In the land of the sherpas – Thadekoshi to NamcheBazaar

Lukla to Thadekoshi

Up the slopes, Tengboche and Dingboche

2nd May, 2016

We woke up to a bright morning with clear skies. While looking around, my eyes were attracted to a snow peak strutting beyond the hills behind the lodge. The first sight of snow is always exciting on a trip. Over the days to come, we’d get only closer to them and everything will fall in place. “Kusum Kangru” – someone replied to my query about its name. We couldn’t feel it was this close the day before, thanks to the clouds. People gradually strode out of their rooms with toothbrushes. By the looks, Ranjan da appeared better. Rest of them also seemed to have gotten over the miss-adventure of Roxy (the local brew). At breakfast though, it was obvious that Ranjan da’s appetite hasn’t quite returned. We urged him to force down slices of bread and jam along with tea. That was critical, more so because he was on medication. We geared up with our backpacks and sticks for a long day’s walk. As we moved up from the hotel premises, the trail zig-zagged through a forest with birds chirping around to welcome the morning. Ranjan da trained his 600 mm lens on the bushes & hills for bird sightings. A good sign. At least his focus was now on something what we had come for, rather than his ailment. After a walk of about 20 minutes, we reached Phakding and met with our porters who reached there the day before. After a small break to have some tea & juice, we resumed our journey. As we moved around a bend, the valley suddenly opened up and we could see wide swathes of it along with the river Dudhkoshi flowing though it glittering in the morning rays of sun.

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Phakding

Many lodges spread out along both the banks of the river connected by a suspension iron bridge (the 2nd of the route). The bridge was strong enough, but it swayed a lot as people walked over it. As we reached the middle of it, it offered a spectacular sight of the roaring Dudhkoshi flowing beneath. I tried to take some snaps but the lateral movement triggered by footsteps of people & yaks crossing over it, gave me little comfort. I hurried with the snaps and tried to cross over as quickly as I could. There were 4-5 more such bridges in the entire route, but I never quite got comfortable with them. Our trail passed through Sherpa villages and barley fields. Time and again, we came across Mani stones (boulders with Tibetan mantras scripted over them). We had to cross them keeping them on our right keeping with the Sherpa custom. The route often led us to a series of steps, which we had to ascend – an indication that we were gaining height. Finally, we reached the entrance gate of Sagarmatha National Park at Jorsalle. We had to wait for guide Raju to come along who was giving company to our members at the rear. Clouds were gathering gradually and the bright morning gave way to a gloomy afternoon. After the formalities at the gate (checking of our trekking cards, paying fees etc.), we formally entered into the territory of Everest (Sagarmatha, as it is known in Nepal). While we were waiting at the gate, Ranjan da’s face looked tired. We knew, beyond this gate, we would need to descend for some time to reach the lodges of Jorsalle, have our lunch and post that, there was the steep climb to Namche. The climb started to play on his mind. At the lunch table, he was reluctant to eat and we forced him to gulp down as much as he could. Another chat over phone with Snehasis did some good and he seemed to garner some strength.

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After lunch, we resumed walking amidst a slight drizzle. We crossed another suspension bridge (4th of the day) to come down on the banks of the river. Hills rose one after another up the river gorge with two more suspension bridges up there. Double Decker bridges (as they are commonly called) appeared in front of us. We had to cross the upper one to get to the other bank of Dudhkoshi. Namche, as Raju told us, was nestled behind the topmost hill that was in front of us. It was literally an uphill task. The route gradually climbed to the base of the bridge where we gave a halt. We watched people crossing the bridge from the other side. One of them, a middle-aged Japanese man, crossed over. His steps were tired and while walking, suddenly, one of his shoes skid off the edge. Within moments he slid down the slope. Fortunately, his slide was arrested when his body came to rest at a gap between a few rocks. His head could have easily smashed against rocks protruding out of the slopes. A Sherpa guide quickly moved down the slopes and bailed him out of trouble. While it took me sometime to describe these incidents, it all happened within a matter of few seconds. As the guide rescued him, all of us who were there, breathed a sigh of relief. It reminded how close we were on the edge and what was at stake!

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En-route Namche Bazaar

After crossing over, the trail climbed up the slopes. A young Japanese couple were climbing the slopes with us. They would often overtake me and later at some bend, I’d come across them resting with the man smoking a few puffs. They appeared so healthy & I wondered why can’t people enjoy & nurture the gift of nature, their own health, but destroy it with smoking. Niladri and Dhananjoy were ahead, while Ranjan da and Siddhartha da were at the rear with Raju accompanying them. As we gained height, our walks were interspersed with increasing halts, a few more breaths, followed by steps – a pattern that would repeat for rest of the day till Namche. I saw at least 3-4 persons walking besides each other, a few meters ahead of me. A strange sight in the mountains. All of them took a couple of steps, stopped and then moved again. The group was moving at snail’s pace. Reaching closer, I found that the man in the middle was an obese person (weighing at least 150 kg). His physique suggested that even in the plains, he couldn’t move along seamlessly without help and up here, it was a daunting ask. Two Sherpa guides were almost dragging him. Regardless of how impractical it was, I had to admire the spirit of the person to even dream about walking on this trail and here he was, prodding ahead (though with assistance from guides). Their aim was to get as far as they could. A few bends later, we arrived at a place that displayed a map of Namche Bazaar. At last, we were there. Our lodge was still a few meters up the hill, but at least we had reached within the bounds of Namche. I waited there for a while for Ranjan da and Sidhhartha da to appear, while Niladri and Dhananjoy went ahead. After waiting for long, Raju appeared from the bend down under and said that Ranjan da was just round the corner. When his figure finally appeared, I gave a thumbs up to which he responded. It was a feat achieved by him indeed, considering his state. We ascended some more steps to reach our lodge Hil-Ten, not a miss-spelled version of Hilton, but named after Hillary (Hil) and Tenzing (Ten).

The dining room of the hotel had a cozy atmosphere. A couple of electric heaters provided the much-needed warmth. Buzzing with trekkers from all corners of the world and their guides, it could easily qualify as a United Nations fair. After gaining approximately 800 m in altitude in a single day, saying that we were all tired, was an understatement. We didn’t even have enough energy to carry our backpacks to our allotted rooms. We occupied a table, while Ranjan da went to his room for some sleep. Though he garnered enough strength to come up here, his hasn’t fully recovered. At the same time, it’s important to keep one’s body active enough to keep high altitude sickness at bay. Some of us ordered honey lemon ginger tea (a pattern that would repeat for the trek from there on), rest made themselves comfortable with coffee. Walls of the dining room were studded with pictures of magnificent peaks of the Everest and Annapurna regions. Almost every lodge and shop in this route has a picture with panoramic view of the peaks from Kalapathhar including the full view of the Khumbu glacier. Then there was Ama Dablam, the pointed peak admired by Sir Edmund Hillary as one of the most beautiful in the world. Suddenly, one of the pictures caught our attention. It was a summit pose of a few mountaineers from a successful Everest expedition in 2008. One of the faces bore a striking similarity with the owner of the lodge. Yes, he was indeed the man in the picture. He has been part of many expeditions to different peaks of Nepal till he realized that the risk involved far outweighed the financial gains.

At dinner, we talked about our plans for the next day, which was an acclimatization day. We will walk up to the Everest View hotel (about 400 m above the place where we were staying) and return. My preference was to do the hike after lunch so that we could be there right in time for a sunset view, but I had to abandon the idea as weather normally turns worse in the afternoon. We went to bed. I thought it was just a matter of getting to bed and tiredness would take care of the rest. But it proved quite contrary to that. In spite of tossing around in the bed, sleep eluded me. Probably, altitude (and hence, less oxygen) had a part to play. A bell in a nearby monastery rang every hour keeping us informed about the hour of the night.

3rd May, 2016 – Namche Bazaar

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Namche Bazaar

The sky was crystal clear with a bright view of Kusum Kangroo right in front of us. At the breakfast table, our eyes got stuck on “Everest Base Camp Trekkers’ breakfast” on the menu.

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Breakfast – Namche Bazaar

It included slices of bread, French fries, scrambled/boiled egg, honey, porridge and fruit juice. It was more than heavy for a single person and when I took a sip of orange juice, I was surprised to find that it was served hot! The first place in this world where I found it to be so. The walk started with a gentle climb to a junction where there were two sign boards. One pointed towards Tengboche/Gokyo (our destination for the next day) and another pointed upwards and read “Khumjung/Khunde”. The day’s plan included a visit to Khumjung monastery where it is claimed to have a Yeti skull.

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We plodded upwards gradually till we reached a point from where entire Namche bazaar town appeared like a slanted bowl dotted with lodges, houses and monasteries interspersed with zigzagged lanes. At the far end of the hill on the opposite side, there was a helipad. As we gained height, the surrounding hills with forests gave way to barren rocks till the snow peaks started to appear from behind. As if curtains were being taken off in phases revealing new scenes of a play. After a couple of hours, we reached a point from where one could see a 180-degree view of the Himalayan peaks of the Everest region. Out of them, I could easily recognize Mt Ama Dablam (thanks to the pictures on internet) and Thamserku but there were many more familiar shapes which I couldn’t recollect.

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Mt Ama Dablam

Suddenly, our eyes were fixed on a small cone that was visible just enough beyond the ridge that connected the peaks in front. Its shape was unmistakable and it was indeed, the lord himself. Mt Everest, peeping from behind the Nuptse wall. No matter how small it appeared or to what extent it appeared dwarfed by the mountains in front, it was, nevertheless, our first view of Mt Everest! One of the primary reasons for which we’re here. The next few days will take us closer to it. We all were thrilled. Thoughts ran through my mind. The objective of so many failed expeditions, broken hopes, successes, failures, triumph and despair, lay before us. Was that the mountain whose slopes are dotted by footsteps of the likes of Hillary, Tenzing, Hornbein and Messner?

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Mt Everest

It appeared so quiet and serene. Everest hotel was still about a km walk and a gradual trail took us there. It’s a lavish hotel with great views of Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse, Ama Dablam, Thamserku and other peaks of the Everest region. We sat for a cup of tea at the hotel’s balcony. Few of us were prompt to share the pictures via WhatsApp to our loved ones at home.

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En route Everest view hotel

After tea and our first date with Chomolungma (as Everest is referred to by the Tibetans), we reached Khumjung, in a wide valley dotted with houses & lodges, surrounded by barley fields. We gradually descended into the valley, walked past the fences of the fields & reached a lodge. By that time, a slight drizzle started. Dining places of every lodge on this route bore a similar structure. It has a square room lined by tables around its corners. The center of it has a chimney with its outlet going beyond roof top. In the evening, dried yak dung pellets are burnt to generate warmth. After lunch and a short visit to the Khumjung monastery, we strayed down the paths between the fields. We came across a broken stupa (a remnant of the devastating earthquake) and a school. Kids were rendering prayers. The school was established by Sir Edmund Hillary – one of many such institutions that he built or helped build in the Solu Khumbu region. The route gradually moved up and we reached a green meadow amidst the surrounding hills. Yaks grazed around amidst lush green fields.

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Grazing yaks – Khumjung

Clouds started closing in and light snowfall started. Just before he was about to reach the lodge, Dhananjoy slipped on a rock and sprained one of his knees. Not a very good way to end a day which was otherwise very rewarding. I gave him a pain-killer and he applied some medicated sprays. As we entered the beds, his injury gave some tense moments thinking about the next day’s trail that would take us to Tengboche.

Lukla to Thadekoshi

Up the slopes, Tengboche and Dingboche

In the land of the Sherpas – Lukla to Thadekoshi

Kathmandu

Thadekoshi to NamcheBazaar

1st May, 2016

We woke up in the morning, had our bath (for the last time before next 13-14 days) and descended to the hotel lounge for breakfast. Our flight was at 9 AM. Raju came in and we headed off for the airport after keeping the baggage deemed extra at the hotel’s locker room. The cab sneaked through the, now familiar, streets of Kathmandu, around the parks, the boundaries of Pashupatinath temple to arrive at the domestic terminal of Tribhuvan International Airport. The word “Domestic Terminal” was a misnomer. The place was crowded with people and their luggage dumped across the floor. Makeshift check in counters for different airlines resembled book stalls more than anything else. Flights destined for different places of Nepal (Jomsom, Pokhara, Lukla, Viratnagar etc.) were listed on a board. We headed towards one of the desks that read “Tara Air”. After the guy at the desk checked the tickets, we submitted our baggage and were given a hand written boarding pass bearing the flight number. The words “computer” and “print” seemed out of the world at this place. There was no mention of seat numbers as passengers were expected to occupy any seat which they deemed fit.

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Kathmandu airport

Our ears were tied to the announcements and we yearned to hear the words “Tara Air” and “Lukla”. It was already well past 9 AM (the slated time for departure). When asked, Raju said, our turn was yet to come. Perplexed by that answer, I asked how can it be? The reply from Raju and answers from a few others waiting at the lounge, made it clear that all the times mentioned for this route are “potential” and everything gets determined at run-time based on actual departures and takeoffs. An inquiry at the desk revealed, weather at Lukla was clear and the delay was mainly due to air traffic. We met a family from Hyderabad, husband, wife and their 7-year-old kid who were going for Everest Base Camp. They had done Annapurna circuit trekking earlier. Though it was a departure lounge of a domestic terminal, but it had passengers from all over the world, most of them destined for Lukla. No wonder, the Everest Base Camp trail is called the trekking highway of the world. Our time came at 10.40 AM. We were about to cross our first hurdle – i.e. to board a Kathmandu-Lukla flight as planned (may be not exactly on time, but nevertheless, the same day and with enough time for us to reach Phakding the same day – which in itself was a big deal considering the circumstances that prevail on this route). I started getting goosebumps as a bus took us to the aircraft. It was a small 25 seater. We could identify and count our bags as the luggage was getting loaded to the belly of the carrier. The interior was just tall and wide enough for a single person to bend his/her way to the seat. We were handed over a leaflet carrying safety instructions and a pair of cotton pads to stash in our ears. Seeing the leaflet, another passenger mused “We’re supposed to read it! eh?” After we all settled in, the pilots took their seats (the cockpit with all its apparatus and the front window pane was visible to all of us who were seated in front rows). As the aircraft taxied around for some time, the sound of its engine amplified till it reached a head-splitting roar just as it took off.

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It sailed over the hills surrounding Kathmandu. Clouds floated over the cultivated fields, houses and nearby forests. As we soared above successive valleys nestled in the ever-increasing heights of the mountains, the river DoodhKoshi appeared as a strip of silk, meandering through the gorges. It would be our companion for the majority of our trail from Lukla.

At 2845 m, the Lukla airstrip is the starting point for the trek to Everest Base Camp. Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the first ascendants of Mt Everest and a highly revered figure in the Solu-Khumbu region because of his contributions towards improving the life of this region and the Sherpa community, was the primary person responsible for this airport becoming a reality. Hillary devoted majority of his life in helping the Sherpa community. He even lost his wife in an air crash in this region. He founded the Himalayan Trust, which is responsible for building numerous schools and hospitals in the region. It was the construction of these, that required huge amounts of raw materials to be ferried from lowlands and plains of Nepal to the remote villages high up in the Khumbu region. As a part of that effort, Hillary and his team of extremely hard-working sherpas built this air strip to help ferrying the loads, which, otherwise had to be transported by porters and yaks that took weeks to reach their destination. After completion, it was handed over to the Nepal Government. It was renamed to Tenzing-Hillary airport in January 2008 to honor the first climbers of the peak and also for their efforts behind construction of this airport. Today, a flight to this airstrip will take out 2 weeks of arduous trek, which was the norm in the initial days of Everest expeditions. In a program called “Most Extreme Airports” aired on the History Channel in 2010, Lukla was rated as the most dangerous in the world. The flight to Lukla from Kathmandu is not more than 25-30 minutes under normal circumstances. However, its highly probable that while Kathmandu bathes in bright sunshine, Lukla gets lashed by rains. High velocity winds, cloud cover and changing visibility often results in delays and cancellation of flights. Such delays can extend up to weeks. In its current form, the airport’s runway is 527 m long with a 11.7% gradient. It is accessible to helicopters and small, fixed wing, short takeoff and landing aircrafts. There is a high terrain to the immediate north of the runway and a steep drop at the southern end into the valley below. What it means for the pilot is, he has to apply the brakes immediately as the aircraft touches the southern end of the runway so that it slows down just enough to take a right turn to avoid crashing into the high terrain in the north. There have been many accidents during landing or takeoff at the Lukla runway with luck residing with passengers and crews on some occasions, while nature claiming its forfeit on others.

Suddenly, there was some urgency among the passengers seated in front and the buzz seemed to suggest that we were about to land. Looking through the front window pane, I still saw high hills surrounded in part by clouds with no signs of the runway. People started training their lenses. That’s when I saw a faint image of a straight line which gradually increased in length and width till I got a clear view of the asphalt runway with its markings clear enough, nestled among the high hills. As the aircraft approached the runway, one of the pilots had his hand on the handle that dangled from the ceiling of cockpit and just as the aircraft touched the southern end, he pulled it. It was just enough to allow the aircraft to take a right turn and come to a halt. All of the passengers clapped after the successful landing!

The small air strip was a treat to watch. With mountains surrounding it on all sides, there were lodges right beside the runway. The departure lounge (if you may call it so!) was just a small room. We collected the baggage and headed out of the airport. As we strode down a small alley dotted by lodges, Lukla was buzzing with mountaineers and trekkers from different expeditions. All freshly arrived, were either heading off straight away on the trail or having their lunch. It is a crowded place with lots of pubs (including one bearing the name “Mallory Irvine pub”). We went to a lodge and ordered lunch while guide Raju went out scouring for porters. As we sat around a table in the lawn after lunch, two porters arrived. Passang and Doranath, who were to be our companions from now on, were young and jovial. Doranath was youngest of the two, just done with his class X exams, was out in search of work in this trekking season. 14 days of hard toil carrying approximately 30 kg on their backs in this high altitude terrain will hopefully yield the money they need to support their families. Like most of them, our porters came from villages from lower regions of Nepal as far as a week’s walk away (by local standards). Like every year, in this spring season, they were staying at a rented place in Lukla, waiting to be hired. While Passang had been on this trail before, it was the first time for Doranath. That raised some questions but we were happily proved wrong. If I’m able to tell my story today, I owe a lot of that to him. That’s a tale to be told later. With majority of our baggage distributed between the porters, putting our respective backpacks on our shoulders, we started off. For the next 14 days, we’d be on mountain tracks, gaining altitude by the day, reaching closer to the lap of Everest.

Ranjan da didn’t quite enjoy his lunch. I learnt that he had a bit of food poisoning and was also running slight fever in the morning at the Kathmandu hotel, but now he seemed okay. We were supposed to reach Phakding which wasn’t more than 2-2.5 hours of walk by our standards. As we moved out of Lukla, the route traversed through a countryside with lush green fields with houses tucked amidst them. It was more or less level (as it can be, on a mountain trail) with no such hurdles posed. As it always happens in the mountains, we soon separated from each other in groups of one or two, depending on our respective walking speed and soon I found myself alone with the Himalayas! The Doodhkoshi thundered down the valley through the deep gorges.

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In the outskirts of Lukla

The route was dotted with hotels and lodges owned predominantly by the Sherpa community. There were tourists from all over the world from every possible country we knew of, all headed towards or coming from The Everest Base Camp. They were from all age groups. Looking at some of the elderly people, who were trekking alone, carrying their entire luggage by themselves, gave us a bit of shame. After a good hour of walking, we sat down at a lodge to have some rest & a few chats. We waited for a long time, but there were still no signs of Ranjan da. We asked a few co-passengers who came after us and they confirmed that he was just around the corner. That gave us peace for some time but time was running out. I and Dhananjoy went back on the trail and as we turned around a bend, we saw him sitting beside, looking worn out. His stomach wasn’t playing well and he had vomited. Having an upset stomach is the last thing you want on this route. After sometime, he seemed to have recovered and a few pep up talks from rest of us got him back on the road but he was very slow. Though we were not in a marathon aiming to clock record times, there’s a limit beyond which we can’t afford to drag behind schedule, if we were to reach Phakding, out first place of halt for the day. As we walked along, Ranjan da kept getting weaker & finally gave up, when we still had about half an hour’s walk left. He reached a state where he couldn’t lift his legs for a single step without support from either us or the guide. We had to stop before Phakding. It was a village called ThadeKoshi (meaning straight up on the hill emerging from the river Koshi or DoodhKoshi as it is called). It was a forced change in the schedule which meant we would have to cover extra miles on the next day to reach Phakding and continue on to Namche Bazaar. A day already known to be long enough and one of the most tough days of walking on this route, had another 30 minutes to an hour added on top of it. We went to a lodge and had Ranjan da settle on a bed as early as possible. Our bag of medicines, foolishly enough, were with the porters who already have reached Phakding (which was a norm for them to have the place ready with our luggage before our arrival). What was worrying, was Ranjan da’s weakness and a feeling getting strong within him, that with this state of health, he probably can’t carry on. A big setback right at the start. Anyways, we had to give our best shot in boosting him up.

We met a young woman from US, who suggested we should give him doses of electral (a mixture of medicated and somewhat flavored salt and sugar) at regular intervals. She had left her job to come to Nepal and has been staying here for last one year to provide voluntary service to the distressed Sherpa people in these remote villages after the earthquake. She kept a repertoire of limited set of medicines, which needs regular replenishment from Lukla. She gracefully offered one pack of electral and I bought a few more from her. Niladri, in the meantime, spoke to one of his Doctor friends, Snehasis, in Kolkata, who suggested an antibiotic along with regular doses of salt and sugar mixture in water. Doranath, one of our porters, came back from Phakding, carrying our bag of medicines. The first of his many acts that had us awe-struck! At the fag-end of the day, after an arduous day of walking with loads on his back, just when he reached Phakding, a phone call came asking him to bring the bag of medicines half way back down the road which he had just ascended. A call to which he readily responded. All such efforts bore fruits and Ranjan da’s health improved. He was still reluctant to eat and had to literally force some down his throat. After he settled in his bed, Niladri, Sidhhartha da and Dhananjoy thought about experimenting with a local brew Roxy but it proved to be a costly affair with most of them wobbling out whatever they ate at dinner. I wasn’t feeling good either. It was the first day and the start was far from ideal. The next day was going to be critical and we had to be at our physical best. The trek was supposed to be from Phakding (2650 m) to Namche Bazaar (3440 m), a gain of approximately 800 m in a single day and we were not even at Phakding, but a good 30 minutes before it. Ranjan da’s state was a cause of worry. I went to sleep hoping for a better tomorrow.

Kathmandu

Thadekoshi to NamcheBazaar

In the land of the Sherpas – Kathmandu

The preparation

Lukla to Thadekoshi

30th April, 2016

It was a Saturday. I woke up early in the morning, got prepared and was ready to be picked up by Ranjan da, with whom I was to travel to Indira Gandhi International airport terminal 3 for our flight to Kathmandu. When we boarded the car, my mother uttered silent prayers. My wife, Anindita and daughter Srijita bade goodbye (I was to miss her birthday bash which was to be held on 2nd May). Ranjan da went ahead with his check in for his Royal Nepal Airlines flight, while I waited for Dhananjoy to arrive. I had a tension about the amount of cash I was carrying with me (majority of it was in denominations of Rs 100). We’ve read mixed opinions about the legitimate amount of cash that we could carry. Not many international ATM/Debit/Credit cards operate in Nepal (the customer care of all banks with whom I held accounts, said their cards would operate seamlessly everywhere except Nepal or Bhutan) – a strange complication in a country so close to our culture and philosophy, where we, as Indians, don’t even require tourist visas to travel. However, everything went well and we were finally on board the aircraft. Dhananjoy was a tad disappointed when he heard that we would be staying at lodges throughout the trail and there won’t be any opportunity to camp anywhere! Well, that’s what you have to forego in Nepal, especially on this trail, dubbed as the “trekking highway” by some, considering the earthly comforts one can get, otherwise absent at places that are much less remote elsewhere in The Himalayas.

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Everest calling – Kusum Kangroo peak

Kathmandu! The word took me back to the days when I was in class V. I went to Kathmandu with my parents. All I remember from that trip was the sumptuous breakfast and meals at the Yak and Yeti hotel, the notorious monkeys and bulls at the Pashupatinath temple and the big eyes painted on the top of Swayambhunath temple about which people say that it has witnessed all ups and downs of the Kathmandu valley in front of its eyes. How is the city coming out of the devastation wrought on its face by nature? Amidst all those thoughts, our aircraft landed at the Tribhuvan International Airport which nestles amidst the surrounding hills. As I and Dhananjoy waited for our luggage, we conveyed the news of our arrival at our respective homes. We were to arrive in distinct groups, with Ranjan da to be the first one to land via Nepal Airlines, followed by two of us via Indigo and finally, Niladri and Siddhartha da to arrive in the evening (they started from Kolkata, a day earlier and reached Raxaul in the morning, from where they took a jeep for Kathmandu). We met a “garlanded” Ranjan da outside the airport (an expected custom for anyone who arrives as Tej Gurung’s trekking guest). This was a fact I knew prior, going by Facebook posts of all trekking teams that are guided by Tej’s organization. They would all be received with garlands and scarves, followed by a photograph with a “Nepal Alternative Treks and Expeditions” banner that read “I am in Nepal now” in bold. All that to make way to a Facebook post by Tej Gurung, in an effort to make the trekkers of the world (Tej’s potential clients) aware that Nepal was now safe enough to embark on such expeditions.

As soon as we exited the airport, we came across the Pashupatinath shrine that looked like a pagoda with a golden dome (as most of the temples in Nepal do). It brought mixed emotions ranging from childhood memories of the temple where I saw myself going to it with my parents with a puja carefully guarding it from being confiscated by surrounding barrage of monkeys. It also had a fairly large number of bulls, who were fed regularly with care by the temple priests who viewed them as direct incarnations of “Nandi”, one of the famous disciples of Lord Shiva (aka Lord Pashupatinath). Then came the dreadful thought of the funerals of the ill-fated king Virendra and his family who were killed in a mad shooting spree at the royal palace. The vehicle meandered through the maze of crowded streets and lanes of Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu and we finally arrived at hotel Tayoma (our accommodation for the night). The entire route didn’t throw up any signs of destruction from the earthquake, which was a surprise and I still couldn’t make out if I were to rejoice or we were travelling through an area somehow unaffected by it, but how could that be possible?

After keeping our luggage, we went out hunting for lunch at the surrounding restaurants. Steaming Thukpas at a Tibetan restaurant did the job for the day. We were a bit anxious about the fact that our hotel was changed at the last-minute and we had no way to convey that to Niladri and Siddhartha da who were supposed to reach by road in the evening and they did not have a working mobile SIM. Tej Gurung came to meet us along with the guide Raju Gurung, who would accompany us starting the next day. As Tej had other groups to handle on the same day, he started off with an introduction to the trek and its nuances. He re-iterated the itinerary detailing out the schedule for every day. I asked whether it was possible to visit Kalapathhar in the afternoon since it offers the most majestic sunset views of the Everest range but the guide rightly advised to take that decision when the time comes as it often turns cloudy in the afternoon with strong winds blowing the Kalapathhar top. In the midst of our discussion, Niladri and Sidhhartha da arrived at the hotel. It was a refreshing feeling to see them in a “technically foreign” land! There was a time when a single day didn’t go by without a chat with him and other friends from my native place, but now work has split us physically by miles and my occasional trips to home and these travels are the only options of reunion and every bit of it seems insufficient!

We made our balance payments to Tej while he shared the air tickets for Lukla, trekking permits and cards to enter Sagarmatha National Park, which would cover the majority of this route. All of these would reside with Raju, the guide. Tej had some advice for us. While we could order any food item (food & tea/beverage for the main three courses during each day were to be included in the cost of the trek), we should try to avoid wastage as much as possible. It made sense and it acquired more significance as we saw porters carrying back wrenching loads up the trail for our comfort. The cost too, multiplied with the gaining altitude.

The evening was spent in the market to get our down jackets and sleeping bags from an equipment store. It was warm (rather hot) in Kathmandu. Wasn’t it supposed to be a hill station? I saw a lot of residents going around with masks covering their face. I was taken aback by that sight, in a valley amidst The Himalayas! This is a sight we’re used to in places like Delhi. Thamel is crowded with shops of tour and trekking operators with their windows filled with photographs of major Himalayan peaks from different ranges. Majority of them were panoramic views of the Everest range along with the Khumbu glacier as viewed from Kalapathhar top. The next in reckoning were the ones from the Annapurna range from central Nepal. After the gears were sorted, we exchanged some of the Indian currency into Nepalese and got hold of a local Nepalese SIM card. Any gear needed during the trek was suggested to be bought from here, primarily because of cost. We thought we had sufficient till one pointed out “Sticks? Can we do without them”? We bought one for each member. These were not made of ordinary bamboo, but were a combination of wood and metal that could be folded to adjust the height. Some even had a compass. Our evening roam concluded with dining at an Indian restaurant with familiar kormas & pulaos.

I was constantly obsessed with the size of my backpack. Is it too big to carry on my back for 14 days? Do I need all that has been stuffed in it? A quick re-prioritization led to stripping out a few clothes. Others did the same and all of that were combined in a bag to be left at the hotel. Batteries and phones were getting charged as this was the last chance to do so without extra cost. Up there on the trail, cost for charging could go up to Rs 100-200 per hour (all currency should be assumed to be Nepalese unless stated otherwise).

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Dudhkosi

As I settled in my bed, my thoughts were occupied with the next day’s flight to Lukla. There are ample records (texts, images and videos) on the internet about the inherent dangers and uncertainties of flights to Lukla. After sometime, I had to shove off the thoughts to have some sleep going.

The preparation

Lukla to Thadekoshi

In the land of the Sherpas – the preparation

Kathmandu

As I said in my previous post, interest was building up for a few years. But it took a big blow with the devastating earthquake hitting Nepal in the early summers of 2015. The horrific pictures of suffering that emerged from Nepal made the thought of going there impossible for at least another 4-5 years, or so it appeared at that time. During the first three months of 2015, I got in touch with Mr Tej Bahadur Gurung, the proprietor of Nepal Alternative Treks and Expeditions and he landed up as my Facebook friend. His regular updates from Nepal, especially about the recent developments kept me aware through the days of trauma that Nepal went through. Gradually, despair gave way to hope. Successive photographs from Tej about the different expeditions raised hopes. It came across, that the Everest region & the route somehow survived nature’s wrath. The damage to the trail has been recovered or at least was on the way of it.

Life presents you with questions at every corner. Solving one unearths others. Now that Nepal (or at least Everest base camp) was deemed reachable, the question of getting leaves from work came up. It wasn’t insignificant. From what Mr Gurung, my friends who’ve visited the region & finally, the internet, had to say, it takes about 13-14 days from Kathmandu to Kathmandu. Add to that, the travel to and from Delhi. All said, we were looking at about 15-16 days. That seems manageable. But, hold on, there’s the Lukla flight. That, in itself, is a “big variable” in this equation. Probably the one with most uncertainty. A quick hunt for information told me that flights to this distant air strip are very uncertain and weather always holds the trump card. Flights on this route are not controlled by sophisticated ATS systems, but by clear visibility. Simply put, if the pilot can see the air strip, the flight will land and similarly, while taking off, the hills in front has to be visible. Delays because of cancellations are not uncommon and all of whom we spoke to, advised us to have at least 2 days in buffer to account for them. Little did we know at that time, that even two days might prove insufficient and we’d have to think of alternatives. But that’s a tale to be told later. All said, we were looking at 17-18 days off work. Hmm, let’s see how it shapes up. But even before all that, my mind was caught up in another challenge. “Can I do it?” One section of it kept pushing me. “There won’t be another chance in life. Age is not going to be in your favor for long. So have it while it’s hot.” On the other hand, the son, the husband and the father in me kept dragging me. “Don’t be crazy. It’s not Kedarnath where you’re not forced to walk, mules can do the job for you. It’s not a 2-3-day affair. It’s a good fortnight of walking for at least 7/8 hours a day, getting to altitudes as high as 5500 m. You’re jumping into English Channel right after a swimming pool.” Asking different people for opinions gave mixed results. There are some people whom I preferred not to ask as the answer was always going to be negative (that includes my family members). Responses from others were subject to interpretation. It all summed up to “Look, you’ll have to walk hard, it will be tiring, you could run out of breath or do fine at the altitudes, depending on how fit you are or can become during the days of the buildup.” But all of them agreed that the trail, though tiring, is not dangerous and people of differing ages and varying trekking experiences have done it before. As it always happens, I finally reached a point when I thought, enough questions have been asked, now it’s time to move forward. After making up my mind, I gave a call to my bosom buddy and all-weather friend and travel partner Niladri (Niladri Sekhar Guha). He sprang up (as he always does) at the idea. After hanging up the phone, I wondered why bother asking others when a single phone call could solve it in a few minutes? Over the years, we’ve been travelling together (with our respective families) along with other friends. If Niladri turns down an offer to travel, it has to be a natural calamity. Getting leaves from a private IT firm for close to 3 weeks (well, at least 17 days) isn’t easy even by most lenient standards. But wait, didn’t I complete 5 years at my organization (or rather, will complete it before the trek commences)? What it meant that I’d be getting an extra 10 days of leave once I complete 5 years at my company. Great! This has to be it. As they say, when the Himalayas call, none can resist it. At least I can’t let this opportunity fade away.

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One of the many wire bridges to cross on the trail

With leaves now sorted, it was time for planning. That wasn’t a small affair either. We first needed to form a group. Just two of us won’t work as the tax bracket we belong to, won’t allow that luxury. I reached out to my brother-in-law, Ranjan Ghosh, an employee at the Central Government of India. His love for The Himalayas had suddenly taken off with his interest in photography (primarily for birds). “Everest base camp? Hmm, that might be a big ask at my age, let me think over”. I tried my best to wipe out his last of doubts by citing numerous narratives I heard from others (carefully weeding out the negatives). With him still doubtful, I didn’t press on further, thinking he might be better off being left on his own to make a decision. If he comes back with an affirmative answer after giving a good deep thought, it’s better for the group as we’d have a committed member and that’s very important in a trek like this. Niladri, in the meantime managed to rope in one of his office colleagues, Siddhartha Bhattacharjee. With head hunting still on, I continued my inquiries about the travel. I resumed my interactions with Tej Gurung. The itinerary that he provided (which is standard) ran like this:

It would start from Kathmandu with a flight to Lukla, followed by a few hours of walk to Phakding, the place of our first halt. Next day, the maximum gain of altitude in a day (about 400 m) would take us to Namche Bazaar, the Sherpa hub of business and culture, the largest town of the Khumbu region. The following day was supposed to be a rest day, to acclimatize our bodies to higher altitudes. Rest, by the way, would not mean just relaxing. It would rather mean hikes to nearby places for about 2-3 hours and back. In this case, a hike would take us to the “Everest view hotel” from where we were expected to get the first glimpse of Mt Everest along with its neighbors. After that, successive days would see us gain heights gradually and reach the places of Tengboche (which has the largest monastery of the region), Dingboche, Lobuche and Gorakshep respectively. There were no extra rest days in the entire route apart from one each at Namche and Dingboche. We were to reach Gorakshep from Lobuche, have lunch there and tread on further to Everest base camp, the same day and come back to Gorakshep to stay there. The following morning would see us scale the heights of Kalapathhar to have the full view of the peaks and glaciers of the Everest region. The way back was similar, except that it did not involve staying at every place, given that we would be on our way down. Tej Gurung’s itinerary wasn’t just a routine. It had enough meat to get one charged up with romantic and adventurous description of the trail. According to that, Kalapathhar was supposed to be the climax of the entire trip. Apparently, when the sun would rise from behind of Mt Everest (to be able to see that, one would have to start ascending from Gorakshep at dark hours of the night), the edges of Pumori, Ama Dablam and many other stalwarts of the Everest region would start bathing in gold till that transforms to dazzling silver. It was supposed to be a treat to our eyes for the entire 360 degrees around us. Well, well! It was difficult to hold our breath. But, there’s not much time for romanticism as it was already January 2016 and we were to move fast as the window of our visit zeroed in on first half of May, as that would provide us the best weather before monsoons arrive at the Khumbu region.

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Everest calling – a village house (Solu Khumbu, Nepal)

In the meantime, Dhananjoy, a common friend of mine and Niladri from college, joined the party. During the course of a regular phone call (as he does to all friends to keep the threads strong), Niladri brought up Everest and he was immediately smitten by it! Ranjan da (Ranjan Ghosh), during these days was continuing his research on internet. He had traversed numerous blogs, multitude of photographs, videos and posts on Everest and his exchanges with me gave a feeling that doubts in his mind were fading and finally, he gave consent. Now that we were five in the group, we started negotiations with Tej on the cost and once that was settled, our inquiries from him focused more on details around day-to-day logistics, required trekking gear and the gap we have to cover on that front. Then there was physical preparation to be undertaken as Tej said on one of the phone calls – “The trek can be done by anyone, provided he is fit. There is no danger in the entire route”. Now, if danger gets taken care of, we at least need to be fit enough to be able to take the bait. Fitness for me, over the years, has meant nothing more than a few rounds of brisk walking in the morning hours around the periphery of the housing complex where I stay in Noida. Though one cannot simulate altitudes of the trail, something had to be done. So I started climbing the stairs of a ten storeyed building in my housing complex, increasing the number of iterations with every passing week. Others resorted to similar things with Dhananjoy doing the same as me, Niladri (constrained by his problem of asthma) resorted to walking his way back to home from office every other day (a good 10-13 km). While these were going on, our conversations continued with other friends who have visited the region. In one such conversation, Shantanu Das (who’s been to both Annapurna and Everest regions) asked whether we were considering a visit to Gokyo lakes in addition to the main Everest base camp trail. The Gokyo region is another bait with its pristine azure lakes amidst snow-covered mountains. An added attraction was the crossover through Cho La (5420 m), a high altitude pass, with magnificent views of snow-capped peaks and glaciers that connects the Everest base camp trail with the Gokyo region. It would add two more days to the trip but would bring much more to the already exciting tour that was building up! “We can’t go there every weekend, right?” said Niladri, “so if we can walk for twelve days, we might as well add two more”. A few more exchange of emails with Tej, some negotiations and it was settled. The itinerary now spanned fifteen days from Kathmandu to Kathmandu. After our ascent to Kalapathhar, we would travel back to Lobuche, have lunch, then continue to Dzongla. The next day, we would cross Cho La to reach Thangna (or as some call it, Dragnak). Successive days would take us through Gokyo, Dole and finally, Namche Bazaar, where we would join back to the main trail and continue to Lukla after a day’s rest.

The pieces of the maze were falling into place rather quickly, which made me a tad nervous “Are we missing something obvious? Come on, it is supposed to be the Everest base camp trek. It can’t be that simple!” Such thoughts kept crossing my mind as the day of our flight to Kathmandu approached.

The buildup

Kathmandu

In the land of the Sherpas – the buildup

The preparation

In the year 1852, at the survey headquarters in Dehradun, Radhanath Sikdar, a Bengali surveyor mathematician, made an interesting discovery. His calculations revealed that he had identified the highest mountain in the world. It was then referred to as peak XV, but the official announcement was not made until 1856 as the numbers were being repeatedly verified.

When it came to naming the mountain, the survey office normally preferred to keep local names as was done earlier in cases of Kangchenjunga (which was considered to be the highest before peak XV was discovered), Dhaulagiri etc. However, in this case, Andrew Waugh, the British Surveyor General of India, argued that he couldn’t find a local name that could be universally accepted. He proposed the name Mt Everest (named after Sir George Everest, Waugh’s predecessor as the Surveyor General). Findings revealed later that Waugh’s claims weren’t entirely true as there was a mellifluous name for the mountain prevalent among the Tibetans who inhabited its foothills in the north. They called it Chomolungma (holy mother). However, after a lot of debate, the name Everest stuck to the mountain and it still does.

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Mt Everest from Everest view hotel, Namchebazar

In the race of being the highest (or rather, measured as highest), the baton passed from Dhaulagiri to Kangchenjunga (now known to be the 3rd highest) and finally, Everest.

Everest has attracted its share of admirers, enthusiasts, passionates (often bordering with madness) ever since it’s discovery as the highest mountain in the world. After that, it was only a matter of time for humans to think that it had to be climbed. The first organized expedition was conducted by the British in 1921. It was the first time, George Leigh Mallory (whose mysterious disappearance on the flanks of Everest, a few years later, would start debates in the mountaineering world) was in an expedition to the mountain. They climbed the North col up to 7005 m but were forced to descend. The British returned to the mountains in 1922, but were unsuccessful again. On their way down, Mallory and co. got caught in an avalanche but escaped. However, the same avalanche claimed the lives of seven Sherpa porters (possibly, the first recorded deaths on the flanks of Everest). The next expedition was in 1924, which became famous for the summit attempt of Mallory and Irvine. They were last seen to be climbing via the North col-North ridge-North-east ridge route in clear weather, apparently making good progress (as watched by their team member Odel, down below) only to be engulfed by a cloud surrounding the summit, never to be seen again. Years later, another research expedition discovered Mallory’s body at a site higher up on the mountain that triggered a debate in the mountaineering community about whether they were the first to summit the mountain rather than the first confirmed ascent in 1953.

No matter how well you plan or how lavish your resources are, as the mountaineers say even today, “It’s the mountain who holds the last card”. However, not every attempt at the mountain was as well organised as the Britishers’. In 1947, a Canadian named Earl Denman, who didn’t even have much experience in high altitude climbing, landed in Darjeeling (which is where all the expeditions in those days started from). His attempts to get a permit to enter Tibet were unsuccessful but he refused to back down. He hired a couple of Sherpas (one of whom was Tenzing Norgay) to embark on a long journey on foot, fraught with danger, all the way from Darjeeling to the foot of the north side of the mountain. They had every risk of getting captured en-route (and hence, jailed, as they were travelling without a permit), but kept moving. They reached up to a certain height (quite remarkable considering their resources and prior experience) but were forced to return. Fortunately for them, they were able to return to Darjeeling safely. Later, in an interview, Tenzing said that he knew that the plan was “foolhardy”, but even then, he couldn’t resist the invitation of Denman, mostly because of his own urge to climb the mountain!

There were two other unsuccessful expeditions in 1933 & 1936 and then the second world war put a stop to all that. Access to the mountain from the north was closed after Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950. Round about the same time, Nepal opened its doors to the foreigners and all the focus shifted to the southern flanks of the mountain. Back then, unlike today, every year, only one or two expedition permits were granted by the Nepalese government. In an exploratory expedition from Nepal, a British team reached the southern base of the mountain but were daunted by the Khumbu ice fall. The ice fall is a moving river of ice & snow, fraught with numerous crevasses and towering seracs (monument of ice that can rise as high as 17-18 storeyed buildings). One had to cross the dangerous ice fall in order to gain access to the higher mountain and some concluded that it was impossible to cross it. In 1952, the Swiss beat the British to bag the climbing permit. Tenzing Norgay, for the first time, was considered a full expedition member (not just a porter as in some earlier expeditions). He struck a lasting friendship with the Swiss. He and Raymond Lambert were able to climb till 8595 m (the highest by humans back then) but were forced to return due to bad weather. However, this expedition is considered extremely important in the history of Everest. This is the expedition (and the 1951 expedition by Eric Shipton, to some extent) that established a route through the Khumbu ice fall to the upper mountain which gets used even today by the climbers climbing the South col-South-east ridge route. Tenzing’s experience on the higher mountain in the 1952 made him a natural choice for the 1953 British expedition led by John Hunt, as a climbing sirdar (the Sherpa leader who leads all other Sherpas in an expedition). It was a race among the nations to install a man on top of the world. After the failure of the Swiss, the British felt it was their last chance in 1953 before anyone beat them in the race. A huge number of porters and Sherpas were employed in the expedition to ferry load & to establish a route up the mountain. Tenzing was employed as the climbing sirdar because he was the sole person in the team who had reached the highest reaches of the mountain previously. The expedition also included members from commonwealth nations. One of them was a beekeeper from New Zealand, Edmund Hillary, who initially thought about refusing to join the expedition, but later joined it reluctantly.

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Base camp tents with the Khumbu ice fall in the background.

The first party left for Everest on 10th March, with other batches following them. After the initial set of people reached the base camp, they established a route through the ice fall. Once this was done, different teams of Sherpas ferried tonnes of supplies to camp one. In the days that followed, repeated forays were done by the expedition members up and down the mountain. It was 17th of May already. The expedition members kept an eye on the weather forecast and it turned into a race against time. They had to complete all this business before the monsoons hit the Himalayas and that wasn’t very far. By this time, the expedition leader John Hunt set up two summit teams who would make successive attempts. The first of the two selected pairs, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans started on 26th May from the South Col (26000 feet) for the summit. They were able to reach the south summit (about 100 m below the actual one), but had to return due to exhaustion. Problems in their oxygen kits didn’t help their cause either. The ridge that lay after that, was considered extremely unsafe to climb as it was highly exposed to the gale of winds that dashes the summit ridge. A single wrong step on that narrow ridge can send one tumbling down the steep Kangshung face into death. On 27th May, the second pair comprising Hillary and Tenzing set out for the final attempt at the summit for this expedition. On their way, they came across a 40 feet high vertical rock face, which would later be known as the ‘Hillary Step’. They had to climb the face to reach it’s top. After that, it turned out to be a series of low bumps of snow and ice. They kept crossing them one after another till they reached a point where there were no slopes higher above and they could have glimpses far into the dry Tibetan plateau on the Northern horizon. It was 29th May, 1953.

After their successful ascent, Hillary returned to Kathmandu to know he had already been bestowed with the KBE of the British empire. Here too, amidst success, it was apparent that the color of skin probably had played a role as the same title wasn’t showered upon Tenzing. In the years that followed, immense speculation ensued around who, among the two, actually set the first foot on Everest’s summit. Different camps had their own opinion and they put forward reason to support that. The immense pressure of media coverage led to a point where Tenzing almost repented the act of climbing the mountain, which the Sherpas regarded as Goddess mother of earth (this is supported by words of Jamling Tenzing Norgay, Tenzing’s son). Finally, Hillary and Tenzing signed an agreement that said that no one would ever disclose who, among the two of them, actually was the first to set his foot on the summit.

Coming back from the pages of history, its not only mountaineers that Everest cast it’s spell upon, but also on mortal beings like me. So far, even after visiting so many places in the Himalayas, I haven’t seen “the mountain” with my own eyes. I haven’t even visited the country that is the home of about half of the 8000-ers (peaks above 8000 m) of the world, Nepal. The name “Everest” fascinates almost everyone in this world at some level. The countless romanticism, adventure, awe & mystery that surrounds the mountain, makes it a favorite destination for climbers, trekkers & normal tourists alike. “Because it is there” said George Leigh Mallory, when asked by someone that why was he obsessed about climbing Mt Everest. That explains why the swarm of climbers and trekkers that head for it every year, embarking on what can be called the international Himalayan highway – aka the Everest Base Camp trail.

Though Everest hogs the limelight and is the center of discussion in everything about this route, it would be unfair to say it is the only attraction. Truth be told, Mt Everest gets to be seen the least in this entire trail. The best view of it comes from Kalapathhar, only peeping from behind the ridges of other mountain peaks that are in front. But the beauty of this route is the trail itself & the varying surroundings it leads you through with flora and fauna that changes drastically with altitude. The splendid colors of Rhododendrons in the forests of lower reaches, the dancing waters of Dudhkoshi that has its origins in the glaciers in the upper reaches of the Everest region, the magnificent view of the mountain peaks of Ama Dablam, Thamserku, Lhotse, Nuptse, Kangtega, Kusum Kangru and countless others, the monasteries dotting the valley & the Sherpas.

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Everest calling – the Doodhkosi river flowing through the gorges

Hence, the preparations started – both physical and mental and it was a long one. In a series of blog entries that will follow, I’ll try to tell the story of getting to the feet of the mountain, the glorious views along that trail, the thicks and thins of that journey. Stay tuned.

The preparation