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.
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 doing something useful 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.
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.
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 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, 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 seems 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.”2 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 recall reading that sitting up will relieve the fear. I sit up and get some relief. 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.
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) Fitbit statistics
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 in view of the experience from yesterday’s trek that the total effort required may far exceed what is required for 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.
As I take every step uphill I console myself that I have one less step to go uphill. 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. This wish will come true and give me grief.
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 is given for a mountain peak. Later I learned that the word actually means 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 unnecessarily walk a longer distance.
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 most 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, originating from Budha’s teachings, now popular in the west. “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 effort 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 thought. I will meet him later on the trek and realize that he was only joking.
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 within easy reach; 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, going down several awkwardly piled loose rocks serving as steps. 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. People begin to feel altitude sickness starting from 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 stated as astute 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.
The hotel lobby calls our room at 5 am and reminds us that we must leave for the airport immediately. Madhav and Ngima are already waiting in the lobby. Rahul and I hurry down to the lobby, and we leave the hotel at 5:15 am. We experience no delay on the way as the traffic is very light. We reach the airport in about twenty minutes.
As we hurry to check in, Madhav adorns us with marigold garlands, something he had intended to — but could not — do yesterday while receiving us at the airport. The airline company does not allow us to carry the garland on the airplane, however.
The airport is chaotic as a number of morning flights are taking off to various destinations. Travelers prefer early morning flights because the mountain weather is relatively calm in the morning and could unexpectedly turn bad later in the day, causing flight cancellations. Madhav has booked us the first flight to Lukla.
We check in at the Tara Air counter. I am concerned that our unlabeled sleeping bags, loosely tied to the duffel bags may not reach Lukla. Ngima assures me that they would reach. We wait at the terminal for the flight to be announced with other travelers, many of them appearing to be from Europe or America. I eye other travelers with trepidation and spot several in my age group.
The flight is announced, and we board a bus to go to the aircraft. We wait in the bus as the pilot inspects the aircraft and our luggage is loaded.
The aircraft is a Twin Otter DHC-6/400, a Canadian 19-passenger STOL (Short Takeoff and Landing) utility aircraft. It is small, full and cramped with passengers seated in rows of three. The air hostess is friendly and welcoming. She distributes candies, and cotton for plugging the ears.
A friendly Nepali man turns back from the seat in front of us and asks:
You are from India, deep south. Right?
Yes, I am originally from Kerala.
I guessed it from your accent. Are you going all the way to the basecamp or turning back from Namche?
We will try to go all the way to the basecamp.
He has been to the basecamp 30-40 times and shows me a smart phone photo of Mount Everest taken during one of those trips. It’s peeking from behind other mountains and does not measure up to the Mount Everest in my imagination. He asks whether we have a guide. His advice: listen to your guide; take your time, it is not a contest; and drink plenty of water.
The tiny aircraft is flying between and well below towering mountain peaks. Fortunately, the weather is calm. There is no turbulence, and the visibility is good.
About forty-five minutes later, the edge of the runway at the Tensing-Hillary airport in Lukla appears into view suddenly. The aircraft traverses the 1600 ft runway that slopes up at a 12% grade. The pilot successfully makes the ninety degree turn at the end of the runway and brings the aircraft to a gentle stop.
This airport was named as the number one extreme airport in the world by an H2-channel show. The challenges include fog, turbulence, wind shear, short runway length, high elevation, proximity of mountain peaks, and a mountain weather prone to unexpected changes. The edge of the runway is about 2000 ft above a valley. Once the pilot decides to land there is no turning back in the thin air, and there is no instrument landing system to assist the pilot. Perhaps because of the suddenly rising fog, an aircraft crashed in 2008 killing 18 people on board, mostly German tourists.
The Lukla airport opened in 1964, realizing a vision of Edmund Hillary, who with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first to reach Everest summit. Following that ascent at age 33, Hillary devoted much of the rest of his life to helping the Sherpa people of Nepal. It was clear to him that an airstrip would be required for transporting materials needed for the schools he wanted to build for educating Sherpa children. The airstrip was built by Sherpas. They cut shrubs, broke stones, and paved the airstrip during the day. At night around a hundred of them, invigorated by sherpa beer, walked up and down the airstrip to tamp down the stones and to flatten the airstrip. The asphalted runway was constructed only in 2001.
The friendly Nepali man tells me that he and his Nepali colleague are taking their friends from US Jackie and Charlie to view the mountains. They will take a helicopter flight from Lukla to a place with a good view of the mountains and return to Kathmandu later in the day. This is part of Jackie and Charlie’s honeymoon trip. Jackie is beaming, good-natured, and visibly excited. Her good nature and excitement are boundless and spills over to her companions. Charlie is quietly fidgeting with his camera. When the airplane door opens, Jackie wishes us good luck with our trek and hurries out with her companions to catch their helicopter flight. I wish her well, perhaps silently.
I have the impression that the weather may not be cold in Lukla because Madhav had told us to carry shorts. However, we step out of the aircraft into freezing cold; the temperature is perhaps around 30 oF. We zip up our light jackets and quickly don our caps. We ask Ngima whether we should take out the down jackets from our duffel bags. Ngima assures us that it will warm up as soon as the sun starts shining.
Our flight is a half hour late. On our way to the terminal building we pass passengers that have already formed a line near the runway to board the return flight.
Ngima introduces us to his cousin and our porter Pramod. They have already collected our baggage, including our sleeping bags. The steep climb from the airport to a restaurant nearby foretells what’s to come later in the day. We go to Paradise Lodge & Restaurant for breakfast: scrambled eggs, toast and tea. We compliment the lodge owner’s wife for her good spoken English.
The trek starts around 8:30 am after breakfast. We stop at a bank to convert dollars into Nepalese rupees for expenses on the trek. Our trekking fee covers lodging, breakfast, lunch and dinner. But we must pay for bottled water, soft drinks, beer, snacks, wi-fi, and charging electronic gadgets.
We go past a check post, and report all our electronic gadgets: iPad, iPhones, and GoPros. I ask whether there is a charge for carrying photographic equipment. Ngima tells me that the authorities want us to report our gadgets only to help them in case an item is reported lost or stolen during the trek. I don’t understand how the record will help, however.
Located next to the check post is the National Luminary Pasang Lhamu Memorial Gate, named after Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, who in 1993 became the first Nepalese woman to summit Mount Everest. Sadly, she perished during her descend because the weather turned bad. (On 16 May 1975, Junko Tabei of Japan became the first woman to summit Mount Everest.)
Through the gate we enter the Lukla – Everest Base Camp Trekking Trail. My practice walks have not prepared me at all for this trail with its steep up hill climbs, steep down hill descends, and rocks of various sizes strewn all over. I realize that if I am not careful I could twist my ankle and end my trek right then on the first day. I learn not to look beyond four feet in front of me, most of the time. Otherwise, the seemingly endless trail in front of me disheartens me. Also, I am concerned about tripping on the rocks.
I mentally thank whoever recommended a good pair of trekking shoes for that great advice. Also I thank whoever recommended the trekking poles. I am using them for the first time and realize that they are not only knee savers, but also life savers. They are a tremendous help to reduce the stress on the knees, especially while going downhill. They also help propel me up hill. (My left wrist has healed enough that it can bear the weight.) More importantly, I am able to steady myself while walking the trail strewn with rocks and loose gravel. Without their support I could lose my footing and fall off the trail.
The trails are etched on the sides of enormous mountains. The outer edge of the trail could drop off hundreds of feet, making sections of the trail treacherous. When you stand on the trail and look around, there is much to take in. You can at once feel your insignificance as well as your luck being a part of the breath-taking awesomeness that surrounds you:
And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.
I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going, God.
Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn’t have.
I feel very unimportant compared to You.
― Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle
After an hour’s walk we reach a chorten in the middle of the trail. Chorten (Tibetan) or stupa (Hindi) is a heap of stones, some of them inscribed with the Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. I ask Ngima about the meaning of the mantra. He says wisely that it means Om Namah Sivaya, which he knows that I will understand as a Hindu. Later I learn that a literal translation of the mantra does not reveal its deeper meaning about the nature of suffering and, as Dalai Lama explains, how the union of compassion and wisdom enables one to transform into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha. This is hard to comprehend at first. Then I realize that this is not unlike the mathematical equations I use as a scientist. One equation, for example, contains three terms, and the meaning of each term can be readily stated as the time-derivative of density and so on. But that by itself does not reveal the equation’s meaning that mass is neither created nor destroyed or the even deeper meaning that the laws of physics do not change with time itself.
We see many prayer wheels with mantras written on them. Turning the prayer wheel is believed to have the same meritorious effect as chanting the mantras.
Ngima explains that we must always keep the chorten on our right hand side while passing it. I get distracted while listening to Ngima. As I take the next step down, I slip and fall awkwardly and unwisely get up immediately. It is a potentially dangerous fall; I could have twisted my ankle or broken a bone. Fortunately, I am not hurt. Ngima immediately suggests that we take a break. We stop at a teahouse close by, to drink tea.
Soon we see a train of dzopkyo or dzo, a cross-breed between yak and cow. In the train there are 8 or 9 dzos, all of them wearing around their necks bells that announce their impending arrival. The leader dzo knows which way to go. The others follow it. The herdsman walks behind the train and calls out commands to keep the train moving. Ngima tells us to move to the uphill side of the trail, stop and wait until the train passes. He pushes away the dzos that occasionally come too close to us. They have sharp horns and could hurt us, if they take a swing at us.
We encounter more dzo trains and donkey trains on the way. The trains are carrying provisions for people and the teahouse lodges uphill: cooking gas, kerosene, rice, etc. The donkey trains cannot go higher than Namche Bazaar. On uphill climbs, occasionally a donkey would stop for a moment, perhaps to catch a breath. Its beautiful eyes seem to search for the place where to take the next step and continue the journey.
Porters pass us carrying loads in oversized baskets called doko, wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. They carry the doko on their back and support it by a head strap called namlo. They appear to possess superhuman powers for carrying heavy loads that can exceed their body weight. Furthermore, they do this feat on long, steep up hill climbs, at high elevations, where the air is thin. Not surprisingly, they are the most energy-efficient load-carriers in the world, per scientists from the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium. Part of the reason for the high-efficiency is thought to be their rice diet, which makes the CO2-production to oxygen-consumption ratio low – just below 1. As the porters walk up hill with heavy loads, they bend almost sixty degrees to the vertical, supporting themselves with a short, stout T-shaped walking stick called tokma.
Ngima tells us that many Sherpa names are based on the day of the week the child is born: Ngima is Sunday; Dawa, Monday; Migmar, Tuesday; Lhagpa, Wednesday; Phurba, Thursday; Pasang, Friday; and Penba, Saturday. There is an Ang in front of Ngima’s name, which he explains is similar to a Bahadur or Singh found at the end of many Nepali or Indian names.
The basecamp trail goes through the Solukhumbu District, home to Sherpas. Ngima’s family is originally from lower Solukhumbu. Sherpas migrated from Tibet some six hundred years ago and speak a Tibetic language. Sherpas follow Buddhism, whereas the majority of Nepalese are Hindus. Ngima tells us that Hindus and Buddhists live in harmony.
We see one tourist with a vacant expression on her face going toward Lukla on the back of a mule. A sherpa girl is tending the mule, walking by its side. Ngima thinks that the tourist is probably going back because she became sick and could not continue the trek.
Ngima gets a call on his cell phone. He tells us that the call is from his wife who is working in cypress. I mistake cypress for some company or agency in Kathmandu. No, it is Cypress the country, Ngima clarifies. His wife is a household worker in Cypress, working 24 hours a day, earning €500 per month. Ngima is 32 and she is 30.They have a three-year old daughter, Choten, who lives with Ngima and his parents in Kathmandu. Ngima didn’t seem happy about the situation. “What to do, he says, “the economic conditions are not good in Nepal.” His wife is from Darjeeling in India and studied English there. She was working at a school for small children. When she lost her job, she could not find another one in Nepal. She will be back after three years.
We come to the first suspension bridge on our trek, the Mudslide bridge. The flat trail approaching the bridge is covered by loose, brown dirt. I feel a moment of joy, seeing what appears to be familiar terrain for me. But I trip and fall. Hidden under the loose dirt are ledges, which I could not see. I am not injured as the dirt is soft. The bridge is swaying as we walk across. Ngima helps me cross the bridge. He doesn’t want me to hold the handrails as the ends of the wires wound around them are sharp and may cut my hand.
Now an arduous up hill trail comes up. I focus only on my next step, not looking further ahead on the trail. It is important to ensure that my next step is sure. I use the trekking poles to find spaces between the rocks for a soft landing and to propel me uphill.
A large group of trekkers, mostly American teens in bright red jackets, talking excitedly, comes behind us. We give way, and the group quickly walks past us, like a fast train.
We take a second break. Phakding is now only one hour away. It’s a steady climb from here on.
We have been walking in parallel to the Dudh Koshi river for a while, but could not see it as it is a short distance away from the trail. But now the river flows almost perpendicular to the trail before turning and becoming parallel to the trail. Now, we get to see its milky white and blue waters, gurgling over rocks.
About four hours after leaving Lukla, we reach Budha Lodge in Phakding. The climb is more arduous than I had expected, an expectation based on the faulty reasoning that Phakding is at a lower elevation than Lukla. I reprove myself for forgetting the thermodynamics principle that work is a path function; that is work (or effort) depends on the path between starting and ending points, not on the elevations of those points. There are few straight paths on this mountain trail; it goes up one mountain, down to a valley, up another mountain and so on. My apprehension about tomorrow’s trek increases. If the “easy” trek is this hard, what about trekking on the feared “endless steps” to Namche Bazaar?
We go to our room, on the second floor, taking a steep staircase that could almost qualify as a ladder. The amenities in the lodge are limited as I had expected, but the lodge is cleaner than I had thought. The porter is unloading our bags. We leave our back packs in the room and go down to the dining room for lunch. Ngima brings us the menu and takes the order, writing it down in a notebook. We pick the standard Nepali fare Dal Bhat (lentils and rice) with vegetables and a papadam, which costs about four dollars.
After lunch Rahul goes out for taking pictures and sightseeing. I come back to the room, remove the sweaty clothes, wear shorts and a sweater. The room is cold. The bed and comforter are invitingly clean. I crawl under the comforter, shivering uncontrollably. I worry about the cold at night.
The dinner is served at 6:30 pm. I order garlic soup and fried rice; Rahul, a noodle dish. Ngima tells us that garlic soup is a good antidote for high elevation. After dinner, Ngima brings us grapes and a banana, fruits that he brought with him from Kathmandu. This is going to be a daily practice.
After dinner we pick up a conversation with Ngima and the lodge employee Santosh. A middle aged gentleman man joins the conversation. I had seen him earlier in the day, walking around the lodge with a pair of pliers in his hands, and had taken him to be a handy man. He talks about his trips to Alaska, Boston, Quebec and other places in a good English accent. I am curious about what took him to those places. He says that he trains people for mountain climbing. Then I learn that he is Dorjee Sherpa, who has summited Everest six times, and has appeared in a 1996 IMAX movie about climbing Mount Everest, as a member of the movie crew. On the dining room wall is a framed newspaper article with the headline “Bernard Voyer à l’assaut du sommet du grandiose.” At the bottom of the article is Dorjee’s photo and a tribute to him entitled “un guide émerveillé” (a marvelous guide). Hanging next to the newspaper article is a photo of Mount Everest autographed “to dear friend Dorjee” by Bernard Voyer. Dorjee is originally from Lukla, but built this lodge on his wife’s property located in Phakding. On April 16th he is going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
Last April when an avalanche — triggered by the earth quake — struck the basecamp, Dorjee was eating lunch with twenty others in a tent there. The avalanche killed seventeen people at the basecamp (and five people at other locations on the mountain). He and his companions in the tent were unhurt. It was the wind, which accompanied the avalanche, that knocked down people on the rocks, injuring or killing them. A Peruvian climber from Dorjee’s tent ran out in panic. She was knocked down by the wind and hit the rocks face down. Fortunately, she survived, although with broken front teeth.
Before Dorjee told us this story, I had not heard about the wind that came with the avalanche. Later I read Eric Simonson’s (International Mountain Guides) description in a blog: “The earthquake caused a huge block of ice to fall from the ice cliff in the saddle between Pumori and Lingtren: This saddle is at 6150m and EBC is 5360m, so the difference is 790m (or about 2,591 ft). The tons and tons of falling ice going this vertical distance created a huge aerosol avalanche and accompanying air blast that hit the upper part of Everest BC and blew many tents across the Khumbu Glacier towards the lower Icefall”.
On our way to the room we see Santosh watching on TV a live 20-20 cricket match between New Zealand and India. New Zealand is batting and the score is 54 runs for three wickets with 11.2 overs remaining. Santosh is hopeful that the Kiwis will be contained within 120 runs. Then Indian batsmen will be able to lead their team to victory. Santosh has confidence in the Indian batsmen Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli.
Santosh studied maths and economics in Kathmandu and is now working in Buddha lodge. He has a good opinion about President Obama’s good interaction with the rest of the world. “How is Prime Minister Modi? Seems all talk and no action,” he asks. “Rising through the BJP ranks and beating Rahul Gandhi is by itself a gift to democracy and India, even if he ends up doing nothing else,” I observe.
My worry about the cold at night is unfounded. We put the sleeping bag on the bed, and cover it with a comforter. And the fleece liner inside the sleeping bag provides another layer of insulation. A little while after I crawl inside the liner, I become comfortably warm. But if the warmth inside the sleeping bag makes you forget that the room is actually very cold and touch anything metallic like an iPad, then you are in for a shock.
Lukla 8,950′ (2728 m)
Phakding 8,661′ (2640 m)