The hot water for the shower is never really hot. It’s rather tepid normally and the occasional moments it nearly reaches hot are easily outnumbered by the long stretches of cold. The electricity is shut off for long stretches each day, part of a load sharing program that rotates outages throughout the city in order to make up for the low water levels that have left a citywide shortage of hydroelectric power. The sheets on my bed look as though they’ll never be truly clean again and my laundry – out for its first much needed wash in weeks – is a day late in coming back, leaving me with only the clothes on my back. This is life in Kathmandu, at least if you have the uncommon luck to be a relatively wealthy tourist. Yet despite this list of semi-serious shortcomings, if I learned anything on my trip to Everest base camp it was to appreciate the comforts I normally take for granted. I truly feel as if I’m indulging in the greatest of luxury: the room is warm, the food is varied and I’m clean.
Mt. Everest has held a great appeal to me for as long as I can remember. I don’t know whether it is thanks to the countless stories my father shared with me about struggles to conquer the mountain or more simply because of an enduring fascination with anything that tops a biggest or tallest list, but for as long as I can remember Mt. Everest had a magical appeal to me. Last year, when a friend and I agreed to put together a short bucket list of places we’d like to go, it was my obvious first choice and when the completion of my Ironman left me with a hole in need of filling, it was a trip to Everest that I decided to use to fill it.
So how did the reality compare to the fantasy and what kind of challenge did the trek present compared to the other challenges I’ve experienced over the last few years? As is so often the case these questions defy short answers and the experience of life cannot simply be summed up into a few short words, so I invite you to accompany me on the journey itself. True, I may be writing this from the comfort of my room in Kathmandu, but both my notes and memories are fresh. In order to keep this true I, will be posting this series much faster than my usual rate of once or twice a week and expect to put up a post every day or two at most, so come back often and with that let the adventure begin.
Day One – Arrival in Lukla, the Walk to Monju
I woke up around 6am. I had only spent a few hours in Kathmandu and jet lag gifted me a largely sleepless night. Still I was eager to get started and having purchased my overpriced plane ticket to the trek’s starting point the previous afternoon, I was impatient to get started. My destination was Lukla, a mid-sized (at least by Sherpa standard) mountain village in the Khumbu region. Lukla, like most places in the region, was inaccessible by car, but unlike most places it was accessible by plane. This made it the most popular starting point for all those heading toward Everest, the only other viable alternative being the small town of Jiri which could be reached by bus, but which was an additional six-day walk away.
Although a madhouse of beeping cars, swerving motorbikes and hawking peddlers by day, Kathmandu is a fairly calm city at 6am, so the ride to the airport went fairly smoothly. Even so, when I arrived it was already bustling and in outward appearance actually more closely resembled a farmers’ market than an airport. Crates and bags were littered around the airport and their contents contained everything from chickens and eggs to clothing and mountaineering gear. Despite this seeming chaos, check-in went quite smoothly and after a short wait I boarded my flight
Normally I would have begun this story in Lulka with the actual trekking, but the flight to Lulka in itself is a blog worthy entry for several reasons: one, you have spectacular views of the Himalayas for most of the flight; two, you’re actually flying lower than the peaks of the mountains that surround you; and most importantly, three, there’s Lukla airport itself.
Lukla airport, one of the busiest airports in the world in terms of takeoffs and landings per hour, is also one of the world’s most dangerous airports. This danger comes from the fact that Lulka, being located on the side of mountain, has little room for a traditional runway. The engineers compensated for this lack of space by building a steeply pitched runway that either slows you down as you land or speeds you up as you take off. The danger of course being that you’ll plummet off the side of a mountain if you don’t pick up enough speed on takeoff and just as easily smash into the side of a mountain if you misjudge your landing.
I had these highlights in mind as I boarded my flight. A small shuttle bus took us out to our propeller place and I was surprised to see that I was one of only five passengers. I thought this would mean plenty of leg room, but transportation space is precious in the Himalayas and I watched as the other seats were removed to make room for piles of expedition gear including some crazy bastard’s Kayak. Boarding and takeoff were shockingly rapid by my western standards. No sooner were we on the plane than the door was shut and the engines started, no taxiing around the runway and no in-case of emergency speech – perhaps that’s because emergencies only had one kind of ending in that area. In any case, in moments we were up in the air.
The flight was all I had hoped it would be. Rocked by just enough turbulence to keep it exciting I had a view straight into the cockpit. The day was clear and sunny and before long the snow covered peaks of the Himalayas came into view. The entire flight lasted under an hour and included all the beautiful scenery I had hoped for, but mercifully lacked any drama on landing. The only strange part was that there was no decent before landing: we landed at the same elevation at which we flew.
Lukla, aside from its impressive airport, was perched beautifully on the side of a mountain. I took a deep breath, relieved to breathe clean mountain air after having suffered through the thick, hazy air of Kathmandu. Unfortunately my reverie only lasted a few moments before being swarmed by piles of porters and guides who hoped to tempt me with their offers of assistance. I had resolved not to use either before my departure, as much a matter of simple economics as of pride (a porter or guide costs about 12-15 USD per day), but that didn’t stop numerous people from making very persistent efforts to change my mind.
As I’m sure as comes as no surprise to anyone at this point, I had no real plan
once I arrived in Lukla. I didn’t know where I’d sleep or even if I should begin walking that day. Still, what I had gathered from the other trekkers I’d met that day was that most people began walking immediately. After a brief look around the dusty stone town I began to see the wisdom in that course of action and decided to follow suit. I stopped to peak in a few of the stores and watch some children playing in the street, but then I headed toward Everest. It wasn’t hard to find the way as there was only one road – perhaps better described as a path – through the town.
So with that little hesitation I set out on my way. It seemed a rather un-dramatic start to such a dramatic adventure, perhaps in-part because I was alone. Yet even if there was no group cheer, no Aaron Copland or John Williams to announce my triumphal departure, the setting provided all the drama that was required. Large, steeply sloped mountains met in rocky valleys filled by rushing rivers. Thin, narrow cable bridges crossed over deep gorges. Yak, porter and trekker shared the same narrow path and the same spectacular setting and all trudged along the steep mountain path toward his or her own goal.
My own solitude soon came to an end when I met a group of three Australians accompanied by a guide and porter. Never a fan of traveling alone, I was happy for the company and we spent most of the day walking together. While the Australians and I enjoyed plenty of small talk they were a close knit group. This had one major advantage for me in that they asked their guide relatively few questions. This gave me an excellent opportunity for guide poaching and to quench my insatiable curiosity. In fact, much of what I’d learn on the trip would be thanks to Phurba Sherpa and this little note here is small thanks for all I learned from him. If anyone is ever looking for a guide let me know!
As far as the walking is concerned, the day was hard, made harder by the fact that I was trying to keep pace with fellow trekkers who were carrying little-to-no weight while I carried nearly 15kg (33lbs). Of course the porter was keeping the same pace, but then again, I’m no porter. We walked along the rocky path for about seven hours, stopping an hour for lunch, a short meal in Nepalese terms. Other than that it was slow but methodical trekking up and down all day. In terms of elevation we had landed at 2860 meters in Lulka, a rare desent followed into the next town which was around 2,600 meters, but by the end of the day we were right back up at the elevation we had begun in the town of Monju.
By the time I finally reached Monju my strength failed me and my temporary walking companions had outpaced me by quite some distance. As I walked into town the sun was beginning to set and I debated whether I should attempt to find the group I’d lost or leave them to their own good company. My deliberations were brought to an end when a Philippina trekker who was walking between her lodge and a restaurant stopped to say hi. In one of the great small-world coincidences she recognized me from the Couchsurfing internet posting about Nepal and mentioned that she was a part of an independent group of trekkers who had decided to walk together. It was a brilliant stroke of luck and I went in to meet the rest of the group. It seemed that I’d found my home.