We started out our journey to the Khumbu like any new adventure; with me bouncing up and down, asking unending questions, and extremely excited for what lay ahead. I’d gotten a taste of the chaos of flying domestic during our trip to Pokhara so I was prepared for the endless waiting. All I knew is that we had one of the early flights of the day scheduled at 8:00am. The departures waiting area was mayhem, even more crowded than our previous venture to Pokhara, people ruthlessly eyeing and snatching open seats. I finally snagged an end seat next to the gate, and opened my book to wait patiently. After two hours of watching airline employees, looking at other traveler’s tickets, and false starts, we learned that there was a “traffic backlog” on the runway that was causing the delay but had now cleared and we were finally out the door and on our way.
Similar to our flight to Pokhara, we were treated with a view of the gigantic mountain peaks presiding over the lowland network of valleys, however this time, the view held more than beauty as we were going to be trekking around these mountains, valleys, and peaks. After landing in Lukla, we took a short walk over to a lodge, The Nest, to get a cup of ginger tea, discuss reserving our room for the return trip, and left our return plane tickets in 18 days in the care of the lodge. Dean found a porter willing to take our heavy backpacks up to Phortse – a somewhat difficult task as the porters tend to prefer the longer treks which guarantees a longer trip and more wages.
Balaram, our porter, is a small, skinny man who appears to be in his mid to late 40’s. While Dean had provided the name of the guest house that we intended to stay at that evening, allowing Balaram to take off and meet us there, instead, he paced with us on the trail, consistently pulling ahead during the hard, uphill sections and waiting for us to catch up. It was humbling to be passed by the numerous porters, carrying heavy loads. I mean, I’m a Coloradan, not some pansy from the coasts, but watching these small men carry huge, awkward burdens at a slow and steady pace, wearing shoes completely inadequate for the terrain (sometimes flip flops), I couldn’t help but be impressed and humbled.
We made good time descending the hill out of Lukla to follow along the Dudh Koshi river below but as the afternoon continued, my energy started to wane. I had been struck with bad allergies on our last day in Pokhara, which had decided to morph into an aggressive sinus infection, causing me to get very little sleep the night prior due to a runny nose and sinus pressure. I’d taken Mucinex, but the medication hadn’t touched my symptoms, and I paused often on the trail to blow my nose. Per usual, my appetite flees when feeling ill and I had repeatedly told Dean that I wasn’t hungry, causing us to continue hiking on only a slight breakfast. He wisely stopped us for the day after three hours, two hours shy of reaching the village where we had initially planned to stop. I immediately collapsed into my sleeping bag while Dean went down to the dining room to order dinner. When I reluctantly left my warm cocoon for dinner, he made sure I ate everything.
The next morning we were on the trail by 6:45am. Feeling a little better, I was energized by the beautiful scenery and the fact that we had the trail to ourselves while the throngs of other trekkers heading into and out of the valley were still waking up and having breakfast. Crossing our first cable bridge, I was awarded a view up the valley and the realization hit that we would be following the river for most of the remainder of the day, meandering up and down on either side but always moving up between the big peaks.
We hiked steadily for four hours, stopping once for tea on a patio in Jorsale and again at Monju to purchase the permits that allowed us entry to the Sagarmatha National Park (a park that encompasses the Khumbu Valley). It had taken 20 minutes for Dean to work through the Nepali bureaucracy to obtain the permits. In the meantime, I had a conversation with an Army guard from Kathmandu. His job was to stand at the checkpoint to ensure travelers hiking out on the trail had the necessary permits. A national park enforcer if you will.
Dean and I continued on the trail, navigating a riverbed and dodging a number of middle-aged Japanese trekkers heading down-valley. Looking at this group, I thought to myself, “if they can do it, this should be a piece of cake.” A half hour later, Dean pointed to a cable bridge, located high above the river, and told me that we were now starting the hike up to Namche Bazar, our final destination for the day. Nonchalantly, he mentioned that our next 1.5 – 2 hours would be spent climbing the hill up to Namche. Um, pardon?
The hill was no joke as this is where the trail leaves the river and starts to ascend along a higher position amongst the mountains. We started up the stairs, crossed the cable bridge suspended 200 feet above the river, and began the slow plod upwards. Immediately I fell in behind a group of porters and I worked to mimic their foot placement and pace. We stopped several times at porter ledges, multi-height benches of stone built into the hillside to allow for respite without the difficulty of dropping the load on the ground. At one of these ledges, Dean called my attention to the big peaks above moored in clouds, specifically pointing out the base of the Everest massif. My heart leapt. Getting an on the ground glimpse towards our goal, I couldn’t help but feel re-energized and for the next 10 minutes, we attacked the hill. But as Newton’s First Law of Physics dictates – an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. And that unbalanced force, my friend, was the extreme degree of the hill. I quickly fell behind the porters but was able to miraculously continue my slow upward progress. When Dean pointed out the first views of the village, perched another 100 feet above us, I couldn’t help but feel relieved. We had a brief respite at a permit checkpoint and then made our way up to our lodge.
After dinner and a quick shower, I felt like a new woman. My sinus infection felt like it was improving, well, at least the Mucinex was making a dent in the symptoms and Dean had procured tissues, Strepsils, a hard cough drop, and Coldease, a Vick’s knock off. So I was fully armed to deal with the lingering discomfort.
The following day, our scheduled stay in Namche for rest and acclimatization, we awoke early and made our way to the top of the village to the Sherpa Museum and Nepal Army post perched atop a promontory overlooking the valley. This hike was intended both to gain additional elevation and enjoy the clear early morning views of the mountain peaks and villages that enclose the valley. As our lodge was located at very bottom of the Namche Bazar, a village built inside a steep mountain bowl, we hadn’t seen these views the previous day. We sat in the sun for over 30 minutes, enjoying the views of Ama Dablam, Thamserku, Khumbyula, Everest and other massive, snow covered peaks. Dean and I went to check out the museum while Balaram, who we had run into coming down the trail, waited outside for us.
We said good-bye to Balaram for the remainder of the day, and decided that we would check out Namche Bazar. Over lunch, I made the comment to Dean, that notwithstanding some differences in architecture, Namche had the feel of a Colorado ski town, with restaurants, retail shops, and coffee shops at every turn. For some reason, I began this trek expecting everything to be more rustic. My imagination had built a picture of single story stone huts with low windows and outhouse toilets. However, most of the two and three story buildings appeared newly built with large, common dining rooms that boasted walls of windows to allow for the amazing mountain views. This village clearly capitalizes on the money flowing in from the trekking community and caters specifically to that population. It made me anxious and excited to see Phortse, as Dean had explained that it was often overlooked by trekking groups, who instead, opt for a different trail through Tengboche (a village across the valley that boasts a famous Buddhist monastery) on their way up to Everest and therefore a bit more traditional.
We left early the next morning, hiking the rock stairs to where the trail continues high along the mountain Khumbila above Namche. The path was sparsely populated and we enjoyed clear views of the sunlit, snow covered peaks at every corner.
After a quick cup of morning tea shared with Balaram in Kyang Juma, we took the middle fork where the trail splits; the left fork heading to Khumjung and the right to Thangboche. The morning felt magical as we climbed steep irregular stone staircases through the deciduous forest along cliffs The sun had finally risen high enough to peek over Ama Dablam and the light made the terrain feel enchanted. The sun’s warmth was a welcome addition as there had been frost and snow the night previous and I quickly shed my gloves and coat.
At a porter’s ledge atop a haphazard set of stairs, the valley opened and Dean pointed out Phortse, nestled on a hillside across from us. All we had to do was hike up to Mong La, a village towering above us, down the backside of the hill to a river crossing, and then back up a hill to Phortse. The hill to Mong La appeared to be moderate and I actually told Dean, “No problem.” An hour and a half of slow plodding later, Mong La appeared to be no closer. My cold symptoms had returned with a vengeance and with each step, I became more miserable. I sat down on the side of the trail, completely unconcerned about the line of porters passing us, and had a good cry. Dean, being the extremely loving and patient man that he is, took my daypack and after an appropriate amount of time allowing me to vent of my frustrations, asked if I could continue for another 20 minutes to the lodge where we would eat lunch.
The lodge was perched on the edge of the hillside and has panoramic windows on three sides, allowing for 270 degrees of stunning views. However, I felt so poorly that the most I could do was stare into my cup of ginger tea as I waited for my bowl of vegetable soup. Dean also made me eat an energy bar and some jerky, trying to get both protein and carbs into my system to provide energy for the next two hour hike. After an hour of recovery and lunch, we started the trek down the back side of the hill to the river. This part of the trail is extremely technical, with mostly stairs and steep dirt track allowing for a quick descent to the river below. We took a 20 minute break at a lodge next to the river for a cup of tea and a Bounty bar (the magical coconut and chocolate candy that cures all ailments) before continuing.
Here’s where things got inspired – I decided to put in headphones and listen to music to help pace on the hour long hike up the hill to Phortse. After crossing the river on a short steel truss bridge, I hit play on my Soundtracks playlist and started plodding to the musical stylings of the Moulin Rouge soundtrack (no judgement). I also started counting my steps and at 350, I made Dean stop for a rest. During our break at 749 steps, we made a bet – Dean thought it would be 1200 steps to the top, while I thought his guess was conservative and went with 1500. It took everything that I had to continue up that hill but after 7 hours and 1376 steps, we made it!