Everest Base Camp
The constellations sparkled above Gorak Shep as the nightly ice crystals formed all around. All the teahouses were sold out that night so the whole group slept in a cramped shack with a couple of Sherpas that turned up to use the remaining sleeping mats. A lightbulb that seemed to have no switch sporadically turned on and off inside the darkened room. After half an hour of this, everyone had reached breaking point. One of Sherpas got up and grabbed the glowing bulb with his bare hands, twisted it off and threw it on the floor. Peace at last.
Robert, Si and I left for base camp the next morning. You hardly need a map as the valley shoehorns you neatly towards the Khumbu glacier and we soon found ourselves approaching the base camp area. Come climbing season in March and April, dozens of tents are dotted about the place as climbers and mountain guides prepare for their attempts to summit Sagarmatha, or Chomolungma as it is known in Tibetan.
Everest itself is hardly visible from the base camp and the Khumbu icefall drew all of my attention. One of the most dangerous parts of the climb to summit Everest, the icefall has been the location of around one quarter of all deaths on the Nepal side. Climbers have been caught by parts of the icefall collapsing, avalanches and have fallen through crevasses deep into the bowels of the glacier. Nowadays ladders bridge most of the large gaps and a team of specialist Sherpas called ‘The Icefall Doctors’ maintain a safe route across the constantly shifting landscape.
A huge rocky crevasse obstructed the route onto the icefall but the imp of the perverse took over and I found myself looking for a way through. The ground groaned beneath the icy fingers of the glacier, which dripped in the intense sun. Every so often huge sections cracked off and splashed into the abyss below.
Someone guffawed my name in the middle distance. I looked round in confusion. Did I really hear that, I thought?
“Nick!?” It came again.
I turned back and clambered back up the slope to investigate. Si spotted me and waved from a ridge twenty feet above, where he, Robert and several other people were waiting in line to take photos.
As I walked back towards the group, I noticed a young chinese woman on the ridge above facing in my direction. She had removed all her clothing from the waist up. Arms stretched to the sky, she posed for a photo with reckless abandon. After a few seconds she looked down, noticed me and froze, before glaring in disgust, obviously not expecting anyone to venture that close to the icefall and approach her from the opposite side.
“Cold out!” I called, grinning politely.
I carried on up the hill towards Robert and Si. An older European gentleman who had been strolling around the area approached me, holding an object that looked like some kind of bone.
“Hello, my friend,” he said. “Do you want to see something amazing?”
I looked the strange artifact over. “What the hell is that thing?” I said, grimacing.
He paused and laughed heartily. “This, my friend, is the penis of a yeti.”
He grinned and huddled in closer as if to impart some secret wisdom.
“I can give you this for only three thousand rupees.” He said raising his eyebrows. “It will give you great power.”
He made an upturned fist and thrust up his forearm with priapic vigour to further demonstrate his point.
I nodded in contemplation. “No thank you,” I said. “The fresh mountain air has given me all the power I need.”
He let out a raucous laugh and hobbled on.
That was it. We had reached our destination and the time had come to leave. A simple three day hike back the way we came, just in time to catch our flight from Lukla. What could go wrong?
All downhill from here
We met the rest of the group, who had climbed Kala Patthar earlier that day and had a final lunch of Sherpa soup in Gorak Shep before starting our descent.
When we arrived back at Lobuche, we took a rest on a stone wall. I glanced towards the cafe we had been in a couple of days before where I had witnessed the weird scene with the delerious woman.
“I’m heading to the cafe,” I said. “Get a slice of chocolate cake and refuel.”
Still hot and sweaty from the hike, I opened the door and started towards the counter. The same restless energy as before filled the room, a waiting room for the main event, with no guarantee of actually making it.
A sunburnt Australian man in his mid-forties sat up theatrically in disbelief. “Will you close the bloody door!?”
I scowled at his overreaction and trudged back to push the door shut. After purchasing and devouring my chocolate cake I marched out to meet the others. A gathering mist hung in the air.
“Have you made a decision, Robert?” I said.
The path diverged just below Lobuche, one fork leading back towards Namche Bazaar and the other onto the dreaded Cho La pass.
“I’m going to join these guys,” he said, gesturing to the trekkers from Sheffield and a young American guy, James, who had joined us on part of the trek.
“We should make it to Dzongla tonight, then head over Cho La at dawn tomorrow.”
“The storm is on it’s way already,” I said. “If you don’t make it to Lukla the day after tomorrow, you could be stranded up here for weeks. Flight bookings are like gold dust at the moment.”
“Even if you make it to Gokyo tomorrow, the final day will be nearly 20 miles trek” Si said, pinpointing the route on his fold-out map. “Downhill, too.”
“Hell on the knees.” I said. “But if you’ve made up your mind.”
He smiled and look ahead as if to some vision in his mind. “I’ll see you guys there, have a beer ready.”
The two groups embraced and cracked jokes for a while, then Robert and the others set off down the path to Cho La.
Our group had now diminshed to four. The trail was mainly downhill now and every step sent shockwaves through our knees. We approached the plain covered in stone memorials that we passed previously and took a breather.
“So we’re heading to Pheriche, right?” Montana said.
Si nodded. “It’ll be dark in a couple of hours. We don’t want to be stuck out here at night.”
“Too right.” I said. “One wrong step and you’ll be sliding off a cliff.”
The distant lights of Pheriche glimmered as dusk set in. We seemed to be the only trekkers left on the trail. We arrived at nightfall to a long lamplit street, deserted except for the occassional teahouse owner shutting up shop.
“Namaste” I called. The middle-aged Nepalese woman about to lock the door of her teahouse, looked in my direction. “Any rooms?”
She shook her head. “No. Sorry. Too late.” She continued with her routine, then slammed the door and turned the bolts with finality.
We tried several other teahouses with no joy. The last teahouse on the street glowed ahead. I ambled over to the conservatory which faced onto the street and pressed my nose up against the glass to get a better look inside. Long wooden tables were packed with jovial trekkers tucking into steaming trays of momos and dal bhat.
“This place looks good,” said Steph.
“I’ll check if they have any rooms,” said Montana. He returned a few minutes later and shook his head.
“That’s it.” I said. “We’re fucked.”
The straps of rucksack were digging into my shoulders after the long descent. I hoisted the pack off and slumped onto it. “I read that the teahouse owners will sometimes let you sleep on the floor, if there is nowhere else to go.”
Si spotted a teahouse owner putting out some rubbish and dashed over to him hopefully. He returned a few moments later.
“Apparently there is another teahouse, hidden just down that path,” he said, pointing just beyond the building we were outside.
“Let’s check it out.” Said Montana.
We staggered round the corner and towards a two-storey building. The heavy wooden door creaked open to reveal an elated Nepalese man who welcomed us in. Despite being just off the main path, the place was almost empty. I felt it was a testament to the modern expectation of convenience at all costs, which I had certainly been guilty of during the trip.
Pheriche to Namche Bazaar
Downhill from Pheriche the next day, we eventually rejoined the path we had taken on the way up, halfway between Tengboche and Dingboche. We retraced our steps through the rolling valleys for miles and miles, ‘we must be approaching Namche,’ I thought, as I rounded yet another similar looking corner on the trail.
The path curved behind a large rockface which I knew led to a view of Namche. But no. Another serpentine trail and another rockface a few hundred yards distant. I felt like I had walked into an infinite loop. I had pushed away from the pack yet again and not a soul was in view. Maybe I had wandered through a wormhole into some form of purgatory. The same corner appeared around three or four more times before a tree-lined hill emerged. I saw a herd of distant Yaks ahead. Cresting the hill, my destination emerged.
That night we decided to celebrate and crack open a beer to toast the adventure. Alcohol affects you much more quickly at this altitude and my head was soon swimming.
A few drinks in, the barman silenced the music and dimmed the lights for a movie screening. The movie was ‘The Conquest of Everest’, an old film made just after the famous first ascent by Tenzing and Hillary. It was fascinating to see the area as it was in the 1950’s before the tourist conveyer belt had been carved out. The narrator described each section of their journey with poetic zeal and impeccable diction from ‘frozen but burning forest’ of the Khumbu icefall to the ‘walls that surpass the imagination’ of the Western Cwm.
Montana downed the last of his beer. “Have you guys heard from Robert?”
“Nothing,” said Si.
“Maybe he found the real Nepal, decided to stay up there.” I said. I stroked my chin. “Either that or he’s dead.”
“Don’t even joke about that,” said Steph.
Even if he had made it across the treacherous Cho La pass to Gokyo this evening, that would leave a twenty-mile slog tomorrow, with the necessity of making it to Lukla by nightfall.
I wandered back to the hotel and quickly slept amongst my pile of quilts.
Namche Bazaar to Lukla
The final leg of our hike again retraced our original journey. The path we had crawled up towards Namche, was now a relaxed, if knee-pounding downhill. With our final destination ahead, we spread out and the modus operandi became focused solitude. One thing you learn being on the trail every day with a heavy backpack hunching your neck and shoulders and no practicable escape is a Zen-like detachment and the discipline to carry on going, despite nagging aches and pains.
As I passed through the green painted arch at the entrance of Lukla, the exhaustion which had been building for miles and indeed weeks, became more apparent. But the journey was not over. The status of flights out of Lukla was still unclear. I still had to find somewhere for us stay in a village that could still be full to the brim with stranded trekkers.
I noticed an impressive looking lodge high on the hill. A long granite staircase led up to the entrance. I walked inside and took a look around. Several older tourists sat in the large, comfortable living room decorated with Buddhist iconography. A yak skin taxidermy hung from the wall.
The receptionist appeared from behind the scenes after a few minutes.
“Good afternoon, sir.”
“Hello,” I said. “How much are your rooms?”
“One hundred and forty dollars per night, sir.”
I gulped. That might seem a bit pricey even in the west, but for rural Nepal it was a bridge too far. Besides we had spent nearly all our Nepalese Rupees now.
I slinked back down the stairs just as Si ambled into the village.
“One hundred and forty dollars a night,” I said, pointing to the lodge. “This one’s on you.”
We continued on to a government checkpoint, where we were recommended a much cheaper lodge. Montana and Steph had arrived by then and we all headed to the lodge. The kitchen door facing the dining room flapped open occassionally, revealing a salivating dog. After eating in the downstairs dining room, Steph retired to bed and Montana, Si and I decided to venture out to the Irish pub.
The Irish pub is a basement dive bar replete with a small dancefloor. The walls were lined with the sharpie graffiti of a thousand trekkers. Loud disco music flooded the near-deserted cavern.
“Three Sherpa beers,” said Si, to the bartender.
I cracked open my beer and we toasted to good health.
Si sipped his drink and placed it on the bar. “What do you think happened to Robert? We haven’t heard a peep.”
“Who knows?” I said. “He could have been crushed under a falling boulder. Or gored to death by a vindictive Yak.”
The twilight was quickly fading when we had entered the pub and dark jokes became an increasingly raw subject.
“I’ve tried to call him about fifty times,” said Si. “The reception is terrible up here.”
I looked around the bar and noticed the English man who we had run into on the way to Lobuche on a table close by. The girl who had helped me on the hill in Dingboche was sitting with him, beer in hand.
“Hows it going?” I said, extending my hand.
He met my handshake with the energy of a dead fish. “Yeh, sound.”
“Glad to see you made it down alive,” I said. “We saw quite a few tourists carried off kicking and screaming.”
He nodded indifferently. “Where’s your friend?”
“Robert? We don’t know. His plan was to hike the way from Gokyo this morning. But haven’t heard anything for three days” Si said. “It’s not looking good.”
I remembered a sign I had seen in various locations on the trip. A man in his thirties, missing since march, presumably dead. Could the worst have happened.
“Maybe we should head out to look for him?” I said.
Dusk had turned into night and we were faced with the very real possibility that Robert was not going to make it in time for our flight tomorrow morning at six. If he was alive.
The silence was deafening as a speaker pumped out a Bee Gees hit.
Suddenly a door slammed above and a set of heavy footsteps clomped down the stairs. The whole group turned in anticipation.
A couple of mousey trekkers walked in hesitantly. “Hello,” the man said, raising his hand weakly.
As the door was about to creak shut, another trekker strolled in nonchalantly. It was Robert.
Si and I leapt off our chairs and rushed over to him.
“You stupid bastard,” I said, slapping him on the back. “We thought you were dead.”
“After that walk, I feel close,” he said.
Si ordered him a Sherpa brew and he sat down and cracked it open. He took a long glug and exhaled.
“So what happened?” Montana said.
“Where to start?” he said. “We made it across Cho La. We went to Gokyo. Then I walked over thirty kilometres today. I think my knees are fucked.”
He chuckled to himself, recalling the whirlwind that had brought him safely to Lukla. “I set off at four-thirty this morning, after eating only an egg.”
The other two trekkers made their excuses and left us four alone to our merriment until the early hours.
A Morning in Purgatory
The next day we woke up before dawn and hauled our belongings past the chainlink barriers and into Tenzing-Hillary airport. I had already visited the toilet three times that morning.
“I’m shitting through the eye of a needle.” I said.
“Could have been that beer last night,” Robert said. “Someone told me a lot of bacteria and viruses are transmitted on beer cans up here. All it takes is one infected person touching it.”
My stomach rumbled. We entered the main hall of the airport into what looked like a scene from Wall Street. Groups of tourists furiously waved tickets and passes at airport officals who gestured widly and ushered people here and there. After checking in we passed through security and into the waiting lounge.
A dense fog had enveloped the runway and it became clear that the remaining flights might be called off. A crowd of people gathered at the boarding gate to question the hostess.
I ate a couple of loperamide capsules hoping to ease my groaning stomach. After a while nature called and I ran to the toilet. A single, filth-smeared hole in the ground awaited, the only privacy a stoical downward gaze. Luckily I had brought my own roll of toilet paper. I washed my hands then quickly popped another couple of loperamide in attempt to quell the necessity of returning to that foul hellhole.
Around three hours had passed with no more clarity on the subject of whether anyone would get out of Lukla today. A grainy tv blasted out the build-up to a boxing match between Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez. I wasn’t sure of much at that moment but at least I now knew each fighters entire biography, from Triple G’s struggle, growing up on the mean streets of Karaganda, Kazakhstan to Canelo’s unexpected passion for horseback riding. The hours rolled by in purgatory; the tv was now showing a sumo tournament.
Finally a hostess appeared from behind the barrier. “Ladies and gentlemen…” she began.
Everyone in the waiting room immediately bolted towards the gates, tickets waving in the air. It was an terrible scene for the airline staff to deal with. I sidled up to a quieter counter and my paperwork was quickly processed. Half an hour later we cannoned down the runway and took off towards Kathmandu.
Back in Kathmandu
Kathmandu at rush hour can be a shock to the system after two weeks in an isolated rural paradise. The polluted air felt heavy on my chest as we hailed a cab back to the hotel.
That evening we decided to visit Swayambhunath, the monkey temple. I descended into a delerious state as my illness took hold with full force. Eventually I managed to tear myself away from the porcelain throne and stagger the mile or two to the temple, dosed up on loperamide.
The temple sits at the top of a steep hill, which according to Buddhist mythology, was raised by a bodhisattva, Manjushri. The legend goes, that his refusal to cut his hair led to a serious case of headlice, which then transformed into the infestation of monkeys you see today as you climb the sheer staircase towards the stupa.
Dusk closed in as we strolled amongst the ornate pagodas and golden statues. Vendors lit galaxies of tealights as we descended the steep staircase back to street level before returning to the hotel.
The following day we met Montana and Steph outside their hotel. The cab we had called turned into the street and screeched to a halt next to us, barely missing a couple of pedestrians.
The driver leaned out of the rolled-down window. “Mister Simon?”
I opened the door of the small hatchback and looked inside.”Steph you better go in the front, it will be like a monkey cage back there.”
The remaining four of us attempted to pile in and arrange our limbs inside the tiny cab. After a five minute game of human tetris we sped off along the narrow streets.
“How much to Bhaktapur?” said Robert.
“Can we do a fixed price?” I said. “We want to stop at the Boudhanath first.”
He considered for a second. “Three-hundred rupees return, sir.”
“It’s a deal.” said Montana.
We stopped after half an hour, on a nondescript street lined with the usual throng of locals.
“You call me when you’re ready,” the driver said, before speeding off.
We cut across the pathway and under an arch where the grand monument of the Boudhanath stupa stood before us. The massive structure had been badly damaged in the earthquake of 2015, but had now been fully restored. Over a hundred foot high, long prayer flag lines drooped from the golden central tower from which all-seeing Buddha eyes cast a permanent vigil. We spent about an hour there then called the taxi driver, who took us to Bhaktapur.
Bhaktapur is a town around eight miles from Kathmandu. Piles of rubble were visible throughout the ancient city’s network of streets, another grim reminder of the recent earthquake. As we roamed about, interesting artifacts appeared around every corner. The central streets were lined with shops and market stalls catering to both tourists and locals.
One particularly impressive monument was Nyatapola Temple, a five-tiered pagoda built in the 18th century in honour of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi.
Early in the evening the taxi driver returned to transport us through the rush hour gridlock of the city. We started talking about our flight home, which required a stop in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
“I used to work in Abu Dhabi,” said the taxi driver, looking over his shoulder.
“How was it?” said Si.
“Sir, very bad.” He said. “They are taking your passport away when you arrive. You are working very long hours. The bosses are stealing all your tips.”
He shook his head and moistened his throat. “Many people from Nepal are going there looking for a better life.”
“I heard working conditions can be terrible out there,” I said.
“Terrible, sir.” He said. “Very, very bad.” He braked suddenly to avoid a swerving moped, before roaring off again down the highway.
“I am very poor here now,” he said. “But I am happy.”
That night we went to a restaurant to toast Steph’s birthday. Walking the neon streets of Thamel I thought back to the taxi drivers comments and the increasing numbers of Nepalese people emigrating to the Middle East with the dream of digging themselves out of poverty. Away from the ancient temples and luxury Himalayan lodges, life is hard in Nepal. The travel industry is booming, post-earthquake, in this mountainous land and the country must ensure destinations like the Khumbu valley are not allowed to be sullied by the conveyor belt of irresponsible tourism.
The Everest region is a curious and unique place to visit and probably due its inaccessibility has remained relatively unspoiled compared to some areas in Nepal. We all have our own reasons for choosing particular trips, but I came to realize the real prize was the opportunity to walk these ancient lanes, craning your neck at every stop to the far golden peaks above.
There are greater physical challenges out there, altitude notwithstanding and the physical base camp when you arrive, is fairly uneventful. Standing in front of the Khumbu glacier however, serenaded only by the steady trickle of meltwater, I felt a strange draw. A curiosity had sunk its claws into me, to see what was behind the curtain and even now, I still desire to see what lies beyond.