This is the fifth and final part of a series of posts on my time up in the Himalayas, so if you haven’t read the earlier ones, then you’ll kind of miss most of the point of the trip. So here’s parts one, two, three and four.
After eleven days of proceeding to higher and higher altitudes each day (more or less), and having now had time for our bodies to adjust (somewhat) to the reduced oxygen content of the air, it was fascinating to see how we went on the way back down. It’s incredible how much difference a couple of hundred metres of altitude makes when you’re descending. And combine that with the satisfying realization that we’d achieved what we wanted, that we’d done it without illness, without problems, and without anything to stop us just enjoying the ride… Our trek back down to lower heights was a particularly effervescent one.
Suddenly, everything was easy.
Most of the walking was downhill, not up. And when there was an uphill section, now that we’d already acclimatised to even higher altitudes, it was finally as easy as it looked like it should be. No more spotting a simple-looking short incline only to find ourselves inexplicably out of breath, with unfathomably heavy legs, only a third of the way up.
Even better: seeing how much easier it was for us, now, than for those making their way in the opposite direction. Any time we felt even vaguely under-rested, all we had to do was look at the weary faces coming our way on the trail to realise that hey, this is the easy bit! We tried to help out their moods, offering cheery “g’day”s to all and sundry, attempting to convey with our facial expressions a sense that what they were walking towards was something they’d be excited to have experienced. But the most common response was an eye-contactless grunt and more feet-focussed trudging. There were a few people, I couldn’t help but think, who were not really making the most of the scenery. And it’s possible, of course, that our sunny dispositions might on occasion have come across as gloating. Not deliberately, of course. Well, except for that one time, towards that one guy. He was a dick.
So, anyway, it was easy. Except of course that on the way down, with no altitude restrictions and no more acclimatisation to worry about, there’s nothing stopping you roaming far and wide. And so it was that on the first day out of Gorak Shep we walked all the way to Chukhung: about 15km, a distance that would have taken at least three days in the other direction. As it was, the walk took us six or seven hours – longer than we’d walked on pretty much any other day.
And of course, while I say that it was all downhill from here, the reason to divert out to Chukhung was another sunrise climb, this time up Chukhung Ri.
After an uneventful night, we awoke for a 4.30am start on day twelve, and we took a good two hours to make it up the 800m or so to the peak from which we would view the sun’s ritual ascent over the mountains and valleys. Unlike the other two early mornings, we were the only ones doing this one: an entire peak to ourselves, just us and our heavy panting and plodding footfalls. It might have been easier than before, yes, but it was still hard work. 800m up is a long way at any altitude!
The view from the peak, though, was incredible. Khala Patthar, two days before, had been stunning for its postcard-like view of Everest. Chukhung Ri doesn’t have a view of the world’s highest peak – Lhotse is in the way – but it does have a stunning panorama nonetheless. Even more beautiful than we’d seen so far. The isolation, with only three of us at the top, made it even more breathtaking.
But after that panorama, we truly had done everything we’d come for, and we were definitely on our way back down. Suddenly, one moment, we noticed that we were walking past trees again. We hadn’t seen them for a while, having been well above the treeline. The next moment, we were walking past towns with – god bless them – bakeries. So of course in Dingboche, we stopped for a pre-lunch serving of baked goodness. (Well, ‘goodness’ is going a bit far – it was a pretty abominable stale cake, to be honest. But we had to try.) And that night, in Tengboche, I hit paydirt. A café with real coffee – Lavazza this time, and actually pretty good – and with a real cake selection. About six of them: cakes, brownies, slices, etc. And damned if all six weren’t fantastic. (Yes, yes, I did – albeit over two sittings. After all, it’s not like I wasn’t going to be able to walk it off…)
So after our tasty interlude overnighting in Tengboche, it was back down towards Namche Bazaar. Still appreciating walking through trees again. We weren’t just walking through trees, though: also through the fog and cloud.
Fog and cloud…
… That’s what they close Lukla airport for, generally, isn’t it?
En route back to Namche Bazaar, we all enjoyed a great laugh as we admired the “view” from the Everest View Hotel. If there had been any guests, they might have been a little disillusioned and unhappy with the (for that day) somewhat misnamed hotel: it was shrouded in cloud, and visibility was about 28.996 km short of the 29km or so you need to be able to see Everest from there. But that wasn’t a problem for anyone, as it happened. The hotel was completely empty. There were no guests because there hadn’t been any flights into Lukla for days now.
Point being, the cloud had really set in. Which was going to be a pain if it meant we couldn’t fly out to connect to our flight out of Kathmandu…
This was around the point in time that our guide, Jay Ram – who himself needed to fly out on time to start his next trek in a couple of days – had to start trying his best to dissuade us from the plan that was slowly formulating in our minds: to walk all the way out of the mountains, to Jiri, from where we could bus back to Kathmandu.
The walk down to Jiri generally takes five days, apparently, but we reckoned that pushing hard (basically walking twelve hour days) we could probably make it in three – which would mean we’d be on time, so long as we started out a day earlier than we had planned to fly…
… But just as we were settling on turning vague notion into plan B and thence into action, the cloud lifted. And there was much rejoicing.
We enjoyed a final night in Lukla – taking the opportunity to try the Everest-brand scotch we’d been seeing all through our trek, enjoying both the scotch (meh, I’ve had worse scotches) and some welcome beers with our guides and with Kiwi Steve, who’d made it back to Lukla at the same time. And taking no chances, we asked Jay Ram to organise for us to try for a flight out one day in advance of the original plan. And thus we ended our time in the Himalayas and made it back to Kathmandu.
Job done. Trek over. Achievement unlocked.