It’s a 120-kilometre trek that thousands of people embark on every year. How hard could it really be? Illawarra Mercury journalist Sally Willoughby finds out.
I was spent. After nine days, 60 kilometres and fifty hours of trekking we had walked into the small Himalayan settlement of Gorak Shep, only hours from our goal. As we arrived at the village, a helicopter landed and weak from exhaustion and a lack of appetite, I wondered what I’d have to say to be on the next ride out of there. I was at the final hurdle, but I was having serious doubts about whether my body could trek the final three kilometres to our ultimate destination – Everest Base Camp.
It was mid-morning and we had a simple lunch at a teahouse - a basic lodge where we eat and sleep along the journey. Fatigued, unfocused and undernourished we began our final push. We were almost there.
Nine days earlier we had flown from Kathmandu into Lukla airport brimming with excitement at the adventure ahead. Perched halfway up a cliff face, the Lukla runway is about 500-metres long with a mountain at one end and a three-kilometre drop at the other. It is one of the steepest approach pathways and considered to be one of the most dangerous airports in the world. A minor pilot error could land you into the side of a mountain.
With our feet back on the ground, we started our trek with three hours of mostly downhill walking to our first camp, Phakding (elevation 2610m). I knew this was going to be a challenge, but after the first day my confidence buoyed. Perhaps this wasn’t going to be as hard as I’d anticipated.
That outlook soon changed.
We climbed for seven hours the next day, the trail weaving through the blue pine forest and blooming rhododendron flowers that explode in the Spring. With the Dudh Kosi River roaring below us we crossed four suspension bridges and hit a particularly grueling ascent. After two hours up a steep trail we arrived at the bustling marketplace of Namche Bazaar (3440 metres) - our next camp and the gateway to the high Himalaya. The air was thinner here and I was out of breath climbing the single flight of stairs from the meal room to our sleeping quarters.
Namche is also our first real glimpse into Sherpa culture. Originally from Tibet, the Sherpa people have lived in the Himalayas for hundreds of years. They farm the land but mostly rely on tourism for income. There are few job opportunities in Nepal and while we lug two litres of water and our rain gear in a day pack each day, we share the trail with porters and Sherpas carrying supplies up to 40 kilograms. It’s a hard and strenuous job but the people are strong and humble and kind. I have a profound respect for them and each time I get despondent on the trail, I think of their strength and am inspired.
One morning I asked our Sherpa guide, Phurba, what he carried in his large pack. There was a stretcher and oxygen as well as his water for the day and clothes. “Sherpa’s are like a chilli,” he told me. “We are small but powerful and very strong.”
Side note: Phurba ran the 42-kilometre Everest Base Camp marathon in four hours and 35 minutes last year.
From Namche we trekked higher and stayed a night at Phortse Gaon (3810 metres) and then made our way to Dingboche (4410 metres) for two nights.
The air is thin and breathing is a chore now. We would stop frequently to rest and catch our breath and are asked each morning and night how we feel. Our guides watched us closely, looking for any signs of altitude sickness. Most of us experience some effects of the altitude – particularly headaches and a loss of appetite. We are encouraged to drink three to four litres of water a day and our oxygen saturation and heart rate is measured each evening.
From Dingboche we set off for Lobuche (4900 metres) and at the top of an ascent we turned a corner and arrived at the memorial to fallen mountaineers and Sherpas. We quietly made our way around to each memorial. It was a reverent moment and sobering reminder of the risk and dangers on the mountain and even though our group won't be summiting, it is expedition season, and we shared the trail and teahouses with many who will. Hundreds of people have died while attempting Mount Everest.
On April 25, 2015, a 7.8 earthquake that struck Nepal triggered an avalanche at Everest Base Camp killing more than 20 people and leaving the region in ruins. The villages are still being rebuilt with the people desperate to restore the trail and mitigate the lost tourism dollars they rely on so heavily. We made our way around to each memorial. It’s a hard experience to explain but I walked away realising just how insignificant I was on this mighty mountain.
The next day we trekked the three hours from Lobuche to Gorak Shep where we would continue on to base camp. The days are physically grueling and I started to wane mentally - I just wanted to go home. It became even harder to breathe as we pushed past an elevation of 5000 metres and I spent much of the two and a half hours on the trail from Gorak Shep to base camp trying to sort my head out and focus. It’s a particularly challenging trail, up and down passes and scrambling over rocks and I’m close to tears a couple of times. We made our way down the final pass and onto a small clearing that marks our arrival at base camp (5364 metres).
Everyone’s experience is different. For me, there was no euphoria. No elation or yelp of achievement. We hugged each other. We congratulated each other and thanked our guides for leading us there safely.
In front of us there were the yellow tents of mountaineers who would be attempting the summit over the coming weeks. The snow-capped mountains bore down on us, and despite my exhaustion it was a majestic and overwhelming moment.
After a while we turned and trekked back to Gorak Shep where we would stay the night. The final three days back to Lukla were long and tiring and I just wanted it to be over. It’s only after arriving home that I truly appreciated the journey for what it was. I knew the experience would be hard, but I didn’t realise just how hard.
The Himalayas are breathtakingly beautiful (literally) and the Nepalese people humble and generous. It was physically demanding, but it was overcoming the mental barriers that I’m most proud of.