“IS THIS NORMAL?!” Her shouted to our guide, Lakpa Sherpa, as the plane bounced violently in an updraft.
In fact, it was very normal. We had just crossed a mountain ridge (only a couple hundred feet separated us from the trees below), and the windy updraft on the far side of the mountain ridge jostled our small plane about. If I hadn’t been buckled in, I surely would have hit my head on the roof of the cabin.
By now, we had crossed three ridges and were getting ready to begin our “descent” into Tenzing-Hilary airport in Lukla. The 20-minute flight from Kathmandu was coming to an end.
But the landing into the Lukla airport isn’t so much a descent as a straight-on, even-climbing, approach at the sloped runway located at an altitude of 2,860m, deep in the Himlayas. What makes the landing on the tiny airstrip so dangerous are the brick wall and mountain side at the top of the runway, effectively eliminating any “wave-offs” or second landing attempts. The pilot has to get it right the first time.
I saw the impossibly short — and sloped — runway out of my window underneath the right wing of the airplane just as we banked to the right to line our craft up for landing. My excitement level built as we continued to climb in altitude (this would possibly be the only time in my life that an airplane I was in had to actually climb in altitude to come in for a landing), and I held my breath as I saw the stone buildings with bright green, blue and orange roofs begin to pass by my window. Suddenly, the runway appeared beneath us and our plane touched down, braked hard and rolled to the top of the hill before coming to a stop at the terminal.
We had arrived.
Day 1 – March 29, 2013 – Lukla to Phakding
Our trip was delayed a day after spending an excruciatingly boring morning in the Kathmandu domestic terminal. The poor weather in Lukla kept our Sita Air plane grounded, and although it seemed as if the weather wouldn’t clear, we couldn’t leave the airport just in case the airlines started flying again.
The domestic terminal of the Kathmandu airport is everything a Third World airport terminal should be: crowded, noisy and chairless with the occasional drone of unintelligible, static-filled announcements regarding somethings nobody seemed to care about. We filled the time by talking with a couple of men from Kazakhstan who were venturing off to climb Island Peak (6,189m) on their own and weighing ourselves and our packs on the luggage scales.
The extra day in Kathmandu was useful as we managed to purchase some extra cold weather clothes (including Her “North Fake” pants that didn’t even come close to fitting and were later donated to a kitten named “Shakes”), but the frustration of being delayed and having to spend another night in our less-than-ideal hotel was annoying.
Our second attempt at flying proved successful, and after just a one-hour delay, we took off from the Kathmandu airport toward Lukla, the highest mountains on the planet and one of the world’s most dangerous airports.
After landing, we retrieved our gear from the mountain of backpacks and boxes that had made the trip with us, located our porter and stopped at a hotel (where we would spend the final night of our hike) for lunch. We ate our first plate of dal bhat (rice, lentil soup, and some sort of pickled vegetable — Dal bhat power, 24 hour!) on the hotel’s patio and watched planes land at the airport. (Lodges/restaurants on the trail make dal bhat in bulk every day, so they are willing to refill your plate as much as you like. So although the dal bhat may not be the cheapest item on the menu, it will certainly be the most filling if you’re very hungry after a long day of hiking.)
We left Lukla — and the last decent western-style toilet — and the four of us (Her, Lakpa, our porter and myself) began our trek toward Mt. Everest Base Camp. Our intended stop: Phakding, at 2,610m, actually lower than Lukla. Resting there would give our bodies a better chance of acclimatizing to the altitude. After 2.5 hours of hiking up and down steep hills through beautifully quaint towns, blossoming cherry trees and vibrantly painted prayer wheels, we arrived in Phakding and dropped off our gear in the room at our lodge, Sherpa Eco Home.
The rooms we stayed in on the hike were very spartan, often featuring just one or two beds and some hooks on the wall to hold jackets and walking poles. Occasionally, the room would include a shelf or window ledge to hold our water containers, headlamps and other supplies. They were often very poorly built, plywood boxes with nothing insulating the walls from the freezing temperatures outside. One room we stayed in actually had a 3/4-inch gap between the window frame and the wall letting the ice-cold air outside directly into our room.
The town of Phakding, located along the Dudh Kosi river, is a picturesque village with a large bridge spanning the river. The town’s primary function is to support tourism and hikers and as such consists almost entirely restaurants, lodges and shops.
We explored the village and stopped at Liquid Bar to meet some others who had started trekking the same time we did. The biggest group, by far, was a group of 20 Australians who had joined a group trek to Everest Base Camp. Like us, they had also been delayed the previous day, but they had split $1,500 among several trekkers to take a helicopter to Lukla from Kathmandu, a luxury that afforded them an extra evening in the Himalayas and an extra night to acclimatize their bodies. We all enjoyed US$5 beers and complementary popcorn to celebrate the start of hike before heading back to our lodges for dinner and bedtime.
I experimented with the ice-cold shower in our lodge’s bathroom, but wimped out before attempting a shower. This trip, I decided, would just have to be a smelly one.
Daily Hiking Time: 2:37 — Total Hiking Time: 2:37
Day 2 – March 30, 2013 – Phakding to Namche Bazaar
Waking up in our room was a shock. The room, of course, had no heating, and although my sleeping bag did a decent job of keeping me warm while I slept, the rush of cold air when I unzipped myself provided a brisk “good morning.” Additionally, the clothes I left hanging on the wall had cooled to the ambient, sub-freezing temperature and putting them on was a particularly unpleasant start to the day. That first night would be the last night of the trip I didn’t sleep in my clothes.
The breakfast options at our hotel were limited but tasty, and we enjoyed a leisurely meal before our planned long day of uphill hiking. We filled our water containers with water from the kitchen and slipped in purification tablets. Our guide let us know he was ready and sent our porter on ahead with our packed stuff.
The water available at lodges on the trail should be considered unsafe for drinking without treatment. You can buy boiled water from lodges, but this method could get expensive as you ascend the mountain. In Phakding, a liter of boiled water will cost you 200 rupees (about US$2), but the same liter of water at the last lodge before Base Camp will run you closer to 700 rupees. As a more affordable alternative, however, water purification tablets are widely available throughout Kathmandu. For around US$1, you can buy enough purification tabs to purify 60 liters of water. Assume you will consume at least 3-4 liters of water each day. Also, the tablets leave a slightly unpleasant taste in the water, so having something to mix in the water, like Tang powder, will encourage you to drink more and keep better hydrated.
The first half of the day’s hike was leisurely, only slowly ascending, before we stopped for lunch in Jorsalle. After lunch Her managed to lose her belt buckle in a squat toilet situated precariously over the river. Lost beyond any hope of retrieval, the belt buckle stayed in Jorsalle, and we proceeded up the mountain side towards Namche Bazaar (3,440m). Although she endured saggy pants for several days, weight loss from the excessive hiking would eventually force Her to fasten a length of rope to keep her pants on.
In a particularly picturesque part of the trail where stacked stones created a weaving pathway through subsistence farms, a Nepalese man in shorts and a T-shirt flashed past us down the mountain. He was wearing a paper bib pinned to his chest with the number 5.
Could this man be competing in a foot race on these unforgiving, steep trails?
Yes, he was, a competitor in a 65-kilometer, “ultra-marathon” beginning at Everest Base Camp and ending at Lukla within just hours — a journey that would take us several days to complete. It had to be one of the most impressive feats of endurance I have ever witnessed.
Surprisingly (or maybe not-so-surprisingly), we saw only four other runners over the course of the next six or so hours, effectively explaining the low “5″ on the man’s chest. Her joked that the rest of the competitors must have died from exhaustion, freezing temperatures or from falling off the mountain.
Several hours of nearly uninterrupted uphill hiking later, we arrived at the first of several checkpoints where hiking permits are verified. We paused for a quick photo shoot with some Australian surfers and Paper Sis before continuing the final half hour uphill to our lodge for the next two nights, the Foot Rest Lodge.
The Foot Rest Lodge’s sole amenity is a heated shower. For US$2 each, Her and I were given a key to a cell where a small, tankless water heater provided an endless stream of hot water. After two days of sweaty, dusty hiking, this small luxury was an amazing reprieve. This lodge would also be where we would stay over a week later on our way back from Base Camp, and that shower would be even more amazing.
Daily Hiking Time: 6:21 — Total Hiking Time: 8:58
Day 3 – March 31, 2013 – Namche Bazaar Acclimatization Day
The hike to Base Camp requires a substantial increase in altitude. Over 2,500m, the threat of altitude sickness is very real and the trek is dotted with several acclimatization days to help hikers’ bodies get used to a higher altitude. Although hikers often refer to these days as “rest days,” the term is a misnomer as rest is not typically involved. Acclimatization days are best spent hiking to an even higher altitude before returning to the original, lower altitude to sleep. “Hike high, sleep low” is the typical phrase used to describe this practice. This helps the body get used to operating with the lower oxygen content of high altitudes.
Our first acclimatization day was spent much in this way. We slept in (9AM) since we didn’t need to hit the trail, and after a long breakfast we talked our guide into hiking with us two hours up the hill above the city.
At the top of the hill was a very expensive hotel, the Everest View Lodge, where rich guests are helicoptered in and out. The name of the lodge was very accurate as this hill provided us, and the other hikers doing the same thing that day, our first view of the highest mountain in the world, Mt. Everest.
On first view, Mt. Everest, still dozens of miles away, is clearly a giant mountain, but it doesn’t seem as tall as peaks closer to Namche Bazaar. The most stunning of these peaks was the very beautiful, Ama Dablam (6,856m, known as the Matterhorn of the Khumbu), steeply towering above us.
Back in Namche, the tiny Sherpa Culture Museum (Rs. 100) offered a look into the lives of the Himalayas’ famous mountain climbers, showcasing vessels traditionally used for brewing millet beer and musical instruments known as “kakling,” made from human thigh bones and employed during local ceremonies involving “hungry ghosts,” according to the placards. An adjacent building contains historical photographs chronicling everything from an Edmund Hilary’s post-climb visit of Namche to local marriage ceremonies. Here’s one of our favorite placards, a poem titled “Wife,” by Milarepa, “the famous 11th centuries Poet Saint of Tibet:”
“At first a wife is goddess wreathed in smiles
And her husband never tires of gazing at her face.
She soon becomes a fiend with corpse-like eyes.
If he cast a reproach at her, she gives two in return.
If he takes her by the hair, she has him by the leg.
If he strikes her with a stick, she has him by the ladle.
In the end, she becomes a toothless old hag
And her fiendish look of anger preys upon the mind.
I have renounced such a devilish scold
And I do not want a maiden bride.”
Namche Bazaar was also the first place on the trail where we had a chance to socialize with other climbers in a more relaxed setting compared to the trail, where we had to dodge yak droppings and make an effort not to fall off each mountain. At out lodge, we met several very interesting people including a Hungarian couple completing the Base Camp hike without guide or porter (we later realized that we should have done this as well!). They were a day ahead of us and were headed to the next town.
Daily Hiking Time: 3:30 — Total Hiking Time: 12:28
Day 4 – April 1, 2013 – Namche Bazaar to Pangboche
Our fourth day on the trail was a tough one. After a full day (nearly 8 hours) of hiking, up a very steep hill to Tengboche (3,860m, where we found a very beautiful Tibetan Buddhist monastery) and then slightly uphill to our destination for another acclimatization day, Pangboche (3,920m).
At almost 13,000 feet, the air in Pangboche was very thin and very cold. Hiking was becoming much more difficult, and it was a relief when we finally stopped. However, our lodge was not any warmer than those from earlier on the hike, and the cold was beginning to get to us.
After a stroll around the village, where I located an Internet cafe and was able to send an email to our families back home (US$2/minute!), we decided to beg the lodge proprietor to start up a fire for us in the lodge stove. Now several weeks into spring, the lodge owners seemed confused that we would ask for a fire with such relatively balmy weather outside (just cold enough to snow), but as Floridians, we were on the brink of insanity having not been able to escape the cold for even a few minutes for the better part of a week.
The lodge staff (a widow who lost her sherpa husband during an attempt to climb Ama Dablam in 2006; he had previously climbed Mt. Everest) did eventually capitulate and began loading the stove with fuel.
I wasn’t sure what it was she was using and asked our guide. It took me a few tries before I understood that when he was saying “yaksit” he actually meant “Yak shit.”
Her and I grabbed some plastic lawn chairs from a stack against the wall of the great room and settled in next to the stove for our very first (and certainly far from last) yak shit fire.
Our next day’s hike would take us to Dingboche and a much-anticipated acclimatization day.
Daily Hiking Time: 7:53 — Total Hiking Time: 20:21