By Michael Robinson
My fellow passenger hogs the cockpit door view of the Twin Otter aircraft. His obsession with photographing the instrumentation dissipates as we spy the airstrip carved high into the Himalayan terrain. The co-pilot’s hand is brushed aside as it enters his viewfinder. The looming runway slopes uphill, the plane is nose-diving toward it, the angles don’t seem to match up. A crash landing appears imminent as the plane hurtles downward. At the last moment the pilot pulls up the nose creating a downdraft that slows the plane, we land and the motors are thrown into a howling full-throttle reverse thrust. The stonewall at the end of the runway no longer looks necessary. The photographer is jubilant, tears well in his eyes and he temporarily forgets to record this moment.
Elated, Cecile and I file out of the 18-seater aircraft onto the gravel airstrip, into the clear, crisp air of 2800 metre altitude. This is Lukla, in the Solu-Khumbu region of Nepal, and the starting point for our Everest trek. It’s a relief to have left behind the smoggy pall and snarling traffic of Kathmandu and to arrive at this sleepy town where a brace of mountains teeter around us.
A few porters willing to carry our packs approach us half-heartedly. We wish to be independent and politely refuse. Once my 15 kg pack is slung on I begin to rue our selfish intentions. Compounding this is my fragile health; I’m still recovering from being sick – the Curse of Kathmandu – and have succumbed to a cold. Cecile soldiers on enraptured with the scenery and the euphoria of that ‘I don’t believe I’m finally here’ feeling. This translates into a photographic frenzy; nothing escapes the camera’s attention – porters, yaks, mountain flowers, villages and those over-arching, snow-clad peaks.
Our first night is spent in the village of Phakding. From our lodge dining room we can see and hear the roaring Dudh Kosi River. We climb stairs so steep that they resemble a ladder up to our pokey, plywood-walled room. Shivering we change into our sleeping attire and zip ourselves into our new sleeping bags. The acid test – are they warm enough? After twenty minutes I take my socks off, quickly followed by my T-shirt and beanie – they’re working a treat.
The next day was gloriously fine and warm with postcard mountain scenery revealed around virtually every bend in the trail. We crossed the Dudh Kosi on impressive steel swing bridges, a far cry from the log and stone affairs I had negotiated in 1986. Finally the ascent up to Namche that was much steeper and longer than I had remembered. We were stopping frequently from the effects of exhaustion and altitude. Trekkers descending didn’t make it any easier with their relentlessly upbeat comments, “only half an hour now” when I was counting on it being five minutes.
We eventually staggered into town past a German bakery, a pizzeria advertising Internet access and past innumerable stalls selling tourist kitsch. Trekkers replete in their brightly colored down jackets, enormous packs and sporting ski poles strike an almost alien chord.
A curtain embroidered with a Buddhist design hangs over a low-set doorframe. It catches on my pack as I bend to enter the famous Khumbu Lodge. It has an amazing dining room vista looking out over the natural amphitheater that cradles this town. South facing, the room catches the sun and is a warm haven from the winter chill outside. We are shown upstairs to a room opposite the Jimmy Carter suite, where the former US president and his wife stayed in 1985. A poster advertising Rob Hall’s ‘Adventure Consultants’ company still hangs, a melancholy reminder of the 1996 Everest tragedy as detailed in “Into Thin Air”.
A ragtag collection of Tibetan traders has mustered their yaks in a lower field. Outside of their tents are spread garishly coloured cheap Chinese blankets and clothes. Wealthy Sherpa desultorily inspect their wares while trekkers intermingle looking for photo opportunities. The Tibetan’s skittish yaks are regularly herded through the narrow cobble-stoned lanes of town. Yak bells hanging from shaggy necks herald their presence and it’s prudent to duck into a shop or off the path to avoid being knocked over.
After a day of acclimatizing to the 3450m altitude we head off to the Gokyo valley. The main trail heading up the valley beyond Namche is remarkable for the fact that it follows a contour and remains nearly level all the way to Kyangjuma. From within a teahouse at this village comes the unmistakable low “Om” chanting of Tibetan Buddhist monks. A fire has been lit outside and a monk tends it, collecting burning material on a dish and circulating the flame and smoke through the lodge for a blessing ceremony. Not far from here we spy the iridescent flash of an Impeyan pheasant’s plumage.
The turn-off to the Gokyo Valley marks the start of a steep ascent, initially on a slate rock staircase that falls away precariously on one side. Above this a more modest incline with a view of the ridge chorten, or stupa, at Mong is silhouetted against the sky. We order a late lunch here for the view is amazing. The imposing monastery below us at Tengboche is perched dramatically above the confluence of the Dudh Kosi and Imja Khola rivers. Every now and again a helicopter sweeps up the valley. Ama Dablam, at over 8000 metres, stands as sentinel over the alpine grandeur.
We can just see the rooftop of the lodge at Phortse Tenga, a dramatically steep 300m below us on the other side of the ridge. It’s good to be heading down and it only takes a short while before we arrive at a basic lodge crammed full with a polyglot collection of trekkers. A taciturn New Yorker reads “War and Peace” by the light of his already fading Petzel head torch. A Frenchman regales us with stories of living in the French Alps and the fact that he and his Swedish companion are heading up to Gokyo in one day – thumbing their noses at the recommended three days. An annoying Dutchman dismisses our delight at seeing icicles in the local stream and having spied a rare musk deer in the undergrowth outside the lodge. “Huh, I can see deer at home,” and “Quick, everyone grab their cameras,” is his sardonic response.
Next morning the lodge owner feeds her yak / cow cross (a dzopkyo) from a large plastic water container. A crow perches precariously on the cut out edge attempting to nuzzle in. Only a two-hour walk and we reach our destination, Dole. On an afternoon walk up the snow-flecked valley behind the small village we scan the mountains for snow leopard and yeti without success. We come across large pheasants called Tibetan snow cocks that meld into the rocky terrain. Their jittery dispositions make them voice a high-pitched alarm call and splay their tail feathers revealing a shock of bright and dark plumage.
The walk to Machermo the following day is in light snow. A pair of golden eagles circle effortlessly on valley thermals. That night the snow begins to flurry and we wake up with it still falling. Miraculously it eases mid-morning, the clouds clear and the sun breaks through. We decide to press on but are surprised at the number of trekkers we meet on the trail who have been spooked into returning. This is probably on the advice of Sherpas who aren’t fond of walking through snow in their sandshoes. It’s not deep but slippery, a steep descent at Pangka had us skating down a treacherously icy path. It was here in 1995 that an avalanche killed 40 trekkers and Sherpas camped in its path.
A series of small lakes are encountered, a Himalayan dipper industriously searches for food in the snowmelt stream at the head of the second lake. The snow is deeper here but we trudge through occasional thigh-deep drifts utilizing the tracks already made by others that day. On the shores of the larger third lake lies the village of Gokyo.
The ‘Gokyo Resort’ offers state of the art attractions: plywood walls so that next door’s room conversations keep you awake; a swinging door that slams every time someone goes outside; pine floors that reverberate with the stomping of boots; no electricity, water or gas; no insulation – our water bottles freeze overnight; and a wooden hole-in-the-floor toilet that has more misses than hits.
However, the resort does offer these supreme inducements: a large, warm dining room with good food and good company; a ‘sun-room’ constructed of windows that gets damp socks steaming; and a row of plastic chairs that face the lake and are conveniently situated outside the supply or ‘candy’ store. It’s a favorite spot for altitude-addled trekkers to slump zombie-like, soaking up the sun’s feeble rays. Himalayan choughs twist and turn whistling on the fickle breeze, landing now and again on slate rooftops whose eaves bear dripping ice stalactites. The tinkling of yak bells heralds more essential food supplies such as Snickers and Coke coming up the valley. Below lies the jade coloured Gokyo Lake surrounded by snow, sparkling in the sunshine. The edges are just beginning to freeze over. Several pairs of Siberian ducks make the most of these conditions before their inevitable winter departure.
Across the lake lies Gokyo Ri, the 5400m ‘hill’ that is the end-point for most trekkers. Training the binoculars on its steep flank reveals several groups of trekkers slowly zigzagging their way to the top. There’s no single trail but a series of switch-backing, eroded paths that eventually lead to a rocky summit, bedecked with prayer flags and stone cairns.
Our summit push left late in the day, after 3pm, in order to see sunset over Everest. The higher we went the more often we had to stop and rest. The light was amazing, only the tips of the highest peaks were lit as we staggered to the top. It faded quickly and the twilight bathed the whole Sagarmatha, Lhotse, Nuptse massif in a surreal indigo wash. A watch thermometer registered -5C. A pika, or mouse-hare, scampered about the rocks, obviously well fed on trekker’s crumbs of dried fruit, muesli bars and candy. Donning trusty Petzel head-torches, about eight of us set off together, winding our way down in the dark. The puny light thrown by some torch’s energy-drained batteries saw people careening down, trusting that their next step would land safely. At the bottom we had to cross an icy stream on stepping-stones. Our mass entrance into the resort’s dining room was met with a chorus of congratulations. Returning mountaineers, conquering heroes, we shrugged off the admiration with barely concealed modesty, describing the arduous climb as a doddle. Thawing out around the heater and ordering garlic soup and a rich pasta were suitable reward.
However, there was alarm at the non-appearance of two other trekkers who had set off up the valley earlier in the day and failed to return. As the evening wore on and the temperature plummeted talk of a rescue operation was raised. Others advocated against it, pointing out that the thigh-deep snow, freezing conditions and pitch-blackness could endanger the rescuers. It seemed a daylight search was our only option. The door eventually creaked open and in staggered the nearly frostbitten trekkers. They told a story of slow going through the snow, missing the trail and groping around in the dark. Their torch batteries were practically useless; they would periodically take them out and warm them next to their bodies. There’s a certain aura of bravado and a gung-ho attitude among some. I think all were chastened by the episode.
The next morning I was feeling the effects of altitude; a headache and no appetite so I took it pretty easy. In the afternoon, feeling stronger, we decided to visit the fourth lake by walking through snow and ice skirting along one side of the Ngozumpa Glacier. Much better views of Cho Oyu on the Tibetan border and of the aptly named ‘Fangs’ were braved through a freezing wind.
The recent snow had thwarted our plans to attempt crossing the Cho La pass. We didn’t have crampons or an ice axe and felt the steep scramble over snow and ice may have been too risky. Instead we head back down the Gokyo valley but cross the Dudh Kosi high up on a small bridge draped with icicles. This takes us on the opposite side of the valley and we spend a long day descending to Phortse. We cover the equivalent distance of three days walk uphill in one day down.
The trail today hugs the left side of the Imja Khola river valley. In places it drops away hundreds of metres. The views are relentlessly awesome. Ama Dablam continues to fill our vision at every turn. We pass through the large village of Pangboche wending our way past high stone buildings and clockwise around Mani stonewalls. The hubbub of village life is encountered, children returning home from school, women communally washing clothes in the creek, men busily engaged in conversation, porters resting beside their inordinately heavy loads sipping on chai. Unfortunately we need to press on and eventually reach Pheriche, by now cold, grey and bleak in the evening twilight.
A steep climb the next day levels off onto a sheltered plateau that contains the slate rock memorials to climbing dead. It is a sublimely melancholic location. A cavalcade of mountains arc around, now and again hidden or revealed by cloud racing up from the valley below.
The lodge we stayed in at Lobuche sucked. Arriving in the late afternoon meant we missed out on the recommended (warm) lodge. We had to be content with a freezing lodge, packed with other tardy trekkers, all of whom were closely huddled around the heater jealously guarding their positions from interlopers. The ‘heater’ was being lit again, a procedure that saw a bucket-load of yak dung dumped into the heating chamber, liberally doused with kerosine and a match thrown in. Great clouds of yak dung smoke would then billow out of the cracked iron stove and leaky flue. A distinctive sickly-sweet smell would fill the room accompanied by coughing fits and furious fanning of the air. These side effects were the real reason that kept people warmish – the heater was next to useless.
Escaping the horror I went outside to photograph the sunset on Nuptse. Exquisite mauves and pinks accentuated the snow and ice on its massive flank. Wispy clouds hugging its face appeared like candy floss. It’s an outstanding sight but it comes at the cost of freezing feet that took hours to warm through.
Eating is our favorite pastime. It’s also an important mechanism in fighting off the cold. We consume excessive amounts of ‘hot lemon’ which is lemon cordial, sugar and hot water. Nepal’s national dish, dal bhat is ordered. It tastes as good as it sounds. However, it is filling and you are usually offered a second helping of dal. Although with the increasing numbers of trekkers these days, most Sherpas can’t afford to maintain this custom. It’s not helped by trekkers who abuse it – those with the voracious appetites and impecunious natures.
A Canadian couple sharing our bench table admit to a shocking addiction. Susan needs to drink Coke – that’s all she’ll drink. She has a Coke in hand much as a chain smoker requires the security of a cigarette between the fingers. She smiles revealing a mouthful of braces, no doubt keeping her sugar-addled teeth in place. Astonishingly, they’ve hired a porter, not to carry their packs or act as a guide, but to carry cartons of Coke up from Namche! This symbol of Western decadence is lost on them.
The lodge owner and porters are fed last. The owner is a religious man, after his meal he begins to recite his mantras and to read his scriptures all the while fingering his prayer beads. Once finished he dons a cap emblazoned with the word “Boss,” and out come the dinner invoices and calculator and trekkers pay him their food and board.
Reluctantly people shuffle off to bed. We climb into the top bunk of the dormitory, about ten people sleep on each of the two levels. Coughing from colds, blowing noses, tossing and turning from the oxygen deprived altitude (at 4900m our highest sleeping point) keep people awake. But it is the furtive whispering of a trekker to his companion that sets me on edge. “I’m so fucking cold, I can’t sleep,” he whines. A poor sleeping bag at this altitude is potentially life threatening.
Way before dawn people are getting up and packing for the ascent of Kala Pattar. The clatter of hiking poles and the stomp of boots eventually see us up for the usual sweet milky coffee and porridge. Then we head out into the bone-chilling cold, stumbling away along the shadowed valley hoping to find the sun. A steep ascent brought us onto the Khangri Shar glacial moraine where large glacier-polished rocks and stones slipped beneath our feet. Surrounding us now as we looked down upon the few lodges of Gorak Shep was an outstanding array of BIG mountains.
After a leisurely lunch we almost reluctantly hit the trail for the final ascent of our trek – the summit of Kala Pattar at 5600m. Almost imperceptibly we reached our destination, an exposed rock platform festooned with wind-whipped prayer flags that falls away hundreds of metres to a murky, snowmelt lake. Even the scope of a panoramic camera failed to do the scene justice. Only another 3000 metres higher and we’d be on the summit of Sagarmatha. We decided to skip it. To the west, clouds were rushing up the Khumbu Glacier valley. We raced back to Lobuche, the entrancing sunset colours dancing over Nuptse, darkness having fallen by the time we saw the almost inviting yak dung smoke billowing from our lodge.
The weather took a turn for the worse as we returned down the following day. No sooner had we stopped for lunch than a bitterly cold wind picked up and it became overcast. Out came the down jackets, gloves and beanies – the first time we had walked in them. We crossed a classic swing bridge high over the raging Imja Khola. On the other side, as we took a rest, an old Sherpa women dressed only in a traditional skirt stopped to observe us. She carried a large wicker basket over-filled with firewood from the forest. The basket’s weight is supported by a tumpline that goes around the forehead. She merely smiled at us and stood still, observing our no doubt otherworldly appearance.
We now entered a forest on the path up to Tengboche. Gnarled rhododendron trees and juniper were offset by silver birch, their shiny trunks occasionally entwined with lichen. Enclosed by mist and low cloud this Tolkeinesque scene came further to life with the tinkling of a bell reverberating through the forest. From around a corner appeared a perfectly black stallion sporting a red sash around his neck with a bell attached. Spooked, he ran off through the undergrowth. A beautiful blue robin flitted about in the gloom like an entrancing firefly.
The view from Tengboche is magical. It was completely misted over early the next morning. A light frost covered the ground. An ethereal cobalt blue glow drifted between the imposing peaks of Thamserku and Kantega. An ancient Russian helicopter hovered over the Gompa but thought better of landing.
Descending through the forest on the other side was depressing. I had fond memories of abundant bird life and a glorious forest. This time the trees were showing the signs of environmental destruction. Branches and whole limbs had been hacked off for fuel. The trail was wider and suffered from a multitude of eroded shortcuts. Litter from the monastery environs was strewn throughout the forest. I don’t think I heard or saw a single bird. Despite these bad vibes this was not a general picture of the trail as a whole, it seemed to be more apparent in this formerly pristine area.
Nearing Namche a Himalayan Tahr crossed the trail only a few metres in front of me. These impressively antlered mountain goats are relatively tame within the confines of the Sagarmatha national park. Perched on a boulder on the town’s outskirts was a griffin vulture, more commonly observed soaring on high thermals. We rewarded ourselves at Namche with ‘Yak Sizzlers’- buffalo steaks served sizzling. Ahead lay only another two days retracing our steps back to Lukla airport.