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.
Pramod is humming the song tum paas aye from the Bollywood film Kuch kuch hota hai. Later 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 low temperature is the dominant factor that determines tree-line formation. 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 as it is 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?” in the manner of an ill-tempered old man. 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 because the three other legs keep it firmly on 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 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 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 either. Even the lullaby that he sings to his baby is not comforting. I sit up, and like last night I 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 sleeping companion has stopped breathing. 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.”
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.
Dingboche 14,501′ (4,420 m)
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