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THURSDAY, DECEMBER 12, 2013

Mera Peak to the Rolwaling

I forget who it was who first said it, but they were right, it is only an adventure when the outcome isn’t certain. This autumn’s trip in Nepal certainly qualified as one. I was leading a team of 8, with 3 long time Sherpa friends - Phanden, Kami and Kaji - for KE Adventure on a 35 day trip, climbing 3 6000m+ peaks and crossing 7 high passes made all the more interesting by unique deep snow conditions created by the cyclone that hit eastern India shortly before we arrived.

Many trips begin in the bar of the gracious Shanker Hotel, a former Rana Palace in Kathmandu, KE’s Nepal base. It is great to relish that last cold beer before setting off and a great opportunity to go through the plan and make sure that everyone has the necessary gear. Particularly important are double boots, very warm clothing (especially a down jacket), warm mitts or gloves, category 4 glasses and enough battery power for headlights for the whole trip.

Early the next morning we took the famous scenic flight to Lukla and enjoyed views of many of the peaks we would trek past over the following weeks: Everest, Cho Oyu, Gaurishanker to name a few.

Tom Richardson's second home Saal Tsho Lake above Tangnag

The Saal Tsho Lake above Tangnag

Three days later we crossed our first obstacle, the twin passes of the Zatwra La and Zatwra Og, already at over 4500m. The steep snow on the final slopes was rock hard and the steps made by others rounded and slippery. Some group members and porters needed a bit of fielding and support.

Approaching the Mera La Approaching the Mera La

Approaching the Mera La

The Mera La with Chamlang behind

The Mera La with Chamlang behind

After a day’s training in rope techniques we too set off up to the next camp on the Mera La (a pass) at 5415m. Some groups don’t use this camp but just go straight to the High Camp at 5800m. Almost without exception they fail to reach the summit next day if they do.

En route to Mera High Camp

En route to Mera High Camp

When we reached the High Camp it was not like I have ever seen it. Instead of a series of sheltered rocky ledges perched above a 500m drop it was totally banked up with snow and crammed with 3 times as many tents as I had ever seen there before. We cut platforms in the snow and anchored our tents with snow stakes, but as the wind picked up and the spindrift began it was obviously going to be a wild and slightly scary night. On the plus side it was at least short as we set off for the summit several hours before first light.

Abseiling from Mera summit

Abseiling from Mera summit

Seeing several groups returning due to the high wind as we prepared to depart made two group members decide to stay at High Camp until our return. A third member descended from half height with Phanden. The rest of us reached the main summit and were rewarded with one of the best views…well in the world. A panorama of, amongst other things, five 8000m peaks.

Tom Richardson - Mera Peak Selfie

Mera Peak Summit Selfie

Two things detracted from the enjoyment however. One was that one group member had not worn appropriate gloves whilst getting ready in High Camp and got frost bite to two finger ends. He had to be helicoptered back to Kathmandu for treatment and recovery which in time will be 100% but a tough lesson to have to learn and a lucky escape. The other was that one of the group, despite reminders did not wear any sun block. As a result he incurred severe puss oozing burns down one side of his face which ran the risk of going septic. After first aid treatment from me he later attended hospital in Lukla and recovered.

Descent from the summit of Mera Peak

Descent from the summit of Mera Peak

After Mera our plan was to cross into another valley, the rarely inhabited Hongu, beneath Chamlang and Baruntse and to cross the high and technical pass the Amphu Lapcha. The valley was full of snow and nobody had crossed the Amphu for a year we learned. Sadly also the only, albeit seasonal, inhabitant had also been killed by an avalanche overwhelming his stone walled, tarpaulin roofed shelter a week or so before.

Tangboche Monastery, with Everest behind

Tangboche monastery, with Everest behind

Dingboche with the South Face of Lhotse Approaching Island Peak Basecamp

Dingboche with South Face of Lhotse and approaching Island Peak Basecamp

Instead we retraced our steps back to Lukla, this time crossing the passes more easily in crampons while others teetered along as we had previously. From there in 4 days we trekked up to Island Peak Base Camp. Island Peak is usually a relatively straight-forward climb over rocks, then a glacier and finishing up a headwall to the summit ridge using fixed ropes. This year it was different. The hike to the base of the rocks was hard packed snow, as was much of the time on the relatively exposed rocks. Most dramatic of all was that the summit ridge had recently fallen off and the new line for fixed ropes went up much more steeply directly to the summit. Four members reached the summit with Kami and Kaji whilst Phanden and I turned and descended with two others as their progress was too slow.

The seventh member of the group remained at Base Camp. He could not get his foot in his double boots as he had stubbed his toe on a rock whilst going to the toilet in the night and it was swollen, possibly broken.

Porters at Dzongla

Porters at Dzongla

Two days later, once again we were in crampons crossing the normally straightforward but glacier covered pass, the Cho La (5420m). We travelled at about twice the speed of other parties who had read the guide book but not anticipated the hard packed snow conditions. The next day we crossed the 2km wide glacier that runs from the cirque of Cho Oyu (8153m) and Ganchung Kang (7922m), the Ngozumba Glacier to Gokyo.

Descending from the Cho La Tom Richardson points out Everest

Descending from the Cho La (left) and pointing out Everest (right)

An afternoon hike up the normally grassy, but now snowy, Gokyo Ri (5483m) set some of us up nicely for the traverse of the rocky Renjo La (5417m). The crossing of this pass leads into the Thame valley, which for several hundred years has been a trade route for Tibetan nomads who, with their yaks, crossed the Nangpa glacier and brought goods from Tibet/China and exchanged them for Indian/Nepali goods in Namche Bazaar, the famous Sherpa Capital from which there is no road access.

These days the trade route has been closed by the Chinese, but such is the way with these borders that hopefully it will re-open soon.

Camp below the Teshi Lapcha

Camp below the Teshi Lapcha

Our final pass and peak was the toughest. From the relatively comfortable, warm and snow free village of Thame we trekked for two days before making camp amongst the snow covered boulders below the Teshi Lapcha. About 10 years before Phanden and I had climbed the steep snout of the glacier that hangs from the pass and gone on to attempt Parchemo. This time to try to avoid some of the objective dangers we fixed a rope up a couloir for the entire group and the porters. At the top of the rope we then had to make a narrow and airy traverse above a long drop to reach the top of the pass. The trail was snow and rubble with no possible anchors from which ropes could be fixed. Camp was made on a series of ledges under a huge rock overhang with a full view up Parchemo.

Parchemo Nearing the top of the Teshi Lapcha

Parchemo and nearing the top of the Teshi Lapcha

4 of the group elected to join me, Kami and Kaji to climb Parchemo next day. On the steeper ground Kami and Kaji fixed 300m of ropes. It was cold and windy. About 50m from the highly corniced summit I decided that we had reached the turnaround point. We would have had to move together as one roped party to get higher and one slip or snagging of a gaiter with a crampon was unthinkable.

Final abseil to the glacier after Parchemo

Final abseil to the glacier after Parchemo

By the time we returned to the pass, having down climbed and abseiled back down the ropes we were already fairly tired. Several hours more glacier trekking and a short abseil to the lower glacier lead us to our proposed campsite in the middle of the glacier. It was early afternoon.

Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding the kitchen team had not stopped and had continued on, thinking they were heading for another campsite. Finally at 7.30 in the evening after many hours in the dark, having crossed a lot of steep rock and ice we finally reached safety. A truly stressful few hours.

Trekking down the Rolwaling Gaurishanker

Trekking down the Rolwaling (left) and Gaurishanker (right)

In contrast the final few days trekking through the unspoilt forests and villages of the Rolwaling was relaxing and delightful. The mighty Gaurishanker once thought to be the highest mountain in the world looked down on us and all seemed eternal. It isn’t, depending on your point of view, and whether you live there or are merely a relatively rich foreigner visiting, it is either better or worse. The main valley in the Rolwaling now has a dirt road that was constructed to build a hydro dam to create electricity for both the local area and for the power starved capital Kathmandu some 9 bumpy hours drive away. The journey itself is another story, but eventually after showers and a meal in one of the best restaurants in the city, but a few kilos lighter we were back on familiar ground in the bar drinking another cold beer in the Shanker Hotel. 

Tom Richardson can usually be found in the boot room at Outside in Hathersage, when he's not off guiding for KE Adventure! Check out his book - Judgement Days in a Mountaineering Life

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 12, 2013
By Tom Richardson
Footwear and expedition specialist

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