For some time I'd been searching for a Himalayan peak that would offer me the experience of technical mountaineering in such a beautiful range but without the crowds of people typically associated with the region. After endless google searches, I eventually came across Kyajo Ri - a majestic 6186m peak situated in a remote location just north of Namche Bazaar between the busy Thame and Gokyo valleys, which sees little attention from climbers. After a long flight from London, I met the rest of the team in Kathmandu in April - Matt from Adventure Peaks, Eva and Jorge from Spain, and Glen and Jan from the UK. After a briefing we spent the next day in Kathmandu getting to know each other (over a couple of Everest beers of course!) and sightseeing in the historic city. It had been a couple of years since I last visited Nepal, and some effects of the earthquake in April 2015 were still clear to see in the rubble around the stupas and squares. We saw the temples of Bodnath, Swayambhunath, and Pashupatinath which were captivating, and did some souvenir shopping in Thamel, the bustling tourist district.
For our last night in Kathmandu, our fixer in Nepal arranged a dinner for us complete with traditional Nepalese food and dancing. We were joined by another couple who I chatted to over dinner. Surprisingly they said they were about to head up Cho Oyo and expected it to take a couple of weeks. I thought I'd misheard as the 8201m peak usually takes over a month. It was only later I realised I had been talking to legendary skyrunner Kilian Jornet and his girlfriend Emelie Forsberg! Although they didn't make it to the summit of Cho Oyo in the end due to weather conditions, Kilian would soon after scale Everest twice in one week without fixed ropes or oxygen (read about it here). I also found out that Jorge was something of a climbing legend in Spain, having completed all 14 of the 8000m peaks! I'm sure this trip is like a walk in the park to him, though felt very lucky to have someone as experienced as him as part of our group. It really is both amazing and humbling the people you meet on these expeditions.
Early the next morning we drove to the airport to board a small plane to the tiny town of Lukla and the gateway to the Sherpa Kingdom. The views in the air as we flew through snow capped mountains were beautiful, although it wasn't far from my mind that Lukla airport is known as the world's most dangerous airport with its precarious position carved into a mountain ridge. The pilot made a sharp turn at the end to avoid us crashing into a wall given the short runway, but we had a safe landing! At the airport we met our two Nepalese guides, Isu and Junga as well as a myriad of porters for the journey. After sorting our kit bags and a spot of lunch, we walked along a winding stony path above a river that descended 200m from the forested terraces of Lukla right into the Dudh Kosi valley and the brightly painted lodges of Phakding where we stayed in a teahouse for the night.
The walk the next day continued in a similar manner, along stony paths through villages and across high suspension bridges with coloured prayer flags fluttering in the wind. In Monjo (at 2800m) we stopped for lunch by a river and enjoyed a traditional meal of dhal bhat before entering the Sagarmartha National Park. The path steepened after lunch although we kept a steady pace so it wasn't too hard going. It also became a lot busier, with groups of hikers on the Everest Base Camp trail, as well as a number of yaks and their herders! That afternoon we reached Namche Bazaar at 3440m, the Sherpa capital town, bustling with hikers and mountaineers and crammed with kit shops selling every imaginable piece of climbing gear, bakeries, teahouses, and an Irish pub! Even had a good meal of "yak sizzler" (debateable whether it was real yak though!) in the teahouse that night.
The next day, after a good nights rest in a teahouse, we went for an acclimatisation hike of around 440m. As we followed the steps out of Namche we came across a statue of legendary Sherpa Tenzing Norgay - one of the first two people to reach the summit of Everest along with Sir Edmund Hillary back in 1953. The surrounding views were breathtaking, of Everest, Lhotse, and Ama Dablam. Maybe one day I might be lucky enough to reach the summit of one of them. We carried on up further steep steps for 90 minutes or so until we reached the scenic Everest View Hotel at 3880m before descending back to Namche for a restful afternoon.
We set off the next morning along a dirt path heading West, traversing gently up past a couple of stupas through Phurte. It was a much steeper day and tough going in the heat. Finally we reached the remote village of Mende at 3760m with a few houses and cattle pens set among fields where we camped for the night. I think its amazing how the porters cope despite such heavy loads. One of the younger ones decided to carry double the next day in order to get double pay - we wondered if he would made it to the next camp and fuelled him with chocolate and energy sweets en route!
The route steepened further and we stopped every 30 minutes or so to rest and get some water before continuing, although the views from the ridge above the village more than made up for how strenuous the day was. Finally we traversed below spectacular cliffs and waterfalls and then into the hidden valley of the Thesebu Khola, where we walked over flat moraine to reach our next camping spot at 4500m by a stream. It was starting to snow as we arrived and as the porters with tents took another 1.5 hours some of the early porters and the team huddled in one tent in our down jackets to stay warm! The kitchen and mess tents finally went up and we had some hot chocolate. I'm so impressed with the kitchen porters, our chef Purna, and the meals we received despite the surroundings (usually soup followed by a main of pasta, and sometimes even a homemade cake!).
A few of us set off the next day on an acclimitisation walk with Junga and Isu and a couple of the porters (transferring some loads). Eva had been suffering from altitude sickness the last couple of days so stayed behind to rest. It was steep going but fun scrambling up big rocks covered in snow to the top of a pass at 4900m and take in the stunning view of Kyajo Ri's summit ahead of us. Scrambling down over rocks covered in snow in my 'light' boots was pretty precarious but eventually made it back to camp around midday and had the afternoon off to relax.
Climbing the route again the next day was much easier going physically and we did it in a couple of hours, although it had snowed overnight so had to be careful with my boots slipping on the wet rock. We went over the pass and down into another valley to set up camp at 4850m. A couple of the porters left as we will just be taking essential items up to the base camp, sharing one bag between two. The porters that stayed on will return to this camp along with the chef and just the team will sleep at the base camp. I wasn't looking forward to losing our chef and returning to dried rations - its like being back on the Atlantic row!
I switched to my double boots for the climb to base camp as the terrain got snowier and the air colder. Everyone was starting to feel the effects of altitude now so the pace slowed down and we had regular breaks. We ascended the back wall of the upper valley up some moraine and onto the remote Kyajo Glacier. The scenery on the way was breathtaking with hanging ice for part of the route and majestic Himalayan peaks all around us. We finally reached the glacier at 5350m after 4.5 hours but it felt like we had run an ultra-marathon with the heat and altitude! I boiled snow for what felt like hours to make some drinking water and rehydrate our dinner as well as in our nalgenes as hot water bottles that night.
The next day we had a much needed rest day, with a lie in until 8.30am. I didn't have a great nights sleep and was feeling very headachy in the morning with puffy eyes so set about boiling lots of snow for drinking water with some rehydration salts added. Junga and Isu had left around 5.30 am to fix the ropes for our ascent tomorrow, and Jorge had also gone up to the summit - just for fun! Rested in the afternoon and packed my bag, turning in at around 6.30pm ready for an early start in the morning.
We left camp around 3am. My vanilla pudding wouldn't hydrate so ended up having some Bloc energy shots for breakfast, which wasn't an ideal start to the day (as well as burning my finger on the camp stove whilst half awake!). The ascent to the South Col involved weaving between large boulders and scrambling up snow covered rock which was tricky at times in our double boots. I was worried I might fall behind the rest of the team, but we kept a steady pace with the high altitude and ended up reaching the Col at the same time, just as the sun was rising.
At the South Col we put on our crampons and then followed the majestic South Ridge to the summit. The route climbed up severe grade rock which we ascended with the aid of our ice axes and a jumar on fixed rope, then series of never-ending curving ridges at 40-60 degrees. Although we had ropes most of the way up it was really hard going with the steepness, winds and altitude - I would reach a rocky boulder and expect the summit to be around the corner but it just kept going! However everyone in the team was really positive and encouraging (promising celebratory beers in Kathmandu if we summited!), and the breathtaking views made all the effort worthwhile. Finally we reached the summit. As it was so small we went up and down the final slope in turn - Jan first, followed by Glen, then Matt, then myself. It was 12.15 when I stood at the top - I had tears in my eyes as I hugged Isu and it sunk in that we had made it. The sense of achievement was almost overwhelming. Of course we took some celebratory selfies, and the clouds dissipated just enough to see some amazing views over the Himalaya.
We rapelled down the ropes most of the way, and met the chef and one of the porters who were waiting at the South Col with hot drinks. Legends! Isu also brought out an emergency snickers bar, which he proudly informed me had been to the top of Island Peak! Had a leisurely descent down the rocks and chatted most of the way, finally reaching camp around 4pm. Rehydrated and rested in the tent, then fell asleep at 7pm.
I woke early the next morning to pack up camp and descend down to the glacier. I'd stupidly forgot to put suncream on at the summit so rubbed blistex cream and savlon gel into my (very) red face to calm it down. We'd also run out of food so had to have a stale roll and half a mars bar left over from yesterday for breakfast. Eva and Junga had headed up to the summit at 2.30 am but at 9am we could still see them moving slowly off the South Col. Jorge was worried and we radioed up to turn around as it was hot today and the risk of avalanches was high, especially if they were still moving up late in the day. Everyone (well, apart from Jorge!) was knackered and it was slow going getting down to camp. We stumbled in around midday and collapsed in the mess tent, where we were met with copious amounts of tea as well as a homemade orange cake - lush! We were getting worried about Eva and Junga, but they eventually arrived in camp around 6pm, looking exhausted after a tough 15.5 hour day and she crashed in her tent
The next morning we set off down to Khunde. Eva was suffering from snow blindness, her face was puffy, and I'd had to help her dress and pack her bag. We ended up guiding her down the mountain with a couple of the guides physically holding her as we descended down the rocks. We took a shorter route than the way we came, along the Thesebu Khola valley with narrow trails and over a high pass before descending down a steep path inbetween trees to the town. Had lunch (dahl bhat again!) then it was about 50 minutes walk back to Namche Bazaar. Of course the first thing I did was to have a hot shower and wash my hair, which felt amazing after a few days camping on the mountain! Great to have some comforts again and chat to some other mountaineers on their way through the town.
Spent the next couple of days resting in Namche, having a few celebratory beers with the team and watching films in town. The weather is set to be bad all week so we decided to head to Lukla as soon as we could in case there aren't any flights out and we need to walk / get a bus instead to Kathmandu (about 19 hours in total!). We set off around 9am the next morning and as it was pretty much downhill most of the day made good progress, stopping for lunch in Phakding before reaching Lukla around 3pm. I decided the best thing about Lukla, apart from yet another Irish pub, was the battered snickers bar on the menu at our guesthouse - yum! Isu and Junga celebrated our last night together by buying Raksi for all of us (a kind of Nepalese rice wine) which was pretty strong! Luckily the weather had improved so after spending most of the next day waiting around in the airport we were able to eventually get a flight back to Kathmandu.
Overall it was an amazing trip and I feel very lucky to have summitted such a remote and beautiful mountain in the Himalayas. The conditions had been tough at times but I relished the challenges we faced and the opportunity to put my technical mountaineering skills into practice. It also taught me about the strength of unity. The 12 months leading up to it had offered some powerful experiences but which had also been personally painful at times. Having such positive, motivational and collaborative individuals around me, from the Sherpa guides to the porters and my fellow teammates, made a huge difference and not only gave me impetus to carry on, but restored my faith in how a group can work effectively to fulfil a common goal. I'm so happy I got to finish my year on such a high before going back to work and can't wait for my next trip to the Himalayas...
The Kyajo Ri climb was part of a planned expedition with Adventure Peaks. For more information click here.