Nepal. A hiker’s mecca. The home of endurance, perseverance, heartbreak and triumph, and the home of one seriously big challenge for me.
Of course I couldn’t ease myself into the demands of trekking in Nepal, perhaps start with a relatively low altitude spin around Annapurna, familiarise myself with the country. Of course not, I mean where’s the challenge in that? I dive into the deep end of the challenge pool and decide that I would do the trek out to Mount Everest base camp. And I was going to do it in 11 days. Actually it was an 8 day trek to reach base camp, and a 3 day return trek. That gives you an idea of how strenuous reaching base camp would be.
I knew that this challenge would require additional support and so I convinced my girlfriend to come along. Fran walked the Camino in 2013 the same time as me, and I knew that if anyone was going to help me complete this challenge, it was her.
From Kathmandu we fly over the Himalayas to reach Lukla, the starting point for our trek. Surviving the flight (Lukla airport has been rated as the most dangerous airport in the world) we meet our porters, undertake some final gear checks and set off. We start hiking, and with each step I feel myself unwind, sigh and breath into the trail. Once again I am home.
We ease into the first couple of days, spurred on with excitement and enthusiasm, as we head towards Namche Bazaar. Sitting at 3035 metres, we are to spend a couple of nights there acclimatising before we head higher.
The Himalayas are simply breathtaking. There is no way to describe the sheer size of the mountains, and this can really only be understood standing amongst them. Even then, it’s hard to reconcile the size of them. They are majestic and mesmerising, and I can fully understand the allure and bewitchment of hikers from all over the world.
From Namche Bazaar we head towards Dingbouche. At 4350 metres, this is to be our second acclimatisation and rest spot. The hiking has gotten hard. We are constantly climbing and our walking has become more of an uphill shuffle. I am starting to notice the effects of the altitude, feeling a lot more out of breath, and having to stop more often. Perhaps a training routine that involved more than yoga and some Sunday walks would have been beneficial! Our porters gently coax us up the mountain with their constant ‘Jam Jam’ which means ‘let’s go’. It was to become the soundtrack of our trekking days.
We stay in tea houses along the way. These are very simple structures (often people’s homes) that have one large common room with multiple rooms or external cabins. They have no showers, and ‘toilets’ that are little more than holes in the ground. The higher we get, the colder it gets, and there is no respite from the cold. Except for the teahouse common room, there is no heating in any of the other rooms. I am glad for the extra down sleeping bag I had rented back in Namche Bazaar. I am now sleeping inside two down sleeping bags, wearing two layers of thermals, a fleece, two pair of socks and under two blankets provided by the teahouse. The cold is unlike anything I have ever experienced before. I am a child of the sun, and until now, have never been to ‘the snow’ before. The cold was extreme and relentless. Combined with the altitude, it makes it hard to sleep, and nights are spent tossing and turning. This was to be a large part of my challenge. Surviving the cold.
We carry on towards 5000 metres and the night before base camp. Both the altitude and the backdrop continue to take my breath away. Hiking through fields of fog and cloud, any sense of being the master of this world is washed away when the fog and cloud lift to smack you in the face with your insignificance in this great big world.
As I climb higher and higher, it feels like I have done this before, seen these mountains before. Yet it’s the first time I have been here. I can’t help but wonder, have I been here before?
We pass a large area of memorial sites for all the people who have died on Everest, and surrounding mountains. It is overwhelmingly sad yet hauntingly beautiful at the same time. It is a reminder that Mother Nature is beautiful and ferocious in all her glory. It is a reminder that she is to be respected and honoured at all times.
We reach Lobuche at 5000 metres, and the night before base camp. I am tired and cold, but excited. We eat and because there is nothing else to do and like most nights, head to bed around 8pm. The dreaded altitude cough had set in and I spent the night largely awake, cold and coughing.
We set out early the next day headed to Gorakshep at 5160 metres, where we would spend the night after our return from base camp. That morning’s hike never seemed to end. It was drizzling snow and I couldn’t believe it was possible that it could get any colder! We reached Gorakshep at 11am, dropped our packs, ate lunch and kitted up. I manage to pull on all my clothes I had packed. I’m talking three pair of pants and five top layers, two pair of gloves and a neck warmer. I had doubled in size, and walking was going to be interesting.
We were incredibly unlucky with the weather that afternoon. It was over a 4 hour return trip to base camp and it snowed the whole entire time. And not soft fluffy snow but the icy hard stuff, falling horizontally smacking us in the face. It was almost impossible to see the way and without our guide I am sure we would still be wandering around up there. It was that cold the water froze in my camel bak and bottle. I fell a couple of times, and could slowly feel myself creeping towards my breaking point. Had it not been for the cold and snow that day, I have no doubt it would have been a different story. But the cold was part of the challenge for me, and so I pressed on.
We eventually spot the multitude of prayer flags and yellow expedition tents that are synonymous with Mount Everest Base Camp sitting at 5365 metres. It was about -15 degrees and it had been by far, the toughest day, physically and mentally, but I had made it. The sense of achievement was overwhelming, and there may have been tears. We didn’t spend long out there, just enough to grab a few photos and high five each other over how awesome we all were.
The 3 day return trek was brutal. I was absolutely shattered. Exhausted beyond belief, and still not adjusted to the cold, the return days were difficult and long. It had been almost 10 days since I’d had a shower, my altitude cough had gotten quite serious, and on the second last day I’d picked up a stomach bug.
The last day was a mixture of sadness and relief. I still couldn’t quite believe what I had just accomplished, and was sad to be leaving the mountains. But equally I was looking forward to the adventure being over. This one almost broke me, but it didn’t. It pushed me so far out of my comfort zone that I couldn’t even remember what that was. And it challenged me to go far beyond what I thought was possible. I left Nepal almost a broken woman, but among the pieces I was reminded once again that great power exists in our minds if only we turn the key.
I want to say something about our porters and the Nepalese people in general. Our porters were incredible young men. Carrying two people’s large packs, they didn’t break a sweat as they appeared to bounce up mountain after mountain. They are gentle and sweet souls that live and work in some of the harshest conditions on earth. There are no roads, and so everything that we saw high up in the mountains, including what we were eating, had been carried up by porters. We saw items on the backs of men that defied belief. Fridges, mattresses, generators, timber; to name a few of these items.
The Nepalese people in general are warm, sweet, resilient and beautiful souls. Nepal is one of the world’s poorest nations, and yet, it contains some of the happiest people in the world. Poverty is extreme here and is evidenced in all areas of life. They live an extremely simplistic life, yet they appear calm and accepting and there is no struggle against any of it. It’s like they have this innate knowing. Perhaps they know they truth? Perhaps it is, that the beauty and truth of life lies in the simplicity of it.