It had been 15 years since I’d last looked upon the Nepalese Himalaya. Flying into Lukla was the perfect, hair-raising springboard into the Khumbu Valley, anticipation building for the next 22 days of serious trekking.
A day in Kathmandu gave time to finalise kit and meet the expert guide Kangbu Sherpa. The expedition started in earnest the next day, taking a circuitous route through the Hinku Valley – ideal for strengthening, acclimatising and team building for the impeding challenge. As we reached the first bridging point at Tangnak, 4,300m, a spine-tingling glimpse of the Mera Peak massif gave a stark indication of the challenge ahead.
We reached basecamp at 4,800m in good shape for the final push. The massif comprises of three peaks above 6,300m – our goal, now so tantalisingly within our grasp, was one of these: Mera, the highest trekking peak in Nepal, towering above at 6,476m.
The weather so far had been relatively kind but as seven of us slowly left basecamp, little did we know what was about to ambush us.
Conditions deteriorated rapidly approaching Mera La. Blizzards and zero visibility hampered progress but we pressed on. We were safe in the knowledge that being equipped with secure crampons and roped up in groups of four diminished the risk posed by the unseen crevasses beneath the snow. Despite the weather we reached high camp a day ahead of schedule, although one person decided to turn back.
The remaining six were all well versed in the rituals of camping at high altitude, and bedded down for the night a mere 700m below the summit, awaiting the 2am shout out from our fearless leader Jingbo. The early start is necessary on any summit, to reach the top before the rising sun degrades the snow and ice with its warmth, making headway all the more difficult and increasingly dangerous. We had decided to go for a summit attempt the next day, before the approaching weather front slammed the window of opportunity firmly shut.
But that night, the mother of all storms closed in. Our worse fears had been realised. The tempest took hold and raged across the mountains, pouring several feet of snow across the whole region in the process. Our 2am wakeup call never came. At least the toilet tent was well anchored.
By the time the storm blew itself out, the skies cleared and we were physically able to leave the tents - it was already mid-morning. We literally had to dig ourselves out of the sturdy two-man tents, tasting bitter disappointment that it was too late to attempt the summit.
Or so we thought …
Four of us were left standing, along with our two climbing guides. We decided on a last ditch summit attempt to salvage something from this seemingly hopeless position.
This was no case of collective summit fever taking precedence over safety. We were roped up in no time, and began the arduous ascent slowly. Breaking trail over 6000m high, in knee-deep fresh snow, constantly probing and alert for dangerous crevasses lurking unseen beneath the snow, it soon became clear this was quite possibly the toughest trekking experience of our lives. It was slow progress at a steep gradient, everyone having to rotate the demanding role as lead trail breaker.
Struggling on the trail for five hours, progress was painfully slow, when a mere 250m from the summit we literally stumbled upon a crevasse. We’d passed other smaller and more forgiving crevasses, but this was far deeper and more impressive than any we’d seen so far.
Jingbo paused, and then quite rightly offered up “I want to go back to my wife and kids alive”. We made a well-reasoned decision not to cross the impressive fissure barring our route. The light was beginning to fade – it was a no brainer really. No-one likes to admit defeat, especially where Mother Nature is concerned, but as alpine legend Ed Visteurs once said, “Summiting is optional, getting down safely is mandatory.”
In hindsight, the Mera Peak Expedition gave us a high altitude trekking encounter unlike any other. The ultimate adventure, even if we were thwarted. To get as close as we did, given the conditions endured, was an achievement to make anyone proud. It just proves, once again, that you can never second guess the mountains - no matter how high you are. That’s why I can never get enough of them – always expect the unexpected when you’re up top.
On this occasion, it may seem like the mountain had the last laugh. But as we left high camp the day after our last attempt, we stepped out into the most pristine of Himalayan mornings – a sparkling tapestry of six of the world’s highest mountains, immense 8,000m peaks with the Everest massif taking centre stage. These snow-clad sentinals aren’t going anywhere – I hope they are more welcoming when I return.
By Alistair Grice, Exodus Sales Executive & Trekking Expert who travelled on our Mera Peak Expedition
Click here to watch a short video filmed by Alistair at High Camp (5,895m).