Stats: Dingboche (14,460′) to Lobuche (16,347′) . 5.9 miles. Lunch at Thukla. Overall elevation gain= 2320′. Net= 1,887′.
Once again, we are graced with bluebird skies as we trek uphill to a flat ridge. Mountains rise above us with snow-capped peaks in every compass direction. I turn in circles, filled with awe. We pass deserted stone crofts where trekkers stop to rest. The walking is easy in this section. For a bit.
Ahead there’s a hard slog up to the stupas that honor lost Everest expedition members. Mountainers such as world renown guide, Scott Fisher who died descending Everest in 1996 during a blizzard. Fisher refused to leave his weakened client and when his lead Sherpa radioed that a rescue was being mounted, Fisher threatened to throw himself off the precipice rather than endanger more lives. Eight people trapped in whiteout conditions were hammered by snow flying at 75 miles-an-hour. Temperatures plummeted and they died.
Too many climbers were on the mountain that day, slowing ascent. This is a frequent story and the main reason so many are dying at Everest. Too many permits. Too many people rushing to ascend. Delay’s eat up oxygen. This leads to many questions: What kind of drive makes such risks worthwhile? What do surviving parents, wives or husbands, and children feel about this? Climbing is an addiction of sorts.
In many relgions, the visual reminder of a stupa means inmortality. Prayer flags flap in the wind, gentle pleas for peace, rememberance and perhaps forgiveness. Here we are, standing on the rooftop of earth, not only experiencing the raw power of creation under our feet but feeling the spiritual creator in the surrounding air.
Leaving, we wind our way down to the river, where yaks stop to drink milky aquamarine water.
White boulders fill the lower plain, remmants of last monsoon’s flood. Now we climb back up and where the ridge levels, we stop for lunch at Thukla/Dughla. I sit drinking lemon-ginger tea and smile. The most difficult part of the day is behind us.
After lunch, we pass Lobuche base camp where orange tents dot the flood plain and a line of colorful trekkers dressed in rainbow colors cross to the start of the upward trail. It’s amazing to me that Everest is not the queen in the crown of technical mountaineering. There are many other peaks to conquor in this region that are more difficult. Our walk continues along the ridge line, with gentle elevation changes before we drop down to the small settlement of Lobuche. Tonight we’ll stay at Oxygen Altitude tea house. Appropriate name, since tonight we’ll sleep more than 3 miles above sea level.
Nepalise society doesn’t treat widows with compassion. Before 1970, a woman left alone was required to dress in white, drained of color and life. She becomes invisible and of the untouchable class. Of course, a man is allowed to remarry, a woman is not. Today, if a single man were to fall in love with a widow, his family would force them apart. In the moment of her greatest despair, any marital property can be taken away, unless she has a male child to inherit. With few resources for survival, many widows become prostitutes.
I am a widow and this abuse of women rips me apart. I want to scream from the mountain tops in anger. From the moment we are born until the day we die–everyone deserves to be wrapped in love. Today’s trek to the widows village of Phortse is very important to me and I’m so thankful that Himalayan Wonders arranged this stop.
Leaving Namche and walking uphill, I am rock solid and steady. My body rebounded overnight from yesterday’s altitude problems. Pacing is slow, more to take in the glorious views of Kongde Ri, Ama Dabiam, Taboche, and brilliant views of Mount Everest, Thamserku, and Nupste.
This is my church. This is pure meditation, as the route changes from rock cut steps to winding dirt paths. We arrive at a beautiful stupa, and I raise my hands, chanting om mani padme hum. Transform my impure body, speech and mind.
Unfortunetly, the place is crowded with trekkers and the holy epiphany I crave blows away on the wind. Turning my back I step down the trail, but glance over my shoulder. That’s when I see the partial sun-dog, a rare natural occurance that always makes me gasp with delight. God heard me.
The only disconcerting noise comes from endless clacking of helicopters as they zip past like pests in the narrow valley next to me. Every switchback holds joy. Eagles soar overhead and long haired Thar (Himalayan mountain goats) cling to steep hillsides. Yaks look on with blatant curiousity.
Our tea and pee break is at Kyangjuma and lunch at the packed Kulung teahouse, perched high above the snaking river with surrounding views of icecaps.
Far below, I can see Phortse and after lunch we will decend 1,300′ to cross the river….and then climb back up to the village. By now, we are resigned to the Nepalise fate of continual gain and loss. Sounds like life, right? The Buddhist lesson is vulnerability, perserverance, acceptance and grace.
The Widows village below and across the river.
Phortse is a Sherpa village of great importance. The world’s best climbing school as well as the greatest expedition climbers come from this Khumbu region of Nepal. How did this place become the village of widows? Because 3 times as many Sherpas die in mountain accidents rather than their clients. In 2014, sixteen Sherpas died at Everest. In 2015, another seventeen perished. That’s a lot of widows struggling to survive alone in a daily avalanche of hardship. Everest isn’t the most dangerous mounain in Nepal. It’s simply the one you hear blaring from international media.
Because Phortse is internationally recognized, these widows have been protected and charitable funds were gifted to help build trekkers tea houses and accomodations. This community has been given a beneficial hand.
Reaching the stone walls of town, I see several women planting their most famous and yummy potatoes– the best in the entire world. They look at me, and I become cognizent of their freedom and space. I observe them, confused by the projected negative emotions flooding over me. Tourists are a blessing and a curse. Right now, my intuition tells me that their patience is worn thin with daily disrespect. My camera remains anchored in the holder strapped across my chest. They are too far away to ask permission and I have too much respect for them.
We’d been in Phakding less than 16 hours but an important lesson is learned by the careful observer. Family is a priority of Nepalese life. Grandma takes care of the baby so the rest of the family cares for trekkers. It’s constant work at the tea houses, cooking and washing for every meal; cleaning rooms and washing sheets every day. They do so with such grace.
Boldly, I interfere in their inner sanctum–the rough kitchen–to get water from the kitchen tap for our groups filltration needs. Steam rises from battered pots and several family members (male and female) chop vegetables plucked from the garden. Amist the clacking of knives on wood cutting boards, easy conversations bounce around the room.
I envy the benefit of extended family living and working together and imagine that my life growing up would have been enriched with daily access to my grandparents or by having my siblings children raised in an extended family. Instead of one set of parents, we could have had many. It does take a village.
Our newly formed trekking family hit the trail. There’s peace in my heart as we weave through the day, the trail a literal warp and weft moving up and down with our feet firm as a wooden shuttle. Now, we are bound tight in the fabric of this experience.
Dust fills the shuttle as opposing traffic careens inches away. With Katmandu airport closed for runway resurfacing, we must drive four hours to tiny Ramechhap for a flight to Lukla and the start of the trek to Mount Everest base camp. I glare at the back of the drivers head. “Turn on the air conditioning, I can’t breathe!” Every Nepalese driver says the air is broken. Is it? Or is this a canny way to conserve fuel?
Tepid air pumps out of the vents as the vehicle zigs and zags around sharp curves. I look back at team members squished into the back. Four hours of torture for a 12 minute flight. We move like metronomes in constant motion. No one has upchucked yet.
section of paved road showing sharp turns
mad rush to get trekkers to a smaller airport
Peeling my sweaty body out of the van, I step into bedlam. Vans are parked willy-nilly, disgorging hundreds of East Indian, American and European trekkers. My team moves like loose pin balls around vendors hawking fresh fruit and drinks, following a porter hauling our bags to the tarmac. Planes roar nonstop, engines running hot. I’m told that seventy flights a day carry travelers to Lukla and the start of the Everest trek. 70 flights x max 15 per plane=1,050 people per day in peak season? Please tell me they aren’t all heading to the same trail.
When our gear is dragged towards a plane, our group marches to the aircraft. There aren’t any announcements. Pay attention!
We aren’t turned away and soon the twin engine plane soars over mountain terrain latticed with fields that seem to hang free, ready to tumble down the slope. I don’t see a single car. Villages and homes pepper the highest terrain with snaking rivers far below. Everest stands majestic with Lhotse to the right and I peer at soaring icefields, trying to identify the peaks of Sagamantha National Park before clouds shroud them once again.
Steep mountains hem the plane in a ribbon of airspace as we approach the most dangerous airport in the world (Lukla). Looking through the cockpit windshield, we approach a cliff topped by a short runway with an 11 degree uphill slope. It ends at a wall of rocks. A twisted heap of metal from last week’s collision of a helicopter and a plane glows in the sunlight. Exiting the aircraft, I watch planes essentially do “wheelies” on takeoff. The pilots keep their feet on the brake, throttling up RPM’s, before speeding downhill. ( below: video plays correctly)
Afternoon clouds are building, and I’m impatient to get my boots dirty, but first there’s an orientation and then a meal. Today will be our shortest and (we’re told) the easiest day. Our guide replies “First, the trail is downhill and then slowly uphill.” This is the first, but not last time that our flatland births won’t jive with super-hero Sherpa lung capacity and oxygen rich blood.
We knew that we’d walk village-to-village, on uneven and often steep rock steps or over sloped dirt paths to reach the first night (2000′ higher) at the See You Inn of Phakding. Somehow we miss the fine detail of descending 1,000′ and then hiking up and down for a total elevation gain of 4000′. At least that’s what a runners app map reports.
hand shaped stone steps.
Mani stones with prayers etched and painted on them
We quickly encounter our first Yak team bearing heavy shipments, but humans also carry elephantine cargo loads. One man struggles with a freezer strapped to his back, and I feel guilt burn in my chest. Men remain beasts of burden in many places around the globe, but I question is this the price of tourism? Who will take care of them when their backs are broken?
Yak teams are used to move supplies for merchants in villages higher up on the trail. They’re also used for climbing expeditions that need to carry fuel, oxygen tanks, climbing gear, tents, food…etc
Everything is lugged on this trail. I imagine someone struggling to carry the weight of a toilet for my soft backside. Maybe a pit bathroom isn’t so bad. My privileged life begins to accept a larger world view.
It’s spring. Rhododendron trees bloom white, pink and deep red. Fields sprout tender shoots of garlic, spinach and cabbage. Bird’s sing in the trees. We enter and exit colorful villages, passing Buddhist stupas, prayer wheels and Mani stones as I whisper mantra’s that race to God’s ears.
Religious Stupas in every village
Super hero guides, Chering and Pemba with Himalayn Wonders
Gorgeous children play, collecting flowers, saying “hello” in English, or blowing up balloons with mischief glinting in their eyes.
During this first day, I halt, facing a phobia. Swinging bridges. Hear me out, please? It’s wrong for bridges to sway in the wind and worse when yak teams carry tons of supplies over the same precarious crossing. I whimper like a baby on the first one. Sherpa Chering tells me, “Only five more to go.” He’s trying to be kind and not laugh.
At the end of the day, I shiver in the unheated bedroom and hurry to zip my sleeping bag. On reflection, the sacred Himalayan mountains have taught me many things today.
Live in the moment. Not six hours down the trail.
Enjoy my surroundings—sights, colors, people, animals.
Take a deep breath and overcome fears.
Compassion surrounds me as team members offer encouragement or a steady hand. We are becoming a family. A tribe.
I haven’t always been an avid mountain trekker. Death forced my eyes open. Three months after my husband passed away from cancer, I left home (alone) to walk the Camino De Santiago.
Those first steps forced me to dig deep for inner strength at the very moment my comfortable life crashed and burned. Somewhere in the mountains of the Pyrenees during a cold rain storm and deep fog, I discovered meditative pacing. I This is a practice where steps and breath unite in a continuous cycle. When I mentally drop inside of myself, I reach a state of well-being and mindfulness. Problems mysteriously resolve. Endorphins release, flooding my heart with joy and thanksgiving. New ideas or goals appear out of thin air. Physical hardships are overcome. That trip started my evolution into a serious hiker.
When a friend asked me to hike to base camp, the decision wasn’t based on fulfilling a bucket list. What tempted me was being able to experience wild and sometimes brutal forces of nature in spectacular mountains that have become my church. Buddhist’s have a similar belief that the roof of the world is closer to God. Sherpas call Everest Chomolungma, and is where their goddess resides. She must be appeased with gifts and prayer, because she can grant success or destroy with death.
when prayer flags move in the wind, the intentions are released. In the mountains, those prayers reach heaven quickly
mani stones are prayer stones you’ll see entering and often leaving a village.
Boulders are another form of Mani stone, painted by monks. Like a prayer wheel, walk clockwise to release the prayer
Wheels contain prayers inside. When they are spun clockwise, the intention is released.
Fear is a very distinct component of this trek and it kept popping into my monkey brain with vivid scenarios. This trek is a young person’s game, with the majority of people in their thirties or forties. I’m sixty-five-years-old. What if I fail?What if I get hurt? What if altitude sickness requires evacuation? There’s only two ways to return from this trek—either walk out or pay for an expensive helicopter ride. No one considers returning in a body bag.
I fought every burning ember of doubt with careful preparations. Three of our fifteen member team spent a month at higher altitude in Colorado. We worked out six days a week trying to assimilate elevation gains we’d experience in Nepal. This worked to a degree. We skied, snowshoed, or used yak-traks to hike above 12,000’ elevation. Our blood oxygen saturation increased week-by-week as we trained harder, higher, and for longer periods of time.
But base camp is at 17,700’ with approximately 50% less of the oxygen available at sea level. Himalayan Wonders, our excellent guide company were great—they added a second acclimation day into our program. These aren’t “rest” days but hikes to higher elevation and then returning lower to sleep—retracing the same steps higher the following day.
The physical and mental demands of increasing elevation burns off mega calories. I packed high protein shakes, bars, and even jerky to bolster a carbohydrate diet of French toast, pasta and rice dishes. I ate everything and still lost eight pounds in twelve days of trekking.
Our group of seniors, between the ages of 51-74, are all active hikers. But Acute Mountain Sickness can hit anyone at any age. Most of us used Diamoxx—a diuretic medication which helps the kidney’s get rid of excess carbon dioxide that the lungs can’t dispel. Everyone experienced mild symptoms of AMS, from nagging headaches (drink more water), fatigue (in bed by 8:30 every night), loss of appetite (eat anyhow), increased heart rate and respirations (listen to your body and slow down). Luckily, no one escalated into greater danger from pulmonary or cerebral edema, which would require evacuation.
After every day’s hike, a group of us filtered a lot of water for the following day using the Guardian MSP or the Grayl press. These are the only two systems that remove viruses along with some chemicals, bacteria, protozoa and disease causing parasites. Please– don’t use commercial water on this trail, thereby increasing garbage and pollution!
There’s other necessary things to pack: hand sanitizers, biodegradable wet wipes (not many places for gas heated showers), a protective cap for the end of a water camel to keep yak poop out of your mouth and lots of toilet paper. A buff or facemask is needed to keep fine glacial dust from seriously mucking up your lungs. This doesn’t begin to consider the various layers required for temperature or weather changes or freezing nights at high elevation.
All of this gear must fit in a fifteen pound pack. Good luck on that one. I failed miserably.
I knew the preparations and understood the potential for danger on the trail. I’d spent the last six years replacing many worn out hiking boots. Heck, I live in Montana. Feeling well prepared, I thought, I can do this.
I didn’t foresee that the sacred mountains of Nepal were waiting and the laughing goddess had some serious lessons for me to learn.