We’ve come a long, long way together
Through the hard times and the good
I’d like to
Celebrate you baby
I’d like to praise you like I should
Fresh off completing the Annapurna Circuit, Jeff, Anthony and I were ready to make a mad rush to get to Everest Base Camp. We were, to use a term from Mrs-where-is-she-now, the trekking ‘mavericks’. Instead of the standard guide and porter everyone uses, we instead opted for a large foldout map, we carried our own bags and brought half a carton of cigarettes for the trek. You really don’t need a porter if you pack right and don’t mind wearing the same clothes every day. You’re in the mountains. You don’t need a hair dryer. It’s amazing the size of some of the backpacks you see the porters having to carry.
Anthony was the proudest of his backpack as it was really small (27 liters), and many times people asked him “Where’s your porter?” “Oh, I don’t have one. My bag is really small. See?” and he’d turn around to show them his small backpack.
The night before we left we pored over the map in our hotel room and estimated it would take us 2-3 days to get to Base Camp. With that very ill-advised plan our heads would have likely exploded with the sudden rise in altitude in that short of time. As it turns out we were extremely lucky to had done another trek before this because it helped immensely with the altitude adjustment, although we weren’t without problems. And of course being physically in shape from hiking the past couple of weeks helped too. The biggest problem people have on the Base Camp trek is having to turn around because of altitude sickness. And once you get it, you’re done. You’re going nowhere but down and you’re not going back up. So you need to be super careful with how fast you go up. Rule of thumb is only sleep up to 400 meters higher than you slept the previous night. I can’t tell you how many people I saw turning around because of altitude sickness. Every day there would be a half dozen helicopters in the sky, each likely airlifting some sick trekker back to lower grounds. A couple people were carried down the mountain on piggyback on a poor porter’s back. The hardest story was a group of three men who had reached Gorak Shep, the absolute last town before Base Camp only to turn around immediately because of altitude sickness and diarrhea. Ouch. That’s the ultimate adding insult to injury.
The big difference for me between the two treks was I had picked up this bad habit of smoking cigarettes in between the two hikes. And it didn’t help that Anthony was smoking too so I always had a partner in crime to join me, or vice-versa. Ironically, in this altitude sickness seminar I attended, I learned that smokers actually acclimate better to the higher altitudes because their bodies are used to operating using less oxygen. Imagine that. Somehow Anthony and I took that to also mean that smoking during the trek is also a good idea. I will say it right here and now: it’s not a good idea. And cigarettes are expensive as you go up the mountain, as is everything else.
We began our trek by taking a short 35 minute flight from Kathmandu to Lukla in a two-prop airplane that looked like it was straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. We reached Lukla around 8 and started trekking right away. The weather was perfect: blue sky and sun and we had this weather pretty much the entire trek. During the day I was walking in a long sleeve thermal shirt, sometimes with a fleece on top of it. In the night though it got absolutely freezing, to the point that you just want to crawl up into your sleeping bag as soon as possible. And showering? Forget about it. Not only is it way too cold to get out of your cloths, but the showers always cost money. Two strikes against that idea. I’ll say it right here and now: neither of us showered for the entire trek. And that was very common. I met a British guy who went 17 days without showering. 17 days! After two or three days you get used to your b.o. and it doesn’t seem to get any worse. Trust me, when you have to choose between smelling like roses and stripping down naked and showering, or living with your body’s natural perfume, you’ll take the latter ten times out of ten.
I remember when I took my first steps on the hike thinking to myself that I was a long way from Base Camp. Then the saying “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” kept coming up in my head and then I couldn’t stop wondering if that was what the original saying was because they probably didn’t have miles back then. When you’re hiking for hours on end you’ll be surprised by the thoughts that occupy your mind. I never did figure out the answer so if anyone knows please let me know.
Right away I could see that the trek was different than Annapurna. Gone were the mules that were used as cargo transport and in their place were massive, cuddly-looking yaks. The cold weather is probably too much for a mule to handle. A yak is an extremely shaggy, slow-moving behemoth with sharp-tipped horns that look ready to gore at any given moment. But after walking past a couple of yaks you realize that they’re very peaceful animals. Many times I’d pass some that were just grazing and they’d stare at me as I walked by. “What’s up yak?” I’d ask in their direction but never getting a response. Yes, I began speaking to the animals on the trek. It helps pass the time. Other animals I spoke to but got no response from included chickens (including roosters), goats and dogs. “What’s up dawg?” was kinda cool to say and usually they’d end up walking along with me for a while. I guess they’ve got nothing else really going on.
One downside to the yaks on the trail is that they’re so wide and the trails so narrow that if you ever behind a group of them (the cargo yaks always traveled in groups of 4-6) you were pretty much not going anywhere fast. You just have to wait patiently for the trail to widen or to reach a town and then sprint up ahead of the front yak. Anthony was almost collateral damage to a yak rumble when two groups of yaks heading in opposite directions on the trail began to scuffle. A porter got pinned against the mountain side beneath a yak and got scratched up really bad, but fortunately he was able to pick up and keep walking.
Besides lugging cargo around, yaks are used for their milk (“Yak cheese available here” signs were at every lodge) and for their dung. Yup. Dried yak dung. A great way to keep a fire going. I passed a woman one day carrying a big basket on her back who would periodically stoop down, collect a dried piece of yak dung and toss it behind her head and into the basket. I watched in amazement and when she saw me staring she just laughed, probably realizing that this was not a common practice wherever it was that I came from.
Enough about yaks and burning dung. On with the trek. The trek the first day was difficult as there are a couple of steadily steep climbs and then it ended with a grueling one hour climb up the back side of a mountain to reach Namche Bazaar. I asked every guide I passed how much longer it was to the top and the answer was never too encouraging. I finally arrived around 4 (I was always the last one into towns) and found Jeff sitting in the middle of the town square, waiting for me and for Anthony who was looking at different lodges to stay at. Namche Bazaar is about a 1000 meter climb from Lukla and the biggest village we passed through. Rooms on the trek typically cost about $1 per person provided you eat dinner and breakfast at the lodge. I ate spaghetti with tomato sauce every night as it was good for the carbs and pretty tasty but I can’t tell you how ready I was to head back to Kathmandu and have some other food. We kept talking about how the first thing we would do when we got back to Kathmandu was get a falafel and chicken wrap at our favorite street corner restaurant. We also talked about how this first day was likely going to be the hardest day of the trek because of the big climbs.
Oh how wrong we were.
Our second day and third days were much shorter, stopping around noon but just as hard. I’d start each day with my staple breakfast of oatmeal porridge which I found if you put enough sugar in it it starts to become somewhat edible. On the Everest Base Camp trek you’re basically going up and down mountains the entire day. The valleys are not too wide and so there’s hardly any flat level ground. Our second day we headed for Tengboche which was only 200 meters higher than Namche Bazaar. Great, an easy 200 meter climb for the day. Wrong. What they don’t show you on the map is that you descend all the way down the other side of Namche Bazaar, all the way down to the river, and then climb all the way back up to Tengboche. As Anthony and I were walking down the mountain we kept bitching that they should have built a bridge across and we were both dreading the climb back up this mountain on our way back. EBC is not a circuit trek where you go in a loop, but instead is just a back and forth; you come back on the same trek that you went up on. After the second day we said that we had just done the hardest day we would have on the trek. Wrong again.
The third day we reached Dingboche and here we decided to stay for an extra day just to acclimate. We met a group of trekkers who had been trekking for over a week. We had reached the same place in just three days. Internal alarms were going off in each of us that perhaps we were going a bit too fast. In hindsight I’m not sure it would have made much difference but you just never want to take the risk of getting altitude sickness.
On a rest day you usually don’t really rest. You use it to do a day hike where you ascend quite a bit higher than you are to help your body acclimate, and then come back down and sleep at the lower altitude. Your body breathes in less air when you’re sleeping which is why you need to watch how fast you’re climbing.
On day four of hiking, we reached Lobuche, a very basic village with about five lodges. The air was starting to get quite thin and I don’t think any of us slept for longer than an hour without waking up. A few times I woke up gasping for air, panicking that I wasn’t able to breath. Of course that wasn’t the case but when you’re suddenly woken up with your chest heaving, trying to suck in as much air as it can you can understand how you could be worried. The facilities get quite a bit limited the higher you go up the mountain and in our lodge in Leboche we didn’t even have a sink. Usually there’s a big tank or bucket with a tap on it that you can use for brushing your teeth or washing your hand but here I had to ask for water and what I got was a mug of water, and on top of that the lodge owner tried charging me for it. This is the same guy who tried charging Anthony for putting sugar on his spaghetti. Most lodge owners are super friendly and I’d spend a lot of time hanging out with them in their ‘kitchen’, staying warm by the wood fire stove and chatting. But this guy was about as uncool as they come. And if you’re wondering, spaghetti with sugar is something Anthony used to eat all the time when he was cycling and he had pretty much every meal on the trek. I never tried it so I can’t vouch for its taste but I can’t imagine it is that good.
And then on the fifth day, we hiked to Base Camp. It’s a couple hour walk up and down, up and down, (repeat 20 times) from Lobuche to Gorak Shep, the final town you can stay in before you head to Base Camp. We checked in, dropped our bags off in our rooms and got an early lunch before heading out. I don’t know why I decided to get spaghetti at 9:45 a.m., but it was one of the worst calls I made on the trek. Right after we ate we began our trek to Base Camp and I never felt so sluggish. Anthony and Jeff were moving fast and were out of sight within fifteen minutes. So I trekked on on my own slow amble, one foot in front of the other, willing myself to go forward. There were hardly any other trekkers since the season is winding down and so we had the trail to ourselves pretty much. At the checkpost where we picked up our trekking permits the first day they have a big stats board displaying the number of trekkers by month. In December they average 1000 trekkers. In the peak season of September: 9000. Wow. Supposedly at the peak times it’s possible that all the lodges are full and you either have to go to the next town (that would suck), back track to the previous town (that would suck) or hope someone will let you sleep in the dining room (this would be my choice). But for us we never had a problem finding a bed.
A word about guides. In general I think guides are helpful to have. But sometimes they seem to go too slow. Guide-led groups did the same trek we did in about twice the time. I found the best combination is buying your own map and then discussing your day’s plans with someone else’s guide over breakfast. They’re usually happy to give advice to people doing the trek on their own. I will say this though. I got severely lost a couple of times where had I fallen and broken a leg or something, I don’t know if anyone would have heard me or found me. One time was just before Base Camp. I followed a wrong turn and ended up in a landslide area, climbing over massive white rocks, thinking the whole time “it’s so strange that people go this way to get to Base Camp”. After half an hour of going in I decided I would head back and try to do Base Camp tomorrow. I was too worried about getting stuck. Luckily as I was tracing my steps back I saw someone off in the distance. I shouted out at him and he waved me over to him and waited patiently while I stumbled and clamored my way over fallen rocks.
Anthony in all his zealousness to be the first of us to reach Base Camp completely overshot it. There are no signs saying ‘Welcome to Base Camp!’. It’s just a wide open area at the foot of a massive glacier where trekking parties set up shop for a while before climbing up to Everest. The only signs are bits of trash here and there. He ended up at the glacier and got extremely frustrated at not knowing where else to go. And Jeff almost slipped and fell a couple of times which could have been really bad. There’s a moral somewhere in this story. In our rush to get to Base Camp we all headed out on our own pace, eager to get there. And then ended up having not the best times getting there. We definitely were too caught up in the destination and not the journey. You can hardly blame us though for not wanting to climb yet another mountain just to go down it and then climb another one on the back of that.
There are I believe four Base Camps, the others being further in and certainly not accessible to a novice like me. Just to start the trek to Everest from Base Camp you need full on gear, crampons and pick axes. All I had was my hiking books and a Swiss Army knife.
And you don’t see Everest from Base Camp. Which begs the question? Why go to Base Camp at all? Many people don’t go and instead just go to Kala Pattar which is a two hour gut-wrenching nearly vertical climb right out of Gorak Shep, usually done first thing in the morning. From Kala Pattar you get a good view of Everest and you can get some really good pictures. For me the reason to go to Base Camp was to go to Base Camp. It was a personal achievement much more than something external, like seeing beautiful scenery, even though it definitely had that too. Mount Everest is the stuff of legends and countless stories and how cool is it to go to Base Camp, where all the hikes begin?
But I can understand if people don’t need to boost their egos by saying they went to Base Camp and opt for just Kala Pattar or one of the other hikes in the region. All depends what you want.
The sixth day we woke up around 7 for our highest climb of the trek, to Kala Pattar. I can think of much better ways to start a day than climbing straight up the side of a mountain. Jeff was the first one up while Anthony and I lagged behind, literally putting one foot in front of the other at times and resting in between each step. But in the end it is definitely worth it as you get to finally see Everest. It stands there, taller than the other mountains, very unassumingly. It’s not snow capped, it’s not more massive than the other mountains. It’s just higher. And when you realize that it’s 15 km away, you realize how much higher it really is. Confident. That’s the best word I can think of to describe it.
And once we were done seeing Everest, we zoomed on down from Kala Pattar and immediately began our trek back to Lukla. And we absolutely flew. What took us 5 days of hiking to reach going in, we did in 2 very long 9 hour days, back to back. My body hasn’t felt that tired in a while. The first day we trekked all the way back to Tengboche where I (always in last place) arrived around 7 which meant an hour of walking in darkness. If I was smart I would have used my headlamp to light the way but for some reason I couldn’t be bothered to stop and search for it. At one point I heard this rustling sound off to my left and I panicked for a minute, not sure if it was an animal or a human. “Namaste,” I said. “Namaste,” came a raspy-voiced reply. And then a flashlight turned on and I saw it was an elderly Buddhist monk gathering some firewood for the evening. I hiked the remaining (grueling uphill, of course) half an hour up to Tengboche with him. Anthony and Jeff had given up on me arriving that day and booked a double instead of a triple. Thanks guys. I can’t say I blame them though.
Then the next day, the final day, was a hike that was going to be my last hike for a while. I knew I was done once I got to Lukla so I told myself I’m going for broke, and reached Lukla after a very hard 9 hour hike. (Remember that downhill we climbed down after Namche Bazaar? This was the day I climbed right back up it and I swear I thought it would never end).
I caught up with Jeff about midday and we trekked together the rest of the way. Walking and talking with someone somehow makes a trek easier. It’s because it takes your mind off of focusing on the fact that you’re walking for a while. But by the end both of us were running on fumes. We would have stopped in any of a number of towns prior to Lukla but there was an outside chance of catching a flight back that same evening.
But it was alright. I slept great that night. Low altitude. No more trekking. Everest securely stored on my camera.
And knowing that the next day I would wake up, sit on a plane and fly back to Kathmandu where a tasty falafel wrap was awaiting me.