PICTURES : HELEN ARTHY in GOKYO
Snowless: A prolonged winter drought and receding glaciers not withstanding, the mountains are still awe inspiring.
Temperatures plummeting to 20 degrees Celsius outside and 12 inside at night. Having to walk knee-deep in snow. Being stuck in Lukla till spring. The inability to find lodges open out of season. Anxiety about being isolated. Such fears may explain why no more than 300 or so trekkers visited the Sagamartha National Park in the first three weeks of January compared with a record of over 9,000 last October.
But there are many reasons to opt for low season over high. In October 2008 trekkers rarely saw the major peaks through the cloud, there were queues of walkers, porters had to race ahead to bank a bed for clients in the lodges where they often camped on dining room floors, people had to wait up to three hours for a meal. If planes were cancelled, a backlog of trekkers quickly accumulated.
This January, the skies are clear right through two weeks on a return trek from Lukla to Gokyo. Although drinking water freezes in our rooms, we can't boast of having had to endure freezing temperatures. And throughout the entire ascent we encounter only 12 other trekkers. Once above Namche, and out of phone range, the feeling of isolation intensifies. In Dole, Macchermo and Gokyo the womenfolk have deserted the lodges to winter in Kathmandu, leaving their men to look after the odd passing traveller.
Every day of the trek is quite distinct from another. In the fertile villages leading up to Namche people are still harvesting pak choi and winter saag while bridges crisscross pristine rivers tumbling over huge boulders. Higher still, sheltered from the sun by the rhododendron, camellia and deciduous trees draped in moss, the waterfalls are frozen solid. Then from Dole it opens out, becoming quite wild and affording magnificent views.
Finally the weary, perhaps breathless, but elated trekker is rewarded with the glorious sight of the turquoise lakes. It comes as a surprise to be confronted by wildlife at 5000m, a relaxed mouse sunning himself, Ruddy Shelducks on the iceless lake, snow pigeons, redstarts and finches.
The second turquoise lake in Gokyo itself is frozen though thawed at the edges. The sound it emits as the wind blows over its surface is quite eerie: a deep groaning followed by cracking. Those with the stamina to climb 500m up Gokyo Ri in the afternoon will be rewarded with the breathtaking sight of the sun setting on Everest as well as views of Makalu, Lhotse and Cho Oyu. The trek to the fifth lake is similarly exhilarating, with magnificent views of Chomolungma, better than those at Kala Pattar (base camp).
But for those, and there are many, who choose to go without a guide and cross the passes the weather can catch them out. There is no sign of the 33-year-old British trekker, last seen in Gokyo around 22 December, heading towards Everest base camp via Cho La pass.
Another downside is that clear skies, warmth and lack of snow are reminders of how the weather patterns are changing. Grazing for yak and nak herds is at a minimum and the ground is in desperate need of fertiliser, but manure is burnt as fuel to lessen reliance on scarce firewood.
Then there's the reminder of how tough life is up there. Supplies are often transported by humans as well as by yak, so it is not uncommon to pass an exhausted porter weighed down by four wooden planks weighing around 110kg that he is shifting to Gokyo for Rs 1,200 per plank. He complains there is little left for him once he has paid for accommodation and food.
But for those who dare, and you don't need to be that daring, this is the time to visit the Khumbu. Before the crowds get here.