As someone who enjoys a brisk 90-minute walk daily, I think of myself as fit. So when an assignment required me to trek to Everest Base Camp, I presumed it wouldn't be difficult. But my confidence sank when the travel agent gave me a wry smile on learning of my regimen. He told me I would have to walk five-six hours daily for 8-10 days on the trek.
Undeterred, I located another agent. This one made me a cheaper offer and seemed more encouraging. So, after a few formalities, hiring a guide and trekking gear, I was set. This is an account of what I encountered in the next 11 days.
The flight from Kathmandu to Lukla (2,886 metres above sea level), the trek's starting point, is uneventful except for the landing. The Tenzing Norgay-Edmund Hillary Airport is one of the busiest in Nepal and one of the most dangerous in the world. Thankfully, our pilot is skilled and we have clear skies. Lukla is the gateway to the Everest region and has lodges and shops selling trekking gear. After breakfast, my guide Bharat finds a porter and we set off. A two-and-a-half hour trek along a picturesque mountain road later, we reach Phakding (2,650 metres), the first halt. Fitter trekkers choose Namche Bazaar for their first night's stay, but it's better to go slow and let the body acclimatise.
A slight drizzle delays our start, but by the time we breakfast, the clouds part. After a two-hour trek, we reach the entry point to Sagarmatha National Park at Monjo. Here we rest while gulping down dal-bhat sabzi with Sprite at Jorsalley (2,845 metres). The trek to Namche Bazaar (3,440 metres) is back-breaking. The heavy boots I'd rented make it seem unending.
However, there are some very scenic views which I enjoy despite a piercing pain in my left knee. Three hours later, we reach Namche Bazaar. The town is the biggest along the route and I buy myself a lighter pair of Chinese shoes. There is Internet as well, but costly. I pay NRs 150 for 30 minutes, a 50 per cent discount since I speak Nepali. After dinner of garlic soup and dal, chapati and subzi, we retire for the night.
: It's a sunny morning, but we decide to rest at Namche Bazaar to let my muscles get back in shape. To heal my knee, I try getting a massage, but find all establishments closed as it is off-season. I spend most of the day finishing Khushwant Singh's Men and Women in My Life, roaming the market, playing cards and surfing the Net, then have Chinese chopsuey for dinner and go to bed.
Wake up early and leave for Tyangboche. Reach Kyangjuma, a small cluster of lodges and restaurants, after an hour and enjoy noodle soup and hot chocolate for breakfast. The trek from Namche to Tyangboche is beautiful. Rosebushes in bloom, birds, butterflies and trees are a treat to the eyes. Tyangboche (3,867 metres) is where we stop for lunch. The place has the largest monastery in the region - 88 years old and rebuilt twice after an earthquake and fire. I'm told that Tenzing Norgay, who was born near here, was reportedly sent to here to become a monk.
Since we are progressing ahead of schedule, we decide to leave for Pangboche (3,984 metres) for our night halt. Ninety minutes later we reach our destination. Though most lodges are closed, my guide manages a room at Mt Everest View Lodge. No electricity or running water, but the first clear view of Mt Everest and Ama Damlam make up for the discomfort. Dinner comprises fried egg noodles with chang, a local rice beer. It makes me forget the pain, temporarily.
It's a cold, foggy morning as we leave Pangboche. Breakfast at Shomare is noodle soup again. By now, I haven't had a bath in two days. We reach Pheriche in two hours and decide to push on. Ninety minutes later, we reach Thukla (4,595 metres), also known as Dugla. It's a small place with just one lodge. The trek is smooth at first and very steep towards the end. It's just mind over matter, I tell myself, and try to stop thinking about my knee. Bharat treats us to Mars bars as it is his birthday and I finance the Gorkha rum. My doctor advised me not to have alcohol, but I seem immune to mountain sickness and a peg of rum eases the pain.
We leave Thukla at 6 am. I am finding it difficult to move my hands due to the cold. The scenery gets more barren as we climb. I have porridge and black tea at Lobuche (4,930 metres). The yaks grazing make for good photos, but Yeti, the abominable snowman, is nowhere in sight. We proceed to Gorakhshep (5,180 metres), the original Everest Base Camp. By now I have climbed nearly 600 metres in three hours but am still not experiencing dizziness or headaches - thanks to the Diamox tablets advised by my doctor. Encouraged, we decide to proceed to our goal, Everest Base Camp (5,486 metres). It takes 90 more minutes to get there. The view is not clear, but it's fulfilling to know that we are at the same spot from where Hillary and Tenzing started their ascent. We click photos and gulp down spring rolls before returning.
I have climbed 900 metres and trekked for six-and-a-half hours in nine hours - the toughest day of the trek. But there is a nasty shock in store for me. As I am eating dinner, Bharat tells me our porter is dead in his room. I rush upstairs and wake him up from death with a few slaps. Apparently he was in deep sleep. He's as shocked as we are. But after a bowl of hot soup our man is back to normal.
The next morning, we head towards Kala Patthar (5,545 metres), for a better view of Mt Everest. It's the steepest climb of the trek and we rest our legs and wait for the clouds to part. But luck is not on our side. It begins to rain and we rush down. After a quick breakfast of noodle soup and fried eggs, we reach Pheriche for lunch. Another 90 minutes later we are at Pangboche for our night halt. Over eight hours of trekking and 1,600 metres of downhill climb in the Himalayas is now all in a day's work. My left knee is killing me, but I am happy with what it has accomplished. It's celebration time with rum with hot water and tuna curry and rice.
After five hours of continuous trekking, we are back again in Namche Bazaar. The pain in my left knee is unbearable and since all my weight has shifted to the right leg, it's aching as well. A shave and hot shower after five days feels like heaven.
Leave Namche Bazaar at 6 am. We stop at Jorsalley for breakfast - black tea, fried eggs and noodle soup again. Three hours and 15 minutes later we reach Tadakoshi, and 90 minutes after that, Lukla. Mission accomplished. We celebrate with tongba, a millet-based alcoholic beverage popular among the Limbu people of eastern Nepal, and chicken curry. It's started to rain again. We pray for clear skies.
Prayers not answered, it's still raining. Our flight is cancelled. Flights getting delayed or cancelled is a common phenomenon in Lukla. Sometimes trekkers have to wait for over a week for clear skies. I use the time to laze and relax my muscles.
Wake up at 5 am. It's not raining, but it's foggy. Lunch time and still no sign of clear skies. Suddenly there's hectic activity as someone announces our flight has taken off from Kathmandu. We rush to the airport. Soon, our aircraft cruises to a halt in Lukla. We rush inside and are off and away. Back in Kathmandu in 35 minutes. But the sounds of the rushing Doodh Kosi River, which we followed on the trek, remain in my heart and mind.
When to go:
Mid-Sept to mid-Dec and March to May are the best times of year for this trek, when the weather is warm during the day and the views are best. But it's also when the route is crowded. So if you want to avoid crowds, plan a trip during the mons