Having officially entered Everest National Park, we continued our northerly trek along the Dudh Kosi crossing the metal bridges draped between its banks. It was November and the water level was low, yet the power of the water churning down the valley was palpable, not to mention cold. You do not want to mess with the Dudh Kosi — it’s an extremely rocky river that could pulverize you if it whisked you downstream in its icy, painful bath. It’s just one of the dangers of the Himalayas, and there are many more — like altitude sickness, hypothermia, injury, dehydration, food poisoning, avalanches, weather, limited medical care, lack of transportation and a whole mess of similar conditions that can ruin a trip. The further into the valley you trek, the more aware of this you become.
We were approaching the base of the climb up to Namche Bazaar and I was still feeling sick, for the fourth day in a row. Having been here in 2000, I knew what was ahead — a substantial elevation gain in a short distance. In other words, painfully steep switchbacks. Luckily, the valley is always buzzing with activity and there’s lots to see to keep your mind engaged in the trek instead of drifting off into a pool of worry and doom. The guesthouses are painted in vivid pinks and blues, often with a row of colorful prayer wheels out front in case you need a little divine encouragement to get up the hill.
Throughout the valley, masons carve the Tibetan prayer along the trail — sometimes onto huge boulders like this one near Phakding, and sometimes onto stacks and stacks of smaller, flat mani stones. The ping-ping-ping of hammers carries on through the valley with devotion everywhere in beautiful calligraphic displays.
We stopped for lunch near the base of the climb to Namche Bazaar. We inflated the air mattresses and warmed up in the sun as we enjoyed cheese sandwiches, potatoes and some canned tuna (not exactly the finest tuna, Charlie). Here I am, keeping my ears warm and looking a little squeamish as I think about getting to Namche on a bad stomach. It’s not surprising that I have no pictures from the the next three+ hours of the trip. J sped up the hill ahead of me as I plodded along, making my way at a snail’s pace. Ashish hiked along with me and, as expected, he was stopped at the Namche checkpoint and questioned by police to make sure he was a legitimate guide and not a Maoist rebel (one more danger of the trip). Approved, we continued on up.
After several arduous hours we arrived at the base of Namche Bazaar. The village is positioned on a very steep, concave slope and its pathways funnel down to the main trail at the bottom of the hill. There we stood, looking up at Namche — success, yet I was exhausted. We needed to find camp and unpack.
After one more push uphill, we located camp on a flat lawn outside one of the guesthouses. We pitched the tent and relaxed before dinner — a welcome rest at nearly 12,000 feet.
Dinner was lovingly set up with a red tablecloth in a wood and mud shack outside the guesthouse. Had we stayed in guesthouses, we would have eaten there too but since we opted for the down and dirty camping experience this was our fancy dinner. We enjoyed watching the Sherpas cook and having our dinner with them. They’re amazingly crafty in their bare-bones mobile kitchens and they make some really good food. When I was on my trek here in 2000, the Sherpas actually baked me a chocolate cake for my birthday, at 15,000 feet in Machermo. Take that, Martha Stewart.
Dinner was dal bhat — a traditional Nepali dish of rice with a lentil curry. Exhausted from the day, we retired to bed shortly after dinner and I was yet again sick to my stomach as I laid in my sleeping bag listening to the sounds of the village.
We managed to get some sleep, waking up to this guy in the morning. Yaks and dzopkyos (yak-cow mutts) wander around Namche throughout the night, sometimes with bells on. They’re pretty harmless as long as you watch out for their horns.
After breakfast we hiked to the Everest View Hotel. This helped us acclimatize to the altitude by going a little bit higher than Namche and coming back down to camp for another night.
Above Namche, the biggest baddest peaks of the Himalayas were finally revealed and the enormity of the trip we were making really hit home. Here’s J pointing to Mount Everest above his head. Just below that, the unique serrated edge of Nuptse juts upwards with Lhotse to its right, the fourth tallest mountain in the world.
Ama Dablam (above right; 6,812 meters/22,349 feet) is by far one of the most emblematic and beautiful peaks of the Himalayas. Once you get above 12,000 feet, this mountain seems to follow you wherever you go. Being closer than Everest (far left), Ama Dablam or “Mother’s Necklace” often seems higher and mightier than anything around it.
We stopped for a Fanta and a photo at the Everest View, the most upscale hotel in Namche. Most tourists who stay here hire a helicopter rather than walking up through the valley. In my opinion, this is missing the point entirely. The Khumbu Valley is NOT a fly-in, fly-out kind of experience. It really is about the journey. But on a clear day, the Everest View Hotel offers a killer view of its namesake.
We continued on to Khumjung where I made the most important discovery of my day. It wasn’t the supposed Yeti skull stored at the gompa in a glass box with a very secure padlock. It was here that Ashish and I discussed last night’s dal bhat and what was in it… rice, lentils, milk, etc. Milk?! EUREKA! It was the goat’s milk that was making me sick. The milk was in the curry, the muesli and the dal bhat — sick, sick and sick. I slurped up a big bowl of watery ramen noodle soup to celebrate my discovery, relieved to know I’d soon be feeling better.
We made one more stop before returning to Namche — Sir Edmund Hillary’s Khumjung School, built in 1961. Over 350 students attend the school from villages all around the Khumbu valley. We had read that the school appreciates receiving supplies, so we dropped off a bunch of pencils we brought with us from the US.
Completing our day hike, we arrived at the west side of the mountain above Namche Bazaar and began our descent back to camp. That’s our tent — the little yellow speck at center frame in the photo. Namche Bazaar is the center of trade for all the villages in and around the Khumbu Valley. The weekly Saturday market draws people into Namche from all over the region — even Tibet — who arrive to buy and sell everything from batteries to blankets to goat carcasses. Namche is one of the wealthiest towns in Nepal, reaping the economic benefit of the constant flow of trekkers and mountaineers stopping here to acclimatize on their way to the high peaks of the Himalayas. A bank, post office, charming guesthouses and even the Everest Bakery — apple pie! — offer all the comforts of home in a most unlikely place.
It was magical being in Namche — the light changed and the clouds shifted around the valley, intermittently obscuring and revealing the surrounding peaks. It felt like Mother Nature didn’t want to show all of her cards — we hadn’t earned it yet, even though we’d slogged up the hill and were begging for a clear view of the mountains from where we were standing. She teased and tantalized us as the sun went down and we slipped into our sleeping bags at 7:00 p.m. like it was Christmas Eve and we were six years old and we couldn’t wait to see what the morning would bring.