The first part of the trail to Everest is all dogs, chickens, dung and broken rock — and that's just leaving Lukla airport. As you depart town, several large mane — spinning prayer wheels — are ritually visited both to purify our souls and seed the trail ahead with good luck. We'll need it, even on the short three-hour descent to Phakding, spent descending arrhythmic stone stairways, dodging donkey and ghopkyo (a yak/cow cross used below the yak's favoured 3,000-metre threshold) trains, and navigating a string of verdant agricultural villages.
Despite a summer of hiking the Sea to Sky corridor, it's rough on the calves, making the next day's seven-hour haul to Namche Bazar even more gruelling. Fortunately we'll rest during an acclimatization day in Namche, the Sherpa capital occupying a famous alpine amphitheatre at 3,440 metres. Nevertheless, my first thought on the trail that follows the scenic Dudh Kosi river — which by mid-morning fills with trekkers, trains and porters schlepping everything you can imagine in loads you can't — isn't about leg pain, but how many world-famous climbers have passed this way. They are names that sound out their own mantra — Hilary, Bonnington, Messner, Lowe, Anker.
We pass two checkpoints — police, then the entry to Sagarmatha National Park — before a long descent to Jorsale. Here, we lunch at aptly named Nirvana Lodge; tucked off the trail through a gate, we sit in a lovely sun-drenched garden beneath a cliff where none of the traffic is within sight or even earshot. Afterward we crisscross the river until ascending switchbacks to the highest suspension bridge yet and a 600-metre vertical shot up to Namche. A third of the way up, where a Tibetan woman sits beneath the pines on a blanket selling green oranges, we get our first glimpse of Everest through the trees.
Up ahead, Asta keeps pace — and fractured conversation — with Norbu Sherpa. Moving slowly, I bring up the rear flanked by guide Nowa. A nice but nerdy physics student of 21 leading treks for brother Narayan's trekaroundnepal.com, Nowa seemed out of sorts during our meeting in Kathmandu. Having forgotten both his medical kit and a warm jacket, he'd had to suffer the crush of Thamel to outfit himself with a knock-off North Face puffy. Now sorted, he wears it no matter the temperature, and keeps busy talking on his phone or geo-tagging photos for a travel blog.
(As in the rest of the developing world, the smartphone has transformed Nepal, its trekking industry — for both safety and logistical reasons — and, most vividly, the trail scene. In contrast to my Annapurna trek 15 years before, animal-drivers now also chatted on cell phones, listened to music, or watched YouTube videos as they walked; ditto guides and porters, with good reception all the way to Everest. A more welcome change was the porters' vastly improved welfare. Previously bedraggled in scraps of clothing, with car-tire sandals or even barefoot, all now had cheap but functional knock-off trekking footwear and down outwear.)
A day spent in Namche is a trip unto itself. You can read about this busy transit point and the sordid drinking exploits of British climbing types here, but nothing prepares you for a road less city in the sky, with dozens of hotels and a commercial drag where a climbing party to Everest could outfit itself top to bottom. The town doesn't make its money on expeditions, of course, but on trekkers. And there are plenty rolling in and out, even if numbers are down 30 per cent as a result of the April earthquake and current fuel crisis. Searching out WiFi, they crowd coffee shops and bakeries and even an Irish pub that screens documentaries every afternoon — cocktail hour in the Himalaya, where cans of well-shaken, porter-delivered Guinness stung Asta and I for $10 each.
The next day's long trek to Tengboche Monastery follows a wide track that contours above a deep gorge, where we see a clutch of now-rare Himalayan tahr grazing a hillside. An abundance of mani (prayer) walls and stupas occupy every eminence — the deep roots of Tibetan Buddhism written large on the landscape. After the first sight of Ama Dablam's spectacular 6,812-metre spire, we descend to the tea shacks of Phungi Thanka to rest and eat. The subsequent two-hour ascent to Tengboche slowly reveals the stunning alpine amphitheatre between Kangtega (6,585 m) and sacred Thamserku (6,608 m), a mountain closed to climbing whose precipitously fluted face, we imagine, is still coveted by climbers.
Tengboche's setting is one of the most beautiful in the Himalaya, but our old hotel of hand-hewn rock is ice-cold inside. We pull back the curtain to coax some warmth from a dying sun only to find Everest staring back, so close we can't imagine the difficulty of the four days it will take to reach it...
Next time—Finding Everest IV: An Unexpected Pilgrim. For previous articles, go to www.piquenewsmagazine.com