Where do we begin about our Everest region trek? We started out mid-April with me and my nearly broken foot and Michael with a (possibly torn?) meniscus problem. Hopes were low. Our luck was good though as the 15th and 16th and 18th and 19th, all flights were canceled and our flight was on the 17th.
We flew out from KTM airport to Lukla early in the morning with this thought: we were about to land in the most dangerous airport in the world in what can only be described at a metal shoe-box with human-sized seats lining it. Tenzing-Hillary Airport (named for the famed climbing duo who first summited Everest in 1953) is rumored to have the debris of past airplane crashes littering its runway. While this is untrue, the unreal tight squeeze between giant mountains and the unbelievably (literally) short runway had me squirming for the whole flight. The last crash was only six months ago in September on the same airline we took, Sita. The plane was only off the ground for two minutes. All people onboard died.
Obviously, we survived. Immediately off the plane, we were met by Daiwan, our porter and guide for the next month. The porter/guide-should-I-take-one-issue is heated. Personally, with my injury we didn’t want me to be carrying any weight on the trip. Secondly, we didn’t really know where we are going. Truth be told, the entire Everest region, unless you are climbing peaks, is totally doable without help. In fact, our friends Will and Anna did the whole three-passes trek unguided. There are other arguments people make however, such as employing Sherpas (the economy really relies on it and they get paid next to nothing to carry impossible loads up hard terrain), and we witnessed many of our ‘unguided’ friends get passed over at dinner time in the tea houses for their inability to speak the Sherpa language and their refusal to employ guides. Regardless, some people will say to hire someone, some won’t, we did.
Meeting Daiwan, we were really nervous. Michael and I chose to spend 22 showerless and tiring days in eachother’s company, we didn’t really chose this guy. Silent and awkward at first, Daiwan proved himself not only hardworking, kind, and introspective, but a pretty awesome companion for the time we spent in the Everest region. He also gave us a huge amount of insight into how Sherpas live, the culture, and some language as well.
After saying hello to Daiwan and getting settled in Lukla we waited for a day (Michael still had a nasty food poisoning bug from Kathmandu) and prepared to set out on the 18th.
We began our trip in a huge snow storm. For the first days on our trek towards Gokyo, we saw no mountains and barely even saw the trees around us. We were content with the other views and environments in mountain life however… ‘mani’ or prayer stone and prayer flags spotted the terrain. The majority Buddhist Sherpa people believe that when the prayer flags wave the prayers are sent and thus place them in the highest places. You can hear the flapping flags in the wind all around you on the trek and they usually mark the tops of passes and peaks. We listened to the songs of porters carrying supplies up the mountain side and watched as yak, mule, and dzo (cow-yak combination) moved through narrow passageways and around the trekkers.
For four days we moved slowly upward. While we were walking a considerable amount every day, for the first week the ascent was slow. At 15,000 feet, you need to take time to adjust to the altitude. We took plenty of rest days. A fast, acclimatized climber good get from Lukla to Everest Base Camp in a matter of days. In fact, it’s not that hard of climbing. But thanks to rest and good advice from Daiwan, by the time we would be even higher than EBC, we would feel healthy and be breathing normally, while many others who hurried were experiencing headaches, loss of appetite and even would need to descend immediately for their health. Altitude is a funny thing. I never felt ill, but I told Michael it was like feeling out of shape – you see a small incline that looks really easy and thinking you could just run up it, but even walking slowly leaves you out of breath.
In Matrama, around the fourth day, the mountains of Gokyo showed themselves – Cho Oyo, 26, 864 feet high stood mammoth far ahead of us, Manaslu, 26,781 feet high could be seen nearby. All in all, we saw seven of the fourteen 8,000 meter mountains that exist in the world.
From Gokyo peak at 5,300 meters or 17,575 feet above sea level, within the first week, we saw our first view of Everest.
Everest is not the prettiest mountain. It looks a lot like a dark brother of Lhotse Face, smiling grimly behind a series of mountains that almost look taller. It is dark and unseemly, looking like a large towering rock rather than a snowy peak. But if you look at Everest on a clear day, the cloud of snow-dust around the top betrays the harsh winds and ghostly climate of the largest rock that exists above the earth.
At this point, we had made good friends with Daiwan. He was daily teaching me Nepali and Sherpa phrases and playing Dumal, a Nepali card game with Michael and I in the evening. A lot of people hate trekking because of the lifestyle. The tea houses are sometimes unclean and cold and the variety of food is a little depressing. But we loved it. Wake up at five in the morning, walk for five hours, eat a hearty potato filled lunch, play cards, eat Dal Baht for dinner (vegetables, lentils, rice) and then fall into your sleeping bag around eight. If was a great lifestyle and we never got tired of it… well not showering wasn’t great but manageable and rewarding in the end.
The end of the first first presented our first challenge – Cho La, a 17,500 foot pass with a near vertical, slippery climb half-way through. We were particularly worried about the boulder hopping we had heard about in terms of my confidence in my foot. Early in the morning we left for the pass. Our pass day took us nearly seven hours to complete and was the most rewarding part of the trek. Taking a rest day after, we played cards and swapped stories with other trekkers.
Around the same time, though we were completely unaware of it, a fight was taking place six thousand feet above us on Everest. You may have read in the news about the Sherpa fight on Everest in early May. Honestly, most Nepali people we’ve talked to only found out about the fight through English newspapers, and our guide hadn’t even heard about it. But anyway, there was a fight on Everest between some Sherpa climbers fixing rope and some of the high-paying summit-hopefuls. The Sherpas accused the climbers of throwing ice on them, and in an altercation that happened later that day, the climbers were confronted by a mob, allegedly armed, that forced them from the mountain. While I can’t offer any personal opinions on this specific incident because obviously I wasn’t climbing Everest, there are a couple things I can say about the culture around the mountain.
The first is that while the Everest region attracts hundreds of thousands of trekkers every year, it is still a home to the Sherpa people who live, work and have their cultural heritage there. It is a main rule of trekking that all tourists and trekkers move off the road when any porter, yak train, or local passes by and to always give Sherpas, especially if they are risking their life to fix rope for climbers, the right of way on the mountain. Even earlier this year, the first lives claimed in the climbing season were Sherpa sidars trying to fix rope on a technical spot on Everest and fell to their death. So, respect is paramount but not always given.
Secondly, there are a lot of stupid people in this region. Because it is often true the only thing between any novice climber and the top of the world is money (total it costs any average person 65,000 dollars plus to climb Everest) there are a lot of people attempted the Himalayan peaks who lack the experience to be there. Even in one of our lodges at 5,100 meters (the highest we ever slept) we had an experience with this stupidity. On our first day, three climbers came in looking in a bad way. One, with a distinct New York accent, kept saying “help me help me I’m going to die, please.” Everyone made way for them and helped them get oxygen and called for a rescue. Over the course of three hours waiting for the weather to clear for rescue however it became clear that these three Americans were not ordinary trekkers. A brilliant ironically named company “Responsible Adventures” had been hiring helicopters to take clients from Kathmandu (around 900 meters above sea level) to Everest BC (around 5,300 meters above sea level). The guide’s plan had been to let them walk around a couple of hours and then take them down. But these brilliant guys decided they wanted to walk down to Lobuche (around a six hour walk) instead of fly. Having just ascended 4000 meters in a couple of hours… that didn’t go so well. Thus, they ended up wasting time and resources of the rescue crew and worrying a lot of people on the mountain for no reason.
So there’s probably a lot of tension between the high-paying expedition teams and the Sherpas already, though this is no reason to lean towards violence and many people are disappointed in both sides. I’m sure the conflict is resolved though, and not as big a deal as people made it out to be.
After completing Gokyo and Cho la, we spent our time at high altitude (the highest we got was Kalapathar at 18,200 feet) on day hikes and then making our way back down. Descending was great fun as Daiwan started making us take our time – we spent three hours walking, stopped for a two to three hour lunch/chang (light alcoholic Sherpa drink) break and continuing three hours until we stopped for dinner and more chang. Around 4000 meters, the air starting to feel thick. As we watched climbers ascending struggle with minor peaks, we breathed easier.
We were sad to leave and say goodbye to the lifestyle, our Sherpa friends and the mountain air, attitude, and culture. With many people who had never seen cars or descending to the depths of Kathmandu, the lifestyle was entirely different. Michael and I both managed to finish a series of books in our off time, have amazing conversations, and learn from our mountain sisters and brothers. To live under the highest rocks in the world is amazing and rich in tradition and religion.
We hope it prepared us well for our next task… teaching monks. On Sunday we move into a Buddhist monastery where I might be for the next seven weeks (Michael for three) teaching young monks English. By the way, how do you teach English?
I guess we will find out. Right now, we are enjoying showering, variety in food, and the business of city life.