I arrived in Kathmandu mid-day and after checking into my hotel in the Thamel (Historic) District, set about exploring my surroundings and renting/buying equipment and trail food I would need on my 13-day trek to Mount Everest Basecamp and back (130km). It’s a shame I couldn’t haul my own higher quality equipment from Colorado but dragging a sleeping bag, base layer, down coat, fleece, waterproof pants, gloves, water bottles, headlamp etc. across 34 countries and 9 months for a 13-day trek simply wasn’t practical.
So, I rented a sleeping bag with a faulty zipper which opened constantly thru the night ensuring I would wake up cold repeatedly, trekking poles (which were a lifesaver), and a very nice warm North Face down jacket. Purchased a cheap fleece jacket that I threw away at the end of the trek, one pair of Wolfskin pants that turned out not to be waterproof, sized incorrectly and too small, a quart water bottle that leaked and kept everything in my day pack wet, gloves that were a bit too small which I gave away at the end of the trek, and a headlamp that was pretty much useless.
All in all, I had a great first day wandering around the Thamel District which I found both quaint and exotic at the same time. The bustling cramped streets were filled with both local and foreign pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, peddlers’ carts, cars, and rickshaws. All competing for room to progress along the busy lanes to a symphony of car horns, motorcycle beeps, bicycle bells, pedestrian shouts, shop owners’ pleas to examine their merchandise and faintly in the background of it all – the sound of traditional Nepalese music.
The buildings throughout the district are all two to five-story and look centuries old. The store owners manage to use every square inch of space inside their cramped stores and encroach into the street with their trekking and climbing wear, traditional Nepalese wool and silk clothing, Nepalese souvenirs, and tea houses.
The cramped lanes assault your nose with a complicated mixture of incense, roasting corn, grilling meat, exotic spices, body odor, cow and horse dung and God knows what else – but not unpleasant!
I enjoyed three meals in Kathmandu while waiting for my flight to Lukla to begin the trek. My first was a pizza at a place called Fire and Ice. I learned quickly that people in Nepal like spicy hot in everything they eat – a simple mushroom and pepperoni pizza required me to grow a new layer of skin on my lips and gums. Thank God, they sell their Everest beer by the quart!
My second meal was a steak and chips at a place called Fat Belly’s. and again, they ruined a good thing by marinating the steak in some- kind of radio-active tongue eating chili juice. Which probably explains why they sell their local beer by the quart. It takes a lot of beer to extinguish a five-alarm mouth fire!
I was supposed to fly to Lukla on the morning of the 27th but sat at the airport (along with hundreds of other trekkers and climbers) surrounded by chaos and absolute bedlam from 7 am until 2 pm waiting for weather in Lukla to clear enough to take off. I learned later that Lukla is one of the most dangerous airports in the world. Apparently, pilots are specially trained to fly this route. In order to land the pilot must skim the plane over a steep hill then drop down onto a very short runway that is tilted more like a ramp than level ending in a sheer drop off a cliff if you don’t break in time.
Any fog or cloud at ground level that could obscure the pilot’s ability to see the hill or runway, or lack of runway at one end closes the airport (which happens frequently). And once I saw the airport for myself – I appreciated the caution!
So back to my Kathmandu hotel for another night in the big city. And I enjoyed a great night wandering around before stumbling upon the interesting little New Orleans Grill. This café offered both local and western menus, a good selection of beers, and a house band/trio that played both traditional Nepalese music and American Blues/Jazz. I had a great Steak, potato, and steamed vegetable dinner, sampled both Gorka and Everest beer by the quart, and the band was great – couldn’t ask for a better night if you had to be stuck in Kathmandu.
Day 2 found Karan (my fantastic guide) and I back at the Kathmandu airport bright and early but with the same result 8 hours of waiting for the weather to clear in Lukla. When they finally announced that all flights were no longer being delayed but were now canceled it was time for plan B. I sent Karan to find a helicopter we could charter. He found three other trekkers to join us and we chartered a flight that cost me $1,000. An hour later we were loaded up and lifting off for Lukla.
And just like that we were flying thru the clouds and rain over mountains, rivers, waterfalls and steep valleys in route to our jumping off point for Everest Basecamp. As we approached the small village of Lukla I could see the reason for all the caution. The landing strip, built by Sir Edmond Hillary and friends, was short (1,660ft) and steep with a hill jammed up against it on one end and a cliff/sheer drop-off of 2,400 feet on the other end. And just to complicate matters there seems to be a consistent strong crosswind. Landing vertically was obviously the safer alternative.
Flight to Lukla
The small village of Lukla (9,333 ft elevation) is home to about 1000 residents who all seem to make their living catering to trekkers and climbers. The folks are either porters, guides, horse/yak wranglers, guesthouse or café owners, trekking, climbing or souvenir shopkeepers or small grocery store owners.
The nearest road is a two day walk down the mountain – so you either fly in and out or you take a five-hour bus ride to the end of the road and walk for two days to get here.
I ate my first meal of the day – fried rice/egg/vegetables at 5 pm and by the time I finished, it was dark and too late to hike the three hours to our planned first night’s lodging. The guesthouse in Lukla was just a simple unheated 7 by 6 Spartan unit with a small wooden cot covered in a sheet of plywood and a three-inch sleeping pad. The bathroom with an eastern hole in the floor toilet was down the hall.
And for the next ten days all my meals would be either fried rice, fried noodles, or fried/roasted potatoes (no meat or recognizable vegetables) and apples Karan brought along as a treat for me. And my lodgings were pretty much a repeat of the unheated cell of the first night.
Day 1 Trekking
We were up bright and early for a long day of trekking that would cover two-days trek in one long day to make up for our late start. Unfortunately, we woke to a miserable day of persistent cold rain and fog. After a quick breakfast, we broke out our rain jackets, waterproof pack covers and off we went – and for the next 12 hours we hiked 22 km in the constant rain.
The route began with a steep descent of over 1000 vertical feet then for the next 12km it was up and down following the contours of the river and mountain track. We crossed over a series of 6 different very high suspension bridges over the river which never failed to get my heart racing as I looked down at the roaring river far below my feet.
The route took us thru the villages of Phaksding and Monju, past small vegetable farms, Buddhist stupas, chhortens, and Buddhist text rocks, lush green valleys and all along the trail – a riot of wild rhododendron and ancient dense pine forests.
And finally, we came to the final hard push – several hours of a constant climb up to Namche Bazar – a trading center for the many villages along the trek. The map shows an elevation gain between Lukla and Namche of 2,600ft but in truth between all the ups and downs following the contour of the mountains the total climbed is probably three times that. And I was beaten when we hobbled into Namche at 11,316ft!
After a quick boring dinner of fried rice and a quick check of my Oxygen absorption rate (95%) we made the decision to skip the rest/acclimatization day scheduled for the next day and push on to Tengboche.
Day 2 Trekking
Woke up to clear skies and beautiful vistas in every direction – Namche clings to the side of the mountain ridge just below the crest offering spectacular views of the Thamserku, Kongde, Kusum, and Kangaru mountains across the valley, distant waterfalls, stupas, terraced pastures of vivid greens, small stone farmhouses and a maze of stone fencing built over centuries of shepherding yaks, sheep, goats and cattle in this harsh environment.
The trek out of Namche Bazar began with a short steep climb up over the ridge and then a fairly easy 31/2 hours (7.6km) trek thru the village of Sanasa to the riverside village of Phungi Thenga.
All along the route we enjoyed views of yaks grazing in mountainside meadows, local farmers hard at work gathering their crops, drying chilies, beans, tomatoes, apples, other assorted foodstuffs for the winter, cow and yak dung(used to fuel their stoves) and a constant flow of donkey, horse, porter, and yak trains ferrying supplies along the route from village to village.
Everything from the outside world from food to propane to building supplies to furniture to appliances all have to be carried on the backs of either beasts of burden or porters. Incredibly, men that weigh no more than 110 to 120 pounds carry their body weight on their backs and attached to them by a strap and canvas strip across their foreheads up and down these mountains without breaking a sweat! I saw many porters carrying as many as 4 sheets of ¾inch 4 by 8 plywood sheets and saw even one guy carrying a full-size refrigerator on his back up a 1000 foothill. These people are incredibly strong and seem to have superhuman endurance.
After another boring flavorless meal of rice fried in way too much yak grease we were back to the trail. From Phungi Thenga the trail became a steep heart pounding quad burning two hour climb to the Tengboche Monastery where we would spend the night. After checking into the guesthouse, I made a quick visit to the monastery and temple, made a small offering and prayer for Jackie’s speedy and complete recovery, then returned to the guesthouse for another tasteless dinner and cold night in my unheated cell. Oxygen absorption still holding in at 95%.
Day 3 Trekking
I awoke to another beautiful blue sky day for our trek from Tengboche to Dingboche (14,080ft). This day’s trek was 11 km and took about six hours to complete. The trail took us through rhododendron forests across the wild Imja River, past yak pastures, small potato patches, and buckwheat fields. We passed thru the villages of Deboche and Pangboche with spectacular views of Lhotse and Ama Dablam.
Lunch and dinner were both tasteless noodles and cheese washed down with weak black tea. Oxygen absorption rate holding steady at 95%.
Day 4 Trekking
Even though my Oxygen absorption was still near perfect, we made the decision to take a rest/acclimatization day rather than risk pushing my body any further and then paying a price later. So, today we took a short 3.5 km hike up about 2,000 vertical feet and back to give my cardio system a little kick and then spent the rest of the day drying clothes and enjoying the views of Lhotse (4th highest mountain in the world), Ama Dablam and Makalu (5th highest mountain in the world).
Day 5 Trekking
Today’s trek took us from Dingboche up a steep ascent onto a long flat bench (5.2 km) following along high above a river fed by the Khumbu Glacier. We stopped for lunch at a small cluster of guest and tea houses known as Thokla just across the terminal of the Khumbu Glacier.
After another boring lunch, we had a short 650 foot climb up a headwall to Thokla Pass. As we crested the pass stretched out before me was one of the most moving vistas I have seen. Rock Cairn after Rock Cairn built as memorials to climbers who lost their lives while pursuing their passion on the broad shoulders and pitiless face of Everest.
I managed to find Scott Fisher’s monument but could not locate Rob Hall’s. I will try to find his on my way down and pay my respects to the great man.
From Thokla Pass the route follows the Khumbu Glacier’s moraine on in to Loboche a cluster of five or six guest houses at just over 16,000 feet elevation. All together, we trekked 10 km and gained over 2000 feet of elevation throughout the day. Today was the first day my Oxygen absorption rate dropped – 85%. This represented a 10% drop in efficiency from 14,000ft to 16,000ft.
Tomorrow we will trek on to Gorakshep drop our gear at the guesthouse then trek on across the glacier to Everest Basecamp but I will save that narrative for the next blog…. Stay tuned!