Adventures in Nepal 3 “The Middle Section”

19 October 2012

In my own mind to simplify the track I think of it in 3 sections, like 3 giant steps.
The first step characterised by the fertile low lands, villages people and and forest, culminating in Namche
A middle step, with up and down and where you are also in and out of forest. Here there is still areas of habitation and here you start to get views of the big mountains and here you start to become aware of the effects of altitude. But this is still place which is living where there are fields to be ploughed. This starts in Namche and ends in Pheriche.
Beyond Pheriche there is a final significant climb but here you are into a harsh but beautiful landscape.

My memory of the middle section is of starting with the group (Cecil on horseback) and meandering along a good but somewhat dramatic path that hugged the steep valley walls beyond Namche.About 30 minutes beyond Namche you get your first views to Everest and also there is a major monument adorned in Prayer flag dedicated to Sir Edmund Hilary. (At this stage he was elderly but alive) As I stopped to take photographs along the path I lost the party and would gradually catch up if able or if they stopped along the way. This gave opportunity to admire the view, enjoy the company and slow down to the pace of nature and the region. I recall a sense of peace and comradeship as I moved forward under my own steam, revelled in this most amazing of scenery (the biggest mountains on the planet) and the way everyone stopped to say hello and exchanged a genuine smile as you passed. And so in short the day was a walk up and unfortunately down through a mixture of alpine, farming and villages. We stopped for lunch by a massive river and a busy lodge and prepared ourselves for the significant ascent to Tengboche.

This was a place I heard about and was excited to see. A small settlement consisting of a historic monastery and guesthouses perched atop a mountain everything in this area surrounded by massive snow clad peaks. Most significant it afforded classic views of Mt Everest. The Monastery,an alpine meadow and a valley beyond leading your eye to Everest and Lhotse. To add to the splendour the place was abundant in Rhodedendrums which were just at their tail of flowering. Although exhausted I allowed myself a brief time for food, drink and room and got my camera’s out and started to scope the place. I wandered around the habited area (quite small but couldn’t find an interesting composition that encompassed the Monastery and Everest, so I decided to head up and beyond. There were two options North or South valley slopes. I decided to go North first with the idea of checking out South. The plan was to shoot the late afternoon there and the sunset on the other side of the valley probably less than a kilometer apart. So there was me the Linhof ( a large camera), lightmeter, film Canon and tripod and light jacket. So I made my way past the monks barracks and up a track along a spur that looked promising as it was beside some flowering rhodies and had views to Everest. I took some shots worked the area a bit and waited for sunset. ……And then…. inexplicably cloud rolled in….but from where??? it came from below. Adiabatic winds blow warm air up the valley which meets cold air and condenses and da da! You have cloud or fog. This typically happens around lunchtime as the air start to warm, but today it was later. I waited hoping it would clear, but Nah! It turned to rain!
And so that was that no Everest sunset image, which is why they are (relatively) few and far between).

Next morning it was clear I headed to the South Side (the traditional view of Tengboche) The first light on the mountains was stunning. I photographed this and also photographed the settlement, trying to capture it’s precarious and remote geographical position perched on the mountain step. My image is OK, but doesn’t excite me. Hopefully I may go back!!

Before I left Tengboche I spared a thought for those young buddhist monks, who spend years up there in this harsh environment, isolated, regimented and praying for long hours, living in simple rooms. The juxtaposition of them with the travellers was interesting but seemed to work well and I was struck by the spirituality and peace of this special place.

From Tengboche onwards through Rhodedendrum groves a bit of up and down and then a steady up beyond the bush line and into more barren and wilder country towards Pheriche.

Pheriche is approached after a steady uphill climb, turning a corner and entering a wide,flat,grassy valley with a river meandering through it criss crossed by drystone walls and surrounded by the usual array of Alpine peaks. Just shy of Pheriche there is a fork in the path and the opportunity to head east to Dingboche the springboard for Mera Peak. It was noticeably colder and windier up here.

By the time I arrived I was getting pretty tired. So I plodded into town after the others (i’d been stopping to take a fair few pictures) and was by now sporting a beard and sunglasses.I was aware that I was feeling a little weary and maybe unwell, I had not completely shaken off the Namche illness and was more breathless than I thought I should be and vaguely headachy. It was here that I’d meet the rest of the group. I wanted to arrive fit and strong rather than being the off- colour doctor.

These thoughts were to be soon pushed to one side. I dumped my pack next to the others outside the main lodge at Pheriche (a rather impressive stone building. Opposite this was a marquee full of relaxing climbers enjoying drinks. Out of this scene came a voice that I recognised


I turned and looked confused as there were no recognisable faces.

This caused amusements

Then it came again


Now consternation from the crowd.

I peered at the bearded face…

Then finally “It’s Bugsy”

“Bugsy!!!  What are you doing here?” And so we caught up. This is a guy a did anaesthetic training in Auckland with some 4 years earlier, now working in the UK and we meet in Pheriche! How does that happen!

Well it turns out he was working as a doctor and researcher for the Caldwell foundation who were doing major and fascinating research around the physiological response to altitude. As I would see they were overseeing the highest mini lab and cardio testing centre in the world on the track.

In short the study looked at a group of healthy volunteer treckers and also a group of climbers who summited Everest. They have done some fascinating work which potentially has cross over application into the field of critical illness. But for me one of the incredible stories is of the climbers (including the author) taking their own arterial blood samples (involving a stab into the groin) in a tent situated on the South Col. This is a place where you risk frost bite if you take a glove off, get wet socks etc. it is a place where the atmospheric pressure is about 30% of that of sea level and there the pressure of oxygen in the blood is one quarter of that at sea level! This is high risk and brave research!

Their main areas of focus were:
-what adaptive variations explain differences in performance especially at a microcirculatory and cellular level?
what genetic factors play a role?
wanted to test the hypothesis that differences in performance were due in part to factors unrelated to O2 delivery. Also wanted to measure parameters at the extreme.

Traditional beliefs are that we adapt by making more red cells, increasing the amount that the heart pumps and increasing our breathing rate so that we can deliver more oxygen to cells. This research by looking beyond this takes our understanding to a new level. Exciting stuff!

And so here I was for two nights and two days, to aclimatise, rest and meet the team in Pheriche. Here I say my first snows and got an introduction to the extreme variations in weather that exist in these wild places.