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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

One foot in front of the other

As I understand it, October is high season for trekking in the Himalayas. Based on this, a person would expect that flights in and out of Kathmandu's domestic terminal would be routine, after all they do this every day, right? The chaos we encountered however told a different story. Somehow, we weaved our way through the crowd of frustrated people clearly as confused as we were by the lack of signage and/or willingness of anyone to answer questions, and found our way onto a plane. As I looked out my window at the baggage cart, I was relieved by the confirmation that I would, by some minor miracle, indeed be on the same plane as our backpacks.

The 14 passenger plane spit us out on the air strip in Lukla and, much to the horror of my mother, we turned down the many offers of guide and porter service as we left the airport.

With plans to head up the western valley to Gokyo, go east over the Chola Pass, north up the eastern valley to Everest Base Camp, and back down the eastern valley, we hit the trail; Map in hand and backpack securely fastened!

We shared the trail with donkeys, cows and yaks, all earning their keep...

Our packs were dwarfed by the loads carried by porters which were at least twice their size, carrying not only individuals' belongings but also supplies to the villages and towns along the trail. It was not uncommon to see loads including such 'staples' as cases of beer, coca-cola, and even entire cows (butchered and soaking up the hot sun) being hauled up into the mountains
in baskets on backs supported by straps across foreheads.

Every day, the sights along the trail provided something new to look at.

We soaked in some culture,...

...we negotiated mountain side trails, and followed streams through the forest, ...

...we crossed bridges, and even enjoyed some solitude.

We trekked through tiny communities,...

...small, quaint villages, and some not-so small villages.

Each promised lodging with an impressive view (even if the message did lose a little in the translation).

Our first glimpse of Mt. Everest was met with a flurry of photo taking which required Troy to scale up the side of a hill, perch ever-so acrobatically on a stump, hold on to a tree with one hand and steady the camera with the other to get just the right shot of the very tip of Mt. Everest through some tree branches. Nevertheless, that first sighting, albeit just a teaser really, provided the rush we needed to propel us up the uphill section of trail we found ourselves on which led, naturally, to a lookout point where photos could be taken with no perching required. What fun is that?!

We spent an acclimatization day exploring the countryside and enjoying the mountains before heading on to Gokyo where we were promised our first panoramic 360 degree view of the Himalayas.

We arrived in Gokyo, assessed the trail up Gokyo Ri and after our ascent to 5,400m, were not disappointed in the least.

We were rewarded with beautiful blue skies (with only one cloud, naturally right behind Mt. Everest) and we celebrated at the top, having reached the first of our goal destinations. Our first glimpse of Everest, through the pine trees, obviously paled in comparison to this new view of The Big One!

The Chola Pass held our next challenge and at 5am we bundled up, not enough in retrospect as I quickly lost feeling in my fingers and toes, and headed out with headlamps blazing. This was the first of many occasions that I remember vowing to never again leave my sleeping bag before the mountains were cloaked in sunshine. Call me a slow learner. In this case however, leaving early was important as we wanted to be across the glacier, which was waiting on the other side of the pass, before the sun had warmed the surface too much, making it more difficult and dangerous to cross.

It was a slow scramble up and over the pass (the photo does not do justice to the gradient) and I had to make sure I kept the weight of my pack on the right side of vertical so as not to go 'ass over teakettle'. Half way up I passed a 74 year old man, 'supported' shall we say (some might say 'being dragged') on either side by two guides. He quipped to me that the website he had booked his tour with had claimed that this would be a moderate to challenging ascent. He felt quite comfortable in declaring it to be on the challenging side of things. He was in great spirits though and I was grateful that he made me laugh, especially since I think that helped kickstart circulation into my fingertips.

Up and over the pass, we were greeted by a winter wonderland!

Having cleared the pass, we eventually found ourselves in Gorak Shep at about 5100m. From here we would trek first to Everest Base Camp and then up Kala Patthar the following day.

We had been advised many times not to bother with going to Base Camp as it was described as a 'wasteland' with no views, not even of Everest itself, but we were glad not to have heeded this advice. It proved to be a highlight as it provided a visual of the scene we have so often envisioned in our minds when reading about Everest expeditions.

It was fun, though a bit eery, to walk across the glacier upon which Base Camp sits. On approach, it looks so unassuming, largely covered in rocks, it is easy to forget that you are actually on ice at all. That is until it gives off a grown or a creak, sending pieces of ice and rock falling down the sides. Looking out into (not to mention climbing on) the shear magnitude of the icefall, described as the first obstacle heading out of Base Camp on Mt. Everest expeditions, put the grandeur of our surroundings into perspective.

Reluctant to spend yet another sleepless night at altitude, we were eager to start our descent. The body has a way of waking up when it thinks it's not getting enough oxygen and many nights of sleep interrupted by waking up to take deep breaths were starting to wear on us. We climbed up Kala Patthar (5550m) (a little too early in the morning and again I remember repeating the vow of sunshine worship as we paused so I could warm my fingers in Troy's armpits. Don't judge me.), and began our descent into the valley.

Not quite ready to leave the mountains behind, we detoured into the Chukung Valley to take one last hike up to 5550m. Chukung Ri provided an incredible view of Ama Dablam and was our fifth and final goal destination. This would be our last day with Charles, our trekking partner from the Czech Republic whom we had met at the airport, so we made sure to capture the moment.

It felt good to be heading down although, as is usually the case, I hadn't anticipated so much 'uphill' sections to be in the 'downhill'. We decided to take our time though, and just enjoy.

While we did 'try' to take it easy, the call of a hot shower and hamburgers beckoned us and the four short days we had planned to spend on the descent turned into two long days instead with a stop in Namche Bazaar overnight.

As we had often met up with random butchered parts of animals in baskets resting on the side of the trail, on their way up the mountains on someone's back to eventually be turned into something gourmet no doubt, we decided to forego the eating of meat for the duration of the trip. When we reached Namche Bazaar however, the temptation of the hamburger and french fries, that out of nowhere once again appeared on menus, was too great and we decided to indulge. Only one day from Lukla, we considered it a calculated risk. Besides, we had missed this traditional feast to mark Dad's birthday and better late than never!

The protein craving out of the way left only one issue to deal with, that of a hot shower. We said goodbye to the himalayas, boarded our plane back to Kathmandu, and rock/paper/scissored for first dibs on the shower upon our arrival (I lost).

I read somewhere that if you don't like walking you shouldn't fool yourself into thinking you may like trekking because trekking is walking but with better scenery. I used to hate walking but these days I am constantly amazed by the places simply putting one foot in front of the other has taken me.

1 comment:

  1. Did you say "ass over teakettle?" I see you can take the girl away from mom, but you can't take the mom out of the girl, he he!!!
    Sounds like an awesome adventure!!!! Glad you got to have your burgers and fries too!!! :)
    I love that you now love walking, just wait until you do it with 100 pounds on the end of a leash, Duke will show you some great views around here!!!