Trekking the Himalayas, part 3 – the Chola Pass and up the Khumbu Valley

If you haven’t been following along, here’s posts one and two of the series so far.

The Spaniards (see previous post) didn’t make it out of Tangnag that morning (day eight).  I’d heard them talking – loudly – through the night (tea houses in the Himalayas don’t exactly have the thickest walls, and these gents seemed to be that all-too-common type of traveller who’s incapable of adjusting the decibel level to match an environment that’s not their home country), and they hadn’t exactly sounded like they were enjoying their stay.  Nor, at 1am, did they sound much like they were enjoying each other’s company either.  They’d insisted the night before that it was just a cold, or some bad food, or something like that, but it seemed to us that they’d be in trouble if they didn’t improve and if it did turn out to be altitude sickness.  Getting out of Tangnag is like the stories your Dad tells you about walking to and from school when he was a boy:  uphill both ways, in the snow.

(Spoiler:  we saw the Spaniards again later in the trip – they made it just fine.  So I guess there isn’t really a moral to this story.  They rested up for that day and then, feeling a little better, crossed the Chola Pass the next.  A particularly stupid thing to have done, if you ask me, given the difficulty of the pass and the situation you’d find yourself in if something went wrong.  But they didn’t ask me, and that’s probably for the best, so I suppose we’ll just leave it at that…)

First light leaving Tangnag for the Chola Pass

First light leaving Tangnag for the Chola Pass

Anyway, the Spaniards missed the early morning, but we didn’t.  We were breakfasted and on the trail by 5.45am.  We knew to expect the Chola Pass to be the most difficult part of the trek, so we were anticipating a tough day.  And, y’know, being out and about already before six is nothing if not the start to an inevitably tough day.  Albeit that there is definitely something to be said for watching the sun spread across the mountains in the morning…

Approaching the Chola Pass from Tangnag in the early morning

The shadows of the mountains slowly recede in the early morning sun

The first task of the day was a short-ish but persistent uphill stretch up to a viewpoint across the glacier we were to cross to get to the pass.  The bleary-eyed pre-sunrise beginning to the day slowly but surely transformed into a clear bright sky with the sunlight slowly making its way across the dew-covered valleys.

We rewarded ourselves with a short break spent looking out across the glacier we were to cross, trying (unsuccessfully, for us followers, anyway) to discern our path over it.  We then spent the next hour or so picking our way carefully across the ice, along a trail that I had difficulty spotting even when it was pointed out to me, and which apparently changes almost weekly as the glacier moves and melts and refreezes.

The Chola Pass, looking a much easier and less daunting climb than it actually is

The Chola Pass, looking a much easier and less daunting climb than it actually is

Despite our healthily cautious progress across the glacier, the pass itself arrived quickly enough, and presented itself as an appropriately foreboding obstacle.  It’s a steep rocky slope covered in loose gravel and other debris, and I’ll happily admit that it was a reasonably tricky scramble up at times.  (Not helped, I’m afraid, by a digestive system that was uncomfortably growling its complaints at the distinct lack of fresh fruit and vegetables up in the hills.  Further details probably not required, except to say that I made an even greater effort to pick the more vegetable-heavy, and less stodgy, meal options from here onwards!)

Looking back the way we came, from the Chola Pass, as the sun makes its way across the valley

Looking back the way we came, from the Chola Pass, as the sun makes its way across the valley

Triumphantly, though, we made it to the top, two hours after our pre-dawn setting out.  And in addition to the ubiquitous prayer flags, we were also greeted by a fantastically picturesque view of the snow-covered glacier on the other side.  A view we were quite happy to contemplate for a good half hour or so, as we took another well-deserved rest.

The snow-covered glacier on the other side of the Chola Pass

The snow-covered glacier on the other side of the Chola Pass

At this point, we could happily continue content in the knowledge that the rest of the day’s walking would be (a) gloriously scenic, and (b) wonderfully downhill.  Both of which made for a fantastic remainder of the morning, as we made our way at a relatively gentle pace towards our destination for the night, Dzonghla.  Crossing the snow (the only snow we’d actually directly come across over the whole trek) made for some amazing views, and we counted ourselves lucky that we had such fantastic weather for it – especially as the cloud started to set in later in the morning.  We didn’t envy the couple we encountered going the other way at 11am (five hours into our day’s walk, two hours into theirs), who would no doubt be scrambling around over the pass once the cloud had really set in in the early afternoon, probably not enjoying the limited visibility and the cold for their descent and subsequent trip across the glacier back to our starting point of Tangnag.

Crossing the snow-covered glacier after the Chola Pass

Crossing the snow-covered glacier after the Chola Pass

Finally, we arrived at Dzonghla bang on six hours after we’d set out in the morning, getting in shortly before noon.  Ready for lunch (vegetables!) and a nap.

Speaking of vegetables, I suppose I haven’t really commented on the food we were using to fuel our journey.  Food was definitely one of the aspects of the trek where I hadn’t really known what to expect.  Obviously, there are limits on the variety you can expect at altitude:  the remoteness means that you’re unlikely to enjoy a breakfast of mango and fresh yoghurt each day, and the height obviously has some pretty relevant effects on the actual cooking process too.  (What with water boiling at lower temperatures, etc.)  So we got pretty used to the regular consumption of a few recurrent themes.  Plenty of rice, for example.  (Vegetable fried rice was a popular option throughout our three weeks on high.)  And lots of potato.  (It’s one of the easiest staples for them to grow up in the mountains.)  A decent few brothy soups, on occasion.  A not-very-inventive range of ways of cooking what little non-potato vegetable matter was available.

Much to my distress, there was not much meat.  And, worse, you didn’t necessarily trust what there was, since, as we saw – and smelled;  oh god, the smell – on more than one occasion, it had almost invariably came up on someone’s back in the sun.  So I generally tried to make up for meatlessness by picking whatever on the menu looked likely to contain the most eggs.  Which was not especially difficult, it has to be said:  I clearly wasn’t the only person who’d cottoned on to the idea that maintaining a decent protein intake was probably a good idea.

But in fairness, I was actually quite impressed with the food.  And damn, did I gain a new appreciation for the wonders of a simple hot chocolate at the end of a good day’s walk.  Or a good ginger or cinnamon (aka masala) tea.

And if nothing else, it was hard not to be impressed by the price of the food.  Ours was all included in the package deal we’d bought – but even if it hadn’t been, we’re talking three to five dollars for a pretty filling meal.  And not only that, at most of the tea houses we stayed at overnight, the accommodation gets thrown in at a pretty heavy discount – sometimes free – so long as you’ve eaten dinner there.  So it’s hard not to call that a bargain.

The view of the valley that awaited us on the climb down after the Chola Pass

The view of the valley that awaited us on the climb down after the Chola Pass

Anyway, after appreciating yet another pretty decent meal, we spent the afternoon in the tea house at Dzonghla quietly, chatting to a motley assortment of other travellers.  We met a friendly Israeli woman who was doing her trek completely solo:  an impressive effort (although some points deducted given that a couple of hours after we’d crossed the Chola Pass, our guide Jay Ram had called out to her to point out that she was going the wrong way, following the glacier down into a relatively treacherous section, having not seen the path branch off above).  She seemed to be having a fantastic time in the mountains, just like us, and we were definitely taken by the idea of simply wandering up from Lukla by yourself with a tonne of time on your hands and with very little in the way of definite plans for your trek.  Apparently she was doing very well on her own, although she said she’d been a little humbled by the experience of getting to the Chola Pass in the morning:  she’d sensibly hired a porter from Tangnag just to show her the way across the glacier to the pass, and been a little surprised to discover come morning that her guide was a sixteen-year-old girl who not only showed her the way in a fairly spritely fashion, but carried her (comparatively heavy) pack as well.  We murmured that we’d seen that, too, and had been somewhat embarrassed by our own struggles across the terrain as she and her guide had bounced on ahead of us after an even earlier start!

After our new Israeli friend took her leave to get back to maintaining her incredibly detailed journal (which definitely put me to shame!), we met the table to our right:  a group which included one complete dipshit of an Australian who was happily boasting that he was sure he’d had a cerebral oedema (one of the more severe possible consequences of altitude sickness – an excess of fluid in the brain, which can be quite dangerous) a few days earlier in Gokyo, but had slept it off without taking any medical advice and continued on over the Chola Pass a day ahead of us.  Apparently, he was happy to explain to us at length, he was fine now and planning to proceed as though nothing had happened.  I presume he thought this made him sound cool, rather than, say, mentally deficient.  (He had a number of other … interesting … contributions to the conversation.  None of which seemed to stand up to more than two or three questions’ worth of scrutiny, in what can only be described as a complete shock to us all.)  We didn’t really talk much with the rest of his group:  partly because they mostly couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and partly because they seemed to be listening a little too intently to far too much of the crap coming out of his pie hole.

There was also another group whom we met that afternoon/evening, although only insofar as they wandered up to our table asking if we had any “medicine”.  When we suggested that we were travelling prepared with a few precautionary supplies, but that “medicine” was a fairly vague request and could they be more specific about what they were after?, they said that one of the guys in their group had a fever, but that they didn’t think it was because of the altitude, since a few of them had been (non-specifically) “sick” recently.  So, did we have any “medicine”?  Dipshit Australian – probably not the first person I’d have turned to for medical advice in any case, given his cerebral oedema grandstanding – made a big show of offering paracetamol, apparently under the impression that he was generously proposing something he really technically shouldn’t be, allowing the infinite goodness of his heart to overcome his otherwise full respect for the careful control of pharmaceutical substances in Nepal.  (Actually, you can buy pretty much anything over the counter at a pharmacy in Nepal, no questions asked.  I’d hardly be surprised if there were people up in the mountains with ‘just-in-case’ supplies of morphine.)  The questioner then offered that he didn’t know what paracetamol was, at which point Captain “My most recent medical decision was to keep doing more of the thing that gave me what I think was a particularly acute and dangerous condition, and hope it all went away” said that he wasn’t really supposed tell him in detail because he wasn’t a doctor, but, hint hint, it was there if it was wanted, and, hint hint, it might well help.  (It turned out our questioner didn’t know what Diamox was either – it’s the standard AMS medication which you should probably know a little about before heading to altitude – nor was he particularly sure what the symptoms of AMS were, although he was relatively confident his friend didn’t have it.)  We contributed that probably it wasn’t a great idea to take “medicine” that you’ve never heard of, and that paracetamol was not likely to help a “fever” anyway.  And maybe trying to find some actual medical advice from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, perhaps in one of the clinics in several of the towns in the area, might be a good idea?  And then we went off to find someone else to talk to – unsuccessfully, as it happens, so we amused ourselves for the rest of the evening, taking long exposure night photos and generally bumming around…

The night sky in Dzonghla, with a beautiful misty mountain backdrop dimly illuminated by the moonlight

The night sky in Dzonghla, with a beautiful misty mountain backdrop dimly illuminated by the moonlight

We concluded that between the Spaniards, dipshit Australian, and the random “medicine” seekers, this, apparently, was the day for us to be reminded that while I’ll happily insist that travelling is actually really quite easy – remarkably moreso than a lot of people might expect – and requires much less planning than you might think, some basic preparatory knowledge and forethought generally doesn’t go astray.  Also to be reminded that there are a lot of idiots around, wherever you are in the world.

After an otherwise uneventful night, the next day – day nine – was finally time to head up to Gorak Shep, the town in the Khumbu Valley right before Everest Base Camp.  Compared to the previous day, this was a walk in the park.  Breakfast wasn’t until 7am, and we left at a leisurely 8.15, before stopping at 10.30 in Lobuche for lunch for a gentle hour and a half – the last half hour of it spent in pleasant conversation with the Israeli woman we’d met the previous afternoon.  After which we strolled the last two and a half hours up the valley to Gorak Shep, not particularly fazed any more by the steep up and down (more up than down!) towards as we approached our destination.

On the way to Gorak Shep

On the way to Gorak Shep

We had a lazy afternoon and evening – Chris having a nap, me reading, for fear of not being able to sleep at night if I closed my eyes this early.  And we popped out for an afternoon stroll to get a look at the Khumbu Glacier, which we’d be following up towards Base Camp shortly.

The Khumbu Glacier, leading to Everest Base Camp

The Khumbu Glacier, leading to Everest Base Camp

We relished our huge dinner, and then had a good laugh at my dessert:  it was a little more substantial than I expected, and it took me a while to make my way through an entire apple pie, having anticipated only a slice.  And then, bed.  Tomorrow was the big day…

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