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Return from the realm of the gods

Pumori floating

On the return walk from Everest Base Camp to Gorak Shep, I came to the conclusion that I had done my dash and that it was time to descend, rather than attempting the Cho La pass or even descending and ascending again to get to Gokyo. My body was sending signals of fatigue and it didn’t feel right to continue.  Instead, Ram and I agreed to take our time descending back to Lukla; we would ascend Kala Pattar first to reach the high point of the trip, then descend over 1,300 meters in one day via Pheriche to Pangboche, followed by a stay in the sherpa village of Khumjung, back to Namche, then Phakding and, if possible, flying out a day early from Lukla to Kathmandu. With the decision lifted off my shoulders, I felt a lightness returning.

Dawn on Kala PattarDespite a cloudy start to the day, the skies cleared as we walked out of Gorak Shep offering an uninterrupted look back to this stunning place. During the descent to Lobuche we watched rescue helicopters fly in and out of Gorak Shep. I counted a total of eight helicopters flying in and out for medics. Not a good day.

Our walk posed no problems, moving from sublime sunshine, through windy fluvial valleys, to fog-shrouded mountain trails, before arriving in a state of exhaustion at our accommodation for the night. Hot chocolate and dinner were a welcome treat, as was my sleeping bag.

Leaving Gorak Shep and the end of the worldThe next morning the external fog was gone, but an internal fog had taken over: a sore throat and the onset of flu. If we had persisted with the Cho La plan, this would have been the day of the pass crossing. I clearly made the right decision as I would not have had the strength to do the crossing in this physical state. As it was, the day was hard enough for me with uphills and downhills to Khumjung, followed by an uncomfortable night due to breathing difficulties.

The village of Khumjung itself was a delight; a quiet Sherpa community where people went about their daily lives without too much disturbance from tourists. A neat and tidy village, most of its inhabitants were busy harvesting potatoes when we arrived. Early the next morning I was woken by the sound of drums, cymbals and horns from the nearby monastery; a procession heading off into the hills to perform last rites. With the monks and caretaker away, it meant that I was not able to see what the monastery is known for: the head of a yeti.

KhumjungThe short walk from Khumjung to Namche was mainly a steep downhill walk in gorgeous sunshine. Near the Hillary School in Khumjung a very long mani wall stretches along the path and from there we climbed to a bucolic pasture with cows, flowers and beautiful views of the surrounding mountains before commencing the at times dizzying descent to Namche. An early arrival at the tea house meant I had plenty of time to give my body a rest.

Don't get in the yak's pathWe covered the final descent from Namche to Lukla in two days and what struck me most on the way down was the odd assortment of trekkers that were coming up the trail. Several walkers had boom boxes in the side pockets of their backpacks, loudly playing their particular taste in music. Apart from the need to charge these devices at every tea house (or carry a large supply of batteries), the concept of forcing everyone around you to listen to your favourite music seems very selfish to me, when you have the option to use a pair of ear phones. And heaven forbid one should not list to music at all, but to the sounds around you!

The other technology increasingly visible are drones. As we descended from Namche to the Hillary Bridge, we spotted a young trekker who had his small and delicate drone laid out right on the trail, ready for a sturdy hiking boot to step onto it. I suggested to him he should move it off the trail as there was a yak train headed for the bridge not far behind us. He looked at me dumbfounded and I had to repeat my advice to him several times before he moved it off the trail with visible reluctance. Thirty seconds later the yaks thundered past; his drone would have been in smithereens if he had not moved it. And in case you wonder, no, he did not thank me.

Yak train on the Hillary bridgeIn our last few days, the amount of people coming up the trail grew steadily. We watched large groups of Chinese and scores of young backpackers as they commenced the trek, chattering away how it looked just like the movie. And then it hit me: I realised that this was the flow on effect of last year’s movie release of Everest, resulting in this increase of tourism. The increase in tourism is a positive for Nepal, particularly after the earthquake, but not everything associated with that increase is positive. Unfortunately, it is also resulting in culturally inappropriately dressed tourists. With tonnes of websites providing clear information on what is culturally appropriate to wear in Nepal, it was surprising to see the amount of deep cut and sleeveless tops on women, tight leggings with net cutouts and minuscule shorts.  I’m certainly no prude, but as a visitor in a country you show respect to that country’s culture. The Nepali people are far too polite to say anything to you directly,  but don’t be surprised if they laugh at your sartorial faux-pas with their compatriots. Do your research!

We did manage to catch an earlier flight out of Lukla and while I looked forward to warm showers and comfortable beds, the return seemed almost too fast, reminding me of the sadness I used to feel as a child returning from holidays, when I would watch the scenery outside the train gradually but inevitable change to the familiar scenes of home. And I don’t think I will every lose that feeling at the end of a holiday; the despair of not being “away” anymore.

Khumbu Icefall and Glacier

 

 

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In the cloud mountains

Cloud formations

Admittedly your correspondent has been less than dutiful in the last few months, after making all kind of promises to write blog posts from the trail. So much for that. Wifi was not as ubiquitous in the mountains as I was led to believe, but I was also quite happy to be disconnected from the world for a while. Then on the way down, the flu struck and I had to spend all my energy on getting back and getting home. Back home, other pressures called and then more than a month has gone by without any blog posts on Nepal. Time to remedy that.

I left you all on a literal cliff hanger in the sherpa village of Namche Bazaar. It’s perched on the mountain in a clear horseshoe shape. Steep steps inside the village are a dominant feature and at 3,500 meters it’s the first bit of significant altitude you hit on the trail. Most trekkers spend a day here to acclimatise, slightly breathless. It’s also the last stop for some serious stocking up on gear, but in between the gear shops you also find things like the Namche Bakery and I’ll confess I was very happy to grab a bag of peanut cookies for sustenance up the trail.

Namche from above, followed by a very steep descent

Essentially the trail involves walking from Namche to Tengboche, first on a traversing trail, then descending and ascending steeply, passing through a place called Punkhi Thenghi where prayer wheels spin with the force of river water. From Tengboche it leads via Pangboche to Dingboche (don’t ask me what “boche” means, but there sure is a pattern here), where another acclimatisation day is spent. Then the trail climbs up to  Lobuche, where the number of teahouses and facilities is ever diminishing, and the final day involves walking through bits of glacier moraine to Gorak Shep, where you arrive on the roof of the world, which feels oddly like the end of the world. There usually is an afternoon walk to Everest Base Camp, followed by a climb in darkness up Kala Pattar the next morning for dawn views before commencing the descent back to lower altitudes.

Weaving

The day we left Namche, the clouds cleared to make for a beautiful day of walking. The ascent to Tengboche was harder than expected, but we arrived perfectly timed to visit the inside of the monastery, which is something I didn’t manage to do 12 years ago. In Tengboche I also started to connect with some people who would turn up in the same teahouses: a couple from Germany and young Bre from Colorado.

Second view of Everst

The next morning offered photographic opportunities around dawn. The mountains were hidden in clouds, but gradually they swirled around, up and down, and revealed ever changing views. Everest became visible and Khumbila, the sacred mountain, was bathed in golden light. Just after Pangboche, in Shomare, we stopped for lunch. I got into a conversation with a Brazilian couple who were descending from Gorak Shep, all the way to Namche. Soon the German couple arrived too, as well as the guys from Bangladesh and the couple from Austria. I love this mini United Nations feel that a trek can bring, everyone cherishing the same goal of reaching the roof of the world and encouraging each other.

Arriving at Pangboche

Our arrival in Dingboche in the rain, was followed by another acclimatisation day , which was used to hike up a steep hill behind the lodge. With clouds being the dominant feature again, we ascended until stage 2 and bailed on the last uphill. Back at the lodge we met Adam, from the UK, who also turned up in the same tea houses.

On the way to Lobuche the next day, we reached a river crossing where a ramshackle plywood bridge was the means of crossing. I felt distinctly uncomfortable, which was echoed by all the porters I saw rushing over the bridge and away from the riverbed as fast as they could, regardless of the heavy load they carried. I followed their lead and got through it as fast as I could. Once out of river bed I found out there was a dead horse in the river; must have fallen off that bridge.

Climbing through Thugla pass we reached an eerie place, with memorial cairns erected for all those who died on Everest. A moving place, but sadly there were too many people who saw it as an opportunity to take selfies next to memorials, which I felt was quite disrespectful.

Suffering on Dughla Pass

Once we arrived at Lobuche, the first signs of fatigue and an altitude headache made an appearance and more bad news was to follow. Intel on our proposed itinerary over the Cho La pass wasn’t good. It appeared the pass crossing wasn’t feasible at this point in time and that we should consider alternative routes to Gokyo. Tough decisions would have to be made soon.

The final ascent led through glacier moraine and led into an extraordinary  place that felt like the end of the world. We reached Gorak Shep the next day by 10am and after an early lunch walked out to Everest Base Camp, which took almost two hours. There I sat contemplating the Khumbu Icefall, wondering about the people who decide to climb Everest and take the associated risks. With all the effort that went into getting here, I can barely imagine how much more fitness, energy and determination it requires to go all the way to the top.

Kala Pattar under Pumori

 

A steep walk in the hills

The morning sky promises a beautiful day and before too long the sun is making it quite hot for walking.
We’ve started out at 7:45 from the tea house and are making steady progress. So steady that we arrive at our lunch spot at 10:30. Technically a bit early for lunch, but with no more tea houses between here and Namche, there is little choice, but to tuck into some food.

After an hour we get going again and not long after the hard work starts. First there is a steep climb up to the swing bridge that crosses the Dudh Kosi, and then there is the endless climb up to Namche itself. The switchbacks don’t seem to stop and the steps are steep, but persevering and resting at regular intervals, we get to the top of the hill and from there we can walk more easily into Namche itself.

Namche still looks as beautiful as ever and is also showing signs of new constructions. Our tea house, The Nest, is not far from entering into Namche and it is great to arrive and sit down for a cup of tea.

Stage 2 done.