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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.