The Everest 3 Passes Trek Part 1: Tumlingtar to Namche Bazaar (the long version)

It has been awhile since I posted so pull up a chair, spend more time on the toilet or take a nap halfway thru this to read the whole thing.

After I arrived in Nepal (or maybe the day before), my back slowly started feeling better. Having planned a massive trek with my Basque friend Txaber, I was hopeful that stretching and exercises would slowly get me back into pain free life. But I was not in top shape. I spent about a week with my good friend Sagar and his Nepalese family at their house. Catching up and enjoying Nepali food. More on Sagar in a later blog.

Txaber showed up after having spent basically hiking and traveling for the last year in South America (where I met him and traveled with him). We had planned on working together in Bhutan but the visas fell through. Yet we continued with our plan to reconnect in the highest mountains in the world.

For those of you just joining us, I did much of this trek two years ago nearly to the day. However, that trek was completely different. It was a spiritual and emotional trek for me to reconnect with my now pain free body, visit places I trekked 17 years before, and re-visit Namche Bazaar to finally lay to rest my dog Namche that had died nearly 10 years prior; spreading her ashes above her namesake town, Namche Bazaar.

It was solo. It was powerful for me. And I loved it.

But I told myself I wasn’t going to do another 20 day trek solo. Certainly not the same one. Knowing you can’t step in the same river twice, I wanted to take my new buddy up with me and (perhaps) push the envelope a bit for my aging body. And get to see Nepal through the eyes of a newbie.

Flying to Tumlingtar in eastern Nepal, we were able to view the mighty Himalayan mountains we would soon start our approach towards. Being with a very fit man 21 years my junior can be intimidating. But I have done this trek. I know its hard. And lots of it is mental. Until its physical.

Starting out at around 285 meters (935 feet), we began what would be stage one. A 120 km journey through remote Nepal to heart of the Solu Khumbu; Namche Bazaar.

Nepal is subtropical with a latitude somewhere like mid Florida. When not in the mountains, its hot. Even in November. For those of you Climate Change deniers, I suggest you find a local farmer (or someone that works close to the earth) that isn’t a scientist. Ask them what they think. They all know because they live it.

It was the same for us. Discussing the weather (mosquitos in November?) was common when we spoke to anyone that could speak English in Nepal. Mountains are affected more dramatically. Middle hills that cultivate food and need predictable water? They are seemingly always on the edge. And the glaciers? Heartbreaking.

We slogged along the first few days, enjoying maybe six hours of relatively flat walking. We hiked 65 hours in total to Namche and other than maybe 8 hours, were either on our toes propelling ourselves up ancient stone stairways, or suffering knee crunching descents that defied logic.

Txaber and I both have about 14 kg (30 lb) packs, without water. Add two pounds per liter your carrying and you will see water management and when you fill and refill can make or break your day.

As we slowly approached the first (and highest pass) on this route, it was obvious they had started to build the road farther and farther into the hills. Two years ago when I blogged about this trek, I marveled at time standing still in this region; save a few growing families. Now, the road actually was cut OVER the trail so not only was it confusing, it was dusty.

Yet, we still were able to drop into rural Nepali life. Namaste. Dal Baht. Chia. And cheap rundown trekkers lodges. At about $2 a bed and maybe about $4 for tea, dinner and breakfast, we meandered our way up the Arun valley. For the most part, Txaber didn’t need to wait for me much and I didn’t have much soreness nor back pain. Then the Salpa La arrived.

Starting at the base of the mountain, Salpa Phedi is at 1680 m (5511 feet). After we dined on a lifesaving meal of rice, potatoes and lentils for lunch (same place as two years ago), we jumped into one of the steepest sections of the trek after hiking all day. A stiff few hours and a 600 m (2000 feet) climb had me nearing collapse (especially after we passed the first guest house to climb another hour to the next) and physically spent in the afternoon heat. I had decided to let Txaber make decisions on staying places and we tried to not stay in the same places I did two years ago. So at least I would be able to have something other than my hair style to distinguish between trips.

Salivating at the prospect of momos and tea, we settled in our teahouse in Jobari. Sherpa country. Being able to stay and converse with these families is a joy. The mother, cook, gardener, housekeeper is alone with her two kids while her husband is working in Qatar and sending money home. This particular phenomena is not uncommon and has all sorts of repercussions economically if not socially. It is sad to see. But a reality more and more. And of course, they were kind and friendly and beautiful.

Every bit of consumption by us did not go unnoticed by me. For everything that was not grown there had to be carried up in someone’s back; reminding me that nearly all of western cultures desires have been brought to us in the backs of exploited indigenous people. Nearly all since that first Silver mine in Potosí Bolivia. And our consumption provides a livelihood at times, but normally it’s an exploitative beat down. I cringed when I drank the coke to get me energy. Or the cookies to satiate my hunger.

Settling into time with these people makes my heart burst. I am not sure why I wasn’t more appreciative of it this time or more focused. Likely it was my obsession with my wheezing body. I knew what lay ahead; three of the most crushing passes I have ever climbed. And I had done them three times previously. And suffered the knee exploding downhills. And there is no way out of there on many of the days. Not even on horseback. I had done it twice solo. This time, a blown out ankle or knee would saddle Txaber with the responsibility of saving me or leaving me for Yeti food.

The Salpa La or Salpa pass lies at 3349 meters (11000 feet) and the trail continues up from Jobari, completing the ~1700 m (5600 feet) climb from Salpa Phedi. I had done the whole thing from Salpa Phedi in a day twice. No fun. Nor was this.

Txaber wisely suggested we stay at the pass. I remembered there was yet another life-saving tea hut there two years ago but couldn’t remember if they let bedraggled trekkers sleep in their smoky rooms. They did. We did.

Now normally I would have just blown thru the pass, and continued onto the descent to pound my knees down to Sanam, 800 m (2500 feet) below the pass. Ouch.

Instead, the drunk, engaging, late 50s sherpa man with his infectious laugh had us decide to break stride, make the day short and attempt the Silichori lookout at 4100 m (13,500 ft) the next morning. This lookout I never considered attempting for many reasons. Normally weather or time. But we had both on our side this time.

We laughed and danced a bit with the many porters that were carrying the gear for two 80, yes, 80 year old Japanese guys that wanted to attempt the high lookout. Arriving a different way than we did, they camped above the teahouse. So the boys came down to share some local booze and laughs as the sherpa lady commandeered my harmonica and danced around the tiny blackened shack.

Rising early and leaving our packs in the dirty dorm rooms, we brought water and biscuits and raced up to the peak, climbing a total of ~700 m (2200 ft) to view the stunning array of unobstructed Himalaya. Txaber exclaimed “ooh la la! Sexy” when he first witnessed the panorama from Katchenjunga (the world’s 3rd highest mountain) in the east to Everest in the west. Nice.

The bad news was we now had to descend from 4100 meters to 2500 meters. Half with a full back. That’s about 5300 feet for you Americans keeping score at home. I paid the price. But we had a wonderful sherpa family take us in, let us sleep in the dining room and gorge ourselves on unlimited, well-deserved Dal Baht. They spoke decent English and it felt like we were visiting family; even when a group of locals piled in to sleep in the dining room with us at midnight and decide to make food.

The general theme of the development in this area is pushing the control to the local govt for decisions as to how to do it. I like the energy around it but the expertise is lacking. We talked about it at length with a few folks. The general theme being sharing and developing together. Not being the richest dude. Ahhh. Buddhism.

Our next few days were filled with three more passes; two of them nearly as crushing as the last.

On our day 7 we were joined by a dog that limped the entire way with us, slept outside our door and followed us half the next day before disappearing. He was obsessed with Txaber even though i was giving him love. I had to accept not all dogs think I’m the best!

After day 9, I was still sore. Hmmm. Bobby was a little out of shape. But I kept up; rarely more than 5 minutes behind Txaber if not more drenched in sweat.

As we rolled into the Lukla region and the masses of trekkers on tours and flying in became more numerous, I had my moment. Crossing one of the bridges on the way to Namche, feeling energized by my $2.50 Mars bar, listening to Warren Zevon’s “Splendid Isolation” over and over again. No one else on the trail at that moment. Txaber hanging behind me. It hit me unexpectedly. Everything from Namche to the wonderful Nepalese people to my good fortune to get to do what I love. Again. I had my moment. Deep satisfying happy and pensive tears. Valuing my return to this place and still wishing I could figure a way to stay longer. But alas, I can’t. But I CAN return. It is special. To me. Txaber unknowingly caught the moment.

Always a learning experience here, I try to stay out of my head and in my heart here. I practice and fail with patience and acceptance and non-judgement. And Txaber is a great travel companion for all of that. In fact, I couldn’t ask for a better traveler companion to tackle these mountains and this adventure.

He has rocketed past my brother Dave, my Norwegian friend Anne, and old girlfriends Becky and Andrea on the list of “time traveling with Bob”. Next up on the list is Pascalle which he will pass on this trip and far down the line is John from Australia and Thomas from Switzerland many moons ago. That will likely require another trip or two to get to #1! Well, actually Namche is #1 time-wise and will never be surpassed. It was many many months and years of traveling with her. I still miss her and she’s in my dreams here. Rolling into Namche Bazaar certainly didn’t have the same effect on me as last time. But amazing nonetheless. And i got to sit for awhile where I spread Namche’s ashes two years ago.

Over ten days we hiked 120 km from Tumlingtar to Namche. It took 65 hours including breaks. Our total climbing was 10,941 meters (35,900 ft) and total descent was 7,882 meters (25,800 feet). So we have already more than climbed sea level to the summit of Mt Everest. With more to come.

The plan for the next two weeks is to acclimatize here in Namche, then attempt not only the 3 passes trek (Renjo La, Cho La, Kongma La) clockwise with all three over 5200 meters (17000 feet) AND hit all three lookouts (Gokyo Ri, Kala Pattar, Chukung Ri) also all over 5200 meters. Are you freaking kidding me? Whoa. We will see.

Namaste to all my friends and family. Thanks for listening to my distracted missive. Wish me luck on the hardest trek of my life.

Tashidelek!

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