After three weeks on the Annapurna Circuit, we found ourselves in the lakeside city of Pokhara enjoying cocktails, pizza and clean laundry. But soon we were already talking about lacing up our boots again.
“We’re in Nepal, so we should probably see Everest while we’re here…”
“True. And now we’re fit, so maybe we should just go.”
That day we bought a trekking map and plane tickets, and soon we were heading on the next adventure.
An Adrenaline-Filled Flight
Most people begin their trek in the Khumbu region by flying into Lukla (2840m). While there is a walk-in route, it takes at least a week and we didn’t need the extra training.
Lukla’s airport has been called the world’s most dangerous. Its tiny 527m runway is perched between a wall of hillside terrain and a steep drop-off into the valley below. The airport was built under the supervision of Sir Edmund Hillary, the Kiwi who first summited Mt. Everest with Tenzing Norgay.
Thankfully neither Schuyler nor I have fear of flying. As the tiny plane approached Lukla, we saw the impossible-looking runway ahead and all 14 passengers got excited. The pilots were total pros, though: we landed safely and disembarked with huge smiles.
On the Trail Again
We had lunch in Lukla to get our heads straight after touching down at a much higher altitude than Kathmandu. Then we set off down the trail. Along the way we passed colorful prayer wheels, common across Nepal— spinning the prayer wheels is said to purify the soul. New to us were large mani stones, inscribed with the traditional mantra as a form of prayer.
As darkness approached we ducked in to a lodge between villages, where an elderly couple welcomed us like Nepali grandparents. We were the only guests. Our hostess cooked potato-cheese momo that were hands-down the best I’ve had, with a fresh tomato-garlic sauce from her garden.
That evening Schuyler and I had to add several warm layers, which made me worry. In Annapurna we only wore thermals over the pass, and on the first night in Khumbu we were already freezing.
We slept soundly, and the next morning our Nepali grandmother greeted us with a huge smile and a hot water bottle to warm our hands while she made breakfast. The family’s genuine hospitality made our stay here very memorable.
We crossed the river three times before tacking the long, steep climb up to Namche Bazaar (3440m). I have read many books about Everest mountaineering, so I was excited to see this famous place. Namche sits in a “bowl” surrounded by snowy peaks. The colorful streets are filled with bakeries, art galleries, climbing shops and hotels.
Tibetan traders come every week to sell their handicrafts and the daily market is important for the Sherpa people to pick up goods. While many villagers have small gardens or livestock, most food and supplies are flown into Lukla and hauled by yaks and porters to the remote villages.
Because Namche lies at high altitude, it’s necessary to take an extra day here for acclimatization. We hiked up the ridge behind town to several viewpoints. Already we felt like we were in the mountains and the scenery was awe-inspiring.
Onward and Upward
From Namche we enjoyed relatively flat terrain along the hillside, with more peaks coming into view. Then we dropped steeply down to the river and I was filled with dread knowing what would come next.
The 600m climb up to Tengboche (3860m) was grueling and I probably disturbed some other trekkers with my loud and ragged breathing. Apparently we had not retained much acclimatization from the previous trek after more than a week at low altitude.
What a relief when we made it to the top! After lunch, we snapped a few quick pictures at the famous Tengboche Monastery, then pushed on to spend the night in Pangboche (3930).
A Memorable Climb
On day 5 we continued to follow the river, and scrubby brush replaced the juniper forests. While the terrain wasn’t particularly difficult, I did not feel well. Already I had developed a cold and the “Khumbu cough” that haunted me for the rest of the trek.
Thankfully, we arrived in Dingboche (4410m) after only a few hours. I spent the afternoon resting in bed and reading a book. 1000m higher than Namche, this is another key point where it’s important to take a rest day and acclimatize.
The next morning I felt better and we set out with a daypack to climb a steep ridge. After three hours of picking our way up the slopes, we stood on a rocky summit adorned with prayer flags. The panorama around us was absolutely breathtaking!
Ama Dablam (6856m), arguably the most beautiful mountain in the Khumbu, was the crown jewel of this view. A chain of smaller peaks lined two river valleys, and we also saw two brilliant lakes of glacial meltwater. Personally I consider this viewpoint to be the most scenic of the trek.
We made it down in time to catch the afternoon showing of the new Everest movie in the cozy village coffeeshop. The film was much more interesting because we recognized the landscapes we had walked through in previous days.
We joined up with some new friends to continue up the trail to Dughla (4620m). This section only took a few hours and while we had originally planned to continue, our friend Paloma and I decided to call it a day. We had plenty of time, so it didn’t hurt to be conservative with our altitude gain.
Our room was filled with sunshine, so I spent a couple hours reading in bed again while Schuyler climbed a nearby hill. By late afternoon, the sun had dipped behind the mountains and the temperature plummeted.
I hurried downstairs to the dining room where a fire was blazing in the stove. In this region, Sherpa people collect and dry yak dung to be used as fuel. Timber is scarce and previously unchecked wood-burning devastated the forests. Fortunately, once it’s dried the poop-fuel doesn’t smell at all!
For dinner we had a delicious plate of spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce and yak cheese, followed by a steaming piece of chocolate cake. The two sisters who ran the guesthouse were very kind and despite the cold, their place was our favorite.
The next morning we faced a steep climb right away, and I became anxious about my distressed breathing. Panicking made it worse, so Schuyler told me to slow down and take as many breaks as needed. Eventually we reached the crest, where dozens of stacked rock tombstones memorialize climbers who have died in the Himalayas.
Into the Wasteland
We stopped to warm up with tea and second breakfast in Lobuche (4910m) before continuing along the glacial moraines. While the mountain peaks were beautiful, the rest of the landscape was rocky and barren. I soon felt exhausted from trying to find my footing on the unstable stones, and my head cold was making me weak.
Schuyler looked after me and took my pack as I struggled through the final kilometers to Gorakshep (5140m). The landscape here is so inhospitable that the “village” is only a group of guesthouses to serve trekkers and climbers. Sherpa people do not live at such high altitude.
We joined our friend Paloma in the sunny dining room and after hot tea and dal baht I felt better. I spent a social afternoon meeting new people from all over the world and conversing with trekkers we had already met along the way. Meanwhile Schuyler, full of energy, dashed up to the viewpoint for sunset.
It was nice and cozy in the dining room, but when we finally retreated to our room that night it was like an ice cave. Sleeping over 5000m is never comfortable, but we got a decent enough rest and looked forward to going back down the next day.
On day 9, we left our packs in the guesthouse while we climbed Kala Patthar (5550m). Meaning literally “black hill,” this is the classic observation point for Everest and the surrounding mountain panorama. It was a long slog with 50% less oxygen in the air than at sea level.
To be honest, I could hardly enjoy our success at the top because the gusty winds were like hands of ice slapping me across the face. When I removed my mitten to snap a quick photograph, my fingers were painfully chilled to the bone.
Still, I was proud we had climbed even higher than Thorong La Pass in Annapurna (and Schuyler did it twice!). It felt surreal to be staring at the tallest mountain on the planet and the goal of so many expeditions. We could clearly see the Khumbu Icefall (the most dangerous section of the climbing route) along with the neighboring peaks of Lhotse, Nuptse and more.
I couldn’t have made it here without my amazing partner, and I’m so lucky to be sharing these adventures together.
Retreat from the Ice
After a warming lunch at the guesthouse in Gorakshep, we were ready to hightail it out of there. As we descended, the increasing oxygen added to our jubilant mood. We passed through Lobuche and during the final hours of that long day, I kept thinking about the delicious plate of spaghetti I would have for dinner.
Just before sunset we reached our comfortable guesthouse in Dughla, where the two sisters greeted us with big smiles. We sat around the fire chatting with the other guests, all on their way up, and tried to suppress our intoxicating joy about going down. Strangely, the same altitude that felt uncomfortable only two days before was now a relief!
We took alternative routes on the way back to see some new terrain. After crossing the Pheriche Pass (4270m) we soon found ourselves walking through trees and flowers again, which was a delight. At Pangboche a side trail branched off which skirted a hillside far above the river; the dropoff was dizzying but the views were tremendous.
Ama Dablam imposed majestically on the horizon, while across the valley we saw Tengboche and its monastery. Eagles soared above the river and on the trail we saw wild goats and sleepy yaks. We didn’t see another soul for hours which made this one of the most magical sections of the trek.
We finally reached the village of Phortse (3810m) and had an evening of great conversation about Paloma’s home country of Venezuela and her travel experiences. During the night I woke to use the restroom and stood outside for a few moments, just staring up. The sky was glittering with a million stars and the snowy peaks of the surrounding mountains shone white in the moonlight. The Himalayas are a really special place.
The next day was Paloma’s birthday and we wanted to get to Namche quickly and celebrate. As we left the village, we saw a rare musk deer grazing in the woods along with a small flock of Nepal’s national bird, the Himalayan monal. What an incredible start to the day!
Time to Celebrate!
On day 11 we reached Namche by noon and enjoyed a truly epic hot shower. (It had been 8 days, certainly a personal record I’m not keen to repeat anytime soon.) After lunch we hit up our favorite bakery for some birthday cake, followed by Everest beer.
We organized an impromptu party that night at The World’s Highest Irish Pub. Some of the trekkers we had met in Gorakshep came, and we made new friends as well. Schuyler and I received some excellent travel tips from a Slovenian medical student, then got sharked at foosball by the Nepali bartender. All in all it was a great success!
We booked our flight back to Kathmandu and had another day to enjoy Namche. No climbs on this rest day: we napped in the sun, enjoyed some apple strudel from the German bakery and watched a documentary screening.
Day 13 was a long one trekking all the way back to Lukla. We made it just as sunset lit up the mountains and enjoyed one last dinner with our friend Paloma.
Thankfully, we woke up to perfectly clear skies which meant that all flights were on schedule. Takeoff was exciting as the runway slopes down to a sheer drop, but we lifted smoothly into the air and enjoyed a scenic flight back to Kathmandu (rather than a fiery demise).
Two hours later, we were eating a pizza and closing the books on another mountain adventure!