Rugged Tales

Wherever my feet may take me…


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Feeling the height

It turned out I was altogether too eager to get into my thermals. Although the air was cool when we set off from Pheriche, with the edges of the slower moving streams fringed with ice, the wind had dropped and the sun was hot. The valley – and I – quickly heated up, and half an hour after we started I had to stop and take off several of my tops or risk collapse from heat stroke. My long johns had to stay, however: the flip side of the unobstructed views of the valley that we enjoyed was that everyone else would have an unobstructed view of me in my knickers if I tried to take them off.

Leaving the Pheriche valley behind.

Leaving the Pheriche valley behind.

Slightly cooler, we made our way slowly to the top of the valley. At the bridge across the river at Dughla we waited for a dzopkio train to pass…then we waited for another…and another….and then several more. I had never seen so many dzopkios and yaks all in one place and lost count after the first couple of dozen. Ten minutes later they were still filing by. But eventually the seemingly limitless column of animals came to an end and we could take our turn, climbing up a short way on the other side for a break at the tea- house before heading off the main trail to Lobuche Base Camp.

The terrain became steeper and narrower on this side path, with a series if short switchbacks leading up and around the base of Awi Peak.

The steep climb up to Lobuche Base Camp.

The steep climb up to Lobuche Base Camp.

With one final glance back down the wide valley to Pheriche we turned the corner and headed into a much narrower one with the snow-capped Tabuche (6,495m / 21,310ft) and Cholatse (6,335m / 20,784ft) towering above us and the dramatic curl of the Chola Glacier sweeping down to the frozen Chola Tsho (lake) below. Another turn, and we made our way down a path slick and muddy with melting snow to Lobuche Base Camp (around 4,900m / 16,000ft).

A small cluster of tents tucked into a sheltered corner of a valley surrounded by snow-capped peaks I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful setting, or a more peaceful one. With just our group there it made a relaxing change from the bustle of the peak-season tea-houses that we’ve stayed in since arriving in the Khumbu.

Home sweet home: the beautiful remote setting of IMG's Lobuche Base Camp.

Home sweet home: the beautiful remote setting of IMG’s Lobuche Base Camp.

But the wonderful setting was not without cost. That night I developed my first altitude headache, the dry cold triggered a nosebleed, and the thin air interfered with my breathing and prevented me from sleeping. Come the morning I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle the acclimatization hike 300m (1,000ft) up to Lobuche High Camp. But after a slow start I felt better and made it all the way up to see the compact area by the side of a small frozen lake. It was covered in several inches of snow and I was glad I wasn’t camping up there – though our climbers will be back in a few days to tackle the peak as part of their preparations for Everest. I hope the snow has melted for them by then – although being much hardier than me they are probably less bothered by such trifles!

Meanwhile, after a better night’s sleep with my headache gone, and the tactical application of lotion stopping any further nosebleeds we set off on the final stretch to Everest Base Camp. After 12 days of hiking I can’t wait to reach our destination, and see where our climbers will be staying as they mount their campaign to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain.


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A touch of frost

Today we leave the tea-houses behind and start camping. We trekkers will be spending six nights under canvas; for the climbers it will be more like six weeks. I’m hoping my sleeping bag will be warm enough as the nights are pretty chilly even here at Pheriche (4,240m / 14,000ft). We awoke this morning to a thick frost on the ground, and a thick layer if ice inside our window. But this is balmy compared to Everest Base Camp, where it can get down to -18C (0F) overnight at this time of year, or indeed the summit, where -18C would be a warm day, and -40C (-40F) not unusual. The climbers are obviously substantially hardier than me!

The hike up from Deboche (3,820m / 12,500ft) in our shirt sleeves is now just a pleasantly warm memory. The valley was still lush as we headed up the valley to Pangboche, and the atmosphere was spring-like: the fields around the village were a bustle of ploughing, planting and fertilizing.

Spring planting of the potato fields in Pangboche.

Spring planting of the potato fields in Pangboche.

We payed a visit to the genial Lama Geshe in his home at the top of the village. Now a sprightly 81, he has been bestowing blessings on climbers and trekkers for many years, and duly tied a brightly-coloured sungdhi (string) around our necks. He presented each of the climbers with a personlised card of additional protective prayers, and one wall if his prayer room is papered with pictures of climbers holding up similar documents on the summits of just about every mountain in the area. I hope pictures of our group will be up there soon, and that the Lama will be bestowing his blessings for many years to come.

After a leisurely lunch in a sun-trap courtyard in the village of Shomare we resumed our ascent. As we crested a ridge the temperature immediately dropped and I was happy I’d left an extra layer on. In fact, I wished it had been two as we approached Pheriche in a freshening wind with the sun hidden behind the afternoon clouds.

A cool, cloudy trek to Pheriche.

A cool, cloudy trek to Pheriche.

Fortunately, although still cold, the sun was back in the morning and there were fantastic views for those of us who hiked the 300m (1,000ft) up to La Jung – the pass that separates Pheriche from nearby Dingboche.

A well-earned rest at the top of La Jung. (Left to right: Mingma Nuru Sherpa (behind), one of our guides Peter, Viki, Martin  and Julie).

A well-earned rest at the top of La Jung. (Left to right: Mingma Nuru Sherpa (behind), one of our guides Peter, Viki, Martin and Julie).

When I was here in 2009 we hiked up to this same pass from Dingboche and I took a tumble after slipping on the loose sandy scree and tripping over my trekking pole. Luckily I wasn’t badly hurt and this time I was luckier still and managed to keep my feet. Hopefully that’s a good omen for the rest of the trip. Or perhaps it’s just that since that earlier incident I’ve never walked with poles again!

Either way, I’m looking to stay upright despite the tougher terrain ahead as we head up to Lobuche Base Camp (4,880m or around 16,000ft) for the next couple if nights. Thermals on….


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Cultural exchanges

When I first joined this trip I felt a little out of place in an overwhelmingly American group. Ten days down the line, having got to know everyone, I’m much more at ease but my ears nevertheless pricked up when a new trekking group arrived at our lodge in Debouche sporting familiar accents: fellow Brits!

They settled at the table next to ours and it was not long before ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ floated across the common area from their iPod speaker. One member of the group squeezed past our table with a cheery ‘sorry mate’ – an expression that’s formed the wallpaper of my life but now suddenly struck me as extremely British. Another sported a fine example of vibrantly-colored comedy head-gear. ‘Are those hats popular in the UK?’ one of the Americans asked. I confessed that, yes, for cold weather holidays, such as trekking and skiing, they were.

As dinner was served a blow-up doll (fortunately in surprisingly seemly attire) joined the party, the stimulus for a sumptuous array of risqué jokes. As it was cleared away, the group fortified themselves with cans of lager and a bottle of rum, and embarked with great gusto on a drinking game. We retreated to bed at 8pm, but their party lasted late into the night (or at least, 10pm, which is impressive by trekking standards).

I assumed at this point that they had a rest day, and hence a lie in, the following morning but no – at 7:50am they were mustered at the front of the lodge, ready to trek. Including the blow up doll.

Ten days in something of an American bubble had given me a fresh perspective on my compatriots. They seemed to be having an absolute blast, but as they set off up the path ahead of us I counted myself fortunate to be trekking with my largely American friends – I don’t think I could keep up with the Brits!


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Religious observances

As yesterday was a rest day some of us walked back up to Tengboche after lunch to listen to the monks at prayer. Tengboche is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, the largest in the area. It’s a building with a chequered past: founded in 1916 it was rebuilt once after being destroyed by an earthquake in 1934, and again after being destroyed by fire in 1989. Third time lucky…

Despite the loss of many precious books and paintings in the fire the restored monastery is an impressive building, and the splendour of the prayer hall (and the large compliment of some 60 monks) reflects its wealth.

The prayer hall at Tengboche Gompa.

The prayer hall at Tengboche Gompa.

Only six monks were at prayer during our visit but their dissonant chants were rich and other-worldly despite their small number. Although attempting to muster an appropriately spiritual frame of mind I was more than a little envious of both their thick red cloaks and the regular top-ups of tea from a seventh monk, as my breath steamed white in the unheated hall.

If only the other tourists, who outnumbered by monks by around 10:1, had shared their discipline. Our group was in place 10 minutes before the prayers started, sat quietly throughout and refrained from fiddling with distracting gadgets, as the notices had politely requested us. Many of the others, however, arrived up to 25 minutes after the prayers had started, walked about and fidgeted creating a background static of Goretex rustles, and provided an unwelcome accompaniment of clicks, chimes and beeps from an assortment of cameras. Lacking a monkish discipline myself, my irritation at this behaviour (which seemed a poor return for the privilege of observing the ceremony) disturbed my inner peace very sadly.

Fortunately, the peacefulness of this area, and the good company of friends old and new, restored me. With such a wonderful view from my bedroom window this morning, it’s hard to stay cross for long.

The soothing view from my bedroom window.

The soothing view from my bedroom window.


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Perilous paths

Whilst those climbing above Everest’s Base Camp will undoubtedly face greater challenges the trek is not without its hazards and we encountered a number of them on the way from Namche to Deboche. For the first half of the day the path wound gently round the hillsides, with great views of the mountains ahead.

A chorten errected in memory of Tenzing Norgay, with (left to right) Everest, Lhotse and Ama Dablam behind.

A chorten errected in memory of Tenzing Norgay, with (left to right) Everest, Lhotse and Ama Dablam behind.

This being the dry season, however, even the flat paths are very dusty bringing coughs and sinus irritations for the unprotected hiker. Most of the group walked with a Buff covering their nose and mouth to keep the dust out but I found that fogged up my sunglasses to the point of total blindness – more than a little risky on the narrow rocky paths. If I took my glasses off, however, my eyes immediately filled with grit. I didn’t try it twice! The climbers made the Buff-and-sunnies combo look effortless, but clearly the optimum arrangement is a technical skill that I will need more practice to master.

My feet also struggled in the thick dust, especially on the descent back down to the river at Phungi Thanga. My feet skidded out a couple of times – a challenge my balance barely met with my head slightly woozy from the altitude.

At one point the path passed below a suspension bridge. Not a problem…until a herd of dzopkios (yak-cow crosses used to haul items up and down the mountain) passed overhead. Stepping in dung from time to time is one thing but I was less enthusiastic about having some land on my head!

A couple of the group nervously eye the dzopkios overhead!

A couple of the group nervously eye the dzopkios overhead!

But the dzopkios were arguably less risky overhead than when I met them on a narrow section of path. As a small group approached I smartly stood to the side, remembering too late that I was supposed to have gone the other way – away from the drop-off to remove the risk of being knocked over the edge. The embarrassing prospect of a Darwin Award loomed in my mind, but fortunately the placid nature if the beasts (and, on closer inspection, the modest slope behind me) proved not to be so dangerous after all, leaving me happily still in one piece to tackle the steep 610m (2,000ft) climb to Tengboche. I felt I’d certainly earned the enormous, and very tasty, chocolate brownie, I put away in the bakery nestled beside the famous Tengboche monastery at the top.

Tengboche monastery (3,860m).

Tengboche monastery (3,860m).

From there, thankfully, it was just a short stroll downhill to our lodge at Deboche, a few flakes of snow drifting in the cooling air as we walked. We awoke to a light dusting (which quickly melted in the sun) and a much more relaxing day: toasting in the sun outside the lodge, watching the mountains appear and disappear again behind their cloudy covers, and the prospect of a trip back to Tengboche this afternoon to see the monks at prayer. Happily, today there’s not a peril in sight.