Trekking in the off season in the Khumbu region and exploring the legacy of Sir Edmund Hillary.
Words By Chase Tucker – June 2011
There’s something about walking alone for extended periods of time in driving rain that I thoroughly enjoy. “Well there must be” I told myself “otherwise you wouldn’t be here”. Such were the thoughts that plagued my mind on the third day of my trek into to Nepal’s Khumbu Valley. It was late June, and the monsoon rains were nothing short of oppressive. For over 40 kilometres, 1500 vertical metres and two strenuous days of hiking I had experienced nothing but thick clouds and unrelenting rainfall, which sapped my mental and physical strength beyond return. The combination of rain and sweat meant that I was soaked to the bone, and the mountain winds tore at my freezing skin. Even in summer, I discovered, the Himalayas can be a treacherous and unforgiving abode. I had closed in on the Ama Dablam base camp in just two days, but my goal of catching a clear view of Everest’s summit up close looked increasingly bleak. So in a weak moment when I felt the shadow of crippling failure and untimely demise, I stopped, hesitated briefly, turned my back to the mountain, and began walking home.
In the shadow of the Ama Dablam, sheltering in an overhanging cave, I devised a new trekking itinerary based on the book i was reading. Amongst the small gas stove, the crumbled air ticket and cans of tuna, I had in my backsack a copy of Sir Edmund Hillary’s autobiography ‘The View from the Summit’. I had finished the book, but I fancied using it as a pseudo guide book of related attractions in the Khumbu. So with much more time to slow down my pace and explore the area in greater detail, my journey became a pilgrimage to a great man rather than a great mountain. Here in the Khumbu where he made his mark, I would bear witness to his greatest philanthropical achievements, while resolving to catch a glimpse of his more famous alpine achievement from a far.
Sir Edmund Hillary’s love of mountains began in the challenging routes of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Between toiling day and night in the family business of bee keeping and serving as a navigator in the Second World War, he managed to find the time to teach himself alpine style mountaineering. He earned a fierce reputation and a ticket to the Himalayas by completing the first ascent of the formidable South West face of Mt. Cook, as well as many succesful climbs in the Alps on a visit to Europe in 1951. Two years later, on a late spring morning in 1953, Hillary along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the highest point on the earth’s surface, the ultimate first ascent. Shortly after his achievements on Everest, Hillary established the Himalayan Trust, a group that continues to raise funds for various projects across the Himalayas. Through this vehicle, Hillary dedicated the majority of his remaining time and energy to improving the lives of the local (Sherpa) people. He earned himself countless awards, orders and titles as well as god-like status throughout Nepal and his native New Zealand.
One of Hillary’s first accomplishments off the great mountain was the construction of basic airfields throughout the region, one of those being my point of arrival on the trek; Lukla Airport. Lying precipitously on a mountainside deep in the Khumbu Valley, Lukla airport is a combination of ludicrous optimism and clever engineering. Its bizarre gradient and difficult approach make it part of both aeronautical and mountaineering folklore. I noticed both of these features from the window seat of a Dorsier 228 on my flight from the capital, Kathmandu. As the aircraft banked hard to the right and lined up with the centre line, it appeared that the plane had to land up-hill, which turned out to be entirely true. The strip lies on the only relatively flat land in the entire region, on a but still sits on a steep 30 degree gradient, which requires full power on both the propellers to reach the top. The creation of this unorthodox airstrip provided a new lifeline to those suffering serious injuries or illness in the mountains, while opening up the first corridor for commercial tourism and mountaineering expeditions in the Khumbu.
After my initial arrival Lukla and two gruelling days of trekking in solid rain, I took a more leisurely approach to the trek and began resting frequently in enclaves such as the village of Tengboche, which sits atop of a saddle between two relatively small mountains. The primary attraction to the town is the colourful and elaborately crafted monastery, which is perched at the highest point in the saddle looking over the small township. The Tengboche monastery was the pride of the Buddhist population of the Khumbu for hundreds of years until it tragically burnt to the ground in 1988. The local monks and residents of Tengboche called for aid and the Himalayan Trust obliged. What followed was the reconstruction of the monastery in a spectacular and eye-catching tribute to its predecessor. Its colourful courtyard, hardwood furnishings and long dark hallways are marvels to behold so high in the mountains. Resting in the monastery I had tea with an elderly monk and toured the facility. There in the monastery I had a chance to eye the famous ‘yeti scalp’, which allegedly belonged to the Khumbu’s ‘abominable snowman’, the existence of which is thoroughly testified by many reputable sources such the champion Italian mountaineer Reinholt Messner. Even the monk I spoke with seemed to thoroughly believe in its presence. When our conversation inevitably moved on to Hillary, he told me he had the pleasure of meeting him personally, and obviously spoke highly of the man who helped rebuild his livelihood and home.
By the time I had left the monastery the weather around the village had cleared, and I descended the steep south ridge along countless switchback turns before rising again around rolling hills of rhododendron forests. I climbed high above the cloud covered village of Namche Bazaar, with it’s trademark blue roofs that appear to be slowly etching their way down like a glacier into the deep valley below. The unrelenting climb past Namche continued through rabbit warren trails that led over another airfield and into the town of Khumjung, a sizable village of spectacular beauty and favourable surroundings. Khumjung was the epicentre of Hillary’s efforts and the place on the trek where I planned to spend the remainder of my time. On the highest inhabited road in the town I spied a peaceful lodge that I thought would provide an ample view of the surrounding peaks, and I hoped that it was open as I lugged my twenty kilo pack up through the maze of stone fences and seemingly endless potato fields.
When I arrived at Hill Top Lodge, as it was aptly named, I was greeted by a Sherpa man of around 50 years, who waved me up the stone steps and quickly ushered me inside. “Do you have a room?” I asked the man, already knowing the answer. It was teh off season, it has been days since I had seen another tourist. He nodded and led me inside through a cosy lounge room which looked out over the beautiful township and showed me a bedroom with an equally impressive view of the surrounding peaks.“Off season, you can stay for free” he said with a smile, before introducing himself as Ang Tsering. Later, we sat in the afternoon sunlight and basked in the beauty of Thamserku and Ang told me stories of his time in the mountains and I began to understand that he was quite an accomplished climber. While pouring over souvenirs from Everest expeditions and photos of a younger Ang Tsering I learnt that he was in fact a very experienced mountain guide. For the past 16 years Ang had climbed on various commercial expeditions, summited Everest on two occasions, and was now employed as a climbing sidar with Alpine Ascents. I felt privileged and honoured to spend time with an Everest veteran, and I spent most of my time in the lodge quizzing Ang about his Himalayan experiences. Despite his age (54 is fairly old for a climbing Sherpa) he plans to climb for five more seasons before calling it quits and retiring in his hill top lodge.
The following day I rose early to catch a glimpse of the nearby peaks Khumbila and Kuangde. They looked formidable opponents especially in summer, as the lack of snow revealed the rocky knife edge ridges and long surviving couloirs. I borrowed a small pack from Ang and decided to free climb up a small boulder laden peak nearby to gain a better view of the approach. I scrambled over moss covered rock and sketchy scree slopes to the top of a small peak where I cooked my lunch of tuna and noodles, while taking in the view. From the precipice I could see the Khumjung Hillary school. Initially nothing more than a corrugated iron when it was first constructed by Hillary himself, the school now houses multiple classrooms, an office, computer labs and an impressive soccer field, all of which was provided by the Himalayan Trust.
A large bronze statue of Hillary sits in the centre of the school, draped in scarfs and surrounded with offerings; daily tokens of gratitude from the Sherpas. The statue serves as a reminder for the new generation that the town would not have been the same without Hillary’s contribution. On the other side of the peak to the west was the Khumde Hosptal which serves as the chief facility in the Khumbu valley for those seeking medical attention. It is fully equipped to deal with all but the most serious injuries, and thanks to the Himalayan Trust, it has no doubt saved the lives of many locals and ill-fated trekkers alike.
After even a short time in the Khumbu area it was clear to me that Sir Edmund Hillary achieved much greater accomplishments than summiting the world’s highest peak. The tangible evidence he left behind such as hospitals, schools, bridges and airports are really only a scratch on the surface of Hillary’s legacy. Environmental awareness, reforestation, research into the effects of high altitude and even the possible existence of the Yeti are further examples of his dedication and hard work. Furthermore it was within this short period of time that I discovered why Hillary had such a strong endearment and affection for his Sherpa friends. Kind in nature and generous beyond their wealth, they are immensely proud of their snowy abode and welcome any folk who choose to wander by with a warm smile and an enthusiastic ‘namaste!’ The lazy days went by all too quickly as I basked in comparatively fair weather and enjoyed the company and hospitality of my adopted Sherpa family.
On the third day I left with a heavy heart and accepted Ang Tsering’s parting offer to guide me on Khumbila should I ever return. I promised I would, then farwelled the Sherpas and shouldered my pack before making a final stop on the road out of Khumjung. I approached a large Buddhist chorten which sat on the crest of a grassy knoll facing north towards the great mountain, a monument dedicated solely to the memory of Sir Edmund Hillary. Between the thick monsoon clouds I could make out the south face of Everest with her scarred rock slopes and trademark plume of snowdrift from the summit. I threw my pack down in awe and marvelled in the sheer size of Sagamartha while the world teamed with the sights and sounds of summer all around me. I noticed a droning of insects around me and upon closer inspection I saw hundreds of bees. They toiled in the summer sunshine, harvesting their spoils amongst the spirit of a great man, who from a young age, had raised and cared for their southern kin. I sat amongst these bees in the shade of the memorial and in a moment I experienced just a morsel of spiritual connection that the Sherpas share with the mountains. I felt privileged to have been allowed such experiences in the region and was not vexed to see Sagamartha* disappear behind a thick sheet of monsoon clouds once more. Satisfied that my trek had been a success, I shouldered my pack with a smile, said farewell to Hillary’s bees and began the long journey back to the airfield into a rare window of much-needed summer sunshine.
*Sagamatha – Sherpa name for Everest literally ‘Head of the Sky’
October 2017 edit
6 years later and I’m still in love with the Himalayas. In less than a week I depart to lead a team of 10 people up 3 peaks in the Himalayas. I’m excited to visit the Hilltop Hotel on an acclimatisation day. And Khumbila is till on the to do list. 🙂