Everest Base Camp 2013
This trek was organised by Pretoria University male residence students as a fund raising exercise for Save the Rhino. The students set a target of R100, 000 to raise by sponsorship from companies, schools, organisations and individuals and far exceeded that by raising close to R160, 000. Three full rhino suits were made and were worn by everyone in turns on the trek. This was a bonus when we reached high ground but lower down, when it was hot, proved to be somewhat uncomfortable. Altogether the party was made up of 15 and consisted of students, mothers, fathers, and wild life conservators. Ages ranged from 21 to 68 and a big plus for me was to do it with Simon who was representing and Beyond.
We started with a day’s tour of Kathmandu which I had visited two years earlier. We stayed in Thamel , an attractive area catering for trekkers and tourists with alleyways crowded with travel agents, restaurants, gift and trekking shops where one can kit oneself out with gear for a fraction of the price in South Africa. A first visit to the city comes as a culture shock; it feels like one has been immersed into a kaleidoscope of sounds, sights and smells. The traffic is a nightmare of old small Japanese cars , luxury SUV’s, beaten up buses ,bicycle rickshaws, scooters weaving in and out , sometimes loaded with whole families ,most of whom don’t wear crash helmets and all thrust onto narrow pot –holed lanes winding through the centre of the city. Mix this in with cows, packs of very bold dogs, pedestrians ranging from small kids on their way to school, women in brightly coloured saris, and shops opening straight on to the street selling everything from baths to yak meat. Overall is the on-going sound of car horns being used continuously and fumes which make one’s eyes water and chest tighten up. Surely one day this city will become grid locked as more and more cars and scooters pour on to the road. The most impressive thing is that you don’t see aggravation or road rage like on our roads, people just accept the situation and get on with it.
We visited Durbar Square, Bouddhanth and Swayanbhunath stupas that I had visited before. The temples are not sterile, dark cloistered buildings like our churches and cathedrals but lively active places where people sell souvenirs, turn prayer wheels, make offerings at shrines, prostrate themselves in worship and allow monkeys and dogs to run riot. Then we visited a small factory where Tibetan ladies hand spun and wove traditional carpets. Afterwards we went to Pushapatinath where the Hindus cremate their dead. By custom the cremation is carried out within 3 hours of death, the body is not taken out through the front door but a hole is knocked out through a wall. The body is wrapped in orange and first the feet are dipped in the river before being put on the pyre. The head of the family must conduct and start the fire by placing the torch into the mouth of the deceased. Friends and family watch, and the head of the family has to have his head shaven and eventually the body remains are tipped into the river after about 3 hours on the pyre. We saw children in the river searching the remains for gold teeth or rings. Then a young boy stripped and dived into the river and was swimming around next to the burning bodies. Afterwards the family have to adhere to a strict protocol for a number of months. It’s shocking for us Westerners to see this ceremony for the first time , I won’t forget the images of burning bodies , the pall of smoke rising into the sky, relatives and friends crowded next to the river , holy men and just general hangers on watching from the other bank . Our guide said that in the East people have time but no money whilst in the West we have money but no time. But we do tend to shy away from death whilst the Hindus meet it head on in all its starkness.
Next morning it was off to Kathmandu airport for THE flight to Lukla. The internal terminal is a bit of a free for all, firstly you are greeted by many porters grabbing your bags and making off with them towards the terminal. They all want a tip of course and we worked out that Wayne must be the only tourist ever to negotiate $2 off a porter for carrying his bag. Then it’s general mayhem; luckily we had a fixer and mover who smoothed the way and no doubt back handed us on to the plane. We drove out to the tarmac on a bus and then took bets on which dilapidated plane the bus was going to stop at. Finally it drew up next to this circa 1st World War jobbie which was stuffed with newspaper on the wings and minus one engine. There was much moaning and gnashing of teeth but then the real plane came forward. It was a Dornier; those things that used to drop bombs on London in the 2nd world war! So we got on board and by then were becoming slightly hysterical. The plane had a flight attendant who squeezed past us, handed out a sweet each then sat at the back looking quite unconcerned. The take-off and flight were fine and we had wonderful views of the high Himalayas but then we started our landing procedure to Lukla. We had all watched YouTube clips which were very frightening but the real thing was much, much scarier. In case you don’t know it Lukla is the number 1 most dangerous airport in the world. It’s on the side of the mountain with a runway 400 meters long which ends in a wall with the mountain side behind it. It has the worst crash record in the world. The pilot did a Stuka like dive down to the runway, hit the ground hard, jammed on brakes and reverse thrust and then headed for the wall. At the last minute he did a hard turn to the right and screeched to a halt in front of the terminal amongst a huge round of applause from the passengers. Then it was all out as quick as you can with a policeman blowing his whistle , bags off , next lot on , and then it turned on a shoe string and haired off down the runway and dropped off the end and slowly gained height.
In the afternoon we started our trek. The red duffle bags were loaded on to yaks leaving us with a day bag to carry. The yak is a hairy beast of burden and has often been bred with cattle to form a cow like animal but with a large pair of horns. They really pant hard going up the steep hills. Our trek to Everest base camp took 8days up and 3 days down and went from a height of 2,840 meters to 5,545 meters. The trek went up hills and down to valley bottoms to allow us to pass over high suspension bridges over roaring torrents. We also spent time for acclimatization at different heights and this gradual ascent together with taking the drug Diamox helped us to combat altitude sickness. This helps breathing with the lack of Oxygen at high altitude but is a diuretic meaning that one urinates prodigious amounts. It made me feel like an 18 year old again, no dribbles but more like a waterfall or Lisa’s horse. But it’s not so good in the middle of the night when in the desperate rush to get to the toilet one passes other like-minded souls stumbling about down long dark corridors before an accident occurred.
The pace of the trek was fairly leisurely and this allowed Simon and Wayne to bird watch and linger at the back and then catch us up later. This certainly added another dimension to their trek. One lunchtime Simon fell asleep with his Nepalese bird book next to him and a tiny girl trekker from Malaysia crept up and started quietly thumbing through the book. Simon woke up with a start and she jumped about 5 meters in the air, a bit like” Who’s been eating my porridge?” She had videotaped a bird she’d seen and they were able to identify it. She desperately wanted to see the Danfe , a colourful Partridge which is the national bird of Nepal, and the guys had seen it that morning and told her where to look . She went away very happy.
Generally trekking follows a pattern; we started walking at about 8 am after breakfast and carried on until lunch time at about 12.00. After a lunch hour we continued walking until about 3-4pm when we stopped for the night. The weather also had a pattern, clear and bright in the morning and then gradually wispy like clouds would form around the base of the mountains and gradually rise up to cover the peaks. In the afternoons it would darken, become colder and threaten rain but we were lucky and only walked a couple of times in light drizzle. Here I enjoyed my umbrella but was mocked profusely by Wayne: everybody knows that an English gentleman always carries a brolly in case of a shower, even in the Himalayas.
We started walking through forests with distant views of snow-capped mountains, crossing backwards and forwards across raging glacial rivers, over high suspension bridges. People waited on the far side of the highest ones to watch and photograph Simon cross in a kind of scuttle rush, neither looking to the left or right and definitely not downwards. We had great faith in these bridges until we saw one that had collapsed into the river. Often we had to wait for heavily loaded yaks to cross from the other side, at other times one would get about half way then see Sherpas carrying things like beds walking towards one on the narrow bridge. Then it’s a question of squeezing past, leaning far out over the raging river far below, to get by. Sometimes there were log jams of yaks, donkeys, porters and trekkers all trying to cross the bridge at the same time from both sides.
Although we could walk at our own pace we had at times to do some serious uphill climbing for 2 hours at a time and in the rarefied atmosphere it was hard going. We had two so called “rest days” but we were in for a nasty shock. In each case as part of the process we climbed adjacent mountains and went straight up about 500 meters zig zagging our way up lung busting hills, all in the name of acclimatisation .
Nico, unfortunately had to descend, as he was struggling to adapt to the altitude. We saw other trekkers being air lifted out by helicopter with severe altitude sickness.
We stayed in guest houses and these tended to be fairly similar. Built with stone walls , hacked out and laid by hand , with hardboard interior walls , all carried up by porters , and a large central dining room and rudimentary bed rooms and washing and toilet facilities . Lower down one could have a hot shower at a price but higher up it was wet wipes and brushing teeth with ice cold water. The food was excellent right through the trip, we ate vegetarian with noodles, local bread, potatoes, curries and pizzas to keep us fuelled up. I must say that by the end of the tour I was fantasising about steak chips and onion rings and singing the Peter Sellers and Sophie Loren classic ,” Give us a bash at the bangers and mash me muvver used to make”
Tourism is booming in the Everest region , we were right at the beginning of the trekking season so we found generally we had the lodges to our selves , but on the way down we could see a large increase in the number of trekkers. This has put a strain on the Sherpa homeland. The retreat of glaciers is resulting in a lack of water for agriculture and tourism and with more and more lodges being built there’s a question mark over the sustainability of tourism in the region.
On the third day we reached Namche Bazaar , the centre of Sherpa life. This is a lively place with shops, pubs and coffee houses but not so conducive for strolling about as the main street is a seriously steep thoroughfare.
The next morning we were woken by the sound of running booted feet down the corridor and banging on our door by the hugely enthusiastic Wayne.” Wake up, come and look at this, quick , quick “ This became a feature of every morning ; reluctantly we peered out of the widow but the sight was truly spectacular. The sun was rising over the snow-capped mountains with the first rays touching the highest peak and then moving slowly down the flanks. We sat outside and had cups of hot, delicious Masala tea and watched and heard the monks being summoned to prayers by the mountain horns at the monastery on the hill. They started with the large deep horns and progressed to smaller higher pitched ones, the sounds echoing across the valley. After they stopped a saffron robed late sleeper monk came dashing down the hill trying to make prayers on time, it happens everywhere , even with monks. Later in the afternoon I visited the monastery and it was a special day where the monks and nuns were finishing reciting their prayers, written out beautifully in their script on manuscripts. The village people were sitting in the middle and I joined the men on one side. Ladies kept filling up my mug with Masala tea; it was very pleasant to sit there and be accepted by the local people. This is not like our Western churches , it’s very informal; whilst the monks are reciting their prayers the people are chatting away ten to the dozen , even one deaf guy communicating with his neighbour using his cell phone to write down what he wanted to say. Plates were brought out for a meal and I deemed it time to move out. One of the ladies took me to the visitors centre and then I chatted to her for awhile. She had been born in the village, educated in the local schools and spoke good English. She said that anyone lucky enough to be part of the tourist industry was doing well but otherwise the huge majority of the 24million people were very poor.
That morning was the first of our “rest day” hikes up to the helicopter landing pad and hotel and the guys then had an impromptu cricket match, with Nepal thrashing South Africa. I slept through the entire proceedings. Wayne got caught short and had a negotiation with the guy at the hotel who told him that if it was a number 1 then he could go in the bush but if it was a number 2 it would cost him R10 to use the loo. Wayne didn’t have much choice so duly paid up but then boasted that he’d had the highest dump amongst us. It was a record that was bound to be beaten as we went higher. It was here we caught our first sight of Everest on the horizon far away etched high in the blue sky.