There are many ways to spend a first trip in Asia. While the most popular involve multi-country visits to maximize cultural exposure, I decided to go for one country, and a section of it that knows no paved roads or cars, not even bicycles.
Having booked the Everest Base Camp trekking trip two months in advance, I had little time to do research. I was aware of the general itinerary that International Mountain Guides (IMG) had prepared, but knew almost nothing about the culture in which I was going to immerse myself, which is why the trip exceeded my expectations in ways that I didn’t expect. This is the story of my twenty-four days in Beyul, the sacred land of hidden valleys.
A LITTLE ABOUT THE SHERPA
Instead of frustrating traffic jams, the residents of the Khumbu Valley take breaks to greet friends as they make their way between villages on foot. Travel times range from a couple of hours to a few days. There is no rush, unless a rescue is underway. People walk fast and do not mind long uphill stretches. The distance we would walk in three hours they cover in 45 minutes. There is also no need for the excess of material consumerism. People have access to western clothing and home utensils, but they keep just what’s needed to subsist.
The Sherpa are amazing people. I only spent a few weeks among them, but they taught me more about humanity than I have learned in years in my American environment. Sherpa are kind, peaceful, religious, active, respectful of their environment and their animals, strong, generous and fun. This is me naming just a few of their traits.
On the Sherpa and their mountaineering job, here is a great excerpt from the book Through a Sherpa Window, by Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa: “The Sherpa view of mountains as sacred realms of gods and goddesses and the western view of mountains as something to be challenged and conquered are philosophically at odds. For outsiders, climbing Himalayan peaks is fundamentally a physical, even spiritual challenge. But for a Sherpa, climbing a sacred peak is an offensive activity that could lead to disaster, so Sherpa climbers pray before climbing and beg for forgiveness”.
THE ARRIVAL – KATHMANDU
I arrived in Kathmandu at 10 pm on a Monday. As usual at the Tribhuvan airport, bags take ages to come out through the carousel. I waited about an hour, and then, when I was 40 feet from the exit, someone lost their wallet. All movement halted, with nobody leaving the airport for 30 minutes. Mohan, our superb in-town driver, was patiently waiting for me with his IMG sign. When I finally made it to Hotel Tibet, I had to wake up my roommate with a loud bang on the door because there was only one key per room. What a nice way to meet someone for the first time.
From the journal: “Day one contributed to a fourth night in a row of low-quality sleep. My feet are tingling. It’s the caffeine keeping me reasonably awake. What will I say when I introduce myself? ‘Hi, I’m Lulu. I live in Seattle, I work in technology and I’m here because the mountains make me happy, even if there is a moment on every trip in which I feel miserable’.”
The following morning I got to meet the 14-person client team after breakfast. I already knew one of the guides, but everyone else was brand new to me. We got people from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States.
My roommate and I wandered through the winding streets of the Thamel commercial district that afternoon, and then joined others to buy the thing I cherished the most during the trip: a local SIM card from Ncell, which gave me calls to the US for $.02 per minute and more data than I could use in a month for less than $20. Yes, the Khumbu valley is not as remote as I thought it was. Group dinner at 7 pm. Packing. Day was over.
LUKLA AND PHAKDING
The next day was the official start of the trek… and my birthday. There wouldn’t be a better way to celebrate than an exhilarating flight to the famous Lukla. When a friend of mine told me about the peculiar characteristics of the airstrip, I have to admit I freaked out. I certainly did not believe I was going to die, but a 1500 ft long runway plus a 2000 ft drop at its end increased my chances of dying nonetheless. The IMG rep said that one should not worry about the ride in advance, that it is always way better in person. He was right.
We landed, we clapped and we were ushered off the airport into the lodge across the street, where the Sherpa team and the porters were waiting for us. All I remember is having enjoyed a delicious cheese omelet and having been offered Nepali money as payment for a bottle of water. My trek mate realized a few seconds too late that I didn’t work there :). Epic.
To confirm that I have an international face and CIA spy potential was the highlight of my trip. I’m sure Phunuru, our climbing sardar (leader), got tired of people asking him where I was from. I looked like a Nepali, but alas, I didn’t speak the language. I tried to remedy that by learning useful words and phrases, which got me to a fantastic dead-end at a gift shop where I asked how much a bracelet was. I did not understand the response.
We left the lodge and started our short, mostly downhill walk towards Phakding, the first overnight stop. All was well, except the chickens. A few of them dared to walk freely on the trail. Back where I come from people cut their wings so they can’t fly, but these chickens could, and fly they did, next to me. It had been many years since I’d cried so… uncontrollably. Luckily someone knew exactly what to do. As we continued our walk he asked me questions about my life in Seattle, which were hard to answer at first, but in a few minutes had created enough distraction for the crying to stop. Phobias are evil.
It was early when we reached Phakding, and so our routine started. Check in, leave bags in room, find where the bathroom is, order dinner…
There is a Buddhist monastery 500 ft above the village with a gorgeous view of the valley. The trail took us up cultivated fields and homes that were damaged by the earthquakes, with rebuilding still in progress. At the monastery we were greeted by several resident children who had no trouble communicating in English. Some people went to look inside while I stayed out on a bench marveling at the peacefulness of the place.
My birthday announcement that day had taken the Sherpa team by surprise. Because they are awesome they enlisted the lodge cook team to prepare a chocolate cake. Everyone in the dining room sang happy birthday after dinner and ate the good cake. I received my first khata as present.
The next morning added a few more steps to our routine: wake up at 6, have duffel bags ready at 6:30, breakfast at 7 and walk by 7:30. With the lingering jet lag some of us were still waking up at 4 am, waiting for the first light to get up. We were headed on an uphill hike to Namche.
Namche is a striking town nestled in a half-bowl shaped mountain side, full of energy. The commercial core of the Khumbu. We found lots of people going about their business, yaks and donkeys arriving and leaving with big loads, happy dogs walking around the streets, yak yak yak yak t-shirts for sale, climbing gear shops, the only post-office in the valley, an Irish pub, several bakeries and a great cafe that presents a movie about Everest every day at 3 pm.
From the journal: “Today there was an uprising because some people did not know that we were going for Lobuche’s false summit. It was part of the fine print on the website, so easy to miss if you were not trying to soak in every detail. After much discussion it seems that they’re going to try to get us to the true summit, if conditions allow it.”
During our rest day in Namche we hiked to the Everest View Hotel. It was another stair master kind of day. With excellent views of the clouds engulfing Everest, Lhotse and Ama Dablam, we kept going to the village of Khumjung. Over there we visited the Edmund Hillary School and saw much rebuilding in action.
From the journal: “I am feeling great. No sign of a headache. I may be feeling too well…”
After the second night in Namche our jet lag problems were over. That was when we left civilization and moved on to higher lands. Trekking days were relatively short, three or four hours long, with a one hour stop at a midpoint for lunch.
Beyond Namche all pack animals I seemed to see were yaks; but not just yaks, plump and well-cared-for yaks. I had never seen them and I’m glad I was not afraid of them, for they are humongous – yet docile – animals with scary horns that like to live above 9000 ft. They wear loud bells around their necks to make sure we have time to move to the side and avoid their horns.
With time the Sherpa guides explained that not all of them were yaks. Very common too is the cross between cattle and yak, called dzopkyok in Sherpa language. Yaks have long hair and dzopkyok have short hair.
We arrived in Tengboche, a very small village known for its old monastery. At some point late in the afternoon we walked over, took our shoes off, found an empty side wall against which we could stand, and watched the start of a ceremony. There was an abundance of red decoration, with detailed Buddhist patterns painted on walls, beams and ceiling. Larger than life statues of deities were at the front. Monks sat in rows facing each other, chanting.
When we left, the ceremony was still in progress. Our Sherpa companions suggested that we run around a stupa (a round structure with religious relics inside) three times for good fortune. We did, and the cold almost went away.
On our next village I slept in a tent amid a cabbage patch, because the room they had given me was a bit moldy. Asthma and mold do not get along so well.
That day we got a closer encounter with Buddhism. After visiting the oldest monastery in the Khumbu, we were received by Lama Geshe in his private chamber. It was a fun hour-long blessing ceremony, with Lama Geshe speaking in Sherpa and making our Sherpa team laugh along the way. He shared what I think was blessed nuts and a rice-based alcoholic drink.
Our tour then moved on to the town bakery. At 13,074 ft we could not figure out how they were able to prepare such an amazing chocolate cake! Hats off to the baker!
While stopping in the village of Pheriche for our sixth and seventh nights, we visited the Himalayan Rescue Association clinic, where western doctors volunteer for months at a time to treat and spread awareness for high altitude health issues. Their goal is to prevent mountain-related illness and deaths. Locals receive diagnosis and treatment almost for free, and foreigners pay around $65 per consultation. While basic in design for developed-world standards, the clinic is well stocked up and organized to host patients in great need of medical help. We attended their daily talk and after a brief tour we got the opportunity to purchase branded t-shirts and hats to support their nonprofit cause.
Earlier in the day I had hiked alone to the top of a nearby hill. I came across a local girl taking a break from the load she was carrying. Using hand signals I asked her if I could try the load. There were no less than five gallons of water in the container, probably more, and she carried it up and down loose and uneven paths without problem.
Somewhere in Pheriche and in other villages I noticed signs that encouraged people to buy yak milk and cheese. It is important to note that even though restaurants advertise the availability of yak milk and yak cheese, you really don’t want to consume any yak product. It is not the yaks that produce milk, for they are males. The female is called a nak. Nak cheese and nak milk are good.
Three nights were spent in Chukkung for acclimatization purposes, which gave us plenty of time to organize a mutiny, run into Ueli Steck (who was staying at the lodge next door), climb to the false summit of Chukkung Ri, meet a super amusing trekker that looked and talked like Bear Grylls, take showers and do “laundry”!
From the journal: “This country is a gem, a refuge of peace where humanity has not lost its soul. Time goes by slowly here. Life is simple and beautiful.”
I now have the opportunity to share a little about our food situation.
Food was an interesting thing, and at times ordeal, for our group. Lunches while trekking consisted of three staples: fried noodles, fried rice and fried potatoes, all together with sweet hot lemon tea. At breakfast and dinner we chose from the lodge menu; pizza, dumplings, Sherpa stew and Dal Bhat being the most popular for dinner; omelets with chapati and jam/honey toast being the preferred choice for breakfast. Dal Bhat is a local dish composed of rice, lentil soup and potato curry. It’s a very tasty and healthy option. There is a famous saying in Nepal regarding this dish: Dal Bhat Power 24 hours (and I bought a t-shirt with it :)). For tea time, usually at 4pm, we would have popcorn and cookies with our choice of black, milk or hot lemon tea. Never in my life had I eaten such concentration of fat for so long. Anywhere else that diet would send me on an exponential weight gain. In the Khumbu I noticed my pants getting bigger and bigger every day, with nothing I could do to stop the process.
Because of the size of our group we would order breakfast at dinner and dinner at lunch, so the tea houses had time to prepare our food. Naturally, many hours would pass from the moment we ordered until we received our food. It was not uncommon to forget what our bellies had wished for at the previous meal. That’s how one of our guides became the master of ceremonies during food delivery. He would look at the list and direct servers to plate owners; otherwise plates would sit unclaimed with hungry people nearby.
It is worth mentioning that all that food was sometimes not enough. I remember (and I laugh) the night we were supposed to shoot for the summit of Lobuche… the planned wake-up call was 12:30am. We had had Sherpa stew for dinner at 5pm, which was earlier than usual. Without a doubt at midnight I was starving. I had spent most of those seven hours turning around in my sleeping bag waiting out the storm and it was still snowing hard. At 2:30am I looked at the snacks I had stashed in my pack and nothing seemed appetizing, so I got out and walked a few steps to the guides’ tent. I decidedly woke them up and asked if the kitchen would be open soon for some breakfast (hey, they had promised!). The answer was no, so there I went, back to my tent to fish some fruit puree and chocolate.
From the journal: “The rest day wasn’t so bad. I started reading Into Thin Air, which is great because of all the references to what I’m seeing. The Khumbu cough is taking a toll on our bodies. Every night I have cold-like symptoms but I’m not sick. Damn yak dung smoke and the absence of firewood. When they turned on the stove today I told CJ: ‘here comes our warmth and our misery’.”
KONGMA LA PASS
For our eleventh day of trekking we crossed over the Kongma La pass (5540m), which was the hardest day of all for me, not necessarily the hardest pass. My breathing was a mess going uphill, but boy, what a view we got at the top! A pristine alpine lake on one side and the Khumbu glacier on the other.
Down down down we went on a steep talus field until we were face to face with the glacier. Food, warmth and rest awaited us on the other side, in the village of Lobuche, we just had to find a way up and over. You could tell that everyone hated the additional altitude gain that afternoon by the loud swearing going on.
By unanimous vote, the lodge that night was the worst of all. We had gone from private bathrooms in Namche to a couple of non-working common toilets in Lobuche. Spoiled no more.
GORAK SHEP – EVEREST BASE CAMP
Everest Base Camp was next, but interestingly enough it didn’t feel as the highlight it should be. We hiked to Gorak Shep, where we took a tea – ahem, internet – break before walking a couple more hours to EBC. The tippy-top of Everest made itself gradually more visible as we walked further north.
The place is called base camp but there was no spot flat enough to setup a tent. Most likely in the spring the rocks are still covered in snow. I found that the icefall is rather deceiving, not very imposing as seen from base camp, but very treacherous in nature.
From the journal: “I washed my face today, but my hair is in very bad shape. The lodge tonight is the most remote and basic that we will use. The rooms are as small as they can get. However, I will not complain much as 4G works here! I gave mom a call after 3 days of having disappeared. She was happy.”
By 7am the next morning we were on our way to the summit of Kala Patthar, a “small” hill approximately 18500 ft high. Following the dusty trail northwest of Gorak Shep, we noticed Pumori’s beautiful base camp to our right. Pumori would be a great mountain to climb one day.
LOBUCHE BASE CAMP, HIGH CAMP AND SUMMIT ATTEMPT
Meanwhile, over the previous couple of days our Lobuche base camp staff had been making preparations for our arrival that afternoon. There would be no more warm dining rooms for a week, but we’d have amazing food prepared by Pasang, a fabulous cook who also works at Camp 2 on Everest in the spring. Clients had access to a dining tent, while the staff had an equally sized cook tent. That evening we were served an arrangement of steak, pizza, vegetables and canned fruit for dessert.
Next was a quasi-rest day. I could no longer stand my dirty hair, so I asked for some warm water and washed it out in the open. Several hours were spent learning to use an ascender on fixed ropes. The funny thing was that at that point I had to be careful not to walk too fast, or get up and start going uphill at more than a snail’s pace. Suffocation came so quickly that I cannot count the times I had to stop to catch my breath, feeling like I’d been underwater for a very long time and desperately needed to reach the surface.
When we woke up the following morning we had a herd of yaks mingling with us. Well, even animals as big as yaks have their soft side. Phunuru showed me that they LOVE salt. Better yet, I loved to have them lick salt from my hand. I laughed like a little kid, but let’s just say their tongues are not soft like my dog’s.
That afternoon we found high camp, with a clear lake by its side. A little sightseeing here and there… and the snow started to fall nonstop for twenty-four hours.
My special hiding place during that time was the cook tent, joining the company of the Sherpa guides and the cook staff. I mostly sat drinking tea and listening to their fast dialogue, pretending that it was possible to pick up Nepali if I tried hard enough. The English speaking ones would translate for me often, but I laughed with them even if I didn’t understand a word they said.
We decided to make use of the contingency day for our next summit bid, which meant that we enjoyed an extra day at high camp. Some people compared it to the feeling of being in jail. With no dining tent, our hot drinks and meals were delivered to our tents. We’d try to sleep but would eventually feel the need to get out and stretch the legs. There wasn’t much to do but wait for the storm to pass.
Our summit attempt took us up to a little more than 18,500 feet before we turned around due to very icy and slippery rocks. With not enough rope to fix lines on the rock section, the guides made the right decision. On the descent, still in the dark, I fell down an icy slab and somehow instead of breaking a bone, one of my poles broke in half. I had nothing but gratefulness to feel that day. Many people were upset, and in that moment it’s easy to think that our failed summit had been the guides’ fault. It’s obvious it wasn’t. We may have been “one day too late” weather-wise, the IMG office may have missed the storm in the forecast, but the fact was that the mountain would remain there for us to come back and try again.
All but three clients left that day. Five in helicopter, and the rest on a no-detour trekking route back to Lukla.
After we gave up our Lobuche dreams (for that season), the now small team spent the rest of the day resting and savoring the last we were going to have of base camp food. New yaks came by the next morning to graze on the surrounding fields, and I tried to give them some salt, but they simply ignored me. That afternoon I met the only female Sherpa guide I came across during my time in the Khumbu. I remember wearing all the layers I had while she just had a baselayer and a fleece.
Just before dusk I noticed some firewood lying around the main tent. It was there so we could enjoy a surprise bonfire at the bottom of a big boulder. I appreciated it like a child appreciates candy on Halloween. The warmth of the flames made everyone happy, as it had been a cold day.
When we woke up at base camp for the last time, rest days were a thing of the past. Our scheduled crossing of Cho La pass was going to be long and difficult, but amazing at the same time. We would find ourselves in a more remote valley, with an overnight at Thagnak, a town that lives only in the spring and fall. The hardest part was saying goodbye to the base camp staff that we wouldn’t see again, including Karma Rita and Pasang. The best part was that Phunuru was coming with us.
CHO LA PASS
Right out of base camp we rounded a mountain side with a large turquoise lake at its base. The view was breathtaking, just as much as the many others we had throughout the day.
Slowly we made our way west and up a gentle uphill valley to the start of the climb, breathing being difficult, as usual. It was still early morning, so we watched in awe as several porters crossed our path in the opposite direction. One of them had a misstep and fell in front of us, the only time I saw a porter fall. When we saw a scrambling section in front of us, excitement got the best of me. I climbed at sea-level speed, for which my lungs protested loud and clear.
For the next few hours we had a winter wonderland almost to ourselves. We reached the first high point, then walked down to a glacier that we crossed for a little while. A few dozen feet before the top we encountered a bottleneck in a no-fall zone; well, you could technically fall, but you would plunge into a frigid lake.
At the top we took a well-deserved break. The other side of the pass had a lot of downhill slippery slopes and a traverse over an annoying talus field. We were officially tired, and the pole-less hand of mine was growing fat due to lack of circulation. With one hour more to go and the last fifteen uphill minutes in sight we heard Phunuru greet someone. That someone turned out to be a good friend of his who was camping with his group right there, in the middle of nowhere. They immediately pulled out some chairs and gave us hot tea and noodle soup with salami bits. The best I’ll ever have. I was once again amazed at the hospitality of the Khumbu people. After feeling like we couldn’t thank him enough we knew we had the energy to crush the last part of our journey to Thagnak. We arrived at 3:30pm and went straight for Chola Pass resort, a lodge owned by Phunuru’s cousin, my new friend Lhakpa Nuru. Everyone got a hot shower and a celebratory drink. That place had the cleanest dining room in which we’d been, plus a well-insulated stove and great Chilean wine. I enjoyed seeing the lodge dog come in and out as he pleased, at times enjoying the warmth of the stove and at others curled up in a ball outside in the freezing cold. It was a happy night.
On the morning that followed I was the first one up, taking the opportunity to sip a cup of hot coffee before the next person joined me in the dining room at 6:30am. We said goodbye to Thagnak and rejoined the trail. We had the entire valley to ourselves, walking through several villages that did not seem to be primary residences, for we saw no animals and almost no people. I remember it and smile, for it was the most relaxing day of all.
On our stop halfway to Phortse I ate my second to last ration of spicy cheetos. Cheetos, I discovered, are the perfect trekking snack for me, for they last long, taste great, and cannot get drier than they already are.
Phortse, oh Phortse. I needed much more than the 19 hours I got to spend there. The Sherpa guides where like family to us by the 22nd day, so coming to their village and meeting their families was very special. Most other villages had been tourist-oriented. Phortse was residential. The local monastery had a three-day ceremony in progress, and Mingma, one of our guides, was one of the organizers.
Some houses were still being rebuilt, but everywhere we saw an active and happy town.
I won’t go in detail regarding days 23 and 24. All I’m going to say is this: we hiked back to Namche and then to Lukla, this time with no chicken interruptions.
From the journal: “Today we leave the Khumbu valley. I’m sad. I miss the Sherpa team. We’re waiting for the fog to clear at a coffee shop across the street from the airport. I don’t want to spend another night here with the noisy people. Last night while we were sleeping they were loud as hell on the shared hallway, and had the indecency of asking me to shut up when I said good morning to my team an hour ago. As if they didn’t wake me up last night! But hey, we ate their cookies before they arrived in the afternoon :P. I am clearly depressed. On a happy note, a moment ago I had the funniest telephone kind of conversation. We ran into Pasang, the base camp cook, who’s also flying to Kathmandu today and who speaks very little English. He asked me if I wanted coffee, and I did, but I didn’t want him to pay for it, so I told him that I’d wait a little bit, which turned out to be a complicated sentence. He understood that I wanted a little, so I ended up with a free tiny cup of coffee in my hands.”
During those twenty-four days I got a glimpse of how human life was hundreds of years ago, before the world was filled with abundance. Life is still uncomplicated, peaceful and productive, at least in places like the Khumbu valley. I can’t wait to go back.