Trekking the Khumbu valley and climbing the Island Peak
September 26 – October 23, 2011
Place: Nepal, Khumbu region, Sagarmatha National Park (Mt. Everest region)
Peak: Imja Tse (Island Peak); 6,189 m (20,305 ft)
Participants: Pavel & Hana Kaliban, Jarda & Jirina Kaliban, Vojta & Jana Juračka, Peter & Ida Jenka, Karel Novák, Ivan Kaliban, Vlado Matuska
Dates: September 26 – October 23, 2011
Introduction: From my early teenage years, my climbing desires and imaginations were very much influenced by reading the books about the Alps and the Himalayan giants. I was hoping that one day I would be able to visit the Himalayas. My first chance came in 1979 when Luboš Přikryl - the chairman of our university’s climbing club in the city of Zilina, Slovakia - planned an expedition to the HinduKush Mountains of Pakistan. Unfortunately, two weeks before our departure, Slovakia’s powerful eastern neighbor, the CCCP, or more commonly known as the Soviet Union, decided to invade Afghanistan and our whole expedition was canceled as Afghanistan and its neighboring Pakistan closed its borders to all foreign expeditions. So, instead of climbing the high peaks of Pakistan, we traveled to Morocco, northern Africa, and climbed Jebel Toubkal (4,167 m) as well as some other peaks in the High Atlas region.
Finally, after 32 years of waiting, I got my second chance. Pavel Kaliban, my classmate from university, planned his second trip to the Himalayas and, thanks to Ivan Kaliban, Pavel's brother, who like me also lives in Washington State, I was invited to join them. It was nice to go with somebody who had been there before, as we were able to avoid common newcomer’s mistakes. To stay ahead of the crowds, Pavel decided to start our trekking adventure early. Main trekking season being October to November, we scheduled our arrival to Nepal for September 29, and departure for October 24. Our team consisted of 11 courageous trekkers and climbers, nine being from the Czech Republic (Pavel & Hana Kaliban, Jarda & Jirina Kaliban, Vojta & Jana Juračka, Peter & Ida Jenka and Karel Novák), and two from Washington State (Ivan Kaliban and myself).
TRAVEL - September 26, 2011:
Ivan and myself departed on September 26 from Vancouver, Canada, via Hong Kong to Kathmandu. Pavel’s group departed from Prague via Milan and New Delhi. We arrived to Hong Kong at 7 in the morning, with about 11 hours between the flights, departure to Kathmandu being at 6 pm, we decided to explore the city. This was very refreshing after a long 13 hour flight across the Pacific ocean.
Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, there is about 7 million people in an area of 426 square miles (1104 square kilometers), which is about 16,431 people per square mile (6340 per square kilometer), but nevertheless, we enjoyed our stay there, city is very clean and modern, full of skyscrapers, interconnected by footbridges and highways. The only surprise was thick smog so visibility wasn’t the best, I was told it was coming from Guangzhou, city of 12 million located 75 mi (120 km) northwest of Hong Kong in mainland China. Hong Kong maintains its special administrative status (like Macau) which is also reflected in easiness of travel there. Citizens of the EU, USA and other countries automatically receive a 90-day tourist visa without paying entry visa fees, so no any surprise there. We left our baggage at the airport and without any problem we boarded high speed train to downtown Hong Kong. Coming back to airport was equally easy.
We arrived to Kathmandu around 9:30 pm, after 6 hour flight from Hong Kong. What a huge contrast, airport did not appear very clean, but going thru customs was without incident, it took perhaps one hour or more to process everything, we had to purchase entry visas for $ 40, valid 30 days. We brought with us some freeze dry food and other specialized food you don’t find in Kathmandu plus climbing equipment, but no problem there. Outside, big crowd of taxi drivers and porters were aggressively trying to get our business, some of them were asking ridiculously high fees ($ 20-40) just to carry your luggage to parking area. We simply refused to pay that and eventually they settled for a few dollars. Fortunately, people from our travel agency were already waiting for us, so we were happy to escape the chaos of the airport and finally made it to our hotel Flora, located in the tourist district of Thamel.
TREKKING ARRANGEMENT & COST:
Following day we met with Deepak Khanal - our travel agent and owner of Osho World Adventure which is also conveniently located in Thamel district. (website: http://oshoadventure.com/).
Deepak, his wife Radika and their staff were very helpful to make our trip success. After initial recovery from the flights and jetlag, we went over the details of our contract, which was negotiated thru the emails and was kind of generic so we had to clarify some details of our trek.
We agreed that our package cost will include following: 3 night accommodations in Kathmandu, including breakfast, transportation to airport, visiting historical landmarks, flight to Lukla, entry fee to Sagarmatha National Park, trekking permit, Island Peak climbing permit and of course cost of six porters and one leader for 22 days. We estimated that we will need one porter for every two trekkers which actually worked well. We negotiated that porters will pay for their own accommodations and food to make it easier on us. Our package fee was approx. US $730/person, but remember that 2011 prices were somewhat depressed after the global recession. Today’s prices are much higher, I believe it almost doubled.
One more comment regarding the contract, coming from the western culture, we were somewhat uneasy that contract was still too generic, not everything what was said was written down and we expected problems, but looking back in retrospect, we did not have any major issues at all, everything what was agreed on in our agreement was delivered.
Contract did not cover the cost of our stay in the mountains, we were told to estimate our daily food and tea house accommodation cost at between $20-30/day/person so we calculated we need to exchange around $500 per person, exch. rate at a time was 1$ = 76 Rps. Reality was somewhat different, everything was more expensive, our daily cost was climbing with the altitude which was of course understandable, for example in Gorakshep, last village below the Everest Base Camp, we paid approx. $40/day/person. Fortunately, there is a few banks in Namche Bazaar where you can exchange additional funds as we did.
While on this subject, it is probably worth to mention that there was another trekking agency recommended to us, AsianTrekking, (website: http://www.asian-trekking.com/), but we did not use them.
MAPS: There is plenty of good topo maps in the stores of Kathamndu, and they are much cheaper then in the US or EU.
Teahouse Lodges: These lodges are relatively cheap way of trekking, meals and accommodation are provided in a teahouse. Accommodation are very basic, bathrooms are shared, hot showers are a few. Bedrooms are not heated, it may get cold overnight so bring decent sleeping bag and your own bed sheet. Most of teahouses are good and enjoyable, many of them have very nicely decorated lunchrooms. However, we did stay in a few teahouses we did not like at all, they appeared to be dirty and therefore food seemed questionable as well, but most of the time you may have choice to select something better as we did in some villages.
HYGIENE: Hygiene in higher located teahouse wasn’t the best, there was always toilet paper in the bathrooms but typically water is available only outside, in the buckets, so bring your antibacterial wipes. We also used “SteriPen” portable water purifier (UV light based) to treat the water for tooth brushing and even drinking. It takes 90 sec. to treat 1 liter of water, I had “Adventurer Opti” version of the purifier, I think it worked really well, however , there are a few conditions, to get best results is to have clear, not murky or cloudy water, or it can’t be used in water with ice or if water is hot, temperature above 60C, for details visit http://www.steripen.com/.
PEOPLE: People were very nice to us, we wondered through the streets of Kathmandu quite a much, sometimes little bit late, but we did not have any really bad experience. I got upset only a few times, mostly in heavily tourist places where sales guys were too pushy, perhaps they were very desperate to make sale and earn some money.
KATHMANDU - September 28-29, 2011:
Kathmandu is a large city situated at an elevation of about 4,600ft (1400 m), it is connected with other sister cities of Lalitpur (Patan), Bhaktapur, Kirtipur and Thimi with combining population of approx. 3-4 million or even more, perhaps 7 million but apparently no one really knows. I have to admit that my initial reaction to Kathmandu was disappointment, I somehow expected beautiful city, gateway to the famous Himalayan mountains and expeditions and instead we found ourselves in the city full of smog, noise, dust, where many people have to wear respirators which really surprised me, it was supposed to be clean mountain air. Smog and dust come primarily from the cars, it was making me and some other friends sick so if there is next time, I will have to bring some respirators with me, or as I was told, many returning trekkers and climbers don’t stay in Thamel but rather go to somewhat cleaner Bodhnath, couple of miles outside of Kathamndu. Unlike EU or the US, cars drive on the left side of the roads, streets are very crowded with cars and motorcycles, from early morning until late evening, traffic appears to be chaotic but nevertheless somewhat organized. Later on I reconsidered my initial observation, I started to enjoy my experience here, I was pleasantly surprised to see that all drivers were respectful, patient and calm, nobody was angrily arguing over the traffic and overall people were very nice to us. Regarding hotels, it seems there is plenty of them in the touristic Thamal district, they look desent, it is worth to select rooms on the higher floors, it gets much quieter up there. One more comment, food in local restaurants (in Thamal) was tasty, good and cheap, none of us got sick.
FLIGHT TO Lukla - September 30, 2011:
The flight to Lukla was scheduled to September 30, Friday at 6:30 in the morning. We used Agni Air, but there is at least dozen other airlines. Airport in Kathmandu was very chaotic, we were rushed through all these checks at the airport, all the bags were scanned, which surprised our agent, he did not expect it so it had to be something new at that time. Then they found four propane cartridges for my Primus stove and confiscated them, I was upset over that because I was assured in Kathmandu that I can take it to an airplane flying to Lukla otherwise I would not do it.. Also, our group luggage was 100 kg over the limit, for which we were charged an extra $ 100 (1$ for 1kg) and at the end we still had to pay some additional airport tax, which applies only to domestic flights. And when we thought we were ready to go, we were stopped once again because we evidently paid tax for one person only instead of the whole group, fortunately Deepak took care of it, but meantime morning fog moved in and all flights had to be postponed by half hour or so to 7:30 am. Flight to Lukla was short about 50 minutes, the scenery out of the windows was dramatic and the landing went without incident, but runway is truly short and uphill so no surprise this airport is considered one of the most dangerous in the world. Another reason is that landing is by line-of-sight only, so if there is a fog condition, airport will close. Trekking literature says that instead of a 45 minute flight, you can take a ten hour bus ride from Kathmandu to the trailhead at Jiri, followed by a six to eight day trek to Lukla.
At the airport we were expected by 6 porters and their leader who took our luggage to nearby Mera hotel where we repacked our gear and had early lunch. Later on, we stayed here overnight on our way back to Kathmandu. Our first impression was good, the youngest porter was 17 years old and the oldest one about 35, their names are as follows, I hope I wrote their names correctly: Ram Sharan Choulagai–leader, Arvi Ramesh Bastola, Dambarsingh Rai, Tsering Pamang, Milan Rai, Ambir Puri, Keshar Bahadur Rai. Porters are allowed to carry maximum weight of 35 kg so each of us could have only 15kg extra bag for the porter plus our own personal bag packs. At the end, we were very happy with them, they were very reliable and honest.
TREEKING from Lukla to Nanche Bazar - September 30 - October 1, 2011:
Lukla is a nice looking village, elevation 2,860 meters, big contrast to Kathmandu. It is starting point to hundreds of trekkers every year and many expeditions to Everest, Lhotse, Pumori, Ama Dablam and other peaks. It is interesting to realize that from here on there are no paved roads, no cars and all goods, food, building materials etc. are transported either on the backs of animals or by porters.
We started our trek very same day we arrived to Lukla, we left the village around 11:00am, our goal was Phakding, elevation 2610 m which is lower than Lukla but better in terms of acclimatization. We reached Phading after 3.5 hours of trekking and stayed in Snow Land Lodge. Later that day we went for a short acclimatization hike and visited the small village of Phadingom. Here we met two sisters Dolma and Shaili, who were very surprised by the arrival of foreign tourists and introduced us to their whole family, including their mom, children and brother Dipak. They invited us for the tea, but unfortunately it was getting late, it was already 5 o’clock evening and it gets dark at 6 pm so we had to rush back to Phading. We were very impressed by their warm welcome and hospitality, it was one of the highlights of my trip.
After returning to our lodge, we tasted our first dinner in the tea house, it was really good, typically porters become waiters in the evening, they help with ordering and food service, for which they receive free accommodation and good decent dinner called "Dal Bhat". Later on we realized that it is perhaps the only cooked meal they have per day.
NAMCHE BAZAAR - October 2 - 5, 2011:
Next day we trekked from Padhing to Namche Bazaar 11,286 ft (3,440 m). Namche is the main trading center for the Khumbu region, population 700 in low season and perhaps 1600 or more in high season.. Our trek lasted about seven hours, we were stopped twice at the military check points where we had to show our permits to Sagarmatha Natl. Park and climbing permit for the Island Peak. The final part of the trek to Namche was steep and difficult, but so far we all felt good.
The next morning was different story, Ivan and I woke up with a sore throat and some fever, not really altitude sickness but rather sign of cold…(o yeah, “gift” from a sick passenger sitting next to me on a plane from Vancouver to Hong Kong) and so we had no choice but to stay a few days in Namche hoping to recover from it. Our friends Vojta and Jana Juračka also stayed with us, Vojta had unexpected acclimatization problem - lung edema so he immediately received oxygen and had to spend one night at the newly opened Namche clinic, doctor ordered him to rest for a few days and prescribed medication to reduce water in his lungs. Within two days his condition stabilized and improved so much that doctor allowed him to continue but prohibited him to climb Island Peak, of course he had to use medication every day. Meantime main group continued with the trek as planned, their goal was to make big trekking loop via Thame, Gokyo, Chola Pass, Lobuche and then to meet us in Gorakshep – last village below the Everest Base Camp. After they left, we were exploring Namche and surroundings for a few days.
Later on, after we all started to feel better, we hiked to villages Khunde (3,840 m) and Khumjung (3,780 m) located above Namche Bazzar. Here we visited Hillary school built by Himalayan Trust, very impressive. The weather did not clear yet, it was still very cloudy with occasional views of the peaks, but at least it did not rain.
TREK to Tengboche, Dingboche, Lobuche - October 6 - 9, 2011:
Finally, after 4 days of 'treatment' with tylenol, aspirin and vitamins, on October 6th, we restarted our trek again via the main Khumbu valley with the goal to reunite with the main group in Gorakshep. The weather was improving on our way to Tengboche and for the first time we were able to see impressive Ama Dablam (6,856 m) dominating whole valley and more distant Himalayan giants Everest and Lhotse.
I was still feeling tired, whatever I was fighting took lot of energy from me, fortunately Ivan felt much better and Vojta had no problems except for the fact that he was taking pills every day and Jana, his wife, was as always in excellent condition. We spent night in Tengboche (3860 m), and following day we continued to Dingboche (4,410 m). Here we repackaged again, we left our tents and climbing equipment in the lodge because we did not need it in our trek to Gorakshep. Our plan was to pick it up on our way back to the base camp of Island Peak. We stayed in Dingboche for two days, our base was Bright Star "hotel" which we did not like too much, during the night, little mouse made it to Jana’s bag pack and made a big mess. 2nd day here was our resting day filled with admiring of nearby Ama Dablam (6,856 m). Next stop was Lobuche (4,910 m), we stayed in "Sagarmatha Natl.Park" hotel, accommodation here was even worse than some of the previous ones, our sleeping room and dining room were very dirty. You may ask why did we choose such dirty rooms to stay, typically porters were always faster and ahead of us so part of their job was also to book room for us for the night, but after Lobuche “hotel” we told them to select nicer accommodations next time, so it never happened again, there was almost always choice of selecting cleaner place to stay. As mentioned previously, cost of an accommodation and food was naturally rising with the altitude and quality of the food was decreasing. For example, in Lukla, we paid about 1,500 rupees ($ 19) for dinner, one night accommodation and breakfast, but in Gorak Shep it was 3,000 rupees ($ 38) for similar accommodation. To my pleasant surprise, Ivan and others brought smoked sausages and beef jerky with them which they saved for the occasions like this one when lodge food did not taste the best and it was really treat and it brightened my outlook.
TREK to Gorak Shep and hiking Kala Patar - October 10 - 11, 2011:
After Lobuche we had one more day of trekking and on October 10th, we finally arrived to Gorak Shep. This is the last small village in the Khumbu valley, its altitude is about 16,942 ft (5164m). History says that Gorak Shep was the original Everest Base Camp, used by the Swiss climbers in 1952, new Everest Base Camp is now 2.5 – 3 hours away, closer to Khumbu Ice fall.
Accommodation in Buddha Lodge were disappointing, rooms were dirty but this time we had no choice, all the other teahouses there were full. Following day we hiked Kala Patar (meaning 'black rock') 18,192 ft (5,545 m) small mountain “bump” below the impressive south face of Pumo Ri (7,141 m) but the views of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse were astonishing and absolutely worth the effort. Besides the summits of Everest and Nuptse, we could clearly see lower section of the Khumbu Ice fall and the famous South Col - location of the last high camp on Everest climb. Visit http://www.glacierworks.org/home/glacier/khumbu-glacier/ and select “Khumbu Glacier above Kalla Pattar” to experience the same views.
Some people ascent Kala Patar early morning to see the sunrise, but then the complaint was that it got too cold to stay longer on the summit. We hiked in the morning, I was still slow, but made it to summit around 9am together with Vojta and Jana , Ivan got there earlier I think it was 7 am.
When we got down to Gorak Shep, we were happy to see Paul and the rest of the group who just arrived. I wanted to talk to Hana, our doctor, about my condition, I knew I was fighting something but it wasn’t altitude, I was beginning to think that it is perhaps time for me to descend down to Namche or even lower. Hana convinced me to try a 3-day multispectral antibiotics, I'm glad I listened, next day I started to feel much better, I wished I had taken it much sooner when we were in Nanche Bazar. Ivan reached the same decision one day later and he also took the same antibiotics.
TREK to Chukhung - October 12 - 15, 2011:
Now we have reached the final stage of our trek - climbing the Island Peak (6,189 m), it took us two days to trek to the village of Chukhung (4,730 m), which is located below the beautiful Ama Dablamom. Here we took one rest day, Ivan was still feeling effects of medication and as I started to feel better, to verified my condition, I decided to hike Chukhung Ri (5,550 m), it was good feeling to have enough energy again. Chukhung Ri is rocky peak above the village of Chukhung, it took around three hours to the summit, but the views of Imja Tse (Island Peak), Ama Dablam and the Lhotse face were astounding, I highly recommend it, equally as hiking of Kalla Pattar.
CLIMBING Island Peak - October 16 - 17, 2011:
We had to divide our team into two groups again, Ivan needed extra day to finish antibiotics and I was OK to have extra rest day after hiking Chukhung Ri. So Ivan and I stayed one more night, but the rest of the group relocated to the Island Peak base camp. Next day in the morning, as Ivan and I were preparing to leave Chukhung, we were surprised to see Vojta, Jana and Karel back in the lodge. We learned that Vojta’s medication was miscalculated, he run out of the pills and started to feel very sick in middle of the night, they left the base camp immediately not taking any chances, Karol was helping them to reach Chukhung safely and then he returned back to the base camp with us. Jana and Vojta continued to trek down to Nache Bazar and made it OK, Vojta got additional medication and fully recovered, they were very disappointed, but at least safe and Vojta fully alive.
When we made it to the base camp 16,690 ft (5,087 m), Pavel, Jarda, Peter and Ida were just returning from their successful climb of Island Peak, they had fantastic weather and we were very happy for them.
Hana and Jirina decided to stay in the camp, Jirina did not feel very good and had to descent next day as well. Following day, October 17th, Ivan, Karel and I left the base camp for the summit, it was around 3 o’clock in the morning, I was initially slow, I was getting very hot in my down parka and felt overheated so I took it off and eventually felt much better. Ivan was doing good again and Karel, as always, he was in amazing condition. I had to laugh, perhaps plumb brandy, which he brought from home, was powering him so well. It was cloudy early morning, but fortunately the sky cleared nicely later on. There was a steeper 300 ft (100m) headwall section, just below the summit ridge, perhaps 50 degrees steep or even more, but the guides from other climbing teams left the fixed ropes and we used them to stay safe. All three of us reached the summit around 9:30 in the morning and we had to share it with 8 other climbers, of course we did not mind, we all were very happy to be up there, at 20,305 ft. high (6,189 m). Island peak is very poular trekking peak climbed by people from all over the world.
Views were astonishing; across the valley was dominant Ama Dablam (6,812 m), to the east was remote Makalu 27,825 ft (8,481 m) and to the north, just behind us was mighty Lhotse massif 27,940 ft (8,516 m). After spending quite a few very satisfying minutes, it was time to descent. Ivan started first and was ahead of us, when we reached the beginning of the very steep section, we were asked by Australian guide to let his client and him to pass us, his client was getting to feel really bad, sign of altitude sickness. So we let them go and spent another hour up there, not too far from the summit, but we didn’t mind at all, Karel and I were happy to stay there and we just looked around and enjoyed the scenery. To our surprise, lower section of the headwall was already without fixed ropes, but we managed to down climb safely and made it back to the base camp around 3 o'clock in the afternoon, exhausted but happy with our first Himalayan 6 ,000 m high peak.
TREK back to Lukla - October 18 - 22 2011:
We had fantastic weather last three weeks, mostly sunny in higher altitudes, above 10,000 ft (3000 m) and clouds in the valleys, it looked like typical fall inversion. Our descent to Lukla lasted four days, it was little bit pushy but we had to make it on time to catch our flight. On our way down we began to encounter large crowds of people, almost too much to my taste, I was thankful to Pavel and Hana for scheduling the trip a little earlier before the start of the main trekking season. We arrived to Lukla in the evening of October 22nd, around 6 o’clock, it was already dark. We spent our last night at Mera Hotel where I enjoyed my favorite Sherpa soup and we all said final goodbyes to our porters. As mentioned before, we were very happy with them, their work is really hard and must be tiring, but at least we could help them and their families, each of them also received additional $ 60 from us (not sure if that was enough) and some small gifts such as T-shirts which we saved for this occasion.
Our flight to Kathmandu was scheduled next day, October 23rd, we were hoping we could reschedule and stay in Lukla for day or two longer, nobody wanted to go back to Kathmandu, but we had no choice and had to follow the original schedule. Our flight to Kathmandu went well, our takeoff was without incident, but it felt scary, I was sitting on the right side of the aircraft looking at the beautiful Himalayan peaks bathed in golden morning sun, and again, dreaming to come back one day…
All of us made it home safely. My personal thanks to everybody in my team and to all the Nepalese friends who helped us to make this trip very memorable. Special thanks to my family, my daughter and especially to my wife Vierka who really had hard time to let me go because she worried very much about our safety, but as before, she showed compassion and understanding with my never ending desire to hike and climb high above the clouds…
Vlado Matuska December 2011