In Tibet, it’s referred to as Chomolungma; the Mother Goddess of the Universe. In Nepal, it’s Sagarmatha; The Mother of the Ocean; such fitting names for an incredibly imposing, majestic piece of mother earth. So to think that it is most famous as Mt Everest; named after some gin sodden, toffee nosed, brit, ex Surveyor General of India is almost an insult.
Be that as it may, and regardless of what you choose to call it, to see it up close and personal, takes your breath away. My first glimpse of it was seeing it towering over the clouds when we were flying in to Kathmandu, a wisp of jet stream, permanently attached to its peak, dark and brooding amongst the pristine white of its guardian mountains’, Nuptse and Lhotse, and standing out against the entire Himalayan range Mt Everest, 8,848 monstrous meters, the world’s tallest mountain, and our destination.
For many years the Everest Base Camp trek had been high on my ‘bucket list’, and a chance meeting with Himalaya expert and guide Marlon Saldin, meant that I finally had the means to make it a reality.
Marlon is the proprietor of Club Adventures Sri Lanka, the veteran of 14 Base Camp treks, and many more commendable feats in the Himalayas, including climbs to North Col of Everest and Base Camp of K2 in the Karakoram Range. He seemed like the obvious choice to do this trek with and within a few minutes of chatting we had begun to start thinking about getting a group of interested people together.
I had already sounded off my companion on Kilimanjaro in 2004, Amanda Weerasinghe, and Sajeda Akbarally who climbed Kilimanjaro with me in 2007. They had both indicated they were interested and then another close friend Suresh Rajendra agreed to join, and this formed the nucleus for the final group. Sajeda is a passionate climber and trekker, but being a mother of a young family means that she has the constant battle of trying to balance her duties, and although very keen on joining, needed time to commit.
Over the next few months the group continued to grow finally settling with Amanda, Sajeda, Suresh and myself; with my wife Ashani, Amanda’s wife Dila and Sharya, my older son, signing up as well; Steffan Moraes who was instrumental in introducing me to Marlon, Jothi Kandaswamy, who has been friends with Ashani and me for many years, an avid climber, having climbed Kilimanjaro and trekked in Switzerland among other places; Johann Pieris, One of Colombo’s leading stylists, Spa owners, and a professional dancer, Geoff Alagaratnam a Presidents Counsel, who’s wife was a colleague of Suresh, Vasantha Rathnayake a friend of both Suresh and myself and a leading Engineering consultant who both of us had worked with and Chehan Samarasinghe who was a late addition and not well known to the rest, but shared a common bond with several of us, being a alumnus of Royal College in Colombo. He soon proved to be a strong walker, a team player and a natural fit to the rest of the group.
The overall size of the group was larger than we had hoped for but the great dynamic between the individuals and the instant bond that was formed, made it manageable.
We did several training treks in Sri Lanka; Notably, a trek to Bible Rock, Adams Peak through the Fishing Hut route, a demanding trek through Knuckles, and a trek in Horton Plains.
Finally, on the 10th of April, 14 of us, including Marlon, gathered in Kathmandu, prior to our departure to the official starting point Lukla, to begin the trek.
Kathmandu has to be seen, heard and ‘sniffed’ to really get a feel for it. Situated in a valley, it is a dust bowl of 1.4 million people, and the colors, sounds, sights and smells bombard every sensory organ from the moment you set foot on the tarmac of the Tribhuvan International Airport.
You walk out of the airport building into a shouting, jostling, heaving mass of humanity that amazingly seems to part to let the weary tourist through. We were met at the airport by the smiling face of Marlon, towering above the average Nepali, his agent Lila and assistant, the multi talented Pushpanjali. Having gathered our baggage and ourselves into some semblance of order we were ferried to our home for the next few days the Marshyandi Hotel, in the tourist district of Thamel.
Getting to the Hotel is an adventure in itself. It’s almost miraculous how a 16 seater tourist van can fit through the narrow streets and alleyways of Kathmandu and specifically Thamel. After a harrowing twenty minute drive, having oozed through the millions of Maruti cabs, rickshaws, pedestrians, scooters and motor bike we drove into the Hotel; A haven amidst the chaos outside.
The next three days were eventful. The hotel itself was passable as a short term stay. Apart from occasionally having to throw a shoe at the TV (almost the same size as the shoe) to make it work, and having to stack out luggage vertically against the wall, in order that we could get to the bed, the hotel stood out for having, by far, the best hot water shower I have ever experienced. Having a room on the 5th floor of an elevator-less hotel was also a great way to get into climbing mode and realize just how little I had worked on my cardio vascular fitness.
The team spent time walking the amazingly vibrant streets of Thamel. Curio shops, restaurants, bars and book shops, strip clubs, massage parlors competed to space and sound, blaring music into the night; Advertising hoarding for everything from Himalayan Treks to Teenage Shower Dancers (Yes!! Teenage Shower Dancers), battled for space amidst millions of meters of electrical cables that seemed to dangle across every free space of sky. We spent our time enjoying the excellent culinary choice on offer and browsing for books, handicrafts and picking up the last pieces of gear that were needed; and No!!!… … No shower dancers. Special mention needs to be made of the Road House Cafe and the amazing selection of world class pizza.
Kathmandu has to be one of the best destinations for mountain gear. Starting from the Original brand names, to the A grade to C grade Chinese fakes, the average adventurer and the serious climber can pretty much get the full complement of the necessary equipment for a fraction of the price one would pay at a western outdoor store. One of the best stocked and most reasonable is the Kalapather Outdoor store, run by the expressionless but extremely helpful and efficient Bish. If you want it, Bish has it, or can get it for you. Sharya needed a pair of boots as his had begun to cut him, and there was Bish to the rescue. The used boots and a couple of thousand Rupees and Sharya had a brand spanking new, pair of Mammut boots that fit him perfectly.
Having geared ourselves up and eaten everything from Sherpa food, which Marlon wanted us to sample, to the excellent Pizzas and the Steak at the famed climbers hangout, The Rum Doodle, we were ready to set off by 6.00a.m on the morning of the 12th. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 7.30.
We wrestled through the check in counters, side stepping our way through the chaos of dozens of expeditions trying to get tons of luggage aboard numerous flight, and settled into a relatively quiet corner in the departure hall of the domestic terminal. Our flight was expected to leave shortly and there was a buzz of anticipation. However, this buzz soon faded into a murmur and gradually into a snore as inclement weather in Lukla delayed our departure till 3.00 p.m.
The chief guide for the group was a chirpy, good natured pocket rocket of energy named Navaraj Thapa, or Nava Dhai as he was fondly tagged. His right hand man was Raj. Equally energetic and friendly and they soon became a part of the genial banter and the ribbing that took place.
Our time in the airport was spent over marathon games of cards, reading, listening to iPods and chatting among ourselves.
Finally and to our great relief, the announcement for flight A1 to Lukla was screeched out by the overzealous announcer [who had entertained us throughout the day] and we were off and running. A short bus ride across the terminal, half hours stay on the tarmac and finally we were hustled onto a fourteen seater plane and we were off.
The flight to Lukla is about forty five minutes and thanks to the hot air and afternoon thermals, we bounced along like a paper boat in a storm drain. Sharya and Ashani promptly turned various shades of a strange combination of green and purple, and I was starting to feel my lunch stir in my stomach, when we were given the ‘good news’ that the weather was too bad to land; this while we were in our final phase of descend onto the airstrip. Much to our horror, we turned around and headed back to Kathmandu. Another 45 nauseating minutes of flying and we were back on terra firma.
I have never been more relieved to get off a plane. The fresh (well, relatively fresh) air of the airport was the sweetest thing I had smelled. We tumbled out gratefully onto the tarmac and collapsed into the waiting bus. To cut a long story short, we were on standby for a further 45 minutes and finally the flight was postponed to the next morning.
We were back for the night at the Marshyandi and Marlon made a decision to switch airlines to the more reliable Agni Air. By 9.00 in the morning a grateful bunch of trekkers were deposited at the Sir Edmund Hillary Airport of Lukla, 9000+feet above Sea Level and without doubt, one of the most spectacular landing strips in the world. It’s a 500 meter strip poised at the edge of a precipice on a steep uphill. This landing must take some serious skill. A slight miscalculation could either have you slamming into the cliff face and plummeting to the base of the Dhudh Khosi River, or slamming into a stone wall that serves as the end of the runway. Oh, and did I mention that the runway is uphill? Yes, uphill; Very steep uphill. The plane hits the runway, and come to a screeching halt aided by the runway that is at an angle of about 30+ degrees. If by some chance the breaks fail, then you have the comfort of knowing that your forward journey will be very abruptly stopped by a thick granite wall.
After a brief stop to gather and organize our luggage, we were off. Finally the trek had begun. The first leg of the trek is from Lukla to Phakding. This was almost entirely downhill. The day was pleasant and the trail although broken up in places, followed the river, through villages and apple orchards. The path had a constant flow of Yaks, Pony’s, trekkers and villagers which meant that at times we had to stop and move aside to make room for the oncoming traffic. The Yaks in particular made us hustle to the nearest point of relief but as time went on we realized that they were extremely gentle beasts that seemed to be better mannered on the trail than some of the trekkers we met. They were also, pretty tasty, as we soon found out. (The Yaks, not the trekkers).
The group soon split into a few fragments. Sajeda, Johann, Jothi and Chehan established themselves as the rabbits, with Suresh, Sharya and I more the Yaks, while the tail was brought up by Vasantha, Ashani, Amanda, Dila, Steffan and Geoff, who were being shepherded along by Marlon. The first thing that one has to realize is that this is not a race. There is no prize for finishing first, but it’s very important that you find your rhythm and stay with it. This means that the group can finish a day, many hours apart. As long as everyone is relaxed and comfortable with this, then there is no reason for any concern. Usually either Nava or Raj took the front group with Marlon doing the sweeping. This way, most of the trekkers had experienced company with them.
We arrived at our first lodge / tea house, around noon. It seemed reasonably clean and comfortable. The early arrivers sat outside in the sunlight, resting our feet and drinking lemon tea. A refreshing hot drink, that seemed to do wonders.
The lodges are all basically the same design. Most of them are single storey and have a large common room, with a yak dung stove in the middle of it. Tables and seating around the room make this the general ‘hangout’ and the dining room. Having a raging stove on in the colder hours of the evening means that this is also the most comfortable and busy room in the lodge.
The bed rooms are approximately 7’ by 7’ and generally made of thin plywood. Two adequate beds line the walls and they have a small window letting some light and ventilation in. Two people pack into this tiny space along with their luggage, which can generally be booted under the bed. The thickness (or should I say thinness) of the walls means that privacy is of a premium. The slightest sound, be it the zipping up of a sleeping bag or the passing of gas (we shall get to this later) is heard at full volume in the next room. This makes for very interesting comments and conversations right throughout the waking hours and in some irritating cases, even throughout sleeping hours.
In the first lodge, the layout was somewhat different to the others. Of two toilets, on was placed between the upstairs bed rooms. I will spare you the details of the toilets but they were adequately clean. It did however pose a rather unique problem to the two bedrooms that shared a wall with them as the lack of density of the walls meant that like every sound that carried through, every smell carried through as well.
Ashani and I drew the short straw in the first lodge and had a rather uncomfortable night, listening to a continued relay of shuffling, followed by the occasional curse as someone tripped in the dark, then the sound of undressing followed by the most disgusting combinations of noises and followed closely by the ghastly smell. To say I was not a happy trekker on day two, was probably an understatement. I emerged in the morning, bleary eyed and cursing, much to the mirth of the entertainers of the night before. I made very sure that we never got a room next to a loo for the rest of the trek.
The other ‘event’ of the day was Steffan’s home made Love cake. This made its appearance from the ‘goody bag’ diligently coordinated by Sajeda. Made by his wife Roshani, it was amazingly tasty with the only drawback being that it had a generous deposit of grease that had worked its way onto the wrapping. We shared it with the lodge staff and nearly went into a hysterical stupor when the old lady in charge, having wolfed her piece of cake down, proceeded to take the grease off the paper and rub it into her skin. We figured she thought this was the ‘love portion’ from the Love Cake. All the single men slept with their doors securely locked that night.
The next day was a long walk from Phakding to Namche Bazaar. This day starts off with a couple of hours meandering along the Dhudh Khosi and lunch along the way and then a harrowing crossing over one of many suspension bridges, and a near vertical climb for about three hours to get to Namche.
Now let me digress for a moment to give you my account of these suspension bridges.
You have to first know that I am terrified of heights. Why then, you may ask, do I trek up mountains? To this I have no answer. This makes for some very uncomfortable situations on the high altitude treks I have done. As you may guess, getting to high altitude does unfortunately involve climbing up some terribly steep inclines.
Back to the suspension bridges; The Himalayan range is not one continuous mound of mountain. It is carved out through millions of years of glacial activity and consists of some very large mountains, split apart by some very deep gorges. Most of these have water running through the bottom in some form or the other; a trickling stream or a raging torrent, It makes very little difference when you are staring at it from 400 feet up. The trail that begins at 9000 feet has to wind its way, not just up the mountains but across the gorges as well. This means that in many instances, a mere stroll of 5km, and a 200 meter net gain in elevation, could involve a 1000 meter decent and a 1200 meter ascent, all in a very short span. Invariably, this also involves crossing a gorge, on one of these fames suspension bridges.
The construction is very simple. Four metal cable strung across from one mountain to another, the bottom cables connected with perforated metal plates that do nothing to block the views of the sheer drops onto the rocks below. The top cables connected to the bottom with rather wispy looking netting. I do however, have to admit, that as suspension bridges go, these were absolutely secure. The bridges are about 4 feet across and vary in length from about 50 to 100 meters. Dangling over jagged rocks and raging water hundreds of feet below you, these feel like they are a mile long. On approaching every bridge, I had to first control my urge to pee, scream and run in the opposite direction. Then I had to compose myself and make that first step on the swaying, clanging nightmare. To make matters worse, these bridges are the only crossing points for Yaks, Pony’s, Dogs, fully loaded Sherpa’s and every trekker on the mountain. The chances of having the bridge to your self are slim. The chances of suddenly finding 6 hairy, long horned Yaks trundling down towards you are very high. Enough said. I survived. I discovered that walking behind a Yak train was the most sensible and the most stable way to cross. No one came in the opposite direction till the Yaks got off the bridge and the weight of the Yaks stabilized the swaying, making it a steadier walk for anyone who’s legs hadn’t already turned to jelly. However, the particularly unsavory odor emanating from the rear of the Yak’s had to be dealt with, but to me this was by far the lesser of the many evils.
The climb up to Namche starts at a terribly windy suspension bridge. Then you start going straight up. Slow, pondering steps up the mountain side, along a trail that in some places narrowed down to create a few bottle necks but by and large wide enough to take the heavy traffic. We clomped along this, regularly tanking up on water and energy gel till we got to the Everest View Point, about an hour from Namche. The weather was a cloudy and windy, but gradually as we watched, the clouds cleared and there it was, a dark shark’s fin amidst the snow capped mountains; Sagarmatha.
We stopped for photographs and to rest and to get the group that had spread out, back together. The point was quite busy but most people were friendly and in high spirits. We spent a few minutes there and then the faster members of the group headed on.
I waited for a while for the last members to join, and having chatted with them a while, decided to walk the last section on my own. The walk was pleasant, with great birdlife and very little traffic. Lots of flowering Rhododendron, and other mountain plants and the cool crisp evening air gave the evening a magical air. Seeing the snow capped mountain ranges surrounding the path up close and even a soaring Lamagier (a large raptor, unique to the Himalaya’s) lifted my spirits and gave me a burst of energy needed to finish the days walk.
Namche Bazaar is a surprise. You come round a mountain to see some houses and a scattering of small lodges. You walk past this and you come around another corner and in front of you, in a horseshoe shape and rising up the mountain face is the famed town of Namche Bazaar.
The most dominant structure is a stupa at the base of the town and from that raises a colorful and crowded collection of lodges, tea houses, restaurants, internet cafes and shops selling a variety of Nepali curios and trekking gear. Its narrow streets are cobble stoned and the town itself consists of a dozen ‘alley’ like pathways that rise up the mountain face with buildings built close together, huddled for warmth, much like the people.
The town is perched on the high eastern bank of a steep gorge and across this is an imposing mountain that rose in a sheer face of granite from the river running at the base. The position of this mountain to the west of Namche meant that the sun set was pre empted by the entire town being bathed in shadow and an immediate drop in temperature resulting.
I had got to Namche alone and not knowing where to go, decided to sit on a rock and wait for the rest of the team. I was joined by a group of Buddhist priests, who once they got over the initial shock of a random brown, grubby trekker bowing low to worship them (not something done in Nepali custom but the general Sri Lankan greeting of a priest), broke into animated conversation and positioned themselves close to me, to watch the sunset. A few minutes later, the rest appeared and I gratefully followed them to the lodge, a hot stove and a lemon tea.
We had a rest day in Namche. This meant that we had a day to roam the colorful streets of the town, read, catch up with sleep and spend a lot of time chatting and playing cards. The more adventurous amongst us, Jothi, Suresh, Sajeda, Johann and Chehan, decided to trek up to the visitors centre on the rim of the town. Sharya, Ashani and I decided to hang out and read and enjoy some down time.
The second day we spend in Namche was Amanda’s birthday. A good chocolate cake was bought from a nearby German Bakery and a small celebration was had. We had a few people showing signs of wear but by and large the group was fine. Lots of sleep and lots of food which always consisted of Garlic Soup and we were ready for the next leg; Namche to Tengboche.