Another phenomenal day of hiking as we made our way from Phortse to Pangboche in only around three hours. The landscape was lovely, with the trail cut along a mountain pass, with sheer cliff on one side in many places. We saw plenty of tahr along the way, some which we startled off the path. (Note: two days later a man saw a snow leopard along this same stretch of path, most likely hunting tahr young, which are one of its main prey items. Though I didn’t see the video of it that the man had taken, apparently he was shaking so hard that it was difficult to see anything).
Along the way I chatted with one of our guides, whose trekking pace reminds us all of strolling in the garden. Though that may seem painstakingly slow, there is a method to the madness. By walking slowly, we are better able to breathe the low-oxygen air (Pangboche, at 3860 m, has 64% of oxygen available at sea level), but also prevent lactic acid build-up in our bodies and prevent our heart rates from elevating, which improves acclimatization. As we walked, our guide continuously stopped to congratulate friends and acquaintances who had summited Everest and were now heading down at the end of the mountaineering season. Mountaineering guides are easily distinguishable due to their deeply tanned faces and pronounced goggle tans. Helicopter companies are also doing great business right now as they take equipment and climbers, who are often reluctant to trek out, to Lukla, where they will catch planes back to Kathmandu. Since we’ve been here in the Khumbu Region we have already heard of three deaths of Everest climbers, one of whom was a Sherpa and friend of one of our guides. I’m such a hazardous and unforgiving region, it seems as if most locals have been affected by loss of this nature in some way. On our way to Pangboche, we also got a great view of the Tengboche Monastery, where mountaineers receive blessings from the head lama for a safe summit. We are visiting this monastery later on our trek.
Once in Pangboche, we visited a different monastery, Pangboche Gompa – the oldest monastery in the region. It was established in the 16th century, rebuilt in 1667, and was undergoing repairs from earthquake damage when we entered. Construction was certainly different than what we are accustomed to in Canada – everything is done by hand. One man was sawing wood into 2x4s, and another was planing wood with a razor attached to another piece of wood. Others were cutting rock into rough rectangles with chisels and mallets. Our monastery guide said that repairs were slow due to regulations put forward by the government due to what I believe concerned the monastery’s heritage preservation, though the exact reason was lost in translation. Fortunately, the main building sustained little damage. It was incredibly colourful, with murals of various manifestations of the Buddha covering the walls. Some paintings were so old their colours had faded almost completely away. There were grand almost throne-like chairs for the head lamas and walls with cubbies containing cotton scrolls of ancient texts translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan that the monks read to the villagers during an annual festival that takes place in autumn. The most noteworthy relics contained in the monastery are the supposed skull and hand of a yeti, which are replicas of the originals that were stolen in 1991. We also visited the head lama in his living quarters off the main room of the monastery, where we each received a blessing for a safe trek. With the blessing we received braided cords to wear around our necks for protection. Some of us also visited the largest religious statue in the region, which depicts a disciple of the Buddha in the region. It was a mystical experience, with dogs auspiciously emerging from the mist.
The lodge owner here has summited Everest 12 times as well as numerous other mountains. It’s amazing to think that the man bringing you tea is a world-class mountaineer. I wish I could speak Sherpa as there are so many people I’ve seen that I’m sure have amazing stories. Beyond the mountaineers, I would love to speak to those that have seen Nepal open up to outsiders after the Raina dynasty ended in 1951. Since then, the country has been through rapid change, from the emergence of democracy to the growth of trekking and mountaineering tourism. To hear accounts of this evolution firsthand would be incredibly interesting.