Total mileage on Day 11: 9
Beginning altitude (Gorak Shep): 17,047 ft
Final altitude (Pangboche): 13,254 ft
I woke up the morning after visiting Everest Base Camp and rolled my head towards Scott, his head hidden beneath the warmth of his down sleeping bag. “I am really, really, really cold. I’m ready to be back in Kathmandu, like… right now.” My own face was clammy from rebreathing my own air all night under the safety of my own sleeping bag, and my hair felt like ice.
But before we could leave Gorak Shep, we had a choice to make. Many trekkers who visit EBC include an extra hike up a small mountain called Kala Pattar (“black rock” in Hindi) before leaving Gorak Shep and descending back to Lukla. Kala Pattar is reportedly the best place to view Mount Everest, certainly better than any views you get at EBC itself. For a lack of words that describe how incredibly cold and tired we were after reaching EBC and sleeping at 17,000 feet in Gorak Shep, I need only say that climbing Kala Pattar for an amazing view of EBC (probably the only good view of it in our lives) did not even cross our radar. Our hike to EBC had been amazing – amazing!!– but we were tired. And did I mention cold? I think our conversation went something like this:
Me: Do you really want to climb Kala Pattar before we hike down?
Scott: Nope. You?
Me: Nope. See you in Pangboche.
Although it had taken us 10 days to ascend to EBC, we planned to hike down the trail in just 3 days. The funny thing is, the 25 mile trek down to Lukla is not that much easier than the way up (the trail is riddled with ups and downs regardless of whether you are coming or going), but the trek up to EBC takes so much longer due to the requirement to go slow and acclimatize. Also, walking at high altitudes is physically harder before that acclimatization has occurred, making the way down drastically easier. So, our plan for today was to hike as far as we comfortably could, getting at least as far as Pheriche (about 7 miles away).
At this point, we had spent 10 days hiking at high altitudes, and the extra burst of oxygen we were getting fueled us down the trail. About 1.5 hours from Gorak Shep, we made a quick stop in Lobuche to pick up my backpack that I had stored at a lodge. The lodge’s caretaker and her friend were enjoying the sunny, albeit cold, weather at some tables outside.
We hiked for hours, through Lobuche and Dingboche and Pheriche (where an incredible wind tunnel that lasted for over a mile sapped our last reserves) and finally to Pangboche. We stayed with Ang Sherpa again, whose cozy lodge had coaxed me back to health on the way up the trail. Scott and I both paid for our first shower in 7 (SEVEN!) days, and although I wish I could say it felt amazing, Lobuche was not much warmer than the villages on the upper trail; it was tortuous getting hit with spitting needle-like burning water in a 30-degree bathroom, even if the water warmed us a bit.
As we settled into the lodge’s common room for the night, we managed to eavesdrop on the conversation going on at the table next to us. We learned that the 3 hikers at the table had been on a hiking expedition bound for the summit of Everest, and their expedition had just been canceled! Totally shocked that such a thing could happen, we gradually found out from them that they had each paid about $65,000 for an attempt to climb Everest with the legendary Everest expedition organizer Russell Brice (from one of my favorite TV shows, “Beyond the Summit)”. Due to the unfavorable conditions on Everest this season, Russell had just canceled the expedition. The ice was melting faster than in years past and causing dangerous icefalls and avalanches, at least one porter had already died laying ropes on the trail, and the rumor was that the death toll was at 3 so far this year. Russell’s hikers wouldn’t get their money back. What a bummer.
Total mileage on Day 12: 7
Beginning altitude (Pangboche): 13,254 ft
Final altitude (Namche Bazaar): 11,286 ft
Since we had arrived in Nepal, we’d heard rumors of yetis living in the forests of the Himalaya. Reportedly, a yeti’s hand had been found right here in Pangboche and was kept safe by monks living in the hills above the village. Hoping to catch a glimpse of the rarity ourselves, we gathered our bags and hiked out of lower Pangboche and straight up a hillside leading to upper Pangboche and the monastery.
When we arrived, the monastery was closed, but we found a villager who agreed to have the doors unlocked for us. He fetched an old woman who maintained the monastery when the monks were away. We poked around the monastery for a few minutes and, when we didn’t see it, motioned that we were looking for a hand. The old woman motioned back that it was upstairs but unfortunately remained locked away while the head monk was out of town! Before you say that every person who comes to see the alleged artifact is told the same story….we did speak with our Zimbabwean friends who we had met earlier, and one of them did in fact have a picture of the hand on his camera. The hand really does exist, and the only question today in archaeologists’ minds is its origin. The show “Unsolved Mysteries” and various scholars have deemed it to be “human-like but not human”…. In the end, it was determined to likely be the hand of a Neanderthal.
We thanked the old woman and then continued down the trail for a couple of hours. We made a quick stop to visit the beautiful Tangboche monastery, which we had also missed on our way up the trail.
Although the large wooden doors to the temple were closed (it turns out the monks were having lunch) we hung around the entrance until one monk saw us and gave us a private tour (the monastery survives on donations from visitors…).
The rest of the day’s hike was relatively uneventful, save for a gnarly thunderstorm that threatened to soak us on the side of a very exposed mountainside. Scott and I both fear lightening, so we ran the last mile or so to Namche, our backpacks bouncing furiously on our backs, catching the town’s edge just as the storm unleashed.
In the lodge, we ran into a friend that we had met and talked with several times over the course of the week. Sadly, he said one of his friends had actually been killed the day before in an avalanche on one of the other most popular trails in Nepal, the Annapurna circuit. Any time I heard stories such as these over the course of our trip, I couldn’t help but think about all the near-misses we’d had. Amazingly, this incident wasn’t the last time we would hear about deaths and near-misses in Nepal before we headed home.
That night, we settled in for a beer at Liquid Bar, the bar we had visited on the way up the trail. It was our first drink in a week, and it was so. very. good. The bar owner remembered us and had even remembered what we had ordered to eat on the way up– wow. This night though, I had a huge yak steak dinner with French fries. The meat was tough and tasted like kerosene, but it was warm and delicious and perfect all the same.
Total mileage on Day 13:
Beginning altitude (Namche Bazaar): 11,286 ft
Final altitude (somewhere between Namche Bazaar and Phakding…): 8,200 ft
Today we hiked for about 7 long hours from Namche Bazaar to just outside of Phakding. Over the course of the day, the scenery returned to rolling woodlands as we officially left the Himalaya behind.
We tried to make it as far as Phakding but collapsed in a cozy lodge somewhere just outside of town. We were the only guests there, and they had a prayer wheel just outside the lodge that trekkers hoping for safe travels would ring on their way up or down the trail.
They also had a homemade alcoholic fermented rice beer called chang that we obviously had to try… It was served hot and was extremely sour and a little sweet. And yeasty.
Total mileage on Day 14:
Beginning altitude (somewhere between Namche Bazaar and Phakding…): 8,200 ft
Final altitude (Lukla): 9,383 ft
Today was the final hike of our trip to EBC and the final hike of our 8-month journey. It was a beautiful, bittersweet day of reminiscing as we worked our way down the last few miles of the trail. Mostly, we talked about the things we had learned along our trip. I wish I’d written them down at the time, as there are so many points that I’ve now certainly forgotten. I do remember commenting that I had been surprised that American music was so popular throughout Asia; I hadn’t remembered that about Europe or Central America, but maybe I just hadn’t been paying attention. We learned how happy we were without our materialistic tendencies we seem to have back home, and the many “things” to maintain, and we promised ourselves that we’d try to bring that insight home with us, despite how difficult that is in America.
Along the trail there were several boulders painted with the words “Way to Lukla” next to an arrow, reminding us that our trek was almost complete. In a few short hours, it would all be over.
[Outside of Phakding, Scott stopped to check in with his job back home. Although he’d taken off work for several days during the trek, he was somewhat back on the job by this point and pumping out enough work to be convincing.:)]
The trail seemed endless, like there was always another curve or another hill that we hadn’t remembered from the first time we had passed this way. Eventually, sights became more familiar, as the trail gave way to a large field on our right, where local children were playing soccer in a field. We rounded another mountain, just as we saw a small plane fly overhead– Lukla airport! We had made it. We once again passed through the gates that had wished us happy travels here two weeks ago and found ourselves back in Lukla.
We dropped our bags at a lodge and immediately headed to Lukla airport to reserve ourselves on a flight for the next day. Just as before, we had plane tickets, but the tickets were not specific for a specific date or time. Unfortunately, the airport has closed for the day, so we would have to come back the next morning to try to get ourselves on a flight out. Before leaving, we milled around the runway, gawking once again at how incredibly impossible it was that an airstrip had been built on this little mountainside. We eyed the cliff at the end of the runway, which we would be hurling ourselves off tomorrow morning, hopefully with air under our wings.
We hadn’t celebrated nearly enough along the trail, so that night we found ourselves in a cozy bar where another hundred or so travelers were also celebrating their successful hike to EBC.
[Below: Battered, burnt, bruised, and never happier…]
I ordered a beer and a much needed hamburger (which apparently really is just a piece of ham between two pieces of bread in Nepal):
That night we stayed out way too late dancing with our new hiker friends. There were hilarious pictures of the debauchery, but I’m told they’ve conveniently been deleted.
We woke up around 6:30 the next morning so that we could walk to the airport and try to book ourselves on a flight for the day. The earliest seats available were on the 10:30am flight to Kathmandu, which meant a lot of nervous waiting to see if our flight would be cancelled; as it gets later in the day, the window for passable flying conditions gets smaller and smaller as the clouds roll in by mid-morning each day (the noon flight never makes it off the ground…). We sat in the airport waiting room for hours, jumping each time a flight was called to load. Finally, we were called around 11:30, and we had to weigh our bags on a scale so that they could be properly loaded on the plane (without causing the plane to crash, that is).
[Nervously awaiting our flight. (Notice the decline built into the runway towards the left side of the picture– that’s no accident!!!)]
Although I wish I could say that that was the end of our EBC adventure, the plane ride was the most adrenaline-packed hour of the trip. The flight was certainly bumpier and hit more drops than our previous flight had, but without anything to compare it to, it was hard to say whether the flight was normal or not. At one point, I knew all was not well when, instead of landing on the airstrip in Kathmandu, the pilot aborted the landing and made a hard left turn, nearly clipping a mountain. I think the woman sitting next to Scott had it right when she asked the rest of us, “Are we crashing?” Mind you, we later learned that she is a high-altitude doctor who works at EBC every year for Russell Brice and has made this flight many times. The summit guide sitting just behind us commented when we landed, “That was some s*** flying!”, as the 6-foot-something tough guy in the way back put his head between his knees and cried.
We arrived at our hotel in Kathmandu with dazed expressions and raging headaches from the stress of the flight. The next day, I called my parents to say hi, when my mom asked, “Did you hear about the plane crash in Nepal?” Thinking she was joking (since she hadn’t yet heard how bad our flight was the previous day), I scrambled to pull up the news on my computer. There it was on the front page of CNN.com: “Plane crashes in Nepal, killing 15.” As I read further, the circumstances sounded frighteningly familiar; the plane had attempted to land, aborted, and pulled back in a hard circle, clipping the mountainside, just as our plane had nearly done the day before. Even more unnerving was the fact that this was the exact airline that we had flown the day before, and the airline only has (had) 3 planes. Was that the plane we had taken, we wondered? Was that our pilot who had died?
Our trip was winding down. A couple more days in Kathmandu and we would be on our way home to the U.S., nearly 8 months since we left.