It’s hard to explain the world’s apart difference between Nepal and India. I think even after a few days on our own, we were still emotionally and physically exhausted.
That in itself is hard to explain, 7 days in Varanasi – probably the easiest place we’ve been to in India, yet I still woke up on our last morning, viewing the glorious (albeit grey) Ganges, feeling my heart fill of mixed emotions.
The Airport – is modern, the people – still pencil pushers. I think that’s one thing you notice as part of Indian culture, these things that feel to you are power struggles or bureaucracy or being done just the frustrate the ever living daylights out of you – but are not even noted.
An example – you’re checked in, and waiting to get to the “holding pen” near your gate. There are more cafes and shops there – nothing where you are. But you can’t get through.
The main man is reading the paper. The person next to him sitting on his phone. At the search (there’s a lot of physical searching on India/Nepal air travel) are 2 women gossiping, another 2 men looking around the room idly. This lasts for 25 mins. The queue gets ever longer, and we’re continually told to wait.
And then for no apparent reason, no time match, no single person arriving, we’re waved through.
There’s a big sign “No 500 or 1000 rupees to Nepal” – I have no idea why this is but we thought of our left over currency in our travel wallet, politely shook our heads at the question and went through.
The flight, just on an hour. The skyline, amazing. Huge snow-capped mountains peeping above the clouds, beckoning in the blue sky. We dipped through the cloud line to the first moisture we’d seen since South Africa.
We were picked up, driven to our hotel in the weird madness that is traffic in this part of the world. Converging trucks/bikes/cars. No sense of the centreline, no merge like a zip. At our hotel we ducked out of the weather, checked in to our strange room – dark and dull and smelling terribly of cigarettes and naphthalene, the heavens opened.
Big beautiful shiny drops, but of course we’re now worried this weather will follow us up the mountain.
I could have spent months in Thamel, Kathmandu. It’s what I genuinely thought Pargarganj would be like, it’s sort of what Kao San Road is like, but Kao San Road for non-booze/drug/redbull drinking 25+ers.
There are restaurants, (Salads!), wine is on menus, beautiful souvenir shops with thanka paintings and masks and bracelets all over. Hemp bags and strange clothes leftover from the European hippie influx of the late 70s and 80’s. Gloriously warm and soft Yak Wool scarves, which I just adore. Shops full of hiking gear, a lot fake but still good quality, the streets are dripping with puffy colour and North Face.
I could eat my way through Thamel for the rest of my life. Mexican, Steak, Vegetarian. It’s honestly foodie (and winey) heaven. We spent a lot of time at an incredible place just out of Thamel called “Coffee Pasal”. Their food could have stepped straight out of Grey Lynn. It was like Occam, the place where Dan and I had our brunches for several years, great simple ingredients, and even better coffee. I nearly cried with joy at my first decent Flat White since South Africa. Strangely reminiscent of home.
Our first few days there were a lot cooler than the heat of India. Jeans and jackets, boots instead of sneakers trying for one last attempt at wearing in. Days passed in last minute purchases, an extra Naglene water bottle (fake), sock liners, hard wear gloves (fake), polyprop pants (genuine), trekking poles (fake), packets and packets of snacky bits for me to make into daily snack packs. We hired sleeping bags, and a jacket for Dan, reducing our gear to take into one big pack and two day packs, hoping for trekking as light as possible.
Our two trek mates, British both, 50+, GSOH, a little bit less fit than us had arrived a couple of days after us. Thanks to a complete mess from Etihad they were a day late and sans luggage.
Almost left to purchase everything the day we were due to fly to Lukla, we pushed the Trek a day, in the hope their luggage was located. 1 Bag, was in Kathmandu, but as the tagging had changed it couldn’t be located. Amazingly, it was in the “Left behind luggage” storage, a huge warehouse of thousands of bags, unbelievably Terry was able to spot it amongst all the similar other ones, and it ended up being the right one.
The other bag eventually made it’s way to Kathmandu, this time without camera and currency safely stored. Frustrating for Wayne who was now left with his point and shoot for the journey. And I think an extra pair of socks.
Our last night in Kathmandu Terry and Wayne took us out for dinner, to say thanks for us being so flexible around pushing out the trek a day – we went to a steak restaurant, and powered through a chateaubriand and 3 bottles of wine between 4.
Day 1: Kathmandu (1400m) – Lukla (2800m) – Phakding (2800m 70% Oxygen as sea level)
Middle of the night, thudding head, squirmy tummy. This does not bode well. 4am, and I start throwing up.
I’d have these before – I think they’re preservative induced migraines. They’re different to hangovers, the headache is in a different place. I get them from Amstel (thanks Supper Club) and occasionally cheaper wine (no that is not an excuse to buy more expensive no matter how ridiculous that sounds).
5am, 6am, 6:30 I get myself up, out of bed, and try and hold down some breakfast. I have no idea how I manage this, usually I’m written off with bed rest till at least early afternoon.
I look at my arms, I’m covered. COVERED in bites. They’re on my arms, my neck, some further down on my sides. I think its bed bugs. Along with the migraine I nearly cry – apart from worrying they are all through my gear, the idea of walking feeling like I want to scratch my arms/neck/head off is not how I wanted to start our wonderful trek.
We get to the airport – to total, complete chaos. People push to pick up your bag, ours is taken, someone pushing through the queue. We have to join, I just want to sit at the edge and feel better. Past the first security check to a terminal that has seen far better days.
It’s dirty, smelly, chaotic – there’s no clear order. The bathroom smells waft over ever time someone opens the door. People are pushing past you, huge piles of supplies surround you, you’re looking at other peoples gear judging whether they are as inexperienced as you, or a 60 year old who like ready for summiting, ice axe and all. I push down a coffee – sometimes a bit of caffeine can reduce one of my migraines – it actually helps, I still feel the thudding shadow, but the nausea and head swimmingness dissipates. Thank god.
You’re waiting with your luggage till another person who deals with the airline gives you a signal about 2 hours in to take up your bags. Everything is weighed, and you get through the next terminal – which is far nicer. And cleaner.
Another hour or so passes, flight numbers are in single digits – we’re called. My stomach drops.
The airport in Lukla is the most dangerous in the world. Perched on a mountain within the Solukhumbu valley you either feel like you’re going straight into the mountainside or flying off the edge of the earth. Neither is nice.
It’s horribly bumpy, and I spent most of the flight with white knuckles nearly in tears (Els, if you’re reading this, it’s only a 45 minute flight – but if you can’t do that, you can trek up – 6 days). We land with a huge sigh of relief, and I feel like the incredible terraced scenery on the way up passed me by in a glimpse.
Lukla itself is tiny, we have lunch – I choose the first of many fried rice dishes I’m due to have, chow that down with some green Nepalese chilli sauce – and suddenly it’s packs on, trekking poles together, and we’re walking!
We have our guide (Ngatemba) and two young porters – whose names I haven’t a hope of being able to spell…)
Tip 1: Know how to tie your boots and know how to properly hold your trekking poles.
It’s incredible the difference this makes, Terry taught me both, and it made a HUGE difference to comfort across the whole journey. I saved energy, poles felt like a cinch to use, and I never had any problems with ankles or loose feet.
It’s not a long walk to Phakding, you’re passing through trees, waterfalls, farmland, smiling people, Sherpa’s carrying unbelievable loads – over 100 kilos. There are a few ‘rope bridge’ crossings. The first few are okay, but still feel fairly shaky. Laden cows cross, so I’m sure I’m lighter than they are.
There are prayer flags across incredible spaces – between rocks, beside stupas. Seemingly across caverns and valleys, stretched out to the sun. We walk around other stupas in front of us, always clockwise, sometimes with prayer wheels attached. The eyes of Buddha follow us everywere.
The first few hours slide by with a bit of up and down (up into the valley, down to cross the river) and we’re in Phakding mid-afternoon. We remove our boots, set out our bedding, relax in our room with paper-thin walls, have dinner with mint tea, and are in bed well before 8pm.
Day 2 – Phakding (2800m) to Namche (3440m 69% Oxygen as sea level)
Namche Bazaar is a trekking hub more than anything else. It’s grown into a village where I guess similar to Thamel you can get pretty much anything for trekking, for a price. We even saw some genuine icebreaker gear there at $105 USD I was almost tempted, I’m sure it’s twice that at home these days.
It’s warmer than expected; I’m trekking in shorts, leggings and a singlet. Still covered in bites every time it warms up I’m horribly itchy.
Up to Namche is fairly hard going. First there’s a HUGE rope bridge, it feels like it’s 10 storeys up. I basically ran across as lightly as I could – even though I ‘m not afraid of heights, seeing pale turquoise glacial melt surging between huge rocks below made me more than a little nervous.
There’s a long hard vertical trek up from lunchtime (I had Dal Baht – like a simple thali with vege curry, dal and white rice), and it’s mostly straight up. We got our first peek at Everest today – far between the trees. It’s very triangular, and reminds me of the mountain behind the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. I can’t get that thought out of my mind, both sacred mountains, both funerary grounds for many bodies, one with Pharaoh’s one without.
As we continue our push up to Namche we are panting, the air is thinner, but we’re okay. Leaning on poles to help push up the seemingly huge steps, we round the corner to Namche late afternoon with a sigh of relief.
As the usual order goes, we arrive, have tea, decide on our dinner then have a bit of free time.
Tip 2: Drinking mint or ginger tea at breakfast, lunch and dinner is a fantastic way to stay hydrated. You’d easily go through 3 cups at each session and it’s warm and delicious.
Bizarrely invigorated we decide to explore Namche a little, finding an amazing little coffee cart, wandering the shops and woollen hats and jewellery and other random products. It’s cooler as the sun goes down – and we start to feel properly cold for the first time. A strange change from the single layer I’m wearing in the day.
Day 3 – Namche Acclimatisation Day (3,440 m)
If anyone says that acclimatisation days are “rest days” slap them. Both of these were a killer.
The first sign of altitude both Dan and I noticed (apart from a bit of breathlessness when ascending) was lack of sleep. It’s a weird kind of awake too – your brain doesn’t do the usual loops, and my usual brain training wouldn’t settle it (A for apple. B for beetroot. C for carrot). You’re not tossing and turning either.
So on little sleep and a bit of porridge we prepared for a vertical climb, seeing the coloured packs snacking up behind Namche.
First stop – the Tenzing statue behind Namche – what a beautiful site the blue sky, snow-capped Himalayas, we wandered about relaxed, and then started our climb.
The Everest View Hotel didn’t quite have the view of Everest (hiding behind lenticular clouds) but it’s very much a tough climb to get there. Expensive drinks as well – even with two cups of tea and a coffee averaging 9USD.
It was cold, exposed, and the wind would whip round. It was hot as you walked, freezing when you stopped.
We ventured on to Khumjung Village, to visit a beautiful old monastery, with a walk that felt like it would never end. Lunch felt late, and we were all exhausted as we started our trek back to Namche.
On the way we passed Khumjung school – with a huge statue of Sir Edmund Hillary. The school is actually named after him, and it’s hard to really explain how much he is loved by the Sherpa people in this region. It made me so proud to be a New Zealander to see articles in guesthouses, posts like these by the school, and a general warmness you see everywhere something to do with Sir Ed is situated. http://www.khumjungschool.edu.np/?act=donors&pos=1
At 3:30/4pm the clouds seemingly come in, Namche gets shrouded in this damp blanket. It brings the dark with is, and it’s not till after 8pm it clears. I hope this doesn’t follow us up the mountain further…
Back to Namche, coffee first and then ATM (yet there’s an ATM – incredible), then snooze then dinner and bed. And sleep. Thank GOD.
Day 4 Namche (3,440m)– Tengboche Monastery (3,870m) – Debuche (3,770m 61% Oxygen as sea level)
After an incredible nights sleep, and a breakfast of eggs, toast, potatoes and chilli sauce – we started out at 8am.
We went to an amazing little museum just up from Namche, from a small area that was set up like a Sherpa family, to photos of Sherpa life through the ages, through to summit attempts from the first summiting – it was amazing to read all the bits and pieces and see what the area used to be like. http://sherpa-culture.com.np/sonam-photography/act,categories/cid,24/
The trek started a bit easier today, round the side of the range after Namche rather than vertical. The scenery was incredible with Ama Dablam launching into the sky to our right, the white snow so bright even early in the morning impossible to look at without sunglasses. We could see our next major stop – Tengboche Monastery far in the distance, it felt so far away at that point.
The trees and shrubs were still pine and interestingly a type of rose? Lots of rosehips and no flowers, but they were a beautiful dark reddish colour. As we got closer to the Monastery – we ventured into rhododendron territory – sadly we weren’t there for flowering season; I can imagine it would be absolutely amazing to see entire hillsides blooming with magenta and red blossoms.
As we climbed higher some Sherpa women were running down, making our slow pace feel even slower! It’s amazing the speed some of these Sherpa go, beyond the massively heavy weights some of them carry.
Sherpa children are adorable – bright scarlet cheeks, big smiles as you walk past. Sometimes carried sometimes walking, sometimes running in and out of lodges, oblivious to the cold.
Tengboche Monastery is beautiful. Apart from the terrrrrrible smell of stinky feet, sitting in the monastery hearing the monks chant was amazingly peaceful. While there were a few clouds about as we left the monastery, circling it clockwise, spinning the prayer wheels as we walked the skies parted – with the afternoon sun drenching us in the last of its warmth, you could see Lhotse, Everest and Nupste far in the distance.
Down from the Monastery into Debuche is probably one of my favourite walks of the whole journey. The sun as gone soon after you start descending from the monastery. Lichen drips from the trees in huge strings. There’s a lovely dampness to the air that I remember from bushwalks at home. The air is chilled but crisp and fresh, like a glass of iced water. There are gentle steps carved into the rock making the walk down simple and comfortable (and relatively quick). It’s quiet and peaceful, and as you’ve left the monastery with a peaceful soul, this feeling follows you down the hill and long past dinner.
Day 5 Debuche (3,770m) – Dingboche (4,350m 58% oxygen as sea level)
Tough night with little sleep again. I decided to try a Diamox, to see if that helped at all. Surprisingly still no headache, apart from a bit of a shadow, nothing like the mad pounding near migraine I was expecting.
We’re starting to see how trekking develops. People who found their guide in Kathmandu. People who are doing it cheap. People who have paid heaps more than we did. Guides who don’t speak English very well at all. Guides who are fluent in multiple languages.
A Japanese couple we passed were asking their guide to stay at Everest Base Camp. We watched the conversation for a few minutes, it was going nowhere till we stepped in “There’s nothing at Base Camp. It’s the wrong time of year. There is no real camp, there’s no lodge. You stay at Gorak Shep, trek up to Base Camp and back as a side trip, you need to follow the rule climb high sleep low.” Their guide was nodding, gesticulating and smiling, I think had been trying to articulate the same thing, but the language barrier between them was too great. They thanked us and went on – we saw them quite a few times during the rest of our trek up – as you seem to, either staying at the same lodges, or passing them (or them passing you) during the day.
Another two ladies had a guide who seemed very out of place. None of the other Sherpa’s would speak to him in the lodge which was very strange – a lot of them seem like old friends otherwise. He spent the time their reading their guidebook. We couldn’t help but overhearing the conversation they were having at the next table to us to another couple. They were trying to understand their route.
When their guide sat back down one of them said “Yes we agree with your original plan, we want to change the route back to that”.
You can see how things can go so wrong up there, people climbing too fast and getting sick. People trying to speed through routes. People not doing their acclimatisation day hikes. People doing things on their own without guides, without porters.
We saw one guy being piggy backed by a guide, getting him down as low was possible as quickly as possible. Day after day the rescue helicopters would be about, our guide pointing out when it definitely wasn’t a site seeing trip.
It got worse as we ascended.
The scenery started to change more as the day went on, we were almost suddenly out of the tree line, little wind, glorious blue days. While Everest is hidden from view the incredible Ama Dablam is a highlight, more than the thin finger it was initially, with glaciers looking like they have folded snow blankets, of course an avalanche waiting to happen.
The ground is gravelly rather than steps, and far nicer to walk one. Our breath is possibly a little shorter, but I feel amazing. Hiking for 5 hours in this is easy, invigorating. Every morning in the sunshine you want to raise your arms to the glorious mountains and be thankful you’re able to be in this incredible world, and wish that everyone you know could experience the absolute wonder too. (which they kinda can through Dan’s incredible photos…)
Speaking of photos, it’s cold, so batteries can be a problem. I sleep with some of them and my phone in a sock. During the day they’re either in a jacket pocket or shorts, trying to keep them warm.
In bed we have boiling hot water put into a water bottle each, beyond the rickety single beds it’s something to cuddle.
The place we stay in Dingboche is slightly ridiculous, a café with Lattes, cappuccinos and cakes is attached, I felt more than a flashpacker with my coffee and cake in the sunshine. Maybe I shouldn’t have had that caffeine at 4pm in the afternoon…
Day 6 Acclimatisation day Dingboche – (up to 5,000m)
After another horrendous sleep, it was time for another acclimatisation day. Rather than head somewhere specific, Ngatemba suggested we walk up the hill behind us. Pros, it’s a shorter climb, and we would actually climb higher, and could separate if we wanted (Dan and I had been climbing faster all trip, it was to be honest a little frustrating sometimes but I guess in hindsight we did get a lot of rest stops?).
Keen for this, we went outside to start. Something was missing. Dan’s poles.
We’d accidentally left them outside in the night, while some of the other Sherpa’s did see them – they didn’t bring them in, and consequently they were taken. Thankfully, Ngatemba gave Dan his single pole, and we started our vertical ascent.
It’s much cooler now. In the mornings I want to cover my mouth to breathe, the air is so dry you feel constantly thirsty.
Tip 3: Chewing gum or a lolly to suck on (Kopiko are actually the greatest lollies on earth) first thing in a chilly morning is an absolute godsend. Helps with the straight up after breakfast ascents, specially steep ones.
Up and up, past stupas, past the first flag – Wayne stopped at this level as we continued our way up. And up. Step and step. Reach and reach. Don’t look down, I started to feel a little ill doing that, I’m unsure if it was the altitude or looking down.
There was barely a path between rocks. We stopped for an altimeter check – still 100m vertical to go. On we pushed for what felt like forever. Ngatember went up to show us how far 5,000m was – he didn’t want us to ascend to the top of the hill – but it felt like it was just in reach.
5,000m felt like more of an achievement than anything yet. We stopped for about 20 minutes, getting pics, catching our breath a bit. And then I looked down.
Worse than ascending on such an incline is descending. Poles are great for it, but it’s still hard on your knees. People smush their toes into the edge of their boots and lose toenails. People fall over.
Tip 4: Find a way to gently descend that isn’t so hard on your body
I developed a weird crouch/squat type thing that reduced the hit on my joints, and hopefully meant for amazing legs and butt by the time we finished the trek. Seemed to work tho, as I barely had any pain at the end.
A few parts were so steep I couldn’t work out my way down. I stopped in parts almost too frightened to continue, inching my way down the mountain. I should have done more squats. More training. More steps. – but there’s not much I could do already up in the Himalayas.
Eventually we got down, speeding up near the end, just wanting to get back to the café where a nice coffee awaited. And a nap, a glorious warm nap.
Lunch was my first hilarious meal of the week, tomato soup with garlic toast. The garlic toast wasn’t the lovely yellow garlic bread I expected, it was literally 2 pieces of bread with smushed raw green garlic in between. I ate it, but it started an “I want ANYthing that doesn’t have GARLIC in it” over the next few weeks.
I think this was where I started to notice some of the weird parts of Altitude sickness. A sort of strange feeling in my joints. A bit of light headedness. Obviously the lack of sleep was a huge one.
Beyond a nap, I had a well-needed shower; my treat after a hard day however the meagre trickle against the freezing background of a room outside with no insulation was little comfort. Being clean after I managed to warm up however felt wonderful.
Still no real aches and no real blisters.
Day 7 Dingboche (4,350m) – (Lobuje 4,930m 53% oxygen as sea level)
Another night of no sleep, starting to feel the lack of oxygen in the muscles, a strange feeling like you know they aren’t getting everything they need. It’s hard to articulate but you and genuinely feel something definitely isn’t right and you’re feeling slow and lethargic when you shouldn’t be.
Diamox (by this stage I’ve had two total) creates the strangest tingles. They’re not like gentle, “oh I fell asleep on my arm” tingles. Imagine you’ve put your hand in a box (Dune readers may remember the Gom Jabbar scene?) hundreds of nails sort of bluntish push into your fingers, 2/3 of the way up. You move your fingers thinking that if you could just pump a little more blood into them it will stop. It doesn’t.
Well, for me, as I didn’t take too much, it would stop after about 30/45 mins of trekking, but it really is a strange experience. Not exactly a nice one.
Trekking now includes a wool hat, full gloves & liners, and 50+ sunscreen but still no proper base layers (beyond the polyprop pants under my shorts)
Tip 5: Wearing near frozen normal sunscreen is the last thing you want on your face in the morning at this altitude sun or not. Buy a sun stick, its awesome & helps with some of the wind burn too.
We’re up well beyond the tree line now; the sky is mountains and blue. You’re up so high that the blue is royal, not pale, but rich. Lapis Lazuli. The air while thin is still crisp.
We passed a huge memorial, incredibly sad – with familiar names (Scott Fischer from 1996), and others not familiar. I searched out for Rob Hall but couldn’t see anything. Lots of Sherpa, other unfamiliar names. One with photos. Sad they have lost their lives in this beautiful place. It’s these things that remind you of the danger.
Prayer flags flap in the wind, primary colours across the landscape. It’s a sad place. While I’m sad to leave it’s peacefulness, feeling the effects of the altitude on my body I’m reminded of the loss of life more than 3km further up. How they push their bodies so hard amazes me. On we trek, making the most the early afternoon light.
We’re near the lip of the Khumbu Glacier, we can’t see it at this stage but I can see where it should be, behind the moraine.
Yaks pass us now, not cows. Their shaggy bodies ladies with supplies. Things are more expensive, Coca-cola less fizzy and at a premium. There are few veges in my fried rice. Dal Baht curry is more potato than anything else.
The worst past of today was a burgeoning cold. A never-ending stream from my nose, constantly dripping. And strangely, I’ve realised I can see strange geometric things in my vision. Blobs dancing in front of me. Maybe I looked too close to the sun, I brush away the thought and the seemingly disappear. I’d move my head and my eyes would feel slow to catch up, things seemed to move at a strange pace.
One girl at the lodge we were at was in terrible shape when we got there. Barely able to move or speak, neither her friends nor her guide doing anything. We asked if she was okay, wondering what tablets she was stuffing herself with. Unsure if we’d see her still there in the morning, or taken to descend below.
Day 8 Lobuje (4,930m) – Gorak Shep (5,160m)– Everest Base Camp (5,360m nearly 50% oxygen as sea level)
I had another Diamox, which guaranteed a good sleep – and started our trek invigorated and excited. We followed the side of the Khumbu glacier, not too much of a steep ascent it felt too easy.
The world felt like a movie set, and as we launched into Gorak Shep for a quick lunch stop I just wanted to keep going. After lunch, I started to feel a bit strange.
We headed out, wrapped up against the wind, and ventured across the glacier. It’s not exactly the white pretty glacier (they never really are) but was covered in dusty rocks, occasionally groaning and moving. An eerie sound that echoes between the mountain faces, dust flying up into the air, a reminder that underneath our feet this glacier is forever moving.
We reach “Base Camp” – only it’s not Base Camp. It’s “Trekkers Base Camp”. Due to the season, and time of year the way through isn’t placed, so we’re stuck on a glacier without the view up the mountain I was hoping for.
I wanted to spot the familiar places I’d read about – the icefall, where the first and second camps are. Feel the vibe of at least an empty Base Camp and get some sense of the scale of the place when summiting season is in full fray.
I was sorely disappointed and sat eating a snickers by myself, contemplating the risk of heading to Base Camp on my own. I stood amongst ads with urls with smiles for photos, trying to resist the urge to remove each rock covered in graffiti. The t-shirt with some stupid restaurant in the states advertised on it. No place is sacred.
We wandered back, slowly, and as we trudged through my mood cleared, I was still in one of the most beautiful places on earth! I was in the sky! The mountains! How beautiful this place is.
You remember the girl from the previous night? We passed her friend. It was 3pm; she was less than a 3rd of the way to Base Camp. She was being physically assisted by her guide and another friend, unable to make each step on her own. “You wont make it before dark, you should be descending”. She couldn’t even make words to reply.
I don’t understand why they kept going, how would they get back in the dark? If she was unable to move of her own accord what about the risk it placed the two others in?
Tip: 6 If you can’t keep yourself going, don’t make yourself a risk for others.
I couldn’t get the image out of my head as we got back to our lodge at Gorak Shep, and things really started to take a turn for the worse for me.
I didn’t eat much dinner; Tibetan bread with a little peanut butter was all I could get down. Dan spent most of the night talking to a Swedish family who we’d met on the trail, while I wondered why I kept seeing patches in my eyes, I was having trouble focussing. My body felt out of place, “I feel body drunk” I said to Dan at one stage.
My stomach started to gurgle, and that awful horrid feeling, and my stomach went to pieces.
I packed myself off to bed in the hope that it was a one of, knowing I had a tough summit in the morning.
Day 9 – Gorak Shep (5,160) – Kala Patthar (5,644) – Pheriche (4,371)
WARNING – this part contains some graphic imagery, do not proceed if easily offended!
In the night, my stomach hit again, this time even worse than previous. Rather than just my stomach going to pieces – my poo had turned into black, tarry porridge. I could barely see as I went to the bathroom, finding it difficult to use the usual crouch-based hole in the ground, in the cold, with just a head torch. But I was desperate to be better so returned to bed in the hope I’d get some sleep.
I was awake before the alarm went off at 4am. I nervously got out of bed, pulling on the layers I wanted to wear, putting some in my daypack. I went down for breakfast. I managed 10 spoons of porridge, and tried to keep on a happy face.
Before we headed up I was given 2 hand warmer pouches, I stuffed them in my gloves in the hope they would give me some warmth and energy on the way up. The mountain looked monstrous and black in the dark, it’s not bathed in beautiful white snow.
The wind was up, you could see plumes off Lhotse face, the mountains behind us and around us. We hadn’t seen wind like this our whole trip. I pulled my hat down in the hope it would cover my ears more, regretting I hadn’t bought something with earflaps.
We started step by step by step. I couldn’t breathe enough air, so rather than cover my mouth with my buff; my face was in the open, gulping air in at each step. After 10 minutes I reached into my pack to pull on my last layer, and could only put the hoodie on my head. I had a kopiko in the hope the small amount of sugar would give me some energy. It did, just not enough.
Step by step. One foot after the other. My torch was off, and I waited for the light – seeing the sun reach the tip of Everest and it’s almighty plume as I continued to walk. My brain was doing flip flops imagining some strange rhythms at each step, making up words to match.
And suddenly, my stomach, my trusty “I never get sick” iron stomach decided, 2/3rds of the way up, to give up again. “I have to go NOW,” I said to Dan and Ngatemba.
I ran across the mountain, in the ever-increasing light in the hope to find a rock. “No over there more” Dan yelled, in the hope I’d find some cover, far from the eyes of every other summiteer.
I had to drop trousers, in -10 / -15 cold on the mountain with even colder wind chill, in the sort of dark, and poo dark black awful porridge poo right on the mountain. They looked like 2 huge cowpats. I cleaned myself up, sorry Kala Patthar but there was no way I was taking those few tissues with me, pulled up my trousers and moved back to where our guide and Dan were standing.
By that time Terry who was generally slower than us had caught up to the team, and was continuing up to summit. Dan said, “No, we’re heading back” so we continued down the mountain. We had a huge trek beyond our summit attempt; we were hoping to then get to Pangboche, another 7 additional hours.
I started to feel cold. Colder than you could ever believe. Cold through to my bones, my eyes, my ears. So cold I could no longer feel my fingers, my toes. My nose that still wouldn’t stop its stream a constant dribble, I was worried it would freeze to my face.
I stopped – unable to move, wanting to just sit down and not move on. Dan ran over “I’m so cold” he ripped open his bag and pulled out a last jacket we’d hired in Kathmandu. He pulled off my gloves to help me put it on; my fingers were an awful shade of blue. Even the hand-warmers weren’t reaching their warmth far enough.
Jacket on he coaxed me gently down the mountain, ignoring my tears of disappointment at being unable to summit. A steep descent that felt like hours, and I was back at the lodge in Gorak Shep, warm mint tea thrust into my hands.
I still made it down on my own steam – important when I knew deep down I had a huge day to go. While I struggled to make the ‘Turn back’ decision myself, I am genuinely thankful Dan did. Who knows how long it would have taken me to summit? What if I’d become worse?
What amazes me is that Everest is another 3.3km vertically up from this. What must your body go through at even less air? At Everest summit there’s 33% of the oxygen that there would be at sea level, and in that last day they summit more than 1,000 vertical metres and back taking between 9-18 hours, beginning at midnight, climbing in the dark, in sub-zero temperatures.
What’s also hard to articulate is the sense of shame and failure I felt (and still feel). As people were returning to the lodge I wanted to shrink further into a corner, frustrated my body let me down. People older than me, less fit than me, smiles on their faces. I just wanted to sit in a corner and cry into my tea; I can’t imagine how it must feel to turn around on Everest. I mean it was just me and my obstinacy up there – no sponsors, not months of training and thousands of dollars.
After an hour and a half Terry arrived, also exhausted. Beyond us was another hour up at least, those last 150m a complete killer.
We all attempted some breakfast (I had a bite of Dan’s pancake), and started our way down. Me still feeling awful and pretty despondent.
That’s the weirdest thing about this trek – after 5-6 hour days, to ascend the last 3 days are a killer, all at least 8 – 9 hours, sometimes passing 3 camps-worth in a single day.
The downward trek was more like a trudge, no one speaking, no one taking photos or taking in the amazing scenery. No one smiling at the yaks, or laughing at children. I didn’t look back.
Beyond the Khumbu Glacier we could see Pheriche our lunch stop, it felt far in the distance. It seemed to never get closer, and getting there at 3pm for our lunch stop, we were almost dreading our last 2 hours to get to our final stop for the night in Pangboche.
Realising we were more than exhausted, Ngatemba suggested we stay there the night – and with some relief we all started to relax, and me finally feeling a bit better as we’d come down nearly 900m in Altitude.
Day 10 Periche (4,371m) – Namche (3,880m)
With 2 extra hours to climb today and the pressure to get to Namche by 4pm we were outside and trekking by 7:30am. I was feeling much better and managed at least more bites of my breakfast before we headed out.
The skies have been dawning blue and clear, but it’s now feeling like a hard slog. Putting dirty clothes on a dirty body with dirty hair – I was physically and emotionally exhausted and ready for it to be over.
Festival day at Tengboche, we saw many Sherpa in traditional dress, the women often with lots of jewellery walking around. Amazing to see – it’s only one day a year.
We were about 2 hours out of Namche (and believe me that’s a huge hike up into Namche) and the cloud descended. A strange cloud, bringing the cold, but somehow highlighting the gentle bells from the various cows carrying their goods along the path.
It made everything surreal and feels like sometimes we were right on the edge of the earth. Getting into Namche was a relief, even with the usual coffee stop we felt lucky to be there before dark.
We pottered in Namche, buying a few things, walking around and had a final tomato soup (again with 5 cloves of garlic in it) with an earlyish night before our next day Namche to Lukla.
Day 11 Namche (3,440m) – Lukla (2,800m)
Another early start, it felt like we were almost bolting down the mountains. Back in the beautiful pine trees, stopping to watch funny red legged guinea-fowl type things under the trees. We were always watchful for red pandas but sadly didn’t spot any.
As we descended the air was warmer. The land changed from trees to grass and crops. More lodges, more signs for places to stop for lunch. More coca-cola more tuborg.
The sense of familiarity was calming. The poles and prayer stones and stupa to walk around clockwise. No Yaks no just cows. More food options on menus, Tibetan bread disappearing.
Even the faces we noticed were different, Nepalese and Sherpa people to look different, and as we descended you see more Nepalese. I was ready for a shower, fresh sheets, a meal that wasn’t Dal Baht or momos or coffee made with milk powder.
Those last steps back up to Lukla felt easy. It wasn’t a final strenuous climb like I saw people struggling with on the way down. No blisters. No lasting injuries. No real aches and pains. We’d done it. We were proud.
Being back in Kathmandu is like a dream. Like Kala Patthar never happened. Burgers and fresh salad. Coffee. Food that hasn’t been killed with garlic. No garlic soup. No Dal Baht. Friendly people but horns and busyness.
We had booked into a nice hotel and did nothing but hide from the world for a few days. Tried to eat some nice food, keep up some exercise, but not venture too far.
I still wasn’t well – so spent time relaxing, reading, planning parts of our next trip. Skyping our families. Having long hot showers.
I have a sense of sadness – I’ll miss the mountains, but it’s been wonderful to have some downtime in Kathmandu. We’re looking towards India with more than a little trepidation, there’s no scams here. People are honest and want to help you. Men don’t stare, they’re more used to Westerners I guess.
I do hope we come back; I’d love to see the other side of Everest next time, and definitely see some of Tibet.
- Note: I did a bit of post-trek Googling, and it looks like I had a really serious reaction to Diamox. I should have gone straight to the doctor, and probably lucky I didn’t take many of them! You can take up to 4 a day, and I only had 3 in total across our whole trek. Maybe Altitude trekking just isn’t for me.