Gokyo Trek - Day 1 - Sagarmatha National Park - Nepal
October 22nd, 2011 - Day 1 - Lukla (2860m) to Phakding (2630m) in 6 hours (7.4km)
Nepal. The Hymalaya's. The mountains furthest from my home. The longest trek of my life. The highest I have ever been. The hardest my physical being has been pushed. Where to begin with a journey like this? Lukla, the trails beginning? Kathmandu, the arrival in Nepal? Ottawa, back home where the idea for the journey began? Or does this go back to when I was 13 years old and got my first book of trekking in Nepal because my uncle was working there and I dreamed of going to visit him?
So interesting how life is. That the true beginning of this journey had it's start at a time in my life when I had never even been to a mountain let alone climbed any. That my first interest in mountains would begin with a book on trekking in Nepal and would culminate 24 years later with that very thing, on possibly my last hike for years to come... well it's all kind of magical to me. Yes, I made choices to make this happen, yet it still feels like some grand design was in place all along.
It's fitting that this trek would take place with another one of my uncles who played a pivotal role in my interests in mountains. My uncle George was the first one to take me on hikes in the Gatineau Hills near where we live and inspired me with his many climbing adventure stories which took place all over the world. It was his idea to make a go of doing the Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek a few years ago. Over the course of family get together's and annual holiday events he would bring up the idea of planning a trip to Nepal to try and pull off this trek, all the while I was thinking it was a long shot on my list of "mountains to explore". Time, distance, money, abilities... how would this ever really happen?
I suppose it took George's daughter Sally to actually do the EBC trek back in fall 2010 to truly inspire all of us (George, her mother Suzanne and brother Peter). She came back with the details and enthusiasm we needed to convince us it was possible on all counts. So by June 2011, the tour guide reservations were made and the airline tickets purchased. We decided to go with the touring company Himalayan Nepal Trek because George had met someone who had toured with them and gave them a positive review, and I would certainly concur.
We met our guide, Gopal Shrestha, at the airport soon after landing in Kathmandu. From the outset, this was a man who knew how to get things done and obviously knew the ins and outs of all things Nepal. Going in blind and not knowing at all what to expect in this foreign land, Gopal was essential in providing that sense of security and confidence that all was going to be ok... even during our darkest hours, which I believe we all experienced at one point or another. The original plan was a 15 day trek that would take us to EBC and back. What it turned in to was a 17 day journey that had a few unpredictable twists and ended with an evacuation by helicopter. As all things mountain related, never expect things to go 100% according to plan.
The trek began on October 22nd after taking the highly anticipated flight from Kathmandu to Lukla, which according to YouTube videos, is the most dangerous airport in the world. Yes, you are landing on an angled runway on the side of a mountain with very little room for error, but honestly, it felt like any other plane landing to me and I had full faith in the pilots... plus the weather was perfect. Arriving in Lukla, Gopal went straight to work arranging for some porters (which were numerous, all milling about at the airport entrance). We ended up with two wonderful porters named Gaurab and Lachhi who, like all porters in Nepal, are almost super-humanly strong and resilient.
Even though Lukla isn't at very high elevation (2850 m), we were still able to feel the change from the low altitude of Kathmandu. The 6 hours of mostly downhill hiking to the village of Phakding seemed a bit harder than expected. I was suffering from some shortness of breath and a slight headache, but none of that really stopped me from taking in the incredible scenery unfolding before me. As you can imagine, being in the Hymalaya's is a one of a kind experience, but due to that it obviously draws quite the crowd of adventurers. The EBC trek has become very popular over the years and the whole region is pretty packed with other trekkers. I knew going in to it that this would not be the typical hike I'm used to. I was determined to let this trek be whatever it would be and just go with the flow, hence my almost hourly mantra of "I will abide." (I think going with a dudeist philosophy in any new and unpredictable situation is always a good approach).
As you go along, it becomes increasingly clear that the comforts of the "civilized world" do not really exist out here, especially the further in you get. If you are expecting easy access to hot water, a wide selection of food, flush toilets, warm showers, heated rooms, free electricity, etc, well, you are in for some surprises. As developed as it has become (internet and cell phone reception) it is still isolated in many ways. Almost all the food is carried from the lowlands by porters and animals, so when it comes to eating you are going to be limited to mostly non-perishables (good luck finding raw fruits and veggies on any menu). I would highly recommend packing some extra food to help balance out the carb focused diet you will encounter (mainly rice, noodles, potatoes, momos). If you are a meat eater, bring some sausage or jerky because you could potentially ruin your whole trip if you risk eating meat that has been travelling for days without refrigeration (I saw porters carrying large cuts of exposed meat).
That first day was an adjustment for me. Not that anything was incredibly difficult, just that the wear and tear of the long flight, lack of sleep and time change seemed to have caught up with me by that point and all I really wanted to do was sleep. By the time we reached our lodge at 1pm, I was feeling sick to my stomach. We all went to lie down in our rooms for some much needed rest and quickly fell asleep (as it was feeling like 3am for us). Gopal fetched us at 4pm to take our orders for the evening meal, which Sue and I had very little appetite for. Knowing the journey ahead, Gopal insisted we eat something to keep up our strength. After forcing down the food and becoming increasingly chilled (only source of heat was a small stove in the middle of the large dining area, which is typical of all the lodges), I went back to bed and had a solid and cozy sleep in my mummy bag despite having some disturbing dreams and waking at 4am. The strange dreams would be a staple of the nights to come, but I looked at them as part of a process of release and healing that I hoped this journey would be about.
Note about photo taking: I noticed a few times that mothers didn't like tourists taking unannounced photos of their children, which isn't surprising when you think about it. Would we be thrilled if strangers were taking photos of our kids as they passed by? Just something to consider when you are there.