I cursed a lot as we descended from Gorak Shep to Pangboche. I don’t swear very often, but if there’s one thing that conjures a curse word, it’s hiking. The cruel realization that descending was going to be quite strenuous dawned on me early, and the f-bomb came out. While we lost a lot of altitude fairly quickly, the terrain was continually up and down. Descending is certainly quicker, but it’s hard on the body, and Nuri told us to be extra careful as this was the part when most people sustained injury. My knees soon felt like those of an elderly person in need of transplants, and my toes were raw before lunch. Despite feeling disheartened by the challenge that still seemed to loom ostentatiously, it was a relief to recognize certain hills that had almost defeated me in the opposite direction. Hopping down from one rock to the next on one particularly steep hill, a British woman and her guide fell into step behind me. “Do people ever die up here?” she asked him, and he proceeded to tell her not only about Renee, the Norwegian man who had passed away in our teahouse just two nights before, but a handful of other deaths in the past week. I quickened my pace, not only to get out of earshot from the stories, but to keep getting lower, away from high altitude’s deadly talons.
We dropped down into a valley, and as we made our way through the scraggly brush, past the slate-roofed stone dwellings of yak herders, a cloud completely descended on us. We caught up with our porters Ram and Lakpa and paused for a water break. Out of the mist, an enormous bird of prey sailed past us, swooping back several times to check us out. “Plane,” Ram giggled as we stared at its incredible wingspan. It came back once more before effortlessly gliding off into the abyss of light grey that had completely socked us in. Visibility was less than twenty feet as we continued on. Kevin and I enjoyed the feeling of privacy it provided us, as we hadn’t been alone for weeks, and any sign of affection is very taboo in Nepal. We even allowed ourselves to hold hands for a few moments while marching along in our little bubble. The figures of Nuri and James would appear as hazy shadows ahead as they would stop to make sure we were still on the path behind them. The tinkling of yak bells would start glittering somewhere ahead of us, and then moments later the large, laden beasts would appear, huff past us, and disappear again.
That night was the first time I allowed myself to get the full scope of my filth. I took off my leggings after six straight days of wearing them, and was momentarily alarmed that I had acquired some horrible skin disease. But it was just dirt. Every pore was not only filled with dirt, but had accumulated a little mound of it, so my legs were covered in bumps of grime. I rubbed my pointer fingers on my palms, my face, my neck, and picked off the little tootsie rolls of dirt that formed. My braids had collected twigs, dust, feathers from my sleeping bag, and other unidentifiable intruders.
After many days of only seeing tiny villages, Namche seemed huge, and Lukla was overwhelming. We arrived in Lukla in time for lunch, and there was such a feeling of relief to make it up the last few stone steps and back through the archway that reads, “Have a nice trek,” in faded pastels. Our last hurdle was the harrowing flight that brought us back to Kathmandu. After standing at an unmarked, unattended check-in counter for fifteen minutes, the man who owned our teahouse showed up in sweatpants and checked us in. We then waited for three hours as clouds began to roll in, and we began to worry that we might have to wait another twenty-four hours for a shower, as weather delays are frequent from Lukla. But, as we were losing hope, we were summoned to board the plane, and though it was one of the most turbulent flights of my life, and we were in the air three times as long as we were supposed to, we made it.
After an early morning climb up to Kala Patthar, we began our journey downwards out of the stark desolation of the high alpine. It was just before 8am when we got back to Gorak Shep, and we were voraciously hungry from the climb. We gobbled down eggs and pancakes, and then began the long journey downhill. As we followed the Khumbu glacier out of the valley and left Everest behind, the mountain bid us one final warning of its omnipotence as an avalanche thundered off of the slopes of Nupste. Its deep roar echoed across the valley as a blur of white violently screamed downwards with deadly force. I thought of the camp managers and staff at base camp, and what they must feel when they have people on the mountain and they hear that far off rumble. Watching the cascading snow was just another chilling reminder of how easily these mountains could tear the life right out from you.
We walked for several more hours, steadily decreasing our elevation and gaining back precious oxygen. Suddenly the stress and worry of the ascent melted away. It was no longer a question of whether or not we were going to make it. We had made it. So far, we had achieved our goals of Everest Base Camp and Kala Patthar, and thankfully we had done so with everyone’s health relatively intact. This was a huge relief. Now, all we had to do was descend and make it back to Lukla to catch our flight. For the first time on the trek, I put on headphones and rejoiced to the sounds of A Tribe Called Quest, letting the high-altitude sunshine warm my bones as we crossed over glacial moraine.
The first day we descended a total of nearly 5,500 feet. The difference was night and day. Suddenly the screaming pain of suffocating muscles and the sting of burning lungs gave away as the altitude exceedingly released its grasp on us. Taking a deep full breath was as refreshing as a swig of cold beer on a hot summer day.
Aiding the sense of refreshment, the last couple hours of the day’s journey had us walking through a low cloud, condensation forming on our brows. The visibility dropped to less than 20 feet, providing the trail with a great sense of intimacy. From a distance, one could hear the chiming bells of a train of yak, and moments later the lumbering beasts would emerge from the fog. During one such moment, we happened to be crossing a flatland, crisscrossed by a spider’s web of dry stream beds and narrow footpaths. The yak had fanned out into a formless bunch. We stopped and let them meander around us as the varying tones of their bells rang together, insulated by the fog, into the peaceful song of the high Himalaya.
Two days later we had descended down through Pangboche, Tengboche, and Namche, and were now finally back below 10,000 feet. Here, the relatively low altitude and burgeoning spring season provided us with lush green fields and blooming rhododendrons. We stripped off our jackets and packed away our hats, relishing in the temperate weather and abundance of air to breathe. Conditioned from the starkness of high altitude and lack of color, our cameras now all seemed to be pointed at the pink and purple flowers flourishing on the hillsides. Once again we found children in the villages we passed through, something that had not been present higher up. Their rose-red cheeks and accented cries of “Hallo!” hailed a cheerful welcome back into the realm of the living.
After another hair-raising Twin Otter flight, we made it back to Kathmandu safe and sound. We said goodbye to our guide and friend Nuri, dropped our bags at the hotel, and then gorged on fresh salad and goat cheese pizza until we thought we would pop. Later, we showered our bodies of 14 day’s worth of filth (an act that ended up clogging the shower drain) and finally collapsed into deep and satisfied sleep.