Day 4: Deboche

We repack our duffel bags, and go down to the dining room for breakfast. The cook at Hotel Zambala is creative and has newly introduced an apple pancake in the menu. I choose the pancake instead of the usual omelette and toast. I am served a large, thick, dry pancake. And there is no syrup. I swallow bits of the pancake with some difficulty.

The weather is clear as we walk out of the lodge. My head starts spinning as I walk. I hope it is because of spending too much time on the bed yesterday, and not a sign of altitude sickness.

From Namche first there is a steady climb. Twenty minutes into the climb I feel like giving up and going back to the lodge. I have recognized this as a trick that the body plays from experience. Some days during the long walks back home, I used to get the urge to stop and turn back about twenty minutes into the walk. But through persistence I used to overcome that urge. I persist here as well, and the feeling eventually goes away. Soon my head also stops spinning.

Ngima tells us about the effect of climate change on the Himalaya. Sometimes snow disappears from some of the mountains. He seems to be concerned about its effect on the region.

Finally, the climb brings us to a trail high up. On our way to Namche we had seen this trail and the Hillary suspension bridge high up in the sky. Now at a great distance down below we can see the Hillary suspension bridge. What had appeared to be up in the sky, now appears way down below.

This is a relatively straight trail, easy to walk. There is a great view of Mount Everest from the trail. We stop near a stupa on the trail, to rest and take photos. A few other trekkers are also taking a break. Two young Russian women are asking about the way to some place. They ask someone else’s guide as they don’t have a guide of their own.

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On the way from Namche to Tengboche

Ngima notices that my nose is bleeding. I clean up and hope it is caused by a dry nose.

Presently we start to descend. It seems such a waste of effort to have come up all this way only to go down, and then climb back up again. Ngima points out a trail winding up hill in the distance, which we are to take after lunch. Four hours after we left Namche we reach Phungi Thenga and stop for lunch. We order our standard fare, Dal Bhat.

There is one other customer in the dining room, a small built woman in her mid thirties. She came before us and has finished eating lunch. She is from Kolkata, India where she owns a business in manufacturing ball-point pens for export. She is an experienced trekker. She likes to trek alone, not with a group. It is a spiritual journey for her, and she believes that mountains should not be disrespected by drinking and partying, which often happen in large groups. The only time she went with a group was for Kailash Parikrama — trekking at elevations ranging from 16,142′ to 18,373′ around Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Siva of Hindu trinity — because China, where the mountain is located, issues visa only for groups of tourists, not for individuals. She has trekked in Tibet and Ladakh. The trails she saw is Tibet are much less developed than the Everest base camp trail. In Ladakh she spent 45 days completely cut off from the civilization. Because of her status as a single, Indian woman she received permission from Indian government to visit places that are inaccessible even to journalists from the National Geographic. She also visited Khardung La or Khardung pass, which is at the same altitude as the base camp, but can be reached by a two-hour car drive from Leh, the capital of Ladakh. I don’t understand why it takes eight days of acclimatization to reach basecamp, but only two hours to Khardung La. Later I learn that people that go to Khardung La by car stay there for less than a half-hour and then drive back to a lower altitude. Even then some people need to take diamox tablets.

She asks me: “You have no prior experience, and you start with the mother of all treks?” I tell her that my daughter asked me a similar question. My reasoning is that I would rather try this trek and fail than try something simpler and become discouraged from attempting this trek later. My interest is in trekking to Everest base camp, not in trekking itself.

She tells me that she can’t imagine how she is going to go down after she reaches the base camp. Perhaps she will fake illness and get a helicopter ride down, she jokes. I tell her that I am not thinking of anything other than the four feet of trail in front of me. I will think about the return journey also four feet at a time as I descend. She bids us good luck and leaves with her guide. After about five minutes I see her crossing a suspension bridge near the lodge.

Before leaving the lodge I visit the toilet, which is basically a hole on the wooden floor with a heap of mulch four feet below it. Perhaps the waste is disposed off by burning the soiled mulch.

The next four hours we steadily climb uphill. This trail is a bit less difficult than the trail to Namche. But the altitude has a telling effect. I am walking in slow motion, taking one step at a time and breathing heavily. I have to take frequent stops to catch a breath and calm down my pounding heart.

A young Sherpa woman in denims and a light jacket runs past us downhill. Her doko (basket) is empty. She is going back to Namche after delivering goods higher up on the trail. Her music device is playing deewangi, deewangi, deewangi hai (obsession, obsession, it is obsession), the refrain from a Vishal-Shekhar song in the film Om Shanti Om, a song to which Shah Rukh Khan dances with many old and new Bollywood stars. The petite Sherpa woman is joyously skipping down the hill, as if dancing to the rhythm of the song, like Julie Andrews in the film Sound of Music. Within minutes I see her on the trail way down the hill.

I see Ngima effortlessly walking in front of me. I see Promod effortlessly carrying seventy pounds up hill at this high altitude, unaided by trekking poles. It is clear that the uphill climb is easy for them as they are talking loudly and laughing. If they are doing all the hard work, what’s the big deal with this trek? Is it too hyped up? Some people have raised such questions, and at times I have had such doubts as well. Now that I am experiencing the hard climb, heavy breathing, pounding heart and lurking dangers, I realize that it is indeed a big deal for me, in spite of the able assistance provided by Ngima and Pramod.

A group of fifteen to twenty South Korean trekkers pass us on their way down hill and greet us with a Namaste.

Ngima tells me that he wants to move on from the guide’s job. He has experience working as a factory floor supervisor in Nepal. But that job did not pay well. He has also worked in Malaysia. Many of his friends have moved on to Japan and America. He has considered various options such as working as a Gurkha Guard or as an Indian cook. He knows how to cook Indian dishes such as Chicken Tandoori. I understand his motivation to find new opportunities and know that he will do well in any job. Had he been born in America surely he would have flourished, perhaps in the middle management. But I am not sure that his personal quality of life will improve, if he moves out of this area, where he seems to have so much fun talking and laughing with his relatives, friends, and acquaintances all along the way.

As we approach Tengboche clouds start to descend on the trail. We stop for rest. Fernando’s group comes soon after us and stops to take rest. When we started the ascend from Phungi Thenga we saw a sign that said “Tengboche — 2 hours.” We have trekked for two hours, and Tengboche is nowhere in sight. Fernando says that they must be lying about the time. I joke that the board must be written in Sherpa time. “Yes,” he agrees, “two hours for the Sherpas and six hours for everyone else!”

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Clouds descend on the trail

We reach Tengboche and continue on to Deboche, which is at a lower elevation. We reach Paradise Lodge, Deboche 7.5 hours after we left Namche. Rahul has a fuzzy feeling in his head. Ngima suggests that perhaps he should take half a diamox tablet (125 mg). But we decide to wait until he eats dinner.

The common area has a warm stove at the center with four benches around it. It feels very nice to sit in front of it after the long day of trekking. Everywhere else it is bitterly cold. Vapors of sweat rise from our clothes. Some trekkers are drying their wet socks and clothes drenched in sweat.

In the teahouse lodges in Phakding and Namche, it appeared that we were the only clients. In Deboche there are many clients, and the dining room is nearly full. There is one group of nine trekkers and three guides. Two Aussies, three Brits and four Americans, one of their guides tells us. There are five men and four women, including two couples. One trekker from Cambridge, U.K. is playing a game of chess with a guide. He is a bit irritated as another guide, watching the game, makes suggestions about possible moves. Four trekkers are playing a card game. One woman is arranging for a hot shower, which costs $5. Others are reading or checking their phones. An American trekker from the group says that his wife is unhappy that he came alone and would want him to come back again with her. But he will try to convince her to go on the Annapurna base camp trek, rather than redo this trek. The trekker asks his guide, who looks like a boy, whether he could again be the trekker’s  guide on the Annapurna trek. “Sure,” says the boy-guide, “Make the request to the trekking company.”

The boy-guide wants to know how Rahul and I are related. He is my son I tell him. “How is trekking with your Dad?” he asks Rahul with a mischievous smile. “It’s ok,” Rahul replies with a smile. The boy-guide used to work with his dad on the same trekking expeditions, but now he does not prefer to be on the same trekking expedition as his dad. This way he has more freedom.

Two men, who don’t have a guide, are sitting silently in one corner of the dining room and observing the whole scene. One woman trekker is sitting on a nearby seat with her guide.

The couple who owns the lodge are standing at a counter near the entrance to the dining hall, busy helping customers. Several items are kept in shelves at the counter for sale: Pringles, chocolates, pop, handicrafts and so on. The woman is wearing colorful Sherpa clothes and a head band made of yak wool. She is also wearing a down jacket like almost everyone else around here.

We have vegetable fried rice and fried eggs for dinner and ginger tea to drink. After dinner Ngima brings us fruits, apple and tangerine slices. Rahul’s head clears up after dinner. Perhaps his head was fuzzy because of hunger. I am relieved that he doesn’t need diamox.

The trekkers slowly retire to their rooms. A Sherpa guide pours a small bottle of rum equally into four glasses. He then pours an equal amount of hot water into the glasses. Perhaps they will party after their clients retire, I imagine.

We charge our electronic devices. Here the charging costs $2 per hour.

We retire to our rooms. It is bitterly cold. I manage to get into the sleeping bag, huffing and puffing. The effort leaves me panting for a while. Once inside the sleeping bag my body slowly warms up, and I fall asleep.

Going to the restroom at night is a real chore. I wait until I must absolutely go. I unzip my sleeping bag and grab the down jacket kept on top of the comforter near my feet. The jacket feels wet and dirty to touch; the moisture from our breath has condensed on the jacket (as well as on other surfaces such as the window pane). I put on the headlamp and look for my slippers. They are frozen stiff.  I open the door and stagger toward the common restroom.

Elevations
Deboche           12,369′ (3,770 m)
Tengboche       12,687′ (3,867 m)

Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
24,067 10.86 3,295 392

Day 3: Acclimatization in Namche Bazar  

Today is an acclimatization day. Tonight for a second night we will sleep in Namche. Posters at the police check post near Namche exhort trekkers to pay heed to the acclimatization requirement.

Acclimatization helps the body to cope with the reduced amount of oxygen in the air at high altitudes as the air pressure is low. The air pressure at Namche is about 64% of its value at sea level. It will continue to drop as we ascend, and at the base camp it will be drop to 50%. At a lower pressure the air is thinner and contains fewer molecules. Therefore, at Namche a breath contains only about 64% of the number of oxygen molecules in a breath taken at sea level.

The reduced amount of oxygen in the breath makes it harder for the blood to absorb oxygen. In response, the body takes steps to maintain an adequate oxygen supply to the tissues. Immediately, the breathing is made deeper and longer, thereby, increasing the amount of air flowing into the lungs. Within minutes of arrival at a high altitude, a process is triggered in the body to increase the amount of red blood cells, the cells that absorb and carry oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. In spite of these steps, the oxygen saturation in the blood falls. To compensate for the reduced oxygen saturation, the heart pumps faster, increasing the blood flow to the tissues.

In addition to maintaining the oxygen supply, the body also tries reduce the oxygen demand in the tissues. Recent research is showing that the body lowers the metabolic activity of certain cells and increases the efficiency of oxygen usage in certain other cells. This may explain the marked differences in how people respond to high altitudes and why people who perform remarkably well at high altitudes may not have any remarkable athletic ability at sea level. Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler, who first summited Mount Everest without the aid of supplemental oxygen, were found to be physiologically no different from sedentary people living at the sea level. It is conjectured that certain tissues of such elite high-altitude performers may be able to reduce oxygen consumption under oxygen insufficiency, an unremarkable trait at sea level where there is oxygen sufficiency.

Yet another response is to reduce the oxygen demand by preferentially supplying it to critical organs such as the brain and the heart, while suppressing the supply to less critical organs such as the digestive system. The resulting reduction in the digestion efficiency manifests as nausea, loss of appetite, indigestion, a preference for sweet rather than fatty food etc.

Some of changes in the body have serious consequences. A common problem is that  fluids start to leak from the capillaries, building up in both the brain and the lungs, for reasons not well understood. (As an engineer my conjecture: To depressurize a pressure cooker or a tire one needs to let out the steam or the air. Likewise, perhaps the blood vessels need to depressurize by letting out fluid.) A small fluid buildup in the brain causes a headache, which most people who go to high altitudes experience. An increased fluid build up in brain causes acute mountain sickness (AMS). Around 30% of the trekkers to base camp experience AMS, regardless of their age or physical fitness. The fluid build up reduces when the person stays at the same altitude for a period of time or descends to a lower altitude. A severe form of fluid buildup in the brain is called high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and in the lungs, high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). Both HACE and HAPE require immediate medical attention and a descend to a lower altitude.

As explained, the body makes a myriad physiological and anatomical changes to cope with the reduced amount of oxygen in the air. If the changes are small, the body is able to safely reach a new equilibrium. If the changes are large, the body may not be able to reach a safe equilibrium. This is somewhat like a bicyclist who can maintain balance through myriad, subtle movements in response to the twists and turns and ups and downs of the pavement, but may lose balance when forced to make a rapid change such as by a pothole. Acclimatization is simply slowing down the rate of ascent, to allow the body time to adapt to the lower air pressure. Beyond Namche the rate of ascent must not exceed 1000 ft (300 m) per day and at Dingboche an extra night must be spent to give the body adequate time to adapt.

At Lukla we had crossed into a region called high altitude (8,000-12,000 ft). In Namche we are crossing into a region called very high altitude (12,000 -18,000 ft). In Lukla or Phakding I did not feel the effects of high altitude. In Namche I am beginning to feel the deeper and faster breathing and the faster heart rate. Also my movements have become slow.

We start at 8:45 am after breakfast. We wear our down jackets as it is cold outside. The painful memory of yesterday’s climb lingers in my mind; I am not looking forward to another day of climb. We walk toward Mount Everest Documentation Center above Namche for our first view of Mount Everest. It is an arduous climb. The effect of the altitude is perceptible. My pace is slow.

We walk to the viewing area at Mount Everest Documentation Center. Mount Everest cooperates. We are able to view its majestic peak, unobstructed by clouds, framed on the left by Mount Nuptse and on the right by Mount Lohtse. From this far, however, Mount Everest’s lofty height is not discernible. In contrast, the much smaller, but much closer Mount Ama Dablam appears more impressive.

Everest-banner clouds
Mount Everest at center, framed by Mount Nuptse on the left and Mount Lohtse on the right

Mount Everest was “discovered” from a mountain of data by the brilliant mathematician Radhanath Sikdar, the Chief Computer of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India. He is unlikely to have seen Mount Everest. Even if he had seen the mountain, it is unlikely that he would have recognized its preeminent stature among the mountains of the world. The 39-year old Sikdar’s feat was in computing the height accurately, accounting for the fact that light rays bend as they pass through the air that is thinning with height. When he computed the height as 29,002 feet, he realized that he had found the highest mountain in the world. That was in 1852, and the news was publicly announced two years later. The height is now estimated to be 29,029 feet. The increase in height is mostly from the increased accuracy of the computation, although the mountain is actually growing, but at a much smaller rate. The growth from 1852 until today is only around 2 feet.

I am fascinated by the clouds blowing off the mountain peaks as though they are taking a puff, a phenomenon noticeable with many Himalayan peaks. I wonder whether sublimation of snow on the peaks in bright sunlight and subsequent condensation of the sublimated vapors could play a role in forming such clouds. Later from the Internet I learn that these clouds, called banner clouds, form because of a different reason: When wind blows across a peak, air on the leeward side rises and the condensing water vapor from it forms the banner cloud.

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Posing near the statue of Tensing Norgay

A statue of Tensing Norgay with Mount Everest in the background is located near the Documentation Center. It depicts his victorious pose on the summit, smiling, holding his ice axe raised high, an ice axe adorned by flags of India, Nepal and UK. We pose to take pictures in front of the statue.

We sit on a low wall that surrounds the viewpoint area. There are two other trekkers sitting there with their guide. The guide’s right arm is amputated. One of the trekkers is the one whom I had overheard yesterday at the police check post. I will call him Fernando as I do not know his name. Hair is beginning to grow back on Fernando’s large, shaven head. His beard has also begun to grow. He could be in his mid thirties and from California, I think. Fernando asks, “How was the trek yesterday?” “It was hard, very hard” I reply. Fernando agrees,”Yes, I thought so too. I started wondering whether it was a good idea to have come on this trek.” I realize that Fernando was being facetious yesterday when he had suggested trekking all the way to Tengboche.

Ngima points out Kunde hospital and Khumjung School at a distance. They were established by Sir Edmund Hillary to serve the Sherpa community. I can vaguely see the buildings at a distance. Ngima points out a flat trail to Tengboche at a distance; I long for that flat trail.

Ngima takes us to a trail that goes around Namche Bazar, high above. From the entrance gate to Namche it is quite a climb to reach the trail surrounding it. Namche is built on steps made on the side of a mountain. It has soil and vegetation. Right across the valley are mountains that are rocky and barren. Namche is surrounded by towering mountains, many of them snow peaked. A stream flows through the center of Namche, where we find women washing clothes.

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A view of Namche Bazaar from the trail above

I wonder whether Namche Bazar means Salt Market. I am not sure whether I read that somewhere. The word namche sounds similar to namak or salt in Hindi. In olden days Tibetans coming from the north through Nangpa La or Nangpa pass (5,806 m or 19,050 ft) used to bring salt and trade it for grains and other goods brought from the south. It must have been an important trading center as salt was a scarce commodity in the past, its preciousness having a lasting effect on our languages. The word “salt” is the root of the word “salary,” still precious for all working people. The word appears in a frequently made statement in old Bollywood movies. To show that they value their loyalty to their masters, the servants in the movies typically say: Sardar maine aapka namak khaya hai  (Sir, I have eaten your salt). The availability of sea salt from India diminished the salt trade from Tibet. Later Tibetans started bringing textiles, blankets and low-cost goods from China for trade. Even that has ended now as China closed Nangpa La, presumably to stop Tibetans from fleeing Tibet.

We see yaks for the first time. A Sherpa and his wife are tending to a herd of seven. A couple of them look different because they are without horns. Ngima tells us that they are also yaks, not female naks. The yaks can be distinguished from dzos by the large amount of hair hanging by the sides of their body.

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A herd of yaks near Namche

We come to Namche helipad. It is simply a flat area, paved with broken stones. Yesterday I was wondering why Dorjee had to come for the rescue, if the patient was going to be rescued by a helicopter anyway. Now I understand: Taking a person from Namche to the helipad high above wont be an easy task.

We descend into Namche and pass through Namche market with its shops catering to trekkers’ every need. Also there are shops stocked with usual touristy trinkets.

We get back to hotel and sit down for lunch. We select the Dal-Bhat set menu. It comes with rice, lentils, one or two vegetables and papad. Everything is freshly made with locally available vegetables. The food tastes good.

In the dining room there is a framed letter of appreciation from Nepal’s Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal to the owner Lama Kanji Sherpa for his help in organizing a historic cabinet meeting at Kala Patthar (18,514′) in December 2009. I wonder how many of the ministers, who are likely to be old, made it to Kala Patthar for the cabinet meeting. “Just a show,” Ngima explains. “The ministers went by a helicopter and were wearing oxygen masks.” Lama Kanji says that the meeting lasted only one hour.

We take a hot shower at a cost of $10. The bathroom is outside the hotel, and it is cold. There is only one valve to turn. Hand written instructions on the heater forbids you from changing the temperature setting. When I turn on the tap I hear a gas heater violently turning on. Water and steam gush from the shower head. The water is very hot, but soon I get used to the temperature. When I turn off the shower, steam comes from my body, making me look as though I am fuming.

It starts to rain. Thick mist obscures the view of the mountains surrounding Namche. Ngima tells us that in the mountains the mornings are usually clear, but the afternoons could bring rain or snow and winds. Ngima suspects it could be snowing in Tengboche. Ngima seems to be concerned about the added challenge we may face tomorrow because of the snow.

References

https://www.princeton.edu/~oa/safety/altitude.html

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effects_of_high_altitude_on_humans

http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/901668-overview#a1

Bärtsch, P. and Gibbs, J.S.R., “Effect of Altitude on the Heart and the Lungs”, 2007, DOI: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.106.650796.

Martin, D., and Windsor, J. “From mountain to bedside: understanding the clinical relevance of human acclimatisation to high-altitude hypoxia,” Postgrad Med J 2008;84:622–627. doi:10.1136/pgmj.2008.068296.

Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
8,406 3.79 2,258 78

Day 2: Namche Bazar

I am woken up around 4 am by muffled voices coming from people talking outside the lodge. It appears that someone, possibly a trekker, is talking to Dorjee. I drift back to sleep, and wake up thinking that the voices I heard were in a dream.

We get ready and go down stairs for breakfast. We find Dorjee standing outside the lodge smoking. Rahul wants to take a photo with him. But before he could make the request, Dorjee is seen wearing his backpack, getting ready to go somewhere. There are two trekkers with him, a young man and a young woman, both Europeans, l guess. They are wearing bright jackets with the hoods draped over their caps for protection against the cold. Dorjee adjusts a part of the jacket that is covering the neck and chin of the young woman. The three head in the direction of Namche Bazar.

Ngima tells us that Dorjee is going on a mission to rescue someone stricken by altitude sickness. The two trekkers with Dorjee are the sick person’s companions who came early in the morning seeking help. Rahul says that he had heard their conversation early in the morning. So the voices I heard were real, not in a dream. Ngima thinks that the sick trekker may be rescued by a helicopter. I wonder why Dorjee would need to go, if it was going to be a helicopter rescue. I am impressed that the two trekkers were able to come down from Namche during the night. This story is not quite accurate as we will learn later.

We start at 8:30 am after a breakfast of omelette, toast and coffee. For me, this is the most dreaded day of the trek because we ascend over 2500 ft today, an ascent greater than that on any other day. My apprehension increases in view of the experience from yesterday’s trek that the total effort required may far exceed what is required for the net ascend itself. Furthermore, today we cross a threshold in elevation, above which we become vulnerable to mountain sickness. Something within tells me that I may not be able to reach Namche. Oddly, I also feel that if I can reach Namche then I will be able to reach Everest Basecamp.

Soon after leaving Phakding we come to a suspension bridge strung across Dudh Koshi. Ngima carries my trekking poles, and cautions me about the sharp wires sticking out  on the steel cables that serve as hand rails. I contemplate the catenary shape of the bridge stretching in front of me, slats of shiny steel suspended from two steel cables held across the river in tension, draped on the cables are colorful prayer flags fluttering in the wind. I walk slowly down the bridge. The bridge is swaying slightly, but it is not hard to get balance or to walk across. On the upslope of the catenary the effort increases, however. There is the effort of walking uphill. Also the bridge seems to increase the weight born by my legs when they meet the bridge on its slight up swing.  There are four more suspension bridges to cross today, Ngima tells us.

As I take every step uphill I console myself that I have one less step to go uphill. But invariably there is a downhill descend that frustrates me because every step downhill must be made up by a step uphill. I irrationally wish all of the trail were just a steady climb. This wish will come true and give me grief.

We pass through an area where Rhododendron bushes border the trail. Ngima tells us that Rhododendron is the national flower of Nepal. Rahul observes that it is our state flower in West Virginia.

We reach the Sagarmatha National Park entrance gate. Sagarmatha is the Nepali name of Mount Everest. When I first saw the word in English text I read it as the Hindi word Mother (matha) Ocean (sagar) and wondered why such a name is given for a mountain peak. Later I learned that the word actually means Sky’s (sagar) Forehead (matha) in Nepali. The sherpa name for Mount Everest is Jomolungma, which means “Mother of the World”.

As Ngima is getting the entrance permit from the park office located near the gate, we visit a small museum nearby. A display at the museum shows that the number of visitors to Sagarmatha National Park is steadily growing and exceeded 30,000 in 2008 with more than 50% of the visitors coming from the top five countries UK, Germany, USA, Australia, and Japan. A 3D replica at the museum shows the topography of Mount Everest. I learn that GLOF or Glacial Lake Outburst Flood is a potential danger in the Khumbu region.  Glaciers in the region (and elsewhere in Himalaya) are receding, leaving behind glacial lakes, dammed by end moraines. If a moraine dam fails, the water from the glacial lake will burst out, leading to destructive floods and debris flows. GLOF events have been increasing in recent years, presumably because of global warming.

By noon we reach Jorsalle (8990 ft/2740 m) and stop for lunch at River View Terrace Restaurant. We take a 45-minute lunch break and continue the trek. There are no more villages along the trail until we reach Namche Bazaar.

As we approach another suspension bridge, Ngima spies a couple of trekkers across the river who are about to take a wrong turn on the trail. They don’t have a guide. Ngima shouts across the bridge and tells them which way to go. Ngima tells us that the trail they were going to take would have made them unnecessarily walk a longer distance.

We reach a valley strewn with boulders. I recognize this as the place I saw in the TV show, which motivated me for the trek. The trail is flat and the walk is easy. But this is so atypical of most of the trail.

We come to the end of the flat trail. Ngima points to a suspension bridge high up in the sky. It is the Hillary suspension bridge, the fifth and final bridge for the day. I tell him I don’t know how I was going to climb that high and reach the bridge. Ngima smiles and says “slowly, slowly.”

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Hillary suspension bridge is the higher one in this picture.

After an arduous climb we reach the Hillary suspension bridge. Rahul and I triumphantly pose in front of the bridge for a photograph. What I don’t realize is that the climb after the suspension bridge is twice as high as the climb to the bridge.

From now on the climb is steady uphill. I had disliked descends on the way up because the descends must be compensated by equivalent ascends, adding to the effort. Now my wish has come true, but at the expense of climbing “endless steps,” enduring endless grief.

I try not to think about the rest of the day or even the trail immediately ahead. I just keep looking at the four feet in front of me. I try to banish all thoughts about reaching Namche from my mind, consoling myself that every step I take shortens the trail by one step. I am aware of my heavy breath and pounding heart. I ignore the spectacular scenery surrounding me, focusing only on the trail in front of me.

I wonder whether this is mindful walking. I am fully focussed on the present, the essence of mindfulness meditation, originating from Budha’s teachings, now popular in the west. “Mindfulness helps us to come back to the here and now, to be aware of what is going on in the present moment, and to be in touch with the wonders of life” explains Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. Budha must have been familiar with such arduous mountain paths. I wonder whether the physical paths that Budha took influenced the spiritual path he prescribed.

Soon I become very slow in walking. Ngima is eyeing me with concern and asks whether I am ok. I make frequent stops to catch a breath.

To compound the difficulty, the trail is becoming treacherous at places. Literally and figuratively one foot stands between you and a fatal accident. At some places a bulging rock formation narrows the trail, leaving enough space for only one foot. On the right side is the mountain. The left side of the trail borders a precipice that drops off into an abyss. At places the gravel on the trail is loose. I am dog tired. My cognition is perhaps impaired, and I am liable to take short cuts that could turn out to be dangerous. One misstep is all it takes. Ngima becomes vigilant. He is usually in front of me. Now he moves behind me. He shifts his trekking pole from the usual right hand to the left hand. From the side of my eye I can see his trekking pole repeatedly coming between me and the left edge of the trail. I am pleased that Ngima is taking extra effort to protect me.

We get past the treacherous part of the trail. The climb is still steady. I am completely worn out. Ngima offers to carry my backpack, and I gladly hand it over to him. Shedding that eight pounds gives me great relief. Ngima admonishes me for making the pack too heavy. He thinks that I am carrying snacks for the way, which, he says, the porter could have carried. But actually the bag contains my knee braces and a rain jacket, which I brought along as a precaution. I will not carry them tomorrow.

We reach a police check post outside Namche Bazar, and I rest outside on an embankment while Ngima is getting our papers inspected. A few other trekkers are also waiting outside the check post. I overhear one trekker telling his companion, “Tengboche is only four more hours from here. May be we should go all the way to Tengboche today.” I miss the sarcasm in his tone and am impressed that he is able to even entertain such a thought. I will meet him later on the trek and realize that he was only joking.

After resting near the check post, I recover some of my strength and am able to carry my backpack the rest of the way. We walk further uphill and reach a gate, which Ngima gladly announces as the gate to Namche. But even after reaching the gate nothing in Namche is within easy reach; we still have to walk uphill to reach our tea house lodge.

Whatever I dreaded about this day has come true. The “endless steps” really felt endless. I am exhausted. I am already ready to turn back and go home. But fortunately my knees do not pain, my feet do not have blisters, and I do not develop any symptoms of mountain sickness.  That gives me a glimmer of hope that I might be able to reach the base camp.

Eight hours after we left Phakding we reach Hotel Zambala. It is a new hotel, consisting of a two-story building. The front yard is unfinished. We enter the yard from a corner, going down several awkwardly piled loose rocks serving as steps. A dog greets us at the entrance. As Ngima goes inside the hotel, I plump down on a plastic chair kept on the front yard. Ngima comes back and beckons us into the dining room. It is nice and warm inside. Ngima tells us that the owner’s wife is his relative. Her picture with her mother in law, both in traditional Sherpa clothing, is hanging on the dining room wall. Her son, eight- or nine-year old, is lying on a bed at the far end of the dining room, watching a cartoon movie on the TV.

Rahul complains of a headache. We have garlic soup and vegetable momos for dinner. Rahul takes an Advil, and feels better quickly.

Ngima shows us his room and tells us to call him at night, in case there is a problem. People begin to feel altitude sickness starting from Namche.

We go to bed at 7 pm. Later at night I start getting a headache, and my head starts to spin. I feel that I did not drink enough water. The valve on the hydration pack was not working properly, and I was getting only a trickle as I sucked on the valve. I realize that I might be dehydrated because my urine does not meet the specifications stated as astute alliterations “pale and plentiful” or “clear and copious”. I try to rehydrate myself by keeping a water bottle inside my sleeping bag and drinking the water frequently at night. By morning I feel better.

Elevations
Namche Bazar           11,286′ (3440 m)

Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
22,835 10.3 3,178 469

Day 1: Lukla and Phakding

The hotel lobby calls our room at 5 am and reminds us that we must leave for the airport immediately. Madhav and Ngima are already waiting in the lobby. Rahul and I hurry down to the lobby, and we leave the hotel at 5:15 am. We experience no delay on the way as the traffic is very light. We reach the airport in about twenty minutes.

As we hurry to check in, Madhav adorns us with marigold garlands, something he had intended to — but could not — do yesterday while receiving us at the airport. The airline company does not allow us to carry the garland on the airplane, however.

The airport is chaotic as a number of morning flights are taking off to various destinations. Travelers prefer early morning flights because the mountain weather is relatively calm in the morning and could unexpectedly turn bad later in the day, causing flight cancellations. Madhav has booked us the first flight to Lukla.

We check in at the Tara Air counter. I am concerned that our unlabeled sleeping bags, loosely tied to the duffel bags may not reach Lukla. Ngima assures me that they would reach. We wait at the terminal for the flight to be announced with other travelers, many of them appearing to be from Europe or America. I eye other travelers with trepidation and spot several in my age group.

The flight is announced, and we board a bus to go to the aircraft. We wait in the bus as the pilot inspects the aircraft and our luggage is loaded.

TaraAirCraft
Tara Air aircraft being readied for the flight to Lukla

The aircraft is a Twin Otter DHC-6/400, a Canadian 19-passenger STOL (Short Takeoff and Landing) utility aircraft. It is small, full and cramped with passengers seated in rows of three. The air hostess is friendly and welcoming. She distributes candies, and cotton for plugging the ears.

A friendly Nepali man turns back from the seat in front of us and asks:

You are from India, deep south. Right?
Yes, I am originally from Kerala.
I guessed it from your accent. Are you going all the way to the basecamp or turning back from Namche?
We will try to go all the way to the basecamp.

He has been to the basecamp 30-40 times and shows me a smart phone photo of Mount Everest taken during one of those trips. It’s peeking from behind other mountains and does not measure up to the Mount Everest in my imagination. He asks whether we have a guide. His advice: listen to your guide; take your time, it is not a contest; and drink plenty of water.

The tiny aircraft is flying between and well below towering mountain peaks. Fortunately, the weather is calm. There is no turbulence, and the visibility is good.

About forty-five minutes later, the edge of the runway at the Tensing-Hillary airport in Lukla appears into view suddenly. The aircraft traverses the 1600 ft runway that slopes up at a 12% grade. The pilot successfully makes the ninety degree turn at the end of the runway and brings the aircraft to a gentle stop.

This airport was named as the number one extreme airport in the world by an H2-channel show. The challenges include fog, turbulence, wind shear, short runway length, high elevation, proximity of mountain peaks, and a mountain weather prone to unexpected changes. The edge of the runway is about 2000 ft above a valley. Once the pilot decides to land there is no turning back in the thin air, and there is no instrument landing system to assist the pilot. Perhaps because of the suddenly rising fog, an aircraft crashed in 2008 killing 18 people on board, mostly German tourists.

The Lukla airport opened in 1964, realizing a vision of Edmund Hillary, who with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first to reach Everest summit. Following that ascent at age 33, Hillary devoted much of the rest of his life to helping the Sherpa people of Nepal. It was clear to him that an airstrip would be required for transporting materials needed for the schools he wanted to build for educating Sherpa children. The airstrip was built by Sherpas. They cut shrubs, broke stones, and paved the airstrip during the day. At night around a hundred of them, invigorated by sherpa beer, walked up and down the airstrip to tamp down the stones and to flatten the airstrip. The asphalted runway was constructed only in 2001.

The friendly Nepali man tells me that he and his Nepali colleague are taking their friends from US Jackie and Charlie to view the mountains. They will take a helicopter flight from Lukla to a place with a good view of the mountains and return to Kathmandu later in the day. This is part of Jackie and Charlie’s honeymoon trip. Jackie is beaming, good-natured, and visibly excited. Her good nature and excitement are boundless and spills over to her companions. Charlie is quietly fidgeting with his camera.  When the airplane door opens, Jackie wishes us good luck with our trek and hurries out with her companions to catch their helicopter flight. I wish her well, perhaps silently.

I have the impression that the weather may not be cold in Lukla because Madhav had told us to carry shorts. However, we step out of the aircraft into freezing cold; the temperature is perhaps around 30 oF. We zip up our light jackets and quickly don our caps. We ask Ngima whether we should take out the down jackets from our duffel bags. Ngima assures us that it will warm up as soon as the sun starts shining.

Our flight is a half hour late. On our way to the terminal building we pass passengers that have already formed a line near the runway to board the return flight.

Ngima introduces us to his cousin and our porter Pramod. They have already collected our baggage, including our sleeping bags. The steep climb from the airport to a restaurant nearby foretells what’s to come later in the day. We go to Paradise Lodge & Restaurant for breakfast: scrambled eggs, toast and tea. We compliment the lodge owner’s wife for her good spoken English.

The trek starts around 8:30 am after breakfast. We stop at a bank to convert dollars into Nepalese rupees for expenses on the trek. Our trekking fee covers lodging, breakfast, lunch and dinner. But we must pay for bottled water, soft drinks, beer, snacks, wi-fi, and charging electronic gadgets.

We go past a check post, and report all our electronic gadgets: iPad, iPhones, and GoPros. I ask whether there is a charge for carrying photographic equipment. Ngima tells me that the authorities want us to report our gadgets only to help them in case an item is reported lost or stolen during the trek. I don’t understand how the record will help, however.

Located next to the check post is the National Luminary Pasang Lhamu Memorial Gate, named after Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, who in 1993 became the first Nepalese woman to summit Mount Everest. Sadly, she perished during her descend because the weather turned bad. (On 16 May 1975, Junko Tabei of Japan became the first woman to summit Mount Everest.)

Trek entrance
National luminary Pasang Lhamu memorial gate

Through the gate we enter the Lukla – Everest Base Camp Trekking Trail. My practice walks have not prepared me at all for this trail with its steep up hill climbs, steep down hill descends, and rocks of various sizes strewn all over. I realize that if I am not careful I could twist my ankle and end my trek right then on the first day. I learn not to look beyond four feet in front of me, most of the time. Otherwise, the seemingly endless trail in front of me disheartens me. Also, I am concerned about tripping on the rocks.

I mentally thank whoever recommended a good pair of trekking shoes for that great advice. Also I thank whoever recommended the trekking poles. I am using them for the first time and realize that they are not only knee savers, but also life savers. They are a tremendous help to reduce the stress on the knees, especially while going downhill. They also help propel me up hill. (My left wrist has healed enough that it can bear the weight.) More importantly, I am able to steady myself while walking the trail strewn with rocks and loose gravel. Without their support I could lose my footing and fall off the trail.

The trails are etched on the sides of enormous mountains. The outer edge of the trail could drop off hundreds of feet, making sections of the trail treacherous. When you stand on the trail and look around, there is much to take in. You can at once feel your insignificance as well as your luck being a part of the breath-taking awesomeness that surrounds you:

And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.
I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going, God.
Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn’t have.
I feel very unimportant compared to You.

― Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

After an hour’s walk we reach a chorten in the middle of the trail. Chorten (Tibetan) or stupa (Hindi) is a heap of stones, some of them inscribed with the Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. I ask Ngima about the meaning of the mantra. He says wisely that it means Om Namah Sivaya, which he knows that I will understand as a Hindu.  Later I learn that a literal translation of the mantra does not reveal its deeper meaning about the nature of suffering and, as Dalai Lama explains, how the union of compassion and wisdom enables one to transform into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha. This is hard to comprehend at first. Then I realize that this is not unlike the mathematical equations I use as a scientist. One equation, for example, contains three terms, and the meaning of each term can be readily stated as the time-derivative of density and so on. But that by itself does not reveal the equation’s meaning that mass is neither created nor destroyed or the even deeper meaning that the laws of physics do not change with time itself (according to Noether’s theorem, if you are curious).

We see many prayer wheels with mantras written on them. Turning the prayer wheel is believed to have the same meritorious effect as chanting the mantras.

Ngima explains that we must always keep the chorten on our right hand side while passing it. I get distracted while listening to Ngima. As I take the next step down, I slip and fall awkwardly and unwisely get up immediately. It is a potentially dangerous fall; I could have twisted my ankle or broken a bone. Fortunately, I am not hurt. Ngima immediately suggests that we take a break. We stop at a teahouse close by, to drink tea.

Soon we see a train of dzopkyo or dzo, a cross-breed between yak and cow. In the train there are 8 or 9 dzos, all of them wearing around their necks bells that announce their impending arrival. The leader dzo knows which way to go. The others follow it. The herdsman walks behind the train and calls out commands to keep the train moving. Ngima tells us to move to the uphill side of the trail, stop and wait until the train passes. He pushes away the dzos that occasionally come too close to us. They have sharp horns and could hurt us, if they take a swing at us.

We encounter more dzo trains and donkey trains on the way. The trains are carrying provisions for people and the teahouse lodges uphill: cooking gas, kerosene, rice, etc. The donkey trains cannot go higher than Namche Bazaar. On uphill climbs, occasionally a donkey would stop for a moment, perhaps to catch a breath. Its beautiful eyes seem to search for the place where to take the next step and continue the journey.

Porters pass us carrying loads in oversized baskets called doko, wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. They carry the doko on their back and support it by a head strap called namlo. They appear to possess superhuman powers for carrying heavy loads that can exceed their body weight. Furthermore, they do this feat on long, steep up hill climbs, at high elevations, where the air is thin. Not surprisingly, they are the most energy-efficient load-carriers in the world, per scientists from the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium. Part of the reason for the high-efficiency is thought to be their rice diet, which makes the CO2-production to oxygen-consumption ratio low – just below 1. As the porters walk up hill with heavy loads, they bend almost sixty degrees to the vertical, supporting themselves with a short, stout T-shaped walking stick called tokma.

Ngima tells us that many Sherpa names are based on the day of the week the child is born: Ngima is Sunday; Dawa, Monday; Migmar, Tuesday; Lhagpa, Wednesday; Phurba, Thursday; Pasang, Friday; and Penba, Saturday. There is an Ang in front of Ngima’s name, which he explains is similar to a Bahadur or Singh found at the end of many Nepali or Indian names.

The basecamp trail goes through the Solukhumbu District, home to Sherpas. Ngima’s family is originally from lower Solukhumbu. Sherpas migrated from Tibet some six hundred years ago and speak a Tibetic language. Sherpas follow Buddhism, whereas the majority of Nepalese are Hindus. Ngima tells us that Hindus and Buddhists live in harmony.

We see one tourist with a vacant expression on her face going toward Lukla on the back of a mule. A sherpa girl is tending the mule, walking by its side. Ngima thinks that the tourist is probably going back because she became sick and could not continue the trek.

Ngima gets a call on his cell phone. He tells us that the call is from his wife who is working in cypress. I mistake cypress for some company or agency in Kathmandu. No, it is Cypress the country, Ngima clarifies. His wife is a household worker in Cypress, working 24 hours a day, earning €500 per month. Ngima is 32 and she is 30.They have a three-year old daughter, Choten, who lives with Ngima and his parents in Kathmandu. Ngima didn’t seem happy about the situation. “What to do, he says, “the economic conditions are not good in Nepal.” His wife is from Darjeeling in India and studied English there. She was working at a school for small children. When she lost her job, she could not find another one in Nepal. She will be back after three years.

We come to the first suspension bridge on our trek, the Mudslide bridge. The flat trail approaching the bridge is covered by loose, brown dirt. I feel a moment of joy, seeing what appears to be familiar terrain for me. But I trip and fall. Hidden under the loose dirt are ledges, which I could not see. I am not injured as the dirt is soft. The bridge is swaying as we walk across. Ngima helps me cross the bridge. He doesn’t want me to hold the handrails as the ends of the wires wound around them are sharp and may cut my hand.

Now an arduous up hill trail comes up. I focus only on my next step, not looking further ahead on the trail. It is important to ensure that my next step is sure. I use the trekking poles to find spaces between the rocks for a soft landing and to propel me uphill.

A large group of trekkers, mostly American teens in bright red jackets, talking excitedly, comes behind us. We give way, and the group quickly walks past us, like a fast train.

We take a second break. Phakding is now only one hour away. It’s a steady climb from here on.

We have been walking in parallel to the Dudh Koshi river for a while, but could not see it as it is a short distance away from the trail. But now the river flows almost perpendicular to the trail before turning and becoming parallel to the trail. Now, we get to see its milky white and blue waters, gurgling over rocks.

DudhKoshi-Phakding
Dudh Koshi River

About four hours after leaving Lukla, we reach Budha Lodge in Phakding. The climb is more arduous than I had expected, an expectation based on the faulty reasoning that Phakding is at a lower elevation than Lukla. I reprove myself for forgetting the thermodynamics principle that work is a path function; that is work (or effort) depends on the path between starting and ending points, not on the elevations of those points. There are few straight paths on this mountain trail; it goes up one mountain, down to a valley, up another mountain and so on. My apprehension about tomorrow’s trek increases. If the “easy” trek is this hard, what about trekking on the feared “endless steps” to Namche Bazaar?

We go to our room, on the second floor, taking a steep staircase that could almost qualify as a ladder. The amenities in the lodge are limited as I had expected, but the lodge is cleaner than I had thought. The porter is unloading our bags. We leave our back packs in the room and go down to the dining room for lunch. Ngima brings us the menu and takes the order, writing it down in a notebook. We pick the standard Nepali fare Dal Bhat (lentils and rice) with vegetables and a papadam, which costs about four dollars.

After lunch Rahul goes out for taking pictures and sightseeing. I come back to the room, remove the sweaty clothes, wear shorts and a sweater. The room is cold. The bed and comforter are invitingly clean. I crawl under the comforter, shivering uncontrollably. I worry about the cold at night.

The dinner is served at 6:30 pm. I order garlic soup and fried rice; Rahul, a noodle dish. Ngima tells us that garlic soup is a good antidote for high elevation. After dinner, Ngima brings us grapes and a banana, fruits that he brought with him from Kathmandu. This is going to be a daily practice.

After dinner we pick up a conversation with Ngima and the lodge employee Santosh. A middle aged gentleman man joins the conversation. I had seen him earlier in the day, walking around the lodge with a pair of pliers in his hands, and had taken him to be a handy man. He talks about his trips to Alaska, Boston, Quebec and other places in a good English accent. I am curious about what took him to those places. He says that he trains people for mountain climbing. Then I learn that he is Dorjee Sherpa, who has summited Everest six times, and has appeared in a 1996 IMAX movie about climbing Mount Everest, as a member of the movie crew. On the dining room wall is a framed newspaper article with the headline “Bernard Voyer à l’assaut du sommet du grandiose.” At the bottom of the article is Dorjee’s photo and a tribute to him entitled “un guide émerveillé” (a marvelous guide). Hanging next to the newspaper article is a photo of Mount Everest autographed “to dear friend Dorjee” by Bernard Voyer. Dorjee is originally from Lukla, but built this lodge on his wife’s property located in Phakding. On April 16th he is going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Last April when an avalanche — triggered by the earth quake — struck the basecamp, Dorjee was eating lunch with twenty others in a tent there. The avalanche killed seventeen people at the basecamp (and five people at other locations on the mountain). He and his companions in the tent were unhurt. It was the wind, which accompanied the avalanche, that knocked down people on the rocks, injuring or killing them. A Peruvian climber from Dorjee’s tent ran out in panic. She was knocked down by the wind and hit the rocks face down. Fortunately, she survived, although with broken front teeth.

Before Dorjee told us this story, I had not heard about the wind that came with the avalanche. Later I read Eric Simonson’s (International Mountain Guides) description in a blog: “The earthquake caused a huge block of ice to fall from the ice cliff in the saddle between Pumori and Lingtren: This saddle is at 6150m and EBC is 5360m, so the difference is 790m (or about 2,591 ft). The tons and tons of falling ice going this vertical distance created a huge aerosol avalanche and accompanying air blast that hit the upper part of Everest BC and blew many tents across the Khumbu Glacier towards the lower Icefall”.

On our way to the room we see Santosh watching on TV a live 20-20 cricket match between New Zealand and India.  New Zealand is batting and the score is 54 runs for three wickets with 11.2 overs remaining. Santosh is hopeful that the Kiwis will be contained within 120 runs. Then Indian batsmen will be able to lead their team to victory. Santosh has confidence in the Indian batsmen Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli.

Santosh studied maths and economics in Kathmandu and is now working in Buddha lodge. He has a good opinion about President Obama’s good interaction with the rest of the world. “How is Prime Minister Modi? Seems all talk and no action,” he asks. “Rising through the BJP ranks and beating Rahul Gandhi is by itself a gift to democracy and India, even if he ends up doing nothing else,” I observe.

My worry about the cold at night is unfounded. We put the sleeping bag on the bed, and cover it with a comforter. And the fleece liner inside the sleeping bag provides another layer of insulation. A little while after I crawl inside the liner, I become comfortably warm. But if the warmth inside the sleeping bag makes you forget that the room is actually very cold and touch anything metallic like an iPad, then you are in for a shock.

Elevations
Lukla            8,950′ (2728 m)
Phakding    8,661′ (2640 m)

Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
17,303 7.81 2,766 219

Kathmandu

On March 14th we fly from Delhi to Kathmandu. The flight starts an hour late because of bad weather in Kathmandu.

An hour and a half later the airplane is flying over the mountains surrounding Kathmandu valley, home to two and a half million people. There are houses on mountain sides and even on mountain tops. From the airplane they look like trailer homes perhaps because their roofs are made of tin sheets, a material easier to carry up the mountain trails, the only way to reach the houses.

Soon the airplane is approaching Kathmandu. Paved roads with light traffic begin to come into sight. Clusters of buildings, mostly three or four storied, come into sight. Even from the airplane up in the sky, the city appears dusty.

The plane lands in Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu. While we wait for the airplane door to open, workers wearing yellow, reflective safety vests approach the airplane. A security officer, wearing a black jacket and a red tie, is already stationed near the airplane. Unbidden, the workers go to the officer. With a distant look in his eyes, the officer goes through the motions of a pat down. Then the workers go to their duty stations.

The airplane door opens. Ancient, dusty, buses in faded brick-red color are waiting for us on the tarmac.  We board a bus, which becomes full, barely leaving sufficient standing room. The bus is driven off with the doors wide open.

The sign “Welcome to the Land of Buddha”greets us at the terminal entrance. Gautama Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama, was born in the sixth century BCE in Lumbini, a place not far from here (186 miles or 300 km to the south-west).

The airport reminds me of old Indian airports, from more than fifteen years ago, although there are signs of modernity like the touch screen computers available for filling out visa-on-arrival forms. The immigration staff is friendly and fast. Rahul and I obtain our visas, pick up our baggage, and leave the terminal without delay. We carry our baggage on a cart, and porters do not bother us as I had read somewhere.

We step outside the terminal. Across the street, behind a railing, cab drivers and guides are waiting with name boards in their hands. We cross the street and check for our names. Our trek operator, Madhav Pandey, had emailed me that someone will be waiting for us at the airport with name boards, reconfirming this even last week. We don’t find anyone waiting to receive us. This is unlike the Madhav Pandey that I came to know through my email correspondence with him. He had always been prompt in replying to emails, even on weekends.

The promptness was part of the reason I had selected his company from a list of thirty-four I had created from the Internet and the Lonely Planet guide Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya. I had shortlisted four companies from that list and written to them five months ago. My emails included this question: “I am 61 and in good health. I have been practicing 10-mile non-stop walks on a trail, wearing trekking shoes and backpack, about once a week, for the last one year. But do not have any trekking experience. Do you think I can do the trek?” I didn’t expect that anyone could give me a definitive answer, but wanted to spare them any surprise. No one directly answered that question, except Madhav, who replied: “No problem, i can give you guaranteed that you could success your trip without any problem.” I had sensed that perhaps he was less established and was eager for my business. Nevertheless, I was encouraged by his optimism. Also, I took note that he always answered every one of my questions, in detail, which I liked. I found that Madhav’s company had good comments and ratings on Tripadvisor. I liked the way his website described the office cleaner: “Brings the sunshine to the office”. So I decided to book our trek with him.

We wait at the arrivals area. Tourists find their hosts. They are garlanded, sometimes hugged, and escorted to waiting cars. Soon we are the only tourists left at the arrivals area. A couple of drivers or guides are still waiting with the name boards, no longer held upright. Taxi drivers inquire:

Sir, Taxi?… Hotel?
No, thanks. We are waiting for our host.

I look around for a public telephone to call Madhav. But none can be found. I wonder whether my cell phone from India will work here in Nepal. I dial one of Madhav’s numbers and get a message in Nepali. Perhaps I didn’t dial the number correctly or the phone is busy. Nonetheless, I am happy that the cell phone is working. I try a second number with no success. I dial a third number, which appears to be a cell phone number. The phone rings on the other end and is answered. Relieved, I ask:

Mr. Madhav Pandey?
Yes.
I am Madhava Syamlal. My son and I are waiting at Kathmandu airport.
Yes?
You were supposed to pick us up. We have booked a trekking trip with you.
Sir, may I know your name.

I repeat my name. There is brief silence and a moment of recognition.

Sir, you are calling from Delhi, right?
No, I am at Kathmandu airport.
Oh, my god…I am sorry. I was expecting you in the evening. I will be there soon.

He keeps the phone down.

A police officer comes to us and asks us to leave the arrivals area. A wiry man in denim trousers and a shabby, light jacket approaches us and points out a place where we could wait. We move over there. The man is restless and watchful. He hangs around us. After some time he introduces himself as Bans. He offers his cell phone to us, telling us to make a call at no cost. I tell him that I have already contacted my host. Perhaps he is well-meaning. But I am wary of him, not knowing his motive and his role at the airport: taxi driver, hotel agent?  A half hour passes. Madhav calls back and tells me that he is on his way.

Another half hour passes. A man jumps out of a moving car (it seems), comes running toward me, shakes my hand and hugs me without an introduction. I immediately recognize him as Madhav. He looks younger than how he looks in the photo posted on his company website. He is genuinely sorry for the misunderstanding. It’s his first mistake in thirteen years, he tells me.

He pushes the luggage cart toward the taxi and opens the trunk. The trunk looks like mud. The driver opens the door for us. The deflated seat cushions look like mud. Looks like Madhav hired the taxi in a hurry.

On the way to the hotel, I can read the billboards and names of official buildings by the roadside because they are written either in English or Devanagari or both. This makes the city less disorienting for me, unlike a place like Beijing, where I was unable to read the signs. On the road, there are many Maruti’s, a brand of cars made in India. The city vaguely reminds me of Benares, which is about 300 miles to the south, in India, where I had gone to school many years ago. However, Katmandu is cleaner, and there are no beggars, cows or cycle rickshaws on the streets. Perhaps the similarities are in the dusty appearance and style of the buildings or the profusion of electric wires hanging from the poles by the sides of the roads. Unlike Benares many people are wearing dust masks.

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Street scene in Kathmandu

Twenty minutes later we reach Hotel Royal singi. We check in and go to our room to freshen up. Madhav waits for us in the lobby. We join him soon and sit down to talk.

Madhav started out as a trekking porter. Then he became a trekking guide. He started the trekking business thirteen years ago. He and his family live in Kathmandu. He has a seven-year old daughter, whom he had named Sophie. But she got her name changed to Ayra when she became older.

Soon our guide Angngima Sherpa joins us, young, smiling, with a hint of rosy cheeks, attesting his robust health. He has been with Madhav’s company right from the beginning.

Madhav invites us to lunch. We head out of the hotel and walk, Madhav and Ngima in the front, Rahul and I behind. We go west on Teendhara Marg and north on the broad Durbar Marg lined with posh shops and cafes. We head west on Narayanhiti Path. I know that Narayan is one of the Hindu trinity and Path (not the english word path) means boulevard. But I do not understand the meaning of the word “hiti.” Later I learn that “hiti” means “waterspout.”  The street name comes from the fact that there is a waterspout close to a Narayan temple located here, near what used to be the Nepal palace. The palace is now a museum. On the other side of Narayanhiti Path is the heavily guarded American Embassy.

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Walking through Thamel

We cross busy streets using a technique, which reminds me of India. It is very hard to cross the street with the heavy traffic. When you find a slight opening in the heavy traffic, however, take your chance and cross the road. The traffic will ever so slightly slow down or alter course to let you through. For extra protection you may hold your up turned palm toward the traffic as if to block it.  But hurry, or the traffic will engulf you, screaming past you both in front and back.

We go further west on Tridevi Sadak and reach Thamel, the busy shopping district, which caters to the tourists. Soon we reach Yangling Tibetan restaurant, a well-known but unpretentious restaurant. I order Chilli chicken momos and coke. The momos, Tibetan steamed dumplings, are spicy and delicious.

I ask Madhav whether the earthquake last year affected the Trekking business. He tells me that two disasters hit Nepal last year. One was the earth quake in April 2015. The other was India’s blockade of fuel supply to Nepal, in September 2015.

I had read about the blockade, but did not appreciate its severe impact on tourism, which apparently decreased by 40% (Wikipedia), a big loss for a country whose primary source of revenue is tourism. Nepal imports all of its petroleum supplies from India, brought in by roughly 300 trucks that cross the border every day. The blockade had reduced that to less than ten trucks a day.  The government of Nepal accused India of an undeclared blockade. India denied responsibility, stating that the trucks could not enter Nepal because of an agitation in the India-Nepal border region by the local Madhesis.

After lunch we go to the store Outdoor Clothing & Gears. We rent sleeping bags rated -10 oC at the rate of $1 per bag per day. No deposit is required perhaps because Madhav is with us. We also buy fleece liners for the sleeping bags.

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Ngima, Rahul and Madhav in a trekking gear store

We come back to the hotel and discuss the plans for tomorrow with Madhav and Ngima. The flight is at 6:15 am; we should leave the hotel at 5:00 am. Madhav and Ngima take leave.

We go to our room and pack our duffel bags for the trek, keeping the rest of our stuff in a bag that will be left at the hotel. We plan to go out for dinner in the evening. But as we get ready to leave the hotel a severe thunderstorm rages outside. We opt for the restaurant at the hotel.

We are excited about the trek that will start tomorrow.

Kathmandu Elevation = 4,593′ (1,400 m)

Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
12,613 5.69 3,485 60

Flying to Delhi

The trip does not start well. At Pittsburgh airport the agent tells me that my checked baggage is four pounds over weight. She wants me to transfer the excess weight  into my carry on bag. While lifting or rearranging the bags in a hurry, I injure my left wrist. Now the left hand cannot bear any weight. I have trouble lifting the carry on bag into the overhead bin of the aircraft.

A little over an hour after take off, the city lights of Chicago appear below, like a million shiny gold bars arranged in an elaborate pattern that begins at the dark edge of Lake Michigan and stretches into the distant western horizon. The sun is about to set.  As the airplane banks to land at O’Hare airport, I catch a glimpse of the western sky, deep red in color. Just as the airplane wheels touch the runway, the color disappears and the sky turns dark.

Taking down the carry on bag from the overhead bin is easier than I had worried. But the left hand is now slightly swollen, and the pain has worsened. With only the right hand I am unable to raise the carry on bag on to my back. When I try to carry the bag on my right side, it keeps banging into my right knee. I am afraid that I might injure my right knee. I stand helpless near the long escalator leading to the baggage claim area at O’Hare. The Friday evening crowd of travelers rushes past me. Unable to take the escalator I am annoyed at everyone … unfairly for what is my own fault. After about ten minutes of fuming, it occurs to me that I can raise the bag on to a seat with the right hand, wait, and then lift the bag further up the seat back. Then I can turn around, sit down on the seat and get the bag on to my back. That works, and I go down the escalator to the baggage claim area.

I am able to get the rental car rather quickly. But the drive to the city is slow. The highway I-90 is clogged. There is the normal rush hour traffic plus the additional traffic of supporters and protesters of a Trump rally that will take place at the University of Illinois, Chicago campus. I reach Rahul’s place after an extra half hour of driving.

The next day afternoon Rahul and I arrive at the airport to catch the flight from Chicago to Delhi. We arrive a little later than the customary 3 hours before the flight. The check in and security lines are long. The agent incorrectly prints two Chicago-Delhi boarding passes for Rahul and none for me. We have to go back and get one printed for me. We reach the gate just as the last passengers are boarding the aircraft. I am pleased to find much leg room in the Air India flight.

The aircraft heads straight north over Lake Michigan into Canada. The route map shows it flying over Greenland, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan into India. This route appears needlessly curved and, hence, longer than a straight route, an illusion caused by the flat map, which cannot account for Earth’s curvature.

I watch the English movie Big Short about the financial collapse of 2008. It depicts the criminal extremes of capitalism: banks preying on the hopes and dreams of millions of ordinary people, enticing them with sub prime mortgage, packaging the worthless mortgages into credit default swaps (CDS), selling the CDS to unsuspecting investors, and ultimately causing millions of ordinary people to lose their homes and jobs. But some are able to profit even from the collapse. The character Ben Rickert played by actor Brad Pitt chides his successful protegés as they begin to celebrate their potential gains from the collapse: “You just bet against the American economy. If we’re right it means people lose homes, jobs, retirement savings, pensions. These aren’t just numbers. For every point unemployment goes up, 40 thousand people die. Did you know that?”

I recall receiving repeated calls from my mortgage lender Countrywide, months before the collapse, enticing me to reduce my monthly mortgage payment (by extending the loan period). On the third call I asked the caller what advantage was he offering me by making me pay more finance charges. The caller laughed, and kept the phone down. A few months later Countrywide went belly up.

I watch another movie. This time a Malayalam movie called Left, Right, Left (actual name, not a translation), which in contrast to Big Short is fictional and has corrupt communism as its theme. A central character is a powerful, corrupt leader, who does not hesitate to get people murdered for standing in his way. The character makes a brief, but effective, appearance in the movie. He is confronted by a fellow ideologue, “Che Guera” Roy who asks about a bribe that the leader took for awarding a government project to a certain company. The leader explains, in a North Malabar Malayalam accent, that the money was used for helping his party and the poor people who support the party. But Roy points out that the leader must have personally used some of the bribe money. How else did he finance his son’s education in London? The leader narrates his story in a chilling tone. His grandfather was a bonded laborer of a feudal land owner, who worked perpetually for subsistence, enduring the humiliation of getting whipped even for small mistakes. His father (barely) escaped the servitude with the help of the flag pole erected by the party. Now, it is his turn. He must receive reparations for their suffering. He will not let anyone stand in his way, not even Roy.

Once on a night train from my hometown Tiruvalla to Kannur, I shared a compartment with a political leader, whose was implicated in a similar bribery scheme. My berth was right outside the leader’s coupe in the train. Two men approached me and introduced themselves as the leader’s body guards. They asked whether I would mind moving to another berth so that they can sit right outside the coupe, to guard the leader. I recall that they were extremely polite.

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View from the airplane window of snow covered peaks of the Himalayan range near Kabul

 

Now the plane is flying 35,000 ft over Afghanistan, close to Kabul. I catch a glimpse of the western part of Himalaya through the airplane window. The snow-covered peaks are a gleaming white. They appear peaceful and sacred. Surely, this landscape cannot stir up violence in the hearts of men, I think. The plane heads further south-east, and soon the landscape changes. The whiteness of snow peaked mountains gives way to brown rocky mountains, dry, dreary, desolate. Perhaps this could drive men to senseless violence, such as to destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan with machine guns.

We arrive at Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport on time, Sunday afternoon. We check into the airport hotel conveniently located near the transit lounge and spend the night comfortably.

Everest Base Camp Gear

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Item Quantity Description
Passport 1
Passport Photos 4
Spending money $500  $300 (spending) + $200 (tips), assuming that the trekking fees cover the meals and stay at Tea Lodges.
Backpack 1 A light-weight, water-proof daypack (25 L) for carrying essentials – like snacks, medicine, suncream, camera, passport, hat etc. Ideal daypacks have compression straps to reduce stress on your back and a (1-2 L) hydration pack to carry water.
Expedition duffel bag 1 This will be carried by the porter. Ideal bags (75-90 L) are made of waterproof laminate material, have strong and sturdy zippers that can be locked and are easy to access and pack with cold hands. The packed bag should weigh less than 15 kg.
Travel bag 1 This is for storing travel cloths and personal items at the hotel in Kathmandu.
Nylon Stuff sacks 3 These are useful for organizing clothes, medicines, electronic accessories etc. in the duffel bag.
Water bottle 1 For carrying drinking water during the trek or at night (1 L). The bottle may be kept inside the sleeping bag at night to keep the water warm.
Sleeping Bag 1 The tea lodges are not heated, and the nights are very cold. A -20 oC rated sleeping bag is recommended. However, I rented a -10 oC sleeping bag from Kathmandu and bought a sleeping bag liner.  They kept me warm at night with two comforters put on top.
Sun hat 1 I used a light weight hat with a visor during the trek. When it became too cold or windy, I could open a flap inside the hat to cover my ears.
Wool hat 1 I used the wool hat in the dining room and at night while sleeping.
Sun glasses 2 I used good quality prescription sun glasses with polarized lenses. 100%UV and 100%IR with a minimum of 80% light reduction lenses are recommended. I also carried an old pair as a back up.
Head lamp 1 This is essential for going to the rest room at night. I used an LED lamp with bright and low light settings, operated by three AAA batteries. The batteries lasted the whole trek.
Liner Gloves 1 I used a pair of light weight wool gloves during most of the days.
Gloves 1 I used a pair of heavy-duty gloves only during the last couple of days of ascent.
Trekking  boots 1 This is an extremely important gear. The boots must have a sturdy mid-sole, be water proof, and fit well over light and heavy sock combinations. To break in the boots, I wore the pair for several months. I carried the boots with me in my carry on bag during the international flight.
Trekking socks 3 I used heavy-duty wool socks. I also carried toe socks, which, however, I stopped using after the first day of trekking.
Slip-on shoes 1 I used a pair of light weight, slip-on shoes for walking in the tea house lodges. I did not carry my running shoes during the trek, to reduce weight.
Socks 3 I used these socks with the slip-on shoe.
Under shirts 3 During the trek I wore short-sleeved under shirts made of moisture wicking material that sit tightly on the skin.
Upper body base layer 3 I used Marino wool long-sleeved sweaters as the base layer. I used two of them for the trek during the day and one of them for evenings and night.
Upper body second layer 2 The second layer, or insulation layer, sits over the base layer. I used synthetic jackets that are windproof, lightweight and compressible. I used one jacket throughout the trek and the other one for evenings.
Upper body third layer 1 I used a medium weight, down-filled jacket with a hood. The hood was very useful near the base camp, especially when cold wind was blowing.
Short sleeved shirts 2 I did not need them during the trek.
Rain jacket 1 I did not use it during the trek. When the wind was blowing hard near the base camp, the guide wanted me to wear the rain jacket outside my down jacket. But I had not carried it in my day pack that day.
Briefs 4 I used cotton briefs.
Lower body base layer 2 I used synthetic thermal underwear. It was needed only for a few days while we were close to the base camp.
Light weight pants 2 I used pants made of material that is wind and UV resistant. I wore one pair for trekking and used the other as a spare and for evenings.
Light shorts 2 For use at night.
Trekking poles 1 I did not realize the importance of this item before the trek. They are both a knee saver and life saver. They reduce the effort on the knees as you go downhill and help you get a boost from your arm muscles as you go uphill. They also help stabilize you as you negotiate treacherous trails.
Camera 1 I used a GoPro and iPhone.
Snack bars 1 You crave for citrus tasting, salty, and sweet foods at higher altitudes. I took some fruit and nut bars and a mixture of nuts (peanuts, almonds, pistachios, pecans and hazelnuts.)
Water purification tablets 1 I used Potable Aqua brand iodine tablets. I treated the drinking water provided by tea lodges with iodine and used PA+Plus tablet to neutralize the iodine taste. I also bought bottled water when there was no time to treat the water. I also took a LifeStraw with me, which was not used, however.
Body cream 1 I used a baby lotion.
Sunscreen and chapstick 1 I used sunscreen and chapstick rated SPF 30 or higher.
Towel 2 I used light weight towels and hand kerchiefs.
Hand sanitizer 1 I used this frequently to clean hands, especially before meals.
Toilet paper 3 I used one dry roll of toilet paper and two packs of wet wipes.
Wet and dry wipes 4 Taking a shower is only rarely possible during the trek. I used the wet and dry wipes to clean my body.
Electro tabs 4 Provides electrolyte replacement. I occasionally took these tablets.
Advil 25 This was useful on a few occasions.
Neosprin 1 This was useful for treating a blister.
Diamox 250 mg 1 I took half a tablet twice a day for a couple of days when I was close to the base camp.
Imodium 1 This came in handy on occasions.
Moleskin 4 Used the precut blister dressings on one occasion.
Bandage tape and roll 1
Ciprofloxacin 1
Claritin 1
Advil allergy and congestion relief 1
Afrin 1
Visine 1
Stemetil 1
scissors, safety pins, nail clipper 1

 

Learning and preparing 

Learning everything about Everest base camp (EBC) trekking and thoroughly preparing for it, I thought, would compensate for my utter lack of trekking experience. Whether that was a reasonable strategy I will find out during the two weeks that will start next week. 

Fortunately, you can learn much about the trek from the internet and books, especially the Lonely Planet guide-book. I carefully read them. I reread sections to reinforce my optimism. “Did Lonely Planet guide-book call the trek from Phakding to Namche Bazaar torturous or merely tortuous?”, I wondered after one reading of the guide-book. I reread that section of the guide-book. Much to my relief, it says “tortuous.” That I can handle, I thought.

Eventually I came believe that my survival will depend upon what I read and learned. Here’s what I learned:

The most important thing that you learn is that the uphill trek, while exhausting, is not by itself the main problem. It’s the high altitude, to which the trek takes you, the main problem. At the altitude 5,380 m (17,600 ft), the air at EBC (the south base camp in Nepal) is thinner than at sea level, the air pressure having dropped to about half its value at sea level. So the air you breathe contains only about half the amount of oxygen at sea level, requiring you to breathe faster and deeper. Human body can cope with this low a level of oxygen; it responds by adjusting the physiology, such as by changing the composition of the blood. But it needs time for making the adjustments or for acclimatizing. You allow that time usually by spending an extra night at two locations along the way, instead of continuing the trek to a higher altitude those two days. You may trek to a higher altitude those days, but you must return to the same altitude for sleeping a second night. If you do not follow this acclimatization practice you could be stricken by AMS or worse problems.

As the air thins you become more prone to dehydration. First, the effort required for the uphill trek is causing water loss through sweating. Also, the faster breathing is causing more water loss through the breath. Furthermore, the lower air pressure makes it easier for water to become vapor and escape from the body. For instance, water boils at a lower temperature at EBC, 82 oC compared to 100 oC at sea level. So you must pay attention to remaining hydrated. Drinking 2-3 L of water every day is recommended. A hydration pack is a convenient way to carry and consume water on the trek. At night you keep a 1 L bottle of water inside the sleeping bag so that the water does not freeze and is ready for drinking when you wake up.

Equally important is the concern about the water quality. It is not uncommon for Trekkers to be stricken by stomach problems caused by the microbes from water, fruits, or salads consumed during the trek. Drinking bottled water, which is available for purchase throughout the trail, is recommended. But even bottled water need not be safe. One Trekker sarcastically commented: “bottled-water only means that the water is in a bottle”! If in doubt, you may use iodine or chlorine dioxide tablets to treat the water yourself. Iodine acts faster than chlorine dioxide, but leaves a distaste.  You may remove the distaste by neutralizing the iodine with a chemical.  But neutralize iodine only after a half hour of treatment, which is required for killing the microbes. You may also use a life straw to filter out the microbes or treat the water with UV rays. Even then one careless act could lead to a grumbling stomach, making it necessary to be also prepared with Cipra and Imodium tablets.

Not surprisingly, an essential gear is a pair of trekking boots. Get a pair of boots that fits well, has strong soles, and is waterproof. Be sure to break in the boots well, by occasionally wearing them at least for six weeks before the trek. Breaking in is so important that it is recommended that on the international flight to Nepal you wear the boots or bring them in the carry on baggage, rather than putting them in the checked baggage. The reason is that in the event your baggage does not arrive before the trek begins, you could buy every other trekking gear in Kathmandu or Namche Bazaar, except a broken in pair of trekking boots.

You could find your way to EBC by yourselves, if you are strong and daring. For the rest of us there are Trekking companies that make all the arrangements: pick up and drop off at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, hotel accommodation in Kathmandu, flight tickets between Kathmandu and Lukla, trekking permit for Sagar Matha National Park, reservations at the tea house lodges, meals during the trek, and most importantly a porter and a guide. You may join a group trek or go by yourself. Usually, one guide and one porter are assigned to every pair of trekkers. You start the day by packing your duffel bag, which must not exceed 15 kg in weight so that the porters are not overburdened. You carry only a light-weight day pack, which holds your water bottle, snacks, down jacket and electronics. The porter brings your duffel bag to your destination, not walking along with you and not necessarily reaching the destination before you. The guide walks with you, guiding your way on the trail and helping you to overcome any difficulties encountered on the trail. The guide is likely to be a Sherpa, people from the Everest region,who are accustomed to the high altitudes. (Like Trekkers climbers also rely on Sherpas. When Mount Everest (at 29,028 ft the tallest mountain peak in the world) was first sumitted, Sherpa Tensing Norgay was Sir Edmund Hillary’s companion.)

The trek begins from Lukla, apparently after a thrilling flight from Kathmandu. Lukla can only be reached by flying from Kathmandu or by walking from Jiri. Walking adds one more week to the trek, and most Trekkers take the flight. At 9,383 ft the Lukla air strip could be hampered by poor weather and low visibility. One trekker described it as the world’s most dangerous air strip. But the safety record of the airport is actually very good per Lonley Planet guide-book.

You can expect to share the trekking trail with donkeys, dzokyos and yaks. The animals are busy and burdened; don’t expect them to give you way. Respectfully move out of their way, moving up toward the mountain-side of the trail so that the yaks don’t accidentally knock you down the edge of the trail.

Expect increasingly cold weather as you trek to higher altitudes. But the weather could become warm during the day. The clothing must be worn in layers, allowing you to adjust it to changing weather conditions.  Three layers are recommended for the upper body. The base layer, which is in contact with your skin, must wick moisture away from the body.  Cotton does not work well as a base layer as it keeps the skin wet. Capilene and Marino wool work well. The next layer is a shirt or a light jacket that can be easily unbuttoned or unzipped. This layer should offer protection from wind and UV. The outer layer is a jacket for keeping you warm at below freezing temperatures. A down jacket is ideal, giving you the most insulation for a given weight, compared with any other materials, natural or man-made. The lower body is protected by a base layer and a water-, wind- and UV-proof pants. Some prefer pants that can be converted into shorts when the weather warms up. You also need a rain coat, wool socks, gloves and mittens, woolen caps and a wind proof cap.

The eyes need to be protected from UV rays and bright light. High up on the trail you will reach above the tree-line, where there are no trees to block the sunlight. Sunglasses offering 80% light reduction and UV protection are required. It is good to carry a second pair, just in case the first pair is lost or damaged.

At the end of a day’s trek, usually around mid afternoon, you reach your next destination. Most trekkers stay in a so called Tea lodge. The lodge provides you basic amenities for the overnight stay. The restrooms are shared; toilets are squatting style. At lower altitudes hot showers are available for an extra fee. Only the common areas are heated. The rooms are cold. Be sure to bring a good sleeping bag, a bag with a -20 oC rating. You may buy or rent them at Kathmandu or Lukla. The lodges might provide the facility for accessing the internet and for charging your electronic devices for a fee.

It is good to carry a first aid kit because medical assistance can be hard to find or non-existent at higher altitudes. The Himalayan Rescue Association runs a clinic at Pheriche at 13,779 ft. It is also advisable to obtain an insurance that will cover emergency helicopter rescue.

There are also rare, unexpected dangers that lurk at high altitudes. About a year ago, in the afternoon of 25 April 2015, a MW 7.8 earthquake struck near EBC, triggering a snow avalanche on mount Pumori that hit the basecamp, killing at least twenty-two people.

The Beginning

The Everest Base Camp trekking trip my son and I plan to take is less than three weeks away. It is the culmination of over a year of planning and training. With mounting excitement and a tinge of fear, I await the trip.

As a child I had imagined going to see Himalaya. In a short story written in my ninth grade, I had sent the terminally ill protagonist to the foothills of the Himalaya. But going on a trip to see Himalaya was never a part of my childhood dreams.

I became aware of Everest Base Camp trek only about fifteen years ago. And I was fascinated. But most accounts I read about the trek seemed to be meant to scare the reader: the exhaustion, the knee pain, the squalor, diarrhea, thinning air, diamox, splitting headaches, and the specter of mountain sicknesses AMS and deadly HACE and HAPE. Some people expressed the allure of Himalaya, which made them fall in love with the region. A few accounts were reassuring: a sixty-five-year old wrote that he was not-so-fit, but had gone on multiple treks.

Actually, I had once given up on this idea, discouraged by the approaching age of sixty, the weakness in my leg caused by post-polio syndrome and the lack of any trekking experience. The post-polio syndrome seemed to keep weakening my legs, lessening my ability to walk. But two summers ago my wife encouraged me to take hour-long walks around the basket ball stadium called the Colesium in our town. Those walks changed my perception about my own ability.  Perhaps post-polio syndrome did not deserve all the blame; some of the inability was caused by my sitting behind a desk all day.

Then one day on TV I caught the glimpse of a group of young people sitting on a rock, resting while on an EBC trek. Something made me think that I should at least give it a try. Perhaps I should try long walks. If I could comfortably walk over ten miles, perhaps EBC trek is a possibility. If I couldn’t, at least my health will improve. So in December 2014 I started trying out the local trails in our town, and finally selected the gently climbing Deckers Creek Trail.

I had expected that the long walks will leave me exhausted, out of breath, with my heart pounding. My problems, however, started at the other extremity of my body:  My feet were the first to complain.  Toward the end of the first long walks, it felt like boiling water was poured on my toes and soles. Several blisters were revealed when the shoes and socks were removed. An unclipped toe nail, flexed during the walk and lead to subungual hematoma under the big toe nail. I learned to moisturize the feet, clip the toe nails and wear toe socks, to prevent blisters from forming.


Deckers Creek Trail

I had expected that the knee problems will first appear in my right knee as the right leg was weakened by polio, and lately I had begun to limp on that leg. But the left knee became the first to cause trouble. It started in May 2015 when I first reached the twelve-mile mark. On my return trip, which is mostly downhill, something started slipping in the left knee, like a belt slipping in an old machine. The feeling is more awful than painful. Stopping or slowing down helps. Folding the leg seems to reset the “belt”. But there is the nagging feeling that the “belt” may slip again and may even tear. Lifting the legs high while taking steps, as if in a march, helps. This amused a little boy on a tricycle, who would overtake me and stop to watch me as I was once taking a long walk around the Central Park in New York.  The pain comes after reaching home, only while going downstairs, the left knee not being able to bear the body weight.  So all the weight-bearing while going downstairs must be done by the right knee.  Thankfully the injured knee would heal after two days. But unless this problem is overcome, there is no way I could go on the trek.

I tried different knee braces and learned techniques for massaging the knee.  After three months of suffering from the knee problem, I got a break last September.  One day  I could do ten miles again without stopping or slowing down to reset the “belt”. I took that as the green light to go on the trek. So in October 2015 I decided to attempt the EBC trek.