I come from the land down under; in WA where there is no snow and cold means put on a jumper. Can you imagine if I were to wander, to the top of the world amongst mountains that make men humbler?
Men At Work tribute aside, I did have such an inclination as to travel to the aforementioned mountains; those beastly giants more commonly known as the Himalayas.
The Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek has become a sort of pilgrimage for those in the serious trekking department and rightly so; hauling yourself up mountains for a two week trudge of mud, stairs and yak poo deserves its rightful merit.
I do not belong in the serious trekkers department. I don’t even have those zip on zip off pants that every well learned trekker has in every shade of beige. For the record I’m not entirely sure why beige is so popular – should one go missing, I feel like traffic hat orange is the colour to make you really stand out in a ravine, but that’s just me.
I decided to do the trek mainly because I said I would and I’m far too proud to go back on my word. Pig headedness aside, the trek turned out to be the most fantastic, gruelling experience I’ve ever had. It was not without it’s questionable moments where I was wondering why on earth someone such as myself (whose mountaineering and trekking abilities extended to London’s Victoria Station tube escalator) would want to haul herself up a mountain and spend a majority of time mentally berating oneself for somehow forgetting that I have a passionate distaste for stairs or serious incline.
Many, many parts of the trek proved challenging; embracing my inner troll doll after not brushing my hair for 2 weeks (surprisingly easy); choosing between pizza and baked potatoes to keep up the carbs; getting back to chemistry basics and working out the correct combo of anti-runs and blockage pills for normal(ish) bowel movements. Let’s not forget sleeping with your camera so it didn’t freeze, counting how many times you’ve reversed your underwear and understanding that toilet paper is truly a priceless currency when faced with altitude and a grizzly gut. Are you noticing a bowel oriented them? Funny that. Everything lavatory (or lack of) aside, my most challenging experience came not from sub zero temperatures or distressingly high cable bridges but a friendly disguised foe called snow.
My experience with ‘powder’ up to my time in Nepal was one week skiing in Andorra at the very end of the season several years prior. Imagine a baby giraffe with knees knocking and serious flailing – and you’ve got a window into my only snow experiences. Nepal had an up on Andorra; no ski slopes. It was just good old fashioned walking – something I like to think I’ve accomplished for many years now with reasonable success (alcohol infused occasions exempt).
My most challenging of days did not start out like any other. There had been a blizzard overnight and the tiny village of Gokyo that sat amongst the dark green lakes of the same name, was covered in deep fresh snow. To say I was excited was an understatement. I was in the middle of Himalayan whoop whoop feeling like Hillary himself. The isolation, the huge Gokyo Ri peak towering above us and the yaks shoulder high in snow were simply setting a scene I could never have imagined when I first booked the trip. It was absolutely stunning. My limited snow experience meant that I was so impressed by the fact that all the rocks we climbed over yesterday were simply gone and the uneven ground was covered in a snow blanket and it all looked (deceptively) fun.
Not knowing anything about snow, really, I hadn’t come particularly prepared. To begin with, I had 2 rounds of plastics bags inside my boots, over my socks. You know the kind – those grey shopping bags that are single handedly drowning dolphins. My boots, expensive, reliable boots, were waterproof not snow proof. So the murderous plastic bags were acting as a potential insulator. They weren’t overly effective and by effective I mean, my feet were wet within moments. As I had been a cheap idiot, I’d also brought waterproof pants online before I’d departed for Nepal; they had arrived the night before I flew out and were very, very snug on the toosh and unforgiving on a lunge. As such, there was a giant hole in the crutch. Lastly, I had dismissed the offer of snow goggles from my housemate, thinking my polaroid sunglasses were to be fine. Polaroid is problematic when you need definition to see where you are going – It wasn’t snowing when we set off but we had been warned about snow blindness and upon removal of aforementioned sunnies, I could see how it was a thing. The glare had me reeling. So before we had even started our trek back to Machermo I was ill footed, poorly sighted and uncomfortable to say the least; but it takes more than that kind of minor discomfort to curb my enthusiasm.
Single file we began to stride out and this is where it began to become somewhat challenging. Trekking poles in hand, I matched the paces of the guy in front of me. This wasn’t so hard. Except one minute I was right behind him, and the next I was staring at the back of his knees. The snow had given way and I had cackled with delight like a maniac as I tried to pull myself out of the hidden cavern I had fallen into. Someone pulled me up from behind and on we went. More wary of my steps, I tried to be more sure footed and instead, I face planted into the snow. I still laughed – why wouldn’t I? I must look hilarious. Many face plants later I was a delightful shade of envious green as I watched our sherpas, who were laden with our backpacks, practically frolic their way over the snow like they were fresh out of Frozen and about to sing Let It Go.
Then, it really started to snow.
At this point, we were 4000m above sea level and the wind was bitterly cold. My terrible eyewear choice (polaroid sunnies were quite literally, not my brightest move) I continued to fall down. If you can imagine every cartoon character you’ve ever seen, stepping on a banana, running off a cliff or incidentally – slipping on ice – then you know what I looked like; arms windmilling about the place, feet falling out from under me. Time and time again, I hit the ground. Falling down wouldn’t have been so bad, had it not been so tiring or I not so wet, cold and out of breath. The high altitude means you fatigue very quickly, which makes for slow going. I had been battling a chest infection I had unluckily acquired several days earlier so my pace was more slo mo sloth than just the standard slow. We only had to walk about 5km’s on the relative flat but it took us a couple of hours. The path then climbed up and cut into the side of a mountain. This wouldn’t have been so intimidating, if the other side of the path didn’t drop 50ft into a raging river. It was quite the scene.
The path was very narrow and where it had been mud the previous day, it was now ice. This was very daunting – as there is nothing to stop you should your ankles or sense of balance betray you, sending you down the ravine and into the river. Particularly daunting if your ankles had been betraying you all day and your ability to stay upright was already seriously challenged.
Of course, if a shaggy looking cow carrying a microwave oven (I kid you not) could do it, then so could I.
Having come the same way before yesterday, we knew what to expect but couldn’t have been prepared for how taxing and daunting our return journey would be. The ice was deceptive and difficult to see, so we clung to the mountain side of the trail and stepped as gingerly as we could. Once you get over 4000m above sea level, nothing grows. The view is huge craggy mountains, ice caps and all, with rubble from past avalanches scattered above you. So even while I was hugging the rock face, I was overwhelmed by my surroundings. It’s the most beautiful alien world you can imagine.
The snow was falling heavier and we lost sight of those mountains. It’s a curious thing, losing sight of something so dominating – so evidently there. I should have been scared; I’m sure I was, but all I could think was ‘Good God, imagine if I were to die because I shit footed my way over the edge of a cliff’. How embarrassing.
After pocketing my pride and sliding down parts of the trail on my already busted pants, and then being passed from one kindly sherpa to the next for the particularly perilous parts, I found myself off the edge face of that particular mountain and back onto some flatter trails. Here, sherpas herded both trekkers and yak alike – to safer pastures. It was still snowing, my socks were soaked to the core, my glasses frustratingly foggy and a very icy breeze circulated through my pants but I had survived the blooper reel that was my first blizzard experience. At the very least, I had earned an honorary Himalayan right to multiple pairs of beige pants.
What remains with me now from that day, almost two years after having completed the trek, isn’t the icicles hanging from my fringe or the sound of a furious river. It’s not the jovial faces of sherpas as they watched ill equipped foreigners slug their way through the snow. It’s the humble reminder that we are visitors on Earth and we stand in the shadow of mountains that have been there for millions of years. If we forget that, and get too big for our very damp boots then sure enough, not too far down the path, there’s a face plant with our name on it.