Monday, 6 August 2012

The thing about Everest Base Camp!

For days I have struggled to write about my trip to Mt. Everest’s Base Camp (EBC). I started several times but didn't get past a few lines! I have searched inside to answer many questions about my feelings on the trek. I have tried to gather memories that would make an inspiring read. Many questions remain unanswered - perhaps I am focusing on the wrong things: the destination instead of the journey?
First day of our trek
 My decision to do this, ‘mother-of-all-treks’ was whimsical. I woke up one morning and decided to gift myself a trip to the Himalayas for my 40th birthday! I can’t decide why this had been on my bucket list in the first place. Is it the raw beauty of the most majestic mountain or some deeper spiritual connection or the sheer challenge that beckons trekkers every year? Maybe it was a bit of everything!

Yet, just three days into the trek I remember asking Sudharshan ‘Remind me, why am I doing this?’ The 12 day trek to the EBC is considered ‘moderate’ in terms of physical difficulty and I agree that it is. Some may take longer to get to the Base Camp but it is not something a person with a reasonable fitness level can’t manage. 
Our overnight suite
Luxury 'unattached'
But it is not the up-hill trekking or the physical stress of breathing at 50% oxygen levels that gets to you - it is the mind games! Even if I had set off on a positive note by telling myself to accept things for what they are, after a point I started noticing how basic, “basic” really means. Bedrooms that are plywood planks held together with a few nails, legs are the only means of transportation - human or  yak, food that looks and tastes the same, sub-zero conditions that re-define the meaning of cold – frankly this list can be quite long. Fair enough to say then, that some things that cost nothing but are handy on the trek include - a reasonable level of fitness, a positive attitude and some great company!
Tengboche Monastery after snow
Trekking to the Base Camp on your own is probably cheaper if you choose to walk the path alone and many do walk alone. But the value of human company – anywhere in the world, is truly priceless - even if you are one of those who can’t live without their i-pod! I didn’t choose my 8 travel companions. It just so happened that we had all booked this departure date for the trek with the Himalayan Glacier Trekking company.
Birds of a feather, flock together! Our EBC Trekking Group
There was 19 year old Felix, the perfect blue eyed German trying to find his purpose in Nepal; Tey and Jan – Americans of Asian origin who just started dating each other a few months ago. 60 years young Tom Sr. was travelling with his two Death Race Athlete sons - the footloose and fancy-free Greg (my favourite) & the dad-to-be Tom Jr. They were travelling with their footloose but not fancy-free friend Liran, who I think has the potential to become a great Gladrags model if he is willing to shed a few clothes! Then there was Sudharshan, father of 3 young lads, who switches between being Tam-braham Indian and American with an uncanny finesse. All in all, a pretty good representation of the 'circle of life' from the sunrise to the sunset of life I could say!

With Rishi Bhaiya
Rishi, who I fondly call Rishi Bhaiya (brother) since he respectfully calls me Didi (sister) was our tour guide. For sure, it is the economic benefit of a job like this that keeps him trekking but he has a spiritual attitude towards it. He says that there are many things one can do – some better, some worse, some safer, some that will keep him closer to home too! But he wisely says – 'What is the point of being a father who is around all the time but can provide nothing to his children?' Yet, one can tell that it is the love of what he does that keeps him going.  

The day before the trek to the EBC
So, it was the same human touch -that has kept me sane in life, that kept me strong on the trek. One gets different things from different people and it is impossible to say what we would end up getting from a relationship unless we give life a try. Sometimes they become life-long connections. Sometimes the relationships are meant for only that time and place – like threads from a past life they are meant to criss-cross at some point to fulfil a purpose and then continue in some other direction. Maybe my purpose was to make a few such connections on this trek?
There is another brigade of people who Rishi calls the 'backbone' of the trek - they are the assistant guides and the porters. Ours were all from one family – the Tamang cousins and brothers. They are very hard-working, as friendly as they need to be & incredibly attentive. It’s an under-rated quality I think – the ability to see what’s going on in your body with a single look at you. This is how my path crossed that of ultra-marathoner Mingmar, who has run the Everest Marathon, the World's highest trail race. He was in-charge of baby-sitting me on the day I was hit with altitude sickness – the same day we were to trek to the Base Camp, the Base Camp that was supposed to be the mission of my trek!

Ultra athlete Mingmar leading Tom Sr.
Looking after sick people is a gift very few people have. My father had it. My husband has it. Mingmar has it too. Beyond his compassion, what I appreciated most was that Mingmar understood my ambition to get to the Everest Base Camp and he allowed me the opportunity to recover, without putting me through the serious risk of ‘not waking up forever’ (as he put it). As soon as the signs of the sickness appeared, I should have started descending to a lower altitude. Anyway, I had only myself to blame as I was the only one who had not taken any preemptive (Diamox) medication. Everyone in our group was sure that it was the end of the trip for me and it would not be the last time I cried on the trek! But, Mingmar's local remedies and my determination were a pretty strong combination I think. Though I can’t take away from him, his tireless work as made me drink those yucky soups and bottles of water and most embarrassingly helped me throw up at least half a dozen times, because he insisted that it would ‘make me better’ – and it did! 23 year old Mingmar (who insists that he is 26) is a very good care-taker and this gazelle-feet lad has done the EBC trek over 200 times in this short lifetime!

 
On top of Kala Pathar with my India t-shirt
Recovering from altitude sickness feels like a hangover, one feels dehydrated, tired and a little disoriented. But I had not come so far only to get so close. The next morning, I pulled out my t-shirt with the Indian flag on it and I wrote on it the date – 8th May 2012. It was the day I would get somewhere! Rishi offered me two practical choices – he said that if I wanted to return to brag to the world that I had been to the base of Mt. Everest I could go to the Base Camp, ‘But if you want to see Mt. Everest and its glory, you should go to Kala Pathar’ he said. 

The top of Kala Pathar offers a 360 view of famous peaks like the Lhotse, Nuptse and of course the Chomolungma (the Tibetan name of Mt.Everest that means 'Holy Mother'); but it is also at a higher altitude than the Everest Base Camp. And, it is the toughest climb of the entire trek. I had to choose one.
Still feeling a bit hungover at 19,685 feet above sea level, I was the last to reach the top of Kala Pathar. Rishi had been waiting for me. With a straight look in my eyes he echoed what my mind had been saying all along ‘I can do it. I will do it.' Then he added with a smile 'And you have done it!’
Finding God! The view of Mt. Everest from Kala Pathar
And, although I didn't go to the Everest Base Camp in the end, I saw for myself that what the Sherpa’s believe is true. God does live there, on the Himalayas. You can see evidence of his existence - in the pristine beauty that surrounds you - beauty that is beyond the ability of human creation, the beauty that made me cry for the last time on the trek. Perhaps it was to see God and not the Everest Base Camp that I had gone on this trek?
Sudharshan enjoying the snow-capped mountains on the way back
The return from here on is perhaps the hardest part of the trek. 120 kms in 2 and half days is equivalent to running a full marathon every day. That too on a terrain that is full of tough climbs and descends. The views are familiar too. The return was tough on the body and tougher on my mind as I no longer had a goal driving me and by then I was fairly fed up living the minimalist life.
My certificate of achievement and my hamstring, calf injuries are my return gifts from the trek. My father-in-law was admitted to the hospital the day I returned from the trek. The last thing I had told him was that I was waiting for him to return home so I could tell him my EBC trek stories. That never happened, because five days later he passed away. Though my boss sent me a congratulatory message saying that I had done something a very small percentage of the world population would do in their lifetime, I hope that I will someday be able to see that the trek was worth it. To reciprocate Mingmar's kindness, I have invited him to come to Mumbai in 2013 to run the one of the world's top 10 marathons! He has graciously accepted. It will be his first visit outside Nepal. Maybe this was the purpose of my trek?  
Greg on Hillary Bridge

I cannot deny that I am richer having crossed paths with some amazing people. But, it will be white lies to say that I loved the Base Camp trek experience, that it defined me or it is something I consider a must-do in a lifetime. Or even that I can’t wait to go for another trek. Yet, somewhere deep inside the lust for Annapurna is growing. Perhaps, someday with my daughters, nieces and nephews? Maybe not. But then at 40, one knows only too well, never to say never!    
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I am adding below a comment left by Nandini Jayaram on my Facebook Page in response to this blog, I think it adds an interesting perspective!
Nicely written, Gauri. It turns out that the WHY behind mountaineering is a difficult question for many mountaineers to answer. The most famous answer attributed to George Leigh Mallory who, when asked in 1924 before his third attempt, why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, said: "Because it's there." He died on Everest, very close to the summit, almost 30 years before Norgay-Hillary succeeded, and Mallory remained there for 75 years before his and a fellow mountaineer's body were found......
Your comment that "it will be white lies to say that I loved the Base Camp trek experience," caught my interest, and spurred me on to do some reading that I would not have ordinarily reached out for. Apparently you are also not alone in saying that mountaineering is not an enjoyable experience. It has been repeatedly described as an experience filled with loneliness, boredom, isolation and moments of terror, - and that's not even touching upon the physical exhaustion of it..... So why do people do it? There are academic papers written about it! There are certain traits that drive extreme sport, mountaineering and wilderness travel. With serious mountaineering, an activity that has an extremely high mortality rate, some motivational factors are believed to be the prestige behind the accomplishment, a strong tendency toward goal-completion, a quest for meaning in one's life, and the desire for mastery over domains in which one feels competent.... This is a fascinating area to reflect on.....Keep writing!

13 comments:

  1. nice post . what about inserting few pic from ur trek :)

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  2. Nicely done, Gauri. I would LOVE to go back and do Annapurna base camp...as soon as they stick some flush toilets along the way :)

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    1. Yes Sudarshan, attached will be nicer and the ability to shower everyday - priceless! :)

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  3. loved every bit of it.
    helped me re-live the trek where i fought with my own ITB pain every day.

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    1. Thanks Mayank. You guys were just amazing though :)

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  4. Makes me want to head out soon :)

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    1. There comes a time, one must not think but just do! :)

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  5. Nicely written indeed. Thanks for sharing.
    Himalayas beckon me almost every day, I am yet to jump the line and get on with them. Pray that I do it someday to my heart's fill
    Till then, good luck to you too and yeah Never say Never..ever ; 40, 50, 60 , 70 or 80 :-)

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  6. you will Yadnya. It is said that with these things, the later in life one takes the plunge, the more fulfilling it is :)

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  7. It was an interesting read, Gauri!
    Thank you for appreciating our services and also thanks for inviting Mingmar over to Mumbai. Hope we can host you again!!

    Regards,
    HGT Team

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