When we arrived in Kathmandu we thought it would take a week or so to plan our trek to Everest Base Camp, little did we think that within 3 days of our arrival we would be on a 18 seater plane heading to Lukla to complete a 16 day loop trek including Gokyo, Cho La Pass, Everest Base Camp. Kevin had done the EBC trek 17 years ago but had gone out and back so this time we would include Gokyo and the Cho La pass to enhance the adventure– plus he doesn’t have the greatest memory anyways so it was all going to be like the for the very first time 🙂
We boarded our 18 seater plane about 2 hours late from Kathmandu to Lukla. Lukla is known as one of (if not the most) dangerous airport in the world. When you arrive you see the tiny runway that is built on the side of the mountain on an incline, to slow the planes approach, with a solid stone wall (the mountainside) at the end of it. Due to the high altitude the pilots have to increase their speed so they land at 86 miles/hour and only have 1400 feet of runway to stop. It is quite a sight and experience to land here … I am glad I don’t have to do it every day!
Day 1 – 2800 meters/9186 feet.
Stuck in Lukla. Sometimes you get what you pay for. Even though our trek was rapidly booked it seems we are missing a porter. We arrived in Lukla with our guide but due to it being a) high season and b) late in the day due to flight delays, our guide, Nawang, is unable to find a porter. We sit around for hours until he finally has the nerve to tell us this … when we ask if he will be able to find a porter the next day he says “maybe but it is high season”. Ok, needless to say, despite our efforts to be patient, this seems like a very frustrating answer – I mean we are paying for a guide and a porter, no one else seems to be stuck in Lukla but us …. did we choose the wrong company? Will we ever leave Lukla or will we sit there for 16 days?? or even worse have to carry our own packs (gasp!).
Some of you might judge us and think we should carry our own packs – I assure you we packed as light as possible (which you can attest to when you see us wearing the same or very similar clothes day in and day out) to make sure our porter didn’t have too hard of a time. Some of these guys get paid per kilo that they carry and some will lug up to 100 kg up the mountain. Due to the fact we will be going to altitude and ascending steep terrain we wanted to give ourselves the best chance of success – and that meant hiring a porter. Plus to be honest, that’s what these guys do for a living … we are supporting the local economy – so don’t judge.
In the end, we decided to enjoy our time in Lukla and wander around and hope for the best the next day. Added bonus was that our hotel had a really nice hot shower so we enjoyed this luxury for the last time in many days.
Day 2 Lukla to Manjo – 2800 meters and 10 miles
Hallelujah – we found our little man!! Talla, he was affectionately referred to grandpa by the people around. Ok, he was grandpa aged and smaller than me. He wasn’t the fastest porter but boy did he have a big smile! We were thrilled we found him and he was equally as happy for the work! Alright – success! Our trek could begin. We decided to alter our itinerary a bit to catch up on our lost day so planned to hike to Manjo at 2800 meters. Now it sounds easy since we were already at 2800 meters! Well nothing is that straight forward here – first we had to descend to 2600 meters before reascending to 2800 meters. It was a beautiful day though and we were thrilled to be underway so it was a glorious first day of hiking! The Rhododendron trees were in bloom, the river was roaring and we were hiking in the Himalayas. Glorious!
Day 3 – Namche Bazaar -3440 meters/11,286 feet – 6.5 miles
A short hike up to Namche Bazaar – this is the last spot on the trail where there are showings of modern civilization as we know it (i.e ATMS, Bars, Bakeries, Grocery stores). In other words – this is where everyone stocks up on anything they forgot because the higher you go the more expensive everything gets. For example a bottle of water in Kathmandu is 25 cents, in Lukla it was $1, in Namche it was $2 and by the time you get to Gorakshep (by EBC) it costs $4 if you can find any!
For some reason people had told us that the hike into Namche would be the hardest day of the trek – it seemed very hard to believe for us but we are optimists so we thought – wow! this trek is going to be easy! WRONG – don’t be fooled – it is not even close to the hardest day of the trek! Maybe they were just trying to give us courage or maybe they didn’t go any further than Namche Bazaar? We will never know….
Day 4 – Acclimitization Day in Namche
This was our one scheduled rest day. We wandered around to get some views and saw our first peeks of Everest hiding behind Lhotse. We enjoyed the day relaxing, reading and making sure we had everything necessary for our trek. Our best purchase was these little neck wraps ($2!!) that could be pulled up over your nose and mouth when it was cold or wrapped around your ears and head if your head was cold. They were kinda half balaclavas and we literally did not take them off once during our whole trek. Unfortunately Namche is also where Kev picked up a stomach bug that plagued him through the rest of our journey.
Day 5 – Phortse Tenga – 3680 meters/12000 feet – 7.62 miles
This sounded like it was going to be a short day – I mean after all we were going from 3400 meters to 3680 meters, easy peasy, right??! … unfortunately there was that 4000 meter ‘hill’ we had to climb over to get to our destination. There had been a lot of people on the trail coming up to Namche Bazaar but the crowds thinned out today as a lot more people go to EBC directly than to Gokyo so we were really happy to have the mountain more to ourselves. This stop would also be the end of flush toilets, running water and above all the end of warmth.
Day 6 – Macherma – 4400 meters/14435 feet – 8.75 miles
This was a really big day as we had a 700+ meter ascent to do. Not only that but we were hitting serious altitude, I mean think about it – the highest mountain in the Rocky mountains is Mt. Elbert at 14440 feet – we were going to be sleeping at this altitude and we would still feel dwarfed by the mountains around us – it is an indescribable feeling as it makes you feel so small and insignificant amongst the giants of the Himalalyas.
We played word games to keep us distracted and the time went by quickly. By the time we got there it was pretty cold and it was noticeably hard to breathe. It snowed that night making it look beautiful with a 5 inch coating of snow. The next morning, we waited for the ‘trail breakers’ a Russian group who seemed motivated before setting out.
No more running water – just buckets. Only squat toilets from here on out.
Day 7 – Gokyo, 4760 meters/15670 feet – 6.72 miles.
With the fresh snow there was a lot of icy bits – I kept slipping and thus having adrenaline rushes and heart palpitations. Our Guide kept saying – it’s just around those hills … it never was. When we were about 30 minutes out I could feel myself getting nauseous and faint – oh no – altitude sickness. The same thing had happened on Kilimanjaro. We arrived for lunch time – I couldn’t eat, got sick and slept all afternoon – I wasn’t sure I would be able to go further and was devastated but at the same time I was afraid i wouldn’t even have enough energy to walk down to lower altitudes. While we were in Gokyo there were 2-3 helicopter rescues per day!! Insane!
Altitude is such a difficult thing – even taking a sip of water leaves you out of breath when you are hiking – not to mention simple things like talking, getting out of your sleeping bag – even going to the bathroom. My resting heart rate was 80 BPM – crazy!! In addition to the altitude woes, our lodge in Gokyo was pretty grim – it was so cold that the water around the squat toilet remained frozen through-out our stay. Really didn’t make you want to get out of your bag to go pee … unfortunately to combat altitude you have to drink a lot … so sooner or later your bladder would win the battle.
Day 8 – Goyko
The next day we decided to take an extra rest day and as I started to feel better Kev got sick and really didn’t recover until we got back to Namche at the end of the trek. I looked on with envy as trekkers were climbing Goyko Ri – the view point trek that had been scheduled for us that day but due to illness we didn’t do. I trekked around town and up some hills and got first glimpse of the Ngozumpa glacier, thought to be the largest glacier in the Himalayas! Magnificent!
Later that night, Kev and I discussed and decided I would do the Goyko Ri trek the next day and we would continue after that (if I was up to it) to our next destination Thagnak so we would remain on our trek schedule. He would join on the peak hike if he felt up to it.
Day 9 – Goyko Ri – 5357 meters/17575 feet – then onto Thagnag 4750 meters/15580 feet – 7.32 miles
Climbed up to Goyko Ri – wow! Talk about a steep climb. It took a little over 2 hours to get there all the while my mind was trying to find reasons why I couldn’t possibly make it – I ignored my mind and just told myself that with every single step I was one step closer to my goal. Funny how the moment that I arrived at the summit my mind forgot every moment of the pain, suffering and energy it took to get up there as I took in the amazing view – from the top you can see 4 of the 8000 meter peaks – Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Cho Oyu. It was a gorgeous day, sunny with no wind – I hung up there for a while just soaking it in. It’s hard to describe but it really touched my soul with its stark beauty.
After a snickers bar and necessary photo op at the top we headed down – I slipped on the ice and thought I had broken my fingers – I removed my glove and looked at my finger and it was blue and swollen. Oh shit I thought – and with that I thought I would faint so I had to lay down flat on my back while I gathered myself for the descent. In the end it was just a slight sprain that quickly disappeared and again my mind put all that away as I admired the view. From the surrounding lakes, the snow capped mountains, the ultra clear air and the amazing silence of the place it was magical.
After lunch we continued on our way to Thagnak, I was tired but felt pretty good especially since we had amazing weather – a beautifully clear day without wind. We crossed the Ngozumpa glacier which was an awesome experience! It was easily 2km wide and as we navigated the ice and scree hills, we listened to the glacier’s groans and creaks as we passed over it. Incredible!
Day 10 Cho La Pass – 5330 meters/17500 feet 6.9 miles – a serious mind f*&k kinda day – it was TOUGH!
We knew this was going to be a hard day but how hard – we had no idea. We got up for 530am breakfast (much to Kevin’s dismay) and were out the door by 6am. Though it was a beautiful day the sun hadn’t hit the valley that we were climbing up yet so it was really cold. First hill (and yes! I use the term hill very loosely) – we got to the top and our guide says this is the first pass – in a joking manner- as we looked up ahead we saw what looked to be a sheer cliff wall with ice on the top and he pointed and said – that’s Cho La Pass. I think we both almost fainted. Trying to lift Kev’s spirits I said “well it’s better than sitting at a desk job” and he actually answered –” I have revised my thinking – the desk job is preferable.” Now for those who know Kevin you know that this Pass must have looked pretty awful for him to say that …. And wow! It was really tough.
It is steep, it is icy and you have to scramble over rocks and boulders at 17000 feet. It is not easy to put it mildly. But WOW! what an accomplishment to make it to the top. We were again lucky with the weather and it was a warm and sunny day – on the other side of the pass is a large frozen lake . After a well earned rest we headed down the other side and did our best to navigate the slippery and narrow ice path. You had to be very careful to avoid sliding down the steep slope to the surface of the icy lake to what I am sure would be a very unpleasant situation.
After further scrambling down rocks we came to our first front view of Ama Dablam, which to us looked like the Paramount Pictures mountain, and this massive valley came into view. After 8 hours of hiking we arrived at our destination for the night – Dzongla. We were thrilled as since the sun had been shining that day our room and the dining room were warm and toasty. It’s the little things…
Day 11 Gorakshep – 5140 meters/16860 feet – 8.5 miles
The day started pretty easy from Dzongla to Lobuche (4910 meters) and then it was supposed to be an ‘easy’ 3 hours to Gorakshep. As the weather turned more storm like and we left Lobuche it turned out the ‘easy’ part was over. We were cold, tired and Kev looked like death. Someone had told us this section was shorter than what we had done but ‘all the ups and downs get tiring’…. At the beginning we had slight little hills and I thought – wow! That’s not so bad – but c’mon Jen – It’s the Himalayas – the real ups and downs were still coming. Kev was shuffling along powered on will power alone and I was afraid he wouldn’t make it as the clouds in the sky kept getting darker and more ominous. After 3 hours of ups and downs over rocks, it started to hail/snow and just then we turned our last corner and saw the sanctuary of Gorakshep. A couple dumpy little mountain lodges never looked so good.
Day 12 Kala Patar – 5554 meters/18221 feet and EBC – 5364 meters/17600 feet – 9.78 miles
Kala Patthar and Everest Base Camp. As if one ‘peak’ wasn’t enough. Our guide and I decided to do both in one day – that way we could leave early the next morning to Dengbuche (5 hours away) and try and beat the bad weather that had been popping up in the afternoons.
Kala Patthar means Black Rock, the hill (that’s what it looks like compared to the mountains surrounding it) is a steep ascent but after the Cho La Pass it seemed relatively easy, besides the breathing issues that altitude causes. Nawang and I got up for 6am breakfast and at 630am we started up the mountain. Quite a few (like a lot of people!) get up for sunrise so it’s pretty crowded up there plus quite frankly it’s freezing. In my opinion it was way better to get up slightly later and beat the crowds. We made it up in a little over 2 hours and WOW! what a view. It’s like being at the top of the world except even here the surrounding mountains dwarf you. Standing there, looking across the valley at Mt. Everest, looking down at base camp, the Khumbu glacier as well Nuptse and Changtse and all the other mountains that surround you is truly spectactular. You can even see the last mountain pass before you descend into Tibet.
After lunch we headed up to Everest Base Camp. The climbers hadn’t started ascending yet but some were practicing in the Khumbu Icefall. To stand there and look at what these climbers face to even try and get up the mountain is humbling. I had had a difficult time getting up to 18000 feet and they would have to ascend an additional 11000 feet – it is unimaginable!
They had just had the blessing at EBC from the lama that morning. To the Sherpa people and to Tibetans Everest is sacred and considered a goddess so all treks and trekkers must be blessed before ascending her hallowed slopes. Nawang and I wandered around base camp looking at the expedition set ups – there were literally hundreds of tents set up (2017 would host the biggest amount of climbers ever – over 365!!) and an exciting feeling in the air as all the groups were making final preparations before the attempts would begin in May when the weather stabilizes a bit more.
Day 13 Dengbuche – 4410 meters/14450 feet 9.18 miles
An amazing day and for once easy descent. I was a bit melancholy as we said goodbye to the massive peaks and started on our way down. This was the first day since arriving in Gyoko that Kevin and I were able to carry on a conversation without being completely out of breath. This was amazing considering we were still over 4400 meters! We passed the Everest memorials on our way down – on the ridge of one hill the Sherpa memorials are while the foreign climbers are on a different portion. It is was emotional to see the memorials but I also found it inspiring that so many climbers have faced their fears and followed their passions to attempt to climb the highest mountain on Earth.
We followed a valley down into Dengbuche with beautiful views of Ama Dablam (meaning mother and child), a duel peaked mountain. On our way down our guide introduced us to Min Bahadur Sherchan, an 85 year old Nepalese man who had held the world record for oldest person to climb Everest. He had previously held the record when he was 76 but an 80 year old Japanese climber took it back and now his goal was to take it back! He was accompanied by 6 climber Sherpas and was already sleeping on oxygen when we encountered him. Let me tell you – we hiked slowly up hill but he was slower than slow. It was going to take him 6 weeks to get up the mountain and climb Everest. Hats off to him! What an inspiration! Keep an eye out for his name – we sure will. I hope he makes it!
That night, as a final farewell from our winter wonderland, it started snowing again. It was beautiful to watch but we were grateful to be safe and sound inside and not trekking anymore.
Day 14-16 the journey back down the mountain.
The remaining days went by in a blur. As we descended we saw shrubs appear, then trees and soon we were back in the pine forests. The weather got warmer, the air got richer and spring flowers were in bloom. We did get a day and 1/2 of rain on the way down but even that was ok because it was no longer freezing cold and we knew we were heading down the mountain.
This was one of the most inspiring, amazing experiences of my life. Being in this environment really made me feel so small and insignificant and highlighted the majesty of Mother Nature. It showed me how fortunate we are to have all the conveniences that we have especially when you see how every item is transported up the mountain either on the backs of men or on yaks. Nothing is helicoptered up or sent via UPS – this is a harsh world. I can see how people choose to spend months or years in the mountains to find spirituality or just to find themselves. This place touched my heart and I won’t forget it anytime soon.
After 16 days, 120 miles, 0 showers, over 6000 meters altitude gained and lost, pounds of muesli and priceless memories we have returned to the luxuries of Kathmandu. This was a journey of a lifetime that has left me inspired, humbled and grateful for the opportunities that we have.