These were the best and the worst two weeks of my life. Most joyful and fun, and most painful and low on oxygen:) As I completed the trek in the Himalayas, Nepal, I thought that I’d never do anything like this to myself EVER again. And right away started thinking of the next trek to do! Here are the best pictures and excerpts from the diary that I kept daily during those 16 days to the Everest Base Camp and Gokyo Lake.
DAY 00. KATHMANDU, NEPAL. NOVEMBER 2014
Me: blah-blah-blah..trekking trekking… where do I go? where do I get my head back? (well, at that time I was very distressed. So I wanted to do something physically and emotionally super challenging:)
My couchsurfing host Bimal: hmmm I think you should go to the Everest Base Camp.
Me: can I go tomorrow?
Bimal: hahaha nooo you need time to get ready!!!
Me: ok, tomorrow I get ready, the day after tomorrow I go!
My couchsurfer Bimal and his brother Bikram have a trekking agency Apex Himalaya. So I was lucky to get all the information and help in preparing. Bimal showed me a map of the trek and we planned out two options: just Everest Base Camp (12 days) or if I feel that I can do it, EBC + glacier lake Gokyo via Cho La Pass (16 days). I ended up doing the latter.
I showed Bimal what clothes/ equipment I had (or rather didn’t have). He let me borrow a bunch of his stuff and I also bought and rented some things. Read more about preparing for EBC trek here.
Late in the evening I met with my guide/porter, with whom I’d spend the next 2 weeks in the mountains – Dawa Sherpa. He JUST came back from a different trek, what a mountain man! I tried talking to him and realized, he really doesn’t speak much English. Oh my!
That night I was so anxious and excited, that I couldn’t fall asleep. We stayed up talking and drinking endless tea. Bimal told me about all the ‘fun’ stuff that happens to trekkers en route. Like acute mountain sickness (very dangerous!), stone falls, fractures… He asked if my insurance covered helicopter evacuation. Whaaat? We stayed up till well after 1am. I had jitters:)
DAY 1: KATHMANDU – LUKLA – PHAKDING (2,610 m above sea)
The alarm rang at 4am. I was anxious and alert, so I jumped up and got ready in an instant.
Midway to the airport (5am), our car got a flat tire. I was technically already late for the flight, but I just knew: it’s all gonna work out, this way or another.
In the airport I met up with my sherpa Dawa. We ended up waiting for at least 2 hours before taking off. Lukla is considered the most dangerous airport in the world. So the weather must be just perfect for landing there. It’s tiny and located on the edge of a cliff, so it’s almost a jeweler’s work to land! We flew in a 12-seater. Everyone was sort of scared to fly: we were all screaming, and exchanging comments, and filming, and nervously sucking on a candy they gave us.
… And so I’m in the Himalayas!!! We start trekking. It’s an easy day, going down a lot, just gaining a little elevation. It’s warm and green, cozy mountain villages scattered on the slopes, villagers tending to their crops. We see snow-covered peaks in the distance, that seem yet sooo far.
Yaks slowly carrying loads, their bells sounding dull, men hustling them with sticks, yelling in harsh voice ‘Cho! Cho!’
Not only yaks, but also men and women, young and old, carry immense loads strapped on their foreheads, up and down the mountains. They carry heavy furniture and construction materials, giant cases of beer and water, and what not! A lot of times they were surpassing us!
I was trying to communicate with my Sherpa, he really doesn’t speak English beyond few phrases… I noticed that when he doesn’t understand something, he always says ‘yes’. So I learnt quite a few Nepali/ Sherpa words and phrases to be able to communicate with the locals.
‘Jaru cha’ – cold, ‘Hawa’ – windy, ‘tatu’ – hot
‘Bistari janos’ – walking slowly
‘Deri ramro cha himali’ – beautiful (Himalaya) mountains:)
DAY 2: PHAKDING – NAMCHE BAZAR (3,440 M)
Survived my first night in the Himalayas. Feeling fine, just feet are a little zzzzzz.
Trekked for 5 hours and came to an amazing and busy mountain “city” Namche Bazar. It has many lodges, shops, restaurants and bars, a bank with ATM, a school, and what not!
This is a lodge where we stayed, on the very top of the valley, so the window view was stunning. The room is $2 a night!!! However, you MUST eat at the lodge, shower, wifi, charging and water are paid extra. Most trekkers stay at such lodges, tents (especially in the winter) are not very common.
The owner of the lodge. “I’m not Nepali, I’m Sherpa’ – she said.
This is what the dining/ hang out room looks like. All trekkers gather in the evening for dinner, to warm up by the stove (that they heat for a couple of hours in the evening) and to talk. We played UNO the entire evening with other trekkers.
I woke up in the middle of the night and realized that I was experiencing symptoms of the Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). That what I was really dreading. And it was only my second night! You need to be very very careful with that, and descend if it persists. My biggest fear was that I was going to get AMS and not make it…and you just never know how your body will react to altitude, so you can’t do anything…
Anyway, I had unusual fatigue in my limbs, nausea and a headache… I wanted to cry.
DAY 3: ACCLIMATIZATION DAY IN NAMCHE BAZAR (3,440 M)
Luckily, the next day was an acclimatization day, because we had already gained a 1,000m. But you’re still supposed to trek that day, go up and then descend.
So I was climbing a hill up, hardly walking, being super weak. Suddenly I hear ahead of me (in Russian): ‘Let’s gooo, we are Russians':) I got so excited, because I hadn’t met anyone from my home country yet, and this would be such an incredible place to meet!
So I mooed ‘Heeeey':) A minute into our conversation, they gave me an altitude sickness prevention pill (package in Hebrew, great!) I popped it, having full trust in my new friends:) Surprisingly, our routes were completely the same, so I joined their fun group and we did the entire trek together!
Seva, Nikolay and Vlad were trekking with a guide Pema Sherpa and two porters, 15 and 16 years old (!!!) First our Sherpas were not very happy joining our groups. They all have “their” places to stay and to eat, and apparently, they get some cut or something when they bring tourists. So now they’d have to compromise. But oh well…
I was so lucky to have met my new team. Talking to Dawa was getting harder and harder, because of the language barrier. I already had met many fellow trekkers on the way, but it’s definitely good to have your ‘permanent’ company, with whom you share joys and hardships of the road. Maybe it was the pill, maybe acclimatization day helped, maybe the spirits were up because of my new friends…but the symptoms were mostly gone and I was ready to conquer new heights!
After dinner we went to a bar (!) with free wifi (!!) We had some tea, because alcohol could probably kill you in the altitude. By 7.45pm I was already so tired and weak again, and ready for bed. Here you get up at like 5-6am and go to bed around 8-9pm.
DAY 4: NAMCHE BAZAR – TENGBOCHE (3,860 M)
Every morning you wake up and start listening to your body: do I have a headache? nausea? knees hurt? nose stuffed? I was coughing a lot and trekkers scared me: on low altitudes pneumonia develops within 70 days, here up high it’s a matter of just few hours! So gotta be careful:) Well, just listen to you body!
Majority population in Nepal are Hindu. Himalayas and Tibet – Buddhists. There’re a lot of these Stupas in the mountains. You should only walk them in a clock-wise direction. So pass it by on the left!
Before lunch we mostly descended and it was easy. After lunch it was a hard trek uphill, above the clouds.
Walking up is hard. Due to the altitude oxygen saturation in your blood becomes lower, you get short of breath even walking very slowly, can’t breathe with your full chest and can get dizzy. Plus it’s either super cold evenings or the midday sun is burning you. And it’s windy. So for me the key to keeping the pace and feeling good was proper breathing. I’d spend hours just meditating and working on the right breath:)
My technique was: breathe in on one step, breathe out on 2-3 steps. The slower breathing out, the better. Also, don’t breathe with your full chest, I think it’s called ‘shallow breathing’. It really helped me. Another technique - ‘pursed lips’, you breathe in through your nose and breathe out forcefully thru pressed lips. I work in a hospital and see these exercises being taught in a pulmonary rehab. Simple but powerful!
In the evening we visited a beautiful Tengboche monastery. But it was so cold (you have to take off your stinky trekking shoes:) and we were closely watched and expected to donate money.
That night I was so insanely cold. There was a crack in my window, which I should have paid attention to. But right with us there was this new born baby, and he was barefoot and hardly bundled, and didn’t make any noise… Tough Sherpa people!
DAY 5: TENGBOCHE – DINGBOCHE (4,440 M)
In the morning I had some sort of a breakdown. I guess the cold got into my bones permanently. And in general, thinking about life got me all sorry for myself:) But you can’t be sad too long with such beauty around! All in all, it was not a very difficult day hiking-wise.
The higher you go, the less fancy the tea houses get, of course. Everything is super basic and scarce. Food is same everywhere: rice and potatoes, and lot’s of garlic soup, which is said to help with altitude sickness. Stoves are warmed up for a couple of hours during dinner time, then they get cold and everyone goes to bed. Warm stove always gathers people around:)
After Namche Bazar there’s no wood to fuel the stoves. What fuels them? Yak shit! All over you see these ‘burgers’ drying in the sun. They are then collected and fed into the stove. Sherpas just grab them with their bare hands, then handle your food right after, and what not:)
DAY 6: ACCLIMATIZATION DAY IN DINGBOCHE: TO CHUKUNG RI (5,550 M)& BACK
So today we were supposed to acclimatize to another 1,000m gain and trek to the highest point of the trip – mount Chukung Ri 5,550m! Now it’s more ice peaks around, air is more fresh. You feel the altitude, walking very very slowly. But with my breathing and walking techniques I’m like a Russian tank – very slow but very consistent, I don’t even need breaks/ stops. So I get to places before others sometimes:)
Ice and rocks, ice and rocks. Practically no greenery/ plants any more…
So we set ourselves for an exhausting killer hike that day. All of a sudden, our two guides point at a hill, claiming that was where we were going, mount Chikung Ri.. We were taken aback. Already? Time-wise and distance-wise it was still so early to reach it! I mean, that would be nice, because we were tired (always!) but…. is that it?
So we climbed that hill, beautiful surroundings, but the hill itself had no prayer flags or markers or anything, pretty unimpressive. Both sherpas swore that that was it. Logic and facts indicated otherwise. So did other trekkers. Nikolay insisted moving forward, but we already lost time figuring things out, it was time to go back in fact. So Nikolay took one sherpa guide and went on. He reached another hill, probably Chukung Ri. We just returned to Dengboche. The situation with the guides left a bad taste in our mouths, because they lied, apparently not wanting to go this far…
Temperature at night dropped below 0°C, in the morning I found water in my mug frozen. By the way, I always take batteries out of my camera for the night and put them in my sleeping bag, so that they don’t lose charge as fast.
DAY 7: DINGBOCHE – LOBUCHE (4,910 M)
We start seeing quite a lot of rescue helicopters in the air. That means that someone got sick and no longer will be trekking and needs help. This is so scary. Many of us are experiencing headaches. Is that altitude sickness? Where’s a fine line between taking an ibuprofen and calling a helicopter?:) Good question!
We are all sick all the time. Headaches – yes! My nose is running so bad, I have to blow it (excuse me!) every five seconds. I have sinusitis. We all are popping pills like crazy! In those two weeks we all probably took as many pills and we usually take within a year! Plus every morning we do our “drug routine”: take altitude sickness prevention pills, vit C and B complex.
Our group was joined that day by two French Canadian guys (on the left). By the end of the day, though, they had to leave us and go down, because one of them was getting sicker and weaker. See, and he is a strong healthy young man! Altitude sickness is such a bitch!
This is a typical lunch setup. You have to stay hydrated and obviously you can’t drink cold water, so we drank endless hot teas. Thermoses of them. By now everyone is so sick of it, but we have at least 30-40 more thermoses to go:)
We are always the funnest and loudest corner at every lodge. I say, I was trekking to half death and I was laughing to half death:) Humor and laughing really really helped me to get through!
In the evening I took the most terrifying shower in my life! You pay 500 rupees ($5) and you get a bucket of hot water. The shower is outside. And although the water is warm, it’s super freezing, you see your own breath. I was the only one in the lodge who took a shower that night! In fact, it’s kind of normal when people don’t take showers for the entire hike like this (like 12 days or so)! They just use wet wipes… However I couldn’t go see the Everest the next day with not so fresh hair;)
DAY 8: LOBUCHE – GORAK SHEP – MT. KALA PATTHAR (5,545 M) – GORAK SHEP (5,140M)
Today was the most difficult day in my life! Physically and psychologically…
The first half of the day was super hard for me, I fell behind a few times. It was up and down, and it was purely ice and rocks. One of the trekkers had oximeter (little device measuring oxygen saturation in blood). We all measured ours. First, it couldn’t even take mine. My hands were so cold, it probably didn’t recognize a live body in me:) Then it said 82%. Aaaah! With such a number patients usually get oxygen masks/ tanks at the hospitals. And we just carried on up up up:)
After lunch we started our trek to the highest and probably most significant point of the trek: Mount Kalapatthar 5545m! We were going there for the sunset♥ I was practicing slow but steady walking; also my breathing techniques: shallow breathing and pursed lips. That works! Never ever in my life I was so focused on what I was doing. Every step and every breath was a result of immense concentration of my mind and my body.
Right before the top was the part “made” of big boulders, so you had to climb/ jump on them. At that point I was so ready to give up. I felt like my muscles and lungs maxed out, and the only thing that was moving me was my determination. In the very end I couldn’t speak. When my sherpa asked me (he saw I was like a zombie:) if I was ok, I just mooed. With my last steps I burst tears with a persistent thought: ‘Why am I so f***ing stubborn? Why do I need to do that to myself??’ Oh man, a sissy moment!
BUT I got to the top first from our group! What a stubborn girl. Go figure:)
It gets freezing cold in an instant. I put on aaall the clothes I had. Two pairs of gloves, hat, scarf, fleeces, wind-breaker, down jacket:)
It got dark in no time. We were the last to descend. It was in complete darkness. When it was already pitch-dark, we sat down for a moment just to take it in. The sky was flooded with the stars. Shooting stars. The moon was soo young and thin. And around you – the freaking Himalayas. And a ringing silence… And cold… So monumental! I will never forget this moment!
DAY 9: GORAK SHEP – EVEREST BASE CAMP (5,364 M) – GORAK SHEP – LOBUCHE
Although yesterday was the highest and the most badass peak, today we are going to the legendary place – Everest Base Camp. It also has the word ‘Everest’ in it, so it sounds cooler:)
These are the views you get on the way: ice ice, ice caves. If yetis exist, this is where they live! The trek was pretty tough, up and down, endless boulders, very windy.
Aaaand we are here! The place itself is nothing crazy. You don’t even get a decent view of the Everest. There’s a sign ‘Everest Base Camp 5364m’ and lots of prayer flags. However, in these moments it’s not always the view that counts (although, hands down, the Himalayas are mesmerizing!), it’s the achievement, and how much work and effort you put it it. How much you challenged yourself!
When we came down, noone could speak or move much. I was super dehydrated. And headaches! We had to get out of that altitude, and soon! Even Sherpas, the mountain men, can’t spend much time at the altitude of 5,000m. Noone lives permanently there, they rotate.
Well, a hot garlic soup and a Snickers brought me back to life, and we descended further, to Lobuche. Phew! That night they gave me a bucket of boiling hot water, and I found that out only when I got undressed in the cold already. So I almost burnt myself when freezing cold. Always check the water!:)
DAY 10: LOBUCHE – DZHONGLA (4,830 M)
Today was a fairly short trekking day (like 5 hrs). The sun is burning hot and we are surrounded by icy rocks. Surreal:)
One of the happiest moments was when I walked in my room in the lodge, as we arrived, and it was WARM. I could sit in the room in just couple of shirts and squint in the sun and not shiver. Almost a forgotten feeling!
However, this was the coldest night so far! I put on literally everything I had. Including the down coat. And I had my thick North Face sleeping bag and I took two blankets. And I had this pad that warms up for few hours when you pop it. Still I couldn’t fall asleep because I was shivering. Then I just fell in some sort of unconscious state, delirium. I was sick. Water froze…
I think the biggest challenge during this trek is cold. If it’s hard to ascend the hill, you stop and rest. I also learnt to regulate my breathing. Muscles are already toned by now. But I can’t fight the cold, it’s in my bones by now. In the evening I am literally terrified to go to my room and try to fall asleep. I spent quite a few toilet paper rolls blowing my nose. I also got a sinus infection and asked to boil two potatoes and was warming up my sinuses with them. BUT the beauty around is so worth it, I try to take it all in and enjoy every bit!
DAY 11: DZHONGLA – VIA CHO LA PASS – DRAGNAG (4,700 M)
Another day that I was dreading:) We were going over a very slippery and unsafe glacier pass. First you climb up quite high, jumping the boulders.
Then you walk on snow crust and ice. Needless to say, it’s very slippery and we walk very very carefully.
Then you see a huge glacier. It’s stunning. And a little scary. We had to walk on it’s edge. To the left is a rock hanging over you, to the right is a icy cliff dropping down. And you walk on a thin icy-snowy path. No helicopter will help you here!
I had bought spikes in Kathmandu, specially for this day. But both guides said, oh no you won’t need them! So I didn’t put them on in advance. And it was too late to put them on on the glacier itself (you can’t stop and unpack…) However, I don’t think my spikes were of a high quality and they could probably slip easily and made it worse. Who knows now. The safety net was moving very slowly, making every step steady. Using trekking poles for fixture. And hoping!:)
After the glacier you climb a very icy and rocky hill. Exhausting.
Once we were on top, we were so worn off. And it was insanely windy, we could hardly stand in one place. On the picture we hardly even manage to smile, although we completed the climb:)
Then there is a long long and actually difficult descend. Difficult, because you have to jump from stone to stone, and they are wobbly and unsafe. So you have to feel out every stone before putting your weight on it. Tires you out! But the stones are so beautiful, of different colors. We just wanted to take all of them home!
One time I fell on my wrist, and one time twisted my knee painfully. But all in all, it’s alright. Well, for quite some time now (from first days actually), I had painful left ankle. But it’s tolerable. I think because it’s always so cold, the ankle is just frozen. So it’s natural anesthetic:) And I ran out of bandaids trying to fix blisters. Not that they even help much.
DAY 12: DRAGNAG – GOKYO RI (5, 360 M) – GOKYO (4,790 M)
Today is the last difficult day. And it was pretty tough indeed! In the morning we had to walk through some f@#$ing crazy glacier pit. You descend and walk among endless rockfalls. Basically, if something starts falling, you can’t even do much!
We divided and walked in groups of three, still keeping distance from one another. No talking was allowed. My heart was racing and I sweated from adrenaline, although it wasn’t exactly hot as you can guess. We saw multiple unstoppable rock falls on the opposite side, but thanks God nothing happened to us!
Last hill to take before we see the gorgeous lake Gokyo.
Finally we arrive at the lake glacier Gokyo, the sole reason of extending our trip and rerouting after the Everest Base Camp. It’s stunningly turquoise, a hidden gem among the icy mountains. It’s a sacred lake, so swimming is not allowed. Not that you want that anyway:)
After lunch we were to climb our last big mountain – Gokyo Ri (5,360m) to watch the sunset over the Everest for the last time. We were told that the hike was even harder than the one to Mt. Kalapathar, and I hardly made that one. Yes, it wasn’t an easy climb. But we were all focused and mobilized our energies, so we made it. Stubbornness is a sport:)
Unlike Kalapatthar, Gokyo Ri is hot such a “hot” tourist spot. Besides us there was only one more hiker. So it was a very private viewing of the Everest sunset:) It was cold and windy, but still we stayed till the last rays of sun.
Whooshhh! Again, it was all shades of gold and red. The true Top of the World, Mt. Everest 8,848 M. The locals call it Mt. Chomolungma.
We descended again in the dark and nature’s deepest silence.
DAY 13: GOKYO – DOLE
I must admit it: at this point we are so ready to go down and thaw a little bit. It’s been so beautiful and exciting, expectations are by far exceeded. But feeling frozen and sick all the time wears you out. So secretly we are all excited to descend!
Gradually some vegetation appears again. We see yaks grazing. The icy caps are more in the distance, rather then around now. The air starts being filled with smells again. It smells like honey. But the road becomes very dusty, so you need to wear a buff over your nose and mouth.
DAY 13: DOLE – NAMCHE BAZAR
As usual, you wake up at 6am. Pack your stuff: by now you know exactly where every little thing belongs. Put sunscreen on your face with frozen fingers. Breakfast with yet another mint tea. And off you go.
We’ve been anticipating going back to Namche Bazar for so long. Namche is a unique place: it’s in the middle of nowhere (well, Himalayas!) but it’s like a metropolis, with its endless shops, bakeries, hotels, even a bank and a barber shop! And yaks lazily walking through the streets.
All school kids in Nepal wear uniforms, even in the mountains. Sometimes, they have to walk up for a good hour or a few to get to their school in the neighboring village!
Football is a universal religion! And what a view: fog creeping over the mountain tops.
In the evening we drank a bottle of cognac, which was probably the most deserved drink in my life:) But don’t drink alcohol higher up, it might be lethal! Also, after a few vegetarian weeks (rice, potatoes and garlic soups) we were delighted to try some yak steak! Of course it was more of a suspicious looking burger-like patty, but ketchup made it all good:)
DAY 15: NAMCHE BAZAR – LUKLA (2,610 M)
Last day of trekking!!! And finally as we descend, our bodies get more and more oxygen…and we feel soooo strong! All that weakness up there was not even muscle tiredness from hiking, it was from oxygen deprivation! Oh my, today I ran up any hills like a goat:) I am not out of breath and muscles are so toned now! I really feel that right now I could run and finish my dream race – New York City Half-Marathon.
This is one of the many Himalayan hanging bridges. You can’t see on the picture, but the drop down is very steep and deadly. Anyway we were jumping like kids on these bridges, swinging and looking down.
This is how the houses are built here: every brick is made from a boulder. Must be taking them a day or more to make one brick like that!
DAY 16: FLYING LUKLA – KATHMANDU :)
And again – Lukla, the most dangerous airport in the world! We were waiting for at least three hours for the perfect weather conditions in Kathmandu. Then 12 passengers get onboard. Engine on, the runway is max 50 meters (150ft) long and whooosh, the plane takes off. No, first it actually drops down the cliff. And then it soars up. Terrifying, and beautiful! You’re surrounded by the icy mountain tops…
Would I go again? – I ask myself on the plane? Hell NO! – is the first thought! At least for now, as long as I still remember the terrifying cold showers outside, headaches at nights, nails cracking from cold… BUT it was 1000s times ‘better’ than it was ‘worse’! It was the best of times, it was the worst of times!
I went to clear my head, think about my life and find some answers. Well, I definitely didn’t think much about my specific questions, much rather about not tripping on the next boulder. Also… some questions just proved to be irrelevant. THIS was so real. THIS, life and nature around me, was the truth. It was so… RAW.
P.S. Some of the above descriptions seem a little too dramatic to me now:) But I decided not to base my story on the memories as of now, rather on the real logs from my diary. So these emotions and thoughts were particularly there and then! It’s easy just to describe the magic of the sunset, sitting in a warm room in Brooklyn. When in fact, what bothered me most on that day was cold and breathing.
It was NOT my first time in the mountains, and definitely not my first time hiking. I am not an athlete, but I am also not out of shape. I do think, though, that I have an increased cold sensitivity (more than others). But otherwise…that’s the story of how it really was:) HAPPY HIKING EVERYONE♥