Sunday, 27 May 2018

The Tale of two Hill Stations

The Tale of two Hill Stations

I took the afternoon train from Delhi, it was crowded and even in the dying hours of the day the temperature for a ‘Brit` was unbearably hot and humid. Despite arriving in Kalka and it being located at the base of the Himalaya, it seemed little or no cooler. I could only imagine what it must have been like back in the 1800s for all those British East India Company officials, soldiers and workers struggling to exist in the steamy humidity on the Indian plains with little chance of escape from the hot summer conditions. Kalka is the end of the main railway line going north and at one time this was also perceived as being the end of the apparent civilisation of the British realm, beyond which progress was difficult, arduous and often dangerous. At Kalka, along with my travelling companion, Panigrahi, I transferred to a taxi and it seemed an eternity before we began to gain altitude on the road to Shimla, the old British Hill Station, located in what is now known as Himachal Pradesh. Back in 1817 Shimla was described as "a middling-sized village where a fakir is situated to give water to the travellers". By the time we arrived it was considerably cooler than it had been on the plains and it was obvious why the accounts of the ‘Britain-like` climate soon spread to the steamy lowlands attracting several British officers and senior civil servants into the vicinity. From 1817 and over the course of the next few years, the town received regular visits from the Governor Generals and Commanders-in-Chief of British India all taking advantage of the more temperate climate. A number of young British officers started visiting the area to socialise with the upper classes and they were followed by ladies often looking for marriage alliances. Shimla gained the reputation as a hill station famous for balls, parties and other festivities and subsequently residential schools for pupils from upper-class families were established nearby.

By the late 1830s, the town also became a centre for theatre and art exhibitions. As the population increased, a number of bungalows were built and a big bazaar was established with Indian businessmen arriving in the area, mainly from the indigenous communities, to cater to the needs of the growing European population. The foundations of Christ Church were laid at the centre of the European community and several roads were widened along with the construction of other facilities being completed. By 1881 the sparse settlement had grown to a community of 1,141 houses.

By the late 1830s, the town also became a centre for theatre and art exhibitions. As the population increased, a number of bungalows were built and a big bazaar was established with Indian businessmen arriving in the area, mainly from the indigenous communities, to cater to the needs of the growing European population. The foundations of Christ Church were laid at the centre of the European community and several roads were widened along with the construction of other facilities being completed. By 1881 the sparse settlement had grown to a community of 1,141 houses.

In 1828 and to the north east of British India, in the region that was under the control of the Chogyal of Sikkim, two British officers from the East India Company stayed in Darjeeling for six days while on their way to the Nepal-Sikkim border to try to resolve an ongoing border conflict with Nepal. It was at that time that it was suggested that the region was suitable as a site for a sanatorium for British soldiers. The officers noted that "the old Goorka station called Dorjeling was populated by a 100 souls of Lepchas”, a local indigenous ethnic group. The East India Company followed up the suggestion and subsequently, in 1835, a lease was negotiated for the land with the Chogyal of Sikkim. As with Shimla the temperate climate led to Darjeeling’s development as a hill station for British residents seeking to escape the summer heat of the plains. The development of Darjeeling as a sanatorium and health resort proceeded briskly and the efforts to develop the station attracted many Nepalese immigrants to cultivate the slopes and stimulate trade. As a result there was a rapid hundredfold increase in the population of Darjeeling between 1835 and 1849. The first road connecting the town with the plains was constructed and in 1848 and a military depot was set up for British soldiers. The commercial cultivation of tea in the district began in 1856 and induced a number of British planters to settle there. Schools and welfare centres for the British residents were then constructed, laying the foundation for Darjeeling's notability as a centre of education. Many Nepalese workers were recruited into senior positions on the plantations and they intern ‘invited’ others from Nepal to work on the plantations.

Notoriously in 1849, the British East India Company director and the famous explorer and botanist, Joseph Dalton Hooker was imprisoned in the region by the Sikkim governor. A force was dispatched from the East India Company to free them, however friction continued between the Company and the Sikkim authorities that resulted in the annexation of the territory by the British in 1850 but by then Darjeeling had taken the shape and quaintness that it has retained until this day.

Meanwhile in Shimla a fire cleared much of the area known as the ‘Upper Bazaar’, an area where the native Indian population lived, nowadays this is known as the Ridge. This clearance allowed the planning of the eastern end of the Ridge to become the centre of the European community based around the church but this forced the local people to move down the hillside and to establish the Middle and Lower Bazaars on the terraces descending the steep slopes from the Ridge. The Upper Bazaar was levelled and the town hall was built along with many other facilities such as the library and theatre, as well as offices for the police, military volunteers and for the municipal administration.

During the "Hot Weather", Shimla became the District Headquarters, the summer capital of the regional Government. The arrival of many local government officers and members of the British community also brought with them many British wives and daughters of the men who remained on the plains, together these people formed the ‘Shimla Upper Class’ society. The fact that it had an ideal climate and was thus a desirable location in which to live together with it having limited accommodation made it a very expensive town to reside in. Each year, during the summer months, more British soldiers, merchants and civil servants moved there to escape from the heat in the Indo - Gangetic Plain. The presence of many bachelors and unattached men, as well as the many women passing the days of hot sultry weather gave Shimla a reputation for adultery, or at least gossip about adultery; as Rudyard Kipling describes; a place of "frivolity, gossip and intrigue".

The opening of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in 1881 preceded the Shimla railway by 22 years. An old cart road wound its way up the hills to Darjeeling from Siriguri and the main guage rail terminal down on the plains.

Under the British rule both Shimla and Darjeeling were to receive a further boost to their economic development in the form of the construction of two narrow gauge railways. This obviously made both towns more accessible and popular as ‘hot weather’ retreats not only for the British but also for the wealthy local people from the plains. Both communities still affectionately refer to their rail system as the ‘The Toy Train’.

Initially the alignment of the rail track followed `Hill Cart Road’ however in certain sections it became apparent that the steepness of the road was more than the locomotives could easily manage so four zigzags were constructed to ease the gradient in the overall eighty-eight kilometre length of the track. The most famous of these is the Batasia Loop where the train now stops for ten minutes. The track makes a loop, depending in which direction you are travelling it either passes under, or over its self forming a circle which now contains a wonderfully manicured garden within which stands a war memorial to the fallen Gorkha war heroes, the ten minute stop allows passengers to visit the garden and war memorial. Today the railway still very much follows the line of the old road, now a much improved and surfaced facility but it still comes as a surprise to the ill informed traveller to be moving in very close proximity to the little engine and carriages.

You can almost see what the passengers in the other mode of transport are reading you are so close. The view across Darjeeling to the snow peaks of Kangchenjunga is breath taking with Kangchenjunga, once thought to be the highest mountain in the world, shimmering on the distant horizon with, at sunrise, the summit ridge glowing golden yellow and seeming detached from earth like a spider’s web floating in the heavens. This mountain more than any other has attracted just about every well known practitioner from the artistic genres, from the Victorian artists, poets, writers and scholars right through to the present day. With the addition of the Darjeeling Toy Train the town possibly gave rise to the first Himalayan mountain mass tourism resort with many people arriving from many other areas and indeed parts of the world to gaze upon Kangchenjunga’s majestic lofty heights. Kangchenjunga was first climbed by two British mountaineers in 1955, the late George Band and Joe Brown and is the only 8,000m mountain to have had a truly British first ascent for although the successful Everest expedition was British the summit climbers were from Nepal and New Zealand.

During World War II, the Darjeeling railway played a vital role transporting military personnel and supplies to the numerous camps around the Ghum region. The railway was eventually declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999.

The Kalka-Shimla narrow gauged railway, opened in 1903 and with more than 806 bridges, 103 tunnels and over ninety-six kilometres in length and came to be known as the "British Jewel of the Orient". Today nearly all the tunnels, viaducts and embankments are in as good a condition as they were the day they were built.

The single track weaves its way between the pine trees through which you often get glimpses of the forested ridges stretching down into the valleys. As the warm air rises patches of mist suddenly form and for a few seconds the temperature drops and the views are gone. The carriages have their doors locked back in the open position allowing the smells of the countryside and small communities to drift in, so hanging out and taking pictures is all part of the fun. The trains occasionally stop at various stations allowing passengers to hop on and off to pick up snacks and chai, it is all very casual until the train driver gives two sharp blasts on the whistle at which point

passengers scurry to the nearest door hoping it is the correct one to their carriage. Throughout the journey the train, moving at a slow speed, makes that now nostalgic ‘clickity-clack’ sound as it runs across the joints in the rails, there was never a dull moment with monkeys, live stock and people just wandering along the track. The seats are very upright and hard but with a bit of creative thinking you can arrange a bit of padding using a rucksack. Six hours after setting off from the quaint sleepy hill station the toy train pulled into bustling, hot and steamy Kalka to grind to a halt next to its big brother that, in my case, was going to take me the rest of the way to Delhi.

In 2008, the Shimla Toy train became part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mountain Railways of India.

Today an evening stroll down The Mall in Darjeeling or along The Ridge in Shimla with the sun setting behind the distant hills is a stroll back in time, from Darjeeling on a clear day Kangchenjunga dominates the distant skyline while in Shimla it’s the mountains of Kullu. Both areas are pedestrian walk ways and with frequent signs referring to Kendal, Chislehurst, Windermere, Viceregal Lodge, Auckland House, together with the old red post boxes, the steep pitched roofs and the churches, Town Hall and Gaiety Theatre it’s hard to ignore the British ancestry and heritage of the two Hill Stations. Both town centres represent the ‘upper crust’ of their population while the local traders remain with their businesses located down side streets and the lower bazaars where bargains can still be found and bartered for, it all adds to the ambience and romance of the location.

Although the Darjeeling railway has fierce competition from a bus service the Shimla train provides a good alternative to a tiresome road journey. Stopping frequently at several stations along the route there is chance to jump off to stretch the legs and wander about, the infrastructure is still authentic Victorian Railway style and as functional as it was on the day it was installed nearly 114 years ago. However, once those two shrill whistle blasts are heard, hop aboard, although the train moves slowly running along the track trying to jump aboard is not to be recommended!

With their old engines, carriages, technical rail apparatus and with modern day passengers still being served by the Victorian trolley transport it all adds to the experience. A visit to either Shimla or Darjeeling will provide a fascinating insight not only into the history of the British in these parts of India but also to the ardent railway enthusiasts as well.

It is always beneficial to have a Mr Fixit with you, plus if you get the right person you will learn so much more about the railways than you will from reading guide books of searching the internet. Mr Mr Fixit was Pani-Grahi an gentleman with a wealth of knowledge.


Newsletter April 2018

April 2018 is the third anniversary of the 2015 Earthquake. Remembering all our friends lost on that day. A small chorten at Khanjin Gompa

Sometimes when everything seems to run smoothly, or at least when nothing untoward seems to be happening, the news is slow. We often get the drift of when there is a shortage of newsworthy stories when the big media organisations pad out their broadcasting slot with items that raise the question – ‘Why broadcast that?’ Rather like this opening paragraph!

Well things are slow here in Nepal at the moment, it’s really too early for anything to have taken place during the spring expedition season, politics are ‘settled’ and the exchange rate has bounced back to a US dollar at 104.59 NRs and the £1 is 150.04 NRs, the highest it’s been for nearly 3 years.

In a bye-gone era trekkers would expect, on a visit to Nepal, to experience pristine nature, crystal glittering mountains, and medieval Nepali villages, rich cultural, customs and festivals and be more than happy.

Back then within the trekking and mountaineering sect, foreign visitors were generally mountain lovers. They had trekking or mountain walking/climbing experience and had acquired the large armoury of skills and experience required to undertake a safe passage through a possibly hostile and technical mountain environment, they were adventure seekers with possibly a higher tolerance for the ‘less luxurious life style’ and possibly had more time to undertake their expeditions, flexibility up to a point was the name of the game. The ‘adventure’ being the unsure outcome and to a certain extent was also based on a lack of good risk assessment and/or weak planning as a result of a lack of detailed information. This was because there was none and out of ignorance of issues like altitude sickness which was also a major unknown factor at the time.
Equipment was heavy and unsophisticated and the tents with no sewn in groundsheets were cold and draughty and ‘campers’ needed a good ‘level of outdoor skills’ to exist for the duration of a trek in relative comfort.

Lodges did not exist, there were virtually no high mountain airstrips and most people started their adventures trekking from Kathmandu although a little later Pokhara developed as the second centre for tourism.

At that time very little was known about Nepal other than the romantic image of the high white mountains, remote and ethnically diverse communities and pristine environments. There were no trekking agents, no trained mountain or trekking guides and no other form of ‘adventure tourism’ in Nepal other than that of just ‘travelling’ through the country. The journey to arrive in Nepal was long and expensive and an adventure in itself. The in-country road system was poor and vehicular movement was restricted not only by the shortage of vehicles but also due to the lack of motorable roads outside of the Valley. To gain knowledge about Nepal you had to read expedition reports or talk to someone who had been to Nepal, there were virtually no maps, no guide books and the trekking routes were along simple ‘local’ trails. And above all there was no internet!

There were no trekking agents as such but there was an in country facilitator, Tek Pokhrel who ran a company called Trans Himalayan Tours which would help with Nepal logistics and generally handle all the administration required within Nepal at that time.

Up to 1990 Nepal progressed in much the same way as it had in the preceding 50 years, development was slow and confined mainly to the Kathmandu Valley. Then as a result of political pressure the political landscape changed and some would say that for a while the development of Nepal went into decline or at least stood still. Outside Nepal the world was also facing political and financial changes and then more recently new technology impacted on the expectations visitors had for their trek or expedition in Nepal.

By the mid-1970s Nepalese mountain workers associated with the Nepal Mountaineering Association had been trained in technical climbing so that they could continue to support foreign expeditions when their attention refocused on the large more technical faces of the Himalayan peaks.

During 1992 the first commercial expeditions were introduced into the mix of adventure opportunities on offer. Some people increasingly had a certain amount of disposable income along with high ambitions. Advertising hit the media and there were no shortages of foreign organisations and local agents prepared to help those clients spend their hard earned cash to reach the Himalayan heights.

New commercial expeditions while still offering opportunities to those people with money, time and a sense of adventure were basically changing the game. In the early stages of ‘adventure tourism in Nepal’ the mountaineers would work as a team with their Nepalese staff, route and rope fixing was a joint effort and all would share the good and bad experiences. Trekkers would accept what they were faced with while far away from Kathmandu, the expectation was for ‘enjoyment’ ‘adventure’ and ‘experience’. Today the term ‘customer-care’ is a significant element of life in Base Camp for the expedition leaders and senior staff.

The last 30 years have seen a proliferation of Nepal based expedition agents, many offering incredibly low cost expeditions, however it is very important to read the small print to see exactly what you are buying with your hard earned cash. Those cheaper options are also increasing the danger on Everest as it is becoming even more crowded as each season goes by. In 2018 Seven Summits Treks have advertised what they call the VVIP Everest Expedition, the cost 130,000 US $ per person, and they are selling it with four Chinese clients already signed up. But for 130,000 US $ you would expect a lot and failure to deliver would not enhance reputations!

Although sadly there are situations at the moment in the adventure and tourism sector that result in Nepal being caught between a rock and a hard place. Nepal is to a certain extent still regarded by many travellers as being a ‘less expensive’ tourist destination, whereas we know Kathmandu is now rated, as I believe, the second most expensive city in SE Asia and that in 2016 Nepal experienced an inflation rate of 10.5%, a lot higher than many of our Himalayan neighbours. The unexpected cost of living means trekkers arrive in town stay one night then set off on trek and often in an ill-prepared and travel fatigued state.

Also there is the reputation that all ‘tourist’ related commodities are to be bartered for, of no fixed price. There is a good reason why many shop-keepers in Thamel do not price their goods, although this situation is changing! This situation and the misconceptions held by many tourists are compounded by a lack of transparency.

Either in an effort to save money, reduce the overall costs of the ‘Nepal Experience’ or because people think they will be safe, and as is often the case they don’t know what they don’t know, they still trek in solo fashion unaware of their vulnerability if things go wrong.

History has a habit of repeating itself and despite all the warnings and advice Nepal still bears witness to trekkers disappearing while solo trekking. So far this season there have been seven trekkers reported as missing.

I don’t agree with imposing a guide on all trekkers but people must take responsibility for their own safety, especially when there is no end of good advice on the internet.

Many trekking areas now boast first aid and health posts and those it the honeypot areas have medical posts specifically providing support for trekkers and run by the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA). At Everest Base Camp, ’Everest ER’ the medical post had, by early April administered assistance to 21 patients but once the season gets really underway this number will increase multiple times.

The many publications, maps and guide books as well as the internet are now playing a huge role in not only informing prospective trekkers and mountaineers of their options but in providing a false sense of security. As well as providing technical knowledge on routes and lodge accommodation there are of course hundreds of Agencies based in Nepal all fighting for the same clients.

Now if wifi is not available trekkers will demand ‘move onto the next wifi connected lodge’. This has created a certain ‘dependency’. Already this season there have been occasions when the weather and other connectivity issues have prevented some trekkers reporting into their families back home and this lack of communication has raised un-necessary safety concerns and anxiety levels.

The options for people to come to Nepal and do a trek or climb a mountain are endless and providing they have the money it now seems they don’t necessarily need to have the experience. With many foreign expedition leaders spending most of their ‘mountain time’ trying to please and entertain their clients and at the same time telling them how good their operation is and how successful it’s been in getting people on ‘the summit’. These clients are of course the very people who keep the expeditions and companies functioning. But the expeditions would not function without the porters and other mountain staff and Nepalese guides. Now it increasingly appears to be a situation unfortunately of ‘us’ and ‘them’ the continental element of an expedition and the Nepali element, not in all cases but in many the joint ‘team approach’ is not what is used to be.

Over the last parliamentary session the Nepal Government introduced various new mountaineering policies and regulations, but by the end of March some of these were withdrawn under pressure from the mountaineering community, the main one being the banning of blind and less able climbers permitted to climb Everest, this was revoked before the beginning of this season but in many cases it was too late for previously made plans to be reinstated. The regulation concerning all climbing expeditions requiring a guide, no matter on what mountain, is still a legal requirement. The old system of an A and B trekking peak list has now been revised into one list with peaks of a certain altitude dropping into a specific permit bracket.

Not only have trekkers’ expectations changed but so have the expectations of the local people, guides and porters.

Once the highly adrenaline charged ‘mountaineer’ has escaped the un-plugged security x-ray machine at Arrival Terminal 1 (we only have one terminal.. but is sounds good, the ‘Arrival Terminal 1’) – I don’t understand why luggage upon arrival in Kathmandu has to go through a less than 100% functional security system when arriving from other countries who are at the top of the flight security game, such is Nepal. Once outside the full flavour of Nepal strikes home, chaos, bustling porters all offering assistance, taxi drivers offering to take you to your hotel, for a small charge, and of course there is the heat and pollution. Wow, for the first time visitor all senses are challenged!

Trekking guides will be on their toes as much as the trekkers, each quietly assessing the other. ‘Is our guide professional, is he organised, knowledgeable and fit for purpose’. ‘Are the clients experienced, trekking within their comfort zone and also fit for purpose?’ For groups of independent trekkers arriving from different parts of the world and for the guides first impressions will be stored in the mind for the duration of the trek and possibly for years to come. Many situations might well leave clients speechless but upon returning home they will become story tellers! Life over the next few weeks will become a complete contradiction to the normal life experienced by trekkers at home. Nepali time takes over and things only happen when they happen as opposed to when they should happen; life is relaxed but it can also be frustrating, in Nepal patience is not only a virtue but also a necessity and flexibility, a finely practiced art.

Nepal has been very pro-active in attracting visitors from our near neighbours; these nations have different expectations to those of a bye-gone period and other continental visitors. Add to this the rapidly expanding domestic market which again has different expectations and now the mountain related industry has a very diverse customer base.

Everest is a brand like no other, there is the expedition industry, the trekking industry, increasing the charity fund raising industry and now add to that the ego centred-selfie industry.. get to Everest Base Camp, take the selfie and then bail as fast as you can and onto the next tick-box. There are also the races events, the ‘Everest Marathon’, the ‘Skyline’ and now ‘Breathless’, the latter starts from the summit of Kala Pattar and is advertised as the highest altitude race in the world.

Between the trekking and climbing industry, it’s estimated ‘Everest’ brings in tens of millions of dollars to one of the world’s poorest economies, around 4% of the country’s GDP. The average income in Nepal hovers around 600 US $. Giving the guy at the airport a $5 dollar tip to help move your gear to a waiting micro bus or taxi reinforces why Nepal loves tourists!

Nepal 2018 Permits

Recently the Nepal Ministry of Tourism gave an update on the permit numbers for this spring season, 2018. There are 649 permits issued for 22 different peaks throughout Nepal 336 for Everest including 20 Nepali climbers, these are Nepali mountaineers who want the recognitions of having climbed Everest.

Lhotse has 88, many of these are double expeditions – Everest/Lhotse. 

There are over 1,000 Sherpas, who do not need or pay for permits, these are working staff.

In 2017, 729 permits were issued for 21 different mountains, so climbing numbers are down a bit on Everest. Other Peaks have also attracted attention, 192 climbers are involved in expeditions on:-

Kanchenjunga – 42, Makalu – 27, Dhaulagiri I – 26, Nuptse – 11, Manaslu – 8, Annapurna I – 1 Korean Climber.

Speaking of the “other” peaks, many of the expeditions have arrived at their respective base camps and are well into their climbing acclimatisation rotations, climb to a higher camp, spend time there before returning to base camp. In some cases expeditions are flying clients back into Kathmandu for a few days of relaxation before going back up again.

Apart from the expedition personnel there are all the trekkers heading for the Khumbu, no wonder Everest is regarded as the major tourist honey-pot of Nepal and the most popular trekking route in the world.

The technical support teams are steadily moving up the mountains establishing the route and higher camps. This season in Nepal after the problems of moving through the ice-fall experienced over previous seasons the route has been established more to the right of the centre line, out of reach of any rock or avalanche fall off the south western flanks of Everest. To bridge the many crevasses ladders are lashed together to form bridges, some consist of 3 sections of alloy ladders. Many potential Everest summiteers spend thousands of dollars and months of dedicated training only to be denied their attempt at the first hurdle. One such client fell while going to the loo in a lodge, her expedition was over before she ever reached base camp as a result of a severe knee injury. Another client was bitten by a dog, in Tingri and yet another broke his ankle in Namche Bazaar as a result of tripping over a rock. Despite the motives for wanting to climb Everest ‘failure’ under the above circumstance must be a very bitter pill to swallow.

It is reported that the route up the Western Cwm from the Ice-fall towards Camp 2 has become more hazardous with more and larger crevasses opening up. The question is already being raised in some quarters as to how long this route will continue to be feasible. Where could an alternative route go from the Nepal side? This is a question with serious implications, not only for the safety of future potential summiteers but also for the financial coffers of Nepal. Many of the trekking peaks, those below 6500m are now technically more difficult and dangerous as a result of glacial melt resulting in risky approach routes and rock fall due to the ice not forming lower down the mountain and gluing the newly exposed moraines together. It was reported on the 25th April that there had been a serac collapse during which two Sherpas were injured, one was evacuated to hospital in Kathmandu. The route was reopened by the ice-fall doctors within a few hours. Additionally there are three Nepali females working as guides on Everest this season.

There are the usual group of people trying to get into the record books, a Japanese woman climber Funahashi Eiko, 79 and Shivangi Pathak, 16, from Haryana, India, are the eldest and youngest climbers attempting to climb Mt Everest while Romanian climber Horia Colibanu and Slovak mountaineer Peter Hámor will attempt Everest from the West Face with a plan to traverse onto Lhotse. Kami Rita Sherpa will also be on the mountain trying to complete his 22nd ascent, this world be another record as will be the ascent by Lhakpa Sherpa, who if she succeeds will record her ninth ascent.

All the high mountain summits have been visited, most have been ascended by more serious and technical routes so what is left for those who want to make a mark on the mountaineering world or who want to give themselves a ‘first’ challenge. In Yosemite, America there is the iconic El Cap with super challenging climbing routes one of which is The Nose. The Nose was first climbed between July 1957 and November 1958 over a climbing period of 45 days, the second ascent took seven days, by 1975 the equipment and mind-set of climbers meant the route could be climbed in a day. In 2012 the climbing time was reduced to 2 hours, 23 minutes and 46 seconds. Most people take 3 - 4 days but now it’s just been repeated in 2 hours, 19 minutes and 44 four seconds!

Syangden Luckmeeis a young 20 year old, defying most what 20 year old girls would be doing at this age. She is attempting to climb Everest this year and is setting an example for most Tamang girls of her age. She is not on Everest for any record, the fastest, the coolest, no O2s or solo. But she is there for the whole journey and experience that will mould and shape her to become a better person. Even with very little financial support unlike many male counter-parts she is committed to her role of high altitude porter and has her vision squarely fixed on the job in hand, and the summit.

(From left) Oswald Olz, Peter Habeler, Reinhold Messner, Dietmar Löffler (ORF), Reini Huber (ORF), Hanns Schell, Marco Polo (ORF), Robert Schauer, Helmut Hagner; (sitting) Wolfgang Nairz, Raimund Margreiter. Dietmar Löffler, Reini Huber and Marco Polo are here to film a documentary that will feature the legendary mountaineers. Photo: Rajan Pokhrel/THT
Everest, well it has had supplementary oxygen free ascents, the first by Reinhold Messener and Peter Habeler in 1978, it has also had winter ascents. In 1995 the British mountaineer Alison Hargreaves made a successful solo and supplementary oxygen free ascent, the first by a female mountaineer. Over the winter of 2017/2018 it was attempted by the Spanish climbers Carlos Rubio and Alex Txikon, in a supplementary oxygen free style. The expedition was on Everest from early January but despite being on the mountain for over three weeks Rubio suffered from the effects of altitude and had to be airlifted from Camp 2 at 6400m. Alex called off his attempt from Camp 4 at 7950m. The only other winter supplementary oxygen free ascent was achieved in 1987 by a Nepalese mountaineer. Talking of supplementary oxygen free ascents the surviving members of Messener’s expedition Wolfgang Nairz, Reinhold Messner, Peter Habeler, Helmut Hagner, Hanns Schell, Robert Schauer, Oswald Ölz and Raimund Margreiter that resulted in both him and Habeler reaching the summit without supplementary oxygen has just held a reunion in Kathmandu to celebrate the 40th Anniversary.

Kathmandu is still struggling to come to grips with the infrastructure required for the new Melamchi Water system. It is hoped this will be finally completed by the autumn season, but I’m not holding my breath! 

The latest updates on major peak expeditions in Nepal from the 27th April 2018

Everest - Romanian climber Horia Colibasanu (41) and Slovakian Peter Hámor (53), are now on a project to traverse Everest - Lhotse without supplementary oxygen and no Sherpa support

 They are now at Base Camp for acclimatization. They’ve already reached 6400m. They wish to move to higher camps on Saturday 28th.

Nepali climber Kami Rita Sherpa (48) is on his way to summit Everest for the 22nd time.

British mountaineer Adrian Ballinger (42), who is famous for his "Everest No Filter" project with Cory Richards in 2016 and 2017 now plans climb Everest as a guide. If possible he may also try to summit Cho Oyu.

Japanese climber Nobukazu Kuriki, aims to summit Everest and Lhotse solo without supplemental oxygen. He arrived in Everest Base Camp (Nepal Side) on the 27th April.

Indonesian women, Fransiska Dimitri Inkiriwang (24) and Mathilda Dwi Lestari (24), are aiming to summit Everest as a part of their Seven Summit project.

British mountaineer Kenton Cool (44), who is yet again on another expedition on Everest, is on his way to Camp-2 from Camp-1 (26th April).

Australian mountaineer Steve Plain is aiming to summit Everest as a part of his Seven Summit project "Project 7in4". The purpose of the project is to complete Seven Summits within four months.

Lhotse - Canadian woman Caroline Jetté, is leading a 15 -member expedition to Lhotse.

Mingma G Sherpa, who is leading a team on Lhotse, has already made it to Camp-3 and may try to reach Camp-4 on the 28th

Cho Oyu - Bulgarian mountaineer Atanas Skatov, is planning to summit Cho Oyu and Everest this spring. He was on his way to Cho Oyu Base Camp for acclimatization on 18th April 2018.

Kangchenjunga - Mexican mountaineer David Liaño Gonzalez (38), has an ambitious project to climb 4 eight-thousand metre peak (Everest, K2, Kangchenjunga and Lhotse) within a few months to support "The Live Love Laugh Foundation" and to raise awareness of the problems of depression, he has previously established Camp-2 (6400m) and has already spent a night there.

Canadian speed climber Don Bowie (48), who is aiming to summit Kangchenjunga without supplemental oxygen hopes to move to Camp-2 on the 27th. He has already reached 7000m so far on this expedition.

Franco-Swiss climber Sophie Lavaud, the "56,000 lady", is on her 8th eight-thousand metre peak. She has so far acclimatised to Camp-2 (6400m).

Nepali climber Maya Sherpa, is on her way to summit Kangchenjunga as the first Nepali woman.

Indian mountaineer Arjun Vajpai (24), who is aiming to summit Kangchenjunga without supplemental oxygen, teamed up with Dutch climbers Wilco van Rooijen, Cas van de Gevel and Italian Alex d'Emilia. Previously they spent the night at Camp-2 (6400m).

Italian Alpinist Marco Confortola (46), is aiming to summit Kangchenjunga without supplemental oxygen. He is undergoing acclimatization and has reached 6500m so far. He is on his 11th eight-thousand metre peak expedition.

Dhaulagiri - Spanish mountaineer Carlos Soria (79), previously he reached up to Camp-2 (6450m) and spent nights at Camp-1 (5700m) on Dhaulagiri. He is on his 13th eight-thousand metre peak expedition.

Polish climber Pawel Michalski (45), is also on Dhaulagiri with Romanian Alex Gavan (35). Previously Camp-1 had been established and they have already spent a night there. Pawel and Alex are on their 5th and 7th eight-thousand metre peak respectively.

US climbers Nicholas Rice and Ryan Kushner teamed up with Canadian climber Christopher Manning to summit Dhaulagiri. Previously Nick and Ryan reached Camp-2 (6450m) and Christopher Camp-1. On 24th April 2018, Nick got injured due to a fall through a weak snow bridge over a large crevasse on his way down from Camp-2.

Indian mountaineer Debasish Biswas, had previously reached Camp 2.

Acknowledgements to:- 
Dream Wanderlust and Andrian Ballinger, Horia Colibasabu, Kenton Cool, David Liano, Kuntal Joisher, Marco Confortola and Carlos Soria for their images in the 'up-dates' section.

So another newsletter comes to an end – hope you all enjoy summer, wherever and however you wish to spend it!

Post script!

Lhotse was summited on the 29th April while sadly an Italian climber died in a freak accident on Dhaulagiri when his tent blew away in a storm.

1st May 2018

Thursday, 8 March 2018

January 2018 Newsletter

Last October OTWT went into Upper Mustang, a wonderful and very remote area of northern Nepal. However with all the local development taking place this area is rapidly engaging with the outside world and slowly but surely some of the mystique will disappear. My advice would be to go sooner rather than later if you want to witness the old Kingdom as it was. This image is of the last staging post, Tangge, before hitting the long and wild trekking days back down to Jomsom.

Well another year has come to an end. I hope you all enjoyed the last 12 months as much as we have here in Nepal. This season has been a busy one for us with 25 groups coming and going and enjoying their time here, completing treks from Everest in the east through to Mustang in the west.

Mountain News UpdateAutumn is not the big expedition season as most mountaineers try for their summits in the spring season however this has not stopped the Ministry from continuing to come up with yet more and discriminatory rules regarding Everest. It was reported in the Himalayan Times that there is now a total ban on people who are completely blind and double amputees, as well as those proven medically unfit for climbing. The Nepal Government has also announced that it now bans solo climbers from scaling its mountains, including Mount Everest, in a bid to reduce accidents. The fall-out is already happening on social media!

Nepal is also spending billions on trying to survey Everest to confirm the actually height.

Last season Pemba Dorje Sherpa allegedly climbed Everest in eight hours, ten minutes. However a joint bench of Justices; Cholendra Shumsher, JB Rana and Dambar Bahadur Shahi issued a statement overturning the government’s decision to recognise this achievement, saying Pemba Dorje Sherpa of Rolwaling, Dolakha, failed to produce substantial proof to authenticate his claim and as a result he will be stripped of his Guinness World Record. Many Sherpas have already gone on record as saying it is humanly impossible to climb Everest in that time.

For the first time the International Federation of Mountain Guides held their conference in Kathmandu. At least 65 participants from 24 member countries attended the assembly, with over 100 Asian delegates from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Mongolia and Pakistan also joining the conference. A great event!

The National Geographic Explorer Sung Taek Hong mounted an expedition to the South Face of Lhotse this Autumn season, however due to inclement ‘winter’ conditions and low temperatures he had to withdraw from the mountain on the 20th November. The legendary mountaineer Hans Kammerlander was also back in Nepal but he also had to abandon his bid to attempt to climb Manaslu. Tragically the well know Russian extreme sports personality, Valery Rozov was killed while attempting to wind-suit fly from the summit of Ama Dablam in November.
The remote Danphe Sail (in the foreground), Dolpa, but despite the appearance
the mountain is not straight forward as both easy looking ridges are in China!
On a ‘closer to home note’ my old friend Paulo Grobel from France led a 12 man expedition to Dolpa and successfully climbed Danphe Sail, the mountain we tried in 2016. Well done Paulo.. but now you’re off my Christmas Card list!! Another interesting development late in 2017 revolves around the two Indian climbers who allegedly climbed Everest and then falsified their summit photos using Photoshop. The Ministry of Culture Tourism and Civil Aviation invested their claim and imposed a climbing ban on the couple and also cancelled their certificates. The Ministry has recently announced that it is to reopen the case for further investigation. A smell of something funny here as it was that very same Ministry who carried out the investigation in the first place!
Dawa Yangzum Sherpa, Nepal's only female IFMGA guide
A team of Nepali guides succeeded in making the first winter ascent of Langdung in December. The peak was named Rpimutse in 1955 by the British Gaurishankar Massive Expedition Himalaya Survey team, but the peak is now known as Langdung 6357m. The team consisted of Dawa Yangzum Sherpa (27), Dawa Gyalje Sherpa (38) and Pasang Kidar Sherpa (35). Since then Dawa, the 27-year-old woman from the Rolwaling Valley has created history in the mountaineering world by becoming Nepal’s first female international mountain guide.

Meantime in the last few days of 2017 the Spanish mountaineer Alex Txikon (36) has returned to Nepal along with Muhammad Ali Sadpara to attempt Everest without supplemental oxygen this winter. This is his seventh winter expedition without supplemental oxygen.

Tourism News
It is officially reported that Nepal has received over 750,000 visitors this year that is an increase on last year. As I have mentioned in our previous newsletter Kathmandu can boast 4,000 new hotel rooms as part of the revitalising of the tourism program post earthquake but this ‘accommodation development’ is not being reflected in the trekking areas.

Manaslu has received the biggest boost for increased tourist numbers this year with over 22,000 permits having been issued, whereas it is said both the Annapurna and Everest trekker numbers are remaining constant. One very critical development is that to accommodate the increase in numbers several well known lodges have now erected ‘permanent’ camping ‘bed spaces’. While these are very comfortable and well equipped not every trekker who has booked for a ‘Lodge’ style trek will be happy with these arrangements. Nepal has always said it wants to hit the 1,000,000 tourists in 2018, and this now seems within reach, however, things will have to radically improve or we have the possibility of shooting ourselves in the foot. Having said all that there are still hundreds of really off the wall treks that can be undertaken where other trekkers will be hard to find!

The ‘Main News’ this quarter – the General Election

In Nepal, as it is an unusual event everything comes to a grinding halt at election time. To be eligible to vote all Nepali citizens must return to the village of birth, they can’t vote in Kathmandu unless that is their registered ‘permanent’ address. As nearly all Nepalese have a political streak this basically means a mass exodus from the city, a couple of days to travel home, a day to vote and then another week, or more, to wait for the outcome and then either celebrations or commiserations. Only then will citizens think of returning back to Kathmandu. In short, hotels, shops and other large establishments are short staffed and all menus are cut down as the catering staff are away. To make matters worse in 2017 the government suddenly announced that a certain day was a national holiday, the announcement only happened the day before, thus throwing everything into chaos.

Many people raise questions about, ‘Why has it taken so long to hold an election? And ‘Why is it all so complicated?’ To clearly understand the state of the nation and the politics one must consider the ‘developmental’ starting point which in historical terms was not that long ago.
The History of Nepal – in a Nutshell
Nepal as it was perceived pre 1700, the area on the Kathmandu Valley and its Kingdom
Pre 1750, the mid eighteenth century, Nepal was a country known mainly as the area designated as what we now refer to as the Kathmandu Valley. However in reality the country consisted of over sixty ethnic groups and sub-groups all having their own languages, traditions, festivals, kingdoms and kings. From the mid eighteenth century the Gokha King, Prithvi Narayan Shah began his unification process and went about conquering and expanding into other ethnic realms. The ruling Malla dynasty in Kathmandu feared the growing power of the Gorkha army and sort support from the East India Company who sent 2400 soldiers to Nepal in 1767. However the British were not adapt at fighting in the hilly regions of south Nepal and suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of only 120 Gorkha soldiers, during the battle most of the British contingent of arms and munitions were captured and later used in future Gorkha wars.

Eventually Prithvi Shah captured the Valley Kingdoms and with this ended the Malla Dynasty and from then began the reign of the Shah Dynasty. This was a time when, surrounded by India and its British task-masters to the west, south and east and with the Tibetans to the north Nepal flexed its muscles in an era of expansionism.

From 1780 under Gorkha leadership the Nepalese began to push their borders to the west and to the east. In doing so, in 1806, it encroached unacceptably on and invaded an area now known as Himachal Pradesh and also areas in Sikkim, part of the British East Indian Company territory and consequently part of the British Empire. Skirmishes were also taking place long other lengths of the Indian-Nepalese border resulting in the Nepalese eventually controlling an area that stretched from the Garhwal Kingdom in the west, including Shimla, through to the Teesta River in the east, the territory under the control of Sikkim which included the community of Darjeeling. This situation was not acceptable to the British and the two countries entered into the two-year Anglo–Nepalese War which began in 1814.
The extent to which the Nepalese borders were stretched by around 1805
By December 1815 the two countries had signed the Treaty of Sugauli which was eventually ratified in March 1816 bring the war to an end. The treaty established the boundary line of Nepal and called for territorial concessions in which some of the territories controlled by Nepal would be given to British India. Under the treaty, about one-third of Nepalese controlled territory was lost including all the territories that the King of Nepal had won in wars during the previous 25 years including the Kumaon and Garhwal Kingdoms in the west and Sikkim in the east.

In general, life went on but the borders of Nepal were closed with the monarchy fearing invasion by the British. During the next 150 years the Nepalese Kings gained power and tightened their grip on the Nepal Kingdom.
The new seven zones on modern Nepal

Between 1960 and 1990 there started the first move to establishing a democracy. Initially in the form of the Panchayat system of self-governance that was historically prevalent in other south Asian regions at the time. By 1990 ‘The People's Movement’ or Jana Andolan emerged as a multiparty movement and brought an end to the absolute monarchy and the thus the beginning of the constitutional process. The movement was marked by unity between the various political parties. Not only did various Communist parties group together in the United Left Front, but they also cooperated with parties such as Nepali Congress (the King’s Party). One result of this unity was the formation of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist, the UML party).

In 2001 the Nepalese Royal Massacre occurred at a house on the grounds of the Narayanhity Royal Palace, the residency of the Nepalese monarchy. Ten members of the family were killed during a party, the monthly reunion dinner of the royal family in the house. The dead included King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya. Later, upon his father's death, Prince Dipendra became King of Nepal while still in a coma, however he died in the hospital three days after the massacre without ever recovering from his comma. At that point in time Birendra's brother Gyanendra became king after the massacre and the death of King Dipendra. His imposition of direct rule in 2005 provoked a protest movement unifying the Maoist insurgency and pro-democracy activists. He was eventually forced to restore Nepal's House of Representatives, which in 2007 adopted an interim constitution greatly restricting the powers of the Nepalese monarchy. Following a Constitutional election, the Nepalese Constituent Assembly formally abolished the kingdom in its first session on 28 May 2008, declaring the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal in its place.

Since 2007, when Nepal’s first Interim Constitutional Assembly announced it would abandon the Monarchy in 2008, Nepal held a second Constitutional Assembly election in 2013. There were subsequently many legal wrangles between the parties during which time many amendments were written into the Constitution. The main stumbling blocks were the key issues regarding the system of governance, judicial system and federation issues referring to the number, name and areas of the Federal States to be created within modern Nepal. The constitution could not be finalized and promulgated by the due date of the 22nd January 2015.

This virtually brings us up to date with the 2017 Legislative elections being held over two phases on the 26th November and 7th December 2017 to elect the 275 members of the fourth House of Representatives, the lower house of the Federal Parliament of Nepal. The election was held alongside the first provincial elections for the seven provincial assemblies. The new parliament will elect the Prime Minister, who must ordinarily command the support of an absolute majority of its members in order to form a new government.

The result of these elections place the UML as the biggest party with a strong majority to form the government followed in to second place by the Nepali Congress Party and then the Maoist Kendra. The UML have been in power in more recent times and with this result it is hoped that there will be more positive development as a result of continuity and also that the party system will now polarise as a three party system as opposed to a multi-party system.

It almost seems like reinventing the political wheel – in 1780 Nepal was unified, now in 2017 (onwards) it will be ‘federalised’ into seven zones!
Rapid Development, but is there planning?
Flying into Kathmandu these days makes you wonder just when the city will stop expanding. From the air there still seems plenty of tree covered hills and open spaces, however, once you get on the ground you seem to have difficulty in finding such places.

I moved to Nepal in 2005 and in 2012 we started to build our house in Dhapasi.
In the valley below our house, green fields and few houses
At that time the area we found was fairly un-developed and surrounded by fields, terraces and agricultural land. The thought of it ever being built on was difficult to imagine the land drops down from below our house and then disappeared off into a small valley below Shivapuri to the north.

At the head of the valley was a small tree covered ridge, with a small path that we use to take the dogs for a walk along. One day we noticed that the trees were being felled, then a JCB moved in and the ridge was flattened and used to infill the valley to the southern side.

Then a small road appeared resulting in what is locally referred to as ‘planning’ (for house construction), now there’s a misuse of the word if ever there was one! Still the agricultural land had not been touched. However, another year went by and agricultural buildings sprang up, then tracks to link those buildings to the main road in our area. Today 5-years on and the landscape has totally changed. It is difficult to look at some of the new buildings and to guess as to their use, but in the fullness of time all will no doubt be revealed.

Kathmandu is an old lake basin consequently the bed of the valley consists of sediment and fine glacial silt, not the best to build on but certainly the sandy hills provide excellent building material for which there is a great demand within the city.
Now no green fields and new houses with the wooded hillside rapidly disappearing 
The images above indicate the environmental change that has occurred within 5 years. In image 1 the tree-covered hill indicated by the tip prayer flag pole, is in image 3 the open caste sand quarry. The large grey building to the lower left of image 1 is the same building featured in the central left section of image 2.

Sadly this rapid development is not necessarily being planned or done with consideration for the environment or other residents or habitation.

A lot of building work is taking place outside the valley and in many cases the new constructions pay little attention to local or ethnic architectural norms. It’s all very sad, I have no objection to development but in some cases throwing the baby out with the bathwater is a bit too much and it’s only in the future that people will realise what they have lost.

At least being on the top of the hill the new development can’t take our sky-line views away from us.
A Vehicle free Thamel
After a few failed attempts the Thamel authorities seem to have eventually won this round. In October the first of the Traffic Police trucks rolled into Thamel loaded with `Vehicle Free Zone’ signs.
These were placed at strategic road junctions and the new rules were enforced by the traffic police themselves. Now the road from Thamel Chowk to the Kathmandu Guest House and up as far as Sam’s Bar is traffic free meaning that pedestrians can basically walk around the centre of Thamel without the fear of getting run over. People are stopping to look in shop windows, gathering for a chat and generally enjoying the ‘safe’ aspect of the area. Certainly the tourists give this new initiative the thumbs up and in general so do the shop keepers and hoteliers. Even though the main tourist season has now finished the police are maintaining the traffic free zones. Long may it last!

New breed of trekking guides
When trekking started back in the early-mid 1960s the trekking guides were hill people who had an eye to escape the poverty trap. Now in 2018 trek leading is a professional career move and there are many younger people undergoing training and assessment with the aim of developing their careers, staying in Nepal and supporting their families. Many of this new breed of guides are female. This last year we have used several female guides and porters and with great success. Now we are actually receiving requests from trekking groups asking for female leaders.

With the aim of providing more opportunities for female guides we are planning an all FEMALE expedition to Island Peak 6189m this autumn (2018). The group size will be a maximum of ten with five female guides. Among all the trekking peaks in Nepal, Island Peak is the most popular as it is suitable for all novice climbers and experienced trekkers. It offers an exhilarating climbing experience beyond simply ‘trekking’. This trip will include a hike to Everest base camp as part of the acclimatisation process. Island Peak is physically demanding but not technically challenging and is graded as Alpine PD+. The Peak is situated right under the south face of Lhotse, which seems so close that you could simply step across to the neighbouring 8000m peak which is the second peak along the Everest ridge.

We also specialise in running ‘private’ treks as opposed to open fixed departure treks so if you have any specific areas you wish to visit, whether using lodges or as camping treks then please contact us for advice, costs or assistance in planning your trip to Nepal. We’re always happy to provide advice.

For further details please contact us at either ian or
Since October trekkers (foreigners) have been charged 2000 NRs by the Khumbu Pasang Lhamu Rural Municipality to enter the Khumbu region and it has so far collected 44 million NRs in tourist entry fees.
The Municipality collected Rs 28.25 million from 14,100 tourists in October, Rs 13.35 million from 6,676 in November, and Rs 3.1 million from 1,554 tourists in December.

Although the tourist season is wrapping up, tourists are still entering the region at a constant rate, which hovers around 100 per day.

Despite local entrepreneurs’ strong opposition to the collection of the entry fee, the policy has continued. The Trekkers’ Information Management System (TIMS) card issued by the Department of Tourism (DoT) does not substitute for the entrance fee.

“The rural municipality has exercised its rights to collect and allocate tourist revenue as suggested in the constitution, as the funds collected previously were not used for tourism development of the region,” said Nim Dorje Sherpa, chairperson of Khumbu Pasang Lhamu Rural Municipality. Sherpa has said that the funds now collected will be used for tourism promotion of the region. The amount collected is set to be used to improve and construct the trail between Lukla and Everest Base Camp along with increasing other tourist infrastructure in the region.

I hope this is all done in the best possible taste or it will damage rather than improve the trekking and mountaineering industry!
Wishing all family, friends and colleagues a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year.

The Tale of two Hill Stations

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