"Om mani padme hum."
I heard the Sanskrit mantra many times while solo trekking in Nepal, but this time it was sweeter than ever. I looked up from a trail lunch of nak cheese into the red-cheeked face of a Sherpa. He was the only person encountered since sunrise. With a kind smile, he beckoned me to follow through the snowstorm. His timing was good: I was tired and lost.
I’m not sure what made being frozen, exhausted, and short of breath sound inviting while sitting on a beautiful beach in Thailand two weeks earlier. But as John Muir said, the mountains were calling, and I felt I must go. In a moment of madness, I grabbed a flight to Kathmandu and began one of the greatest adventures of my life: 19 days of trekking alone in Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park.
Kathmandu was hectic. I spent a few days haggling for knockoff adventure gear in dimly lit shops. Next, I grabbed a topographic map—one like I had learned to read in the army. Everest Base Camp is a popular place in spring, so I planned to circumnavigate the national park clockwise. Starting my solo trek on the quieter, western side of the park would help to avoid the most crowded trails.
I knew that trekking alone in the Himalayas would be an entirely different experience. Solitude in these ancient places would be a blessing, and I could choose my pace. I planned to carry my own stuff, which worked out to around 30 pounds of gear and water. The guides and porters rely on tourism for income, so after the trek, I gave all equipment and leftover currency directly to families on the trail.
Safety was an obvious concern. I sought advice from the weathered guides met in Thamel’s smoke-filled pubs. They were fun characters, buzzing with stories and life. Some were missing fingers lost to frostbite. I scoffed when they told me how Snickers were coveted at higher elevations, but they were right: simply nibbling a frozen candy bar could lift spirits after a bad day on the trail.
Entering the Himalayas
The flight to Lukla is equal parts exhilarating and terrifying, and the excitement begins in Kathmandu’s airport. With only 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of luggage allowance per passenger, the antique scale at check-in was scrutinized. Weight is understandably a concern when flying through thin air in a small, turboprop plane. Excited passengers chatted in many languages; adventure was upon us.
When flying to Lukla, sit on the left for the best snow-capped scenery—assuming you can take your eyes off the show in the open cockpit. For the duration of the 45-minute flight, we alternated between gasping at mountains and gawking at the copilot, who was furiously pumping jammed levers and resetting flashing breakers. The trip works out to around $5 per minute in the air, but I feel like I got more than my money’s worth.
Tenzing-Hillary Airport (LUA) in Lukla is dubiously known as “the most dangerous airport in the world.” The short landing strip has an 11-degree uphill slope and ends at a wall of stone. If the wind changes during the approach, as it’s prone to do in the mountains, there is no time to pull up for a second attempt. To stick the landing, level-headed pilots have to fly into a mountain. Gray granite fills the view through the front windows until you (hopefully) deplane moments later with wobbly legs. Before leaving, I thanked our skilled pilots. They seemed as happy to be back on terra firma as everyone else.
Although the flight is a wild one, you soon realize it’s a proper rite of passage for accessing the Himalayas. I noticed the peace immediately once on the trail. Kathmandu’s cacophony of honking horns is replaced with only the sounds of wind and jingling bells on yak trains.
Nepal enjoys low humidity in April, giving the sky a sharpness and exaggerated clarity. I felt as though I could see impossibly far in every direction, and what I saw was surreal. The mountain landscapes are almost too perfect to process. A brain struggles to keep up. No roads, wires, signs, or fences mar the majesty in any direction. Only cairns, friendly stacks of stones, were there to remind me I wasn’t alone. They silently showed me the path on many frosty mornings.
On the second day of walking, I arrived in Namche Bazaar. Namche is a hub and the final stop for last-minute essentials such as crampons and pizza. It’s also the last opportunity to use an ATM. Bakeries offer sweet treats and screen documentaries in the evenings. The atmosphere is social and lively. Newly arrived trekkers are excited about heading higher. Weary trekkers descending are doubly happy to enjoy new food options and an abundance of oxygen. Although Namche Bazaar rests at 11,286 feet, it’s low by Himalayan standards.
To acclimate quicker, I used my three days in Namche Bazaar wisely by adhering to the mountain adage “climb high, sleep low.” Regional hikes provided heart-pounding workouts rewarded by exceptional views. Before leaving, I paid to take a cold shower, my last for 16 days, and bought an extra Snickers bar just in case.
There are no roads in Everest National Park. Everything has to be painstakingly carried up by porters and yaks. Heavily loaded yak trains rattle along the trails. I was advised never to share a bridge crossing with them, and always yield to the side of the trail farthest from the edge. The advice was spot on. Later, I was trampled when several of the animals became startled by a helicopter passing low overhead. The panicked beasts gave me a good stomping and broke my toe, but had I been on the cliffside of the trail, they may have pushed me over.
Icy streams and small waterfalls usually provided my drinking water. It was beautifully clear, but I always treated the water first. Until you’re standing at the top, which actually is an option in Everest National Park, you should assume a settlement is higher and sending pollution downstream. I was drinking more than two gallons of water a day to beat dehydration due to the dry air and elevation gains.
In the evenings, I huddled with other trekkers around yak-dung-burning stoves in tea lodges. Conversations became a gibberish of numbers. Elevation stays at the forefront of everyone’s mind for a good reason: It can be a killer if you mess up the math. Even when all goes well, having less oxygen available does strange things to the body. You physically morph as new capillaries are grown to divert blood. On a one-week trek, you’ll get a taste. But according to a volunteer doctor, lingering longer really causes things to “get weird.” She was correct.
Sleep doesn’t come easily no matter how weary you are, and dreams are psychedelic carnivals. The body manufactures more red blood cells to carry oxygen. To make room, other liquids are eliminated. Going to the toilet 10 times on any given night isn’t unusual. Unfortunately, those toilets are too often found at the ends of frigid hallways in trail lodges. The worst are outside in snowy outhouses, but at least you get to see the stars.
The uninsulated lodge rooms along the trail feel a bit like camping indoors. Before turning in around 7 p.m. each night, I poured boiling water into my bottles to use as bed warmers. Each morning they were frozen solid under the heavy blanket. Many nights were spent fantasizing about sunburn and coconut drinks at sea level. Meanwhile, clouds of frozen breath collected above the bed like weather systems.
Crossing the Cho La Pass
I knew the Cho La pass was going to be tough, and it didn’t disappoint. The cheerful clues on my map had filled me with dread for too long: “difficult ice crossing,” “danger of rocks falling,” and “shifting crevasses.” The vertical scramble up the loose moraine and unstable glacier stood defiantly at 17,782 feet, blocking the path to Everest Base Camp. The Cho La is a pinch-point connecting the western side of the national park with the popular trail to Everest. If I couldn’t cross it, I would be forced to spend a week backtracking. Hard-earned elevation gains would be forfeited.
I began at 4 a.m. with a headlamp, but the Cho La was more temperamental than usual. The path was obscured by snow from a winter storm that had trapped me the day before. Ice-covered rocks slipped and tumbled as I climbed upward alone. Snow dusted me from unseen slides above. No groups attempted the crossing that day due to conditions. I probed for freshly concealed crevasses with my climbing poles. I felt exposed and alone. Few things are as unsettling as watching boulders the size of cars move on their own accord. I managed the crossing, then collapsed to take a break while snow collected in my beard. I wasn’t sure I could go on—that’s when the lone Sherpa arrived right on cue, singing his mantra.
I spent two glorious nights recovering in Dzongla before pushing up to Gorak Shep, last stop before Base Camp. I ate my last precious Snickers bar slowly and reverently. After two winter-survival scenarios in one week, I had a new appreciation for enjoying the present. To be blunt, I felt more alive than ever. The challenges in the Himalayas are tough, but the rewards greater.
Arriving at Everest Base Camp
Ironically, Mount Everest isn’t visible from Everest Base Camp. I began my climb up to Kala Patthar, an adjacent “hill,” in darkness to get the best view of the Holy Mother herself. At 18,500 feet (5,639 meters), I was treated to sunrise and a spectacular glimpse of the top of this world. Prayer flags flapped wildly in the blasting wind as I panted for breath. Oxygen levels atop Kala Patthar are only around 50 percent of those at sea level. As for many trekkers, this was the highest elevation I would experience in the Himalayas. I tried to imagine what climbers must feel with only 33 percent oxygen when they reached the summit of Everest in front of me.
The next day, despite uncertain weather, I made the three-hour walk to Everest Base Camp. I felt jittery and giddy. After a lifetime of watching documentaries about Mount Everest, a childhood dream was realized. When I arrived, the happy tears tried to freeze on my face.
Helicopters roared overhead as supplies were brought up. With the climbing season about to begin, the atmosphere was buzzing and frenetic. I met camera teams from BBC and National Geographic. I reverently touched the Khumbu Icefall, the start of the route up Everest and one of the most dangerous sections. To go beyond where I stood requires an $11,000 climbing permit.
Like so many times during my trek, I felt barometric pressure plummet. My ears popped as bad weather swooped in quickly. I had to leave Base Camp sooner than I wanted, but the alternative would have been begging for an overnight stay in a stranger’s tent! I scooted back to Gorak Shep in a hurry. But as snow blew sideways and brittle rocks slid around me, I had a smile on my face. Somehow, I knew everything was going to be OK. No matter what adventures the rest of my life holds, the time I spent at the top of the world will be mine forever.
I sang "om mani padme hum" on the descent.