We woke up at dark thirty to catch our flight to Lukla, home of the world’s scariest airport! If you think the international terminal at the Kathmandu airport is a zoo, wait until you see the domestic terminal. It was a nightmare of delays, shouting, frenzied bag-weighing, repeated friskings, and hurry-up-and-waits. I was so happy that our guide was doing virtually everything for us, and we only had to follow instructions. It would be tricky navigating that place on my own.
Our airplane was a sixteen-seater, and even came with a flight attendant! Somewhat disturbingly, right before we took off, she passed around a form that we could fill out if we noted any safety violations. Um, what??? What this supposed to be some sort of PR thing? Because it wasn’t particularly reassuring! What the heck do I know?? The wings look intact and the pilots seem to be paying attention. 10/10 if we don’t crash land???
We took off (uneventfully, thank goodness), and within a few minutes, I saw the Himalayas for the first time.
The landing was totally insane. I watched out the front window as this tiny strip of runway slowly came into view. One minute we were flying into the cliff, then the next minute we were on the cliff!
In Lukla we met the four assistant guides and six porters who would be helping us along the way. The trek from Lukla to Phakding, our first stop, was mostly downhill. We passed through several villages, crossed a number of swaying suspension bridges, and encountered many yaks and yak hybrids. That day, and for the next two weeks, I spent the vast majority of my time with my eyes on the path, trying not to step in yak dung.
At Phakding, we stayed at a teahouse, which is like a very basic hotel. The rooms have two beds, and although bedding is usually provided, it’s best to have your own sleeping bag since there is no heating. You eat at the teahouse restaurant, which serves Nepalese food like dhal bat (rice, curry and lentils) and momos (dumplings), and western food like pizza and sandwiches. There is also, of course, an excellent selection of teas. It did not take me long to become hooked on lemon tea!
I crashed at about 7:00 p.m. that night, and slept like a baby for about 12 hours. Finally some proper z’s! I felt like a new person the next morning. We trekked from Phakding to Namche Bazaar, which involved lovely waterfalls, endless sets of stairs and one particularly terrifying suspension bridge.
I have no problem bungy jumping off tall things, but I don’t care one bit for bridges that sway in the wind when I’m not attached by anything.
We were rewarded at the top of a set of stairs by our first peak of Everest through the trees.
Namche Bazaar is a beautiful town set right into the mountain. It is bustling with trekking shops, bakeries, pubs and a single, precious ATM. We stayed at an excellent teahouse with comfy beds and nice toilets. It was also our last place to take a good hot shower before heading up to base camp.
During our acclimatization day in Namche, we hiked up to the Tenzing Norgay memorial for our first great view of Everest.
We then did another hike up to 4,000 m for fabulous views of Kongde Ri. As we hiked up that trail, I started to feel waves of nausea with each step, but it seemed to pass. Phew. I was all too familiar with altitude sickness from my experience on Mount Kilimanjaro, where we shot up from 1,970 m to 5,895 m in only 3.5 days (BAD!) In comparison, on this trip, we would be taking nine days to climb to at most 5,500 m. I was much more optimistic.
We spent the rest of the day relaxing, reading and playing games at the teahouse. I loved getting to know my fellow hikers. The sixteen of us represented almost every English-speaking country (and Switzerland!)
The next day, we carried on to Phortse Ghaon, which was slightly off the main path, and involved many strenuous uphill climbs. The higher you hike, the harder the uphills become as a result of the thinning air. The weather and scenery were beautiful, however, and it was better to focus on that rather than the pain. The guides also set a slow place with many breaks, so that helped as well.
By the time we reached Phortse Ghaon, I was officially suffering from altitude sickness (calamity #3). Although we had hiked for six hours that day, and by all accounts I should have been starving, I couldn’t summon even a mouthful of noodle soup. I tried so hard to sleep that night, but my stomach was rocking and rolling. Unfortunately, altitude sickness involves three extremely vicious cycles:
Vicious Cycle #1 – Food: To prevent or get over altitude sickness, it is very important to keep eating enough food, even if you are not hungry. Unfortunately, the nausea makes it impossible for you to eat. You then don’t have enough fuel to power you through the trek, leaving you even sicker and weaker.
Vicious Cycle #2 – Water: It is crucial to stay properly hydrated and to drink three to four litres of water a day. At the height (teehee) of my altitude sickness, even taking a small swig of water would give me waves of nausea, making the whole experience of drinking deeply unpleasant.
Vicious Cycle #3 – Sleep: Proper sleep is much needed to reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness. But the sickness itself sometimes prevents you from sleeping, so you are out of luck!
When I woke up the next morning, I managed about three bites of my cinnamon pancake, but I considered that progress! We headed to Dingboche, where we would spend another two nights acclimatizing. I had almost zero energy, and putting one foot in front of the other took up all my concentration. Luckily, the guides were extremely kind and attentive, and they helped me along when I fell back a bit from the group.
I also began having problems with the exhaust pipe burn that I’d stupidly acquired in Dubai. Until then, I’d been using a good cream, but it exploded at high altitude (thankfully, I’d put it in not one but two ziploc bags!) I didn’t have the burn covered, and it seemed to be healing. But at some point, I must have brushed my leg against something and ripped the scab off. During the hike to Dingboche, I felt my leg throbbing. I checked the burn, and discovered that it was bleeding and a bit infected. The head guide put some gauze on it and taped it down, and then I forgot about it for the next while. The nausea was a much bigger concern!
We arrived in Dingboche (4,300 m) that afternoon, and trekked to our teahouse at the very top (of course!) of the village. I optimistically ordered a huge dinner that night (soup, momos and bread), and ate almost none of it. A headache also started setting in. I was just beginning to consider my options for painkillers when a doctor came by our table looking for recruits for a double-blind study on the use of ibuprofen vs. acetaminophen to treat altitude sickness. Perfect timing! I agreed to do the study, and was given a baggie filled with pills that were either ibuprofen or acetaminophen (or maybe a placebo!) They also took my pulse oximetry level (81 – not bad for the altitude). My headache went away fairly quickly, so whatever they gave me worked!
I went to bed ridiculously early that night, and, despite everything, managed to sleep well. I woke up the next morning starving, which was fantastic! I had done it! I’d acclimatized! I’m acclimatizable! I wolfed down breakfast like a champ, feeling incredibly relieved and positively giddy. We did an easy acclimatization hike that day to the Lhotse South Face Heroes memorial.
We spent the afternoon hanging out at the teahouse in Dingboche, trying not to expend energy. I cut another finger trying to open the frozen lock on the door to my room (calamity #4). In the middle of the night, I somehow got tangled in my sleeping bag and wound up dangling half off the bed (calamity #5). My shocked yell scared the bejeezus out of my poor roommate!
The trek from Dingboche to Lobuche the next day was awesome. I was no longer nauseous, and I had a wonderfully full belly, so I was able to really enjoy myself.
I attempted to keep track of the names and heights of all the mountains around us, but it was hopeless. I had many conversations like these with the very patient guides:
Me: What’s that mountain?
Guide: Ama Dablam
Me: And how high is it?
Guide: 6,812 m.
Me: Okay, got it.
Five minutes later:
Me: Wait, what’s that mountain again?
Guide: Ama Dablam
Me: Oh yeah. And how high is it?
Guide: 6,812 m.
And so on.
At the top of a particularly steep hill, we came across the memorials for all the climbers who had perished on Everest.
When we arrived in Lobuche (4,940 m), I was pleasantly surprised by the conditions. In Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer gives a horribly grim description of his experience in a cramped and filthy lodge in Lobuche. Our teahouse was actually one of the nicest ones that we stayed at on the trek. The reasonably clean squat toilet even had turf around it so that we wouldn’t slip (very thoughtful!)
We did a short hike just above the teahouse for a sweet view of the Khumbu glacier. It was our first encounter with snow on the trek, and naturally, a snowball fight ensued.
My leg burn had started to hurt again, so that night, the head guide changed my dressing for me. It was so painful! He mixed warm water and iodine in a bowl, and used a syringe to spray the tape to help remove it, and then to spray the burn. Some gauze was stuck to the burn, and the process of tearing it off was hellish. He cleaned up the blood, and put some silverderm cream and a new patch of gauze on the wound. Another kind trekker gave us some tape that was less hard on the skin. Although I was crying and moaning (I’m a huge baby), I was still very grateful for everyone’s help. I won’t post any pictures of the burn at its oozing, infected finest (you’re welcome!)
We woke up the next morning before the sun, and it was absolutely freezing. For most of the trek, as soon as the sun rose, we could walk around in t-shirts, but the exact minute the sun disappeared below the mountains, the weather would switch to winter mode. But above 5,000 m, our coats rarely came off, even during the day. We trekked slowly and painstakingly to Gorak Shep, where we rested for a bit before our final hike to base camp.
The final three-hour hike to Everest Base camp was tremendously challenging for me. Although my nausea had gone, I found it very hard to breathe whenever the path became steep. This ranged from mildly annoying to downright scary, especially when I had to take two or three gulps of air to catch my breath. I fell behind the group again and felt incredibly weak. The guides kept asking whether I wanted them to take my pack, but I was reluctant at first. I wanted to carry my weight, even if it was only a few kilos. It was the principle, darnit! I had also given my pack to my guide for the final ascent on Kilimanjaro, and I didn’t want to repeat that experience. Eventually, I realized that it was a matter of either handing my pack over or not making it to base camp. It was much easier to hike and breathe without even that tiny bit of extra weight.
When we finally reached base camp, I was beyond exhausted but thrilled.
We stayed for only about an hour at base camp, since there isn’t anything there outside the climbing season in April and May. We hiked back to the lodge at Gorak Shep to spend the night. The temperature must have been below zero, even in our rooms. All the water and, ahem, other matter in the toilet was completely frozen! Merely rolling over in bed that night left me hyperventilating, and I woke up at 2:00 a.m. gasping for air. It was a bit unsettling.
We were awakened at about 4:00 a.m. that morning by our guides pounding on our doors. It was time for one last two-hour climb to the peak of Kala Patthar, just above Gorak Shep, for “a fantastic panoramic view of the Himalayas” (as advertised in the brochure). It was at least – 15°C outside, but thankfully there was no wind. We zig zagged our way slowly but surely up the steep path. I’m sure we were all wondering what on earth we had been thinking to put ourselves through this. I was feeling stronger than the day before, and I managed to carry my own pack. But it was still incredibly difficult and painful. My hands were frozen inside my gloves, and there was no way to move fast enough to warm up my toes.
You have to scramble up all those rocks to reach the peak, and there is a shear drop on both sides. I stayed firmly planted in the middle! The view from the top (5,500 m) made the whole experience totally worth it. The sunrise was spectacular, and the feeling of accomplishment was superb.
After our morning adventure, we had a long hike all the way back down to Orsho. We passed the memorials again and stopped for a rest.
The path to Orsho through the valley was so beautiful. And so wonderfully flat!
The whole trip our guides had been warning us to stand away from the cliff edge when yaks pass by, and I found out that day just how seriously we needed to take their advice. We saw a yak train coming, and as usual, we stood to the side. All of a sudden, one of the yaks got annoyed and rammed into another one right in front of me. They barely missed me! I noticed that the guy driving the yaks was busy texting as this happened (texting and yak driving!) Needless to say, I was much more wary of the beasts after that experience.
That night in Orsho, our head guide told us the story of his journey up Everest. He is unusual in that he is not Sherpa, and he is originally from a comparatively low altitude. He encountered obstacle after obstacle in his quest to become a mountain climber, and he overcame every single one of them. He also summited without any Sherpa support. So inspiring!
The next day, rather than spend the night in Tengboche as originally planned, our group decided that we wanted to stay in Namche Bazaar. More specifically, we wanted hot showers and meat (above Namche, it is best to stick to vegetarian food to avoid food poisoning). We did stop briefly in Tengboche to see the monastery.
On our trek that day, we came across a bridge that had randomly collapsed in the night the year before (no one was on it at the time). This did nothing to improve my confidence in Nepalese bridge infrastructure, to say the least!
The trek back to Namche was very long and tough at times. But that shower when we got there was worth every minute! My personal hygiene reached tragic levels during the trek. I started dividing my clothes into three categories: “completely disgusting,” “somewhat tolerable” and “reasonably clean.” As the clothes in the “reasonably clean” category dwindled away, I made accommodations for those at the “somewhat tolerable” level that I would never in a million years have made at home. Being gross is part of the experience! I hit many new lows. For example, it became so cold at night that I couldn’t even be bothered to find a sink or to go outside with my water bottle to brush my teeth. I simply ate a bit of toothpaste, then crawled into bed.
We had a great time in Namche chilling out and playing cards. Almost all of us ordered yak steak for dinner that evening. After over a week without meat (I think that’s a record for me!), it tasted divine. I also got the dressing on my burn changed again, which was not so great. It wasn’t as bad as in Lobuche, but I dare anyone to have iodine sprayed on their infected burn without shouting a little.
We had an easy hike back to Phakding the next day, and that night we watched the T.V. movie version of Into Thin Air. I do not recommend it. At all. Everything about it is terrible. The script. The acting. The special effects. However, I am looking forward to the movie Everest, which comes out next year. Let’s see if a proper budget can do the story justice!
That night in Phakding, I learned the hard way why they recommend a four-season sleeping bag. At all the other lodges, I put a comforter or blanket on top of my three-season bag, and even in the coldest locations I was always warm enough. We weren’t given any extra bedding this time, and I was totally frozen (calamity #6). I spent the night curled up in a tiny ball, shivering constantly as I watched the hours tick by until morning.
We trekked for about four hours back to Lukla the next day. When we stopped for some tea, I noticed a window with a bunch of stickers, and one in particular caught my eye.
Most of our group spent the afternoon in Lukla at the bars, but I stayed behind at the teahouse. I’d acquired a vicious cold and cough (calamity #7), but I was quite pleased that it had developed only at the end of the trek! We had a final dinner that evening with our assistant guides and porters, then we all headed out together to the Irish bar to drink and dance. Despite my declining health, I had a wonderful time!
We flew from Lukla to Kathmandu early the next morning. The airport experience was again chaotic and frantic. Originally, I was supposed to be on a slightly later flight than the rest of the group. But somehow, when it was time to board, after a lot of shouting and confusion, I ended up on the first flight out with everyone else. I also scored a wicked seat, the turboprop plane version of “bulkhead.” Perhaps most importantly, I was right next to the flight attendant and candy basket!
The takeoff was awesome. We rolled down the runway, and swooped off the cliff. So cool! After one last look at the Himalayas, we landed in Kathmandu.