View from the top of Kala Patthar
After the trek ended, we flew back to Kathmandu where the dreaded 'Khumbu cough' finally won the battle against my immune system. Gerard had nursed a sore throat and a chest infection on the trek for which he'd taken antibiotics- and we'd been sleeping in close quarters every night. My sore throat and fever came on strongly in Kathmandu and I resisted taking any antibiotics- instead I settled into three days of beautiful, fever-induced sleep in the hotel room as my body turned up the internal heat to fight against the infection. Waking up just to eat and then go back to bed. This was fine with me because I was also physically exhausted and my body needed the time to recover. It felt like I'd just run 12 marathons in a row. You know how you would feel tired and sore the next day if you randomly decided to spend hours upon hours hiking up and down mountains all day? That's how I felt… times a factor of 12. Plus a raging fever.
Painting hanging in the hotel lobby.
Having traveled back from Kathmandu to Lake Tahoe over a week ago, I am almost back to normal again. I have battled the jet lag and overcome the sheer physical exhaustion of the trek. Its nice waking up in my own bed again. Also its nice being with my wife again. Without Sarah and all the sacrifices she made on my behalf while I was away, none of this would have been possible. Thank you, Sarah. I am also grateful towards my brother for coming up with this crazy idea and then convincing me I should come along on the adventure. And I am thankful for my Dad for helping to make the trip happen- for pushing through both pain and sickness- and for making it all the way to Everest base camp at the ripe old age of 66- you really did me proud. And thanks to uncle Geoff and Dave who were always in a balanced, positive state of mind regardless of how exhausted we all were. I have also gained new appreciation for my life back in Lake Tahoe, co-creating Well Being with Sarah, and being with my dog, Ralphie- living the good life here in the mountains by the lake.
Good boy, Ralphie.
What had it all been for? That' s a question I keep asking myself. I like to think that we went to base camp for the same reason that other climbers go to the summit of Everest. Because it's there... and because it's a challenge... and because it's beautiful. The fact that we were immersed in such a stunning environment meant that often I forgot all about the grueling physical task and my mind would just wonder off into a peaceful place. I spent hours just putting my right pole down as my left foot hit the ground, then I would I plant my left pole just as my right foot hit the ground- and so on, ad infinitum. Every once in a while I would lift my focus away from the uneven ground and take a moment to appreciate just how amazing my surroundings were. 360 degree beauty for days on end. That said, I hope you enjoyed my blog. I tried my best to be both entertaining and informative. I also hope you are inspired to do this trek yourself one day. I promise it will be the most challenging/most rewarding experience of your life.
Thanks for reading,
Today was to be our final day of hiking. The plan was to walk from Namche Bazaar all the way back to the airport in Lukla. We had taken two days to walk this same route on our way up and this time we were going to knock it all out in one day. After a big breakfast we began our nine hour journey by walking down the steep switchbacks which led from Namche down to the river valley below. As we descended, I was surprised by both the length and the height of the path. Had we really walked all the way up this crazy hill?
The path was pretty crowded today, with teams of tourists going in both directions. I found myself smugly judging those that were laboring uphill, deciding in my mind which hikers were going to make it all the way to base camp and which ones were clearly not cut out for the challenge. It takes a certain level of athleticism to be able to function up there where the oxygen levels are only 50% of what they are at sea level. It also takes mental strength to be able to continue pushing yourself onward when you feel like you have nothing left to give. And then there is the cold. You could be in peak physical condition but if you can't handle sub-zero temperatures night after night, then maybe this is not the trek for you. While there are certain friends that I would recommend this challenge to, it certainly is not for everybody.
Yes, the trek was difficult, but I never once complained about how much my pack weighed.
The rest of the walk was like a trip down memory lane. We crossed countless suspension bridges and walked up and down countless hills. I had my trekking poles down to an art form, busting them out on the uphills and balancing them in my hands horizontally during the flats and the downhills. We made it back to the Beer Garden for lunch and then wound our way through the Ghats, spinning prayer wheels and passing Stupas on the left. It started raining lightly and the hike went on and on, up and down and across the river and back until we came to the final climb into Lukla.
The feeling that I had when we arrived in Lukla was very different from the feeling I had reaching base camp. Arriving at base camp and at the summit of Kala Patthar there was a swelling of pride and a feeling of exhilaration and accomplishment. Arriving in Lukla, the dominating emotion was one of total, utter relief. It was over, we had made it. It was pouring with rain. We were battered and worn. Several of us were coughing and wheezing and bleeding in our boots but we had completed the journey. We had conquered the trek. And, for the first time, we could actually let ourselves relax- knowing that there was not another eight hour hike waiting for us the next day. We thanked and tipped our porters and our guide Gopal. We could not have done it without them. Gopal had one day of rest and then his next group was due to arrive in Lukla and he would hike with them all the way back to base camp. I don't know how he does it. You could not pay me to turn around and do that trek again. The Everest base camp trek was amazing- an incredible, once in a lifetime experience. I was quite happy to keep it that way for now.
Yack, yack, yack...
View from Periche.
Although it had taken us eight days to get up to Everest base camp, we were walking all the way back to Lukla in just two and a half days. This meant that today was going to be an extra long day of hiking. We left Periche at around 8am and walked all the way back to Namche Bazaar- the high village where we first stayed back on day three of the journey. We hiked out of the high plateau, along the river and past the Everest memorial site. It was surprising to see just how steep and long the inclines were that we had original hiked up. Teams of red faced, out of shape tourists struggled uphill as we effortlessly slipped by them on the way down. As we descended lower, I could feel the air getting thicker as my breathing became less labored. It wasn't all downhill, though. Soon enough we were hiking up again, towards the monastery in Tengboche. The last time we reached this monastery it was in a snowstorm and none of us wanted to stick around for very long. This time we came to the monastery on a beautiful sunny day and we were able to take our time and explore the grounds. Gopal pulled some strings with the monks and was able to get us inside the walls of the famed monastery- one of the oldest monasteries in Nepal. You could feel a palpable sense of peace inside the main meditation hall where the monks would sit for hours a day, just as they had done for hundreds of years, contemplating the nature of emptiness and cultivating compassion. As we were leaving the grounds and heading down to the river valley below, I had a notion that nothing could ruin my easy, peaceful state of mind.
Then, news of the tragedy hit. Just as we began hiking again, Gopal overheard the shocking news of an avalanche that had erupted above base camp earlier that day. At first the number he heard was that 60 people had died. I was absolutely devastated by the news and by the tragic loss of human life. After placing some phone calls, Gopal downgraded the number to 12 confirmed dead and four still missing. Although this initially came as a relief- at least it was not 60 dead- it still cast a dark shadow on the day. It was the deadliest single day in the history of Everest. All those who were killed were local Nepali Sherpas- the rope fixers who selflessly risk their lives laying the ropes all the way up to the top so that westerners can later use the same ropes to achieve their dreams of summiting Everest. The fact that all the victims were Nepali did not make the news any easier to swallow. I was well aware that this was a tight knit community and that, no doubt, many of the deceased were friends and/or relatives of the local people in the area. I asked Gopal, who dreams of summiting Everest himself one day, if this news made him reconsider his goal of getting to the top. He told me that you cannot have any fear of death when attempting the summit- as if just a shadow of a doubt could be enough to get you killed. He said that all Sherpas think this way- living in total acceptance that they could die at any moment. Such brave, strong, kind people. You could sense the shock and sadness in everyone's eyes as we walked back through the local villages lining the trail.
We continued all the way back to Namche that day, hiking for almost nine hours. My legs were tired and my feet were sore but I was in better shape than most. I chose to forgo wearing hiking boots on this trip in favor of my low top trail runners. It became apparent that this was one of the best decisions I'd made, especially if you could see the blisters and red, swollen toes on some of our group members. Sure I was tired, but my feet were fine. We celebrated our accomplishment that evening with our first beers since day 2 of the trek and ordered delicious pepper steaks on top of that. Perhaps the biggest highlight of the day was taking my first hot shower in over a week. I went to bed happy, my heart going out to the families of the victims of this morning's deadly avalanche.
Our trail buddy on the walk back.
I awoke 4am. It was still dark outside and it was well below freezing. There was no electricity in the lodge, save for a couple of hours of solar-generated power in the evening, so we had to get ready for our hike in the dark with the help of headlamps. I put on my all my layers again, ate a small cliff bar, and took all of my various supplements. We left the lodge by 4:30, bound for the summit of Kala Patthar- elevation 18,365ft. The waning full moon illuminated the barren landscape as we walked across the flat meadow towards the mountain. A long, slowly moving, diagonal line of headlamps was visible on the pathway to the summit. I felt great, despite the cold. The highly unlikely circumstances along with the surreal moonlight and the dreamlike landscape caused a surge of excitement deep within me. Actually, I felt better than great- I felt amazing. We began our ascent, slowly making our way up the steep switchbacks. I came to realize that my fingertips were freezing, even though I had on my heavy snowboarding gloves. If I continued at this slow pace, there would be no way of warming up my hands. There was only one thing to do, which was to pick up the pace. I squeezed my trekking poles as hard as I could in an attempt to bring a semblance of warmth to my fingers as I began to bang my poles down on the ground with every step.
As my pace increased, my breathing rate increased as well. Soon I was in a rhythm, inhaling as my left foot stepped up, exhaling with the right foot. I felt just like the Energizer bunny, only my poles were my drumsticks and the frozen ground was my drum. Bang, bang, bang, bang- I marched up the hill to my own beat. And I just kept going and going and going.
The path up Kala Patthar.
Soon I was passing the line of hikers I had spotted earlier, as they began lagging in the high altitude. Half way up, people were dropping out- the cold and the altitude proving to be too much to handle. I was on a roll, driven towards the summit by some unseen force. As soon as I passed one group of hikers, I set my eyes on the next one until I'd passed everyone. My hands had warmed up to the point that I could pause for a few seconds, take off one glove, and snap a picture of the pink clouds in the early dawn. I was a bit disappointed because it seemed to me that Everest was going to be shrouded in the clouds that hung between a large black mountain on the left and another snow covered peak on the right. Dave had followed close behind me all the way up, preferring a faster pace, and as we took a short rest we could see the others far below. We reached a rock upon which someone had written "Half way" which was hard to believe because the summit was now in sight. There was already quite a large group at the top- obviously they had set off earlier than we had. As we continued to power on towards the top, the slope became much steeper and the path once again became a series of switchbacks. The altitude was starting to take it's toll and we needed to take more frequent breaks to regain control of our breathing. Soon a couple came down from the top. Both were both elated by their summit experience and encouraged us to keep going. I mentioned it was too bad that Everest was hidden in clouds and they were like "What? Everest is that large black mountain right there." Oh... right... yes, that's what I thought. I pulled out my iPhone to take a picture of Everest (on purpose this time) and right then it powered down- not because it was out of batteries but because it was too cold to continue operating. I had put it in my front pocket against my leg to heat it up.
Everest. It's the tall peak on the right.
We pushed on towards the top and were glad to see everyone from the early group begin making their way down. It looked like we were going to have the summit to ourselves. Most people can only spend a couple minutes at the top due to high winds and freezing temperatures but, when Dave and I arrived breathless and enthused, the wind died down to a light breeze and we were able to spend about 20 minutes on the peak taking in the amazing views of the Himalayas. I stood up on the very top of the top with a sheer cliff on three sides, basking in the adrenaline and the feeling of accomplishment. I'd never been to 18,365 feet before and, chances are, I never will again. After hiking back down and eating breakfast, we then had to hike another four hours back down the hill to a village called Periche. On arrival I was completely shattered and I spent the rest of the day drinking fluids, reading, and talking with our guide, Gopal. It had been a day to remember. One of the most difficult and most rewarding days of my life.
Peak experience at the top of Kala Patthar. Elevation 18,365'
Back in the fall of 2013, when my older brother, Gerard, announced his plan to hike up to Everest base camp in honor of his 40th birthday, I thought about it for a second and then said "count me out." The long distances, the extreme elevation, the freezing temperatures- that did not sound like very much fun to me. "I am perfectly happy with who I am," I explained, "and I don't need to accomplish feats of strength to feel good about myself." As fate would have it, Gerard's friend Zach, who was originally going on this trek with Gerard, tore his Achilles' tendon while training way too hard for the hike. His dream of Everest base camp was over before it had even begun and now there was an open spot on the trek that needed to be filled. Nobody was stepping up and I wanted to support my brother so I cautiously mentioned that I might possibly be able to take his place. I was currently in no kind of shape at the time and, having agreed to come along on this adventure, I finally had a reason to get in shape and build up my cardiovascular capabilities.
Today, all those months of training finally paid off. We reached our goal of Everest base camp in the early afternoon and, let me tell you, it felt amazing. The official elevation of base camp is 5365 meters which roughly translates to 17,704 feet. A big part of my initial resistance to doing this trek was that I simply did not think I was physically capable of going that high. Today I proved to myself that, in fact, I can do anything if I put my mind to it.
The hike started at 7:30am in Lobuche. We walked for three hours steadily uphill along the boulder strewn tundra. It was another picture perfect day full of amazing scenery. Towards the end of our hike, the gradual uphill slope turned into a serious uphill slog. After overcoming that hill, we began boulder hopping until we arrived at the lodge in Gorek Shep. Normally when we arrive at our next lodge it is time to unpack and take it easy. This time we had just enough time for a quick refuel before hitting the trail again, this time bound for Everest base camp.
We were told by our guide that there would be an ice-cold wind blowing and that we should bundle up with everything we've got. I wore my merino wool base layer with a fleece on top of that with my puffy jacket on top of that and my waterproof jacket on top of that. About an hour into the hike over extreme rocky terrain, with the Khumbu Glacier to our right, I came to realize that, far from being too cold, my problem was that I was way too hot. Although the wind was indeed blowing and it was snowing intermittently, the only relief from my warmth was to remove my beanie and gloves. My core stayed sweaty but at least I was no longer over-heating. For over two hours, we scrambled over boulders, gradually climbing up above the glacier until base camp finally came into view. Located at the foot of the Khumbu icefall, this is the place where Everest climbers spend up to three months acclimatizing, awaiting the break in the weather which allows their summit bid.
Everest Base Camp. Elevation 17,704 '
By the time we reached the famous cluster of rocks covered in prayer flags we were all absolutely exhausted. With the final goal in sight, I got a little over-zealous on the last uphill and powered up it much too quickly. My chest was heaving by the time I reached the top. It is important not to move too quickly at this high an altitude or you end up exhausting yourself. Back at home, you can easily jog up a small hill. But, at 17,500 feet, that same hill must be taken slowly and methodically or else your breath simply cannot keep up with your actions. Still, I didn't care, we had made it to base camp!
Tears of joy mixed with tears of exhaustion as we shook hands and hugged and then took obligatory photos in front of the base camp rock pile which is covered in prayer flags. We realized too late that we didn't bring a sharpie to immortalize our accomplishment as hundreds of others had done before us. There was talk of turning back, but I lobbied the group to venture further into base camp to be amongst the actual climbers and tents. I am really glad we did this, even though we were all running on empty by that point. I feel like we actually visited Everest base camp, not just some decorated rock pile, 200 yards from base camp.
Of course, whenever you reach your final destination there is always the sinking realization that you are only half way- you still have to hike all the way back. We all gathered up our strength and made the long journey back to the lodge in Gorek Shep.
Now, get this: I thought that getting to Everest base camp was our ultimate goal, but it turns out that I was wrong. Tomorrow morning we get up at 4am to hike up to the summit Kala Patthar- elevation 18,365 feet. The real ultimate goal.
Sleeping at extremely high altitude is completely bizarre. The first thing you notice is that your breathing patterns are far from regular. You can be be lying there, perfectly still and semi-conscious, and realize that you are literally panting, as if you are currently jogging up a steep hill. Other times, your breathing slows down to a total standstill. Breathing patterns become short and shallow and then almost imperceptible. For a few seconds you may not breathe at all. Then, all of a sudden, you will automatically take a huge, powerful inhale which is so dramatic that it can rudely awaken you from any dream. It's all the body's way of trying to regulate your carbon dioxide to oxygen ratios while it's immersed in an unfamiliar atmosphere.
Speaking of dreams, up here they are wild, vivid, and totally unpredictable. Dreams come quickly, lasting only a short time until you next take your next sudden gasp of breath. I find that I can always go back into the same dream I was having before my powerful inhale woke me up, only now things are even more weird than before and the characters in the dream are totally interchangeable. I spent another eight hours in bizarro dreamland last night, breathing like a maniac, and dreaming all over the place. I woke up feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by the whole experience and was relieved to be back in reality where things are solid and predictable. Of course, this whole trek is a bit like living in a waking dream- I never really know what to expect. Where I am going to go today? What will I see? Also, with all the uphills and downhills involved, my breathing is just as irregular during the day as it is at night. Just like in a dream, the background scenery is constantly changing. At least in my waking dream, the main characters stay the same from moment to moment.
The trail runs through this valley along the right side of the river.
Today was a perfectly blue, sunny day. The weather reminded me of typical Tahoe day- cold and crisp and not a cloud in sight. It was another one of those days where we were surrounded by a 360 degree panorama of gorgeous mountain peaks. Instead of the usual up and down hiking, today we continued steadily upwards through a valley of barren tundra for about four hours with the river to our left side. We finally reached a rest point after walking down and crossing over the river. We stopped for a cup of tea at a little restaurant and we gathered our strength for the 45 minute hike up a very steep gradient to 16,000 feet. I put my headphones on for this portion of the hike and Tipper's music gave me the extra boost I needed to get to the top
Finally, the climb ended and we came to the memorial site for all of the climbers that have died attempting to summit Everest. Large, cubical, stone memorials covered in prayer flags were scattered about the high plateau, all bearing plaques with the names and dates of the fallen heroes. Some contained short descriptions of the circumstances surrounding their deaths. Most commonly, the climbers had been able to summit Everest but then had died during their descent. It was quite a solemn place and a moving tribute to the men and women from all over the world who paid the ultimate price for following their dream of standing, if only for a brief moment, on top of the world.
Memorial to the fallen climbers.
After about ten minutes, we pressed onward. You cannot afford to stand around for too long up here because of the cold winds that are always blowing. After another hour of hiking gradually upwards through a rocky landscape we came to the village of Lobuche- elevation 16,200 feet. We will spend the night here before getting up extra early and making our way to the grand prize: Everest base camp. We are currently sitting in the lodge drinking our hot lemon ginger honey tea and reflecting on the journey so far. I cannot believe that tomorrow we will reach our goal of base camp. It has all gone by so quickly, yet at the same time, this journey has seemed to last an eternity. A bit like a dream, I suppose.
View from the memorial site.
Last night was one greatest nights of sleep I have ever had. The large down blanket on top of my North Phace sleeping bag made all the difference. I actually slept the entire night and didn't wake up until dawn had already broken. This was to be another one of those "rest" days which, as we have learned previously, means hiking straight uphill for hours and hours and then coming back down again. Now, keep in mind, we are already at 14,550 feet, which is higher than the summit of Mount Shasta. Imagine what it's like to have to get up early at this level of altitude and then have to hike another 1,400 feet up the side of a steep slope. No one said this was going to be easy.
The whole theory behind these acclimatization days is that you go up as high as you can so that your body produces the extra red blood cells in order to cope with the increase in altitude and then you come back down to rest. This way when we hike up to 16,000+ feet tomorrow, our bodies will already be adjusted and so there is less chance of getting high altitude sickness. If you aren't careful and you ascend too quickly, you run the risk of not only bad migraine headaches but also respiratory edema whereby your lungs fill up with fluid. In the worst case, you could come down with cerebral edema in which the brain swells up with blood. Both conditions can be fatal and require emergency helicopter evacuation. I just witnessed an unconscious hiker being carried down on the back of a Sherpa, so I can confirm that the dangers are real.
Therefore, although hiking up to 16,000 feet today felt like a daunting task, it was much more preferable to the alternative so I took the hike in stride, so to speak. Fortunately, we were not in any kind of hurry to get up to the top on this hike and there were plenty of opportunities to stop and rest. Also fortunate was the fact that we were surrounded by majestic snow capped peaks in all directions. I thought our last rest day was amazing when it came to the scenery but today was just as good if not better. Words cannot describe the beauty of this area. I could try to describe how the gigantic, jagged peaks thrust up into the sky, defying both gravity and logic but, honestly, you will just have to come and check it out for yourself.
We were blessed with beautiful blue skies and mild weather for the entire ascent. At a certain point on the climb the blue sky was quickly replaced by gray clouds.
Highest point reached on our "rest" day.
All of a sudden, the wind which had been blowing all day picked up and the temperature dropped dramatically. Our summit was in sight but we all agreed that it was best to turn around before the storm closed in. On our way back down we passed a number of groups eagerly going up in the other direction. Either they didn't know that a storm was about to hit or they were just blindly following the directions of their guides and trying to get to the top regardless of the circumstances. We hiked our way down through the cold wind and made it to the safety of the lodge just as the first snow flakes began to fall. This turned out to be a pretty significant storm with big flakes falling thickly from the sky. Our day hike was over and we were safe and warm but I couldn't help feeling sorry for all those groups that were still ascending as we rapidly made our way off the hill. The rest of the day was spent relaxing in our rooms under blankets. I finished Bear Grylls book *spoiler alert, he summits Everest (although it nearly kills him). By the time night came around I was ready for another solid night of sleep.
This morning's freezing cold, pre-dawn lecture explored the long history and basic tenants of Zen Buddhism. If you would like to experience what I went through, then all you need to do is wake up at 4am and grab a "North Faux" sleeping bag. Take it into a walk-in freezer along with your therma-rest. Now get inside your bag with all your clothes on, curl up into a ball, and put your tangled earbuds in so that you can listen to Alan Watts pontificate on the nature of emptiness until you are able to doze off. Also make sure there is significantly less oxygen available for you to breathe. Now you know what my mornings on the trek are like.
Hiking through the snow.
After a breakfast of oatmeal and black tea (hold the milk) we packed up and hit the trail early. The snow from the day before had dissipated and we wound our way through the trees and gradually uphill until the great Ama Dablan peak came into view. Yak trains were coming and going in both directions and several times we were forced over to the edge of the trail to let them pass by. Most yak trains consist of "Zhou" which are a hybrid between a yak and a cow. However, pure bred yaks are up here too with their long matted hairdo's and their extra long horns. You can always hear their bells before you see them so you have enough time to find a safe space on the narrow trail to let them go by. The yak drivers are also constantly yelling out commands like, "Hey! Sho! Pshh!" which doesn't seem to have any effect on the yaks whatsoever. One guy even got his whip out and cracked it on his poor yaks, who continued to plod onwards as if nothing had happened.
HEY! PSHHH! SHO!
We walked slowly up and up, struggling against the altitude with every step. The narrow trail ran alongside the edge of a steep cliff of a beautiful river valley. The rivers here are all glacial runoff which gives them a surreal light blue color. Everest peak once again came into view along with Lohtse, but this walk was all about the views of Ama Dablan. According to the locals, the mountain looks like a giant eagle with its wings spread, but I don't know- I can't really see it. My guide told me that I have to use my imagination and I explained to him that, tragically, I was born without an imagination. I'm not sure if he understands my sarcasm or not.
On and on we hiked until we made it up above the tree line. Without any trees to get in the way, the wind really picked up. The landscape changed drastically into a barren, windswept grassland. We finally climbed up to our next lodge in Dingboche, the Good Luck Hotel- elevation 14,500ft. My brother was not coping well with the all the exertion at high elevation and when we entered our room he got into bed and passed out within the space of about thirty seconds. Geoff, Dave, and I were still feeling strong so we decided to take a walk around the town. Walking anywhere this high up means that you move really slowly, almost like you are going in slow motion. We found a bakery and I had my first sweet treat since the hike began. After hanging out in the lodge around the yak dung stove and eating dinner, we went to bed. A bed, I might mention, which comes equipped with a giant, puffy blanket. Very exciting.
I awoke again a couple of hours before dawn, this time because my legs and feet were freezing. I am beginning to get suspicious of my so-called "North Face" sleeping bag. How was I able to get it for so cheap? On closer inspection of the sleeping bag label, I noticed that it was made with "foft" down and that it was "Gore Dry." A -15C sleeping bag should be able to keep me nice and warm at temperatures above freezing and this "North Fake" bag was already letting me down. I put on some extra layers and curled up tight for my pre-dawn Alan Watts lecture on the iPod. I ate a delicious veggie omelet for breakfast and packed up my duffel bag for the porter to carry. Our porter is named Narang and he is only about 19 years old. He ropes my duffel bag to my brother's and then straps the entire 70 pound load to his head. He doesn't speak any English but he always has a big smile on his face. His load is actually pretty light compared to most of Sherpas we see walking uphill with 150 lbs + strapped to their foreheads. I showed Narang how my duffel bag has straps that come out so that you can wear it on your shoulders like a backpack. He got the straps out and tied everything to his head anyway. I guess they just prefer it that way.
Narang with Pumari Peak in the background.
We hiked up out of Namche and then began our six hour walk which took us steeply up and down again and again. Just when I thought we had gained maximum elevation for the day we descended steeply all the way down to the river bank where we had lunch. Everyone in our crew ordered hot lemon tea but I was feeling a bit groggy and had a bit of a headache, so I ordered milky coffee. This proved to be a very bad decision with disastrous consequences. I will spare you the details of my next misadventure but let's just say that I will never order a milky coffee with lunch again. Ever. It was all uphill from there with storm clouds rolling in and pretty soon we were hiking in a snow storm. Temperatures dropped and we had to keep moving to stay warm. My mild headache was getting worse with every foot of elevation we gained. After hours of ascending through the snow, we came to the famous Tengboche monastery at about 1:30pm. At this point we could have waited around until 3pm to witness the monks chanting but the group, wet and cold, unanimously decided to keep pushing through to Deboche so that we could take shelter from the snow in the lodge. We arrived at the lodge in Deboche-elevation 12,500ft- and I went straight up to the room so that I could change into dry clothes and get into my sleeping bag to warm up. I fought off the urge to take a nap because I didn't want to have another bad night of sleep. It snowed for the rest of the evening and we huddled around the wood stove in the middle of the dining room to keep warm. After dinner, I went up into our tiny, freezing room to read about Bear Grylls' summit attempt on Everest. I was asleep by 8pm.
We hiked all the way down to the river and back up the other side of the canyon.
Another night where I woke up at 3am with no chance of getting back to sleep. I was battling against jet lag, high altitude, and the aftershocks of a yak cheese 'pizza.' I made the best of my time lying in my sleeping bag by listening to "The Power of Now" by Ekhart Tole. Listening to his voice drone on and on about the importance of separating your thinking mind from your conscious awareness is almost as good as sleep. I must have drifted off at one point because I came to and he was still explaining about the past and the present and the future. At this point I switched over to Alan Watts who, like Ekhart, has also mastered human consciousness but has managed to take things one step further by bringing a sense of humor to the whole thing.
I got up at sunrise in Namche Bazaar, feeling particularly enlightened. The rain clouds from the evening before had cleared and I was surprised to see an amazing view of snow-capped peaks from our lodge. This was to be the first of many incredible mountain views that I was to experience today. Come to think of it, today ranks as one of the most memorable days of my life. Over breakfast we learned that my Dad had not been able to sleep at all during the night due to the frightening sensation that he was suffocating. He spent the night gasping for air, unable to derive enough oxygen from the thin atmosphere at 11,500 ft. The rest of us were feeling relatively good and I was relieved to discover that my guts had won the epic battle against the cursed yak cheese pizza. After breakfast- oatmeal this time, just to play it safe- we began our acclimatization hike, heading up and out of Namche Bazaar.
More like Namche Bizarre.
Powered by the combination of Cordyceps, ginseng, chlorella, and ginkgo biloba I was feeling charged up and ready to go. We hiked up a short ways out of Namche Bazaar to a high plateau where we were rewarded with a 360 degree panorama of mountain peaks including the elusive Everest view. The Everest peak was not shrouded in clouds yet and, in my excitement, I took way too many pictures of it. Mount Everest reaches up so high into the sky that it actually scrapes up against the jet stream, causing high winds and clouds on the summit all year round- save for the precious few weeks in May when the warm monsoon front travels up from the south. The warm air forces the jet stream up and the high winds at the top cease, allowing climbers to summit the peak. Although it is impressive, Everest is not the most impressive mountain to be viewed from our location. Other mountains such as Ama Dablan, Nuptse, and Thamserku were much closer to us, and thus they appeared to loom higher in the sky. After about ten minutes of photos, Dad decided that he could go no further as he needed to go back to the lodge and rest up. So the four of us and our guide, Gopal, continued straight uphill for another 1000 ft to The Everest View hotel- the highest five star resort in the world. By the time we got there, Everest was once again hidden by thick clouds and so "The Everest View Hotel" was a bit of a misnomer.
Everest. The peak on the far left with the jet-stream coming off it.
We enjoyed some delicious, overpriced tea on the back porch and bundled up against the wind that was growing in force by the minute. The Everest View may have been a let down, but the views that we took in along the way were nothing short of spectacular. There were several times when I was forced to a standstill, with nothing else I could do but stare in wonder at my surroundings. It was breathtaking, and not just because of the lower oxygen levels at 12,500 feet. We returned exhausted and were glad to take part in the second part of our rest day which involved lying in bed, reading a book, and then taking a very slow walk through village to check out the various trekking shops. Eventually the weather picked up, as it seems to do every afternoon, and soon it was snowing sideways. I was too exhausted to care and happy to go back to the room and read my book written by Bear Grylls about his summit of Everest back 1998. The more I learn about what it takes to get to the top, the more I am convinced that I never want to attempt it. Hiking to Everest base camp at 17,700ft- higher than any peak in the US- is enough of a challenge for me. We went to bed early again because tomorrow is meant to be one of the hardest hikes of the trek. I lay in bed with visions of the amazing peaks we saw during our hike- I fell asleep instantly.
Amazing scenery on the way up to Everest View Hotel.
I was not able to sleep past 3am this morning. The time difference between Tahoe and Nepal is twelve hours which is pretty much the biggest time difference that is possible. In all the excitement of the previous day I had forgotten about jet lag being a factor. We had a big hike planned for today all the way from the bottom of the river valley up to Namche Bazaar, which sits at 11,500 ft. After a delicious breakfast of eggs on toast we all hit the trail with high spirits. The rocky trail took us up and down through an area called the Ghats which consists of numerous colorful prayer wheels and Buddhist Stupas. In addition, large boulders have been painstakingly chiseled away with the words "Om Mane Padme Hum" in Nepali script. This loosely translates in English to "Hail to the Jewel of the Lotus." All stupas must traditionally be passed on the left side with the stupa on your right and all prayer wheels must be spun in a clockwise direction to purify your soul. With the addition of Tibetan prayer flags, the whole area is both colorful and sacred.
A stupa surrounded by prayer flags.
We crossed over six different suspension bridges which are really not so bad once you get the hang of them. The trick is to bend your knees to absorb the shocks and try not to step to heavily or else the bridge will start rocking too much. The other trick is to not get on a suspension bridge at the same time as a yak train because there is not enough room for both of you to pass each other. All the bridges are built relatively low to the water except for the last one that we crossed which was only built last year and is suspended about 350 ft up above the river.
Crossing a suspension bridge.
We had to climb up the side of a steep cliff just to get to it. When we arrived on the platform there was a crowd of people waiting to cross and a large yak train making its way across the bridge. As soon as the last yak exited onto land a rush of people began their crossing. We were up near the front of the line and things were going quite well until another train of yaks was spotted on the far side. Normally the Sherpa who is driving the yaks would hold them there and wait for the bridge to clear before taking his yaks across. This time, however, the Sherpa had fallen behind his front yaks. With no instructions to follow the yaks just did what they normally do and began crossing the bridge. The only problem was that we were still on there with about 20 others, 350 feet up with nowhere to turn. Panic quickly spread and several people ahead of me broke into a run. I was close to the far end but there was no way I was going to beat these yaks to the landing. Turning back was not really an option because the crowd behind me was still moving forward and so I pressed myself up against the side wire and tried to make myself slim as these great horned beasts plodded their way past me. The Sherpa finally managed to stop the yak train after three or four got through so, after they passed by, I peeled myself off the side and made it safely to the landing on other side. Driven by the adrenaline from that crossing and rocking out to my iPod, I managed to hike all the way up to the top and into Namche Bazaar with only one stop. On arrival we were given hot lemon tea and the key to our room at the Foot Rest lodge. I rested my feet, connected up to wifi and whittled away the rest of the day writing emails and posting photos to Facebook. Dinner was Nepali pizza which is a meal I would not wish upon my worst enemies. Yak cheese has the odor of athletes foot and the flavor to match. It sent my digestion into panic mode. Ah well, live and learn. Tomorrow was a "rest day" which, loosely translated into Nepali, means that you hike straight uphill to 12,500ft and then you come back down again for the sake of acclimatization.
That line on top is the final bridge you cross before heading up to Namche Bazaar.
Our plane to Lukla was due to leave at 8:30am which meant that we had to be up by 6 to catch a ride to the airport by 7. Nothing could have prepared me for the spectacle that is the Kathmandu domestic airport. We pulled up to the airport parking lot for the third time in two days only this time we were immediately inundated by eager Nepalese men. They grabbed our duffel bags out of the car before we even had a chance to get out and started stacking them onto a luggage cart. They were literally fighting over who would help transport our bags the short distance to the airport terminal. After an obligatory tip, we were inside the terminal which was so full of people and luggage that you could hardly move. Next thing we know another little man had taken control of our bags and he was rapidly leading us through the crowded maze towards the check-in counter. The line was backed way up with throngs of people jostling for position around the counter. But the crowds did not seem to bother our guy at all. He grabbed our flight printout and our passports and pushed his way through the masses, straight up to the front of the line and placed our documents on the counter in front of the official. Now, keep in mind that we had no idea who this guy was but somehow we trusted him- we had no choice in the matter. Gerard stayed with our bags while I followed close behind, determined not to lose possession of my passport again. Within minutes he wants our bags and so I yell over to my brother to bring them up. People were obviously getting pissed off at us and at all the chaos and crowds. One Australian guy had reached his limit and starts laying into us. "This is a line and the line starts here- now get to the back of line!" Everything was happening so quickly- it was out of my hands by that point. I just shrugged and continued to push on. Our bags were passed up and tagged and our random little man handed us our boarding cards and passports. After another tip- this one well deserved- we thanked him and made our way to the boarding gate. Who that man was I'll never know, but I can tell you this: we may not have asked him for any assistance, but without his help we would never have made our flight. A half hour later we were airborne in a tiny plane headed for Lukla and the beginning of our trek.
I have heard so much about the flight to Lukla that reality had a hard time catching up with my imagination. Above the thick brown layer of pollution that sits over Kathmandu and the surrounding foothills there were sweeping views of the Himalayas. The plane ride only lasted about half an hour and then the pilot expertly touched the plane down on the world's most dangerous runway. The runway at Lukla is short, sloped, and perched precariously on the edge of a cliff. Descriptions of the runway really can't do it justice so I included a photo.
Upon landing, we met up with our guide, Gopal and he took is up to a restaurant where Dad, uncle Geoff, and Dave were waiting for us. After a short breakfast we took the first steps of our long journey. We had a mellow 3.5hr walk past countless prayer wheels and stupas. We followed Dudh Kosi river valley crossing over a few sketchy suspension bridges and came to rest at our first guesthouse in Phakding. Our guesthouse was named the Beer Garden. We took the name as a sign from above and celebrated our first day together with some beers and some friendly games of pool. I am still impressed that they were somehow able to lug a slate pool table up and down all of those hills and over those suspension bridges. That took true commitment.
Geoff, Dave, and Dad, all 65+, had hiked all the way from Jiri over the last eight days and were visibly exhausted. After dinner we all retired to our rooms early to rest up for the big hike up 3,000 feet to Namche Bazaar.
A prayer wheel. Soul = Purified
I awoke this morning with a creeping feeling like there was something missing. And then I remembered what it was: everything. Everything was missing. My backpack full of trekking supplies that I had spent the last three months amassing was lost somewhere in a random Chinese airport. My brother assured me that my bag would be there by tonight but both of us had to consider the possibility that it was gone for good and we pondered the various ramifications this would have for us in the coming weeks.
We spent the day venturing out into the bustling streets of Kathmandu in search of additional supplies for the trek. I quickly managed to rent myself a -15 degree sleeping bag from a local trekking shop. When I took it back to the room I instantly went into a cycle of regret. The bag I rented bore the odor of the sweat of countless other trekkers who had rented it before me. The thought of spending the next 12 nights wrapped up in this smelly old bag was too much for me to bare. After a small crises I resolved to return the bag and buy myself a new one instead.
Kathmandu offers great bargains on trekking gear for those who are willing to haggle. I entered a different gear shop and, armed with the fact that I already had a sleeping bag in my possession and hence did not actually need one, I was able to haggle the price of a brand new North Face sleeping bag down to $65. I was also able to score some sweet waterproof pants for $11. Come to think of it, I wish I'd saved all my shopping for Kathmandu. I really enjoyed the haggling process and so did the shop owners, or so it seemed. I was able to return the rented bag and get my deposit back without too much hassle. I felt much better about owning my sleeping bag and, for a moment there, I almost forgot that everything else I needed for the trip had gone missing.
My brother and I spent the day walking around on the busy streets fending off pushy salesman and then retreating back to our hotel room as soon as things got too overwhelming. At one point I got hit hard in the head by a small flying object. I spun around and a beggar was laughing at me and then asking for a free handout. He really needs to work on his technique if he is going to be successful as a beggar because nailing me in the head did not exactly bring out my charitable side.
After a long day trying to not think about my looming crises, it was finally 10pm and time to once again venture back into the chaos of Kathmandu International Airrport. We took a taxi to the terminal and, with my yellow missing-luggage slip in hand, I was able to slip past security and return to the baggage claim area where it had all gone so horribly wrong the night before.
Tensions were running high- at least mine were. I found myself pacing up and down the cramped baggage hall, unsure of my fate and unable to stay still. The name of the airline that had lost my bag was China Southern and, disconcertingly, their name did not appear on any of the overhead screens. Luggage started moving on various different belts and, not knowing which was the right one I was faced with the impossible task of watching them all at once. It wasn't going well for me until I overheard a security guard telling a passenger that China Southern was on carousel 1. I walked straight over to #1 and there it was. I'd never felt so glad to see a backpack before. I was the first person out of the airport wearing my bag with pride. We spent the rest of the night organizing and packing our things into duffel bags for our porters to carry. At about 1am I crawled into bed exhausted from the emotional roller coaster of the last 24 hours. Still, I had to smile. After all, the very real chance of total disaster is what makes an adventure an adventure- otherwise it's just called a holiday.
Traveling to Kathmandu is no easy task. Having left Tahoe early Saturday morning, I am still in transit two days later at 6pm, Monday evening. And I still have another 5 hour flight ahead of me. After a 14 hour flight from LAX to Guang Zhou, China I faced the daunting prospect of hanging around for 15 hours in a random Chinese airport before catching my flight to Kathmandu. Fortunately, the airline took pity on me when they saw the length of my layover and offered to put me up in a free hotel room.
The long flight to China went by without incident, besides the fact that I was seated across the aisle from a elderly Chinese man with a particularly bad cough. Apparently covering your mouth while hacking up a lung in a confined public space is not a part of polite Chinese custom. The last thing I needed was to catch some random chest infection before this trek even gets going and so every uncovered outburst was met with stifled groans of disapproval and nasty looks from me.
The hotel room they gave me was really nice. I had a warm shower and enjoyed a free breakfast buffet consisting of eggs and bacon and a variety of Chinese food or as the locals here call it "food." I met another traveler from Sacramento and we both headed out on a long walk through the city. The sky in China is gray with shades of brown and the sun is virtually non-existent. The people are friendly enough but very shy when it comes to speaking English. Ten hours later I caught the shuttle back to the airport.
My dream of everest base camp was very nearly all over due to a very basic error. When I got into the line to the board the plane I had a small panic when I couldn't find my passport in any of my pockets or inside my carry-on bag. Premonitions of being stuck indefinitely in a Chinese airport caused my heart to race and cold feeling to spread throughout my chest. Then, out of the blue, this very kind lady walks up with my passport in her hand and asks, "Did any of you guys drop this?" Relief washed over me as I thanked her profusely. My faith in humanity restored, I boarded the plane brimming with newfound optimism. This new positive feeling lasted all the way until the baggage claim area in Kathmandu when my trekking backpack, full of essential supplies and equipment, failed to make an appearance on the luggage carousel. Apparently my bag is still stuck in China although the officials assured me it would be there by tomorrow night. What this means for me is that I get to keep on wearing the same clothes (and the same socks) that I have had on this whole time as I explore Kathmandu tomorrow. Let's hope my luggage arrives before my next flight to Lukla or else I will be forced to buy all of my equipment again.
Beginning on April 5th, 2014, I will embark on an epic journey all the way to the base camp of the world's highest mountain. Our team of five hikers consists of my father, Tim, my uncle Geoff, an old family friend named Dave, and my older brother, Gerard. We will also be joined by three guides and three porters to assist us on our journey. I have spent the last couple of months training at altitude up here in Tahoe and getting together the various clothing layers that are necessary to make the 13+ day trek up to 18,365 feet. I feel a mixture of warm optimism and cold terror when I consider the arduous journey that lies ahead. I have never hiked up to that high of an altitude, nor have I ever wanted to. I will be keeping a blog of my trip here on Well Being's website so please tune-in from time to time to check on my progress and leave any comments or advice that come to mind. This trip promises to be a transformative experience and I plan to document it as well as I can.
See you when I get to Kathmandu!
Nick Hughes is a massage therapist, yoga instructor and co-owner of Well Being.