Sandwiched between the disputed lands of Tibet and the steamy plains of India, Nepal is the hallowed ground of Sherpa, Gurkha, monasteries, prayer wheels and yetis; a spiritual sanctuary of towering mountains, glacial lakes and, of course, home to the highest mountain on earth. Nepal’s culture and history is rich and its people are extremely diverse.
I have wanted to go there since I was eight years old, when I studied Nepal for a geography project at school. Back in those days there was no internet; I spent hours absorbed in my family’s Times Atlas of the World and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, learning about Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s conquest of Everest on the eve of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth and Chamonix’s very own Maurice Herzog’s harrowing summit of Annapurna the year before.
And on October 14th, 2017, a mere thirty-eight years after that school project lit my imagination on fire, I flew into Kathmandu to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. As the plane commenced its descent, I looked out of the window and saw the peaks of the Annapurna piercing through the clouds – my breath caught in my throat and my eyes blinked back tears as I realised that this was it, I was finally here.
Part of me was a bit nervous. Thanks to thrice-weekly Crossfit sessions along with kite-surfing, open water swimming and walking Tiggy, I was the fittest I’d been since my twenties. But, the average altitude for my high pass Himalaya trek was going to be 4,300m where the air is 50% less than most of us are used to in our everyday life.
I was both physically and mentally prepared for it to be tough – everyone suffers at that altitude; sleep is elusive, headaches were to be expected and the mere act of walking could be physically draining. At night, sleeping in tea-houses with wafer thin plywood walls, the temperatures went as low as -30 Celsius making the mere act of a midnight toilet break a harrowing test of physical and mental reserve.
It wasn’t just the physical challenge either, it was a packing one too as I could only take 7kg of luggage with me. Once I had packed a five season sleeping bag, a first aid kit, walking poles and a pair of crampons, this basically boiled down to three pairs of knickers, two pairs of trousers, two t-shirts, a mid-layer, a fleece, a Gore-Tex jacket and a very, very warm puffa.
My haul of goodies from Osprey Europe meant I had a daypack with a whistle (in case I fell down a crevasse), a water reservoir to make sure I was keeping hydrated (key to help prevent altitude sickness) and the gear I wasn’t wearing in the day was carefully arranged in plastic bags in my Osprey Transporter duffel which was put through its paces on both treks and came back with barely a scratch.
My first trek was the full 21 day, 145 mile tour of the Annapurna circuit – with views that were breath taking and breathless and toilets that made you gasp for breath…(I got used to the squatting but never the smells).
It was every bit as delightful, interesting, absorbing and beautiful as I could have hoped for. The scenery was varied and vast, from trekking 20km in 30 Celsius heat through paddy fields and rainforest (I wasn’t prepared for it to be quite so hot) to crossing the iconic Thorong La Pass (alt: 5,640m) in -5 Celsius – the diversity of the trek was immense.
We span prayer wheels as we entered and exited every village, gawped at the scenery and crossed mile after mile of suspension bridges (I have a good head for heights, but some of them were really quite scary). I took a thousand photos, but none of them really did it justice. If you only ever get the chance to visit Nepal once, then let this trek be the one you do.
Then I had five days to rest, recuperate, sightsee and wallow in plenty of bubble baths in Kathmandu. I visited Boudanath, Asia’s largest Buddhist stupa which pulsates with the life of thousands of daily worshippers under the watchful eyes of Buddha. It trembled and shook yet thankfully survived the 2015 earthquake.
I then enjoyed a fascinating and eye opening morning exploring the medieval town of Bhaktapur. Many of the Hindu temples there are devoted to the worship of Lord Shiva – Hindus believe in reincarnation, which is why Shiva is the god of both reproduction as well as destruction. His destructive incarnation is the horrific looking Bhairab who can appear in 64 different forms – and none of them pretty.
Most people say you should get out of Kathmandu as fast as possible – it’s easy to understand why – the pollution, the overpopulation, the incessant noise – in many ways it was horrifying but in equal parts it was enthralling, magical and bewitching.
Once my cultural sightseeing was over it was time to board a tiny aircraft and fly to Lukla, which the History Channel had helpfully named the world’s most dangerous airport for fifteen years running – for my second trek.
My bag was 2kg over the baggage allowance so I flew with all my snacks in my pockets and wore all my heavy clothes in the 25 degree heat of Kathmandu – snacks could not be sacrificed!
I felt strong, excited and nervous. To put into context, the Annapurna Circuit had one high pass – Thorong La, alt. 5,416m. This trek had four and they were pretty much back to back: Gokyo Ri, alt. 5,360m; Cho La Pass, alt. 5,420m; Everest Base Camp, alt. 5,364m; Kala Patthar, alt. 5,545m.
It’s hard to put into words just how different this trek was from the Annapurna circuit. On November 11th we climbed up 16km, step after step, to the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar (alt: 3,400m) and on the way caught our first glimpse of Everest. I blinked back a few tears.
We left the heart of the Sherpa homeland and set off under the watchful eyes of Buddha at the site where Hillary and Norgay and the entire team camped before scaling Everest. After a steep five-hour climb we crossed a small bridge and were rewarded with our first view of the dazzling, glacial lakes of Gokyo. We successfully summited Gokyo Ri and then traversed the arduous, near vertical Cho La Pass before trekking onto Everest Basecamp where I stood on the Khumbu glacier – the highest glacier in the world – and at the foot of mighty Mount Everest on November 14th.
It then took every ounce of strength in my body to summit the Kala Patthar (The Black Rock) whose jagged peak stands at 5,643m and offered spectacular close-up views of Everest. This was my fourth 5,300 plus metre peak in under five days and the biggest of them all.
I was physically and mentally spent. It was harder than I ever could have imagined. At times, overcome with altitude and fatigue, I was reduced to crawling up over boulders on my hands and knees. Ironically the Everest Base Camp trek was the least challenging (although still cripplingly tiring).
Only four out of seven of us made all four peaks – and I was the oldest by over ten years. I didn’t shower for seven days. In my photos it looked sunny but the biting wind was ferociously cold. We were all struck down with Nepalese noro virus, no joke when the loos are frozen. It was -30 Celsius in the ‘bedroom’ at night – I slept in all my clothes, including my puffa. I made a pact with myself on the top of the Kala Patthar – I was so glad to have done it, but never, ever would I put myself through something like that again.
It was exhilarating, exhausting, amazing, awful, difficult and delightful. And I did it.
They say you first come to Nepal for the mountains and return for the people. It’s so true, I remain humbled by their graciousness, kindness and dignity in the harshest of environments. Everywhere we went, no matter what the circumstances, the people were always smiling.
So, after a lifetime of waiting, my adventures trotting two hundred and fifty miles across the rooftops of the world are over and, for now, heaven is a place called Chamonix where my plan is to conquer the art of ski touring with a small dog.
Choose happy, never stop exploring and remember travel is the only thing you spend money on that will make you richer. Life is an adventure – go live it.
Love, Sophie, Tiggy and The Beast XOXO
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