An introduction ….

A little scene-setting is in order.

It is late September 2012 and I am 44 years old. I think it’s fair to say that over the last couple of years, I have been more acquainted with curry and red wine than exercise and physical hardship. I live in West Sussex with my wife and kids and apart from the odd leisure walk in the surrounding countryside, I have not done much to get my heart rate going, since a 2 or 3 month regular gym stint at the back end of 2010.

Up on the South Downs on a training walk.

My brother, Dan, is 39 and lives in Hong Kong with his family. We meet up 3 or 4 times a year – usually when he’s over in London on business. It was on such a trip that we found ourselves having a few drinks in the City. Before, we got too tipsy, Dan leaned over to me conspiratorially and asked me if I could get 2-3 weeks off in November so that he could take me on a trek to Everest basecamp. He told me not to give him an answer then but to think about it. The evening progressed and it wasn’t until the next day that I remembered the proposition. Being self-employed, I didn’t think getting time away would be too hard. But there was still a lot of thinking to do ….

Over the course of the next few weeks, plans firmed up and I put myself on a training regime of sorts. A decent walk (varying in length from 8 to 18 miles) each weekend and a nod to healthy eating and less beer, formed the basis of this campaign. Not exactly commando training, but the best I could do whilst also juggling my family and my business.

I think it’s fair to say that as the departure date approached, I had no idea what to expect.

This blog is largely written using extracts from a journal that I wrote whilst I was away, so hopefully it does reflect my feelings at the time. I wanted to avoid the potential for the passing of time to mellow my memories.

Read on … enjoy … and hopefully, you might even find a little bit of inspiration in there somewhere!

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Leaving … on a jet plane!

8th November 2012.

The time had come to head off to Kathmandu. The adventure was starting. There was a long plane journey ahead and I still had no concept of what the trek would be like. My wife took me to the airport (it happened to be our 5th wedding anniversary) and I think it’s fair to say that she was very anxious about the trip. I, personally, had no feeling of trepidation.

As I was sitting on my Emirates flight to Dubai, I wrote in my journal for the first time. “I don’t know how I feel about the trip yet. Almost more than any other travelling I have done, I really don’t know what to expect. But I know that my traits of being mentally tough (I prefer that to stubborn!) and sensible are going to really help me. Like the best rugby teams, I am going to take this one step at a time. First step – get to Kathmandu!”

The flight to Dubai was fairly uneventful. My flight to Kathmandu was not for a number of hours and I had to transfer to Terminal 2 – the poor relation to the opulent Terminal 3. “It’s too uncomfortable to sleep, so I’ve taken to reading Bear Grylls’ ‘Facing Up’. It’s now 5.20am local time and they’re playing the call to prayer over the PA. Been in Dubai for nearly 5 hours and still almost 3 hours to go!”

“The flight to Kathmandu is with Emirates’ budget airline – Fly Dubai. The plane is full and the sun is up as we take off. I manage to grab

The lovely Nepali family I met on the plane

The lovely Nepali family I met on the plane

about 2 hours kip. When I wake up, my window seat gives me a clear view of the ground below. This is Pakistan and it looks like the moon, with no sign of life at all. I strike up a conversation with a couple next to me who have a baby with them. They are Nepali, but live in Dundee. It is their first time back home in 3 years and they are coming to introduce their 7-month old son to their families.”

“In stark contrast to the earlier views, Nepal looks stunningly beautiful from the air. Verdant and hilly, with fabulous paddy terraces. And of course, I get my first view of the Himalaya, with Everest obvious by both its shape and size.

“Kathmandu is very spread out across a small plain and we land in bright sunshine. The airport is small and much calmer than I had expected. Getting a visa was a painless and civilised process compared to some other places I’ve been.”

I then exited the airport and found Kapil – the owner of Swan Valley Treks. We bundled into a bashed-up  car – our ride to the hotel. “We head through town, which is a combination of tooting, people and dust. My first impression of the place is that people are working hard to scratch a living. I didn’t see anything that struck me as the horrific poverty that people describe in India. But the roads are terrible, buildings are in various states of disrepair and there are lots of people everywhere.”

“After about half an hour (and several hundred horn beeps!), we arrive at the hotel in Thamel (where all the Europeans congregate).”

Street life in Kathmanda

Street life in Kathmanda

Commerce, Kathmandu-style

Commerce, Kathmandu-style

Preparation

The hotel in Thamel was a little oasis of calm amongst the hustle and bustle of this touristy district. The room is perfectly adequate with two clean (if rather hard) beds and an en-suite bathroom. Little did I know that this was the closest to luxury that I was going to get for 2 weeks.

“I go down into the courtyard to meet Kapil and his brother, Shankar, for Nepali tea (a little sweet for my liking, as I suspect it contains condensed milk) and a chat about the trek. The plan is to get to Lukla tomorrow as the weather looks good. Our guide is to be their cousin, Prakash.”

Prakash diving into a pile of clothes in the hire shop.

Prakash diving into a pile of clothes in the hire shop.

I was introduced to Prakash and he and I wandered around Thamel, picking up last minute items. We went to a hire shop, where we rummaged through a mountain of down jackets and down sleeping bags, trying to spot candidates that were the right size, were still filled with plenty of feathers and smelt fairly fresh. It was like sorting through a jumble sale!

I needed some Nepali rupees, so we sourced a money changer, followed by the last ‘essentials’ – toilet paper and water bottles. All done, I headed back to the hotel for a short nap, after arranging to meet at 9.30pm to go and collect Dan from the airport.

“So we found Dan. He seems to have brought a lot more stuff than me. makes me wonder whether I’ve got everything. And then, when I tell Dan that our porter has to carry my stuff AND his stuff on his head, he gets a massive guilt trip and offloads items to leave at the hotel. After a quick beer and a catch-up, we go to the room to do a final pack before turning in – only 4 hours before we need to get up to go the airport.”

And we’re off!

Prakash and me at Kathmandu airport

Prakash and me at Kathmandu airport

Dan, ready for the off!

Dan, ready for the off!

10th November 2012

Everyone talks about the flight to Lukla, dubbed the scariest runway in the world. Today it was our turn. My journal picks up the story ….. “We are woken up at about 5.15am and throw some clothes on. Prakash is waiting for us in the hotel lobby. We barrel along in an old jalopy to the airport, where, this time, we’re at the domestic terminal. It’s really busy, with trekkers, tourists and traders all off on early morning flights.” 

P1010022“We head out onto the apron in an ancient Tata bus. Our plane is an old Dornier and Dan and I jostle for seats near the front. I’m sitting just behind the pilot and it’s fascinating seeing him go through his pre-flight checks. It’s still a bit hazy in Kathmandu as we hurtle noisily down the runway and head skywards. Out of the left-hand side of the plane, we can see the snow-capped mountains, poking through the clouds.The pilot has a SatNav in the cockpit (an after-market option, I think!) and I can see the waypoints being checked off. The cloud clears beneath us and we can see the terraced hills below. After turning towards the mountains, we fly down a narrow corridor, with ridges just a couple of hundred feet below us.”

SatNav

2 minutes before landing in Lukla, this flashed up!!

“Then we see the runway in front of us. The pilot has to have the height to get over the ridge, but then drop the aircraft down suddenly and there is a bang as he hits the runway hard. This is followed by the scream of the engines as they are put into reverse. That was an amazing experience and the skill of those pilots is unbelievable.”

The first thing we noticed was how much colder it was in Lukla compared to Kathmandu. We were at about 2800m above sea level and I would guess that the temperature was about 5 degrees Celsius. We grabbed some breakfast at a hotel that we would get to know a lot better later in the trip. It is here that we first meet our porter.

“Our porter, who is a young lad of maybe 16 years old, ties our bags together, adding his own pack and attaches a strap to his head.”

And so it was, that we started our trek, in hazy sunshine.

“We wander out along the main street through Lukla. The Nepali people up here are much more Mongolian-looking and the children are simply adorable. We trek, mostly downhill, following a rocky path, along the right-hand side of the valley. The views are stunning, with a fast, turquoise river running between two forested valley walls. We pass a number of horse and cow caravans – largely empty after dropping their cargoes at Namche Bazar. We also cross our first suspension bridge.”

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Adorable Sherpa children

“It is important to look at the path at all times as it is very uneven. We walk along, sometimes Dan with the porter and me with Prakash. And sometimes swapping round. In the sun, it feels quite warm, so we shed a layer.”

“Having mostly walked downhill, there is a bit of an uphill stretch, mostly in the form of steps. We spin the prayer wheels (always clockwise) at Nurning, before the final push up to our place for the night in Phakding.”

“Lunch is mixed noodles. When it arrives, I suddenly wonder where the smell of dung is coming from. But then I notice that the noodles are covered in yak cheese. Mystery solved! Needless to say, we devour the platefuls!

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On a suspension bridge

P1010058

Between Lukla and Phakding

Lodges

So in Phakding, we had our first experience of a mountain lodge. It’s probably worth spending a moment describing this form of accommodation. It’s important to bear in mind that EVERYTHING from Lukla upwards needs to be carried. There are no roads and no vehicles. So all building materials, fuel, food and drink needs to be heaved up the mountain – either by humans, mules, cows or yaks.

Our room in the lodge in Phakding

Our room in the lodge in Phakding

The layout of most lodges is the same. A number of bedrooms, with two single beds in each and a dining area. The dining area typically has seating around the perimeter and a stove in the centre of the room. A kitchen turns out the food for all the guests, while the guides double-up as waiters – part of the deal for them getting free food. You may have noticed that I have not mentioned anything about washing facilities. That is because, by and large, they are non-existent. All lodges will have some form of toilet, but finding somewhere to wash hands afterwards is hard. If a barrel of water does exist for this purpose, it is usually frozen up by the morning. It’s important to keep some alcohol gel handy!

A group of Malaysians keep warm in the dining room

A group of Malaysians keep warm in the dining room

The stoves are used very sparingly. They are fed with yak pats, which do appear to give off quite a lot of heat. But you would be lucky if the stove is lit for 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the evening. Other than that, there is no heating whatsoever.

The walls in the lodges are made of plywood, so, pretty much, it’s the same temperature inside as out. And of course you can hear everything, from snoring (more of which later) to the constant coughing and hawking which goes with life in the mountains.

But for now, it’s time to continue with the story, picking up from just after lunch on our first day of trekking – 10th November 2012.

“Dan and I then retire to the room. The room is, err, basic. It has unpainted plywood walls and two rock-hard beds with sheets and pillows. And that’s it. We decide to get some kip and climb, fully clothed, into our down sleeping bags. We are cold and this is the lowest we are going to be on the entire trip. We manage to get a couple of hours sleep. When I wake up, I ask Dan if he talks in his sleep. He laughs and tells me that that was him telling me to stop snoring. Oh, dear!”

[This was Dan’s first experience of my terrible snoring – a problem that was to frustrate both of us on the trip. It would wake him up and his shouting at me would wake me up. We ended up getting little sleep between us. But that’s enough of that ….]

We got up and met Prakash in the dining room. “There are a number of routes that we could take on this trek. I’m keeping my council, while Dan is being ambitious. We’ll see …”

“After a hearty dinner of chicken curry, we play cards for a bit. Like most of the others in the lodge that night, we are in bed by 8pm.”

Phakding lodge

Now we get serious …

11th November 2012

After a fairly poor night’s sleep in a freezing room, we got up just after 6am.

“The dining room is full of a large party of Malaysians. They are on the last leg of the Everest basecamp trip and were friendly and chatty. Their leader said the worst bit of the trip was the cold – -25 degrees one night!”

Although I didn’t write it down at the time, I now remember how dreadful they all looked. Coughing and wheezing, they were not a great advertisement. In retrospect, I think they were glad to be on the homeward stretch.

“This morning, I start off in my down jacket, with gloves and hat. Before the sun hits the valley, it can’t be much above freezing. As we were leaving the lodge, a young man was trying to ride a horse down the street. The horse was not playing ball and the man lashed out, meeting out a vicious beating with a whip. Not nice ….”

“So we set off and follow the river. I lose count of the number of suspension bridges we go across – maybe

Dan, contemplating the suspension bridge he just traversed

Dan, contemplating the suspension bridge he just traversed

5 0r 6. Steep forested hills flank the river and every so often you get a glimpse of a big snow-capped peak. After two or three hours of lovely walking, we start the steep ascent to Namche. The going is tough and relentless. Dan marches on ahead while I stay with Prakash. Just over half way up, I get my first glimpse of Everest through a valley.”

The trekking region has a system of checkpoints, at which each trekker’s arrival is logged. These checkpoints are mostly manned by the army and I did find it odd that at lower levels (where, to be honest there is a not a high chance of getting lost, injured or ill) the checkpoints are numerous. From memory, they stopped after about 4,000m, which is where they would be much more useful, but, I guess, where they are more difficult to staff. At one checkpoint, a rather formal looking soldier, soon had a childish grin on his face when Dan offered him a few sweets!

“We catch up with Dan at the next checkpoint. I find the climb up to Namche tough. The last bit is the worst. I struggle with my legs turning to jelly. That, plus the fact we are nearing 3,400m!”

“Namche is not exactly what I was expecting. I thought it was set on a plateau, but it’s actually in a semi-circular bowl. Of course, our stop for the night is at the top of the bowl! Moonlight Lodge is definitely nicer than last night’s accommodation, with a fabulous view over the town and over to the mountains opposite. After a particularly garlicky stir-fry, it was time to relax a bit.”

Dan had discovered that one of the bars down in town was showing ‘Into Thin Air’ – the story of a disastrous commercial trip to the summit of Everest. So we wandered down, grabbed some tea (sticking to our pledge of no beer until we were coming back down) and settled in. I am struggling to think of a worse film I have ever seen! The acting was beyond hammy and the accompanying music was so melodramatic, that we laughed all the way through – attracting some strange glances from locals and trekkers alike!

“We eat at about 7pm. Macaroni cheese for me, which is actually rather nice. There is a pepper-grinder on the table, which turns out to be more a dispenser than a grinder. Still …. spices it up a bit!”

We played a few hands of cards with Prakash and headed to bed at about 9pm. We picked up the tip of getting our 1 litre water bottles filled with hot water, using them as hot water bottles. By the morning, they’re ready to be used as drinking water. Nice!

The spectacular view from our room in Namche

The spectacular view from our room in Namche

Acclimatisation

12th November 2012

From the lowest point on our trek to the highest was a climb of almost 3,000m. To put that into perspective, it’s about 3 Mount Snowdon’s stacked on top of each other. But the fact is that our lowest point is already 2,300m, so whichever way you look at it, altitude is going to play a part in an Everest basecamp trek.

Altitude sickness (or acute mountain syndrome, to give it its proper name) is the effect that less dense air (and therefore, less oxygen per breath) has on the body. You have to take altitude sickness seriously, as the effects can be life-threatening. But the main way to prevent it, is to ascend slowly.

Looking down on the beautiful town of Namche

Looking down on the beautiful town of Namche

And so we had the first of our acclimatisation days in Namche. The best way to approach an acclimatisation day is not to treat it as a rest day – rather to use it to do an ascending walk (i.e. rise a few hundred metres) and then come back down to sleep.

“I sleep much better, partly because the room is warmer (despite frozen condensation on the inside of the window). The view from here is absolutely stunning. Yesterday, we cursed having to walk up to the back of the village, but today the views definitely make up for it.”

“After breakfast (an enormous, inch thick apple pancake), we get ready to do this morning’s acclimatisation trek up to the Everest View Hotel. I was concerned that I was going to feel really stiff after yesterday’s climb, but actually, I’m fine.”

“We start off by visiting the modest, but informative museum about the Khumbu region. We then walk past a small army base to the steps that mark our trek – straight out of the back of the town. As yesterday, Dan sped off, whilst Prakash and I take a more leisurely pace – although we

Imagine going to this school!

Imagine going to this school!

did overtake a number of groups of elderly Japanese. It is a steep climb up the steps until we reach a plateau, where there is a landing strip. Apparently, the government felt it would be good for the local people if they had greater access to air travel. However, the locals turned down the idea because of the negative impact on trade (a lot of the tourism trade between Lukla and Namche would disappear, as well as most of the portering business).”

“The walk then flattens out and we follow the contours (with a MASSIVE drop down to the right that made me feel a bit wobbly) to the Everest View Hotel. Developed by a Japanese businessman, it is a touch of luxury in this area. Tea here is 280 rupees (about £2), as opposed to 60 rupees (about 40p) in the lodge in Namche, but the views of Everest and her sisters are well worth it.”

As we stayed in the lodge for 2 nights, we got to know some of the other trekkers. Dan and I took an instant dislike to an Englishman travelling on his own. However, he recounted a story about having a shower, which is housed in a shed-like building behind the lodge. He took his towel and fresh clothes and locked the door behind him. He stripped off and turned the tap, which promptly came off in his hand. Cold water gushed out, drenching him and his clothes. He managed to pull on some underwear before calling for help. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer chap!

In contrast, we met a lovely Swiss couple. Although the man was originally from England, he had lived abroad so long that he couldn’t remember the right English word on occasions. We talked about the use of walking poles (I had noticed that more than half the trekkers we saw were using them). So I resolved to get a pair and give them a try. We walked into town and for the equivalent of about £9, I picked up a pair.

And then the weather changed.

“It snowed all afternoon and it settled on dry surfaces. By the time we were eating dinner (I decided to try the yak curry – not bad at all!), the sky was clear. After more cards and packing, it was bed at 9.30pm.”

Chilling, with Everest behind us

Chilling, with Everest behind us