We meet again.
Almost a year ago I had said adieu to the land of Himalayas – Nepal, after finishing a memorable trek to the Annapurna base camp (ABC) promising to return to this heavenly land again and here I am, touching down in Kathmandu with a much more challenging task in my hand. A destination that doesn’t need any introduction – basecamp of Mt Everest! When the valley of Khumbu that includes the tallest place on earth, was rattled in the disastrous earthquake in the month of April 2015, my cousin Ammu Kannampilly who is working with AFP had got trapped in an avalanche at the base camp where she had trekked all the way for an assignment. After a hard battle, she reached back safely with the help of her sherpa, to the relief of our family. That was my first introduction to this place. It is really weird that the two places that I had chosen in Nepal came to my notice through natural calamities! With ABC struck out from my bucket list at the end of 2016, I knew I would do Everest Base Camp (EBC) trekking at some point in time but never thought so soon.
Mid of 2017 I told my roomie Pranav about the trip and being a travel junkie like me, he immediately jumped into the ship along with our friends Manu, Vikram and Ajin. With the confidence of doing ABC without any guide or porters and most importantly to restrict the total trip cost to a tight budget I preferred to do EBC just the same way as I did ABC but the rest of the group opted for the package tour. Unlike ABC you cannot just start the trekking in a go. There is a very tricky challenge that lies before you even before you start the trekking, that is getting to Lukla – the starting point of the EBC trekking.
Well, there are two options for the travellers, either fly to Lukla in a small aircraft from Kathmandu, a preferred way for most of the trekkers or trek to Lukla itself via Jiri which takes additional 2 days. With a limited number of days in our hand the decision to fly there was made months earlier.
So that brings us to the 24th of October 2017 in Kathmandu domestic airport, five energetic travellers all packed and ready and waiting for the helicopter ride to Namche Bazaar prior to the much awaited journey through the mighty mountains in the Himalayas. Well how did we get there, that’s an interesting story! As per our original itinerary we were supposed to fly to Lukla on 22nd Sunday but the bad weather in Lukla tampered with the schedules of all the flights which made us wait for two days at the airport, a place which by that time looked like an international refugee camp filled with travellers from all across the world lying down in the cramped space. With the days moving ahead without any glimmer of hope for a better climate in Lukla in the upcoming days, we went for the crazy idea of flying directly to Namche Bazar by a helicopter. It wasn’t an easy decision to make considering the economic burden that we will have to go through. Even by considering the refund amount from the Lukla flight, the copter ride will come to around 30,000 INR per person, the total amount which I needed for 2 Himalayan trips in India! But we are already two days behind our schedule and any latency now will jeopardize all our plans to return to India on 4th of Nov. So it comes to this, either take this expensive copter ride and go to the base camp or see Mt.Everest from an aircraft which takes you for the Himalayan tour! Without any doubt, I yielded for the first option with an unpleasant mind. In fact, Ammu told me to book the first flight of the day to Lukla considering the fact that delays are common in the valley and if that happens the chance of you flying on the same day is higher considering the priorities. At least I got that right on the return journey.
When the copter roared to life by putting its engines on, I must say, there was something exciting about it, after all this is the first helicopter ride in my life and that too above the mesmerizing Himalayan valley! Soon the flying machine entered the hilly land passing all the urban terrains of the capital city behind, setting a village as the destination that is right under the nose of the snow capped mighty mountains of the Himalayas.
I cannot wait to see these mountains up so close.
Up front, the narrow runway of the Lukla airport is appearing at a distance. Now I understand why even a hint of clouds could hamper the landing here, the small pocket road in front of my house is bigger than this runway! Dumping some fuel in Lukla in order to fly to the high altitude of Namche, the journey continues above a frosty river and the small villages on the shores of it. One of them could be Monjo. Wait…. How do I remember this place? oh shit! I was supposed to get my trekking permission from there. The recent administrative changes in Khumbu valley have scrapped out the traditional TIMS card for EBC trekking, but it requires the trekking permit and now a new local entry permit (2000 Nepali Rupees) which you should acquire from Monjo. But in all this hurry burry and excitement in the morning, I completely forgot about it and looks like I will have to do a painful walk back and forth to Mojo upon reaching Namche.
The copter took just 10 more minutes to reach Namche Bazar, a distance that we would have covered in 2 days by trekking! Just when I searched my phone to check the reception after getting down in Namche, I noticed that I had left it inside the helicopter, but it was too late and the damage was done. The copter’s wheels were in the air by then. With a shocking heart I watched it flying down to the valley. Things are getting from bad to worse.
“Hello I am Dewan, your guide for EBC trekking”, a short man with a pleasant smile introduced himself. With the three porters Khadka, Asad and Ram, he guided us to a cozy big hotel. Since the TIMS card which their trekking agency proclaimed earlier now being invalid, actually the rest of the group is also facing the same roadblock as mine. “You guys give me your photo and the money, I will go and get the permits from the check post down in Namche. I hope they give it.” Though I insisted that I will go along with him, Dewan went alone and got all the permissions for all of us. Phew… one thing sorted out. As per our original plan, this is our acclimatization day. To make things riskier we actually jumped from a relatively low height of Kathmandu up to 3400 meters of Namche all of a sudden. The chance of getting acute mountain sickness is very high now. So taking a Diamox pill, we all went for a short trek up to the top of the village under the guidance of porter Khadka to make our body familiarize with the high altitude.
Back in the dining hall at night, a large European group is celebrating their successful trip to EBC with a Pakistani friend of theirs, Ahamed Javed, who introduces himself as AJ. “You got to do Kala Pathar; the best view is from the top of it. EBC is to cross your checklist.” AJ says. I hope we do…
Off we go – Day 1 (Namche Bazar to Tengboche)
It starts today, finally… Pulling up the new kneecaps, which I was eager to wear for a very long time, I went down to the dining hall. But when the individuals take their own time to get ready, it collectively affects the group and Dewan didn’t hide his displeasure. Soon, like the rats coming out of the holes hearing the Pied Piper of Hamelin’s music, the trekkers come out of their hotel rooms and form a big line behind their guides. And thus begins the journey of the adrenaline junkies coming from all over the world to the mountains at the far end of a path which goes up and down through the forests, rivers and rocks. Well, technically we could be the only group starting their trekking today, for the others, it could be their third day already.
The first steps of the day are the hardest part for me always, the usual steep steps you encounter while leaving a village make sure of that. The bustling village of Namche Bazaar has shrunk to fit into a single frame. Shortly afterward, one line branches off from us and follows a much higher trail. Wonder where that leads to, are there multiple ways to reach Tengboche? Khadka, the oldest among the porters, is just behind me probably wondering why I alone chose to carry my own luggage, a thought that makes him a little sympathetic towards me. ”Teek hei?”(you all right) “Yah I’m fine.” “Acha” grimes Khadka. That little conversation is more than enough to realize how drunk he is. The stink that comes out of his mouth makes even me drunk!
We all started trekking together in the morning but soon the individuals started picking up their own speed and style. I am in the middle followed by Ajin and Pranav. Manu and Vikram are leading the line with Dewan. The famous twin bridges of Namche Bazaar are hanging in the distance all deserted. It is too soon for the people who stay down in Namche to cross them. From the scenery in front of us, I can make out that it is going to be a sea of snowcapped mountains greeting us till the Everest base camp. It is good to have them for the company on the way, though it’s a shame that I don’t know any of these mountain’s name apart from the beautiful Ama Dablam (6,812 m) watching us from a distance on the right side. This charming peak is so familiar to me thanks to the countless mountain loving Instagram people I follow.
Down there a small but clean stream is flowing like mad cutting the sierra into two on its way. The locals call her Dhudh Kosi or the ‘Milky River‘ due to the white frost which it carries. But aren’t all the streams in these highlands like this? The relatively easy trail is going down now probably for a river crossing and I wasn’t wrong. The first of our many river crossings.
“This zig zag climb will take you to Tengboche” Dewan sheds his knowledge before heading fast with Vikram. While walking through the shaded path created by the rhododendron trees, the air is cold but a little colder than what we wanted, due to the breeze coming through the narrow ravine. Good thing we are climbing up. “Acha he? Teek hota he” This is the thousandth time Khadka is asking me the same question. Everyone else who had started from Namche might have crossed us except for the sole Jewish fellow. With the help of his app Wikidoc he predicts Tengboche is just a half kilometer away. With that motivation I climbed the last push to reach the beautiful village of Tengboche (3,860 m) on top of the hill.
The small hotels behind the old Monastery at Tengboche clearly lack the comforts of those in Namche but from here onwards, this is all we are going to get. At least the heat coming from the wooden fireplace in the dining hall is warm enough to make us relax in this frosty evening.
The clouds are conquering the mountains and the valley. Everyone prefers to sit and warm themselves in the dining hall instead of taking a cold walk to the Monastery – bar me. The thick mist is suffocating the small village of Tengboche as I enter the very old Monastery. The prayers are nearing its final stage but to enter the prayer hall I need to remove the shoes. Spirituality can wait; I give preference to my body comforts. Ajin just came for a quick look of the Monastery before the monks head out for the break. Seeing a couple of Indians out here delights the monks very much for reasons I can imagine. India’s stand with Tibet has been always very good, making the tensions with China even worse.
Back in the inn the tiny wooden cabin which we got doesn’t have much space to put our entire luggage but helps to maintain the heat inside. Outside, the mist is getting thicker and thicker, finally blocking down the rays of the sodium lights coming from the hotel buildings. No starry sky today as well. It wasn’t an eventful day but a satisfactory one.
The first meeting – Day 2 (Tengboche to Dingboche)
The Diamox I took after dinner made me go to the toilet at night a couple of times already. At 4 in the morning I got up again. That faint light coming through the toilet ventilator is not from any electric light for sure. Yes, it’s the stars at last!
A moment later I was standing outside on the lawn holding my camera in the freezing cold. As my pupils widen, the dark sky reveals our galaxy Milky Way slowly. I have my own measures to calculate the visibility of the Milky Way. In the clear starry sky up here in the mountains the Orion belt (which is easily identifiable even from the light polluted areas) will be difficult to find, as it lies among thousands of other shining stars. But today the Orion belt is clearly visible, the result of an abated Milky Way. Good thing that the camera can see more light than me. The lights of the Monastery have been turned on and the morning prayers will begin soon. I need to sleep for some more time before our day officially starts.
“You want to see Everest? It’s there”… I gulped some of the toothpaste hearing what Dewan said during my morning choirs. Behind the toilet a big massif is standing tall, far far away with a white cap of snow. “The right one is Lohtse and the one who peaks from its left side is the top of the Everest”.
Surely this is not the most spectacular visual that I have seen in my life but the emotions are more overwhelming than ever before. What lies out there is the tallest mountain in the world!!!! It is to the other mountains, what Mona Lisa is to the rest of the paintings…… the vanity, thrill and inspiration. Some places on earth feel fictional even when they are real and in front of you a blink of an eye away. We will be reaching near her soon…
All the dramatic descriptions cannot be converted to physical means; the reality is that it is an awfully long distance to cover in these days…
Dewan is delighted to see us all assembled in the dining hall at the right time unlike yesterday. The expensive English breakfast is delicious and may be good enough to keep our stomach filled till lunch as well but will dry up our pockets soon so the pack to the minimal food from now on has been voted without any objections.
The morning frost had made the land all muddy making the steep climb down from Tengboche very difficult. The path leads us to a hanging bridge to cross the canal looking like a narrow ravine. In the enthusiasm of taking photos from the top of the bridge with mountains in the background, Pranav totally forgets about his fear of height. Seems selfies are the best medicine for some psychological problems!
Every step here is monitored by the giant Lohtse at the far end of our sight. Reminds me of one thing…….. when you are standing next to your sibling who is the tallest among all, nobody cares how tall you are! Lhotse (8,516 m), the fourth highest mountain in the world, never gets the fame it deserves. In the presence of the mighty Mt. Everest right next to it, this can hardly be blamed.
Goodbye to these forested lower areas; we are entering into the land of alpine scrubs now. Rhododendron trees in the Sagaramatha National Forest had already shed their flowers for the arrival of the winter which is just around the corner.
Like the previous day it is Ama Dablam which dominates the landscape on the way. This is not the right moment to absorb her beauty as the scorching rays of noon reflecting back from the ice glaciers on the top, makes it hard to get a good look at it. Back in the days, the tall peak with long ridges on its either sides had reminded someone of Ama (mother) and the ice on top of it as Dablam (necklace). Mothers’ necklace – couldn’t coin a better name.
The heavy lunch from the small village Somare had an adverse effect on all of our trekking speed but it gave us the much needed time to enjoy the mesmerizing beauty of Ama Dablam who looks much more beautiful in the shaded light formed by the clouds. “That small bridge down there takes you to Ama Dablam’s base camp. Maybe you can do it next time.” Dewan has noticed my curiosity about the various trails out here. Some 20 years before, there was a big avalanche which happened near the base camp killing several climbers and sherpas.
All the greenish trees and plants are left behind us leaving just the barren land and bushes to decorate the path. Slowly we are entering the real mountain world where vegetation and wildlife cannot survive. The trail has some occasional ascends but still it is easy compared to that of the first half of the day. Having said that, I will be the happiest person to reach the destination faster. A route branches off to Periche from that of Dingboche, past that it is the last river crossing of the day in front of us. We will be staying in Periche on the way back from EBC. Not today.
Forget Ama Dablam, it is the view of the village Dingboche(4,410 m) which is the most beautiful thing that I have seen today and my tiredness is the sole reason for that! Surely this must be the biggest village after Namche Bazaar on EBC trail. Considering the fact that all the trekkers have to spend two nights here including the much needed acclimatization day, it is hardly a surprise. Through the glass window of our hotel dining hall, I saw the disappointing view of the arrival of the mist to spoil the evening. Will there be a clear sky in the evening during our trekking at all? The view of Lohtse is very much relaxing and alarming at the same time. Did that massif start walking away from us when we tried to reach near it? Seriously how much distance have we covered in all? It is standing there at the exact point where I saw it from Tengboche in the morning. Sighhh……. The window is closed for today’s sightseeing; clouds finally won the battle for Dingboche.
As per the advice of the old Israeli guy of our hotel, I purchased the ‘Everest Link’ Wi-Fi card for Rs 600. It gives you 200MB of data with unlimited validity with very reliable speed. May come in handy in the other villages as well. Unlike in ABC route, the room rate across the villages en route to EBC is not the same. Yesterday in Tengboche the Rs 200 of Namche had increased to Rs 300 and it seems it’s the same here in Dingboche also. After having dinner everyone gets engaged in different activities as the cold weather grips the hills; it’s colder than the previous days. Manu immerses himself in fiction that he has been keeping on reading from the Bangalore airport, Vikram & Pranav are busy with their cell phones and Ajin keeps going and coming back into the room for one reason or another. Anyway his latest visit gives me the valuable information I was longing to hear, a clear sky. At last…It is time to use the heavy jacket that I have been carrying all this time!
The stars are shining so bright but so does the Orion belt. The Milky Way is directly above the Everest – Lohtse massif but it lacks visibility as one reaches near it, even for my camera. Or is it because I’m still very much amateurish when it comes to night photography? It has really been a hobby for me recently but surely I need some expert advice on it and some good equipment. I asked everyone to join outside to enjoy the night sky…. after all, this is the first clear evening that we’ve got so far. But only Ajin showed interest. Different people different taste.
“Awww what was that, something whoosh past there in the sky!!!”
“Relax; it’s just a shooting star. You will see plenty of them” I tried to show off my knowledge about the sky to Ajin. It hasn’t been a month since the annual Orion belt shower occurred. Only if I had timed the trip accordingly I could have witnessed that spectacular night show provided by the asteroids. The snow cap of Ama Dablam shines like a polished pearl in the moonlight. So that’s why Milky Way looks so dull, the full moon’s presence is overshadowing all the stars or shall I say over lighting? Pranav went back to the room after seeing a glimpse of the night sky followed by Ajin. Soon I followed them calling it a day.
The lazy day – Day 3 (Acclimatization day)
Today is the much needed acclimatization day, but it doesn’t mean that we can take rest. A small hike to the peak near the village is required as part of the acclimatization. It is the turn of porter Azad to lead us. Apart from Khadka I see the other two porters only before the starting of the trek and in the evening, as they always do their ‘Nepali walk’ and reach the destination well before us to book the hotel rooms, but today Azad has to adjust to our snail speed. The even ascent till near the Buddha stupa where it branches off with the trail to Lobuche is relatively easy. Tomorrow we have to trek all this way again. The Buddhist flag on the midway of the hill is the destination and by the look from down here that seems not very challenging. But my assumption was completely wrong. After every 5 minutes I looked up above only to realize that the flag hadn’t moved an inch. The 200 meters steep climb drained out all our energy and the water we carried.
There is no noise in the air apart from our prattling and the occasional breeze blowing from the south of the valley. This would have been a perfect moment for me to get engrossed in my own thoughts; only if this wasn’t a big group. Mountains are enjoying a rare cloud free day today, including the unnoticed peak Tabouche (6,367 m) standing on the east of Ama Dablam. During yesterday’s journey here I never turned my attention in her direction….how far stretched her ridges are………till the eyes can see on the far end. Like a flock of sheep obediently following its shepherd, some trekkers have started their long journey to Lobuche behind their guide, passing the stupa. Tomorrow we shall do the same.
Back in the hotel room everyone shares their difficulties of getting sleep last night. So far no such worries for me. The Diamox tablet we take daily clearly helps and on top of that I never stopped drinking water. Finishing a bottle of water through the night has been my routine. But the real surprise is that this long walk in the past couple of days with the heavy luggage on my back had not put a single muscle in my body in pain. For me three things made all the difference – the absence of steps, expensive but proper trekking shoes and the kneecaps.
There is a change of plans for tomorrow. As per our original itinerary we are supposed to stay at the village Dughla (Tukla) and proceed to Lobuche the next day. But Dewan suggests that this journey can be merged to a single day, so be it.
The souls in the Valley – Day 4 (Dingboche to Lobuche)
Lobuche is at 4950 meters high. Assuming that I reach there by evening, it will become the highest trail that I ever walked. The scenes from yesterday’s Buddha stupa are pleasant to my eyes and legs, a flat barren land till the end of the path protected with a crag separating that from the wide stretched Tabouche peak. Flowing in between this narrow gorge, the stream Imja Khola the tributary of the river Dudh Kosi still managed to give a little space for the village Periche. People who opted to stay there instead of Dingboche have also started their journey to the common destination.
“I have climbed that peak two years before”, says proud Dewan pointing to the Island peak (6,189 m) near Lhotse before it disappears behind from our sight. Someday I will also do mountaineering like he did. But first Lobuche! The sterile land looks so flat on the front but when I look back I can see how much of height we have climbed up. Yak herds are constantly overtaking us even with the heavy luggage which they carry; the unappreciated hard workers of the valley. The trail from Periche finally merges with ours just near the river crossing behind the village of Dughla. This windy place at the nose of the valley serves as the sole option for the travelers en route to Lobuche.
There is no time to relax after lunch. What awaits us is the steepest climb that I have seen so far, at the end of it the climbing trekkers shrink to the size of dots. Oh dear…. yaks, take me there! With the power of Dhal Bhat, Manu and Vikram are in competition with each other to be the first conqueror. I am in the middle as always…….. only this time trying not to look above to avoid the disappointing view of the climb. But what strikes me is that the view I see behind me is the most mysteriously attractive scene in my life. It’s the same old mountain Ama Dablam which I’ve been seeing for the past few days but a thousand times more alluring. Like the blinkers of a horse, the peaks Tabouche and Nagkar Tshang standing on both sides of me, haul all my attention to Ama Dablam. This is the perfect spot to absorb her elegance and character. In a way, her unique isolated position helps to feel her presence more. No wonder the traveling photographers make a great deal out of it. The clouds have started their journey from down the valley but they are yet to cover its beauty.
With the final push we entered the top of that climb. What we have reached is the Everest Memorial Site, a sacred land covered with stone temples dedicated to the brave souls who lost their lives on their journey to the top of the world – Mt.Everest (8,848 m). One among them is dedicated to the great mountaineer Scott Fischer, who died in the blizzard of 1996 along with Rob Hall, a story familiar to most of us through the movie ‘Everest’. Prayer flags hanging between the temples fly hard in the wind, helping to carry the prayers of their loved ones inscribed on them through the valley. This is where the souls in the valley rest.
Thanks to the climb that takes one’s breath away, I and Pranav sat there waiting for Ajin without saying much…… perfectly suiting the situation.
The path to Lobuche takes a sharp right turn here closing down the view to the valley due to high mountains and we also parted ways with Ama Dablam. We were under her guidance all this time right from Namche Bazaar but now it is time to make some new friends. We will meet again in two days and by then I hope I have the overwhelming feeling of visiting the Everest base camp! A rocky yet flat path in the narrow gorge formed between the peaks of Lobuche (6145 meters) and Nagkar Tshang is a reward for our hectic climb from Dughla but the mother nature doesn’t want to make it easy as it unleashes layers upon layers of mist to cover everything. The wind whooshing through the cramped space carries some white dust like particles in the air. Oh no, I know where is this going…