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.

Namche, Kati Tha Dhat Cha? (How Far is it To Namche?)

May 11, 2017 – 3:00PM

Namche Bazaar, 3440 m

Today is our first rest day of the trek.  Or rather, we’ll call it our first “acclimatization” day of the trek, because we still wandered around a whole bunch and the trip planning books build in extra days to help adjust to the elevation. We’re in Namche Bazaar, the closest place to a city that the Khumbu valley has to offer, and it is bustling with trekkers and climbers all coming and going.  It is fantastic to be here.

It’s taken us a full seven days of walking to get this far, but the experience to date has been incredible.

The topography of Nepal is such that many of the valleys drain the glaciers of the high Himalayan peaks in the north, along the Nepal-Tibet border, and flow into the plains towards the Indian border in the south of the country.  The route from Shivalaya just about all the way to Lukla conveniently runs from west to east, meaning that for six out of seven days it has been straight down one side of the valley, and straight up the other.  I’ve already lost track of how many vertical metres we’ve climbed (it’s a lot), but there have been at least a few days where 1000 m of climbing is the norm. Throw in a steady flow of oncoming donkey trains hauling materials from village to village (as well as their seemingly incessant stream of delightful droppings) and its been a nice way to get our hiking boots dirty and our legs in trekking shape.

The benefits of all the up and down (if you can imagine any) are actually many:  the trail has been relatively deserted of other trekkers; the villages, though often still under re-construction following the earthquake, are authentic; and our experiences with the local lodge owners have been friendly and personal.  Add to that the fact that we followed along the same route used by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary during their first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953, and we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves.

Although the trail from Shivalaya wasn’t busy, we weren’t the only trekkers to be spotted.  There were at least three others, and they were usually either right in front, between, or behind us. We met them on our third night in Sete: another Canadian couple from Toronto and moving to Vancouver in July (Scott and Elliot) and a German guy (Laurin).  The five of us have teamed up and been trekking together for the last few days, which has been really nice.  We’re all planning to do the Three Passes trek, so we’ll see how long we stick together.

The walking itself has been straightforward and pleasant, and the locals have been more than happy to show us the way when needed. Big mountain views have been few, thanks in part to the mostly cloudy weather, but we did have our first views of Everest the other morning in the village of Phurteng:  it was the tiny-looking peak way back on the horizon that we probably wouldn’t have noticed if the goat-cheese-selling lodge owner hadn’t pointed it out and if we didn’t have binoculars in my pack.  But the cold smoke blowing off the summit was distinct! And it still brought a little mist to my eyes after dreaming about the trek for so long.

Aside from that we have mostly followed along steep trails on the hillsides and enjoyed many amazing views that the foothills have had to offer: the Dudh Khosi, monasteries and stupas, crazy suspension bridges crossing streams and rivers, terraced vegetable fields, and how could I forget the wonderful rhododendron forests (I’m told that we may have just missed the peak blooming season).

The day before yesterday we merged into the main Everest Base Camp trail, just north of Lukla, and there was an obvious increase in pedestrian traffic.  Our five days of walking prior to that really started to shine, however, as we skipped past many trekkers who had just gotten off the plane in Lukla and were still finding their legs and adjusting to the elevation which approached 3000 m.  The most impressive of all on the trail, though, have been the famous Nepali porters who will carry just about anything to where it needs to go.  Yesterday we saw a guy carrying no less than 15 cases of beer, stacked neatly in and above his wicker basket and balanced perfectly on his back, and our lodge owner in Phakding told us that some of them can carry up to 100 kg of materials.  Crazy!

When we haven’t been on the trail, there has been plenty of time to unwind at the lodges, and read, study the map, or make conversation with our hosts. I picked up a pocket-sized Nepali phrase book before leaving Kathmandu and have been studying most nights and blabbering incomprehensible one line phrases to any Nepali who will listen. In Junbesi the other night an 8 year old boy corrected my Nepali pronunciation while I interrupted him doing his homework and asked him if he likes to play sports.  I would consider that my vocabulary level has reached that of an advanced three year old Nepali child and I’ve mastered how to say “I don’t understand” every time someone responds to my one liners.  There have been many laughs and the local folks really seem to appreciate the effort.

Today we did an easy half day tour through some of the villages near Namche and climbed to over 3800 m to see what the air tastes like (a little thinner than what we are used to in Vancouver).  We are starting to feel like we’re getting into the big mountains now.  The weather was somewhat clear this morning and there were great views of Lhotse, Ama Dablam, Nuptse, and the odd glimpse of Everest when she felt like poking her head through the clouds.  The scale of things is enormous and it is a little hard to believe that our high point for the trek is still over 2000 m higher than where we are sitting now.  From Namche we will continue along the main Everest Base Camp trail for a few more days before branching off to the northeast towards the village of Chhukung.  From Chhukung we will attempt the first and highest of the three passes (Kongma La, 5535 m), before re-joining the main track and heading up to Everest Base Camp itself.  I can’t wait, and it all starts tomorrow.