Dropping down the valley to Deboche (3820m), passing a newly built lodge called Rivendell, drifting through low moss-cloaked trees, a plain to the left opened, beyond clumsily-stacked Mani stones. Inside a sign advised of a nunnery. It looked far poorer and less well-maintained than the monk’s residence at Tengboche Monastery. Perhaps this is a clear sign of inequality? The sign Parque del Retiro giving hints it was a home for those of later years?
After Milingga hamlet, I branched up the upper pathway into Upper Pangboche. I’d caught up with John and Will and they opted for the lower road into Lower Pangboche. My pathway swept amongst small Gompa after Gompa and Mani Stone walls, eventually reaching the village of Upper Pangboche (3985m). I passed around the walls of a square monastery, reported to hold a Yeti skull. I wasn’t allowed beyond the hall containing chanting and drumming, standing there admiring haunting sounds, “Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ…” (唵嘛呢叭咪吽). The very same phrase being inscribed into Mani stones, prayer wheels, prayer flag streamers,
I passed Pangboche school as built by Sir Edmund Hillary’s Himalayan Trust in 1963. It stands at 4000m above sea level. Beyond this my path converged with the lower Pangboche pathway at Shomare village. I stopped for Sherpa stew and a sandwich, watching Will and John pass by on the lower pathway. Satisfied with my tomato sandwich, I trundled onwards. Next up, Worshyo, and into the broad and high-mountain surrounded Imja Valley. Rock falls and landslides marking almost barren terrain beneath the imposing beauty of Ama Dablam’s western and northern faces. Through huge empty plains and between mounds of loose rocks, over dirt trails and down a steep crevice, I crossed a bridge. Upwardly, the path became substantially drier and dustier. At the top of a valley-hugging path, the pathway cut inwards amongst debris of many mountains and their violent histories.
In the village of Dingboche, many lodges lined a stone-wall lane as wide as a car, yet without cars possible. Oh, and covered in thick ice. Exposed to the elements and at some stage flooded by flowing water, it marked a slippery pathway through a town. Thankfully the odd rock and patch of barren embankment stood out beneath the neatly placed stone walls (built after farmers simply removed obstacles to ploughing their fields). I walked through the village, noting most lodges as closed. After ten minutes, I heard my name; John and Will had opted for the Solukhumbu Lodge. I greeted them and met the owner, a Khambu Rai, a people from the Sikkim and Darjeeling Hills. He welcomed me and shown me to a plywood room. By now I was used to these sorts of basic rooms. The only luxury was a light switch. I rolled my sleeping bags out, prepared my torch and laid out clothes for the next day. It was only five o’clock in the evening, yet when night came in; light would be limited and the desire to get to sleep early, strong. Almost every night so far had ended in bed by 8 or 9 o’clock at night.
Sat eating pork curry, around a Yak-shit powered stove, with the Solukhumbu Lodge owner answering questions in a kind of politely curious interview of new acquaintances it felt cosy despite extreme cold lapping at the single-glazed windows. He told us how two men, porters, lugged and regularly lugs the slate base of snooker tables from Namche Bazaar (two days hike away). Each porter takes ten minute stints to lift the 150kg load before passing the load onwards. They rotate time and time again. 22km of carrying 150kg between two souls sounds as tortuous as climbing Everest’s peak itself! A sign had boasted “world’s highest billiard hall.” I hadn’t doubted that. They would earn 50NPR per kilogram for every item they lugged from Namche Bazaar to Dingboche. That was the standard rate.
The mule trains are only permitted as far as Namche Bazaar. Some yaks are okay here after, but not so many. Porters, human labour, make the bulk of anything. I ordered a Coca-Cola, priced 200NPR above the manufacturer’s recommended price. To pay five times as much, here, seemed justified. I’d seen people carrying crates of beers, boxes of Red Bull energy drinks, gallons of bottled water. If it was packaged or meat, it came from lower down the valley. Our pork curry’s meat came from a village south of Lukla, where the lodge owner’s family had moved from. They sought the busier tourist routes for their living, renting a lodge for the year and living off the income. His wife, two year’s younger than him, aged 27, sat on one side, breastfeeding their tiny chubby baby, massively-wrapped up in a down jacket and down trousers. The nearest school was Pangboche, 10km away, but they intended to raise their kid until old enough to be taught in Kathmandu, like most kids on the region. The Yak-shit oven crackled as the owner slid the lid open, dropping on dried yak turds. The lower oxygen levels make burning yak pooh quite difficult. It isn’t actually that flammable. Wood fires are not permitted, as they destroy forests – also at this altitude, trees are not present. Following a good natter, I retired to bed, with a 3L thermal flask of ginger tea.
I entered my room. It was freezing. Way below zero. Ice had formed on a sweat-lined ski hat I had left by my bed earlier. I dived into my sleeping bag, pulled up the zip high, placing an extra blanket in the room over my body. I wore my dust-mask and spare ski hat to sleep. Gloves on.
I have never had such a restless sleep. I needed to water the plants too often. I had an unquenchable thirst. Headaches squeezed my skull and seemed to strangle my thoughts. At 9 o’clock in the morning I took some paracetamol. I napped until noon. On entering the lounge dining area, warm sunlight beat through the window panes. John and Will had finished their breakfast and were playing backgammon. They were heading for an acclimatisation walk up to Chhukhung. I was not. My head, as much as I wanted to wander, was not right. My ears hurt, my nose and sinuses seemed clogged and unclearable. If I lay my head flat it felt much more painful.
Had I allowed my body time to adjust to reduced oxygen and changes in air pressure? I thought hiking from Jiri and two nights in Namche Bazaar was enough, having read numerous accounts and heard many pieces of advice. Above sea level, altitude sickness can occur at heights over about 2,500m (8,000 feet). The affects are mild usually. In the severe form, anything above 3,600m (about 12,000 feet) is possible. At 5000m, oxygen is at 50% of the level as found at sea level. I was warned that a loss of appetite and shortness of breath were warning signs. I had neither. I did have a feeling of unsteadiness and like I was going to vomit. But, it wasn’t so bad. I decided to rest. The dizziness of the morning swept away. I read a book and enjoyed the warm dining room, napping on the late afternoon to be awoken by the owner knocking on my door. It was almost seven o’clock when I awoke. I ordered spaghetti and tomato sauce.
The next day was not as bad. My head hurt a little and I would classify myself as having “reduced performance and coordination.” I packed my bag, brushing the thick curtain over the window, “Well, I’ll be damned!” I cursed out loud, to nobody. Two nights of sleep, with the window open. The outside extreme weather had been cuddling my breathing at night. Keeping me company, keeping me dehydrated.
With a slight freshness to my mind, I set off for Lobuche (4410m), determining I could make it. I would be okay. The cold harsh peak of Taboche loomed to my left. I thought, I could turn around if I did not feel better. Armed with excessive flatulation (I later learnt this to be a sign of altitude sickness), I soldiered on. And laboured. Really laboured. Sweating profusely in cold is not comfortable. Sweat freezes fast. I checked my hands for swelling. None. My feet were okay that morning, but now they felt unusually warm. Sudden fatigue, a wave of weakness, swept over my body at Dughla (Thukla). Standing at 4620 metres, my mind argued with itself. Go on? Turn around? The mountain pass suddenly felt a million miles away from life. A small hutted hamlet with little attraction. It was a place to pass through and not stay for more than a night’s sleep. I checked my pulse. It was rapid. Persistently rapid. My breathing had quickened and finding my resting level was proving difficult. In my lightheaded state, I heard the thud of a struggling helicopter coming from towards Gorak Shep. Another rescue helicopter. The fourth, I had seen that day. I was around ten kilometres from Kala Patthar and Everest Base Camp.
I decided to turn around. It was emotional. A really, really tough decision. I didn’t want my minor altitude sickness to become the reason for death by high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) or Monge’s disease. Kala Patthar would have to wait. My nausea was close to that of wishing to vomit. I hate the feeling of wanting to be sick, but being unable to trigger a splurge. I could feel paresthesia, pins and needles. My body needed more oxygen. Welcome to the world malaise. I about turned. Passing through Nauma, Pheriche, Jamdang, Somsobuk, and Orsho, the path along the Pheriche Pass went almost unnoticed. As I approached Lower Pangboche (3930m), I watched as a helicopter landed, collected a man clutching an oxygen-cylinder on a medical stretcher. Only now, did I feel I made the right choice. Turning around was probably the wisest move of my life. If I didn’t think of loved ones and friends, I probably would have pushed myself. Too far. Having dropped from 4620m to 3860m at Tengboche, I could feel myself relax. The headaches lifted. I lodged once again at the welcoming Tashi Delak lodge. The log stove burnt well, filling a small area with heat and allowing for comforting conversation with Rai and Sherpa porters gathered alongside me. A group of Taiwanese hikers had aimed to go to Everest Base Camp but fell ill at Pangboche. They sat reasonably quietly, immersed in their glowing mobile phone screens. After a large meal of a yak burger, cheese spring rolls and potato chips, I slipped into my sleeping bag. I slept like a baby. All altitude sickness had gone.