2,800 meters*: What was I worried about?
Rhododendrons and cherry blossoms line the path. The sun shines on the back of my neck and my bare arms, and the warmth makes me wonder if I'll really need that down jacket I packed. I smile with each step, saying hello to every person I pass. I feel good – no, make that great. A river gurgles happily through a path of boulders, and the color – a milky turquoise – boasts that it comes not from a regular water source, but from a glacier.
A suspension bridge hangs high above the river and swings from side to side in the wind, daring me to cross. I take a deep breath, and confidently step forward. Why was I ever nervous about this trek, I wonder. It's just a lot of walking. I notice the expressions of trekkers heading in the opposite direction as they take me in, all smiles and naive optimism. I can't help but feel like they are laughing to themselves, This girl has no idea what she's in for.
3,400 meters*: Up, up, up
Namche Bazar – the biggest, most bustling town in this region – is at the top of this hill. At least that's what they tell me. They also told me it would take 2 hours. It's definitely been longer than that. This trail winds back and forth in a seemingly never ending series of switchbacks. Steep, dusty, slippery switchbacks. My mouth aches for water, but I don't want to stop. I'm getting passed left and right.
I notice that most of the people ahead of me have no backpacks. I silently curse myself for not hiring a porter. How stupid was I to think I can carry my own equipment the entire way? I could be just like them, gliding up this damned hill.
But just as I'm feeling really sorry for myself, a porter passes me by. And another one. They balance cases of beer, bushels of produce, wooden boards, sheets of metal. They carry duffle bags whose zippers appear as if they may burst and bear the names of trekkers on this path: Florent Michel, France. Raúl Torres, Chile. And the porters secure these gigantic, precarious loads by a single strip of fabric that fits over their forehead. Some are young – not even old enough to be enrolled in high school. And others look well past the age of retirement. Many of the porters are slighter in build than me, and yet here I am feeling bad for myself that I have to carry my silly little backpack. And so I press on.
4,400 meters: We've crossed into another world
All the green has vanished and in its place is yellowed grass spotted with brown plants that hug the mountainside and smell of cinnamon. Gray boulders are strewn about, and ominous peaks capped in white snow loom overhead. At 4,400 meters, it's as if we've been plucked off earth and placed on some strange planet without feeling a thing. Maybe that's why breathing is so difficult here, I think to myself.
Seeing other trekkers on the trails is becoming less frequent, and the time between each passing "hello" is growing longer. Helicopters whiz by overhead instead of birds. Their presence a reminder of just how serious the effects of high altitude can be. In two hours we've counted 7 of these flying metal noisemakers, on their way to fly someone back to the more reasonable altitude of Kathmandu where the air is pregnant with oxygen.
It seems that altitude sickness is a topic on everyone's mind. Some of the larger groups have started to dwindle as their members have been evacuated. This potentially deadly illness lurks quietly as it claims its victims – often very fit and healthy people. At 4,400 meters, everyone is wondering: Will the next victim be me?
I have a constant, dull headache and sound like a middle aged smoker when I breathe. Deep breaths became impossible days ago, and although I'm getting more than enough sleep each night, I can't shake the feeling of fatigue. I've noticed that any cuts I get – no matter how small – can't heal because of the lack of oxygen in the air. The altitude has already taken ahold of me, and I can only hope this is the worst it gets.
4,900 meters*: Teahouse, yak poo & carbs
Above the tree line, the tea houses no longer use wood burning stoves, but instead feed the gaping hole with disks of dried yak dung. This fills the air with a low-hanging black smoke that, as I'm sure you can imagine, doesn't have the most pleasant odor. In fact, it's probably just what you'd expect from burning yak poo. I suppose the one redeeming quality of my ever-worsening cold is that it dulls the wretched stench.
Despite the smell, the dining area is packed tonight. There is no wifi or cell service up here, and with all distractions gone, people are conversing instead of keeping their eyes glued to a screen. Different languages float through the room. Some I recognize – Hebrew, Spanish, French, English – and others I do not. Lively card games and animated stories are offset by silent people, glazed over with the sickness only high altitude can bring.
We sit with new friends we met on our first day. It seems like most people are in the same path, at least for some amount of time, so we pick up the conversation we started the previous night. Plates heaping with hearty food pass by me - pasta, dumplings, potatoes, fried rice, noodle soups. Considering the ridiculous altitude we are at, where no vegetation grows, it astounds me how massive the menu options are in the tea houses. The menu at this lodge has 3 pages, front and back, with options. I am already tired of the carbs, and have been having vivid daydreams of salads lately, but nevertheless, I am grateful for the porters who have carried this food upon their back for hours on end so I can be fed at nearly 5,000 meters.
5,200 meters*: This is no Minnesota cold
Thick flakes of snow flutter down from the plump, low hanging clouds, forming a white blanket on the ground. The Australians staying in our teahouse are excitedly snapping pictures. Snow isn't something we see often, they say. One woman, about my mother's age, gushes that it's her very first time seeing it fall from the sky. It's fun seeing everyday things through the lens of someone who's experiencing it for the first time.
But even all those Minnesota winters didn't prepare me for this cold. Bitter, dry, biting cold. Each morning, when I peek my head outside of my toasty sleeping bag, I am assaulted by it. My mouth dry. My throat burning. My lips cracked.
This is no Minnesota cold.
5,300 meters*: Footprints
Each step I take leaves a neat print in the fresh snow covering the ground. As beautiful as my surroundings are, I can barely muster the energy to lift my camera, remove the lens cap, focus, and click. One foot in front of the other, I tell myself.
It's not that this portion of the trek is particularly hard. We've already ascended much steeper slopes. But the altitude is no joke. Each breath I sip in bites the back of my throat. My lungs pinch, unable to take in enough air. Breathing deeply is impossible. Especially with this killer cold I've developed over the last few days. One foot in front of the other. I look like a zombie, I'm sure. But it's okay. In just an hour's time I'll be at Everest Base Camp. One foot in front of the other.
5,400 meters*: Base Camp's beehive
Prayer flags have taken on a new meaning while trekking. In each town and at the pinnacle of each summit is a string of colorful flags, marking your success. You've made it. Being that Everest Base Camp is the ultimate destination for most people on this trek, there is a proportionally large tangle of red, green, white, blue and yellow welcoming us to base camp. Congratulations, they whisper as they flap merrily in the wind.
Vivid flashes of color dot the surround snow-covered expanse. Tents. My mind buzzes as I imagine what's going on inside each nylon shelter. What are they doing? Drinking tea, playing cards, reading? Fearing that they might be slightly delusional to have committed to summit the highest mountain in the world. One that claims the lives of many dreamers who attempt this endeavor.
Base camp has an eerie buzz, like a beehive. Every once in a while, you see a bee scuttle out and inside again, reminding you that there's life inside that hive. And as you get closer, there is a tangible energy you can feel, even if you cannot see it. The same is true here.
We weave between tents and past camp cooks preparing the evening meal. A handful of climbers meander about, perhaps visiting friends in other camps, I imagine. I see country flags flying high. USA to our left. Australia to our right. A burst of laughter here, and muffled voices over there. This little community, I think to myself, surely has all the drama, the leaders, the instigators, and the peacekeepers as any society does. It is a beehive, no doubt.
*17,700 feet (about 3.3 miles high!)
5,400 meters*: Snickers on a glacier
Today's the day. We rise before the sun and lace up our hiking boots. Muesli and hot milk fills my belly with a warm energy reserve that I know I'll be needing very soon. We've joined with a group of new friends to cross this pass together which will hopefully minimize any potential danger. After reading and rereading the guidebook, I learned that it is highly recommended that one has proper gear (crampons and such) which we clearly don't have. And it goes on to strongly discourage making this pass without a guide. Well, shit. I guess we're all in this together at least.
As we all step outside into the bitter cold, our breaths collectively create a small cloud that disappears as quickly as it formed. We make a quick game plan and forge our own path on fresh snow. Up, up, up. We scramble over boulders bigger than me. Up, up, up, until there is no more up to go. I think for a minute that we're done until someone in our group points ahead at the gigantic, mean looking glacier that we still need to cross.
After catching our breaths and inhaling granola bars for sustenance we'll surely need for this endeavor, we move quickly across the ice. The cold, dry air stings my throat but I keep moving, being sure not to spend too much time in any one spot. The fragile snow pack beneath my feet groans and crackles from my weight, threatening to give out at any moment.
When we finally reach the other side of the pass and scramble up yet more rocks, it's time to celebrate. And by celebrate I mean eat a Snickers and bask in the sun. Over the next hour, we watch as other groups make it up the pass. One team exchanges hugs as each member plants their feet at the top – one woman is in tears. We finally gather the strength to begin the descent, and although I tell myself that we're almost there, I know it's far from then truth. Sometimes a little deception is necessary when trying to convince oneself to trek on.
*17,700 feet (about 3.3 miles high!)
4,800 meters*: Reality or mirage?
I see the village through a thick veil of fog, and I wonder if it is in fact there or if it's a mirage. I've been imagining this moment since I crawled out of my sleeping bag just after 5 this morning, but now that the town of Gokyo is finally in my sights, I'm not sure if it's real or if my mind is playing tricks on me.
I continue on, crossing my gloved fingers. The teahouses come into focus as I approach, and the feeling of setting my backpack beside my bed is one of utter relief and gratitude. But I soon discover there's a better feeling to be had, just down the block. The aromas of cinnamon and freshly brewed coffee lure us in, and the warm banana bread, apple pie, and chocolate chip cake make me wonder (again) if this is reality or a mirage - too good to be true. I take another bite of buttery pie and wash it down with strong black coffee (finally not instant!). It sure tastes real.
4,900 meters*: Swimming in a blizzard
Hailing from Minnesota – the land of 10,000 lakes – I am not easily impressed by just any body of fresh water. But the glacial lakes up here are just so... Blue. Teal. Aquamarine. Whatever description you prefer, theres no denying their exotic beauty.
This chain of lakes is sacred to local Buddhist and Hindu people, and each year pilgrims flock to immerse themselves in this holy water. Beautiful, but cold water. Scratch that. Freezing water. A friend we're trekking with reveals his desire to take a dip in one of the lakes, and I don't believe him, until he starts peeling off his layers. His reason for the dip has nothing to do with the water's healing powers – but instead because he hasn't bathed yet during the trek and he wants to get clean. I think the lack of oxygen might have made him go a little crazy, because even though it's been more than 2 weeks since my last shower, there's not a single fiber of my being that desires a glacial bath.
But nevertheless, my fearless new friend submerges his body in the water, unable to gasp for breath at first because of the cold. Watching him makes my skin prickle into goosebumps, because I know that the shelter of our teahouse is still an hour and a half away. As he emerges from the water and towels off, still shivering, a snowflake lands on my shoulder. I look up to the sky and see a dark cloud about to unleash itself on us. The flakes begin to fall quicker as we begin to walk briskly back in the direction of the village. Hot coffee and apple pie; a beacon of light in this blizzard.
3,400 meters*: Déjà vu
A wave of déjà vu washes over me. Last night we slept at the same teahouse we did 14 nights ago, and now we are passing through villages I recognize. We are crossing the same suspension bridges and passing the same blooms of flowers.
But something's different. My stomach no longer lurches at the sight of an incline. A hill that before would make me huff and puff is laughably easy now. I can take a deep breath without my lungs pinching, a sensation that has become familiar over the last 2 weeks.
I feel unstoppable. If I were dropped off at sea level I think I could run off into the horizon – Forrest Gump style. Yeah, something is definitely different. Small cuts that have dotted my legs and feet for the past 2 weeks are starting to heal – a sign of increased oxygen in the air. My backpack is no longer a burden on my shoulders. In fact, its weight seems insubstantial now and makes me wonder if I'm forgetting something.
It's not just the altitude that's making a difference though. I feel stronger, more confident. I look at trekkers heading in the opposite direction as one looks at a young, naive child. I feel like I've been let in on the secret nobody would tell me 2 weeks ago. A girl passes by me, grinning as she effortlessly navigates the trail. I can read her thoughts, "What was I worried for? This is just a lot of walking." I smile as she passes by and think, "Oh sweetie, you have no idea what you're in for."