Everest: Where Even the Runway is Uphill - Alex
Trip Start Dec 10, 2009
23Trip End Feb 23, 2010
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We did actually get to fly though, which was lucky because every flight due to leave before ours was cancelled. The little Dornier 228 is a pretty sweet plane – every seat is a window seat, and bugger locked cockpit doors – you can see right into the cockpit from the back of the plane. I’ve never been on a flight where they give you cotton wool to protect your eardrums from the noise made by the turboprops either. Fun.
Lukla airport is probably the most fun landing I’ve experienced too. You’re flying along admiring the mountains in the distance when the plane turns towards one. You think “hey, he’s probably going to go over this one” and then he dips a bit and you touch down, hundreds of metres above what you previously thought was the ground. The runway that’s cut into the hill is all kinds of gnarly – it’s actually sloped at quite an angle so it’s uphill for planes landing on it to slow them down. Nonetheless there’s still no land-slow down-taxi procedure like in a big airport – the plane pretty much makes a high speed turn at the end of the runway just to avoid the hard rock wall ahead, then hits the brakes to stop in the little plane-park that’s next to the terminal
Once we got off the plane we had a cup of tea then it was straight into walking to Phakding, which took a few hours. To be honest I barely remember this stretch – we were fresh and at low altitude and it seemed as easy as hell. It was here that we first got to see how mountain lodges worked – I guess I assumed that your guide accompanied you up and down the mountain, being a customer at all the lodges you went to, probably paying a decreased rate but nonetheless remaining very much separate from the businesses. Instead it’s like the guides, porters, lodge owners and so on are all on one team – Rinji usually took our orders, brought us our meals and even did the billing. To be honest I think it’d be pretty difficult to trek without a guide for this reason – when you walk into a lodge you’ve got no idea who belongs to the lodge and who the guide/porters of the other guests are, and hence no idea who to place an order with. Most of the time the people who own the lodge (lodges seem to always be owned and operated by Sherpa families) aren’t even present in the dining room, preferring to hang out in the kitchen.
Having a guide is also incredibly important so you can get refills of Dal Bhat. Dal Bhat’s one of the few truly Nepali foods available at the lodges (most of the rest are staples like fried noodles, fried rice, canned spaghetti etc), and basically consists of some steamed rice and potatoes served with a lentil curry soup in another bowl
At Phakding we met an English couple who were coming down. Being terrified of what lay ahead (I couldn’t even comprehend how cold -20 would actually be) I was incredibly jealous, but they gave us some advice. From what they said, we gathered we’d need a few more layers, as well as a bandit mask (less flatteringly referred to as a 'neckerchief’) to filter all the dust on the trails. Guess we hadn’t got everything we needed in Kathmandu.
The next day we walked up to Namche Bazaar, a prosperous Sherpa market town. We assumed that this bit would be easy, seeing how Namche is a pretty big town and sells a lot of goods, which need to come in somehow. Wrong, so wrong. For me it was probably the toughest day of the whole trek – the road meanders along going up and down for a while, but at the end it just goes 600m pretty much straight up – the path is cut in zig-zags up the mountain face
Rather than being situated in a valley like a boring normal town, Namche sits on a high ridge, with all the buildings facing the market in the middle and rising up with the hill so the whole town resembles a huge amphitheatre. The views are great – it’s surrounded by some beautiful mountains, with the waterfalls that would be tumbling down them frozen by the winter cold. In Namche we stocked up on all the warm clothes we’d realise we needed. I bought a surprisingly warm really thin fleece, a Polartec thermal (it’s like wetsuit material, but quite warming), some waterproof pants (like tarpaulins wrapped around your legs, but much worse quality), a bandit mask and a Sherpa hat. Pleasingly most of these were reasonably priced, being knock-offs of the real thing – HC bought a Polartec shirt completely identical to mine except it said “The North Face” instead of “Kolon Sports”.
We had an acclimatisation day in Namche and set off for Dole the next day. Our original plan was to go to Everest Base Camp then cross the (dreaded) Cho La pass to see the Gokyo lakes in the next valley over, but we’d changed to going through the Gokyo valley first then to E.B.C
The fun didn’t stop there – at Dole HC got a headache (the main first sign of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)), and the brutal pace of the previous day meant that my right knee felt like I’d spent the previous day hopping on one leg while holding a small car above my head. In the end we decided to switch plans again and go via the EBC valley seeing how it was an easier trek, and meant we could descend in order to save Hai Chen from AMS doom. Then HC’s knee got injured too. Gah.
Could be worse though – at Dole the lodge owner said some other Australians had just been rescued by helicopter with AMS. When we got to the room (101) there was a column with graffiti from 2006 to now on it (“So-and-so was here from GERMANY” etc)
In the end we spent 2 days pretty much going nowhere altitude-wise (Dole->Phortse->Somare), and neither of our knees ended up getting better until we got back to Kathmandu. From Somare we ended up hiring a porter to carry our bags until we got to EBC which was a little disappointing, at least for me – it felt much more satisfying to get to a place completely under your own steam. Nearly every other trekker we saw had a porter though, so it wasn’t so embarrassing. With the porter, the next few days were surprisingly easy. Somare to Dingboche was over before we could blink, the acclimatisation walk to Chukung the next day was a simple walk up and down a riverbed, and the two days from Dingboche to Lobuche and Lobuche to Gorak Shep were nothing serious, apart from a few big hills.
Gorak Shep, however, was the last stop on the way to our goal. We ended up walking there on the same day we’d come from Lobuche – keen to avoid spending more than one night in the freezing, expensive town at the top of the trail, we had lunch and started walking
The walk from Gorak Shep to Base Camp was the second toughest of the whole trip. EBC is actually on top of the Khumbu glacier – I’d imagined walking on a glacier would be some kind of winter wonderland, as we walked underneath frozen waves and so on. As it happens, the glacier walk didn’t involve much in the way of ice, but involved a lot in the way of loose rocks and dust. Add to this the fact that it was constantly up and down and up and down and the brutally strong and cold wind and I began to wonder if we’d have to turn back and do it the next day. We persevered, however, and the feeling of actually getting there was priceless. We’d done it! We could return to Ang Karma’s kitchen with our heads held high. The best bit was that we got there just after the big groups were leaving, so we had it all to ourselves while we were there to take photos to our heart’s content. We took the compulsory group shot and individual shots (I took one wearing the jumper my grandma had knitted me, which performed better than any wanky North Face polar fleece) and walked back
I say walk back but it was really more of a run. On the way to base camp we’d thought it was much further away than it was, so until we were right on top of it our spirits were pretty low. Having been there (and eaten some chocolate) we were motivated as hell. Rinji (who can walk from Lukla to EBC in 2 days and back in one) set a crazy pace back and we followed him the whole way – once to overtake a big group he just left the path completely and jumped up some rocks, and we still kept pace. In the end it took us 2.5 hours to get there and only 1 hour to get back. That night we were most tired (and I was most cold), but we still slept pretty sound. Success!
The next day was Kala Patthar – the black mountain that you need to walk up to get the best views of Everest (you can’t even see it from base camp). If EBC was the second hardest walk, this was certainly the hardest. You could tell Rinji was walking the slowest he possibly could so as not to overwork us, but I was still at the limits of my endurance – at 5550 metres (the top of Kala Patthar) the oxygen level is well under 50%, and I could feel it – I needed to breathe in and breathe out with every tiny step I took. What seemed like a tiny hill from the bottom (see the photos) turned out to be a huge challenge – especially when you get over half way and realise that what looks like the summit from the bottom is only blocking your view of the real summit another 50-100m up
The descent was both easy and triumphant. It was great to sit in a lodge and talk to some of the people on their way up – welcome to hell, suckers! Going down and passing people I felt somehow superior. I’d done it, I’d got to the top of Kala Patthar and to base camp. I was a veteran. What were they?! Nothing! Get out of my way, you peasants.
On the way back down the difference in the terrain became even more apparent. On the way up every day had been different in terms of landscape. On the way to Lukla it looks like the photos you see of wild America – pine trees and rocky mountains and raging streams. Above Namche the trees thin out and it’s like something out of Lord of the Rings – walking along these mountain trails in order to reach a huge mountain you can see far in the distance
And all of these things added up to make the EBC trek one of the most worthwhile things I’ve ever done. I can’t express enough gratitude to Ang Karma and Windhorse Trekking for setting it all up and showing us such hospitality, and to Rinji our guide for putting up with all our bollocks (“my knee hurts… ow, now my knee hurts… now my head hurts” etc), even if his definition of “flat” when asked about what lay ahead was a bit different to ours (in Rinji’s mind, even if a path is so dominated by ascents and descents that there’s not a metre of flat ground in it, it still counts as flat as long as you don’t gain or lose altitude by the end). It really puts into perspective how pointlessly easy touring normally is. You can’t really appreciate a famous site if you just take a taxi. Usually when I finally get to see some famous landmark I’m gripped by a sense of disappointment that that’s all it is – it isn’t glowing or granting me enlightenment or anything, it’s just a building. There was none of that with finally seeing base camp or Everest from Kala Patthar. Finally laying eyes on it was the culmination of 10 days of blood, sweat and tears, and when we finally got there it really felt like we'd earnt it.