Approaching the Himalayas by air, the anticipation is like that on no other journey. Giant empty mountains framed by a bright blue sky under our noses. It’s a scenic 40 minutes flight until we have a dramatic landing in the most dangerous airport on earth. We arrive in Lukla – Eastern Nepal – in the shadow of Mount Everest.
I enjoy the tensions of a challenge. Yet I never intended to summit the tallest mountain in the world, trekking to its base camp (5380m) was already an adventure of the highest sort. Low temperatures. High altitude. Very basic infrastructure and a limited number of days to acclimatize and complete the desired itinerary. All of this added an element of danger that was part of the appeal of trekking towards the base of Everest. It was the very existence of these barriers along with the beauty of the Himalayas that made me want to be there.
A trek, therefore, turns into a life changing tour. For ten days, I’ve walked along traditional Sherpa villages, slept in monasteries, eaten vegetarian food and got astonished by the most compelling landscape I have ever seen. I was able to witness the genuine and understand the Sherpa culture. Sometimes lost in my own thoughts, I experienced the air getting thinner and thinner. I took Diamox, which helped me to cope with the high altitude during most of the trek, but was no longer effective once we’ve reached 5000 meters high.
Every day was different from the last. Every single day we experienced a new landscape, a unique teahouse and met people of all types. Breathing dictated the pace, not the other way around. The more we trekked, the harder it got. Not only because of the altitude, but also the low temperatures. I thought I knew what cold was. I was proven wrong. Trekking in the Himalayas via teahouses is like winter camping where you don’t have control of the heat. Teahouses are not insulated, and the bedrooms are not heated. The cold was cruel in the evenings. I slept little. For ten days, I lost track of time. My primary concern was which altitude height we would reach in the next Sherpa village, and the only reference was meters above sea level.
FROM SEA LEVEL TO 2860 METERS After 4 hours delay at Kathmandu airport and a short flight, I found myself in Lukla – a town in the Khumbu valley and the starting point for the ten-day trek. The landscape looked already so spectacular – I could not wait for what was about to come.
FROM 2860 METERS TO 2804 METERS I had my new trekking boots on, raining jacket and purifying water drops in the backpack and liters of water in the hydro-pack. Ready to kick off the adventure, we started trekking towards Mojo, along with Sarki and Kipa, both Sherpas, who are among the dominant ethnic group in this area.
Forests rose and fell below. The trail was a constant revelation. I saw a world as a complex network of turquoise rivers, bridges, and hills. The sky was clear blue as we penetrated in the new territory. For my surprise, it was a magically quiet time. We came across very few other trekkers on our way to Mojo, a Sherpa village where we spent the first night.
FROM 2804 METERS TO 3440 METERS I wake, have a quick bath, grab breakfast and get back to the trail. It’s not long before my breath starts to shorten as I see, thanks for the stunning weather, the great snowy peak of Mount Everest for the very first time. I get tired, then amazed. The landscape here gains a different shape. Extraordinary giant mountains now surround the turquoise rivers and forests. That’s exactly how I’ve pictured the splendor of trekking the Himalayas.
The going gets much harder with steep hills to be hiked. As we officially enter the Sagarmatha National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site, we have our passports checked on the “border control.” I take pleasure in the conversation I have with the Nepalese border guard about Brazilian soccer. He says, due to last two years’ avalanches and earthquakes, only few climbing permits were issued this year, and the number of trekkers in the Khumbu Valley is down by at least one-third compared to 2013. We get our passports back and continue hiking to the next village.
We reach Sherwi khangba teahouse, in Namche Bazaar – the gateway to Everest Base Camp. Sherwi khangba is a historical place, used as a starting point by many expeditions to the Everest in the 50’s and 60’s, as well as the first one lead by Sir Edmund Hillary. I am reminded of old explorers as we hear many stories from Lhakpa Sonam, the owner of the teahouse and an active Sherpa conservationist.
FROM 3440 METERS TO 3790 METERS As we adjust to the thin air, we try to acclimatize by hiking to Everest viewpoint hotel and trekking to the Khumjung village and its monastery. From Namche onwards, it gets seriously cold, and I begin to have difficulties to fall asleep.
FROM 3790 METERS TO 3876 METERS En route to Tengboche, we make a brief stop-off for lunch at Phunke Tenga. To be honest, the food doesn’t change much from teahouse to teahouse. But here we enjoyed the beautiful view of the valley, which was a delicious fuel for the afternoon’s steep walking.
Following each ascent or descend, there is always a new breathtaking view or desert monastery, which is sacred to Buddhists. We take our time; sometimes overtaking the porters carrying tents and cooking gear, sometimes letting them trudge past us. The scenery completely changes when it starts to snow as we reach the Himalayan teahouse – our final destination of the day.
FROM 3876 METERS TO 4410 METERS Another spectacular day. Back to the trail, we admire clear views to Mount Everest, Ama Dablam and Lhotse. Trekkers have eyes shining with excitement. It’s good to know I am not alone in being blown away by the extremity of the place.
Slowly we reach 4000 meters until we finally arrive at Snow Lion teahouse, located in Dingboche – our home for the next two nights and last chance for a hot shower.
FROM 4410 METERS TO 5100 METERS
Bit by bit we summit Nangkartshang Peak during another acclimatizing day. For the most part, it is a walk up and, other than the altitude, an easy ascent.
FROM 4410 METERS TO 4910 METERS
I see snow everywhere. The going gets harder, not the vertiginous drops or the trail itself, but getting used to the thinner air. It is freezing cold. A team of donkeys with bells around their necks and backpacks is barreling towards me. I follow Sarki’s advice and cling to a rock – it’s easy to get tipped off the edge. We have some hot tea at Tukla and continue trekking towards Lobuche. As we reach Oxygen in, our next teahouse, I have the first altitude sickness symptoms. I feel dizzy and struggle with a severe headache. But still, we consider continuing the trek to the next village. It is hard to take decisions when you are going on this type of adventure and have no idea about your limits. Luckily we decide to rest and spend the night in Lobuche.
FROM 4910 METERS TO 5164 METERS It’s 3:30 am when we start trekking towards Gorakshep, a small settlement and final stop before Everest Base Camp. I had my down jacket on, which well protected me against the brutal temperature. I struggle with the lack of oxygen but then I’m overwhelmed by the extraordinary empty skies. Out of this world. We witness millions of stars give space to an unforgettable blue sky. The sun slowly rises behind the giant mountains.
FROM 5164 METERS TO 5380 METERS
There is much anxiety about reaching the EBC. We have a quick breakfast in Gorakshep and continue hiking towards the base of Everest. The journey across the giant glacier is to feel as if you are living through the planet’s formation. The scenery again drastically changes. We hike for almost 3 hours through many ups and downs, until we suddenly find ourselves standing at the feet of an icon. I am exhilarated
We take a sit on the rocks under a warm sunshine and admire the peaks of Everest, tucked into the mountainside above the sparkling Khumbu Icefall. It’s that time of year when Sherpas start to set up the infrastructure for mountaineers in the base camp, aiming to take advantage of a two-month window of favorable weather. We watch legions of Sherpa porters coming and going – sometimes guiding herds of Yaks; sometimes carrying the heaviest loads with their own body.
FROM 5164 METERS TO 5550 METERS The highlight of the trip promised to be the day when we reached the Everest Base Camp. Only until we learned about a black stone ridge offering 360-degree views to Everest and its fellow mountains.
It’s 3:30 am again. I feel tired, yet here I am – climbing Kalapathar, the highest point of our adventure. I push myself on a challenging three-hour hike to the peak. I walk slowly. There is nowhere to go but up. My breath, once more, starts to shorten. It gets really hard until I finally edge down over a precipice and push off into the air. We enjoy incredible views to the highest mountains on earth. I got reminded of how travel can be defined by our experience of coming up against our limits, not just our achievements.
As we journey down after summiting Kalapathar, I feel a hundred times better. The dizziness and headache are suddenly gone. Each step down pumps more oxygen into my blood. I am supercharged from all the rich air – a sensation that lasts for a few weeks after I get back to sea level. The descent back to Lukla was rapid, and we were soon returned to the heat of Kathmandu. It took us two long days to descend what took ten to climb. The scenery was now greener than it was ten days ago and the views of the valley, even more extraordinary. It was like traversing a fairy kingdom with wild cherry blossoms and wonderful mountains.
We trekked across the Khumbu Valley, Eastern Nepal, with Himalayan Quests from March 25th to April 3rd, 2016 (10-day trip). Flew from Singapore to Kathmandu with Thai Airways.
In the bag: Available soon.