In 1975 my dad’s brother, Andrew Quarmby, then an aid worker in Nepal, invited us to join him on a trip to the Himalayas. My mum and dad trained us hard, despite the lamentable lack of hills in Norfolk; the one small slope near our home became our ‘Everest’ and we walked up and down it twenty or thirty times during our fitness sessions to build stamina, rewarded with chocolate chip cookies if we didn’t moan. We saved furiously for the trip; it was the trek of the lifetime. I was only eight and my brothers were ten, eleven and twelve. At the beginning of the summer holidays we flew in Kathmandu and met Uncle Andrew and family and their great friends, Sherpas Nema and Pemba, who organised our trip for us.
Before long we were trekking twenty miles a day, in monsoon season. Leeches attacked us; our Sherpa companions would light cigarettes and touch the tip to the fat, blood-bloated leech, which would drop off. I and my brothers and cousin would take great delight in stamping on the leeches until they burst and the blood spattered everywhere! My mother was horrified at our blood-thirstiness; she let the leeches feed on her and just drop off when they were done; I think she may have been a Buddhist in another life.
The aim was for Uncle Andrew and my dad, both great walkers, to reach base camp. Every day we ate watery porridge, endless packets of Beanfeast which we had brought with us and sometimes the Sherpas would kill a scrawny chicken along the way. (I shall never forget the sight of a headless chicken, still running around in the dusty road, after its head had been sliced off with a sharp knife.)
We learned to respect the Buddhist gompas we visited on the way, passing them on their left, as ritual dictated, and got used to seeing prayer flags flutter in the air. Sometimes the Sherpas, who carried much of our baggage, would carry me and my younger cousin, Sarah, across fast-flowing rivers. They were kindly to us; taught us how to play games with stones and how to count up to 14 in Nepalese. I still can; I learned, to my surprise, when I was interviewing some Romani families up at Appleby Horse fair last year, that Romani numerals are almost exactly the same in pronunciation.
We were walking in the trail of Chris Bonington, the great British climber who was attempting to scale the south-west face of Everest that same year. His team were, of course, far better equipped than our family one. They had cheese, unlike us (my starving middle brother would hang around their camp sometimes until someone would take pity and feed him) – and Spangles. The wrappers ended up on the trail. We would follow on, in his wake, and my mouth would water, as I remembered the fizzy taste of Spangles, and how much I loved them, as I saw the wrappers stretching out in front of us. But the wrappers were always empty.
His team were better paid too and had lighter loads too. One day our Sherpa team (to the great embarrassment of Nema and Pemba) went on strike and demanded the same wages as the Bonington team. Perhaps they fancied the Spangles as well; I couldn’t blame them!
Eventually it was resolved and we made it to the beautiful villages not far from base camp, Kunde and Kumjung. For the children and mothers, that was the end of our trip. I and cousin Sarah made friends with the kids at the local hospital, and we collected treasures we found lying around – old bits of medical film, bandages, old scraps of anything we could play with. We played for hours in the thin, clean mountain air. Only one thing bothered me – having to drink Nepalese tea, flavoured with ghee. I never got used to it, legendary as it is for its health-giving qualities.
My father and Andrew trekked on with a few Sherpa companions. They got within sight of base camp, but then Andrew felt his recurrent malaria coming back. With no access to drugs in such an isolated place and at that high altitude, they had to turn back. Neither of them ever made it back to Everest. Years later Andrew, by then campaigning to raise awareness of Aids in southern Africa and of the need for land redistribution, died in a suspicious car accident in Namibia.
We returned to Kathmandu and took a tearful farewell from our friends, our Sherpa guides and friends. Hearing about the altercation at Everest reminded me of our own time in the shadow of the great mountain, in happier times when few Westerners were privileged to visit the Himalayas. Perhaps, in these days of so many organised expeditions, with so much money to be made on both sides, something real in the human relationship between the local people and the Westerners who come to visit has been lost.