Jabal Daka ascent – Saudi Arabia

Ivan revved the engine of the big red 4×4 Jeep and grinned as Erica, Timo and I loaded our gear.

This was to be my first adventure in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and I am extremely grateful to Ivan, who pioneered the expedition.

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I feel very privileged to have access to the country, that save for pilgrims travelling to Mecca for the Hajj, is currently very difficult for visitors to access.

What this means for the adventurer, is that many places in the country are untouched by the influence of tourism and well established trails do not exist. This presents an opportunity to observe the landscape and culture through an excitingly different lens. It also means that any impact on the environment and biodiversity is largely down to the local populace and global effects such as climate change, rather than an influx of international investment and tourists.

So it was, the Jeep crammed to bursting with adventurers and climbing enthusiasts from Spain (Erica), Portugal (Ivan), Russia (Timo) and the UK (Myself) along with tents, food for two days and crash matts strapped to the roof – we rolled out into the desert dunes.

Our first pit-stop was the city of Jeddah where we met more friends with a passion for the outdoors who live locally, Anna and Kenny (USA), Roua (KSA), Ahmad (KSA), Fawaz (KSA), Faisal (KSA) and Osama (KSA). Our convoy was now up to five 4×4’s, three of which completely by chance were matching red Jeep’s, making us appear at a glance, much more organised than the reality!

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We headed East from Jeddah into Saudi Arabia’s rocky sun scorched interior. The roads, most of the time, are of a good quality and we made rapid progress. We passed herds of  mangey looking wild camels, dunes, rocky outcrops, dust and scrub. There is barely any vegetation in the harsh desert landscape that is coloured yellow, brown and orange.

After just under four hours driving, despite one over-heated engine from the scorching midday sun, we arrived at our destination, Al Shafa on the outskirts of the small settlement, Ash Shafa, near the city of Taif.

We pulled off the road and scouted the area, a short walk from the road lay a boulder field that led up into a flat clearing marked by a tall rocky outcrop. It was perfect and offered a few shady spots for the tents.

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Taif is located at a higher altitude to much of the surrounding landscape at above 2000m and is home to the Daka mountain park. As a result the scenery is much greener and the climate slightly cooler than the surrounding area, the area is known for its rose gardens. From our campsite, I could see Jabal Daka, the mountain I had read about before setting off and the summit was calling to me.

We quickly unloaded our jeeps and split into two groups, the ‘boulder’ team and the ‘hiking’ team – we then dispersed to indulge in our passions. The hiking team had Jabal Dakah firmly in their sights and after a short drive to the base of the mountain, we set up a rug in the shade and enjoyed lunch in the desert, peanut butter sandwiches, rice, protein bars, fruit, mint tea and anything else we had managed to bring.

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Fortified, we began our hike. This hike was delightfully different to many I have done in Europe, the Americas and Asia by virtue of the fact that, there was no path. Because of the intense outdoor conditions, current barriers to tourism and relatively little infrastructure for outdoor pursuits, when it comes to outdoor activities you must be very self sufficient and in many cases pioneer them!

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This can include, finding and marking the first paths or trails, setting the first climbing routes into rock as well as the logistics of getting there and even identifying the best places to go for your chosen activity.

The route became quickly steeper as we ascended the mountain, through in some places, quite dense evergreen vegetation. At some stages we had to crawl on our hands and knees to pass under trees and tangled roots. This was sharply contrasted with having to scramble using both hand and and foot holds up and over large boulders and exposed giant slabs of steep rock.

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After an hour of hiking we reached a plateau about three quarters of the way to the summit, offering an incredible view over the rolling hills of the region. Beyond this point the ascent was extremely steep and required some ‘chimneying’ – a technique where a rock fracture is large enough for a climber to fit their entire body into, yet small enough that opposing pressure can be applied to both walls to prevent falling. As a result Ahmad and I were the only two members of the group left with the summit in our sights.

The ascent soon became impossible without additional climbing gear for safety and we were forced to traverse around the edge of the mountain to find a route to the top. Ahmad spotted a route that involved using a large crack in the rock as a handhold, by applying pressure in opposite directions with both hands we were able to use the crack to pull ourselves up and over the lip to the next plateau and into the light form the sunset.

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We sat on the plateau, at the highest accessible point of Jabal Daka and watched the sun begin to sink on the horizon, bathing the valleys of Taif in a warm orange glow.

The descent took just under an hour, despite a short stop for Ahmad to pick up a scorpion half the size of a hand, by it’s tail, in order to show me the desert fauna! We caught up with the rest of the group as they reached the Jeeps and headed back to the boulder field to make camp under the stars.

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As a member of the Explorers Club I wonder what the future may have in store for the Kingdom, home to such unspoiled natural beauty when it comes to desert dunes, remote mountain regions and the azure Red Sea. Observing the fragility of this environment, even before it is fully developed to make it more accessible, really hammers home the importance of doing so in a sustainable way, with minimum disruption to our planets fragile environment.

How to access remote Canadian backcountry

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be dropped by helicopter in remote backcountry and watch it fly away?

After the waves of freezing air from the down draft of the rotor blades subsides and the thud of the helicopter fades away, it hits you.

The exhilaration of having the mountain to yourself as you are immersed in nature, with no sign of human influence in sight. All that is left is the sound of our own breathing, as your survey untouched snow covered meadows, ancient cedar glades and towering mountain peaks.

I’ve been lucky enough to experience this with Selkirk Tangiers Heli-skiing, who celebrated 40 years of flying thrill seekers, adventurers and alpine enthusiasts into the backcountry of the Canadian Rocky’s this year.

“I couldn’t ask for much more, being the first to ride fresh powder, every day.” Said Quinn our mountain guide.

I was accompanied by my friend and cameraman, Peter, who joined me on the journey to experience and document the glacial mountains. The rest of our group of eight adventurers were brought together by our desire to experience and explore the remoteness of the alpine region, including the fresh powder snow secluded within its valleys.

The day started with a delicious welcome breakfast to set us up for the physical and mental challenge that was to come. Then we headed down to the equipment room to sort out our deep powder gear. It is so important to know your own ability and to get the right equipment for the snow conditions and terrain.

Spirits were high as we boarded the people carrier that took us to our pick up location. Here we were put through our avalanche training and were given some tips for skiing as a group in difficult backcountry terrain. With our avalanche beacons safely strapped to our bodies, it was time to board the helicopter.

The Class-A helicopter soared up and out across the valley, following the river, flying high over the hydro-electric dam and out into the Selkirk mountain range. We now had 500,000 acres of wide open glaciers, alpine meadows and massive old growth forests at our fingertips.

Our mountain guides Quinn and Kursten, boasting a combined 30 years’ experience between them, identified the best possible slopes based on the current weather conditions and avalanche risk.

Selkirk Tangiers have been exploring the heart of British Columbia’s interior mountains since 1978. Bordering two pristine national parks, the terrain varies from towering peaks to sheltered valley floors. The area boasts the most consistent snowfall and vertical descents in Northern America, for those in search of steep, deep Canadian backcountry, the area is unique in its size, and is both exhilarating as well as humbling.

Our pilot Jay touched down in a rolling meadow, with the bird landing in belly deep snow. Soon we were laying fresh tracks through a huge glade as we explored the powder playground below.

Weaving in and out of century old trees while riding waist deep powder it felt as though the powder was giving us extra lift, a floating sensation of frictionless speed.

After a speedy helicopter extraction which took us from an area called ‘cow boys and Indians” to a new area called ‘microwave’ we made our way further into the waist deep fresh powder of the Canadian backcountry.

Halfway down microwave, after soaring across snow covered logging roads and through pillow fields, we stopped for lunch. Drinking steaming mugs of apple tea as the sunshine broke through the clouds and lit up the misty alpine terrain it was possible to look back and see the S-traces of our descent. Nearby sat the A-star helicopter that had made possible our access to this remarkable wilderness setting.

Soon we were back to charging through steep, deep and heavy snow, dodging through tight alpine trees. It is all too easy to end up upside down, buried in a few feet of powder or lodged in a tree well. For this reason, Kursten acted as our rear guide – armed with a snow shovel and regularly had to dig for members of our group who ended up buried in the white carpet.

We descended through powder fields to our pick-up point and within a few moments our helicopter was soaring in to meet us.

Academic studies have shown that the glaciers in British Columbia, in addition to other areas of Northern America, are dwindling in size and volume. In 1985 – 2005 alone, the glaciers in British Columbia lost 11% of their area.

We were incredibly lucky to experience these mountains in great snow conditions. In this modern era of rapid environmental change in our planets climate, adventures like this are increasingly taking on a new meaning. I hope by documenting the beauty of the mountains and the sheer joy of this experience I can inspire others to think differently, and in doing so, inspire others to take action to protect the planet that is their home.

Heading way out West

I’m so happy to be putting my backpack on again after a few months at home in the UK.

My Northface ‘Base Camp’ kit bag, after successfully making it to the real Everest Base Camp, is now loaded up with cold weather alpine gear in preparation for two weeks in the rocky mountains of British Columbia.

The journey I have embarked on is a nine hour flight to Vancouver followed by a seven hour drive to Revelstoke. A small mountain town at the base of Mount McKenzie on the edge of Revelstoke National Park.

I’m delighted to be flying out with my friend of nearly two decades Peter, who over the years I have referred to as ‘Pistol Pete’ ‘the machine’ and ‘Pedro’ all for different but equally colourful reasons.

After a failed attempt to get ourselves upgraded to business class, we hunkered down on our Air Canada flight over the Atlantic.

We arrived into Vancouver airport and were met by Pete’s friend Chris, whose hospitality has been incredibly generous.

Chris is originally from Worcestershire in the U.K. but now lives in Vancouver. He has also spent two ski seasons in Revelstoke, the ski town in the Canadian rocky’s, where we will spend the next two weeks.

After an overnight stop on the floor of Chris’ shared house on the North shore of Vancouver we hit the road into the mountains to Revelstoke.

Revelstoke has the most vertical ski and snowboard runs in Northern America and the most consistent powder.

Tucked away between Vancouver and Calgary, it would be easy to miss this small Canadian ski town in favour of the larger reputations of Whistler and Banff but for those dedicated to their snowsports this is a lesser travelled Mecca.

Since arriving we have had around 10cm of fresh snow each night, this was complimented by a 30cm dump on our fourth day.

On day one, we took the ski lifts as high as they go, then hiked the sub-peak which took us into the back country of the north bowl. An incredible experience that took us to fresh waist deep snow.

On day four we signed up for ‘first tracks’ which meant we were given access to the mountain from 7:30am before the lifts officially opened to the public.

Snowboarding through knee deep untouched snow, on the actual pistes was another first ever experience for me. Big powder turns resulted in waves of snow going over my head through each turn.

There are plenty of ‘glades’ where the distance between the trees is controlled to allow for the best tree runs in the off-piste. This has really helped me get my snowboarding back up to scratch!

Riding with Chris, the locals and the resort instructors is an absolute blast but also reminds me that I now only get to test my skills, endurance and appetite for adrenaline once or twice a year.

Next week we are booked in to go heli-skiing with Selkirk Tangiers Heli-Ski Company. I’ll let you know in a future post how we get on!

Dahl bat power, 24 hour

Legend has it that 90% of the 22 million inhabitants of Nepal eat dahl bat twice a day. In honour of this culinary masterpiece, I have not only eaten it 8 times in 4 days but have also co-authored this ode to dahl,

Dahl bat power, 24 hour

3 weeks no toilet, no shower


Dahl bat gave us the power to cross the Himalayas on foot, ascending thousands of metres across landscapes from another world. 

In the last few days of ascent we have crossed melting glaciers, crumbling boulder fields, mud-slicked trails, barren gravel strewn valleys and scrambled up rock studded slopes. 


After a pit stop at Gorak shep, we continued our journey upwards, to Everest Base Camp. The remoteness of this location must be experienced to be understood. Nestled in a glacial valley, surrounded by soaring peaks, ice and rock. There is nothing there and it is at least two hours hike to Gorak Shep, home to a few lodges and tents. 

Reaching Everest Base Camp was a truly inspiring experience and to do it in the company of such interesting, determined and truly great people has been a real privilege. Obviously we celebrated with a bit of whisky!


This achievement would not have been possible without team leadership and expert guidance from explorer Mark Wood, lead guide Devendra Rai and our incredible support team including Yogi, Mauri and Hiro. 


Our journey does not stop here. After a refuel back at Leboche we will head to the Gokyo pass and from there attempt the summit of Gokyo Ri, at over 5,000m these places are higher than anywhere in Europe and represent an exciting and significant challenge. 

From the summit of Gokyo Ri, if conditions allow it is possible to view a panorama of the highest peaks in the Himalayas – from the top of the world.

Our expedition team is about to be pushed to its limit for the next few days, trekking for up to 8 hours or more per day at very high altitude – at times with no options for hot food, water or resupply. 

Find out how we get on here soon. 

Traversing the Chola Pass at 4,900m

Mist descended on the pass as our expedition set out from Pheriche to Leboche. The journey took us on an ascent of 700m to over 4,900m.

 

We had woken to stunning mountain panoramas that encircle the valley that is home to Pheriche. 


The path rose steadily all day leading us into increasingly barren terrain. It was now that I truly felt that we were reaching the roof of the world. 

After just a few quick steps, you become breathless. Your limbs and backpack feel heavier. Very quickly the world shrinks to just you, your trek mates and the mountain. 


Once in a rhythm the challenge of putting one foot in front of the other decreases. I found myself entering almost a meditative state as I focussed on my breathing and moving forwards. Always forwards into the misty, grey expanse of the Chola Pass. 

Suddenly the path flattened, curved and dropped slightly to reveal water, yaks grazing and our destination Leboche. 


A basic yet cosy lodge at Lobuche will be our launch pad tomorrow as we ascend yet further through this harsh environment to Everest Base Camp. 

An eight hour trek up 456m to 5,356m will get us there! 

If you want to go far, go together

There is an African proverb that says, 

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.


Getting as far as Tengboche has been a real team effort. A combination of enthusiasm, support, kindness and determination. 
We have a large group which presents benefits as well as challenges but by supporting each other both mentally and physically we have stayed together and come a long way.


On reaching Tengboche, team spirits were high. This was compounded by one of the best views of Mount Everest possible. Even the locals came out to take pictures and selfies – the sign of a truly rare spectacle. 


We spent time in the largest monastery of the region and listened to the chanting of the local monks. One of whom Mark has known since 2004. It must be an incredible solitary existence living at 3,867m in the heart of the Himalayas, miles from developed civilisation. 

One perk the monks do enjoy though, is one of the highest bakeries in the world! Serving extremely tasty apple pie. It was surreal to sit with new found friends and kindred spirits, looking at a 360 degree mountain panorama on the roof of the world – while tucking into a delicious freshly baked apple pie. A memory I will treasure. 


From Tengboche we will travel yet higher into the Himalayas, to the remote mountain village of Pheriche at 4,200m. 

The route took as through a rhododendron forest at the bottom of the valley, which after a few hours of trekking gave way to windswept mountainside. The change in terrain was dramatic and the contrast stark. 


After five hours of ascending a few hundred metres into high altitude, the team was ready for a well deserved rest day. 
Somehow Pheriche is home to not only a well provisioned wooden lodge, but also a full size snooker table! 


The team swapped tales, grabbed some morning mountain sun, played cards and knocked some balls around. Our bodies further acclimatising to very high altitude. 


Tomorrow will be a challenging day as we ascend a further 700m across a glacier. If we make it to Lobuche at 4,930m there is a good chance we will make it to one of our key destinations – Everest Base Camp – the following day which will be Wednesday 20 September 2017. 

Stay tuned to find out if we make it. 🏔

The happiest monk in the world

In Namchee Bazaar we met Zheng Bu, possibly the happiest monk in the world. His friendly attitude lifted our spirits as he welcomed us into a Buddhist temple on the Himalayan mountainside with jokes, laughter and blessings.


He organises a three month long celebration each year running from April to June with lots of singing and dancing. 

Zheng Bu taught us a mantra and we sat for a while, feeling our bodies acclimatise to high altitude. 

We also visited the statue of Tenzing Norgay, one of the most distinguished Sherpa’s in the world. He is most well known for being first to the summit of Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hilary. On a clear day you can see Mount Everest on the horizon, shining in tribute to Tenzing and Hilary’s achievements. 

This was a welcome rest day, as we prepared ourselves mentally and physically for the next stage of our challenge. Tomorrow we leave for Tengboche, making our way further into very high altitude up to 3,870m. 

The mountain trail offered spectacular views of some of the highest Himalayan peaks, they stood tall like rock giants looking down into the Khumbu Valley. Mount Everest, Lhotse, Ama Dablam, Thamserku all close to 7,000m towered above us, a truly humbling experience. 
Occasionally we caught glimpses of the mighty Mount Everest through the clouds. The mighty mountains majestic snow covered lines spurring us on. 


We made our way along one side of the Khumbu before dropping down steeply to the river running through its bottom. Here we stopped for lunch and prepared ourselves for a steep incline up to Tengboche, home to the largest monastery in the Khumbu Valley. 

The sacred valley

From Lukla we began our journey on foot through the Khumbu Valley to Phat Ding, we stayed the night before heading out to Namchee Bazaar.


The eight hour hike to Namchee marked the start of our trek for real. Spirits were high and our expedition team has really started to bond. Resulting in some form friendships and even some naked male bonding under a waterfall. 

We crossed incredible bridges made from ropes of steel. They swung with every step, increasing the feeling of elation and mild vertigo. There were some impressive displays of courage as with support from Mark Wood and the rest of the team, members of our party faced down their fears. 


In the Khumbu Valley, Sagmartha National Park covers about 1,200km all above 3,000m altitude.

Mountain ridges higher than 5,700m surround the Khumbu. On the north the park shares a border with Tibet along the crest of the Himalayan peaks. Three rivers drain the area the Dudh Kosi, Imja Khola and Bhote Kosi.


The area conserves subtropical jungles with tigers and rhinoceros on the low Terai plains to glacier covered peaks and alpine valleys in the high mountains. 
To the first Sherpas, the Khumbu Valley was unique and special as a ‘beyul’ a sacred valley that was set aside by Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Buddhism, to be a refuge in times of trouble. 

Politics and climate change played a part in Sherpa migration to the area 400 years ago. As the snow and ice here has receded year on year, settlements have developed higher up the mountains. 

However evidence suggests that people were visiting this valley well before the Sherpa people. Pollen analysis and C14 dating of buried charcoal reveals cereal grains mixed with the pollen and that some areas of the forests had been disturbed by fire as long as 1000 years ago. 

Oral traditions suggest this may have been the Rai shepherds using the areas high pastures. 


Extreme weather conditions exist here, snow may fall from October to June and night time temperatures may drop to -10C above 2,500m and down to -30C above 4,000m during the trekking season. 

Our eight hours of trekking took us rapidly up over 1000m to a high altitude of 3,440m. It was crucial to move at a steady pace to limit the effects of altitude mountain sickness (AMS). 

When Namchee Bazaar appears out of the mist as you round a bend in the trail, it looks like a lost city. Nestled in a bowl of the mountains, the carefully built grey brick buildings represent civilisation in the wilderness. 


Namchee is a Mecca for mountaineers and trekkers with many of the worlds most famous climbers and explorers using the town as a launch pad for Himalayan adventures. As a result it is quite well developed with provisions to refresh and restock kit and provisions. 

From here we will head deeper into the Khumbu Valley, heading into what is classified as very high altitude, over 3,500m above sea level. Our next destination is Tengboche at 3,870m hosting the largest Buddhist monastery of the region. 


It is crucial now that we take it at a steady pace as our bodies adjust to the low oxygen conditions. The adventure continues. 

Do what makes the best story

A lot has happened since Lukla airport involving seven 4×4’s, the worst hotel in the world and an emergency helicopter landing in a remote Himalayan village.

After 8 hours of waiting including actually boarding the aeroplane and getting into position on the runway, before taxiing back to the airport, Mark gave us two options; return to our hotel or try to reach Lukla – by any means. 


A good friend of mine, Charlie Knight, once said, ‘do what makes the best story.’ 

With this in mind, we hired seven 4×4’s and drove in convoy from Kathmandu to Okhaldhungla. The dusty roads of Kathmandu valley gave way to winding trails leading deeper into the Himalayas. Soon we were enveloped by the soaring hills of a jungle covered Jurassic landscape.


We stayed overnight in some pretty basic accommodation – even by Nepalese standards. My cousin Jonny likened it to a Russian gulag, although I’m not sure he’s ever been to one.

After arriving at the ‘gulag’ in Okhaldhungla at 22:30, we had a few hours rest then started the second leg of our off roading experience at 03:00. The mud covered tracks wound through the landscape which by now was quite mountainous, with sheer drops to one side throughout. 


The slick, worn out tyres of our aged, yet trusty Mahindra jeep combined with the deep wet mud of the trails enabled our Nepalese driver to drift around some of the bends – sliding through the turns as the six passengers bounced off the windows, ceiling and each other. 

It was another 3 hours to Paplu, from here the new plan to reach Lukla was to get an Russian ex-military helicopter pick up from the air strip – this style of air travel is possible in much less forgiving conditions. 

The chopper soared through the valley and swung into the airstrip at Paplu. It had room for six passengers per journey and our group is 41 strong. 


After the first four journeys, the helicopter was taken out of commission so we had to request a new one from Kathmandu, the group was now split between two locations. 

The drama of the situation increased when it was announced that there was to be a prisoner extraction from the airstrip we were waiting on. We witnessed Nepalese con-air in action as the offenders were marched by armed guards to the light aircraft that had arrived to collect them.

After six hours in the sun and heat of the landing strip, the second chopper arrived. By now the weather had turned again, it was so bad we couldn’t get directly to Lukla so had to be dropped at a small village below. While in the air, I received the following text from Lotta a member of our expedition team:

We were forced to perform an emergency landing in a remote Himalayan village, the local villagers all turned out to welcome us and ask what on earth we were doing there! They gave us great directions and from there we made our way up the mountain trail to Lukla to rejoin the rest of the team.


After a quick bite to eat, we were on the trail heading to Phat Ding, where we planned to sleep that night. These 24 hours were an absolute roller coaster! 

Kathmandu the sacred city of light

Imagine a religious melting pot, sprawling throughout a lush green vally surrounded by misty peaks on all sides. 


Kathmandu was established as early as 900 BC and has attracted settlers and visitors for over a thousand years. In medieval times it was known as Kāntipur, which is Sanskrit for City of light.  Buddhism and Hinduism are the main religions and the city is packed to bursting with awe inspiring temples large and small. 

Over 100 languages are spoken in Nepal, the predominant one being Nepalese. The chirpy, chatty sound of this endearing language mingles with the chaos ensuing from the 1.4 million inhabitants of the city area, who are jam packed into the dusty hustle and bustle of a cultural capital, boasting very little in the way of organised infrastructure. 


Rickshaws, tuk tuks, cars, buses, motorbikes and scooters crowd the narrow streets and are forced to weave in and out of crater sized pot holes, tourists, stray dogs and the occasional sacred cow or oxen. 
Down by the Bagmati river visitors can witness vibrant Hindu weddings on temple rooftops metres above sombre funeral pyres taking place on concrete platforms along the river bank. As the fires burn out, the ashes are brushed into the brown swirling river. 


The river is considered holy by both Hindus and Buddhists. Generations of inhabitants also wash themselves in the river, believing it is the secret to long life. 
Back in the heart of the city, Durbbah square plays host to the countries royal palace as well as the house of the young goddess. She will remain in this exalted position until pubity, when another young goddess will take up the reigns. 


Further out on the hillside, breathtaking views over the city can be found at Swayambhu, affectionally known by tourists as ‘Monkey Temple’. Set into the jungle of the hillside a relentless number of steps lead visitors through a myriad of small temples and places of worship. 
Monkey groups of all ages, shapes and sizes have made this area their home. The enormous jungle trees provide all the trappings of their natural habitat, while temples, benches and even a specially designed ‘monkey swimming pool’ make the place quite luxurious for them. Some even posed for photos, looking out at the shimmering expanse of the city below. 

As the sun sets and the city cools, it is given a new lease of life with honks, whistles, woops, singing and chanting issuing until nightfall.


Storms, cloud and mist in the mountains on Monday meant no flights were allowed to land at Lukla airport. After 6 hours of waiting and actually boarding the plane on the runway, all flights to Lukla were grounded in Kathmandu. The expedition clock is ticking and after a 5am start, the team is itching to get our 20 day trek underway. 


We faced two choices, go back to the hotel in Kathmandu and try again tomorrow in the hope that flight conditions improve or attempt to continue to our destination by any means.