Born in the South of Italy, I grew up in close touch with the sea. Nevertheless, my father is from Milan, not far from the Alps. He introduced me to the mountains at the age of 10.
I quickly grew fond of trekking. Being passionate of challenges, I developed a fascination for Mount Everest since the adolescence. Growing up, I realized that my first intent of climbing the summit would require a deep preparation and plenty of knowledge. As I said, though, I have lived my life far from any peak, and I never had time to do that. I found my natural boundary in any place I can go to as far as I can walk.
As my life unfolded, I found myself in Nepal in 2015, but during this first experience I preferred to explore the Annapurna massif. Perhaps, I just wanted a reason to come back soon, and that was to walk all the way to Everest Base Camp. I also sealed a deal with my Nepalese friend Tilak: if I would come back within 12 months, he had to come with me. I seldom miss to honour a deal. In March 2016 I was back in Kathmandu.
Right after a shorter and by-far easier trekking in the Gorkha district, mostly dedicated to my first photo-reportage “Gorkha: one year later“, I undertook the challenge I have been longing for a long time.
The altitude seemed to be the toughest enemy to face. In order to better acclimatise, thus, I decided to extend the classic journey everybody undertakes. Instead of flying to the perilous airport of Lukla (300$ round-trip), I accepted the tip of a group of Sherpa I met in Gorkha, taking a jeep from Kathmandu to Salleri (30$ round-trip), and extending the trip 6 days overall.
This is the account of the long days of walking I faced, coping with the cold and the fear of altitude sickness, but supported by old and new friends, then inspired by breathtaking sceneries and the romance of ascending towards the highest peak of the Earth.
Day 1 to 3 – The Unbeaten Track
I set out on April 27. After the 9-hours ride from Kathmandu, I found myself at the foothills of the Sagarmatha National Park (Sagarmatha is the Nepalese name for Everest), in the village of Salleri. I spent the first of three night at local guest-houses, much different from the ones I was going to find later. The Sherpa is the predominant ethnic group of the region, but there is also a presence of Limbu and Rai. I spent some time with all of them, enjoying their similarities, yet big differences.
I ate only the delicious dalbhat (typical Nepalese rice&lentils meal) they prepared for their own family too, slept on wooden beds in the room next to their own ones, and spent my little knowledge of Nepalese language to understand more of their simple life. Their smiles, quiet gestures and spontaneous politeness clashed with the noisy city life of Kathmandu, which represents the new faith on this corner of the Earth: the culture of “you’re nobody if you don’t own and live in the big town” eventually reached even a place like Nepal.
Here on the mountains, instead, life is still clean, green, sustainable. The characters of this scenario live in tune with the lush surrounding nature.
Day 4 to 7 – Joining the Highway
After the nights spent in Salleri, Nunthala and Kari La Pass, I coasted the landing strip of Lukla, making my way through the mystic villages of Muse and Chaurikharka, both plunged in a deep silence and characteristic Buddhist features. Then, I joined the main trekking. Let’s just say that, although everybody is entitled to explore this stunning paths, the atmosphere changed dramatically. The feeling is the one of joining a marathon. The guest-houses rise their level of comfort, and prices follow.
Still, is possible to find cosy, not pretentious accommodation, usually on the outskirts of the villages. After a night at Phakding, I spent two days in the bustling Namche Bazaar, the very cross-road of all the trekking routes in the region. Here, I met Tilak, who flew to Lukla, having just few days of holidays.
During the second day, we had an acclimatisation walk to the hamlets of Khunde and Khumjung, named “the twin villages”, as both display all-green roofs and a peculiar atmosphere of a place lost in time among the peaks.
The stop following Namche is Tengboche, dominated by its monastery, the largest gompa in the Khumbu region. This is a sort of watershed along the trek: lying at 3,860mt, is the last place where you can find scattered trees, and wooden stoves therefore (afterwards, dried yak’s dung becomes the main fuel). At the same time, here we had the first snow.
Day 8 to 10 – Into thin air
You don’t need to be in proximity of the Everest summit to experience the feelings which inspired the Jon Krakauer’ book. Over 4,000mt, the heartbeat naturally increases, the oxygen in the air decreases, and every step gets damn harder. We spent the two following acclimatisation days at Dingboche, 4,410mt. We arrived there in a frozen sleet, fending our cheeks as a razor. The evening turned to be clear, giving us hope for good weather the day after, but this is well-known as an unpredictable factor.
Indeed, I woke up on the day of my 29th birthday, May 5, in a suggestive, yet discouraging, cover of snow all over the valley. A sudden, subtle feeling of despair and loneliness caught me. Far from all my relatives and most intimate friends, I had also to cope with the idea that my “summit” could not be reachable any soon, if not any longer.
Nevertheless, the power of elements turned again the situation upside-down. A burning midday sun burst out the thick blanket of clouds, and melted the snow in a snap of fingers, allowing me and my companions to walk atop a steep slope, in order to gain altitude and improve our resistance to it. All around us, the peaks were glowing in glittering, fresh ice.
Restored by the opening sights of majestic mountains all around us, the day after we made our way to Lobuche. We entered now the highest part of the valley, walking breathlessly on its moon-like surface, as explorers of a remote planet. The rising adrenaline, though, compensated for every effort. We overstepped 5,000mt altitude.
On the 10th day, we reached Gorak Shep, 5,140mt, the very last agglomerate of lodges before the base camp. While Tilak, and the small group of people we joined along the way, proceeded directly to the Base Camp, I felt quite bad. The altitude oppressed me with a feeling of nausea and dizziness. The coldest night of my life didn’t bring any restoring sleep either, but I felt so close to my target that I simply decided to wake up and move on by inertia, burning my last reserves of energy.
Day 11 – My “summit”
We woke up at 4am. The sunrise is the clearest moment of the day in term of visibility, especially in the late spring season, before the moonsoon. We were resolute to make the top of Kala Patthar, the nearest and most accessible peak at 5,540mt, traditionally considered the best vantage point to enjoy the spectacle.
The crystallized atmosphere right outside the lodge got me so excited that I suddenly forgot every physical struggle. Feeding my body with a frozen chocolate bar, I joined my peers in the way to the top. No words can describe the solemn panorama in front of my eyes.
I saw the satisfaction for the accomplished endeavour in my friends’ eyes, but I still had to hit my goal. Without a second of rest, I descended Kala Patthar and made my way towards my very last destination: the Everest Base Camp. It took only an hour and a half. Luckily, the weather was still clear, and I could enjoy, silently and amazed, the amphitheatre of my trekking dreams. I could see some climbers arranging their gears, enjoying breakfast in the middle of the Khumbu glacier as if they were in their own courtyard. To those adventurers, EBC is a mere starting point. To me, it sounded like the end of a cycle of my life, not only related to hiking. I accomplished some targets I gave myself in the last few years. This was simply the perfect cherry on top of the cake.
Day 12 to 16 – The way back
It took me only 5 days to come back to Salleri. Life at those altitudes is consuming, and, honestly, I quite liked the idea of descending this rocky rollercoaster. At the same time, though, I enjoyed seeing the burning desire of making it till the end in the eyes of those now I crossed on their way up.
Knowing the feeling this endeavour gives, I wished in my heart all of them could see what I saw. The human being can be so fragile, yet can reach the sky, and far beyond.
Photo: Matteo Fabi