The Wild Road to Everest Base Camp October 2018

The Wild Road to Everest Base Camp October 2018

Kathmandu is an assault to the senses. It rivals cities in India for nihilistic traffic, pollution, dust- borne pathogens, impossible crosswalks, and crowded store fronts - always with the obligatory guy sitting on the steps in front urging you to come in and buy his counterfeit stuff. In theory, traffic is supposed to keep to the left, as it does in England or Japan. In practice: any open space is fair game. Traffic is ostensibly controlled by ineffectual men in uniform that spend most of their time cowering in small wooden booths but do sometimes immerge to waive long red wands in the air until they are tired of being ignored.
Almost immediately upon exiting the hotel I met the universal young man who approaches:
“Hello sir. How are you?
Where are you from?
What are you looking for today? 

These guys are everywhere: Istanbul, Dar es Salaam, Delhi, and Buenos Aires. I have learned how to politely decline their advances. Most of them are just trying to make ends meet by shaking me down. Countries like India and Nepal are powerfully spiritual, and the idea of actually robbing someone is beyond the morality of most people. They will only commit the robbery that you agree to. They will try to provide a service at an exorbitant cost hoping that your ignorance of local prices will provide an opportunity. I don’t disapprove. Most are in dire financial straits and I am a rich man by comparison. I don’t mind paying a little extra if it helps them through their lives.
Kathmandu is relentless. Humanity keeps coming toward you like an ocean: endless and bountiful. Many streets overflow with buzzing swarms of cheap motorcycles. Motorcycle ridership is not restricted to young rebels or paunchy old man seeking to pursue a midlife fantasy. Women and men of all varieties take to the road on motorcycles and motor scooters as a cheap way to get to the hardware store or take a little girl in a tutu to dance class. There are also small, battered, privately-owned, buses that the humble people of the city crunch themselves into. They are never air-conditioned and always unbearably crowded. Riders have to touch each other a lot. They look miserable.
Tourists gravitate to the Thamel section of town. This area was hippy heaven in the 1960s and 70s. There are endless narrow streets with small store fronts that sell climbing and trekking gear: some of which is counterfeit and made in neighboring China. I’ve heard that the counterfeit gear is of good quality. I once purchased a counterfeit Northface backpack in Kashmir for $35. It was well-made and probably came from the same factory as the real one.
There are plenty of restaurants that will offer spicy food to challenge your digestive track. The tap water is tainted. Between- spicy food, air pollution, dust, and funky water, one stands good chance of either getting a bellyache or a respiratory infection. Many people walk around the city wearing ominous-looking face masks to filter out the pollution and dust. I pull a Buff that I wear around my neck over my nose when I’m walking down a dirty, dusty street. I don’t want to throw too much shade on Kathmandu. The people are friendly and playful. The city is full of ancient temples and gardens. Tourists swarm to these landmarks even though they charge you a small fee to enter. In many cases it is entirely worth it to check these places out for their religious and historical significance as well as for the fact that they provide a respite from the noise and chaos of the city.
On Monday, October 1st we got 4AM a wakeup call to catch plane to Lukla. The tiny airstrip in Lukla is tough for even the most experiences pilots. It is often called the “most dangerous airport in the world.”  At the drop of a hat, flights can be delayed because of poor visibility. Jane from Sheffield, England confesses to premedication with Valium and talked non- stop showing pictures of her dog on Facebook. The Tribhuvan airport waiting room is bustling with people of all ages, nationalities, and body types.
Lukla is too foggy and so we fly to an airport 7 miles away from there and wait in a field by the runway for a many hours. We’re at 8000ft and the air is cool and clean: a welcome relief from Kathmandu. Everyone stands around like it’s a cocktail party. It was named Phaulu Karanga. But after experiencing long delays we rechristened the place as “Phukal” airport (not a real Nepali name). Every 10 minutes or so our guide Pasang Sherpa gave us an update. We were waiting to get a helicopter to Lukla since it was too foggy to land a plane there. Since there was 14 of us, we needed three helicopters. The group was divided in terms of collective weight. The first group, of which I was not included, took off about six hours after we had landed in Phukal airport. The second group departed roughly an hour later leaving just me and three women in their 30s from North London. We waited in the blistering sun while sitting on 50-gallon barrels filled with helicopter fuel. The airport had no real waiting room, concessions or convenient restrooms. We sat all day: baking in the sun talking, laughing, and wishing we had actual chairs to sit in. The fair-skinned among us suffered from the first sunburn of many throughout the trip. Those who forgot to reapply sunscreen in the afternoon were condemned to the fires of Phukal.
The sun began to slowly set and there were about 75 people still waiting (with diminished hopes) that a helicopter would come around the bend to rescue them. Things got quiet. A group from Austrailia started doing yoga in the middle of the runway. No one even tried to stop them. The third helicopter never came and the three women from North London drooped their shoulders and shuffled along with me and Pasang up the hill to spend the night at a very primitive lodging facility. We ordered boiled potatoes with cheese, thinking it was the tamest thing on the menu. Within minutes we confirmed that it was the most disgusting meal we’d ever consumed.
It looked like we had displaced the children of the house for the night. The beds we slept on had comforters emblazoned with little cartoon characters. The one bathroom for the entire floor was flooded in about two inches of water. I couldn’t bear to think what it was that we were wading in. The smell of urine was overwhelming.
Despite our misfortunes, we hit it off well. The North London trio had a quick sense of humor and an invincible dedication to having fun. They referred to our dilemma “helegate”. We became thick as thieves. Adversity makes people closer. The next morning, Pasang frantically knocked on our doors at 6 AM insisting that we mobilize immediately and run down to the airport where we would be taking the first helicopter of the day to Lukla so that we could finally begin our trek. Dutifully we rushed down to the airfield, with one of the north London women actually brushing her teeth as she ran down the street. Breathlessly we arrived at the airfield only to find that we were not going to be on the first flight to Lukla and were free take an hour for breakfast. It was revealed over breakfast, that all three of the women had gone to a Catholic school together and had been close friends for the past 20 years. I asked them if they had ever heard the song “Catholic School Girls Rule “ by the Red Hot Chile Peppers. They hadn’t. From that point on I referred to them as the Catholic School Girls. They didn’t seem to mind. In fact, a few days later, I wrote a catchy tune for them. Pretty soon everyone called them the Catholic School Girls (CSG). They had nothing to be ashamed of I told them: My wife had been a Catholic school girl too.

It was 8 o’clock in the morning. The CSG and I were beginning to think that we would be led down the garden path again as we had been the day before; and that we would be stuck forever at Phukal airport.

I took a stroll to the far end of town. Pasang came running up to me breathless: He had been looking all over for me! Our helicopter was due to arrive within a half an hour. He ran off down the street again towards the airfield. I took my time; it was really only about a five-minute walk. I was at the top of a long staircase that lead down to the airfield when I could hear Pasang shout frantically out to me “Richard !!!!!!“. I gave a friendly wave. There was no helicopter in the air or on the ground. This meant that I had at least another half an hour to walk about 200 yards. Pasang was beside himself with worry. Miraculously, about 20 minutes later a helicopter came around the bend like the cavalry. Pasang told us this was Our Helicopter. We jumped up and down with laughter and joy. We would be released from the clutches of this refugee camp/airport. Helegate was over!
The CSG and I were giddy with excitement as we climbed inside the chopper. The engine whirred and the propellers reached a frenzy of deafening noise as we lifted up into the air. We rose rapidly above the jagged contours of the Himalaya, expertly navigating the high narrow passes until we reached the impossibly short runway at Lukla Airport. Thankfully, we arrived by helicopter and avoided the death-defying challenge having to land an airplane on an aircraft carrier length runway that is considerably higher at the far end. Did I mention that Lukla is commonly referred to as “the most dangerous airport in the world.”
At Lukla we could put the unpredictability of air travel behind us and set about walking which was, after all, the purpose of our visit.
The first 5k was downhill and right away we noticed people who were just finishing their trek to EBC making their weary way up the last long hill to Lukla. They looked pretty beat up. I would say 85% of them looked knackered and pissed off. Obviously, there would be a change in mood as soon as they entered the arched gateway into the town of Lukla that marked the successful end of the journey.
It gave me pause.
Is this trek going to be so long and arduous that I won’t have any fun? I began to worry. The walk itself is only 39 km each way. This is a little bit over 24 miles. But it is 24 miles uphill at high elevation. That means as you go along there is less, and less oxygen and it gets colder and colder. Walking just a mile or two can take hours if you’re going uphill. The path itself is ancient and dates back centuries to when it was a vibrant trade route between Tibet and a Nepal. A lot of the path is built up with stone stairs. The stairs are steep and made from irregular rocks. This makes them treacherous to navigate downward without falling down and breaking your neck. Going up is slow. One foot in front of another using baby steps. In many high altitude regions, the local people have a word for the slow pace you should take when ascending a slope. In South America the word is despacio. In Africa they say Pole Pole when you climb Kilimanjaro. In Kashmir the term is Coolee Coolee. The Nepali phrase is Bistarai Bistarai. I had a t-shirt made in Khatmandu with just the word Bistarai on the front in large letters. Most high-altitude guides will require you to ascend at a pace that seems almost comically slow. They do so to avoid: vomiting, shortness of breath, extreme headache, and, in the worst case, edema. Going too quickly makes you tired, irritable and prone to making bad decisions.
The first night we spent in a little town called Monjo. The tea house/hotel had no heating and the temperature in my bedroom was probably 40 F that night. I had two blankets to cover myself and stayed pretty warm until I had got up to pee. The digs in general were 100% better than we had encountered at Phukal airport. There was edible food, a bathroom that didn’t cause you to vomit. The CSG and I were reveling in the comparative luxury of our new location. One of the guides had agreed to carry my violin but he had gone ahead with the other part of the group in one of the earlier helicopters. This left me to use whatever I could. That night we composed the first draft of our sing-
along composition “Catholic School Girls “. The first rendition was performed and composed on a broken, plastic ukulele that despite its deficiencies was good enough for rehearsal purposes.
By the next morning we were eager to re-join our fellow trackers in Namche Bazar. What lay between us was a good five hours of steady uphill trekking to a final altitude of 11,286 ft. I went at a bistarai, bistarai pace and the CSG followed along. We navigated up the steep inclines and over wobbly suspension bridges. There were scores of wobbly suspension bridges that crossed over deep gorges. The bridges felt strong and reliable to me. They supported hundreds of trekkers, porters, and yaks every day. The CSG and I shared cheerful banter and they treated me to their renditions of Beyoncé songs. We reached Namche at noon. This was just in time for us to meet up with the rest of the group who were having lunch at the tea house where we were staying. The group met us with uproarious cheering as well as hugs and kisses. We were all reunited, and the party was in full swing.
It was a lively group that consisted of:
  • Two middle-aged Canadian brothers (Serge, and Remy) from Saskatchewan and their 80-
year-old father (Phillipe) who was a man of clever wit and iron determination.
  • A dark-eyed, olive-skinned, thirtyish, Kiwi woman, presently living and working as a Pilates
instructor in Kuwait. Nicole had an irresistible warmth and cheerfulness that helped all of us
make it through the adventure.
  • A woman, Named Dee, in her early 20s from Ireland who was fabulously foul-mouth in the
way that is so beautiful in Irish women.
  • A middle-aged woman, former flight attendant, from Yorkshire (Sheffield) England. Jane had meticulously done makeup and hair. We all enjoyed her bawdy sense of humor and irresistible Yorkshire accent.
  • Also from Yorkshire, (Hull) was a 47-year-old man who lived in Singapore with his Japanese wife and small daughter. His voice was reedy and strident. James loved to entertain us with his singing, free-style rapping, and over-the top wit.
  • A quiet woman (Elsa) in her twenties from Finland who lost her shit after she sat on her iphone.
  • Martin: young financial adviser from Melbourne, Australia and a handsome devil.
  • Phillip a beer-loving Volkswagen engineer from Berlin.
    I played music for folks in the dining room at dinnertime. Sometimes I strummed the violin like a ukulele and spontaneously composed three or four sing-a-long songs for the group. One of them was an ode to Catholic School Girls. Another was about the Himalayan mountain gods and goddesses who would “fuck you up“ if you did not observe the rituals and customs of the Buddhist faith. For this number, I was able to get the group to sing in a brilliant call-and-response that brought us all to tears of laughter.
    The small city of Namche Bazar is a combination of many worlds. It is not accessible by motor vehicle. Everything gets there on the back of a human porter, a pack animal, or in a helicopter. The first thing you see when you walk into town are large groups of people doing their laundry in the river the way their ancestors would have done it 1000 years ago. There are temples, prayer wheels, and Bhuddist statuary everywhere. One had to be always careful to navigate the statuary in a clockwise direction so as not to create bad karma. Juxtaposed with the ancient Sherpa culture is the booming new business community of restaurants, hotels, and gear shops that cater to the wealthy trekkers
from all over the world who stop by here on the way to Everest Base Camp. The dirt streets are overflowing with healthy, wealthy, westerners (and Easterners) in expensive outdoor gear casually strolling, acclimatizing, enjoying chocolate carrot cake, pizza, fancy booze, and Yak dung all served up together in a strange festival of multiculturalism.
Since we were a day behind the rest of the group, we did not reap the benefits of an acclimatization day or any rest that may have come with it. We were however, required to take an acclimatization hike in the afternoon. Even though we were all still knackered from the mornings trek. The afternoon hike took us up to a monastery and a large statue of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa climber who was the first to summit Everest along with Sir Edmund Hillary. Tenzing and Hillary have become like Gods in this region. Not only were they the first to conquer Everest, but they used their new-found fame to raise money from international sponsors to build infrastructure, schools, and hospitals in the Khumbu Valley region: home to Everest as well as Tenzing Norgay’s Sherpa culture.
Now reunited, the group begin to develop a dynamic and character. We were awash with wild personalities. The two who had come in separate packages from Yorkshire: James and Jane were the loudest and liveliest of the group. Their voices were always the most audible. I called them the yammering Yorkies. Thankfully they were both entertaining to be in the company of. Jane was willing to tell you everything that was going through her mind at any given time. Most of it was interesting and humorous; some of it fell short of that. By the end of the trip it was impossible not to have affection for all of the members of our party regardless of what their personality flaws or strengths may have been. James was currently employed as a teacher in Singapore where he lived with his Japanese wife and daughter, had an English horn of a voice that was hilarious when he sang his inexhaustible repertoire of pop songs and astonishing when he freestyle rapped. James and Jane
were almost always engaged in playful volleys of verbiage. The CSG and I had become tightly-knit quartet after the trauma of our time at Phukal airport bound us together permanently. No doubt there were some who thought I was a dirty old man. That may be true, but the CSG were more like my daughters than anything untoward.
From Namche we continued up the path to Temboche. At this point the trail opens up into vast, sweeping Himalayan views. Progress was slowed by the fact that we had stop every 100 yards, take pictures, and gasp with astonishment. Although it is not nearly the highest mountain in this range, Ama Dablam is ,without a doubt, the most splendid. It’s Mutt and Jeff spires poke into the sky like a double Matterhorn. Its slopes are caked with freshly powdered snow. Climbing it (no goal of mine) would require rope, ice axes and the kinds of things that a man my age doesn’t mess with. We were also treated to towering views of Lhotse, Nuptse, and the other mountains that form the Everest massif. The great heights of the mountains were set off by the depth of the Khumbu Valley below. From the long view you could see the change in elevation from the base of the valley to the summit of the mountains which must’ve been at least 15 or 20,000 feet.

Past the city of Dingboche, the terrain becomes barren like a desert. There is no more oxygen emitting green vegetation of any kind. The slow recession of the Khumbu glacier left a rugged, rocky topography in its wake. You struggle to keep an even balance as the trail is often covered in talus. The wind is free to blow as it wishes. In the late afternoon it picks up and cuts through all manner of spiffy hiking attire. The sun is bright. The usual protective layers of atmosphere at lower altitude are not present, and unencumbered UV rays are free to have their way with your skin. The air is dry; the wind is cutting; and the sun is merciless. My nose first peeled and then bled, making me look like I just wrestled with a snow leopard. The grandeur of the terrain matches and sometimes exceeds other landscapes (the Alps, Pyrenees, Andes, Sierra Nevadas) formed by the collision of tectonic plates. You can see for hundreds of miles if the weather is clear. The disruption of geography made possible by the collision between the Indian Plate and Eurasian Plate is abundantly there for all to see.
The rugged path through the Khumbu Valley, plus increasing altitude caused Phillipe, our 80-year- old trekker friend, to stop at Gorak Shep just 5 km short of Everest base camp. This may have felt like a failure to him, but it was considerable victory for man his age. In fact, it would be an impressive accomplishment for someone in their 20s.
There’s a Long Ridge that you hike along right before you reach Everest base camp. From there you can look down and see the tiny figures of people gathering in a crowd to celebrate the terminal point of their journey. Despite its grandiose surroundings and storied history: base camp itself isn’t much more than a flat rocky area where people put up tents sometimes. When we got there we all hugged and congratulated each other for having made it all the way. Most people were focused on taking photographs of themselves or their groups in front of the little sign and collection of prayer flags that marked Mark Everest base camp. It seemed more like a social media event then the end of the quest. The greatest concern with the largest number of people seem to be photographic record and broadcast of the moment. I stepped aside and looked down upon the great Khumbu ice fall where there are massive chunks of ice that shift at the whims of the glacier. Every spring a hot shot group of Sherpas called the “ice doctors”, with the blessing of the mountain goddess Chomolungma, install a treacherous system of ladders and ropes that aid those seeking to summit Everest during the months of April and May. Many of the “ice doctors” have themselves summited Everest 10 to 20 times. I look down at the Icefall in wonder and appreciation of those super elite Sherpas. After a brief celebration and photo session at base camp we all went back to our frozen lodgings at Gorak Shep.
Nine days into our journey, our group had turned into a tight little choir. We had honed a repertoire of spontaineous sing-alongs. Perhaps our most successful one was about going slowly.
When you’re walking up the hill you go
slowly slowly slowly slowly
Even if you take some pills you go
slowly slowly slowly slowly.

The tune itself was a kind of earworm and stuck in everybody’s head. I suppose I’m to blame for that. I would also play some Irish and Gypsy music on my violin for the crowds in the dining room at night gathered around the yak dung stove.
We commenced the four-day trek back to Lukla and stopped for three hours during the second day of our dissent in Namche Bazar. Released from constraints of high altitude, two of the expeditions thirstiest members went on a Nepali booze bender in Namche that continued to the end of the journey. We had gone 10 days without drinking any alcohol in as much is alcohol can seriously exacerbate the effects of altitude. 10 days without booze creates a pent-up desire in many folks. It was time to celebrate. These two guys James from Singapore and Phillip from Berlin quickly stacked up their empty cans of Everest beer. By the time they were through drinking at our three-hour stopover they had drank seven cans of beer each. There were many attempts to stack the cans vertically so that they reached the ceiling of the restaurant. It took at least 12 tries before one of the Catholic school girls did it successfully. As we were making our way down, there were legions of people coming up the trail. There had been several days when airplanes were unable to land at Lukla airport due to fog and the poor percentages of a ridiculously short runway. The dam had burst and here were dramatically increased numbers of delayed expeditions that were coming in the opposite direction. We would sometimes offer words of encouragement to them. I would slap fives with anyone who looked over 60 years old and encourage them to carry-on until they have reached their goal.
Our two drunken friends were just ahead of us and singing ghetto rap songs at the tops of their voices with special emphasis on the barrage of obscenies that those songs are known for. I was pissing my pants watching those struggling up the hill pass our drunken companions curiously staring in wonder. On down the hill they went with the recitations of Tupac, Biggie, Dr. Dre, and Ice T. By the time we reached our destination that night in Monjo, James and Philip were psychotically drunk. They engaged in things that I will not embarrass them to recall at this time. The final day of the trek was upon us it seemed impossible that we had just spent 13 days trekking to Everest base camp and back but indeed we had. There was another celebration for us all when we crossed the archway into the town of Lukla where we would spend our last night before hopefully catching a plane in the morning.
In the back of my mind, there is always the fear that we would reach Lukla and be stuck there for days waiting for the weather to clear enough for the planes to take off. If this happened, it would create a domino effect and disrupt my travel plans for the next several days. I would have to reschedule my flight back to New York which would probably cost a lot of money. My wife and I were celebrating our 38th anniversary on 18 October and if I were stuck in Lukla I would miss our anniversary. Thankfully we made it onto the second airplane out of Lukla the next morning and had just one day left in Kathmandu to cause some trouble.


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