It’s my birthday in a few days. I’m not one for big celebrations or even presents, which means I can’t tell you too many details about my birthdays over the last decade. I can, however, tell you that my birthday in 2010 will probably be THE most memorable birthday of my entire life. It was smack in the middle of hiking to Mount Everest Base Camp in the Nepalese Himalayas, and Bryce, my husband, had somehow, impossibly arranged for sherpas to bake me a birthday cake.
More on that later in the post. But for now, since it’s the ninth anniversary of our journey, I thought I’d take you on a tour of that time we hiked to Mount Everest Base Camp.
How It Happened
In the fall of 2009, Bryce and I started dating. I should write a separate blog post about that because it’s a great story of me relentlessly flirting with him at work until he finally came around. Before we were “official” he mentioned that he might travel to Mount Everest with his friends Paul and Denise Fejtek. Might travel? Without hesitation, I invited myself, which I’m going to say tipped the scales for him.
Can you blame me? While I’m not a big fan of parties and presents, I am a huge fan of travel and experiences. I had seen those Mount Everest documentaries and always wondered if I could ever go.
Luckily, when I met Paul and Denise, they couldn’t have been nicer and more excited to have me join the crew. Paul and Denise are a “Seven Summits” couple—they’ve sumitted the tallest peak on every continent…and then some. They are also big supporters of the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) and were combining their summit attempt with raising funds for the foundation though the Everybody to Everest Challenge.
They organized this trip with 23 of their friends, all dedicated to raise money to help CAF give individuals with physical challenges access to sports and an active lifestyle through adaptive sports grants, camps, clinics, and mentorship.
We left on April 16th from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). We flew Cathay Pacific Airlines, which had terrible seats but great food! It was quite a trek.
The first leg was 15 hours from LAX to Hong Kong with an 8-hour layover, then another 4-hour evening flight from Hong Kong to Dhaka, Bangladesh. We were grounded there while the flight crew counted people several times because they thought some passengers had gone missing. Dhaka to Kathmandu, Nepal would normally be just under 2 hours, but it was the most turbulent flight I’ve ever been on. We were stuck in the sky while the pilot made several attempts to land in a rough storm.
Did I mention I hate to fly?
From Kathmandu, we had another harrowing flight on a little hopper to Lukla—the highest and scariest airport IN THE WORLD. When your airplane’s wings practically clip the treetops, you think a lot about your life decisions.
Before I go too much further, let me tell you a little more about Kathmandu.
Kathmandu is the strangest place I’ve ever been to. I’ve been to some strange places—the dump outside of Mazatlan, Mexico, Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, and Slab City, California, to name a few. Kathmandu takes the cake.
Have you seen the movie, Slumdog Millionaire? I haven’t been to India (yet) but it looks like scenes from the movie—only grittier.
The air is thick with smog that makes every inhale feel toxic. People buzz around you on scooters and bikes. I saw swine eating garbage from a sewer that I’m sure wasn’t city approved, people burning their deceased loved ones on the Bagmati riverbanks, children fishing for valuables in the river, Hindus and Buddhists coexisting, sights and smells smacking me in the face…and I loved every minute of it!
The energy is electrifying. I stared in awe at this culture so vastly different from my own, and just took it all in.
A couple of days later, we flew to Lukla to start our trek. There’s a stark contrast between Kathmandu and the Himalayan foothills.
Starting The Climb
The adrenaline was flowing when we landed in Lukla. First off, we survived the landing. Then we rushed with the crowds to get our bags, join our sherpas, and start the trek right away. We headed up the path where shops with various mountain gear and supplies lined the narrow rocky street.
It was all very lively until we left it behind and entered the serene and scenic countryside.
Day one was euphoric. Surprisingly, we descended along the path, slowly taking in quaint villages and welcomed clean air! It was very peaceful.
Our group partnered with a company called Mountain Trip.They originally arranged our trek with a guide from Colorado who sadly perished in an avalanche two weeks before our trip. While dealing with their grief, Mountain Trip scrambled to bring in a guide out of retirement named Natang to take us up. He was very skilled, from the Himalayas, and had led many treks over the years.
But Natang tricked me. That’s how I remember it, anyway. He said that every other day would be a “rest day” which I imagined would be a nice, leisurely day of reading and lounging in the fresh Himalayan air. But no, a “rest day” included a fairly strenuous hike that was simply shorter than the day before, and where we returned to a lower altitude destination to produce more red blood cells. This is called acclimatizing to the environment, so that your body can function as you ascend to a place where the air is thinner.
By the second day, I started to rethink this exciting Mount Everest Base Camp trip. I made the rookie mistake of buying new hiking boots right before the trip, which left little time to break them in.
The steep two-mile incline to the village of Namche Bazaar (11,200 feet) resulted in painful ankle blisters that reminded me that I have human limitations. Still, I was clinging to the euphoria of day one and embracing the experience.
This could turn into an exceptionally long blog post (as if it already isn’t) if I share every detail. It’s hard to pare back, but I want you to keep reading so here are the most memorable highlights.
It’s Beyond Scenic
The countryside is stunning. Day after day, the scenes kept opening up to jagged, snow-capped peaks and low sweeping valleys. We hiked over super-high suspension bridges and rock-hopped a few rivers, too. Almost every day we saw several Yaks carrying a load of goods up the mountain. One time, we almost saw a Yak get swept away trying to cross a rushing river. It’s probably normal, but to us soft-hearted, shrieking Americans and Canadians, watching a Yak fight for its life was anything but normal.
The Sherpa People
The Sherpa are hard-working people. They live at high altitude with no services. Their homes are built from their own hands and almost everything they consume is hauled up the mountain on yaks or their backs.
There I was, decked out in full mountain gear complaining about my ankle blisters, and Sherpas were passing me with massive loads on their heads in nothing more than flip-flops. Blisters. Ha! #firstworldproblems.
Many of the Sherpas make their living guiding up and down to the summit of Mount Everest. It is a dangerous and grueling lifestyle that they have become accustomed to for generations. It was a devastating blow to the people of the region and around the world, when many Sherpas were killed in successive avalanche and earthquake disasters in 2014 and 2015.
Buddhist Shrines and Chortens
One of the elements that enhance the already stunning scenery are the Buddhist shrines and chortens (also called a stupa). Every so often we’d come upon a gorgeous structure jetting out of a hillside, dotted with colorful prayer flags. Sometimes they would have prayer wheels, cylinders made from wood or other materials, that you spin clockwise while focusing on an intention, like sending others love and protection.
A chorten symbolizes Buddha’s presence. They can hold religious relics and are a place to meditate. One of the more somber chortens that we saw was Scott Fischer’s memorial.
If you’ve read the book Into Thin Air, or saw the movie Everest, then you know Scott Fischer’s story. He died high up on the mountain in a blizzard, along with 7 others, while leading an expedition in the 1996 Everest catastrophe. I’m obsessed with the story because I find “summit fever” so intriguing, and contemplated his chorten for a long time.
Tea Houses and Yak Poo Fires
“Tea House” sounds quaint. Do you get the image of a small, charming home where you’re served tea and crumpets, and you make small talk with your neighbor? Don’t get it twisted. The tea houses were quaint—but not the way you think. They were stops along the trail where you could rest, eat a little something (often some kind of grain), and even spend the night.
But they were typically bare bones, thin-walled, hut-like structures where every creak in the night thundered through the structure. Some would have an inviting wood stove to warm your achy bones, but they used dried yak feces to fuel the fire so the whole place smelled like smoky yak poo.
Still, they were a respite from the grueling climb day. The Sherpas who managed them were always pleasant and friendly, and every once in a while we could order momos—a delicious dumpling-filled snack—to put the meat back on our skinny bones (because we’d been eating nothing but grains and burning like 5,000 calories a day)!
Best Birthday Ever
As I said, my birthday was one I will forever remember.
We had arrived in Tengboche Village and Monastery. Upon arrival at The Trekkers Lodge, we learned that our room for the night was out behind the kitchen “attached” to the back the lodge. We’re easy-going people and had a “We’ll be okay with that” attitude. But what we didn’t know was that our “room” was a couple of propped-up walls and a wooden plank on a pile of dirt.
That’s right, I spent my birthday sleeping on a pile of dirt!
Back to the Monastery, though. It’s hard to comprehend how monks built a sprawling monastery that high up! We observed the monks in prayer and got to participate, too. Soon after, a stench rose up around me and Bryce. We desperately needed a shower.
I haven’t mentioned the rather meek shower accommodations in the tea houses.
We returned to the lodge for a cold “shower” which was Bryce and I pouring water on each other with a ladle. With a cold shower and a pile of dirt, my birthday was turning out to be very sexy.
But….earlier that day, without my knowing, Bryce had been planning a birthday celebration with Natang. Mr. I’ll Trick You With Rest Days, agreed to have sherpas carry cake ingredients up the mountain, and then attempt to bake me a cake. If you’re a baker you know how hard it was to get a cake to rise at 12,687 feet!
After dinner and before returning to our dirt pile, the lights went out and the sherpas along with our whole crew started singing happy birthday. A candlelit cake came towards me as my heart melted.
Side note: Bryce and I had been dating about 6 months at this point. Nothing tests a new relationship faster than trekking to Mount Everest Base together—except perhaps a cold shower and seperate dirt pile beds.
Our First Fight
Bryce saved the day—and probably our relationship—with that cake because a few days later we had our very first fight, or, shall I say the first time I yelled at Bryce while he stared at me.
We hiked to Kala Patthar, an 18,209-foot peak, to acclimate for Base Camp. Bryce hiked faster than me, which on any other hike is no big deal. But I succumbed to the exhaustion and altitude, and lost my ability to manage my emotions—a symptom of altitude sickness. When I finally caught up, I broke down, cried, and threw a glove at him. He simply stared at me, and thus began our long-term pattern of conflict avoidance—until we moved into an RV 6 years later.
Arriving at Mount Everest Base Camp
Mount Everest Base Camp is like the moon. There’s no other way to describe such an eerie place. At 17,598 feet, it’s a rocky, uneven glacier with tents strewn across it. This area is called Tent City, where the climbing teams are acclimating and training for their summit attempts.
We joined Paul and Denise Fejtek who had already been there for weeks. It was like a homecoming when they saw all of us marching into Base Camp in matching red ski caps. It was exciting to gather together and party in the expedition’s large dining tent near the highest point on earth.
We spent two days and a night at Base Camp. The night was clear with the light of a full moon bouncing off the Khumbu Icefall, a massive section of jagged skyscraper-sized ice chunks and massive crevasses. It’s one of the most dangerous sections of the climb to the top.
You can watch Denise cross a crevasse in this heart-pumping video.
Avalanches occurred throughout the night. We heard loud rumblings and felt the ground under us moving and popping—it felt very unsettling.
At night, I begrudgingly left the tent to go pee in the sub-freezing temperatures. Once outside, I looked up at the big bright moon, and then saw an avalanche. It was the most surreal thing I may ever see in my lifetime.
Before we left Mount Everest Base Camp, we participated in a Puja Ceremony to pray for Paul and Denise, and the other climbers to have a safe journey.
Leaving Mount Everest Base Camp
After saying our goodbyes to Paul and Denise, we started out on our long journey back. I vividly remember the second day of our return trek and a very long slog through a glacier-carved valley to Pheriche.
I remember reading about this area in the book Into Thin Air, and how dire the circumstances were with food sources and other resources being constrained after the 1996 tragedy. It was weird to be in this same area and think about how challenging it was for people trying to leave the area then.
By the time we got to Namche Bazaar again, we finally had some real downtime (no more “rest hikes”). We stayed at Natang’s Moonlight Lodge, where he had a big night in store for us. Bryce and I headed to town to explore a bit more. I was hankering for a “real” coffee and surprisingly found a little shop that served espresso. Coffee never tasted so good…and never felt more terrible.
Within a few minutes, I had a wicked migraine. Without warning, stomach cramps hit me hard requiring that I find a bathroom immediately.
Side note: Finding a public bathroom in Namche Bazaar is like finding a lobster at McDonald’s. But I found a trusting shopkeeper and begged to use his bathroom (picture a hole in the ground). Poor guy.
I’ll cut to the chase. I had violent food poisoning that hours later I thought I would die from. Seriously, at one point I considered getting airlifted out of there. Luckily, Natang called a local “nurse” who came with some “medicine” that she shot into my arm. I passed out, but about five hours later felt almost normal again. I am amazed that I was able to hike all the way out with the group the next day.
Bryce was a real hero again, skipping the big celebration that night to take care of me and make sure I lived. I woke up once and looked over and saw him watching over me. I can’t believe I threw a glove at him a few days before.
Kathmandu (Round Two)
We were lucky to get out of Lukla. The weather was bad and flights were delayed, which meant we may have to stay another night. After the food poisoning and weakness, I really wanted to get back to Kathmandu.
Taking off from Lukla is way scarier than landing there. As my fellow trekker and airline pilot, Brandon said, “You have one chance to get the lift right and get out of here.”
A nervous pilot does nothing to calm already frayed nerves.
We made it!
We got back to Kathmandu and our hotel called the Yak and Yeti (where Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to summit Mount Everest in 1953, had stayed).
Strangely though, the streets were pin-drop quiet and all the smog had lifted. While we were gone, the Maoist Communist Party was protesting and the ruling party in Nepal shut down all commerce and transportation. It was scary when we were stopped by Maoists who came onto our bus to find out why we were driving. Luckily, the rules didn’t apply to tourists, and we were free to go.
The Kathmandu we came back to was drastically different than the one we left. Children were playing cricket in the streets and it was peaceful. I was happy to breathe clean air. We walked all over the city—even visiting the world-renowned Monkey Temple. It was a nice way to round out our eventful trip to Nepal.
Traveling to Mount Everest Base Camp was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. I wanted a unique experience and I got it, times ten.
If you, too, have a desire—however small—to go to the Himalayas or even Mount Everest Base Camp, I encourage you to go. It’s like nothing else you’ll ever do. You can drink margaritas on any other vacation, but nowhere else can you warm yourself by a yak poo fire and see some of the most stunning images on earth.
Watch this 1-minute video if you want to see what it looks like from the top of the world.