“One gets to tread and experience the mountains only when they call for you!” I was finally summoned by Mountain Gods, post 2 years of Annapurna Base Camp. Trips that I had planned had never materialized due to varied & unexpected reasons. I signed up for the longer route via Gokyo which would take 18 days as opposed to the other direct route of 14 days. This route promised sights and trails very different from the usual and I fell for it. My prep lasted about 2.5 months with the reward also set – ‘Everest beer once it was all done’. I was apprehensive as my past treks to Kilimanjaro & Annapurna were restricted to maximum 10 days and Gokyo and especially Chola Pass made me anxious. But I had no choice but to give into this mountain adventure which has been on my bucket list for over 4 years now.
Sharing 8 Lessons that the Mountains taught me:
1. Familiarity Helps – It was great reaching Kathmandu as it bought back memories of my trip to Annapurna with my dear friends. I walked the same streets and went to the same cafe. Nostalgia definitely helps to ease nerves. This hike started differently from my other hikes as it started with a flight to Lukla airport which also had the distinction of being the worlds most dangerous airport. The airport is surrounded on all sides by steep, mountainous terrain. The short runway is perched on little more than a mountain shelf. At one end there’s a wall and at the other a steep drop into the valley below. So that’s how it started, but my fears where alleviated when I met our guide and porter Ming. The trek started with the first 3 hours via the forest trails, dirt steps filled with mules’ poo and muddy and slippery terrain due to everyday rains. We crossed 4 suspension bridges and reached Patking where we grabbed a quick bite and decided to go ahead to our next destination. It was another 3 hours trek to Monzjo @2900 meters in rains and finally we reached at 3:30 pm with temperatures dropping to 3 degrees. The teahouse where we stayed had hot showers, which in hindsight is a luxury in mountains. A good familiar cup of ginner lemon honey tea a hot favorite for many at these lodges also lifts spirits.
2. Gratitude Matters – We headed to Namchey Bazaar @3446meters a popular, hip pit stop. We passed through a sanctuary with a trail lined with pine trees and scenic views and crossed Hillary bridge (which was about 3 years old) which made our life easier as one didn’t have to walk through the hills. There were 2 rivers, one from Tibet and the other from base camp which met near the Hillary Bridge. The water was pristine with pebbles and rocks visible with the holy mountain standing tall overlooking this view. The trek was made easier with exchanging of mythological stories with Ming and other trekkers whom we met at the lodge and some solo travelers with their own interesting anecdotes. At 3000 meters I was rewarded with a snow fall – my first ever experience. It reminded me of my childhood drawings of snowflakes which had suddenly come to reality. Cotton balls gently and silently drifting and settling down on the pine trees, rocks, and hills with the mountains at the backdrop is a sight I will never forget. The entire trail I could not help but admire as it looked better in real life than in pictures and I was thankful for this experience.
3. Take things as it comes – We reached Namchey before time, a small settlement full of bakeries, steak houses, Irish bars, retail stores – great luxury at 3500 meters. My motivation was to come back to this place and eat well on my return. The weather continued to be cold outside there was warm hospitality by owner of the steak house who had made a fire in the dining hall for us to keep warm. I have a fear for cold and I was very cold inspite of using heat pads. The snow was also putting water on our plans as Chola pass was closed due to snow fall. We decided to ‘take things as it comes’ and take a call closer to the time. That’s true for us in our lives too; we can plan and desire as much as we want but there are things beyond our control, so taking it slowly, absorbing, and appreciating the time we get to do what we are doing, is something we can have control of. My tryst with cold continued with the night being extremely cold and drinking water being frozen too.I just hoped that the body would acclimatize with cold soon.
4. Be thankful for small luxuries in life – Next morning we left for Phortse Thanga @3658 meters with snow all around and trek of 7 hours at a stretch. With a short lunch break at Viewpoint hotel post, it was a downhill hike, full of ice. We wore crampons for a better grip and finally reached our destination with common loos and showers. As we ascended, little luxuries came at a cost. Showers at 500 Nepali currency and 350 for charging phones for an hour. Also hot water at a price from drinking to brushing. Playing card games especially ‘Cobra’ near the fireplace was our way of unwinding. Surprisingly the next day we encountered bright and sunny weather but with a trail full of steps with a high incline to Macchermo @4450 metres. The vastness of the snow looked beautiful yet scary. People come here for skiing and other snow sports but we were completing the arduous trek of 7 hours with little affordability to get distracted as the terrain was rocky, muddy and steep. The next day we were still at Macchermo @4400 meters to acclimatize with a hike. I had a throbbing headache, and I was on Diamox and there were still 10 more days of hike to go. I was happy that my shoes got a chance to dry and I got a razai (a thick quilt) and a blanket which was definitely a luxury for me!! A local Sherpa ran that lodge with the women of the family running the place like clockwork – cooking, cleaning and servicing the rooms. They also got us an Internet card (Everest Link) making our contact with home regular.
5. Wildlife and Nature Survive together as a perfect ecosystem – A week on to the trail we headed for Gokyo @4800 meters over a 5 hour trek. Gokyo lake1 was a small lake with himalayan ducks floating were a treat to the eyes and 45 minutes later Gokyo lake 2&3 were visibly massive but frozen. Wild life survival and the food chain ecosystem was at play when I saw a big bird kill a falcon and a mountain dog taking the kill away. We always say ‘Yak milk’ but Yak is actually a male and a ‘Nak’ is a female, so the milk products are from the Nak, which has a smaller body and horns. Mountain cows were very common too, they had wider and bigger hooves for a better grip. We finally reached the lodge after the long trek. It over looked the Gokyo- Lake- 3, which was frozen, but I could only image how beautiful it would look with the pristine blue water. Currently it was a bed of snow that extended itself into the White Mountains. Watching the sun set over these frozen lakes with the array of colors and the clouds constantly drifting over them was a sight to be experienced.
6. We are just a small speck in the Universe – We started our trek to Gokyo Ri @5300meters at 3:30 pitch darkness with head torces and with snow glistening under the moonlight. The temperatures were in minus and we took water bottles placed in socks to keep it warm. It reminded me of the Kilimanjaro summit night which I had done, in 2017 ascendeding slowly while gaining altitude, air thining making our breathing difficult. But all pain vanished when we saw the silhouettes of the mountains dark blue gradually turning light blue. The hues of the sunrays, Everest standing tall amongst all the other mountains with golden color clouds hovering around it like a halo as the sun rays filtered through it. Everything around this beautiful gigantic mountain is small and meager and we all bowing down with respect. It took us 2.5 hours to reach the peak of Gokyo Ri which got us a complete 360 degree view of the all the 3 frozen lakes, surrounded by the mountains.
7. Be Mindful & Be Positive – We reached the teahouse which had our breakfast packed and headed towards Thagnak. We had to cross the largest glacier in the world (volume wise) called Ngozumpa. This trek was through vast snow and rubbles with steep inclines and extremely windy weather. One missed step and one could go straight down. Hence every step had to be mindful. The 6km trail felt endless with every now and then the snow blowing and the sun directly hitting us. This was accompanied with chilly winds- an experience that I will never forget. We met some solo travellers too lost in this endless “snow dessert”. The moment the lodges were visible I rushed to take off my damp and cold shoes. I was a bit scared about Chola pass we were doing the next day as the pass had opened up. I had lost my appetite and post lunch, I was just lying on my bed shivering with cold, eyes burning, fatigued, wondering to myself, why on earth was I doing all of this? What is the experience teaching me? The answers were crystal clear- Belief in myself, perseverance, endurance, not only physically but importantly mentally. Appreciating home, family members, the warmth of home, and me overcoming fears by staying positive.
8. Endurance Pays – On day 9 we started for Chola pass @5400 meters with packed lunches towards trails holding metallic ropes attached to the poles. The rocks kept slipping and we had to pull ourselves up which was a grueling experience in some of the patches. There were many trekkers on the route who exchanged glances and encouraged each other. My reflexes were slow at that altitude and I was feeling fatigued at every step. Finally in an hour or more we crossed the pass and were at the top. Happiness and joy overwhelmed us and we cried with joy and accomplishment. But now we had to prepare for the steep snow filled downhill trek of 3hrs to Dzongla @4846 meters with snowfall. We were lucky we managed doing the Chola Pass as we were the last travellers before it closed down and also last customers to leave the Dzongla lodge as because of Covid the new expeditions stood cancelled till the next season. Due to the snow showers it took about 3.5 hrs to reach Lebuche which is a common point for people doing the EBC trail and the peak season the place was more crowded. Next day we reached Gorekshep @5200 meters and immediately headed out to base camp after a quick bite. Another 2.5 hours hikes to finally reach the Everest base camp with winds howling, air super chilly and we gaining altitude. My entire body was being pushed due to the force of the winds every now and then. The view was beautiful but the EBC camps were removed. Glaciers looked as if someone had carved them out. The black mountains with shades of glistening blue snow, shiny stones looked beautiful. We were thinking of going to Kalapathar for viewing the sunset but due to the bad weather couldn’t. We were tired but sleeping in that high altitude was difficult as I could feel my heart beating and I had psychedelic dreams. Temperature at night was -22 Celsius, by far the coldest night of my life !
Next day we headed for descent a good 3 days early and crossed three villages on the way. The sun felt comforting and I enjoyed walking through the green rocky trails. We headed back to Namchey @3500 meters over a long 8 hrs walk. The place looked very different without snow, with bakeries and pubs but very few customers. From Namchey we headed to Lukla, which was again a long walk. Post lunch when we were still 2 hours away from Lukla it started raining heavily. It was very kind of Ming to offer me his rain jacket. It was Mings birthday too that day and he was very happy when we got him a cake from a local bakery. We treated our Porter and guide to dinner and drinks. I can’t thank them enough for all their patience and support during the entire trip.
Coming back to the plains, the Covid fear was fast spreading and there was an air of apprehension. All the flights from Kathmandu were suspended from next day onwards and I was lucky that I reached Delhi that day to pick up my daughter. I was extremely lucky to have been able to complete my trip and reach home safely in a situation when things were uncertain. I also felt blessed for the constant support and concern from my family and friends. Living in that moment and accepting situations as they present themselves may be challenging but rewarding. Mountains teach us to appreciate and respect not only what’s around us but also what’s within us. Moving forward as a team especially in adverse situations, having faith, remaining humble and positive is the true test of time.
Every time I travel to mountains it gives me time to introspect and I feel humbled, grateful for opportunities that life gives us. Looking forward to sharing more mountain stories and adventures.