Hiking the Himalayas: Day 3
Dain and Sam get a couple towns ahead of schedule
and tackle the biggest hill of the entire trek
On day three, we woke up early and mulled over our eggs, oatmeal, and coffee until twenty-four acclimatizing hours passed and we could continue hiking. Yesterday's clear skies had turned overcast and chilly and just as Dain prepared for a short warm-up hike, it started to rain. I stayed in the lodge to pack up and spoke to a tour guide taking a group up. He said that this would be his last trip of the season because the weather was noticeably starting to change as the June monsoons approached. I was nervous the rest of our time hiking would be marked with cold rain, making our hike that much more unpleasant and dangerous as the trail got slick.
We set foot from the lodge at around 10:15am with steady rain and rolling thunder reverberating ominously from an unknown source somewhere in the valley. One of the most challenging parts of the trail was just taking the never-ending stairs up the valley and out of Namche. It look us about twenty minutes because we were huffing and puffing after every fifth step! Stiff legs and the altitude were just starting to get to me.
Once we got out of town, most of the hike was steady as we traced the ridgeline like a pen tracing out an undulating coastline on a map. Towering white stupas marked every turn of the cliff and as we passed each one, more and more of the valley came into sight. Well, as much as one could make out in the dense fog and rain filling the sky and spilling over into every cranny of the valley like a pernicious, creeping slug devouring every good view. After the strenuous task of just climbing up there, the flat trail was definitely welcomed by me for a few hours.
Eventually, the good times had to end and the trail sloped sharply downwards towards the river below. I've learned that for every river, there's a steep climb down and a steep climb right back up awaiting you on the other side of the bridge. Before we tackled what we were sure was going to be our toughest uphill yet, we stopped for lunch at the Evergreen Lodge in Phunki Tenga (which we've been calling "funky tenga" and I'm sure that pronunciation is very incorrect.) Over more dal bhat and cheesy potatoes, we met a group of American 30 and 40-somethings heading back from base camp as part of a tour. They seemed tired but in good spirits. Eventually, we learned that two members of their group were actively missing somewhere along the trail and that six more had been unable to make the hike. One person left after only the second day and one more had to be choppered back to Kathmandu because her oxygen levels were dangerously low. That's the problem with some group trips: they have a strict schedule and force everyone to go at one pace, indiscriminate of personal ability. In addition to the adventurous and pioneering spirit that comes from finding your own path along a foreign trail, trekking on your own allows you to really listen to your body and adjust your plans as you go. As we were leaving and they noticed our big backpacks, they all remarked that they would never do the hike the way we did sans porter or guide. We told them we'd never do it in a group, and set off across the river.
During the course of our lunch, the fog had breezed on to an unknown location and we were able to enjoy the sunshine and beautiful flower-dotted scenery during an unforgiving 2-hour climb straight up the side of a mountain. We took a lot of rests along the way but Dain and I are strong uphill hikers and passed quite a few groups on our climb up. The town of Tengboche awaited us at the top, a lovely village with a newly painted monastery that makes it a popular stop for tired hikers to spend the night. We'd planned to stop here but It seemed a little too crowded for us and we still had plenty of energy and daylight to burn. After a quick ginger tea and apple pie at the local bakery, we took the path down the other side of the hill and pressed onward.
It was a lovely path through the forest where we encountered another monastery, a nunnery damaged a bit by the 2015 earthquake, and a fallen cell tower that likely met the same fate. Our goal, the town of lower Pengboche, was quite farther than we'd anticipated and we encountered another steep hill. Luckily, the trail was quiet enough for a herd of Himalayan Musk Deer to come out and feed. We got pretty close to them before they bounded down the hill and disappeared into the bushes below.
We were pretty darn tired when we got to town and literally stopped at the first teahouse we saw: Buddha Lodge. Dain had read in his guide that this happened to be a recommended spot when all I wanted was to set my backpack down and get some water. There weren't many others staying at the lodge so we got a lot of special attention from the owner. When we came down for dinner, he had pulled two seats right up to the furnace at the center of the room and had it roaringly hot for us. This was our first experience with a yak dung furnance- I know, sounds gross. People collect the yak dung that's ubiquitous around the trails and towns, dry it in the sun, and use them to fuel the fires that head the lodges. Surprisingly, they don't smell at all and keep you quite warm. We chatted for a while during dinner but I was eager to get to bed. We'd just completed another 6 hour day and ascended about 500 meters and I was beat.