Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Three Passes

Our plane at Lukla
On the 30th October we flew by little plane (sorry, not very technical- it had about 10 seats!) to the airstrip of Lukla in the Everest region. The domestic airport experience in Kathmandu was interesting- we had a flight number on our ticket, a completely different one on our boarding pass, and then a list of totally unrelated numbers on the departure board. Basically we tried to match our boarding pass colour to the people lined up at the one boarding gate, and a mere five hours after we were supposed to take off we found ourselves on the same plane as our bags- result! We were actually very lucky- the following day flights were suspended due to bad weather and no-one else made it out to Everest by plane for a week. This kept the trail quiet for us, but left 3000 outbound trekkers stranded in Lukla- a small village that began to run out of food with no supplies coming in- it got to the point that the army were called in to rescue people by helicopter (see Telegraph article- thousands stranded in Lukla ).
Freezing in a teahouse
Meanwhile we spent the first seven days of the trek walking through thick, freezing, fog. This was NOT how trekking in the Himalayas in peak season was meant to be! Day after day of walking, eating and sleeping in the freezing cold began to wear us down. We wore all our clothes all the time, our gloves and hats didn't even come off to eat or sleep. It was far too cold to wash- we'd have had to break the ice first! In the unheated teahouse accommodation our water would freeze overnight, ice on the inside of the windows never melted, and on 'acclimatisation days' we would sit huddled in our down jackets and sleeping bags. For a couple of hours each evening the dung fuelled pot-belly stove would roar into life and there would be brief respite before we had to retire, breath steaming, to a walk-in-freezer style box room. It was pretty miserable, and hard work to convince ourselves to keep going on and up as the temperature dropped further and further below zero.
First view of Lhotse
Attempting to cross the Khumbu glacier
Then on day 8 we woke to glorious blue skies and sunrise over snowy mountains! Suddenly we felt that we were IN the Himalayas. We had climbed up a valley to about 4000m at this stage, and so our initial views of Lhotse, Ama Dablam and other Himalayan giants were truly breathtaking.

Our initial plans were revived- we would attempt to complete the Three Passes trek- a challenging 20 day circuit of the Everest region involving climbing over 5000m on six occasions and crossing three high passes.
It was still very cold, but the sunshine and the views more than made up for this. For the next week each day of walking opened up new and exciting scenes of fluted, serraced, snowy peaks with exotic names that we have always read about. The glacial scenery made for some exciting trekking. After climbing our first pass and highest point so far- the 5535m Kongma La- we were faced with a crossing of the rubble covered Khumbu glacier. Despite being only about 200m wide, it formed a pretty impenetrable barrier. Exhausted after 8 hours trekking, and with dusk approaching, we stood on the lateral moraine and stared out over the ridges of rubble and walls of ice, watching boulders fall into glacial lakes . There was no clear way across- our lonely planet guidebook let us down for the first time with its description 'just follow the footprints across the glacier' and for the first time in Nepal we wished we had a guide. Luckily, the Exodus group descending the pass behind us did, so we waited, then tagged on and crossed the glacier with the group of British hikers!
Kongma La, pass at 5535m

The rest of the high passes, although exhausting due to the altitude, went smoothly. We watched sunset from Kala Pattar in the Everest valley, and a highlight of the trip so far was seeing the full moon rise over Everest as we descended beneath snowy mountains glowing in the moonlight. We climbed through a cloud inversion in the Gokyo valley and felt like we were flying as we sat surrounded by summits above the clouds. There were too many amazing sights to describe, and the hundreds of pictures we took speak for themselves really.
Moonrise over Everest and Nuptse

However, the trek involved spending almost 2 weeks sleeping at around 4000m or above, and we did find the altitude and cold draining. Much of our talk was about the beaches we will visit in India, fantasies about food (roast dinner, please!!) and the alien concept of hot water. Kathmandu seemed a warm, far away paradise. Any ideas about a third trek after this one were quelled. But then...just the day after we returned to the city we seemed to find ourselves back at the tourist office filling in applications to trek in the Annapurna region. It is a little crazy, but it's amazing how much better we felt after just a single hot shower and beer. So, off we go again for another round of dal bhat eating, teahouse sleeping and lots and lots of walking...
Trekking above the clouds. Everest is on the far left

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