I write to you from Paradise on Ko Phi Phi Island in the Andaman Sea of Thailand...quite the change of scenery from when I last wrote (indeed from 2 days ago!) It is so strange to be back here, and away from all the people I've been with everyday since March 30th...that I really must write about the finale and trek down from Everest Base Camp before that world becomes clouded over by beaches and emerald green waters.
I left you with my climb of Kala Pattar at 18,200 feet with Don, one of the climbers. Most of the other trekkers were tired and/or sick when we arrived at the tiny settlement of Gorak Shep (the highest partly-inhabited settlement in the world at just over 17,000 feet!), but for some reason, I was wired and ready for action, so since Don wanted to do another acclimatization hike, I decided to accompany him. This location reminded me of Moss Isley from the original first Star Wars movie. A band of Sand People and Jawas would not go amiss in this sandy landscape. As it was afternoon, we expected clouds to have gathered over Mt. Everest, obscuring our views...but I whooped like a kid on Christmas Day when 30 minutes into our climb, the clouds parted and unveiled Sagarmatha in all his majesty. We got some incredible shots from this trek, and I was so happy to share this with Don, whom I've developed quite an affection for. He is inspirational: at 65, he is the first total hip replacement recipient to attempt the summit of Everest. And I could not keep up with him on the way up, the man is seriously in good shape! Way to go "SB"!
On the top of my highest peak on the trek, we happily took a bunch of pictures as we sat on the very narrow ledge that was literally strewn with prayer flags and rock cairns. We had to be quite careful on the descent, sliding down on our butts :-)
The other reason that I climbed Kala Pattar this day instead of the day after Base Camp was that there was still a small chance that I might be allowed to stay the night there and then re-join the trekkers the following day. Joyce, Don's wife, was offered the opportunity as a way of spending more time together before his summit bid, and Joyce was happy to have some company for the descent the next day. Unfortunately, after some very confusing, complicated, and albeit frustrating miscommunication with Alpine, Joyce opted not to stay the night, and as such, I was not permitted to stay either. I was extremely disappointed and could think of little else to wipe the vexation from my heart the following day.
Looking back on it now, I feel different. I think that getting the opportunity to see Base Camp was incredible, but perhaps it was best that only climbers stayed and settled in together as a cohesive group. It would have been amazing, but I am thrilled that I didn't get so sick that I was not even able to trek the entire way, as many of the trekkers unfortunately had to turn around days before.
Incidentally, I am only now, finally, over my Khumbu cough and cold. I can't remember the last time I had such prolonged symptoms, but I am glad that I waited to go diving until tomorrow, as the amount of congestion I have been suffering with would have made it impossible to equalize pressure in my ears.
Don and I made it back just in time for dinner and then I literally collapsed into bed, and had a fitful, breathless sleep before our "big day".
It took 3 1/2 more hours of navigating sharp jagged rock and ice to get to base camp, and a little more to reach the space occupied by Alpine Ascents: a prime location directly at the foot of the Khumbu glacier. The sun that day was so bright, that even with glacier glasses, the glare was apparent because my camera often couldn't handle how bright the conditions were.
I'd been imagining what base camp would look like for years. For some reason I always imagined approaching it on the right, but in reality you approach from the left. There are hundreds of brightly colored tents that sit on laboriously constructed and flattened rock platforms. Yaks bring in loads but do not stay long enough to create more pollution. Toilets are made in tents, the seat sits over a canister, which is later literally carried out of camp: on the back of a porter!!!! The air is thin, but the atmosphere is heavy with palpable anticipation.
The Alpine Ascents camp was incredible- the meal tent was enormous and stocked with all kinds of goodies from the States: Peanut butter, jelly beans, maple syrup, chocolate...and for the afternoon- we were told to eat anything we wanted while the kitchen prepared us a lunch. The kitchen is fully stocked, in fact, the sheer volume of equipment, gear, hardware, oxygen canisters, tents, etc etc is staggering. Its hard to imagine all of it arriving on the back of Yaks.
After lunch we took a walk over to the mighty Khumbu Glacier- the most challenging and dangerous part of the climb, leading to Camp I, usually in about 9 hours of walking, unroped, over and up crevasses with the aid of stepladders. We sat and watched, for about an hour, a lone climber making his way down towards us through the ice, and it was really mind-boggling to imagine that there was genuinely a navigable way through this maze. It does not make for an attractive prospect, for me at least!
We bid goodbye to Don (who's tearful parting from Joyce moved me to tears, of course) and the Sherpas and made our way back down to Gorak Shep. My heart was heavy. And sad. Much of it inexplicable. Until we met up with our brave climbers once again as they themselves walked up to Base Camp from Lobuche...once again, there was an emotional exchange of good wishes and goodbyes as we passed the group one by one on the trail.
After another night at extreme altitude, we were all more than ready to DESCEND to a more comfortable amount of oxygen. The hypoxia was taking a toll on our strength and spirits. The following morning, however, I was able to rest while the group tackled Kala Pattar.
Around 11am, I got a surprise visit from Vern and Derek (who had been recovering from Bronchitis down in Pheriche) as they stopped for some Ra Noodle Soup on their way to Base Camp. I was so happy to see my friends again, and dosed up on big bear hugs from my lovely Vern. And on some songs, of course as Vern is never on the mountain without that guitar of his.
Thus started my rather melancholy descent. Not that the hike itself wasn't beautiful, in fact, I really never got the sense of "oh, we've been here before I wish it were new...." I was just in a different head space- I most definitely had connected more with the climbing group, and now our numbers had more than halved, AND would continue to shrink the following day in Dingboche when the Island Peak Climbers, 4 of them plus climbing sherpas including Suzanne, left us for their summit bid. I missed my friends and felt somewhat lonely. Its weird going from a group of 44 strong, to a group of 8 (eventually in Lukla we were down to 5 plus Pasang!!). And I'd be lying if I didn't say that a small part of me wished I was in Base camp training for the summit bid as well. Never thought I'd say that!
We doubled up the amount of ground covered on the way down as opposed to the way up. Our days were long but very methodical and by now I was in a predictable rhythm. Breakfast of porridge and eggs around 7am, walk till lunch, stop for lunch of soup, sherpa bread, potatoes and veggies with tea, then walk all afternoon usually stopping around 4 or 5pm. Then tea with popcorn followed by a "sponge" clean in my room as I set out my sleeping bag, changed into my fleece and went back to the teahouse common room to read before dinner. Then dinner, and usually bed around 8-9pm. Rinse and repeat.
We met up with two trekkers who'd had quite an ordeal with illness in Pheriche, and with most of the group still recovering from various maladies, we made for quite a slow walking bunch. The trail back to Namche Bazaar was so ridiculously long...a path carved into the hillside with bend after bend after bend after bend in the road! You were always convinced that the town would magically appear around the NEXT bend, and it didn't! I was so happy to get to the Panorama Lodge...and was moved to tears when I was told that I would be getting my own room that had a SHOWER! Trekking strips you down to your most basic needs...so a shower can be ridiculously good entertainment. I was ecstatic to both shower, and have the luxury of doing some laundry...just enough to get us to Lukla before getting to my other bag of clean clothes in Kathmandu.
Well. That plan all went to hell in a handbasket. We arrived in Lukla in the afternoon of the 15th of April, tired but happy to be back and ready to get our flight in the morning. Joyce, Doug and I had a celebratory cake and latte at the local cafe before we settled in for a yummy meal shared with heartier souls that night at the Namaste Lodge. Everyone was very excited about our mutual return to civilization, especially the victims of the Himalayan "plague".
So, it was with eager spirits that we breakfasted the next morning in preparation for being called over to the airport for our Twin Otter flight back to Kathmandu. Except that we weren't called until 11:30am, by which point the clouds were starting to hover thick in the sky and cast a gloomy grey over our hopes. After a couple hours at the airport which more closely resembled a nuclear silo, we piled into a coffee shop next door and ordered cheesecake and coffee to raise our spirits. I was overjoyed when Jen lent me a book (as I had finished all of mine already) "The Time Traveller's Wife" of about 650 pages. I was thinking at the time: it will be a shame to start and not finish this, but I can always get it stateside if I enjoy it?
I finished that book.
Our day 1 of waiting was ended when we were informed at about 4:30pm that our flight was cancelled due to bad weather. Disappointed and dirty, we trudged back to Namaste Lodge and awaited the plan for the next day. As with most scheduled flights, passengers arriving the next day with confirmed reservations would get the chance to get on planes before we did, despite the fact that they had not been delayed a day. You basically get put to the back of the line each day, and only get on a plane if somehow people don't show up for their scheduled times. So, we were happy when the owner of the guesthouse bought us new tickets for the "second wave" of flights for the next day (we were on the third on the 16th) as it meant we had just as much of a shot at the flights as those with tickets for the 17th. However, the second wave of flights didn't arrive from Kath the next day. We were screwed. And it was my birthday. Don, Joyce, and Juhie decided to fork out over $800 each for a privately chartered helicopter who's pilot was willing to fly in this weather. The rest of us bid them adieu and hunkered down for our 3rd night at the Namaste Lodge.
Pasang was very kind and had a cake baked for me for my birthday...which was very odd indeed. We spent the day waiting to get out on a flight, which meant that we really couldn't go for a hike or be gone for any significant period of time in case our plane was ready. I read all day, then after dinner and my cake (!!) I was horrified when the room clamored to watch English Premier Football League on TV. Yuck. I left and went for a walk back to the trail head and watched the gathering storm as lightning flashed across the night sky. I felt very lonely and sad. Happy 34 ;-(
The following morning we were awakened by Pasang at 5am with the news that Alpine Ascents had decided to send a helicopter for us. YAY!! And thank goodness that the 3 optionally paid for their own yesterday as there was only space for 5 on the chopper. Sadly, Pasang had to stay behind and wait for a flight. The helicopter eventually arrived around 9am and we were whisked into the air and to Kathmandu, flying in a very dramatic and very LOW altitude over the mountain passes (eek, I can see the hill that we're cresting!!) and through the gathering cloud and bad weather. It was an exhilarating experience, and I enjoyed the chopper a lot more than the planes.
Well. By the time we were picked up at the airport and transferred to the Yak and Yeti, my nerves were frayed, no, actually they were completely shot. When I learned that despite the fact that I didn't get to enjoy the luxuries of our Kath hotel for the previous two nights, that I would have to fork out over $100 to get a room that evening (none of my fellow trekkers were willing to share their rooms with me for half the price...ugh!) or find a new guesthouse for the night, I decided in that moment that I just needed to get the hell out of there. I was done. Finished. I wanted to get back to Thailand. It was a choice between more time in the Islands, or another morning in crowded, dirty, Kath. It was clear.
The only problem was that the whole time we were dealing with weather in Lukla, a similar issue was going down in Europe, but on a much grander scale. The volcano in Iceland. Flights were overbooked. And I didn't have a confirmed ticket until the 19th.
I decided to risk it and go standby.
I was not comforted by the ticket agents downcast face and repeated warnings of "very low possibility madam". I waited and waited, deciding to be ok no matter what. Miraculously, as about 13 of us gathered to here the standby announcements, I overheard someone saying "oh- he bumped me for number 8 on this list because HE was Star Alliance or some crap"...and I quickly piped up, arm waving, "I'm with Star Alliance Member Reward program!" "Where is your card, Madam?" "Oh, I never carry the card but the number is 13456673!!!"
Silence. Then "Ok, you get the third and final seat".
I couldn't believe it! I made the plane (just!) and on arriving in Bangkok, decided to axe the potential of dealing with the political tensions in the city by getting on the next flight to Phuket instead of taking an overnight bus. It was only $59. What the hell??
I was delirious by the time I landed in Phuket, at the height of a massive thunderstorm. I got a cab to town, found a semi decent guest house with air con and crashed out deliciously.
Well, I'll leave it there! I'm going diving tonight for four nights, so I will update you all when I get back! My trip is coming to an end, but I am determined to stay "present" and enjoy each moment as it comes.