Wednesday, May 28, 2014

My Unfinished Everest Base Camp Trek - Backgorund and Some Retrospection

I have been trekking for the last 30 years and surprisingly, Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek was not in my wish list. Probably the high cost and the number of days required for undertaking this trek during my younger days were constraining factors for this ‘once in a life time’ trek. Ever since KS had done EBC trek in October 2007 taking the classic route, he was occasionally recommending me to undertake EBC trek to have a different kind of trekking experience.

EBC trek is a complete tea house trek where one can decide to stay in lodges and places of his choice. They are more like home stays run by local families with comfort of bed with soft mattresses, blankets and having multiple food choices. Despite these comforting features of this trek route, what put me off from this trek in later years was the trekking crowd especially in the peak trekking season of April-May and October-November making the route one of the world’s busiest ‘trekking highways’. 
At last, I did venture to Everest Base Camp (EBC) Trek during April-May 2014 taking a classic route from Jiri. Our group consisted of me (68), my friend K Srinivasan (KS, 65) with whom I have been trekking for the last 6 years and his IIM Kolkata classmate Prabal Kumar Das (PKD, 64) for whom this was his maiden trek.  We trekked 229 kms spreading over 24 days involving 156 trekking hours (excluding lunch and rest time). This works out to a daily average of 9.5 kms of trek with daily average trekking hours of 6 hours and 30 minutes. It was a record for me  (and also to PKD) in terms of trekking kms covered and the number of trekking days. Yet, the milestones of reaching Everest Base Camp and Kala Patthar eluded us.
KS had to return from Namche Bazar after he had a lower back pain which almost immobilised him, requiring the rescue helicopter to move him from Namche Bazar to Kathmandu. While myself and PKD continued our trek to EBC and we were going strong without any health and altitude problems, PKD suffered from breathing problem the whole night in Lobuche (4930m).  In the morning, he indicated to me that he was keen to return home. Noting his panic reaction and and lacking in self confidence, I decided to accompany him in the return trek instead of continuing the trek to Gorakshep(5140m) with my porter. So we both missed the milestones by about 8-10 kms.

I had seen the pictures taken by KS of EBC trek which he completed in October 2007. I was impressed by the dense forests, valleys, rivers and all round greenery in the Jiri-Namche Bazar section of EBC trek. At one time, I was toying with an idea of doing 10-day Jiri-Namche Bazar trek instead of undertaking the full EBC trek. But the idea remained in the background.

Sometime in August 2013, KS came with a suggestion for undertaking Lukla-Namche-Gokyo-EBC trek from the middle of November 2013. I was aware that KS was keen to do Gokyo Valley trek which he missed during his EBC trek in 2007. I had seen the pictures of Gokyo trek and I found this trek route more scenic than EBC. If pictures are to be believed, one can have a better view of Mt. Everest from Gokyo peak than Kala Patthar. So there was some motivation for me to join KS for this trek. Also a thought came to my mind that in the latter part of my life, I should not have regret for not attempting EBC trek.

While everything about the trek was finalised except the advance payment for porters and booking of Kathmandu-Lukla-Kathmandu flights, we had to cancel the trek about 4-5 days before the schedule date of start due to 10-day Nepal Bandh call given by a Maoist party on the eve of Nepal's General Election. 

KS revived the twin trek of Gokyo Valley and EBC in early January 2014 choosing this time the classic trek route from Jiri-Namche-Gokyo-Phortse-EBC involving the 30-days trekking in April-May 2014. Taking into account my convenience, April 13th - May 16th slot was finalised for the trek. PKD, KS’s IIM Kolkata classmate also showed his interest in joining the trek. Being PKD’s first trek, KS took him for his morning trek to Yawoor hills, a part of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, in Mumbai-Thane region, for a month as a part of physical fitness. We had health checkups with our respective doctors who gave clearance to all of us for the trek.

I was happy that the classic route Jiri-Namche Bazar was chosen for the twin treks instead of starting the trek from Lukla. The advantages of doing trek from Jiri were that we would be avoiding trekking crowds at least in Jiri-Ghat section of the trek. Furthermore, we would be passing through different landscapes, people, culture and villages. Since we would be trekking in April, there would be colourful blooming rhododendron flowers on this route. Also we would be trekking for 9 days before reaching Namche Bazar crossing four high passes which should help us in acclimatisation before undertaking high altitude trek beyond Namche Bazar. Lastly, we would be following the footsteps of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay who trekked through Jiri for the first Mt. Everest climb in 1953.
View of Jiri as we trekked towards Shivalaya.

The first suspension bridge of the trek near Shivalaya.

 A cute girl comforting a cute cat on way to Deorali Pass.
Evening tea at a lodge in Sete

 A rhododendron tree full of flowers on way to Lamjura.
The first view of the Himalayan peak on the trek - Numbur peak (6957m) from Lamjura Pass (3540m)
Everything was moving as per the schedule during the first 10 days of trek without any hiccups when we reached Namche Bazar. We were enjoying the comforts of Namche Bazar which had all the facilities like mobile, Wi Fi and 3G connectivity, multi-cuisine restaurants, hot shower bath etc. But on the second day of our stay in Namche Bazar which was a rest day for acclimatisation, KS suffered a low back pain while taking a hot shower bath. We extended our stay in Namche Bazar by a day hoping for his recovery. Myself and PKD went for a acclimatisation round trek of Everest View Point-Khumjung village-Namche Bazar. The next morning, the KS's back ache persisted despite bed rest. So I and PKD went ahead with the trek changing our priority from Gokyo to EBC trek assuming that KS would join us after a couple of days or later, if not for EBC at least for Gokyo trek which was close to his heart. But his back pain did not subside and he was required to be moved from Namche Bazar to Kathmandu by a rescue helicopter (thanks to his trek insurance policy). 

With KS finally reaching home on May 2nd, we had no interest in doing Gokyo trek now. Also after trekking for about 15 days, our endurance level was at low ebb. So we decided to first complete EBC trek and then decide whether we wish to continue doing Gokyo trek or return home earlier than scheduled.
Lamjura Pass (3540m)

 View of Junbesi village after descending from Lamjura Pass.
We stayed in Apple Garden Guest House in Junbesi.

A musk deer on a grassy land on our way to Purthiang (2900m). 
View of agricultural fields seen from our way to Purthiang (2900m)

The first time view from the trek route of Himalayan peaks from Purthiang. On extreme left is a part of top portion of Mt Everest.
Mount Everest (extreme left) now become more visible as we trek from Purthiang towards Ringmo. Other two peaks are Thamserku (6623m) and Kangtega (6782m).

A protuding rock on way to Khari La pass
There are a large number of chortens and Mani walls on the Jiri-Namche Bazar section of EBC trek. This one is located between Ghat and Phakding.

 Dudh Koshi river takes a 'U' turn in Phakding. In the middle is Phakding with its lodges.

 The last lap of climb to Namche Bazar
View of Namche Bazar from a climb to Everest View Point.
Khumjung village (3850m) seen from the entrance of Everest View Hotel.

 Entrance gate to Khumjung village (3850m) from Namche Bazar side. Note the Mani wall which goes beyond the chorten seen in the background.
I was pleasantly surprised that despite being his maiden trek, PKD was doing excellent in terms of his physical fitness as well as manoeuvring  tricky track path. When we climbed View Point from Dingboche which was at 4610m, he did not show any altitude related problems and breathlessness. In fact, he was always in jovial mood . Even on the next day, when we trekked to Dukhla (also known as Tukhla) which is located at 4620m and further to Lobuche (4930m), he did not experience even a minor symptom of altitude problem or breathlessness. So I was quite optimistic that he would complete the EBC trek since only last camp of Gorakshep (5140m) was remaining which was hardly 5 kms from Lobuche (4930m). However, I was surprised when PKD revealed me in the early morning in Lobuche that he spend almost entire night feeling breathlessness and he has made up his mind to return home. I decided to accompany him in his return trek as he was low in self confidence as well as lack of confidence on his porter in handling any emergency situation.
Early morning view of the Himalayan peaks from our room in Namche Bazar.

 Mt. Everest (left) and Lhotse (right) seen from on our way to Tengboche.
Mt. Everest (left), Lhotse (middle) and Ama Dablam (right) seen from our way to Tengboche.
Mt. Everest and Lhotse seen in early morning from our room in Tengboche.
Mid-zoom shot of Mt. Everest and Lhotse from our room in Tengboche.
Tengboche monastry, one of the oldest in Khumbu region.
Ama Dablam in the early morning seen from our lodge room in Tengboche. Note the sun rays  in the background.
As we walked towards Dingboche, Tengboche monastry and our lodge look dwarfs in front of Kongde peak (6167m).
Himalayan Tahr (Mountain Goat) seen on our way to Dingboche.
PKD felt bad that because of him I could not complete EBC trek. Initially, I was a bit disappointed for not completing the trek. But recalling the advice given at the time of my first trek to Pindari Glacier in 1985 under the agis of Youth Hostel Association of India (YHA), where the camp leader gave more emphasis on trekking than the final destination, I shrugged off the disappointment.  Now, I have no regret for not completing my EBC trek. We both were lucky to get some excellent vistas and landscapes during our 24 days trek under good weather conditions. As a photographer, I was more than satisfied for getting excellent Himalayan peak views in general and Mt Everest views in particular from Purthiang and also on way to Tengboche.   A few of my relatives had doubt whether I will be able to complete my trek to EBC given the altitude and my age. I had replied them that my destination would be a point upto which I could trek without taking undue risk. As I mentioned earlier, I would have been satisfied even with Jiri-Namche Bazar part of the trek.

 Izma Khola (river) in Izma valley near Pangboche.
Izma Ri, popularly known as Island Peak (middle, 6167m), the trekking peak seen from a climb to Dingboche View Point (4610m).

Me (right) and PKD with Kangtega  peak(left, 6782m) and Thamserku peak (right 6623m)halfway to Dingboche View Point.
 Dingboche valley (4360m) with Himalayan peaks in the background. On the left is Lhotse (8503m).
An unidentified peak with natural shapes of snow formation seen from Dingboche View Point (4610m).
Ama Dablam peak, 6812m  north-west face with Dingboche village in the valley seen from View Point.
 Island peak (6187m) seen from Dingboche View Point (4610m).
Himalayan peak view from Dingboche View Point (4610m). On the left is Lhotse peak (8503m).
Me (left) and PKD at the Dingboche View Point (4610m).
We were to return to Kathmandu taking a flight from Lukla. At Namche Bazar, we got the news that for the last 4 days, Lukla-Kathmandu flights were suspended due to bad weather. As we trekked to Ghat on our way to Lukla, we got a further news that at Lukla, there were already about 1000 trekkers waiting for their turn to take the flights as and when flights are resumed. Due to variable fare structures on Kathmandu-Lukla-Kathmandu flights, the one  way fare for locals is about NRs.4800/-, INR.5500/- (NRs.8800/-) for Indians and US$162/- (NRs.15500/-) for foreigners. Apparently, there is some bias in giving preference to foreigners in case of cancelled flights. The situation was hopless for us as we had to advance our journey by almost a week without a confirmed booking. After considering the situation, we decided to trek for another 3 days to reach the road head at Phaplu and hire a Sumo for a 12 hour road journey to Kathmandu. The road journey turned out to be more gruelling than 24 days trek as of about 300 kms of journey, nearly 75% of about 300 kms journey was on the extremely dusty and muddy road. It took about 15 hours to reach Kathmandu. 
Trekkers on way to Dhukla/Lobuche.

Pheriche village in the valley seen from the ridge on way to Dhukla/Lobuche.

 Dhukla (4620m) on way to Lobuche (4930m).

Start of the snowfall in Dhukla as we just checked in the lodge.
Some trekkers who had departed for Lobuche returning to Dhukla.
But the next day morning was bright and sunny in Dhukla (also written as Thukla).
On way for climbing towards Dhukla Pass (4830m).
Dhukla Pass (4830m) during onward trek.
Dhukla Pass (4830m) during return trek.
Early morning view of Pumori peak (7161m) from our lodge at Lobuche (4930m). 
This picture was taken ouside our lodge at Lobuche when PKD (left) decided to return from Lobuche due to breathing problem. In the background is Pumori (7161m).
It is a time for some retrospection on our planned Gokyo-EBC trek. Considering our age profile and also the fact that it was PKD's maiden trek, the schedule of 30 days’ trek of about 225+ kms starting from Jiri and covering both Gokyo and EBC was too ambitious. The first part of the trek from Jiri to Namche involving 106 kms trek in 10 days was gruelling. We had to cross four passes – Deorali (2710m), Lamjura (3530m), Taksindu (3080m) and Khari La (2860m) which meant steep climbing before the passes followed by equally steep descends after the passes. In fact, I found this segment of the trek more challenging and physically demanding than the second part of the trek after Namche Bazar which was relatively easier in terms of gradients. We did not feel much of altitude effect except that we slowed down in reaching the day's destination.  
A better schedule of trek would have been to consider only one trek – either Gokyo or EBC if one was to start the trek from Jiri. Alternatively, we could have considered starting the trek from Lukla and doing both Gokyo and EBC trek as was originally planned in November 2013. The lesson I have learnt after this trek is that with my age profile, I should restrict my trekking days to 10-15 days in future treks.

While the first part of Jiri-Namche Bazar trek would test one’s physical fitness, the second part of Namche Bazar-EBC trek (or Gokyo trek) would additionally test one’s mental fitness also. The frequent sorties of rescue helicopters flying on the EBC route have a demoralising effect on the trekkers especially the ones who are new to high altitude trek. This was the time when rescue helicopters were deployed to bring back the dead bodies and injured Sherpas who were caught in an avalanche on April 20th while fixing ropes and taking supplies to from EBC to Camp-1 for the climbers of Everest Summit - April 2014.  Some of these helicopter sorties may not be related to rescue missions but used by rich trekkers who after completion of EBC trek would like to return to Kathmandu on the same day. A few of such helicopter sorties may be used by rich tourists for a bird’s eye view of the Himalayan peaks including Mt. Everest. I have personally seen in Pheriche that two local Sherpa businessmen gettingt down from a rescue helicopter for reaching faster at their destination.  But the porters and guide would generally identify these helicopters with rescue missions.
 A rescue helicopter taking off from Pheriche for Gorakshep.
Descending from Dhukla Pass (4830m) as Dhukla (4620m) comes at a distance view.
A Yak 'poses' for me with Pheriche village in the background.
Two Himalayan Tahrs (Mountain Goats) seen on the hills near Pangboche.
Izma Khola (river) near Pangboche.
PKD and me (middle) with the background of rhododendron flowers somewhere on way from Tengboche to Namche Bazar.
In rain showers on way to Namche Bazar.
We spotted a Monal (locally called as Danphe, Nepal's national bird) near Kanjuma village on way to Namche Bazar.
Trekkers walking on the true left banks of Dudh Koshi river (not visible in the picture) who probably would double up to Lukla. Picture taken from Hillary Suspension Bridge.
The Himalayan Pigeon clicked near Phakding.
Suspension bridge over Dudh Koshi river for going towards other side of Phakding.
Then, there would be news about deaths of trekkers due to altitude sickness which generally travels through the network of porters and guides in the EBC route through mobiles. For instance, in Tengboche, we got news that an Indian in his 30s was found dead in the morning in his tent at a camping site at Deboche, about 2 kms from Tengboche.  Apparently, he was suffering from high altitude sickness. At Dingboche, a guide told me that a trekker in his 30s, probably a Chinese citizen, who was suffering from high altitude sickness and waiting from a helicopter rescue, died before a rescue helicopter could reach him. This type of news put a lot of psychological pressure on some trekkers. I will not be surprised if  such news had some psychological impact on PKD. He confided me later after reaching Tengboche  on return trek that the absence of mobile connectivity in Lobuche  psychologically affected him. His worry was that in case of emergency, how he could contact his insurance company for helicopter rescue, his relatives and friends and the contact point in Kathmandu. Probably this triggered panic attack in the night culminating into breathlessness. At Namche Bazar, he told me that he would now be in a better position to cope up with psychological problem if he ever attempts high altitude treks in future.
I propose to cover in subsequent posts, my daily trek logs from Jiri to Lobuche and back to Kathmandu via Phaplu in three parts as under:


Amar Shah said...

Wonderful read as always SK !!

Dad said...

Excellent travelogue and pics. You and KS inspire us.