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|Day 1 Kathmandu to Phakding via Lukla Airport,
On Thursday 19th January 2017 we arrived at Everest Base Camp. This is the story of how we got there. Let’s trek to Everest Base Camp he said – OK I said. Let’s fly to Lukla he said – Not flipping likely I said! Two days later we were sat in Kathmandu Airport with our guide Rabin bound for what is considered to be one of the world’s most dangerous airports. Inspired by Kiwi mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary and built in the 1960’s as a gateway to the region, Lukla Airport has acquired its reputation for several reasons. The postage stamp sized runway is only 527m long with a 600m drop off one end and a mountain at the other it leaves little room for pilot error, allowing one chance only to get it right. Getting it wrong means hitting a wall or dropping off a precipice! To make things even more tricky, the runway has a 12% gradient to aid braking on landing and acceleration on take-off. The 60m difference from top to bottom makes for quite a ride in both directions. Operating without navigational aids, flights to Lukla are extremely weather dependant. Set high in the Himalayas at an elevation of 2,845m the conditions here are unpredictable and delays are a regular occurrence, sometimes for days, not just hours. I have no idea how I was talked into taking this flight but, as we sat out a 4-hour delay due to snow on the Lukla runway, I was bitterly regretting my apparent moment of weakness in agreeing to this madness. As the sun rose in Lukla, so the snow melted on the minuscule runway and the go-ahead was given for our plane to set off on its way. We boarded a bus which took us to our tiny Goma Airlines plane, we chose our seats and were given boiled sweets and cotton wool (for our ears!). The take-off and majority of the flight were pretty smooth marred only by a short bout of turbulence around the midway point, clearly expected as the hostess (yes, there is one) had just scooted through the tiny craft to check all seat belts were fastened. 25 minutes of spectacular mountain scenery later and the inevitable and dreaded landing were upon us. From a distance the runway looked like a challenge but as we flew closer it looked like an impossibility. The crash-landing warning siren sounded throughout the cabin (I had done my research and knew this was normal) just before touching down and coming, thankfully, to an abrupt and controlled halt. Our safe landing was rewarded with a round of applause by all on board. The weather closed in behind us and so our flight was to be the first and last of the day. Joined by Rabin and Padam, our porter, we set off for Everest Base Camp. Our afternoon trek was a beautiful and easy introduction to what lay ahead. We walked through the snows that had prevented us from flying earlier in the day, past numerous prayer wheels and rocks carved with Tibetan Buddhist mantras. We arrived at our tea house in Phakding and settled into the first of many chilly nights in the mountains. It was here that we met Elle, an American lady who was to become the first of our newly made trekking buddies to be flown off the mountain with Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) only a few days later. Day 2 Phakding (2,610m) to Namche Bazar (3,440m) We excitedly woke up a little before 7 and were ready for our breakfast of chapatti and eggs by 7:30. We soon discovered that Rabin works on ”Nepali time” and so we were the last of the three parties to leave. The first full day of trekking was incredible, stopping only for a mid morning cup of tea, a Dahl Bhat lunch and a very expensive apple where we caught our first spectacular glimpse of Everest. The route snaked through wooded tracks that reminded us of our treks in the Highlands of Scotland, traced the beautiful turquoise glacial melt waters of the Dudh Kosi river, crossed dizzyingly high suspension bridges and ended with a two and a half hour climb to Namche Bazaar (3,440m). We settled into our second tea house of the trek, which frustratingly didn’t live up to its name of Comfort Inn. There was no running water, all inside toilets were frozen and the only source of heating was an electric fire that worked intermittently. It was cold! As we settled into our base for the next two nights it began to snow, the temperature plummeted and things started to feel very bleak. Huddled around the ineffectual electric fire in a vain hope to keep warm we got to know Stephanie and Paulo, a young Colombian couple living in Brisbane, Australia. Unfortunately we were later to hear that having reached Base Camp and on their way back down Stephanie had fallen ill and had to be flown to safety. Day 3 – Namche Bazaar Acclimatisation Day Having heard rumours the previous day that our trek was in doubt because of the adverse weather conditions, we were relieved to wake to clear skies and unbroken sunshine. Unbelievably this fine weather was to last for the rest of our time in the mountains. Accompanied by Rabin, we took a morning tour of the surrounding area, including the Tenzing Norgay memorial, gaining a little more altitude to help our acclimatisation. After our usual dahl bhat lunch the two of us explored Namche Bazaar’s labyrinth of pretty narrow streets lined with shops selling local and branded products, cafes and its local market. We bought and wrote postcards, contemplated the trek ahead and invested in some down mittens for Steve’s unusually chilly hands. Eventually we settled at a cafe where we met two Australian girls who were later also to be airlifted off the mountain. Here we encountered our first Yaks of the trip. Adapted to high altitude these impressive beasts are kept for their milk, meat and wool as well as being used to carry loads in the mountains. Day 4 – Namche Bazaar (3,440m) to Khyangjuma (3,550m) We left Namche Bazaar on the clearest of days. The sun was shining and the sky as blue as we’ve ever seen, we felt extremely lucky and positive for the trek ahead. Our first climb of the morning led us to the world famous Hotel Everest View (which does exactly what it says on the tin), at one time it offered pressurised rooms in an attempt to prevent altitude sickness for the rich and famous flying in for the night from Kathmandu, a practise that has now thankfully stopped. It was here whilst taking tea that we first met Charles from Singapore, sadly Charles was later to be evacuated when he too became ill. The route from Namche Bazaar to Khyangjuma was a short and relatively easy one, so Rabin took us on a detour to see the famous Yeti Skull in Khumjung monastery. This village is also the location of the Hillary School, established by Sir Edmund in 1961. Unfortunately the monastery was closed due to rebuilding works following the 2015 earthquake. Not disheartened we set off for the neighbouring village of Khunde, where we arrived half an hour later. After a quick dahl bhat we wandered past Khunde Hospital on our way to the village monastery. Built in 1966, the hospital continues to play a major role in the area’s all too frequent disasters. Khunde monastery is home to about ten resident monks and is beautifully decorated with brightly coloured murals and pictures of the Dali Lama, which more than made up for its lack of yeti skull! The third tea house of our trek was the best so far, a draught proof room with en-suite toilet and stunning panoramic mountain views. We ate our evening meal in the company of the friendly family running the lodge, who made us popcorn whilst we watched a very bad low budget film of the 1996 Everest disaster made especially famous by the David Krakauer book ”Into Thin Air”. Remarkably a local man staying at the teahouse that evening was a base camp chef for one of the teams attempting to ascend Everest when the disaster struck. Sunset brought the most spectacular view of the day, we were beckoned by the tea house owners to join them watching a fantastic display of pinks, oranges and reds grazing the snow capped peaks of Lhotse, Ama Dablam and other Himalayan mountains. Day 5 – Khyangjuma (3,550m) to Pangboche (3,950m) The day consisted of both downhill and uphill walking. Wall to wall sunshine and stunning views made it a perfect trek. We stopped for lunch in Tengboche, a wide grassy plateau with tea houses and a monastery. As we arrived in Pangboche we met Elle’s guide looking worried. After a brief discussion in Nepali, Rabin told us that Elle was ill and that a helicopter was on its way to pick her up. An hour or so later she was airlifted off the mountain, the first of our friends to be a casualty of AMS. With the sun streaming through its windows, the room at our tea house in Pangboche felt to us like a sauna and so we took the opportunity to strip off a few layers and have a long overdue wet-wipe bath. Refreshed, we joined other guests in the communal area where we were warmed through by our first of many yak poo fires as we were now living above the tree line. Day 6 – Pangboche (3,950m) to Dingboche (4,410m) It had been the usual freezing cold night, followed by a crisp bright morning. We were keeping our fingers crossed that the good weather would hold for just a few more days. Shortly after the days trekking began we reached the spot where a Frenchman had recently fallen to his death. He had taken a short-cut along a narrow path above a steep drop to the river. As far as we know his body has not yet been recovered. Notices are displayed at intervals along the trek offering a reward if he was found, a sobering reminder of how dangerous this trek can be. We arrived at Dingboche in time for lunch, where I started my garlic soup regime as it had been recommended as a way to keep AMS at bay. On advice from Rabin, Steve continued with his dahl bhat diet, not only does it always contains garlic but it is the only meal in the mountains where you always get seconds! After lunch we took a short acclimatising stroll above the village, the views were lovely but the wind was cold and the night was to be bitter. With frozen toilets everywhere and no running water anywhere, this was not a trip for the faint-hearted. Day 7 – Acclimatisation Day in Dingboche What an incredible day! It started with a late breakfast at 8:30 followed by an acclimatisation trek as far as we could manage up Nangkar Tshang. We were determined to get as far as we could but Rabin’s saying of the day was ”Let’s wait and see” as many people don’t make it to the top. Fuelled by days of dahl bhat, ginger tea and adrenaline, we slowly gained height, accompanied by eagles and vultures, until we reached the summit at 5,616m, where we were rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views of some of the worlds highest mountains. At around 1,200m higher than our tea house it’s not an altitude gain recommended in one day but we felt good and showed no signs of altitude sickness. Day 8 – Dingboche (4,410m) to Lobuche (4,910m) Having said our farewells to other trekkers we set off on the same route as we had the day before but instead of heading up the mountain we followed the contours to the adjacent valley. After a welcome cup of tea at Dughla (4,620m) we followed a steep track to find ourselves at a plateau surrounded by memorials to lost climbers and Sherpas. It was an emotional and sobering experience as well as a reminder of just how remote we now were. There were memorials for Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, who lost their lives in the previously mentioned 1996 disaster but the largest memorial was saved for Chheri Sherpa who climbed Everest an incredible ten times, sadly losing his life on his eleventh attempt. As we pressed on the landscape became evermore stark and the going underfoot more difficult now that we were walking on rocks left behind by ancient glaciers. After reaching Lobuche and eating our obligatory garlic soup and dahl bhat, we took a short trip to the Italian Pyramid. Since 1990, the Pyramid has been offering the international scientific community an opportunity to study the environment, climate, human physiology and geology in a remote mountain protected area. It was getting even colder and we heard that further up the mountain at Kala Patthar it was reaching -48 Celsius before dawn. Dressed in nearly all our clothes, inside our sleeping bags and under two blankets, we drifted off to a fitful nights sleep. Day 9 – Everest Base Camp (5,356m) The now familiar alarm sounded at 5:45. Grateful that we still had no signs of altitude sickness we packed up our gear, ate breakfast and set off to Base Camp via the highest village of Gorak Shep (5,140m) where, 2 hours later, we left our backpacks as we were staying there that night. The weather could not have been more perfect and we had a magnificent trek over rough and barren terrain all the way to our goal of Everest Base Camp. Base Camp is a large area situated on and alongside the Khumbu Glacier where expeditions pitch their tents before their summit bids. If the weather is poor the end of the line for trekkers is on a track above the glacier, but for us the weather could not have been better. In these perfect conditions we picked our way over the tricky moraine and across deep crevasses arriving at a couple of prayer-flag covered mounds where we posed for our obligatory Base Camp photos. We would like to thank Bicky from XXXXXXXXXXX, for all his help in arranging such an incredible trip. We would also like to thank Rabin, our guide, for getting us there & back safely, and for all the laughs along the way; Padam, our porter for carrying our pack and last, but by no means least, the skilful pilots of Goma Airways! It has been the most incredible adventure and a challenge we shall remember for the rest of our lives. Kate & Steve Opie xx January 2017