Saturday, May 27, 2023

Trekking in the Himalayas - Everest Base Camp


Currently, I’m sitting in Kathmandu on the rooftop patio of our hotel, a beer in hand, one of the massive bottles they sell in Nepal that are really two beers in one, ‘tall-ees’ as we call them in Australia, watching it rain and listening to the thunder as we wait to head to the airport for our evening flight to Cape Town. Two and a half weeks of adventures behind us, with seven more weeks ahead. This is the part of travel that I savour, the slowness. No place to be, just time to relax and reflect and enjoy the journey.

It's been four – almost five – years since my last blog post. In fact, I never even wrote about the last 2/3 of my trip to Central and South America. I’m not sure why I never managed to put pen to paper, but it’s a regret that I plan to rectify by doing better this time around. Maybe one day I’ll get around to going back and writing up some of the stories from those few months.

I feel a summary of the last few years may be in order, but where to start? After South America, Kurt and I headed back to Australia with new plans and dreams. At that point, we had been dating for about 9 months, and things had become serious as we travelled and I realised he was my partner in crime, in travel, and in life. Now here we are four years later, engaged and on another adventure! For the last few years we have been hustling, working hard with focus and excitement. Kurt completed his bachelor’s degree, and I completed my Master’s. We’ve both been adding to our resumes and doing our best to get a step up in life, mainly while we waited out the pandemic. Melbourne was hard-hit by lockdown restrictions and earned the title of the ‘most locked-down city in the world’, with six lockdowns totalling 262 days. For half of this we were stuck in a tiny apartment, the second half in a house with a backyard which made things slightly more bearable. 

The pandemic was hard. Kurt and I were unable to work for most of it and were poor. Really poor. But we managed. If we can survive that I think we can survive anything. The stress of being poor and bored and stuck in close quarters every hour of every day for months on end is enough to make anyone go crazy. The borders of Australia were also closed for years which meant I went three years without seeing my family. Three years of missed celebrations, missed hugs, missed laughs. It sometimes feels like I was robbed of three whole years of my life, but perhaps most people feel that way, I know I’m not the only one.

But we worked hard to make improvements as we could and came out of it in the end as stronger people, with educational achievements and progress made towards our careers and with a renewed focus on what’s important in life.

During this time, we also dreamed of future travels, which is when we set our sights on Nepal and a trip across Africa. And with lots of time on hand I was able to do 80% of the planning, mapping out the itinerary, national parks we wanted to visit, and researching the treks we wanted to do. So really, the pandemic wasn’t all bad.

About a year ago, a position came up at an international non-governmental organisation that I knew about through my friend from university who worked there whom I had been a project partner with. Although I had a job at the time that I liked, this one was exactly what I wanted to be doing, so I applied, interviewed, and was not only lucky enough to get the position but also lucky enough to be allowed two months off work to go on this big adventure that we had already been planning. I feel incredibly lucky to work for KTF, an organisation that has various education, health, etc. programs in Papua New Guinea as the Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Advisor. I can honestly say I love my job and that it perfectly marries my interests in data and learning with researching and writing. In March I took my first trip to PNG and was able to visit some of the remote and rural villages that we work in. It was my first time visiting a country in the Pacific, so it was interesting to see and experience the culture. PNG is a crazy place with lots of challenges, but the people were incredibly kind and welcoming and the regions I visited were absolutely beautiful.

For the last four years, we have lived in Melbourne, Victoria, a great state with lots to see and do, although its next-door neighbour is basically Antarctica so it was unfortunately a bit too cold for our liking. The winter, although fairly mild, is long – about 9 months, with a short summer that never really feels ‘hot’ like I know it, being from Texas and all. The days over 30C/85F were a treat. It was certainly fun for this small-town girl to live in a city for a while. The public transport was amazing, with trams and trains at our doorstep, beautiful parklands, incredible bars and restaurants, and a never-ending list of things to see and do. But after four years we have become ready for something different. Timing a move with our trip made sense so that we didn’t have to pay for rent while we were away. 

So, we packed up all of our things into a storage unit, left our cat with our neighbours, and took off on our big adventure. When we get back to Australia, we aren’t totally sure where we plan to move. We have some ideas in mind and are looking for a smaller, regional area on the coast, with lots of opportunities for taking our boat out, hiking, camping, swimming, cycling and running, but it will also depend on where Kurt gets a job upon our return.

So now onto the fun stuff! 

We’ve spent the first part of our trip, almost three weeks, in Nepal where the main focus has been on hiking to Everest Base Camp. I don’t really know why I’ve been obsessed with Everest, but I can vividly remember a book series I read when I was 10-12 that first piqued my interest in the mountain, and since then I’ve had a bit of an obsession (similar to the Roman Colosseum, Inca Trail, etc.)

Before and after our trek we spent some time in Kathmandu. It felt a bit like coming home when we first got here. The chaotic streets with scooters everywhere, the plethora of tiny shops selling specific themes of items, and the delicious, insanely cheap food. Asia is my favourite region in the world. There’s something about it that makes me feel relaxed in the madness like having the expectation that things won’t go to plan allows me some sort of freedom to just go with the flow and enjoy things. Maybe it’s because the year I spent in South East Asia was one of the best in my life. I don’t know really, but I love Asia.

A typical street in Thamel, Kathmandu.

The historic area of Kathmandu, Durbar Square. We found a nice rooftop where we had beers and lunch. We eventually came back here after the trek as well as it was one of our favorite little places.

We visited the Garden of Dreams which was quite nice. Lots of pretty flowers and chipmunks!

Kurt the chipmunk whisperer.

We also went to Swoyambhu Mahachaitya, an very old Buddhist temple perched high in the hills of Kathmandu. It's also called the 'monkey temple' since heaps of monkeys seem to live here. 

It's a bit of a long story, but instead of taking a small plane to Edmund Hillary Airport in Lukla, ‘the most dangerous airport in the world’, we ended up taking a helicopter, which was actually way better. I’d never been in a helicopter so flying through the Himalayas for my first time was both equally exciting and nerve-wracking.

The 11 days we spent trekking through the Himalayas to Everest Base Camp was truly incredible. We only had rain on the first day – which was only 2 hours – of the entire hike. We used a locally owned trekking operator (Nepal Wilderness Treks) which was fantastic. I always try to use locally owned businesses as much as possible to help keep the money going where it’s needed most. We also had an absolutely amazing guide named Dewan, who we spent many afternoons and evenings with playing cards. He taught us a local game called Dhumbahl (no idea if I’m spelling that correctly) that we played about a million games of. 

Life on the trek was great. Wake up at 5:30am just because, breakfast around 7am, and hiking between 7:30am to maybe 1, 2, or 3pm depending on the day. We would stop for lunch along the way, and then have the afternoon/evenings to relax. We’d usually get a giant thermos of black tea and read a book or play cards in the tea houses, which doubled as accommodation along the trek. We always had our own room with two beds and sometimes an ensuite bathroom. After so many treks spent roughing it in tents, this felt like a luxury and made the 11 days feel comfortable. 

There were so many options for meals, and all the food came in absolutely massive portions, which we ate every bit of considering the enormous amount of exercise we would do each day. I usually hit atheist 30,000+ steps, and when considering the altitude we were at, we were burning calories rapidly. The menus at the tea houses had a wide variety of options including burgers, Italian pasta, Asian noodles, rice, or curries, and potato dishes. My favourites were veggie fried noodles, fried potatoes with veg and egg, or veggie burgers. Kurt ate Dahl Bhat literally every night which consisted of curried veggies (potatoes, carrots, greens) with lentil soup and rice, which you generally mixed all together. You were allowed to get 2-3 refills of each until you were full, which Kurt made use of and ate until he literally couldn’t eat anymore each night. Our guide loved it. When in the mountains, our guide Dewaan said to focus on ‘eat, drink, sleep’ so we gave each our best effort, drinking 4-5+ litres of water a day and going to bed by 8:30pm every night.

My favorite, the chilli sauce that was on every table. Seriously amazing.

Fried noodles and momos.

The first few days of the trek were absolutely incredible. We passed through so many little villages, all of which are immaculate, with well-built stone buildings that have wooden window frames and doors and even gardens out the front. I was so impressed with the care and attention to detail that all of the buildings had. We hiked up the Khumbu Valley, slowly making our way and crossing a river over and over, traversing the infamous suspension bridges that were just a little bit scary. Sometimes they were hundreds of meters higher than the ground below, bouncing as we walked across, with the wind whipping across so strongly that I had to take my hat off. If I looked down it was enough to make me kick it into high gear and shuffle across a little faster. But if herds of gear-laden yaks can cross the bridges, surely a girl with a backpack is alright? Still – I’m not one to try my luck.

A pretty german shepherd at the lodge we stayed at in Lukla.

The gates to begin the trek!

The first day was very wet - but luckily the only rain we had the whole time!

Starting Day 2 to Namche Bazaar!

The river we crossed over and over was incredibly blue. They call it the ‘river of mother’s milk’ because it’s a turquoise-y white river, run-off from both the Khumbu Glacier (Everest Base Camp) and Island Peak. The pine trees, beautiful river, and spring wildflowers made the trek incredibly beautiful. 

Along the way, we got to cross many of the infamous suspension bridges that are covered in prayer flags, swaying and bouncing way up high above the river. Although incredible and beautiful, I was not a fan. I couldn’t stop imagining one of the cables snapping as I walked across, so I made sure to hustle across each time. But in reality, if hundreds of giant yaks can cross each week, I’m sure they’re safe.

Behind me is Hillary's Bridge! The bottom bridge has been retired so we used the top bridge. It was incredibly high and very scary to look down when crossing.

Our first big stop was Namche Bazar, a town set high up in the Himalayas, again with so many immaculately built houses, restaurants, shops, and bars. It was amazing just to walk around. The shops were filled with all the hiking gear – North Face, Patagonia, Columbia, all the brands - you could ever need, most of it knock-off, but some of it real. I’m convinced the knock-offs are just as real. 

Namche Bazaar. It's actually way bigger than it looks in the photo.
We spent an acclimatisation day in Namche Bazar during which we spent the morning and early afternoon hiking up high, and then heading back to sleep down low. The views that day were pretty epic and we were able to see Mt. Everest for the first time. We were lucky and found a little bar called ‘Yeti Bar’ which had a pool table, Happy Hour with buy 2 get 1 free beers and free popcorn. It also played mountaineering documentaries at 1pm and 3pm every day so we sat and re-watched one of our favourites, 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible about Nims Purja. It was nice to sit in a semi-dark area and relax after a long day of hiking. 

Our first view of Everest, the third peak from the left (the tiny peak) on our acclimatisation hike from Namche.

The next day we had a massive day and hiked all the way to Pangboche, visiting the Thyangboche Tibetan Buddhist monastery along the way, which was really beautiful. We hiked from about 7am to 3pm, with lots of elevation loss and gain, and were crawling by the time we arrived in Pangboche. We had started in Namche Bazaar which had an elevation of 3,440m and hiked way down, then back up to 3,985m. This stretch was one of my favourite parts of the track though, winding way up high through the trees, down to a river and back up the really high alpine area. We even spotted some mountain goats and Kurt glimpsed one of the tiny deer they have in this area!

We were really starting to get up high in the mountains at this point. When we woke up the next morning the sky was crystal clear blue and the clouds that had covered the tallest mountains the afternoon/evening before were gone, so we went for a walk first thing to take it all in, then had breakfast and set off for Dingboche, which ended up being another of our favourite little towns. We stayed in a really nice lodge and acclimatised here the next day as well. We spent many hours drinking massive thermoses of tea and playing Dhumbal, a Nepalese card game, with our guide Dewan. 

The view of Ama Dablam from our acclimatisation hike from Dingboche.

Daisy the yak.

After Dingboche is where things got a lot more difficult. We were above the tree line at this point and the hike from there to our next stop, Lobuche (4940m), was tough, with freezing cold winds. Lobuche is also where we started getting really bad headaches and experiencing the full effects of altitude. 

The views whilst hiking from Dingboche to Lobuche.

This is the top of a big pass we climbed up on our way to Lobuche. Here there were many memorials for climbers who had passed away on Everest. It was a bit haunting.

The next morning, Day 8, was the big day! Managing both of our pounding headaches with Panadol and ibuprofen, we head off to Gorak Shep to drop some of our gear and then continue on to Everest Base Camp. It was freezing cold, around -3C, with freezing wind and a bit of cloud cover that dropped some freezing drizzle on us as we walked. Halfway through I started feeling pretty bad, with some nausea and just overall exhaustion. We continued to climb and eventually started traversing the glacier, which consisted of climbing up, down, around, up, down, around through massive rocks and gravel and dust. It seemed to never end and I was having to take a ten-second break before and after each uphill section. We were over 5,000m (16,404ft) at this point. I was basically crawling by the time we made it to Gorak Shep where we rested and tried to eat some food and water. Even Kurt was feeling a bit sick at this point. He ordered some garlic soup, which is purported to help with altitude sickness, and I choked down some coconut biscuits, tea, and a Snickers bar. 

We were sleeping at Gorak Shep that night so we decided only Kurt would carry a backpack to EBC, and he would carry my water and extra layers for me. So we set off, hiking similarly challenging terrain for about two hours. I managed a bit better without a bag and by the time we got there, I was feeling a bit better. 

It was amazing to see Everest Base Camp (3,464m) all set up for the climbing season, with the hundreds of tents scattered at the base of the Khumbu Glacier to enable hundreds of climbers to attempt to summit. The treacherous Khumba Ice Fall was also absolutely insane to see with my own eyes. We also got to see a crevasse! Overall EBC was a sight I had always wanted to see and it was truly incredible and did not disappoint. 

In the back right you can make out the Khumbu Ice Fall! This is where we got our first views of base camp! It actually looks so close from here but we quickly found out the next day that it was not close at all and this was a very deceiving view point.

After taking photos and walking around a bit to check the place out, we headed back to Gorak Shep where we had lunch and decided to attempt Kala Patthar, a peak just off the side of Gorak Shep that gives you views of the Khumbu Valley, the glacier and all of the mountains, including Everest (you can’t actually see much of Everest from Base Camp, just the peak really). The peak starts off with a really steep climb up some switchbacks, then levels off for a bit, and then has one final steep climb. We made it up to the level point and decided that was high enough for us, the views were what we wanted and we were too exhausted to push any higher. So we sat down and took in the incredible views. 

I was wearing all my layers at this point, tall socks, thermal leggings, fleece-lined alpine hiking pants, merino long-sleeve shirt, fleece jacket, down jacket, outer shell jacket, neck buff, beanie, and snow gloves, and I was still freezing. I feel like I had never experienced true cold and wind until I was sitting on Kala Patthar, and similarly I felt like I had never actually seen the colour white until looking at the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. It’s like a new type of white, one so pure and bright it’s hard to comprehend. 

The view from Kala Patthar. 

We slept at Gorak Shep that night (5,164m/16,942ft). The next morning, after a night full of raging headaches so bad that meds ceased to help and it hurt immensely to even lay your head down on the pillow, we were excited to be heading down the mountains. Neither of us had much of an appetite, and the going was rough for the first few hours. We had to go out the way we came, across the impossible glacial field of rocks and dust. During this time is when Kurt and I actually felt our worse. We both felt so out of it and could barely concentrate or put one foot in front of the other. We struggled on, eventually feeling a bit better around 12pm when we had gone back down a big pass and were at about 4,620m. I really expected to feel better sooner than that, so that morning was tough.

The trek to base camp is about 63km, which we had taken 8 days to complete since going up is much harder, takes longer, and you need time to acclimatise. We did the whole 63km back down in three days, so each of these days was long and consisted of lots of kilometres. But as we got back into the trees and left behind the wind we started warming up and felt better and better. Namche Bazaar was an especially welcome sight. We had our first showers in 8 days and enjoyed a few beers again at Yeti Bar, this time watching Everest, a movie we watch after every single big hike we do. It’s one of our favourites. 

Our last day hiking back to Lukla was 19km and Kurt had a bit of cold and had a good case of the Khumbu cough, so we were pretty excited to be done hiking after a long 11 days. We had a bit of a debacle that night with massive huntsmen spiders that kept coming out of the walls, so we only got a few hours of sleep with the lights on (true story – actually not kidding it was a terrifying night).

The next morning, we finally took the much-anticipated flight from Lukla to Kathmandu. It was every bit as scary as I had thought it would be. The runway is actually at an 11% decline so that when the planes land, they land uphill to enable to them to stop faster on such a short runway. And this also enables them to gain speed faster to take off on the short runway. So when we took off, it actually felt like going down a rollercoaster, except you’re not on a nice little track that’s been tested for safety. Instead, you fly off the edge of a cliff straight into the thin air of the Himalayas. It was the longest 30 minutes of my life and I was beyond relieved to land safely in Kathmandu, where we head back to the hotel we had stayed at before our hike. 

We actually really loved the hotel we stayed at in Kathmandu, Kumari Boutique Hotel. It was a small hotel off a side street in Thamel. It was quiet, the staff were incredibly lovely, and we really enjoyed relaxing there before and after the trek. They also had amazing hot showers, great food, and electricity, so we were quite happy.

We spent our last two days in Kathmandu relaxing, eating delicious food, wandering the streets, shopping, running errands, and taking in all the sights and sounds. I really loved the chaos of Kathmandu and can’t wait to go back one day. But for now, it’s onwards and upwards, and we are headed to Cape Town, South Africa to meet two of our best friends and begin the Africa leg of our adventures.

Bonus pic of a very happy dog in Kathmandu.

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