A flatlander in the mountains: would that ever work?

After yesterday’s false start the hard work of 18 days trekking can finally start. We are walking a long loop through the Everest region, ascending and descending over three high passes: Kongma La (5460m), Cho La (5350m) and Renjo La (5200m). In between we will climb some smaller peaks of around 4000m to 5300m, partly for views and partly for acclimatisation. The trip can be broadly split in three steps:

  1. Acclimatisation (7 days)
  2. Trek highlights (7 days)
  3. Descent to Lukla (4 days)

For us from the lowlands acclimatisation is a key step to ensure we get enough oxygen at higher altitudes. I’m not going to lie: for me acclimatisation was a nightmare. Whereas Franzi just seemed to run up the various slopes I struggled badly to keep up. In particular the struggle up to Namche Bazaar on day 2 was devastating: 600m zigzagging under short 45 degree slopes in temperatures of 25 degrees, after having already walked for 3 hours. The view was the same the entire time: dust, sand, rock, and yes some mountains but I couldn’t care less about these at that point. I was spent when I arrived at the lodge and fell asleep for a few hours at 3pm.

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The next few days followed a similar pattern, except that I also developed some altitude sickness symptoms which medication took care of. There was no sign of things getting better any time soon though, and I got pretty worried. The Three Pass Trek is listed as one of the more intense treks in the region, and we weren’t particularly experienced, so struggling so much in the early stages didn’t seem to bode very well.

All my troubles came together in Dingboche. The walk there was a little steep, nothing too bad, but the altitude made it feel like a million miles ascent. I slept a lot again this day. The following day was an acclimatisation day in the same town and Jambu thought to take us to our first 5000m summit, a 700m ascent from the village. After struggling for 2 hours I literally ran out of steam at about 4900m. My legs would not carry me further, and I had to turn back.

Franzi pressed on and achieved her first 5000m summit without me, which is sad but still a great accomplishment for her. Somehow she does not seem to have any issues whatsoever. No matter the height and steepness, she was always ahead of everyone else and seemed to have limitless energy. Thruth be told, I’m also pretty damn proud of it. The ease with which she runs up, the determination when the going gets tough. It definitely helps having that around when your struggling.

Regardless of Franzi’s shining example something mentally broke in me and I was ready to give up at that point. There was always something going on: I either got terrible headache on the way up, or stomach cramps, or my legs stopped working, or any combination of these. It was 6 days of endless torture, with another 12(!) days to go. I struggled at 4000m so I questioned how I would ever make it to 5500m. Where was the fun in this? Franzi and I had already talked about what we would do when one of us had to give up. I was ready to give up and exchange this torture for the comforts of Kathmandu.

The descent back to Dingboche was obviously a lot easier, and gave me time to reflect. I hadn’t had any altitude sickness symptoms since I started taking medication, so it couldn’t be that. I had also realised that some of the popular regional dishes, dal bhat, a lentil based dish, did not agree well with my stomach. Avoiding that meant I could eat more or less normally. I was also hydrated enough (at least on most days). What was left as potential causes was either some impact of the altitude on how my muscles functioned, which i had not read about at all, or, it could be as simple as a lack of energy in my legs, just like when marathon runners run out of steam?

Whilst this seemed silly given we were eating three full meals a day and I felt stuffed all the time, I thought to experiment a little the next day as we walked to Chukung, another little group of tea house lodges at an altitude of 4700m. We had brought a few granola bars from Kathmandu so at regular intervals I had a bite. Whilst the ascent to Chukung gave me a banging headache (presumably hydration related), we pressed on to the Chukung Ri summit in the afternoon as an acclimatisation climb. We had a steady 2 hours of climbing (c. 600m) ahead of us and it would be the real test of my theory. Luckily it worked out as expected. I could keep up with Franzi the entire time, and together we reached the summit at 5360m. I felt victorious, not only because I’ve not been this high before but more so because I’d saved the Nepal adventure for me.

This gave confidence for next day’s trek to Lobuche over the 5460m Kongma La pass, the first of the three high passes. The trek was expected to last 6-7 hours and would take us past ridges, snow capped mountains, views of Island Peak (6189m), Lhotse (8516m), Lhotse Shar (8382m) and Nuptse (7864m) and across the Khumbu glacier. It was challenging as both the ascent and descent were very steep, but other than some minor physical inconveniences we managed to reach our destination in good time. This concluded day 8 of our trek, and the major highlights (Everest base camp, Kala Patthar and Gokyo Ri) and challenges (steep icy passes Cho La and Renjo La) were still ahead! We are very much looking forward to it!

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