I didn’t know much about Nepal and I had never even heard of the Everest Base Camp Trek, but as I was scrolling through trip ideas online, I saw a picture of the Himalayas and new I needed to witness them in person. Up to this point, I had never done anything longer than a day hike and had not been off grid for more than a few hours, but I was desperate for an escape from the sights, smells and sounds of New York City. So, I booked a 21 day guided group trek with Explore! and promised my very concerned mother that she had nothing to worry about.
I spent months preparing for this trip, training on a daily basis and buying a new piece of gear every time Eastern Mountain Sports emailed a coupon. I read multiple packing guides and even did a test pack to make sure my new sleeping bag, down coat, hiking boots, and miscellaneous stuff would fit. I was ready for anything and everything.
After 36 hours of travel, I arrived in Kathmandu and after another hour, held a 30 day tourist visa. I gazed lovingly at the new passport stamp while waiting for my suitcase to show up. When the luggage carousel was empty, I waited a little longer, hopeful it would come with the next group. Nope. Two rounds later, a broken conversation with one of the airport staff made it apparent that I’d be trekking with whatever I’d brought on the plane. I looked down at my converse and skinny jeans and visualized the contents of my carryon – toiletries, a camera, and five books. I wanted an adventure and that’s exactly what I was getting.
I took a taxi to the hotel and met the small group I’d be trekking with as well as our guide, Jangbu. He was helpful and comforting, letting me know that Kathmandu is a trekking mecca, so I could easily replace the essentials of my lost luggage before we began hiking. Two of the four other people in the group were girls my age and size. They shared the few items they could spare, including some gloves and a new pair of panties and I could not have been more thankful.
The next day, during a walking tour of Kathmandu, I made a mental list of all the things I had to be grateful for, so as not to feel too bummed out about my first world misfortune. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world and there’s nothing like ambling through a third world country to help put things in perspective. A missing suitcase seems so trivial when you see boys filling buckets with their family’s weekly water supply.
Jangbu guided us through Durbar Square and pointed out the old Royal Palace of the former Kathmandu Kingdom. He told us about the Royal Massacre that took place in 2001, when Prince Dipendra shot and killed ten family members during a party at the palace. He brought us to Kumari Ghar so we could see the Living Goddess, a prepubescent girl believed to be the living incarnation of Taleju. At the end of the tour, we popped into a small shop where I could purchase a pair of hiking boots, some trekking pants, a tech shirt and socks, all for the ridiculously low cost of about $80. Jangbu also found someone who let me rent a down sleeping bag and coat for about $2 a day. And just like that, I had everything I needed to hike the Himalayas.
The most common starting place for the Everest Base Camp Trek is in the town of Lukla, which requires a short, but dubious flight from Kathmandu. Upon boarding the twelve seater plane, we were given a cotton ball for each ear and strict instructions to quickly exit the aircraft upon landing. Once air-born, the plane buzzed too loudly to speak over and shook much like an old carnival ride. After a sharp turn through the valley, we could see the paved landing strip, which began at the edge of a cliff, ended at the side of a mountain and looked to be about the length of a football field. As soon as we touched down, we were handed our bags and ushered off the plane. I noticed a line of tourists waiting to board only a few feet away while a uniformed man was physically spinning the plane’s propellers to keep them in motion. I found out a few years later that Lukla Airport and its 1600 ft runway is ranked among the top ten most dangerous in the world.
In Lukla, we met the rest of our guides and porters, ate lunch and began an easy descent along the Dudh Kosi river. Just past the first village, a line of precious local children with Nepal’s characteristic rosy cheeks handed out purple wildflowers and wished us all a good trip. We walked a few hours before arriving at our tents, which the porters had set up facing the rushing river and I was already having the time of my life.
Day two felt like walking up one endless staircase, but the impressive landscape was a welcome distraction from burning thighs and lungs. We shared the path with many other trekkers and yaks loaded with gear. We crossed a series of questionable suspension bridges. The day ended in Namche, a picturesque crescent town nestled in the mountainside. It was still overcast when the sun was setting, so our view was limited to the valley below. Before dinner, I pointed just above eye level and asked Jangbu if we would be able to see the mountains once the clouds parted. He laughed, shook his head no, then pointed almost straight up, turned in a full circle and said “You’ll be able to see the mountains and maybe even Everest”. The next morning, I got up at first light and as promised, there was a breathtaking panorama of snowcapped peaks, but Everest remained hidden behind a cloudy veil.
Over the next week, we trekked through scenery that I had never even fathomed. We went clockwise around prayer wheels, savored snacks at tea houses along the route, and stopped by Khumjung Monastery to observe their famed yeti skull. Our guides encouraged forward motion with acapella versions of their favorite pop songs and our porters prepared traditional Nepalese meals for lunch and dinner. During the day we were graced with mountains as far as the eye could see. At night, we witnessed the kind of starry skies fit for the most epic space themed sci-fi movie. Everest, shy as ever, denied us even the tiniest glimpse.
On day nine, we made it to Gokyo, where I first started to feel the effects of high altitude – a dull headache and a loss of appetite. Once we had dropped our packs, we took a short walk to see Ngozumpa Glacier and had the rest of the day to relax. The next morning, we made a steep uphill climb to ascend a small peak called Gokyo Kang. At the top, prayer flags gave grey rocks a splash of color and we were rewarded with 360 degree views of endless peaks rippling through the landscape. Once we had a moment to catch our breath and take in our surroundings, Jangbu pointed out the perfectly uninhibited view of Everest’s peak. That precise moment remains such a clear picture in my mind. It was a sight so far beyond anything I had ever hoped for, that my entire being burst with disbelief and gratitude.
From that point on, the scenery only intensified, as did my headache. A few days later we were at base camp, but by the time we arrived, the pounding in my head had escalated to a nauseating migraine. I struggled to get to there, but every miserable step was worth it. I was at the base of the highest peak on Earth, adding yet another item on my list of things to be grateful for. The ground was speckled with tents of mountaineers waiting to summit Everest and I desperately wanted to take my time soaking it all in, but could only think about getting back to the tent to close my eyes.
Once we started our descent, I felt immediate relief. On the way down, we walked through both a white out blizzard and a torrential downpour and before we knew it, we were back at Lukla. We said goodbye to the incredible team of Sherpas that helped lug our gear, prepare our meals, and set up camp every night. They kept our spirits high, reminded us to drink water every twenty minutes, held back when we were struggling and genuinely congratulated us for completing a trek that they make twice a month. Jangbu and his team were nothing short of amazing.
We spent one more day in Kathmandu’s tourist district, Thamel, celebrated a successful trek and parted ways. During my return trip, I got a miserable stomach bug, but was trapped in the window seat I had so inconveniently chosen upon booking the flight. My row-mates and I had a severe language barrier and by the time they understood my plea to use the restroom, it was too late. I’ll spare the details, but I’ve never been more embarrassed in my life. My sister met me at the airport with some clean clothes, a hot ginger concoction, and a much needed hug.
I went to Nepal to see the Himalayas, but I came home with so much more than just a pretty picture. I learned how lucky I am to have been born in a first world country where I can take a shower or drink a glass of water whenever I feel like it. I realized how much I love trekking, even with the effects of high altitude and I became aware of how easy it is to survive on a carryon’s worth of clothes. But above all else, I now know I will never ever ever sit window again in my LIFE. Never, ever.