When someone mentions Nepal, there is no doubt that the Everest base camp and trekking in the Everest region, usually dominates the conversation. It was no exception for me, and throughout the funny series of events that led me to Nepal the question repeatedly asked by friends and family had been… “so are you going to base camp?”. However, true to my fashion I wasn’t going to do it the typical easy way….
After meeting Som in cairns, on my travels, he had let me in on his plans to take a group of young boys and girls, aged 13-18, on a training expedition to base camp and two of the famous three passes, in a fraction of the time it takes the usual trekking tourist. At least half of our 15 strong crew were girls, as it’s Som’s vision to offer tough, talented and knowledgeable female guides in what is a greatly male dominated profession.
Som gave me fair warning that it would be tough and not something he would offer any usual customer, but, the intensity of the challenge ahead was designed to ensure that these guides were prepared beyond any doubt to lead tourists on their adventures through the Himalayas.
Day 1: Kathmandu to Phaplu to Ringmo
The day had finally come for me to realise the dream of my own adventure to Everest base camp. The plan was to avoid the life risking flight to Lukla, that so many take. So we drove from Kathmandu to Phaplu. The long journey flew by, on surprisingly good roads, with stunning mountains, valleys, rivers and waterfalls for entertainment.
Arriving in Phaplu a little after 4pm, we immediately struck out for Ringmo 12km away. I was taken by a feeling of elation as you could sense the buzz of excitement for the challenge ahead. The clanging of steel mugs, strapped to bags, was the soundtrack to which we set a sterling pace off into the dark, reaching our stop for the night in under 2.5 hours. A cosy wooden lodge set into the hills, lit only by a fire, was the setting for a beautifully warm and inviting atmosphere as everyone set about cooking dinner over a clay oven and the smell of steaming hot buttery, salt tea sent me happily off to sleep, dreaming of the sacred mountains that lay in wait.
Day 2: Ringmo to Phakding… almost
Nothing is truly rewarding unless, at some point, you genuinely consider giving up… at least that is what I told myself on our intense second day. Heading off at 6am, steep climbs and descents set the tone for what was almost my undoing so early on. Following the Dudkhoshi river, named so for its milky white colour, we charged our way up the valley passing more and more enchanting waterfalls, rivers and hillsides on our way towards Phakding.
Fuelled only on biscuits and my stubbornness I denied any feelings of exhaustion. Pressing on through the growing doubt in my legs the support and unfaltering cheer of those around me helped me arrive at the rest point where we were served a particularly spicy noodle soup. Unfortunately, this was to be my downfall. Still a 2-hour hike from where we had reservations for the night I couldn’t continue. I fell sick and when breathing became a struggle, I had to let Som know I could go no further that night. Without hesitation one of the team took my bag, happily bounding up the hill and a bed was made for me in the nearest village.
Despite my own shame I felt perfectly well looked after, left with two guides, experienced in the area and was happy to see the rest press on to make their destination in the hope I would catch them up…
Day 3: A little short of Phakding to just past Namche
I’ll spare you the details of my night without the team and just say that after clearing myself out with not much sleep, we pressed on to reach our rendezvous in Namche.
At this point it is not people, challenges or stories that are inspiring me to write as before, but, stunning landscapes motivating me to put pen to paper. In the shadow of snow-capped mountains that reveal their majesty as and when they wish, pulling their cloaks of clouds to one side to gaze down upon you, I was inspired by the enigmatic power of the frosty white giants.
Salt, sugar, water, 2 snickers and some mixed nuts spurred me on to Namche. Crossing great valleys by the means of long, swaying steel bridges decorated by fluttering prayer flags that add a splash of dazzling colour to the natural beauty that surrounded me on our strenuous ascent.
Namche is filled with the hustle and bustle of trekkers that flock to the Himalayas. Hotels, lodges and guest houses climb their way up the steep mountainside and a decorated stream cascades its way down one side to a fountain that welcomes you into the town. Immensely proud of myself for recovering, but further impressed by those that waited for me, I was cheered into the hotel by the team and rewarded with a hearty serving of Dal Bhat.
Just as I slipped my shoes off to fully relax, the news was delivered to me that this wasn’t the destination for the night. It wasn’t until we had regrouped and trekked on for another hour that I could finally put my feet up in front of a red hot Chimnea, following a hot shower and ginger tea.
Day 4: just past Namche to Gokyo
By the end of day 4 I was to learn that we had covered the same distance that would normally be done in 9 days. The huge multi-national companies, that muscle out any other organisation, dominate the trails throughout the Himalayas. With huge costs for their all-inclusive “deals” you would think that their customers would be receiving a greatly premium experience. But, by stretching out the time of their treks, putting maximum weight on porters, with minimum costs and using all the standard rest stops, the price, from what I have seen, is not really justified.
I spent a lot of time talking, one on one, with Som this day, discussing what he really wanted to achieve with Take on Nepal, questioning him at every point. It soon became clear that this was not a get rich quick scheme to funnel as many trekkers through to base camp as possible, but a long term plan to offer a real personal experience of trekking. A journey throughout which you would feel you are not just following a paid porter and guide. A journey throughout which you were truly experiencing the Himalayas whilst being made to feel safe and excited by the challenge. A journey through which you would not only be able to say you’ve been to base camp, but you have come to know and love the wonder and beauty of the people that really make Nepal, Nepal.
During the long talk, as we stepped ever closer to Everest, I began to experience the heavy head and hard breathing I had been warned of. It was the start of another rough night for me as altitude began to take its toll. I reached Gokyo and its breathtaking lakes with very little breath to spare. 4900m above sea level we settled in beside a crystal clear pool reflecting its surroundings in a magnificent light.
Despite not feeling 100% and another night lacking in sleep I was reassured of easier options and felt safe in making my decision to continue at every step of the way. That night as I tossed and turned I began to realise how tough these guys were, and how, if they can take all this in their stride, whilst I feel this way, then I would trust them to take on any situation here.
Day 5: Gokyo to Thangnak… the glacier crossing
What was to be a short day of acclimatisation for me, began, for the next generation of guides, with a peak climb up to 5360m at 3am. On their return from the mornings mission, in which I was no fit state to take part, we set out to cross the glacier and reach the foot of the Chola pass.
Our 2-hour crossing was an un-nerving reminder of how unforgiving this region can be. Eroded paths and steep drop-offs in an eerie valley of rocks and pools stretched out into the misty distance and stood between us and bed. Spiralling trails that wandered off aimlessly highlighted just how easy it would be to lose your way in this baron looking trek. Under the direction of my team of guides I reached Thangnak swiftly, in the cold, where I sit now, with a big flask of hot orange, writing this, the first half of my Everest experience. Tomorrow… the Chola pass, and a big step closer to base camp.
~ Toby Faulkner
© Take on Nepal 2020