Our Lucky Day: Back to Kathmandu

The next morning we turned back and headed to Namche, which was a full day away but possible to reach if we boogied. We marched as fast as we could, nutritiously fueled only by snickers bars we ate as we walked. At one point we got stuck behind some other trekkers and a yak train very slowly crawling up a steep hill. At the top a plateau offered us a short window to pass them and I was literally running past yaks with my big bag bouncing off my back. All day we only stopped to buy a couple quick snacks or take some last pictures. We spotted a few tahrs and a couple of enormous birds of prey throughout the day. It was strange to be back below the treeline and surrounded by so much more life when just yesterday the land seemed barren and the mountains almost close enough to touch. Once we passed Tengboche we resolved to make it all the way to Namche, even if we had to use our headlamps for the last bit. As we got closer fog rolled in that was so thick we couldn’t see down the ridge we walked along. After 10 straight hours of non-stop hiking we reached the outskirts of Namche, pretty happy with our accomplishment.

We managed to book a plane ticket to Kathmandu for the next day first thing in the morning, so we hurriedly packed and hit the trail for Lukla. We needed to check in with the airline office before it closed in the late afternoon, so again we were racing the clock as it was a 6-7 hour trip. The trek was pretty uneventful and we didn’t have a problem checking in, but met two other backpackers in our lodge that had both been waiting 2 or 3 days for a flight out due to weather cancellations. Our flight was booked the next day for November 23 and all domestic flights were to be grounded from the 25-27 for an international conference requiring heightened security. Between the already existing backlog caused by weather delays and the imminent no-fly days, it seemed our chances of getting out of Lukla anytime soon were very slim. The situation was worse for other travellers we met who were worrying about missing upcoming international flights. We heard some people had forfeited their $165 plane tickets and resorted to hiking several days out to catch a bus back to Kathmandu. We even heard flight tickets had already been sold for the three days of the domestic groundings, adding to the frustrations of travelers.

In the morning we headed to the airport with little hope of success. Lukla would be an expensive, boring and chilly town to have to spend a week in. At the airport there was virtually no organization and we just stood in a growing crowd beside two Terra airline booths, waiting for a representative to emerge from the chaos. Finally one arrived and a big tour group starting checking their bags through; the two of us stood little chance amongst these big groups with organized guides acting on their behalf. But Sean managed to get our tickets passed on to the representative and somehow we got our bags checked and tagged while others around us grew frustrated at the lack of proper ques. We emerged from the mayhem and odd security process with a ticket stamped with a 2, meaning we were supposed to get seats on the second Terra aircraft that arrived, and there were only to be 4 that day. We waited and were relieved to see the first of many carriers arrive from Kathmandu, meaning the weather was good enough there to fly. Sitting by the door in a room packed with anxious people, our heads flew up each time we heard a helicopter and we got more nervous as the time on our ticket came and went and still no airplane appeared. By a huge stroke of luck it finally arrived and we actually got two of the 19 seats on it.

The takeoff itself was pretty interesting, as the small plane taxied onto a small flat square of pavement at the top of the runway. The pilots then proceeded to lock the brakes and throttle up the engines to maximum capacity causing the plane to roar and shake. Suddenly they released the brakes and we shot along the substantially down sloping runway and launched off the cliff at the end into the air. We flew over the same path we had hiked on all the way from Jiri and Sean pointed out recognizable towns and we had good views of the snowy peaks in the distance. Before we knew it the Kathmandu valley appeared and I got a little nervous as we flew impossibly low with no airport in sight, but was comforted by the fact that the pilots right in front of me seemed almost bored. Finally we landed on tarmac that had appeared at the last second, relieved and astonished at our good luck.

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Kala Patthar

The following day we left our lodge in Gorek Shep for the 5550 meter peak of Kala Patthar, the famous viewpoint right outside the village. It was only a 200 meter ascent and somehow we lucked out again in missing the usual hordes of people who flock to the summit every day. During the first stages of the breathless ascent several Tibetan snowcocks whizzed right over our heads at terrific speeds, looking and sounding somewhat like small missiles cutting through the air on their way down the mountainside. Several times during our ascent the silence was broken by low rumbling sounds. I looked eastward across the Khumbu Valley to see small avalanches making their way down the slopes of Nuptse. To my bewilderment Emily could hear the alpine disturbances but couldn’t see them to save her life. Finally, close to the summit of Kala Patthar we both looked on as an enormous chunk of ice and snow broke off a high slope on Nuptse and thundered downwards, the rapid descent terminating after a sheer vertical drop several hundred feet down a cliff. Soon after we made it to the summit where the blazing sun had taken the morning chill out of the air. With only a few other trekkers, we took in unobstructed views of Everest to the east, Base Camp and a couple of bright blue lakes below us, and the distinctive Ama Dablam and Khumbu Glacier to the south. Behind us to the west a vast debris covered glacier dotted with yaks stretched away toward the Gokyo Valley, while the pink-hued Pumo Ri towered over us a stone’s throw to the northwest. A few bright red little birds started landing among the prayer flags, making for some good photo opportunities.

After a half hour or so soaking in the views at the so called top of the world we made our way down, past Gorek Shep and Lobuche, bearing right toward the Dzongla valley at a fork in the trail. Making our way along the trail was almost hypnotic, as it was cut in a roughly horizontal manner across the brown alpine slope; a trail characteristic we had become quite unfamiliar with in the last few weeks. We could follow the trail with our eyes running flat for kilometers ahead of us and behind along the hillside. Eventually it wrapped westward around the hill above a mesmerizingly blue glacial lake. A vertical rock wall emerged straight out of the southern edge of the lake, soaring skyward several hundred meters to form part of the dark mountain ridge that marched downward from above Dzongla all the way to Dingboche. From here we could see a huge portion of the valley below us through which we had ascended several days before. From our lofty viewpoint Dingboche and Periche, connected by sections of trail, looked just as they did on the map, albeit on a much more massive scale. By that time it was late in the afternoon and we had to hurry to beat sundown.

Everest Base Camp

From Dingboche we hiked to Lobuche, where we spent a night before heading to Gorek Shep the following day. A haphazard gathering of guesthouses, Gorek Shep is the northernmost village in the Khumbu Valley. Its existence is almost exclusively to serve as the final outpost for trekkers who have come to see Everest. Following suit with many of the other folks in town we made a day trip to Everest Base Camp the same day we arrived. After walking for days and days, all the way from Jiri, we found ourselves suddenly stopped by a huge wall of impassable mountains forming the Tibetan border. Here at this dead end was a pile of rocks coloured with prayer flags and a big “Everest Base Camp” banner. During a normal year the rocky terrain we stood in would be packed with tents and hopeful climbers, waiting for the perfect atmospheric conditions in which to tackle Everest. During our visit there was no such spectacle as earlier in the year 16 Sherpas had been killed in an avalanche in the nearby Khumbu ice fall. The devastating loss of life lead to a cessation of summit attempts for the remainder of the year, as the Sherpa people mourned their fallen friends and family members.

We had the area to ourselves and it was absolutely stunning! Although only a sliver of Everest is visible from EBC the surrounding sun drenched peaks, bisected at their summits by the Tibetan border, formed a snow and glacier covered basin reaching to impossible heights. From our vantage point we could see much of the Khumbu ice fall and hear it cracking intermittently as the large towers of ice called seracs moved at an undetectably slow pace down the valley. The ice fall forms a small but dramatic part of the massive Khumbu Glacier which to our left wound its way up the valley toward Everest, and to our right stretched southward down the valley into the distance. We had paralleled its lateral moraine since before Lobuche. The glistening seracs around Base Camp formed huge shiny white peaks of ice which to Emily looked just like meringue on a giant pie, but maybe that was just a symptom of our monotonous noodle diet.

Em’s First Time Over 5000 m

The walk from Pangboche to Dingboche was only three hours, and as we left the tree line the landscape was spotted with juniper and became more barren as the big Himalayas got closer with every step. Sean and I had lots of fun sharing stories after being apart a few days. Once in Dingboche we headed partway up a slope above town just for something to do as we were there so early. We went part way up and decided to summit the small peak the next day. With supper we tried seabuckthorn juice, made from small orange seabuckthorn berries. I think seabuckthorn bushes are native to the Himalayan region but we use them as ornamentals at home. The juice was served warm and was sour but I really liked it; Sean loaded his with sugar and still had a hard time getting it down. The owner of the lodge, who was excited to serve it to us, stood there excitedly waiting for us to take our first sips.

The next day we hiked up Nangkartshang, a 5100 meter peak that forms a small part of the Everest massif. Near the top I got my first long awaited glance of a Tibetan snowcock, which Sean had shown me pictures of. The peak was draped with the customary prayer flags and we had it all to ourselves for quite a while. The views were good but I was most excited about the wildlife. We took pictures of yellow-billed choughs, small songbirds and on the way down we ran into a pika! It wasn`t at all shy like the ones at home and we got to watch it yanking up grass roots with all its might long enough that Sean even got a video.

Back at the guesthouse we had a debate over whether Sean should invest $5.00 in a shower, as his stench was on the verge of giving me a bloody nose. We decided against it however as he needed a full on car wash facility to have any real effect, and he would still be wearing his dirty clothes. During supper we met a Finnish man travelling solo who has a wife, 4 kids and no job, not sure how that works but I`m sure Sean would like to find out.

Terd Reunion

After a few days in Namche getting over my cold I felt well enough to hike up to a small museum where there was a big statue of Tenzing Norquay and further up to a viewpoint, where I could see a long ways down the valley. As planned, I left to meet Sean the next day. Sean really wanted me to have a porter so I wasn’t hiking alone, but it was hard to find one so far from Lukla for just one day. Maya, the owner of Hotel Namche who was always very sweet to me sent one of her restaurant employees with me for the day. His name sounded something like Hiram. He didn’t know much English so we didn’t talk, and he asked other porters for directions to Pangboche all day so it must have been his first time there. On our way out of Namche we saw several pheasants which were enormous compared to the ones at home. The males were blue, green and red with curls on their heads like quails. We also saw a couple tahrs quite close. Hiram stopped to take many pictures so I think he enjoyed the walk. I kept offering him water which he always refused, and hours into our walk during a steep climb I heard him stammer out of the blue, “excuse me, give me your water!” I turned to see him sitting down exhausted behind me, and he finally took the water bottle and mars bar I had for him. The further we got the more tour groups we met going the opposite way, and the scenery got better and better. At one point soccer ball sized rocks came tumbling down the hill and over the trail in front of us. Hiram and a guide with a party on their way down in front of us started whistling and yelling until the rocks quit coming. Apparently there was someone up there throwing them down intentionally!

I had been told it would take 5 hours to get to Pangboche from Namche and was happy when we arrived in 4, because it meant there would be time for Hiram to make it back to Namche before dark and he wouldn’t have to spend the night in Pangboche. As it was only 11 in the morning when I arrived I expected to wait in the bakery where Sean and I had planned to meet, but when I walked in the door he was already there!

 

Over the Kongma La

Today was one of the most exhausting days of my life. I headed out on the trail before sunrise, crossing a couple of half frozen little streams just outside Chhukung. The sunrise turned the huge peaks around me brilliantly pink and the weather was perfect. After a couple of hours of hiking up and up I reached a high grassy plateau and sat down for a drink of water and short break. It wasn’t long before a local Sherpa motored up the slope behind me at what seemed to me to be an incredible rate. I expected him to at least be breathing heavy from the steep high altitude hike, but instead he sat down next to me totally fine and to my surprise lit a cigarette. We managed to communicate enough for me to learn that he was a porter, carrying a backpack full of gear all the way to Gorek Shep. We got moving again at about the same time, but he was soon a speck in the distance. Eventually I got to an enormous and impassable looking rock wall covered in icicles that were melting and falling from great heights in the morning sun. The same cyclone that hit Nepal in October and killed a bunch of trekkers had dumped a foot or so of snow on the Everest region as well. This made it pretty tough to find the trail but luckily I could still see the porter in the distance so I knew the general direction I needed to go. The going got very tough as I made my way up a steep and icy slope to the left of the rock wall. I pretty well had to crawl on all fours up the icy slope, sliding back down a foot or so every other step. Luckily when I reached the top the trail reappeared and the slope became much gentler.

It was from there I got my first glimpse of Kongma La, the 5535 meter pass that would lead me to Lobuche. It was still quite far up and in the distance, marked by prayer flags at a small cleft in a jagged spine of rock that connected two high peaks. I also noticed some yaks grazing on the plateau to my right and wondered how these heavy, ungainly looking beasts had managed to get up here. My surroundings looked almost otherworldly as large patches of blinding white snow contrasted with dark grey broken rock. To my left was a small milky green coloured pond at the base of a high cliff. The snow around this pond was covered in animal prints so I spent a few minutes looking for anything interesting. I found one set that looked curiously felid and the idea hit me that maybe they were left by the extremely rare snow leopard. I kind of dismissed the idea because they are indeed so rare as to almost inhabit the realm of the mythical, but nevertheless I took a quick picture of them. I was glad I did when a couple of days later in Pangboche I showed a local Sherpa the photos and he said he thought they were actually from the majestic cat.

After a short climb away the prints I reached another spectacular plateau, the last one before Kongma La, which loomed directly ahead of me. To my right was another small greenish pond situated below the remnants of an almost entirely melted glacier. To my left was a large, deeply navy blue lake at the base of a towering cliff. The reflective snow all around made the temperature soar as the sun was now high in the sky, enabling me to hike above 5000 meters in shorts and a T-shirt. The thin layer of ice on the lake whistled and popped as it melted in the heat, the sounds echoing strangely off the cliff walls that surrounded it on two sides. Other than that there were no sounds at all except for my laboured breathing in the thin air. I walked between the two water bodies and reached the final rock wall that lead up to the pass. It was only 50 or 60 meters more elevation gain, but the climb absolutely killed me. There was no ice here; instead the sun heated the dark rocks so it felt like I was in a furnace. One of the characteristics of these high altitude environments is drastic changes in temperature between shadow and direct sunlight. Because the air is so thin it isn’t able to hold on to much heat, and at the same time the thinner atmosphere doesn’t filter out as much UV radiation as at lower elevations so more of it reaches your skin in direct sunlight and is converted to heat energy. My 35 pound bag felt like it weighed a ton and it literally became more of a climb than a hike as I hauled myself upwards, stopping to rest every 30 seconds. Finally I reached the pass, on a veritable knife edge of a ridge that plunged almost vertically down over a vast rock fall on the far side as well. I gobbled down what food I had left and had a good long break there. A group of eastern Europeans reached the pass just after I did, but headed in the opposite direction toward Chhukung.

I was a bit worried to see the northwest facing slope I needed to descend in order to reach Lobuche was made up entirely of loose, broken rubble covered in snow and ice. Luckily I had bought a cheap pair of crampons in Namche which ended up working like a charm for the short amount of time I actually used them. Without them it would have been a much longer, more dangerous descent than it was. After what seemed like an eternity on this awful terrain I made it to the grassy flat bit at the bottom. I was borderline exhausted at that point, but still needed to cross the debris strewn labyrinth otherwise known as the Khumbu Glacier. What should have taken a half hour ended up taking me about two hours, as I had to keep stopping every couple of minutes to rest. A couple of times I actually fell asleep on my backpack for a few minutes. The glacier was beautiful and amazing, but in my wrecked state I didn’t fully appreciate it until a couple of days later when I returned with Emily. The ice is mostly covered in a thick layer of boulders so that you can only see it in a few areas, but there were constant reminders that I was on a flowing river of ice and rock. The sound of rocks and boulders breaking free from precarious perches and tumbling down into small ponds that dotted the glacier was very frequent and every once in a while I could hear a deep groan from somewhere down below. I finally dropped down the western side of the lateral moraine onto some beautiful grass, head throbbing from AMS and just about hypoglycemic. Lobuche, an otherwise unremarkable little gathering of shacks seemed like an oasis in the desert to me at that point in time, and I very much enjoyed a big supper and an 11 hour sleep that night.

The Sherpa, the Smuggler and Me on Chhukung Ri

I left Dingboche quite early and discovered that Chhukung was much closer than I had thought. I checked into a guesthouse there at about 9AM and after a quick breakfast decided to try and find the trail that lead to Lobuche over the Kongma La, a 5535 meter pass that I would attempt the following day. I picked up the trail quite quickly, but continued past it and started hiking up Chhukung Ri. Before I knew it I got to a large plateau above town and stumbled across a flock of ptarmigan like birds that I later learned were called Tibetan snowcocks. From there I saw a major trail leading out from town with several hikers struggling along it. I headed that way and eventually made it to the top of the ridge where the trail split into two, one heading to a low summit, the other heading to the higher, jagged peak of Chhukung Ri. I chose the latter, and after a somewhat sketchy climb/hike I made it right to the top. The peak was at the base of Nuptse, part of the Everest massif, and as you might expect the views were spectacular. From that vantage point I was afforded 360 degree views of the valley out over some of the most unique looking glaciers and landscapes I’ve ever seen. I could even see Imja Tsho, a milky green glacier lake at the end of the valley. Because of climate change the lake is considered to be one of the most dangerous in Nepal, and indeed earlier that morning I had met a couple of researchers from an American university who were on their way back from a research trip investigating it. The lake is formed by a glacial moraine that basically acts as a natural dam. As more and more of the surrounding glaciers melt, a lot of the water ends up in Imja Tsho. The water level is increasing at an accelerating rate, and as you can see from the picture it is nearly full to the top of its banks. The consensus is that in the future it will burst its dam, especially in the event of an earthquake, unleashing a torrent of floodwater that will wipe out a number of towns downstream, including Chhukung and Dingboche. Dangerous lakes like this are actually quite common in the Himalayas.

Almost as interesting as the surrounding valley were the two older guys already sitting at the summit. One was a 63 year old American named Steve, the other a similarly aged Sherpa named Menjo Tenzig that turned out to be a relative of Tenzig Norquay, the first to climb Mount Everest. I sat and chatted with them for quite a while and they informed me that Chhukung Ri, where we were sitting, is 5550 meters above sea level, the highest I have ever been. Then they went on a whirlwind description of all the surrounding mountains, most of which Menjo had climbed. He was adamant that Chhukung Ri has the second best views in the entire Everest region without actually summiting one of the big mountains. Steve had quite a colorful history as well. It turned out that he has been coming to Nepal for about 40 years and been friends with Menjo for almost as long. When I asked what he did for a living I was surprised to hear a long list of different professions including cook, waiter, journalist, photographer, writer, drug dealer, and smuggler. All in all it was an interesting day.