Himalayan adventure 2.0: Completing my trek in Nepal, second time round

Since aborting my trek and leaving the Himalayas so abruptly three years ago, I've always felt that I had unfinished business in Nepal. That longing to return was in equal measure for the breathtakingly beautiful landscape that has been etched in my mind, as it was for pure, simple pride which I call "for closure".

"There was a really huge avalanche at the Khumbu Ice Fall. Some of my friends are missing," came Jangbu's sobering Facebook message last week, after I texted him about news reports I had just read of a deadly snowslide that buried 16 guides, mostly Sherpas, at Mount Everest.

It was the worst incident in the great peak's climbing history.

Only five days before that, I had said goodbye to Jangbu, my Sherpa trekking guide and friend, at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport.

"Everest Base Camp trek. Next year," I said, as I waved to him and entered the departure doors, excited that there was another adventure to look forward to, just as we wrapped up one.

EBC, as it's called, is a classic two-week hike of spectacular snow-capped summit views, Sherpa villages and high-altitude glacial moraines that brings you as close to the world's mightiest mountain as any regular trekker can get.

The base camp, at 5,364m and under the Khumbu Ice Fall, is where you can observe and admire the expedition groups getting ready for the hard slog to the top.

Every year, adventure-seekers and their hired help die in the Nepalese mountains, whether it's from avalanches, landslides, falls or altitude sickness.

That last one nearly cost me my life three years ago, at the midpoint of my 18-day, 300km Annapurna Circuit trek. We were at the village of Yak Kharka, acclimatising before making the push up to Thorung La, the world's highest mountain pass at 5,416m, when I woke up in the morning feeling dizzy and nauseous.

Jangbu decided we should stay one more day at Yak Kharka and, hopefully, after a day of chewing on raw garlic cloves - the Nepalese cure for altitude sickness - I would be back in shape to continue the ascent.

When the next morning came, I couldn't get out of bed. I couldn't even sit up and could barely see through my double-vision eyes. I don't know how long passed before Jangbu and my travelling companion, CW, came back into my room, carried me out and put me on a horse.

Much of what happened next - a five-hour journey down to Manang, the next closest village where the Himalayan Rescue Association has a small clinic with two volunteer doctors - was also a blur. Jangbu and CW tell me afterwards that they had to walk alongside me to hold me up, since I was barely conscious.

When the trekking path got too treacherous, or there were narrow suspension bridges to cross, they hauled me off the horse and piggybacked me.

When I got to the Manang clinic, the doctor on duty immediately gave me oxygen, then called for a helicopter from Kathmandu to come to my rescue.

I spent the next few days in hospital and was soon certified fit to fly home. But recovering from pneumonia took months. I couldn't climb a flight of stairs without feeling breathless, much less do anything more strenuous like running or even brisk walking.

"I thought you'd never want to come back," said Jangbu after we were reunited last month when I returned to Kathmandu.

"I've always wanted to come back," I replied, giving him a big, uncustomary hug after a customary bow.

Since aborting my trek and leaving the Himalayas so abruptly three years ago, I've always felt that I had unfinished business in Nepal, like I had left a piece of myself up in the mountains.

That longing to return was in equal measure for the breathtakingly beautiful landscape that has been etched in my mind, as it was for pure, simple pride which I call "for closure".

Not wanting to ruin another person's holiday in case I fall sick again, I decided to go alone as I close the loop on the Annapurna Circuit. Armed with Diamox - my altitude sickness pills - and my stubborn streak, I set off with Jangbu from Nayapul for Muktinath, a doable 3,800m high.

Strangely enough, when it was all over and done, there was no climactic feeling of fulfilment; no imaginary epilogue.

"I want to eat momos," I told Jangbu as I dragged my sun-beaten, aching body and rumbling tummy into Jomsom, our end point after nearly two weeks of trekking.

As cliche as this sounds, I realised it really wasn't about completing what I didn't finish the last time. It was about the journey of discovery every moment of every eight-hour walking day; of heaving yourself up undulating rocky terrain or scrambling up merciless slopes, only to completely forget the pain in your legs or the fear in your racing heart as soon as the jaw-dropping sights come into view.

Of learning which stones to step on to get yourself across the stream without plunging your boot into the running water. Of being pleasantly surprised that, by the 10th day, you can practically skip and hop down uneven stone steps without breaking your ankle.

Over Facebook yesterday, I asked Jangbu what will happen on Everest now.

"Come back next year. Everest will be okay. You'll be okay," he assured.

dawntan@sph.com.sg

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