Day 11 - Dingboche to Lobuche
It probably sounds redundant at this point but every day keeps getting harder. We’re covering less distance in the same amount of time due to the altitude and general exhaustion. It’s frustrating to be making pitifully slow progress compared to last week. We’re both really hard on ourselves - me especially - so I was mentally beating myself up a lot during this section of the trek.
At some point it occurred to me that my normal mind games - my intense perfectionism, tendency to quit difficult tasks in order to avoid admitting defeat, and habit of comparing myself to others - just weren’t gonna cut it on this trek. I wish it didn’t take me quite so long to figure it out, but once I had that realization, it made a huge difference. Those thought patterns didn’t completely disappear, but it became easier to question why I was feeling that way. See? Trekking: it’s cheaper than therapy.
One of the most emotional parts of the day came near lunchtime. After climbing over a steep hill and reaching a long and relatively flat valley, we saw a number of stone monuments draped in prayer flags. There must have been hundreds of them stretching across the valley. Upon closer inspection we realized they were memorials to the many mountaineers, both Nepali and foreign, who have perished in the Nepali Himalayas, including Scott Fischer, Rob Hall, and many other victims of the infamous 1996 disaster. It was a sobering reminder that Everest is a force to be reckoned with, and whether we’re climbing mountains or just trekking below them, we’re still at the whim of mother nature.
This sober mood continued for the rest of the day because we started seeing a worrying number of medevacs as we approached Lobuche at 4910 meters. Nikhil said it’s extremely common for people to ignore the early signs of AMS (acute mountain sickness) and make themselves sicker by continuing to ascend. He’d gotten word that a tourist had died of AMS the previous day, which was horrifying, and when we got to our guesthouse for the night we saw a girl who was clearly really ill who was busy organizing her own helicopter evacuation. After that I was super paranoid about AMS and I drove Alex crazy making sure he wasn’t showing any symptoms (which of course he wasn’t, because his lungs are made of steel). As for me, Diamox made all the difference. By the time we went to bed I was feeling great with a full appetite, no headache, and no dizziness. Which ws good, because tomorrow we’d finally be reaching our highest point and the ultimate goal of the trek: Base Camp!
Day 12 - Lobuche to Gorak Shep & Base Camp
Finally: base camp day! We woke up in great spirits with happy butterflies in our stomachs, ready to take on the day. Our day’s hike would take us up to Gorak Shep for breakfast. Afterward, we’d head out to base camp then circle back to Gorak Shep to sleep. Easy peasy, right?
Well, it was at first. The morning hike to Gorak Shep (5160 meters) was pretty easy - it was largely flat and we reached our tea house relatively quickly. Because of that, and because it was the day we’d been waiting for, we felt pretty on top of the world. We didn’t have altitude sickness, we were well-hydrated, and our bodies weren’t sore. We felt as good as anyone could feel this far into a trek. At Gorak Shep, we wolfed down some chapatis and set off for our final destination.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the EBC trek if the final stretch to base camp wasn’t absolutely miserable. The entire path up from Gorak Shep on is pretty much just rocks - huge, loose, terrifying rocks strewn about with no clearly defined path. Of course Nikhil pushed forward like a goddamn mountain goat, practically sprinting from rock to rock as we huffed and puffed behind him. It was tough work. Plus, despite the sun overhead, it was bitterly cold - I was rocking my puffy down jacket (a loaner from the trekking company that made me look like Violet Beauregarde) along with 2 base layers, a wool hat, and gloves, and I was still shivering for the first hour or two. The trail went up and down constantly (something Nikhil likes to call ‘Nepali flat - “little up, little down” as he says) meaning that when we weren’t gasping for air pushing slowly uphill, we were flying downhill trying not to slip on loose or slippery rocks. It was HARD.
Of course, once we got our first glimpse of base camp we picked up speed, and we made it to our destination relatively early. Unfortunately, base camp itself is kinda anticlimactic. For most of the year, including now, base camp is just a flat expanse of rock-covered glacier, with a bunch of prayer flags and a few signs marking the spot. I’m sure it would be incredible to come here during climbing season in April/May when camp is bustling with tons of badass people planning to actually summit the mountain. Sadly, we just got lots of rocks and other trekkers, but it still tasted like sweet sweet victory.
We stayed at base camp for a solid hour, snapping photos and looking around. In the months leading up to this trek, I read everything I could get my hands on about Everest, so it was indescribably cool to get to see the Khumbu Icefall, walk across the Khumbu glacier, and spot the landmarks so familiar to every mountaineer who’s ever summited - or fallen to - this majestic mountain. Fun fact: you can’t actually see the summit from Base Camp, but there’s so much else to explore that it hardly matters.
The way back was equally brutal, if not more, because now we didn’t have the excitement of anticipation. The rocks were a lot harder to scramble across on the way down to Gorak Shep, and by the time we made it to the teahouse our legs were shaking and our feet ached terribly. Our guesthouse was very basic - what can you expect from the world’s highest settlement? There was no insulation in the room and the power went in and out in bursts, and after dark at this altitude it gets VERY cold. Even within my -15C rated sleeping bag, two pairs of socks, thick leggings, 3 shirts and a hat, I barely slept because I was so damn cold. This sucked especially because we had to wake up at 4am for one last hurrah: a predawn hike to Kala Patthar 5500 meters, a short (for Nepal) peak at 5500 meters, with a really good view. The plan was to make it there for sunrise and enjoy the view of Everest and the other giants of the Himalayas.
Day 13 - Gorak Shep to Pangboche
So yeah, about Kala Patthar…we didn’t make it.
We woke up at 4am as planned, both feeling miserable from having tossed and turned all night in the frigid cold. We dressed in grim silence, definitely NOT feeling as chipper as we had been the previous morning. This was aggravated by the fact that the power was out in our room and we didn’t have a headlamp. Trust me, you’ve never known fear until you’ve gone into a squat toilet with only your phone light to guide you, praying your numb hands don’t fumble and drop your phone down the hole. Once we were dressed in every layer we owned, we found Nikhil in the dining hall. He hadn’t slept well either, so the three of us reluctantly headed out into the pitch dark, definitely not at all in the mood for this shit.
In case you were wondering, predawn hiking SUCKS, even in the best setting. The only good part of the whole hike was seeing about a gazillion stars - the benefit of clear skies and minimal light pollution. I would have happily stayed near the lodge, stargazing until dawn - it would have saved me a lot of grief - but that was not part of the plan, so we started making our ascent.
Things turned sour pretty quickly. The path to Kala Patthar is extremely narrow and steep. Therefore, it is also extremely crowed. Everyone else on the path that morning seemed to get the headlamp memo, which was both good and bad. Good, because it meant we were able to see where we were going thanks to everyone else lighting the way. Bad, because it meant that anytime I looked at any other person I went blind from the bright light shining in my face. It was extremely disorienting and when combined with the crowds and how little sleep I’d gotten, quickly triggered a panic attack.
Panic attacks suck, and having one on the side of a mountain in the pitch dark at 4am surrounded by a conga line of headlamp-clad hikers sucks even more. I had to stop to try to calm down, and several abortive attempts to move forward, it became clear that I wasn’t gonna make it up the mountain that day. Luckily for me, both Alex and Nikhil were dealing with their own issues and neither one was too upset to turn back. I hate admitting defeat - I’m fiercely competitive and, as mentioned earlier, a huge perfectionist - so giving up sucked, especially since my anxiety had been largely absent during the trek so far. Having a panic attack right at the end was a huge emotional blow.
But shit happens and now that some time has passed I can say I don’t regret turning back, but in the moment it sucked. After a sad, silent breakfast, we began our descent by heading down to Pangboche. I’m not gonna lie, the whole day was tough after such a rough start, and without the promise of base camp looming in our minds, we felt pretty devoid of energy and ready to be done with the whole goddamn thing. And that feeling would only intensify over the next two days.
Day 14 - Pangboche to Namche Bazar
This day sucked so much I don’t even want to talk about it. Seriously. My body and brain were NOT cooperating. I was in a foul mood and couldn’t shake off the mind games. My legs felt like they were trapped in cement. My mind was fighting against my body the whole time. I felt like I was dying. Alex and I fought (for the first time the entire trek) and didn’t speak for a few hours. I don’t know why everything suddenly turned to shit, because the hike itself was really easy, but I just could NOT get with the program.
It all came to a head when I had a breakdown and literally burst into tears on the side of the mountain. I literally saw a 90 year old woman cross a suspension bridge like it was nothing and here I was, 27 and able bodied, ugly crying on the ground. It was bad, guys. The only good thing about this day was when it ended, because Nikhil told us we were allowed to drink so we paid exorbitant sums for warm Everest beers in an “Irish” pub in town where we may or may not have gotten bedbugs from the old sofa we sat on. Oh, and we bought some souvenirs, because nothing says “I went trekking in Nepal” like a tiny fluffy yak figurine.
Day 15 - Namche Bazar to Lukla
Our final day on the trail was pure chaos. Our bodies knew it was our last day and we were basically running on fumes and adrenaline at this point. We were making great time and reached our lunch stop by 10:30, and even though it was too early and we weren’t hungry, Nikhil made us stop anyway and that absolutely KILLED our momentum for the day. Our lunch break lasted over an hour and by the end of it our bodies had entered rest mode, so pushing forward afterward felt almost impossible. Luckily, there were no more tears (I used them all up yesterday) but it was tough.
The road back to Lukla was Nepali flat (again, ‘little up, little down’) and honestly not that difficult, but we were so deliriously tired that even Alex began to show signs of strain and I found myself in the surprising position of having to be HIS cheerleader. The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that once we reached Lukla I could just stop moving forever. Seriously. I felt like I would go insane if I kept going forward, yet I knew that I had to. This trek does things to you, man.
The insanity didn’t stop once we actually made it to Lukla, either. Nikhil had us booked on a flight to Kathmandu the following morning, but during our hike he kept making vague comments about the weather in Lukla. Suddenly out of nowhere he announced that he was going to try to get us on a flight that afternoon. We were stunned. We weren’t going to be able to rest, or shower, or just take a breather, instead we had to KEEP GOING all the way to Kathmandu? Not gonna lie, I almost cried again at the thought of this, and Alex was just blinking at Nikhil in shock. But at the same time, we understood that bad weather could leave us stuck in Lukla for days, so despite our desperate need to stop moving, we said okay.
What followed was an absolute whirlwind of an hour, in which we made it to Lukla (woohoo!), watched a plane land on the shortest runway in the world (yikes), got to the airport, waited for our porter to arrive with our bags, tipped him and said goodbye, sprinted for security where Nikhil was waiting with an airport employee, and…Did. Not. Get. On. The. Plane. Apparently some other enterprising souls had paid off the airline employee who promised us the tickets, and we were SOL until the next morning.
So instead of reaching Kathmandu, we spent the night in Lukla, where we visited both an Irish and a Scottish pub that have nothing to do with Ireland or Scotland except for their names. Getting drunk with our guide and porter was a bizarre cap on an intense and overwhelming journey, and we crashed at barely 9pm. Our flight the next morning left on time, and we finally got to see those stunning mountain views we’d been promised on day 1.
So yeah, we did it. Pretty much every day there was a new challenge, an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion, and a voice in my head telling me “you can’t do this.” But I did it, and so did Alex, and we wouldn’t have finished if we didn’t have each other. And at the end of the day, it’s not about the sore muscles or the altitude or how hard each day felt. All that matters is that we accomplished what we set out to do.
Despite how popular the EBC trek is, I still think this is an absolutely insane undertaking for even the fittest person. Fifteen days of nonstop trekking is a LOT - it is a huge challenge for the mind, body and soul. It had a profound effect on both of us - we came out changed in so many ways. Not just physically (though we lost tons of weight and are the fittest we’ve ever been), but mentally as well. I’ve never been in a situation that tested my resolve quite as much as this.
Are we glad we did it? Definitely. It was by far the hardest and the best thing either of us has ever done. I don’t think we’ll ever repeat this exact trek again - one visit to Everest Base Camp is enough for a lifetime - but we’ve already got a couple other treks in mind for the next time we visit Nepal. And even beyond that, both of us have rediscovered our love of physical activity. I used to be a runner and after the trek I felt the way I used to feel after running half marathons. It feels great to be active and spending time in nature is never a bad thing. Are we ever gonna climb Everest? HELL NO, but this is only the beginning when it comes to trekking and being active together.