It was one of those magical, sparkling mornings when the light painted every rock, lichen, yak and peak in surreally vivid relief. A flock of birds burst upward from an adjoining field like a scatter of buckshot against the blue-violet of the morning sky.
We had emerged shivering from our rooms that mid-October morning in our tiny lodge in Lungden, to consume a welcome cup of hot lemon tea and a porridge and egg-toast breakfast prepared by the young Sherpani proprietress in her tiny kitchen just off the common area of the lodge. Everything seemed new in this village, a speck of scattered buildings and rock-walled yak pastures in the Bhote Kosi river valley of the Khumbu in Nepal, with fresh plywood, stone and tin constructions rising from the yak fields around us. According to my guidebook, the first lodges in the area were built in 2004; apparently the trekking boom across the Khumbu was delivering economic opportunity in this little corner of the region as well.
Our descent that morning was a peaceful ramble along the river, the density of slate-roofed stone houses increasing as we went along. Passing through Maralung, we could see residents out and about on their morning business – a woman spinning wool on her porch, a group of chattering girls washing clothes in the communal tap. A Sherpani resting on her front porch eyed us with some suspicion as we passed, probably well justified by a past trekker’s misbehavior.
The route that day was the next-to-last of a three-week trek, a combination of transcendent joy and stoic endurance, that had taken our Mountaineers group from Lukla up to Everest Basecamp and the Kala Patthar lookout, then over the grueling pass of Cho La to the lovely “resort” town of Gokyo perched on its jeweled necklace of lakes. The next day we would head west from Gokyo to cross 5340-meter Renjo La on our way through Thame back to Namche.
Starting early from the lodge, we traversed west around the apparently unnamed ‘third lake’ through the autumn-red alpine vegetation, the peaks to the south reflecting vividly in the still water. The headwall of Renjo La soon captured our attention to the west, a steep multi-colored jumble of talus and seemingly sheer cliff. As they had through our entire adventure in the Khumbu, the patterned clouds across the bright palette of the sky made a breathtaking backdrop to the snowcovered spires of the high peaks. Our porters, each carrying two large duffels, were soon brightly-colored specks on the trail ascending far ahead. In contrast to the grey-black color palette of Cho La, Renjo La was an orange-tan backdrop sprinkled with glistening white boulders and snow patches.
By now we knew the drill: rest-step, breathe, rest-step, breathe. Suddenly, looking back to the east, we were stopped in our tracks by the giants of Everest and Lhotse, the highest and fourth-highest peaks in the world at 8850 and 8501 meters, appearing behind the now-tiny expanse of Gokyo and the “third lake”. Soon Makalu, the fifth-highest peak in the world at 8,481m, emerged even farther back. This was an even better, more expansive view than we’d had from the famed lookout of Kala Patthar, though without the heady nearness of Everest and all its history. The snowy crag of Pherilapche, 6017m, caught the pink sunglow to our south.
Almost before we knew it, we had wound through the boulders and scree past the ever-present, whimsical cairns and scrambled up the last steep section to the pass, bedecked with the ever-present prayer flags. Compared to the extended challenge of Cho La, this was a piece of cake. But the views!! Even our porters stopped to take pictures, and briefly shed their physical and mental burdens, as the young twenty-somethings they were, to chatter and laugh as we ate our lunch in the sun.
From the pass, a wall of 6000+ meter peaks stretched south to north across the deep valley of the Bhote Kosi. Below us, a series of fabulously blue lakes on a succession of benches stepped westward down to the river. The trail down from the pass had recently been upgraded from a steep and dangerous scramble to a sturdy series of steps, and we made quick work of the descent to the first lake. From there it was an idyllic ramble downhill along the glacial streams and ponds with the high peaks rising high above us across the valley. By early afternoon we rounded a last bend and dropped down one last bench to Lungden. Our guide negotiated in spirited Nepali with the proprietors of two different lodges before choosing a third for our stay.
The next morning, after passing Maralung we climbed a steep hill, recently planted with new silver fir seedlings, to see the comparatively vast expanse of Thame village stretched out below us.
Thame, a gateway both to Namche to the southeast and the Rowaling valley to the west, was once a center on the salt trade route between India and Tibet. Now it prided itself on two treasures: the hydro-power station serving all the towns in the district, and the (former) home of Apa Sherpa, who has summited Everest more than any other (21 times and counting!). Downvalley appeared our old friend Ama Dablam, marking the way to Namche. A monastery perched on the hillside up the Rowaling Valley. We found rooms at Apa Sherpa’s family lodge (the man now lives in San Francisco), enjoyed sun and wifi, and watched a luminous pink-blue sunset over the near-perfect pyramid of Pacharmo (6273m) to the west.
Now, our trip nearly at an end, we descended gradually, then steeply, on a light-dappled trail under blue pines and silver fir, the gorge of the Bhote Kosi and its rapids dropping far below. Brightly painted Hindu deities greeted us on a cliff wall. Finally we rounded the nose of a ridge and faced the colorful expanse of Namche and its lodges and terraced gardens covering the hillside before us. We a lunch at the lodge we’d stayed in two weeks before, and headed back down the Dudh Kosi valley toward Lukla and our return flight to Khatmandu.