The idea of doing the Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek was mooted during one of huff and puff Saturday sessions up Apek Hill. It had been 2 years since I last set foot on those Himalayan ranges. I was raring to go. And to ensure no once chickened out, we immediately booked our tickets the following day – one year ahead!
The year unfolded into months and months, into weeks. The final week saw us busy perfecting the art of selecting worldly goods needed for the 17D/16N trip, stopping only when the scale tipped at 15kg, the weight limit allowed on the flight to Lukla. Lukla is the gateway to Mount Everest trekking and climbing and home to one of the most dangerous airports in the world. Just about the final week before the epic journey, we received news that all flights to Lukla had been re-routed to fly out from Ramechhap due to maintenance work in the Kathmandu airport. A quick google search on Ramechhap revealed a small town about 5 hours’ drive or more from Kathmandu, on roads in a sorry state. The immediate concern was availability of accommodation to cope with the sudden influx of tourists (April being the peak season for Everest climbers). Our guide warned us of the possibility of just camping in the field next to Ramechhap airport, not exactly an appealing option with the temperature dropping to single digit at night.Soon enough, God answered our prayers and we arrived safely in Ramechhap, had a good night sleep in a small motel and most importantly, granted us perfect weather to fly off to Lukla without further delay.
For the uninitiated, the Tenzing-Hilary airport in Lukla is nestled in between mountains and has one of the shortest runway in the world. It requires clear weather and a skillful pilot to execute a safe landing or takeoff.
After tucking in a hot Dal Bhat lunch of white rice (bhat) and lentils (dal) typically accompanied by a vegetable curry (tarkari), a mixture of spicy vegetables (pickles) and greens (sak), we set off to the Phakding (2610m) amidst a light shower. The 4 hour trek was relatively easy – the only challenge was to negotiate some muddy patches. Hence, a good waterproof trekking shoe made a world of difference.
We woke up in awe of majestic snow capped mountains surrounding our tea house – a sight kept hidden in the dark the evening before. The air was crisp and the sun emerged from its slumber to light the path to Namche Bazaar (3440m). It would be the longest stretch in the entire trek but we were in good spirits. It didn’t take long to understand why people kept returning to answer the calls of the mountains. The trek took us through beautiful forests of rhododendron, magnolia and giant firs. Apart from a rare encounter with a blue sheep (bharal), mules and yaks were the regular sighting of animals. They plied the same route, carrying heavy loads of necessities up to the mountains. Soon, it became our second nature to move to safety (stay close to the mountain walls) whenever we heard the sound from jiggling bells hung around the neck of these kings of the roads lest they knocked us off the path. Suspension bridge seemed to be the fear factor to be conquered for some (not that you have a choice, anyway). The sound of the prayer flag flapping in the air, and that of the furious flow of water gushing down the river below did little to calm some. “Look ahead! Don’t look down!” were some orders barked as we marched ahead the longest suspension bridge in the EBC region. Just when we thought the ordeal was over, another awaited ahead. The never ending zig zag upward climb had us gasping for air in the already thin air. An abrupt stop came as a welcome relief when up a few bends ahead, a mule carrying a well built man refused to budge. No amount of cajoling worked on the animal (and the man!) but the tension from the little drama defused when the man finally gave up and got off the animal.The mule galloped up some steep steps triumphantly with the man trudging behind. A total 9.5 hours and 21km of trek had us reaching Namche Bazaar as the sky turned dark.By night, a fellow trekker had started showing signs of acute mountain sickness (AMS).
We congregated as usual after dinner and were immensely grateful that we had a knowledgeable guide who lined up various options that we could take under different scenarios. Namche Bazaar is a pretty quaint little township and perhaps the only place in the region to shop for worldly goods, have a nice warm hair wash, enjoy a good cuppa and cake. It was the acclimatization stop for most climbers and trekkers headed to Everest.
In other words, it was the last hint of modernization and thankfully, several clinics operate there. The morning after, we accompanied our sick friend to seek medical attention. We were flabbergasted to learn the clinic was perched on a hill and remarked anyone who could climb their way to the clinic couldn’t be that sick. The doctor issued grave warning to our friend to discontinue her journey and took the time to elaborate the tragedies befallened some trekkers who defied health warnings. But my friend was not about to give up; hence the guide suggested we stayed another night at Namche Bazaar to allow her to rest. The morning saw her bouncing back like a little trooper and we made a short walk to the Sagarmatha National Park Museum, and spent the remaining day exploring Namche Bazaar.
Encouraged by the progress, we decided to tweak our journey to ensure it did not take a toll on our friend. As we continued our journey on renewed hope, we caught the first glimpse of Mount Everest, a surreal moment indeed. We popped into Tengboche Monastery, one of the oldest and biggest monasteries in the Khumbu region before retiring in Debouche (3800m)
The next three days saw us moving to Periche (4371m), Thukla (4620m) and Lobuche (4940m) and were quick to note the dramatic change in landscape – settlements were scattered, lush greeneries were replaced by hardy shrubs. Water was scarce in the tea houses. A hot shower would be a real luxury. We saw the other “greats” – Mt Ama Dablam, Mt Lhotse among others. Just before we hit Lobuche, we passed by memorials erected to commemorate those who had fallen, pursuing their Everest dream. I took time to read the names engraved on the tablets; a lump lodged in my throat. Just then, a large group of mountain climbers, all dressed in red, complete with red bags and caps, marched by – chanting in Korean – the sound echoed as far as the wind could carry it. I said a little prayer for them.
We reached Gorakshep (5164m) and found ourselves in some god forsaken land. We had decided to skip the little excursion to Kala Patthar which turned out as a blessing as a heavy snowfall that evening could have left us stranded somewhere in the extreme cold. Sleep was elusive that night – it was a punishing countdown to the final hurdle the following day.
I patted my pocket to ensure a list of wishes I had written down the night before, was safely zipped up, ready for the final ascent. The walk was painstakingly slow as we maneuvered our way on loose sand and rocks. The journey was devoid of conversation as breathing was laboured. The silence was broken occasionally by the sound of loose rocks, rolling down the mountain. Each time, we would stop, as though expecting an avalanche of snow. But nothing happened. Just the sound of our thumping hearts. Soon, we were teased by raining hailstones but we soldiered on. Tapping and rubbing each other’s back as encouragement.
The first sight of dotted yellow tents in the horizon, we thought we were near. But it was like a mirage – it took another one hour or so before we could mutter “We made it” I couldn’t find the words to describe how I felt as we posed for photographs – perhaps I was overcome by a numbing feeling, having roughed it out for days for a “5 minute kind of fame” The wind picked up – we knew we couldn’t stay for long. As we made our journey back to Gorakshep, we looked others in the eyes and said” Not too far ahead. It is all worth it” I remember stopping to hug a lady who was on her solo trek – she said “I am so tired; I can barely breathe”. Tears streamed down my face – she echoed what I refused to say.
A nice meal awaited us when we reached Gorakshep. My sister who had made the journey with me opted to make the trip down to Lukla via helicopter as she was not feeling well. The other two friends followed suit.
I continued the journey with another friend on foot, following the same path in reverse. But it felt like a whole new journey altogether as the views were from a different perspective. We only reunited with the rest of the ladies 3 days later.
Would I want to go back again? Most definitely! A pilgrimage to the mountains is always humbling – humbled at the sight of God’s majestic creations; and most of all, humbled to witness how fellow human thrive and never complain about the harsh living conditions in the mountains.
and most of all,humbled to witness how fellow human thrive and never complain about the harsh living conditions in the mountains .