Mount Kinabalu. Mount Rinjani. Mount Krenchi. Chandrakhani Pass. Rohtang Pass.
It’s easy enough to list off the mountains I have climbed
But I’m not going to talk about that tonight. Instead, I am going to write about a trek I did not complete: The trek to Everest base camp, an altitude of 5,300 meters.
The Everest Base camp requires between seven and nine days to reach the summit. Our journey began with a 42-minute plane ride from Kathmandu, Nepal to a small town called Lukla in the early morning. Lukla has a dubious honor of being called world’s most dangerous airport because of its unique runway.
About 500 meters in length, the runway has mountains on one end and a deep valley on the other. It also has a 15 percent gradient towards the valley side. No landing aid except GPS works here due to its location.
After surviving this flight, we had breakfast at Lukla, and began our trek on foot towards our first camp at Monjo. Technically, Monjo is only 50 m higher in elevation than Lukla, however we needed about 6 hours to reach there. First, we walked on plain terrain that occasionally went downhill for about 4 hours and then we climbed uphill steep steps. The trail passed through pine forests, crop fields and Buddhist stupas.
Just before the darkness fell, we reached Monjo. The rule of thumb in the mountains is to go to bed early and wake up early. In my room that night I felt suffocated. I opened the window for air. It was blustery outside and the wind was deafening to ears. I was not sure if the suffocation was due to the thin air that lacked oxygen or the lack of fresh air inside the room. I could not sleep. In the morning, I vomited. My guide observed my symptoms and immediately offered his diagnosis: AMS, or Acute Mountain Sickness.
After a hearty breakfast, we set out for our destination camp: Namchee Bazaar. Reaching this heaven at 3,440 meters required extreme efforts. It involved six hours of arduous climbing. However, the stunning forests, crossing rivers and swaying suspension bridges kept me going. Nestled among the mountains, most of this village’s roofs are painting blue. Here we stocked up on our supplies, mainly chocolate and energy bars.
It was also our first acclimatization break day. Second rule of thumb of high altitude trekking is that after every 1000 m of climb one takes a day off from trekking. However on this day, you climb nearby hills, gain some elevation and then come back by afternoon and relax. We climbed nearby Synboche, 300 m higher than Namchee and for the first time, saw Mount Everest. I had a headache upon returning to Namchee Bazaar but it was worth it for the first sighting of magnificent Mt Everest.
Our next destination was Tengboche at 3,860 meter. There are arrows on the way telling us that Tengboche is only a 200 meter climb from that point. But it was wrong. It was a rough day. We first went downhill 600 meters and then kept going uphill. My legs and glutes were screaming at every step taken. At this camp I almost lost my appetite. I had trouble sleeping and my head began throbbing.
The next day, as we gained elevation and were approaching Dengboche at 4,300 meters, we left green vistas behind. Barren land with shrubs started showing up. We would just tilt our heads slightly upwards and see the peaks of other snow-capped mountains hovering above us.
Physically it turned out to be the worst day in my trekking history. I had completely lost my appetite. It took me 20 minutes to eat a bite. My face was swollen, and my eyes looked two slits. In the room I felt chilled to the bone and my toes were frozen. My head felt stiff like a solid hard granite rock waiting to burst open anytime. I was breathing hard. I sat on my bed waiting for the night to pass. Next morning I had a hot shower but it did not lift my spirits. I did not do the planned acclimatization trek. I asked my guide for an oxygen tank. He told me it lasts only for 60 minutes and therefore should be used only in emergency. Looking at my appearance, the lodge-keeper asked me if I needed a helicopter to take me down. I had only one option left: climb down to the previous camp. And this meant I would have to quit. Heartbroken, I quit, after reaching an altitude of 4,300 meters, only 900 meters away from the summit.
After two days of climbing down, I was back in Lukla. There I met many people like me who did not complete the trek. But we were happy to share what we had witness, like catching a glimpse of Everest I shared my gratitude toward the hardworking Nepalese hosts who provided me shelter and food. And I had the experience of what a 50 percent drop in oxygen does to our bodies.
Returning from Lukla to Kathmandu was another taste of how unpredictable mountain life could be. The Lukla airport had shut down due to poor visibility. Three days in a row, every morning we packed our bags and went to the airport. We would wait there for a couple of hours, hoping for the weather to clear. One afternoon, helicopters began showing up instead of the 12-seater planes and we booked our return in one of them.
I have had many sweet memories of treks I completed before. But the memories of this trek have been even more intense. Perhaps that’s why they say “Heard melodies are sweet but unheard melodies are even sweeter.”
(This post contains some excerpts of the speech I delivered at University of Brunei Darussalam Toastmaster’s club on 5th Sept 2016)