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

Day 4: The Monastery Above Thame

Namchee Bazaar (3440m) → Thame (3800m)

So Aakash's nightly briefing had reassured us that today was going to be a mere 4.5-hour ramble, in what was supposed to be glorious weather, and we were in no rush whatsoever, and also the post office in Namchee opened at 10am (the last and only place to send postcards), so no one would be racing out of bed in the morning. We also learned that our destination, the village of Thame, was birthplace of the world-famous Tenzing Norgay Sherpa – as well as the unfortunately less-well-known Apa Sherpa, who summited Everest 21 freaking times before retiring and settling in the US. Even cooler, we would actually be staying in the dude's childhood home – from which spot we'd be surrounded by a lot more 6k+ peaks, and officially be at the edge of the treeline, as well as past the last hydro-electric power, with solar being it from there on out. The forecast was good, but Aakash's rule was:

Aakash: “It only rains if you don't have Gore-Tex. So to avoid the rain, bring them.”

It's perhaps worth noting that I wore my awesome new Sherpa Adventure Gear watch cap in the common room, through dinner and the briefing.

Me: “An hour later, and I have no idea how I ever lived without this.”

Morning, and I sat in the main room nearly alone, scribbling.

A. warned me that I was likely to have wild dreams at altitude. In spades, it turns out – including, but not limited to, spilling tea on the Queen's rug, a major terrorist attack imminent in London, and a unit of the Special Constabulary armed with AKs…

Also worth recounting (with regard to the unexpected and rather unique hazard of showering at altitude) is the fact that a whole group of French had moved in last night – and one of them literally passed out in my arms as he tried to exit the shower, and I was queueing for it outside the door – and quickly had to go into ELS mode. There was some suspicion of his health, but the most-drawn conclusion was that the damned natural-gas-heated shower was leaking fumes. Gack.

Anyway, just as both the main room and the WiFi were slammed last night, this morning, in time, breakfast was hopping. Aakash was apparently having a lie-in, so D and I managed to order breakfast for ourselves. I had muesli wetted with pineapple juice – we were already way up above the soya milk belt – and but the juice had pineapple chunks, so I could hardly complain. Outside, another glorious Himalayan day had broken crisp and cloudless.

I paid the lodge for my value-add services (laundry, two showers, juices, and device charging), then darted across to the Walmart to buy stamps for my postcards… then it was farewell to Mountain Dreams (the name of the lodge), and on to Mountain Reality. At the last moment, the little multilingual four-year-old girl came out to say bye. Bye!

Because I'm dumb, and don't remember things, and also take these treks not nearly often enough, I'd forgotten how to use my camera's damned panorama mode – a source of enormous frustration the prior day, due to the Himalayas turning out to be kind of big. Anyway, it finally came back to me.

Salvation! Panorama mode sorted!

It was also only this morning that I noticed Aakash and I were wearing nearly the same boots, which definitely told me I'd bought the right ones. This is worth a few characters on, because they ended up being the most revolutionary piece of kit I bought for this trek. Historically, the tension is between comfort and stability: the wisdom is that, for really rough and jagged terrain like we were in, you needed big solid boots, with a lot of support (including to protect your ankles), and stiff treads to keep the sharp rocks from obliterating your sole(s). The downside was, well, you're wearing big, solid – i.e. less comfortable – boots. But Salomon has rewritten the rules. I'll spare you a review, but just suffice it to say my Salomon Men’s X Ultra Mid 2 GTX High Rise Hiking Boots were more comfortable than my beloved Asics Gel-Kayano running shoes – and across all the ass-smashing terrain of the Himalayas, they never once let me down in support or protection. They're truly like magic; and probably the best £111.13 I ever spent – on anything.

Random conversation on the trail.

Me→Darby: [while tightening my belt] “This place is a weight management Nirvana – climbing steep hills all day, freezing your ass off all night. Soon we'll be freezing our asses off while climbing steep hills!”

I was righter than I knew – by the time I'd get back down to Kathmandu, my body fat was simply gone. More on that then. As regards the cold, I did actually do rather better stoking my heat cocoon on the second night in Namchee – by morning, my hat, gloves, and (gobsmackingly) both pairs of socks had come off. But, as noted, this was going to get a lot worse before it got better. Then again, the glorious scenery and terrain of the Nepal Himalaya just kept getting better.

A bit later, up at this (second!) gorgeous stupa, while Darby shot caterpillar signs, I talked trips with Aakash.

Me: “I find that being 'well traveled' – like being 'well read' – is totally relative to whomever you're standing next to at any given moment. You could feel like you've seen the whole world, then meet someone who makes you feel like you've never left home. And vice versa. I've seen a few places. And my current feeling is this may be the best place in the world.”

And it wasn't just the place – but the people we'd met so far. The sense of civil society, of politeness, of tradition and right behaviour.

Me: “I love London very much, you know, but you only have to go out in public for about an hour before someone does something that makes you despair for the human race…”
Shyan and Lakhdan - our esteemed and estimable porters - wuz here
Sitting outside rustic teahouse, overwatched by the mountains, prayer flags, and hilltop stupa – in perfect silence except for the breeze, which is also perfect.

Those two huge bags above, by the way, were carried (every day) by Shyan and Lakhdan, who we finally actually met officially today, and who were extremely high-quality human beings, and more on whom later. For now – back out, along the river, and up the Thame Valley!

We continued along a trail traversing the valley, with the river following alongside.

And then, of course, there was the inevitable climb up out of the damned valley. Enjoy some narrative-free photos – while I was huffing too much to take notes.

Lakhdan (sitting)! And Shyan!

And then a stop in Samde for lunch. Cracking spot, as you can see:

Sherpa stew! A very spicy broth, a bit oily, with carrots, potatoes, spinach, and dumplings. Yum.

Afterward, we sat in the cool sunlight and chatted and were happy.

Me: “On those days when we cross the passes, we're going to look back at days like today and think: We had it GOOD. Strolling up the trail, four hours of hiking, stop for tea and lunch…”
Aakash: “We will stroll through the passes as well.”

The toilet, it transpired, was a hole in the floorboards of a proper outhouse.

Me: [resignedly] “Well, may as well get this over with.”

On return from the floor hole, I asked Aakash if he ever gets angry, what things bother him.

Aakash: “Nothing. I don't get angry. A little itchy in the off-season.”
Me: “Wow.”
Aakash: “I'm basically a happy person.”
Me: “Then you've really got something, my friend. Most of the people I know go around angry or sad half the time.”

Or maybe I was just talking about me. Who knows. After lunch, we faced another steep climb, still on the shoulder of the river:

Absolutely sublime setting w/the white water roaring below, the cold breeze blowing in the stark sunlight, absurdly large and grand mountains towering up on all sides – stony ones crowding us, snowy/icy ones hulking behind.

In our discussion of happiness, Aakash also said, “I get paid to come out in this. How could I not be happy?” It occurred to me that – with my last trek 4.5 years ago – maybe my problem is as simple as that. I'm not coming out here enough.

We descended down to a bridge via a variety of funky Buddhas painted on the stone, crossed over…

…then straight back up the wall of the valley.

And it was only then that it hit me: THIS was the valley! I.e. the Thame Valley I had read about in the guidebooks. Somehow I had pictured it very differently – a lot broader. But seeing this dramatically narrow thing, mountains towering on both sides, I belatedly realised: No damned wonder you can only get up into the Himalaya via one of the valleys – all the terrain in between is impassable, unless you happen to be some kind of an ultramarathoner version of a mountaineer: scaling 12 peaks in a row, up and down. Simply, the river made a path for us.

And, just like that, we were into Thame.

Altimeter reads 3810. Main room of guesthouse is lovely. Bedroom is like last one, but w/no blankets, dingier paint, and a bit of a smell. Heigh ho. We're going up to the monastery for sunset, leaving 15:45.
Me: “Gas-heated showers, and a charging station!”
Darby: “That makes this, what, a 3-star hotel by local standards?”
Aakash: “Masala tea?”
Me: “Yeah, why the hell not.”

While waiting for the tea, I circled round the room, taking in the profusion of wall-mounted awards, certificates, accolades, and photos of and for Apa Sherpa (including a photo with His Holiness), other climbers, and mountaineering in general.

Most striking were Apa Sherpa's Guiness World Record certificates – initially for his record-breaking 15th summit of Everest… then for breaking his own record six more times in a row.

Still circling, I finally reach the most tucked away corner, where I also find, rather incongruously… yep, that's a Big Mouth Billy Bass.

Since the sun had effectively set down here in the valley, and it was already freezing, I broke out the big guns for the hike up to the monastery: my Corbett Extremities gloves (so far I'd been getting by with my glove liners), my Polar Buff (first time for that, too – and more on it anon), and my stylin' new Sherpa Adventure gear watch cap. I was ready for heavy weather… and looking like a badass. Then Aakash recommended another layer – the down jackets that Shyan and Lakhdan had been humping all over the country. I hesitated – but only briefly.

I'm just smart enough to already have figured out how smart A. is – when he recommends something, I pretty much go with it. Unfortunately, when I emerge back into the main area – "Ahh, man, I looked so cool until a minute ago. Couldn't you have gotten me a black one?" – my black, grey, desaturated dark brown, and basically meticulously dark and neutral look is ruined by the puffy red & blue monstrosity.

Heigh ho. Finally, I remembered what David Stirling, one of the founders of the SAS said: “Any damned fool can be uncomfortable.” And then it was out into the freezing dusk, for the climb up above the village.

The walk up to the monastery, with all the mane, and prayer flags, and stupas, and the two valleys plunging down below us to either side, and the ice-capped and still sun-spotlit peaks smiling down on us from above, is completely magical.
Me→Aakash: “It's unlike how I imagined it. I couldn't have imagined it.”

When we finally reached the monastery – where my altimeter read 4003m (it would be constant new records from here on out) – we found the inside was closed. But it didn't matter. We stood in awe, watching until the very last blood-red light disappeared from the white mountaintops.

Because it didn't photograph well, that meant I actually had to look at it – and try to remember it. Or maybe even remember the feeling. Darby pointed out that with the sun gone, the sky above and behind the peaks had turned the most spectacular shades of azure and postal blue.

Darby: “But there's no way my camera phone is going to capture that.”
Me: “Two words: Photoshop saturation.”
Darby: “Now it's gone purple.”

But, even when I tried it with my camera-camera… I had nothing. Back to looking at it. By and by, we went back down, for dinner and the evening briefing.

Tomorrow: Lumdun, 4400m
Another easy day, mostly gradual. 4.5-5 hours, but we'll add on a little hike at the end, to get higher than we sleep. Up at 7, leave 8.30. Up above the treeline. Lumdun not a village – a settlement, solely for trekkers.

It was put there basically to make it possible to cross Renjo La, the first pass, in a single day. Which we'd be doing the day after. Gulp.

Here are some pictures that Darby shot of me, I think all from today, but which I can't be arsed to put in sequence. They do capture how I spend most of my trekking day – billygoating, shooting, and being awe-struck.

Tomorrow, Day Five: The Magnificent Valley

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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