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One empty bag in the Himalayas

Posted by:  Sook de Jonge/nepalnews,com | Date: April 06, 2010

It was the last item on the list of suggestions my friend Ramon emailed me following our conversation about trekking to Everest Base Camp.

The empty bag, Ramon explained, would be for gathering up all my experiences of the trek.

“You would come back enriched in multiple ways,” he promised.

It was mid-February and Ramon had just completed the trek. His photos amplified the call of Everest; his anecdotes about the cold and altitude scared me to bits. Ascending more than five kilometres above sea level is a long way into thin air for this lowland girl from Europe. And when, according to Ramon, your toothpaste freezes and has to be defrosted in a bowl of hot water in the mornings, it means it gets quite cold at night.

I still vividly remember how cold I felt when I visited Tibet in winter time. How dizzy I was round the clock, plagued by headaches the first four days of my overland SUV trip from Kathmandu. My ear was about to explode every time I turned around in my bed: never have I felt my heart racing so badly. And this time, I would have to walk over two and a half vertical kilometres up.

Early March I found myself on a small plane: destination Lukla. So why did I – do we al l– decide to go? For starters, because of ‘normal’ travel reasons: for on the road you are guaranteed to meet many interesting people and hear the most inspiring stories. Add to this the physical challenge and the chance to see amazing scenery –the Himalayas!- and the unique Sherpa culture of the Solukhumbu.

Probably above all: because we can all hear Everest call out to us and no one is strong enough to withstand it.

No pain...

The empty bag soon was empty no longer. The many people I saw carrying loads up to 120 kg in baskets on their backs, racing past me, never ceased to evoke a feeling of wonder and admiration about the physical abilities of the human (or should I say: Sherpa?) body.

On an individual level, I found a level of endurance I never thought I would posses. The Himalayas is more demanding than any terrain I have ever hiked. Fortunately, it all came to an end, even when I thought it would never. But when every day at around 3 pm I found myself in the next village up the trail, and though dead tired, I felt happy I had made it another day.

Going in March, the weather gods were also on my side. No snow obscuring trails for me, fortunately. And I had only to endure room temperatures below freezing for three nights; the only thing that froze was my drinking water and this only one time.

Altitude did not bother me much: no crippling headaches and only a mild loss of appetite. After 4800m, however, I did experience a ‘disconnection between brain and body’. My legs seemed to have a will of their own, wanting to go straight ahead at a slow, steady pace. When I tried to steer myself around an icy patch or a boulder, they seemed unwilling to change course or, at the very least, were delayed in their reaction to what my brain was trying to make them do. With every step, admiration for those attempting to summit Everest, grew.

Any type of travel is a reality check and one of the better ways to appreciate your own situation. Even a day trip across the border can make you aware of things you normally take for granted; all the more so a trek to the roof of the world. The accessibility of things, for example tap water or just a place where you can buy the things you need for everyday life. On my way back from base camp we were overtaken by locals who were on their way to Namche for the weekly bazaar on Saturday. They come from up the trail to do their shopping in Namche. They come from as far as Gorak Shep, for the average trekker a two-day walk down. They walk it in two days, too, both down and back up, every week.

Sir Ed

One of the best memories I hold is of the school in Khumjung, also known as the ‘Hillary school’ after the world famous mountaineer, Sir Edmund Hillary. More precise, I will always remember the stories about the school and its influence on the Solukhumbu. How everything came together to get it built: the insight of the Sherpa elders that education would further the community and their good fortune which found a willing ear in Sir Ed, as Edmund Hillary is lovingly called. The school broke the isolation of the Sherpa people and has been helping them cope successfully with the developments and changing demands of time.

Every page of the 40th anniversary booklet resonated gratitude for being given the opportunity to go to school and sparkled off the successes that many school attendants turned their opportunities into. One has even taken it all the way to PhD level! One of the lodge staff in Namche is living one of these success stories right now. Or so I hope, because he puts in a lot of effort. He combines working a job as a waiter – which he does very well – with attending the Hillary school, walking from Namche to Khumjung and back every school day.

... no gain!

Was it all worth it? I can wholeheartedly answer: definitely! Even though, admittedly, I cursed myself for deciding to go, my chapped lips, the damaged skin around my nose and eyes, and the ‘steep up’ numerous times every day.

If only for the stunning scenery I would go again. The green hills that transform into the boulder strewn, icy plain just before you reach Lobuche, only to have the Himalayas a stone throw away the next day.

Where else would I get a chance to talk to two participants of the bi-annual Everest marathon? BTW: the guys I spoke to finish the run from Gorak Shep to Namche within five hours. That would be a great time for a ‘normal’ (road) marathon! And let’s not forget the many ‘ordinary Joe’s’ out on the trail that make for interesting, funny and pleasant company around the stove at night.

Would I do it again? Definitely! Hopefully my next laborious steps will be on the Inca Trail leading to Machu Picchu. Look forward to meeting you there.

And don’t forget to pack your empty bag!


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