Namche Bazaar to Tengboche
We set off at dawn on the long winding trail to Tengboche. Spirits were high as we chatted with other trekkers we had got to know along the way – a chilled Australian guy going solo in the Himalayas and a couple of trekking buddies we discovered used to frequent the same dive bar as we did in Sheffield, ten years ago.
I pulled my ski mask up as the sun seared my face lobster red. Snow-capped giants in the distance were framed by the valley we advanced along. We sidestepped several yaks and numerous porters carrying twice their own weight in supplies. Most men who live in the region are heavily reliant on portering to earn a living and young men will often be seen carrying over 80 kilos of load up the steep hillsides. The big bucks in the Everest Region are made by the Sherpa mountain guides working behind the scenes to prepare the route for wealthy climbers to summit the highest peaks, but even this work is seasonal. You can get used to almost anything when the wolf is at the door.
After a long tiring hike, the path leveled out leaving the final climb to the sanctuary of Tengboche.
“Looks like we made it.” I said. “It’s at the top of that hill according to the map.”
“It’s nearly vertical though. We’ll have calves of steel by the end,” Si said.
A thick screen of trees prevented any clear view of the summit as we slogged up the dusty track. The altitude and subsequent lack of oxygen was beginning to make its presence felt – this was no longer a gentle hike. Sparse cloud cover became the only respite from the oppressive sun. I wiped my sweat-drenched brow at the top of each incline before wheezing on towards the ever-distant apex of the hill.
I stumbled into a chubby middle-aged American man bounding down the path and grasped his shirt to steady myself. “How much further ?” I gasped.
He took a moment to consider his response. “You’re nearly there,” he said, smirking. “About an hour and a half to go.”
I closed my eyes and exahaled.
He chuckled and slapped me on the back before continuing his descent. “Don’t worry! You can always get the escalator back down.”
A cold wind met me at the crest of Tengboche and I slumped down behind a dry stone wall. The monastery loomed ahead. Several monks in maroon and saffron robes strolled the plain. The rest of the group arrived fifteen minutes later and Robert got a game of frisbee going with the locals. After another evening of route planning and comparing blisters we retired to bed. Cattle moaned directly below my third-storey window but I had no trouble sleeping.
Tengboche to Dingboche
We woke in darkness the next morning and tiptoed across the plain to the monastery where a small group of trekkers had congregated in silence. Six-thirty in the morning the monks would start their prayers. We filed into the vibrantly decorated room and sat along the perimeter as the monks took their seats in the middle of the room. One monk began chanting a mantra. A few minutes later another chimed in. Buddhist statues stood serenely below an ornate wall of multicoloured carvings. Halfway through the ceremony all the other trekkers had thankfully left the room, coughing and rustling their windbreakers. Our group alone remained and when the ceremony came to a close I felt a curious sense of calm.
You pass through a rhododendron forest at the start of the trail to Dingboche, although at that time of year the flowers remained dormant. About an hour on the road I had pulled ahead again and joined several trekkers at a suspension bridge, waiting for a herd of yaks to cross one by one. As one of the yaks neared the end of the bridge something must have spooked it because it suddenly went beserk and charged straight at us. It is hard to describe the terror you feel when a thousand-pound horned beast is charging directly at you, the only means of escape a wall of rock on one side and a sheer cliff on the other. Despite our unwieldy trekking gear we all managed to clamber halfway up the rocky wall like mountain goats and avoid being impaled by the creature. It stopped and surveyed the situation, snorted deeply, then turned the corner and continued down the hill as the herder barked orders from the bridge above.
The trek from Tengboche to Dingboche takes you above the treeline and the environment took on a much more austere appearance. We trudged along plains strewn with huge boulders and down rocky hillsides before crossing a river and climbing to our journey’s end.
When we arrived in Dingboche, a pulsating headache reminded me of the altitude. Nevertheless after securing lodging for the night, I continued to climb the hillside which towered above the village, attempting to get some phone signal to send a message home that I was still alive. It is not recommended that you ascend more than 600 metres in altitude a day, so when I ran into a trekker high on the hillside she quickly interpreted my bizarre behaviour as the beginnings of altitude sickness and accompanied me back to my teahouse for a game of cards.
On my return, our ever-growing group was huddled together in their puffy jackets, playing cards and drinking tea. We sat down and began to share our experience of the mountains so far.
As the sun set, the air grew cooler and the owners fired up the yak dung heater which dominated the centre of the room. People have likely burnt yak dung as a fuel for thousands of years in the Himalayas; the area was reportedly first settled around 15,000 years ago. We had ordered food by then and began to chow down.
“Did you know animal shit is one of the oldest fuels?” I said.
Robert raised his eyebrow and continued to slurp his dal bhat.
“They think that’s how people first migrated to the Americas from Eurasia. People traveled over the Bering land bridge burning mammoth and woolly rhinoceros shit.”
Robert paused. “How about we go up that mountain tomorrow?” He said, pointing out of the window at a vague shape in the twilight.
The recommendation is to spend a day acclimitizating at Dingboche and a trip up the hill adjacent to the village would likely be an interesting viewpoint for the surrounding area.
“Nangkartshang Peak,” Si replied, pointing to his map. “5,083m. We can take in the views and recharge.” He soaked up the last of his Sherpa soup with a piece of bread. “I heard there’s a bad storm heading in the day after tomorrow. The trail might be impassible if it’s covered with snow.”
“Let’s hope they have a good supply of yak shit,”I said. “We could be here for a while.”
The next morning the teahouse’s water pipes were all frozen when we woke at dawn. A queue developed as guests waited for the sun to warm the pipes so they could fill their drinking flasks and brush their teeth. We eventually set off up the dusty hill towards the peak, shielding our eyes from the rising sun.
I stopped halfway up the hill to appreciate the view, a striking mountain with azure lakes at its foot. I noticed an asian man wearing technical climbing goggles striding nimbly up the hill and thought perhaps he could answer my questions. He confirmed the mountain was Ama Dablam, a popular peak for experienced climbers. It turned out over the coming months he planned to solo climb three of the area’s most difficult peaks, including Ama Dablam. I admired his sense of adventure, one man carving his own path high above the clouds, one slip away from being dashed into hamburger on the rocks below. Crazy bastard, I thought.
Reaching the summit, I followed a thin ridge even higher and hopped over a couple of chasms. Cliffs plunged vertically on both sides of the ridge and gusts of wind threatened to whip me over the precipice so I slumped to the deck. The view from the peak was resplendent. I felt a fierce joy standing on the blustery peak surrounded by a such a panorama. After a while we descended back to Dingboche and planned our next move. We had seen an advert for a teahouse called ‘eco-lodge’ whose advertising promised luxury beyond our wildest dreams. Shivering back to my subzero room I imagined the opulent lodgings we had all convinced ourselves awaited at our next stop.
Dingboche to Lobuche
The snowstorm that Si had warned us about was in full force when we set off the next day for Lobuche. A dense mist blocked any view of the sky and icy rain steadily soaked us through. The Israeli trekkers Robert was chatting to back in Namche had now joined our group after joining us for a game of cards the previous night. You would think playing cards and drinking tea all night would wear thin after a while. And it did. But the lack of internet and inability to constantly charge smartphones was a blessing, forcing us to eschew the banal treadmill of social media and making conversation the main entertainment every night.
As we forged ahead, face-down into the lashing rain, a ghostly figure approached in my peripheral vision. I turned to see a young man running along the track in translucent white overalls. An English guy it turned out, who had ascended in only five days against all advice.
“You might want to take a rest day,” I said. “Once altitude sickness catches up with you, you’ll keel over like a cockroach.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m dosed up on painkillers and diamox.”
Diamox is a medication that many trekkers take in the Himalayas. It increases the concentration of oxygen in the blood by tricking the body into thinking it has excess carbon dioxide which causes deeper and faster breathing. Si had been dosing himself up with the drug throughout the trek, but I felt that might mask vital symptoms and went diamox-free.
We stopped halfway at a village called Dughla for some more shriveled apples before heaving our way up another steep incline. At the top, the plain was strewn with memorial monuments for climbers who had died in the mountains, predominantly made of stacked rocks. We took a look around then plowed on through the mist to Lobuche.
Lobuche. The final stop before the old base camp, Gorak Shep. The terrain had become almost entirely harsh and rocky and the vain longing for the luxury hinted at by eco lodge’s advertising ceded to the levels of austerity expected. After a stroll around the village, we settled in a small cafe to play some cards.
At this altitude, a persons peripheral blood oxygen levels plummet. A tense giddiness permeated the cafe’s atmosphere. I tried to ignore the spectacle on the table opposite, as medics restrained a frantic tourist in her mid-fifties, repeatedly stopping her from ripping the oxygen mask from her face, as she jerked around in panic. The throb of the rescue helicopter became louder and when it was directly overhead, the medics escorted the woman out, followed by a small group of her trekking mates.
Acute mountain sickness can quickly lead to death as fluid accumulates on the brain and in the lungs. Immediate descent in altitude is the only wise option. On the trek up to Lobuche we had encountered another delirious trekker passing the other way, strapped to a horse that was trotting down the hill through the mist, sherpa guide in tow. A stark reminder of the importance of plumping for helicopter rescue insurance.
Lobuche to Gorak Shep
Gorak Shep was our destination the next day. The final stop on the base camp trail. At this point of the trek we would be higher than 5000m in altitude. The lack of oxygen available brought a slugginess of movement that gave me a new sense of empathy for the lethargy many people must endure in old age.
The landscape gradually transitioned from tundra to fully lunar as the highest snow-capped peaks revealed themselves on the horizon. Throughout the whole trip, although there was a steady stream of trekkers, I had never felt part of a tourist trap.
Encountering the escalator-like scene on one of the boulder-strewn hills just before arriving at Gorak Shep however raised a chuckle. Trekkers fought for position as fiercely as rush hour on the London Underground.
Arriving in Gorak Shep was an extraordinary experience. The path rose over the final crest and suddenly opened up into a vast dry lakebed. The brown mound of Kala Patthar loomed behind the majestic Pumori, which towered beyond.
There was no time to waste now we had arrived; many trekkers will continue from Gorak Shep either to Everest Base Camp or to the summit of Kala Patthar on the same day. One thing you don’t expect on this trek is that Everest itself is barely visible from Gorak Shep. After yet another serving of dal bhat we set our sights on the top of the Kala Patthar, which looked like a gentle stroll compared to the icy giants which surrounded us. We were now more than 5000 metres above sea level and the lack of oxygen forced us into a sluggish pace, each step a struggle.
The scale of this huge mound became apparent as I pulled ahead of the group, determined to reach the top before a sizeable cloud could obscure the Everest massif. I turned my head to check on the rest of the group. I could barely make them out, attempting to identify people by their jacket colours. My shouts of encouragement were quickly extinguished by the vastness.
After a couple of demoralising false summits, the windswept flagpole marking the top emerged and the dusty ground gave way to a steep section of boulders. The tortutous feeling of every step seemed to melt away as I bounded up the final boulders and spreadeagled on a flat rock at the summit. The wind whipped the multitude strings of prayer flags about furiously. After a breather I stood to observe the spectacular panorama of the Everest massif.