Nepal: Just off to climb a mountain - won't be long

Stephen Goodwin tries an 18-day trip to Nepal, but finds that there are no short cuts in the Himalayas

Rumbling around our campsite 15,750ft above sea level in Nepal's Langtang Himalaya, the thunderstorm didn't augur well for our dawn climb.

Rumbling around our campsite 15,750ft above sea level in Nepal's Langtang Himalaya, the thunderstorm didn't augur well for our dawn climb.

Nor did the snow. It had been falling steadily since mid-afternoon. Every few minutes, one of us would thrash an arm at the sagging mess-tent roof and dislodge another pile. The evening meal over, there was little else to do but retreat to our two-person tents, burrow into a sleeping bag, and hope.

Foolishly, I had taken a successful ascent of Yala Peak for granted. It is a relatively modest hill of 18,050ft and was only intended as a prelude to the more challenging Naya Kanga, rising sharply on our southern horizon.

But mountains have a way of demanding a bit of humility from puny mortals. The last time I was in Nepal, it was Everest, missed by a whisker of some 300ft when the climb seemed to be going so well - or as well as could be expected in such mind-numbing and body-racking circumstances.

Yala and Naya Kanga are hardly in the same league as the Big E, but trying to knock them off in a 18-day round trip from London was starting to seem a trifle ambitious. We were the guinea pigs for a new itinerary being offered by Jagged Globe, one of the most experienced commercial operators for the greater ranges.

Crudely put, it was a "Himalayan quickie", a chance to climb part of Asia's fabled range without having to take masses of time off work or pack in the job altogether. The majority of the nine climbers hunched in the tent at Yala base camp had chosen the trip for that very reason.

Would that we had had the time available to the legendary Bill Tilman, who led the first exploratory probe by Westerners into Nepal's mountains when the kingdom opened its doors in 1949. They were in the field for four months, starting in the valley of the Langtang Khola, the very glacial torrent we were to follow, 51 years later.

Tilman's sirdar (foreman) and cook was Tensing Norgay, the Sherpa who, with Sir Edmund Hillary, was to be first to the summit of Everest. Tilman noted that Tensing had a charming smile and was a deft hand at making omelettes.

Our sirdar, Gor, certainly shared some of Tensing's qualities - his own ready smile was illuminated by a gold tooth - but omelettes, of which there were many, he left to Dil the cook. Though the trip was short, the column of personnel winding up the jungly banks of the Khola was long: four climbing sherpas, three kitchen staff, 24 porters. In charge was Mal Creasey, a North Wales-based guide with 30 years' hard climbing lined on his face.

Up until the stormy evening at Yala, our trip had gone to the agreeable rhythm that makes Himalayan walk-ins such a pleasure. A bus ride of eight hours, much of it on dirt road and hairpin bends through teetering terraces, landed us at the village of Syabru Bensi, where we camped.

There are no roads into the Langtang, just a footpath through forests of bamboo, giant rhododendrons and majestic firs and pines. To turn a cliff, the trail snakes hundreds of feet above the river on rocky staircases. Everything the valley needs, from corrugated iron to Coca-Cola, goes in on a porter's back. Whatever the valley produces, notably yak cheese, goes out the same way.

Over the four days it takes to reach the highest village of Kyanjin Gompa, the valley opens out enticingly. We passed from steep-sided jungle, alive with birds more heard than seen, to alpine pasture, grazed by yaks, fragrant with dwarf rhododendron, and with ramparts of rock and ice.

On the morning of the climb, tea was served at 3am. It had stopped snowing. We set off in a column for Yala Peak. With the summit in sight, we moved carefully up a glacier ridge where crevasses were concealed under fresh snow. Finally we were on the summit ridge. The rope was reassuring as we negotiated the crest to a final rocky upthrust.

Beside Yala's wind-torn prayer flags we took the obligatory photographs and drank in a stupendous panorama. To the south-west rose our next objective, Naya Kanga (19,180ft) - a very different beast.

Mal Creasey rated our chances at less than 50-50. Two days later, when we reached Naya Kanga, the odds were far worse. Thunderstorms and heavy snow had made the upper slopes treacherous. Two other parties had turned back, one having got within 200ft of the summit.

But Mal was keen to look into the high glacial bowl that would reveal the key to a future ascent. We set out before dawn. Let's just go and rub our noses in it, Mal had said. And the veteran guide did just that. As the sun warmed the snow, he plunged through the crust and sank to his waist. We needed no clearer warning. The safety of Kathmandu beckoned.

Getting there

The Langtang is easily accessible from Kathmandu. The approach is by bus from Kathmandu to Dhunche (six hours) or Syabru Bensi (eight hours). The best time to go is in April and May, before the monsoon rain, and late September to early November, after the rain.

Stephen Goodwin travelled with Jagged Globe, 45 Mowbray Street, Sheffield S3 8EN (tel: 0114 276 3322; e-mail: expeditions@hkexpeds.demon.co.uk).

The next "Langtang Climber" expedition departs on 29 September 2000, and costs £1,750 per person, joining in the UK, and is all-inclusive.

Gearing up

Clothes suited to Scottish hills in winter or the Alps are fine. It can be T-shirt weather on the walk-in, but cold enough for a down jacket at high camps. Lightweight trekking boots are fine, but stiff-soled mountaineering boots are crucial for climbing days.

If you're fit enough for the Scottish hills or the Alps, you'll be fine, but you should be confident in the use of ice axes, crampons and ropes.

Recommended reading

'Nepal Himalaya' by HW Tilman, published 1951, now reprinted by Book Faith India, £4.70 approx, from Pilgrims bookshop, Thamel, Kathmandu.

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