Thursday, April 18, 2013

Everest Base Camp Trek - 10/9/2012 to 10/21/2012

DAY ONE - Lukla to Phakding

We have about an hour in Lukla, the gate to the Everest Base Camp trek and other destinations. We stroll through the street which are full of life. The planes seems to be coming in with a great frequency, and there are dozens of people setting their first steps on the trail. The same amount of people seems to be coming back. And then, of course, there are the locals offering merchandise to both directions of the traffic.

Once we return to the tea house, I'm surprised to see a group wearing "horská služba" jackets. I go to say hi and find out that they are indeed a group of mountain rescue professionals from Czech Republic, and they are on their way to climb Mera Peak. I wish them good luck, they express the same, asking about our trip. We don't have time to go into many details; our porters arrived and it is time for our departure.

Nearly immediately we begin to head downhill. The trail is rough, uneven, and full of obstacles, might they be roots, rocks, crumbling steps or porters who as a common courtesy always have right of the way, and yaks who enjoy the same privilege, even though it is for a completely different reason.

We are surrounded by fields. Every household grows variety of vegetables, majority of which they use for their own consumption. Not everybody leaves for the winter, we are told, and those who stay have to make sure to have a reserve of staples to last them until the next season. Flowers are also common. I doubt the locals can afford the luxury of a flower garden so I suspect many of them grow wild, except for the ones near tea houses where they seem to be placed strategically to make customers feel welcome and lure them in.

Lunch consists of fried potatoes and mo-mos. And of course more lemon tea, which for the remainder of our trek remains my favorite.

The weather starts coming in in the afternoon. We are still several kilometers shy of our destination when the clouds roll in, there is a light drizzle that follows. We learn this is the typical weather pattern for this time of the year, sunny in the morning with clouds taking over in the afternoons. Rain is not as common, despite the threatening appearance of the clouds, there is usually no precipitation. But not today. Today the rain picks up as we arrive at Phakding and prevents us from an exploratory walk through the village. Instead we settle for a cup of hot chocolate and a great chat with Robyn and Gabe, a couple from Australia whom we met during a welcome event our agency organized in Kathmandu. Their journey is shorter than ours, due to health concerns they do not plan to venture above Tengboche. This means we have next couple of days to enjoy their company.

DAY TWO - Phakding to Namche Bazaar

All together we are a group of 6. Our guide Dorji is not as chatty as the sherpa guiding our Australian friends, but he seems polite every time we ask a question and genuinely concerned about our well being. I make a mental note to ask him to teach me few words in Nepalese later today.

The other two member of the stuff are our porters Nima ans Lapa.  They are just kids in my eyes but here their ages of 19 and 21 make them breadwinners in their prime. Like many of the porters we meet on the trail they are skinny, nearly fragile looking on their matchstick legs, but the appearance is deceiving. The amount of weight they can carry strapped to their back with a simple rope is incredible.

The two of us create majority of the clientele. With us treks Derek from Minessota. Our goal, Island Peak, would be his 3rd major peak to climb preceded by Kilimanjaro and Elbrus. 

The sun leaks into our room. One peek at my clock tells me it’s way before out “wake up tea” time but we get up anyway. The room we spent our first Himalayan night in is small and simply furnished. Two beds, nigh stand, and a dim light, that’s all.But it is also clean, comfortable, and warm. 

About an hour later we blend in the mix of trekkers, porters, yak herds, and donkeys. It’s not even 8:00 a.m. and the route is already busy.Everybody is taking advantage of the several sunny morning hours.

There are 5 suspension bridges to cross. Some sturdier, anchored firmly into the cliffs they are connecting, some not so much. I don’t look down and I don’t stop in the middle to take photos but otherwise I surprise myself and manage to cross all of them without butterflies in my stomach, wobbly legs or other sign of my uncontrollable fear of heights. 

Today we also face the first significant ascent of the trek, a 2600 feet climb to Namche Bazaar. We are able to maintain a steady pace but knowing we are in altitude, we don’t push too much, hoping we are giving our bodies enough time to adjust. Viewpoint of Mt.Everest and the line at the Sagarmantha National Park entrance where a fee of 3000 rupees per trekker has to be paid, provide opportunity for short breaks. 

Our destination for the day, Namche Bazaar, is the biggest village en route to Everest Base Camp, and the biggest trade center in the region. It sits on crescent shaped slopes in elevation of 11,286 ft (3,440 m)and enjoys spectacular views of surrounding mountains.

It’s 2:45 p.m. when we arrive, the clouds are rolling in.There isn’t a compulsory acclimatization hike on schedule today, and as tired as we are, it’s tempting to fall in the bed which by the way has a warming blanket, but curiosity wins and we set out for a short exploratory walk. 

The village with its narrow cobblestone streets and countless steps charms us instantly.  We walk past store fronts and coffee shops until we reach the end of the shopping district. The path continues and we pass several dwellings before we find ourselves on an open slope. Faint, the path is still there and we follow, finding a great viewpoint where we call it a day and after snapping few photos we retrace our steps to Namche Hotel. 

DAY THREE - Namche

Some call it a rest day, some acclimatization day. I’m leaning towards the latter as our schedule for today really does not have much rest incorporated in.

Our first stop is a viewpoint with an outstanding view ofAma Dablam. From there we ascent to 12,500 feet where we enjoy a cup of tea inEverest View Hotel, one of the most expensive lodgings one can find in thearea. The 300 feet climb to get there is on a steep but well treaded path.Looking down we see a constant line of people braving the incline.

The prices on the menu are just as steep as the accommodation here (rooms start around $350.00 a night) but it’s not everyday that one can sip on a cup of tea on a terrace overlooking the highest mountain in the world so we pay the premium and enjoy the views.

Afterwards we continue towards village of Khumjung where a monastery claims to hold a rare Yeti skull, and later we visit Khunde, home of local hospital.

The valley also gives us opportunity to observe bits and pieces of everyday live. Women are sitting in fields shredding potatoes which they then let dry on sun. Dorji tells us these shreds are an important staple during wintertime. Another popular activity is forming large discs from yak dung. There is not a fence in sight that would not have them plastered all over. Once dried they are a source of cheap fuel. 

Once back in Namche, we still have a reasonable portion of the day left. Somebody recommends a German Bakery which we find just a staircase above our hotel. It's good. The hot chocolate is thick and pastries as delicate as you can wish for in this elevation. So far the altitude did not kill my appetite. It's probably a good thing but little weight loss would not feel bad either.

DAY FOUR - Namche to Tengboche

In the morning we say good bye to Robyn and Gabe. They are going to spend an extra night in Namche, Robyn's headache is not going away and it would be unwise for them to proceed higher. If the extra day helps, they might try for Tengboche where they originally planned to finish their journey tomorrow, or head back down; whichever will make more sense.

The first part of our day is easy. The trail is unusually flat, then it starts sloping down. And down we go, all the way to the river which means there is likely a brutal uphill ahead of us. But not before lunch at a small village of Phunki Tenga during which we strike a conversation with two Australian guys. There is a surprising number of people from Australia around. Canadians are also largely represented here, and every day we meet at least one Czech group. Americans, on the other hand, are rare.

The uphill is easier that we expected it to be. The trail is smooth and nicely graded. We manage to scale the 600 meters of elevation gain in about hour and half. That puts us in Tengboche at quite early hour. Unfortunately the clouds are having an early day also and we face fog and high winds during our acclimatization hike. I long for views but I have to admit that the fast moving clouds are quite fascinating.

Upon return to the village we plan to visit Tengboche Monastery, the highest monastery in the world. Visitors are welcome to watch the service so with many others we take our boots off and spend the next hour or so enjoying this very special experience.

We are treated to a spectacular sunset tonight. The clouds are usually too thick to allow for colors but tonight the evening hues reflect of the Ama Dablam's face like fire. We can also see the trail we took for our acclimatization hike. It leads to some amazing vistas. Next time around we have to allow an extra day here also, just for the views it would be will be worth it.

DAY FIVE - Tengboche to Pheriche

I wake up un-rested. After using my sleeping back for the first time during our trip, I found out the zipper is broken and the cold leaking into the bag wakes me up several times during the night. We are now at 12,687 ft (3,860 m), the morning air is crisp, ground still frosted over from the previous night. For the first time during this trek I start the day shivering.

It is an easier day. We start on a downhill walking through Rhododendron forrest. It must be a beautiful section of the trail when the trees are in bloom. The path takes up to the river which we cross and then gradually start gaining the valley on the other side.

We cover quite some distance today. Luckily the further we get, the easier the terrain becomes. Pheriche lies in a long valley often scoured by high winds. Many trekkers chose to travel through Dingboche instead where they take another acclimatization day. Our itinerary has us on move for the rest of the way to Everest Base Camp and couple days afterwards. We start questioning whether the lack of second rest day can affect our performance higher up. Dorji assures us we will be fine if we walk slowly but after meeting a man in our tea house looking completely exhausted saying climbing Kala Pattar was the worst thing he has ever done, and a woman who had to be brought down on stretcher, we are not so sure.

Later in the day there is a presentation on altitude sickness at a local hospital and we start questioning the lack of another acclimatization day even further.

Pheriche hospital is one of two aid posts of Himalayan Rescue Association of Nepal. It was built in 1974 by the Japanese as a hospital and a research center. It is now stuffed by volunteer doctors from all around the world. After the presentation we have a chance to peak inside the hospital, and have our oxygen level tested.

Despite the fact my oxygen level was surprisingly high, I start getting a headache later on while we sit in a tea house we found in town that has a TV. It's cozy warm inside but I can detect the smell of kerosene in the room. I believe that's what triggers my headache but the fact remains that it's not getting better even after we leave and get in much fresher air. 

DAY SIX - Pheriche to Lobuche

My headache is much better when I wake up. But at this point I'm also fighting runny nose, scratchy throat and other signs of cold. My energy level is not too high. 

We start early in the morning. The ground under our feet is solid, and it will remain such until the afternoon sun puts mud puddles in the trekkers way. Trees are long gone, the only vegetation left consists of few species of sturdy grass. Views consist of rugged peaks - Taboche, Cholatse, Arakam Tse to the West, in the East our eyes can feast on Nankar Tshang and Pokalde. I appreciate the change in scenery - as rock and ice surrounds us we finally feel like being in the Himalayas. 

We now also start feeling the decrease in oxygen. Even shorter hills leave us huffing and puffing. Luckily there are so many opportunities for "photo" stops. 

With the altitude comes frigidity. The sun, even though shining brightly, is not as nearly as warm as it was couple days ago, and frequent wind adds to the temperature drop. I'm bundled in most of my layers, save my huge puffy coat, wearing a buff over my head, and a hat over it. I must look ridiculous but the setup keeps the elements out, and me warm, at least while I'm moving.

Lobuche is the smallest village we visited so far consisting of handful of buildings. It doesn't have the vibe of the other villages either. Everything seems slower here. People are walking slower. People are talking slower. Expressions they are wearing on their faces are of exhaustion. But we are now nearly touching the altitude of 5000 meters, and I don't blame anybody for not being in a party mood.

I'm pretty tired myself. The altitude wears me out just as much as my cold. Headache reapers. This time I reach for diamox.

Like many others I hide in my room as soon as the clouds come and try to take a nap. Tomorrow is bringing our toughest day on schedule and extra rest would help but the sleep is not coming. I'm cold. Not just chilly. Cold. I wish my sleeping bag worked. Every time I move, no matter how insignificant the movement is, I feel a stream of freezing air washing over my body. I'm wearing my down booties, but still my toes feel like icicles. Finally I give up and go warm up in the kitchen.

DAY SEVEN - Lobuche to Everest Base Camp to Gorak Shep

We are on our way with first sign of daylight, braving the hostile morning of the Khumbu Region. The frigid air burns in my nostrils. My fingers freeze each time I take my heavy mittens off to snap a shot.

The world around consists of rock and ice. From the barren landscape some of the highest peaks in the world loom above us. In just few hours we are to reach Everest Base Camp. The path is relentless. Up and down, up and down. Even the down becomes a workout.

It takes us 3 hours to cover the approximately 2.75 miles (800 ft el. gain) between Lobuche and Gorak Shep, the last village en route. After a brief and much welcome stop for lunch we head to the base of the tallest mountain. The scenery takes my breath away (so does the altitude). 

Our path leads us through the valley atop glacial moraine. We follow the rugged contours of Khumbu Glacier, admiring the mass of ice beneath the rock. To our West Pumori proudly rises to the sky, Nuptse dominates the East. 

Should this ridge be some 10,000 feet lower, it would be so much fun to negotiate. Here in altitude every step is a chore, and any larger move - as simple as a step over a boulder - requires one to pause for a few seconds to catch a breath. But we are making progress. The Khumbu Ice Fall is getting closer, and finally about 2 hours after leaving Gorak Shep we touch the ground of Everest Base camp.

The conditions are fabulous  it is clear yet warm with no wind. We face a choice here - either to continue to the true camp which is about 1/4 mile away, and the effort would require additional couple hundred feet of elevation gain on the way back, or be content with the "tourist" spot where the camp once used to be. Given our condition we chose the latter, even though we are kicking our buts for not even trying.

On the other hand we are really happy to have made it here. We were prepared to see and maybe even deal with altitude sickness but the magnitude hits us hard. There is not a day gone by we don't meet somebody who is being evacuated to lower grounds. Some can barely walk, some are carried on stretchers. Two casualties are reported.

Back in Gorak Shep our rooms are ready. They are small, furnished with two squeaky beds. The thin cardboard walls leak voices from several adjoining units. We have no reason to hover. As soon as we drop off our bags, we retreat to the dining room, which is now full of people, good atmosphere, and warmth.

While my headache is under diamox control, my cold is getting worse. We're over 5000 meters high. I don't blame my body for not having the strength to fight it. Dave starts feeling queasy too. He chooses to rest while I try to get some writing done but my brain is not acclimatized enough to come up with anything of higher quality so instead I enjoy an interesting conversation with a fellow trekker from Czech Republic, before I too, feel like it's a good time to hit the sack.

DAY EIGHT - Gorak Shep to Pheriche

The altitude is getting the best of us. Dave still feels nauseated, diamox is not helping much. My nose is stuffy, my throat burns. Neither of us can sleep. We toss and turn, trying every imaginable position to get comfortable. This is by far the worst night of the trip, the kind when you look at the clock with a great frequency hoping that maybe despite being aware of it you managed to fall asleep, just to find out that barely 15 minutes passed from your last check.

The plan is to see sunrise from the top of Kala Patthar. This means we have to rise early, much earlier than on any other day of this trip. It's still pitch dark when we meet Dorji, Derek, and another group from Himalayan Glacier Trekking company outside the tea house. It's freezing. Dry biting cold penetrating through every layer we have.

Climbing Kala Patthar, the brown bump rising against the formidable South face of Pumari turns out to be a challenge our bodies refuse to complete. Dave's nausea progressively worsens. My nose is running lice a faucet. We move at a slower rate than our bodies can generate heat, and despite of heading uphill, my toes feel frozen solid.

We are about 2/3 up when we decide to turn. I'm worried about Dave's nausea, I don't want to risk letting it progress to any more serious form of altitude sickness but even if he were perfectly fine, my body simply refuses to make a step further in the uphill direction. We can see the top. It's so close but for our condition so unreachably far. I've read stories about mountaineers turning couple of hundred feet from the summit for reason other than the conditions of the terrain, and often I was wondering why they could not pull that bit of will power to complete their quest. Now I know.

On the way down I have plenty of time to contemplate on what went wrong. Would it make a difference if we had taken the extra rest day? Would it helped if we stayed put at the first signs of my cold to let it get better before proceeding further? In my head I'm playing various scenarios but the outcome is always the same, and it comes down to time. Yes, we should have taken more time for acclimatization.

Time. There is not enough of it in our itinerary to allow our bodies to recover and strengthen before our planned Island Peak climb. The high altitude won't help Dave's nausea, neither it will cure my cold. It's a sad realization, but the safe thing to do is to abandon the climb and return to lower elevation.

Our choices are justified later that day. Two members of the other Himalayan Glacier Trekking group join us for a cup of tea after the long descent all the way to Pheriche. We chat about our experiences, waiting for two more people from their group to arrive, father and a daughter. An hour passes by, then another one. There is no sign of them. The father and daughter team were last seen during lunch break in Dughla, and the men was noticeably having hard time keeping his balance. Another hour passes by. We know their guide and porter are with them, still we worry.

Finally they arrive, 4 hours after we did. The father is not doing well. We suggest the daughter takes him to the doctor, luckily we are in Pheriche and there is one available. The doctor suspects HACE and immediately puts him on oxygen. Next day he is airlifted to a hospital in Kathmandu where HAPE is also diagnosed.

Time. Their itinerary pushed them up just as fast as ours did. Even though it seemed similar if not same to others we saw while researching the trip, it simply did not allow enough time for acclimatization. It is an expensive lesson but one well learned.

DAY TEN - Pheriche to Phortse

Every morning Dorji gives us an overview of our day, even now on descent when our schedule is more relaxed we go over details on how the next stage of our trek should unfold. Today our objective is Phortse, remote village sitting on a platform in 12,467 ft. Dorji uses term "Nepalese Flat" several times which means we are in for some climbing. He also mentions it will take us approximately four hours to get there which in reality means at lest five.

We are right in both counts. Even during the trek back we face many decent uphills. We were at the same altitude just few days ago and while then the air felt thinner, now the very same air flows to our lunch rich in oxygen, helping us mainitain reasonable speed. Still, the trail to Phortse seems never-ending.

The tea house here is not busy. Apart of us it hosts only 2 other groups, three friends from Slovakia, and a group of 10 mountaineers heading to climb Ama Dablam. One of them as we learn later is Dr. Monica Chavarri from Everest Beyod the Limits TV show.

DAY ELEVEN - Phortse to Namche Bazaar

Finally a rest-full night. My energy is returning, so it's my appetite. I wolf on Tibetian Bread, a simple Elephant Ear-like fried dough, my favorite breakfast in Nepal. They eat it sweet here with honey, jam or butter. 

Dorji tells us that the high point of today is only about 200 meters higher than where we are now. From there it will be an easy descent all the way to Namche. He forgets to mention the bad news, that before we can start the climb, we have to cross the river first. The river flows all the way down the valley, some 200 meters below us. To cross it, we have to get to it, thus our elevation gain for the day quickly doubles. 

From a distance the uphill seems daunting. Narrow trail on a steep exposed slope. Anxiety starts creeping in my mind - should we have gone back the same way we trekked in, through Tenchboche on the other side of the valley?

In reality the trail is well thread and wide enough to erase all the worry. We make the uphill in just little over an hour, and we surprise ourselves again after lunch when Dorji tells us it's another couple hours to Namche and we cover the distance in half of that time.

I like Namche. I like its vibe, the mix of languages spoken on the streets, and the saddle tones of the Tibetan mantra Om Mani Padme Hum playing from the storefronts. And I like the hot chocolate at the German bakery, one stop we cannot miss before we leave.

DAY TWELWE - Namche Bazaar to Lukla

I remember clearly the people we met during our first day of trekking laboring up the last hill before reaching Lukla, and ever since I dread that incline. Perhaps they were rushing up the hill to catch a plane because walking it at a regular pace does not seem bad. 

Missing plane in Lukla is not good news. If it happens one can quickly find himself on a several days long waiting list. Coming early is not ideal either.
Dorji puts us in a tea house and immediately starts working on our flight. Our original tickets are booked for five days later, the time we were to use for Island Peak climb. To get them changed is not a matter of a standard procedure, you don't just walk to the customer service desk and get it taken care of. Like with many other things here in Nepal, your luck depends on who knows who around. We hope Dorji knows the right people. 

Today is the last day for the whole group to be together. Our porters are leaving tomorrow to work for another client. They are paid by day and with the season being relatively short they can't effort to take a day off. Tonight we have a good bye party for them. We are now at the lowest elevation of our trek, we are not climbing anymore, and for the first time in the mountains we order a bottle of bear. 

The tea house fills with French musicians. They are singing, playing accordion  and dancing. It's a merry way to conclude this trek and we enjoy the evening until it's closing time. Dorji tells us to meet him around ten. Whether we will be able to fly out or not he still doesn't know. 


There are only two planes flying instead of the regular four, and for a while the weather shuts down the flights altogether. Eventually they resume but with every minute gone by, our chances of leaving Lukla get slimmer until them diminish completely.

We spend the afternoon shopping, sipping cofee, and trying to connect to internet. Our plan, if we make it out of Lukla in next couple of days, is to visit Chitwan National Park but the biggest Hindu festival of the year is happening right now, and that means that half of the country is on vacation and travelling. Getting to Chitwan might not be easy under the circumstances. We hope to find bus information online, possibly even an agency that could arrange the stay and transportation for us. The wi-fi in Lukla is free, and you get exactly what you pay for. We're not smarter when we finally give up, just angrier. 

Not much is happening in our tea house tonight so we venture to town. A local group plays live at one of the bars. The music is good, but the wiring can't handle the instruments well, and every time the guitarist gets little more excited, the lights in the whole building flicker

When the morning comes, the scene is not unlike the one we witnessed yesterday. People line in front of the tea houses, waiting for a phone call that their flight is ready. Even those with tickets for that particular day cannot be sure they will fly out. The weather can shut the operation down on a very short notice.

We're not in a hurry, any seats we might get would be leftovers after today's passengers are taken care of, so we slowly eat our breakfast, soaking up the morning atmosphere, wishing good luck to those who should be flying in next couple of hours. The sooner they are gone, the better chances we have to get on.

We hardly have time to swallow the last pieces of our meal when Dorji storms in. "Come, come. We have to go." 
We follow him to the airport where he pushes us through security and next thing we know we are loaded into an airplane, ahead of most of the people we talked to earlier. The whole time Dorji doesn't say much, leaving us curious about the story behind his content smile. It's not until the place is airborne that he admits a group of four was a bit late for their departure... and well he was in the right place in the right time.

Farewell Himalayas. We came with dreams and hopes, we came to challenge ourselves in a way we've never done before. And you didn't fail to deliver. We are leaving richer by an amazing experience... yet many desires remain. You will see us soon again.