The dark frosty night has eased off into grey and I slumber through the sounds of yaks on the track only a couple of metres from my window, resisting the clock and willing it to slow down. I am warm in this sack thank you very much. Our guest house is as rudely constructed as a war time barracks and a dozen of us have made use of a toilet someone has compromised. I am not sure how they did it but I suspect the guilty person has been eating cement. The log they leave in there for the rest of us stays settled on the bottom, refusing any attempts to cajole it on into the plumbing. There is not enough of a head of water in the cistern to clear the bowl. I ignore it for the course of the night – a quick pit stop in bare feet is enough. It’s far too cold at o’dark o’clock to be faffing around cleaning up after someone. A twenty litre bucket of water finally clears the offending turd when I get up for breakfast. I am tempted to say something when I arrive late for that meal but it’s too early in the trip to be barking at people I barely know. Besides, you can only envy someone who has a gut with that sort of constitution a week after arriving in South Asia.
The cute little four year old who has livened up our stay here and entertained us these last couple of days is nowhere to be seen for which I am sorry. It would have been nice to have said goodbye. Perhaps she is off to school to learn her Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or how to count her numbers in English. (I spotted her yesterday cleaning her teeth before heading to school and she very happily posed with her pewter pot of rinse water). It was so very cute to hear her wrestle those out for us last night as part of her response to Jas’ entertainment. We are all raring to go since the forecast rain has not materialised and the day is bright and clear. Kongde Ri looms over us and inspires us to be off so we put its gleaming white cap behind us, dodge the yaks and circle the stupa outside my window and head up the track.
We depart on a path the follows the contours to start with but which eventually drop to a river at Phunki Tenga (Dr Suess had a penchant for villages as well). We are barely out of Namche and far from warmed up when we round a spur and are confronted by the sight of Ama Dablam itself on our right and the leaning black rock of Everest to the left. Remarkably, to me at least, one of our team had to ask if this was Dablam. It is such a distinct chisel shape I scarce comprehend that someone would not recognize it, especially if that someone was about to climb it. It’s picture has been printed and pinned above my work desk for more than 12 months now. No matter, he now knows and is as impressed with it as the rest of us.
I can’t see where we are headed but I have enough experience in hill country to know that a track that drops towards water only means another hard climb out the other side. The track drops through a village called Sanasa. I don’t stop but I immediately regret not doing so since, from a photographers point of view it was a ‘target rich environment’. I did manage to catch a local woman washing her hair but for some reason I was feeling compelled to rush on. I should have stopped for ten minutes and talked to the locals and taken some pictures. But on I dropped towards the river, though fir and cypress and at times taking short running detours to get around laboring yaks. The light is dappled and the air sweet with resin and composting needles. It would be easy to think it was idyllic but I can hear that river get louder and louder.
At the bottom I pause at a suspension bridge, take a drink and break out the chocolate. I share some with three sherpas who arrive with me. They look like a father and two sons. They take the sweet without a word or smile but nod their heads and slowly savour it. I am out in the sun so apply more sun screen, slide back into the harness and cross the bridge. On the other side I run into a problem. Another check point and I don’t have a pass. I am held up for twenty minutes, frustrated by the fact that at least half a dozen of the team have preceded me and somehow they have been allowed to progress without a pass. I pore through the records at the checkpoint that the Lance Corporal jealously guards but I can’t see any names I recognize. I harass him enough that he calls over a sergeant from the barracks on the other side of the track. This guy has pretty good English but that does not help until I utter the magic words “Ama Dablam”. The Lance Corporal suddenly gets very animated and pulls a list from out the back of his log book. My name is there and I am allowed on my way. I had barely started up the track when I look back and spot Howard behind me. He has caught up and is about to have the same problem. I walk back and, feeling like Aladdin, utter the magic words. Howard is waved through and we stop under the shade of a massive fir to suck some water. Suddenly I find myself talking Fortran coding with him. What?! I break off the conversation.
“Howard’ I offer as politely as I can. ‘Let’s talk maths at the end of the day. I’m about to tab up here and I think it’s a stinker of a climb.’
Righteo Bruce’ he quietly says in his soft Oxford burr. ‘I’ll catch you at the top. You young fellows belt me all over the mountain.’ Howard is a very accomplished climber and trekker, must be in his mid sixties or so, and I like him immensely.
I demur as politely as I can. “Hardly Howard. You are tabbing along with the best of us.’ He smiles, looks at the ground and shakes his head. And then, without another word starts to stride off up the hill ahead of me. By the time I have collected my wits he is out of sight in the trees and it’s the last I see of him until later that night. I never do catch him!
My instincts are correct and from the river I climb a torturous series of switchbacks to Tengboche. I have made the mistake of not unloading my pack onto the yaks as I planned and I feel the weight as I grind up the spur in the sun. I pass father and sons resting their loads and this time they smile at me. I smile and nod back but am focused on not stopping. There is forest but not enough of it to keep the heat off along the lower parts of the climb. Worse, by the time I am within ten minutes or so of the top I was taming a grumbling stomach and walking with an eye on every rock and tree on either side as a possible toilet stop. Fortunately the monastery at Tengboche came to my rescue, a young monk pointing me to the long drop toilet out the back. He understood the universal sign language – patted stomach + face grimace + waving toilet roll in the air! The projectile relief was a thing of sublime sweetness but I did have to loiter around there for half an hour waiting to be sure I was not to be caught out a bit further up the track.
Leaving Tenboche was something of a mental game, perhaps even more than the slow grind to ascend to that place, for the track drops over a ridge and down into another valley and there is a temptation to feel the futility of all that climbing. But the valley proves delightful. That someone has named their lodge Rivendell is completely apt. Moss hangs from trees, lichens and moss paint the ground, creeks run across the track and in the background the ubiquitous towering peaks. Eventually I cross the Imja Khola river, just up from where a steel girder bridge has dropped into the river. It’s loss means a small climb to recover the height lost by being forced down to water level. I miss a turn and find myself on some precarious sections of track which yaks clearly cannot pass but push on rather than backtrack. Up and up and finally through a tiled roof portal between two massive boulders. I figure I must be getting close to our destination for the evening as yaks are foraging at random around this gate.
On the other side of this rather quaint portal I pause and bend over to catch my breath and take a sip of water. When I straightened up there was a little old lady with a flat brown leather face, and twinkling black eyes standing in front of me and studying me intently. She was a tiny thing, in skirts and aprons that covered her feet. Without a word she reached into a pouch on her apron and pulled out a boiled sweet (a sour cherry) and handed it to me. She declined payment and did not want her photo taken. I gave her a hug and this tiny brown pixie gave me a hug back and smiled, then shook my hand before walking down the track a little way. I watched from a distance and realized she was doing laps of the stupa that was lodged in the middle of the track. (I did sneak a photo when her back was turned). What a priceless moment. But then if you tab along by yourself and take the time to interact with folk then anything can happen up here.
I finally wander into Sonam Lodge in the metropolis of Pangboche at 1530 and am promptly told by the innkeeper that there was no room for me. I am in no mood to hear that and let him know as much. I think he thought I was part of another group but we got a room sorted out very quickly. I check the shared toilet – no log jams so far!
We caught up with Omer here. He left Kathmandu a few days before us and has taken his time to get up the track. A previous attempt at the mountain was too fast and he struggled to acclimatize so he has taken more time on this trip. But he has even less alpine experience than I do so it will be interesting to see how it works out for him. We have a good chat and he seems like an amiable sort of fellow. He certainly seems to mesh into the team pretty easily and that always helps.
I am in bed by 8pm. I was carrying too much weight, have an untamed gut and am ready for an early night. From the sound from the neighbouring rooms everyone else is having an early one as well. Suddenly I am dazzled by a head torch. It’s Omer. He’s a doctor he tells me as he crashes into the room and commands me swallow a tablet he hands over. It will be good for my stomach he insists. I hope so, swallow it and conk out. I hope he has given the same tablet (or three) to whoever jammed up our toilet yesterday.
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