by Hank Leukart
March 13, 2011
Like hiking through molasses with a meat grinder in your stomach
Two brothers fight food poisoning while filming their trek to Nepal’s Everest Base Camp.
Hank, feeling ill, walks toward Everest Base Camp behind a flying bird.
This is the last essay in a series about how my brother and I filmed our trek to Everest Base Camp. Watch the movie first, then start with the first essay to get the whole story.E
VEREST BASE CAMP, Khumbu, Nepal — When we arrive in Lobuche, only 1,149 feet below Everest Base Camp, I eat a plate of spaghetti and sausage for dinner. It doesn’t taste good, but, by now, the importance of taste has become second to stuffing as many calories into ourselves as feasible, because we find it nearly impossible to replenish the at least 6,000 calories we’re burning each day while hiking. Brian orders dal bhat, a Nepalese rice-potatoes-curry dish that is one of the tastiest meals available in the Khumbu. Unfortunately, even dal bhat starts tasting bland after you’ve eaten it ten times in two weeks.
During dinner, Brian and I talk to Harry Potter — or, at least, that’s what we call him, because he’s British and looks and sounds exactly like Daniel Radcliffe. He tells us that he’s looking for someone to join him in traversing Cho La Pass, an alternate return route from Everest Base Camp. This is the return route for which I’ve been lobbying from the beginning. Harry Potter tells us that a local guide urged him not to try Cho La alone because of a recent snowfall that has made it difficult to avoid tumbling down the mountain while following the high trail. Since we’ve done a good job adhering to our aggressive schedule, Brian and I decide that we have time for Cho La, and we promise Harry that we’ll join him when we return from Base Camp. Before bed, a boisterous group of Italian hikers, seeing us filming with our cameras, eagerly tells us that they’re carrying a blowup doll, and they plan to take scandalous photos with it at Base Camp. They beg us to film them with the doll when we get there. We’re not terribly impressed with their wit.
Four hours later, in the middle of the night, I find myself needing to visit our teahouse’s filthy squat toilet every 20 minutes. I’m regretting eating the spaghetti and sausage. Each time I wake, the sound of trekkers’ constant coughing from their rooms due to the lack of oxygen makes me feel like I’m in a hospital’s Critical Care unit. For the rest of the night, I feel like my internal organs are rearranging themselves constantly, and I feel anemic. In the morning, I still feel very sick, but we decide that it’s essential to stay on schedule so that we can join Harry Potter over Cho La Pass. Fortunately, I’ve come prepared: I’m carrying exactly what my travel doctor ordered: Ciprofloxacin for Nepal and Azithromycin for my subsequent trip to India, both broad-spectrum antibiotics appropriate for killing the nasty stomach bacteria that usually cause travellers’ diarrhea. While I’m lying in bed, Brian pulls out a camera and makes me talk about how I’m feeling. I’m miserable and reluctant, but we’re used to a dynamic in which one of us tries to keep everything going when the other lacks motivation. Brian insists that we keep filming, no matter how bad we feel. After I skip breakfast, Brian brews an improvised rehydration beverage for me. Then, Brian does a quick interview on camera, and we start hiking slowly up the trail toward Gorak Shep, the jumping-off point for Everest Base Camp and nearby mountain Kala Patthar.
150 feet of elevation above Lobuche, Brian and I stop to take a break. My body feels so weak that I’m sure I’m going to collapse at any moment. I tell Brian that I don’t think I can make it to Gorak Shep. After a long deliberation, which we film by putting the camera on our tripod below us and sitting on some rocks next to a glacial moraine, we return to Lobuche. I crawl back into bed.
While Brian reads Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard — a classic about Matthiessen’s epic trek to Crystal Mountain in Nepal’s Dolpo region — I stay in bed for 24 hours, waking frequently to visit the toilet. During these sleep interruptions, Brian updates me on Matthiessen’s ruminations on his own overwhelming struggles during his difficult trek. We begin to feel an affinity with him. When I wake the next morning, I’m feeling slightly improved, but Brian then divulges that he spent part of the night vomiting. For breakfast, we order pancakes and Sprite, trying to get at least a small amount of benign food in our stomachs. But, after we force down about half of our pancakes — which taste more like glue patties than like sweet cake — our dreams of crossing Cho La Pass with Harry Potter are shattered by glue- and Sprite-flavored vomit. We decide unhappily to spend another day recovering in Lobuche, knowing that doing so means we’ve wasted two full hiking days, and we’ll only have time to return from Base Camp via our approach route. We’re dejected.
The next morning, we still barely feel well enough to move. But, we know that our late father would have disapproved greatly of our giving up. Even on vacations, he liked to pack our days full, making sure that the family saw everything there was to see. Brian and I are cut from the same cloth: we don’t want to risk missing our chance to visit Everest Base Camp and maybe even more importantly, Kala Patthar. Visiting the summit of Kala Patthar is considered the highlight of the Everest Base Camp trek, because, from the top, hikers can see views of three of the twenty highest mountains in the world: Everest (29,029 feet), Lohtse (27,940 feet), and Nuptse (25,801 feet). (Incidentally, this is especially important because the peak of Mount Everest is not visible from Everest Base Camp.)
Finally, we leave Lobuche and drag ourselves to Gorak Shep. It only takes us a couple hours, and when we arrive at our teahouse, we meet a British couple who tells us that we still have enough time to do the “easy climb” to the top of Kala Patthar to see the sunset. We’re convinced, but, as Brian and I start up the mountain, we feel like we’re going to collapse. We feel extraordinarily weak, the trail is steep, and there’s only half as much oxygen in the air as there is at sea level. We’re both annoyed with the extra work and the delay required when we agree to set up the camera on a tripod to film ourselves hiking up the mountain, but we want to make sure this special moment is captured, if for no other reason than to prove to ourselves that we conquered Kala Patthar despite the odds. When we finally reach the summit, we’re delirious and rambling because of extreme fatigue and lack of oxygen. When Brian directs the camera toward me, my interview is sprawling and emotional. I start crying, which is not typical for me. When I interview Brian, I can barely hold the camera, and the frame is strangely askew and shows other hikers milling about. During his interview, he too becomes teary.
That night, we prearrange two of our cameras on a windowsill next to our beds. In the morning, as soon as we awake, we turn the cameras on to capture the last morning of our life before being transformed into people who have visited Everest Base Camp. We still feel very ill, and we don’t feel like getting out of bed. But we think of our Dad, not to mention our imminent flight back to Kathmandu, and we force ourselves up. Slowly, we trudge toward Base Camp, and I feel like I’m hiking through molasses with a meat grinder in my stomach. Since the hike takes three hours in each direction, we have plenty of time to film each other walking across the astounding vistas of glacial moraines with peaks towering over us.
When we finally arrive, it’s another emotional moment. I find myself speaking of our late father on camera, which is not something either of us expected to do. Our father never would have joined us on our trek to Everest Base Camp at his age — especially considering that there’s not a golf course to be found anywhere in the Khumbu — but he would have been enthusiastic about our trip, reading the details of the route on the Internet to our Mom and tracking our progress from home.
Ironically, on our way down from Base Camp, Brian and I have some of the most fun we’ve had during the entire trek, as we continue to film ourselves. We’ve both recovered from our stomach illness, and there’s comparatively so much oxygen in the air that we feel like we could hike for weeks without stopping to rest or eat. We visit Pheriche’s hiker clinic, where we learn that Cipro is mostly useless on the Everest Base Camp trek due to bacterial resistance. (If only I had started by taking my Azithromycin!) We visit Khumjung, where we eat the Everest Bakery’s famous apple pie (delicious!), see an alleged yeti skull in the Khumjung Gomba, and visit the Edmund Hilary School, funded by Edmund Hilary, the first climber ever to summit Everest (guided by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay). Above Khumjung, we have a quick lunch at the famous Hotel Everest View, a comparatively luxurious, Japanese-built hotel which, bizarrely, has pressured rooms with piped oxygen originally built to allow wealthy tourists to take a helicopter directly to the Hotel without acclimatizing. Some of these scenes will fit into our movie, and some of them won’t. But, we’re having so much fun hiking and filming them that it doesn’t matter to us much.
When we finally return to Lukla, Brian and I decide to treat ourselves for the first time in almost three weeks. We spend the last night of our trek at Lukla’s excellent luxury Everest Summit Lodge, where we’re served a full four-course meal. The place is quirky — they ask us to wear plastic sandals and scarves around which make us look like patients in a mental asylum, and our room is still unheated (though we’re given electric blankets and our own hot shower). In the morning, we eat dinner next to a British family who seems ripped directly from an E.M. Forster novel (“Shall we vacation in Blackpool this year, my good fellows?”). Afterward, we wait for our flight in sandals and scarves, drinking tea in the lodge’s courtyard, playing a board game and enjoying views of the Himalaya.
It’s the kind of silly yet satisfying experience that Dad would have loved. WB