Day 2: A Gorge is A Gorge, Of Course Of Course
Phakding (2610m) → Namchee Bazaar (3440m)
Awoke in our “room” to the sounds of Darby quietly shuffling around, the very first pale light leaking over the escarpment and through the drapes. We had a chat while she packed and I basically had a lie-in, stretching and yawning.
Darby: “No, just the first light behind the mountains.”
I went down and grabbed us a couple of masala teas, ogling the bright light on the very tops of the peaks on the way. Aakash rocked up a few minutes later, having overslept his wake-up call for us.
Me: “There are some who might find it a little worrying.”
Darby: [laughs] “Which camp do you fall in?”
Me: “Strictly neutral.”
I'd actually decided against charging my devices last night. They charge for power around these parts, albeit only 250 rupees (about £1.75) per device or battery so far (the price would rise with the altitude). Normally on getting in for the night, I instantly charge the shit out of everything. But you know what? I had a spare set of Eneloops for the camera, and didn't think I'd dinged the current set much; and my phone was at 63% at day's end. And if it died today? No real consequences. And, now, this morning, as a tic, I went to switch it on and check in. But then I paused and put it down. It's a bad tic, and I'd rather be here.
Back up to room, packed the big porter bags, packed our bags, then I raced down again before Darby to talk with Aakash. As the last bathroom I saw with TP, and probably the next I would see again, was in the hotel in Kathmandu, I badly wanted to find a place to buy one of those cases of tissue packets I saw in Lukla. In fact, Aakash wasn't down there, but as I waited I looked up and, hallelujah, there were three big sleeves of them on a shelf behind the desk. Bought myself a case, plus another packet so I wouldn't have to open the case: 1,320 rupees (about ten quid) of pure peace of mind.
And then… we were off!
We crossed the bridge over the river (an act we'd be repeating and reversing all day as we went north up the increasingly narrow and dramatic river valley)…
…then walked alongside the river, me billygoating around to get shots as the sun rose upon us.
Aakash started giving me a little grief about constantly falling off the back to take pictures and scribble notes (understandably his main job was not to lose me). I tried to explain that this is the trek for me. We reached a compromise suggested by Darby, I think that I shout "Stopping!" whenever I, well, obviously. I pretty much immediately blew off this system as both impractical and annoying; but, hey, agreeing to it in principle got the others off my back.
Not quite incidentally, I was actually finding a better balance between "the Experiencing Self" (the one actually there, taking the trek) and "the Remembering [or, even better, Narrative] Self" (the one typing this up nearly a year and a half later, enjoying the memory of it, and for whom all the photos and notes are largely for). A few scenes that would be less great shots I passed up shooting entirely presented as a gift to the Experiencing Self. [It's all pretty damned self-ish, though, actually, isn't it? come to consider it…]
Speaking of which, I learned from Aakash that the Sherpas actually are paid per amount they carry thus horrendously incentivising them to hump the absolute limit of what their bodies can carry up the mountain. And also presenting them with a terrible calculus between starvation and bodily ruination.
We pulled over to let some yaks walk down the stairs. Yaks have right of way.
I spotted a snow-capped peak in the distance and asked Aakash about it.
I think he said it was called Khamsel Khat.
We took a bit of a break to gear down as the temp continued to climb and for me to, belatedly, stretch. In that spot, we met Colin the Ozzie, with his fart jokes.
We then carried on alongside the river some more…
…until our late-morning break for tea at the "Everest Mini Guest House" situated directly across from the "Hotel Waterfall."
We could just about hear the eponymous waterfall behind the guesthouse, which was probably just as well, because our other reason for stopping was that Aakash needed to do the morning necessary. Definitely not complaining nice spot for it (the tea). Aakash returned.
Aakash: “This is just the beginning.”
And so it was.
Yaks very definitely have right of way on suspension bridges. Aakash wouldn't let us anywhere near it until they were well clear.
Trail runners weigh much less, but are crazier and a lot more unpredictable. Best to get out of their way, too.
And then… and then it was time for:
We sat drinking tea in the glorious dappled sunlight, watching the waters rush by and the breeze ruffle the prayer flags on the bridge.
While waiting for the food to arrive, I moved down to the bank, where I'd seen a butterfly. Failed to shoot it, but got these very nice flower portraits.
Also shot wildlife namely people crossing the bridge. Think this woman caught me lensing her.
So, trying not to be so damned precious (food-wise) and giving Darby a big spiel about how I'm attempting to be more easygoing in general, and not so damned attached to my habits from regular life instead of ordering all the vegetable sides as usual, I went for an entree for once: the spring rolls. When they came out, they turned out to be thick-walled tubes of bread stuffed almost solely with noodles. Oh yeah, and a big side of chips. A pure starch festival. Darby was curious what it tasted like “It tastes like a noodle sandwich” and asked for a bite. When she finally abandoned the meal she'd ordered, I greedily hoovered up all her leftover cabbage and carrot.
That was pretty much the last time I did that. Back on the trail! Starting with crossing that bridge ourselves.
We then followed along the bank of the river for a while on a path that was mostly large boulders.
But, as we were quickly to learn as we spent the day trekking up this river valley… the river's always at the bottom, so crossing it generally meant we were soon in for a climb back up on the other side:
Despite the steep climb, I was feeling kind of strong so adopted a healthy but moderate pace. I said hello to a nice Irishman who kindly informed me that I'd just started a 2-hour sustained climb, so maybe I ought to take it a bit easy. Another angel in human form, sent to tell me what I needed to hear in that moment.
And soon after we were looking down at it way down because it was actually two bridges: one high, one ridiculously high, the two together allowing trekkers to climb and criss-cross and painstakingly make their way north up this increasingly steep and dramatic and hard-to-traverse river gorge… as the gorge itself rose up into the Himalayas. It was also perhaps the most thrilling scene on the trek so far.
Getting up there took a little doing.
And it was hardly the end. The whole first half of our trip was basically going up into the Nepal Himalaya. And we were just getting started.
Aakash: “Above three kilometres, I prefer sun. Beneath that, I don't care.”
Me: “We should be passing through 3km right about now.”
Darby: [points to the line between sun and shadow] “I bet it's right there.”
I suggested checking the altimeter, and she read it off my chest rig: 2924m.
I was trying to remember, but believed that was just about as high as we ever got in the Alps. And this party was just getting started.
Highest elevation or not, this was definitely the steepest/deepest river valley I'd ever seen. I asked Aakash-ji about it, and he said it was 1100m deep at its most severe point.
Here are three nice shots of me, kindly shot by Darby, and which are more or less in sequence here.
Darby needed to dig out an energy bar to keep the crankies at bay, and asked Aakash about that.
This news gave me, for one, a second wind. I sprang forward, following a thickening crowd, then finally peered through a gap in the trees at the top. Sure enough…
…yep, that's her right there. This spot affords Khumbu trekkers their first view of Sagarmatha, her summit unmistakable with its snow cover visibly blowing off.
In front of her, we could also see Nuptse (7852m); and on the right, Lotse at 8516m, the fourth highest peak in the world. Slightly in an awed daze, I said to Aakash:
Aakash: “It is Everest. You can't take anything away from it.”
I bought a can of my new favourite mango juice from the enterprising Nepalese woman who'd set up shop up here. Yeah, it's got a lot of sugar added, but it's also got huge freakin' chunks of mango! I did this partly to support the local economy, and in part to cement my Nepali for "How much?" and "I'll take it." Plus did I mention huge freakin' mango chunks! And then motivated by our first peek (peak?) at what we were climbing for we set off again.
There followed a truly ass-smashing end-of-the-day climb. I can always tell because there are almost no pictures. Oh, also this note:
Then again, life could have been a hell of a lot worse: we could have been one of the many Sherpas we saw, covering the same terrain, with crap clothing and gear and loaded down with pack weight we could only have nightmares about. We actually saw one dude with two huge rucksacks strapped together back-to-back and a third smaller one strapped on top. I borrowed a line from Doc Bryan in Generation Kill:
At long last, we were covering a final terraced stretch before Namchee Bazaar when Darby stopped and busted out laughing. When I turned to look… there was a full-size pool table visible inside one of the tumble-down structures alongside the dirt path. Not the kind of thing you can just throw together from local materials. I thought of the Sherpas.
Darby: “Wait 'til you see the bowling alley.”
I assured Darby the line she'd just delivered would be immortal.
Did I mention there's no drinking on the way up as it messes with acclimatisation? Historically I've said (many times) that all I require on a trek and I'm happy to put in 22-mile days, 1000m climbs, murderous terrain, whatever, to get it is a hot shower and a cold beer at the end of the day. This trek was seriously messing with me on both counts. And it was going to get a lot worse before it got better…
My mild crankies were by no means assuaged when I fell off the back snapping or scribbling and, quick-walking to catch up, hit a fork in the damned trail. With no Darby or Aakash in sight. And it was a proper fork, with neither branch looking dominant. Rule #1 is generally: don't take forks without waiting for everyone to catch up. Then again, I'd mendaciously agreed to shout whenever I stopped. Hoist by my own petard. Since I was annoyed and tired, there is only this three-word entry in the notebook:
I kind of forget how it resolved, but I think it involved me going a good couple hundred yards down one fork, deciding it was the wrong one, heading back, and then racing to (I hoped) catch up increasing both my annoyance and tiredness. Anyway, I obviously wasn't lost in the Khumbu in the end. And Namchee Bazaar was right around the bend, which was probably why the others carried on. Yay! Namchee.
Namchee sits in a gigantic bowl in the mountains; is the official jumping off point for the higher elevations, Everest Base Camp (henceforth: EBC), and the passes; the last bit of anything like civilisation and a mecca of outdoors shops. I'd looked at a hundred photos of it; but, like everything else, it still wasn't what I expected. We walked in along the local irrigation system in which people were doing their washing. →
As we snaked into town despite being forewarned of what to expect I still cackled out loud at the pristine North Face shop (like I'd just wandered onto Kensington High Street), and shook my head sadly at the fake Irish pub (like I'd just gotten lost in Deptford).
And then… we were in! The porters (who would always get in before us despite carrying twice the weight in shitty shoes) high-fived us! The little shop in the restaurant/bar/cafe/lounge/common room, I immediately discovered, sold loo roll and unlimited wifi for two days, for 500 rupees.
Dropping our crap and settling down to tea, Darby and I agreed we weren't yet feeling any altitude effects just some laboured breathing. But, then again, we had just been climbing straight the last three hours, and those ascents were not what you'd call gradual. In addition to the tea, I scored two rolls of TP along with the wifi pass, which made it an even grand. (I.e. 250 rupees or about $2.25 per roll.)
I headed up to the room, which was tiny but clean and pretty and had an unimpeachable view mainly to get in a shower.
The shower was also an improvement on the last place but that was a pretty low bar to hurdle. Little did we know, but oh boy would we find out, this guesthouse in Namchee was the absolute lap of luxury compared to where we were going. But when we came through here later on the way down, as of course we must, oh boy would we have learned to appreciate it.
Clean, caffeinated, and somewhat rested, we all popped out into town (aka the bazaar) for last-minute purchases. Namchee is the official place for this 'cause there ain't any other shopping opportunities north, or above, this spot. Aakash went over our gear manifests, and we found a few gaps notably, in my case, the lack of a cold-weather hat. Because I'm an idiot, and fancy myself a bad-ass, I'd decided I didn't need one. As you will know, ever since Africa in ’02, I've trekked in my Intrepid Jungle Explorer Hat®. I'd also never been at anything like this altitude, or temperature. Aakash, as he would many times, set me straight.
We first hit an everything shop, where I picked up shower shoes (without which you can't brave the showers up there if you're stupid enough to brave the showers at all), a new notebook (this one filling up fast), and a couple of postcards (last chance for that as well). Darby bought food. (She buys food everywhere she goes probably has every day, as far as I know, since May 15th 2005.) Then, to my enormous delight, it turned out the amazing folks at Sherpa Adventure Gear have an actual shop (their first one) in Namchee! These guys make just amazing kit, probably because they know better than anyone the requirements for it, with cool logos and Buddhist-colours tags, plus give a ton back to the Sherpa community. In my gear-buying spree before departure, I'd bought a truly amazing lightweight hardshell jacket from them, along with long-sleeve zip top and a t-shirt. Now… I bought a kick-ass hand-woven yak-wool hat, with their kick-ass logo on it, and effused at the poor man behind the counter about how excited I was to be there. What a thrill.
Back at the ranch, we had dinner with a nice couple of Ozzies who had just come down. They were great fun but they rather put the fear of God into us. [See end note, below.] We did get a lot of good tips, and expectation setting.
At some point a little Nepalese girl, a little dot really, maybe four years old, wandered out and started counting beads up to 100. When a nearby German matron asked how she was, she said, "Fine. F-I-N-E." At 11.5 times her age, I was battling to master maybe 50 words of Nepali, total. She also clearly ran this joint. The trouble with outrageously cute kids is sometimes they know it.
The German couple, incidentally, it transpired, were here doing development work. They and their Nepalese colleagues broke out some booze at the end of the night. I stole a look at the label: it was Khukuri Rum! The khukuri, if you don't know, is the traditional inwardly curved knife that had been used by the Nepalese, both as a weapon and a tool, at least since the sixteenth century. Later, it became the characteristic weapon of the Nepalese Army, the Gorkha regiments of the Indian Army and, most recently, the Royal Gurkha Rifles of the British Army. (You know all this if you've read the last two ARISEN books. Research, baby!) Anyway, my response to Khukuri Rum: “Ouchers!”
We ended the night with Aakash's soon to be traditional evening briefing, including the facts that he (along with Dawa, another Mountain Monarch guide on another trek intersecting ours, and a truly cracking fellow) would be in room 107; and that we'd all be up at 0700, breakfast at 0730, and out after that for our acclimatisation day, billygoating through the region around Namchee. We also talked about the day after that and Aakash positively raved about the monastery we'd be visiting at Thame. His enthusiasm is truly amazing.
Middle of the Night Fear-of-God End Note
Incidentally, I'm scribbling this on my second middle-of-the-night bathroom break. It took me a couple of hours to get warm after retiring and my feet never stopped being freezing until I had, at 0500, the brainstorm of putting on a second pair of thick hiking socks. And this, to borrow a line, is the best the Khumbu has for us and it's never going to get this good again. (Until we start descending, which part of me quite wishes we were doing rather than just stepping off for the shit-gets-real part of the ascent.)
At the post-dinner briefing, A. reports tomorrow we're going up to the famous Everest View Hotel, and staying for tea, mainly to put us at 3800m for a while; then walking to a nearby village and back. Acclimatisation day. But now my arse is freezing on frozen porcelain.