“It’s easy, I could walk there in less than a day. You guys though…”, our Sherpa host tried not to laugh.
Zak and I were lying splayed around the fireplace in obvious discomfort. I was still suffering from food poisoning; Zak’s knees were swollen and bandaged. All we’d managed was half a day’s trekking. It was pathetic.
We’d left Cheplung that morning after finishing the Shivalaya trek the day before. Snow had been falling and I’d put my camera away because my hands were too cold to use it. Worse still, I’d been sick all night and had hardly slept. It was not the ideal start to day one of the Everest Base Camp trek.
So we’d stopped in Monjo that afternoon, resting around the fire and playing cards. The next day we dragged our ailing bodies to Namche Bazaar. The weather was mercifully clear, the blue sky complementing the fresh snow that carpeted the upper peaks.
Since leaving the trail from Shivalaya, I’d noticed that the villages looked more prosperous. The lodges were immaculate, each advertising apple pie, fresh coffee and spaghetti bolognese. Trekking gear ranging from boots to backpacks was for sale. The locals wore colourful jackets emblazoned with The North Face. This was the trail to Everest Base Camp, but it wasn’t the wilderness.
The path followed the sweeping lines cut into the valley by the Dudh Kosi river. We entered the gates to Sagarmatha National Park, the Nepali name for Mount Everest. I asked a trekker heading in the opposite direction, “how was it up there?” A thousand-yard stare in his eyes, he simply replied, “cold”.
We crossed the Hillary suspension bridge as it swung imperiously a hundred metres above the canyon floor. The river crashed down from the high Himalaya, a violent snake of thrashing water. After the bridge came a remorseless two-hour slog up a dusty path that was like walking on sand.
It was therefore a relief to reach Namche Bazaar. But also a shock. A fully-functioning town, Namche Bazaar is the largest settlement in the region, filling the valley like a Roman ampitheatre. However, it was eerily quiet when we arrived. Its cobbled streets were completely deserted; the bars and restaurants shut. The only movement came from prayer wheels spinning in the wind. It was like a video game without enough characters rendered to look real.
This was the consequence of trekking in the low season, and it had advantages. I bargained hard with the owner of the lodge we stayed at. “OK, you can sleep for free,” he agreed, “but don’t tell the other guests!” Trekking lodges make their money from food, not rooms. A bowl of noodles in Namche Bazaar cost 500% more than in Kathmandu. Our free rooms came with the condition that we ate only in his restaurant.
The view from my room was impeccable, looking out at Kongde Ri, a mere 6,187 metres tall. Sherpa stew was for lunch, a thick noodle soup. But it was so cold inside the lodge that I could see my breath forming. I returned to my room and warmed up in the sunlight that streamed through the window. This was so relaxing that I fell asleep.
I woke up with a splitting headache and needed to vomit. This was worrying. Namche Bazaar sits at 3,440 metres high and is the first place on the Everest Base Camp trek where altitude sickness is a threat. It can kill you if you go up the mountains too quickly. And I had the symptoms.
As night fell I became increasingly irritable. My headache worsened and my sore throat made it impossible to talk. My nose was blocked, the freezing air I was swallowing cracked my lips and grated my throat. I crawled into my sleeping bag, which was rated for minus 20 degrees, and shivered the night away. This was the worst I’d felt all trek.
After a painful sleep, dawn eventually illuminated Kongde Ri, which blazed like a lighthouse above the shadowy valley. Feeling slightly better, I left my warm bed and visited Namche Bazaar’s monastery, huffing and puffing in the thin air. A statue of Guru Rinpoche was enshrined inside. Two young monks darted from the building as I approached and headed into the mountains.
Further up the valley was Thame, a day’s walk away. Before starting the trek I’d fancied the idea of doing side-trips to villages like this one. Now all I wanted to do was reach Everest Base Camp and get out. Preferably alive.
To improve this prospect, Zak, Connor and I stayed another day in Namche Bazaar. This would help us adjust to the higher altitude. With time to kill, we went for a short trek up to the luxurious Hotel Everest View, which sits at 3,880 metres. The hotel once had a private airstrip and flew in its guests from Japan, equipping them with oxygen tanks to survive the increased elevation.
Business slowed as too many guests died, but the hotel survives as a blatant symbol of inequality. The helipad purred as helicopters came into land, depositing their wealthy passengers. I chatted to an American couple who’d flown in from Kathmandu that morning. They’d be staying for an hour and had paid $1000 each. It had taken me ten days to walk here.
But humanity’s hubris was easily forgotten, for the view was possibly the greatest I’d ever seen. Under a deep blue sky sat the headline names — Nuptse, Lhotse, Everest and the most beautiful of all, Ama Dablam. Gazing at these titans produced an unmistakable hit of endorphins, making me forget my physical torment.
With renewed vigor, we walked back to Namche Bazaar via the village of Khumjung. The trail passed Sir Edmund Hillary’s memorial stupa and the school that he’d established back in 1961.
We walked through the dusty streets, watching locals go about their daily lives. Men were playing carrom, a game similar to pool. A line of old women circled a mani wall which was inscribed with Buddhist prayers. They each hummed a mantra, their voices filling the cold mountain air.
We left Khumjung and approached Namche Bazaar, which was obscured by a thick cloud. Smoke. A forest fire was raging down in the valley and a real fear entered my mind. Was it coming our way?
A shift in the wind revealed that there was no danger. I got back to my room and spent the rest of the day reading. The previous night’s symptoms had abated and by dinnertime I was feeling good. This was damn lucky. For tomorrow we’d leave Namche Bazaar and head into the Himalayas’ frozen heart. The only guarantee was that it wouldn’t be getting any easier.
The next part of the trek was from Namche Bazaar to Gorak Shep which you can read about here. Or, if you missed the first part from Shivalaya to Lukla, that’s available here. Part four, Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp, is available here.