Everest middle left, Aba Dablam far right

Our first good look at the Everest Range, Tyngboche Monestary is on the ridge to the right of Brenda's hat
Adventure to the Top of the World 

Why Nepal and the Himalaya? (Abode of the Snow)

The Himalaya Range holds the highest peak on the planet at 29,028 feet. It is called Chomolungma (Mother Goddess of the Earth) by the Tibetans and Sherpa,  called Sagarmatha (Top of the World) by the Nepalis, called Everest (named after the British surveyor who first fixed the elevation at 29,002 feet) by Westerners. The Khumbu Valley reaching deep into the Himalaya, all the way to the Tibetan border and Everest. The Himalaya chain is 1500 miles long, with 100 peaks over 23,600 feet.

This iconic mountain has fascinated millions of people over the last century. Attempts were made to climb the mountain starting in the 1920's but not until 1953 did Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay Sherpa summit. Climbing expeditions and trekking to base camp caught on, so that over 30,000 people a year attempt the trek up the Khumbu Valley to base camp and hundreds attempt to summit every year. The trail ends at Gorakshep, a few miles from base camp. Some trekkers develop Acute Mountain Sickness and have to retreat or in serious cases, evacuate by helicopter.  Also, about 2% of those who attempt to summit Chomolungma, die. That is 239 people as of 2013. 30% of those who attempt to summit, make it. 

As well as the attraction of Chomolungma, we love to experience different cultures. Nepal offers a rich cultural heritage. Nepal has a number of tribes of which the Sherpa people of the Khumbu region are one. Our guide, Ambar Tamang, is Tamang, raised in a village in the foothills. Our porter Predip Rai, is from the Rai group. Almost everyone identifies with Hinduism or Buddhism. The Buddha was raised as a Hindu, born in Limbini, Nepal, but discovered a different path to enlightenment, thus was born Buddhism. These two religions prosper peacefully together in Nepal. We visited five world heritage sites in the Katmandu Valley and several Buddhist monasteries on the trek.

Getting to Nepal

We made a stop over for 3 nights in Hong Kong to experience a different kind of vertical world. Hong Kong island, Kowloon peninsula and the surrounding lands forming the harbor and the territory (now governed by China under arrangements that leaves a free trade economy) is densely packed with  thousands of high rise buildings. It is a modern, organized city with a fine public transport system, but the planning is on double steroids. We wandered around the city one day, and the next took a ferry to Lantau Island to visit one of the biggest sitting metal Buddhas (120 feet high) at a monastery high in the mountains, and then went to a traditional, old Chinese fishing village, full of houses and huts built on stilts lining the shore. Dried fish alongside tourist souvenirs were on display.

We arrived in Katmandu to be greeted by our guide for the next three weeks, Ambar Tamang. it was late at night, and the ride to our hotel, the Vajra, took us through what looked like a deserted and almost bombed out city. Dirt streets and rubble everywhere, but the Vajra is an old, elegant hotel with peaceful grounds so that it didn't seem that we were in a city at all. On our first day we visited the Tamel, a busy area of narrow lanes full of shops and restaurants catering to tourists, and found a peaceful formal mediation garden. At the end of the trip we were back in KTM. we visited three important World Heritage sites: Durbar (palace) squares in Katmandu, Patan and Backtapar. These were the centers of small royal kingdoms until unification in the 1700's. They feature royal palaces and baths, and shrines to various Hindu deities such as Vishnu (the creator) and Shiva (the destroyer). Backtapar is especially well preserved and the main squares are traffic free and peaceful. We also visited two  holy, 2000 year old Buddhist Stupas. Swayambhunath (the "Monkey Temple" named for the monkeys who live there) is high on a hill overlooking Katmandu. Boudhanath, surrounded by bustling city, is a huge stupa. The faithful circle the stupa clockwise in meditation and prayer.  
Durbar Square in Patan

The stupa in Katmandu

Burbar (palace) Square in Backtapar

website for heritage sites: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/121

To our western eyes Katmandu is a city in crisis. There seems to be no planning, many unpaved streets, insane traffic, polluted rivers, trash and rubble everywhere, smog and dust. Yet the folks who live there go happily about their business and treat tourists with respect. Pedestrians have no rights, but the cars, truck and motorcycles wind around and through it all, beeping away, never hitting each other. But we did enjoy the adventure of it and always felt safe wandering around. The Vajra was a welcomed sanctuary from the noise and dust.
public bath in Katmandu

Going to the Himalaya

In order to get to Lukla in the Khumbu region, we could make a long bus or jeep ride on dirt roads for many hours, then trek four days to Lukla, or a 30 minute plane ride in a 12 to 20 passenger airplane. The plane ride took us over steep foothills with small farms and villages, and terraced fields covering all available ground that wasn't steep. We could see the Himalaya range off in the distance, and just before landing, a glimpse of Chomolungma and the surrounding peaks. 

The Lukla airstrip is only 200 yards long and sloped uphill, so the incoming planes make a quick stop just before the runway ends at a rock wall. The village sits high on a sloping terrace a 500 feet above the Dudh Kosi (Milk River). It's a thrilling ride. Peaks of over 20,000 feet rise above the village.

Lukla airstrip

Ambar Tamang

A big reason we made it is because of the caring and professional manner of our guide Ambar Tamang. He nurtured and watched out for us at every step of the way. He kept us trekking at the proper slow pace and made sure we were acclimatizing properly. Acute Mountain Sickness (or altitude sickness) can not only stop you, but can kill. We developed a close relationship with him. His genuinely caring and friendly personality made us feel so welcomed in his country. He was generous with his time and not once left us hanging or in doubt. His enthusiastic encouragement, and careful attention to detail, were absolutely necessary to our success. Also, Ambar has excellent English and a command of the internet.

I encourage anyone wanting trek in the Himalaya to contact Ambar at ambartg@yahoo.com

Our Guide Ambar Tamang

Aba Dablam, 22,493
The Trail

The Sherpa (Eastern People) have been in the Khumbu for at least 500 to 600 years, having brought their culture and Buddhism over the high Himalayan passes from Tibet. The trails connect villages together. Everything is carried by porters or mule trains at lower elevations, and yak trains and porters higher up, and everybody walks everywhere, including school kids, who may climb 1000 feet every day to get the school. There are no vehicles anywhere except the fairly regular helicopters flying distressed tourists out. The trails vary from very steep to flat, rough, smooth, and in between. The trails pass through villages, farms and spiritual sites: stupas*, carved blessing rocks** and mani stones*** and prayer wheels.
Everest and Lohtse 27,940 (4th highest). Sunset from Tyngboche hotel room

The Trek

The trail from Lukla to Gorakshep is about 35 miles, but our guide Ambar only described it in terms of hours and elevation gain. We'd take a full 12 days up and five days back. Of the 12 up days, 5 were acclimatizing days and several were short days of 3 or 4 hours trekking. The total elevation gain took us from 8600 feet at Phakding, our first stop after dropping from Lukla (9100 feet), to 17,000 at Gorakshep, plus a day hike to 18,200 feet atop Kala Patthar (Black Hill). We climbed more, because at one point we dropped down 1700 feet to the river, before starting up 2000 feet to Tyengboche. As well, there were several other losses followed by gains. we were in good shape, so although hard, the climbing was not an issue, but going high is as issue, as the oxygen available at 17,000 feet is about half of sea level. To avoid altitude sickness, it is important to go very slowly up. We adjusted very well to the elevation. Ambar made sure we had adequate acclimatizing days. We were breathing hard, but didn't get sick, just a little headache, runny nose and cough, the Khumbu Cough. We took a drug, diamox, that helped ward off altitude sickness, and made us pee often, mostly because we were drinking 2 to 3 liters of water a day. Any discomfort was more than compensated by the surroundings.

Day 1 Fly to Lukla, 9186 feet, walk to Phakding, 8677 feet, 3.5 hours, 509 elevation loss.
Day 2 Walk to Namche Bazaar 11,220, 6.5 hours, 2543 gain
Day 3 Acclimatizing day in Namche, and a day hike.
Day 4 Walk to Khumjung, 12,368 feet, 3.5 hours, 1148 gain
Day 5 Walk to Tyengboche, 12,696 328 gain, but we dropped 1740 feet to the river and gained 2000 feet to Tyengboche, 6 hours (Brenda breaks her elevation record)
Day 6-9 Acclimatizing days, and to observe the Buddhist monastery Mani Rimdu festival
Day 10 Walk to Dingboche, 14,304, 1608 gain, 6 hours
Day 11 Acclimatizing day (Richard breaks his elevation record on a day hike to 15,000)
Day 12 Walk to Thukla, 15,157, 853 gain, 4 hours (afternoon day hike to see a glacier and lake)
Day 13 Walk to Lobouche, 16,174, 1017 gain, 4 hours (short day hike over the moraine to see   Khumbu glacier for the first time)
Day 14 Walk to Gorakshep, 17,000, 826 gain. (Richard proceeds to Kala Patthar at 18,200)
Day 15-19 Descend to Lukla on a wonderful, leisurely ramble down the valley.

Arakam Tse, 21,072


We got a glimpses of Chomolungma flying in to Luckla, the jet stream blowing snow horizontally off the peak. We got a second view on the second day. But the full impact of where we were going struck us after leaving Namche. As we climbed up a ridge and topped out, the trail circled around a guesthouse and then the mountain came into view. We were stopped in our tracks, gasping with emotion and teary eyed. There before us was the icy peaks and ridges surrounding the Mother Goddess, framing it perfectly. We had to sit down and just stare in awe at an indescribable scene. It would be many days before we reached Gorakshep, and this view spurred us on. 

A Memorial

After leaving Thukla we climbed a steep rocky ridge to Thokla Pass. At the pass numbers of stone memorials sit in a spectacular location to honor those who died on Everest. Memorials to climbers from Asia, Europe, Eastern Europe and the US dot the landscape. Some memorials list a group who died together in a single accident such as a avalanche, or people with the same nationality. One recognizes American Scott Fischer, who was one of 7 people who died in a storm in 1996. The story is told in Into Thin Air. These powerful, poignant memorials honor those who risked it all to climb to the highest point on the planet.

Guest Houses and Villages

30 years ago few trekkers came to the Khumbu Valley. Then the villages were simple stone houses, the people subsistence farming, growing potatoes and veggies and grazing yaks. Now over 30,000 people try for base camp every year, led by tour companies and on their own. The Sherpa people have responded by building guest houses, restaurants, tea shops, gear and souvenir shops to cater to the flood. Only Sherpa people can open businesses. Many improvements have been made: electricity, cell phones and internet. We saw many porters packing 100 pound loads and chatting away on cell phones. Behind that tourist facade, life goes on as before, farming, Buddhist practice, families.  We witnessed people living simple daily lives, harvesting potatoes, washing clothes, caring for children, tending little shops. The difference is that the local economy is much stronger than before.

We stayed in guest houses, kind of like a hotel, every night. The dining room, heated every night by a wood or yak dung, found guides and clients crowded around the stove trying to get warm. The rooms, comprised of plywood, built into the stone buildings, were unheated and frigid, as low as 15-20 degrees F. After dining, and some reading, we'd head to the room and jump right into the sleeping bag, clothes on.

All of the buildings are made from hand chiseled granite blocks formed on site. The wood used in framing windows, doors, rafters and internal walls all cut and shaped by hand using saws and block planes, NO power tools.

Steps up to Namche
a small village on the trail
Khumjung village with the Hillary school and hospital

Mani Rimdu Festival at the Tyengboche Monastery.  
For more info see         http://chiwongmonastery.com/festivals/

Mani Rimdu is a 19-day sequence of sacred ceremonies and empowerments, culminating in a 3-day public festival. It's an opportunity for the local Sherpa and Tibetan communities, to gather and celebrate together with the monastic community.

Mani Rimdu is a re-creation of legendary events; the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet by the great saint, Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava). Through the dances, symbolic demons are conquered, dispelled, or converted to Dharma Protectors, as positive forces clash with those of chaos. The dances convey Buddhist teachings on many levels - from the simplest to the most profound - for those who do not have the opportunity to study and meditate extensively.

We spent 3 days observing this amazing event. On the second day during the blessing ceremony we received Khata (ceremonial scarves representing compassion and purity) which were blessed by the head monk. The final day was composed of the symbolic dances and several comic skits, including one making fun of not only tourists, but monks. Brenda was recruited briefly into one of the comedy skits. 
The old man was trying to make his wife jealous and Brenda played the "younger woman".
Tyngboche hotel where we stayed, Kangtega left 

Mani Rimdu dances


We had a porter, Predip Rai, age 19, who carried all of our gear, about 80 lbs. worth of warm clothes, sleeping bag and and other things, most of which we needed at some point. We saw him in the morning, and found our gear in our room at the end of the trek for the day. Porters and yak trains carry everything for up to 10 days. Building material like plywood and corrugated roofing, rice, beer, flour, veggies (for higher up), sacks of concrete!, bottled water, trekking and climbing gear,  and much more. They get paid by the kilo plus days. We could not understand how these small people could carry such loads of 80, 100 pounds and more. One guy was carrying a 250 pound wood stove. I tried to lift a load and could not budge it.

Our porter Pradep and guide Ambar checking their cell phones
Yaks in front of Tyengboche Monestary

porters and yaks

Gorakshep and the Khumbu glacier

Getting to the Top

We made our goal to go to the end of the trail at Gorakshep, and then climb Kala Patthar to get the best view of Chomolungma. We went very slowly up, ever vigilant of getting sick. The going really got tough after leaving Thukla. The trail ascends quickly to the high valley at 16,000 feet, well above the tree line and in permanent icy, alpine conditions. After overnight in Lobouche, it was time to head for Gorakshep at 17,000 feet. The trail ascends up through a jumble of rocks and then crosses the wild landscape of the Changri Glacier. These glaciers are hardly recognizable as glaciers. They are full of rocks in a massive jumble with blocks of ice and look uncross-able, but the rough trail well defined and trodden. Finally Gorakshep came into view several hundred feet below, sitting on the moraine formed by Khumbu Glacier. We had come to the end of the valley penetrating all the way into the heart of the Himalaya. The Tibetan border a few miles away and Chomolungma soared 12,000 feet above, a huge bowl shaped by massive mountains on every side: Pumori, Lohtse, Nuptse, Everest, Lingtren, and many others, all above 22,000 feet.
upper Khumbu and Khumbu glscier, Pumori, 23,494

After lunch, Ambar and I continued on to Kala Patthar, another 1200 feet higher, while Brenda stayed in Gorakshep, to tired to climb. Those last 1200 steep feet, the hardest thing I have ever done, rewarded with sweeping views all around, a landscape beyond description, snow drift blowing off the pyramid of Chomolungma by the powerful jet stream.  I looked down on the empty base camp and the legendary Khumbu ice fall, graveyard of many climbers.

Khumbu icefall, Everest base camp at left

Everest from Kala Patthar 18,200, Everest 29,028t is left, Nuptse right 25,790


Brenda and I agree it is the hardest trip ever and at our ages of 71 and 69, we surprised ourselves. We were mentally prepared to not make it and accept the disappointment, but also determined to give it our best shot. Photos Ambar took have us standing still, just gazing out at an unforgettable landscape. You can read about a place, and look at photos, but you are left with sort of a smoothed out impression. In the case of the Himalaya, being there in the only way to go. Tibetans and Sherpas consider the mountains sacred, and we agree.  Through all the discomfort and cold, high elevation, climbing, freezing rooms, we feel blessed to have made this astounding journey. 


*stupa (from Sanskrit: literally meaning "heap", is a mound-like or semi-hemispherical structure containing Buddhist relics, typically the ashes of Buddhist monks, used by Buddhists as a place of meditation.

** Om mani padme hum (hail to the jewell in the lotus)

***Mani walls (from wikipedia)
Along the paths of regions under the influence of Tibetan Buddhism the traveller is often confronted with Mani walls. These stone structures are a compilation intricately carved stone tablets, most with the inscription "Om Mani Padme Hum" which loosely translates to "Hail to the jewel in the lotus". These walls should be passed or circumvented from the left side, the clockwise direction in which the earth and the universe revolve, according to Buddhist doctrine.
They are sometimes close to a temple or stupa, sometimes completely isolated and range from a few metres to a kilometre long and one to two metres high. They are built of rubble and sand and faced with mani stones engraved in the elegant Tibetan script.


  1. Fabulous! Thanks Richard for sharing your pics and story. Congrats to you and Brenda for taking this grand adventure! :-) - Patricia Dines

  2. The roof of the world is so grand thanks to your words and photos. You gave yourselves another gift. A fabulous way to end the year, a year filled with gifts. Living is always a fresh process, forming itself/oneself now, and in each moment. richard retecki