‘Are you struggling today Gemma? Not feeling too well?’
The truth was, I was about to cry. Yep, there it was. Pretty sure Kars (our guide) wished he hadn’t asked.
‘It’s OK Gemma, you can do this’ he said, taking the rucksack off my back, adjusting it and now carrying two just so I could drag myself back down the mountain I never thought I’d climb.
Surprisingly, this was the day after we had reached Everest Base Camp, not on the way up. I was crying on the way down. Day 10 trekking, and clearly the altitude had started going to my head.
It seems that when you plan a trek like this, you only think about getting there. Not the fact that you must walk all the way back. But then, I’m no seasoned trekker.
It’s hard to explain why I decided to trek to Everest Base Camp. Do I really need a reason? I think it’s reason enough that life is for living. After all, we won’t ever have the opportunity again.
Trekking to Everest Base Camp fit in with my plans so well. I was already planning to spend some extended time in my favourite country this year. Rewind 5 years ago to the time I’d seen Everest from a plane widow and I suppose it’s fair to say, the presence of such a beautiful mountain, in my favourite country felt so symbolic. I wanted to experience it first-hand. I wanted to challenge myself, I wanted to experience something otherworldly. I wanted to experience sheer joy and to ease my curiosity.
And that was it… I booked the trip.
Did I go in with my eyes wind open? Probably half shut in hindsight.
A hell raising 12 days of trekking long hours at high altitudes in freezing cold weather across some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. As I prepared myself physically and mentally, I remained so blissfully unaware of how intimidating and truly painstakingly beautiful those 12 days would turn out to be.
‘Wake up call is 3.45am- pack all your stuff into one of these bags, no more than 10kgs’.
3.45am?!! I was sorely mistaken if I thought this was going to be a holiday. I also was definitely exceeding 10kgs what with my sleeping bag, down jacket, wind proofs, rain proofs, head torch, had I over prepared? I did pack my shampoo, God knows why. It was 13 days before I had another shower.
We were heading to Kathmandu airport to fly into Lukla. We were scheduled for the first flight. No time slot, just a matter of turn up and hope your propeller plane sets off. We got lucky and departed and landed as scheduled, despite the reputation of only a few flights a day actually landing before the rest being cancelled due to poor weather conditions.
This was a good omen, I was certain.
We were flying into an elevation of 2845m on a plane that held about 15 people, into mountains with high winds, extreme cloud cover and, most excitingly, we were landing at an airport that has been named the number 1 most dangerous airport in the world for the past 20 years. By now, I’m a pretty confident flier. But it wasn’t hard to see why Lukla has this reputation.
Following our 40-minute flight of turbulence and mountain top dodging we commenced our extremely short decent onto Lukla’s extremely short runway. You should probably close your eyes at this point, it’s easy to assume you’re going straight into the cliff at the end of the runway. I know this because I’m an adrenaline junkie and not only did I keep my eyes firmly open, but also squealed with sheer excitement as we rallied towards that cliff face.
Lukla is the starting point for many determined souls on the Everest Base Camp trek. As a result, the place seems busy and the tea houses are well set up with hot water and WiFi. But there’s nothing useful here in terms of an ATM or a supermarket. I’d find this out much later at the end of the trek, when we would get stuck here in fog for 2 days and helicoptered out. As I sat eating my breakfast of beans on toast, the first of quite a few days that would start this way, I considered that I could do this.
Of course I could.
That day we didn’t seem to walk very far but what we did walk was a beautiful collective of mountainous landscapes, pine forests, yaks (with short hair), and half dead trekkers trying to find their way back to some kind of civilisation (Lukla). We arrived at our first tea house in Phakding a little after lunchtime and devoured our Dhal Bhat. I wish I could say that was the first time I’d eaten this heady concoction of Nepal’s finest rice, lentils and curry. But that would be a lie. I’d been living on it for several weeks at this point. As the rest of the group mmm’d and yumm’d, I quietly considered the journey I was embarking on.
My silence was broken.
‘No beer on the way up. No stopping at the bakeries. God knows how long their apple pies have been sat there. Do what you want on the way down but let’s stay as healthy as possible on the way up and get you all to Base Camp.’
Amidst all my thinking I didn’t realise that I was freezing cold! If I’m cold now, how on earth am I going to get through the next 12 days I wondered as I pulled on more layers and sipped on my hot lemon, ginger and honey. A drink that would fast become my equivalent of a stiff whiskey, and I wasn’t willing to try my luck at one of the ‘bakeries’ anyway.
What’s another 12 days of Dhal Bhat when you’ve just done 5 weeks of the stuff?
That was my first experience of a tea house. A small, family run guest house, overlooking the mountains of Phakding where they served excellent food and had an espresso machine yet had no shower or free WiFi. The rooms are basic, but clean and comfortable, with 2 people sharing and a shared bathroom. Even this first night at an elevation of a mere 2660m, I was grateful for my 4 seasons sleeping bag and thermals. This, as it turns out was really the epitome of luxury in comparison to where I was going.
Two words I’ve become so familiar with, they’ve unequivocally become part of my vocabulary. Let’s go..is the translation. But of course, not until after a big breakfast. Eating was the second most time-consuming thing I did on the trek. We were told, quite rightly, if we didn’t eat lots, we wouldn’t make it.
‘You need the energy’ Kars would encourage me through gritted teeth at the times when the appetite disappeared, or I felt nauseated from the altitude. But day 2 my appetite was as brilliant as ever.
Beans on toast later and I’m ready to rip up this mountain.
7 hours later we arrived at Namche Bazzar after a stunning, if not slightly challenging, hike through forests, glacial rivers and very questionable suspension bridges. This would be our first elevation stop, first glimpse of Everest and last glimpse of Wi-Fi or anything semi luxurious (beans on toast and decent coffee).
Namche Bazzar is a fully functioning town with a population of about 1600 and sits at an elevation of 3440m. The town is so fully functioning in fact, it is the home of the highest Irish Bar in the world. We spent 2 nights in Namche Bazzar to allow for acclimatisation. I learnt that acclimatisation is so important when trekking at these elevations. The main cause of altitude sickness is ascending too quickly, its really important to give your body time to adapt to the decrease in oxygen. If we wanted to make it to Base Camp, these stops were essential.
During this time, we did an acclimatisation hike up to Syangboche at 3860m. The morning of this hike, we woke up to clear blue skies and were so lucky to catch a sneak preview of Mt Everest in all her glory. She seemed so big and so far away, and despite still feeling physically strong, I started to realise how difficult this journey was going to be. But I wasn’t afraid, I was excited to push myself and see what I could achieve. I was ready to get as close to her as I possibly could.
That night I awoke suddenly to the noises of a huge thunderstorm outside. The room flashed around me as lightning struck close by. I drifted back off to sleep with the thoughts of the mornings trekking being an extremely wet one. That morning we woke up to a blanket of snow all over the town. Of course, I had not even thought, we were already too high up for rain. As we prepared our packs for the day, I was excited to get out in the snow. Down in Namche Bazzar was the last place we really had easy access to drinking water. After this we would be drinking litres of questionable water, self-sterilised with chlorine tablets. So, I was stocking up on yummy, clean water.
This day turned out to be my favourite, despite spending £2 on a Mars bar. We had fantastic weather, clear blue skies and the sun was shining. The tough walk took us through bright pink rhododendron forests with clear views of Mt. Everest for most of the day. We stopped at a lodge and drank coffee from Peter Rabbit cups with views like that from a postcard. The owner had actually summitted Everest and later we met his daughter. They talked like summitting Everest is a normal thing to do around here and I was in total awe of this fantastic place and the Nepalese people who I just love more and more!
‘If you’ve got no symptoms you’re not checking again Gemma!’.
Kars was getting irritated that I wanted to check my oxygen levels again. He was right of course, nobody needs to know how crazy little oxygen they’re getting, its easily worrying. As a nurse though, I was finding this insanely interesting. Even here, pre-altitude feelings, my oxygen levels were 89%. My mind boggled. For me this journey was not only teaching me things about personal challenges, Nepal, and being in the mountains, it was also teaching me things about my body I never knew, and I was feeling insanely fascinated.
By day 6, we were hiking to Dengboche at 4350m. That day’s walk was many, many things. Tough, cold and windy. Even now, this was the 2nd hardest day of the whole trek for me. The altitude was clearly starting to take a hold. Although I felt OK in the grand scheme of things, I was slow. Painfully slow. I was dragging myself along at the back of the group. I was starting to find it hard to concentrate, I couldn’t read my book, it was hard to eat, and this is not a problem I ever have! And my face, hands and feet were full of pins and needles.
Despite the discomfort, the landscape captivated me. Gone were the days of meandering through forests, suddenly we were on the moon. Sandy open land, as far as the eye could see, no vegetation and low-lying clouds. A sure sign the air is way too thin up there to sustain life. The yaks were getting fluffier though. They plodded slower than I did taking supplies up and down with Sherpas.
I was relieved to reach the teahouse before the hailstones came and the clouds rolled in. I was exhausted, wet and freezing cold. And of course, ‘no naps in the name of acclimatisation!’. So, I sat, and I tried to eat potatoes. The higher we got, the more potatoes grew!
When I look back in my journal, day 8 I couldn’t write. I didn’t know what day it was. My concentration was terrible, and I felt like I was on another planet, mentally and literally. As we trekked, unable to breathe for 5 or 6 hours a day, the land was grey and dusty and mostly resembled a strange film in slow motion black and white. I don’t know if these memories are skewed and totally distorted, partially due to my slow cognition.
When I looked up, the mountains enveloped me so closely and I felt tiny. The clouds creeped by me at shoulder height and I looked down into valleys of glaciers. The cold wasn’t even bothering me now, I was so focused on breathing and soaking in every moment of this bizarre, eerily beautiful clip that I was watching myself in.
The day we reached Everest Base Camp at 5364m was the day that everything I ever doubted about myself vanished. I’d pushed myself beyond realms I never imagined possible, and now I stood there at the foot of the biggest mountain in the world trying (and failing) to breathe a sigh of relief. The joy that comes with being this high up in the world, this deep into the wilderness is one that I cannot describe. I’m not sure anybody truly can describe. Naturally, you feel like you’re not even on planet earth.
Of course, this is not about the destination, it’s about the journey and if my body couldn’t have got me there then I would have still been happy I tried. But the exhilaration of the destination and the fact that the path was so hard in so many ways that I don’t even touch on here, physically, mentally and personally, is truly immeasurable.
I stared in awe at the tents of those brave people who planned to attempt the summit, whatever their reasons, and even I, who made it to Base Camp, cannot begin to compare my journey to theirs.
When we arrived back to the teahouse that afternoon I was feeling emotionally on cloud 9, but physically so, so rough. My head was banging, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t concentrate. Of course, I wanted to check my oxygen levels. 75%, no wonder I felt horrendous.
I couldn’t wait to get down and drown myself in oxygen!
The next day was the day I cried. And that marked our decent back to the real world. A world where now I know I believe in myself. A world where even when its dark, the stars glisten. A world where the impossible is possible. A world where you might call me a dreamer, but I know that the sky is the limit ❤