"Unfortunately, life had plans for me that did not involve taking a single footstep in my hiking boots."
This is a story about how I didn’t make it to Everest Base Camp. In fact, it’s a story about how I didn’t even start the journey. As travel writers and bloggers, we focus on the magical, inspiring and positive experiences we have while travelling, but sometimes things go wrong, and it’s important to reflect on these moments and learn from them. So this is a tale of a time when things didn’t go as planned, and what I’ve managed to take from the experience.
As every traveller knows, an adventure overseas doesn’t begin once you’re there. It starts from the moment you begin researching, planning, booking, reading and talking about the trip. There are weeks and months before we even pack our bags where the excitement is palpable. Comparing accommodation options, researching off-the-beaten-track experiences, buying a new travel journal – all of these things are a part of a journey abroad, though they happen well before any travelling takes place.
Some trips take more preparation than others. A trek to Everest Base Camp, for instance, requires months of physical training and mental preparation, not to mention purchasing all the necessary equipment for high altitude conditions. Due to all the preparation beforehand and the pressure you inevitably put on yourself to rise to the challenge of reaching the base of the world’s tallest mountain, it’s all the more gut-wrenching when the adventure doesn’t happen.
The original plan
My good friend Nat and I booked a trekking tour and tickets to Nepal at the beginning of 2018 and spent all year training hard. My workplace offers free gym membership for staff, which I took full advantage of, attending gruelling boot camp, boxing and strength classes. I shifted my commute to work from a bus ride to a hilly 45-minute walk and ventured on day hikes around Auckland every weekend I could manage. The tickets were all paid for, leave taken, accommodation booked, and Nat and I were messaging every few days updating each other on how we were feeling and doing preparation-wise. Before I left for Nepal in early October, I was the fittest I’ve been in years, excited to embark on a challenging adventure, and thinking about how amazing it would feel to trek in the Himalayas, which had been a dream for so many years.
I spent the first couple of days in Kathmandu exploring the bustling city and surrounding area. I wandered the streets filled with shops selling cashmere scarves, Himalayan tea and Jon Krakauer bestsellers, and took a lovely day trip to the Chandragiri Hills and the beautiful Swayambhunath Stupa (the “monkey temple”). I stocked up on souvenirs and postcards for people back home and eagerly awaited Nat’s arrival and the beginning of our trek.
The wrench in the plan
Unfortunately, life had plans for me that did not involve taking a single footstep in my hiking boots. On the first day of our tour, which was set aside for arrival and orientation, I woke up with the all-too-familiar and incredibly unwelcome pang of my bowels wanting to empty themselves. Several trips to the bathroom later and it became glaringly undeniable I’d come down with food poisoning. Nothing I haven’t had before, and while it sucks, I figured it’d be out of my system within 24-48 hours, so no cause for great concern.
My tour manager suggested I visit the hospital in Kathmandu to check I was okay before we left for Lukla to begin the trek, and while I was initially very reluctant, my symptoms weren’t going away the following day, so I eventually agreed. The 21-year-old nurse hooked me up to an IV, gave me some antibiotics and some medication for abdominal pain, and discharged me an hour or so later. She was dubious about whether I could trek the next day, which didn’t fill me with hope, but I was determined to get well.
The next day I felt pretty much the same but didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to trek, so set off bright and early to Kathmandu airport with Nat and our guide, Tej, to take the short flight to Lukla. When you’re a nervous flyer and your bowels need to relieve themselves at unforeseen intervals, waiting for a delayed flight for six hours in a crowded airport and enduring a turbulent journey to one of the world’s most dangerous airports is not likely to be high on your wishlist. However, I made the enlightening discovery that suffering from acute diarrhoea is, in fact, a highly effective cure for aviophobia. Curiously, when your attention is solely devoted towards making sure you don’t crap your pants, the fear you have of tiny aeroplanes that threaten to plummet to earth every few seconds becomes only a minor concern.
Hope still alive
Arriving in Lukla, our bags were carried to a nearby lodge by a couple of porters, and we sat down to have some tea and food. It was decided that Tej and Nat would set off together on the first leg of the trek while I remained in Lukla to recover, with the hope that I’d be able to start and catch up the next day.
Trekking to Everest Base Camp involves attaining some impressive altitude (base camp itself is situated over 5,000m above sea level), so trekkers need to follow a strict acclimatisation schedule. If the trail was at a much lower altitude, fit hikers would probably be able to complete it in several days. However, as your body needs time to adjust to being at incredible heights, rushing quickly along the trail is not an option, and can be life-threatening. All the reading I’d done prior to the trip had made me well aware of the fact that I needed at least two weeks to get up to base camp and safely down again. I knew that the longer I remained ill and the more of the trek I missed, the lower my chances would be of reaching base camp. I tried not to think about this too much, but the thought preoccupied my mind constantly.
Realisation sets in
After another two days in Lukla, still unable to digest food and feeling very weak, it was clear I was suffering from something other than your standard bout of food poisoning. Time for another visit to the hospital. This time, I visited the one in Lukla. The 15-minute walk there exhausted me, which wasn’t a promising sign. Ten minutes and USD$100 later, I emerged armed with some more medicine that would hopefully remedy the problem. Until it kicked in, it was time for more rest at the lodge.
By this stage, I’d missed three days of trekking, which meant that there was no way I’d manage to get to base camp. If I did improve, the most I could hope to do was a trek to Namche Bazaar, a couple of days’ hike along the trail. I tried to stay positive and keep busy by reading, doing puzzles (I’m a lover of sudoku and code crackers) and chatting to friends and family, but I was confined to my room most of the time as I didn’t have the energy to walk far, and any time I ate anything I’d still need to run to the toilet pretty soon afterwards.
After four days of this, I finally had to come to terms with the realisation that no trekking whatsoever was going to happen. Even walking for a few minutes was tiring - the strength I’d gained from my training all year had disappeared. And so, instead of sitting around feeling sorry for myself for another week until my return flight back home, I made the difficult decision to fly back to Auckland earlier than planned.
Coming to terms
It’s devastating when a goal you’ve spent months preparing for is right there in front of you, and you aren’t able to take a single step towards accomplishing it. However, after being back home for a while now and having time to reflect on what I’ve learned from this experience, I’ve come to realise that although things like this really do suck, there are positives that come out of them too.
I was looked after so well by the lodge owners in Lukla and my tour manager. Despite being alone, I always felt someone was looking out for me, and it made a huge difference. Although I wasn’t able to do much exercise, I made the most of the pre-booked leave from work to put my brain to work. Since returning home, I got stuck into some freelance writing projects, redesigned my website, made a financial plan for the year ahead and sorted out a lot of life admin. The pressure that I felt over the past year has gone now. I no longer have to worry about setting money aside for the trip or making sure I exercise X number of times a week to stay fit enough. I’ve started listening to podcasts again, thinking about smaller trips I can take in New Zealand and feeling inspired about the future. From a disappointing failure, new projects, plans and aspirations have grown.
Maybe getting sick in Nepal was life’s way of reminding me where my priorities lie. The year leading up to the trip was quite a stressful one when I look back on it. I was working a high-pressure job, moved house, started a new job, and began freelancing again after a long break from it. All the while, I’d been trying to focus on the daunting challenge ahead and making sure I was super fit. At the time, I thought getting sick was life kicking me in the stomach, but maybe it was actually life saying to me “hey, I know you really want to trek to the base of this mountain for some unknown reason, but what you actually need right now is to stop trying so hard and relax for god’s sake.” We should learn to pay closer attention to our bodies; sometimes, they know what’s up before our head does.
Rolling with the punches
This isn’t the first trip I’ve had to cancel due to getting ill. Several years ago I attended the Texas State Fair, got the worst food poisoning of my life, missed a connecting flight and as a result had to cancel a trip to Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. I am still filled with regret about that trip.
But as every frequent traveller knows, not every trip we go on will be perfect. We’ll get homesick, have our heart broken, fall ill, face problems with visas and immigration, miss a flight, or get some bad news from back home. In the grand scheme of things, getting sick and having to cancel a trip is not the worst that can happen. It’s disappointing and disheartening, but it doesn’t mean that life stops. For those of us with wanderlust coursing through our veins, there will always be another trek to do, another challenge to undertake, and another adventure to embark on. We’ve just got to look ahead to all the exciting things that are to come.
So, some positives:
Author - Clarissa Hirst
Clarissa is an Auckland-based writer originally from Sydney. She spent her childhood in rural England, interned with an EU programme in Poland and learned to speak Swedish fluently while living in Scandinavia for three and a half years. Her favourite way to explore is on foot, walking and hiking through beautiful landscapes. (clarissahirst.com)
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