Be careful what you wish for.
The cliché echoes in my head as I stare numbly at the bushes and boulders receding in the distance. My partner Leah Gallant and I are one week into a month-long circuit of the Everest region of Nepal, stopped dead in our tracks at 14,000 feet in an isolated valley close to the Tibetan border. The trail, which has grown progressively more indistinct and narrow over the last four hours, has finally vanished into a web of animal paths that fade in the brush. Around us, arid foothills fold up into craggy peaks of neck-straining scale. The irony is painfully obvious: We’ve come in search of something most trekkers in the Khumbu never experience—something akin to raw wilderness—and we’re getting more than we bargained for.
It’s an unheard-of problem elsewhere in the Everest area, where the well-trod trails are as wide as a highway lane, worn by centuries of yak trains and four decades of trekker traffic. Not here. After two days of hiking up the Bhote Kosi valley, on the western side of Sagarmatha National Park, we’ve strayed far enough from the high-use areas that the route forward is too faint to follow. I know we can ask for help, but that seems almost as bad as getting lost. Leah has no such reservations.
“Let’s wait for Dawa,” she says. Dawa is our porter. A porter I didn’t want to hire. A porter I’m still not sure I want. It feels like cheating. Plus, our communication strains the limits of my Nepali phrase book, and it seems that regardless of the question, Dawa’s answer is always a big grin and the same words, “Yeah, yeah, no problem.” I’m not even sure he’s ever traveled this route.
It’s getting late, and clouds are beginning to gather around the peaks. Somewhere in the valley ahead of us is Lungde, the last tiny hamlet that offers shelter, a safe haven where we can sleep before heading over the 17,500-foot pass beyond. We’re not facing a crisis, exactly, but it’s not the kind of place to be wandering around in the dark, in subfreezing weather, without a tent or stove.
Just then, Dawa catches sight of us and calls out from down the hill.
“Sister! Justin! This way,” Dawa says, stomping through the knee-high underbrush with Leah’s pack.
“Are you sure, Dawa?” I ask.
“Yeah, yeah, no problem.”