I seem to have made a habit of going trekking in the off-season. One significant advantage of doing so is that it’s cheap. Guides and porters come at half rate, the trails aren’t cluttered with trekking flotsam and you feel like you’re ‘out there’ somewhere, with just your wits to help you in a harsh terrain.
That’s an idle fantasy, of course. These days, there isn’t anything really life-threatening about walks in the Himalayan wilderness, so long as you watch your step and don’t take foolish risks. Even so, when I got an offer to trek in the Khumbu region of Nepal ‘in style’ and, what’s more, ‘in season’, I jumped at the chance. After all, who doesn’t want to take a close look at Everest, that menacing, squat pyramid of black rock that towers over all the other mountains of the world? Apart from Everest and its sister eight-thousanders, Lhotse and Cho Oyu, even a casual stroll in Khumbu brings you face to face with some classic mountain scenery. And it’s home to those legendary mountain people, the Sherpas.
Flying in from Kathmandu to Lukla, high in the Dudh Kosi valley, somehow the idea of a comfort trek doesn’t seem so outlandish. The very fact that I am covering, in a forty-minute flight, a distance that not so long ago took a week, and that many of my co-passengers are retired Europeans, makes me feel worlds removed from the modest joys of trekking in the Indian Himalaya. But what a flight! We take off from Kathmandu one cold morning, with me nervously glancing at the propellers of the rickety Twin Otter aircraft and wondering if it’ll hold up. Puneet and I manoeuvre to the front of the plane so we can get the coveted seats on the left. We fly with the sunrise, towards a blood-red dawn, over the tiny houses and streams of the Kathmandu valley.
The aircraft banks to the left and the shadowy wall of the Great Himalayan Range falls into view. Soon we are swooping over high kharkas (grazing grounds) and higher aiguilles while the main range looms in the haze of the angled sunbeams. A little while later a deep valley appears, bathed in a thick golden mist, and the plane begins its descent towards a little sticking plaster at the bottom of an onrushing mountain—the Lukla airstrip. It’s a smooth landing in the Dudh Kosi valley, bang —so to speak—in the middle of the Himalaya.
Our guide, an affable young man called Sonam Tenzing Sherpa, finds us in the melee of porters and baggage. We are guests of Yeti Holidays, one of Nepal’s biggest travel operators, and Sonam is to take us to our day’s stop at a luxury lodge on the outskirts of the small village of Phakding on the edge of the Dudh Kosi river.
Lukla’s airstrip stands on a long artificial clearing above the village of Chaurikharka, one of the largest Sherpa villages of Khumbu. The sun hasn’t yet escaped the shackles of the high ridges to the east, but across the Dudh Kosi, the peak of Numdur is glistening in the sunshine. Further north stands Kwangde. The mountains of the Khumbu Himal form an extensive elevated region. Not only does the main range extend in its normal north-west to south-east axis, here gigantic subsidiary ridges run down in a north-south direction as well, enclosing the deep valley of the Dudh Kosi and its tributary rivers.
Although it is now the most visited region in the entire Himalaya, until 1949, Nepal was closed to the outside world. Whatever little information existed about Khumbu came from the dynamic Sherpas. From the turn of the twentieth century, the Sherpas had been arriving in Darjeeling in search of work. At first as labourers and then increasingly as high-altitude porters working under successive British Everest expeditions, by the 1930s they had distinguished themselves as natural climbers of considerable skill. Naturally acclimatised and used to the rigours of harsh terrain, the people soon became synonymous with the elite of Himalayan mountaineering.
The Sherpa people follow Tibetan Buddhism and soon after we start our walk there is ample evidence of this in the intricately carved mani walls and chortens that dot the trail. Taking care to pass them on the left, we start descending to the valley, passing through fields of wheat and barley, while the young river flows swiftly to our left. Crossing a subsidiary stream descending from a deep valley to the east, we pass under the Kusum Kankharu soaring some nine-and-a-half-thousand feet over us.
Phakding is a short, two-hour walk from Lukla. We arrive a little before eleven, after a slow walk in the blazing sun, with much of the day remaining. And a good thing that was too. The first day’s walk is always the hardest. My legs feel like lead and my much-abused sea-level lungs gasp at every little rise. So I am extremely glad when the red roofs of the Phakding Yeti Mountain Home swing into view under a rocky outcrop beside the river. Two smiling Sherpanis welcome us with warm glasses of lemonade, warm moist towels and unending mugs of coffee and tea.
The Mountain Homes certainly are lavish. In Phakding, the buildings are clustered around a wide courtyard. Inside the cosy drawing room, the walls are adorned with lovely portraits of Sherpa families and pretty decent paintings of some of Nepal’s famous peaks. Our room overlooking the river offers more luxury. Not least of which is a top-notch bathroom with a glass shower cubicle and running hot water! The bath and shampoo I enjoyed here has to be the first I’ve ever had on a trek. The electrically heated bed with its generous pile of blankets beckons, but we decide to go for a short acclimatisation walk instead in the forests on the other side of the river. But first lunch. And what a spread that turns out to be! Chicken sweet corn soup followed by spaghetti and fries and then a lovely buckwheat cake and coffee. If this is how one eats here, I might actually return fatter from the trek.
An hour’s happy scramble past a lower secondary school guarded by the eyes of all-seeing Buddhahood and Rimijung village’s potato farms brings us to the Pemacholing monastery, one of the oldest in the region. Surrounded by an old-growth pine and birch forest, I hear the monastery before I see it. A prayer meeting is in progress and the deep thud of drums reverberates through the hillside. Inside, a young trainee abbot conducts the rituals under the watchful eyes of the head lama of the village of Nurning in front of a huge stern statue of Padmasambhava (the patron saint and guru of the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism).
We wander around for another hour in the forest under lowering skies, while far to the north floats the temple-like spire of Taboche. Later that evening, as we sit around the wood-fired oven in the lounge and sip our ‘happy hour’ drinks of hot rum toddy and leaf through mountaineering books, Sonam explains how camping has died a painful death in the Khumbu region. If the Yeti Mountain Home is at the upper end even for the wealthy Europeans who make up the bulk of the tourists in this area, lodges with perfectly good facilities now stretch all the way up to Gorakshep, the last settlement of any kind on the Everest trail at a height of 16,942ft. No one wants the rough and tumble of camping any more, certainly not the guides. Retiring to my electrically heated furnace of a bed later that night, I shed a quiet tear for a fast-disappearing joy.
Next day to Namche. We start early, before the sun has found us, and we begin our walk in the shadow of Kwangde’s sheer granite east face as it stands out against a clear blue sky. Just outside Phakding, we cross the first of the famous suspension bridges. Bouncing alarmingly some hundred feet over the raging river, Sonam assures me that these lifelines come with a fifty-year guarantee from the engineers and that the engineers are men who are held in high esteem. Watching a big herd of dzopkyos (yak-cow hybrids) crossing the bridge, I can see why.
The track crosses and re-crosses the river quite a few times, as the river narrows into a gorge, through the villages of TocToc, Benkar and finally Chumoaa, where Sonam lives with his young wife Lakhpa and tiny daughter Tenzing. Refreshed by a powerful bowl of Sherpa broth courtesy the lovely Lakhpa, we cross a small bridge over the Chumoaa Khola that descends from the silvery heights of Thamserku—the tower of gold—and stop for lunch at the Monjo Yeti Mountain Home, just before the entrance to the Sagarmatha National Park. Tuna sandwiches! In Monjo!
Just outside the village is the entry post of the national park where you must register, and then across another suspension bridge to the tiny village of Jorsale or Thumbug where an army post checks your papers. This is one of the many times on this trip that I thank my stars that I’m from a Saarc country, as we’re casually waved through without any real check. Apart from the fact that it costs me only NPR 100 a day to be in the park, there seems to be great goodwill towards the fact that Puneet and I are Indian. Add to that the fact that we are the only Indians in all of Solu Khumbu, and no wonder we get disbelieving grins everywhere, and are often mistaken for Nepalis. Despite the joys of visa-less travel and our currency actually being stronger (if only 1.6 times so), rarely do Indians—apart from army climbing expeditions—venture here for their holidays. As a result, Indians are fairly exotic in Khumbu, even if many generations of Sherpas have had close relations with Indians in havens like Darjeeling.
Out of Jorsale, after a pleasant walk beside the river as it passes through a heavily forested gorge, we come to the most famous suspension bridge of them all—the Larja Dobhan bridge. Hanging precariously from one rock-face to another almost a kilometre above the junction of the Dudh and Bhote Kosi rivers, it’s a scary, windy place, especially when the bridge starts bouncing under the hurried stride of nervous tourists rushing to get to the other side. Huge numbers of kathas (blessed scarves) and prayer flags flutter in the breeze, despite the fifty-year guarantee, as spiritual assurance, just in case. From here the track climbs a steep and dusty 1,600ft through pine forests to Namche.
The pride of place on this trail is reserved for the Big E, viewed through the pines on a little spur halfway up the climb. When we get there, a gaggle of British and Japanese pensioners is oohing and aahing at the sight of their lives while a no-nonsense Sherpani sells oranges at NPR 80 a piece. There is Everest, its black summit pyramid looking like glass in the harsh noonday sun, smoking behind the stupendous curtain of the Nuptse ridge, with Lhotse for company. Just below the crest I can see the Hillary Step, that famous rock outcrop which is the gateway to the summit ridge. In less than a month, it will be the site of massive traffic jams as scores of would-be summiteers pay through their noses to be hauled up to the patch of snow and rock that is the highest point on earth. On May 23, 2010, for instance, 169 climbers reached the summit of Everest.
An hour and a bit later we’re up in Namche, the horseshoe-shaped metropolis of the Sherpas, in the loving arms of the Yeti Mountain Home. Along with us are a Dutch couple who’ve been haring around the region for a while and a French group on their way to Gokyo. We have our customary round of the reviving hot lemonade and coffee and cookies in a wood-panelled lounge that is a joy for mountain lovers. Full of books on Nepal’s mountains and surrounded by old pictures of the region, one can spend hours here. But we have the sunset to catch. So we rush to our room, this time blessed with bay windows overlooking Namche and the towering Kwangde Ri beyond.
Another (hot) bath later, we head out to the viewpoint a short way above the lodge inside the headquarters of the Sagarmatha National Park. And here I see the mountain I’ve been longing to see—the eerie Ama Dablam (‘mother’s blessed pendant’). The classic southwest view of the peak has to be one of the most beautiful mountain profiles in the world. Although much lower than the Everest-Lhotse group at the head of the valley, Ama Dablam’s proximity to the viewer makes it appear larger than life. It is bathed in the soft orange glow of sunset, its famed hanging glaciers looking like the congealed flourishes of an oil painting. Right above us rise the twin peaks of Thamserku, like a gigantic Viking helmet, and far to the north, yet so close it takes my breath away, is Chomolungma (‘mother goddess of the earth’).
The sights get even better the next dawn, before we set out for Thame. I’m up at a freezing 5am, the world awash in the bright full moon that’s setting behind Kwangde. Sonam and I struggle back up to the viewpoint. The Everest group, Ama Dablam and Thamaserku are dark silhouettes against a gradually brightening sky. Behind me, to the west, the snow peak of Pachermo in the Rolwaling Himal slowly catches fire, gleaming a fierce gold. A wisp of cloud above Everest seems to burn and dissolve as a ray of sun hits it, in slow motion. Slowly the vast amphitheatre of snow peaks lights up—first Khumbila, the Sherpas’ holy mountain, and then the other peaks of the Rolwaling. This grand procession continues for an hour, and then the sun finally peeks out from behind Thamserku. Even the heavily armed soldiers who’ve been idling away the time with me in the sub-zero temperature cheer.
It’s back to the lodge for a breakfast of cornflakes, toast and eggs with coffee and pineapple juice before we head out to Thame along the Bhote Kosi river. The second highest of Yeti’s lodges is located here, at a height of 12,467ft. The road to Thame is, of course, also the road to Nangpa La, one of the great cross-Himalayan passes. It is across this that the ancestors of the Sherpas came to Khumbu, and it is here that the summer trade between Tibet and Khumbu still takes place. Come to Namche later in the summer and on Saturdays—the traditional market day that gives Namche its bazaar appellation—and you’ll find any number of Khampa traders from the Tibetan village of Tingri just north of the pass. Traditionally they brought salt and yaks and took back cloth and manufactured goods. These days, they bring the manufactured goods, cheap Chinese ones. It is a fascinating road to walk on. It climbs as the bed of the Bhote Kosi does, changing in a couple of hours from a deep gorge to a wide trans-Himalayan valley. Many of the villages on the way to Thame, such as Samde, without much of an economy apart from potato-farming and trekking lodges, are the ones that provide the largest number of climbing Sherpas. At least one boy from each family climbs, despite the risks, and the unwillingness of many to do so.
Finally, we come to a bridge over a section where the Bhote Kosi carves out a raging little canyon for itself. A steep climb on the other side brings us to the elevated valley of the Thame Khola and the village of Thame itself, a collection of low houses and trekking lodges up against the small peak of Sumdur. This valley leads to another great pass, the Tashi Lhapsa which crosses over to the Rolwaling Himal. Poised on the crossroads of two major passes, Thame has always been a trading town. And a town of great Sherpas. The modern great, Apa Sherpa, is the man who’s climbed Everest a record 21 times. His family runs a large trekking lodge here. The other famous son of Thame is, of course, Tenzing Norgay himself.
That evening when Sonam leads us up to the Thame monastery built into the eastern spur of Sumdur, we pass by Tenzing’s old house, a nondescript little stone and shingle affair in the traditional Sherpa style. We climb up Sumdur to the line of chortens that lead the way to the monastery. Sonam’s up ahead with Puneet behind him while I’m dawdling. To the south, the peaks of Kwangde and the snow giants of Teng Kangpoche, Panayo Shar and Panayo Tippa tower over Thame, sending glacial moraine down almost to the lodges. Up to the north, up the Bhote Kosi valley, lie Pasang Lhamu and Cho Oyu glistening in the setting sun. And out in the west, back the way we came, lie some of the glittering stars of Khumbu—the sharp tooth of Phari, the fluted saddle of Kangtega, the massive Thamserku and Kusum Kankharu massif, our friends from the last few days. The shadows lengthen across the Bhote Kosi and, as the sun sinks lower, so its power increases, and these enchanting peaks shine a burnished gold. But in the sunset’s wake comes dusk, leaching colour from the world. Footsore and cold, as we walk down to the warmth of the lodge, I hear it’s brandy for happy hour tonight. I rehearse my toast to these mountains.