Words and images by Elisa Røtterud
– Welcome back, madam! This is your second home now. Coffee and fresh watermelon juice?
I smile, nod, and toss my backpack and bag in the backyard of my regular hotel, “Ambassador Garden”. It’s eleven o’clock in the morning and my body is still a little numb after the 24-hour journey.
– You come for a climbing expedition again?
– “Oh yes” I answer determinedly in my idiosyncratic Nepali English. I wink at the waitress Pravin and lie down in the sun lounger. He skips out into the kitchen, and I get my long-awaited me-time to find peace of body and mind.
The “Ambassador Garden” backyard is decorated with yellow flowers floating in beautiful water dishes. Colorful prayer flags flutter from ceilings and walls, and the sound of a small fountain blocks any outside noise. In addition, a speaker recites Tibetan rites on autopilot. Finally, with the scent of incense and images of Hindu gods, the hippie cliché is complete.
I feel at home.
But let’s rewind a bit before I continue this travel report that will hopefully make you take your next vacation to Nepal.
Why do I feel so at home in Nepal?
From Fashion to Expeditions
My first meeting with Nepal was in 2011. I had just taken a severance package in my job as a fashion director and travel journalist in an international magazine and thought that Nepal sounded like an exciting adventure. Little did I know then that this journey would change my life completely. Without much climbing experience, I went to Everest Basecamp (5400) and climbed a 6000-meter peak. It was an absolutely life-changing experience.
The incredible Himalayan mountain range, the kind Sherpa people, the natural landscape, and the feeling of mastery I got from climbing a high mountain all gave me an endorphin kick beside anything I had ever experienced before. I went home feeling drunk due to the thin air. I placed my design shoes and lace dresses in the back of my closet and bought crampons and ice axes. After that, I started training for higher and more technical mountains. Since then, I have felt the rush from thin air and faced death multiple times. I’ve visited Nepal 8 times. I’ve climbed the technical mountain Ama Dablam (6856 meters above sea level) twice, the world’s fourth most dangerous mountain above 8000 meters called Manaslu (8163 meters above sea level), and I was the first Norwegian to climb the 7000-meter high Himlung Himal. Today I have brought out the design sandals and lace dresses again. It gives my life symbiosis. Balance in life is essential.
Now I’m back in Nepal for my third expedition to Ama Dablam.
Nepal in a nutshell
Nepal is a landlocked state in the Himalayas on the Indian subcontinent. Squeezed between India in the south and the Chinese province of Tibet in the north. Ten of the world’s 16 highest mountains are along the northern border, with Mount Everest (8848) as the highest. Hikers typically have the Himalayas and the Annapurna chain on their bucket list. Others travel to Nepal for activities like rafting, bungee jumping, kayaking, paragliding, and mountain biking. But, of course, climbers have also been fascinated, and expeditions today are more common now than when I was was here in 2011.
On the other hand, Nepal has much more to offer than hiking and extreme sports. The country has significant climatic variations, which means that nature varies from expeditions in the thin icy air in the north to tropical jungle safaris in the south. There are also endless possibilities for the spiritual, including in Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. Humans are as diverse as nature. Since the country has never been colonized, national pride remains strong. If you are lucky enough to go to Nepal and experience the colorful festivals and rich cultural celebrations, you will get memories for life. It’s a safe country to travel solo in, and the locals are more than friendly. I recommend setting aside eight to nine days for your first trip to Nepal.
The World’s Most Dangerous Airport
Lukla. Welcome to the airport from Hell! I hate to fly the old twin 8 planes to Lukla. Named as one of the most dangerous airports in the world, it’s always a happy feeling arriving safe here. The 250-meter runway runs uphill so that the small planes can stop, and then they take off down the cliff. It looks terrifying, but it’s actually very safe. The half-hour flight from Kathmandu takes you to another world from an ancient era.
From Lukla you walk over giant suspension bridges into lush landscapes. You should at least see the mountains of the Himalayas, even if you are not going to climb them. Just the sight of Ama Dablam, Lhotse, and Everest located in the Khumbud Valley makes one dream of dangerous expeditions and adventures. For others, it puts their lives in perspective, and they undergo a spiritual experience from seeing the mighty mountains. Ever since Everest was climbed in 1954, the world’s highest mountain has fascinated many. Read the classic “Into Thin Air” by John Krakauer, or watch the movie “Everest”.
However, to get here, you must fly to what is described as the world’s most dangerous airport.
The Capital of the Sherpa
As you move up into thinner air, follow these insider tips: Drink 2 to 3 liters of water a day and move calmly, preferably with yogic breathing. Then you avoid the headache the elevation can cause.
Forget mindfulness apps; walking here gives you total peace of mind.
After a long day in beautiful lush landscapes where you cross sky-high suspension bridges, meet oxen carrying bags for expedition participants, walk past villages and high-five children who 100 years back in time, you arrive in the capital of the Sherpa. Namche Bazaar (3440) is like an animated film, and you rub your eyes in admiration. What a sight! You will think, “Is this place real”? The horseshoe-shaped village with its 400 inhabitants’ clings to the mountainside with its colorful houses, which at first glance may look like a Playmobil village. Then you check in at one of the guest houses, roll out your sleeping bag over the single bed, and enjoy the incredible views around you.
We stop at the Tengboche monastery (3867 meters above sea level) and let ourselves be overwhelmed. Imagine being a monk here in these majestic surroundings. Everest, Lhotse and Ama Dablam tempt bombastically in the background and the monastery shines in its colorful splendor. I’m alone here this time, only accompanied by my climbing Sherpa Furtemba. I think it is more efficient to go with your personal climbing Sherpa than in a large expedition group.
We decide to continue to the village of Pangboche to sleep there before we arrive at the base camp at 4600 m. The hike to the base camp itself is fantastic; the nature is just breathtaking. You must constantly adapt to the thin air and protect your mouth and nose from the dust from the paths. You do not want the famous Khumbu cough. It can ruin the whole expedition. Mentally, you must remember that reaching the top is a bonus. Anything can happen on a hike in thin air. Even if you have experience and know how your body works and reacts, even the slightest cold you bring with you from home can be decisive for whether the expedition is successful or not.
What Is Elevation and How Does It Affect You?
When you reach 2500 meters above sea level, you move into what’s called high altitude. There is less oxygen in the air, and the higher you get, the less oxygen there is. The lack of oxygen affects your body so that you cannot maintain the same level of activity as you do in lower altitudes. So when you move up to an altitude of 4000 meters and higher, you come to a level where you can risk getting severe altitude sickness if you do not do things right. And by doing things right, I mean acclimatize and get your body used to the higher altitude. The way to do this is to walk slowly, not stress, breathe through your diaphragm and drink plenty of water. If you do not do things right the first days of the trip, you can risk ruining the whole acclimatization process and facing significant challenges or even getting sick when you get higher up the mountain.
We arrive at the base camp described as one of the finest in the Himalayas. I struggle with a cold I brought with me from Norway and it’s irritating not to be in the shape I normally have.
– Fuck, I’m weak this time, I tell Furtemba.
– We have time for recovery, is Furtemba’s answer.
The huge base camp is surrounded by various groups. It looks like a camping field filled with lots of tents. Only the surroundings are slightly more extreme than the usual camping spots. After a few days of rest here, the acclimatization begins. First, I need to get used to the thin air and go up and down and up and down. That means you start climbing some of the mountains only to sleep down to base camp. Climb high – sleep low. Repeat.
A technical gazelle
Ama Dablam is a technical and windy mountain described as the most beautiful in the world.
Fixed ropes have been set up, and there are almost 3.5 kilometers of ropes up this fantastic mountain. One must also master and trust the equipment to be able to handle it. You cannot have a fear of heights. The hike up to Camp 1 (5700 meters above sea level) is an easy and pleasant climb. From Camp 1 to Camp 2, it gets steep. This is where we will encounter the famous Yellow Tower. This is a vertical wall of approximately 30 meters where you hang in a rope approximately 6000 meters above the ground.
– This is rock n roll, I scream to Furtemba out of joy.
Our strategy is to acclimatize, rest, take a rotation and then go for the summit push.
Rotation and planning
We will go to Camp 1 and sleep there, says Furtemba. Then we will go back down to base camp to rest our bodies. Then we’ll have another round from Camp 1 to Camp 2. Then back down to rest again. After that, we will go from base camp to camp 1 to sleep there. Then to Camp 2 to rest for 12 hours before starting the final leg to the summit at night. From Camp 2 to the Summit, there are steep rock, ice, and snow walls. You walk over narrow ridges and jumar up. This is a true test of strength.
Of course, the weather is a crucial factor. Unfortunately, it’s unpredictable and something we can’t influence, so that’s always a wild card on an expedition.
The Summit Push
Furtemba tells me there’s forecasted strong wind. This will be a heavy blow. I have enormous respect for the Sherpas. They know the mountains, the thin air and the surroundings. No Sherpa, no summit!
They are the heroes. They put up ropes and lead you safely up and down the mountain. Without the Sherpa, a climbing expedition can be catastrophic.
Several climbers are taken out by helicopter with frostbite and fatigue. I do not want to be one of them.
“Shall we wait a day and see if the wind settles down?”, Furtamba asks.
“You’re the boss”, I answer with a smile while I pack my backpack.
We decide to go.
The hike to Camp 1 is familiar by now and goes faster than the rotation.
Then we hike up to Camp 2 to rest there. It’s steep with little space and smells of shit. So far, everything is going according to plan. I put my down suit on and go to bed early in evening. Ready for the fight that awaits after midnight. We start at night because the snow is colder then, making it safer. No one wants to get hurt or die in an avalanche. I always describe the journey from Camp 2 as hell. It is heavy, steep, twisty, windy, and a technical climb. We finally arrive at Camp 3, an emergency camp due to the avalanche danger, around 4 o’clock in the morning. Here we take a short break. My lungs scream for air and my legs feel so heavy.
After a sip of tea and a bite of chocolate, we continue the journey upwards. Here you need to be fully concentrated and focus on every single step you take.
At 08h50, we make it to the summit.
I feel like crying. Ama! You beast!
At the top, you’re halfway. Because being at the top means you have to go all the way down again. The incredible feeling of accomplishment only comes afterward when you are safely down again.
Around 13h00 we are back down at Camp 2. I completely collapse. I am exhausted and can barely speak. My body is weak after the cold, but after some rest, tea and noodles I gather the strength to continue the journey.
The goal is to reach the base camp. Unfortunately, I only manage to get back to Camp 1 before realizing that it’s not safe to continue. I need to rest. My body is simply too tired.
The next day I wake up feeling ready to continue, and we safely return to Base Camp. I can finally allow myself to feel the excitement – I did it! I have kissed Ama Dablam for the third time. I’m beyond happy!
We celebrate with cake and a vodka shot!
“I’ll be back next year”, I say gratefully to Furtemba.
Let’s do Cho Ouy from Nepal side next fall, I say.
Once you have experienced thin air, it becomes an obsession.
My packing list
My packing list