From Sydney to Sagarmatha

Diane Dahlberg

This account is an attempt to recapture some of the experiences I had recently while trekking in Nepal. Lacking sufficient knowledge of the Nepalese highlands I undertook to do the Everest Base Camp trek as a member of a party of twelve. We were accompanied by six sherpas, including one cook and thirty five porters. Beyond Namche Bazaar, because of the extreme cold and their inadequate clothing, many of the porters did not continue to trek. To carry the gear that we required for the six days spent above Namche we hired yaks. These docile and beautifully coloured beasts are bred in the highlands and consequently are able to withstand the bitter conditions.

With the exception of a few fresh vegetables and fruits, the porters carried all our food. They carried tents for the trekkers and the sherpas and these were used every night with the exception of those spent at Namche and Thyangboche. The porters were always left to find their own accommodation which was usually in a tea house in the nearest village.

The trek took twenty three days beginning at Lamosangu, a village to the east of Kathmandu and en route to the Chinese border, and ending at the STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) airstrip at Lukla. It took eighteen days to reach Kala Patar from Lamosangu and five days to return to Lukla. Two days on the return journey, one at Thyangboche and one at Namche were given to rest. Not that we needed rest days at that stage, bat we had allowed a few days for the sake of the 'unpredictable' (being snowed in, altitude sickness, etc.).

Initially the trekking involved making a series of ascents and descents. Between Lamosangu and Surkya, near Lukla the trail rapidly climbed over mountain passes, the highest being the Lamjura Pass at 11,580 feet, then descended to valleys as low as 3,000 feet while crossing the rivers that run from the north. From Surkya to Namche Bazaar and on to the Base Camp and Kala Patar, the trail was almost continuously ascending. According to an estimation a trekker en route from Lamosangu to Kala Patar makes total ascents and descents twice the height of Everest.

I have listed below our campsites and beside the altitude of those places.

  1. Lamosangu (2,500')
  2. Perko (5,450')
  3. Surkhe (5,750')
  4. Kirantichap (4,200')
  5. Yarsa (6,475')
  6. Those (5,700')
  7. Chyangma (7,200')
  8. Sete (8,400')
  9. Jumbesi (8,800')
  10. Manidingma (7,200')
  11. Karikhola (6,800')
  12. Puiyan (9,300')
  13. Phakding (8,700')
  14. Namche Bazar (11,300')
  15. Thyangboche (12,688')
  16. Dingboche (14,150')
  17. Loboche (16,173')
  18. Loboche
  19. Thyangboche
  20. Thyangboche
  21. Namche
  22. Namche
  23. Lukla (8,300')
  24. Kathmandu

My pilgrimage began from Sydney with a rescheduled flight and hurried departure. I use the word pilgrimage here as distinct from an ordinary journey because I had no limited purpose for travelling. As a pilgrim I was relying on an inner urge which operates on the physical as well as on the spiritual plane.

After a five hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur and a two day stopover in Bangkok I arrived in Kathmandu. The freshness of the air was the strongest impression that I had at the time. It was such a pleasant change from the parching heat of both Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.

I now had two and a half days to explore Kathmandu before I was due to meet up with those others from Australia who were coming to trek with me. I spent the time mostly in solitude, walking to various places in the Kathmandu valley. The time passed quickly and I was soon enjoying the company and good humour of those people with whom I was to live in the wilderness of a Himalayan trail.

Leaving Kathmandu to the setting sun, the trip began a day later with an eighty kilometer scenic bus journey to Lamosangu. Porters, sherpas and trekkers gathered that night at our first campsite on the banks of the Sun Khosi just below the town of Lamosangu (2,430'). People exchanged greetings, gear was sorted and loads were allotted for the next morning we were to break camp early.

Morning brought warmth and sunshine and a flow of optimism, for finally the days had arrived for which we had long prepared. The first few days were relatively easy in that we covered short distances, had long breaks, made camp early, and climbed painlessly slow. The sherpas smiled on us as we each experimented to find our own pace, and concealed their secret of the difficult days ahead.

The trail was the main route linking the towns and villages and was well used by the local people. I believe that it was originally established as the main trade route to Lhasa and Tibet. We frequently encountered the villagers and were greeted often with a smile but always with 'Namaste'. The villagers, however, became more sparse as the days numbered and the people seemingly more curious about us, although they never doubted on this well travelled trail where we were going. I was always amazed at how hard they worked, hauling heavy loads of household, farm or building materials on their backs. Many of their houses were built high on hillsides or away from water sources and it was therefore not uncommon to see adults or children carrying large and heavy pitchers long and steep distances from rivers or mountain springs. Firewood was another load often carried by. This precious item was unavailable at high altitudes and had to be transported up. When this was not possible or when demand could not be met, yak dung, which burns both smokeless and odourless became a viable and treasured alternative.

During the first fifteen days the trail continued in low midlands. We ascended and descended a total of approximately 52,500', traversed many valleys and delved in the greenness of the hills and the coolness of the snowfed rivers and mountain springs. Beyond Thyangboche (12,688'), however, we entered alpine territory. The scenery became truly spectacular and this coupled with the changes of altitude was undoubtedly an exhilarating experience.

I vividly recall the day that we walked to Dingboche (14,150'). The sky was cloudless and the air perfectly still. The sun shone brilliantly although sinking into the valley of the Dudh Khosi which we had long left behind. A flock of black birds silhouetted against the sun glided as if tunelessly across the sky. I ascended slowly experiencing the effort that it took to exert a single movement, while my eyes filled with tears caused by the intense glare. It was painful to be without snow goggles. I stood for some time, silenced by the oppressive heat and the total windless conditions and gazed at the mountains almost within my reach and the huge piles of debris forming moraines. Diminishing to the distance was the echo of footsteps cracking the ice which cemented all this rubble. "Such power and beauty there is to have shaped all this." I can remember at the time trying to relate the experience to one that I previously had. It was as though my awareness had been altered so that now I was able to feel simultaneously with every inch of my body. Colours, shapes and textures were more pronounced and sound travelled greater distances to my ears than before. I arrived at camp some time later, exhausted but feeling very peaceful.

Except on a few occasions we always made camp before sunset. This made organisation easier and was understandably preferable for the cooks and the porters who always finished their day behind us. I always had plenty to do, washing my body and clothes in whatever water was available, making a comfortable bed over what was often either stalky, stony or sloping ground, and polishing my boots. On such a trek one should treat one's boots as a very good friend.

On one occasion, I set off after lunch following Mingma, the cook's assistant. Some distance behind me bearing, as usual, a weighty load, was one of the porters. We were following a section of the trail beside the Charnawati Khola river when we came to a forked junction. Without hesitation Mingma chose the upper route while the porter chose the lower. Eager to make the work easier for myself I hot footed after the porter deciding that 'this fellow knew what he was doing'. I followed on confidently, feeling pleased with my choice as I wound my way down a stony trail, when suddenly to confront my pride, the trail stopped at the water's edge. I looked ahead and sighted my porter making his way barefooted across the stream. I peered through the trees, to my left in time to sight Mingma casually pacing across a foot bridge. Unwilling to retrace my steps I made a quick study of the river and decided to stepping stone across it. I set off rather tentatively at first. Half way and feeling confident a tragedy befell me. I slipped from my rock and landed with both boots fully immersed in the stream. The most optimistic thought that I could manage was 'refreshing'. I plodded myself out to the ruination of my boots and spent a long evening drying them and reconditioning the leather with polish and dubin. A good lesson was had that day in the working of my ego.

I found the actual trekking relatively easy after a while. I surpassed thinking about the height I had to climb to and how long it would take and became more aware of every step. Inevitably I would reach the destination. I knew that I could muster the energy and had the strength to do that and I no longer thought about it. I stopped thinking about Kala Patar and Everest Base Camp. Instead the whole trip became a journey in which each day brought its own freshness, revealing to me things which I had never seen before nor conceived of. I rejoiced daily at the harmony that I found in that wilderness and fed upon the blissful solitude as if nectar. It seemed to liberate my mind of distractions and created a state of indwelling within me, a state of natural concentration.

The biggest trial for me was the cold but even this I learned to face more cheerfully and I was grateful for every day that I awoke, warm and well rested. I can recall one morning at Phakding (8,700') when I hung some wet clothing on my day pack and walked into the breakfast tent to have a warm drink. I returned no more than five minutes later to find that all had frozen. Fearful that if I lingered, the same thing would happen to me, I warmed myself by the cook's fire and set off.

During the day it inevitably warmed up to the extent that, until our approach to Namche Bazaar, we could comfortably walk in shorts and tee shirts. It was wise, however, to always have warmer gear within easy access as the temperature fluctuated erratically and to extremes. In the sun it was always very hot while in the shade it was icy cold. I quickly became acquainted with the routine of pulling on a jumper and long pants to walk through the shade and removing them to walk in the sun.

Towards the end of the day one had also to exercise care, as the temperature of the air tended to drop abruptly, chilling the skin, but the body, being warm from its exercise, did not feel cold. It happened on two occasions that I neglected to heed warning from the sky and allowed myself to finish the day wearing inadequate clothing. On one such occasion I awoke the next morning with a nasty collection of chilblains. On the other it took me several minutes before I could again bend my fingers or feel anything with my hands or arms.

Snow was a further dimension of the temperature/weather experience, though it wasn't until Loboche (16,173') that it became a part of it. During the two nights that we camped there we had snowfalls. On the first, it seemed, interestingly enough to bring the temperature down making it easier to sleep. During the second night, however, the temperature fell to approximately -20°C. The condensation froze to the inside of the tent. Towards morning, with the rise of temperature this melted and saturated our sleeping bags. It was a long and restless night. I can't remember ever being so cold.

We spent only a day from Loboche exploring the Khumbu glacier area which was in my view vastly inadequate as the whole region was a wilderness of rugged, almost impenetrable but breathtakingly beautiful terrain. The severity of the weather was almost intolerable and this was the major reason for our rapid retreat to a lower altitude.

The morning that we set out for Kala Tatar was overcast but that did not deter us for the promise of what lay ahead was far too exciting to return without at least trying to see. The track from Loboche was rocky but fairly easy going until we came to the giant moraine formed by the Changri Nup and the Changri Shar glaciers. The trail over and around this moraine was largely indistinct and finding our way involved climbing over huge snow covered boulders and across ice. Eventually we arrived at a small glacial lake covered with a deep layer of white sand. This separated the Khumbu glacier from Gorak Shep (17,060'). We crossed the lake to Gorak Shep, there to decide whether to walk to Base Camp (17,500') or to climb Kala Patar (18,483'). As Kala Patar offered better mountain views as well as a view of Base Camp I chose to climb it and set off in pursuit of Pouri, one of the sherpas. From Everest Base Camp the summit of Everest is obscured. Slowly and steadily we made our ascent, passing Nuptse and for the first time having revealed to us fuller views of the famous mountain.

Higher than eagles fly we sat and gazed in wonder, trying to comprehend the grandeur and beauty of the sight that surrounded us. To our left, as if an arm stretch away lay Pumori. To the right of it Khumbutse, Changtse, the west shoulder and face of Everest and then Nuptse. From behind could be seen stretching far into the distance, the bold ice peaks and formations that comprised the Khumbu and Changri Shar glaciers. Each a glimpse, a moment of bliss and then gone.