I squinted as I let my eyes glide on the ridge in front of me. The growling crevasses, the light catching turquoises in the frozen rivers of ice fins, the snow-powdered crags and the sheer rock faces leading to bumped domes of ice. Clouds playing striptease with the angular face of Ama Dablam (6,812m), shimmering around outcrops of dark grey slate. Everest (8,848m), diminutive and humble, peered over the Lhotse Nuptse ridge, unaware of all the fuss bestowed on it by humanity. Kwangde (6,187m) loomed further west — an immense mountain with many facets, while Khumbhilla, a mountain sacred to the sherpas loomed to the north, rags of prayer flags adorning the wooden sentinel poles on its lower ridges. A shiver ran through my spine and a thin gauze of moisture clouded my eyes briefly. It must have been the wind.
After three days of stiff climbing and acclimatization drills, which meant even more walking on rest days, I had made it to the Everest View Hotel. At 3,880m, the Guinness Book of World Records accords it the status of ‘highest luxury hotel in the world’. Incidentally, the hotel also offers a view of the highest mountain in the world—Everest, or Sagarmatha (forehead of the sky) as the Nepalis call it. And, it is not some windy crag from which I am enjoying this panoramic view but the sun deck of the hotel, sipping my coffee. Having mostly camped on treks, this was luxury beyond belief; but then this was Nepal where teahouse trekking soars to unimaginable levels of comfort. Hot showers, clean bedding and good food are ‘basic’.
I am the sole occupant of the hotel for two nights and I revel in the solitude, especially after the crowded trail below — an average 20,000 trekkers visit the region each year. The only tourists I saw were the ones who came here from Namche on the acclimatisation drill essential to their Base Camp dream. Their tasks accomplished, the already discreet staff disappeared into the woodwork as if they never existed. It’s tricky, reviewing a ‘luxury’ hotel whose clientele routinely fall ill. It’s not the hotel’s fault. Founded in 1972, it flirted with disaster because its intended Japanese clientele insisted on flying in instead of walking up. There was naturally no escaping altitude sickness then. Today, oxygen cylinders, a gamo bag, and a resident rescue helicopter await anyone who meets the same fate.
I have come up well acclimatised, ready to enjoy my short stay. It is novel to be woken up by the first rays of the sun as it rises from behind the tallest mountain on earth. Sipping my coffee, I luxuriate under soft silken quilts, my hot water bottle still warm under my feet as I look east through my picture windows. The forbidding and majestic landscape to the north looks enchanting and I step out in my room loafers for a closer peek and to feel some wind in my hair.
It was well worth the tough climb up from Lukla, which I did over three days. Zig followed zag and zag followed zig, muscles straining with the effort required for each step on the steep uphill and a photo opportunity always an excellent excuse to rest a while. The yak-like dzopchioks with their jingling bells and lumbering weights had right of way but the trail was otherwise ablaze with Everest-seekers, trekkers to Base Camp as determined to get their slice of the Everest experience as mountaineers wanting to scale the tallest mountain of the world. A sherpa climbed Everest for the 17th time while I was there. Through the zoom of a Steiner rally 20x80 binocular, I later saw one of two paragliders soar high above Everest. Fitness freaks ran up and down, training for the Everest marathon that was to take place a week later, the plan being to run down from Everest base camp to Lukla in a day. This is a crazy place!
A heart-stopping half-hour flight in a 20-seater twin Otter might not be the ideal way to start a trek, but here in the Khumbu region of Nepal there are no roads. High…ways are mountain trails, and lorries are replaced by strong backs. One of the most enduring sights of the trek was the string of Nepali porters carrying loads upwards of 80kg on their sturdy backs. Cases of beer, biscuits and mineral water stacked to double their heights. The Solo Khumbu region is home to the resi…l…i…ent Sherpas, indispensable to any mountaineering expedition. The Sherpa friendliness, loyalty and dependability is legendary.
Starting the trek from Lukla at a rainy 2pm, I had made it to the first halt at Phakding the first night. The trail stamped with Buddhist symbols kicked off the main Kaani or gateway lined with mani walls, chortens and large boulders inscribed with the Buddhist mantra, ‘Om mani padme hum’. At Phakding, a pretty little village full of lodges, I found a home-stay with a local family. When the rain lifted, I went for a walk to the nearby Pema Choling gompa, via the charming village of Thulo Gumela. The monastery houses the invaluable thubi ku — statue of Padmasambhava. According to stone inscriptions in the monastery, seven bandit brothers tried to steal the thubi ku into Tibet. However, during their attempt the 7kg statue became so heavy that even seven men were unable to lift it.
The following morning the skies cleared somewhat as I undertook the walk to Namche Bazaar. Swiss-built cable suspension bridges swayed in the wind and bobbed under my feet, the swift current of the Dudh Kosi flowing fiercely beneath. We crossed six in all, some suspended hundreds of feet above the river, adorned with prayer flags blowing in the wind. Past the small settlements of Zamphute and Tok Tok, I had breakfast at the Waterfall View restaurant and later lunch at Jorsale, before undertaking the switchbacks leading to Namche, a good 600m ascent. Ahead at Monjo, I picked up my trekking permit for entry into the Sagarmatha National Park.
Namche was overwhelmingly pretty, with blue, red and green roofs straddling the natural bowl of an elegant horseshoe. It faces the spectacular Kwangde range to the west with Kusum Kanguru (6,367m) rising behind the shark fin shape of Thamserku (6,608m) to the southeast. Tangi Riki Tao further east marked the border with Tibet.
With lodges, bakeries and Internet cafés, Namche holds no resemblance to the “Lhasa-like forbidden city” of the 1950s as described by W.H. Tilman, among the first foreigners to set foot in the region.
I spend the following rest day studying the informative displays at the National Park headquarters at Mendalphu, above Namche. A museum, inaugurated by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1994, offers glimpses of Sherpa tradition and lifestyle. Yak dung cakes line the entrance of the Sherpa house here while wooden stairs lead to a warm living and kitchen quarter above, the walls lined neatly with utensils and other handmade tools. Adjoining is the Everest documentation centre and the Sherpa cultural photo gallery with beautiful old photos showcasing traditional 10-day Sherpa weddings, costumes, their feats of mountaineering and so on. An old photo of a Sherpani carrying a baby through a full expedition touches a cord.
I walk to the other side of the amphitheatre that is Namche, to the tiny Namche monastery, its periphery lined with prayer wheels and a long mani wall. I delve into the narrow lanes of the main bazaar where a colourful Tibetan market jostles for space with trekking gear shops — mountain hardware, Denali jackets, North Face equipment... Namche was once a storage depot for goods bound for Tibet. Some remnants of that era can be witnessed at the Saturday local market where Tibetans and Nepalis mingle, driving hard bargains for yak meat, salt and Chinese goods. In the mid-1800s, the King of Nepal granted monopoly by prohibiting anyone but a Khumbu Sherpa from crossing the Nangpa La, the 19,000ft pass leading to Tibet. Traders do this six-day hike across the pass regularly from Tibet.
From Namche another stiff walk brought me up to the hotel. The following morning is clear and I step out at 6am for a walk to Khunde Top. Juniper smokes rise from Khumjung houses, lit each morning to please the gods, as I stroll through a lovely flat path through the middle of the vast village along a long mani wall and a stupa with Swayambhu…nath eyes. On the relatively low mountain in the middle of the valley above Khunde and Khumjung villages, resides the main guardian deity of the Khumbu valley. The Khumbilla protects the people, religion and land of Khumbu. I am a sucker for views and I get Tirtha my guide (he speaks only Nepali but we have managed well) to take several ‘I was here’ pictures for me — the panoramic sweep of white giants enveloping us.
Back at the Everest Hotel, I have built up an appetite to eat a whole yak but I settle for a fine dining experience instead. Asparagus soup and a salad with French dressing is followed by fillet mignon Tyrolienne — a juicy chunk of buff steak which sits satisfyingly in my stomach as I peer through the large picture windows of the vast dining space at the hotel. Ancient stones inscribed with Buddhist mantras form part of the interior walls here.
Post lunch I peer into the vast 3D, hand-modelled relief map of the Solu Khumbu region along with spectacular large prints of the peaks of the area which deck the walls of the sitting area-cum-bar and soak in some warmth in the glass-paned sunroom above.
I am wont to leave the hotel so soon, I have just about settled in. I am offered a ride in an M-17 Russian cargo plane that is to leave from the nearby Syangboche airstrip. I refuse flatly, citing crashed copters, air pocket disturbances and air-sickness as reasons. I still have two days to backtrack and I am unwilling to leave the trail so abruptly.
Fly to Kathmandu and then take one of the daily morning flights to Lukla (35min, $97).
Day 1: Fly to Lukla, walk to Phakding (4hr). Day 2: Walk to Namche Bazaar (7-8hr). Day 3: Rest. Day 4: Namche to Everest View hotel (3-4hr stiff uphill walk). Day 5: Walk to Khunde Top and Khumjung monastery. Day 6 & 7: Backtrack to Lukla or fly out. The hotel arranges helicopters ($300 per person on chartered flight/$2,400 for the copter).
Take this seriously and follow the prescribed rest days and walking drills, as you attain height rapidly. Read up at www.high-altitude-medicine.com/AMS.html
Where to stay:
The Everest View Hotel in Syangboche has 12 rooms, each with Everest views ($164 doubles, with meals; 977-1-5524718, For accommodation en route, try Khumbhu Lodge in Lukla ($20), Camp de Base in Namche Bazaar ($20) or Panoramic Lodge in Syang…boche ($50). The teahouses run by Sherpa families offer accommodation for a pittance on the condition that you eat your meals there.
Many offer package deals for the Everest Base Camp trek, which includes lodges, food, porters and flights, airport transfers and two days’ in Kathmandu; Mountain Monarch is good at $1,000 per person (+977-4361668, Nima Nuru Sherpa of Everest Lodge in Lukla organises the trek for $40 per day per person (977-993380911)