Expedition Log: Nepal 2019 with Thomas Heaton
A few days ago I reviewed some of my images from the Terra Photography Expeditions and Thomas Heaton journey through Nepal and started feeling quite nostalgic about it. It has been almost a full year since I got back. If someone had told me back then that this expedition would be one of the last ones that I would lead in the foreseeable future, I probably would have laughed and brushed it off as nonsense. Well, since I got back from Nepal just before Christmas 2019, the world has changed due to Covid-19.
The expedition to Nepal had absolutely everything - an amazing team of international adventurers, great local guides and support crew, perfect weather, challenging but enjoyable trekking, amazing scenery, otherworldly photography and stomach bugs (more on that particular thing later…). This is the story of Terra Photography Expedition Nepal 2019.
The journey to Nepal started in early 2018 when I asked Thomas Heaton - who had joined several of our expeditions as a creative guide over the last few years - what a dream workshop destination would be to him. He immediately said that he wanted to go to Nepal. A few months of careful planning of logistics, route choices, photography locations, selection of local partner, risk assessments etc. ensued. Planning any Terra Photography Expedition workshop is complicated, as we always want to match stunning photography with equally good trekking, and it has got to be an adventure with some spice to it but risks must be well controlled.
I arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal, on 16 November 2019. It was a typical sunny chaotic Kathmandu day. I had planned to have a few days there before the group would arrive to meet with the local support team to arrange the final logistics. This, it turned out, was not really necessary as everything was perfectly organised already, but it did give me the time to scout some local street photography locations that I wanted to take the group to. Street photography is far from a huge interest of mine, but Kathmandu is like something taken straight out of an Indian Jones movie and I really enjoyed my walks around the older parts of the town.
On 19 November 2019 the group were all assembled at the courtyard of the hotell and the adventure was about to start! After delivering the longest security briefing that I have ever done (mostly due to the added risks of acute mountain sickness) and making final preparations we set out for a first dinner together.
I find that a journey can have many different starting points. For me, the trip started at dinner the first night as everything was already planned and things set in motion. I remember reflecting that this was the moment when an epic journey into the Himalayas started. 24 days is a long time. It is a real break from the trials and tribulations of everyday life. It started with the short flight to Lukla with its infamous runway (often labelled the world's most dangerous due to the fact that if it is overshot, you end up in the side of the mountain that towers over it).
From there we continued by foot for 21 days of trekking. The first major stop came a few days in at Namche Bazar (3440m) where we had a day of acclimatisation and the first really good photography. On arrival in Namche Bazar the team felt great, by evening a few were feeling headache and the following morning, almost the entire team was down with headache and various other symptoms of acute mountain sickness. This is normal when you gain altitude, but that doesn't make it any more pleasant. To ensure proper acclimatisation we had a day in Namche Bazar which we spent drinking tea, exploring the village and surrounding areas and heading out for sunset photography.
From Namche Bazar we left the rather famous Everest Base Camp Trek (or EBC for short) and climbed up to the village of Gokyo Ri, where would acclimatise and then prepare for the infamous Cho-La pass - our highest pass at 5367m - and then to join up with the EBC again to eventually reach Gorak Shep, Everest Base Camp and to summit Kala Pattar (5550m). But now we are getting ahead of ourselves.
The route from Namche Bazar turned out to be treacherous for the group. Two team members suffered from mild Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) as we reached the village of Machhermo (4470m). Machhermo is situated just below the moraine of the Ngozumpa glacier, which is Nepal's longest glacier and a stunning place for photography. But after a two days of rest, they were able to continue up towards the village Gokyo (4750m) at the foot of the mountain Gokyo Ri (5357m). Myself, well, I caught some kind of stomach parasite and spent the rest of my journey with stomach cramps and antibiotics. The kind and understanding team responded with giving me the nickname "Bugs".
After much effort we reached Gokyo on day 11. Half the team needed some much deserved rest and the other half was feeling well enough to climb any mountain at a minute's notice - which they did by summiting Gokyo Ri to the applauds of the ones that stayed by the fire resting - myself included. Unfortunately, on reaching Gokyo one team member suffered from an infection combined with AMS and was recommended to be airlifted out by the doctor. After conversations with the person, the great support crew in Kathmandu, the Nepalese head guide and myself, the helicopter was quickly and efficiently organised. We lost two team members that day as the partner of the person decided to join the rescue. The thing about AMS is that it hits people differently. You can be at the physical peak of your life - ready for your next sub 3hrs marathon - and suffer much more from the high altitude than someone who hasn't done a day of exercise in their life. Running an expedition at altitude, we had a careful plan of altitude gain and acclimatisation well within the recommended norms, but this is no guarantee for success. It is always incredibly sad to see a member of the team leave, but safety and wellbeing is always the number one concern. To make a bad situation worse, Thomas Heaton - our creative guide - was taking a tumbler down the AMS route as well.
After crossing the Ngozumpa glacier we were getting ready to take on the Cho-La pass - our highest pass at 5367m - Thomas and I talked it through and it wasn't advisable for him to tackle the pass. Instead we agreed that he and a guide would take the route around the mountain and meet up with the main team in 4-5 days' time in the village Pheriche (4240m), which was situated much lower down and would allow him to recover. The loving and caring team was out again and gave him the trail name "Valley" as in "Valley Boy" for this.
We said our "see you laters" to Thomas before heading early to bed for an "alpine start" the following morning (meaning: starting before sunrise to summit the objective early morning when the snow is still hard).
Starting in complete darkness, the team made it steadily upwards towards the pass looming above us. My stomach situation was particularly bad this day and would remain so until I got hold of a different type of antibiotics on arrival in Dzongla - this basically translated into excruciating pain for myself. I would walk 20-30 minutes and then lie down on the ground and just gasp for air and pain relief. I don't think I said more than 10 words on the way up the pass and was glad to have the support of our Nepalese National guides Chhiring Bhotia and his assistant guide Pemba to fill in for me as I was struggling to keep moving forward. The climb up the pass is initially undulated and then the final climb is a steep treacherous stone trail built into the mountain wall. Not for the fainthearted.