I wanted to get this all down while it’s still fresh in my mind, but I also wanted to give myself the chance to process the experience before putting it to words. And before I knew it, it was April, and I had nearly started this adventure a month ago.
Last year, when I found out I was moving to Nepal, it wasn’t something that I deliberated, it was more just a general acceptance: I am going to Nepal so I am going to Everest Base Camp. There really wasn’t an option not to visit. This has become a strong trend in my decision-making processes in all aspects of life; that is, to know I want something and to set out to do it. I have never had much of an interest in regretting decisions, or wondering what might have been.
That being said, there were multiple times on this trek where I asked myself, “What the hell am I doing on this mountain? Did I really pay to do this? I thought this would be fun? This is something I paid really good money for? No, really? Like, I could have flown to Canada and back for this amount? Do I really have six more days of going up?”
At times, it reminded me (for all those treeplanters out there) of those miserable days planting when everything is going terribly, it’s snow-raining, the ground is hard, a crow opened your bag and stole your lunch, and you think of different ways in which you could hurt yourself so you could stay in camp with the cook and earn some day rate. Only on Everest, YOU HAVE PAID THE MONEY.
But, nothing worth doing is easy – during all the proudest achievements of my life, I’m sure I questioned my decision to embark on whatever it was I was doing. I like being challenged – both physically and mentally, I like pushing myself and testing my limits. I’ve become the person I am today because I constantly am working towards goals that can seem quite daunting.
Regardless, this was such a surreal experience, and is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. And, even though there were times when I questioned my sanity for deciding to do it, there were also times where I thought to myself, “Hey, maybe I could come back in a couple years and summit.” (Don’t worry Mom and Dad, I’m going to be far too poor for far too long to realistically contemplate this).
But I guess I should start at the beginning. As I said, I knew I was going to do the Base Camp trek since November. One of my good friends, Madi, had been planning on traveling in Asia this past winter and spring, and I was easily able to convince her to come with me. I figured once I got to Kathmandu, I’d be able to meet a couple of other people who were interested in doing the trek as well, and we could all go together. So I arrived in Kathmandu, staying in an Airbnb, and what do you know? My host had been running a trekking company for the past 16 years, and was able to arrange everything for us. I couldn’t find anyone else with the flexibility to take the time off Madi and I had planned on trekking, so a couple weeks before the trek, it was only going to be Madi and myself on this trek, which was totally fine.
And then: the hilarious shitshow of travel organisation hit. One of my friends, Lawrence, who I met here in early January, was leaving Kathmandu to head back to California. He had always wanted to do this trek, but was busy with work while in Kathmandu. The day before he flew back to Cali, I told him he should stay and do the trek with Madi and I (he flew back to California the second last week of February or so, and the trek was set to start March 7). About a week later, he sent me a message, asking if it’s really ok that he comes on the trek, and then his flight back to Kathmandu was booked. A couple days later, Madi told me that she’d developed an ear infection in Vietnam, and her doctor has told her she should not be flying or climbing mountains.
And, of course, it did not cross either of our minds that this was a weird thing to do with someone you’s only met a couple months ago, or how horribly wrong this could have gone, until we were on the mountain.
Just kidding! I’ve actually secretly applied for us to be on the Amazing Race because, as an American, he’s eligible, I can piggy back on that, and we would for real crush it so hard. But seriously, even though it was really disappointing that Madi and I didn’t get to do this together, I could not have had a better person to do this trek with. We both lost our minds at the same points, so the mutual insanity was comforting, and I only terrified him once through my hanger, which he helped stave off more than once through his provision of trail mix (and his minimal complaining at me picking out all the dried fruit to eat and leaving him the peanuts). And who else would legitimately be as excited as me to play The Lord of the Rings soundtrack while we trekked?
So, Lawrence flew to California, and back to Kathmandu, we organised our gear, and then the next morning caught the early flight out to Lukla, which is also known as the world’s most dangerous airport. By no means am I a nervous flyer, but flying in and out of Lukla is quite the experience.
A lot of people get freaked out by prop planes, but, being born in Northwestern Ontario, I really don’t think twice about them. I actually love flying in Nepal, especially on a clear day, because the land below is so incredible. So while just about everyone else was filming the pilot doing his flight work, I was paying attention to the land. The flight from KTM to Lukla takes about half an hour (as do all other flights in Nepal, I feel if you go much further, you’re out of the country). So you’re flying along, and the mountains are as high as you are, and it’s absolutely beautiful. And then there comes a certain point where you look out the window and you think to yourself, man, these mountains are really close. Like I can make out individual trees and is that a person? Holy shit, we’re landing right now! And you’re down. It was over and done with before I could even recognize it, just a runway rising out from the mountains to greet you. Someone told me that many of the domestic airline pilots in Nepal are former army pilots, and I believe it, because the skill to land that plane (smoothly!) is something I can’t even comprehend.
The first thing that hit both of us was that it was cold in Lukla. Kathmandu is at an elevation of 1400m. Lukla is 2860m. It had been warming up in Kathmandu in late February, so I was starting to get comfortable. Lukla was a rude awakening, and the feel of the cold on me was the first time I thought, Remember how excited you were to leave Canada for the winter and be warm in Asia? Why are you doing this again? (As an aside, I am a terrible Canadian in my hatred of the cold. Growing up in Northwestern Ontario and Saskatchewan, I feel like I’ve had my fair share of -50 weather, and I would be perfectly content to live in a climate where it never drops below 18 degrees).
We met our sherpa, who was literally half my height, but was prepared to carry both Lawrence’s and my own gear. After some shuffling of gear and a quick second breakfast, we started our first leg of the trek, from Lukla to Phakding.
It was an easy walk to Phakding, which in retrospect, seems a bit of a cruel way to start out – I was ready to be hurting immediately, but this was a couple of hours of pretty easy walking, and we actually decreased our elevation to 2610m. Of course, my general confidence started showing in my thoughts:
That afternoon at Phakding, I thought the rest of the trek was going to be a cakewalk. My cockiness was further reinforced when I felt warm enough to sleep in just my flannel liner that night, and leave my sleeping bag packed up (less to do in the morning, right!). I mean, yeah, it had been cold at Lukla, but we had been in the shade at the airport, and in Phakding it actually felt pretty pleasant, like late April in Dryden, when you start wearing shorts. And the walk itself had just felt like an easy stroll.
I remember, after my marathon, talking to people about the experience of running a marathon. And yeah, I was tired after the race and went to sleep for a few hours, but the actual running of the race? I didn’t find it that hard (side note: I might be a little intense).
Everest was the opposite of that. After Phakding, just about every day was hard, and it got harder and harder as you went on. But, at the end of each day, I was never as tired as I was after my marathon, or even after a big day of treeplanting.
It was a different kind of fatigue, and not one I’m sure I can explain. I guess the easiest way to understand it is to know that I was born at a elevation of 372m – and before living in Kathmandu, I was living at an elevation of 6m above sea level. That’s right. Six metres. I am not someone who is accustomed to living in low levels of oxygen.
But, we were only on day one! And after that easy day, the day two trek up to Namche Bazaar (3440m) didn’t seem so daunting. And again, it didn’t start out so poorly, but it’s funny – the trails here are so popular, and they’re necessary for people who live on the mountain to pass supplies to the villages further up. So they’re quite developed, and the uphill sections, rather than being steady slopes, have often been turned into staircases.
It’s like climbing a million storey building. And the people who walk up the CN Tower think they’re hard. Get up on my level.
And Namche Bazaar is a happening place, let me tell you. I mean, it’s really the New York of the Himalayas. They have multiple bars, including one with a Finnish sauna, much to the delight of one of the Brits we met on the way up, as well as gear shops, a post office, bakeries… pretty much everything you could want.
Since it’s such a bustling metropolis, a lot of people use Namche as an acclimatization point, meaning you spend two nights there before continuing up the mountain.
Acclimatization days are funny, because they kind of sound like you get to relax in the village and just get used to the oxygen levels there. Not so. As a bonus, you get to walk more! And usually, a bit higher, just to make sure your body is still alright with the altitude. At this point, we were still in pretty good spirits – I believe this was the day where we said, “We could totally have done this trek without a porter. Like yeah, it would be tougher, but definitely doable.” I’m pretty sure we took that statement back as soon as we left Namche. I would have died carrying my bag, and I barely had anything with me (Lawrence had all the snacks).
The altitude honestly didn’t affect me like I thought it would. I mean, yes, I was short of breath, and we took breaks frequently enough, but I was prepared for the worst. My greatest issue with the altitude was that, after 4900m, I slept for roughly two or three hours every night. Being a good kinesiology graduate, I was aware going into this that your breathing slows when you sleep, which means you take in less oxygen. Combine a lower rate of breath with lower rates of oxygen in the air, and most people end up not taking in enough O2 while they sleep. Every night after 4900m, I would fall asleep without any problem, and then wake up once my breath got shallow enough. After twenty minutes of deep yoga breathing, I would fall back asleep. This repeated all night, so I was never fully rested going into the high altitude days. Honestly, I can’t complain that much about this – there are a lot of people that wake up in the middle of the night hyperventilating and feeling like they can’t catch their breath at all, and don’t know the physiological reasoning behind it. At least I was prepared for this going into everything, so it didn’t really freak me out .
That isn’t to downplay altitude sickness – one of our buddies did have a day where he thought he was going to die, and another pair we met on the way ended up turning around just shy of Base Camp because of the sickness. It’s one of those things that affects different people, and we were good at following the general rules of acclimatization.
So we walked – and we walked, and we walked, always slowly, slowly, as per Sonam’s instructions – and we made a lot of Lord of the Rings jokes (clearly I would be Frodo). There were flat stretches where you could take in the view and sing (we brought portable speakers, yes, we were those people) and then there were continuous uphill stretches that made you appreciate flat land more than I ever thought possible. There were burning quads and lungs, and the idea of launching a fitness program rebranding the Base Camp trek as “Leg Day Every Day” was born (do you even Base Camp, bro?).
And every night, we were able to settle into our tea house of choice, chat with other travellers, have a warm meal and tea, and be relatively comfortable. I mean, as with most other domiciles in Nepal, including my apartment in Kathmandu, these lodgings weren’t insulated, so at night, they did get cold, and I did have to bust out my sleeping bag after that one warm night in Phakding. But they were clean and comfortable, often with extra blankets, and a generally pleasant place to rest your head.
And then came Gorakshep.
Gorakshep is the last village before Base Camp, and is at the base of Kala Patthar, another Himalayan peak. At an elevation of 5164m, you can imagine it’s quite cold. And remember the lack of insulation in most buildings throughout Nepal? And remember that my apartment in Kathmandu, Nepal’s largest city, has not had hot water once since I moved in? Forget heating – sure, there was one wood stove in the common area, but where is any wood going to come from? The only fuel source at Gorakshep? Dried manure.
Consider that pipes freeze in Toronto, and other major Canadian cities, where all the modern comforts tailored to a cold climate exist. Now why anyone would even bother installing toilets in a place where you know it’s going to freeze – and not just because it’s one bad winter, literally every fall, winter, and spring, the pipes in Gorakshep are guaranteed to freeze – is beyond me. I have officially visited the world’s most disgusting toilets.
And it’s not just the conditions of the lodging (which really, the people who staff these lodges are doing the best with what they have), but it’s the last point people hit before they turn back. There are a lot of people who pushed to Gorakshep before finally falling to the altitude sickness. I remember one woman, just curled up in a ball under blankets, beyond misery. It’s more than just someone looking unwell – those hit hard by altitude sickness literally look like zombies. They’re pale, their eyes are glassy. It’s a subhuman state to be in.
I later learned that Gorakshep means ‘dead ravens’ in Nepali.
We actually arrived in Gorakshep in the late morning/early afternoon, dropped everything we didn’t need, and made the push to Base Camp that same day. Arriving just below the Khumbu Ice Fall was such a blur of an experience. We got out onto the glacier and I immediately opened the caesar I had been carrying since Kathmandu – and yes, I carried it in my own day bag every day. We blasted ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ and ‘Started from the Bottom’ on our portable speakers. We sang, we danced, we drank. We were literally the most basic people on the mountain.
Our celebrations were interrupted as the weather shifted and a snowstorm started pushing in. I was happy to be heading back to our lodging (at that point, I had yet to really explore Gorakshep), and couldn’t believe the amount of people we passed who were heading towards Base Camp in that weather. I suppose at that point, the only thing that will deter people from soldiering on is physical impossibility.
The following morning, we were to ascend Kala Patthar, a peak of 5500m. We heard a lot of guides telling their groups to get up at 4.30 so they could watch the sun rise over Everest. Luckily, Sonam came up to us and told us we would be leaving at 6.00.
We got up (I don’t say woke up, because I believe I was in one of my states of realizing I needed more oxygen when my alarm went off) to find Lawrence’s contact lenses frozen in their solution. I assured him that they would be fine to put in (that’s how superheroes are made, right?, and we started off for Kala Patthar.
This was my most and least favourite day of the trek. I love food. And I don’t just love it, I need it. All the time. I eat constantly throughout the day. The plan for this ascent was to eat breakfast after we descended from the peak. I should have known better and carried the snacks. Instead, I thought I could power through to the top and then eat. My hanger quickly got the best of me and I scared Lawrence up the mountain. When I arrived on the peak, someone was trying to get rid of their raisins (easily the worst of the dried fruits) and I literally grabbed the bag from him and poured it in my mouth. Only then would I let anyone talk to me.
Once my blood sugar increased, I was able to really appreciate where I was: 5550m above the sea, looking at the sun coming over Mount Everest, the mother of all mountains.
The size of these mountains is something that I don’t think anyone can really put into words. Their scope is surreal. It constantly amazed me to think of how long we had been walking, and then to look down and see how little ground you had covered. At times it seemed futile. Everything looked close until you tried to reach it – it was like a dream where every time you reached out your hand, the object you were attempting to grasp moved away, an inch at a time.
And I guess that’s life; or maybe, it’s a life wherein you’re constantly pushing yourself to achieve goals that seem unattainable, and then once those goals are reached, you make a new one that seems just as unbelievable. And then you set out to achieve it. You’re never finished, and there’s always something magnificent to move towards.
The most meaningful things we do in life are the ones that make us dig deep within ourselves. They’re the things that make us question our sanity, and they’re the things that allow us to occasionally doubt ourselves, but in the end, they help us overcome those doubts. Challenge is how we grow.
The mountains are vast and seemingly never ending. They’re massive hunks of stone, more incredible than anything any human could ever make, imposing their shadows upon us, cutting through land, watching time and generations pass. They give off a sense of wariness; they could betray you at any moment. There’s danger in going into the mountains, and there’s respect that comes from experiencing them up close. The mountains inspire many things, ranging from awe to terror.
I’ve seen where heaven meets earth: Everest, the mother of mountains. Rather than making me feel small, she reminded me of how big I am.