After a day of sightseeing around Kathmandu, we left the Monkey Temple and returned to the hotel. I was still feeling sick to my stomach. Sagar, owner of Himalayan Glacier Trekking, had invited us to dinner that night. No matter how sick I was feeling I didn’t want to miss dinner because I wasn’t sure how cancelling on short notice would be perceived, nor did I want to alarm Sagar by telling him I was sick the night before we were departing for our trek into the Khumbu Valley. I rallied and we met him at the office and walked to the restaurant.
We sat on cushions covering the floor and each course was served on a low table in front of us. Dancers in wispy, sparkling costumes floated in and out of the room as we marveled at the parade of curries and side dishes presented to us. I was trying so hard to smile, eat the food and make conversation with my stomach on the verge of shifting into reverse direction. My feeble attempts were noticed so I fessed up to Sagar that I wasn’t feeling well. He said cancelling would not have been a big deal. We quickly finished the meal so I could get back to the hotel and rest. We had a 6:00 a.m. pickup in the morning.
Six o’clock came quickly but I felt slightly better after a night’s sleep. I was hopeful my body could keep it together for the next few hours while flying from Kathmandu to Lukla.
We arrived at the Kathmandu airport amidst the morning chaos — trekkers, guides, sherpas, food, gear and luggage all moving through “security”. Upon clearance we sat with our guide Ashish and assistant guide Buddharam and waited for our flight to be called. Fog, a common obstacle of traveling in the Himalayas, enveloped the airport but our flight was called for departure. We were seated in the first row, on each side of the aisle of a twin prop plane that held about 20 people. We sat on the tarmac for 45 minutes waiting for the fog to clear, as the voice in my head calmed my percolating intestines with thoughts of fresh air and cool breezes. Finally, the sun burned through and we were cleared for takeoff.
Lukla is less than an hour from Kathmandu, located on a small hillside at the base of the Khumbu valley. There is no road to drive in and out of Lukla — you can only get there by plane or on foot. It’s a tiny village, the main feature of which is the airport that accommodates nearly every trekker who ventures into the Khumbu valley. Of the world’s most dangerous airports, Lukla is almost always at the top of the list. The landing strip is short and precariously positioned, with a drop-off at one end. There is no room for error, illustrated by the ten crashes that have occurred since the 1970s. Weather in Lukla can change in minutes, prompting flights to return to Kathmandu, sometimes leaving trekkers stranded for days with no way out. When the weather is good, flights get in, unload and take off again as quickly as possible. The atmosphere is electrifying.
The first time I landed in Lukla the landing strip wasn’t even paved — it was just a scuff of dirt on the mountainside. Now paved, it was only marginally more appealing but nonetheless a welcome sight after flying over mountains at close range while finding our way to the airport. We safely crossed the final valley, touched down at the edge of the tarmac and thrust forward against the hard brake, then stopped, turned around and approached the main building where the doors were opened and a rush of people unloaded the plane in a frenzy. Welcome to Lukla. Our trek had begun.
After locating our bags, Ashish politely ushered us a quarter mile down the trail to a little tea house. We took a seat inside and enjoyed tea and breakfast while he pulled together our team of Sherpas and bought supplies we hadn’t carried from Kathmandu. I picked at a bowl of muesli with hot milk — kind of like oatmeal with small bits of dried fruit. I was feeling pretty good — mostly relieved the flight had been uneventful and our feet were finally on the ground at the beginning of the trail.
Within an hour, our team of eleven was ready to depart: the two of us plus our guide Ashish, assistant guide Buddharam, head cook Bhola Kaji, “kitchen carry” Lal, “stove carry” Yadav, and Raghu, Chandiman, Janga and Chabi Lal who would carry the remaining bags and supplies. Together, we started the trek.
The trail into the Khumbu valley follows the Dudh Kosi, or Milk River. This rocky, churning, powerful body of water runs down from a tiny Himalayan village called Gokyo. On my trip in 2000 I trekked to Gokyo, home of the world’s highest freshwater lakes. Created by snow and glacier melt, the lakes have high mineral content and sparkle with the most spectacular blue-green color I’ve ever seen. Far downstream in Lukla, the water of the Dudh Kosi is shallow and the color of frothy mint toothpaste.
We continued on our way to Phakding, where we would stop for one night to acclimatize to the current elevation. My breakfast was not sitting well and working up a sweat in the Himalayan sunshine was making me nauseous. Our team stopped ahead of me to take a break but I couldn’t even get that far. I leaned over and puked on the side of the trail. Puking on the trail inspired very little confidence from the team, who stared at me, surely wondering how the heck I was gonna make it to 18,000+ feet when I was already puking at 8,000 feet on Day One. Yet my body was telling me the altitude had nothing to do with it and breakfast had just given me a big clue as to what the problem was. I stood up, wiped the sweat off my face and kept going.
The rest of the day’s trek eased along the riverside and we arrived in Phakding around 1:00 p.m. We pitched our tent on the lawn in front of one of the guesthouses and relaxed. The sun moved over the valley, leaving us in the cool shade of late afternoon. Bhola, Lal and Yadav used the guesthouse kitchen to prepare dinner. We ate, went to bed early and woke the next morning to Lal saying “Tea time!” with a pot of hot water outside our tent.
After packing up our gear we went inside for breakfast. Tea, coffee, toast and an egg were about all I could keep down, but it was especially important to eat on this day. We were trekking from Phakding (2,600 meters/8,700 feet) to Namche Bazaar (3,700 meters/12,300 feet) — a long day’s journey and a hard-fought destination. The trail ascends gradually at first, then shifts into high gear with a nasty series of switchbacks. The elevation gain is more than 3,000 feet over just a few miles — making you sweat, curse and wonder if you’ll ever get to see Mount Everest.
We were on the trail by 7:30 a.m. passing through tiny villages of homes and guesthouses. Pine trees and mountaintops filled every view as the trail crested a hill, then dipped down into the official entrance of Sagarmatha National Park. We stopped for a photo break as Ashish secured our permits and paid the park fees.
The world’s tallest mountain is known by several names — Mount Everest, Sagarmatha (Nepali) and Chomolungma (Tibetan) — the latter two meaning “Holy Mother”. It is quite surreal to stand on the trail at the entrance to this park — a place of history, tragedy, victory and so many life-changing moments. We were excited to be on our way to see the biggest mountain in the world together … but first we had to get up that holy mother of a hill to Namche Bazaar.