“Jesus Josh, would you please eat a sandwich or something?” Helen remarks as we stand in the early morning dark outside Kathmandu airport. “You’re starting to look like a stick figure!” I grin in response, and explain to her that she shares my mother’s opinion. As I help her husband Jake unload our bags from the van we just arrived in, I begin to explain to her the basis of my little experiment, and how it will face its final test between now and nearly two weeks later, when we attempt the 20,075ft summit of Lobuche East.
As we wait in a crowded line of other non-Nepalese, all in the customary down, Gore-Tex, and fleece, looking like an advertisement in Outside Magazine and complete with stuffed North Face duffels just like ours, my story continues. Beside me Jake discusses details of our upcoming flights with Rabindra, who is our head Sherpa for the journey ahead. Jake is the team leader, and the owner of Juggernaut Adventures, the company that has brought me to Nepal. Along with the four of us are Andy, Ken, and Brian, the three enthusiastic clients that round out our team. And as soon as this massive line of other trekkers, climbers, and assorted thrill seekers are allowed to filter through the closed doors in front of us, we will board flights to Lukla airport, billed as the most dangerous in the world. As we land, it’s not terribly difficult to see where Lukla gets its notoriety. It’s not so much the altitude of the place, clocking in at 9,383ft above sea level, nor the fact that it feels as though were flying inside a maraca every time the wind broadsides us. It’s more the fact that the tiny plane dives without warning and lands suddenly on a small strip of asphalt about half the size of your average Starbucks drive through, carved right out of the jagged mountainside.
In fairness to the pilot, it was a textbook landing.
After a stop for tea in the winding, stone built town of Lukla, which is carved literally out of the mountainside as well, we meet the rest of Rabindra’s team, and then set off for the town of Phakding. For the next 16 days, we will trek slowly towards our eventual rendezvous with Everest Base Camp, stopping in the remote alpine villages each night to slowly acclimatize to the increasing altitude and decreasing oxygen. From EBC we will make our way to our climbing high camp, leaving around midnight that night to summit Lobuche Peak, before picking our way back to Lukla and eventually Kathmandu.
Each day is a slow and steady trod through the dusty landscape of a small country that contains every different type of climate zone on earth. It’s certainly not the most “wild” of movements. When compared with all the running, jumping, and swinging that has become such a large part of my recent training, trudging slowly and steadily uphill day after day seems rather dull. Yet the towering, snow capped peaks of the world’s greatest mountain range make for an environment that is the epitome of wild, and this is the movement they require.
I am here to gauge how my body acts and feels in this massive world of rock and snow as a result of all this varied training, and as each day passes, I am consistently happier with the results. My legs and lungs have responded exactly as I had hoped. It feels easy to pull ahead, and tempting though it is, I do my best to remain with the group.
With each day, we wind our way up steep, rocky mountain trails, past porters, trekkers, and yak herds clanging with neck bells. Around every bend is a view more mind blowing than the last. The Himalayas are truly a sight the likes of which I have never seen, every bit as vast and rugged as one would expect from a wilderness that was created as a result of the Indian subcontinent smashing into the rest of Asia.
By day two we have gotten our first glimpse of Everest herself. With each passing day, I find myself staring at the jagged, snow covered mountains I know so well from years of reading, Googling, and dreaming about them. Lhotse. Ama Dablam. Makalu. The list goes on. They are more than any photo has ever done justice, yet somehow every bit as legendary as all the famous stories about them imply. Each one keeps me at a loss for words. Instead I simply stare, as though my grasp of the English language never existed to begin with.
Alongside my awe, I am happy to find that as we grow progressively higher in altitude, and as my body acclimatizes to the thinning air, so does my experiment seem to be working. My energy levels remain stable, devoid of spikes and crashes. The hills and heights become more intense, and while there is certainly tiredness experienced, everything seems to remain stable. It is an experiment, however, that is not above the need for some adjustments on the fly.
Maintaining my fat based, non-sugar diet is difficult in a place where every menu is dominated by boiled potatoes, noodles, and rice, and every store filled with soda, chocolates, and candies as we make our way steadily higher towards the roof of the world. Bringing in nutrients seems quickly dismissed as misplaced optimism.
I found it unavoidable to ask myself why I managed to ensure a full supply of vitamins and other nutrients for the two months I spent gallivanting across Southeast Asia a year ago. Certainly we experienced our fair share of culture and adventure, between climbing, hiking, and taking in the sights. Yet admittedly the trip was a vacation, not a mission, and thus included its fair share of drinking tequila shots, getting wild with other travellers, and riding motorbikes as fast as possible through the madness of traffic in Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia.