Welcome to Lukla
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath as the Twin Otter revved into action. My hand griped tighter to the armrest as I heard my fellow passengers jittery voices murmuring to each other over the roar of the engines. I felt the lift-off and congratulated myself as if it was my own sheer will-power that soared it off the ground. What I was nervous of was not exactly the fight itself, but the landing – Lukla, branded the World’s Most Dangerous Airport, a 25 minute flight from Kathmandu.
I eventually mustered up some courage to peel open my eyes. The air hostess shuffled past with a basket of wrapped boiled sweets, her head was tilted to one side as her neck reached the top of the tiny plane. ‘Sweetie?’ she asked smiling. I tilted my own head to match hers and thanked her.
The jumble of Kathmandu underneath us cleared as we flew through hills and mountains and finally deep into the Himalaya. The shadow of the plane chased us over the valleys down below and I couldn’t help but look out for ‘soft’ places to crash-land if we must do so. The emergency exit door I noticed, conveniently opened out onto the rapidly spinning propellers so if I had to jump out of the plane, I would be sliced up in a million pieces first.
The trekking leader Lakpa perked up at everyone’s panicked faces as he announced that Lukla is ahead. I didn’t want to look, but I joined the rest of the passengers as we leaned in and gazed through the pilots window to see a small runway poking off the side of a mountain. The hard-boiled sweet was now dry and stuck to the roof of my mouth. I took a breath in and held on as the plane wobbled closer to the mountainside. ‘OK…get ready!’ shrieked Lakpa. BANG! We landed heavily and screeched up the inclined runway to a grinding halt. A sigh of relief went around the cabin. ‘Drive it like you stole it’, someone in the front shouted. With colour resuming back in our faces, along with sheepish smiles we hastily piled off the plane whilst taking photos of the day ‘I Survived Lukla’.
So here I was, despite near death and without even hiking anywhere yet, we began our new adventure. Of course, no adventure is ever complete without my husband Stuart (who comes up with these ideas). Along with 13 others in our group, we walked through the little cobbled town of Lukla, passing the highest Starbucks in the world no less – but I think I’ll pass on the frappacino thank you very much. Lakpa introduced us to fellow guides who would accompany us – Hunter (or Mr Calf-Muscle), a young man who received this name for making women swoon all over the place and secondly – Chetadie, a super-cute, tiny, dad-like man who once made it to Camp 4 on Everest. The wind must have changed when he was smiling once because I never saw any other facial expression from him apart from a beaming grin. I left feeling confident that if I should I go over the edge (and the probability was high), I would be in safe hands.
At the end of Lukla, the start of the trail was marked by passing through an arch dedicated to Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, the first ever Nepali woman to summit Everest, who sadly died on her way back down in 1993.
Inhaling deeply I plunged into the Himalayan abyss. Almost instantly we were surrounded by other trekkers, porters and yaks, I felt like I’d been thrown into Wonderland. Giant rocks and cliff walls engraved with writing dominated our surroundings, alongside prayer wheels and flag poles which must always be passed on the left. Baffling to some people (OK.. me) who has to brandish my hands around the air like a loon to see which hand I write with, thus figuring out ‘left’. Not wanting to attract bad karma, I embarked on this hand-waving-turn-left ritual the entire way.
At dusk o’clock our teahouse in Phakding awaited us with open arms, a refreshing drink, hot food and a poo-burner. That’s right a poo-burner. The main lounge was heated by using yak dung. Once the poo has been pooed, it is then scooped up, made into large round patties and dried outdoors in the sun making a polka-dot pattern on gardens, walls and rooftops before being used as fuel to heat buildings. The amount that was stuck to the bottom of my boots could have heated a few more lodges.
The teahouses all differ from basic to a-bit-less-basic and where possible, there is also an option to pay for a hot shower. The morning greeted us a gentle knock on the door, ‘Goood morniiiing, teeeeea? coffeeeee?’ Half asleep I opened the door to Chetadie with his sing-song voice and Hunter, strong and silent holding the teeeeea/coffeeeee tray. Throughout the trip I became obsessed with ginger tea, fresh chunks of root ginger floating around my cup, I was convinced this was the way forward for keeping the cold and yeti’s away.
Don’t Look Down
From Phakding we followed the Dudh Kosi (the milk river) north crossing high suspension bridges. I called upon my old mantra – ‘don’t look down‘. I imagined that as we were half way across, there was some Indiana Jones style baddies at the end of the bridge with pen-knives ready to cut the ropes. I have a wonderful imagination like that, even when it’s really not needed.
We stopped along the trail for what I thought was a well-earned break, but no, ahead of us was some commotion. People gathered and pointed. Like Chinese Whispers word came back that Lakpa’s trimming a hedge…huh?….no wait….someone’s gone over the edge! Gasps echoed as a young man was hauled up by guides and porters. Luckily he was saved by a tuft of bush that stopped him from plunging to his death, a metre either side and it would have been curtains for him. Bruised, cut and shocked it turned out that he’d broken the first rule of Base Camp Club – don’t stand on the outside edge of the path when yaks are passing.
After an exhausting few hours of an uphill slog, with fog coming in thick and fast we arrived to a bleak Namache Bazaar, the Sherpa capital. Shops catering for all your tourist tat needs overflowed onto narrow, cobbled streets. Resting that night, I admitted to the guides that a sharp pain ripped through my right knee on every step – but with special ointment and bandaged up by Lakpa it slowly started to feel less like a pin cushion.
Leaving Namache the next morning, we hiked up some unnecessarily giant steps and out onto the trail once again. The dramatic path boasted magnificent vista views as snow-capped mountains now rose behind Jurassic green hills and waterfalls. At every turn our ‘wows’ became louder until finally we saw the first glimpse of Mount Everest herself. A small lump formed at the back of my throat, I could not believe I was here. We stopped at the Ama Dablam view café – from where we looked across the valley to Tengboche. Ama Dablam means Mother’s Necklace and considered by many as the most beautiful mountain in the world. From here the terrain got more brutal, starting with going downhill over massive rocks, (lunch…aaaaand relax) and then three hours of painstaking uphill through a dense, coniferous forest.
Finally we reached our next overnight next stop at Tengboche (3,867m). Never in my whole life had I seen a more breath-taking and wondrous place. A small village surrounded by mountains including Everest, Ama Dablam, Nuptse and Lhotse (if I ever have two bunny rabbits, this is what they’ll be called) and Thamserku.
What else makes this small corner of the world even more special is Tengboche Monastrey, where we had arrived just in time for a Buddhist ceremony. Entering the ornate and brightly coloured temple along with other westerners, all eager to experience some spiritual enlightenment. Monks dressed in rich, dark red robes chanted and blew through giant horns whilst outside the mountain peaks glowed orange as the sun set behind them.
Death by Shower
Spirits were high as we set off the next day even though clouds chased us all the way up to to Dingboche. Now above the tree-line and in the open plain the temperature dropped dramatically and migraines kicked in. We spent two nights here and an acclimatisation walk was on the cards. I pondered on this for a whole minute before deciding I’d spare my poor knee more torment and rest it along with the rest of my weary bones.
Whilst everyone was out, I thought I’d treat myself to a nice, hot shower. I walked into the cold, concrete shower room and nearly passed out from the unmistakable stench of gas fumes. With the naked flame needed to heat the water – surely, SURELY this wasn’t safe. I roamed around the empty lodge looking for someone to help. “You there!” I found a man in the main room and frog-marched him to the shower room. Looking at me with an air of bewilderment he pointed out the on/off switch and left me to it. I stood paralysed looking at the shower for a lifetime, or possibly 10 minutes. OK…well…’Death by Shower’ sounded ridiculous, so ridiculous in fact it gave me a little courage. I switched it on and the flame lit up inside, I screamed, ran to the back of the room, covered my face and cowered naked in the corner. Steaming hot water gushed down and I was still alive! I had the quickest shower known to man before hot-footing it out of there.
Once again, as with Mount Kilimanjaro, the night sky here was jaw dropping (and neck aching). The clearness of the night and the closeness of the stars was overwhelming, but far too arctic to enjoy for too long!
The Final Push
From Dingboche to Lobuche at 4,910m, I really felt like we were in the Himalaya. The lush green valleys had all gone and was replaced by rocks and glaciers and now bitterly cold wind encircled us. At night-time in the lodges we found the condensation on the window had frozen…on the inside. After a relentlessly steep climb we reached a memorial laced with prayer flags, dedicated to all those to died on Everest. A moving place where all aches, pains and general whinges were momentarily forgotten.
Finally we arrived at the strangely-out-of-place sand-pit that is Gorak Shep, the launch pad for Everest Base Camp and Kala Pattar, a small mountain (in Himalyan sizes) at 5,545m. For those who still felt worthy there was an option to summit Kala Pattar (Black Rock) the following day and for those who were feeling more like not, there was the option to stay in bed.
Even though we had been up before the sun and already hiked for several hours to reach Gorak Shep, after a quick bite to eat and a ginger tea to settle the nerves (it works for everything) – we were off again. Walking across the sandy plateau gave a false sense of security and ease until we reached the famous Way to Everest sign post.
We turned onto the lateral moraine of the Khumbu glacier and began to treverse the narrow ridges with drops on either side, as we worked our way towards the rocky moraine. Across the blinding white landscape the rumbles of avalanches were heard, stopping and looking around like meerkats for any danger, we trooped on. The altitude and brightness made me feel light-headed as we battled giant boulders and potential rock falls, until we finally reached the promise land! In my head fanfares, cheers and party poppers were going off, in reality I just sat down and shed a few tears of happiness and exhaustion.
Amazingly Stu managed to get reception on his phone (he struggles in our sitting room in Peterborough) and called his Dad. I also got through to my Mum, whose primary concern was that we were eating properly. In the near distance, framed by the spectacular Khumbu Icefall, we looked out on a few tents housing a handful of genuine heroes – who spend weeks on end waiting for the perfect opportunity to make their attempt on the summit of Everest itself.
Compared to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, this had been a more emotional journey overall from walking through villages, staying at teahouses, meeting the wonderful Nepalese people and visiting some of the most awe-inspiring places on earth. It was a little tougher than I’d expected due to the long days, low temperatures and need to aclimatise – but these memories will certainly stay with me for the rest of my life.
And I actually didn’t fall over once.