If you can’t get to Everest, make do with Base Camp
I always thought that some day I’d like to summit Everest. The idea of climbing mountains really appealed to me, but it seemed like such a far off prospect – something I’d need to have far more money and strength to do than I thought I’d have in my early 20s.
But while summiting the highest mountain in the world wasn’t immediately feasible, a few of my friends had trekked to Everest Base Camp, and one of them pointed out that maybe I should start with that. So I jumped online, researched it a bit and decided to go with Intrepid on a 15 day round trip to Base Camp and back.
When I’d booked with Intrepid, I’d assumed that everyone else going with them would also be in their early 20s, probably super fit and loud and fun, the kind who like to be a little silly and mischievous – so when I arrived at our meeting point at the Kathmandu Guesthouse, I was a little apprehensive to see a group of very mixed ages.
Some of them were young – there were Emily and James, both around my age, Mandy and Bart, a little older but still in their 20s, Matt, Lily and Nat, in their 30s, and then James’ dad – obviously older, and Al, the oldest of us all, who was in his 50s. How would this dynamic work, I wondered, and would the older ones in the group be really patronising to the rest of us?
I was feeling incredibly shy as I went up to join them. Everyone was dressed for adventure and they all seemed so confident and serious and prepped for the trip. Meanwhile, here I was, after travelling for 5 months, in clothes that were pretty tatty, sweaty from having just run there at the last minute, in these ridiculous pants I’d bought in Thailand, looking like something the cat dragged in.
It’ll get better, I told myself, after an awkward introduction. Once we get a little more comfortable with each other I’m sure we’ll get along fine. We sat down and met our guide, Ashok, who started to go over the details of the trip with us. And then, right in the middle of going over our packing guidelines, I felt the bile rise up in the back of my throat. I stood up, “sorry, I think I need to throw up.” Ashok didn’t falter at all, just pointed me to the toilet, still talking (as if this was a regular occurrence) and let me run off.
The Night of Neverending Retching
If only that was the end of it. I washed my mouth out after puking, came back, sat down for a little longer, then had to run off again. And again. I was making a fantastic first impression. Eventually I just retired to my room, so I could sit next to the toilet and keep ejecting my insides without having to run around in between bouts.
It didn’t stop all evening. At one point I figured I really needed to pick up my laundry since I needed it for the trek the next day, and I managed to keep it down long enough to go down the road to the laundromat, collect my clothes, then run back again to the toilet. I met Matt and Al outside, who were actually really lovely and sympathetic, and didn’t even baulk at my sweaty, disheveled appearance and offered to pick up crampons for me so that I wouldn’t have to go out again.
The vomiting continued all night, getting worse. Luckily the room was stocked with water, so I could keep guzzling it down (and then throwing it up again). Ashok was really sweet and came up with more water and hydrolite, and held my hair back as I chundered. Eventually I called reception and asked for a doctor to come visit.
That was pointless, he just told me that I had really severe food poisoning, was dehydrated and needed anti-emitics and water urgently, then left without giving me any medicine or actually doing anything. Sure, leave the sick girl to go out in a foreign city and find medicines, at 11pm at night when all the pharmacies are closed. Luckily Ashok had some medicines he thought might work, so I gave them a go and eventually, at an early hour of the morning, the onslaught ended.
Regret sets in
So I’d just spent the night before I was going to trek to Base Camp throwing up, was dehydrated, sleep deprived, weak, and had to wake up early so I could shower and pack. The next morning, as you might expect, was a little hard. I was so hungry – I hadn’t eaten since breakfast the day before – and we had to be ready early in the morning to drive to the airport and get a flight to Lukla.
Kathmandu is not one of those cities that wakes early. Nothing was open at that time except for one bakery. One bakery that of course only sells bread – not gluten free – which I can’t eat. Luckily, Kathmandu Guest House also does (expensive) food, although unluckily they only open the kitchen just as we were meant to leave, so that after waking up early and looking around for food fruitlessly, I came back, ordered some food, got served as everyone else was piling into van, had to more or less inhale it all, and run.
This was going great. Everyone else kind of had that group thing going because they’d had dinner together the night before and hung out the rest of the evening, and I, the girl who’d been throwing up and sweaty and was really quiet now because I still felt awful, was sitting on her own in the front seat with the driver. I was regretting this whole Everest thing.
The Flight to Lukla
I did start to cheer up once we got to the airport. Getting out of the van itself was amazing since if you’re really nauseous, driving around on incredibly badly maintained unsealed roads does not help. I wanted to fall to my knees and kiss the ground, I was so happy to get out.
And then of course there was the airport. If you think the International Airport in Nepal is a little unusual, wait till you see the domestic one. It was still under construction, and there were a bunch of monkeys swinging around amusedly.
You don’t have a set waiting time at the airport either, not to Lukla – because they have to land purely by sight, they constantly have to decide whether the weather looks good enough to make the flight or not, and sometimes the planes will head back mid-flight, so that you just have to get to the airport as early as possible, keep your fingers crossed, and wait until it’s your turn – whenever that may be.
Not to mention customs. Nobody checked my bag. I took my water bottle through security, and it wasn’t even hidden – I had it in my hands and was drinking out of it. I suppose air security isn’t really an issue when these flights have less than 20 passengers each, and pretty much everyone’s going off to start a trek. Who would bother attacking anyone or trying to hijack one of those tiny planes?
When we eventually got on our plane, it was an itsy bitsy 14 seater, too tiny to stand up straight in. They give you a lolly to suck on to equalize the air pressure across your ear drums, which I thought was a nice little touch.
The views on this flight are amazing. You’re going through these mountain ranges and it looks like one of those panning scenes from a high fantasy movie, so beautiful that you’d think it was computer generated if you weren’t seeing it with your own eyes from the plane.
Unfortunately the plane also shakes around a lot. Like, a lot a lot. I don’t get scared of plane travel, but I had to try very very hard to keep my breakfast down.
And then there’s the landing at Lukla. A friend of mine, Pat, had told me about Lukla airport being an experience in itself and of course I had to go Google it. Here’s a really good piece about why it’s famous, and if you want to see what that’s like, check out this video:
Most people think the scary thing about Lukla is the length of the runway, which slopes steeply upwards to assist planes that have just landed to slow down before they crash into the wall at the far end… Probably more dangerous than the runway is that pilots have to land by line-of-sight only. In October 2008 three Twin Otters were landing in quick succession, standard practice at Lukla Airport, where the planes can turn around and be off again very quickly. The first two landed safely, but just as the third was approaching the airstrip a cloud swept in front of the pilot’s vision causing him to misjudge the landing slightly and catch one of the wings of the plane in a wire fence to the side of the runway. The plane burst into flames, killing everyone on board except the pilot, who was the only one able to escape from the fireball. – From Mark Horrell’s blog
Anyway, the whole experience is actually really cool and exhilarating (and not scary at all). The landing was the one part of the flight I got to really enjoy.
And Lukla itself is this gorgeous little town in the middle of these mountains. If you don’t fly in, you have to trek your way there over 10 days so it’s still hella isolated and very much a remote mountain village, but with a few more supplies that they get flown in.
Lukla to Phakding
We brunched at Lukla before starting our trek, as did pretty much everyone else who’d been at the airport with us in Kathmandu. It was great, being at the start of the trek got everyone excited, and finally those barriers between all of us were beginning to break down.
Besides, there were some other groups of young people there and they were all dressed really well (to go trekking!), colour coordinated and kind of fashionable, and all trying to impress each other. I was so glad to be with our mixed bag of a group after all, they were so chilled and nobody cared about how we looked.
We met our porters, who were quite young and bashful, and also got introduced to our other guides, Dawa and Pemba, who were ebulliently cheerful and cheeky.
I killed the trek that first day. Walking really fast made me feel a lot better, so I strode along at the head of the group, past lots of yaks and naks and zhums and zopkios (yak-ox crossbreeds). It was gorgeous and exhilarating and when you’re walking for hours on end, everyone ends up talking, about things like marriage, relationship advice, private schooling and parental issues.
That evening Bart ended up teaching us all to play Shithead, and we spent hours at it, stopping for dinner (potatoes with onions and nak cheese for me) and then continuing afterwards.
All considered, despite the rocky start it was looking like it was going to be a lovely trek. What would the next 14 days bring? After how bad it had been in the beginning, at least at I had the consolation that it could only go up from here! (Most likely. Unless there was an avalanche or something like that)
Or read about Packing for Everest!