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Getting High in the Himalayas

The beginning of October is one of the two trekking seasons in Nepal. But with my usual impeccable timing, I arrived in Kathmandu at the beginning of September. My desired trek to Everest Base Camp was also seemingly unpopular, with most of the other trekkers in Kathmandu looking for partners wanting to go to the Annapurna region.

So after having no joy contacting fellow travellers to go trekking with, and being slightly impatient to just get walking, I bit the bullet and arranged a guide, to show me the way. In hindsight I need not have done this as the paths were very straightforward to follow, and there were folks I could have hooked up with. I also decided to do it in a package, so I paid for everything including as much as I could eat, and as many hot drinks as I could swallow, in advance (I took full advantage of this and ate the equivalent of the money budgeted for food with 3 days still to go! trekking is hungry work). I was a tad apprehensive before leaving as, for the most part; it was just going to be a guide and me for 3 weeks. What if we didn’t get on? What if he was a sleaze? Luckily, we did get on and he wasn’t a sleaze (well he wasn’t after I pointed out to him that I was bigger than him and that it had always been an ambition of mine to let fly with a left hook). It wasn’t that he was so much of a sleaze, but more slightly deluded by the few Hollywood films that he had seen where women in the West jump into bed with men at the drop of a hat. After we had cleared up the fact that he was my guide, and that was it, everything was fine. I met my guide, Rishi, briefly the day before we left Kathmandu, but I knew that we had a ten-hour bus journey to Jiri to get better acquainted. From 7am the following day we had 10 hours in cramped, but not wholly uncomfortable seats, surrounded by a cacophony of Hindi music, which was provided all the way by Rishi (I could have strangled him). So we climbed along twisting roads, which caused a few to throw up, and at times produced the feeling of being in a helicopter looking down on the rice terraces below. We crawled past the women at the side of the road hammering up rocks and putting them into piles, stopped at checkpoints to give over passport details, and then six kilometres from Jiri we got a flat tyre. To me this was the perfect opportunity for a toilet break, so I disappeared into the bushes. Not my wisest decision ever…I managed to avoid the leaches, but imagine my surprise (and their surprise) to see about 40 soldiers complete with rifles and semi automatics stealthily coming through the bushes – very quick toilet stop, pants up two three, and back to the bus, my cheeks (which ones) a little crimson. After that debacle we arrived in Jiri, which is quite literally the end of the road from Kathmandu. After eating my second dhal bhat (lentil and rice) of the day I went to bed early in preparation for the 8 am start. The first two days of the trek I found really tough. The paths that the Nepalese have carved are straight up and down as these are apparently the quicker routes (it isn’t if you have to stop every two minutes). On the afternoons of these two days we had climbs of 1000 metres and 1200 metres respectively, and I mean straight up, no downhill or flats to cheer you up – I wanted to pack it in to be honest! (I have since found out that only the really fit make it to where we did on the first day – quite how I made it into that category Ill never know). The only redeeming aspect and saving grace of this up/down attitude is that it means you get some exceptional views, where the drops have to be seen to be believed. These views can then disappear behind cloud in the time it takes Maurice Greene to win Olympic gold. My cries of “I don’t believe it!” were met by Rishi’s raised eyebrows, which rose even higher when I took photos of the cloud. The third day saw the trekking get easier, partly as there were no 1000 metre climbs, and also because I could feel myself getting fitter and my legs getting stronger (I was used to lugging my backpack as well). That afternoon was actually one of my favourites as there was a huge downhill made up of rocks and scree, which I ran down to the horror of Rishi and the porters that I passed. I was feeling pretty invincible was this a sign of AMS? Whatever the difficulty and steepness of the slope though, the weather makes a difference. I was trekking at the end of the monsoon season, and other than some misty days we only encountered one downpour while we were walking. It made the hour before lunch difficult on our 4th day, especially as it was an uphill slope. That meant I was slipping and sliding all over the shop, much to the amusement of the local kids who all came out to see the show! Talking of the locals, they were great. Never has it been so true of a smile being understood everywhere. The kids were a joy – cheeky, saying “Namaste!” (hello), all in need of their noses being wiped. I had quite a few of my meals with the families who ran the lodges we stayed in, particularly in the first week, where we were often the only guests. Rishi and I went and played pool in the local pool halls, which didnt often see women in them (Rishi was the butt of many jokes when I consistently beat him). For my money though the most amazing locals were the porters. Men, women, boys and girls, who out of necessity are human packhorses carrying up to 80kg (sometimes 120kg!!!), travelling on the same path where I struggled at times to carry 10kg. They carry everything from stone, wood, potatoes, and whatever they need themselves, to soft drinks, alcohol, chocolate, tents, and luggage, for the trekkers. These porters carry the majority of whatever needs to go beyond Jiri – a definite source of inspiration when feeling a little tired.

After we arrived in a place called Lukla, the path got busier. Prior to that we had been encountering porters and maybe one or two trekkers on the path each day. Lukla though is where the majority begin their trek to Everest. They fly into the airstrip clean and sparkling, and not skanky like myself. Im sure you can tell who has started from where by whiffing them in Lukla! So the path became busier with organised trips containing four legged humans (with poles for balance) as the Nepalese jokingly call them. We would pass them as quickly as possible, with myself feeling smug for having walked from the end of the road. As the path got busier I was more and more pleased for having spent the extra 6 days walking from the end of the road in Jiri. Although it was a slog at times I could appreciate the distances walked by the porters, and saw to my mind a more complete image of the Himalayas. After 8 days we had an acclimatisation day in Namche Bazaar, which is at about 3500m. As my diet prior to that had consisted of mainly potatoes and eggs, I gorged myself on cinnamon buns from the German (?) bakery, and ate biscuits and chocolate (after all the hard work the porters had done I felt obliged to keep their jobs alive). After the eating was done the rest of the day was spent playing rummy (which Rishi cheated at every time) and solitaire (it doesn’t help pass the time if you’ve already finished your 700 page book). And then… oh my god, we watched Titanic, with the two very innocuous sex scenes fast forwarded through by the Sherpa women, much to my amusement and Rishi’s annoyance. After Namche Bazaar and acclimatising it was up to Tengboche. This is a small plateau with a Tibetan Buddhist monastery atop. From here you are meant to get spectacular views of Ama Dablam (6856m), Lhotse (8516m) and Everest (8848m). That is of course if there is no mist. As we arrived at Tengboche the clouds had already rolled up the Khumbu Valley, so you couldn’t even tell that you were on a hill – could have been at sea level. So a very chilly afternoon was spent playing cards (the days from Namche onwards were short as there was a limit to how high you could climb each day sensibly for health reasons). It was then an early night, like every other night, in order to try and escape the cold and bring about a swifter, and hopefully clearer morning…which it wasn’t. I could just about make out Ama Dablam and Lhotse, but Everest was completely obscured from view. Another three hours of walking per day, with stops in Pheriche and Lobuche, again to avoid AMS. Although the walks were short, the scenery changed rapidly as we got nearer to and passed the tree line – the greenery disappeared, the snow capped peaks unfolded and the wind picked up. The weather though generally improved vastly on the way to Lobuche – it got colder, but the mist disappeared and there were clear skies overhead. This was just as well as after Lobuche our next stop was Everest Base Camp.

Few trekkers actually bother going to base camp as you don’t get a view of Everest itself, which to me seems a bit daft after having come so far. To get there we had a hard climb along the moraine covering the Khumbu Glacier. There was no discernable path to follow, only towers of rocks piled up by trekkers to show that that route was ‘alright’. The hardest part of the walk was the fact that you can see the tents at base camp, on the edge of the glacier, all the time but they never seem to get any nearer. After finally getting there, we wandered around the temporary village, where, for a few intrepid beings this is the start of their journey. There were three teams at base camp, and we got invited in for tea by one of the Korean teams. They thought I was mad for having walked from Jiri, but I pointed out to them I wasnt going to try and climb to the top of the world! That night we slept in Gorak Shep. This was perhaps the coldest night of my life. I opted to sleep in the dining room next to the fire (which threw out as much heat as one of those tiny birthday cake candles), wore my thermals, all my smelly t-shirts, both pairs of trousers, in fact all my clothes (gloves and hat included) and borrowed a duvet (already had a sleeping bag) and my teeth still chattered. Not the best preparation for setting off at 5am to climb Kala Patthar. From here you get perhaps the best views of Everest. Its a 400m climb, straight up (not again). Unfortunately about three-quarters of the way up I had to stop. I was so cold I couldn’t feel my limbs, there was a competition going on to see if my brain would escape from my nose or ears first, I was having to breath at an alarming rate and I was walking in a wiggly line as if I was drunk – classic symptoms of AMS.

To have got perhaps 100m from your intended destination and then to have AMS kick in after no previous problems was ever so slightly gutting. We had to turn round though for my safety and half an hour later I was back at the lodge having breakfast. Half an hour after that I was feeling fine.

After breakfast we set off back to Pheriche and retraced our steps back to Lukla. I can see why athletes do altitude training; even the up hills on the way down were easy…for a while that is. As we got nearer to Lukla I was becoming physically tired and drained, of enthusiasm as well as energy, as I knew that my time in the Himalayas was coming to a close. I flew back from Lukla – the journey that had previously taken me 6 days took a mere 25 minutes in a 16-seater plane (very glad Im not a nervous flyer).

Back in Kathmandu a lovely hot shower awaited me (the colder it gets the less inclined you are to strip off and have a bucket bath, so it had been over a week, I know that is disgusting) as did some food that wasn’t either egg or potato, and the chance to get my laundry done (it should actually have been burned). All very mundane when you have just spent the best 19 days of your life trekking in the Himalayas. Where do you go from after being on, quite literally, such a high? You plan your return trip of course!

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