Travel: An ode to the Everest
Tales from a seven-time trekker to the Everest Base CampUpdated: Jun 08, 2019 23:29 IST
It was surely the end of the world. It had to be, since all I could see for miles and miles together was only shades of white and grey. This is it, I thought. This was certainly the end.
I was caught in a whiteout while descending the Thang La pass – the term used for conditions of extremely low visibility due to heavy snowfall. I knew I was in trouble. To top it all, I had a bout of stomach ache. Luckily, I spotted a shepherd who took me back to my camp in Pangboche, which was incidentally just behind a nearby hill.
One more memorable experience had just been added to the bag. Ah well, it was just the beginning.
On top of the world
The mountain kingdom of Nepal is home to eight of the world’s 14 highest peaks – eight thousanders, as they are referred to in the climbing community, owing to all of them being above 8,000m (approximately 26,250 feet) above sea level. The highest of them all, and Earth’s highest, is Mount Everest towering at 8,848m (29,028 feet). No wonder this place is a haven for trekking and climbing enthusiasts, with trekkers flocking in from all parts of the world.
Of the myriad trekking routes, the Everest Base Camp trek at 5,340m (17,521 feet) is probably one of the most famous and most loved, owing to the iconic nature of Mt. Everest. Sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists, over the years this mountain has acquired lore of its own – you could call it an institution, even.
There are some unwritten rules everyone’s expected to follow – like respecting the mountains, and not taking anything casually!
Starting from the tiny town of Namche Bazaar in Northeastern Nepal, this trek is a journey through the Khumbu region of Nepal, up the valley of the Dudh Kosi River through forests of rhododendron and pine, passing quaint Sherpa villages and remote Buddhist monasteries. There are many routes to reach the Everest Base Camp. Other routes go via the Gokyo Lakes, a group of freshwater lakes and the highest lake system in the world, and others through the Renjo La pass, a particularly picturesque mountainous region north of Namche Bazaar. Amazing views of other Himalayan peaks like Lhotse Shar, Nuptse, Ama Dablam etc. can also be had along this route.
I’ve done this seven times over. I know this route like the back of my hand. But it is as they say, the mountains are highly unpredictable. Each journey brings with it new stories.
From Kathmandu, you take a 45-minute flight to the town of Lukla. I recollect doing a double take the first time I looked out of that small aircraft. A thin strip of land – presumably the runway – awaited us. We’re going to land here? I remember thinking. The trek starts by following the trail leading to the northwest through the narrow street, which immediately descends from the end of the village onto a well-defined trail through the open hillside. From there, the trail leads into the Sagarmatha National Park, a protected area.
The first successful summit of Everest happened on May 29, 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary, a mountaineer from New Zealand, and his Nepali Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay. After this historic ascent, Hillary and Norgay were propelled to instant stardom and cemented their place in climbing history forever.
The indigenous Sherpa mountaineering community is the backbone of any Everest expedition. Their superhuman strength and ability to walk for long at high altitudes bearing heavy loads has baffled scientists for years together.
On one occasion in Namche Bazaar, our team met Kancha Sherpa, an elderly Sherpa, who was a guide on this attempt in 1953. It was a great honour to meet such a distinguished and accomplished person. Another time, we ran into Jamling Norgay, Tenzing Norgay’s son, a celebrity in the area. Incidentally, he too summitted Everest in 1996 along with a team, which was the subject of the 1998 IMAX film Everest.
Probably the most memorable meeting was with Ang Rita Sherpa, a veteran Sherpa mountaineer who holds the Guinness World Records for climbing Everest the most number of times without supplemental oxygen – he’s successfully attempted this feat 10 times!
Into thin air
The 1996 disaster on Mount Everest is possibly one of the most talked-about in mountaineering history. It has been immortalised on paper and celluloid, the most popular one being Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, the account of American journalist and survivor Jon Krakauer. Expedition leader and New Zealand mountaineer Rob Hall, along with American mountaineer Scott Fischer and six others, perished during an expedition in 1996 due to extreme temperatures and bad weather while descending from the summit. Rob Hall’s body lies on the mountain till date.
I still remember this particular day clearly. It was on my trip to Everest Base Camp in 2006. On the way from Pheriche to Lobuche, I saw Rob Hall’s wife Jan Arnold and daughter Sarah who had come to pay their respects on his 10th death anniversary. Sarah was born just a couple of months after his death. She had never met her father, and had only her mother’s memories of him with her, which was what made the scene even more heart-rending.
Everywhere on the trail, you can find signs – some directional, and some emphatically instructing trekkers not to litter, and to keep the route clean. But there are some unwritten rules that everyone is expected to follow – they are about respecting the mountains, and not taking anything casually. This is a region where it can be raining one minute, and there’s a snowstorm the next. Calling the weather unpredictable would be an understatement.
Over the years, Mount Everest has acquired lore of its own – you could call it an institution, even
Crisis situations due to adverse weather conditions have claimed even some of the most veteran mountaineers. Ironically these were people who spent their entire lives in the pursuit of the unknown.
Do I want to go back an eighth time? Of course I want to. The mountains are for me, in one word, life-changing. After all, they made me abandon an established career in finance to follow my passion for the outdoors. Who else can give you such invaluable lessons in humility other than the mountains? It is a small reminder of how small and insignificant we are in the whole circle of life.
The writer is an accomplished trekker who has been on the Everest Base Camp trek several times
From HT Brunch, June 9, 2019
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