“Ugh my head hurts. It’s 4 am and this place is freezing cold, the guy in the next room is coughing up blood, and my brain feels like it’s been filled with cement. Life is not fun at 16,000 feet.”
- Nick (Day 8)
We HAD to do a trek in Nepal. It was the perfect cap to our Asian travels. The difficult decision came down to which trek to attempt. We were flopping between two famous routes until we had dinner with a Portugese climbing guide in Kathmandu. This was his answer to our question about which route to take:
“Well, I have been on the Annapurna circuit for years and it’s beautiful. You circle around these gorgeous mountains for two weeks and climb some fantastic passes. I have also guided the Khumbu trip over forty six times and last year I summited the highest peak in the world, so you would think I would be burnt out, but no. I always choose to go back to Sagamartha, it’s like nothing you will experience anywhere else.”
With those words we were sold, and frankly, after reading John Krakauer’s mesmerizing bestseller “Into Thin Air,” we couldn’t resist the siren song of the tallest mountain in the world. For the next sixteen days we would attempt to climb through the Khumbu valley to the base of a mountain the locals call Sagamartha, known to the rest of he world as Mt Everest.
A quick note: Just want to emphasize that we were only planning on climbing to the relative safety of Everest Base Camp, not the extremely dangerous, time consuming, and expensive attempt at summiting the damn thing. That’s for crazy people. Also, we are changing things up and this post will be excerpts from the journals we kept along the way. Cortney and I are both indicated by a tiny photo of our face from each corresponding day. Enjoy.
DAY 1 Lukla (2840m) – Monjo (2835m)
Wow. That is one hell of an entrance. I literally said that when we landed in Lukla. Better than any amusement park ride x 10. Our tiny plane took off from the Kathmandu airport at 7 am this morning. It flew parallel to the mountain range for about 20 minutes and then suddenly banked and headed straight at them. We flew only a few hundred feet over rising hills as giant snow covered peaks came into view and then zoomed over our heads. This is the most excited I’ve been in a long time.
Whoa we just landed on an incline at the edge of a fucking cliff! Badass! This cool air is so fresh and clean and wait, wait…do you hear that? Neither do I! There are no cars, no motorcycles, no vehicles anywhere. And, it’s soooo green! Seriously, this is breathtaking.
I can’t tell if this lightheadedness is from sheer excitement or the Masala tea we just drank. Or is it the altitude? Meh, who cares were in the Himalayas!
Damn those people coming back from the mountain look beat down like a bunch of sweaty, bearded zombies. The couple we just talked to looked exhausted and they only went on a week-long hike.
I think our guide, Kancha, is proud that we kept walking today. We we’re only supposed to trek to Phakding, but we made it to Monjo, no problems. I know it’s only day one but I think Nick and I just might turn out to be badasses.
DAY 2 Monjo (2840m) – Namche Bazzar (3440m)
No one described how fertile the landscape is. The locals all grow barley, potatoes, and rice along the path. The wind blows so softly through long, green strands of wheat. I guess this makes sense since the Himalayas are actually on the same latitude as Miami, Florida, only difference is they are 10,000 to 30,000 feet higher.
Every few minutes, a chorton will split the path. Out of respect, we always walk to the left of it. It’s important in the Buddhist religion to walk clockwise around chortons, temple shrines, and other objects of religious significance. Even the prayer wheels must always be spun clockwise.
Each time we circumnavigate a roadblock or spin a colorful prayer wheel, Kancha and the other buddhist porters merrily chant, “Om Mani Padme Hom.” In effort to avoid butchering the translation of their beautiful and complex mantra, I’ll just say that its six syllables represent the purification of the six realms of existence according to Buddhism – generosity, ethics, patience, diligence, renunciation, and wisdom. It’s a mortal attempt to transform one’s mind, body, and soul to that of a Buddha. We’ve even started saying it. It’s nice.
Walking over the river bridges is a great way to overcome a fear of heights! At 150 feet we can see through the metal walkway down to the roaring blue waters of the river below us. Even the naks (what you get when a yak and cow do it) cross the bridges carrying their huge loads. Make no mistake though, they’re dropping plenty of loads of their own.
Porters / sherpas – are incredible. As we shoulder our ergonomically designed 20 lb packs they walk briskly by with 100 lb baskets strapped to their backs supported almost entirely with a strap around their heads.
We hiked down to the river bed, crossing more swaying steel cables over a blue frothy river. Our lungs are getting a thorough cleansing after too much time in big dusty cities. The last two hours of the day were spent climbing a steep switch back up to Namche Bazar. Just before we hit the village we get our first look at some BIG mountains, including Everest. They don’t look too far away, but we know it will be seven more days until we reach them.
Namche seems like a poor man’s mountain ski town. Nice and friendly with decent tea houses. After today’s hike we are starting to stink, and there’s not a shower in sight.
DAY 3 Namche Bazzar (3440m)
Today was a rest and acclimatization day. We are experiencing grogginess and shortness of breath, but beside that we feel pretty good. This is about as high in altitude that I have ventured. Anything after this is a milestone for us in reaching new heights.
We took a five hour trek around the country side. The last usable runway for planes is above Namche. We watch a few tiny prop planes come in for sketchy landings. They are ferrying people to the only really nice hotel up here, the Japanese owned Everest View Hotel. We stop for tea and it’s absolutely stunning; the hotel looks into a valley that is home to a staggering view. Gigantic snow capped peaks ring the area – Everest, Nuptse and Ama Dablam are a colossal picket fence in front of the Himalayas. We take in the view and the sunny, virtually cloudless day.
On our way back, rescue helicopters are constantly buzzing back and forth through the valley. This makes us a tad bit nervous.
The hike to the Everest View Hotel is amazing. I especially like watching the 4-seater planes land and take off on that tiny dirt landing strip. Yikes.
We took a stroll through Khum Jung village and checked out the HIllary School. Classes were in session and we got to peek through the windows at the young Nepali students at their desks. The children up here are adorable. Their perpetually wind-burned cheeks are bright crimson red and their smiles gleam brightly from ear to ear.
Yep, I’m getting pretty good at peeing in a hole. Luckily, there are plenty of outdoor bathrooms at the various tea houses along the trek so I haven’t had to do many nature calls out in the elements. The poop-infested outhouse at the Hillary School, however, made peeing in the woods look like five-star luxury. Defecation etiquette isn’t part of Edmund’s curriculum.
Speaking of corn, the food at these tea houses is surprisingly good. The menus offer a wide range of meals from the classic Nepali dal bhat to a funny version of chicken a la king to banana pancakes.
I went to wash my face after dinner tonight and got the worst case of brain freeze I’ve ever experienced. When the ice cold water hit my eye lids I felt as though I’d just shoved two ice cubes into my sockets.
DAY 4 Namche Bazzar (3440m) – Tengboche (3860m)
Kancha brings us tea every morning with a smile. It’s fantastic. He’s not only our guide and porter but a mini mountain butler. We pack our shit and eat a carb filled breakfast; this morning was french toast.
We leave Namche and hike a path that slowly elevates, then drops, then back up again. We quickly realize that our days of gently rolling trails are behind us. The river moves below us into the clouds and we start seeing less and less trees. While the sun is shining I steal a quick pseudo shower under a river fed pipe.
As the sun and temperature drop, we make it to the town of Tengboche. Cortney pets a baby yak and we check into a more primitive looking tea house than the day before.
We’re getting so high that the tree line is starting to fade in the distance. Everything is still colorful and beautiful, but the landscape seems to be drying out a little.
We visited the Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Tengboche and got to observe the monks chant and pray. It’s so peaceful – sitting and listening to their mantras. We sat cross-legged for almost 20 minutes, mesmerized by their graceful chorus. Then, just as the room went silent and each of us were numb with tranquility, the peace was broken by a guy wielding the loudest camera in the world. Thanks, loud dude in the Nepali mountain monastery, for embarrassing all of us other westerners and ruining our moment of zen. And, also, for giving us something to laugh about.
We ate dessert before dinner at a tiny bakery in the village. I’m not sure if my stomach problems were sparked from the chocolate cake and apple pie or the enormous plate of noodles I gorged on that evening; but, one thing is certain – my stomach hates me. I can’t sleep. My tummy screams each time I change positions and this cocoon of a sleeping bag is trapping my toxic, sulfuric farts. I’m grossing myself out.
DAY 5 Tengboche (3860m) – Dingboche (4410m)
Woke up this morning to floating mountains. They are everywhere; hanging over the monastery, sliding into puffy clouds, playing hide and seek in the valley. The clouds continued to build throughout the day, but refused to cover the peak of Ama Dablam. Thus far, it’s my favorite. It has a narrow pointy peak that looks like those triangle shaped erasers you stick on the end of pencils. It’s amazing to think that people can actually climb to the summit, it doesn’t really look possible.
There is a downside to the beautiful mountain scenery; I’m starting to feel the altitude. I have a headache now and a growing pressure in the back of my skull. Maybe I can sleep it off. Hopefully.
I can’t believe we’ve climbed over 500 meters higher today. That’s almost 2,000 feet! The trek took us around winding grassy paths and through colorful rhododendron forests. Here in Dingboche, however, things are beginning to look rather arid.
All day long, helicopters were flying to and from the hospital in Pheriche, just down the mountain from Dingboche. Beyond this point, lots of folks are suffering from altitude-related problems. Nick has been complaining about mild headaches.
We ate dinner with two journalists this evening. They told us, “Stay in this village as long as you can because it gets miserably cold from here.” I’ve made more than 10 trips to the outside bathroom tonight and I can safely say that it’s miserably cold already. Especially when it’s pitch black and I’m battling a nasty case of diarrhea. So much for sleeping.
DAY 6 Dingboche (4410m)
I wiped the fog from our bedroom window pane after a sleepless night. The most majestic sunrise was reflecting off the mountains of Island Peak and the feathery clouds enveloping it glowed like something out of a movie. It was so surreal that I leapt out of bed (still cramping from my pitiful bowels), threw on my jacket, and grabbed the camera hoping to snap a shot of this fantastic sight. I burst through the teahouse doors and lifted the camera. And, the mountains were gone. Clouds and fog had gobbled it up.
Nick and I feel like shit. His head is pounding and my intestines are very angry with me. We have to stay here today and acclimatize. Kancha is worried, I can tell. Maybe if we can just sleep a little this morning, we’ll feel better.
We take a short hike up a nearby hill this afternoon. Just before we reach the top, my bowels decide to do another gymnastics routine. I had to go, badly. I couldn’t wait. Nick helped me find a rock and some stubby bushes along the side of the mountain. He kept a lookout for other trekkers and stood next to me while I pooped a foul liquid down the side of the mountain. He even helped me kick dirt over it. Romantic stuff, huh?
My head hurts and I didn’t get much sleep. Being a mountain man kinda sucks. They say not to take too many meds because they mask important signs of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) that you need to be aware of. But I really want an Advil or something stronger. Also, I’m feeling a bit nauseas. Kancha says, “Drink more tea” – this is his solution to any ailment.
We learn that three or four trekkers and climbers die every year from altitude sickness, even as low as 3000 meters. The worst condition is an edema, a swelling of the brain or fluid in the lungs. We want to avoid that, as it’s a sure sign you’ll be on your way to a $10,000 helicopter ride down the mountain.
I helped Cort with some “intestinal issues” on the mountain. It was a serious bonding experience.
Just before we go to bed, we hear of an 83-year-old climber who has just succumbed to the peak of Everest. He was trying to be the oldest to summit the worlds tallest mountain, but it’s now the first death of the climbing season.
DAY 7 Dingboche (4410m) – Lobuche (4910m)
Kancha woke us up early. Holy shit, all the mountains were visible. I forgot my head for a moment and took in the view. It makes all the inconveniences worthwhile.
We hiked down to a river and see our first glacial ice flow in the mountains. Things are getting quite a bit colder and more barren. Cort and I are starting to wear our gloves, jacket, and animal themed hats most of the day. On the flip side, we felt better while hiking and get close to 17,000 feet.
Some other people we meet are definitely not feeling chipper. They are struggling up the mountain at a snails pace and some have to stop due to more serious AMS signs. We hear from someone about crossing the Cho La Pass, which we will attempt in a few days. It’s sounds amazing… and dangerous. More rescue helicopters keep buzzing overhead.
My improved health was a fickle tease. After dinner my headache and nausea come back. I can’t sleep at the moment and I hope we don’t have to turn back.
The path to Lobuche is wide and rocky. The terrain is changing quickly. The evergreens and rhododendrons are replaced by dry, squatty bushes, rock moss, and boulders the size of houses. It’s officially cold all of the time. Until now, we’ve had to shed layers within the first hour of trekking. Now, we can’t dream of parting with a single thread.
We stop to rest in the village of Dughla – which consists of a single teahouse. We speak to several folks suffering from AMS symptoms or that have friends in the Periche hospital, down the mountain. People like us aren’t engineered for this kind of altitude.
Nick and I pant and climb in a cold sweat for 200 meters until we reach a clearing of tombstones and memorials of climbers past. We pose next to a chorten dedicated to Scott Fischer as snow drifts swirl from the windy mountaintops above us.
No sleep for anyone tonight in the plywood teahouse. We can hear trekkers tossing and turning in their sleeping bags throughout the night.
DAY 8 Lobuche (4910m) – EBC (5364m) – Gorek Shep (5100m)
Meds are wonderful. Took some Ibuprofen last night and with the addition of more time at altitude I’m feeling much better today. Cort is as strong as ever. Her stomach is better and she is bouncing around.
We have no idea how the yaks make it over the trail, which has deconstructed into a rocky jagged assemblage of granite, pebbles, and ice. But they make it. We hear the bells tinkling in the distance and then these woolen beasts come barreling down the mountain. Heads down and breathing hard under their load, they clomp over the path as we scramble to get out of the way.
We made it to Gorek Shep following the start of the Khumbu ice flow. It’s apparently hundreds of feet deep and moves several feet a day. Just a massive amount of ice and rock.
We drop our packs, grab some tea for lunch, and high tail it to Everest Base Camp – a three hour hike away and at an altitude of 18,000 feet.
Man, I feel great! Nick seems to be doing much better, too. I love drugs.
It’s rockier and icier than ever. We hop rocks and power up gigantic boulders for several kilometers on our way up. Nick and I are mere specs in an enormous wasteland lined with thin streams of ice melt.
EBC (Everest Base Camp) is a series of tents and flags surrounded by a belt of white mountain peaks. Bluebird skies and uninterrupted sunshine are a nice relief from the bitterly cold winds. From here, we can see the leaning seracs on the Khumbu Icefall and we watch climbers make their way up and down the mountain carrying supplies to the brave souls attempting to summit. The loud cracks from the glacial ice are shocking. We’re standing on a glacier!!
We pass some Pakistani summiters on our way back to Gorak Shep and congratulate them. Maybe I can summit some day.
DAY 9 Gorek Shep (5100m) – Kalla Pattar (5550m) – Lobuche (4910m)
Early start this morning, and it’s COLD! We slept at an extremely high altitude, over 17,500 feet, but we both feel pretty good. On the other hand, I can’t believe how the Everest climbers can do this in a little tent for an entire month and 5000 – 8000 feet higher.
Some of our trekking mates didn’t fare as well. Through the paper thin walls we heard a guy next door puking and coughing all night. He had serious AMS symptoms and as soon as daylight appeared he was helped down the mountain by his guides.
After making it to Base Camp the previous day, we feel like we can actually make it all the way. We started strolling along a sandy plain but soon found ourselves facing a giant pile of rubble. We slowly scrambled up the loose rocks and caught sight of Everest peak for the first time. It loomed dark and back in the clear blue sky. There would be climbers making their final summit attempt thousands of feet above us.
Our toes and knuckles are freezing cold as we hike up to Kala Pathar to see the sun rise over Mt Everest. The frost on the moss-covered ground sparkles as the light peaks over the mountaintops and through the canyon floors. I’m glad it’s beautiful because the going is slow and tiring.
Kala Pathar is different from the other mountains we’ve trekked. Visually speaking, the mountain itself is little more than a very tall heap of rocks and jagged stones. But, it’s the highest we’ve ever been and the highest we’ll ascend on this entire trek – 18,200 feet. With Tibet on the horizon, the breathtaking views of Everest, Lhotse, and Nuptse are sprinkled with streams of colorful prayer flags fluttering in the wind. Kancha helped me tie up a prayer flag in memory of my mother.
We eventually waved goodbye to Everest and made our way back down to Lobuche. It was an exhausting and emotional day.
Hey, that thing on my nose isn’t a zit, I’ve realized. It’s a huge sun blister. And it fucking hurts! I’ll have to cover my face for the rest of the trip and triple-up on the sunscreen. Damn, Sun! You’re harsh!
DAY 11 Lobuche (4910m) – Cho La Pass (5330m) – Thangnak (4700m)
Two big challenges down and a couple more to go. We were excited about tackling what we expected to be the most difficult day of the trek. Kancha prepped our gear while the Indian guy to our right had his head on the breakfast table and looked like he wanted to be anywhere but on a mountain.
We walked towards the Cho La Pass, which would take us into the Gokyo region of the national park. We just heard that a young solo trekker died on the pass a few days ago. This was a scary thought, but we had great confidence in Kancha, and that turned out to be a good bet.
The day is beautiful, there are less and less people on the trail and we can see the entire mountain range. We hug a mountain for a few hours at 4900 meters. As we turned the final bend we entered a corridor that seemed to stop at a wall of mountains. Kancha pressed on ahead.
As we neared the mountain ahead it looked like we would be climbing straight up. Then Kancha took us between a few large boulders and over a stream. Above us appeared a narrow rocky path. Our route to the high, snow covered Cho La Pass.
We met an experienced climber who had just traversed the pass. He had large multi-layered boots with metal crampons. He told us that it was very dangerous and he wouldn’t cross the pass without the gear he had. We only had ski gloves and trail running shoes. We crossed our fingers and moved higher.
What a day! 12 hours of trekking the most amazing and dangerous terrain I’ve ever tackled.
We began hiking through a valley with soft streams of cascading water and ended at the top of a mountain overlooking a snow-covered Cho La Pass. Nick and I followed Kancha’s every footstep being careful not to wander off his snowy trench. One wrong step and we could easily fall 20 meters to our deaths.
After our premature celebration of completing the snowy trail we were silenced by the shock of the steep descent awaiting us. The mountain below was a jumbled mess of snow, rock, and ice set on a 50-degree decline. A few hundred butt slides and ungraceful maneuvers later, we made it to the bottom in one piece. And, we did it all without crampons. Awesome? Yes. Stupid? Probably.
After several more exhausting hours of hiking, we finally arrived at a teahouse. At dinner this evening we met a French trekker with a horrifically mangled face. Just yesterday he had taken a wrong turn on the Cho La Pass causing him to lose his way. He slipped from the path and smashed his face on a rock. The sun set and he was forced to sleep in the elements under a boulder sheltering him from falling rocks. He is lucky to be alive. I’m glad we have Kancha.
DAY 13 Gokyo (4790m) – Gokyo Ri (5360m) – Machermo (4410m)
Great stay at Gokyo. Delicious food, nice people and a relaxing environment. But it was time to tackle our last steep climb and then make our way back to civilization. Up until today the weather was perfect, blue skies and the occasional cloud cover. Today was quite different. The morning was blanketed with fog and rolling clouds and things didn’t get much better as we started our climb up to the top of Gokyo Ri.
Three hours later and nothing in sight but water vapors we made it to the top. After resting and feeding the birds some crackers we were about to give up and head down when the clouds suddenly opened up. For ten minutes we could see all the surrounding mountains and into the Gokyo valley. It was magical, inspirational, and then it was gone. Time to start the long trip down.
The hike up to Gokyo Ri sucks at 6AM. It’s a steep incline and the fog refused to let up. We eventually reached the top and were rewarded with 10 minutes of spectacular mountain views. Mount Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Kangchenjunga, and Cho Oyu were shining in the distance. And then, they were gone.
After a slippery descent down the mountainside, we grabbed our bags and headed to Machermo – quant village dotted with log cabins and yak herds. After checking into the teahouse, we warmed ourselves by a stove powered by yak poop. Within minutes, it starts to snow.
DAY 16 Lukla (2800m) – Kathmandu (1400m)
I can’t believe it’s our last day. The sun is shining and the aircrafts begin pouring onto the runway preparing for their daily back and forth.
We quickly board our plane to Kathmandu. The engines buzz loudly and we begin accelerating down the sloped runway. It’s a strange feeling – knowing you’re being launched off the edge of a cliff. But, we survive it and are soon flying past the same majestic mountain scape we saw coming in. And, it’s still as amazing as ever.
Civilization at last! Well, not quite the Starbucks on every corner civilization, but close enough. There’s streets, cars, dubious fast food – and holy mother of God, a hot shower. I think Cortney and I took a cumulative ten showers today. It was glorious.
After surfing the web, drinking 6 cups of coffee and thanking Kancha profusely, we reflected on our trip. This was by far one of the highlights of 7 months in Asia. The people of Japan are incredible, China is mind-blowing, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos are beautiful and mystical, Thailand is unfinished business for us, India is, well, India, but Nepal – Nepal is beyond words.
It’s so rugged and mysterious. The people are always smiling and welcoming. The history is fascinating. But the mountains – the mountains are king. Gorgeous, powerful mountains that seem to attract people like moths to a flame. The place makes you work to appreciate it and doesn’t offer up it’s treasures easily. We will definitely be back to Nepal, we will return to the Himalayas, and after days of trekking we will once again smell worse than the yaks. We wouldn’t have it any other way.