Because it's there!
by Norman Harris
When I got the phone call from a friend to say he’d seen an offer on the Internet for a trip to see Everest and did I want to go, my instant reaction was “Yes!”. The planned trip was to do just that, see Everest from Namche Bazar at 11,200ft/3425m which sounded quite high enough, thank you very much. Then politics took a hand, and riots in Kathmandu forced a change of plans, we were now going at a later date to Everest Base Camp at 17500ft/5351m! For ‘going’ read ‘trying to go’. This sounded some serious trekking, where do I get that fit in the Fylde, it’s a flat as a pancake! Forget it, I got ‘flu and a chest infection instead three weeks before departure. Good start!
We arrived in Kathmandu to be met by our sirdar (chief guide) Gopi, who turned out to be a superb guy, for whom nothing was too much trouble. The Hotel Tibet was a surprise, in a dirty back street but very comfortable. Don’t get used to it, its not going to last! Met the other members of the group, 16 in total, 13 guys and 3 women. Kathmandu was a shock. I thought Egypt was crazy, this place is lunatic! Traffic drives on the left, at least I think it does. Cars, buses, bikes and motorcycles go anywhere as it suits them. You want to turn right? Just turn, somebody will screech to a stop, possibly. No road markings, no road signs and everyone blowing horns continuously and no Harleys! A day’s acclimatisation tour around Kathmandu, Buddhist temples and cremation sites (I know how to live!) only confirmed the impression.
Let's get out of this madness. Up at 4.30am for the flight from Kathmandu to Lukla. First sight of the Himalayas to everyone’s delight. Lukla is the only airport I’ve ever been to which has a steep slope to the main runway. The idea, apart from there being no flat ground to build a runway, is to stop you hitting the mountain at the end of the runway. We are now something like 20 miles from the nearest road, in the land of yaks and porters. A quick briefing at a local ‘hotel’ in downtown Lukla and we’re off. Hang on, we’re going downhill, surely Everest is uphill? Saw Kanjung, our first big mountain and an avalanche. Exciting! Stopped at Thaldo Koshi for lunch. I was surprised at the range of the menu, mostly combinations of potatoes, noodles, rice, cheese, eggs etc. The local dish is dal bhat which is lentil soup (the dal) poured over rice (the bhat) and is available everywhere in copious quantities. Quite tasty actually. The trails are rough, lots of rocks not like walking in the Lake District, but very pleasant walking conditions.
We arrived at our first ‘tea house’ at about 3.00pm. These ‘tea houses’ provide the bulk of the available accommodation. They are stone built, but all the insides seem to be made of quarter inch plywood. Consequently, if someone sneezes five rooms down, you hear it! We found our luggage, delivered by the porters, outside our rooms. We were allowed a maximum of 33lb/15kg each for these bags and the porters who carried them for us carried THREE each. That’s 100lb/45kg! And these guys are only about five foot three tall. The entire group gathered round the wood-burning stove and enjoyed their first meal on the trail. The food wasn’t bad, the assistant guides Hamil, Dill and Leila help with the cooking and serving.
We walked along the Dudh Kosi river valley crossing the river several times on high steel rope bridges and met our first yak train. These lower level animals are actually cross bred yaks with cows and carry heavy loads and it’s a good idea to give them priority over the rope bridges unless you want to end up in the river! I was just thinking, this is cool, we’ve been going downhill, easy this trekking lark, then I saw Namche Hill! This was very HARD going. Climbing 2000ft in about a mile, bearing in mind we are already at 10,000ft/3060m. Nobody knows how he or she will react to the effects of altitude. Even at this ‘low’ altitude the effects are quite noticeable with any exertion producing gasping for breath, as there is only about 70% of the sea level oxygen.
I struggled up here but got to the ‘Sherpa capital’ of Namche Bazar eventually. Strange place, after all the tiny villages we’d passed you come around a bend and there is a small town with hotels, shops and Internet cafes. Why on earth would anybody want to build a town here? Still, good accommodation and good food. I went down into the town (its all steps) after dinner, lots of good quality mountain gear at ridiculously cheap prices. On the way back I took some steps two at a time then stood gasping for five minutes trying to breathe! I’ll learn. As part of the acclimatisation process this was a rest day. By ‘rest’ our guide meant only a 3000ft climb to the Everest View Hotel where we got our first view of Everest. Amazing!! We could see Everest, Lhotse and Ama Dablam with spin-drift coming off the top like all the classic photos. This was as far as the originally planned trip would have taken us and was well worth the effort but could I go further? I must admit that leaving Namche that morning I’d almost convinced myself that I couldn’t go any further as the altitude was getting to me and I was really tired, but Base Camp was beckoning.
It didn’t get any easier. The next day we climbed out of Namche at 12,800ft then descended to 10,800ft for lunch (who’s leading this expedition?) only to climb back to 12,700ft in the afternoon. We had our first yak jam with two trains trying to pass each other, and us trying to stay out of the way of all those horns, with a 200ft drop to one side. Made it to Tengboche with its famous Buddhist monastery. The biggest surprise was to find a bakery with an amazing selection of cakes and pastries. Food at the tea house was pretty awful so we made up for it with coffee and cakes. Saw lots of porters carrying the most amazing loads. How about twenty 4in. square timbers 8ft long, or seven 10ft long aluminium extending ladders or even five single mattresses? We were told these guys get about 200 rupees a day (about £1.60). A very hard life.
Onwards and upwards. Lunch at the Sunlight Hotel, which was a revelation and the food was really good. As we were staying here on the way back we were all looking forward to going through the menu. Our tea house for the night was at Dengboche but, as we were finding out, sleeping at these altitudes is very difficult and lack of sleep combined with fatigue was really taking its toll. It was now beginning to get very cold and the following morning it was necessary to break the ice in the toilet. I suppose we should be grateful, as at least we had an inside toilet! (Some of the toilets were like a shed with a hole in the floor and a pile of leaves, for comparison).
Trekked to 16,000ft the following day to stay at the Sagarmantha (one of Everest’s several names) Lodge and it's now getting very cold. We were wakened at 4.30am for a 6.00am start. Only –8 deg C outside. This was to be the day! A three hour trek and we had breakfast at the Gorak Shep Lodge, which I was told is the highest accommodation in the world at 16,800ft/5140m. Then off to Everest Base Camp. Still seeing lots of yak trains which are now the pure bred yaks with long shaggy fur which are only used at these altitudes as they can’t stand the heat lower down. They are starting to supply the base camps of the 35 expeditions that are expected to try for the summit this season. I admit that this trek was very hard and our guide’s offer to carry my rucksack for the last mile or so was eventually, reluctantly, accepted. We were now on 53% oxygen.
The sight of Everest appearing beyond the Khumba Ice Field was worth the effort. Magnificent!! We shook hands, hugged and cried. I found it, as did a lot of the group, a very emotional experience. A mixture of exhilaration, fatigue, sadness (for all the people who have died), happiness (for all those who succeeded) and amazement at the super-humans who would even try and climb THAT. I sat, thought and wandered around for quite a while just trying to take in the stunning beauty of it all. I got out the Rainy City flag and commemorated the occasion with a souvenir photo. As I was staring at Everest I was aware of a couple coming towards me and we got talking. This guy seemed to know all about the mountain and the routes to the summit. Turned out he’d climbed Everest twice. So not only did I get to see Everest, but I shook hands with somebody who’d climbed it! Fantastic day. All I had to do now was to trek for three hours to get to my bed for the night. A very welcome bed with so many images of mountains, rivers, bridges, etc., running round in my head that sleep was very fitful. A life changing experience? Not far off it, more life affirming.
We’d taken eight days to get to Base Camp and it three days to get back to Lukla where our sirdar had organised rooms with en-suite showers and toilet. Luxury!
Best bit about the trip back (for me, loving aeroplanes, not sure about the rest of the group), waiting for our plane out of Lukla, was seeing a military transport land which was then called as our flight! We all piled into the aircraft through the rear-loading door and sat on metal seats designed for parachutists. We were wondering if we were going to be issued with parachutes as we flew over Kathmandu! Taking off downhill and suddenly being at 3,000ft was exciting, to say the least.
An amazing trip and not a single Harley or Austin 7 in sight. Sandy is now worried as to what I’m going to do next!