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Journey to Everest
Sagarmatha is the Nepalese name of Mount Everest.
A month of walking through the beautiful Sherpa valleys of Nepal
Before I could begin my trekking, I had to queue up for half a day to get the necessary paperwork. When you enter Nepal, the visa is only valid for the central area. To walk along the trails, a permit is needed. Most of my possessions were locked in my rucksack and stored in Kathmandu at the hotel I was staying at.
I'd hired a pack to take with me. In this pack I had camera gear, film, short wave radio (for the football, of course), first aid kit, down jacket, sleeping bag, washing gear, clothes, raincoat, toilet paper, goggles, some nibbles, towel, writing implements and diary, map, trekking guide, hat, gloves and my trusty ex-Chinese Army water bottle. My pack felt heavy when I picked it up. It looked like I was going to get fit!
Accommodation was in a four bed room in the nearest lodge to where the bus stopped. My companions were Kipper (?) from Somerset, Chris (Bristol), and Simon (Sydney). It poured outside as we ate supper at the lodge. So far, so good. We had good food, electricity, comfortable beds, and clean toilets (outside). We were in Sherpa country - they are friendly and attractive people. The radio made me smile with news of a 2 - 0 win for Arsenal. I retired tired at 10pm.
The trail began level then ascended in thick forest. Eventually it emerged into pastureland with lovely views of the Jiri Valley with its copious rice terracing, forests and different coloured houses. Being unfit, I lost my companions as I trailed behind. I didn't mind as I could stop frequently to take photos, drink tea at the tea shops along the trail, play with the children, and joke with the adults. The people (mainly Sherpas, Chhetris, Tamangs, and Newaris) were very friendly. I kept running into a Spanish group. Mainly the trail was quiet. It continued, often steeply, sometimes by a stream.
Finally I reached the top of the ridge at 2400m. After a rest I began descending. It was steep in places, passing water buffalo, goats, houses, tea shops and many porters coming the other way. In much of Nepal everything has to be carried in by porters. I would notice this in the prices of goods: as I got further from the road, prices would rise. I continued down a narrow valley with sheer rock faces breaking up the greenery. We crossed a fast and furious river on a wooden bridge, the first of many. This easterly valley finally met with the Khimti Khola Valley running north - south. I descended and crossed the wide river on a long suspension bridge. On the other side was Shivalaya (1767m), a small settlement.
I joined my companions in a room. I played with the children, had lunch, and relaxed by the river. It rained in the afternoon. It had been tiring ascending and hard on the knees descending. Today it had been a short day but normally it would be six hours of walking every day. Supper was rice, potatoes and teas. It took three hours to prepare on an open wood fire! I spent an hour of that singing songs in the kitchen with the family and went to sleep around 10pm.
The 2705m pass was clouded over so I had no view. When the rain stopped I descended with four Swiss. It was slow and slippery on the wet, broken steps on the trail. After half an hour I descended below cloud level. I could now see the pleasant Likhu Khola Valley. After a few slips I spotted two small stupas (Buddhist shrines). I'd arrived at Bhandar (2194m). This was a small village of white brick Sherpa houses. Again I rejoined my companions in a room for four. I enjoyed a delicious hot shower before exploring.
Supper was a lively affair, eaten under a kerosene lamp with an Israeli, an Italian (who was learning English from the Israeli!), a guy from Leeds and an American returning from Everest. I ate soup, momos (Tibetan dumplings) and chapatis with honey. My shoulders ached from the strap of my pack and my thighs ached from the ups and downs. My stomach had been fine: some of my fellow travellers had had tummy problems. I settled down for the night around 8:30.
The trail continued, rising slowly. I twisted my ankle at one point but I was OK to continue. After an hour, I reached Kenja, a pretty Sherpa village next to a small stream. I had lunch with my three companions, the Israeli, the Italian and the four Swiss. It was an excellent meal of lentils, rice, lots of water and a glass of home brewed cider (this was an apple growing area!).
After a rest, we began the ascent. The first 200m was steep and slow. The views of Kenja and the two rivers meeting were superb. I felt stronger than I'd done on previous ascents. I took it slowly, breathed properly, took frequent rests and drank lots of tea and water. After 300m we hit the clouds so there were no more views. I chatted to local people in broken Hindi / Nepali on the way. The final half hour was tricky as it became steep and stony. My left ankle began to hurt from where I'd twisted it earlier. Suddenly, Sete (2575m), appeared like a ghost out of the mist.
I felt tired so I rested. My ankle was painful when I got up for supper and I hobbled all evening. The lodge was primitive as was the food: pot noodles, chapati and tea. I rubbed tiger balm into my ankle and it began to feel better. I went to bed early.
Above the forest, the open spaces were dotted with moss covered rocks. It seemed to take ages to get to the pass because of the many false summits. The last bit kept descending only to commence ascending again. Suddenly I rounded a corner and saw a pile of rocks covered with prayer flags. After six hours, I was on the 3530m Lamjura Pass. Once again, it was shrouded in cloud so there was no view.
I continued along the valley. By now I was walking with legs apart! My pack was cutting through my shoulders again. The trail rose a little, but steeply. I saw Buddhas and Tibetan prayers painted on the rocks in bright colours. Mists swirled around the tops of the mountains giving the scene an eerie look. I turned into a side valley and caught sight of my destination, Junbesi (2675m). It was a pretty village dominated by a Buddhist temple. I was aching all over, tired and not in a good mood. Fell asleep quickly.
Half way up the slope was a large orchard run by an elderly and friendly Sherpa who is proud to mentioned in the guide book. He stood outside his establishment like an English country squire smiling. This was our lunch stop. The apple juice and apple fritters were excellent but the food was nothing special. From here it was a short climb up to the Trakshindo Pass at 3071m. A large chorten (round shrine) marked the spot. For once the views were clear. The rest of the day was spent descending into a side valley.
A little below the pass was the yellow roofed Trakshindo Monastery with its colourful wall paintings, Tibetan scriptures and giant Buddha. The monks were friendly; some were playing football! It took two hours to reach my night stop from the first moment I saw it. The trail descended along a stony path which became slippery mud. I'd felt good all day up until the final half hour when my knees began to feel the strain. After a descent of 800m I arrived at Nuntala at 2194m. This was a pleasant village perched on the side of the valley. Although mainly Sherpa, I ended up staying with a Magar family. They had rigged up the shower behind the wall where the stove was, thus ensuring very hot water. The family were very lively and noisy until they went to bed. Supper was candle lit. My final climb of the day was up the stair to my room. By 7pm I was fast asleep.
The trail descended slowly through forest and pasture. There were large numbers of colourful butterflies. I saw Chris and Simon excitedly picking what they told me was "grass". Porters passed constantly. I liked the way they would stop and rest by sitting on the T-shaped handle of their walking sticks. After two hours I intersected the wide, fast flowing Dudh Khosi River and its huge valley. I crossed it on a wide suspension bridge at 1500m. This would be the lowest elevation of the trek. My days of easterly trekking had now ended as the trail turned north to follow this valley towards the Himalayas. I stumbled over a landslide and entered pastures above the raging river. I avoided touching the wild Sisnu plants which have a painful sting.
Prices had risen as the trail got further from the road. A soft drink which cost 5 Rupees in Kathmandu and 8 Rupees in Jiri now cost 35 Rupees. Similarly a bottle of mineral water has gone up from 20 to 55 Rupees on the trail.
I reached a tea house after an hour and a half where I enjoyed a hot lemon and chatted to two pretty girls, one Sherpa, one Chhetri. The rain got heavier so I wrapped up well and plodded on along slippery and treacherous trails. I reached a ridge at 2900m and turned east into a large side canyon. It was cold, wet and miserable and there was no shelter. On and on I walked past waterfalls, streams, mud, and rock slides. After three hours I reached the unfriendly and basic Puiyan on the far side of the canyon. Accommodation here was unheated and no bedding was provided. After a pot noodle soup, the only food available, I decided to move on to my planned night stop which would be more comfortable. I wrapped up well, covering my pack with my plastic raincoat and set off with an American couple.
It turned out to be an easy walk and the clouds cleared to reveal magnificent views of the Dudh Khosi Canyon. The damp had got to my camera battery so I couldn't take too many photos on this day. Glimpses of ice-covered peaks poked through the clouds as we descended carefully to Surkhe at 2339m. I found a comfortable and friendly lodge and ate fried potatoes and chow mein. I took out all my stuff to dry in the room and settled down about 8pm as it began to rain outside. Mice scampered around inside the wooden walls of the lodge while I dozed off.
At Lukla I saw more foreigners than I'd seen for the last week. I put my name down on the waiting list for a flight and had lunch (chicken soup, poached egg, hot lemon). I chatted to a group of Westernised Sherpas who'd just completed an expedition to Everest with a group of Japanese and Koreans. They told me they'd made a lot of money and one Korean was missing. I was glad I wouldn't be doing any climbing!
The valley narrowed and the trail clambered over some huge rocks. I arrived in the larger village of Phakding (2652m). I found a nice lodge by a bridge next to a small stream and indulged in apple juice, apple pie and coffee.
In 1989, while in India, I'd met Heather, a lovely Australian lady who travelled with me for a while. When I wrote to her to tell her I was going to Nepal, she gave me a name to contact. The name was that of a young Sherpa called Pemba Rinjee. He had been her guide and she had paid for his schooling. I asked the proprietor of the lodge if he knew where I could find him. He turned out to be Pemba's brother! Pemba was on a trip climbing a 6189m peak with an American. He was actually due to return that evening. He came in later clutching a letter from Heather he'd just picked up in Namche, further up the valley. The letter had told him of my arrival!
Simon and Chris turned up. That night we all sat around the stove with Pemba and his family. We heard their mountaineering stories. Pemba's brother had been on an Everest expedition with Chris Bonnington and had reached 8000m. He'd also worked as a cook in the Indian army. That showed because the food at this lodge was the best yet. I had tomato soup, potatoes with cheese and apple juice. Pemba showed us photos people had sent him after he'd guided them. It was an excellent evening. The trek has not been boring: rain and misery one day, joy and sun the next. And I still hadn't seen Everest!
I crossed a large suspension bridge and arrived at Jorasale. Here at 2850m I entered the Sagarmatha National Park, home of Everest and three more of the world's ten highest mountains. The national park is protected by UNESCO and funded by the New Zealand government. I had fried potatoes for lunch watching the locals fooling around.
I found a comfortable lodge with electricity (from water power) and a warm communal dining room at the top of the building. I was to enjoy many days relaxing here watching the beautiful views. I did a little shopping and had momos for supper. I felt good today.
At high altitudes, acclimatisation is important. Above 3000m or so, it is necessary to ascend slowly. A good idea is to spend more than one night at some places every few days. This gives the body a chance to make more red blood cells to carry the reduced Oxygen. During the stay it is a good idea to explore at a higher altitude than the one you sleep at ("Walk high; sleep low"). The trek so far had involved covering distance. From now the priority will be not to gain too much altitude in one day. Up to now, I had been walking for up to eight hours a day. The number of hours walking from now on would be less. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, to avoid ascending too quickly; and secondly, to save energy at high altitude.
Beyond them and further south was the twin saddle shaped peaks of Kusum Kangguru (6369m and 6215m) and its summit (6769m). To the north east (towards where I would eventually be heading) was the spectacular Ama Dablam (6856m) with its cylindrical upper peak and conical lower peak. To the left of this was Lhotse (the fourth highest mountain in the world at 8501m) and its lower double peak (8383m). A ridge flowed to the left of the double peak. The ridge leads to Nuptse (7879m). Behind the ridge was the top of the black pyramidal summit of Sagarmatha (or Everest), at 8848m the highest in the world. To the extreme left of this valley was the fluted Tawoche (6542m). To the north, overlooking Namche was Khumbita (5761m), the unclimbed holy mountain of the Sherpas.
It was an exciting experience to see these beautiful and spectacular mountains. I took it all in for over an hour. I spent the rest of the day getting my permit signed, changing money, buying more camera batteries and writing post cards. This was the first place I could post them from! Food was excellent: momos, tomato soup, hot lemon, rice pudding, cinnamon rolls, fried potatoes with cheese, a bar of chocolate. I chatted to several people including a girl from Greece.
I left the groups and wandered off by myself through pine forest to Khumjung, a large Sherpa village at the foot of the holy mountain Khumbila and several hundred meters above Namche. The fields were separated by stone walls. There were many manni walls. These are walls built with stones carved with Tibetan prayers. You are supposed to pass the walls to the left. There were a number of chortens and a school, one of 25 built by Hillary in the area. Yaks wandered around.
Nearby was the smaller Khunde, another traditional, untouristed Sherpa village. I descended towards Namche enjoying the views. Supper was lots of different types of momos, tomato soup and hot lemon. By 8:30 I was tucked up in bed ready for sleep.
At Thomde, I saw many yaks and manni walls. I could see enticing villages on the far side of the valley. There were many landslide areas along this part of the trail so my map was a little out of date. I saw many waterfalls. At Tumde, I drank tea and saw Thami, with its monastery perched on a steep hillside about 1.5 hours away. Behind it was the icy peaks of Teng Kangpoche. After eating a chocolate and an apple, I turned back because I realised I wouldn't have the daylight to complete the trip to Thame and back.
It was a long three hour walk back to Namche. I was very hungry so I treated myself to Yak steak, chips, vegetables and a Coke! It was all delicious. I chatted to a guy from Iran (?) and a German who'd had to return from higher up because of altitude sickness. It seems to hit the fitter people because they ascend too quickly whereas wimps like me take it slowly. In fact there were many nice people staying at this lodge. I later met one couple in London at a 3 Mustaphas 3 concert and met a Canadian fisherman in Vietnam in 1992. Outside, the lively festival of Tihar was being celebrated with lights and singing. I was enjoying my stay in Namche.
Back at the lodge I joked with a huge group of Singaporeans and a group of Germans. While I was listening to the radio in the evening, I noted the Singaporeans were doing the same. "What are you listening to?" I asked; "The BBC" they replied. "But that's English football!", I cried; "Yes, we like English football", they responded! I liked English football when I heard that Arsenal had won 1 - 0.
That night I packed as the next day would take me deeper into the national park.
Thyangboche has always been famous for its monastery built in the 1920s. In 1988 a fire destroyed it. So popular was this stop on the Everest Trek that donations came in from all around the world to help rebuild it. All along the trek I'd seen porters carrying building materials for this monastery. There was a hive of activity around the half-rebuilt structure. On my return to London, I bought a copy of a special book of photographs edited by Edmund Hillary (and signed by him in a London book shop). The proceeds of this book also went to this monastery.
The views from here are some of the best on the whole trek. A complete 360 degree panorama of Himalayan peaks including Lhotse and Everest and the ever delightful Ama Dablam just across the valley. It clouded over during the afternoon.
Some people had headaches from the altitude but I was fine. I played Ludo with several others. A group of Americans kept us amused with their conversation: "We had some good fries in Lobuche, almost as good as McDonald's"! Supper was two portions of momos and tomato soup. By 9pm it was bed time. Away from the electric light, it seems to be early to bed and early to rise.
In the forest I saw a Musk Deer (musk is a perfume extracted from glands on this animal) which hopped away as I approached. I crossed the river high over a narrow cleft and ascended to Lower Pengboche. Ama Dablam was changing its aspect all along the trail. I kept meeting Hansi and Anke, a German couple who I'd later meet on the Annapurna Trek. At one point we all had to jump as a large yak train barged passed us!
The views here were stunning: Ama Dablam, behind, was almost unrecognisable. The top of Lhotse could be seen (but no Everest). At the end of the side valley I could see Island Peak (6189m) and the pyramidal Cho Polu (6734m). To the right of Tawache I spotted Cholatse (6440m). After momos and tomato soup, I made the discovery that there was no toilet as such. A convenient bush or rock had to suffice! The bushes were mainly Juniper which was used to make the cooking fires more fragrant: the main fuel was wood and Yak dung!
As it got late, the temperature began to drop dramatically. At high altitudes, heat is lost quickly. My down jacket and down sleeping bag were paying for themselves. The sunset was superb with the white snow capped peaks turning crimson as we stood awed outside. After nightfall, the sky was a mass of twinkling stars in a crisp, crystal clear sky. I saw the crescent moon near the red star Antares. Saturn and the brilliant Milky Way were also visible. At 3am I popped outside for toilet needs and saw Mars, Jupiter, Orion, Sirius, Gemini and Leo. It was too cold to linger!
Towards the east was a spectacular panorama in an area we'd planned to explore the next day. I could see Lhotse, Island peak, Cho Polu as before but now two other peaks had come into view. Baruntse (7220m) and the slightly yellowish Makalu (at 8470m the fifth highest in the world). The border with Tibet ran along the top of Lhotse through to Makalu. To the right was the incredible fluted ice walls of Amphu Lapcha (a ridge of ice with its highest point at 6430m). The shapes of the ice whetted our appetite for the next day's detour towards this area.
We descended along sandy and rocky trails back down to Dingboche for lunch. Nigel had a headache but I felt fine as I was pacing myself: I had been staying in places for longer than recommended by the guide book. The afternoon was spent reading and playing cards. The lodge became crowded in the evening. Again the sunset was spectacular, and again my night time visit to the "toilet" gave me stunning views of the sky.
After a while we descended to the less windy and warmer Dingboche for a lunch of chow mein with vegetable and egg. The lodge was empty today. In the evening, a Russian mountaineer arrived. He'd just been part of a group that had made the first ascent of the south wall of Lhotse. He personally had been to 8300m. He was alone because his companions had been carried out suffering from frostbite! Outside, we watched Mars rising from behind Lhotse. A group of Americans joined me for a star party. They referred to me as the "Star Man".
We descended to cross an icy stream and ascended to a tea house at Dughla (approx. 4600m). Yaks were waiting to move laden with goods. There was not much vegetation around now. Yesterday's Americans passed, greeting and photographing the Star Man. From here it was a steep ascent up the moraine. At the top of the moraine were stone markers in memory of climbers killed on Everest. The valley was flanked on the right by Nuptse (7879m), a huge flat triangle. We entered a boulder strewn area. Ahead was the end of the valley (and the border with Tibet) marked by three white peaks: Pumori (7145m), Lingtren (6697m) and Khumbutse (6640m).
Crossing the icy stream, we walked for 20 minutes to the tiny summer settlement of Lobuche, the highest place we'd be sleeping at. Situated at 4930m, we were now over 100m higher than Europe's highest mountain! I had a slight headache. I enjoyed hash brown potatoes, egg and cheese and relaxed chatting to people. It got very cold as the sun got low and we all huddled around a container of hot coals, chatting and eating. The lodge was crowded and there were only dormitory beds. By 8:30 I was asleep. Next day I would see Everest ...
Eventually we descended to a sandy flat with two buildings. This was Gorak Shep at 5160m. We rested after our two hour walk and drank tea. From here we had a choice of walking straight on the Everest Base Camp or climbing up a hill for a view of the mountain itself. We'd already decided on the hill since Everest is not visible from the Base Camp. The two and a half hour "climb" was tiring. I had to stop regularly and felt dizzy at one point when I rushed. Luckily the sky was absolutely clear and blue. Finally we reached the top of the hill (Kala Patar) at 5545m, the highest point on the trek.
The view from the top was literally and figuratively breathtaking. Our hill was actually a shelf on the flank of Pumori (7145m), a conical mountain marking the border with Tibet at the head of the Khumbu Valley. Next to this was Lingtren (6697m) which had a smooth snow covered face. Glaciers descended from between these peaks. Khumbutse (6640m) had fluted ice walls. The ridges dropped to the Lho La Pass (6606m) into Tibet. Next was Changtse (7205m) almost a perfect white pyramid. The next peak was also pyramidal and unnamed. Beyond this was the black pyramidal rock of Everest (8848m). We could see the South Col (7986m) where the ridge descends before ascending to Lhotse (8501m). Ahead of us on the far side of the valley was Nuptse (7879m). Avalanches could be seen and heard from this peak only a few kilometres away. At the foot of Nuptse was the Khumbu Icefall, the result of snow from Everest and Lhotse tumbling down the valley between them. For Everest climbers these house-sized chunks of ice are the most dangerous parts of the climb. Along the valley floor was the Khumbu Glacier, nearly 1km wide and sloping down towards Lobuche, our night stop.
Continuing our panorama southwards we could see Ama Dablam, Kang Taiga, Tramserku, Tawache and Cholatse. To the west was another glacier (Changri Nup), with the three peaks of Lobuche behind it, the highest being 6119m. To the north west was the icy face of Chumbu (6820m) and a beautiful stepped glacier. Below this were two small lakes, one green, the other blue.
Upper Pengboche (about 3900m) was so pleasant that we decided to stay! It was set in a fertile crescent shaded by trees. We hadn't seen trees for days! The houses were Sherpa and Tibetan. Ama Dablam dominated from the far side of the valley. It really is the most picturesque mountain in the region.
I had the chance of a hot shower, the first real wash I'd had for several icy days. In the afternoon we explored the local temple (Pengboche Gompa), the oldest in the Khumbu region. We were shown around by a friendly lama (monk) and saw the famous "yeti scalp" as well as some lovely paintings.
We descended several hundred meters to the fast flowing river and crossed on a sturdy bridge. At this point Nigel and I separated as he had to return to Kathmandu. He later visited me in London and we shared photos. I headed north into the valley and the trail ascended very steeply through forest. There were not many people along this trail but it was a very beautiful valley. I passes several waterfalls, some of them icy. It cooled as the sun set behind the valley walls. At 2pm I arrived at the small settlement of Dhole (4080m). I ate tomato soup, curry and rice, yak steak and a boiled egg. As it got dark, the small lodge filled. Outside it was misty but I could see the moon shining through.
At Luza I had potato soup, fried eggs and tea. It was only a short climb and drop to my night stop of Macherma (4465m) situated in a side valley near a clear stream. The legend of the Yeti originated in this area!
Lodges here were primitive and it was cloudy and cold. A German stumbled in after descending in the dark after feeling sick. We were the only westerners (in the lower dorms). Two Sherpa girls and a little boy were in the upper dorms. It took a little while for the place to quieten down.
I reached the top after an hour. There was a small lake; the first of three. The trail levelled and the valley widened. I knew the glacier was nearby but from ground level they are difficult to see. I passed the larger second lake as it became grey and overcast. Half an hour later I reached the third lake, the beautiful turquoise Dudh Pokhari ("Milk Lake"). On the edge of the lake was my destination Gokyo (4750m), a few buildings housing lodges. I settled into one and had a chapati and thick potato soup lunch. It was cloudy and cold. The lodge became full. We all hoped for the next day to be clear.
The Gokyo Valley itself was dominated by the Ngozumpo Glacier, the largest in Nepal (19km long, 2km wide), a grey tongue of ice curving along the valley. A brown shelf separated the glacier from Gokyo. Three intensely blue lakes dotted this shelf and I could see the trail I'd followed alongside the glacier to Gokyo.
Across the valley from where I stood I could see Kangchung (6089m) a black peak with an icy top. Between a gap I could just see Pumori (7145m) from which I'd climbed Kala Patar previously. Next was Changtse (7205m). Clearly looking like the world's highest was Everest (8848m) thrusting into the stratosphere. Lhotse (8501m) was visible edge on; its steep south face clearly apparent. Beyond was the pinkish Makalu (8470m). This meant that from this one spot I could see four of the world's highest mountains (Everest - 1st, Lhotse - 4th, Makalu - 5th, Cho Oyu - 8th)! Since there are only fourteen 8000m peaks in the world, seeing four of them at one time was quite an achievement.
The descent only took a quarter of an hour. The lake was a delightful blue when I reached it. I had breakfast and relaxed with several people. It was a happy lodge. Supper was curried chicken and mixed vegetables from tins left behind by a mountaineering expedition!
I set off on an exposed but slightly downhill trail and rejoined the main trail. There were now more people and yaks around. Today was Namche's market day so the trail was busy. Around noon I descended into Namche, the most civilised place I'd been to for a couple of weeks! I got a room to myself - it was nice to have the privacy. I stuffed my face with yak steak, chips, hot lemon and a cold Coke! Next, I had my first hot shower for ages (aahh!). I then bought some socks and t-shirts throwing away some of my clothes that hadn't survived the rigours of the trek. For supper I had tomato soup, meat momos, fresh oranges and hot lemon and heard that Arsenal had won 2 - 0 and were top of the league! I felt "top of the league" also.
Finally we entered the lovely Kathmandu Valley - the trek had ended. Some of it had been hard but overall it had been well worth it. One day I'll return ....
Photographs and text : © 1990, 1997 KryssTal