• Alex Paynter

Nepal- Sights, Sherpas & Sickness

Chase greeted me as I emerged out of Kathmandu's sole airport.

Colourful scooters and women carrying large baskets whizzed by as we made our way to the hired car. The chaos and commotion of my first taste of Asia washed over me, but still I felt myself being drawn to a single person. He waited with a grand smile that shone through all of the smog between us. After gracing my neck with a bouquet of rounded flowers Chase introduced him. His name was Shankar and he was to be our Sherpa.

Standing at no more than 5'4", Shankar was sturdy with calloused hands and dark, weathered skin. One glance at him would reveal his craft. He was a man of the mountains.

Our car weaved its way through the mad traffic of Nepal's capital. I looked out the dirty windows and noticed a precession of monks carrying a body wrapped in cloth above their heads. Scooters and rusted hatchbacks rushed by, but the funeral stayed true, marching one step at a time as they honoured their late friend.

Kathmandu itself is a mash-up of many cultures and religions. Hindu and Buddhist influence can be seen in its people and its architecture and so can the relatively new influx of tourism. Scores of travellers arrive in this bustling spot before making their voyage up into the Himalayas. Some, bound for the summit of Everest itself.

It's a city that's jumbled together with shoddy infrastructure, electrical wires spooled every-which direction and its locals crammed together in arrangements that seem to make no sense. This made the 2015 earthquake that struck here even more disastrous, which killed scores of citizens and destroyed a large amount of its ancient architecture and temples. The Nepalese are a resilient people though, and to this day they continue to rebuild their city and lives from the rubble of this horrific display of power from mother nature.

Locals wait out the weather during a rainy day in Kathmandu

After linking up with the rest of The Bucketlist Lifestyle group, two American travellers by the names of Peter and Andrea, we spent the day exploring Kathmandu and gearing up for our trek to Everest Base Camp. We skipped over torn-apart streets and slid through back alleys trying to stumble across some hidden spots.

Eventually, we grabbed a splendid spicy meal and ended up getting a pedicure at a small spa. However, I would not recommend getting this particular treatment before trekking through the Himalayas, as the woman working on me rearranged my toenails in a not-so pleasant manner.

Our group ambled back to the rented rooms on tender feet, hoping to get some rest before we took off for Lukla in the morning. After downing a few local beers and playing some hilariously silly icebreaker games, we watched as a biblical storm rolled through and painted the dark clouds with brilliant white strokes of light. The deep rumbling of the thunder guided us into a deep and dreamy slumber.

A monk stays present amidst the madness of the city

I awoke to the smell of overcooked scrambled eggs and the sound of a spatula scraping away. Our group chowed down on the eggs and headed to the airport. After we made it through the front foyer, we were briefed on the situation. Due to the extreme volatility and unpredictable nature of the weather in the mountains, it was impossible to know if our plane would actually take off today. Chase mentioned the first time he made the trek a few years back, he waited in this airport for days as his flight was delayed over and over due to poor conditions.

With this anecdote fresh in my mind, I settled in for the long haul. Our group passed the time by telling stories, playing cards and drinking local tea out of paper cups. Eventually, a woman's voice on the loudspeaker faintly crackled out our flight number. It was time to fly.

Aboard the plane to Lukla

En route aerial view of a small mountain village

A plane lands on the small and unforgiving runway of Lukla on a clear afternoon

After a brisk 40 minute flight through terraced hills and foggy mountains, we landed at the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla. (Also known as...the most dangerous airport in the world.) Our group gathered belongings and enjoyed a few lemon ginger teas in a nearby lodge before setting off.

I'm aware that the Everest Base Camp Trek is a very well-documented and well-trodden trail, so I don't want to overwhelm this post with detail on it. Rather, highlight the experiences our group had together during and after the journey. Although, I will set a bit of context with some quick notes and statistics.

The trek begins in Lukla, which sits at a comfortable 2840 meters above sea level, and the altitude rises to 5380 meters when you reach basecamp. This journey is spread out over a number of days in order to acclimate and covers a distance of approximately 65km.

This legendary trail takes you through epic mountain passes, traditional farming villages, rocky streams, barren valleys and just about every landscape imaginable. It is truly breathtaking. Speaking of breath, I suppose I should speak a little on the altitude itself. For those of you who haven't been high above sea level, it's quite the sensation.

Essentially, your body becomes like a car running on fumes, continuously gasping for more oxygen. During acclimatization, in which you slowly ween your body onto the thinner air, even walking becomes a chore. Pair that with having to steadily climb upwards over some pretty tough terrain, and it can truly become a challenge on one's body.

Although I've heard horror stories of the dangers of altitude sickness, I only had one minor scare. It came when woke up at 3am the first night on the trek with a spinning headache urging me to release the contents of my stomach. After that incident I was good to go, but I never lost the fear and respect for the heights we were playing with.

A view from our lodge in Namche Bazaar, the largest town in the Khumbu Region

Crossing one of the many suspension bridges lined with traditional prayer flags

Shankar hanging out during a break

A group of yaks carrying supplies stop for a quick drink

Led by Chase and Shankar, our group fared well on the trek as we took in the epic views that appeared around every corner. The days were long and draining but the pure awe for the landscapes and the companionship we provided to one another kept us going up the trail. The locals we encountered were friendly, but also jaded to the thousands of tourists which passed through their homes, which was to be expected.

The Nepali had opened up their sacred trail to the outside world which brought a boom of business, but also permanently changed the way they lived their lives. As they now had to cater to the outsiders who sought to climb and conquer the mountains of their homeland. I suppose that's what makes tourism the double-edged sword that it is, but that's a whole other debate.

One thing that did stand out though, was the children we encountered. Every town or lodge we passed through had vibrant groups of local children around. These were kids who had been raised far up in the mountains, away from the vast majority of technology and societal woes. They were just incredibly pure and always got excited when they met new visitors in their homeland. Our group had some amazing interactions with the local children and it really made me reflect on how we raise kids in the Western world and what we prioritize.

Another memorable experience came in the form of sitting in during a morning meditation at the Tengbouche monastery. Removing our battered hiking boots, our group sat and took in the wonderful, swarming chants of the monks. Their rhythmic, melodic phrases filled the air and bounced off of the golden idols that watched us ever-presently. This moment was back before down the spiritual path and although I can confidently say I am still very much a novice in that field, this event certainly helped to spark my interest.

Chase stands in awe facing the front of the Tengbouche monastery

Spinning traditional prayer wheels for good luck

One of the many friendly local children we encountered

The lady of the lodge

Our days were full of trekking in near-perfect conditions. Sunlight glittered off the snow-capped mountains that lined the trail as we passed caravans of porters and yaks, both carrying obscene amounts of gear and merchandise. One thing that kept me motivated was seeing the sheer determination and strength of the local porters we encountered on the trail. Many of whom only wore frail sandals or were even barefoot as they lugged obscene amounts of supplies up and down the mountains. After seeing what those porters had to endure on a daily basis, our trifles seemed like a walk in the park.

Six days after we embarked on the trail, we finally arrived at our destination. Everest Base Camp. Situated at a comfortable 5380 metres above sea level, Base Camp itself is a throng of tents strung together at the base of the tallest mountain on earth. It's nothing pretty, but it serves as a vital operations centre for anyone attempting to summit. Helicopters routinely rush in, carrying supplies and people up and down the mountains.

Our group watched as a helicopter came into view, and started descending in our direction. All of the sudden, a group of men ran up to us and cleared us off the helipad, which we were unknowingly standing on. To be fair, there were no markings or anything that would make it look like a traditional landing pad. Up at these heights though, nothing was traditional.

Sherpas with blackened faces cleared us towards the side of the landing pad in a rush of movement. The blackened faces occur when climbing as so much light is reflected by the snow and ice back into the faces of those who climb. The chopper eventually landed and dumped off supplies, so we decided we should head to the Base Camp Marker to officially end our trek up the trail.

Sign markers leading to Base Camp

Shankar proudly holds the victory beer

Our group at the Base Camp marker

Yours truly enjoying a sweet sip of celebratory beer

We cracked a cerimonial beer and each shared a few victory sips, as we posed for a couple group photos by the marker. Although it was hard to feel like a badass next to those hardened Sherpas and summiters, we were proud of what we accomplished. It had been one hell of a trek through some of the most sheer and dramatic landscapes I'd ever seen.

It was fucking biblical.

After the brief stop at Base Camp, we spent the night in a nearby lodge then began the trek back down the trail the following morning. The trek was fairly uneventful and we accomplished it in 3 days, ending up back where we started in Lukla. Due to the unpredictable weather of the region, getting back to Kathmandu was a bit of an ordeal, but we managed to secure a helicopter that would take us back to the capital city.

We bade farewell and hugged Shankar, then jumped onto the chopper as it peeled away from the tiny airport and flew down through the thick clouds. The helicopter rumbled over the mountains as I saw a flash of light out of the corner of my eye. We were headed directly towards a storm. The rain's intensity picked up as our pilot kept us moving steadily through the dark clouds.

Lightning bolts would periodically flash, but they seemed to be fairly far away. In the moment I wasn't too scared as I was loving every second of being in a helicopter soaring over some truly epic landscapes. Reflecting on it now though, we were flying in some genuinely dangerous conditions.

Luckily, we emerged from the storm cell intact as the brown and white sprawl of Kathmandu came into view. After landing and shaking the pilot's hand, we hopped in the back of a pickup which took us to the front of the airpot, where we grabbed a ride back to our apartment. Now, if you've been to Kathmandu, you don't expect luxury, but this apartment was brand new and looked like something out of a movie. Like most movies though, it had a twist.

Yaks relentlessly pushing up the trail

After spending the night, I filled up my water bottle from a jug that was in the fridge and prepped to head to the airport for my flights home. I bid our group farewell and hopped on the back of a motorcycle as it tore of for the airport. Now I've seen some bad roads and even worse traffic in my travels, but that ride to the airport was insanity. My driver had to constantly weave around cars, pedestrians and potholes as common sense rules of the road didn't seem to apply here. I'll admit as harrowing as it was, I had fun in the madness of it all as he dropped me off.

I chugged my remaining water, before heading through airport security. I went up the counter to get my boarding passes and all was well. As the man started to print out my passes, I began to feel a little strange. Blackness started to envelop my vision as my legs began to fail. I managed to grab my passes, then quickly made my way to a wall where I slumped down against it to recover. I nearly passed out, but was able to centre myself with some breathing.

I stayed slouched against the wall for five minutes or so, then slowly got up and made my way to the departure lounge. Deep down, I knew something was seriously wrong with my body but I suppose didn't want to admit as I felt fairly stable after the first incident. I waited in the barebones lounge, then boarded the first of my four upcoming flights.

Kathmandu to New Delhi is only a two-hour flight, but as I walked down the aisle towards my seat my body had other ideas. After emptying the water from my stomach, I found my window seat and settled in. I landed in New Delhi and was quickly escorted to my next flight, which was bound for Paris. After getting hassled by Indian airport security, I made it to the plane.

If you've never been on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner before, just know that it is an absolute behemoth of a plane. This particular flight was very sparse as I was able to secure three seats to myself for the 8 hour haul to France. To summarize the journey my body was essentially rejecting everything, including water. This caused trips to the bathroom every 30 minutes or so, I was completely at the mercy of my body. I would then return and flop down on my seats, attempting to get some rest. It was a sleepless and draining flight, but eventually we touched down in Paris where I checked into my overnight hotel.

Finally getting some much needed shut-eye, I awoke and managed to stomach a small breakfast of croissants and assorted fruits. Paris to Montreal was next and I can happily say that it went without a hitch, I felt solid. Landing in Montreal and hustling to catch my final flight to Toronto. It was an easy flight, but I guess my body wanted to throw up one last time for good luck.

I arrived back on Toronto's island airport and grabbed an Uber home. I remember that drive vividly, as it took me along the waterfront. I had just come from rugged Nepal and was now back in Toronto in May, which is truly a beautiful time to be in the city. Couples walked along the path, holding hands and smiling. Kids played in the sunshine, colourful flowers bloomed, white sailboats could be seen in the distance and surprisingly the air smelt incredibly fresh.

Perhaps it was the emotional and draining journey it took to get home, but I was almost in tears during that drive. I just felt so grateful to be able to live in such a special city and it really took all the lows that had just happened to make me realize that. Perspective is everything and in some ways I'm grateful for the whole experience. It also felt like a rite of passage being a traveller, we all get sick in Asia at some point haha.

I arrived back to my studio apartment, dropped my things, had a long shower and passed out. The next four days brought more of the same, as whatever sickness I had caught just knocked me on my ass. I would wake up, drink water and attempt to eat anything before passing out again. I did manage a run to a pharmacy but I probably looked like a recently-risen corpse. The days went on as I nursed myself back to health, feeling very appreciative of my vitality.

After I had gotten back on my feet, I met up with my parents for lunch. They saw a noticeable difference in me, saying I looked pale and frail. I just had to chuckle as I told them the details of my journey home. Sure, it seemed pretty brutal but as always it could have been much worse. I was just happy to be back home in my city and was not able to reflect on the trip.

It was my first paid travel job, where I was flown out specifically to document this adventure and it was an incredibly gratifying feeling. After so many years of volunteering, filming shitty events and barely making a living from my passion, I felt like I had finally arrived. It's a feeling I still remember to this day and it genuinely keeps me inspired when I reflect on my career. I'm even grateful for the sickness as it taught me a lot about myself and no doubt boosted my immune system after it was said and done haha.

You know what they say, you can't have the ups without the downs. It's all part of the journey, and this particular journey was a turning point in my life and a trip I'll never forget.

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