Eight Days to Everest
Day One: Lukla Airport, 2860m (9,383ft), to Namche Bazaar, 3440m (11,286ft)
It was 7am when a rickety bus dropped us in front of an even more rickety plane. Day one and we were already risking our lives with a short, bumpy flight from Kathmandu to Lukla, rated the most dangerous airport in the world and the starting point for our eight-day trek to Everest Base Camp. Luckily, the view from the airplane was breathtaking enough to distract us from the sudden tilts and lurches of our 10-seater aircraft. Swooping into a narrow valley the nose of the plane tipped downward. Through the front windows of the open cockpit we could see the runway: short, steep and sloped 45 degrees uphill in front of us. “I thought we were going to crash into the runway,” said Jeremy, “that was the most incredible flight of my life.”
We set off on the trail directly from the runway. Our backpacks stuffed with 30 pounds of essentials, we embarked on our first (and longest) leg of the trip: eight hours to Namche Bazaar, a central market town at 3440m.
Trekking (aka hiking, backpacking, or tramping) in Nepal is not like trekking in the United States. The trails have not been constructed by trail teams for the purpose of walking into wilderness. The trails in Nepal were constructed out of necessity by the people who live along them. They are, in effect, a road connecting remote, high mountain villages (actually, village may be an overstatement) to lower, resource-rich towns. However, these “roads” are trafficked only by donkeys, horses, yaks, porters, and trekkers. And of course, the “trails” have adapted to the influx of trekkers making it easy to find hotels, restaurants, toilets, hot showers, and even wifi (if you want to pay for it) along the way.
I am sure that many hardcore hikers would think this style of trekking to be weak, but trust me, it has its benefits. Even the hardest-core hikers can’t deny the pleasure of a light pack, a readymade bed, and a hot home-cooked meal after a long, cold day of hiking at high altitude. Well, we certainly weren’t complaining! The first day whooped us. With our out-of-shapeness confirmed, we had no problem getting our moneys worth at our first hotel: twelve-glorious-hours-of-sleep-worth.
Day Two: Day trip to Khumjung, 3970m (13,024ft)
Our legs and lungs were thankful for the rest on Day Two. Well, we kind of rested. If you call a three-hour day trip up to the village, Khumjung, rest. The extra effort was well worth it, however, as we were rewarded with our first view of Mt. Everest and the equally impressive peaks of Lhotse and Ama Dablam.
Being in the mountains is a complete 180 from Kathmandu. Aside from the obvious change of environment, the people residing in the Himalayas are different too. They are Tibetan or Sherpa, and the trails and towns are embellished with symbols of their culture. In the midst of massive mountains and blue-blue skies you’ll find colorful prayer flags, stone mani walls, painted Buddha eyes, and spinning mani wheels – an unparalleled blend of culture and nature.
The small town of Khumjung was beautiful: a quiet settlement of stone houses at the base of a gigantic mountain. If we had known about the charm of its local atmosphere beforehand – and if we hadn’t been so exhausted – it would have been a great place to stay “off the beaten path”. Instead, we ran our fingers lightly over the thousands of prayers carved into the longest mani wall of the region and descended back down to Namche for the night.
Day Three: Tengboche, 3867m (12,687ft)
Feeling rested and well acclimated to the thinner air, we were on the trail by the time the sun had crested the peaks, headed for Tengboche. It was a short walk, ending with a bit of a climb, but probably one of the most beautiful portions of the hike.
May is one of the peak hiking months in Nepal because the weather is a bit warmer and the rhododendrons are in full bloom. We stopped countless of times along the way as we encountered more and more, and better and better, photo opportunities. With so many different hues of rhododendron trees at different angles in front of the snow capped Himalayas, the scenery was constantly changing, becoming more strikingly beautiful with every step.
We reached Tengboche by noon and were greeted with yet another incredible vista. Tengboche is known for its stunning hilltop monastery, the largest gompa in the Khumbu region of Nepal. Circling the building clockwise, spinning the prayer wheels around its perimeter, we could hear the monks chanting inside. In the courtyard, the jingle of bells melted into the ambiance as yaks lazily grazed on the dry earth.
And from this village too, the top of Everest could be seen in the distance. Always with a plume of wispy cloud and snow blowing off the south side, she sat there taunting us; sitting and waiting for our arrival.
Day Four: Dingboche, 4530m (14,800ft)
It was a happy accident and one cold, windy afternoon that landed us in the town of Dingboche further up the road. While distracted taking pictures of cute, little houses, we missed our unmarked turn off (originally wanting to sidestep a leg of the main trekking route) and found ourselves in a popular resting point before midday.
The clouds were already rolling in, so we found a guesthouse and unpacked for the night. We were half way to Everest at this point and the weather was noticeably colder. Unfortunately, hot tea was exponentially more expensive as well. It was our first very cold night in the uninsulated plywood rooms and I was already wearing 100% of my layers – all six of them.
Day Five: Day trip to Chhukung, 4800m (15,748ft) & Chhukung Ri, 5500m (18,045ft)
Waking early in the morning to the lovely sounds of our hotel owner hacking up a lung, I was relieved to see clear skies and bright sunshine.
Since our accident landed us in Dingeboche on the way up instead of on the way down, we decided to take advantage of the beautiful day and hike up the riverbed to the nearby “town” of Chhukung.
It was an easy day hike from Dingeboche (taking us under two hours), but brought us to one of the most impressive views of the trek. After a cup of hot tea at the base of the glacier, we hiked another hour up to Chhukung Ri, a relatively humble summit of 5550m, for an even more impressive panorama.
It’s difficult to describe the dramatic scenery of the Himalayas without repeating the same handful of adjectives over and over: incredibly beautiful, absolutely stunning, strikingly gorgeous, unbelievably enormous. At least those were some of the words we were muttering while staring out across the valley at the tallest mountains in the world.
Day Six: Lobuche, 4940m (16,210ft)
On our sixth day, we turned the corner and stood at the base of the valley leading to Everest Base Camp. It was a tough climb to the top of the glacial moraine field, and we were greeted by an eerie reminder of where we were headed: the resting place for many Western and Sherpa climbers.
When climbing expeditions make their way from Lukla to Base Camp, they bring with them dozens of prayer flags. It is a living Sherpa tradition to string prayer flags and silk scarves around stupa and memorial sites. They recite the words on the flags and pray to the mountain gods. It is a strong belief that the flags allow their prayers to be carried by the wind and protect them as they climb.
Throughout our trek we have learned that to summit Everest costs an average of $50,000 per person. Of that, about $4,000 goes to that climber’s individual Sherpa climber/porter. While Westerns get their picture taken and are rewarded with fame and glory, it’s the Sherpas who deserve the applaud. Without them, climbing Everest would still be a pipe dream. Sherpas climb ahead of Western climbers, set ropes and ladders, and find a safe route through the glacier’s crevasses. They also carry up over 100lbs of equipment, food, and oxygen tanks to each camp, setting up tents and kitchens before returning to Base Camp to bring up another load before the paying customers even arrive at Camp II. The work of the Sherpas is truly amazing and almost unfathomable, in my eyes. While small in size and numbers, these people are mighty. They live and die for these mountains.
Day Seven: Gorak Shep, 5164m (16,942ft) & Kala Patthar, 5550m (18,209ft)
At long last we reached Gorak Shep, a small settlement built purely for trekkers enroute to Base Camp. Just two hours shy of the renowned EBC, Gorak Shep is the last stop for lodges and restaurants, and the launching point for Kala Patthar.
It was 9 o’clock in the morning and we had already hiked the two hours to Gorak Shep from Lobuche. The air was thin and we were breathing hard, but our goal had not yet been accomplished. We needed to reach the peak of Kala Patthar before noon when the clouds would form. Finding a room quickly, we dropped our packs and found the trailhead.
The hike up to Kala Patthar was by far the most difficult climb we had encountered. It was our seventh day of consecutive hiking and we were tired. The air was so thin that we would have to stop every few minutes to catch our breath and let our wobbly legs regain strength. I remember thinking, screw base camp, just make it to the top of this and you’re done. At 5550m, Kala is a whole Vermont-sized mountain higher than Everest Base Camp – which has made the view from the top the iconic panorama of Mount Everest and Nuptse.
Finally, after what felt like a lifetime, but was really only an hour and a half, we made it to the top. Enthralled, and utterly exhausted.
It was perfect. We were all alone at the top of the world (well, close enough to the top of the world). Again, my vocabulary is too limit to describe the beauty and pride that filled my soul at that moment. Sitting at the top of Kala Patthar was definitely the climax of the trek. We were eye-to-eye with Everest, the tallest mountain on Earth.
Looking down at Base Camp, it felt as if going there was merely a formality. But even if it was at that point, we knew we had to do it. We had come this far after all. There was no way of getting out of it. By noon, the clouds began to take shape just as we predicted. We said our goodbyes to Everest, floating in clouds all the way down.
Day Eight: Everest Base Camp, 5364m (17,598ft)
Wooo! Base Camp, baby!! We cried, stepping off the rocky trail and on to the ice. This was it. The moment we’d been waiting and working for. We had officially made it to the base camp of Mount Everest. It was so surreal, we were almost under-enthusiastic at first (granted that could have just been the shock or oxygen deprivation).
It had been a full week of walking uphill and gasping for air, of muscle fatigue and mountain vistas, of sub-zero nights and increasingly overpriced dal bhat. But we had done it: made it to the end of the line. After crossing 45 miles of terrain and gaining 2500 meters of elevation, we had finally reached a small pit in the Himalayan mountains where we could go no further. So we sat. We sat for a long time.
Staring up in awe at the enormous walls of rock and ice before us, and then back down at all the tents and would-be summiters, a single thought crept into our minds simultaneously. “Let’s go home,” we said to each other, smiling at the synchrony.
After savoring one last look at how far we’d come, we turned to leave. With the sun on our backs and our eyes at the horizon, we began our long-awaited return trip home.