March 25th, 2010 - I arrived in the village of Chhukung around mid-day, secured a room, and sat in the sun room (a dining area with windows for walls and a roof that captures heat from the sun) of the Chhukung 'Resort' soaking up more ridiculous views. A couple of notes here. The term 'village' is a tad misleading as many of the stops along the way through the Everest Region are nothing more than a small collection of guesthouses erected specifically to service trekkers. And many use words like resort, hotel, and lodge but contain nothing more than the basics. That is not to say they are not comfortable in their own unique way, just that they lack the type of luxury their names may imply.
The Chhukung valley is absolutely stunning. I sat in the sun room, sipping overpriced tea, and basking in the magnificence. I had the rest of the day to kill. The following day would be a saunter up Chhukung Ri followed by my crossing of the Kongma La the day after that. Giddy as a school girl.
Shortly after I arrived I met an Englishman and a Frenchman who had just crossed the Kongma La from the other direction (starting in the village of Loboche). This was good news as I was a little bit afraid that I might be the first a-hole to cross the pass this season. So much for my trailblazing aspirations.
They told me that they did have a bit of trouble finding the path and there was a significant, although not dangerous, amount of snow. Team France was even kind enough to draw Richie a map so as to aid my journey. Whoever says the French are rude has never met Andre. Although they did themselves deviate from the trail a bit at one point they were confident that I would find my way. One must traverse what is essentially a large valley enclosed on all sides by obnoxiously high peaks so there are few options, unless you want to play Bionic Mountaineer and do a Spiderman impression. This was encouraging news but the fact is I was still going to be alone soooo….
I was further encouraged by another duo that crossed the pass the following day, another Frenchman and his Spanish girlfriend. They too had a bit of trouble following the trail but also reassured me that there is really only one route to take. They too were traversing the three passes (Kongma la, Cho La, and Renjo La) and were on their ninth day. Very impressive, I assure you. More encouraging news. At this point I figured that the worst that could happen is that I could become disorientated and be forced to return the way I came and head back to Chhukung. It was certainly worth a try.
The owner of the lodge was kind enough to show me the route I needed to take over the nearby ridge and on to the pass. I did inquire about the possibility of hiring a local guide specifically for the task of leading me through but the owner laughed his little laugh……which was a bit disquieting since I had no idea why he was laughing.
Chhukung is the starting point for many a trek up nearby Island Peak (Imja Tse), a trekking peak in the region requiring a minimal of technical know-how. At 6,189 m (20,305 ft) it is nothing to shake a stick at. I very much wanted to give it a shot but price (between $500-$600) and the requirement that preparations be made in Kathmandu before departing steered me away from the endeavor (I'm not big on preplanning). But still, from my lodge I could see the 'island' off to the east, whispering my name with that gentle air of seduction (Are there pills for schizophrenia?). The peak is so named because it is a veritable 'island' in a sea of monsters.
The Englishman I'd met that had just crossed the pass was about to engage the peak and was waiting for his guide to appear to begin preparations. Team England was a bit hesitant to face the peak as this was coming at the end of his trek and he was not really in the mood for the prolonged exertion, to say nothing of the cold. But being a trooper he decided to soldier on. Then his guide and cook showed up. His guide's English skills were on par with my Korean. And the cook? Well, he was smashed on roksi (homemade wine). Not such a propitious start.
We inquired into the competency of the guide and was reassured by the owner of the lodge that he was top notch and had summited Island Peak 45 times. Of course the owner also told me, with a straight face I might add, that climbing Island Peak is more difficult than climbing Mt. Everest. That's like saying doing laps in the YMCA pool is more challenging than swimming across the English Channel. Seriously?
After some preliminary exchanges Team England was no less encouraged. They went outside and he watched as his guide struggled to tie a basic knot and then made up a fictitious name for the knot he actually did tie (My friend is a rock climber and knows his way around a rope). No need to worry there. Luckily, for my tea sipping comrade in the end all was well. It turns out that the guide's skills were specific to the task at hand (i.e Island Peak) and when they practiced a bit of ice climbing the following day all went well. In fact when I'd met up with my friend again recently in Kathmandu he told me that he did make it to the summit, albeit after a 15 hour slog (he said the conditions this year were a bit more challenging). Good on ya!!
The next morning I set off for the peak of Chhukung Ri with my new French companion in tow. The view from the top has been described as a 'fairy tale panorama'. Accurate. Very accurate. More clear blue skies and mountain peaks almost too numerous to count. Ama Dablam, Baruntse, Island Peak, Nuptse, Lhotse, Chhukung (Chhukung Ri's big brother) and Makalu were all in attendance (among others). Add chortens, cairns, prayer flags, and a vague sense of cosmic belonging and you have the makings of a very fine morning.
For the most part the trail is not terribly challenging but once you reach a ridge overlooking the valley on the other side the upward climb becomes a bit dodgy as you ascend. Loose stones and decreased wiggle room will keep you on your toes. The reward for your effort? Well….
On the way down I came across an Israeli couple and their guide. This was not the first time I'd encountered them. I also passed the duo in the town of Dingboche and en route to Chhukung village a couple days before. I was struck by the fact that the female was the one carrying the lion's share of their equipment. The male, (boyfriend or husband I presume) had nothing but a day pack and was gliding along talking with the guide. I found this to be a might queer (as in odd or strange).
When I met them again on the ridge just below the final ascent of Chhukung Ri they appeared to be feuding (my Hebrew is a little rusty). The girl was a bit tired and had little desire to make the final push. I believe this was the crux of the argument that ensued but then again who knows? Unfortunately, I was caught in the middle……literally. As I sat on a rock staring awkwardly at the ground the woman (at my front) and the man (directly behind) began sniping at each other in Hebrew (sounds a little bit like Klingon) at increasing decibel levels. The fact that Richie-poo was serving as some sort of human buffer phased neither of them. One word: Aaaaaaawkwaaaard! Silly Jews.
So I moved on. The trip down was taxing as the signature Chhukung Valley breeze that had been absent the day before was having its vengeance. It felt a little like I was constantly being slapped in the face by someone I'm not allowed to retaliate against. Extremely annoying. This is directly opposite to the morning journey upwards where the wind on your back was akin to an encouraging pat on the ass, a 'good game' if you will.
Upon my return to the guesthouse I found the sun room occupied by a group of mature Irish tourists that looked as if someone had just mowed them down with a submachine gun. They were shattered and all appeared to be passed out. First time in the Himalayas? The day before a group of Japanese tourists were enjoying the Chhukung valley views from the comfort of my lodge. When they departed I noticed one of them was being carried on the back of the Japanese liaison/guide they'd brought from Japan. I realize stereotypes are offensive but for the love of everything holy!!! Seriously?
Have I mentioned my dreams? Something about sleeping at altitude gets the psychedelic department of my brain working on overdrive. 'Sleep' is not really the correct word. It is more like a series of naps with periodic bouts of fitful semi-consciousness. Although most of my visions dissipated as soon as I opened my eyes I did retain a few. One involved me watching an adolescent boy retrieve an errant Frisbee that landed in a nearby river (nearby in my dream that is). The water was only waist deep but after grabbing the disc, and as he was wading his way back to shore, I noticed a large crocodile moving surreptitiously in his direction. Before I had a chance to scream it was all over. Gobble. Gobble. The really f^$*ed up part is that a tourist nearby took a picture of the incident and was showing people (including me) right after. The picture showed the croc with his mouth wide open and the boy sitting in its jaws unafraid and maintaining an expression of calm and understanding. If I did not know better and had only the picture to go on I would assume the croc was merely giving the boy a ride. WTF?!!
You think that is weird. How about this? One of my other dreams involved some sort of silent coup in the United States where a Bulgarian man whose name I cannot recall (or even pronounce in my dream) somehow managed to usurp Barack Obama's presidency and take control of the government legally, through some sort of constitutional loophole. Obama was driving away with his family but vowed to return and regain his office. I was not amused and decided that I, in the tradition of those like Che Guevara, would start a revolution. Freeeeeeeeeedoooooooom!!!!!!!!!! Double WTF?!!!
And then there is the hostel in Mexico City. I found myself staying at a youth hostel that I found so enchanting that I decided I would attempt to purchase it and run it myself. Mexico City? Now there's a nice peaceful place to delve into hotel management.
Ummmmm…paging Dr. Freud.
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