Happy memories

This time two years ago I was celebrating my birthday at 4,400m in Dingboche. We had arrived the day before after a long trek along the valley of the Imja Khola river. This day was a ‘rest day’. In reality, an acclimatisation day during which we would climb at least 300m above the village and return to help with the body’s adjustment to altitude. It was a beautiful day, with strong sunshine and blue skies.

We headed off up the side of the valley and quickly gained 200m or so to look down on the little huts and bigger lodges that lined the valley floor. The stone walls dividing plots of farm land were visible as lines against the brown earth, and small, dark dots indicated where the potato crop had been planted. Colourful prayer flags fluttered from the gompa overlooking the village, and from flag poles and stones on the path.

We carried on at an easy pace for another 100m of height gain before stopping and listening to our trek leader say a few words about loved ones who couldn’t be with us. It was a very moving speech, made more so by the location and the efforts we’d all made this far. There were few dry eyes in the group.

Then some of the group carried on a bit further while others made their way back to the village. I enjoyed a relaxing afternoon in the sun and took advantage of the warmth to wash and dry my hair – a luxury that had been impractical until now.

Later, we made our way through the village to the recently opened bakery where I had a steaming mug of hot chocolate and a slice of apple pie. After dinner that night, a chocolate cake was brought out to celebrate my birthday and everyone in the lodge had a piece.

It was a special birthday.

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Dingboche

Of all the places we visited and trekked through, my favourite village was Dingboche. It was our second acclimatisation stop, and our rest day co-incided with my birthday. Surrounded by steep sided hills, Dingboche sits in the Imja Khola valley under the shadow of Ama Dablam at 4410m above sea level. It is the highest permanently settled village on the trail to Everest Base Camp and the last place that crops can be grown. Here, the crops are potatoes and barley and so important is the harvest that the use of any smoky fuels during the growing season is banned to make sure the crop yields are good.

It was a long day’s trek as we arrived at the lower end of the village, and there was still 15 minutes of steady plodding until we reached our lodge – the Peak 38 View – at the far end. The fields and lodges were bordered by drystone walls which were extensive and well maintained. We passed farms and lodges, each proclaiming a slightly different altitude. There were two lodges opposite each other, one asserting that it was 30m higher than the other. I passed between two without having to climb more than a metre and I wondered whether there was some altitude envy that lodge owners suffered from. The ground was hard and dusty but the farmers wives were out digging and planting the potatoes in small mounds of earth.

We were worn out and glad to have reached our next stop. In the dining room, the usual hot drinks were complimented by platefuls of biscuits which went down very well, and very quickly. Outside as we ate and drank, a beige yak calmly watched us through the windows. ‘Kaur’ was the lodge owner’s yak and was very docile and friendly. She had worked for most of her life and was now being rewarded with a home and regular food. She would turn up morning and evening and wait for her meals.

The acclimatisation day allowed us a leisurely climb to the hill behind the lodge the following morning. The afternoon was for us to rest, recuperate and do any housekeeping and laundry and it was the perfect place for me to spend my birthday. After washing my hair, a rare luxury despite the freezing water, I sat in the sun and enjoyed watching the clouds slowly make their way up the valley. I felt I could have stayed here for several days as it was so tranquil and relaxing.

Later some of us walked down the the bakery and I indulged myself with some apple pie and a mug of hot chocolate. It was delicious and so out of place that it felt like cheating. A local woman came in to the bakery and ordered a coffee. We were told later that there was a different pricing structure for the locals, which was fair enough. On offer (although none of us took it up) were several varieties of  roast dinner. It was so out of place to see ‘Roast Chicken, roast potatoes, vegetables and gravy’ for R670 (about £6.00) at 4400m.

We had fried egg and chips for dinner and I was surprised that after food came a cake covered in chocolate, with some candles and a little sign saying ‘Happy birthday, Dave’. It was very touching and after the groups had sung happy birthday, we shared the cake out amongst everyone in the lodge, including some Swiss trekkers on the next table.

That night I was woken by a sharp cracking sound and I automatically thought of an avalanche on Ama Dablam. But the flashes of light told me it was thunder and lightning. The following morning, we woke up to a thick covering of snow and a beautiful, clear and crisp day with stong sunlight and deep blue skies. We set off in these glorious conditions for Lobuche but the clouds soon started gathering and we spent most fo the day walking in falling snow.

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Namche Hill

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.

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