Tony Stevens recently travelled with Flash Pack on our first adventure to the Nepalese highlands, hiking the Everest Trail to the viewpoint at Farak Ri, at 5,000 metres.
Here, he explains how escaping to the hazy Himalayan foothills helped clear his head, creating a new path forwards from a low period in his life
Our plane is hurtling towards the side of a mountain. A tiny runway suddenly appears perched precariously on a slope. The only sound I can hear is the drone of the plane’s engines.
Around me, eighteen trekkers hold their breath.
Our anxiety is not unfounded. The Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Nepal is the most dangerous runway in the world.
In 2008 a plane crashed attempting to land killing all 18 passengers. It doesn’t have the best safety record. But Lukla is the gateway to the Everest Trail – so it’s the busiest domestic airport in the country.
Beside me, my roommate Keith is pale. The runway seems to shrink as we fly closer.
But then I feel the bite of wheels on tarmac, and the screech of high-speed brakes. Raucous cheering erupts inside the cabin.
The adventure begins.
Ever since I was a boy reading Tintin comics, the Himalayas have captured my imagination.
The roof of the world is where giants live; snow-capped mega-mountains that inspire a mythical awe. But what draws me to Nepal now is rehabilitation. Chasing mountains offers a soul enriching reprieve from a crippling depression.
Mentally besieged since the death of a loved one and a painful breakup, I had zero hesitation when I found Flash Pack’s Nepalese adventure whilst scrolling through my Facebook feed.
My mates screwed their faces up as if they’d smelt the whiff of a particularly nasty fart when I said I was going alone. But I needed to do something just for me.
No faffers to wait for, no stress-heads to placate, no indecisive whingers. Just me against the world.
Of course, being alone in a strange country is scary but, with Flash Pack I would get the best of both worlds – plenty of me time aaand ready-made friends with a similar thirst for adventure.
The journey has us hiking the Everest Trail in late September, then diverging from the popular Base Camp route for quieter (less touristy) paths, and unparalleled views of Everest from one of the highest hotels in the world.
“These are my people”
Off the plane, I’m greeted by a rush of fresh mountain air. Breathing deeply, I savour the sweet alpine scent. It’s a tonic after Kathmandu, where the air is corrupted with dust and petrol fumes.
The group wanders through Lukla’s cobbled marketplace, full of adrenaline after our Indiana Jones-esque entrance. The resident Scottish Pub is still serving drinks at 7.30am so we decide to celebrate. It’s pungent with stale beer and the counter is sticky from the night before, but we don’t care.
Any anxiety I had before the trip about not being able to make friends – or being stuck sharing a room with a chronic snorer – lasted all of about five seconds.
“These are my people,” I think to myself as I survey a room full of smiling, energised faces. Everyone in the group has adventure in their bones and after a few action-packed days together my Flash Pack group feels like family.
A spiritual world
Flush with high altitude beer, we meander to a tea house nestled above the portal to the Everest Trail. Here, our Nepalese lead, D-Man, introduces us to the guides and porters – the supermen with the unenviable duty of hauling our luggage up the mountains.
Moments later the briefing is punctuated with a shout from D-Man: “jam jam!”, meaning “time to go!” Our destination today is Phakding, a small village perched in the Dudh Kosi river valley.
The stony track takes us through vibrant green highlands, snaking arm-in-arm with the river, a torrent of milky white water. The trail is teeming with enterprise. Industrious sherpa merchants sell bottled water, Snickers, and San Miguel out of small shops.
It’s early in the walking season so there aren’t many hikers but there is still traffic. Porters carrying burdens thrice the size of themselves overtake us, often only in sandals, occasionally barefoot. Sherpas lead columns of donkeys and yaks laden with food supplies and LPG bottles.
The Himalayas are an intensely spiritual place.
The influence of Buddhism can be seen, heard and smelt everywhere. Ornate prayer wheels offer spiritual blessings as we spin them clockwise, bells chiming with each rotation. Huge boulders that have tumbled from the mountains are engraved in Sanskrit with chalky scripture.
The calming aroma of incense wafts past as we ramble through colourful villages. An adorable Sherpa girl bursts out of a doorway and shouts “Namaste!” to our smitten group.
On Cloud Nine
It’s mid-afternoon when we reach our lodgings, a stone-crafted fortress nestled right on the banks of the Dudh Kosi. Sherpa attendants serve us lemon tea and heated face towels infused with eucalyptus as we bundle into the reception. “Everybody happy chappie?” asks D-Man.
Happy as Larry.
With four hours to kill until dinner, I stalk the banks of the river with my camera. I clamber up a rocky slope and onto a giant boulder to survey the area. It’s a serene moment and it suddenly dawns on me that I’m happy.
I can’t feel any of the paralysing emotions that had been plaguing me at home. My spirit is soaring so high I’m overtaken by an urge to howl into the wind like a baying wolf.
An hour later I’m drinking Gorkha beer at the village Irish bar with a couple of fellow rogues from the group, Sarah and Natalie. Irish bars at altitude are an institution on the Everest Trail and, with the air thinning at 2, 600 metres, we become very cheap dates.
Enjoying ourselves a little too much, we slink into the lodge dining hall ten minutes late and are forever branded the naughty kids.
Into the unknown
After a breakfast of eggs, porridge, and Tibetan bread, we embark on what will be our longest and most physically challenging leg of the quest – an eight-hour hike and 800-metre ascent to Namche Bazaar.
The path traverses fragrant pine forest, crossing the river several times over shaky suspension bridges draped in fluttering prayer flags like Christmas lights. The landscape continues to captivate with its immense scale. Ahead in the distance Mount Thamserku, a 6,600-metre behemoth, challenges the heavens.
We arrive at a confluence of the Dudh Kosi and Bhote Kosi rivers framed by mountainous woodland and ahead of us is the infamous Larja Dobhan crossing. The drooping suspension bridge floats at a dizzying 100 metres above rocky rapids. “Jam jam!” beckons D-Man.
I’m precisely halfway across when the wind picks up and the narrow wire frame starts swaying.
A supercharged dose of queasiness floods my gut. “Don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look down,” I mouth silently, dragging one foot after the other. A huge exhalation escapes my lips when I’m across and I realise I’d been holding my breath.
The next two hours are an exhausting uphill grind as we tackle the high altitude ascension to Namche. Climbing steeply, my legs are screaming and I’m breathing like I’ve just done 100 burpees. The group’s pace is a dawdle, set deliberately by our guides to ward off altitude sickness.
Bone weary after eight hours on our feet, the sight of Namche Bazaar is like arriving in Shangri-La.
Read more: Solo travel fuels this major happiness habit
The trading mecca is an oasis of terraced buildings on a crescent shaped slope surrounded by Herculean mountain peaks. At our lodge, removing my boots feels euphoric and the sensation of a hot towel on my face is intoxicating.
On a wall in my room is a picture of Edmund Hillary with his famous quote, “It’s not the mountains we conquer, but ourselves.” It resonates with me powerfully, epitomising my own reason for embarking on this adventure.
Life on the edge
In the morning we catch our first glimpse of Everest at the Tenzing Norgay stupa above Namche.
The mountain’s Sanskrit name ‘Sagarmatha’ means “Peak of Heaven” and it earns the title. At 8,848 metres, Everest boldly challenges the stratosphere. We pose with impish grins for a group photo. “Yak cheese!” smirks D-Man.
Read more: Unwind and recharge with a green therapy hit
Hiking to the 3,800-metre village of Thame we arrive in a haze of soupy mist. Visibility vanished an hour into the day and we spent the remainder of the march with our heads literally in the clouds. A blinding sunrise serves as an alarm clock the next day, illuminating mountains with capes of snow that had sheepishly hid behind the fog.
Above them all presides regal Thamserku like a white palace in the sky. The next hour is spent hunting for Instagram worthy snaps.
We traverse a variety of landscapes on route to our apex Kongde, fording rivers, navigating jungle, and climbing steadily up a precarious cliff-side path. The enveloping cloud and rain makes the treacherous topography extra dangerous – a trip in the wrong direction and you disappear into a murky void.
I reach out to grab one of the few handrails separating the path from the abyss below and it almost gives way. Wire cables are stapled into the rock face for handholds, but they too are slippery.
“I don’t want to die! I’ve got so much left to give,” protests Nip, a warm-hearted Londoner with no prior hiking experience. I glance in front of me at Keith who has an ashen look on his face. A few steps ahead is Natalie wearing a sadistically gleeful expression.
Resting at the top of a sheer staircase, our porters appear from the mist brandishing coconut biscuits and thermoses of lemon tea. Feeling wet to the bone the hot tea lifts my spirits for the final slog. “Jam jam!” hollers D-Man. In Kongde, all anyone can talk about is hot showers and steamed momos.
Light after darkness
I’m up early in the morning, eager to catch a glimpse of the Everest sunrise. Wearing all the clothes in my pack, I venture into the minus 12 degree-air and pan my eyes across the cinematic landscape. For miles, in every direction, there are only mountains; a conference of giants chaired by imperious Sagarmatha. Other members of the group are already outside, eyes agape at the wondrous scene. “Wow…”
As dawn breaks we make our final ascent up a rocky hill of heather and bracken. Upon reaching the 5,000-metre milestone at Farak Ri viewpoint, the group bursts into triumphant cheers, as if we had just summited Everest itself.
We celebrate with a dance routine to Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’, then hang a trio of prayer flags we’d been saving between a pair of cairns.
Gripping the man-made rainbow I imbue the flags with my intentions. “World peace and happiness for all,” why not? A beer I’d smuggled up the climb suddenly appears in my hand with a rewarding “pshhhhhh”. The crisp German hops taste victorious.
“It’s all downhill from here,” I realise with a pang of sadness. The mountains, the momos, my new friends… I don’t want to say goodbye.
But then I smile.
My head might be in the clouds but my mind is the clearest it’s been in a long time. I feel renewed, and it occurs to me that this trip might just have saved my life.
If anyone asks me for advice on how to cope with stress, anxiety or depression, I’m going to say: “pack your bags, get on a plane, find a group of strangers, and see the world.”
I sit down on a rock still gripping the can of Sherpa Gold and fiddle with the dials on my camera, admiring the awesome panorama before me.
This is my reason right here.
“Jam jam!” shouts D-Man.
3 mountain escapes to book now
Unplug in a world of fluttering prayer flags and gilded stupas as you hike 5,000 metres up through the remote foothills of the Everest highlands to the viewpoint at Farak Ri.
Zig-zag your way along ancient mule trails and scree fields, as you tackle the summit of the “roof of North Africa”, Mount Toubkal in Morocco, at just over 4,000 metres.
Trek through the rolling Peruvian Andes to the multi-coloured summit of Rainbow Mountain at 5,200 metres, with an overnight camp beneath the stars.
Images: Tony Stevens, Flash Pack