After eight days in Kathmandu, we woke early on Sunday 8th March for our flight to Lukla. The taxi was scheduled for 5am – after several days of the main runway being closed at Tribhuvan Airport, the HRA had ensured we would be on the first flight out to the mountains. Sure enough, we arrived to a queue for entry into the domestic terminal – lots of intrepid trekkers waiting to start their Himalayan adventure. Once through security (a very small X-ray machine and quick check of our ticket) we had our luggage weighed and hand luggage checked and within 30 minutes we were in the tiny departure terminal. No sooner had Reuben and I managed to drink an overpriced cup of Nescafé, our flight with Goma Air was called and we were rushed onto the departure bus and in the air for 0627! The aircraft was a new design – quite plush by the usual standards and a very comfortable flight, landing to my surprise in 35 minutes. With relief to be back on Himalayan soil, we were able to start the first leg of our trek to Pheriche. Their was certainly excitement in the air!!
Our first stop was for a hearty breakfast in Lukla. Well, hearty for some – after three treks in Nepal and three months living in the mountains, all I could muster was the heart to order chapatti with peanut butter and a milk coffee. It was no surprise really – breakfast has never been my favourite trekking meal and why would it be any different today? We set off not long after 9am and made our way through lush green valleys and trails to the tiny village of Phakding for lunch. It felt great to be back in the mountains with new friends on their first visit to Nepal and living out an ambition to volunteer with the HRA. Andy is an ER physician from Salt Lake City, Utah and Renee is another ER maestro who currently works in Boston, Massachussets. Together, the four of us nattered and told tales of adventures past and to come as we made it to our first overnight stop in Monjo. Renee was feeling pretty tired after the 4am start and a bit of a leaving present from Kathmandu so opted for an early night as Reuben, Andy and I sat down for dinner at 7pm. By 8.30pm it was lights out and time to rest and dream of exciting times ahead…..that and hoping we didn’t wake with headaches or other signs of AMS the next morning.
“Do I really have to get up now……?!” Probably the worst thing about having a Rab Andes 1000 sleeping bag is having to get out of it in the morning – it was pretty chilly as we rushed to get ready and pack our bags for the Porters who were keen to make a head start to Namche Bazar. I was surprised just how cold it was – though I have plenty of layers with me this season, it felt much colder than December. We set off just after 8am for the big climb to Namche at 3440m. The trails were pretty quiet save for a number of yak trains and donkeys laiden with kerosene, propane gas or sacks of rice. We did pass trekkers on their descent back to Lukla – many having failed to reach Everest Base Camp as the trails have been hit with heavy snow over the last two weeks rendering many parts of the trails impassable to the uninitiated.
It was a long day up to Namche – 4 hours trekking in all but over 600m of ascent and out of the shade it was very hot. Great to feel the sun on our backs but it made the climb harder – I was waiting for the lungs to really feel the thin air but it soon became apparent that Reuben and I had retained some of our acclimatisation as we recovered quickly with each rest stop. Along the river and up through trails that wound through the forest, we came to a rest stop which if we looked hard enough, revealed our first glimpse of Sagamartha for the season. After some trail snacks and a quick reshuffle of rucksacks, we were on our way again, arriving at Panorama Lodge ready for lunch! Reuben and I had stayed there in December on the way back from Island Peak so when we were sure it was the owners greeting us, we were able to say “Tapaai laai sanchai chha?” and receive a familiar warmth as they greeted us on our return.
The rest of the day was spent unwinding with an essential visit to Namche bakery for a slice of apple pie and coffee with free wifi on the side. You’d think we’d been away for weeks on end as most of us connected to the ether to see what we’d missed in the last 48 hours….. A second day in Namche allowed us to acclimatise to the altitude and take the opportunity to visit Dr Kami at Khunde Hospital. Renee stayed back to rest her knee which had been giving some jip on the descents. It was a pleasant hike first to Khumjung, following the trail of slush and mud that had been carved through the recent snowfall. In places it was very muddy but it was worth it as we rounded a stupa and looked upon a magnificent winters vista of Everest, Lhotse, Nupste and Ama Dablam in the distance. Arriving into Khumjung, we pointed out the school built by Sir Edmund Hillary as we heard giddy children shouting out from the playground and then left the green village for nearby Khunde. As we arrived at the hospital, I recognised Dr Kami and managed to ask him if indeed it was him whilst introducing the three of us and our jobs and plans to head for Pheriche all in Nepali! Although convinced I had jumbled my new verbs and words, he did reply in Nepali – to which I quickly reverted into English! We had a tour of the facilities and then headed on our way as the locals were called in for their consultation. It felt more real as we walked back – maybe as I had put a face to the name having sent many patients to Dr Kami last season. The positive vibes were quickly dashed however on our return to Namche as we negotiated slippery mud trails the whole way down; twice I pirouetted and landed on my arse, covered in mud! I was not impressed! Having befriended a puppy with a quick “Namaste”, Andy disappeared – either a case of hitting the trails and not looking back or being very aware of the chimp!
We found Andy in the Namche bakery enjoying a slice of warmed apple pie whilst chatting to the Machermo volunteers. We ordered some chocolate cake and a warmed fresh sesame roll knowing these would be rare treats over the next ten weeks. The afternoon was then spent in the 8848 Cafe watching the film Everest which tells a tale of the Sherpas involved in one particular Swiss climbing expedition a few years ago. It was brilliant to see the work they undertake – a very eye opening account; and yet so sad to see the risks taken for a wage of $5000 USD in the short climbing season; all to get wealthy westerners up the mountain. That evening we all sat down to a hot towel and amazing daal bhat before it was time to turn in and get some sleep before the alarm sounded early the next morning.
As we left the Panorama Lodge the next morning, the trail rose steeply and sighs could be heard from our weary selves. Having trekked this section of the trail three times before – most recently in the dark coming back from Chhukung and Island Peak in December, Reuben and I both knew it was a beautiful section of trail. The path winds around the hillsides for kilometres – up and down in places but mostly flat – with a fair amount of ‘Himalayan flat’. We passed Stupas on the way and in places hopped throug slush and mud as the sun melted the trail ahead of us. Dropping down to the river by lunch, it was a steep and slow climb up to Tengboche – made more tough by the heat of the afternoon sun. Finally, sapped of energy we arrived onto the plateau of the tiny, but historically important village of Tengboche and its Monastery. We headed over to see the sacred site and were lucky enough to see inside the chambers where the Monks are called to prayer for several hours at a time. It was stunning inside – so colourful with Thangkas decorating the room and a giant golden Bhudda statue sitting magnificently at the head of the room.The views of Everest and Ama Dablam were spectacular – made even more special as we watched the sunset over the magnificent mountain vista.
It was an early start for Pheriche as Gobi had emailed to say the trail ahead had the potential to be very muddy and best to get a head start on the sun. We were up at 0530 though breakfast was a little late and not the best….. Just after 0700 we were walking down towards Deboche through the rhododendron forest. It was so different to the trail we stamped up in December – this time we were delicately hopping from frozen mud to frozen snow in an attempt to avoid the slippery ice that had yet to thaw under the heat of the sun. We made good progress and were up at the small holding of Orsho by 11am. After a quick hot juice, we were keen to press on for our final destination of Pheriche. It was snowy and muddy as we trekked up and out of our rest stop…..Reuben and I meandered ahead recounting the last time we had made this journey towards Dingboche at the end of last season. We passed two Yakbees (baby Yaks) as we veered left and up towards the trail for Pheriche. It was heavy with snow but shortly before 1pm we had the village in sight and hastily made our way to the HRA Rescue Post to find Gobi and our cook, Jeet smiling away at our arrival.
After nearly 4 years, I was finally here at Pheriche ready to volunteer as a HRA Rescue Doctor. And what an awesome team – this was already going to be a brilliant season!