There were many different titles I could have given this post: ‘Falling to the communists on Everest’, ‘Trekking with a Chesty’, ‘Aunt Flo and I make it part way up a very big mountain’, ‘Cough, Climb, Cough, Climb’, ‘Clumsiest Trekker in History’, ‘Darwin Girl Freezes on Everest’ and so on. They all sound a little dire, when in actual fact, it was an incredible experience shared with the loveliest people the world has to offer.
Day 1: Upon arrival at the iconic Kathmandu Guest House, I met quite possibly, the world’s coolest trekking team — Clare, Noelle, Cosette, Cheryl, Hamish, Anne-Marie, Lachlan and Zing — and the very patient and highly competent team leader, Milan. Milan gave us a rundown of the trek ahead, how to pack and prepare and then gave us all our seriously cool Intrepid totes before taking us all to a hiking gear hire shop to rent the much needed down jackets.
At this point I was both extremely excited and extremely nervous due to the fact that I had spent the past three weeks trekking from Kolkata to Kathmandu with a vicious chest infection. I really was not sure if I’d make the hike, but being the incredibly stubborn person that I am, I was determined to at least try my hardest and if I really could not make it, my insurance would cover a super-cool helicopter back to Kathmandu. I felt it was a win-win situation either way.
Day 2: At 6am we all lugged our Intrepid duffel bags down to a taxi in the guest house pick-up area, threw our bags in the back and clambered on in for the ride to the Kathmandu Domestic Airport. To prepare myself for the plane ride to Lukla, reassuringly named “The World’s Most Dangerous Airport”, I had watched every possible YouTube clip of this fight so I felt I was relatively prepared for this seemingly terrifying experience. I was expecting a significant amount of turbulence and was quite prepared to simply close my eyes, block my ears and gently hum Ave Maria the entire flight. However, positive and kind reassuring from the wonderful Anne-Marie and Zing gave me the confidence to keep my eyes open, relax and attempt to enjoy the flight. Thankfully for the other 15 passengers there was no humming required.
It was actually a smooth, turbulence-free flight with the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. Watching from a plane window the sunrise over the Himalayan mountains was such a magical experience, and the landing in Lukla was very fast and actually kind of fun. We simply bumped onto the runway, bounced a couple of times and came to an abrupt stop.
At Lukla we met our trekking assistants, the calm and gentle Nema, the kind and hilarious Anil and the downright hilarious and energetic Phurba, and the five incredible porters who would carry our duffel bags up the mountain for us. I soon discovered that our porters were some of the most incredibly strong people I have ever come across, not only do they carry our bags on their backs, but they can also simultaneously sing and dance and climb whilst lugging over 20 kilos. At altitude. Mind blowing stuff.
From Lukla we trekked for three hours to Phadking, mostly downhill and flat terrain following the milk-white Dudh Kosi River. We spent the afternoon resting at a Phadking guest house reading, drinking hot chocolate and playing poker using popcorn kernels as chips. I was feeling a little sore in the throat at this point, so Milan, Anil, Nema and Phurba were kind enough to prepare a tiger balm steam for me that evening so I could be well enough for the trek the following day. We had heard that the second day of trekking was by far the most difficult, so I was sincerely hoping my chest and lungs would be up to the challenge.
Day 3: After a delicious noodle soup breakfast and a ginger, lemon and honey tea we began our trek from Phadking (2610m) to Namche Bazaar (3440m). In terms of ascent, it was the most challenging day. There were several times when I simply looked up at the climb ahead and thought “oh crap, what have I gotten myself into, that is freaking steep!” After the first couple of hours, the cold wind had begun to really impact my throat and chest which meant my coughing became super vicious and I had to regularly stop, cough up all sorts of things by the side of the path and blow my nose. Our Trek leader Milan was so patient and simply stood to the side and encouraged me to keep going slowly, slowly and take my time. At one particularly steep incline, by the time I arrived at the top my lungs were heaving and I was seriously questioning whether I was well enough to keep trekking. My fellow trekker Hamish came to trek with me and said, “Don’t worry Laura, even if Lachlan and I have to carry you, we will make sure we get you to Base Camp.” It was that kindness and the continual encouragement of the team that gave me a massive boost of confidence. I’m very thankful.
That evening we decided that the best option for me was to visit the Namche Bazaar Health Post to get the go-ahead or no-ahead from the doctor. The thought of turning back just devastated me as I’d flown all this way and really just wanted to enjoy the trek. Milan, Anil, Nema and Phurba were once again kind enough to prepare a tiger balm and herbal steam for me that evening so I could breath just that little bit easier in my sleep.
Day 4: I awoke on Day 4 with a feeling of dread as I had a feeling that the doctor would deem it best for me to head back to Kathmandu. We began our acclimatization day with a climb to the national park headquarters and had our first glimpse of Everest and the beautiful Amadablan. The views of the Himalayan valley were mesmerising.
After spending time enjoying the scenery and exploring the museum the team headed further on for their altitude adjusting hike, and Nema took me back to Namche Bazaar to visit the Health Post. It turned out the Namche Bazaar doctor was actually sick that day so the Health Post was closed. I was secretly relieved. We decided the best thing for me to do was to simply spend the day resting by the heater, drinking copious amounts of lemon, ginger and honey tea and we would see by the evening how my flu was going.
The remainder of the day was spent playing cards, solving incredibly frustrating riddles and listening to Clare read aloud the terrifying Ghosts of Everest. My word, the world has produced some seriously hardcore mountaineers, that book is a definite recommend. I was feeling so much better by 6pm, my coughing had reduced and my breathing was so much easier, with hardly any pain. Once again, Milan, Anil, Nema and Phurba were kind enough to prepare a steam, bundle me up in a giant blanket, stay with me and even sing while I coughed and gagged my way through the steaming process. When it was over, Anil had a hot water bottle waiting for me and I was able to curl up in my down sleeping bag and sleep peacefully without waking up multiple times to cough and cough and cough and cough.
Day 5: I awoke to discover that Aunt Flo had paid a very early visit indeed. We were not meant to meet until I arrived back in Kathmandu. To fall to the communists in the comfort of one’s own home is challenging at best, but to fall to the communists whilst climbing a bloody mountain is a whole new level of challenging. After a few moments of shock and thinking “what the actual hell?” I figured I’d just grit my teeth and simply put one foot in front of the other continuously until we made to Phortse Gaon.
The walk that day was beautiful. We followed the milk-river and crossed several suspension bridges with some of the most beautiful views of valleys and mountains. Although my cough was still very present and my lungs were beginning to slightly scream in pain, I was still able to enjoy the exquisite scenery. There were times when one literally just has to stop and just take in the sheer magnificence of the mountains.
After lunch we began the final leg of the trek to the township Phortse Gaon and part way there it began to snow. Walking through gently whirling snowflakes was magical at first, however, after an hour or so it was getting pretty cold and by this point I was feeling pretty hormonal. As we reached the last kilometer and entered the very pretty township of Phortse Gaon, Milan in his very gentle and encouraging way pointed up to where we were staying that night and reminded Noelle and I who were at the back of the line that we were not far. However, as it was whirling with snow and I was at this point struggling to tame the hormonal dragon within that wasn’t sure if it wanted to laugh, scream, cry, fall asleep, eat an entire block of chocolate while watching Bridget Jones or just start hitting and/or hugging trees, I misunderstood Milan and thought he had pointed to the beautiful maroon and gold building at the top of Phortse Gaon. As we were halfway to what I thought was our destination, a really kind monk caught up with us and said “Namaste, keep going, you are doing well” and then politely inquired into where we were staying the night. I simply thanked him and replied that we were staying at the maroon building at the top of the hill. An awfully confused expression crossed his face and Milan quickly jumped in and said “No, no, we are staying at the guest house.” The monk just nodded, looked at me suspiciously, said “Namaste” and walked away. Milan then informed me that I had told the monk that I would be staying at his monastery. Wildly inappropriate. Oops.
I was thrilled to curl up by the fire in the guest house that evening and eat delicious Dal Bhat and for the sake of my throat and lungs drink ginger, lemon and honey tea.
Day 6: We awoke on Day 6 to a completely snow covered landscape. Looking outside our guest room window we could see the pretty township of Phortse Gaon covered in inches of white snow and we could watch the sun rising above the surrounding mountains. The Himalayas really are outstandingly beautiful.
The walk to Dingboche comprised of lots of jumping to the “safe side” to let the massive yak’s pass, colourful prayer flags, oodles of adorable puppies and from my spot at the back of the line I could hear ahead of me Cosette and Lachlan discussing food, Clare telling stories in multiple accents, Zing teasing Cheryl and Noelle, Hamish teasing Phurba and Anne-Marie giving multiple trekking tips to those of us with dodgy knees as she zigzagged her way up the ascents. Behind me I could hear Milan and Nema chatting and laughing, and occasionally I would hear the porters singing.
That night we settled in a guest house in Dingboche and spent the evening playing cards huddled around the fire. At this point it was starting to get really cold and we were all by now wearing our down jackets with multiple layers. This little tropical girl, was really beginning to feel the cold and my lungs and throat were by now beginning to worsen. My oxygen levels were strong and although physically I felt incredibly ill, just knowing that we were only two day’s hike away from Base Camp made it much easier to cope.
There was a full moon that night and for all of 30 seconds I could stand outside and admire the moon, shadows of the mountains and the stars. The night sky in the Himalayas is just exquisite. The cold unfortunately drove me straight back to the fire.
Day 7: We were able to sleep in until 8am on Day 7 as this day was an acclimatization day. The guesthouse windows were covered in pretty snowflakes and the surrounding mountains were covered in snow. The macro and micro beauty of the Himalayas is just breathtaking. We trekked up Nargajun Hill to help our bodies adjust to the altitude before coming back down to our Dingboche guest house. On the way there were three helicopters flying from Gorakshep back to either Lukla or Kathmandu taking with them sick travelers. It is quite remarkable being so high up that one is eye level with the helicopters, it’s a very strange feeling.
The remainder of the day was spent around the fire, playing dumbal and relaxing before our trek to Base Camp the next day. Our team member Anne-Marie became quite ill this day, so we made sure she was warm close to the fire and able to sleep and gather strength for the next days trek.
Day 8: This day was a very cold day of trekking and unfortunately my chest and lungs were really heaving with each incline. The scenery however, was just so beautiful. Clear blue skies, snow covered mountain peaks and what appears to be never ending valley’s.
After an incredibly steep incline we made it to Memorial Hill. Memorial Hill is a very sobering part of the trek as the plateau at the top of the hill is covered in monuments made of rocks and prayers flags for travelers who have died attempting to summit Everest. The wild and unpredictable nature of the Himalayas becomes very real when standing in the midst of memorials to those who have not survived the elements.
The remainder of the trek to Lobuche was not at all what I expected of the Base Camp Everest trek. I was surprised to see that there are actual rock pools along the path that were incredible turquoise colors. Most were frozen over as it was incredibly cold, but some had water running down from rock pool to rock pool. My iPhone camera unfortunately could not do the colors justice.
Our team member Anne-Marie was beyond incredible today, she was feeling so very ill and weak, but was still moving forwards and keeping up with intense inclines. She had been ill for the past couple of days, but with astounding strength and fortitude had made it 4900m at altitude to Lobuche. Remarkable. I was in awe.
That evening was really very cold and my throat and lungs were really struggling by this point, so I skipped the moonlit trek up to 5000m and opted to stay by the fire. Once again, Milan, Anil, Nema and Phurba were so kind to prepare a steam and sit with me as I coughed and coughed and coughed and coughed. I’m so thankful for their care and patience.
Day 9: The morning of Base Camp we awoke at 5.30am to the sound of our trekking assistants knocking on our doors with a big “good morning”. We were greeted with a candlelit breakfast by the fire, such a sweet way to start a very, very intense day of climbing. Throughout the evening unfortunately Anne-Marie had begun to worsen and her oxygen levels dropped dangerously low. That morning she and Zing were helicoptered back to Kathmandu so she could receive medical help. We had to start trekking without her and Zing. We all felt really sad to be going ahead without them. It was quite a somber walk that morning as we made our way to Gorakshep.
Once we arrived at Gorakshep guest house we were really, really freezing. I actually had a hard time keeping my teeth from chattering, it was that cold. After lunch we rugged up and began the 2-hour trek to Base Camp. The first 100m is actually walking on sand, it is a very strange feeling to be standing on sand and looking up at snow covered mountains. Not at all what I expected. As we neared the Base Camp the terrain became quite rocky and in the snow, very slippery. To actually reach the Base Camp we had to cross some sloped icy sections before we could make our way down to the actual Base Camp.
Standing at Base Camp is a pretty awesome feeling. Apart from the “oh my gosh, we made it” feeling, the mountains feel pretty epic from that location. At the Base Camp you can spin around 360 degrees and see mountain, after mountain. We were blessed with clear blue skies so Everest was visible for us. The Khumbu Ice Falls are magnificent and slightly scary, the sound they make when they move must be terrifying. When I actually stopped and just spent timing looking around, I realized just how short my breathing was and how limited the oxygen is above 5000m.
To be standing just 3,500m from the highest point of the earth is a really incredible experience. Actually summiting Everest and looking out across the mountains peaks must be euphoric (although after watching Everest, I have absolutely no desire to climb any higher than Base Camp 1). The scenery and feeling of accomplishment outweighed just how ill I was feeling at this point. I was super glad that the doctor was absent at Namche Bazaar and I had decided to push on.
That morning I had developed mountain swelling. Living in the tropics I am no stranger to fluid retention, but this mountain swelling was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I was worried that my skin wouldn’t have enough elasticity to hold the swelling and due to my feet swelling I developed my first blister. It was a very strange feeling trekking with legs that had an additional layer of fluid, I was very glad to have the swelling begin to go down as we arrived back in Gorakshep.
The temperature that night went down to -25 degrees, to say it was freezing cold is an understatement — it was well below freezing cold. Even with two hot water bottles, thermals and a down sleeping bag I still shivered for most of the night and I was extremely glad to be heading down the next day to warmer climes, although still very cold, not -25 degrees cold.
Day 10 and 11: The ascent this day was through the Windy Valley, kilometers of shrub strewn valley surrounded by magnificent mountains. It felt good to be walking downhill rather than uphill. However, I did have the abrupt realization that I well and truly have 31-year-old knees that are not as hard wearing and durable as they were in my early twenties. The only challenging part of the day was a very steep 45-minute climb before we reached Orsho. After a day of downhill and undulated walking, this was a bit of a shock, so much so, I even dropped the f-bomb.
That night at dinner one of our porters, Raj, began to develop a harsh cough. However, as there were several of us coughing it seemed quite normal, we had just come from -25 degrees! We went to bed quite early that night, after making our #TeamWalkyTalky t-shirt and nailing it to the Orsho guest house roof and once again playing multiple rounds of dumbal (many rounds of which I kicked ass). In the morning when I woke up I walked past the porter’s bedroom to the bathroom and saw Raj sitting up in bed covered in piles of blankets with a giant oxygen tank beside him and a mask covering his face. Overnight his cough had worsened and he had rapidly developed HAPE. I was absolutely shocked at how quickly altitude sickness can strike. Milan, Anil, Phurba and Nema along with his fellow porters had spent the night keeping him on oxygen until morning when a helicopter could come and take him to Kathmandu. I felt quite guilty, I had been peacefully sleeping while they had spent the evening keeping their friend alive. They really were incredible trekking leaders and guides.
After breakfast we began the nice short walk from Orsho to Tengboche Monastery. The views of Amadablam along the way were just magnificent and although still cold, it was so good to feel the the cold become less intense. Half way to Tengboche we came across the section where the French trekker, Nassim Nador had slipped and fallen into the Dudh Kosi River. I could totally see how this accident could so easily have occurred — it is quite slippery terrain in some parts. Thoughts and prayers are with his family.
Day 10 and 11 were very sobering reminders of the dangerous nature of trekking the Himalayas, not just the environment but the way in which our bodies react to the altitude. Thankfully my only reactions were swelling and a great increase to my usual clumsiness thanks to the lack of oxygen. Generally I’m quite a dotty individual, but thanks to the lack of oxygen, my dottiness reached a whole new level of dotty.
The guest house staff were kind enough at Tengboche to start the fire for us straight away and it felt so good to eat a delicious wood fire pizza beside a super toasty fire. A little slice of Himalayan heaven. Tengboche is such an eclectic place. The monastery and surrounding grounds have horses grazing, dogs lounging and cats slinking about the place. The monastery itself is very beautiful, the carvings and paintings are colourful and intricate. I felt like I’d stepped back in time.
That night was spent once again by the fire, with a few of us lathering our faces in coconut oil to help deal with the wind and sun burn while the rest played dumbal. Milan had news that afternoon of Raj, he was in Kathmandu ICU and would spend 4 days there until he was well enough to be released. His family had joined him and he was in good hands. Phew.
Day 12: Today’s trek was hilarious. The first part was a significant distance of just straight downhill. Now I am clumsy at the best of times. If there is a door to walk into, I’ll walk into it. If there is a rock to trip on, I will trip over it. I’m just clumsy. Put me in hiking boots, a backpack and a very steep descent and we are in for some hilarious antics. Hamish was kind enough to trek behind me and on four separate occasions he literally caught me by my backpack as I slipped and nearly went head over heels. Thank you Hamish, that was so very kind and wise of you. On one occasion I slipped too fast and ended up sliding down a part of the descent with my legs doing the splits and my walking sticks out the sides sticking up at awkward angles. It must’ve looked hilarious. Milan strategically jumped in front of me at this point, I really was a special needs trekker.
Once we were on relatively flat ground I was much more coordinated and only fell over once more during that part of the trek. This day was a really sweet trek that took us through Sherpa villages which of course meant lots of cute little children and adorable puppies. We found we were regularly turning back and saying “where’s Clare?” to find that she was taking multiple photos of the super cute puppies. We are looking forward to a Puppies of Everest album. One of the really cool aspects of the trek were the dogs. In the morning a dog would simply start trekking with us and stay with the team for the entire day. One dog even stayed with us from Dingboche to Gorakshep!
That evening we stayed at Monjo. Before dinner Hamish was in his room packing and Clare was in a room nearby packing and prepping for the next day. Cheryl, Noelle, Cosette, Lachlan and I were sitting around the fire and somehow the conversation went from how excited we were to have our first shower in two weeks in two days time to discussing cushions. I think subconsciously we were just thinking about the comforts of home after roughing it for so long. As Clare was getting ready in her room she overheard poor Lachlan banging on Hamish’s door and saying “hurry up and get out here, they are talking about cushion patterns!!” Sorry Lachie.
Day 13: The next morning I was woken up by the usual *knock, knock* “Good morning, Laura” and even though I was by now feeling incredibly ill and my chest and lungs were obviously in desperate need of a doctor, I was excited for the last day of trekking knowing that a hot shower was just one day away! I had however forgotten that to get back to Lukla required a lot of ascending, and I mean a lot of ascending. I don’t remember too much of the trek, no doubt it was just a lot of coughing, nose blowing and climbing.
I was so excited to see the entrance way to Lukla. We had made it there and back and now my body could just collapse and get on with being sick. It felt good to stop, eat some celebratory momo’s and relax for the remainder of the day.
That afternoon at the Lukla guest house the host was kind enough to let us use their TV to watch Everest. After having just climbed to the Base Camp in -25 degree conditions, we had a whole new level of empathy for the crew, especially the poor Sherpa for the selfish New York socialite. That evening we had our special dinner with the whole crew to thank our porters. Cosette and I were encouraged not to sit next to each other as we may have overwhelmed others with our enthusiasm and volume. It was nonetheless a noisy evening with rounds of dumbal and Phurba and Anil cheating their way to dumbal victory.
Even though I had a raging fever and my lungs were screaming in pain, it felt so good to go to bed that night knowing that I only had to climb about 50 steps to the Lukla Airport the next morning.
Day 14: In our bid to catch the first plane back to Kathmandu we were up super early in the morning and made our way to the Lukla Airport. I felt quite sad saying goodbye to Anil, Nema, Phurba and our porters. They were the best trekking assistants and guides that one could ask for.
I was feeling a little nervous about the takeoff from Lukla Airport, so as we took off I had one eye closed and filmed the takeoff so I could watch the whole thing later from the safety of the Kathmandu Guest House. Lukla truly is “The World’s Most Dangerous Airport” — landing uphill and taking off downhill with a giant valley drop at the end of the runway can make nerves of steel become nerves of jelly. Partway through the flight we had to take a detour to a military base 20-minutes from Kathmandu to refuel and wait for the fog to clear from the Kathmandu Airport tarmac. It was relief to land in Kathmandu and we were super excited about our first hot shower in two weeks!! We had arrived back at Kathmandu Guest House with greasy hair, cracked lips, wind burned skin and very, very tired bodies. It was so good to have a hot shower and a nap.
That night we were able to reconnect with Anne-Marie and Zing, who were thankfully very healthy and completely well. I believe they are heading back to conquer the Everest Climb in April — whoever has them on their team has not only an awesome addition to their group but they’ll also be trekking with the most stylish, color-coordinated pair on the mountain. After our group dinner I curled into bed with the heater on and slept for 12 hours — it was so nice to be warm, clean and curled up with blankets and comfy pillows.
The next morning it felt very strange to not be woken up by the *knock, knock* “Good morning, Laura” and even stranger to slip on havaianas rather than my hiking boots. I attempted shopping in Kathmandu, however the majesty and peace and quiet of the mountains had ruined me for Kathmandu’s noise and busyness. I could survive just half an hour of shopping before heading back to the Kathmandu Guest House gardens. The Himalayas are indeed one of the most beautiful, peaceful places on earth — I find myself occasionally missing the mountains and their peace.
After a fairly intense ten days of antibiotics the horrific chest infection cleared and I could actually absorb the epicness of the adventure — climbing to Base Camp Everest with a chest infection. I must say, I felt pretty hardcore and thankfully there was no long term damage to my lungs. Phew.
A very big thank you to our incredible Trek leader, Milan and trek assistants Anil, Nema and Phurba. You are so patient, kind and so very funny — you really did make the trip an unforgettable one. A very big thank you to our incredibly strong porters who lugged our luggage up the mountain and back again — such strength. And a very big thank you to my amazing trekking team — Clare, Cosette, Anne-Marie, Zing, Cheryl, Hamish, Noelle and Lachlan — you were truly an awesome trekking family and I’m so very thankful that I got to experience the Himalayas with you all.
Namaste! (For more pics see @lugrace on Instagram)