For many, Nepal is synonymous with trekking. Mt Everest in particular, as the world’s tallest peak, continues to mystify and entice generations since it was first conquered by the New Zealand / Nepal duo Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953.
It’s why Tim and I are starting our travels in Nepal. Tim is trekking the length of the Nepal Himalayas, completing the Great Himalaya Trail (GHT) in it’s entirety. It will take his team around 120 days to cover the 1700km or so! If you are interested in following his amazing journey you can follow their Facebook page here.
I on the other hand am not up to the GHT and am participating in just two sections. One of which was the Everest Base Camp trek, including crossing two high mountain passes, Cho La and Renjo La.
My first peek of the mountains was from the window of the tiny plane after it left bustling Kathmandu.
After arriving to Lukla airport, with its short and steeply sloped runway, I immediately got to work on my mission to complete the trail with no porter. Meaning I carried everything I brought myself. All 15kg – 17kg of it.
Day 1 started in the afternoon and the clouds had already rolled in giving a moody atmosphere to the start of the trek.
Day 2 was a longer day and included an increase in altitude of 830m up to the small town of Namche Bazar, the metropolis of the Everest region, filled with shops selling counterfeit and perhaps real outdoor gear, cafés and even Irish pubs!
I must pause to discuss Namche. The hill up to the town and the hill behind it to leave two days later were fairly…. soul destroying. I know that must sound dramatic, however it was a blow to my fitness self-esteem to carry weight I have carried before, walk trails no steeper than what I have walked before and yet I inched up those hills at a literal snails pace. My breathing was laboured and I struggled to fill my lungs with a third less oxygen than I am used to. I became resentful of tourists travelling in groups with guides and porters and felt very alone. I took at least an hour longer than the suggested times Tim had put on my itinerary and I constantly thought to myself a mix of the somewhat motivating “keep putting one foot in front of the other” and the more defeatist “why am I here?!”.
Not even side trips to visit Sir Ed’s school in Khumjung or the beautiful and interesting scenery managed to cheer me up much.
Around six days in to my solo hike, I met up with Tim and the GHT Team. Fortunately for Tim, by then I had completed a couple of better / shorter days with flatter terrain that were actually quite pleasant. Perhaps I was getting into this whole trekking at altitude ‘thing’ at last.
What am I saying???? There were still plenty of challenges!
Although I now had company, it was getting colder every day as we went up higher and higher. During the day, while you are walking, you are warm. In the evenings you stay in lodges managed by locals in the villages. A fire will be lit keeping the dining room warm from around 5pm – 8pm and then you retire to your freezing cold room.
Night temperatures were always around -11C or so and this is not a country with the access or funds to have double glazing, central heating or even firewood. At such altitudes, there’s not a lot that grows very readily. On multiple occasions I thought about sneaking in a stray dog or stealing some yak wool… anything to keep warm! Fortunately I had spent a small fortune on a large, super warm sleeping bag that proved it was worth every cent.
Eventually we made it to Everest Base Camp. A barren place of rock and ice where the truly hardy go to push their mind and bodies to the limit and climb up to 8848m!
A highlight was the fact we brought a cooker, tea and mugs so that we could spend some time at base camp beyond the obligatory photo spot and explore a little more. This included walking right into camp and having a peak up the infamous Khumbu Icefall, one of the most treacherous parts of an Everest climb.
Of course, that is not the end of the trek. One has to walk themselves out and we chose to complete more of a loop crossing the two mountain passes of Cho La and Renjo La (5420m and 5340m respectively). I was nervous about going so high.
When you visit base camp, you actually stay at the purpose built ‘village’ of Gorak Shep a few hours walk away. I attempted to climb the hill, Kala Patthar, behind the village with Tim and had to turn back at half way. I was so uncomfortable with the extreme pre-dawn cold and 5000m plus altitude that on the way down my body expressed it’s frustration with multiple vaso-vagals. I had to pause several times to regain my vision and stop myself from fainting right off the side of the hill! (SIDE NOTE: I’ve been getting these since I was young, they have been discussed with a doctor and are nothing more than my body having a little ‘freak out’).
So you can imagine my surprise when I actually ENJOYED Cho La. You have to climb over lots of large steep rocks which slows you and your breathing down quite nicely and I do love rock climbing. At the top I had a little ‘proud-as-punch’ moment to myself. I failed Kala Patthar, but here I was crossing my first mountain pass! Renjo La however didn’t go quite as smoothly. Right near the top more vaso-vagals kicked in so Yadab kindly carried my pack up the last of it and I slowly inched my way up.
The reward at the top was no wind (!), the best views yet and therefore the perfect place to stop for lunch and put up some prayer flags.
At the tidy, picturesque and small village of Thame, it was time to say goodbye to Tim and the Team and for me to head back down to Lukla and Kathmandu. Walking DOWN that hill from Namche felt as good as I had imagined going up and as my lungs relaxed I took in the beauty of my surroundings. Wild rhododendrons starting to bloom, Spring-time baby animals and the beautiful perfume of juniper and pine trees.
As I crossed the archway entrance and walked through the main street of Lukla, a new trekker greeted me with a ‘welcome back’ and I felt awesome.
I did it.
Despite the times when I really wondered how I would keep going, when I shivered and froze and when I missed the simple luxuries of home… toilets, running water, hot water, showers and options in gluten-free food, I did it and it was good!