Well, I’m not quite sure how, but somehow we are alive and well(-ish) after our trip to Everest Base Camp – a huge thank you to our guide, Gyanu, for helping us make it! We had all prepared ourselves for a really difficult trek, but what we didn’t anticipate was that we would get stuck in the biggest snowstorm in the last 15 years, according to the locals. I plan to write a blog post for each day of our trek, as each day was an incredible experience in and of itself, but with jetlag and settling back in, it may take me some time to get them all together. For starters, I want to write about all the things I will never again take for granted. Being in the wilderness for 11 days, in the cold and snow, in a culture outside of your own…I was reminded how incredibly lucky I am to have been born in America. Here is a list of just a few of the things I am extremely thankful for.
I can’t begin to tell you how satisfying it was to come home and be able to flush my toilet paper down the drain rather than place it in the garbage next to me. I’ve been to third world countries before, so having to pee into a hole, or scoop water into the toilet to let gravity get rid of the goods, was not a huge surprise to me. However, add in the fact that most places where we were, it was around/below freezing, and you’ve got yourself a different ballgame. Some places, the water in the toilet was frozen, so nothing moved. Other places, water had spilled on the seat (I sure hope it was water) and froze over, so that you were quite literally sitting on a frozen toilet seat. Sometimes it was easier to opt for the hole in the ground. Then there was the night where not only was the toilet seat frozen, but the floor around it was…so in my down booties with no grip, I had to balance around the toilet on ice and hover myself over the seat. Work those quads!
Pretty much anything that exists along the trail to Everest Base Camp has to be brought up by porter or Yak/mule. Therefore, the tea houses that you stay at are pretty darn basic. The walls are thin with no insulation, the windows are single pane which provide no protection from the cold, and once the sun goes down, it’s pretty stinking cold. It does get warmer on the trail as spring comes around, but for us…it was just cold the entire time. I will never again complain about how my condo’s insulation could be better because it sometimes gets down to 55 in my place. 55 degrees would have been welcomed on the trek.
As noted, it was cold out there. Each teahouse that we stayed at had a burner in the middle of the room that they would fill with wood, or at higher elevations, yak dung. However, maybe more so because we were there in a gigantic storm which limited the fuel sources, but the tea houses were fairly conservative with how much “fuel” they burned. The fire never got too hot (except one time in Tengboche, which was lovely, but only lasted about 15 minutes), and we were usually trying to dry out our soaking wet boots and socks which was usually fairly futile. Most nights we gave in around 7pm, cold and exhausted, and went to bed. I would have Omar (our porter and guide in training) fill my Nalgene with boiling hot water, and I would snuggle that in my sleeping bag all night for warmth. I have a 10 degree sleeping bag, as well as a 30 degree liner, but that Nalgene was amazing overnight.
Before this, the longest trip I had been on was 4 days backpacking. This trip was 11. That meant that for 11 days, I was essentially dirty, wearing the same clothes during the day that I wore to bed the night before. I had one pair of fleece lined pants, and two hiking pants that I would switch between, although it didn’t really matter because I didn’t take the fleece pants off once in 10 days until we got back down to Namche Bazaar where it was relatively warm. I had 2 pair of hiking socks and 3 liners which would have worked out nicely had we not been trekking through snow the entire time. However, each day my socks would get soaked, so when you get socks wet enough times, they’re bound to get yucky. I would switch off each day, strapping the pair from the day before to my pack so that they could dry in the sun. It wasn’t even worth trying to wash anything because it was too cold to let it fully dry. I’ve since put my clothes through about 3-4 wash cycles.
Man, does it make a difference when the sun goes down, or just doesn’t come out. Our second day trekking was when the weather was the worst – 2 hours of hiking in rain, and then about another 6 in snow. We were wet, we were cold, we were tired. We got to Namche Bazaar pretty defeated. I can’t speak for the rest of the group, but I knew that if the rest of the trek was going to continue along that trajectory, there was a good chance I wouldn’t make it…or at least I’d be completely, utterly miserable, probably crying along the way. Our third day was a rest day in Namche, where it snowed again, and again, I feared for the worst. However, lucky for us, every day after was clear skies and sunshine, and boy did it make all the difference. We had heard about people trekking in t-shirts all the way to Base Camp and thought they were crazy, but crazy they were not. We had to be careful not to strip too many layers though since we were dealing with the snow, and the sun was bad enough but reflecting off the snow was 100x worse. Sunshine did become our best friend and worst enemy, but we were very thankful for the warmth. I remember getting to our teahouse in Dingboche and being so thankful for a warm room so that I could comfortably take a baby wipe shower before the sun went down. Of course, once the sun went down it was back to bitter cold, but we were happy with what relief the sun could give us. We were also very lucky to have back to back sunny days to melt some of the snow because without them, we probably wouldn’t have been able to make it to Base Camp. We passed a few groups along the way that had been stuck during the storm and were reporting the snow at Base Camp to be shoulder deep, so they had to turn back. Thank you, sunshine. Thank you.
As noted, sunshine was our best friend…and our worst enemy. I think in the beginning days we were all a little more lax than we should have been (except Sarah, with the fairest skin, who lathered up plenty that she didn’t burn) but we learned our lesson quickly. My already fairly large lips about doubled in size from being so badly burned and chapped, our noses were all a mess, necks had been exposed and not fully covered with sunscreen…we were a mess. But quickly we learned to reapply more often, and cover more skin than we anticipated being exposed…just in case. We had made friends with an Irish couple along the way who we heard asking to buy sunscreen at Lobuche, the second to last camp before Base Camp. Since it was still pre-season, most shops, especially at higher altitudes, were still closed. The owner at the teahouse offered to sell them his sunscreen for $22. They told him it was extortion and he could keep his sunscreen! We luckily had enough to get us through the trip, but my nose and lips are still recovering…
7. Hot Showers
Now, I don’t only mean water. I mean the whole shower experience. In Namche Bazaar on the way up, you could take a hot shower for $4. Sounds great, sign me up! However, it was snowing out that day and the shower room had a hole about 6”x6” to let the steam out…or the cold air in. So although the water was hot, it was a fairly uncomfortable experience since the rest of the room was freezing. I opted not to shower on the way down, even if it was a bit warmer. We would be back in Kathmandu soon enough and at that point…what was another 2 days? Then we got to Kathmandu and my shower was about lukewarm – it got hotter later, but it didn’t even matter anymore. I was able to wash my troll hair (literally, I looked like a troll because I would take it out of my braids and it would just stand straight up) and shave and clean everything. It was amazing.
8. Toilet Paper / Kleenex
As mentioned, our noses suffered along the trip. Ransom had brought some soft Kleenex, but we quickly ran out and were left to find what we could. We bought some toilet paper in Namche, but it wasn’t exactly soft. So take an already suffering nose and add rough toilet paper…oy! In one teahouse, someone tried to use the napkins from the table as toilet paper, and they said that it didn’t absorb anything…the pee just rolled right off. It was fantastic to get back down to Kathmandu and be able to buy something soft to the touch.
9. Dry Shoes
11 day trek, 9.5 days in the snow. Each night we would sit around the “fire” trying to dry our shoes, only to wake up the next day and trek in the snow again. At Gorak Shep, the highest camp before Base Camp, the guys’ shoes literally froze overnight. They woke up to shoes that had frozen solid and were difficult to get on. I had luckily covered mine with a blanket so they weren’t as bad, but let me tell you…having to put cold, wet boots on to your already cold feet…miserable. We were usually up and getting dressed before the sun was up, so our feet were usually frozen for about the first hour of the day. As we would start trekking and the sun would come around, they would eventually warm up…but that first part was just horrible. So many times had I wished I had a blow dryer so that I could speed dry my boots!
10. Meat & Vegetables
The Himalayan Region is largely Buddhist, so they abide by the “No kill” rule. Therefore, any meat that is on the mountain has been brought up from Kathmandu, and is generally not very fresh. Eggs are okay, but meat is a big no-no. Also, vegetation is limited, especially at the higher altitudes, so your “vegetable fried rice” usually consists of a few chops of green onion and carrot. To play it safe, we mostly lived on Dal Bhat, which is steamed rice, potatoes, and a small portion of lentil soup, some sort of potato dish, or some sort of rice/noodle dish. Lots and lots of carbs and starch, which our systems were not used to. And let me tell you, we smelled the outcome often. There was no holding back on releasing gas whenever it came…and that didn’t apply only to the guys. It was a huge relief to get back to the states and not have to worry about whether the bite of food I was eating was going to make me sick or not. Yes, we certainly overuse chemicals in the U.S., but at the same time, we don’t have to worry about every bite of food making us ill. Our guide did a great job along the way of helping us choose what was safe, and what was “ehhhh”.
11. Clean Water
Finally, water. For those who camp and backpack, this is obviously something we worry about in our local mountains as well, but man…sterilizing ~15 liters of water a day between the 4 of us, every day for 11 days…I no longer worry as much about the water that comes out of our California tap. They do sell mineral water along the way, but we tried to conserve by getting tap water and then either using a filter, Steripen and/or iodine pills. We were pretty successful for most of the trip however Steve was the unlucky one to get sick, and we think it was from water in the small town of Tukla where we had lunch. On the way up, we had stopped there for lunch and water but the water was unusually dirty, so we all decided not to drink it. On the way down, Steve decided to be brave. Since Ransom and I skipped the water there, and that was the only thing that was different for the 3 of us, it’s the only thing we can figure that made him sick. He did Steripen the water, but we later found out that the Steripen does not kill ALL bacteria. It was a rough night for him, but he was a trooper and made it all the way from Pengboche to Namche Bazaar the next day, where Ransom and I enjoyed an Everest beer, and Steve opted for the tea. Now, I’m especially thankful for easily accessible clean water!
Here’s a great video/project looking to help underdeveloped areas get better access to clean water. I’m always looking for great projects to contribute to, so if you are as well – here’s a good one!
I’m sure I’ve made this sound terrible, but it really was an incredible journey. If you’re interested in doing something similar, I highly recommend our guide, Gyanu. He was wonderful!!