Authors: Matt Dickinson
This book is dedicated to
Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa
Mingma Dorje Sherpa
Phur Gyalzen Sherpa
Steadfast and courageous companions on my Everest North Face ascent. Together we survived the killer storm that cost twelve lives. The summit photograph above shows
Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa, Phur Gyalzen Sherpa and author Matt Dickinson.
We must have been about eight hours into the flight when the captain came on the tannoy.
âGood morning ladies and gentlemen.'
I was awake anyway, much too stoked to sleep.
âFor those of you who are interested, there's a remarkable view of Mount Everest on the starboard side of the aircraft. Cabin crew, ten minutes to landing.'
I flipped open the plastic window blind and drank in the view. All the other gap year volunteers sitting around me were doing the same and I wished they'd stop yelling dumb stuff like âawesome!' and enjoy it in the silence it deserved.
Because the captain was right: Everest really was some-thing else; bigger and more stunning than I could ever have imagined. The whole plane was alive with it â there was this sort of jet-lagged electric crackle of excitement fizzing about the cabin.
I wondered if the face I was looking at had ever been climbed, and, if so, what type of superhuman hero/nutter would have taken such a risk. It looked insanely dodgy, razor sharp ridges pumping out clouds of billowing ice crystals. Unforgiving chunks of dark rock soaring in vertical steps.
âExtreme.' Muttered the girl sitting next to me.
I couldn't have put it better myself.
âLadies and gentlemen, we are now on our final approach into Kathmandu. At this time we ask you to ensure your tray table is stowed away, your seat belt fastened and your seat in the upright position. Please note that the toilets are no longer in use.'
The engines started to lose power. I felt my stomach lurch as the aeroplane went into a sharp turn. Now we could see detail in the dark terrain beneath us; wild, forested valleys which were deep and forbidding.
There were hardly any villages. Hardly any roads.
The mood around me shifted quite a bit in that moment; this was the type of wilderness we would all be trekking into over the next six weeks, paired up in teams of two and delivering medical supplies to remote areas of Nepal.
We'd all felt so grown up when we got on the flight back in London. But now it was all real I think we just felt like a bunch of eighteen-year-old kids who had no idea what they were getting into.
As for me, what was I expecting? An adventure? A challenge? A chance to give something back before I went off to uni to study to be a vet?
Well, all of those things, and more. I was up for anything, basically.
The aeroplane lost height. The wilderness gave way to patchwork squares of water, I guessed they must be paddy fields of rice glittering in the early morning sun. We touched down gently and walked down the steps into the humid, smog-filled air of the Kathmandu valley.
A massive wall of grey cloud had already swept across the far mountains.
There was no sign of Everest at all.
A âshake-down' week followed in Kathmandu and we got into the mood of the place. A lot of those early nerves were snuffed out by the realisation of just how friendly and kind the Nepalese people are.
The charity put us up in a dormitory place not far from âFreak Street' â the city's legendary hippy zone, so we were right in the heart of the action.
They taught us how to barter for stuff in the bazaars, never accepting the first price but always haggling it down. We were warned about rabid dogs (carry a big stick), taught how to filter our drinking water, and given a crash course in the local language.
Then, a few days before we were due to start the mountain journeys, my trek partner Liam got sick. He'd been eating kebabs from street stalls so no-one was very sympathetic. The head guy at the charity reckoned he'd be âalright in twenty-four hours', but he wasn't.
In fact it turned out to be amoebic dysentery so that was Liam off the trip.
For a while it looked like my whole mission might be cancelled. There was no-one to take Liam's place. But it really was urgent that the medical supplies got out to their destination and, finally, the head of the charity asked me if I was prepared to do the journey on my own.
âIt's a big responsibility.' He warned.
I told him I had no problem with it. I'd grown up on a dairy farm in Northumberland, and, since I was fifteen, my parents had left me in charge when they went on holidays. If I could cope with that, I told him, I reckoned I could cope with anything.
Secretly I was kind of pleased. It meant the whole thing was much more of an adventure.
Four days later I set off on a 6 a.m. bus ride from Kathmandu. It was an amazing feeling to finally be on the road; the world I had come from seemed a million miles away. Cramming for A levels; jamming my head with facts and figures; turning out for the first XV rugby team on wet Saturday mornings. It was all behind me now; I was heading on my own, deep into the Himalaya, to a village called Tanche that I couldn't even find on Google Earth.
It felt pretty outrageous.
Sepagat was the end of the road, a steamy shanty town which was so plastered with mud that it looked like a muck spreader had gone crazy. It had been raining for twenty-four hours and fast-moving trucks had splattered everything with filth: the people, the street dogs, the tatty goods in the roadside shacks.
A hungry-eyed group of men clustered around me.
âYou need porter, my friend?'
With the amount of baggage I had, there was no way I was going anywhere without some help.
âI have donkey, mister, very strong donkey.'
The scrum was getting a bit lively. So, needing to sort the situation out before things got out of hand, I picked the strongest looking man for the task.
His name was Dhorjee.
We agreed on a price of two thousand rupees to transport the supplies to Tanche. More or less twenty dollars. Dhorjee and I would each carry a rucksack. The heavy barrel of medical equipment would, he said, go by donkey.
âHow many hours trekking is it to Tanche?' I asked him.
âPlenty hours.' He replied vaguely. âUp and down, up and down!'
Dhorjee proposed a quick visit to a local bar and, not wanting to offend him, I agreed. Three beers later (I stuck to Sherpa tea), we quit the bar and put on the rucksacks ready for the trek.
âWhere's the barrel?' I asked him, seeing no sign of the heaviest luggage.
âGone ahead.' He told me. âDonkey very fast! Very strong.'
We set out into the early afternoon, the trail quickly getting steep as we began the haul up the valleyside. I soon began to overheat. After just ten minutes my T-shirt was already soaked with sweat.
âHow far did you say it was?' I asked Dhorjee again.
âWe will be there before night,' he replied. Then he slapped me on the back with a meaty fist. âYou have cigarette for me, my friend?'
The lack of tobacco seemed to put Dhorjee in a bad mood and he gradually pulled ahead of me, never looking back. I soon lost sight of him and there was no sign of the promised donkey. Or my barrel. Still, I kept on up the side of this huge valley, quite enjoying the trail as it punched through the forest.
A couple of hours went past and I was surprised not to have made it to the village and even more surprised that Dhorjee seemed to have totally vanished. The path had changed in a bad way, the stones becoming treacherously slippery and sharp.
At 5.30 p.m. it began to rain. A nasty wind kicked off and, to my surprise, I found I was starting to feel chilled. The temperature had dropped a lot with the gain in altitude and a cold front had swept in.
If I'd had my extra clothes I could have done something about it but, stupidly, my personal gear was in the bag that Dhorjee had on his back.
Where was the village? What was going on? I was beginning to wonder if I had made a big mistake with this dodgy porter.
The antibiotics alone would be worth a fortune on the black market. I could just see myself returning to Kathmandu, my tail between my legs, having blown the whole mission.
Finally, after a climb that had to have been a thousand metres or more, I reached a high col and was able to see ahead. I was pinning my hopes that Tanche would now be in view but instead there was this second vast valley, perhaps even wilder and deeper than the one I had just got across.
And still there was no sign of Dhorjee.
I was starting to get stressed, fearing that the situation was getting out of control. Briefly I thought about turning round, but it was too far to go back.
I would just have to keep going.
I started trekking again but the track quickly became a muddy mess.
Then I saw a splash of red.
Someone ahead of me was bleeding and it was only natural for me to wonder about it.
Was it Dhorjee? If so, what had happened to him?
I started walking faster, curious to catch up with whoever it was. A short while later I saw an even bigger splash of red, as if the wounded one had rested there for a bit.
A few more switchbacks on the trail. Six or seven more bloodspots and I had the wounded one in sight; well at least I had a blurred vision of a small figure dressed in a blue cape. It looked like a kid carrying a massive load and it was obvious they were exhausted.
âHey!' I called. âAre you OK?' The figure stopped and I saw it was a girl, sixteen or seventeen years old at a guess. She was wearing a pair of worn-out canvas sneakers which were totally ripped and torn. She had a deep cut on her ankle and it was still bleeding.
On her back was a massive load. She was literally staggering under the weight of it and I realised with a hot flash of rage that it was
fifty-kilo barrel of medical supplies that this poor girl was carrying on her back.
She took off the barrel as I got closer, sitting heavily on the ground, looking completely done in. Her face was streaked with mud and sweat.
âDo you speak English?' I asked her.
âWho gave you that barrel?' I demanded.
âAnd how much is he paying you?'
The girl looked at her hands and did not reply.
âIt's alright.' I told her wearily, âI'm not angry with you. I'm angry with him for giving you that load.'
I sat down next to the girl, suddenly seriously tired. I found a last muesli bar in my pack and split it in two to share. She smiled briefly as she took the snack, her face coming alive.
âMy name's Ryan. What's your name?' I asked her.
âYou've hurt your foot.'
âYes.' She stared down at her bloody ankle, shivering a bit with the cold.
âI can put a bandage on it if you like.'
I cracked open the seal on the barrel and found some disinfectant and a bandage. I'd done plenty of first aid training on the charity course so this was easy stuff. Five minutes later I had the wound nicely cleaned although I reckoned the dressing wouldn't last too long in the rain.
Then the million-dollar question.
âHow far is it to Tanche?'
âA few hours.'
? Then we'd better get moving. I'll take the barrel.'
I gave her my rucksack, reducing her load by fifty per cent at a stroke.
The girl had been carrying the barrel in the local way, with a leather strap around her forehead. I decided to try it and managed to get it up on my back as she had done. The weight was unbelievable. The bones in my spine felt like they were grinding to dust with every step.
The more it went on the more I cursed that idiot Dhorjee. My thoughts about him were turning ugly and getting uglier with every passing step.
I wished I hadn't paid him in advance.
The rain had cranked itself up into a deluge; it was driving down with amazing force, smashing the ground to submission. Fist-sized rocks started to tumble down the slope above us and at one dicey place the path had been swept away completely by a landslide. We crossed that one hand-in-hand, Shreeya moving sure-footedly despite the terrible state of her shoes.
When I next checked my watch it was a few minutes before 10 p.m. We shared a few dried apricots and made no effort to try and find shelter. There was no point; we couldn't get any wetter. Or colder. My teeth were chattering like mad.
Finally we saw a light flickering in the distance.
âTanche.' Shreeya said.
Not a moment too soon.
We entered the village and I stared at the dark buildings which were clustered on either side of the trail, wondering why no-one was there to greet me. My mind was so messed up I could hardly remember what they had told me back in Kathmandu.
âIt's OK.' Shreeya said kindly, âYou can stay with us.'
We plodded up a series of steps cut into the hillside until we came to a sturdy timber building which was journey's end.
Inside was an elderly woman with long dark plaits.
âMy aunt.' Shreeya said.
I greeted her with a âNamaste', seeing the flash of gold teeth in the thin smile she returned. She didn't look best pleased to have an unexpected house guest.