Himalayan High: On the trail (part 1)

If you’ve been following the series of stories on my recent trek to Everest Base Camp, you already know that any trip to the Himalaya begins with a visit to Kathmandu, but before you can actually start the hike, you’ll also have to hop a flight to Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla as well. Once in Lukla, the trek actually gets underway, quite literally, immediately after you get off the plane. You won’t be picked up by any cars, taxis, or even a bus, but instead you’ll collect your pack, walk up a flight of stone stairs, and onto the path. The very same path that will eventually lead into the High Himalaya, and on to Everest itself.

But before you can go any higher, you must first go lower, and for the first day of the trek, you’ll actually be moving down. Lukla is located at 9380 feet (2860 meters), but in order to begin the acclimatization process, you’ll drop all the way down 8700 feet (2652 meters) as you make the hike to Pakding, the first stop on the way to Everest.

The initial day on the trail is a relatively easy one, as you’ll only spend about three hours hiking, on a mostly smooth, and easy to follow, route. Along the way you’ll wander through small villages built right onto the side of the mountain, and past Buddhist monuments covered in scared sutras, while the beautiful peaks of the Himalaya tower high overhead.

Even at that early stage of the trek you’ll begin to get a sense of what you can expect on the road ahead. The trail winds up and down steep slopes and across a number of suspension bridges that hang above gaping chasms, while an ice blue river, fed from a distant glacier, roars by far below. The trees and flowers are lush and beautiful, and in April, one of the prime times to visit the Khumbu Region, the air is filled with the fragrant scents of springtime in the mountains. Cool winds stir through the local flora and send dust from the trail into the air, something that is barely noticeable at lower altitudes, but will come back to haunt hikers in the days ahead.The road is far from empty, and you’ll encounter plenty of other trekkers along the way. Some will be in large groups, numbering close to 20, with several guides and a gaggle of porters in tow. Other, smaller, groups will be traveling independently, carrying their own packs and navigating their way without the use of a guide at all. But no matter if they’re part of a large, organized trek or going it alone, there is a camaraderie amongst trekkers on the trail, with friendly greetings, plenty of banter, and a lot of good-natured ribbing.

Trekkers aren’t the only ones who frequent the trail however, as there are plenty of Nepalis traveling between villages as well. Most impressive of these are the porters that you frequently see along the way, most of whom are carrying large, very heavy loads, up the steep mountain roads. While most of us are trying desperately to catch our breath, carrying just a 20 pound pack, these guys are hauling 100 pounds or more up into the very thing air. Worse yet they make it look easy, which can be rather dejecting at times.

Traveling through the Khumbu Valley is a challenge, especially as you move to higher altitudes. Fortunately, at the end of the day, you’re not climbing into a tent and hoping to get a good nights sleep. Instead, you’ll be staying in traditional Nepali teahouses, which have been a mainstay in the region for centuries. These teahouses offer simple accommodations with rooms that lack electricity and heat, but are small and comfortable, with a bed to roll your sleeping bag out on. They also have large common rooms where trekkers gather at the end of the day for warm meals, hot tea, and an evening of conversation and playingcards. A stay in the teahouse offers rest and relaxation, and a dash of local culture, that is an indelible part of any Himalayan adventure.

As I mentioned, the first day of the trek is short and not especially challenging. Trekkers drop in altitude to begin the acclimatization process, and for the most part, the hike is a pleasant walk through a beautiful area. But the second day is a completely different story. On Day 2, you’ll spend six to eight hours on the trail, and you’ll gain more than 2600 feet (800 meters) in altitude. Most of that will come after lunch, when you’ll begin a major climb that helps to make this one of the toughest days of the entire trek.

The final destination for that day is a place called Namche Bazaar, one of the larger, and more famous, villages in the Khumbu Valley. But in order to get to that place, you’ll need to climb a major slope. One that will test even the best conditioned trekkers. It is a long, grueling climb, that leaves you exhausted, gasping for breath, and more than ready for a break. But you’ll also feel a sense of accomplishment as well. You’ve conquered the first major hurdle of the trek, and you’ve climbed up to 11,305 feet (3446 meters). Fortunately, Namche Bazaar is also the first of two rest stops along the way, and the day after that long, brutal climb, you’ll have an opportunity to recuperate, acclimatize, and prepare for the journey ahead.

Next: A Visit To Namche Bazaar