Day 14: Back in Kathmandu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fitbit statistics

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

Day 13: Lukla

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

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

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

terracedfieldsnearlukla
Terraced fields near Lukla

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

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

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

lukla
Lukla

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

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

Fitbit statistics

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

Day 12: Back to Phakding

amadablam
View of Mt. Ama Dablam from Kyangjuma

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

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

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

market-in-namche
A market in Namche Bazar

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fitbit is again out of charge.

Day 11: Lawi Schyasa

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

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

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

shomare
At restaurant in Showmare

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Fitbit statistics today as it is out of charge.

Day 10: Everest Base Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

atbasecamp
Posing at Everest Basecamp

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shortly after 2 pm we reach Lobouche. We stop at Alpine Home and Restaurant for lunch. I have an intense craving for Coke. I have lost some weight. My pants have become loose. I cannot tighten my belt any further, and Ngima suggests that I fold my pants around the belt, to keep the pants from falling off. I order Coke for lunch. It feels good to gulp the sugary soda.

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

outskirtsofpheriche
On the way back to Pheriche

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fitbit statistics

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

Day 9: Gorakshep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gorakshep
Gorakshep (left) and Khumbu Glacier (right)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fitbit statistics

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

 Day 8: Lobouche

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

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

trailabovedingboche
On the trail above Dingboche

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

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

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

everestmemorial
Everest Memorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

waytolebouche
On the way to Lobouche

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

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

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

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

lobouche
Lobouche

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

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

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

Fitbit statistics

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