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.

* * *

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.





4 comments:

  1. Awesome story! Hoping to do this too as soon as I get my act together, reading this diary makes me feel like I'm already there. Most informative piece I've found on the whole internet so far!

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    1. Hi! Thanks so much for the kind words. Please drop me a note (or share your blog!) if you get to do this trek someday. It's a really great and inspiring experience. By the way, I'm heading back to Nepal this April 2014 to do the Annapurna Base Camp trek this time!

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  2. You're welcome, please do try and write something as interesting as this about Annapurna, jealous already!
    This installment struck a chord as I will also be 33 in 3 weeks and lately I've wanted to go somewhere totally on my own where none of my friends either live, work or visit frequently - but alas won't make it to EBC by then, although I am very tempted to just book a flight online right now! But as you say, flights can be ridiculously expensive from Europe. From Liverpool, £500-1200...?! So basically half/most of the trekking cost could be saved if you could be flexible enough with when you travel. I'd feel guilty about leaving people in work up shit creek if I went tomorrow, gonna need a month or three!
    Good luck with the ABC trek!

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    1. Oh, bummer, I know what you mean about expensive flights. I can't afford flying to South America at this point and do Machu Picchu...

      For your birthday, you may want to try the Kilimanjaro trek! Airfare won't cost so much since Africa is nearer to you, plus the 6 to 8 day trek to looks really amazing. I am saving up to do it next year actually since the trek itself already costs a whopping $1,800.

      I do agree that if you are planning a significant trek, especially in Nepal, a quick vacation won't really do it! You need to spend at least 3 weeks to appreciate the Himalayas. I do hope you get to visit one day!

      Thanks, and yes, I *will* be writing about ABC. Praying for good weather and spectacular views!

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