There’s something about it. Mt Everest; that fascinates. Captures the imagination: The tallest mountain in the world… But so what? Why is it so compelling that, to date 250-some people have died trying to climb it, and over 40,000 people a year trek in the mountain’s shadow? What is it about “the tallest” that commands such interest? Not that I’m immune: after out abortive Annapurna circuit attempt, Matt and l agreed that there was but one thing to do with the rest of his time in Nepal.
So, head to Everest we did. Or at least the general vicinity. Thanks to our new friend Mads of Himalayan Trails, who has 15 years of exploratory mountain biking and adventure travel guiding experience, this time we were much better informed. We left most of our gear in Kathmandu (it turns out we should have left more — anything we left with our bikes while walking was thoroughly ransacked — fortunately nothing too irreplaceable or important was taken) as the solukumbu area is liberally populated with ‘tea houses. Combination lodge/restaurants which range from the decidedly rustic to 5 star. There is actually a 5 star hotel with a private airstrip and view of Everest, or so l’m told. After one last falafel we rode out of town. Strangely our trip toward the tallest mountain in the world started on smooth(ish) pavement which ran gently downhill! Along the Sunkoshi river.
Most of the roads on our route were under construction. Three or four different road projects, each with slightly different equipment and methodology. All engaged in transforming a muddy rutted jeep track into paved road. Mostly by hand — breaking rocks with sledge-hammers: turning boulders into gravel, and cobbles into building blocks for retaining walls; sweeping the road clear of pebbles with bundles of sticks; and boiling tar in 55-gallon drums over open fires. Forcing a single lane highway through improbably steep terrain. All this construction motivated at least in part, because this route is the supply-line to the everest region, and accordingly all the propane, keroscene, toilet paper beer and coffee, not to mention food, and building materials for lodges under construction pass this way.
Thanks to all road work the riding conditions were extremely variable. Especially after we crossed the river, which in the meantime had become the Dudhkosi, on a pedestrian only suspension bridge (an automobile bridge is under construction near by) and started climbing. Pavement giving way suddenly to dust choked detours. Transitioning to the smoothest dirt road ever (freshly graded and steamrolled) dotted randomly with patches of fresh tar, or minefields of large rocks. But all of it, relentlessly, unforgiving, switchbacking uphill. From Ghurmi, a motley collection of bamboo huts selling food and drink at the end of the road on each side of the bridge, we gained four thousand metres of elevation, in the two days it took to reach Ringmou, 10 kilometres of muddy washed out jeep track past the current end of the road.
In Ringmou, the trail abruptly became a steep stone ‘staircase’ — large stones laid haphazardly to keep the hooves of pack pack mules from churning the steep muddy trail into an impassable morass — climbing a few hundred meters more to Taksindou la before plunging 15,000m to cross the upper Dudkosi. Rather than carry our bikes for most of the next 10+ days we elected to leave them here and continue on foot like everyone else. But unlike most, we elected to carry next to nothing, which was convenient considering our lack of backpacks of any kind to carry anything with. I cobbled a day pack together from my hydration pack, and a dry bag; while Matt opted for the iconic hobo pole — stuff sack of gear on one end and a water bottle on the other.
So somewhat oddly equipped we joined the trickle of trekkers passing our guest house door. A stream which was to become a veritable flood, when we passed Lukla and its airport, the jumping off point for most Everest trekkers a few days later. But if we weren’t hiking with many other foreigners, there were plenty of locals. Mostly porters, carrying huge loads in wicker baskets supported by tumplines over their foreheads. And mule trains loaded down with gas canisters and sacks of rice. The trail was steep and narrow and rocky with more than 3000m of elevation gain and loss in the first two day. A bit of a sink or swim introduction to trekking for Matt, who quickly re-purposed his hobo-pole as a walking stick, and eventually converted to official trekking poles, when we found them to purchase along with anything else a trekker could want, in the surprisingly large town of Namche Bazaar.
We took a rest day to ease sore bodies and acclimatize in this mini-city in the middle of nowhere. It’s 4 days walk from the nearest trailhead, exists entirely to serve the tourist trade, and boasts electricity, wifi, espresso, high-quality outdoor gear, even an automated teller machine. All of which is oddly comfortable but sort of beside the point, since its all situated on a hillside in the midst of spectacular mountains. Including the famous one, but l couldn’t tell you which it was — all the mountains here are impressively tall and rugged, and that, to be honest is why were all here. Chasing superlatives on one level, and seeking immersion in the grandeur of the high himalaya on another.
Realizing that there was nothing in particular to be gained for a pilgrimage to the foot of Sagarmatha (as the Nepali call it). We opted to leave the main trail and its yak jams trekking group caterpillars, and head toward the glacial lakes around Gokyo. A region rumored to be more picturesque than the somewhat anti-climactic symbolic Everest base camp, from which you can’t, I’m told, even see the mountain. I have no way of comparing the relative merit of the two destinations, but can say unequivocally that the comparative solitude made walking much more pleasant. I too had purchased trekking poles in Namche, and the quadruped upgrade (coupled with my light load) almost doubled my speed. Which meant l was spending alot of my day passing long strings of of hikers or pack animals. Fun in motocross/streets of Delhi sort of way, but not really the contemplative experience l was after.
Matts knees were troubling him, and our speed differential was such that we weren’t really walking together. He would leave an hour or two before me we would pass around midday, and l would arrive an hour or two before him in the evening. By leaving after everyone (and passing the slower clusters) I contrived to have the illusion of the trail to my self. Which for me is the best way to experience the power of my surroundings. High mountain valleys dotted with tiny agrarian settlements, surrounded by towering peaks and divided by rocky streams, and at higher elevations turquoise glacial lakes, scattered moraine boulder piles, and in the distance, glaciers of all shapes and sizes. We (and everyone else) were walking extremely short days for altitude acclimatization. Which gave my days a good balance of pseudo solitude, and socialization in the warmth of the tea house common room.
The hike culminated for me on a crystal clear day on top of Gokyo Ri (5357m), a hill overlooking the hamlet of Gokyo and the adjacent Ngozumpa glacier, rumored to be the largest in the himalaya. With a 360 degree view of tall mountains cloaked in snow and sporting the wild cornices of hanging glaciers. I spent half an hour or so in silent communion with the surrounding majesty, and then jogged back to Gokyo. Mat had elected to turn around at the sacred lakes at the foot of the hill, opting to spare his knees the extra 600m of elevation gain and loss, straight up and back down. Which meant he was several hours ahead of me; and it was going to be quite a long day. I ended up covering the same ground most hikers planed 4 days for in one. l reached our teahouse of choice in Dole, after several delightful hours winding my way through heavy mist. With the better part of Amon Tobin’s discography as soundtrack (l had been saving the battery on my portable music device for just such an occasion).
Gokyo Ri is reputed to have a nice clear view of The Tallest Mountain in the World. So l surely saw it, but while l spent a good amount of time on top enjoying the mountains, l never even thought about trying to figure out which one was ‘The One.’ It didn’t matter, Everest had done its job : we were here.