I’m up early – four – and on the move at five. It’s stil wet and gray, and I don’t care: it’s Namche today, come hell or high water. I’ve been pining for this place since I read Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.” The dawn is flat; the thick skies make the greenery all around all the greener. I flick fat dewdrops off the leaves as I hustle through the early haze.
At half-past six, I realize the trail I’m on may not be a trail – it’s much smaller and less well-trod than what’s been so far, and certainly not what the main path from Lukla to Namche should look like. The leaves close in around me, and I stumble through what is obviously not the expected place to cross this particular stream.
I’m lost, somewhere in the Lukla triangle. I haven’t done a full week, and I’m lost in the stupid Himalaya. A brief panic – that asthmatic tension under your tonsils – gives way to frustration; above all, at my own mistake: not noticing when I wandered off the trail.
I’m not actually proper lost; I’m what Dan Boone may have called “a mite bewildered.” The trail is less than a kilometer to my right, up a steep ravine. What follows is a blown hour of wresting on all fours up a muddy slope, branches clutching at my bag, sweat pouring down my beard, the camera slamming into roots and stones. I move a few hundred meters uphill up a riverbed, then break off through the brush following what must be a goat path.
A kilometer later, mud up to my elbows, I straighten up next to someone’s toilet, in Chheplung. The Sherpa at the lodge smiles at me – that soft, wry smile folks might use when whispering “I’m sorry” after hearing Donald Trump has syphilis – before letting me wash my hands. The only redemption is the lesson was learned at 8,000 feet and not 16,000.
It’s another two easy hours along the flagstones past Phakding; they go quick, but it’s as if I’m on another planet. I join up with Solokhumbu’s version of Highway 5, or Interstate 90, or 5th Avenue: the path from Lukla to Namche. If there’s one stretch damn near everybody in Nepal hikes, here it is. The typical itinerary is an early start in Kathmandu, a flight to Lukla, a few hours to an overnight acclimatization stop in Phakding, and a half-day’s walk to Namche: most who do anything in Solokhumbu take this line.
The trail, then, is instantly flooded with recovering jocks in their mid thirties, wearing fresh technical T-shirts and $300 boots. Medical supportive tape peeks out from under their cargo shorts; each is armed with a pristine pair of trekking poles. The sahara hats – the kind with the floppy long neck-cover – only come off to lather on more sunscreen. Each of these clowns carries five kilos, at most: two water bottles, the camera bag, and the all-important wallet.
Behind the clients, barefoot porters in ripped jeans brave the trail under 75 kilo packs – the dominant configuration is two full backpacks, roped together side-by-side. Ancient fleece jackets, patched with canvas, serve as backpads. The porters walk alone; were they to rest as often as the clients, they’d never get anywhere with the damn load.
The final climb to Namche is memorable; I push through it with a young officer from the Nepal Police, a ghurka. He waves his .303 rifle around as he swings each leg forward, but speaks softly – when he hands it to me with a bragging smile, I make sure the action’s clear. He’s 23, with deep and heartfelt opinions about the ladies of Singapore, but his smile is honest when I pass a water bottle.
The entry to Namche from below is underwhelming – there’s a checkpoint in the middle of the woods, and the trail continues. It dumps me into town at the southeast end of the horseshoe; from the woods to tiny market streets. It’s like coming out of the Lincoln Tunnel in Manhattan – one minute you’re on something resembling a procession, and the next you’re in pan-dimensional chaos.
After a week of five-house villages, Namche is a metropolitan zoo. Five- and six-story buildings abound; the sounds of construction echo in the space between the hewn rock buildings and glacial cliffs. There’s anything the heart desires: hot and cold running water, beer, live soccer on TV, pizza, climbing gear. The power is on 24 hours a day. Think of Times Square, stick it atop Mount Whitney, and you’d get a good idea of what’s there.
If I had more time, I’d have a closer look at how deep this ability to fill demand goes. Starbucks and Best Western are a given, but what about Five Guys? Does Amazon deliver? What about something more sinister? A blowjob is probably on a menu somewhere; what about a particularly esoteric hooker? What about some coke? How far are these guys willing to go in selling out to make some money off the walking wallets that come in, year in and year out?
I stay at the Ama Dablam Lodge – the dining room may be mahogany, but the proprietor is matronly, and negotiates. The flagstone veranda becomes a drying rack under the hot sun. After dusk, I read in the dining room. The sensual, intellectual redhead across the hall listlessly flips though a thick Indian history. Grandma, in the corner, smiles as she twirls a prayer wheel and gently mumbles. What are obviously Nepali love songs filter in on the radio.
For those keeping track at home, it’s 26 kilometers today; 7 hours on and 3.5 hours off. I drop 722 meters, and climb 1586 – call it another mile. Also, I’m well above 3,000 meters; keeping track of the altitude now is just as important. According to my unit, Namche is at 3451 meters. The acclimatization schedule will now become the dominant pacing tool; the next few days promise to be short, but breathless.