Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Love in the mountains - part two

Sorry for the delay...here's part two of my love story. Click on the photo collage for a bigger image and captions. Same reader warning applies.

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All this time I had managed to avoid speaking to the angry ant major. The others were all very convivial and I enjoyed getting to know them. We spent a few days in Kathmandu getting acquainted and finalising last-minute logistics for our pre-expedition trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary. I teed up some media interviews and started preparing background information on my fellow travellers. All was going according to plan.

We headed off on the long bus trip through Pokhara to the head of the track that takes you into the sanctuary. Our large group included several of the sherpas who would accompany us into Tibet in a month's time to start the expedition proper, as well as a couple of trekkers and family members of several of the climbers. I was surprised to see one of the guys had brought his eight-year-old step-daughter along, but she was bright as a button and turned out to be more adventurous at eight than I had been my entire life.

The aim of the pre-expedition trek was to take the group into high altitudes so that we'd begin the process of acclimatising to an environment that provides much less oxygen in the air than you find at sea level. The Annapurna Sanctuary trek takes you through some spectacularly beautiful mountainous country up to an altitude of just over 4000 metres (over 13,000 feet). We set off up the path, which started with a heart-pumping staircase, for our first night's destination. I had never worked so physically hard as I did on this trek. It was exhausting and my leg muscles did not stop hurting for the entire 11 days.

Our first night was spent in a luxury 'teahouse' in Dhampus. It even had baths with hot water in the rooms - this was a much higher standard than I'd anticipated and was so glad to sink into a hot tub after a very hard day's trekking. We all had dinner together that night and then it was time to send the first of many internet updates back to our webmaster in Australia. This was my job and I felt a little bummed out that everyone else just had to walk and then rest, while I had other work to do! But I knew that once we were on Everest they'd all be doing the hard yards.

In order to send my reports back to Australia, I needed to use one of our ruggedised laptops and the satellite phone. Well, who do think was in charge of this communications equipment? The angry major I told you about earlier. So, hesitatingly, I asked him if he could show me how to set it all up. He was happy to do so and, with military precision, set it all up for me and told me he was happy for me to set it up by myself from now on. Sheesh, I couldn't even remember how to turn the laptop on, let alone set up a sat phone! But I didn't want to tell him that, so I tried very hard to commit the procedure to memory.

I shouldn't have worried, as Carl set the whole lot up for me every night. Thank goodness! I was so buggered from walking eight hours each day that my brain was in shutdown mode by nighttime.

We continued our ascent into the sanctuary through some of the most jaw-dropping scenery anywhere on the planet. One night it even started to snow lightly on us just as we were coming into the chosen village for a night's rest. In the morning, everything looked like a picture straight out of a fairytale - a light dusting of snow had transformed the landscape. I was so happy. So glad I'd made the decision to come on the expedition. A once-in-a-lifetime-trip kind of happy.

We eventually made it up into the sanctuary proper. It's called the Annapurna Sanctuary, as it's a natural amphitheatre, surrounded by a circle of mountains, with just a narrow gully that permits trekkers and climbers to enter. I could not believe how beautiful the snow-filled bowl and sky-high mountains were. I suddenly appreciated why mountaineers climb dangerous mountains.

And we were soon to find out just how dangerous they can be. The family of three (the one with the eight year old girl) decided to head out of the sanctuary one day ahead of the rest of the party. They wanted to take it slow and make sure their daughter wasn't too tired by the faster 'downhill' trek. We all thought this was a good idea and bade our farewells as we headed off for the day and they packed up, making ready to leave. Carl and one of the other expeditioners decided not come further up into the sanctuary, but to stay at the teahouse and try to recharge the sat phone batteries.

The rest of us headed up the track to its finish to bask in the sun and enjoy a coke and a bowl of something hot at 4000 metres. It was like being at a chalet in the European alps, only better, as there were only about 50 people in the whole area that day. We had a magnificent day in the cool, crisp air, trudging through virgin snow and taking in our surrounds. All that joy evaporated immediately when we returned to the teahouse and heard there'd been an avalanche down the track.

Some of the group immediately began worrying about our companions, but I thought they were over-reacting, as the avalanche had occurred around midday and the threesome should have been well clear of the avalanche site, as they were leaving quite early that morning. To my horror, Carl advised that the family group had been delayed in their departure because their daughter's boots had frozen up overnight.

Our expedition leader despatched our head sherpa down the trail to see if he could find out anything. By this time it was getting dark. What seemed like an eternity later, he returned. Ashen-faced. He had Peter's pack. With a ripped shoulder strap. I could not bring myself to think the worst. I hoped that Peter had dumped his pack and run safely out of the path of the avalanche and that he, Michelle and KC had continued down the track. They would be safe and well, I convinced myself.

Our team sprang into action. We made plans and lists of equipment we'd need to take with us to search the debris at sun-up the next day. We worked quickly and calmly before hitting the sack for the night. I don't think any of us got much sleep. We headed off down the track at daybreak and before long happened across the most god-awful, huge avalanche detritus. I'd seen avalanches on TV - you know the kind that start off with a snowball and cascade into a slippage of an entire snowfield. I thought I knew what to expect. I was wrong. This was a different kind of avalanche - it was all ice, boulders and hard-packed snow. The locals on the scene believed it was the result of an ice-cliff (serac) falling away off the side of one of the 7000m mountains that lined the trail.

It would have hit them like a freight train. I felt sick to the stomach as I walked past the avalanche debris. I knew that if they had been in the path of it they were dead for sure. We still held out faint hope that they'd made it out the other side. Our fastest trekker rushed down the trail to the next village, and the next in search of anyone who might have sighted the family. He came back empty-handed.

The group split into two - most of the team stayed at the site and started to dig. I went down the track with our deputy expedition leader, another trekker who was in shock and unable to function mentally or physically, and with Carl, our comms guy. We had to get far enough down the track to plug our phone and laptop into mains power to report the incident back to our headquarters in Australia. I went into hyperdrive at this point, helping our 2IC to prepare a situation report and media talking points. It's all now a bit of a blur.

Many hours later the rescue team arrived, looking very glum and mostly unable to speak. They had found nothing except Peter's very distinctive camera. They had had to leave the site as the sun hit it, making it dangerously unstable. They were worried that if they continued to dig they'd risk their own lives. They performed a brief ceremony at the site of the avalanche, with the help of our Buddhist sherpas, before they said their goodbyes to our companions.

We were contacted by the Australian Ambassador to Nepal and advised that he would be arriving on location the next day. We had a very quiet, sombre night before we headed back to Pokhara and into a media frenzy. Posted by Picasa

4 comments:

Laura said...

Oh Lily, what a sad beginning to your story. It would have been so hard going forth after this. I look forward to part 3.

Jan said...

Lily, you have me on the edge of my seat here!

Tiffany said...

This is an amazing story. It's like something out of a movie.

Tonya R said...

Oh nooooo.Even with those breathtaking views, I know I could never do this. Far too weak and like my comfort too much. Fascinating to read about tho. Notice how quickly "angry major" changed to Carl....