On Porters, being Present and route Planning

It’s not often that you get the chance to connect to the Internet at 3500m. I am in Namche Bazaar, the stepping-off point for Everest Base Camp Trek. Most people spend a couple of nights here for acclimatization, hence the rather smart internet facilities I am now sitting in.

I flew into Lukla’s aptly named STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) airstrip on Saturday, the first plane to arrive at 7am.

The benefits of an early start were immediately apparent, as I set off immediately on the two-day trek to Namche. From Lukla, the path snakes up through villages and tea-houses, past pine trees and plentiful rhododendrons, and crossing the occasional steel suspension bridge over rushing green glacial water.

It wasn’t long before I met the first group of porters coming down with improbably large and precariously balanced loads. The way they carry these is extraordinary – rather than using rucksack style shoulder straps, the entire weight is carried on a single band looped across the forehead, with a forward-leaning stance presumably ensuring that the entire spine is used/damaged rather than just a few vertebrae. It is an amazing sight. They are frequently carrying 2-3 100 litre kit bags, fully loaded, and strapped together. Others carry bundles of thick planks of wood or large boulders for construction work, held in specially designed carrying contraptions.

But you don’t want to stand amazed for too long – there is no chance of the porters giving way, and at the pace they are moving, flattening yourself against the shrubs on the inside of the path is the wisest policy. The load-carrying Yaks (called Dzubjoks or Dzongios) are equally impervious to the weak-kneed wobbles of terrified trekkers.

Today, on visiting the remarkable Hillary Foundation hospital at Khunde (3800m), I was amused to read No.11 in the list of injuries that they typically see, which emphasized the risk if a Yak gets out of the wrong side of the cattle-shed:

11. FALLS OFF STEEP TRACKS. Always keep to the inside of the tracks and out of the way when passing load-carrying dzubjoks who might be in a bad mood

Yesterday I got my first glimpse of the highest point on the planet. I had to stop myself for a moment to remind myself that I was actually here, and savour the extraordinary sight of Everest, flanked by the equally impressive Lhotse and Nuptse. This morning Everest itself was in cloud for the first time in a few days – hence in the picture, it is the aggressive peak of Ama Dablam to the South that is in the background.

There is a wide variety of trekkers here, from the late middle-aged Japanese trekking not much further than Namche for a glimpse of Everest to one group of school-children having the time of their lives. And the occasional runner. Yes, runner.

Some are slightly clueless – yesterday, I was very surprised to see again a French Swiss guy who I had met on the India-Nepal border last week. He was on his way down at a rapid pace. It didn’t make any sense… he looked fit, but with acclimatization there was no way he could have been all the way to Base Camp and back. I quizzed him on why he was descending. When he told me he had got to Namche and was surprised that he couldn’t use his debit card, all my sympathy evaporated. The rapid pace was due to the speed of his (understandably furious) unpaid porter-guide.

The vast majority of people here are on the standard route to Everest Base Camp, which you can see on this map – the route goes North East from Namche before turning North to finally getting to Gorak Shep.

A couple of friendly Nepalis guiding other parties have helped me to establish a longer, more esoteric and exciting (but perfectly safe) route which goes West, in the opposite direction. For the map-minded among you, I will be going across to and up the Bhote valley, across the Rhenjo La pass (La means “pass”) to the Gyoko Valley, across the Tsho La to Gorak Shep, and finally down to Chukkung, before returning to Namche. The highest point on the passes will be about 5450m or 18,000 feet.

I will be back in Namche in about a fortnight’s time and will post again then.

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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, Nepal and Tibet '09

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