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Everest Base Camp: Shivalaya to Lukla Trek

Nepal's mountains

I collapsed to the ground and vomited.

The worried lodge-owner watched, probably regretting letting me stay. Half-digested fried rice littered the bathroom floor. Feeling ashamed, I crawled to the bed and passed out, desperate to get some rest. At last, the first day of hiking was over.

The trail to Lukla from Shivalaya
The trail to Lukla from Shivalaya

I might not have trekked to Everest Base Camp had I known how difficult it would be. At least, I wouldn’t have done the Shivalaya to Lukla trek. I woke on the second day with flu symptoms and only wanted to stay in bed. But I had to get back on the trail. I spent all day inching uphill, my shoulders cut red by my backpack’s sharp straps. I was wishing that I’d flown to Lukla.

Nepal's Middle Hills
Nepal’s Middle Hills

99% of trekkers fly from Kathmandu to Lukla, the starting point of the trek to Everest Base Camp. To save money (the flight costs $165 USD) I’d taken a bus for 12 hours to Shivalaya, from where I could walk to Lukla in six days. This would be along the same path that Sir Edmund Hillary had taken before summiting Mount Everest in 1953.

And it was a bloody bastard. The Shivalaya to Lukla trek involved 9000 metres of vertical ascent — higher than climbing to the top of Mount Everest. Not only was the terrain brutal, but it lacked stellar views. The trail cut across dusty valleys, passing through rubble-strewn villages ruined by the 2015 earthquake.

Earthquake destruction
Earthquake destruction

I stayed with a family in Goyom on my second night, where a handful of kids were looked after by their grandfather. I practiced English with the eldest daughter, while rice and dhal cooked on the fire.

The family I stayed with in Goyom

But a doubt lingered, and I wanted to ask, where’s your mum and dad? The collapsed building outside stuck in my mind. Instead I kept silent, choking on the smoke filling the room, just grateful to be warm. It was winter in the Himalayas, a cold unlike any I’d ever experienced.

I left after sunrise the next morning, heading up to the Lamjura Bhanjyang Pass. The sun was out, but the temperature was negative. I wore my beanie, thermals, fleece, down-jacket and snow gloves, but it wasn’t enough. Despite my thick socks, I feared my toes were getting frostbite. When I think about what happened later on in the trek, this makes me laugh.

The Lamjura Bhanjyang pass
The Lamjura Bhanjyang pass

I crossed the pass at midday while prayer flags thrashed in the bitter wind, the only colour in this barren place. I descended through a dense fir forest, a shockingly green oasis after the wasteland up top. The trail skirted around a field where a man and boy were collecting sticks.

This traditional wooden basket is a feature of the Himalayas

They dropped their bundles when they saw me, running over and shouting, “tea! rice! tea!” Their desperate cries unsettled me, a sense that I was an unmissable economic opportunity. This feeling grew in the coming days, the reality of tourism in a desperately poor country.

That afternoon I had my first proper mountain views. I slept in the village of Junbesi, which sat beneath Numbur, a mountain worshiped as a guardian deity. Numbur’s frigid breathing made me numb, so I sheltered in the village’s temple, chatting to Tenge Lama, the head priest. “Want to buy some prayer flags?” was the first thing he’d asked.

Junbesi
Junbesi

We drank coffee together, made from untreated water, something I’d deeply regret the next day. I wanted to discuss Buddhism, but Tenge was more interested in how much goods cost in New Zealand. We ran through a list of electronic items, before Tenge asked, “what was your camera’s price?”

Numbur at sunset
Numbur at sunset

Although I ended up lying to a priest, Tenge still thought I was rich. “Next time you return to Nepal, you can bring me an iPad,” he said. It wasn’t a question. “Then I can read books, watch TV and download stuff.” This didn’t sound very holy, but I guess even monks have needs.

Having coffee with Tenge Lama

Violently ill the next morning, I cursed that damned coffee but continued along the trail. Each day I delayed would bring me closer to March, the start of the second high-season when thousands of trekkers would flood the region. But my condition was not good. The trail soared tortuously uphill, ignoring the contours and taking the most vertical line possible. I sat down by the cliff edge, too exhausted to continue, and fell asleep. 

Mount Everest is at the far left

I woke in a panic, dreaming about lasagna and Belgian beer. The path felt never-ending, but there was some solace. As I rounded a bend, a barrier of mountains appeared from the valley’s end. This black wall of ice and rock goaded me, “you want to give up, don’t you?” I shielded my face from the mountains’ bitter exhalation. And then I saw the instigator, peeking over the nearest summits — Mount Everest. This was my first glimpse of that murderous pyramid with my own eyes. 

Mount Everest
My first sight of Mount Everest

Motivated by Everest’s challenge, I dragged my leaden legs to Ringmo, where I rested the night. I felt lucky the next morning to see an orange Numbur, while the fog blanketed the apple orchard outside my window. But that’s where any joy ended, for the day’s trail was the hardest of the Shivalaya to Lukla trek.

Keri Khola
Keri Khola

It started with a climb through rhododendron forest, the pink flowers still lying dormant. The path passed an ancient beehive-shaped stupa, then threaded under a gate marking the Trakshindu Pass. The torture started after the pass, four hours of descent down a rocky trail to the valley floor. Rice-paddies flourished on the slopes, steps for the giants that once roamed these mountains.

The lush fields were interspersed by donkey camps, their souls sacrificed so that people can survive in the Himalayas. There’s no roads in this part of Nepal, so everything has to be carried in on foot. While humans do some of the lifting, donkeys do the majority. Long convoys snake through the valleys with heavy bags strapped to their sides. Drivers follow them, young boys who are quick to whip or throw rocks at any donkey which slows down.

The work’s not all done by donkeys

As if the animal welfare issue wasn’t bad enough, the donkeys also turned the trail into a slippery mud-bath. I found myself constantly stopping to let the donkeys pass, avoiding their kicking legs and gnashing teeth. The scariest moment was dodging a donkey that tripped and plummeted down the track, its bags of concrete bursting open.

Donkey train
Donkey train
The trail from Shivalaya to Lukla
The path down from the Trakshindu Pass

After reaching the valley floor, I climbed for another three hours to Bupsa. On arrival I met Connor and Zak, which ended my six days of loneliness. We’d stick together for almost the rest of the trek, starting the next morning with the final section before Lukla.

This last part took us through a primeval forest, along an exposed track that followed the contours. An hour was lost waiting for donkey trains to pass, carrying sacks of rice to the Khumbu Valley. We ignored the trail’s turnoff to Lukla, taking the easier path towards Namche Bazaar, which was still days away.

Connor and I at the Lukla turnoff, photo by Zak

We stopped at the first teahouse in Cheplung, which meant that we’d now joined the official trail to Everest Base Camp. I was so exhausted that I fell asleep eating dinner. The trek from Shivalaya to Lukla had been hell on my body. But it was over. As snow fell outside, it dawned on me that the real trekking could finally begin.

Shit.

The second part of the trek, Lukla to Namche Bazaar, can be found at this link. Namche Bazaar to Gorak Shep, part three, is available here. Part four, Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp, is available here.

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