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.

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.

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

Day 4: Deboche

We repack our duffel bags, and go down to the dining room for breakfast. The cook at Hotel Zambala is creative and has newly introduced an apple pancake in the menu. I choose the pancake instead of the usual omelette and toast. I am served a large, thick, dry pancake. And there is no syrup. I swallow bits of the pancake with some difficulty.

The weather is clear as we walk out of the lodge. My head starts spinning as I walk. I hope it is because of spending too much time on the bed yesterday, and not a sign of altitude sickness.

From Namche first there is a steady climb. Twenty minutes into the climb I feel like giving up and going back to the lodge. I have recognized this as a trick that the body plays from experience. Some days during the long walks back home, I used to get the urge to stop and turn back about twenty minutes into the walk. But through persistence I used to overcome that urge. I persist here as well, and the feeling eventually goes away. Soon my head also stops spinning.

Ngima tells us about the effect of climate change on the Himalaya. Sometimes snow disappears from some of the mountains. He seems to be concerned about its effect on the region.

Finally, the climb brings us to a trail high up. On our way to Namche we had seen this trail and the Hillary suspension bridge high up in the sky. Now at a great distance down below we can see the Hillary suspension bridge. What had appeared to be up in the sky, now appears way down below.

This is a relatively straight trail, easy to walk. There is a great view of Mount Everest from the trail. We stop near a stupa on the trail, to rest and take photos. A few other trekkers are also taking a break. Two young Russian women are asking about the way to some place. They ask someone else’s guide as they don’t have a guide of their own.

On the way from Namche to Tengboche

Ngima notices that my nose is bleeding. I clean up and hope it is caused by a dry nose.

Presently we start to descend. It seems such a waste of effort to have come up all this way only to go down, and then climb back up again. Ngima points out a trail winding up hill in the distance, which we are to take after lunch. Four hours after we left Namche we reach Phungi Thenga and stop for lunch. We order our standard fare, Dal Bhat.

There is one other customer in the dining room, a small built woman in her mid thirties. She came before us and has finished eating lunch. She is from Kolkata, India where she owns a business in manufacturing ball-point pens for export. She is an experienced trekker. She likes to trek alone, not with a group. It is a spiritual journey for her, and she believes that mountains should not be disrespected by drinking and partying, which often happen in large groups. The only time she went with a group was for Kailash Parikrama — trekking at elevations ranging from 16,142′ to 18,373′ around Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Siva of Hindu trinity — because China, where the mountain is located, issues visa only for groups of tourists, not for individuals. She has trekked in Tibet and Ladakh. The trails she saw is Tibet are much less developed than the Everest base camp trail. In Ladakh she spent 45 days completely cut off from the civilization. Because of her status as a single, Indian woman she received permission from Indian government to visit places that are inaccessible even to journalists from the National Geographic. She also visited Khardung La or Khardung pass, which is at the same altitude as the base camp, but can be reached by a two-hour car drive from Leh, the capital of Ladakh. I don’t understand why it takes eight days of acclimatization to reach basecamp, but only two hours to Khardung La. Later I learn that people that go to Khardung La by car stay there for less than a half-hour and then drive back to a lower altitude. Even then some people need to take diamox tablets.

She asks me: “You have no prior experience, and you start with the mother of all treks?” I tell her that my daughter asked me a similar question. My reasoning is that I would rather try this trek and fail than try something simpler and become discouraged from attempting this trek later. My interest is in trekking to Everest base camp, not in trekking itself.

She tells me that she can’t imagine how she is going to go down after she reaches the base camp. Perhaps she will fake illness and get a helicopter ride down, she jokes. I tell her that I am not thinking of anything other than the four feet of trail in front of me. I will think about the return journey also four feet at a time as I descend. She bids us good luck and leaves with her guide. After about five minutes I see her crossing a suspension bridge near the lodge.

Before leaving the lodge I visit the toilet, which is basically a hole on the wooden floor with a heap of mulch four feet below it. Perhaps the waste is disposed off by burning the soiled mulch.

The next four hours we steadily climb uphill. This trail is a bit less difficult than the trail to Namche. But the altitude has a telling effect. I am walking in slow motion, taking one step at a time and breathing heavily. I have to take frequent stops to catch a breath and calm down my pounding heart.

A young Sherpa woman in denims and a light jacket runs past us downhill. Her doko (basket) is empty. She is going back to Namche after delivering goods higher up on the trail. Her music device is playing deewangi, deewangi, deewangi hai (obsession, obsession, it is obsession), the refrain from a Vishal-Shekhar song in the film Om Shanti Om, a song to which Shah Rukh Khan dances with many old and new Bollywood stars. The petite Sherpa woman is joyously skipping down the hill, as if dancing to the rhythm of the song, like Julie Andrews in the film Sound of Music. Within minutes I see her on the trail way down the hill.

I see Ngima effortlessly walking in front of me. I see Promod effortlessly carrying seventy pounds up hill at this high altitude, unaided by trekking poles. It is clear that the uphill climb is easy for them as they are talking loudly and laughing. If they are doing all the hard work, what’s the big deal with this trek? Is it too hyped up? Some people have raised such questions, and at times I have had such doubts as well. Now that I am experiencing the hard climb, heavy breathing, pounding heart and lurking dangers, I realize that it is indeed a big deal for me, in spite of the able assistance provided by Ngima and Pramod.

A group of fifteen to twenty South Korean trekkers pass us on their way down hill and greet us with a Namaste.

Ngima tells me that he wants to move on from the guide’s job. He has experience working as a factory floor supervisor in Nepal. But that job did not pay well. He has also worked in Malaysia. Many of his friends have moved on to Japan and America. He has considered various options such as working as a Gurkha Guard or as an Indian cook. He knows how to cook Indian dishes such as Chicken Tandoori. I understand his motivation to find new opportunities and know that he will do well in any job. Had he been born in America surely he would have flourished, perhaps in the middle management. But I am not sure that his personal quality of life will improve, if he moves out of this area, where he seems to have so much fun talking and laughing with his relatives, friends, and acquaintances all along the way.

As we approach Tengboche clouds start to descend on the trail. We stop for rest. Fernando’s group comes soon after us and stops to take rest. When we started the ascend from Phungi Thenga we saw a sign that said “Tengboche — 2 hours.” We have trekked for two hours, and Tengboche is nowhere in sight. Fernando says that they must be lying about the time. I joke that the board must be written in Sherpa time. “Yes,” he agrees, “two hours for the Sherpas and six hours for everyone else!”

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 9.40.48 PM
Clouds descend on the trail

We reach Tengboche and continue on to Deboche, which is at a lower elevation. We reach Paradise Lodge, Deboche 7.5 hours after we left Namche. Rahul has a fuzzy feeling in his head. Ngima suggests that perhaps he should take half a diamox tablet (125 mg). But we decide to wait until he eats dinner.

The common area has a warm stove at the center with four benches around it. It feels very nice to sit in front of it after the long day of trekking. Everywhere else it is bitterly cold. Vapors of sweat rise from our clothes. Some trekkers are drying their wet socks and clothes drenched in sweat.

In the teahouse lodges in Phakding and Namche, it appeared that we were the only clients. In Deboche there are many clients, and the dining room is nearly full. There is one group of nine trekkers and three guides. Two Aussies, three Brits and four Americans, one of their guides tells us. There are five men and four women, including two couples. One trekker from Cambridge, U.K. is playing a game of chess with a guide. He is a bit irritated as another guide, watching the game, makes suggestions about possible moves. Four trekkers are playing a card game. One woman is arranging for a hot shower, which costs $5. Others are reading or checking their phones. An American trekker from the group says that his wife is unhappy that he came alone and would want him to come back again with her. But he will try to convince her to go on the Annapurna base camp trek, rather than redo this trek. The trekker asks his guide, who looks like a boy, whether he could again be the trekker’s  guide on the Annapurna trek. “Sure,” says the boy-guide, “Make the request to the trekking company.”

The boy-guide wants to know how Rahul and I are related. He is my son I tell him. “How is trekking with your Dad?” he asks Rahul with a mischievous smile. “It’s ok,” Rahul replies with a smile. The boy-guide used to work with his dad on the same trekking expeditions, but now he does not prefer to be on the same trekking expedition as his dad. This way he has more freedom.

Two men, who don’t have a guide, are sitting silently in one corner of the dining room and observing the whole scene. One woman trekker is sitting on a nearby seat with her guide.

The couple who owns the lodge are standing at a counter near the entrance to the dining hall, busy helping customers. Several items are kept in shelves at the counter for sale: Pringles, chocolates, pop, handicrafts and so on. The woman is wearing colorful Sherpa clothes and a head band made of yak wool. She is also wearing a down jacket like almost everyone else around here.

We have vegetable fried rice and fried eggs for dinner and ginger tea to drink. After dinner Ngima brings us fruits, apple and tangerine slices. Rahul’s head clears up after dinner. Perhaps his head was fuzzy because of hunger. I am relieved that he doesn’t need diamox.

The trekkers slowly retire to their rooms. A Sherpa guide pours a small bottle of rum equally into four glasses. He then pours an equal amount of hot water into the glasses. Perhaps they will party after their clients retire, I imagine.

We charge our electronic devices. Here the charging costs $2 per hour.

We retire to our rooms. It is bitterly cold. I manage to get into the sleeping bag, huffing and puffing. The effort leaves me panting for a while. Once inside the sleeping bag my body slowly warms up, and I fall asleep.

Going to the restroom at night is a real chore. I wait until I must absolutely go. I unzip my sleeping bag and grab the down jacket kept on top of the comforter near my feet. The jacket feels wet and dirty to touch; the moisture from our breath has condensed on the jacket (as well as on other surfaces such as the window pane). I put on the headlamp and look for my slippers. They are frozen stiff.  I open the door and stagger toward the common restroom.

Deboche           12,369′ (3,770 m)
Tengboche       12,687′ (3,867 m)

Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
24,067 10.86 3,295 392

Day 3: Acclimatization in Namche Bazar  

Today is an acclimatization day. Tonight for a second night we will sleep in Namche. Posters at the police check post near Namche exhort trekkers to pay heed to the acclimatization requirement.

Acclimatization helps the body to cope with the reduced amount of oxygen in the air at high altitudes as the air pressure is low. The air pressure at Namche is about 64% of its value at sea level. It will continue to drop as we ascend, and at the base camp it will be drop to 50%. At a lower pressure the air is thinner and contains fewer molecules. Therefore, at Namche a breath contains only about 64% of the number of oxygen molecules in a breath taken at sea level.

The reduced amount of oxygen in the breath makes it harder for the blood to absorb oxygen. In response, the body takes steps to maintain an adequate oxygen supply to the tissues. Immediately, the breathing is made deeper and longer, thereby, increasing the amount of air flowing into the lungs. Within minutes of arrival at a high altitude, a process is triggered in the body to increase the amount of red blood cells, the cells that absorb and carry oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. In spite of these steps, the oxygen saturation in the blood falls. To compensate for the reduced oxygen saturation, the heart pumps faster, increasing the blood flow to the tissues.

In addition to maintaining the oxygen supply, the body also tries reduce the oxygen demand in the tissues. Recent research is showing that the body lowers the metabolic activity of certain cells and increases the efficiency of oxygen usage in certain other cells. This may explain the marked differences in how people respond to high altitudes and why people who perform remarkably well at high altitudes may not have any remarkable athletic ability at sea level. Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler, who first summited Mount Everest without the aid of supplemental oxygen, were found to be physiologically no different from sedentary people living at the sea level. It is conjectured that certain tissues of such elite high-altitude performers may be able to reduce oxygen consumption under oxygen insufficiency, an unremarkable trait at sea level where there is oxygen sufficiency.

Yet another response is to reduce the oxygen demand by preferentially supplying it to critical organs such as the brain and the heart, while suppressing the supply to less critical organs such as the digestive system. The resulting reduction in the digestion efficiency manifests as nausea, loss of appetite, indigestion, a preference for sweet rather than fatty food etc.

Some of changes in the body have serious consequences. A common problem is that  fluids start to leak from the capillaries, building up in both the brain and the lungs, for reasons not well understood. (As an engineer my conjecture: To depressurize a pressure cooker or a tire one needs to let out the steam or the air. Likewise, perhaps the blood vessels need to depressurize by letting out fluid.) A small fluid buildup in the brain causes a headache, which most people who go to high altitudes experience. An increased fluid build up in brain causes acute mountain sickness (AMS). Around 30% of the trekkers to base camp experience AMS, regardless of their age or physical fitness. The fluid build up reduces when the person stays at the same altitude for a period of time or descends to a lower altitude. A severe form of fluid buildup in the brain is called high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and in the lungs, high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). Both HACE and HAPE require immediate medical attention and a descend to a lower altitude.

As explained, the body makes a myriad physiological and anatomical changes to cope with the reduced amount of oxygen in the air. If the changes are small, the body is able to safely reach a new equilibrium. If the changes are large, the body may not be able to reach a safe equilibrium. This is somewhat like a bicyclist who can maintain balance through myriad, subtle movements in response to the twists and turns and ups and downs of the pavement, but may lose balance when forced to make a rapid change such as by a pothole. Acclimatization is simply slowing down the rate of ascent, to allow the body time to adapt to the lower air pressure. Beyond Namche the rate of ascent must not exceed 1000 ft (300 m) per day and at Dingboche an extra night must be spent to give the body adequate time to adapt.

At Lukla we had crossed into a region called high altitude (8,000-12,000 ft). In Namche we are crossing into a region called very high altitude (12,000 -18,000 ft). In Lukla or Phakding I did not feel the effects of high altitude. In Namche I am beginning to feel the deeper and faster breathing and the faster heart rate. Also my movements have become slow.

We start at 8:45 am after breakfast. We wear our down jackets as it is cold outside. The painful memory of yesterday’s climb lingers in my mind; I am not looking forward to another day of climb. We walk toward Mount Everest Documentation Center above Namche for our first view of Mount Everest. It is an arduous climb. The effect of the altitude is perceptible. My pace is slow.

We walk to the viewing area at Mount Everest Documentation Center. Mount Everest cooperates. We are able to view its majestic peak, unobstructed by clouds, framed on the left by Mount Nuptse and on the right by Mount Lohtse. From this far, however, Mount Everest’s lofty height is not discernible. In contrast, the much smaller, but much closer Mount Ama Dablam appears more impressive.

Everest-banner clouds
Mount Everest at center, framed by Mount Nuptse on the left and Mount Lohtse on the right

Mount Everest was “discovered” from a mountain of data by the brilliant mathematician Radhanath Sikdar, the Chief Computer of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India. He is unlikely to have seen Mount Everest. Even if he had seen the mountain, it is unlikely that he would have recognized its preeminent stature among the mountains of the world. The 39-year old Sikdar’s feat was in computing the height accurately, accounting for the fact that light rays bend as they pass through the air that is thinning with height. When he computed the height as 29,002 feet, he realized that he had found the highest mountain in the world. That was in 1852, and the news was publicly announced two years later. The height is now estimated to be 29,029 feet. The increase in height is mostly from the increased accuracy of the computation, although the mountain is actually growing, but at a much smaller rate. The growth from 1852 until today is only around 2 feet.

I am fascinated by the clouds blowing off the mountain peaks as though they are taking a puff, a phenomenon noticeable with many Himalayan peaks. I wonder whether sublimation of snow on the peaks in bright sunlight and subsequent condensation of the sublimated vapors could play a role in forming such clouds. Later from the Internet I learn that these clouds, called banner clouds, form because of a different reason: When wind blows across a peak, air on the leeward side rises and the condensing water vapor from it forms the banner cloud.

Posing near the statue of Tensing Norgay

A statue of Tensing Norgay with Mount Everest in the background is located near the Documentation Center. It depicts his victorious pose on the summit, smiling, holding his ice axe raised high, an ice axe adorned by flags of India, Nepal and UK. We pose to take pictures in front of the statue.

We sit on a low wall that surrounds the viewpoint area. There are two other trekkers sitting there with their guide. The guide’s right arm is amputated. One of the trekkers is the one whom I had overheard yesterday at the police check post. I will call him Fernando as I do not know his name. Hair is beginning to grow back on Fernando’s large, shaven head. His beard has also begun to grow. He could be in his mid thirties and from California, I think. Fernando asks, “How was the trek yesterday?” “It was hard, very hard” I reply. Fernando agrees,”Yes, I thought so too. I started wondering whether it was a good idea to have come on this trek.” I realize that Fernando was being facetious yesterday when he had suggested trekking all the way to Tengboche.

Ngima points out Kunde hospital and Khumjung School at a distance. They were established by Sir Edmund Hillary to serve the Sherpa community. I can vaguely see the buildings at a distance. Ngima points out a flat trail to Tengboche at a distance; I long for that flat trail.

Ngima takes us to a trail that goes around Namche Bazar, high above. From the entrance gate to Namche it is quite a climb to reach the trail surrounding it. Namche is built on steps made on the side of a mountain. It has soil and vegetation. Right across the valley are mountains that are rocky and barren. Namche is surrounded by towering mountains, many of them snow peaked. A stream flows through the center of Namche, where we find women washing clothes.

A view of Namche Bazaar from the trail above

I wonder whether Namche Bazar means Salt Market. I am not sure whether I read that somewhere. The word namche sounds similar to namak or salt in Hindi. In olden days Tibetans coming from the north through Nangpa La or Nangpa pass (5,806 m or 19,050 ft) used to bring salt and trade it for grains and other goods brought from the south. It must have been an important trading center as salt was a scarce commodity in the past, its preciousness having a lasting effect on our languages. The word “salt” is the root of the word “salary,” still precious for all working people. The word appears in a frequently made statement in old Bollywood movies. To show that they value their loyalty to their masters, the servants in the movies typically say: Sardar maine aapka namak khaya hai  (Sir, I have eaten your salt). The availability of sea salt from India diminished the salt trade from Tibet. Later Tibetans started bringing textiles, blankets and low-cost goods from China for trade. Even that has ended now as China closed Nangpa La, presumably to stop Tibetans from fleeing Tibet.

We see yaks for the first time. A Sherpa and his wife are tending to a herd of seven. A couple of them look different because they are without horns. Ngima tells us that they are also yaks, not female naks. The yaks can be distinguished from dzos by the large amount of hair hanging by the sides of their body.

A herd of yaks near Namche

We come to Namche helipad. It is simply a flat area, paved with broken stones. Yesterday I was wondering why Dorjee had to come for the rescue, if the patient was going to be rescued by a helicopter anyway. Now I understand: Taking a person from Namche to the helipad high above wont be an easy task.

We descend into Namche and pass through Namche market with its shops catering to trekkers’ every need. Also there are shops stocked with usual touristy trinkets.

We get back to hotel and sit down for lunch. We select the Dal-Bhat set menu. It comes with rice, lentils, one or two vegetables and papad. Everything is freshly made with locally available vegetables. The food tastes good.

In the dining room there is a framed letter of appreciation from Nepal’s Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal to the owner Lama Kanji Sherpa for his help in organizing a historic cabinet meeting at Kala Patthar (18,514′) in December 2009. I wonder how many of the ministers, who are likely to be old, made it to Kala Patthar for the cabinet meeting. “Just a show,” Ngima explains. “The ministers went by a helicopter and were wearing oxygen masks.” Lama Kanji says that the meeting lasted only one hour.

We take a hot shower at a cost of $10. The bathroom is outside the hotel, and it is cold. There is only one valve to turn. Hand written instructions on the heater forbids you from changing the temperature setting. When I turn on the tap I hear a gas heater violently turning on. Water and steam gush from the shower head. The water is very hot, but soon I get used to the temperature. When I turn off the shower, steam comes from my body, making me look as though I am fuming.

It starts to rain. Thick mist obscures the view of the mountains surrounding Namche. Ngima tells us that in the mountains the mornings are usually clear, but the afternoons could bring rain or snow and winds. Ngima suspects it could be snowing in Tengboche. Ngima seems to be concerned about the added challenge we may face tomorrow because of the snow.


Bärtsch, P. and Gibbs, J.S.R., “Effect of Altitude on the Heart and the Lungs”, 2007, DOI: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.106.650796.

Martin, D., and Windsor, J. “From mountain to bedside: understanding the clinical relevance of human acclimatisation to high-altitude hypoxia,” Postgrad Med J 2008;84:622–627. doi:10.1136/pgmj.2008.068296.

Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
8,406 3.79 2,258 78