Life and Happiness, Travels

When You Become the Little People – Part One

Double suspension bridge on the way to Namche Bazaar

I wrote this less than a week after returning from a 19-day trip to Nepal, where I joined seven strangers from the United States and 13 locals from Nepal on a 14-day excursion to Everest Base Camp (17,598 feet elevation). I should start by explaining a little bit about my background: I am 28 years old, I’ve been camping just twice in my entire life (when I was much younger, and I don’t know if I can even count it), and I have lived at sea level since birth (Houston to DC to NYC and back to DC again). That said, I’m very easy to market to, and I love a good Instagrammable moment.

In October 2016, I was browsing through my Facebook feed and I came across a promoted post by a company I had never heard of before – they were advertising a 14-day trip to hike to Everest Base Camp. To this day, I still don’t know what compelled me to click it, but I did. I started looking through the trip description, and since most of my adventure experiences center around warm tropical climates, I thought this sounded like a cool new experience. I had never heard of this brand before, so I did some more research and discovered that one of my favorite stores, REI, also hosted an adventure trip to Base Camp. I impulsively decided to sign up for it. I told my boss at the time that I would be taking three weeks off of work in October 2017 to hike in the Himalayas (one years notice). She laughed (because she knows me), she said okay, and then I paid my deposit to lock into this commitment just a few days later.

When I initially made this decision, I hadn’t done a ton of research. I didn’t know what I needed to do to get in shape for it, I had no idea how to adjust to altitude or how to prepare for any sort of elevation, I didn’t really know how to camp, and my exercise consisted solely of indoor cycling and the occasional yoga class at the gym down the street from my apartment. I walk to and from work every day if the weather is nice, which generally adds up to about five miles per day according to my Fitbit. My resting heart rate is consistently around 60 beats per minute, which is considered average for an adult woman my height and age. I wasn’t the typical “14-day trekker type,” needless to say. Or was I?

I left Washington, DC on October 13 with a backpack, a roller bag, and my purse filled with everything I thought would prepare me adequately for this adventure I was about to embark upon. For the year leading up to the trek, I had spent a large portion of my paychecks gathering the appropriate gear based on REI’s recommended packing list. There were no quantities on the REI packing list, just a bunch of items that I would need on the trip – things like light, medium and heavyweight base layers; solar chargers; trekking poles; wool gloves; wool hat; hiking socks; down jacket; a sub-zero degree sleeping bag; etc. Since I had never done anything like this before, I had to start from scratch when it came to collecting warm weather gear and hiking gear in general. I had no idea how expensive it would end up being – it got to the point where I just had to accept that I had no idea what I was doing, I didn’t know how to bargain shop for outdoor gear, so I just gave REI all of my money. I was very out of my element, so I didn’t want to skimp anywhere – I wanted to be warm and ready. Looking back, I would have absolutely gone the used gear route, but as a newbie, I didn’t know any better.

The journey to Nepal was long. In the middle of the night, I made my way to the Dulles airport to catch a flight to New York. From there, I flew to Dubai, and then on to Kathmandu where this journey really begins.

When I landed in Kathmandu, I was tired, groggy, and so confused at the airport. I had never traveled anywhere where I needed to buy a visa for visiting the country, so it was interesting that I just walked up to a counter, they asked how long I was staying, and then they simply asked me for $40 USD. Once getting through customs, I went to find my roller bag which was no where in sight. I began to freak out just a little when a man approached me and asked if my name was Jessie. At this point, I immediately began having flashbacks to the movie Taken and started wondering if this is how I’m going to die. Thankfully I quickly found out that he worked for the airline and he said that my bag had broken in transit, so he took me to my things that were wrapped in plastic to keep it all together. Since the bag was broken, it was no longer on wheels, so I awkwardly began dragging this giant bag of plastic around the airport, and then to outside where the REI van was waiting to pick me up. Great start, huh?!

I checked into my hotel after getting a quick introduction to Kathmandu traffic (wow…), and then went to bed with butterflies in my stomach, anxious about meeting my fellow trekkers and guides the following day.

When I was booking this trip, part of me assumed that everyone in my group would be well above the age of retiring since this trip was A). not cheap (I had to save for a year), and B) not many younger people can’t easily take this kind of time off of work without really saving up vacation days. When I met my group the next morning for the first time, I was surprised to find that everyone was closer in age than I had expected! I was 28, and the others were 29, 31, 37, 38, 40, 50, and 56.

Before meeting my team, I had a lot of insecurities and fears. It’s natural to wonder and to be a little apprehensive. Was I in shape enough? What if everyone in the group was more experienced? What if they annoyed me? What if I annoyed them? What if they were all Trump supporters? What if they were mean? What if we didn’t get along? What if someone creeped me out? What if, what if, what if…?

Unexpectedly and thankfully, these eight people quickly became my family. Over the next 18 days, we would spend every meal, every waking moment, every story, every laugh, every game of Spoons, every high and every low (literally and metaphorically) together. We pushed each other, we encouraged each other, we got to know each other, we made fun of each other, and we learned a LOT about each other’s digestive systems.

We spent the first day on a guided tour of Kathmandu… we visited Buddhist and Hindu religious sites, we learned about the Wheel of Life and visited an art school, we learned about prayer wheels which later became our most relied upon form of luck along the trails, and we got the low down on fake pashmina versus real pashmina.

That night, the mental toughness had to kick in. We met with the trip leader for our initial briefing on the days to come. We were informed of all of the “toughest days” ahead of us, and we were encouraged to take Diamox, a diuretic that helps curb the effects of altitude. During the briefing, we all joked that every single person in the group thought at one point “what the hell have I gotten myself into…?” When every single day is described as “a really tough day” or “the toughest day,” all kinds of doubts and fears tend to flood the human psyche. This night – the first night – was when I and everyone in the group realized that this group of individuals was special. While we all had the same fears, we knew that we were in this together. We declared that we were a fun group, not a fast group, and that we would be slow in solidarity to keep the morale of everyone high. Our group hashtag was born…. we were #FunNotFast. We quickly learned that sticking together, no matter how slow, was the only way we all made it to EBC without incident (aka without someone being flown off the mountain in a chopper).

All of us feeling anxious and excited, we went to bed early to prepare for a 4 am wake up call. We had to cut all of our gear down so that it would fit into a 35 pound limit for the flight to Lukla (10 pounds in the pack, and 25 pounds in the duffel…everything else had to be left with the hotel while we trekked or worn on our person). Because of this, I had to get used to the fact that I would be wearing the same two t-shirts, two base layers, three pairs of socks, two hiking pants, and two fleeces for the next 14 days. The only thing I had enough of was clean underwear…I brought enough to wear one clean pair per day because I just needed to give myself that luxury. We had all begun taking our Diamox the night before the flight, so one of the first things we talked about as a group was how many times we had to pee in the middle of the night. You know you’re going to get close when the first real bonding moment is about urination. For me, I had never experienced such a ridiculously uncomfortable urge to go to the bathroom in my life. Seriously. There was no trying to hold it…this pill takes no prisoners. When you start to think you have to go to the bathroom, you’re already too late and should mentally prepare to do a potty dance until you’re able to relieve yourself. It comes on fast. That night, I woke up four times to use the bathroom. I thought something was wrong with me until I met with the group and everyone had similar stories about their sleepless night. Solidarity. It matters.

Our tiny plane

From Lukla, the first day of trekking is a breeze. It was mostly downhill to get to the first camp in a village called Phakding. This was the first night of camping, and it did not do enough to prepare me for the days to come…it was semi warm, my guides knocked on my tent in the morning to greet me with breakfast tea, my sleeping bag was cozy…it was all just such a tease. I was comfortable – I should have known that it wouldn’t last! Our bedtime was established on the first night. Immediately after dinner, we were all so wiped out from trekking and adjusting to the elevation that we passed out by 7:30pm. That quickly became a trend over the course of the trek. Dinner, a game of Spoons, bed by 7:30pm.

We psyched ourselves up for a brutal day up to Namche the following morning (this was one of those “toughest days” as previously described by our guide during the briefing meeting in Kathmandu). But with a group like this where we’re all in it together, if we suffer, we suffer in solidarity. Looking back, yes, it was super steep; but we were able to go super slow, so our fears subsided for the remaining days of the trek. In order to acclimatize, there should never be a rush, so no matter how steep or long the hikes would be, we knew that our guides and our group would help us through it – slowly.

Our eyes glistened as we made it to Namche and saw the bright colors of a giant village filled with everything we could ever want or need to complete the trek. It’s a lively and fun town filled with fellow trekkers, most of which are all super friendly and from all over the world. After our post-trek tea, we got the whole group and the crew going for a sick game of Spoons. Some of the crew didn’t even speak English, and none of the trekkers spoke Nepali, which made the game so much more entertaining. Since Namche is a little higher than 11,000 feet, we stayed in a lodge for two nights to help acclimatize. In Namche is where we learned that “rest days” or “acclimatization days” were actually the hardest days. On these so called rest days, we actually hike up super high to get used to the altitude, and then we hike back down to sleep at lower elevation. Our rest days were the days were I got the most sweaty and the most tired. Rest days are lies. However, I must admit, every single rest day provided us with incredible views…everything hard that we completed ended up being worth the struggle. On our first rest day, we had our first clear view of the top of Mount Everest – we “rested” all the way to a view of the tallest mountain in the world.

At the start of every single day, we would look upward on the trails we were about to embark upon, and we would see tiny little people way up on the trail. With jealousy and fear in our eyes, we would think to ourselves (and sometimes out loud), “how am I going to get up there? That’s so high. How did they do that?” But then, after spending the day just simply putting one foot in front of the other, we eventually became those little people high on the trail. After each push, we would look down to where we were just earlier that day, and we would feel a sense of accomplishment. After questioning how we were going to get there, how our bodies and our minds would take us up to the next level… we did it. In solidarity. We became those little people, and it was amazing every single time.

To be continued!

On the bridge in Phakding

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