Day 0: Kathmandu
The anticipation! I met my trekking buddy Steve, who I found on the Lonely Planet forum, at the agreed-upon hostel in Kathmandu. After checking each other out, we silently agreed that we could stand to be around each other for the next 16 days. We booked flights to and from Lukla, the village at the foot of the EBC trail, the day before leaving and spent the afternoon scrambling around the backpacker ghetto of Thamel shopping for gear. We’d decided to do the trek totally independently–no guide, no porter–and so wanted to be sure we were well-prepared.
Nepal is known for selling reasonable-quality rip-off gear at good prices. We were both in the market for a down jacket and I ended up buying a $30 North Face rip-off superdown coat that packed down to essentially nothing. It was a pretty gunmetal color and I was pleased with my purchase. I also got fake Thinsulate gloves, a fake Patagonia hat, a compass, and two trekking poles. Total spent was just about $40.
Day 1: Kathmandu – Lukla – Thado
Beginning altitude: 7,328 ft
Ending altitude: 8,563 ft
Steve and I got up bright and early and spent two excruciating hours in a taxi chugging through the polluted and chaotic streets of a Kathmandu morning. Still arrived at the airport with time to spare, to find absolute pandemonium inside.
I walked through security and plopped down in a chair and heard from behind me–“You must be Anne Marie.” I spun around to find a totally unfamiliar German woman standing there, who introduced herself as Vern and explained that she’d met some of my Tibet travel mates the night before in her hotel. They knew I was setting out for the Base Camp trek in the morning and told her to look for me. She had found me. Without so much as asking my consent, she informed me of her plan to join me on the entire 16-day trek, since she was alone.
Our flight was, unsurprisingly, delayed. We sat around for hours, and I intermittently harassed airline employees for answers until at 1:00 I was finally told that my flight, originally scheduled for 10 a.m., would depart at 3:00 p.m. Armed with this new information, I brought it to my fellow travelers. We decided to make a visit to the uninspired Domestic Airport Restaurant, where we placed an order and sat down to wait. Just then, an airline employee came sprinting in, demanding we immediately board our flight. We had to run through security again–two lines, one for men, one for women–and run down the jet way, hop on the bus, run onto the 15-seater plane, and five minutes after ordering vegetable fried noodles, I was airborn.
And what a flight. I’ve been on my share of tiny planes, but this one was special. As we boarded, we were handed a peppermint to suck on and a wad of cotton to stick in our ears. The plane careened around the tarmac, skidding left and right as the pilot rushed to get us off the ground before the clouds moved in again. We tottered in the air, precariously aiming between towering snowcapped Himalayan peaks at our height or even higher than us, on all sides. The plane bumped and clattered in the sky and a half an hour later, we approached Lukla. “Is that–?” I started to ask, only to be interrupted by the plane smashing itself down onto what was indeed a tiny airstrip scarcely more than 50 feet long–and up a hill, no less. We’d arrived in Lukla.
We again sat around and waited, because Kat and Chris, some German travelers I’d first met in China, were on an even more delayed flight and we’d agreed to trek together these 16 days. They arrived about two hours later and we immediately set out–joined, as promised, by the solo German traveler, Vern. We had a handful of maps and guides, all of which suggested we get to a town called Phakding to spend the night. Unfortunately, we were so late that we only trekked about an hour or so before the darkness impeded our efforts, and we instead stayed in Thado. We each paid Rs 50 ($.60US) to sleep and had a pretty tasty dinner. We went to bed early, eager with anticipation to really hit the road in the morning.
We knew, but weren’t really grasping, that this would likely be our last night with decently tolerable weather, running water and relative privacy.
Day 2: Thado-Namche
Beginning altitude: 8,563 ft
Ending altitude: 11,286 ft
Day 2, though truly the very beginning, was likely the most difficult day of the entire trip. We had our single-largest elevation gain–nearly 3,000 feet–sustained over more than eight hours of nearly non-stop trekking. Since we started further away from our goal, Namche, than recommended, we had an even longer-than-usual day ahead of us. We were all carrying our own packs, loaded with down jackets and sleeping bags, snacks and water, and compasses and multi-tools, and we all felt our aching backs and feet at the end of the day. It was a long, hard day, and about 3/4 of the way in I realized that this trek may very well be the biggest test of physical and mental endurance I’ve ever had. I know that sounds dramatic. But it was HARD–the weight, persistent incline, increasing altitude and decreasing oxygen were serious business. Even Steve, who has climbed Kilimanjaro, Mt. Rainier and other impressive mountains, at one point stopped and asked himself aloud, “Is this something I actually ENJOY?”
By now the sights of the trek were commonplace to us: Scooting aside for yak caravans as they made their slow, steady ascent up the mountain; nodding and saying “Namaste” to every sherpa who made his way up the route, carrying food and other provisions to high-up villages; and Nepalis and trekkers alike making their way clockwise around stupas and monasteries along the trail.
I was slow, but not terrible. I’m a slow, steady trekker and I don’t need many breaks if I’m going at the pace I’m comfortable with. But Vern–she is SLOW. I ended up being the one to wait for her around every bend as she huffed and puffed up the mountain. She regularly sat down, totally spent, and took long breaks of desperately slurping her Camelbak while I goaded her on. I was eager to get to Namche before nightfall, as it was getting cold and dark. Eventually I stopped and waited for her and she never came. I climbed the rest of the long, steep hill of stone steps and switchbacks alone in the near-darkness until I found Steve. I sent him down to help her. He came back carrying her pack, and she was behind him.
Namche Bazaar is a destination town with cafes, bars, outdoor shops, its own airstrip and even a German bakery. Namche is a decent enough place to spend a few days. And that’s exactly what we did in order to aid acclimatization, based on the recommendations of several trekkers, guidebooks and maps.
When we arrived, it was too late to get a decent lodge and we ended up in a true dump. Steve and I got a room made of paper-thin plywood perched on the roof of a crowded, dirty lodge–though it only cost us about 30 cents each for the night. The restaurant was slow, expensive and unimpressive. The public toilet was an overflowing affair that wasn’t cleaned once in our two-day stay. The sink was outside and only sometimes produced water. I shivered the night away.
Day 3: Namche-Thame-Namche
Beginning elevation: 11,286
Destination elevation: 12,210 feet
Ending elevation: 11,286
One of the long-preached principles of effective acclimatization is to climb high, sleep low. On day 3, we left our bags at the lodge in Namche and set out on a day hike that would take us to higher altitude. We climbed to the Tibetan village of Thame, a strenuous 4-hour one-way trip. We crossed many long, swinging bridges over the river and various gorges. I was feeling tired from the day before and my legs were aching, but it felt good to stretch. We had lunch in Thame, which was something called Sherpa Stew for me. It’s essentially a soup with noodles, some wilted vegetables and maybe some rice. It became an old standby by the end of the trip.
We got back to Namche just before nightfall and decided to reward ourselves with a trip to the German bakery, where we thawed out and a chocolate Danish awaited me. We ran quick errands in town, stocking up on candy bars and muesli for the upcoming days. We made our way over to the lousy hotel, where I handwashed some socks and underwear. I put them on the roof to dry and bundled up for bed. We’d already gotten in the habit of going to bed around 8:00–partially out of physical exhaustion, and partially for lack of anything better to do.
Day 4: Namche-Tengboche
Beginning elevation: 11,286
Ending elevation: 12,665
I awoke to find Steve dead, a frozen mummy corpse in the bed next to mine. Just kidding. But it was so cold, I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised if it were true. I forced myself out of my warm sleeping bag to find that my laundry had frozen solid in the night, and I now had foot-long stiff ice machetes instead of trekking socks. I strapped them to my pack so that they would dry in the sun, and by 6:30 we were on the trail.
We had, somewhat romantically, elected what Lonely Planet called the “slightly longer but far more scenic” route to Tengboche. Yes, we should have known better. No, we did not know where we were going. But by 7:30 we were lost already, attempting to following footpaths that looked promising but then petered out high on hills that lent no revelatory views. Vern was grumpy and demanding to be in control of the map. I was still trying to defrost my socks. Finally we found the right trail and set out, vowing to stop in the nearest village for breakfast. That village was Khumjung, a pleasant Tibetan settling where I was able to use the few words of Tibetan I’d picked up in the preceding weeks. We had breakfast and moved on and made good time from there.
We reached the village of Tengboche early–around 2 p.m. I wanted to wash, so I paid $2 for a cold bucket of water. I poured it over my head and experienced the coldest feeling I’d ever known–a complete brain freeze. It was counterintuitive to stand naked in an outhouse in the freezing cold air and pour icy water on myself, but I tried. I didn’t do a great job because I couldn’t stand it, so I did the bare essentials and changed into dry clothes to warm up.
I got back to the room to find Steve in his sleeping bag and down jacket, shivering uncontrollably. I asked him what was wrong. He muttered incoherently. I tried to talk to him more but made little progress. He finally seemed to warm up and fell asleep. Hours went by and he finally emerged around dinner time. I had been worried about him, and he confirmed what I thought: He had hypothermia. After hours in the sleeping bag, he’d finally warmed up and stopped having the mild hallucinations he’d experienced.
That night, we ate mediocre food and borrowed a deck of cards from an elderly British couple. we all went to bed early with the plan to leave around 6:30 a.m. for the walk to Pheriche.
Note: Tengboche is known for its monastery, the most important of its kind in the Khumbu Valley. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit and I think it’s mostly closed to foreigners due to the sheer number of tourists passing through the region annually.
Days 5-6: Tengboche-Pheriche
Beginning altitude: 12,665 ft
Ending altitude: 13,910 ft
Another long, hard day. This one was even less satisfying than Day 2. We started the day with a steep descent of almost 2,000 feet–frustrating, since we knew we’d end up climbing that and more to get to our destination at nearly 14,000 feet. From Tengboche, we trekked through beautiful, vibrant rhododendron forests–the first I’d ever seen like that. The countryside at this altitude was still dotted with small villages and villagers wandering about, and I didn’t then realize how lush the landscape looked, even at high altitude.
We finished descending and indeed began the long, steep, exhausting ascent to Pheriche. We stopped for lunch and waited for Vern. And waited. And waited more and eventually it was decided that Steve and I would move on and K+C would wait for her. She eventually came and K+C caught up to us with the map, taking the lead. I fell behind, mostly because I was tired of talking and walking (a waste of precious oxygen!). In the time I was alone, I crossed a steep pass that was covered in ice. I negotiated most of it just fine, but fell hard on one patch of it, mangling one of my trekking poles and twisting my knee in the process. Let me tell you–falling with a pack weighing nearly 25 pounds isn’t easy to do gracefully, and I’m sure I looked silly. But, naturally, I picked myself up and kept going.
I found the gang and we crossed another long, swinging metal bridge over the icy river. We trekked and trekked, climbed and climbed, and finally a small village came into view. We gratefully picked up the pace, now having a goal to set sights upon, and we arrived. My back was aching and I could feel a vertebra out of alignment in my upper back, pulling my muscles and generally causing a disturbance. I threw my pack down and suggested we start checking lodges. Kat was eying the map nervously. It turned out we’d taken a wrong turn and were not in Pheriche, but Dingboche, on the other side of the mountain from where we needed to go. Dingboche was higher (14,533 ft) and more isolated and wouldn’t be a good starting point for the upcoming days of trekking. We had no choice but to continue trekking and cross the mountain, despite the wind picking up and general fatigue settling on the crowd. Vern was still nowhere to be seen, and in the end we didn’t see her that night. I felt bad to leave her behind, but we had to keep moving.
Before we did, first I laid on the ground, belly-down and let Kat crack my back. She did a good job and got it mostly back in alignment. We set out and crossed over the high mountain, climbing more before crossing a pass and descending a steep ridge into Pheriche. I was cold, sweaty and getting chills. Steve wasn’t doing so great, either. Chris visibly struggled on the descent. My knee hurt. Kat skipped ahead as though she were at sea level on a sunny day.
I was grumpy, but we laid eyes on a nice-looking lodge: The Himalaya Hotel. We asked about prices: $1.50 each per night. we walked in and were immediately greeted by the unmistakable smell of chocolate cake baking. The lodge was new–hewn out of light-stained wood, bright and airy, with a book exchange and cheerful decorations. We settled in happily and ordered some cake and hot chocolate. Our moods lifted and we had a nice dinner.
Just around the time I started to feel a headache creeping on, Steve disappeared from the table without saying anything. I was worried about him. I went to find him and he was having hallucinations and was intermittently hot and cold. I did all I could to make him comfortable and went back to the common area. A scrunchy-faced Canadian Christian dad was there, pulling out his guitar and passing around songbooks. I asked if he was really carrying such things all this way–“My porter is,” he replied pluckishly and the sing-a-long began, starting with Brown Eyed Girl and winding its way through Wild Thing and Stand By Me. My headache was growing worse and I was worried about altitude sickness. I went to my room.
Steve was asleep. I got in bed, feeling sick as hell. I tried to sleep but my head was absolutely pounding in a way that made me truly feel for migraine sufferers. I laid with my head in my hands for hours, fighting waves of nausea until I had to throw up. And then throw up again. And that continued all night–vomiting, nausea and the worse headache I’d ever felt, all in the freezing cold lodge with no running water or Western toilet. Altitude sickness, you sure are a pain.
I managed to sleep for an hour or so. Steve felt like shit in the morning too and we decided to stay another day to acclimate in Pheriche. I went to the health clinic, the really impressive Himalaya Rescue Association, staffed by international volunteer doctors. I got some Diamox, altitude medicine, and began taking it. Steve and I also attended the daily 3:00 session about AMS (acute mountain sickness) which was informative and full of horror stories about AMS cases this season–deaths, evacuations, botched Everest attempts, etc. That night I managed to eat some dinner and sleep decently, thanks to the meds and extra acclimatization day. Steve was feeling better too.
Day 7 Pheriche-Dughla
Beginning altitude: 13,910 ft
Ending altitude: 15,157 ft
Feeling more or less better, we decided to move on the following day. I had handwashed some clothes on my day off (and dried them by the yak dung fire in the common area) and was equipped with cleanish socks and underwear–ready to take on the mountain!
It was only a two-hour climb to Dughla, but because it was a steep ascent it was recommended to sleep there to acclimatize. The trail from Pheriche climbed directly through the Khumbu glacier, now little more than strewn rocks and patches of ice and snow. It was stark, lifeless landscape and it really began to feel like we were high in the mountains now. The snow-capped mountains were no longer off in the distance but all around us, and it was through them that we were now trekking.
We reached a high pass that was full of stupas and memorials to lost climbers, including Scott Fischer and Rob Hall who both perished in the 1996 Everest disaster, immortalized by Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air. The dozens and dozens of memorials were humbling and a chilling reminder that this mountain is a gravely terminal place year in and year out.
We reached Dughla, which is really one building: a lodge. Vern was in it, basically waiting for us and she said as much. It was overpriced, dirty, crowded and the food was terrible, but it was somewhere to sleep. The walls were paper thin and we were right by the toilet, so it stunk horribly all night. Thankfully, it was so unbelievably cold that my entire body and head were wrapped in the sleeping bag as tightly as possible.
That night, Steve and I had a serious conversation from within our respective sleeping bags. It turns out there was a common idea on both of our minds, far away from civilization, freezing cold and without any creature comforts: fast food. We had a long, in-depth and enthusiastic conversation about the merits of various fast food, beginning with the eternally superior Chipotle and winding down to Southern chains I’d never heard of. we shared joy when talking about the Wendy’s Junior Bacon Cheeseburger, digestive discomfort at Taco Bell’s burritos and general ambivalence about Arby’s roast beef. I fell asleep that night, far from fast food as I know it but with visions of KFC dancing in my head.
Day 8 Dughla – Lobuche
Beginning altitude: 15,157 ft
Ending altitude: 16,108 ft
We woke up bright and early, ate an uninspired breakfast of oat porridge and black tea and set off with sunrise. The picture below shows me leaving the lodge in Dughla. We trekked for a few hours before reaching Lobuche, a town known for its squalor. Its reputation had preceded it and we’d asked around for the name of a nice lodge. Since we’d sleep there before going to Base Camp, we wanted to be comfortable. We were told the Eco Lodge was nice, but pricey: $9 each. We happily made reservations. When we arrived, we were disappointed to find that the lodge was crowded and not much better than the cheap places we’d grown tired of. Moreover, at this altitude, everyone in the lodge had a hacking cough and being in the same room as a crowd of sick, wheezing trekkers was wearing thin on my nerves. Vern never arrived and we assumed she slept lower on the mountain–Dughla was the last we saw of her.
We were all experiencing some altitude problems and decided to spend an extra day acclimatizing in Lobuche before going on to Base Camp. I was glad: I had begun having awful digestive issues, and today was the first day I tasted eggy/sulfuric burps: a sure sign of giardia. I’ve had giardia half a dozen times before and recognized it immediately. I had medicine with me to treat it and began taking it immediately, but I was losing a lot of fluids through diarrhea, altitude was bothering me again, and I’d picked up a headcold.
Day 9 Lobuche-Pyramid Research Center
Beginning altitude: 15,157 ft
Destination altitude: 16,305 ft
Ending altitude: 15,157 ft
I woke up feeling lousy but wanted to do a day trek to help acclimatize for the following day. I saw on the map that there was a research center nearby–cryptically named the Pyramid Research Center. Steve and I set out for it in all of our layers and arrived in under an hour. It’s operated by the Italian government and is hidden, tucked behind a mountain well off the beaten path. We arrived and asked to look around–but were quickly informed that everything was top-secret. A Nepali half-heartedly showed us a few rooms and I asked questions that he blatantly ignored. The place is funny–Louvre-like in architecture, with electrical systems controlled from Italy, currently staffed by all French, and hush-hush about EVERYTHING. we saw a room full of small metal containers, and I was bold enough to ask about their contents. I learned they were air samples that were sent to Italy once a month. I glanced at the metal containers–manufactured at 110 Benner Circle, Bellefonte, PA.
Sensing we weren’t wanted, we left. Later we heard rumors that the center is really some sort of spy operation by the EU looking for nuclear activity in China (Tibet is just a few miles away), but who knows. The highlight of the day trip was likely the Lobuche Glacier that hovers just west of the research center site–an imposing, austere form with chiseled terraces of ice and rock, the Lobuche Glacier was enough to convince me that I never need to climb a glacier or anything resembling it.
That evening was much like the ones preceding it: We ate dinners of fried noodles, sherpa stew, fried rice and boiled potatoes, all washed down with thermoses of weak tea, as we huddled as near the yak-dung burning stove as possible. As with previous nights, the sherpas all knew precisely when the stove will be lit and crowded in before anyone else has a chance, thereby blocking most of the heat. But hey, since they all sleep in a pile on the cold ground, they can have the fire. We retreated to our rooms, well out of the fire’s jurisdiction, and fell into fitful sleep.
Day 10: Base Camp!
I had sherpa stew for breakfast. I laced up my boots extra tightly. I had paid $3 to charge my camera battery the evening before. In short, I was ready for Base Camp.
Most people thought we were crazy: Nobody goes to Base Camp at this time of year. It’s not summiting season, so there’s nobody actually there, and its just a garbage dump in the off-season. Moreover, it’s cold and snowy. Most people actively discouraged us from going, saying it wasn’t worth the effort. Lobuche was the final destination for most trekkers, unless they were going on to climb the peak of Kata Patthar or elsewhere, which we had no desire (or gear or skill) to do. So, in theory, Lobuche should have been our final destination. But I was so set on Base Camp that I convinced the crew it would be worth it, despite nothing to see.
And so we set out on day 10, wearing every shred of clothing we had with us, faces completely covered by scarves, glasses and hoods, cameras charged, jawlines set, ready to go. And we left.
We had trekked about 10 minutes when I started to feel hot. More precisely, my body was burning hot but my hands and feet were completely numb. I was sweating and beginning to feet light-headed. I stopped and tried to gulp air but couldn’t find the bottom of my lungs. I kept walking and felt the urge to vomit but held it back. I was really feeling awful, so I called ahead to Steve and said that I was going to hang back and not to wait for me, that I would catch up. He nodded and kept walking. I stopped and sat down, aware that my hands were virtually useless since I couldn’t feel them. I threw up, right there on the trail. And then I decided to go sit in the lodge until I got my bearings and could continue.
Though we’d only walked 20 minutes or so, I could barely make it back to the lodge. It took me a very long time, and when I got there, I threw up again immediately. I stumbled into the common area and managed to sit down. The staff took one look at me and immediately hustled my pack off my back, all but carried me into a room, got my sleeping bag out, stuffed me into it and brought me hot packs and liquids. I was dripping sweat, shaking and dry heaving. I laid there recovering and letting my crazy thoughts swirl in my head: I’d rest up and immediately set out, and catch up within an hour. As time passed and it became clear that wouldn’t happen, I planned to set out the NEXT day, and let me crew go ahead of me.
A doctor came in the room. He was from Spain and spoke haltingly to me in English. Surprisingly, my Spanish came easily and I answered him in his native language. He was relieved and begged me to descend, citing all of the severe AMS symptoms I was experiencing, coupled with the digestive complications. I promised I would, but when he left, I packed up my things and tried to trek again to Base Camp. I couldn’t even get as far as last time and defeatedly, I went back to the lodge again to think things over.
An American couple had heard about my situation. They were from Colorado and were there to climb some insanely high peak, but he had gotten a case of HAPE (an AMS complication where the lungs fill with fluid) and had to descend immediately. They offered to walk with me back down to Pheriche. Everyone at the lodge urged me to do it and I accepted that it was likely the safest scenario. I’d spent the past days watching dozens of helicopter evacuations and hearing trekker horror stories, and knew I couldn’t let any of that happen to me.
So I descended with them, but insisted on carrying my own pack. I was proud of that, anyway, though it was met with resistance from everyone else. I knew they were only trying to help me but getting a porter would have been adding insult to injury. We arrived back in Pheriche, after passing the memorials and glacier and etc, and I was back at the chocolate cake place. My friends didn’t know where I was, I realized dully. My brain was having a hard time making sense of the day, but at lower altitude I was thinking more clearly. We’d planned to stop in a certain town for lunch and I asked the Pheriche lodge to call the places there. I found them and told them what happened and we agreed to meet the following night in Pheriche (we had planned another night in Lobuche).
Did I cry? Yes. Did I curse myself for being weak, when everyone else was strong? Oh, yes, yes. Did I ask the Spanish doctor if he knew what a “bucket list” was, and if so, did he realize how important this was to me? Maybe I did. But in the midst of the drama, I knew I’d berate myself later and so I forced myself to recognize that I literally could not put one foot in front of the other that day. That day, there would be no Base Camp, and my flight out of Lukla prevented me from taking any longer to get up the mountain. It was time to descend, and my body didn’t want to go any higher. So I reluctantly, bitterly accepted it. And I choked down some chocolate cake for dinner that night and damnit if I didn’t start to feel better. The lower altitude, knowledge that I was descending, and high-calorie dinner to replace what nutrition I’d lost that day all added up to something like relief.
Day 11 Pheriche
Beginning altitude: 13,910 ft
Ending altitude 13,910 ft
I spent most of the next day alone in the lodge in Pheriche. I was glad for the solitude: It had been 10 long days of constant contact with my friends. I made lots of friends in the lodge, including some AMS researchers from Sydney, an American mission group and some serious Australian climbers. I spent the day drinking hot water (the cheapest liiquid available, and still not cheap) and reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, which I found in the book exchange. I resisted the cake.
Around mid-afternoon my friends arrived and showered me with attention, which made me uncomfortable. Kat had brought me a rock from Base Camp, a really kind gesture. We had dinner together that night and discussed our upcoming plans. We had just today heard about the flight delays in Lukla and Steve and I were worried about getting stranded. Kat and Chris had elected to spend more time on the mountain and so were unaffected. Steve and I decided to continue descending the next morning.
Day 12 Pheriche-Namche
Beginning altitude: 13,910 ft
Ending altitude: 11,286 ft
We got a slow start and had some oat porridge and tea for breakfast, reluctant to leave the comforts of the lovely Himalaya Hotel. We set out eventually amidst dense fog–realizing how serious the situation must be in Lukla if indeed the weather had been like this all week down there. We trekked and trekked, with zero visibility of the neighboring peaks–a real shame, because the scenery is truly spectacular. It was, simply put, cold and miserable.
We reached Tengboche, where we’d slept eight nights earlier, and had lunch. We’d been intermittently passing and falling behind an Australian group who continually marveled at the fact that we were carrying our own packs. we had some soup, shared a Snickers and moved on, hoping to reach Namche by night.
The day wore on and the fog and cold only intensified. It was beginning to grow dark and due to low visibility, we had no idea how close to Namche we were. Just as I was beginning to lose hope, I asked a woman on the trail how far it was–just another hour! We pressed on and were overjoyed when we finally came to the town’s stupa, perched high on the hill overlooking the town. We descended, again armed with a hotel recommendation–this time, the Panorama Hotel. We arrived, mostly frozen, and were ushered into the common area heated by a yak-dung stove. The place was lovely and we ordered dinner. It was genuinely delicious and we shared a thermos of fresh mint tea. The rooms were cheerful and the common toilet was Western and reasonably clean. Hurray!
I slept deeply and soundly for the first time in more than a week and even had dreams. I was warm in my sleeping bag and relieved to have descended so much.
Day 13: Namche
Beginning altitude: 11,286
Ending altitude 11,286
We awoke and inquired about flights–silly, since any effort to look out the window was futile due to intense, thick fog blanketing the valley. Still no flights, and so no reason to run down to Lukla, where we’d heard food supplies were dwindling and there was no room in lodges to sleep. We elected to stay another night in the lovely hotel in Namche, and I found Into Thin Air in the book exchange. I settled in for a day near the fire, only climbing down to town for a few hours to do some errands and watch a film screening (also of Into Thin Air–but a low-budget foreign version with terrible acting). we also had another pastry at the German bakery.
Day 14, Namche
Beginning altitude: 11,286
Ending altitude 11,286
The same story awaited us when awoke in Namche on Nov 6–still no flights, more trekkers stranded, bad news down below. So again, we stayed put and tried calling the airline to confirm our flights scheduled for Nov 8. we’d been told that priority, for some reason, went to people with confirmed flights on any given day, and that the backlog of folks who’d missed their flights were the ones who were really out of luck. Most people book open-ended tickets to allow more flexibility in their departure–something Steve and I didn’t know about when we booked, thankfully.
That day was spent wandering foggy Namche and curled by the stove, reading Into Thin Air and a V.S. Naipaul book I’d also gotten from the exchange. That evening, Kat and Chris arrived and we were again reunited. We had a pleasant dinner together and chatted with other trekkers (including the Spanish doctor) who had also begun their descent. Everyone was stressed about flights.
Day 15, Namche-Lukla
Beginning altitude: 11,286
Ending altitude: 9,317
Despite uncertainty about conditions in Lukla and the status of our flights, we had little choice but to go to Lukla and hope that the next day, the day of our scheduled flight, the weather would clear up and we would indeed fly. We were joined by Claire, an absolutely lovely Australian and part of the aforementioned research team. Despite being the last day of the trek, it’s still a hell of a tough walk. It’s a lot of knee-pounding descents to bridges, only to ascend on the other side of the river back to the original level. Since a few flights had begun arriving that morning, the trail was extremely trafficked by endless yak caravans carrying desperately-needed supplies up the mountain. Throngs of tour groups, pent up in Kathmandu for a week, rushed up the mountain wielding trekking poles like deadly weapons. The descent was physically strenuous and mentally tiring. We rounded a corner and saw Lukla from a distance, which encouraged us. Unfortunately, the last part of the trek is a steep uphill climb and none of us were in the mood for it.
We finally arrived to Lukla. Since Claire had been coming to Nepal for years, she was friends with many lodge owners, one of whom had put aside a triple room for us despite throngs of tourists clammering for beds that night. We were lucky. It even had an attached bathroom–the first time on the entire trip! We all crossed our fingers for flights in the morning, but especially Claire, who had an international flight to Sydney that same evening. We went to the airline office to confirm our flights, where we found furious crowds of stranded passengers. Eventually we were told that if weather held, we would fly the next day, but on a later flight. We happily accepted that and went back to the lodge, sleeping warmly at the lower elevation.
Day 16: Lukla
Beginning altitude: 9,317 ft
Ending altitude: 9,317 ft
Despite being told to arrive at the airport at 11:30 a.m., we were there by 8:00 just in case anything changed or there were seats available on an earlier flight. We sat and waited and waited–we were flight 17 of the day and the hours ticked by. Since there is no ATM or bank in Lukla and I was literally out of money, I went into town to sell off some gear and books for cash. I came back $20 richer and having shed weight from my pack. By 2:00 they were only on flight 6 due to intermittent fog. We parked ourselves at Lukla’s version of a German bakery and napped, read, chatted with other travelers (including the Coloradoans) and snacked on the rest of our muesli bars.
I should say that at the Lukla airport, there is no electricity. So no flight status boards, no electronic passenger lists, no intercom. Nothing. All flight and passenger lists are a mess of papers with various check marks and scrawled notes. Any and all news–including which flight number was next–was filtered through travelers who had managed to extract information from their guides or airport employees. It was a frustrating day and airline employees were rude and tight-lipped.
Finally I heard from some Russians that the last flight of the day–number 13–had just left. The rest of us were stuck. Many people had been waiting a week already, having missed their international flights home, and disgust and anger were taking over. I witnessed more than one screaming match between a particularly bellicose Yeti Airlines employee and irate passengers. Many people were demanding refunds as they elected to rent helicopters–$3,000 for eight seats–to take them to Kathmandu early in the morning. It became an increasingly popular option as the situation got more desperate.
We found a hotel adjacent to the airport and had an overpriced dinner. We decided to check out the nightlife, which was assumed would be hopping due to the sheer number of young travelers stuck in town. We were right–the Wave Pub was packed, selling $5 cans of Everest beer and playing relatively recent dance hits from the US. We met tons of trekkers we knew from the hike and had a nice time. By our standards, we got home late–9:30! We slept well.
Day 17: Lukla-Kathmandu
I meant business today, since I witnessed the awful scene of passengers stranded for a week or more. I was determined not to let it happen to me–I couldn’t imagine a more soulless place to spend an entire week of my Nepal trip, and since I was out of money again, my options were few. It had been more than 2 weeks since I’d showered and I didn’t care to wait any longer. Steve and I marched into the airport at 7:30 a.m. before the airline offices were open. We camped out and were within the first passengers attended to. First we checked if there were seats on other airlines–some had rented more planes, and we’d heard there were seats available here and there. We were promptly and definitely told no way, not today. Then I parked myself in front of the Yeti Airlines desk, who had issued our original flight, with my ticket in hand and waved it in any employee’s face as they walked by. I was mostly met with blank, ambivalent stares. Finally, I gave it to a kindly-faced man who wasn’t in charge of passenger relations. His job was cargo coordination. I said a few sentences about being stuck and missing an intl flight (white lie) and he took my ticket. I thrust Steve’s at him, too. He wordlessly indicated that we should follow him and we did. we walked directly past hundreds of people camped out by their luggage, some sleeping, some crying, some listlessly playing cards. He asked where our bags were–the answer was back at the hotel. Steve ran back and packed both up while I was hustled through paying the airport departure tax. Steve returned, our bags were checked in, and before I knew it we were going through security. Were we really going to fly today?
I should note the way this flight was filled. When we arrived at the counter to check bags, ours were the only two tickets in his hand. There was a group of American guys who’d trekked for a month and then got stranded for an entire week. We struck up a conversation and I said I thought we were about to fly. I suggested handing their tickets to the same guy. They did, he accepted them wordlessly and that appeared to be enough to get them on the flight. A few others saw this happen and did the same. The employee counted the tickets and there were 15–a full flight. And that was the selection process, so far as I could tell. Completely and totally without any organization or list based on time stranded–just luck and being in the right place at the right time.
A side note about the Americans: We were talking for a few minutes when I couldn’t resist saying something to one of them: “You remind me so much of my friend back home, _____ (name).” His jaw dropped and his friends all made exclamatory noises. I learned that my friend is actually his brother, accounting for the incredible physical similarities. Even more funny, I mentioned that his brother had been kind enough to lend me tons of outdoor gear over the years, including a sleeping bag that I took to Peru for 10 days last March. In fact, it was all HIS gear, since he’d moved to Thailand and bequeathed it all to his brother who was moving to Pittsburgh with his girlfriend (with whom I did my masters). Small world, and in the end we were on the same plane to Kathmandu.
We languished on the other side of airport security for an hour or so. We’d seen the Nepal Airlines planes (despite having tickets on Yeti, we flew Nepal Airlines–who knows why) leave at 8:30 a.m. and knew that they would go to Kathmandu and return with passengers, which took about 90 minutes roundtrip. Sure enough, around 10 a.m. our plane had arrived and we got on board eagerly. Again the peppermints and cotton balls, and this time we careened downhill on the runway, the engine catching as the land beneath us ended and were lifted into the sky. 30 minutes later, we arrived in warm, sunny, smoggy Kathmandu and a hearty round of applause filled the plane upon arrival. We were back!
And that was my Everest Base Camp trek. Sorry its the extended version. I’ve been trying to process the trip. It was long, cold, uncomfortable, dirty and crowded. Despite that, there were very high moments of euphoria, gazing up at the imposing Himalayan peaks on all sides. It felt exciting to follow in (some of) the footsteps of the world’s greatest mountaineers, all of whom have done the trek themselves. I learned much about the Khumbu valley, its cultures and traditions. I met fascinating other trekkers who in some cases showed extraordinary concern and generosity towards me and others.
I was continually struck how similar many things felt to treks I’d done in rural Peru. Peru isn’t nearly as well-equipped with lodges on treks, due in part to a difference in tourist volume. However, the sherpas and porters of Nepal and Peru share many uncanny similarities: physically, I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. Their habits and social customs, so far as I could see, appeared similar. They were kind along the trail, always offering a “namaste” as I passed. The landscape was far more striking than the parts of Peru I know, in part because on this trek I went higher than I ever had before. The snow caps literally surrounded me on all sides–something I never experienced in Peru. I missed the sporadic Inca ruins that define trekking in Peru–in Nepal, it’s monasteries and stupas, interesting in their own rite.
Am I glad I did the trek? Absolutely. Would I do it again? Eh. Maybe with some distance and forgetfulness around the discomforts, cold and physical demands. I might return someday out of sheer stubbornness just to get to Base Camp. It hurts that I didn’t achieve that goal, though having seen the reality of the trek and heard about the site, I don’t feel as awful as I might have thought I would.
One thing is undeniable, though: The presence of tourism in that region has greatly elevated the standard of living in the Khumbu Valley. Most families are engaged in tourism, and based on limited conversations, most seem to have enough money and food to live on–not true of their counterparts in other parts of rural Nepal. Sir Edmund Hillary, credited with the first Everest summit, poured tons of money and attention into the region and nearly every school is named for him. Modern trekkers dump a ton of cash into the local economy every year, and the effects are apparent. I’m glad I went and I am proud of myself. But I won’t be running back there next year.