Himalayan High: On the trail (part 2)

Following a rest day in Namche Bazaar, the trek to Everest Base Camp resumes with a 9km (5.5 mile) hike to Tengboche, the next significant village along the route. While 9km doesn’t especially sound like a lot, it is the more than 400 meters (1312 ft) of altitude gain that ends up taking it’s toll on trekkers. Most of the days that follow are similar in nature; moderate distances that are made all the more challenging by the ever increasing altitude.

The trail changes noticeably after setting out from Namche. The thinning air becomes more of an issue for hikers to deal with, and a thick, heavy dust is everywhere. That dust is kicked up by trekkers, Nepali yaks carrying heavy loads, and the brisk winds that are common at altitude. While it seems innocuous at first, after a day or two, you’ll start to notice that the dust irritates your eyes, covers your clothing, and gets in your lungs, helping to bring on the dreaded Khumbu Cough, a persistent hack that can be painful and difficult to shake. Nearly everyone who treks in the Himalaya will experience the condition to some degree or another, and while my case of the Cough wasn’t so bad while I was in Nepal, it seemed to worsen, after I returned home.

The first few days of the trek are undeniably scenic, with mountain peaks surrounding the route, and glacier fed rivers rushing by the trail. But after leaving Namche Bazaar behind, that scenery changes dramatically with the snow capped peaks of the Himalaya towering high over head. Everest, and its twin, the 8516 meter (27,940 ft) Lhotse are common sights at that point, as is the 6812 meter (22,349 ft) Ama Dablam, which cuts a striking profile along much of the route. That mountain is far lesser known than its famous 8000 meter counterparts, but it is likely to be the one that sticks in your mind long after you’ve left Nepal, and the Himalaya, behind.Most of the mountain villages after Namche are sleepy little towns with few amenities. The teahouses become a bit more spartan the higher you go and the shops have fewer goods to sell, although their prices continue to rise with the altitude. Still, these villages each have a unique charm and character that offers visitors something new and different. For instance, in Tengboche, which is located at 3867 meters (12,867 ft) travelers can visit the oldest Buddhist monastery in the region, and the view of the sun climbing over the nearby mountains in the morning is a breathtaking sight.

From Tengboche it is on through the beautiful and fragrant rhododendron forests to Dengboche, which falls at 4410 meters (14,468 ft), and another day off. Much like the previous rest day in Namche however, the day is far from restful. Most trekkers wtill make a challenging acclimatization hike up a local summit to take in the tremendous views of Lhotse, Ama Dablam, and Island Peak, a mountain that is popular with climbers prepping for Everest. The nearby Amphu Lapcha pass is also on display, with its fluted ice walls making an impressive, and striking, impression.

After a stay in Dengboche, trekkers will next head upwards to Lobuche (4900 meters/16,076 ft), passing the somber sight of a number of monuments to fallen climbers and Sherpas, along the way.These monuments include a shrine to Scott Hall, an American mountain guide who perished on Everest back in 1996, and figured prominently in Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into Thin Air.

Finally, the trail leads up to Gorakshep, the last stop before Base Camp itself. By that point, you’ve climbed up to 5183 meters (17,004 ft), and with the treeline far below, the dry conditions and higher winds mean that there is even more dust for hikers to deal with. Gorakshep is more a ramshackle collection of buildings than an actual village, as it mostly consists of a couple of teahouses and not much more, but trekkers appreciate a place to rest, catch their breath, and get some food before proceeding up to their ultimate destination.

Upon reaching Gorakshep, most members of my trekking group were really feeling the effects of altitude to some degree or another. Many were taking Diamox, a drug that helps alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness and some were suffering greatly from a combination of the colder weather, the thin air, and the Khumbu Cough. More than half were experiencing GI issues, but despite all of that, spirits were high and there was an air of excitement in the group. We were closing in on Base Camp, and the literal high point of the trip.

Next: Everest Base Camp