It was 11.45 a.m., Wednesday 24th October. It had been a 2 ½ hour walk to get here from Gorakshep. It had been a 9 day walk to Gorakshep. I'd been anticipating this moment for over a year. Huge numbers of people had generously sponsored me on this trek in aid of CHANCE (www.chanceforchildren.org.uk) . And I was there. I had made it. I was standing beneath the prayer flags at Everest Base Camp, arms jubilantly aloft and a massive grin on my face.
A few minutes later, victory photos snapped, an intense wave of emotion welled up inside me and I had to leave my guide on the pretext of finding a pee rock (which, of course, he was well used to!). I sat on that distant rock and cried, unable to contain myself. Maybe the altitude had got to me... but I don't think that was the explanation. It was the environment, the atmosphere. I don't have the words to explain the unearthly power that surrounded me. I was dwarfed by the scale of all around me: the enormity of the harsh, desolate wilderness of rock and ice, the vast, silent glacier and the phenomenal mountains towering over me in every direction, including, of course, the highest peak on this Earth: Chomolongma, Sagarmatha or Everest, depending on your perspective. There was such a dynamic, powerful energy in the extremes of the landscape that it was impossible not to be overwhelmed by it.
Surveying the camp (currently occupied by the first ever Thai expedition) evoked documentaries I had seen about previous summit attempts and it did not take much for a snowstorm to sweep through my imagination, for conditions to worsen and for those frantic radio messages to buzz through this cluster of tents before me as climbers' whereabouts became uncertain and their lives endangered by the might of the mountain's moods. I remembered the Sherpas and foreigners who had aimed for this summit and never returned, as testified by the poignant memorials dotted along the trail and I pondered what it is that makes a person risk everything in such inhospitable terrain, in pursuit of this ultimate goal. I had always assumed it was some macho need to 'conquer' nature, to put man literally above all else, but sitting there gazing at the summit, falling prey to the magnetism of the mountain, continuing to climb up seemed the obvious choice at that point, having come so far. I found myself wondering how difficult it would be to navigate the initial ice fall (which looked like whipped cream from there); how one would brave crossing the crevasses on ladders lashed together; just how cold it would be in a tent pitched on the ice at night; how heavy the oxygen tanks would be...and how it would feel to stand on that summit, literally on top of the world.
I was being Father Dougall again, having difficulties distinguishing fantasy from reality. Then the wind picked up and chilled me to the core and I came to my senses. I know my limitations physically, mentally and financially: I was happy to gaze up in awe from that vantage point, knowing I was headed downhill for a few days, my new goals being hot water and clean clothes!
But before I moved from my perch, I gave thanks for my good fortune. I felt incredibly privileged to have made it this far. I was blessed with the health to undertake the trek in the first place and was lucky enough not to be one of the many I met whose attempts were thwarted by the demon AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness, on account of the high altitude). I also appreciated what an advantaged background I come from: several Nepalis had told me how they would love to see the ocean: for them the sea is a fantastical notion, as indeed was the Himalaya for me back in my Sligo life. The difference is that for the average Nepali, in this poverty stricken, landlocked mountain kingdom, the sea will remain a remote dream, whereas I am lucky enough to have the cultural and financial freedom to realize my mountain dreams. Life seemed a huge lotto game and I had drawn a very good number.
The adventure had begun 9 days previously with an early morning flight in a 16 seater plane from Kathmandu to the mountain runway at Lukla. I felt as if I were flying through an old monochrome film as I looked from the window at the dark brooding masses, all shades of black and charcoal with cold white and grey snowy patches, against a sky many shades of light and dark from the same palette. Landing is notoriously unpredictable in these regional conditions and, while a smart briefcase bearing the 'Nepali Pilots Association' was visible in the cockpit in front of me, the back-to-front baseball cap sported by the man at the controls did nothing to inspire my confidence as we proceeded on what appeared to be a collision course with the mountainside ahead. Suddenly, though, a clearing opened up below us, the rooftops of Lukla appeared with their fluttering prayer flags and within seconds we were bumping and screeching along the short runway. My stomach turned over with the thrill as I stepped through the tiny plane door onto the tarmac: my trek was underway: destination Everest Base Camp.
The first two days of walking took me, along with my guide Maila and porter Balbahadur along green slopes of pine forest, crisscrossing the churning Dudh Kosi river across high suspension bridges, passing stupas and long mani walls comprising hundreds of stones etched with the Buddhist prayer "Om Mani Padme Hum', through tiny villages cultivating healthy looking vegetables, up to the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar at 3440 metres. This large village nestled in a cwm on the mountainside, in the shadow of the white peaks of Kwongde and Kwongde Ri,
provided perfect people-watching entertainment in the bustling weekly market: wizened old women in traditional dress sat beside the baskets of vegetables they had carried for a couple of days to sell; men in fur-lined hats poured out dried beans and flour in ornate measuring cups; those with stronger stomachs than myself ventured into the meat area where creative butchery was underway with various gory parts of buffalo. There were also 2 small museums containing interesting information about the Sherpa way of life and the Everest Region in general.
The following day was set aside for acclimatisation, allowing time to explore the area but remain at the same altitude for sleeping, giving the body a chance to catch up with the change in oxygen supply in the air. With Maila as an expert guide, I walked up to the villages of Khunde and Khumding with their fascinating mix of old and
new. Many mountaineering organisations have provided funding for local development, supporting the Sherpas who, in turn, had facilitated their mountain oddyseys, so a hospital and a school with modern computer lab sit amidst houses outside which laundry was being washed on the rocks and pats of yak dung were drying on the walls for fuel. But the highlight
of the day was the visit to the expensive Japanese 'Everest View Hotel' which delivered exactly what it said on the tin: my first clear view of the top of the mighty mountain, along with its slightly lower but no less impressive neighbours. The coffee on the terrace was extortionate, but what price that vista? I was off on one of my misty-eyed, emotional, spiritual mountain moments in no time, grateful for the screen of my sunglasses so Maila didn't think he was going to be escorting a basket case up the mountain for the next few days!
But if I thought the views were good at that point, I had no idea of what lay in store as we gradually approached our goal over the coming days, each of which had something new to savour. On the fourth day, we moved on to Tengboche (3860 m.), lodging in a cosy teahouse in the meadow beside the gompa (monastery) with its
elaborate entrance arch. I sat outside, eating my dal bhat, gazing in awe at the Everest massif ahead, the wondrous distinctive shapes of Ama Dablam and Kangtega, and the looming bulk of Thamsherku. In the evening I moved from the hypnotic atmosphere outdoors to another trancelike state indoors, sitting in the gompa's prayer room as the monks chanted, lulling me into an even deeper state of contentment.
Day 5 began early with the sound of the gongs and trumpets from the gompa, and ended in Dingboche (4300m.) with its phenomenal views of Nuptse and Lhotse, and Ama Dablam stealing the show as the dramatic centerpiece of the landscape. Days 6 & 7 were to be based here for necessary acclimatization before ascending higher and
Maila had decided that climbing the nearby peak of Chukkung Ri would be a suitable activity for the first of the 2 days. Full of energy and enthusiasm, I eagerly agreed, and it wasn't until half way up the mountain, when I was shuffling forwards almost imperceptibly, totally focused on placing one foot in front of the other, and gasping at an alarming rate, that it occurred to me that a 5500m peak was possibly a tad ambitious as an acclimatization walk! I was really struggling and a brief internal battle ensued between my exhausted self, wanting to collapse there and then, and my stubborn self, determined to reach those prayer flags on the ridge, no matter what. As usual, Ms Stubborn won, and she
was well rewarded by a breathtaking panorama up on the peak. I attempted to comment on the scene to Maila but realised my facial muscles were chilled to rigidity by the biting wind and I was actually unable to speak. Descent was like flying down after that steep slog up and, 8 hours after we began, I gratefully fell into a chair before the heat of the woodstove in the teahouse. And I remained there for 2 hours, unable to move!
I had found the trek easy up to this point but Chukkung Ri had nearly finished me off. I put my exhaustion down to overexertion but gradually became aware that there was more to it: my pounding head was a classic symptom of AMS but then my stomach went into spasm, with grim results, and I realized something deeply unpleasant was inhabiting my insides. NO! This was what I had dreaded, a repeat of my Ladakhi trekking woes, up here where so much was hanging on my good health. By bed time, I felt so ill I didn't care whether I made it up or down the mountain as long as I could curl up and sleep. I did just that, all night and all the next day, with Maila checking up on me at intervals. Somehow I roused myself to attend a talk that evening by a volunteer doctor, about the dangers of AMS, which cast fears deep into me, with descriptions of headaches turning in the night into brain swellings which cut off a critical channel in the head and caused death... Hmmmm, just how serious was my headache? My intestines were of more immediate concern, though, and Maila and I agreed to reassess the situation the following morning and decide if a descent was required. So I fell asleep, feeling weak, and with my goal of EBC in doubt.
Thank God for the restorative power of sleep! I awoke at 5.30 a.m., no trace of a sore head or stomach, ravenously hungry and dying to get going again. Oh the relief! Onwards and upwards - literally!
Firing on all cylinders again, I enjoyed the climb up to the ridge above Tughkla where I was simultaneously moved by the wild beauty of the location and the stark sadness of the simple stone memorials to climbers lost on Everest. I was particularly touched by the inscribed names of a German widow and her four children and I wondered what these mountains mean to them now: the addictive, untamed playground of their departed husband and father, or the cruel death trap which claimed him?
It promised to be an 'interesting' sleep in Loboche that night. At 4900m. I was prepared to be waking up at intervals gulping in more oxygen, but I had expected to be doing it in the privacy of the usual tiny teahouse room. Space was limited here, though and I ended up sharing the storeroom behind the kitchen with the owner/cook! The odour of kerosene may have been a drawback but the proximity to the kitchen stove created a warmer night than I had become accustomed to, which was a huge advantage. The other bonus was my midnight toilet excursion: had I been housed in a bedroom I would have stumbled by torchlight to the loo at the end of the passageway but the storeroom opened onto the patch of ground behind the building so I found myself squatting in the still silence of a clear, starry night as the moonlight reflected off the mountain snow on the peaks, which seemed close enough to touch. It was the coldest but most beautiful pee of my life!
Finally day 9 dawned: Base Camp day. I peered out of the room at 6a.m. for a weather check. Despite being greeted by gorgeous unobstructed mountain views every day, old habits die hard and I could never trust that it wouldn't be raining. I wasn't disappointed and we set off along the rocky trail to Gorakshep in bright morning light and crisp air. I looked ridiculous with my Buff stretched from under my sunglasses to the base of my neck but it helped warm the cold, dry air and minimize dust inhalation. The pace slowed as, after a couple of hours, we reached our teahouse, at 5180m., and we stopped to deposit our bags and take a much-needed rest.
From here to EBC was (apart from Chukkung Ri!), the toughest part of the trek for me. 3 hours of ups and downs, finishing on a section of glacier. I became aware of how much the environment had changed over the past days from the spinach plots and pine forests around Phakding and Namche up to this wild emptiness where the only signs of life were a few hardy birds, yaks transporting supplies to base camp, and the Sherpas and trekkers walking the route. Breathing was laboured, even on the flat stretches, and negotiating the boulder-strewn glacier
was a supreme effort, physically and mentally. But eventually the orange specks in the distance materialised into tents and then we reached the prayer flags. I was there! It's a measure of how exhausted I was that a group of big, burly, bearded Scotsmen in kilts trooped past and I, ardent admirer of 'Braveheart'-style males, didn't bat an eyelid! (I later learned they were rasing funds for the Autistic Society by attempting to enter the Guiness Book of Records for the highest haircut in the world.)
Many people had told me that Base Camp itself was just a long hard walk with little reward, that the viewpoint at Kala Pathar was really the destination of choice and I had that to look forward to the following morning. We left Gorakshep at 5.30a.m. to begin the gruelling ascent to the viewpoint at 5600m. but, while it was certainly steep, it was also short and we reached the top in less than 2 hours, in time to see the sun rise just over Everest. (And waiting for those first
shafts of healing, warming light, was the coldest I have ever been in my 40 years!) Each to his own, I guess, but for me it just didn't compare with the isolation and romance of Base Camp. I like the illusion that I have the mountains to myself and on my wee rock at EBC I effectively did, with time to absorb my surroundings and reflect on them. As usual at a popular viewpoint, though, Kala Pathar was crowded with people whooping as the sun appeared and, for me, the moment was lost. Worth doing, and on record as my highest climb yet, but for me, Base Camp was personally if not literally, the highest point.
10 long days to get up there, 3 and a bit easy days to return. Walking back was one long surge of energy: downhill most of the way and an abundance of oxygen increasing all the time... I felt I could have walked all the way back to Sligo! It was so easy in reverse. And before I knew it my big trek was over and I was back in Kathmandu, experiencing culture shock due to traffic and noise after the blissful peace of the mountains. I cleaned me and my clothes and ate till I could barely move.
And then I wandered into a bookshop and browsed a book of trekking routes... there are just so many tempting options... where next, I wonder? And when can I go...?