Tserko Peak TMC Winter ’22 (ver 2)
Nobody climbs in the winter. Only crazy people do it, and I guess the 21 of us who signed up were “crazy” in our own ways. We each had our own reasons for signing up for the Technical Mountaineering Course (TMC) in Winter ’22. Some of us with more personal goals, whereas others felt it just simply looked really cool. Personally, I had loved my previous (very) brief encounter with the mountains and so I thought, “Hey, why not try climbing a mountain?”. To me, it represented the perfect mix of a fun challenge, an opportunity to try something really adventurous, and a chance to really get away from the pace of Singapore.
A total of 21 of us were selected by the exco for the Winter ’22 TMC. That’s a much bigger team than the usual 8-12 members selected. We trained for almost 4 days a week under the supervision of the exco and after all our days of preparation (and waiting) for the trip, I felt ready for what was to come when we set off for Kathmandu on the 4th of December. Even more importantly however, I felt ready to face the uncertainties ahead.
The (mostly) Smooth Start
Our adventure started in Kathmandu (1400m) with getting the necessary gear (including mountaineering boots and layers for the cold), and a very bumpy and slow bus ride to the village of Syabrubesi (1500m).
From Syabrubesi we were on foot. The plan was to ascend quickly for the first two days, and so we moved from Syabrubesi to Lama Hotel (2400m) on Day 1, and then to Langtang Village (3400m) on Day 2. Both days here included relatively manageable full-day hikes, through forested areas in the Langtang region. The team remained in high spirits, although we did lose two members temporarily to food poisoning at Lama Hotel (it’s okay they came back eventually).
Our First Encounter with High Altitude
Throughout our expedition, Tulsi (our Chief Guide) would give us lessons on Mountaineering. One of these lessons included a critical one on Altitude Sickness. Quite briefly, he shared how areas with altitudes of 2500m and above can be considered high altitude regions, and that at these altitudes we might experience headaches, nausea and shortness of breath, among other symptoms.
On Day 3 we travelled from Langtang Village to Kyanjin Gompa (3800m). This trek was kept short due to the high altitude, and we reached Kyanjin Gompa before lunch. In the afternoon of the same day, we also completed an acclimatisation hike to Lower Kyanjin Ri (4300m), where Tulsi taught us the basics of hiking and breathing in higher altitude. This turned out to form the foundation of our climbs in altitude for the next 10 days, from Kyanjin Gompa all the way to the Summit of Tserko Peak.
The acclimatisation hike to Lower Kyanjin Ri was not easy (to say the least), and our smiles faded into heavy panting as we approached the top of Lower Kyanjin Ri a few minutes past sunset. It was here when many of us were first exposed to some of the effects of high altitude (some of some even felt sleepy at the summit). However, our journey had yet a long way to go, and so after a good night’s rest we were back during Day 4’s technical training.
Moving off for Tserko Peak
On Day 5, we finally set off for the Lower Base Camp (4500m) of Tserko Peak (or as our guides used to affectionately say, “Chirkuri”). This was also the first time we were provided packed lunches consisting of boiled eggs, fried bread (called “maida”), banana bread, yak cheese, some biscuits and an orange. Our trek started off with us singing army songs (which helped boost our morale), and ended with us panting and tired as we reached Base Camp. Nonetheless we were excited as Tserko Peak finally came into view. We had arrived at the mountain that we were training for, for the past four months, and this was truly momentous.
After a short navigation lesson by Tulsi, nightfall came – and with it came the cold. A temperature of -10 degrees Celsius would be merely “uncomfortable” if you were in an insulated area. However, an insulated dining tent was not set up due to logistical constraints. Thus a strangely desperate situation arose, where some us were huddled in the warm cooking tent shivering, and others simply sat in silence in their sleeping bags.
Dinner came soon after but due to the lack of a dining tent, we were served food in our two-person tents. Despite the rustic setting, this was truly some Five-Star service by our guides and our porters. They would personally come to each of our tents and hand us a “three-course meal” consisting firstly of tea, then soup, and lastly a plate of rice and vegetables. However, the uncomfortable situation had many of us exhausted and shivering in our sleeping bags. This must have been the first low-point for many of us on the Mountain. Despite the difficulties faced, some of us managed to appreciate the beautiful, dark, starry night above us. One of my fondest memories of the trip would be listening to “Yellow”, by Coldplay (fitting enough as it really was cold), while stargazing with Jia Wei and Ben.
Higher Base Camp
The next day (Day 6) we moved off for Higher Base Camp (4800m). Thankfully the trek was short, and we reached by lunch time. After a good lunch in our dining tent (which we were thrilled to see after the previous night), we prepared for our first Glacier Training session. During this first session, Tulsi taught us how to put on our bulky mountaineering boots, and use our ice axes to navigate ice structures, rock and slopes. We moved in zig-zags (and the occasional slips) up the hill. That was our first time moving on ice structures and it was a steep and awkward way up and down. I remember seeing everyone dotted on the hill, and moving as though in slow-motion. Finally as we reached the top, we were treated to our first phenomenal “all-white” view of the mountains.
The next day (Day 7) included two other glacier training sessions. Since we weren’t moving camp, our breakfast was scheduled for 8.30am (the whole expedition really made us appreciate the small things like this). For both sessions we went up the same icy hill as the previous day, with various modifications in our equipment and technique. Going up that hill three times was exhausting both mentally and physically.
After (or sometimes even before) particularly difficult days, the guides and cooks used to prepare special food for us, such as popcorn, prawn crackers, papadum and even Maggi noodles (yes that’s right, absolute mood-lifter). We all gathered back in the tent that night, and sat in silence while munching on popcorn.
Advanced Base Camp
The initial plan was to stay at Higher Base Camp for a few days, and then directly move off for Summit Push from Higher Base Camp itself. That would have required an extremely difficult climb of almost 1000m on Summit day. Therefore, Tulsi assessed that it would be safer to set up a third base camp (which I’ll call “Advanced Base Camp”) at 5000m. The decisions of the guides during the trip made me realise the importance of planning, and even more importantly showed the need to be adaptable to changing plans when needed (especially in an environment that simply doesn’t care for your plans).
Due to the change of camp, the next day (Day 8) was another “6.30am breakfast” day and we moved off early for Advanced Base Camp and the glacier training to come afterwards. By this time our group was temporarily reduced by roughly 6 members, who each had varying illnesses. The rest of us trudged on upward and we reached Advanced Base Camp fairly quickly. We took a short snack break and moved off for Round 4 of glacier training, now at the actual glacier of Tserko Peak (as opposed to the icy hills we’d been climbing so far).
Everyone had different low-points throughout the expedition, and that trek to the glacier was one of those low-points for me. It was here where I started doubting my ability and training, and even contemplated turning back to base camp. The previous days had been really tough, but by pushing ourselves, we managed to get through them (somewhat) fine. This time though, the task ahead felt more arduous than ever, and the environment felt harsh. I even slowed down significantly due to the effects of high altitude! However, my teammates never left my side, and we reached the glacier together. Through moments like these, the support of the team was proven to be measurably important, not only for me, but for everyone during their own difficult periods.
Upon reaching the glacier (5300m), we learnt how to make ice anchors and even did some ice climbing! This was truly an out-of-this-world experience which I’m glad we managed to do despite our state of exhaustion.
The approach to Summit Push
The next day (Day 9) was a well-deserved rest day. We woke up late, played games, and just chilled in the warm dining tent. This day was one of our favourite days for many of us.
At around 6pm, Tulsi came around to brief us on our Summit Push. He explained how we would need to split up into two teams for Summit Push for logistics reasons, and that both teams would attempt the Summit on different days. Through a surprisingly calm process, we managed to split ourselves into two teams. The first team would head out on Day 10 (Summit Day 1), and the second team would head out on Day 11 (Summit Day 2). I was in the second team, along with 8 other friends.
Summit Push Day 1
The first team headed out for their Summit Push at about 3am on Summit Day 1, whereas Team 2 woke up much later at 8:30am for breakfast. We (Team 2) were told that Team 1 would summit at about 10am and so we anxiously used binoculars try to spot them. I distinctly remember seeing my friends in Team 1 on the mountain, in the form of really tiny dots appearing still. However even past 10am, they were still far below the summit. It appeared that Team 1 was facing some difficulty in climbing and had to move at a much slower pace than expected.
Tulsi thus decided that it would be prudent for the rest of us in Team 2 to move to a fourth base camp (which I’ll just call “Base Camp Four” because I’ve run out of ways to describe them). We moved quickly to pack our bags with only our essentials for Summit Push, and moved off for Base Camp Four. Now in any other situation be it back home or travelling leisurely, I’d be quite flustered at having to move off suddenly with an abrupt change of plans. However the past few days had us used to uncertainty on the mountains, and we were mentally prepared for the Summit.
We moved off for Base Camp Four at about 2pm and reached Camp just during sunset, at about 5pm. The way up was steep, rocky and icy but we managed to go up slowly as a team and were treated to the most beautiful sunset. Base Camp Four was sparse, to say the least. Unlike the previous Camps with multiple personal and shared tents, Base Camp Four simply comprised of 3 two-person tents (each holding four of us). Despite that, Base Camp Four was, by reason of its location, one of my favourite.
We moved quickly to set up our sleeping bags as the night and cold arrived. Our guides had gone to assist Team 1 who were now descending in darkness, and so we were accompanied at Base Camp Four by one of the porters. No one really knew what the plan was, and so we logically moved into our tents and huddled together to wait as the temperatures dropped.
An unknown period of time later (since none of us had any concept of time at that point), dinner came. We did not have any cooking supplies at Camp Four and so the guides had to run down to Advanced Base Camp, and run back up to Base Camp Four with vegetables and fried rice so that we would be fed. They truly did unbelievably strong and heroic acts to ensure that we were in good shape.
We had our ice-cold food, shivering in our tents with minimal light around. I was in a tent with Yan Ang, Yang Jie, and Jia Wei. I distinctly remember looking at Yang Jie and bursting into laughter. We asked each other whether it was “still worth it”, spending so much time and money to get here – and we just nodded back at each other. Tulsi came around to let us know that Team 1 had all safely reached Advanced Base Camp (which was very relieving to hear), and that we would wake up for breakfast at 3:30am the next day before heading off for Summit Push.
Summit Push Day 2
We (Team 2) woke up the next day to see ice forming on the inside of our tent (yes, inside). We quickly had some porridge for breakfast and started putting on our equipment for Summit Push. Working in the cold and dark was extremely uncomfortable however, the guides ensured that we got ready on time. It was crucial that we left early, so that we could reach the summit and head back down safely before the sun set.
The Summit Push felt much longer than the 12-13 hours that it was. Rather than being able to remember the events that occurred or the terrain we crossed, I can more clearly recall the thoughts and emotions that ran through my mind. It was extremely cold during the early morning of summit push and to stay warm, we had to keep moving. Continuously moving however was a problem of its own due to the exhaustion and shortness of breath. The combination of the cold and difficulty in moving led to my body being unable to perform at the highest level, and thus I started to fall behind. However, Purna (one of our guides) came back to help and started shouting, “In the mountain, you must keep moving!”.
Simply enough, that’s what we tried to do – we kept moving. We climbed sections littered with huge rocks (which were particularly hard to navigate in the dark), and crossed icy structures which strangely looked like frozen waves. We moved slowly, taking one step at a time, due to the difficulty of high altitude and sheer exhaustion. We even had regular breaks, where we’d munch on high energy foods, like chocolate bars. Along the way, we witnessed some beautiful moments. We had a glimpse of the sun rising at 5500m, which was just indescribable (the sun also brought much needed warmth). We saw the steep uphill ahead of us, and our members slowly moving up. We also realised how far we had come, and noticed the white mountains and lakes surrounding us.
The members in Team 2 ended up summitting (5749m) at different times. Some of us (including myself) were just about 100 metres below the summit, due to a slower initial pace, when Tulsi advised us that it was time to turn around. Being told to head back when we were so close to achieving a goal that we had been training for, and envisioning, for such a long time caused that sort of sinking feeling. However, we trusted Tulsi’s judgement and that he knew what was best for our safety.
Moreso, the struggle during Summit Push made me realise that the summit, while being the final destination that we were aiming for, was not the eventual purpose behind the expedition. Summit day was challenging and, while I had learnt a lot from it, I enjoyed so many other parts of the trip equally, or even much more. There were moments like interacting with the guides and porters, and taking beautiful treks through undisturbed regions in the mountains. Most of all, I had gained the most from my teammates, be it freezing in the tent together or playing card games with a cup of hot tea. The Summit was not what I took back from the trip, but rather the journey leading to the Summit.
Summit Push signified the end of our Tserko Peak journey and we then started descending; first down the base camps, and then through the different guesthouses. Everyone was in high spirits (apart from the occasional vomiting/diarrhoea incident), and excited to head back to the modern amenities of Kathmandu.
Soon after, we said goodbye to each other as we headed back to Singapore (or elsewhere for a few of us). Initially, it honestly felt really strange not having the team that went through so much together, around me. However, I’m sure that we’ll meet each other again, be it on the mountains somewhere or on a completely new adventure.
- Chi Ying
- Yang Jie
- Shu Wen
- Jia Wei