1254 – ‘Himalayan Sapper’ – Nepal

It was back in June 2012 whilst I was out climbing in the lake district with Capt Jon Evans that we decided to put together an expedition made up of mostly TA soldiers. Where to go and what to do was the next problem. After considering the amount of time TA soldiers will be required to take from their civilian jobs and the training time they would need, we decided on a high altitude trekking peak in Nepal. Island Peak 6189m was to be our aim with a quick detour to Everest base camp thrown in for good measure. Capt Jon Evans took on the responsibility of expedition leader whilst I took on the easier job of 2ic.

It didn’t take long after advertising the expedition that we managed to build up quite a bit of interest from across the RE TA. Very quickly a training plan was put together that included a weeks winter mountain foundation course in Scotland, a week on the Isle of Skye scrambling and some of the team members securing a place on the Joint Service Alpine Meet 2012 to complete their Alpine mountain Foundation course.

Eventually we had a trained team of nine novices and three experienced high altitude instructors, which then gave us three rope teams. The Expedition members came from the following units:299 Para Sqn RE x 471 Engineer Regiment x 2170 Engineer Group x 2MSSG x 165 Works Group x 1135 Inep Geo Sqn RE x 17 CTT x 1 Instructor

After months of sending e-mails, writing letters and lots of time spent packing, re-packing and weighing our kit we finally left London Heathrow on 16 September bound for Kathmandu.

Many hours of travelling had passed when we finally found ourselves on our transport driving to the Manasalu hotel in Kathmandu, courtesy of Ram from our very friendly and very helpful Trekking company. The next 24 hrs in Kathmandu was spent carrying out various admin tasks, such as booking into the British Embassy, purchasing food and small bits of team equipment prior to our flight to Lukla.

Soon after safely touching down at Lukla airport we were off on what was to become groundhog day for the next two weeks. Our daily routine consisted of eating, sleeping and trekking from tea house to tea house on our way to Everest base camp and Island peak. The scenery was quite breath taking as we slowly moved our way up to Gorak Shep, which is the last tea house before Everest base camp. The tea houses were better than we had anticipated, most have good washing and toilet facilities, lovely food and two man rooms with quilts.

Each days trek only lasted about 4-5 hours so there was plenty of time to admire the views, take photos and stop off for yet another cup of tea. We even managed to fit in a monastery visit in Tengboche and various trips to sample some of the delicious bakery products in Namche Bazar. Luckily we were only carrying about 10-20lbs on our backs as we had a team of porters that carried all our heavy equipment in front of us. Even so, we still marvelled at the loads carried by some of the porters. Crates of beer, beds, logs, you name it they carried it.

Our route took us through the following villages: Phakding 2600m, Namche Bazar 3440m, Thame 3940m, Khumjung, Tengboche 3867m, Periche 4260m, Lobuche 4930m and finally Gorak Shep. It was at Gorak Shep that Capt Evans had planned an acclimatization peak to trek to. Apparently this is the done thing as you get a fantastic view of Everest. Before that though we left our bags at the tea house and continued on for a couple of hours to Everest base camp. The next morning we left the Tea house at around 0500hrs and made our way up to the summit of Kala Patthar 5545m in time for sunrise and a grand view of Everest.

No time to waste as we descended Kala Patthar, had breakfast and pushed on back to Lobuche. The next day we trekked up and over Kongma La pass 5535m which gave the Instructors another excellent opportunity to see who was acclimatising well. We soon arrived at Chukhung which was our final tea house before moving to Island Peak base camp. The next day we set off in high spirits to Island peak base camp which was at 5080m. This was to be the first time the expedition had lived in tents but we were still spoilt by the porters cooking us some amazing meals. A day’s revision training followed and then even more packing and repacking. This time we had to man pack all our equipment and enough water to last four days up to high camp which was around 5500m. After arriving at high camp we quickly established our tent sites amongst the rocks and made ourselves at home ready for our summit attempt the next day.

We left our tents at around 0200hrs the following morning bound for the summit of Island Peak. The walking soon turned into a bit of scrambling which for me became a welcome change. A couple of hours later we finally reached the snow and our trek through the crevasse field. The head wall up to the final ridge soon loomed menacingly in the distance and I did start to think that it would be harder than I thought. No surprise that when we eventually made it to the base of the headwall it looked nothing near as intimidating as it did from a distance. Up the fixed ropes we climbed and then onto the final ridge before standing on the summit some 5 hours after leaving our tents.

Amazingly we managed to get seven out of the nine novice mountaineers onto the summit. Unfortunately two had been suffering with altitude sickness so one stayed at base camp and the other one stopped at the headwall. The three amigo instructors made it of course, but then that goes without saying.

No time to rest as we had the descent to contend with and this is where accidents can happen. Nine hours from when we first set off we were back in high camp packing our tents away. With morale high we pushed on back to our overnight stop in Chukhung before taking the next couple of days to trek back to Lukla.

Back in Lukla we held a farewell party to our porters which turned out to be very interesting indeed. I’m not supposed to mention how the OC 299 couldn’t wait to get on the dance floor and strut his stuff with a gang of male porters, so I wont mention it.

Exercise Himalayan sapper concluded with a day spent white water rafting and a visit to Chitwan National park for an Elephant safari. We arrived back in UK on 13 October after a highly successful and well organised expedition.

WO2 Dave Bellamy

With thanks to:

Ulysses Trust

In partnership with:

Nuffield Trust