Hiking to the Base of Mt. Everest
Everest sat high on the near horizon blowing its nose like a blizzard over the top of neighboring Lhotse, the eternal hurricane force winds scouring Everest from its west to east summits. This was the first time I’d seen Everest other than a glimpse from an airplane into Katmandu or Lhasa. This time had taken some doing.
The only way to get to Everest is to fly to Lukla, unless you’d prefer a rickety bus to Jiri and a week’s hike from there to reach the Lukla trailhead.
For $93 ($30 for locals) you can fly from Katmandu to Lukla, the third busiest airstrip in Nepal -- everyone wants to see Everest up close and some fools actually harbor ambitions to climb Everest or one or more of the dozen other incredible summits in the area.
Don't Forget to Acclimatize
A few years ago you could have flown into the airstrip above Namche Bazar, but the folks in Lukla complained to the government about their complete loss of business upon the opening of the new airstrip, so you still have to hike from Lukla to Namche, a two-day slog.
From Lukla to Everest Base Camp is a minimum of eight days from 9000 to 18,000 feet (3400 to 5400M) including two days off to acclimatize. The acclimatization part can be important.
When you hop off the little two-engine plane in Lukla, you’re surrounded by glaciated peaks and would-be porters. Hire a porter. Spend a measly $100 to save your back for eleven or so days, a nice contribution to the local economy, providing a job to a porter that will support his family for six months. Then instead of toting a pack your energy can be expended taking photos National Geographic Magazine would be proud to feature on the cover.
Besides effusive greetings from would-be porters, a medical doctor from London begged me to sign up for a high altitude sickness study coordinated by Stanford University Medical School. Take two capsules a day of what could be Diamox, gingko biloba or a placebo. Check in with docs in three villages ranging higher and higher in altitude. Cute doc, so I signed up.
Finding a Porter
Raz was a fit-looking twenty-three year old quite nice kid and to look at him you wouldn’t think any mountain could impede his progress, contrary to later reality. You see many porters carrying over fifty kilos (110 lbs) wearing flip-flops up near vertical trails with snow blowing in their faces.
Raz and I dropped down from Lukla into a narrow canyon with Tibetan-style houses perched on sheer hillsides that plunged precipitously to an aquamarine glacier-melt river. If this river were named after the mountain from which it sprang it’d be named Everest, but it isn’t.
There is seldom electric and never any heat except in the dining room where low room charges ($.75 to $3) are cozily recouped over pots of Tibetan milk tea and high-priced food (trucked in by porters). The menu is fortunately mostly carbs: breads, eggs, potatoes and such, much of it fried, from two to four dollars a pop. Eat and stay warm.
Of course it’s been almost twenty years, so maybe Rosalind had better furnishings than my bare plywood room with two dinky racks barely counterbalanced by lots of windows. The Carter Suite must have been divided into fourths.
The rest/acclimatization day in Namche is often spent exploring its trinket and trekking shops, shopping for goodies from prayer wheels to hiking poles, exploring the river that waterfalls through town center where locals wash their duds in front of signs saying "No Washing Clothes" and listening to a cacophony of stone masons frantically chiseling gray granite to build Namche’s forty-first lodge badly needed during Nepal’s tourist slump inspired by loose cannon Maoists.
By noon the clouds drop over the peaks and fog wisps around the streets of Namche but don’t let that drive you into an Internet café unless you have a spare $18 an hour. It’s only slightly less disheartening to watch non-tourist porters who supply local merchants, trudging by with half their load consisting of twelve cases of beer and the other half twenty liter canisters of soybean oil: flip flop until you drop.
Portrait Studies of Everest
The next day was a rest day in Dingboche, to get acclimatized to 14,500 ft (4400M). Raz and I climbed to 4800 meters and then while Raz had an extended tea break at a Chukhung lodge, I pushed the envelope by gasping up another 1300 feet (400M), almost to the brown barren summit of Chukhung Rai. This climb got me to the highest elevation at which we’d have to sleep in a few days at Gorek Shep, 17,000 feet (5200M), the last village before Everest Base Camp.
Snow flurries began within an hour of leaving Dingboche, adding to the mud and slipperiness of the steep climb to Lobuche’s 1,600 feet (4900M), a mere five miles (eight km) from Base Camp. But upon our arrival Raz dropped a bombshell. He was high altitude sick, unable to concentrate, migraine headache, weak limbs and he had to get to a lower elevation pronto.
Never try to speed hike for nine or ten hours between 16,000 and 18,000 feet (4900 and 5400M), even for such a worthy goal as reaching Everest Base Camp and returning to shelter alive. My blaze of exhausted impressions included:
A 15-year old tourist at Gorek Shep unable to remember his name, sure he could recall it if the doc would just give him a couple more hours to think, waiting for a helicopter that if it hadn’t arrived within the hour he’d have been history.
The fog-enshrouded top of KalaPatthar climbed by Jimmy Carter and hundreds of tourists at 1800 feet (5500M) for often superb views of Everest and the surrounding magnificent peaks. I skipped the non-view this day.
The smashed rescue helicopter on the outskirts of Base Camp, a casualty from the 2003 season that killed the pilot and copilot, and the random pinnacles of ice saved from melting by the moraine rocks balanced precariously on their tiny tops.
The blaze of pumpkin orange, taxi yellow, baby blue and a cacophony of garish tents dotting the harsh landscape worse than the rockiest river bottom. How could anyone sleep on ice-sharp rocks?
The complete disorganization of Base Camp, which in 2004 consisted of perhaps thirteen or fourteen expeditions to climb Everest. No one knew for sure.
The Envelope, Please
I’d guess far fewer than half the trekkers who enter Samarantha (Everest) National Park make it to Base Camp because most suffer from mild to very severe high altitude sickness, food poisoning, giardia or half a dozen other readily available and debilitating maladies.
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