10 hardy men and one brave woman stepped onto the tarmac in Kathmandu on October 25th this year. It was my 24th time to walk into the Nepal sunshine, and my 28th group trek.
Our dream group was made up of 4 past trek leaders, Gary Coopland and
Merv Cavers from Winnipeg, Ross Macdonald from Calgary and myself. Don,
our son joined me for his first Nepal experience, and made the trek
even more special. David Gartshore left Oakland CA to be with Andreas
Poulsson of Vancouver, George Brazier and his brother-in-law Dr. David
Cannell came from Vancouver, and Leny and Jim Richardson chose to cross
the Renjo La as an extension of their honeymoon. And to complete the
perfect group, Tashi Sherpa, our partner and long-time friend, joined
Until recently, the Renjo pass has been closed due to the politically sensitive valley of Bhote Kosi. At the head of the valley is the Nangpa pass to Tibet, the main escape route for Tibetan refugees fleeing their Chinese occupiers.
We flew to Lukla, walked to Namche Bazar with a mass of other trekkers mostly from Europe and Japan, and then left the crowds to go up the valley to Thame at 3,800 metres. Most of us, that is. George Brazier and David Gartshore were stalled in Namche with flu symptoms and hypothermia.
The Bhote Kosi valley is uninhabited above Thame, and we discovered the reason for this. The high and dry Tibetan plateau heats up during the day sucking dense cool air from the lower Nepali Khumbu region causing high winds. Making the trek especially tough was an enormous boulder field at 4800m. Here, the trail became precarious for trekkers and porters as it crosses the Nangpa glacier. It took us 1 1/2 hrs hopping from boulder to boulder to cross the moraine, only to find a campsite that was totally exposed to the elements. An afternoon exploratory trip towards the pass and the Tibetan border revealed gorgeous views of the western flank of Cho Oyu, the 8th highest mountain in the world. Dinner was called for 6:30. With the temperature in the dining tent reading –11c and the wind blowing hard, we knew we were in for a cold night! Later that evening, the thermometer plunged to a bone chilling –16c degrees.
The following morning, Leney, Jim and Andreas, suffering from altitude and colds, left camp to return to Namche. The remaining six descended to the 4200m campsite in preparation to cross the pass the following morning. Once again, there were more casualties and for the first time ever, I was one of them, waking to bronchitis. Merv was sick with the “Khumbu cough” so we simply had to descend. That left Don, Ross, David and Gary to cross the pass to the Gokyo valley!
Our original group of eleven was now split into four parts; Jim, Leney and Andreas on their way to Tengboche Monastery, George and David (now recovered) climbing to Gokyo to meet the healthy four and Gord and Merv headed down to the warmth of a lodge in Thame. Who would have thought our merry band would become so scattered by day 7 of a 14 day trek!
We were reunited on Day 12 in Namche. The weather had returned to the warm, still days typical of early November in the Khumbu. Everyone had made the best of their time and felt fulfilled. George and David climbed Gokyo Ri. Jim, Leney and Andreas enjoyed Tengboche Monastery, the summitters had the pleasure of flying the group prayer flags from the Renjo la in sight of Everest, and Merv and Gord (the old dogs) relaxed in the warmth of a Thame lodge and enjoyed the care and attention of Dr. Kami Sherpa (who was on his day off from the Kunde / Hillary hospital).
- We experienced 14 days of unrelenting sunshine and great views, and came to understand the rigours of the Tibetan escape route into Nepal.
- we passed many trekkers on the lower trails leading up to Namche. The Khumbu is reaping the benefit of the restrictive Maoist actions in the Annapurnas and other major trek areas. Many new lodges have been built in the Khumbu, particularly between Lukla and Namche. Comfortable lodges are now available for trekking throughout the Khumbu. Tent travel is on the wane.
- The Lukla airstrip (700m in length) is now paved. Canadian Twin Otter and German Dornier aircraft arrive at first light in waves of four. Their turnaround time is 5 minutes. The terminal operates like a Swiss watch!
- We delighted in re-uniting with our many Sherpa friends in the Khumbu, and enjoyed our ‘home-away-from-home’ - the Kathmandu Guest House and the outstanding hospitality of Rajan Sakya, Uttam Phuyal and staff.
- Tourism is obviously down in Kathmandu. The stores are less crowded – the streets of Thamel not full. There is a temporary peace in Nepal. But the two sides are so far apart that it is hard to imagine that there will not be more confrontations before their political problems are solved.
- The country is safe for travel, even in Maoist controlled areas such as the Annapurnas. Tourists are welcomed for their currency – a one-time fee is charged by the Maoists in all trekking areas other than the Khumbu.
We celebrated our return to Kathmandu with a fine wind-up dinner at the Thamel House, a menu of upscale Nepali food, rakshi and beer, a few emotional tears, and many complimentary speeches.
After five years away from Nepal, I felt privileged and a sense of deep pleasure to be able to return with close friends and family to the Nepali people and their beautiful country!