After a day in Kathmandu, we flew on a single engine, fixed-wing plane into Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport, one of the most dangerous in the world. Busy, bustling, and situated at 9,383 feet, it’s the gateway to the Everest region. There is one runway for planes to take off and land. And they only get one shot at either.
The flight from Kathmandu to Lukla is not for the faint of heart. Like soaring on the wings of a bird, the aircraft reacts to every bump, gust, and air bubble along the way. Sit on the left side of the plane for the best view of the mountains including an ephemeral glimpse of Everest.
Once safely in Lukla, we started the trek thirty minutes after landing. The journey took about six hours to Monjo. If you didn’t break in your boots sufficiently before arriving in Sargamatha National Park, you’ll know it. This initial leg was where I realized my boots were not tied tight enough. Both feet sustained blisters, which required care for the remaining nineteen days.
The first two to three hours of the trek was mostly down hill. The road was comprised of stone, large rocks, boulders, and zho scat. It was also extremely dusty. Most of the porters wore bandanas or light buffs over their mouths to keep the crap out.
We spent the night in Monjo, and awoke to the sounds of roosters cawing and dogs barking.
The next day we trekked over several suspension bridges. There is no other way around so if you have a fear of heights, you’ll want to close your eyes and hold on. Or keep them open, feel the fear and do it anyway.
This is a shot of the Hillary Bridge, named after Edmund Hillary, downriver.
This is also a shot of the Edmund Bridge. My turn.
After a grueling trek of switchbacks and hot, dusty roads, we reached Namche Bazaar. Hotels, hostels, and rooms were plentiful in Namche, along with stores, restaurants, even a bar that played the old Everest documentary on certain nights. When I arrived in Namche, there was a grand opening for a bona fide The North Face store. (There are a ton of knockoffs, so buyer beware.) Anything you might have forgotten or could need for the trek ahead, you can probably find in Namche. I forgot nail clippers and was able to pick up one up with an intricate Chinese dragon soldered to it for a few bucks.
About an hour before sunset, we did a short but steep climb up seven or eight hundred steps to the Tenzing Norgay statue. From this vantage point you can see Mount Everest in the background with the sun’s golden rays illuminating the summit. Well worth the short excursion.
Most people recommend two nights in Namche for acclimatization. It’s definitely an easy place to hang out and spend time with many wifi-enabled bakeries and cafes.
My guide wanted me to see more of the Everest region, so in the morning, after a quick breakfast of porridge, toast and cheese, we set out for Tashinga. It was a relatively flat, quick trek and I did my acclimatization night there. The climb out of Namche was as beautiful as the climb in.
Reaching Mount Everest base camp wasn’t a goal I had planned on attaining. Sure, it was on a bucket list. It sat somewhere at the bottom between racing a motorcycle at 200 mph and getting into space. But, everything changed last summer.
For almost a year, I struggled with all kinds of pain; first hip, then back, then leg, then foot, then hip again. It’s as if the pain was trying out different places in my body to find the perfect home, like Little Red Riding Hood. Neck to was too high. Foot was too low. Hip was just right. Once it pulled back the covers and got cozy, it stayed a long while.
At first, I thought I just needed rest, so I stopped running. The pain continued, so I stopped going to the gym. When the pain started waking me up in the middle of the night, I went to to the doctor. They sent me to physical therapy. It didn’t help. It increased the aching and soreness. I went to acupuncture. It almost helped. I went to the chiropractor. She sent me to get an MRI, which came back negative. Several weeks more with chiropractor visits that included pressure points, stretches and back adjustments, I still had pain.
It was then that I decided my body was revolting about something other than my physical activity. Stress has a funny way of manifesting itself, as does depression, sadness, guilt and frustration. Whatever was going on with me, I wanted to find it and fix it. So when the MRI came back negative, I decided to go to Everest. Whatever was ailing me, I believed it could be healed with a twenty-two day solo trip trekking in the Himalayas en route to the highest mountain in the world.
This idea seemed absurd to most people and unnecessarily risky to others. Why go halfway around the world to hike forty miles up hill when you can barely walk? It made no logical sense whatsoever. People thought I was being foolish. I understood their skepticism and concern. But my pain wasn’t logical. There wasn’t anything the doctors could find or point to and say, there. There is your problem and here is your cure. Since nothing on the outside could seem to fix the pain, I felt like I should go inside. I meditated and prayed and listened. Then without warning, I heard a small still voice saying go do something hard, something solitary, something meaningful. Get away from work. Get out of your head. Now get up and go. So I did. I found something hard and solitary and meaningful. Trekking to Everest base camp checked all three boxes even though it was at the bottom of the list. And as luck would have it, I had scraped up enough vacation time to make it work during the optimal Himalayan trekking season. I finalized the trip in early September and flew to Nepal on November 4.
With only two months to train, and I use the word train loosely, I knew it was going to be difficult. But how difficult and for what reasons, I couldn’t have foreseen. The terrain was in one word: unforgiving. If you dare to adventure the same path, go prepared. All in all, I felt I was prepared. Maybe not physically with only two months of preparation, but I had a solid packing list that saved me ample pain and suffering. While there, I became awfully sick. Let’s call it food instability issues, but it was probably some type of food poisoning. And antibiotics, ever grateful I had packed them, eventually knocked it out.
To set my eyes on Mount Everest was exhilarating, mind-blowing, awe-inspiring, and it would take a better author to try to explain it. But the destination was only part of the reward. The journey was the other. My hip pain flickered only twice and very early in the trip. The rest of those those twenty-two physically grueling days trekking to and from Kala Patar were hip pain-free. Don’t get me wrong, on the way, I suffered from sunburn, blisters, diarrhea, headaches, altitude sickness, food poisoning, dizziness and dehydration. But not a peep out of my hip. For a year that pain had plagued me. Now under the direst of circumstances, when I would expect it to get first in line with all of the other ailments, it magically healed. I had almost forgotten about it completely until I returned home.
Whether you call it instincts, gut feeling, intuition, still small voice, angels or God, there is a force inside of you that knows what is your next best step. The trek to Everest taught me a lot about different parts of the world, cultures, commitment, perseverance, and myself. The most valuable lesson I took away from the experience, besides always take antibiotics to a third world country and when the CDC recommends rabies shots heed their advice, is to trust yourself.
There’s a biblical proverb that says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” In my experience, we should also listen to our guarded heart so we know what to do when it tells us so.
A mass of motorcycles whiz by as I try to make my way across the street in the heart of Kathmandu. The sun is warm and the air smells of emissions and gasoline fumes. It’s hard to tell if there are any traffic rules as everyone seems to go their own way, when they want, and in whichever direction suits them. This could explain why forty percent of all traffic deaths are pedestrians.
My plan is to pick up a pair of trekking poles, visit the ATM for local currency (Nepali Rupee), and after chatting with Steve Webster, the architect of my trip, a dust mask. He said the trail can get unexpectedly dusty and dirty if you end up hiking behind a donkey or yak. Come to think of it, I could have used a dust mask for the entirety of the Kathmandu walk as well. It is some of the dirtiest, smoggiest, dustiest air I’ve ever experienced. This coming from a woman who has taken a run in the heart of Shanghai.
The Diamox is kicking in and my head is achy, fingers and toes tingling, and appetite waning. After chatting with my guide this morning, I might consider reducing the dosage by half. I’ll play it by ear.
In many places I visited, the city was in shambles after the earthquake that hit in April 2015. Buildings and temples that stood for hundreds of years reduced to brick and mortar. Many others have wooden support beams simply holding them up for the time being or quite possibly forever, it’s tough to tell. With all of the destruction and ruin, I was surprised not to see a single crane or cement truck, even a couple of construction guys standing around a hole appearing to talk about it. Nothing that indicated any rebuilding was on the horizon. Except for a sign that said, “Let’s Rebuild Together,” and showed a picture of the once beautiful temple now a pile of dirt and dust. Sohan said it was likely five years, but he reminded me, five Nepali years can mean closer to twenty-five or never.
Eventually, we made our way to Thamel, the heart of the shopping and tourist district. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Hundreds of shopkeepers selling their wares lined a narrow cobblestone road used by motorcycles, pedestrians, school children, and cows alike. All moving in different directions, different speed, and with different levels of urgency. The heel of my shoe was stepped on twice, and twice I received a “sorry,” from a Nepali man with a hand raised in apology.
The trekking pole shop was full of knock-offs. I was warned that the poles might break if I screwed them too tightly. “They might crack,” Sohan said. “So should I go somewhere else?” I asked. “Everywhere is the same,” he responded smiling. Not exactly what I read about, but I figured I’d give it a go. I picked up a nice knock-off set of trekking sticks for about $15. I’m willing to forego using them going up, but they better work coming down.
The ATM offered little success, but I’ll exchange USD for Nepali rupees at the hotel. The dust masks were around three bucks. Come six am tomorrow, I’ll be ready for my flight to Lukla, and the journey up to Monjo.
When I stepped off the airplane, the sights, sounds, and overwhelmingly bad air quality assailed my senses. After packing the passengers into the bus from the tarmac to the terminal, we exited and filed into customs, which felt like many other third world customs offices. Hundreds of people searching from one line to another. Where am I supposed to be? Is this the right line? Do I have the right paperwork?
As for me, I didn’t complete the visa application so that took a few extra minutes at a circular table covered with scattered and discarded applications and entry cards. Luckily, I had a passport-sized photo, which probably saved forty-five minutes. The visa line was slow-moving and about fifteen people deep. With my completed country entry card, application, and photo in hand, it started feeling uncomfortably warm and stuffy in the building, and I felt the weight of my daypack. Sixteen days of this. Okay, don’t freak out. It’ll be fine. At least the air will be cleaner in the mountains. Forty dollars and thirty minutes later, I had a legit 30-day Nepal visa.
The checked luggage made it without a hitch, and once loaded onto the baggage cart, amidst the swarming travelers all speaking different languages buzzing around, talking or arguing with one another – I couldn’t tell, I followed the signs on the ceiling out to the exit doors. The guards were sticklers for checking baggage claim tickets too. It took me an incredibly long minute nervously riffling through each pocket to find my plane ticket with the claim tag stapled on the back of it.
Thirty feet from the exit doors, amid hundreds of Nepali men holding up papers with names in block letters on them, stood a man in his early thirties with dark, disheveled hair and khaki pants waving my name on a piece of paper inside a pink plastic paper protector: Ms Sherry Keating. Okay, that’s me. I made eye contact with him and he pointed me over to where I could cross somewhat safely with my bags. As soon as we met, he took the push cart from me and said, “Namaste. This way.”
I followed him to a van in a parking lot about two hundred feet from the exit doors where he loaded my bags into the back. The sun was warm and air smelled of fumes. Another man met us at the van. This gentlemen was slightly older, dressed in a suit and wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses. It disconcerted me that I couldn’t see his eyes. He greeted me with namaste and said he would be taking me to my hotel. He sat in the passenger seat and the driver started the engine so I climbed into the van.
Once seated, I was taking in how vulnerable I must seem or maybe just feel, when the other guy who waved my name and rolled my bags over called to me before the van door slid shut. “Hey,” he said, “tips,” and raised his right hand moving his thumb across his middle and forefinger. The international sign for money. “I’m working here,” he touted.
I laughed out loud. “Oh, you want a tip?” I asked, smiling. I thought about telling him to bet on the Chicago Cubs to win the 2016 World Series in game seven. But instead said, “I have American money. Is that alright?”
“Even better,” he said smugly. I handed him a five dollar bill and said, thank you. He smiled widely, held the money up as a thank you or that’s right gesture, I wasn’t sure, and then walked back to the airport. I looked at the suit and couldn’t read his expression behind his sunglasses. Did he think me a fool? Stupid American for not thinking to tip or stupid American for tipping too little or too much or at all. Instead of worrying, I mapped the hotel and saw that it was seven minutes away.
Upon arriving at Dwarika’s Hotel, I was promptly greeted with a white linen Prelong handkerchief placed on my shoulders, then seated in the lobby across a glass table from the suit. The hotel attendant promptly asked for my passport and later returned with two glass goblets containing cool apple cider. The suit sat across from me and removed his sunglasses. Finally. His kind eyes were a deep russet brown. I asked his name and he said Biswajit. He downed his apple cider in two long swallows, then told me I would meet my trekking guide tomorrow at 9am and later my Kathmandu guide for the half-day tour. Sounded reasonable. No, I didn’t have any more questions. We stood and I handed him a tip. He smiled, took it, and said, “Thank you. Namaste.”
The lobby attendant led me to my room on the third floor. The hotel is old, full of antique word carvings, and incredibly ornate. The room door was secured with a padlock on the outside and a large wooden sliding door latch, imagine viking-sized doors and latch, on the inside. I tipped the attendant who brought up my luggage and closed the door. Then I took much pleasure in sliding the three foot, incredibly old wooden latch across both doors, because when one gets the chance to slide a door latch the size of a toddler across a door the size two side-by-side refrigerators, one must comply.
The Chicago Cubs have won the 2016 World Series. What a delight to be alive right now.
While the ticker tape parade was assembled, five million fans gathered in the streets of Chicago for the celebration. I only wish I could have been there. Instead I spent that time packing for the trek in the Himalayas. But rest assured, my Cubs hats and hoody will accompany me to Nepal.
Packing for a twenty-two day trip is a bit of a tricky thing. It warrants a lot of thought, research, and a little intuition. Who knows exactly what you’ll be encountering at 18,000 feet, be it weather, altitude sickness or a blistered foot. It might, perhaps, be all three. There are weight limits and space limits, not to mention my own physical limits for how much I can conceptually carry while trekking on the highest mountain on the planet for sixteen days.
Things find a way of working out. Hopefully, this is enough and not too much. For anyone curious about what I packed, I assembled it below.
- soft duffle bag (for trek) and carryon to leave in Kathmandu
- 3 padlocks and keys
- insurance info
- 2 sets of passport photos (visa and trekking pass)
- US cash in smaller bills
- coloring books, pencils, stickers, markets for children
- ibuprofen, Imodium
- ziplock with toilet paper and hand sanitizer
- toothbrush, floss and paste
- Acetazolamide(altitude) and Z-pack (antibiotics)
- jolly ranchers and cough drops
- sunscreen and insect repellent
- wet/dry shower wipes
- hand/feet warmers
- waterproof matches, rope and iodine tablets
- 1 liter water bottle and camelback bladder
- moleskin, bandaids, first aid kit
- swiss army knife and whistle/thermometer/compass
- rugged camera + batteries + memory card
- international plug
- extra ziplock bags
- 5 packets of laundry detergent
- body soap and shampoo
- quick dry towel and washcloth
- rubber ring band
- sleeping bag, liner, and stuff sacks
- Cubs baseball cap
- raincoat and pants
- beanie hat
- fleece jacket and pants
- balaclava and buff
- down jacket
- thermal under layers (2 sets)
- 20 pairs of underwear
- 5 warm wool socks; 6 lighter wool socks
- 3 long sleeve smart wool shirts
- 2 pairs of hiking pants
- hiking boots, sneakers and sandals
- light and warm gloves
- Cubs hoody for sleeping
While in Kathmandu I will pick up trekking poles and anything else I’ve forgotten before departing for Lukla.
In two days I depart to Kathmandu, Nepal. The training has been, how should I say, less than ideal. But my spirit is up to the challenge. As many of you know, I’ve been struggling for the past year with hip, leg, and back issues. This has hindered my walking, running, and undoubtedly trekking activities. However, for the past couple of weeks I’ve really felt an improvement in part due to reading and following the doctor’s orders detailed in the book Healing Back Pain by John Sarno. It talks about how pain, the kind I had, can be caused by repressed emotions. It’s not a fluffy, new age book either. This is a western medical doctor with over twenty years of experience seeing back, hip, and leg patients. It’s not a sales pitch, but if you’re suffering with pain in those areas and you can’t seem to shake or figure out, it’s worth the read.
Besides my lack of consistent training, I’m still figuring out what to pack so I don’t freeze or starve on my way up to Everest base camp. I’ve checked out dozens of blogs and consulted with a handful of incredible people who have done this or a similar trek, and opinions all vary. It really boils down to what do I think I need. Mind you, there are the basics, sleeping bag, warm jacket, boots, backpack that can hold water. These things everyone agrees on. But the rest is kind of up to me. It’s perfectly terrifying. All on me.
The reason I resurrected this blog is to be able to share photos of the trek along with contextual information like location or the story behind the picture. Opinions will likely make their way out here too. But, mostly I wanted to journal the experience. It’s rare someone gets to do this once in a lifetime, if at all, and I want to share with those who may never get the chance. Hope you enjoy it.