It's gridlock on the so-called Everest Highway. Trekking groups jostle past each other and dodge around porters wielding loads worthy of bullocks. I pull up a seat at a tea house and let the "traffic" on the trail clear.
While those around me are being guided by timeframes, I have none. I'm trekking alone, guiding myself towards Namche Bazaar, the famed Sherpa town on the trail to Everest Base Camp. My only necessity is to reach camp at the end of each day.
At another level I'm not alone, for I have unseen support. I'm trekking a new self-guided option from travel operator World Expeditions. I've been met at Lukla airport by a porter who will carry the bulk of my baggage each day, and every night I will sleep in World Expeditions' permanent campsites that dot the route along the Dudh Kosi river.
But to me, mountains signify freedom, and even in this crowd I feel truly free – an eddy in the Everest flow. To trek independently in Nepal typically means to walk in the company of at least a guide, but I am liberated of even that. I can walk when I want, stop where I want, eat and drink at any tea house I choose . The only agenda is my own. I feel as unencumbered as the vultures that whirl overhead.
In Lukla, where treks begin, I hang around watching planes making their precarious landings, grab a second breakfast at a rooftop cafe, and finally wander off on my trek.
For the next three days to Namche Bazaar, I try to hike in the gaps between trekking groups. There are times I walk in sight of nobody, as groups move ahead like tides. Other times I'm in the company of Sherpa children walking to and from school. "Namaste," they whisper, hands pressed together in perhaps the most beautiful greeting in the world.
This first night, I stop in Ghat, just a couple of hours' walk up the valley from Lukla. I drop my pack in my tent and wander higher through the village, lunching in the yard of a teahouse as the trekking world strides past.
The next morning, groups begin to leave Ghat at 8am, but I linger. I stroll down to the banks of the Dudh Kosi – the Milk River – below the village, where the first flowers of spring are beginning to appear along the banks, and prayer flags flicker, with an almost psychedelic effect, from a suspension bridge above the fast-flowing rapids.
Out of Ghat, the trail is an avenue of prayer wheels and mani stones, so the trek feels briefly like a pilgrimage. The solitude is superb – my bag is with a porter somewhere ahead of me, and for a time my only companions are goats, skittering about my feet as they're herded up the valley.
I lunch again in a tea house by the banks of the Dudh Kosi, and only late in the day begin the climb to my night's stop in Monjo, at the entrance to Sagarmatha National Park.
I'm now just a day's walk from Namche Bazaar, heading through the narrowing Dudh Kosi gorge to a suspension bridge that marks the start of the long and dusty climb into Namche and I'm above 3000 metres for the first time. With each step the air begins to thin and halfway up, through a tiny gap in the trees, comes the first glimpse of Mt Everest far ahead. An Englishman in his 60s sits and smokes and stares at the mountain.
"It's been my lifelong ambition to see that," he says.
I leave him to his Everest emotions, and walk on alone up the steep ridge. A porter passes carrying a wooden door on his back, and as the climb finally flattens out, Namche peeps into view, its homes and lodges hanging like beehives from the slopes. After this 500-metre climb, I have the hunger of a yak. I stop at the first tea house I pass in the town, just because I can.
Andrew Bain travelled as a guest of World Expeditions.
Malaysia Airlines flies to Kathmandu from Melbourne and Sydney, transiting through Kuala Lumpur. Self-guided trips into the Everest region include flights from Kathmandu to Lukla (see below). See malaysiaairlines.com
World Expeditions runs an 11-day Self Guided Everest Trek between Lukla and Tengboche, just beyond Namche Bazaar, staying in its private permanent campsites. Trips include Lukla flights and breakfast each morning, and start at $1560. worldexpeditions.com