For many of the people who visit Nepal the chance to see Mount Everest (Sagarmatha in Nepali or Chomolungma in Tibetan) is the highlight of the trip. There are, of course, several ways to do this but the most popular by far would be to hike to the Mount Everest Base Camp or the view point at Kala Pattar. Each year up to 50,000 people make the trek to the Khumbu, or Everest, region. Some go all the way to the base camp while others are content viewing it from several miles away at lower, and much safer, altitudes.
Most people who hike through the Khumbu now fly into Lukla while those with more time can take a jeep to the villages of Jiri or Phaplu. Luckily for us we were in the latter group and full of ambition. We opted for the jeep to Phaplu over Jiri since it would shave off about 3 days trekking and was suppose to be a shorter ride. We also heard there was a road being built along the route beyond Jiri and after our experience trekking along roads in the Annapurna region last year we didn’t want to be eating the dust of passing jeeps. The jeep ride to Phaplu lasted about 11 hours and was as good as jeep rides in Nepal can get, no breakdowns, no strikes, no landslides, and we didn’t die.
Our first day of the trek began through the terraced lowlands of the Himalayas and tall pine forests. It wasn’t till our lunch stop in Ringmo that we caught our first glimpse of snow capped mountains on the distant horizon. It was here we saw our first missing poster for a lost trekker which was a very sobering reminder of how dangerous this region can actually be and how many people come here each year with little to no experience. We continued on to Trakshindu La (3070m) where we left the final road construction behind and reached Nuntala (2194m) a few hours later. According to some maps this village is shown as Manidingma but all the locals call it by its old name. We found a place with a warm shower and requested a fire in the evening. The owner said the fireplace was broken but that’s because there wasn’t any wood in it. After traveling for several months we’ve learned that when someone says something is broken it’s just because they don’t want to use it. A little prodding in these situations can usually result in the desired outcomes. There were two Germans on their way back from EBC who gave me a funny look when I complained about it being cold. A few days later I’d understand why they did.
The next morning we ate a breakfast of Tibetan bread (fried flat bread), fried eggs, and Nes cafe which seemed to be the most calorie per rupee breakfast we could get. On the trail we’ve learned that we can eat as much as we want and not worry about putting on weight, in fact it’s important to eat a lot after trekking for 6-8 hours a day. The trail descended all the way down to the Dudh Kosi (1550m) before climbing straight back up to Kharikhola (2070m). While we waited for lunch in Kharikhola, I climbed up to the monastery which is nearing completion and will have a commanding view of the near by mountains when it’s done. We ended our day in Bupsa (2350m) but not before another brutal climb, battling mule caravans loaded with supplies the whole way up. We found a nice guesthouse with quite possibly Rachel’s favorite dog we’ve encountered on the whole trip. The family that owned the guesthouse was also friendly and the owner told me about his time spent working in the USA as a landscaper. As it turned out he’d seen more of the USA than I have and I’ve seen more of Nepal than he had. Rachel and I watched the sunset from the monastery in Bupsa which had a stunning view of Kharikhola below and the green terraces around it.
Mule caravans for the first few days made for some difficult trekking since we would have to stop and let them pass along the trail. Sometimes it was a welcomed break but most of the time it was irritating. We wore bandanas over our faces to shield us from the dust they would kick up and the smell of their horrible farts. I had no idea how often mules farted or how bad they smelled. These caravans would also have one or two guys in the back shouting in jibberish, whipping the last one in line, and throwing rocks at the mules in front when they’d stop. Whenever the caravans approached it was always important to move to the inside of the trail to avoid getting shoved off the edge of the mountain. A few times as they approached from behind I thought we were going to get trampled. This was also the case when we left Bupsa and made our way around Kari La (2820m) to Surke (2290m).
After a night in Surke we reached the trail going from Lukla to Namche in the village of Cheplung (2690m). This main trekking route was shockingly different than the mule poop covered trail we had been hiking on for the three and a half days prior. It was more like a trekking highway packed with trekkers going up to EBC or back down. The mule caravans greatly decreased in numbers where there were more foreigners present. We reached Pakding (2639m) by lunch and continued up to Monjo (2873m) and bartered for a room at the Kailash Guesthouse. They assured us they had hot showers and a western toilet in the attached bathroom and a queen bed, something you rarely see trekking. What they didn’t tell us was that they had the best showers in the whole Khumbu region. It’s funny how something that we wouldn’t think twice about having in a hotel room back home is something that makes a guesthouse high up in the himalayas incredible.
After an amazing nights sleep we started our short trek up to Namche Bazaar. At the end of Monjo we were stopped at a military check post and had to show our TIMS card and permit for the Sagarmatha National Park. It’s important to note that these check points are for safety purposes if any trekkers go missing and allows search and rescue crews to narrow their searches. After the check points we passed several huge mani walls and boulders with Buddhist prayers carved into them. In a sense you could call them the billboards of the trek that were everywhere. We then began our climb to Namche which was pretty brutal but short. We were there by noon but wandered around town for a bit before checking into a hotel. Namche (3440m) is the largest village on the trek and offers a lot for the unprepared trekker. There are out door clothing stores, mini marts, souvenir shops, restaurants, bars, and snooker halls. If there is something you forgot in Kathmandu, Namche Bazaar is the place to find it.
A lot of people trekking in this region take a rest day in Namche but since we were feeling good after one night, probably due to starting our trek in Phaplu, we decided to climb up to Khumjung (3790m). It was only a few hours climb and far less busy than Namche. On our way up we met a yak herd who told us his sister, we later found out his cousin, owned a guesthouse called the Hilltop Hotel. We agreed to check it out and, as it turned out, it had the nicest view of the village.
With the rest of the afternoon to hang out, we walked through the village and went to the monastery which is said to house a yeti scalp. This is not a whole yeti skull but merely the top. I’m not sure what happened to the lower half of it but for 250 rupees you can see the top half. We paid and were ushered into a small room where the caretaker unlocked a cupboard and then took out a smaller chest and unlocked that. Inside was a small glass box and locked inside that was the yeti scalp. As soon as he took it out I immediately started snapping pictures and filming video for this extraordinary moment. Rachel stood there with her arms crossed, clearly not as impressed as I was. Before I knew it the caretaker was locking it back up. The whole ordeal lasted less than 2 minutes. I can’t say it was the best 500 rupees I’ve ever spent but it certainly wasn’t the worst. Unfortunately the whole ordeal had a bit of a circus freak show vibe to it but until some scientist or zoologist comes along and does some test to it to prove otherwise, I can say I have now seen a yeti skull.
After our night at the Hilltop Hotel we left Khumjung and took an upper trail which bypassed Sanasa (3530m) on our way to Phortse. We had some amazing views up the valley and to the south but could not see Everest along this stretch. The village of Tangboche along with its massive monastery, which is the largest in the Khumbu region, rested on the side of the mountain across from us. It was around this point that our tree cover gave way to the altitude and was replaced by shrubs and seabuckthorn. We rounded Mong La (3985m) before descending down to the Dudh Kosi (3650m) only to climb right back up on the other side until we reached Phortse (3800m), our lunch spot. From here the trail narrowed as it carved it’s way towards Pangboche. During several moments I felt like I was going to get blown off the mountain but luckily my pack was too heavy for that to happen.
We reached Pangboche (3860m) along the upper trail which seemed to be the far less traveled route. We found a nice guesthouse across the trail from the monastery. Our guide book indicated that this monastery was also home to a yeti scalp but it had gone missing several years ago. I jokingly asked the guesthouse owner if they had one and she said yes! When I walked down to the monastery we found the caretaker who told me to come back the next morning. With a deep sigh and an eye roll Rachel agreed to spend the extra time to check it out. When we went in the next morning, the caretaker didn’t hit us up for rupees and when she opened up the case there was not only a yeti scalp but sitting right next to it was a yeti paw. When I held my hand next to it, mine was dwarfed by its size which clearly indicated it was a yeti paw. If the Shroud of Turin can be used to justify the existence of Jesus then this is undeniable proof of the yeti’s existence.
Our hike up to Dingboche (4349m) was another fairly short trek but due to altitude gains it wouldn’t have been wise to continue higher. The mountain peaks along the way grew more jagged and the higher ones were covered in snow. The air was also quite thin and we both seemed to be affected by our increasing elevation. Dingboche was a very cold village with plenty of lodging options. Unfortunately we picked the one that the manager thought was a dance club and were forced to listen to Indian pop music at deafening levels. I didn’t get much of a response when I asked if he’d turn it down and when I asked about a fire he told me he’d light one only one time. All this had me a bit annoyed until the owners father arrived from his winter trip from Kathmandu. He set the workers straight and sat with us most of the evening showing us pictures and telling us stories and trekking tips.
The next morning we made our way up to Chukkhung (4750m), yet another short distance, to trek over Kongma La. On our way out of Dingboche we met a trekker named Uta who was also going that way so he joined us. We made it to Chukkhung by noon and after lunch we went for a short hike to find the trail head that would lead us over the pass. This section of trail was said to be much more difficult and not well marked. Our guide book indicated starting this trek from Dingboche but it would be a shorter climb from Chukkhung and that was where my GPS showed the trail leaving from. In the evening 3 trekkers showed up who had just come over the Kongma La pass. It was approaching dark by the time they made it. The solo trekker seemed to be in fairly good spirits but the couple that showed up after him looked strung out, exhausted, and like they had just seen a ghost. During dinner they told us how they had gotten lost on the pass and weren’t sure where to go. They also told us about the difficulty of crossing the glacier and sections of ice going over the pass. All of this set the mood for our climb ahead and had me wondering if we really had any business going over Kongma La (5535m).