The mountain is normally approached from the west along the Hinku valley which in turn is accessible from Lukla airstrip via the 14,000 ft. Zatrwala pass. This route is not recommended unless groups have carried out a period of acclimatisation for it is relentlessly steep and the first campsite after leaving Lukla is one hour beyond the pass in the Hinku valley. A better alternative is the easier 10,400 ft. Pangkongma La, which can be reached in only a few days from Lukla or in a week from the new road head at Jiri.
In the Autumn of 1988, I organised and led an expedition of six climbers which was content to climb Mera by the north ridge, but intent on exploring a different approach from the south east. Our chosen route followed that pioneered by Bill Tilman in 1950, and it was interesting to note that the much of the useful information I found on it was contained in his book 'Nepal Himalaya'. Several advantages ensued from this approach; we encountered a variety of scenery and cultures, did not have to retrace our steps on any part of the journey in or out of base camp, and the trails were relatively quiet and unspoilt.
Our journey from Kathmandu began aboard the morning flight to Biratnagar and then continued into the mountains on a finely engineered road through the earthquake damaged towns of Dharan and Dhankuta. After a very bumpy and dusty journey which took us from sea level to over 6,000 ft, we finally arrived in the small village of Hille at dusk. We made a lengthy descent into the Arun Valley the following morning, but not before we were blessed with magnificent views of Makalu and Chamlang to the north.
For three days we then walked along the east bank of the river. Most of the time the path was broad and obvious, though occasionally we found ourselves delicately negotiating our way through paddy fields or trudging across soft sandy beaches. The local people, mainly Rais, Limbus and Chetris were very friendly and showed as much interest in us as we did in them; they curiously examined our cameras, sleeping bags and other western paraphernalia.
The heat and humidity were unbearable; expedition members frequently sought shelter under trees or in the local villages. We welcomed the cooling rains of afternoon thunderstorms, unaware that they were also depositing fresh snow on the higher passes. The bridge across the Arun was misplaced on our map by over three miles, but we finally located and crossed it near the junction of the Arun and its tributary of the Irkhua Khola.
The character of the route changed as we left the Arun valley and began the long ascent towards the Salpa Pass, crossing and re-crossing the Irkhua Khola by a series of bamboo bridges which were more picturesque than substantial. We passed through several tiny villages, tenuously linked by a path which often disappeared into the undergrowth. It was impossible to identify the pass from below as each successive turn and rise in the valley revealed yet higher and more complex enclosing ridges. The steepest rise was just above the village of Phedi, and our efforts were rewarded with marvellous views of the valleys below from sun drenched breaks in the forest.
We experienced our first sub-zero night-time temperatures at a camp in a small clearing just below the pass, and there was snow lying beside the large chorten on the pass itself at 11,400 ft. Our pleasure at crossing this key watershed made up for the disappointing views; we had hoped to get a comprehensive view of our objective, but the only peaks visible were Karyolung, 21,362 ft, and Numbur, 22,832 ft, on the west side of the main Dudh Kosi river. Below, the path descended into thick moss hung forest towards the village of Sonam and the main Hongu valley.
The villages of Gudel and Bung are located at almost equal elevations on opposite sides of the Hongu valley and the horizontal distance between them is less than two miles. However, the sight of the great cleft which divides them brings tears to a walker's eyes as he begins the frustrating and seemingly pointless vertical diversion of some 2,500 ft. There is some consolation in the striking view from the campsite perched at the top of Gudel; the whole valley stretches beneath one's feet and is crowned by a gleaming wall of ice that supports Chamlang's 24,013 ft summit. To our surprise and disappointment, Mera still remained hidden behind its many outliers.
During our descent to the new suspension bridge over the Hongu Drankha we could see the problems confronting any expedition approaching the upper Hongu basin from the south. The steep sides of the main valley are cut by many deep side valleys, and dense forests will make route finding extremely difficult. Fortunately we did not encounter this problem; the terrain above Bung was open, cultivated and, accompanied by the occasional mani wall, it was so typical of the Khumbu.
The main trail to Lukla crosses the Sukie La pass, but we left this in favour of a way along the Sukie Danda, a long ridge thickly covered in rhododendron and bamboo forest extending southward from Mera and separating the Hongu valley from its westerly neighbour the Hinku. Deep soft snow made the going much harder than we had anticipated. After two days' walking and several diversions over spurs on the west side of the main ridge, we were able to see down into the Hinku valley from beside an idyllic cluster of small lakes known as the Panch Pokhri at a height of 14,000 ft.. The snow continued to be a problem on the long steep descent to the Hinku Drangka, so we were a tired group when we arrived at a clearing in the forest which was the campsite of Mosum Kharka.
The Hinku is one of the most beautiful and unspoilt valleys of Nepal and is soon to be protected by its inclusion within the extended boundaries of the Sagarmatha National Park. In its lower reaches the valley sides are steep and covered in dense fir and rhododendron forest. Above Mosum Kharka the valley widens and the blue-green river tumbles gently down against a backdrop of elegant peaks which include Gongla, 19,072 ft, Kossum Kangurru, 20,896 ft and Tagnagtse (also known as Peak 43), 22,209 ft. The trails on both sides of the river give easy and enjoyable walking; they are linked by a tiny bridge just two miles south of Tagnag which, at 14,300 ft and with its walled grassy fields, is an ideal location for base camp.
As we walked into base camp we were relieved to detect an improvement in the weather; the stable blue skies of mid November had finally arrived and we dared to entertain thoughts of a clear summit day. Three miles to the west we could see the level glacier of the Mera La and the short tongue of ice which provided access to it.
The route beyond Tagnag to the tiny intermediate campsite of Khare at 16,000 ft was delightful; skirting the moraines of several glaciers it gave us spectacular views of Tagnagtse, whose summit rose into the sky like a cathedral spire. Above the slippery screes which formed the snout of the Mera glacier, a tiny track led upward between the side of the glacier and its retaining wall; after a short but moderate scramble we were soon able to gain safe access onto the ice. It was a joy finally to set foot on the mountain and after a further hour we had negotiated the three ascending tiers of ice and traversed the level glacier to the 17,766 ft col of the Mera La.
The entire route was visible from the col, although it was hard to appreciate the scale of the mountain and the fact that the summit was still a further four thousand feet above us. There were no technical difficulties to overcome as we plodded upwards; it was just necessary to put one foot in front of the other and avoid the obvious crevasses. However, what the route lacked in interest, the view certainly did not.
From our makeshift attack camp perched in a sheltered depression on the Mera glacier at a height of around 19,500 ft we had an uninterrupted view into the upper reaches of the Hongu valley; the shapely pink summit of Makalu attracted the eye, but was dominated by the nearer, if lower, bulk of Chamlang. The ever-present peaks of Kossum Kangurru and Tagnagtse now disappeared into a sea of gleaming white summits which were difficult to identify from this new and unfamiliar angle.
The climbing of even a modest Himalayan peak such as Mera is not without considerable risk and when illness strikes, it does so with a vengeance. After a cold, miserable and uncomfortable bivouac which saw temperatures drop to well below -20 Centigrade, two expedition members were suffering from severe chest infections and were now totally exhausted; a third, new to the Himalaya, complained of headaches and nausea clearly brought on by the altitude. Sadly, overnight, our summit team was reduced by three.
At 4am, beneath a clear star studded sky, our small group left for the summit in the company of three very experienced Sherpas. Ang Rinzing, our Sirdar, and Pemba Nurbu had both been close to reaching the summit of Everest earlier in the year, whilst the faithful and endearing Ang Nima, with whom we had climbed before, was a veteran of numerous big expeditions. The nature of the route remained unchanged as crampons bit into crisp easy-angled neve. The going became very monotonous as hour after hour ticked by, although some relief was provided by a rich colourful sunrise over Kangchenjunga.
One false summit after another came into view until finally, five hours after our group had left camp, the ground ahead began to drop away. A few awkward steps kicked into the ice above gained access to a small sloping platform which carried a row of colourful prayer flags. It was the summit, at last. The sky was cloudless and the view extensive. Everest, Kangchenjunga, Makalu, Lhotse and Cho Oyu dominated a panorama which extended in all directions; massif after massif of snow capped mountains stretched out to one horizon, a mosaic of lowland ridges and valleys to another.
Our summit success was achieved by a few but shared by all. The greatest achievement of our expedition was the companionship that had developed between members, Sherpas and porters.
We were all very sad when we paid off the porters and said goodbye to our Sherpa friends; our obvious affection for them was reciprocated in their traditional parting gift of silk scarves. We had been together as a team for over a month and had shared so many happy as well as difficult moments; old friendships had been strengthened and new ones forged.
Our friendly expedition enforced a belief that I hold about mountaineering. The objective in itself is not important; the value of any expedition is in the manner by which it achieves its objective and in the quality of the experience that members gain from it.
As one of two expedition members who suffered a serious chest infection, Ian failed to reach the summit in 1988. He returned with three other climbers in 1990, and the short piece below briefly describes his experiences in finally achieving his objective.
"I leaned out of the tent door to watch the sunset unfold its colourful spectacle on Everest and then retired to the warmth of my sleeping bag. It turned out to be a very cold night, but that was hardly surprising. I was leading a group of four climbers attempting to reach the summit of Mera, a 22,000 ft peak in the Nepal Himalaya, and we were about to make our summit bid.
I had climbed in the Himalayas before and knew well what was involved. My last visit to Mera had left me personally defeated, frustrated and dispirited and I had considered giving up Himalayan climbing all together. Fortunately, my friends in Nepal thought otherwise and encouraged me to lead another expedition. Their invitation was irresistable, and last autumn I set out again from Kathmandu more determined than ever before.
The approach march up and down the great terraced ridges of eastern Nepal was a delight and we were in excellent spirits when we established base camp at 16,000 ft in the Hinku Valley. One of the most beautiful valleys of Nepal, it is dominated by a circle of majestic peaks including our own objective.
We explored the glaciers surrounding our camp, using the time to acclimatise and to plan our ascent of the mountain. The climb was similar to many in the Alps, but the altitude and location of the mountain made it much more demanding and committing. We made good use of some settled weather and had soon climbed the lower slopes of the mountain without any problems.
Each climber was accompanied by a Sherpa. My companion was Ang Nima, a good friend with whom I had climbed several times before. Together we soon found the route through the moraines onto the crevassed glacier and from there the way was clearly visible across ever steepening snow and ice slopes towards the summit. We established a high camp beside a rocky outcrop at 19,500 ft amidst the vast sterile wastes of the glacier.
We began our summit bid at 4am the next day. The silence of the still, cold pre-dawn was punctuated only by the sound of crampons biting into the ice and of climbers gasping for breath. A spectacular sunrise was accompanied by a strong and bitterly cold wind, but our consolation was an incredible panorama of surrounding peaks.
It took three hours to reach the summit ridge. The final obstacle was a fifty foot tower of snow and ice - hardly difficult back home - but rather awkward under these conditions. Ang Nima belayed me as I kicked those final steps and we then walked together to the summit itself.
Beside the summit flags we embraced and then thumped each other on the back. In one final gesture I thrust my ice axe aloft in triumph. This was the fulfillment of a life-long ambition - I had finally reached my Himalayan summit."
This article was originally published in the magazine 'Climber' in 1989
Ian's return two years later was reported in 'Portcullis' in September 1991