On the fifth day of trekking, after 10 hours of beauty and brutality in the Himalayas, I had made it. Everest Base Camp was under my feet. Surrounded by yellow tents, ice, snow and a feeling of awe, I told my guide Shankar that I needed a moment alone. So much was behind me in that moment. Not just in the past 10 days that I had spent in Nepal. The man I thought I was. The limits I had set for myself, all gone. In the last five days I had found myself battling altitude sickness, talking about life and death with my Sherpa as well as getting lost in a Nepali cemetery in a dense fog surrounded my a hundred squawking crows (creepy as hell) and even using Tinder on Everest!
Before any of that, I found myself lying on the floor of the domestic terminal of Kathmandu airport. The domestic terminal is basically Himalayan trekkers purgatory. We all thought we would be getting frostbite by now and we are still in a room with no chairs and no wifi for 30 hours trying to tell ourselves “This is good, I need to rest my body before such a hard trek.”
Spending three days in that terminal was no fun. You’re never updated and your patience will be tested. Every day that we couldn’t fly out was a day of trekking we had to make up for. 4-5 hour days quickly turned into 8-10 hour trekking days. Rest days were no longer an option.
I was determined to get to Base Camp. I would do whatever it took. My sherpa said in over 20 years he hasn’t gone to Everest Base Camp in five days and we should think about doing a shorter trek. I shot the idea down as soon as it came up. I was going to do whatever it took. I don’t care what I have to do.
I was angry, irritable and impatient after 30 hours of waiting in that damn terminal over the last three days and I didn’t care what needed to happen.
I won’t sleep, I won’t eat, just get me on that damn trail. I had never experienced that mentality before, but I sure would be thankful for it later when I was dealing with the brutal reality of altitude sickness and the ache in my bones feeling like every day I was running a marathon at high elevation without anybody cheering me on when I wanted to quit.
Eventually, I would be put on the “plane” headed to what people had said was the most dangerous airport on earth: Tenzing-Hillary airport in Lukla, Nepal.
Lukla is a small town of about 500 people nestled in the Himalayas. The planes going there have no navigation whatsoever and rely completely on the pilot knowing the terrain. The mountain peaks reach higher than the plane flies and I found myself looking up through my tiny dirty plane window, holding onto my backpack and feeling completely at the mercy of the weather. I would feel that way a few more times on this adventure before I was finished.
Upon landing safely (with white knuckles), my Sherpa Shankar and I walked off the tiny plane and immediately past the single brick building that is Tenzing-Hillary airport. No need to go inside, just walk past and watch the “airplane” that you just landed in take off again by rolling downhill and shot upward into the air by the curved landing strip. This rollercoaster like takeoff is actually pretty fun, as long as you just assume everything is going to work out.
The first day of trekking surprised me. I came with my big puffy jacket and waterproof boots to see….green trees and a river? This looked more like my home in Oregon. I was here to dangle off of cliffs and laugh in the face of hurricane force freezing winds. How was I supposed to get frostbite and lose a toe for a good story if I’m hiking in a long sleeve shirt and using my beanie to cover up my messy hair instead of protecting my brain from negative 20 degree weather like I had expected?
Beautiful, but not exactly what you think when you think of an Everest trek.
Four days later I would be begging for a scene like this. I was expecting pain right off the bat. When I didn’t get it, I found myself holding my breath just waiting to turn a corner to an icy post-apocalyptic hellscape.
My sherpa guide Shankar was about half my size, spoke about as much English as I should have expected and made me look like a big pussy. He was in great shape and looked about 15 years younger than he actually was (48). He looked like he could run up the mountain if he wanted to and I looked more like a drunk Twinkie bar with skinny legs swerving all over the trail, begging for a break every five minutes.
At the beginning we didn’t talk much. I was being crabby about sitting in the airport for so long and was still in a very determined state of mind. The trekking was difficult only because of the long hours of trekking. The terrain isn’t anything crazy when you’re under 15,000 feet. Sure, there were times when I wanted to cut my legs off and roll down the mountain in a potato sack, but over all it wasn’t technically difficult terrain. My lack of training (meaning zero training) meant that I focused all my energy on putting one foot in front of the other instead of talking.
Having a language barrier had it’s upsides and it’s downsides. The upsides were pretty great. 10 hours of trekking through the Himalayas basically alone because we were the only flight that got out during the four day period. There were hardly any other trekkers.
You’d be amazed at the clarity in life you get while pushing your limits, walking through fire but looking out over heaven. The downsides to a language barrier with a sherpa is when you think he said 2 more hours till our destination and after two and a half hours of hard trekking he says “two more hours only”. Brutal.
I learned to love the silence. walking for hours without seeing anybody.
Sometimes, every once in a while, you stop.You hear the footsteps of your Sherpa, then those stop.You hear the bells of a mountain horse in the distance, then nothing.The cold wind on your face, the only sound is eerily similar to the ocean.Something incomprehensibly massive with its own sound and feel.
The miles start to take their toll and you find yourself tapping into strange emotions to keep you moving forward. Rage, sadness, empathy, joy and ego all completely overcame me at times when I wanted to quit.
I had to ask myself “Why the fuck am I doing this?”
Is it so I can say “look at me everyone, I climbed to EBC and I’m awesome.” Was I really doing this for me or was I doing this for everyone else? My mind started to become negative and the words “Give up” started to taste a little sweeter on my tongue. I knew as long as I kept going, the thoughts would disappear.
Along the way you see trash thrown on the ground by porters. The porters eat the equivalent of dry top ramen straight from the package. They are carrying their own bodyweight in supplies to Base Camp so they don’t care too much about littering, they are just trying to survive the brutal trek with all that weight strapped to their heads.
As I trekked, I would have a long swooping motion to pick up the trash as I walked so I wouldn’t lose momentum. Every ounce of energy counts on a trek like this. There is a big difference between appreciating nature for its beauty by taking pictures and telling people about it, and actually taking care of it in your own tiny way. Show appreciation, don’t be another tourist ignoring problems you could easily help solve.
After 15,000 feet things start to change. Everything gets harder. You need breaks much more often and things generally suck. Here is the thing; although things suck physically, the beauty is second to none. Everything below Namche’ Bazaar and 15,000 feet is a different world from what lies above. There is even a beautiful Buddhist monastery along the path that you can go into and give your best “Namaste” greeting to the monks who live there. Sitting quietly in a corner all alone, listening to them chant back and forth is a memory I will never forget. Meditating in a place with that energy has the potential to change you forever.
Namaste is said to every traveler you come across. It is “good morning” “hello” “what’s up” and “Hey baby, you sure are looking good in those snow pants”.
I finally stayed at a small lodge with WIFI at around 16,000 feet. As I was turning on my phone to check messages (and to let my poor mother know I was still alive), I noticed that I had Tinder on my phone.
Could there possibly be people using Tinder on Everest?
There were nine women using tinder within a two mile radius of me. Some locals of the villages and some trekkers. I swiped right on a Swiss woman named Olga because she looked like the only one who could physically carry me the rest of the way.
Sadly we didn’t match. What a damn good Tinder love story that would have been!
You see many of these cemetery stones in each village you come across. Sometimes they will be randomly stacked in rows along the trail. This particular cemetery was just outside of the village we were staying at on our third night.
I was going on a little photography tour to add a little excitement to my evening after the hard trek. I came across the cemetery and noticed it was getting very foggy. A fog so thick that you couldn’t even see 20 feet in front of you. I took a few photos of the stones and kept walking to a wooded area at the end of the cemetery.
That’s when the crows started showing up by the dozens on the branches around me. The heavy fog covered everything around me but I could hear them getting louder. I may have let my mind wander a bit but if any place on earth was haunted, this was sure it. Sticks would crack in the woods and the crows would get louder and louder. I thought I was going to be killed by a yeti or possessed by a demon.
I took a deep breath and took a logical approach to the situation: Get the fuck outta this ghost infested hell hole! When I was leaving the cemetery I noticed these incredibly creepy prayer flags. These should have been a sign that I was about to live an episode of Goosebumps.
We were trekking towards our destination every day, then continuing on for another hour and a half above where we would stay that night to adjust to the altitude, sleeping below our highest trekking point. Apparently sprinting up the trail to Mt. Everest in four days with zero high altitude experience was not the best decision I could have made. I found myself getting dizzy looking at a bowl of soup I had in front of me and a searing pain starting in my skull. This pain got worse and worse until I knew that this was no normal headache. I had altitude sickness.
“Don’t throw up.”
That’s the one rule as a trekker feeling the effects of altitude sickness. If you throw up you must go back down the mountain immediately or you could die. I was laying in bed that night, my brain feeling like it was ripping away from my spinal cord. My skull opening up and giving birth to my brain as my eyeballs rolled around in my head like googly eyes. Not being able to control my eyes was a new level of sickness that frankly scared the shit out of me. I wanted to vomit. Until my ego stepped in and started talking to my body like Sergeant Patton getting his men fired up before a battle.
“YOU ARE ONE DAY AWAY. IF YOU THROW UP NOW IT’S OVER. FUCK DEATH, FUCK EVERYTHING. YOU WILL NOT THROW UP NO MATTER HOW BAD IT GETS.”
I was an insane person, I know. This is the mentality of every other person who has died tragically from altitude sickness. My Sherpa Shankar was a life saver (literally). He was carrying Diamox pills which help with altitude sickness. Sadly many sherpas can’t afford to buy this on their own and many folks have to be air lifted off the mountain because like me, they were unprepared for the worst. I had never heard of Diamox pills because I didn’t really put any effort into planning this trip, hence the “no training” part of this story.
I spent 12 hours in pain because I decided to trek faster than I should have. I wasn’t prepared for it, nobody could be prepared mentally for that much pain but you can be prepared by buying the pills first and taking them after 14,000 feet daily while you are trekking (It may not be necessary to take them if you are taking appropriate rest days).
Shankar was always checking on me. Even when I could only give a thumbs up or thumbs down in response. I’ll always be grateful for him staying by my side through the most physically excruciating 12 hours of my life.
I woke up the next day in a cocoon I had made with my jacket and my sleeping bag, mouth breathing to stay warm. Two scarves, a beanie, gloves and four layers of clothes just aren’t enough during those freezing nights.
Ten hours of trekking was the only thing between me and EBC. The altitude sickness was gone and I was just as determined as ever.
My body however was not cooperating at the altitude as I had hoped. After the last four days of trekking, my legs were jello. Without training, my legs were not ready for this intense of a five day burst and it felt like it. I honestly believe that even if I did train, carrying my backpack the whole way would have made it much different than the training and I could have never expected I would have to make up for three missed days and push myself that hard.
My abs and legs felt like a numb sack of meat the I was pulling forward by my hip to keep them in front of me. Even Shankar was feeling it. He had never trekked this fast to EBC either. This final push was more technical than any of the other climbing. It was all icy rock and a minefield for twisting an ankle.
Teams of Yaks carrying equipment would brush by you on the narrow trails. Shankar made sure to let me know I should never be on the cliffs edge when they go by. I must always be on the land side. I could absolutely see why. Those beast gave zero fucks about me or anything else in their way. They were as determined as I was (and about as smelly too at that point).
After 8 hours I was exhausted. I wanted to cry. I became really angry and started stomping my way up the trail. People coming down from EBC would say “Namaste” and I’d think “fuck off” as I stared at the ground. Rage was the only thing getting me through and I didn’t even have anything to be mad at except the pain. I was pissed at the pain. “You son of a bitch” I told it. I made it separate from myself and cursed at it for hours, sometimes out loud. Shankar probably thought I had really gone crazy in this altitude. Luckily I don’t think he knew the words in English that I was using.
Yellow tents! Holy shit yellow tents! We made it! My rage instantly disappeared and I trotted my way to the highest point. After getting there I high fived Shankar and breathed in that freezing cold air. We were the only people there. No other tourist trekkers. No big groups taking photos. Just us, the Himalayas and yellow tents in the distance. I told him I needed some time alone.
I went down to one of the pools of icy blue water with ice shards sticking out of them looking deadly and beautiful. Thought about the last 10 days of my life and smiled. Everything that I had learned about myself and the mountains themselves. Mother nature and my relationship with the Earth. I massaged my calves and my thighs. The pain was gone. It amazes me how much of our own pain really is in our heads.
On our way down. I was a much better traveling companion for Shankar. We talked about his life, my life and true happiness. The house I lived in and what I did during a normal day.
Shankar had a family with two little girls when the earthquake struck Nepal in 2015. His home was completely demolished. He had nothing but his family.
He worked tirelessly on his farm 14 hours a day when he wasn’t trekking to EBC (which after the earthquake there was no business for it at all).
He adopted four other children who’s parents had died during the earthquake when he hardly had enough for himself.
Some people who had trekked with Shankar previously sent money for him and his family to live on, but to rebuild the farmhouse that was reduced to rubble would take years of his own hard work.
Learning about the life of someone on the other side of the world who had been through so many terrible things and had done such inspiring things was just as transformational as the trekking itself. He was trekking next to me the whole time and I didn’t even know it.
That experience was another lesson of my life. Never assume that the people around you are just “normal” people. There is no such thing. Always assume that the people around you have been through incredibly tough experiences and still came out without a scratch on them while still powering though life ready to help in any way they can.
We met up with Shankar’s younger brother Rajan who was also a sherpa guide. Both of them were always smiling, but his brother especially was always smiling no matter what the situation. It was a permanent smile.
We stayed at a lodge together at Namche’ Bazaar and although none of us could communicate very well, we had lots of fun. We played charades and even the telephone game which was hilarious when nobody spoke the same language. After having fun and eating his Dal Bhat dinner, Rajan said something I will never forget.
“I look at a poor man the same way I look at a god. There is no difference.”
This wisdom seemed to come out of nowhere, but it was profound nonetheless. I thought for most of the trip down the mountain about that. I believe him when he says it. Always smiling, always happy even when he makes less in a day than any american would make in an hour flipping burgers. Money truly does not make you happy and being without money doesn’t make you sad. Craving more will make you sad. True happiness however cannot be bought. These men have inner peace and true happiness equal to anybody I’ve ever met. I knew the saying “Money doesn’t buy you happiness” but here I was able to really experience it.
Did they spend years in meditation? No. Did they get deeply into religion? No. They simply live by a different belief system and more importantly a different value system. A smile and a good laugh is worth more than any money to them. They work to support themselves and the ones they love. Understanding that what’s truly important is inner peace and happiness through treating everyone like they are god. Because they are. We are…..I think.
If you are interested in doing the EBC trek I highly recommend doing it with Shankar and our group going in 2018. Checkout the details on our adventure here.
This was one hell of an experience. As long as you have enough time, take the leap. If I can do this with zero training in five days, you can do it in ten like a boss.