The next day it really felt like we were getting closer to the mountains with the high peak of Thamserke dominating the skyline ahead of us. We dropped down to a river which had water driven prayer wheels . After lunch we started the long slog up to the monastery but disaster befell us.
On the first stage of the climb the path was narrow and very crowded with trekkers. Suddenly a panicking out of control yak came rampaging down the hill with two gas bottles swinging about in the air. I thought it was going to take Simon out but at the last second it swerved and ran over Elmien. She was badly trampled and had a severe twisted ankle, it was only when she returned to South Africa it was discovered that the ankle was broken; a real yak attack. What to do? She decided to continue on a hired horse and carried on like that to the end of the trek. Those prayer wheels didn’t work for us that day.
We continued up to Tengboche Monastery at 3,860 meters high , made famous by Hillary and Tensing on their conquest of Everest in 1953 and then down to our night’s stay at Dlboche. Many villages we passed through had Mani stones, large boulders inscribed with prayers. When we started walking the next day we passed a Mani wall, a long wall in the middle of the path made up of countless inscribed stones which one must pass clockwise. Then we passed through an enchanted forest, lovely glades with pools and boulders covered with lichen. Overhead the trees were adorned with old men’s beard, quietly stirring in the breeze.
Later the forests on the opposite hills were ablaze with autumn colours and it was hard not to believe we weren’t walking in Scotland. From there we walked through grassland sprinkled everywhere with wild flowers, red, blue and yellow colours covering the ground.
Often it’s difficult not to allow the mind to wander: I spend too much time thinking about the past and the future rather than the present. Up in the high Himalayas I had no such problem, there’s so much to concentrate on , flowers , birds , spectacular mountain scenery , shrines by the side of the road and not least negotiating the rocky trail. Exercising at high altitude mean that just putting one foot in front of the other requires a concerted effort. Getting in and out of the sleeping bag at night left me breathless.
The next day was a “rest day” so we went straight up the nearest mountain for 500 meters in the mist as part of “acclimatisation “. Our lodge was in a valley and the sherpas were farming veggies and looking after their yaks. We urged Wayne to go for excellent photo opportunities into an adjacent field where there was a fierce looking hairy yak bull which chased everybody in sight , but by now we all had a healthy respect for these beasts. Wayne has an alter ego, in another life he would like to be a paparazzi. Don’t fall asleep anywhere in public because Wayne will snap you, careful where you go to the toilet because Wayne is lurking behind a wall with an itchy finger on the trigger.
The next day we trekked through a wide beautiful valley covered in wild flowers with fantastic views of Cholatse and Tawache with the mist lingering on the lower slopes. The path then snaked steeply through the boulders of the Khumbu Glacier terminal moraine. Here there is a site with many stone cairns built in memory of many of the climbers and Sherpas who have died on Mount Everest. We followed the glacier to Lobuche , a rather bleak collection of huts at the foot of the Lobuche Ice Fall. Now we were at 4,300 meters and it was noticeably colder which didn’t stop the students going for a swim and wash in the ice cold stream.
In the early mornings helicopters came up the valley taking people on sightseeing trips, collecting injured or sick trekkers or delivering goods. They were a spectacular sight ; one time we watched as a helicopter did loops in the air to gain height to pass over the glacial moraine. Imagine our surprise later when we learned that Nico had taken a flip , he probably passed over the top of us as we puffed and panted up the hills.
On our trek we kept pace with other trekker parties from all over the world. Five Czech men and women were on a Do It Yourself trek with the aid of the Lonely Planet Trekking guide to Nepal , carrying their 17kilo packs up there themselves. Jana, one of the group, told me that she preferred to spend her money on trekking around the world rather than on a mortgage . She would work, save money and go off trekking again but her parents worried about her. Lakshika , a single girl from India, had hired a guide and was doing the trek on her own. She said she preferred doing it that way without having to bother about other people and their problems. She had very understanding , liberal parents because Indian girls are normally restricted in what they can and can’t do.
There were lots of Chinese, many of them spitting images of my students at Maritzburg. A few times I nearly shouted, “Hey Zoe, hey Marco what are you doing here? “ The girls were all identical , covered from head to toe in trekking gear even when it was hot ; big cowboy hats , a scarf across their faces ,a huge pair of round glasses , gloves and knee guards on the outside of their trousers, giant cameras , all wending their knock kneed way up the mountains with the aid of walking poles.
Then there the Aussies, we gave them a hard time as we had just thumped them at rugby as well as cricket earlier in the year. They didn’t like it, but they’re quick to dish it out when they win, so I felt nothing. Other groups from UK were also walking to raise funds for deserving causes, hospice, heart foundation and prostate cancer amongst others. We met Nepalese trekkers who put us in touch with the author of a book on rhino poaching in Nepal but unfortunately we had no time to meet up later. An Aussie lady and her daughter were trekking to distant lakes with the aid of a porter they had hired. They trek in the region every year. Everyone had one thing in common, a love of adventure and trekking in high places. The rhino suits caused lots of interest, particularly Elmien on her horse, and we became well known on the route.
The next day was the final push, following the Khumbu Glacier up to Gorakshep. Trekking was hard up there at 5000 meters and when we reached our destination at lunch time I made the decision to sleep in the afternoon rather than go to Everest base camp. I thought about it for a while and then decided to give it a bash; it would have been a mistake to go all that way and cop out at the end. I would have regretted it for the rest of my life. I started earlier because the younger guys were walking faster than me. The path follows the Khumbu Glacier and up there it’s wild and barren and like a moonscape. The ice is covered by rocks but there are glacial lakes with ice cliffs and every now and again the deep and threatening sound of an avalanche. One more hill, one more bend and we were finally at base Camp .
The route up Everest can clearly be seen with the summit sitting behind the twin peaks of Nuptse and Lhotse. We had made it. Photos, high fives and a good feeling of achievement. I couldn’t help thinking about the men and women over the years who had stayed months at the base camp and then gone on higher to climb the peak. Putting up with no showers for weeks, melting snow for water , illness, effects of altitude, bad and cold weather and the climb itself requiring courage , strength , technical ability and above all else a strong determination to succeed. I take my hat off to them. One in two people of my age, 60 and above, die attempting the summit. Over 200 people have died on the mountain and many of their bodies are still up there.
During the night it snowed and the next morning we set off in the dark at 04.00 to climb Kala Pattha. Higher up we could see lights snaking up the mountain as we set off through the snow. The temperature was -5C and fingers and toes were numb. Simon set a good pace , afterwards he said he gauged it by the sound of my breathing and I just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other to keep up with him .After scrambling over rocks covered in ice we arrived at the top, 5,545 meters high and the climax of the trek. The sky lightened and we waited for the first of the sun’s rays to hit the mountain tops. We were literally at the top of the world with Everest right across the valley and surrounded 360 degrees by soaring snow covered peaks. Photos were taken, hands shaken and all too soon with the sun now strong and bright we descended through the snow for breakfast.
All we had to do now was descend in 3 days the 75 kilometres we had already covered. We started in bright sunshine with the snow melting off the roofs but later the weather changed and a strong cold wind started to blow across the valley. I was caught out and had only packed my rain jacket in my rucksack. The only thing was to walk as fast as possible to keep warm. It was here I made my first mistake and followed the Irish group down the wrong path and eventually one of the sherpas came panting up and pointed me in the right direction. Never follow the Irish anywhere.
So it was back the way we had come and up and down the hills and valleys. The highest suspension bridge is built over the top of one considered unsafe and condemned. Simon and Wayne had just crossed over the high bridge and were resting on the other side. “There’s some idiot crossing the unsafe bridge, hang on it’s Dad “How I came to cross the wrong bridge I’ve no idea.
Mistake 3 came at lunch time, I walked on and on and felt decidedly grumpy that the group hadn’t stopped for lunch. After a while it dawned on me that I must have walked right past the lunch stop ; by now I was tired and slowing down so I stopped at the next shop , went inside , sat down and had a coke and Mars bar. It must have been at that time that Duncan, who had been despatched to find me, must have run past and turned round and run back. So feeling refreshed I started again and then one of our sherpas found me. I told him to turn round, tell the guys I was OK and continuing on to Lukla. Eventually I heard a shout, “You bastard ! “ and there was Simon and Wayne walking full speed down the path. By then we were nearly at Lukla and in deteriorating weather we made it to the Guest House and put our feet up. The end of the trek.
The airport had been closed all that day due to bad weather and the following day proved to be the same. It was there that I discovered that Simon and Michael were bar billiard champions; they took on all comers in the Irish and Scotch pubs and beat everyone. Being good at snooker or billiards is a sign of a misspent youth and Simon admitted that he and his friend used to play after Tech in their student days in Cape Town. We spent the day shopping, drinking coffee at Starbucks and checking out the weather every half hour.
The next day was a little clearer and suddenly there was the sound of a plane’s roar landing at the airport. There was a mad rush to the airport and an almighty clamour at the check in desks to get on a plane. We were very aptly given prayer flags by our Sherpas .This is where being in a group pays off and our fixer and mover had the bags checked in, piled on to a trolley , boarding cards issued and then we were through security and waiting for our flights. We watched awe struck as decrepit looking fully loaded planes struggled up the short rise to the top of the runway , turned round , revved to full throttle and then seemingly hurled themselves down the runway and off the end into the abyss. The most disconcerting thing is that the whole town turns out to watch the planes land and take off, all with cameras and videos at the ready to capture the film of the century of a plane crash.
All too soon it was our turn. We were held on the tarmac, the plane landed, taxied to a halt, shaky passengers got off, bags off, new bags on, we were rushed on to the plane, doors shut , smart stewardess gave us a sweetie and we were off trundling up the incline. Simon closed his eyes and put his head on the seat back in front of him. Elmien grabbed my hand and then we were off, roaring down the runway with the drop off at the end getting closer and closer. Then we were up and away and the relief was palpable. Actually the flight was fantastic if you could forget about possible accidents as we skimmed so close to the mountain tops watching the Nepalese working in the fields, villages and rice paddies sculptured on the hillsides. We were so close you could see the whites of their eyes. And then we were back in Kathmandu with another rip roaring landing.
We had two part days in Kathmandu, enough time to do some shopping and go to the Botanical Gardens. Four of us crammed into an old beat up Japanese mini car taxi and fought our way through the traffic with streaming eyes and gasping lungs. The gardens are a quiet oasis amongst a traffic maelstrom, certainly past their best and a reminder of long gone colonial days. The four of us suffered afterwards with chest and cold infection, a souvenir of Kathmandu and its’ traffic pollution.
The flight from Kathmandu to Dubai was filled with mainly young, small Nepalese male migrant workers travelling to become part of the poorly paid, unskilled , abused labour force in Dubai for building the new developments there. Nepal has a population of 25 million, half of whom are illiterate and of whom about 2.5 million live in the Kathmandu area under very densely populated conditions. The majority of the population are subsistence farmers and the population continues to double every 30 years. We who were born in the affluent West are very privileged. The world has a population of over 7 billion, 80% live in poor housing , 50% don’t have enough food , 24% have no electricity and most of the other 76% only use it at night , only 7% have access to the internet and only 1% have a college education. The world population is expected to grow to between 8.3 billion and 10.9 billion by 2050 , the densest population is in Asia. It’s hard to see how the world can sustain this population growth.
This was a wonderful adventure and thank you to my great travelling companions and their worthy cause. Rhinos continue to be poached in large numbers and face imminent extinction. We saw fantastic natural sights as well as wonderful local culture and friendly, helpful, peaceful people living in difficult conditions. Whether the Everest region tourist capability is sustainable is also questionable. In the meantime I would recommend any adventurous, moderately fit person to go and trek to Everest base camp; it’s a truly wonderful experience.
Roger Naylor November 2013