Swedish sisters Sandra and Alice Roxendal share their story about an adventure they will never forget – an enthralling journey up to Mount Everest Base Camp in the mesmerizing Himalayas.
I meet my sister for the first time in ten months at a bar in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It is September 2015. With the mischievous smile on her face I know so well she orders a one-dollar Angkor beer and sits down next to Martin and me. I am ecstatic to be traveling with her again. Being with her is an every-day adventure and together we’re going to mark upon our next big journey – Mount Everest Base Camp.
It’s October of 2015 and I have just sat through one hour on the smallest airplane in the world, it having room for no more than ten people, with my adventurous sister Sandra and our friends Martin from back home and Charlotte from Ireland. The air at 2800 meters altitude is cool but the sunlight warms our faces all the same. Prepared for extremely cold temperatures we had dressed that morning in hiking trousers, jackets and warm hats embracing us with heat, but no sooner have we begun to walk when we’ve got to stop to strip it all off again. Though an exhilarating plane ride it had been between Kathmandu and Lukla the journey ahead is yet more exciting. We are going to Mount Everest Base Camp. We are on our way. The adventure has begun.
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Being the most popular trekking routes in all of the Himalayas, the Mount Everest Base Camp trek attracts thousands of trekkers each year. In 2015 in fact it was noted there was about 40.000 westerns taking the route. Of those 40.000 we are 4. Beginning in Lukla, we meet up with Neel, a young local man who is going to be our guide for the next 20 days.
“It takes about a week to reach Base Camp”, he says in struggling English. “You will have to stop to acclimatize. Today you will walk only for 4 hours to the village Phakding.”
Sunglasses on and backpacks ready we head off into the mountains. The trail up to Base Camp is full of people, animals, villages and life in general, both wild and quiet. The houses are boxes made of dull grey concrete with roofs in various colours, though mostly blue, and in the surrounding fields animals such as yaks, horses, mules and donkeys are standing about chewing green grass and having a seemingly good time. Local women are calling us, wanting us to come in the their lodges for ginger tea and momos (Tibetan inspired dumplings), or sell us jewellery in various forms and creations. All around children are running, playing, yelling and laughing. The vast dark hairy yaks are swaddling about with men, or sometimes even older boys, pushing them onwards with encouraging whistles and “yahaa!”s. It is here we meet up with many other travellers from all over the world, all sharing a simple desire – to get to the foot of the highest mountain in the world. This usually brings forth a lot of conversation. At those times my friends and myself stop for a stretch, some water and usually a small snack in form of mars bars or tic tacs, all of us keen for some quick energy. We are never allowed to stay for long however, soon enough Neel gets inpatient and tells us it is time to go.
I soon realize what trekking the Himalayas really means. Though beautiful surroundings and nice company, the hundred upon hundred irregular winding stone steps up and down the crooked tree roots soon starts to get to me. Many times I can feel my whole body bent into exhaustion from the constant ascent. My legs are screaming, my back aching, my neck moaning. Hours and hours passes like this every day. On those times all I can do is look up to the snowy white mountain tops at the horizon and I imagine them whispering to me, calling me further. Stubbornness overwhelms me, and all I can think is onwards … onwards … At some times I can see the top of Everest, and I sigh with joy.
We do our first acclimation stop in the village of Namche Bazaar, at 3440 meters. Sandra, Martin, Charlotte and I had thought that meant we would spend one day sleeping late, resting our feet. Neel tells us different.
“Tomorrow we’ll go up this small mountain”, he tells us.
“It is very important to get used to the thin air, otherwise you could get altitude sickness tomorrow and we might have to turn back.”
Altitude sickness can show itself in different forms, we are told. The most common symptoms are headaches, shortness of breath, dizziness, loss of appetite, difficulty in sleep and nausea, and in the more dangerous stages hallucinations and fainting. Worst-case scenario is your lungs swell up with fluid and you die. If you have any kind of symptoms it is very important to descend to lower altitude.
“If you recover instantly you can continue onwards again shortly”, says Neel.
On the day of our first acclimation stop I have a hard time to breathe. Even though we have only walked a short distance from the village that morning I feel like I am running a marathon. My stomach aches and my breaths are quick and irregular. My lungs are screaming for oxygen. I start to feel afraid, scared of not being able to breathe and maybe having to go back down. Sandra pats my shoulder and tells me to rest. Charlotte who has been doing a lot of diving helps me out.
“Breathe in through your nose and count to six then exhale.”
That helps. I get through the rest of the day by breathing slowly and taking one step at a time.
We walk for so long that soon I’m exhausted enough that the anticipation for what’s ahead gets dull. Time flows slowly. I focus on putting one foot after the other like a kind of rhythm singing in my head while I walk. Singing and walking. Looking ahead.
Together with the yaks and donkeys local porters are also carrying materials up to the villages. They are local poor people with not much for equipment, some of them no more than 14 year-olds wearing rundown sneakers or sandals. This bothers me and my friends, but Neel shrugs his shoulders casually.
“They get money for food and shelter to provide their families. They need no more than that.”
After almost a week into the mountains the headaches are never-ending for me and Sandra as well as Charlotte and Martin. After one acclimation day in Dingbuche we reached Lobuche after a long day of walking nothing but upwards through rocky scenery. Just before lunch we walked past a few porters huddled together some distance from the path. They had medical equipment and a porter was lying unconscious on the ground. Another man was doing CPR. We didn’t feel like we could help, but a guide from another group walking together with us stayed behind. Later we found out the porter hadn’t made it. This troubles us enormously.
“It is very dangerous this”, the guide says seriously. “Altitude sickness must be taken seriously. If you feel the symptoms you must be very careful with how you proceed.”
When we reach Lobuche at 4900 metres that afternoon Sandra collapses and Martin suffers from serious shivers. The air is so very thin at this altitude. We decide to stay for one day to get used to the thin air before we proceed. One more day, I keep thinking. Gorak Shep is the last stop left before Base Camp. If all goes well we’ll be there around noon and will be able to proceed onwards to Base Camp the same day.
We begin walking early that morning, the 8th day of our journey. New frosty white snow covers the hard rocky landscape, but the sunlight is warm all the same. However, this is the very first day I have need of my base layers. We’ve been walking for two hours when Martin sits down with difficult purpose. He is dizzy and lightheaded, has difficulty breathing and has a bad headache. He feels very sick and is unable to continue. Me, Sandra and Charlotte are very sad for him but after having seen the porter pass away only two days previously we aren’t going to overlook our friend’s symptoms. Neel suggests we all go down to the village Periche where there is a medical clinic. However, we had all decided beforehand to continue onwards if another got sick. Sandra, Charlotte and I would continue, stay the night in Gorak Shep and meet Martin the next day in Periche. Neel goes with him.
The hours left to Base Camp is very difficult. The path is gone, now we walk and hop and climb our way onwards from rock to rock, cliff to cliff. The weather is dull grey and it starts to snow. Charlotte is struggling with her breathing and me and Sandra has stubborn headaches. None of us eat much for lunch, our appetites almost completely gone. The motivation that makes my feet move is the thought of Mount Everest Base Camp, our goal, our mission and how I had promised Martin I would bring him a stone back as souvenir. I think about my long deep breathes I have become a professional at these last few days, and the pain every limb in my body’s been in since we begun this trek. We don’t talk much but I imagine our thoughts are the same, our minds linked on this goal we share.
And there it is! Through the grey, windy weather we see people gathered in front of a pile of rocks with flags in various colours everywhere and a white hanger. Everest Base Camp 5364 m.
We made it. I look at the hanger and feel like I’m Frodo Baggins and have just thrown the one ring down into the fire. I stand there for a few minutes just taking a mental picture, remembering that moment, that feeling and all I want to do is cry. We take pictures and just before we leave to go back to Gorak Shep I grab the first stone I see right by my feet. It has the dark green colour of the ocean. I smile and fix my mind upon my new goal and mission – to see the look upon Martins face when I give him this.