After a hair-raising flight from Kathmandu to Lukla, an experienced hiker faces the challenge of a lifetime.
My heart, racing with anticipation, echoed throughout my body like a Tibetan gong beating down the seconds to what felt like my last moments. I clutched the staircase’s handrails as tightly as my perspiring hands would allow and proceeded up to the 19-person Twin Otter aircraft. There was no turning back; the infamous 35-minute flight from Kathmandu International to Lukla Airport was imminent. A bamboo hamper filled with cotton balls was shoved into my lap—I took two swabs and buried them deep in my ears just as the aircraft accelerated.
Lukla Airport has one runway, which is used for both takeoff and landings. The History Channel, along with countless other authorities, has dubbed it “the most dangerous airport in the world.” Upon arrival a pilot is received by an airstrip that slopes upward 12-degrees and that is positioned only inches from a cliff’s edge. Once a pilot touches down he or she has 527 meters to bring the plane to a complete stop before the airstrip terminates at the base of a near-vertical mountain wall. By comparison a typical Boeing 737 requires a minimum of 1,418 meters for a successful landing. Two available commercial aircraft are capable of negotiating the short runway—pilots must ‘fly blind’ due to the lack of reliable on board computers.
The daring pilot had earned our applause as our flying metal sarcophagus touched down safely. A brief walk through the town led me to the park’s registration booth where two ‘missing person’ posters hung. I inquired about the young men in the pictures and learned that they, like countless others, had simply disappeared, never to be heard from again.
At the low altitude of 2,860m, my bag felt light despite being jam-packed with unwieldy winter clothing, camera equipment, and extensive medical first-aid. The first day’s hike snaked along a trodden yet established path with tree-flanked foothills encroaching one side—modest settlements with unassuming homesteads dotting the other side. I energetically hiked the undulating landscape of the Dudh Kosi Valley, where countless frighteningly-long, single-stay steel suspension bridges guided me back and forth over the raging river below. Congestion undoubtedly assembled near these narrow, single person-width bridges as native villagers and herds of mules carrying goods from Lukla patiently waited their turn to cross. Most of the supplies arriving in Lukla are transported from Jiri on the backs of animals. Before Lukla Airport was built, trekkers and mountaineers also had to hike from Jiri, effectively adding more than a week to their already lengthy venture.
The trail from Lukla to Everest Base Camp is unique in that its main purpose is not for recreational use, unlike virtually every other trail I have tackled. Although several hundred adventure-seeking trekkers use this route every month, it is the highway linking remote Sherpa communities together. Nowadays, more than half of the Sherpa are involved in tourism with many working as mountain guides or porters.
It took several times of being smacked by a porter’s 40kg load before quickly learning proper trail etiquette—a porter always has the right of way. They get compensated based on the weight of their load and for how far it is transported. Every item, no matter how insignificant, must be conveyed in this manner—rolls of toilet paper and cans of Pringles™ alike must be supplied via arduous, week-long, backbreaking hauls.
After a long bout of uphill switchbacks, the peak of Mount Everest first revealed itself on the second day during my hike to Namche Bazaar. Mount Everest, or Sagarmatha to the Nepalese and Chomolungma to the Tibetans, sits 8,848 meters above sea level, making it the tallest mountain on our planet. Upon arrival at this Sherpa village, which acts as the main trade and administrative center of the Solu Khumbu region, I searched for the best teahouse. Teahouses are the only accommodation along the Everest Base Camp trail and are typically small, family-run lodges comprised of basic two-bed dormitories, shared lavatories, and a central gathering room that functions as both a reception area and a kitchen. All rooms have thin mattresses accompanied by meager pillows and are barely illuminated with a single, low-wattage light bulb. There are no power outlets, and the crude window frames do a lackluster job blocking the sub-freezing nighttime gales. I was thankful I had rented a down jacket and a -20°C sleeping bag in Kathmandu.
At an altitude of 3,440m, the air at Namche Bazaar contains only 67% of the oxygen found at sea level, and my body fatigued easily walking the vast network of stairs within the hilly settlement consisting of only 1,600 people. Most hikers will spend two nights here, allowing their bodies to acclimatize, myself included. Various authorities caution hikers to limit daily assents to 300m per day to ward off the deadly effects of altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), which can occur at altitudes as low as 2,400m. I had been taking the prescription medication Diamox to increase the rate at which my body acclimatized and therefore minimized the likelihood of developing AMS.
AMS is a tangible threat here in the Khumbu Valley, where helicopters make hourly emergency evacuations, speckling the clear blue skies as they caravan the ill to nearby hyperbaric chambers for treatment. Since helicopters are grounded after midday due to poor visibility, trekkers suffering from AMS have no choice but to muster up enough strength and hike to lower ground as soon as possible. Other than drinking 5+ liters of water daily, taking Diamox, avoiding alcohol, and getting plenty of rest, there is only one effective way to thwart AMS: climbing to a higher altitude during the day and then descending to a lower altitude to sleep.
As I trekked higher and deeper into the Himalayas, the environment increasingly transformed—the vegetation disappeared as snow-capped massifs consumed me. Trees no longer concealed the mountains’ weathered exteriors; their parallel striations contribute insight to the Himalaya’s ferocious history. The majestic vistas of the encircling peaks were ornamented with mani stones carved with Tibetan Buddhist mantras and with strings of colorful Buddhist prayer flags, which fluttered as the gales delivered the believer’s prayers to the mountain gods themselves. The clanking of cowbells cut through the wind, giving last minute notice of passing yaks, the region’s well-adapted work animal.
While in Dingoboche, I attempted an acclimatizing hike up Nagarjun Hill (5,050m). Nepal’s recent drought had left much of the Himalayan soil scorched dry, and scrambling up the loose soil made traversing this particular peak hazardous. I was glad to return to the safety of my teahouse, where I savored a pot of Coca tea—a keepsake from my previous travels in Peru said to aid in the prevention of AMS. I slept well after gorging on a large portion of dal bhat, the national dish of Nepal comprised of rice and cooked lentils, and woke the next morning eager to continue hiking.
After stopping in the scant settlement of Dughla (4,620m) for a meager bowl of garlic soup, a local remedy to ward off AMS, I spiritedly hiked up a rocky gradient for 45 minutes before being pardoned by the Dughla Pass. Throughout the gap were dozens of tombstones commemorating individuals who had perished on Mount Everest throughout the years. Among the names was Scott Fischer, one of 12 people who had died during the 1996 Mount Everest disaster—I had just finished reading Jon Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air, a chilling re-count of the 1996 events that led to the largest catastrophe on Mount Everest prior to the 2015 earthquake.
A 7.8 magnitude earthquake in late April 2015 had caused an avalanche at Everest Base Camp, killing at least 24 people and injuring many more. Authorities closed the routes through the Khumbu Icefall for the entire spring climbing season in fear of more aftershocks. Although tourists had returned for the 2016 season, the volume had still not returned to pre-earthquake levels.
Deep in the mountains, where towering peaks obstruct direct sunlight, the temperatures rapidly plunge well before the official sunset. The evening before my push to Everest Base Camp was spent in Lobuche (4,910m), huddled around a single, antiquated furnace situated in the center of the dining area. Staff members routinely picked up patties of yak dung drying in the corner and threw it in the poorly ventilated steel incinerator—conventional fuels were too expensive for nonessential trivialities such as heating.
I had learned that the transportation fees for a propane tank accounted for up to 80% of its total cost. Hearing this information further cemented why food was getting increasingly expensive. At the teahouse before reaching Everest Base Camp, two hard-boiled eggs cost me $5 USD—quite expensive when you compare that to the flat $2 USD fee for a night’s stay at a teahouse.
By 6:00 a.m. I was already en route to Gorakshep (5,164m), the last settlement before reaching Everest Base Camp. Even with three pairs of socks and two pairs of gloves, my extremities were painfully numb, and the mere act of reaching for my water bottle was too painful. My lips had been perpetually chapped for the last four days, and my face ached from windburn. Despite the ruthlessness of the elements, I proceeded onward.
I stowed my bags at Gorakshep and advanced towards Everest Base Camp (5,364 m). I was glad to have left my hiking poles behind as I needed both hands to negotiate the unpredictable boulders and ice chunks on the path. A small man-made stairway led over a frozen lake onto the Khumbu Glacier, where I spent a while taking photographs of yellow tents, prayer flags, and the famous Khumbu Icefall.
The next morning I was out by half-past five to tackle Kala Patthar (5,645m), a prominence known for catching the best views of Everest—Mount Everest cannot be seen from its own base camp. I summited just as the sun began to shine through. I was standing at what seemed like the tip of the world with Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse, Changtse, and dozens of other peaks in clear view. At this height, the air contained only half the oxygen found at sea level. I snapped a few pictures and left the clouds behind.
Over the next three days, I trekked back to Lukla, stopping to rest in Pangboche and Namche Bazaar. With the risk of AMS to my back, there was nothing impeding my progress as I descended a vertical mile in altitude before my first night’s rest. I took breaks at the numerous Gompas strewn along the mountains’ edges and reflected on my achievement. I spun the pervasive prayer wheels and called out “Namaste” to the passing hikers, wishing them good fortune as they embarked on the hike of their lifetime.