Nepal: A trek to the top of the world

By Jim Eagles

Jim Eagles finally lives a childhood dream: to cast his eyes on the grandeur of Mt Everest.

Early morning at the camp at Tengboche, with Mt Everest peering over the ridge at left. Photo / Jim Eagles
Early morning at the camp at Tengboche, with Mt Everest peering over the ridge at left. Photo / Jim Eagles

The Sherpa guides woke us at 6am with a cup of tea. They led us by the dim light of the unrisen sun along a path between the barbed wire, trenches and sand-bagged emplacements of a Nepalese Army base to a viewing point above the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar ... and there it was.

Mt Everest. The highest point in the world. The mountain the Sherpas and Tibetans call Chomo Lungma, or goddess mother of the earth.

Overnight, the clouds which previously obscured the great peaks of the Himalaya had moved away and we could clearly see Everest's massive, dark, shark-tooth shape looming behind the smaller but prettier snow-covered summits of Lhotse, Amadablan and Nuptse ridge.

I had been waiting for this moment since I was eight years old, since May 29, 1953, when the iron-willed Auckland apiarist Ed Hillary and the iron-muscled guide Tenzing Norgay Sherpa became the first to reach the top.

I even imagine that I hear in my mind the voice of Prime Minister Sid Holland announcing - as a sort of coronation gift for the visit of the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II - something like: "Mt Everest has been climbed and it is a New Zealander, Hillary, who has done it".

That feat and Sir Ed's subsequent work for the Sherpa people, caused Everest to loom large in my imagination. But at 61, I thought the chance of seeing the mountain had passed. I felt I would no longer be physically capable of trekking high enough into the Himalaya to reach a point from where the mountain can be viewed.

Yet here I was, panting in the thin air after the mild exertion of walking up the path to the viewing point and with a bit of a twinge in my right knee, 3500m up in the Himalaya and looking at Everest.

As it turned out, I was able to cope fairly easily with the combined challenge of the cold and lack of oxygen at high altitudes, trekking along the steep, stony Himalayan tracks, crossing rickety swingbridges high above turbulent mountain rivers, sharing these narrow highways with caravans of sharp-horned dzopkos (yak-cow crossbreeds) and meeting red-scarved Maoist tax collectors.

As well as knocking off this personal Everest, I also enjoyed the bonus of seeing Sherpa life in the villages along the way, visiting Buddhist monasteries high in the mountains, taking part in ancient ceremonies, experiencing local markets, checking out yetis and walking through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.

The World Expeditions trek which brought me here had assembled four days before in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu from where we made an incredible flight through the mountains to Lukla Airport, built by Sir Ed in 1965 and now the main gateway to the Everest region.

The airstrip starts at the top of a cliff, then slopes up sharply (rising about 30m over its 350m length) before ending in a rock wall. The steep uphill slope doubtless helps planes to pull up in time when landing - just as the downhill slope assists in reaching sufficient speed for takeoff - but there's no room for error.

As if that's not enough entertainment for one flight, we flew in by Yeti Airlines, not the most comforting name; the control tower at Lukla was hung with washing; as soon as the plane stopped, an attendant rushed up to give the pilot a bowl of noodles through the cockpit window; the safety precautions for groundstaff were limited to putting their fingers in their ears if the sound got too loud or waving the pilots away if the propellers got too close; and the terminal booths labelled "Tourist information", "Fast food" and "Souvenirs" were empty.

Lukla has become a bit of a tourist town, its buildings festooned with fancy trekking gear, tacky souvenirs and signs advertising guest houses, "hygienic meals" and treatment for altitude sickness.

But it remains a typical Sherpa settlement, reasonably indicative of what we would meet further up the trail. The buildings are mostly cut stone with brightly painted window frames, its narrow lanes shod with stone, in places carrying the small streams which flow through the town and help to clear the rubbish, and busy with Sherpa families going about their daily lives, wandering dzopkos, heavily laden porters and groups of eager trekkers.

And, down every street and through every gap between buildings, are views of the majestic mountains.

Despite the inspiring surroundings, I shouldered my daypack with some nervousness, headed past the village's gleaming white Buddhist stupa and into the valley of the milky Dudh Kosi river on the first stage of the trek.

How well would my lungs cope with the fact that above 2500m folk from the lowlands have problems with lack of oxygen? And how would my old legs handle the walking?

I had trained by jogging up North Head in Devonport which is just 65m above sea level. As far as I know the highest I had ever gone was 40 years ago when I walked up Ruapehu, which is 2797m.

But Lukla was already 2800m. Namche Bazaar, where I got my first glimpse of Everest, was 3440m. Tengboche, our highest campsite, was 3870m, higher than Mt Cook at 3754m. And returning to Namche Bazaar via the village of Khumjung we went above 4000m.

Fortunately, the expedition was carefully organised to make it easy for novice trekkers. In fact, it's slightly embarrassing to recall that for 10 of us to make this fairly short trek required an experienced Sherpa leader, three guides, a sirdar (foreman), 16 porters, who carried our gear bags, often four at a time, plus all the cooking and camping gear, a cook (known as Mr Yumyum), and four kitchen boys.

Between them this team supplied early morning cups of tea and bowls of hot washing water, broke camp after we rose in the morning and had the new camp set up before we arrived in

the afternoon, provided three hot meals a day, and generally ensured that all we had to do was the walking.

They also organised a gentle introduction to trekking, with only a couple of hours' walk the first day, to a magnificent riverside campsite at the village of Phakding, and not much more the second day, to Chumo Camp, near the picturesque village of Monjo.

The third day, when we climbed steeply to Namche Bazaar, was tougher but we then had a rest day to acclimatise.

The fifth day, when we puffed our way up to the monastery of Tengboche, required an even steeper climb. And all those stone steps were no easier when we climbed down and took a detour via Khumjung and the Everest View Hotel to Namche Bazaar.

The toughest walk was the last, when we took nine hours to retrace our steps of the first three days, but by then we were heading down into thicker air.

Crucially, the lead Sherpa made sure we all walked slowly - irritatingly slowly at times - with frequent stops to not overtax our systems.

As we climbed higher I had to suck the thin air into my lungs in gulps to extract enough oxygen. But once we got walking at the steady pace set by our guides I was able to get into a rhythm - gasp-gasp-step, gasp-gasp-step - which handled the conditions fairly comfortably.

Luckily I didn't suffer from altitude sickness but two of our group did. One fit Australian in his 40s got severe headaches and nausea and was put into a portable re-pressurisation unit, a sort of giant vinyl bag pumped up with a foot pump. After an hour inside he emerged much improved.

The other, a lively 11-year-old boy was eloquent testimony to the advisability of taking it easy. He ran around like any energetic youngster, periodically collapsed white-faced, then after a rest was up and dashing around again.

Much of our route was up the valley of the spectacular Dudh Kosi, often walking along its banks, from time to time crossing by flimsy-looking swing bridges (the scariest was about 300m long and 200m above the river bed), occasionally climbing up endless stone stairways to the top of some ridge, and clambering down to the river again.

At one of the bridges, near Phakding, we passed through a Maoist checkpoint where a red banner proclaimed that "we are heartily welcome to all foreign guests" then advised the need to buy a "compulsory permission card" for NPR100 (about $2) a day.

Three young women with red scarves sat outside a tent doing the paperwork for these permission cards and reading a newspaper, while a young man kept a wary eye on proceedings.

It was all very amiable and the day after we passed through the checkpoint on our way back to Lukla it was announced that as part of the latest peace deal between the Maoists and the Nepalese Government the tourist tax would no longer be collected.

At two points along the track we encountered requests to make donations towards its upkeep, the message underlined by the presence of two men with sledgehammers, neither of whom was working but bits of broken rock suggested that some maintenance had occurred a bit earlier.

More common than the red flags and posters of the Maoists were signs of the region's Buddhist belief: shining white and gold stupas, mani walls and rocks carved and painted with prayers (around which you should walk clockwise), fluttering streamers of coloured prayer flags, roadside shrines with copper prayer wheels to be spun and brightly painted monasteries.

At regular intervals were little stone villages, most hopefully advertising guesthouses and shops, but with tourist numbers in decline at present many locals fill the gap by working their gardens, harvesting straw for cattle or sewing clothes.

The main source of employment, though, seemed to be the transport industry and this, as a region without roads, meant dzopkos and humans.

Along the track, which acts as the main highway, flowed a constant stream of porters carrying vast loads on their shoulders. Every so often the porters would stop and rest, either on the stone benches provided by most villages or on top of their chunky wooden sticks.

There were also regular convoys of heavily laden dzopkos, placid beasts whose arrival would be signalled by the clonking of their bells and the whistling of their drovers, prompting us to clamber to the side of the track to avoid being accidentally snagged on their impressive horns.

Also sharing the track were other groups of trekkers - many clad in trekker gear by Prada, click-clacking along with walking sticks they didn't know how to use - serious-faced Germans and even more serious Japanese, the most common.

Occasionally we saw wildlife: huge eagles soaring, a Himalayan thar bounding up the hillside, a shaggy wild yak browsing near the track.

And the scenery was stunning: tracks winding along the edge of steep chasms with the river dancing below, waterfalls plummeting hundreds of meters down the enclosing cliffs, valleys thick with rhododendron forest or smelling of pine needles, and huge mountains hiding behind the clouds.

Now and again, usually overnight, the clouds would clear, allowing us to see the mighty peaks of the main Himalaya chain, every day getting a bit closer. Our path was, apparently, part of the route taken by Hillary.

As we climbed further and higher into the mountains, I could feel my excitement rising and I could imagine Hillary feeling the same. Would I be lucky enough to see the great goddess mother of the earth? Would he - third on the expedition's list of climbers - get a chance to reach the top?

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific has daily connections to Delhi, via Hong Kong, from December 15 to January 30, 2007, with connections onwards to Kathmandu with Jet Airways. From January 30, Cathay Pacific will have direct connections four days a week, (Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday). Check with your travel agent for further details.

Getting around: World Expeditions' most popular introduction to walking in the Everest region is the 15-day Sherpa Everest Trek. This includes famous Buddhist monasteries, some of Sir Edmund Hillary's Himalayan Trust projects, and magnificent views of the world's highest peaks.

Trips depart regularly from October to May.

Jim Eagles visited Nepal as guest of World Expeditions and Cathay Pacific.

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