Trekking the Himalayas, part 2 – the Gokyo Valley

If you haven’t seen it before, feel free to have a look at the first post in this series first.

There are a few different ways you can do a trek in the Himalayas.  The most common, I suppose, is a fully-organised group tour of ten to fifteen trekkers, a guide or so, and a liberal sprinkling of porters (often with yaks for some of the gear too), basically making a beeline from Lukla straight up the Khumbu Valley to Base Camp itself (Base Camp sits at the head of the valley, where the glacier comes down the mountain and flattens out somewhat into the valley).  Then you turn back around and head for home.  Typically, the round trip takes around thirteen or fourteen days.

We didn’t want to be part of a tour group:  we wanted to do it ourselves (with our own guide and porter).  Especially since this didn’t actually cost us any more than the big groups would have – in fact, it cost us substantially less than some of them.  We also didn’t want to budget only thirteen to fourteen days.  The quickest you can really safely get from Lukla to Base Camp and back without massively overexposing yourselves to the likelihood of altitude sickness is probably eleven or twelve days, if everything goes right.  With Lukla airport often closed for days (especially at the very beginning of the season in mid- to late September, when we were there), a delay of a few days could easily have meant missing Base Camp, and that hadn’t been high on our list of desirable outcomes.  So we’d allowed seventeen days up in the mountains.

All of which is by way of explaining that after our acclimatisation day in Namche Bazaar, rather than heading straight towards the ball of cloud which everyone insisted Everest was behind, we turned left instead.  Rather than heading straight for Base Camp, our plan for the extra ‘buffer’ days we’d luckily not spent waiting in Kathmandu airport was to take a bit of a detour on the way up:  heading up the Gokyo Valley, instead of going straight up the Khumbu Valley.

A beautiful morning's walk out of Namche Bazaar

A part of the trail shortly after Namche Bazaar, just before the path to the Gokyo Valley splits off from the main path up towards the Khumbu Valley.

The Gokyo Valley runs parallel to the Khumbu Valley, up to a town inventively named Gokyo.  Just next to Gokyo is a comparatively low peak (climbable without gear) inventively named Gokyo Ri, which you can wander up to get a view of Everest.  We were headed for that, although (as planned) it wouldn’t be til the third day out of Namche Bazaar (day six of the trek) that we got there.

In the meantime, day four’s target was Dole (pronounced ‘doll-eh’ – imagine a Canadian discovering a Barbie, and that’s probably about right).  At 4100m, Dole meant we’d be ascending over 600m for the day – more than the 400m you’d normally aim for, but after an acclimatisation day, probably not too much to worry about.  The 400m guideline is supposed to be an average, after all.  We headed out bright and early, chatting to, and overtaking, a number of other trekkers along the way.  Most others, as expected, were heading straight up the Khumbu Valley towards Base Camp – of those we spoke to in the first part of the day, we were the only ones heading off to the west first.  This was a source of great satisfaction when we got to the turnoff, which arrived after a sustained uphill climb of two to three hundred metres of altitude gain:  we continued on upwards, to the left, while the others we’d been chatting to were looking at a hefty descent all the way back down to cross the river, undoing all the good work they’d just done.  Gratifying.  Until we paused on the ridge at lunchtime, and spent our lunch break looking out over our next segment, which would have made a nice pleasant downhill ski run if only it had been covered in snow.  (And don’t forget, we were going to end the day up 600m on our previous night’s altitude, so after that downhill run, we’d have to be heading back up all over again to get to Dole.)

Still, overall, the day’s five and a half hour walk – past numerous pretty waterfalls and some beautiful valley views – wasn’t too tough, especially with our two hour lunch break in the middle.  I’m not sure whether the Snickers Pie I had for dessert made it easier (with the massive influx of sugar into the bloodstream) or harder (with the bloated heavy feeling that only deep-fried confectionary can contribute to an afternoon stroll).  Ditto Chris’s Mars Bar Roll.  But we enjoyed being on the trail, either way.

One of many path-side waterfalls on the way to Dole

One of many path-side waterfalls on the way to Dole

By this stage, we were confident that we were handling the altitude well – short of breath often on the uphill stretches, of course, but happily striding off ahead of the overburdened Jay Ram and Lal and feeling relatively spritely the majority of the day.  Good news.  We did start to notice the altitude in another way, though:  it was beginning to get noticeably colder, despite the brilliant sunshine we were enjoying.

The cold, of course, can be a bit of an issue up in the Himalayas.  Hardly a surprise to anyone, I’m sure.  But bear in mind there’s not an awful lot of fuel up there to run, say, a fancy central heating system.  Burning wood is frowned upon, too:  there’s not a lot to go around, and in any case, it’s not long until you pass above the tree line.  Petrol or gas is for the most part not feasible:  recall that it would have to be carried up by hand.  But thankfully, nature provides – specifically in yak form.  Well, in excrement form.  This evening’s warmth in the dining room, keeping us all nice and toasty, brought to you by yak shit.  Yes, that’s that heavy, musty aroma you can’t quite place of an evening.

Dole was the first time we saw it, I think:  locals spending their days out in the fields carefully laying out yak shit pies to dry in the sun, and re-harvesting them, once dried, for fuel.  Or, even more entertainingly, sticking their combustible brown pancakes to the stone walls instead of laying them in the fields.  It definitely makes for an interesting sight, and one we were to see pretty much every day thenceforth, until we returned to Namche near the trek’s end.  Thankfully Chris and I are mature individuals and didn’t immediately proceed to spend the rest of the afternoon making poo jokes.

Poo-farming at altitude

“How’s the poo harvest comin’ along there, Ethel?” “Pretty good, Billy, pretty good. At this rate, we should be all full of shit come winter.”

… on which front, Dole was another first:  the first tea house (all our accommodation through the entire trek was in places they liked to call ‘tea houses’) with a squat toilet.  And not your fancy-pants sort that flushed, neither.

From Dole, we spent only two and a half hours on day five walking to Machermo.  Only a 250m altitude gain, given the magnitude of the previous day’s gain, and we were there by 11am.  This was the first day we got any inkling of being affected by altitude, though:  both of us had (very mild) intermittent headaches during the day.  Once we’d downed lunch at our destination, however, an afternoon nap helped, and after that we went to a reassuring information session on acute mountain sickness (AMS, aka altitude sickness) at Machermo Porter Rescue Post.  This was not because of our headaches – they were so mild as to be not worth worrying about at all – but the clinic is a regular stop for everyone passing through, to make sure that everyone knows what to look out for.  And an afternoon well spent, too.  The volunteers (all Brits – two doctors, a third-year med intern, and the husband of one of the doctors) gave us all the information we could want, and we chatted away with them for quite a while afterwards, asking questions, swapping stories, and telling jokes.  (The most amusing contribution, from the doctors:  if you want to make a local laugh, ask if you can have some ‘yak cheese’.  In Nepalese, as in Tibetan – from which the word originates – ‘yak’ refers only to the male animal.  The female is a ‘nak’.)

Apparently more people suffer from AMS than I would have guessed:  the clinic had already had a couple of people helicoptered out in the previous week – and bear in mind that this is at the very start of the season, and on the less popular route to Base Camp.  Also bear in mind that being medivac’d by chopper entails a bill of roughly $10,000 (one which not all insurance policies will cover!).

The Machermo area does see a bit more AMS than elsewhere, though, once you adjust the comparison for the lower number of trekkers coming through.  Apparently the doctors nickname it ‘Death Valley’, since once you get to Machermo, you’re in a bit of a dip, meaning that to walk out, you have to go up first, no matter what direction you head.  AMS is an interesting sickness:  it’s quite debilitating, but so long as you can drop down one or two hundred metres of altitude, you’ll generally improve quite rapidly.  From Machermo, though, that’s not an option, without going up on your way out, which is liable to make you much, much worse.

After we eventually left the clinic, there wasn’t much else to the day.  After Dole’s dual firsts, Machermo was the first tea house with such limited electricity (all solar powered) that they flicked off all the lights shortly after dinner.  (It was alright – we’d expected it and planned ahead, charging up every single battery we had with us to full charge in Namche.  Recharging batteries is possible farther into the Himalayas, but it’s very slow, substantially more expensive – although let’s face it, this is Nepal, so we’re not talking about burning a hole in your pocket – and substantially less reliable.)  But the early darkness was OK:  with uninterrupted quality sleep that much more difficult at altitude, we were happy to give ourselves plenty of time to rest up again overnight.

On the way to Gokyo, just out of Machermo

An early highlight from a beautiful day of trekking up the Gokyo Valley

The next day, day six, looked pretty easy.  All we had to do was a short hike up to Gokyo, a little farther up valley.  As you proceed up towards the glacier, you pass a series of beautiful lakes.  First Lake, Second Lake, Third Lake, and beside that is Gokyo.  And we were there before 11am, complete with a couple of other trekkers in tow:  two Spaniards we’d run into once or twice before, and who had been quite happy to discover that our guide, Jay Ram, speaks Spanish.  (In what can only be described as a brilliant piece of planning, they’d managed to get themselves a guide who spoke no Spanish, and they spoke effectively no English.  Also, I’m calling them ‘Spaniards’ even though they identified themselves as ‘Basques’.  That’s because they were annoying, and I am a petty individual.)

… also on the way to Gokyo …

… also on the way to Gokyo …

Anyway, there by 11am.  Lunch well earned, and another day under the belt having reached our destination with the whole afternoon to spare.

First Lake, in the Gokyo Valley, en route to Gokyo

… still on the way to Gokyo (it was a pretty picturesque day!): First Lake.

Gokyo, next to Third Lake

… and there. Gokyo.

That afternoon was not to be wasted on anything so obvious as rest, though.  Shortly after lunch, we left our packs behind and hiked another two hours up the valley – past Fourth Lake, and out towards Fifth Lake, adding a good chunk of extra kilometres to the day’s tally.  The hike was demanding but rewarding, but what we were really hoping for was a view of Everest from by the shores of Fifth Lake.  Apparently the vista can be quite stunning.  Alas, it was not to be:  Everest was again shrouded in cloud, and so all our neck-craning along the path was in vain.  Quite an effort it was, too:  by Fifth Lake, we were up to an altitude of about 5000m, and for the first time the physical demands of climbing the uphill sections in low oxygen were really starting to wear on us, and the cold was starting to get to us a little on the return route.  But we returned with a sense of satisfaction – we might not have seen the view we’d hoped for, but we’d still achieved something in the walk itself.

Hiking out past Fourth Lake, as we watched the cloud begin to roll up the valley

Hiking out past Fourth Lake, as we watched the cloud begin to roll up the valley

We also returned with a sense of tiredness.  Once back in the comfort and warmth of the dining room, with a much-appreciated cup of hot chocolate in hand, I remember struggling somewhat to stay awake through some of the conversations we had with other trekkers.  Which I mean in no way as a reflection on the conversational abilities of, say, Kiwi Steve (as I quickly began to insist on calling him), whom we met for the first time here.  We did manage to get through enough largely mutually intelligible conversation to establish that our newfound friend from across the ditch was (a) quite entertaining, and (b) going to be travelling through south-east Asia at roughly the same time as us, so we made sure to get an email address and a URL for his blog, so that (once we returned to the world of internet access) we could pore over his posts about the first couple of days of the trek, and then watch avidly as he failed utterly to produce more than two posts over the next several months.  (No, I’m not actually making fun of him for this.  How could I, given that his first posts about the Himalayas beat mine up to the internets by a good four months?  Besides, Steve’s a Kiwi – there are already plenty of things to make fun of him for without resorting to blog-bashing!)

But beyond that, our day’s activity had us tired enough to hit the hay by 7.30pm, in anticipation of a 4.30am start in the morning to climb Gokyo Ri for the view at sunrise.  Hopefully Everest wouldn’t be covered in cloud this time!

We did manage to make it up at 4.15am, I’m proud to say.  But it was a shortlived achievement:  Jay Ram knocked on the door five minutes later to tell us that who knew whether Everest was covered in cloud, but Gokyo Ri definitely was, so it wasn’t worth getting out of bed for yet.  So instead, we started off at 8.20am, finding ourselves at the top – at our highest altitude yet, at 5360m – at 10am.  After a fairly brutal, very steep, and very slow walk.  Which in fact meant that had we set out at 4.30, we wouldn’t have made it to the peak by sunrise anyway.  Still, once we’d reached the Nepalese prayer flags marking the top, we had a fantastic view of the puffy white cloud surrounding Mt Everest.  Again.  Oh well.  Nevertheless, the rest of the view was stunning, and easily worth the considerable effort.

Looking down the Gokyo Valley, over Gokyo and Third Lake and the Gokyo Glacier and beyond, from the summit of Gokyo Ri

Looking down the Gokyo Valley, over Gokyo and Third Lake and the Gokyo Glacier and beyond, from the summit of Gokyo Ri

By the time we got back down, it was lunchtime.  As we fed ourselves, some news filtered through via the locals and guides:  there’d been a plane crash that morning;  one of the planes ferrying Sherpas and tourists from Kathmandu to Lukla hadn’t made it more than a few minutes out of Kathmandu airport.  Everyone died.

Lunch was a little quiet, and full of sober reflection.

After that, though, we were on the move again.  This time, across the Gokyo Glacier to Tangnag, where we had a relaxed afternoon shooting the breeze with Kiwi Steve, before an early bed.  We’d need our rest, so that on day eight we could attack probably the hardest part of the trip:  the Chola Pass to cross from the Gokyo Valley into the Khumbu Valley.  Then we’d turn towards Base Camp.

Thankfully we got our rest without too much trouble.  By this stage the Spaniards – who’d hurried up to Gokyo after being delayed getting into Lukla – were looking somewhat the worse for wear, with headaches and a fever and a fairly generous dollop of general malaise.  They’d need their rest too, but they didn’t get it.

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