The air of Kathmandu is thick with dust. The red brick buildings hve a certain charm, but there is no escaping the bustle of the city. I rush around the city, on foot, in cycle rickshaws and in ancient Japanese taxi’s that date to the 1970’s trying to finalise my paperwork. Clutching the relevant permits, and with all our cold and wet weather gear, we arrive at Kathmandu airport for the second time in three days.
My friend Dwight and I are called to a bashed up metal bus and driven 200 metres to an equally bashed up Dornier 228. A man sits in the rear hold of the aircraft and stuffs expedition bags into place. This is the time for the Everest climbing expeditions, the weather window, and we are lucky to be on this flight. Seat are scarce.
Renji, my faithful porter guide from the previous year is at the wire fence of Hillary Tenzing aerodrome. He dashes past the policeman, places Tibetan scarves over our necks, gives us a hug. He introduces us to our second porter called Ambar. There are no roads here, only stone paths and porters and Yaks. We are in the mountains.
After food, we leave Lukla and walk for a few hours. The scenery is green and the paths wide and unremarkable. We sleep at Monzo and then again trek slowly up stone steps.
Dwight and the others go on ahead like mountain goats. I meander slowly down the path, crossing three very high suspended wire bridges that link the edges of cliffs.
Large rhododendron bushes hang by the side of the path. I come across one final bridge before the steep ascent to Namche Bazaar. The bridge hangs over a river hundreds of feet below. I stop midway and looked down at water rushing past the perfect round stones. To my right is the continuation of the valley. The path immediately starts to climb in a steep zigzag across brown earth. I found myself completely alone. The only sound was the water below me, and the birds. The brown earth passed into a pine forest and then into Namche Bazaar, our home for two days and a place where hot showers and hot chocolate abound.
Leaving Namche is to leave the main everest trail. The yaks with expedition hardware trudge on up towards the base of the highest mountain in the world, while our little party turns off and into the less well known Gokyo Valley. We are on a remote trail that leads between piles of stone and into a forest of what looked like mansineeda trees. Gone are the maintained wide paths of the everest valley. We climbe steeply now, until we reach a cliff face. Here the path is cut into the cliff and over the top. This is not a route for the faint hearted.
The descent from the pass of Mong La is cruel, and Dwight’s knee starts to hurt again. Rather than go on to Machermo, we decide to night halt in Phortse Tenga. The river lodge at Phortse Tenga is at the base of the river valley; and while it catches some sunshine in the day, the river keeps it cold and damp. My socks are still damp this morning. It is the last place where the everest valley and the Gokyo valley are linked by a path.
Morning sees my socks still slightly damp, but I pull them on regardless and walk to Dole and then Machermo. The pre sunrise light is ethereal. I take a series of photographs of yellow tents in the snow, with Machermo peak in the back ground.
The walk to Gokyo is short, but rises some 400 metres. Inexorably, we climb higher and higher. Passing one lake then another, that this time is frozen. We are now walking in a rock field, picking our way between the stones, on a path that is difficult to see. A series of small laid cairns remind me of a graveyard. Around ridges of stone I trek, always at the edge of the lake. Dwight is long behind me, and I fall in step with the guide who had been so friendly on the inbound flight. He explains many things, before we arrive at what looks like a Norwegian fishing village at 4700m.
The light snowfall becomes heavy snowfall.
It stops snowing and the sun comes out.
It starts snowing again, so thickly that we cannot see more than 100m from the cafe. Dwight falls asleep in his seat, and I talk to a pair of pleasant new Zealanders; who have just come over the Renjo La. Their stories of weather are no awe inspiring. It seems that the sun dies by 10 or 1030 am.
I wonder if the altitude is affecting me, and I am writing gibberish.
It stops snowing and the sun comes out again. Gokyo starts to remind me of Northern Ireland.
At night I felt a bit grim. I can feel the tightness in my head, and generally feel very tired. In order to deal with this, I drink three litres of water, take a single diamox tablet and 1000mg paracetamol before sleeping.
But I feel slightly better in the morning; and we are all able to go for a walk. No one fancies the pre dawn start up the large mound that rises behind the hotel to 5300m. Instead, we walk slowly up the valley in glorious sunshine towards Cho Oyu, the peak that is the border between Nepal and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China.
We leave Gokyo at 615 am- for us this is 15 minutes late. It is bitterly cold, and while the sun shines on the higher peaks of the bowl of mountains that makes the gokyo subvalley, we are in the shade. I am freezing, it must be -10’c in the shade. I step off forcefully on a narrow path that borders the lake. Here the water is a visivle turquoise. Above the lake, wild quails squark and look at us. Perhaps they think we are foolish.
As soon as we hit the first steep ascent on a scree slope, Dwight passes me. He and Ambar steam on ahead. The scree slope is a narrow way of getting to the first plateau. We the air is thinner now, the sun disappears, it is cold again, but I am huffing and puffing. As instructed Renji stays in front of me. He is one of the few people I trust in the mountains. I follow his footprints; breathing deeply. The air is thin here. I have to stop and breathe.
We surmount the first plateau and are confronted by a boulder field, true to his word, Renji easily picks his way through the stones. We come to a wide snow covered valley within the mountains. We keep to the right, and the higher path, but we are walking on snow. Yaks and Dzo’s have been up here. I out on my cold and wet weather gear. I stop to take photos and breathe. By now Renji and I are alone. It starts to snow. My small view of Mt Everest disappears and the weather closes in. The sky and ground take on the same colour.
The path narrows and cuts into the side of the mountain wall. We are on the final ascent to the pass. Light shines for a few seconds on the opposite mountain wall. Walking at this height has become difficult. I shoot some images, and carry on walking, humming “men of Harlech” through my breath. This is the only way to regulate my breathing. Fifteen feet from the summit I need to rest again. On the pass the others are waiting. We sit for 20 minutes looking down at the other side.
The decision is taken to descend; I extend my second ski pole and start down on the stairs. The descent is rapid; we hop from stone step to stone step. All of which are covered in a thick layer of snow .
My pole breaks, Renji grabs it and says “careful sir”.
Step by step our small group of six trekkers and three porters makes its way down to a lake in a punch bowl. We reach the lake; the pass lies high above us.
“4995 metres here” says James.
“ we have descended only 450m and yet it looks so far” says Corinne.
After the lake, we finally clear the snow line, and start walking in sand.
“A desert at 4800m” says James. We walk fast now, through the sand, then down narrow paths on steep hill faces.
We see Langden- and find ourselves in a freezing guest house, strangely called “Renjo Pass support”. We all cheer when the didi arrives to put more Yak dung into the stove. It is so cold that none of us want to wash.
“Wake up dude” Dwight calls out at 0600.
“What is it?”
“Some good photography out there” I jump out of my sleeping bag, pull on all my clothes and run outside clutching a pair of Nikons. The sun has lit up the white peaks while the valley is still bathed in blue light. I am lucky and get some good photos.
Our trek is almost over. Two more walking days, one to Namche Bazaar and then another to the aerodrome of Lukla. While our bodies may be relieved that there is little more stress to be placed upon them, our minds are somewhat sad that we are leaving the mountains, their cool, their purity and perhaps even their dangers behind.
But we still have to make the next two days- and the plane from Lukla…