We were scheduled to start our trek in the Everest region the day after returning to Kathmandu from Bhutan. Instead of taking a bus part way and walking through the foothills to Lukla, which is supposed to be a beautiful walk but which also takes six days, we’d opted for a flight directly to Lukla from Kathmandu in order to start our walk from Lukla, as most people do.
We flew to Lukla in a tiny twin otter aircraft, the gusts rising up the sides of the foothills making the plane shudder violently every time we passed over a ridge. The flight in was quite exciting enough, but one had to wonder what it meant when the pilot began reading the newspaper – is he very comfortable with the safety of the flight or is he a lunatic? I like to think he knew it to be safe. The approach to Lukla was an interesting one – the plane passes over a ridge before turning left up the valley and then snaking back right, at which point we look to be heading for the side of a mountain. Soon enough however, the Lukla airstrip is visible. What we didn’t know at this point is that the Lukla airstrip is built on a fairly steep pitch up the side of the mountain so as to help the plane stop (and also probably due to the limited space on a mountain side). As you approach, it seems like the pilot is aiming too low, below the airstrip, but in actuality he pulls up as you reach the strip to reduce the strain on the plane. Still, for a split second you really think your destiny is amongst a pile of rusty ex-plane perched on the side of a mountain just short of tiny air strip.
Shortly after arriving in Lukla, we started the walk. While the majority of people leaving from this point head to Everest Base Camp, we’d decided to head to Gokyo Ri instead. Had we known all we know now, and perhaps had been a bit more self confident, we may have decided to undertake the three passes trail, but that will have to wait for another time. We’d chosen Gokyo Ri based on the following:
- A lot less people do this walk. In nature, I think some level of solitude is incredibly valuable, and this was the deciding factor here;
- The view – EBC has Kala Pattar, a near straight on view at Everest and Lhotse. It looks spectacular and I hope to see it some day. But most who look at a photo of this view don’t realize that Lhotse actual looks bigger and is a much more impressive form than Everest. Gokyo Ri is somewhat further away from Everest itself, but offers a 360 degree view that includes 5 of the worlds tallest 6 mountains with the Himalaya’s largest glacier cutting through the foreground. Did i mention the brilliant blue glacial Gokyo lakes as well? Easy decision for us.
Gokyo Ri, like Everest, is in Sagarmatha Nat’l Park. In fact, ‘Sagarmatha’ is the name given to Everest by the Nepali government in the 1960s after they deemed the Tibetan/Sherpa name to be ‘not acceptible’. Given that this name was the last of 3 given to the mountain and ignores the native name of Chomolunga (where even the europeans who dubbed it ‘Everest’ looked for a native name before reluctantly naming it after George Everest), it seems perhaps the worst label to adopt. Anyway, Gokyo Ri is part of the Everest region, whatever you may call it.
We set out from Lukla and we walked through several villages, then stopped for lunch in Phakding. This is where we first noticed the immense amount of weight the porters could carry as a man walked by with a refrigerator on his back. Not a little dorm fridge or beer cooler, a full sized proper refrigerator. While we probably saw other people carrying at least as much later on (8-10 sheets of plywood with 4x4s on both sides, 10-12 cases of beer plus noodles, cases of apples tied high and wide well beyond the outline of the figure carrying the load), there’s nothing I can think of that can express the magnitude of the porter loads as well as the refrigerator. The best visual evidence I have is these guys carrying stones from the quarry above Namche Bazaar:
From Phakding, we continued on to the small village of Monjo and stayed our first night on the trail here. The walk up this point was pretty flat, and we’d actually gone down 200m in elevation from Lukla. I guess we should have enjoyed the leniency of this walk, considering that the next day’s walk included a big 100m climb to 3420m elevation. Despite the lack of elevation it was already quite cold and I awoke to find a completely cocooned Angie resisting from exiting her sleeping bag:
Our opinions of the climb to Namche Bazaar differ greatly. For Brett, who had just struggled through 320m climbs in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and had estimated the 1000m climb to Namche as immense, the climb was not so bad. To Angie, who had pawned off her sleeping bag and some clothes to Brett after the first day of walking, the climb proved a true challenge. However, another French couple in a similar situation fared even worse. As we sat resting near the top, Brett ready to continue and Angie ready for a break, the couple neared. I offered my luxurious flat stone seat to her to rest as she was clearly out of breath, but her response was simple ‘No, I am already dead anyway so what does it matter now?’.
Namche was our first real experience at a higher altitude. The town is a semicircle village built into the side of a hill, and which faces straight out at the mountains.
Reaching Namche is really the first moment where you feel like you are near the highest mountains in the world. We stayed at the Khumbu Lodge which is where Jimmy Carter stayed in 1985 when here, though we had a top floor corner room with a fantastic view:
We spent several nights here in order to acclimatize to the altitude. After cutting a walk the first day short due to altitude-related dizziness, the second day in Namche saw us venture out on a long day walk up to the Sherpa villages of Khunde and Khumjung. We saw the Hillary hospital (Khunde) and the first Hillary school (Khumjung). Edmund Hillary started these to help the people of the Khumbu (the Everest region/Sagarmatha/the Sherpas) and give back considering all the notoriety he’d gained from the area. In return and as thanks, the people of the Khumbu built a memorial stupa for Hillary when he died. The stupa is perched on a hill and looks out to all the great mountains. It was our first real, clear view of Everest and is a very fitting spot for a tribute to a man that all seem to hold in very high regard.
The next day we headed out of Namche, and about an hour into the walk we split off from the people going to EBC. Our next village stop was Phortse Thenga, which included a climb over the Mong La at about 4020m followed by a steep descent to 2680m, in all about a 3.5 hours walk. The Mong La is the reason that the Gokyo valley was dubbed ‘the valley of death’ by locals, in that those who experienced altitude sickness past Mong La could not descend easily to alleviate those symptoms – to exit the valley you have to climb over the Mong La (pass). However, we found that if you’re careful and follow directions from the community and volounteer doctors you will be at little/no risk of altitude sickness. The problem is the vast amount of arrogant people who think that the rules/suggestions don’t apply to them and/or don’t believe the doctors when they say that acclimatization to altitude has nothing to do with age or fitness and everything to do with genetics. More on that later.
Phortse Thenga is a tiny village by the river with only a couple buildings. The night we were there, there was an earthquake, the first that either Angie or I had experienced. Just we’d laid down to bed (around 7pm – time changes in altitude, its complicated), the walls shook something fierce. Mind you that this, like all in the region, was a stone building and does not easily shake. We thought our building was going to collapse but then remembered it was all stone, and were only momentarily concerned about falling stones from above considering that we were at the bottom of a fairly steep valley. We’re still here, so you know that those stones didn’t fall.
The next day we walked about 3 hours to Dole which is at 4090 meters. Like many villages on the way, it is located in a small river-eroded depression in the hillside and is split by the stream. By this point of the walk, and indeed from Namche, we are surrounded on all sides by the mountains, the tallest and steepest I’ve seen. Indeed the mountains are all knife-like ridges, and the expanse of the landscape is not unlike the rows of sharp teeth in the jaw of a shark.
The following day we walked about 3 hours onto Macchermo (at 4410m). While it would be nice to walk more, the steepness of the climb and the potential for altitude sickness prohibits continuing Macchermo is a particularly beautiful village located in a ring of precariously steep spiked mountains and near the foot of the Ngozumpa Glacier, which is the larges glacier in the himalaya. Unfortunately for me (Brett), I ate some bad momos at lunch and ended up with the most violent food poisoning and a great view of the mountains – we went to a HRA doctors altitude talk and I bolted to their outhouse to periodically upchuck/dry heave for the last 50 minutes of the hour long presentation. However, the HRA office is at the very end of the valley and so the views up of the mountains were quite good as I sat on a large rock while my stomach collected itself for the next round of violent vomiting I spent the next 4-5 hours vomiting as violently as I ever have, probably 50-60 times. Keep reading, it gets better.
We spent an extra night in Macchermo to let me recover. Luckily it was a beautiful spot and the people were extremely kind – the man who worked at our lodge (and who had escaped through the himalaya from Tibet) apologized profusely for not having a spare room for the following night and personally visited the other lodges to find us a room.
Our final walk in to Gokyo was a long one of about 4 hours. It felt longer as I’d had only a few pieces of bread to eat of the last 3 days. It was a beautiful walk up to 4750 meters as we climbed up the foot of the Ngozumpa glacier and then passed the first three gokyo lakes, beautiful milky blue glacial lakes that burned in the sunlight.
The first day in Gokyo we took a day walk up the Gokyo valley to the 4th and 5th sacred Lakes. It was a long 5 hour return walk however it was Nepali flat, which means that it was mostly uphill but relatively flat compared to most of the local terrain. We passed the fourth and fifth lakes and reached a lookout called Scoundrel’s viewpoint. This was my (Brett’s) favorite spot of our entire Nepal trip. Here’s why:
Beyond the sheer magnitude and sterility of the view here, there is also a rare view of the north face of Everest, usually reserved for those lucky enough to get permits into Tibet. We shared this view with only one person for a time, and then none, a British traveler named Paul Marshall who was very much of the same mind as I and valued this solitude. I later read a book while sick (again) in Namche in which Sir Edmund Hillary named this his favorite view. Considering where the man had been, I’m happy to agree. While the view was amazing, the walk proved an exhausting day for Angie, probably due to the altitude. Still, it was worth it to get this awesome photo of her hustling back to Gokyo:
The following day we took they climb up to Gokyo Ri, which is the main viewpoint associated with this path. We climbed to 5360 meters to have a viewpoint of Everest, Cho Oyu, Lhotse, Makalu, Cholatse, Taboche, and the Ngozumpa Glacier cutting across the landscape. We had a perfectly clear 360 degree view of the mountains.
The following day we headed back down the mountains to Phortse along the eastern side of the valley (we’d walked along the western side on the way up). . It was a long walk off about 7 hours, ending with about an inch of snow on the ground. It was a bit of a harrowing walk being high up a steep ridge and at times only able to see right in front of us due to the snow. However, the next morning the snow melting quickly in the warm sun.
We continue and down the path back to Namche Bazaar which took about 5 hours. Unfortunately, Brett got sick again – this time with ‘dreaded’ Giardia, which was in fact much less horrifying than the violent food poisoning of Macchermo. Still, we spent an extra day in the village letting Brett recover. Luckily, this village had medicine and Brett was able to recover quickly (thank you indian-made tinizadole!). We finished up the trek returning to Lukla and flying out to Kathmandu.
The trek was everything it was cracked up to be and more, I don’t think we’re likely to see a landscape as dramatic or mountains as violent. We will definitely return (three passes!).