We were lucky. Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Lukla, is notorious not only as one of the most dangerous airports in the world, but also one of the most fickle. No-instruments landings at a difficult airport in prop planes (or, as I prefer to call them, rubber band planes) means that the slightest hint of cloud on the approach is enough to make the airport too dangerous, and it will close. It had been closed for the two days before we were due to fly up, so when we got to Kathmandu airport, there were a lot of grumpy-looking faces preparing to spend their third day waiting for a ride up. (Those grumpy faces included the clients of one of our guide’s friends.) But our 6am start, thankfully, was not in vain. We made it up on the third flight. (Which, it turned out, was the last flight for the day. Afternoon clouds roll in pretty regularly to fill the valleys up in the Himalayas, and they closed the airport as soon as our plane had completely its incredibly hurried turn-around and raced off again. Many of those who’d been waiting for two days had to wait another before they finally made it up on what should have been day four of their treks.)
We didn’t crash on the way up, either. And that statement’s not as flippant as it might sound: seven days later, one of those flights did crash, killing all nineteen on board – although as it happens that was nothing to do with Lukla; the plane hit a bird minutes after take-off from Kathmandu and crashed trying to make it back to base. On average, though, about one KTM-LUA or LUA-KTM flight has had some sort of crash per year since 2004, with about half of those involving fatalities.
So our trek was starting well: we were up in the mountains safe and sound, and we hadn’t even needed to use any of the buffer time we’d built in to our planned schedule in case of bad weather. Having made it to 2860m the easy way, now the walking could begin. Only about 2500m of vertical elevation to go to Base Camp… But of course, once we started walking, we weren’t heading up at all – for a trek up into the highest mountain range on Earth, there seemed to be an awful lot of downhill.
Still, we were beginning our first leg of the trek: the easy leg. From Lukla, we were to spend days one and two making our way to Namche Bazaar – the biggest town up in the mountains, and focal point of a weekly Saturday market, from which (this being Sunday) we saw many people and beasts of burden returning. And that would be it for this leg – after those two days getting to Namche, we’d then have a rest day to acclimatise to the altitude before setting off for the Gokyo Valley.
That’s exactly how it worked out, and, best of all, it was as easy as that sounded. The thing about hiking the Himalayas on the way up is that so long as you have a pretty basic level of fitness (so long as you haven’t developed a well-founded fear of stairs, for example) you’re not at all limited by the distance you can walk over the course of one day, or by tiredness, or anything like that. You’re limited by the fact that on average, you don’t want to exceed 400m of elevation gain per day, to reduce the likelihood of altitude sickness. So actually these first few days set a pretty cruisy pace.
Day one – from Lukla to Phakding – only involved about two to two and a half hours of walking. Our guide Jay Ram set a fast pace, which we appreciated. I presume he was testing us out to see how we’d deal with the altitude, and whether we could actually follow through on our confident bravado, or whether we were full of crap and would tire at the first little slope. Thankfully, I think we passed. (Although in fairness, I should admit that my efforts, at least, were somewhat wind-assisted. The beans in the previous night’s vegetable moussaka, combined with the low atmospheric pressure at altitude, meant that I was not doing a lot of good things to the sweet mountain air!)
Anyway, day one was a rousing success. Our introduction to the trek was pleasant – much like a pretty afternoon hike pretty much anywhere in the world. The Buddhist prayer flags decorating the wire footbridges over some of the valleys hinted that we were not walking just anywhere. And we knew that the water rushing beneath those bridges had made its way only a very short distance from its source – and our destination – in the glaciers of the Khumbu and Gokyo Valleys. So obviously it wasn’t just a pretty afternoon hike just anywhere. But as much as it was exciting to know that we were starting – and as much as it’s hard to express in words just how stunning the mountainous backdrop was – it was a relief to finally experience the beginning of the walk and discover that it, so long as this kept up, it wasn’t going to be beyond us.
All that said, though the day’s walk had been short, after little sleep the night before, we were pretty happy with the opportunity for an afternoon nap once we’d settled into our room at around 2.30pm. After which we were forced to face the inevitable dilemma head on: what are two computer geeks to do with the rest of the day if the walks are short, and there’s no laptop and no internet? (Thank god for my Kindle! I’d bought the Game of Thrones series shortly before heading up to altitude. That’d keep me plenty busy.)
Day two – from Phakding to Namche Bazaar – was closer to what would turn out to be our average: a couple of hours walking in the morning, followed by an early lunch (10.30am! who eats lunch at 10.30am? most of the time I haven’t even got as far as breakfast by then!), with another two to three hours walking in the afternoon. Still nothing too strenuous in terms of time or distance, although there were a few steep uphills and downhills – especially just after our mid-morning feed. By this stage, we were pretty confident that we were doing OK, and we discovered, much to our delight, that Jay Ram didn’t seem to mind if we forged on ahead, so long as we paused and waited at any fork in the path, or any small village we might be supposed to stop at. This was then the point at which Jay Ram started pointing out his shorter legs as an excuse. This is now the point at which I should point out that he was carrying a chunk of our stuff, and we were carrying just day packs.
Speaking of which, I decided at lunch time that I wanted to try carrying the porter’s load. Lal was carrying my main backpack, plus his own and Jay Ram’s packs (all quite ingeniously tied together into one big load, with a knotty concoction that would have made a sailor justifiably proud), while Jay Ram was carrying Chris’s main backpack. Lal’s load looked heavy, and we’d been particularly impressed when he’d practically sprinted off ahead of us on the first day before lunch. So from our lunch spot, at the beginning of some town we were passing through, I loaded up and we walked onwards with me carrying Lal’s load, and Lal practically skipping along grinning holding just my daypack.
We got some very strange looks from the locals as we wandered through town. General agreement was that it was all quite hilarious, and Lal in particular seemed to be enjoying some especially amused and amusing conversations with friends he passed on the way. But much to my dismay, Jay Ram made me swap back after only about five to ten minutes. I presume he wanted to avoid the possibility that the next day I ended up exhausted and starting to come down with altitude sickness, which is entirely fair, if also somewhat fun-killing. Or maybe he was worried I might not be quite as sure-footed with the extra load, and might slip on the unfamiliar paths and injure myself. Or maybe he just thought it made him and Lal look bad. Whatever the reason, unfortunately I didn’t get to find out whether I could make the whole afternoon carrying a porter’s cargo.
I was pleased, though, to discover that not only could I lift it in the first place, I didn’t actually find it that heavy. Inconvenient and unwieldy, yes – mostly because it has a high centre of gravity, especially when perched atop my gangly legs. But I was relieved to conclude that actually I didn’t need to feel absolutely terrible about the amount of stuff I’d brought: Lal wasn’t going to die under the load after all. (That said, for all my gushing bluster in my epic pack-carrying abilities, I am actually glad I didn’t have to carry it the whole way myself. We met a guy from Oregon en route, and he was on his eighth day of trekking, having walked up from Jiri, rather than flying up to Lukla. He was doing it solo – no guide, no porter – and carrying all the stuff he had for a six-month backpacking trip in Nepal and India. Bravo to him – it was impressive work. But Jesus. He looked absolutely rooted!)
This, meanwhile, in stark contrast to the loads some other porters were carrying. With no local airport higher than Lukla, pretty much everything from there onwards has to be carried up by a person, a buffalo, or a yak. (Although interestingly, the yaks are no good until you get to higher altitudes. We joked about that being a reverse altitude sickness, but my guess is that their thick fur coats are just too oppressively hot in the thicker air.) And actually, it’s mostly by people. After a day or so of seeing some frankly awe-inspiring loads being hauled up by some remarkably wiry Sherpas, we quickly learned to appreciate that every time we spotted a fridge or washing machine or concrete mixer up in the mountains, odds are on it came up on someone’s back. Talking to Jay Ram and Lal, we found out that while porters on expeditions such as ours are paid a flat rate, and only supposed to carry up to 30kg, porters ferrying goods have no such limit and are paid by weight. Apparently it’s not uncommon for the little human nuggets to be trundling up the hill with 120kg of stuff. Ludicrous as that sounds (especially bearing in mind that that’ll be at least twice their bodyweight – these are not big guys), I can believe it: there were a lot of Sherpas we overtook – and, ridiculously, a lot who overtook us – carrying five or six cartons of beer, or similar amounts of bottled water, and that was typically not all of their cargo.
So anyway, as planned, we arrived at the destination most of those porters had been heading for on day two: Namche Bazaar.
By now we were at 3443m above sea level. And across the street from our accommodation was an Illy-branded coffee shop. Nice. We happily sat and watched the afternoon’s cloud roll in. One espresso: 240 Rs (Nepalese Rupees), or about $AU2.60. A beer, for that matter: 550 Rs for a 500mL San Miguel. Which by my calculations, at about $AU6.10, makes half a litre of beer cheaper in a coffee shop in a remote Himalayan village, to which it’s been carried on some poor bastard’s back, than in a number of bars in my hometown of Adelaide. They also had the internet, which was obviously a god-send for us poor deprived computer nerds. (Actually, in all seriousness, it was quite useful: when we got to Namche, Jay Ram told us that he’d just heard from other guides that there’d been an avalanche in another area of Nepal, killing seven and with eleven missing and another seven airlifted out. The café’s internet access was a welcome way to let those back home that it hadn’t been near us, and that we were fine.)
Our acclimatisation day in Namche was marked as a ‘rest’ day in our itinerary, but was actually relatively busy. First up, we headed up the hill for our very first view of Mt Everest. Or at least, our very first view of the cloud that covered Mt Everest.
But at least the climb up to the viewpoint felt Everest-y: for the first time, we started to really feel the altitude. Not when wandering around, or during the day in general – that was all fine. But walking up a fairly straightforward hill suddenly takes a lot more huffing and puffing than it seems like it should, and leaves your legs slightly wobblier than they should be. It’s kinda like having woken up in the morning suddenly twenty kilos fatter, I imagine: your heart racing, and your lungs working overtime even despite a pretty relaxed pace.
After our not-view of Everest, we strolled through the Sherpa museum and a few other attractions and photo galleries up near the viewpoint. We read newspaper clippings about the guy who climbed Everest and then paraglided off the top and then another who skied back down; about a Sherpa who set the speed record for climbing from Base Camp to the summit – 10h56m (that was the record in 2003, anyway: it’s since been broken several times); about the youngest summiteer (a Sherpa girl 15 years 9 months old); about Hillary’s ascent; etc. All inspiring stuff. (Well, most of it inspiring. Some of it is just nuts. Seriously, who thinks that skiing down Mt Everest is a good idea?! How the hell do you even make it up to the top if you have leg muscles big – and therefore heavy – enough to cope with skiing for three hours at that altitude on the way back down? And how do you stop your giant brass balls from getting caught up between your skis on the descent?)
And after marvelling at the museum, we visited the local monastery, to be equally fascinated at some of the stuff we read there: like the two days per year where the monks do nothing but read aloud certain holy books, the two-week long reading of certain others every five years, and the yearly ritual involving two days of no eating, no drinking (even water), no talking, and no swallowing saliva.
With those activities done for the day, all that remained was to find the local post office (yes, there is one) and send off some postcards. For the princely sum of 50 Rs (about $AU0.55) postage per postcard. (And yes, they made it back to Australia.) Then, time to rest up for tomorrow’s hike off towards the Gokyo Valley…