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Saturday, April 11, 2015

Science in strange places.

Science in strange places.

Performing science at 5,000 metres in the Himalayas is no easy task and this Expedition has not been without its challenges. The consensus is that this winter has been the snowiest in living memory and spring has come late to the remote, high valleys to the north of Manaslu. Many have described the difficulties that we, the Expedition Members, have encountered on our slow journey from road head to Base Camp. This blog tells the story of our research equipment and its tenuous journey from Bangor to Base Camp. It tells of the often heroic efforts of our Sherpa teams that have made our science possible.

First there was the packing in Bangor of 670kg of delicate gear into barrels and parcels to make them as near to indestructible as possible. No package could weigh more than 25kg which is the maximum porter load. George Wormald ushered the equipment with the help of a long wheel based Enterprise van to Heathrow where the freight handlers drew up the documentation and sent it on its way to Kathmandu by air.

It languished in Nepali Customs for a week whilst Sherpa Brothers PVT jumped through a variety of new bureaucratic hurdles which finally saw it released by officialdom and moved to Furba's store. Denzil Broadhurst flew early to Kathmandu to supervise the splitting of the gear. Some had to accompany the members on their 28 day anticlockwise circumnavigation of Manaslu so that daily and periodic observations could be undertaken. The majority, however, was routed clockwise on a 17 day return trip to Base Camp via Bimtang. It is this equipment that had the most troubled journey and led to an epic battle against the elements by its Sherpa custodians.

We knew before we left Kathmandu that heavy snow was blocking the high Himalayan passes so Furba took the precaution of sending 2 climbing Sherpas to accompany 'Marathon Pemba' - the research Sirdar. The latter acquired his name from a television programme called "Last Man Standing" where he was pitched against two elite western athletes. The task was to carry a 25kg mani stone from 2,200 metres to the top of a 4,400 metre mountain. Pemba's victory was, of course, effortless! His climbing accomplices include Dendi Sherpa who proved to be an extraordinarily tough and powerful Sherpa whose job it was to break the trail and make it safe for the following porters. He described his task on this occasion as, "harder than Everest"!

The gear left Kathmandu by bus on schedule and reached the last village of Bimtang at over 4,000 metres on time. From there it is a steep and unrelenting climb to reach Larkya Pass at 5,160 metres. But the weather was terrible with strong and icy winds bringing fresh dumps of snow to add to the surfeit left from the winter. The porter team struggled against the dreadful conditions and established a camp half way up the climb from Bimtang to the Larkya Pass. Unsurprisingly the porters descended as the conditions were really too bad for them to continue.

There followed a heroic 72 hours of effort by our Sherpa team. Furba took a call from Marathon Pemba saying, "Furba what shall I do? All the porters have gone!". The next morning the Group I Sirdar, Ngima, was dispatched in waist deep snow to force a trail through to Larkya La from Samdo where he met Pemba and a random Tibetan at the pass. He returned the same day bringing with him pictures of the appalling conditions he had encountered. Furba hurried from Samagaon to Dharmasala and, with Ngima, headed up and over the pass taking with them a sturdy team of porters, climbing Sherpas and guides from groups 1 and 2. They crossed the pass, descended to the gear dump and each shouldered 40kg loads with which they then climbed back up the pass in strong winds and whiteout. They descended with the gear to the Base Camp area where they deposited the gear.

Snow was falling at Base Camp but they descended in a whiteout and strong winds to reach Dharmasala not without difficulty. Arriving at the lodge in the dark at 9pm they were exhausted and experiencing inexplicable phenomena which were probably hallucinatory. The next day they met with Sam Verges and Denzil Broadhurst at Dharmasala and Sam went back up with Furba to Base Camp to finalise the the layout of Base Camp now that all the gear had arrived.

After losing the way again in deteriorating conditions Sam, Dendi and Furba returned to Samdo at 9pm. Our team had, by epic endeavour, snatched back the research from the wintry grip of the Himalaya and Base Camp was ready to be occupied by our science teams. An amazing effort.