My Top 10 Travel Memories of 2016: #2

img_5721a

Number 2: Standing 5,555m above the world

For many people who undertake the trek to Everest Base Camp, standing at the foot of the highest mountain in the world becomes their proudest achievement. Not so in my case. It’s a good thing there’s photographic evidence which proves I did get to Base Camp because I may have otherwise doubted that the experience had been anything more than a surreal dream. When I look at the photos, I am proud of myself for getting there but it was such a tough day that I was just too tired to really enjoy my accomplishment when I finally made it.

My personal moment of exhilaration and satisfaction came a day later. No more than twelve hours had passed since we’d returned from Base Camp when my alarm went off at 3am. It was cold, it was dark and it was time to climb. I was about to attempt to reach the summit of Kala Patthar, along with half of my tour group. There was a moment when I contemplated if I shouldn’t just stay behind with the other half of my group. I’d taken such a mental beating the day before that I wasn’t sure I could do it. But deep down, I knew I’d be furious with myself if I didn’t at least try.

Kala Patthar means ‘black rock’ in Nepali and is located on the south ridge of Pumori, a 7000er sometimes referred to as Everest’s daughter. It overshadows the tiny village of Gorak Shep which lies 400m below it. I was actually very glad we were starting in pitch black conditions because it meant I couldn’t really see how steep the path leading up to the top was.

I definitely felt how steep it was, though. I had energy for the first 20 minutes and then, Snail Julie returned. But even snails will get to where they need to go, if they just keep moving. Today, I was not going to let the mountains defeat me. It became a mantra that I repeated over and over.

I made it to the summit as a pastel dawn broke out over the roof of the world. It had been a difficult walk for sure, but the key difference this time was that as soon as I’d made it, my weariness just fell away, like the curtain of night that was retreating before my eyes.

I’d reached the top about 15 minutes after most of the rest of my group. By that stage, they were feeling extremely cold and started their descent. I, on the other hand, was just so goddamn happy that the cold didn’t bother me in the slightest. I stayed on the summit for a good half hour, drinking in the view and positively bouncing with joy.

There are no words to describe how elated I felt as I watched the mountains wake up. This was the reward for my struggles and I just stood there with a huge smile on my face. I also remember thinking this was the most magnificent view to bring in a Saturday morning- in a week’s time, I’d be waking to a white fence outside my bedroom window, so enjoy the moment. And this time, I really did enjoy it. I was on cloud nine for the rest of the day.

If there’s one thing walking at altitude has taught me, it’s what a difference a day can make.

My Top 10 Travel Memories of 2016: #3

img_5670a

Number 3: Making it to Everest Base Camp

If I could go back in time and tell my teenage self, one day you will make it to the base of the highest mountain in the world, I’m pretty sure Teenage Julie would’ve laughed in my face. I may as well have announced I’d made it to the moon- that was how out of this world I considered the pursuit of mountain climbing back then. Teenage Julie would also have snarkily reminded me that you have to be fit to climb mountains. Given that for most of my life I haven’t even been able to run 500m down the street without getting a stitch and gasping for breath, I can see why she would’ve been skeptical.

(Ok, it’s getting confusing referring to two concurrent versions of myself.)

In my long list of travel destinations, trekking in Nepal never featured in any of my ambitions. I guess it’s hard to imagine a world of 8000m peaks when all your life, you’ve lived in a city whose elevation is a whopping 31m above sea level. I can’t even recall how the idea first came into my head. I think it was just over a year ago that I read about tours that take you to Everest Base Camp. I probably thought, hmm, that sounds cool, that could be fun.

Cool it may be (literally and figuratively) but fun? I suppose it depends on your definition of the word. If not being able to breathe is your idea of fun, then trekking to Everest Base Camp will certainly be an extremely fun experience.

Ok, so it really wasn’t that bad. I flew into Kathmandu in October and spent sixteen days trekking through the incredible Himalayas. It may not have been a walk in the park (literally and figuratively), but actually, I felt pretty good in general. I didn’t get sick, I didn’t need Diamox, I slept like a baby every night. The walking part was hard and I was certainly the snail of the group but as soon as we arrived at our lodge, I was fine, and I’d bound out of bed every morning, happy to do it all over again.

Of course, as luck would have it, Base Camp day was one of only two days when I woke up not having had a restful sleep. We had a three hour walk to the village of Gorak Shep first. It’s the last settlement before Base Camp, 5,160m above sea level. Once there, we had breakfast and then set off for another three hour walk to reach our goal and stand 5,364m above the sea, in the shadow of the mother of all mountains. (And let’s not forget the two hour walk back to Gorak Shep.)

I can easily say it was the hardest walk of my life. I had absolutely zero energy. I felt like the walking dead. I became very aware of how barren and unforgiving this terrain was. There was no colour to lift my spirits. As I stumbled through the valleys of jagged grey rock and ice, I felt as though I was walking through a giant catacomb, the bare bones of a broken earth lying exposed before me.

Apart from my fellow trekkers, there were no living things in this environment. There’s a reason for that. There is a raw beauty to this harsh landscape but it is most definitely a world that is not meant to be inhabited.

Now, I am not one to give up or concede defeat when I encounter a challenge. You got yourself into this, now suck it up, princess, and get yourself out. I like to test my willpower and push my endurance. But I was not in a good headspace and I’ll admit, this walk made my cry. Twice. I think what frustrated me the most was that I’d been feeling really great the previous three days and thought, hey, I’m finally getting the hang of this acclimatisation business!

So, of course, altitude decided to slap me in the face and my body wouldn’t listen to me.

All the while, the mountains loomed over me, like a row of giant teeth glinting in the blinding blue sky. They seemed to be laughing at me. They knew I didn’t belong here, that I was completely out of my element.

Oh, so you’ve done a few hikes in a previous life? That’s nice, good for you. Now, run along, back to your sea level walks, you silly little girl. This is a playground for the tough kids. The strong kids. And that ain’t you.

(The great thing about admitting you feel like you had a conversation with the mountains is that you can blame it on oxygen deprivation.)

My previous hikes certainly did not prepare me for the physiological challenges associated with walking at altitude. But they did teach me that although your legs are carrying your body and doing the physical walking, it’s actually your mental resolve that puts one foot in front of the other, time and time again.

In the end, that’s all I had to do. Tell myself to take one more step. One more step. Just. One. More. Step. Sometimes, the hardest things in life are deceptively simple in their reality. But eventually, I got there. I was so exhausted that I don’t think I really comprehended that I’d finally made it. I just plonked myself down on a rock, pulled out my celebratory chocolate bar and thought, wow, this has got to be the most picturesque place I’ve ever eaten a Snickers.

In summary: Was it tough? Y.E.S. Would I do it again? Absolutely.