Sagarmatha Park in Nepal
Within a couple of months of (probably) leaving Bangladesh for ever, making a move to trek in Nepal was now-or-never. The timing was good because the best seasons are just before the monsoon or just after, ie, April - May and September - October. Otherwise it's really wet or cold. A friend here is Dhaka showed us some video of his trip to Everest Base Camp in October 2005 and convinced us that our first trek in Nepal should be the Big One. He recommended a local Nepal trek operator that had been good for him, (Nepal Experienced Adventure Treks), and we arranged the whole thing on the internet with the owner, Chandra: US$900 each for the guide, porter, return flight from Kathmandu to the trailhead at Lukla, food and lodging on the trail for twelve days, Sagarmatha Park fees, three nights in Kathmandu and some other insignificant benefits. Later I estimated his costs and concluded that we could have done it on our own for $300 less each, assuming we knew before what we learned on the trail, plus the anxiety of handling the logistics ourselves, so I think the cost was worthwhile. Where else can you get 15 days of all-expenses-paid supervised holiday for $900?
On Friday April 20 we flew to Kathmandu from Dhaka. On other flights taking care to sit on the right-hand side of the plane we've seen Mt. Everest but not this time. Chandra met us at the airport and took us to the International Guest House, just outside of Thamel, the tourist ghetto near the centre of the city. Then he took us to his office to do the transaction, meet our guide Bhim and issue us with sleeping bags and down parkas. Pepa had zero cold-weather gear so with Bhim we hit the trekkers' knock-off market to outfit her, eg, maybe-Gortex parka and pants, mits, boots that miraculously gave her no blisters, fleece pants and shirts, and so on. Oh, and one of those Forest Gump trapper hats with a faux-fur flap that folds down over the ears and neck when necessary, for example, in her sleeping bag at 5000m.
Next morning at the crack o' dawn we went with Bhim to the airport for our 6:30 flight to Lukla. In the terminal, every hour or so until 2pm, we'd hear some garbled Nepali on the PA system with the word "Lukla" in it, and then in English they'd say the flights were delayed due to clouds. Finally they announced they were cancelled and we went back to the city. After Dhaka, Kathmandu is a big treat for us so we weren't unhappy. The food is good, you can get a drink with your meal and Thamel is fun, even for non-shoppers like me.
Next morning was cloudless. Barely missing a stride we were out of bed and on the plane to Lukla.
The aircraft is a Short-TakeOff-and-Landing Donier 228, capable of operating out of the tiny and unlikely Lukla airport, a tilted 475m strip of asphalt 60 meters lower at one end than the other. Mountain weather constrains flights to the mornings.
We waited in Lukla for an hour while Bhim recruited a porter from among the hundreds of hungry-looking young men who crowded the narrow alley beside the terminal building. Our bags weighed about 30kg, total. The porter lashed them together and set off nimbly under the load, supported on his back with a trump-line. We followed with our day-packs, joining the traffic of trekkers, porters, laden buffalos, school children and other locals on the trail. The nearest road comes from Kathmandu and ends at Jiri, five days walk west of Lukla. Except for goods arriving by air, everything not hewn from local stone and wood or grown on the terraced hillsides comes on the back of a man or a buffalo from Jiri or Tibet, on trails like this one that cling to the sides of valleys, crawl along ridges, cross gorges on 100m-long suspension bridges, switchback up and down vertiginous mountainsides and thread intimately through villages. Our first day's walk to Phakding, a mere 2.5 hour net-downhill amble, was all of this. Lofty ice-capped peaks broke the skyline of steeply forested hills.
The Shangri-La Guest House and Restaurant in Phakding, our first-night's lodging, was typical: a communal living room with cushioned benches and tables around the walls and a yak-dung stove in the centre; and some 8'cubed rooms with a pair of narrow beds, a window and maybe a lightbulb. The beds invariably have a foam mattress, a pillow and a thick blanket or comforter. A kitchen supports an impressively long list of menu items which are, on closer examination, mainly based on potatoes, supplemented by pasta, pizza and soups. Bhim warned us not to order meat because of uncertainty of provenance and non-existence of refrigeration, so we entered an unprecedented interval of vegetarianism, and incidentally alcohol abstention.
After dinner Pepa asked Bhim who the young man was by the stove, who had materialized so gradually we couldn't remember when we first noticed his presence. That's Prakas, your porter, said Bhim. Pepa let out a shriek of amazement, focusing her full attention on the unfortunate lad. We learned that he was 17 years old and could speak English about as well as we could speak Nepali. I've never seen anyone do "bashful" so thoroughly. Incidentally, one useful phrase we learned was "Jum, jum, Didi". Bhim said this once and I took it up to tease Pepa. "Jum" is "let's go" and "Didi" is a respectful form of address that means "elder sister".
At noon on the second day we entered the park at Monjo. By this time we'd recovered the altitude we'd lost going down to Phakding. In the crowd milling about the park permit offices, Pepa noticed a guy on crutches with an artificial leg. We met him later, camped in a party of Iranian veterans of the Iran-Iraq war, many disabled in some manner, if you can call an Everest Base Camp trekker "disabled". From Monjo the trail stayed near the river-bottom until the junction of two streams, the Dodh Koshi that drains the glaciers in the Everest region and the Bhote Koshi that comes from the northwest. There it rose steeply and painfully to Namche Bazar.
We stayed two nights in Namche, having a rest day intended to give our bodies a chance to adjust to the altitude. The term "rest day" is nominal because continuing the adjustment regimen we walked to the Everest View Hotel, which at 3875m is 400m higher than Namche. When you're not used to altitude, you feel a breathlessness, lower performance and diminished motivation for activity. The glorious Himalayan panoramas help a lot. Also seeing the loads carried by the little Sherpa porters disinclines whining. Counting 7 boxes (24 cans each) of beer and a 20 liter bottle of kerosene, plus an unidentified box of something else, I calculated the load of one fellow I saw to be at least 70kg.
The daily routine was: wake at 6, ablutions, pack bags, breakfast at 7, on the trail at 7:30, walk for a couple of hours, stop at a teahouse, walk some more, have lunch somewhere, walk again and arrive at the next lodging, pooped usually, at about 2pm. In the meantime Prakas would have gone ahead to secure the next lodgings and we'd find our bags there. By this time the mountain clouds would have closed in and even snow might be falling, making outdoor activity unattractive, so we'd hang out in the living room wrapped in comforters, reading, writing journals and enjoying the company of our fellow-trekkers, some of whom we saw every day. At about 6 the lodge operator would fire up the stove and the guides and porters would draw chairs close around it, talking and laughing and airing their smelly feet, while the foreigners stayed back on the wall-benches. The guide would take our dinner order and convey it to the cook, and presently plates of steaming food would arrive. By 8 the fire would have died to nothing, the foreigners would be snoring in their beds and the guides and porters would be curled up on the wall-benches.
A big Italian man from Venice named Marco who we first met in the trekking outfit offices and got to like during the wasted day at Kathmandu airport, had arranged a much longer trip (Gokyo, Cho La, Everst Base Camp, Dingboche, Island Peak) that diverged from ours after Namche. He had a guide (Akash) but no porter and carried his pack himself, leading to some teasing that Marco was the porter and Acash was the client. The big hill up to Namche appeared to have damaged one of Marco's knees, though, and he was worried about his ability to continue. Fortunately a Dutch doctor who was also staying in the lodge in Namche examined him and finding no mechanical problems, encouraged him to swap packs with his guide and go on. Next day on the way to Tengboche we parted company so we don't know how he made out.
Tengboche is a gorgeous place. We could see it leaving Namche on a shoulder of the ridge across the valley, and it's visible in the picture above.
Tengboche is the site of the largest Buddhist monastery in Nepal. Icy peaks tower over it on all sides. The way to Gokyo is up the valley in the picture above. Forests of rhododendrons flower on the mountain-sides. We stayed in the Tashi Delek Guest House; "tashi delek" is a common Tibetan greeting, and a popular guest house name rivaled only by "Moonlight Lodge".
The peaks are Nuptse, with Mt. Everest behind and Lotse on the right almost obscured by cloud.
In Tengboche at the lodge we stayed in we met an American woman whose husband and another man were at that moment on Ama Dablan, which Bhim told us is a very difficult and technical climb. On the way back to Lukla a week later we met her again, with her husband. He said that they underestimated the time they'd need to climb the mountain and after eight days they summited with no food left and three days to get down. His partner had frostbitten feet, and kidney problems from starvation. Bhim said that Ama Dhablan means "mother and son", referring to its two peaks.
We stayed two days in Dingboche, with a rest day during which we walked up the Imja Khola valley toward Chhukhung to get a couple of hundred meters more altitude in preparation for the big rise to Gorak Shep and Kala Patthar. This is a route to Island Peak (6189m), one of several in the park that you don't need to pay another fee to climb. We could make it out ahead in the gathering clouds and light blowing snowflakes. Our path from Namche in the previous couple of days, when we first saw Ama Dablan, had led us to see the mountain from an arc of almost 180 degrees. Vegetation here is reduced to stunted heather and mats of peat-like moss. A Polish fellow in the lodge with us, who had walked with his wife for nine days from Jiri to Lukla instead of flying like we did, was struggling with the altitude even at Dingboche's relatively modest elevation of 4410m, with headaches and vomiting. The guidelines for dealing with altitude sickness symptoms are to remain at that elevation until the symptoms go away, and if they don't, to descend to an altitude lower than where the symptoms first occurred. The Poles decided to go down. People have died from altitude sickness even at 4000m.
Bhim charmed us with his whistling and singing from a large repertoire of Nepali popular songs and Buddhist hymns. Labouring up some interminable slope toward a distant skyline that always revealed another, even higher one, we'd be distracted from our struggles by his melodious voice.
Pheriche is about 100m lower than Dingboche, a few minutes walk just over the hill. There is a Himalayan Rescue Association clinic there staffed by volunteer doctors where people suffering from altitude sickness can be treated. In a current project being covered by BBC in a documentary to be aired on the Discovery Channel, the HRA is testing volunteers in Pheriche, Everest Base Camp and higher camps to understand the nature of Acute Mountain Sickness.
Our next night was at Lobuche (4910m), a bleak outpost on the side of the Khumbu Glacier moraine. I awoke in the morning with a headache and suggested that we have a rest day because I wanted to improve my chances of getting to the top of the trek, Kala Patthar, at 5550m. However, the day we'd lost waiting in Kathmandu for the Lukla flight made this awkward. Following the rule to not go higher with altitude sickness symptoms, we stayed in Lobuche after breakfast instead of setting out as usual. At 9am the headache was gone so we packed and left for Gorak Shep.
When people get to Gorak Shep (5140m), they usually leave their gear in a lodge and walk for a couple of more hours up the glacier to Everest Base Camp, then come back for the night. It's a hard day, unrewarded by a view of Mt. Everest, but walking among the feet of giants must be impressive. We don't know because we stayed panting in the lodge, which billed itself as "The Highest Hotel on Earth", distinguished from its competitors by a second floor. At 5am next morning Bhim hammered on our door to start the walk up to Kala Patthar. Pepa bailed and I got up, with a headache again, and met Bhim out in the gloom of the dawn. We began to trudge up the hill on the path visible in the picture above. My headache pounded. At about 100m above Gorak Shep we could see Mt. Everest peeking over the flank of Nuptse. The dawn was dull because of a high overcast, without the blazing gold and pink we might have seen on another day. I took a 360 degree panorama of pictures and said to Bhim, let's go have breakfast. I had a feeling I'd regret not pushing on, for example, right now while I'm writing this, but it seemed wise at the time.
Porters carry amazing loads, usually in a conical wicker basket that can be extended for greater capacity with sticks and ropes. They hang the basket from their forehead on a trump-line, which is a circle of rope with a band of fabric where it rests on the forehead, that supports the loaded basket against the porter's back. Villages on the porter routes provide stone ledges constructed at just the right height to transfer the weight of the basket to rest and then to take the load again. Porters carry a T-shaped stick that they use to support the load on the ground when they want to rest, and possibly as a walking stick as well.
Some porters work simply as a service, paid by the weight they carry, which currently is about 10 rupees per kilo per day. So a porter carrying 70kg is earning about US$10 a day. Others are businessmen who buy goods, carry them to a place where they have more value and take the difference as their profit.
The walk that took us from Lukla to Gorak Shep in nine days, including two rest days, was just a three day descent. They were longer days though, 7 - 8 hours. Our first night on the way back was at Pangboche, a charming town between Periche and Tengboche that we thought would be an ideal place to hang out for a few weeks, using it as a base. Once there you would be nicely adjusted to visit higher places, and then come back to rest between adventures.
We stayed again at the Moonlight Lodge in Namche with its improbable liquor cabinet of MANY bottles of Johnny Walker Red Scotch Whiskey in liter and demijohn sizes, begging the question of who drinks so much at that altitude, and its lethargic miniature poodle. After Lobuche, Gorak Shep, etc., the blanket seemed superfluous although I recall being grateful for it on the way up.
The last day, from Namche to Lukla which we did in two on the way up, was hard. The final bit from Phakding is uphill. Pepa wanted a horse, but we eventually dragged our asses into Lukla in the rain, 8.5 hours later.
There's lots more to do in Nepal. Jum, jum, Didi!