Day 14: Back in Kathmandu

We get up at 4:30 am and get ready to go to the airport. Through the window I see that it is raining cats and dogs. That is not a good sign. It is very unlikely that our flight will take off in this heavy rain. Ngima comes to our room around 5 am and tells us that the first flight has been cancelled. He tells us to go back to bed; he will wake us up, if the rain stops and a flight is scheduled later in the day. We go back to bed. I am worried whether we will be able to fly out of Lukla today.

Perhaps we misunderstood what Ngima told us. At 5:48 am he comes back and frantically knocks at our door. I stagger out of the sleeping bag and open the door. He tells me that the rain has stopped and that he just got word that a flight is leaving soon. We must get to the airport by 6:00 am. He is a good crisis manager: He quickly helps us pack our bags. He tells us to have a quick breakfast, which he will order. He and Pramod will go to the airport with our bags.

We run downstairs to the dining room, quickly eat the breakfast kept ready for us, and run to the airport. Fortunately, at this lower elevation we are able to move fast. And, the airport is conveniently located next to the lodge. At 6:15 am Ngima checks us in, even before we reach the airport. When we reach the airport, the security asks us to open the luggage for examination. Finally, we enter the waiting hall of the airport. The first flight from Kathmandu has still not arrived. We wait in the lobby with several other passengers.

At 6:45 am a Tara Air plane lands, and the passengers of the first flight are called to board the plane. At 6:54 am we are seated inside the airplane, barely one hour after we were woken up. It appears that the plane will take off even earlier than the schedule time of 7:40 am. I can’t believe our luck. I was resigned to the possibility that we might be stuck in Lukla for another day.

The plane takes off, flying initially between mountain ridges on either side of its path. Their dark outlines look ominous, seen against the sky lit by sun’s early rays. About ten minutes into the flight, our plane gets completely immersed in a white cloud, which makes everything around us invisible. I hope the pilot knows the location of the dark ridges, which cannot be that far.

Slowly, the cloud disappears. And it is clear again. Soon, I can see distant mountains and the zig-zagging trails etched on their sides. There are small communities scattered all over the trails. I marvel at the force that drives humans to seek and occupy such remote parts of the planet. Survival and economics seems too simplistic an explanation for that force. The trails are the only way to reach those communities. Previously, I would have watched the trails from the air plane with curiosity, but with no other feeling. Now, I look at the trails with some trepidation; I know that those lines may look faint, but they inflict pain on the hikers.

At last, I spot a paved road winding down a mountainside. A tiny white dot, a vehicle of some sort, seems to flit as it moves down the road through the woods. Kathmandu comes into view, looking dusty, buildings up to five stories tall, scattered all over. There is little traffic on the roads this early in the morning.

Our airplane lands smoothly and speeds past the large aircrafts of Oman Air and Nepal Airlines parked on the tarmac. As we taxi toward our gate, I notice Nepalese army trainees, mostly men and a few women, exercising near the tarmac.

We take a taxi to our hotel. With our unkempt appearance, we must have looked out of place in the posh hotel lobby. An elegantly dressed receptionist checks us in. Ngima tells us to take rest the remainder of the day. Tomorrow Madhav will take us on a tour of Kathmandu and later to a farewell dinner. I ask Ngima whether he will join us for the farewell dinner, and he says no. We bid Ngima farewell. He says goodbye and leaves the hotel lobby, carrying our rented sleeping bags, which he will return at the rental shop. The two weeks of companionship with him comes to an end abruptly, indicating the end of our trekking trip as well.

durbarsquare
Kathmandu Darbar Square in front of the old royal palace of the former Kathmandu Kingdom

We go to our clean, modern room. Finally, we get to take a hot shower, such a sweet relief. We give our sweat-soaked clothes for dry cleaning. A woman from laudry service carefully counts and records the items of clothing. She tells us that they can also clean the trekking boots. I am glad to hear that as I was wondering how to clean the boots with yak-dung stuck to their soles.

After relaxing in the lobby for a little while, we decide to go for lunch. We search the Internet and find a place called Rosemary Kitchen & Coffee Shop off of Thamel Marg. The restaurant has a high rating on Trip Advisor, a rating based on input from a large number of customers. We find the restaurant on GoogleMap. We walk through crowded streets lined by shops on either side. We stop at some shops to buy gifts. When we reach the restaurant, we notice that most of the customers are western, and the menu seems designed to cater to them. The food is good, and it feels good to have a relaxed meal.

After lunch we walk toward our hotel and decide to go to the nearby Hotel Yak and Yeti for a coffee. We sit in the spacious hotel lounge slowly sipping coffee. Waiters are walking around catering to the many customers sitting in the lounge. A boastful, middle-aged Nepali businessman is sitting at the next table with two South Korean businessmen. They seem to be in the construction business and meeting to make a business deal. The Nepali businessman talks almost nonstop; the South Koreans listen and occasionally make a brief remark.The Nepali businessman gives the impression that he knows the Prime Minister well and tells that he has gold frequent flyer status in Thai Airlines because of his frequent international travels.

A greying American healthcare professional is talking to a woman from Australia, whom he met in the lounge. He has been here for attending a medical conference. He enjoyed his two weeks of stay here and is returning home tomorrow. He says that he is struck most by the diversity he finds in Kathmandu.

Through the tall, large glass windows of the lounge we can see the green lawn outside. There are tables and plastic chairs set out on the lawn. But nobody is sitting there now. Suddenly, violent winds start to blow. They send dust, bits of paper and leaves swirling up into the air, obscuring the view through the window. They topple some of the chairs and tables on the lawn. A lawn umbrella flies through the air, crashes into a lounge window with a loud thud, and falls down. The window is not broken, fortunately. Just as suddenly as they started, the winds subside suddenly. The hotel staff walk around the lawn, straightening the chairs and tables. One staff member inspects the damage done on the window by the umbrella.

I want to get a haircut. I leave Rahul in the lounge and go looking for a salon. I find that the salon in the hotel is closed now. I walk out into the city and find the Sherpa Mall nearby, which features a number of shops. The mall is not very big or crowded. Walking around, I am able to find a salon. The manger is a pleasant young woman in her late twenties. She speaks good English and has a slightly surprised look seeing me. There are no other customers. She finds me a barber. He is also in his twenties, Indian-looking, and speaks to me in Hindi. He is probably not very experienced and seems proud to have a customer.

After the haircut I return to join Rahul, who is still sitting in the hotel lounge. We decide to go for a massage. We would like to get Shiatsu massage. But there is only one Shiatsu masseuse. The other masseuse knows only Swedish massage. We decide that one person will get Shiatsu and the other, Swedish, so that we can get the massages done at the same time.

I do Swedish massage. The masseuse is Suman, who is Nepalese, but born in Amritsar, India. She prefers to talk in Hindi, although she understands a little English. She tells me an endless tale of woes in Hindi: She is 37, widowed, and have two children. She is poorly paid and finds it hard to make ends meet. Her brother, a policeman, is in a hospital in Allahabad, India. His leg is fractured. Once, when she was doing the massage for a customer, an earth quake started. Her scantily clad customer got up and ran and urged her to run as well. When she tried to run behind him, the door got shut and locked, and she could not get out of the room. She was saved only later… As she keep talking, I get the feeling that many of her stories are simply made up.

We decide to eat dinner at a middle eastern vegetarian restaurant called OR2K, located about a mile from our hotel. We leave Hotel Yak and Yeti and walk toward OR2K. The sun has set, it is getting dark, and the streets are becoming less crowded. We remove our shoes and enter the dining hall of OR2K with its distinctive decor. Low tables are set out on either side of the dining hall. The tables are surrounded by cushions set on the floor. We sit on the cushions and stretch our legs under the table. The restaurant is crowded; almost everyone other than us and the waiters are of western descent. The name of the restaurant is derived from the word OR, which means “light” in Hebrew, and 2K, which stands for year 2000, the year when the restaurant was started. The menu is in English, but has a few notes written in Hebrew. The menu is highlighted at places with coloring that glows in the black light. We eat potato and cheese buerre, which tastes good.

After dinner, we walk back to our hotel. It is past 9 pm. An occasional car or motor cycle zips past us. The streets are mostly deserted. The city has become quiet and is ready to go to sleep.

Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
14,522 6.55 2,636 161

Day 13: Lukla

We get up at a leisurely pace. Today, on the final day of trekking, we have a relatively short trek. First, I drain the blister on my right foot and dress it with moleskin and bandage. Fortunately, this is the first and only time I needed moleskin on this trek. Also, we didn’t need any of the medications we brought with us, except Diamox, which we used during the last two days of the ascend.

At breakfast time we see Dorjee in the dining room. We ask him about his rescue mission, which we had heard from Ngima when we were on our way to the basecamp. He tells us that the Trekker was in a lodge at Phakding, not at Namche as we had thought. She had a heart problem, and Dorjee carried her on a stretcher to a hospital in Lukla. It took him an hour and a half for the trip. Twelve days later, she is still in the hospital, recovering. We pose for a photograph with Dorjee, bid him farewell and leave the lodge around 9 am.

I try to keep up with Ngima and Rahul. But my efforts fail after the first twenty minutes of the trek. At the first uphill climb, they forge ahead. Again, Ngima helps when the steps are too steep, going downhill.

terracedfieldsnearlukla
Terraced fields near Lukla

When we reach the outskirts of Lukla we find terraced farms and residences at a distance. Finally, we reach the gate at Lukla, three and a half hours after we left Phakding. Around ten trekkers are standing in line at the check post, getting their papers checked before entering the trail.

We go straight to Everest Lodge Restaurant and Bar, located near Lukla airport. Ngima is going to spend the rest of the day with his sister, who lives in Lukla. Pramod will be our acting guide during Ngima’s absence. Rahul and I eat lunch and leave the lodge to look around Lukla.

Most of Lukla is located around a half-mile stretch of the trail that goes from Tenzing-Hillary airport to the National Luminary Pasan Lhamu Memorial Gate. The trail here is wide and well-paved. Numerous cafe’s, restaurants, lodges, and gift shops are located by the sides of the trail. There are no vehicles of any kind on the trail, of course. We can hear the chatter of children playing nearby. It is cold and drizzling. Rahul spots a Starbucks, and we decide to go there for coffee. It is a well stocked and modern coffeeshop that offers free Wifi, although it does not look like an authentic Starbucks coffeeshop. Two young women in their early thirties manage the counter. The stern looking one might be the owner, I guess. We order cappuccino and cafe Americano.

lukla
Lukla

Two young German men are the only other customers in the shop. Four lamas in ochre robe are sitting at the far end of the room, performing a ceremony by reciting scripture. It appears that they are the owner’s guests. After a while the owner brings them food, traditional local food, not coffeeshop food. After eating the food, the lamas continue to recite scripture. One of the Germans, perhaps a photographer, moves closer to the lamas, sits on the floor and starts taking their photographs. Soon the owner comes back with a baby, presumably hers.  The main lama blesses the owner and her baby. He uses a large wooden contraption for blessing them. We get second cups of coffee and continue to sit in the coffeeshop. We have nothing else to do. We cannot walk around because it is drizzling and it is cold. Two other customers walk in. They are also Germans. After a while, we leave the coffeeshop. We walk slowly back to our lodge, occasionally looking at things kept for sale in the shops by the sides of the trail.

In the evening, we go down to the dining hall. Pramod is in charge of ordering the food for us. We decide to order non-vegetarian food, which we haven’t eaten since we started on the trek. Rahul orders a yak sizzler, and I order a chicken sizzler. Rahul decides to have a beer and offers one to Pramod. He says “no” at first, but accepts the offer eventually. In a while, the sizzlers are served, and they taste good. Pramod talks to us about his life. He had gone to Malaysia looking for work. He didn’t have much luck there and returned to Nepal a few years back. He has been working as a porter ever since. This is not a well paying job, and he would like to move on. We tell him that he will do well as he is smart and personable. After all the trekking company owner Madhav also started out as a porter, we tell him. He smiles and says that it is not that easy. After dinner, when he is ready to take leave, we thank him and hand him his tip with a thank-you note. He gets up from his seat and profusely thanks us. Just then Ngima returns and joins us. He asks Pramod why he had to drink beer. Pramod smiles and bids us farewell. Ngima explains the plans for tomorrow morning. We need to leave the lodge by 5 am to catch the first flight. The later flights are unreliable. We go back to our room.

Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
18,540 8.36 2,791 2655

Day 12: Back to Phakding

amadablam
View of Mt. Ama Dablam from Kyangjuma

We leave Lawi Schyasa in the morning after breakfast, around 8:15 am. After an hour we reach Kyangjuma. Here the trail is wide and well-paved for a short distance. There are a few restaurants and shops and a bar near the trail. A large colorful prayer wheel is located on the trail. Jewelry and handicrafts are displayed for sale on a sheet laid out on top of a low wall next to the trail. A lonely Sherpa sits on the opposite side of the trail waiting for customers. We stop at the Mountain High Bakery & Cafe for tea. We drink tea, sitting outside on the terrace with a good view of Mount Ama Dablam.

After some time we reach a relatively flat trail going to Namche. We hear a loud boom, as if an artillery shell was set off. Ngima stops and looks around. Is it a rockfall, he wonders. No, he concludes. Perhaps the Nepalese army fired an artillery shell, he thinks.

We take a shortcut, bypassing the center of Namche Bazar and pass through a small, dusty market, built on the mountainside. Merchants, men and women, are sitting by the side of the trail, to sell their goods: food items stored in bags, baskets, and cardboard boxes kept on the ground; incense packages and small boxes and bags laid out on a sheet covering a ledge. Further down, we go past a shop, where customers are standing in line for buying 25 kg bags of rice, Sona Masoori rice. I wonder whether it is a ration shop. A couple of girls are among the customers. Each of them buys a rice-bag and effortlessly carry the bags on their back.

market-in-namche
A market in Namche Bazar

A short distance from the market a middle aged Sherpani and three girls come against us. The older woman has a mischievous smile on her face and says something to the girls and they all laugh. Ngima joins in the fun, and they all laugh loudly at his joke.

Now, we reach the part of the trail where the “endless steps” begin. This time we are, of course, going down hill. But the steep flights of steps give me pause. Occasionally, I hesitate on top of a flight of steps. And Ngima holds my hand to help me out. We go down the steps faster than I am able to do by myself, which makes me a bit uncomfortable. Going downhill has been tough on my feet as well. I have a big blister on my right foot.

We cross the Hillary bridge, and soon reach a relatively flat area. We stop at the Riverview Terrace Restaurant in Jorsalle for lunch around 2 pm. We had stopped here on our way up as well.

We have reached a relatively flat part of the trail. At places, the trail seems to be going through people’s front yards. At one point, I walk between two Sherpas, who are standing on either side of the trail talking. I mutter “Excuse me” as I cross them, but they don’t pay any attention to me and continue talking.

We have been walking for a long time after lunch. Rahul and Ngima as usual are way ahead of me. I see them entering a lodge by the side of the trail. I am relieved that we have reached Phakding, our destination. When I too reach the lodge, I am surprised to find that the sign in front says Toktok, not Phakding. I wonder why Ngima decided to stop early… Perhaps like yesterday, he thinks that I cannot walk the rest of the way to Phakding. In front of the door, I find a Sherpa standing with folded arms, blocking my way. I am slightly annoyed that he wouldn’t move aside and let me in. I tell him that my companions have already gone in. I am not sure that he understood what I told him. Nevertheless, he reluctantly steps aside. I go inside the lodge and look around. It is a bit dark inside, and I don’t see a single soul inside. I am confused: where did Rahul and Ngima disappear so suddenly? After a few minutes, I step outside. Now, I see Rahul and Ngima coming back on the trail, looking for me. When I explained what happened, Ngima laughs, “Altitude problem, Sir!”.

We resume walking. After a while we cross Dudh Koshi river one last time and see the familiar signs of Phakding. We reach Buddha lodge, nine hours after leaving Lawi Schyasa.

The Fitbit is again out of charge.

Day 11: Lawi Schyasa

We leave Pheriche in the morning around 8:30 am. Ngima proposes that we go as far down as Namche Bazar today and stay in the same teahouse lodge where we stayed on our way up. We are happy to go as far down as possible.

On our way down, I see large groups of Trekkers going in the opposite direction, toward the basecamp. On our way up, I didn’t see this many trekkers; it seems the number of trekkers has increased. On our way up, I had eyed the Trekkers returning from the basecamp with a mixture of admiration and self doubt. Now, I can be a bit smug, smiling at the Trekkers on their way to the basecamp. For all I know, the smugness could be unwarranted as some of them might be climbers on their way to the summit!

Around 9:30 am we stop for tea at Pasang Lodge and Restaurant in Showmare. We sip tea, sitting on the terrace, watching the beautiful view of snow covered peaks.

shomare
At restaurant in Showmare

Further down the trail, near Panboche we cross a culvert and find a group of Trekkers standing by the side of the trail. They are watching and cheering a rescue effort going on in the nearby stream. A dzopkyo has fallen into the stream. It is sitting in the shallow waters and doesn’t want to get up. Seven men are coaxing it to stand up; it repeatedly tries to stand up, but sits down again. The men keep trying … Finally, the dzopkyo stands up, reluctantly, and is able to continue to stand. All of us Trekkers clap our hands and resume trekking.

On a relatively flat part of the trail, a group of men comes against us. Their faces light up seeing Ngima. They stop and greet Ngima and chat and laugh with him. After a brief conversation, they say goodbye and go on their way. Ngima tells us that they are his relatives, who are on the way to their work at the basecamp or the camps higher up.

We get down a flight of stairs and pass in front of a row of small houses. The houses block the sunlight, making the trail in front relatively dark. An eight or nine year old boy stops me, stands blocking my way, and says in English, “Give me chocolate.” I tell him I have none. Then he says, “Give me money.” This is the first and only instance of begging I encountered on this trek. Although Nepal is not a developed country, I have not seen any abject poverty here, unlike other developing (and even developed) countries.

I am too tired and am lagging way behind Ngima and Rahul. Ngima asks me whether I am feeling ok and whether I would like to stop. I tell him that I can keep on going, admittedly at a slow pace. I feel like the Energizer Bunny in the TV commercials: I can keep going and going and going …

After a while, Ngima senses that I am too tired and takes the backpack from me. Even the shedding of that bit of weight makes me feel better. We have been trekking for about eight hours. Ngima feels that it will be difficult for us to reach Namche Bazar today, before it gets too dark. So he decides to stop in Lawi Schyasa. We stay at the Green Valley Lodge and Restaurant, which is by the side of the trail. A short flight of stone-steps takes us to the terrace in front of the restaurant.From there a steep flight of stone-steps takes us to the sleeping quarters. We are the only customers at this lodge, which has around twelve bed rooms.

After dropping our bags in the room, we go down to the dining room for dinner. We are the only customers in the restaurant. The cook — a dark, slight man — does not look like a typical Sherpa. He makes us fresh food, pasta for Rahul and fried rice for me. After dinner we stay in the dining room for some time, talking to him. He talks in reasonable English and is well informed. He has a good opinion about U.S. President Obama. But he does not have a favorable opinion about Indian Prime Minister Modi. He feels that India is meddling in Nepal’s affairs: A new Constitution came into effect in September 2015, converting Nepal from a 240-year old monarchy to a federal republic. Many people in Nepal are happy about the constitution, but some communities are unhappy. One such community is the Madhesis, who are ethnically and socially close to Indians just across the border to the south. They do not like the provision in the constitution that the father has to be a Nepali for his children to get Nepali citizenship, putting the children of Nepali women married to a foreigner at a disadvantage. The cook feels that India demanded changes in the constitution, advocating on behalf of Madhesis.

No Fitbit statistics today as it is out of charge.

Day 10: Everest Base Camp

We start from Gorakshep around 6 am. The day is calm; winds are not blowing. We leave before breakfast. Our plan is to go to the basecamp and come back to the lodge. Then we will eat breakfast, pack our bags and start the return journey. It is still slightly dark outside. I am wearing my sun glasses as usual. Ngima advises me to wear my regular glasses so that I can see better in the dark. I go back to my room to fetch my glasses. I try to hurry up, needlessly worrying that the winds may start blowing again, preventing us from reaching the basecamp. So I take my sea-level stride and bound up a flight of stairs to our room on the first floor. At the top of the stairs I am on the verge of collapse, out of breath. I had moved too fast for the low level of oxygen at this altitude. I stand several minutes holding on to the railing to catch my breath. Chastened, I walk back at the appropriately slow pace, to join Rahul, Pramod and Ngima, who are waiting outside the lodge.

kumbu-glacier
Khumbu Glacier, debris covered, dotted with supraglacial lakes

Gorakshep is located in a valley at the y-junction of Khangri Shar Glacier to the west and Khumbu glacier to the east. We walk northeast, climbing up the lateral moraine of Khumbu glacier. The rest of the way is along the moraine. The basecamp itself is located on the glacier. The Khumbu Glacier — 7.5 miles long, covering 8 square miles of land — is the highest glacier in the world. The glacier accumulates ice from the Khumbu ice fall to the east of basecamp. The glacier (a very slow river of ice) flows to the Khumbu Terminus near Everest Memorial. It is flowing at 50 meters per year near the icefall to less than 30 meters per year near the terminus1. The ice reaches a peak thickness of over 400 m near the base camp, and steadily thins out to zero at the terminus2. The melting ice leaves the terminus in a small stream, descending down the mountain side as Dughla waterfall. Here the glacier looks static. Its debris covered surface looks like a field of rock punctuated with small supraglacial lakes. But there is much at work in the glacier, as described beautifully by Roger Bilham3: “We’re standing on the Khumbu Glacier right now and although it looks a rather static sight and quite beautiful with blue pinnacles and a deep blue sky with the moon popping up in the middle of it, it’s just white and blue we can see all around us. It looks absolutely static but it isn’t. Occasionally there’s a pop, a groan, a creak, as this glacier relentlessly moves downhill. Millions and millions of tons of ice are slowly moving. If we could speed it up we could actually see something like a river coming down from above us with the Khumbu Icefall sliding around the corner here and heading south toward the Ganges Plain in India. The ice south of us is tens of thousands of years old and the ice to the north, above us, is even older.”

It seems the worst part of the trail is reserved for the last day of the uphill trek. So far the  precipice has been only to one edge of the trail, the other edge hugging the mountain side. Now, both edges of the trail are unprotected as it is perched on top of the moraine. Also, we encounter a couple of icy spots on the trail.

On Thursday March 24, 2016 at 8:14 am Nepali time, we finally reach Everest Basecamp, ten days after we left Lukla.We all do high fives and smile with relief. Ngima makes a small chorten by piling stones and recites a short prayer. Even yesterday I was not sure whether I will be able to reach the basecamp, and that uncertain feeling is now gone from my mind.

kumbu-icefall
A heap of stones marks Everest basecamp; Khumbu Icefall is in the background

A man-made heap of stones decorated with prayer flags mark Everest Basecamp on top of the glacier.We pose in front of the heap of stones to take pictures. As my daughter had suggested, I am wearing the camo side of my two-sided, down jacket, which looks like the hunting jackets commonly seen in West Virginia.The relatively flat area around us is covered with many natural heaps of gravel and rocks. An occasional block of ice sticks out between the rocks. Khumbu icefall, where chunks of ice the size of cars to houses fall from the mountain, sparkles at a distance with its frozen mounds of white snow. It is the gateway to Mount Everest, a treacherous gateway that the climbers must cross multiple times as they acclimatize by making multiple trips over a six week period from the basecamp, to the higher camps and back to the basecamp (see a video of the path from the basecamp to the summit). The waves of ice from the icefall take a left-hand turn near the basecamp as they move ever so slowly down Khumbu Glacier. All around us are snow covered mountain peaks, seen against a backdrop of deep blue sky. Oddly Mount Everest itself is not visible from here as we are too close to it. We are less than two miles from the Chinese border, a boundary not marked by border walls or guards, but marked by the majestic and impassable peaks of Himalaya. Nothing around here seems familiar other than the handiwork of trekkers who came before us. Someone has helpfully written in black ink on one of the stones in the heap “Everest Base Camp 2016”. Others have written their names and dates on the stones: “Rob, Sarah, Jules, Tracy, Amit …” There are cloth banners tucked under the rocks with names printed on them: “Paul + Trudy…” Someone has scored a heart-sign on a patch of ice on the ground, presumably with the tip of their trekking pole.There are only two other trekkers at the basecamp, besides us. A little bird flying around also provides a semblance of familiarity. Other than the humans, it seems to be the only living being around here. It sits on the ground next to Ngima’s feet with a look of concern on its face.

atbasecamp
Posing at Everest Basecamp

We can see a few climbers’ tents, looking like yellow specks at a distance. By April there will be many more tents, when the climbers finally arrive, to take advantage of the summit window, rumored to begin mid May, when the jet stream moves north of Mount Everest and the windspeed becomes bearable on the summit. Two sherpas run past us carrying large loads on their back. I am not sure whether the loads are heavy. They are carrying supplies for the climbers. One of the trekkers decides to follow the sherpas. In a few minutes, the trekker and the sherpas look tiny in front of the mounds of snow. I feel that I have suddenly lost my sense of the scale: I am not sure how big or far the things are that I see at a distance.

Ngima was hoping that his uncle (dad’s brother), who is a cook at Camp 2, will treat us with some coffee. But now Ngima learns that his uncle is back in Gorakshep. In any case, Pramod has brought some coffee in a thermos. He pours the coffee into cups for us. I squat near my backpack kept on the ground and open its zippered pocket, reaching inside to take out the snack bars I had brought. But I am not able to find them, and I don’t understand why the zippered pocket looks unfamiliar. Pramod, standing nearby, has a puzzled look on his face. Soon, I realize that I was actually opening his backpack, thinking that it is mine. “Altitude problems, Sir!” Ngima laughs.

I would like to explore the surroundings, but I am tired and realize that we have a long way ahead of us today. Now, the wind starts to pickup. Ngima tells us that we need to hurry back to Gorakshep before the winds become heavy. I grab a fist full of gravel from basecamp and put it in my back pack as a souvenir. We start our return journey about twenty minutes after reaching basecamp.

On our way back the wind speed steadily increases. At one point on the trail, a Sherpa, carrying a rolled mat on his head, runs past me. He is presumably returning after delivering goods at the basecamp. After crossing me, he turns around and shouts to me something in Sherpa language, while still running. I, of course, don’t understand what he is trying to tell me. Pramod, who is behind me, translates it for me. The Sherpa is telling me to run as fast as possible because there is the danger of a rockslide caused by the heavy winds. I look to my right and see a near vertical wall of gray gravel. Large rocks are precariously perched on top of the wall. Now,I understand what the Sherpa was concerned about. But I tell myself that there is no way I can move any faster than the labored steps I am taking. If there is a rockslide, there is nothing much I can do to escape.

Further down the trail we come to a place where the trail is going up steeply for several feet. There is ice underneath a layer of gravel. I hesitate to walk up. Ngima gently pushes me up the icy slope. We come to a place where we need to descend down steep stone steps. Again, I hesitate and Ngima extends a helping hand.

About five hours after we left, we return to the lodge in Gorakshep. We eat breakfast, pack our bags and check out. Ngima asks whether we want to go back to Dingboche or to Pheriche. We select Pheriche because it is at a lower altitude. We want to go as far down as possible today.

Shortly after 2 pm we reach Lobouche. We stop at Alpine Home and Restaurant for lunch. I have an intense craving for Coke.I order Coke for lunch. It feels good to gulp the sugary soda.

I have lost weight; my pants have become loose. I cannot tighten my belt any further, and Ngima suggests that I fold my pants around the belt, to keep the pants from falling off.

After lunch, we leave for Pheriche. I find that I am not benefiting from the so called “downhill dividend.” Trekkers usually find it easier to go down hill. First, going downhill takes lesser effort than going uphill. Second, as you go down to a lower elevation the oxygen level in the air increases. Third, the body is already acclimatized to the higher elevation and can supply oxygen to the muscles more efficiently. All these factors make the downhill trek much easier. The problem I face is not one of effort or lack of oxygen, but of a lack of muscle strength. It seems you need much muscle strength to control the steep descend. Because of the long trek and perhaps my age, my muscles are not strong enough. While going uphill, I used to lag behind Rahul and Ngima, but not by very much. Now, going downhill they are able to almost run down, whereas I am at the same pace as going uphill. I wonder whether it is just my fear of falling. So at one place I push myself to go downhill fast. But I fall with my right knee folded and my right palm scraping over the gravel. Luckily, I am not hurt. I realize that it is not fear; its a genuine lack of ability.

outskirtsofpheriche
On the way back to Pheriche

It is getting dark. The trail close to Pheriche is covered with rocks, but thankfully flat. At the outskirts of Pheriche I go past a small hut. A little boy, around five years old, is standing in the yard. His clothes look dark and dirty. He stands motionless, curiously observing us, the shadowy passers by. I wonder what he, standing at the edge of human habitation, must be thinking about the passing strangers from the unknown, distant lands.

Six hours after leaving Gorakshep we reach our lodge in Pheriche. Again I crave for a sugary drink and have Fanta for dinner. I don’t take any Diamox tonight, but sleep well.

References
1.T. Bolch, M. F. Buchroithner, J. Peters, M. Baessler, and S. Bajracharya. “Identification of glacier motion and potentially dangerous glacial lakes in the Mt. Everest region/Nepal using spaceborne imagery”. Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 8, 1329–1340, 2008

2. M. Nakawo, H. Yabuki, and A, Sakai, “Characteristics of Khumbu Glacier, Nepal Himalaya: recent change in the debris-covered area.” Annals of Glaciology, 28, 1999.

3. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/everest/earth/glacier.html.

Elevations
Everest basecamp           17,598′ (5,364 m)

Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
37,631 16.98 4,070 326

Day 9: Gorakshep

We start early from Lobouche, around 7:30 am. Today’s plan is to go straight to the basecamp and return to a lodge in Gorakshep by lunch time. Things don’t go according to the plan; the day turns out to be the most harrowing one of the trek.

As we hit the trail toward the basecamp we start experiencing heavy wind. Right at the start, a sudden gust trips me up, and I fall. I quickly pick myself up and walk; Rahul and Ngima, walking ahead of me, don’t see me falling.

We reach a relatively flat field. The ground is covered by fine sand, gravel and rocks. The wind is picking up speed. It is bitterly cold, a cold that seeps through the thick down jacket and layers of clothing. I sense that Ngima is getting a bit concerned. He has not experienced this type of heavy winds before, he says. The gusts pick up and blow fine sand at us. We see waves of sand at a distance blowing toward us. Every time a wave approaches us, we stop and turn around, to prevent the sand from blowing into our face. We wait until the wave passes us. Then we resume walking.

We are now at a pass between two mountains. Another big gust hits us. We all lose our balance and need to steady ourselves with the help of trekking poles. Another big wave comes. Ngima motions us toward a big boulder nearby. We duck behind the boulder for shelter. The wave rips past us, but we are protected from the sand by the boulder. The American students have caught up and are sheltering behind the boulder with us. I ask a student standing near me where they are from in America. He tells me that they are from two high schools in Portland, Oregon.

The next gust is laden with a blinding amount of sand. I get sand in my mouth. We cannot see anything in front of us. Ngima is now very concerned. The wind is strong enough to pickup and pelt rocks at us. I see a single lemon-sized rock rolling down the mountainside. The wind can cause rock slides on the mountainsides.

We have been walking for 30 minutes after we left Lobouche. It will take another three hours to reach Gorakshep. Ngima stops us and holds a consultation meeting. Should we turn back and return to Lobouche or soldier on to Gorakshep? There is no shelter between here and Gorskshep. I am in favor of taking a safe approach. But, if we turn back, we may not be able to reach basecamp. That will be disappointing after having come this close. Rahul says that we should push on. The American students have over taken us, and they are pushing on at distance ahead of us, their outlines slowly dissolving into a distant wave of the sandstorm. We decide to keep going.

After a little while Rahul becomes sick. He feels very cold and complains that his fingers have become numb inside the gloves. We exchange our gloves. He feels a little better from the warmth in my gloves. But I notice that he has a staggering gait. I walk closely behind, keeping an eye on him.

Bitter cold wind blows unabated. Thankfully, the wind doesn’t pelt stones at us. Ngima points out a landslide triggered by the wind perhaps in the past. Also, it is not on our trail.

I am walking vigilantly behind Rahul. The trail is now going uphill and has become narrow. We see the two Iranian Trekkers, whom we had met in Dingboche, coming toward us. They must be on their way back from the basecamp. I see Rahul trying to give way to them by moving to the right edge of the trail, the edge where the ground drops off sharply. I fear that his right foot has slipped off the edge and jumps to prevent him from falling. He tells me that his foot was just fine and that I almost pushed him off the trail. I tell Rahul to give way, now on, by moving to the left and stopping.

Rahul notices that the face of an Iranian has puffed up. My face has also puffed up. It is a common thing at this high an elevation.

A little while later, another group of Trekkers comes toward us. Rahul tries to move to the right, and I yell “On your left.” He listens.

Now, Ngima tells me to go ahead; he will follow behind Rahul. I soon see why. At places the trail is really narrow. In one place there is barely enough space for one foot and the trail is made of loose gravel. I have to take a long step to avoid that treacherous spot.

gorakshep
Gorakshep (left) and Khumbu Glacier (right)

As I walk I feel a fluttering sensation in my back on the left side, as though my left lung is shivering in the ribcage. In my left cheek and lips, I feel a tingling sensation. These, I have read, are side effects of Diamox. Also, I start to feel a rising pain across the top of my abdomen. Thankfully, it does not seem to increase or decrease with exertion. So, I take the pain to be benign, and continue walking.

We reach a place where the trail is right on the edge of Khumbu glacier. The rest of our way is by the side of or on top of Khumbu glacier.

After three and a half hours we reach Himalaya Lodge and Restaurant in Gorakshep. I have no taste in my mouth, and lunch does not taste good. My face is grimy. I pass my hand over my forehead. It feels like a sandpaper, the skin being coated by a layer of fine sand.

After lunch we go to our room upstairs and help Rahul into his sleeping bag. I rent a hot water bag that he can keep inside the sleeping bag, to warm up the inside quickly. Ngima advises him not to sleep off. I keep vigil. Slowly, he starts to feel better, sheltered and warmed by the sleeping bag.

Ngima tells us that it is dangerous to attempt to go the basecamp today because of the heavy winds. We will try tomorrow if the wind calms down. Ngima will wake us up early in the morning, if it’s safe to trek. We will have to miss our trip to Kala Pathar, however. If it is not possible to go to the basecamp even tomorrow, I ask Ngima whether we can attempt it the day after and delay our departure from Lukla by a day. We will still be able to catch our international flight on time, although we will miss the Kathmandu tour. Ngima tells me that he will ask Madhav.

The wind continues to howl. A layer of sand is collecting over my iPad and other items kept on the window sill, the wind blown sand having seeped through the narrow gaps around the window. I notice that a peanut bag I brought with me has puffed up. This is because the pressure inside the bag is still the pressure at sea level, where as the outside pressure has dropped considerably.

peanutbags
How the peanut bags look at sea level (left) and at the high elevation in Gorakshep (right)

As I go to bed at night the wind is still howling outside. I time the gusts based on the howling noise. They are now about a minute apart. They were about twenty seconds apart, when we were trekking. This gives me hope that the winds are dying down and we may be able to go to the base camp tomorrow.

Elevations
Gorakshep           16,864′ (5,140 m)

Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
12,211 5.51 2,558 98

 Day 8: Lobouche

We start from the Dingboche after breakfast. As we are leaving the dining hall, we find the lodge owner sitting near the door. He wishes us well and tells me “Sir, please come back the next season.” I bid him good bye and walk out the door, wondering whether I will be able to come back ever.

At first the climb is steady  from Dingboche.  Soon we reach relatively flat trail high above Dingboche. The sides of the trail are covered by a thin layer of snow.  The trail itself is free of snow and ice, however. After a while, we see Pheriche to our left, way down below. In the distance the clouds have descended on the mountain peaks. We are taking a narrow trail by the mountainside.

trailabovedingboche
On the trail above Dingboche

After walking for a while on the gentle uphill slope, we reach the Dughla (Thukla) waterfall bridge. It is a short-span, brown, metallic bridge supported on both ends by abutments made of rocks. Below the bridge, glacial waters are gurgling through grey and white rocks. The waters are coming from the Khumbu glacier, whose terminus is about 900 ft above us.

We cross the bridge and stop for lunch at Rest Point Bakery & Cafe in Dughla. It is crowded with trekkers sitting on carpet-covered benches that line either side of the narrow dining hall. The walls are made of light brown plywood. The large glass windows and sunroof make the dining hall well lit. We have a quick bite to eat and leave.

After Dughla, the climb is steep uphill. The wind is blowing hard and cold. After a long, hard climb we reach a flat area on the mountainside, where we stop to take rest. A few other Trekkers have also stopped to take rest. We have stopped near the Everest Memorial, a memorial for climbers that perished while attempting to summit Mount Everest. There is a large heap of stones that mark the central spot. From there several colorful streamers stretch out to a memorial near by. The streamers are fluttering in the wind. I sit atop a low wall near the memorial

everestmemorial
Everest Memorial

Memorials for climbers from all around the world surround us. Some are simple piles of three or four stones. Some are more elaborate, chorten-like structures made of stones and mortar, incorporating commemorative plaques, and decorated with colorful streamers. A short distance behind us is the memorial for Scott Fisher who perished in an ill-fated expedition in 1996, described in Jon Krakauer’s excellent book Into Thin Air and depicted in the 2015 film Everest.

Right in front of us is the memorial for Babu Chiri Sherpa, a legendary climber. The brass epitaph on his memorial lists his feats. He holds two records. In 1999 Babu Chiri stayed in a tent on the summit for 21 hours, without auxiliary oxygen. Most climbers stay at the summit only for a short time, as short as several minutes. Babu Chiri sang songs and talked on the walkie-talkie to keep himself awake because doctors had told him that he may not wake up, if he falls asleep on the summit. In 2000 Babu Chiri set another record by achieving the fastest ascent to the summit from the basecamp. In spite of his extraordinary mountain climbing skills, the mountain claimed his life for a careless step he took during his 11th attempt to reach the summit in 2001. He died, falling into a crevasse near Camp 2 while stepping backwards to take a photograph.

After the rest at Everest Memorial we resume walking. Soon we reach a plane surrounded by mountain peaks.The ground is clayey, dark brown in color. At places the ground is covered by patches of dry grass. The ground is strewn by rocks all over. We walk a long way over the relatively flat ground. We go past several primitive huts made of stones, surrounded by stone walls. No body is living there now. Ngima tells us that sherpas own the huts. They will come during June and July to graze their yaks. I wonder what would ownership of huts mean here.

On the sides of the trail, we find small rocks piled on top of large rocks on the ground. Ngima tells us that the piles of stones act as trail markers for trekkers, when the trail becomes concealed under snow.

We stop to take rest. A group of trekkers are resting ahead of us on the trail. A couple is walking very slowly toward us. I think they are German, although I have never heard them speak. I have seen them before at a few places. They do not have a guide nor a porter. The husband, tall and well-built, seems to know his way around here. He is a carrying on his back a large rucksack, presumably containing their supplies. The wife, who is short, walks behind him, carrying a small backpack.

The sky is deep blue in color. White snowy mountain peaks stand out in sharp relief against the sky. The scenery is eerily reminiscent of computer generated graphics of an alien world.

waytolebouche
On the way to Lobouche

We resume walking. The air is thin, and we walk very slowly with much effort. There is a positive side to the slow walking, however. As of the eighth day of our trek, I don’t have any blisters on my feet or pain in my knee or lower back. I have stopped wearing my toe socks, which were absolutely essential to prevent blisters while doing long hikes back home. I do not need the knee braces I brought with me and have put them away.

Eventually, we come to place where we see large sheets of compact snow mixed with rocks. It looks like the terminus of a glacier but Ngima says it is not. Actually, we crossed the Khumbu Terminus after we left Everest Memorial, and Khumbu glacier has been to our right ever since.

We reach Alpine Home and Restaurant in Lobouche five and a half hours after leaving Dingboche. A notice posted at the entrance requests climbers to remove their crampons before entering the dining room. Another notice advises Trekkers to inform the teahouse staff promptly of any health problems, so that they can arrange a helicopter rescue.

We enter the dining room. It is nice and warm inside. I look around and see around ten Trekkers sitting quietly in the dining room, reading books or playing with their smart phones. I get a strange feeling in my lungs. The air is already thin at this elevation. The heated air in the dining room feels even thinner as I breathe it. Also there is a whiff of kerosene in the air. This gives me a strange feeling. I immediately decide that I must take Diamox tonight.

lobouche
Lobouche

After drinking tea in the dining room, we go to our bedroom. Pramod has unloaded our luggage and is getting ready to leave. “My license” he jokes, pointing to a small length of rope that he uses to tie our luggage. The guides must have a license, which the police may check, Ngima explains. The porters do not need a license.

I am very glad to think that in one more day we will reach Everest basecamp! I take half a Diamox tablet, and the night passes without any scary, sleepless episodes.

Elevations
Lobouche           16,210′ (4,940 m)

Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
18,090 8.16 2,871 308

Day 7: Acclimatization day in Dingboche

Today we will spend a second night at Dingboche as a part of our acclimatization plan. Dingboche (or Pheriche) is the second acclimatization stop for most trekkers. For us this is the third acclimatization stop as we spent an extra day in Deboche. We decide to take rest rather than go on a day-trek. On the acclimatization day some trekkers visit Chukhung (15,518 ft; 4,730 m), a village near the termini of Nuptse, Lhotse and Ama Dablam glaciers. At night they return to Dingboche. It is all right to go to a higher altitude during the acclimatization day; the only requirement is that you sleep at the same altitude a second night.

It’s early in the morning. Rahul tells me that the toilet is out of water. Like all other lodges there is no running water at this lodge. The water is supplied in the toilets in large tanks, which the lodge workers fill manually. Perhaps they fetch the water from near by streams. The toilet needs to be flushed with water taken from the tank with the help of a mug. I go looking for help to fill the empty tank. First, I try to find Ngima. His room is in a different building. He had asked me to knock at the window from outside, in case I needed help. I knock at his window from outside, but don’t get a response. I give up, thinking that I could be knocking at the wrong window. I go to the dining room to find someone else. I find the young woman who was sitting near the stove in the dining room yesterday. She is sweeping the floor with a broom, bending down. I ask for help, speaking in Hindi, hoping that she might understand the word pani, meaning water. She doesn’t understand me. She continues to sweep the floor without looking up. I go back to the room unable to find anyone else, hoping that someone fills the tank before we need water.

IMG_0171
Dingboche at daybreak

We get up later in the morning and go to the dining room for breakfast. By now Ngima and others have woken up, and someone fills the tank. The Iranians have left. There are no other customers in the dining room.

Through the dining room window we see the American high school students, their teachers, and guides on the trail outside the lodge, some of them wielding shovels and other tools. They are trying to repair the trail. I am impressed that the students are volunteering on their acclimatization day. I start to wonder who takes care of the upkeep of these trails. So far I have not seen any work crews on the trail.

Dingboche is a small village. The population was 200 in 2011. Now the village seems to be dominated by lodges rather than dwellings. Some of the old huts are still standing. They are now used for storing potatoes and grain. The walls are made by piling unhewn stones, which I guess are locally found. The stones are not cemented together. The roof is made of sheets of slate, which are also found locally. The newer homes have walls made of hewn stones or bricks, bonded together by mortar. Their roofs are made of sheet metal.

IMG_0081
Drying clothes outside the lodge

After breakfast I find Ngima washing his clothes in a basin kept on a counter outside the dining room. I decide to wash our clothes. Ngima brings me some warm water from the kitchen. He tells me to be careful as it is very cold outside. I don’t have a bar of soap; the lodge owner’s son brings me a small piece of soap. I hang the washed clothes for drying on a clothes-line found outside the lodge. Ngima brings some clothespins to secure the clothes on the line. It is cold. But it is windy, and the sun is shining. That helps to dry the clothes by the evening.

I find a small mirror near the wash basin and decide to shave. It has been a week since I shaved. After shaving I open the cap of a tube of after-shave lotion.  The white lotion streams out of the tube, and I quickly screw back the cap. Inside the tube the pressure is still the same high pressure at Kathmandu. At this high altitude the outside pressure is much lower, which causes the lotion to stream out. The lotion will stop streaming out only when the pressure inside the tube becomes equal to that outside. Perhaps this is what is occurring in our capillaries: the fluid leaks out until the pressure inside our blood vessels decreases and becomes equal to the pressure outside.

This lodge is powered by solar power. There are solar panels installed on its roofs. There is a parabolic dish solar water heater in the yard. Lodge employees keep aluminum kettles filled with water on a stand sticking out from the center of the parabolic dish. The hot water is periodically transferred into vacuum flasks.

IMG_0174
Parabolic dish solar water heater

Ngima tells me that they do not generate power from hydro or wind in this region. He feels that Tibet is better developed than this region. People there have jobs, and the government helps people with housing. But the government there is strict. On a Kailash Parikraman trek, the Chinese officials stopped his group members many times, to check their papers. There is hardly any checking on this trail.

There is no police station or hospital in Dingboche. If the residents or trekkers need police assistance, the policemen must come from Namche by foot, Ngima tells me. The closest hospital is in Pheriche, which is run by the Himalayan Rescue Association, “a nonprofit non governmental organization, which was established in 1973 with an objective to prevent deaths from Acute Mountain Sickness and other accidents and illness that can be encountered in the mountains of Nepal.”

In the afternoon, two young women come to see the owner’s wife, I think, for a social visit. The owner’s wife is happy to see them. The three women drink tea and happily chat at the far end of the dining room. After the visit the two women take the trail heading toward Deboche and soon disappear in the distance. I am amused by this social call occurring at this remote fringe of human society. I wonder what topics they might be talking about: weather, deals at the bazaar, crazy trekkers …?

The sun is ready to set, and it becomes dark as clouds move into Dingboche. As the clouds blow past us they shed snow flakes, making us feel cold. Ngima tells us that we will reach base camp after two days. I had lost track of time and was thinking that it will take three more days. I am happy to hear that base camp is reachable in two more days.

At night I experience the same problem I experienced during the last two nights. I wake up feeling suffocated and need to take deep breaths. This makes me very uncomfortable. I go in and out of a dream state. When I wake up, I am aware of what I was dreaming. Whatever I was seeing in my dream is then associated with a feeling of deep discomfort. It does not matter that the dream was about something non-threatening, or in fact, trivial. For example, if I see opening a box in the dream state, recalling that on waking up feels uncomfortable for no reason. No amount of reasoning can overcome the discomfort. The rational side of my brain is now incapable of evoking any comforting thoughts. It seems to have no control over the fear center of the brain (figuratively speaking1). This is what evolution has bestowed upon me. Better take something — anything — associated with breathing difficulty seriously. Even in the face of good evidence to the contrary, do not ignore anything that appears to be life threatening. The fear center of the brain does not take any chances.” Without this warning system to protect us from predators and other dangers, we’d have been dinner long ago on the savanna.”Perhaps it is this fear and the extreme caution it engenders that kept my ancestors alive long enough, so that I can wake up in panic, in the middle of the night, at this remote village in Nepal.

I sit up and get some relief from the fear. Later, after I calm down I am struck by the complete separation of fear and rational thinking centers in the brain. I understand that fear and rationality dwell in two realms of the brain, and fear always trumps rational thought. I start thinking that this could be the basis of deeply held beliefs such as religion, which people tend to defend even going to great extremes. No amount of evidence or reason can shake such beliefs.

Before starting the trek, I had imagined that nights will be a welcome change after a long day of arduous climb, and that I will be so tired that I will hit the bed and fall asleep in no time and remain asleep for a long time. I had thought that waking up in the morning and getting out of the warmth of the sleeping bag into the cold of the morning air would be the hardest part of the day. I had read about the sleeplessness experienced at high altitudes. But I had not realized that this sleeplessness is not like anything  I have experienced at sea level. It is not like the sleeplessness caused by too much excitement,too much coffee or too many worries. This sleeplessness makes you fear the night itself. The night and the act of lying down become associated with discomfort. You cannot wait for the night to end. You cannot wait to get out of the sleeping bag and start walking.

References

  1. Joseph E LeDoux, “The Amygdala Is NOT the Brain’s Fear Center.” 2015.
  2. Richard A. Friedman, “A Drug to Cure Fear“, Op-Ed, The New York Times, JAN. 22, 2016.

Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
3,943 1.78 1,996 8

Day 6: Dingboche

I wake up hearing a commotion in the hall way. The South Korean group is assembling their members and leaving the lodge early in the morning. We eat breakfast and start the trek around 8 am. The American high school students are doing stretches in front of the lodge in preparation for the day’s trek. We leave the lodge before them.

We climb steadily up the trail to Dingboche. We come to a collapsed suspension bridge on the trail. Normally we would have taken this bridge to cross Imja Khola, which is flowing a great distance down below. The bridge collapsed during the last monsoon and hasn’t been rebuilt. We descend down to Imja Khola, cross a small bridge over it, and ascend back to the trail. This adds to our challenge. We take a rest stop.

We can see the American high school students crossing the river way down below. Soon they pass us, like a fast train. One of the teachers and a guide are walking in front of their line; the other teacher and a guide are at the back of the line. The students walk past us, talking and giggling. I think this might be the group that passed us on our way to Namche Bazar.

After another steady climb we descend into the village of Pangboche and stop for lunch. We order our now standard Dal-Bhat for lunch.

From Pangboche we continue the climb. We cross a bridge over the confluence of waters from Khumbu glacier and Ama Dablam glacier.  This stream eventually feeds Imja Khola.

trailtoDingboche
Trail to Dingboche with Mount Ama Dablam in the background

Pramod is humming the song tum paas aye from the Bollywood film Kuch kuch hota hai. Ngima tells us that everybody in Nepal likes that film and its songs.

I feel the effect of altitude in every step, taken in slow motion, each accompanied by a deep breath. I have to stop frequently to catch a breath. I fall behind, and  Rahul and Ngima occasionally have to stop and wait for me to catch up.

We reach a large plain. It is strewn with stones and boulders. Dry shrub and grass are the only vegetation on the plain. We are now above the tree-line, the altitude above which trees do not grow. I cannot find a good explanation for why trees abruptly stop growing above a certain altitude. It seems well accepted that a low ambient temperature is the dominant factor that determines the location of the tree-line. But why are shrubs able to grow above the tree-line? Perhaps the trees are at a disadvantage because of the greater loss of heat from their tall trunks1.

Six or seven yaks are grazing on the dry grass. A couple of calves are running about energetically. A few calves are standing by quietly. Ngima tries to pet one calf, and it runs away from him.

Now we start our final climb to Dingboche, still taking one step at a time. At places the trail is not firm, being made of loose gravel. A yak train comes from the opposite direction. I move to the mountain side of the trail and wait for the train to pass. The leader yak stops in front of me and looks around. It gives me a quizzical look as though to ask “who are you?” like an ill-tempered curmudgeon. It steps away from me and resumes walking. It puts its right, front foot on the edge of the trail.  The gravel on the edge breaks up, and its foot slips. But there is no danger to the yak because its three other legs keep it firmly placed on the trail.

dingboche
Dingboche seen at a distance from the trail

The trail is so steep at places that my ankle joint is at its limit of bending.

We reach Paradise Lodge six hours and forty minutes after leaving Deboche. The time includes the one hour and ten minutes that we took for lunch at Pangboche.

Rahul’s head is fuzzy again. We debate whether to start him on Diamox. Again we decide to wait until after dinner, and have him take an Advil instead.

We go to the dining room. The stove has been turned on, and it is nicely warm inside. The lodge owner’s wife is sitting quietly at the entrance to the dining hall. The owner is putting yak dung patties into the stove. His son, in his twenties, is keeping aluminum kettles filled with water on top of the stove, a typical method around here for making hot water, which is then stored in vacuum flasks. There is one other lodge employee taking a break and enjoying the warmth of the stove. She is young and small built. I suspect she has a slight developmental disability.

There are only two other customers in the dining hall. One tall man with a mustache and tousled hair is changing his pants at the far end of the dining hall. He is chattering excitedly to his companion who is sitting near the middle of the dining room, listening with an amused smile and occasionally giving short replies, but focusing mainly on neatly folding his dried clothes. He is chubby, balding and has tied a bandana around his head. After wearing a bright blue track suit, the tall man walks to the middle of the dining room to stand in front of his companion and continue the conversation. Rahul and I are sitting on the opposite side of the dining room. We don’t understand the language they are speaking. We try to guess and finally agree that it could be an eastern European language. But they don’t look much like Eastern Europeans. After a while I ask the tall man about the language in which he is speaking. He turns around and says with a broad smile, “Not English.” I smile back. He then tells us in accented English that they are from Iran. I am struck by the fact that Farsi sounds nothing like Hindi, although both the languages share similar sounding words such as the numbers up to ten. The Iranians are going to the base camp. They don’t have a guide, and from what the tall man says I understand that they started their trek from Jiri. It is possible to take a bus to Jiri and trek to Namche Bazar, which, however, adds five more days to the trek compared to flying to Lukla and starting the trek from there as we have done.

Ngima suggests garlic soup and Sherpa soup for dinner as they are both good for combatting altitude sickness. We agree. The Sherpa soup is a kind of potato soup, which tastes really good. After dinner Rahul feels better, and we go to bed.

At night Rahul starts to feel discomfort in his stomach and need to go to the toilet multiple times.

Again I cannot sleep at night, and feel like I am getting a panic attack. I am not able to hold any comfortable thought in my mind. I hear a muffled monologue coming through the wall next to my bed. I don’t understand the language. It could be in Sherpa language. It sounds monotonous… I am reminded of the uncomfortable plight of astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone, the main character in the film Gravity. She is stranded in the space and is desperately wanting to contact Houston by radio. Suddenly she hears incomprehensible voices coming over the radio. Her hopes go up; it could be Houston. Actually, she gets connected to Aningaaq, an Inuit fisherman camping on the ice over a frozen fjord 500 km down on earth. He heard her desperate pleas over his two-way radio, and is trying to reply in Greenlandic, although he doesn’t understand what she is saying. Stone does not understand Aningaaq’s replies, of course. Even the lullaby that he sings to his baby is not comforting…I sit up, and like last night I begin to feel better.

The uncomfortable feeling comes from a condition called Cheyne-Stokes respirations that most people experience above 10,000 ft. At high altitudes people may find, to their alarm, that their companion has stopped breathing while sleeping. But shortly, to their relief, the sleeping person would resume breathing. I was disquieted reading about this condition, while doing research on base camp trekking. Its cause is explained well at The Institute for Altitude Medicine website: “This condition, which can cause trouble sleeping, happens quite frequently but is not associated with altitude illness. It results from a battle within the body over control of breathing during sleep. Oxygen sensors in the body command the brain to increase breathing, which causes the lungs to blow off CO2. But CO2 sensors in the body then tell the brain to stop breathing, because CO2 is getting too low. So breathing then stops for about 12 seconds, until the oxygen sensors take over again. The result is an irregular pattern of breathing, with 4 or so large breaths followed by no breaths. The first large breath will sometime wake up a person, with a sensation of feeling breathless or suffocated. This pattern may continue throughout the day as well, but typically is most disturbing at night as it frequently wakes a person multiple times. Although uncomfortable it is not dangerous. It is easily treated with a small dose of Diamox® (62.5 or 125 mg) taken before bedtime; this smooths out the breathing and improves sleep and raises blood oxygen.”

References
1. Christian Körner, “Treelines Will be Understood Once the Functional Difference Between a Tree and a Shrub Is,” Ambio. 2012 Jul; 41(Suppl 3): 197–206. Published online 2012 Aug 3. doi:  10.1007/s13280-012-0313-2

2. Küpper T, Schöffl V, Netzer N. “Cheyne Stokes breathing at high altitude: a helpful response or a troublemaker?” Sleep Breath. 2008 May;12(2):123-7.

Elevations
Dingboche           14,501′ (4,420 m)
Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
21,475 9.69 3,088 473

Day 5: Tengboche monastery

It is mandatory to stay in Namche and Dingboche (or Pheriche) one extra day for acclimatization.  In addition, I had decided to stay an extra day in Deboche as recommended by the Lonely Planet Guide, hoping that the extra day would increase the odds of my reaching the base camp.

It’s 8 am. Rahul and I both feel fine. I stagger a bit after getting out of bed, but otherwise feel fine. Rahul is feeling so well that he is proposing that we go to Dingboche today itself. Ngima reminds him that we had given our clothes for laundry, and the clothes can be dried only during the day in the sun.

We go to the dining hall for breakfast and sit near the warm stove. The group of nine trekkers and the single trekker, whom we saw in the dining hall last evening, are just leaving for the day’s trek. The other two trekkers, who were also in the dining hall last evening, are eating breakfast, and we start talking to them. They seem to be in their late thirties. One is from Quebec City, Canada; the other is from the Netherlands. We tell them that we are from the U.S. The Dutch guy says that he figured that out from our accent and because we didn’t shake our heads in a way that means “yes” in India, but “no” in the West. They are taking a base camp route different from ours and doing the trekking without the help of a guide. They met up on the way and will part ways after reaching the base camp. The Canadian will seek a partner to go on to another expedition in Nepal.  The Dutch guy will leave Nepal and go to New Delhi. He will apply for a visa to Iran and a transit visa through Pakistan. He will visit Benares while his visa applications are being processed. However, he doesn’t like to travel much in India because the food is too spicy and doesn’t suit him. Rahul recommends that he take a trip to Kerala, sometime in December or January. He came to Kathmandu from Malaysia on a motorbike, which is now parked in Kathmandu. He will go to India on his bike. Soon after he gets the visas he will leave India for Iran, riding the bike through the safer, coastal route in Pakistan. He will spend a few months in Iran. He spends most of his time traveling, occasionally going back to the Netherlands to work and make enough money to pay for his travels.

After breakfast, we walk toward Tengboche monastery (gompa in Tibetan, vihara in Sanskrit and Pali). On the way we stop at a porter lodge and pick up Pramod. The porter lodges offer cheap accommodation for the porters.

It is a short climb up to Tengboche. But the altitude has its effect and the trail throws up additional challenges.There is snow on the ground. The trail at places is frozen hard. At places it is oily black, muddy and slippery. We pass through a forest of stunted, gnarly trees. Their thin trunks shoot upward from the ground following no obvious pattern, making them appear to be frantically searching for something: warmth, water, or nourishment from the few green leaves left on their canopy. Their roots sticking out of the ground adds to our challenge.

The Tengboche monastery is located in a beautiful setting, surrounded by majestic mountains. Today the sky is mostly clear, and we can see Mount Everest with its banner cloud. Mount Lohtse is covered by clouds, however.

OutsideTengbocheMonastry
Outside Tengboche Monastery with a view of Mt. Everest

We enter the monastery through an ornate gate and a steep flight of steps. The steps lead us to a courtyard. A noticeboard in the courtyard lists do’s and don’ts, such as “Not to kiss lips.” Another flight of steps leads us to the inner sanctum. We remove our boots and leave them outside the door with our backpacks and trekking poles. Ngima has asked Pramod to stay outside, perhaps to keep an eye on our belongings, although no one other than a few trekkers are in the monastery.

The inner sanctum is dimly lit, and its walls are decorated by numerous Thanka paintings, depicting the lives and teachings of Buddhas through pictorial stories and allegories. One painting shows a prince with his sword drawn out, standing near a tree. Perhaps it is depicting a story I had read as a child. The young Prince Siddhartha participates in an athletic competition to demonstrate his strength and prowess in using weapons. He has done exceptionally well in all the events so far. In the next event he must cut down a tree with his sword. Prince Siddhartha swiftly swings his sword at the tree. But the tree doesn’t fall. The audience gasps. Has the prince failed this test? Then a gentle breeze blows, and the tree falls over revealing a cleanly cut trunk. The audience is relieved. The swing was so swift and the cut, so clean that the tree could not topple over, until the breeze gave it a gentle push.

Another painting catches my attention. One frame shows three men hitting a tortoise with sticks. They are hitting on its shell. The men appear frustrated that they cannot break open the shell. In the second frame, the tortoise is lying upside down. Now, the men are successful in slaughtering it. Blood is flowing out of the cuts they have made on the tortoise’s body. I think I understand the meaning of this allegory: with a change in perspective even the hardest problem might reveal a soft underbelly susceptible to a new line of attack. I wonder why this gore is displayed at the place of worship of a religion known for its preaching of nonviolence.

We meet a tall, young lama who is wearing robes deep red ochre in color. He asks Ngima in Sherpa language where we come from. Ngima tells him that we are originally from India, but are now American citizens. Then the lama wants to know our names. Rahul tells him that he is the namesake of Buddha’s son. Ngima translates the lama’s reply: “No, your name is like Rahul Dravid’s” (famous batsman and former captain of Indian cricket team). And the lama laughs. We bid him goodbye and leave the monastery.

TengbocheMonastry
Entrance to Tengboche Monastery

Ngima tells us that he would like to summit Mount Everest and work with climbing expeditions. The money is good, although the work is dangerous. His family has forbidden him from climbing. They tell him that money is not everything in life.

We return to the lodge and have the usual Dal Bhat for lunch. The hot sauce given with the lunch is very spicy. I share my dry, garlic chutney with Ngima and the hotel owners, who are also eating Dal Bhat with us.

After lunch we go to visit Deboche monastery, a ten minute walk from the lodge. Ten or so Budhist nuns, some from Tibet, live and meditate here. Buildings in the monastery were destroyed in the earth quake last year, especially the prayer hall. A new one is being built with help from charitable organizations. The new construction will take another four years to complete. Ngima walks around the buildings and finds a nun (lama or ani). She is slight and appears famished. She looks at us kindly, a look slightly revealing a hint of her suffering. She shows us the temporary place of worship. Things are stored in piles all over the place. I look around for a donation box. She senses my intent and gently lifts the cloth that covers the box.

We come back to the hotel and go to the dining room. Ngima shows us the pictures of his family. He has a younger brother, who is working in South Korea, and a younger sister, who is studying for an undergraduate degree in business. The younger brother has a one-year old son. They all live together with Ngima’s parents in Kathmandu.

Rahul and I start playing a game of chess in the dining room. The clouds start settling into Deboche.

Two German women in their late twenties come into the hall and ask for rooms. They are on their way back from the basecamp.

A group of seven South Koreans come in with their guides. Large boxes containing their climbing paraphernalia are kept in the front yard of the lodge. They are returning after climbing Island Peak or Imja Tse (20,305′; 6,189 m). I find one person from the group posting a banner on a notice board outside the dining room. The professionally printed banner appears to be listing the group’s accomplishments. It is written in Korean, and I can read only 5,545 m and 6,189 m, which I guess as the elevations of Kalapathar and Island Peak. I try to pick up a conversation with the South Korean by asking him what is written on the poster. He simply says “Island Peak” in a heavy accent and quickly walks away from me. It is clear that he does not speak a word of English…Or perhaps I smell bad.

The South Korean group is having dinner. They seem to have their own menu items, and special tea is being poured from thermos flasks. There are two women and five men in the group, all of them middle-aged or older. One person looks like he could be at least seventy.

A group of American high school seniors, their two teachers (men), and two guides come into the hall. Later I learn that they are from two high schools in Portland, Oregon. They are on their way to the base camp. There are five girls and seven boys. They ask for rooms. Rooms in the lodges normally accommodate only two persons. Fortunately, this lodge has rooms that can accommodate three persons. That is ideal for this group with an odd number of girls and boys.

The teachers hold an impromptu class in the dining hall. They sit around a couple of tables. One teacher advises the students to observe and learn about the foreign customs and culture, and not be an “ugly American.” He then asks them to take turns describing their best moment and their worst moment so far on the trek. The students are articulate and rattle off their experiences. When his turn comes up, the teacher says that his best moment was when the plane landed safely in Lukla airport, to his great relief. During the plane ride what was going through his mind was a YouTube video he had seen about an accident at Lukla airport (perhaps the 1998 accident). Some of the students are preparing to take a shower. The other teacher tells them to be mindful of the fact that resources such as water and the energy to heat it are scarce around here. I admire the teachers’ courage to go on such a trip, chaperoning a bunch of teenagers.

Ngima gets us water from kitchen, which is safe to drink and is free. Bottled water is costing more and more as we go up in altitude, which is not surprising considering that the bottles need to be hauled uphill. I treat the water just to be safe. I add two Potable Aqua tablets to 1 liter of water and mix it well. The water takes on the light brown hue of iodine. I wait for 30 minutes and add two tablets of P.A.Plus, to remove the color and taste of iodine. The treated water tastes good.

Ngima promises that tomorrow will be an easier day of trekking. We are glad to hear that.

We go to bed at 8 pm. Around 1 am I wake up. Then I cannot go back to sleep. I seem to be getting a panic attack. I doze off and get up with an uncomfortable feeling, as if I am choking. I find that I cannot think of anything comforting. Fear grips me. I think of chanting something in mind, to alleviate the fear and discomfort. To ward off fear, some children in Kerala are taught to recite the ten names of Arjun, the great warrior from Mahabharata, “Arjunan, Phalgunan, Jishnu, Kiriti, Shwetavahanan, Vibhatsu, Vijayan, Parthan, Savyasachi, Dhananjayan enna pathu namangalum bhaktiyayi japikalo nithyam bhayankal akannu povum nishchayam“(Arjunan … if these ten names are recited daily all the fears will disappear, certainly). But I didn’t learn that mantra as a child and cannot remember beyond “Arjunan, Phalgunan”. Reciting the refrain “deewangi, deewangi, deewangi hai” that I had heard yesterday seems to help. I had read that sitting up will give relief. After struggling for two hours, I put my pillow upright against the wall and sit up leaning on it, pulling the comforter all around me so that I don’t freeze. That helps. My mind finally calms down, and I sleep sitting down. Later, I wake up with a neck pain. I check whether I can slowly slide down without becoming uncomfortable. I am able to do so and lie down flat. I catch a couple more hours of sleep.

The discomfort and the dangers are so real on this trek that now I feel that I cannot recommend it to my friends or relatives. After going on a Disney cruise or a trip to Paris people could easily recommend them to their friends. This trip, I am reluctant to recommend. If people decide on their own to go on this trek, I would gladly share all the information I have.

Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
8,713 3.93 2,263 53