Landing in Kathmandu was like transferring into a colourful, fumey delight. After taking an hour to get out of the airport, through 4 different queues to get our visa, we met our guide Kashi to travel through the city to our hotel. The hazy sunset and taste of car fumes really was like a Turkish delight to the face. We sat watching dusk become night from a stoop outside one of the local shops, guessing what was real or fake North Face from the milling hikers and locals passing by.
We tasted the local delicacies that evening with our friends we were joining on the trek, Madeleine, Manolis and Ed, before a day to explore the just some of this vast city before meeting with our Lead guide Shankar back at the hotel that evening. All thoughts of the trek were banished for the day before the utter panic of, how can 2 weeks’ worth of trekking gear weigh including plenty of snacks less than 10kg!!
Day 1: Going nowhere
One last sleep in a warm bed, before a quick, but thorough 4:45am shower and straight to the airport for our 6 am flight…… the day started sleepy and apprehensive. 6 hours later, we’re still at the airport. One lonely cloud hovering over the runway at our destination, Lukla, the worlds most dangerous airport and the gateway into the Himalayas. All flights were being cancelled. This was supposed to be the ultimate time of year to travel into the mountains…. but luck was not on our side. It was decided that we would head back to a hotel closer to the airport fly the next morning. The guides seemed to think we’d still be ok to make basecamp but would lose a day that we’d have to make up for on the way down. More walking in less days. Again, we had an early night, and a shower for good measure.
Day 2: Still going nowhere....
Back at the airport, 4 hours waiting, all flights into the mountains are called off again due to ice on the runway. We consider the option of paying for a helicopter, but even they can’t fly. Our hope of even getting to the mountains after months of planning and training were dwindling! The guides take us out for dinner to their friends local restaurant that evening. This is feeling like a waiting game.
Day 3: Kathmandu – Phakding (2,610m)
Another shower and a slower morning at the hotel. Just as we think it’s all over, Shankar gets a call, and we’re off! To the airport at least. We feel like veterans, we get prioritised, we’re straight in and then…… we wait. FINALLY they call us, we practically run to the gate, onto the bus, and onto the tarmac… where we wait.
The plane is tiny, a twin otter as a client had told me. We’re at the back of the plane, and I’m not a good back seat driver, even for a 27-minute journey. It felt like we were flying in a paper plane! The Himalayas were in sight, somewhere I thought only Michael Palin could go, and then the runway. We land with our guides heads in their hands. What do you mean this isn’t Lukla!?
We’ve been forced to land at an airport the guides have never been to before. A 4-minute flight, 2 day walk from Lukla. Practically round the corner and yet so far away.
So, we sit and wait again. Practicing our juggling skills, napping, playing horseshoes with some metal… and generally getting to know the group. After the longest 2 hours of all these hours, we’re back on the plane. “Jam Jam!” our top gun pilot shouts, let’s go! A weather window has opened and time is limited. Within minutes we’re landing in Lukla, the airport that my Dad enjoys watching planes take off and land on YouTube to pass the time, bet you’re not chuckling any more are you Dad!
To make our accommodation for the night we’re going to have to trek in the dark. Fuelled up with lunch and plenty of lemon, honey & ginger tea, the first of many. We hand our luggage over to the porters and set off into the mountains, with just a head torch to lead the way. The sunset has the same hazy quality it did back in KTM, but with a clear crisp air.
We walk for about 4 hours, Nepali flat, up and down, over rope bridges with the sound of rushing water below. Stopping for pitch black pee breaks, safer than having your head torch on! We arrive at our first tea house for the night, with more lemon, honey & ginger and Dahl Bhat, a local curry dish, known to provide power for 24 hours.
Day 4: Phakding – Namche Bazaar (3,440m)
After a cold night barely sleeping we wake early, again, to see the sunrise. Although it’s funny in the mountains that you can see the sunlight, but not be able to reach the warmth.
We start to wind our way through the valley, removing layers quickly as that sun reaches us in the forest, and we share the path with not too many other hikers, but plenty of mules and yaks carrying goods up into the mountains. There are porters carrying up to 30kg, possibly more, on their back. We give all of them priority, they are on the M25 into the mountains. The day is split with tea breaks, water breaks and pee breaks, as well as rope bridges covered in prayer flags meandering our path through the valley. Just as we are approaching our lunch break, we get the first glimpse of the beast, Everest. The summit seeming so empowering in the distance.
As we near hour 5 of walking, we arrive at Namche Bazaar, the largest market town into the mountains. Even if you only make it here, you’re extremely lucky. The colours, the light, the tea houses, the prayer wheels (traditional Buddhist cylindrical wheels to only be turned with the right hand, to the left), a horseshoe shaped hive of activity overlooking a frozen waterfall. We have the afternoon to explore, we split into our smaller groups and head to a café, feeling like we’re here for the après ski…. And the Wi-Fi.
Day 5: Namche Bazaar – Thyangboche (3,860m)
We should have had a day to acclimatise in Namche, instead we were moving straight on to keep to our already shortened schedule. The view of the mountains from our beds, and the 7am lie in, made us want to stay put. But after a good breakfast, we were again winding our way slowly up out of the shady town and again into the sunlight. Taking in views of Everest, Lhotse, Ama Dablam from a stupa, one of many mini temples, used as a place of meditation, on the path into the mountains.
Our lunch break was welcomed, at altitude you don’t realise how hungry you are until you stop. We had a tough incline to get to Thyangboche that afternoon and we were hoping to make it in time to see the monks that live there during their prayers. Unfortunately, we were a little too late, but sat in the monastery for an hour or so, taking in the most incredible and detailed paintings and wood work. That night the clouds cleared and the mountains were illuminated by the moonlight, and the stars… THE STARSSSSSSS.
Day 6 – Thyangboche – Dingboche (4,410m)
Dan, my husband, was really not feeling very well by now. Not only is the air thinning, and the cold uncomfortable nights making us all tired, but he’d started the trek with a cold, turning into the flu. Another of the boys has been poorly overnight too, perhaps down to food. We’ve also missed that all important acclimatisation day, so Shankar wants us to go slowly to make the next town, before a very much welcomed rest day.
Lots of rest stops for water breaks, which of course leads to lots of rest stops for wilderness loo breaks too! Plenty of lemon, ginger and honey, and the all-important Snickers bar (and Coca-Cola for Dan). He can’t stomach the food anymore, the choice of dhal bhat, eggs, chapati’s, garlic soup (very good for altitude sickness), and beans can quite quickly wear thin. In order to get some acclimatisation in, we trekked higher before descending down into the town of Dingboche. We asked to put some wood on the fire… but to our surprise it was powered by yak dung, plenty of it in the mountains. And the water was heated by solar energy.
Day 7 – A well welcomed rest day.
It’s snowed overnight and when going to the loo, we had to smash the ice in the flushing bucket!! Although we are going nowhere today we still have to do an acclimatisation walk. We take a short hike in the morning and spend the rest of the day exploring the town. Ending up in the one café playing chess and reading books.
Day 8 – Dingboche – Lobuche (5,030m)
We’re starting to battle with the freezing wind now, and the open plateaus seem flat, but are on a steep incline. Despite that, this was probably my favourite day, surrounded by the mountain peaks. This misconception that we were barely getting higher would not account for the lack of breath. It was here that you could truly feel the air thinning. We walked slowly before reaching Thukla for lunch, and just in time before a huge incline. No mistaking this.
We had plenty of water breaks before coming to an expanse of flatter ground again where the memorials for those who have lost their lives on the mountains lie, including Rob Hall, involved in the 1996 Everest disaster. We’d heard about the amount of people trekking on the mountains, and although we’d never considered going to the summit, the risks, cost and skill involved are just so extreme. We’d considered other treks after reading the extreme amount of trekkers going to base camp over the last few years, but Madeleine and I knew this is what we wanted to do. More on this in a bit.
The landscape started to change to ice fields. The wind was so biting we all looked like we were ready to rob a bank, with barely our eyes on show, sunglasses to shield from the wind. Then came the snow, as cold as it was, this was pretty magical and made the tea house at Lobuche even more welcoming – although they could have lit the fire a little sooner.
The temperature would drop to minus 10 in the night, and -15c in the early hours of the morning, they say that anything below -10 and you don’t even notice the difference. I can confirm I noticed it when going to the frozen loo in the night, believe me.
Day 9 – Lobuche – Base Camp (5,380m)
We’ve lost an acclimatisation day, and it’s making me feel nervous. Dan has really not felt well, living of KitKats and Coca-Cola for the last few days. The food is getting worse and tasting more and more of kerosene. My body is feeling ok, but we’ve got a long way to go. Jam Jam, the guides shout, let’s go, but we’re not going anywhere quickly. Slow and steady to get to Gorak Shep. The last town before basecamp.
We’re practically scrambling, climbing up and down boulders, and narrow pathways along the side of the Khumbu Glacier. This is where the amount of people becomes apparent. Not only are we battling to stay on the path with yak passing by but having to pause (not that it wasn’t welcome) to let people pass the other way.
Arriving at Gorak Shep (5190m) felt very serious, THIS WAS IT! No going back! We’d already walked about 3 hours and had another 3 to get to and from base camp to go. We sat for lunch and I felt drunk. If I turned my head, the room followed afterwards.
After eating more eggs, chapati, coffee and a Snickers, I felt much better! Loaded with water for myself and Dan and feeling more ready than ever to take this on… but apprehensive as to what was to come. We seemed to be the last group taking the path, and I was grateful. Again the battle with people coming back seemed tedious, but slowed our pace enough to stay comfortable. The air was thin, breath and heartbeat were fast, but the thought of making it to Base Camp kept us all going.
We could see the little yellow tents in the distance, there it was, and yet, it just would not come. At around 2.30pm on the 2nd April 2019 our entire group made it to Everest Base Camp. Surrounded by the glaciers and peaks above us, having no comprehension of how high above sea level you are other than the lack of oxygen to breathe. Having climbed Kilimanjaro with Madeleine in 2012 (the whole reason we ended up on Everest), this had been a long time coming. A promise we had to keep. And a promise that had been achieved. This was a very different experience, you’re not on top of a mountain, but actually in a crater. We walked down into the camp. We could see it for so long before getting to it. There’s no sign, other than a hand written rock, and no real sense of being on top of the world in comparison to Kili…. Until you really think about it.
We spent about an hour there, Dan had already started his descent with one of the porters. I didn’t want to leave the camp for as long as possible, we were the last ones there and it felt special.
On the way back, Shankar and I discussed what the best plan was for Dan, and our friend Ed. He wanted to trek lower than Gorak Shep that evening. By the time we arrived back there we would have already walked 8 hours that day. With very little energy myself, but a sense of the urgency to get lower, I agreed that we needed to do it.
Back at the teahouse, I repacked our bags and set about preparing us to go lower. Dan didn’t understand how he was even going to do this. The lack of food and energy over the last few days had really taken its toll. Madeleine asked me what I needed, a Snickers bar and a beer (we left the beer out). We bid an emotional farewell, both promising to keep in touch the moment we had wifi.
All I could think was, do NOT twist your ankle. My thoughts then turned to, what an adventure. How magical are the stars? And I can’t wait to tell everyone about this. Of course I was hoping Dan and Ed were going to be ok, but getting lower was going to help that.
3 hours, 2 snickers bars, loads of Coca-Cola and maybe weeing on my own leg because I was so tired (I had no excuse, not like anyone was going to see me in the middle of the night in the middle of the Himalayas!), we made it back to where we started and clambered into bed. The boys had two duvets and hot water bottles to keep them warm… I didn’t. I freshened up (don’t worry!) and tried to sleep, but feeling the cold lay onto my body (minus 15 again), I doubt I got much.
Day 10 – Lobuche – Pheriche (4,371m)
We’re walking lower to Pheriche, we can take our time but neither of the boys are feeling much better just yet. We walk and talk for about 4 hours, knowing that the whole of the rest of the group have opted out of the climb to the summit of Kala Pattar. The lack of acclimatisation has taken its toll on all of us and they’re on their way down behind us.
We’d been at Pheriche 5 minutes when Shankar tells us a helicopter is on its way. What?! For us? Yes, to take you and Dan to Kathmandu. What?! Yep, it’s covered in your insurance, GAdventures have sorted it all. Come with me.
Something in me almost didn’t want to, but having seen the way Dan was the last few days, we had to get out of the mountains. I felt like a cop out. I felt like I wanted to complete the trek, but Dan was so out of it I had to go too.
Out of nowhere came a helicopter, picking us up, as if they’d just called for a taxi. This just wasn’t quite the setting I imagined my first helicopter ride would be in, but my god I’m glad it was. Seeing the path we had followed all those days ago up to Dingboche, it made me really value the experience of the trek.
We transferred at Lukla, where the infamous run way didn’t seem like such a risky rollercoaster as we were off it before we were even on it, and being whisked back to the city, Dan was asleep, but I spent the whole 30 minute journey watching the mountains disappear and green hills and villages come into sight, before the hazy colours of KTM started to appear.
Another thrill-seeking ride in the back of an ambulance, more like a van, head on into the traffic of KTM. Dan was asleep, again. At the hospital they were quick to determine Dan as having Acute Mountain Sickness. We spent the night, Dan was asleep for all of it while I enjoyed a shower (though no hair washes just yet!) some real food, salad!! and the banana Madeleine and I had been dreaming of all along. Oh and of course the delights of a fold out bed.
The team had made it back to Pheriche, their descent had a long way to go. I’d prepared myself for the long way down, although unfortunately it’s not just down, Nepali flat don’t forget. 2 more days of walking 3 days distance again don’t forget the lack of days due to our delayed start. Not only this, a delay at Lukla, waiting for the weather to clear to make it back to KTM to join us.
I’m grateful that we were back in Kathmandu. Showered, eaten fresh food, Dan was safe, and we could start our recovery now. Not to say that I didn’t still wish we were with the group in the mountains.
Looking back on the trip, I know that I had trained and done everything I could to get to Base Camp, the body can do it's thing, but it's what your mind does to control it. The mind can tell your body what you want it to achieve, it's then down to your mind to keep telling your body that you can do it. While we were trekking, my focus was on my breath, a meditative focus on how the breath moved with my body, the pace of my legs and the pace of my heart. The higher you go, the more of that pace you need.
What a group of people to trek with, from many walks of life and many different reasons to be there on that mountain. I will never forget any of you.