16 January 2003

Everest Base Camp and Gokyo Lakes, Nepal

December 2002 - January 2003

This holiday was organised through Exodus 

Monday 16 December

After an uneventful flight to Nepal, our first full day in Kathmandu started with a city tour, visiting the Hindu temple at PashupatiNath and witnessing a number of cremations with funeral pyres adjacent to the river. Sadhus were looking for tourists to take their picture for a small fee and small monkeys wandered freely around the temple area. Later in the morning we went to the Buddhist temple called Bahagwan Bahal, followed by a pleasant lunch in the courtyard adjacent to the famous Pilgrim’s Book Store, a superb repository of books and maps of the Himalayas.

Funeral Pyres at PashupatiNath
16 December, Sadhus at PashupatiNath

View from Boudhanath stupa
Kathmandu is a frantic city, but said by experienced travellers to be a good introduction to Asia, being less ‘in your face’ than Bangkok or Delhi. But abject poverty is all around you and it’s quite a shock to see it first hand. Interestingly, the Nepalese are a ‘smiley’ people, despite the hardship in their lives. Pollution from vehicles in the Kathmandu Valley is very bad and nights at this time of the year are cold, given rise to smog in the first half of the morning.
We stayed at the Royal Singi Hotel, about 10 minutes from the tourist area of Thamel, where we had dinner on the two evenings of our stay. The first dinner was held at Kilroy’s, jointly owned by an Irishman and a Nepalese. Good selection of food and clean. The second dinner was at Third Eye, an Indian restaurant where shoes were removed and you sat close to the floor in very cosy dining rooms with good background music. The food here was excellent, with great Peshwari nan (beautifully cooked bread with apples in yoghurt). Sleep both nights disturbed because of jet lag (Nepal time is 5 hours 45 minutes ahead of UK).

Tuesday 17 December

Took off from Kathmandu airport after early morning fog. Flight with Yeti Airlines in a Twin Otter. Take off 1055, one hour late. Hazy across the city then up across the foothills to the east. Views of the snowy peaks compromised by increasing cloud as we climbed to Lukla. A landing on a very short runway that is inclined uphill by about 15 degrees!

Lukla airstrip
Please go to YouTube for my video of the landing and subsequent take-off from Lukla.
A short walk down into the town, with lunch in the ‘Economy Lodge’, which was very clean. Yaks were loaded with our bags and we then set off, mainly downhill, for Phakding, our first campsite of the trip. Altitude not really a factor yet, but you quickly realise that the steady gait of the pack animals is the right one. Technically we were not using Yaks at this elevation, they are Dzo’s, a cross with cows and better suited to lower altitude work.

Setting off from Lukla
Views of the Dudh Khosi all the way, crossing a couple of very wobbly suspension bridges and seeing a lot of local ‘traffic’, mainly locals and Tibetans hauling huge loads. There are no roads up here and no motorised transportation. Indeed, most of the people up here have never been to Kathmandu and will have never seen a car! Many lodges and teahouses on the route, with a good looking one, the Riverside Lodge, opposite our camp at Phakding.
The walk took just under 3 hours. The paths today have been wide, dusty and very straightforward. I felt the altitude on the steeper sections and I’m struggling a bit with the remnants of a cold. 

Dzos crossing on quality bridges!
Our camp was adjacent to the Star Lodge, on the far side of another suspension bridge. Tent is a fairly capacious nylon ridge model.
The team leading and assisting us is headed by Pemba Tsering, a fairly young but very able individual who has excellent English, is technologically literate and has a degree in Political Science from a major Indian University. His ancestry traces back to the Khumjung area so he is officially a Sherpa, although his home is now in Darjeeling, northern India.
The Sirdar Sherpa is another Pemba, supported by two other Sherpas, another Pemba (!) and Pasang, a likeable individual aged 31 who works away from his family in eastern Nepal (Kanchenchunga region) for up to six months at a time with no means of contacting them.
After some very welcome tea and biscuits in the lodge, unpacked the gear for our first nights’ camp at 2600m. Apart from my cough, which kept me awake half the night, the sleeping bag (Mountain Equipment Iceline 5 season bag), was very toasty and the silk liner made a huge difference, somebody suggesting it improved the rating of the bag by about 2 degrees.

Wednesday 18 December

The day started clearer than the previous one, with some of the higher peaks above 4000m showing through in the early morning light. Up at 0600, breakfasted and on the trail by 0830. An undulating but steadily rising path, crossing and re-crossing the Dudh Khosi on several high level suspension bridges, one Swiss built and 120m long. Really pleasant walking through mixed woodland on a well graded path, heavily used by local traffic.

Buddhist nuns alongside the Dudh Khosi
Incidentally, a porter carrying 40kg from Lukla to Namche Bazar receives R800 (about £8), the job taking two days to complete. Some of the stronger ones double up and carry 80kg and receive £16 for their trouble! We passed several porters carrying metal sheeting for roof construction. Apparently, they were carrying 56Kgs each.

Mani stones
Porters carrying 56 kg loads to Namche Bazar!
A highlight in the morning was the first really high peak to emerge into view. Thamserku (6608m), a jagged peak with fluted ice walls, emerged by 1030 – awesome!
Tea break in the village of Monjo, followed by lunch in a clearing by the river just after we had formally entered through the gates of Sagarmartha National Park (Sagarmartha is the Nepalese name for Everest). Warning signs about the dangers of higher altitude were abundant at the gates!

Entering Sagarmatha National Park
After lunch we followed the river before ascending to cross a very high suspension bridge, before climbing a much steeper trail for two hours to reach Namche Bazar. I felt the altitude on the upper reaches of the path with a slight tightness around the head and sudden movements sent the heart racing.

Chorten at entrance to Namche Bazar 3420m
Camp at Namche Bazar
Namche Bazar at 3420m has a ‘stupa’ (a large ‘chorten’ which, literally, is a receptacle for Buddhist offerings) at the entrance to the village. Passing shops crammed with tourist paraphernalia, we turned through a gap in the buildings into a camp site on a mud surface, adjacent to a tea-house that used to be called ‘Foot Rest’ but is now known as the Internet Café – a sign of the times!
This is where my first email was despatched, a promise made and kept….let’s hope it arrives (it did).
A damp cold night in the clouds. The water bottle almost froze and I had another night of interrupted sleep –me coughing, someone else snoring!

Thursday 19 December

Opened the tent flap to clear blue skies and sun illuminating an impressive peak on the other side of the Bhote Khosi, a deep valley to the south west of Namche Bazar.
Feel rough today – headache, general ‘wooziness’ and lack of energy, but the view all around helps take the mind off it. I dreamt a lot last night, another classic symptom of mild altitude sickness.
After breakfast in the ‘Foot Rest’ internet café we set off for an acclimatisation walk to Thamo, further up the Bhote Khosi valley. A steep ascent up steps out of Namche Bazar, past the Gompa (Buddhist temple) where a monk was saying prayers, and up a wide trail to a large array of prayer flags, mani walls (these are stones covered with the Tibetan Buddhist inscription ‘om mani padme hum’, usually translated as ‘hail to the jewel of the lotus’, and you are required by custom to always walk to the left side of them) and a chorten. Looking back to Namche Bazar we got our first view of one of the really high peaks, Ama Dablam (6856m), which emerged as a white spire above Namche. Magnificent vistas in all directions at this point, although we could see cloud building up in the Dudh Khosi far below us.

Chorten at Phurte
Acclimatisation walk from Namche Bazar
Two or three hours to Thamo, walking very steadily and taking in the views as we walked around one interlocking spur after another. One of our number, Katherine, felt unwell today and had to turn around about half-way along the trail. Our first altitude victim?
The trail, which ultimately goes over the Nangpa La, a 5740m pass into Tibet (but closed to foreigners like us), was very quiet, with some light yak traffic. Ascended above the village to Khari Monastery, a haven for Tibetan Buddhist nuns. A very calm, spiritual place with welcoming people. I bought some Buddhist prayer flags in a weak moment!

Khari Nunnery above Thamo
Thamo 3493m
Porters en route from Tibet
After a drink in Thamo, we reversed the route back to Namche Bazar, although I was very dehydrated even after drinking 1.5 litres of fluid. Another sign of the altitude…..
Lunch back at Namche Bazar, still feeling a bit groggy and had a small episode of the ‘trots’ after taking my first shower in 3 days in a nearby bar/pool room/lodge, etc. Very diversified businesses in these parts! Namche has a certain charm, with steep narrow streets filled with shops selling fake branded walking gear (‘North Face’, ‘Lowe Alpine’ were the most common targets), postcards, T-shirts (‘Yak Yak Yak’ a favourite) and all sorts of local crafts and religious objects. Satellite phone services were on offer at around £2.50/minute to the UK. Returned to the tent for a nap and slept for about an hour. Felt the same when I woke up - slightly rough – but at least I’m starting to catch up on my now considerable sleep deficit.
Then, disaster, got the trots again, so stopped eating.
Finished first book and started another (‘Lost Horizons’ by James Hilton, apparently the first paperback ever published), but retired to bed by 2130 and went straight to sleep for about 4 hours followed by another restless night dealing with my hacking cough. Not so cold as last night, but some people complained about frosting on the outside of their sleeping bags from condensation.

Friday 20 December

Another day dawns, but less inclined to get out of my sleeping bag today (momentarily wondered what on earth I was doing on this trip, but that thought soon despatched when I opened the tent flap to another blue sky broken only by white, snow capped peaks).
No breakfast today…starve the bugs away!

Steep climb out of Namche Bazar
First view of Everest!
A start around 0830 and a steep ascent for a couple of hours en route to the ‘Hotel Everest View’, apparently built for and generally populated by Japanese tourists who are helicoptered in from Lukla (and often fall foul of altitude sickness as a result). Great views all around, less cloud down in the Dudh Khosi today, and golden eagles flying high in the sky ahead of us.
As the steep ground eased off, a winding traverse led to our first views of Everest and Lhotse, flanked to the right by the superb peak of Ama Dablam. A great moment! Then a short pull up the Hotel Everest View followed by lemon tea on the balcony and one of the best views in the world.

On the balcony of the 'Hotel Everest View'
A descent to the village of Khumjung and lunch in the Everest Bakery, claimed to be the highest in the world at c. 3800m. No lunch for me though! After lunch, great views back to Ama Dablam, now very atmospheric with cloud build up. Past the large Khumjung Gompa and up to the village of Khunde at around 3850m to visit Khunde Hospital, built in 1966 and still maintained by the Himalayan Trust set up by Edmund Hillary. We had a little talk from the resident doctor, a Canadian doing voluntary service.

Everest Bakery, Khumjung
Khumjung 3800m with Ama Dablam in the background
Then a descent via Khumjung and more steeply down to our next camp at Kyanajuma, spectacularly situated on the edge of a hill with fantastic views towards the Tengboche monastery. All in all, a great day…..
…but then again….attempted to eat dinner in a very smoky lodge but managed to set off the trots again. Retire to bed. A very cold night, probably down to about –10 degrees and condensation from my breath froze on the outside of the sleeping bag. A long night, especially as the tent was pitched on a slight slope. Oh joy…..
By the way, heard news today that the flight into Lukla has been cancelled for the last two days because of cloud. Looks like we had a lucky break.

Saturday 21 December

A very cold morning, frost on the outside of the tents. Yaks were wandering among the tents when we awoke, ready for a day’s work and the bigger peaks like Ama Dablam and Thamserku appearing through spectral windows in the clouds. Very spooky. No breakfast again but feeling OK.
A steep path ascending through the forest to start, spotting eagles and musk deer as we climbed. Then a long rising path to a chorten and teahouse at Mong, where everybody enjoyed lemon tea.
Then a very steep descent of about 300m to Phortse Tenga and lunch beside the roaring Dudh Khosi at 3680m. A lazy lunch, again no food for me, in hot sunshine. A chill wind, however, reminded us of our altitude and increasing remoteness.

Descent to Phortse Tenga from Mong
Mani stone, Phortse Tenga
After lunch, a sustained ascent through a Rhododendron forest up the steep valley sides, passing and crossing a number of large frozen streams and cascades. Feeling weaker now due to the lack of food and other people, Billy and Serena, now going down with trots as well. About 2.5 hours later we arrived at Dole (4090m), a very isolated spot on the end of an exposed ridge. Let’s hope that it’s not windy tonight.

Frozen waterfalls en route to Dole
Camp at Dole 4090m
Really feeling the altitude now (or maybe blood sugar levels are too low, or both?). Breathing harder with a slight dizziness…it almost feels like it’s not me speaking when I actually speak….almost like being drugged.
Warmed up in my down jacket and now cosy in the teahouse next to the wood burner, watching the Sherpa’s play football outside, their bodies oblivious to the fact that oxygen levels at this altitude are only around 60% of those at sea level. As the night draws in, the clouds are building up again, a familiar pattern over the last few days.

Nightfall at Dole
One key learning from the day: dust from the trail and dry air causes a very sore throat. Solution: a face scarf and continuous sucking of boiled sweets helps tremendously.
Today’s views were dominated by Taboche Peak (6367m) high to our right, with particularly stunning views of the Dudh Khosi as we descended steeply to Phortse Tenga for lunch.
Altitude is now the key factor in people’s minds. Several members o f the party are now suffering from mild AMS (acute mountain sickness), with Ed (a diamond cutter by trade) having to be left in Kyanajuma because he was too ill to go on. He looked terrible!
A cosy night…another book finished (story of the discovery of Shangri La)…although smoke from the burner in the teahouse made me cough very badly. A crystal clear night. The campsite is surrounded by high mountains in every direction, with a full moon creating a beautiful end to the day. A noticeable wind did blow up in the night, but this helped prevent condensation in the tent and frost on the outside.

Sunday 22 December

A clear start to the day, fantastic peaks all around. Feeling better today and the trots seem to have been defeated. A hearty breakfast of porridge, roti and boiled eggs got me off to a good start.
A fairly steep ascent out of Dole, then a fabulous steadily rising track to Luza (4370m) where we took lemon tea in strong hot sunshine. Another half hour or so took us to Machermo (4410m), where our host teahouse (once again called the ‘Yeti Hotel’) stands overlooking the campsite. Very sunny on arrival. Matthew finally makes it to the camp, suffering from AMS, a cold and the trots with vomiting. A fit young chap completely floored!
A lunch of peppery garlic soup followed by pancakes and beans in a nice teahouse with airy views on three sides.

Four of us took up the offer of an afternoon ‘stroll’ up an adjacent ridge – me, Paul, Billy and Sonja. The latter two went charging off but Paul and I took our time on the ridge, taking in great views of Cho Oyu (8153m) and a huge range of 7000m+ peaks off to the east, all in brilliant sunshine. To the south, Cholatse, Tawoche and Kangtega, all rising above clouds slowly building up from the valley below. Took a 360 degree video shot, then turned back down the ridge at 1500. As the sun went behind the big peaks to the west the temperature fell dramatically and the wind blew up. It was absolutely freezing, so Paul and I descended quickly.
Observation: more and more people getting ill! Several have been using Diamox (a diuretic that seems to help mitigate effects of AMS) for some days now, 5 or 6 of us have had the trots, three have developed heavy colds and many have developed the ‘Khumbu Cough’ due to dust, smoke in the teahouses during the evenings and breathing hard in the cold dry air. Equipment is now being tested. I am walking in three layers – sleeved vest, thin fleecy and windproof soft shell on top. The Mammut trousers are great, warm and windproof, and no need for long johns yet. The Lowe Alpine Mountain hat is fine (and great for sleeping in at night as well) but I should have brought a cowl or neck scarf as well. The balaclava will become essential as we get higher, I think. Gear to improve next time: thicker windproof gloves (ski gloves/mitts or something like my old Dachsteins!), rather than thin fleecy gloves and windproof overmitts. Also, a good supply of tissues and moist wipes is essential, as well as a good face scarf to keep the dust out.
Still no blisters, thank goodness.
The group on the hill is now fairly stabilised. Serena tends to follow behind the lead Sherpa, I follow her, Sonja troops behind me and then generally Paul and Amjit. Billy and Matthew have been out of the ‘front row’ despite their obvious super fitness, as both have been ill for the last couple of days. But I’m sure they’ll be back!
An ‘OK’ supper and dimly lit teahouse. Started to read ‘Chomolungma Sings The Blues’ by Ed Douglas. To bed by 2030, and I was the last to bed! A very cold night, although Pemba said he thought it probably only went down to –7 or –8 degrees. With a buffeting wind it was a long night. Most people were coughing during the night – the Khumbu Cough spreads! And the water bottle was partially frozen when I woke in the morning.

Monday 23 December

Another bright, clear start to the day but perishingly cold. Feeling OK with cough and congestion improving and only a slight fuzziness in the head. Importantly, no headache.
Sickness has finally floored Matthew (an engineer working for Jaguar in Coventry and keen mountain biker) and he will be unable to go higher today. He will probably now meet us at Nha on the 24th. Still no sign of Ed either.
The walk up the Gokyo valley followed the Dudh Khosi River fairly closely and after tea at Phang (4550m) we ascended steeply above the river to reach the first of the Gokyo lakes, a reedy expanse of water with the river running under a thin veneer of ice. Great views back to Cholatse and Taboche Peak. A simple, virtually level track to the second lake, known as Taboche Tsho at 4740m, this one with much thicker ice which made loud groaning noises. Pressure ridges were apparent on its very extensive surface. Great views across the lake towards Cho Oyu.

Approaching Dudh Pokhari and Gokyo
Gokyo's second lake, Taboche Tsho
Then a short pull to Dudh Pokhari, the third lake, where lemon tea was awaiting us midway along the shoreline, the cook boys having walked back down from the village of Gokyo, 10 minutes further up the trail. Superb views across the lake with Draghya Chulung 5657m rising above the Renjo Pass.

Draghya Chulung 5657m and the Renjo Pass
A good lunch with great tasting local potatoes, followed by the usual ‘unpack into the tent for the night’ routine again! The camp, by the way, is now at 4790m, almost the height of Mont Blanc! Then off for a walk with Pemba and Serena to ascend the ridge to the east of Gokyo village. Our efforts were rewarded with the finest view of the trip so far. The longest glacier in Nepal, the Ngozumpa Glacier, lay far below our viewpoint on a narrow crested lateral moraine ridge. That said, the glacier would have been some 400-500m higher in history than now. Great views towards the Cho Oyu base camp area and all the mountains in a wide arc back to Cholatse. Fantastic!

North to Cho Oyu 8153m across Ngozumpa Glacier
Camp at Gokyo, 4790m
View S.E. to Cholatse 6335m across Ngozumpa Glacier
A quick descent back to Gokyo for tea in a superbly airy teahouse overlooking the lake.
Pemba had to get involved in a medical situation at lunchtime: a German woman, travelling independently with her partner, seems to have developed a problem with very low blood pressure and could not stand at all. Using a satellite phone, an evacuation by helicopter was arranged, but at the time of writing, 1700, it had failed to arrive due to cloud in a key mountain pass that would have to be navigated. Just shows how isolated we are! If we need help, we have to rely on a satellite phone call and then hope a helicopter can get here from Kathmandu.
This afternoon’s walk was comfortably close to 5000m. I’m pleased with my fitness and acclimatisation thus far, although I plod everywhere – any sudden movement, even when changing clothes in the tent, leaves you breathless and dizzy.
A better night’s sleep, but very, very cold. I used down boots for the first time in the sleeping bag. Coughing less now, but sleep disturbed by all the other coughers!

Looking down the exit route to Phortse
Tuesday 24 December

A wake up call at 0500, ready for the 2-3 hour ascent of Gokyo Peak (Gokyo Ri). Feeling good, first up into the crisp early morning air, a breakfast of porridge and boiled eggs, and on the hill by 0638.
A sustained climb in increasingly thin air, but great views back to Gokyo as the sun rose. High cloud today, though. Not the crystal blue sky we’ve become accustomed to.
A ‘front’ group of four, plus Sherpa, soon led the pack up the hill, minus Sonja, a German biochemist doing research in Cambridge and one of the faster walkers, who is now ill in her tent. Climbed the peak, also known as Kala Pattar, in one hour 55 minutes, about 10 minutes behind Phillipa and Billy. From the summit at 5357m, we had 3600 views over a vast swathe of mountains. Everest appeared, darkly, to the east and we had our first sighting of Makulu in the far distance. A cloud plume capped Everest for most of the time. The summit rocks were festooned with prayer flags and made for good photography in spite of the high cloud.
With Billy, Phillipa and Serena on summit of  Gokyo Ri
View south east from Gokyo Ri
View down to Gokyo from Gokyo Ri
We descended to Gokyo in about an hour and had a good wash in the teahouse (washed hair for the first time since Namche!), followed by lunch when everybody else got down off the hill. Many were completely knackered and were not relishing the descent in the afternoon to our next campsite.
Reversing yesterday’s route, we came slowly past the second and first of the Gokyo lakes and then down the steep path alongside the Dudh Khosi. Once the path levelled we crossed the river by a simple wooden bridge and cut up the riverbank to very basic facilities at Nha (Na), still at a lofty 4440m. The place is pretty filthy with a sloping mud field for a campsite. More sliding down the tent can be expected tonight!
Matthew has recovered but still no sign of Ed. Our Sherpa leader, Pemba, descended from Gokyo to Kyanajuma to see if he could get him up to Phortse for tomorrow night. Sonja is still ill and Fu and Paul have heavy colds and are suitably miserable!

Camp at Nha
So, as we go into Christmas Eve it has started snowing lightly and the clouds have come in. Katherine has garlanded the outside of her and Matt’s tent with some tinsel to celebrate! Another cosy, smoky night in the teahouse beckons, with pizza for dinner. But not for long…by 2000 most people had turned in, so I had little alternative but to join them. As the tent was pitched on a slope I spent a very cold night sliding down the tent and dragging myself back into position. Oh, what fun!

Wednesday 25 December

Everything is now frozen. Condensation from my breath is like a frost on the to entrance to my sleeping bag. My liquid soap and shaving foam have gone solid. Shaving this morning (it is Christmas Day after all) was very painful as only frozen soap was available to act as a lubricant!

Christmas Breakfast at Nha 4440m
A good breakfast of porridge, then off at 0840 in three layers plus windproof plus balaclava plus gloves and overmitts. Walk down the valley from Nha, then up a steadily rising path on the eastern side of the Dudh Khosi, progressively steepening until we are high above the river again. A truly spectacular path crossing frozen waterfalls in numerous places. The group today was very slow. Billy still affected by the trots, Paul with heavy cold, etc. A bit frustrating at times due to frequent stops which screwed up the rhythm of walking.
After two hours, we had an early break with a lunch of sardines, chapattis, potatoes and beans in a nice teahouse at Thore (4300m), giving us spectacular views down to the river, but most of the mountains were obscured by cloud today. Then a steep ascent again along a fantastic contouring path before a final descent to Phortse.

View of the trail taken to Machermo on the 22nd
Views from the Nha to Phortse path

Huddled in a small family teahouse until the mess tent was erected, Pemba then appeared with chocolate, fruit cake and a little Christmas stocking for everybody (containing a badge, banana flavoured chewing gum and a loo roll!). Most welcome, and did much to lift the group’s flagging spirits. By the way, the first thing I did this morning was to open Ginga’s Xmas card…many thanks…flatulence indeed!

 'White Christmas' at Phortse
Light snow fell throughout the day but very little settled. A ‘White Christmas’ nevertheless.
It’s just dawned on me, as I write this in the mess tent, that it’s never been above freezing from the time we left Namche Bazar on 19 December. And it’s not going to get any better!
We had Christmas dinner in the mess tent, the inside fully garlanded with decorations and even a little tree. A drop of port was served as a toast and a few quarters of ‘Mount Everest Whisky’ did the rounds. After a good soup, we had a dinner of stir-fried yak steak with chips, cauliflower, carrots and macaroni in a tomato sauce, followed by Christmas Pudding (not fully cooked, though!).

Christmas gathering in the mess tent
Over dinner Pemba announced that Ed had not been able to recover from AMS and had flown down to Kathmandu yesterday, en route to London. Also at dinner, on a cheerier note, Billy stood up and announced that he had proposed to Phillipa (a corporate lawyer) and she had agreed to marry him. A final announcement came from Pemba who had heard (when he was in Namche Bazar with Ed yesterday) that he had been selected as a high altitude porter on the Irish Mt. Everest Expedition planned for May 2003. For this he will receive the princely sum of R280 per day (£2.80) for carrying a 15kg load. But he will get a chance to climb Everest, something he has always wanted to do, despite never having been higher than 6500m.
A pleasant evening that lasted to the ‘late’ hour of 2030, and then I developed the trots for half an hour again. Unbelievable! An eventful day, all told.

Yours truly, Christmas Night in Phortse
Thursday 26 December

Boxing Day dawns bright, with great views through the tent flap. An uneventful night on relatively flat ground with no recurrence of the trots, thank goodness. I did not risk eating too much for breakfast, a little porridge and an egg, but the problem did not re-occur after eating.
A steep climb out of Phortse (apparently a village with a disproportionately high number of ‘simple folk’…allegedly something to do with the local water, but local custom has it that it is because they are ‘behind’ the ‘sacred’ mountain opposite), followed by the most beautiful path giving views of the Gokyo Valley, the Dudh Khosi to the south and down to Tengboche Monastery. However, it was the omnipresent peak of Ama Dablam that kept us enthralled as we turned northwards into the valley of the Imja Khola. This is one of the best mountain trails I have ever walked, fantastic exposure to the right of us, gaining height all of the time. Views back to the Everest View Hotel. Lots of photos and video footage taken!

Setting off from Phortse
Looking back to Phortse and the path up to Gokyo
Steep paths!
Tengboche Monastery
Walking above the Imja Khola
Ama Dablam above the Imja Khola
Imja Khola en route to Pheriche

Ama Dablam

Eventually arrived at the village of Pangboche, home to a very simple Buddhist monastery at 3985m. Sat in a courtyard outside the teahouse in very hot sun as we waited for lunch to be prepared. We had clearly walked well as a group today and had caught up with the cook boys a little too quickly!
There was a steep climb out of Pangboche and we were soon rewarded with another quite superb trail giving us views of Everest, the Nuptse Ridge and Lhotse, the latter now creating a cloud plume from high summit winds. Great exposure again, with the fast flowing Imja Khola to our right. Lemon tea at a lodge in Shomane and then a long climb across alpine meadows, passing a yak farm, up to Pheriche at 4240m.

En route to Pheriche with Lhotse in background
Tonight we decided to have a treat and stay in the lodge rather than camp, to give the porters and ourselves a break. Just as well, given an increasingly strong wind outside.
Billy was the ‘guinea pig’ in a demonstration of a ‘Gamow Bag’, a bag that can be inflated with a foot pump to raise air pressure around the body of an AMS sufferer. He seemed to enjoy the experience but it looked very claustrophobic. The Sherpas enjoyed the evening with the proprietor of the teahouse, a big scruffy Tibetan, with much gambling going on.

Friday 27 December

A good night’s sleep relative to previous experiences, but the room was still freezing. Felt OK, had a good breakfast and then a 0845 start up the valley in bright sunshine. Gently rising path, crossing a myriad of frozen streams, and emerging views of the other side of Towache and Cholatse (6440m) to our left. After a break stop and a team photo session, we continued up the valley, eventually bearing right up a steep path to Duglha where we had a long wait for lunch in an increasingly cold wind with cloud boiling up from the valley below.

View north from Pheriche 4240m
The Exodus team, above Pheriche
Towache and Cholatse 6440m
Then a another sustained climb up on to the terminal moraine of the Khumbu Glacier, topping out after an hour or so into an area known as Chukpilhara, home to many memorial stones in honour of lives lost on Everest. We were in cloud by now, so it was a spooky place to be and not one to linger in.
There followed a long gentle trail to the left of the valley with the sun eventually breaking through to reveal forward views of Pumo Ri (7165m), Lingtren (6749m), Khumbutse (6665m) and the massive west wall of Nuptse (7861m). Incidentally, saw the Cho La path come into the Khumbu Valley just after descending from the Chukpilhara plateau.
Arrived at Lobuche (4910m) at 1530. Some are to camp (in fact, only Cath and I did actually camp), whilst others are going to use the dorm in the teahouse, and a few are staying at an allegedly more comfortable lodge (wimps wanted a shower!) further down in the village (it wasn’t, as they reluctantly accepted in the morning). Fantastically starry night. Warm, cosy lodge where I huddled close to the stove all evening.

Saturday 28 December

The wimps were right! It dropped to -18 C last night, according to a thermometer in a nearby lodge. I had a very disturbed night and probably only got three hours sleep. The sleeping bag was frozen around the entrance where my breath froze on exit and even the pee bottle froze!
We were awoken at 0500 for an early start to Everest Base Camp, although I was already dressed when the tea boy knocked on the tent. Eager to get warm and get going!
Many were slow to get going this morning, so we didn’t get away until 0645, a little later than planned. It was very cold and I walked in a down jacket for the first mile or so as we went along a barren valley towards Gorak Shep. The ground steepened within an hour or so, eventually mounting very rough, bouldery terrain as we crossed the terminal moraine of the adjacent Changri glaciers to the west of us. Some fine views were had directly above and to the south of Gorak Shep; views of the head of the Khumbu Valley, Everest Base Camp and west to the complex tangle of glaciers emanating from around Pumo Ri and Changri. Real high mountain vistas!

Upper Khumbu Valley from above Gorak Shep
Head of the Khumbu Valley from above Gorak Shep
Kala Pattar below Pumo Ri

Pumo Ri
Lateral moraine of the Khumbu Glacier
Ice Pinnacles on the Khumbu Glacier
Glacial lakes on the Khumbu Glacier
Everest Base Camp
A quick lemon tea in Gorak Shep before heading off for the final pull up to the Base Camp, still some way to go across very difficult boulder fields on the lateral moraine of the Khumbu Glacier. Up and down, up and down again, before finally mounting a ridge bounding the glacier itself. Perfect blue skies, glacial lakes far below us, glacial pressure ridges, rivers and tunnels…all on a scale unimaginable.

Everest and Nuptse from approach to Base Camp

Khumbu Icefall
View south down the Khumbu Glacier

On the approach Nuptse, Pumo Ri and Lingtren dominated the views. We then ascended some further steep ground and went on to the Khumbu Glacier itself. Great care was required as the ice was just below the stony surface and was often very slippery, with some crevasses just to add to the excitement. Finally, at 1245, exhausted, we reached Everest Base Camp in bright sunshine. Had a quick packed lunch, and then took lots of photos and video. It was very cold but the 360 degree views were awesome. A very exposed, uncomfortable place to spend any time at all. Boulders, some perched on blocks of ice like mushrooms (geomorphologists call them ‘glacier tables’) all around. Fantastic! Great views of the Khumbu Glacier, but no view of Everest from this point, having been seen earlier in the day, towering dark and forbidding behind Nuptse. Now an unseen but powerful presence.

On the Khumbu Glacier

Approaching Everest Base Camp
Everest Base Camp 5364m
Now very tired, we placed cameras in rucksacks and commenced a speedy descent, although we still had some steep sections to climb up to get back out to Gorak Shep, often on unstable scree surfaces. We arrived, completely spent, at around 1500. Then tea, biscuits and move baggage into the lodge room for the night. Had a good wash and then went to see the sun set on Nuptse. The altitude achieved today was 5364m, a fraction higher than Gokyo Ri.
Only seven of us made it – Billy, Phillipa, Serena, Matthew, Amjit, Fu and myself. Katherine had to go down to Pheriche, suffering from AMS again. Cath and Chris were exhausted by the time they got to Gorak Shep from Lobuche in the morning, although they did take a stroll up on the ridge bounding the glacier in the afternoon.
A good but, frankly, exhausting day. Felt almost as tired as the day I climbed Mont Blanc back in September.
Stayed in the lodge at Gorak Shep and during the course of the evening we met an Australian family and members of a Korean Everest expedition on their way up to base camp. The family were from Sydney, with two teenage girls and a lad of about 12, and had hired three Sherpas at Lukla on arrival, had trekked to Gokyo and had come over the Cho La Pass to get to the Khumbu, a journey taking them 8 hours at high altitude.
Sleeping accommodation was in a tiny room with a small roof window. It was very claustrophobic and there were mice running around in the loft during the night. However, it was warm and I had a more comfortable night than the previous one, probably sleeping about 4-5 hours before being woken again at 0500 for the ascent of Kala Patter.

Sunset on Nuptse from Gorak Shep
Sunday 29 December

An early start with a 0500 wake up call. On the hill by 0645 and a steep start on scree above Gorak Shep followed by a long arduous climb on a more straightforward path as we got higher up. The effort was exacerbated by altitude and the extreme cold at this time of the morning, with the sun not yet up from behind the Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse massif. I should have put my down jacket on and got quite chilled.
Assisted Serena who had been poorly since Christmas Day: she was very tired, but very determined, so I slowed down and made frequent stops to encourage her along. Phillipa was first to the summit, followed by Matthew, Fu and Paul. We followed and were nearing the top just after the sun rose up behind Nuptse enabling us all to get a little warmer.
A rocky scramble over large boulders got us to the summit for superb views of the Khumbu Ice Fall and the top sections of Everest (the best on the trip). 360 degree views including a close view of Pumo Ri and my favourite, Lingtren. We saw an avalanche occur on the lower slopes of Nuptse. Overall, one of the best tops I have ever climbed, but we got deeply chilled taking pictures and using the video camera at the top. Hands in single layer gloves went numb very rapidly.

Everest and Nuptse from Kala Pattar
Everest and Nuptse from Kala Pattar
Lingtren from Kala Pattar
Mount Everest
On the summit of Kala Pattar
Pumo Ri (7165m) with summit of Kala Pattar in foreground
View west from Kala Pattar
Stumpy on the summit of Kala Pattar 
Changri Shar Glacier from Kala Pattar
My highest ascent yet at 5545m, taking two hours followed by a steep descent lasting an hour. Lemon tea at Gorak Shep, then a swift departure with Pemba ‘3’ to Lobuche. Had forgotten just how hard this path was, staying up at a high level, crossing the very rough lateral moraine of the Khumbu Glacier and then finally descending to an easier valley walk into Lobuche. A quick lunch of soup, then off again on the straightforward trail to Pheriche. A slight rise up to the Everest memorial stones, this time in brilliant sunshine with an enormous mountain backdrop, followed by a long descent and valley walk in increasing wind and overhead cloud build up. Same lodge as before with another night inside. Expecting the room to be just as cold as last time!

Chukpilhara, memorials to lives lost on Everest

We effectively split into three groups today: the ‘fit and fast’ like Phillipa (her partner Billy, a Royal Navy diver, had virtually run up and down Kala Pattar the previous afternoon because he wanted to see the sunset on Everest and have a lie in the following morning…he got up there in 48 minutes!). Then there was the core group of plodders, including me, and then the sick (Sonja, still ill but recovering and Amjit who was just knackered).
All in all, a long hard day in the high mountains, but we’ll all feel better at ‘lower altitude’ with an even bigger height loss to Tengboche planned for tomorrow. Overnight, the room in the lodge at Pheriche was just as cold as last time but I had my best night’s sleep of the trip so far. Still high, at over 4200m, but better acclimatised now, so it can only get better! A ‘lie-in’ to 0800 on the cards and a shorter day tomorrow to look forward to.

Monday 30 December

A late start from a bright and sunny Pheriche. Leaving at 0945, we crossed the Lobuche Khola and headed down to Pangboche, this time taking lemon tea in the lower village. Great views back to Lhotse and growing vistas of Ama Dablam once again. I was in a rather unsocial mood today, preferring to keep my own company on a superb traversing path to the river crossing below Tengboche. I suppose it’s the fact that we’re really leaving the very high country now (although we’re still at 4,000m plus!). And, of course, your mind turns to home – missing my family like crazy now and still almost a week before I get back. This is the cost of this trip. A fantastic journey, but one that has meant that I’ve missed three weeks of family life, especially during the festive season (when I should really have been there!).
After crossing the Imja Khola on a very high but robust suspension bridge (with beautiful ice encrusted waterfalls far below), there was a long climb through the woods to Tengboche, home to one of the largest Buddhist monasteries in the region. A late lunch in a smoky teahouse adjacent to a rather shabby campsite, followed by a visit to the monastery. Here, we sat on the side of the main prayer room, watching the monks go through their prayer routines. Mainly this comprised of incomprehensible mumblings, much clashing of cymbals and banging of drums with intermittent horn blasts. OK, but…..

Camp at Tengboche
Everest, Lhotse and Ama Dablam from Tengboche
Inside Tengboche Monastery

View of the path taken on Boxing Day, from Tengboche
Then a walk on to a ridge running west from the monastery, affording magnificent views of the Gokyo valley, the valley down to Namche Bazar, and the Imja Khola valley with the summits of Everest, Nuptse and Ama Dablam rising above it. Superb! All followed by a cosy dinner in the very smoky lodge and off to bed by 2115, late by normal standards!

Tuesday 31 December

Ama Dablam and Tengboche Monastery
New Year's Eve, view north from Tengboche
New Year’s Eve! Awoke to bright sunshine, so got up quickly and went off on to the ridge along from the monastery to get some more shots and video footage as the sun rose. Good breakfast and off by 0930 to descend to the river and cross over the bridge to reach Kyanajuma. A sustained descent of some 600m took just over an hour in very dusty conditions, with lemon tea for refreshment at the bottom of the hill, with water driven prayer wheels on display at the tiny hamlet of Phunki Thanga.
Crossed the bridge, then slogged up the hill to Kyanajuma where we had a good lunch of fried rice. The afternoon was characterised by a superb ‘balcon’ walk to Namche Bazar, which we reached at 1500. Before we descended to the campsite we visited the Sherpa Museum that had a good display of Everest memorabilia.

View from trail en route to Namche Bazar from Kyanajuma
To the same campsite as before, with cloud and slight slow greeting us just as it had almost a fortnight earlier. Déjà vu! Had a shower, the first time in ages, although it consisted of two buckets of warm water in a private cubicle for me to undress in…the water pipes had frozen. I then retuned to the Internet café and sent my second email home…I really hope it gets there.
Then we settled down for dinner and some beer, whisky and sherry in the run up to New Year. Dinner consisted of yak steak, burnt to a crisp, with roast potatoes and pasta in tomato sauce, followed by Christmas Pudding (better cooked this time!) and a cake made by our cook for the occasion. No cream for cake decorating available up here, so he had crafted the words ‘Happy New Year 2003’ in spaghetti!!
A fun evening, had four cans of San Miguel, and Pemba led with some of his round table games. We were all knackered by 9.30 p.m., so it was suggested that we ‘bring forward’ the turn of year to 2200, a proposal which won universal agreement, especially as Billy, Phillipa, Serena and Cath were off at 0700 the following morning to walk all the way to Lukla and attempt to get a plane down to Kathmandu a day early.
Consequently, I was in bed by 1015, although some others did stay up to gone 2 a.m. drinking ‘Mount Everest Whisky’ and playing cards. It had started snowing when I went for my ‘shower’ earlier in the day and by the time I had turned in 6’’ had fallen. Saggy tents! Not a bad night’s sleep but the dust from the day’s trail eventually got me coughing again.

New Year's Eve, Namche Bazar
Wednesday 1 January

Woke up at around 0700. It had snowed quite heavily during the night and the wind had drifted the fine icy snow around the campsite. We had a slow start as there was a ‘lie-in’ allowed for this morning and we hung around after breakfast with a plan for early lunch and a start to our descent at around noon. Bought three tee shirts in Namche Bazar for the princely sum of R1000 (about £10) – they were ‘Yak, Yak, Yak’ shirts with embroidered wording.
After lunch, we set off for the descent from Namche Bazar, with the steeper sections made awkward by the snow that had been compressed into ice by the many boots and yak feet which use the trail up from Lukla. You can sense we are getting closer to civilisation. A hour or so of sustained concentration (thank goodness for walking poles!) and we reached the high level suspension bridge over the Dudh Khosi and, after one other tricky rise and descent, settled down to glorious (flat) walking alongside the river, with the boulders covered in snow…beautiful.

New Year's Day in Namche Bazar

A stiff climb took us back up to the gates of the Sagarmartha National Park and straight into the village of Monjo. Lemon tea and Snickers in a small teahouse, then down to our destination for the night, technically in Chumoa, at an altitude of 2840m. I really did not fancy camping tonight (nor did anyone else except for Katherine and Matthew), so I elected, with six others, to stay in a small room in the lodge. Settled down to write this at 1630, having sorted my gear out….feels like it’s going to be a long night. Most people are now focused on just getting to Lukla and getting a flight out, which, of course, is never guaranteed because of changeable weather conditions. I was no exception.

Thursday 2 January

A relatively good night’s sleep and up, reluctantly, at around 0800. Breakfast, and then off on to a very icy trail at around 0845. The path was particularly tricky on the downward sections and required considerable care, especially as we now passed through numerous small hamlets where snow had thawed from roofs the previous day and had frozen solid on the paths below overnight.

Descent to Lukla

Dudh Khosi

Surprisingly, it was a longer walk than I had expected (I certainly would not have wanted to walk from Namche Bazar to Lukla in one day like our fellow trekkers had done the day before, especially after a night of snow). We stopped for tea at Phakding, opposite our first campsite, and overlooking the river in beautiful sunshine. Then uphill to Thado Goshi for a good lunch overlooking the valley coming down from Kurum Kanguru (6367m), again in hot sunshine which we enjoyed on a balcony outside. In fact, it was very hot and Pemba remarked that this was like a typical October’s day.

Final pull back up towards Lukla
Approaching Lukla
After lunch a long climb back up to Lukla (don’t recall losing this much height on our way out!) that took about two hours and was sustained all the way. We eventually arrived at the Economy Hotel in Lukla around 1545 and immediately ordered a beer…much to celebrate! Pemba told us that the group doing the same expedition but starting the week after us had had a nightmare getting out of Nha due to the snow and one of their number had to be evacuated by helicopter due to AMS (assisted by Pasang, who Pemba had sent up to help).
A couple of beers followed by a long shower and a good sort out of gear. I have decided to donate some socks I didn’t like, my Lowe Alpine gaiters (with fiddly underboot fastenings which were useless) and some shirts that were far too big for me due to my recent diet and fitness programme. Plus those horrible padded Wynnster trousers and my filthy Lowe Mountain Hat that I had lived in, day and night, for best part of two weeks.
As I write this, the sun is setting and I pray for a clear day so that we can fly out of Lukla early tomorrow (today’s flights had been delayed by cloud/smog in Kathmandu). A good evening beckons, nevertheless!
Excellent dinner with some very hot chilli sauce to go with our fried chicken (well, I assume it was chicken!) and coleslaw salad. All washed down with another San Miguel and some Nepalese Rum.
As usual, I got carded to present the thanks and tips to the whole trekking crew, including the three yak boys, five cook boys and four Sherpas, Sirdar Pemba, Pemba 3, Pasang and Om. We plan to say our formal ‘thank you’ to our Head Sherpa, Pemba, in Kathmandu. Their tips will have ranged from about £15 to £30 for just under three week’s work. Pemba had then organised the clothes and equipment donated by the group (as is customary) into bundles and these were distributed by lottery. My Lowe Alpine Mountain Hat ended up with Om, who immediately replaced his own hat with it, despite its incredibly filthy state.
To bed by about 2100. Woken by coughing (again!) and the noise of the Sherpas coming to bed around 2300. There were no curtains in the room, so when I did wake up I had a look at the sky to check if it would be clear enough for our flight out. It remained clear until dawn. Let’s keep our fingers crossed!

Friday 3 January

The day dawned bright and clear. I was eager to get going but fog and probably pollution in Kathmandu meant the first plane to get into Lukla did not arrive until late morning. We finally flew out in the early afternoon, having been amused by the incredibly superficial security checks and chaotic luggage handling process.

Lukla Airstrip
The flight took an uneventful 45 minutes although the take-off was a great experience. The Twin Otter gets to the top of the sloping runway, revs the engines up to full power before releasing the brakes, and then goes for it! Straight down the runway and up into the air in about 10 seconds before the runway ends above a steep drop down into the valley below….
On the flight we could see the Annapurna’s to the west, then Manuslu and the Langtang mountains, a superb vista as we tracked west over the foothills and terraced fields towards Kathmandu.
We reached the Royal Singi Hotel at around 1500. Room service, bath and a good sort out before despatching postcards (which finally arrived in the UK on the 23 January). The city was as vibrant, noisy and smelly as ever – a bit of a shock after the quiet chill of the mountains. We had dinner at the ‘Third Eye’, another good Indian meal was enjoyed by all, and we presented Pemba with his tips (about £10 each) and our thanks.

Saturday 4 January

A slow start for everybody, with breakfast in the hotel. Two cabs took five of us to Baktapur, a town almost 12 kms east from Kathmandu. An exhilarating ride in horrendous traffic and polluted air. The town was scruffy (as expected) and still affected by exhaust fumes, but had a big concentration of historic buildings, Hindu temples, Buddhist temples, squares (including an interesting ‘Potter’s Square’), but we were all not particularly motivated to spend too much time looking at the details and therefore avoided engaging local student guides who constantly approached us for work.

A return trip one hour later and we arranged to be dropped off in Thamel, the main tourist district of Kathmandu. We went straight to Pilgrim’s, the restaurant adjoining the bookstore we’d visited before, where I enjoyed an excellent chicken tikka and a beer before going off to buy a few more books on the Himalayas from this well stocked shop. We then went shopping for Pashminas and, after haggling in three different stores, five of us bought 21 of them between us for an average of R2200 each (about £22 compared to up to £150 for a 100% Pashmina in the UK!). Back to the hotel by rickshaw and a couple of hours spent lounging around with a book and a pile of chocolate.

We had an early dinner, going by bus to Thamel and enjoying a really superb Thai meal in a restaurant called Ying Yang, next to Third Eye. The soup came in a stone pot, heated by charcoal underneath…one of the best soups I have ever had. Back to the hotel and a relatively good night’s sleep.

Sunday 5 January

Homeward bound. Up at 0530, breakfast and off to the airport where we subject to a two hour delay because of early morning fog. Then a mere 12.5 hours back to London with a very quick transfer at Doha in Qatar. Home by 2200!


Twenty three days to journey to and from a destination I have longed to visit for almost 30 years. A great experience and one to be recommended to anybody who has a penchant for remote places and huge landscapes. The journey can be done in October and November, but it will be much hotter and dustier on the trail, with dehydration a big issue to combat on a daily basis. December is a good time, with clear weather and cooler days, but it would have been a far more serious undertaking had the snow come earlier. Many of the trails would have been impassable in deep snow because of avalanche risk or the sheer exposure to steep drops and the inherent danger of a slip.
April and May are better for seeing the trees and flowers bloom, but cloud build up in the afternoons can usually be expected.
One word of warning for those who, upon reading this, feel moved to go on this trek. Physical fitness is a must, but the main challenge is to put up with the privations of camp life, fairly plain and, at times, repetitive food, and the inevitable illness resulting from altitude and bacteria we’re not normally exposed to in the UK. But, take it from me, it’ll be worth it. Go on, go for it!

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