Friday, October 14, 2005

Mt. Everest

Well, we are back a little earlier than expected. The good news is that we made it to the top, the bad news is we made it to the bottom but only with a little bit of cheating.....
We had planned on flying to Lukla to start our trek and then head down much further and take the bus home from Jiri. Here's how it actually played out (all prices are in Canadian $ unless stated otherwise):
The flight to Lukla from Kathmandu takes only 35 minutes but cost us about $90US each for the one-way flight. We were well ahead of the main trekking rush (as planned) so it was never any problem for us to get accomodation and we easily picked up a pair of porters when we arrived in Lukla. I tried my best to hire the ugliest Sherpas I could find to minimize Bre's temptations but, well, there's no stopping that girl... In the end the best I could do is get 2 guys aged 18 and 20, one was dubbed "mountain Dendee" and the other called himself the "Dalai Lama". At $16/day for the pair of them (including everything) it was perhaps the best spent money of our whole trip. Dendee spoke english pretty well so he was like a guide too. We had packed our essential stuff into 2 bags that they carried while we just had our day packs with water, sweaters and a few other things.
There are tons of local people on the trail and you are constantly having to dodge Sherpas or yak trains along the way. Everything (and I do mean everything) gets carried up to the various villages after getting flown in to Lukla or Namche Bazar (a 2 day walk further up). These guys (or girls) are insanely strong. It was tough enough getting ourselves up but to get passed by old guys carrying everything from helicopter engine parts to beds, food and drinks, snooker tables and building material weighing upwards of 100kg was truly an amazing thing to see!!
A typical day went something like this: Get up (usually freezing cold) pre-7am have breakfast and start walking between 7:30-8am. Trek for 2 hrs or so, stop for lunch (this usually lasted an hour or so as all food takes forever to make. We had to wait anywhere from half to one and a half hours after ordering to get our food.), walk the rest of the way and finish by about 1-1:30pm. Sure, you could go farther but really by then you have gained enough altitude that you should stop to acclimatize and the clouds start to roll in and it gets cold and you can't see anything by about 3pm as the whole village is usually stuck in a cloud. We had rain at night quite often but it was always beautiful and sunny by morning again. During the afternoons we usually read and tried to stay warm while waiting for more food and went to bed sometime between 7:30-8:30pm (it was dark by 6:30pm and there was nothing to do anyway, many places didn't have anything more than candles for lighting). And we were usually the last ones to go to bed too. Maybe there weren't enough of us to justify it but they rarely, if ever, "turned the heat on". Our source of heat was burning yak pies that had been previously dried and then lit with the help of kerosine in a stove in the middle of the common room. Sometimes the cold was better than the smell, though after Mongolia we are used to the smell of burning crap....
There were usually a few villages between where we started and finished with alternate places to stay but most villages had only a dozen lodges and at the top there were only 2 or 3 in a few of the "villages" (they actually are only the lodges and only inhabited during the treking season, though still permanent fixtures, unlike base camp itself). By cold I mean close to freezing during the day in the shade. The sun is warm and you can often walk in a T-shirt but it gets cold fast when it goes behind a cloud and you have to whip out your sweater again. At the top we were wearing 4 layers and it was -10C to -15C at night.
As you progress upward, the prices climb. Not of the rooms but of the food. I'm not sure if it counts or not but we've got a new room record. 33 cents for a double room. Yeah, I'm not joking. We never paid more than $1.50 for a bed but the place where you stay is the place you are required to eat at so you end up checking the menu rather than the beds when choosing a place. If you don't eat at the lodge then they will charge you a ridiculously high amount for your bed so are stuck giving them lots of money either way. They do have a decent selection of food but I've been living off porridge and fried potatoes with yak cheese for the last 2 weeks as they were cheap. Good thing we had the water purifiers with us as it was funny to watch the drink prices go up faster than the food prices. At the very top, coke was $5 and a litre of water was over $3! Compared to $0.50 for coke and $0.16 for a litre of water in Kathmandu this is brutal. Meals were $2-$6 depending on what you ate so we kept it simple.
We still managed to keep our daily expenses to about $10/day each (including the porters) so the whole trip is quite cheap and you guys have got to go and do it. Organizing it as you go is easy. There were quite a few groups out there on organized tours staying in the same places as us with their own guides and stuff but they were paying anywhere from double what we were, to some rather ridiculous amounts. Go early though because it was really busy with people going up while we were going down.....
Was it hard? I think the whole thing is 95% mental attitude, 4% lungs and 1% muscle. Well, let's put it this way, Bre (aka little miss mountain goat) seems to have an immunity to altitude. She was running around in circles while the rest of us were huffing and puffing away. I don't think she was affected at all until the last day when we got to the top. Savannah (and almost all the Sherpas for that matter) did the trek in flip-flops except for the very last day. Both Bre and Savannah have totally trashed big toes though. Something wrong with their boots..... Mom and I were fine. Apart from the very first day when we had to break our bodies in and were still at low altitude (less than 10000 feet) I did not feel sore at all except for my chest as we were coming down. Too many days of very heavy breathing. Brittany was a different story. Coming straight from home she was not as used to walking as us and I think we are lucky we didn't have to carry her dead body back down the mountain. She was really tired but apart from headaches none of us had any problems with altitude sickness. We spent 2 days acclimatizing (climbing a little higher up then going back down to sleep) which helped a lot as well.
I must confess, we didn't actually go to Everest base camp (EBC). We got to Gorak Shep (the lodges at the highest point) and had the choice of Kala Pathar or EBC. As there are no groups right now on Mt Everest aka Sagarmatha (in Nepali) aka Chomolangma (in Tibetan) there is nothing to see and no view from it. Instead we did a climb to the top of Kala Pathar, a viewpoint nearby, to watch the sunrise over Everest. We had to get up at 4:30am for our ascent. Amazing! Absolutely amazing! I've been to few places of such power and beauty to bring you to tears without you even realizing it but this was definately one of them. We were at 18500ft (~5800m) on a little peak and completely surrounded by towering mountains covered with snow, with glaciers flowing down into the valleys below. You've got to see it for yourself, because no description or picture is enough. It really gets you when you think that there you are standing on top of a little "hill" that itself is higher than almost every mountain in North America dwarfed by some of the tallest mountains in the world.
This was such a cool experience that it was decided (by me in the face of mass mutiny) that we would have to try to get over to Gokyo peak, another viewpoint in a valley beside us. This involved going down a day and then over the Cho la pass (at 18000ft) and then back up a day to Gokyo. Fate was not with us though because as soon as we started down from Kala Pathar we had snow. We lined ourselves up for the pass but the day we were supposed to go over we woke to lots of snow on the ground and no visibility. With another group I'd've gone for it but we ended up aborting the idea and heading down. It would be very easy at this point to mention the parallels with the "Lord of the Rings" and their failure at the pass too. In all we must've relived 50 scenes from the movie with all the different scenery we got to see and walk through.
The only problem with the whole EBC trek compared to a lot of the other ones in Nepal is that the route down is the same as the route up so it's not very exciting and you end up trying to go as fast as you can to get the whole thing over with. We had planned originally on trekking all the way down to Jiri (a week further along from Lukla where we flew in) but we had heard along the trail that the Maoist rebels (they've had an insurgency for the last decade or so) had set up camp and were charging everyone to get through. This is not a big deal normally and they are supposed to be pretty nice about it and will even give you are receipt so you don't pay twice, but where they might charge you $10 at different places on another trek, they apparently were demanding 5000 Rupees (~$80) or turning people back. We didn't have enough money on us to risk the week trek and then getting turned around and having to fly, or being able to count on bargaining our way through for less so we just went back to Lukla. We also heard that some people were flying over the Maoists in helicopters because it was cheaper so we looked into it too. Turns out it would be cheaper for us to fly in a helicopter to Jiri (saving us the week walk) and then take the bus back to Kathmandu from there, than to just fly back from Jiri in the airplane.
As this would be the girls' first time flying in a helicopter we opted for this route. Um, yeah, talk about wild. They just threw us in the back of an empty cargo helicopter on it's way back to Jiri to pick up more stuff. I don't think many people know about this as a form of transportation but the locals do it every now and then too. For $60US each they just threw us in, tossed our bags on the floor, pulled down some seats on the side and took off. Have you ever danced in the back of a moving helicopter? We can say we have. The 20 minute ride got us to a little dirt patch 4km above Jiri, from which we walked down and stayed in town. Then next day we took a bus (we were actually scammed onto the super slow local bus) for 11hrs back to Kathmandu. It's only 180km but up and over and around so many mountains it's crazy. Shear unprotected dropoffs only inches from the edge of the road. Waterfalls and streams running over the road rather than under it, people (and sheep) on top of the bus as well as in it. All that fun stuff. It was a festival day too so everyone was all dressed up and had their foreheads covered with red coloured rice mix.
Kathmandu is quieter than last time we were here. I guess everyone is in the mountains now. We will be stuck here for the next week waiting for our Indian visa and getting organized/recovering.


At 10:19 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Ammon, I sent you an email in reply to your request. Am totally amazed at you experiences, are you keeping a detailed journal? You guys should and then publish it with some fleshing out of local cultutres, locations, and customs ect. Anyways, just babling. Glad you all safe.
Hug Shean


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