Tagnag (4700m) – Cho La Pass (5420m) – Dzongla (4830m) – Lobuche (4910m)
Date = 26-27 March
D&L’s trekking map includes helpful annotations, mostly indicating things such as viewpoints and mani walls. On today’s route over the Cho La Pass the notes read: “difficulty icy crossing”, “slippery path”, “possibility of rocks falling”, “danger of crevasses”, “glacier crossing stay on left side”, and “crampons recommended”.
Angtu is taking no chances and insists that they leave at first light.
They are joined for the day by Marion, a young French woman who is trekking alone. She explains that she got lost the day before in the maze of unstable rubble whilst crossing the glacier from Gokyo. This is her first solo trek and she didn’t realise how tricky the terrain would be. With the glacier behind and the pass ahead, she is quite literally stuck between a rock and a hard place.
They set off at 5.40am. From behind Tagnag, a cleft climbs and widens, the shallow stream turning to ice as they gain altitude. Their fingers and toes become numb with cold. L fumbles to unscrew the lid of her water bottle. The cold air rushes in and the water quickly freezes. The temperature registers as minus 7°C. The sun rises and tantalisingly floods the mountainside above them but does not reach the trail. They reach a first pass of grey shale, at 5100m, then drop down into a huge parched-grass valley sprinkled with boulders. The views are magnificent but they remain in deep shade.
Ahead is a great wall of scree. Their onward route is across, and then up the swathe of loose stones. Up close, the steep slope is more rocks and boulders than stones. There is barely a path. Though not climbing, this is not walking either. It is vertical rock-hopping.
Angtu: It’s better early, like now, before the sun. Later, when the ice melts it can be unstable. Sometimes there are rockfalls.
L: If I’d have seen a video of this route, I’m not at all sure I would have done it.
D: But you’re doing it.
L: And it’s excellent!
Above them there is sky and prayer flags. They reach the pass and are suddenly in bright sunshine and dazzled by an enormous glacier snowfield spread out at their feet.
They scrunch up their eyes against the glare and scrabble for their sunglasses. Angtu grins and looks at his watch.
Angtu: 3 ½ hours. We are strong!
They sit in the sun at 5420m, feeling happy and healthy, and munching yak-cheese chapati sandwiches and Snickers and watching brightly jacketed ant-like figures making their way up the snowfield towards them.
D&L are pleased for an excuse to use their Yaktrax crampons, and carefully put them on. Angtu produces some serious spikes – the sort one could use to walk up vertical ice walls – in orange. Phurba has none but they lend him a walking stick, which he uses as a ski pole. He slides gracefully down the snowfield and disappears. Marion has neither crampons nor walking poles.
Marion: I’ll be fine.
L: Take a pole. Or two. We don’t need two each.
Marion: No, really, it’s OK.
They set off slowly down the smooth icy slope. The crampons are brilliant. Marion falls over.
Marion: OK. One pole. Or two. Thank you.
They continue. D gains confidence and goes ahead.
Angtu: Not too low! Crevasse! Stay this side!
Unseen by D, on the featureless glittering field of snow there’s a faint blue shadow. He doubles back.
At the bottom of the glacier, Phurba is waiting. Sliding is quicker than walking.
They take off their crampons and negotiate a narrow rocky snow-covered ledge high on one side of a steep valley wall. They should have kept the spikes on. It is icy and slippery underfoot and the fall would be long and uncomfortable. D watches nervously as ahead Angtu holds L’s hand as she skids and trips and wobbles along the path. Angtu leaves her wedged securely between two boulders while he doubles back to help a pair of independent trekkers also unsteady on their feet.
Lower down the snow peters out and they reach the upper edge of a huge slope strewn with slabs of rock and car-sized boulders. The rock here is all colours – white and green and red and black. Far below them is an immense valley floor and beyond that the delicate spire of Ama Dablam and the rugged pyramid of Cholatse.
Picking their way carefully down, they meet a guide heading upwards, trailing in his wake a panting middle-aged client. She does not look comfortable and has a long way to go. Even lower and later, they come across a pair of independent trekkers also heading up. By now the sky is clouding over.
On the far side of the valley, they come over a rise and arrive at Dzongla, a small cluster of scruffy corrugated iron farm-like buildings lying in a bleak little bowl. They are tired and hungry but triumphant to have survived despite the dire warnings of ice and falling rocks and crevasses. The lodge is busy but neither clean, warm nor fragrant – its only redeeming feature a beautifully crafted floor-to-ceiling tower of yak-dung in the hallway.
After lunch clouds swallow the village, and by mid-afternoon it is snowing. A lone yak stands outside the window, looking cold and resigned, long black coat turning white. L frets about the trekkers they saw heading up to the pass so late in the day, worrying that they have been caught in a blizzard. They are grateful that Angtu had made them start early, with plenty of time and the best of the weather.
L: I didn’t realise how much I’d appreciate having a guide and a porter. I mean I knew it would be blissful not to have to carry a pack – and it is. But it’s way more than that.
D: I agree. There’s no stress about decision making – on which route to choose…
L: Or getting lost…
D: Or when we should leave…
L: Or what the weather might do…
D: Or where we might stay…
L: Or asking for what we need…
D: Or paying bills…
L: Or what to do if anything goes wrong…
D: Or if we’re ill or get injured…
L: Or how to communicate in Nepali…
D: Or finding out about things we see as we go along…
L: And we’ve been able to learn a little about Angtu’s life…
D: And you’re relaxed…
L: And you’re relaxed…
D: Because you’re relaxed and not freaking out all the time about getting lost, stranded in a snowstorm, struck down by altitude sickness, attacked by a yeti….
L: What? Oh. How. RUDE.
D: (grinning) You know I’m right.
L: Let’s just say that having a guide and porter may cost a bit but it’s definitely worth it!
D: Yes. Let’s just say that. And forget about the other thing.
From the warmth of their sleeping bags, at 6.00am, they check the temperature in their bedroom.
D: Minus 4°C.
L: There’s snow!
D: An inch.
L: We’d better wear our gaiters – just in case.
D: In case of what?
L: I’m not sure.
The skies are stormy-looking, and they realise how lucky they’ve been with the weather for weeks. Soon the clouds clear and they are bathed once more in sun. The snow quickly melts. For the first hour or so the route is unclear. Marion walks with them and they are also stalked by a lone trekker pretending that he’s not following them. The trekker soon gets bored of their slow pace and frequent photo stops and overtakes, and then Marion’s onward path becomes visible and Angtu points her on her way. She’s heading down. They’re heading up.
On a meadow-like spur they stop to admire the views. A woman walks past, driving her three yaks. She is wearing a traditional full-length skirt and headscarf and carrying a high-tech trekking backpack. The river meanders down the valley, back towards Lukla. To their left is an immense dam of glacial rubble – the stony front end of the Khumbu Glacier. At its foot, seemingly right in its path, cower the buildings of Dughla. To their right towers the craggy shoulder of Cholatse. Angtu and Phurba strike poses and photograph each other. Then they sit and eat biscuits.
L: Isn’t this glorious? I could stay here all day.
Angtu stands up cheerfully.
Angtu: It’s boring now. Let’s go.
They turn their back on Cholatse to the west and Ama Dablam to the south, and head north towards perfect peak of Pumori. There are only a very few other people on their path, but below them they can see strings of tiny figures zig-zagging their way slowly up from Dughla, climbing the rough tongue of the glacier. This is the main Everest trekking route, and it’s busy.
Slowly but inexorably, the two routes converge, as D&L descend their private hillside to join the main trail paralleling the glacier – flat and wide and sandy and bustling with trekkers and porters. A strong wind is blowing down the valley, hurling grit into their faces and mouths and eyes and making breathing and walking frustratingly hard going despite the flat terrain.
They reach Lobuche early, but are pleased to go no further. A dozen yaks are idling in front of the lodges, saddled but unladen. A pack of dogs roam and brawl in the dust. Members of an expedition team in red padded onesies wash their feet in the stream. There are lots of people looking busy, sorting equipment or talking earnestly. This feels like a village with a purpose. It’s not somewhere people live their lives. It’s too high and too cold. Nothing grows. Though at one time it sheltered summer yak herders, now all the buildings and people are here for one reason only. To service trekkers and climbers and Everest expeditions.
In the afternoon, the dog pack follows D&L up the slope of the glacial moraine, but dwindles away in boredom one by one, leaving a single four legged guardian behind who settles down for a nap. They find a sheltered dip, in the sun, out of the wind, on a warm boulder, and bask. Half a dozen helicopters fly busily to and fro over their heads, heading for Everest Base Camp, delivering supplies or evacuating trekkers with altitude sickness.
Unusually, the sky remains clear right through till nightfall. They stroll back. Their cosy and clean lodge bedroom has been warmed by the sun streaming through skylights in the roof. At sunset the temperature plummets dramatically, but the dining room has lit its yak-dung stove and is toasty.
Soon, in their room it is too cold for L’s biros to write. She switches to pencil.