I am woken up around 4 am by muffled voices coming from people talking outside the lodge. It appears that someone, possibly a trekker, is talking to Dorjee. I drift back to sleep, and wake up thinking that the voices I heard were in a dream.
We get ready and go down stairs for breakfast. We find Dorjee standing outside the lodge smoking. Rahul wants to take a photo with him. But before he could make the request, Dorjee is seen wearing his backpack, getting ready to go somewhere. There are two trekkers with him, a young man and a young woman, both Europeans, l guess. They are wearing bright jackets with the hoods draped over their caps for protection against the cold. Dorjee adjusts a part of the jacket that is covering the neck and chin of the young woman. The three head in the direction of Namche Bazar.
Ngima tells us that Dorjee is going on a mission to rescue someone stricken by altitude sickness. The two trekkers with Dorjee are the sick person’s companions who came early in the morning seeking help. Rahul says that he had heard their conversation early in the morning. So the voices I heard were real, not in a dream. Ngima thinks that the sick trekker may be rescued by a helicopter. I wonder why Dorjee would need to go, if it was going to be a helicopter rescue. I am impressed that the two trekkers were able to come down from Namche during the night. This story is not quite accurate as we will learn later.
We start at 8:30 am after a breakfast of omelette, toast and coffee. For me, this is the most dreaded day of the trek because we ascend over 2500 ft today, an ascent greater than that on any other day. My apprehension increases as I learned yesterday that the effort required may far exceed the net ascend itself. Furthermore, today we cross a threshold in elevation, above which we become vulnerable to mountain sickness. Something within tells me that I may not be able to reach Namche. Oddly, I also feel that if I can reach Namche then I will be able to reach Everest Basecamp.
Soon after leaving Phakding we come to a suspension bridge strung across Dudh Koshi. Ngima carries my trekking poles, and cautions me about the sharp wires sticking out on the steel cables that serve as hand rails. I contemplate the catenary shape of the bridge stretching in front of me, slats of shiny steel suspended from two steel cables held across the river in tension, draped on the cables are colorful prayer flags fluttering in the wind. I walk slowly down the bridge. The bridge is swaying slightly, but it is not hard to get balance or to walk across. On the upslope of the catenary the effort increases, however. There is the effort of walking uphill. Also the bridge seems to increase the weight born by my legs when they meet the bridge on its slight up swing. There are four more suspension bridges to cross today, Ngima tells us.
With every step uphill I console myself that I have one less step to climb. But invariably there is a downhill descend that frustrates me because every step downhill must be made up by a step uphill. I irrationally wish all of the trail were just a steady climb.
We pass through an area where Rhododendron bushes border the trail. Ngima tells us that Rhododendron is the national flower of Nepal. Rahul observes that it is our state flower in West Virginia.
We reach the Sagarmatha National Park entrance gate. Sagarmatha is the Nepali name of Mount Everest. When I first saw the word in English text I read it as the Hindi word Mother (matha) Ocean (sagar) and wondered why such a name for a mountain peak. Later I learned that the word meant the Sky’s (sagar) Forehead (matha) in Nepali. The sherpa name for Mount Everest is Jomolungma, which means “Mother of the World”.
As Ngima is getting the entrance permit from the park office located near the gate, we visit a small museum nearby. A display at the museum shows that the number of visitors to Sagarmatha National Park is steadily growing and exceeded 30,000 in 2008 with more than 50% of the visitors coming from the top five countries UK, Germany, USA, Australia, and Japan. A 3D replica at the museum shows the topography of Mount Everest. I learn that GLOF or Glacial Lake Outburst Flood is a potential danger in the Khumbu region. Glaciers in the region (and elsewhere in Himalaya) are receding, leaving behind glacial lakes, dammed by end moraines. If a moraine dam fails, the water from the glacial lake will burst out, leading to destructive floods and debris flows. GLOF events have been increasing in recent years, presumably because of global warming.
By noon we reach Jorsalle (8990 ft/2740 m) and stop for lunch at River View Terrace Restaurant. We take a 45-minute lunch break and continue the trek. There are no more villages along the trail until we reach Namche Bazaar.
As we approach another suspension bridge, Ngima spies a couple of trekkers across the river who are about to take a wrong turn on the trail. They don’t have a guide. Ngima shouts across the bridge and tells them which way to go. Ngima tells us that the trail they were going to take would have made them walk a longer distance unnecessarily.
We reach a valley strewn with boulders. I recognize this as the place I saw in the TV show, which motivated me for the trek. The trail is flat and the walk is easy. But this is so atypical of the rest of the trail.
We come to the end of the flat trail. Ngima points to a suspension bridge high up in the sky. It is the Hillary suspension bridge, the fifth and final bridge for the day. I tell him I don’t know how I was going to climb that high and reach the bridge. Ngima smiles and says “slowly, slowly.”
After an arduous climb we reach the Hillary suspension bridge. Rahul and I triumphantly pose in front of the bridge for a photograph. What I don’t realize is that the climb after the suspension bridge is twice as high as the climb to the bridge.
From now on the climb is steady uphill. I had disliked descends on the way up because the descends must be compensated by equivalent ascends, adding to the effort. Now my wish has come true, but at the expense of climbing “endless steps,” enduring endless grief.
I try not to think about the rest of the day or even the trail immediately ahead. I just keep looking at the four feet in front of me. I try to banish all thoughts about reaching Namche from my mind, consoling myself that every step I take shortens the trail by one step. I am aware of my heavy breath and pounding heart. I ignore the spectacular scenery surrounding me, focusing only on the trail in front of me.
I wonder whether this is mindful walking. I am fully focussed on the present, the essence of mindfulness meditation, practiced in the west, originating from Budha’s teachings. “Mindfulness helps us to come back to the here and now, to be aware of what is going on in the present moment, and to be in touch with the wonders of life” explains Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. Budha must have been familiar with such arduous mountain paths. I wonder whether the physical paths that Budha took influenced the spiritual path he prescribed.
Soon I become very slow in walking. Ngima is eyeing me with concern and asks whether I am ok. I make frequent stops to catch a breath.
To compound the difficulty, the trail is becoming treacherous at places. Literally and figuratively one foot stands between you and a fatal accident. At some places a bulging rock formation narrows the trail, leaving enough space for only one foot. On the right side is the mountain. The left side of the trail borders a precipice that drops off into an abyss. At places the gravel on the trail is loose. I am dog tired. My cognition is perhaps impaired, and I am liable to take short cuts that could turn out to be dangerous. One misstep is all it takes. Ngima becomes vigilant. He is usually in front of me. Now he moves behind me. He shifts his trekking pole from the usual right hand to the left hand. From the side of my eye I can see his trekking pole repeatedly coming between me and the left edge of the trail. I am pleased that Ngima is taking extra caution to protect me.
We get past the treacherous part of the trail. The climb is still steady. I am completely worn out. Ngima offers to carry my backpack, and I gladly hand it over to him. Shedding that eight pounds gives me great relief. Ngima admonishes me for making the pack too heavy. He thinks that I am carrying snacks for the way, which, he says, the porter could have carried. But actually the bag contains my knee braces and a rain jacket, which I brought along as a precaution. I will not carry them tomorrow.
We reach a police check post outside Namche Bazar, and I rest outside on an embankment while Ngima is getting our papers inspected. A few other trekkers are also waiting outside the check post. I overhear one trekker telling his companion, “Tengboche is only four more hours from here. May be we should go all the way to Tengboche today.” I miss the sarcasm in his tone and am impressed that he is able to even entertain such a possibility. I will meet him later on the trek and realize that he was not serious.
After resting near the check post, I recover some of my strength and am able to carry my backpack the rest of the way. We walk further uphill and reach a gate, which Ngima gladly announces as the gate to Namche. But even after reaching the gate nothing in Namche is on a flat terrain; we still have to walk uphill to reach our tea house lodge.
Whatever I dreaded about this day has come true. The “endless steps” really felt endless. I am exhausted. I am already ready to turn back and go home. But fortunately my knees do not pain, my feet do not have blisters, and I do not develop any symptoms of mountain sickness. That gives me a glimmer of hope that I might be able to reach the base camp.
Eight hours after we left Phakding we reach Hotel Zambala. It is a new hotel, consisting of a two-story building. The front yard is unfinished. We enter the yard from a corner, stepping down several awkwardly piled loose rocks. A dog greets us at the entrance. As Ngima goes inside the hotel, I plump down on a plastic chair kept on the front yard. Ngima comes back and beckons us into the dining room. It is nice and warm inside. Ngima tells us that the owner’s wife is his relative. Her picture with her mother in law, both in traditional Sherpa clothing, is hanging on the dining room wall. Her son, eight- or nine-year old, is lying on a bed at the far end of the dining room, watching a cartoon movie on the TV.
Rahul complains of a headache. We have garlic soup and vegetable momos for dinner. Rahul takes an Advil, and feels better quickly.
Ngima shows us his room and tells us to call him at night, in case there is a problem. Altitude sickness could start in Namche.
We go to bed at 7 pm. Later at night I start getting a headache, and my head starts to spin. I feel that I did not drink enough water. The valve on the hydration pack was not working properly, and I was getting only a trickle as I sucked on the valve. I realize that I might be dehydrated because my urine does not meet the specifications in the astutely stated alliterations “pale and plentiful” or “clear and copious”. I try to rehydrate myself by keeping a water bottle inside my sleeping bag and drinking the water frequently at night. By morning I feel better.
Namche Bazar 11,286′ (3440 m)
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