The Higher Himalaya: Lukla to the Kongma La Pass – 7 days

Brining you part 2…  Well lets just call it part 1.5 as this is up until the epic climax: the pass into the Kumbu Vally and over its glaciar.  I’m going to leave you hanging on the most dangerous part of the trek as I want to take a little more time to do it justice.  But its worth waiting for.

To part 1  ——>

Lukla Airport (2800m)
2850m
Dhal Baat: 500r

The word on the trail is, over 700 new trekkers will begin arriving at the Lukla airport every day during the peak of the season… and with little more than a month to the onslaught there seemed to be little else on everyone’s mind.  It must be a heck of a place when it gets busy but now… quite unwelcoming.

IMG_7334The few trekkers arriving fresh from Kathmandu are raring to go and depart immediately and the local lodges seem all the happier for it.  My lodge master even attempted to persuade me to leave… knowing his winning lottery ticket would become valid in less than a month he wanted nothing to do with the lone trekker.

But don’t let me give you the wrong impression, in a months time I’m sure Lukla will become one a lot of fun place… if your into high altitude bar hopping.  With hundreds of trekkers coming and going every day the only thing working harder than the Everest Beer taps will the espresso machines serving up one last caffeine enema to the departing white collar.

Gompas have succumb to Starbucks, but this is nothing new.  It seems to be the theme of the subcontinent’s encounter with they would likely call ‘development’: the fall of the spiritual at the hands of material.

IMG_6951When I say spiritual, I’m not suggesting any kind of religocity, all I suggest is an unrelative source of contentment.  One that is beyond shoes that match your north face, your stylish shades or your Smartphone.  Beyond comparing yourself to the guy next to you… let me tell you: hes always a little better.

So don’t worry I am not about to go on a capitalist bashing tirade… I’m not even going to mentions the cloud off ill-content sitting over parts of the more materialist of societies.  All I have are observations from these peoples relatively young encounter with it.

Just listen to the trail, its change in tone passing Lukla speaks volumes.  The foreign trekker undergoes a transformation from human being, one of many fellow travelers, one who is welcomed whenever the road meets hearth, that person becomes… a walking ATM machine.  (The trail literally passes along most homes where courtyards and seats are constructed to welcome passing travelers, traditionally porters would be able to sleep and eat at pretty much any house they passed).

Lukla (2800m) – Phakding (2650m)
12:45pm-3:30pm
Dhal Baat: 550-600r (same price everywhere now)

IMG_6894 kola trailA perk of the high Kumbu, a ‘rest day’ does not mean you need to stay at the same lodge, your lodge is always just another half hours hike away.  Today was an easy hike, a well needed rest day.  But as Phakding is actually a little lower than Lukla, its not an efficient means of acclimatization, which is rapidly becoming the sole obstacle in the way of the higher slopes.  The air limits your progress upwards almost as much as it does the weight of your wallet… 600 rupees for lentils and rice is becoming exploitative.

The half days hike proved advantageous as it allowed me a few hours to explore the semblance of wilderness on the far side of the melt water khola.  An out of the way place no one really seems to notice as they blitz for the fat man, amazing rock formations carved in to swirling igneous behemoths from building sized boulders partially buried by their tiny cousins scattering throughout the valley.  A needed taste of the less tasted as the trail disappeared around one of the monsters… not quite.  Garbage has even found its way to where few humans stray.

IMG_7333Waste is quickly becoming the legacy of these amazing mountains, not the legendary (legend of) biodiversity and wilderness that draws so many.  Even with new effort being put forth by the government to clean up the ‘toilet paper trail’ the battle is one sided.  You will see more wildlife driving through towns in the Rockies.  The people are loosing touch with their sustainable roots as fast as their hospitable culture… it’s not the tourists who are avoiding the garbage cans.  But what is to be expected, in less than a generation a completely biodegradable economy became host to snickers and bottled beer.

I hope the so/an researchers are having a field day, the opportunities here to explore the effects of materialist culture are probably one the best there ever will be.  The contrasts even extend into 4D, not only regionally but generationally as parents  fight a loosing battle with the inevitable brainwashing of mass media.

The seeds of want have been sown and are just as fertile when carried over the mountains by porters or power lines strung on trees (yes… the main link to Lukla has a stretch of line carried only on living treas).  I just hope as their roots crack Buddhist foundations and this monument to the Tibetan cultural triumph begins to fall, we notice.

Phadking (2650m) – Namche Bazaar (3420m)
6:45-11:30am

namche bazaar

Namche from one of the surrounding hiking trails.

An early start, I think I may have actually woken up my hosts getting my bag ready.  Sorry… I almost feel bad… but with Dhal for 600r you are operating a hotel not a teahouse.

The trail is beginning to become noticeably more populated.  Or maybe it just seems that way as the pace of the trekkers is becoming a lot slower.  It may be the altitude but I tend to think it’s dehydration… the four layers of Gortex these urbanites guidebooks told them they would need must be so full of sweat they mine as well actually carry their own bag.

IMG_7048

Seriously, this group of Japanese went by and most where wearing neck and ankle gators, snow pants and jackets… with the hoods.  I’m in shorts and a t-shirt and still sweating… OhhhhhMG I love the contrast as the horse carried, Gortex clad caboose of the Japanese express is passed by a flip-flop clad, leathered skin badass as he carries cases of beer toward the next nexus of topographic tourism.

Namche Bazaar is on an another level, I’m sure this is more of what Lukla is like during the busy season.  Even with a modest quantity of hikers the Guidebooks suggestion of a mandatory rest day makes it bustle.  Pretty ridiculous.  Right now I’m waiting for dinner, sitting by a dung powered fire at 3500m in the high Himalaya listening to the most grotesque club music as the Bar tender proudly presides over two kinds of whisky, two kinds of rum, a Baileys and two canned beer… but I guess that’s all you really need when ‘baby, tonight I’m fucking you’… on Everest.  Sometimes music just sounds SO much better in a foreign language.

At least the views now make up for any poor music selection.  Namche is indeed in the high mountains.  The massiveness of these things is incomparable and the geology even more impressive.  You can literally see the earths crust protruding upward as lines of igneous bend as flow just as they did when they were first bent toward the sky.  In between the higher peaks the forces at work are now obvious as glaciers and icefalls hang in many of the high valleys surrounding Namche’s small col.  SUCH a beautiful area

Namche (3420m)– Pangboche (3860m)
9:00-2:00pm

IMG_6978With a hundred or so trekkers departing between 830 and 10 this morning the first half of today’s hike felt more like a social outing than a wilderness trek.  Not something I’m going to complain about as it makes the prospects for finding some companions for the three passes better.  It didn’t take long to find three Israeli guys really hoofing it who seemed interested and potentially capable of giving them a shot.  The Navy officer, Ben, was keeping up a pretty good pace on the days 400m climb, but you never know with these things… its amazing how much some people feel the need to put on a show, even if it makes them bonk the next day.

Stopping in Pangboche was a good choice.  Being the town slightly after the guidebook suggestion it had failed to get its share of trekkers so far this year and the inn-keep, Jetta, was happy to finally get some company.  He hung out with us all night in spite of the Israelis obnoxiousness.

So funny story… several of the Sherpa guides and innkeepers I’ve talked to said they hate Israelis in these parts and guess why… because they insistently demand discounts on everything, sometimes even trying to pay less than the local price.   Their words not mine.

Pangboche (3860m) – Dingboche (4360m)
9:30-11:30am

dingboche view

Almost at the top looking down to Dingboche

And… the altitude becomes apparent.  The Israelis were really dogging it today even though it was a short hike… they were definitely going to fast yesterday.  I think the chances they make it to the pass let alone over seem pretty slim at this point.

These short hikes are nice though, arriving before noon means there is plenty of time for post hike exploration, and at this altitude there is a lot to explore.  The lack of trees means the amazing surroundings beckon unimpeded and with no real threat of getting lost… well how can you say no to them.  After an hour and a half of post lunch rest he 5090m mini-peak next to Dingboche was calling my name pretty insistently and it was time to put all I had read about mountain sickness to the test.

IMG_6997 yak teaseThey make it out to be a real issue but I’m skeptical about most people who claim AMS, just because you’re out of breath doesn’t mean your sick.  You’re out of shape and at altitude of course your going to be tired… and the guidebook is not the most honest of advisors when it comes to issues of safety.

I made it about 50-100m shy of the summit and had to turn back… yes I actually turned back that close to the top.  It is amazing how difficult every step becomes.  It’s a battle of will, your body can do it… it just really, really doesn’t want to.  Ten steps rest… nine steps rest… eventually you’re resting as much as you are hiking.

My inexperience at altitude and that I was alone made the decision to turn back for me, even though in hindsight, I could have made it safely.  The effects of AMS really don’t present themselves until a few hours at altitude or a few hours after being at altitude, as I would find out later that night.  No problem with the lungs but my head was pretty scrambled, almost like a real bad hangover, and there was a real tinge of nausea… even more like a hangover.  Just mild symptoms and very bearable, but I can hardly imagine if it was worse, or if I were still at 5000+.

Dingboche (4360m) – Chhukong (4760m)
A slow two hours

Thankfully the altitude hangover disappeared with a good nights sleep.

IMG_7093The scenery today is approaching a new level of spectacular.  In Chhukong your no longer looking up at the distant mountains, you looking right at them.  They’re literally right there… it would take less than two hours to the foot of two of the worlds most badass peaks: Ama Dablam an Lhoste.

I stood on one of the near ridges looking down the valley for an hour that evening unable to move… awe would be the word.  The ‘lunar landscape’ of the Chhukong glaciers terminal moraine disappearing in and out of sight as sunset lit clouds came roaring up the valley… you have to see it.  Maybe with a tripod I could do it justice but the light was fading just a little to fast.

I just hope these spectacular clouds don’t mean spectacular snowfall, after about two weeks without snow I’m hoping the pass to the next valley over will have started to open up.IMG_7107

The lodge master didn’t think it would be a good idea to try and he’s the wisest looking old mountain dweller I’ve ever seen, but I also doubt he had been to the pass yet this year.  A giant grin of bent and missing teeth and skin like leather from a life in some of the worlds hottest sun, well except for his sunglass tan more impressive than the evening view.  This guy looked like he had run up giants in his prime.  Maybe not an 8-hour Everest bid but I’m sure he was the one carrying the foreigner’s pack… but it turns the closest a summit he has ever gotten was the kitchen of the base camp.  Just goes to show that what it takes to climb giants really is not cosmetic.

Chhukong-Ri  (5560m)

IMG_7172The temperature in the morning is starting to provide a real incentive to sleep in.  In the Chhukong valley the sun finds a place to hide until a little before nine, but soon as it makes it over that pesky ridge it puts your layers to the test.  The two others and I heading to the mini-peak departed with every piece of warm clothing we brought and in less than an hour we were spending as much time disrobing as climbing, a good excuse to catch increasingly difficult breath.

The three-hour hike was a real challenge.  The closer you get to the summit the farther it seems to get.  The last quarter took as long as the first three, but this was not all altitude, the final accent from the saddle was a scramble up a narrow stone ridge with a bit of a fall on either side.  It’s amazing though; even on the desolate wind carved stone of a 5500m peak, bright red flowers and their faithful pollinators still find a niche.

Ama Dablam

Ama Dablam

After a an hour of soaking up the amazingness the dumb grin on my face succumbed to the creeping unease of being alone where no one can hear you scream.  The others had long since departed and the inevitable death sentence of becoming stuck in the nighttime freezer means as the sun crosses its apex it turns from relished warmth to a nagging countdown.  I want to be safely in site of the lodge two hours before sunset… time to go.

The evening’s companions are of superior character to the obnoxious Chinese tourists of yesterday.  These two Italian hotshots had just returned from a training climb up the nearby Island Peak (6100m).  Well… they almost climbed it.  Not having a permit they were forced to stop 50m shy of the summit for fear of aggravating a group of Japanese trekkers who had paid the $600 dollars each to be carried to the top by guide company.  Apparently the guides were at the summit and literally pulling some of less fit ‘adventurers’ up the trekking peak.  Don’t fall for one of the trekking peak shams, you can hardly call it mountaineering, its closer to a tree top ropes course.  The guides climb the peak the day before set anchors and ropes and all you need to do is clip on your ascender and start walking, the worst that could happen… well there isn’t.

IMG_7078I love it… always more ironies.  People come to Nepal after reading of legendary mountain expeditions and adventure only to find people even more averse to risk than even in the west.

These days video game designers seek to create what they call nonlinear game play, where the world is truly as variable as real life, where one can roam anywhere and do anything.  But in Nepal its as if they are seeking to make real life into linear game play… According to the government and guide companies the scenery mine as well be the gods plywood cutouts… anything off the toilet paper trail and without a guide is far to dangerous to even be considered.  The big tour groups even have guides carrying huge first aid kits at the front and back of the group, not because they might need them but because it does wonders to build the image for the foreigner that the mainstream trek actually contains an element of adventure.

From Chhukong Ri

From Chhukong Ri

Every guide I spoke to advised the pass would be a terrible idea, yet when I asked the two professional mountaineers that night about it… well they didn’t think it would be too difficult.  But honestly, its impossible to tell what it will really be like because no ones done it yet this year.

I think we may have to find out tomorrow…

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