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Published: July 15th 2019
I'd walked the Annapurna circuit on my own, partly to gauge how I coped with the altitude at my own pace but also to get fitter - carrying 12kg, up to 6-7 hours a day for 18 days certainly did that. My grand plan was that if I managed the Annapurna OK I'd attempt the Gokyo lakes and Everest base camp trek in the Khumbu region; if not well, I'd spend my remaining time in Nepal doing 'other stuff' (as yet undetermined.. I had no real plan B at this point).
So, having successfully hauled myself and my rucksack around the Annapurna, albeit at times cursing myself for overpacking or mentally willing myself through the next block of 10 steps as I contemplated in what moment of madness....., I booked myself on a group tour to start a few weeks later. Yup, me who dislikes organised group activities booked myself on a group tour with a guide, porters, and a group of other tourists. In fact I was almost looking forward to it - I'd not lacked for people to chat to on the Annapurna circuit but was less confident in doing this trek completely alone and figured if I
was going to have guide and porter it might be nice to have a ready made group of people to chat to rather than starting afresh with random strangers each night. So I did chuckle when I arrived at the travel agents in Kathmandu to find the rest of the group had decided they wanted a private tour. Ah well, a party of 3 it was meant to be, me, a guide and a very sweet 15 year old porter / mountain goat who fairly flew up ahead of us each day with my bag balanced on his back via a strap round his head.
Day 1: Leaving Kathmandu... Almost?
Day 1 saw me up bright and breezy, picked up at my hotel and off to the airport. I soon discovered it was worth having a guide just to navigate the mayhem of the domestic terminal. Check in desks were of the old fashioned kind - scales were the stand alone type and the conveyor belt a man who arrived with a trolley to take your bag to the plane. Crowds of people were waiting in front of each airline desk, standing or sitting on their bags (the
floor was an assault course of luggage) trying to get the attention of staff to find out whether their flight was likely to leave. Our flight was due to depart at 9.30, we'd arrived around 8, finally checked in at 10.30, and promptly sat in departures until 3pm when our flight was cancelled due to high winds. Apparently it's not that uncommon so the moral is either be on the first flight out.... or make sure you have sufficient time to allow for aborted attempts!
Day 2: Leaving Kathmandu... Hopefully?
Oddly, the chaos of the terminal on the second day didn't seem quite so, well, chaotic - having sat people watching for so long yesterday I'd kind of got the hang of 'the system'. Anyway I wasn't complaining, some people were already on their third day here.... which increasingly looked to be my fate as the clouds rolled in and the list of flights backed up from the last few days didn't change.
Indeed my flight was cancelled again, but I hadn't stayed around to find out. I'd been loitering around the check in 'desk' resigned to a long wait when my guide came over and in
a hushed tone explained that if I paid an extra 50USD then we could go now (ish). I, and a couple of others with guides who had the same contacts, were the beneficiaries of someone else's misfortune - they'd called in a helicopter rescue but rather than send it up empty........ hmm a difficult choice! I found later from the guides that perhaps not all evacuee's needed evacuating, but the alternative was hiking down and they had insurance that covered it and..... Either way we saw an awful lot of helicopters over the coming days - I stopped counting at 10 in a day.
The journey to Lukla took an hour, skimming over terraced fields with small villages and isolated houses around them connected by a few single track roads and paths. The advantage of arriving by helicopter was not having to attempt landing by plane on what is a notoriously short, uphill runway with a wall at the end. I wasn't overly looking forward to taking off from it at the end of the trip but I was rather chuffed we didn't need to chance a landing!
Day 3: Onwards... and upwards
Having walked from Lukla
to Phakding in gray, gloomy rain and snow I woke the next day to blue sky! Today was a longer day, maybe 6 hours walking, finished off with a nice continuous steep 800m climb at the end, but the route was beautiful. Through villages with lush green terraces of barley, onion or cabbage next to brown ones awaiting the monsoon rains, riverside paths and then green pine forests interspersed with the occasional pink flowers of a rhododendron tree.
The path itself was busy with porters, some carrying luggage for tourists like me, others with goods for sale higher up the mountain.... including meat. Locals don't eat meat on the mountain, tourists it seems can and do - we saw Yak burgers on the menu all the way up. Except according to my guide it was unlikely to be Yak (those being of too higher value to use for meat) and the reasons locals didn't eat it might be less spiritual and more to do with hygiene - eating meat that's been out of any kind of refrigeration for a few days or more and buzzing with flies all being a bit ugh. I asked how much the load of
the man taking a break next to me was - the mix of beer, noodles and other boxes he said came to 80kg. Oh. Its just a whole different level. When not dodging out the way of porters with their heavy loads it was caravans of donkeys and hybrid yaks (above Namche I was assured they'd be pure yak... the combination of size and length of fur apparently being the give away... I had a 50% guess rate), the arrival of which was usually preceded by a shout that sent everyone scrambling to get out of the way or risk being trampled.
After a somewhat misnamed 'rest' day at Namche Bazaar, which saw us doing a couple of acclimatization walks, we started the trek towards the Gokyo valley. The route was stunning, largely following the river albeit with a lot of up and down, so that at times it flowed far below in the valley and at others we had to shout to be heard above it. We passed somewhat surreal waterfalls, where the top layer was a barrier of ice, but you could still hear water flowing behind somewhere. Eagles circled overhead, pine forests were replaced initially by
shorter hardy vegetation before the route became increasingly barren as we climbed higher, strewn with rocks and boulders and not much in the way of plants. Towards the end of the valley we passed the Gokyo Lakes - later in the year they would be a beautiful turquoise color but now they were largely frozen, an expanse of white surrounded by steep slopes that were either dark rock or themselves covered in snow. And it was so quiet it was a bit like walking through a snow globe.
At 4800m the town of Gokyo sits on the edge of the third lake and here we spent two nights.. another 'rest' day! On the 'rest day' we hiked up the valley to the 5th lake which sits at 5100m, detouring via the edge of the glacier on the way. Although a moraine rocky glacier (rather than the pretty icy type) it was still stunning with pockets of icicles overhanging frozen pools, set against a backdrop off snowy mountain peaks rising above us and a little further, the distinctive shape of Everest.
The next day we crossed the glacier to the village of Thaknak, the idea being we'd stay here
and get an early start on the Cho La pass (@5400m) in the morning. From there it was on to Everest base camp. Or at least that was the plan. Over the previous 4 days I'd cycled through phases of food poisoning, nausea, the Khumbu cough (a hacking cough bought on by the cold dry air that meant I seemed to wheeze rather than breathe), and then finally a cold. Having spent the afternoon stuffing myself with hot honey, lemon and any medication I could find, I got up at 5am, had breakfast, waited for the miracle that didn't happen and finally called time on this part of the adventure. Taking the Cho La pass route meant the next village was 7 hours away and it just wasn't worth the health issues. So with my guide and porter refusing to let me carry anything other than my camera we headed back down the Gokyo valley and started to formulate a plan B. Option 1) call the trip to an early halt or Option 2) continue but not above 4000m which seemed to be my comfort level.
We stayed the night in the cute little village of Phortse, at 3840m
which was warm (relatively!), sunny, and with the air less dry and cold my rather evil cough seemed to disappear. It seems I wasn't alone in changing plans either - I met a few people who were having to do the same. The next morning was a lazy start as we were only walking 3 hours to Tenboche, home to the largest monastery in the region. The 3 hours involved descending to the valley some 600m below and then climbing back up again, but actually this was one 'up' I enjoyed - through a forest full of hobbit style low gnarled coiled trees that were lush green and a herd of 25+ blue sheep.... neither blue nor sheep like in appearance they look like antelope and according to my guide I was lucky to see them.
I'd decided to go for Option 2, but that meant navigating a little way along the main base camp trail. Oh my gosh. It was like rush hour on the tube. OK that's slightly harsh, the scenery was lovely but I saw more people in the first hour than I did in 5 days on the trails of the Gokyo valley. It seems
I'm not a crowd person (particularly loud barging ones) when it comes to hiking, and there were times when I was quite tempted to use my hiking pole for other purposes. My guide found my outrage quite hilarious. Khumjung, our destination was only an hour from Namche Bazaar but had a totally different vibe. A pretty, chilled place where it seemed your roof and window frames could be painted any color you liked.... as long as it was green. And it was a quiet place, far less touristy than it's busier neighbor with lots of opportunities to explore and just hang out people watching normal everyday life going on.
From Kumjung we walked further along the valley to Thame, a tiny Sherpa village with a monastery, arriving in time for the start of a Puja, a prayer ritual. No quiet the end I'd expected when I started out on my Everest base camp adventure, but actually as I sat listening to the chanting, a lovely place to finish up. OK there was still the small matter of the trip back down to Lukla, the will/won't the flight take off today lottery and negotiating 'that' runway but this was pretty
much the end of my Nepal adventure.
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