EBC Part 1 – Namaste! – Lukla to Namche Bazaar

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June 14th 2013
Published: June 14th 2013
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“Namaste!” a Sherpa carrying the weight of the world on his back in the form of booze, cleaning goods, and boxes of Snickers, Coke, and juice, all in a woven basket, enthusiastically called as I passed him on the trail. No roads connect the towns along the Everest Base Camp (EBC) trail, thus everything - and I mean everything, like drywall, two-by-fours, and propane tanks – is carried up by Sherpas, donkeys and yaks. The Sherpas, carrying baskets on their backs that can literally weigh over 250 lbs, walk step by slow step, their exhaustion sometimes very apparent, never fail to greet you with all the extra energy they can muster. And why not? We were surrounded by the beauty of the Himalayas. How can you not scream out in joy? “Namaste” is more than a greeting; it is a recognition of the life within each one of us. And in the Himalayas, one is full of life.

“Namaste!” I bellowed the greeting in return like a bad opera singer; the Sherpa and I laughed, but, it was not only to him that I yelled the greeting – it was to the mountains, to the sky, to life. I loved the way they greeted people here: you do not whisper or casually say your “Namaste”; you announce it out to everyone to hear.

We started the trail in Lukla, where we flew in from Kathmandu. The Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla is considered one of the most dangerous airports in the world. At over 9,000 feet, the weather at the airport can change dramatically in a matter of minutes, but that is just the beginning of the extremities. The 1500-foot runway begins, when flying in, at the edge of a mountain that has been carved out, then leads straight into a mountain wall at a 12 degree gradient to slow down landing planes and speed up planes taking off. Thus, when landing, the plane – only one or two engine propeller planes land there - has to have its nose pointed upwards just right in order to essentially “climb” up the runway. There are no chances for another go; the pilot has one chance in landing the plane before either crashing into the edge of the runway or into the wall at the end of it. When taking off, the plane has mountainous terrain all around it, including a straight drop into the valley below. It was daunting; luckily, though, our flight went amazingly well, barring a bit of turbulence during the first half hour; and the landing was spot on.

We exited the plane and immediately saw porters waiting for business. Klaudia and I had argued off and on about whether to hire a porter for a couple weeks – we were still arguing about it when, after retrieving our packs, we’d walked out of the airport and into a bakery to inquire about finding one. We sat down outside in the bakery’s courtyard when Pikay, a Nepali porter, arrived. We were still arguing, but Pikay showed no signs of discomfort as I negotiated a price with him.

How much?” I asked Pikay.

“$16 per day.”

“American dollars? Jeez…” I turned to Klaudia and impatiently asked in Polish, “Do we really need this? Maybe you can lighten your pack?”

“We talked about this 100 times! The decision was made. Why do you always do this? You’re such a hysteric. We already decided that we were going to hire a porter in San Diego.” Her answer was in Polish, but the tone of her voice and body language was universally annoyed. I looked at Pikay - not a flinch.

“I’ll give you $10. You only have to carry 15 kilo. I’ll carry the rest.” I looked at Klaudia: “Are you sure about this? What about your stupid cosmetics? That weighs like 100 lbs. Get rid of that and we can carry our own stuff.”

“Oh… My… God… You know I get altitude sickness. I don’t want to carry my things for 2 weeks. I want to make it to Base Camp. Give me the best chance. I don’t know how we’ll react to this altitude.”

I looked back at Pikay: “Ok? $10?” I was disgruntled, but Pikay still remained all business.

“Sorry, Sir. It get very expensive higher. I pay for hotel too much up higher,” he elucidated. I knew I could get someone for $10-12 a day based on prior research. “So what’s the lowest you can go? You pay for everything yourself: food, hotel, we don’t pay. We pay you per day, you pay for your own expenses. Ok?”

“Yes. $14 is lowest. It not too much. I pay for everything, it expensive high up.”

“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” I remarked to Klaudia, adding, “You know, if the world is ending, I’d like to have you by my side. But before then, it’s just cumbersome to carry all that crap.” She shook her head in utter frustration: “You’re such a hysteric. I almost don’t want to go anywhere with you. And we already agreed to this!”

I had taken her to the limit and decided to cease my nagging before she got on the plane back to Kathmandu. I turned again to Pikay, who was wearing sandals: “Do you have shoes?”

“Yes, yes,” he assured.

“You pay everything yourself. Ok, $14.” I liked his calm demeanor; in fact, I kind of trusted him. Also, by being our porter for a couple weeks, Pikay would actually be able to feed his family for a few months. Anyway, that’s the way I decided to rationalize it to myself. We shook and Pikay left to retrieve his shoes. Gosia had been walking somewhere around town and returned saying she’d met several porters who’d do it for a bit cheaper.

“Yeah, I know. Whatever… I like this guy.”

When he returned, we were off on the trail. Everyone’s moods instantly changed for the better as we were surrounded by the majestic scenery. As we walked the initial part of the trail, I was awestruck.

Personally, it rankles me when someone writes about something as “ineffable”. I understand it as laziness – a cop out - and, although the meanings of words may have slightly differing connotations for each human being, I don’t think anything is truly “ineffable”. There is a word, or string of words, to describe everything, even the fantastical. Now, if someone, on the other hand, decides that they do not want to ascribe words to an empirical event, maintaining that words will somehow cheapen the experience or render it deconstructed, I can get behind that: all I care to say is that I love the mountains and I was in the most beautiful mountains on the planet. I was happy. No other description, to me, is necessary.

We hiked to Monju at about 9,180 ft on our first day and stayed the night there in a cabin-like guesthouse. It was chilly, but the views from our window warmed us. The following day was a steep hike to Namche Bazaar at 11,286 ft. As we entered Sagarmatha National Park, we met a couple who were hiking down. We struck up a conversation with the two of them because the man, who was Mexican, was wearing one of those ornate giant sombreros. We learned that they had fallen ill to altitude sickness and had basically hiked up and down for 5 days around Tengboche, the next town after Namche, in an effort to get over their sickness. The woman had been especially ill with vomiting and some blood when she coughed; but, they stuck it out and ended up making it to EBC and Kala Pattar.

To be honest, speaking retrospectively and as someone who hikes a fair amount, like basically every weekend for a few years, I found the EBC hike to be one of the easiest I’d ever done. I truly believe that if you’re an avid hiker or in respectable shape, you’ll find it to be easy as well. There is one major caveat to this, however - the altitude. One thing the woman had said to us as she fervently explained how her trek had gone was “have respect for the altitude”. We later heard this repeatedly, especially from some professional climbers we’d met - people who have been to the peak of Everest take their time acclimatizing. The interesting irony in this is that, when we saw people being carried to helicopters or back down on horses or donkeys, they were usually in great shape, while we saw plenty of fat Brits and Germans make it. The reason being the speed at which each ascends: the slower you go, the better it is for acclimatization. “Slowly, slowly” was the mantra from the Sherpas; conversely, the guys and gals in great shape, naturally pushing themselves, ascended too quickly, overexerted themselves before they had properly acclimatized, and ended up with water in their lungs – obviously, a serious condition. So, they missed EBC, but did receive a $6,000 helicopter ride to the bottom. In my opinion, rule number one is obtain insurance that covers Acute Mountain Sickness; rule number two is take your time; and taking your time is what makes the trek easy. Now, if you’re already acclimatized, as I was for the Annapurna Circuit, which I did a couple weeks later, go for it, man! You can probably do it in like 5-7 days, there and back.

The trek to Namche includes some intimidating metal suspension bridges across deep valleys and rivers. The first two made Jell-O out of Klaudia’s legs, with the bouncing up and down that occurs as you pass yaks and donkeys between narrowly situated metal cables. But by the third bridge, high above a river, we were practically jumping over the yaks.

Once we’d reached Namche, we stopped at a guesthouse that the couple had recommended. We negotiated our rooms free if we ate at the lodge, a common occurrence along the EBC trail: the guesthouses can make much more money on food, which has to be carried up on the backs of people and yaks, than they can on the rooms, of which there are plenty.

We acquainted ourselves with the proprietors as we sat in the dining area eating momos – dumplings filled with various things like chicken, yak meat, or vegetables, steamed or fried, very reminiscent of pierogi (so we loved them) - listening to the chants of a Buddhist monk who trekked down from Tengboche every month to the guesthouse to pray at a makeshift temple within the lodge the proprietor had built. The proprietor was a devout Buddhist who wanted to hold Pujas within his lodge, and we learned there was to be one the following morning led by the praying monk. We were invited to attend at the dubious time of 6 am; I told him “maybe” as I ordered another Chhaang – a fermented Nepali alcoholic drink made from millet or rice, reminiscent of unfiltered sake. Klaudia and Pikay gave me a bit of the stink eye as I ordered, but the next day was our acclimatization day, so I wasn’t too worried.

We’d inquired about momo recipes, then asked the proprietor if his wife could teach us to make them. The proprietor happily invited us downstairs to the kitchen. As we sat there practicing our dough-folding techniques – which I unfortunately could not master - the proprietor had invited me over to the table: I saw a bottle of Nepali rum in his hand and the monk at his side. I declined and thanked them, explaining that we were doing an acclimatization hike to Hotel Everest View, then to a couple of the neighboring towns at higher altitudes. The monk, already seated, waved me over; the proprietor told me that alcohol was great for acclimatization: “Every sherpa knows this,” he said with conviction. I looked over at Pikay, who shrugged that this was true.

“Well, when will I have a chance to drink with a Buddhist monk?” I asked Klaudia. She shook her head.

“So, I thought monks couldn’t drink,” I commented after the second glass of rum, which we were drinking warm - it wasn’t bad considering the temperature outside.

“He not real monk anymore,” the proprietor answered. He explained further that the Buddhists in Nepal have somewhat of a “once a monk, always a monk” policy. Thus, a monk who leaves the order can still practice the mantras, lead prayers with devotees, and teach the Buddhist religion, but, very importantly, loses the financial support of the monastery.

“This monk,” the proprietor continued, “he fall in love, now has to work. He regret. It very common in Buddhist monastery: monk grow up, teenager, then start drinking ginger tea and get excited for women. Leave monastery. But then has to work – become porter, make money for family. They do not understand work life, only easy monk life. He,” he pointed to the monk, “is lucky because cannot have children.” The monk laughed, nodding his head in affirmation.

“So, now he work and drink. Go home to wife, sometimes come here to pray,” the proprietor concluded.

“Is the Puja still tomorrow at 6 am?” I asked the former monk.

“Ehh… 6:30,” he answered smiling.

“Oh, good. How about 7?” I asked.

“Ok, ok, 7,” he agreed.

We continued to tipple as Klaudia and Gosia went to bed. I asked the monk again if the Puja was at 7; he now thought 8 was better; both I and the proprietor agreed.

Needless to say, I didn’t make the Puja, but I learned the next morning that the neither did the proprietor, nor the monk, who was to lead it. Gosia, who did in fact wake up in time for the Puja at 6 am - not knowing that it had already moved twice, once to 7 am, then to 8 am - informed us the next morning that the poor monk was in the bathroom heaving all morning when she awakened. He didn’t start his prayers till well after 10 am, when I’d risen groggily from bed.

I remained with our plan, however, and we hiked up to Hotel Everest View at 12,720 ft, where we had some great views of Everest in the distance. The best views along the trail though are those of Ama Dablam, quite possibly the most aesthetic peak of the Himalayas. We then visited Khunde and Khumjung, where we visited the Khumjung Hillary School, which was established by Edmund Hillary in 1961. Children from neighboring villages hike hours every day to attend classes. We also visited the Khumjung monastery which is purported to have the scalp of a yeti.

Besides a couple complaints from Klaudia about her knee, we were all feeling great and ready for our hike to Tengboche the next day.

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