Winston Aldworth

Winston Aldworth is the Herald's Travel Editor.

Nepal: High and mighty

On a Himalayan journey, Winston Aldworth has his breath taken away by the scale of Everest

Evening colored view of Everest from Kala Patthar. Photo / Getty Images
Evening colored view of Everest from Kala Patthar. Photo / Getty Images

The striking thing about your first sight of Mt Everest is just how big the mountain is.

Which seems obvious enough - but I'm not talking about height. Not tall, simply big. Yes, we all know Everest goes up - 8,848m, for the record - but it's the girth of the thing that strikes you. The sheer mass of Everest is as stunning as its height.

This is no spindly rock shape teetering to a fine point in a desperate race to stand tallest; it's no thin-trunked wannabe that dashed to the forest top without building solid roots. Everest is a geographic hunk of remarkable substance, a mountain that looks like it could lean over and eat its neighbour Lhotse (which, at 8,516m, is no tiddler) for lunch.

Yes, it's a whopper.

Of course, we're not actually here to climb Everest, just to see the thing and get a taste of the region.

We've walked from Lukla - home to what's widely regarded as the world's most dangerous airport - up through Namche and on to Thyangboche.

This small hillside village hosts the biggest monastery in the area and sits on a plateau with a wonderful view of the tallest mountain on the planet.

They call this region the Khumbu and it's a national park of profound significance. A sign at the entry to the park lays down a set of guidelines for visitors to the area. They could pass as a decent charter document for the United Nations.

1.) Refrain from taking life

2.) Refrain from anger

3.) Refrain from jealousy

4.) Refrain from offending others

5.) Refrain from taking excessive intoxicants

Wise words, though one or two locals we encounter don't stick too closely to the warning about excessive intoxicants.

In a giant tent near Thyangboche's beautiful monastery, World Expeditions hosts a 60th anniversary dinner celebrating the day You-Know-Who and Tenzing Norgay stood on Earth's highest point. When Tenzing opened the tent flap that morning in 1953, to check conditions before the final surge, he saw the sun reflected off the roof of the Thyangboche monastery. The Sherpa thought it a good omen. (A less auspicious omen was the state of his partner's climbing boots - left outside the tent overnight, they'd frozen solid and took two hours to thaw.)

Sixty years later, we're standing at Thyangboche looking up.

Even on the hike as far as Thyangboche - which at 3,870m is a couple of hundred metres higher than Mt Cook Aorere, but still around 2000m lower than Base Camp - the hills have been hard work. Breathing proves even harder. The thin oxygen means we walk slowly and pause often. On the biggest days, there's up to seven hours of hiking, so our group - mostly Australian, some in their 50s and with no notable moutain goats in our ranks - gets spread out along the track. Everyone finds their own pace.

The most beautiful parts of the track wind along high above deep green valleys. The ridge lines above disappear into mist only to pop out above the cloud as fully-fledged massive mountains.

The track is seldom flat. When the guides tell us the next bit of the track is "Nepali flat" we pretty much know to expect a ludicrous hike up something the size of Mt Eden.

You get to the top of these ludicrous rises and take a moment of quiet while you wait for the others to catch up. Then you have time to appreciate Khumbu's real charm: it's a place that's physically challenging and beautiful. Isolated, yet populated by very cool locals making the best of life in a difficult place. And doing it with a smile.

The path is dotted with mani stones, elaborately painted markers setting out Buddhist prayers. Most of them have been carved into large rocks or onto flat rocks that are placed alongside the tracks. Word to the wise: If something looks religious in Nepal, walk past or around it on the clockwise side. It's the local way.

Another local rule is strictly obeyed: Yaks get right of way. Yak convoys, loaded up with piles of gear from the summiting parties on Everest, trudge through on their way down. Get out of their way. And always stand on the side of the track closest to the hill.

One of our party finds himself wedged between two yak convoys while crossing a swing bridge 20 metres above a powerful river. The hairy, horned beasts don't do social niceties and he's soon pinned to the side, making himself as thin as possible so the yaks can pass.

When well ahead of the group or ambling at the back, we would pop into the small teahouses dotted alongside the track. The sweet ginger tea was the best.

But the altitude takes a toll. Two members of our group are eventually taken out by helicopter, the first has a chest infection that goes really bad, the next has done something awful to her ankle.

"It's unusual for someone to be so ill they are taken out by helicopter," says our Sherpa guide. "Two people: very unusual."

Other visitors are doing it harder than us.

On May 29, we see the runners in the Tenzing-Hillary Marathon ("Don't you mean 'Hillary-Tenzing Marathon'," I ask a Sherpa. "No. Tenzing first.") These loons run from Everest Base Camp to Namche Bazaar. A marathon at altitude, when most of us can barely walk. More fun cheering them on than being cheered, I suspect.

All the way up, our group of hikers comes face to weather-beaten face with the hard-core summiters as they're walking back down through the valley having completed - or failed in - their effort to make it to the roof of the world.

The faces of the serious climbers are leathered by wind, sun and cold. They have the faraway stare of men and women who have seen something remarkable, burnt themselves out getting there to see it and found themselves desperately in need of a good warm shower.

Ah, yes. Warm showers. I went 12 days without a shower - warm or otherwise - on our trip. When I eventually hit the shower in what I reckon must be Kathmandu's top hotel, the Raddison, almost a fortnight after heading for the hills, the dust of the track came away in glorious swathes. Best shower I've ever had.

During the trek, we made do with "washy-wash", the cheerful 6am wake-up call from the Nepalese guys running our camp. While the guests fumble their way out of sleeping bags, the local boys have boiled water for tea and washing and got breakfast underway. It's remarkable how much of your body you clean with a bowl of hot water delivered to your tent door and a couple of judiciously applied handy wipes.

Whatever you do, don't doubt the yeti.

On a rest day in Namche, a couple of us head over to Khumjung monastery. Slip a couple of rupees to the monks and they'll show you their prized possession: A genuine yeti scalp.

Genuine? Well, visitors to the region are generally sceptical of the yeti scalp. When we were in town we encountered a British television crew making a show about DNA. They'd wanted to test the yeti. The monks said no. To test the scalp would demonstrate a lack of belief.

It might also provide a spot of conclusive proof, but there you go.

Our Sherpa guide - a worldly fellow who lives in Kathmandu when he's not guiding in the mountains - looks over his shoulder before confiding in us. "Many of the locals think the yeti is a god."

"What do you think?" I ask.

"Oh, it's just a yeti," he says, deadpan.

Sir Ed was intrigued enough to embark on a great yeti hunt in 1960. The expedition that saw hundreds of men crashing about the place perhaps ultimately lent the yeti tale some momentum, though the great man reported himself satisfied that the yeti was a myth.

Personally, I don't know about yetis, but I've learnt enough in Nepal to stay out of the way of a yak.


Checklist

GETTING THERE: Cathay Pacific flies daily between Auckland and Hong Kong. Its partner airline, Dragonair, connects to Kathmandu.

DETAILS: World Expeditions runs trekking and tour groups throughout Nepal.

ONLINE: worldexpeditions.com; cathaypacific.com


Winston Aldworth travelled as a guest of World Expeditions and Cathay Pacific and with kit assistance from Kathmandu.

- NZ Herald

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