|Our Really Big Adventure|
| The climb to Namche
nearly killed us. Any acclimatisation we thought we had retained from the
Annapurna region had evidently gone the way of our composure. We would walk
fifty meters and have to stop, sit and gasp. Old men, young children and
blank-faced porters with towering loads seemingly sprinted past us. Any
romantic aspirations that we might have held of late blossoming mountaineering
careers were whipped away as the wind symbolically kicked sand in our faces.
The final 600-meter climb into Namche took us over two and a half hellish hours. It was with huge relief that we fell into the first guesthouse, our ragged and desperate breath denying us the luxury of choice. Namche is the administrative centre of the Everest region and acts as a capital for the 20,000 Sherpas that live in the area. Having all the facilities of a small town, it is the only piece of civilised comfort lying along the 7-day trail between Lukla and Everest Base Camp. We spent two nights acclimatizing in this relaxed and picturesque town using the days to eat, rent more suitable equipment and explore the nearby Sherpa villages.
Our strength recovered remarkably and we easily forgot the pain of our ascent. In a moment, which would typically be credited to inebriation had we been drinking, we decided that we would not need a porter, and that we were strong enough to carry all of our gear ourselves. So it was will full packs and sore shoulders that we left Namche, panting hard in the thin air. Luckily the trail was seldom steep and, more typically than not, cut gentle curves into the valley sides. Early starts gave us empty trails and an hours walking before the suns searing radiation forced factor 50 sun block and the yak convoys took command of pace.
We continued like this for three easy days, our pace dictated by the need to acclimatize to the altitude. At 4,000 meters the body has to learn to function on little more than 60% of the oxygen than it is used to. At Everest Base camp it would be less than 50%. The importance of acclimatizing cannot be overstressed and even with all the warnings, health posts, literature and helicopter rescues, 3 trekkers die from Acute Mountain Sickness in Nepal each year. We planned a conservative acclimatisation schedule that we hoped would allow us to reach the summit of Kala Pattar (5545m) in comfort.
It was around this time that we started to note that bathroom facilities werent quite up to the standards of the Annapurna region. In Annapurna they had predominantly been outhouses with porcelain squatters and a water bucket as a flush mechanism; toilet paper was deposited in a bucket and hygiene varied tremendously. Once we started our Everest trek, nature, in due course, drove us to investigate the local plumbing. The first time it consisted of a shack with a hole in the floor, a compost heap lay about four feet underneath and there was a pile of leaves to throw on top to cover your embarrassment. A bit basic, we commented to ourselves, not suspecting that in just a few days we would be dreaming of leaves and praying that the stinking dung pyramid wouldnt be so high that it poked its way out its hole.
As we continued our strength grew in tandem with our confidence and our plans, never the most concrete, grew more ambitious. On the recommendation of an over talkative German and two tired but happy French men we decided to take a diversion east and attempt to summit Chhukhung Ri. At 5545m it was no higher than Kala Pattar, but we wouldnt have the benefit of 3 acclimatization days. Not being foolhardy, we would try, but we werent entertaining any notions of success. We aimed to enjoy the reportedly unique mountain panorama of the trek without getting too goal oriented.
Our diet was getting monotonous, but at least our guts seemed up to the task. Every morning we would have dirt flavoured porridge masked with far too much sugar and every evening we would have dal bhat, a traditional Nepali dish consisting of rice, lentil soup and some curried vegetable. This is fine at lower elevations, when the curry consists of a variety of different vegetables, but at higher elevation it is invariably potatoes and one cannot help but think that this does not constitute a balanced diet. Dal bhat is more than just the national dish, for most Nepalese it is basically all they will eat, twice a day, for their entire lives. Dal bhat has become a synonym for food in Nepal, so much so that the literal translation of How are you? is Have you eaten your dal bhat?
The landscape just kept getting bleaker and bleaker as we ascended. The valleys at the start were lush and the villages looked positively idealistic, but slowly the lushness faded into a barren beauty somewhat akin to Connemara, in the west of Ireland. Even this harsh terrain eventually gave way to magnificent lunar landscapes, untouched and alien. It was easy to see why some people would find this region less scenic then Annapurna but its unique barren beauty enchanted us. The scale and proximity of giant mountains, towering beside us had us sitting and staring in an awed silence. It was worth it getting this far even if we didnt summit Chhukhung Ri the next day.