Friday, June 16, 2017

Everest base camp photography and trek

Sagarmatha, Chomolungma (Goddess Mother of Mountains) or Mount Everest – at 8848m is probably the most well-known mountain in the world thanks to its summit being the top most point on our planet. Though not the most technically difficult nor dangerous of 8K peaks to climb, it still holds place of pride in serious mountaineer’s goals. 
My aim was much less lofty – to climb till its base camp, which at 5300+ m is no mean feat in itself. (Almost at half the cruising altitude of a 747). You can avoid ice and do not need crampons or ropes at any point throughout the trek – definitely not in summer or spring. 
Me and a friend of mine from Dubai along with 6 others (2 from US, 2 from UK and 2 from Denmark) would set out on the epic 150 Km trek, climbing up to almost 5.5Km into the atmosphere in a total of ~13-14 days. We would start on 10th May from Kathmandu and be back on 23rd. It was an amazing experience pushing your body and mind to its limit – and realising the amazing physical and mental stamina that we can all call on when pushed to the limits
I’d do a broad recap on a day-day basis while trying not to make it a purely chronological recollection of things. (Timelines and exact events are anyways a bit fuzzy looking back since most days are more or less the same which coupled with lack of oxygen makes exactness a bit of a myth)
Some things are practically the same during the trek (not necessarily in a negative way). Many food items would become staples – namely, the hot chocolate for breakfast / tea breaks and Daal Baat (simple local dish of rice and lentils with papad, pickle and some veggies) for lunch. Pizzas and burgers became luxuries. Pretty much everyone stuck to vegetarian since there are no refrigerators and hence meat is always an iffy proposition. (Esp since Sherpas being Buddhists do not kill animals themselves and hence no real fresh meat). A high carb diet is crucial in ensuring your body gets through the rigours of high altitude trekking while also being easy on digestive system. There were of course variety – daal baat with friend papad instead of roasted, daal baat with red pickle instead of Himalayan pepper, Daal Baat with yellow lentils instead of a mix of brown lentils! Anyways, most of us ate more rice in 2 weeks than we would ever do in months. 
We would also kind of get into a daily rhythm (Couple of days are supposed to be more relaxed – called acclimatisation days, where you end earlier but which are nevertheless not easy by any means). 
We would typically wake up at around 530 am. Move onto brushing, toilet, body wipe (optional). Plan the layers for the day depending on weather. Fold up sleeping bag. Repack duffel and back pack. Breakfast at around 730. Fill up water bottles. Start trek at around 815. Typically take a break for tea / hot chocolate at around 1030-11. Second break for lunch at around 1230-1. We would of course take multiple short breaks for photography, water and getting your heartbeat back to some sense of normalcy every 30 minutes. Reach next camp by 330-4. Play cards in the heated dining tent till 630-7 wherein we are served dinner. Crash blissfully into the sleeping bag by 8-830! The sleep you get till your next pee break is amongst the most blissful you would have!
So here is a quick report
Day 1: Dubai to Kathmandu
An uneventful fly dubai flight from Maktoum airport. Had reasonable food from lounge to avoid buying it inflight. 

Reached around breakfast time at Kathmandu, a city which looks a closely packed blocks of lego from up, not unlike many emerging market cities

Got dropped at Hotel Fuji right in the centre of Thamel by the hotel arranged taxi driver. Thamel is an outdoors enthusiast’s paradise – full of gears, clothing and other knick-knacks. I could just spend my holidays walking in Thamel !! Everything from carabiners, ropes and crampons to glove liners, jackets and shoes, from electrolytes to Nalgene bottles. Our first “call of duty” was to rent our down jacket, sleeping bags and liners. No hassles – 10 steps outside of the hotel was Shona Alpine rental shop where we did the needful.  

Next in was buying trekking poles. 
Once that was done, we had a team meeting presided over by our lead and assistant guides for the expedition from G Adventures through whom we had booked the whole program. 
We discussed the plan for next day and the overall itinerary. We were also given the details on types of altitude sickness, what to watch out for and chances of fatality. Of course, everyone knew the risks but still it being laid out plainly as a fact does make one a bit uneasy. I had decided to take Diamox to try and reduce the risks of altitude sickness. While Diamox helps, it also leads to dehydration since it essentially pushes water out of your system to prevent lungs and brain from getting affected (and also need to take pee breaks every hour or so) and hence guide made it mandatory for us to drink at least 3 litres water every day, preferably part of it with electrolytes. 
Had our first of the many team dinners post the meeting. Had vegetarian burger washed down with couple of Gorkhas, a local beer. I had a bad night of sleep – maybe my first Diamox with the local beer did not go down so well. 
Alarm soon went off – time for our trip to airport to take what is billed as the most dangerous flight in the world. 

Day 2: Kathmandu – Lukla- Phakding
We repacked our duffels and back pack such that Duffel was around 10kg and back pack was around 5 kg. Separately, I had my lens on a waist bag and down jacket on my hands to reduce weight. 
Flight was delayed due to bad weather at Lukla – as soon as weather cleared 4-5 flights started off into the mountains. It’s a crazy flight – at one point close to Lukla, it drops down like a chopper and you have your entrails in your throat. It lands and then goes up the short slanting runway before coming to a stop at the edge. One end of the runway is 60m higher than the other helping cut down the speed. 

We quickly had a breakfast close to the airport and then repacked our duffel and back packs. Idea is to have minimal amount on the back– just fleece, water, medicines / first aid kit, headlamps, gloves, towel and rain gear. We embarked on the first trek – a 6-7 km easy trail towards Phakding along Dudh Kosi river crossing few hanging bridges. An easy day where everyone got a good working out without getting tired. 
Day 3: Phakding – Namche
Steady climb from 2.6k to 3.4k tests one’s lungs and hamstrings today. Today you thank for all the hard work you have done during prep stages including stairs, endurance runs and strengthening. It is tough and also the first time you really gasps for air and think “Why the hell am I doing this?!” 
You enter the Sagarmatha National park where your permits are done and you pay some entry fee. 

But soon you reach Namche a quaint Himalayan village and you know why you do this – for the breath-taking beauty of the Himalayan kingdom and a chance to see some of the tallest 8000ers in our planet. 

I decided to splurge by taking a 4 dollar hot shower – what an amazing feeling to be fresh again. I even decided to put some deo, freshly laundered cloths! Though water is hot, the moment you stop pouring it upon you, you start freezing. So one needs to towel quick and get into base layers. 

Day 4: Namche acclimatisation climb
Spent a day at Namche climbing up high for acclimatisation. Visited the museum and also saw the first glimpse of Lhotse and Everest. Magical. This is what helps you push the boundaries – the magical mythical snow-clad mountains. You also get an amazing fish eye view of the Namche village itself

Day 5: Namche to Thyangboche
This is one of the most beautiful days of the whole trip. You trek through Rhododendron and pine forests, the former in full blossom glory in May. (April is probably even better). 

Dudh Kosi roars far below and you cross some brilliant suspension bridges. In some cases you share the road and bridge with cavalcade of mules and dzos, porters and locals. 

At Thyangboche, we were greeted by a large monastery where monks pray starting 3 till around 5 p.m. 

We joined them for a bit and then went out to see the village. As usual, once it got even colder, went to the dining hut to kill few hours playing cards which was now becoming our regular evening activity. The food at Tashi Delek lodge was brilliant…some amazing pizzas and burgers. We would miss it badly in the upcoming rough days.  This was also probably the last stop of toilets with flush – another luxury which along with cleaning, bathing, oxygen etc becomes rare as one go up further.   
At night I woke up to pee at 3 am. (Post Diamox, it was common for me to wake up at multiple times for pee breaks – which is a pain since you have to get your warm body from within the liner and sleeping bag into the dreaded cold of Himalayan nights; I would probably use pee bottles if I were doing this in winter months)
I peered out through my fogged up window and the sight made me instantly forget all tiredness, soreness, dirt and smell of socks that pervade all lodges. There she was – the goddess mother of mountains – under a brilliantly clear starlit sky. Initially, I thought I’ll shoot it with the aid of my gorilla pod. The cold outside and the fact that I just wanted to capture it in my mind for eternity made me slip back into my sleeping bag clearly understanding what attraction holds sway over the summiteers as they risk their life and limbs across the Khumbu icefall and the 4 camps to kiss her peak. 
I would wake up at 4 and go out for some sun rise shots of Everest, Nuptse and Ama Dablam – but nothing coming close to the sight I had an hour earlier. 

Day 6: Thyangboche – Dingboche
This really is the day you move from tree lines and move on to high altitude scrub vegetation. But before that you get to move through fantastic rhododendron forests and conifers. This is also, by the way, the day you cross 4000m. Now you are really entering high altitudes by most definitions. (Yes, the actual climbers would laugh if you say 4K is high altitude, but for most normal humans the effect of lower oxygen can now be really felt, especially on inclines). 

Dingboche really is one of the high points of the trek since the mountain views here are fantastic. You also for the first time really feel you are indeed close to the big boys like Ama Dablam, Lhotse etc since you can see them relatively up close and personal. 

Day 7: Rest and acclimatisation
Rest day is of course a misnomer – which one realises a bit late! Today in fact is one of the steepest hikes as you climb up close to the hallowed 5K mark and wonder if your lungs are inside your chest or have come out beating drums! Thankfully, our lodge was peaceful – well actually its name was Peaceful! We came down for a late lunch to Peaceful followed by marathon card session before dinner at 630 and bed at 730 like good school going kids!

Day 8: Dingboche to Lobuche
Another day of difficult hike pretty much at around 5K now. You see no living being other than the humans going towards the various mountains, their Yaks carrying loads and some small birds which almost looks they repent to be living in these conditions. 
Today is also the day you first reach the moraine of Khumbu glacier - the (in) famous. You sleep close to the 5K mark tonight. By now your body is clearly not liking the lack of oxygen and the high altitude. Different people react differently – some has nausea, some sleeping issues, some can’t eat food. You see people giving up and heading back, being lifted off in Choppers due to AMS if they cannot walk on their own. You also have option of taking horses – good Mongalian breed if you are not fit to walk but also don’t want to pay or your insurance do not cover the Chopper costs. 
I had a terrible time while I was sitting down to eat breakfast. The burning oil, the smell of the congested eating area, the tiredness – everything gave me a headache and I could just not eat anything. I felt like I’d be sick if I consume anything and decided to step out into the cold mountain air with just a glass of hot chocolate. 

 Thankfully, in our group had everyone in good enough condition to move on to the big day tomorrow – where we would cross the Khumbu glacier and reach the Everest.
Day 9:  Lobuche to Everest base camp
The day started brightly. Since there is no plumbing at these altitudes and the water in toilet is not worth putting in your mouth, we bought a bottle of water and went out into the mountains to brush our teeth. It was a perfect day. Sunshine, no wind, rare wisps of clouds but nothing ominous. 

The early morning fresh air lifted the spirits - though I could not eat anything other than one loaf of bread with some jam washed down with the omnipresent hot chocolate, I felt energetic for the big day ahead. 
It’s a long arduous day as you gain around 400m from 4.9K to 5.3K. We cut through last village Gorakshep have some food there and move onto the Khumbu glacier with its huge seraces of ice towering on the right. If you are lucky, like we were, you could see a live avalanche and wonder what it would be like for the climbers as they thread through the actual Khumbu icefall at the base of Everest. 

Soon we reach base camp on the Glacier edge marked by stones and layers upon layers of Buddhist prayer flags. The view from the base camp proper is underwhelming but on the way you’d have seen Pu Mori, Lhotse, Nuptse, Everest and many other tall peaks. 

If one thought the base camp would be peaceful and silent being so much away from humanity one is for a surprise. It’s full of people, yaks, tents, telecom equipment (including telecom signal in one of the networks), and helicopters buzzing overhead. We left back for Gorakshep after 30 minutes and fell into our lodge. 
Cannot remember much about that day and everything now appears a blur. Most likely we slept like logs for a bit before Diamox induced pee or lack of Oxygen wakes you up. But hey, all is good since we did succeed in what we planned to do !
Day 10: Gorakshep to Pheriche
On paper, it’s a very difficult trek day – long distance, high altitude. But funny enough with every step of descent you get more oxygen – you feel elated, less tired. However by evening you do feel the tiredness after the 15 km trek in thin air. You cross many yak pastures and enjoy the serene scenes of yaks grazing till eyes can see. It was cold and we had few layers on including one for the slight rain that had now picked up. You see the Pheriche camp from afar given the topography but it remains a mirage for around 2 hours – you feel you are close but then it seems to move farther away. You think you’ll hit it in another 15 and after 30 you are disillusioned. Finally, we reached !

The remainder or the descent is uneventful other than a stay at Monjo which I felt was amongst the most beautiful of places – surrounded by blooming Rhododendron with amazing views down Lukla. I woke up early to do a trek up a forest path in search of Nepal’s national bird – the impossibly beautiful Danfe. I did see one but could not get good pictures; however, I did get up close and personal with a Blood Pheasant. 

The other highlight of the descent really is reaching Lukla on Day 13 and finishing the trek. By now, everyone has had enough and looking forward to their favourite meals, good shower, comfortable beds, washed cloths and fresh socks / shoes/ undies !  And you know there are no more treks – only a flight separates us from the luxuries of Kathmandu. 
After a relatively uneventful flight from Lukla (no flight can ever be fully uneventful from the most dangerous airport in the world) to Kathmandu we checked in to Fuji hotel once more. We, a bunch of hardy men and women , were almost in tears as we opened our room and found a clean toilet with flush, running water and hot shower! After shouting and screaming with joy for some time, we went and sat in the soft bed. You just fall silent thinking how easily we take these small joys for granted in our privileged lives. 
As you wash 2 weeks of dirt and slime from your hair and body, the overriding thought in your mind is one of being thankful – to the small pleasures in life, healthy body, warm food on table, clean clothes to cover your body, warm water to wash it. You fundamentally need so little to be so happy !

Full portfolio from the trip can be accessed at