16 days, 174 miles, 2,758 flights of stairs, 18 pieces of the best apple pie in the world and a lot of dal bhat power.
Exercise COCKNEY KALA PATTHAR took 10 Reservists from 151 Regiment RLC and 3 Regulars from 10 QOGLR on a 3 week trek to the Himalayas. The objective; for the team to literally rise to the challenge and to reach Everest Base Camp.
Preparation is key
With the aim to reach 5,364m at Everest Base Camp, and possibly even 5,545m on the summit of Kala Patthar close by, key to our preparations was making sure everyone was aware of the dangers of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). We came together for briefings so that we knew what to expect and how best to make sure everyone stayed well throughout the trip. With Reserves already maintaining the balancing act of work, army and family life, it was up to individuals to train in their own time. Whilst altitude training is obviously not possible in the UK, it was important to get miles under our belts in preparation for long days walking.
A long and bumpy road
At the start of November we flew out to Nepal; a long journey followed by an afternoon of admin and prep at the British Gurkha camp in Kathmandu. The next day was a ten hour drive to our start point. The fascination of taking in a new country meant most spent the whole journey with noses pressed against the windows, catching glimpses of snowy peaks in the distance, and some scary cliff edges much too close to the road. As drivers in a logistic regiment this journey was certainly a learning experience; quite how that minibus managed to negotiate some of those roads will remain a mystery to us all.
Climb High, Sleep Low
And so the walking commenced. Up, up, and up. The key to avoiding AMS was to climb high during a day and then sleep low at night. At the start of the trek, at lower altitude, we found ourselves in t-shirts (and even shorts!) and it was pretty hot at times as we walked up steep slopes in the glorious sunshine. At night the temperature certainly dropped and as we got higher it was icy in the mornings.
We soon got into our daily routine of early starts for a breakfast of Tibetan bread, porridge and eggs before setting off. A brief stop for tea mid-morning and then onwards until lunch, after which we’d walk some more and then finish. At around 4pm to settle in to our tea house for an evening of cards, diary writing and, of course, dal bhat.
Although we were not with our Regiments during Remembrance this year, we were still able to find time to pause during the trek. At 3,499m we held a small ceremony to remember the fallen.
“Just round the corner”
By the end of the trip ‘just round the corner’ had become something of a team catchphrase. On day 8 as we neared the top of a slope, we knew that just round the corner was our mid-morning tea stop but also our first view of Everest. There it stood,. a stunning mountain scene, with one cloud exactly over Everest itself. As we drank our ‘milk tea’, the local masala tea being the team’s favourite for elevenses, we waited for the cloud to move but in vain.
Part of the joy of being in another part of the world was meeting others along the way. We shared the route with fellow trekkers, local children on their lengthy journeys to and from school, and yaks, as told by the jingle of bells to give warning as they approached. As we moved past Lukla we started seeing more and more porters on the route transporting goods to the towns and villages higher up using a doko (a type of basket). Few of us will ever complain about the weight of our bergans on exercise again after seeing 120kg being carried up those hills.
We found that even on the most remote looking mountainside you could see prayer flags fluttering in the wind. It’s amazing to see what people can achieve. As we reached the top of one hill we were faced with a sobering reminder of how harsh this beautiful landscape could be, with memorials for those who had died whilst attempting to summit Everest, and we all took some time to look around and take this in.
Objective complete. On November 22nd the whole team made it safely to Everest Base Camp.
A fantastic achievement for one of the private soldiers almost a year to the day that he was attested into the Army Reserve. After a year of hard work, completing both his basic and trade training, and showing exemplary behaviour within the squadron, he was rewarded with a spot on the trip.
After the celebrations of reaching Base Camp, we were able to celebrate further with a promotion. News had come in a few days earlier that a Sgt to SSgt promotion had come through, and he was presented with his new rank slide as the group gathered on the glacier before heading down from Base Camp.
The following morning, seven members of the team had an early start to the summit Kala Patthar. With the stars still out, the trail of headlamps set off on the slow climb, reaching the summit just after the sun rose. From here you could get a spectacular view of Everest, as well as the sheer drop down into the neighbouring valley!
The biggest challenges?
Yes the end goal drove us and made it all worthwhile, but when you’ve been walking up a steep hill for two and a half hours and you realise that what you thought was the top is in fact another false summit, morale could waiver. That’s where the team came in and everyone motivated one another to continue.
Three weeks is quite a long time to spend in a relatively small group. We got to know others from different squadrons, of different ranks and even regiments; 13 completely different people living and working together and getting to know our local guides and porters too. Just how well the team worked really came to the fore when one of us became unwell. Everyone pulled together to come up with a plan to get him and everyone safely back to our village for the evening and then make sure he recovered.
Cliffs and bridges. Looking back, where in the first few days we were daunted by the sheer drop at the edge of some of the paths and the slightly flimsy looking suspension bridges, by the end we had become much easier with the heights and overcame most of our fears. We’d also learned to move more quickly if you were on a bridge and some yaks started approaching from the opposite path.
And how did we benefit?
The first, and most obvious, is that the expedition gave all 13 of us the privilege of an experience we will never forget. To go to Everest is something few people achieve and we are all grateful to have had such an opportunity.
We all picked up a few skills along the way to take back to our military careers; the ability to carry on when the going gets tough, for one. Others also perhaps learned to keep themselves a bit more organised and keep their admin under control.
It’s fair to say all of us learned a lot about AMS. We saw the success of the advice we were given – climb high, sleep low, and drink lots and lots (and lots) of water – by the fact we all reached Base Camp. This knowledge of how to prevent illness is something we will always carry.
In addition, as we return to our lives back in the UK at the start of December with the hectic run up to Christmas ahead, we can reflect on the humbling experience of seeing another part of the world and another way of life and share what we saw with friends and family.
Thank you to the expedition organiser, Major Gauchan, our 10 QOGLR colleagues Capt Irvine, Sgt Yam and Cpl Dipak. Thank you to The Ulysses Trust for their generous funding. And finally, thank you to each and every member of the team, for a fantastic shared experience.