It’s All Downhill From Here

May 24th, 2017

Namche Bazaar, 3440 m

We are back in Namche.  Same lodge.  Even same bedroom, for that matter.  The only difference is that it’s 12 days after the first time we were here and in the meantime we have trekked 100 or so kilometres, climbed to over 5000 m half a dozen times (including all three passes we set out to cross), have seen some amazing views of four of the six highest mountains in the world (Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, and Cho Oyu), and eaten about 30 pounds of dahl bhat.  None of that is exaggerated.

Considering everything that we’ve accomplished, it feels like a lot longer than 12 days since we headed up from Namche in a counter-clockwise loop from east to west.  When we came around the last corner of the trail today to overlook that natural amphitheatre that Namche sits in, there was a great feeling of achievement for both us, and all of the experiences of nearly the last two weeks flashed through my head.

Before setting off, I was optimistic that we’d be able to accomplish everything we set out to do on our trek, but you never really know what can happen until you head out and do it.  Above 3000 m, altitude sickness can stop even the fittest trekkers in their tracks if proper measures aren’t taken to acclimatize properly, and I imagine it can’t be that difficult to roll an ankle while staring off at the views in any direction that you choose.  So there were certainly some things to be mindful of. We took our time, built in extra days to acclimatize and see some lesser visited parts of the region, and enjoyed every minute.

In addition to our experience under the shadow of Everest, there were just a couple other highlights along the way:

Everyone calls it the Everest Base Camp trek, because that’s the ultimate end point, but the reality is it should be called the Ama Dablam trek.  Ama Dablam, which at just over 6800 m is a dwarf of a mountain compared to Everest, is always watching you once you get above Namche.  But it is a beautiful, aesthetic mountain with a distinct, rounded yet steep summit ridge, and broad shoulders on its southwest and southeast flanks. It was there to our right when we walked from Pangboche to Dingboche; it’s massive north face was there when we looked south down the valley from Chhukung; it was there to our left when we climbed towards Kongma La and behind us when we climbed over Cho La, and it was there to the southeast, punching through the clouds, when we watched the sunset on the roof of the world.  We even took the opportunity to visit the mountain’s base camp on one of our acclimatization days. Although the fall is the most popular time to climb Ama Dablam, there were a few expeditions set up at base camp.  We had a chance to talk with a pair of climbers from New Zealand/Australia (Gavin and Damien), who where planning their summit bid for the days ahead.  It was fascinating to listen to their experience and nice of them to spend time chatting with us.

Each of the three passes were unique, rewarding, and offered incredible views. They offered wonderful opportunities to get off the “Everest Highway” as at times we would walk for hours without talking to another trekker.  And to top it all off, we were fortunate to have perfect weather conditions for each of the crossings.

The first of the three, Kongma La, was the highest (5535 m) and perhaps most physically demanding.  The ascent started from Chhukung, at the first light of the day, amidst a thick bank of clouds.  Eventually we climbed out of the clouds and into the  blue sky, up several steep sections (including a bit of a scramble the last 50 or so metres), and arrived at the pass to be welcomed by incredible views of Lhotse, Nupste, Makalu, and the Imla Cho valley. Despite the high elevation, I at times felt like I was bouncing up the trail, out of pure excitement and adrenaline as I enjoyed all of the views and got nearer to Everest.  And, I think, it was a great feeling of accomplishment for Kim who definitely pushed her limits to get there.  The physical toll was obvious when we both promptly fell asleep after lunch in Lobuche.

From Dzonghla we climbed over Cho La and down into the Gokyo valley.  The second pass was slightly lower than the first, and perhaps less tiring as well.  By then we were certainly acclimatized to the elevation and moving well through the mountains.  There was short section crossing some snow up to the pass, and the descent was a little treacherous along steep rocky sections filled in with ice.  Fortunately we avoided any wipeouts.  The last stretch in Gokyo was highlighted by a crossing of the Ngozumba glacier, the majority of which was moraine, but included some groaning sections of ice that needed to be crossed quickly.

It was all downhill from Renjo La, the lowest of the three passes at about 5360 m.  Unexpectedly, Renjo La offered us perhaps our best views of the whole trip as we arrived at the pass under crystal clear conditions.  Everest was in perfect view, as well as other giants of the Himalayas.  And the village of Gokyo, nestled in the valley next to the Third Lake, looked incredible beside the teal-colored water. We spent almost two hours at the pass, enjoying the sunshine and admiring the views.  When it finally was time to head down the back side, I had a hard time pulling myself away and saying goodbye.

The spectacular scenery was made even more enjoyable by all of the friendly Sherpa people that we met along the way.  At many of the lodges, especially on the early stages of the trek, we were the only trekkers spending the night and so were offered a very unique and personal experience:  the father and daughter in Sete who invited us to join them for dinner in their dining room (which also served as their bedroom, living room, and kitchen); the kids in Junbesi who corrected by Nepali pronunciation; the couple in Pangboche who gave us a tour of the local monastery and showed us pictures of their sons on the summit of Everest; or the kid in Lumde who asked us to go inside when he herded the family yaks into the yard at the end of the day (he didn’t want us to get run into)!  The local people were a wonderful part of the experience, and it’s no coincidence were are back at the same lodge in Namche: when we arrived earlier today the owner had a big smile on her face when we walked in the door, and was excited to hear how our trek had been.

Tomorrow is a down day in Namche, as our flight out of Lukla isn’t for another couple days.  It will be nice to spend one last day high up in the Himalayas and see a few of the sights that we skipped on the way up.  From here, it will be a long but doable day down to Lukla which, after a short flight back to Kathmandu, will mark the end of this incredible experience.