Nepal: Scaling new heights (+photos)

By Jim Eagles

The Sherpa guides woke us at 6am with a cup of tea. They led us by the dim light of the unrisen sun along a path between the barbed wire, trenches and sand-bagged emplacements of a Nepalese Army base to a viewing point above the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar ... and there it was.

Mt Everest. The highest point in the world. The mountain the Sherpas and Tibetans call Chomo Lungma, or goddess mother of the Earth.

Overnight, the clouds which had obscured the great peaks of the Himalayas had moved away, and we could clearly see Everest's massive, dark, shark-tooth shape looming behind the smaller but prettier snow-covered summits of Lhotse, Amadablan and Nuptse ridge.

I had been waiting for this moment since I was eight years old, since May 29, 1953, when the iron-willed Auckland apiarist Ed Hillary and the iron-muscled guide Tenzing Norgay Sherpa became the first to reach the top.

I even imagine that I hear in my mind the voice of Prime Minister Sid Holland announcing - as a sort of coronation gift for the visit of the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II - something like: "Mt Everest has been climbed and it is a New Zealander, Hillary, who has done it."

That feat, and Sir Ed's subsequent work for the Sherpa people, caused Everest to loom large in my imagination.

But at 61, I thought the chance of seeing the mountain had passed.

I felt I would no longer be physically capable of trekking high enough into the Himalayas to reach a point from where the mountain can be viewed.

Yet here I was, panting in the thin air after the mild exertion of walking up the path to the viewing point and with a bit of a twinge in my right knee, 3500m up in the Himalayas and looking at Everest.

As it turned out, I was able to cope fairly easily with the combined challenge of the cold and lack of oxygen at high altitudes, trekking along the steep, stony Himalayan tracks, crossing rickety swing bridges high above turbulent mountain rivers, sharing these narrow highways with caravans of sharp-horned dzopkos (yakcow crossbreeds) and meeting red-scarved Maoist tax collectors.

As well as knocking off this personal Everest, I also enjoyed the bonus of seeing Sherpa life in the villages along the way, visiting Buddhist monasteries high in the mountains, taking part in ancient ceremonies, experiencing local markets, checking out yetis and walking through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.

The World Expeditions trek which brought me here had assembled four days before in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu, from where we made an incredible flight through the mountains to Lukla Airport, built by Sir Ed in 1965 and now the main gateway to the Everest region.

I shouldered my daypack with nervousness, walked past the gleaming white Buddhist stupa and into the valley of the milky Dudh Kosi river on the first stage of the trek.

How well would my lungs cope with the fact that above 2500m folk from the lowlands have problems with lack of oxygen?

And how would my old legs handle the walking? I had trained by jogging up North Head in Devonport, which is 65m above sea level.

As far as I know, the highest I had ever gone was 40 years ago when I walked up Ruapehu, which is 2797m.

But Lukla was 2800m. Namche Bazaar, where I got my first glimpse of Everest, was 3440m. And, walking through the village of Khumjung, we went above 4000m.

Fortunately, the expedition was carefully organised to make it easy for novice trekkers.

The first day we only had to walk a couple of hours from Lukla to a magnificent riverside campsite at the village of Phakding, and not much more the second day, to Chumo Camp, near the picturesque village of Monjo.

The third day, when we climbed steeply to Namche Bazaar, was tougher.

As we went higher, I had to suck the thin air into my lungs in gulps to extract enough oxygen.

But once we got walking at the steady pace set by our guides, I was able to get into a rhythm - gasp-gasp-step, gasp gasp- step - which handled the conditions fairly comfortably.

As we climbed further and higher into the mountains, I could feel my excitement rising and I could imagine Hillary feeling the same.

Would I be lucky enough to see the great goddess mother of the Earth?

Would he - third on the expedition's list of climbers - get a chance to reach the top?

Jim Eagles visited the Himalayas as guest of World Expeditions and Cathay Pacific.

- NZ Herald

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