Travel Blog from Everest Base Camp Trek October 2013
For the hardy adventurer, few destinations can equal the romantic appeal of the Himalaya. For over a century these rugged mountains have defined the ultimate challenge for Western travellers as the home of many of the world’s tallest and inaccessible summits.
These snow-capped sentinels silently reign over kingdoms filled with deep valleys and glacier-fed rivers. Their mythical allure remains despite the fact that the modern traveller does not have the great fortune, (nor need to endure the same hardships), to accompany the heroic explorers of yore: Mallory and Irvine, Hillary and Tenzing and Messner.
Even those not interested in peak bagging have discovered that Nepal is ideal for spectacular trekking. The nation’s capital, Kathmandu is the gateway for arriving foreign passengers. Once there, there are several popular regions. Among them the Khumbu attracts 20,000 trekkers per year. One of the most well-known treks you can find is to Everest Base Camp.
With the right training, modern equipment and the careful selection of a qualified outfitter and guide, the average,’fit’ adventure traveller can safely make it up and back. However, make no mistake; this is not a walk in the park. A trek in this faraway land can test your physical and mental limits while letting you drink in some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world.
If you dream about going, I want to help you with advice to make your bucket-list trip memorable.
Years back, for my my computer desktop, I downloaded a photo of an Twin Otter landing at the famous Tenzing-Hillary airport in Lukla. I would gaze at that image every day. Every year in January, I would write in my fresh Moleskin calendar “Go to Everest Base Camp”.
I was retiring from 35 years in public service and turning 60 in 2013. I knew was finally time. I had promised myself that I would mark these two milestones. In January I booked my flights on Air Canada and Air India.
I had done basic research and knew that the October - November period was one highly recommended time for trekking in Nepal. This fit perfectly with my birthday celebration plans!
When you arrange your own travel, especially so far in advance, it’s imperative to keep abreast of flight change notices. Itinerary changes by the carriers involved impacted my travel plans; some might have had disastrous consequences if I hadn’t stayed alert. Having a reputable travel agent handle your reservations is one safe way to avoid any unpleasant trip interruptions.
Having been there, I could see that the most adventurous sort could travel without the support of an outfitter, guide or porter. However, I knew in advance that I was going to be much more comfortable having this support network in place to remove the administrative, logistical and safety burden of solo trekking. For example, it's best to learn quick about the importance of staying on the uphill side of the trail when a yak train goes by.
When it came to choosing an outfitter, along with other basic planning, I was using a number of web-based resources. Of course, the pages of my Lonely Planet Guide to Trekking in Nepal were dog-eared.
Obviously I wanted someone well qualified and with whom I could feel safe. Yet it was a priority that I wanted as much of my hard-earned money as possible to stay in the local economy. Using TripAdvisor.ca I could read the reviews of locally-owned and operated outfitters. Outfitter Nepal, whom I eventually selected, had an extraordinary string of highly positive and recommended reviews. I had more confidence in the recommendations because many of the travellers where from places nearby to me. This local operation is run by four fellows with degrees in tourism management from Kathmandu University. Each had also spent time paying his dues in the mountains as a porter and then guide. In the end, their insiders’ knowledge and connections proved invaluable for me to gain full value for my travel expenditure.
A key decision is whether to travel as part of a larger group or on your own. In the end I paid a small premium to travel singly. In my view it was a huge advantage. Firstly, I selected dates that best met my own schedule. In my case, this meant a visit to EBC on my exact birthday. From a practical standpoint, the entire hiking experience was more pleasant. I could walk at my own pace and stop when I wanted. I took countless pictures. Each photo break was equally a chance to rest and catch my breath. My guide Birodh, repeated his mantra continuously throughout the day: slowly, slowly. At levels above 3,000 metres the average person's ability to maintain a brisk pace is diminished considerably. Many times I witnessed harried individuals having to speed up, or slow down, to ‘stay with the group’. In fairness, by spurning group travel I missed the opportunity to bond with fellow group members. But I still had the chance to make many friends along the trail. It is common to re-connect with people you have met at the day’s end. I shared meals many nights with two couples from Barcelona. Also, Paola and Sarah, were an Italian dad and daughter pair with whom I spent several enjoyable visits recounting their shared adventure.
Even though I had applied for a tourist visa to India for my transit stops, I chose to avoid the seeming hassle of securing my Nepalese tourist visa in advance. I had read that it could be easily acquired upon arrival at Tribhuvan airport. It’s true that the process is not complicated, but it can take several hours. In hindsight, I should have arranged for my visa in advance with the Nepalese embassy in Canada. I was over two hours in line at the airport. The delay complicated my arrival meeting with my outfitter, which caused me unnecessary anxiety.
After two wonderful days sightseeing in Kathmandu, my luck with Tribhuvan airport was not going to change anytime soon. A representative from my outfitter had driven me to the front door of the domestic terminal. My guide was to meet me in Lukla. He had just finished guiding a trek for two Australian women. Economy dictated that he hang out up there, rather than shuttling back to Kathmandu.
I can only describe the waiting room as chaos. The counters where the passenger agents were ‘checking-in’ their passengers were familiar. But, that’s pretty much where the similarities ended. Each counter was mobbed by a crowd of people with their travel documents clutched firmly into their hands. Each was trying, without much success, to attract the attention of someone official who could provide any credible information on when they might board. The pandemonium was exacerbated by a small army of self-appointed handlers who unbidden, acted as go between the hapless travellers and the indifferent agents. A fellow picks up my bag, leads me in the general direction of the counter, and may, or may not, have confirmed my flight details. It’s now coming seriously close to my scheduled departure time. Then to my great dismay he leads me across the room, thankfully, out of the turmoil, and then tells me to sit and wait.
I confess that I felt relived for a short while. It was comforting to be ‘taken care of’. And yet after 30 minutes or so, I became quite antsy. After all, who was this guy? My original boarding time had long since got up and went. I felt a great need to regain some semblance of control over my own destiny, hoisted my pack over my shoulder and started wading through the throng of anxious would-be trekkers.
This time I’m lucky, and the passenger agent issues my boarding card. I’m allowed to pass through security and await an announcement for my flight. I've never listened so carefully to boarding announcements in my life. It’s a good idea to ensure that your outfitter helps get you on the plane.
Once you depart Kathmandu on a STOL aircraft, the rugged landscape unfolds beneath your feet for the short, 30 minute flight. The first eye-opener moment, the time you realize that this is not Kansas anymore, comes with your first glimpse of the runway at Lukla. It seems impossibly short, and appears to run up the side of the mountain. It does. The gradient is 12 per cent.
Every landing is accompanied by the cheers; clapping and chatter of the thrilled, but relieved passengers. Not only are you thankful for the safe landing; but the touchdown signifies the first on the ground beginnings of your trek.
My trek was 11 days; eight up, and three down. This is fairly standard itinerary. It can be modified to be longer. It can be dangerous to attempt the trek in less time. I had read a lot about the best ways to acclimatize to altitude and had added two extra stops. Upon my arrival, one of the first things my guide imparted to me, was that my plan was flawed. In fact he said, that by staying high for two extra days, I was likely to get sicker because of the extra wear and tear on upon my body.
There are internationally recognized guidelines that are helpful in setting out a rule of thumb for maximum vertical altitude to be gained daily. Taking day hikes on and spending two acclimatization days for the ascent are beneficial in aiding your body and cardio-respiratory systems to adapt to the conditions at higher levels. This is not something you can really prepare for before you leave home. It is highly individual how you will react.
I usually prefer to limit my use of over the counter, and prescription drugs. But, above Namche at 3,500 metres, Diamox was a life-saver for me. It dramatically reduced the symptoms which I had been experiencing: headaches, appetite loss and poor sleep. Note that this is a diuretic. Combined with all the extra water that it is crucial to drink, nocturnal bathroom visits become an unavoidable nuisance. This is another time you need a flashlight. The higher you go, the teahouses provide fewer amenities. This includes heat and light.
The mountains were the reason I had travelled half way around the world. Everest was at the top of my list. I had been reading books about the exploits of the men and women who had conquered this peak, and others whose spirits were broken by her harsh and unfeeling nature.
Yet, I can honestly say that she was not alone in capturing my imagination and taking my breath away. Tamsherku, Ama Dablam and finally Pumori, known as the perfect mountain, each hold a special place in my heart. They are all emblazoned upon my memories, I can close my eyes and see them just as if I stood before them for the first time. The amazing thing is that the view changes and evolves as you hike every day. They are closer, or further, at day’s end, and your see them from subtly different angles as you pass them by, going higher, or lower on your return trip.
We reached Gorak Shep in the morning from Lobuche. After a lunch break we hiked to Everest Base Camp. Spoiler alert. You cannot actually see Everest from base camp. It is blocked from view by the shoulder of Nuptse. Although there are many dramatic vistas of Everest along the entire trek, most remarkable, was the one awaiting me the following day.
It was the next morning that yielded the most unforgettable sight of my whole adventure. Kala Patthar is an unimposing brown hill rising behind the village. Birodh shook me awake at 4:00 a.m.. My eyes were locked tight with sleep. I groggily dressed and weaved my way down the darkened corridor to the bathroom. We set out across the valley floor in the pitch black. I saw nothing but the small patch of ground in front of my feet illuminated by my headlamp. As we moved further away from the comfort and warmth of the teahouse, I looked up and was gobsmacked with the realization that above my head was the blackest sky I had ever seen in my life. In contrast, the limitless void above was filled with an infinite number of the brightest shining stars.
My sightseeing was soon to come to an end as the trail ticked sharply upwards. I plodded along lifting my knees high and trying to suck in enough oxygen. At this altitude every step becomes deliberate and requires maximum effort; like trying to run waist deep in a salt water pool. After 30 minutes or so, I began to truly feel the cold. Without the brilliant daytime sunshine, this was the coldest hiking temperature I had experienced on the entire trip.
It takes about two hours to complete the ascent of this baby peak. About three-quarters of the way up, I was ready to throw in the towel. I continued mostly because Birodh cajoled and urged me on reminding me of: how well I was doing, how I had accomplished so much. He exhorted that the ultimate reward lay tantalizingly close. The summit was within my reach; if only I could summon the courage to keep moving my feet, one slow step at a time.
I was elated when I made it to the top. The realization that I had finished somehow registered in my weary mind. The scene that awaited me was nothing short of magical. It was a vision to be etched upon my brain and will remain with me until the end of my days. The approaching sunrise, tantalizingly hidden behind the peak of Everest. The silhouette bars of light streaming upward to the heavens as if the Gods had opened their bedroom door and light illuminated the world of mere mortals. The horizon lightened to reveal a backdrop of fluffy clouds against the bluest sky imaginable. Every penny I had spent and every nuisance I had encountered along the way dissolved into irrelevance; this moment was worth every sacrifice I had made, and every year that I waited.
Now two years have passed, and safely home, I have stayed in touch with Birodh. When I first heard the news about the earthquake in Nepal I was in shock. As I saw the images from Kathmandu of the utter devastation that had occurred in the famous squares, temples and historical sites which had delighted me during my visit, it moved me deeply. The contrast was so stark. Places that been filled with bright colour, alive and vibrant with the sights, sounds and smells of a thriving centre were reduced to rubble and ash. People were struck down, thousands were dead and injured. The entire population was helpless and frightened, wondering and worrying what tragedy would next befall them.
The people of Nepal are brave and resilient. With international relief efforts underway many local leaders have emerged determined to tackle the task of restoring the immediate necessities of life. Longer term, leaders with broad vision are putting the building blocks into place to return to a sustainable economy.
One of the single most effective ways that we all can contribute to rebuilding the proud tradition of Nepal’s thriving trekking industry is to return as visitors. An influx of foreign tourism spending will provide a much-needed boost to the national economy. A powerful force of nature has temporarily sidelined business as usual with the physical destruction from the quakes and aftershocks. Yet, the human capital of optimism, energy and will to survive and thrive remains.