By NAVEED GILANI
“I was taught by my respected chief and predecessor Col. George Everest, to assign to every geographical object its true local or national appellation…but here is a mountain, most probably the highest in the world, without any local name that we can discover…….I have determined to name this noble peak ……….Mt. Everest” – wrote Col. Andrew Waugh in 1865.
Then Colonel, later Maj. General, Andrew Waugh was the Surveyor-General of India who had taken over in 1843 from Col., later Sir, George Everest and continued his work from the area he had reached, the mighty Himalayas.
Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa, were the first persons to climb this noble peak on 29 May 1953. Then comes Yuichiro Miura 60 years later, who at age 80 becomes the oldest man to summit the Mount Everest. When I read about it I thought, ‘I still have over 20 years on him so I could do it too’. A trip to the Everest Base Camp was to be a teaser which proved to me unequivocally how wrong I was to have thought of doing the Yuichiro feat. It was, nonetheless, an exhilarating and an enjoyable trip.
I chose November of 2014 to go on the trek. November doesn’t seem like the best time to go anywhere near Everest but surprisingly if you check with the local guides and Sherpas they tell you it is OK to go then. Recruiting a group to go with me was the next task. Some of you who have read the account of my last trekking trip to Kilimanjaro would know that it was six of us in the team but this time I wasn’t that lucky. Munir was the only one who agreed, everyone else came up with a good reason why they couldn’t join. I have learnt over the years of inviting friends to various trekking trips that if I can take the same person to a trekking trip twice then I can say that that person has the potential of being a trekker. So far, it has only been Munir with whom I have done many a trek and who, in fact, has done more trekking in various parts of the world than I have.
Having chosen the Nepal Hiking Team as the adventure operator I arrived in Kathmandu in the wee hours of 28 November. Munir joined later the same day. Ganga, the tour operator was not at the airport. As you can imagine I wasn’t a happy puppy. My choice was based on cost and the ‘Trip Advisor’ ratings but I was stuck now as I had already put up the advance money, though later events proved my decision to be well founded. I called Ganga and woke him up from the sweet slumber of the early hours in the morning. He asked me to take a taxi to the hotel, which I did, and he met me there. The next day, after Munir’s arrival, we met again to go over the 14 day plan. Ganga asked us if we would be OK with another person joining us in the group. We were OK with that. It turned out to be the young Kimi Sokhi, a very pleasant company during the arduous trek. Not only was she much younger and fitter than us she, as it turned out, was also a very good photographer. The best of the pictures in my EBC archives and also some in this write-up are thanks to Kimi.
Day 1 started with a memorable flight to Lukla. Lukla airport is the No 1 in the list of extreme and dangerous airports of the world. It is a 15,000 foot asphalt patch with a gradient of 12 percent located at 9,100 feet surrounded by mountains on three sides and an abyss dropping into a valley on the only side where you can come in for a landing or take off from. The weather in Lukla is highly unpredictable so one has to report very early at the Kathmandu airport and there is no telling when one would be cleared to take off for Lukla. We arrived before sunrise but didn’t get to go till early afternoon. In between, boarded the plane twice for extended periods and then had to be off-loaded. There were only about 12 people in the plane eight of them girls of various nationalities. I concluded later that this trek to Everest Base Camp is most popular among young women and the ratio of men to women trekkers is highly tilted towards women. Wink wink to all the young guys out there. Do consider going there and just for this reason you won’t be sorry that you did.
After landing in Lukla we had a traditional Nepalese lunch – very tasty and the restaurant was adorned with the Pakistani flag which was quite heartening for a Pakistani away from home. Left immediately after lunch. It was mostly downhill to Phakding where we arrived in two hours. On the way, came across all the returning trekkers who were tracing back with a lot of difficulty. The effort and lack of energy after 14 odd days of trekking was very evident from their faces. I could see myself dragging back on December 9. Reaching Phakding we had gained about 1000 feet in altitude. The lodge at Phakding was cozy. Met with other trekkers who, like us, were starting their trek, some up to Namche bazar while others all the way to the base camp. Night was cold but we were comfortable in the log cabins.
Then next morning left early. Our stop was to a place called Jorsale where we had lunch. The path we followed is known as the Dudh Koshi, ascending and descending through the valley forested with Himalayan pine and cedar trees. Beautiful scenery all the way lined with thick trees along the path well-travelled by the villagers and their Yaks. As we found during the next few days that the path crisscrosses the fast flowing river at the bottom of the Dudh Koshi valley connecting either ends with a suspending rope bridge. Going down to the suspended structure was easy but after the first day we would look at it with a dread knowing that once there we would have to climb back up to the same altitude and then some. We arrived in Namche bazar, which sits at around 11,300 feet, in the late afternoon. On this day we had gained approx. 2,000 feet, most of it in the last couple of KMs. It was a tough day for all of us. Kimi pulled a muscle which had to be cared for. Luckily, the next day was an acclimatization day which helped a lot. That morning I had started my dose of Diamox, the medicine that prevents altitude sickness. Little did I know that this would turn outto be my Achilles heel.
The village of Namche bazar is a historic trading post where Nepalese and Tibetan traders exchanged salt, dried meat and textiles. Besides being a splendid destination to shop for traditional crafts, Namche bazar remains the central trading post in the Khumbu (Everest Region) that attracts Himalayan and lowland merchants. We spent two nights at Namche bazar for acclimatization, visiting the local market and spending some time in the guesthouse and some at a local bar/café where Wi-Fi connection was available free with a minimum spend. The menus served in Namche bazar surprisingly included localized versions of Pizzas and Apple Pies. I tried both, gave a thumbs down to Pizza and a thumbs up to the pie.
The acclimatization day did not mean a rest day rather a two hour strenuous trek to Everest View Hotel where we had our first panoramic view of the Everest and also other mountains, names of which are difficult for me to pronounce – Lhotse, Amadablam, Tawache etc. Along the way we hiked to the dirt strip of the Syangboche Airport located at 12,300 feet. It looked abandoned but can be used if needed. The Everest View Hotel is higher yet. Had tea at the hotel terrace from where we took a lot of pictures of the Everest. On the way back stopped at Sherpa Culture Museum and Everest Photo Gallery and ended the day’s activity by 2 PM. A good day.
The first part of the fourth day’s trek was relatively easy, first ascending through the narrow dirt lanes of Namche bazar and then through an easy and uniform trail known as the Nepalese Flat. Then, descending deep into the Valley we arrived at Pungki Thanka where we were to have a break for lunch but we decided to skip the lunch. Instead we had the very tasty hot Lemon/Ginger drink that I was introduced to during this trip. A side order of French fries went well with the drink. The temperature was cool. The next two hours were truly grueling as we ascended up to 12,600 feet from the bottom of the valley, whatever altitude that was. Over the years of trekking through the mountainous terrains has taught me to listen to my heartbeat and pace myself accordingly. I would try and keep the pace just fast enough to maintain the heartbeat around 125 bpm. Though I wasn’t wearing my heart rate monitor, don’t remember why, but I tried to estimate based on my feel developed over the years. Kimi, being much younger, kept a much better pace. And of course, our guide had to deliberately keep a slower pace to be with us all the time.
Our destination that day was Tengboche where the Tengboche Monastery is the spiritual center of the Khumbu region. We had a late lunch and went to the rooms assigned to us at the guesthouse. We found the wooden log room very nicely warmed up by unobstructed radiation from the Sun. Luckily it had been a bright and sunny day. I crashed and thoroughly enjoyed an afternoon siesta. Later, took a walk around the area and visited the Monastery. All along the way, we had passed by sacred stupas which are adorned with the colorful prayer flags, five colors signifying the five elements – earth, water, fire, air, and space. We learnt that one should always go around the stupa from the right side. So we did.
You must be wondering that this Everest Base Camp trek doesn’t sound like a real rough and tough trek through the mountainous wilderness that one would have expected. This is both true and untrue. The trek itself is quite a fitness challenge particularly because of the steep ascents and descents through the entire distance spread over many days. However, all the way through the trek, till almost the last rest point, one passes through fully inhabited villages. Since catering to trekking tourists is their livelihood the villagers do a good job in providing all the city amenities. One doesn’t need to sleep in tents as one would in most of the other treks and wherever we went we could order food off a menu. Hot water was available at a cost, thanks to solar heaters. Bottled water is abundantly available, though the price of each bottle increases proportional to the distance from Lukla.
Had a restful night at Tengboche and as usual we started early. Today’s trek was to take us to Dingboche which is at an altitude of 14,500 feet. It is also known as the summer valley. The Diamox I had started taking on the second day started taking its toll. While I did not get any altitude headaches I had gradually lost my appetite. With little food intake my energy levels had started to deplete noticeably. I had been trying to change what I ate to help maintain enough energy to keep going but the trick wasn’t working very well. This morning I had to force myself to eat only half a toast.
The trek was nevertheless lovely, descending through a beautiful forest, crossing the Imja Khola and through the village of Pangboche, at 12,900 feet. Continuing through pastures we enjoyed the views of Mt. Amadablam, Mt. Lhotse & other peaks reaching Dingboche by 2:30 in the afternoon.
At lunch I couldn’t have anything and was envying Munir and Kimi for they had no issues eating anything. Dinner also comprised of half a cup of vegetable soup. The next day was an acclimatization day, which meant we would do a short trek returning back to Dingboche by midday. I wanted to conserve all my energies for the big prize so I decided that if I am able to have something substantial for breakfast I would go for the trek otherwise I would stay back and rest.
In the morning I had a glass of chocolate drink and I decided to go for part of the acclimatization trek. The original plan was to ascend to an altitude of 16,700 feet to a place called Nagerjun, a hill directly above Dingboche located on the flank of the valley. We decided to go only half way and conserve the energy for the rest of the trip. Kimi decided to opt out for the day and just rest instead. At the mid-point of the ascent we met a young group of British Army officers who were also doing the trip as part of their physical fitness exercise. Upon talking to them found out that they were the Royal Lancers that forms part of the Royal Armoured Corps. It was interesting to talk to them because I grew up in a military family and get nostalgic on talking about the military, particularly the Armoured Artillery to which my father belonged. Needless to say, the young soldiers went all the way to Nagerjun. Upon return to Dingboche we rested. I still could not have lunch so had to rely on whatever energy I had left. We were carrying some energy bars for instant energy but despite trying to force myself to have some I could not eat more than a bite full. I was getting worried. Even drinking water was becoming a chore and I was risking serious dehydration of the body.
The next day was the 7th day in the trek and the last segment before the final ascent to the base camp. We trekked along the broad valley floor to Dubla and passing the Trekkers Aid Post at Pheriche located at 14,000 feet we ascended to the yak pastures of Lobuche at 16,200 feet to spend the night. The ascent took us 5 hours and with no energy left in me I felt like lying down which I did immediately after arrival.
In bed, I could not stop shivering despite the down jacket I had on and bundled up in the warm quilt that the guest house gave me. One of the guides had a pulse oximeter with him and Munir had him check my blood oxygen level. It was alarmingly low, in the low 60s whereas it should be ideally above 95 percent. His advice was to get me evacuated lest it becomes life threatening. I had come all this way and to be evacuated from so close to the base camp was definitely not an outcome that I would have liked to write in this blog of mine. His advice gave me a second wind and I put on all the warm clothes that I had and went down to the mess hall and forced fed myself a glass of chocolate drink. Took another reading of the oximeter and it was in the low 70s now. I consulted with the guide and he suggested that we check in the morning again and if it is the same we go for it.
The original plan for the final day was to trek to the base camp, altitude of 17,600 feet, and return back to Gorekshep where we spend the night. From Gorekshep, very early in the morning, we go to Kalapattar at 18,200 feet – the best vantage point to view the entire south face of Mt. Everest and the surrounding peaks, and return back to Gorekshep for breakfast and then go to Pheriche where we spend the following night. After consultation Munir and I decided to skip the trek to Kalapattar and instead return directly to Lobuche. Kimi decided instead to attempt the Kalapattar on the same day and join us back in Lobuche for the night.
We got up early on the D-day and checked my oxygen reading which was still in the low 70s and as decided earlier went for it. Kimi had already left earlier along with another trekker who also planned to do the Kalapattar trek on the same day. No doubt, it was a grueling and exhausting trek. A lot of ups and downs and very rocky which made it more difficult. Each step had to be placed very carefully to avoid slipping and twisting of ankle or breaking a leg. We arrived at the base camp around 1 PM. We took a lot of pictures and enjoyed the magnificent view of the Khumbu glacier and icefall. This is where the Everest expeditions begin. I thought of Yuichiro and truly respected his accomplishment at age 80. I could not even think of going any further even for a day and wished that somehow I could just fly back to Kathmandu and not go through the long arduous 60 kilometers back to Lukla.
This would be our second longest day after the final leg from Namche bazar to Lukla. We arrived at Lobuche when it had already turned dark and we had to use our headlamps to see where we were going. Turned out that Kimi also decided to skip the Kalapattar ascent and therein lay the logic of not attempting it on the same day as you do the base camp. It becomes too tough. The next morning it still seems doable. I did not have any dinner and had a very sleepless night. Though the oximeter reading had been better I felt terrible nonetheless.
That night I threw up in the middle of the night and felt my energies plummet. I had stopped taking the Diamox and was hoping that its affect would start to wear off and soon I would get the appetite back. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to happen till I reached back in Kathmandu.
The trip back was tough as by now I had no energy left and despite the overall descent each day we still had to go through the ups and downs in the Dudh Koshi valley which by now seemed tougher than on our way up to the base camp. The longest leg of the entire trip, about 18 kilometers, was the last one. Now I knew why when we left Lukla I particularly noticed the completely drained faces of the returning trekkers. During the last day of this memorable trek I had had very little water, just could not drink, and was completely dehydrated. As soon as I reached Lukla the first thing I did was down a liter of Fanta which I can honestly say was the best drink I have ever had in my life.
By the time I returned to Kathmandu my appetite had begun to return and I was able to enjoy some good food at the celebratory dinner hosted by Ganga.
During the trek I had tracked each of the step we took on an app called ‘My Track’ which I had downloaded on my Samsung mobile device. Later migrated the data to the Google Earth which gives a good view of the entire trip. Given below is the snapshot of the track. You can see red line tracing our trek through the valleys all the way to the Base Camp.
My next trip is to the K-2 Base camp which I should have done much earlier but never did. I must also share with you that at the end of each of my trekking trips I always say that this was the last of the treks I would ever do. Later, however, after some good rest in comfortable beds and good meals I always forget the difficulty and am ready to go back to a new adventure. Munir and I agreed after getting back to Lobuche that we will be hanging up our gloves after this one but two weeks after the trek we started talking about the K-2 trip.