Well, we did it! On October 8 we woke up at 4 A.M. and climbed up 500 meters (that’s about 5 football fields lined up end-to-end, vertically) to the top of Kala Patthar, where we had great sunrise views of Mt. Everest and the Everest Himalayan Range.
After a few hours up there, we headed down for breakfast and then took off for Everest Base Camp. The camp is situated atop the Khumbu Glacier at the bottom of the Western Cwm snow fall, which is fed by Everest and Nuptse, so for the last 200 meters to the camp we walked on the glacier. It wasn’t slippery because the glacier is covered with rocks and boulders that the ice ripped from the mountains decades ago as it made its slow descent down the valley.
You wouldn’t even know you were standing on a glacier except that in random places giant lakes had been melted out of the surface by the afternoon sun. Jessie said that they looked like the lake where the narwhal lives in the Christmas claymation special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
As we neared the camp I was reflecting on all the events leading up to this day. I thought of how we’d crossed from India to Nepal by land and sat on a 10-hour long patience-testing bus ride. During those ten hours the bus stopped three times: two times for “toilet breaks” on the side of the highway where you had to duck behind skinny bushes to do any business; and once for “dinner,” which meant that the bus stopped in the middle of a busy intersection and allowed three teenage boys with enormous wicker baskets to climb aboard and shove people standing in the aisle aside to sell their snacks. You could purchase a giant cucumber the size of your forearm which was sliced in half lengthwise or you could buy a cob of corn that had been blackened on an open kerosene fire. We decided we’d tap into the baguettes we’d purchased before leaving Varanasi the previous day. As night fell and the scenery outside the windows blackened, we closed our eyes to sleep but the giant gaudy lights on the bus ceiling blared blue and red and orange through our eyelids while the speakers pumped ridiculously synthesized Indian music through the speakers at ear-splitting decibels. Seriously, it’s a much easier and attainable goal to trek to Everest Base Camp than to sleep on a Nepali bus.
After acquiring all our gear over the next several days (a big thanks to Shona’s Trekking Company near Thamel…we highly recommend them) we set out for the airport. Most people doing the Everest trek fly from Kathmandu to Lukla, which has the distinction of being the scariest airport to fly into in the world because it’s tiny runway sits at the edge of a cliff that gives no room for second chances.
The domestic terminal was somewhat empty when we arrived, but after the clerks put up a handwritten sign that said “Flights delayed due to Lukla weather” the small space slowly became a disaster area. Guides and porters kept dragging in more people and their bags and trying to deposit them in front of the lines where people had been waiting for 2+ hours.
Tensions were high. Every time a clerk approached one of the check-in counters, lines half the length of the terminal immediately formed, only to have the clerk tell everyone INDIVIDUALLY that it wasn’t time for them to check in yet. The whole system is just completely insufficient and it seems the problem could be solved with a simple white board and dry/erase marker displaying which flight was currently being checked in. After we’d sat there for about four hours we finally were issued a boarding pass, and with giant smiles on our faces approached the boarding gate. However, our excitement was premature. Only ten minutes before boarding time they announced that all flights to Lukla were canceled for the day. So we had to go back out, reacquire our flight itinerary and get our ticket changed for the next day.
On that second day we held our breath and our expectations back until we were airborne. The short flight took us past miles of rolling hills entirely covered by farming terraces and steep footpaths between villages before depositing us 2800 meters above sea level (9,200 ft) in Lukla. And so we began our trek to Everest. The trek generally takes at least 12 days, but we’d given ourselves 16 days so that we would have plenty of time to acclimatize and to enjoy the scenery. We had great weather the first two days as we climbed our way up to Namche Bazaar at 3440m (11,300ft). Jessie had the camera and kept pausing to take pictures of hills and waterfalls and other beautiful landscapes. But I told her, “Make sure you take plenty pictures of the path.
The path is so important. As in all other aspects of life, following a path leads you from where you are to the desired destination. So I wanted to make sure that we had a lot of images that would remind us of all the places we’d gone through, some easy and fun, others hard and demanding, that pointed us toward our final goal. I also realized that this path had started long before our feet touched the ground at Tensing-Hillary Airport. It had been discovered, cultivated and encouraged over the past three years, from the moment I marveled at the mountaineers in Jon Krakauer’s classic Everest summit account in “Into Thin Air,” to the auspicious meeting of another traveler in Korea who’d just done the trek himself, to the moment on my 30th birthday when Jessie set the background image on our laptop to a picture of Everest and then told me she was giving it to me for my birthday.
After the first two gorgeous days, we had five days of constant fog. It was infuriating and dispiriting. We knew that if the clouds would just roll away we’d be able to look up and see a stadium of white-capped mountains encircling us. But instead we could barely see more than 10 feet around us. Day after day, one foot in front of the other, our hearts sank deeper and deeper. After we’d done so much to get here, were we going to miss seeing the very things we’d come for? We kept overhearing people say their guides had checked and the weather should clear up the next day. We’d get our hopes up, only to have them dashed down when we woke up and looked out the window to see another cold grey day.
At one point we were walking through a valley. The fog had retreated for a few hours and we were enjoying finally being able to see some of the mountains. We looked back toward the valley’s entrance and we saw the clouds scrambling up the valley like a schoolyard bully coming to steal the little joy we’d found from the momentary sunshine. It came on so thick and so fast that we lost the path and were concerned that if we didn’t find it soon we’d also lose what little sunlight was left of the day and be caught outdoors without shelter. I never knew that weather could influence moods so harshly. I was so angry but had no one to be angry with. We grew increasingly bitter. We even started making up sarcastic jokes about the Everest Base Camp trek, like how it’s harder to see than a polar bear in a snow storm.
The weather cleared up a day before we reached our highest elevation at 5500 meters (18,044 feet). We knew we were really lucky. We got to see Everest and the Himalayan range with hardly a cloud in the sky! And we sincerely appreciated the fact that we were seeing it.
The sky continued to be clear as we walked the path all the way back to Lukla over the next four days. So in the end, we got to see almost everything we’d missed on the way up while heading back down.
Despite the fog-induced emotional rollercoaster we faced on our journey, it was an amazing trip. Several times we found ourselves choking back tears. About halfway through the trip we hiked 800 meters up a hill. It took a lot of time and hard breathing, and as we turtled our way up the path the clouds kept billowing around us, obscuring the wonderful views we sensed were all about. We considered turning back several times. After all, what was the point of reaching the top just to see the same old wall of white we’d been walking through? But I decided that I wouldn’t stop, that it was going to clear up for us. I reached the peak several minutes before Jessie and looked out to see a handful of snow covered mountains unveiled atop the mist. And tears just flowed from my eyes.
I’m still trying to digest all the emotional and physical mountains we climbed on this trip. If they’re like everything else in my life, the meanings will continue to unravel and reveal themselves over time and future sleepless nights. But we did it! We conquered Everest Base Camp!