Surviving the most dangerous airport in the world
02.13.2009 - 02.17.2009 16 °C
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Continue reading below for Part 1 (of 3) of my trek to Everest Base Camp!
Written: February 17, 2009
Today is Day 4 of my trek to Everest Base Camp and the last 5 days have gone by quickly. First of all, I found a hiking companion from Calgary called Aaron. I met him at the Nepal Tourism Board office after I realized I needed to pay entrance fees and a Trekkers' Information Management System (TIMS) card before the start of my trek. Since I only realized I needed such a card the day before I was flying/starting my trek I had to hurry over and get it as quickly as possible.
I made my way from Kathmandu Guest House to the Tourism office (see this link for more details on where the office is located) on foot. Although it was a 25-30 min walk through chaotic Kathmandu, I quite enjoyed the experience of not being in touristy Thamel. At the office, Aaron noticed my Canadian passport and asked which city I was from and we started talking. Aaron quickly decided to join me on the trek and an hour later we had our permits and he also got the same flights as I did. We met-up with two of Aaron's friends, Eowyn and Marico, for dinner which was very enjoyable through pricey (800 NRs) due to celebratory drinks.
Due to my excitement and slight anxiety for the challenge ahead, I didn't sleep much that night. Fortunately I didn't have to wait long since we had to get up early and go to the airport to fly to Lukla. February 14th would be Day 1 of Wei's Everest Base Camp (EBC) Trek.
Our 6:30AM flight was delayed to 8AM but even without the delay we arrived way too early (4:50AM). The sky was still dark and the air cold and crisp as we waited outside the closed terminal. We started chatting with some locals from Lukla who were transporting supplies and we agreed to take one of their bags since we were both well under the 20kg limit. The 25kg pack we got through free saved them 1250 NRs since it was 50Rs/kg.
While waiting for our delayed plane, we chatted to a Bulgarian woman who was doing a mountain flight. Finally, at around 8AM we took off on Yeti Air's de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otters planes and left for Lukla.
Our approach and landing was extreme since the runway was short and sloped up significantly. The end of the short runway was the mountain face so any mistakes and we'd be slamming in. Just a couple of months earlier in October 2008, 18 people on a Yeti Air flight died crashing into the Lukla airport. Just take a look at this landing and takeoff video and you would understand why the Lukla Airport (formally known as the Tenzing-Hillary Airport) has been declared the most dangerous airport by The History Channel's show "Most Extreme Airports". If you would like to dispute the recipient of that title please feel free to comment or let me know!
Once we picked up our bags we took a look at the hotel our local friend's brother worked at. We were offered some tea but declined politely itching to take-off on our trek.
The trek from Lukla (alt. 2,860m) to Phakding was relatively easy and took only 2 hours. Although it was mostly downhill, during the EBC trek, one rarely only ascends or descends but does a combination of both. We stopped at the Evergreen Lodge for some delicious Tibetan dumplings called momos. After a short rest we pushed on to Monju (alt. 2,800m) and past the Sagarmatha National Park entrance to Jorsale. We stopped there for the night and I was spent for the day. The last leg took 2 hours and I really started to feel how heavy a 12 kg pack can be ascending at high-altitude. The first day was tiring but very rewarding. We crossed many steel footbridges, passed through small settlements and enjoyed the views of the valleys.
We ate the traditional Nepali meal, Dhal Bhat, for dinner and went to bed at 8:30PM. Day 2 would start at 7AM and we planned on ascending over 700m to Namche Bazar.
We departed Jorsale at 7:30AM. Since Jorsale was the last stop before the steep ascent to Namche it did not take us long to get to the foothills of the switchbacks. Aaron was a former professional soccer player so he was ahead of me the whole stretch. He was nice enough to make many stops and wait for me as I slowly made my way up. It was very comforting to know I had a hiking companion just in case anything happened to me. His quick progress was also good motivation for me to push harder and not take as many breaks. Nevertheless, the steep ascent required me to stop for a short rest after every 10-15 minutes.
We arrived in Namche (alt. 3,440m) at 10:30AM and we checked into Hotel Namche. The cafe around the corner provided a good lunch and we ran into the Irish couple, Noel and Aoife, I had met at a trekking equipment shop back in Kathmandu. Since we started in Jorsale instead of Phakding/Monju and we were both feeling good we decided to skip the suggested acclimatization day on Day 3. We arrived so early to on Day 2 we had enough time to do a mini-acclimatization day in the area around Namche. We strolled up to the Gompa overlooking Namche and returned back to the hotel to rest during the afternoon. Dinner was composed of more Dhal Bhat with Marco and Kim from Montreal. They were headed to do some rock climbing at Island Peak so our path would be diverging soon.
Skipping the suggested acclimatization day on Day 3, we made for Tengboche late in the morning. We mistakenly took the long way through Phunki Tenga instead of taking the 1.5 hour path that skirts around hills at 3,500m. Our path took us to an Everest View Point close to the Japanese Hotel (alt. 3,800m) before going down to Khumjong. We arrived at Phunki Tenga at 11:30AM after 2.5 hours of trekking and stopped for lunch. With 700m of ascent, Tengboche (alt. 3,870m) would be another 2 hours and by the time we arrived the air was chilly and clouds were rolling in.
Since mid-February was still winter and low-season for trekking, it wasn't strange to run into the same people at different stops of the trek. We stayed at the same Tengboche guesthouse as Noel and Aoife. We also met a French woman named Caroline and a Dutch man named Michelle. We all had dinner together along with the Irish couple's sherpa guide and porter. To pass some time, Aaron and I taught Aoife and Noel how to play the card game "Asshole" (also called President, Big 2). We especially found it funny that the couple couldn't remember the order of the suits and Aoife was continuously chanting, "Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, Spades".
The sleeping bags were unpacked that night due to the cold temperature at night. My newly purchased -20C rated "North Face" sleeping bag was quite warm with two blankets on top. I hoped the sleeping bag will continue to keep me sufficiently warm at higher altitudes.
The trek to Pheriche (alt. 4,240m) was supposed to be simple: approximately 1 hour of downhill/flats before 3 hours of ascent. Not long after starting in the morning, I felt a light headache but after a Tylenol and a granola bar from Aaron I felt much better. Caroline decided to join us for this segment and we reached Shomare in no time before deciding to make a stop. Aaron developed a mild headache and we decided to take an extended break to see if he would feel better after a nap. At the suggestion of two British girls, he took 1/2 a Diamox pill to combat symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). At this elevation, altitude sickness is very real and can quickly progress into HAPE or HACE which are potentially fatal. The primary warning signs of altitude sickness include: headaches, fatigue, dizziness, insomnia, sensation of tingling, shortness of breath and diarrhea. The main form of treatment for the early symptoms of altitude sickness is to rapidly descend to a lower altitude and acclimatize. After some discussion, we decided I would stay with Aaron in Shomare until he felt better while Caroline continues on to Pheriche. Worst case scenario: If Aaron didn't feel better the next day he would descend back down to Tengboche or Namche while I continue with the trek and we would rendezvous later.
It is currently 1PM and I am seated in the sunny dining room of a tea house in Shomare while Aaron naps across the room. I have completed writing my first entry on my Mission to Everest. Aaron and I have agreed that if he feels fine by 2PM, we will continue hiking up to Pheriche (200m ascent, 2 hours) rather than stay in Shomare. At this point I'm still uncertain where we will be staying tonight but I did not want to abandon Aaron. I'm hoping he recovers and we can reach Everest Base Camp together in a few days.
What would you do if your hiking partner could not continue yet you were so close to your goal?