My experience trekking to Everest Base Camp not including the last 24 hours. There are no pictures of my trench foot included, so don’t be afraid to look at the photos 😀
A few weeks before I began my trekking in Nepal, I met one of my few American friends also living in India. As one of my favorite confidantes with whom to complain endlessly about how ridiculous the country can be for a foreigner, I was a bit surprised to hear she was staying in India longer than planned. I asked her why. She had a number of valid reasons, but there was one she mentioned casually that really struck a chord with me. She said something about wanting to change her experience with India, to make it positive, to finally get a handle over the things which had given her endless frustration and grief. Living in India can be hard, doing it well can be a challenge. Basically, from what it seemed she was saying, she wasn’t finished. She didn’t want to go home with a negative experience living here. Instead, she wanted to change her experience with the sub-continent.
A few weeks later, on day 11 of my trek, I found myself clambering over a ridge of loose stones and small chunks of ice to witnesses the notorious pile of stones and flags that designates Everest Base Camp. I’d done it. I’d made it to my goal. For two hours we stomped from Gorak Shep (a frozen lake and tiny settlement at 5164 meters or 16,942 feet) up a stony and narrow path. In either direction stretched miles and miles of barren, rocky terrain. Desolate and bleak. Monsoon season lingered longer than desired, masking the staggering mountains towering over us in an ominous mist. As one of the trekkers I met in Nepal this month so aptly articulated, the landscape appeared alien, as if we were walking on the moon. The boulders we climbed over sparkled in their blackness. The air, stretched thin on oxygen, meant every step along the way had the semblance of a leap. Yet the sense of accomplishment that comes from achieving your goal didn’t hit me on day 11. Actually, it hit me on day 2, miles below where where most people begin their trek to EBC. My sense of accomplishment is taken from a place most people don’t even consider part of the Everest Base Camp trek.
Harder than Everest
Because on day 2, everything went wrong. Until the last 24 hours of my trek, I didn’t think it could anything could get worse than that. Thirty minutes into the trek I slipped and pretty severely sprained my wrist. I was in so much pain I had to get my first trekking partner, Koen, to zip up my jacket for me and I couldn’t use my right hand for anything (holding a walking stick, taking a photo, eating, etc…). I thought it was broken (It wasn’t.) I then descended that hill for four hours. People say that walking downhill is easier. For an hour or so, it is. But after four hours both my knees were so weak that I had to practically crawl down the mountain or my legs would physically give out from under me.
Actually, they did give out. Twice. The second time I tried to use a metal walking stick to push myself back up (I couldn’t use my sprained wrist to support my body weight) and I actually bent the stick at a 90-degree angle. My $500 DSLR camera had suffered water damage the day before and wasn’t working. What’s the point of walking 15 days and 117 km if I can’t even take a photo of Everest? (The camera conveniently dried out and started working again once I arrived back in India….) All my clothes were sopping wet and unable to dry while stuffed in my bag. They were already starting to smell. The back of my neck was bleeding from a leech bite and I was pretty sure they were on my feet too (they were). And then, after all that, as Koen and I approached a gigantic hill that we predicted would take 3 hours to climb up, we decided to split up.
This was largely my decision. Since we started together, I don’t think that Koen would have felt okay telling me he wanted to do the trek without me. But he was going so much faster than me and part of the reason I wanted to do Everest Base Camp alone in the first place was so that I didn’t get stressed out if I wanted to go slowly. When I trekked Mt. Rinjani last summer I would have had a much better time if I hadn’t felt so guilty and stressed about everyone trekking faster than me in my group. I wanted to enjoy and go at my own pace, not compete. I had told Koen before we even met that, if I was going too slowly for him, I didn’t want him to wait for me. So, after 30 minutes panting up the hill, I found Koen waiting, and told him he should go ahead without me. Maybe I would meet him in the next village, Kharikhola, but I wasn’t 100% sure I would make it to our target town. Maybe I would stop in a lodge along the way. He seemed legitimately sad we were splitting up (we got along well) but we decided it was for the best.
When he walked away, however, I did feel myself start to choke up for a second. Not because I felt like I needed him or felt abandoned or anything. Just that in my head I wasn’t feeling like I was physically able to do this trek. Maybe I signed up for too much? Maybe I was fooling myself to think I was strong enough to do this? I’m not that fit, what was I even thinking? I just felt really weak in that moment, like I wasn’t good enough to do this trek. Like everyone was judging me for trying.
That hill was brutal. Now I know why people just fly to Lukla. Walking from Salleri is so much harder than the rest of the Everest Base Camp trek. Literally, the second day and the last day of the trek were significantly more difficult than the day I got to Base Camp. Of course, at the time I didn’t know that. At the time I assumed it would only get more difficult because the trek conditions would be the same but we would introduce high altitude conditions to the equation. I had so many negative thoughts shooting off in my head. I almost started crying.
It’s All Mental
In that moment, I really needed to succeed at something. My job in India honestly didn’t go very well. I got the sense that I just didn’t have enough patience or the correct skills to succeed in that work environment. Also, I’ve been a bit of an emotional mess while living in India this year. I get stressed and upset about how difficult the smallest things seem to be and how long it takes for anything to get done. For awhile I was so depressed I didn’t even want to get out of bed. I felt so socially isolated from everyone, like no one understood my point of view or cared. I started having doubts that I was making the right career decisions, relationship decisions, and life decisions in general. And then I sort of just felt like a big fat out of shape loser with grandiose ideas of her own abilities. Maybe I am just delusional about doing Everest Base Camp, staying in India, writing a novel, etc… Maybe I just suck.
Instead, I decided that if I sat down and cried, it would only take me longer to get to Kharikhola. And then I decided 4 things that made the rest of the trek surprisingly easy: 1) Everyday you will reach the targeted village of your itinerary. It does not matter how long it takes you, it doesn’t matter how many people pass you. If your itinerary says it should take 4 hours and it takes you 8, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you get there eventually. 2) If you just get up this hill, you can make it to base camp 3) If you can make it to base camp, you can write your novel 4) You will not cry.
By some miracle of God, I made it up that mountain to Kharikhola that evening. Sheer will power, sheer determination. And, honestly, besides the last 24 hours, it was the part of the trek that tested me the hardest mentally and physically. Which made the rest of the trek much easier. Anytime anything became grueling or difficult, I just remembered that I had already made it up that God-forsaken mountain to Kharikhola, alone, with a broken camera, with 8kg strapped to my back, and leeches all over my body. I felt more mentally and physically prepared once the real part of the trek began and found I was actually quicker than a lot of people who had guides and porters. “A lot” might be an exaggeration; I was faster than some, enough that I felt fit and proud of myself for not flying into Lukla and for carrying all my own things. It also helped that the few people I met who also walked from Jiri or Salleri agreed with me that it was significantly harder than the more popular Lukla to EBC route.
That’s not to say the rest of the trek was by any means easy. I still had to carry 8kg up mountains, suffer from cold every night, and the lack of oxygen in high altitude areas made it difficult to catch my breathe.
On the day of base camp, on the 10k trek from Lobuche (4900 m/ 16077 ft) to Gorek Shep (5164 m/ 16,942 ft), I had my first encounter with altitude sickness.
Previously, Laura and I had seen a middle aged woman carried into our lodge on the back of a small Nepali man, accompanied by a group of locals and guides. The lodge hustled to bring her oxygen and we tried to watch sensitively as she breathed into the mask for several minutes. The environment amongst the witnesses in the lodge that night was one of increased anxiety: was this is the fate to come? How much worse are things higher up on the mountain?
We later learned that the woman was helicoptered back to Kathmandu for medical reasons. Altitude sickness is no joke. You can die from altitude sickness. It affects everyone differently. Being fit doesn’t necessarily mean you are immune. The best thing to do is to ascend the mountain slowly and, if you feel sick, to descend and rest. There are signs littering the mountains warning travelers of the symptoms of altitude sickness and that it can kill.
The effects I felt were different than I expected. Yes, it made going up hill a bit more difficult and my walking speed slightly slower. But I wasn’t getting ear-splitting headaches or feeling sick to my stomach. The main effect I felt was a ridiculous urgency to pee frequently. If we are friends and you have ever seen me drink alcohol or too much caffeine, you will be familiar with this. Sorry. For the millionth time, sorry. My overactive bladder is no secret, but typically it only is noticeable after a couple of wines or a large coffee. But on the trek, I guess the lack of oxygen made my brain tired and slower than usual, meaning it was sending too many incorrect signals that I needed to pee. Keep in mind that this is happening while I am trekking in the wilderness in a conservative country so I felt like half the time I was trekking I was dashing behind rocks to relieve myself. Toilet paper cost $4 a roll. This was not always a fun trek.
The same thing continued while I was sleeping. In the 5 days I spent trekking above Tengboche (3,900m/12,795ft to 5,364m/12,598ft at base camp), I woke up literally once every hour to use the bathroom. Then I would crawl back into bed completely out of breath from just walking down the hallway. So it’s easy to understand why, by the last night, I was feeling a bit “over” the trek and ready to get back to Kathmandu. I hadn’t slept properly in 4 nights, all my clothes smelled atrocious (it’s been almost 2 weeks since Nepal and I still can’t wash the smell out), I hadn’t showered since the beginning of my trek, and I was very cold.
But on the way to Base Camp, I actually felt real altitude sickness. Enough that I felt like it could be actually dangerous. I noticed it after ascending a large hill. Laura and Brandon were talking and I was having a difficult time following what they were saying and started worrying that they would talk to me as I desperately didn’t want to respond. I kept telling them not to worry that I wasn’t speaking but I was feeling a bit high, as if someone drugged me. Or a bit drunk. Actually, I felt great. Too great. Apparently Brandon looked in my eyes when we were on the side of a cliff and later told me “you weren’t there. You were somewhere else. I could see it in your eyes.” Laura gave me half a Diamox, a pill popular amongst EBC trekkers to offshoot the effects of altitude sickness. It worked all too well. I made it to Gorakshep and then to EBC without any more serious troubles. But the paranoia of altitude sickness remained so I proceeded slowly and with caution.
And then I made it to Base Camp! And after that, I thought the hardest with over (ha ha, trench foot). Brandon and I actually managed to leave Gorakshep and walked all 62km to Lukla in two days and an early morning. We went hard. We even walked in the darkness of the morning for an hour and a half only later to find out that there are leopards and we shouldn’t be doing that.
On the trek I didn’t necessarily learn anything new. I’ve backpacked to over 50 countries by myself. I’ve moved to new cities, new countries, new apartments alone more times than I can count, and I’ve learned a lot of very valuable things in the process. Instead I think it was just a good reminder of things I already know. Recently I think I’ve been suffering from a pretty typical mid-20s, millennial kid crisis. I’ve been doing a lot of, “Am I living the right way? Do I have any marketable skills? Should I try to get a fancier job? Should I be trying to be in a serious relationship?” Everyone seems to be get married and having babies and on fancy, important career paths.
Someone told me that intense activities are really good for you. When your body is that exhausted, expending thousands of calories a day, and your brain is running on a lack of oxygen and less than optimal food supplies, your mind is literally too fatigued to think about anything other than what is really important. I was too tired to worry about useless things. I became really okay with the fact that I desperately want to travel and have control over my time more than having a fancy job that requires me to work constantly. I told my new trekking friends that I’m taking a year to freelance and write a book (which I know is risky but I’m just going to do it anyway) and they were all really supportive. I became really okay with the things in my life I was worrying about.
If I can survive altitude sickness, not showering, walking obscene distances every day, and trench foot, then I can survive this whole adult thing that I’m being forced into.
And, similarly, I think I am better abled to handle India at its worst. I’m hoping I can stick to my more positive mind set and really enjoy my last few months in India and, like my friend, leave the country remembering all the good things about it and not stuck on the frustrations of working in a negative environment, the bureaucracy, the cultural misunderstandings, etc…