Travel blog #6 Gorak Shep – Base camp – Lukla

It’s snowing proper for the first time on the trek and it feels like we’re really in the Himalayas. My fingers and toes are numb and legs sore after 8days walking. No clean clothes left, no showers, sleeping bag sweaty and hat hair and hard three day headache

We walk for three hours and an early lunch in Gorak Shep – the literal Sherpa translation of which is ‘dead ravens’ – and it’s easy to see why.

It’s a bleak one horse place. At 5164m elevation and intense cold the hamlet sits on a frozen river bed where nothing grows it is amazing people live here, though not many and not all year round.

The place mainly exists for trekkers lodges

Best Trekking season is March – may and Oct – Nov, our visit early Feb sits in winter almost in spring so we are risking colder temps for clearer views and quieter trails. As spring and summer and rains come in apr May the trail is prone to floods and clouds.

The buildings are dusted with snow as we arrive, the lodges have the fire on already which is different to the strict 5pm start in most other towns, and we eat more dhal Bhat to prepare for the 7hour round trip to Everest base camp.

Gorakshep was the original base camp where the 1952 expedition set foot from before the successful 1953 expedition moved to the base camp we know today. Either way we are aware that we are following in the footsteps of pioneers trailblazers lunatics and legends

The trail is snowy shale and undulates Nepal style. ‘Nepal flat’ is after all ‘a little bit up, a little bit down’.

It’s bright white all around and we wear our sunglasses and it is hard going. Breathless It feels like we’re making our own little summit attempt, our own personal challenge.

After 9days over 40 hours walking and 3000m elevation we climb the top of a ridge and see the Khumbu Ice flow carving down between Lhotse Nuptse and to base camp – 5364m and 50% oxygen compared to sea level –

It is suitably dramatic when we arrive a Spectacular snow storm whips around us with actual real avalanches crashing ahead.

Prayer flags flap wildly galloping in the bitter wind

The khumbu glacier looking iridescent with a blue pink glow

Suddenly it’s all quiet and worth it and time stands still as we breathe (with difficulty) it in.

It’s amazing and we feel proud and lucky, but this trek has really been about the journey not the destination. You can’t see Everest from base camp for example, but it doesn’t it matter – sure, base camp is magical place for me, for the scenery, the history, the mystique – but after 20mins and photos we head back, it’s the whole trek that makes the trip. We did it.

Grinning / grimacing we turn to the wind and begin the up and down plod back to Gorak Shep to spend the night ready for the 4am wake up to climb Kala Patthar for the classic Everest view in the sunrise.

It’s so snowy at 4am however that we can’t make the ascent and our guide Kalden calls it off. We are kind of pleased in the dark mid morning as we are tired and cold but at civilised 7am breakfast I do feel a little disappointed. There is a brief chat about whether to wait another day but the weather looks set and we decide to head back.

Giddy for the decent the days are long – we do the 9 day ascent as a 3 day descent, 8/9 hours a day – but we enjoy the walking; on a high from being up at base camp, finding breathing and sleeping easier, temperatures higher and pretty excited to get back to normality. As beautiful as it is, the thought of a hot shower, a western toilet and Everest beer with a pizza in Kathmandu is the stuff of dreams.

We are almost running down parts of the trail, first to Pherice, on the low road from the Sherpa memorial, then to Namche Bazaar again and our last day to Lukla where we stay by the airport ready for our flight. Our spirits are high and there is a spring in our step.

Suddenly around 2 hours from Lukla after lunch in Phakding our bubble is burst. A blue acrid plume of smoke rises over the pine trees as we approach the town of Thado Koshi and there is a smell of burning and a tangible feeling of worry in the air. Our Sherpa Kalden urges us to walk faster and as we climb into the village we hear the fire crackling in the trees and feel the heat. Villagers are packing bags and crying and praying. Men run up the hill with anxious shouts and children are gathered up in baskets and taken down hill. A forest fire here is a big problem. We break into a jog too, unsure what is happening. Which way is the wind blowing? how near is the fire? Where is the porter Kancha who went ahead after lunch? It’s scary.

Rounding the bend the fire is there bloody orange shards kicking up out of the forests and as we come up the path villagers pass the other way. The bridge we need to cross over the Kusum Khola River is blocked by the fire which has started from a cooking stove in a house and now sweeps far and high up the mountain side. We drop our bags and ask how we can help. A local woman smiles and laughs. Kalden looks unsure. Kancha our porter appears and runs off into the trees to help.

After spending two weeks here kind of marvelling at the rustic way of life; the way people live so rich with so little how remote and peaceful it is without cars or rushing; this panic brings it sharply into focus – these are people’s homes and animals and livelihoods that are about to go up in flames. There is no fire service, even if anyone had a phone to call them.

I feel very fat white western tourist enjoying how quaint life is here without really considering the reality.

The village has no water in the taps but 1000s bottles of ‘Sprite’. A man screams at us from the roof of his house ‘don’t just stand there, help us’ and I feel so helpless. I offer to carry water but there is none, the only defence is using boughs of trees to bat the fire back and there are lots of people crowding and shouting and we don’t know what to do. Kalden our guide asks us to wait.

There is a constant question mark over the impact of tourism in the mountains of Nepal. How much is too much? There is a big plastic problem as trekkers drink bottle water and fizzy pop. guides and porters compete for jobs and offer cheaper and cheaper packages sometimes at the detriment of safety, (our trek leaders and organisers are amazing and take our heart rates and breathing rate each night and include proper acclimatising days and monitor our water intake and food and more highly recommended) villages have WiFi and sky sports and San Miguel but no heating or double glazing or sanitation.

However our guide says the balance is right and that without tourist trekking there would be no economy and the rural villages would simply only grow potatoes or maybe move to the cities.

Also, There are a number of programmes and initiatives to promote sustainable travel here and we chose our provider based on the standards of staff provision and there contributing to charity work. We use mainly water purification tablets instead of bottled water, obviously take our litter and learn abit of language and tip well and endeavour to be respectful and invisible as possible. But stood here on the corner of the town on fire I feel conspicuous, totally helpless and very sad. It is a fine line between preserving the beauty and culture of the area without creating an archaic museum piece for people to ogle at and then leave behind. Progress is slow and not always healthy but I can’t help but feel I’m partly to blame. Kalden reassures us there’s nothing we can do and sadly it is an all to common occurrence. The villagers will move their things down to the river and let the fire pass.

In a proudly and visibly Buddhist nation where there is significant emphasis on good deeds, righteousness, selflessness – perhaps this is why the Nepali people have been so kind and welcoming – I consider my own ‘Sonam’. (a positive quality of good fortune, favoredness, luck) , which represents the accumulated benefits from the performance of good deeds:

What has my impact been on the country?

Walking the last few hours to Lukla are bittersweet. We are elated as we did it! But deflated after seeing the desperate fear of the fire… Looking back at intervals along the trail the flames still blaze and smoke fills and follows us down the valley.

At evening meal we give our guide and porter generous tips and some gifts and thankyou cards and serve them their food and tea as a way of appreciation – but I think my work here may not be done and I make a loose plan to return in a more active charitable capacity. Maybe I’ll feel like this in other countries, most of the places on our list and poor and developing, but Nepal has certainly left a mark on me for now.