It has been six months since our return from the Himalaya and I am finally deciphering my diary notes in the hope of capturing some of the profound discoveries and connections I experienced in Nepal.
The idea of trekking to Everest Base Camp sprouted exactly 20 years ago after summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa at 5,895m above sea-level. Finally, in March 2020 we had done the training & were within weeks of departing for Nepal when the world, and our country, closed borders and hunkered down against an invisible virus that would, in due course, decimate economies, lives and livelihoods across the globe. Patience was my first lesson on this journey.
Fast forward a year later and in April 2021 we somehow managed to travel within a small window of opportunity to begin our trek.
From the moment we arrived in Kathmandu I felt as if I was living in a dream infused with the most sensory-assaulting experiences imaginable! The ancient city of Kathmandu sprawls along the valley, shrouded in a misty hew caused by a combination of weather factors and pollution. It feels chaotic and exhilarating, yet rooted in the calm, peaceful, generous and kind existence of the Nepalese people. There exists an acceptance, a tolerance, a deep respect for a myriad of different religious practices, of which Hinduism and Buddhism feature most prominently.
Our trekking adventure begins with the infamous flight from Kathmandu to Lukla. The small aircraft, carrying around 15-20 passengers hits the 400m runway with a sudden thud without descending. Definitely not for the faint-hearted, but oh, such adrenaline-induced excitement!!!
After meeting our guides, loading the yaks, some tea and final preparations, we set out trekking to Phakding. Downhill. The peaks along the way are inconceivably high, at times causing vertigo while I was walking. Prayer wheels, prayer flags & mani stones are scattered all along the route as we move though mountain settlements. The scenery was breathtaking and I felt so emotional on that first day, filled with awe and deep, deep gratitude that this journey was starting to stitch together the fabric of a profound experience.
Our second day of trekking took us through the official entrance to Sagarmatha National Park and our first serious hanging bridge to Namche Bazaar. All sorts of fear-conquering and mind-mastery needed to happen to step foot on that first bridge, which of course immediately reminded me of how the scenarios we conjure up in our imagination are just that, and if we focus instead on the fact that hundreds of equipment-laden yaks and trekkers pass that bridge daily, it must be perfectly safe!
Namche Bazaar is a reason-defying little town carved right out of the mountainside, but by the time we arrived late afternoon, cloud cover had set in and we had no idea of the mountains that surrounded us. Nearly all trekkers, mountaineers, Sherpa guides, traders, porters, yaks, donkeys and horses on the route convene here either on the way up or on the way down. It has many shops, cafes guest houses and monasteries lining the narrow little lanes and is a truly enchanting place.
Breathtaking scenery aside, another beautiful stitch in the fabric of the journey started to unfold as we trekked deeper into the mountains. The small group of South Africans that made up our trekking party was a mixture of different humans ranging between twenty-something and sixty-something. Hours of trekking alongside these like-minded people provided the perfect time and space for deep conversations, meaningful connections and of course many, many laughs. And in between, when we drifted away from each other on the walk, a lot of time for self-reflection made for the perfect meditation practice and deep introspection.
Not only did we connect with our fellow travelers, but we started encountering teams of mountaineers intent on summiting the world’s highest peak. It felt like such a priviledge to share this trekking route with some of the world’s bravest, most determined high-altitude mountaineers who would be risking their lives to reach the top, spending weeks on end in base camp preparing and waiting for the ultimate opportunity. And it was here that I realised that despite having different abilities, different means and aspirations, we are all humans wanting the same thing here where we found ourselves – to touch a little bit of the magic of the Himalaya.
Day 3 was an acclimitization day in and around Namche Bazaar. Another exhilirating day as we walked up to the little museum and view point above the town, from where we had our first glimpse of Mount Everest! Mount Everest. The giant Mother mountain rising up out of the earth together with other giants in the Khumbu region such as Lhotse, Nuptse, Cho Oyo, Pumori and Ama Dablam.
It was so surreal that I was standing in the middle of the Himalaya and seeing, breathing, experiencing the journey to the base of the world’s highest peak.
Climbing up impossibly steep steps led us to the Namche Bazaar air strip. It’s a busy landing strip where equipment and supplies are flown in for mountaineering teams, from where helicopters take over to get to Base Camp. Not all equipment and provisions are flowin in though, and much of what is needed higher up the mountains is carried on the backs of porters, yaks or donkeys. The loads often seem impossible to carry and our human compassion often screams that it is inhumane and cruel, yet the people of the Himalaya have been doing this for centuries, earning a living the same way their forefathers and fathers did before them.
Me, with my expensive, state-of-the-art waterproof hiking boots and down-jacket-clad insulation, what excuse did I have? What excuses do we come up against when we’re faced with challenges in life, and how do these excuses ultimately shape our experiences?
Back to the landing strip, where it was time for YOGA! Oh, how I loved that every single open-minded, loving member of our little group got together to practice right there in the middle of the Himalaya at 3,500m above sea level!
On our way down from the air strip towards Namche Bazaar, we stopped off to visit a monestary where a monk invited us in, gave us sweets and after a short meditation chanted a blesssing before gifting us each with a khata (fabric scarf) as a symbol of good wishes and respect. The experience was a very touching moment for many of us in the group, eperiencing once again the unreserved kindness of the Napalese people.
Leaving Namche we trekked to the next stop, Denboche. The walk continued at a steep incline for what felt like hours on end, but always accompanied by the sight of the magestic silent giants getting closer. Tengboche monestary was a highlight at the top of the steepest climb, affording us the most magnificent mountain views all around us.
The temperature, vegetation and scenery slowly started to change on this stretch of the trek as we edged closer to the 4000m mark. Our accommodation, as always, was warm and comfortable with plenty of lemon-ginger tea to welcome us. Small, basic comforts that illustrated how little we actually need to be happy.
Between Denboche and Dingboche (yip, that’s right), we breached the mythical 4000m above sea level mark and it was literally like walking out of vegetation as the tree line almost abruptly stops. From here on in, there is very little vegetation, which means a dusty, cold wind forcing us to keep our mouths and noses covered. Breathing became significantly harder and your heart and respiration rate goes through the roof simply taking a few steps uphill! I became acutely aware of my breath and how, if I willfully slowed it down, my heart rate responded and the connection between my breath/body/mind became so crystal clear.
The owner of the tea-house in Dingboche is a bit of a benign godfather with his pilot sunglasses and leather jacket. We took turns to use the shower for a carefully timed 5 minutes, while Don Ram sat outside calling the next candidate from the list of names. After a hot shower, we had some time to wash a few pairs of socks outside, where my hands repeatedly stopped working in the freezing cold water. To dry these items turned out to be a little bit of a challenge as the temperature outside was below freezing and everyting on the washing line just froze! We had to come up with another solution and strung shoelaces together across our little room to hang our socks out to dry. The moisture inside caused the window to freeze overnight and our soggy items were only somewhat dryer. In these moments you had to laugh at the situation and realise that in the bigger scheme of what you’re trying to achieve, these little speed bumps make for memorable stories…
Another acclimitization day, and this time we walked to a height of 4,900m, a 500m ascent that took us 3.5 hours up and 1.5 hours down and was extremely tough. It wiped us all out for the rest of the day. Thankfully there was a bit of sun in the dining room – a perfect spot for hot tea and playing card games. I noticed quite a few spiders on this day, both on our acclimitization walk and inside the tea house. In shamanic symbolism, spiders are our grandmothers and I had a deeply comforting feeling that my granny was there with me.
Our yoga classes had grown to attract other climbing and trekking groups and the dining room was filled not only with yogis, but a couple of curious onlookers pointing and giggling at our downward dogs.
The moonscape surrounding became more and more alien as we approached the base of Everest. Along the trek from Dingboche to Lobuche we encountered the Khumbu ice-fall for the first time, the perilous, always-moving glacier which mountaineers have to cross from base camp to camp 1 on Everest. Here, at the bottom end of the glacier, it’s far easier for us to cross over where the river washes over massive white boulders. We then trek steeply up Tukla pass where many memorials have been erected in memory of mountaineers who have perished on Everest. The space is a stark reminder of the power of nature and the impermanence of everything, including man. As if matching the mood, it started snowing softly, dropping the already freezing temperature even more.
We reached the overnight tea-house frozen and of course with a fair amount of anticipation for what lay ahead the next day. Sleeping is illusive at high altitude too, so we’re all a little tired and on edge. We shared lodgings with members of a climbing team who were full of life and celebration though and before long, music was blaring out of a small portable speaker and we were all dancing in the small dining room space, warming our hearts and our bodies with a rhythmic connection and much laughter.
On the 13th of April 2021 (my aunt’s birthday), we had a very cold start out of Lobuche towards Everest Base Camp and walked until we arrived in Gorakshep, the last village before base-camp. We offloaded some of our gear, had some garlic soup and set out for base camp. We were almost there, but still not there and the trek felt never-ending even though the distance was not that much. And then it came into view – the small yellow tents scattered all over an amphitheater of mountains, perched on the edge of a glacier. It felt surreal. We had finally reached Everest Base Camp.
Being at Base Camp brought so much emotion. Every single member of our trekking team had deeply personal reasons for embarking on this journey, which had reached its apex. Every single one of us who set out from Lukla arrived at Base Camp. Every single one of us had reached an incomparable milestone in our lives. Every single one feeling an avalanche of emotion.
What an incredible privilege to be standing in the place so many legendary mountaineers have been through the course of history, and to share that space with an incredible group of people.
And then back down to Gorakshep again, tired, frozen and contemplative, but elated at achieving base camp!
Another little challenge lay ahead as we woke up at 4am to climb Kala Patthar peak to watch the sun rise over the summit of mount Everest. I can say with absolute certainty that it’s the coldest I have ever felt in my life at -18 degrees celcius. We walked with headlamps in the darkness with feet so cold that it went from numb to unconfortable to painful the longer we walked on the thin sheet of ice covering the path. I started to cry from the pain in my feet, but when the tears froze on my cheeks I realised I had to pull myself together. It never occurred to me to give up or turn around, not once in that painfully cold climb, instead focussing on a rhythmic inhale & exhale that matched my footsteps. It became a meditation as I shuffled one foot in front of the next and the reward was indescribable. We climbed to a height of 5,600m above sea level to watch Sagarmatha in all her magnificence at sunrise.
Quick breakfast in Gorakshep before we headed back towards Periche. By the time we reached the tea-house we had been walking for 10 hours and were completely exhausted. I learned about my own ability to endure, with gratitude and grace, always thankful for the experience and lessons.
As we walked further and further away from Everest, I already felt sad that our journey was coming to an end, but it seemed like the pace was slower and that everyone was savouring the last few days in the mountains with like-minded souls, sharing the space and time we found ourselves lucky enough to be in.
There are many memories and experiences that I will treasure for a lifetime, but one of the things that made a deep impression in my heart were the mani stones, prayer flags and stupas dotted all along the route, on every path, in every settlement or village, and on every bridge. These whisperings, stone carvings, offerings and blessings have been placed here with purpose and intent in an ancient tradition of kindness, compassion and a genuine wish for others to be happy.
Nepal, I will be back.