Mountaineers in colourful gears, climbing icy heights against the snow-white backdrop. It's quite a postcard visual, but often a task reserved for the few daredevils among us. But, did you know that a team of Malayali women brave-hearts accomplished it recently, becoming probably the first female group from the state to trek to the Everest base camp?
Eight women, who are part of the Kerala-based all-female travel group Appooppanthaadi, trekked to conquer the Everest base camp in Khumbu, Nepal in the first week of this month. The girls, who powered through the punishing climate, unfamiliar terrain, bare minimum facilities, low oxygen levels and more to achieve the feat, share their experience with us.
A scary flight and a delayed start
Freelance writer Nihala Nasar from Alappuzha, who led the group, recounts the experience, “On April 1, we left from Kochi and reached Kathmandu, Nepal. We were supposed to fly from another airport called Ramechhap, to the starting point, Lukla, in a short, 30-minute flight.” However, due to poor weather conditions, their flight got delayed almost by a day, and this meant they had to miss an important, day-long part of the trek called acclimatisation.
“We knew such weather conditions happen there often, so were mentally prepared for such events. The adventurous part of the trip, however, started from the flight to Lukla itself,” recalls Nihala.
The flight from Ramechhap to Lukla, a twin-engine turboprop utility aircraft, was just a little bigger than a helicopter. It accommodates 17 people and flies at a lower altitude in the mountainous terrains. “We could feel every manoeuvre of the flight. Nobody panicked as we had watched videos on such possibilities. But, when it finally landed, we all clapped with joy,” remembers 33-year-old Nihala, who has done about six Himalayan treks before.
Trekking up the boulders, braving yaks
Trekker and Angamaly native Anuja Sasidharan, a software engineer in Germany, apparently clubbed the base camp summit with her yearly vacation, to join the group. She remembers the Appooppanthaadi girls including her heading straight to the starting point of the trek, barely 40 minutes after landing at Lukla. What was ahead of them was a seven-day trek to the base camp, with their 4-5 kg bags on their back.
“We hardly had any time to think and just began climbing,” she recollects, describing what trekking up the mountains was like. “Along the banks of the Dudh Koshi river that flows on our trail, we traversed different terrains each day – steps, pine forests, rocky mountains and more. Our guide, a sherpa, patiently showed us how to navigate each of them. Thankfully, there were no rains or snowstorms during our trek.” Intermittently, there were naughty groups of yaks and mules dominating their way and the trekkers had to stick to the sidelines till they passed.
However, after a point, the mountaineers could see Everest at a distance. “That is quite a motivation, to brave through all the challenges and inch forward,” says Nihala.
Bare minimum facilities and Rs 500 water bottle
One would think having oodles of willpower is enough to climb to the base camp. But that's hardly the truth, say the trekkers. This is also an activity that checks how well one can adjust with bare minimum facilities in the most challenging of terrains.
Nihala says, “We climbed up holding a bag of water called water bladders on our backs. We mix purification tablets in them as they are generally not of good quality. You climb up sipping this water and occasionally munching on dry fruits, chocolates and more. As there are many foreign tourists too, there are scant bathroom facilities at some points.” At the end of each day, they slept at small restaurants called tea houses that also served Chow mein, rice, chapati and the like.
Interestingly, the food and water available on the way are quite expensive too. “At some points, you get cold water for free, but a small flask of hot water costs around Rs 1,500. At Gorakshep, which is one of the resting points, a bottle of normal water was Rs 500,” remembers Nihala.
Surging ahead with depleting health
As the group inched forward, two of its members slowed down as conditions got tougher. 50-year-old Bindu Vinod, one of the two, says, “It got increasingly tougher to keep pace with the rest of the group. So, two of us decided to hire a horse and go up the hill, on the last leg of the trek. Little did we know, that was going to be even tougher and scarier, as the animals had to climb many boulders with the trekkers on their backs. 'Will it slip and fall to a depth,' I kept wondering (laughs).”
At 5364 feet, the base camp!
The trekkers are lost for words recalling how it felt when they reached the base camp. Bindu fondly remembers seeing the world's highest glacier called 'Khumbu Glacier,' from the base camp. “I truly felt I'm on top of the world. Base camp is a place for Everest climbers to acclimatise and there are many campsites there. You also have many photo spots and a fantastic view of Mount Everest from this point,” describes Bindu. According to Anuja, who was into heavy endurance training to prepare for the climb, the summit was 10,000 times tougher than she thought it would be. “I don't know whether scaling as high as Everest is ever possible for me. However, maybe, I might try for a higher altitude than this, someday,” she says.
Even while walking down from the camp, two of the members felt uneasy. Nihala says, “So, they took choppers from the spot called Gorakshep to get down to Lukla. But, the other four of us managed to walk all the way down too.”
If we go again...
Nihala opines that the experience was a true test of fitness. “We formed this group of trekkers after ensuring that all of us have enough prior Himalayan or other trekking experiences and familiarity with such terrains. We had instructed the group members to also do workouts to improve stamina and the like.” Despite being an experienced trekker, she too joined the gym and was training for it. “What one truly needs is a routine called high altitude training, but it’s rarely available in Kerala. So, we tried working out wearing N95 masks, and some of us tried various breathing exercises, step workouts and the like. All of it helped us, but the next time we want to be fitter,” explains the trekker. The other group members were Preetha, Smitha, Saranya, Rajalakshmi and Sheeba.