#15 The Nepalese Himalayas: How to get a natural high

“To travel, to experience and learn: that is to live.”

Tenzing Norgay

The Twin Otter’s conical nose tilted upward, its propellors whirred like giant bees and then we were surging upwards into a propitiously blue sky. After the delay we’d experienced in getting to Kathmandu and a tense few hours milling around the airport check-in zone as our baggage was checked against the strict weight limits, it was a relief to be airborne. Below us, the hillsides were folded like scrumpled wrapping paper. In front and to the left skeins of jagged white mountain tops played out, dropping through bare cliffs to fall headlong to the valley floor through brushy pine forest.

Occasionally we dropped quickly and heavily as we caught a thermal, leaving our breath gasping in our throats. More breathtaking still were our first Himalayan views. The Himalayas are home to 14 of the world’s highest peaks, and peering through the windscreen from my prime position right behind the pilot in our tiny speck of a plane, I felt as though I could see them all. The flight was enthralling, but all too soon we were cruising in for our hair-raising landing. With an impassive mountain face directly in front of us, we began to descend steeply and suddenly a short run of tarmac appeared. We dipped elegantly onto it, touched gently down and raced along, turned a sharp corner, brakes shrieking and then cruised to a halt in Tensing-Hillary airport. A spontaneous cheer rose up from the passengers, which the pilots turned to acknowledge graciously. We had arrived at Lukla, Nepal with an altitude of 2843m and the starting point for our Everest Base Camp trek.

The trail from here climbs to a head-spinning, lung-grasping 5364m. Yet this is no wilderness trek. The route is flecked with hikers kitted out in expensive outdoor gear; porters bent under impossible loads; fleets of furry yaks ferrying local supplies and trekkers’ kit up and down the hills; and local Nepalese going about their business. The Khumbu region of eastern Nepal is home to over 150,000 Sherpas and the bustle of daily life is much in evidence. There is also plenty of camaraderie among the walkers, as we wish each other luck and enquire anxiously about conditions higher up. We meet descending trekkers who tell us that night-time temperatures higher up are as low as 20 degrees Celsius. My bone marrow shivers at the thought.

Alongside the path are clusters of wooden teahouses and squat white stupas topped with gold spires like helter-skelters and fluttering with prayer flags. The toasty tang of wood fires haunts the air in the villages and the gentle jangling of yak bells adds a melodious backdrop. The local people are warm and friendly in a shy way. Cute grubby kids with crusty noses greet us with a sweet namaste as they press their palms together in a prayer-like salutation. The main attraction is of course the natural scenery. We are surrounded by majestic peaks whose craggy, ice-encrusted faces claw the sky at a scale it’s difficult to fully absorb. We walk beneath them like a mini colony of ants. The mountain montage is ever-changing, presenting us with a kaleidoscope of glaring blue skies, innocent white clouds and pewter ones that scowl sulkily. Sometimes, the snow on the summits and slopes glints coldly like polished steel; at other times the peaks disappear modestly behind clouds or drape themselves in melancholy mists.

Our first glimpse of Everest was on the climb up from Monjo to Namche Bazaar, the Sherpa capital and a thronging centre of outdoor shops and coffee shops laid out on the mountainside in blue-roofed tiers. Our eyes goggled and our cameras clicked as we peered at the classic pyramid summit, topped with a plume of cloud like steam from a kettle. Eagles and buzzards whirl around us, coasting on thermals like surfers catching the perfect wave.

By Day 11 of our trip we are at serious altitude, over 5000m. Above about 4000m an altitude headache seems to lurk perpetually at the edges of the brain. Being in this awe-inspiring landscape is even more dizzying than the rarified, patchy air. It is visually intoxicating. Frilled ridges of ice soar up out of the valley floor, where tonnes of grey rubble have been dumped by an historic glacier. The environment is bleak, stripped down, yet hauntingly beautiful. The pockmarked Khumbu Glacier is flung below us, scattered with ash grey stones and dust, as we plod up and down the seam of lateral moraine at its edge. We scramble over boulders, sometimes following behind our yaks with our bags lashed to their strong furry backs, their bells tinkling as they sway stoutly uphill, sometimes struggling alone in silence against the incline. The views are capricious, but the mountains are a constant. Impassive, foreboding, challenging, enthralling, powerful, soul-stirring. In all their guises, I can’t get enough of them. The environment is tough, the conditions in the lodges often rudimentary, nearly always bone-numbingly cold, but these views make it all worthwhile. It’s uplifting just to be here.

Eventually we are rewarded with our first glimpse of Everest Base Camp. Tiny grapefruit yellow domes perch on the rock-strewn ice of the glacier. Behind lies the mini-mountain landscape of the notorious Khumbu Icefall, with irregular peaks like whipped eggs. This will be our home for the next three days. The camp is dwarfed by the peaks stretching their arms above and by the serrated glacier spilling out in front. Above everything is stretched the impossibly blue basin of the sky, a rich cornflower blue glowing with vitality. When we finally arrive at the canvas sign flapping in the breeze that marks the entrance to Base Camp it is an emotional moment. Hot tears spill in the cold air. We embrace, marvel, snap photos and then wend our weary way down the icy path to find our camp, delighted to have arrived, yet in the moment, scarcely able to comprehend we’ve arrived. A natural high indeed.

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HIGHLIGHTS

Natural highlights – the mountain views!

Cultural highlights – Kathmandu’s Old Town (though note that I visited before the tragice earthquake of April 2015 that killed nearly 9,000 people and injured nearly 22,000

Food & drink highlights – coffee in Cafe du 8848, Namche Bazaar (pretty good cakes too!); tasty green salads in the Pumpernickel Bakery in the Thamel area of Kathmandu, especially post-trek, when you’ve been deprived of fresh fruit and veg for a few weeks

 

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