Thursday, 24 March 2011

Trekking in the Everest Region

“I felt I could go on like this forever, that life had little better to offer than to march day after day in an unknown country to an ... unattainable goal.” (HW Tillman, one of the first Westerners to visit the Khumbu Valley below Mount Everest describing his journey in 1950)

While the area may no longer be unknown, the sentiment Tillman expressed of walking day after day in the mountains close to Mount Everest appealed to us enormously. There is no doubt that it was Everest itself which was, initially at least, the draw of visiting the Khumbu region and we hoped to reach its Nepalese Base Camp, having visited the Northern Base Camp in Tibet in December. Yet whilst it is impossible not to be impressed with the size and bulk of Everest and feel admiration and respect for those spending two months attempting to climb it, to our surprise it was other views and experiences that we enjoyed more and which will form our lasting memories of our time here. For Everest itself, unlike the mountains that surround it, is of no great beauty when viewed from the south, and is also surprisingly shy, only occasionally revealing any of itself and then just the tip of its peak (in the photo above, Everest is the nondescript looking grey triangle in the middle of the skyline with clouds billowing from it). And so instead we found ourselves drawn to the lesser known but to our eyes more beautiful peaks of the region: the wonderful of Cho Oyu and Lhotse (both, like Everest, over 8000m), the iconic Ama Dablam (photo below), the beautiful Nuptse, Thamserku, Kangtega and Kusum Kangaru and the numerous other mountains that jostle for position. Seeing and recognising these great mountains from different angles and in different conditions became a highlight of our walk, as were the “lesser” views of lush foothills and picturesque villages, and our interactions with local people that.

The Khumbu region, in which Mt Everest is situated, is located in north-eastern Nepal, with Mount Everest in the far north, forming a pyramid with three great ridges, along two of which run the border with Tibet. Four main valleys run down from Everest and the mountain ridge, all of which ultimately feed into the Dudh Kosi river valley, at which Lukla, the gateway to the region, sits at the bottom. We set aside 21 days for our walk to give use time for a circular route crossing and exploring the four valleys and some of the lesser walked side valleys, rather than just walking straight to Everest Base Camp and back. Achieving this would involve crossing two challenging mountain passes both at over 5300m, as well as attempting a couple of peaks, also at 5300-5550m.

To give us more time in the mountains, we skipped the six day walk and 10 hour bus journey from Kathmandu, and instead flew (again breaking our no fly rule...) in to Lukla on a small twin propeller plane. It was an exhilarating start: flying through the wind and clouds in an extremely mountainous region before landing on a very short and steeply sloping runway with a sheer drop at one end and a cliff at the other! Kieran was terrified, Rachael very nauseous.

Within a day and a half of walking we had our first views of Everest from Nepal as we approached the bustling regional capital of Namche Bazaar. We spent a couple of days there acclimatising, enjoying the stunning views of the nearby peaks of Kongde, Thamserku and Kusum Kangaru – none household names but all beautiful mountains which we were to see again and again during our trek – and exploring some of the surrounding villages. The villages at the lower levels of the region (between 3000m and 4000m) are colourful, prosperous and vibrant and tend to be set in natural amphitheatres, with houses and fields intermingled up the slopes. Almost all are beautifully situated, overlooking valleys and snowy peaks, with well built stone houses, and with dry stone walls dividing fields and marking out paths so that at times they resemble villages in the Lake District.

The Khumbu region is home to the Sherpa people, ethnic Tibetans who migrated to Nepal over the high Himalayan passes in the 16th Century, and there remain distinct similarities with Tibetan culture: Tibetan Buddhism is practised widely, the architecture and traditional dress are similar to that we saw in Tibet, while traders still carry goods by yak over passes between the two countries. Also unsurprisingly, given its close proximity, the landscape, was in places very reminiscent of Tibet: early on in our walk we followed an arid, sandy and treeless valley just like those we passed through in Tibet to the north of Everest and which we later found led to a mountain pass still used by Tibetan and Nepalese traders and which leads to Rongbuk Monastery in Tibet, were we spent the night in December.

We were, for most days, blessed with beautiful, often cloud free, deep blue skies, with only a slight breeze in the air. The snow capped mountains framed against the blue sky and with the green valleys below looked almost indescribably beautiful and spectacular. A couple of heavy snowstorms reminded us how quickly conditions can change in the mountains, with thick mist and heavy snow replacing clear blue skies in just a few minutes, and the ensuing layer of snow utterly transforming the landscape.

As we climbed higher into the mountains the landscape changed and the temperatures dropped enormously. The green valleys and fields with grazing livestock gave way to high sparse forests of pine and rhododendron which in turn gave way to open hillsides of short cropped grass and bushes of juniper and berberis, and then to sandier and more barren scrub land until we reached the desolate glacier moraine. Here the landscape consisted solely of bare rock and ice, with huge boulders and unstable scree slopes, with many of the paths snow or ice covered. After snowfall, the white glistening snow softened this harsh landscape, but at other times it felt like you could be on the moon.

At these higher altitudes, water froze in our bottles within a few minutes, and even our suncream, toothpaste and baby wipes froze in our rucksacks. Reading of GH Bullock, a member of the first Everest reconnaissance expedition of 1921 who, writing at over 20,000ft, commented “having only brought one coat which was wet, spent the evening in a sweater. Luckily I had two” we were grateful for the yak dung fires lit in the lodges in the afternoons, and for our warm down jackets and sleeping bags and multiple blankets which all helped stave off the cold. At higher altitudes too, the lodges where we stayed became noticeably more basic: in the lower regions many were family run, often set up on the back of the husband or son’s proceeds from acting as a climbing guide on Everest, and were hospitable, warm and well cared for. As we climbed higher the standard dropped with the temperature and most seemed to be staffed by surly teenage boys or young men with, apart for the odd exception, few cooking skills and no time for sanitation, while the toilets were uniformly frozen. Luckily the views and the knowledge we nearing Everest and the other high mountains compensated for these hardships.

It was sobering to realise that, with the exception of potatoes (which have been grown in the area since the 1800s) and cheese, everything we ate during the course of our three weeks in the mountains, as well as the beds we slept in, tables we ate at, stoves we sat round and everything else we used had to be carried in, usually on the back on a human porter who seemed to invariably carry very heavy loads for very low wages. One lodge owner we talked to paid porters just under £1 for every kilogram they carry in from the nearest road, a 10 day walk away. With porters typically carrying 60kg to 120kg – all from a strap across their foreheads – this means earning £50 to £100 for 10 hard days hard slog into the mountains, and another four days out again. As we struggled up some of the steeper slopes it was humbling to be passed by men carrying huge quantities of tins, plywood or even, on one occasion, a metal filing cabinet. And unlike the guides who bring tourists to particular lodges and receive free board and lodging in return, porters have to pay for their food and accommodation.

Walking in this region required us to change our walking mindsets. It no longer made sense to measure how many miles we walked, and instead we had to think in terms of altitude gained and hours taken. For example from Namche Bazaar to Everest Base Camp is only 22 miles but even the most direct route requires 7 days of walking, while we spent 3 tough days covering just 12 miles because of the enormous height gained and lost on the trail. At other times the rapid height gain made for frustratingly short days where, after walking just 2-3 hours, we had increased our altitude as much as was safe or sensible for one day. Above 4,500m the altitude proved difficult. It was noticeably harder to breathe and even slight inclines became more taxing than they would have been lower down, so that it felt we were dragging our legs up the hills rather than being propelled up by them.

Even struggling with the altitude though we made it over the two 5300+metre passes, both requiring steep and long climbs up rocky slopes but rewarded by stunning views of mountains, snow covered lakes, frozen waterfalls and glaciers (the photo below is of us at 5368m at the top of the Cho La Pass). From the summits we scaled we caught glimpses of Everest, tucked almost out of sight behind its guardian peaks, as well as 360 degree views of some of the highest and most amazing mountain scenery we’ve seen anywhere. The rivers we crossed at higher altitudes were a mass of ice and snow, their surfaces frozen solid in and with boulders covered in a thick crust of ice while the water continued to flow underneath; frozen lakes with ice a foot thick or more creaked and groaned in the sunshine as sections thawed slightly, and glaciers echoed to the sounds of cracking ice and falling rocks.

One of our most enjoyable days we walked in flawless weather to the base camp of Ama Dablam, considered by many to be one of the world’s most beautiful mountains, with spectacular views of both Ama Dablam and its surrounding peaks, and the areas through which we’d walked over the previous few days.

By contrast, Everest Base Camp, which is perched on the glacier near the spectacular Khumbu Ice Fall, offered no views of Everest and only served to remind us how cold and uncomfortable a base it must be for the mountaineers who set out to climb it. When we visited, Base Camp was deserted and only marked by a graffiti-covered boulder and strings of prayer flags.

On our walk back to Namche though we passed caravan after caravan of yaks laden with equipment and food, on their way to set up camp for the first expeditions of the year. Interestingly, yaks are frequently used to carry loads in the Khumbu region above Namche but can’t be used to carry supplies in from the roads or airstrip as they’re unable to go below 3000m without falling ill or dying from a kind of reverse altitude sickness.

The Buddhist religion is very evident in the region and seems to blend seamlessly with the landscape. There are monasteries in all the year round villages, although not all with active communities of monks and nuns, usually tucked into the hillside above the houses and painted in vibrant red and gold. Colourful prayer flags and chortens mark the top of a ridge or a mountain pass, and mani stones (stones inscribed with prayers) and chortens line the paths around the villages. While it would easy to over-romanticise the link the Sherpas have with the land – they have made tragic mistakes too such as deforestation – the landscape does appear to be an important force in their spiritual well being.

One of the unexpected highlights of the trip was having being exposed to a very different culture. We had decided to trek without a guide to give us more flexibility about our route and to save on costs but hadn’t anticipated that this would also bring us much more direct contact with lodge owners, as we had to organise things ourselves. As a result we spent many enjoyable and fascinating hours talking to the people who ran the lodges. Indeed, most of the Sherpa people we met were friendly and kind to us, and it was fascinating to gain ain insight into their lives. We left the region with admiration not just for their ability to live in such a harsh and inhospitable environment, but for their approach to life. While it would be easy to romanticise their rural existence, people seemed genuinely content with lives that seemed very peaceful and which were largely unemcumbered by possessions (although in some part this material poverty) and the external stimuli of television, radio and neon that we surround ourselves with, and seemed largely free from the drive of competition, even when competing for tourist business.

We frequently wondered about the impact we and the 20,000 or so trekkers that visit the Khumbu each year have on local culture. For such an influx must undoubtedly have affected local customs, though we hope and feel that the exchange is not entirely negative: walking boots and outdoor clothes, often mixed with traditional clothing, are now staple items of Sherpa clothing because they are warmer, more durable and cheaper than previous alternatives, while increasing numbers of buildings now have electricity and fitted windows. It would also be arrogant to assume that a few decades of Western influences would be enough to destroy centuries of indigenous culture, and naive to overlook the significance of the topography on local culture: vehicles are useless on this terrain so fields will continue to be ploughed by beast or by hand, and goods moved on foot, while schools and hospitals will continue to be a few hours walk away for most people. So while life is undoubtedly changing in the Khumbu for the local population, it still remains culturally distinct even from the life of other Nepalis.

At the start of our trek, 21 days had seemed an enormous amount of time to spend walking: longer than either of us had ever walked for before and longer even than we’ve spent in whole countries on this journey. And yet the days flew by as we quickly settled into the simple and easy routine of walking, eating, sleeping, with plenty of time to read, reflect and enjoy the views. By the end there were certainly things we were looking forward to about returning to Kathmandu: showering and feeling clean for the first time in 3 weeks, being able to contact friends and family again, escaping the cold and choosing from a more diverse menu all spring to mind. And yet we were also sad to leave the mountains behind. And while we will undoubtedly enjoy more mountain walks in the future, it is hard to imagine any other area providing as consistently beautiful views as this stretch of the Himalaya.

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