Nepal: Frozen tears on Mt Everest

By Rebecca Kennedy

This Wednesday marks the 60th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary’s ascent to the top of Mt Everest with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Rebecca Kennedy journeys to base camp and gains a sense of what Sir Ed loved about the ‘Holy Himalayas’

The mighty Mount Everest, Nepal. Photo / AP
The mighty Mount Everest, Nepal. Photo / AP

Stepping on to the perilously short runway at Tenzing-Hillary Airport at Lukla, Nepal's gateway to Mt Everest, hearts are racing, palms are sweaty and brows furrowed.

"Good fun, eh?" our guide Shanta grins, in reference to the death-defying feat we've just survived. The Yeti Airlines Twin Otter we'd boarded back in Kathmandu landed uneventfully on the airstrip, which boasts the honour of being the "World's Most Extreme", a title bestowed by the History Channel.

With the 25-minute flight over, I survey the imposing Himalayas and turn my mind to the even more daunting task at hand: a two-week trek to Everest Base Camp at an altitude of 5364m - an adventure that's captivated intrepid travellers since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay put the mighty mountain on the map in 1953.

Before I set off with Shanta (pronounced "Santa", as in Claus) and his younger brother (a trainee guide), our two porters, and the three friends foolish enough to join me here in late January, one of the coldest times of year, I make a mental tally of the previous months' preparation.

Things had started off well, donning tramping boots in November to scale Auckland's Mt Eden (196m) and successfully summiting Wellington's Mt Kaukau (445m). But my regimen slipped when December rolled around and gym sessions gave way to Christmas functions before my travel companions and I saw the New Year in at a full-moon party in Thailand.

To top it all off, I'd been dealt to by E.Coli in India, spending three days of January on intravenous antibiotics. My training report card read: must try harder.

But it was the great Sir Ed himself who said you don't have to be a hero to accomplish great things. "You can just be an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated to reach challenging goals."

So with sufficient motivation and a typically Kiwi "she'll be right" attitude in tow, there's no looking back as we step under an archway painted brightly with what's bound to be an understatement: "Have a nice trek".

We walk for just over two hours on our first day to the Tibet Guest House and Restaurant in Phakding at 2610m - lower in elevation than where we'd started.

There's time for an afternoon nap and a reconnaissance of the guest house and its surroundings before perusing the extensive dinner menu, which includes Western cuisine amid Sherpa stew and dal baht.

In the evening, we settle in around the fireplace to discuss the route we'll take over the coming days. Shanta lists the places we're going. "Namche Bazaar, Pangboche, Dingboche, and Lobuche" roll off his tongue in quick succession. I half expect him to continue on with Dasher, Dancer, and Prancer before he adds, "Gorak Shep, Base Camp and Kala Patthar! This part is ... little bit hard," he smiles. "But you be fine!"

For the first few days, the air is noticeably thinner but the pace we keep is easy and spirits remain high. As the days progress, we fall into a pattern of early mornings and hearty breakfasts of porridge and pancakes before setting off for somewhere between five and 10 hours' trekking a day, with frequent stops for muesli bars, chocolate and bottomless cups of hot lemon.

The landscape changes considerably as we climb skyward. The trail we set off on meanders around fields and passes through small villages before leading us along the banks of the Dudh Koshi glacial river towards a vantage point providing our first glimpse of Everest, towering above all others at a colossal 8848m. As we're here in winter, we miss out on seeing the famous rhododendrons, but it also means there aren't too many other tourists around; we're told that the trail can be like a state highway at peak times.

As we leave Namche, the narrow lowland gradually turns into broad glacial valleys as we continue on through a dense Narnia-like pine forest smattered in snow near Dingboche.

From here on up, it's a more austere landscape of boulders and snowy alpine meadows, following an unseasonal blizzard that interrupts the clear blue sky we've had for the first eight days. Fortunately, the route Shanta has planned allows for the vagaries of the mountain weather, and when we're snowed in for an extra night at Lobuche, he simply smiles and says, "Bad luck, eh! But no worries! We pray to the mountain gods, and we have good day tomorrow."

Throughout the trek, there are plenty of opportunities to marvel at the beauty of not only Mt Everest but also the Himalayas, including the dramatic peaks of Taweche, Thamserku, Kantega, Ama Dablam, and Nuptse - all rising above 6000m - as well as Lhotse, Makalu, and Cho Oyu - three of the six highest peaks in the world, all above 8000m.

But it's not just the scenery that provides diversion from the intense pursuit of uphill climbs. We splash our rupees on Nepalese trinkets in the Sherpa market town of Namche Bazaar, visit Tengboche Monastery, pass sacred stones and memorial chortens and see the village of Khumjung, where Sir Edmund established the first of more than a dozen schools the Hillary Trust would eventually build in the area. Over the years, the Trust also established two hospitals, 12 bridges, repaired monasteries and developed infrastructure - projects Hillary frequently described as more rewarding than his famous climb.

The enduring respect for Sir Edmund - who earned the name Burra Sahib or 'Big at heart' - and the many Kiwis who have campaigned for the welfare of the Sherpa people is evident. While out for a walk in Dingboche at dusk, I say "Namaste" to a local Sherpa. In his best English, he asks where I'm from, and before I've finished saying "New Zealand", a toothless smile erupts on his face and he's bowing deeply, hands clasped together. "Oh my God! New Zealand!", he applauds, tears welling in his eyes, and eventually mine too as he speaks of the positive impact our people have had in the region.

It's also at Dingboche that I come across the Hillary Khumjung School's Golden Jubilee book, its pages filled with mesmerising stories of past pupils. There are Cambridge University graduates, doctors, dentists and company directors, living back in Nepal or still abroad. One book entry, by Mingma Nuru Sherpa, tells of the days when he had no shoes, no bag, nor books for school, compared to the facilities today, including access to the internet. He encourages today's students to follow their curiosity, work hard to achieve their dreams and to be ambitious.

"Success is not an accident," he writes, "but the result of our attitude, and our attitude is our choice."

It's a notion that hits home and motivates me when I'm ready to throw in the towel as the trek gets progressively harder and tempers fray. Our ascent to Base Camp on the ninth day, across the treacherous Khumbu glacial moraine, and through patches of knee-deep snow, proves to be the toughest physical and mental challenge I've faced so far. The simplest things - blowing your nose, having a drink - become almost impossible feats, and I'm the weakest link, struggling to keep up and stopping to rest every 10 steps.

There's no official sign to announce our mid-afternoon arrival at Base Camp, merely handwritten block letters and an old string of prayer flags adorning a boulder. We each demolish a celebratory Snickers bar, and our fingers sear with pain as we remove gloves to press camera shutters. After 20 minutes, we backtrack to Gorak Shep for the night, victorious but exhausted, and psych ourselves up for the most difficult part of the journey - climbing the 5545m Kala Patthar at sunrise.

"It's quite exciting day!" Shanta says when he wakes us at 4.20am. "I can't promise easy, but we help you be okay, huh?" A thermostat on the wall tells us it's minus 15.8 deg inside and it must be a great deal colder out; everything is frozen - water bottles, sunscreen, lip balm, eye drops, and enthusiasm.

My altitude headache is excruciating and breathing is tough-going for the hour and a half it takes to stagger uphill. I make it to the top, aided by Shanta and Lok, one of our Sherpa porters, who carry me under the arms when I can go no further.

Tears I didn't know I'd been crying are frozen to my eyelashes, and icicles form on the hot lemon drink I'm handed as I try to take in the majestic sight of sunrise over Everest.

When our extremities can take the cold no more, we skid and slide our way back down Kala Patthar to the relative warmth of Gorak Shep.

The thermostat inside the lodge reads minus 16.8 deg and trying to pack a sleeping bag away can be compared only to plunging your hands repeatedly into an ice bucket. Bowls of porridge are gratefully received before we begin our journey homeward, which sees us descend 1500m that afternoon, along a frozen riverbed and through wide, flat valleys back to Pangboche - a feat which took us three days in ascent. It seems that with every metre we lose in altitude, we gain in vivacity; cheeks defrost into smiles, legs move where brains tell them to, and lungs fill with air on instruction.

The agony of the final few days of our ascent is quickly forgotten on the return leg, which takes only three days in total. From Pangboche, we head back to the familiar Namche Bazaar where Shanta delights in offering us a "worm sour" (warm shower) and we return to Lukla the following day, fitter and fulfilled, proud of New Zealand's special legacy in Nepal.

It's only as we crack open an Everest Lager at Namaste Lodge and reflect on the highs and lows of our time in the Holy Himalayas that we finally understand what Sir Edmund Hillary meant when he said, "It's not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves."


Getting there: Malaysia Airlines flies from Auckland to Kathmandu from $1840 return. Tara Air and Yeti Airlines operate daily flights from Kathmandu to Lukla from $32 one way.

Where to stay: Rest up before your trek and return for a well-earned buffet breakfast and hot shower afterwards at the Hotel Holy Himalaya in Thamel, from US$40 a night. holyhimalaya.com

Where to eat: For an authentic and hearty meal before setting off for your trek, dine al fresco at Thamel House Restaurant, Bhagawati Bahal.

If you're in need of a final flat white in the mountains, visit Cafe de 8848 in the Sherpa marketplace of Namche Bazaar (3440m).

Stock up: You can buy all the gear you'll need for trekking in the tourist hub of Thamel, which also has foreign exchange booths, nightlife, travel agents.

Find a guide: Guides and porters can easily be arranged at short notice through travel agents in Thamel, but if you want to make sure your guide is good, it's best to do some research and book in advance. Shanta and Nabin Baniya come highly recommended, from $1600 per person, all inclusive. Visit nepalholidayguide.com or email shantakumar100@hotmail.com

At home: For a Himalayan experience closer to home, visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Exhibition 'From the Summit' at Auckland Museum, on until September 29, free entry. aucklandmuseum.com

- Herald on Sunday

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