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A Morning in Pheriche and the shadow of the Himalays
The sensation felt almost weird. Warm air hitting my face. A soft bed beneath me. Waking up in the Edelweiss Lodge had not disappointed. With all of the other trekkers taking their acclimatization day in Dingboche, I had the “teahouse” all too myself, but Edelweiss felt like a 4 star resort at this point in my journey. I rolled out of bed and walked over to pull the curtains back. It was 6:30AM and the sun was just cresting behind the mountains to the east of Pheriche. I couldn’t let this view go.
I walked outside to a refreshing chill in the air but the warmth of sunlight on my face. The stone structured town of Pheriche felt oddly austere but was still one of those unique views that it is worth flying across the world to see. The town was nestled in an ascending valley, with mountains towering thousands of feet above on both sides, and the trail forward to Mount Everest disappeared as it curved right into the mountains in the distance.
Horses walked freely through the rocky terrain, sipping from the many tiny streams that flowed between the rocks. But despite this beauty, there wasn’t a whole lot to do in Pheriche.
Pheriche is the home of a hospital run by the Himalayan Rescue Association, which is only operated during the trekking and climbing season to offer support to trekkers and climbers. Before 1975 when the hospital arrived, the town was focused on farming potatoes and buckwheat and tending the yaks that serve as meat and shuttle goods up and down between Lukla and Gorak Shep along the Everest Base Camp Hike. Since the popularity of the EBC trek had increased, the town is now meant as more of a respite for breathless trekkers, usually on their way heading back down to Lukla.
After taking in the inspiring morning views in the Pheriche valley and realizing how little there was to keep me entertained in Pheriche (besides the books I had brought on my Kindle), I knew I was going to make another questionable decision. I was going to skip my acclimatization day and keep walking.
As I sat enjoying another breakfast of French Toast and honey, lemon, and ginger tea, the teahouse manager’s assistant commented, “You are going to keep walking?” in a somewhat worried tone
“Yup,” I replied
“Are you sure you want to do that?”
“Well, I can always walk back down if things go bad, right?”
The assistant gave me a worried look to complement the tone but said nothing else.
At that moment, a Nepali guide that was leading a pair of trekkers, a younger woman and an older man decided to join the conversation. The group was on their way down from the mountain and the girl had been suffering from altitude sickness symptoms for the past few days. She was nauseous and a bit dizzy with splitting headaches. The symptoms weren’t bad enough to call in a helicopter, but bad enough that she wasn’t able to make it the Kala Patthar peak view of Everest, and bad enough that they were getting to lower altitude ASAP. Her symptoms were improving, but she looked like she’d spent the night making love to a freight train. The guide already had one case of “overzealous trekker” on his hand, so he seemed concerned.
“You haven’t had any trouble until now?”
“None. Things are great.”
“And you feel good?”
“Very. I kind of want to just see more of these views.” I said. I explained my trip and how I walked from Lukla to Namche the day after getting to Kathmandu and was exhausted but didn’t have any issues. I had a handful of Diamox and cell service just in case and “checkpoints” with a checklist to assess my own health dotted on my path, approximately every couple hours.
The guide smiled in relief with an, “aaaah, you should be good then.”
The Everest Base Camp hike is both incredibly easy and incredibly difficult and risky. On one hand, all you have to is walk…and keep walking. On the other hand, altitude sickness and exposure are clear risks, but these risks can all be mitigated with a good plan, good gear, and with structured, planned contingencies for whenever something goes wrong.
I’ve hiked miles before while exhausted so I knew that if my health went south I could turn around and get to lower altitude ASAP. I had the phone number to my travel insurance company (World Nomads) to call for help and a helicopter out if things went too far south. I had days’ worth of Diamox (altitude sickness medication) to buy myself time if the worst hit. I make decisions that run counter to the logic recommended for the masses pretty often, but on any adventure, I plan for the worst. I prepare myself physically and mentally as much as possible, and embrace every opportunity to push my limits.
This is why the guide smiled in relief. Normal advice is recommended for the masses, unwilling to take on the extra education or prep. By taking the reins of your own adventure, taking responsibility for the risks that exist and mitigating them as much as possible, the rules of the masses are less applicable to you. Keep in mind that the risks remain the same, but you are more equipped to respond to the worst, if it may come. I highly encourage this approach to all adventures. Take the reins of your own adventure. The risk is always much higher, so don’t get complacent, but the reward is exponentially higher, so savor ever second of the misery and the hidden pleasures you find along the way by being your own guide.
After my brief conversation with the guide convinced him that I wasn’t as stupid or ignorant as my plan may have seemed, his demeanor changed, and he opened up. He was not only guiding his two clients but also carrying their gear. It appeared that with this kind of arrangement there is a very formal structure and a bit of social distance. As the guide relaxed with me while his clients were on the other side of the room, the tone of our conversation changed…in an enjoyable way.
He asked how I had gotten into trekking and adventures like this.
I told him that I got used to walking endless miles during my time in the Marines and when realized how soul cleansing it was to be away from civilization, I got hooked. When I realized the more extreme the trekking situation (higher, farther from civilization) the more beautiful the destination, I started hitting the road for places like this.
I felt like it wasn’t quite fair for me to see a place as beautiful as the Khumbu if someone else carried my things and found my way. I had to earn it to really appreciate it. If I compromised the process, I would compromise that soul cleansing feeling, and that gift of achievement that comes at the end. I think that at the ends of the spectrums on our planet, around the highest places such as mountains and the lowest places such as beaches and oceans, it is easier to find pure peace and pure beauty. That was why I walked. Patagonia. Yosemite. The Rockies. Random trails in Southeast Asia. Those places got me hooked and led to this day, in Pheriche.
For the guide, he always had a love for the mountains, since he was a child. He was not Sherpa but looked up to them since he was young. In Nepal, there aren’t a plethora of opportunities but given the tourist draw of the Khumbu, work as porters is available for the capable. He would carry 80lb to 100lb packs up the mountain day in and day out, strapped to his back with the signature strap of porters that runs across the front of their heads. By the time he was 18, the muscles along the front of his neck were so overdeveloped from supporting the weight of packs that it was difficult for him to look up towards the sky.
Over time, he distinguished himself as a porter and was promoted to the job of Everest Base Camp hike guide, which he did for a few different companies. He had a wife and a daughter but would spend weeks at a time guiding treks through the Himalayan hills. My burning question: After so many years wandering up the same trails shuttling packs and tourists, was he tired of it? His answer: Absolutely not. He still loved every moment in the mountains with all of his heart. Being in the mountains was a spiritual experience for him. We toasted, with our honey, lemon, ginger teas, to that. To the mountains.
I offered to pay for the guide’s tea out of appreciation for the conversation but he declined, saying that the teahouse always takes care of him, but to look him up on Facebook back in Kathmandu so that we could meet if there was time. Absolutely. I love mountain people.
The guide shook my hand and wished me luck and said, “You’ll be fine. Enjoy the trek.”
I left some Rupees on the table, loaded my pack, put on my beloved beanie on, and left. Time to continue my Everest Base Camp Hike. Next stop: Lobuche.
On to Lobuche…but first, Dughla
The walk out of Pheriche was wonderful. The terrain was moderately flat and with expansive views between the trail and the mountains on either side. The terrain was filled with soccer ball sized boulders, greenish moss, and tiny streams trickling down the valley, but not a tree in sight. Horses roamed freely providing excellent company. The road to Dughla from Pheriche was one of the most relaxing, austere, and enjoyable portions of the EBC Trek.
Every couple kilometers on the hike a small “village” would pop up…and by village, I mean a single, stone home with a courtyard wall made completely of the surrounding stone. Seeing these structures, made simply of stacked stones, makes it clear why an earthquake in the region could be so devastating.
Just before Duglah, as the road from Pheriche continues to gradually ascend, the road from Dingboche converges with the road from Pheriche to meet just before Duglah, and the herds of trekkers descend as well. It was refreshing, after a day of semi-solitude to see so many weary yet smiling faces that I recognized from the trail before. Most of the trekkers stopped off at a small village to have lunch or tea. I stopped off to down another Snickers with a side of ginger tea.
A nice Israeli couple I had bumped into earlier on the trek was sitting on the bench, winded. They were both struggling for breath and suffering from headaches so I shared some Diamox and pain relievers with them.
“Are you staying in Lobuche?” they asked.
“I’m not sure.” I honestly wasn’t sure. I planned to stay in Lobuche, but given the size of the crowds, I wasn’t sure if I would get a bed. And I’m not sure my energy level would just let me quit walking at 1PM in the afternoon, to sit around all day and then all night until the next day.
After short conversation with the Israeli couple I started off towards Lobuche. The trail continued to follow a narrowing valley that was dotted with tiny, trickling streams that provided beautiful background music. I spaced out from the peacefulness and before I knew it, I arrived in Lobuche
Keep the Train Moving
Upon entrance to Lobuche I had to stop by a tiny hut for registration. Anyone who sleeps in Lobuche has to pay an additional fee to the town on top of their lodging fee. I guess that’s standard procedure at a gypsy camp, because that’s exactly what this looked like. I reached into my pocket, then hesitated.
“I’m not sure if I’m staying”, I said
“What will you do then?” the attendant said with a confused look
I thought for a moment…
“I may walk to Gorak Shep. I’ll come back and pay if I decide to stay the night,” I said as I walked off before the attendant could respond
I beelined to what looked like one of the nicer lodges in Lobuche…and by nicer, it looked like my lodging in Tengboche – thin plywood walls, windowless, and extremely makeshift. BUT, it would be inside, and they had a kitchen. Some of the hikers would end up sleeping in tents because of overcapacity.
As I sat down, I saw information all over the walls warning about altitude sickness. “Climb high, sleep low.” “Take it slow.” At this altitude, 16,200 feet or 4,900 meters, the air only has 75%-80% of the oxygen content as air at sea level, making altitude sickness a very real risk. Was it really worth rushing up the mountain and risking being helicoptered off…again? I decided to run through my checklist one more time.
I checked my pulse – 70 beats per minute. A little higher than at sea level, but nothing serious. I had no headache. I didn’t feel cold or dehydrated. I pulled out a book to read for about 10 minutes, and I was able to concentrate and focus clearly. I had a clear idea of where I was going on the map and what my plan was. Everything looked good. Maybe I should continue. I ordered a plate of dahl bhat and garlic soup, scarfed it down quickly, grabbed my bag, and continued while I still had daylight.
It was day 5 of my trek and I was already headed to Gorak Shep. I had ascended 2,600 feet that day and was going to risk ascending 600 more. As I walked outside, I started second guessing. I wasn’t certain if this was the best decision so I decided to think on it a moment. I headed outside, and found a large rock to sit on and relax.
To my right was a group of porters, clad in huge packs. To my surprise, they were the same guys that I had met on Day 1, just before Namche Bazaar. I was still stacked with Snickers so I laughed and tossed the group of 5 a couple. The spokesman seemed happy to see me.
“You going to Gorak Shep?” he said with an encouraging smile
“I’m not sure, it could be dangerous,” I admitted, “altitude sickness”
“You should go. You seem strong. We’ll see you up there.” He said with a nod and broken English. His buddy next to him nodded in agreement.
Damn. I had gone from being the crazy westerner that “shouldn’t do that in one day” to being peer pressured by the porters to keep up their pace. I have to admit, that was a pretty awesome feeling…and the kind I couldn’t say no to. I threw on my backpack, high fived them all in classic 90’s style and hit the road.
From Lobuche to Gorak Shep
The road out of Lobuche was so calm it was nearly lonesome. All of the trekkers were beginning to heed the wisdom of taking it short and slow, so the only souls on the road were the porters powering up to Gorak Shep with their 80lb packs. The road grew steeper as the valley narrowed and all signs of greenery and life disappeared. The land looked more and more like a moonscape with nothing but dust and boulders in site. Above Lobuche, the Himlayas are a barren place. No animals in sight, with the exception of the dogs that survive on scraps from the camps.
A few miles up the road, I came to the crest of a ridge at a spot marked by a large carved boulder I saw a few porters taking a load off. I figured, that spot would be an excellent place to rest up for the home stretch of the hike as I stared back into the narrow, descending valley that I came from. After about 5 minutes I noticed another person coming up, too light skinned and with too small of a pack to be a porter. He had broad shoulders and an athletic build. His gear didn’t look extremely technical, so I could tell he was just doing this hike on grit alone. I thought to myself, “Holy crap, built like that, I’m betting the only other person stupid enough to walk this late and this far would definitely be an American. No one else is that crazy.” I was right. His name was Chris from Chicago, Illinois and he was rocking a Chicago Bulls backpack like a boss. We ended up walking together for the rest of the Everest Base Camp Hike.
Chris, the Anomaly
So, Chris’s story is an interesting one on its own and his trek could absolutely fill up a novel. Chris was a Digital Nomad and triathlete that lived part time in India but flew around the world for triathlons and the awesome parties that come with triathlons that attract international crowds. He was working on some great online travel related projects and figured getting to Everest Base Camp on a shoestring, recording the adventure, and sharing the knowledge as video content for his site would be a great idea. He’s sarcastic as hell with a dry sense of humor, so I’ll absolutely look forward to seeing that footage.
Chris’s shoestring trekking kit didn’t even include a rain jacket for the first 2 days and still didn’t include a sleeping bag. He walked the entire way in running shoes and just used a normal backpack for the journey. I had to give him props.
In addition to his unique kit, his journey was just as unconventional. Instead of flying into Lukla, he walked in three extra days, which actually should have taken six days, from Jiri. Along the way, he got altitude sickness and slept it off to keep trekking the next day. He had a run in with some armed militiamen in some sketchier territory between Jiri and Lukla and pretended he was ex-military to talk his way out of anything too “interesting”. Suffice it to say, Chris was an interesting cat and good company. It was going be nice to have a partner that was up for pushing the limits.
We decided to stay in cahoots and trekked the rest of the way up to Gorak Shep together. After picking a teahouse for the evening we dropped our packs and immediately headed to the common area to make friends, which is where I heard the most interesting EBC trek story ever and the most intense FOMO incident I’ve ever heard of.
The most intense case of FOMO ever – What Everest Base Camp Hike can do to you
FOMO, or the “Fear of Missing Out” strikes many but as time passes we usually get over whatever it was that we missed out on. Usually. Over dinner, we met an Irishman that this absolutely wasn’t the case for.
As we talked over our plans for the following day to wake up early (but not too early), climb Kala Patthar and see Everest, walk to EBC, come back to Gorak Shep, and grab our gear and walk back to Namche Bazaar, an Irish fella across the table was chiming in with great tips.
“Make sure to wake up early enough to see the sunrise over the mountain, it will come up just behind Everest and the pictures will be great”
“Don’t stress too much about Base Camp, it’s kind of ugly”
“Watch out on the steep portions of the final hike to Everest Base Camp, it gets sketchy and there are tons of loose boulders”
After about the 10th piece of advice, I was confused. I thought the Irish fella was going up to Kala Patthar tomorrow, so I asked. He was going tomorrow. Then, I wondered how he knew so much insider info without having been to EBC or Kala Patthar yet. I research a ton and talk to everyone, but I hadn’t heard many of his tips yet from anyone else.
“Well,” the Irishman said “I’ve kind of been to Base Camp…but not really. I hiked from Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp 10 years ago, but I overslept and didn’t get to make it to Kala Patthar to actually see Everest, and I didn’t feel like staying another day to climb Kala Patthar the following day. Well, its eaten me up inside for the last 10 years that I never saw Everest with my own eyes, so I took a few weeks off from work to fly to Nepal (from Dublin) and make the climb and see Everest so it would stop bothering me. I’ve been to Everest Base Camp. I’ve just never seen Everest.”
Damn. Lesson from this: don’t be lazy and be sure to do whatever it takes to follow your dreams, because if you don’t then those dreams will turn violent and eat you up from the inside like one of those things in the Alien movies. Intense. Noted.
The day was finally done. We were at 16,942 feet and I had a slight headache so I decided to call it quits early. I unrolled my sleeping bag and commenced system shutdown. I smelled like one of those French cheese carts that roam around Parisian restaurants. I didn’t care at all because I was so tired. I had earned the right to be funky and the coma to come.
That night, I woke up with a sharp, splitting headache. I checked my watch. 2AM. Damn. I was so confused, what was going on? All I could think about was the pain in my head, then I realized, altitude sickness. I felt groggy and foggy and I couldn’t tell if that was from just waking up. I tried to go through my checks (pulse, breathing, focus) but I couldn’t remember them. This wasn’t good. For a second, I had no idea what to do…but then I relaxed. If anything was seriously wrong, no choppers could come tonight anyways, so getting scared would help nothing.
I opened my phone and looked at my checklist. Pulse. I took my pulse – 80, a little high compared to earlier but nothing too alarming. I didn’t feel cold or uncomfortable beside the headache. I downed water just to be safe. I tried to read a book for 10 minutes on my phone to test my concentration…but who the hell tries to read out of the blue at 2am? I decided to down Diamox, anti-inflammatory meds, and water and waited out until morning. If everything was better, great. If I died, then at least I wouldn’t have to worry about making the walk back to Lukla, or dealing with the shame of riding the chopper out. It was a win win. With that, relieved, I rolled over and went back to sleep. If I made it to morning with no issues then the next day would be one hell of a day.
Notes: The Hike from Pheriche to Gorak Shep
- Dingboche is a much more suitable place for a rest day than Pheriche as there are more facilities and a side trek for the rest day to keep trekkers entertained and aid in acclimatization
- Note on my checklist: This isn’t anything official or prescribed by any mountain guide association, this was simply my structured checklist to assess what kind of condition I was in, to assess if I could continue on my own or needed to get expert advice.