The trek begins…
Flying out from Kathmandu on one of the first flights of the day meant delaying breakfast until the group reached Lukla. Therefore after a short walk carrying our main packs up the hill, we stopped at the Khumbu Resort for a quick breakfast and the morning’s brief, including a summary of the trek and an introduction to our assistant guides and porters.
Overall, our return trek to Base Camp would be spread over 13 days, with the entire trek lasting 15 days, starting on Day 2. Yep, I couldn’t help but think back to the days of MTRN4230 – Robotics and the importance of consistent notation and naming conventions when developing the kinematic model of your robot manipulator, particularly when working and sharing information with others!
So for the remainder of this article, I’m going to use the Spong approach and define the origin or 16 April as “Day 0” (day of our group meeting in Kathmandu) and the day of our arrival into Lukla (17 April) as Day 1 of our trek, even though the Intrepid Trip Notes refer to 16 April as Day 1…
In summary, our trip that lay ahead looked like this:
- Day 1: Lukla (2840m) to Phakding (2610m)
- Day 2: Phakding to Namche Bazaar (3440m)
- Day 3: Acclimatisation Day in Namche Bazaar – trek to the Everest Sherpa Resort, Khumjung (3841m)
- Day 4: Namche Bazaar to Phortse (3810m)
- Day 5: Phortse to Dingboche (4380m)
- Day 6: Acclimatisation Day in Dingboche – trek partially up Nangkar Tshang (reaching 4800m)
- Day 7: Dingboche to Lobuche (4910m)
- Day 8: Lobuche to Everest Base Camp, then overnight at Gorak Shep (5140m)
- Day 9: Up Kala Pattar (5545m) then back down to Pheriche (4240m)
- Day 10: Pheriche to Tengboche (3860m)
- Day 11: Tengboche to Bengkar (2630m)
- Day 12: Bengkar to Lukla
- Day 13: Lukla to Kathmandu, weather permitting
For our group of 16 trekkers, we had 7 porters and 4 assistant guides. Though we were introduced to the porters on Day 1, we hardly saw them during the trek as they were far quicker at traversing the terrain, even with up to 35kg on their back!
Our assistant guides for the trek were Nima, Jangbu, Sancha and Tika. Nima, Jangbu and Sancha were all in their mid 20’s and are based in Lukla. Tika was in her early 30’s and travelled from her home town Pokhara to join us in Lukla.
After these introductions, it was through the The National Luminary Pasang Lhamu Memorial Gate, exiting Lukla and onwards to Phakding – a walk of around 9km. As we were descending that day by around 200m, it was a pretty easy introduction to the Himalayas.
Our accommodation that night was at the Snowland Lodge. Complete with a flatscreen TV and Illy espresso coffee, it provided basic but comfortable accommodation- just be weary of the thin plywood walls – you can hear everything!
After settling in around the stove heater with warm cups of tea (the medium pots have a capacity of around 2L… good to share), we watched the ‘mountain movie’, Into Thin Air, based on the book of the same name written by Jon Krakauer about the 1996 tragedy on Mt Everest. The movie however, takes artistic license to new, unforeseen levels and whilst I have not read the book, comments from those in the group who have, were preceded by the words, “What the hell!?”
Tragedy on the mountain
Day 2, April 18th, 7:30am: During breakfast, Bhim informed the group that an avalanche had occurred on the Khumbu Icefall at 6:45am that morning. The full magnitude of the event was at the time still unknown, however it was known that a group of Sherpa’s were in the vicinity of the avalanche when it happened. As a result, we were told to expect a lot of helicopters flying in the region and that when we reached Namche Bazaar that afternoon (home to over 90% of Sherpa’s who guide climbs up Everest), we may see rescue groups and mourning by the locals. After only watching the movie Into Thin Air the previous night, news of this event was somewhat surreal.
After leaving Phakding, we walked along the Dudh Koshi Nadi or Milk River stopping in Bengkar for morning tea and officially entering the Sagarmatha National Park. Continuing further, we stopped beside the river in Monjo for lunch. For me, lunch at Monjo was a turning point in my trek to Base Camp as it was the time and place where I discovered that if you order dal bhaat, you’re offered ‘unlimited’ extra servings for no extra cost! Amazing.
Along the way, we had to pull over to the ‘safe side’ (next to the mountain) to give way to passing livestock. Most of the animals were donkeys and half-cow-half-yaks transporting equipment to Namche. Supposedly, these animals can only effectively operate at lower altitudes. It is only above Namche that you start to see full-yaks, as they are more accustomed working in the higher altitudes.
After several bridge crossings, we approached a set bridges; one of which would be the final bridge before we climbed to reach Namche. Both bridges are safe to use, with the lower bridge being the original. However, the trek proceeding the lower bridge is very narrow and steep. As a result, many animals carrying valuable cargo have been lost in land slides on this lower trail. Therefore a new track leader to the new higher bridge was constructed to reduce the chances of this happening.
After crossing the bridge, it was a 600m climb over 2km to get up to Namche Bazaar. This was definitely the first ‘test’ of the group and many sought comfort in the words of the trek leader when he said that today would be hardest day of the entire trek. I guess the biggest tip to anyone on this day (and the trek in general) is to walk slow and steady. Walk at your own pace and drink plenty of water along the way, using electrolyte flavouring if you have to. At least the weather conditions so far were very comfortable, being not too hot/humid and certainly not too cold or windy. However, the sun is very strong and sunglasses are a must.
Namche Bazaar is the largest town in the Khumbu region with a population of around 1600. In many ways, it’s like another Thamel in the mountains in terms of the large range of supplies being available, as well as an ATM (though in peak periods, it may be out of service). Prices in Namche are expectedly more expensive than in Kathmandu, but certainly not unreasonable. There are a heap of bakeries, cafes and bars as well, though it is generally understood that you consume your main meals at the guest house you are staying at.
Arriving in Namche coincides with the first signs of altitude sickness in some trekkers (even though blood oxygen starts to drop above 2100m). As a result, a pulse oximeter was used by Bhim to track our blood oxygen saturation, starting from the evening of our arrival here. This was done as an attempt to ensure Bhim had an idea of how we were feeling in the higher altitudes, regardless of what we told him through our symptoms chart. Throughout the trek, my reading never fell below 82% and typically rose to around 92% after the acclimatisation days in Namche and later on in Gorak Shep. Bhim did say that he would recommend action be taken if a trekker had a reading of 70% or below.
It was only in Namche did we learn of the full extent of the tragedy on Everest that occurred that morning (via WiFi), with up to 16 Sherpa’s predicted dead (at the time, 12 were confirmed, 4 missing the names of which were released). Many of them were well known to the various guides and staying at the lodge and it was clearly a big loss to the local people of Namche, if not Nepal as a whole. Several people in the group who checked their social media accounts, emails and text messages received messages from their friends and families concerned about our whereabouts – this was certainly breaking news world wide!
However, life in the mountains continued on, with the next day’s Saturday markets still operating even as we witnessed Nepalese soldiers carrying one of the deceased Sherpa’s which had been dropped off via helicopter, through the town on a stretcher to be cremated as we set off for our acclimatisation walk.
Our acclimatisation walk from Namche took us to approximately 3800m ASL, the altitude of Phorste, our next stop. Along the way, we stopped at the Sagarmatha Conservancy for some views of Thamserku and Phakding Danda before continuing on to the Everest Sherpa Resort. From there, we could look down to the Tenzing Norgay Memorial Stupa, along the trail which we would be taking the next day.
Somewhere in between
Days 4-5: Trekking over the next two days from Namche to Dingboche via Phorste resulted in the greatest change of our surroundings so far. Within the first few kilometres out of Namche, we were able to look all the way down the valley and see Everest and Lhotse unobstructed. Again, we were very lucky to have such clear skies that day especially as we were told that rain clouds obstructed the view for the previous Intrepid group.
Though many groups trek to Base Camp via Tengboche, Intrepid chose to go via Phortse on the trek up to avoid us having to travel the exact same route (via Tengboche) on the way back and to provide financial income and thus development to the less travelled areas in the region. This meant taking the route towards Gokyo and crossing the Dudh Koshi Nadi to Phortse.
The ceiling of our guest house in Phortse was decorated with medals, tshirts, certificates and photos. Whilst this doesn’t sound out of the ordinary for guest houses in Nepal, what was amazing was that all of these pool room items were the property of the owner.
The owner of the guest house had in fact been to the summit 7 times and had previously come second in the Tenzing Norgay Everest Marathon, running from Base Camp to Lukla in something like 3.5hrs to take out 2nd place in 2007.
On the day we arrived, he was on his way back from Everest Base Camp after the tragedy that occurred. It turns out that he was part of an expedition group climbing Everest this season and on the morning of April 18 was part of the first Sherpa group to climb the Khumbu Icefall. Fortunately for him, his group was approximately a hour and a half ahead of the main group which was killed by the avalanche. I cannot imagine how he would be feeling, having known all the Sherpa’s who perished, but we did manage to catch up with him when he returned on the morning of our departure. Bhim informed us that he was home for the rest of the season, to clear his mind.
The morning walk out of Phortse was probably the most spectacular morning yet. Again, waking with clear skies, no lasting symptoms of altitude sickness (I woke with a sore throat, but after a teaspoon of honey, it was all gone) and after downing another delicious omelette (you can probably tell I’m easily pleased :P) I was ready to hit the trail.
To me, the sight of being able to look down into a valley, knowing that the bottom is over 1000m below me, yet at the same time looking up at the snow-capped peaks towering over 4000m above us was a very unique experience throughout the day’s trek to Dingboche. Many of these peaks are ‘training peaks’ for those who are attempting to climb Mt Everest, including Ama Dablam. Standing at 6856m, it dominates the right hand view of the trek between Phorste and Dingboche.
The word of the day was definitely ‘polarisation’, that is polarised sunglasses and a polarised filter for your camera to cut out the glare of the Himalayan sun. Whilst both are important for the entire trek, they were particularly ‘the goods’ today as we trekked above the tree line for the first time, with trees noticeably thinning out above 4000m.
Lunch that day was a pretty depressing sight. More than half of the group exhibited symptoms of altitude sickness; fever, headache, blocked nose, runny nose, coughing, sore throat.. you name it and they had it, not to mention a loss in appetite. Luckily I had a bottle of Axe Oil with me which I was happy to share around.
After 8km of hiking and an altitude gain over around 600m, Dingboche could finally be seen in the distance. Again, to those in the group suffering from altitude sickness symptoms, it was probably the most welcome sight in the world.
After resting for an hour, Mark, Jangbu and I went for a short stroll to the stupa on the ridgeline of Nangkar Tshang, just above our guest house. Along the way, we bumped into a group of yaks, including a tiny little calf being herded by it’s mother. It was like they were returning home to Dingboche after a day’s work… From the stupa, we got to have a good look at where we would be trekking the next day for our acclimatisation walk… Whilst short, it was a walk basically straight up Nangkar Tshang until we reached our target altitude of 4800m.
Acclimatising in Dingboche
Day 6: Dingboche, like Namche was also an acclimatisation stop for the trek. With many in the group experiencing the effects of altitude, it was also a much welcomed break from the usual daily trekking schedule. In fact, Bhim made it very clear on our first night that each person should only walk as far as they feel comfortable on the acclimatisation walk.
The walk followed the ridge leading to the top of Nangkar Shang, a small hill standing at 5616m. Our target for the day was around 4800m which meant a 400m gain in altitude above our guest house, spread over a relatively short distance of 2km.
The first stop along the way was the same stupa which Mark, Jangbu and I walked to the previous afternoon. With the sun again out in full glory, we had a spectacular view of the valley in which Dingboche is located, as well as a the route which we would be taking the next day. Just like the old Queensland motto, “Beautiful one day, perfect the next” the Everest Trek was continually getting better and better.
From there, it was up the ridge with many planned stops to allow the group to catch their breath. Upon reaching the rock pointed out by Bhim which marked the final destination, a double check of the altitude with my GPS showed we were at 4785m, 15m short of 4800m which was estimated.
Eager to hit 4800m that day, a small group including Keegan, who was suffering a bad cough the day before, scrambled up the hill to get there. We were all in agreement – the last little scramble was the toughest challenge so far on the trek.
Returning back to the guest house in time for lunch, we pretty much had the afternoon off, free to do anything we like. Whilst a few took the time to write journal entries, read novels or nap, for group of us, out came the deck of cards for some “masalay!” (translates to “bastard”), a Nepalese equivalent to 500. Basically, each person is dealt 5 cards. Going around the table, players must dispose of a card and pick up from the deck until their total sum of the value of their cards is below 10. Players can either drop single cards, or suited pairs/triples/quadruples, but they only have to pick up a single card, whether it be from the deck or from the last card(s) disposed by the previous players. When a player’s total is below 10, they can choose to present them and if no one else has a lower score, they win.
Now I’m sure there’s a more simple way to describe the rules, but it was a really easy game to pick up and provided hours of entertainment for the entire trek. Along with some really cool card tricks by Bhim, the afternoon was a great way to wind down and relax, especially whilst drinking copious cups of honey-lemon tea.
That evening, after dinner and cards in the dimly lit guest house room, I couldn’t help but notice the amount of stars in the sky on my walk back to my room. This was an opportunity too good to miss I thought! So I grabbed my Gorillapod and Mark (he was the only one still awake) from his room to take some photos of the sky. Results are below!
One step closer to Base Camp, one man down
Day 7: The following day, we set off to traverse that incredible looking valley towards Lobuche, our eventual place of departure to reach Everest Base Camp. As close as we may have been, we did suffer a loss in our group today with Danielle being diagnosed with pneumonia and several symptoms of altitude sickness. As a result, she reluctantly received a free helicopter ride back to Kathmandu… to be hospitalised. This event brought home to the rest of the group how real the danger of altitude sickness is. As brave as she was to try and continue on, I think she was even braver to have the will to turn around as the decision was ultimately up to her.
As for the rest of us, it was up the hill and onwards to Lobuche, following the river which would eventually lead to the Khumbu Glacier. The trail was packed full of people and animals travelling in both directions, with bottlenecks forming along the way at the steeper sections.
Just as we approached our guest house in Lobuche, small speckles of snow started to fall which quickly melted due to the relatively warm day time temperatures. However, it was pretty clear that tonight was going to be cold one! After consuming triple servings of dal bhaat for dinner and having no symptoms of altitude sickness apart from a runny nose, I was ready to hit the sack to recharge for the next day.
Like many in the group, I couldn’t believe Everest Base Camp was only one more sleep away…