Gonna try something new this time as there are a ton of photos and this story will be a little long… Pics will be inserted as the story goes rather than all at the end. You tell me which way you like better…
So… there I was in Kathmandu. Everyone has a story that starts like this right? I have to say I wasn’t initially in love with the place. It didn’t match what I thought it would be in my head so I had conflict. It was dusty, it was polluted, it was loud, and it was busy… The exact opposite of what my life was like in New Zealand for the last month. But… I’ll post separately about Kathmandu, the star of this post is Mt Everest.
When I booked my trip I was a bit torn- trek it alone (just me and a sherpa), or join a group (similar to Milford Track)? Both had appeal, but I ultimately joined a group via www.gadventures.com. I had emailed with them ahead of time to make sure the group would be more of a younger/active crowd vs an older/leisure gang- they assured me it would be a good crew and they didn’t disappoint. The ages ranged from 19-50’s with most everyone having a good level of fitness/ trekking experience. Everyone was to meet at the Hotel Fuji at 6pm for orientation/dinner and then we’d be off on our journey the following morning! At the hotel, I first met my roommate for the trip. Tommy Schooler, a 57 yr old dude from LA whose claim to acting fame was as a featured pirate extra in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I loved him immediately, just a funny irreverent, slightly salty guy … we’d get along well.
Dinner happened to be at the restaurant I had eaten at the night before called The Ship. i was stoked as the food was amazing and the service was great… (I’d later go on to eat here like 5 more times before I eventually left). The group got to know each other a bit, chatted about life, travel, etc before heading back to the hotel. BUT. Not before we joined a massive street festival! As it turned out it was Hindu New Years Eve in Nepal! The calendar was turning from 2073 to 2074 and people were out partying! Was a random, but super fun little added bonus to what I was sure was going to be an amazing trip.
The next morning we boarded our tiny little plane for the 45 minute flight to Lukla- the kickoff point for the Everest Base Camp trek. I’ve taken many a flight in my day, and have zero fear of planes/flying, but these were some of the scariest miles I’ve ever flown… We zipped there in this tiny plane that moved with every small gust of wind, through mountain passes, and ultimately landed on one of the shortest (and coolest) runways known to man- it literally starts/ends at the edge of a humongous cliff…
After a quick breakfast in Lukla, we’d be on our way. The journey would take 9 days to get to EBC (Everest Base Camp) and would include 2 acclimatization days to allow our bodies to adjust to the higher altitude. Today we’d trek to Phakding (elev 2652m), to drop our gear for the night, then we’d hike up to a cool mountain monastery- which although it had been damaged by the Earthquake, was still pretty amazing. On our way back down we stopped at a ‘Reggae Bar’ for some beers and free popcorn. Bikram (our guide) had said a few beers were ok the first night or 2, but then we should avoid until our way back down… Better make these count then! It was a good bonding experience, we’d been trekking all day with each other, but now we could chill out, have a few drinks andcontinue getting to know one another- we’d be together for the next 13 days!
We were treated to a beautiful sunrise as we left Phakding and headed to Namche Bazaar. We were told this day would be a long one as we’d be trekking for ~7 hours with a massive climb at the end. So far this hadn’t been so bad, how ‘hard’ could this climb be? After spending the day trekking up and down through forest, next to beautiful rivers, and across massive suspension bridges (hope those prayer flags work!) we reached the base of the ‘Namche Stairs’. Holy. Fuck. (pardon my french but there really is no other way to describe this). To say this was an awakening would be an understatement. This was pretty much one hour straight up until we reached Namche. NOW I understood why Bikram recommended lots of water/breaks. I was so gassed by the time we reached Namche BUT had my first taste of accomplishment on the trip. I was worried my Asthma might act up at the higher elevation as there’s much less oxygen the higher you go up, but so far so good! My lungs were tired and my breath was short, but it was just getting used to things, nothing I couldn’t handle. I have to admit it was a bit of a relief.
After arriving (finally) to Namche (elev 3440m), we checked in to our hotel and set out to explore the town. It was actually quite large! We were told this was the last ‘proper’ town (ATMs, good coffee places, bars, massage, etc) we’d visit until we hit it again on our way back down. After we left it would be much less ‘comfortable’ for the next 8-9 days. Bikram also said we’d be jumping up in elevation pretty rapidly so no more drinking after tonight. To us, this sounded more like a recommendation rather than a warning so we made sure we listened! 😉 We were trekking to Everest for God’s sake, if there was ever a time to toast to life it was now! I didn’t love the headache I had the next day when I awoke. Damn thinner air! Should’ve had more water… Oh well.
We spent another day/night in Namche to acclimatize to the higher elevation. We’d take a trek up a few hundred meters to get our lungs ready for what was to come, but then we’d head back down- this is how you avoid altitude sickness. On our day hike we’d be treated to amazing views of Namche from above AND our first glimpse of Mt Everest! The weather was perfect as we set off to explore- sunny and clear! As it was Mom’s birthday I shot her a quick note and a picture of where I was. This was the first day we really began to SEE the surrounding mountains. I have to admit, this still didn’t seem real, the scenery was so stunning that I actually pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. We took tons of photos on the hike up to our Everest viewpoint, and when we reached it, we were all awestruck. There she was. She seemed so far away, and we’d be walking all the way there! We hung out there for an hour or so, breathing the thinner air, basking in the sun, taking photos, etc. I found a little spot to meditate- figured it was the right thing to do. Time to reflect and send some gratitude out into the universe. This was unreal…
After our hike we headed back down for lunch- Pizza! Was told it was the best on the trip… little did I know where the menus would head after Namche, but more on that later. The afternoon was ours to enjoy, so I of course got a massage 😉 When it was over I ran into Georgia, another one of my new trekking friends, as she was headed back to the bar to meet some of the others. Hmmm, maybe Bikram meant no drinking after Namche, rather than after yesterday… that’s what we told ourselves anyways. By now we were friends, we were celebrating life, and so we did. We came up with a nickname for our ‘group within the group’, Team Awesome… we even signed the bar to commemorate our trip. Maybe stayed out later than we should, but oh well, we had fun. And after tonight it was all business…
As we set off from Namche to our next stop, Thyangboche, we were treated to what was in my opinion the best weather day of the trip. We walked along an epic mountain ridge trail, knowing that Everest was becoming closer and closer with every step. We were all in our own little worlds, being super present, taking this all in. Honestly I’m having a hard time even finding the words to describe what I was feeling at that moment. It was more than happy, it was even more than bliss, it was one of those moments where you just wanna call your parents for no other reason than simply to tell them you love them… so I did. It’s that kind of feeling I had, just perfect harmony with the universe, with time, with love… with myself. Even more than actually reaching Everest, this moment, sitting along that ridge stands out as my favorite for the entire trip.
As we stopped for water at the Dream House Lodge, Uncle Tom started to get sick, and he’d pretty much stay that way the rest of the trek. It was tough watching a guy , my roommate for the trip, start to weaken. He assured us he’d be ok and so we pressed on. After lunch we were told we’d have another 60 minute climb up to the village we’d be staying in and if we made it there by 3pm we could visit the monastery and listen to the monks chant one of their ceremonies. Well it was almost 130 now so we had to get a move on! Though it wasn’t quite as bad as the Namche climb, and I was getting better with the altitude, this was still a pretty aggressive workout, but we made it! Welcome to Thyangboche- elev 3810m… As we rested, Michiel disappeared for a bit, then came back with 4 cold ‘victory beers’. He’d decided we’d earned them (being the first 4 up the hill), and so we sat like Andy Dufresne and his roof tarring crew from Shawshank enjoying those beers. It was one of the best beers I’d ever had…
After we visited the monastery and enjoyed the beautiful chanting, we had the afternoon to do whatever we wanted. I decided on a little alone time… and so I hiked up to this little ridge that ran up from town to see what the view was like. The way up was lined with prayer flags and stupas (little temples) and though there were a few people at the very first one, I was all alone once I continued up. I found a nice place to sit and just look out over the valley. I listened to some chill music, meditated a bit, and generally just enjoyed the silence coupled with the occasional sounds from nature. It was quite tranquil, quite beautiful. At one point I looked down and realized I had picked up a rock and had been spinning it in my fingers for (I’m assuming) the entire time. I was so in my own little world, I hadn’t even noticed. This rock came back with me, a token of another special moment on this trip. On the way back to the tea house (what the lodges are called) I decided I’d head back up there for sunrise the next morning…
Evenings on the Trek. Haven’t yet touched on what a typical night was, but no better time than now. The lodges were clean, yet simple. Most offered paid wifi, a hot shower (also paid), and all had a restaurant attached. The menu was a little funny- like I’m not sure how they decided on the items they offered, maybe just a something for everyone approach? We were told after Namche not to eat the meat as there is no refrigeration and it wasn’t a safe idea so we were all pretty much vegetarians for most of the trek. The options for breakfast were basically omelets, porridge, or toast. Lunches and dinners ranged from Dal Baht (Nepali’s staple dish of lentil soup, veggies and rice), to veggie fried rice or noodles, to sherpa stew (a little heartier version of the Dahl), to cheese sandwiches, to pizzas. And the taste/quality of the dishes would vary from one place to the next… one place would have awesome pizza and the next it would barely be a piece of flatbread with ketchup on it. I never seemed to order the right thing at the right place… All in all it was pretty funny. French fries were the only consistent item. I basically just covered everything I ordered in their local hot sauce and hoped for the best. Before and after dinner we’d mostly hang out and play cards, Bikram had taught us a Nepali game called Dumble(?) and we were pretty addicted. It was generally that or some places would show an Everest documentary movie after dinner, then we were all in bed by 9- exhausted…
After Thyangboche we were on our way to Dingboche (elev 4410m). We were getting up there now! In fact, this is the day we’d cross above the tree line… it was wild. This trek was something out of Lord of the Rings or The Martian. The landscape was getting rocky and barren. We were up there now, the clouds rolled in and swept around us. What was once a sunny day was now getting darker and colder by the moment! By the time we rolled into our home for the next 2 nights (this was another acclimatization stop) we were all ready to get indoors, grab a warm shower (didn’t ming the 5$ fee one bit) and get out of the weather. Though we were cold, we all knew this is where things would really start getting good!
Like our previous acclimatization day, we’d take a hike up a few hundred meters, hang out for a bit, and then head back down. Thankfully I still hadn’t had any issues with altitude sickness, outside of a few nighttime headaches, these guys knew what they were doing with this trek. The whole group ascended to about 4600m, which was about halfway up this nearby peak (in Nepal, anything less that 6000 meters is called a peak, not a mountain… who knew?). Michiel convinced a few of us that we couldn’t possibly stop half way, we should go up to the top, which I thought looked a good bit further up! AND even though Bikram said it was cool to go up to 4800m but we should stop there to conserve our energy for the next two days- we said fuck it and headed all the way up. We had crossed the 5000m mark for the first time! I. Was. Gassed! But felt great. It was such an awesome workout, and the view from up there was amazing! It was worth it, totally worth it. When we finally got back down to the lodge I had the best grilled (yak) cheese/tomato sandwich I’ve ever had. I finally got an order right! I was so hungry after the hike, I had 3. I had earned em… Insert card playing, fairly boring dinner, and another early sleep.
So close! Hiking to Lobuche (elev 4900m) next, our last stop before we’d arrive at Everest the following day! It felt like we were racing along the trail. Sharan had given up trying to corral us, we had so much energy! Plus we’d already crossed 5000m which was higher than we’d sleep tonight. It was a beautiful day and we couldn’t be stopped. After lunch we’d begin a fairly steep climb, which would take us past the Khumbu Glacier as well the Everest Memorial site. There were some 50+ markers up commemorating the lives of trekkers that had died on the mountain… It was a little somber just walking around what was essentially a graveyard, but without the bodies. But we pressed on. I made a mental promise to carry on the spirit of the fallen hikers, it would later come back to give me strength in a very tough moment. Lobuche is meant to be a great place to watch the sunset, so some of us climbed a nearby ridge after we arrived and put our stuff down. It was a bit cloudy, but occasionally the clouds would break and we’d see these massive snow-capped mountains up close and personal. Oda and I trekked along the ridge even further up. Like I said, we literally couldn’t be stopped. We were trying to get to 5100m- almost made it, but there was just no further to go up… until the next day.
Uncle Tom was still pretty sick, but he was a freakin champ. The guy would literally collapse almost immediately after arriving at our tea house, wake up long enough to eat a few french fries or bites of pizza for dinner, then return to bed. He was determined to make it to Base Camp. Tomorrow would be the day.
Base Camp morning. We pretty much sprinted out away from Lobuche after breakfast. The plan was to arrive at Gorak Shep (elev 5184) by 11 or so, drop our packs, change into warmer gear and then head to Everest Base Camp (elev 5300) where we’d hang out for a bit, celebrate, take photos, etc, before heading back down to the lodge for the night.
The day started with another decent climb, but we barely noticed it. It seemed like we were at Gorak Shep for our pit stop in no time! Once again, we shot out of there like a bullet! So much energy! There were quite a few people on the trail, with a few other groups reaching EBC that day as well. But whereas we’d generally been patient with slower trekkers, we couldn’t slow down today. We went up and over rock trails to bypass large groups, others thankfully gave way and let us pass. I know I should maybe have been enjoying this moment more, really taking in the scenery, but there was no chance. We had a goal to reach. We could take photos on the way back was the way I saw it.
WE MADE IT! I was trekking with Michiel, Oda, and Georgia when we arrived. Because we had passed a lot of people on our way, it wasn’t too busy yet. We shared a group hug and took in the moment. Of course we needed a few (like 100) photos of the achievement! I have to be honest for a moment here… And I feel like a dick even saying this, but I was feeling a little underwhelmed. This last hike from GS hadn’t been particularly challenging. Nothing compared to some of the earlier parts. And although we were AT base camp, we didn’t get to go IN to Base Camp. I don’t know, it just didn’t feel like I thought it would. Don’t get me wrong, I was immensely proud of myself, and stoked beyond words that I had made it, but something just felt… a little missing. But I digress… One by one or two by two the others arrived. We cheered each and every one of them, greeting them with applause and hugs… Especially Uncle Tom! A man who had battled and battled for days, and here he was… an absolute legend. It was great celebrating- Jaime and I even chugged the cans of Everest Beer we had brought with us! At 5300m one beer definitely gave my head a little tingle… When we all posed for our group picture, it was a pretty cool experience. I’ll love these photos forever.
Be prepared- many photos of reaching Everest Base Camp!
So that was it… We had made it. We rolled back to our lodge where we went through photos, had late lunch, chatted, napped, played cards etc. There was an optional hike in the morning up to Kala Patthar, a nearby pass that climbed to over 5500m and boasted an amazing sunrise view over Everest. Earlier on the trek we had met a few guys that said they had started it but then had to turn around as the wind/snow got going so fast they had to try to hike sideways before it became too much. I didn’t like the sound of that, but I wasn’t going to NOT try this as well.
To catch the sunrise we had to be up and out at like 430am. We all bundled up in our wind/snow gear and began to head up yet another HUGE vertical climb. This would only cover about 1.5 miles, but we’d jump up over 400m! (yes I just crossed meters and miles but I think most of my friends understand it better this way). It was every man- and woman- for themselves this morning. There was a sunrise to catch. I fell behind the rest of my ‘fast group’… I was having issues with my gloves, I had a blister, I was super short of breath and getting worse the further up I went. In the beginning the wind was whipping snow up at us, telling us to turn around, we weren’t going to make it. It was dark, it was cold, and I seriously almost gave up 3 or 4 times. Thinking, ‘I’d tried my best, but this wasn’t meant to be’ (a few from our group actually did turn around- this wasn’t easy). I was dying with every step, but up I went. I thought of my promise to the fallen hikers, as I saw others ahead, pushing on. This was THE view you wanted of Everest (aside from the summit of course), I’d make it up… I had to. The wind calmed and the sun came out, finally. It was still cold, but at least I wasn’t walking into a tornado force headwind anymore. Onward. Upward. I saw Michiel nearing the top, dude was a Mountain Goat this morning! The sun was beginning to peak out from behind the Mother of all Mountains, it was now or never… Digging deeper than I ever have in my life, I found a new reserve of energy and willed my legs and lungs to work. And made it…. collapsing in exhaustion and joy atop Kala Patthar. After hugging the gang (they had a nice greeting for me!) I found a place to sit down and watch as the sun made its way up and over the peak of the highest point on Earth. THIS was the feeling I was missing yesterday at EBC. THIS was my quest. THIS was my Everest. I’ve never appreciated a sunrise like this one and I doubt I ever will. Everything that went into getting to this moment all exploded inside me as tears made their way down my face (thankfully they didn’t freeze!). This was the purest Bliss I’ve ever felt. The proudest I’ve ever been of myself. It was a truly magical moment.
Gathering myself, I had to get a few photos to commemorate the morning. Everyone up there was just so happy, reveling in their own individual accomplishments. There was a little narrow spot you could climb to that was a bit higher, and although it seemed a bit scary ,it too had to be done. Looking at the altimeter on my watch it told me I was over 5650m above sea level- over 18500 ft! For comparison, Mt Ranier back home is 4392m/~14400 ft.
After just chilling up there for a bit, it was time to head back down. Once we’d eaten breakfast we’d be starting our trek back towards Lukla. It seemed like an eternity ago that we had landed there and started our journey. I was a different person now, that was for sure.
As we were heading downhill and had no need for acclimatization anymore, the trek back would only take 4 days. After departing GS, we had a pretty uneventful hike to the village of Pheriche. The weather had turned to gray and drizzly, it reminded me of Seattle. It felt like everyone was coming down from their emotional highs- either from EBC yesterday or Kala Patthar for those that had done that morning. People were quieter, walking alone, listening to music or spending time with their thoughts. I was no exception. I felt like I needed a little space to reflect on what I’d just experienced. I was actually listening to a playlist of Shapibo Shamans singing Ayahuasca ceremony songs. For whatever reason, I wanted to tie the two experiences together. The music definitely put me in a bit of a trance as we made our way forward. Even that night at dinner people were a little more reserved, with people perhaps reflecting a bit more. I was glad the weather was like that, it was the perfect compliment for spending a little time with myself.
Man Down. The next morning we lost Uncle Tom. He woke up super sick and ended up in the hospital (it just so happened the trekkers hospital was in Pheriche- thankfully) attached to an oxygen mask. This guy gave everything he had and wouldn’t quit until he made it. He would be heading back to Kathmandu via helicopter and ultimately spend another night in the hospital getting himself better. Before we left, we all stopped in to say goodbye and pay tribute. He was my roommate the whole trip, a great guy who I shared a lot of laughs with, and though I’d hoped he’d be able to make it the whole way, I couldn’t be prouder for him pushing through as far as he did. If you’re reading this, Cheers to you Tommy Schooler. You’re a fucking legend.
Down we went. Every time we saw a chopper fly past we wondered if that was the one Tom was in. I was walking with Michiel most of the day, he and I had become good friends over the trip and now we were getting to know each other better, the little details about our lives outside of the ‘what do you do’ ‘where have you traveled’ stuff. I remember being a little annoyed we would be stopping short of Namche. In my mind it would be better to trek the addl 90 minutes to be there that night (massage/bars) and spend the morning there (shopping/coffee). A few of us considered it, but ultimately decided to just stick with the program… thankfully, as this would probably be the most fun night of the whole trip. We were staying at ‘The Dream House’ lodge, ironically where Tom first got sick on the way up. During dinner that night, Bikram put on some music, saying our guide Sharan felt like dancing- and off he went grooving out to some local tunes in something that looked like a Bhangra. Out of nowhere (don’t want to say where to keep people from getting in trouble) a celebratory bottle of whiskey appeared and were all given a shot… then all hell broke loose. Michiel and I sprang to life, insisting that we couldn’t let the party end there and committing to splitting the cost of whatever damage we did the night- we need a bottle of Johnny Walker! We need a tray of beers! We need another! Jaime and I shotgunned beers outside in front of an epic last bit of sunlight on the mountains. The music switched over from Nepali to top 40 and everyone danced for a few hours… Even the initially shy daughters of the lady that ran the place got in on the dance party! It was the release we needed, so much fun! To top things off, Oda, Georgia, and I decided we were going to sleep outside under the stars (apparently this had never happened here before, it WAS a little cold after all). After grabbing every blanket we could find as well as our sleeping bags, we all had what we agreed was the best sleep of the trip. So many stars out, even caught a couple shooting across the sky! In the morning, we awoke to the sun shining on the mountains around us. What a fun night…
Though we didn’t get to stay the previous night in Namche, we made the most of our morning there! Bikram basically gave us 90 min to enjoy civilization, which for me meant a visit to Himalayan Java! I treasured every sip of my mocha, it was my first real coffee in like 10 days, probably my longest stretch ever… Yep, ate a panini, yep ate a brownie, I was unstoppable. The wifi also gave everyone a chance to tell families that they were ok, alive, and on their way back down. Tonight we’d be at this cool little tea house tucked into a valley- another one we had stopped at on the way up for a water break and I was excited to get back there… it had a VOLLEYBALL court! Bikram said they always played some games on the way down with the group, other campers that happened to be around (or walking by) and the porters. We played for about 2 hours, Jaime actually plays a lot too and was a good setter so we had a little fun 😉 Looking up and around was so surreal. Here we all were, playing volleyball in the shadows of some of the highest mountains in the world, also a pretty incredible memory…
Our last day in the mountains. We’d now be headed back to Lukla where we’d have a huge dinner, saying thank you and good bye to Milan and Sharan as well as the porters. We were particularly excited about this as we knew A. We’d be able to have ‘real food’ and B. We’d planned a huge party at the bar downstairs from our hotel! Just like that last day approaching Everest, I was a man on a mission. I kept getting annoyed when we’d stop for a break. I hated that I felt this way, but there was no getting past it. I tried meditating, chilling with the group, etc but I was just feeling super impatient. When we were finally done with the lunch break (also I wasn’t hungry at all and wanted to wait until Lukla), I took off like Carl Lewis. In fact I did actually jog bits of it, listening to music to help push me along. I realized that for me, stopping earlier was the equivalent of turning off a movie I was really into with 20 minutes left. Or putting away a book I was only a few chapters from finishing. The way my brain works, I NEED to finish that movie, that book, and I’ll forego food, sleep, etc until it’s completed. So this was my impatience. Since I could ‘see’ the finish line, I just had to get there. Something to work on for sure…
All that was forgotten though when I got to the lodge and ordered a Chicken Masala and rice! Oh my God. One of the best meals I’ve ever had! After 12 days of Dal Baht and rice, this was like a Michelin Star restaurant! I hadn’t realized how hungry I was (so much in fact that when I went across the street to grab a coffee after my meal, I somehow also ended up with a burger and fries- which I demolished in like 2 minutes). I figured with all the calories I had burned, I had earned an extra meal or two…
That night we had our dinner, and it was nice. We all got up and said a little thank you to those that would be leaving (Bikram would be taking us back to Kathmandu) and then headed downstairs for music, dancing, drinks, pool, and hookah! One night to revel in our accomplishment, to celebrate with our team, and say goodbye to the mountain. It was pure. It was awesome.
And that was it… We boarded our little plane at around 6am and all looked ahead in amazement (and a little fear) as we began our takeoff down the short runway right towards the end of the cliff… pulling up at the very last moment to head back to Kathmandu. We’d have the day to ourselves before we’d do one more group dinner that night, our last official night of the EBC trip.
Back ‘home’, I immediately went to Himalayan Java for a huge real breakfast and coffee, then had a massage, then a nap, then lunch, followed by another massage and a pedicure, and then met everyone INCLUDING UNCLE TOM! for our final dinner. Tom was back in business and although still not 100% (I’d put him at around 75%), he was there powering through just like he always had. At the actual finish line… our team was once again complete.
Do this. If you’ve ever had even the inkling of the idea that this might be something you’d like to try, do this. Even in this incredibly long post, I think I may have been able to actually put into words 10% of the thoughts, feelings, and emotions I experienced- the rest is pure light and happiness inside my heart and soul. It was physically challenging, mentally challenging, emotionally challenging… and spiritually the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. There is something incredibly energetic about Kathmandu and Nepal, and something truly magical about Everest. It’s what calls to people to visit, to trek, to climb, and even to give their lives for.
I don’t know if I’ll ever make it all the way to the top- it takes incredible health, a ton of experience, and lots of preparation- but what a thought. Going back there and this time pushing myself well beyond my limits, chasing a dream, and one day standing atop the highest mountain on the planet, with the next thing above being outer space. Now THAT would truly be One Excellent Adventure. Someday perhaps… someday.
Thanks for reading.
Much love and bliss,
Just a guy on a hero's journey...