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A trek to remember

St. Cloud woman,70, hikes to Mt. Everest Base Camp

By Karen Flaten


Carol Otremba, 70, of St. Cloud, recently returned from a trip of a lifetime:  hiking to the Mt. Everest Base Camp in Nepal.


“I’ve always had a fascination with Nepal and Mt. Everest,” said Carol. Twenty two years ago, when her son worked at the U.S. Embassy in Nepal, Carol and her family flew to Kathmandu to visit. One of their many activities was to take a tour of Mt. Everest by small plane. Carol was spellbound. Ever since that trip, she has wanted to get out and hike, to get a closer look at Mt. Everest.


Carol Otremba at one of the swinging bridge in the hike up to the Mount Everest Base Camp. Contributed photo

The Mt. Everest Base Camp is the place where the mountain climbers pitch their tents. The climbers who want to scale the world’s largest mountain stay for as long as they need to, allowing their bodies to acclimate to the high elevation, and also waiting for the best conditions for climbing to the peak.


On that trip to Nepal 22 years ago, the Otremba family had hiked in another area of the Himalayas - Poon Hill in the Annapurna range. They hiked for five days at high elevation, and saw the sun rise at Poon Hill.


“It was a tough climb,” said Carol, “and there was not as much training!” But having completed that hike, Carol decided she wanted to get to Mt. Everest. She wasn’t interested in reaching the peak, but she wanted to make the trek to Mt. Everest’s Base Camp.


Carol and her family love to travel, and have traveled to interesting places around the world, but the Mt. Everest Base Camp hike was always in the back of Carol’s mind. In 2022, Carol began to make plans in earnest. She found a company that takes small groups on the trek to the Base Camp and back. They provide the guides and the porters (who carry supplies), down sleeping bags and down parkas, hiking poles, and even snacks for the trip. They plan the route and make all the arrangements for overnight stays and places to eat along the way. And they provide information on how to get ready for such a long trek. Although she tends to be fit, Carol knew she would have to spend a year working out to get ready for the 76-mile hiking trip. Since she and her husband are members of the Whitney Senior Center in St. Cloud, Carol took advantage of the walking track and exercise room, utilizing the stationery bikes and other machines. She also began wearing a weighted daypack and walking in area parks, especially those with hills. Carol knew she had to be in excellent shape to make the trip.


Although Carol had traveled all over the world, usually with her husband and/or family, this time the plan was to make the trip alone. The best times of year to hike to the Everest Base Camp are April – May and September-November. Summers in Nepal tend to bring monsoon rains, but the spring and the autumn offer more moderate temperatures, and much less precipitation. Winters in the high elevations, of course, are often very snowy and cold. Carol signed up for the October trek through a New Zealand-based tour company.


After three days of travel by air (including a 15-hour layover in Qatar), Carol made it to Kathmandu, Nepal, where she would meet the others in the group and begin the hike to Mt. Everest Base Camp.


The first night in Kathmandu was at a boutique hotel in the heart of the tourist district. The itinerary called for a day in Kathmandu, touring local sites and adjusting to the high altitude. One of the main sites to see just outside Kathmandu is the Swayambhunath Temple, often referred to as the Monkey Temple, as there are many macaque monkeys that live near the site and often interact with humans. The notated itinerary provided by the tour company stated that the monkeys “have even been known to steal hats on occasion.” The group also visited the Cremation Site, a UNESCO site, where they viewed the 7-8 stone blocks that were set along the river. When used as a cremation site, bodies are put on top of these stone blocks; then set on fire. After the bodies are cremated in the funeral pyre, the remains are pushed into the river. Hindus believe that cremation “releases the body back into its five elements,” according to TripSavy.com.


Carol stops for a picture at the Mount Everest Base Camp. Contributed photo

After spending a day as tourists in Kathmandu, the plan was to take a short plane ride to the town of Lukla, where they would begin the hike to the Everest Base Camp. But fog in Kathmandu meant that they stayed another day in the city. Lukla had also been experiencing heavy fog the previous few days, and planes had not been able to fly in or out of the airport, so the many groups of trekkers trying to get home had been stuck there for several days. For this reason, as the fog lifted, planes in Lukla were all booked to fly trekkers from Lukla to their destinations – and none were available for Carol’s group.


With this unfortunate situation, the group booked a helicopter to take them to Lukla. Upon arrival in Lukla, they immediately embarked on their first trail hike, rather than spending time relaxing in the area. Their late arrival meant they did not start hiking until the afternoon, so they hiked into the night, using headlamps to see the trail after dark. Although they were hiking downhill for most of this portion of the trip, the trail was steep and hilly, and a little wet from fog, drizzle and rain. This was not quite the “gentle introduction” to the trek that the group had expected.


The first day of hiking took the group to a small village called Phakding, where they stayed in a local teahouse for the night. In Nepal, teahouses are similar to budget motels or lodges, offering rustic accommodations as well as options for meals. Phakding is a picturesque village with a beautiful river running through it, but the group didn’t linger. They were on the trail again in the early morning, heading to the next stop on the trek, Namche Bazaar, where they would find the world’s highest marketplace, and take time to acclimatize themselves, so as to avoid altitude sickness.


Caused by ascending too rapidly to higher elevations, altitude sickness includes symptoms such as headaches, nausea and vomiting. For those not used to the thinner atmosphere at higher elevations, additional time is needed to adjust to lower oxygen availability. The trek itself was planned to include several days of altitude adjustment – initially in Kathmandu, then again at Namche Bazaar and at additional stops along the trail.


The tour company advised the group to bring medication for altitude sickness, in case their bodies did not adjust well. Carol, who was familiar with altitude sickness from previous travels, said she always goes to the “Travel and Tropical Medicine Center,” a Health Partners clinic in St. Paul. She generally visits the clinic before traveling, so that she can get all the recommended vaccines and find out about any current recommendations for traveling overseas.


The trekkers were also told to drink 3-4 liters of water per day. In moderate altitudes, people are often advised to drink eight cups of water per day. But in high altitudes, it helps to drink more water than normal, as it helps the body in acclimating to the altitude. In Nepal, since the local water might not be good to drink, the group was advised to use water purification tablets. Carol described filling a water bottle with tap water, and then adding a tablet to kill any bacteria. Within about half an hour, the water was safe to drink.


The group arrived in the village of Namche Bazaar, expecting to regroup and relax for a day. Carol described the town as a mountain village with lots of shops, full of handmade and tourist items, as well as basic supplies. It was a great place to buy necessities, such as toilet paper (since each hiker had to supply their own), batteries and other miscellaneous goods.


Originally, Namche Bazaar was a trading post with locals bartering yak cheese and butter for agricultural goods grown at lower altitudes. The village changed after Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa/guide, Tenzing Norgay’s successful climb of Mt. Everest in 1953. After this successful summit, tourists and hikers began to arrive in the area.


Carol and the group pose for a photo at the Memorial to Tenzing Norgay. Contributed photo

A short but steep hike outside the village of Namche Bazaar was the hikers’ first view of Mt. Everest on the trail. Also, on a small hill above Namche Bazaar, the group visited the life-size bronze statue of Tenzing Norgay. The statue is situated in view of Mt Everest, to honor the first successful climb to the summit of the highest mountain on earth made by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953.


After allowing their bodies to acclimate in Namche Bazaar for a day, the group hiked on, soon finding that they were above the tree line. Before this, the trail was heavily forested. But, as Carol noted, the conifers faded out, and “the landscape turned to just rocks from there - and moss and lichens.” The temperatures also began to drop, so the hikers pulled out their heavier gear.


Each day, the hikers rose early, and hiked for most of the day, sometimes stopping for breaks along a river or at a specific lookout point. At night, they stayed in the teahouses that dot the trail. Most teahouses had a main floor heated with a woodstove in the middle of the room. Filled with tables and chairs, this large communal room is used by travelers for eating and relaxing.


“It was not very warm, unless you stood right next to the woodstove,” remembered Carol.

In the upper levels of the teahouses, there are small bedrooms, which are quite simple by American standards. Most have two twin beds; some have attached bathrooms, but some have shared facilities down the hall. The bedrooms are not heated. Showers are heated by solar power, and sometimes – depending on the weather and time of day – are not very warm. With light bedding supplied by the teahouse, Carol was glad a down sleeping bag had been brought for each hiker by the tour group.


According to One Seed Expeditions’ blog, teahouses get more rustic the higher the elevation.  Close to the beginning of the trail, there may be western toilets (the kind you can sit on), but by the time you get to Base Camp, they are probably all squat toilets.

“You just kind of dealt with it,” said Carol about the rustic accommodations.


By Oct. 18, after another day resting and allowing their bodies to acclimate to the altitude in the village of Dingboche, the group hiked on to Lobuche, another small mountain town, and their last stop before they trekked on to the Everest Base Camp. In Lobuche, they found a solemn memorial to the climbers who had died on Everest. Approximately 800 people climb Mt. Everest each year, but there are an average of five people per year who die during the attempt. Due to safety concerns and hazardous conditions, not all are able to be brought down from the mountain. But they are memorialized at the site in Lobuche.


On Oct. 19, the 11th day of the trek, the group reached the Everest Base Camp, situated at the base of the Khumbu Icefall, at an elevation of 17,600 feet. They had made it! The entire group, whose average age was 65, had hiked all the way to the Everest Base Camp.

During the spring and early autumn, the Base Camp is often filled with hundreds of tents pitched by climbers waiting for the right time to ascend to the peak. But as the season for climbing was just about over, the group found only one tent pitched. Nevertheless, they took photos near the huge rock with “Everest Base Camp” inscribed on it, and celebrated their achievement. But with winter weather approaching, the group spent less than an hour at the Base Camp. They headed back down the trail (too soon) to Gorak Shep, where they spent the night.


The journey back to Lukla was several more days of hiking, following the trail they had taken on the way to the Base Camp, but going in the opposite direction this time. They observed the change back to forest from rock and alpine meadows, and had a chance to enjoy the scenery. Carol remembers the swinging bridges, and the numerous pack animals bringing supplies from one village to another. She saw yaks, donkeys, horses and yak/cow hybrids called zopkios or zhopis, all carrying heavy loads. Yaks, in particular, are used as pack animals in the Himalayas, as they are bred specifically for working in high elevations. And of course, the narrow trail had to be shared with all types of travelers.


“When someone behind you called out, ‘Animals!’ or ‘Yaks!’ or ‘Zhopis!,’ you had to move to the edge of the trail, to allow them to pass,” said Carol. It could be tricky, depending on how narrow the trail was.


Zhopies walked along trail, decorated and wearing bells. Contributed photo

On their ascent, the group had stopped at a monastery, where they saw a huge “prayer wheel.” Guides had pointed out the prayer wheels - cylindrical wheels with a mantra inscribed on them, and prayers inside – earlier in the trip, but this one was larger than life. For good luck, the notated itinerary advises, “always pass on the left and spin them clockwise.” Carol also remembers seeing prayer rocks, also inscribed with prayers.  And there were many colorful prayer flags, which are printed with prayers and symbols, along the way. They were hung anywhere they could be strung, but she especially remembers them along the swinging bridges, and at the memorial for those who had died at Everest, flying in the wind. “As the wind blows the flags,” said Carol, “the prayers are blown up to heaven.”


A few more days of hiking, enjoying the beautiful scenery, and staying in teahouses at night brought them back to Lukla, and the plane they would board for Kathmandu. According to Carol, the Lukla airport is the most dangerous airport in the world. As Carol describes it, the runway was “just like a rollercoaster.” The 1000-foot runway angles downwards and then suddenly swoops up, to gain altitude.


The group soared off towards Kathmandu, but the plane was diverted to a small airport, and the group then took a van the rest of the way – a five-hour journey by road.


Arrival in Kathmandu was welcome, as there were hot showers and a degree of luxury awaiting the group. As Carol noted, due to a weight limit for belongings, she had only been able to bring one change of clothes for the entire hike, so this was a time when she could change into clean clothes, which had been left with their suitcases at the hotel.


Although there were hardships to be endured, Carol had nothing but positive memories of the trip. “People were SO nice in Nepal!” said Carol. “They treated people really well.” And, she continued, “Everyone was considered family.”


The Khumbu Region, where the group was hiking, has benefited from their association with Sir Edmund Hillary. After his momentous climb to the summit of Mt. Everest, Hillary returned to Nepal, establishing schools and hospitals to help the region, which, at that time, had been notoriously cut off from modern medicine and education. Since that time, the area has done well, and the residents are very grateful to Hillary and his foundation for their support.


Carol was thrilled with the Nepalese people, who she said were “so down to earth!” She was also impressed by the “kindness they showed strangers.”


Carol loved the entire trip - the views, the mountains, the people, and the environment. This trip helped her to gain confidence in herself – confidence “to do things by myself.” After this experience, Carol feels even more strongly about encouraging others.


“People should live their lives to the fullest!” exclaimed Carol. She firmly believes that age is just a number. “The more we do, the more we can do,” Carol enthused. “If you really want to do something, at least try it!”

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