Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Day 3: The “Acclimatisation” Day

Namchee Bazaar (3440m) → Everest View Hotel (3880m) → Khumjung Village → Namchee

Morning, and I was first awake and down to the main room – Time, and temp, on waking The view from our window where I spotted a bunch of laundry, largely (but not exclusively) socks, laid out to dry on the yak-dung-burning stove.

Me: “Hey, I have those socks!”

Of course, as you will have already guessed, they were my socks. On the downside, the stove wasn't lit, so nothing was all that dry. Nonetheless, the proprietress emerged to gather up my pants &c., and also offered me tea. Masala tea! I'd like to say it never got old, but really it just took a long while to get old.

The Austrians – whom I previously misidentified as Germans – were next down, and I talked with them about their development work here. Turned out they both have day jobs, and do this stuff on their holidays! They originally came here for one project, then just kept coming, and fell in love with the country – and now have two godchildren here. Dawa (the other Mountain Monarch guide) came down and greeted them in excellent German. Then we were joined by a stranded, older, Canadian man – by which I think I mean that he got dinged by AMS and had to stay behind while his trekking group went up. He had a big puffy white beard and a ponytail.

Darby appeared, and Dawa took our breakfast orders. I broke down and checked my phone for five minutes, noting the power was down to 28%. As mentioned, and as I mentioned then to Darby, I'd been avoiding charging it so as to avoid looking at it, and instead be where was I actually at. And where I'd gone to some trouble to get to.

I am SO looking forward to my big heaping pile of vegetables tonight!

Being up in the mountains makes everything amazing. I reflected that I'd hardly touched my ginormous bag of custom trail mix. We were getting fed well. Still, it was mountain food, mostly starchy densely caloric stuff. I decided I needed to try to eat lighter/greener at meals, and top up calories as necessary with healthy nuts, seeds, and dried fruit. Because f*&^ white flour products.

In further conversation, it turned out that all three – Austrians and Canadian – had been here during the earthquake! The Canadian ended up holed up at the British Embassy. A Turkish Airlines flight had crashed at the airport – meaning international air travel was basically closed out. All of them had some harrowing stories. The Embassy parcelled everyone out, sending the Canadian folks to the AMA – which the Americans hired guys from the Nepalese police to guard. So here are these Nepalese people, who have lost houses, family members, whole schools… and they're put to work guarding Westerners. Our Canadian guy went out on his own volition into Durbar Square to try to help with search and rescue. But… it was just extracting dead bodies.

Stranded, Older Canadian Man: “We had time, we could have stayed longer to help. But the local feeling was: Foreigners, you should go, or you might really get stuck here. I don't know. I should have stayed. But I'm not a doctor, I don't have language skills. Still… we could have played tennis the next day at home. There was this survivor guilt.”
Me: “Or the guilt of one who holds a Western passport. Get out of Hell free card, just extract.”
SOCM: “Exactly.”

But then it was time for us to get (a bit) out of Dodge (albeit we'd be coming right back). As previously noted, this was an acclimatisation day – we'd gone from 1440m (Kathmandu) to 3440m in two days, which was a hell of an elevation gain. One of the tricks of the acclimatisation trade is to hang around at higher altitude, or trek around at the same altitude – and, as we were about to discover, this was a hell of an area to just trek around in. Another is to always sleep a bit lower than your highest point on the day, so we were going to be climbing up to 3880m, and hanging out there for a bit, then coming back down. Along the way, we'd also see some amazing stuff, including the delightful Khumjung Village. And it was a gorgeous day for it. The main reason one treks this region Sep–Nov is the blemishless skies you see below, riven by the snowy 8km peaks (and many more 6km+ ones).

Climb up out of town is murderous. But it feels great. Shooting light amazing. Still and silent.

You'll recall Namchee sits down in a bowl. You may also recall that Fujijilm cameras, which I favour, produce just gorgeous shots – in really good light. (Less gorgeous in less good light…)

We were working hard and panting – but what a setting to do it in! That twin peak that overlooks Namchee is called Kongde Ri. It's over 6km. We all heard a faint rumbling from somewhere. Guess who spotted it.

Aakash: “A helicopter. That's the national bird of Nepal.”

Basically, there are only two ways up here (or down again): on foot, or by helo. And don't count on the helo. More on that later.

Aakash made a drinking motion at me from down below. (Hydration is also a critical part of acclimatisation.) He then suggested we grab a rack in the sun and acclimatise. (The laziest guide in Nepal never missed a chance to remind us that “doing nothing [at altitude] is acclimatising.”)

Me: “I've got sort of this mental leader board of favourite spots in the world.” →
Aakash: “You already have seven or eight favourite spots on this trip.”
Me: “And we haven't even gotten to the good part.”

Behind, and way down below us, we could make out two stupas and a schoolyard. Students lined up in ranks and sang the national anthem, which floated up to us there on the heights.

But the path beckoned us on, and we still had a lot of ground – and elevation – to cover. And we weren't getting air transport. But sometimes you don't need it. Because, then:

I'm climbing THAT!!!

Yep, big ole boulder on side of the trail, just beckoning me to scramble up it. Boy's own adventures. On top of to Darby's heroic shots of ME!, I got some very cool ones myself from up top.

My perch also provided a decent aerial view of the Dud Khosi river valley – we just walked up that. Scrambling down and catching the others up again, I reflected:

Definitely feeling my power. Getting pretty seriously winded at times, but this is a hellacious and sustained climb at (some) altitude. Maybe those thousands of flights of stairs weren't for nought…

You can finally see Darby's Darby-mounted solar panel out today. Good charging day, I suppose. And she's come a long way from buns.

That absurdly vertiginous peak in front of Aakash above, and then in close-up is Ama Dablam. It's got real drama. And, at 6812m, it dominates the eastern skyline for trekkers to EBC.

Darby: “If there's a group of people ogling and photographing, that must be Everest.”
Oglers in upper right The ogled Everest on left, Lhotse in centre, Ama Dablam on right

You can see the oglers in the first photo above, up on the hill to the right. In the third, the close-up, you can see Everest on the left, snow blowing off her summit, with Lhotse in the middle, and of course Aba Dablam on the right.

From up on this hotel's hill, we also got such a good view back down the valley, we could just make out the red roofs of the Sagarmatha National Park entrance we had passed through.

As we carried on contouring the side of this little hill, I felt my adductor muscle start to nontrivially complain – in the wake of having felt it sharply twinge when I went leaping up that damned boulder on the side of the trail. Regular readers may recall that I tore the ever-living hell out of my groin, trying out Crossfit, six weeks before Nepal, because I'm an idiot; and for a while couldn't even hobble ten steps to the bathroom without howling in pain. With the help of a sports physio genius, I recovered and retrained in time for this trek (just). But, because I was clearly still an idiot, I decided it wasn't enough to trek the three high passes of Everest – but I also had to go clambering up every damned steep thing on the side of the damned trail.

Nice move, smart guy. First and last clamber. Shot across my bow.

Obviously, I needed to focus on staying healthy and completing the trek. Not least since all three passes, and all three peaks we were going to ascend, still lay ahead of us…

Deeply unsurprisingly, in the last stretch, there were some hills – playfully, Aakash went sprinting up them, shouting at us to keep up. On the last one – nearly instantly throwing my newfound caution to the wind – I took off after him. We reached the crest, turned, and saw a very bemused Darby plodding up from below. She said something about trying to figure out what the hell we were doing.

Me: “Easy. Male dominance contest – for sexual access to Darby.”
Darby: “You act as if sexual access to me were on offer.”
Me: “Hey, I'm sure neither of us has any conscious designs on you. But these things are hardwired very deep.”

Darby took this occasion to remind us that – just as on the Coast-to-Coast – she was in possession of all the sharp sticks in the group (namely her trekking poles). And at last, finally, our first and main destination: the world-famous Everest View Hotel!

As you can see above, they had a number of blandishments, starting with their world-famous Everest-view dining patio, as well as a clever 3D topographical map that allowed us to put ourselves in the picture. Moreover, I finally got around to calibrating the altimeter on my new watch, from a known elevation.

3880m, baby!

This, a new lifetime elevation record for Darby and me both, was 11,090ft if you're keeping track at home – in America. Busting into our celebratory mood, Aakash busted out with the same damned Pink Floyd song he'd been singing across pretty much the entire trek so far.

Darby: “Dammit! It took me a day to get that out of my head.”
Me: “You know what Mark would say – it's time to break out the Mental Saltine! ROXXX-ANNNEEE!!!

Giggling and falsetto-ing, we repaired to the world's best-sited al fresco cafe.

Darby: “Well, this doesn't suck.”
Me: “I love this trip.”

Darby raved about how the masala tea was different everywhere we went. Aakash explained that they put in different things: ginger, cloves, cardamom.

Me: “Basically, they don't just pop into Whole Foods and buy the masala tea bags.”

We sat in the glorious sunlight, making plans to buy more sun goop back in the bazaar, watching other lucky bastards drink Everest-brand beer, and regarding the crazy-ass peaks that perched all around us.

Me: “So Aba Dablam has been climbed?”
Aakash: “Many times.”
Me: “How? Ice axes and crampons, I guess…”
Aakash: “And ropes, and…”
Me: “I guess they've all been climbed by now.”
Aakash: “A group came back from climbing Aba Dablam yesterday. It's a very technical mountain – as you can see.”
Me: <reclining and sighing> “I like acclimatising…”

Even Better View Hotel But finally, alas, it was time to go. As we got up and got our stuff togther, we could see the Kongde Hotel just across the way, which was even higher, at 4100m. Aakash explained it was a luxury hotel, with electrically heated blankets – plus oxygen. It cost $200/night, pretty pricey in these parts, but also included meals. Aakash turned to see Darby was still organising herself.

Aakash: “Could you please get ready!”
Darby: “If you wanted to move fast, you shouldn't have brought me along.”
Me: “I bet Pradip was like, ‘Hey, Aakash, we've got this babe, why don't you take it?’ And Aakash was like, ‘Ooh, it's Darby, don't think so.’”
Darby: “I make up for it by going far.”
Aakash: <still waiting, resignedly> “I've had worse than you.”

Our next and last destination on the day was Khumjung Village. The walk there didn't disappoint.

Descend into Khumjung – Jesus! Amazing place. Again, I am so f'ing happy right now.
Me: “This place has got real charm.”
Aakash: “It's my favourite town in the whole area.”
Wait – how the hell did that yak crap get up on that wall? Oh. They're drying dung.

Inevitably, of course, we had to climb back up out of the village center to get to our lunch stop.

Me: “Normally, I wouldn't ask, but how much of a climb are we looking at?”
Aakash: “Normally I wouldn't tell you. Five minutes.”

But then – into the teahouse! Aakash reported MM groups stay here on their regular treks (versus the private one we'd put together).

Me: “I recognise that. Potala Palace. And – His Holiness! Hmm, I wonder what the denomination of the proprietors might be…”

So the folks who ran this joint were not only Buddhists, but also Sherpas, and most Sherpa people are vegetarian. So here I got to tuck into my first Sherpa stew. Yummers! Also, the chapatis, which are baked here – obviously; where the hell else? – were amazing. And, like virtually all teahouses, it had a little shop, which I compulsively checked out.

Me: “I'm reverting to C2C mode – Ooh, what do they have that we could buy to eat later…
Darby: “But Aakash is doing such a good job of keeping us fed.”
Me: “Yes. I suppose we need have no anxiety on that count.”

I noticed a wicker basket full of dark hockey pucks on top of the iron stove in the middle of the room. As I think previously mentioned, this whole region is way above the treeline; and way far off any electricity grid. So, not only can things only be moved around by human or yak power, but pretty much the only way to generate heat is to burn dried yak dung. This place also had a very special toilet, the sort of which we'd see a lot more of: it had no water tank, but just a big bucket of water, with a scoop, beside. You had to scoop enough water into the bowl to manually flush the thing.

Heating and plumbing fixtures aside, it was a cracking place, and I thanked Aakash for bringing us here. He demurred, saying that despite having been here a hundred times, it still made him so happy and excited.

Me: “That's a very special thing – both for you, and for the people who go out with you.”

While we all digested, and the others fiddled with their phones, I sat in the sunlight and just enjoyed the room.

Buddha mind is no mind. Probably good for me. My friends who have gone to Nepal did say this would change my life.

We finally geared up, stepping out to where the Sherpa-run teahouse overlooked the whole lovely village. This alone would have made the climb up here worth it, if the teahouse itself already hadn't.

We passed a very active construction site, the construction techniques of which fascinated the engineer on our trek. We also met the one-man local concrete industry, breaking rocks into gravel and then into powder, by hand. I paid him 100 rupees for the photo I took.

We saw a huge, amazing stupa out in the open; then walked across a large open football pitch, part of the Khumjung Secondary School, which was founded by Sir Edmund Hilary. Apparently lots of people volunteer to come teach here; and it's free for all students.

Pitch Ed Hilary

And then, of course, there was nothing left but to climb ourselves the heck out of Dodge!

After the climb out, we stopped at a hilltop stupa. I looked up into the colourful flapping in the breeze – and noticed for the first time that prayer flags… have prayers on them. Who knew?

Aakash also took us by a yak farm.

Aakash: “I thought you might like to see them just wandering around.”
Me: “Freedom for yaks!”
Me: “And now it's just like Yorkshire – walking beside a dry stone wall with livestock on the other side… a few more prayer flags.”

We passed Syangboche Airport – or what was intended to be that. While it was still under construction, the guys who run Lukla protested, and so now it's just used for big helos bringing in construction materials. They also evidently have an Annual Everest Skydive from helos, the jumpers landing on this airstrip.

The end of our loop back afforded some excellent views.

Me: “Ah – that's the Namchee Bazaar I recognise from the photos.”

Darby: “Now you know where they take all those photos from.”

Me: “Man. On any other trip, this would have been a gigantic day. Here, it's just a little circular ramble.”

Darby: “Like we just popped out for lunch.”

Aakash: “And that concludes our rest day.”

And thus back to the guesthouse.

Because I stupidly relied on memory (rather than reliable memory protheses, like computers or notebooks), I mistakenly reported previously that yesterday we had our shopping trip to purchase last items from the bazaar before the shit-gets-real part of the trek, while there was still any prayer of purchasing them. But, actually, that was today. Here's the Namchee shop of the amazing Sherpa Adventure Gear folks! Including the hat I bought, and the poor employee I effused at.

I walked in the door aleady wearing one of their pullovers, over one of their synthetic t-shirts

And here's the everything store where we bought shower shoes, notebooks, postcards, more food (dark chocolate w/almonds in my case!) and other sundries – plus Darby dodging a yak in the street. (Namchee! Jesus.)

Somehow, I doubt Sam Walton is earning on this place Just another ho-hum, yak-filled day in Namchee

Thence we repaired to the nice local coffee shop – where they had proper coffee. On the tv overhead, they had (presumably on a loop) a documentary about Everest summit attempts.

Finally, on our walk back to the guesthouse, a woman darted out of a shop and called to a man, in a sharp Cockney accent: “Dave, they've got Haribo in there, as well!”

Namchee! Jeesh.

Tomorrow, Day Four: The Monastery Above Thame

  3PoET     trekking  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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