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.


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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!)