Before we left for Kathmandu we had done a little research about what to expect when we arrive. Usually, it’s been nice to know things like how far our hostel or hotel is from the airport, or if somebody is going to try and swindle us as soon as we step out onto the street. In the case of Kathmandu and the couple things we found out before our arrival…well, something that stood out that we haven’t really encountered yet was the fact that Kathmandu has rolling blackouts where they lose power for a number of hours (up to 16hrs). Coming from Kuala Lumpur and flying on Malaysia airlines definitely turned my senses up a notch and considering they’re recent history of missing planes, yeah, I was a little nervous to say the least. Traveling through Asia for a couple months and seeing how some airlines prepare they’re flights had instilled a little more fear in me, and to tell you the truth I have lost confidence in some of those airlines. Fast forward to our landing situation in Kathmandu. Usually when you start landing you can see some lights or a glow through the clouds. I knew we were close but I could not see anything. For a minute I thought, holy shit! We’re landing in the ocean somewhere! Then I thought, no that’s impossible, we’re landing in Kathmandu but there’s no power at the airport! Either way I didn’t see lights until we were on the ground and it scared the crap out of me. (This increase in fear of flying the last couple months will play a part later in this post btw).
We made it into Kathmandu and were picked up by our lead guide Raj who would be organizing and informing us about our base camp everest trek. Our first night we met up with Rob and Anuba who were on the navimag with us from puerto montt to puerto natales in chile a couple months prior. We had some beers and they gave us some pointers for Kathmandu. In October last year we booked the everest base camp trek and Carolin’s sister Cathrin agreed to join us. For three days we spent our time getting last minute gear and enjoying the sites in the Thamel area.
A family friend of Caro’s donates to a school in Kathmandu for underprivileged children ages 2-7 and they put us in contact with them. The three of us were picked up by someone from the school and we visited with the kids for a couple hours. They showed us how the Montessori learning system works and how the children benefit in their own unique situations. It was the first time I’d seen the Montessori system work and if you don’t know about it, in a nutshell it’s a system that gets kids together from different age groups and they learn through educational materials instead of direct instruction. They’re free to move around as they please and can choose which activities they want with long blocks of time to advance at their own pace. I’m sure there is much more to this type of learning but this is just what we saw. It was really cool to hang with the kids and check the program out. They took us to the monkey temple that overlooks Kathmandu and Patan Durbar Square.
We experienced the rawness of Kathmandu and both agreed it was one of the most chaotic places we’ve been yet. Kathmandu, geographically sits within a bowl surrounded by mountains. There’s lots of traffic and lots of people. I’m not sure exactly how it works but it creates this bio-dome of smog and air pollution that you can actually feel in your lungs. The air feels stagnant and ideally it’s probably not the best place to hang right before you trek to everest base camp. We were already coming from zero altitude and trying to acclimate even at a somewhat low elevation like Kathmandu is a difficult feat. So our plan for Nepal in general was to stay in Kathmandu for a couple days, start our hike up to base camp that would take in total about 2 weeks and then finish in Kathmandu for another couple days.
I knew a couple months prior we would be needing to take a small plane to a somewhat sketchy airport to start the trek, although once we were in Kathmandu I started hearing things like “worlds most dangerous airport” and “crashes are frequent” and “never fly domestically in Nepal”. Well, it turns out all the rumors are true. The planes are super old and I did myself the favor (worst idea ever) and looked up everything I could about how bad the flights were and and why it’s rated the most dangerous airport to fly into. We were warned that if the weather was even slightly bad in Lukla, the plane would not fly. Up until about 2 years ago, planes that flew to Lukla in bad weather would find themselves either turning around to Kathmandu or flying blindly in clouds and fog. The problem is when you’re landing you have sheer cliffs underneath you and all around the airport. If you miss calculate the landing, well…I think it’s safe to say you get one shot at it. The plane gets flown visually, so no computers just the experience of the pilot and his 2 eyes. The airport itself is at 2,900 meters, or about 9,400 feet. Cat said once we landed she didn’t hear me say one word for the 24 hours prior. I was so happy to be alive after that flight and I also found out how sweaty my hands could get. Caro for once in her life seemed oddly okay with this small plane and viewed this whole thing more like a roller coaster ride than a death trap and cat had a scared look in her eye but was giggling like a lil school girl. The landing strip is not flat by the way. It sits at a 12 degree slant. Once you see the pictures below you will understand my fear and hopefully it gives you an idea of what we went through.
From the Lukla airport we pretty much start hiking. Everybody who either goes to the top of Mt. Everest or just the base camp starts hiking in Lukla. We spent the next 7-8 days or so slowly climbing up town by town. The first day was fairly easy. The second day was a little more interesting. Cathrin has a slight fear of heights and/or hanging bridges. We crossed I think 4 or 5 bridges and they were actually pretty high. We had to develop a strategy for Cat so she could feel a little more at ease. I would walk in front of her holding her hiking poles in one hand at the same time I would kind of be pulling her forward. Carolin would focus on substitution and diversion and just start asking as many questions as she could to Cat. It seemed to work pretty well except for the fact that whatever question Caro asked Cat, Cat would respond off topic and would create her own elaborate answer that really didn’t have anything to do with the original question. The real challenge for was on the second day. We crossed the highest walking bridge I’ve ever seen. If I were to guess how high it was, I’d say at least 180 maybe 200 feet in the air. Our strategy seemed to be working fine until half way through the bridge a dog who decided to join us on the crossing stopped in between my legs and then Cat’s. I looked through the metal slats and saw how far we really were from the river and actually had to concentrate on crossing this thing. For a split second I felt uneasy about it but there was no way I could say anything in front of Cat that doubted my ability to cross or my slight increase in heart rate. Again, see pictures for full effect.
Everyday we hiked a little higher and a little further. We became more aware of our environment and the lack of oxygen. You start paying attention to everybody else’s condition and once someone says they have a headache or they’re stomach hurts your ears definitely perk up. It’s kind of a bit unreal sometimes. You start your hike closer to 10,000 ft high and the whole time there are just these massive daunting mountains all around you. Altitude sickness is no joke. Everybody reacts a little differently too. Some people show light symptoms and some people none at all. Our goal was everest base camp and that sits at about 5,300 meters or 17,500 ft.
Along our trek we would hike to tea houses in small villages along the trail. Some are nicer then others but they all kind of consist of the same construction. Plywood and rocks. No real insulation in the walls because there’s only 1 sheet of plywood connecting rooms. Most places had toilets but some just had holes in the ground but there was always a distinct toilet smell. They all have beds but since it gets freezing at night, your below zero sleeping bags are a must. Breakfast lunch and dinner are all served at different locations depending on where we are staying but it was a strict diet of vegetables, eggs, cookies, and rice. We had plenty of options and although steak and chicken were on the menu, it wasn’t advisable to eat any of it. The reason for this is the area surrounding Everest , the khumbu valley and all of the national park are a protected area for the animals which means no killing. All the meat comes from a town below Lukla which is a 6 day hike. Then the meat takes another couple days to make it up to the different tea houses. There’s no roads. It’s all hiked in on somebody’s back. We saw one of the guys who does it too and he wasn’t hiking with a refrigerator on his back either (even though he could have) the meat was all out in the open. Only covered by the other meat in his woven wicker basket.
Our hiking crew consisted of 11 of us and a head guide (Raj) and his assistant (Depak). It was a mixed bunch mostly from the US and from what I thought we all hiked at a pretty good pace. For almost 2 weeks we all hiked and ate and hung out together. We conversed and told stories and really it’s amazing how we all found ourselves wanting to hike this mountain. Everybody has their own story and reason for why they were there.
The first week or so was pretty routine. Like I said before we hiked a little further, a little higher, and a little harder each day. One thing we encountered that was a possibility in everybody’s head but I don’t think we were really expecting was snow. We all expected to see snow and for it to be cold. We all knew the weather could change drastically in a matter of minutes and as far as our gear goes, we were all pretty much prepared but if you went back and asked everybody….. We all were probably missing one or two items we needed for this next bit I’m about to explain. It snowed on us one day when we were doing an acclimation hike to 5,100 meters/ 16,700 ft. At about 4,800 meters it started getting steep and slippery. Some of us turned around because if we were slipping going up then for sure we’d be slipping going down and possibly into a hole or worse sprain or break an ankle. Raj told us that we’d gone high enough to acclimate and down we went. The other half that felt comfortable, continued up. That night I remember thinking, if we get any more snow it’s going to make the rest of the way very difficult for us. The next day we hiked through snow the majority of the day. At times you couldn’t see more then 30 feet in front of you and it didn’t look like it was letting up any time soon. At this elevation hiking is one thing, but when you add snow into the mix it becomes a whole different experience. Everything becomes just a little bit harder. I think we were all hoping that night that it would be clear skies the next morning and the trail would be clear. We made it to lebouche which is now at 5000 meters and most of us were complaining about some form of altitude sickness or another. One person says their head hurts, one person says they have a stomach ache etc. Not to mention the prior 3 days plus or minus, some of us had trouble sleeping. Trying to sleep at 16,500 ft. can be a little difficult. It was common for Caro and I to wake up in the middle of the night gasping for air. Full on, sitting up in bed, and gasping. When you get up to go to the bathroom and try getting in your sleeping bag, by the time you get back in your struggling for air. Little movements and flurries of activity leave you just parched and exhausted. The lack of oxygen at that altitude is definitely noticeable.
The next mornings plan was to hike up to a village called Gorek Shep which is about 2 hours away and then another 2 hours to base camp everest and then back down to sleep at Gorek Shep. Unfortunately, we woke up to another white out outside. There wasn’t anybody outside and it was about 6 in the morning. We geared up to make the push to Gorek Shep and as soon as we left our tea house in Lebouche our guide and his assistant blazed the trail. In fact, there was no trail. We were hiking through thigh deep fresh powder at 16,500 ft. and it was taking us forever. It was exhausting and actually quite frustrating. We hiked for 2 hours and had gone about a mile at most. The amount of ground we covered if there had been no snow would have taken us 30 minutes and at the rate we were going it was looking like it was going to take all day just to get to Gorek Shep. We stopped, had some words about whether or not it was going to be worth it. Raj was trying to get our porters to blaze the trail and they didn’t want to so they sat under a rock and said “this is crazy and it’s not worth it”. We had other groups pilling up behind us and their guide was telling us that if anybody gets sick up further there will be no rescue because the weather was so bad and no helicopter can fly. At the same time groups started coming down from Gorek Shep and told us one of the hotel owners is coming down and he closed his place because he was afraid of how much snow was on his roof and it might cave in on itself. Some groups came down and said everything is fine. One guy even had a weather report that said it might clear in the morning. Half of our group wanted to push through and at one point when our guide was asked what he wanted to do he said “I don’t want to die”. The whole situation was very confusing and emotional. Carolin wanted to go up, I wanted to go down, and we didn’t have a whole lot of time to discuss our options. To put it in perspective, we’re up in a snow storm at 5,100 meters and we’re weighing the option of hiking up further and risking our lives, or turning around and playing it safe. We were literally in the middle of nowhere. I personally lost faith in our guide because there was no reassurance that what we were doing was safe or not. Telling us he didn’t want to die was a very direct message but somewhere in all that there was a communication breakdown. He also allowed members of our group to blaze the trail for the rest of us. I don’t have a problem with them blazing the trail but more so our guide for not staying in front and being more assertive. In my eyes the only two people I wanted to follow up to base camp was our guide Raj and his assistant. When your guide stops guiding, that sending a pretty clear message. Anyways, I had my reasons and Carolin had hers. She felt like we had enough info to at least make it to Gorek Shep. The clouds were also starting to clear. At this point Raj had told us that base camp was out of the question for that day and it was going to be determined by the weather the next day. The group was split. Half went down and the other half went up. Caro and I were with the group that went up. Cathrin went down. I did not want to go and was a little pissed at Caro for not listening to our guides warnings. She was pissed at me for coming all this way and not listening to the other signs that said we would make it. Again, it was a very difficult decision to make and even harder when you feel responsible for somebody’s safety and you think you’re right. It felt like we didn’t know who to put our trust in anymore and it became more of a personal choice. It didn’t take long before we separated ourselves from the group and turned around. We hiked back to Lebouche and by the time we were half way back the sun was completely out and the clouds had lifted. It was like a sick joke Mother Earth had played on us.
The rest of the afternoon was a little tense to say the least around Lebouche. We had lunch with the rest of the group and Caro looked at me and said “I want to try and go back up”. Almost exactly at that moment the rescue helicopter made three landings to pick people up who had been sick the last three days and could not get evacuated. All afternoon the helicopter was making runs to rescue people in Gorek Shep. I told Caro that I’d have to go with her and she refused. At one point she saw a horse and seriously considered hiring it to ride up to Gorek. It was a crazy crazy day. We asked our guide to call up to Gorek to see if we had time to hike up on our own and he said it was impossible for us to make it in time. Just like that it was done. We had to sit tight and that was that. Later that night we heard that the rest of the group made it to base camp that same day.
In the morning the next day we got word that Raj was coming down and that most of the other half of the group got really sick. If everything had gone to plan, we would have been hiking to Kala Patar which is actually higher then base camp but it gives you the view of everest that base camp does not. Two of the girls that made it to base camp attempted it with our assistant guide but barely made it a quarter of the way up because of the snow. We started our decent down to a lower camp and met up with the other half of the group. The two girls looked fine although I think we were all complaining about headaches but the guys that went up looked like they got hit by a train. They all had been throwing up all night and couldn’t hold any food down at all. They weren’t back to normal until we were back down in Kathmandu a couple days later. Either way I’m glad we made the decision to come down that day. At the height we were at and the stress we were putting on our bodies, it’s for real. It’s not something to take lightly. It’s too easy to let the thought of yourself standing at the top of a mountain get in the way of the real dangers that are very much apparent. Your pride is your biggest enemy in my eyes up there. Other people can make their own choices up there and that’s fine. I’m really proud of Carolin for making the choice to turn around. I know it was a tough pill to swallow for her and it was for me too but all in all I think it was the right thing to do (I am still not sure if she agrees :)).
We took a couple days to come down to Lukla and had another wild plane ride back to Kathmandu where we spent the last four days going on walking tours, shopping, and getting rings made…..( more detail in next post )
Nepal was a crazy and beautiful place. It made us appreciate all we have and how fortunate we are to be on this trip together. There have only been a couple places so far on this trip where we’ve really felt out of our element and Nepal was definitely one of those places. Sometimes words can’t describe what you see and how you feel. No matter how much we try and explain how something is elsewhere, it doesn’t do it justice. We’ve realized that depending on where you’re coming from and where you’re going has an effect on your trip. Sometimes the country you were just in is more raw then the one you’re going to. That has a huge impact on what you experience. Caro and I came to a crossroad up there. In a strange way it was the hardest decision we’ve made as a couple to turn around and to sit with our choice. If that’s the hardest thing we’ve had to decide then I’d say we’re doing pretty good. Nepal was amazing! All I can say is, we will absolutely be coming back.