Sitting on top of the world

Sitting on top of the world

Pain has a way of solidifying memories. Doubled up on the floor, throwing up what little remained in my stomach was not a good way to start the day at over 5,000 metres. As much as I’d have liked to blame altitude sickness and be evacuated by helicopter, I think it was more likely to be the local hospitality the night before…

This was perhaps my all time greatest act of stupidity (and there are many contenders). I didn’t know at the time but I had pneumonia and should have been in bed, not on a mountain range at 5,500m and certainly not hungover. In my defence I hadn’t been allowed to drink at all on the way up and one evening found myself secretly invited to the kitchen, waiting as they warmed up the next batch of raksi (the local spirit made from millet). It's actually nice and certainly warming but the result being I enjoyed a little too much  and spent the next two days regretting that night.

I’d arrived in Kathmandu a couple of weeks before having been looking for something to do over Christmas and settling on the Everest Base Camp trek. It seemed somewhat festive — probably all the snow I’d seen in pictures. I had a few days to prepare myself for the climb and did this with the local Everest beer and massages (the best I’ve had anywhere in the world). I also hired some equipment, you can buy or hire anything you need as they're used to catering for trekkers and climbers.

At breakfast on my first morning I met a couple of young Australians who had just made it back from base camp. Rather apprehensively I asked them how it was… apparently two of their friends had to be evacuated with altitude sickness and one of those was the fittest of the group. It was sounding quite hard.

It was with this sense of realisation about what I was doing that I met my fellow trekkers — there were four of us in total. Two Indians, a Sri Lankan and myself. It was one of the Indian's lifelong dream to make the trek — it made me feel like a bit of a twat for telling them I booked it on a whim a week ago.

 A typical tea house kitchen.

A typical tea house kitchen.

Having packed light for the trip I was a bit annoyed when at the airport we were all weighed together with our bags and told we were 14kg over. I thought we were about to get stung with a massive bill but it cost about $14 so let it go. More worryingly there were no flights leaving due to the weather. After sitting around all morning we eventually chartered a helicopter which was fortunate — I'd envisaged waiting at the airport for days.

It was my first time in a helicopter and as we were boarding I started getting a little nervous as I suddenly thought it might be terrifying — at least a plane can glide a bit. Rising from the airport, the pilot pointed the nose down and we sped fast and low over the multicoloured apartments of Kathmandu, it was an exciting and beautiful start to the journey. As we headed towards the Himalayas the city gave way to villages and shacks and eventually the mountains themselves. It was anything but terrifying.

Lukla has the reputation of being the most dangerous airport in the world. As you approach it’s easy to see why, one end of the incredibly short runway is a sheer cliff face and at the other end is a 2,000 foot drop. To land you have to fly straight at the cliff face and to take off you have to fly towards the precipice — hoping for enough speed. And that’s not even considering the real dangers of unpredictable mountain weather and low visibility. Even landing in a helicopter the place felt claustrophobic.

In a typically adventurous/stupid (delete as appropriate) fashion I had done no preparation for the trek, people think I’m joking when I say I booked it a week before and only walked 20 minutes to the train station inbetween, the result being painful feet and a taxi back. Sadly it’s true, I was however in good physical shape at the time. The trek was challenging, tiring and at times painful but I wouldn’t describe it as difficult — or rather you make it as difficult as you choose. Anyone (and I mean anyone) could do the trek albeit at their own pace. I treated much of it, particularly the steep climbs as a gym session with the mentality of pushing myself and not stopping. Clearly it’s easier not to do this though. I met fellow trekkers from the ages of 8 to those in their 60s, most of whom got to base camp at least, just in their own time. It’s definitely an environment where you should listen to your body as the effects of altitude sickness are potentially fatal. I’m aware I may sound like a hypocrite given my illness but that was something that got progressively worse on the return journey.

 The varied landscape. It was unbelievably beautiful at times.

The varied landscape. It was unbelievably beautiful at times.

All of the villages along the way have evolved to rely on tourism and are well catered for with tea houses. These are the places where you will rest, eat and sleep. They're very basic but always a welcome relief  and an opportunity to refuel. The accommodation cost is negligible and often free as long as you're eating there. Being part of an organised trek these costs were included anyway but we met a few solo travellers who would tag along with us and got to see the logistics from their side as well.

The first night of the trek we met an Australian couple who arrived at our tea house. They seemed to bond well with our group so we were glad for them to join us and agreed to follow the same schedule and accommodation. It was this first night that I discovered the joy of fried Mars bars... they also had fried Snickers but I was assured by my guide we could get these everywhere. A claim which I would discover the next day to be a lie. I spent the rest of the trek desperately trying to find somewhere that had fried Snickers on the menu. Eventually an industrious tea house owner offered to wrap a couple in pastry and fry them for us but they  were poor imitations of the real thing.

The trek takes you through such varied scenery. Rhododendron forests, bleak treeless landscapes, villages perched on hills, suspension bridges, grasslands, rocks, valleys, over peaks, through rivers and streams. Along the way there are hordes of yaks (or naks) and mules. The former causing quite a problem at narrow passes, you could choose to fall to your death or risk the horns. Or stick to the rock face to avoid the decision. I assumed the way to base camp would be a climb up and the way back would be down — this is not the case. It felt like we spent more time going down when we were going up and going up when we were going down — it's mentally challenging.

There were hardly any other tourists in December which I was thankful for, it made the whole experience more personal. It’s easier to interact and bond with people when there are fewer of you and the tea houses were clearly grateful for our business being the only people most nights. Not to mention no one was there to ruin the views.

 Children playing in one of the remote villages in the Himalayas.

Children playing in one of the remote villages in the Himalayas.

Seeing the locals walking for days on end between villages — carrying food, building materials and homemade raksi to sell at market was eye opening. Some of their journeys were for weeks on end, others for just a few days. Children and the elderly alike often just wearing flip flops. It made me question how much I needed my gore tex jacket and walking boots. I saw a woman well into her 90s who was loaded up with supplies on her back secured with a head strap.

The trek was challenging, but not for the reasons you'd expect — it was the conditions, or more specifically the temperature that made it hard. It was very very cold, especially once you’d stopped walking for the day and your body was cooling down, this is also when the temperature drops significantly and it’s just not possible to get yourself warm again. I felt like I was constantly cold for 12 days, the down booties, mittens and jacket did little to help and I was using my metal flask as a hot water bottle for my sleeping bag. There are no trees at this altitude so the only thing to burn is dried yak dung and it's just not as efficient as wood (its saving grace is it doesn't smell at least). The sleeping bags were rated for -20 celsius but I still had to sleep in all my clothes with a balaclava and hat. As testament to the conditions, of the six of us that started only two of us made it back. The others were evacuated by helicopter which was at least dramatic and makes for a better story. I didn’t know at the time but I'd developed pneumonia and at some point managed to fracture my own rib from the extreme cough I had. The pneumonia was presumably caused by the chest infection I had a few weeks before but I thought that had all cleared up. Apparently not.

On the fifth day we lost our first team member. More accurately we decided to leave him behind — the rest of the group keen to press on — he wanted to spend the day acclimatising. This was technically what we were supposed to do but the weather was bad and it meant the flights back from Lukla were irregular with none having left in the last 3 days. We were joined this day by a stray dog that walked with us all the way to our destination and I like to think his spirit lived on in the dog.

 Nearing the summit of Kala Patthar as the sun sets.

Nearing the summit of Kala Patthar as the sun sets.

The morning of our scheduled trek to basecamp we were told we could climb Kala Patthar afterwards which is higher and has a great view of the sunset reflecting off Everest. Everyone was up for it and was definitely going… although perhaps they underestimated how hard the day would be as in the end it was just me. Base camp itself was in one word, disappointing. The trek there from Gorekshep was otherworldly, the recent earthquake having reshaped the land there was very little in the way of a clear route. The rock and earth beneath your feet giving way to the crystal clear glacier you're actually walking on. It looked like the surface of another planet.

Seeing the Khumbu Icefall was impressive, it’s the first part of the technical climb to the summit of Everest. Base camp however is not actually base camp. It’s a pile of rocks and prayer flags for tourists to take their photo next to. The real base camp is further down but none existent in winter anyway. Even during climbing season it's just a collection of tents on rocks. I should point out that the rest of the scenery more than makes up for it though. After lunch and a much needed rest I reluctantly climbed about three quarters of the way up Kala Patthar and as I was watching the rose glow of the sun reflecting off the snowy peak of Everest, the sun dropped behind the mountains and the temperature plummeted. I couldn’t stand still any longer as it was too cold so kept moving. I also noticed it was getting darker — not unusual as it happens every day but I just realised I’d left my torch at the tea house… It really hit me how dangerous the mountains can be at that moment — one moment I was comfortable and enjoying the view — the next I was shivering and struggling to see. I made the right choice and headed back down. As it was I was shivering and stumbling into long slides down the steep black gravel.

I awoke that night, the call of nature too much to ignore. Putting on my head torch I noticed that the ceiling and walls were covered in ice — the moisture from my breath. The nights were as low as -20 celsius. In the morning I lost my roommate — he was evacuated having problems with his chest. I was sad to see him go but will admit it was pretty cool watching the helicopter come for him and I was starting to feel like a survivor.

 The Khumbu Icefall and start of the technical climb to the summit of Everest.

The Khumbu Icefall and start of the technical climb to the summit of Everest.

The way back was the hardest, the cold was starting to get to me, my feet were covered in blisters and perhaps my all-time greatest act of stupidity — I had a hangover. It was this blurry morning when the Australian couple were evacuated with altitude sickness — they were starting to drop like flies. There was a spare seat on the helicopter which was offered to me — hungover and in pain I was very tempted but knew I needed to see this through to the end. It also meant the final girl could take the place which was the gentlemanly thing to do anyway, there were tears of joy and sadness as she surrendered to the temptation. After such emotion it was rather comical that the pilot said there was no space when they did arrive.

As we were approaching Lukla on the last day of the trek it finally started snowing. It was one of those moments where it felt like there must be a design to life, that it couldn’t possibly just be coincidence given the timing. As I ran up the steps leading to the village I was feeling happy to be back. But it was nothing compared to the happiness of the children in the village running around catching snowflakes in their mouths. I’ve never seen such pure joy before or since. Unfortunately I didn’t have the confidence to take pictures at the time which is a shame but definitely something I’ve learnt from. Sometimes it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

We were lucky as the airport had been closed for the last two days due to the weather but had just reopened so although we had to wait a fair few hours for our plane as they caught up with the backlog, it could have been a lot worse. It turns out even small planes come in a variety of shapes and sizes all with very different appearances of flight worthiness. Unfortunately my flight was in the smaller, older and lower quality category so it was with mild anxiety that I boarded the plane. I was sat at the front with a window/aisle seat as there was only one on each side. Of all the unnerving features such as being able to touch the controls of the aircraft from my seat, that the pilots were using their iPads to navigate and the fact that most of the controls looked like they no longer worked — the most concerning was that the clock had the wrong time set. This scared me — although I wasn’t expecting us to land at the wrong time, if you can't get that right, how are you going to handle the more complicated settings of a plane...

 A restaurant in Kathmandu. They had good momo.

A restaurant in Kathmandu. They had good momo.

I’d say that 90% of the time I'm a very calm and comfortable flyer, but there are times when I start to get a bit anxious, I have a very active imagination, which is not useful when you're imagining creative ways you could die. It was with these in mind that I noticed the plane was seemingly speeding up and slowing down quite erratically and the two pilots kept glancing at each other with quizzical looks on their faces. What made things much worse for me was the person sat on the other side of the aisle was freaking out, they obviously thought something was wrong and this made me worry more in turn. It was not a fun 45 minutes.

As I got off the tiny little plane at Kathmandu feeling thankful to be alive I was planning on stumbling into a hospital as I knew something wasn’t right. I was also mindful however of just how much I smelt and wanted to shower. Mainly through laziness the shower won out and it was the most glorious shower I have ever had, I still remember it well to this day. I was finally warm again.

I had a few days in Kathmandu after the trek and enjoyed exploring the city and talking to the people. There was a lot of earthquake damage and entire streets of buildings were hanging at 45 degrees — propped up with bamboo. The people were poor, there were fights breaking out in the street for fuel as it was so scarce due to Indian blockades. But, these were the happiest people I had ever met yet they had so little.

There are a lot of monkeys, the first one I encountered was chasing hundreds of pigeons through the street which seemed odd. I walked up the 365 steps to the Monkey Temple which lives up to it’s name. On the way back down I was getting quite comfortable with the monkeys so walked alongside the railing where they were lined up, looking at each it struck me how different they were, how human even… I came to one covered in scars and a look of pure evil. As I passed him, he bared his fangs and hissed at me. I jumped back and maintained a healthy distance from the rest of the monkeys.

 The view of Kathmandu from the Monkey Temple.

The view of Kathmandu from the Monkey Temple.

Nepal turned out to be the most influential trip I’d ever made and most likely will stay that way. It made me see what true happiness was, that it was technically easy to achieve and it showed me that I'm a happier, better person when I’m taken out of my native society and have less. Less choice in particular. Once I got back home I decided it would be madness to continue my life the way it was, I was not happy and clearly the approach I had taken for so long was not working for me. I certainly didn't have the answers but I did know one answer that was wrong. The next thing I knew I was selling my house, selling my business, tying up lose ends and preparing to travel with no real plan in mind. 

It was only after I got home and coughed up some blood that I went for a few tests at the hospital — I was told I had pneumonia and a fractured rib, the latter a result of the aggressive coughing. I had managed to break my own rib. I don’t know whether to be impressed by the strength of my abs or ashamed by the weakness of my bones…

I must confess I'm writing this 18 months after the trip so chances are I've forgotten many of the details. I guess the benefit is those that remain are stronger and hopefully the best. It’s perhaps harder therefore to provide any practical information for you if you are planning on making the same journey. I will however try. The region is cold in December. Very cold. Take a single skin metal water bottle which you can fill with boiling water in the evening, pop it in your sleeping bag for warmth and drink it first thing in the morning. I would drink a litre of water first thing, three litres during the trek in my hydration bladder and at least another litre with dinner and hot drinks. That’s easily 5-6 litres a day which sounds a lot but you need to drink that much at that altitude and time of year. I started taking half doses of Diamox a few days in as the sherpas were advising me to as a preventative measure. Other than side effects from the tablets I didn’t experience any effects of the altitude beyond the simple lack of oxygen.

I plan on returning to Nepal one day, to experience more of the country, to learn more from the people and to climb even higher.

 

I did the trek with Himalayan Wonders and highly recommend them. They were by far the cheapest at the time and I had no issues. All photos were taken with the amazing Olympus OM-D E-M1 and versatile 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens.