Though most of my adventures of late have involved covering massive distances in the fastest possible time, I'm just back from an expedition of a different sort. For a much needed break from running and in order to celebrate my 40th year on the planet, my youngest brother and I set off for Nepal and a 3-week Himalayan odyssey. Everest Base Camp in our sights.
We set off from Lukla on the traditional ascent route: 8 days to ascend and 3 to return. Following a surprisingly smooth flight and landing from Kathmandu to the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla (9,200 ft), we zipped through the first day's 2.5 hour overall descent into Phakding (8,563 ft), where we settled-in for our first taste of guesthouse life along the great Himalayan trail.
As we soon discovered, life along the trail moves in much the same daily rhythm wherever you may find yourself. Occupants of each "teahouse" start stirring well before sunrise, when they try to shake-off the frozen night and prepare for the coming day. Duffels and backpacks are stuffed and stowed, or sent along with the local porters to the next scheduled stop. Huddled trekkers sip milk coffee in anticipation of the coming warmth of the rising sun. Breakfast, which is typically ordered the night before, is consumed and last minute preparations are made before setting-off. Around noon or upon reaching the desired village, groups and individuals stop for a midday meal, which usually takes an hour or so for the kitchen staff to prepare. When full, trekkers push off for their final daily destinations, arriving around 4 p.m. Supper orders are placed and everyone gathers in the common dining area in anticipation of the daily lighting of the stove, a central wood-burning unit that provides the only source of heat along the route. The fire is usually lit around 5-5:30 p.m. and is only refueled once or twice, providing around 3 hours of warmth. Travelers practically hug the iron heaters in hopes of thawing frozen digits or drying soaked clothes. Food is served around 7:30 as the dining area is a bustle of folks reading, writing in journals, engaged in card games, or even contemplative individuals simply soaking in the scene. Most guests retire directly after supper, which is when the room really springs to life as the guides and porting staff are then served their heaping trays of dal bhat, which they consume hastily. This is when the true local flavor comes out: English is set aside for Nepalese, traditional music is turned-up, and laughter fills the small huts. Certainly my favorite time to sit and enjoy the ambiance. Sleep. Wake. Repeat.
The following day, we strapped-up for the long, uphill march to Namche Bazaar (11,289 ft), one of the main waystations of the Khumbu region. After skirting the roaring Dudh Kosi river for the first half of the day and crossing some rather frighteningly constructed suspension bridges, we began the unforgiving ascent into Namche. This would also serve as home for our first acclimitization day to following this second day of ascent. This village, carved into a beautiful hillside, bustled with locals, trekkers, yaks, and stray dogs. Home to many bakeries, bars, and outfitters, Namche would be the last proper village on our journey to the top.
The acclimitization day gave us a chance to get our first real peek at the range of mountains we were to soon venture into. Unfortunately, either the altitude or the local cuisine kept my brother in bed all day, as he battled with an uncooperative stomach. I ascended to the Hotel Everest View and took-in the iconic panorama from its terrace. Pretty amazing to realize that I was staring at peaks I had only once seen pictures of.
With Justin having defeated his unstable digestive tract, we spent the next two days continuing our ascent, first stopping in Tengboche (12,664 ft), where we visited the local monastery, and then on to Dingboche (14,271 ft). We took an additional acclimitization day in Dingboche, and received our first taste of low-oxygen steep ascent as we scrambled up the peak rising from the rear of the village and overlooking the Chhukung Valley (17,388 ft), giving us an unrivaled view of the mighty Ama Dablam. This was a lung-burner of an ascent and an ankle-snapper of a return! Here, we had our first really good views of Island Peak and Makalu.
Our next stop would be Lobuche, one more of the ever-shrinking villages along the main route. Lobuche seemed to only be comprised of six or eight tiny guesthouses, but did have a local store...literally the size of a walk-in closet. En route, we passed the fabled Thukla Pass and stopped to observe the climber's memorial which honors those who have died on Everest and Pumori. Most notably, the memorial to Scott Fischer, one of the climber's who died in the infamous '96 Everest disaster.
Finally, the big day had come; our final push to base camp. We ascended the glacier and picked our way to the final outpost of Gorak Shep. From there, we wound our way up towards the camp, though there was rarely a visible trail. With barely 30 minutes to our goal, the blue skies that we had been blessed with suddenly shifted to an utter whiteout and wind gusts of near 100 mph began to batter us. We picked-up our pace and arrived at the base of the Khumbu icefall by mid-afternoon. With the brutal weather having moved-in, we could only stay at the camp for 5-10 minutes. We snapped a few photos, enjoyed a sneaky shot of whiskey, and quickly began making our way back towards the shelter of our lodge.
Despite the temperature hovering around -20 and 4-5 inches of fresh snow, we crawled out of our sacks the following morning at 4:30 a.m. in order to summit nearby Kala Pathar (18,208 ft). From her peak, we would be able to see the sun rise behind Everest, Nuptse, Lohtse, and entire southern range. After battling the unreasonable cold for the first hour, Justin turned back, having lost feeling from elbow and knee down. I pressed on, though I could no longer feel my feet from midfoot upward. With gorgeous blue skies, I bouldered the final 100 meters to stand astride the summit and enjoy the early morning light. Though it had been tough going, the exhilaration of the scene was immense. The effort had been worth it.
As we reluctantly began the long trek back to civilization, we remained in awe of our surroundings, though we were retracing our previous steps. The warmth of the local people had only added to the breathtaking scenery that we had lived amongst for the past weeks. We will both most definitely be making the journey again someday. Sooner rather than later...we hope!