Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Kathmandu, and Final comments on the Three Pass Everest Trek





We suffered a bit of anxiety around the flight out of Lukla, as the day before we were scheduled to depart a number of flights were cancelled due to cloudy weather.  As it turned out, the weather was fine and flights left in as regular a manner as can be expected in Nepal.

The takeoff at Lukla airport is a unique experience.  As at Ramechhap the pilot sets the brake and revs the engines until the whole plane shakes, but  when the brake is released at Lukla the plane rolls forward and then tips down the 12 degree pitch of the declining runway.  The plane takes only a few seconds to reach the end of the 540 metre runway where it pulls up sharply into the air.

I was fortunate to have a window seat (inches from the pilot) because the 40 minute flight was very scenic.  It was remarkable to see where people are living in this corrugated country.

We have a couple of days in Kathmandu, time enough to do a little Christmas shopping.  Kathmandu is a typical city in the developing world, with poor air, too many vehicles, and minimal green space.  However, we are enjoying the pleasant temperatures (daily range of 12 to 22 degrees Celsius), and the access to showers, curries and bakeries.

Neither Matthew nor Bruce had been to the “Monkey Temple” so we walked there today.  A number of Hindu and Buddhist temples are crowded on the top of the temple hill, and monkeys range freely over the structures and grounds.  It is an interesting and pleasant place to visit, and the half hour walk each way gave us a chance to see a portion of the city outside the tourist neighbourhood of Thamel.

General comments regarding the Everest Three Pass trek

The Everest Three Pass trek is not a route that I would recommend to all and sundry.  Although it is just a walk, the combination of the steep climbing, frequently rough trail surface and altitude makes it more challenging than most of the other popular trekking routes in Nepal.  

The altitude in particular is a factor not to be underestimated.  At 5500 metres there is only half as much oxygen as there is at sea level, and you feel that deficiency with every step uphill.  On the Annapurna trek we slept above 4000 metres for two nights, but on the Three Pass trek we stayed above that level for 10 nights, including two nights above 5000 metres.  We acclimatized without difficulty, but we still suffered from reduced appetite and less than ideal sleep.

It is a remarkable and humbling experience to walk amongst the highest peaks on earth. The air is crystal clear in the fall, and the sheer scale of the landscape is awe inspiring.  That said, the areas above 4300 metres are mostly rock and ice scarcely inhabited by man or beast.  Towards the end of the trek it was a pleasure to descend to more congenial altitudes to see the forests, animals and villages.  If I were to do another trek in this country I might look for one that spent more time at the more culturally interesting mid-elevations, although it is exciting to cross at least one high pass.

In closing I would like to thank Matthew and Bruce for their humour, tenacity and equanimity.  We had a great time together, with shared decision making and no conflict.  I think the Three Pass trek is an experience we will all vividly remember for the rest of our lives.













Sunday, November 24, 2019

The end of the Trek





We completed the Everest Three Pass trek in 19 days, leaving us with two days before our flight to Kathmandu.  We considered various options and finally settled upon an overnight excursion along the trail towards Jiri.  This trail is one of the options for those that would prefer to walk to Lukla rather than take a flight.  It typically takes six days and is only used by about 1000 trekkers per year.

The trail towards Jiri drops from beside the runway at Lukla, plunging 500 metres to the village of Sirke.  As I headed down this little used trail I immediately noticed some differences from the main trail to Everest Base Camp: the trail was in poorer repair and there was an abundance of garbage.  The EBC trail obviously benefits from some buffing and polishing to please the tourists.

After bottoming out at Sirke, we started a strenuous climb.  Matthew was struggling a bit due to his cold, so after climbing for 400 metres we stopped for the night at a modest guesthouse at a viewpoint in the middle of nowhere.  Not only was the view superb, but they had a cat, which are rather scarce in this region.  It cost me the cheese topping from my potatoes with vegetables and cheese, but the young Tom and I became good friends.

During the middle of the day we encountered almost continuous mule trains going in both directions on the trail.  Lukla is not connected by road to the rest of the world, so I had wondered how most of the food, fuel, building materials and other stuff was transported to the town.  It appears that much of it arrives on a mule’s back.

Today we walked back to Lukla, partly on a trail we had not previously walked.  We were very fortunate to see a langur monkey and three otter.  The otter had yellow flanks and were even more beautiful than the ones we see on the B.C. coast.

After four hours of walking we arrived back in Lukla, our 21 day trek complete.  It has been an extraordinary experience.













Friday, November 22, 2019

Lukla





We had a relaxed two day walk from Namche to Lukla.  As we lost elevation the vegetation became lusher and the human population more dense.

Last night we stayed at a small family run guesthouse in Tok Tok, about midway between Namche and Lukla.  The owner was a mountaineer in his younger years and had summited Lhotse and another 8000 metre peak in Tibet, as well as climbing above 8000 metres on Everest.  He and his wife treated us like royalty, and then told us they wouldn’t charge for the room.  He had a particular affection for Canadians.

While at the guesthouse we decided to sample some homemade chhyang, or rice beer.  A pitcher cost the equivalent of $3.50 and provided each of us with three tumblers of milky, acidic tasting drink.  After consuming these we found ourselves wandering down the trail to the municipal checkpoint.  We weren’t carrying our permits, but we drifted past the checkpoint without incident.  I was a little concerned about coming back past the checkpoint without the appropriate paperwork, but the officials just ignored us.  Perhaps they had seen tourists in the grip of chhyang delirium in the past, and assumed we were harmless.  We returned to the guesthouse and had a two hour nap, feeling much refreshed upon waking.

This morning we walked to Lukla, completing the Everest Three Pass Trek in 19 days.  We have two days before our flight to Kathmandu and have not yet decided what to do with the time.

I brought some of my Dad’s ashes with me with a view to depositing them near Everest.  Unfortunately I completely forgot about them (sorry Dad) until a few days ago.  Casting about for a place my Dad would appreciate in the venues to be visited in the last few days of our trek, I hit upon the end of the runway at the Lukla airport.  My Dad was a private pilot who built his own airplane.  What better place than a vantage point over the most dangerous airstrip in the world?



Matthew, Bruce and I went to the upper end of the airstrip just as a plane was taking off.  To compensate for the short length of the strip, the pilot revved the engines to a high pitch, creating a prop wash that knocked the hats off spectators.  We watched the plane roar off the end of the strip before leaving a bit of Dad to watch the comings and goings at this busy and hazardous airstrip.  I think he would have appreciated the choice of venue.











Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Return to Namche







Today’s walk was like some kind of Himalayan fantasy.  We passed through juniper and rhododendron forests, strode along trails cut out of ravine walls hundreds of feet above a river, crossed a bridge above a roaring waterfall, and passed through several traditional villages.  The light was magnificent and we could hardly make any progress with all of the photo stops.

About halfway to Namche we started to meet groups of hikers out on day trips from Namche.  After more than a week off the main trekking trails we were once again swept up in the tourist hordes.  

I had a conversation with an English group that is here to participate in the Everest Marathon.  It will be held on December 2nd, with the contestants running downhill from Gorak Shep (5200 m) to Namche (3450 m).  There are about 40 foreign entrants and 20 from Nepal.  I was told that in the 30+ year history of the marathon the Nepali runners have generally won, but this year the English have a ringer so they are hoping for an upset.  Although I have run some marathons and was interested in the details of the event, it still seems like an odd thing to be doing in a national park in the Himalayas.

Arriving in Namche around midday, we spent most of the balance of the day eating, both at our hotel and at a bakery.  We are all looking a bit drawn and emaciated.  It doesn’t improve our appearance that no one has shaved in over two weeks.

Our appearance didn’t phase our hotelier, who welcomed us back and asked if we wanted the same room.  He was interested in our experiences and recommended a brand of local beer for our celebratory drink.  He is an excellent host and made us feel very much at home.










Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Thame





We had a very easy day today, drifting down from Lumden (4350 m) to Thame (3850 m).  It was interesting to observe the change in vegetation as we lost elevation.  The tiny, thorny shrubs yielded to juniper and dwarf willow, the juniper grew, and then finally, at the edge of Thame, we entered a small forest of rhododendrons and birch.  These were the first trees we have seen in over a week.

The cultural environment changed as we descended as well.  Above about 4300 metres there are no true villages, but only clusters of trekking lodges.  We passed through a couple of real towns today, complete with chortens, mani walls and other manifestations of Buddhist faith.  We haven’t seen many of these in the past week and a half.

We are staying in the village of Thame this evening.  Most of the trekkers just barrel through here in the way to the bright lights of Namche, but we have time to burn so we are able to stay.  Our guesthouse is an older one with only six rooms.  The dining area is very traditional, with a portion functioning as a Buddhist shrine.  We are the only guests.  Our host has made us some delicious vegetable fried noodles with cheese, and built a very warm yak dung fire in the airtight stove.  We are enjoying our time in Thame very much.













Renjo La - the Last Pass





Today we transitted the last of the three passes on our trek.  They have been getting easier, but we still spent four hours climbing and three hours descending from the Renjo La.  None of the passes have been the rounded walkovers common in the Rockies; there is always a scramble near the top of the invariably knife edged summit.

It was another gorgeous day, with light winds and pleasant temperatures.  We had excellent views of Everest, Lhotse and many other peaks all the way up.  Everest and Lhotse were capped with lenticular clouds, which I took to be their way of saying goodbye to us.  Only glimpses of them are available after the Renjo La is crossed.  I took some time at the pass to contemplate the vista before me.  It is the region with the highest real estate in the world and I feel very privileged to have been able to see it.

On the way down I was reminded of the cost of accessing this beauty.  About an hour from the pass we met a woman being supported by a guide and her husband.  She had an unfocused stare and a staggering gait.  My immediate impression was that she had a cerebral edema and should have been descending rather than climbing.  She still had an hour of climbing and three hours of challenging descent ahead of her.  I hope that things turned out well for her, but given her situation it is difficult to be optimistic.











Sunday, November 17, 2019

Gokyo







We are spending two nights in the village of Gokyo, located at 4800 metres.  The destination of a recognized trek in its own right, it is increasingly visited as part of the Three Pass Trek. 

Gokyo is well known for a couple of day trips: to a viewpoint called Gokyo Ri, and to a series of lakes upstream from the town.

We undertook the 560 metre climb up Gokyo Ri this morning.  It is just a hill, but at this altitude it was quite challenging.  After two hours of exhausting work we reached the summit and a superb viewpoint.  We could see all four of the 8000 metre peaks in this region (Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, and Cho Oyu.). The latter dominates this valley and spawns the enormous glacier that passes by the town.

Gokyo Ri also provided an excellent view of Renjo La, the pass we will be crossing tomorrow.  The pass is exactly the same height as Gokyo Ri, 5360 metres, after which we will be steadily losing altitude for the remainder of our trek.

Enervated from our hike up Gokyo Ri we nevertheless walked up to the next lake after lunch, but it was just a token effort.

What is notable is that two of us had lunch, something we have only done a few times.  We also had heavy breakfasts, so after more than a week at more than 4500 metres we are finally becoming acclimatized to the altitude.  It’s almost a shame to be heading down to more pleasant elevations tomorrow (not really).









Friday, November 15, 2019

Cho La - Pass 2 of 3





Yesterday we walked down a bit from Gorak Shep (Everest Base Camp) before turning off the main trail towards Cho La.  The number of trekkers per day immediately dropped from about 300 to about 50.

The trail to Dzongla, at the base of the Cho La, was gorgeous, with impressive peaks and a large, emerald green glacial lake.

Dzongla itself was charming, with excellent views and perhaps eight relaxed lodges.  The guesthouse where we stayed was our best so far on the trek.  We were able to have a hot shower and do some laundry, both way overdue.  The shower cost about CAD12, but the gas to heat the water would have spent many days on a yak’s back before placed at our service.

Today we crossed the Cho La, the second of the three high passes we will traverse on this trip.  It was not as difficult as the Kongma La, but after 7 hours of walking we were quite tired.  There were several steep sections, some provided with fixed cables.  We were also on a glacier for about half a kilometre, finally justifying our purchase of glacier glasses and YakTrax, MicroSpikes or instep crampons.

We are still running out of energy on the long, challenging days, particularly Bruce and I.  I have a theory that we are just not eating enough, due to the altitude.  In the future we are going to stop midday for 30 minutes and force down a Cliff bar or other snack.  Other than at dinner time food remains almost repellent to us.  We generally force ourselves to eat something for breakfast and eat nothing until dinner.  No doubt we are losing lots of weight, a North American dream, but at the cost of lacking the energy to complete our walks in a comfortable manner.




Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Hygiene



It is surprising that I have not noticed the smell of anyone in the crowded dining rooms at the trekking lodges, because personal hygiene is challenging while trekking.  This has been brought home to us at Gorak Shep,  where there is so little water that none of the lodges offer showers.

Most of the lodges at lower elevations do have showers heated by gas from cylinders, usually for about $6, similar to the cost of a room.  For that fee you generally receive a trickle of water that fluctuates wildly in temperature as you adjust the flame or the flow rate.

Other forms of personal hygiene present their own hurdles.  For instance, a basin with a mirror is a rare sight.  It also takes some commitment to shave in icy water when the air temperature is near freezing.  As a consequence, many of the tourists are growing beards.

It is risky to consume the tap water in any of the trekking lodges, so it is always necessary to treat it or purchase bottled water for tooth brushing or drinking.  We have consistently treated our own water, but there is so little water available in Gorak Shep that we have been compelled to purchase it.

Washing laundry is also difficult to do, because of the cool temperatures and limited access to basins and drying lines.  We often climb into our cold sleeping bags wearing the  clothes we have been walking in.

It is now three days since we have been able to shower, six days since we did laundry, and a week since we shaved.  As a result we and our clothes are becoming increasingly dirty, to the point that we are feeling a bit uncomfortable.  We are hoping for at least a shower at tomorrow night’s accommodation.