Kathmandu Monday January 12th 2004
We got back to KTM this morning at 11.30 am, one day ahead as we had saved some days and did not see much point in remaining up there in the freezing cold and snow. I have just had a nice long shower, shave and shampoo, my first bath in 17 days and now have come down to this cyber cafe to write to all of you while my friend Srijit luxuriates in his bath.
It’s strange to be sitting here suddenly in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu's tourist district. Only this morning we were at Lukla, a narrow strip of an airport surrounded by mountains where 16 seater Twin Otter planes land uphill and within 40 minutes you are transported back to civilization. In the old days before the airstrip was constructed it was a seven day walk back to KTM and the changes more gradual so that you were acclimatized better.
I can see all of you asking how was the Khumbu in winter? Sitting here today it does not seem real - a journey of imagination as I mentioned to you earlier. Many dream it, some dare it but few do it. I had been to the Khumbu twice, in Oct both times 1997 and 2001 but nothing would have prepared me for winter. On the physical front, the extreme temperatures ( minus 20 Celsius at the Everest base camp) and an average of about minus 10 Celsius along the way coupled with a bone chilling wind which always seems to get the better of your down clothing, cap and gloves would be quite enough to knock the stuffing out of an average trekker. The Khumbu in winter makes spring and autumn look like a walk in the park.
Then came the snow. On Christmas eve there was light snowfall at the village of Khumjung where we were acclimatizing but this melted on Christmas day when we walked up to the monastery of Thyangboche a superb viewpoint at about 13,000 feet. On the 26th as we started for our next stop Pheriche the sky was grey with ominous looking clouds funneling there way up the valley. By the time we reached Pheriche in the afternoon there was almost a gale blowing and I remember crossing the pass before Pheriche almost half bent against the shrieking wind.
That evening about 6 pm it started to snow and carried on until next mid morning. In a whisker the entire Khumbu had been transformed into a white sheet, all tracks obliterated with about 3 feet of snow on the ground.
We waited in Pheriche for the yaks to take charge and open the trail again. A blessing in the Khumbu, without yaks, any trekker or expedition would not be able to manage. And we watched them from the comfort of our lodge window effortlessly ploughing there way through the soft powder snow creating a trail for others to follow.
Then came a seven day weather window and despite the cold it was sunny and bright. We went through all the way to Kala Pattar and were rewarded with magnificent sunset views of the peaks, Nuptse, Ama Dablam, Cholatse, Kangtega, Tamserku, Pumori to name a few. The light was magical and ethereal.
The snow put paid to our plans of crossing the Chola pass and heading to the valley of Gokyo. For some time, even after the snow I toyed with the idea but one afternoon south of the pass, we saw massive powder snow avalanches on Cholatse depositing fresh snow on Chola and decided against it especially as we were without tents and porters and a night in the open would have been fatal.
There were a few solo trekkers and some groups but tourist traffic was low as compared to autumn and spring for obvious reasons.
Interestingly enough there was quite a bit of wildlife. Coming down from Thyangboche through the forest we spotted a musk deer trying to eke out a little bit of water from the frozen ground. Just after Sanasa I spotted the Himalayan tahr in a small group grazing on a bit of vegetation. The Impeyan Pheasant, the national bird of Nepal was seen a couple of times on the trail, its blue and maroon feathers glinting against the white snow. And overhead almost every day we spotted the king of Vultures, the lammergier soaring effortlessly with the thermals, as if mocking the efforts of puny trekkers plodding slowly through the soft powder snow in search of that dynamic landscape in the highest amphitheatre of the Gods.
What else? Streams that were rushing torrents in summer and autumn were still. Waterfalls were frozen hard to the hillsides. The grazing yaks had to struggle to find vegetation to survive as most of the hillside was bare and snowed under. The rhododendron trees which are a riot of red, mauve and yellow in summer were half bent under the snow, their branches drooping to the ground. On the fresh snow sometimes tracks of animals which we could not identify could be seen, especially in the early morning when we started out.. What were they? The snow leopard or even the yeti??
And in the end of out trip, the moon was almost full and lit up the peaks like a magical searchlight.
Its warm here now and it's a relief not to fight this constant battle against the cold as the evening draws near.
So would I go back to the Khumbu again? In winter never. For myself not again. But, to take a small group up in summer, Romina included and see the peaks soaring into the azure skies and the flowers at their feet that seems a great option! A proper holiday!!