Day 11 – Chukung to Island Peak base camp

And so the day has come to set off on the climb of Island Peak. At 6189 meters Island Peak (locally known as Imja Tse) is a popular climbing peak, and features many mountaineering challenges, including rocky scrambles, a glacier walk, ladders crossing crevasses, a near vertical wall of ice and a tiny ridge to walk along the width of 2 boots all leading to a summit that is the size of a dining room table, not to mention high altitude where oxygen levels are half that in Cayman, climbing for 5 hours during the night by torch light and temperatures expected to plummet to minus 30 degrees Celsius. A true Himalayan adventure.

The summit team of Cayman Turtle Trekkers set off for Base Camp. The trail wound its way up the banks of the Imja Khola river with Lhotse on one side and Ama Dablam on the other side of the valley, but all pointing to Island Peak, which as the name suggests stands alone like an island between these mountain ranges.

After a three hour hike, we arrived at the Base Camp at the foot of Island Peak and on the banks of Imja Tsho lake.

Base Camp is a collection of large dining and kitchen tents and small two man sleeping tents. It made for a colorful interlude amongst the barren glacial moraine. We were greeted by the camp chef handing out hot mango tea and a bowl of delicious pasta.

Then it was time for the Turtle Trekkers to wish the summit team good luck and begin the return journey to Chhukung and for the summit team to prepare their sleeping bags and gear for a night in the expedition tents, where temperatures in the tents were expected to drop to minus 30 degrees Celsius. Tomorrow the summit team will do some climbing training and then move to High Camp , half way up the mountain.

Day 10 – Dingboche to Chhukung

Our day today is relatively relaxed with a 4km hike covering an altitude increase of 300m to Chhukunk, which is predominantly a Tea House stop at a junction of trekking routes. Chhukung is our stepping off point for Island Peak where tomorrow the summit team will set off for Island Peak Base camp with the remaining Trekkers either trekking local trails and passes or just taking advantage of a rest day.

The route today followed a barren but picturesque valley and river at a steady incline with an unexpected cafe appearing half way providing a now staple and refreshing honey, lemon ginger tea.

Along the way we are again reminded of the realities of life without roads or any form of mechanized transportation when a man passes us carrying a huge piece of slate on his back and strapped around his forehead. There are no roads at all in this region of Nepal and haven’t been since we landed in Lukla.

We also trek through an abundance of fragrant Juniper bushes making the chefs in our party envious.

Our Tea House is one of the more comfortable we have encountered with truly spectacular views all around. Comfortable doesn’t extend to any heating, showers, toilets in the room or even sinks but it’s all relative. Behind us is the mighty Lhotse casting shadow over the valley. Nothing however can increase the temperature which at night is well below freezing. All the Turtles are feeling the cold and longing for the Caribbean sun.

Tonight those preparing to summit receive a final briefing from Sherpa Mingma ready to trek to Base camp tomorrow. The following day will be an ice climbing skills course followed by a trek to High Camp and then finally in the wee hours of the following morning the assault will commence.

Day 9 – Gorak Shep to summit Kala Patthar and back to Dingboche

As Mingma had promised at last night’s dinner it was a long day.

Our day started with a 4.00 am wake call so we could climb Mt. Kala Patthar in time for sunrise. Gorak Shep, altitude (5140m), is one of the highest in the world and not surprisingly a cold place to stay besides the Khumbu glacier. The hotel rooms were below freezing and when we left the hotel to set off for the climb the temperature was a frigid -16 degrees Celsius.

Mt Kala Patthar at 5540metres sits above Gorak Shep and provides an incredible panarama of the Everest Massif trek up. Sunrise is the best time to photograph this incredible scenery. Some of our intrepid Turtle Trekkers braved the cold and the steep slopes and climbed the mountain and an hour or two later. The Cayman Turtle Trekkers summited. Spectacular views and photo opportunities were are reward.

If that was not enough exercise for one day, after breakfast we set off on the Long road home to Dingboche retraced our steps from the outbound which took us two days.

Arrived in Dingboche late having spent 45 mins in the clouds and arriving to a smoke filled village. Being above the tree line there is no wood to burn but fortunately there are many yaks who produce something ideal to burn as fuel. The scent does permeate the village early evening.

Day 8 – Lobuche to Everest Base Camp (EBC) and on to Gorak Shep

At today’s 5:30am wake up call the dawn was breaking clear and a crisp -10 degrees Celsius in Lobuche. Our first stop after a 4 kilometer hike was to drop our bags at the tea house in Gorak Shep, a small village closest to Everest Base Camp. It sits at 5200 meters on the banks of the Khumbu glacier and under the majestic Lhotse (8,516m) the worlds 4th highest mountain.

After lunch we set off for the 8 kilometer round trip trek to Everest Base Camp. Every spring the base camp becomes a teeming tent city with expeditions from all over the world coming to chance their luck at scaling Mt Everest. it has become a pilgrimage for Trekkers as just to reach the BaseCamp, as we are finding out, is a mighty physical and mental achievement.

Fortunatelay for us we had the ideal guide to show us the way. Sherpa Mingma is our guide for the whole trekking trip and the climb of Island Peak.

Sherpa Mingma was born in Lukla and as a boy saw the constant flow of trekkers and climbers arriving in his home town and heading for the high mountains. As a boy he had a dream of climbing Everest. His father was a climbing guide. At 18 he started started trekking as a porter. His brothers were also trekking guides and soon realized Mingma had the talent to be an assistant trekking guide. For 2 years he did this and also started learning and training to acquire the skill sets as a climbing and guiding professional. He took many many climbing and guiding courses with the Nepali Mountaineering Association and the Khumbu Climbing Centre. He stated leading clients on the leading 6000m. peaks as a trekking leader. Finally his big chance came in May 2018 when his brother told Mingma he could guide on Everest with Himalayan Trailblazers. On 21 May 2018 Mingma summited Everest for the first time. Mingma has many fascinating tales about his climbing experiences and we are lucky to have him leading our team..

The trek to the base camp was an undulating walk along and across the side of the Khumbu glacier, one of the biggest glaciers in the world, and finally we crossed the glacier to the Base Camp at 5250m. We were all elated at reaching one of our primary goals of the trip. It sits opposite the Khumbu Ice fall which is the gateway to the route to the summit. It sits on the glacial moraine in a spectacular amphitheater of the worlds highest mountains. An expedition member can expect to spend up to 60 days at this base camp when they attempt an Everest climb.

With the sun starting to dip behind the mountains, we headed back along the ridge walk and got back just in time as the sun set and the temperatures started to plummet. It had been an exhausting but rewarding day.

And our prize for achieving one of our goals…… Mingma telling us the plan tomorrow is a 4.00am wake up call so we can climb Mt Kala Pathar (5650m) by torch light to watch the sunrise over Everest. We should dress warmly as it could be -15 degrees Celsius and following the climb it will be a15 kilometer hike back down to Dingboche. Quiet Sunday in prospect for the Cayman Turtle Trekkers.

Day 7 – Dingboche to Lobuche

Our day started early and cold, which seems to be a theme, with the steep incline out of Dingboche village and then taking the long flat valley path in the shadow of Mt Tabuche (6362m) and Mt Cholatse (6335m) and above the river valley that flows off the Khumbu Glacier at the foot of Mt Everest. Every direction gives rise to spectacular mountain panaramas but we bid goodbye to Mt Ama Dablam, the sentinel that towers over Dingboche.

The trail to Everest Base Camp is quite busy at this time of year and many trekking parties Zig zag pilgrim like along the path that leads to the sacred mountain. There are no roads or vehicular traffic in this high region of the Khumbu valley and only footpaths for people and yaks (and of course naks and dzopas) join the little villages. The Himalaya are ever changing and rock falls and erosion give up the mountains’ prizes and glittering crystals can be seen on and around the trails.

After a brief lunch stop at Thukla we embark upon the main climb of the day up to Lobuche. All of Cayman Turtle Trekkers are beginning to feel the effects of altitude and progress up the hill at almost 5000 meters is reduced to a slow Turtle like plod, which at average speed of 2 km an hour may not sound speedy but slowly and surely it allows us to climb the 643 meters of ascent to Lobuche.

At the top of the climb we pass through the Sherpa memorial grounds which honors the heroes of Mt Everest, the sherpas and guides that make it possible for mountaineers from all over the world to climb the worlds highest mountain. The top team of Sherpas are called the Ice Doctors as they are highly skilled climbers who set fixed ladders and ropes and carry heavy loads through the Khumbu Icefall, which is the gateway and key to the route up the Western Cwm to the Lhotse face and on to the South Col and the final ridge to the summit. Sadly, climbing Everest is a dangerous proposition and the stone memorials draped with prayer flags on the plateau-below the world’s highest mountains sit as a fitting memorial of the men and woman who died on Everest but whose names live on for ever in mountaineering folklore.

We arrive exhausted at the small town of Lobuche situated at 4,920m by the side of the Khumbu Glacier under the watchful gaze of Mt Nuptse and Mt Pumori. Our reward for reaching our destination is a later afternoon hike up to just over 5,000m to help us acclimatize for the days ahead. The view over the glacier is spectacular but the sun sets over the valley and the bearable warm sunny days gives way to the frigidly cold night and we scurry back to the tea house for dinner.

Our daily routine ends with dinner in the communal dining room with our Sherpa guides and other Trekkers. Everyone gathers around the yak dung fueled fire to get warm before retreating to the very basic bedrooms. These seem to be made of plywood and are unheated so in other words arctic cold. Mingma, our head Sherpa, ends our dinner with the plan for tomorrow. It’s our big day as we head out at 6.00am to start the 12 kilometer round trip trek to Everest Base Camp and Gorak Shep. Our first expedition goal is within touching distance.

Day 6 – A day in Dingboche – Prayer flags and another spectacular view

As we continue our ascent to the higher regions, the planned rest day in Dingboche is used to assist with acclimatision and also allows us to push higher during the day, and return, to expose us to even higher altitude and further assist with acclimatision. Our lodge, The Sonam Friendship Lodge is situated at 14,250ft and our acclimatision hike will take us to 15,250ft directly up the mountain behind our lodge.

Overnight temperatures plummet with a thick layer of ice forming on the inside of our room windows. Thankfully we have a relatively leisurely start to the day with our hike starting at 9am. It’s a slow but rewarding climb as we soak up views of the now familiar Ama Dablam and the mighty Lhotse but also we get our first good look at Island Peak.

As we move slowly up the climb we pass the familiar Stupas and Prayer Flags that are central to Tibetan culture. Traditionally, prayer flags come in sets of five, one in each of five colors. The five colors are arranged from left to right or from top to bottom in a specific order blue, white, red, green, and yellow. The five colors represent the five elements. Different elements are associated with different colors for specific traditions and purposes. Blue symbolizes the sky and space, white symbolizes the air and wind, red symbolizes fire, green symbolizes water, and yellow symbolizes earth. According to traditional Tibetan medicine, health and harmony are produced through the balance of the five elements. They are placed at high points be it on a mountain summit or ridge, atop of a home or building and always on and around a Stupa.

Traditionally, prayer flags are used to promote peace, compassion, strength and wisdom. The flags do not carry prayers to gods, which is a common misconception; rather the Tibetan people believe the prayers and mantras that are inscribed on the flags will be blown by the wind to spread the goodwill and compassion into all pervading space. For a traveller, they add life, colour and music as they flutter peacefully in the wind.

Tomorrow we pack up and head to Lobuche and the following day onwards through Everest base camp. Meanwhile this afternoon we are off to the local movie theatre to watch …. Everest!

Day 5 – Debuche to Dingboche – Do you believe in the Abominable Snowman?

We awoke this morning to a frosty start at -6 degrees C so it was a case of all layers on at least until the sun worked it’s magic. First stop today, by unanimous vote, was a slight one hour detour to visit Pangboche Monastery. The Monestary is quite small but is the oldest in Nepal and very peaceful with the unique attraction being a scalp and hand from a Yeti on display. Over the years these items have been subject to much controversy with the hand being stolen, a replica being displayed and a finger having been stolen and subject to DNA testing. The local Sherpa people tell a story of a Buddhist monk who lived in a cave in the mountains and made friends with yeti. The yeti would bring food and fuel to the monk and keep him company. One day the yeti went to fetch food for the monk but a huge snow storm happened and the poor yeti perished. The monk was very sad but to honor the yeti he promised to display the yeti’s scalp and bones in the monastery. The mystery of the yeti remains but is much revered in the valley.

From Pangboche, the trail wound it’s way through the pine forest to the river past several Buddhist Stupa and temples. As we climbed up along the river bank the trees started to thin out and the terrain gave way to alpine style meadows with low shrub like vegetation. In fact, we passed the last tree we will see for two weeks as all the high altitude trekking coming up is above the tree line. The trail was quite dramatic often being only a few feet wide and on the edge of a precipitous drop to the raging river swelled by the monsoon rains which have just ended for the year.

Dingboche is a relatively large village in Khumba, located between Pangboche and Chukhung and being above the tree line lacks the greenery of the villages. It sits at the foot of Mt Ama Dablam and the mighty south face of Lhotse and Nuptse ridge which guard the famous Western Cum and the route up to the South Col and the summit ridge of Everest.

At 14,300 feet the nights are freezing cold and the Trekkers are all feeling the altitude and the wear and tear of daily 10 km treks and climbs. But the prize of a visit to Everest Base Camp and scaling Mt. Kala Pathar are within touching distance only a few days away now and that is keeping the morale of the party high.

Day 4 – Namche to Tengboche and Debuche

The trek this morning retraced our steps of yesterday up the grueling stair climb out of the village. We were promised, following the initial stair climb, a “Nepali flat” trek taking us to lunch. Nepali flat turns out to be seriously undulating but not a constant ascent or descent. The terrain today was wooded along the valley where we enjoyed even more spectacular mountain and woodland views.

Most of the morning we could see the giant mountains that will be our backdrop for the next week or so and we stopped for tea, all very civilised, with an amazing view of Ama Dablam before a steep 400m descent to the river for lunch.

The lunch menu is now very familiar to us and seems to be the same in every restaurant, not surprising given all provisions have to be brought in by yak. The restaurant was by the suspension bridge across the Dudh Kush river and we watched quite a jam build up as a baby yak was trying to cross his first suspension bridge and was terrified (we all know that feeling) so would not move and blocked the bridge. Finally our Sherpa guide, Mingma, helped the yak driver persuade the baby yak to cross and the bridge traffic started to flow again.

After lunch we faced probably our toughest climb to date a relentless 600 meter march through the pine forest from the river valley up the hill to Tengboche. This was an intense experience as the climb is hard and hot work when the sun is out but as we climbed in to the clouds it started to snow and we all began to freeze. The trick to being in the mountains is to layer clothing and we all often stop to layer on or delayer as you get hot or cold.

Tengboche (Thyangboche) is a village in Khumbu Pasanglhamu rural region located at 3,867 metres. The village is famous for it’s important Buddhist monastery, Tengboche Monastery, which is the largest gompa in the Khumbu region.

Tenzing Norgay was an inhabitant of this village, and his notoriety being one of the first to reach the summit of Mt Everest in 1953 had a profound effect. Thereafter, the monastery has acquired international interest, as it is on the route to Everest base camp for routes made via the Khumbu icefall and west ridge. Everest expeditions visit the monastery to light candles and seek the blessings of Gods for good health and safe mountaineering.

It was cloudy and flicking with snow when we arrived at the monastery but we were lucky enough to get there in time to see the Buddhist monks start their prayers. Inside the monastery the monks were lined up on platforms in an ornately decorated prayer hall honoring the Buddha. With the red and orange robed monks chanting their mantra and ringing bells and cymbals and gongs and the burning insense it made for a truly authentic and timeless experience. The courtyard of the monastery closely resembles Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

The monastery is considered the gateway to Mount Everest. After overnighting in Debuche, approx. 100m below the monetary, with a last hot shower for two weeks on offer, we will cross through that gateway and continue our climb to Dingboche. Mount Everest and Island Peak are getting closer.

A question we have been pondering all day is considering that a female yak is a nak, what is yaks milk?

Day 3 – A day in Namche Bazaar, Yaks, Naks and Everest

The village of Namche Bazaar is located on crescent shaped mountain slopes that offer stunning views of the mountains across the valley.

Early morning views across Namche

Traditionally the village was a trading post, with locals bartering yak cheese and butter for agricultural goods grown at lower altitudes. However, after Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s successful climb of Everest in 1953, the dynamics of the village changed forever as climbers and trekkers soon followed in their wake. At first the groups came in a trickle, but in the 60s and 70s this turned into a torrent. In addition, as Namche is the first place on the Khumbu trek that is above altitude sickness threshold, most travelers prefer to spend at least two nights here in order to acclimatize. Still, despite the village’s popularity with trekkers, geographical restraints have contained its growth, and it remains a small settlement with no more than 60 dwellings. Namche sits on a mountain slope that makes even wandering the town an exhausting experience. The town sells everything imaginable for Trekkers and climbers, a true bazaar.

Our rest day in Namche started with a grueling trek which effectively was a steep two hour 440m stair climb. The reward at the top however afforded us with our first sighting of Mt. Everest and simply stunning views in all directions.

Looking down at Namche from the half way point.

Turtle Trekkers from left are Keith, Craig, Pierangelo, Michael, Henry, Vico, Barry, Shetty and Marcos.

Everest (8,848m) on the left in the background approx 30km away with Lhotse (8,414m) on the right. Two true giants of the Himalayas.

Tea and biscuits stop with a backdrop

Ama Dablam – 6,856m

Cayman Turtle Trekker shirts have attracted much comment and started many a conversation

We can’t finish today’s journal without an apology. Unbeknown to us the “yaks” we have seen, photographed and noted to date were in fact not yaks at all. They were Dzokpa’s. True Yaks apparently cannot survive below the altitude of Namche and thus a yak is crossed with an Ox to produce an animal that can work from lower altitudes all the way to Everest base camp. Did you know that a nak is a female yak? We didn’t!

I’m a Dopza …. not a yak! I’m a real yak … (or maybe a nak)

Tomorrow it’s onward to Tengboche.

Day 2 – Phakding to Namche – Suspension Bridges and Rivendell

Today we trek to one of the famous names in the Himalayas, Namche Bazaar. Whilst a modest 11km distance, the trek takes us from 2,600m to 3,440m (11,250ft) but as we traverse the valleys the total ascent for the day turns out to be a tiring 935m (3,067ft).

Shortly after we leave Phakding, down the Dudh Koshi valley, we are dwarfed by Thamserku an impressive 6,608m peak which apparently is rarely climbed as it is too difficult. We follow the line of the valley, up and down, alongside and crossing the fast paced Duhd Koshi river. The terrain is straight out of Rivendell and we feel like Hobbits on an unexpected journey not quite knowing what dangers we might encounter around the corner. The stops for morning break and lunch were both spectacular, deep in the valley with the ever present mountain backdrop. At lunch we watched the yak trains crossing the bridge we had just used.

The five river crossings today were all using suspension bridges with the longest and highest saved for last. Whilst the bridges look scary and do bounce somewhat they do feel remarkably safe. We haven’t yet encountered a yak train coming the other way on a bridge but decided if we do to simply turn around and go back!

The afternoon was one long 3 hour steep upward stretch from the river up and across the high suspension bridge and on to Namche. It was a relief to arrive in Namche where we had been promised a hot shower at our lodgings The Friendship Lodge. Sadly the water varied from arctic cold from the cold tap to very cold from the hot tap but tomorrow we understand the water will, in true friendship fashion, be back to hot.

Tomorrow is a rest and acclimatision day so only a three hour trek in the morning to a viewpoint from where we can see Mt. Everest.

Picture credits throughout the blog to Craig Burke, Michael Testori and Barry Yetton with thanks.