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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
Earlier posts in this series can be found here:
- Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 1;
- Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 2;
- Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 3;
- Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 4;
- Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 5;
- Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 6;
- Everest Base Camp Trek – Part 7.
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.