Just because you’re not actually stepping foot on Mt Everest…
Reaching Base Camp and standing at an altitude of 5,364 metres (17.599 feet) above sea level is euphoric, even with severely depleted energy levels and having to gasp for every breath. And it was a bitter-sweet moment, with only my son AJ and I to savour the victory: - my daughter Alex having been airlifted out by rescue helicopter the previous afternoon with Acute Mountain Sickness. Despite the exhaustion I remember us looking around at the magnificent 360 degree views of the High Himalaya, including Ama Dablam, Mount Pumori, Lhotse and Nuptse … and it felt like we’d been thrown into the most beautiful mountainous valley, the best scenery on the planet.
This was AJ’s 21st birthday present; he chose the destination – not one for the feint hearted – and so decision made… we were going to spend a holiday being very cold indeed. We deliberately chose early winter as, (apart from guaranteeing that we’d be absolutely freezing much of the time), there are many positives to going at a time with low foot traffic… the beauty of the Himalayas is best experienced when you have the place to yourself. Alex decided to join us, despite telling me in Morocco a few years earlier, when I suggested climbing Mt Toubkal (North Africa’s highest mountain) – “I don’t hike” and the three of us had an absolute blast with our own private guide, Jiven, and two Sherpa porters – Girri and Sujan. Having the independence to do as we wished each day and not being tied to a big group really appealed to us; and so we started hiking when we wanted to each morning, stopped for smokos at every village we walked through if we felt like it, yarned with the locals via charades, threw balls with the school kids, played with toddlers and lounged with our faces in the sun over lunch – whatever pleased us.
We hit pay-dirt with our local Nepali company; they’re a fraction of the cost of those from Australia, Europe and the like and the service was second to none. Others watched on enviously as we ate fresh fruit with every meal, nibbled on chocolate bars, sipped hot chocolate/tea/coffee at each tea house and enjoyed rooms with ‘attached bathrooms’ (the Nepalese term for an ensuite, though often this was no more than your own private squat toilet and space for a bucket shower) … all included in our package with Nepal Vision Trek. They also handled Alex’s chopper rescue seamlessly, ensuring she was admitted to a private hospital in Kathmandu and visiting each day until AJ and I returned from the mountain. We’ll definitely be using their services again in Nepal… the Annapurna’s are definitely on the ‘To Do’ list.
Touching down in Kathmandu is an immediate shock to one’s senses. Passport control was antiquated, like something from an old 1950’s black and white movie; the staff were old, the facilities ancient, the pace glacial; and the overbearing locals hastening to grab your bags from you for payment ensured the friendly face of our mountain guide waving a placard with our names on it a welcome sight. The city itself was crowded and polluted, a riot of sights, sounds and smell; and the myriad of electrical wires criss-crossing above the streets surely a health and safety officer’s nightmare. But due to the devastation of the earthquakes earlier in the year and now the crippling fuel crisis, the Thamel area of the city, normally filled with backpackers and trekkers chasing their dreams of following in the footsteps of legends, was eerily quiet of westerners. Still, we barrelled through the traffic-jammed alleyways of the old town in rickshaws, marvelling at the medieval temples and dodging countless trekking touts desperate for business, before purchasing last minute trekking items for AJ and then filling our bellies with delicious momos, a Tibetan dumpling and one of my favourite local dishes.
Kathmandu can be intoxicating, amazing and exhausting – but all three of us were eager to reach the mountains and the peace and quiet we knew they would bring. To be honest, I worried that AJ wasn’t taking this hike seriously, (as did all his mates) – preparation just didn’t seem to be something he had time for amid a busy university and social lifestyle. AJ boasted his training schedule would be Mt Oxley (307 metres) and Mt Gundabooka (500 metres) near Bourke... followed by Mt Everest Base Camp. Afterwards, we all agreed it was tough, a mental challenge as much as a physical one, but the rewards were massive… imagine coming so breathtakingly close to the top of the world – and what a destination and achievement for your very first hike.
Despite knowing full well that Nepalese Airlines have such an appalling safety record that they are banned from flying within Europe, we crammed into the small 12 seater Twin Otter STOL (short take-off and landing) plane, our thighs pressed up against our chests and full backpacks balanced on top of our knees, stuffing our ears with the complimentary cotton wool in a vain bid to muffle the roaring engine noise for the 40 minute flight to Lukla. The runway here is short, only 460 metres long and 20 metres wide, and at a 12% slope. It sits at the top of a 2,000 foot cliff and ends where a high mountain wall begins so there is no opportunity for a missed landing or equipment failure. … no wonder it’s often referred to as the most dangerous airstrip in the world. But the alternative to this nail biting flight is a 6 to 8 day hike into Lukla, so even I had to just grin and bear it. Once the fog lifted and we were cleared for take-off I breathed a little easier… not a lot, but a little … we still had the landing to nail. It was a surreal experience, coming in low, the mountains almost touching each wing tip to begin, to be replaced by the houses the lower we got … looking straight through the open cockpit at the solid wall of mountain ahead… touching down and going to near full power to stop us rolling backwards off the cliff.
Typically, most treks to Everest Base Camp will take around 13 days to complete – nine days to get to Base Camp and four days to get back down. AJ and Alex never had any intention of climbing back down though; their ultimate dream was to leave their footprints at Base Camp and then enjoy the exhilarating experience of taking a chopper from there back down the Khumbu Valley and on to Kathmandu. I’d had problems with one knee all year (a recurring Bakers Cyst among other things) so the idea began to appeal to me too, particularly after my Orthopaedic specialist told me to ‘act my age’ and that my knees were more suited to walking around a football field than hiking up a mountain, a mere two months out from the trek. Nepal Vision Trek offered what we wanted, and at a reasonable price, so headed off to one of the most spectacularly beautiful places on earth.
As we hiked slowly upwards each day, I noticed the silence; nothing but mountain song drifting on the breeze, the soft flap of prayer flags, the distant clanking bells of a yak train on the path far above and the soft chatter of the local Nepali people as they headed up and down the trails. Everything for human habitation from lavatory bowls (believe me, a squat toilet definitely wins over a western one at these altitudes – it’s not pretty when the water in the bowl is constantly frozen!!) to gas bottles (we even saw a billiard table) has to be carried up these long steep paths by animals or men, and trekking into the mountains with no roads, combustion engines and many of the tools we take for granted; and with utilities at a premium (such as intermittent water, power and light), you have to re-evaluate everyday expectations…. And that goes for the food too.
The ingenuity of the local people was evident wherever we stopped (I particularly loved the solar powered ‘ovens’), and the ability to produce food out of any small metre of suitable ground was present even at high altitude (though obviously not in the hostile environment we met as we walked across the boulder and ice strewn terrain into Base Camp!). Even the smallest patches of land were terraced where possible, and utilised to grow onions, lentils, garlic, cabbages, carrots and those greens that withstand the cold such as bok choi. And lots of potatoes – the ground is worked by the women and enriched with yak dung. The food was mainly vegetarian – there is no fish apart from canned tuna, and we took the advice not to eat meat after day three (it’s carried up from lower down the valley without refrigeration).
Oh … and eggs appeared at every meal in some form or other – hard-boiled, omelettes, in fried rice. Dhal (lentils) Bhat (rice), a somewhat tasty (the kids liked it better than I did, and our guide and Sherpa’s ate nothing else) local vegetable curry with several variations has its roots in the Himalayas of Nepal and is so closely tied to mountaineering that climbers often rate each day’s trek by the number of servings they need to complete it – such as a ‘2 dal baht’ climb or a ‘4 dhal baht’ climb for something really strenuous! Nepal even has stickers saying ‘Dhal Baht 24-hour power’.
Rest days are definitely not rest days! We’d scheduled two into our hike; one in Namchee Bazaar and then day six at Dingboche, at 4,260 metres. These days are not an opportunity for a lie-in or to put your feet up and rest since a ‘rest day’ is just a term for an acclimatisation day but rolled in trekking terminology glitter. Acclimatisation means climbing – steep climbing … and so we toiled steeply uphill on both days, where birds of prey and rescue helicopters navigated the increasingly thinning but wonderfully fresh air, reaching a height of 5,000 metres above Dinboche before returning to the lower altitude to sleep.
Our first inkling that Alex wasn’t acclimatising as well as AJ and I was on this second rest day, so adding an additional night at Thukla going up initially seemed to do the trick, but in the end wasn’t sufficient to allow her to go any further than Labouche. AJ and I watched in the fading light as her chopper faulted and dipped after take-off in the thin air, then disappeared down the Khumbu valley to Lhukla for refuelling, and then on to Kathmandu.
Returning across the creek and black ice to the tea house we sat, freezing despite the acrid smelling Yak dung fire, almost too cold to function, contemplating sculling the bottle of Moet Alex had been lugging to celebrate at Base Camp. In the end sense prevailed and we climbed into our 4 seasons down sleeping bags, fully clothed including gloves and beanies, to sleeplessly wait the night out until our dawn departure, necessary to be sure of getting to EBC and back to Gorak Shep before nightfall.
Despite the thinning air and way below freezing temperatures we made good time to Gorak Shep (Jiven hailed it as ‘Nepali pace’). The walk is now through ice, the landscape dominated by the Khumbu Glacier which appears as a motionless river of ice and rocks (although it is, in actual fact, slowly making its way down the valley). We undulate up and down through the rocks besides the glacier and it’s hard to keep a footing. At one point, a Tibetan Snow Cock perches just a few feet above us and serenades our passing with its distinctive call. Fortunately, neither AJ nor I were feeling anything more than slightly lightheaded and short of breath with the altitude, and we continued along the glacier with short sharp climbs and descents, weaving in and out of the rocky moraine until finally Base Camp (5346m) comes into view; and it’s not long before we’re crossing the glacier itself to reach a vantage point across from the notorious Khumbu Icefall. It’s truly a wondrous sight and the fact that there is no actual view of Everest from here seems of no consequence… no consequence what-so-ever.