Travel Blog Part Fourteen: The Khumbu, Nepal

Last stop on our trip is the mighty Khumbu, home to Mount Everest, along with two other peaks in the world's top ten (Lhotse and Makaulu). It's cold, high and the very definition of bleak, with pretty basic accommodation. Iced over toilets are a new experience forus and most of the dhal bhats comes without popadoms for God's sake - but when you are making a pilgrimage to the top of the world there should be some hardship involved, no?

The Place
I usually cringe when I hear the phrase 'trip of a lifetime' - I feel it's one of many ways in which we are subtly but unrelentingly indoctrinated not to live our lives as we want to. The 'trip of a lifetime' is the allowable method of stepping (just fleetingly mind) outside of the 9am - 5pm worker-bee-lifestyle; it's OK to do it once but more than once would be irresponsibly self-indulgent. As I painfully slog up Kala Pattar (highest point on the trek) though, for once I actually find myself agreeing with that odious phrase - the Everest trek probably is really something you only do once. Because I've been here before, you see (15 years ago) - and mountains change over millennia not human lifetimes. In short the view looks pretty much the same as it did last time...

There are two very good reasons for being here though: one is because Rich hasn't done it before and the other is because I'm once again on a photo mission.

Day 1: Kathmandu - Lukla - Phakding
Lukla airport, NepalThe Pokhara to Jomson flight is a distant memory - hey it was days ago and I'm ready for another hair-raising ride, this time from Kathmandu to Lukla (see airstrip in the image right). Lukla airport is pretty amazing - it's on a shelf of flat(ish) ground in the shadow of Gonglha mountain (5808m) overhanging a drop of hundreds of feet to the Dudh Kosi valley far below. The runway is necessarily short and the solid rock mountain end of it is actually 50m higher than the bottomless chasm end, either of which it would be bad to come into close contact with... Rich has decided to go the purist (and non-air bourne) route and walk in to the Everest region from the road head at Jiri. This adds another 6-7 days to the trek and is quite a slog; the path runs from west to east and cuts across most of the valleys in the area which are north/south oriented, so there's lots of up and down. I did that last time and am not keen to repeat it so he's walking and I'm flying - and we're meeting up in Lukla where the real fun begins...

Trekking lodge in NepalThe flight turns out to be fine in fact and we have a lovely reunion as we've been apart for about 10 days - not so long I know, but there's been no e-mail, no facebook, no phone in all that time; it's probably the longest we've been completely out of contact with each other since we were married. From Lukla it's a short 2 hour walk or so to our first overnight stop at Phakding, so once I've passed over my sleeping bag and tripod to Rich, who accepts them with great magnanimity I must admit, off we trudge. Phakding turns out to be a rather dank place - not much to say about it really except the dhal bhat includes a popadom which is always good. The teahouse where we stay is typical of the Khumbu area (see image above left) - most are tiny, plain rooms with 2 single beds and cost Rps 200 (about £1.60) - on the condition that you eat all your meals at the guesthouse. Hot showers are extra.

Day 2: Phakding - Namche
Namche, NepalToday we get stuck into some proper walking - and it's not all fun and games. For today holds the 'Namche Hill', a steep, unrelenting uphill slog of around 600 vertical meters. That might not sound like much but with 11kgs on my back, and having just finished a week of stuffing my face with lemon meringue pie, it's pretty tough going. Namche (3440m) is the main town of the Sherpa Khumbu region. It's predominantly a trading town rather than an agricultural one and historically was a major stop on one of the main trading routes between India and Tibet; the odd Tibetan can still be seen in town on market days. Its setting is pretty dramatic (see image above right), nestling in a natural amphitheater suspended above the Bhote Kosi river on the opposite bank of which rises the Kongde Ri (6187m). It's like a little Kathmandu with lots of trekking shops, cafés and some pretty smart looking hotels and, as we have to stay here for 2 nights for acclimatization reasons we treat ourselves to a room with attached loo. Little do we know it's to be the last decent sleep we'll have for a while...

Stupa above Namche, NepalAcclimatization is all important on the Everest trek and has to be taken seriously otherwise all sorts of grisly things start happening to you. Remember Arnie's red face and popping out eyes in 'Total Recall'? Well of course high altitude doesn't actually make your eyes pop out but it can make your lungs fill with fluid until you drown or your brain swell up and your retinas hemorrhage, and unless dealt with can quickly be fatal. Nasty stuff, and it's often the young, fit ones who succumb first as they think that AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) won't affect them. We actually met one young chap and runner of more than one marathon who was struggling above 4900m and had to turn back before Kala Pattar.

Day 3: Acclimatization day in Namche
Acclimatization is all about climbing high during the day and coming down to sleep lower at night, so rather than do what we would have liked to today, namely sit in a nice warm coffee shop surfing the net (faster here than in Kathmandu would you believe it?) we take a walk up a very steep hill, past some chortens and prayer flags (see image left) to the village of Khumjung (3780m). It's a beautiful day, sunny and quite warm and as we crest the hill above Namche we get our first view of Everest. At this location stands the (in my opinion) ill-advised 'Everest View Hotel'. There's a helipad here for tourists who can be helicoptered straight here from Kathmandu. Good thing the rooms have panoramic windows - most people will be spending the whole of their visit in bed with a pounding headache if they've ascended from 1300m to just under 4000m in one go!

It's a great relief to walk without the bags today and we return to Namche with a hop, skip and a jump - fuelled by an above average dhal bhat (although sadly lacking a popadom) taken at a nice teahouse in Khumjung. Back at our guest house this evening are some new arrivals - a 'G Adventures' tour group on their way down from Kala Pattar who are positively giddy with the anticipated delights of Namche. I'm sure when we're on our way down this town will also feel like the 'Big Smoke'!

Day 4: Namche - Tengboche
Trekking in NepalWe have wonderful weather again today - and even better - a fairly level trail. There are good views of Everest on this part of the route and it's a joy to walk (see image right). Our destination today is Tengboche (3860m), home of the most important and largest Buddhist monastery in the Khumbu. Tenzing Norgay (first man to climb Everest) was born around here and was even sent to the monastery to be a monk for a while.

I would estimate Namche to have around 20 - 25 hotels; Tengboche seems to have only 4. As most people who trek to Namche then continue to Tengboche this creates something of an accommodation bottleneck and for the first time on this walk our guesthouse seems really busy. That's not necessarily a bad thing (in the Annapurnas it sometimes felt that we were the only trekkers in the whole region!) but tonight over dinner it feels uncomfortably congested. Stuck between one particularly whingey tour group who are moaning to their guide about the lack of running water and a bunch of rather loud card-playing Russians I suddenly long for the peace of the Annapurnas. But worse is in store when it turns out that there is one toilet between around 20 rooms... One inevitable effect of altitude (and cold) is that you need to wee a lot more than usual, which is not a problem in a nice cosy hotel room in Kathmandu or Pokhara with a lovely, clean attached bathroom but in Tengboche at 2am it's a real pain in the a*se! Enough said about that I think...

Day 5: Tengboche - Dingboche
I'm up before sunrise this morning - deliberately I admit, although insomnia did obviate the need to set my alarm - to take some dawn photos. Everest is visible from Tengboche although this morning it's hidden by some clouds loitering over the summit of Nuptse. The offending clouds are a nice dramatic shade of pink so I let them off and snap away fairly contentedly. It's a fairly successful shoot, run-in with an angry yak notwithstanding, and I'm in a good mood as we set off for Dingboche. Yaks in NepalI read a quote somewhere once that goes "Tourists don't know where they've been, travellers don't know where they're going"  which I certainly found to be true during my tour-leading days. The passive experience of the tour group member, in comparison to the adrenaline filled adventure of the solo backpacker, means that many package tourists do forget where they've been, or don't even really pay 100% attention to where they are when they're there! This seems certainly to be the case around here where tourists can't tell their Dingboche from their Pangboche from their Tengboche! I know, I know they do sound similar, but things stick in your head a lot better when you have to find your own way there rather than follow the (figurative) tail of the yak in front...

We arrive in Dingboche (4410m) in pretty good time but for altitude reasons it would be unwise to ascend any higher today so we find a nice guesthouse and relax (i.e. twiddle our thumbs) for the rest of the afternoon.

Day 6: Acclimatization day in Dingboche
It snowed during the night and was mighty chilly, making the two nocturnal visits to the loo especially unpleasant! This morning is beautiful though, with a clear sky and light dusting of snow on the ground. Following a dawn photo-shoot, resulting in frozen fingers and toes, we head out to Chhukhung, a village up a side valley from Dingboche on the way to the trekking summit of Island Peak (6189m). We're not planning to climb the peak - which would be a strenuous undertaking of a few days - we're just walking as far as Chhukhung today as part of our acclimatization schedule. The landscape has changed noticeably since Namche - we are just above the tree line here and it looks for all the world like the moorland of north England, apart from the 7000m+ mountains here and there of course. It's getting really bleak now and is starting to have that 'end of the world' feel that you get at higher altitudes. In fact Dingboche and neighbouring Pheriche (on the other side of a nearby ridge) are the highest permanently inhabited villages in the Khumbu - everything above here is purpose built for trekkers and is only open during the hiking seasons.

Above Dingboche, NepalIt's here that we get our first proper high mountain scenery - at Chhukhung we are at the foot of Lhotse (at 8516m the fourth highest mountain in the world - see image right) and at the confluence of 5 major glaciers. It's awesome stuff but the sudden onset of an altitude headache sends me scurrying back down to Dingboche and its lovely, lovely hot chocolate.

Day 7: Dingboche - Lobuche
We're aiming for Lobuche (4910m) today but I'm wondering how I'll fare after the headache of yesterday. We decide to give it a go as the alternative is to overnight at the small hamlet of Dughla which is only a 2 hour walk away from here. Although that sounds like the preferable and easy option, there is nothing to do in the evenings around these places and an afternoon of leisure is actually not such a great thing. There's only so many games of cards you can usefully play in one afternoon without risking your sanity...

Scott Fischer's memorial, NepalWe stop for lunch at Dughla (NO PAPADOM! - the dhal bhats of the Annapurnas were vastly superior) and elect to continue on the Lobuche. It's a steep climb directly up the terminal moraine of the Khumbu Glacier to Lobuche but a great view awaits at the top of the slope - one of the best views of the whole trek in fact. A panorama of 6000m+ peaks is laid out before us including the beautiful Amadablam (6814m) and the jagged and impressive Thamserku (6618m). Also up here are 30 or 40 memorials to climbers who have died on Everest including one to Scott Fischer (see image above left), forever immortalized by the gripping book 'Into Thin Air' by Jon Krakauer. It's pretty much de rigueur to read 'Into Thin Air' either whilst trekking to Everest or shortly before/after. Seeing with one's own eyes and experiencing the locations referred to in the book while those horrible and unforgettable events are still fresh in your mind is an almost unmissable part of any visit to this region. I certainly recommend reading it even if you're not planning to trek here.

Day 8: Lobuche - Kala Pattar - Pheriche
Lobuche, NepalToday is the big push for the top! Well the top of Kala Pattar (5545m) anyway...Setting off really early we're walking alone the entire way which is a refreshing change after the hordes on the trail the last few days. It's a landscape of glaciers, tundra and moraine; a pretty wild place. I can only imagine how Everest climbers must feel when they reach this altitude - they are in the wilds and still have over 3000m to ascend - scary stuff. Although I once was attracted to the idea of climbing Everest there's no way I would want to even try now - I just don't like being cold, and I like yummy food. There's far too much of one and none of the other up here! The hardest thing I find about trekking is the cold - the actual walking is (usually) a pleasure.

So we scoot - as much as is possible over 5000m - up Kala Pattar but don't hang around too long; just enough to get the obligatory snaps of us in front of the Big E. It's then a speedy retreat to Lobuche from where we continue on the Pheriche (4240m) which feels positively balmy after where we've been today...At our guesthouse we get chatting to an American guy who is preparing to climb Lhotse (8516m). He doesn't look like Superman but he must be the nuts!!

Days 9 - 11: Pheriche - Kyangjuma - Monjo - Lukla
It's a case of retracing our steps now back to Lukla which we do as fast as possible - the lure of Kathmandu becoming stronger with the ever-thickening air. One last surprise awaits us though in the form of our host in Kyangjuma. Mr. Nawang Sherpa, at first appearances, is a self effacing chap, who owns a modest guesthouse (although he's built a new wing just recently) and a yak. But once you sit down in the dining room of his teahouse and cast your eyes around the warm but rather dim room you notice photos of him on a very, very high place - and it turns out that Mr. Nawang is an Everest summiteer. Here's his story:

Everest sumiteerIn 2003, the 50th year of the anniversary of the first ascent of Everest, Mr. Nawang was employed by a French commercial expedition to Everest as a climbing Sherpa (i.e. one that doesn't just haul loads but has climbing skills). All went smoothly until the group reached Camp 1 above the Khumbu Icefall whereupon the expedition member in charge of videoing the ascent was discovered dead in his tent one morning. The group was understandably distraught, not least the sound guy who was a very close friend with the camera man. Although generally the removal of bodies at high altitude is not attempted, below the high camps it is usual, and so the Sherpas, Mr. Nawang included, managed to lower the body through the crevasses and seracs of the Khumbu Icefall to Base Camp. The icefall is notoriously dangerous and moves at several feet every day, causing new fissures to open up and things that were hidden to become uncovered! Our host noted that many body parts were visible amongst the ice of the falls that day - not something a would-be conqueror of Everest really wants to be reminded of...

The expedition continued sans camera and sound until summit day arrived. 2 French climbers accompanied by 2 Sherpas, one of whom was Nawang, were chosen to attempt the summit. It soon became clear that Nawang's climbing partner was suffering severely from hypoxia; claiming repeatedly that he'd forgotten his socks and wanted to return to Camp 4 to get them. The climber descended but Nawang elected to continue. Being a strong climber he arrived at the summit around 9am, the first climber to reach the summit that morning. As he hauled himself over the summit ridge the first thing that he saw was a Thanka (Buddhist religious painting) that had been left by a previous summiteer. Believing this to be a sign from God and overcome with religious fervour (and probably some relief at reaching the summit) Nawang fell to his knees to pray. Shortly behind him were the second Frenchman and his Sherpa who, cresting the final summit ridge found Nawang to all appearances collapsed dead in the snow. To everyone's relief this was not the case and a few summit photos were snapped (see image above left) before all descended safely to Camp 4 on the South Col.

Day 12: Lukla - Kathmandu
Well our own little adventure seems tame in comparison, and Rich is visibly awed by having met an Everest summiteer, however on our way to Lukla today we come across a Sherpa sweeping the trail outside his little shop who tells us he's climbed Everest 4 times! "Everyone's done it" he says with a nonchalant wave of his hand. I'm left unsure whether to be amazed to have met 2 Everest summiteers or disappointed that they seem to be common as muck. Around here at least!

The Picture

Porters on the road to Namche, NepalI found it quite hard to chose a picture for this blog entry - there wasn't one stand-out image as is often the case. In the end I chose this one, not because it's the most dramatic (compared to some of the mountain scenery we saw nearer the end) but because the compressed perspective and two human figures give the impression of the mountain being higher and more impressive than it actually is. I don't often include people in my shots but without these two guys this shot wouldn't work at all.

I got up around 4:30 for this shot and walked for around 15 minutes to a viewpoint that I had scouted out the afternoon before. It was very quiet on the path, and a little scary, but soon enough the first porters of the day were making their way to Namche to pick up their first loads and I got busy snapping away...

The shot was 1/20 secs at f/11using the tripod and a 2 stop ND Grad filter.
This entry was posted in Holly's Travel Blog.