Monday, March 3, 2014

The Final Adventure - 20th Stop: Everest Base Camp

I climbed Galtee Mór once when I was 13, all 919m of it, the 14th highest peak in Ireland... That was pretty much the combined sum of our physical preparation for the two week long trek to Everest Base Camp we were about to undertake. And not only were we severely lacking in the experience department, we also decided to go it alone in this mammoth quest - no guides to show us the way, no porters to carry our bags, not even a map or a compass to make sure we were on the right path! It's probably a good thing that I'm only writing this out now, as it doesn't really sound like the wisest challenge to take on...

But take it on we did, with nothing more than a few pages from the Lonely Planet to guide us, and a bucket full of heart and drive to make up for everything else we lacked. Fourteen days was the plan, taking us through a 130+ kilometre round trip, rising to a maximum altitude of 5,545m (over 18,000 feet), enduring long hikes, heavy bags, freezing temperatures and, most dangerous of all, the ever-increasing effects of altitude (which caused a few fellow trekkers to be helicoptered off the mountain). And not only did we survive it all, we absolutely blitzed it with a full two days to spare!

But it was by no means plain sailing, and we were pushed to the limits of our endurance (and beyond) on numerous occasions. Still, we did it, and in terms of accomplishments, challenges and, of course, views, it's certainly up there with the best ever - or rather, the bestest everest!

I'll go through a rough little day-by-day plan of where we went, what we did, how long it took etc. As I said, we mainly followed the Lonely Planet recommended route, but made a few slight amendments along the way (both planned and unplanned). Hopefully, it might also act as a bit of inspiration for anybody considering a similar journey as, if we can get there and back in one piece, I'm sure anyone can!

And if anyone is looking to make the journey themselves, check out my bonus entry of the blog with some tips and advice on how to do it:

Day 1

Journey: Lukla (2,860m) --> Phakding (2,610m)
Time taken: 3 hours 15 minutes

We flew from Kathmandu to Lukla on the morning of February 10th, landing at Tenzing-Hillary airport after a bumpy 20 minute flight. Even just getting there was an accomplishment in itself as this is (according to The History Channel at least) the most dangerous airport in the world, perched high in the mountains, equipped with the tiniest runway you've ever seen.

We were also extra lucky to make it there in accordance with our schedule, as all flights on the previous day had been cancelled due to bad weather.

We had tried to be quite ruthless when getting our bags together as we knew that everything we packed, we were carrying. Even some things on our list had to be cast aside due to lack of room. Physically, we were quite under-prepared for what was ahead, but we certainly weren't lacking in terms of organisation. Everything we needed we had either brought, bought or rented, and looking back now, there were even a few things we could've done without.

Lukla airport is a strange one, not only because of its precarious nature, but also due to the fact that it's right in the middle of the village. Once you get off the plane, that's it, your trek has begun!

Our first day was not too strenuous, so a nice introduction to the Himalayas. In fact, we actually ended up 250 metres below where we started from (which I think is pretty much the opposite of mountain climbing!). Lukla, like the majority of places en route, is just a small village with not too much going on - a few restaurants, shops, lodges etc. Just the essentials...

Surely a contender for highest Irish Pub in the world?!

From there, it took us just over 3 hours to reach the village of Phakding, including (probably a few too many) breaks along the way. I mentioned earlier that altitude is often a problem, and it certainly was for me on that first day, and when we arrived in town, I was in quite a bad state with faintness and nausea. Thankfully, it was the early afternoon at that stage so I had the whole day to rest and get back on my feet before our next phase of exertion. I took a Diamox tablet which we brought in case of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), and the next morning I was good to go again. From that point on, I took a tablet each morning just in case, and I'm glad to say, that was the end of any such altitude problems for me. Day 1 complete! 

Day 2

Journey: Phakding (2,610m) --> Namche Bazaar (3,420m)
Time taken: 8 hours

Despite only being the second day, this was certainly the hardest of the entire trek. It took us 8 hours in total to get from Phakding to Namche, although that probably should have been closer to 6 and a half, as we went a bit off course for a short spell, only finally realising our mistake when we ended up walking through a family farm. We were glad to be guided back on track by the bemused but helpful residents, but inside we were kicking ourselves. Taking a wrong turn is frustrating at the best of times, nevermind when you've just spent 45 minutes climbing uphill with heavy bags and a full day of hiking ahead of you. But anyway, we kept bopping along and chose to think of the incident as some impromptu acclimatisation, rather than getting what we deserved for not hiring a guide.

We also got our first taste of snow, not only on this trek, but since we left Ireland over three years ago! It was another obstacle to deal with, but it did give us an excuse to whip out our big, puffy down-jackets that we had rented in Kathmandu. We got these and our sleeping bags for the measly sum of 60 Rupees (around 45c) each per day. A pretty good deal compared to buying, especially seeing as we weren't likely to ever need them again after this trek. And didn't we just look the part!

The day's trekking was long and tough, but just about manageable, that was until we got to the final stretch. When I say 'final stretch', it's probably slightly misleading as it makes it sound like the finish line was in sight; it was anything but. In the guide books, it's described as a steep, two hour climb but it must have taken us at least three, as we were knackered before we had even reached that point! We spent the entire time doing 100m chunks and then resting for about two minutes before going again. It was agony. I think I even saw a couple of elderly snails passing us at one stage.

We encountered some other trekkers along the way, but they all seemed to have porters to carry their gear. The only others we saw doing things the hard way like us were a couple of strapping, young Danish lads who seemed to be struggling as much as we were. We spent most of the day leap-frogging with them from reststop to reststop. We spotted them again for the last time just as we were approaching the outskirts of Namche. They had checked in at the very first guesthouse they found and, as we passed by, were in negotiations about hiring a porter for the rest of the trip. Quitters! Viking blood, my ass!

We practically crawled into the village of Namche just after 5pm that day on the verge of a mental and physical breakdown, but we had made it! And even better was the fact that we now had a full 40 hours in town, as you're recommended to take an acclimitisation day here to let your body adjust to the increased altitude. Day 2 done, and still alive! (Just about...)

Day 3

Acclimitisation day in Namche Bazaar

A perfect time for a day off, and the best possible place en route to do it! Namche Bazaar is still nothing more than a tiny speck on the mountainside but it's the biggest village we'd pass on our way up. It's a nice little place though with everything you'd need to refuel and refresh for your onward journey.

At this stage, I wouldn't be surprised to pull out a pair of binoculars and see one on top of Everest itself!

Even though it's recommended to spend the day in Namche, you're still advised to keep active. There's the village of Thame to the west which is a 6-7 hour round trip, but we kinda fancied an easier day than that, so we just walked westwards for as long as we wanted, and then headed back along to Namche again. It was nice too to have a day of walking bag-free and fully able to admire the scenery.

We also happened to be sleeping in the same lodge where Jimmy Carter stayed in 1985! Minor claim to fame there...

In fact, it's probably worth noting that every single place we stayed on this trek cost us a grand total of nothing at all! That's right, we didn't pay for a single night's accommodation. 

While in Kathmandu, we got a tip from a fellow trekker that, because it's off-season, it's most definitely a buyer's market, so in some places you should be able to negotiate a free room, if you agree to eat all of your meals in their restaurant. Which sounded like a pretty sweet deal to us! And more than that, after a while it became like a competition! We were determined to make it all the way without paying for a single room. And we succeeded!

Day 4

Journey: Namche Bazaar (3,420m) --> Tengboche (3,870m)
Time taken: 4 hours 30 minutes

Before we set off on day 4, we decided to lighten the load a bit by jettisoning some of the contents of our bags, including: a book, some candles, and a portion of food (which, being honest, we had probably brought too much of anyway). And perhaps it was a combination of our reduced weight, the shorter distance to travel and the lower elevation to surmount, but it was certainly a much easier hike than our previous day on the mountain. It was quite a pleasure too setting off on our day's trek, overlooking a bridge far, far below that had begun our grueling uphill climb on day 2.

Today's terrain was a bit of a mixed bag, starting off with a lovely flat two hours, followed by a steady descent to the river below and then a final uphill climb, right back up the other side, ending in our final destination of the day, the little monastery village of Tengboche.

No Irish pub to be found here unfortunately, and I'm sorry to report that we wouldn't see another one again on our journey upwards. But I guess that follows the laws of physics - as you ascend, the number of bars decreases! (Science jokes anyone? No...?)

The whole day was quite pleasant overall and we made it here in about 4 and a half hours, not including the time spent behind a herd of yaks. I guess this must be the Nepali equivalent of being late for work because you got stuck behind a tractor...

Today also gave us our first view of the big daddy himself, Mt. Everest!

Funnily enough, it's actually not the big, seemingly taller, peaky peak on the right, but rather the small, flat, cloud-covered one in the middle. "This mountain is small, but the one out there is faaaaar awaaaay".

Day 5

Journey: Tengboche (3,870m) --> Dingboche (4,410m)
Time taken: 5 hours

On the fifth day, we travelled from Tengboche to the very similar sounding Dingboche. (We also passed the villages of Debuche, Lobuche and Pangboche along the way. They really need to get more original sounding names...). Most people go instead for the village of Pheriche which is actually where we were planning to go too, but a mixture of advice from people we met along the way and, well, a wrong turn on our part, set us on the path here.

It's happened to us now a few times where we've gone off course and I don't want you to think that it's down to stupidity (not 100% anyway), there just aren't very many signposts here! Sometimes a path will suddenly split in two and you can either go with your gut, or wait for another trekker / yak herder to pass to point you in the right direction. And because it's off-season here, you could be waiting a while... Maybe the local guides have uprooted any route markers to make the path as confusing as possible, dissuading lone travellers and keeping themselves in business! 

Today's trek, although similar time-wise to the day before, was a lot tougher and a lot colder to boot. Our bodies were also starting to feel the effects of the constant exertion...

And things were made even more challenging by the dense fog that dropped in on us for the latter part of the day's hike, obscuring any nice scenery there might have been. You remember what Everest looked like the day before, here it was today:

That's it there on the left, next to... ah forget it!

Another plus point about travelling here in off season - not only is the accommodation (potentially) free, it's also pretty quiet, meaning you should be able to get yourself a nice spot next to the fire in the evenings. And trust me, with the sub-zero temperatures outside and in the bedrooms, this one little, yak poop-fueled furnace in the dining area is the place to be!

The fog also cleared up as the evening drew to a close, giving us a nice, romantic Himalayan sky:

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention it was Valentines Day, and we each got the perfect present with another acclimitisation day in the schedule! They really do come at the perfect time; either that or we've already mentally prepared ourselves for one, so are quite drained when they do finally arrive.

Day 6

Acclimitisation day in Dingboche

Our second and final acclimitisation day, and not only did it come at the right time for us both physically and mentally, but Ais had begun to feel the effects of altitude for the first time too, so it was extra handy to have a day where we weren't under any pressure to exert ourselves.

Just like our first day of rest in Namche Bazaar, we were keen to keep somewhat active and there is a place called Chhukung further along that is recommended, but again, like the previous time, we just walked as far as we felt like and turned back around.

The only real moment of note came when an old lady out collecting yak poop approached us, gesticulating with real purpose, seemingly desperate to tell us something. Neither of us had any idea what she was trying to say, but she was very adamant in her message, even brandishing an axe at one stage! We honestly tried our best to understand, but still had no clue, so we continued on walking. She kept trying to talk to us but we quickly outpaced her as she was like 112 years old.

Even now, I still don't really get what it was all about. Maybe she wanted our money, which would explain the axe, but thankfully, it never came to that. It probably would've been an ultimate low point in both of our lives - getting mugged in the Himalayas by an elderly poop collector!

Day 7

Journey: Dingboche (4,410m) --> Duglha (4,620m)
Time taken: 2 hours 15 minutes

Conditions-wise, it was by far the most challenging with driving Arctic winds hammering at us for the majority of the hike. Thankfully, most of the time, the wind was at our backs, pushing us on rather than impeding our progress, or worse yet, nudging us towards the sheer drop to our left. And the wind wasn't alone in its quest to make our lives more difficult, as we also had proper snow and ice, all combining to give us the toughest environment we've experienced yet, but funnily enough, also the most enjoyable day so far!

A lot of that is probably down to the fact that the trek was our shortest of the entire trip, taking little over two hours, but the blizzard that surrounded us played its part too. It really made us feel like proper mountain climbers! You don't come to Everest for sunshine and flowers, this is what it's all about!

Another good thing about that day is that it was mostly flat. As we had based ourselves in Dingboche rather than, the lower-lying, Pheriche, we had given ourselves a huge advantage for the day ahead. Flat terrain is always preferable, even compared to going downhill, as you know that the further down you go, the further you'll have to climb back up again. As Newton's Third Law of Trekking states - for every downhill, there's an equal and opposite uphill.

And not only was it our favourite day of trekking so far, it was also our favourite place that we stayed. Duglha itself, isn't even a village, more like a single building, but one building was all we needed to shield us from the storm raging outside, threatening to rip the roof off the place. The food was great, the staff were lovely, and the fire was roaring, which is just as well because we felt like we had just leaked classified NSA documents, i.e. we were snowed-in for the night! (baddum tish!)

Day 8

Journey: Duglha (4,620m) --> Gorak Shep (5,160m)
Time taken: 5 hours 30 minutes

"It's getting cold in here, so put on all your clothes (I am getting so cold, I wanna put my clothes on!)".

We awoke on the morning of day 8 after enduring the coldest night of our lives so far, as temperatures dropped to an unimaginable -20°C (that's minus twenty!). The guy here at the accommodation said it's the coldest it's been in Dughla all winter. It's hard to believe that little over a week before we were under the hot Indian sun, burning up like a couple of Varanasi corpses!

That morning, we also learned the very valuable and blatantly obvious lesson of not filling your water bottles before you go to bed in sub-zero conditions.

We had to melt/hack them up before we hit the road, otherwise we would've just been carrying an extra 2kg of dead weight.

The day's hiking started with a solid hour, strictly uphill, but we actually didn't mind because we had the best conditions of the trek so far - blue skies, bright sun, and best of all, thick white snow! 

And a heavy blanket of snow was extra beneficial as it gave us clear tracks from other trekkers to follow! No getting lost for us again! It's like that old joke: 

How do you find Will Smith in a blizzard? 
Just look for the fresh prints!

After that early uphill section, it was flat all the way to Lobuche, our initial destination for the day which we reached in less than two and a half hours (and that's including time spent playing in the snow!). A mixture of things led to our next decision - we felt strong, the weather was good, it was still early, and most importantly, we were refused a free room! There was no way we were losing that battle! All of these things convinced us to keep going to the next, and ultimately last, village of the entire trek, Gorak Shep.

After resting up in Lobuche, and staying for a thoroughly unsatisfying lunch, we set off on the final ascent we'd have to make with all of our baggage. It was a steady climb in cold but dry conditions, with icy winds and slippery ground making things all the more difficult, but we made it! And in other news, we saw a real life avalanche! 

Day 9

Roundtrip 1: Gorak Shep (5,160m) --> Kala Patthar (5,545m)
Time taken: 2 hours 20 minutes

Roundtrip 2: Gorak Shep (5,160m) --> Everest Base Camp (5,360m)
Time taken: 3 hours 50 minutes

Mission complete! In fact, double mission complete! Not only did we reach Everest Base Camp, the end point of our journey, we also made the climb up to Kala Patthar, the highest point we would reach on this trek (and realistically, ever!).

Our main motivation over the past few days has been getting this thing done as soon as possible, so we can get back to warmer pastures, hot showers and Western food! So, to make that dream happen a day faster, we combined these two treks into one exhausting package. And not only was this goal driving us on, but the fact that we no longer had heavy bags on our backs gave us an extra sense of weightlessness. It was like our shackles had been removed that morning en route to Kala Patthar, as we breezed by every single other trekker we passed, and reached the summit with the place all to ourselves! 

And how did we feel? On top of the world!

Well, I guess we weren't technically on top of the world... but we could certainly see the top of the world! It's that one right there!

We even had time to make possibly our most scenic video diary ever:

And even up here, above the clouds, in the middle of the Himalayas, we bumped into a couple from Offaly and Sligo! There's just no escape!

After a much easier hike back down, and a spot of lunch, we set off on our second expedition of the day - Everest Base Camp - the final point before you start to climb Everest for real (which we totally could've done...). The Base Camp is nothing at all besides a pile of rocks and some flags, certainly not as impressive as the views from Kala Patthar, but we still had to go there just to fully complete the objective.

It was also a moment to celebrate as it meant that it was all downhill from here! And we couldn't have been happier! We had been looking forward to this moment since that arduous climb to Namche Bazaar on day 2, and we were going to relish every single step back down.

We also ended the day with a pair of red noses, not from the cold, but from the sun! It can still be lethal, even in these freezing conditions (well, I guess up here we are that bit closer to it...). It wasn't down to neglect or ignorance on our part either, we've been applying sun cream religiously since the start of the trek, but that morning, the stuff was frozen solid! (I don't know if that's irony, but it's definitely something!)

Day 10

Journey: Gorak Shep (5,160m) --> Tengboche (3,870m)
Time taken: 9 hours

Here it is, the day we've been waiting for, our day of descension! And it couldn't have come soon enough. The previous night, temperatures dropped to -25°C! (I was wearing four layers, hat, gloves, scarf, inside a sleeping bag and under 3 blankets, and I was still freezing!). We would not miss staying here. It took us 9 days to reach this height and we were ready to get back down to Earth as fast as our little legs could carry us! Back to the land of warmth and luxury. Thoughts of pizza had us drooling icicles. It even got to the stage where we were craving a massive feast so badly that the very landscape started to look like ice-cream!

We started the morning of day 10 in Gorak Shep, and after a 9 hour long, reverse montage of everywhere in between, we finally arrived back in Tengboche - the place we first landed all the way back on day 4. The mood we were in that afternoon, we would've walked all the way back to Lukla if there was enough sunlight. It's amazing how much easier and more enjoyable it is going downhill. We practically rolled down the mountain-side, finishing the day a good 1.5km vertically below Everest Base Camp.

And the time really flew by too, with only a quick lunch break in Pheriche to break our momentum. The only real drama from the day came when we had to make our way back across the surface of a glacier. On the way up, conditions were terrible so it was rock solid. But now, with the hot sun beating down, the water was starting to trickle. We walked up and down, looking for a safe place to cross, when eventually, we saw a small herd of yaks approaching in the distance, so we just followed their lead.

Ais probably weighs as much as two yaks, so as soon as we saw the three of them cross safely, we knew we'd be good to go!

It was kinda nice too, seeing all of the places again that we passed on the way up, and even nicer to see that our impact on the landscape hadn't disappeared just yet.

Actually, I hope no helicopters passed overhead thinking somebody had collapsed in the snow...

On arrival in Tengboche, we treated ourselves to a couple of Snickers' and a bottle of Coke. They were quite past their expiry date, but that's just something you have to accept here. Things don't really fly off the shelves, but I guess it's like one big freezer, so it still tastes ok. We don't even check the dates anymore; ignorance is bliss. Although it's kind of a giveaway when the coke bottles are advertising Euro 2012.

We also happened to be the only people staying in the lodge that night, so we not only had the fire to ourselves, but also had a surprisingly nice evening, chatting with the owner, her father, her husband and a monk from the monastery across the way - with the former two being the granddaughter and son-in-law of Tenzing Norgay - the first man to climb Mt. Everest along with Sir Edmund Hillary. Another little claim to fame there for us!

Day 11

Journey: Tengboche (3,870m) --> Namche Bazaar (3,420m)
Time taken: 3 hours 15 minutes

As we continued our way back down, our minds were once again filled with the pleasures that awaited us back in Kathmandu, another one of which was a proper night's rest. Normally, if I wake up at 3am, I think to myself "yes, another 5 hours sleep!", but here it's more a case of "ugh, another 5 hours to go...". It's just too cold! Last night was no doubt warmer than the one before, probably by about 10 degrees, which sounds like a lot, but is there really a difference between -25 and -15? It's all the same when you're wrapped up to the hilt and still freezing your balls off!

Proverbial balls, I mean...

Today wasn't as speedy or enjoyable a descent as the one before, as it was mostly great ups and downs, rather than a steady decline, and the long downhill sections that were a welcome treat on the way here, had now become a major annoyance on the return leg. Still, no matter how tired we got, or how heavy our bags seemed, there were still plenty of porters passing by to put things in perspective for us. These guys traipse up and down the mountain each day, carrying sometimes as much as 100kg, ranging from suitcases to telephone poles, from beer bottles to sheets of plywood.

Our bags were still pretty heavy too though...

Day 12

Journey: Namche Bazaar (3,420m) --> Lukla (2,860m)
Time taken: 6 hours 15 minutes

And we're done! 12 days after leaving Lukla to embark upon the biggest physical challenge of our lives, we had finally made it back again in one piece! 12 days of aches and pains, 12 days without a shower, 12 days without even changing my underwear! (I did bring spares, but it was just always too cold to strip down to that level!)

Our final day of hiking began in quite a prophetic way as we faced the long, steep breath-drainer that almost broke us on the way up 10 days ago. But now, it posed no problem for us as we made it down in less than half the time. The final stretch from Phakding to Lukla was a little tougher with a lot more ups and downs, but the finish line was in sight and we drove on through the pain barrier to get there, enjoying a couple of cokes on arrival at Lukla's little piece of Ireland.

The only minor disappointment came with the news that our return to Kathmandu would have to wait an extra day, as our flight couldn't be rescheduled in time. We had originally booked our return flight for Feb 25th, giving us 14 days for the trek plus an extra one just in case, but seeing as we had made it back in 12, we now had three full days before take off. We had hoped to rejig things for a quick getaway, but it would have to wait a day later, which wasn't the end of the world. In fact, it was actually a blessing in disguise as all flights on the 22nd were cancelled anyway due to bad weather! It also meant a nervy morning for us on the 23rd as we arrived at the airport, not knowing if we'd be able to get out of here ourselves.

The conditions didn't look too promising, but we waited and waited and after four hours in total, we were given the all clear to board. I've never been so relieved to get on a plane! In fact, we were probably more excited to return to Kathmandu than we ever were to reach Base Camp itself! We had achieved what we set out to achieve, and all with two days to spare. And now, we were going to absolutely spoil ourselves!

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