A few weeks ago I met a Dutch guy in Jaisalmer, Rajisthan who was in India on a short break from his job in Katmandu. We got chatting about travel plans, as is usually the case on the backpacker circuit. He was aghast at my plans to go trekking in June:
"Man, your f**k*ng stupid to go trekking to Everest in June. Its miserable. The season is over. No-one is around. It's raining every day. There are leeches. You'll have a miserable time. You should just make your way to Varanasi slowly and go to Nepal sometime else. Much better plan"
Well Mr Dutchman. Greetings from the top of the world:
I have of course spent the last few hours in Photoshop, removing the rain drops, rain clouds, painting over a blue sky and removing the leeches . Oh and I photo-shopped out my rain coat and added a down Jacket, just to look the part of course. Not only on this photo, but everyone from the 16 days I spent in trekking. Really ;)
And so, a couple weeks later, I found myself sitting in a twelve seater Dornier Do 228 small aircraft on my way from Katmandu to Lukla, the gateway to the Khumbu. The Khumbu is a region of the Himalayas that lays host to several of the worlds highest mountains, including Everest and this was going to be my stomping ground for the next 16 days. Its main access point, Lukla airport, is small runway built by Sir Edmund Hillary in the 60's following his conquest of Everest, to shave off a mere 7 days walk to access the Khumbu. Its a truly nauseating runway, nestled at 2850m high, with only 500m of runway and angled at a staggering 12 degrees, allowing aircraft to decelerate quickly enough on landing or reach air speed on take off. I have to say that take off was the most surreal sensation. As the pilot applied full throttle the whole plane lurches forward ... and then downwards... to rapidly get up to air speed. So folks, save your Disneyland entrance fee, this is as good as any roller-coaster....
Dornier Do 228 on Take off at Lukla.
Thanks to a referral from Blake and Ali, I arranged to meet a guide in Lukla, called Bhuwan Rai. As I adjusted to the thin air of 2800m he got me breakfast and we discussed plans for the next 16 days. How about to Everest Base Camp and then across to the Goyko Valley via the Cho La pass he questioned ? "Sounds good". Having been trekking in Nepal before I knew what to expect but not of the weather. Bhuwan checked if I had a waterproof Jacket !
So off we went. Having just come from the low plains of India, I needed to acclimatize to the altitude and the next few days would be a slow ascent up to our first acclimation spot, Namche Bazaar at 3500m. Namche is a small bustling town, which, due to its location as a gateway to several valleys, is a must stop for trekkers and the regions people. Its has a weekly market (Bazaar) and is a relatively affluent place, with everything brought in on porters heads or on the back of a Yak. The porters who bring in the towns supplies, by head, are incredible chaps (and sometimes chapesses) carry humongous loads, far in excess of their body weight, usually clocking in at over 100kg. And they carry everything. Wood and stone for building, Kerosene, Rice, Beer, furniture, porcelain 'western style' toilets, trekking equipment, shop supplies, clothing ... in fact anything that Namche needs. Bhuwan told me that depending on the load, the porters can earn quite a bit, by Nepali standards, with a days carry sometime fetching up to NPR 2000 (about £16). Its impressive to watch and impossible to even try and pick up a 100kg on my head.
Porter rests on his way the way down to Namche Bazaar
As it was June, the low season, there were very few people on the trails. The visitor numbers were displayed at the entrance to the National Park; June gets about 300 visitors, while October gets around 9000 visitors. It meant for a very rewarding time, with no busy lodges, empty trails and overly friendly people. And with blue skies most days, I was lucky man. Incredible! I even managed to singe the extremities of my nose and ears, despite factor 35 suncream.
As it was the low season, work in Namche was rapidly underway to upgrade or extend a number of lodges for busy autumn seasons business. This was impressive to see as all the building work was done by hand, with brick masons and Carpenters walking in from other valleys of the region to do a few weeks work in Namche. Sitting around in Namche, all you hear is the chink, chink, chink of the brick masons cutting stone into 'brick' sizes, with a hammer and chisel. The sound is constant and its amazing to see this level of hand craft in action. Not one power tool in sight. The result is beautiful brickwork lattice, with a lovely mottled effect thanks to the texture of hand carved stone.
During my acclimatization in Namche, Bhurwan took me to visit the Buddhist Monastery in Kumjung, a couple of hours walk up a hill. Here, in the Monastery,a Yeti scalp is stored, received as a gift the monastery many years ago. I had vague recollections of seeing it on some documentary about everest and so was a little intrigued. And on seeing the scalp I was rightly intrigued; it was bizarre, with a conical head and strange straight hair, not seeming to relate to any creature I'd come across. A little later, I was able to do a little bit of research with my friend Mr Google where I found out that apparently the scalp was carted off to the states to be tested and it turns out to be the scalp of a Tibetan Blue bear. Which reminds me of a book by Reinholt Messner, a famous Himalayan mountaineer, where he puts his theory about the Yeti ... that it is actually the Himalayan Brown Bear. He's probably right, but seeing the Scalp and the explanation of the Buddhist monk in Kumjung makes for a romantic and mysterious story, just as your about to start trekking into the landscape of the legend ... the high and white slopes of the big Himalayan giants.
A few days later on our way towards Everest, we stopped in Tengboche, home to largest Buddhist Stumpa and Monastery in the region. Once an isolated monastery, its now slap bang on the way to Everest and now sees allot of foreign visitors. This I am sure this has meant a lot of changes for the life of the monks and the monastery. The village now has electricity thanks to a micro hydro powerplant just down the valley. The monks were wearing red down jackets on top of their robs, and several had the latest watches with altitude measuring gizmos. It was an elegant blend of old meets new. And yet through this, you could see the centuries old Buddhist traditions and culture were still maintained. For me, the charm really came to life at 6am when I was woken up by the loud horns and cymbals coming of the monastery, as the monks started their morning meditation. And thankfully, Tengboche is also beyond the last mobile phone relay. With it comes peace from the nearest Nokia ring tone but the downside of leaving the lovely Sarah txtless in Russia and Mongolia for a week.
Once above Tengboche, the landscape began to change dramatically. Forests disappeared with the altitude and gave way to boulder strewn grasslands, only used by the Nepalis for grazing Yak's in the summer. There were once no permanent settlements here, just summer Yak herding stations, but since the explosion of climbing and trekking in the 60's, trekkers arrived and so did high altitude lodges, open all year round. Even higher up, grass gave way to rock, moraine and ice as the snout of the Khumbu Glacier reared its head as a reminder of the towering Himalayas mountains surrounding you. The views at this point were breathtaking. Simply.
After 10 days on the trail we arrived at the highest settlement of the trip, the grouping of lodges at Gorak Shep, at 5180m. Here sleeping becomes strained, vivid dreams abound, everything becomes hard work and its cold, especially at night. However Gorak Shep is kept busy by its position at the foot of Kalar Patar, a rocky outcrop across the valley from Everest and the majority of trekkers final destination to see Everest at its finest. Its a breathless trek up to 5665m, every step revealing more of the hugh Kanchenjunga face of Everest until you are met with a clear view of Everest's summit, South Col, south summit and the Hillary Step. Its a suitable reward... a breathless glimpse at the highest point of the world. And I celebrated with a packet of sweets, carefully saved from Katmandu. I spoke with a few chaps who had been there a few weeks, who with the help of a decent set of binoculars could see a string of ant climbers slowing moving up the side of Everest towards the summit.
5665m on Kala Patar with Pumo-Ri in background.
Gorek Shep is a also the final stop-off before point to visited Everest Base Camp, which only 2-3 weeks before my visit was a bustling place, packed with the tents of several international Everest teams all vying for a change to visit the top of the world. The day I arrived it was a completely different scene ... the only trace of the tent city which existed a few weeks were flat areas in the glacial moraine created to pitch tents. These like anything else left at Everest Base Camp will be swallowed up by the moving glacier in the next few weeks. I was reminded of this as I sat in awe, listening and watching the creak, groan and then thunder of ice and snow break of the Serac's and Cliffs on the side of Everest and Lhotse in the morning sun. It was fearsome and brings home why Everest can be such a dangerous place.
On the way down from Kala Patar, we met Yuki from Japan and Mattius from Finland in Labouche. I was blown over by Mattius, who was sporting a pair of shoes that were too small for him, leaving his heels to stick out the rear. Apparently as his shoes disintegrated earlier in the walk, but luckily for Mattius, some chap too pity and gave him a new pair, albeit too small. Mattius was quite relaxed about this, with a rolling laugh, usually followed by a rather large toke from his Joint. He also walked up the wrong peak, mistaking a 6500m giant for Kala Patar. I have since been spending some time with Mattius in Katmandu. He's a good crack and knows the best steak joint in town.
On then there was Yuki, a Japanese student studying in Delhi. His story will continue in my next Blog ... Yuki Bear and the Cho La ... as Bhuwan and myself try to cross the 5360m Cho La pass into the Gokyo Valley.