First shower in 6 days!
Khote felt like a milestone on our trip. We were into the Hinku Valley proper, a vast natural dead end with no easy exit and ahead of us lay Tagnak and Khare, then just the Mera glacier. Every building in the village looked store-fresh and strangely new, because that's pretty much what they were. A few miles North of Khote our maps showed the Sabai Tsho, an impressive looking glacial lake nestling under sheer cliffs, but when we reached it a day or so later it would underwhelm, due largely to the fact that, in 1998, the lake burst through its moraine dam and cascaded down the valley, destroying much of Khote. The village we arrived in had risen quickly from the wreckage, with solid half stone, half timber buildings testament to the money to be made from trekking parties on our route.
Day walk to acclimatise
Of far greater import than the architecture though was the facilities - for just a few dollars the lovely Sunita sold me a bucket full to the brim with hot water - after 6 days of questionable personal hygiene this was the equivalent of a first-class airline ticket and the presidential suite of a 5 star hotel rolled into one! Eating dinner inside for the first time in a few days that evening, we paid the extra few rupees necessary to have the stove turned on and sat happily in the gloom in our down jackets, playing cards and chatting, before turning in.
Khote was the first of three summer-only settlements that supported the fast-growing Mera trekking trade. Tomorrow we would walk a few miles further up the valley, leaving the treeline behind and entering the High Himalaya - the fun part of the trek was over, and most of our conversations were about the challenge that lay ahead, and strategies for getting to the summit.
As a born worrier I'll happily admit to being very apprehensive from here on in. Our walk the following day put us squarely underneath Mera itself, as we skirted around it to the next settlement, Tangnag. Taking the high path above the jumble of boulders in the valley, our route took us past a strange one-monk mini-monastery - part cave, part wooden shack, the walls inside covered with murals and the room filled with artifacts. Happy to show the tourists around and be photographed whilst praying, the monk told the story of the monastery, before returning inside with our Sherpas for a "proper" prayer session without the Westerners. A very strange life indeed, but a pleasant detour.
Tangnag was the first place on the trip which felt completely alien. By this point we were above the treeline so, whilst there were the normal friendly lodge owners, and we were surrounded by cathedrals of mountains, everything seemed very bleak.
The second the sun disappeared it became brutally cold, and the lack of electric light in the lodge where we took our meals just confirmed we were very, very far from Kansas. Nights at Tangnag were to be punctuated by the terrra thunder of avalanches either off the Tangnag Glacier to the West, or from Mera itself across the other side of the valley - at least I'm told they were, as I slept through them quite happily.
As we huddled together in the lodge on the first evening we had to accept some sad news. Phil, one of three friends hoping to scale Mera together, had been fighting back pain for days, but finally had to admit defeat and accept that Tangnag was the end of the line for him. Our newly arrived Western trip leader fired up the satellite phone and booked a helicopter evacuation for the next day.
If the weather is fine and you're below 5000m, these helicopters are effectively minicabs, although at $1200 dollars an hour they're not cheap... When we discovered our friend was definitely going back, we descended like vultures onto his kit to see what could be "liberated" - Snickers bars, lithium batteries and, for me, the grand prize of a warmer sleeping bag.
First light the following morning and a small helicopter buzzed up the valley, looped past us, then circled back and carefully put a single skid down for the pickup. We had walked for a week to get to this point, but Phil would be back in Kathmandhu in just a couple of hours, after a quick pitstop in Lukla
- very surreal.
Once the noise of the departing helicopter faded away, minds turned back to the trek. This would be a new day for us - rather than move on up the valley, we would pause here for the day and do an acclimatisation walk - which is a technical way of saying you walk up a hill, sit down, admire the view, then walk down it again. Normally I would hate this sort of pointless endeavour, but the view across the ampthitheatre formed by the upper end of the valley and the sheer West Face of Mera, plus being able to see our future onto the glacier made it a great day out.