Gokyo Trek - Day 4 and 5 - Sagarmatha National Park - Nepal
October 25th, 2011 - Day 4 - Namche Bazaar (3430m) to Dhole (4050m) in 8.5 hours (11km)
Waking up refreshed to another beautiful and sunny day, it was a great beginning to long day of hiking ahead. As was Gopal's routine for us, we were packed and off on the trail by 7am or so. The trail out of Namche heading north is really nice because there isn't a lot of uphill travel, it simply follows the sides of Mount Khumbila at a pretty level angle for most of the way to Dhole.
With the right weather this section of the trail is probably one of the most beautiful parts of the whole trek. It just gives you such astounding views and since you aren't at too high of an altitude yet, you aren't distracted by physical strain. The trail is well maintained, flat and wide. Perfect conditions to allow you to look around instead of keeping your eyes on the ground, which is the last thing you want to do with these kind of views.
We spent the first half of the day following the winding, gently sloping trail towards the small village of Mong. It was sunny and warm and we all felt pretty good, with the exception of Suzanne who was having more trouble with the altitude. Along the way we stopped at a small village where there were some market stands set up to sell jewelry and other items. I bought a small berry bead bracelet used for praying and kept it on my wrist for the remainder of the trip.
Although the trail has stable footing throughout this section, there are portions that do have significant drop offs that one should keep an eye on, especially if you have your eyes fixed in a camera or your mind is glazed over by the awe inspiring views. On one such occasion, Suzanne was so focused on getting that "perfect shot" that she was literally inching her way over the edge of the trail. So as safe as this trail is, there is always the possibility of a bad fall if you aren't paying attention to where you step.
Next to Namche, the small village of Mong has to be one of the greatest spots to sit back and take in the views, which is exactly what we did for our lunch break. By 11am we were sitting on an outdoor patio of a small lodge ordering up a much needed lunch (which I remember as being one of the best of the trip... a vegetable curry). With the noon sun beaming down on us and surrounded by all the hustle and bustle of other trekkers coming and going, I must say that there has never been a more beautiful spot I have sat and ordered a lunch at. In Mong, not only do you continue to have all the views you had heading northeast (Ama Dablam and Lhotse), but you also have exceptionally beautiful views of Kantega and Thamserku to the southeast, and Taboche and Cholatse to the north. Of course words and images just can't encompass the actual feeling of being there surrounded by these incredible peaks, one must experience it for themselves.
By 12:30pm we were back on the trail heading in a more northerly direction. Right after Mong you begin a steep 300 meter descent to the Dudh Koshi river. The trail along this portion is more difficult and a bit frustrating, as is the case anytime you head downhill knowing you have to make up all that lost altitude one way or another. What is interesting though is the way you come across micro-environments, in this case a forest, all because of its unique position on the mountain side.
I don't particularly like to get in to this topic, but seeing as it could be a concern for some I figured I'd talk about it. The call of nature. I bring this up now because it was during this section of the trail that my stomach started to protest all the changes in diet and was letting me know that it was not happy. I had no idea how much longer it would be before the next village and looking at my surroundings, though forested, it still felt like there would be a serious lack of privacy considering how many people were around. So what do you do? Luckily for me, we reached a village in time and I was spared the embarrassment, but if you have these kind of worries (and there are certainly many places along this trek where you would be exposed) you might want to consider some other solutions (i.e.; bring a blanket or tarp you could hide behind). Speaking of which, be sure to always be carrying some tissue paper, not only for your bathroom breaks, but also for your constantly blocked nose. I don't know what it is about the environment up there, but most of us had a blocked noses the whole trip, which I think is common since so many porters were constantly trying to clear their noses in their own special way. Too much detail? Moving on.
By about 3pm the clouds had rolled in and there was a cold dampness in the air. We had to climb another 400 meters from the river bottom to the village of Dhole and it's fair to say that I was pretty tired by the end of that day. I remember reaching the small village ahead of the others and sitting on a rock bench beside a lodge waiting for the others to arrive. The sweat from the exertion of the day, combined with the damp and cold weather quickly set in a deep chill that would last until I finally crawled in to bed later that evening. This was almost always the case every evening on this trek. It felt impossible to warm up, even while sitting inches away from a stove. If that was the way it was at these lower elevations, how was it even survivable for climbers thousands of meters higher and protected only by a millimeter thick tent wall? It gave me a new appreciation of the fortitude needed to be a mountaineer.
The accommodations for the night were not as planned (the lodge Gopal expected for us was full) and it was a big step down from the relative luxury of the night before in Namche. It was very cold and dark in this lodge. The rooms had no locks on the door, which I didn't think about until it came time for bed and Suzanne found a stranger in her room rummaging through their stuff. Being so dark, it was hard to tell who it was, but the young man made up some lame excuse about looking for a light and left immediately. It was the only instance in the whole trek of a situation like this. Not to make excuses for the guy, but the poverty up there is incredible and it must be a hell of a temptation for a young man in those conditions to resist the potential "jackpot" waiting for them in some "rich tourists" backpack. Not that you should go believing you need to guard your belongs with tooth and nail, not at all, I found it very safe and trusted most everyone around me. There were certainly endless opportunities for someone to steal something from my backpack, but it never happened, so that tells you something. In the end nothing was taken from George or Suzanne's belongings and I fell asleep with little care whether there was a lock on the door or not.
October 26th, 2011 - Day 5 - Dhole (4050m) to Pangka (4455m) in 6 hours (7km)
No matter what the accommodations were like, it seemed like I always got a deep sleep on this trek. It was especially nice waking up to a deep blue morning sky and bright sun rising over the mountains surrounding Dhole. Of course, the morning air was incredibly crisp and cold, which made it challenging getting out of a toasty sleeping bag and heading outside to wait my turn for the outhouse, but with the views to keep me distracted, it wasn't too difficult.
After another typical breakfast, we hit the trails at 7:30am to start the 400 meter ascent towards our next lodge in Pangka. Although we had been hearing quite a few stories by then of bad weather and impassable sections along the trail to EBC, we still had our eyes and minds set on that goal. With the sun shining the way it was, nothing looked all that bad to us at that point.
As the hike progressed the altitude was starting to have a greater impact on me. Mainly it came in the form of strong headaches that seemed to create a pressure that made it feel like my head would explode, not to sound too dramatic, that's just the way I would describe it. This constant pressure and pain with every step uphill really took the wind out of my sails for that day.
We stopped for an early lunch in the village of Machhermo at around 11am. This was originally going to be our stop for the night, but we were ahead of schedule and so Gopal suggested we continue on to Pangka to give us less distance to travel the next day (which was going to be difficult nonetheless). There are two things to note about Machhermo: 1) It is one of the important recovery and rescue posts in the area, equipped with a portable altitude chamber, oxygen generator, oxygen cylinders, etc... and 2) In 1974 it was the location of an apparent Yeti attack. As one version of the story goes, a four foot tall Yeti assaulted a 19 year old yak herder named Lhakpa Domani... she survived, however, five of her yaks were killed due to their "horns being twisted".
It wasn't a long day of hiking (only 5 hours), yet physically and emotionally I was not in the best space (sad dreams the night before were playing on my mind), and in turn this made it my least motivated day of hiking so far. I was ready for a rest by the time we reached Pangka by early afternoon.
Arriving in Pangka I wondered how such a place could warrant a name, as the village seemed to consist of our one lodge (although quite nice and cozy) and a couple of pastures. I certainly didn't mind. It felt quiet and isolated, which was a nice change from the crowded lodges and villages we had been in for the last few days. It wasn't until the next day that I found out from Gopal the terrible fate of this village. On the early morning of November 11th, 1995, severe storms caused major avalanches in the region, the hardest hit being the village of Pangka where many lodges and homes were destroyed, taking the lives of 25 people. More than 46 people were killed that night across the region in one of the Himalaya's worst tragedies. These kind of disasters make it clear that you are in a region that has the potential to become a very hostile environment if the conditions are just so.
The next morning, as I stood by the memorial plaque on the hillside, I looked at the surroundings and really couldn't fathom how this could be an area in danger of avalanches. It just didn't match my conception of what was necessary (steep mountain sides directly above)... it seemed a completely unlikely place for such an event in my mind. And so it is, just another reminder of how little we can know about things sometimes.