Everest Base Camp Trek: The Final Hurdle

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe river of mud, yak poo and urine beneath my feet had become a blur some kilometres back, all that mattered now was that my feet were taking me forward, not what they were stepping in.

I began chanting to myself, one … two … three ….

One, two, three, counting my footsteps, counting the steps getting me closer to the end. Every turn on the track spat out more steps upwards, never ending, one, two, three.

One … two … three … Yangjing’s encouraging ‘not far now,’ urging me forward, washed over me as the mud ran under my feet. I’d long since stopped looking for the end point. The late afternoon dampness enveloped me, so far removed from the morning crispness we had set off in some 10 hours ago.

Yangjing, one of our guides - I owe her a huge debt of thanks.

Yangjing, one of our guides – I owe her a huge debt of thanks.

At what point had enthusiasm for the day’s challenge turned into a struggle and then into a determination that blotted out all else? There was no option, I had to keep going, I would reach the end.

Ironic, that as we headed theoretically down the mountain, the track took us upwards to our destination. This was our starting point just over two weeks ago, obviously we set off in a downwards direction but who realised or remembered that this is what we would face at the end. I certainly never thought that one of my biggest struggles would face me on this last day.

The entrance to the Sagamartha National Park, the gate that we’d originally passed through enthusiastically and with a verve that had gone missing in me in recent hours came into view, but still more steps.

Upwards.

One … two … three …

Finally, after what seemed like forever, I walked under that arch, through that entrance way and back into Lukla. That main street didn’t seem so long the last time I walked it. One … two … three ….

One … two … three. The slippery rocks that paved the way needed a watchful eye and careful footwork, the open ditch needed to be crossed, I almost stumbled and needed Yangjing’s steadying hand.

More steps up to the lodge, I grabbed the handrail needing all the help I could get. It was no longer one, two, three but one … one … one …

And then it was over.

I’d done it.

I’d trekked from Lukla to Everest Base Camp and returned. The tears held determinably in check for the last couple of hours erupted, there was no stopping them. The seat that I collapsed onto was so welcome, my legs no longer capable of supporting me.

Others in the group who’d arrived half an hour in front of me shouted their congratulations and high fived me, but all I could do was sob. Anande put a warming cup of hot mango juice in front of me, at least I think it was mango, he accepted my gulp of thanks and refilled the cup as I emptied it.

From my sitting position I unloaded my pack from my back, leant my hiking pole against the wall, leaned back and breathed.

Yep, I’d done it and despite my tears I was grinning inside.

DSCN1251

 

A Word a Week Challenge: Herd

Sue has set us an interesting Word a Week Challenge this week but I think I can come up with something a bit different. How many of you have encountered a herd of Yaks (if the collective noun for yaks is herd, that is)?

The first photo was taken on a beautiful morning as we moved above the tree line on the trek to Everest Base Camp and headed up the barren slopes of the Dhugla Ridge towards Lobuche. The second was taken at Gorak Shep as the yaks nonchalantly strolled amongst the little yellow tents belonging to the Everest Base Camp marathon runners.

DSCN1167

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Suspended in the Himalayas

Suspension – the act of being suspended.

Suspend – to attach so as to allow free movement.

Literal sense – to cause to hang.

Example –Suspension bridges over the raging glacial rivers in the Himalayas.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s well known in my family that I’ve never been terribly good with heights, it’s not so much the heights but the edges, put me near the edge and my knees start to go to jelly.

I’m the one who hid in the back of the campervan years ago as we drove precariously high up in the Swiss Alps and I’m also the one who declined to go up the Leaning Tower when we were in Pisa, so it will probably surprise my family to know what I achieved on my trek in the Himalayas.

As you can imagine, when you’re going up mountains, it’s difficult to avoid edges and ledges and when you have a bridge slung from two of those edges, and it’s the only way to get where you’re going, you don’t have a lot of options. Add in the tendency these bridges have to sway when there is more than one person on them, the lack of concern in these areas for safety issues and the very real possibility of meeting donkeys or yaks half way across and you can imagine my nerves, particularly as we encountered the first one.

After two weeks and a couple of dozen of these bridges I’d like to be able to say that I was almost skipping across them by the end, but no, I just learnt to look straight ahead not down and to keep walking.

Would you feel safe on some of these?

The first bridge we were faced with

The first bridge we were faced with

Hmmm ...

Hmmm …

Does this look safe to you?

Does this look safe to you?

DSCN1021DSCN1034DSCN1119

DSCN1026

DSCN1032

Lukla Airport – getting in and getting out.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve been in helicopters before, both times in the north west of Western Australia. The first time was over the Bungle Bungles in the Pilbara and on a separate occasion over the Willie Creek pearl farm outside Broome. What spectacular views of such an awe inspiring landscape.

There are unlikely to be any flights though in my travel future that will surpass the helicopter flight between Kathmandu and Lukla.

We weren’t expecting it, we were supposed to be catching a Twin Otter aircraft to take us up 2,860 metres into the Himalayan mountain range to land on a runway only 460 metres long and steeply angled at 12%. Now we’d all done our research, because after all isn’t that what Google’s for? And what had we learnt you may ask. Well, that steeply angled, short runway, actually the only runway, at one of the world’s most dangerous airports is sandwiched between a mountain and a deep river valley. The pilots, after navigating around the mountains and banking and descending through layers of cloud and mist have to throw their propellers into hard reverse when they land in order to bring the tiny plane to a stop before getting too close to the fast approaching mountainside. They have very wisely constructed a stone wall that proclaims ‘Welcome to Lukla’ between the end of the runway and the mountain, just in case a bit of a buffer is needed I guess.

Let’s not dwell on the reason for the burns on part of that wall.

To get out of there it’s then necessary to gun the engines and race back down the steep gradient hoping like hell to take off before reaching the 700 metre drop into the river valley at the end of the runway.

So, that was the plan. A scheduled flight through the mountains in a tiny plane and a memorable landing at this airport in the sky, the highest airport with scheduled flights in the world.

But so often when you’re travelling things don’t go as planned and when you’re dealing with mountain weather very close to the onset of the monsoon season well, you have to be flexible.

We were at Kathmandu airport by six, actually we were there even before they opened the doors, waiting in a queue that you could just tell was going to be rushing those doors as soon as they opened. We’d successfully negotiated the stampede, the rigmarole that was weigh in and the farcical security measures that saw men and women segregated, patted down and then allowed through into the departure lounge with an assortment of paraphernalia still in their pockets and we’d claimed a group of seats in which to wait it out.

But waiting it out at Kathmandu airport was tedious, by half past nine we were definitely a restless mob and weather reports indicated that our chances of flying today were slim. Kathmandu was fine, Lukla not so, clouds and mist were preventing aircraft taking off or landing there.

None of us really wanted to lose a day and have to make it up somewhere along the trek, and there was no guarantee that the weather would be any better tomorrow.

To cut a long story short, there was no way any plane was going to get there today and the only option was to pay for helicopters to take us in. In a way it was a disappointment not to be landing on that runway but the flight through the mountains in the helicopter certainly made up for it.

At the end of the trek, after another weather induced delay of nearly two days, we did get to experience that airport and go hurtling down the runway to watch it disappear beneath us as we took off over the valley.

An amazing experience, flying in and out.

DSCN0971

DSCN0975

DSCN0980

DSCN0982

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Waiting patiently for a flight out.

Waiting patiently for a flight out.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One Hell of a Walk – Base Camp Day

The wonderful guys who got us there.

The wonderful guys who got us there.

I know I’m jumping all over the place with my posts on my trek to Everest Base Camp and this one is totally out of sequence, but I’m writing them as they come to me, if I had to do it in order it may never happen. So today, maybe, is the one you’ve been waiting for.

Today was the day we had all been anticipating for months, the day that all thirteen of us  had been training for and the day that we expected great things from. Did it deliver? Overwhelmingly, yes.

Everest Base Camp had been my focus for the last eleven months, the planning and training had taken over my life for almost a year, every step I’d climbed, every track I’d walked, every kilo I’d carried in my backpack, were all aimed squarely at this day. I’d spent hours researching the clothing and the gear that I’d need, talking to others who had done the trek and sales people who knew the technical stuff about boots and hiking poles and water bottles. I’d agonized over how many t-shirts I should take and whether I’d be able to cope with the toilet facilities (or lack thereof) and I’d worried that my training wouldn’t be enough. I probably knew more than was good for me about Lukla airport and altitude sickness and those who had died on the mountain and  now here I was, only a couple of hours away from my goal.

The altitude had made me restless during the night, actually I had lain awake worrying about the lack of oxygen at nearly five and a half thousand metres and the possibility of breathing problems and the fact that I was alone with no one to keep an eye on me – not good thoughts in the middle of the night, and then I was awake before dawn listening to the sounds of other trekkers setting off early so I was a touch tired this morning. But then, this was nothing new. I was tired most mornings.

It was a glorious Sunday morning as we set off with the sun reflecting off the high peaks above Gorak Shep.

It was one hell of a walk along the ridge from Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp but this day gave us some of the most stunning scenery and views of the most majestic mountains that we had experienced. It was difficult to watch where our feet were going when our heads were continually veering to the right to gaze at the continuous panorama.

How did I feel when I finally achieved my goal?

Overwhelmed.

Arriving at Base Camp was a very emotional moment for me and inevitably the tears flowed. It had been hard, at times more than hard. I’d struggled, I’d cried and I’d laughed but I’d also been determined. Determined to achieve the goal I set myself almost a year ago. I wasn’t going to give in.

Here’s just a part of what we saw that day and what I think probably had a deep effect on all of us.

DSCN1224

DSCN1226

DSCN1228

DSCN1233

DSCN1246

DSCN1223

DSCN1234

DSCN1244

Something Special

The day we headed for Base Camp the weather couldn’t have been more perfect. Blue skies with whispy clouds and warm enough not to trouble us too much. The mountains reached up to the sky particularly on our right and before too long Everest came into sight.

About an hour before we reached Base Camp we were presented with an awesome sight, although everything we’d seen so far was awesome this was right up there with the awesomeist.

DSCN1229

As I’ve since found out it was a circumzenithal arc. A what you ask – well, to those of us who are scientifically challenged it was an inverted rainbow. But apparently (according to Wikipedia, so correct me if I’m wrong) it has nothing to do with rain but is caused by the refraction of sunlight through horizontally-oriented ice crystals.

Pretty cool huh – thought you might like to see it.

Pashupatinath Temple – a cultural jolt.

Pashupatinath Hindu temple in Kathmandu, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a contradiction and a challenge to western sensibilities.

The temple, open only to those born into the Hindu faith, is set on the banks of the Bagmati River and is one of the major tourist attractions in Kathmandu, but along with a visit to the most sacred temple of Hindu Lord Shiva in the world comes a cultural  jolt.

The two main roofs of the temple are embellished with gold, the four main doors are adorned with silver and the temple houses the sacred phallic symbol of Lord Shiva. It is not the history of this temple, that dates back to 400AD, nor the awe inspiring architecture, that holds the focus of most tour groups though, but rather the cremations taking place in front of the temple.

In Hindu religion fire is seen as a sacred gateway to the spiritual world and, although there are indoor crematoriums in most cities, there are still areas where the Hindus cremate their dead in the open air.

Raised concrete slabs by the Bagmati River in front of the PashupatinathTemple is one such area. The bodies are cremated and the ashes then brushed into the river.

These cremations are undertaken in full view of the gawking tourists with cameras at the ready.

Personally I was more intrigued than upset. Mortuary archaeology of Roman Britain was the topic of my PhD thesis, so I was able to relate this custom to very similar ancient customs, but understandably it can be quite disconcerting and even upsetting for some people.

Around the area you also have the inevitable sellers of jewellery and trinkets, constantly pushing for a sale and the Sadhus, holy men or wandering monks who have renounced everyday concerns to live a life on the edges of society.

One cannot help but be sceptical though when those who have renounced society require payment before a photo of them is taken.

Pashupatinath Temple

Pashupatinath Temple

A Sadhu

A Sadhu

And another

And another

The hillside where the Sadhus reportedly live.

The hillside where the Sadhus reportedly live.

Playing about with my camera settings

Playing about with my camera settings

A row of small temples

A row of small temples

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I have given serious consideration to as to whether I should include the following photo of a cremation pyre. I decided it should be included as this ritual is part of the culture of the place I visited. If you don’t wish to see it please stop here.

A Hindu cremation taking place at Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu

A Hindu cremation taking place at Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu