It’s been a harrowing week, to say the least — helicopter evacuations, altitude sickness, and snowstorms. Unfortunately, Namche and Lukla seem to be the only places with wifi, meaning I couldn’t update until now, and I likely won’t be able to update you again until after my journey through the Hongu — the fact that I even have internet access this one night is the result of a big shift in plans. I’m currently writing from Lukla, where, go figure, there’s a Starbucks with wifi.
As we approached and surpassed 5000 meters — Thyangboche to Dingboche, Dingboche to Chukung, Chukung to Imja — the effects of the altitude began to take their toll on us all. In Dingboche we climbed several hundred meters to the top of a steep, rocky ridge — the first of Alton’s panoramic photopoints we’d visit. Despite Alton’s warnings about the necessity of acclimatization, Patrick from Discovery had decided to go ahead up to Imja in the hopes of catching a free helicopter ride to shoot some aerials. Skip (who was working for Pat) and I filmed at the photopoint that day. I’d come down with a bad cold, and the steep trek to the top of the ridge added altitude to the equation, such that I had a very difficult time making it down — had to lie down after a particularly grueling steadicam shoot for about 30 minutes before my head cleared enough to continue. Despite that, I captured some spectacular footage at the photopoint.
I interviewed a local Sherpa who explained some of the malaise surrounding the Imja. Scientific teams, he said, have been extensively studying the lake for years — however, they never share their findings with the locals. The result is the creation of an almost mythic fear amongst the people in Imja’s path: they know there’s a problem, but they have no idea how bad it is, or what they can do to help themselves. The Mountain Institute’s work in the next year, bringing over Peruvian glaciologists to share their experience with glacial lake management with the locals, will be a big step in the right direction. With hope, overflow from the Imja can be drained and converted into hydro power for the local people.
I witnessed some of TMI’s other projects on the way up, including their Shrub Juniper nursery. Their program, funded by a National Geographic grant, has been extremely effective over the last couple of years, and succeeded in reducing the cutting and burning of shrub-juniper (which takes 200 years to grow to bush-size at high altitude) by 98%. This involved the creation of porter lodges (otherwise, porters sleep in caves and burn the high-alpine plant for warmth), awareness, and the introduction of alternative fuel sources (namely kerosene, though the ultimate goal is sustainable micro-hydro and solar throughout the region). The nursery, maintained at lower altitude, grows new Shrub Juniper to be transplanted to the deforested slopes higher up.
Chukung was our last stop before Imja itself. Here, returning porters brought us the news: Patrick, having rushed too high too quickly, had been assailed with terrible altitude sickness, and been evacuated on the same helicopter he was hoping to get his aerials from. Well then. That left Skip and Salman, the rest of Patrick’s crew, to try to get the important Imja shots.
We traveled to the Imja base camp, where our team had already set up camp for us. The plan was an early morning out to Imja, where hopefully we’d have clear skies and be able to shoot — then Skip and Salman would depart, and Alton and I would continue over the Amphu Lapsa pass and into the Hongu.
Instead, in a burst of uncharacteristic and unseasonable bad weather, we were hit by a snowstorm.
Skip and Salman were both ill with altitude and colds. After a day of enduring the bad weather, Skip’s vision became permanently blurred and he started seeing halos around lights — clear signs of bad altitude sickness. They needed to lose altitude badly. Skip was magnanimous enough to provide me with his extra batteries and cards for the 7D, making up somewhat for my badly under equipped situation following the loss of my original sponsor (see first post). Even Ang Rita, born in Chukung at over 4000 meters, developed a bad chest infection and had to go down.
That left Alton and I, stuck in a snowstorm, freezing in tents, waiting. On the fourth day, skies still clouded, we couldn’t wait any longer. We decided to shoot the Imja, clouds or no clouds, and move on. We approached the lake and began shooting in the gray, foggy morning. Then — amazingly — the storm broke. The clouds parted, and for just long enough to shoot our segments, the white peaks were visible behind the lake. In two hours we had everything we needed — the Discovery segments and the NGS segments – we’d done it.
But the Amphu Lapsa pass proved an additional challenge. With three days of snow on the pass, myself still fighting a chest cold (only Alton remained stubbornly invincible to the effect of the high mountains) the danger was very real. Even our guide JB, who’s done Island Peak 16 times, sounded nervous about the idea of going over in the conditions. We decided that the only reasonable course of action was to abandon the pass and go with plan B.
Our new route takes us back down to Lukla (where I am now), then over the Mera glacier and into the Valley. The Mera glacier offers a stunning view of two of the glacial lakes as well as a full panorama including Everest — so in terms of photography, it should be even more stunning than our original path. The challenges posed by the extremely dangerous Lake 464 and the trailless, uninhabited valley itself, I’ll leave for the next post.