Another rest day, another steep ascent!! All the way from Dingboche at 4350m to Nangkartshang Peak at 5083m, and then down again. I am totally confused when we arrive at the top, out of breath but still breathing… Did the itinerary not state ‘ascent to 4800m’? Sonam is adamant, ‘No, we’re definitely at 5000m and something…’ He probably mentioned the name of the peak at the time, but although my legs seem to function perfectly well in the low-oxygen zone, my brain is unable to keep pace. Thank goodness there are plenty of photographs about on the internet to help me identify the peak in question weeks later.
It has taken us just under three hours to reach Nangkartshang Peak, the spot marked by an impressive white flag and an abundance of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. Plenty of stops for snapshots on the way. Nangkartshang involves some minor scrambling but, apart from the effects of the altitude, is a fairly easy walk up. Nevertheless, the crest is all but deserted when we get there, just a few other trekkers milling around. Where is everyone? Earlier on, nearer Dingboche, the trail was buzzing with other trekkers slowly snailing upwards, huffing and puffing in the thinning air, bearing down hard on their trekking poles. I learn later in the evening that many other trekkers took the ‘rest day’ more literally. ‘We stopped at the half-way rest point and turned back. We were only supposed to climb to 4800m,’ a New Zealand father and daughter trekking duo explained. Others opted for an even more relaxed approach and interpreted the itinerary quite literally: rest (all) day… Five days of relentless hiking at altitude is taking its toll on many.
The trek up to Nangkartshang is tough but every bit worth it, so I am pleased to have made it to the top, doggedly putting one foot in front of the other and ignoring any aches and pains. The panoramic views along the trail and from the crest are some of the most impressive in the Khumbu Region. Many of the Himalayas highest peaks, such as Ama Dablam, Kangtega, Nuptse, Lhotse, Makalu and Tabochu are visible in their full glory from the summit.
The change in the landscape is pretty dramatic: no more trees, or even large shrubs; just plenty of small compact bushes scattered on a gravelly soil. The path is lined with precariously balanced cairns and littered with jagged rocks. The magnificent mountains tower over crystal-clear fresh-water lakes and deep-cut valleys.
After our descend and a quick lunch, I am dead beat and ready for a rest too. I sleep most of the afternoon… Still, on the upside: only minor headache, no knee problems. Things are looking good!!
It is bitterly cold when I get up. I dig out my warmer leggings and even wear my windproof jacket to keep warm. Although today is supposed to be an easier trek, and we are only ascending to 4910m (Labuche), I am finding it tough going.
I am sure tiredness plays some part in filling me with trepidation when crossing the most wonky looking wooden bridge on the trek. It isn’t a long bridge, nor suspended high over a raging river. Just a few wooden beams and thin boards spanning the width of a smallish stream that hefty yaks manage to tramp over with ease. But my head suddenly brims with memories of past close calls: putting my foot through a rotten plank in the middle of a suspension bridge in the Vietnamese rain forest, or falling down a crevice near the turbulent Yangtze River in the Leaping Tiger Gorge in Yunnan, China. I do not fancy a dip in the icy water coursing just underneath the bridge. So I swallow my pride and take advantage of Sonam’s galanterie and outstretched hand to help me across… I feel such a wimp, though…
Just past the bridge, we enter the Thukla Pass, a large plain dotted with memorial stupas and cairns honouring climbers and sherpas who have died on their quest to reach the summit of Mount Everest, or on their way down. It is a sobering moment to reflect on the dangers and unpredictability of the mountains and the price some pay to realise their dreams: ‘The last word always belongs to the mountain’ (Anatoli Boukreev). Although the solemnity of the place is palpable, the significance of this ‘memorial of the fallen’ is rather lost on me at the time, as Sonam’s English is sadly lacking the necessary vocabulary to explain it to me… Still, the wonders of the internet once again help me out to piece it all together..
A lesser ‘highlight’ of the day greets me when we reach our lodgings for the night. Of course, I had expected things to get less cozy with the increasing altitude since most food, goods, equipment, and whatever is required to sustain human life at the foot of Everest, has to be brought up either by yaks, or people… Porters carry incredible heavy loads to the tea houses and lodges for the comfort of trekkers.
But I am not quite prepared for the state of my room and the ‘facilities’… I can manage with the absence of a light bulb at the end of the wires; a head torch and the light on my smart phone take care of that. It’s the ablutions that send shivers down my spine, and not just because of the daytime sub-zero temperatures.. On either side of the squat toilet, the floor is slippery with pure sheet ice and obviously someone had to break a thick layer of ice to get to the water for flushing. This is not going to be fun during the night!!
The day we have all been aiming for! Today we should reach Everest Base Camp. First an early morning trek to Gorakshep (5,164m) to drop our bags at our lodgings and then have a quick satisfying mid-morning lunch before gaining the last 200m in altitude to arrive at Base Camp. It is a challenging trek along the Nepalese ‘flat’, so plenty of up and downs, peppered with some adventurous scrambling over massive boulders and rocks. Plus, the temperatures are well below zero when we set out in the morning; I even ever so briefly need to wear my gloves…
Nevertheless, the awesome scenery along the way takes my mind of any discomfort. It does not stop my mind wandering though, as I make the ascend on 29th October, exactly one month to the day of my sister’s passing. But for the fickleness of life and fate, it could have been her achieving this. She was the sporty one in the family, a PE teacher spending her holidays traversing the French Alps. Me? I eschewed any form of physical effort until I hit my forties…
In all honesty, the views of and from Everest Base Camp are not that spectacular, or even interesting. The sky is grey and overcast when we arrive at the spot. The real showstoppers are the magnificent panoramic vistas on the way. Maybe a Spring visit, when the real mountaineers prepare for their ascent to the summit and set up their tents, might add a little colour and excitement, but for most of the visitors it is about the achievement, a box to tick. It is for me, in any case.
The journey down from Base Camp and back to Gorakshep does not seem as arduous, but after a quick bite to eat, I head for my cozy, warm sleeping bag. Mission accomplished, I deserve a rest!
In the evening, I join other trekkers in the dining hall, many of us feeling the worse for wear. The dinner I so exuberantly ordered at lunchtime stares me in the face and, after just one mouthful, I can’t stomach any more. The dreaded lack of appetite. In the end, I take the advice of a Lithuanian man at my table, who is enjoying a luscious looking apple pie as dessert. ‘Forget about nutritional value. Just eat whatever you fancy…’ The cheese topped potatoes are returned to the kitchen and I order the apple pie.. Just dessert sounds good to me!!
Conversation at our table revolves around the Mount Everest viewpoint on Kala Patthar where I am heading the next morning. Sunset or sunrise? My itinerary mentions an early rise to revel in the sunrise, whereas the Lithuanian couple preferred their afternoon hike. Both have their pros and cons: sunsets dazzle with colour if the skies are clear but there is more chance of glimpsing Mount Everest in the mornings before the clouds start forming… What I had not reckoned on was the additional four hours trekking to be added to the six hour downhill journey later on in the same day. My itinerary was definitely a little sketchy on that point and Sonam’s explanation certainly did not shed any light on it either.
Minor headache tempered with some medication, stomach comforted with apple pie, and using my water bottle as a hot water bottle, I dive into my sleeping bag, fully dressed… Too cold to even consider anything else. As on most days, I hit the sack around 8.00 pm and try to get in a bit of light reading before getting to sleep. Let’s see how I feel in the morning.
Sonam has agreed on a not too early start. ‘Let’s leave at 5.30 after breakfast,’ he suggested.. I set my alarm for 5.00 am.
I can’t do it. I ignore the alarm piercing the frost in the room and turn over.. Sonam knocks on the door, eager to get going. I groan… My head overflows with an acute desire to move towards lower altitude and a desperate need to wallow a little longer in the soothing womb of my sleeping bag. Mind over matter fails abysmally. I briefly get up, my stomach unsettled, and find Soman in the dining hall. I shake my head, sadly… ‘I can’t do it… I just want to go down. Let’s have breakfast at 8 and aim for Periche… ‘ I get a few more hours of rest and feel so much better for it… Maybe if we had added another day to just walk up to Kala Patthar in the afternoon, I might have managed, but Sonam is keen to get back to Lukla; he has another trek lined up already.
A couple of weeks ago, Sonam sent me a photograph of the view I missed; his subsequent charges managed to complete that part of the trek. It is the next best thing to being there myself. But I knew my limits, and there was no point in unnecessary heroics. Plus, I promised my kids to come back in one piece.
Days 9, 10, 11 and 12
The descent is so much quicker. Whilst on the way up to Base Camp altitude has to be gained very gradually – no more than 500m a day with acclimatisation days in-between – there is no such worry on our return. We trek back to Lukla in just four days.
When we pass the flimsy bridge that looked so unconquerable a few days earlier, I almost waltz across.
When we reach Tengbouche, my stomach rejoices and I greet the pang of hunger as a dearly missed friend. I am in need of food, proper food, lots of it and I feast on a mouth-watering banquet of humble egg and chips (French fries).
And of course, being back in the land of Western style toilets! My knee may not have given me any trouble walking and hiking, but squatting with a knee that refuses to bend properly poses certain challenges… Sadly, showers have to wait until Kathmandu; not even the lodge in Lukla provides those facilities.. I can’t wait to wash my hair; I am dying to use the shampoo sachets I so optimistically carried all the way to Base Camp and back…
And finally data on my phone… I have missed being in contact with my kids and the world, although I am partly to blame for this. Having bought a local SIM card for Nepal on my arrival in Kathmandu, I just assumed that it would cover the Khumbu region and I did not buy the more suitable Wifi card when I had the opportunity early on in the trek.
Lukla is busy when we finally get back and the lodge where I stay overlooks the helipads next to the airport. Lingering cloud cover throughout the day has grounded all flights in and out of town; only commercial and rescue helicopters are on standby, ready to fly out in case of emergencies. I keep my fingers crossed for an improvement in the weather; I don’t even want to contemplate the thought of another few nights without shower facilities…
At least I don’t have too far to walk in the early morning as I am booked on the first flight out at 7.00 am, together with the rest of Lukla it seems… The departure hall is packed with passengers hoping for a quick and timely exit. The sky over Lukla looks promising, but rumour has it that not all is clear further ahead and flights are delayed… All that is needed is half an hour of clear and cloudless airspace to get us safely to Kathmandu. Without a control tower in Lukla to guide the aeroplanes, pilots need good visibility to be able to take off and land and navigate between the mountains.
I breathe a sigh of relief when finally, one hour late, our flight is called and we pile into our small aircraft. Exhausted but very pleased with my achievement, I am on my way to Kathmandu and a hot, refreshing shower…