out river bed, crossing the river back and forth, before returning to the now familiar track-through-jungle-on-side-of-mountain. It was so familiar that I absent-mindedly took us on a wrong turn and nearly got us both killed.
The path I’d chosen (although I really didn’t see another path) got thinner and thinner, until the vegetation on both sides was touching our boots. The steps over exposed roots of trees became much bigger; we sometimes had to actually jump down. Then we had to walk over a slippery fallen tree and avoid puddles of mud that we had no idea the depth of. All of this with a few inches slip to the right being an unending fall to our inevitable death. Imagine being unsure of your footing in a jungle. Now tilt that jungle 80 degrees to the right and put it so high that the clouds seem a long way down. It was like that. Except it was real.
We’d pretty much decided we’d gone the wrong way when we saw, 20m above us, people walking along the proper path. They cheerfully waved at us and my terror mixed with embarrassment and muted the cry for help that was slowly building in my gut. I saw that our animal track, or whatever it was, went up a fair bit ahead and decided that we’d have to climb the rest, expecting that the proper path would sensibly remain level.
With our hearts firmly grasped between our teeth, we gave it all hell and charged vertically up, brushing through dense, wet undergrowth – fuck leeches, I want to live! Without the slightest mishap we had found our way back to the well-worn, flat, wide track and saved ourselves from a silent tumbling death. Being English, we said “That was scary” and set off marching again, fearful of being late. I’m glad we did, because had we stopped to take stock (as I’m uncomfortably doing now), I’m sure we’d have had some difficulty continuing. It was utterly, completely terrifying.
Our path went down again, down the side of another valley and, at the bottom, Oh fuck. More stairs. it inevitably went back up the other side. For me, this ascent was no different from any of the other thousands and thousands of steps up which I’d dragged my wilting body over the previous couple of days: just put one painful leg on the next step and heave. For Ben, the pounding descent he’d suffered for most of the day had taken its toll, so he now also found it really tough. He blamed it on the cigarette he’d had just before the ascent (despite my warnings, tut tut), but I think that’s giving the cigarette too much credit. Thoroughly exhausted, we rested half way up; both assuming the pray-heavens-open-and-consume-me position, leaning against our packs.
After more bloody stairs, we reached Tadapani and settled in for some lunch, well-deserved. We’d arrived half an hour early, but still managed to instantly find some people to moan at in the cynical tones of one who’s given up on the joy and simply lives for the experience to continue to its bitter end. Luckily, the British are good at cynicism and our new companions fell about laughing. Tori, 21, and Kelsey, 18, were sisters from Colorado, having now been in Nepal for four months, staying with a Nepali family and proficient with the local lingo. They were so entertained by these two sweaty, deflated, whingeing Brits that they checked out of the room they’d checked in to only an hour before in order to join us for the rest of our trek. While we were worried they’d be much faster than us and that we’d hold them back, the idea of two bundles of youthful female energy keeping us company seemed as good a morale booster as any. If they turned out to be really dull, we could blame their demise on the bears or tigers or snakes or monkeys that reside in the jungle we entered with them; past a sign warning us not to walk in the jungle alone.
The girls were a dynamic duo of delightful liberal American teenage brilliance. I was humbled by their level-headed and immersive experience of Nepal; finding them an inspiration, especially as my admiration was amplified by their youth. They were fun, interesting and intelligent; were joyful company on the descent through yet another kind of beautiful scenery; and were too young for sexuality to intrude into the blossoming friendship. Not that my imagination was, at the time, considering thoughts any more adventurous than “I hope there aren’t any more bloody steps”. Which there were.
As we arrived in Ghandruk (we knew we had, because a delightfully incongruous map suddenly appeared, all Cheshire Cat smile) there was a meticulously crafted flight of 500 steps (someone counted). This was immaculately regular (as it led up to a temple) and we found that trotting down was the only way to overcome the distinct lack of any sliver of strength or stamina remaining in our legs. In the photo, notice that the stairs go down, but the town is up. We had to go back up again. Up more stairs.
Settling to the first guest house we came across, the girls quickly made friends with the owners (in Nepali) and we settled in to a really lovely set of rooms. The only other guests being two early thirties Irishmen, Brian and John, who had shot past us on the descent from Tadapani, practically running all the way.
Our four new companions (we’d left the old ones back in Tadapani) were a real highlight to the trek. The six of us nattered all night, ate at a single table with the Nepali family, played Shithead for hours and retired to the balcony outside our rooms to drink and talk into the night. Ben and I made the mistake of continuing this revelry until 3am.
We’d been awake for 23 hours, 11 of which we’d been trekking.