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essays | places | Nepal

Himalayas / Hiking Alone, Astray & Everestless

when you set out to see Everest, but Everest doesn’t care


   It was history’s earliest morning when I stepped out onto the street. Kathmandu was asleep in pitch black sheets, and so was the cab driver I spotted a little down the road. He’d sunken so deep into his driver’s seat that the fabric jaws were nearly done swallowing him. He looked peaceful and deserving of something much better than the cruel wake up knock I was about to administer. Like he knew no other awakening, his body jumped up in the seat before his mind fully arrived at the scene, and he was good to go. I never would have made the bus without his heroic service.

The bus ride was a bus ride like any other bus ride in what I call ‘real countries’ (the ones where most of the world’s population lives): butt-bumpy, nausea-windy and an eternity long despite speeding that makes your heart race. The journey was so strenuous on my soft bones and gut and soul that hiking the Himalayas afterwards would be salvation.

When I fell out of the bus in Jiri around lunch time, I lunched. I didn’t see any other backpack turtles, and over the course of the next week I would only come across a (six-finger) handful: two German doctors, a very old man with a very long beard, a Swiss who would only ever slow down but never pause, a Honduran-Canadian power woman, and a sporty American. Plus that group of German all-inclusive hikers, but they didn’t carry their own weight, literally.

"It wasn’t exactly the call of the wild I was following, but the whisper of the remote."

That’s why I had come here and not gone there – there being Nepal’s popular hiking territories in the Langtang, Anapurna and Everest regions. It wasn’t exactly the call of the wild I was following, but the whisper of the remote. The Jiri to Lukla route has been almost completely abandoned by tourism, ever since the construction of an airport in Lukla allowed hikers to cut out this one-week leg when rushing through the Everest Base Camp trek. Shortening the trek from four to three weeks is a luxury that Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary couldn’t indulge when they set first feet on the mighty Mount. I guess it’s as ironic as it is unsurprising that Hillary himself started the construction of the airport which has made a dubious name for itself as the world’s most dangerous.

For better or worse, the airport helped tourism along the trek between Lukla and Everest Base Camp to skyrocket, while the Sherpa guesthouses along the Jiri to Lukla route remain as empty as the porters’ backs. The six people I encountered were the peak season count (pun on peak, I suppose) and only one of them (the very-long-bearded old man) had a porter and guide. I felt bad for not hiring someone to carry my stuff, but I would have felt worse about hiring someone to carry my stuff. Perhaps that was selfish thinking.

In a way, by the way, I also did some short-cutting: I had chosen a route that should allow me to see Everest, the peak of peaks, without having to walk all too far towards it. In theory. In practice, I walked out of Jiri that afternoon into nothing but thick mist.

There are a couple of things I remember distinctively from that first leg: the path narrowing into a skinny passage that barely separated the steep hillside from a deep abyss, which made me wonder about the kids and grandmas that walk it every day without hesitation and without writing about it; two brothers, I assume, playing badminton in a meadow; two men standing on a little wooden platform amid trees, sawing timber with an enormous two-men crosscut saw (had to look that up – my knowledge of saws is a bit rusty because I never use it).

My arrival to the lilliputian village of Shivalaya around nightfall was accompanied by the nostalgic feeling of stepping into a past century. Along the little alleyways, straw stubbles got cozy between the cobblestones, and the guesthouses beamed golden warmth into the dark as though signalling a place to stay to a character from a historic novel. Over dinner, my friendly host told me about the existential struggles faced by local guesthouse owners, who price their rooms at less than a dollar per night, or even give them out for free when tourists use their bargaining power. Some propose to eat at the guesthouse and only pay for the meals or move their business elsewhere.

"With all the bright orange markings on trees and rocks, it is more than difficult to get lost along that trek, but I did it."

The next day, my early start started without me as I woke up late. In a fierce hurry, I paced up the steep mountain outside Shivalaya, but missed a junction. With all the bright orange markings on trees and rocks, it is more than difficult to get lost along that trek, but I did it. When I finally arrived at the realization that I hadn’t spotted a mark for about an hour that felt like a day, I was some three to four hours in. Supposedly, that was the duration needed to complete the entire leg, but there wasn’t even a remote ending in sight. Literally.

Due to my late start, it was too late to turn back and so I kept pushing uphill, heaving my body, my backpack, and my bad ideas towards a ridge that kept moving at the same pace I pursued it. Still, I was certain that I would make it up there eventually to see my final destination waving at me from the other side. I was wrong in various ways: the day was just as grey as the previous, reducing visibility to a pretty petty radius; the further I pushed, the more I entered a forest that helped neither with the limited view nor with my orientation; the path started branching out more and more until it was all twigs.

Eventually, I arrived at a house. A mother with her two daughters and a baby boy invited me in for some tea and offered that I could stay for the night in an exchange that was a circus of gestures interrupted by very few words. In my memory, the inside of the house was barn-like, big, and dark, and damp. I was trying to communicate that I had to move on (I only had a week for the entire trip), and kept repeating the name of that day’s destination, Bhandar, while pointing into the right or wrong direction. I’m sure the question marks in her eyes were mostly owed to my poor pronunciation, but later I learned that many people in these mountainous regions are only familiar with the names of villages in the immediate vicinity, and, coming to think of it, I guess that’s the same anywhere.

It was getting late and since she couldn’t seem to point me into the right direction, or any direction for that matter, I set out again none the wiser. I continued my mission up the hill, but soon the little path branched off beyond recognition as the slope got steeper and steeper. Finally, there was no path anymore, only trees. I had to turn back. I found the house where I’d left it and expressed my desire to cross the hill as more of a code-red-level-urgency. Next thing I knew, the kind Sherpa mother sent her two daughters to accompany me up the hill for a little fee. She had given them a cell phone just in case, but they seemed to know the maze of paths like it was their playground, and I had a hard time matching their pace.

When we reached a clearing, the girls plucked rhododendron blossoms to leave behind a trail of petals that marked their way back. It felt like I had stumbled into a Brothers Grimm picture book, but now I arrived at the shameful realization that my silly amateur hiking was putting them at risk. We took a quick break, and they snapped a photo of me with their old school cell phone before calling their mother, which put my mind a little more at ease.

Soon we reached a trail head pointing down the mountain on the other side and distant village sounds reassured me that I could make it alive. My saviors hurried back home, and I hurried on. The relief of being back on track had turbo-charged me and so I sprinted down the slope to arrive in Bhandar in the late afternoon.

The next morning, I started hiking with the German doctors and the Swiss don’t-remember-what-he-was-all-about – strangers turned guesthouse buddies over dinner. Day three awaited me with a crystal sky that lifted my hiking spirits to soaring heights and made me fly along the path with my feet hardly touching the ground. The first two days had been frustrating – my legs had put in the work, but my eyes had never seen the reward as the Himalayan vistas were lost to the mist. But now everything was easy, sunny and downhill, in the best possible and most literal sense, and I was one happy hiker.