14 Days in Nepal
Rob Macdonald, our Mountain Designs Geelong Store Manager, recently trekked to Everest Base Camp with Turia Pitt and her fundraising team. He shares the unforgettable experience, recalling the ups and downs, laughs and heart stopping moments.
On the 10th of May 2017, I found myself boarding a plane bound for Nepal. My ultimate destination was Everest Base Camp, which I was set to climb with Turia Pitt's trekking team. It would be my highest mountaineering expedition to date and I couldn't wait to get started.
After some minor airport mishaps that nearly resulted in some team members being left behind, we were on our way from Bangkok to Kathmandu. The trip flew by quickly, and soon we were standing in the chaotic Tribhuvan International Airport. As your first taste of Kathmandu, the airport bears similarities to what you'll experience in town – it's seemingly in a state of perpetual construction. Leaving the airport and walking to the bus, I had a local half-heartedly hold onto a loose strap of my bag and then demand money for 'carrying' my bag for me. He didn't appreciate the high five I gave him as payment for a job well done.
Having worked in the Middle East, I thought I was used to the Mad Max-esque style of traffic, but Nepal was an eye opener. Everywhere you look there's someone speeding up your blind spot with wild abandon…on closer inspection you realise it's a moped overloaded with people.
We eventually arrived at Hotel Skanker where we dropped our gear and headed out to explore the local area. That night we all went for dinner at a local organic restaurant with traditional dancers. It was our first exposure to Nepalese cuisine and, despite my meat based ideology, the largely vegetarian meal was delicious. After a night sleeping on the world's thinnest and hardest mattress, we embarked on a sightseeing tour of Kathmandu. The trip took us to a local temple, where one of the girls had a run in with a monkey, and then onto Pashupatinath, where we witnessed a traditional funeral pyre. After lunch, we went to Kirtipur Hospital to see the awesome work of Interplast Australia and New Zealand.
Rebuilding Bodies and Lives
The basis of the Everest Base Camp trip was to raise funds in support of Interplast's activities in the region. The team had collectively raised nearly $240,000 which, as we found out later, would help to fund the hospital for almost half a year.
Kirtipir Hospital has some interesting sustainability ideas, including recycling human waste to provide methane for cooking and heating. They also feed the poorer patients for free and hire locals from the immediate area for cleaning the hospital. Something that really caught my eye was a tree in their maternity ward. During construction, they realised they had a tree that was in the way. Instead of cutting it down they built the ward around it leaving the tree in place for women undergoing labour pains. Later that night we had dinner at the Australian Embassy where we got to meet other Australians working for various charities in the country.
A Flight I'll Never Forget
The next morning, it was time to pack our bags and gear up for the trek. Since the Tenzing–Hillary Airport at Lukla is quite small, we were split into different flights. The aircraft used is specially designed for short take offs and landings because the runway at Lukla is just over 500m. The stewardess moved down the cabin to give a very short safety brief and hand out boiled lollies and cotton wool (I think the wool is for your ears so you can't hear yourself scream during take-off).
Having flown in various aircrafts around the world, including one of the first Iraqi Airways flights out of Baghdad post-Invasion, I'm pretty comfortable with flying. This changed when the air crew suddenly floored the aircraft and took off towards the runway – we were in the air before we even realised.
One of the highlights of the trip to the Everest region is the flight. The planes are built for abuse, and it's the first time I have been in a plane that is capable of flying sideways. If you are apprehensive about flying, the good news is that there is a road near Lukla. The downside is that it is a two-day walk away, whereas the flight only takes about 40 minutes. The flight isn't actually all that bad. Although, if you are at the front like I was, you can see through the cockpit to what the pilots can see. This was pretty neat until I saw the pilot repeatedly slap the hand of the co-pilot away from some of the controls, but they know what they are doing. Once a pilot commits to the landing in Lukla, there is no turning back due to the hills around them. It's basically do or die. Despite that, fatal accidents are fairly rare at Lukla and the air crew are experienced at landing in difficult conditions.
Beginning the Trek to Everest Base Camp
At the start of the trek you walk under Pasan Lhamu Sherpa arch, named after the first Nepalese woman to summit Mount Everest. Her smiling effigy farewells hikers on their departure down the trail. The trail was very up and down. This can be soul crushing as you turn a corner and realise that to gain elevation, you must first lose it.
The trek itself starts with a set of stairs that takes you down towards the valley floor where you get your first glimpse at the stunning scenery that awaits you for the rest of your walk. You also begin to encounter the various perpetual convoys of porters and animal trains that are the logistical life blood of the region. Being devoid of roads, the two options of getting your wares into the area are to either carry everything in, or hire a helicopter.
There are three kinds of animals used for the pack trains – donkeys in the lower sections, Nyaks (a cross between a yak and a cow) for higher sections and yaks for the high-altitude areas. While placid looking, yaks apparently have a grudge against Westerners and think nothing of trying to shove you out the way. Every train we passed had at least one who was a bit of a jerk and would seemingly step out of line just to whack an unsuspecting outsider. The trails aren't narrow, but they aren't wide either and there will be times you will find yourself hugging the hill side to avoid a disgruntled beast hell bent on causing mischief.
Further along the journey there are villages and hamlets each with a multitude of tea houses where you can stop for a bite to eat or to rest for the night. They are all fairly cheap and hospitable, with good food and an opportunity to power up your devices (at a cost). Make sure you take a solar charger for you. I had a Biolite panel which I hung off the back of my pack the whole time.
Namche Bazar is one of the main stops on the trail. It's an economic hub where people come from all around to trade in local and imported goods. Namche is also the last place to get cash from one of the various ATM's in the town and to stop at Herman's Bakery for an awesome Chocolate Carrot Cake washed down with a refreshing Mountain Coffee. Namche was the first one of our altitude days. While the distance to Base Camp is only 62km, the altitude can literally be a killer. Take your time getting there. It's not going anywhere. Eight to nine days is the standard duration to get there and three to four days to get back. It's all about the journey, so take some time to enjoy nature's beauty and take a couple of altitude days.
The philosophy is to walk higher and sleep lower to give your body a chance to acclimatise more effectively. With that in mind, we dropped the bulk of our gear and headed up to the nearby Tenzing Norgay Memorial. Next to the memorial is a small gift from Israel which holds a stone from Everest and one from the Dead Sea. Next, we climbed a couple of hundred metres to the abandoned Syangboche Airport and its forlorn JCB digger left over from the days when the airstrip was operational. After a stop for tea, we headed back down to Namche for some shopping and rest. Namche is a rabbit warren, with lots of cafes and a couple of bars thrown in for good measure. Most of the people who live there are closely related, so it's not uncommon to walk into one store and find the person who just served you in the last store ready to serve you there as well.
After a reasonably good sleep, we embarked on the next leg of our journey. The route out of Namche is the most well-kept section of the whole trail. There is a donation box along the way, where people donate 100 Rupees for the upkeep of that section which has been conducted by one family. They do a pretty good effort keeping the trail in a stable condition and 100 Rupees isn't a lot to keep the way open and accessible for everyone else to enjoy.
After Namche, you head to Tengboche. The Monastery there is open to visitors provided you abide by their rules (no shoes, no photography and no shorts). While small, it's worth visiting to see the amazing and intricate artwork done by the monks.
We arrived in clouds, but the next morning the heavens cleared up for us and we found ourselves with yet another glorious vista and change in landscape. The route up to Tenchgoche takes you through rhododendrons, but just after you depart you begin to exit the tree line and the landscape begins to get more scrubby and open. We trekked towards Dingboche where we had our second acclimatisation day. Dingboche begins to look more moon like in its appearance as you begin to climb into the mountains. Once at the lodge, we rested and unwound before waking the next day to trek up another hundred metres or so to adjust our bodies to the altitude.
Something I noticed by this point, was no matter how remote the landscape looked, there was always activity. You could be looking at some distant windswept feature and suddenly see someone wandering around the hillside. The hills are also covered in prayer flags; usually in a hard to reach spot that you would never expect to see one. Looking around, if you pay enough attention you can also see long forgotten carvings on rocks higher up the valley wall. There's art everywhere you look. On the way along the route, you pass multiple carved rocks. It's incredible to see how they didn't carve the letters out of the rock, they carved the rock away around the letters.
After spending some time in Dingboche, it was time to trek on. We walked past a small hamlet of Hobbit style houses overlooking nearby Pheriche with its Western staffed medical centre which supports climbers and hikers on Everest. While we were there, a steady stream of helicopters flew up and down the valley ferrying supplies and climbers to where they needed to be. We pushed on to Dughla, where we had a third unplanned acclimation day due to some of the group starting to feel the effects of the increasing altitude. While the guides had previously been content to walk us higher and then bring us back down again, this time they decided that we should have an impromptu dance off on the side of the mountain. It's not often that you see a double worm at 4500m in Nepal. After another night of rest, we cracked onwards and upwards towards Lobuche.
Lobuche is where you get your first distant glimpse of Base Camp and the surrounding glacier. On the hillside to the right of the village there are multiple cairns (a memorial made out of stones) left by the many visitors, as well as many messages spelt out in stone.
After Lobuche, we headed towards Gorak Shep but on the way we stopped at the Everest Memorial. The site is a sobering reminder of the brutality of Everest and consists of multiple cairns devoted to loved ones lost on the mountains. A prominent one is dedicated to Scott Eugene Fischer who was portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal in Everest (2015). After a short period of contemplation, we threw on our packs and headed onwards to our last staging post, Gorak Shep.
As you get higher, it starts to get colder. You're putting your body through greater strains, so it's important to stay hydrated. The unfortunate downside of this is that you often have to get up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet. As my sleeping bag, the Ultra Tek 470, is pretty warm I just slept in my jocks and beanie. Getting up that night, I decided that seeing as we were fairly close to the toilet I would just run to the toilet in my runners and jocks instead of throwing on my fleece jacket and pants. It made for an interesting conversation when I bumped into one of the girls coming the other way at three in the morning, as she was fully rugged up and I was just in my beanie, jocks and Salomon shoes. I'm not sure if she believed me when I said I was just out for a run.
The next morning it was time to finally push on to Everest Base Camp. The actual route there starts off easy, with a handy signpost pointing you in the right direction. You then begin to climb the outer edge of the glacier and start your final push onwards over some pretty interesting terrain as you pick your way between huge boulders and walkers coming the other way. You then have to walk downwards to where the glacier meets the land and then climb back up onto the glacier to meet your ultimate destination.
I wasn't exactly sure what to expect when I got to Base Camp. Some people hugged, some cried and a couple from another group busted out a bottle of Champagne. I found myself standing before the stones covered in prayer flags and offerings, sitting on the edge of a failing glacier and didn't feel an overwhelming sense of anything. Don't get me wrong, it was great standing there and a tremendous accomplishment for the group as a whole, but for me, the journey was more important than the destination. Plus, if you're not climbing Everest, you're not permitted to go to the 'real' Base Camp. I think that would have been an entirely different experience – standing amongst legendary adventurers, buzzing with the excitement of the enormous climb ahead. During our stay at Gorak Shep we found out that Kilian Jornet had run up Mount Everest without oxygen and did it again a couple of days later. In saying that, being higher than anything I had ever climbed is something I won't soon forget.
Not long after we arrived at Base Camp, it was time to start the long trek back down towards Lukla. It takes you about half the time to go down as it does to go up. Your journey to Everest Base Camp really ends when you get through the Pasang Lhamu Sherpa arch. In our case, the lead group made a mad dash up the stairs towards the arch on tired legs, and I just managed to beat our lead porter. Catching our breath, we had to wait until the entire group was back safely in Lukla before having one last group photo under the arch to celebrate the successful end of our hike to Everest Base Camp. After that, we went back to the hotel, cracked a few beers at Mera Lodge bar and got lost in the music.
The next morning, with some of us nursing sorer heads than others, it was time to fly out. Word to the wise, if you plan on heading to Everest Base Camp, ensure that your flights from Lukla are not the day before your flights home out of Kathmandu. The weather can turn in an instant, and it's not uncommon for travellers to be stuck there for a couple of days. Each time the skies began to clear, the wind would change and the clouds would roll back in with a vengeance. It looked as though we might not make it out in time. Luckily the weather cleared enough for the first group to go, but then it closed in and the four of us left behind found ourselves looking down the barrel of a helicopter flight to Kathmandu if all else failed. The gods smiled on us however, and the skies cleared in time for all of us to leap onto warm seats and head off.
Just to highlight how dangerous the airport is, the next morning one of the first flights into Lukla fell short of the runway, killing the pilot and badly injuring the other two crew members. Sadly, the co-pilot died a few days later, leaving the stewardess the sole survivor. Landing back at Kathmandu, we arrived in time to get smashed by a monsoon. The driver of the bus ferrying us to the terminal decided to drive very slowly around the tarmac with all doors and windows open (I'm still not sure why), which gave us plenty of time to wash all the Yak/Nyak/Donkey dung off our boots and pants for customs.
After another haphazard dash through the streets of Kathmandu, we made it back in time to clean up quickly, have a spot of dinner and a beer, then home the next day with our mission successfully accomplished.
Turia's Trekking Team was comprised of incredible individuals from all walks of life, and from all over the planet, who all came together to raise money for a worthy cause. Having a diverse range of personalities made it a worthwhile trip, especially under the careful guidance of Kinga, the group leader, as well as Ben and Shaun (Kiwi doctors who take losing cards very seriously).
If you ever get the chance to do Everest Base Camp, do it. It's an awesome journey through a breathtaking landscape that will leave lasting memories of a land that is largely timeless. Take your time, hire a local and get to enjoy the scenery. It's worth it, and like life it's all about the journey, not the destination.
Flying into Lukla
My best tip is to sit on the left side because, on a clear day, this gives you the best opportunity to have a first glimpse of Everest rising majestically above everything surrounding it. It also means you get a seat to yourself, as the right side of the aircraft has double seats.
Hire a Guide
If you plan on going to the region, I strongly suggest you hire a guide to help you. Our guides and porters were supplied by Royal Mountain Travel and Gopal, PK, Garja, and the rest of their crew were invaluable to us as a team. The guides have an in-depth knowledge of the land, customs and traditions and they will keep you firmly on track. We passed plenty of hikers going it alone, and while I'm not saying that's a bad thing if you hire guides and porters you are helping the local economy greatly. I'm also pretty sure you get a better deal at places as well.
Our guides had a lot of experience climbing most of the major peaks in the area and can regale you with some interesting stories about their times high up in the clouds. The other important thing about hiring guides is that they know what they are looking f with altitude sickness which is pretty important. With the distance between Lukla and EBC being so small, it is an easy mistake to think you can do it in a couple of days. Sure, some people manage to do it, but many people fail and some pay the ultimate price.
Grab some Last-Minute Essentials from Lukla
Lukla is the entrance to Everest and is one of the last safe places to grab essentials before you kick off the trek.
Take a Solar Charger
You will be able to power up at a cost along the way, but if you take your own solar charger you can save money and charge up wherever you need (providing you have sunshine).
Nepal Gear List
- Circuit Seamless Boxers
- Camino Merino Sock
- Onyx Pants
- Delta Short Sleeve Tee
- Delta Mid Weight Pullover
- Corespun Merino Tee
- Mike Check Long Sleeve Shirt
- Base layers
- Pro-Elite Transient GORE-TEX® C-KNIT Rain Jacket
- Pro-Elite Epsilon GORE® WINDSTOPPER HD Wool® Fill Jacket
- Pro-Elite Climber Fleece Jacket
- Climber Booties
- Climber Fleece Pants
- Intrepid Gloves
- Intrepid Beanie
- Mammut Trovat High Gore-Tex® Hiking Boots
- Deuter Air Contact Pro 36 Litre Pack
- Black Diamond Distance FL Z-Pole
- Source Hydration Bladder
- Original Buff
- Suunto Core All Black
- UltraTek 470 Down Sleeping Bag
- Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor Fleece Liner
- Biolite Solar Panel 5 Plus