Three High Passes to Everest: photos and notes
Finally, I've started to upload my photos from this trip to my Three High Passes to Everest - October/November 2011 set on Flickr. Hazel's photos were on Flickr within a couple of weeks.
How: Hazel and I have booked onto Mountain Kingdoms' Three High Passes to Everest trek, in the Khumbu (aka Everest) region of Nepal, with an extension to give us an additional week to acclimatise and warm up with the walk in from Shivalaya to Namche Bazaar.
Why: Those mountains keep calling...
When: October/November 2011.
This is the itinerary we followed (not vastly different from the programmed one, until the final frustrating days in Lukla):
Saturday 22 October 2011 - Day 01 - London (24m/79ft) ...
Overnight flight from London to Delhi with Jet Airways ....
.... and, after a painfully slow and bureaucratic security check at Delhi, on to Kathmandu with JetLite. Lots of trekkers, but the visa queue moved smoothly and we were met by a young man from Mountain Legends who took us to the minibus that drove the now familiar route through the backstreets of KTM to the Shangri La hotel.
After tea and biscuits from the hotel welcome tray, we headed out in search of water (purchased from the Big Mart 10 mins or so back along the main road) and new battery for my trusty travel watch with essential alarm which had conked out during the flight. We ended up sitting in one of the little shops on Lazimpat Road, watching the owner carefully take apart my watch completely, replace the battery and put it back together again. Amazing.
Back at the hotel we did a spot of unpacking/repacking and money changing (Hazel did hers at the airport - we ended up with about the same amount of cash) before heading down to the bar for a "We're in Nepal" happy hour Everest beer (after all, we are heading for them thar hills) and our personalised welcome meeting with Kim from Mountain Legends. The big boss Anil popped in too. We dined at the hotel restaurant - it's an early start tomorrow....
Up at 6am and down to breakfast from the hotel's buffet extravaganza, sitting al fresco on the terrace overlooking the beautiful garden oasis. By 7.15 we were checked out and had deposited our "clean clothes and treats" rucksacks in the storage rooms, and ready for our pickup at 7.30am - and our first meeting with Daa Waa who would be our sirdar for our "walk in week" until we met up with the main group and the Everest trek sirdar in just over a week's time.
As it turned out, we also met our two lovely porters, rascally Mingma and gentle Kumar, who crammed in the backseat of the 4x4 that drove us from Kathmandu to Shivalaya. Heading east from Kathmandu we soon found ourselves hugging the hillsides, passing through terraced fields playing dodge on the ever narrowing roads. With a stop for tea at a waterspots lodge (Sukute Beach) and lunch at Charikot (getting our first views of snow capped peaks, and the majestic Gauri Shankar), we were in Jiri by around 3pm, and then followed an exciting further hour off the tarmac, following the local bus as it lurched its way to Shivalaya.
Shivalaya is a small settlement, set on the banks of the Khimti Khola. It used to be on the main trekking route in from the roadhead at Jiri, until the airport at Lukla took off. It's a very quiet place now, with a handful of lodges catering for DIY trekkers who have the time to follow the old route in to Solukhumbu region.
Daa Waa found us simple rooms (small, so one each) in the Kalo Pathar Lodge and View, and quickly provided us with tea and biscuits. A stroll around town as dusk fell, then dinner out on the paved patio in front of the lodge, where we were joined by another pair of ladies who kept themselves to themselves. Inevitably our paths crossed frequently over the coming weeks and in time we learned that they were not mother/daughter as we'd first assumed, and were from Austria, not Germany.
Jet lag and a day of sitting in the jeep resulted in a restless night. No need for an alarm as the bus back to Jiri was sounding its horn to gather passengers from about 4.30am....
Our first day's trekking was hard and hot. Lots of uphill straight from the start, and we left Shivalaya early to cover as much of the climb as possible before the sun hit the mountainside. We followed the local trail past family farms and rice fields, skirting stone walls and sporadically crossing the "main" road that has been bull dozered through to Bhandar. For the most part though we were on earth trails with the occasional cobbled stretches, strolling through woods in the higher reaches.
Late morning, as we climbed higher up into the hills, we chanced upon a farm where we were treated to a reviving cuppa... and then it transpired that we were at the famous Thodung cheese factory. More of a large wooden farmhouse set over a ground floor dairy and cool room than a factory, we were treated to an animated tour by the farmer and a slice of his comte-like cheese. Wonderful.
Duly revived, Daa Waa headed straight for the silica dazzle of the "main road" and it was downhill all the way to the pass at Deurali (2,705m/8,875ft) where we found ourselves face to face with a couple of groups of trekkers on their way home. Having put in our orders for lunch (Dal Bhat) at the High Land Sherpa Guest House & Restaurant, we downed a vitamin-C-and-sugar-tastic mug of orange Tang each and cooed over the family (goat) kids. Our "healthy glows" (red faces) having subsided, Hazel and I wandered along the mani walls and around the chortens that local families have built at the pass before lunching under blue skies in the company of a lovely Kiwi-Brit couple who we ended up seeing lots of over the next few days.
We departed Deurali on the steep path down towards Bhandar / Chyangma. The descent provided gorgeous views out over the plateau, dotted with farms and settlements - and the route ahead. Whilst it was hard on the knees, it looked like harder work for those going in the other direction! Not long after we had levelled off on the plateau we had some excitement when Daa Waa spotted a snake slithering up a field wall, and shortly afterwards, having passed a couple of very overgrown mani walls and the Chyangma Orgyen Choling Monastery with its twin stupas, we reached Bhandar.
We stayed at the Shobha, one of the lodges in the paved stretch of the trail that marks the centre of Bamti Bhandar (at least as far as trekkers go) and in the time between our arrival and afternoon tea we made use of the lodge's pride and joy - an electric shower. The water flow was more of a dribble, but it did the job and it was a clean and fresh pair of young ladies who headed back out to explore the bright lights of Bhandar before darkness fell. We strolled past farms and fields, and back at the gompa prayer flags fluttered frantically as grey clouds glowered overhead.
In the late afternoon our splendid isolation ended as a group of mature French trekkers appeared, and settled in one of the lodges on the other side of the pavement, gathering tables and chairs to enjoy the last of the day's sunshine with a beer on the terrasse, Bhandar-style.
After dinner by candlelight (the local electricity supply having cut out, as seemed fairly frequent occurrence) we headed up the steep stairs to bed. We both slept well, ignoring the scuffles and frantic squeaks which I think heralded one of more of the local mouse/rat populating coming to a sticky end courtesy of the lodge cat.....
Day two of our acclimatisation/getting fitter week, and a lovely day of flowers, fruit and butterflies.
After breakfast in Bhandar - we were the only people staying at the Shobha Lodge - and a quick scoot back to photograph the gompa with blue skies rather than grey - we headed off downhill, through green pastures of millet, cottage gardens with tea bushes and smallholdings with goats, mani walls, and the occasional shop. All very relaxed. At one junction, three kids presented us with marigolds - it was the festival of Tihar, and over the next few days we did indeed see a number of marigold-adorned cows, dogs and doorways.
Gradually the Deurali ridge disappeared from sight behind us, and we followed the horizontal terrace lines as we headed along a gravel road towards the valley of the Likhu Khola which runs south west towards Pike (Peekay). Lots of wild flowers on the hillside on our left. I developed a mania for photographing all the various purple flowers.
Having discovered our delight in home made pickles last night, Daa Waa was very keen to ensure that we got to try lots of local food and the morning brought two opportunities - a coronet of fried dough/bread from a small shop/tea house just before the junction of the brook we'd been following on and off from Bhandar and the larger Likhu Khola and an hour or so later at a farmhouse with a fantastic fruit orchard, where we were treated to oranges fresh from the tree as we sat watching newborn goat kids soaking up the sun as chickens pecked around them. Wonderful.
Easy going morning, sometimes dropping down along the zig zag path, sometime strolling on the level. Once in the valley of the Likhu Khola we gradually descended towards the river which foamed over rocks below us. We walked past corncob adorned valley farms before crossing the river, and a short while later we crossed the high wire bridge over the Kenja Khola. On the far side we stopped at our first checkpoint and took time to enjoy our first views of the mighty Numbur (Numburchuli 6,959m). This snow capped peak would accompany us for much of the route to Namche and beyond. It looks for all the world like the mountain envisioned in my childhood by the Ice Magic advertising team.
Walking up the paved path through Kenja (1,640m / 5,380ft) reminded me of the villages at the start of the Annapurna circuit, and Hazel and I happily sat at a table at the New Everest Lodge & Restaurant, watching the local world go by (and a few trekkers too) while lunch was cooked across the "road". We were treated to our first encounter with a gaz bottle-laden donkey train, and shortly after we were joined by the French group from Bhandar and then a couple of English gents, tempted by the huge plates of Veg Egg Fried Potato Top Cheese we were tucking into.
We needed those carbs during the afternoon that followed. A tough climb, primarily up stone steps, with the occasional horizontal traverse. We had a few stops - including one to get a photo of a beautiful iridescent blue butterfly (thank you Daa Waa!), and about 40 mins from the top at a tea house that provided mugs of fresh yoghurt. Yum.
A sunken road brought us in to Sete (2,575m / 8,448ft) and it started to rain about 10 mins before we reached the cluster of lodges that accompany a farm and a stupa, so we were glad that our lodge - the Sherpa Guide Lodge & Restaurant - was a snug and well made building of stone and wood - the best so far. Daa Waa organised bowls of hot water and we took turns in the bathroom (with a Western style loo - a nice treat) to wash down and warm up a bit. As the rain turned to sleet outside, the idea of nipping across the courtyard to the hot showers did not appeal.
We whiled away the afternoon in the dining room, starting off with hot orange, then ginger tea and biscuits. The English gents materialised and joined us for chat, scrabble and more tea, and the Austrian ladies settled at the table next to us with the younger one happy to chat as they enjoyed hot coffee and biscuits.
By dinner the lodge was packed, making it warm and snug, particularly once the stove was lit in the hallway. We sat there for a spell as Daa Waa gave us our briefing for the following day - we'd be crossing the Lamjura La (3,530m / 11,581ft), the second of the three ridges on our route to Namche and about the same altitude.
Thursday 27 October 2011 - Day 06 - Trek Sete (2,575m / 8,448ft) to Junbesi (2,700m / 8,858ft) via the Lamjura La (3,530m / 11,581ft) (photos)
The day dawned clear and bright, which made for a lovely ongoing ascent. Not long after leaving Sete we passed yesterday's donkey train, loading up with gaz bottles at the farm where they'd spent the night. As we climbed the fields gave way to alpine forest - rhododendrons and pines, mani walls and moss.
Every now and then the path broadened out into a collection of houses and simple lodges-cum-teahouses, set around a paved courtyard. From the lodge at Dagchu (where there was a thick frost on the tables) we got good views of Numbur to the north and as we climbed towards Goyom it felt like we were levelling up with the twin peaks of Pike peak. Looking back we had fine views of Deurali with the route down to Bhandar and onwards through the string of farmhouses clear to see. Every now and then we'd be overtaken by speedier uphill trekkers, including the English chaps from yesterday, and a dreadlocked pair of Kiwis. But we'd find ourselves passing them at rest stops and viewpoints.
At Goyom we stopped in a teahouse to try butter tea, as mum and daughters kneaded, rolled out and cooked the day's chapattis. Climbing onwards we met our first yak (or more likely a Dzo at this low-for-yaks altitude), duly adorned with a Tihar marigold, and our first patches of snow. Contouring along the rhododendron-shaded north side of the ridge towards the lodges at Lamjura, the snow had compacted to ice, which made for slow going to avoid slipping over, and we fell into step with the English gents.
Refreshed by al fresco elevenses (tea and Mars bars) at Lamjura (3,330m / 10,925ft) we all continued onwards along the ridge, past the circular and square mani walls and the Namgyal stupa built by Mr Tsering Sherpa of the Lamjura Sherpa Guest House and then up to the pass itself.
Plenty of time for photos to mark the crossing of the Lamjura La (3,530m / 11,581ft), with the small twin prop planes that shuttle between Kathmandu and Lukla skimming the pass - not quite low enough for us to see the passengers but the Agni Air, Yeti Air, Tara Air etc livery was crystal clear. At foot level, beautiful blue alpine Gentians.
And then downhill... lots of it... through forest and then out into farmland ... and a long wait for lunch as the family running the teahouse where Daa Waa had planned to stop had shut up shop for festival time. Instead, in the village of Taktok (2,680m / 9,383ft), he found a local teahouse where we were cooked tasty Dal Bhat, from scratch, which allowed plenty of time to stroll back along the path to take another look at the inscribed boulder and new (closed) gompa.
It took us another hour or so to reach Junbesi, mostly on the flat as the river continued to drop below us. We passed beneath a large rocky outcrop, decorated with giant Om Mani Padme Hum, and shortly afterwards turned north and got our first sight of the day's destination, Junbesi (2,700m / 8,858ft), nestled on the banks of the Junbesi Khola in the valley below. Above us, the monastery at Serlo loomed large.
Junbesi was the largest place we'd seen since Shivalaya, and there were plenty of lodges. Daa Waa settled on the Apple Garden Guest House, which provided a lovely large bedroom, and free electricity. Perfect for recharging batteries human and camera.
After tea and biscuits in the dining room, and a photo shoot for Daa Waa featuring him and a strangely stuffed Red Panda, before Daa Waa asked us to accompany him on his quest to find the headmaster of the village school in order to hand over accumulated donations from Mountain Legends - a substantial wodge of notes.
We returned to the lodge as night fell, and were greeted by the lovely sight of candles set out on each of the steps of the stairs up to the bedrooms. In the time between dusk and dinner we indulged in a hot shower - this time with plenty of water. Bliss.
After dinner in the stove warmed dining room the TV was turned on and we watched BBC World coverage of the floods in Bangkok, an earthquake in Turkey and another deal in the Euro financial crisis (to bail out Greece). It always feels odd to have these occasional dollops of big news when I'm away from it all.
It would have been nice to have had longer in Junbesi, and a few of the independent trekkers we met did spend a rest day there, exploring the local attractions and doing washing. I'd certainly plan to do that if I ever return to this lovely part of the world.
Friday 28 October 2011 - Day 07 - Trek Junbesi (2,700m / 8,858ft) to Trakshindo / Traksingo (2,930m / 9,612ft) via the Trakshindo La (3,071m / 10,075ft) (photos)
Only a 230m net height gain today, but that ignores the drop down from Phurtyang (3,000m / 9,840ft) to the river well below Ringmo ( 2,700m / 8,858ft)....
A lovely morning, leaving Junbesi along a fairly level path once we'd departed via the stupa and crossed the Junbesi Khola and climbed back up through the trees. Great views of the local farms and back towards the Lamjura La (3,530m / 11,581ft), yesterday's route down and round clear to see. Our paths crossed with four young men who chatted with Daa Waa - he told us they were covering Kharikhola to Jiri all in one day... we must have seemed like snails!
At Phurtyang (3,000m / 9,840ft) we got our first glimpses of snow capped peaks and ridges, accompanied by a cup of tea. Kumar pointed out some of the peaks we could see - Kusum Kang (6,367m / 20,889ft), Mera (6,476m / 21,247ft), Baruntse (7,129m / 23,389ft), but Everest remained elusive. We chatted a bit with a lovely Kiwi/Brit couple who we were destined to see many times over the coming weeks.
As the cloud descended so did the trail, and the afternoon's ascent back up to the Trakshindo La (3,071m / 10,075ft) came into view.... still on the plus side there were lots of lovely flowers along the way, plus rainbows in waterfalls and a traditional water mill (where Ringmo villagers come to grind flour).
From the Beni/Dudh Kund Khola bridge we climbed steeply up the cobbled path that led to the main junction at Ringmo, and a little further up from there we stopped at the Hotel Yak & Nak for lunch, the Kiwi/Brit couple joining us shortly after. After a leisurely lunch - we could hear Daa Waa, Mingma and Kumar enjoying themselves in the family kitchen and the four dishes materialised one by one - we carried on up the steep cobbled trail from Ringmo to the Trakshindo La (3,071m / 10,075ft).
It was, as anticipated, a bit of a slog, with low light grey cloud muting the colours of the forest that covers the ridge. The highlight was a moss covered stupa with mani wall perimeter square, donkeys grazing in the small surrounding clearing. Very atmospheric under the low clouds. From the Attraction of Ringmu information board, I think it's Pangoma.
Once up at the Trakshindo La (3,071m / 10,075ft) we had a photo stop at the stupa and at the gate marking the pass, before descending down dilapidated stone steps towards Trakshindo (2,930m / 9,612ft).
We halted for the day at the Mountain View Lodge & Restaurant, just past Trakshindo gompa - unfortunately, no views to be had with the cloud staying put. So, after unpacking and enjoying a thermos of tea and ritz crackers in the upper dining room, Hazel and I headed back out to explore the gompa. Plenty of prayer wheels of various sizes, plus prayer flags galore - both bunting and flagpole styles - and a couple of monks. More atmospheric views of cloud covered barren trees. As we mooched around, the cloud cleared and we got a tantalising view of snow capped peaks... but no idea which ones!
Early dinner, the stove fired up to keep us warm, a bit of chat with Daa Waa about the lodge family (they're related to the legendary Everest-summiting Babu Chiri Sherpa who was from the village) then off to bed .... Fortunately there was only one night time loo visit required - a bit of a challenge as reaching the outhouse entailed descending super steep staircase, unbarring the back door, and using the stepping stones between the house and the outside loo.
Kumar promised the possibility of the lodge living up to its name if we were up early the next day...
Kumar's prediction came true - and luckily Hazel and I were up and out on the lawn of the Mountain View Lodge & Restaurant for a stunning sunrise and to see the dark grey ridges resolved into bright green hillsides, and to admire the bright white ridge of Kusum Kang (6,367m / 20,889ft).
After another speedy visit to Trakshindo Gompa, this time under bright blue skies, we set off on our final day eastwards, descending through woods and farmland passing through the village of Nuntala and onwards to cross the Dudh Kosi (दुध कोसी) - the river that runs south from the Mount Everest massif. The relentless descent was hard on the knees.
Having crossed the Dudh Kosi (दुध कोसी) we started our ascent to Kharikhola, enjoying an orange, cucumber and walnut refreshment stop en route to Juving, where we had veg noodle soup lunch amidst the beautiful flower garden at the Ghorkhali Lodge & Restaurant. Then onwards and upwards along the path, stopping every now and then to let gaz-bottle-laden donkey trains pass by. We paused in the hamlet of Churkha to watch school children preform various dances for Tihar, as mums with babies in baskets suspended by a head straps made the climb up look easy.
As we crested the ridge, Kharikhola (2,069m/6,789ft) came into view - a long, straggling village, heading up the valley of the Khari khola. Before continuing on into the village, Hazel and I headed up the stone steps to explore the large stupa and gompa (Pema Namding Monastery) and for the views.
It took Daa Waa a while to find us accommodation in Kharikhola - the first few lodges were busy and/or wanted to charge too much. Continuing on along the paved street brought us to the lovely chalet style Solukhumbu Guest House, where we indulged in their slate lined shower and donned fresh clothes before retracing our steps to take a more relaxed look around the gompa. Kharikhola was preparing for the blow out party to mark the last night of Tihar and by evening time there were more than a few tipsy gents dancing in the streets, and later on in the night we heard partying people passing by outside.
Sunday 30 October 2011 - Day 09 - Trek Kharikhola (2,069m/6,789ft) to Surke (2,300m / 7,546ft) (photos)
Awake before dawn, so I watched the stars fade through the windows of our room, before we headed downstairs (more steep stairs!) for breakfast followed by an early start with an aim of reaching Bupsa (2,350m / 7,710ft) before the sun hit the hillside. We just about made it - and it was a stiff climb all the way from the bridge over the Khari khola up to the small village and their picturesque gompa, with great views back to straggly Kharikhola and beyond.
Lots of donkey trains today, and a family of three who were returning to Kathmandu via Lukla after celebrating Tihar at their home village. In trainers and with a 6 years old, they left us standing... Nice walking along an easy path through the forest, hugging the undulating hillsides.
As the morning went on, the weather grew cooler and around lunchtime we emerged on the flatter section around Puiyan with grey clouds overhead. Puiyan is a logging and sawmill settlement, with churned mud rather than paved path through its centre suggesting a young and/or poor place. Streams rush down steeply through the forest. At the Beehive Lodge and Restaurant, we lunched well on veg noodle soup and chapattis, joined by the Brit/Kiwi couple who had been at the lodge next door in Kharikhola - we envied their choice of omelette and chips.... The Beehive seems to do well on the passing trekking trade, which came as a surprise given how few trekkers do this route these days - until Daa Waa explained that Puiyan is an acclimatisation day walk destination for people who fly in to Lukla (or, given our experience at the end of the trek, who can't face hanging around in loveless Lukla for the longed-for flight home and decide to stretch their legs).
Fortified, we continued onwards, mainly along the flat, getting views further up the narrow, deep valley of the Dudh Kosi (दुध कोसी) which thundered along way below our path, and with plenty of pretty wild flowers and donkey trains to keep my camera occupied. No mountains mind you, just lots and lots of cloud... and somewhere ahead of us, Lukla.
At Surke (2,300m / 7,546ft), we stayed in the Yak & Yeti Home - a lovely, thriving Tibetan style teahouse, which proved popular with trekkers - including the Brit+Kiwi and a really nice Italian couple, who again we were destined to see more of. After a sweaty morning and cool afternoon I was glad of the large basin of hot water and plastic jug that Daa Waa sorted out in lieu of a shower, and that plus a clean set of clothes left me feeling great.
We whiled away the time until dinner with tea and biscuits and chatting with the others discovering that the female Brit half of the Brit+Kiwi originally came from Monmouth... The TV came on too - little did we realise this would be our last TV for the rest of the trip - and we learned that Jimmy Savile had died aged 84. The cloud lifted a little, giving us a glimpse of a snowy peak further up the Handi Khola river valley.
After dinner, continuing his introduction to local culinary treats, Daa Waa offered us a hot Mustang Whisky toddy. Hazel, abstaining from drinking on this trek too, left me to do my best to polish off the "small" size serving, which turned up in a tea cup... I failed.
Monday 31 October 2011 - Day 10 - Trek Surke (2,300m / 7,546ft) to Phakding (2,640m / 8,661ft) (photos)
According to our itinerary, this was to be our last day as a fivesome as we were due to rendezvous with the Everest sirdar, our trio of fellow Three High Peakers and their porters at Phakding this morning. However, we woke to find the cloud had descended to ground level, and it didn't lift much all day. Little did we realise that last evening's glimpse of blue sky and a snowy peak was to be our last of either for another seven days... October/November is peak trekking season in this part of the world, due to the "normal" weather conditions being cloudless blue skies, and this "inclement weather" was to cause havoc as bad weather = no flights, and we'd spent 6 days walking from the nearest roadhead....
The path to/from Lukla joined the main trail during our morning's walk, and we saw a lot more people today than for a long time. Lots of glum faces, hardly a "hello" amongst them - with hindsight, everyone must have been fretting about their chances of getting back the KTM in time for their international flight home. Still, we were cheery, passing plenty of well maintained mani walls under atmospheric cloud shrouds as we walked through Chaurikharka (2,760m / 9,055ft) and Chheplung (2,660m / 8,727ft), where we also just caught a glimpse of the Bhutan-esque gompa clinging to the mountainside. Lots of orchards and farms here too, and Daa Waa pointed out a small spritely blue and yellow crested bird in a bush, which put on a great performance. I think Daa Waa said it was a woodpecker, but it put me in mind of a blue tit.
At our tea stop by the river crossing at Thado Kosi we crossed paths with Brit+Kiwi, before continuing on through prosperous paved Ghat (lots more mani walls/stones and prayer wheels), and up to Phakding - the biggest place we'd seen since Jiri!
In the warmth of the sun room at Jo's Garden (which has been renamed the Himalayan Eco Resort, and is a sister operation to the Eco Lodge we stayed at in Lobuche), we tucked into a late lunch of veg pakora and papar (pancakes) whilst earwigging to a contest of traveller's one-up-manship between a Dutch father/daughter duo and a pair of Canadian ladies. Left to our own devices for the afternoon, while Daa Waa tried to find out what was happening with our fellow trekkers-to-be, we decided to combine acclimatisation with cultural exploration, and walked up the trail to the Pema Chholing monastery. A good decision, as the path took us between stone walled fields and then up through pine forests giving a good view out over Phakding and the torrential Dudh Kosi down below. At the monastery, a monk opened up the main prayer hall for us and then showed us upstairs to the store of prayer books, masks, hats, trumpets and drums - all of which were very similar to items we'd seen in use at the Paro festival in Bhutan. Magic.
Back at base, we pottered around in our huge room, unpacking/repacking to take account of the change in weather conditions (it had started raining on our way back), and I decided to test out the Hot Shower in our En Suite.... only to realise that the heat is solar powered, and there hasn't been much sun... still my hair got its first wash for a while!
The bad weather meant that Phakding was a ghost town once the overnighters and Namche arrivals had departed for Lukla, and so having adjourned to the dining room we read the guide book, played travel scrabble and cards, and ate in splendid isolation - warmed by the yak dung powered stove in the middle of the room. I took the chance to recharge my camera battery too - at the time 200 (?) rupees seemed pricey... little did I know! After dinner, we chatted with Daa Waa for a while and he told us that we would be continuing up to Namche tomorrow in the hope that the other three would be able to fly in and catch up with us there in the next day or two... On the bright side, it meant one more day with the lovely Kumar and Mingma!
Cloudy skies accompanied us up the trail from Phakding (2,640m / 8,661ft) to Monjo and into the Sagarmāthā National Park at Jorsale where our permits were checked and we took a quick look at the model of the mountains within the park's perimeters and the geological information displays. Then downhill for our first suspension bridge crossing of the Dudh Koshi, together with lots of other trekking groups - the route had become significantly busier with larger groups since passing Lukla.
After a stretch on the west side of the river, we crossed back again and climbed up to the high suspension bridge at the junction of the Bhote Koshi / भोटे कोशी and the Dudh Koshi / दुध कोसी. Then more sandy underfoot uphill to the (clouded over) mountain viewpoint at Top Danda, where our paths crossed with a MK group on their descent and changing out of wet weather gear which wasn't a good sign.... before a final slog up into Namche Bazaar / नाम्चे बजार (3,440m/11,286ft) - feeling the altitude.
It felt like our lodge - the Himalayan Culture House - was about as far from the main path into town as it was possible to get, but the en suite was more than enough recompense, even if there was no hot water, and Daa Waa sorted us out a speedy lunch with fiery pickles. The afternoon saw the cloud thicken and descend even further, and we pottered around Namche central spotting many a familiar face - mainly looking glum at the inclement weather... cold and grey; no sign of the stunning mountain vistas depicted on all the postcards. No sign of roof tops at some points in the afternoon!
Dinner back at the lodge, where we shared the dining room with a large party of French trekkers and a taciturn solo German chap, and an update from Daa Waa that the rest of the group had helicoptered into Surke and would be arriving in Namche tomorrow. Cue: discussion of what our fellow trekkers would turn out to be like (we needn't have worried.....).
Another cold and cloudy day in Namche Bazaar / नाम्चे बजार and a rather frustrating one, waiting for the rest of the group to arrive. Daa Waa took us on an acclimatisation walk up to the Sherpa Cultural Museum and the information centre at the National Park HQ but the views remained as elusive as our missing trio. With the cloud nudging ankle height we had an early lunch and then Hazel and I headed out again to explore the stupa in the centre of town and the many trails around old Namche's terraces. We retraced our steps to the cultural museum and climbed further up the trail towards the airstrip at Syangboche, although the cloud meant that we didn't get that high and instead we turned back at a prayer flag adorned outcrop overlooking the town. We took a path that contoured round towards our hotel and the gompa, spotting several blue eye-shadowed Danphe females and a couple of cute, smaller birds bathing in a rock pool. Emerging on the path down to the gompa, we headed into the monastery to catch the monks at prayer and to look around the information centre before heading back to the lodge.
And then, just before dinner, Steffi, Dave and Jake appeared, together with local Sherpa guide Gopal! Plenty of tales to tell of airport waits, other groups and helicopter flights in, but great excitement at having made it to Namche.... at last we all knew that the trek proper would be going ahead.... we depart for Thame (3,800m / 12,467ft) tomorrow.
... and we're off! After breakfast (and earwigging to French complaints about the lack of water overnight), we headed back to the gompa for a swift group visit and then continued west and north via the stupa at Phurte and the sparkly new gompa at Thamo, then passing under giant painted carvings of the Buddha and crossing the frothing white waters of the Nangpo Tsangpo as they force their way through a narrow rock gorge before emerging into a broad stony valley at Thame (3,800m / 12,467ft) - where the cloud that had condensed onto juniper tree leaves had frozen into icicles....
After settling ourselves in at the lovely Valley View Lodge and Resort, and tucking into a carbo-heavy lunch, Gopal took us on an acclimatisation walk up to the gompa ... cute puppies, low cloud. Back at base we battled with the French for seating and chatted with an American trio who were trekking with Val Pitkethly - highly recommended should you want to travel with a guide who has trekked in the Khumbu for over 25 years....
Low cloud persisted, but acclimatisation required that we took another walk ... so we headed back up towards the gompa and on towards the Singdu-Ri (4,571m/15,000 ft) but it was too cold to make it all the way to the top, and in any event there was no chance of those magnificent views of the Everest range, Makalu / मकालु, Cho Oyu / चोयु....
Lazy afternoon - lots of tea, guide book perusing, chatting, scrabble and ceremonial 4pm lighting of the yak dung stove. Dinner comprised a v tasty combo of veg spring roll and half a potato rosti with cheese.
A brief glimpse of blue sky and a mountain peak at the end of the valley of the Thengpo Tsangpo (Pachhermo 5,755m ?), but after breakfast the cloud closed in and we followed the French back towards the turn off north along the Bhote Khosi to Thame Teng and on up through Marulung to our half days' end at Lungden.
At Thame Teng we chanced upon a Tibetan trading party, packing up their yaks with Chinese goods to be sold in Namche. As we climbed to Marulung, we crossed fast flowing streams and passed dry stone walled fields. Approaching Lungden, rocks in the streams were ice covered... We stopped at the first of Lunden's three lodges - the Kongde View Lodge - a very simple affair, the most basic of the whole trek but family run and with the best home made food making up for the beaten earth floors and plastic sheet windows.
After lunch, Gopal took us out on an acclimatisation walk, but the cold and the cloud kept it short. More seating shenanigans with the French even before the stove was lit but we had the lanky Swiss pair to discuss national characteristics with.
An early night, snug in the double set of Mountain Equipment sleeping bags, plus fleece liner. No Guy Fawkes night fireworks here.
Sunday 06 November 2011 - Day 16 - Acclimatisation in Lungden (4,375m / 14,354ft) (photos)
We woke to ice on the inside of our plastic sheet window, but it soon melted and after breakfast Gopal took us out on an acclimatisation walk straight up the hillside to the left of the front door of the Kongde View Lodge to a corrie from whence we had glimpses of jagged black rock peaks above, and back down the valley at yesterday's route from Marulung.
Another lazy afternoon - I've no memory of what we did to pass the time, but it is bound to have involved tea, and we were without the French who'd left to cross the Renjo La to Gokyo ... which must have been a miserable exercise given all in cloud. We follow in their footsteps tomorrow.
A pre dawn rise and shine, and the lodge owner excitedly encouraged us outside to see how the Kongde View Lodge got its name... such a great feeling to discover that the skies had cleared - with perfect timing for our first big pass: the 5,340m /17,521ft Renjo La (aka Lhenjo La).
A cold start, but wonderful to see the dawn sunlight hitting the snow capped peaks and jagged black ridges, 360°, and smashing to see a sunkissed Numbur again. A slog through the shadow to the hanging valley with a still partially frozen stream running through the small lakes that led us towards the foot of the final climb, from the Black Lake to the prayer flagged pass - with the help of giant snow covered stone steps. Gopal told us that the steps had been made to help the yak trains descend down from the pass, rather than for trekkers. Hard going at over 5,000m, but the prayer flags kept drawing us ever upwards.... and emerging at the top we had spectacular views of the stunning set of peaks from Gyachung Kang / ग्याचुङ्काङ to Kusum Kanguru via Pumori / पुमोरि, Everest / सगरमाथा, Nuptse, Lhotse / ल्होत्से, Makalu / मकालु - all towering over the turquoise of Gokyo's third lake and the collection of lodges that comprise Gokyo Lakes. Looking back westwards, more mountains behind us - amazing. Definitely one of the best moments of the whole trek - amazingly photogenic, and I'd be lost without Günter Seyfferth's annotated panoramas from Renjo La: Renjo La Panorama Ost and Renjo La Panorama West.
A tiring descent on dusty, slippy trails dropping steeply between cairns and then levelling out along the north shore of the lake, culminating in a long stretch of stepping stones to cross the stream feeding into the lake and to reach the lodges.
We arrived exhausted at the Namaste Lodge, and with a splitting headache in my case. Not sure if it was due to altitude, exertion or the bright sunshine, but a couple of ibuprofen and veg noodle soup lunch sorted me out. There followed a lazy afternoon at the lodge, which filled up with support teams and then runners participating in the Everest Sky Race 2011 - crazy but impressive...
Another wonderful day of blue skies and stunning Himalayan views - this time from the top of Gokyo Ri (5,357m/17,575ft).
Our slow and stately zig zag up the hillside was hard work but well worth it for the amazing views out over the Everest Massif and down onto the Ngozumpa glacier stretching dirtily down from Cho Oyu/चोयु, plus the lodges and lake at Gokyo. At the top, we spent a good hour scrambling over boulders, finding one stunning view after another - and again I'm reliant on and grateful for Günter Seyfferth's annotated panoramas from Gokyo Ri to remind me what I saw.
After lunch back at the lodge, Gopal took us on a stroll up to see the fourth lake - not particularly exciting, and freezing cold on the return leg once the sun disappeared behind the ridge. Plenty of yaks for photos, including a couple taking a dust bath above the rubbish dump of Gokyo - not all views in this part of the world are beautiful.....
Recharging my camera battery for 5 hours cost 1000 rupees - ouch, but essential - unlike the prospect of a bucket shower, having seen the water frozen on the step ladder up which the lodge staff had to haul the hot and cold water.
A gentle glowing sunset on Cho Oyu rounded off another magical day.
A wonderfully serene pre-breakfast stroll along the lakeside - Renjo La, Gokyo Ri and the peaks west of the lake reflected mirror perfect in its still waters..... but as the sun came up the breeze turned the lake back to turquoise.
Having watching the Sky Runners depart to cross the Cho La - running in one day what would take us two to walk - we followed in their footsteps crossing the Ngozumba glacier as far as Dragnak/Thangnak. En route swarms of snowcocks, pockets of icicled fairy grottoes and landslide danger zones.
After an early lunch at the Tashi Friendship lodge, we relaxed out on the terrace before an early dinner and bed in anticipation of our second high pass. Thangnak is a two lodge settlement whose sole purpose seems to be to support those crossing the Cho La.
Thursday 10 November 2011 - Day 20 - Cross Cho La (5,420m/17,782ft) from Dragnak (4,750m /15,420ft) to Dzongla (4,850m / 15,912ft) (photos)
A torchlit ascent up the stream valley from Dragnak, with plenty of snowcock for company, and we were in daylight by the time we reached the grassy saddle which provided clear views of the Cho La which stayed with us all the way up to the pass. The path turned to boulders as we nearer the top, and working our way to the prayer flags was a matter of guess work, and we were grateful when Nonda and Uberach materialised to help on the final stetch.
The Cho La (5,420 m/17,782ft) provided another set of amazing views, this time in rather more company as the French group were there and a bunch of Italians materialised too. Here are Günter Seyfferth's annotated panoramas from the Cho La.
A tricky descent - icy rocks and some clambering required, plus a speedy scramble up to the snow field to avoid the risky avalanche/rockfall area. A magical if slippy stroll over the snow field and some more clambering down over rocks and boulders brought us to a wonderful view of Ama Dablam and after a fairly gradual but long descent later we reached Dzongla (4,850m / 15,912ft) - where we sat outside in the sunshine and tucked into a late lunch of chips and veg spring rolls. Food Of The Gods.
Dzongla (4,850m / 15,912ft) is another two lodge location, blessed with fantastic views Ama Dablam to the east and with Cholatse looming to the south. We stayed in the Hotel Zongla Inn and Restaurant, while next door was home to the telescope-wielding support team for a Korean pair of climbers who we would just about spot on their ascent of Cholatse - we later learned that they both died the following day.
Tired after yesterday's crossing, we took the morning's stroll from Dzongla to Lobuche at a gentle pace and spent the afternoon sitting on some sunny steps at the Himalayan Eco lodge, Lobuche branch, and indulging in Hot Showers - or rather a bucket of hot water with bowl and jug in my case, given I went before Dave's duct tape worked wonders to fix the electric shower. Clean hair heaven, and sitting out in the fresh air avoided the hacking, spluttering coughs of the Indian family ensconced in the dining room, and allowed us ringside seats at the impromptu volleyball game played by our porters vs the kitchen staff.
Over dinner we were engaged by the other MK group, The Wing Commander coming over to tell us of their trials and tribulations thus far. We didn't mention that we'd seen their bags thud down from their yak transports...
A long day, trekking (too fast) out alongside and then over the Changri Nup and Changri Shar glaciers to reach Gorak Shep, and then a painfully slow trudge up to Kala Pattar (5,545m/18,192ft) - almost too exhausted to appreciate the stunning views back over Everest/सगरमाथा, Lhotse/ल्होत्से and Nuptse, and Pumori/पुमोरि towering overhead.
Floor cleaning paraffin pong, headache, chair-nicking French and Thukpa soup lunch at Gorak Shep, then the long walk back to Lobuche. With hindsight, I'd recommend overnighting at Gorak Shep rather than Lobuche - that would allow you to squeeze in Everest Base Camp too - although speedy Jake managed that in the company of the two Portuguese chaps we'd coincided with at Lobuche.
On the approach to Lobuche we could see cloud gathering in the valley below.... little did we realise that our fantastic run of perfect weather was almost at an end and that we'd be returning back into cloud tomorrow.
Our third and final pass, and the toughest. The steep walk up out of Lobuche was made harder by slippery silica sand underfoot. Great views back down to Lobuche and the lower portions of the Khumbu Glacier. The prayer flags of the Kongma La - snowcock pass - took a long time to come into view, and were preceded a bouldery section requiring mountain goat skills, and then compacted snow and ice made the final steep section the trickiest final ascent of all.
From the pass, magic views out over the peaks, ranges and glaciers to the east and down to the three glacier blue lakes below. Chomolonzo (7,804 m / 25,604 ft), Kangchungtse (Makalu II) (7,678 m / 25,190 ft), Cho Polu (6,735 m / 22,096 ft), Island Peak / Imja Tse (6,189 m / 20,305 ft), Makalu / मकालु (8,481 m / 27,825 ft), Baruntse (7,129 m / 23,389 ft) and Chamlang (7,319 m / 24,012 ft), all crystal clear, and the Chhukhung Glacier tumbling down right in front of us.
A long, long, long descent, initially over some shallow snow fields before dropping down through rocks and then undulating over grasslands. We had great views of Ama Dablam which disappeared when we dropped down into the cloud. In the silence of the cloud cover the final couple of hours felt never ending. Gopal rerouted Hazel and I on a short cut skipping the teahouse at Chukhung and the others caught us up when Nonda and Uberach materialised out of the fog bearing thermos of tea and mugs - heaven sent.
We crawled into Dingboche c 10 hours after leaving Lobuche, thankful for a speedy if late lunch at the Arizona Hotel. Dingboche was packed.... we skipped the attractions of the reggae bar and the highest (probably) pool table in the world in favour of a lazy afternoon and early dinner.
With hindsight, it feels like the best section of our trek ended with the descent into the clouds below the Kongma La - the following six days from Dingobche to Lukla brought cloudy weather and frustration and it's only really now looking back at the photos from the three high passes and two high peaks that I'm reminded of quite how amazing they are, and how lucky we were.
Departing Dingboche, the mountain views were all behind us - so lots of turning around to take "just one more" photo of Taboche, Ama Dablam and the mani walls and stupas in the Imja Valley. We watched a long stream of trekkers heading up from Dingboche towards (presumably) Lobuche - a rather more direct route than the one we'd taken yesterday. We encountered plenty more trekkers heading in both directions along today's path - congestion reached traffic jam levels in places.
As we descended down the valley of the Imja Khola / इम्जा खोला, trees and shrubs started to reappear and we walked through long stretches of mossy woodland on the approach to Thyangboche where we lunched and took a very quick look at the gompa there, but everything had started to feel very commercialised.
Having crossed the high wire bridge over the Dudh Khosi, Gopal checked out the accommodation on offer at Phunki Tenga but it didn't pass muster and so we continued on up through the forest to the hamlet of Lawishasa where we stayed at the ultra simple, family run Pokhara Lodge and Restaurant with chickens roosting in the trees across the trail.
An entirely cloudy day. After breakfast we left Lawishasa, strolling through forests initially but then emerging onto the hillside - all the while, following the route of the Dudh Khosi thundering away below us to the left of the path. We reached Namche in time for lunch at the Shangri La Lodge, and then spent the afternoon pottering around the stalls and shops, treating ourselves to Lavazza coffee and (disappointing) cinnamon and chocolate rolls at the Everest Bakery. No souvenir shopping, but a short internet session.
A cloudy, wet day, and a dispiriting trudge down from Namche Bazaar to Phakding, via lunch in Monjo. The highlight was that in Phakding we stayed at Gopal's lodge, and were treated to the best dal bhat of the whole trek - served on the best plates too.
Phakding - Ghat - Thado Kosi - Rangdo Gompa - Cheplung - Lukla. I doubt we were any more smiley than the trekkers we'd seen heading along this route just over a fortnight ago. The rain and cloud did not bode well. I can see why Annapurna Mark has such a low opinion of Lukla - I'm sure it's fine if you don't get stuck there but the longer you're confined to the main drag the less appealing it is. Everything is stunningly expensive; it's a place you just want to leave.... even if, as the Wing Commander's group were discovering, it was going to cost you USD500 each on a private hire helicopter because bad weather meant that your scheduled flight didn't fly.
Aka flight fiasco day, most of it spent alongside anxious crowds at Lukla airport. The morning dawned miraculously clear, and soon after 6am the small planes started flying. But our 8.30am flight tickets had been mysteriously pushed back to 11.30... and finally disappeared for good around 4pm. Gold tooth Jimmy materialised with the news that this meant we'd be flight 31 tomorrow - not great news given that the most that have ever flown out in any one day is 16 - but with the offer of a helicopter flight to Kathmandu tomorrow - USD550 each, cash. Deja vu from the conversation we'd seen him having with the other MK group yesterday. Cue phone calls to Mountain Kingdom in the UK, phone calls from Mountain Legends Anil in Kathmandu, rudeness and anger from the charming Jimmy, silent embarrassment from Gopal. Anger, confusion and tears from we five. I was sorely tempted to bypass it all and to walk back to Jiri with Gopal, but sleeping on it gave me time to realise that my visa would have run out and I didn't trust Mountain Kingdoms or Mountain Legends to help rearrange my international flight - so USD500 it was, payable in Kathmandu, but by credit card at least.
Saturday 19 November 2011 - Day 29 - More waiting in Lukla. Self-financed helicopter to Kathmandu. (photos)
Sunday 20 November 2011 - Day 30 - Fly Kathmandu-Delhi-Manchester. Coach to LHR T4. 490 bus to T5. N9 bus to Trafalgar Square. Walk to Aldwych. Cab home.