Rugged Tales

Wherever my feet may take me…


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Onwards and upwards

Fortified by a good breakfast we set off on day two, which promised to be significantly tougher than yesterday. After an easy start, criss-crossing the river (at least, for those not afraid of heights given the numerous suspension bridges) we found ourselves after lunch facing the 450m (1,500 ft) climb up to Namche. Although only around a third of the height of Ben Nevis (the UK’s rather modest highest mountain) it was at at least three times harder at an altitude of 3,400m.

One of the many suspension bridges on the way to Namche.
One of the many suspension bridges on the way to Namche.

But with a leisurely pace and lots of breaks we made it up to the town and settled into the Khumbu Lodge where we will stay for three nights to acclimatise. We got there just in time. As the afternoon drew to a close the clouds rolled in and as I showered before dinner I could hear the rain pouring down on the corregated roofs all around. If the shower had had the same volume of water coming down it would have been great! But given the relative temperatures I wasn’t minded to swap. And after a hot, dusty hike up the hill I was happy just to be clean. When the clouds cleared in the morning I could better appreciate what the effort of the climb had bought me. Without even getting out of bed the view was spectacular.

The view from our bedroom window in Namche.  It's a hard life!
The view from our bedroom window in Namche. It’s a hard life!

For our first acclimatization day our guides proposed ‘a short walk – maybe an hour?’ to the Everest View Hotel, followed by a further half an hour stroll to Khumjung where our sirdar (Sherpa leader), Pasang, had kindly offered to give us lunch. They neglected to mention that this involved a further 430m (1,400 ft) of ascent, and descent.

But while tiring, it was a great hike with wonderful views of Ama Dablam, Lhotse and – briefly – Everest itself. Pasang and his wife were wonderful hosts and it was a privilege to be a guest in their home. While in Khumjung we also had a chance to see the Hillary school – complete with a bust of its illustrious founder who set it up in 1961.

Our view of Ama Dablam as we walked down to Khumjung.
Our view of Ama Dablam as we walked down to Khumjung.

We walked home by a different route, and were treated to a great view of Namche itself before the final descent back to the town, and a well-earned rest.

Hiking back down to Namche at the end of the afternoon.
Hiking back down to Namche at the end of the afternoon.

Situated in a natural amphitheatre, Namche is much as I remember it from my last visit here in 2009. A little larger, perhaps, and with the addition of two more banks, an ATM and an authorised Mountain Hardwear dealer, the character of the town with its steep, narrow streets lined with trekking gear shops, souvenir stalls and lodges was not much changed. Being here on a Saturday we were fortunate enough to catch the weekly market. I’ve seen a lot of markets in a lot of countries but few could compare for the beauty of their setting, or the tolerance of the shoppers for our group (and others) getting in their way and snapping countless photos.

The famous Saturday market at Namche.
The famous Saturday market at Namche.

Along with all the usual vegetables, chickens, fuel and hardware my favourite product was ‘Close up’, ‘active gel – red hot, the closer the better’, a happy couple adorning the box. I was initially startled to see a crate of it prominently displayed – but it turns out to be a dental hygiene product. The meat market polarised the group. Some found the carcasses (in various states of dismemberment) fascinating, others couldn’t look. Personally, I could cope with the meat but was horrified to see a man selling dried chillies in bare feet. All the flip-flops were bad enough! Toes numb from the mere thought of it, I headed off for a hot drink to recover.So with our laundry done, final purchases made, email checked and good coffee guzzled we’re ready to leave Namche. Our Easter Sunday will be spent heading higher up the mountain to Deboche.

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White knuckle ride

Getting up at the crack of dawn would have been a lie-in compared to the time we were prised out of bed for our flight to Lukla. But the early start payed off: the streets of Kathmandu were virtually traffic free and half our group (including me) caught the first flight of the morning with the rest following an hour later. At this time of year, the weather is typically clear in the morning but clouds over in the afternoon, so there is a definite advantage to getting an early flight. Once we were packed into the aged twin otter, however, the relief that we’d got our flight as planned gave way to just a little anxiety. With Lukla rated the world’s most dangerous airport by The History Channel in 2010 it was hard not to feel slightly nervous as the little plane revved its engines before catapulting down the runway towards it.  I consoled myself that, despite some 36 scheduled flights a day, Wikipedia lists a major incident only every couple of years (and the latest, in 2012, was due to a bird strike immediately after take-off in Kathmandu, which was nothing to do with flying to Lukla…right?).  Even factoring in frequent cancellations, then, I consoled myself that the odds weren’t really so bad. The haze over Kathmandu initially limited the distracting effects of the views but as we neared the end of the flight the sight of snow capped peaks surrounding us was breathtaking, even from my position in the middle of the plane.  A central seat also gave me a great – though heart-stopping – view of the runway as we approached.  Just 460m x 20m with a sheer cliff above and below there is not much room for error!  Fortunately, out pilots were clearly pros and before I knew it we were safely down and drinking coffee while we waited for the rest of the team to arrive.

The plane carrying the second half of our group taxis to a stop at Lukla airport.
The plane carrying the second half of our group taxis to a stop at Lukla airport.

It was as chilly as I’d feared and I bundled on all my clothes, but it seemed I’d dismissed my flip-flops too soon.  They were a common sight amongst the Nepalis and Sherpas in Lukla so I would have blended right in – if I wasn’t such a wimp about having cold feet. Instead, snug in my hiking boots, I followed the others as they set off towards Phakding, out stop for the night.  “Follow” was the operative word as I stopped to take a myriad of photos of the glorious scenery bathed in sunshine.  Luckily, Viki is even more of a shutter-bug than I am so we dawdled at the back together.  As the day wore on the hot sun more than offset the cool air and I enjoyed a relaxing hike along the gently undulating path, through villages, across the river and round the many walls and piles of mani stones.

Wall of mani stones along the trail.
Wall of mani stones along the trail.

As we progressed, the embarrassment I’d felt over the flip-flops paled into insignificance compared to my embarrassment about my relative load-carrying ability.  Weighed down by nothing more than a half-empty 25L day pack I goggled at the heavy, bulky loads that are the norm for the porters.

A porter prepares to set off again after a short break.
A porter prepares to set off again after a short break.

Many used a traditional basket, piled high with sacks and boxes.  Those supporting our team took two of our big duffles each, and then strapped their own small packs on top, carried by a strap over their forehead.  At up to 27kg (60lbs) per duffle I’m not sure I’d be able to even pick up such a load, let alone carry it up a mountain.  Lucky for the sherpa who has my duffle, though, as it’s about half the size of most of the climbers’.  I’m wondering what crucial items I’ve omitted to pack….

My duffle (the small black on in the back row), with everyone else's (much larger ones!)
My duffle (the small black on in the back row), with everyone else’s (much larger ones!)


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Freeze-thaw

Having walked just over half of the Capital Ring (not that you’d know it, since I’ve only blogged about 10% of it – but still planning to catch up – eventually!), I’ve suspended that project in favour of a bigger and better one: trekking to Everest Base Camp.  More scenic, more interesting, more altitude, more…well…just about everything really, I am very excited to trade walking round London for walking around in Nepal.

The first improvement has been the weather.  When I left London it was -5C with the wind chill, and snowing.  On the shady roof-top terrace of my hotel here in Katmandu, prayer flags fluttering overhead in the balmy breeze, I am comfortable in cropped trousers and flip-flops.  It must be around 27C.  Bliss!

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True, the pumping baseline of a ‘Gangnam Style’ remix blaring from an adjacent building, with occasional interjections from a selection of barking dogs and honking car horns in the street below, might not be to everyone’s taste.  I’m just happy to be able to take my coat off.  If it’s any consolation, Kathmandu is more than usually dusty and dangerous to walk around at the moment as a major road widening project has replaced the pavements with rubble and some sizeable holes, forcing pedestrians perilously close to the rather ‘lively’ traffic.

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Nor is the prospect of a 3.45am wake-up call tomorrow in preparation for a 5am trip to the airport for our flights to Lukla likely to make my list of trip highlights.  Sadly, my flip-flops won’t be required in Lukla: today’s forecast predicts an overnight temperature of -7C and a high of 4C tomorrow, and it will only get colder as we climb. I suspect the coat will be going back on.

But I’ll worry about that in the morning.  Today is all about making final preparations – and then (hopefully) a bit of lolling to recover from a hectic last few weeks.  In the cause of the former we have already had a team meeting, my first opportunity to meet the guides and the rest of the group.  Unsurprisingly for a trip run by American company IMG, the majority of the 20 or so people in our group are Americans, with four Chinese and myself.  Around half, including my friend Viki, are climbers hoping to make it to the highest point on earth in seven or eight weeks’ time.  The rest of us are trekkers for whom base camp is the summit of our present ambitions, many of whom, like me, are here with a climbing partner or friend.  I’m looking forward to getting to know them all over the next few weeks.  Right now, however, I’m still processing being introduced to quite so many people who have (repeatedly, in some cases) and/or plan to climb Everest.  Listening to the guides explain the plans for the coming days and weeks, highlighting preparations that need to made, protocols we need to follow, and checking everyone has the gear they need makes me realise that all these guys have taken a mental leap that I – and probably most people – have not: from viewing ‘climbing Everest’ as a euphemism for an endeavor of such enormous proportions as to be almost impossible, to seeing as it as an achievable goal to be worked towards as I might plan to move house, or going travelling.  I guess to a certain extent we are capable of what we believe we are capable of.  Certainly, it will be a privilege to be along for part of the ride.  And so I’d better get back to making sure I’m ready to go…

My plan is to blog every few days as opportunities present, so watch this space.  You might also be interested in the official IMG blog which is updated most days.