An experiential account taken from my diary written in March 2018 on an eight-day trek to Everest base camp.
DAY 1 KATHMANDU TO PHAKDING
Arrive at the airport early and wait for many hours, this the usual expectation when traveling anywhere in Nepal by air and it is especially true when flying to Lukla.
Lukla has the reputation of being the most dangerous airport in the world. The aircraft are small and cramped, and the winds of the Himalayas can jostle an airplane around like a cat toying with a bird.
From the sky, the mountains, nature's grandest gestures, are visible periodically when they emerge from moisture laden mists. At this height they are green and lush, and host to a mesmerizing collection of colourful villages that appear to hang on the mountainsides. Inside the aircraft, from behind flimsy windows, excited and apprehensive tourists watch this foreign realm in awe. There is nothing more humbling than the enormity of the Himalayas, so gargantuan that the human eye can't judge their scale correctly, and I have yet to see an image that has captured the immensity of their depth.
The landing at Lukla is as exciting as it is daring. The airstrip, which is etched into the mountainside is short and narrow. A pilot must expertly maneuver the nose of the airborne vessel upward to avoid crashing head first into a vertical rock face. Upon landing, there's a forceful brake and spin of the wheels to avoid plummeting into the mountainside, and crowds of people cheer from behind a metal fence where they have gathered to watch the excitement. Then a quick unload and reload of the aircraft before the plane takes off again with a dip over the horizon.
Energy and anticipation are high among newcomers who must find their way through the small town of lodges and restaurants. The trail is wide and generous, a throughway for mules and porters carrying goods to lodges. Between Lukla and Phakding the pathway slopes downward on a gentle incline past freshly painted Chortens and large well constructed guesthouses reminiscent of English cottages. Lush vegetable gardens line the walkways and the smell of animal dung hangs in the oxygen rich air.
The obvious allure of the Everest trek is to reach the base camp of the highest mountain in the world. For many it is a spiritual conquest, a physical challenge, and a dream of greatness to be fulfilled. It is romance personified, the undertaking of an adventurous heart leading itself with passion into one of the harshest environments on earth.
In spite of Everest's tourist trap, the escalator of people, and the litter, it is still what many have believed it to be, a pursuit of perfection, the dance of discomfort and grit, and one of the most worthwhile journeys you will embark upon in your lifetime.
DAY 2 PHAKDING to NAMCHE BAZAAR
Prakash and I awoke early in Phakding after staying the night in a large empty lodge. Our hostess overslept in the morning and we walked around the lodge calling for someone to wake up and light a fire so we could eat and leave. We found a group of women all sleeping in the same room with our hostess and her child.
The trail followed a thundering river along a rocky canyon, until the trail and river diverged, and a dusty path led us upward into the forest. From here looking up, two pedestrian bridges could be seen miles higher swinging between two mountains. Thick evergreens covered the hillsides, and eagles soared high above, outlined like shadows against the light of the sky.
The trail wound upwards in a serpentine fashion. The afternoon sun beat down upon us, and exhausted hikers leaned on their packs looking over distant valleys, chests heaving as they wiped the sweat from their foreheads with their forearms, and drank deeply. The 30 lbs on my back felt like 100 lbs. I wanted to breathe deeply to power my muscles, but the dust from the trail kept invading my lungs and thwarting my efforts.
I had not eaten lunch, because we wanted to gain time so we passed Jorsale, a lunch stop, and everything in my body hurt. The hike from Jorsale to Namche Bazaar was one of the most challenging I have accomplished in my time in Nepal. It is an extraordinary increase in elevation of 2700 feet in a few hours. The energy bars and other snacks we carried in our packs were not sufficient to sustain the energy we expended.
The last portion of the trek before reaching Namche Bazaar is a dramatic trail cut into the side of a looming piton.. Looking up at the trail from below, trekkers and mules rounding the bend appear to float on the horizon, before disappearing from sight.
The town is a lively array of airy lodges built of wood and brick, and cobble-stoned streets that meander between the cheery European style homes. It is nestled inside a natural crater, and slopes upward in the shape of a crescent moon, and as you move higher up, the cobbled pathways between the lodges become a narrow maze of charming foot paths, lined with flower pots, and laundry hanging in the breeze.
We stayed at Zambala Lodge, a residence close to the entrance of the town that boasts an impressive wood panelled entryway and clean bright rooms. There were other travellers staying in the lodge on the same journey. Two British girls fresh from University, who smoked and drank, and had been suffering from food poisoning for three days, an Australian couple who left their jobs and kids at home, and a tall Norwegian man with a perfect west coast American accent. The Norwegian was full of enthusiasm, he kept asking those around him what they were eating, and what card games they were playing.
Namche boasts the world's highest Irish pub, and a European Bakery that serves pizza. The streets are lined with vibrant shops selling wares made by local artisans; jewelry, hats and cold weather gear. Yaks and dogs roam the streets freely.
After Namche there is cold ahead of you, and your body will fight the altitude, draining you of much needed resources. While there are blankets in the rooms, a sleeping bag rated to -18 celsius is a smart investment. It is better to be warm than full of regret when a nights rest is missed due to the cold, and your limbs aren't working as well as you would like them to work.
The air is cold in Namche too, and carries a quality of emptiness, and no matter where you will stay or wander throughout the high-elevation town, it will find you. In the mornings when you wake to cool dewy glass, in the afternoon when a wayward storm blows in, and at night while you cozy up in your sleeping bag full of excitement for the long and arduous day ahead. When you become aware of yourself lying half-awake in the darkness wearing a toque to stave off the cold and thinking of the next day's gruelling journey with anticipation, you will know the spell of Everest has entered you. From that time forward, however it occurs, you are a loyalist to her earthly fortitude and heavenly allure, that lady of conquest and death. No matter where you are headed, to her base or to her peak, you will put aside suffering and illness to reach her. Like those who have come before you.
DAY 4 NAMCHE BAZAAR TO TENGBOCHE
We walked on the upper ridges of dense evergreen forests with views over majestic mountain peaks while helicopters whirred overhead. The river that we walked along two days ago now appeared to be miles and miles below us, as narrow as the single stroke of a ball point pen, tracing its way along the valley floor.
We passed by a Stupa built on the side of a steep vertical cliff, where a dog sat staring out over the misty mountain landscape, and we walked into a cool forest of immense pines. It was within the shade of this forest that the pressure of fluid on my brain caused me agony. With every step, when my foot hit the ground pain struck like a hammer pounding into my skull. You would think that this pain would be enough to deter me and anyone else from continuing, but it didn't, and it doesn't. There were others along the trail who suffered more greatly than I, and who continued, because the pain is expected and at a certain point the unfaltering desire to make it to your destination supersedes a great many levels of discomfort. An illness that at any other time in your life would be bed-worthy becomes part of the journey.
The sky was full of helicopters all day and I imagined that they were transporting adventurers on fantastic expeditions, but we learned later that they were performing emergency evacuations for people who had fallen severely ill with altitude sickness. One group of base camp hopefuls went from twelve members, down to six.
There is a rumour among the locals that some immoral guides encourage their guests to evacuate and go to a hospital, because they get kickbacks from the hospitals. There is another rumour that one man in Annapurna purposely made his German guests sick and inflated the cost of a helicopter evacuation so he could pocket the extra money.
It was apparent that the greatest number of people who were evacuated came from large groups. Group treks are pre-planned, and the lodges are booked in advance. You will always know where you are sleeping, but the guide has to show up on the day he is expected or the group loses the booking. If you're lagging behind you become a liability. The majority of mountain guides are amazing, skilled and very trustworthy. If they feel you are at risk they will send you home rather than delay the group, or be responsible for a casualty. In a large group the majority will rule.
There were plenty of solo trekkers and small groups along the trek. There was an American girl from Washington who managed to keep her false eyelashes on the entire time, who coupled up with an Australian man. A nineteen year old Dutchman was on a solo journey walking across Asia. There was an Englishman who owned an advertising company in Dubai who was taking his fourteen year old son to basecamp as a birthday present. All kinds of people with interesting stories.
Your destination on day 4 is Tengboche, a small settlement on a wide flat plateau where sheep and yaks roam under the shadow of icy peaks. It is a place of several tea houses and a large monastery that opens its doors at 3pm to allow visitors to observe Puja, Buddhist prayer.
On the day we arrived it snowed and covered the mountains in a beautiful cool white veil. Inside, where it was warm, groups of International trekkers sat around tables close to a hot wood stove pouring over their maps, and planning their routes.
A group of Spaniards using gps announced that the Kongla Ma pass was closed . An abundance of snow had covered all of the high-altitude routes and the trails were lost, so myself and others who had intended to explore would follow the traditional route from Tengboche to Dingboche.
Tomorrow morning we will walk to Dingboche at 14,468 feet, and the excitement is growing.
DAY 5 & 6 - TENGBOCHE TO DINGBOCHE
Everest is the tourist’s Nepal. It isn’t the Nepali’s Nepal where you’ll experience rich culture, and local footpaths. Nevertheless, you’re walking in the footsteps of legends, and the scenery is extraordinary.
We walked above the tree line and everything became more mountainous. A golden eagle flew past us, only ten feet away, it was riding the airwaves and scanning the river valley far below for prey. That’s how far we’ve come, walking at the height of eagles.
Dingboche is an isolated village nestled in a dry valley between two peaks. It appears to only exist to cater to tourists. It is full of lodges, European bakeries, and three or four small shops selling essentials like peanut butter and chocolate, and crampons.
Prakash became sick on the way from Dingboche, and we had to stop. He had a headache and I knew it must have been extraordinary because he is so headstrong, he would not show a sign of vulnerability unless it was serious. A mountain guide that was passing by checked his pulse and encouraged him to descend to a lower elevation, and eat garlic soup. Prakash is strong and stubborn, and while I urged him to please come down the mountain for the night, he would not acquiesce. He was becoming frustrated with the unwanted advice of others so we sat outside on a boulder in a valley exposed to the wind and sun, and waited for the time when he would feel well again.
He had worn his fathers old hiking boots because he didn't have suitable shoes of his own to wear. He and his family share shoes, and they are often falling apart. His father's shoes were tearing at the seam and causing Prakash pain where they dug into him. When we arrived in Dingboche we searched for shoes for him from among several small shops, but we couldn't find his size, so he chose a pair of open sandals with Velcro straps across the toe and ankle.
We chose a room at Bright Star lodge in the far end of town up on a hillside with a beautiful unobstructed view of Ama Dablam peak. We were happy to see that the two British girls who had suffered from food poisoning in Namche were there as well. In the evening they joined us to play cards. One of the girls had not finished her University study for the year. She was supposed to send in a paper, and she was having trouble with the wifi, which was purchased from the lodge.. She was writing an email to her professor to explain that she was sending her paper from 15,000 feet in case there was a delay. The girls were full of good humour. They sat around our dinner table in their sleeping bags, wearing toques and pyjamas, complaining of their headaches, and drinking beer.
There was also a large group of Indian trekkers staying at the lodge, and a British fellow on his own. In the morning as they were all departing the British man couldn't find his cell phone. He was in a panic fearing a theft. He told us he had seen one of the Indian men leaving his room right before his mobile disappeared. Their guide asked his permission to search his room, and after it was granted, he returned with the man's cell phone. He explained that it had been found in the man's bedding. "No," said the Brit. He was sure he had looked there. He was in such a panicked state and his mind didn't seem clear, and Prakash and I wondered if he was suffering from the altitude.
We stayed two nights in Dingboche to acclimate, and during our rest day we climbed up a steep slope to a lookout with a stunning view of the valley below. I climbed too high and that night I was sick again. The pressure in my head was so intense it felt like a heavy rubber band had been wrapped tightly around my forehead, and my eyes might explode from my face.
Eventually, after eating garlic soup, I fell asleep while snow alighted on Ama Dablan and the light of a white moon glittered like silver on her rocky peak.
DAY 7 - DINGBOCHE TO LOBUCHE
The next morning we set off from Dingboche to Lobuche along a network of narrow trails over dry rocky terrain on the steep side of a valley, where the greatest discomfort is the wind. Wind storms along the valley walls at speeds of 20 to 30 km and it’s laced with the ice of the upper Himalayas. At this elevation the behemoths of white peaks are closing in, and in every direction there is another wintry geologic wonder to behold.
There is only one place to eat. A place called Thukla where there is a single lodge offering lunch. After that the next challenge is Thokla Pass and one to two hours of rugged uphill trekking over rocks. At its top is Chyendara, an Everest cemetery, without burials. A place of large boulders on dry cracked ground, where today for some moments the wind relented and the sun warmed us. We rested here and walked slowly among Stupas bearing the faces and names of brave adventurers who have died on Everest. From here until Lobuche the valley narrows, and porters and long processions of ice age yaks carry supplies to base camp in preparation for the climbers' arrival.
Lobuche is a tiny outpost built on the sloping side of a sheltered valley. The sun sets early and rises late here, because it spends most of its day hidden behind mountain peaks. The village is managed by a group of charitable organizations that ensure equal pay for lodge owners. Upon entry we paid a flat fee at a ticket counter, and received a voucher to use at any of the lodges.
Temperature decreases 2 degrees celsius every thousand feet and it was achingly cold above 15 thousand feet. More and more conversations revolved around altitude sickness, because so many people were suffering from it. A large viking-like Dane told me about a medical centre nearby where evacuations were being performed via helicopter. He was sitting at a wooden table in the same dark and draughty lodge as us, consulting his guide as to whether or not it was wise for him to continue. He had been suffering from heart palpitations. The guide did not advise him to continue, because the Dane's rapidly beating heart had been keeping him awake at night, but he seemed resolute in his decision to move forward, in spite of advice to the contrary. Given the choice, few people would come this far and turn around when their goal is only a day away, unless they think they are going to die, and most people don't think they are going to die.
That night I didn't sleep in my sleeping bag, because Prakash did not have one and he needed my warmth. It was the first time I had not done so, and the extra blankets the lodge owners gave us barely covered our bodies. While he slept soundly I was in an altitude coma, unable to move enough to cover myself with more blanket, and freezing the entire night.
The following morning, while Lobuche was lying in the shadow of the mountains, and soft rays of light were shining from behind the jagged peaks like a halo teasing the unfelt promise of warmth, we saw the Dane set out into the cold and frosty dawn, weak and tired, but determined.
We would follow him soon in a hurry to get ahead of the line of trekkers that were venturing out of their lodges. We would walk for ten hours, and gain an increase in altitude of roughly 1,640 feet, to experience the place that has been the starting point for so many hopeful dreamers.
DAY 8 - LOBUCHE TO BASE CAMP
The final day's walk from Lobuche to Everest Base Camp takes between eight and ten hours. It starts at dawn with a two hour trek along a stone strewn valley, followed by hours of uphill hiking and steep climbs over fallen rock. We lost the pathway several times among the boulders.
The first stop was Gorak Shep, a settlement of two lodges in a mountain basin of sand as white as a Caribbean beach, where frosty blue and white peaks loom high on all sides. There was nothing else there, but mountain and rock. It’s the last settlement before base camp, and the place where people return to sleep at night. We were advised not to sleep two nights at this elevation due to the high risk of complications from altitude sickness. Without adequate time to acclimate the usual protocol is to get a room at a lodge in Gorak Shep, drop off gear and continue walking to Base Camp. Then return to Gorak Shep the same night to sleep, departing in the morning for a lower elevation. We selected a room in one of the lodges where we left our heavy packs and took only what was necessary. The single uncovered lightbulb that hung from our ceiling didn't work, and the shared toilet was down a dark maze of concrete corridors. The lavatory was a dirty hole in the ground, elevated on a wide concrete platform that was covered in ice. Leaving Gorak Shep for Base Camp Outside we walked into the bright afternoon sun. Its reflection on icy peaks kept us warm and scorched our faces, while the chilly wind felt like needles on our uncovered skin. We climbed over boulders and moved out of the way for yaks and porters carrying supplies to the mountaineers. Prakash led us over rocks that felt as old as time, cold and jagged and barren, like the landscape. Beautiful in a forbidding manner. Lonely and magnificent. The world was white and glittering and blue.
A clear dusty footpath emerged from the ancient rubble and descended into a deep glacial valley shimmering with ice crystals. Down into the valley we roamed and up the other side to base camp, where the world is measured in distances the eyes can’t comprehend. It is enormous and fantastic and mesmerizing. The reflection of the sun on ice-capped peaks makes the day feel warm, but the wind is forceful, and once the sun disappears the air is as cold as ice.
In the distance, climbers were setting up yellow tents that looked like tiny ants, barely visible miles away. The black imposing peak of Everest was hidden from view, but could be seen better along the trekking route. From here we could see the Kumbhu icefall and I imagined the mental fortitude it would require to tackle it. Trekkers gathered to take pictures and streams of Lungar, Nepali prayer flags, were scattered on the ground trampled beneath people's feet.
Everest Base Camp - March, 2018
Prakash brought the lungar that he purchased in Namche with us, and while I was sitting in the sun taking pictures he was looking for a place to hang them, but he couldn't find one. He felt frustrated by people stepping all over them. When the sun started to wane I wanted leave. I could feel the cold creeping in and began to feel impatient to get back. But Prakash spotted a wooden pole high up on a hillside, and insisted that we climb up the steep slope to reach it. I followed him, but I felt a tinge of resentment, because the climb was steep and rubble kept slipping from beneath my hands and feet.
When we reached the top, he tied the string of lungar between the pole and a large boulder, and the colourful flags flew like kites in the wind. He tried to light a bundle of incense with a match, but the wind was too strong and kept blowing it out. We were knelt down behind the boulder trying to stay sheltered from the wind when I suggested we didn't need the incense. But Prakash found some wisps of ground-cover and created a small fire so the incense would catch flame. He handed it to me and told me to touch one of the flags and make a wish, which I did on a red flag. Afterwards I gave I back to him and said it was his turn, but he refused. "No, this is for you, not for me." I looked at him blankly.
My feelings of impatience and annoyance subsided. I thought of all the times I had forgotten that I wasn't supposed to put lungar on the floor, after he reminded me how important they were, and of his insistence that we bring the flags each time I suggested we didn't need them. I finally saw why it was important to him, and my heart grew so many sizes it hurt.
Upon our return to Gorak Shep that evening, we found that the lodge was lively and bustling with people. Two hip men in their twenties ran the dining area, one of them walked around in sneakers and a snowsuit serving tables, while the other took food orders and kept people away from sitting too close to the fire so everyone could share in its warmth. Adventurers from every corner of the world convened to congratulate one another and share their reasons for being there. It was the coldest, dry-sweatiest, and most unsanitary celebration I've ever attended, and one of the most exciting.
The next morning I awoke with intense nausea before dawn. I was so sick we hurried to pack our bags and leave before the sun had risen behind the mountains. We began our descent in frigid air and I thought I might lose my toes to frostbite, they ached so badly with every step. Prakash pointed out the sun rising behind the frosty peaks and told me it was okay, because the sun was coming. He held my hand and pulled me over the rocks that morning, while I cried in pain and frustration. My boyfriend who had walked to base camp in socks and open sandals, because his fathers old hiking shoes had broken, was concerned for me.
A day later, when we were happily at a lower elevation, we saw lungar flowing in the breeze, tied between a tree and the end of a bridge. Prakash pointed them out and explained their purpose to me,
"You see Lesley, here they are flying really well, if we put them at base camp then people are stepping on them and they are stepping on your dreams. If we put them up, every time the wind is blowing, your wish is coming true. You see, this was for you, not for me, so your dreams will come true."
I did see. I saw how much he loved me. I won't share what I wished for, when I wished upon the lungar, but I can tell you that it has come true, and it keeps coming true, and I wonder if our lungar are still flying in that lonely place high above the world.
Everest Base Camp