14 November, Namche Bazaar, Khumbu Valley, 3400m, 2:45pm
We took a flight out of Kathmandu on Friday the 13th (!), waking up very early to be at the airport before dawn. Like most things in Kathmandu, the airport is chaos, but with the help of the local agents we use, we moved through rather swiftly, and got on our own chartered Twin Otter plane to fly us to Lukla. The landing at Lukla is something special. The runway is probably 500m, with a sheer drop-off on the approach side, and with a cliff wall on the other end. No room for error. We started walking as soon as our bags were sorted. The heavy packs went ahead, being carried by porters. These guys are amazing: short, tiny people, and I saw one of them carry my 19kg bag, as well as two others, on his back, making a load of around 50kg on someone not weighing much more himself.
First night was spent at the village of Phakding in a very comfortable lodge. On Saturday we moved up the valley, over countless suspension bridges, and then a very stiff climb up to Namche Bazaar. It’s a beautiful village high up in the mountains, kind of centered around the “bazaar”, a very colorful open-air market. But once up here, the altitude really started showing its effects. It’s an effort merely to walk up a flight of stairs. Last night I found myself out of breath from merely turning around in bed. Today (Sunday) was spent doing a short acclimatization walk up to the Everest View Hotel at 3800m. We got very good views on Ama Dablam, but the summit of Everest is somewhat obscured by cloud today.
While there, our guide Gary gave us a short talk on the effects of altitude. Climbing at high altitude forces you to take an interest in your body, and become quite expert at it. I guess the same thing happens when you get diagnosed with cancer. So firstly, when we were down in Phakding at 2610m, we did oxygen saturation tests on ourselves – mine was at 92%, which was roughly the group average. At sea level that will have an ER doctor slap an oxygen mask on you in no time. But up here, the body learns to adapt rather quickly. At the altitudes where we’ll be climbing, there will be about 50% of the oxygen that one finds at sea level. The body adapts by manufacturing more red blood cells, which, combined with fluid loss, makes your blood thicker! Because of the dry air, one loses around 4l of water per day just through breathing, so hydrating yourself properly becomes a real focus-point. Also, you slow down a bit mentally J. Gary mentions that he does the simply Soduku problems from the book he carries with him, in around 9 minutes at sea level, and it takes him more than 20 minutes at altitude. And the real interesting thing is he’s not aware that he’s “slower”. But yes, it’s quite an effort just to type this dispatch.
I’m actually sitting in a small internet café, here high in the mountains. There’s loaded Yaks going past just outside the door right now. It’s amazing when you realize everything you see is carried here on the backs of people and Yaks. The Sherpa people are absolutely wonderful, the most peaceful, friendly people imaginable. Everywhere you go, you’re greeted with “Namaste” and a friendly smile. (“Namaste” is an old Sanskrit word, meaning “I salute you”). Already their friendly, positive attitude to life has taught me a lot about handling the hard parts of life. I’ll talk about these people, and their great attitude to life, in a future dispatch.