Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

Nepal: With Dad and the Mother of the World

Twenty-six years ago, Nicholas Jones' father tested his youthful stamina on the mountainsides of Nepal. Recently, he returned to the roof of the world with his sons to relive his trekking adventure.

The star of the Himalayas, Mt Everest. Photo / Thinkstock
The star of the Himalayas, Mt Everest. Photo / Thinkstock

It's Election time in the Himalayas and the valley echoes with party slogans.

The walking was so pleasant in the sunshine I'd begun to feel that all of it - the flowering mustard plant, immaculate stone houses with attached apple orchards, yawning dogs - was for our benefit.

Then the chanting, by a group in single file walking on the other side of the valley.

Party faithful out door-knocking, explains Ramesh, our guide. Further on, we rest for water at an ancient stone wall, stuck with yellow bills featuring the hammer and sickle of the Maoist Party.

It is eight days to Nepal's elections, and day two of a three-week trek to the Gokyo Lakes region, over a snow-covered pass and on to Everest Base Camp.

In 1988, my father and his brother did the same trek, saw the mountain and vowed to return with their sons.

More than a quarter of a century later he and we three brothers booked flights, making a group of six after being joined by our neighbour Geoff and his son Nick.

Most trekkers reach the Everest region via a flight to Lukla, dipping and seeming to back-pedal on the approach to one of the world's shortest (and most dangerous) runways.

The other option, which we take, is to walk eight days up the valley from the town of Shivalaya - roughly the same route Hillary and co took in 1953, with 350 porters in tow.

Doing so builds fitness on uncrowded paths and provides a different landscape; agriculture means life is not pegged solely to the tourist rupee, and we pass lush terraced fields dotted with blooming cherry trees.

Donkey trains block the way as we approach Lukla, long lines of beasts strapped with gas canisters and other materials for use further up the mountain. With them is the stink of urine (donkeys tend to pee in the same puddle) and the sharp cries of the young men who walk alongside wearing surgical masks.

Towns turn pens when the trains stop for rest. We hurry on, past women shooing asses from gardens as boys imitate the swaggering drivers.

The main trail

When we meet the main trail past Lukla the number of trekkers shocks.

It becomes a game to get reaction from the grim and beaten-down walkers staggering the other way. Nearing the end of their trip, they avert their eyes and don't acknowledge greetings, like Gore-Tex-clad wraiths. How hard is the path ahead, we wonder?

The thin air is certainly making the going tougher. At one tea house we meet a young, fit-looking German who has turned around after suffering altitude sickness.

That spectre means most - including us - employ a guide and porters (our group of six had three porters, carrying about 30kg each).

Shouldering daypacks, it causes us embarrassment to see Buddhi, Kasi and Hira load up with our gear each morning.

In the mountains we learn the context. With no roads, everything is carried in, and payment's by the kilo - shrunken old men trudge all day with almost comical loads, one with crate upon crate of San Miguel beer, others with stacks of plywood.

On day eight, we wind through fir trees to reach the milestone settlement of Namche Bazaar.

We're now well-versed in the meaning of "Nepali flat", having ascended 7080m (nearly twice the height of Mt Cook) since the start of the trek, and descended 5470m.

Namche is a tourist town that features clothing stores, ATMs and bakeries selling fresh coffees and apple strudels. There's even an Irish pub.

It's easy to sneer at, but through squinted eyes, it also resembles an ancient trading outpost, ringed by mountains and with prayer flags fluttering between houses and monasteries.

After check-in we wash rancid socks in a stream in the centre of town, next to locals bent over laundry basins.

To Gokyo

The give way rule now applies to yaks, rather than to donkeys.

We cross frozen waterfalls still flowing beneath their icy crusts, and deep snow surrounds the path following the course of the Dudh Kosi, or Milk River, to the first of the famous lakes, then stunning Gokyo village itself.

Next morning we start on the nearby peak of Gokyo Ri (5350m) for what will prove the trip highlight.

The climb is steep and, at one point, I get a rush of dizziness, after which it is five steps and rest (fainting in front of my brothers, and the resulting ribbing, is unthinkable).

We have the summit to ourselves, and for a long time nobody speaks in the face of what is the view of a lifetime.

Below is the glistening lake, a turquoise equal to our own Tekapo, and a huge, dirty glacier running behind the huddled stone lodges, now smoking with morning fires.

Near eye-level is nothing less than the roof of the world - four of the six highest mountains in the world in Everest (8848m), Lhotse (8501m), Makalu (8485m) and Cho Oyu (8153m).

In the sunshine it's a struggle to leave. However, we take our useless photos and descend to a breakfast of noodle soup and Tibetan bread, before setting off to cross the Ngozumpa Glacier we had just gazed upon.

It's hands and knees stuff at first, but then more like crossing a snow-covered quarry; albeit one that occasionally creaks and cracks, and opens to ponds and cliffs of ice.

Our lodge is nestled at the base of the mountain pass we will climb in the morning. It was here where Dad and his brother camped after crossing from the Everest side.

In the dead of night their guide and porter started shrieking. They had seen a yeti and would not stay, so they packed and by moonlight crossed the glacier, arriving in Gokyo at 1.30am.

All we spot is a yak that watches while we wash at a nearby water fountain, yelping and racing the setting sun.

Nepal's Gokyo Lake. Photo / Nicholas Jones
Nepal's Gokyo Lake. Photo / Nicholas Jones

Over the pass and to Everest

Our attempt on Cho La Pass begins by torchlight. This will be the hardest day but the weather is clear and we'll manage without crampons.

After two hours we reach a flagged peak and ask Ramesh if we've made it, to which he just laughs. More slog, then above is the real pass and punchline.

The way is icy, and it takes concentration and tires the legs trying not to slip. Other sections are better, with deep footsteps, halfway up the calf, to grip.

Adrenalin helps as wind whips the face and the drop-off steepens. My brother is only metres ahead, but up here we are alone, the ice-fall below and breathing filling our ears.

It's common for trekkers to have to turn around, so there is a sense of achievement when, after six hours, we reach the top.

Buddhi, Kasi and Hira are waiting for us with our gear and to shake our hands.

They did it in half the time, of course, with rope wrapped around their sneakers.

The way to Base Camp runs along the ridge of the Khumbu Glacier.

As our legs burn with effort there's a sense that the scenery - jaw-dropping as ever - is being ignored on the home straight.

Then, after a scramble over rocks, we arrive. It isn't climbing season so there are no tents. In peak times there can be hundreds, with internet cafes and bakeries selling fresh apple pie.

The only clue of significance today is a mound of rocks, prayer flags and personal mementos (and corporate ones, the hike to Base Camp evidently the ultimate journey in team building).

To the locals, the mountain is "Goddess Mother of the World". It's good to be there. But the surrounds - there is no view of Everest from its base camp - are anti-climactic, and we turn back to a bed at Gorak Shep as the crowds arrive in force.

One trekker is in tears. We think she is overcome with the achievement until she hisses at her partner, "You walked too far ahead of me". Minutes later the couple are beaming for the camera and those back home.

The triumphant Jones Family - Marcus, Nicholas, Bruce and Simon. Photo / Nicholas Jones
The triumphant Jones Family - Marcus, Nicholas, Bruce and Simon. Photo / Nicholas Jones

It's the next day - the last before we descend to Lukla - when I experience my Everest moment. It comes three-quarters of the way up the side of Kala Patthar, a lung-busting peak beside Gorak Shep and, at 5545m, is the highest point of our trip.

Near the top, Dad will topple backwards and, luckily, be caught by my brother.

It's the same need for oxygen that causes me to stop, turn with hands on knees and, breathing hard, look to the black face of Everest.

Hearing a roar, my sight shifts to the next peak, snow-covered Nuptse, and, just in time, to an avalanche growing in power down the slope.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies daily between Auckland and Hong Kong. Its partner airline, Dragonair, connects to Kathmandu and from there you can fly to Lukla.

Further information: For more information on trekking in Nepal, see Breakfree Adventures.

- NZ Herald

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