The Himalayan Traveller: ‘Trek Reports’ 6 – A Return to Khumbu November 2003

Thoughts of a return to the Everest region had been in my mind ever since I left that area in December 1992 and after the success of the Annapurna Circuit trek in 2001 I felt it was time to take the plunge and return to this area.

As always so much of the pleasure (all of it?) of these trips comes in the preparation, and this was no exception. As someone who had been brought up on such books as John Hunt’s ‘Ascent of Everest’ and Ralph Izzard’s ‘Innocents on Everest’ and ‘The Abominable Snowman Adventure’ (do people read books like these anymore?) my feelings were (and are) that the only way to approach Khumbu is the traditional way, and if you can’t walk from Banepa, then you should at least trek in from Jiri. This certainly was my intention for 2003, and it remains an option for a future visit. Discussing the project with Pawan Tuladhar it was obvious that he would be unhappy to let me trek this route because of the Maoist problems. Unpalatable as this news was, it had to be accepted. (It must be accepted though, that people were and are ‘walking in’ on this excellent, historic route, but are generally meeting the ‘Maoists’). There was a lot of thinking about other routes, including flying into Paphlu, but ultimately the walk finalised itself as a 23 day trek from Lukla to Lukla, with no fixed itinerary between arrival & departure from Lukla (except that it was understood that Tendi [who had been with me on Annapurna in 2001] and I would not go ‘below’ Lukla).

I spent a good bit of time that summer trying to get fit – more difficult that it seems when you are trying to run a ‘business’ and two close friends are ill, but by the beginning of September I was feeling pretty fit. Unfortunately I then went down with a chest infection which wouldn’t shift and I ‘lost’ September. (It took three sets of anti-biotic to clear the infection, and steroids to get my voice back – I now sing ‘basso profundo’). Certainly by early October I was not fit and I almost made the decision to cancel – morally I would have been right, but I wanted to go, so what the heck … let’s go! (It is worth commenting that my dear friend and mentor Les Peel had died at the end of September 2003 – this trip needed to be done as a conclusion to our relationship and as a tribute to him).

The flight to Kathmandu with Qatar Airways was straightforward and I was soon relaxing in the Nirvana Garden Hotel. Tendi appeared and we had a happy time talking about the holiday (no, not ‘holiday’ – a visit to India or Nepal is never a ‘holiday’). The flight to Lukla with Yeti Airlines was straightforward and I was impressed (?) by the smoothness of the operation (one thing that the Nepalese can do well is run internal flights into mountain regions). I  was surprised (no, not really) by the big new airport at Lukla, and saddened by the amount of new building and ‘development’ in the town. One doesn’t go to Khumbu to spent time in Lukla or Namche, though: the trail is the important thing and (in theory) that doesn’t change. Tendi, Pandi porter and myself were soon on the way to Phakdingma. Those who have walked this route will know the problem with this first half day – a lot of the height you have gained with your flight is lost. Opinions differ as to the best time of day to do this walk, as time spent at the higher altitude of Lukla will help acclimatisation: suffice to say, that having arrived early at Lukla we made a reasonably early start and were in Pkakdigma in time for a late lunch and an afternoon of rest.

The walk onwards to Namche is interesting – following the valley and then climbing Namche. The weather was not good – overcast at first and then misty as we neared the summit, with drizzle. A sad thing is the loss of the ‘tea house’ towards the top of the hill. We ploughed on up the hill, past an army ‘checkpoint’ and started the process of finding a lodge. The first suggested was discarded because there was a yak calf in the bedroom. Eventually we found a nice lodge up the hill and settled down to a pleasant evening. Unfortunately the night was not so pleasant as I woke to find myself suffering from what I know know was bacterial diarrhoea.

The next three days are best ‘forgotten’. The first was a wet day in Namche, and I spent time hoping to recover. Unfortunately I didn’t and the day spent walking up to Thame wasn’t very nice. My abiding recollection of this walk was of gradual ascent, followed by a sharp(ish) drop, so that we lost a lot of the height that we’d gained, followed by a stiff climb into the village. Thame is interesting, and would be even more so if you weren’t always wondering where the nearest wall to squat behind was. From Thame – a walk back down the valley and then over the ridge to Khumjung, and into a decent lodge. The next morning I was no better – in fact, worse – and a visit to the hospital at Khunde was called for. The diagnosis was  bacterial diarrhoea, I was given anti-biotics and was told to rest for a couple of days. I’m pleased to say that the tablets and the rest did the trick – that evening I was eating (carefully) and the day after walked back towards Khunde and also walked around the village. Whilst in Khumjung I learnt that of the death of Djihangje who had been part of our ‘team’ in 1985 & 1992.

And so, slowly,  towards the Mong La …

The Mong La is a ‘pass’ on the trekking route to Phortse bridge. I recalled it from 1992 as a rather battered stupa and a rather primitive tea shop. By 2003 it had expanded. There were several tea shops/ lodges, and the stupa had been  renovated. There were now the obligatory prayer flags.

I can’t really remember much to say about the drop to Phortse Tenga, where we had lunch, and the long climb up to Dole – except that it was a change to see the details, as in 1992 it had been misty. Similarly at Dole things had changed – more lodges, including a very pleasant one where we stopped. Here we found a young European lady (Italian or Spanish) suffering from the effects of Altitude Sickness. We knew (or suspected) she had it; a Russian nurse was fairly certain; but she was adamant that she didn’t. What to say, or do? (I think she did go ‘down’ the next day). After Dole you have walked out of the forest – the valley is now more U-shaped as you move towards Machermo and the views start to open up. You become aware of the sun and its power,

A thing which became apparent daily  was the vast development of the ‘tourism infrastructure’ in the Khumbu region. It is not possible to realise the changes that have occurred over the past twenty years, unless you have seen them. In 1992 Dole – probably a hut and camping ground; in 2003 there were several lodges. In 1992 there were no lodges between Dole & Gokyo apart from at Machermo. Now there were lodges at Lutze, and along the trail between Machermo and the Ngozumpa glacier.

And so … Onwards. The walk alongside the lower lakes flanked by the glacial moraine was enjoyable … In 1992 we had walked up this in gently falling snow. Gokyo had expanded greatly – instead of a few ‘dormitory’ style huts there were now a multitude of huts for a multitude of tastes and pockets. For reasons which I don’t  really understand the lodge that we were in was not one of the most upmarket. Had there been an ‘agreement’? Was it owned by the lodge owner from Khumbu and were we on ‘special rates’? These things do happen in Nepal! I recall the night was cold but we had an early start, walking North alongside the moraine of the Ngozumpa glacier. I think it is best to say that this is a pleasant walk towards the high mountains, on a gently rising track with much of interest. Scoundrels (or ‘Bounders’) Point  is at 5000 metres (16404 feet) and is, I suppose, so called because Scoundrel’s (or Bounders) like myself can reach it without much climbing, rather than enduring the long drag up Gokyo Ri. If that is so, so be it. The trail goes on , flanked by Gokyo Ri on the left and the glacier on the right. There are further lakes and rocky peaks – the fearsome looking ‘Frostbitten Fingers’ (19,029’). In no way is the walk difficult – you are working against  altitude, but that’s all.  ‘Scoundrel’s Point’ offers what is generally considered to be one of the finest views of Everest – certainly more extensive than Kala Pattar or Gokyo Ri, and with a realistic perspective. There is a little jewel of a lake.