In the land of the Sherpas – the preparation

Kathmandu

As I said in my previous post, interest was building up for a few years. But it took a big blow with the devastating earthquake hitting Nepal in the early summers of 2015. The horrific pictures of suffering that emerged from Nepal made the thought of going there impossible for at least another 4-5 years, or so it appeared at that time. During the first three months of 2015, I got in touch with Mr Tej Bahadur Gurung, the proprietor of Nepal Alternative Treks and Expeditions and he landed up as my Facebook friend. His regular updates from Nepal, especially about the recent developments kept me aware through the days of trauma that Nepal went through. Gradually, despair gave way to hope. Successive photographs from Tej about the different expeditions raised hopes. It came across, that the Everest region & the route somehow survived nature’s wrath. The damage to the trail has been recovered or at least was on the way of it.

Life presents you with questions at every corner. Solving one unearths others. Now that Nepal (or at least Everest base camp) was deemed reachable, the question of getting leaves from work came up. It wasn’t insignificant. From what Mr Gurung, my friends who’ve visited the region & finally, the internet, had to say, it takes about 13-14 days from Kathmandu to Kathmandu. Add to that, the travel to and from Delhi. All said, we were looking at about 15-16 days. That seems manageable. But, hold on, there’s the Lukla flight. That, in itself, is a “big variable” in this equation. Probably the one with most uncertainty. A quick hunt for information told me that flights to this distant air strip are very uncertain and weather always holds the trump card. Flights on this route are not controlled by sophisticated ATS systems, but by clear visibility. Simply put, if the pilot can see the air strip, the flight will land and similarly, while taking off, the hills in front has to be visible. Delays because of cancellations are not uncommon and all of whom we spoke to, advised us to have at least 2 days in buffer to account for them. Little did we know at that time, that even two days might prove insufficient and we’d have to think of alternatives. But that’s a tale to be told later. All said, we were looking at 17-18 days off work. Hmm, let’s see how it shapes up. But even before all that, my mind was caught up in another challenge. “Can I do it?” One section of it kept pushing me. “There won’t be another chance in life. Age is not going to be in your favor for long. So have it while it’s hot.” On the other hand, the son, the husband and the father in me kept dragging me. “Don’t be crazy. It’s not Kedarnath where you’re not forced to walk, mules can do the job for you. It’s not a 2-3-day affair. It’s a good fortnight of walking for at least 7/8 hours a day, getting to altitudes as high as 5500 m. You’re jumping into English Channel right after a swimming pool.” Asking different people for opinions gave mixed results. There are some people whom I preferred not to ask as the answer was always going to be negative (that includes my family members). Responses from others were subject to interpretation. It all summed up to “Look, you’ll have to walk hard, it will be tiring, you could run out of breath or do fine at the altitudes, depending on how fit you are or can become during the days of the buildup.” But all of them agreed that the trail, though tiring, is not dangerous and people of differing ages and varying trekking experiences have done it before. As it always happens, I finally reached a point when I thought, enough questions have been asked, now it’s time to move forward. After making up my mind, I gave a call to my bosom buddy and all-weather friend and travel partner Niladri (Niladri Sekhar Guha). He sprang up (as he always does) at the idea. After hanging up the phone, I wondered why bother asking others when a single phone call could solve it in a few minutes? Over the years, we’ve been travelling together (with our respective families) along with other friends. If Niladri turns down an offer to travel, it has to be a natural calamity. Getting leaves from a private IT firm for close to 3 weeks (well, at least 17 days) isn’t easy even by most lenient standards. But wait, didn’t I complete 5 years at my organization (or rather, will complete it before the trek commences)? What it meant that I’d be getting an extra 10 days of leave once I complete 5 years at my company. Great! This has to be it. As they say, when the Himalayas call, none can resist it. At least I can’t let this opportunity fade away.

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One of the many wire bridges to cross on the trail

With leaves now sorted, it was time for planning. That wasn’t a small affair either. We first needed to form a group. Just two of us won’t work as the tax bracket we belong to, won’t allow that luxury. I reached out to my brother-in-law, Ranjan Ghosh, an employee at the Central Government of India. His love for The Himalayas had suddenly taken off with his interest in photography (primarily for birds). “Everest base camp? Hmm, that might be a big ask at my age, let me think over”. I tried my best to wipe out his last of doubts by citing numerous narratives I heard from others (carefully weeding out the negatives). With him still doubtful, I didn’t press on further, thinking he might be better off being left on his own to make a decision. If he comes back with an affirmative answer after giving a good deep thought, it’s better for the group as we’d have a committed member and that’s very important in a trek like this. Niladri, in the meantime managed to rope in one of his office colleagues, Siddhartha Bhattacharjee. With head hunting still on, I continued my inquiries about the travel. I resumed my interactions with Tej Gurung. The itinerary that he provided (which is standard) ran like this:

It would start from Kathmandu with a flight to Lukla, followed by a few hours of walk to Phakding, the place of our first halt. Next day, the maximum gain of altitude in a day (about 400 m) would take us to Namche Bazaar, the Sherpa hub of business and culture, the largest town of the Khumbu region. The following day was supposed to be a rest day, to acclimatize our bodies to higher altitudes. Rest, by the way, would not mean just relaxing. It would rather mean hikes to nearby places for about 2-3 hours and back. In this case, a hike would take us to the “Everest view hotel” from where we were expected to get the first glimpse of Mt Everest along with its neighbors. After that, successive days would see us gain heights gradually and reach the places of Tengboche (which has the largest monastery of the region), Dingboche, Lobuche and Gorakshep respectively. There were no extra rest days in the entire route apart from one each at Namche and Dingboche. We were to reach Gorakshep from Lobuche, have lunch there and tread on further to Everest base camp, the same day and come back to Gorakshep to stay there. The following morning would see us scale the heights of Kalapathhar to have the full view of the peaks and glaciers of the Everest region. The way back was similar, except that it did not involve staying at every place, given that we would be on our way down. Tej Gurung’s itinerary wasn’t just a routine. It had enough meat to get one charged up with romantic and adventurous description of the trail. According to that, Kalapathhar was supposed to be the climax of the entire trip. Apparently, when the sun would rise from behind of Mt Everest (to be able to see that, one would have to start ascending from Gorakshep at dark hours of the night), the edges of Pumori, Ama Dablam and many other stalwarts of the Everest region would start bathing in gold till that transforms to dazzling silver. It was supposed to be a treat to our eyes for the entire 360 degrees around us. Well, well! It was difficult to hold our breath. But, there’s not much time for romanticism as it was already January 2016 and we were to move fast as the window of our visit zeroed in on first half of May, as that would provide us the best weather before monsoons arrive at the Khumbu region.

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Everest calling – a village house (Solu Khumbu, Nepal)

In the meantime, Dhananjoy, a common friend of mine and Niladri from college, joined the party. During the course of a regular phone call (as he does to all friends to keep the threads strong), Niladri brought up Everest and he was immediately smitten by it! Ranjan da (Ranjan Ghosh), during these days was continuing his research on internet. He had traversed numerous blogs, multitude of photographs, videos and posts on Everest and his exchanges with me gave a feeling that doubts in his mind were fading and finally, he gave consent. Now that we were five in the group, we started negotiations with Tej on the cost and once that was settled, our inquiries from him focused more on details around day-to-day logistics, required trekking gear and the gap we have to cover on that front. Then there was physical preparation to be undertaken as Tej said on one of the phone calls – “The trek can be done by anyone, provided he is fit. There is no danger in the entire route”. Now, if danger gets taken care of, we at least need to be fit enough to be able to take the bait. Fitness for me, over the years, has meant nothing more than a few rounds of brisk walking in the morning hours around the periphery of the housing complex where I stay in Noida. Though one cannot simulate altitudes of the trail, something had to be done. So I started climbing the stairs of a ten storeyed building in my housing complex, increasing the number of iterations with every passing week. Others resorted to similar things with Dhananjoy doing the same as me, Niladri (constrained by his problem of asthma) resorted to walking his way back to home from office every other day (a good 10-13 km). While these were going on, our conversations continued with other friends who have visited the region. In one such conversation, Shantanu Das (who’s been to both Annapurna and Everest regions) asked whether we were considering a visit to Gokyo lakes in addition to the main Everest base camp trail. The Gokyo region is another bait with its pristine azure lakes amidst snow-covered mountains. An added attraction was the crossover through Cho La (5420 m), a high altitude pass, with magnificent views of snow-capped peaks and glaciers that connects the Everest base camp trail with the Gokyo region. It would add two more days to the trip but would bring much more to the already exciting tour that was building up! “We can’t go there every weekend, right?” said Niladri, “so if we can walk for twelve days, we might as well add two more”. A few more exchange of emails with Tej, some negotiations and it was settled. The itinerary now spanned fifteen days from Kathmandu to Kathmandu. After our ascent to Kalapathhar, we would travel back to Lobuche, have lunch, then continue to Dzongla. The next day, we would cross Cho La to reach Thangna (or as some call it, Dragnak). Successive days would take us through Gokyo, Dole and finally, Namche Bazaar, where we would join back to the main trail and continue to Lukla after a day’s rest.

The pieces of the maze were falling into place rather quickly, which made me a tad nervous “Are we missing something obvious? Come on, it is supposed to be the Everest base camp trek. It can’t be that simple!” Such thoughts kept crossing my mind as the day of our flight to Kathmandu approached.

The buildup

Kathmandu

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