It’s my answer when friends and family inquire about my trek to Everest Base Camp. And it was, of course. But it’s a somewhat deceptive answer, because it’s not an easy question.
Everest (Christine Wallace)
Trekking through the Khumbu Valley in the Himalayas and seeing eight of the 15 tallest mountains in the world up close was indeed inspiring, beautiful, and, quite literally, awesome.
I also struggled to breathe, suffered from altitude sickness, and contracted the “Khumbu cough” after we ascended above 14,000 feet, which was nearly half of the 12-day trip.
I could also describe it is this way: I’m so very glad I made the trip, and I highly recommend it; I also would like to never, ever do it again.
Base camp (Christina Wallace)
I’ve wanted to trek to Everest Base Camp (EBC) since I summited Kilimanjaro five years ago. Like Kilimanjaro, it’s not a technical climb; no ice picks, crampons, or actual mountaineering experience is required. It’s “merely a hike” through the Himalayas for 12 days.
And at 17,700 feet, Everest Base Camp is nearly 1,600 feet lower than Kilimanjaro. So while I have no intention of ever attempting to summit Everest, trekking to EBC felt achievable.
It was more than checking an item off of a to-do list. Over the past five years, I’ve lost my grandmother, built a company only to see it fail, and mourned the end of several relationships that never quite took off.
And I did it while glued to my gadgets, networking nonstop, and pounding the pavement in New York City. I was burned out and needed a change. In the parlance of my industry, I needed to “disrupt” my life in a drastic way and see things from the other side of the looking glass.
So I decided to skip the Christmas holidays and head to Nepal, solo.
I didn’t make the climb alone, of course. I discovered a tour company called G Adventures that specializes in small-group adventure travel and is friendly to solo travelers. It also prides itself on being “socially and environmentally conscious,” which is something I value. Plus it described the physical activity level as “for superhumans only (remember to pack your cape).” I mean, who wouldn’t want to go on that trip? Challenge accepted.
I took a flight through Istanbul to Kathmandu and met up with my group the night before we kicked things off. We were a motley crew of 12, with travelers from the U.S., Canada, the UK, and Australia ranging in age from 18 to 33. There were two buddies from university and a couple on their honeymoon, but otherwise we were all solo travelers. And, to my delight, we were equally balanced with men and women.
We set out for Lukla early the next morning on a 14-person airplane, heading toward the world’s scariest airport. Holding the hand of a near stranger as you approach the runway for landing is certainly one way to bond with your travel companions. (It’s the Nepalese version of a trust-fall, I guess.)
Wallace and the guides and sherpas (Christine Wallace)
Upon landing, we met our guides and porters and set out on the trail, making steep gains in elevation, traversing swinging suspension bridges, and remaining alert to the yak trains that could come barreling along the mountainside with only a cowbell as warning.
Meals and tea breaks segmented the days into smaller chunks of 1.5- to 3-hour hikes, with regular stops at teahouses along the route. We were warned to avoid meat; animals cannot be killed in the Khumbu Valley, so meat has to be flown in from Kathmandu, which means it could be several days old by the time it reaches teahouses farther into the mountain range.
No matter: The menus seemed replete with vegetarian options — traditional Nepalese dal bhat, fried rice, plus pizza and pasta and potatoes! To be fair, the cooks that keep the thousands of trekkers fed despite the difficulty in obtaining supplies and cooking at high altitude are heroes. Nonetheless, the novelty of the menus wore off after just a day or two with the realization that we had two weeks of carb-heavy, starchy dishes ahead of us.
By day we were warm. Hiking in the sunshine often required only a base layer, down vest, gaiters, and a baseball cap, and at times I felt downright hot. But after we stopped moving and the sun set over the mountains, the temperature dropped dramatically, and we had to layer up.
Trekking (Christina Wallace)
Our dress code for dinner was usually a base layer, fleece, sweater, vest, fleece-lined pants, ski jacket, knit hat, double socks, slippers, and glove liners with hand warmers slipped inside. While there was a central stove, it rarely radiated heat beyond a two-foot span in the center of the teahouse.
Getting ready for bed came to mean I’d take off my slippers and ski jacket, climb inside my -30 F sleeping bag, and snuggle with a hot-water bottle and all my electronics. (The extreme cold depletes batteries fast, and electricity was solar-powered and therefore pricey. So sleeping with phones and cameras was a good way to extend battery life.)
Running water was scarce after the second day, at Namche Bazaar, and showers were nonexistent. After eight days of hats and dry shampoo, I gratefully paid for a bucket of hot water and a cup to dump it over my head while I stood naked in freezing temperatures in order to wash my hair on day 10 in Tengboche.
But the food, the cold, and the lack of showers were expected. Even the disruptions in my gastrointestinal tract were consistent with Kilimanjaro (though there’s nothing like going from four days of constipation to six days of explosive diarrhea back to two days of constipation).
What was unexpected was the headache that started on day 4 and lasted through day 10. No amount of hydration or aspirin seemed to make a difference. I hiked slower, with one step every three or four seconds; I slept 11 hours a night; I drank seven liters of water a day, spiked with electrolytes. Still, it was unrelenting.
Then on day 6 I lost my appetite, and on day 7, my ability to sleep, neither of which returned until we were below 14,000 feet again on day 10. On day 8, the day we hiked nine hours to base camp and back, I lost my ability to keep food down.
Needless to say, I lost my sense of humor somewhere along the way as well.
Which is where this expedition took on its true purpose: the mental endurance required to make it to EBC and back was beyond anything I believed I was capable of. Day 8 was the hardest single day I have ever endured, and it was closely followed by day 9, day 10, day 11, and day 12.
Learning to breath at Everest (Christine Wallace)
What I learned from trekking over 80 miles through the Himalayas to Everest Base Camp is this: No matter how painful it is, and no matter how miserable you are, if you put one foot in front of the other, everything comes to an end.
I guess it’s a somewhat masochistic version of “this too shall pass,” but it was something I needed to be reminded of. When I’m knee-deep in life, the drama can feel overwhelming at times. But even day 8 came to an end.
I went to Everest, and I learned to breathe. (No cape required.)
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