A Pemba Short Story
Based on the character from Charlie Lupton's Sherpa Adventure
‘Yaks approaching!’ I shouted.
I looked back as the ten trekkers in my party moved off the track. There must have been six or seven yaks coming towards us. A Sherpa was walking behind them. They moved slowly, wobbling with the large loads strapped to their sides. As they came closer I heard the deep clangs of the bells around their necks.
I stood well back as the yaks passed. They have large horns which could gore you if you got in their way. They were probably returning with equipment from an Everest climbing expedition. They were breathing heavily and looked very hot. They prefer the higher altitudes where the air is thinner. But they did not have far to go. They would soon be in Lukla.
When yaks pass you on the route towards Everest, you must always stand on the uphill side of the track. On the opposite side is a steep drop to the valley below. If you stood on that side and a yak bumped into you then you could plummet to your death. I had told the trekkers about this before we left Lukla. Thankfully they had all followed my advice. All of them, except Calvin Monroe, an American from California. He was crouching down on the downhill side, taking photographs as they approached him.
‘Calvin, the other side!’ I yelled, as I pointed to the uphill side.
He lowered his camera and waved. Then he continued taking photographs without moving.
‘Pemba, he thinks he knows it all,’ said Lhakpa, my assistant.
‘He will soon learn,’ I said.
By now the last yak had passed where I stood. As the Sherpa following them went by, I put my hands together and greeted him. I then waited until the yaks had gone by the last of the group. The safety of the trekkers was my responsibility. I was the leader. We had many days before we would reach our destination, the Everest base camp. I had to look after them at all times.
The path from Lukla to Phakding is mostly downhill. It goes along a valley. The Dudh Koshi river flows along the bottom of this valley. There are rhododendron bushes and magnolia trees and forests of pine. Beyond are the tall peaks of the Himalayas. We passed colourful prayer flags blowing in the wind and rows of small, decorated metal cylinders called prayer wheels.
About half an hour later we stopped for a rest and drink.
We had to make the village of Phakding by evening. We would stay at a teahouse there overnight. Although this first day’s walk was not difficult, the trekkers were already beginning to feel tired. They had flown into Lukla after an early start in Kathmandu. They would be glad when they could finally get some sleep.
‘Is it okay if I carry on?’ said Calvin.
‘It is better if we stay together,’ I said, ‘especially on our first day.’
‘Okay, you’re the boss. But I don’t like hanging around. I don’t like to come second.’
‘It is not a race, my friend,’ I said.
Then he started to cough. He reached into his pocket and got out an inhaler. He took a puff and then placed it by his water bottle on the ground.
‘Are you all right?’ I asked.
‘Yep, I’m fine. It’s just that I’ve got asthma. Nothing serious. As long as I’ve got my inhaler I’m okay. I was worse in Kathmandu with all the fumes from the traffic.’ He picked up his bottle and took a swig of water.
I saw Lhakpa smile and shake his head.
‘I’ve got a friend back home who’s got asthma. She was okay as long she had her inhaler.’
I turned round to see who was speaking. It was the youngest person on the trip, a lady called Cindy Mellor.
‘Where’s home?’ I asked.
‘I come from Guildford, England,’ she said.
‘Are you enjoying it so far?’ asked another of the trekkers.
‘Yes,’ said Cindy. ‘The mountains are spectacular, but there is also a lot of wildlife. I saw a lizard on a rock earlier and crickets and grasshoppers. And I saw a kestrel hovering in the wind.’
‘And there are yaks,’ said somebody else.
We all laughed and then it was time to move on.
‘Is everybody ready?’ I asked. ‘We’ll keep going now until we reach Phakding.’
‘I’ve never felt better,’ said Calvin. He picked up his inhaler and bottle and stood up. ‘Let’s go,’ he said, as he strode off along the path.
‘He wouldn’t be so keen if he had to carry his own kit,’ said Lhakpa.
‘Yes, it must be difficult for the porters,’ said Cindy. ‘There are only five of them and they are each carrying two of our duffel bags.’
‘It’s their job and they are used to carrying heavy loads,’ said Lhakpa. ‘They have probably already reached Phakding by now.’
Lhakpa was right, of course. The trekkers would find it more difficult carrying all their own kit, especially Cindy. She was not only the youngest, but the smallest member of the group. Each trekker only had to carry a small daypack with things they would need when walking.
We carried on until we came to a river which flows into the Dudh Koshi. We had to cross this river over a long narrow bridge. It was made of steel cables with a metal grille to walk on. It is quite long, but not very high.
I strode across the bridge and waited for the trekkers. The last person to cross was Cindy. She was walking slowly and holding on with both hands to the cable and mesh either side.
When she finally got to the other side she was very pale. ‘That was very scary,’ she said.
Lhakpa looked at me with a worried expression on his face. ‘If she finds that scary, how will she manage to tomorrow?’ he whispered. ‘The bridges between Phakding and Namche Bazaar are a lot higher and longer than this bridge.’
‘I know,’ I said. ‘I know.’
Later that afternoon we arrived at Phakding and settled in at the teahouse. Although it is called a teahouse it does not just serve tea. There are rooms to sleep in and you can have delicious meals.
After dinner I had a meeting with the trekkers. We sat around the stove, which was in the centre of the room, drinking tea. It gets very cold at night and the trekkers were glad of the warmth.
‘You can’t beat a log burner,’ said one of the trekkers.
‘It’s not burning logs,’ said Lhakpa. ‘Like most other buildings in the valley, the stove burns yak dung.’
‘Ugh, that’s gross,’ said Cindy.
It was my first chance to speak properly with the group. I spoke to them about lots of things to keep them safe. One of the most important things was altitude sickness. ‘In the coming days,’ I said, ‘we will be going higher and higher. The air will get thinner and thinner. This means there will be less oxygen to breathe. Tomorrow we will walk to the town called Namche Bazaar. But we will stay there for a day. This will give our bodies time to get used to the thinner air before we go even higher.’
‘But we are only going to Everest base camp,’ said Calvin. ‘We’re not going to climb up the mountain.’
‘No, but we will still be very high,’ I said. ‘We must be careful. Now, has anybody got any questions?’
‘Yes,’ said one of the trekkers. ‘I’ve heard there are lots of rope bridges to cross. Are they dangerous?’
‘We will be crisscrossing the valley over bridges. But they are nothing to worry about. They’re mostly made of steel cables, not rope.’
‘I hope they are not too high,’ said Cindy. ‘That bridge we crossed this afternoon was bad enough.’
‘According to my guidebook,’ said Calvin, ‘the fifth bridge we will come to is the highest and longest. I can’t wait to cross it.’
‘When I was a girl,’ said Cindy, ‘I once walked across the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol. I got very scared and my mum had to hold my hand. Ever since then I’ve not liked high bridges.’
‘You will be fine,’ I said. ‘The bridges are very sturdy and safe.’
‘When will we be able to actually see Everest?’ asked Susan, an Australian from Sydney.
‘If the sky is clear you will get your first view of Everest from the highest bridge,’ I said.
‘That would be awesome,’ said Calvin. ‘That’s the advantage of staying in the lead. I’ll be the first to see it.’
‘Oh, give it a rest, Calvin,’ said somebody in a joking sort of way. ‘Like Pemba said, it’s not a race.’
‘Okay, okay,’ said Calvin, holding up his hands as everybody laughed and jeered.
After the meeting some of the group stayed up for a while, chatting or reading. But most went to bed early. The walk to Namche Bazaar would be strenuous and we needed a good night’s sleep.
As I lay awake I wondered how Cindy would cope walking over the bridges. They are very secure with strong cables which are fixed in concrete at either end. But they are also very high, very narrow and they sway in the wind, especially the fifth bridge, the highest of them all.
We were up early the following morning. We watched the sun rise from behind the snowcapped mountains as we ate our breakfast. But then the clouds began to gather.
‘Did everybody sleep well?’ I asked.
‘It was a bit cold,’ said one of the trekkers.
‘This porridge will warm us up,’ said Cindy.
‘Not forgetting the apple pancakes,’ said Calvin, as he helped himself to another. ‘These are awesome. We need a big breakfast, right, Pemba?’
‘Yes, we must eat plenty. We need plenty of energy for the trek today.’
By eight o’clock we were ready to go. The porters had already left. They would be well on their way by now.
We set off through the village. Young children were already out and about and looked at us shyly. One of the trekkers gave them some ballpoint pens as a present. The shops were already open and the shopkeepers were sweeping them clean. We also saw women washing clothes outside in large bowls of water.
As we walked out of the village we passed a line of ten yaks. They were facing the direction we were going. A Sherpa was busy adjusting their loads. Then one of the yaks became agitated. Perhaps it was because its load was a lot bigger than the rest. It lowered its horns and charged towards the trekkers. The other yaks also started to move. The trekkers cowered and tried to get out of the way. The Sherpa shouted at the yaks and they soon got back into line. Nobody was hurt.
We all kept walking and soon left the yaks behind.
‘Those yaks were not very happy,’ said Lhakpa.
‘No,’ I said, ‘they were not very content at all.’
We soon came to the first bridge of the day. Cindy looked worried and she insisted on going last. I told Lhakpa to go ahead at the front of the group. I walked across with Cindy to make sure she was okay. She stopped halfway to take some photographs and then we walked to the other end.
She puffed out her cheeks as she stepped off the bridge onto the path. ‘I made it!’ she said.
But I knew there was worse to come.
We were gradually getting higher and higher as we followed the river up the valley. Each time we came to a bridge, Cindy would insist on going last. I would wait behind to make sure she got across. I could see she was scared, but at least she kept going.
As we went higher the air became thinner. The trekkers often had to stop and rest to get their breath back. Although we were now much higher up, we could not see any mountain peaks above the pine forests because it was too cloudy.
By the end of the morning we reached the entrance gate to Sagarmatha National Park. To go further you must buy a pass. I had already got these for the trekkers. The official at the gate soon let us through and within twenty minutes we had reached the village of Jorsalle. We went into a teahouse to have lunch.
‘Are we on schedule?’ asked Calvin, as he tucked into curried vegetables and rice. ‘We were getting slowed down a bit at the bridges.’ He glanced at Cindy.
‘I’m doing my best,’ said Cindy.
‘We have plenty of time,’ I said. ‘The secret is not to go too fast.’
‘Bistari, bistari,’ said Lhakpa.
‘What?’ asked Calvin.
‘It is Nepalese,’ I said. ‘It means slowly, slowly. That is the best way to walk the approach march to Everest.’
We washed down our meal with lemon tea and then we set off again.
After about an hour we were walking at the bottom of the valley by the river. Then we rounded a corner and looked up. There in the distance was the tallest bridge in Nepal. In fact there are two bridges. There is a lower bridge, but that is old and dangerous. We would be using the higher bridge.
Everybody stopped to take photographs before we began the climb up the side of the valley. I looked at Cindy. She seemed very anxious.
The path up to the bridge was very steep. All the trekkers had to stop a few times to catch their breath.
I was first to get to the bridge. As the trekkers began to arrive I said we should wait for everybody before we started to cross. The last of the trekkers finally made it, with Lhakpa in the rear.
‘So this is the tallest rope bridge in Nepal,’ said Calvin, as he walked up to it and stood with his hands on his hips. ‘Now that is what I call a bridge.’ Then he started to cough. He went to a nearby rock, sat down and took a sip out of his water bottle. Then he put his bottle down and took his inhaler out of his pocket. He took a puff then placed the inhaler by his water bottle on the ground.
Everybody took more photographs and some were even filming.
‘It’s a shame about the weather,’ I said. ‘We won’t see Everest with these clouds.’
The bridge had many prayer flags tied to it. I noticed that they were almost horizontal and flapping. The wind was getting stronger.
‘Okay, let’s go,’ said Calvin. He picked up his bottle and walked out onto the bridge.
Lhakpa went next and then, one by one, the rest of the trekkers set out across the bridge.
As usual, Cindy waited until last.
‘Are you ready?’ I asked.
‘I guess so,’ she said.
‘I’ll be right behind you. Just look ahead and you’ll be fine.’
She stepped onto the bridge, holding each side with hands. But the wire each side was uneven and difficult to hold. The further we got across the more we could feel the wind. The bridge dips quite a lot in the middle so to begin with we were walking downhill. This made it even more difficult to keep balance. And as we got near the middle we could really feel the bridge swaying.
‘I think I’ll take a photograph,’ said Cindy, when we reached the middle of the bridge.
‘Okay,’ I said. I knew she was probably just using this as an excuse to stop walking for a moment. She took a quick photograph and then held onto the mesh with both hands as she looked upriver.
Then I heard a shout. It was Lhakpa. He was standing at the other end of the bridge and waving his arm. ‘A trekker is feeling unwell!’ he shouted.
‘We need to go now,’ I said.
‘You go,’ said Cindy. ‘I’m okay. I’ll come across in a minute.’ She was holding onto the wire so tightly that her knuckles had gone white.
‘Are you sure you will be all right?’ I asked.
‘Yes, Pemba. You go.’
I walked as fast as I dared. I didn’t want to rock the bridge. When I reached the other end I saw one of the trekkers sitting down. It was Susan, the Australian.
‘She felt a bit dizzy,’ said Lhakpa.
‘How are feeling now, Susan?’ I asked.
‘A little better, thank you,’ she said, as she sipped from a bottle of water.
‘You haven’t got a headache have you?’ I asked.
‘I don’t think it’s altitude sickness,’ I said. ‘It was probably just the bridge swaying that made you feel a bit unwell. Just have a little rest, and you will be fine.’
‘Thanks,’ she said.
I looked back across the bridge to make sure Cindy was on her way. But she hadn’t moved. She was still holding to the wire with both hands. ‘Come on, Cindy!’ I shouted.
But she didn’t even turn her head towards me.
‘She is always slowing us down,’ said Calvin.
‘She is shaking,’ said Lhakpa. ‘She must be terrified. She is frozen with fear.’
‘You stay here,’ I said. ‘I’ll go and get her.’ But just as I was about to step onto the bridge I hesitated. ‘Oh, no.’
‘What’s the problem?’ asked Lhakpa.
I pointed down the bridge. At the other end, a line of yaks had started to walk across.
‘They are the same yaks we passed in Phakding,’ said Lhakpa. ‘They were very aggressive.’
I had to get Cindy off the bridge before they reached her. They could crush her against the mesh or, even worse, force her over. She could plummet to her death. But it would be impossible to reach her in time. I did not want to startle the yaks by moving too fast towards them.
I started to walk back along the bridge.
By now Cindy had noticed the yaks. She looked even more terrified. The sound of their bells was getting louder and louder.
‘Just hold on,’ I shouted. ‘I’m coming to get you.’
She turned her head to say something, but she could not speak. Her face was etched with terror.
Meanwhile the wind was getting stronger. The bridge was swaying and vibrating.
By now the first of the yaks had reached Cindy. She closed her eyes tight and hung on. She leant against the mesh to give as much room for the animal and its load to pass.
I was getting nearer to her by the second. The line of yaks began to pass me. I kept close to the mesh and ducked to avoid the loads which were sticking out at their sides. I was now about four metres from Cindy. There were still about five of the ten yaks to pass. Then I recognized the yak which was coming to her next. It was the one which had got so agitated when we left Phakding. I knew it was the same yak because of its large load. As the yak came up to Cindy it pawed the floor of the bridge and lowered its horns.
Cindy pushed herself even more against the mesh. Then for some reason she jammed her boot into the mesh and lifted herself up. She must have been trying to keep her feet from being trampled by his hooves.
‘No, Cindy, stay where you are!’ I shouted.
But she was not listening. Both her boots were now on the mesh and she was leaning over the side. Far, far below were the rocks and swirling waters of the Dudh Koshi river.
I tried to move by the yaks as quickly as I could, pushing their loads away from me as I squeezed past.
Cindy was now leaning even further over. The horns of the yak were moving towards her. It was now or never. I dived forwards and grabbed her.
‘Get down,’ I said, as I pulled her off the mesh and down onto the floor. I threw myself onto the floor as well. We both squashed against the mesh to keep away from the hooves.
I heard the man who was walking behind shout at the yak.
The yak huffed, pawed the floor again, but then he moved on.
I sighed with relief.
There were four more yaks to go. We lay still until I saw the last of their hooves go by. Then the man walked by. He just ignored us and kept shouting at his yaks.
We both got up and dusted ourselves down.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Cindy as she sniffled and blew her nose. ‘I was so scared.’
‘Do not worry,’ I said. ‘Yaks frighten me sometimes.’
We walked up the final stretch of the bridge. It was a steep climb and Cindy was out of breath by the time we got to the end.
All the trekkers asked how we were as we stepped off the bridge. Even Susan, who now seemed a lot better.
‘We are fine,’ I said. ‘The yaks did not hurt us. Let’s just have a rest here for few minutes and have another drink of water.’
‘Don’t we need to get going?’ asked Calvin, as he looked at his watch.
‘We have plenty of time,’ said Lhakpa.
We all sat quietly for a few minutes, except for Calvin, who was pacing up and down. Then he started to cough again. I saw him put his hand in his pocket. But he brought nothing out. He stood up, patting his pockets and then coughed again.
‘Have you lost something?’ asked one of the trekkers.
‘Yeah, I’ve lost my inhaler. I must have left it the other side of the bridge. I’ll go and get it.’ But then he coughed again.
‘You need to sit down,’ I said.
‘I’m fine,’ he said. ‘I don’t really need the inhaler this second. I’m not having an asthma attack. It’s just a cough.’
‘I know, but you need to rest to get your breath back,’ I said. ‘I’ll go and get the inhaler.’ I turned to go back onto the bridge.
‘It’s all right, Pemba. I’ll go. I remember where Calvin was sitting.’
I turned round. It was Cindy. ‘But you were scared on the …’
‘I’ll go,’ she said. ‘It’s important.’ With that she took a deep breath and strode onto the bridge.
‘I’ll go with her,’ said one of the trekkers.
‘Me too,’ said one of the others.
But I held out my hand to stop them. ‘No, she wants to do this on her own,’ I said.
We watched as she walked along the bridge.
‘She was so afraid before, but now she has no fear,’ said Lhakpa.
‘She still has fear, and she is still afraid,’ I said. ‘But she is overcoming her fear.’
She approached the centre of the bridge, but she did not stop when she got there. She just carried on walking. She soon reached the other end and stepped off to find the inhaler.
‘I hope she can find it,’ said Lhakpa.
After only a few seconds she reappeared. She waved to us and then started to walk back.
It was then I noticed that the sun was shining. The clouds had cleared away and the wind was dropping.
When she reached the middle of the bridge I expected her to keep going. But she stopped. Had she lost her nerve? No, she got her camera out and was taking photographs looking up the valley. Then she put the camera away and carried on.
When she reached the end of the bridge Calvin went to meet her. She took the inhaler out of her pocket and handed it to him.
‘Thank you,’ he said, as he coughed again.
‘That’s all right,’ she said. Then I noticed that she had tears in her eyes. She wiped them away and just looked at all of us with a beaming smile. ‘Guess what I’ve just seen.’
‘What?’ said everybody.
‘Everest. I’ve just seen Mount Everest!’
Based on the character from Charlie Lupton's Sherpa Adventure