In retrospect, it was more than a little naive of me to assume I’d had Asia pegged after a few brief weeks in Thailand, Singapore, and Cambodia. And yet, truth be told, it didn’t take long at all before I began to get the notion that I’d gotten a grip on the way the continent felt, tasted, smelled, sounded. It was Nepal, geographically diminutive but geologically colossal, that quickly put an end to that nonsense and showed me that I didn’t have the faintest clue what I was talking about, thank you very much. It began that illuminating lesson with an all-out assault on the senses by way of Kathmandu, a city every bit as chaotic and exotic as the name it carries. If KTM was Nepal’s opening volley, though, its magnificent and unmatched Himalayas were its devastating second strike, a followthrough knockout punch so mind-numbingly dazzling that I’d no hope of ever recovering from the spell it placed me under. As always, though, let’s back up and start this story from the beginning – for continuity’s sake, if nothing else.
Nestled between India and Tibet (an independent nation that since 1950 has been illegally occupied and claimed by China), Nepal exists at an intersection of vibrant, chaotic cultures that combine Indian and Chinese influence. Once thought to be the fabled Shangri-La, capital Kathmandu is exhausting: a tattered hive of dilapidated dirt roads absolutely swarming abuzz with rickshaws and motorbikes, street dogs, intense smells, a pervasive curtain of haze, and dripping with theological imagery and tradition that’s equal parts Buddhist and Hindu.
It’s loud. It’s chaotic. Quite frankly, it smells like shit. But beneath the madness, it’s a beautiful place, teeming with proud locals, beautiful ancient temples, and more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any other city in the world. That’s a sentence that bears reading again – Kathmandu outshines juggernauts like London, Rome, Moscow, Tokyo, and literally any other metro you can fathom when it comes to its concentration of protected World Heritage sites. Many of these are in disrepair or ruin as a result of a crippling 2015 earthquake, but global cooperative efforts remain underway to repair those still badly damaged, and many still are very much rehabilitated.
I visited many of these UNESCO sites: Pashupatinath, a highly sacred Hindu temple where I was witness to open-air cremations on the Bagmati River, tributary to the holy Ganges. Boudhanath, a massive stupa equally important to Buddhists as a pilgrimage site of their own. Durbar Square, the epicenter of the old Nepalese royalty and grand palace structures where kings once ruled and prospered.
The latter is also home to the Kumari, a young girl selected by Nepalese people of BOTH theological backgrounds and worshipped as a goddess, a living manifestation of goddess Taleju and representative of divine consciousness and feminine energy. She is revered throughout prepubescence, until upon menstruation she’s immediately returned to a life of normalcy and a new Kumari selected. The selection process is pretty bizarre. Photos are strictly prohibited, but I had the rare privilege of seeing the current Kumari in the flesh, from a window high above the square – said to be quite an honor. Photos of photos are apparently just fine.
If there’s one thing Kathmandu has in more abundance than sacred religious and historical sites, it’s the seemingly endless trekking shops in Thamel, the primary backpacker and trekker hub where I stayed in the city. And what the hell, that makes for a fair enough segue. I certainly don’t want to sell Kathmandu short, as it’s a truly fascinating and incredible place – but I came to Nepal, as most do, for the intoxicating allure of the Himalayas and their crown jewel, a mountain that’s compelled, inspired, and claimed many lives of the most intrepid, emboldened, and daring members of humanity. It’s an iconic peak that hardly needs an introduction, but I’ll give it one anyway. Everest: tallest mountain on Earth. Top of the world. Stairway to heaven.
"You're summiting Everest?!"
In a word, no. In two words, hell no. I think this bears explaining, as it’s a question that comes up a lot. Summiting Everest – climbing all the way to it’s fabled peak and standing at the highest point on planet Earth – is the work of madmen. Prerequisites include a healthy budget in excess of $60,000 USD, decades of elite mountaineering experience, 2 months to devote to the journey, a healthy dose of lunacy, and very real willingness to die for the cause. Reaching Everest’s peak is one of the hardest physical achievements on the planet, and it’s an endeavor that’s claimed the lives of hundreds, many of whose frozen bodies remain scattered around the mountain as you read this, far too dangerous to extract and return to the normal terrestrial domain below.
Physical rigors aside, the mountain’s 29,029 ft. altitude alone is a very formidable killer. At that altitude, nestled in a region called ‘the death zone’, pulmonary and cerebral edemas – fluid leakages from blood vessels that ultimately drown climbers in their own fluids or literally liquefy their brains and render them comatose – are very real dangers to be managed.
These are factors present in high altitude mountain sickness, and while much more manageable for my itinerary, these risks play a role in even the trek that I myself embarked on, culminating in an elevation of over 18,000 feet – certainly nowhere close to the storied summit of Everest, but still no joke by any means. I’d be trekking more than 3 vertical miles in the clouds, and would need to exercise serious caution to ensure I was acclimatizing responsibly and sensibly in order to continue gaining in elevation safely.
Destination: Base Camp
Alright, so if I wasn’t headed to the Everest summit, where exactly was my intended destination? I’m glad you asked, rhetorical/theoretical blog reader in my head! The trek I’d chosen to embark on was destined, after 9 days of ascending, for Everest Base Camp, the small icy village of tents on the south side of the mountain from which aspiring summit expeditions base their operations and prepare for their hellacious climb. Though EBC would be the bucket list destination, the very next day would actually see us ascend even higher, to a vertigo-inducing 18,192 feet at the summit of Kala Patthar: an exhaustive climb with an astonishing viewpoint of the surrounding mountain range.
There’d be 11 other trekkers joining me for this trip of a lifetime, one of whom was my dear friend Sarah, who some of you will remember from my time in Australia. While in Sydney, I talked her into pulling the trigger, and she’d actually end up joining me fresh off of another Himalayan trek in the adjacent Annapurna region. Remarkably, we were accompanied by 3 father-child teams: Rod and Alix (UK), Raj and Pia (US), and Joakim and Tom (Australia), as well as Meg and Kevin, a couple from Denver, and a pair of solo travellers-cum-trekking-buddies, Arman (NYC) and Aaron (Australia).
Leading our expedition were a team of fantastically hospitable, kind, and knowledgeable Nepalese locals from a stellar company called Mountain Monarch. When you trek in the Everest region, standard practice is to travel alongside a guide, assistant guides, and porters. Our guide, Aakash, assumed the role of trek leader, cultural teacher, translator, navigator, medic, and friend. The assistant guides, Mingma and Cal, were here to help co-lead, ensure trekkers were fed and happy, boil daily drinking water, help with side expeditions, and generally play crucial roles in the team.
Finally, the real unsung heroes of the Himalayas are the porters. Porters are young Nepalese supermen who assume the unenviable task of carrying pretty much all of your gear throughout the entire trip in the mountains. Unseen and unheard 99% of the time, these guys depart before us to trudge all of our heavy gear up the mountain, leaving trekkers with only light daypacks, stuffed with the necessary gear, snacks, and layers for that day as their burden. It’s very rare for anyone to trek in this region without a porter, and indeed it would be virtually impossible – or at least significantly more difficult – to endure without them shouldering our heavy loads. Because they’re local indigenous Sherpa people, genetically gifted mountaineers who are accustomed and predisposed to the rigors of altitude, these porters are certainly more naturally capable of hauling these heavy loads, but that doesn’t make their role or importance any less astonishing. While most Himalayan porters carry the loads of 2 or 3 trekkers on their backs(!), the company I chose to trek with took the unusual step of insisting on a 1:1 trekker : porter ratio, a factor that played a big role in my selection process.
Beyond assisting trekkers, these young men are responsible for getting anything and everything up the mountain trails. You see, the Everest region is covered in thriving local villages and cozy tea houses: simple wooden structures that provide trekkers with beds, a roof over their heads, and hot meals every day. And these villages are present as high up as base camp – or just below it. Since there are no roads here, that means that every grain of rice, every piece of local infrastructure, every bed and brick, every tea cup, every pot and pan, every shelf and countertop, had to be trudged up this incredibly hostile and steep terrain on the back of a local porter, or their assistive yaks, donkeys, and horses. All of these load-bearing climbers are present in the thousands, and not a second went by on the trails when we weren’t sharing the path with these alpine heroes and their herculean hauls.
The Journey Up
Having established some initial context here, I’ll do my best to convey what the days on the trek are actually like. On day one, we flew into Lukla, generally considered the World’s most dangerous airport. This is due to a number of factors, not the least of which are its extreme high altitude, complicating wind and turbulence factors, the fact that you have to travel in a very small airplane, and most of all, its heart-stompingly short 1,700 ft. runway that ends very abruptly on one end in a sharp 2,000 foot drop and on the other with an ominous rock wall.
After surviving the flight and getting settled in, our first day entailed an easy 3 hour hike to our first tea house, where, like every night, we’d be treated to our choice of hot tea/coffee and dinner: generally dal bhat (lentils and rice), fried rice, curry, pasta, soup, potatoes, or other massive plates of starchy carb fuel to fill us up. The food along the trek was surprisingly much better than I’d expected, though it does certainly get monotonous over 2 weeks: menus don’t vary much if at all. Fortunately for me, all the tea houses had crazy hot local chilis, mostly for the locals, but regularly devoured by yours truly, as well.
After dinner each night, we’d pass the time with card games, books (I read four), and conversation – though paid wifi was actually a surprisingly available commodity in the teahouse network, I chose to abstain completely and disconnect. I certainly never regretted that decision.
The second day saw us rise early (indeed, every day I was asleep around 9 and awake around 5). We’d ascend for about 6 hours over incredibly high alpine bridges and through absolutely gorgeous scenery, at this point still lush, green, and within the treeline. We’d follow the beautiful Dudh Kashi river, milky blue in appearance due to its glacial waters, and circle – always clockwise per tradition – around thousands of prayer wheels and sacred ‘mani’ stones, meticulously carved and inscribed in ornate sanskrit. Turning a prayer wheel is said to be the equivalent of verbally reciting a prayer, concealed inside in a scroll, a thousand times.
These stones, tablets, and wheels are inscribed with the mantra of Avalokiteshvara: ‘Om mani padme hum’ (Translation: ‘Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus’). Quoth the 14th Dalai Lama:
- “Thus the six syllables, om mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha[…]”
Aside from the wheels and stones, equally pervasive are colorful prayer flags in red, green, yellow, blue, and white. These colorful adornments are used to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom – rather than having some religious or godly meaning, instead locals believe the prayers and mantras on these flags will be picked up and carried by the wind, spreading peace and goodwill to the surrounding space and protecting those daring these inhospitable corners of the earth. They’re strung for the benefit of all, and they’re ever-present throughout the mountains, where we mere humans need all the protection they can get.
The conclusion of the second day’s trek brought us to Namche Bazaar, an improbable and incredible city in the clouds, 11,500 feet above sea level. Namche is a bustling market town complete with gourmet coffee shops and restaurants, buzzy trading centers, bars (including the world’s highest Irish Pub), monasteries, art galleries, and more. It’s indescribable how it feels to stumble into this fairly large city after 2 days of scaling a mountain (from an immensely high-altitude airport, mind you), but suffice it to say it’s an incredible testament to human capability that this city lives and thrives.
The third day was a rest day in Namche, a few of which are necessary on the trek not just for physical rehabilitation purposes, but also for altitude acclimatization, which requires gradual increases in altitude with time to allow your body to get accustomed to the increasingly thin air. Even on these “rest” days, we’d need to embark on hikes of a few hours to a higher altitude, where we’d rest for a short tea break before climbing back down where we started, gradually acclimating our bodies and lungs along the way.
The next several days brought us through several mountain towns with absolutely magical and heart-stopping views along the way (photos of which I’ve scattered throughout this post). The towns themselves were quaint and interesting: a high-altitude primary school built by pioneering Everest mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, several Buddhist monasteries, and small outpost shops peddling trekking wares and candy (sugar is an important trekker commodity). Local children with plum wind-brushed cheeks and mountain dogs by the hundreds would greet us along the way: the former yelling ‘Namaste!’ and doling out high fives, the latter tagging along for safe passage between villages and to keep us company. I was surprised by how many dogs we encountered along the way, many of whom became our adoptive friends for a given day on the trail.
As we approached the higher points of the trek, we’d encounter memorials to fallen climbers: aspiring summiters who perished on their expeditions, victims of the recent 2015 earthquake, and local sherpas and guides who collapsed after years of serving the mountains.
Finally, the 9th day of our ascent, ascending along a glacial valley, would bring us to Everest Base Camp, where the buzz of mounting expeditions and celebrating trekkers was intense and palpable. We’d trekked more than 40 miles one-way, with tremendously intense gains in elevation, by the time we’d reached this gorgeous destination. Many in our group had endured intense altitude headaches, loss of appetite, physical injury and extreme fatigue: all brought on by the altitude and physical rigor of our task. I had the good fortune of being spared most of these unfortunate effects, but arriving at Base Camp was nonetheless extremely rewarding and a hard-won accomplishment worth celebrating.
Our group popped open a few Everest beers – our first in over a week, since alcohol and steep elevation climbs are a strict no-go, but the conclusion of our climb certainly called for celebration. We surveyed the expedition tents below, posed for photos, and doled out big hugs in celebration. The fact that our arrival was perfectly synced with a beautiful snowfall nearly choked tears out of a few of us – it was a truly gorgeous and atmospheric moment. Despite our great accomplishment, though, the task was not yet over.
Generally, day 10 is the most rigorous and demanding, both physically and mentally. Despite having reached the namesake Base Camp, our hardest and steepest ascent would begin early this morning – very early. Our ascent to 18,192 ft. Kala Patthar would begin in the dark of night at 4 AM, in sub-freezing temperatures in the high teens. The 2 hour hike to the top for sunrise was a sheer vertical grind, and a trying challenge for us all, struggling to gasp for what little thin air was available to our oxygen-deprived lungs. After enduring the climb, however, we were rewarded to a truly incredible 360-degree view, not just of Everest, but of the surrounding mountains, almost equally impressive and staggeringly dwarfing in size. The sensation of being amongst the Earth’s most massive peaks is impossible to describe: you’ll never feel smaller, nor will your jaw ever hang lower. I was the first to muscle my way to the peak, and I took my sweet time taking in the majestic views it afforded.
Even after this incredibly early start and incredibly difficult climb, though, we still had 4 hours worth of descent hiking as we began to make our way back down. Needless to say, this day was absolutely exhausting, but at its conclusion, the hardest part was meant to be behind us: the next 3 days would surmise some very rapid downhill descending that would take us back to Lukla for our ticket home. It should have been much easier from there, but day 11 turned out to be the hardest for me.
The Going gets Tough
It started out innocuously enough: a little soreness in my left knee towards the end of the 10th trekking day – to be expected after hours of steep descent. But 20 minutes into the next morning, a day scheduled for 8 hours of descent hiking, the dull pain turned suddenly extremely sharp, hobbling my knee in intense pain each time it bent. Needless to say, it had to bend more than a few times over the course of the 8-hour hike. With the aid of a compression bandage applied by Aakash, a liberal slathering of IcyHot, a pair of trekking poles, and a few 500mg Paracetamol tablets, I grit my teeth and did the only thing I could: limped my way down the mountain, each left step taking a painful toll.
Until this point, I’d had a relatively easy time with the trek: a good degree of fitness and unusually favorable luck with altitude acclimatization and ascension (better than literally anyone else in the group fared) – but on this day, I’d earn every inch. The pain was pretty miserable, despite a very high tolerance – and as if to add insult to injury, the sky decided this was the day it would open up and spill every conceivable form of precipitation upon us for the entire 4-hour post-lunch portion of our trek. We were drenched with a relentless torrent of rain, snow, sleet, and milky fog – each of us stoically remembering to place one foot in front of the other and carry on with our task.
To be honest, I actually ended up finding this day to be quite beautiful and quite important. It had a lesson to teach me. I had no choice but to shut up, look down, and carry on, doing my best to never complain or let on with anything aside from my involuntary grunts and seethes with each painful step on the particularly steep bits. Dripping with sweat and precipitation as I heard thunder rebounding from the surrounding peaks, I was reminded of the importance of perseverance and the broad limits of human endurance. After 8 grueling hours, we arrived back in Namche and I collapsed, frankly elated and empowered, though utterly exhausted.
Bizarrely, my knee had recovered to nearly 100% the next morning, just in time for our last 2 descent days, which were mercifully short at about 4 and 3 active hours, respectively. It was as if the prior day was meant to test me, to remind me of what I was capable of, to demand from me a level of effort, patience, and acceptance that had not previously been levied. It was beautiful, and lucky at that, since I’d feared what long-term implications that painful injury might have entailed. It turns out it was rather transient, so my choice is to interpret it as a test that I’m glad to have passed and moved on from.
After a few last celebratory nights on the final descent days, we were finally finished. 80+ miles of hard hiking (3 marathons!) to 18,000+ feet in elevation were finally behind us, and our entire team was thrilled in our accomplishment.
The trip was undoubtedly one of the very best experiences of my entire life: staggeringly gorgeous and equal parts challenging and unbelievably rewarding. The Nepali people and countryside were absolutely beautiful, and walking amongst the Earth’s most imposing peaks was awe-inspiring beyond description.
Pushing my body and mind in pursuit of a goal like this one was an incredibly worthwhile pursuit, and I cannot encourage anyone enough to tackle this trip if you’re in any way interested. Mountain Monarch was a fantastic outfit to trek with: kind, caring, knowledgeable, responsible, encouraging, and professional – and the trek itself is the stuff of bucket list dreams and an absolute feast for the senses. PLEASE leave some questions in the comments if you have any at all, and I’m more than happy to help! I’d love to see some of you tackle this journey as well. Believe it or not, if you have a generally decent level of physical fitness and a good attitude, you can absolutely do this – you don’t have to be a superhero. I’m certainly not.
As I wrap up this post at a Kathmandu cafe, I’m preparing to leave Nepal tomorrow, forever impacted by the experiences I’ve had here. In the morning, Sarah and I will catch a connecting flight to Kuala Lumpur, where we’ll overnight before departing for 3 weeks in Indonesia. Our friend Kenzie will be joining us there after having spent some time in New Zealand, where my journey began early this year.
In Indo, we’ll look forward to gorgeous beaches, lush jungles, sunrise hikes on active volcanos, incredible scuba diving, and much more – so despite being bummed to leave this gorgeous slice of Earth, things aren’t so bad. As always, I’ll look forward to sharing my experiences with you!