I never used to enjoy hiking very much and when we were young, we had to be lured up the mountain by false promises of icecream waiting on top of the mountain. Anyway, I think Seoul city life changed that… often having the urge to escape the hustle and bussle of the big city. So anyway, I thought I’d briefly write about the 15 day trek to Mt. Everest via Cho la pass and Gokyo I just completed. Just recovering in Kathmandu at the moment.
Being a solo female travel and first timer to Nepal I decided to go with a guide (Bhuwan). Most people seemed to hire a porter for the trip but I carried all but my sleeping bag. At first, having 10kgs on my back wasn’t so fun, but over time my body got used to the weight. I packed exceptionally light (yeah, I wore almost the same thing every day…)
On 1st October Bhuwan and me arrived at the Kathmandu airport for our flight to Lukla, a small airport in the Himalayas. I didn’t bring a book or anything, not knowing we’d be waiting 6 hours. I asked Bhuwan how long people usually have to wait, and he replied that it’s anywhere between 3 hours and 3 days. Lukla airport is arguably the most dangerous airport in the world with an airstrip carved into the mountains. The runway’s elevation is 2860m, it’s length is only 527m and the incline is almost 20 %. There have been numerous accidents including one in August where 9 people died. I was pretty nervous flying out. We had a 6 hour wait and a 35min flight. As our small 14-seater hit the runway, the brakes slammed down and we landed safely. Phew. Day one we only a had a 2 hour warm up hike and my shoulders were already sore.
Immediately I noticed the cold. From the first night on, I wore pretty much everything in my bag to sleep – woollen socks, long underwear, trackpants, thermal longsleeve, tshirt, hooded sweatshirt, down jacket, woollen hat, woollen gloves, sleeping bag and two blankets. And I was still cold (my strategy later was to not wear quite SO much…and jog in my sleeping bag before lying down).
The Everest trek has become very popular in recent years but it’s tough. There was hardly a flat path, and we continually faced steep ascents and descents. Every day we hiked about 6-8hours and stopped in villages along the way to acclimatise. The path is filled with cute teahouses/lodges, as well as hundreds of stupas and chortens which should be circumambulated clockwise for good karma. Along the way we also encountered many Sherpa porters, carrying insane amounts of weight (from climbing expedition gear, live chickens, raw meat, building materials, food stuffs…). Also, Yaks often trotted along our path, shooed along by Sherpas yelling and throwing rocks at them to get them moving. Another common sight was red rescue helicopters –an experience I preferred not to have.
Every day we trekked higher and higher. I knew altitude sickness to be a serious concern, and it wasn’t until Dingboche (4400m) that I felt the effects. These included a lack of appetite, head ache, lack of sleep, waking up numerous times at night with a totally dry throat, and strenuous breathing. At night I’d often lie in bed just concentrating on breathing, although during the day it was fine, and my symptoms overall seemed similar to most trekkers’. Some trekkers were affected badly and were vomiting and some became incomprehensible, and had to be taken back to lower altitudes. We had an acclimatisation day in Dingboche also, on which we climbed up a nearby peak with amazing views and clear blue skies.
We continued up to Lobuche then Gorak Shep. Walking is definitely more difficult with 50% of normal oxygen levels. I still felt pretty energetic though and very determined to make it. On Day 8 we reached Everest base camp. It wasn’t really the destination that matters though but rather, the way itself. Which is good, because base camp itself is quite an anticlimax. Usually Everest expeditions are around May, and at this time there were only three expeditions that placed their tents another 45mins walk away. A German couple we met (who carried all their own camping gear – two bags weighing a total of 50kgs!) camped at base camp and said it was the most horrifying night ever with occasional loud cracks from the ice underneath them as well as thunderous roars of avalanches in the distance). At base camp we took pictures, and I collected some nice rocks to take back as well as glacial water. Yummy!
The next morning at 5am and wearing headlamps we went up Kalapathar – at 5550m the highest ascent of our trip. We woke up a little late so I powered up the mountain to be in time for the sunrise. The water I was given had traces of petrol in it (I only took two sips but felt nauseous all day) so I reached the top really wasted and a bit dehydrated. But a group of Americans I had befriended cheered me on (“Icebreaker!!” – the nickname they had given me) and I made it to the top five minutes before a big ball of sun popped over Everest. It was beautiful. We enjoyed some hot coffee (the Americans were pretty well-prepared) and cookies. From the top of Kalapathar we had a 360 degree view over the Himalayan giants including Everest, Nuptse and Lotse, and into Tibet which was only 2 horizontal kilometers away. The guide book is right when it says that Everest looks like a big fat man in a room of beautiful ladies. My favourites were Amadablam, Nuptse and I guess I should say Everest since that was the main attraction. From the Nepali side, Everest just doesn’t look like the tallest mountain and definitely not the most stunning!
After Everest base camp we continued our trek over the 5420m Cho la pass, an icy and often dangerous glacial pass. The night before we slept in Dzongla – a small village clearly unprepared for the huge influx of trekkers passing through Cho la. The village has only 2 lodges and is all booked out by the afternoon. To get there in time, Bhuwan, Martina (a German friend who joined us after her friend had to cancel due to altitude sickness) and I powered up to Dzongla to get the last spots of mattress space in a big communal sleeping room. I think it was determination that got us there – I only had one hour sleep, the Kalapathar climb in the morning, nausea from the contaminated water, an eight-hour uphill trek and only a pancake for breakfast. All floor space was taken, 40 porters and guides had to sleep in a small dining room or outside, all tents were taken too, and it was freezing cold. All we had was a small stuffy dining room crammed with people and a Yak dung fireplace in the middle (in the mountains, dried Yak dung is used rather than wood – smoky and smelly…). I couldn’t sleep again due to the altitude and neither could my neighbour, so we chatted all night. Another 1-2 hour sleep).
The next morning the sun rays were blinding and I was pretty exhausted. Day 9 took us through beautiful mountainous landscapes, up a steep rockface and up to the Cho la pass. It was pretty icy and slippery glacier, although crampons and ropes weren’t necessary. Once again, spectacular views. It was an exceptionally long day and we ended the day in Gokyo in the late afternoon. Gokyo has five lakes, that have a stunning green colour. The next day many went up the Gokyo-ri (another high peak) but I just felt the last few days finally caught up to me and I had zero energy. I attempted Gokyo-ri but had to stop every ten steps and try to catch my breath. I thought I had gone up ¼ but according to my American friends it was more like 1/8 up. I had to give up – I was so exhausted. Instead, like many previous nights also, I played cards all day with the Americans. From Day 11 onward my lack of appetite disappeared and I ate like there was no tomorrow. Martina and I had a “consumption day” on which we ordered a ton of pizza, chocolate, beer, and all other healthy things on the menu, after which we were still kinda hungry. Crazy how our bodies work.
From Gokyo we started descending again. It felt nice to have more oxygen, warmth, and trees again. Walking down we passed the Hillary school, built by our national hero Sir Edmund Hillary. Then we were back in Namche Bazar, to the clacking of tools, sounds of animals, children playing. It often feels like I’m living a hundred years ago when we passed through towns like this. As we descended, we heard news of another plane crash in Lukla, in which the aircraft was unable to break in time and smashed the wing of one side (luckily no one was hurt). This, as well as poor weather conditions, had caused a backlog of a few days and it felt like for every trekker going down, twenty trekkers and Yaks were going up.
Conditions on the high mountain are pretty rough I realised. The days are often clear and sunny, so good sun cream and sunglasses are vital, but at night it becomes freezing. Also, as the altitude increases, hygiene decreases. Many lodges had only a toilet, often outside, and no running water or shower. Common question was “so, how long have you not had a shower?”. Also, prices skyrocketed as we went up. Soft drinks, beer, bottled water is barely affordable (I understand the high price – a porter had to carry it on his back often incredible distances and heights), food prices are also high and a semi-outdoor bucket shower (which I declined) would have cost 400 rupees (NZ$8). Sherpas are making good business, let’s just say that.
Anyway, the Everest trek had been my goal for some time and I was really determined to get up there and blessed not to have been too badly affected by the altitude. The beauty of the mountains is indescribable and standing on one of the many peaks was often breathless. It may sound pretty cheesy but you can really feel the power of the mountains when it’s just you, a small human, standing there facing it. Many people, after asking me where I’m from, have gushed about how much they love New Zealand (which made me realise that I need to discover more of my own country when I get home). I am so happy to return home in two weeks. Anyway, that’s it for now. This note has become much longer than just a brief account… I need to chill out now and rest…