Following my solo climb to Annapurna Base Camp last year, I decided to attempt climbing to what’s known as the roof of the world- Everest Base Camp. The article that follows is my personal account of the trek. If you are looking to be inspired or pumped up about the trip, DO NOT read this (this is a better article). If you are looking for information on how to undertake this trek, then again this is not the article for it. Now that I have dissuaded 99% of the typical readers, hope the rest of you enjoy reading this. I love you guys!
The Beginnings: Nepal at a Stand-Still
One of the good things about being an Indian is that the mecca of trekking- Nepal- is close by and it’s one of the rare countries that doesn’t require Indians to strip their self respect to get a visa. Furthermore, one of the two trekking seasons (Sep- Oct) falls during the festive season of Hinduism so that us corporate slaves can afford the long vacations required for these treks. I took a long (25+ days) vacation between Dussehra (Dashain in Nepal) and Diwali to trek to the Everest Base Camp.
Folks, when you visit Nepal, DO NOT visit during Dashain. Nepal comes to a stand-still. There are no guides or porters to hire, no chefs in the restaurants, no pilots to fly plane-like things to Lukla, no priests in the temples, no staff at permit centers and I can go on.
To cut a long story short, let’s just say I had a frust..er… interesting first few days trying to get things done in Kathmandu.
Tip: For buying trekking gear, Nepal is a great place with good quality and reasonably priced gears available in abundance. I would especially recommend Shona’s Alpine in Thamel (the tourist district) where I bought a down jacket and 5 seasons sleeping bag (which weighed ~3 kgs; what was I thinking!) and neither disappointed. You can also rent stuff from stores in Thamel.
The Elusive Flight to Lukla
One of the most fascinating part of the journey to Everest Base Camp is the Kathmandu- Lukla flight. Lukla is a high altitude air strip (~2,860m to be precise) that is also among the top 3 most dangerous air strips in the world. This is the typical starting point of the trek to Everest Base Camp and for other expeditions. With ~500m long runway sloping at an angle of 8 degrees ending into the gorgeous Himalayan valley, flying into this airport requires specially trained pilots and miniature aircrafts. I was dying to experience this flight (no pun intended).
What I didn’t know was that the unpredictable mountain weather combined with the perils of flying in and out of Lukla often leads to cancelled flights and backlog of people waiting to fly. On the day of my scheduled flight, we were (a batch of 14- the capacity of each flight) taken to the miniature aircraft but turned back after reports of bad weather came in. This was around 9 am. Hereafter started the agonizing, painful, soul crushing wait to get a flight to Lukla. The only good thing of this wait was meeting a wonderful would-have-been-co-passenger, Rujina, who was undertaking her first solo trip. After waiting till 4:30 pm, I had my tickets rescheduled to the next day which also ended up in the same story. With the story appearing to continue similarly for the next few days as well, I decided to cancel the ticket altogether.
During the agonizing 2 full days spent at the airport, I learnt about about an alternate route through Salleri/ Phupla and decided to take this route instead. It takes a whole day by road to get to Salleri from Kathmandu. From Salleri to Lukla, it takes another 3 days. Adding another 4 days to the already delayed trek wasn’t really appealing but trekkers are typically stubborn and so my decision was made. Rujina was quite resourceful and she booked a seat in a public jeep for me for 1500 NPR.
Next day morning, I reached the bus/ jeep stand around 5 am and went through a scenic, yet tiring drive to Salleri (or more accurately, Phupla). Phupla also has an airport (at ~2400m).
Days 1-3: Rookie Mistakes, Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and Meeting Ongshuk
I spent the night at a shabby tea house and couldn’t wait to get out and start my trek the next morning. I had still not mentally accepted the change in plans, the detour and the extra 4 days to the trek. So my way of coping with it was to get to the main trail ASAP. That was rookie mistake #1- NEVER trek more than 5 hrs on day 1. Further, in my hurry to cover more distance, I cut down on lunch time (and thus food) and drank water sparsely. Rookie mistake #2- DRINK lots of water at high altitudes. I was also carrying my bag that was by now weighing about 11-12 kilos (thanks to ~3 kilos of 5 seasons sleeping bag). However, despite the weight, I kept up a good pace. So rookie mistake #3: DO NOT race on the first few days of the trek.
Long story short, these combined mistakes ended up making my initial days of trek more painful. Also, given this was not a popular route, the trail was steeper, more difficult and treacherous in general. I started feeling the symptoms of AMS by the end of the first day. I lost my appetite and barely touched my dinner which further exasperated the problem the next day. By the third day I decided to hire a porter cum guide- Ongshuk- and slow down.
Ongshuk promised to tell me all about the mountains and interesting facts during the trek. I kept wondering how he would because we couldn’t communicate in one common language. When he wanted to tell me that zopkios are not yaks but a cross-breed between yaks and cows (zopkios are better suited for lower altitudes), he went on to explain who is the husband and the wife in the making of a zopkio. We had some truly hilarious conversations along the way.
By the end of Day 1, I reached a place called Nunthala. On day 2, I stayed at Bupsa and at Chaurikharka on Day 3. Chaurikharka is the lower altitude stop of Lukla from where the main trail begins.
Day 4: Entering The Lost Paradise- Namche Bazaar (~3500m)
The prior 3 days of rigorous trek made it easier for me to cover 2 days’ of standard itinerary from Lukla and I made it to Namche Bazaar after a long, steep, tiring climb. Located behind the barren, unfriendly mountain I had to climb, Namche Bazaar was hidden from view all along the way and opened up just as I crawled to the back of the mountain ready to collapse any moment. The weather continued to be a spoilsport with the mountains covered in clouds and the visibility highly reduced.
When I first saw Namche Bazaar, it felt like a mirage. Unreal. Spread in a semi-circular arc, there were fountains and music to welcome weary travelers. It was hard to believe a sprawling “village” like this located at ~3500m complete with its own tourist street, cafes, Irish pubs and an assortment of bakeries.
While I was soaking in all this, I also met Rujina near the fountains (I knew she had reached there a day earlier). After the deja-vu and the happiness of seeing a friendly face, we started looking for a room to stay. I knew that solo travelers might find it challenging to find accommodation at the main villages which typically prefer the group bookings (and there are a LOT of groups). Rujina continued to be resourceful and managed to get us a room at a spacious lodge that had a mini library, hot showers and clean restrooms. And I thought I was braving the mountains!
Ongshuk dropped me off at my lodge and went to his accommodation. We agreed to meet day after given people typically spend 2 nights in Namcche to acclimatize. However, pretty soon I changed my mind to skip the acclimatization day (to keep company with Rujina who already spent her acclimatization day and was heading onwards the next day). Rujina and I then went through some Bond style search for Ongshuk to inform him of our change in plans. He had no phone and left no address. We went through the dark alleys and drinking-cum-gambling hang-outs of the porters/ guides and kept asking for a 55 year old Ongshuk. The mini adventure, however, didn’t produce any result and dejected, we went back deciding to part ways next morning.
Day 5: Transformation day
After I parted ways with Rujina the next morning, I decided to stay indoors the whole day instead of acclimatizing (on acclimatization days, trekkers climb to a nearby higher altitude point to get used to lower oxygen levels). I picked up a book on the 1996 Everest disaster from the library and started reading it. The book was quite well written covering the geological, historical, cultural aspects of the region, the base camp trek and the summit expedition. Reading through this book, I realized I was going through this trek the wrong way. I was so keen to reach the base camp that I forgot to enjoy the journey. I learnt about the Sherpa culture of reverence to the mountains, of prayerfulness and thankfulness. Of patience and respecting the mountains and its weather. Of accepting the outcomes. Of surrendering. I remembered the single room hut that Ongshuk had taken me to and the family I met. The lady’s husband had passed away falling off the path, had sparse material belongings and 2 young children. She appeared happier than me when I had met her. I felt a deep calm, thankful for being here and started the true journey which was more spiritual than touristy. I looked out of the window and for the first time in days the weather was looking good finally revealing the snow peaked mountains. For the first time, I noticed their might and beauty, the calm weather and I closed my eyes in prayer. I was glad of the unintentional extra day at Namche and the book.
Day 6: Day of Rejections
I set forth for Tengboche (~3800m)- home to the largest monastery in the region and a typical stop for several summiteers to seek God’s blessings. This day also marked the start of no shower days. After what was a steeper climb than even Namche, we reached Tengboche around noon. This small village was spread on a meadow teasing us with a glimpse of Everest’s peak in the background.
Folks, being single may be fun with independence, freedom and what not. But in the mountains, try NOT to be single. Because it is grounds for several rejections…er…from the lodge owners. The way the tea-house economics work is that the room is a very nominal 200-300 NPR per night but most of the money is made from other amenities such as hot shower, food, wifi etc and thus giving out a 2 bedded room to a single person is a loss of revenue (specially in busy season). So after the typical, “how many people” answered by “just one”, I was ‘rejected’ by all the lodges in Tengboche.
Ongshuk and I headed onward reaching Pangboche (~3900m) which was a couple of hours away from Tengboche. There, I paired up with an Israeli trekker who was also traveling ‘single’ and we decided to look for a room together the next day at Dingboche- our next day’s destination.
Day 7: The Reunion, Broken glasses and The Music
Dingboche(~4260m) was about 2-3 hrs away from Pangboche and this was the lightest trek day so far. I met another couple of would-have-been-co-passengers from the cancelled flight to Lukla. By this time the number of choppers landing for evacuations further increased. I was told that this was a lucrative business for the private chopper operators who would charge from $1500-2000 for the medical evacuations.
I also had a mini problem with the frame of my sun-glasses broken. It’s not advisable to walk without glasses at such high altitudes and could cause temporary blindness. With the help of fellow trekkers, Swiss knife and tapes, I managed to put it back together making it useable for the rest of the trip.
Typically trekkers spend an additional day at Dingboche for acclimatization but since I hadn’t encountered any more symptoms of AMS and was drinking tons of water and taking the Diamox capsules, I decided to skip the acclimatization day and risk heading to Lobuche.
Day 8: Meeting a Mountain Goat from Canada
I managed to crawl to Lobuche (~4930m) the next day having sent Ongshuk ahead to get a room since I was ‘single’ again. I was mentally prepared to sleep in the dining room or the kitchen but I think the universe was making up for my cancelled flight. I got a warm, cozy room. I was on day 3 of no shower and drinking water to beat AMS was taking immense will power in the light of the luxurious restrooms with ice layered water bins. The fine cuisine of boiled/ mashed potatoes and yak dung powered central heater system was becoming the center of my life.
Here I met another single traveler and we quickly decided to ‘couple up’ for the next day while looking for room at the base camp. He was a young Canadian traveling solo for a while and was basically giving a tough competition to Sherpas at those high altitudes.
Day 9: Summit Day and Getting Trolled by Kala Patthar
It was about 3-4 hr journey to Gorak Shep the next day- the last village of the trail. I reached by ~10 am, earlier than most groups with Ongshuk ahead of me again to get us a room. My would-be-roommate- mountain-goat reached Gorak Shep in an hour.
Now the typical itinerary is to undertake another 5-6 hr roundtrip to the base camp (next to Khumbu ice fall) after breakfast and summit Kala Patthar (a mountain ~5600m tall in west of Everest) the next day. Some people brave the cold and dark to summit around sunrise and sunset to witness the Alpine glow (golden peaks). Also, Kala Patthar is said to have much better views than the base camp (which is mostly a check mark in the itinerary). I observed more than half the people did one or the other of these as this is typically day 11 of 12 for most and both these treks are very exhausting.
After parking my luggage in the room, I relied on my highly functioning brain (no matter the deeply depleted oxygen levels and exhaustion) to make last minute changes. So my new grand plan was to summit Kala Patthar around sunset. Alone. That is, climb when there is light and descend the gravelly mountain in the dark.
To execute this fine plan, I got into my ninja attire ready to summit, place a flag I wasn’t carrying and take one of those summit pictures like the one Tenzing Norgay had when he summited Everest.
The evacuation choppers continued to arrive at a good frequency. I also had an onset of fever and clogged lungs. I was basically breathing with clogged lungs at 50% of normal oxygen level. But who cares, I felt like a ninja. In fact, I even decided to throw away my trekking poles. Steep, gravelly path? Pfft. Easy!
A lesson I learnt- NEVER take important decisions at depleted oxygen levels! In fact, NEVER take any decisions at depleted oxygen levels.
The summiting experience was soul crushing, exhausting and frankly a huge troll. How many false peaks does a mountain at that altitude need to have! The benign looking ‘tiny’ mountain was steep right from the start. The loose mud made the climb scary enough in day light and I was going to descend through this in the dark. With no trekking poles. And no company. As if that wasn’t enough it probably had 2-3 false peaks- I lost count. In fact, I stubbornly sat on a rock around 20 min away from the actual summit thinking it was another false peak and refusing to be trolled any further.
It was only after my roommate showed up (and dressed as if he was strolling through a Saharan desert in the summers) and convinced me it was the actual summit that I decided to continue. My fever had gone up considerably to the extent that I was sweating through the ninja mask. Due to my clogged lungs, I was struggling with breathing. The sunset could happen any minute and the clock had started ticking.
I mustered up all the remaining vestiges of my strength and broken will power to climb the remaining part to the top. It was a strange summit composition with basically a bunch of huge boulders on top of each other like a pile contributing to add the last 50m or so to Kala Patthar’s height. If I had any super-strength, I would have knocked off those boulders that contributed to nothing except for adding more climb time to exhausted souls. As if this wasn’t enough, there was a cold wind blowing, strong enough to knock off people over the edge if they aren’t on firm footing. And we were supposed to take pictures in these conditions!
Dear Kala Patthar, you may have given me the most spectacular view of the top of the world, but you were very annoying.
At the summit, Mt. Pumori loomed threateningly. I remembered it was the avalanche from this mountain triggered during the 2015 earthquake that led to ~20 deaths at the base camp. On the right was Everest stationed in between Khumbutse towards its left and Nuptse to its right. What it would have felt to be on the top of Everest! Khumbu icefall, considered one of the world’s most treacherous glaciers, was present menacingly at the foot. At around the sunset, the promised alpine glow lit up the peaks in gold. With perfect weather and the clouds below us, it was a moment captured in my eyes and memory forever. I may forgive Kala Patthar afterall.
Days 10: Recovering from the fever
I managed to descend Kala Patthar and stay alive. The next morning, Ongshuk and I started our journey back. I skipped the trip to the old base camp due to my fever and knowing it can’t better the summit experience. I struggled to walk and breathe longing for warm, cozy room to sleep in and chicken soup. All I got in a few hours was the cold, harsh winds and decided to stop earlier at a small village called Dzongla, located about 2 hrs from Lobuche. Aided by the dining room heater and a series of garlic soups, I started feeling a little better.
Day 11: Feast like the Japanese
Next day we started early targeting to reach Namcche. The increasing levels of oxygen and the lower altitudes gave me an extra spring in my steps and I kept up a steady pace. After about 9 hrs of trekking, we reached a small, beautiful village just an hour before Namcche. Given the possible lack of rooms, we decided to camp here for the night.
I met a Japanese group here. I believe my cute cap and broken Japanese words learnt from all that anime watching earned me an invite to their feast. Most were in their 60s and 70s but looked like they could beat me in a race. Their guide had also made lavish arrangements (at least by mountain standards) with multi-course feast including tomato soup with egg drop, 2 types of veggies, 2 kinds of dumplings, rice bowl and finishing with a fruit dessert. This was a far cry from the boiled potatoes and rice-lentil I was surviving on for almost 2 weeks. I loved every part of the feast.
Day 12: Racing to Lukla
The sudden burst of increased oxygen was doing wonders to me and the rocky steps and upward inclines were no longer discouraging me. There were times when Ongshuk couldn’t keep pace with me. My oxygen starved body had come to life at lower altitudes… erm… “relatively” lower altitudes. Despite the long trek, I reached Lukla comfortably by 5 pm and 3 days ahead of my return flight. Knowing how little the schedules were respected, I decided to “drop by” into the airport the next day to try by luck at getting back earlier. The weather had marvelously transformed itself over the past few days and hence thankfully, no cancelled flights or backlog of stranded people.
The Lukla Airport
I undertook the entire Everest Base Camp just to experience the flight to/ from Lukla. The experience didn’t disappoint. The short runway, the slope ending into a valley, the lack of any security checks (unless you consider feeling the bag from outside as a security check) but still a high concern for Note 7 carrying passengers, the miniature aircrafts, the wobbly flight, the constant din of the flight was brilliant! I finally got to do the most awaited part of the trip and I was all smiles by the time I landed in Kathmandu!
Nepal- you never disappoint!!