It was time to start getting high.
Most of our approach hike had been at moderate elevation, between 7,000 and 10,000 feet. That's about how high I am when I hike in the Sawtooth Mountains at home and it's pretty high, but it isn't really High Altitude. There was a lot of uphill as we hiked (more like A LOT) but there would always be a comparable downhill later. Until we climbed up to Namche, when we left the approach valleys and foothills behind.
The elevation of Namche Bazaar is listed as 11,236 feet. I'm not sure how you can give a specific value since Namche is spread out in a bowl on the side of a hill. That's what you get when you google it though. The highest buildings are several hundred feet above the lowest ones. It doesn't have a town center so much as it has a bottom. My physics background tells me you can't really give a precise value for the elevation at Namche. I guess you could say it's Hillary's Uncertainty Principle as opposed to Heisenberg's. (NOTE: For non-nerdy readers, that's supposed to be climbing/physics humor, not political.)
On the day we left Namche I woke up at 5 am to dreary weather - fog and drizzle. It was not pleasant hiking weather so even though I was up early we were in no hurry to leave. That was ok. We would only need a half day to reach the village of Thame, where we planned to spend the night. Besides, I made use of the time to connect to the wifi at the lodge when no one else was using it so I could get some reasonable network performance.
After breakfast I picked up the bag of laundry that I had left to be washed overnight. You don't get to bring a lot of clothes along on treks when everything has to be carried. On previous trips I always ended up doing laundry by hand at some point which can be a real pain. Since the hotel said they could do it overnight I took advantage even though I only had two sets of dirty clothes. Unfortunately I just threw the bag in my duffel and didn't check it. That night when I unpacked I found out that I only got half of my stuff back. Oh well. I had been planning to leave a lot of my stuff behind in Nepal when I went home anyway. Now I just left it a little earlier than I expected.
By the time we did leave the rain had stopped and the fog was starting to clear. We began weaving our way up and over through the maze of tiny streets in Namche. At one point we passed a rock with a big arrow painted on it that said "To Thame". Shambu went the other way. Awshuk and I both paused at the rock and looked at each other. I shrugged and he smiled and we followed Shambu. To be fair, the arrow pointed to the right which was the opposite direction from the Bhote Khose valley, which is where we wanted to go.
We had only gone about a hundred feet when a Sherpa lady leaned out of a second floor window and started yelling at us and waving wildly. I didn't have to know how to speak Sherpa to figure out she was telling us that we were going the wrong way. After some discussion with her we turned around and went back the other way. As we passed the rock with the sign on it, Awshuk and I both took the opportunity to tease Shambu by pointing it out to him.
After leaving Namche we went up a steep hill for the first half hour. We climbed out of the fog and there was actually some blue sky. The patches of sunlight and shadow produced beautiful patterns on Kongde Ri. It's a massive twenty thousand foot peak with multiple summits on a long ridge. Only four miles from Namche across the valley of the Bhote Khosi, the mountain often provides a spectacular backdrop in photos of the town. It had been hidden in clouds while we were in Namche but now we were getting intriguing peeks at it through gaps in the clouds.
After we topped out on the steep section, it was a mixture of level stretches and moderate uphill as we followed the Bhote Khosi river for the next four hours. We were no longer in the foothills. We were in the Himalayan high country. We were above timberline, so instead of deep green the hillsides were more of an alpine brown. There were still Sherpa houses scattered over the valley, but they were fewer and farther between. It was cool and damp instead of warm and humid, which was actually more pleasant for hiking.
There weren't nearly as many hikers as we had seen the past few days. Most seem to go straight to Everest from Namche. We were taking a different route. It's known as the Three Passes Trek because...well...because it crosses three passes before it reaches the Everest area. It's more roundabout but it goes through some magnificent scenery near the Himalayan crest.
Unfortunately, because of our delay getting to Namche, we didn't have enough time to do the entire Three Passes route. We didn't expect to make it all the way to the base of Everest, although we would have several good views of the mountain from some distance away. I had to make a tough decision between going to Everest Base Camp, or going to the Gokyo Lakes area. I opted for Gokyo Lakes, where we would get a chance to climb Gokyo Ri, a minor seventeen thousand foot peak that is a spectacular viewpoint.
At Gokyo Lakes we would also be close to Cho Oyu, the Turquiose Goddess. It's the sixth highest mountain in the world and one of my absolute favorites. It's also the easiest of the 8000 meter peaks to climb. I was so impressed by it after my first trip to Nepal that I spent a year and a half trying to organize a trip to climb it. We actually got a climbing permit from the Nepalalese Government but I was never able to get enough people to commit to the trip to pull it off.
Besides fewer hikers, one big advantage of being past Namche was that there weren't so many pack trains carrying supplies. Plus we were too high for donkeys. We were in yak territory. Although much bigger, yaks aren't as mean as donkeys can be, so sharing the trail with them wasn't as bad. They also didn't crap all over the place. Besides, yaks are way cooler. They just seem to fit in, to complete the mountain scene in the Himalayas. Yak bells are one of the sounds that I associate with my time on treks in Nepal. They sell them as souvenirs and I thought of getting one for Abby to wear on our walks in Boise. I don't think she would have appreciated it.
As we hiked we passed a lot of Buddhist shrines. At one point, there were some large paintings on the side of a cliff just before we reached a crossing over a side stream. They depicted Lama Sangwa Dorjee, who helped establish Buddhism in the Khumbu, and the female deity Green Tara. The river was roaring through at the bottom of a deep, narrow gorge. It was an impressive place, somewhere you could probably stay a long time and think very Zen thoughts.
The weather had steadily improved through the morning. Although the high peaks were hidden in clouds we were in the sun and it was a nice temperature for hiking. The grade was moderate. Life was good, except for one thing. That morning when I woke up I realized that I had a sinus infection on my right side. I was totally blocked and it felt very raw. Once I started hiking I actually felt better. I felt strong and could keep going but I was nervous that I might get worse.
Around midday we reached the village of Thame at 12,530 feet. That's almost as high as the summit of Borah Peak, the highest mountain in Idaho, which is 12,667 feet. We were definitely getting up there.
We found an excellent teahouse called the Paradise Lodge. It was quite new and I got a nice room. The bathrooms were clean and had flush toilets. A few rooms even had attached bathrooms but I didn't rate one of those. There was even a gas-heated shower that I took advantage of later.
I had a big plate of spaghetti for lunch and for a change I was still hungry when I finished it. I decided to splurge and paid 6500 RS (about $6.50 USD) for a can of Pringles. They were a real treat and I savored every single chip. I was quite upset when I dropped one on the floor and had to throw it away but there is no Five Second Rule in Nepal.
After lunch Shambu wanted to hike up to the monastery above the village which was a good idea. It would be interesting to see the monastery and it would be a good acclimatization hike. Unfortunately after lunch I was really feeling like I was getting sick and didn't want to do a hike, acclimatization or otherwise. I didn't want to admit that I was feeling badly though so I agreed to go along, although my heart really wasn't in it.
It was a five hundred foot climb up to the monastery. On the way we passed a large white stupa that overlooked Thame and many, many mani stones. Or was it mani, mani many stones. I'm not sure. I wasn't feeling well and was pretty much out of it. The monastery was small but interesting to see. It's one of the oldest in the Khumbu and is still active. It even has it's own Facebook page. It suffered a lot of damage in the earthquake two years ago and there was still work going on to repair it.
The clouds had been building up again in the afternoon. By the time we got back down to the lodge they had completely closed in and it was cold and windy. I really wasn't feeling well by this time. Had chills and felt like I had a fever. They had a nice shower at the lodge so I took advantage of it. I took a hot shower which felt great and fell into bed and slept until dinner. After my nap I felt a lot better and I slept well that night.
The next morning was perfectly clear and the view of the mountains to the west was incredible. In the foreground was Sunder Peak, a 17,585 foot mountain that is just a walk up but is an incredible viewpoint. If I had known when we were there that there was a trail to the top I would have been eager to climb it. It was probably moot. Given our lack of acclimatization and the fact that I was feeling under the weather an attempt would not have been reasonable. I'll guess I'll just have to do it on my next trip to the Khumbu.
When it was time to rock and roll we started off by climbing a hill behind the town where the views were even better. It was by far the most scenic morning of the trip and it was wonderful to be in such an amazing place.
Today our plan was to hike to Lumde, the last village before the Renjo La pass. At 14,330 feet, it's almost as high as the summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental US. It was only a half day hike to reach Lunde and it was pretty easy. There weren't a lot of ups and downs, just the two thousand feet or so of elevation to gain. Fortunately today I felt much better. My cold seemed like it was just about gone. Hiking with such glorious scenery had to be the best medicine there is.
The high valley we hiked through was quite barren. We passed Sherpa houses and even some small villages but not as many as lower down. There were no places to stop and get drinks or snacks along the trail. We saw a few yaks grazing but the grass was pretty sparse. There were some trekkers but not nearly as many as on the way to Namche. The weather was bright and sunny but the peaks started to cloud up midmorning. By the time we reached Lumde after four and a half hours of hiking they were hidden by clouds again.
There wasn't much to Lumde, just two lodges. The first one we stopped at was full. Fortunately the second one had space for us. After lunch Shambu wanted to do another acclimatization hike up the ridge above the village. It was a good idea but I was not enthusiastic. Whether it was a little bit of my cold still lingering or the altitude or just that I was old and tired from hiking, I really didn't want to go. Shambu twisted my arm so off we went. But I was not happy about it.
We climbed about a thousand feet up to the crest of the ridge. Compared to the joy of hiking early that morning, this was a real slog. By the time we topped out we were totally in the clouds and there was no view at all. We just turned around and headed down again. On our way back we passed another group climbing up the ridge. Obviously it was the thing to do for acclimatization, even in mediocre weather.
The lodge in Lunde was pretty rough. That's not too surprising as we were in a remote place that was close to the height limit for permanent human settlements. It was a harsh environment and not a place to expect luxuries. There were no lights in the sleeping rooms, just in the dining room. There was no shower. There was just a squat toilet and it was a dirty one at that. I had been lucky so far on the trip and hadn't needed to use one for serious business but now my luck ran out. My entry for that night in the notebook I was keeping during the trip just says "Man, I fucking hate these things!!!"
I met an interesting guy in the lodge and spent a while talking to him. His name was Tom Bailey. He was 58 year old and was from England. We had passed each other several times on the trail on the way up here. He was a strong hiker, much faster than me. But he stopped a lot more often too, so we kept leapfrogging each other. He was in Nepal for two months and trekking on his own for now, although he was meeting up with friends in a few weeks to do the Annapurna Circuit Trek and to attempt to climb Chulu West. He had just spent some time in Bhutan. I have always wanted to go there so I asked him about his trip. He had quite a few photos on his camera which he showed me.
At dinner I ordered a plate of spaghetti. I figured that would be a good choice, easy to digest and lots of carbohydrates for energy the next day. Wrong. The garlic taste was so strong that I could only eat half of it, and I like garlic. I was sick to my stomach afterwards and eventually threw up half of it. Oh well. You can't always expect a gourmet restaurant way up in the mountains. To be honest I'm not sure if it was the food or the altitude or the fact that I was just getting over being sick. Probably (d) all of the above.
It was cold and dark in my sleeping room. Since I had a double room all to myself I took the blankets from both beds. That kept me plenty warm except when I had to make a bathroom run. That happened several times because I drank a lot of fluids during the evening. That's good for acclimatization but no fun in the middle of the night when you have to get out of a warm bed to go and pee.
I didn't sleep well that night. Next day we would go over the Renjo La pass which would be a tough challenge. I had to admit that I wasn't at my physical peak but I was still confident that I could make it. We'd find out tomorrow.