Today is a decently warm summer’s day. Just three months ago my home shore looked like this: broken ice crackling against the rocks. Impatient kayakers trying to navigate the slushy waters. A “lifestyle indian” (as we would say in Finnish) enjoying the first warming rays of the sun. We hardly had any snow that winter, but spring was cold. REALLY cold. Snow on the night before May Day. Unusually much snow in Lapland in June. 11 degrees Celsius and windy on the first day of June. Global warming is upon us, wise people say. But who knows if it means we will actually feel the warmth. Maybe temperatures just even out into in-between seasons all year round? How awful that would be.(Helsinki, Finland; March 2017)
We reached Lukla at last light. The trek back from Namche Bazaar was 5.5 hours and 25 km. And lo and behold: even the roof of the world has a Starbucks of its own. Probably with great wifi. I was not sure whether to laugh or to cry. I did neither – instead I went to our teahouse, FaceTimed with my sister (yes indeed, if you are looking for unspoiled Nepal do not do the Everest Base Camp Trail), and had some Tibetan hot tongba millet beer to get warm. One kids’ sandbox cup of fermented millet and refill after refill from a hot thermos of water is enough to get my head in a proper spin. A little like the helicopter’s rotor earlier that day.
Apparently one of the most famous contemporary climbers (David Lama) sat in the next table. I was educated on this matter days later, when I encountered the same bunch of German guys in Kathmandu. They could not understand my ignorance. Truthfully, I had much too good a time with the guides and our sherpa, who usually leave their guests alone and even dine in a separate table. Not this time. (Lukla, Nepal; November 2016)
“You have a helicopter booked to fly you back, so why don’t you take it for a spin around Mount Everest first?” This is how we ended up cheating everybody else on the way to Everest Base Camp.
The sun rose in Namche Bazaar, and our plan was to trek back to Lukla that day. After all, we were not here for fun but for work. My colleague needed to leave Nepal the same night, so she had booked a helicopter to pick her up from Namche and bring her to Lukla so she could fly back to Kathmandu and out to Sweden. Fortunate for her, as she still suffered from altitude sickness from the day before. The helicopter was booked to fly all the way to Namche from Lukla, so indeed we did take it out for a spin first. My colleagues were dying to see Everest up close. It may sound lame but this was never on my bucket list. It was possibly the only thing missing from my bucket list. When the chopper landed I was not going to get on it. When it took off I was somehow onboard.
Our pilot had oxygen. We did not. He let out a little fizz into the cabin at takeoff, and then happily breathed his own oxygen for the rest of the trip. We flew well over Base Camp which means we must have been at approximately 6,000 m altitude. As I was taking photos and videos I forgot to breathe regularly – and actually caught a bout of mild altitude sensitivity right there, seated on the plane. Feeling sick and lightheaded I tried to focus on breathing, while my colleague, who was blue in the face just the night before, was happy as a canary in the front seat.The moon landscape that makes up the last 4 days of trekking is astonishing. It seems quite dead, but I am convinced it isn’t. This is the top of the world. Life is found in highly unlikely places. And while it is exotic and dangerous to us Europeans, sherpas and yaks consider this their home. Hats off to them (if anybody wears a hat anymore).
(Namche Bazaar and Mt Everest, Nepal; November 2016)
What a day. 6.5 hours on the trail from Phakding. 3 hours of strenuous climbing, dodging half-yak-half-cow dzos and donkeys and sherpas. I had the heaviest packing (only 10 kg) and I was tired and light-headed. A little nauseous, too, from time to time. But my colleague went into sudden altitude sickness shock. Blue lips, chest pain, hyperventilation. After some mineral salts (that I originally bought for store in case of a stomach bug in Indonesia), we took 10 baby steps, counting them, and a break. And yet another 10 baby steps, and a break. The last 500 m to Namche Bazaar lasted 45 minutes.
Namche (elevation 3,400 m) is a gorgeous little Tibetan trading post, snuggling against a mountainside. Not that I saw much of it, as I was either watching over my sick colleague buried in down sleeping bags in our room, or down in the teahouse on a teleconference, donned in a down vest and a ski hat, trying to negotiate a deal with people on the line from Stockholm, London, and the USA (this was a work trip after all).
Later that night we debated for the need of supplemental oxygen. My colleague’s oxygen saturation was at 72% when she was already feeling a little better, so goodness knows how low it had been. As anything below 95% is alarming on sea level, I had to measure my own to believe it: 78% and I was not fainting or feeling sick. Thus, no oxygen and just sleep for her, and an alarm clock waking me up every 2 hours to check she was still breathing. How cumbersome, as the temp indoors dropped below zero at night, which meant sharing my down sleeping bag with both my iPhone AND the extra battery pack. All neatly wrapped in clothing so I wouldn’t crush them. What a fuss to unwrap every time the alarm went off.
As I lay there, cuddling my iPhone and charger, I could not help but think that, even including the cold, the quality of life here at the Tibetan border is probably better: no need to daily worry about iPhones, batteries, teleconferences, and wifi.(Namche Bazaar, Nepal; November 2016)
Moving on from Phakding, and what a beautiful day. Crisp, cool morning, and a t-shirt warm day (turns out this was the last week of warm weather that year – it snowed the week after). Many bridges to cross.One was suspended about 100 m above an old one, now left to decay. And so we walked across the river a few hundred meters up in the air. Why not. It’s not like people aren’t accustomed to high altitude. After lunch it was only one alternative: up the steps, a steep 2-3 hour climb (or back down to Phakding). Endless steps and turns and one Everest lookout point, and more uphill and turns. We passed many tourists huffing and puffing like us, and many passed us like they were on a Sunday stroll. Donkeys and dzos had right of way, and tired and worn as they were, we had to watch our backs and push them towards the center of the path so they did not squeeze us against the mountain wall or push us off the steep trail.
Poor animals. They placed their tiny feet on wobbly stones, one by one, and in some cases clearly straining from the weight of the packing (everything from cooking gas to tourist groups’ bags). They were beaten and pushed and cussed at. Little kids, who wanted to make their parents proud of their herding skills, whipped them with sticks as they passed a family house. These donkeys and dzos easily walk for 6 hours every day, covering much greater distances than we visitors, unused to the thin air. Every day, from the moment they are big enough to the moment they can no longer walk. I thought of their sad life every time I ate my dinner, which probably had been mostly carried up by one of them.
(Everest Base Camp Trail, Nepal; November 2016)
Phakding. Yes. Sounds like something with an F and a U and a CK. Elevation just over 2,600 m (Kathmandu is at 1,400 m). We had a sizzling lunch and some Sherpa beer. Even me, the classical beer-dissing wine lover. It is strange indeed: what typically keeps me going on a hot trek day is the thought of beer at the end. It is another dimension. And I will not divulge into the beer craze that happened in the Polish Tatra mountains some years back. It is too embarrassing.
So, Phakding. Not a place to which you say phak dat, especially since the view across the river gorge behind the village is absolutely gorgeous. It did not even freeze over in our room at night, and I would estimate a pleasant +10 degrees that only required a down vest for the trip to the en-suite bathroom. Some people call this home. I call it an adventure. How very adaptable we humans are.(Phakding, Nepal; November 2016)
Bags of rice. Cooking gas. Plywood. Entire doors. And toilet paper and chocolate for the tourists. In the mountains, everything must be carried up. Some towns are fortunate enough to receive regular helicopter traffic, but most are simply grateful to the sherpas.
As we stood on the airport, watching a little prop plane unload, it was quite mind-boggling to see that after the avalanche of people and backpacks down from the tiny aircraft, another avalanche of rice bags followed. That thing must have had rice bags in the cockpit, in the rear cargo hold, even underneath the passenger seats. Everything must be carried up. And, since most tea houses are proud to boast advertising for export beer (San Miguel is a favorite), all the beer cans must be carried up, too. Fortunately, bottled water for tourists is actually bottled in local village sources, so only the empty plastic must be carried up. If I ever settled on a life change to live up here, I would open a business in carrying up toilet paper and chocolate. One toilet paper roll costs more than a bottle of water, and the price increases the further you go from Lukla towards Everest. Chocolate is incredibly expensive, but of course it is easily traded because who can resist a bar of chocolate after a day’s trekking? I know I can’t.(Mt Everest Base Camp Trail, Nepal; November 2016)