Monday, January 13, 2014

Everest Base Camp Trek, Nepal

People I know say that international travel expands one’s perspective and provides a jolt big enough to gain new appreciation of one’s normal surroundings.  As Matt and I began planning our trek to the Himalayan country of Nepal a year ago and the extent to which we would leave behind the familiar became apparent, I was certain that, at a minimum, if we completed the trip as anticipated, I’d at least return home with a lofty feeling of achievement.

As overseas novices, we started from scratch.  We decided to hire a local guide to help us navigate and a porter to carry our gear.  Next, we settled on a route that, over 21 days, would take us from a point on the map called Jiri, east across the green foothills of the Himalaya, then, turn sharply north at the Imja Khola and lead us into the mountains to Everest Base Camp.  From there, we would return to a high altitude 10,000’ landing strip perched at the edge of a hanging valley and fly back to Kathmandu in a Twin Otter.  We’d reach a higher altitude and hike more consecutive days than either of us had ever achieved.  This physical challenge would be magnified by immersion in a world comprised of a different language, different foods, a different monetary system and where health and sanitation would be constant concerns. 

We secured our passports and entry visas, learned to count to 10, say thank you and hello in Nepali, and signed up for evacuation insurance.  Finally, we packed our bags with down parkas, hiking shoes, sun screen, sleeping bags, cameras, and a long list of essentials and, in mid-October, left Valdez, Alaska for the Nepali Himalaya.

Over the first seven days, we hiked over three passes that exceeded 10,000’ on trails that were rough and rocky and steep.  Nepalis call the terrain in this region hilly, but hilly does not do it justice.  The land is deeply incised by rivers and slope angles are relentless.  The only level ground is found on the cultivated terraces that extend like mazes as far as the eye can see. 

 I walked through this landscape in a state of awe, sugar rush, and sleeplessness.  These hills enchanted me from the beginning with their lovely streams, stone farm houses, gardens of cascading marigolds, and lush crops of millet, mustard, and tea.  As we walked, women clothed in beautiful saris passed us, herding goats or cows.  “Namaste”, I’d say as we passed.  “Namaste.  Hello,” they’d reply.  Children would scamper away or peer at us from inside houses.  “Hallloooo,” they’d yell from a safe distance, shy.  “Kasto Chaa?” I’d say back.  Giggles in reply.  Each morning, we rose before daylight and met Hari and Naren, our guide and porter, for breakfast in the chilly tea house dining rooms.  The menus, written in quaint Nepali-tinged English, presented us with a standard list of starchy breakfast options:  chapatti (one piece); toast with jam and peanut butter; omelet with cheese; apple porridge.  The servings were small compared to my normal morning fare and I began to call for crunchy cane sugar with everything.  Lunch was similarly spare – a bowl of Rara noodle soup or a plate of fried potatoes with greens.  I began to eat Snickers bars, the only energy food available along the trail.  At night, after dinner and as it got dark, I retreated to our unheated tea house rooms, snuggled into my down bag and tried to sleep.  Although tired from the daily ascents, I had trouble sleeping.  The jet lag, congestion from dust, and the newness of my surroundings kept me tossing and turning all night long.

I became obsessed with the dark, smoky kitchens hidden behind doors and separated from the big-windowed dining rooms where trekkers gathered.  In the mornings, I sat cross legged on the benches surreptitiously watching the kitchen door, behind which pots banged with breakfast-making activities.  Lodge owners and their help, usually sons and daughters, swept in and out of the kitchens carrying big floral thermoses of black tea and plates of food.  In the evenings the porters and guides would disappear into the recesses of the kitchens for dinner and we’d hear them chattering away with the lodge owners, presumably telling stories about their clients or talking politics—the country’s second-ever democratic elections were less than a month away.  At times, I got glimpses into a kitchen when doors were left propped open.  In Bhandar, I sat on a stone step outside the dining room and watched the lodge owner form chapatti dough into balls while his toddler ran laps around the garden and scarlet minivets called from the trees overhead.  In another village I’d peered past the young man taking my order for hot lemon and caught glimpses of women making momos and steaming rice.  I looked up words in my Nepali phrase book that I thought, when put together, would make the sentence “may I see your kitchen”, but I hadn’t gotten the nerve to inquire yet. 

On our fourth day of hiking, I finally found my way into a kitchen.  That morning, we set out from the lovely village of Sete heading to Junbesi, a walk that took us 4,000’ up to Lamjura Pass at 11,581’.  We started up through the terraced farms, the sun streaming over the hilltops.  We crossed bridges over clear streams, passed goats tethered in their sheds and chickens pecking under shrubs heavy with squash, and circumnavigated inscribed stone memorial walls.  We entered the rhododendron forest where roots crossed the trail like snakes and fog lay thick in the spindly trees.  When Matt and I stopped to identify a cuckoo and admire bulbous yellow flowers the wind chilled us quickly back into motion.  Finally, the summit village emerged from the fog and we saw our army-green duffle propped against the weathered siding of a low slung tea house, a sure sign that this is where we would eat lunch.

Sister, here!  Brother!”  The familiar lilt of Hari’s voice reached us and he motioned us into the kitchen – the kitchen, not the dining room!—where he and Naren were already hunkered over the earthen stove.  I stepped across the threshold of the kitchen reverently.  Hot red flames licked the oven’s top, heating a tin pan of water.  I joined them, pushing myself as close to the heat as possible.  “Nani, milk tea!” Hari instructed the youthful daughter of the Sherpa lodge owner.  She quietly dodged around us prepping lunch.  Soon, I was drinking hot tea and Matt was stirring sugar into his Nescafe.  A French family, a German couple, and their porters and guides, arrived soon afterwards, all chilled to the bone.  All of us crowded into the dim kitchen, rubbing our hands and laughing at our good luck to find such a warm fire, while rice boiled in the pressure cooker and our hosts chopped cabbage, carrots, and onions  for dal bhat.

Main Trail – Into the Mountains
Namche Bazaar – it was a name on a map that we’d been examining for over a year and finally we were near.  It took a strenuous day to get there by a trail that at first rolled along the forested shore of the Dudh Koshi, but then, as every section of trail we’d hiked so far, pointed up an arduous 3,000’ hill.   At the top of the hill, Namche sprawled across a striking bowl, replacing a glacier that had vacated the area long ago.  A stupa (a Buddhist monument) stood at the village entrance near a river that tumbled hard and white from the mountains above.  Although the day was cold and overcast, men and women bathed and washed clothes in the water, draping laundry over boulders to dry.  Stone walkways and staircases wound among the densely situated buildings—most of them tea houses or shops selling Chinese-made prayer wheels, miniature incense burners, beads and knock-off Mountain Hardware and Northface gear.  This was Nepal’s answer to the Tourist Town.  Walking uphill to our lodge, we pushed aside donkeys burdened with sacks of sugar and fuel canisters, rounds of yak cheese and bushels of apples.  The following day, we found all of these goods and more spread out on blankets at the outdoor Saturday market.

When we saw Mount Everest for the first time—from a barren overlook above Namche—it surprised us.  We hadn’t expected to see it for days yet, but there it was, rising high and bare beyond the beautiful Ama Dablam.  The clear sky was interrupted only by the single cloud that blew back from Everest’s face like a mane of hair.  We looked and looked at the mountain, trying to understand its place on earth.

The next day, we walked on into the Himalaya.  I was dazzled by the backlit summits – everywhere snowy peaks came out of hiding.  Matt charged ahead to Tengboche, exhilarated by the mountain air.  Naren followed him closely.  Hari languidly walked ahead of me, stopping now and then to let me catch up.  I took up the rear, hiking for a while, then stopping to take a photograph or drink water or exchange friendly talk with porters and trekkers.  My Nepali was improving, but was still limited to pleasantries and statements such as “Himal sundar chaa” (the mountain is beautiful!).  In the early afternoon, I rounded a final switch back and came upon the Everest panorama – the same ensemble of mountains we’d seen at Namche – but ever closer.  From here, Mount Everest was a warrior of black rock and bold striations.

At 3 o-clock, as I approached the Tengboche monastery, guttural chants droned throughout the village; a call to prayer.  Ravens swooped across the courtyard and I walked under the ornate arch and up the wide stone steps.  Slow, low drum beats joined the chanting.  At the doorway, Matt and I removed our shoes and ducked to enter, pausing to let our eyes adjust to the dimness.  We made our way to the far right side of the sanctuary and took a seat on a carpet, against the wall.  Twenty monks sat cross-legged on backless benches in rows oriented toward a middle aisle and at the head of the aisle was Buddha – not pudgy Buddha, but fit mountain Buddha, large, muscled, and stern.  The walls and ceiling were painted with elaborate geometric and floral designs in yellow, red, gold plate.  The monks wore traditional richly-hued brandywine robes, and underneath, some wore Northface jackets to stave off the cold.  For an hour, they chanted discordant, atonal mantras, punctuated by undulating drum beats, clanging hand bells, and the moan of mouth horns.  A young monk entered the room swinging a tarnished incense burner from a chain, then walked the aisles between benches, sending clouds of sweet juniper smoke across the room.  I was entranced.  Afterward, in the fresh bright Tengboche air, a monk greeted me, “Namaste”.  I greeted him and thanked him for the service, “Danyabat”.  He did not speak English, but pointed at my ankle-length insulated skirt, which I wore every afternoon upon arriving in the villages.  Then, he smiled, pointing to his own long robe.  We’re dressed similarly, he seemed to be saying to me.  Later, the monks played badminton in the monastery yard while feral dogs lounged on the fading grass.  Fog curtained Mount Everest.

The Summits
Above 14,000’ we woke in the mornings to find rime ice on puddles outdoors and on the toilet water inside.  Trees and brush disappeared.  Although Hari repeatedly told me the names of the peaks we now walked among, there were too many to retain, so I began making a list of them:  Lobuche, Island Peak, Cholatse, Kangtega, Ama Dablam, Pumo Ri, Lingtren, Cho Oyu, Lhotse Shar, Nuptse.

We noted the point at which we exceeded 15,000’, then 16,000’, then 17,000’.  We strode along a beautiful high bench above the headwaters of the Imja where swaying yak trains descending from the high camps kicked tawny dust clouds into the air.  Then, we climbed to a pass where stone monuments, memorials to people killed attempting to climb Mount Everest, stood clustered in a snowy field.  From there, we dropped into the majestic Khumbu Valley.  Though it was still many miles and two days away, we could now see our tantalizing final destination, the bright white toe of the Khumbu Ice Fall – the base of Mount Everest. 

Gorak Shep is the highest outpost in the Solokhumbu region and would be abandoned in a matter of weeks when the weather in these high elevations became too bitter for trekking.  Already, a foot of snow dumped by a recent storm covered the ground.  The handful of tea houses here were large, crowded, and busy with visitors coming and going from Base Camp or Kala Pattar.  After a frigid night bundled in my down sleeping bag, I woke to find my full water bottle frozen solid.  I dressed quickly and headed to the dining area for breakfast, disappointed to find there would be no fire in the dung stove until nightfall.  I stirred sugar into my milk tea, ate my apple porridge and a two-egg omelet, and as the sun skimmed the jagged ridgeline of the Himalaya, we set out for our destination.

 I moved slowly at 17,000’, even though the trail was nearly level and the footing was good.  My feet and legs felt leaden and I breathed heavily with each step.  The air was so thin.  The previous evening, Matt measured my blood oxygen at 78%, this morning it was 85%.  Matt paced me -- I had to keep moving or we’d be all day walking these few miles.  I followed him through the rocky moraine, barren of all vegetation.  Gray-blue ice was visible below us, peeking out from under piles of glacial rubble.  The mountains rose sternly above us on both sides in walls of lofty summits penetrating the atmosphere at 28,000’, 29,000’.  The sky was dazzling blue behind the snow white peaks.  Wind buffeted us and I pulled the hood of my parka tighter around my face.  We were dwarfed in this terrain.  Matt ushered me down a gully and across a section of ice, then to the rock-strewn place known as Base Camp.

Relief and emotion overtook me.  The length of the trip, the ceaseless uphill climb, and the thin high altitude air had made this hike much more difficult than I’d thought it would be.  But the honor of standing at the head of the Khumbu Glacier, the highest mountains on earth forming a glittering amphitheater around me, was so undeniably, perfectly worth it.

Back at home, I unpacked the souvenirs I’d collected from Nepal.  Some sand, rocks, yak wool shawls, a small painted canvas, a few unspent rupees.  I laid them out on the carpet, remembering the places where I’d found or bought them: an icy streambed, a mountain valley, a stall in busy Kathmandu.  I reflected on what the trip had meant to me, what I had gained and achieved.  I felt a sense of achievement and the trip had left me understanding the privileges and quality of life I enjoy.  The trip through the Himalaya also confirmed for me that tucked away all across our globe, spectacular special places exist.  Places that I need to see.


  1. "Mount Everest was a warrior of black rock and bold striations."
    Love it!
    Thanks for the post. I felt like I was there.

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  8. Loved reading your post, a very enjoyable writeup. I will be going this October, our trek starts on the 14th. Reading from your blog it seems it will be very cold in the second half of October. What were your dates of trekking.

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