Adventure of a Lifetime
In October 2012, Comanche Trace residents John Swann and Dean Self traveled to the Himalayas to begin a fourteen-day trek to Everest Base Camp.
Getting there: On the opposite side of the world, Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu is about 24 hours flying time (east or west) from San Antonio. Eastbound flights go through the Middle East. Westbound flights go through LAX and Asia. John and Dean opted for a 36-hour flight through Houston, Moscow and Singapore.
Best time to go: Trekking to the high Himalayas is best done at the beginning or end of the dry season that lasts from October to May.
It's 7 a.m. and our small group is standing in the chilly morning sunshine, enjoying our first view of Mount Everest (at 29,029 feet, the highest mountain in the world). Today is a rest day on our trek, but here we are, before breakfast, high on a hill just soaking up the moment. It’s amazing to think that a week from now, we’ll be standing at Everest Base Camp at 17,600 feet.
We had been planning the trek for more than a year. To prepare, we hiked on Mount Washington, New Hampshire, and in the mountains near Durango, Colorado. But the Comanche Trace clubhouse trail was our main training ground. We determined that ten laps of the one-mile trail each day, with a backpack loaded with golf balls, ought to be good preparation. Our two traveling companions had lots more trekking experience. Deb, a businesswoman from Seattle, had trekked in Nepal before, and had even climbed Mt. Rainier. Azin, a dentist from Montreal, Canada, was a seasoned trekker who had been to the summit of Kilimanjaro.
Two days earlier we had taken the short flight from Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city, to the small town of Lukla, at almost 10,000 feet elevation. A Websearch for “Lukla” will produce photos and videos of the airport, which isconsidered by many to be the most dangerous in the world. The strip is 1500 feet long, 66 feet wide, and has a gradient of 12%. There are no “go-arounds” on this landing. The strip is often closed for days on end due to bad weather, but our aging Twin Otter plane made a perfect ontime landing. The relief of getting off the plane safely far exceeded the excitement of boarding.
The trek took us along the main “highway” into the Everest region. Yet, for fourteen days, we didn’t see any wheeled vehicles. Our group shared the trail with yak trains, horses and porters carrying their loads up the mountain. Here, distances are measured in hours and days, not miles. Ask a Nepali how far it is to his village, and he’ll look you up and down and reply “for me, two days; for you, maybe five”. The difficult terrain demands a twisty, up-and-down, rocky trail, which crosses ridges and deep valleys. On the first day, we learned the term “Nepali flat”. A four-mile “Nepali flat” hike takes five hours to complete! We had carefully selected our guide company.
We compared twenty or more companies before we decided on Grand Asian Journeys, a Nepali company, with Nepali staff. They are one of the oldest trekking companies, and they work hard to give back to their community. We had two guides, Birkha and Devraj, to lead us up the mountain; and we had two porters, a father and son team, to carry our duffle bags each day and to run ahead to make sure we would have good rooms each night.
Bal Kumar is 62 years old and has been carrying loads for almost 50 years, and Robin is 19 and training to be an assistant guide and teacher. The company treats their porters well and provides them with proper gear for the higher elevations.
Before the trek, we rationalized that if horses and yaks could negotiate the trail, then how hard could it be? We soon discovered that Nepali horses and yaks can climb just about anything, and with a full load!
It was a very cold, tiring climb to the summit at 18,200 feet but the panoramic views made it all worthwhile.
Then, we saw a fully loaded yak fall off the trail! It just missed a step and fell twenty feet to the grass below. (The yak survived the fall and soon resumed its climb.) From that point on we always gave lots of room and moved to the high side when yaks passed.
Day two’s journey took us through the beautiful forests, high above the Dudh Kosi River, and offered breathtaking views of the valley below and the snowcapped mountains above us. We wound our way through forested hillsides and vegetable farms in the valley. Five times, we dropped down to cross the river, and each time we climbed back up high on the other side. We quickly discovered that every downhill stretch would be followed by a steeper and longer uphill stretch. The last mile of the day, a 2000-foot climb to Namche Bazaar, took two hours. The day’s five-mile hike had become an eight-hour trek when we finally arrived, worn out, at our lodge.
Namche Bazaar is more than two miles high and is the trading center for the Khumbu area. It’s the largest town in the region with lodges, coffee shops, outfitters, and internet cafes. Like most trekkers, we would spend two nights there to rest and acclimatize to the altitude. Our “rest” day included a pre-breakfast outing to get our first glimpse of Everest, followed by an after-breakfast hike for lemon tea at the Everest View Hotel, 1,500 feet above the town. At 12,730 feet, the Everest View is listed as the highest hotel on earth.
This was the first day that altitude really started to become a factor. On average, each day of the trek took us one thousand feet higher than the day before. In Namche Bazaar it was already getting difficult to find enough air to breathe, and just putting on our boots was dizzying. Every day our guides checked our blood-oxygen level and heartbeat, and they continually asked questions to make sure we were doing alright. There are few medical facilities along the trail, but our guides carried a comprehensive medical kit. We were one of the few groups that carried a Gamow bag, a portable hyperbaric chamber, which can decrease the effect of altitude by as much as 9,000 feet. From here on, we were acutely aware of the dangers of altitude sickness. From dawn to dusk, we could see the rescue helicopters taking people off the mountain, and we met many trekkers who had cut their trek short because of illness or injury.
Day four was a spectacular day. After a frosty start the weather was perfect with blue skies, light breezes, and ideal temperatures for walking. Traffic on the trail was lighter now as we passed through rhododendron groves and fir covered hillsides. We could see our destination about five miles away, and from the high trail we could see Everest far ahead. The near-vertical, snow-covered shoulders of Ama Dablam (22,349 feet) kept us company across the valley to our right. We passed teahouses, where trekkers were enjoying shirtsleeve weather. And vendors were selling their wares at stalls along the way. By midday we could see Tengboche less than three miles away, across the river. But it would take almost four hours to get there.
By early afternoon, we had followed the trail as it descended 1500 feet to a fabulous lunch spot by the river. We watched the passersby and the yak trains as they crossed the nearby bridge; but too soon, it was our turn to load up, cross the bridge, and climb for two hours up 2000 feet to our lodge. We arrived at Tengboche in clouds and biting wind. We were worn out once again, and really cold.
On the way here, we turned every prayer wheel we could find, praying for a safe journey. We passed beautifully carved mani stones, always passing respectfully on the left. In Tengboche, at dusk, we visited the monastery and listened to the Buddhist monks’ chants, which were accompanied by horns and drums. The imposing gilded statue of Buddha Sakyamuni looked peacefully down on trekkers, guides, and monks.
Above Tengboche, the landscape changes dramatically. Grass and rocks quickly replace the small fir trees as the trail climbs higher. The sun in the clear blue sky offers less warmth. The valley sides show the scars of huge landslides and the river runs glacial-white far below us. The scale of everything gets bigger, and distances appear shorter in the clear mountain air. Villages are much farther apart and have stonewalled yak paddocks and potato fields. There is no wood at such a high elevation, so yak dung is collected and dried for fuel.
Over the next three days, we gradually made our way up to Dughla (15,200 feet). Grand Asian Journeys is one of the few companies that allow an extra day to cover this part of the trail. At these altitudes, the body seems to lag several thousand feet behind as it tries to adjust to the lack of oxygen. We were thankful for the slower pace but we still made side-treks each day to help our bodies adjust. One side-trek took us into the shadows of Lohtse, (at 27,503 feet, the fourth highest mountain in the world) and to the foot of Island Peak (20,306 feet).
It seemed that every day began with a steep climb, and day eight was no exception. In less than a mile, the trail rises 700 feet to Thokla Pass at the terminus of the Khumbu Glacial valley. This is a very special place. As we crested the hill, there were the usual prayer flags, but there were also rows of cairns and rocks with plaques to memorialize climbers who lost their lives on the mountain. It’s also a cremation site for climbing sherpas. It’s a somber reminder of the perils that lie ahead.
Once we entered the valley at the top of the pass, the vistas were very different. Steep mountains flanked us on all sides. Massive boulders, some the size of buildings, were everywhere and the trail followed the edge of the glacier. It was much colder because of the winds that blow across the ice in the valley floor. It was almost a stroll into Lobuche (16,200 feet), and we had all afternoon to rest and get ready for the next day’s hike to Everest Base Camp.
Day nine finally arrived! We would trek to Gorak Shep and then make a roundtrip from there to Base Camp. The trail started with an easy stroll but we soon arrived at the rocks of the glacial moraine. The trail goes steeply up and down, right over the rocks and ice of the Changri Glacier. It was slow going, made slower by the groups of trekkers heading back down the mountain. But when we stopped to rest, we could make out the tents of Base Camp far in the distance. The blue ice of the Khumbu Glacier was spread out along the valley floor below.
That day, we saw three avalanches close-up and heard a fourth.
Gorak Shep consists of a few lodges and a small cell-phone tower. It sits on a tiny plain on the edge of the glacier. At 17,100 feet this was our highest overnight stay. We rested and ate a late lunch before setting off for the foot of Everest. Robin (our porter) took the lead. He had never been to Base Camp before and was just as excited as we were. Immediately the trail became rocky, and much more difficult than before. There were steep drop-offs on both sides and gravel underfoot. It was cold, even in the middle of the afternoon, but the views were spectacular. We watched and listened in awe as a huge avalanche crashed down the flanks of Nuptse (25,790 feet) less than two miles away. Birkha, our guide, said that this was only the third avalanche he’d seen. That day, we saw three avalanches close-up and heard a fourth. And we got an occasional glimpse of Everest, now just three or four miles away.
Cairns mark the place where the trail turns onto the ice of the glacier. The ice is black with rock chips and there are massive boulders and huge drop-offs into glacial lakes, sometimes on both sides of the narrow path. The ice walls of Nuptse loom above, as the trail snakes its way across the ice for about half a mile.
And then we were at Everest Base Camp. Right there on top of the ice, prayer flags and boulders marked the spot. We were the last group on the mountain, so we had the place to ourselves. Nothing broke the silence there. We took pictures and congratulated ourselves, but our excitement was tempered by the fact that we still had two hours of hard hiking back down to Gorak Shep. The wind picked up and the temperature plummeted as the sun sank behind the mountains. We reached the lodge as darkness fell. We were elated, but completely worn out at the same time.
On day ten we started back down the mountain after one last climb. Kalapathar or Black Rock sits above Gorak Shep and even above Base Camp. It was a very cold, tiring climb to the summit at 18,200 feet but the panoramic views made it all worthwhile. Once more, we were blessed with blue skies. A few more high-fives and photos and then we started back down the mountain.
Four days of descent gave us time to reflect on our accomplishment. The trek was very hard but far exceeded our expectations. The weather, fourteen blue-sky days in a row, had been exceptional. The Khumbu region of Nepal is stunningly beautiful, and the Nepali people always smile as they share the trail with visitors. Our guides and porters couldn’t have been better.
As we had progressed up the mountain, the lodges got increasingly rustic and facilities became more Spartan. Even so, the lodging and the food were better than we expected. We hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in two weeks, mostly because of the altitude. We had constantly battled coughs, stomach ailments and loss of appetite, and we had both lost weight. Fortunately, we stayed safe, and returned with memories to last a lifetime.
Though the Comanche Trace clubhouse trail bears no resemblance whatsoever to any part of the Everest trek, the months of hard training paid off.
Everest Base Camp – cross that one off the bucket list.