Exactly four years ago this week, I'd completed my trek to Everest Base Camp. If there ever were a country that deserved to be called the country of my dreams, it's Nepal. I've been dreaming about the Himalayas ever since I was a teenager and got hooked on reading accounts by various famous mountaineers. I can understand the compulsion to climb mountains "because they are there" and while I've accepted that I myself will never climb Mt Everest (the spirit is willing but the flesh is fat), I figured that it's within my ability to at least hike up to the foot of it. It was the best hike I've ever done. Here's how it went.
As our tiny Dornier aircraft judders its way between the Himalayan peaks, I maintain a white-knuckled grip on the seat in front of me while my stomach does somersaults. I'm a nervous flyer at the best of times, and it doesn't help that our destination of Lukla airstrip is dubbed ‘the world’s most dangerous airport’. There’s no room for error; it ends abruptly in a mountainside, so if the pilot overshoots or undershoots it, it's curtains. Luckily, we make it.
Day 1: Lukla to Phakding. I’m met by Bishal, my 24-year-old porter-guide from Earthbound Expeditions. While it’s impossible to get lost en route to Everest, it's a really good idea for trekkers to hire local guides and porters. Not only is it a vital contribution to the local economy, but also, the higher you get, the more you feel every ounce of your luggage, and I'd forgotten how enjoyable hiking can be when all you're carrying is a day pack and camera. We set off straight away.
We ease into the trek: the first day’s hike to Phakding (2650m) is mostly downhill, an easy 3-4 hour hike. It's amazing how quickly you readjust to a landscape littered with enormous stones, inscribed with Buddhist mantras, porters carrying improbable loads with straps around their foreheads, mule and yak trains and gorgeous mountain landscapes. I'm mightily relieved that the tubercular cough that's plagued back home and in Kathmandu has disappeared as soon as we got to Lukla, so I have less concern about taking some respiratory disease to higher altitudes.
Day 2: Phakding to Namche Bazaar. Nepal is like Canada, only much, much higher and with yaks. While the first part of the trail meanders along the river, the last section of the hike to Namche Bazaar (3400m), the closest thing to a metropolis en route to Everest, is pretty brutal - just up and up and up along a zigzagging trail through pine forest after crossing a very high and wobbly bridge. You learn to give way to yak trains, since they'll knock you off a bridge or trail without batting an eyelid.
Upon arrival in Namche Bazaar, a mini-drama ensues. Firstly, Bishal rebels at carrying the entire contents of my large rucksack to Everest, telling me (not unreasonably) that I've overpacked and that I need to offload the non-essentials and leave them in this guesthouse for safekeeping until we collect it on the way down. Secondly, I'm entirely put out by the very basic $5 room that Bishal had secured for me; it's freezing and contains a bare bunk on which to unroll my sleeping bag, so I wander up and down the town's steep streets until I find a pricy (by local standards) hotel just up the street from where we're staying. The room ($20) is spacious, there's warm bedding (even though there's no heating there either) and - gasp! - an en-suite loo. But because the deal in Nepalese guesthouses is that you take your meals where you're staying, in order for Bishal to save face with the owner of the crappy guesthouse, I eat my dinner of dhal soup and vegetable curry with rice at the original guesthouse before sneaking off to sleep at the posh hotel.
Day 3: Namche Bazaar to Thame. I've hiked at an altitude before (to Machu Picchu) and have never had altitude sickness, luckily. But I do take acclimatisation very seriously; the woman who didn't acclimatise before joining our trek in Peru got packed off down the valley on a donkey on the very first day. And since Nepal had suffered a massive earthquake the previous year, and Lonely Planet has asked me to check up on the rebuilding efforts, Bishal and I wander off to Thame (3800m) along a trail that meanders through pine and rhododendron forest before crossing the river and climbing steeply up. We narrowly avoid being bumped into the frigid waters by a yak train, making their slow, plodding way to the Saturday market.
Thame has indeed been rebuilt. Lunch (momos!) is at Tibet House. The wife of Ang Sherpa, ten times Everest summiteer and owner of the guesthouse, tells us that business is not bad. “Most of the lodges have been rebuilt and there are a lot of hikers passing through as part of the Three Passes trek. Not as many as before the earthquake, but we’re hopeful.”
Day 4: Namche Bazaar to Dibuche. It's a momentous day. As we climb up from Namche Bazaar and turn a corner on the trail, Everest comes into view for the first time, peeking from behind the other mighty giants that I've read so much about and that have an almost mystical presence in my mind: Cholatse, Nuptse, Khumbutse. I stand there, slack-jawed, feeling entirely dwarfed by the landscape. (To be fair, given my short stature, it doesn't take a great deal to dwarf me, but I'm still feeling more dwarfed than usual). I've hiked in the Alps and the Andes, but the Himalayas are mountains on an entirely different scale. Bigger, mostly.
There's a steady rhythm to our hike, and the first half is a very gentle ascent, with frequent stops at teahouses en route. We’re accompanied by the melodious jingling of yak bells, the smell of pine and yak dung and spectacular vistas after each bend in the trail. Descending to our lunch stop by the river, we watch as the icy wind blows snow off the face of the mighty Khumbu. The weather turns during our brutal two-hour ascent to Tengboche through a pretty pine and rhododendron forest. Grey and eerie, Tengboche looks like a ghost town. We decide to press on and descend to tiny Deboche, where cosy Rivendell Lodge (Middle Earth) is doing brisk business. It's the plushest place along the trail, with electric blankets, good food and hot water.
Another mini-drama occurs as it turns out I haven't brought enough rupees and figure that I'll have to choose between sleeping and eating, the closer we get to Everest, since food gets exponentially more expensive, the higher up you go. But the good people of Rivendell save my ass and change my dollars into more rupees.
Day 5: Deboche to Dingboche. We're getting pretty high now - above the tree line. Though I've been above 5000m briefly in Chile (which was like moving through treacle), I've never hiked at this altitude before. Glad that I've chosen to hike alone, instead of as part of a group. I'm painfully slow on ascents, and grateful that I'm able to go at my own pace.
Rebuilding is ongoing. In all the villages we pass through, most of the lodges have been repaired, and there are new lodges. Still, porters carrying doors, planks, stone blocks, and enormous bales of hay are a common sight in the barren foothills of Taboche and Ama Dablam, hauling their immense loads uphill to Pheriche, Dingboche and beyond.
The last section up to Dingboche (4350m) is predictably steep and it's properly cold and snowing now. Accommodation becomes more basic. From Dingboche onwards, there are no showers. Not that I actually want to peel off my multiple layers in the evening cold! In the evenings, all hikers gather around the yak-dung stove in the dining room to stay warm for as long as possible. I've taken to sleeping in multiple layers and hat.
Day 6: Dingboche to Chukkung Another acclimatisation day takes us to tiny Chukkung (4730m) through a gorgeous glacial valley, with great views of Lhotse, Pokalde and Ama Dablam peaks. I come across a lonely marker dedicated to Jerzy Kukuczka, a phenomenal Polish climber who perished on Lhotse’s South Face in 1989, when he lost his footing and his rope snapped. Kukuczka was the second person ever (after Reinhold Messner) to climb all fourteen 8000m peaks, and this modest memorial stone is a sobering reminder of how deadly all this surrounding beauty is.
Definitely feeling the altitude now and grateful that the ascent was gentle because walking uphill is a real effort. Back in Dingboche, a thin sheet of ice covers the bucket I'm supposed to shower with. No, thank you. I'm reminded of Dervla Murphy's account of winter travels in Pakistan, in which she describes how after weeks of not washing, you begin to live quite happily within a protective coating of self-made grime. I think I shall try that.
Day 7: Dingboche to Lobuche. My Lonely Planet guide to Nepal errs on the side of caution and encourages hikers to only go as far as Dughla...
...two hours' hike from Dingboche, after which you have the entire day to twiddle your thumbs. But I make the decision for us to press on and go higher, to Lobuche (4900m), the penultimate stop before Everest Base Camp. But not before I treat us to the Nepalese take on a cheesy hash brown.
It's a stiff hike up the pass. Reminders that these mountains have claimed many for their own abound: at the top of the pass between Dughla and Lobuche there’s a tangle of prayer flags and a veritable graveyard of cairns and memorials. Up above the memorial to Scott Fischer, a mountain guide who died in the epic 1996 Everest disaster, described in detail in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air (which I highly recommend) there's a new one to Eve Girawong, one of the 18 victims of the 2015 earthquake.
Beyond the pass, we find ourselves on a broad, rocky plain, passing the small tent city beneath the perfect pyramid of Pumori. Lobuche, when we finally reach it, is a pretty grim seasonal settlement; outside Everest tourist season, the Nepalese guesthouse owners head back to their villages to tend their own crops and livestock.
Day 8: Lobuche to Gorak Shep and Everest. Very long, very tough day. The route to Gorak Shep, the closest place to stay near Everest Base Camp, is a draining up and down scramble over moraine. Am irrationally angry with the smug bastards who have already been to Everest and are coming back down. Though the altitude is making me perpetually tired, I'm anxious to press on and visit Everest Base Camp on the same day so as not to have to overnight above 5000m for more than one night.
Still, if it hadn't been for Bishal egging me on, I probably couldn't have forced myself to complete the breathless two-hour scramble from Gorak Shep along the Khumbu glacier to the tent city (5364m) where climbers are waiting for that narrow window of opportunity before making a push for the Everest summit.
I wonder if getting here meant as much to the other day trippers, who posed briefly by the cairn before scooting off downhill, but to me it meant a great deal, being in the very place from which such climbing greats as Reinhold Messner, Jerzy Kukuczka, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunne, Wanda Rutkiewikz and Alison Hardgreaves tackled the mountain on their own terms.
I accept that I'll never climb Mt Everest, even though it's been successfully summited by people aged 14 to 82. From various mountaineering accounts, I know the climbing route up the mountain very well, from the treacherous Kumbu Icefall and the four camps to the Northern Ridge and the Bottleneck - the narrow section where climbers have no choice but to move in single file, where people die every year because slower climbers hold up everyone else and because in the Death Zone (above 8000m), the human body cannot acclimatise and every minute you spend up there, your cells are dying, and people become progressively muddled, especially if they run out of bottled oxygen.
Unlike some people, I'm only moderately horrified by stories of Everest climbers stepping over the dying to reach the summit or to get back down, because climbers know what the dangers are and must be prepared for them, and if they are not, they have no business being up there. A debate has been raging for decades about curbing the annual number of climbers, ever since tour companies have been guiding people to the summit and for vast sums of money (which was a major factor in the 1997 tragedy). I appreciate that the money generated by Everest tourism is vital for Nepal, but I tend to agree with mountaineering purists that the only climbers who should be allowed on Everest are those who can make it to the summit under their own steam, or with minimal sherpa assistance.
The climbers are back in force this year: 289 climbers are gunning for Everest’s summit, according to The Himalayan Times, roughly the same number as in 2014, pre-earthquake. The problem is, most of them will attempt to summit on the same day or two, since the favourable window of opportunity in May is usually pretty small.
Back in Gorak Shep, I pick at my dinner and then settle in for the coldest, most uncomfortable, headachy night I've ever spend. I'm buried under several blankets, cocooned inside a 4-season sleeping bag and am wearing all the layers I have, including down jacket and hat. And am still not warm.
Day 9: Gorak Shep to Pheriche
After sleeping nary a wink, I'm woken up early by Bishal so that we can undertake a masochistic pre-breakfast ascent of the slope above Gorak Shep for a sunrise view of Everest before descending.
We then lose 900m in five hours; going downhill is so easy, compared to the torturous ascent, that I practically skip down the valley. We relax and overnight in Pheriche (4200m), which is by far the best place to come down with altitude sickness due to the presence of an international clinic staffed by volunteer doctors during the trekking/climbing season, which is really good news for locals as well, since they come from nearby villages so that the doctors can treat any complaints they may have.
I attend their daily 3pm talk on AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) and the Indonesian doctor shows me around the little clinic. The local receptionist, Thaneswar Bhandari, works here full time and was in Pheriche when the 2015 earthquake hit.
“We had 73 patients here at the same time, sleeping on the floor. Climbers from the Everest Base Camp, locals. We were working around the clock. In Pheriche 80% of the buildings were damaged, but luckily the clinic survived. Last autumn was a terrible season. Normally we treat 600-700 hikers for AMS every season, but last year we only had a handful.”
They measure my oxygen saturation (84%, which is apparently pretty decent for a foreigner above 4000m and shows that I've acclimatised pretty well). I give away all my Diamox, which I've had to beg my GP for back home. It only tends to be prescribed to epilepsy and glaucoma patients, but also helps considerably against altitude sickness, and I explained to her that I'd rather have it and not need it than come down with cerebral oedema and not have it, when it could buy me extra time to descend to a safe altitude.
Day 10: Pheriche to Dingboche. An easy half-day down to the valley of the elves, Rivendell Lodge. Back below the tree line and am no longer cold for the first time in a week. First hot shower (actually, shower of any description) in nearly a week, too. I've changed my mind about living in my own grime for weeks on end. Bishal asks to use my shower as well. After not being able to add any fruit to my diet for a fortnight, I jealously eye one of the guests, whose guide had the presence of mind to buy him a pomegranate in Namche Bazaar. There are no fruit on the menu at Rivendell Lodge, but they do offer deep-fried, battered Mars Bars. I buy one as a treat and regret it; the shock of fat and sugar is too much.
Day 11: Dingboche to Namche Bazaar. Fairly tough half-day's walk back to Namche, made so by the steep ups and downs. Dodgy knee still holding up. Glad to be back among relative civilisation; there's even a supposedly German bakery here, Hermann Helmers, where you can get exotic teas, coffee and apple strudel. Having eaten no fruit for almost two weeks I probably have borderline scurvy; pathetically excited to purchase a skanky apple.
Day 12: Namche Bazaar to Lukla. In one day we cover the same ground as in days one and two, so it's a long day, with the second half mostly uphill. Miraculously, both knees hold up. In Lukla, I make straight for Everest Burger and Irish pub, as am sick and tired of lentils.
I most likely won't pass this way again, but dream of making it back to Nepal one day to get a closer look at the mighty Annapurna.