Our trip is winding down. Dad is thankful to retreat to lower elevation where a cough he’s developed can subside, though the next week of downhill will have no mercy on our knees.
We treat ourselves to a couple of very long days, in return for extra total-rest days, trading off our original itinerary of short hikes for grueling all-day excursions. The results are rewarding.
Our first night in Gokyo was not only our best sleep on the trip yet, but it was the longest time we have spent in bed so far, from at least 8:30pm until 7:30am. Because of our perseverance the day before, we are awarded a long, leisurely day with gorgeous weather in this quaint lakeside town.
After a late breakfast and relaxing morning warming up to the frigid air outside, the four of us take a walk around the emerald-green lake that makes Gokyo one of the Top-3 trekker’s destinations in Nepal. We take pictures, play in the sand, and jump around rocks underneath the towering razor-like mountains on the opposite end of the lake.
Gokyo also boasts one of the most impressive views of Cho-Oyu, one of the world’s few and far between 8,000 meter peaks. I’d read before that Cho-Oyu is one of the most attainable (avoiding the word “easiest”) of the 14 to summit, though the formidable peak is still not to be underestimated.
We are still acutely aware of our elevation here. Just walking along the flat trail by the lake, we’re breathing more difficultly and taking more stops than we would at home or in the gym. It’s wild to imagine the time on this trip that we’re spending above the tallest point in America.
Our guidebook makes Gokyo sound like an exciting, sprawling town, and we quickly discover that while it deserves the hype for its beautiful landscape, it is no larger or luxurious than the villages we’re used to over the last few weeks. We read for a few hours after lunch and head to a bakery recommended by Lonely Planet. The taste of freshly brewed espresso and shared platters of walnut brownie and banana bread revive us. We sit by the window and strip our jackets, letting the sun warm our thinly-clad backs.
Day 16: Gokyo (15,580 ft.) to Lumde (14,370 ft.) over Renjo-La Pass (17,690 ft.)
Dad delays our typically early-morning start that’s accompanied us on the last two passes. For some reason, even though Gokyo is at a comparable altitude with our other lodges, the village feels much colder and we’re feeling patient enough to let the sun warm the lake and hillsides before setting out on our 8 hour day. We leave at 7:30 instead, which is about as much “sleeping in” as we’ll get.
Throughout the entire hike, we have a clear view of the tiny village of Gokyo below us, growing smaller as we climber higher. Our path zig-zags along the hillside up past the alpine lake, growing over a huge ridge of rocks where we scramble with our hands and feet to clamber upwards. It’s such a seemingly short distance, and at sea level it shouldn’t take us too long, but high above the tallest point in America, our lungs are short of breath and our muscles short of oxygen. It takes us three and a half hours to reach the pinnacle of prayer flags and people shouting loud “whoooops” of celebration at the top.
The descent is endless. We’re blessed with good weather which aids our spirits as we wind farther and farther through valleys, hopping over streams, traversing hillsides and kicking up dust until we finally see the tiny dots that mark Lumde below. By the time we reach our lodge flurries of snow are whipping around us, and no more than an hour after we’ve had a cup of hot tea and dug into our books, a whiteout outside blocks all views of the previously stunning mountain backdrops that drape across both sides of town.
So close to the seeming metropolis of Namche Bazaar, and so far from the outer reaches of Gorak Shep, Dad and I are surprised to find our lodge in Lumde to be the most primitive that we’ve stayed at. The one door separating kitchen from dining area swings open every few minutes, letting the billowing cold and weather into our dung-heated common area. While we don’t need to leave the building to access the toilet, the room is lined with sheet metal effectively keeping out any warmth (albeit, smells as well). We also don’t have a light in our room and navigate nighttime by the glow of our headlamps. These aren’t complaints, though; we’re accustomed to simple living by now.
Day 17: Lumde (14,370 ft.) to Namche Bazaar (11,286 ft.)
Today we are on the most beautiful trail that we’ve encountered so far. The wide dirt path wanders downhill at a slow grade, making our entire day a leisurely and enjoyable walk along the river and through some of the most famous villages west of Namche.
We transition down past the tree level again, trading the harsh mountain environments we’ve adapted to with a lush, colorful countryside. There are signs of life (and tourism) through Thame, which we reach late morning. Our original stopping point of the day, Thame is a sprawling city of a village that boasts endless lodges and restaurants, catering to Gokyo trekkers on their way up. Indeed we pass dozens and dozens of more trekkers than we’d seen in the last day, happily clad in shorts and t-shirts.
We wind down into Namche over a ridge full of prayer-carved stones scattered across an area the size of a football field, painted with colorful words. Construction workers are digging deep tombs beneath some of the rock slabs which makes me question whether this is a sacred prayer area, or a graveyard.
Day 18: Rest day in Namche Bazaar (11,286 ft.)
We get to enjoy another full rest day in the village hub of the Everest region. Namche Bazaar is a true trekkers paradise; pubs serving the only cold beers you’ll find on the trail, movie and documentary showings, bakeries with limitless options for sweet tooths, and an abundance of information and cultural tours on local life.
In the morning we set off for the Sherpa museum, perched on a northeast hill overlooking the town. We see a traditional Sherpa home, stocked with tools, clothes, and decorations from years ago. The truth is that the Sherpa are typically such humble and traditional people whose lives haven’t completely revolutionized with the introduction of modern technology, and so much of what we see is already familiar to us.
On our way back into town we stop by the famous Namche Market, warming up for weekend traffic. Every Friday hundreds of local people from neighboring villages meet here to trade food and other supplies for the largest market in the Khumbu Valley. We see the seats, tea pots, spices, and other amenities that all of our lodges have been using – most likely originally purchased right here.
Dad and I enjoy pizza, pastries, and coffee for lunch and spend the entire afternoon buried in our new books. We’ve accumulated a small library on this trek of classic non-fiction mountaineering stories. Over the last few weeks it seems we’ve been racing each other to finish a book, trade with the other person, and buy new when we’ve run dry. It is on one hand very fulfilling and appropriate given the climate we’re in, but on the other hand embarrassing to be voluntarily carrying so much extra weight on a trek where we already require the assistance of a guide and porter. I hide the extra books in my backpack and hope Pasang or Ang won’t notice.
Day 19: Namche Bazaar (11,286 ft.) to Monju (9,301 ft.)
I wake up sick in the middle of the night, my body fighting itself, covered in a cold sweat and a hot fever and unable to move until mid-day. My dad, Pasang, and Ang are all very thoughtful and helpful in my agonizing walk down the gentle terrain that leads out of Namche.
Luckily, today consists of almost exclusively downhills. Unfortunately, I am too incapacitated by my pounding headache and seemingly endless supply of sweating pores to take a single photo on our descent to Monju.
It takes us about three hours in the hot afternoon sun to reach this tiny town perched on a cliff overlooking the river. We are completely in the forest now, breathing in the psychological affects of extra oxygen that the trees bring us.
Because of my sickliness (which has totally cleared up today), we have a longer day than originally planned, and it takes us about five hours to reach the tiny airport town of Lukla. Today, it seems, 90% of the trail winds through villages, with short departures up steep hillsides or stretches along the forested side of the river. We’ve come a long way from the few-and-far-between lodges at higher altitude. Here, a bottle of water is sold for the meager price of 80 rupees and snickers bars are down to a manageable 90.
Dad and I both get our own king-sized beds tonight, sprawling our dirty backpacks and sweat-stained shoes around the room as we settle in. We’ve long run out of “clean” clothes so we don our favorite, somewhat clean and comfortable, outfits for a final celebratory dinner with Pasang and Ang.
Six large cold beers, four heaping platters of dal bhat, and endless card games later, we thank our companions for their help on our journey and call it a night. In the morning we’ll all carry our bags to the airport to depart back to Kathmandu, an easy process made headache-inducing with its unavoidable crowds and lines and Dad’s impatience.
Leaving Lukla, our friends give us khasi scarves for thanks and good luck on our journey. I know that this will not be the last time I see this beautiful valley and it’s charming villages, so it is easier to say goodbye for now. The flight rewards us with stunning views to the west of the mountains we’d walked between for the last three weeks, reminding us that no matter how long our memories of this place stand, these peaks will stand longer.