The one question I was asked more than any other when my fellow trekkers found out I’d done the Everest Base Camp trek before was ‘what about Namche Hill’? From those that didn’t know I’d been before, I heard all sorts of stories; it’s eight hours of climbing, it’s really steep, some people fail on the way up. I always gave the same answer: It’s not as bad as you think, don’t let it get to you. I was very careful not to make too much of it as it seemed to preoccupy the thoughts of a lot of people.
I don’t remember knowing that much about Namche hill before the first trek. I’d read the itinerary and could see that it was potentially the hardest day, with a minimum of 850m of ascent from our start point to Namche itself. That didn’t take into account the undulating route that probably added another 300m of climbing to the day. But I had been doing 600 – 1000m climbs in a day as part for my training. Of course, I forgot to take into account the altitude. On Namche Hill, we’d be breaking through the 3,000m barrier and could expect the first real signs of altitude sickness.
On the day, we suffered a bit from being a very slow group. I was helping one of the group to make a video diary and he had asked me to film him crossing the high level bridge just before the hill began. I went ahead and had to wait in the chill wind while the bridge cleared so he could lead the rest of the group across. By the time I’d finished, I was at the back and that threw my pacing out completely. I was going slower than I liked and strangely, that made it harder.
From the bridge, the path drops slightly on steep concrete steps before heading up in a relentless dry and dusty slog. Right from the start, our guides wrapped scarves around their faces to combat the dust. We couldn’t help but kick up clouds of the stuff and everything was quickly coated in a gritty, light brown film. A breeze helped to cool me down, and took the worst of the dust swirling away into the trees. As I struggled with the pace, we passed trekkers and sherpas coming down having completed their quest. They seemed excited and talkative and full of energy. I realised later how good it felt to be going home. For now, with few exceptions, they were annoyingly patronising with their ‘not far to go now’ chants.
I stopped to talk to two guys from Wales and that was a welcome break. But then immediately afterwards, an American told me ‘only another 90 minutes to go’ and for some reason that made me feel very angry towards him. Not long afterwards, we reached a halfway halt and spirits were raised when we caught our first glimpse of Everest through the trees.
The rest of the tramp up the hill went easier for me because I was back in the front group, which suited my pace. Nevertheless, as a group we were very slow and by the time we reached the village of Namche, it was dusk. We nearly got lost after our guide disappeared in the gloom and we were left wondering which guest house we were in.
On my second trek, I was careful to be more prepared for the hill. I took advantage of all the rests tops on the way and I’d brought a buff along to use to filter out the dust. I made sure I had plenty of water and that I was in the right place in the group so that I could go along at my natural pace. It was warmer second time around, and there was no breeze. Despite the buff, I could feel and taste grit in my mouth. This time we were having to stray from the path to avoid frisky yaks who, being free of their loads, were enjoying the easy downhill path. There was an almost constant deep jangle of bells from around the necks of the yak, with a higher pitched tinkle of bells around the ponies’ necks.
I drank frequently, avoided eye contact with the people coming down so they wouldn’t tell me how far was left (I know it was with the best of intentions, but it didn’t help me) and kept going. After the first 50m of climb, the views of the river we’d just crossed disappeared through the trees and I kept my head down and concentrated on the slow plod that was working for me. There was little to indicate how far we’d come.
Before long, we reached the halfway stop, and it was packed with trekkers going in both directions. You could immediately spot the ones going up and the ones coming down by the looks on their faces and the noise. The climbers were quiet and red faced. I looked for the view of Everest, but cloud and trees masked it.
We set off once more and before long were nearing the top, where the slope flattened out. In the distance, thought he trees, I heard a sharp crack followed by a deep rumble, like thunder. It was an avalanche on the mountains opposite and I watched as tons of ice and water cascaded down the rock face. Then, literally around the corner, Namche appeared.
As we walked into the village, we came upon two young yak who were fighting in the street. Our group scattered and I headed for a gap in the wall, below which was a fast flowing stream heading steeply downhill. Unfortunately, both yaks also headed for the gap, horns locked and pre-occupied with their own issues. I stepped behind the wall and they brushed me as they went past. It was a great end to the day.
It certainly felt easier the second time I did it, perhaps because I knew what to expect.