The Annapurna Diaries: Street Hustlers & Everest West Ridge

Contd. from part 1 – Kathmandu Bound

The introductory chit chat continued on our short drive to Hotel Manang. Kumar wanted to know more about Bombay and everything that had transpired in the 4 years since we had met. Getting to know ‘Barun Saab’ was also on the agenda I realised with the questions directed at Varun. He filled us in with developments on his professional front. He had two upcoming international expeditions. One to Cho Oyu, the world’s 6th highest. And another to Everest. As soon as we’d embark on our trail, he’d focus on the final coordination and logistics for both. That’s where the big bucks were, both for an adventure outfit as his and for the Sherpa support staff and guides in general. So when I inquired about his bro in law Chandra Tamang and why he wasn’t accompanying us to Annapurna, expeditions as reasons were cited.

Chandra and I became friends on the 2008 Everest journey and we had kept in touch thereafter via mail and social platforms. I asked Kumar if it was possible to meet him. Kumar called Chandra and exchanged a bout of rapid fire Nepali. I heard my name mentioned. Chandra would visit us at Hotel Manang at 6 pm the same evening I was informed. It would be great to see my friend again.

The car slowed down after entering a narrow lane and swerved right into the small hotel entrance. We were at Hotel Manang in Thamel. Kathmandu’s busiest market area. I had stayed here earlier and so knew the hotel well. The kind of hotel which just served its purpose of a comfortable night’s stay. There were no promises to keep or luxuries to deliver to its patrons. We checked into room number 302 and sank into the sofas. We did nothing but relax for a bit.

Varun mentioned he was keen on visiting one of the most revered temples of Lord Shiva, Pashupatinath in the city square. However considering it was already 4pm and with Chandra due to arrive at 6pm, we decided to schedule the temple visit on our return leg on April 21st. We were to fly in from Pokhara. Hopefully Varun had the time on hand that day. With the weather fluctuations in Nepal hampering flight schedules frequently, things had to be just right for him to visit the temple and then make a dash to the international departure gates.

It was April 1st. The peak of summer. Kathmandu was sweltering. It was still outside and stifling as well. Power cuts were alarmingly frequent. To make matters worse, the air conditioner in the room wasn’t working. Beads of sweat trickled down. The windows were cranked open but to no respite. We requested the hotel staff for a solution. They got us a floor fan unit instead. Well, atleast we’d have air circulating in the room. We both got busy unpacking our bags and repacking, shifting loads between our backpacks and day bags.

After meeting Chandra at 6, we would take Kumar’s help to scout Thamel market for added provisions and gear which were needed before our departure. Varun had to purchase a lighter down jacket (the jacket he had, really did weigh a ton) and a sleeping bag (his dad’s sleeping bag which was used extensively during the Indian army’s Ladakh and Siachen operations was bulky too. But it was truly a collectors’ item and was made to withstand – 50 degrees centigrade. That was some temperature insulation! I, on my part, had forgotten to carry a poncho and some toiletries. We also had to purchase the Annapurna Circuit and Base Camp trail maps. It would be helpful, even though we had our sherpa guide.

It took us all of 2 hours to get most of our gear in place. The phone disturbed our systematic and organised process with a shrill and an incessant buzz at 6 sharp. A gentleman by the name of Chandra Tamang was in the lobby. We finished what we could and decided to head down. We would leave the rest for later that night when we’d return.

We exited the elevator at the lobby and walked across to the seating area at the far end. The hotel lobby was abuzz with new guest arrivals. The staff at the reception desk were overseeing the check ins. It was great seeing the man again. He was a lot leaner, the last I had seen him. Guess the season down time had taken its toll on the body and the extra pounds he had gained were showing. He got up from the sofa grinning and we both hugged each other. Chandra Tamang! Well I’ll be damned. How have you been, I cried out. He evinced interest in what we were planning and apologised he couldn’t be a part of it, so busy was he in his expedition planning. He was bound for Cho Oyu. He promised he would lead my next. Which one would that be, he asked? It was Dhaulagiri, the world’s 7th highest for now. He smiled.

Dhaulagiri was touted to be the toughest amongst all base camp itineraries from Nepal due to its remote location and the distance which had to be covered. The trail led one into the Hidden Valley. Rather exotic I had imagined and every time I thought about it, wondered what it would be like. The trekking route to Dhaulagiri commenced from Jomsom. One had to fly those 20 seater Donears from Kathmandu into Jomsom and then start walking.

It was Chandra and I who conversed mostly. Varun in the meantime was more concerned about activating his NCell data plan. Kumar who had joined us, asked KB Tamang to assist. KB obliged and headed out into the market. He said he would be back in 20. He was to be our guide for the entire journey. Kumar had positioned him as a man we could trust and depend on, if any untoward situation arose or if we needed any kind of help. Well, I thought that was the hygiene requirement anyway, besides guiding us.

KB was a former cook and had recently moved up the hierarchy into being a lead guide for clients. He had earned good reviews from previous groups he had led. I knew Kumar was trying to win our confidence in his decision. I didn’t think twice about it, but had hoped for better, after meeting KB. He was an unknown factor in our plans since I didn’t know much of him and it would take us some time to get used to the man’s decision making and thinking process in the outdoors. We’d have to use a lot of our own judgement too I knew.

I had asked Kumar to share our guide profiles much in advance so I knew what to expect when I was in Kathmandu. This, after I had known that Chandra was unlikely to join us. The guide for group 2 would be Mahesh Acharya. I requested Kumar for a meeting with him once we were done with our purchases.

It was nearing 7pm now. In a few hours Thamel would lower its shutters. Saying our goodbyes to Chandra, we made our way into the crowded lanes of the market. Frenetic and full of life, the market was. Such streets and markets were in plenty from where we had arrived. But it was full of character nonetheless. There were 5 kinds of shops I saw. The first which retailed climbing and trekking maps together with a vast array of print titles/ books on the Himalayas by renowned climber authors. A veritable treasure chest for all aspiring climbers and trekkers, armchair included. I selected many paperbacks for my library back home from one such – The Himalayan Map House in Thamel. The second were those who produced t-shirts with embroidered mountain trails and catchy captions. These were only good for memories. The tees hardly ever fit well. The third were the gear shops in multitude retailing a diverse mix of well known, international outdoor ‘Made in Nepal’ brands. You had to be very sure of what you were purchasing, since all of them seemed genuine with the right labels. North Face, Mountain Equipment, Mountain Hardware, Lafuma and many others which I was aware of. The DVD shops were the fourth. The shelves were packed with mountain movies. Titles which I had seen on Amazon, others which I hadn’t. But all of them seemed ripped off the originals with faded colour photocopied covers. The fifth were the cramped artefact shops. Full of curios which were supposedly of Buddhist and Tibetan heritage. Most or almost all on display seemed really ancient. These I saw throughout the trail at every pit stop.

Kumar, Varun and I continued our walk down the winding lanes and bylanes of the market. The shops were full of street hustlers who tried to grab our attention. Cyclists, two wheeler enthusiasts on bikes and scooters, small hatchbacks, foreign tourists, locals all manoeuvred through the little road space that was available. We had to be careful and watch our backs and our next step to avoid being overrun by the bikers or even walk onto someone in front. Glowing signages adorning the shop fronts cast colourful hues everywhere.

Around a certain corner, the strains of heavy guitar and percussion drowned the street noise. Love Me Two Times by The Doors was being performed as was Lynnrd Skynnrd’s Sweet Home Alabama. The decibel levels were astonishingly high. It seemed as if a battle of the bands was raging across the street. Red, green and yellow hues also burst out from the windows of these closeted venues. It made me run up the stairways to join the bands. Music was it. There could be nothing greater. Besides the mountains. To be on stage was special. Nothing existed then. Just the audience. I hoped the music never stopped in my life. It couldn’t. It’ll be forever, I knew.

Somewhere in these lanes was also the iconic restaurant and bar Rum Doodle. I had heard about it but hadn’t yet visited. For every successful expedition and trekking team the proprietors let you leave your seal, your print on a big cutout of a Yeti foot. This was a big deal for those returning from the mountains. An unique USP which helped draw in the clientele day after day. I would leave my name and that of the group at the Doodle too, once I returned on April 21st.

For the moment we followed Kumar into a shop whose proprietor was his friend. The shop specialised in mountain gear. We asked him to show us a down jacket and a sleeping bag. North Face was very popular for we were shown both of the same brand. The down jacket, lime green in colour was selected. But we let the sleeping bag be. Varun decided to use the one he had and avoid extra expenses. He did however splurge on picking up colourful woollen balaclavas for his children and himself.

By now it was nearing dinner time. I was famished and was wondering where to go eat. Kumar being the generous host, invited us for dinner to a restaurant which served continental fare. Somewhere along the way I noticed he had company. A young man in his early thirties who was introduced to us as Mahesh Acharya. So, this was our guide for group 2. I observed him as we walked. Young bloke, wild shoulder length hair, had an accentuated english twang and a swagger.

The four of us settled into a corner table. Dinner ordered we started conversing. I needed an experienced and seasoned hand for the second group since all of them, barring one would be first timers in the Himalayas. Their safety and comfort were my prime concerns. Mahesh seemed capable, experienced and well versed in English. I briefed him on the group profile and emphasised the need to keep a watch on everyone on the trail. I would be leaving them in his care till we were all one group on April 13th at Ghorepani.

Researching mountain content on the web was one thing. Actually walking the trail was another. Mahesh understood my concerns and told me not to worry. He had led Jayesh’s Everest Base Camp group the year before. I asked Kumar about Jayesh and whether he was leading the Odati teams regularly every year. Kumar had a sombre look about him. He wondered why Jayesh Saab had reduced his interactions with him. “Maybe he has found other adventure companies to do business with, he replied. He hasn’t contacted me for his Everest Base Camp trek this year, he added. Wish he had Debolin Saab”.

I changed the direction of the conversation to the upcoming Everest season, not wanting to get into the reasons involved. 2012 would mark the 50th anniversary of the stunning ascent of Everest by Thomas Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld in May 1963 via the then unclimbed West Ridge. They were part of a Nat Geo Society sponsored expedition. This achievement would not only be the first American ascent of Everest but also a simultaneous attempt from two ridges of the mountain. The West and the South East.

Jim Whittaker and Nawang Gombu Sherpa from this American expedition had summitted on May 1, 1963. Hornbein and Unsoeld were attempting the ascent from the rather daunting West Ridge. Previously, ascents of the mountain had been made only via the Southeast Ridge and the Northeast Ridge. Their plan was to climb up the West Ridge and go down the Southeast Ridge route. This would make theirs the first traverse of an 8000-meter peak and also the first via the West Ridge.

On May 22, 1963 at 6:50 a.m they left their final camp and started the climb, and even though progress was very slow, they made it to the summit at 6:15 pm that evening. They found themselves hours behind the generally accepted schedule and after spending 20 minutes at the top they began the descent via the South Col. Shortly after they started, Unsoeld ran out of oxygen.

At 9:30 pm they came upon two other Americans from the same expedition, Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad. Bishop and Jerstad had reached the summit earlier in the day using the South Col route and by this time were exhausted and nearly out of oxygen. The four climbers descended together and continued to make very slow progress until they felt it was too dangerous and stopped sometime after midnight. They huddled together until 4 am in what was an extremely high bivouac at 28000 feet and started down again, meeting expedition members carrying extra tanks of oxygen. They made it to camp to find Unsoeld’s feet hard and frostbitten. Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad also suffered from frost bite and Bishop and Unsoeld lost toes as a result.

Hornbein wrote about this night event in his book “Everest: The West Ridge”: “The night was overwhelming empty. The black silhouette of the Lhotse Mountain was lurking there, half to see, half to assume, and below of us. In general there was nothing – simply nothing. We hung in a timeless gap, pained by an intensive cold air – and had the idea not to be able to do anything but to shiver and to wait for the sun arising.” In his book Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer writes that “Hornbein’s and Unsoeld’s ascent was–and continues to be–deservedly hailed as one of the great feats in the annals of mountaineering.” (Wikipedia sourced)

To commemorate this very special occasion, I continued, 2 expeditions of 2 teams each would make an attempt on Everest via the West Ridge and the traditional South East Ridge. Kumar and Mahesh sat in rapt attention listening to me. Eddie Bauer would send a team of seven mountaineers to repeat the historic feat. A team sponsored by The North Face and National Geographic would be the second that would also plan on ascending the notoriously treacherous West Ridge.

Dinner was sumptuous. We ate like hungry travellers usually do. Varun and I were keen on knowing the character and peculiarities of our own trail. The weather included. It could rain Kumar said. The weather of late had been highly unpredictable. The stretch to watch out for would be the ascent from Thorung Phedi to Thorung La added Mahesh. I nodded in agreement.

The Kanchenjunga final push to Goecha La in 2005 flashed past. We had commenced our climb at 1.30 am in the dark of the night. Just the moon and the stars to keep us company. A strange line of bobbing head lamps slowing winding through the undulated terrain. The harshness of the numbing cold took some time to get used too. Hell, in the dark you didn’t know what terrain you were climbing too. Not knowing is also good. Easier on the senses. And less distractions. It was only on the return from Goecha La did we realise how much ground we had covered. The descent was never ending. What Mahesh didn’t mention was the descent to Muktinath from Thorung La.

Soon afterwards, we bid adieu to both Kumar and Mahesh. Kumar would meet us the next morning at 7.30 am at the hotel. We would head out on our 3 hour drive to Besishaher and then travel further to the night halt at Syange (1100 mtrs/ 3600 ft) in a bus. Kumar would return to Kathmandu and wait for us to arrive on April 21st. Mahesh, I would meet on April 10th at Ghorepani with group 2. I was looking forward to meeting them. Ramnik Chhabra. Binod Duggar. Rushabh Sheth. Sweta Sultania. Ketan Mehta. Kalpak Bhandari. For now though, my attention and focus was required to successfully cover the Annapurna circuit. I slept like a baby that night, with the snow capped peaks to keep me company and waited for a bright dawn.

To be contd. in part 3.

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Varun posing next to a dance bar signage. We found the shower addition very amusing.

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