Everest and the 3 Passes and a bit more
After the success of our previous year’s exploits up Kilimanjaro, another high altitude mountain trip was called for. Initially at least I had to quell Tarryn’s desires to summit an 8000m peak, pointing out what I considered the fairly obvious ‘danger of death’ that no doubt would have had various mothers having kittens. Climbing Kilimanjaro with a set of porters practically carrying us up, would not really equate to strolling up a Himalayan peak on our own across glaciers, crevasses and like. And of course the considerable expense (I do have Scottish genes in me).
Fortunately for me at some point Tarryn must have watched a real Himalayan climbing documentary (the one on death on K2), rather than Vertical Limit, and realised that yes it would be a bit extreme. So we settled for an exploratory trek of the Kanchenjunga region which seemed like it would be an epic 25 day trek slightly off the beaten track.
Early preparations consisted of trawling the net for a sparse few blogs of people doing it solo (our preferred method) and comparing prices of organised treks all of which seemed horrifically expensive. I was definitely of the mind that just pitching up in Kathmandu and organising there would be the way to go, but as time to book flights approached we also realised that the time we could get off just wouldn’t quite fit the trek + having enough days leeway for the slightly awkward flight+bus combo to get to the start and/or in case things went wrong.
And at the same time we’d been reading a number of trekking guides and felt the obvious allure of the Everest region. After all if you do one trek in the Himalayas it should be Everest, right? (I’d point out that 17 years earlier I had actually been in Nepal and done the Annapurna Base Camp trek in the monsoon – memory’s of endless steps, sleeping rough on straw in a grain mill and being woken up by a disgruntled local, and leeches. Leeches everywhere. Being chased and stung by mad hornets and basically running up and down, 5 days, being oblivious to altitude sickness. Fun fun.) Plus, and let’s be serious here – were we really experienced enough in mountain craft to attempt an unsupported 25 day hike into Kanchenjunga. Maybe, but maybe not. On reading the Everest trek it seemed that heading up to Kala Pattar we could throw in a couple of minor peaks and also do the 3 passes which by all accounts were pretty spectacular. This plan also had the added advantage of keeping various mums happy.
So with the new plan in place I was even more sure that there was nothing to plan until we actually got to Kathmandu, and for the most part that was about right.
Flight out on a cheapo flight via Muscat went fine, arrival late in Kathmandu. First realisation – we were staying 31 days (miscalculation on my part): a 30 day visa $40, a 90 day visa $100. Obviously we plumped for the 30 day visa, and it transpired that we didn’t need an extension: we managed to confirm that Nepalese immigration will give you a day’s grace!
Next get to Thamel and a mid-cheap hotel. Slightly grotty but, tired, wasn’t caring that much. Started to care a bit more the next morning, when a) i could see the grot a bit clearer, b) the manager had tried to sell me a trek for the 5th time and was really ticking me off. So we upped and left. Next night the room was nicer, but we contrived to be right opposite a night club, and of course there were the obligatory dogs howling most of the night. Anyway let’s not turn this blog into an anti-Thamel rant. I will say that on the way back from the trek we stayed at Boudhanath which is a million times nicer than staying in Thamel. But being in Thamel is handy to get things organised, so there we were. Slightly hazy memory of how things had been 17 years earlier. I remember yak jumpers, and gurkha army knives (bought one of each, no idea what happened to yak jumper but my knife was stolen in a burglary the next year), but these seemed to have been mainly replaced by other tat. And the traffic had increase 10-fold. However, the restaurant choices were pretty fantastic way better than the veggie lasagne I remember as being the highlight all those years before (on a rooftop with old Edinburgh uni friend Gary Connor who i bumped into by complete chance if he happens to be reading).
Well we got maps, we got food and toiletries (avoid chinese toilet paper), we got a flight to Lukla. Not much haggling on the latter alas $160 each way tourist price. But the manager at Trek Nepal Int’l seemed pretty knowledgable and trustworthy (until I realised he’d charged me for a solo TIMs card but given me a group TIMs card netting him 2x$10). Plus he gave us a nice cup of tea and one of those red hindu blessings on our foreheads. Next we got hiking shorts for Tarryn which involved trekking around almost every outdoor shop in Thamel.
The flight would be the very next day, so we didn’t venture out too far that evening – taking in a nice momo restaurant across the road from the hotel. Try the steamed then half fried variety.
Next morning we bagged a taxi back to the airport (notably cheaper than the set fare from the airport), raced perilously through traffic, over stinking rivers, passed Pashpatinath’s dreary fairground, alongside a fenced off golf course, and finally to the domestic terminal. Fearing we were a bit late we legged it from taxi stand, through a conveniently placed building site into the departure hall, only to be met by chaos. Where was our check in? Barge through hoards of backpacks and tourists to the one that said Simrik. Hang on why is there no one there? Hang on, everyone looks really pissed off. Ah, Yeti Air have a sign saying flights delayed. Ok we wait.
We waited a long time, idly amusing ourselves by avoiding the blood dripping from a meat bag, weighing ourselves on the baggage scales, determining which other pissed off looking tourist would be the least enjoyable to be in a trekking group with. Eventually the signs were changed, the flights were going. Early morning clouds had lifted. There was a mad scrum for the check-in. More important looking Nepali people were getting their bags seen to by people who looked like they just happened to be passing by and had never seen a check-in stand in their life. Some tourists were proactive and getting nowhere, some were more laid back and getting nowhere. A few had guides who were important enough, but some seemed to have guides who were equally unimportant as us. In the end we ascertained we were 3rd flight and would have to wait.
We waited some more. The second flight-load of people left (looking somewhat smug) and were allowed through to the departure gate. Now we were looking slightly fewer in number. More waiting ensued. Then the news we feared, the flights were actually not going to go. Definitely not the 3rd flight (slight chuckle as if the 3rd flight people should know their flight never goes). In fact the 2nd flight didn’t go. And the first flight never managed to land at Lukla. So no-one made it that day (not even the Yeti Airlines people). Fortunately I was pretty much first in queue to get the holy stamp of not-going-ness on my ticket which meant a full refund or change of day (obviously the latter would be our choice). Here we were very happy to have the english speaking services of Trek Nepal Int’l and a quick phone call ascertained that if we went back to their office they’d endeavour to get us on the flight the next day.
So back to Thamel.
Panic set in slightly as we considered the likelihood of flights leaving the next day. Suddenly it didn’t look like we had so much margin to do the trek we wanted, especially if there was going to be delays on the return flight. However, committing to a long bus journey and a walk in from Jiri was also going to cost us 4 or 5 extra days which again would put paid to our 3 passes plan. So on balance we decided best to try for the next day, this time on the 2nd flight!
With that arranged and a third successive different hotel in Thamel, we had a hectic afternoon wandering around Durbar square in the presence of two young touts, who finally we managed to get rid of by buying a (very expensive even by western standards) back of rice. We avoided buying a Thanka from the Thanka school they claimed to be attending. The Thankas were quite nice though.
That evening there was a huge dust storm swept in to the city, and made the air even more unpleasant than normal.
Next morning we were up even earlier, and as pre-arranged shared a taxi with the owner of Nepal Trek Int’l who by pure chance was getting the same flight with us to go pay a visit to his new lodge just north of Lukla – the Snowman Lodge in Phakding. This time the whole airport experience was a lot more enjoyable, partly I suspect due to our companion who seemed to be one of the aforementioned VIPs (this seemed to be achieved by the fairly conspicuous tipping of various people during check in). I wasn’t complaining as our bags were taken first, and that despite my bag in particular being over the 10kg allowance (incidentally mine was about 16kg tent and all but excluding water and Tarryn’s somewhere around 12 – I wouldn’t recommend hiking with much more, but our friend Rudi’s, who you’ll meet later in this story, was a whopping 27kg). Through in the gate area we even ended up speaking to an eminent Nepalese TV lawyer personality. There were a few anxious moments again as we waited for what seemed an eternity, but eventually we were shuttled out to our plane, which seemed impressively tarted up (Simrik is a recent company, but we since found out they only have one plane for this route, so perhaps not the best choice). On board I bagged a seat at the front directly behind the co-pilot, and after receiving a pre-launch boiled sweet from the flight attendant, we were off.
The flight was a real thrill – majestic mountains on the left dropping down to terraced hills below – how many generations of human toil and endeavour to build? Probably a first glimpse of Everest, but if not we undoubtedly saw some 8000m peaks between light clouds that had begun to gather. The plane seemed to skirt incredibly close to the tops of the foothills until finally we were surrounded by high peaks and there seemed nowhere to go. At this point, suddenly the plane dipped sharply and there in the distance out the front we could see the tiny runway at Lukla, perched half way up and dwarfed by the opposite mountainside.
Day 1: Lukla – Phakding
On arrival we were ardently whistled at till we cleared the landing tarmac. We collected our bags and hurried past the bustle of porters/guides looking for clients and out the airport gates. There was a feeling of excitement – this was the start of our trek. 24 days or so lay ahead of us.
Without further ado we followed our unexpected guide (Trek Nepal Int’l owner) past numerous theme pubs (including a scottish one) to his friends hotel in Lukla where we had a cup of tea and handed over our return travel reservations (as apparently its necessary to have someone on the ground there to deal with issues). Of course we knew this would mean that we would have to stay there on the last night, but it was actually a pretty nice set up and they did good porridge and momos. Our guide owner said goodbye (with promises that we’d seem him later at his lodge) and we pondered the start of our trek some more. No time like the present so we upped and left, first signing on with the officials (cue lie about guide waiting for us in Namche) then through the colourful portico, with a quick spin of a few prayer wheels.
Our packs didn’t seem too bad as we strolled gently downhill, and it was with some surprise that we seemed to be pretty much alone on the path at least for the first part of the day as most of the people on the same flight had obviously got going a lot quicker than us. It later transpired that we had actually been on the last flight to land that day on account of rising winds – so this explained why we weren’t getting caught by any other groups from behind.
Well I won’t bore the reader with a minute by minute description of the trek (not that I can remember in any case). I do remember some rather dramatic mani stones (i suspect freshly painted just for the tourists), a number of stupas adorned with prayer flags, and a growing ache in my left shoulder from the pack that was setting alarm bells ringing in my mind about the whole trek.
Even though it was only a really a half day hike we were both pretty relieved to get to Phakding and locate the Snowman lodge where we had promised to stay. It was my first experience of a modern trekking lodge (as previous trip 20 years early all accommodation had been decidedly rustic – vague memory of sleeping all together in one smoky room under a big blanket). Yes things had certainly moved on. This lodge had a lovely bright lounge area with TV, wi-fi (not free) and an iron stove fireplace. I could have lived without the former two, but as it turned that evening was absolutely freezing so it was very nice to warm feet around the stove. We also experienced our first taste of a large trekking group, loudly monopolising the lounge, and some obvious tension between certain members with rather grating personalities. It turned out they were at the end of their trek – we overheard that for a couple of days they’d been hiking through blizzards. The rooms were absolutely baltic, and very minimal – a couple of hard beds and plywood walls, the first test of our 4 season sleeping bags (well actually mine is more like 3.5 season). You can’t beat the feeling of actually being nice and snuggly in a sleeping bag, when all around you is icing over. Does make it harder getting up in the morning though!
Day 2: Phakding – Namche
The next day started off in real luxury, an Illy coffee – I have to ask, was this going to be a pamper tour? I had to nip such thoughts out of our heads soon, or we’d be stopping at every cafe from there to Everest (knowing Tarryn as I do). Onwards and upwards we trekked, initially over our first suspension bridge (first of many that day) at a fairly shallow gradient following the river, past small villages with barely a soul about, cheery high-fiving school kids, and lots of cultivation – salads and cabbages in the main. As the day wore on the inclines seemed to get steeper, frequently staircased, till we crested to the Sagarmartha park entrance at a dramatic cleft in the mountain, just after lunch. Somewhere shortly after we picked up three companions for the journey up to Namche, the first a chinese trekker who seemed in an incredible hurry as she was supposed to meet a friend in Namche. She’d caught us up, having hiked in from Lukla that day. I told her to slow it down, but she pushed on at speed only for us to re-overtake her another mile up the road. She had obviously started to hit the wall and was suffering from altitude. She grimly kept up with us for another mile as for the first time we followed right alongside the roaring river, as it cascaded over huge boulders. The second a pair of slightly mangy dogs that just wouldn’t leave my side. It seemed that one of the them had taken a real shine to me (or possibly my smelly boots) and was defending its ‘turf’ from the other one. That was all well and good, but when it took a nip at Tarryn’s calves as she approached close to me, we decided enough was enough and desperately tried to shoo them away (cue checking calve for broken skin, but thankfully not). That was easier said than done, and it was several miles later, and after much stopping, starting, and hiding on the slope that we finally got them to follow someone else. Several days later I swear I saw the same dog loitering in Namche.
By this time, up above us we could see the incredible sight of a double suspension bridge crossing an impending gorge. At first it seemed that this was an infernal double crossing in order to ascend our side of the mountain but as we approached (steeply) it transpired that the two bridges were simply alternative routes up the same path, presumably used as a one-way system (one bridge for up and one for down) in the peak season. The wind was channelling through the gorge as we crossed the upper bridge making for a slightly hairy crossing, despite the obvious modern construction. Strings of prayer flags adorning the bridge were flapping almost to breaking point, quite a spectacle, and some 100m+ below the river raged, clearly visible through the bridge slats.
On the other side, the climb continued relentlessly (600m vertical if memory serves me). Our pace dropped, and bags appeared to get heavier and heavier. Tarryn was struggling with her pack, or just her willpower, to keep going. Finally we passed the security post that marked a levelling in the path and within another couple of turns we were in the outskirts of the town which drapes majestically down a steep bowl in the mountainside, opposite the equally majestic 6000m+ peak opposite. Namche is the first point when you really feel like you’re in the heart of the mountains. From almost every balcony there are stupendous views in almost every direction. We hoiked a final few flights of stairs upwards to one of the higher lodges, passing an abundance of colourful if somewhat tacky-looking tourist shops and restaurants. During a quick scout around we noticed with a slight chuckle the Chinese lady coming into town her pack being carried by a porter she’d obviously hired when the final ascent had got too much for her. With her head down, and a face full of torment, she didn’t notice us.
We didn’t venture out again out of our lodge, and after a hearty bowl of sherpa stew (thick vegetable soup with local produce – in particular the carrots were incredibly tasty no doubt due to ’natural’ fertiliser usage), we settled for the night, hoping that any minor altitude-related headachiness would die away.
Day 3: Rest day Namche
Two days in only, but it was very very nice to have a rest day. Any thoughts of skipping said day were long forgotten. In fact had our bedroom been even slightly above freezing (ice on the inside of the windows) I’d probably have been up for a lie in. The morning, when no doubt we should have been doing an acclimatisation hike, was spent traipsing around the coffee shops of Namche looking for a perfect coffee and cake. Alas though I found a decent enough coffee in a German bakery, the cakes were a little disappointing, all appearance, and little substance – still eating cakes wasn’t the primary purpose of the trip!
As afternoon beckoned we suddenly had renewed energy, so opted for a ‘short’ hike in a loop first along the path we’d be following the next day, and then up to Khumjung and back down from above. It turned into a mini epic, as the clouds dropped with snow gradual at first, but steadily getting heavier as the afternoon lengthened. Up in Khumjung we could see about 20m in the mist, and were in severe danger of losing our way. From the centre of the village square it was impossible to make out anything in any direction, but with luck we hit the primary school gates and were then able to follow a massive dual carriageway of mani stones (the largest in the region I believe I read).
It was with a certain amount of relief that we passed the airfield, now just about below the clouds, skirting a yak trading post where I was very scarily momentarily chased (or it so it seemed to me) by a yak as I walked through a very large group of yaks. It turned out the yak was just p’d off with another yak which happened to be the one I was just walking by. I think it’s fair to say I shed a pound at that moment (one of 20 I shed in the whole trip &x1F60A )
Finally we descended into Namche from high up, the town now covered in a blanket of fresh snow.
That night we had some more good food, first experience of tibetan bread, a sort of fried nan bread, and a slightly uncomfortable conversation with a German trekker who was having difficulty with his prepaid food arrangement (word of warning: certainly seems to me that even if you prefer to hire a guide which to me seems very unnecessary for this region, it is better not to prepay for food or lodging if possible)
Day 4: Namche – Deboche
If the hike up to Namche had been a killer, then it’s fair to say the hike up to Tengboche (then on to Deboche) was a real killer. Open our makeshift curtain of frozen ice to the best part of a foot of fresh snow on the ground, then as if we weren’t going to find the trekking hard enough there was the money debacle. As we hoiked up the 200 or steps to the lip of the ridge overlooking Namche, labouring under our seemingly overflowing packs (even though we’d taken the liberty of downscaling and consolidating a few items which were left at the lodge for us to return in ’15, 20 days or so’!), and dodging mini waterfalls gushing from snow-laden roofs, I was ruminating the money situation. Did I have enough rupees for those days? How many days would we camp? How much did it cost per day in food? All these things. Suddenly I realised just as we were lipping out, that I’d made an elementary mistake – I’d forgotten a x2 to account for the fact that there were two of us on the trip, doh!
So at the point I declared I needed to go back to the town to withdraw cash from the cash machine. Off I raced, leaving Tarryn to man the bags. Going down those steps seemed a lot easier. And even skirting the terrace to the banks I was bounding. Then I got to the cash machine and discovered it wasn’t going to give me more than 2000 rupees at a time, which didn’t seem like enough. Then I hit the bank proper, which was closed, then the money changer, only to realise I’d left most of the money with the packs. Still I figured I had just enough, $100, to change. On the way back up those 200 steps, I was ruminating the money situation again. Clearly $100 wasn’t going to be enough (we needed $200). Back at the packs, exhausted (steam rising off like a locomotive) I explained that ahem someone needed to go down again with more money and change some more. Let’s just say it wasn’t me. And after that several compensatory Mars bars were purchased.
So delayed by about an 1hr with a an additional Namche climb in each of our legs we pushed on. As luck would have it the next part of the hike was pretty flat (skirting the mountains as we’d done the previous day), the sun came out, and it all seemed pretty pleasant. There followed a brief haggle at a cheese shop in which I bought the most expensive cheese I think I’ve ever bought (Yak cheese seems to come out at about $30 a kilo!). This precious (and tiny) bit of cheese did add a little depth of flavour to subsequent nights camp pasta dishes – I made 100g last about 5 meals! Thereafter we descended down to the river, over another bridge (beneath a large cliff which allegedly was covered in goats, but I missed them all) which was being used as a race course by a local horse rider – somewhat unnerving the sound of hooves sliding on raw metal, and upwards.
The next section was brutal. I expect it took a couple of hours – all i know is that my back was destroyed as we passed through the buddhist portico that marked Tengboche. We were back in the clouds and it really was a cold place to hang out. After a tea and cake at the local teahouse we pushed on another 10 mins or so through some treacherous conditions (ice) to Deboche. There we rammed into the first lodge we could see, which was pleasantly warm and buzzing with a few small groups of trekkers.
Just at sunset the clouds parted and for the briefest moment there was a stunning sunset with Ama Dablam. Alas I missed it with my camera – but for the next week Ama Dablam was to be our near constant (and over-photographed) companion.
Day 5: Deboche – Camp (near ?)
The next morning was cold. We quickly jumped out our sleeping bags into clothes, and upstairs for breakfast porridge and a warm spot around the stove. Not too many of the other guests were up so early as the sun had yet to rise fully. We’d heard you could see the monks at Tengboche monastery in the morning if you were early, so with that in mind we headed up the very cold and icy path back up to Tengboche. Once at the monastery we followed signs to the prayer room, took off our shoes and tentatively entered. The room was a deep red and still gloomy in the early morning light. After our eyes adjusted we could make out 3 or 4 monks sitting cross legged and at the far end an ornate shrine to the Buddha. The monks hummed somewhat melancholically, and one of the in particular shot me a slightly unwelcoming look (despite my best efforts to be quiet). We crept around to the side of the room and I snapped a couple of pics of the scene. The monks were notably camera shy, but I guess I can’t blame them. Tarryn wasn’t too keen to stay as she felt like she was intruding, so we crept out again. Outside with shoes back on we did a clockwise tour of the temple brushing the prayer wheels as we went. On return to the front we were greeted by another monk, who this time looked rather like he wanted to be photographed. I called his bluff (never been much of a portrait taker). With that we headed out, along a short ridgeline, past a small hostel, to a promontory where we could get an amazing 360 degree view. In the distance, unmistakable, peaking above the closest mountain crest, was the dark snow-free, triangular tip of Everest – our first sighting!
Back at the hostel the majority of guests had upped and gone, so we didn’t get a chance to chat further with any that we’d briefly befriended the previous night. I tried to collect water, first by scraping snow of the trees in the nearby glade (like small aspens), and then latterly meltwater from the snow dripping from the roof (instead of paying for bottled or boiled water!).
The first part of the path that day was still in shelter and, as we approached the river, we hit a very challenging part which was basically sheet ice, with a short drop into the raging torrent to our left. We watched with amazement as a group of yaks practical ran by in the other direction, followed by a few sherpa boys no doubt in flip flops. We were far more tentative, with one walking pole each (the one’s Tarryn had bought at Namche) we inched onwards. I guess we could have got out or mini-crampons but by the time we realised they might be necessary we were stuck with no way to get them out of the bags for fear of sliding off into the river below. Thankfully we made it to the sun and a short bridge crossing the now less threatening looking river. The other side was in full sunlight and had no snow at all.
We hiked on upwards gradually pulling away from the river and up through a Buddhist gate to the ‘town’ of Pangboche. We didn’t think too much of the bakery there and pushed on after some noodles for lunch and a brief haggle over some Mars bars (a ‘bargain’ was reached by T).
The valley stretched on before us, wide, but nevertheless rising inexorably towards the mass of Everest at the far end. We skirted high up on the edge of sharp slopes down to the river now far below, before breaking onto a mini plateau strewn with large boulders with yaks grazing between. Here there were no trees, just short scrubby grass – a perfect spot to try our first night camping!
It took a while to find a spot that was out of view of the main trail, yet sheltered and on flat-ish ground, but eventually I found a spot above the trail that fit the bill. All seemed idyllic as we pitched the tent in the last rays of sunlight. The stove lit first time, and we tucked into dinner (spaghetti with a smidgeon of yak cheese perhaps?). Then the cold hit. It really got cold fast. We were at 4800m in a Himalayan winter. We dived into the tent and tried to snuggle in for a long night.
Day 6: Camp (near?) – Dingboche
Nights like those are always a blur of weird dreams, waking, cold down one side, shuffling, and intermittent sleep. When I finally sensed morning light and could bear the cold in my sleeping bag no more I made a break for it. My thermometer said -8C inside the tent, and our water bottle was totally frozen (though the camelbak inside my sleeping bag had survived!). I could see only the nose of T next to me in her 4-season which thankfully had done the job! But she wasn’t in a hurry to get up. Outside I fumbled with the stove (discovering that leaving it connected together was not a good idea as the valve had stuck tight), bare fingers searing with pain. Finally I got a coffee brewing, and teased T awake with a cup delivered to her sleeping bag-side. Outside the tent the sun still had not risen, and it became increasingly apparent that we were camped precisely in the morning shadow of Ama Dablam. It was almost comical the way the sun stuck behind the ever decreasing spire of that mountain, as all around was getting sun. Eventually we could bear it no more, and quickly, having vaguely gathered up our belongings, legged it for the closest spot in sunlight. The temperature rose by 20 degrees in that moment as we panted just happy to have survived!
Not surprisingly I had to promise that the next night we would not camp. But secretly I was pleased with the way the camping had gone, though slightly worried that other nights higher up could get even colder.
That next day was a pleasantly short day up to Dingboche. This was the start of a slight detour up a side valley, rather than the direct valley to Everest. Dingboche was probably my favourite place of the whole trip. By chance we bumped into a friendly local who having assessed our budget took us to the ‘Ari Zona’ lodge. I’m usually skeptical about being dragged by locals to lodges, especially as this one seemed to be at the far end of the village, but on arrival we realised it was a good choice. There was a lovely dining room with 360 degree panoramas of the entire valley, including Ama Dablam, now to the south, and some of the peaks that we’d later pass on the way to the Cho La pass, as well as a view of the whole village and its patchwork of fields (which the locals were beginning to prepare for imminent planting). More importantly there was hot orange, popcorn and sun, and we had a pleasant afternoon lounging around and recovering.
In the evening we gathered round the hot stove entranced by burning yak dung embers, chatting a little with another chap and his guide who were the only other guests.
Day 7: Rest day Dingboche
I’m struggling to remember our rest day in Dingboche. I suspect we resupplied at the local store, and took a stroll around, but mainly lounged some more (all in the good name of acclimatisation!). No doubt T tucked into a few tibetan breads with honey, the local donut substitute.
As evening came, clouds rolled in, but I insisted that we do a hike up the ‘hill’ behind the village to try for a view of sunset. T begrudgingly agreed. As we hit the ridge the clouds really had swirled in and there was nothing to see. We trudged up (slightly gasping for breathe) following streams of prayer flags to a high point, but still nothing to see. We’d probably made it above 5000m by the point that we turned back with light beginning to fail. Just as we started heading down, the cloud did start to break up, a touch too late for a really dramatic sunset, except far off on the triangular form of Makalu, but nonetheless with the clouds swirling around the mountains it really was spectacular. By the time we got back down we had our torches out, the sky had gone clear and the stars were out.
Day 8: Dingboche – Chukkung
We got up for dawn this morning, and pre-breakfast headed back up the ridge we’d hit the night before, passing a few yaks with frozen dribble-beards on the way. Sunrise was possibly more dramatic than sunset. From that point we could see up both valleys, one to Everest, and one to the Chukkung valley, south of the Lhotse face (though we couldn’t see the face from there). It was the latter that we’d be following that day.
With sad farewells to our host we departed for real after breakfast. 20kg packs again, tough after a day and a half with none.
The valley wasn’t steep and was wide, soon picking up a glacier to its distant right hand side and the distinctive form of Island Peak dead ahead. For whatever reason we struggled, but as it wasn’t going to be a long day, took the opportunity for plenty of rests in the sun, basking on the lee side of rocks out of a slightly chilling wind.
A group of slightly older Japanese overtook us, looking spritely for their age, but they were just on an acclimatisation hike, and we soon passed them again as they grouped to turn back.
By the time we reached Chukkung, Island Peak had receded slightly behind closer terrain, but to our left the Lhotse face was now ever-present in its enormity, and to the right stunning fluted ridges punctured the skyline. One of the toughest passes (connecting to Baruntse, and Mera Peaks) lies in that direction, protected first by the glacier, and second but the insanely steep terrain.
The lodge at Chukkung in contrast to Dingboche was busy and we got chatting first to a Danish couple in final preparations for Island Peak, and then to an Austrian couple who were looking to climb without a guide (like us) some of the tougher passes. It was an entertaining evening.
Day 9: Chukkung Ri circle
We had our eyes on the summit of nearby Chukkung Ri which we’d heard was a half-day jaunt up behind the lodge, in the general direction of Lohtse. According to our map the peak is 5550m (though some maps vary a bit). In reality it’s really just a long ridge coming down from Lhotse, and the ‘summit’ is one of many high points, the highest that doesn’t involve any serious exposure nor travel on snow (at least not when we were there). That’s not to say it was easy. Far from it.
It seemed that in my haste to get started I took the wrong path up, instead of veering to the right on a sandy set of criss-crossing paths (which we hadn’t seen at all) we headed straight upwards following a smaller zig-zag up the face of what we thought was Chukkung Ri.
Soon we entered a hidden valley, at which point the path really started to peter out. We had three choices, turn back, head right up steeply towards what now appeared to be the peak, or keep left over a boulder field on a vague path skirting underneath some fairly dramatic cliffs. We chose the latter, and with much puffing, continued laboriously on. Pretty soon we realised we’d actually been climbing a moraine, and we were rewarded with massive views off down to our left of a glacier we hadn’t expected to see. A sea of rocks and dirty ice at least a mile wide. It wasn’t to be our last glacier, but at least this one we didn’t have to cross!
T was less than impressed with my route finding, but I insisted on pressing on despite the path for a while getting trickier, and both of us struggling a bit with the altitude. Thankfully we soon rounded the corner and got away from the glacier into a more sheltered spot, with a few patches of snow. Now we could see clearly that we’d come around the back of Chukkung Ri, and still had a substantial free climb on scree (250m or so), to a saddle and then a drag up a ridge to the summit.
We zigged up the slope, trying to avoid areas of deep snow, but at same time suffering a bit with the treacherous scree. The closer we got to the saddle the steeper it got, and the more it seemed we weren’t going to make it. In particular I was beginning to lose concentration, a typical sign of the altitude beginning to cloud judgement. The last stretch was particularly hairy, as we traversed above a mini-cliff, disturbing a few tibetan snowcocks that were hanging out. The final manoeuvre involved a belly roll over the rocky crest of the saddle.
On the other side we were greeted by a jumble of mini-cairns and a couple of German climbers who were a little surprised to see us pop up. Now we could see the ‘easy route’ up, a long and wide path of fairly even gradient on the southern aspect of the mountain.
Well I felt really awful at that point, and barely managed conversation with the Germans. However after 30 mins rest, and seeing those two head to the summit, I decided I couldn’t give up just then. T, who was feeling a little better, offered to take the day-pack and on we went, me with a trekking pole for an extra bit of balance.
The last 100m vertical up the ridge seemed to take forever. During the final few scrambles on the increasingly rocky route up I was taking 3 or 4 steps then pausing for 30 secs or more. I was really at my limit. On top was fantastic though. A 360 degree panorama to remember for a long time. The wind whipped around us, as we took it all in. In the distance we could see mini avalanches on the Lhotse face, and seeming almost below us (but not) was Ama Dablam to the south.
The downward journey was much more pleasant, despite the beginnings of a headache. Part way down we were befriended by a cute little dog, but I must admit to being slightly cautious of this one, considering the last dog incident.
Back at the lodge we treated ourselves to a full on dal bhat for dinner, probably the most tasty one of the trip – the advantage being unlimited refills, and anything we couldn’t eat, our new Austrian friend Rudi was happy to wolf down. We chatted with a few people in the lodge and gathered that at least a couple of groups of people had managed to get over the Kongma La in the previous 3 or 4 days, so that was it decided – the next day we’d be making our first attempt on a high pass!
Day 10: Chukkung – Camp on Kongma La
In the morning, the weather looked good, and we were all set to go. I’d already planned that we’d take it slow and camp halfway up the pass to acclimatise rather than try the whole distance to Loboche in a day, something I considered to be rather foolish (at the very least requiring a 5am start which is not my strong point) due to the altitude and overall distance. However, some might take the opposite view and say camping at approx 5100-5200m in the Himalayan winter is also pretty dumb!
Another group of 3 Americans plus their guide were going to come over the next day (doing the pass in a day) so we parted having some reassurance that on our pass attempt there’d be others about. But for this day we were at least all on our own as we skirted west out of Chukkung, traversing slowly but surely upwards.
Did I say Kongma La is 5550m? Yup, pretty much identical altitude to our previous day’s exploits on Chukkung Ri. The difference I guess is that this day we had our 15-20kg packs on with camping gear and food to last a few days had we needed it. Carrying that sort of weight at sea level for miles isn’t fun, but carrying it over 5000m is brutal. Would I have swapped our free trekking style for a guided tour with porters and yaks? No way! (well maybe ok in some moments of weakness, but overall the feeling of semi-doing it yourself must be better than the feeling of having someone carry all but you over)
After the initial traverse the route veered steeply up a ridge line then into a valley. Here we could see icefalls up ahead, and clearly the snow line approaching. One final steep foray saw us into a hidden valley with a frozen lake. 3 or 4 icefalls were now in touching distance, and the next steep climb would see us breaking the snow line. By now it was mid-afternoon and this seemed a great spot to pitch tent, if only we could find a spot. Below, close to the frozen lake, the ground seemed flatter, but on closer inspection it was tufty as anything, and a little boggy (with a frozen crust) between. I eventually gave up and declared we’d pitch the tent on a flat spot on the path. Having done so, we both looking in dismay at the tent. There really wasn’t enough room for it, if both of us were to lie at the same time with any prospect of sleeping flat, plus someone would pretty much have to step on us to get by if they came along. We scoured the landscape again, and there in the distance, just up from what we could make out as a dead yak carcass, at the lower end of a rock fall, was a flat area, clear except for one huge boulder, that looked promising. I grabbed the tent above my head, and beelined for it, little realising until too late that the wind would be making a comical mainsail of the tent.
The new spot was much better (thankfully the dead yak was still about 100 yards away), and we almost had some shelter from the wind behind the boulder. We could also harvest yak-guardia free snow from the top of the boulder for our cooking and drinking supplies. We also had an amazing perfectly framed view down the valley to Ama Dablam. Above and to our left were two huge ice falls, the latter of which I went to investigate as T recuperated at the tent. After an hour or so checking out the icefall which creaked and glistened in the sun, and then the lake area which was teaming with a bunch of cute little birds (some brightly coloured plumage) I returned and got dinner going. Clouds at our level were brewing at the far end of the valley, temporarily obliterating the view of Ama Dablam, but every time i worried that perhaps a whiteout or a storm was going to head up to us (I wonder if it had how well prepared we would have been), the clouds seemed to recede.
Dinner of noodles (and yak cheese) was devoured in seconds (food doesn’t stay warm too long at that altitude), pans and cooking gear cleaned and stowed as quick as possible, with fingers turning numb and stinging with every second. The light faded quickly and stars came out all around. I think that night was a full moon so we were bathed in its glow. The temperature plummeted. I stayed out gazing at the skies as long as I dared, before diving for the tent. Inside T was already ensconced in her sleeping bag with an extra hot water flask to boot. It was going to be another long night. We snuggled as close as possible for mutual warmth and buried our faces with nothing but noses peeping out for air.
Day 11: Camp on Kongma La – Loboche
Again the night seemed endless, but this time at least, inside the tent wearing everything I had, I’d stayed relatively toasty. Despite being higher than the previous camp the temperature seemed not to have dropped so severely. The sun even played ball. I watched for 20 minutes as its rays slowly lit up the snow slope above us, before finally hitting the tent, at which point T begrudgingly emerged. Shortly after this dawn display as we tidied up after breakfast we saw the Americans and their guide and porters passing by on the path. One of the three had dropped off at the back and it was with relative ease that we caught him up on the initial steep climb of the day.
This was about the point we hit the snow line, and suddenly we were zigzagging up in a foot of the powdery stuff. On the plus side it made route finding easier. Up the climb the terrain levelled out into a series of small plateaus each perfectly flat, a giveaway that there were actually frozen lakes hidden below the snow. The path cut straight across so we followed. Things were still tough bit we were making good progress and pretty soon we were high enough to have a full 360 vista all around. Up ahead was a dramatic hanging glacier and slightly of to the left the pass we presumed would be Kongma La. It looked an impenetrable wall from this distance, but even so, the least impenetrable option before us.
We’d been chatting on and off with the straggling American (and his guide), mainly entertaining us with stories about how tough it was climbing with his super fit friends (who as we spoke could be seen scampering up ahead). To be fair he was doing pretty well himself especially since they come up from way down without such good acclimatization. He was impressed with us and our packs though, and the fact that we’d survived the night!
At that point we were starting to get a little low on water, but neither of us felt good about asking for any from other trekkers. We had the stove so were sure if the worst came to the worst we could boil some snow.
The path veered as expected towards the steep wall and saddle, following a mini ridgeline above the last and largest lake. By now we could see prayer flags at the top and movement of a few people. The crux of the route turned out not to be too bad, zigzagging up to the pass, with a couple of airy moments that would normally not be an issue, but feeling light headed and carrying a heavy pack needed a little caution. This day T suffered a little more than me, but finally we were there perching on some large boulders enjoying the view down the other side and the sun and the sound of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.
And what a view, below us the scree slope dropped steeply seven or eight hundred metres, and there was the massive khumbu glacier, a sea of ice, a mile wide, blocking our route across to the tiny settlement of Lobuche. Behind that dramatic mountains stretched on into the distance, Cho Oyu amongst them. From here we could see a small zigzag path up the moraine from the valley floor, so alas all our climbing was not yet done for the day.
Knowing that we still had several hours to go we didn’t linger too long at the top (in the planning stage of the trip I’d thought that a couple of summits approaching 6000m could be reached easily from the pass, but all such thoughts of going any higher were vanquished from mind – striking either direction was a perilous and steep ridge with huge boulders and drops on either side).
Progress was tough at first due to the snow covered scree but soon we got back below the snowline and were fair racing down. Alas this is the point when the water got really low and with the sun starting to beat down I decided to stop to try to collect water. The river coming down the pass was no more than a trickle, gray and alluvial. So out came the stove. But after 30 mins of frantic effort I could not get the thing to light. Gas has problems at altitude (I’ve been told) and it just wouldn’t work (despite working fine the previous night at a similar altitude). To boot my thumb was now red raw from striking the lighter!
We chucked some snow into out water flask which succeeded in just icing up the water we did have. At that point T had a brainwave (of sorts). We had some vitamin C pills yet to be used. Popping them in started a little chemical reaction. The fizzing was enough to start the melting process. We now had a quarter of a litre of a surprisingly tasty Orange slush puppy to get us up and across the glacier. Not a lot but better than nothing!
By this point the Americans had forged ahead of us again and we could see them regrouping at the base of the moraine. I think both of us had the realization that crossing a huge glacier on your own is not something to take lightly. We quickly sped down the mountain to catch up.
From the base the moraine was enormous. Climbing up was probably the hardest part of the whole day! No doubt because we were totally shattered. By the top we’d just made contact with the group, and were then immediately greeted by a steep descent onto the glacier proper. It stretched off in all directions a huge alien landscape of towering ice cliffs, lakes, but mainly a mass of grinding rocks, so many that for the most part you wouldn’t have known you were on ice. And these weren’t small boulders, many the size of a car or bigger.
Immediately it became apparent that even the guide didn’t know the route, hardly surprising as the glacier is constantly changing so that each year the safest route is different. However he did have experience, and we were happy to follow, mainly keeping to the higher crests and ridges, but occasionally leaping down from rock to rock to avoid really precarious sections. All the while there were sudden groans, creaks and cracks emanating from the very bowels of the glacier. Minutes turned to an hour and we were still battling our way across the glacier, in our little human chain.
Finally we hit a more well worn route, and the far side moraine was before us. We cast back one long lingering view of the majestic glacier now in the last moments of daylight.
Once in Lobuche we toured almost every lodge. They all seemed dank, grotty, and/or overflowing with trekkers (we were now back on the main Everest trekking route). One lodge claiming to be an Eco lodge, stood back from the crowd across a small dirty looking creek. I was all too easily persuaded by T that we could indulge a bit after last night’s camp. The clincher was that they took Visa card! (by this time I’d already worked out we’d be on bread and water for the last few days of the trip if running at current rate through cash supplies.) The room was definitely a cut above the norm for not too much more. We could also get hot showers all round (a rare luxury). Whatismore the menu offered a few different items from the usual fare (being noodles or spaghetti offerings), and in particular the Chicken Cordon Bleu Dish caught my eye! Yes I was going to eat cordon bleu at 5000m!
Let me tell you it didn’t disappoint! Even the thought that the chicken had been carried in raw over several days (probably hanging around at various butchers along the way) did nothing to detract from it! T was less experimental but we both dined like kings!
With that and probably a beer (for me) inside us, we practically passed out. What a day it had been. I dreamed of infernal glacier mazes and rivers of orange slush puppy.
Day 12: Rest day Loboche
We decided again we were well worth a rest day after the previous day’s exploits. A chance to refresh, and amongst other things do a little laundry. Think I had been wearing the same top for at least the last few days whilst walking, and it was beginning to sprout legs and walk on its own.
We got some hot water from the hotel’s solar heater, a metal concave dome facing the sun, with a huge pot located at the focus. Surprising just how hot the water was, testimony to the strength of the sun at that altitude. Speaking of which we were both starting to look rather rugged and weather at least from the neck up. We cleaned our clothes as best as possible on some flat rocks outside and hung them out to dry. Ten minutes later as we were looking in the lounge a little dust devil came along and swept through the washing line and over a disgruntled looking yak. Some clothes had gone flying (into mud), but fortunately ours had been spared. I did peg them down properly after that.
We did have a little hike left in our legs, but barely made it above the town then back. That evening we bagged our spot in the lounge only to be told to move it. A large pack of loud British Exodus trekkers came in and monopolized the best table. I’ll not make a big thing about it, but these large groups take over lodges, and more importantly the trail, in a way that’s really not very pleasant. From then on I did try to avoid lodges with the dreaded Exodus sign outside.
Day 13: Lobuche – Gorak Shep, circuit to Everest Base Camp
The next day we set off early for what was to be a long day of hiking. The path was initially fairly shallow, but then after an hour or two ramped up a steep slope. Here we also started to encounter more and more trekkers, most of whom were in large groups. One woman, accompanied only by a guide, in particular stood out. She was really going through her own private hell, pain etched on her face. I didn’t expect her to make it much higher, but we saw her a few times later on in the day higher up the mountain (face still etched with pain in a private hell) so good on her (though really is it a good idea to push yourself so hard in these circumstances?).
The path got trickier as we rounded the end of a moraine then dropped slightly onto a large side glacier to the main khumbu glacier that by now was far below to our right. For a precarious few moments there was a pretty sheer drop down onto the main glacier, and a temptingly exposed rock on which to get a photograph taken. A group of french-canadians, and older couple with someone we assumed was their son, were hiking about the same pace and we exchanged brief pleasantries. As it turned out we’d encounter them later on the trek as they too were planning on heading over to Gokyo. Their son wasn’t a son at all, but a non-local guide with hippy-like tendencies who they known from previous hikes. I was slightly wary of him at first, but was eventually won over by his enthusiasm for all things massage-related.
Anyway on we hiked, eventually breaking out into the mini plateau that is Gorak Shep. The setting is absolutely stunning, directly below Pumori the 7000+m mountain that in my opinion is the most beautiful in the area (even more so than Ama Dablam) and at the entrance to the final push up to Everest, only just peeping out behind Nuptse despite its proximity. However the settlement itself is a bit of an eyesore, consisting of 3 or 4 slightly ramshackle lodges, various solar panels, and at least one mobile phone mast. We headed for the nearest (first on the left) lodge and secured a room (in the main trekking season this would not have been guaranteed by all accounts, but we’d had our tent handy just in case). Returning back to the room after a brief lunch we discovered that the ceiling had fallen in, which wasn’t entirely confidence inspiring, and testimony to the ramshackleness of the construction. Eventually we managed to convey that we really didn’t want to sleep with a ceiling panel hanging off above our heads and if I recall managed to get another room next door.
We’d made good time up, and I calculated we’d have plenty of time to head on to Everest Base Camp and get back for sunset. After a bit of badgering T agreed, though I was surprised her enthusiasm for actually getting to the base camp had waned a touch (though she still wanted to do Kala Pattar). This was perhaps to do with the volume of people on the trail, which was in stark contrast to the previous days hiking in the Chukkung valley. We set out now thankfully without heavy packs, initially across a flat, then on a winding trail that skirted the northern side of the glacier. Pretty soon tiny specks of colour were visible dead ahead in the distance on the glacier, a scattering of tents that make up base camp, still early in the climbing season so only partially established. To the right of the tents, we could see a marked contrast in the dirty glacier on which the tents perched and the white glacier that was running directly from the Khumbu icefall. This part of the glacier had formed huge dramatic ice waves which even at this distance looked impressive. We passed or were passed by a few groups of sherpas portering a mix of food (noodles and eggs packed high) and camping equipment, mostly bizarrely a bunch of mattresses that made for a comedy moment (walking mattresses!). The wind started whipping up dust as we teetered atop the moraine-top ridge we were now following. Everest had come more clearly into view, a looming black pyramid above the base camp. I scoured the icefall for activity but at this early stage in the climbing season and late in the day there was no sign of any climbing groups. We passed by the woman in our private hell (who presumably had not stopped at Gorak Shep for lunch) and finally descended from the ridge on to the glacier and finally within touching distance of the edge of base camp. The path across the glacier was less than clear which had me worried for a minute, as it skirted some large drop-offs, but eventually we pulled up to an area overlooking the whole lower end of the camp (in fact we could see tents up to a mile distant still, the camp really is massive) with a small cairn that at that moment was festooned with prayer flags and happy trekkers getting their group photos. We left them to it and with some effort (the camp is at 5300m and though we were better acclimatised now it was still tough) scampered down to the edge of the dirty part of the glacier to take in the enormity of the ice waves we’d seen from way back.
Here the true scale was apparent, at least the height of a double decker bus, but possibly twice, the ice radiated a deep blue as it glimmered in the sun. It would have been tempting to take a hike into the chasms between the waves, except that being sheet ice it would have required crampons, and for all I knew there was the possibility of being crushed by falling ice at any moment. I made do with taking a few photos, which really didn’t do justice to the awesomeness of the scene.
I insisted we push on a little further into the base camp to check out the tents. We were a little cautious since we’d heard that most camps don’t really like trekkers rooting about. Each encampment had at least one, perhaps two massive mess tents, and then a constellation of smaller sleeping tents with some peripheral toilet tents (usually at a little distance!). Camp life was busy. According to a friendly (yet slightly serious) guide from RMI who’d we chatted to briefly in Lobuche (an interesting insight into the climbing business) most camps were preparing for the imminent arrival of the first clients in the next few days. I’d hoped we might see that guide and be invited in for a cup of tea, but it wasn’t to be.
Well by this time the sun was starting to drop in the sky and since we had at least an hour back to Gorak Shep and a lot of tiredness build up we didn’t linger too much longer (just enough time to get out souvenir photo with the prayer flags at the now deserted cairn). Heading back we passed the woman in her private hell. She was just about to hit the glacier, but that didn’t seem to have made things any easier. I hope she made it back safe – T gave her an encouraging ‘You’re doing well!’ as we manoeuvred by her on a rather narrow section which saw a few fist sized rocks bouncing down around us. Back at Gorak Shep T was absolutely zonked, but I was strangely energetic, so as dusk approached i headed up on my own in the direction of Kala Pattar (basically straight up a steep climb in the direction of Pumori) for the prospect of a dramatic sunset. I made it half way up before the light finally started to wane. Sunset had almost delivered, clouds in the west had broken up just a touch to allow brief patches of sunlight to dance on the upper slopes of Nuptse opposite me. Everest had remained stubbornly in the shadows, with a few clouds whisping over. But as the sun dropped down at the stars started to come out the valley was bathed in a brief Alpenglow. There I was at 5400m completely on my own except of course for the majestic mountains around. It was an amazing moment no doubt I’ll remember for some time. Only the increasing numb pain of my fingers (gloveless due to various camera exploits) brought me round to realise it would probably be a good idea to get down. Heading down if anything the view got even more dramatic as the clouds cleared completely and the sky lit up with stars beyond count. I’m sure I was glowing as I made it back to the lodge, warmth and civilisation.
Day 14: Gorak Shep – Kala Patar – Dzonghla
If the previous day had felt long, the next day was to be even longer. It all started off fairly routinely. The usual porridge/tibetan bread combi for breakfast and then leaving our main packs in storage we headed up the face of Kala Pattar, roughly following the route I’d taken the previous night. As we headed up in surprising solitude I pointed out where I’d reached the previous night (I recognised the rock formation). In the daylight I could see I’d made fairly good progress, at least half way to the rocky peak above what was presumably Kala Pattar. At this point however the going started to get tough, not just due to the altitude, but also because the path turned into a boulder field. The last 30m up to the peak were a fair old scramble over car sized rocks that would have been fun at sea level, but was utterly exhausting at this altitude. Eventually I topped out at the peak and basked victoriously in the sunlight. Except of course we’d actually climbed the wrong peak. I actually like to think that we climbed the right peak, and the masses of other people that had presumably left before us and were out of sight by the time we started the hike, were currently a few 100m from the top of a similar looking (except for a pole and a mass of prayer flags), but slightly higher peak, about half a mile away were the ones in the wrong. After all, my map clearly showed my peak as being labelled Kala Pattar. Unfortunately that didn’t wash too well with T, who once again blamed my route finding skills (a la Chukkung Ri). But I’d like to point out that a) I’m not a sherpa who’s spent his entirely life running around these hills, b) the map was pretty low resolution, c) she hadn’t exactly volunteered to lead, d) we weren’t actually lost, merely displaced by a few 100m. In any case our peak was very nice having no one else on it, and a totally majestic view of Everest and the entire valley in 360 degrees.
So after a brief sunbathe we did contemplate forgetting the ‘real’ peak, but since we were so close: traverse slightly downhill for 400m then up for another few hundred, we went for it. It was with a certain spritely nonchalance that I whipped past the large group of Iranians that I swear we’d seen earlier a hundred metres from the top, about a hundred metres from the top. The majority were gasping, very much reminiscent of me in previous days up on Chukkung Ri, which just goes to show what a difference a few days of acclimatisation can make. T managed to get by them too just as we hit the peak and an optional hairy ascent up a narrow pinnacle. Well from there the wind had picked up and the view was every bit as dramatic as the previous one with the added bonus of a sheer precipice down one side and photogenic prayer flags streaming in the wind. The only downside was the large number of singing Iranians who were celebrating like they’d won the World Cup. We didn’t stay too long.
Looking onwards the pinnacle that is or might be Kala Pattar was really just one of many bumps on a ridge on the way up to Pumori. The next major pinnacle was above the snow line and looked a challenging hike, best left to the experts. Alas that was really the last opportunity to break 6000m – but it looked far from easy, and mostly likely even the next peak wouldn’t have been at 6000m. To break it there would have probably meant actually hitting the almost vertical flank of Pumori, undoubtedly a suicidal move. So yet again we topped out at 5550m (or thereabouts), the 3rd time in the trip.
Back down at Gorak Shep we had a late lunch then, already feeling somewhat weary, donned our fully-laden packs. The trip back to Lobuche seemed longer than the way up, or perhaps the trip was in a lull as we, for the first time, were retracing our steps. At Lobuche the home comforts of the Eco Lodge almost proved too much a temptation. Since it was only mid-afternoon I was keen to push on, direction Dzonghla and the start of the Cho La. However T was having none of it, at least not until I’d placated her with yet another bowl of popcorn. After that begrudgingly she swung her pack on again and off we trooped down the valley, this time into new territory.
Soon the path split, and the main trekker route veered off to the left staying high on an eventual traverse to Dingboche. We could see some memorials on the hillside in memory of various climbers who had lost their lives on Everest. We headed down following a stream and then curving into a small side valley and a somewhat smaller path. We followed a couple of sherpas who seemed to know where they were going, but alas they headed straight for a base camp that seemed to be under construction, perhaps for an attempt on Lobuche Peak? Less sure of ourselves on an increasingly diminishing path we carried on following alongside a snowy lake, apparently iced over. At some point we could see footprints heading across the lake to intersect a path on the other side that skirted back out the other side of the valley in the general direction I was expecting to take. Gingerly we crossed, and thankfully there was no creaking of ice beneath us. Up on the other side the path curved every upwards round the corner of the mountain and ever so gradually entering the main side valley to Cho La. The wind suddenly picked up and momentarily it was freezing. Any thoughts of a break were dispelled until we got further round the corner and thankfully into some shelter and a few weak rays of sunlight. A couple of hikers came the other way, looking equally frozen – the only humans we saw on the path until the final climb to Dzonghla.
It took several more hours, and the sun was threatening to drop behind the massive wall of a mountain ahead and to our left, by the time we finally could see our destination. And not a moment too soon, as T had gone into a veritable hissy fit about the whole escapade. The final mini river crossing and mini climb up to the township sapped the last of our strength, but it was all worth it when we took in the view back down the valley from where we had come. Ama Dablam was catching the last glorious rays of sunlight framed picture perfect by the valley walls. We chose the first lodge we could see, which had a french theme to the name at least. Inside there was a massive stack of yak dung to greet guests (i suspect this is not traditional french), and a very warm and friendly dining room. We tucked into really hearty bowls of sherpa stew and played cards with a few of the other guests. The night sky was stupendous., but it was so cold out that I barely lasted 30 seconds.
Day 15: Dzonghla – Cho La – Dragnak
The next morning we had a late start. Everyone else in the lodge who was heading on had already left by the time we eventually got our stuff together. The sun was shining as ever as we hiked out the village this time heading more northwards (Dzonghla exists at the bend in the valley) direction Cho La, pass no. 2 of our itinerary. Initially the climb was steep but we soon got onto a more level section from which we could see the first snow field not too far away and then the sharp rise at the head of the valley looming before us. We could also make out a few of the other hikers who had made head start on us, and had thankfully left a pretty clear route across the snowy sections. As we followed the trail we were entertained by a myriad of brightly coloured small birds diving and swooping around us.
As we approached the head of the valley the path started to climb steadily up, switchbacking past some large boulders, onto a ridge line. We could make out a couple of hikers ahead whom we were slowly making ground on. By the time we eventually reached a sheer face at the end of the ridge line where the path veered right, we had pretty much caught up with them, and were surprised to discover it was our friends Rudi and Simone, the Austrian couple we’d met several days earlier in Chukkung.
We paused briefly for a breather and a chat on the steep boulder field that we were now climbing. They had spent an extra few days around Chukkung, but had had to give up their ambitious plans on one of the lesser known passes at the head of that valley due to the levels of snow. They’d instead opted to do the 3 passes like us, except avoiding the main trail up to Everest Base Camp. The previous night, unbeknownst to us, they too had spent the night in Dzonghla but in a different lodge.
We were all relieved when we finally reached the crest, and had a view of the glacier we had to traverse to make the pass. It looked modest, but as soon as we were on it, with a 40 degree (or so) drop away to our right down to some fairly serious looking seracs, I was wondering why we hadn’t put on our mini-crampons. The path had iced somewhat underfoot (in the shaded areas) and was very treacherous especially when carrying heavy packs. Still it was too narrow to turn around so there was little choice. After 50m more or so, the glacier valley rose up to meet us and then we were safe, or at least so it appeared. A clear path from other hikers led the way up. Despite the modest incline the altitude and exposure were beginning to take a toll. On the left were interesting hanging ice sheets, which looked ready to drop. Rudi forged ahead and we gave each other a little distance in case there were crevasses (I should point out that Rudi was carrying equipment that we might have managed to enact a rescue should there have been a problem). A final tricky switchback back on to the rock past a small but bottomless crack in the ice, and we’d made it.
At the top we basked in the sun and felt like champions.
Still there was a surprising distance to go till we made our lodgings. Down a hairy scree-filled slope under snow fields itching to avalanche, then across a high plateau with gorgeous views all around. This wouldn’t be a place to get caught out by the weather – very little in the way of path, and no place to hide. But luck was on our side at least. We crested past a prayer mast on the lip of the plateau and could see the correct decent downwards (according to our maps and guidebook). Buoyed by a nice downhill incline we made good speed past strange snow formations (caused by vertical sun melting the snow) which were like rock-hard fences to jump over. The weather closed in, but not a moment too soon we reach the village below, with the first flakes of snow starting to settle. Earlier in the day there had been some thought to push through to Gokyo in a oner, but well that would have been foolish, and there were no complaints as we dived into the first teahouse we saw.
I can’t remember too much from that night, but suffice to say we all slept well after lots of hot orange and tea.
Day 16: Dragnak – Gokyo
It’s not too far from Dragnak to Gokyo, thus we had a leisurely start to the day. Again the sun was out and we sat on the stone patio trying to warm up after another cold night. One slight issue is that there is a large glacier to cross and having followed the moraine for a mile or so we climbed up and were greated with a great uncharted mass of boulder and ice cliff strewn glacier a further mile wide. On first inspection there was nothing remotely resembling a path. However after casting our eyes in all directions we could spot some vague trail sticking to the base of the moraine before doglegging on to the glacier much further up.
As we hopped along we were aware of being followed by another group, which turned out to be a young French (or was it Belgian?) girl called Charlotte and a guide (or was it a local who just wanted to escort her). They were making surprisingly good pace and caught us at the dogleg. Any thoughts that they’d help us cross were soon dispelled. At some point the guide must have gone home as suddenly there were just the 5 of us. We skirted up and down the boulder field come glacier making painfully slow progress. Sometimes the boulders would be 10ft high and require nimble jumping to traverse, other times it would be a slag pile treacherous underfoot. And all the time the ominous creaking of the glacier beneath, occasional splashes of boulders falling into the mini-ice-melt-lakes that were to be found around every corner.
After what seemed like hours, and probably three times the actual distance we abruptly found a small path meandering partly on soil as the rock density faded off. Then followed a perilous ascent up the far side moraine. We could hear other hikers coming down and just as we passed them, there was a crack from above and a rather large rock came hurtling down missing one of the other hikers by a matter of inches. Phew!
At the top we paused briefly for a look back on what we’d crossed. Stunning!
The path meandered down a little to Gokyo, and rounding the last corner we were greeted with the exceptional view of the lake, Gokyo village, Gokyo Ri and in the distance Cho Oyu glimmering in the midday sun.
After visiting almost every lodge in the village we settle on the most lively, and reputedly the best for food: serving legendary (slight exaggeration) yak steaks! I don’t remember the name, but it had a lounge with a commanding view in 3 directions. The rooms were pretty shocking though.
That afternoon we treated ourselves to showers (though Rudi and Simone opted for cold ones to save money!!!), chilled with cards, then for late lunch come dinner obviously had the yak sizzler. A slice of yak heaven. Outside the snow had already started, and a few of my steaks brethren huddled somewhat in their new snow-coats.
Day 17: Gokyo Ri circuit
The next morning was hard to get going after a sub-zero night within our room (presumably aided by the lack of double-glazing, or single-glazing due to a large whole in the window pane). Poor Simone had come down with a mini-fever no doubt due to having to carry a huge pack of mountaineering gear over the pass and glacier of the previous days. That left the remainder of the glacier gang to go for a modest jaunt up Gokyo Ri, the ‘small’ hillock overlooking Gokyo, to take in the legendary views from the top. We passed by the normally blue, but currently snow-covered lake and with some bemusement (along with a bunch of locals who were ‘busy’ constructing some dry stone walls) watched a young backpacker-type taking a full bath in the frozen (except for a small pocket around the mouth) lake.
Then onwards up the steep flank of the hill on one of the many criss-crossing paths up. We could see the earlier-risers already nearing the top having left earlier in the morning (sensible since the clouds always start to mass about midday obscuring views to Everest and beyond). We did set a decent pace and just made the top, still huffing and puffing with altitude (it’s fair to say one never gets used to altitudes much of 4000m), as the clouds started to brew dramatically from the lower end of the valley. Everest was soon obscured, but nonetheless looking down on the massive Cho Oyu glacier below us and up-valley towards the mountain itself was stupendous. Down below our little teahouse looked tiny sandwiched between glacier and lake. After briefly posing for some silly photos we headed down in good spirits. In fact but the end we were racing down in true Munro-style leaping and bounding down the zig-zags to the bottom in record-quick time.
The afternoon we chilled in the comfort of the teahouse chatting some more with other trekkers, drinking tea, playing cards, and discussing the merits of the yak-sizzler over the yak-steak.
Day 18: Towards Cho Oyu circuit
The days are rolling together somewhat in my mind now, but I feel the next day we made a push for as far up towards Cho Oyu as we could make it. Given how well we’d hiked the previous day, perhaps surprisingly we didn’t make it very far. I think we passed one lake, and then on to the last lake of the series which is strewn with massive boulders some bigger than a house, but still tantalizing short of the point the glacier forks at the head of the main valley. The climb had been relentless and route finding up the boulder strewn side moraine of the main glacier, challenging. The whole day I was really feeling it and as we were suppose to head on to the final pass (Renjo La) the next day I was getting a little concerned. I considered perhaps aiming to hike part way up the pass and camp somewhere on route either just before or just over, but in the end the plan changed as Simone was still not 100% either and we decided to hike together for safety. We’d heard the Renjo La was still fairly snow bound so weren’t going to take it lightly.
Day 19: Rest day Tokyo
More yak, and chit chat and a hot shower!
Day 20: Gokyo – Renjo La – Meralung
With everyone having recovered and rested we were all feeling pretty spritely on our farewell morning in Gokyo. We set off as early as we dared in the cold and soon found ourselves walking steadily up past the lake in the glorious morning sun. We disturb a few chubby Himalayan snowcocks as we jaunted along.
However things were soon to change. At the far side of the lake the path starts to climb steeply, over somewhat loose ground that was already beginning to be snow covered. As the gradient started to ease off so the snow started getting deeper. Soon we were back in our routine of Rudi forging ahead, me and the girls in the rear, struggling under our massive packs and lack for military-like resilience. At some point the path grew indistinct, and the lead men wrongly chose to hike up a very steep scree slope that was far looser than it appeared. The girls then found the right path and we were momentarily separated. Rudi bounded up, and for a while I was absolutely on my own wondering what whether I’d ever be found if I twisted an ankle, or stumbled on the rocks. Now above the rocky section the snow got distinctly deeper, past knee height in places. I pushed for where I hoped the rest would reintersect with me, and eventually round a slight hillock, to find Rudi sun-bathing and the girls pushing up a more worn in, but equally deep in snow, path below. Phew!
After another 5-10 mins they’d made it. We took stock. We could see the final climb to the pass rising above us, zigzagging up a final precipitous slope. This was not going to be easy. And the snow was deeper than we’d encountered thus far. With the pass topping out at 5300m and with our heavy packs we were all close to the limit, at times wading through snow, at times teetering on the edge of 20-30m drops, scrabbling onwards.
With the final bend, we were greeted by a rising chorus of Italian.
Yes, the pass was currently being held (and I say that because it almost resembled a small fortification) by a group of singing Italian trekkers who’d come up the other direction, who were most buoyant. Thankfully they left after a short-ish while and we had the place to ourselves. From this viewpoint one finally gets a great perspective of Everest. It really towers above everything else and even though were were further away, somehow seemed closer than even from Kala Pattar. Below us lay 20 days of tough trekking, and this was it, pretty much downhill all the way now (surely?).
Again down the other side was trickier than expected. We made haste to a frozen lake which we used as a water source (i should mention that Rudi + Simone had a Steripen which proved very useful and much recommended over tablets) and, perched on some boulders, fired our stoves and devoured the last of our raamen noodles. No problems lighting stoves today thankfully!
As we packed up to head onwards the clouds seemed to pile in from lower down the valley, and soon we were hiking in half light. The path stretched on across some flat areas where it got almost swampy, then down on an exposed looking trail, which no doubt has stunning views when clear. For us however it was a white-out. My usual unerring sense of direction seemed to have strayed, as what had been a very clear path, gradually petered out into nothing on a very steep scree slope. Faced with a choice of ascending up several 100m or continuing we opted for the latter, mainly due to my insistence that even if it wasn’t the path it was the right direction. For a moment, the slope got very tricky, with rocks, and scrub and slick snow and ice to traverse, but just as even I was having my doubts the cloud cover started to thin as we edged out below it. The way ahead was no longer so steep and a path of some form (possibly an animal track) had reappeared. Still it took us a further 30 mins or more before we finally hit a proper path. This was the former trading route from Thame over to Tibet, which had recently been closed by the Chinese authorities – probably a good thing for us, as we’d heard that theft on this route had been a problem. The path skirted close to the edge of a small chasm containing a fairly wild river. We followed the river downstream knowing that it would eventually get us somewhere. The light of the day started to fade, and still we walked, with no sign of habitation anywhere. Dusk came and went, and every time we felt sure we had to be just around the corner, the next corner would reveal more barren wilderness and the raging torrent below. In some places the path had been washed away leaving some tricky scrambles above desperate plunges.
Finally just as walking was getting tricky in the gloom, we arrived at a cluster of houses. Meralung. We could see from the map, that we’d bypassed our intended destination for that night, but thankfully Meralung had at least one slightly primitive teahouse and we weren’t being fussy.
That evening we had a more authentic Nepalese experience around the fire (cue everything smelling of smoke), chatting a little with the owners and their young children, and admiring their various paraphernalia up on the wall.
Day 21: Meralung – Thame
Day 22: Thame – Namche
Day 23: Namche – Phakding
Day 24: Phakding – Lukla
The arrival in Meralung spelled the end of the real adventure. The rest of the hike, felt like the ending to a great trip. Thame was beautiful, though our lodge cooked the worst Tibetan bread ever. When we headed up to the monastery on the hill we found all the monks were on a trip to Kathmandu! We left Thame to the southeast though secretly I would have loved to have time to hike the other way up to the other legendary but allegedly very dangerous Nangpa La (5700m).
Rounding the final bend to Namche was every bit as spectacular as our first view two weeks earlier. We we relieved that all our stashed stuff was still there, but unfortunately the teahouse was full (of japanese trekkers) and we had to shift to another one next door. The bakeries were disappointing compared to how we’d remembered them, but we did have an authentic meat momo eating experience in a shack on the edge of town, a place that Rudi and Simone had found on the way up. We also discovered that there were going to be some difficulties with our flight out. Simrik Airlines had apparently only one plane flying to Lukla and allegedly it had broken down and was getting repaired.
Heading back down to Lukla we got another shock – the path was thronging with trekkers, almost non-stop. What a difference 2-3 weeks make! Little sleepy villages that we’d passed through without a soul about, where suddenly back to back restaurants heaving at the seams with trekkers. Well, as you can imagine, we were secretly happy that we’d come so early, and I guess had been so lucky with the weather, and being able to be some of the first people (if not the first!) to do the 3 passes that season.
Our last night on the road we stayed at a tiny old-fashioned teahouse in stark contrast to the newer builds we’d stayed at on the way up. Alas the menu was pretty much the same as everywhere else – that’s one aspect to the trip we weren’t going to miss too much. The next morning we crossed a very rickety side bridge and stopped briefly by the raging river for a while, before heading back up the small climb to Lukla. No matter how small a climb it was, it felt brutal as every other especially in the springtime heat (that had incidentally brought a lot of rhodedendron flowers out on route), and it was with much relief that we finally crested through the portico at the entrance to the town.
We checked into the little Sunshine hostel where our flight booking had been stashed. There the owner assured as that there was no way we’d be flying out the next day. Oh boy! He double checked, and eventually we confirmed there was a slight chance something might happen if we turned up. Allegedly Simrik had chartered another plane to come and move people. That night we pigged out on a big burger in an Irish bar (or was it the Scottish one) and said farewells to Rudi and Simone.
Day 25 onwards – Lukla flight to Kathmandu
The next morning we got to the airport dutifully early to be met with the expected chaos. Well at least flights were flying, but there was no one from Simrik about. Gradually the number of trekkers thinned out as one then two, then many more green and yellow liveried Yeti Airlines planes came and went. Even some of the other less prestigious airlines seemed to be going (Sita?) then finally a cargo plane arrived, that reputedly was the chartered plane for Simrik. The first bunch of Simrik customers were trundled off and having each collected a folding chair were placed on the plane. So just a short wait till the plane made it to Kathmandu and back then…
We never saw the plane again. Finally there were just about 5 of us left. We were told to wait, something might happen. Nothing happened. We ate a couple of german buns from the bakery over the road. I bade farewell to my boots (too smelly to take home and starting to get holes). The wind picked up. All flights were over for the day.
Then a minor miracle occurred, suddenly there was a possibility of a helicopter ride not with Simrik but some independent outfit. The only deal was that we’d have to pay for it. Finally we haggled and got a deal where we’d only pay the difference in costs between the flight and the helicopter ride, or at least we’d pay up front then get the refund off Simrik.
We along with the other few people agreed (to my relief – we only had a couple of spare days before the flight back to the UK and I was beginning to think we might get stuck in Lukla – sure it has happened before). Several more hours waiting ensued, but finally we were taken into the backside of the airport. We could see the bashed up remains of an airplane (and possibly a helicopter too?). Then the helicopters arrived, left again heading up to Everest Base Camp with supplies, then came back and collected us.
We jumped aboard and with little warning were whisked into the air. The flight back was every bit as dramatic as the plane flight in, and flew so close the hillsides and terraces that we could see people and houses clearly (though it was a little hazy). We dodged in between dramatic brick-furnace chimneys on the final approach to Kathmandu.
Back in Kathmandu we stayed at Boudanath on advice from Rudi. So much more atmospheric and also peaceful (thought it’s all relative) than Thamel. We walked around the famous stupa, and dined on the edge at sunset. Our last day was Nepalese New Year so we headed for celebrations at Bhaktapur. The streets were mobbed and we stayed to see the famous tug-of-war over a huge tree trunk propped up in one of the squares. Getting home afterwards was a real mission – as there were no taxis to be found anywhere. It was well passed midnight before we made it home, and the flight was early the next morning.
Our inside information was correct that even though officially we stayed 31 days in Nepal, our 30 day visa was enough (phew!)
Only a week after we left Nepal the terrible avalanche on Everests flanks occurred killing many Sherpas. Then following this still in 2014, further freak weather killed tourists in Annapurna.
Then the following year, the terrible earthquake happened that killed many, left many homeless and destroyed a lot of the heritage that we had seen and enjoyed during our trip.
Our thought to all those affected… and hoping to come back to Nepal soon.