Monday, September 8, 2014

Trekking Expedition To Nepal

A long time ago (20 years ago to be exact), I was lucky enough to be selected to go on a Royal Air Force expedition to Nepal.  The selection process involved trekking in the mountains above Hong Kong where I was stationed at the time, and bivvying out overnight to weed out any lightweights.  I love doing this kind of thing so it was pretty easy, and I was excited when I was picked to be part of the team.   Several more training hikes around the Hong Kong Maclehose Trail later, we were finally ready for the big trip.   

Part of Hong Kong's beautiful Maclehose Trail

First stop was Kathmandu.  Dirty, stinky but incredible Kathmandu.  Everywhere you look, there is something amazing to see - both good and bad.  Poverty, ancient buildings and temples, crazy traffic with cows walking between said traffic, cuter than cute children everywhere - most of them filthy, modern hotels, monks in orange robes, half naked yogis - some of them seemingly crazy, people bathing in the dirty, brown river as upstream, bodies burned and cows waded.  Some of the children we met had holes cut in their pants so they could just go to the bathroom wherever they were.  I'll never forget some of the sights and smells I experienced there.  We stayed in the city for a couple of days, sorting out our trekking permits to enter Sagarmatha (the Nepalese name for Mount Everest) National Park and making sure we had all the necessary equipment.  We ate German and Nepalese food, visited the Monkey Temple and just started getting to know each other because we were to spend the next 3 weeks together.
Fine dining in Kathmandu

Crazy yogis

Prayer Flags
The river where cows waded, people bathed and bodies were burning

Extreme poverty

Young monks
We split into 2 teams to fly to Lukla (one of the most dangerous airfields in the world) because there wasn't enough room in the tiny aircraft to take us all plus our equipment.  I was in the first team to fly.  It was scary as hell taking off in the ancient propeller plane, surrounded by backpacks and ice axes, but the views of the Himalayas were breathtaking.  I had no idea that the landing strip at Lukla was going to be a dirt track that ended with a cliff face.  I may or may not have screamed when we landed.  It didn't help that there were several crashed aircraft at the side of the runway with children happily playing on them!  The runway has since been paved and is hopefully a bit safer.

The 'runway' at Lukla

Happy to be alive!

Kids playing on crashed aircraft at the side of the runway

Meeting the locals and waiting for the rest of the team to arrive

We got out and waited for the second half of our team, but they were going to be stuck in Kathmandu until the next day because the weather had closed in.  We grabbed all our gear and made our way to the first of many tea houses that we would bunk in while in the mountains.  This one was very clean, the food was simple but excellent and we drank a lot of lemon tea.  Beer was banned until after the expedition because of the risk of dehydration and altitude sickness.  We hung out until finally we were all together to begin our trek.

The team

Porters were hired for the first part of our trek and then we added some yaks at Namche Bazaar.  These dudes are amazing.  It's unbelievable how strong they are and how much they can carry up and down steep trails, wearing what looks like slippers on their feet.  We were to carry our own day packs with clean clothes, jackets, waterproofs, water, poles if required and being a girl, I stuck some toilet paper and baby wipes in mine too.  The porters carried climbing equipment, sleeping bags and spare clothes etc.  It was a lot of kit! Our guide Chong, was a lovely man - friendly, helpful and very talkative.

Two of our happy porters

One of many scary bridges we crossed!

I found out on the 2nd night that the military issue sleeping bag I'd brought with me was no good.  I shivered all night and got absolutely no sleep.  Apart from the fire in the main part of the lodges, there was no heating or electricity.  I decided that when we got to Namche Bazaar, I would rent a good, down sleeping bag from one of the climbing stores there.  Kind of creepy, yes, but I would rather be warm than worry about lice or wonder about what happened to the original owner of the bag! 

We climbed up and up.  You could feel the air getting thinner and our breaths getting harder to take, but slowly and surely we made it to Namche at 11,286 feet.  We stayed here for a couple of nights to acclimatize, taking day hikes up higher, but coming back down again in the afternoon to help avoid the dreaded altitude sickness.   It snowed, so the trails were more difficult now.  The lodges were getting fuller and dirtier the higher up we went, and I had already been a few days without showering, whilst sweating all day long.  Thank god for baby wipes!

Acclimatization hike in the snow

Namche is surrounded by fierce peaks and is a most amazing place.  There were people washing their clothes in the stream, markets with chunks of dead animals laying around in the street and several stores selling climbing apparel and items.  I was chased by a dog with 2 legs which sounds hilarious but was absolutely terrifying!  Rabies, people!  I finally rented a nice, warm sleeping bag.  There was actually some electricity for a few hours each day in Namche, but it was early nights all round which was fine.  We were all pretty tired and some of the team already had headaches from altitude and of course the diarrhea so common in Nepal.  We were presented with scarves that had been blessed, I still have mine to this day. 
Namche Bazaar

The stream running through the center of Namche

Namche Bazaar market

We climbed mostly up, but of course there were also several downs.  The paths were tiny and sometimes on the side of sheer cliff faces and mountains.  It was amazing, exhilarating and exhausting.  We drank a lot of tea and went to the bathroom in some ridiculous places.  When there was somewhere to go, it was usually a shelf on the edge of a mountain with a hole cut out in the middle.  There were sometimes mountains of ummentionables underneath, luckily frozen solid!   But mostly, it just dropped away, out of sight.  Prayer wheels and flags lined the sides of the trails, we all made sure to turn them in the correct direction and say "Namaste" to passing sherpas and locals.  There were stupas everywhere and piles of small rocks which were memorials for fallen sherpas and climbers.  Our yaks were CRAZY.  Put it this way, it is a good idea to stay far away from them on the trail.  

Oooh!  Fancy toilet!
Unfortunately, not quite so fancy on the inside...

Yaks on the trail

Me on the trail, not to be confused with a yak...
Ama Dablam

Incredible views.  Cairns for fallen sherpas and climbers.

One night, we stayed at Tengboche Monastery.  I have never heard anything so moving and spiritual as the monks there praying and singing.  It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life and I will never forget the sound of the chanting and the bells.  By now, we were mostly sleeping on wooden pallets, all together, dirty and sweaty men and women, inside our sleeping bags.  The warmth from the other bodies was actually nice, strangers or not.   The lodges were usually filled with smoke, so that was another odor to add to our collection!  The food varied, sometimes we ate tiny potatoes still covered in dirt.  It wasn't worth it to peel the dirt off the potatoes because there would be no food left, so generally, you just ate it, dirt and all.  We ate yak burgers, amazing daals, currys and a lot of rice.  By now, the lemon tea was getting old, but it was necessary to drink as much as possible.  

Tengboche Monastery

Outside the appropriately named Yak Hotel in Thukla

After trekking for a few days, surrounded by the most spectacular peaks and dramatic scenery, we eventually reached Gorakshep.  This was to be our last stop before our final push to Base Camp and it was definitely the dirtiest and most overcrowded place we'd stayed yet.  Several of us were suffering, so it was decided that instead of going to Base Camp, we would climb Kala Pattar, a peak of 18,500 ft which would give us the best view of both Mount Everest and Base Camp.  This was my worst night.  I was in a bunk with 2 strange and smelly men and I spent most of the night lying outside on the ground, vomiting and trying to make it to the 'bathroom' with explosive diarrhea. Not one of my finest moments. 

There was no way I wasn't going to push it to our goal though, so off we all went the next morning.  It was more than hard, the healthiest team members were encouraging us sickies, but nobody really spoke much.  Finally, we summitted Kala Pattar.  There aren't enough suitable adjectives to describe how we all felt or to describe the view.  Mount Everest, right there before us, the Khumbu Glacier and Base Camp below.  Lhotse and Nuptse in front, all these names I'd only ever read about.  It was very emotional.  We hugged and took a ton of photos before it was time to head back to the lodge.  

Mount Everest above me, Base Camp below

We trekked down a slightly different route from the way we'd come up from Namche and split into two teams once more.  One team was going to climb Gokyo Peak while the rest of us would slowly head down  to Namche where we would meet again.  We were all beyond happy and most of our illnesses and altitude symptoms disappeared as we headed down.  Our guide took us all into his tiny home in Namche to meet his family which was a very humbling experience.  Nepalese people are so happy, friendly and polite and the children so beautiful.  

Our guide Chong and his family
Inside Chong's house

By the time we made it back to Lukla again,  ready to fly to Kathmandu, we were all jubilant and finally allowed to drink beer!  I really couldn't believe what we'd just accomplished.  It's hard to describe, but my head was clear and I felt truly amazing and refreshed. 

As soon as we hit our hotel in Kathmandu, it felt amazing to have a shower after 2 weeks without.  My clothes were disgusting (I only had 3 sets) but luckily we had left bags with clean clothes at the hotel.  It felt so good to be back to normal again and to be clean.  More beer was consumed and we did some shopping for rugs and other Nepalese items.  Much food was consumed also!

Finally, it was time for our flight back to Hong Kong, to return to our normal lives and jobs.  I felt truly blessed. Nepal and the sight of Mount Everest will stay with me forever and I hope I can return again one day in the future.

So, thank you for bearing with me as I tried to remember details from so long ago.  I realize that my photographs are not of the greatest quality, but they are all I have left to remind me of one of the most amazing things I have ever done in my life (so far).  Namaste friends! 

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