27 October 2017
Today began well before my 6.30am alarm. The walls of the teahouse were thin and people in nearby rooms were stirring from 5.30am. The morning pilgrimage to the bathroom and back at the end of the hall, the opening and closing of wooden doors that always seem to stick.
I’d slept well considering how cold it was already at an altitude of 2,625m. I’d been worried my sleeping bag wouldn’t be warm enough but it retained heat well. What it didn’t allow was me to sprawl in a fashion I was used to, which meant tossing and turning until I found a comfortable position. The mattress on the wooden frame that passed for a bed was thin, so thin that laying on my side left me with a bruised hip.
We had ordered breakfast the night before, straight after dinner, so that it was ready soon after we entered the dining room. This was to become the routine for the next 10 nights, making our selection off the same menu as we did for lunch and dinner. On this first morning, I had a fluffy cinnamon pancake and a masala tea.
We had repacked the duffle bags provided by our tour company and left them in our room while we ate. Our porter, Pranaya, was a slight Nepali boy of 16 who later told me he was training to be a dancer and singer. Despite his small physique, he was strong and carried our two bags with apparent ease, even over the most hazardous terrain. Together they weighed about 25kg, plus his own small pack. The weight of our bags was mostly borne by his neck, via a strap around his head leaving his arms free. Most porters carried their burdens in this manner. It was a feat of incredible strength.
We were out the door of the teahouse by 7.30am, heading toward the bridge Michael and I had discovered the previous afternoon. The day’s trekking started much like the day before; ups and downs with Chuda and I setting the pace and Michael trailing behind talking into his GoPro. Every few hundred metres, Chuda would indicate we should stop and wait for Michael to catch up. More donkeys and yaks also tempered our pace to little more than a crawl, with long minutes spent hugging the sides of the path lest a rogue animal decided to amble into us.
We passed waterfalls and crossed the river six times today. When we took a long downhill section, I inwardly grimaced knowing in less than two weeks I would be taking that descent in reverse. We passed many trekkers on their way home, winding their way out of the mountains back to Lukla, having made it to their destination already. I watched as they struggled to climb what I had taken so easily going down. If I thought it looked bad, it was nothing compared to what I would face in the coming hours and days.
Lunch came early in the mountains due to the keenness of our guides to get us into our night stop before dark. We had stopped for lunch at a teahouse in a village that Chuda told us was the last before Namche Bazaar and our resting place for the next two nights. He warned us that the next three hours were steep, with long ascents. I was dreading it already. This would be the first real test of my endurance. I hated uphill with a passion (which seems odd given my penchant for climbing mountains). I braced my mind as much as my body for what was to come.
We rounded a bend in the path and I saw ahead the last river crossing for the day. The suspension bridge was strung high above the roaring water with another and no longer used bridge hanging at least 50m below. The twin bridges have been made famous in various movies about the region and make a spectacular sight but, unfortunately, I was too anxious to appreciate it. When I saw that bridge, hanging so high, all I could think about was that I had to fucking get up there to use it. From where I was currently standing, getting there would be like walking up stairs and in that I wasn’t wrong.
We began the climb, our pace determined by those in front of us, as we hit jam after jam of people waiting for trains of donkeys and yaks to pass. It forced us to stop and rest, for which I was grateful, but it also prolonged what I knew was going to be an absolute shit of an afternoon.
We reached the bridge and the wind whipped at my clothes as I stepped out onto its shaky deck. I had crossed several bridges by this point and the feeling had been disconcerting at first but by now I was used to the gentle bounce under my feet as others approached me crossing to the side from which I had come. Two people could easily pass one another, but sometimes a particularly large burden on a porter’s back might require the trekker to step further to their side and cling to the thick wire of suspension cable.
After the bridge, the path steadily began to rise and my pace slowed significantly. For the first time I felt the muscles in my bum and legs begin to burn. My body was quick to tire and I began to take the path by walking diagonally, in sweeping switchbacks of my own design. It lessened the demand on my muscles instantly and my breathing moderated. Michael soon overtook me, and this was to become the dance between us for the next 10 days. On the descents, I would range kilometres ahead, often walking with our porter while Chuda hung back with Michael. His knees meant he was unable to take the descents as quickly as I could but this was offset by my ridiculous pace going uphill. I absolutely refused to push my body beyond what I knew it was capable of and so I walked, slowly slowly, knowing I would get there when I got there.
After six hours of walking, my hips and glutes were in agony but my calves were surprisingly strong. I stopped frequently to release the build up of lactic acid in my muscles although my breath seemed to recover quickly.
Looking ahead, now it was Chuda and Michael waiting for me. And I paused, and readied myself for the anger, the frustration, the emotions that I had let get the better of me on Mt Kilimanjaro. But there was nothing. I was calm. Yes, I looked up and wished I wasn’t so fucking slow, but I was OK with it too. The only way I was going to get there was by taking one step at a time and I did. I accepted that I was slower, that I needed to take these inclines at a different pace. It was almost disturbing to me how clear-headed and rational I was.
The path ahead zigged and zagged and seemed to go on forever and many more trekkers passed by me with a nod or a smile or a “namaste”. But I wasn’t upset. I remained positive and every time I caught up with Chuda and Michael they would ask if I was doing OK. And I would respond that I was because I really did feel OK. I smiled without force because I was loving being on this journey.
When Chuda said there was 45 minutes to go, I knew I could do it. I was going to make it. I felt strong even though I was slow. The first buildings in hours came into view, and then as we passed by small farmhouses, Chuda joked that there was another hour, “maybe an hour and a half” to go. His sense of humour is that of a naughty schoolboy.
When we rounded a bend and I first saw Namche Bazaar, it appeared like a village from a fairytale. The town dominates what is essentially a huge amphitheatre where two mountains meet at 3,440m. There are teahouses in every colour, with wooden windows and doors, dotting the terraced streets and everywhere the acrid smell of woodsmoke.
But Namche Bazaar is both a blessing and a curse for the weary traveller; it’s the end of a long day of hiking and so far the most challenging, but to move anywhere through it means steps. So many steps. There are steps with wide treads and shallow risers that appear easy but at altitude take your breath away and there are steps with narrow treads and deep risers that sap the strength from your muscles and make you wish you’d known fewer doughnuts in your life. But I wanted to see it all, this beautiful, quaint town, nestled into the mountains.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, our teahouse was among the closest to the bottom of the amphitheatre and only a short walk from where the town proper began. It was beautifully warm in the dining room compared to the teahouse in Phakding and after dumping our bags and doing the obligatory scan of our room (that had an ensuite with a hot water shower!), I was desperate to explore. Chuda told us it was market day and he offered to walk Michael and I there to see.
We rambled now, slowly, up the stairs wide and narrow into the steep warren of hiking stores, bakeries, bars, cafes, pharmacies and souvenir stalls. We climbed higher and higher until I felt we’d gained another hundred metres of altitude. The stairways between terraced pathways were sometimes so narrow, we had to wait for the people coming down before we could go up. Not to mention, these stairs were also used by the yaks and donkeys which we’d become so familiar with. But finally, we topped out on a terrace that looked like the others except it was covered by the produce and wares of a hundred stalls, although there was no discernible order to them. Sacks of grain and rice, chillies and carrots, lay side by side on tarps with crates of garlic and onion, along with boxes of chocolate bars, pringles, noodles, pasta, cooking oil, beer, whisky and cartons of eggs.
We walked the lines of tarps with interest although neither of us bought anything. I was far more interested in locating the source of the smell of baked bread I’d snuffed on the way here. Michael decided he needed to buy some gloves and a beanie (face palm. He was so unprepared for the conditions, it turned out), so I set out on my own. Heading back the way we had come, I found the bakery that promised to delight my craving for carbs and ordered a pastry and hot chocolate.
Inside was blissfully warm and so busy, the combined exhalation of the patrons had managed to fog all the windows. It seemed everyone was taking advantage of the free wifi and were huddled over both phones and tea cups. While I sipped my drink, I tried to imagine the men and women I had read about spending some time here on their way to EBC for summit season, exchanging stories and weather forecasts with climbing acquaintances and partners, discussing the latest feats in mountaineering and comparing gear and technology.
I think what I did today was hard, a mere eight hours of some moderate uphill walking, but I’ve also been passing 70 and 80-year-olds who, while not setting any land-speed records, are proof of how achievable something is with determination, training, focus and willpower. Yes, they are slow and they look tired but I haven’t seen any who I hastened past so I didn’t have to witness them drop dead. This trek attracts like-minded, strong people and we each get through challenging ascents in our own way. Tomorrow is an acclimatisation day and possibly our first view of the big lady herself, Everest.