Sunday, December 2, 2012

Trekking in Nepal - finally!

About 2 years ago I started to think about a trekking holiday in Nepal that would include visiting Everest Base camp. A few friends had done it and recommended it, and one friend in particular told me if I go, I should include some extra peaks in there while I was at it. This friend had used Exodus, the adventure holiday company so during the summer I started to read up on their trips. One in particular jumped out at me almost straight away, 'The High Passes of Everest'. It had a red icon saying 'TOUGH' on the front page so of course that appealed. It included crossing three high passes, five summits plus Everest Base Camp which made it one of the best of all the Everest circuits. I was sold!

So it was booked and on Fri Nov 2nd I headed out to join the group in Kathmandu. The other 10 people on the trip were all flying from London. There were 3 guys in their 60's, a man and a woman in their 50's, a guy in his 40's, a couple in their 40's, and a guy and a girl in their 30's. I was the youngest on the trip which was a nice change! Apart from the couple, everyone was a solo traveler like me.

I got in a little earlier on the Sat so I waited at the hotel for the group to show up a few hours later with our leader for the trip. His name is Pasang and he's from Bhutan. He had been leading expeditions in the Himalayas for the last 14 years so we knew we'd be in good hands, and he was quite the character. Everyone was split into two's to share rooms and my roomie and BF for the trip was Frances, a lovely crazy soul from Belfast who I hope will remain a firm friend going forward.

Pasang brought all of us out for dinner that night as we got to know one another. One of the requirements of this trip was that you had to have had some previous altitude experience as most of the walking was above 3600m (over 11,000ft). This meant that everyone was quite well traveled so there were lots of stories to swap. It also meant that each us of were mentally adding new places to our travel wish lists as you talked to people who'd been to some really cool places. The traveling never ends!

First off on Sunday morning we had a briefing about what our next 3 weeks would entail. It definitely sounded daunting. The last time I was at high altitude was when I did Kilimanjaro in 2008 and I wasn't that happy when we reached the top. We were cold, dehydrated and had killer altitude headaches. As I came down I swore I'd never do something like it again. But as time is a great healer, here I was again only this sounded harder. But Pasang assured us that we would take our time, drink lots and we'd all be fine.

We had the rest of Sunday free in Kathmandu so Pasang organised a walking tour of the city for us. Kathmandu is mental. When you come into the airport they have small signs above your head giving you little facts about Nepal. One of them stated that the Nepalese like to express themselves through their horns - no kidding! The city is a sensory overload, lots of people, tons of motorbikes and cars, and non-stop incessant horns going off all the time. There seems to be no rules to the road and to cross you feel like you're in a real life game of Frogger. At the pedestrian crossings, you just have to walk out with confidence and hope that the cars stop, which they almost always do at the last minute, but while honking at you as they speed up towards you. Any hesitation and you've lost, you have to start again. A little terrifying to begin with but after a few days, we were walking like pros as opposed to racing across like deer in the headlights.

Sunday night we all went out for dinner and our last beers for a few weeks. We'd only be able to have beers again once we started the descent and we had no more peaks to climb. We had to leave for our flight to Lukla the next morning around 930am so after dinner, the evening was spent doing a final pack and going through the check list. We also took a group photo of the guys since they all agreed not to shave for the next almost 3 weeks.

As I have mentioned to some of you, the flight to Lukla was the only aspect of the trip that I had reservations about before I booked it. Lukla is where all the Everest region-based treks begin from, so for the most part you have to fly in there from Kathmandu. Its about a 35 min flight in a small 20 seater plane. The scary thing about it is the runway at Lukla is only 460m long (just over the length of a running track) and its at the edge of a cliff so no room for do-overs or errors. Its known as one of the most dangerous airports in the world, check out this video of a landing

I think I must have decided I had panicked enough over the previous weeks because on the morning of the flight I was quite calm. In the end the flight was actually very cool, relatively smooth but the landing was crazy. You can see the tiny runway as you're coming towards it and its on a slope at the edge of a cliff, so it slows down the plane as you land and go up the slope. Everyone seemed a little shook up  as we got off the flight, and Pasang, even though he's been doing it for 14 years, was full of relief. He said he's actually seen people wet themselves on the flight before. One of the guys even told me he wrote up his will before the trip, based purely on this flight. So I guess my fears weren't that unfounded. Anyway, we all made it and were very excited to start trekking that afternoon. We met Pasang's two guides, Norrie and Kushman who were to be our pacers and guys who could get us anything we needed, absolute superstars. We also had 6 porters with us who would carry our kit bags. We just had to worry about our day packs which was nice.

Over the next 18 days, we would start to trek up towards Everest Base camp. Along the way, we would divert from the normal Everest Base Camp route so that we could cross some of the high passes and hit a few peaks that would give us spectacular views of the Himalayas, including Everest obviously.

Each night we would stay in a teahouse with 2 to a room, and sometimes share bathrooms and dining halls with other trekking groups. Bathrooms might have a western toilet and a sink, or in the more basic teahouses it might just be a hole in the ground and you'd have to brush your teeth outside. On a typical day we would be woken up at 630 with morning tea from Norrie and Kushman. Then we'd have to have our bags packed for the porters by 715 and head for breakfast. The food was really varied and you could get anything from omelets and toast to porridge and pancakes. We all tried to stock up on as much food as possible. I even weighed myself before I left just to see if I'd lose anything. More about that later!

Around 8, we'd hit road and start walking. We had to drink at least 4 litres of water a day so most of us would buy bottled water. They recycle all the plastic up there now so its really rubbish-free. I had heard reports of the trails being full of litter but it was rare to see any plastics discarded on the way. The first few days it was quite warm so we could wear t-shirts and the boys wore shorts. Women are not allowed to show their knees in Nepal so us girls had to keep the long pants on. Around 10, we'd stop at a small shop for morning tea and maybe a snack like some chocolate. Unfortunately fruit was hard to come by and it was one of the only things I really missed food-wise. It was interesting to see the price differences as you went further towards the Everest region. In Kathmandu we paid 18 rupee for a bottle of water. At some point during the trek, we had to pay 350 for the same bottle. It was similar for snacks and food, but when you see the porters carrying massive crates and boxes up the hills, it absolutely makes sense.

Even in the first few days you could really feel the altitude going uphill. Norrie and Kushman paced us well though and Pasang brought up the rear. It was such a pleasure to be outside for most of the day just walking, taking in the scenery and swapping life stories with these new friends, all as good as I'd hoped and imagined it would be.

We'd stop for lunch around 12 at a teahouse and again you could order almost anything - noodles, rice, pizza, egg and chips, pasta, potatoes. One of the lads would have soup and two main courses every lunchtime, and the same for dinner. He was a machine. Some people lost their appetite early on and eventually got it back on the descent. Almost half the group had stomach problems at some stage or another but I'm happy to say I was fine and my appetite never wavered. The lads were making fun of how much I could eat, I would even finish some of their plates if they couldn't. I really couldn't get enough. Better than the alternative though!

In the afternoon we'd walk again and get to our teahouse for the evening around 4. We'd be welcomed with hot drinks and menus for dinner. Most of the dining halls of the teahouses were quite warm as they had fire heaters in them but the bedrooms were not heated. As we went up further in altitude it got really cold at night. One place we stayed at it was -10C INSIDE the room at night, and several mornings we woke up with ice on the inside of the window! On those nights I would put hot water in my drinking bottle, wrap it in a sock and put it in my sleeping bag as a hot water bottle. I'd sleep in heavy socks, thermal leggings with tracksuit bottoms over them, two layers of thermals on top as well as a fleece, and also a hat - all inside my liner and my 4 season mummy sleeping bag. Yes it was that cold but with all those layers I was quite comfortable.

Even though we all wore tons of layers, every last one of us got the Khumbu cough, also known as the high altitude hack, named after the area in the Everest region. Nearly all people who spend time at extreme altitude (over 5500m) will develop some degree of the Khumbu cough. Each morning we could hear people waking up and the chorus of coughs would start echoing though the halls.

I also learned the hard way that I had to sleep with a lot of my electronics as they don't like the cold. My new camera somehow deleted the first 100 photos I took, no idea how or why. Actually I reckon the SD card had a fit and reformatted itself. Better that it happened 5 days in than 20 days in, but still... I put a new card in, kept the camera warm at night and everything was fine since.

As I mentioned earlier, I was so glad I decided to do more than the straight to Everest Base Camp and back trip. That part of the trek was definitely fun, really interesting and I'm so glad I saw base camp (and no disrespect to anyone else who has done the straight there and back trip) but the rest of the peaks and passes were definitely the highlight for me. And with Pasang and his team's help, it was so much more pleasurable at the top of these peaks, even the ones over 5500m. It was a very different experience to Kilimanjaro. There were mild headaches here and there, usually on the way down from a peak or a pass and that was often because I was concentrating on not falling. Some of the trails were quite tricky. Sliding down on your bum was often the best way to do it. Pasang also put all of us on Diamox which helps with altitude sickness. One of the side effects was tingling sensations in your fingers and toes, although I used to feel it in my lips too. I got pins and needles one evening from sitting on my leg but they took at least 10 mins to begin to ease, very strange and sore!

At the top of every pass there were group hugs, slaps of the back, high fives and lots of photos. Some people found it quite emotional so there were some tears from them. And usually there was a big congratulations for Barry. Barry was the oldest member of our group at 65 and he definitely had the toughest ride. A grandfather who had beaten cancer twice, he ran his first, second and third marathons at 61, climbed Mt Fuji last year - he had bags of determination. Unfortunately he was the second person to suffer affects from the altitude so basically for the 18 days we were trekking he had diarrhea, a chest infection and niggling cough, as well as very little sleep. But he never gave up or stopped, he just kept the head down and plodded along. On the days where even us fit and healthy people found the going tough, Barry would always make it and do it with a quick smart remark and a smile. He was an absolute inspiration. 

I think my favourite day was the one where we climbed Awi Peak. It was an optional peak but 8 of us decided to do it, the other 3 needed a bit of a break for various ailments so they walked straight to the teahouse. The best thing about it was that there was no one else on the peak. Being in the Himalayas in the peak season means that a lot of the trails can be very busy, and as well as people, you often run into Yak and mule traffic jams. Did you know that Yaks can't live below a certain altitude! I even met a guy who grew up a few streets away from me when we got chatting in one of the more remote tea houses. But we had Awi Peak to ourselves and even though it was one of the tougher ones, we had to scramble up on all fours toward the summit, it had some of the most spectacular views. I remember lying back with my pack as a pillow about 6 ft from the cliff edge, facing Everest, my new friends around me, eating a tuna sandwich and a twix in the sun, thinking it really couldn't get any better than this!

Another great afternoon was when we stayed in Gokyo. Its a tiny set of teahouses right by a glacial lake. The guides let us walk around the lake (about 2 hours) by ourselves. We felt like kids let out to play. Such a fun afternoon.

After the Renzo La, which was our last pass, we were starting to descend. That night was the first in over 2 weeks that we were allowed to have a beer. Dunc, Chris (my partners in crime and food for most of the trip) and I all savoured our first can.

Before long we were making our way back down the valley to Lukla and the return flight to Kathmandu. Back in Kathmandu we had a couple of days before everyone had to depart. We spent one afternoon wandering around the city and visiting a haven called the 'Garden of Dreams' where for a small fee, you could lie on the grass and order great food in a nice restaurant away from the madness of the city. Sat morning a bunch of us hired taxis to take us to Bhaktapur, a medieval city about 30 mins from Kathmandu. Its full of temples and little side streets of shops, great for a wander. On the last night we all went out to Rum Doodles, a famous bar and restaurant in Kathmandu with trekking groups. They give you a cardboard foot at the end of the night which you decorate with your team's trip and names etc. I was nominated as the artist for the team. Frances and Andy both wrote and recited funny poems as thanks for Pasang and the group.

At this point everyone was pretty tired from the last 3 weeks, and bar me, they all had to head to the airport at 6am the next morning for their flights. My flight was at 9pm Sunday night so I had a day of sightseeing planned. However at 230am that night, my stomach had different ideas. The whole trip I didn't have any health problems, even though we had heard stories about the cleanliness of the teahouses. However the pizza I had in the most touristy joint in town had decided to give me the worst food poisoning of my life, no kidding. I won't go into the details but I was glad I wasn't on the flights home with the others, there's no way I would have made it. Instead of spending my last day wandering the sights of the monkey temple and doing last minute shopping, I had to ask for a super late check out and stay in the hotel room for the day. Not the best way to end the holiday and it takes a lot to take me down. Poor Pasang also had food poisoning and he's practically a local. After saying goodbye to him and wishing him well, I managed to drag myself to the airport for my flights home and thankfully slept most of the way.

Even that ending couldn't take away from the best holiday ever though. Despite losing 8lbs and having my hands swell up and break into sores from a weird allergic reaction to the cold (as a doctor in one of the villages told me) I would do it all again in a minute. Already a few of us are talking about another trip out there to do some more peaks. I know this is a longer post than normal but there was so much crammed into those 3 wonderful weeks. Here's a link to the photos although it was so hard to capture the vastness and beauty of the Himalayas Other people took the group photos at the top of the passes and peaks so as they come in I'll add them to the rest.

I'm off to NY now to visit some old friends and then catch some much needed warmth in Miami. Till next time, Namaste!


Saturday, April 28, 2012


This was such a last minute trip (booked less than a week in advance) I barely had time to get excited about it, so before I knew it my alarm was waking me at stupid o'clock to be on a 640am flight to Barcelona - it turned out to be well worth it! Darci and Leanna (fabulous New Yorkers, great friends and ex co-workers of mine) were flying from NY so I met them at Barcelona airport. Leanna has really good Spanish, I was designated as trip photographer and Darci has great organizational skills, and she carried half our crap in her bag all week so Leanna dubbed us the 'triple threat' team. I had never traveled more than a night with three people but it was fantastic - no weird dynamic at all and if one person was tired, the other two took over the plans - loved it!

I was only there from Monday morning to Friday morning, the girls stayed on an extra 2 days before flying back to NY so I'll just lay out the highlights of my 4 days there.

- We stayed at a cool hostel that was more like a hotel a block from La Rambla, one of the main drags. It was central enough but away from the craziness. The first night we got a bottle of wine, some great cheese and snacks from the market, an listened to Leanna's Spanish music while we caught up. It had been over 6 months since I left NY.

- We had mostly sunny days although if we were in the shade and the wind, it was definitely jacket weather.

- We walked TONS! We really felt like we saw a lot of the city and walked a lot of the neighborhoods. I know people say that it can be a bit unsafe or that there are pickpockets around but I'm happy to say we saw none of that.

- There was one bit of shadiness though. When Leanna had lived in Spain before she noticed there were a few more flashers there than in your average cities. She bet that before the week was out we'd see one. Wednesday morning we got up a little early and rounding the corner at 830am on the way to breakfast, I hear Leanna yell 'YAY!'. I turn to see what cool thing she'd seen, as she's pointing across the street - 'look, an exposed penis! - I told you we'd see one'. Not what I was expecting to see before my morning cuppa, some dude casually leaning against a lamppost with his lad out. Definitely quote of the trip though.

- We were wandering around one night trying to find a restaurant recommended to me by Josep, a former New Yorker and Barcelona native. We stumbled upon a tiny little bar called Zim. It had about 8 bar stools in the whole place and that was it, my living room is bigger but it was fantastic. Really good Cave which is my new favourite drink now.

- Lunchtime consisted of tapas and a glass of either Sangria or Cave. I wish every lunchtime was like that.

- The Sagrada Familia was amazing, really cool to get the lift up to the turrets and walk all the way down. Park Guell was great but it was really packed so it was difficult to take photos.

- After 3 days walking the city we decided to get the train an hour out of the city to visit Montserrat for some hiking trails. It was a really sunny day and so lovely to be out and hiking. The views were stunning and once we got on the trails we didn't pass by many people at all.

- Our last evening, we went down to the beach, had some drinks beach-side and then dinner. A lovely end to a super fun city break. The triple threat team are already thinking about the next vacation.

You can check out my photos here.

Hasta luego,