Frostbitten toes, swollen and purple, are a sobering sight when you're bound for the same cold, high place where the damage was done. The young man was sitting in a hut doorway in the hamlet of Tangnag in Nepal's lovely Hinku valley, massaging his deep frozen digits. He'd reached the summit of Mera Peak a few days earlier, but at a cost. Now his group was heading down valley while our group was hiking up, a little chastened.
As it turned out, the lad was fortunate and got away with just "frost nip". Feeling would return, though probably with a painful phase, and there would be no amputations. Others in the Hinku during October were less fortunate. Almost every morning during our 10-day trek up the valley we saw helicopters heading for the base of Mera to chopper out frostbitten and/or exhausted trekkers. It certainly made us think. "Are my boots warm enough? Am I really up to this?"
Mera Peak, at 6,476m, is the highest of the so-called "trekking" peaks in Nepal. That is 21,248ft, roughly half-height between the summit of Mont Blanc and the top of Everest, definitely into thin air territory.
The term "trekking peak" was coined by Nepalese bureaucrats as they devised the country's Byzantine fee structure for climbing mountains. The alternative, "expedition peaks", are generally higher and harder (and more expensive), but that does not mean trekking peaks are a stroll in the park. Some, such as the popular Island Peak, require at least a nodding acquaintance with technical snow and ice climbing, and even on Mera Peak ice axe and crampons are de rigueur.
None of the above is intended to put you off; it's just to underline the need to be aware. Forearmed and forewarned, the trek up the Hinku valley and the ascent of Mera constitute one of the best adventure journeys to be had in Nepal. Separated from the celebrated Khumbu valley by a succession of 6,000m peaks, the Hinku has not suffered the rash of lodge building that has taken some of the charm from its more popular neighbour. Nor does one feel part of an endless caravan of trekkers. Sure, there are "tea houses" of a basic sort, but you'll probably prefer to sleep, as we did, in a tent on the camping terraces.
I was travelling with one of the most experienced UK trekking operators, Himalayan Kingdoms. Our group of 10 was typical: middle-aged professionals, with a gender balance that ensured not too much laddish testosterone. All were regular UK hillwalkers and most had trekked in Nepal before, it being an addictive sort of place. None except group leader David Pickford and I were "climbers" as such. That sort of spiky experience is just not necessary for Mera Peak.
Our journey from the capital Kathmandu began with a flight in a Twin Otter to the mountainside airstrip at Lukla. This 40-minute hop is one of the great flights of the world, with the snow-draped Himalayas alongside and a white-knuckle landing as if on to the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Lukla is the busy gateway to the Everest trail, but within minutes of stepping out we turned sharply left and into a quieter world. Most of the first five days are spent hiking at around the 3,000m contour, which allows for good acclimatisation. For two days, marching through bamboo and rhododendron forest high above the Hinku river, we saw no one at all. The track was narrow, crossing torrents on log bridges and traversing landslips, definitely with real expedition feel.
The hard work was not done by us but by a crew of six Sherpas, seven kitchen staff and 25 porters. Each day began with "bed tea" brought to one's tent at 6am; a cooked breakfast followed; lunch was served al fresco on the trail (cook and kitchen boys hurrying ahead to prepare this) and dinner was either in the mess tent or, as we got higher and the temperature plummeted, served in a tea house.
On day six, the pines gave way to dwarf juniper and then moorland with blue and white trumpet gentians. Frequently avalanches burst down the steep north face of Mera, triggered by the collapse of ice cliffs – not the side from which we would be approaching!
The last night of our ascent was spent at 5,800m with tents perched on ledges beneath a rock outcrop on the Mera glacier. So perfect was the organisation that a full moon rose theatrically above Kangchenjunga (third highest peak in the world) and at 3am, in this extraordinary place, the kitchen boys were able to serve bed tea and porridge.
Five hours later, Mingma Sherpa and I were on the summit of Mera Peak; to the north stood Everest, only one of a host of giants, while to the south a sea of cloud extended over the foothills of Nepal towards India. Six of our group gained the summit and nobody suffered so much as a sniff of frost nip. By lunchtime we were trudging in enervating heat down the glacier, thoughts already set on the showers and four-star luxuries of our Kathmandu hotel, so aptly named the Shangri-La.
How to get there
Stephen Goodwin was a guest of Himalayan Kingdoms (0845 330 8579; www.himalayankingdoms.com). The 22-day Mera Peak adventure costs £2,395 per person, based on twin share, including flights, transfers and three nights in a four-star hotel in Kathmandu, camping, b&b at the hotel, all meals on the trek, tour leaders, porters and a kit bag. Mera Peak is described as "technically straightforward but very demanding".