Day 7: Namche Bazaar to Deboche
Friday the 13th began auspiciously. The same steep ascent out of Namche Bazaar that we had sped up the day before seemed three times harder to Stefje and I now that we were laden with heavy backpacks. It took just 10 minutes for my breathing to become labored, my legs to feel like lead and my hands to start tingling. Yet no amount of physical punishment could detract from the natural beauty my eyes beheld. As the trail leveled out into a series of undulating ups and downs cut sharply into the steep hillsides, vast panoramas of glaciers and mountains unfolded.
The only colors visible in the distance were blue, white, and black, which appeared beneath any cliffs to steep to hold snow. The immensity of the mountains was apparent anytime I glimpsed a human further along on the trail. They were so minuscule in comparison to these lumbering peaks that any glimmers of ego were shattered. We were merely here to enjoy the presence of these mountains, not to conquer them.
As the pine forest again gave way to a mix of evergreens and scrubbed bushes, an utter quiet enveloped us. A rare squawk of a bird was the only soundtrack to our excursion; black birds of prey contrasted sharply against the sharp white snow, using thermal draft to effortlessly lift through the air. Unfortunately for us, soaring was out of the question and the only option was one foot in front of the other. Those sore and blistered feet led us through a steep downhill to a river crossing, where we had a quick snack in the sun before setting off on the strenuous upward portion of the day’s journey.
In fact, only uphill remained. As we took off, each step got more difficult due to the combination of the steep slope and thinning oxygen. Knees, calves and ankles were now stressed to their utmost ability, reserve muscle strength was called upon, and willpower was pushed to its limit. Based on the angle of my neck you would have thought that the day’s main attraction was the sun-scorched earth and its accompanying rocks because this time I was eager not to focus on the finish line. Yet at time Stefje implored me to look around and take in the wondrous scenery.
As I paused and grasped for shallow breaths of air, a glacier came into view in the opposite valley. Stretching from the base of the peaks, it curved towards the river in waves of ice and moraine.
Just as the agony began to take a firm grasp over my dwindling energy, we arrived in Tengboche. Barely a town and more an amphitheater of stunning peaks accompanied by a few ramshackle tea houses, the area was highlighted by a spectacular monastery and its well-decorated archways.
We decided to move on just a little farther, navigating a wide and muddy slope to one of the guesthouses in Deboche, where we gratefully removed our bags and posted up for a long lunch under the watchful eye of Everest’s distant peak with a baby yak as our adorable companion.
The afternoon was punctuated by the arrival of boisterous tour groups of various nationalities; by dinner time the common room was a raucous center of laughter, music, and conversation. Eventually the power went out and without the aid of man-made lights, I was asleep by 8pm.
Day 8: Deboche to Dingboche
With a full night’s rest under my belt, I was already up and out of my sleeping bag to watch the sunrise over Mount Everest before 6 AM on Sunday morning. The sky transformed from a dull grey to a deep blue, enchanting me and the rest of the silent valley. Behind me rose a series of peaks perfectly bathed in the soft glow of morning light, standing defiantly like soldiers reporting for duty. The day’s walking began soon after. We alternated between stretches of glowing sunlight and shivering shade based on the presence or absence of overhanging trees.
The mixture of pines and evergreens from previous days was replaced with shorter bald trees covered in stringy moss, making it look like nature had blessed this thicket with prayer flags of her own.
To our left the river separated us from a scraggly cliff. Trees hung to the steep embankments for as long as possible, but in the distance further up we could glimpse only moss and boulders. The tree line was approaching and life up here was getting inhospitable.
Soon enough we passed through a small town with terraced gardens that- were completely barren; although in the summer potatoes, carrots and cauliflower are cultivated for now there was nothing. The distant views were tremendous: Everest loomed ahead, protected by two rows of sharp peaks that felt like outer battlement walls protecting the sanctity of the inner cupola.
To our right, a peak as sharp as a tack was outfitted with imposing glaciers that stood to challenge any would-be summiteers. The trail sloped gently today, cradling us slowly upwards as we spilled out into a wide valley. After crossing a high bridge, the river now accompanied our right hand side, tumbling slowly over glacial debris to mirror the trail’s gentle incline.
We progressed alongside the river for the rest of the day’s hiking, slowly making our way past the last few trees at about 4,100 meters (13,400 feet). The trail then dispersed across a wide plain dotted by boulders and low slung bushes, which seemed to be the only vegetation that could cling to the wind-swept slopes. Yet for now the air was deeply still. Without a single gust of wind sweeping down the valley, faint sounds echoed across our surroundings.
From here we crossed one more river, then approached our final arduous incline of the day. Accompanied by no less than 5 ranges of snow capped peaks emerging from the gentle lower hillsides, we surged upwards along a rocky incline heaving for every breath.
As we turned a corner, the hills no longer protected us and an icy howling wind sprayed right in our face. However, compared to the approaches towards Namche Bazaar and Tengboche that we had already tackled, the trail was relatively easy. It was just 10:45 AM when our tired knees rejoiced upon strolling to the town of Dingboche under intense sunlight, meaning we had the rest of the day to relax and warm up while acclimatizing in this new locale.
In the afternoon heavy clumps of fog rolled in, reducing visibility to a few meters in front of our face. Luckily at night Stefje brought me along on her search for cough drops. Now the clouds had cleared and the moon was nowhere to be seen, so the sky was lit up with a multitude of stars beyond our greatest imagination. While we stared upwards and pointed out constellations, satellites and planets, our eyes adjusted to the darkness and even more appeared. It felt like peeking into the depths of the universe.
Day 9: Dingboche to Chukkung
With a relatively short day of hiking ahead of us, it was after 8 AM by the time we departed from our homely guesthouse in Dingboche and braved the morning cold. Keeping our legs pumping to ward off the frigid temperatures, the sun that came pouring over the hillsides helped our shivering and the darkness of night was expelled by the dawn once more.
The trail was a wide and gentle uphill slope that would have been well received at lower elevations, but we were now above 4,500 meters (14,700 feet) and every step was a slog. My legs felt twice as heavy as usual, my feet felt like lugging cinderblocks, and the pack dug deep into my shoulder blades. As if to mirror our mental state, the landscape was desolate, windswept, and almost completely barren.
On the outskirts of Dingboche a few subsistence farmers planted potatoes for the summer harvest amid rock walls, but soon enough there were no signs of residents. Beyond where humans can survive there were still signs of nature’s fertility. Thickets of brambles blossomed into red in the crisp spring air, two yaks fought over grazing pastures by clashing their horny skulls together, and a few solitary birds swooped low over the trail.
But the object of my affection was undoubtedly the mountain peaks, as there were four separate ranges visible for the entirety of the walk.
A river cut through the valley to our right, bubbling and gurgling over smooth rocks before the landscape morphed into a steep uphill. Beyond was Ama Dablam and two of her sister peaks, each one offering progressively more beautiful views as we rounded their buttressed edges. The ridges were now so impossibly steep that the mountain felt like an impregnable fortress - impassable and worthy of its sacred attention from ancient local cultures.
Eventually Stefje had a cough that flared up so badly that she could barely breathe, so we rested for a few minutes and analyzed the details we otherwise would have missed. With our back to Ama Dablam, in front of us was a steep slope of shale that only permitted low bushes to grasp for life amidst car-sized boulders.
In the distance lay a perfectly cylindrical cone that reminded me of the nose of the space shuttle. The mountain seemed ready to blast into low earth orbit at any moment. Behind us was an imposing yin and yang combination of black and white along another leviathan mountain, with smoke curling around the summit like a rhythmic gymnast twirling her ribbon.
In the foreground everywhere the sights were less welcoming: a rocky trail lay ahead with a steady upwards slope and there was plenty of walking left. Shouldering our packs, we continued onwards at a snail’s pace in the rapidly thinning air.
Despite heavy breathing and tortuous ascension, we finally glimpsed the small town of Chucking and relief rippled across our faces. It sure didn’t hurt that the town faced out on one of the most gorgeous views so far: a steep ridgeline of snow and hanging glaciers that defied geological explanation. Snow formed in geometric patterns along the highest and steepest ridges, folding in upon itself in fluted triangles and threatening to calve away into an avalanche at any moment.
The ridge punctuated the sky with icy spires and sheer vertical cliff faces that flummox the most daring mountaineers. The wall was so imposing and so dominant that we knew the only way we could see the other side would be if an ice dragon brought the whole thing crumbling down and the army of the dead came marching through.
Having arrived before noon, we felt supremely free to lounge in the sun, letting the warm tiles heat our skin. The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing in the warm common room, watching the daily fog roll in, and eventually staring in wonder as small snow pellets accumulated on dirt and stone alike.
Day 10: Chukkung Ri
On Monday morning Stefje was suffering from a strong case of the “Khumbu Cough”, but I had plans to summit a nearby peak to further acclimatize. Despite the fact that I could see hundreds of stars in the tiny sliver of sky visible from my bedside window the night before, the day dawned cold and grey with clouds covering the entire view. The cure for this unfortunate conundrum was just a simple dose of patience. While I ate breakfast and analyzed the wind with absolutely no knowledge of the local weather patterns, patches of blue sky began to peek through.
With the momentum looking favorable for decent views, I set off in a sudden rush. My exuberance quickly caught up with me. Just 10 minutes into the climb I was gasping for air and forced to pause every few steps to catch my breath. Eventually I settled into a slower pace to tackle the difficult uphill slog. A pair of red-headed sparrows chirped and bounded about with exuberance and agility, ambivalent to my plight. Blanketed by a thin dusting of snow from the night before, the hillside trail reflected every ray of angled sunlight into a blinding glare.
The pure white landscape was interrupted only by a series of bootprints in the snow that would lead me straight up the sloping hillside. As the sun rose it backlit the majestic Eastern peaks that lay far in the distance. The clouds began to rise out of view like heat wafting off a stove, and a wondrous landscape of glaciers, green silver lakes and vertical walls of ice appeared out of the mist.
Behind was the best view yet of Ama Dablam and her inhospitable ridge of seracs and icefalls. Glaciers bulged with impressive force into sweeping valleys, folding in on themselves in vast surges of compacted snow.
Unfortunately at my feet the route was less inspiring. At about 5000 meters (16,500 feet), even the bushes of the previous day disappeared, replaced only by dirt and rocks. The last signs of life were feeble; bacteria clung to rocks and a solitary hawk soared overhead.
For the first time since climbing to the summit of Huyana Potosi in Bolivia at 6,088 meters (19,950 feet), the air was so thin and my body so weak that I resorted to counting to 100 steps, then taking a break to gulp in 10 deep breaths of the oxygen depleted air.
In a sudden flash of fatigue, I was aware of my immense solitude. I had no phone, no way of even telling the time, and had not seen another human since leaving Chukkung. Turning around to peer downwards, the lonely outpost was just a postage stamp sized dot on a vast Himalayan postcard. It was just me and the mountains now.
The trail seemed to get steeper as I wound my way higher into the unknown, but it was probably just my imagination. At the next pit stop to catch my breath, the internal rebellion began. Why are you doing this? Wouldn’t it be fine to just turn back now? Haven’t you seen enough already. With my brain addled by altitude, the hypothetical questions crossed my mind like subliminal messages on a roll of film.
But whereas normally my mind forces my body to keep moving, this morning the script was flipped. My legs suddenly began trucking upwards, impervious to the lingering doubt. With half an hour I reached the summit, completing a strenuous 700 meter (2,300 feet) elevation gain in under two hours. The reward that awaited me was a resplendent sampling of Himalayan treasures.
To my right was the Southern face of both Lhotse and Nuptse. Lhtose, the world’s fourth highest mountain, loomed like a giant above the rest at more than 8,500 meters, but from my vantage point it appeared just a stone’s throw away.
Jagged peaks pointed into the crisp blue sky like a long line of shark’s teeth, each one combining with the others to form harmonious patterns of snow and rock as they fed a tremendous black glacier that swallowed the valley below. To stand in the presence of these giants was to feel swallowed alive, as if my minuscule form could never properly understand their scope.
Directly in front of me was the most breath-taking view, a vast panorama of peaks that fed a long and snaking glacier to the foot of my current location. Some summits were domes and others pointed in defiance straight into the sky, but each one was accompanied by glaciers and icefalls that would put the world’s best climbers to the test.
Curiously, I could see now that none of the glaciers around me maintained a pure white sheen. Dirtied by rubble, scree and dust picked up in the wind, they ranged from light grey to a morose black. Combined with the bleakness of the trail and the general aversion towards all forms of life, it seemed like the natural environment repelled my advances.
My earlier fears about the weather turned out to be unfounded; bright blue sky gripped the scene and the sun reflected off every imaginable surface. The entire spectrum of the grey scale was present here, from the foreboding presence of scraggly shale to the blistering whites of pure fresh snow.
Beyond the views, the thing I could sense most clearly here was the utter stillness. Whereas earlier in the day I could catch wind of a few yak bells echoing up the mountainside, there was now only the whispers of a few gusts and my own breathing to stimulate my ear drums. With the clouds gone and the mountains stoic, the only perceptible movement was of the sun slowly drifting higher into the sky.
Closing my eyes and taking in deep breaths of the fresh air, I did my best to let the stillness of the mountains enter into my own nervous system. Such a practice only worked for a limited time. Soon enough I was screeching down the mountainside with reckless abandon, gleefully galloping back to town. Plenty of winded trekkers leaned on their poles to let me whiz by, grateful for the forced respite to catch their breath on the way up.
Using my inertia as best I could, I walked briskly along the relatively flat stretches and flew through the downhills, returning back in Chukkung by 10 AM for a second breakfast and grinning from ear to ear after experiencing one of the highs of the Himalaya.
Immediately upon returning to the guesthouse, my grin broke into a full-throated laugh as I realized that we were now sharing the premises with four jolly Canadians who we had met more than a month ago in Hampi. From the ruins of Southern India to the majestic vistas of Chukkung, the coincidence was too good to be true. We spent an entertaining night telling stories, playing cards and generally filling the cold guesthouse with mirth.
Our long session in the indoor warmth was only interrupted by the first clear sunset views of the trip. As the sun dipped below the mountains on the horizon and the temperature quickly plunged below freezing, we watched in wonder as the last rays of sunlight lit up the ranges with striking forms of golden yellow.
In the distance, the long string of peaks faded into the evening mist, eventually disappearing for the night.