Published: January 17th 2011November 15th 2010
We have to warn you - we tried really hard to keep this entry from getting too long and boring you - but we loved this part of our trip so much it's been a tall order ;-)
We arrived in to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, and the backpacker enclave of Thamel, with a few days to spare before our departure North into the Himalayas for our much anticipated trekking. This provided a little time to see some of the main sights of the city, along with time to accumulate the pieces of gear we would need for our foray into high altitudes and cold temperatures. Already, being at 1,800m, the temperature was much cooler than in India, which made a pleasant change from the high daytime temperatures of Rajasthan.
Kathmandu old town, where we were based, is a maze of narrow streets, lots of motorbikes and small cars, and almost no road rules it seems. Road junctions were often a mess of gridlocked vehicles, through which pedestrians would weave where space allowed. Due to the lure of tourist money and jobs in Kathmandu, it is a city bursting at the seams. People from rural
areas all over Nepal are flocking to the city and it is struggling to cope with the sheer numbers. This was particularly evident when we there as power load shedding was in operation throughout Kathmandu. Due to the power stations not being able to feed the city electricity requirements, all areas of the city would experience regular blackouts every day, totalling 35 hours per week. This is simply a fact of life for the city residents now and is one of many measures in place that are evidence of the rapid growth of a city and the infrastructure struggling to keep up. Forget trying to watch a movie on TV from start to finish!
We found Thamel to be an exhilirating blast! It's a riot of colour and noise, narrow streets crammed to the skies with more little bright neon signs than anywhere we've seen before. A multitude of cafes and bars jostle with outdoor equipment shops (most selling fake brand named goods, imported from China), book shops and travel / trekking agencies. It is a place totally set up for the trekker with money in their pocket before their trek or a hole in their stomach and a
Gokyo and Dudh Pokhari Lake
The tiny town of Gokyo had 7 guest houses only
thirst after their trek. The atmosphere positively hums with excitement. Considering most of the outdoor equipment on sale is fake, the quality is surprisingly good and it feeds the addiction (which Mike certainly has), of accumulating all manner of outdoor gear. It is the perfect place to get carried away with buying things for the trek ahead. Knowing though that we were planning to trek without a guide or porter (and therefore carrying everything with us) curbed our worst excesses however.
The plethora of tempting restaurants prompted a welcome return to pre-India living, i.e meat and alcohol. Hey, we were preparing for another 3 weeks of abstinence ahead ;-) Beyond making preparations for our trek, we did manage to take in a few of the city sights, including Durbar Square (a collection of temples where the kings and queens of Nepal were historically crowned), and Pashupatinath, the holiest Hindu site in the city and the place where Hindu cremations are performed in public. The latter was a fascinating place to visit for a non-Hindu. On death, to allow the soul to leave the body and move on to the next life, Hindus burn the body on a funeral pyre
on the edge of the river, before the final ashes are swept into the river below, which ultimately flows down to the holy Ganges river in India. It is the responsibility of family members to light the fire, which burns for 3 hours until the body is totally consumed. This most personal and intimate act is on display in public at a number of ghats along the river and is both fascinating and intensely moving to observe from a distance, which non-Hindus are allowed to do.
We were also lucky enough to be in Kathmandu for Diwali, the festival of light - the old town was transformed into a magical place of flickering lights as all the shops and bars created intricate little patterns with flower petals and candles outside their doors, leading the way in.
Mountain flying Nepal style - Not for the faint hearted!
We had decided to spend our trekking time in Nepal in the Everest region and the Khumbu valley, which have spectacular views, so we'd heard, of the Everest range. This region is particularly high and there are no roads serving the area at all. The only public transport in to
the region is by flight to the tiny Tenzig Hillary airport at Lukla, or to walk in for a week from the nearest road. In order to maximise our time in the high altitude area, we decided to fly in, a truly memorable experience, landing at what is regarded as the most dangerous airport in the world - Lukla.
The flight to Lukla started with negotiating the Kathmandu domestic departures terminal, basically an aircraft hanger filled with a scrum of people and noise. It seems the flight number and departure time you get assigned have no relevance whatsoever to the flight you end up on. There seemed to be more of a first come, first transported type of order to things. There are no boards or announcements anyway so we just kept our eyes and ears peeled. Good thing we did - we had barely sat down in the lounge with our cups of tea early in the morning when we were called for a flight departing a full hour before we thought we were leaving. When we say called - someone literally shouted our flight across the hall!
All twelve of us took our seats in the
Gokyo on the edge of Dudh Pokhari Lake
Cho Oyo (6th highest in the world) is in the background
tiny cabin of the twin propeller plane, with a view through to the cockpit, and the back door of the aircraft was shut. The air hostess came, bent over double to avoid hitting her head, through the cabin to provide the essentials for the flight, a boiled sweet to suck on and a bundle of cotton wool, from which you could pluck a bit to push in each ear. Once the engines were started up, the need for the cotton wool became clear!
We quickly taxied out and took off into the clear blue skies over Kathmandu. As we climbed, the scenery below became more and more dramatic, with huge deep valleys climbing up to ridges over which we passed with what only seemed to be feet to spare between us and the land below. All the flights to Lukla are done by sight (i.e. without using instruments). We were told that when there is cloud in the area, the flights simply don't go as in Nepal, clouds have rocks (or mountains!) in them.
The approach to Lukla airstrip was quite dramatic. We could see the airstrip off to our right, far below our plane. The aircraft made
View down to Gokyo from Gokyo Ri
The Ngozumpha Glacier cuts across the background
a steep turn to the right and then started to dive at a high angle, kind of like a WWII plane closing in on a bombing run. Through the cockpit we could see the airstrip closing in on us rapidly, and beyond it, far, far below, the valley floor. Then suddenly, there was grass just below us, followed rapidly by tarmac, onto which the plane was thumped down sharply.
The airstrip in Lukla is one of the most dramatic anywhere in the world. It is located at 2,800m (1,000m higher than Kathmandu), in an area with steep sided valleys and thin air. There isn't the space to allow a full length runway to be built and the one at Lukla is less than 0.5km long, so only small, twin propellor planes can be accommodated. To compensate for the short runway and to allow planes to slow sufficiently when landing, the runway is placed on a 13deg gradient, so you essentially land uphill. To put that into perspective, for those living in West London, it's about the same gradient as the hill up to the ballet school that our running club do hill reps on in Richmond Park. It really
Map of the Everest region with our route on
For those who are not intimate with the area we are talking about, a guide (The route we followed is shown in black)
is the most incredible sight to land on this uphill section.
Just as spectacular to watch are the take offs, where the plane hurtles downhill on the short runway. At the lower end of the runway, the hillside drops off into a steep valley. Therefore, once planes start to move, they pretty much reach the point of no return and have to keep speeding down the tarmac to lift off the end of the runway, or fall off the end and down into the steep valley below.
However, it is the landings that are far more dangerous at Lukla, as if the landing is misjudged even slightly, as has occurred on a few occasions in the past, including 2 years ago, the plane will slam into the hillside. If the plane lands too far up the runway, it won't have enough room to slow sufficiently either. Thankfully, you'll have realised by now that neither of these happened to our plane and we safely touched down on the tarmac and the engines roared in the thin air to bring us to a halt at the tiny terminal building.
Watching the planes take off and land at Lukla is
A Yak train on the Everest path
A typical sight on the walk to Everest
a bit of a spectator sport and people surround the barriers of the runway to watch the impressive skills of these Nepalese pilots. There is a video at the top of the blog that I shot of a plane taking off from Lukla -this should give you some kind of idea as to how little room for error there is in a landing or take off. It is probably one of the most memorable flights we have ever taken, but it is certainly not one for those with a fear of flying to try on their first flight!
Having recovered from the excitement of the flight, we had a chance to have a look around Lukla, where we spent our first night to try and acclimatise a bit. It is a tiny, one cobbled street town and a bustling hive of activity with throngs of porters, guides and trekkers coming and going. The location is also spectacular, with mountains towering around, giving us our first taste of the Nepal Himalayas. At one end of town is a gateway which marks the official start of the walk which most people arrive here to do, which takes you to Everest Base
Camp. We would be working our way there ultimately, but first we aimed to head up the Gokyo valley and go over the Cho La Pass which would take us over nearer to the foot of Mt. Everest itself.
The practical guide to trekking in Nepal
We had left all of our non-essential gear in Kathmandu in order to make our packs as light and manageable as possible, a necessity in the thin air that we would be encountering further along the trek. Even doing every day tasks becomes difficult as the amount of oxygen reduces at higher altitudes. We were well aware of the symptoms to look out for as signs of early stage altitude sickness and we were planning on taking acclimatisation days to help avoid it.
Our trekking took on a kind of a routine which we quickly got into. Accommodation is all in teahouses in this area, which are little family run lodges with a number of small, twin bedded rooms. Rooms are simple with nothing more than 2 beds and a window in a rectangular, plywood walled room - this meant very thin walls and sound would carry a lot. Rooms
A chorten in the mountain pass village of Monjo
Our first real taste of high altitude at 4,000m
were never heated, so our down-filled sleeping bags which we had rented for the trek were essential, as well as wearing most of our fleeces, thermals and woolly hats at night. Toilets are usually shared among all the rooms - one of the more annoying effects of altitude on the body is that you have to go several times a night - there is nothing less appealing when you have warmed up in your sleeping bag than to have to leave it, shivering in the freezing cold repeatedly!
The teahouses would charge a nominal price for the room, usually £1-2 per night. This was on the condition that you ate your meals in the teahouse, which is where they could make some profit. Prices were fairly high, and rose sharply in accordance with the altitude - fair enough, the higher and more remote we were, the further porters and yaks had to carry the produce and fuel necessary to cook it. One crucial way you can help prevent altitude sickness is by drinking a lot of fluid - at least 3 litres a day per person. As the temperatures were low, it was difficult to drink enough cold water,
View down the Dudh Koshi Valley
At the top of the valley near Gokyo
and the teahouses all provide various sizes of flasks of hot drinks, which everyone spends their evenings ploughing through, as much to keep warm, as to hydrate.
Unfortunately you are a bit at people's mercy here - flasks doubled, tripled, and even quadrupled in price as we climbed, which seemed hard to justify. But teahouse owners know that you have to drink, because you are freezing and at risk of dehydration, and there's nowhere else to go! Another problem we had was cash - we had withdrawn as much as possible from ATMs from the time we got to Kathmandu, and worked out from our guidebook's estimates of prices that we would have plenty, with a buffer for emergencies. However, in the 18 months since the book had been written, it seemed that prices had risen sharply. We realised within a day or two that we were actually uncomfortably short of funds, and planning to be walking for 3 weeks (and there are no ATMs in the mountains!). We were therefore constantly trying to keep our costs down (the luxury of showers, costing more than a room, were out - long live wetwipes!), in the knowledge that prices were
Panoramic of the view to Everest from Gokyo Ri
There ain't much better place to be in the world!
only going to get higher, the higher we got.
Meals were had in the communal dining room, also the only place with any warmth as there was always a burner in the middle of the room, fuelled by pats of dried yak dung. A daily highlight would be the lighting of the stove, usually soon after the sun dipped over the horizon, after which temperatures would quickly plummet to well below freezing. Yak shit is cheap and plentiful but doesn't give off a lot of heat, so we'd usually all huddle pretty close around the stove. This did mean that you were always guaranteed to meet all the other trekkers in the teahouse, inevitably starting with the question - are you on your way up or down? We met an eclectic mix of nationalities and personalities, as well as the lovely Nepalese families who ran the lodges.
Meal selections were fairly impressive given the limited natural resources the teahouses had at their disposal, particularly at the higher altitudes where very little will grow. It was basically either fried rice, noodles or pasta, with a few veggies or eggs or yak meat - or dahl bhat (dahl and rice)
for a splash-out. we'd already decided that, because of the dubious kitchen hygiene in the basic conditions, we'd go veggie again (and teetotal again) as in India. At a couple of the lower villages in the valley, rustic bakeries were found selling (very expensive) apple pies and doughnuts. The daily exertion of trekking lead to us soon starting to crave these sweet treats, but we could only just stretch to three basic meals a day, and anything else was way beyond our means.
Our trekking days would usually start with getting up between 6am and 7am. The early start was really to maximise our time walking in the daylight hours, along with allowing the best views in the clear mountain mornings. After a hearty breakfast of muesli or porridge, we would pack up our things and set off walking by 9am. During periods of ascent, our walking days were fairly short, sometimes only 2-3 hours a day, although this grew to up to 10 hours once acclimatised. This was often to limit our rate of ascent to no greater than around 300m from one night to the next, the accepted maximum daily height gain to allow the body to
Everest from Kala Pattar
Highest point on earth, stunning
become more used to the gradually thinning air. When walking in this area, the daily ascent usually controls the amount of walking possible in a day much more than the distance covered.
Temperatures for walking during the daytime were often very pleasant, never needing more than a T-shirt and fleece, until we got to the highest altitudes. Navigation is fairly easy as the paths are well marked and obvious, while it is rare to walk for too long without meeting other walkers, porters (who were regularly seen carrying massive loads of supplies up the valley), or a herder with a train of yaks that were impossibly loaded up with huge amounts, usually containing tourists ruck-sacks. On a few occasions, they were seen with a suitcase with wheels strapped to each side of them! Yaks are basically very strong looking, hairy cows that live in the cold, high altitude region of the Himalayas.
Dinner is around 6pm, and the generator is turned off and everyone's in bed by 8pm. This could be earlier if the stove is not topped up with fuel, given it would be much warmer in the sleeping bag than sitting in a freezing room. One
The Nuptse peak from Kala Pattar
OK, looks fairly inaccessible to me
of the effects of altitude on the body is that it becomes much harder to sleep. If you're lucky (Mike), you manage to sleep but much more lightly, and so longer. If not (Helen), you can't sleep much at all - and as there are 12 hours of darkness, nights turned into an extremely long boring exercise in listening to your own laboured breathing. Those who know how rubbish Helen is in the mornings would be amazed at the alacrity she now showed in getting up in the early mornings, glad the night was finally over! And so the daily cycle continued during our time trekking along a fairly similar vein to the above.
I'm on top of the world, Ma! - well near it
We planned to walk initially up the Dudh Kosi valley to the small settlement of Gokyo, from where we hoped to go over the Cho La Pass. At 5,420m, the Pass links the Dudh Kosi valley and Khumbu valley, where Everest Base Camp is, and is notoriously weather dependent, as icy conditions render the crossing dangerous. These two valleys would take us up close and personal with Everest itself and some of
its giant neighbours...
Dotted all along the valleys that we walked are many tiny Sherpa villages. The Sherpa are an ethnic group who are so used to living at high altitudes that their bodies have adapted better than most to deal with the thin air, and hence are the porters of choice for mountaineers. The Sherpas are lovely, kind people too and those we met as we went, tending to crops or running the many teahouses catering to the trekking industry, really give off a wonderful warmth.
The trek to Gokyo was a gradual climb along the steep sided, north-south running valley, high above the Dudh Kosi river. The trail rose pretty quickly, the increases in altitude limiting our daily walking to only a few hours a day. In the lower valley, cloud would roll in by mid-afternoon, creating a thick fog. This only served to heighten the delight at each new spectacular view that opened up when the clouds parted. After 7 days of walking, we reached Gokyo.
Gokyo is a small settlement on the edge of a breathtakingly beautiful lake, Dudh Pokhari, the third in a line of 6 lakes. Across the lake rises a
steep, craggy mountainside of snow covered rock. Being located at 4,750m, Gokyo is completely barren of vegetation, and is has a stunning, dramatic beauty of grey and white of rock and ice, offset by the vividly turquoise lake. In the distance, at the head of the valley to the north of the town is the mighty, snow covered face of Cho Oyu (at 8,200m, the 6th highest in the world). Behind the town, to its east, is the Ngozumpa Glacier which rolls down the valley from Cho Oyu. Of all the towns we stayed in during the entire trek, Gokyo was without a doubt the most beautiful place. The lakeside setting is gorgeous. At night we would step outside to a sky that seemed so full of stars that it couldn't possibly be real, while Cho Oyu would glow in the moonlight up the valley. It gets bitterly cold at night, but warms up blessedly quickly when the sun peeks over the moutain ridges all around.
Gokyo is the last settlement in the valley, and from there we walked on up beyond the fourth and fifth lakes to what felt like halfway to the moon. We climbed up to
Everest along the Gaunara Glacier from the 5th Lake
Guarded to the South by the pointed ridge of Cholo and Kangchung
the ridge of a bowl, almost an amphitheatre from which we were treated to the most heart-breakingly beautiful view we could ever have dreamed of. Forming the border with Tibet, the razor sharp, snow covered ridge of mountains led off in a semicircle around to the north face of Everest (8,848m), Nuptse (7,861m) and Lhotse (8,501m, 4th highest mountain in the world). In the foreground at our feet, the vast Ngozumpa glacier rolling down from Cho Oyu to the north, cut across everything. Continuing to scan around to the south, it was just huge mountains all around. The scenery was simply like we were on another planet. There was not a single piece of evidence of any human interference, simply towering, snow covered peaks everywhere, with the huge, black bulk of Everest sitting proudly in the middle of it all. It's a harsh, devastating beauty - staring at Everest, we could quite see how it would capture the heart and imaginations of mountaineers. Although it was a crystal clear, calm day, whisps of clouds danced around the summit, speaking of killer winds.
Despite hearing so much about the beauty of the area before we had been, it's hard until
The head of the Ngozumpa Glacier
On the walk to the 5th lake North of Gokyo, stunning view
you are there, at that altitude where almost nothing else lives, to imagine what it is like. Truly it is like nowhere else on earth. After being in enough famous beauty spots in the world, which would always involve crowds of people, coaches, entrance fees and designated paths - it felt surreal that all we had to do was walk (admittedly for 7.5 days!), and we would be admitted to this close up view of the highest mountains on earth, with no queueing, paying, or signs.
Sitting on the ridge, we just felt incredibly lucky to be there - lucky that we hadn't got altitude sickness, that the weather was clear for us that day, above all lucky that we come from the small percentage of the world's population that has the option to travel to far off places. It was one of those moments when we knew that all the work involved in finally getting away travelling was worth it, many times over - this was what it was all about. We just bundled up in our down jackets and sat on the ridge for over an hour, not saying much, trying to imprint the scene on our
Cairns line the route on the way to Everest
Each remembers the death of a mountaineer or Sherpa on Everest - a sobering reminder of the dangers
minds so we would never forget it. It was hard to tear ourselves away, and we kept turning back to take another look when we finally walked away.
The next day we climbed to the summit of Gokyo Ri, a peak which rises to 5,360m above the village. We reached the summit for sunset, buffeted by strong, icy winds. As the sun set, the colours on the mountains changed through yellows to oranges and reds to eventually a deep purple colour that crept up until it only covered the tip of Everest itself, before the sun finally disappeared. Behind us, the few clouds in the sky caught the setting suns rays spectacularly. It was a truly wonderful natural display and worth the almighty slog up the hill to see it.
The Cho La Pass crossing was a laborious haul up a massive glacier to reach a tiny mountain ledge at 5,420m. This was the most difficult part of our trek as in addition to the high altitude and very thin air as we went over the pass, the initial moraine gave way eventually, after a 720m climb, to glacier after we crossed the pass. It seemed to glow
Lobuche towers above the trekking peak of Kala Pattar
Kala Pattar at 5,600m is the small peak in the foreground
"persil white" in front of us, but as beautiful as it looked, it proved to be incredibly slippery, which without crampons, was fairly treacherous for the hour or so that we walked over it.
To take our minds off the danger of slipping down the mountainside and our wet backsides, we could look ahead to see the mighty bulk of Ama Dablam mountain (6,860m) dominating the view at the end of the valley we were walking through. Unlike Everest, which is a formidable looking rather than aesthetically attractive mountain, Ama Dablam is classically beautiful, having a most perfect pyramid shape, seemingly inaccessible from this distance due to its steep sides, very much like the mountain at the start of Paramount movies!
After clambering down off the glacier, we had a further few hours walking over undulating terrain, during which a thick, drizzly fog came in and threatened to get us lost, before we finally arrived at our lodging for the night. We were absolutely exhausted as we slumped into our teahouse, 10 hours after setting off in the morning and after over 800m of climbing and descent in one day.
The close up view of Everest
We climbed further up the Khumbu valley to the settlement of Gorak Shep, the highest point that we slept on the trek at 5,160m. It's hard to describe the feelings of being at this height - at this altitude there is only half the oxygen in the air that there is at sea level, and everything becomes a struggle for the body. In particular sleeping can be difficult as you frequently wake up, struggling to breathe, like you are being suffocated, feeling your heart hammering in your chest.
The village is located in the dusty bed of a dried up lake, with the west face of Nuptse towering up above the Khumbu glacier behind the town. Although you can't see Everest itself from the town, it is very close, just hidden by Nuptse. There is nothing growing or living near to the town, just huge mountains all around. The feeling at this point of the trek is certainly like you have reached the end of the valley. The head of the valley is nearby and large mountains block off in all directions, except the way you have approached from the south. It also gives the greatest feeling of
staying right in among the mountains as they feel so near that you can reach out and touch them.
From Gorak Shep we climbed Kala Pattar, from which close up views of Everest are possible. The top of Kala Pattar (at 5,640m on my GPS, the highest point of our entire trek) is around a 2 hour climb from Gorak Shep and it is a very exhausting slog given the altitudes and our levels of tiredness at this stage of the trek.
Whereas all our previous views were from a distance, allowing the magnitude of the whole Everest range to be appreciated, the views from Kala Pattar are all about seeing Everest in all its immense, close up glory. The view is absolutely spectacular, the highest point in the world being just across the valley from the point we were standing at. From this location you can appreciate that although not the prettiest mountain in the world, it is an immense chunk of rock. It stands, almost snowless, with an odd halo of thin mist running down its sides. It's truly stunning, as much so as its neighbour, Nuptse, which from this perspective looks as tall as Everest,
despite being 1,000m lower.
Luckily for us again, the weather obliged and the skies remained clear for sunset, again setting off the most intense natural colour displays, projected onto the mightiest mountains in the world. It's hard to find the words to describe how beautiful the whole scene was.
Over the following days, as we finally started to lose altitude and walk down the Khumbu valley, we took a side diversion in the Chukkung valley. This valley had a whole different feeling, the lower altitude making a dramatic difference. It was altogether softer, the harsh beauty of stark rocks and ice giving way to green vegetation and sloping edges. The village sits facing across to the brilliant white Chukkung glacier which tumbles down the north side of Ama Dablam mountain, which can be seen clearly across the valley. Up the valley from Chukkung, the whole valley is choked by the Lhotse glacier which comes down from the south face of Lhotse. From this point, the vastness of the south face can be appreciated as it towers more than 3.5km above your vantage point. The constant winds whipping across the top of Lhotse can be seen blowing snow high
Helen's new favourite mountain
into the sky above the peak.
We took a walk for a couple of hours along the edge of the Lhotse glacier to get a bird's eye view over the glacier itself and like the Khumbu, it is another valley blocked off at the top end by a ridge of snow covered mountains. It's another moonscape of a scene with mountains, rock, ice and lakes all that can be seen all around.
As we continued down the valley towards Namche and Lukla, it was amazing to feel the benefit of losing altitude so quickly. It was a relief to sleep again, to be able to breathe easily, and not face the bitterly cold nights when ice would form on the inside of the bedroom windows!
However, it was also with sadness that we returned down the valley, knowing that we were turning our backs on the most majestic scenery either of us has ever been lucky enough to witness. By the end of 20 straight days of walking, we had climbed a total of 7,700m to a maximum altitude of over 5,600m. Our bodies were exhausted, our clothes hung off us a lot more loosely, and we
Commercialism reaches Lukla
Even at 2,800m, Stabucks can still be found!
were mightily glad of the rest and indeed the shower, wine and steak on our return to Kathmandu.
Nepal is a truly wonderful place to go trekking. It is made very easy by not needing to do any camping or cooking on the walk, making the weight you need to carry quite low. It is really freeing to be able to do the walking at our own pace, without a guide. In this area, we didn't really feel it was necessary, and it allowed us to change our plans and head up to Chukkung when we realised we had time. You do sometimes have to share the path with lots of other people, particularly tour groups who tend to take over some of the lodges, but it is also possible to get away from the crowds, especially in Gokyo and Chukkung which are much quieter. Besides, there is a reason why all these people visit, and why we are sure to return - the scenery is absolutely out of this world. If you like mountains, you simply have to go, there is nowhere else like it!
There are more photos below