Mar 20, 2013

Nepal: Solukhumbu (Everest) Region

Every year I try to find a new region where I can backpack, spending my time simply living day to day and experiencing more of this planet.  After some brainstorming Megan suggested Nepal and after a brief moment of contemplation I was off planning.  I say 'I' because I enjoy planning and Megan simply enjoys going on the trip. It works out well because there is only one chef in the kitchen so to speak.  After debating between the Annapurna Circuit and Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek we decided to go with the latter for a number of reasons including: 1) It's freaking Everest 2) There is a road being built alongside the Annapurna Circuit 3) Less crowds on EBC (even though both are considered busy during the peak season).

I usually backpack during the summer season so having to plan for a late fall campaign was different plus going to a third-world country I had no background in.  We set our dates for the 'best weather' season because who wants to go to the Everest region and see clouds all day.  After an seemingly agonizingly long 1.25 years between trips we were both eager to get the hell out of dodge.  Our 20 hour flight (+ 12 hr layover) had us landing in the darkness in Kathmandu where lights were sparse and the air warm greeted us.  Ganesh Sharma, whom a friend hooked us up with, met us at the airport at 11pm, waiting 1 hour due to our procurement of a Nepalese Visa.  The adventure started as we drove through the quite and dark streets of Kathmandu to our stop at 'Sacred Valley Inn' in the district of Thamel (i.e: tourist district).  After a lovely breakfast the next morning Ganesh helped us weave through the organized chaos of Kathmandu helping us acquire TIMS permits, bus tickets to Jiri, and some knock-off (The North Fake) clothing.  We were prepared to depart the following morning at 5am to find our bus in a huge lot of chaotic unmarked (to us at least) buses.  It was almost like playing Marco Polo to find it. We would yell out "Jiri!" and a person would point one way then we would yell again follow another direction and continue on like this until we found the bus.  As for the bus ride: wow.  Close your eyes and imagine riding in a bus from the 60's (tires and brakes too) for people who are 5'3", crammed to the brink, blaring Indian music, the ecclectic horn honking every 2.3 sec, with people vomiting in small plastic bags (then neatly tying them up and chucking them out the window) for 8 hours to cover 120 miles all on windy unkept dirt/broken asphalt roads.  It was quite the experience and I planned never to ride that again after we made our landing in Jiri that late afternoon.

As far as our trip plans we wanted an extended trek and to start from the village where hiking to the Everest region began, in the days before the construction of the landing strip in Lukla.  We started out meandering on unmarked paths ascending and descending steep paths at lower altitudes, passing through small villages through the valley littered with rice patty farms and many suspension bridges spanning rivers.  Besides a curious dog following us for the first two hours we ended up at the abode of Ang Dawa Sherpa.  Located in the village of Bhandar and situated next to a Buddhist monastery we ordered tea (mint was my favorite) and took in the views.  We were finally on the trail.
A restful night had us descending down to Kenja where the steepest climb of the entire trek met us. A 6000 ft climb in less than 5 miles to the pass of Lamjura La situated at 11,500 ft.  It was a slog and was weaving near the end needing sustenance. Fortunately after a bite to eat at a family's home we crested the prayer flag filled pass and continued into the dark and light rain to another family's home in Tragdabuk where we spent the night. After four more days of winding our way through steep valleys, gorges, and small villages we found ourselves in Lukla.  Boy, what an entirely different world.  Freshly showered tourists and their clean clothes dominated the scene. They had just come off the quick 30 min flight from Kathmandu and had porters and guides at their beckon carrying their overstuffed packs.  The journey had been quite and mellow up until this point and now it was filled with tons of lazy hikers (as I call them).  We were both quite annoyed and ready to escape the rather unpleasant and dirty village of Lukla.

This part of the trek is mostly uphill for several days and reaching altitudes greater than either of us have ever risen to.  After five days of being teased by the intermittent views of far away white peaks we were now going to be able to trek through the highest mountains in the planet.  After some lunch we continued to the village of Phakding.  The next morning we continued our trek to Namche, the so-called Sherpa 'capital', situated in this amphitheater-like setting with snow-white mountains surrounding it.  After lunch and realizing we had more daylight we continued onto the higher, less populated (preferable) Khumjung (12,402 ft).  Arriving in the misty and cold village we quickly settled into a teahouse.  We asked for a ' hot shower' which involved waiting 20 min for the water to heat up to a lukewarm temperature and when we entered the cold concrete bunker the water pressure was next to nothing.  In the 30-40 degree temps we attempted to get water all over our bodies with lots of "ooo,ooo,", "ahh,haha" sounds coming from both of us.

The next frigid morning we were treated to the wonderfully clear view of the 22,000+ ft Ama Dablam.  It was magnificent! I couldn't stop taking photos, gazing, and fully appreciating what was before me.  That was the beginning.  After a short day we arrived in the magnificent village of Thyangboche (12,687 ft) and had our first far off glimpse of Lhotse, Nuptse, and Everest.  Words can't describe the feelings that welled up in me when I saw what was before me.  I sat at a table, ordered a pot of mint tea and stared away.

After another night at 12,000+ ft. we decided it was OK for us to move up to 14,272 ft. to Dingboche.  We slowly made our way up while the giants of the Himalaya looked down.  We learned that at the far end of the village it was 'warmer' because first light hit that area of the village first.  After dinner in the dung-fueled den we went to bed and Megan took her first Diamox to offset any potential altitude effects.  It was both our first time sleeping this high, which is completely different than a quick 15 min stay followed by a descent (ie Whitney).  Megan woke up at 3:45 am complaining about a severe headache that came on suddenly and almost incapacitated her.  The only option for me to do was to get her down as quickly as possible (I assumed altitude sickness).  So we quickly got our coats on and stepped out into the sub-freezing cold and tried to descend at least 1000 ft. in the dark with dark gleaming yak eyes staring at us.  Because it was a gradual trail it took us 1.75 hrs to get down to the adequate altitude and all while our water bottles froze.  We stopped at a lonely teahouse and waited in the windy early morning for it to open, which was no particular time.  I was very worried but Megan showed signs of improvement.  After disturbing the family that operated the teahouse they were so kind as to give us tea and let us stay in their home.  Megan started to feel better and after some time we decided to slowly trek back to Dingboche.  Fortunately we made it and got Megan to rest; we were planning on staying one more night anyway to acclimatize.  That night we met two English brothers, Pete and Tony, and their Sherpa guide, Gyaljen Sherpa, who summit Everest twice.  We soon became friends and shared many laughs. 

The next day Megan was feeling better so we decided to head to Lobuche at 16,175 ft.  Well above treeline now, we trekked with expansive views in all directions on a crystal clear day.  After a climb up a steep moraine there lay an area of prayer flags and mani walls that commemorate the lives lost in the mountains.  Scott Fisher is there and if anyone has read Into Thin Air or The Climb knows who that is.  As an avid reader of these accounts it's a powerful feeling to experience it in person.

While searching for his memorial we met two Aussie girls who had been traveling for months:  Suzanna and Georgia.  They would be a great part of our journey for most of the trip.
We all arrived in Lobuche and thanks the Gyaljen's clout he was able to procure all of us rooms, which is a hard commodity in this small settlement.  A mild headache revealed itself and continued until about dinner time but Megan was doing quite well.  We all had dinner together and had tons of laughs the whole night.  We all decided to not stay any longer than 1 day in Lobuche and take a short hike straight to the final 2-3 settlements of Gorak Shep at 17,008 ft.  After the long SLOW slog we dropped off our gear, carried essentials, and headed for what we've been dreaming of since the conception of this trip: Everest Base Camp (EBC). 

For 1.5 hours we meandered our way from Gorak Shep and crossed the Khumbu Glacier and finally found ourselves in the desolate EBC at 17,400 ft.  I wasn't sure what to expect when we finally arrived there but we could immediately sense an energy, almost magical, and now understood the allure of climbing Mt. Everest.  We snapped photos, wandered around the now empty camp, sat with thoughts in our head, and took in the full magnitude of where were.  It took 20hours of flying, 8 hours of bus, plus 10 days of backpacking to get to this point.  The draw of this place was clearly very powerful and it did not disappoint.  The trip felt completely fulfilled once this place was reached.

The hike back down was exhausting and I succumbed to taking 400mg of ibuprofen in the night due to my headache and inability to sleep.  The next morning every task demanded a ton of effort; things like getting out of the sleeping bag or spooning food in my mouth.  I needed rest breaks while putting my clothes on for crying out loud.  The first order of business today was climbing up to the high point of the trip, Kala Pattar ('Black Rock') at 18,300ft, to offer unbelievable vistas of the Everest massif.  The climb up was quite difficult and I needed many rest breaks after only a few steps at times.  My breathing labored and it was very slow going.  After an 1.5 hours the prayer-flag strewn pinnacle was reached and the panoramic views of Everest and the surrounding mountains, glaciers, and valleys were simply stunning.

After our descent we bid farewell to our friends and hiked to the settlement of Dzongla, which was at the base of Cho La Pass our major obstacle the following day.  I left Megan on the hike and sped my way as fast as I could to the one teahouse there in hopes of getting a room, because I had a strong feeling that there may be 1 left and I certainly wanted to get there before those few groups ahead of us.  Hiking fast was nauseating at 15,600ft but it turned out my instincts were correct.  I had passed several groups of 2 and was able to procure the last room.  Megan arrived a bit later and we settled in.  She was not feeling well. 

The next morning she couldn't get out of bed.  Anytime she attempted to sit up she was in a very bad place and had to immediately lie down.  She had the chills, fever, and very low energy. There was no way she would be able to hike, let alone climb an 18,000 pass, so we had to stay an extra night.  Our trip at that point was dependent on us backpacking a certain amount per day and this ended the possibility of continuing to different regions and returning to Namche via a loop I was hoping to do.  As she lay in bed all day I decided to make a day hike up to Cho La Pass which turned out to be quite challenging and icy near the top.  After the day hike I returned to find that Megan was not any better.  This was a cause for serious concern because the only way out is by hiking or on the back of a horse which inquired about.  That night Megan recovered enough for her to entertain the idea of hiking down the next day.  She was able to shoulder a pack and felt OK the next morning to the relief of both of us.  We descended to Pheriche (14.000ft) and Megan instantly felt much better.  We continued our descent and stayed at Pangboche that night.  The next day we would arrive in Namche.  There was a little regret that we weren't able to see Gokyo, Renjo La Pass and the amazing views they command but it was not meant to be.  As I mentioned above, the trip felt fulfilled once EBC was reached; anything after that icing on the cake. 

We made it back to Namche the next day and low and behold ran into Suzanne and Georgia having tea in a random place! We were so happy and excited to see them so we spent the next two days hanging out with them, shopping for gifts, and hanging out.  It was election day in the USA and I kept tabs on that throughout the day, admiring the pristine clear skies and views of the surrounding mountains.  The next challenge was getting plane tickets out to Kathmandu for Friday morning (30 min flight) from Lukla so we could fly back to the states that same evening.  Since we didn't know what day we would be returning to Lukla we decided to just purchase them the day of.  Turns out that was a huge mistake because the flights were all booked for the past 3 weeks!

The Aussies left a day early to Lukla because they already had reservations and plane tickets.  We left the following day (Thursday) and hiked all the way back to Lukla hoping by some miracle we would be able to fly out the next day.  We stayed at a teahouse next to the airport strip that the one in Namche recommended and our lodge keeper basically said that it was "no problem" that we get a flight out.  The Sherpa who runs the teahouse would be able to get us tickets.  By now we're both stressed that we won't be able to fly out in time for our international flight that evening.  Things get even more hopeless when we bump into Suzanne and Georgia! The airline they had tickets for didn't feel like flying out Thursday. Or Friday. Or any other day in the near future.  They were stuck too.  After hours of stressing out and figuring out all possibilities the owner approaches us and says he has a friend with a single engine plane that could fly us out to this village in the middle of nowhere.  Then we would could hop on a bus to Kathmandu and make it in time for our flight! Woohoo!

This plane was an 8 seater and we needed 8 people to fill the plane.  As luck (maybe something else is at play too) would have it Megan, me, Suzanne, Georgia, and this group of 4 that stayed in the teahouse in Namche and were promised the same thing made 8!  We wake up the next morning and the owner says, "We must go now!" We drop what we're eating for breakfast and start running to the small airport which is littered with people anxious to leave as well.  We manage our way through 'security' and run onto the tarmac where a tiny plane awaits all of us.  We quickly load and start heading down the steep downhill runway off the edge of a 6000 ft cliff.  In all the frenzy of figuring out how to get a flight out we forgot that this is the worlds most dangerous airport and it's common for planes to not make it safely off the runway.  There already was a fatal accident 5 weeks prior.  Megan and I look at each other and start laughing hysterically.  We soon are airborne without a cloud in sight (this airport is only operational on clear days). We take in the views and soon land on a farmfield 20 minutes later.  We board a crampped bus, something I vowed never to go on in Nepal after the first experience, and take another 9 awful hours to get to Kathmandu.  It was even worse than that first bus ride 3 weeks prior.  There is only one way to fully appreciate it and that's by taking one yourself.

We arrive in the bustling and polluted Kathmandu with the plan of having dinner with the gals before taking off to the airport 2 hours later.  Turns out Georgia left her wallet at one of the bus stops on our way to Kathmandu! She fortunately had her passport and Suz was able to give her some money.  We said farewell and Megan and I had dinner one last in Nepal before heading to the airport.  The past 3 weeks felt like a lot more mainly because each day is a new experience and the perception of time somehow slows.  I will never forget my time in this country, its people, and the wonderful Himalaya mountains that we were able to backpack through.  Namasté.
(A few of the photos below but more on Nepal link in the right hand column)


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