Two entire days in a row of actual rest can have a strange and unexpected effect when on a multi-week trek in the mountains. My legs had not felt worn out or sore at any point on the trek. However, my legs were stiff and sore when we hit the trail to make our way back to Lukla. This was a nagging detail in the back of my mind, because our two day return to Lukla would be arduous. Our return would be shorter, because we were taking a “short-cut” over the Zatrwa La pass. However, we would have to descend first to about 11,000 feet and then climb up and over a very steep 15,120 pass feet before descending down to Lukla at 9800 feet. “Nothing like waiting until the end to do a burley pass”, I thought, as my legs begrudgingly worked their way down the trail.
Just before lunch, we made it to Takto. It was clear that the members of the group were starting to move more at their own pace the last couple days. Matt and Andrew, being the fastest and strongest, were far ahead of the rest of us. Christen and I, like usual, were still bringing up the caboose. We still wanted to keep moving, though. We opted to move ahead of our porters while they ate lunch and eat snacks as we hiked. It felt good to get a little bit ahead, since we frequently had to stop to rest. The trail after lunch started the very steep climb toward the Zatrwa La pass.
As we continued to climb, the view behind us opened up to staggering perspectives. Mera Peak was prominent in our sight. It was almost as if it were saying goodbye to us. The sun was warm and bright, and the clouds were big and fluffy. Once again, though, the weather started to cloud up very rapidly and temperatures dropped as we continued to climb through mid-day.
In the early afternoon, Christen and I appeared to be nearing the top of the steep climb and crested a ridge. I had gotten myself into trouble with Christen several times by suggesting that we were nearing the end of the day’s hike or the end of the uphill sections when we in fact were not. I almost ended up losing my life on this day. I made the very poor decision to tell her that I thought we were nearing the top of the pass. Not only was I wrong, we had several hard climbs left before reaching our destination for the night, Thuli Kharka, and a significant climb the next morning before reaching the pass. As we continued hiking (upwards) throughout the day and the next morning, Christen seemed to emit a little steam from her ears every time she looked my way.
As we got to Thuli Kharka, I made sure to give Christen a little space to protect myself. She cheered up quickly, though, as we made it to the lodge. There was an interesting group of people hanging out, highlighted by a Polish team that had a professional classically trained pianist as their chief diplomat. We had lots of fun comparing trekking stories and drinking tendencies with our Eastern European brethren.
As we were all laughing at one of Christen’s jokes, a porter with another group staggered up to the lodge with a load that was at least three times his size. I asked him how much it weighed, and he said it was 60 kg (132 lbs)! So much for legal weight limits for porters… They are supposed to carry no more than 35 kg (still 77 lbs). I was again glad to be working with a company that believes in fair work conditions.
On the morning of the final day, the weather was cold and bright. We were all anxious to get going, though. We had all been through a lot, and getting up and over the last big obstacle was all that was on anyone’s mind. The landscape was very open. There was no-where to hide from the wind. As we neared the top of the pass at 15,120 feet, the wind grew bitingly cold. The trail was also slick with snow in spots. Our normal routine of going fast on the descents had to take a back seat. The last day of hiking would prove to require just as much mental attention as any other.
As we made our way down over 5000 vertical feet to Lukla, we were greeted by many trekkers climbing up the pass. They were taking the shorter route to Mera peak over the Zatrwa La pass instead of the more gradual climb we took on the start of our trek. While their route is more direct, it is much riskier for altitude sickness. Many of the trekkers we met were going from Sea Level where they lived to Lukla (9800 feet) to the top of Zatrwa La pass (15,120 feet) in the matter of a couple days. We had run into a trekker several days earlier who had tried this aggressive itinerary and had to cut his trip short due to altitude sickness… I am glad we saved this pass for the end of our trek.
Just as we were working our way down from the pass toward our lunch stop, a hail and rain storm rushed in from seemingly nowhere. Once again, we were fortunate to be walking up to the tea house just as the deluge began. Thankfully, Glen had one more opportunity to break out his stylish plaid golf umbrella.
Just as we did through the whole trek, Christen and I decided to get our money’s worth and arrive last in Lukla. As we slowly worked our way through the farms dotting the mountainside, silliness prevailed. It seemed like we were in a constant state of goofing around and dancing. Everyone was in a fun mood despite the wet weather.
The last night of a trek is always special for one reason or another. In our case, the trekkers decided to do something nice for the porters and guides. Through the entire trip, they had been serving us at every meal. Matt had the brilliant idea that we should take a turn serving them dinner. The thought was nice, but the lodge owners were (understandably) weary of letting a group of clumsy, untrained, western tourists into their kitchen. We settled for a compromise. We had all of the staff order what they wanted off the menu and had a large meal all together to celebrate. They even let us buy the beer (and Red Bull for those who do not drink).
What started as a warm, relaxed dinner with friends turned suddenly into a West-meets-East dance party, complete with Everest Beer, Cheap Canadian Whisky, Red Bull, traditional Nepali music, and yes, Justin Bieber. Christen even joined the staff in a confusing, if not mind-numbingly lengthy, traditional Sherpa dance. It may be what drained all of her energy leaving her vulnerable to the rabbit trap that would snare her in the middle of the night… but that is for another blog post.
Once again, the weather in the Himalaya were to show us yet again how little we have in our own control. Lukla has a notorious airstrip. Not only is it nestled deep in a valley between a mountainside and a cliff, the weather frequently decides to muck up the flights. As we made our way off to bed (except Christen who was preparing to get caught in the rabbit trap), we all crossed our fingers for the weather. Flights had been cancelled for the previous three days. Glen told us that if we faced cancelled flights, our fallback plan was to hike an additional two days to where we would rent jeeps. Then, we would have to ride over treacherous roads for 18 hours a day for two days to get back to Kathmandu. I was crossing all the fingers I could. The jeep ride did not sound as much fun as it did when discussed in ‘theory’ at the start of the trek.
All of our fears were for naught, though. We woke to a beautiful morning with partially cloudy, but clearing, skies. Our flight back to Kathmandu was to take off as planned. The general theme of our trip had been ‘timing’. Because of weather, groups who were as little as one day on either side of us failed to make their entire trip without a hitch. Mother nature was very kind to us indeed.