Gokyo Trek - Day 12 to 17 - Sagarmatha National Park - Nepal
November 2nd to November 7th - Day 12 to 17 - Namche Bazaar (3440m) to Taksindu (2925m) in 5 days (~44km)
Despite waking up to another cloudy morning and a few rumors going around that there was a backlog of hikers building up in Lukla (due to cancelled flights), I was still feeling optimistic about staying on schedule. George and I had planned for just such a scenario when we booked our flights to Nepal, being sure to give ourselves a few days buffer to get to Kathmandu after the hike was completed in Lukla. All was still going according to plan at this point.
We headed back on the same trail we had arrived on, only now going downhill, which was easier on the cardio, but harder on the joints, especially with the wet conditions. All went well though and the mists hanging around the hillsides and valleys made for beautiful, dream-like views. We reached Phakding in the afternoon and stayed in the same lodge we had coming up. It was interesting to consider the movement of time and expectations once you have returned to the beginning. How little I knew of the journey I was going to embark on compared to what I knew now.
That night we spent a fun evening by the stove talking with a humorous Irish fellow and watching Die Hard on the TV (until the reception cut out).
The next morning showed no signs of the clouds clearing and again talk started about the backlog in Lukla, yet Gopal remained positive that all would work out in the end and I was willing to continue just accepting whatever came our way. So with that, we began the final leg of the journey to Lukla, taking it easy all the way there. Once again, Peter and I held our own pace and arrived in Lukla before the rest, which allowed us to get a preview of just how packed the village had become over the last few days.
Every lodge was full by that point and still more hikers were arriving. Somehow Gopal had arranged ahead of time a spot for us at a lodge (1 room for Peter, George and Suzanne, and a tent for me), which is one of the major benefits of having a guide. Sure, it wasn't luxurious, but we were used to it by that point. As the hours progressed and we mingled with other trekkers, it soon became apparent that no one had much information about anything. Speculation about how long the bad weather was going to last and the amount of time it would take to clear out the backlog was rampant.
I took it all in stride at the beginning, still holding on to the hope that the weather would be better the next day and we'd catch our flight. Which brings me to one of the rules of the Lukla airport people might not know about. Since it can be a common situation to have bad weather delaying flights to and from Lukla, the way they deal with backlogs is that even if there are hundreds of people who have missed the flights before you, if your flight can arrive on schedule, you are the first on it despite the backlog. However, if your flight does not arrive on schedule, you are now pushed to the very back of the line. This little fact played on everyones mind as more reports were coming in of possible bad weather for another week (there was already a four day backlog by the time we had arrived). We kept our fingers crossed that the weather would break in time.
Seeing as this was the day of reckoning, it was quite disappointing to wake up to a dense fog and not a single ray of sunlight. All hopes of leaving that day were dashed. We were now officially at the end of the line like so many other trekkers. We spent the day milling about aimlessly and with no plans. It's amazing how slow time can be when you are waiting for something. Despite spending most of the day reading a book, it seemed like the seconds were ticking by incredibly slowly. Everyone was obsessed about the weather and it was clear that the frustrations were beginning to grow in the village. There was talk of military rescue and how these weather systems can last many days. Many had already missed their connecting flights in Kathmandu and others were resorting to ordering rescue helicopters, which were already completely overwhelmed by the demand. Those who were most antsy even committed to walking their way out to the town of Jiri where there was a bus back to Kathmandu, only it was a 3 to 7 day hike (depending on who you asked).
This was one of the major problems in Lukla. Accurate information was sorely missing. There is no official information center one can turn to, which would go a long way in helping people relax under these kind of conditions. Everything we heard was either rumor, speculation, or completely subjective. No one really knew anything and it fueled a lot of misinformation. Even something as simple as an official weather report was impossible to find. News of the backlog was starting to show up in the media, yet there was no guidance or plan from the Nepalese government on what would happen next. We were obviously on our own up there and food was starting to run out. By the 6th day of delayed flights, things started to get ugly.
Day 15 to 17
Waking the next morning to more drizzle and clouds, it became increasingly clear to us that we needed to start considering our options if we wanted to make our flight in Kathmandu. It was November 5th and our flight out of Kathmandu was on the 9th, so in some ways we still felt optimistic that we wouldn't miss it. Gopal was doing his best to try and arrange a helicopter pickup but with close to 2000 people waiting to get out, chances were slim. As the morning turned to afternoon and there was zero progress on the helicopter front, Gopal started to suggest some other options, all of which meant a lot more hiking. I wasn't keen on this at all, though I don't know what other choice we had besides waiting around in Lukla. For Peter, I think walking out represented a kind of control over a situation that lacked it. It felt like an answer of sorts. To me, the idea of walking to Jiri (which was the worse case scenario) and getting to Kathmandu on time seemed like an impossible task. I recognize now that Gopal was in a tough situation here. He was trying to get us home, but knew that to complete the trek to Jiri within those few short days would be extremely arduous, or worse, not even possible... he had to balance telling the truth vs keeping up our morale... not an easy task. In the end, he offered up some possibilities that worked to convince us that there were ways to get back without having to walk all the way to Jiri. They were, from best case to worse:
a) Hike to a lower altitude where there is less cloud cover and less people and hopefully catch a helicopter ride.
b) Hike to the village of Phaplu where there is another airport with less of a backlog of trekkers waiting. Pray for good weather by then.
c) Hike to a road outside of Jiri where a jeep will pick us up and drive us all the way back to Kathmandu.
And so it was that our trek back home began once again. Gopal quickly found some new porters (as Gaurab and Lachhi had left the evening before) and we were on the trail heading downhill by late afternoon. It was along this section of trail just outside of Lukla that we began to hear stories from people coming up the trail of violence and corruption taking place at the helicopter landing spots in a field down below. Many were gathered there waiting for their rescue helicopters, only when the few that would actually arrive landed, there would be a mass swarm and complete chaos. This would lead to bribes of the security officers and eventual violence as they tried to hold back the mass. I was thankful not to have had to witness those scenes, as we would later learn that some of our friends had (their guide had been beaten and taken away by security).
It was a pretty miserable day to be hiking. The rain had made the trails muddy and slippery and with no clear idea of our destination or the distance we would be covering, my motivation was not very high. It was along this trail that as I was walking behind a porter, his foot slipped in the mud and he fell off the edge of the trail. Luckily for him there was some dense bushes to stop him from falling further down. I gave him a hand getting back up on the trail and wondered how often porters are killed in this way. The thought added to the gloom of the day and all I could do was continue on.
It was a long afternoon hike and by the time we reached the lodge it was dark and cold out. Unfortunately for Gopal, he had to contend with another issue... George and Suzanne's missing porter. Gaurab happened to be at the same lodge and offered to head back down the trail with Gopal to search for the porter. Quite some time later they returned with the gear and a furious Gopal. He didn't want to tell us what happened, but obviously the porter had given up on the task and wouldn't bring the gear any further, leaving Gopal to search for another porter in the middle of nowhere. Once again, he pulled through brilliantly!
The next morning (Day 16) we were given some basic idea of the plan for the day and I figured it would be pretty much like all the other long days of hiking we had already experienced. The weather was still bad, but we kept holding on to the hope that we would reach some spot that a helicopter could reach us, which Gopal and the Himalayan Nepal Treks team were working hard behind the scenes to try and pull off. As the hours of hiking stretched on heading down to the valley bottom, my knees were beginning to ache. This was the beginning of a long downhill trend for the day, and by "downhill" I don't mean topographically... I mean physically, emotionally and spiritually. It would turn out to be the most difficult and challenging hike I had ever experienced in my life.
The pain in my knees seemed to sap my motivation and spirit one step at a time. It was the first time on the whole trip that I fell behind, but with my deteriorating emotional state it was best for me to be alone and separate from the group. To this day it's hard for me to understand why I fell so deeply in to that despair and darkness. My heart was just not in it, which was a horrible time for me to give up like that, as it would be the longest hike of the whole trek. I couldn't pull myself out of it though. I remember at one point passing a young Nepalese girl and giving her a friendly nod, which she smiled to, but when I looked back at her a moment later I caught her sticking her tongue out at me. That moment seemed to represent the whole experience of that day, a feeling that I didn't belong there anymore and that in some fateful way, the day was meant to be antagonistic and a deep challenge to my body and soul. A test of sorts. Whether it was my outlook influencing the experience or if there truly was just something "in the air", I don't know.
The seams were beginning to show in our group as well, as both Peter and I were feeling frustrated with Gopal's time projections and distance estimations, which were off the mark on that day. On normal days, this would not have bothered me, but on a day like that, being off by hours from where we were supposed to be stirred up many feelings and I didn't want him to sugar coat anything anymore. When we finally stopped for lunch, it was pouring rain and we were stuck in dark barn like structure which was freezing cold. I was completely withdrawn by this point and could barely engage anyone in conversation. We had just spent 6 hours hiking down the valley to reach the river crossing and with lunch completed it was now time to head back uphill.
This final uphill slog brought me to places in myself I have never experienced before. We hiked for another 6 hours uphill, leaving Gopal and the porters far behind, yet not knowing where we were supposed to stop. By the time darkness arrived, I fell behind our immediate group and did my best to keep moving my legs. The night and silence were incredibly isolating and I felt more alone in that moment than I think I have ever felt before. I was so exhausted that things were becoming confusing to me. I remember trying to figure out if my legs were actually tired or if I was just convinced they were. I also couldn't figure out if it was true that every time I took a drink I would gain strength. Never have I experienced such a strange divide between my body and mind. Is this what happens to people when they reach the very edge of their physical abilities? It was like a kind of delirium in some ways. In the foggy blackness of the night it felt like I had entered an alternate world, dream like, yet extraordinarily physical at the same time. I prayed for it to end soon.
By close to 7pm, we finally reached the village of Taksindu. I was in a complete daze and shivering from the cold when we stopped in the first lodge we could find to wait for Gopal's arrival. All I wanted to do was curl up in my sleeping bag and go to sleep, but since our gear was still with the porters, all we could do was wait. It would be some time before they would arrive. When they eventually did arrive, all I could think of was sleep. All four of us had to share the one small room left in the lodge and it wasn't a comfortable arrangement for anyone, especially for Peter having to sleep on the floor. All that didn't matter though, because as soon as I laid my head down I was out. Sweet, blessed sleep.
The next morning (Day 17) I woke up with sore legs and knees and quickly started to assess how much more I could handle. According to Gopal there would be at least another full day of hiking and possibly more to be able to get to the road where the jeep would meet us. As I stood outside that morning and witnessed the first sunrise and blue sky in many days, I couldn't help but feel better, but at the same time frustrated that we were so far away from any airport. It was especially cruel watching the planes come cruising in one at a time heading for Lukla. After breakfast and some discussion of the plan for the day, we packed our gear and Peter and I headed up the trail. It was clear right from the get-go that my body was worn down and having trouble, but I hoped to just get back in a rhythm and plod forward somehow. Peter and I reached the top of a hill and took a break to wait for the others to catch up. I tried to ignore my fears of the hike ahead, but couldn't help but feel I was already at my end and didn't know what to do. It was then that we heard Suzanne calling up to us in an excited voice. We walked back down to them and were given the news that would be one of the biggest relief's of my life. A helicopter was coming for us.
For the next few hours we sat in the sun in an open field by the Taksindu monastery waiting for the chopper to arrive. It was here that we met the gregarious, generous and funny Pemba, an 11 year old boy that loved to entertain by doing flips and cartwheels. He was the perfect companion on that last day in the mountains.
As I sat in the grass on that beautiful day, I had an intuitive sense that the trials of the previous day had happened for a reason. The peace and calm I was experiencing now waiting for the helicopter was such a contrast that it revealed a little something about the nature of life and about keeping faith. In that moment I felt very strongly that the divine spirit had been with me when I was in darkness and had listened to my call for help. To get that helicopter at the very point where I had reached my limit felt more than just a coincidence, it felt like a reminder of the divine surrounding us.
It would be nice to end the story there, wouldn't it? But no, this trek insisted on one last exclamation mark. When the helicopter arrived, with many in the village coming to witness, the four of us climbed in ready to finally sit back and enjoy the ride home. However, the combination of the age of the helicopter, the horrible whining sound it made and the fact that we could barely get off the ground (even bumping back down once)... all of it combined to make this flight one of the most terrifying moments of my life. The feeling of the helicopter struggling for lift as we went over the side of the mountain is a moment I will never forget. With Suzanne clutching my hand in fear, for the longest of moments I waited for the helicopter to start plummeting from the sky. I have never experienced such a strong fear of death before. Obviously we made it to Kathmandu in one piece, but holy God, I have never prayed so much in a single moment.
What an unforgetable and amazing journey it all was. I learned some important things on this trip, most important of which is... I will do my best to abide through life.
- If you would like to watch a video of the trek, please take a look at Suzanne's YouTube videos.
- Download my Google Earth gokyo-trek.kmz file [54 KB] to see our route and some descriptive placemarks of the Gokyo trek. To use this file, download and install the free Google Earth software, then once it's up and running, choose File --> Open... and select the "gokyo-trek.kmz" file that you downloaded from here. A folder called "Gokyo Trek" should now be in the Places tab. Expanding this folder you will find all my placemarks and routes for the entire 17 day trek. Clicking on any of these placemarks will bring you to the exact spot on Earth.