WE WERE on the summit. Instead of a grimace, my son Ed sported a triumphant ear-to-ear grin.
It was his 15th birthday and he had climbed the 5,806m-high Pokhalde peak in the Khumbu region of Nepal.
Ascending through the dawn before being greeted by a freezing but beautifully calm morning, we relished a shared sense of achievement as we took in the stupendous panoramic view on one of the most spectacular mountain-scapes on earth.
That day in December 2015 marked my fifth visit to the Khumbu. My first had been back in April 1988 as a younger backpacker. It had been a turning point — one where going to new places became less important than going to places I loved best.
So in December 2009, it was a natural step to take my eldest son, Ben, who had turned 15 that year, there. Fifteen is a good age as I feel that is when one is old enough to start seeing and appreciating things more.
It turned out to be a very special three weeks for Ben and I. Besides exploring a magnificent landscape and culture, we also got to examine ourselves and our father-son relationship.
It was there that Ben’s journey from boy to young man accelerated.
He had to come to grips with life above 5,000m, while being exposed to the rugged, developing country of Nepal, not to mention the many thought-provoking discussions we had while hitting the trails each day.
A whole new world
Khumbu is dotted with villages and more than adequate lodging, all connected by centuries-old, well-graded footpaths.
The locals are friendly and speak enough English for you to get by. But if you want to tackle something a bit more challenging, then an experienced guide and porter can add huge value, and are often essential.
But back to Ed. Our plan was to get well acclimatised on our own up to Everest Base Camp (5,300m), then meet Kami, a local guide, at a small village a little back down the Khumbu glacier called Lobuje (4,930m).
From here, he would guide us across the Khumbu glacier and up Kongma La, a 5,550m pass. We would camp a hundred metres beneath the pass on the far side, and climb Pokhalde the next morning, before descending to Chhukung (4,750m).
The flight to Khumbu’s Lukla Airport was much tamer than the first time when the airstrip was just gravel, although the landing still got our hearts racing.
Our first stop at small village Jorsale that evening came as a culture shock for Ed. Since my second visit to Khumbu, I have maintained contact with a local Sherpa family, Pasang Dorje and his wife Ang Nimi, with whom we stayed the night.
The next morning, we set off for Namche Bazaar. Ed had caught the photographer’s bug, shooting pictures in every direction.
Once across the huge suspension bridge beyond Jorsale, we faced Namche Hill for the relentless 650m climb to Namche Bazaar at 3,450m.
Getting well acclimatised is critical for an enjoyable trek in Khumbu. But not everyone understands that. Because the trails are so good in Khumbu, it is quite easy to make very big height gains quickly — too quickly!
The key when acclimatising is to “climb high, sleep low”. My acclimatisation plan over our 19-day trek involved nine nights of sleeping above 4,750m and climbing to seven different viewpoints above 5,000m.
The boy becomes a man
On Day 10, we were at a deserted Everest Base Camp. It is possible to go more quickly but we took a less trodden, less direct, but more scenic route.
Although December is winter in Nepal, the weather is clear and dry, making it a great time to be there. Especially so because there are only a third or less trekkers in December compared to October and November.
After Everest Base Camp, Kami met us at Lobuje as agreed. He had arranged for Chhongbi, a 21-year-old from his village below Lukla, to bring tents, cooking gear and food up from Chhukung the next day.
Ed was getting psyched up. He now knew how hard it is climbing above 5,000m, especially with a pack on your back.
After breakfast, we set off for Kongma La, some 600m above us. Kami led us across the labyrinth of the Khumbu glacier, picking our way through vast ridges of rubble-covered ice and surface lakes.
The climb to Kongma La was relentless but straightforward. The views both ways from the pass were worth the effort. On the east side, we could see a tiny square and people who looked like ants wandering about. Chhongbi had arrived on time and was busy preparing camp. He had come up 700 vertical metres to our camp site, carrying in excess of 35kg.
At camp, we pondered over the next day’s objective — the rocky bulk of Pokhalde, towering more than 350m above us. Once the sun set, the temperature plummeted. This was the highest I had ever slept. Actually, at 5,450m, we did not sleep much. I was glad to get going on the climb before dawn the next morning.
Our climb to the top of Pokhalde, although very exposed in places, was essentially just a rock scramble as there was no snow at all. Our return to Chhukung that afternoon was slow.
As Ed wrote in his daily journal: “This trip has been mentally and physically challenging, and I’ve learnt how far I can push myself. How I see our Western culture has changed. Things we take for granted at home are privileges here in Nepal — a hot shower, a bug-free environment. Coming here has planted a seed. I hope to make something of it back home”.
This year, my third son Will turns 15 and is gearing up for his adventure too. This trip will complete what has become our Khumbu tradition — where I get to share one of my life’s passions with my sons.
We flew to Kathmandu on SilkAir and took a taxi to the city centre. The trip should not cost you more than US$10 (S$13.51).
■ On arrival, make sure you have your passport-sized photos and US$40 on to pay the visa fee.
■ Tipping is not mandatory but be prepared to bargain for your taxi rides.
■ For Khumbu, the trailhead for most people is at Lukla, which we reached via a 30-minute flight from Kathmandu. Book an early flight, as the weather can cause delays.
■ Permits are required for trekking, as well as insurance for your guide.
■ There are Internet cafés at Namche Bazaar and further up to about 4,400m in Dingboche, a Sherpa village.
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