What I Carried: Hiking Towards Everest at Yak Speed

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We often make our dreams come true in tiny steps. I learned this on my recent hike towards Everest.

The dream began with a question: “Did you know that Nepal has the most dangerous airport in the world?” Those words are like a siren call to any bucket list traveller. That airport is Lukla, Nepal and it’s where just about every traveller who summits (or attempts to reach) the peak begins their journey. We had no guide, no firm plans, just backpacks, and a desire to go on. So we went.

Once you’ve survived the landing at Lukla, where the runway seems 90-degrees steep and lives up to the reputation, the cold air hits you, you pop on your backpack, and put one foot in front of the other. There’s only one trail and it leads to Everest, right? Oh, the joys of being clueless.

The hike to Everest Base Camp is 10 days long. The small trail we were on was maybe 3 ft (1 m) wide and the sole freeway for all the villages ahead. There were kids scampering off to school in front of us, giggling at how overpacked we were. There were sherpas carrying goods for the tiny outposts further ahead. There was even one man carrying an entire refrigerator on his back. No kidding.

Cory (left) and his husband spin their first prayer wheel on their first day in the Himalayas. (©Cory Payton)

We admired the streams trickling through amazing wildflowers and discovered tiny monasteries on hillsides. The hours passed and the packs became heavier and we began to feel the aches.

What the YouTube videos don’t tell you is that the journey is not just one upwards ascent to a beautiful peak. You go up to peaks, down to rivers, again and again. As you pass fellow hikers, you hear stories of the legendary day three awaiting you: “Oh, you have the Namche Hill tomorrow. You can do it.”

Like every trekker, we started to realize what was actually in our packs and what we could leave behind. You also start to think about your life and what is actually needed for happiness. On this mighty trail, you realize what you can let go of and that what you achieve is all you need.

We soon learned that the Namche Hill was no hill at all, but rather a six-hour, straight up, leg burning, back aching lesson in “What have I done?” It separates those who want to be there from those who don’t. You give up or you find the energy and peace you never knew you had in that next step. There’s encouragement on all fronts, from the sherpas carrying full bales of hay to the Everest pros who have “peaked” five times patting you on the back and sharing Band-Aids for your feet. At the end of this day is Namche Bazaar, the largest village in the area, where you regroup, re-energize, and head towards base camp.

Yaks are some of the only animals capable of carrying heavy loads through the high altitudes of Namche Bazaar. (©Cory Payton)

As we trekked higher the mules disappeared and it was yaks from there on up who could handle the altitude. I enjoyed those yaks ahead of me as they gave me a yak
speed mentality: one step ahead is all you need. Life and the trail is not a race.

By day six, we had only tiny glimpses of Everest through the foggy mist that permeates the region. We went to bed worrying we were going to miss out. The next day, I glimpsed the first rays of dawn and it was like Christmas morning. I wiped the moisture from the window at 5am and realized it was the clearest day we’d had so far. We both peered into the distance with awe and it was right there: Everest!

It was incredible to have ventured beyond what we thought we could accomplish, and then to be rewarded with those majestic peaks all around. We heard the monks’ call to prayer as we took in the grandeur of the highest peak on the planet. We saw the actual vapor trail that Everest creates as the winds blow past.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of accomplishment. We turned to each other on that morning in Tengboche and thought, we’re good! Fulfilled and content, we decided to
head back down that Himalayan highway.

We returned to Lukla, now the ones with the stories, knowing the secrets of the Namcha Hill and keeping it to ourselves with that sense of pride we had seen on day one. We had done it. As in life’s journey, it all started with one foot in front of the other…at yak speed.

This article was originally published in No. 32 of Globetrotting Magazine.

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Cory Payton
Cory Payton
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