“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”
The single step that began my journey to Everest base camp was a tentative one; taken in supple new hiking boots across smooth black tarmac. I felt the skin on my bare arms prickle into goosebumps in the air of a morning so clear it gleamed like glass, the sun glaring white on the surface of the tiny 16 seater plane that waited for us. In the distance the mountains waited, shimmering slightly in the frosty air. That clear cold sky was good; it meant that we would fly that day.
We had woken in the still-dark early morning, sneaking from our hostel dorm between the silhouettes of sleeping strangers, and had ridden in a rusting taxi to the airport as a dusty pink dawn rose above Kathmandu’s empty streets. The airport, a long hall of stained concrete and corrugated iron in green and grey, was full of mounds of trekking kit and sleepy eyed people stood in groups, sipping burnt coffee and introducing themselves to the people they would be sharing their adventure with. Sophie and I had no introductions to make – having made the decision to trek without a guide, a group or a porter, we would be sharing our adventure only with each other.
Like all of the places that have most captured my heart, I had found my way here by chance. Arriving in Nepal on a plane thrown through a stormy night sky from Delhi, exhausted by three months in India; I had spent a week hibernating with little ambition to do more than wander the streets with my camera and feel my body recover as I spooned down warm spiced dal bhat and creamy lassi topped with nuts. One day I spent a cold, bright afternoon watching funeral celebrations on the Ganges tributary Bagmati at Pashupatinath temple. Afterwards, I sat on the roof of the hostel, drinking black tea and talking to a very tall German guy with a severe smile and a slightly wind burnt face. He told me he had just returned from base camp after a solo trek, describing to me the hard beauty of the mountains, the heart-falling feeling of being alone on the trail, of standing with a map at a fork in the path; and I thought – there’s my adventure. I called Soph, who was due to fly in to Nepal the following week, and told her we were trekking to Everest base camp, unaided. She hesitated a second, and then said ‘ok’.
And so a couple of weeks later we found our way here, to a dirty airport hall in Kathmandu at dawn, waiting to board a tiny plane that would fly us into one of the most dangerous airstrips in the world.
Our trek would begin in Lukla, a mountain village nestled amongst the Himalayas, accessible by an airstrip notorious for its short length, sloping trajectory and pin drop positioning amongst the mountains. Soph is petrified of flying at the best of times, so to tackle the problem of actually getting her onto the plane we had purchased copious amounts of something purporting to be Valium from an entirely reputable back alley hole-in-the-wall in Kathmandu, in a bid to render her suitably unconscious and therefore less aware of the fact that she was climbing into a tin can with wings to be propelled towards the side of a mountain. She popped the first couple in the waiting hall and seemed cheerful enough, swaying gently against my shoulder and saying things that didn’t make much sense. When our flight was called she followed me across the tarmac and up the steps into the waiting plane, buckled herself in, and promptly burst into tears.
After a brief scramble for the seats directly behind the cockpit with the most vertiginous view, the plane trundled down the runway and rose into the air with a cold shuddering of metal. I could hear Soph counting under her breath over the mechanical rumblings of the plane, and the rushing sound of air past the windows as we climbed, the earth dropping away sharply below us.
Once at altitude, the plane levelled out and we drifted through a dark navy sky stroked with scudding wisps of cloud, the tiny plane weightless on the breeze. Around us the Himalayas unfolded, undulating foothills rolling into a jagged horizon of dark peaks, forbidding and scarred with ice. At certain points the plane flew so close to the ground that I could see our shadow, faint and insignificant as that of a bird, a toy plane outlined against an illustrated map of a mountain. After what felt like a few minutes but was probably closer to half an hour the airstrip appeared ahead, an impossibly thin shoelace of black, and my stomach floated sharply into my throat as the plane began to fall gradually through the sky. For a moment it felt as though we were suspended, the ground rushing up at us as we coasted thermals, buffeted by the wind; and then the wheels touched down smoothly and we were safe, and suddenly we were piling off and being ushered from the airstrip into a narrow hall to collect our packs.
Dodging the few persistently hopeful guides hanging around the airport, we headed to a small bakery down the narrow track into the village. We bought cheese bread and hot coffee and took it outside to eat in the biting, wood smoked air, watching the steady stream of trekkers passing through the village towards the trail, their breath hanging in front of their faces and their steps deliberate and measured on the stony, frozen earth.
We walked amongst them as we left the village, sharing stories with the heavy set American guy with the tight curls and the determined eyes, the middle-aged Russian couple realising a long held dream, walking in tandem and swinging matching water bottles. The trail began to climb, and we began to out-pace the group as they fell back to ensure that no one got left behind. We walked on, treading carefully and jabbing the earth with our rusting rental walking poles, until we lost sight of them on the path behind.
And then we were alone.
The first thing was the silence. Nothing but mountain song drifting on the biting breeze; the soft flap of prayer flags, the distant clanking bells of a yak train on the path far above. Lower in the valley, the cool bubbling rush of the icy river, carving the mountain apart with a cold flash of turquoise. Our hearts beating in our ears and our breath catching in our throats. The slow song of the mountain, low and melancholy; the wavering alto of an ageing prima donna echoing over thousands of years. She is beautiful though; from the moment we stepped beyond the painted archway that marks the start of the ascent to base camp she was breath taking.
The path rose and dipped as it followed the river through the valley gorge, hugging the mountain’s curves and curling steeply upwards through a heady, scented forest of tall evergreens. Flowers bloomed alongside the path, tiny delicate starbursts of pale pink and violet and buttercup yellow amongst the green. Sometimes we would round a corner and emerge at a rocky outcrop, a small gilded stupa perched on the edge, its gold and blue painted eyes watching over the villages on the valley floor and strings of rainbow flags sending prayers floating down over the mountainside. Far below, the river snaked pale electric blue into the distance, surrounding by the vibrantly fecund slopes of the lower himalayas on all sides. In the distance, framed by a vast, jewel blue sky, bruise coloured peaks topped with snow stood in a haze along the horizon.
We reached our village stopping point at Phakding that night as the first pale stars began to appear behind the trees, black silhouettes against a dusty twilight sky. The teahouse was easy to find, its windows casting a pool of warm light onto the wide stones outside, and we quickly dropped our bags on our bunks and headed back to the main room where tired, happy trekkers sat around the huge central stove and ate dal bhat with their fingers. Leaning against the wood panelled walls, I wrapped my hands around my mug of hot milky chocolate and wiggled my pleasantly sore feet in their three pairs of thick socks. My cheeks burned in the heat of the fire after the cold night outside, and my muscles ached warmly, unaccustomed to the strain of carrying a whole person up a mountain. We went to bed early, and I slept straight through until dawn peeked through the curtains and we rose to pull on clothes that were already becoming second-skin, heading out into the grey early morning.
The sky was swollen, low and pregnant with rain, but after an hour or so the clouds lifted to allow bright shafts of cold sunshine to fall across our faces. We passed through a village, small white houses perched on the steep slope with doors and window frames painted bright blue or deep green, the air full of the fragrant bitterness of wood smoke from their chimneys. A train of mules passed us with tasselled bells jingling on their woven headpieces, blinking dew drops implacably from impossibly long eye lashes. Leaving the village, we followed the path through rolling fields of waving grass and wild flowers, stopping at a tiny roadside teahouse to refuel on fried egg sandwiches and mugs of brick red tea in the sun filled garden.
Pushing on through the afternoon, we found ourselves behind a yak train swaying ponderously up the trail. The path was fairly narrow, with large boulders on either side, and we would have to pass alongside the yaks to overtake them. This should have been no problem, except that a certain encounter with an evil cow in India had apparently left me with a fairly acute fear of horned bovine animals – a fact I wasn’t aware of until confronted with the prospect of squeezing alongside these heavy horned behemoths of the mountain with my unprotected midriff at disembowelling height.
Sophie was ahead of me, already making her way confidently past the yaks. She turned back when she heard my slightly hysterical squeak, and looked at me bemused as I scrambled up onto the nearest boulder to get off the path.
“What is wrong with you?” she asked, clearly baffled by my behaviour.
“I can’t go past them Soph” I breathed, clinging to the side of the rock pathetically; “what if one of them impales me or knocks me off the mountain?”
“They’re yaks, not wild bulls”.
“I know, but look at the size of their horns!”
Sophie sighed. “I really don’t think they’re that interested in you. The only reason they’re looking at you now is because you’re being mental. Come on”.
Resignedly, I slid back down onto the trail and tentatively made my way towards the back of the yak train. I hovered there, looking for an opening and trying to work myself up to pass them, but it was like a hard ball of fear had unfurled in my stomach and I was rooted to the spot.
“Oh for God’s sake” said Soph, marching back to grab my hand and drag me forcibly past the placid, lumbering animals, much to the amusement of the Nepalese yak herder who clearly thought I had gone mad.
For the rest of the trek I battled with my irrational fear of the yaks, and although it did improve as I spent more time around them, I still spent a fair proportion of my time scrambling up boulders to get out of their way.
Our final challenge that day, in the lengthening shafts of afternoon light and shadow that had begun to filter through the pine trees, was the ascent to Namche bazaar, a notoriously steep climb ascending 2000ft through the forest to reach the town where we would spend our first acclimatisation day. We fought and battled our way up, muscles burning, panting beneath our 11kg backpacks. I began to hate everyone and everything; the tree roots that reached up to trip me, my water bottle swinging and banging against my hip, the groups skipping gaily up the path with their tiny day packs and their laden porters, shooting us confused and sympathetic looks. We pressed grimly on for three exhausting hours, until the trees cleared and we rounded a corner to see the coloured roofs of Namche spread out below our aching feet. Delirious at the prospect of hot food, sleep, and most importantly being able to put our packs down; we wobbled into the town on legs that had melted into useless jelly and quickly found a $1 room in a hotel with a view of the darkening mountains.
Curling into a window seat with our phones charging and a huge flowered flask of hot chocolate between us, a great wave of achievement and contentment flooded through my veins as we settled in for the night with our books; contemplating how far we had come and anticipating the next day – which would hopefully bring us our first glimpse of Everest.