Veteran high-altitude trekker and Nepal regular Mike Martin describes one of his first experiences of trekking from Lukla along the Everest trail, in Nepal...
'It was early evening as we approached to land, with dull lights flickering across the city - but then the pilot announced that we had to divert. Three and half hours later, we were back for another attempt at landing. Why the diversion? There were pigs on the runway! Of course there were. I had arrived in Kathmandu...
As I exited the airport I met a mass of faces wanting to carry bags, arrange taxis, sort hotels, fix expeditions – anything to grab my attention and rupees. So it was good to spot my name being held aloft and to be greeted by Sukman with a big smile, a garland of marigolds and a bottle of water. Sukman was our sirdar (leader) for the trek ahead, but for now he was our escort to the hotel, a short car ride away through the noisy, busy, verging-on-reckless driving which is the norm in this city.
Kathmandu is noisy, smelly (good and bad), frenetic and chaotic, but at the same manages to be friendly and laid back, with no shortage of interesting and impressive sights, and a surprising number of really good medium priced hotels. So I was soon settled in enjoying my first banana lassi, thinking about re-packing for the trek – but just thinking about it! It can wait til the morning.
Trekking in Nepal ranges from easy-paced walking on good trails with an abundance of tea houses and lodges available for refreshments and accommodation, through to tough high altitude trails with no infrastructure and basic camping in a harsh environment. What they have in common is that they are all in spectacular settings.
Whichever style I choose, I always go with the support of a local sirdar and porter team. A good mantra for Nepal is to expect the unexpected – and embrace it as extra interest and excitement for your holiday. And this approach is far more possible when you’re working with an experienced and knowledgeable sirdar who knows the locality, and the idiosyncrasies that make things work - and takes responsibility for sorting any issues that arise. Sukman proved to be such a person.
The Everest trail
The most popular trail in Nepal is to Everest Base Camp. If time is short, you could do part of this trail to the famous monastery at Tengboche in a one week trip. I did this a few years ago when we had to abandon a climbing trip due to too much snow, and it was a fantastic alternative. The flight into Lukla from Kathmandu is dramatic, with a patchwork of tiny terraced fields tottering down steep valley sides below, and the awesome Himalayan massif filling the skyline. The little 16 seater plane sweeps into the abrupt and very short runway perched on the valley side and does a ‘hockey stop’ at the end! The turnaround of the planes is amazing – no sooner are we off the plane and scrabbling for our bags, than the next passengers are boarding. Within 10 minutes, the plane is away. Ryanair would just love this at Stansted!
Lukla is about 3,000 metres above sea level, and I noticed the effects of this as I struggled up the steps that run alongside the airport. About half an hour of easy descent down a decent path and we reach Phakding, and the first of many crossings of the Bhote Koshi, the fast-flowing river that runs through this tight and impressive valley. The steel and wire suspension bridges that criss-cross the river at various points were erected by the Swiss during the 70s and 80s, replacing rather more precarious rope and wood affairs, the remnants of which can still be seen in places.
Day two is a walk to the amazing Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar – the first couple of hours is easy walking along a lovely trail to Larja Dobhan, where we get our first view of Everest – with overhanging branches creating a frame through which this most famous of mountains is highlighted.
We know this is the spot, as a dozen or more trekkers are there with cameras working overtime, but they soon move on and we have this special moment to ourselves. Namche is a fantastic place – stone and mud-rendered buildings form an arc around a natural amphitheatre, with a bustling Tibetan market around the stupa in the centre. There’s a glorious collection of coffee houses, German bakeries and other shops along the narrow streets. Not a bad place to stop for a couple of nights!
Our lodge is at the top of the town and has a small mountain museum attached. Most people stop for an acclimatisation day in Namche to help the body get used to the dry air, which contains about 30% less oxygen than us sea-level dwellers are used to. The best way to get used to it is to walk high during the day, and drop back down to sleep, drinking plenty of fluids along the way.
We start the day at 3.30 am for a short climb to get amazing views of sunrise over Everest, then back for breakfast before a walk up to the Hotel Everest View, an infamous place where rich guests were once flown in by private jet and given oxygen cylinders to help them adjust to the altitude - 10,000ft above sea level. This is not a good way to acclimatize, and sadly several of them died - so now any overnight guests must climb up from Namche. We’re just visiting the fabulous terrace for drinks, food and more spectacular views of that mountain...
Later, we headed higher still to Khunde, where Edmund Hillary endowed the school and a hospital where you can get great advice about high altitude medicine. Autumn is harvest time, so there is much activity in the small fields around us as millet is cut and potatoes are dug.
Day four is a wonderful walk along the busy Everest trail, with ever-changing views of the most dramatic mountains on earth. Not far out of Namche, we reach a small stupa where the trail bears left, and a jaw-dropping view is our reward, followed by the longest Mani walls (sacred stone structures) in the Khumbu region.
We stop for coffee on the terrace of a lodge smack opposite Ama Dablam, which I consider to be the most photogenic of all mountains anywhere in the world! The trek continues, dodging yaks carrying heavy loads, before dropping down 250 metres to Phunke Tenga and then slowly climbing 600 metres to the monastery at Tenboche, and our lodge. This is where the Everest climbing parties receive a blessing from a Lama, and there are often impressive ceremonies with music and dancing from the monks, especially during November and December. We were lucky to arrive as a ceremony was about to begin, and the monastery was filled with colour, noise, exotic smells, dozens of monks and hundreds of tourists! The monastery burned down in 1989, but with fundraising led by Hillary it has been rebuilt, bigger and grander than before. On day five we return to Namche, and day six is back to Lukla for a good night’s sleep before an early morning flight back to Kathmandu...'