Having failed to die in a horrific plane crash we left our microscopic plane and breathed in a glorious day. The surroundings were already beautiful. Lukla is 2840 m higher than sea level, already almost double our project base in Thulo Pakhar at 1455 m. Those 1455 meters would stand us in good stead, though, acclimatising ourselves to that height for months beforehand could only help us going higher.
Ngo Thung Ri: Not bad for a first mountain of the trek.
Packs at the ready, exploring Lukla town, hunting breakfast.
The plan was to grab a relaxed, late breakfast in Lukla and then take a leisurely stroll past the first permit checkpoint in Lukla. We’d then go on to Ghat for lunch and Phakding for our first night. The first day of trekking if you take this approach – and don’t push further on – is almost entirely down hill. This is great. So long as you forget the fact that every downward step, on your journey up to a 5,550 meter high Base Camp, is a step you’ll need to take back up again.
We stopped in Ghat for a 400 Rs cheese and vegetable chowmein – four times Kathmandu prices – and found my 2.5 litre Kathmandu-quality CamelBak had sprung a leak. The replacement plastic bottle leaked too, this time inside my rucksack. The shirt it unburdened itself on stayed wet for the next 10 days. We ploughed on regardless and by 1.30 pm were in our Hotel in Phakding, a mere 2610 meters up.
Phakding is a touristy town with all the usual Nepali shops and restaurants. And a Reggae bar. The town runs along the Dundh Kosi river which we’d be following for the next day at least and would have to cross several times on rickety suspension bridges. It was at this point that Jesse and I realised a potential problem: Smell. Between us, we had not one pair of smelly shoes, but two. On Day 1. Not the best start. There seemed nothing to do except leave them in the corridor for the other guests to enjoy as well. They were probably still more pleasant than Cam’s farts. That man has talent.
Hostels and hotels on the trekking trails tend not to charge much for your rooms for the night, so long as you agree to buy dinner and breakfast at their establishment. If you don’t, they can charge you 3000 rupees; probably more in some places. One hundred rupees per night per person (about 70-80p/night) really isn’t the worst room rate.
The next day was considerably more work. Climbing from 2610m to 3440m in Namche Bazar seemed a lot for day two of a trek, but, up at 6.10am, we broke our fast, packed up and left before pretty much anyone else in our hotel was even awake. The sky was clear and the mountains were out in force. 800m or so up was as difficult as you might imagine but with Pasang often bringing up our rear, we made it in less than three hours.
The journey up to Namche Bazar. Suspension bridges, temples and crazy porters included.
Day three was our first acclimatisation day and from what other trekkers – and our guide – were saying, these are vital if you don’t want to end up feeling truly awful trying to walk up the highest mountains in the world. Altitude sickness is no joke and in extreme circumstances can end in death. This really put us at ease as we mentally prepared for the next two weeks. To put us even more at ease, Day three was also the highest point that Cameron, Manuel and Jesse were covered by their travel insurance. . . Perfect.
Namche Bazar: Local floor market and temple in the centre of town
Above 3500m all three of their insurance policies were void, so if they were ill after that, fell off a mountain, or got carried off by some massive eagle, they’d have to either somehow find their way back down to this point, or pay a ludicrous amount of money for a helicopter rescue. My insurance cost me £115 for 3 weeks coverage to 6000m but for my own peace of mind (and because of previous medical palavers, ski season nicknames and general common sense) this seemed like a good idea. My friend Cory, who we re-met in the Irish Pub in Namche Bazar – of course there’s a pool table equipped Irish Pub there – said his young guide had been up to Everest Base Camp with clients 60 times and 20 times had had to fly back in a helicopter with them. Not a great ratio.
Insurance or not, the next day we were out of the hostel by 7am on the road west towards Renjo Pass, the first of our high passes. This day was the best so far. Finally away from the main Everest trail and all those horrible other tourists, we trekked through the forest, again following the river, on our way to Thame (3800m).
Manuel, Me, Jesse and Cameron during our first acclimatisation day
Mountain Peaks at 6am from Thame
Left: Kangtega 6783m Middle: Thamserku 6618m Right: Kosumkhang 6370m
Day five took us up out of tree range and through a pretty desolate valley with views all the way to snow-capped Tibet in the distance. We were advised that deciding to walk to Tibet without a visa might not be the best idea. Eventually persuaded that a night in Lumde (4380m) was preferable to a Chinese prison, we spent the afternoon and evening playing cards and wondering just how cold our plywood bedrooms were would be. Being over 4000 meters had been enough to unpack our down jackets for the first time. It started snowing at 3pm. The single blanket provided by most tea houses wasn’t quite going to suffice.
Heading towards Tibet, or Lumde
A yak in front of our hostel in Lumde – Day 5
A surprisingly warm night later – wearing all your clothes will do that – we were bracing ourselves for a staggering one thousand meter climb. Renjo Pass is 5360 meters up and should have a spectacular view. Sadly, despite our hour earlier start, it was already overcast when we woke up. On we went, climbing upwards from the first minute out of Lumde. Any stubborn vegetation was replaced by snow after an hour and the view was already great despite the clouds. Surrounded by mountains in every direction I was loving life. There’s a complete quiet at that height; it’s both unnerving and incredible, the type of silence that lets you hear the sound of a bird’s wings flapping as it flies past. The looming thunder in the distance a short time later wasn’t quite so inspiring.
Pasang was “not worried” but somehow the pace increased after the first few thunderclaps. After three hours of climbing and with the pass in view, we hit the real ascent. And the snow.
If you’re wondering about the effect of altitude on your breathing, it’s simple: Over 5000 meters you see a ridge a few meters up and assume you can make it before needing your next rest. You probably can’t. The stone steps that had somehow been built into the climb were a massive help, but in the snow, at that height, it was a real struggle. By the time we were near the top we only took about ten steps before having to stop.
The lake in front of Renjo Pass – the lowest point right of centre!
Eventually, amazingly, we made it to the top. And there it was, magnificent in the distance: Everest.
As if. We could barely see the route downwards. Oh well, next time.