After a three-week trek through the Himalayas, I find myself back in a Kathmandu hostel. Although I was still in the mountains just yesterday, the entire trip already feels like a distant memory, as if I’ve just woken up from some strange dream. The trek was unlike anything I’ve ever done, and it feels like an oddly remote chapter of my life.
The journey began with a flight from Kathmandu to Lukla; considered one of the world’s most dangerous flights. Packed into a 16-passenger plane with other eager adventure-seekers, we spent the 30-minute plane ride with our faces glued to the window. Flying at eye level with some of the world’s highest mountains was a thrilling experience. Seeing these ancient behemoths rising far off into the distance, as if hovering above the horizon, produced intense feelings of both excitement and nervousness. I knew that over the course of the next few weeks, we would slowly trudge towards this unforgiving territory to appreciate the rewarding mountain views and immerse ourselves in the Himalayas. What could possibly await? Like a kid before the first day of school, I knew I would be fine, but I was still vaguely uncertain of my fate.
The runway at the Tenzing-Hillary airport is built into a mountain, and is so short that it has been built at a steep incline. Planes land on an uphill incline and quickly come to a stop before running into a sheer rock face. Taking off, the planes build up speed downhill before falling off the mountain to fly back to Kathmandu valley. I’ve never landed and come to a stop so quickly. It felt as though as soon as we had hit the ground, we had come to a complete stop.
We landed in Lukla, a small town at the mouth of the Khumbu valley, on the morning of November 1st. It is from here that we would zigzag our way up to base camp of the world’s highest mountain, popularly known as Mount Everest, but by the Tibetans as Chomolungma: Goddess Mother of Mountains.
To get here from Kathmandu, options are limited. You must either fly out from the airport, take an expensive helicopter, or take ride in a jeep for 15 hours and then trek for half a week. There is no road in the entire region. The only way to get around the Khumbu valley - if you’re not going around by helicopter - is to simply walk the long mountain trails. For an unacclimatized tourist of average fitness, it takes about ten days to get from Lukla to Everest base camp, although a strong and pre-acclimatized walker could feasibly make it from Lukla to base camp in three long days.
Due to the lack of roads, goods in the area are relatively expensive. Meals cost between eight and ten dollars throughout the valley (as opposed to about two to four dollars per meal in Kathmandu); food gets increasingly expensive the farther you walk from Lukla. Everything - from gas, to bottled water, to bags of rice and chocolate bars - is flown in from Kathmandu, and then walked from Lukla to the far reaches of the Khumbu, via porter, horse, and yak.
In order to save some money, we brought several packs of tea, oatmeal, and granola bars, so that we could get by on ordering hot water for breakfast. Getting to Everest base camp on a strict budget also meant showering less than once a week, hand-washing our three pairs of socks in icy waters, sharing or skipping lunch altogether, and purifying our water from mountain streams. It also meant that we couldn’t afford a guide or porter. Although it is good to support the local economy wherever you go, I was opposed to hiring a guide and/or porter on principle. The trail was perfectly well marked and intuitive, so it would have been a waste to spend $30 a day to have someone guide us; furthermore, as a mid-20 year old in perfectly good health, I cannot justify paying someone to carrying my backpack for me. There was also a sense of independence gained navigating ourselves around the Himalayas. How many times did I see trekkers who relied on guides and porters to hold their hand through the trail, wake them up in the morning, and order their meals, I can not count. Self-reliance was a gratifying aspect of foregoing the unnecessary luxury.
From Lukla, we began our trek through gently rolling streams and little towns with teahouses. Occasionally, we would pass a Buddhist stupa, and we would spin the prayer wheels (always clockwise) for good luck. After two days, we made it to Namche Bazaar, the largest town in the Khumbu valley. I was surprised to see an Irish Pub, pizza restaurants, and fancy bakeries in the area. Due to the rapid elevation gain, we spent an acclimatization day here to give our bodies the chance to adjust to the thinning air. The welcome respite gave me a chance to read my books, Into Thin Air and Seven Years in Tibet.
After a couple days, we made it to Tengboche, the site of the Khumbu’s largest and most important monastery. Originally built in the 1916, it was twice destroyed and twice rebuilt. The monks here, like in all Buddhist monasteries, live very simple lives, and pass much of their daily life praying and meditating, particularly by repeating the prayer of “Om Mani Padme Hum,” an important mantra of Tibetan Buddhism (by the way, I recommend a listen to this very relaxing song. Personally, I could listen to it all day).
Continuing from the monastery village, we reached Pangboche, a small, very rural village that seems to exist solely to support the trekking industry. From there, we embarked on our first acclimatization day hike, to Ama Dablam base camp (4,580 meters/15,030 feet). This was our first taste of how thin the air can get; we huffed and puffed up the incredibly steep mountain, but we were quickly rewarded with impressive views of Ama Dablam, one of the most picturesque mountains in the valley.
Although the day hike to Ama Dablam base camp was strenuous, it felt good to take a day to get up there: it helped us acclimatize for the days ahead, and it provided a good opportunity to get conditioned into better shape. It was an investment that I was glad to have made for the rest of the trek.
After a week and a half, we made it to Gorak Shep, a town built in a dusty bowl of barren earth. This is the starting point for two challenges: Kala Pattar, a small mountain that rises directly above the town, and Everest base camp itself.
We decided to tackle Kala Pattar first. At 5,545 meters (18,200 feet), it would be the highest point of our trek. Dominating the town of Gorak Shep, we took about two hours to get to the very top to see the view at sunset. Our guidebook boasted that it was probably the best view a non-mountaineer could get, and we were not disappointed: we were greeted with incredible views of Lhotse, Mount Everest, and Nuptse. Bitterly cold and out of breath, we descended the mountain in the darkness, feeling victorious about our ascent.
The next day, we went for Everest base camp. As most trekkers will tell you, base camp itself is a mostly unremarkable pile of rocks, and does not provide very good views of Everest. Nonetheless, taking pictures with a sign that proved our arrival to base camp at 5,340 meters (17,520 feet) felt like a worthy accomplishment. It was interesting to examine the many prayer flags with little notes scribbled on them, as well as the numerous monuments built to honor fallen climbers and sherpas. In the distance ahead, the Khumbu icefall - the first challenge in climbing Everest, and its most deadly obstacle - loomed ominously above, sticking out of the jagged earth like crocodile teeth, taunting any summit-hopeful with deadly seduction.
Gorak Shep was the only town where I had any experience with altitude sickness. Several mornings, I woke up with a blinding headache, as if suddenly afflicted with a vicious red wine hangover. I lost my appetite and had to sleep a bit later than usual, but thankfully this is the only bout of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) I had to deal with. However, I consider myself lucky - just getting a glimpse of how debilitating the altitude can be was enough to understand how terrible AMS can be. Three trekkers died while we were on our trek, including a Japanese man who passed away after he stopped breathing over night. A Frenchwoman we ran into was in tears after vomiting throughout the night, and had to order a helicopter ride back to Lukla.
The barren geography devoid of trees and the thin air that makes you gasp for breath on even the most gradual inclines is a constant reminder that this is simply a place where humans are not supposed to live. “It’s an unforgiving place,” said William, a Welshman I met towards the end of the trek, who had to descend the mountain after developing High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). After his lungs filled up with fluid, he began to feel weak and confused. A doctor he consulted took one look at him and told him to descend the mountain at once. After losing about 400 meters in elevation, “I thought, thank God I’m alive,” he confided. “I don’t know what would have happened.”
Thankfully, we didn’t experience anything worse than headaches, so from Gorak Shep we felt healthy and fit enough to continue to our next destination. With Ama Dablam base camp, Kala Pattar, and Everest base camp under our belts, we were confident enough to cross over the Cho La pass in order to get to Gokyo, a pretty town nestled to a large lake, one of five lakes considered holy by Buddhists and Hindus alike. However, this would be a challenging day, as crossing the Cho La pass requires climbing up a mountain, traversing an icy glacier, and coming back down the other side of the mountain: and all this without a guide, trekking poles, or crampons.
From Gorak Shep, we crossed to Dughla, where we spent the night before tackling the Cho La pass. We left early in the morning in order to beat the clouds that inevitably roll in around noon. After a two-hour hike through a barren valley, we scrambled up a steep rock face towards the low point of the mountain ridge. After crossing this first obstacle, we were encountered with a massive block of frozen glacier, in some parts as smooth as an ice cube.
We cautiously trudged up, one foot in front of the other. At some points, we had to crawl up the mass on our hands and feet, careful not to slip and lose our footing. After making it up the glacier, we found ourselves on a crest between two valleys, with a massive range of the Himalayas in the distance: here we were at the Cho La pass (5,420 meters/17,780 feet). This was one of my favorite days, as it really provided a sense of adventure. Crossing a mountain pass over a glacier without any specialist equipment is a challenge you don’t encounter every day. And I must admit, it felt great to pass other trekkers who had trekking poles, crampons, and porters to carry their packs.
Finally in Gokyo, we checked into a comfortable lodge with lake views. Much like Gorak Shep has Kala Pattar, Gokyo has Gokyo Ri: a massive hill dominating the town beneath. After a well-earned day of rest, we ascended Gokyo Ri (5,360 meters/17,580 feet) after about two hours. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
After several more days, we made it back to Lukla. So - what to make of this experience?
I spent the better part of a month wearing the same dirty clothes, skipping showers, laundry, and hot meals, carrying all my possessions in a pack through the Nepalese backcountry, to make my way up the Khumbu Valley towards the world’s highest mountain. It was one of the most rewarding and unique things I’ve ever done. But not just for the mountain views: the trek provided a sense of purpose every day. It cleared my mind of all other preoccupations, and the stunning beauty of this mountain range was a distraction from all of the other chaos from the world around us. After trekking each day, we would read, play cards, or simply reflect. This daily rhythm encouraged simple living. Every day was a welcome challenge, a break from life’s routines. To feel strong against the mountain, to feel fitter every day and push on to new heights was a simple and gratifying experience.