Thursday, April 25, 2013

Trek to Mt Everest Base Camp aka 13 days on the wai-wai express

PART ONE: One month ago today, after ten days of trekking I arrived at Mt Everest Base Camp. For me, it’s probably one of my bigger life achievements and something on my “Bucket-list” I never really thought I was capable of ticking off. In all honesty, I’m not really that much of an outdoorsy person, and in the rush to book flights, insurance, pack up my flat and say goodbye to my friends I didn’t really take the time to investigate just how physically demanding a trek EBC is. It wasn’t until the tour company (Gecko) wanted me to sign a form committing to a three month training plan (I only had a few days between deciding to do the trek and leaving NZ) and asking about my previous hiking experience that I started to get a little nervous. You see, I’m not really into hills… I attended Victoria University for three years and probably walked up that hill less than 10 times, always opting for the $2 bus that took ten minutes longer than walking did. The only hiking experience I could boast to Gecko about was the 6 hour Tongariro Crossing I’d walked 14 months previously. To say I was unprepared is an understatement; I trekked to Base Camp trek in four-year-old running shoes. That’s right, 140+kms in sneakers with very little tread and zero ankle support. It snowed, which then melted and turned into extra slippery mud. Waterproof hiking boots maybe have been more suited to the terrain but then it would have been less of a challenge :-D

As I’m not the best with directions and occasionally get lost driving the eights minutes to work in my hometown, and I decided to do EBC with a tour group, Gecko had the best deal at the time and they turned out to be pretty fantastic. There were four of us (me, and three Aussies), one guide Tekay and our sherpa, Mingmar who was truly awesome!

Me, Karen, Mingmar, Hugh, Tekay and Jack

The group met in Kathmandu for a group dinner and left early the next morning for our flight to Lukla; the world’s most dangerous airport. The runway is a mere 460 by 20m with a 12% gradient – that’s quite a slope and there’s no room for error, it’s a short runway with a stone wall at the end.

Looking through the cockpit windscreen at the very short and steep runway.

Fortunately the landing was smooth and after breakfast we set off. It was wonderful to escape the busy, loud and face-paced city of Kathmandu for the quite mountains – no pollution, or car horns, just the sounds of the river, the bells around the necks of the donkeys and dzo* and the occasional cell phone! There’s reception for almost half of the trek.

Our first night on the mountain was in a lodge in Phakding, and visited a beautiful monastery.

Prayer flags at the Phakding male monastery.

In hindsight I can now laugh at how Karen (my awesome room mate) and I thought it was SO cold on our first night… I joked that I’d be sleeping in my puffer jacket by the end of the trip! Little did I know that a mere five nights later in Dingboche I’d be sleeping in thermal pants, tights, PJ pants, Jack’s track pants that he kindly lent me, 2 pairs of woolen trekking socks, a t-shirt, a long-sleeved polyprop, a polar fleece jersey, that puffer jacket, gloves, a beanie, a buff (like a circle scarf) with two aluminum drink bottles filled with boiling water, a sleeping bag and a quilt!  I also slept with my camera batteries; torch, iPhone and iPod to prevent the cold from draining their battery life.  

On the second day of trekking we walked uphill for six hours (it’s meant to take an average of eight but we’re awesome) and I got my first real life look at Mt Everest! As a New Zealander I’ve heard a lot about this mighty mountain, it was our Sir Edmund Hilary (and  Sherpa Norgay) that first reached the summit. It looks truly majestic framed by evergreens, but it seems rather far away, much further than I’d imagined, it’s also rather high up… It was a strange moment of such excitement to see the mountain and an “oh sh*t” to realise how far on foot I had to go! 

Crossing a river on one of the many suspension bridges.

Arriving at Namche Bazaar was spectacular, not only because it was beautiful but because the next day was a rest day. The term “rest day” is actually very misleading, this one involved walking about 15km to a big white Buddhist monument, but you sleep at the same place in order to acclimatise. 

Me at Namche Bazaar 3,500m above sea level, after the longest uphill walk of my life!

We decided to chill and watch “Into Thin Air” a fantastic film but maybe something best viewed on the way back from Base Camp. After stocking up on necesites like chocolate, trekking poles (pink ones!), a buff and more chocolate we headed off to Khumjung! 

The view from our room in Namche Bazaar

*dzo are half cow half yak , smaller than yaks with shorter here they are better at handling the warmer climates at lower altitudes and it’s not until higher up in the mountains that you see yaks.