Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 8

March, 2020

This is the eighth, and final, post in my “Everest Base Camp Trek” series. In earlier posts I’ve shared my own impressions of the 18 amazing days that four friends and I spent trekking in Nepal in November, 2019 – a spectacular trip, with great people. Much more challenging than any of us had anticipated.

So far, these posts have been, primarily, from my point of view. But, now, Chris, Diego, and Ricardo have shared their impressions of the trip with me, so it’s only right that they have their turn here. This post is theirs.

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But, previously…

Our group of five – Chris, Diego, John, Ricardo, and I – had flown up to the “World’s Most Dangerous Airport” in Lukla, and walked from there up to Namche Bazaar, Dingboche, Lobuche, finally reaching the incredible views from Kala Patthar, and Everest Base Camp from Gorak Shep. At that point we were all quite sick, gasping for air, exhausted, feeling like we had entered a “tunnel” of fuzzy thinking, and were suffering significant physical and emotional deterioration. In fact, Diego had already turned around and started down from Lobuche, presenting with seven of the eight symptoms of pulmonary altitude sickness. He had rented a horse and headed for the mountain clinic in Pheriche.

After Base Camp, we started back down, passing through Pheriche to reunite with Diego, who had recovered substantially. We descended to Namche Bazaar, where my four friends decided to cut their trekking short, having accomplished their goal; they hired a helicopter and flew to Kathmandu, via Lukla, as I described in Part 6 of this series. I wanted to keep trekking. So, last time, in Part 7, I described my 3-day solo trek, walking from Namche Bazaar up to Thame and then down to Lukla, with Indra (our guide), to fly back to Ramechhap.

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Chris is a very dear friend, who I have known since our time in the Peace Corps long ago. Even though, after three months of training together, we were posted in different places during our time as volunteers, our experience was somewhat similar: this is because Azogues, where I was posted, and Guaranda, where Chris worked, are both small highland towns, capitals of backwater provinces with, unusually, mountainous and coastal areas. We both worked in both of those zones, which was a rich and unusual experience, because coastal and highland cultures are very distinct.

However, as a Water Engineer, “Jefe De Proyectos,” it was only proper that I viewed Water “Promoters” like Chris – and Diego – with distain 😎.

We stayed in touch after Peace Corps and, much later, Chris and I were lucky to share years in Hanoi as Country Directors for different International NGOs, during a fascinating time in that country’s history. It was great having that experience with Chris because, for both of us, it was our first real immersion in Asia. As you will see from his contribution below, Chris is unfailingly positive and optimistic. (There was that very rare exception – that proves the rule – when we were at our lowest ebb, near the end of our Nepal trek!) I’m lucky to have Chris as my friend.

Here is Chris’s contribution to this blog:

Ten years from now, or 50 if I’m lucky enough to live that long, memories of the Khumbu cough, acute mountain sickness, cold and sleepless nights, all that will be gone. I hope. And I’ll only think of the glorious sunny mornings and looking up at the faces of the Gods as we hiked, and how during the day we wore long sleeve shirts and vests and light jackets and never felt cold. Until the sun disappeared. And I’ll think of the people we met along the way.The group: Mark and Diego. Already brothers for most of my life. Ricardo and John, new friends and instant brothers, too. John the fellow cyclist and fly fisherman. Ricardo, who walked faster than anyone else, making it look so easy.

The guides: Indra, Maya, Sasha, holding our hands literally, and our fates, too, in their small, warm hands. Also instant family, whom I’ll treasure for life. Our young porters, Tika and Arjun, gliding off every morning with our packs like snow leopards up the steep hills ahead of us, then reemerging from the Himalayan shadows, smiling. So easy for them, and they always seemed happy for us old guys, arriving to the next destination, 3 or 4 hours after they did.Alex, a hiker from Wales, whom we’d met on day one and then again about halfway up, and finally once more at base camp. As Mark was taking my picture he called out, “Go Red Sox!”The young couple in Pingboche. My son Tom’s age. They carried their own packs, had no guide, and were using their phones to map the way up. I worried about them, and gave them my walking sticks and bought them dinner and was touched that they let me act like a dad for a little while.

An American girl in her 20s who was working on her PhD in Nepal, hiking with her friend who had just climbed Kilimanjaro. Everest Base Camp at that point didn’t seem too hard for them. But it was early in the trek.

The lady owner of the tea shop who kept saying, “Honey-bunny?” every time we asked for honey for our tea. “Honey-bunny?” Mark, Diego and I laughed again every time she said it. “Honey-bunny?” We would ask her for honey even when we didn’t really need it.The French dad and his 10-year-old daughter, coughing and exhausted, having turned back before reaching base camp; her head bowed over the table in the eating room, her father looking on with concern and pain.

The three Indian lads at Gorak Shep, the night before we arrived to base camp, laughing in their room late into the night, a few doors down from us, seemingly impervious to cold or lack of oxygen at 17,000 feet… they should not have annoyed me but somehow did.

At my lowest point, my friend Rui visiting me one night in Pingboche, where my clogged lungs and the thin air made it hard to breath and I wondered if I would ever get to sleep, or even make it through the night. He was talking to me about the challenge of transporting bicycle gears over Mt. Everest safely, detailing every option and possibility on how it might be done, what gears would be most resilient, had I ever heard of bicycle gears made of titanium or even wood? A familiar voice, and he kept going on and on and I just listened and then it was suddenly almost 6am and the sun was coming back up.

And all the rest, a cast of hundreds. I’ll remember some faces and wrote down some names. May not see many of them again but they were all a huge part of what made it so special for me.

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Diego, too, was in the Peace Corps with Chris and I, long ago, but we hadn’t stayed in touch. But Chris and Diego live in the same area, so I was lucky enough to reconnect with Diego a couple of years ago, at a gig of Chris’s band; later, Diego was keen to join the trip to Nepal. It was great getting to know him again.

So here is Diego’s short description of the trek, some of which I included in an earlier post; it’s centered mostly around the impact of the altitude on him, and on all of us:

Every afternoon at 3:00 the doctor at the clinic in Periche gives a lecture on altitude sickness. It is for the trekkers passing through the town. Turns out that there are two kinds of altitude sickness: cerebral and pulmonary. Each has its own set of symptoms. If you have either, the doctor warned, the first thing you do is stop going higher. For immediate treatment, go to a lower elevation. Good information. We walked back to Dingboche. 

After a day of rest in Dingboche, we set out for Lobuche (4910 meters). We stopped for lunch at the Yak Lounge in Thukla. The menu had a caption: “People who like eat Are Always The Best People.” I’m hesitant to make generalizations, but I think I agree with that one. 

Each day there were unofficial rest stops along the way. Often they were spots with makeshift stone benches. Sometimes the view of the mountains was particularly good from them. Or it might be the site of a modest Buddhist shrine. Whatever they were, I took advantage of all of them. But I also designated my own stops along the way. I’m sure that Maia (the porter assigned to me) got tired of all my breaks to sit down and try to catch my breath. 

On the afternoon walk up to Lobuche, my rest stops were getting more frequent. As my breathing became more labored, I tried to take smaller steps so as not to be so fatigued. By now I was taking baby steps. I tried to keep a steady pace, but my steps kept getting smaller and my rest stops more prolonged. Even when Lobuche came into view, I had to stop for a rest. 

At last I walked into the Lobuche tea house, physically spent. My cold and cough had gotten progressively worse. I sat down with my waiting friends. In my eyes I could feel the burning that you get when you have a fever. Someone still had wi-fi on his phone. I borrowed it to look up the symptoms of pulmonary altitude sickness. There were eight; I had seven of them. That wasn’t the ratio that I was shooting for. The food came. After chewing each forkful of noodles, I was gasping for breath. 

That night, as a cautionary measure, our guide Indra stayed in my room. “Diego,” he said, “you are breathing heavily.” Yes, I was. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath, even while I was lying down. Indra had an oxygen tank. During the night I would take gulps of air out of it. It helped for a while, but eventually my shortness of breath came back. Sometime in the middle of the night I said to Indra, “Please get a horse tomorrow. I need to go back to see the doctor.”

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John is a newer friend, a childhood friend of Ricardo’s. We met a couple of years ago, at a meditation workshop we all attended here in New England. He’s a very dynamic, witty, and funny person, who is also in very good physical shape – so John was often at the front of our group as we walked towards Base Camp!

John hasn’t had time to prepare a contribution to this blog yet; when he does, I’ll insert it here!

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Finally, here is Ricardo’s description of the trek. I’ve known Ricardo since the early 1990’s, when he joined our South America team in Quito. At that point, he was making the transition from the business world, the for-profit sector, to our non-profit world. Ever since, we’ve been close friends, visiting each other frequently in the wide range of places where we lived and worked – in South America, Asia, Australia, and here in New Hampshire. We both follow the same meditation tradition, which means that our friendship has been on several, deeper levels; close readers of this blog may have noted that Ricardo and I travelled for a month together in India, in late 2017.

Ricardo is one of the most generous and kind people I’ve ever met, a truly good person who pursues a meaningful and considered path through life. And he’s clear in his point of view, firm when he has to be: for example, during our time working together he dealt very successfully, despite many obstacles, with the most-significant case of corruption in an expatriate INGO worker that I encountered in my career. I have benefited from his friendship and wisdom.

Ricardo’s shared his thoughts with me in two ways: a short description, and his What’sApp feed. First, his short description:

TUNNEL TO EVEREST

When we began our hike to base camp I thought of huge Everest as an infinite place.

Upon reaching Lukla, we five friends began our ascent under a bright blue sky. The combination of mountains, peaks and valleys formed a wonderful and incredible aesthetic of this special place. We walked up talking, making jokes, taking photos, delighted to be in the open air.

On the third day I began to feel the constant ascent, with its symptoms of altitude, less food, colder, less oxygen, exhaustion, less appetite.

These signs slowly became stronger although we did not pay much attention to them. Of course, now I thought less, spoke less, ate less and felt my whole body more. This happened without realizing it due to the enthusiasm of feeling closer to the base camp.

The day before we reached base camp, climbing Kalapatar and reaching more than 5,600mts I had mixed feelings, discovering an infinite beautiful landscape, me so small in this place.

Early the next day we arrived at the base camp, it was incredible to feel that we made it. We had gone through 10 days with constant pressure, and now we were liberated, abruptly the challenge was over… but no.

After such a great emotional, mental and spiritual experience, I felt the urgent need to get out of there as soon as possible. Without realizing it, perhaps because of so many emotions I discovered that I was trapped in a deep and dark tunnel nestled in the ground. Lack of oxygen, lack of sleep, lack of food, physical exhaustion and emotional exhaustion from dealing with so much.

That tunnel had led me to a brilliant spiritual experience of discovering such an infinite natural world.

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Ricardo also sent out updates to his network every couple of days, through WhatsApp, as we trekked. As befitting that communications medium, the style is different, more concentrated, like SMS. Also, Ricardo’s WhatsApp descriptions were in Spanish, and I’ve tried to capture his style in my translation; I include the images that Ricardo attached to his updates:

Himalayas November 4.  We traveled from the capital Kathmandu to Lukla and started the path up to Monjo, at 2830m above sea level.

Today we continued on our way to Namche Bazaar, 3440m.  During both of the last two days, we hiked around 10km at an average pace of 2km/hour on rocky roads with an average slope of 25 degrees. A beautiful landscape as you can see. We will be in these mountains 18 days.

November 6, 3rd day on the trail. Today we left Namche Bazaar at 3,443m and climbed up to 3,840m, and then returned.  We did this to help our bodies adapt to the altitude. This town, like the ones we have crossed along the way, has a very beautiful urban aesthetic: no cars, no motorcycles, only people and animals.

For the first time we can see Mt Everest, impressive panorama, air, energy.

Today, on our 4th day, we go towards Everest on a relaxing day, with slight changes of level and always at the same speed of around 2km / hour.  Some photos. The peak that stands out in the penultimate photo is Mt Everest.

November 8, 5th day on the trail.  We sleep in Punki Tenga, at 3400m, in a nice lodge surrounded by rivers, in front of an 80m-long suspension bridge over which people and animals travel, mainly yaks that transport all types of cargo, provide milk, meat, hair for knitting cloth, even manure that serves as cooking fuel -photo- we begin to ascend to Pangboche, at 3930m, the oldest settlement in the Everest region, as well as its monastery -photo-.

On our 6th day we walk 5 hours to Dingboche, at 4410m. Upon arrival we climb to 4660m and return, to accelerate adaptation to the altitude.

November 10, 7th trekking day. We take a day of rest here in Dingboche, at 4410m, having ascended more than 1000m in the last few days, to avoid a high risk of altitude sickness here, should we continue ascending.  In any case, we continue to exercise, hiking up to get to visit one of the lakes, at 4550m -photo-

The next day we continue to Lobuche 4910 meters on a 5-hour walk that is our daily norm now; because of the height we are lowering our speed to 1.5 km/hour. The sight of the snow-capped mountains is more impressive every day – photo.  Diego began to have severe signs of altitude sickness. The only cure is to descend immediately and return on horseback to the previous town where there is medical attention.  We’ve been informed that he’s already stable.

November 12, we go to Gorakshep, at 5210m. The trail here is more traveled than the previous days, with many adult and elderly walkers, also “Porters Sherpas” – porters of the Sherpa ethnic group – and Yaks, with all types of cargo that supply all the goods Everest region -photos-. In the afternoon we climb the Kalapather peak, at 5642 meters. This is our maximum altitude on this trip, an extreme physical effort -last pictures-

November 13, 10th day on the trail.  We arrived at the Base Camp 5364m, our goal. We spent the previous night at the last lodge before Everest, Gorak Shep, at 5140m. Very basic, all gathered in the dining room looking for the heat generated by Yak manure -photo-  At 8am we left towards Base Camp, an hour and a half walk.  This is the first camp of four before reaching the summit of Mt Everest, and all the conditions of temperature, height, physical effort are extreme. 

The day was beautiful – photos – after staying half an hour we decided to make a rapid descent to Thokla (at 4620m) and escape the high altitude. Our idea was to descend further but we were all exhausted.

We made the descent quickly and avoided altitude sickness – a high risk in these precarious conditions. One risk is pulmonary or cerebral edema. The medical center of the area attends one of these cases – trekkers with altitude sickness – every day. Some of them die. In the last lodging before we arrived at the Base Camp, while we were there, a French walker died 🙏🏻

A very challenging experience. Like none before, even though I thought I had already experienced a lot in the world. Here, the goal was not only to reach the goal, the return turned out to be so challenging, so demanding and urgent to complete due to physical, mental, emotional exhaustion.

One of the biggest challenges has been the constant mental attention needed to recognize on time, and address any signals that your body makes which, if you neglect it, you will not make it out alive. I have never experienced this situation in my life.

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Wrapping up this series, I want to thank Chris, Diego, John, and Ricardo for being such fantastic trekking companions. The conditions were tough, challenging on many dimensions, but our group held together perfectly through it all. Very special thanks to Indra, our guide, whose expertise, wisdom, and flexibility made all the difference. And to the rest of the crew from Three Sisters, who carried our heavy loads and were almost-always cheerful and positive along the way: Rabin, Arjun, Maya, Sancha, and Tika.

We made it!

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Postscript:

As I publish this final article, the Covid-19 pandemic is sweeping across the world, and the situation looks pretty dire. In Nepal, the trekking season has been cancelled, a devastating economic blow to the country, but surely necessary to control the situation. Chris shared a link to this article, from National Geographic, which captures the reality we faced late last year, and the even-greater danger that such a situation represents today:

Even during the healthiest years, few climbers survive the two-week trek through the Khumbu valley to reach Everest’s base camp in Nepal without getting sick. Mountaineers and trekkers all stay in the same lodges and tea houses, which are typically small spaces with group dining areas. With running water limited in many places, just washing your hands can be impossible in this region. “If you’re a virus, the Khumbu is an infectious disease haven,” says Piris.

We all hope that the great people who made our trek possible come through this in good shape, and that trekking can resume as soon as possible.

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Earlier posts in this series can be found here:

  1. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 1;
  2. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 2;
  3. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 3;
  4. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 4;
  5. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 5;
  6. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 6;
  7. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 7.

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And check out my “New Hampshire 4000-Footer” series: climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall.  And, each time, reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 35 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 7

March, 2020

I spent 18 days trekking in Nepal in November, 2019, with four friends, aiming to reach Everest Base Camp. It was a spectacular trip, with great people; it was also much more challenging than any of us had anticipated.

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Our group of five – Chris, Diego, John, Ricardo, and I – had flown up to the “World’s Most Dangerous Airport” in Lukla, and walked from there up to Namche Bazaar, Dingboche, Lobuche, finally reaching the incredible views from Kala Patthar, and Everest Base Camp from Gorak Shep. At that point we were all quite sick, gasping for air, exhausted, feeling like we had entered a “tunnel” of fuzzy thinking, physical deterioration, and emotional instability. In fact, Diego had already turned around and started down from Lobuche, with significant symptoms of pulmonary altitude sickness, heading for the mountain clinic in Pheriche.

After Base Camp, we started back down, passing through Pheriche to reunite with Diego, who had recovered, thankfully. We descended to Namche Bazaar, where my four friends decided to cut their trekking short, having accomplished their goal, and hired a helicopter directly to Kathmandu, via Lukla, as I described last time, in Part 6 of this series. I would continue the trek…

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Dear readers: we are coming to the end of this adventure! Now, in the seventh part of this series, I will describe the last few days of my trek: on my own, I climbed from Namche Bazaar up to Thame on Day 15, and then back down for two days to Lukla. I flew back to Ramechaap from Lukla, and then continued by car to Kathmandu, on Day 18, ending my trip successfully.

What an amazing trip it had been…

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Day 15 – 18 November 2019.

We had been walking at high altitude for over two weeks and were exhausted; but now, back in Namche Bazaar, at 11,300ft (3,440m), I felt OK. Having been at Everest Base Camp just a few days earlier, this felt virtually like sea level! Plus there was good coffee, great pastries, and plenty of oxygen…

That morning I left my four trekking companions – Chris, Diego, John, and Ricardo – as they walked up to the heliport above town, and awaited their flight for the ride down to Lukla, and then on to Kathmandu. Walking above the heliport on my way towards Thame, I looked down and saw my friends waiting for their flight:

They couldn’t see or hear me as I walked above them. It was a bittersweet moment: my friends were leaving, and I wasn’t sure I had made the right decision to stay behind and continue to trek on my own. Maybe I should have stayed with them and returned to Kathmandu, not splitting our group. After all, we had made it through such a challenging two weeks – without sleep, oxygen, etc. – during which we had stayed in good spirits and showed strong solidarity… But, as I said last time, I was feeling better and was looking forward to one of my favorite activities, hiking in the mountains. And these were spectacular mountains – why go back early to the city?

So I stayed behind. I walked past the heliport, up into a beautiful forest, and then down into the gorgeous Bhote Kosi valley, which I would walk up that morning. I was headed for Thame, where I hoped to visit the famous Thame Gompa monastery and, along the way, enjoy the scenery.

On my own now, with our “Sherpa” Rabin by my side:

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You can see the last few days of my trek on this map (below). On Day 15 I hoped to walk from Namche Bazaar up to Thame; then I would take two more days to descend to Lukla:

Here is a view of the Bhote Kosi valley. I would walk up this valley to Thame, which is situated in a high plateau near the snow-capped peaks that are just visible:

Judging by the proliferation of prayer flags and wall paintings, this beautiful valley seemed to be, somehow, more “buddhist” than the Khumbu, the valley we had walked up to Everest Base Camp (and back down):

It was yet another clear, blue-sky day. Perfect walking: I was glad to be there.

I came to a short bridge, perched above a raging river, apparently part of a hydro-electric scheme:

From that bridge, the trail begins a steep ascent, up to Thame. Here I’m looking back down at that bridge:

The valley I was walking up leads to the Renjo Pass, one of the “Three Passes” trek; if we had continued with our original plan, we would have passed over two of those passes. By coincidence, as I was walking up I saw two young Swiss trekkers that we had talked with at some point on our way up to Base Camp. So they had managed to get to EBC ahead of us, across two additional high passes, and were now descending, nearly jogging down. Wow! They didn’t recognize me, as I had my face covered, and by the time I realized who they were, they were gone!

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Once I crossed that bridge, I hiked up the path that you can see here, up into a plateau close to the snow-capped mountain in the background. The settlement of Thame is tucked up in there:

It took me about 3 1/2 hours to climb from Namche to Thame:

Thame had been destroyed in the 2015 earthquake, now rebuilt. After we arrived, I settled into the Valley View lodge:

Which was probably the smallest and least-comfortable room of the whole trip, by the way! But it had been a very pleasant and easy day, walking up a spectacular valley below amazing mountains. And I had seen more wildlife that day than in the entire previous two weeks, including a tribe (seriously!) of Himalayan goats, and a small group of Himalayan monal, the national bird of Nepal; here is an image found online (I wasn’t quick enough to take my own photo!):

After lunch, Rabin and I climbed up to the monastery above town. This is the Thame Gompa, apparently founded in 1667AD:

The monastery was closed when we arrived. A beautiful setting, much like the “Bird’s Nest” monastery Jean and I (and Eric) had visited in Bhutan in 2007; it has one main temple building, on the side of a cliff, with a smattering of smaller buildings below and around it. The views were spectacular.

Soon a rather glum young monk arrived and opened the temple. It was very nice inside: clearly of a Tibetan school, with images of the Dalai Lama. A few “No Photos” signs were displayed, quite prominently.

I initially sat to the side to meditate, but the monk indicated, frowning and impatient, that I should move. He put a rug on the ground right in front of the main altar for me, and then busied himself emptying small pans of water and generally making lots of noise. I took no notice.

A few other westerners arrived, and one asked him:

“I know we can’t take pictures in here, but can I take pictures?”

Rather presumptuous…?

Finally three bells rang, and the monk asked me to leave. I guess I was in there for 15 minutes. All in all, it was a very good meditation experience!

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From the temple you can see across the Thame moraine and down the valley towards Namche.

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Rabin and I walked back down to Thame, where we rested and had dinner; I had momos, which were delicious. Late that day, able to connect to a wifi signal, I received a photo of my friends, now freshly shaved and showered in the big city of Kathmandu:

So they were fine, looking good!, and seemed to be relieved to be down from the mountains safely after our ordeal! Very nice of them to reach out to update me!

Even though my room was very basic, I slept quite well that night.

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Day 17 – 19 November 2019

On my 17th day, I walked all the way down from Thame to Tok Tok, and stayed in the same lodge where our whole group had stayed on the first night. Retracing steps…

First, after breakfast in Thame, Rabin and I headed back down the Bhote Koshi valley to Namche. Although Rabin was very capable, I have to admit that I was missing Indra, our guide, whose competent handling of our earlier challenges had been very comforting for us all. Indra had stayed behind in Namche with my friends as they waited for their helicopter, wanting to make sure that they made it back to Kathmandu safely. Indra’s thinking, which I agreed with, was that my own “solo” trek was pretty straightforward, whereas the helicopter ride to Kathmandu might experience weather or maintenance issues, so he was right to stand by in Namche, just in case.

But Rabin’s English-language skills were not strong, so I was missing Indra a bit. As we descended towards Namche, just near the heliport where my friends had left the day before, we encountered Indra walking slowly up to meet us, a big smile on his face. So that was a relief!

Here we are in Namche, at the lodge where we had lunch before starting down to Tok Tok; from the left, Rabin, Indra, and me:

After lunch we headed down that steep hill we had struggled up on 5 November, exactly two weeks before. Descending firstly through the town:

Our walk down from Namche Bazaar was uneventful, but (of course) spectacular. In Part 2 of this blog series I described the terrifying suspension bridge that we crossed as we began the steep ascent to Namche. As we were retracing our steps, we crossed it again; here I film my own crossing of that bridge, from end to end:

Then I turned around and filmed Indra coming along behind me:

And, of course, as we descended there was a stream of porters, yaks, and donkeys carrying supplies up towards Namche and beyond.

Take a look at the next photo, and video: I have no idea how heavy this load was, but it looked quite impressive. Note in the video that you can hear that he’s speaking on his mobile phone as he ascends!

We were now dropping down into forested areas, but still the donkeys and yaks were all around us. In this video, you can see a stream of donkeys; Indra (in a red jacket) nips into a small structure to turn a prayer wheel:

We reached Tok Tok, and stayed at the River View Lodge, where we had stayed on our first day climbing:

Two weeks earlier, we had dinner in the dining room at the River View, looking fresh and happy!

But this time it was just Indra and me. So instead of heating the dining room, since there were no other guests, the owner suggested that we eat in the kitchen, which we did. It was a great experience, talking with the owner and her sister about their lives, the 2015 earthquake, etc., in the warmth of the kitchen. I had spaghetti, which was delicious, and greatly enjoyed the conversation…

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Day 17 – 20 November 2019

My last day of hiking was beautiful and easy. We dropped down from Tok Tok to Lukla, through forest and along the valley we had walked up over two weeks earlier:

Beautiful walking, clear skies, strolling downward.

Along the way, there was one last drama. In this post, and earlier ones in this series, you will have seen many photos, and a few videos, of the animals along the trail, and some of them crossing the suspension bridges. At one of the last bridges before arriving at Lukla, we came across a tragedy in process: a donkey’s front leg had slipped between the metal slats that form the bridge tracks and the wire mesh side of the bridge. Indra and I halted, with everybody else on both sides, because the donkey couldn’t get up. Nobody could pass by, so the bridge was blocked. A few people were gathered by the animal, on the bridge, and appeared to be trying to pick it up…

Eventually we were able to walk to the side of the donkey, and I took this photo. You can’t really see it, behind the people, but the situation was dire:

As I walked to the right of the animal, I looked down and could see blood everywhere. I fear that the donkey was not going to make it off that bridge alive: probably they would have to kill it there, and drag it to the end of the bridge, or throw it over the side. They really had no choice, as the donkey was severely injured, probably not able to walk ever again, and it was blocking a critical thoroughfare. Very sad.

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We got into Lukla in time for lunch. As our flight was scheduled for early the next morning, we had the whole afternoon to explore. There’s a nice, small monastery there, which Indra and I visited. But the airport is a big attraction: from the end of the runway, you can watch the airplanes arriving and departing – when the weather permits.

I filmed several:

And I admit to having spent a few hours in a café, drinking good coffee, eating a brownie, downloading podcasts and catching up on email…

Late that afternoon Indra took me to a very interesting place: the “Porter House,” where the trekking porters can stay between, or before or after, jobs. It’s a very simple place, ramshackle and out of the way, near a local market far from the main drag. Porters can’t stay at the local lodges – even if they could afford it, which they can’t, the lodges don’t want them. So this place is for them. I was apparently set up by an NGO, but is now run at a profit. Which is good, makes it more likely to be sustainable.

We stayed for an hour, just being part of the scene. My presence felt strange there, out of place, and Indra, being a very senior guide, is a very Big Man. But it was still fun just fading into the wall and observing the comings and goings.

Maya, a porter from our group, had told them to give us a beer, and the lady running the place invited us for one. There were a few porters there eating quietly, and one wife and child. A friendly, interesting stay. Indra left a donation of 1000 rupees, and I left another 500R.

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Day 18 – 21 November 2019

Indra and I had an early start, reporting to the airport at 6:30am. He had chosen our lodge wisely: the owner was the ground manager for Tara Airlines. So we had a connection directly to our airline, which paid off!

Checking in was a bit chaotic, but we managed. Flights into and out of Lukla only go when the weather is clear and calm, given the short runway (at a 12% angle!). This can result in trekkers being delayed for days, or even weeks, in Lukla, with obvious consequences for onward travel…

This means that people get anxious at that airport, understandably. And so it was when we checked in, with lots of pushing and aggressive looks about queue-jumping. Luckily the manager of our lodge was on-hand; he took our tickets and checked us in directly. Well done Indra!

Then the wait began. Flights weren’t coming up from Ramechhap, for some reason. Weather-related, I guess, though the skies were nearly clear in Lukla. After three hours of waiting in the small, crowded terminal, the planes started arriving and departing, one after another.

We left at around 9:30am, and the flight was smooth and easy to Ramechhap, where Chris, Diego, John, Ricardo and I had begun our trip on 4 November. We had driven from Kathmandu that day in a Land Cruiser, but this time it was just Indra and me, so 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking had swapped out for a sedan. Which was fine!

It didn’t take us too long to find our car. The driver hadn’t eaten since arriving from Kathmandu early that morning, so we all had a nice daal bhat on the way – lunch at 10:30am!

*

Five hours later I was back in Kathmandu, at the Holy Himalaya Hotel, looking forward to a hot shower, internet access, and a good meal. But first I said goodby to Indra, who soon set out for the bus station to travel home, to Pokhara.

  • Thank you again, Indra. You are a fantastic guide, and we wouldn’t have accomplished so much without you.

Chris and Diego had departed that morning, bound for Washington, DC, via Doha. And John and Ricardo, before flying down from Namche, had booked a different Kathmandu hotel, wanting to stay in nicer accommodation than the Holy Himalaya. Sadly, their hotel was quite far away from Thamel, where I was staying, so I was on my own.

I spent that afternoon cruising the mountaineering-equipment stores, and had a spectacular dinner at the “Western Tandoori & Naan House”, a place that Jean had found on-line:

Very basic, but the food is delicious and cheap: highly recommended!

I tried to shave that evening, using my electric razor, but my beard was much too thick after 18 days away! So I had to buy a hand-razor and shaving creme. It took a while to chop all the beard away, but I got through it and now I was clean-shaven again!

*

I had nearly two days in Kathmandu, during which I ate twice at the Western Tandoori & Naan House, bought some cheap hiking equipment, some of which was probably legitimate, and relaxed before my onward travel to Bangkok (where I would overlap with John and Ricardo for a couple of days) and Hanoi…

On my last morning in Kathmandu, I heard from Chris, who was back home. He had a doctor’s appointment that day for his cough and congestion…

*

So that’s it from me. The trek was incredible, challenging, rewarding, and daunting. We were all sobered by the experience, having fallen into what Ricardo had described as the “tunnel.”

I learned a lot about limits, and the consequences of exceeding them. Upon reflection, I am proud that we accomplished so much – getting to the top of Kala Patthar, to Base Camp, and sticking together with good spirits. And it was a very sobering experience: seeing Diego turn around, hearing that a trekker in Lobuche had died the night we were there, feeling so exhausted and spent.

Still, in Bangkok a few days later Ricardo brought up the idea of returning sometime soon to finish what we had started: doing that Gokyo loop we had skipped, returning directly to meet back up with Diego instead.

Maybe we’ll do that. If we do, I’d want to walk again with Indra.

*

The final blog post in this series, Part 8, will be different: Chris, Diego, and Ricardo have sent me their reflections on our trip, so I’ll turn things over to them next time.

So stay tuned to hear from them soon, in the last posting, Part 8…

*

Meanwhile, earlier posts can be found here:

  1. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 1;
  2. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 2;
  3. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 3;
  4. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 4;
  5. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 5;
  6. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 6.

*

Check out my “New Hampshire 4000-Footer” series: climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall.  And, each time, reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 35 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

A Harmful Assumption

March, 2020

This is from Wendell Berry’s essay, “A Native Hill,” published in 1968:

“We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world – to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity – our own capacity for life – that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled.

“We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.”

Here is an interview with Wendell Berry, worth your while. And check out my new “Everest Base amp” series, here.

Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 6

February, 2020

“In my state of spiritual abstraction, I no longer belong to myself and to my eyesight. I am nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung, floating over the mists and summits.” Reinhold Messner.

Of course, Messner was talking about being at Everest’s summit, without supplemental oxygen… but I think our group could relate to his feeling, just a little bit, as we began to descend from Everest Base Camp on Day 10 of our trek.

*

Four old friends and I spent 18 days trekking in Nepal in November, 2019, aiming to reach Everest Base Camp. It was a spectacular trip, with great people; it was also much more challenging than we had anticipated.

*

So far in this series I’ve described flying to Lukla and walking up a beautiful valley to Toktok on Day 1 (Part 1); continuing steeply up to bustling Namche Bazaar and then on to Dingboche, emerging above the tree line into gorgeous Himalayan scenery, on Days 2 through 7 (Part 2); the turning point of Day 8 (Part 3), when one of our group had the wisdom to turn back and descend seeking oxygen, having realized that he was exhibiting seven of the eight signs of potentially-lethal pulmonary edema; and reaching the incredible view of Mt Everest from Kala Patthar on Day 9 (Part 4).

At that point, in Gorak Shep, we were all sick, exhausted, and cranky. The air was thin, we were sleeping fitfully at best, the lodges seemed unhealthy places to be, and we had left absolutely nothing in the tank after getting to the top of Kala Patthar.

But, somehow, we kept going… and, last time, in Part 5 of this series, I described reaching the ultimate goal of our trek: on Day 10 we arrived, at last, sick and exhausted, not thinking clearly, at the iconic Everest Base Camp. In normal circumstances, reaching Base Camp that day might not have been such a big deal; after all, it was only a couple of hours up a fairly level trail from Gorak Shep, where we had stayed the night before. But the circumstances were anything but normal, something like Messner describes.

We finished that day in Thukla, where we would spend the night. The next morning, Day 11 of our trek, we reunited with Diego in Pheriche around lunch-time, and then continued descending.

*

In this post, Part 6 of this series, I will describe our return from Pheriche all the way down to Namche Bazaar – Days 11 to 14 of the trek. We had reached Base Camp, our main goal, and were now descending, five of us again, reunited. A significant decision awaited us in Namche, a moment that I had begun to fret about a few days before…

*

I mentioned in Part 1 of this series that our trek had been planned in two parts – first, up to Everest Base Camp, and then around into the Gokyo region. I had written:

  • We were aiming to trek up from Lukla, with “the world’s most-dangerous airport,” up to Everest Base Camp, and then loop west through the Gokyo region, and back to Lukla, over 18 days. Reaching Everest Base Camp would be a great accomplishment, an iconic destination, but we were aware that it would be crowded in November, the second climbing season of the year. It usually takes about 14 days. We had more time, so we decided to add the Gokyo loop, reputed to be just as beautiful but with fewer visitors; this would extend our trek to 18 days. We would climb from Lukla up to Everest Base Camp first, then across to Gokyo, and then drop back down to return to Kathmandu from Lukla… Anyway, that was the plan!

Note how I finished that description: “Anyway, that was the plan!”

You can see our intended Gokyo loop, in red, in this map, along with our actual path up towards Base Camp in blue:

The idea was to head west from Thukla, on the way down from Base Camp, to climb up again to the Cho La Pass, over to Gokyo, and then down to Namche Bazaar.

As it turned out, after Base Camp our group showed no interest, and had no energy, for another big ascent. Our priority really was to meet up with Diego in Pheriche, so the choice was simple: we would continue down from Thukla instead of turning west and ascending. And once we regrouped with Diego, there seemed to be no enthusiasm for anything but heading right down to Namche.

Gokyo was off: we were all in agreement.

*

After lunch in Pheriche, we continued down to Pengboche, where we had spent Day 5, on the way up. We had a rest day there (Day 12):

The view from our lodge in Pengboche that night was spectacular. Notice the monastery down below, painted red:

As we descended, we would step aside to let porters pass us, on their way up. Even though the trekking season was ending now, they carried incredible loads up the Khumbu valley:

Ricardo took these photos of another porter who was resting near an Everest view. While he rested, I was curious to see how heavy it was. I couldn’t even move it, much less get it onto my shoulders!

He seemed to enjoy having his photo taken!

*

From Pengboche we descended to Kyangjuma on Day 13. Here are the five trekkers plus one of our great porters, Maya: from the left, Diego, Chris, me, Ricardo, John, and Maya.

What luck we had with the weather! From our second day, we’d seen these clear blue skies every day. Here Mt Everest is clearly visible above Diego (in red):

*

At breakfast, before leaving Kyangjuma for Namche, we reflected for some time about our experience on the trek. I remember John saying that he thought that it proved that you can accomplish your goals if you are determined. Ricardo mentioned that he had been having very serious trouble sleeping and breathing in Lobuche and Gorak Shep.

My own reflection was a bit darker: I said that I thought I had exceeded my limits and had been at risk of serious consequences when I neared the top of Kala Patthar, that night at Gorak Shep, and in the walk up to Base Camp. Serious danger.

We all praised Diego for knowing his limits and taking appropriate action. I’m not sure I was as smart as he was; looking back at our experience from that morning in Kyangjuma, it seemed that it would have been smarter to have turned around after reaching Kala Patthar.

As I said to the group at breakfast, it had been a trek of joys and sorrows. The biggest impact I felt at that point, as we talked that morning – apart from the spectacular scenery and the great group of people I had walked with – was the sensation of having ventured into such a perilous situation at such risk. I know I was not thinking clearly, not entirely in control. We made a good decision to cut the trek short and head down to meet up with Diego.

So, there was lots to think about. “Life-changing” as Ricardo said that morning.

*

Soon we were crossing those scary suspension bridges once again:

One last view back towards Ama Dablam, as we descended into the forest:

Clearly my throat was still bothering me, even as we descended, covering my mouth to retain moisture.

We reached Namche Bazaar on Day 14.

We were happy and relieved to be back in Namche Bazaar, a bit worse for wear but eager for showers, good coffee and pastries…

Here is the “after” image!

*

As I had suspected, my four trekking companions were keen to leave directly from Namche. I think their feeling was that they had accomplished what they came to do, and were tired and spent; so getting down to “civilization” made good sense for them. In particular, John was feeling pain in his knees, and the steep descent from Namche down into the valley to Lukla would have been very challenging ( = “painful”) for him.

On the other hand, I was feeling somewhat better. I got a lot of rest that day in Namche, eating great pastry and having delicious coffee. And it seemed to me that we had gotten through the most-challenging part, having descended to where there was no risk of further altitude sickness. Though I was certainly sick, I had nonetheless slept fairly well throughout the trek, unlike my friends, so my energy was coming back, a little bit.

The lodges were better down here, and anyway we had already paid for our food and lodging for three more days, and for the flight from Lukla. Plus, mountain hiking is one of my very favorite activities, and these were some pretty amazing mountains! Why not walk for a few more days in this incredible scenery? Why leave early and go back to hectic, crowded, polluted Kathmandu?

From Namche it’s easy to hire a helicopter down to Kathmandu; in fact, ten days earlier, on the way up, John had seen a notice posted by somebody looking for people to help defray the cost ($750 each if you have five people). Perhaps, even then, he had felt it would be better not to walk back down that steep hill to Lukla.

*

So as soon as we arrived in Namche my fellow trekkers moved quickly to book a helicopter down, and adjust their onward flights. I didn’t feel any significant tension in the group over my decision to stick with the plan of walking for a few more days and flying out of Lukla, as planned, but I did realize that having one fewer passenger meant a slightly higher cost. The flight cost $3000, and I hoped that our group could find another person or two to spread the cost across more people. At any rate, it was their decision and I was fine with it…

And so it came to pass that that night, 17 November 2019, we had a celebration in our lodge there in Namche Bazaar, thanking our amazing team and dancing to a traditional Nepali song (played on Sancha’s phone):

From left: Ricardo, Sancha, John, Maya.

*

Rabin took a photo of most of our team the next morning, before my companions climbed up to the heliport above Namche for their flight to Kathmandu via Lukla:

Top Row: Chris, Diego, Ricardo, me, and John. Below: Sancha, Indra, and Maya

That morning as I began to hike up towards Thame, I passed above them and I could see my friends waiting; they couldn’t hear me over the noise of the helicopter:

In the end, another trekker, from a different group, joined my friends in the helicopter, defraying the cost.

*

So that was the final twist in our great trek: now I was on my own.

Indra stayed behind in Namche to make sure that Chris, Diego, John, and Ricardo were able to leave. Like the fantastic guide he is, he kept track of them by phone until they were safely in Kathmandu.

So, with Rabin, I walked up the gorgeous Bhote Kosi valley towards Thame:

*

Now I think I can see to the end of this series of posts. There will be two more. Next time, I will describe the last few days of the trek, just me now, walking up to Thame and then down to Lukla. In the final article, I will make way for my friends, my fellow trekkers, so that they can share their own reflections.

*

So stay tuned for my next blog post, which will be Part 7 in this series. Earlier posts can be found here:

  1. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 1;
  2. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 2;
  3. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 3;
  4. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 4;
  5. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 5.

*

And take a look at my “New Hampshire 4000-Footer” series: climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall.  And, each time, reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 35 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 5

February, 2020

“I just want to get out of this f**king s***hole.”

– Chris, in the lodge at Gorak Shep, morning of Day 10.

Chris is one of the most positive, friendly, gregarious people I’ve ever known, a close friend, and this quote is very uncharacteristic of him. Unheard of. I share it just to illustrate how stressed and stretched we all were on Day 10.

*

Four old friends and I spent 18 days trekking in Nepal in November, 2019, aiming to reach Everest Base Camp. It was a spectacular trip, with great people; it was also much more challenging than I, and we, had anticipated.

Last time, I wrote about Day 9 of our trek: we had hiked from Lobuche to Gorak Shep (16,900ft, 5,140m), and then up Kala Patthar, at 5,550m (18,200ft), for the best views of the Everest Range in the entire region. It was a spectacular, draining day.

Now, on Day 10, we were hoping to reach our goal – Everest Base Camp!

But the truth is that the four remaining trekkers (Chris, John, Ricardo and me) had left nothing in the tank on Day 9. So Day 10 looked very daunting: I noted in my journal in Gorak Shep the night before: “a very very tough day” awaited us.

*

Day Ten – 13 November 2019

Nobody slept very well on Day 9, so we were really dragging that morning at breakfast. Later I found out that neither Ricardo nor John had slept AT ALL that night, and my roommate Chris hadn’t done much better.

This didn’t bode well for getting to our goal, Everest Base Camp (“EBC”).

John filmed the evening sunset from just above Gorak Shep, a spectacular video:

Meanwhile, Diego was down in Pheriche, having visited the clinic there, and was recovering well in what he described as a “four-star lodge”!

*

We hoped to get to Everest Base Camp on Day 10. Although the view from EBC was reputed to be nothing like what we had seen at Kala Patthar – Mt Everest itself isn’t even visible – Base Camp was really the culmination of the whole trip, the iconic destination.

With any energy left, we would have been excited! But in our physical and emotional exhaustion, it was hard to manufacture much enthusiasm as we set out for our goal…

The plan was, after reaching Base Camp, we would descend all the way to Pheriche, reuniting with Diego. As you can see on the map, we didn’t make it quite that far. There was just no way we were able to walk all that way in our condition, so we spent the night in Thukla (spelled “Dughla” on the map), part way to Pheriche:

*

We left Gorak Shep at around 8am, heading up towards Everest Base Camp. The walking was up-and-down; here’s Chris on the way up, with the Khumbu glacier visible behind him on the left:

The Everest Ice fall is just behind John, with Base Camp around to the left, out of view:

It only took us about an hour and a half, walking up along the glacier, to reach EBC.

We were 4 miles (6 km) from the summit of Mt Everest.

*

Base Camp is at 5,364m (17,600ft). We queued for a few minutes as other trekkers took photos at this iconic place, the objective of so much effort over so many days. So much misery endured to get here!

Unfurling the banner we had prepared down in Lobuche, Rabin took a few photos of our merry band:

So we had made it, reached our goal of getting to Everest Base Camp!

It’s a beautiful place, but without a view of the summit of Mt Everest itself, which is blocked from view by other, closer mountains. And although Base Camp is very crowded and buzzy during the spring climbing season, nobody goes to the summit in November, so it was deserted when we were there, except for trekkers like us, who stayed a short time and then headed wearily, wheezily back down.

A year or two earlier, after reports of tons of trash and human waste accumulating here, a big effort was organized to clean things up. It seemed free from litter when we were there.

My voice was just about gone, due in part to respiratory illness, and in part to the incredible dryness of the air at that altitude. So, like most of our group, I was covering my face to retain moisture:

Chris filmed this short video from EBC, and you can hear how hoarse and exhausted I was. As I say, “we made it! If we hadn’t done yesterday, it would have been OK”:

In other words, it WASN’T ok now!

John filmed this panoramic view of the incredible setting:

We stayed at Base Camp for about 30 minutes, and then headed down. A short visit. Of course I’m glad we went, even though it’s really just a pile of rocks, surrounded by amazing mountains! To have reached that place, in the shadow of the highest mountain in the world, was a real accomplishment. And, no, it had not been easy, not at all.

*

So we turned around, and began our long descent, first reaching Gorak Shep, where we had spent the previous night, at about 11am. As I mentioned earlier, our idea had been to continue down to Pheriche where Diego was waiting for us. But when we got to Gorak Shep we were exhausted, and in no mood to go all the way down. It seemed a big enough challenge to drop down another 800m in elevation and stay at Thukla, where there would be a little bit more oxygen, at least.

I’m not sure if Ricardo was acting here (on the left), but I know that we were all feeling pretty tired as we gathered our equipment and started down from Gorak Shep!

We stopped for lunch in Lobuche, where Diego had turned around two days before. When I described our brief stop in Lobuche in my journal that night, after we had arrived in Thukla, I tried to capture the mood of the group at that point:

“Everybody is angry, exhausted, and ready to go home. John said he had ‘done what he came to do’ … I think people will settle down, especially with a night or two of good sleep, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Ricardo and John fly out by helicopter from Namche, and Chris and Diego do the same.”

Would they fly out from Namche? Stay tuned to find out what actually happened!

*

After lunch we continued down towards Thukla, retracing our steps from three days earlier, this time descending:

Here is the area filled with memorials to climbers killed in the region, just above Thukla, that I described in an earlier post:

We spent the night in Thukla, at the “Yak Lodge” where we had eaten lunch a few days earlier.

The Yak Lodge was typical of these places, up at altitude: dirty, uncomfortable, and not at all restful.

*

We left the Yak Lodge in Thukla at around 9am on Day 11, heading down towards Pheriche. John filmed himself walking along that morning – it’s a rather long clip, nearly three minutes, but it gives you a good idea of what the hiking was like at that point. At the end of the clip, you can see he catches up with me, with Ricardo just ahead:

Rabin is in the foreground, with me descending on the right:

Here we are reaching the long valley that led us to Pheriche, which you can just see in the far distance:

Pheriche is a small settlement, mostly organized around the clinic:

And now we are FIVE trekkers again! Diego comes out to greet us as we arrived, looking much better than when we had last seen him, in Lobuche!

It was a great relief to see Diego again, breathing fairly normally. We stopped there for lunch, at the “four-star” lodge, and then continued down towards Pengboche, where we would stay two nights.

Stay tuned for Part 6, in which we descend to Namche Bazaar, where decisions are made that radically change what we had originally planned… !

*

So stay tuned for my next blog post, which will be Part 6 in this series. Earlier posts can be found here:

  1. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 1;
  2. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 2;
  3. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 3;
  4. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 4.

*

And take a look at my “New Hampshire 4000-Footer” series: climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall.  And, each time, reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 35 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 4

February, 2020

Four old friends and I spent 18 days trekking in Nepal in November, 2019, aiming to reach Everest Base Camp. It was a spectacular trip, with great people; it was much more challenging than I, and we, had anticipated.

In my third post, I described Day 8 of the trek. It had been a turning point: we ascended along the west side of the Khumbu glacier to reach Lobuche, at 4,930 m (16,174 ft), a tough day’s hike. Just one day short of Everest Base Camp. That night, Diego would make the wise decision to turn back and start back down in search of oxygen and medical treatment. And the next morning a trekker in another lodge in Lobuche would not wake up.

On Day 9, the four remaining trekkers (Chris, John, Ricardo and me) reached Kala Patthar – the finest view of Mt Everest in the entire region. It was a big day – in positive, and negative ways. We were nearing Everest Base Camp, and Day 9 was an incredible, exhausting day, a day when I was truly beyond my limits.

*

Day Nine – 12 November 2019

By the time we got up for breakfast in Lobuche, Diego had started down. He had rented a horse, and was headed to Pheriche to get medical attention for his altitude sickness.

So we were four. And now I was the slowest…

*

Our destination for Day 9 was Kala Patthar, a minor peak behind Gorak Shep, reputed to have the best view of the Everest Range. We would reach our lodge at Gorak Shep, have lunch, and then go on up:

The walk from Lobuche to Gorak Shep is rocky, up-and-down, challenging only because of our physical state. The main challenge for us was the lack of oxygen – it was tough going. And this was Day 9 – we had been hiking every day, and were exhausted!

I mentioned last time that most of us were covering our faces to retain moisture. My throat was sore at this point, not like having a cold but just uncomfortable, especially talking. Covering my face did seem to help.

You can see the trail in the next image, and the setting: the Khumbu glacier on the right, the trail on the left with trekkers (one on a horse!), and one of our porters with the red backpack. We are walking up into a basin below Everest, with Kala Patthar on the west side, Mt Everest to the east, and Base Camp in between:

Here the small trekking settlement of Gorak Shep is just below Chris, with part of the trail up Kala Patthar just visible above his head:

It took us about three hours to hike from Lobuche to Gorak Shep, with a steady stream of trekkers coming down from Base Camp, and a few going up with us.

Note the blue sky. We were getting up close to Mt Everest, and the weather was just about perfect: not a cloud in the sky, not too cold. Really ideal. That’s Pumori in the top center, above John and Chris:

The path up Kala Patthar is clearer in this image: we would reach the highest snow-free area on the middle right where, apparently, the views were great:

It had taken us 3 hours to get to Gorak Shep from Lobuche. After lunch at the rudimentary lodge there, and a brief siesta, we decided to keep to our plan, and go up Kala Patthar. You can see how enthusiastic we were!

We began to climb; Ricardo walked ahead of me:

The climb up to the top of Kala Patthar was one of the hardest that I can remember, ever, anywhere and, if you’ve read many of my “4000-footer” blog posts, you know that I have gone up a few mountains. The summit is at 5,550 m (18,208 ft), the highest elevation we would reach on our trek.

Mostly the challenge was the simple lack of air and consequent low energy. But Ricardo just flew up the mountain, with Chris and John just behind him, and me falling farther and farther behind. I was really struggling, but I wanted to get to the top; perhaps a little less wise than Diego?

Here you can see the top of Kala Patthar, indicated in red, below Pumori. Indra and Arjun are at the bottom of the image; I think they had waited for me:

Note the cliff to the left of the summit.

Here we are at the top of Kala Patthar. I reached the top at 3:45pm, a bit better than the 2 hours predicted in the guidebooks, but 15 or 20 minutes after the others, which is an indication of how much I was struggling.

As I arrived at the top, I stumbled a little bit, to my left, and Ricardo reached out to me and grabbed my arm. I think I was just out of breath, exhausted, dizzy.

Remember the cliff that I pointed out earlier? I was standing about 6 inches / 20 cm from the edge of that cliff, to my left, and I HAD NOT NOTICED IT. I still wonder what would have happened if Ricardo hadn’t steadied me?

Thank you Ricardo.

*

My phone recorded our altitude (5,620m):

Once I caught my breath, the view was indeed everything that had been advertised. Here are a few images of that amazing place:

Mt Everest is the snow-free peak directly above my head. We were 6 miles, as the yak flies, from the summit:

Mt Everest, with the famous ice-fall on the lower left:

I have read that the ice-fall, the first day of the ascent from Base Camp to the top of Everest, is perhaps the most dangerous part. Just unstable ice, treacherous going. In 2015, 18 climbers and guides were killed at Base Camp by an avalanche that was triggered by the huge earthquake that devastated Nepal.

From the right: John, Chris, Ricardo, and me:

Those of you who speak Spanish might have heard, in the video, Ricardo and I talking about staying up at the top of Kala Patthar a bit longer. Which we did, but you might also have heard me describing how I was feeling, and Ricardo laboring to breathe.

So after a few minutes, we followed the rest of our group down towards Gorak Shep. We were both struggling:

We made our way down towards Gorak Shep. Here you can see me down below, my hands raised. The lodges at Gorak Shep surround a dry lake-bed:

Pumori looms behind me, looming above Kala Patthar:

The sun began to set behind us, with Pumori starting to glow:

*

We spent the night at Gorak Shep, in one of the most basic, and crowded of all the lodges we stayed in. We were all completely exhausted from the climb up Kala Patthar, and from nine days of progressively less oxygen, respiratory infections, exertion.

That evening we heard that Diego had made it safely to Pheriche, and was recovering well. The doctor had diagnosed some altitude sickness and upper- and lower-respiratory infections. But he was getting good care, mostly rest. A huge relief.

Here is a view of the dining room in Gorak Shep that night:

I stayed in the dining room for a while after Chris, John and Ricardo went to bed. I noted in my journal that bottled water, which cost 100 rupees at the beginning of our trip, cost 400 rupees here, but you couldn’t begrudge them: we were a long way from Lukla here, and everything came up on somebody’s, or something’s, back.

I was filthy with sweat and grime and lots of stuff I would have picked up in these very contaminated places, but didn’t shower, as I was still a bit afraid of a repeat of the uncontrollable shivering that I had experienced last time I showered. Although I didn’t really feel like celebrating at the time, it had been a big accomplishment getting to the top of Kala Patthar; I only wished that Diego could have been with us.

It was a clear, cold night. Nobody slept well that night, because we were up so high: later I discovered that Ricardo and John hadn’t slept at all, and Chris very little.

That bad night’s sleep didn’t bode well for the next day, Day Ten, when we hoped to reach Everest Base Camp…

Stay tuned for that, next time!

*

So stay tuned for my next blog post, which will be Part 5 in this series.

  1. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 1;
  2. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 2;
  3. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 3.

*

And take a look at my “New Hampshire 4000-Footer” series: climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall.  And, each time, reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 35 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 3

January, 2020

A couple of weeks ago, a month after we returned from Nepal, Ricardo described to me how he had felt as we ascended towards Everest Base Camp: for him it was like we had entered a long, dark tunnel, closing in on us:

After such a great emotional, mental and spiritual experience, I felt the urgent need to get out of there as soon as possible. Without realizing it, perhaps because of all the emotions I was feeling, I discovered that I was trapped in a deep and dark tunnel nestled in the earth. Lack of oxygen, lack of sleep, lack of food, physical fatigue and emotional fatigue from dealing with so many aspects of the experience.

It’s hard to explain the feeling, but Ricardo’s metaphor captures it well: it was as if our physical, emotional, and cognitive abilities were narrowing, little-by-little, and it seemed like the tunnel might have no exit. The feeling became stronger, and more menacing, as we ascended on our eighth day…

*

Four old friends and I spent 18 days trekking in Nepal in November, 2019, aiming to reach Everest Base Camp. It was a spectacular trip, with great people, and it was more challenging than I had anticipated.

In my second post, I described Days 2 through 7 of our Nepal trek. We were gradually getting closer to Everest Base Camp: climbing steadily upwards from Toktok (at 2,760 m, a bit over 9,000 ft) on Day 2, reaching Dingboche (4,410 m, nearly 14,500 ft) on Day 6, where we also spent Day 7.

In this post I will describe the next day, Day 8, a turning point. We would ascend up the west side of the Khumbu glacier to reach Lobuche, at 4,930 m (16,174 ft), a tough day’s hike, just one day short of Everest Base Camp. And one of our group would make the wise decision to turn back and start back down in search of oxygen and medical treatment….

We were entering that dark tunnel.

*

Day Eight – 11 November 2019

Our goal on Day 8 was to reach Lobuche, which is really just a group of trekking lodges perched on the side of the Khumbu glacier that flows down from Mt Everest:

We left Dingboche on the morning of Day 8, at 8:45am. Note that Diego (third from right) has covered his mouth and throat. I was doing likewise most of the time at this point, as was Chris: Indra, our guide, had said that covering our mouths would help retain some moisture. The air was so dry that it was getting hard to speak, and our throats were getting very sore. You can see the red bandanna around my neck:

From the Left: Ricardo, Chris, Maya (seated), Diego, John, Me

Leaving Dingboche, we climbed up to the ridge that separates that town from Pheriche. Dingboche is below me here, and the lake we had climbed up to on Day 7 is just above the hill above my left shoulder:

Once we got to the top of that ridge, the scenery changed dramatically. Now we were truly in the high Himalayas, well above tree-line and into an ecosystem with very little life; just too little oxygen here for anything to grow or survive.

In this image, we are looking from the ridge that separates Dingboche and Pheriche, down onto the Khumbu glacier below:

Once we descended down from that ridge, and left Pheriche, it was easy walking at first, hiking up a fairly flat plateau:

We had planned to have lunch in Thukla, which sits right below a steep ascent to an area filled with memorials to climbers who perished on Everest. Ricardo, John, the porters and I arrived at Thukla at around 10:45am, but it wasn’t until noon that Diego and Indra arrived.

I had gotten out my binoculars to look for them, and was quite worried by the time they appeared. Diego looked exhausted and sick, and was really struggling. Here, waiting for Diego with me, is Ricardo, also not looking too happy!

After lunch, we ascended the very-steep trail behind Thokla. The green-roofed lodge in Thokla is visible here, down below us, looking back towards the Pheriche valley. Here Ricardo looks rejuvenated by lunch!

We were at over 4,620 m (over 15,000 ft), struggling to take each step, and it was sobering to see porters carrying much heavier loads. 3 Sisters is an ethical company, so while our porters were carrying a lot, porters contracted by some other, less-reputable companies were carrying much heavier loads, too much. It seemed exploitative:

It was a beautiful day, clear and cool. Reaching the top of that ascent from Thukla, I was moving very slowly. So I took a break, sitting with Sancha and Rabin:

Behind us you can begin to see the Everest Range emerging. At the top of the ridge, we reached Thokla Pass (4,830 m, 15,850 ft), where there is a group of memorials to lost climbers and sherpas, killed in the Everest area over the years:

At that point the trail becomes a bit more level. Here I’m looking back to the south, towards Dingboche:

And in this view I’m looking forward towards the Everest region, though the prominent mountain seen here is not Mt Everest:

We were entering the final stage of our ascent. From Thukla Pass onward, while you certainly couldn’t describe the terrain as “flat”, it was up-and-down (with the important exception of our ascent of Kala Patthar, on Day 9, which I will describe next time).

We would spend the night of Day 8 at Lobuche (5,030 m, 16,500 ft). Arriving there, with the group of trekker’s lodges in the background – Sancha, Ricardo, and Rabin:

We settled in to rather basic accommodation in Lobuche, the Sherpa Lodge, managed (as with most of these places) by a very strict, and able, young woman, who kept the books, supervised the whole place, including the kitchen and dining room, and managed payment.

This task seemed very complex, because often these lodges were full of trekkers with several different trekking companies. And each of us might want to charge our phones, buy a hot shower, order food not covered by our contracts (such as the popcorn our group ordered most nights!), or get online. These managers had to keep track of all of this and collect from us before we left in the morning. Plus things routinely got very hectic at meal times…

*

But the real story of our stay at Lobuche relates to Diego. By the time we got there, he really couldn’t talk any more, and was coughing a lot. He had struggled all day, and when we arrived he had come to a decision. I remember him saying, that afternoon:

  • “I have a limit, and I’ve reached it.”

Here is Diego’s own description of that moment, and the days leading up to it:

Every afternoon at 3:00 the doctor at the clinic in Periche gives a lecture on altitude sickness. It is for the trekkers passing through the town. Turns out that there are two kinds of altitude sickness: cerebral and pulmonary. Each has its own set of symptoms. If you have either, the doctor warned, the first thing you do is stop going higher. For immediate treatment, go to a lower elevation. Good information. We walked back to Dingboche. 

After a day of rest in Dingboche, we set out for Lobuche (4910 meters). We stopped for lunch at the Yak Lounge in Thukla. The menu had a caption: “People who like eat Are Always The Best People.” I’m hesitant to make generalizations, but I think I agree with that one. 

Each day there were unofficial rest stops along the way. Often they were spots with makeshift stone benches. Sometimes the view of the mountains was particularly good from them. Or it might be the site of a modest Buddhist shrine. Whatever they were, I took advantage of all of them. But I also designated my own stops along the way. I’m sure that Maia (the porter assigned to me) got tired of all my breaks to sit down and try to catch my breath. 

On the afternoon walk up to Lobuche, my rest stops were getting more frequent. As my breathing became more labored, I tried to take smaller steps so as not to be so fatigued. By now I was taking baby steps. I tried to keep a steady pace, but my steps kept getting smaller and my rest stops more prolonged. Even when Lobuche came into view, I had to stop for a rest. 

At last I walked into the Lobuche tea house, physically spent. My cold and cough had gotten progressively worse. I sat down with my waiting friends. In my eyes I could feel the burning that you get when you have a fever. Someone still had wi-fi on his phone. I borrowed it to look up the symptoms of pulmonary altitude sickness. There were eight; I had seven of them. That wasn’t the ratio that I was shooting for. The food came. After chewing each forkful of noodles, I was gasping for breath. 

That night, as a cautionary measure, our guide Indra stayed in my room. “Diego,” he said, “you are breathing heavily.” Yes, I was. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath, even while I was lying down. Indra had an oxygen tank. During the night I would take gulps of air out of it. It helped for a while, but eventually my shortness of breath came back. Sometime in the middle of the night I said to Indra, “Please get a horse tomorrow. I need to go back to see the doctor.”

So Diego would turn around the next morning. This decision took guts, wisdom, and the courage to change course. His idea was to descend to Pheriche, to the clinic, and decide what to do once he had seen the doctor again.

We were all supportive, and as I recall that evening I’m not sure if the rest of us ever considered turning around ourselves and going with Diego. It seemed clear that Diego was doing the right thing, and likewise it seemed clear that Chris, John, Ricardo and I would continue.

Indra went out to arrange to rent a horse that Diego could ride back down.

That night we began to prepare for our arrival at Everest Base Camp. Chris had bought a t-shirt back in Dingboche, which we wanted to adapt into a banner. We spend time that night, in the dining room on Lobuche, cutting it so we could use it as a banner, writing the names of our support crew and ourselves, and the date (two days ahead):

From the left: Diego, me, John, Ricardo, and Chris.

At that point in our trek, because Diego was coughing so much and sleeping so little, he was staying in a room by himself. I remembered the advice from the doctor in Pheriche that people suffering altitude sickness should never sleep by themselves, so I asked if Indra would mind staying with Diego, which he did.

By the time we got going the next day, Day 9, Diego had departed, and we were four.

*

A couple of days later, Indra disclosed to us that a French trekker, staying that same night in Lobuche but in a different lodge, had died. He had gone to bed, staying by himself, and just didn’t ever come out alive.

The stakes were very high in Lobuche, and Diego did the right thing.

*

The next day, Day 9, Diego would ride back down to the mountain clinic in Pheriche. The remaining four trekkers hoped to reach the final lodge before Base Camp, at Gorak Shep, and attempt to climb to the highest point of the trip: Kala Patthar, at 5,550 m (18,208 ft).

We were getting very close to reaching our goal. But we four remaining trekkers were pre-occupied with Diego’s situation, and Ricardo’s “tunnel” was closing in on all of us, whether we were aware enough to perceive it or not. We were not thinking clearly, getting sick, and feeling weak because of the altitude.

Day 9 would be a big challenge, continuing to climb into the increasingly-thin atmosphere, and continuing to walk deeper into the trap of the “tunnel.” But we were getting very close now.

So stay tuned for my next blog in this series.

  1. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 1;
  2. Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 2.

*

And take a look at my “New Hampshire 4000-Footer” series: climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall.  And, each time, reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 35 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.