The night before we left for Lukla, Take On Nepal hosted a welcome dinner where we met the fourth member of our little trekking party. We had already met Shannon (an adventurous Aussie/English girl from Adelaide), our guide Sujan and our porters Anita and Sanu at Batase Village. The final member was Matteo, an Italian guy who has been working his way around Oz and had stumbled across Take on Nepal when he walked into the Himalayan shop at the pier in Cairns. We were taken to a restaurant in the Thamel district of Kathmandu. We had already made a conscious decision to only eat vegetarian food for the entire trek and tonight was no exception with us asking last minute questions and tying up loose ends whilst enjoying Nepal’s national dish of Dahl Baht. This meal is eaten twice daily by Nepali people and consisting of vegetable curry, lentils and rice it was a dish that would provide us with all the energy required to see us through the next twelve days of intense physical exertion.
Up early for a 4.30am pick up we were all pretty pumped. Got to the airport and checked in only to find that bad weather in Lukla had delayed our 6.30am flight, a very common occurrence. Eventually we were ushered onto a bus which took us to one of the most decrepit little planes I have seen. We were told to stay on the bus as the weather in Lukla hadn’t quite cleared. Unbeknownst to me Shaun was busy googling Sita Airlines, and wishing he hadn’t.
After 20 mins or so we were allowed to board. It was a 14 seater plane and had clearly seen better d
ays The emergency exit handle was fixed with masking tape and there was a big crack above my head that had been filled with epoxy. Fourteen strangers shared the same look of terror and there wasn’t much chatter apart from the odd nervous laugh as we realised that we actually were going to be going up in the air in this thing. I think it is safe to say that all fourteen of us were wishing we had chosen the option of a two day hike to Lukla instead of flying.
We eventually took off and as we left Kathmandu and headed into the Himalayas, the mountains peaking through the clouds briefly took our minds off the landing. The runway is very short with a sheer drop off at one end and a rock wall at the other. A collective intake of breath was audible as we hit the runway and the brakes were heavily applied. And then clapping and laughing as we realised we had made it in one piece. Hats off to the single flight attendant – my nerves would not be able to handle this as my regular route. Our flight turned out to be the last for the next day and a half as bad weather closed in again.
We knew the first day”s hike was mainly down hill so we were expecting a reasonably easy few hours of walking. All of us had started taking diamox tablets the previous night as an aid to preventing altitude sickness. One of the side effects was extreme tingling in fingers and toes. For some reason Shannon had the tingling in her lips which made her feel as though she had returned from a trip to the dentist and made speaking a bit challenging. We named the sensation “the diamox tingles” and the intense feeling usually had one or other of us in its grip at any given time over the next two weeks.
There are no roads and therefore no motorised vehicles once you have left Lukla airport. The only sounds to be heard are the clanging of yak bells, the fluttering of prayer flags and the whirring of helicopter blades. We noticed that a large percentage of people coming towards us looked gaunt and had horrible, hacking coughs. I was hoping to come back looking the former but without the latter. We later discovered that the “Khumbu cough” was an almost inevitable part of going to base camp and the wracking throaty itch made life very uncomfortable for many trekkers. It also became pretty clear that both Shaun and I with our dodgy knees were going to become very reliant on our hiking poles. The track consisted of many steep downs and was very rocky and uneven underfoot.
After about 4 hours fairly hard walking we arrived at the teahouse. It was quite basic, or so we thought at the time – it was actually luxurious compared to what was to come. The weather had been cold and drizzly and we were more than ready to call it a day. The tea houses have a common area where a fire is lit at about 5 every evening but there is no heating in the rooms and it got uncomfortably cold despite our hired sleeping bags which were rated to handle -15C. There was no hot water to shower but there were flushing western toilets although you are not allowed to put toilet paper in any toilet anywhere after Lukla instead it all gets placed in an open bin next to the toilet. I won’t even try to describe quite what this is like by the end of the day. There was at least a sink with running, albeit freezing water. These luxuries were to become a rarity over the next 11 days.
This day also gave us our first experience of the high suspension bridges that are in place to provide access across rivers and from one side of a deep valley to the other. I had been absolutely dreading crossing these bridges as heights are not a strong point of mine but after the first few I was standing in the middle to take pics and striding across them as though they were only a foot off the ground.
The next day saw a huge hike up and down some serious hills. Our guides had explained the term “Nepali flat” which really just meant lots of steady up and down. We soon learnt that if this phrase was replaced with “big up” or “big down” then we were in for some very steep climbs. We became used to giving way to yaks and horses, always making sure we were on the high side of the narrow track so that we didn’t get shoved over the edge.
The scenery was becoming evermore breathtaking but the effects of altitude were beginning to become obvious as we approached the Sherpa village of Namche Bazaar. Shannon had been feeling nauseous for several hours and nagging headaches and shortness of breath were starting to make walking uncomfortable. If you’ve never been in high altitude it isn’t very pleasant. Breathing is difficult, a dull continuous headache throbs away relentlessly and you feel like you are wading through mud. Our teahouse was at the top of about 200 steep steps and we were all exhausted by the time we got there. Again the rooms were freezing but the toilets flushed and there was a sink with running cold water in the bathrooms. Once again we fell into bed cold and worn out and beginning to realise that this was no walk in the park.
Next day was an acclimatisation day. For your body to become acclimate it is necessary to climb to a higher altitude and then return to a lower one to sleep. The itinerary had said rest day which became a bit of a running joke. We climbed up to 3880 metres to the Mt Everest View Hotel. Absolutely amazing views from the top and this day provided our first glimpse of Everest with its constant plume of snow drifting off the top like a smoking volcano. It was was really exciting to see and the spectacular view took our mind off how we were feeling.
The next few days blurred together. The hiking was harder than we had anticipated. The cold so much colder and as the altitude became higher and the oxygen lower it was not an easy few days. With two Ironman events under my belt I thought I had a handle on physical and mental resilience but the long, hard days of strenuous ups and knee jarring downs with no comforts such as showers, warmth and running water became quite hard to deal with. At the end of one particularly gruelling day I just sat on the bed and howled. Good job I got in first as Shaun had to comfort and encourage me, he later told me that all he wanted to do was sit on the bed and howl himself.
The regular whirr of blades from the rescue helicopters served as a grim reminder that we had to constantly monitor our bodies and that altitude sickness was a very real danger despite our use of diamox. All 4 of us were frequently body scanning to ensure that we were feeling ok. Our guides continuously urged us to drink plenty of water and to go slowly. Each of us at various times suffered from painful headaches but fortunately a couple of Panadol and some garlic soup helped make them bearable. As we went higher our appetite decreased and although we needed food for fuel it became difficult to finish any meal. This made us feel awful as every bit of food is carted up the mountain by porters or yaks and wastage of that huge effort just seemed so wrong.
We passed many temples and monasteries along the way. A lot of them were painted with amazing colourful detail depicting gods, animals and the path to Nirvana. Nepal is a fusion of Hindu and Buddhism and the two religions seem to meld comfortably together. Prayer wheels big and small are a frequent sight along the track and the “Om Mani Padre Om” mantra could be seen carved and painted on rocks and cliffs big and small along the way.
As there are no roads the only way to get anything anywhere is yaks or porters. We found it quite distressing to watch men bent double with massive loads of provisions on their backs. Everything from rice and bottled water to doors and building materials – we even saw a group of men carrying multiple 4 metre lengths of 4×4” timber. Beer, toilet paper and fresh food were all transported by these incredibly strong, resilient people. But they would surely only be able to do this work for a few years and then their bodies would give out on them. No super or worker’s comp for these poor people. Just a life of extreme hard work, earning barely enough to survive.
After eight days hard hiking we reached Gorak Shep.- the last village before base camp. We dropped our bags off and headed off for the final three hour push to our target. We were all in pretty high spirits as the last week had been really stressful because we did not know if our bodies would let us down and we would be forced to turn back. The rescue helis had been becoming more frequent and people were on horseback in an endeavour to make sure they either made it to Base Camp or returned quickly to lower altitudes if mountain sickness had become dangerous to them.
Base Camp was both less and more than I had expected. There are no climbers at this time of year so apart from lots of prayer flags and a sign there is not much activity. But the Khumbu glacier and icefall and the sheer size and magnificence of the mountains absolutely take your breath away. No picture does them justice. It was awe inspiring and made the hard hard trek more than worth while. Unfortunately it was about minus ten degrees so we didn’t hang around and soon started our walk back to Gorek Shep.
This township consists of half a dozen tea houses and that’s about it. It has to be one of the least hospitable places on the planet. It is rocky, sandy, barren and freezing cold and has about 50% of the oxygen you have at sea level. There is no running water at all. All water is chipped away from a frozen pond. We had been very aware before we left of the importance of not adding to plastic waste upon the mountain so had been using a steripen to sterilise our drinking water. Here there was no choice- we had to buy it in plastic bottles (costing more for a litre bottle than my fave bottle of wine!!) . The toilets were horrible. Only squat style and because of a lack of water and many upset tummies they were filthy. My new tool became my third best friend after Shaun and my hiking poles !! We had a very uncomfortable night because of minus 20 degree temps and shortness of breath but got up at 5am to climb Kalla Patthar to view sunrise over Everest. We had made the decision to only climb halfway up as we knew we had a grueling few days ahead of us to walk the 65ks back to Lukla. Matteo, Sujan and Sanu got up at 4am to climb to the summit …. they froze!!
When our fingers and toes started to feel numb from the cold we headed back to Gorek Shep for breakfast and then walked 15 hard kilometres to the windswept, remote village of Periche. We arrived exhausted and I think all of us a bit over the whole thing. The toilet choice was squat (try doing that with a dodgy knee after walking all day) or a western toilet that was plumbed to nothing. Still no shower and no running water. Pretty much ate and went to bed. The next morning was an indication of how tired and emotional I was when I thought I had lost my hiking poles and could not stop crying even after they had been returned to me.
We then had a 25k walk back to Namche. Lots of Nepali flat but also plenty of extreme ups and downs. It stopped being fun after the first ten ks and we all just wanted to be somewhere warm. The scenery was still amazing but the walk was gruelling. It did feel awesome not to be the people plodding in the opposite direction though and later when the fittest member of our group Matteo (who had by this time been stricken by Khumbu cough) admitted that mentally “becoming a yak” was all that got him through the long day the rest of us didn’t feel so bad for finding the day so hard.
Made it to Namche feeling tired but buoyed by the knowledge that the hardest hiking was now behind us and we only had two half days of walking to go. Still no warm.shower but at least the bathroom had a sink with running water.
We have returned feeling grateful for our easy lives. I will never take running water, hot showers, warmth and an easy job for granted again. We are tougher than we thought. Shaun and I were each other’s rocks. It was beautiful, difficult, incredible, rewarding, trying, traumatic and brutal but a few days on and the memories of the hard times are receding and the friendship, laughs, amazing beauty of the Himalayas and the Nepali people are what will remain with us for ever.
A massive thank you to our guides and porters. We will write a post dedicated solely to Sujan, Anita and Sanu in the next few days. We could not have done it without them and their encouragement, strength, support and smily faces. Also Shannon and Matteo – you were fantastic travelling companions. We will never forget the laughs, Matteo’s one liners, the constant search for quality tissues and new friendships forged from joint achievement, suffering, lack of showers and a love of adventure. Thank you to Take on Nepal for providing such a brilliant experience. This company ticks all the boxes for environmentally and socially ethical trekking in the Himalayas. Would absolutely recommend them to anyone considering heading to Nepal
© Take on Nepal 2020