I set my alarm for 4.15 am. Enough time to pack the last essentials in my kitbag, deposit my suitcase with the hotel reception for safekeeping and still have a few minutes to spare to wolf down a spot of breakfast. My flight to Lukla is scheduled for 6.00 am.
Ashok may well have irked me by changing my departure date, but having secured me a seat on the first flight out turns out well worth it. As the early morning skies are usually clearer, I stand a better chance of getting to my destination on that day. And indeed, only a couple of early flights make it to Lukla that Monday. Anyone booked on later flights is left to think up a plan B. Maybe better luck tomorrow? Some with deeper pockets, such as the two ladies I meet at the teahouse the next evening, manage to salvage the day by snapping up a pricey helicopter trip. Others, such as a young backpacker I met in Pokhara who waited two days for his flight, change destination and settle for a different trek altogether: Annapurna Base Camp, Langtang perhaps… And there is always the option of a bus ride to Jiri and adding a day or two of hiking to make it to Lukla. The roads between Jiri and Lukla are notoriously bad and motorised transport beyond that point probably not advisable and not available.
Luckily for me, Fortuna’s wings take me across. My flight takes off ahead of schedule and by 7.00 am I sit in the Paradise Lodge in Lukla, enjoying some hot coffee and meeting Sonam, my guide and porter for my epic journey to Everest Base Camp.
Unsure about how well I would cope on this trek, and mindful I do not want to be the one holding everyone up, I have decided to go solo. This way I can hike at my own speed, neither rushed nor slowed down by others. However, my map reading skills being what they are, it would be an adventure too far for me not to have at least one guiding hand at my side. And let’s not forget the other advantage of a guide-cum-porter: I will only have to carry a small amount of stuff in a small backpack… Sonam will carry the bulk of it in his slightly larger backpack.
No point in delaying the start of the trek. No sooner have I swallowed my coffee, and we’re on our way. Sonam and I. The first leg takes us through alpine forest, lush greenery under a cornflower sky, to Phakding, a mere 3 hours walk from Lukla (4 according to the itinerary). Sonam is impressed. ‘You’re strong, mam,’ he assures me approvingly, as we have walked much quicker than he had expected ‘considering my age’… ‘Fifty nine, mam, you’re very strong.’ Since he put my age somewhere around 45 earlier that day – it is amazing what a little bit of hair dye can achieve -, I suppose he was preparing for a leisurely hike up to Base Camp.
Contrary to what logic may dictate, by the end of the first day we have descended a full 200m: from Lukla’s elevation of 2860m to Phakding’s 2650m. It’s called the ‘Nepali flat’: a little bit up and a little bit down, a phrase used to describe the up and down nature of Nepalese hiking trails…
‘Day 2 is the killer,’ Ashok explained to me a few days before I set off as we combed through the finer details of my trekking schedule. Maybe not in those exact words, but you get the drift… ‘A long distance, numerous steep inclines and then there are the yaks and mules on the path,’ he continued. ‘Make sure you hug the hillside when they pass. For safety.’
With a tough stretch ahead of us, we leave early on the second day. Breakfast at 6.30 am; out of the door by 7.00. The trek to Namche Bazaar at 3440 m takes us to higher altitude territory. Nothing too serious yet, but altitude sickness can rear up its ugly head from now on. The key is to take it slowly, very slowly to let your body adapt and I set the pace for Sonam to follow.
I am grateful for the countless mule trains we pass as each time it gives me a chance to catch my breath. And, of course, the heavily burdened yaks lumbering over the metal suspension bridges give everyone a break too. There are plenty of those bridges between Phakding and Namche Bazaar and I quickly learn to look straight ahead, not down at the raging rivers and gaping valleys below. Not for the faint-hearted and I hold onto the steel-cable handrail to steady myself as the floor bounces up and down with the steps of other trekkers. But lots of bridges means lots of ups and downs as often the only way to reach the opposite side of a valley is by walking down a few hundred metres to a narrow suspension bridge and then climb up again…
On this second day, we pass two checkpoints: Monjo and Namche Bazaar. Busy places packed with scores of trekkers, guides and porters, all showing their permits and having their passport details registered. Not only do the permits bring much needed income to a still very poor country, the records held at the checkpoint mean that the authorities know exactly who is on the mountain. Useful in case of an accident or disaster, or even to alert people when someone does not return in the expected time frame.
More and more trekkers opt to go solo which involves more risk. Guides are familiar with the routes and are trained to recognise the symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Although the trek to Everest Base Camp is considered relatively safe, each year some trekkers die.
My notebook diary entry for Day 2 reads as follows: ‘I think we just finished day 2. Not as bad as expected. Shorter than everyone made out. But I’m not looking forward to doing this in reverse. Too many steep inclines now, so a lot of downhill stretches awaiting me on the way back. Knee doing well so far!!’
(to be continued)