Recently, three of our adventurous young adults decided to make a trip to the bottom of the top of the world. Here is the story of these intrepid travelers as told by one of their number, Sarah Liew. (This has been rated suitable for armchair adventurers).
Days 1 – 4
We touched down in Kathmandu feeling like true blue intrepid adventurers. Eugene, King Yi and I were here in Nepal to hike to Mount Everest! (Or rather, Everest Base Camp, which Eugene had to dutifully clarify everytime I neglected to make that very important distinction to people). It was hard to believe that we were finally here, after almost a year of planning and gear buying that culminated in a few solid months of arduous weekly treks with the S.O.M. trekking group. We met our guides, Ruk and Nawang, got to like them instantly, and went to sleep that first night feeling over the moon with excitement and raring to go.
We knew that doing this Himalayan trek at the tail end of winter was an unconventional choice, and we prepared ourselves to face freezing cold weather and understocked kitchens at the lodges along the way. What we did not prepare for was 3 days of heavy snow and strong winds in Lukla, which grounded flights day after day. On our third day of waiting unsuccessfully at the airport, we were forced to bid farewell to our Everest (base camp) dream, and instead flew to Pokhara, to trek the Annapurna Circuit.
Because we were already a couple of days behind schedule, we opted to start the trek the shortcut way: i.e. in a jeep. Ruk explained to us that the first 25km or so of the trek is pretty unscenic and, ever since the road has been paved, somewhat redundant. The jeep would also help us cut out a day of trekking. The jeep ride felt like a 6 hour adrenaline pumping, knuckle clenching rollercoaster, with 15 riders seated in a carriage meant for 7, plus one additional guy on the roof. The mountain highways are winding, boulder covered, and barely wide enough to fit one jeep (meant to be a two way road, as we soon discovered). To us inexperienced jeep riders, it appeared like we were constantly seconds away from lurching right off the face of the mountain towards our deaths, but for the jeep driver, who was casually steering the ancient jeep with one hand and changing the radio station with the other hand, this was just an ordinary drive up the mountain.
We had our first teahouse experience when we reached the edge of a town called Jagat. Here, we were put up in tiny little tin rooms with rickety beds, perched on the edge of a roaring waterfall. We showered in a little concrete cubicle, which miraculously still had running hot water, and had our first taste of dal bhat and ginger honey lemon tea, which was to become a sustaining life force for us over the next 2 weeks. All the teahouses along these treks have an interesting system, where rooms are dirt cheap ($1 for a triple room at some places!), but you are expected to eat all your meals at their restaurant, which will cost $4-5 on average- this is where they make most of their money.
Days 6 – 9
The days fell into a predictable, but nice, pattern of waking up early, ordering some new dish for breakfast off their extensive menu, and hiking to the next town. Every day, the mountains drew closer and grew larger, and the snow line got nearer and nearer. We were surrounded by stunning scenery that made me feel like I was in a Lord of the Rings movie. Some days, we only walked a couple of hours and had the rest of the evening free to explore the little villages, and other days the trek was so tough and exhausting that we only had enough energy left to scarf down dinner and collapse into bed. We learned some very important Nepalese words from Ruk: Ukalo means ‘uphill’, oralo means ‘downhill’, and there is no word that directly translates to ‘flat’ because no such road exists in Nepal. As we got higher, the teahouses counterintuitively became more charming and lovely, but hot showers became less and less reliable, and soon enough stopped working altogether. On day 8, we all had our first shower by hot water bucket. Eventually, this gave way to wet wipes, and even further down the line, not even the threat of death could get us to brush our teeth with the freezing cold water.
Days 10 – 14
We got up one morning to a total whiteout – it had snowed overnight! Our initial excitement at trekking in the snow for the first time soon melted away when we realised how much more difficult it was. It was slippery, cold, our boots were heavy with frozen slush, and with our eyes trained on the icy ground the entire time, we rarely had a chance to take in the beauty of the snowy mountains. Because it was off peak season, we were often the only trekkers staying at the teahouses. Sometimes, we came to towns which were almost empty, their inhabitants still not yet back from Kathmandu or Pokhara to welcome a new season of trekkers. There were times when we had to move on from the town we originally wanted to stop at to look for an open teahouse at the next town. Nevertheless, we still managed to meet a couple of other friendly trekkers here and there. Almost every night was spent around a yak dung fire in the dining room, steaming our frozen socks, sharing stories and the warmth with whoever else was around in the teahouse.
Thus far, we had been very fortunate that nobody had come down sick with anything too dramatic. Apart from a few days of sulphurous farts, which are inevitable on a dal bhat diet, and the notorious ‘Khumbu cough’ which comes from all the deep breathing in the cold and dry air, nobody had required much from our overstocked medical kit. All three of us had also been diligently taking our AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) medicine, and were showing no symptoms of altitude sickness – a huge relief as it was our first time being at altitude! Perhaps the only three mishaps were: 1. Dropping my memory card on the top of a mountain and thus losing all my photos from the first half of the trip. 2. Hiking to an out of the way village so that we could go up to the one of the world’s highest lakes (Thilicho lake), only to learn that the weather conditions were too risky and that we had to go all the way back empty handed. 3. King’s boots that sprung a leak.
We woke up on Pass Day at 4.30am. It was still pitch black outside and through the window we could see powdered snow falling heavily onto the white ground. Today was the day that we would cross the Thorong Pass, the highest point of the whole circuit at 5416m, from high camp. We geared up to face the cold, by putting on every single piece of clothing we owned, and then out we went into the dark, snowy dawn. The snow was coming down furiously and we could barely see 10 metres ahead of us, even with our headlamps on. We came by two British girls who were at high camp with us, huddled together with painful frozen fingers. We passed our handwarmers to them and moved on, but 10 minutes later could no longer see their lights behind us, signifying that they had turned back. The climb went on and on. It was impossible for me not to stop every 5 steps to catch my breath – I was completely exhausted and sorely tempted to just roll back down to high camp in a snowball. There was an abundance of false endings – every 30 minutes we approached what looked like a pass only to be told that the real pass was “just another 30 minutes” away. Icicles formed on my hair, and our face buffs turned stiff with frozen snot. The sun eventually came up and with the light, mountain peaks suddenly revealed themselves all around us. Finally, after about 5 hours, we spotted the glint of a golden stupa and colorful prayer flags fluttering in the wind. It was the pass!!!! We managed to stay up there for about 20 minutes taking pictures, before the cold winds forced us to make our way down the other side. Wading down the mountain in knee deep snow on exhausted legs was no easier than going up. We soon started sliding down on our bums whenever possible, which turned the whole mountain into a giant waterslide. Once our feet touched solid ground, the distant sight of the final town inspired a second wind in our weary legs, and we ran all the way there, no longer caring about slipping on the icy ground.
That night we celebrated with yak steaks and our first showers in 2 weeks. The following day, we stopped at a village called Tatopani and had the best dip of our lives in their natural hot springs. The day after that, we arrived back in Pokhara and two days later, bid goodbye to our amazing guides and porter and flew back to KL. The trek was one of the most physically difficult things I have ever done in my life, but every second of it, even the ones where we were miserable and exhausted, was unforgettable and amazing. It is clichéd but true that being up in the mountains surrounded by such majestic sights made us think of God and how wonderful He is, and we felt so lucky to be there.