Today we set out for the goal of our trip, to reach the Mount Everest Base Camp at 17,600 feet. This is what we all came for, to see this place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so full of history of great success and tragic failure. On the way up we passed memorials to climbers and Sherpa’s who have died on this mountain. We trekked for hours, a total of eight, to get to the remote Base Camp location. Along the way, we passed majestic snow-capped mountains that encircled us in every direction. The mountains continued as far as the eye could see. To me, I felt like I arrived in God’s Cathedral. His home up above the clouds that is too beautiful to describe.
The mountains did more than bring a tear to my eye. I was outright crying at various points. When I shared this with my group at dinner, others confirmed they also broke out crying from the awesome beauty of this place. The majesty of the place needs to be balanced by the effort to get there and the toll it takes on the body. Sherpa’s have genetically adapted over the years to live in these altitudes. I am not a Sherpa and neither are the majority of the people who come here. The price paid to enjoy this natural splendor is exhaustion, altitude sickness, digestive problems from contaminated water and the effects of many days of not sleeping (it’s difficult to sleep at this altitude where the oxygen level is 50% of sea level). However, it all seems worth it to see this beautiful place. A couple of times I said to myself “My eyes have seen the glory”. So balancing the good and not so good, we trek on.
You cannot miss the summit of Everest as you approach the Base Camp. It’s the only mountain that creates its own weather and has constant clouds surrounding it and snow blowing off of its summit. Simply put, the awesomeness of Everest cannot be missed or overlooked. It’s the king of all mountains even here at the top of the world. At 29,000 feet plus, it’s summit is the same height as the cruising altitude of 747 and larger aircraft. It’s nature at its most awesome and most dangerous.
The Base Camp is much smaller than I expected. It’s amazing the history of this place and the people who have passed through it. To be honest, the size of the physical space is puny to compared to the hero’s and legends that have come out of it. As I perused the site, I started to imagine what the Camp must be like in prime season when it’s packed with climbers, Sherpas and other support personnel. It must be quite a scene indeed. I said a prayer for all those that have climbed in the past, will climb in the future and those who have given their lives trying to summit. With clouds coming in, it became very cold. It was time to leave and head back to our tea house before the weather turned for the worse. Our group had dinner that night and while we were all exhausted, we collectively shared about how awesome it was to be here, even if it was so cold. For many of us, this was an item on our bucket list that we could now check off. That night, I slept in my heated tea house bed as the temperature outside went as low as -20 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind-chill. Even with the cold and exhaustion, I pinched myself that I was here and told myself this was “a gift of the program”. But for my sobriety, I would not have been here!
We woke up at 14,600 feet and trekked to Lebuche at 16,175 feet. We also officially entered what I refer to as the artic zone of our climb.
The cold Is really beginning to impact me and the others. When the sun comes up during the day the temperatures reach 15 to 20 degrees. At night, the temperature goes down to -15/-20 degrees with the windchill. Thankfully we are in tea houses and not in tents. However, the tea houses this far up have no heat and very flimsy construction. I can feel the wind blowing outside. I just stay completely covered up in my sleeping bag and as warm as possible. However, it’s wearing me down as well as the others in our group. I told the group at breakfast
The morning hike was hard. It was a 40-degree incline for about two hours. When the sun is out it’s warm, when it goes in it’s cold and when the wind blows it’s really cold. So all morning long I was taking off layers, then putting them back on and repeating this over and over.
However, the view all around was spectacular. Soaring snow-capped mountain peaks including, Socholotse, Tbuchej, and others in every direction. We also crossed the glacier runoff field which is full of water in the monsoon season and early spring. It’s full of huge boulders thrown around like pebbles from the force of the water coming down from the glacier. If I was standing in the same spot I stood today in rainy season, I’d be carried off and be killed for sure. Thankfully, it’s the dry season However, seeing this is a reminder of the awesome power of nature and why we as humans need to show nature great respect.
Our afternoon hike took us up a winding zig zag trail that was very challenging. It reminded me of the ascent to the summit of Kilimanjaro. The big difference is the Kilimanjaro zig zag trail goes on for almost six hours. Having experienced the hell of zig-zagging for six hours on Kilimanjaro, this seemed like a piece of cake.
Around 2 p.m, we arrived in Lebouche. This little town only exists to cater to trekkers and mountain climbers. I felt sick and had no appetite. I became very concerned that I was coming down with a big from the water. I got a couple of hours sleep and felt much better. I attribute my feeling sick to sleeping in sub-zero temperatures for days at a time and not sleeping well. The tea house we have here in Lebuche is quit warm in start contrast to the freezing cold shit hole we stayed in the last two nights.
I’m hoping to get a good night’s sleep and be in top shape for the eight hours of hiking tomorrow to the Mount Everest Base Camp.
After six days of trekking, it is becoming crystal clear that the physical challenge of hiking is taking a backseat to the mental challenge of living in freezing temperatures for days at a time. Yesterday was 19 degrees and overnight reached -15 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind-chill. The tea houses we are staying in are definitely warmer than a tent, but not heated and quite cold at night. This morning when I woke up my water bottle which was outside my sleeping bag was partially frozen. I slept with my phone, head-lamp and charging batteries in my sleeping bag as otherwise the cold would drain the batteries! If the cold can do that to electronic devices you can imagine it’s impact on the human body.
Increasingly, the challenge we face are mental rather than physical. Part of the altitude acclimation process is for the body to slowly to adjust. I’ve experienced many of the usual symptoms which include flatulence, difficulty sleeping, intense dreams, difficulty breathing (especially at night) and loss of appetite. My fellow trekkers have all experienced similar effects from altitude and cold. As someone who tries to be as respectful as possible to my body, given I abused it for so many years, trekking seems to be completely inconsistent with self-care. However, this type of short-term challenge to my physical and mental limit is a very healthy thing. It gives me the opportunity to test the limits of my abilities and pushes me further and further out of comfort zone. It’s a form of physical, mental and spiritual growth that empowers me to continue to grow as opposed to staying safely in the comfort zone I know. To me, that’s a form of death. Slowly expecting less and less from myself. That’s the opposite of growth. I am fully committed to aging optimally, rather than gracefully. To do that, I must continue to push myself.
Everyone in my group went for an acclimation climb today. I decided to stay behind and give my body a rest. My back is staring to hurt and my feet need a break from being in my hiking boots. So I decided to stay back, stretch my back with yoga poses like up and down dog, journal, tape some videos for Spiritual Adrenaline and just relax. I bring my morning spiritual reading with me. In Just for Today, my morning reading included this passage.
“We inventory our lives in great detail, and discuss our inventory with our sponsor. We ask the God of our understanding to remove our character defects, the shortcomings that are the source of our troubles. We take responsibility for the things we’ve done and make amends for them. And we incorporate all these disciplines into our daily lives, practicing these principles in all our affairs”.
I skipped the acclimation climb today to have a “me” day full of introspection. The reading this morning brought a smile to my face as I believe it’s a message from my higher power confirming my choice for today was the right one. It’s my higher power’s way of signaling his or her approval. I’ll put the day to good use and be ready for the tough days to come.
Today wake up at 13,500 feet and trek to Pheriche at 14,600.
It was a beautiful morning once again. My trek took us past yak farms and that’s about it. I didn’t see much else except stunning views of snow-capped mountains and an increasingly spartan landscape. The entire morning, I enjoyed the roar of the Dudhkosi river below me. A fierce and beautiful river that roars very loudly. I could hear the roar all the way up where we were trekking and I’ll bet up to the top of the mountains as well. It’s a beautiful sound to hear as you slowly make your way along narrow mountain trails on the way to Pheriche.
What starts to set in as I made my way along the narrow mountain trails was just how far away from civilization I truly am. This place is like being on a whole different planet. I was aware there were small mountain villages up here but not aware that such a strong mountain culture existed. There is an entire civilization here that lives completely differently from the way we do. Everything is a struggle and only achieved through hard work. Clean drinking water takes work. Heat takes work. It’s impossible for me not to reflect on just how much I take for granted.
Another thing that becomes crystal clear is just how far off the grid I truly am. There’s almost no cellular service and minimal Wi-Fi. If you want to get online, you have to pay for the privilege. For the first time in a really long time, I feel completely present right here and now. I’ve got no email to check, no texts, no social media just the present. It’s an awesome thing, but in some way scary thing, to be in the here and now. For me, it’s an opportunity to turn completely introspective. Tomorrow is a rest day and I plan to inventory where I am in my life, both in positive ways but more importantly in areas where I need to improvement and prepare a gratitude list. I will also do a detailed tenth-step inventory.
Waking up in Tashinga was an experience. When we arrived at this small village the evening haze blocked the view. The weather here is pretty consistent with clear morning skies and overcast and foggy afternoons and late evenings. After waking up I went outside to check out the scenery and my jaw literally dropped. In each direction you could see tall snow-capped mountains. The view was one of the most beautiful I had ever seen. I am not exaggerating when I say the view brought tears to my eyes. This is what I came to see! I felt so alive and excited to get back out and trek higher. Like any addict or alcoholic, one gorgeous mountain vista is not enough: I want more. I want to go higher, see bigger mountains and more of them. I just finished my morning spiritual program, reading Just for Today and Daily Reflections. So I tell myself easy does it. Pace yourself. Stop chasing more and enjoy what is! Stay in the present and breath deep.
Today we wake up at 11,500 feet and when we arrive at our destination, Pongboche, we will be at 13,500. Off we go….
We hiked for two hours on a forty-five-degree angle straight up. Right at the beginning of our trek we came to a suspension bridge. Not as high or as long as some of the others we encountered. Having gone over so many yesterday, I took Deep breath, said to myself “fear is not my friend” and “fear is not a fact”. I kept my eyes on the other side and made my way across. It was a little less challenging than the day before. When you confront fear, it loses its power.
Our two hour forty-five-degree incline climb was hard. To say this was a challenging is an understatement. There were a couple of times I thought my heart might pop out of my chest it was pounded so hard. I needed a lot of breaks as did everyone in our group. Once again each of us was supportive of one another and slowly but surely we arrived in Tambuche.
Tambuche is the location of a stunning Buddhist Monastery with a breathtaking view of the valley, including Mount Everest. No matter what direction you turn, snow-capped mountains take your breath away. You can see a number of peaks, including Themacrku, Khonde, Amadablam and of course Everest. The place has a surreal and almost magical feeling to it which is hard to explain. Prayers have been carved into rocks all around the town and prayer flags also adorn the hilltops. I will never forget the beauty and peacefulness of this place. I will also never forget how it sits so perfectly in the valley and seems like it belongs there. As if it was meant to be by the design of some higher power.
After Tambuche, we began another two hour hike up to our final destination of Pangboche. I think it’s worth pointing out that we don’t just go higher, but drop down hundreds or thousands of feet and then have to re-climb back up to the altitude where we started before going higher. We have to follow the natural contours and that means often going down and then back up. Both the morning and afternoon hikes took us way down in altitude before we began our ascent. It’s frustrating but part of the trek and everyone has to do it and you kind of get used to it.
When we arrive in Pangboche, the skies are still somewhat clear but clouds have rolled in. The clouds give the mountains an eerie, almost ominous feeling. The landscape becomes so much more dramatic when the clouds role in. On our hike up, we passed massive prayer rocks high up the cliff face. We passed rolling fields with mountain yaks grazing, lots of Sherpa’s carrying heavy loads up to the villages in the higher altitudes and of course fellow trekkers.
Our tea house for tonight is the Everest View Lodge. True to it’s name, we have a view of the summit of Mount Everest with the snow and wind blowing flares of snow off of the summit. As we go higher, the tea houses become increasingly basic and quite cold. Not like sleeping in a tent kind of cold but all the luxuries from lower on the mountain are slowly disappearing, Aside from the cold given the building has no insulation, the lights flicker on and off. As I laid in my bed, I started to realize that this altitude isn’t really meant for people. We as humans are able to master nature to some extent, but up here nature is showing us who the boss truly is. It’s not us! By recognizing nature is in charge, I avoid the mistake of my ego not showing nature and the mountains the respect they deserve. Mountains show no mercy! So it’s good for me to remember this and keep my ego in check as we begin our final days of trekking into much higher altitudes.
After breakfast, we set out for a morning hike of about three hours to Namche Bazaar. The morning hike was extremely steep and very challenging. It challenged everyone in my group, and made me so grateful that I had quit smoking. I kept focusing on how my lungs felt as I took very deep breaths in and out. As I made my way up the steep and curving incline I couldn’t help but think about how my lungs and body would be reacting to this climb if I still smoked. Here’s what I know: I wouldn’t have made it to this point. It wouldn’t have been possible. I could barely walk a city block without wheezing. I wouldn’t have been here enjoying the beautiful vistas, breathing in the fresh mountain air and physically challenging myself on this difficult trek. If I tried this trek while smoking, an air ambulance would be needed to come and take me to the hospital in Lukla.
The morning hike also brought me once again face-to-face with my biggest fear: A suspension-bridge to Namche. It’s the highest suspension bridge on the trek and I was not looking forward to crossing it.
We came to two smaller bridges earlier which helped give me the confidence I needed as a build up to this bridge. When we finally arrived, my fellow trekkers gave me lots of encouragement as we were about to head across. That really made me feel great and it reinforced just how important it is to have sangha or a community of people to support one another. At various times even this early into the hike, I’d encouraged others and tried to keep their spirits up when they were struggling. Now it was my turn to get encouragement and boy did I need it.
I started out across the bridge, I took the advice of one of my fellow trekkers and focused on the prayer flags. I kept looking at the prayer flags, hoping my higher power was paying attention and kept telling myself “fear is not a fact and doesn’t rule my life”. I made it into a mantra and kept repeating it and it helped a lot. I had a sense of support from my fellow trekker, the Sherpa’s who placed the prayer flags on the bridge and their prayers blowing in the wind to give me strength, and all that my higher power has allowed me to accomplish in the last eight years. There was no way I was I turning back! I walked through the renunciation gate in Lumbini and am committed to my new lifestyle, the Spiritual Adrenaline lifestyle, no matter what. With all that in mind, I successfully crossed that bridge and believe I have the tools necessary to continue crossing whatever bridge or barrier that gets in my way.
The hike continued to an amazing town at 11,000 feet, Namche Bazaar, To reach Namche, you must climb for about two hours through a beautiful but dense forest with steep inclines almost the whole way.
When you arrive at Namche, you cannot miss the Stupa, prayer flags and seven prayer wheels that greet you as you enter. It’s a testament to the strength of the Buddhist faith that even at 11,000 feet, large stone monuments have been constructed to act as a “gate” or entry way into the village. Namche has tiny ancient roads, alleys and lots of other places to explore. I was really careful walking around as people share the steers with donkeys and yaks. In fact, a renegade yak was running through one of the narrow streets chased by a Sherpa during our short visit. Women wash clothes and gather water for their families at the public fountains near the entrance to town. The water comes from the glaciers high above. It’s the easy access to plentiful and clean glacier water that makes Namche’s existence possible. Everyone in the group wished we had more time to spend in Namche. However, we had to keep climbing.
Past Namche we walked along a narrow mountain ledge that winded it’s way to the village of Tashinga. All along the narrow pass was one stupa after another and prayers carved into the rock situated along the trail. The prayer rocks are the Buddhist way of communicating with trekkers, Sherpa’s and anyone else passing through. This gave the ancient trail a feel of being a sacred place. We finally arrived at our tea house for a total trekking time for day was six hours and our altitude is 11,500 feet. We’ll all sleep very well.
We returned again to the Katmandu airport and found many other trekkers from the day before there again as well. A sense of comradely arose as we were all struggling to get out of a Katmandu and up into the mountains via helicopter. The final cost for everyone in our group was $480.00 each for the helicopter. As people we knew headed out to the runway for their trip, we would high five them and hope to do the next group to go. Our helicopter was supposed to take off between 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. We all felt for the locals who have to deal with this daily. It is a tough way to live and reminded me of how lucky I am to live in NYC (although it certainly has its challenges). We all hoped to get called next to head out to a helicopter and begin our journey. We all felt the majestic beauty of the mountains would be worth the current difficulty. At about noon, our helicopter finally takes off.
It’s funny how a 45-minute helicopter ride through the stunning Himalayas can radically improve your mood. As the helicopter took off over Katmandu, the city became a kaleidoscope of colors. Ancient stupas still dominate the skyline and the smoke rising from the Hindu burial grounds gave the city an eerie feel. However, soon we were no longer in an urban area but rather flying over ancient terraced farming villages dotting the mountainside. We then headed into the clouds and when we emerge above them, we realize we are getting much closer to the snow-capped mountains that are legendary. My group gets real excited as we see a few and get a taste of what is store in in the days to come. Our helicopter slowly descends into Lukla, the start point of the ancient trail that will ultimately take us to Mount Everest.
Lukla is surprisingly modern. I’ve seen Lukla on television and in movies. Seeing it in person though is completely different. Over the last twenty years it has developed quite a bit and its streets are lined with pastry shops, barber shops, restaurant, bars, and “tea houses”. These tea houses are very basic accommodations, some with and some without running water. They are everywhere and you can go from a simple tent to mountain luxury, that means a bathroom and luke-warm water to shower. The town has a wild west feel to it which makes it exhilarating. This is the jumping point to all the famous treks in Nepal, Everest Base Camp and the Three Passes, among them. After a quick stop at a pastry shop, we begin our trek.
Right away, the breathtaking beauty of this place starts to become clear. Almost everywhere you look are stunning vistas, prayer wheels and mountain peaks. The trail runs along the Dudh Koshi River. The sound of rushing rapids is the dominant noise as we trek higher. Waterfalls fall from high atop the mountains and look like silver bands extending all along the mountain.
The river is spawned from melting glaciers on Everest and other nearby mountains. It’s the source of the Ganghes, the holy river that travels through Nepal and India. The river is a crystal clear aqua color that is unmistakable of run off from a glacier.
We crossed three suspension bridges along our five-hour trek. These bridges were my biggest fear and part of the reason I wanted to participate. I am afraid of heights! Not in the sense of climbing a mountain but being near a ledge with a steep drop off. I took deep breaths but I was terrified as I crossed. I seriously thought about dropping to my knees and crawling on all fours the entire way across. How embarrassing would that have been? Seriously embarrassing and I would never have lived it down.
I kept breathing really deeply and repeating to myself “it’s time to overcome this fear” and “I’m not turning around; I am overcoming this fear”. I got over the three bridges which was great practice for the days to come. After five hours or so of trekking, one hour in the dark which was very scary as most of the trek was along a steep mountain ledge, we arrived at our tea house in the Village of Phakding at 8,700 feet for the night and settled in.
For most people trekking to the Mount Everest Basecamp, the journey begins in Katmandu. The City is ancient and full of rolling alley ways with restaurants, bars and all other kinds of shops. The tourist district, known as Thamel, is in the center of the city and is party central. It’s full of trekkers and an odd assortment of other tourists looking to party hard. Many of the trekkers get totally wasted given this is their last chance before beginning their trek. Although I don’t drink, I wanted to “experience” the scene so I went to two well-known bars, Buddha Bar and Purple Haze. I’ve got to tell you, the Thamel scene rocks!
I had a really good time and met people from all over the world. The only problem is drinking and altitude don’t mix. The next morning I saw many of the same people at the domestic air terminal waiting for flights to the mountain region and other parts of Nepal. Their bloodshot eyes and faint look told the story of their night (or nights) out in Katmandu. If you are looking for an alcohol free activity, high-altitude hiking or mountain climbing is for you. Given the pressure on the body in high altitude and diminished oxygen, even small amounts of alcohol results in hospitalization. Hopefully the partiers got it out of their system. Last night didn’t look like so much fun this morning. I remember those mornings very well, hungover and totally miserable. Seeing some of the same people from the last night at the airport made me grateful I no longer drink! I woke up rested and ready to trek for the next two weeks.
The scene at the airport was what one should expect at a domestic terminal in a very poor third-world country. The place was packed, flights oversold and the atmosphere pretty chaotic. We arrived at the airport at 9 a.m. for our 10 a.m. flight to Lukla. At 2:30 p.m., we are informed that we may not be able to get a flight today as all the flights are overbooked and one of two planes to our destination is out of service.
That’s how it is in Nepal, your flight may or may not happen. It gets worse though as we are then told the airline has oversold flights for tomorrow as well (starting to see a pattern here 😂) and even if we come back tomorrow morning and wait again all day, we may not be able to actually get on a plane. That’s when our guide recommends we hire a helicopter. It only costs $400.00 a person. Only $400.00 a person! It’s either that or drive all night for approximately ten hours over unpaved mountain roads to Lukla. What would you do? So we hired a helicopter. The only thing worse than dealing with this crazy third-world bullshit is doing it with a hangover. I am once again reminded of how fortunate I am to have stopped drinking. As no helicopters were available, we headed back into Katmandu for the night. The day challenged my patience but reconfirmed the benefits of meditative practice based upon Buddhist principles. I never blew a gasket, never got the urge to drink or smoke, and took deep breaths in and out with the out breath symbolizing my agitation and the in breath symbolizing patience and loving kindness.
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