What does an unfit, Scottish chubster, who hasn’t yet managed to quit the tabs, and who doesn’t particularly like hills, decide to do for fun during her precious holiday? That’s right: book a trekking trip in the Himalayas. That sounds perfect, doesn’t it? Well, I’d had a bit of an obsession about seeing Everest ever since I’d known I was coming to Delhi; I mean, Nepal’s pretty close by, and would I ever again get the perfect chance to do this? Probably not. I kept swithering over whether or not to take the plunge, but decided a few weeks ago basically to bankrupt myself and book the trip of a lifetime, reasoning that if I wanted to see Everest, I would blooming well have to earn it by doing a couple of days’ trekking to get to the first main viewpoint. No, no, that wasn’t enough – I wanted to see it, and I wanted to get up close too, but didn’t have time (nor, more importantly, the required level of fitness) to trek all the way to Base Camp. So I found a bloody expensive 6-day trip to Nepal which combined the hard part (trekking) with some elements of ‘luxury’ – I’ll explain more as I go along.
Arriving in Kathmandu
Queuing at immigration, you have to fill out various forms to get your Nepalese visa. Now, this costs money, and the Nepalese immigration will accept only foreign currency such as Euro, Sterling, Dollar, etc. They won’t take Indian rupees (of which I had plenty). Still the visa was only £18 Sterling, so I happily handed over my Bank of Scotland £20 (the only Sterling I had left), only to be told “No, no – we don’t accept Scottish money”. This led to a very familiar conversation (I work in London most weeks in the UK, and I make a point of filling my wallet with Bank of Scotland notes on a weekly basis just to annoy the London cabbies), during which I pointed out the word ‘Sterling’ clearly emblazoned on the banknote. More heated exchanges ensued, until finally the three blokes behind me, all of whom work for the British Council in Delhi, proffered a Bank of England note just to get the queue moving again. Grrr.
I had booked my trip through a trekking company so fortunately was picked up from the airport, thus avoiding the hordes of taxi drivers wrestling for business, and off we went into Kathmandu so that I could buy a few hiking essentials. I had bought new walking boots in Delhi a few weeks ago but hadn’t had a chance to break them in, so my list of things to purchase included surgical tape, blister plasters, as well as socks, walking breeks, warm undergarments and Diamox pills to help prevent and/or combat altitude sickness. No-one seemed able to tell me how cold it might get at the various elevations I was supposed to be heading to, so I decided that being a hardy Scot would be just fine – I wasn’t going to fork out for a down jacket, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to hire a second hand one full of sweaty skin cells from a previous trekker.
We popped into the office of the tour company to finalise a few details, and I asked the staff how hideous the climb would be to Namche Bazaar (the first and main viewing point for Everest on my trek): when booking the trip I had done the equivalent of searching for holiday weather forecasts to suit what I wanted to hear when heading to the beach (come on, we all do that). In this case I was looking for favourable reports on how manageable the climb really was (there are very few articles which say this!). In the week prior to my trip I started reading all the blogs written by seasoned trekkers, many of whom said it was an absolute fecking nightmare. Oh crap. What on earth had I done? I know I’d been joking about the supposedly terrifying flight into Lukla Airport, but in all honesty I was quite looking forward to that (I’m a bit of a thrillseeker), and what really worried me was the prospect of collapsing in a heap on the route up to Namche, and having to get airlifted out of the Himalayas while clutching my Benson & Hedges: now that would be embarrassing. The guys in the tour company office said ‘you look strong, you’ll be fine’, but I think they say that to everyone. I had to fill out more forms confirming my insurance details, next of kin, and medical emergency details, which really helped calm my nerves.
Off then to the Gokarna Forest Resort, just outside Kathmandu, and I settled down for an early night. I was to be picked up at 5am on Tuesday morning, and I had a bit of a restless sleep worrying about what on earth I had let myself in for. 5am came too quickly, and I was taken back to Kathmandu airport to queue with the dozens of trekkers who were waiting patiently for their flights to Lukla. Everyone else looked extremely fit and rather professional, which again did little to soothe my worried mind.
Onto the plane, and I legged it on first to get the best seat: up front, behind the pilots, and on the left hand side of the plane – this way, you get a great view of the Himalayas as you fly, and a pilot’s eye view of the landing strip on approach to Lukla – hurrah! I had been told by a friend to sit at the back of the plane as it was safer, but bugger that. The views were phenomenal, and I switched to video mode for the landing, which I’ll upload somewhere if I get a chance. The landing strip slopes upwards and finishes at a wall, so the pilot has to land, brake, and then make a sharp right turn at the end to avoid colliding with bricks. Our pilot managed to do this just fine. In fact, I was rather disappointed it wasn’t more scary, but I guess I should just be thankful that we had clear weather, a good landing, and we survived.
I was met by Bal Kumar, who was to be my guide for the next three days, and almost immediately I bombarded him with “Do you think I’ll make it to Namche?”, “How many don’t make it?”, “Can I get strapped to a yak if I collapse?” – but Bal K was brilliant from the start, and assured me that we would take it slowly, we’d be fine, and he promised he’d get me up that bloody hill. Our first stop, though, was Phakding, which was apparently 3-3.5 hours trek from Lukla.
Lukla (2843m) to Phakding (2656m)
The main route out of Lukla leads you through the village, where there are plenty of shops selling essential trekking items (for those who forgot to buy anything in Kathmandu), at vast expense, and local handicrafts.
Trotting on, we quickly came to the first checkpoint – you need to have proper trekking permits to hike in the Himalayas – where your name and permit number is logged in case there is some disaster, so that your whereabouts is a bit easier to locate. Very quickly we started passing sights which would become very familiar along the trail: prayer flags, prayer wheels, and carved stones – all used for worship, and all have their own rituals. I became used to following Bal K’s example and spinning every prayer wheel. While Bal K was praying for good health and happiness, I was pleading ‘Get me to Namche!” to whoever might be listening. The trail takes you past many little villages and rest points, all catering to the thousands of trekkers who come here. For those looking for a ‘get away from it all’ experience, this is probably not ideal, as it’s extremely busy! It’s the main route to Everest Base Camp (or EBC as it’s known), but it’s also used as the principal thoroughfare for all trade in the region: very quickly I developed a Pavlov’s Dog-type reaction to the sound of cowbells, which always preceded a herd of mules or dzomo (yak/cow crossbreed) beasts thundering up the path. They don’t care who is in the way – they will just knock you down and trample over you – so best to jump to one side and let them past! Also, there’s an unwritten rule that you step out of the way of the scores of porters and sherpas who ferry all the goods up and down to the main trading post at Namche – they carry enormous weights, supported by a headstrap, and they do this every day. They carry food, water, grain, doors, wood, beer, lavatories…..each porter that passed had some unbelievable cargo strapped to himself.
Already the views were stunning – looking ahead we were following a valley through which ran a perfectly milky-aqua river (was tempted to jump in but remembered that it would be a damn sight colder than Loch Ken), and the mountains on either side were covered in native pine and rhododendron (the national flower of Nepal). Every now and then a snow-capped peak would appear and cause the jaw to drop, and these sights never got any less exciting! The scenery was to die for, and I just had to remember to keep looking down as well as up, for there was a lot of animal dung along the footpath.
The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that Lukla to Phakding is a net drop in elevation, but it didn’t mean that it was downhill all the way. I very quickly learned from Bal Kumar the phrase ‘Nepali flat’ which means ‘repeatedly going uphill and downhill’ – it wasn’t too bad on this stretch, but I really felt it the next day. Anyway, I was gobsmacked when, after only 2.5 hrs, Bal K said “We’re here!”, and pointed to the Yeti Mountain Home, our first lodge accommodation. Eh? It was only 10.30am in the morning! I was feeling fine, I had no blisters, and I pleaded with Bal to phone his office and try to get us accommodation a few more hours down the trail, but no – he insisted that we stay, acclimatize, and rest before the next day. I decided we should walk further anyway to see what tomorrow might bring (lots more, worse, ‘Nepali flat’ it seemed), before we headed back to Phakding, found a reggae bar, ate momos, and played pool for the afternoon while the rain came down. I didn’t even have a beer.
When the clouds come (which they did at 2pm), the wind also picks up, and it gets pretty cold. Add to that a bucketload of rain, and I was very glad that we were staying in a ‘luxury’ lodge, complete with hot water, bedlinen and….electric blankets! I haven’t had an electric blanket since Granny Mary used to try to cook us, her grandchildren, when she had us to stay, but I was so grateful that night, as my legs were beginning to seize up from the cold.
Phaking (2656m) to Namche Bazaar (3450m)
Next morning I woke up and thought: “This is the day I have been dreading for weeks.” I quickly tried to banish the negative thoughts and replace with some positive ‘you CAN do this’ inspiring mantras. A quick breakfast, where I chatted again to some really nice American ladies who were en route back to Lukla, before we set off at 8.15am. Now, the reason this is a difficult trek is that you effectively hike (‘Nepali flat’ in a big way) for around 4-5 hours before you climb the hideous last part – straight up – to Namche Bazaar, the principal local trading place. So, chances are you are pretty knackered already when you stand at the bottom of the final climb. Very soon after leaving Phakding I could feel the strain in my leg muscles (where have they been for the last few years?) but Bal Kumar was brilliant, and insisted we go at a slow pace to conserve energy. This also included a stop for ginger tea, which was a great idea, particularly as about 30 mules came racing along the path and nearly wiped out a group of German hikers who were trying to photograph them (I was looking down from the tea spot, giggling). The trail was becoming more and more picturesque, and we criss-crossed the river five times over huge steel suspension bridges, all of which were adorned with fluttering prayer flags.
After a few hours, we stopped at the final village before Namche, had a bowl of noodles, and stocked up on water (“no more water until Namche”, read the signs) – poor Bal K had to carry an extra couple of litres for paranoid Mo. I also bought a couple of Snickers bars at vast expense, figuring I might need the sugar, and not caring about the calories at this stage. A last stint along the shore of the river, and there it was: the final bridge to take us across to the bottom of the Namche climb. Lots of trekkers were sitting around here, having a final rest before the push up the hill.
Over the bridge, and there were the first dreaded steps. Slowly, slowly….just one step at a time, and stopping regularly to catch breath and have a swig of water. It’s the only way to do it. You also have to remember that as you climb to Namche there is a much higher chance of getting altitude sickness, and I had read stories of people passed out on the side of the trail, crying, sick, or just plain knackered and unable to go any further. I had also read that it can take anything between 2-4 hours to get up there, and I fully expected I would be nearing the 4-hour mark. So I had a half a Snickers bar to cheer me up. Another sight which spurred me on was a young Sherpa girl who was carrying several cases of Everest beer up the mountain, so I followed her, promising myself I’d have one of those if I made it to the top. Some French hikers passed us on the way, and as they called ‘Namaste!’, I shouted back ‘Bonjour!’ which pleased them a lot (they even spoke to me in French – a first in my experience).
After about an hour and a bit, we stopped at a big resting point, where around 20 people, including the French group, were sitting having water, eating bananas and trying to see Everest through the clouds (unfortunately it had become really overcast, and from this resting place, the first available ‘view’ was completely obscured). Bal K and I decided to have a fag instead, and the French group started whispering and pointing, until I laughed and pulled out a packet of Gauloise, promising them that if they were good, I might let them have one if they got to the top. Apparently a Gauloise is as good as a cigar. Phew. It was funny though: all the fitness freaks looking appalled and disgusted at the sight of a smoking trekker, but if they’d looked around, they would have seen that a huge proportion of local trekking guides and Sherpas ALL smoke, and they can still make it up and down the mountains faster than these label-clad tourists! I’m not suggesting that smoking is good for you, but it doesn’t make you a bad person, and I am more appalled at the litter-lout trekkers who have no regard whatsoever for what is a stunning national park.
Anyway, moving on, and so we did. The first half of the climb was really steep, and seemed to comprise a never-ending zig-zag of steps. From the resting point, the path gradient becomes less severe, but the oxygen level is noticeably thinner (down about 40%) and my legs were really feeling the pain. Bal continued to be great with his encouragement, and we stopped more frequently to catch breath and jump out of the way of mules (where do they all come from?). I couldn’t believe it when, after just two hours (yes, just TWO hours!) we had reached the checkpoint for Namche! Thankfully, due to my research, I knew that the village itself was still a fair way off, but we made it there in under 30 minutes, so I was incredibly chuffed to bits, to say the least, that not only had I successfully completed the climb, but also I achieved it in 2.5 hours! Hurrah and huzzah! The last few steps up to the Yeti Mountain Lodge were the worst though, and I was ready to collapse after every few metres, but I finally lugged my sorry ass in through the doors and flaked out in front of a log stove. Phakding to Namche Bazaar took 7.5 hours.
The main Everest viewing point was only about 10 minutes’ walk uphill from the lodge, but by now the whole mountain was surrounded by cloud and fog, so there was no point in going up there. Instead, I chatted to other trekkers, including a lovely old, bearded German man who had just hiked up to Shyanboche airstrip (about 1.5 hours straight up a steep climb from Namche) to take photographs. He’d last been there 37 years ago, but when he got home his ‘slides’ didn’t develop properly so he never got the images; he’d promised himself he would come back and get the photos, and here he was having done just that (I’m sure I saw a tear in his eye). Bless. I should also point out, for the benefit of my younger sister, Annie, that this hiking trail in the Himalayas is packed full of greying-bearded men, so would be a very appealing holiday destination for her.
I had a very long, hot shower, then retreated to the bar and spent almost £5 on a can of Everest beer, but didn’t begrudge this as I’d seen the efforts of the poor, sweating Sherpa girl who’d carried a load of it up to Namche. Also, my state of knackeredness, combined with the very thin air, meant that one beer felt like the equivalent of three, so if you can be arsed to clamber all the way up here for a party, I reckon you could get drunk quite quickly and cheaply. I didn’t want to, though, because I wanted to get up early and see Everest! The weather pattern for the week seemed to be: glorious blue skies and sun in the morning, with cloud quickly covering the region by mid-morning or lunchtime, followed by rain. So, to get a clear view, an early start was key. And this brings me to the final ‘luxury’ part of my trek. I had booked a tour which included great lodges with hot showers and warm beds, but it culminated in a helicopter trip to Kala Patthar, a ridge close to Everest, and the closest viewing point where a helicopter can actually land! I was supposed to be getting the flight from Shyangboche airstrip in the morning, but given the weather conditions, we decided it would be best to take the ride straight from Namche at 7am, cutting out an additional 1.5 hours’ hike and maximising chances of a good view. Besides, I’d done the really hard part (for me) so decided I could live without seeing Shyangboche.
Next morning I was up at 5am, and looked out of the window to see….blue skies!! The view from my window looked straight across and up to Kongde (another stopping point on the helicopter ride), and I was SO excited! Bal Kumar met me at 6am and we walked straight up to the Everest viewing point – this was to be my first (and well-earned) view of Everest, and I couldn’t wait. My legs, though, had other ideas (they were really suffering after the previous day’s exertions) so it took a few minutes longer to get there, and I was also secretly glad at this point that I didn’t have to climb for another 1.5hours that morning! Up a path, past some trees….and there she was! Wow! I could hardly believe it: here I was, standing on this mountain, looking across at Everest in the distance, with its famous ‘plume’ of snow billowing off the summit. The surrounding mountains were also fantastic – Ama Dablam amongst others – but I couldn’t stop gazing at Everest. I’d seen pictures of the view before, but nothing quite prepares you for seeing it with your own eyes.
Reluctantly tearing myself away from the view, we walked back down the hill to meet Ashish, our pilot, who was happy to bring along Bal Kumar as a passenger – like me, Bal had never before been in a helicopter, and I wanted him to have a treat, so he was really chuffed at the prospect of seeing the trail from the air and getting a ride home to Lukla to save him the usual trek home alone. Ashish also asked me if I minded another couple of people coming along, and I said “not at all”. This was also a winning decision, as one of the people who wanted a ride was a Swiss mountaineer called Will who had been resting in Namche before his attempt to climb Everest without oxygen. Wait a minute…so that meant we were dropping Will off at….Base Camp?! That wasn’t part of my original tour itinerary, so I was thrilled to get a chance to go there too!, Ashish ushered me up front into the co-pilot seat for the best view, and away we went! We flew through the valley, above Tengboche Monastery, and followed the trail to EBC. Bal K was so excited to see it from the air, and I snapped away and grinned all the way there – it’s hard to describe, but flying between (and pretty close to) the mountains, seeing the glaciers, below, is beyond breathtaking.
We landed at Base Camp and I was allowed to jump out for a couple of minutes to take photos – the pilot has to keep the rotor blades running and they can’t stop long otherwise all the engineery-fangled mechanisms might freeze. And that would be dangerous. Base Camp is HUGE – there are hundreds of tents, and they are all perched on and beside a huge glacier! You can’t actually see Everest from here (it’s blocked by other mountains) but it’s not far away. I could see lots of hikers, mountaineers and support staff scurrying around, and we waved goodbye and good luck to Will, then hopped back into the helicopter for the next stop: Kala Patthar.
Again, it’s a very brief stop, but this time we could clearly see the summit of Everest, (as close as you can get without actually hiking there through the snow and ice), and the sun was blazing down through the clear blue sky. It was absolutely perfect. I still can’t believe I was actually standing there, with Everest behind me. I had never imagined I would have the opportunity to do this, and I probably never will again. But I’ve been there, and I’ve seen it! Fecking amazing.
Back into the helicopter, and we zoomed up to Kongde (opposite Namche Bazaar, but higher), where I was supposed to stop for a champagne breakfast (that ‘luxury’ tour again). However, the cloud was now moving in quickly, and I could sense that Ashish was worried about flying conditions, so I told him to forget the champagne breakfast if we could just manage to land one last time – I had heard the views from Kongde were unbelievable. Ashish thanked me, and happily landed while I clambered out, awestruck for the millionth time that morning, looking out at the panoramic view across the Himalayas. What a bloody fantastic final view. I will remember it for the rest of my life.
Just as we took off, the approaching cloud bank was getting really bad, so Ashish performed some nifty flying moves to take us away and safely back to Lukla, where I said goodbye to Bal Kumar, and amused myself watching some planes landing on the crazy airstrip while Ashish swapped ‘copters to take me back to Kathmandu. Brilliant flight back (although it meant I didn’t get the chance to do a fixed wing take-off from Lukla, over a sheer drop off the mountain), and Ashish took me to their helicopter office to wait for a car to take us into the terminal. While we’d been chatting on the trip, Ashish, a local, had said that he’d never made it up to Namche Bazaar (he’d trekked only to Phakding) and to him Namche felt like Everest. He was so pleased that I told him I’d felt exactly the same way, and he’s now inspired to go and do it for himself. I told him that if he did, I’d learn to fly a helicopter and come to pick him up. So that’s a deal.
I should also mention that I know (though my obsessive internet research) that many seasoned trekkers sneer at those who take flights in the Himalayas, saying it’s ‘lazy’ or ‘easy’ or whatever, but I think that’s rather self-righteous and a bit mean-spirited. After all, each person is different, and we all have our own personal challenges, and as long as we push ourselves, what does it matter? While trekking to Namche Bazaar might be a walk in the park for some, for me, it was a massive challenge, and I am so proud of myself for getting there! I earned my view of Everest from Namche, so why not round off the trip of a lifetime with a fantastic, thrilling helicopter ride as a reward? The whole experience was undoubtedly the best trip I have ever had, and to finish it off with a helicopter flight was the wispy, snow-capped summit of the holiday. It was astonishing, and I still can’t quite believe I was there.