The Ascent of Mera Peak

March 2015

Don asked me a while ago if I would do a report on my recent trip to Nepal. But when the earthquake hit six days after my return, climbing a mountain suddenly seemed so inconsequential. So I declined.

Now, three months on, it seems a bit more relevant. Whilst food aid and rebuilding continue to be important, it’s also vital that tourists return.

The income from trekking and climbing are vital to the people living in the mountains, and much of the country will be open for business in the autumn season.  A recent report on the KE website summarises the latest position with the trails and in Khatmandu itself"

This was my third trip to Nepal. I first went in 1977 when Liz and I were one of the early ‘pioneers’ of trekking to Everest Base Camp. Oh how innocent we were with our 3-season sleeping bags and imitation down jackets!

I had always wanted to return, so in 2011 I went to the Annapurna region to try and climb the 5,633 metre high peak of Tharpu Chuli (see BB1136). The people and country were as delightful as they had been 34 years previously.

 Everest 1977

Tharpu Chuli 2011

Although unsuccessful that trip showed me it was possible for a fell-walker to get to the top of a Himalayan peak. I had summit fever and wanted to climb one before age finally catches up with me. This time I decided to try Mera Peak. Although at 6,434 metres it was much higher than Tharpu Chuli, it was said to be affected less by bad weather.

After 24+ hours travelling to Khatmandu via Abu Dhabi I got 4 hours sleep then flew to Lukla with our leader, Ade Summers, and the other eleven people on the trip. There we met up with our Sherpa team lead by Phanden. He was Sirdar on my Tharpa Chuli trip and remarkably still remembered me.

Lukla airfield

Over the first of many cups of tea we discussed our first problem. The route in two days time was to take us over the 4,610m high Zatrwa La pass. But there was a lot more snow than usual and Phanden said the pass was currently unsafe for the porters. So we had to go around and as a consequence use up our contingency days.

 For the next 5 days we travelled through rhododendron forest on tracks the locals describe as ‘Nepali flat’, but which in fact means steep ups followed by steep downs and then up again! On the fourth day we got our first view of Mera Peak – it looked massive!

We rejoined our original route at Kothe having covered 23 miles and 15,000ft of ascent whilst only being 2000ft higher than we were at Lukla!

On the trail

First view of Mera

‘Nepali flat’

From Khote we started to gain altitude at last. The next day took us over the 4000 metre mark to Tangnag where we had our first rest day. Rest days in the Himalayas are not actually a rest and on ours we did some practice moving as a roped team up a fairly steep ridge to aid acclimatisation.

I had seen high cirrus cloud forming through the day and when I looked up Ade asked “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” to which I replied “Snow?”

Sure enough late in the afternoon it began to snow. We had already had reports from another group who had turned back on their summit attempt because of the amount of snow, and further deposits could potentially stop us even reaching Base Camp.

On the way to Tangnag


Acclimatisation training


Overnight snow


But the next day dawned clear and we pressed on to Khare at 5045 metres and our Base Camp. We had another ‘rest’ day there and final preparations were made for our summit push (doesn’t that sound like a proper expedition!).

Two of our group, Ronnie and Caroline, decided to arrange a helicopter out at this point as Ronnie had been unwell for several days. It cost them a few thousand pounds for the trip back to Khatmandu, so not an option you take lightly. With Ronnie’s departure I was now the old man of the group!

Ronnie and Caroline leave us


The Team


The route to the summit uses the Mera Glacier most of the way. To get on the glacier we had to climb the icefall. The Sherpas fixed ropes up this and we jumared up them. As my turn came I confidently bashed my axe into the ice only for it to bounce straight out. Ice that’s been crushed in a glacier for tens of years is somewhat harder than the frozen water ice we normally encounter!

On the way to the ice fall


Climbing the icefall


Once on top of the icefall we roped up. The ‘rope teams’ had been determined at Base Camp and I was pleased to find I was in the lead group with Phanden; Geoff and John. The fresh snow had covered the trail, and conditions were close to white-out, so it needed cautious leading by Phanden to ensure we avoided the many crevasses. After about 6 hours of pretty hard work we arrived at our camp on the Mera La at 5415 metres (17,765ft). The afternoon was spent drinking tea, eating, and resting.

Geoff coming to the top of the fixed ropes


Difficult conditions on the glacier


Mera La camp


I slept fitfully that night, but waking to a cup of tea and a clear blue sky in a stunning location was wonderful. Today was a short one in Lakeland terms – 1½ miles and 1,361 ft of ascent. But it took us just over 4 hours and I felt shattered at the end of it. After a couple of hours we stopped being hemmed in by surrounding peaks and dramatic views opened up. We could see five of the six highest peaks in the world, including Everest. It was pretty impressive!

On the way to High Camp


The view on the way


The view on the way


The day ended at our High Camp (5,780m / 18,963ft). This was one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever camped. Our tent was perched pretty uncomfortably on large boulders on the edge of an icefall. Not a place to move about without care!

I had eaten well up to today but it was remarkable how my appetite suddenly disappeared. It was a real, but necessary, struggle to force down bowls of soup and pasta.

All too soon it was 2am and the sherpas woke us with our morning tea, soon followed by porridge. Then the process of getting ready started. Doing anything at nearly 6,000m is hard. Each breath only gives you about 38% of the oxygen at sea level. It took me almost an hour and a half to pack my sleeping bag; put on my down jacket, climbing harness and my outer boots; and roll up my sleeping mat. We were ready to go at 4am. It was cold, about –10C, but altitude makes this seem so much lower.

High Camp


A 4 a.m. start!


We climbed steadily, headtorches lighting our way. Geoff’s hands were getting really cold and we stopped a few times while Phanden massaged life back into them; as well as to check John’s feet which were also chilling. Apart from this we were going well and pulled away from our other teams.

Daylight arrived and it warmed up a bit, but there was still a cold wind blowing. It was hard going. I was gasping for breath and it was a real effort to take each step. But I have learnt over the years how to ignore the brain telling me to stop and rest, so I pushed on until someone else called a halt.

Daylight starts to arrive


Taking a rest


Taking a longer rest!


Geoff having his hands warmed up


The weather was deteriorating and so Phanden lead us towards the easier, and therefore quicker, South West summit, rather than the more technical Central one. Finally at 08:15 we stood on the 6,434 m (21,108 ft) summit of Mera Peak. Group hugs took place (which, for a Yorkshireman, is well out of my comfort zone!) and photos were taken. The views were stunning, but we could see the bad weather rolling in.

The summit comes into view


The team on top of Mera Peak


The View


We had 15 minutes on top before setting off to tackle the 1,500m of descent to Base Camp. The adrenalin that had got John to the summit suddenly stopped working and his legs turned to jelly. A few additional rests were needed to keep him going. Eventually we caught up with the rest of our team. One had turned round early and the other six turned back just after reaching 6,000m.

The tents had gone when we reached High Camp but the cook team was still there providing litres of life-giving hot juice. After a rest we pressed on past the Mera La camp; prusiked down the ice fall and arrived at Base Camp at 15:30, after an extremely hard 11½ hour day.

On the way down


Approaching the icefall


For the first time on the trip I decided to sleep in a tea-house rather than camp so I could sort my gear out. Next morning John opened the shutters and said “it’s snowing”. I looked out to see 2 feet of fresh snow outside. We were going nowhere that morning!

Glad I decided not to camp!


Passing the time waiting for the snow to stop


This was a real problem. The Zatrwa La pass would be impossible but we had used all our contingency days. It stopped snowing so we made the treacherous descent to Tangnag. Next day was clearer and we pressed on to Kothe.

Because it’s a lot lower there, helicopters can take 4 people instead of just the 2 if we were higher up. And it’s cheaper - £250 each. The porters would be leaving us so we had the traditional last night party. Our redundant items of clothing and equipment were raffled off and we drank chang and raksi before slipping away to bed.

Making our way down

On the way to Khote


Our porters


The Chang is served

Next morning it was the heli-ride, done under Nepalese rules of course. As well as the 4 of us and the pilot, our cook was squeezed in and luggage was crammed on top of us up to chin level. Health and Safety – no chance!

Helicopter Rescue


A tight squeeze!


A beer with Ed to celebrate

But we got there in one piece and a few beers were had in a Scottish bar in Lukla before flying back to Khatmandu the next day. This left me with a day sightseeing. Great at the time but a bit disturbing seeing places on the news a few days later that I had been stood next to and were now just piles of rubble.

Downtown Kathmandu


The tower on the left of the picture is now flattened

For the statistically minded it took us 15 days to get from Lukla to the top of Mera Peak and back; in the process covering 61 miles with 32,915 feet of ascent.

And it was BRILLIANT!

 Bryan, July 2015

 For a movie and more photos click on Flikr