28 August 2013

Everest Base Camp Trek - Days 9 to 12: The Journey Back to Lukla

To read all posts on my Everest Base Camp trek, click here for the complete series.

Everest Base Camp Trek - at Pheriche heading down to Tengboche
At Pheriche (4,200 meters / 13,776 feet), heading back down to Tengboche. Dhan Kumar ahead of the pack, as usual.

Days 9 to 12: June 6-9, 2013

After the exhilaration of reaching Everest Base Camp (and writing about it), I know it seems a bit anti-climactic to cover the 4-day trek back to Lukla. But for the sake of people who happen to drop by this little blog and are wondering what to expect after reaching the foot of Mount Everest --well, here it is.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, it takes eight days to reach EBC and four days back down, covering almost the same path. Why four days only? Naturally, descent is faster, and as you go further down, more oxygen starts to fill up your lungs. This then results in your body recovering from oxygen deprivation and you begin to feel a whole lot better. Just doing a descent of 600-900 meters already does wonders.

As I trekked for four days from Gorak Shep to Pheriche to Tengboche to Monjo and back to Lukla, I was feeling stronger, faster. The triumph of reaching Everest Base Camp erased all remaining worries from my head about altitude sickness because I was heading "down" already. "Down" meant lower altitude but it did not take away the fact that I still had to deal with alternating uphills and downhills on the way back.

But the body does recover significantly better after descending from a height of 5,000+ meters, so even the uphills at lower levels did not bother me anymore. I was practically cruising along the path, despite the pressure on the knees during some places where we were doing continuous descents.

By this time, I was more comfortable about the path ahead; I could afford to tune out a bit from the rest of the world, put on my earphones, and listen to music on my iPhone.  I let Madan and Dhan Kumar walk ahead and I just followed them, enjoying some music at last. I had been music-deprived for the past eight days because I was conserving phone battery most of the time and I did not want any distractions on the path heading up to Base Camp.

On Day 9, as we headed down to Pheriche, I slipped on a part of the path that was muddy and I fell on my butt.  We weren't even in completely muddy terrain. And then 30 minutes later, I tripped on a root because I was too busy singing along to The Strokes.

Madan and Dhan Kumar had worried looks on their faces, but I was laughing as I hauled myself up on those two occasions.  I had gone up to Everest Base Camp without falling and without any serious injuries.  But here I was, the day after, falling on the ground twice. So lesson learned here is: remain safe and cautious on the trek even after you've achieved Base Camp!

They were my last--and only--minor accidents throughout the whole 12-day trek. I think I've done extremely well in this trip, just getting away with two minor incidents and a blister on my right foot.  I didn't even feel any sprain on the ankle nor did my butt hurt afterwards.  Overall, I've been one hell of a lucky girl.

Fellow trekkers

I kept running into trekkers who were on their way to Base Camp and I made sure to say hello to all of them. I was basically paying it forward. Many times along the path up to EBC, trekkers who were heading back to Lukla would greet me and wish me luck. When you're struggling with the altitude and the uphills, a cheery greeting from a stranger is sometimes all you need to feel better. The community spirit is incredible up in the Himalayas, and any well-meaning traveler would simply want their fellow trekkers to stay safe on the path.

Two guys asked me how far it would take to reach Gorak Shep, and it felt nice to help and give them advice. An American also asked me about the weather conditions in Everest Base Camp; he was to reach it in the next one or two days, and was also planning on summitting nearby Mount Kala Pattar (5,555 meters / 18,204 feet).

A Chinese national also approached me back down at Thukla; he thought I was Chinese too. I wished him luck and watched him take on that difficult hill up to Dugla Pass on an extremely foggy day. I knew all too well how that hill was such a challenge.


Tengboche is one of the most picturesque places in the entire Everest Base Camp trail, so if you're doing the trek, make sure to stop here for a day to really see the area. I passed through Tengboche back in Day 4 on the way to Pangboche, but it was only for lunch. Now that we were journeying back to Lukla, it was great to arrive here in the early afternoon of Day 10, check in at our Tengboche teahouse for an overnight stay and stroll around this small village settlement.

Everest Base Camp Trek - picturesque Tengboche Village
Beautiful Tengboche, which boasts of stunning views of  Mounts Thamserku, Everest, Ama Dablam and Lhotse. In this photo, Everest is that small peak in the middle before it gets hidden by the clouds. 
Madan took me to the Tengboche Monastery, where, at 3:00 pm, guests are allowed to hear the monks chanting from their prayer books.  It is a beautiful and solemn ceremony. I sat there with fellow trekkers, entranced by what seemed like a graceful, never ending ebb and flow of words being chanted by the head monk, with the other monks seamlessly joining in on the chanting at certain moments. The chanting was rapid--so rapid that it had a hypnotic humming-like quality to it.

We were not allowed to take photos or record anything during the ceremony. Only after it was done could we take photos of the prayer room.

Tengboche Monastery along the Everest Base Camp trail
Tengboche Monastery's prayer room with its intricate interior art
Tengboche Monastery along the Everest Base Camp trail
A shrine on one end of the prayer room
The owner of the teahouse we stayed in (with the very original name of Tengboche Guest House) was a bustling, motherly woman who prepared for me the most delicious hot chocolate and dal bhat ever. I was indeed a happy camper in Tengboche.

Reaching Lukla -- and the Delayed Flight Back to Kathmandu

The air became significantly warmer in the last two days of the trek. Stuffed my gloves, wool hat, and fleece jacket into my day pack as we went past Monjo and were nearing Lukla. We covered around 7 to 8 hours of trekking that last day.

When I did my final uphill and crossed the archway leading into Lukla, I was close to tears because I had really, truly completed what I had obsessively set out to do.  I suppose Everest Base Camp puts every trekker in a highly emotional state. I know I was feeling all sorts of things as I crossed that archway --triumph, exhilaration, exhaustion mixed with an unusual feeling of superhuman strength, and even a growing anxiety over bidding the Himalayan landscape goodbye very soon.

This 12-day experience remains to be one of my life's proudest moments, because not everyone can say they've been there and done it. It is naturally not the same as the sweet victory of summiting Everest, but hey, Everest Base Camp is still not an easy trek and it never will be.

We stayed again at The Nest in Lukla, and had a celebratory pizza and pasta dinner that evening. Madan was to fly back with me to Kathmandu the next day but I knew it was Dhan Kumar's last night with us, so I was feeling some sort of separation anxiety already about my porter, who was like a younger brother to me all throughout the trek.

But then, I was meant to stay another day in Lukla because as luck would really have it, there have been no flights out of Lukla for the past 7 or 8 days. I woke up the next day and knew immediately, upon seeing the thick fog that enveloped the entire town, that flying out on a plane was a no-go. This was a scenario I was indeed expecting months back when I was planning the trip, but I still had trouble believing I was in that unfortunate situation.

Spent that day fretting and making calls to my travel agent, who was on standby to rebook my international flight should I really be stuck in Lukla for a while.  Madan was on the phone with Naba, coordinating for a possible helicopter ride out the next day for me.  He also made sure that I was on the first flight out the next day, should the weather indeed allow planes to fly.

Once more, I really appreciated the value of having a guide and a trekking agency to handle such logistics in my behalf.  I think many trekkers can do such arrangements themselves, but that does create some additional stress.  And when you've just completed a 12-day trek and you're physically and mentally exhausted, one of the last things you'd feel like doing is arranging transport logistics for a way out of Lukla.

Unbelievably enough, the skies were clear the next day. Madan and I found ourselves rushing up the steps heading to the Tenzing-Hillary airport of Lukla along with other stranded trekkers and locals -- all of us so eager to fly out to Kathmandu. I was only stuck in Lukla for a day, but I can just imagine how others (who may have been stranded for days and could not afford a chopper ride) were desperate to leave. When the siren sounded--indicating that the first flight will proceed as scheduled--everyone in the airport actually cheered.

Never expect things to be completely dull up in the Himalayas.

The first plane came and landed, bearing passengers from Kathmandu.  We were to ride on that plane heading back to the capital. The time it took to land, taxi, for the ground crew to handle baggage and for the outbound passengers to finally board took all of 20 minutes. TWENTY MINUTES! Gadzooks. I had never seen such incredible turnaround time ever.  And by the time we were boarding, the second plane had arrived and was taxiing up the short runway.

leaving Lukla
Boarding the plane for the flight back to Kathmandu. Bye bye Lukla! Bye bye Himalayas!
As the plane effortlessly took to the skies, I sat and craned my neck for glimpses of Everest and its neighboring mountains--these beautiful giants which I spent the past 12 or so days with. Reaching Base Camp was insanely hard, and it's honestly no picnic all throughout -- but I understand now the incredible lure of the Himalayas and why people keep coming back to this country. I thought doing Everest Base Camp this year would be my first and last time to see Nepal (as there are so many other countries I want to visit in my life), but I found myself already planning on when to see the Himalayas again while sitting on the plane.

The Nepalese language does not have any exact word for the term 'goodbye.' This seems wonderfully appropriate somehow because one can never really say goodbye to Nepal anyway. Namaste means hello in Nepali, and it is also what the locals say as a form of goodbye. And pheri bhetaula means 'see you again.'

So yes, there are no goodbyes for you, Nepal -- just 'namaste, pheri bhetaula' because I know that I'll be seeing you again someday.

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If you want the same Everest Base Camp trek experience I had, visit Himalayan Planet Adventures and go for the 16-day Everest Base Camp trek package.

09 August 2013

Everest Base Camp Trek - Day 8: I finally reach Base Camp!

To read all posts on my Everest Base Camp trek, click here for the complete series.

Everest Base Camp trek: the road out of Lobuche
Cloudy day. The trek from Lobuche to Everest Base Camp started okay, but would progressively get harder as the day wore on.

Day 8: June 5, 2013

Normally on my birthday, I would wake up to the sound of my phone incessantly beeping, with people greeting me on SMS or on Facebook. Or my younger sisters would be waking me up by leaping onto the bed and yelling out, "Happy Birthday!"

On my 33rd birthday, in Lobuche, I woke up to an eerily quiet morning with the sun's rays entering through the windows of my cold, tiny room. It was a strange feeling. I stayed in bed for a little while longer, absorbing the fact that I was now 33 and that I would be climbing up to Everest Base Camp that same day.  I wanted to reach EBC very, very badly, and it felt like it was the birthday gift that would make me work the hardest to deserve.

Sadly enough, I couldn't get a bath on my birthday (of all days!), so once more I had to resort to my best friend--a huge pack of antibacterial wet wipes. As I dressed, I moved my phone to a spot in the room that had some mobile signal.  And then all the SMS notifications started coming in. They were a mix of birthday greetings and of concerned messages from people asking me if I was still alive.

At breakfast, Madan and Dhan Kumar were there to greet me a happy birthday with amiable smiles and in their typically gentle Nepalese tone of voice--so different from my sisters' grand attempts to wake up the neighbors with their loud birthday greetings.

The plan that day was to trek for two hours from Lobuche to Gorak Shep (elevation: 5,160 meters / 16,929 feet), have lunch, and then trek for 2-3 hours more to Everest Base Camp.  After EBC, we would head back to Gorak Shep and stay there for the night.

For obvious reasons, this was going to be a day I would never forget. The moment we left the basic comforts of our Lobuche teahouse, I was instantly swallowed up by the wilderness. Extremely thin air, cold wind, fog, some rain, rocky trails--you name it, I got it all on my birthday.

the uphill path to Gorak Shep
This hill looks small but it took more than 1 hour to climb to the top due to the altitude.
The air was getting thinner and thinner and every gasp of breath was precious. Worse, I learned that day from trail guides we encountered on the path that two trekkers had died very recently and never made it to base camp.  One was a 22-year-old female (I never got to know what her nationality was) who reached only as far as Lobuche and had to be rushed down to Pheriche due to severe altitude sickness. But by then, it was way too late for her. The other trekker was a 25-year-old Malaysian man, who also fell ill at Lobuche and died shortly thereafter--a full day before I had arrived there.

I was distraught. Two casualties--and very young people at that--already within this short span of time. I remembered the group of strong Malaysians I was with on the plane to Lukla, and I wondered if the 25-year-old was part of that group and if they had gone up the trail too fast without much acclimatization--leaving one dead and apparently another person in their group critically ill.

Now that I was on my eight trekking day, I was bone-tired and just ready to complete what I had set out to do. I hadn't expected such terrible news on my birthday, but instead of freaking out in a major way, I just turned to my guide and porter and said almost wearily, "I don't want to die on my birthday. Let's just make it to Base Camp safely and without any rush, please."

Of course, I was lucky to have such supportive companions who watched over me constantly. As we negotiated the uphill, windy path to Gorak Shep, I made sure to take it easy. On the slopes of a difficult hill, I ran into the Chinese trekker I met back in Dingboche.  He was beaming as he shook hands with me; he had reached Everest Base Camp yesterday, and said it was beautiful. I was relieved to see a familiar, friendly face in the cold wilderness and was almost reluctant to see him leave as he bade me farewell and wished me luck.

By the time we reached Gorak Shep, I was ready to collapse. In my breathless, exhausted state, I couldn't believe that I needed to trek three more hours to Everest Base Camp and another three on the way back. Lunch at Gorak Shep was vegetable fried rice, and I could only eat one-thirds of my meal. My appetite was completely f*cked up at this point, and I had to practically force-feed myself. I wouldn't have even been surprised anymore if Madan or Dhan Kumar had started shoving the rice into my mouth, because we all knew we had to massively carbo-load for the 3-hour ordeal ahead.

The Himalayas
The great Himalayas right before me
The path from Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp was difficult--and rightfully so. Just like in the books and in the movies, it only made sense that the most challenging part of any journey would be the very last stretch. Those three lonely hours in that barren wasteland were unforgettable. I kept my head slightly down to block off the wind, and I just concentrated on putting one foot ahead of the other. One, two, one, two, one two, I counted numbly in my head. By then, conversation amongst the three of us had whittled down to utter silence, and I was lost in my own thoughts as I shuffled up the path.

I normally walk fast in my country, but here, at more than 5,000 meters above sea level in a climate so foreign to me, I was walking uphill at the pace of a 60-year-old--yet my heart was pounding like I was running 5 minutes per kilometer. I was alarmed at the beating of my heart, and forced myself to breathe regularly even though I felt I couldn't fill up my lungs anymore because of the thin air.  We passed stunningly beautiful glaciers, and every 10 minutes or so, we would hear a booming sound. Rocks were falling from nearby hills and mountains. It was terrifying. On that barren path with the jagged, icy peaks of the Himalayas surrounding us, I had never felt so small and insignificant in my life.

Finally, we came across these massive rock boulders that we had to scramble over, and Madan said we were very near. Well, this trek sure never made anything easy, even in the last eight minutes before reaching base camp.

As I crossed and entered Everest Base Camp territory, Madan and Dhan Kumar were standing there with smiles on their faces. They had been to EBC countless of times--so this particular day meant hardly anything to them--but I knew they were happy for me. I wasn't the type to throw my trekking poles into the air and scream in pure joy that I've made it. I just stood still and enjoyed that moment of triumph quietly. I even patted the general area where my scar is--a small tradition I always carry out every time I accomplish something major physically. Profound relief coursed through my body as I drew yet another ragged breath and said to myself, "Well, that's that. I've finally done it."

I finally reach Everest Base Camp
I finally reach Everest Base Camp! Elevation: 5,364 meters (17,598 feet) above sea level
Everest Base Camp was desolate and treacherous-looking with no other signs of life. No camping tents, no prayer flags, since the yearly expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest only takes place around May. For the rest of the year, the camp is usually bare. It is a place that is terribly beautiful to behold during the monsoon season: a barren, rocky land with swirling mists, the clouds lying so low, and with no sound save for the wind and our voices. It is quite deadly, with only around 50 percent available oxygen in its atmosphere compared with that of sea level; at the summit of Mt. Everest, oxygen supply level is only at one-thirds.

I had not expected the Khumbu Icefall to be so near, yet there it was--a mass of treacherous, jagged ice right in front of me leading all the way up and disappearing into the clouds where my eyes could not follow. The Khumbu Icefall is the first stretch that any Everest summitter normally encounters, and it is one of the deadliest, most technical aspects of a summit expedition on this south side of Everest (the northern one being on the Tibet side). The path is hardly ever the same, as glaciers move over time--more so when the sun is out and the ice melts inch by inch--thus making the Khumbu Icefall a dangerous, unpredictable path to cross.

After taking in my surroundings, I broke into a huge smile and called out, "Hey, Dhan Kumar, remember your promise?"

Early in the trek (on day 3 in Kyanjuma I think), Dhan Kumar and I had struck a deal. If I made it to Everest Base Camp safe and sound, we would have our picture taken together--that of him carrying me on his back. And so Madan stood there, ready to take the long-awaited photo. I laughed delightedly as Dhan Kumar bent slightly backwards and hauled me effortlessly up onto his back.  We were in a fit of hysterics by then, and it was a miracle my porter had not dropped me. It actually hurt to laugh, given the limited oxygen in the air.

And then it was time for my photo with Madan, whose presence I'm always grateful for. He literally and mentally kept me alive on the trail, with his great guiding skills, his jokes, and his mischievous card-dealing tricks.

with my porter Dhan Kumar at Everest Base Camp
It was very windy and abysmally cold, but we still had a great time at Everest Base Camp. With my Sherpa porter Dhan Kumar.

with my guide Madan at Everest Base Camp
With Madan, my guide and constant companion on the trail to Everest Base Camp 
I had finally achieved what I wanted to do after months of preparation, which was to reach Everest on my birthday. I may not have been the fastest, the strongest or the fittest trekker, but I had done it. And I had the most wonderful companions to thank for, for making the journey less difficult with their friendship and the endless laughs we shared.

If Everest Base Camp were easy, everyone else would have made it there. But it isn't easy at all--as most hard-earned goals are meant to be--and the ones who do make it are not necessarily the ultra athletic type. I've heard real stories of these super trekkers--young and incredibly fit--who had been forced to turn back before reaching Base Camp because their bodies couldn't handle it. High altitude affects everyone in different ways, and I felt proud that I had gone this far physically and mentally, armed with my usual determination (or stubbornness?) and a natural disposition to endure anything thrown my way.

Horribly cliched as it sounds, it is true nevertheless: the whole experience really was not just about the destination but also in the journey getting there. And as I made my way back to Gorak Shep for another 3-hour trek, I knew Everest had given me a lifetime of getting-there memories to keep.

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If you want the same Everest Base Camp trek experience I had, visit Himalayan Planet Adventures and go for the 16-day Everest Base Camp trek package.