Aerial Entertainment at Lukla Airport
The flight into Lukla from Kathmandu was interesting and gave me a newfound respect for the pilots that fly into “the most dangerous airport in the world”, but that adventure was behind me, and Everest Base Camp was ahead of me.
I bolted through the tiny airport, grabbed my trekking poles, continued left toward the exit and onto that cobblestone road that crossed behind the Lukla Airport runaway. Do you remember that wall I mentioned at the end of the runway that planes can potentially smack into? The cobblestone path leaving the airport runs just above it, and it makes for a nice (and risky) place to watch a Lukla Airport landing and takeoff. If you have the chance, I highly recommend watching a takeoff before heading into Lukla Town to start the trek. The experience of watching a takeoff in person is both impressive and exhilarating.
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I was lucky enough to walk across the cobblestone path just as my pilots were taking off. The pilots maneuvered the plane as far back as they could on the short runway, with the nose pointed toward the narrow valley, flanked on either side by impressive ridgelines. Everything within eyeshot seemed to halt as the pilots put the brakes on, paused for a moment, and then cranked the propellers to full blast, the engines howling like revved motorcycle engines. No one moved. All eyes were on the plane. It was as if everyone was aware of the odds.
With a crack at the peak of the suspense, the pilots pulled the brakes and the plane shot forward as if propelled like a sling shot, the anxiety growing as the plane moved closer to the end of the runway. 527 meters to disaster…or another peaceful plane ride with amazing views of the Himalayas. A human could run that distance in just over a minute. How the hell is that enough time for a plane to hit top ground speed?” That is the thought that ran through my head as the plane reached the crest of the runway, and dipped slightly…
…then slowly rose into the sky. Just like the mountains in view, these take-offs are something you will have to see, and experience, to appreciate. At the same moment, a wasp like helicopter’s rotors whirred with the similar sound of a motorcycle engine revving, which caught my attention.
The clearly intense helicopter was next to the runway’s edge, very close to mountain’s dropoff. The helicopter appeared to rise off the ground a few feet before the rear blades whipped high in the air like the tail of a scorpion. With the helicopter’s nose pointed down towards the earth, the chopper flew straight down, carving lines like a snowboarder in powder before pulling away, getting its tail back underneath it, and aiming upward towards the sky.
Whoever was flying that chopper drove it more like a motorcycle rider with a deathwish than something airborne. This whole “hike to Everest Base Camp” thing was shaping up to be an adrenaline rush of a journey, and I’d only been a spectator so far.
Lukla Town: Quaint and Brief
After the aerial entertainment, I continued on towards Lukla town. The same cobblestone path from the airport led down the small village to become its main street. The path was lined on both sides by shop after shop of everything the trekkers likely forgot, pants, chapstick, Snickers bars…all at triple the Kathmandu price of course. Kids played soccer in the streets enticing foreigners to play along. Fancy teahouse after fancy teahouse lined the street enticing trekkers with tastes of home, and warm meals that weren’t “dal baht”.
It was pretty clear that Lukla’s main draw was being a brief escape for returning hikers, beaten down by the EBC Trek but unlucky enough to miss the last flight of the day out. As such, Lukla provides the comforts required to keep the downtrodden adventurer sane for a night. Not as built up as Namche Bazaar (in terms of entertainment), it would suffice for a half dead zombie of a hiker. But not for someone like me on the road…my only desire was to get to Phakding and start adjusting to this altitude. So, 500 meters after entering Lukla, I was happily departing its crowded streets.
As I approached the start of the trek I happily turned over my passport to a local policeman. The Nepali authorities log trekkers’ information at several checkpoints along the way, just to make sure they don’t wander. This is excellent for overzealous types like myself that intend on completing the entire trek solo. Though there would be a lot of solitude during the next two weeks, there was an amazing upside was freedom.
At most registration areas I was in and out within five minutes, whereas guided groups could spend 30+ minutes waiting on the members of their herds to process. Then, the group would wait another 15 minutes while the guide corralled the trekkers back together and got them ready to hit the trail again. Me? In and out in five. With my passport in hand and looks of envy behind me, I headed straight for a tall, green arch engraved with Nepalese script. This marked the official start of the Everest Base Camp trek.
Next stop: Phakding.
The Road to Phakding
The road to Phakding was well trodden, even crowded at times. Fortunately for me, very little traffic was coming back Lukla and most of it was heading towards EBC, because the spring trekking season (October) was just starting,. The upside was that all I had to do to keep my trekking experience serene was pass the slower hordes of guided groups and stay between the masses. And, not step in yak poop. Simple enough.
The path from Lukla to Phakding, and the mountainsides along it, were stark contrasts to the dusty, brown streets of Kathmandu. The path was wide enough to drive a car on at some points and carved into a steep hillside covered with trees and greenery. Above, a cloudy, overcast but peaceful sky. Below, a roaring river meandered its way down the valley, and provided soothing background music to the walk. Leaving Lukla at 9,383 feet and walking to Phakding at 8,562, I would be losing altitude. So, today would be a wonderfully easy day, just over a 2 hour walk with peaceful views.
Along the 8-kilometer walk, the path was peppered with tiny hamlets, each with an impossibly difficult to pronounce name: Cheplung, Nachipang, Koshigan, and Ghat. Every single one, picturesque and nearly a perfect setting for a romantic weekend getaway, for the outdoorsy types anyways. All of which welcomed you with cleanly groomed stone roads and tiny hotels with tables and umbrellas casually placed next to the path.
Inviting signs advertised “real coffee” and “cold Coca-Cola”, precious assets on this trek. The first day’s walk was only 2 hours, so many of the trekking mobs took full advantage of the excess of time by stopping for their last truly luxurious lunch of the trek. As quaint and beautiful as each of these little villages were, my goal was to get to Phakding and prep for a good night’s sleep.
Religious and cultural pieces dotted the trail between hamlets. Prayer wheels, large and small were scattered about next to humongous stones, all of which carved with sacred scriptures in a language I (and Google Translate) couldn’t decipher. Colorful prayer flags tied to bridges…not only beautiful but meaningful as the only visible remnant of someone’s sincere hopes and prayers. The peacefulness of this hike, the scenery, and the religious pieces are a treat in that together they allow you to fully absorb, and feel, how dense the religion and culture is on this trail. All without saying a word.
Pushing the limits (continues to) keeps life interesting
After just over an hour of walking I passed a teahouse with an interesting name, “Yeti Mountain Home Phakding.” There was no way I had already reached my destination. I checked Maps.Me on my phone. Yup. I was in Phakding alright. Insane!
Now, according to my plan I was supposed to stop, grab lunch, and bed down for the night. But I was still buzzing from the adrenaline rush of landing at the death airport, so there’s no way I could stop. I had to keep going.
There was only one thing to do…I sat down and had a Snickers. Why wait? Ok…not funny. But I hydrated, refueled, contemplated…then remembered, this whole getting to Everest Base Camp thing was about testing limits…right? I saddled my pack and baseball cap back on and commenced the powerwalk…toward Namche Bazaar.
Bad Decision #1: On to Namche Bazaar on Day 1
Now, the decision to head to Namche Bazaar on my first trekking day defied a lot of good logic.
I had just arrived in Nepal the day before, from Myanmar, near sea level and I was at 2,600 meters (~8,500 feet) after walking 6.4km. I had just made the decision to walk another 10.4 more kilometers and climb another 1,000 meters (3,200 feet) in elevation, without any time to acclimatize, just to get to Namche.
A little context: the greatest risk when trekking to Everest Base Camp is altitude sickness. The short version – altitude sickness is what happens your body is exposed to an environment where the concentration of oxygen in the air is much lower than what your body is used to. The result? You feel nauseous, get headaches, and might act or feel a little drunk.
So why is altitude sickness such a big deal? If these symptoms set in and a person ignores them, either the lungs begin to fill up with fluid or the brain begins to fill up with fluid. Both of these situations lead straight to death if the person doesn’t get to lower altitude ASAP.
Despite altitude sickness being a significant risk, the risk can be easily managed. Don’t ascend more than 400 meters in a day and schedule a rest day after ascending 1,000 meters. And most importantly, WALK SLOWLY. So, what does this have to do with my story? Altitude sickness becomes a significant risk at 2,400 meters. I was at 2,600 meters above sea level and had just made the decision to move to 3,400 meters above sea level by day’s end.
Most of the other trekkers and groups were calling it quits for the day which meant I would be hiking on empty trails, with no one to offer assistance if I was injured or had a sudden urge to do anything stupid. Last, it was going to be dark in about 3 hours and some change…exactly when I would make it to Namche if nothing went wrong.
These bad ideas stacking up were highlighted for me when I arrived at the ranger station on the edge of the national park, which started below Namche:
“You know, most people stop in Phakding on their first day, right?” the park ranger politely said
“Yeah, I know…but I just feel like walking” I said as I channeled my inner Forest Gump. The park ranger looked a little worried and looked over at the Nepali soldier that provided security at the entrance to the national park. I saw the glance and asked the soldier “what do you think, should I go?”
The soldier replied with a statement that characterizes most of my travels:
“Why not? What’s the worst that could happen?” as he laughed
The park ranger gave him a “wtf” look as the soldier snatched my passport from the park ranger, handed it back to me and said “go on. Have fun.”
Well, with my decision confirmed, I was committed, so I hit the road. 10km and 1000 meters of altitude gain to go before sunset. Better start.
For the record, the common rule when acclimatizing is not to hike more than 300-500 meters per day, so hiking up 1000 meters on day one was a bad idea. Please avoid doing this…or don’t blame it on me if you follow my bad choices and end up in an “interesting” situation. Now, back to the story…
Obstacle 1: The Damn Bridge
The road from the Ranger Station to Namche Bazaar continued the serene and beautiful conditions. The air was even more cool and crisp, and growing cooler as the sun moved closer and closer to the horizon. At times the tree cover was so dense that I couldn’t even see the sky. Other times, the trees thinned out enough to expose steep tree covered mountains converging on all sides. For anyone who is easily entranced by landscapes, this place is mesmerizing. That is, until you reach the damn bridge.
Now, remember the steep valley leading up to Lukla airport? Imagine a slightly smaller version of that. Now imagine that stretching across this valley is a steel plank and cable footbridge, just wide enough for one person to walk across at a time. Below, a very long drop and a raging river. I knew that this bridge was reasonably safe, and the odds of it breaking on me were about as good as my odds of winning the lottery but I knew Nepal was renowned for its climbers…I’m not so sure it is renowned for its engineers.
As I’m skittering across this bridge as fast as possible with a hand on each of the rails, I’m trying to figure out who the hell built this thing and whether I can trust them. When I’m halfway across, I see a trekker about to cross coming towards me while this bridge is jostling and swaying like bamboo in the breeze.
The trekker looks at me with an expression of “I’m coming your way…ok?” I shake my head left to right in response as a way of saying “nah bro, you can come, but I’m not letting go of these rails until I reach the other side.” Say what you will about my bad decisions, but very rarely do they involve risks with heights. Luckily, he caught the drift and waited until I got across. I halfheartedly apologized and continued my powerwalk as the sun began to set.
On the other side of the bridge, there was still quite a bit of elevation to go before reaching Namche. A series of fairly steep switchbacks culminated with a slight (and slightly disappointing) view of the tip of Everest at the top. You know, just the tip…just to see how the view feels. I imagine on a clearer day that view would be an encouraging teaser…just not today. I took off my backpack to hydrate and have another of my beloved Snickers. The porters next to me were chattering as one looked over and asked
“Are you going to Namche?”
“Yes. You are carrying your own gear?”
“Yup, I’m too poor to afford you guys” I said with a wink
The porter laughed and said “most people don’t carry their own gear”
“I guess I’m not like most people” I said with a laugh “just a bit crazy I guess”
The porter laughed as I offered the group one of my, now, 16 Snickers bars. They accepted and continued chattering as I relaxed, hydrated, and munched on half of the Snickers bar in hand.
The porters are an impressive bunch. Day in and day out, they haul 60lb to 80lb loads up the mountain in makeshift, straw backpacks and broken-down sneakers or sandals. Whenever I would see them on the trail, as I wore my super heavy 22lb backpack and my super awesome Lowa boots, I felt humbled. This walk was an enjoyable thing for me. I had medication for virtually anything that would happen. Each night, I slept in a teahouse and ate whatever I wanted, while most of the porters shared tents and blankets. They live an intensely hard life in a fairly unforgiving place. If I fall, someone would take my credit card and do what it takes to get me back to Kathmandu ASAP. The porters didn’t have that luxury or assurance. You want to know what the most astounding thing about the porters is? They smiled. All of the damn time.
Now, don’t get me wrong on this. I’ve heard some trekkers had bad experiences with porters. Some said the porters were rude, that they didn’t smile, and that they were cold and distant. But I respected the porters and what they did, enough that whenever I sat down at a rest area or to have water I would usually walk over to where the porters were and sit with them. If I had extra water or candy in hand I would offer it. If I didn’t have anything, I would just smile and say hi. They always returned a genuine smile and a hello, and usually started up a conversation after that, if they spoke English.
Some of the trekkers complained. They complained about headaches and about their feet. They complained about how hard it was to breathe. They complained about how the dal baht tasted or where they were sleeping. Not the porters. Those tough bastards just smiled. They just smiled from underneath 80lb loads. In my book, that’s kind of awesome. I liked the porters.
As the sunset shifted from yellow to hues of dark red, I didn’t want to lose too much daylight so I saddled up my pack, waved, and turned to go. The porters smiled and waved and then continued chattering.
Checkpoint 3…and altitude sickness symptoms set in
A little while further up the road after the switchbacks ended I reached the trekker check station before Namche Bazaar…unfortunately, I arrived just behind a herd of other trekkers (10 or so) which meant a bit of a wait until the park rangers got to checking my Trekker Information Management System (TIMS) registration.
During that 30 minutes I spent waiting, the consequences of my bad ideas of the day started to set in. Let me explain…
Altitude sickness can start to set in around 8,000 feet, or 2,400 meter. I was at approximately 11,000 feet, with zero acclimatization under my belt. The preventative measure for altitude sickness is to walk slowly, ascend slowly, put rest days in your schedule, and sleep at a lower altitude than the highest altitude you’ve climbed to each day to allow your body time to adapt to the conditions. Not doing so results in altitude sickness. The symptoms seem like you’re drunk or have hypothermia, loss of coordination, confusion, fatigue, nausea and shortness of breath. So, back to me and my bad decision.
As I sat there waiting, sitting still, about 1.4 km and a 30-minute walk from Namche I felt a rush of fatigue, a deep chill, and light headed. Unlike many trekkers, I didn’t take the altitude meds coming in and the meds take about 6 hours to really kick in. “F%#!!!” I thought. I’m not ending this trek on the first day. The sun had already fallen behind the horizon and the temperature was dropping just as quickly so I needed to get on the move.
I went to the ranger and requested my passport back and tore off…way quicker than I should have considering what I was possibly experiencing. We have another saying in the Marines that encourages A LOT of decisions could be A LOT better… “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” So, my thought? If I could manage to make it through the night without being helo’ed out the next day (altitude sickness can get pretty bad at night) then I’d emerge stronger for the rest of the trek. I would suck it up, drink water, manage the symptoms, and keep to an aggressive plan. Not the best plan. Still fun though.
For the record – anyone planning to do this trek, there are a handful of things that I did that were less than optimal. If you don’t want to risk taking a chopper flight off the trail as the end to your EBC trek, do as follows:
- Take a couple days in Kathmandu to acclimatize. Maybe even go for a run and rest up
- Stop in Phakding. The trekking distance and altitude is a perfect stopping point to acclimatize and avoid altitude sickness
- DO NOT ignore altitude sickness symptoms
- If trekking alone, avoid trekking after 2-3PM
- Remember, “Climb high, sleep low” meaning, climb to a higher altitude each day than you’ll be sleeping at. This will aid acclimatization and stave off altitude sickness
- Consider taking Diamox (the altitude medication) starting the day before the trek in 125mg to 250mg doses, with your medical provider’s approval (of course)
Now, back to our show…
About 30 minutes later, and 17km from Lukla airport, I finally arrived in Namche Bazaar. Even as tired as I was, in the dim light of dusk, the terraced mountain town cascading down a lush green mountainside was impressively beautiful. I wasn’t sure if it was the view or the exhaustion (or altitude sickness) that was taking my breath away. Knowing that the end was near (one way or another) I slowed my pace and enjoyed the change from rural EBC trek to mildly urban, Himalayan mountain town, clad with comfy hotels and the oddly familiar cobblestone streets.
As I walked Namche Bazaar’s main street, I could smell fresh baked goods coming out of the aptly named Everest Bakery, and hear the celebratory chaos of successful trekkers coming out of “The Irish Pub”. The Irish Pub claims to be the highest Irish bar in the world and offers free wi-fi, a rarity on this trek. All of this sounded enticing, for another version of Carlos. For now, I just wanted a place to rest, food, and to die…for the night. Like Lazarus, I would rise the next day. Maybe, more of a whitewalker …back from the dead, confused and hungry. Either way, Namche looked like a good place to call home for evening.
I wandered briefly up the steep, stone stepped paths of the city before realizing, I needed to stop somewhere before Namche did me in. Just past a Rasta styled coffee shop I found the Namaste Lodge teahouse. The named sounded inviting and it looked homelike and humble enough. At 250 rupees (~$2.50) a night, it would work.
I tossed my trekking poles into the bucket next to the door, washed my hands with ice-cold water, and went straight for the dining room. Dal Baht, a bottomless lentil and rice soup that is ubiquitous and a reliably safe bet on the trail, garlic soup, and honey and ginger tea was my setup for dinner. The first dish, dal baht, to replace the thousands of calories I burned off during the day while avoiding the risk of food poisoning. The latter two treats, garlic soup and honey ginger tea, are delicious local remedies said to relieve mild altitude sickness symptoms – and would hopefully help me avoid a potentially embarrassing incident.
I scarfed down the food not because I was ravenously hungry, but because I wanted nothing more than to be warm and not moving in my sleeping bag. I finished my food, walked straight to my room, dropped all of my gear on the floor, stripped down to my boxers, and crawled right into my sleeping bag. No showers from here on out. On the Everest trek, most things that get wet don’t dry, and the water is so cold that anything it touches tends to shrivel up and fall off, so, the convenient result is being able to call it quits as a dirty heap. Lucky for me.
Too dead from the day to worry about my symptoms, I turned out the light, wrapped the extra wool blankets provided by the teahouse around my sleeping bag, and commenced the sleep of the dead. Sleep never felt so good.