We awoke with the sun, to a world that had changed overnight. Pale early light streamed into the room; stained red by the thin embroidered curtains hanging at the single square window, casting scarlet prisms across my eyelids and forcing me out of the warmth of my down sleeping bag. Namche Bazaar was blanketed in white, its rooftops snow-tipped and dripping, the surrounding mountains dark and forbiddingly beautiful with their snow-capped peaks. The soft grey sky was full of snowflakes, dancing and spiralling around the smoke rising from the town chimneys, and the evergreens shook piles of snow from their boughs to fall with a muted thud to the ground.
We dressed quickly and breakfasted on pancakes and eggs, sipping hot sugary tea and gazing apprehensively out of the window at the dancing sky. We weighed up our options; stay put and wait out the snow, or push on, not knowing what the path would be like higher up. Having decided to trek alone we had no restrictions on our time frame – but having already taken an acclimatisation day the day before, our feet itched to be back on the trail.
We left Namche mid morning with snowflakes still drifting in the frozen air, trudging up the steeply stepped path that leads out of the town and up the mountain. The silence echoed through the valley; that blanket quiet that only a heavy snowfall brings, a stillness suspended in a swirling grey sky. Our boots crunched, and the wind keened faintly, and somewhere the throaty bronzed tenor of a bell echoed a ghostly prayer.
The path snaked along the curves of the mountain, the golden spires of small visible stupas like a series of checkpoints at outcrops along its length. I discovered that by digging my walking poles into the ground, I could ski along quite successfully on the snowy ground, and demonstrated my newfound skill enthusiastically for Soph, who gave me a decidedly unamused glare as I skidded past her.
‘If you fall off the edge because you’re pretending to ski like a twat, I’m not even going for help. I mean it’.
I gave her a wounded look, and we stared at each other a moment before doubling over in helpless laughter that rolled from the slopes to be swallowed in the fog.
The snowfall stopped late morning, allowing bright shafts of sunlight to break through the clouds. The valley opened up below us, frosted with white under a sky now blue and blazing, and for the first time that day we could see the trail ahead of us. Around midday we crossed a long swinging suspension bridge, the wire handrails looped with hundreds of coloured flags, and came to a sharp bend in the path at the top of a steep slope, slick with hard packed snow and ice. The edge of the path was visible at the bottom, a sharp drop above a rushing, liquid ice blue river; pale and milky and translucently vibrant. If really, really cold had a colour, it would be that exact shade of blue.
A tell-tale jingle of bells made me turn to see a sizeable train of yaks making their way across the swaying bridge towards us. We had about a minute and a half until they reached the small patch of ground on which we stood trapped, an icy slide towards the river at our feet and a herd of large horned animals at our backs. I promptly jumped behind the nearest rock, clinging to it as my heels hung over the edge. Soph and I stared in disbelief as the yaks lumbered around the corner and began to throw themselves down the slope, hoofs over heads, barreling into each other as they scrambled uselessly for purchase on the ice. Some tumbled down on their backs, eyes rolling wildly; others skidded down on their hooves, skating perilously close to the edge before continuing to amble stoically down the path. Any that seemed understandably reluctant to launch themselves down this death slide were given a sharp shove from their herder and sent, grunting, to join their brothers.
Wordlessly, we watched as the final yak cannoned down the slope, narrowly missing another hiker at the bottom of the hill, before disappearing nonchalantly down the trail with the rest of the train. We skidded inelegantly down the slope after them and walked on, treading carefully on the icy ground, learning to trust our boots and the strength of muscles that we didn’t know we had, and thanking our stars that neither of us had ended up in that river.
The snow was beginning to drift down again as we reached Tengboche and started down the track to the neighbouring village of Loboche where we would sleep that night. The track wound steeply downwards through trees thick with snow, the ground treacherous with ice and mud. The sun had long since dipped below the mountains, and the cold began to creep through our clothes and settle into our skin. We completed the day’s trek in an undignified scramble, barely able to see where we were placing our feet in the failing half light.
The following day dawned bright and alive with a sharp wind that sent clouds of powdery snow drifting from the mountain peaks in broad brushstrokes across a sky now deep, ozone blue with no trace of the previous days fog. We set off into the cold morning, aiming to reach the village of Dingboche by night fall. For most of the morning we walked through vast rhododendron forests, branches dripping melting snow onto a path that weaved through the trees down into the valley to cross rivers on swaying bridges, before winding upwards again on steep steps hewn into the rock.
As we climbed higher into the vastness of that indigo sky, the world around us transformed into a landscape at once otherworldly and earthily, tangibly familiar. The fecund lowlands turned to windswept plains dotted with scrub and rocky outcrops, pale gold earth framed by the snow capped peaks that were now part of our immediate landscape where just days ago they had stood in hazy, distant relief against the skyline. Huge cloud shadows raced over the ground, passing over grazing yaks and the occasional pale stone house amidst the scattered boulders.
We were alone, lost in the rhythm of our footsteps and the sound of our hearts beating in our ears. An internal monologue accompanied my every step, a tangle of songs and thoughts and half finished sentences that drifted from my mind as quickly as they had appeared, leaving me to snatch for them fruitlessly later, pen and notebook in hand. The necessity of the walk allowed my conscious focus to narrow to a single crystalline point – get there, one foot in front of the other – and with my body occupied, my mind was free to jumble through the flowing train of thoughts, unfettered by the distractions that so often consume our time. The cold air moved through my lungs and the cold sky moved over head, and I felt as though I were returning to something, a permanence and simplicity in the mountains that called my soul home.
The villages at this altitude were dry and pale as bone, chillies the colour of dark blood curled outside doorways to dry in the sun and mothers with crab apple faces and bright red cheeks clutching babies wrapped in layers of patterned shawls to their chests. We stopped for lunch on the outskirts of one of them, at a teahouse halfway up a steep climb. The rushing clouds sent shadows skimming over the stone floor of the courtyard and the sun warmed our faces as we devoured plates of fried potatoes and steaming bowls of dahl bat. The only toilet was on the other side of the path, in a rickety wooden shack perched right at the edge of the cliff. I groaned inwardly. We were drinking five litres of water a day at this point in a bid to stave off altitude sickness, so venturing into the hut wasn’t really optional. I took a deep breath and pulled open the half rotted door to find, without a doubt, the worst toilet I have ever seen. A long, narrow slit had been cut into the wooden floorboards, with a long drop off the side of the mountain, through which blew an icy breeze. And piled in front of this hole, I kid you not, was what I can only describe as a frozen pyramid of shit. I closed the door and backed away slowly, deciding to take my chances with a quiet spot on the trail instead.
As we walked on through the day we would occasionally come upon people that we had met along the way, rounding a corner to find them resting half way through a big climb, stopping to share some chocolate or compare blisters. Throughout the day we would catch glimpses of each other, tiny figures ahead or behind on the path. We overtook each other at rest stops and caught up on steep climbs through failing light, the thought of hot food and heavy sleeping bags driving our weary feet at the end of the day.
These people were our constants, a reassuring presence on the trail evident in snowy bootprints and shared rest stops. Our paths crossed and looped away, only to come together again in the evenings when we would sit together on long benches around the huge stoves at the heart of each tea house, socks steaming and cheeks stained red from the cold as we told each other the stories of our many and varied journeys to get here, the infinite paths that led to this moment, sipping hot chocolate in a tiny teahouse high in the Himalayas. We had chosen to walk alone, and yet it was comforting to know these people, to crest a hill and be hailed with a shout of ‘hey! Dancing girls!’ – our trail nickname, earned through our strategy of playing Katy Perry’s ‘Dark Horse’ from Sophie’s phone and dancing our way up the really tough climbs.
By the time we reach basecamp a group of big hearted and brave-souled people will have formed around us. We will learn from them, small things like the rules of a card game, passed down from Grandparents and scribbled on scraps of paper torn from a notebook; and big things, like compassion and bravery and humbling gratitude. We will learn from them even as we learn from the silence, the solitude; the moments when we have lost sight even of each other and our minds and hearts have room to swell and soak up the knowledge that the mountains whisper. Sometimes we walked with others and sometimes we walked alone, and it was exactly as freeing and scary and exhilarating as I hoped it would be.
Part 3 of the story of our trek to Everest base camp coming up, including the joys of altitude sickness and photos from the top!
Have you made the journey to Everest base camp? Did you make friends on the trail? Did you visit that toilet?! I’d love to hear about it in the comments.