Although she wasn’t always athletic and didn’t do organized sports as a kid, Teresa Elwert, sixty-four years old and a block resident for the past twenty-two years, has always been a walker and a hiker. When she retired in 2013, she began hiking in earnest and decided it was time to fulfill a life-long desire to “be in the presence of Mt. Everest,” which, at over 29,000 feet, is the highest mountain in the world.
And so began many months of preparation for back to back treks to Everest Base Camp and Annapurna Base Camp. She frequently climbed the sixteen floors in her building, took a weekly body conditioning class at the gym, used the treadmill set at the highest incline, walked briskly six days a week for an hour, took half day walks in Manhattan, and did many hikes in the Hudson Highlands.
The trekking seasons in the Himalayas are spring and fall, before and after the rainy season, which frequently produces landslides that can wash out trails. The trails are the same paths the Nepalis use to get from village to village. “At the lower elevations, the trails were hard packed dirt and stone steps. The higher we went, the narrower the trails got because fewer Nepalis were using them. The last 3,000 feet of the Everest trek were full of rocks and boulders because a glacier sat there as recently as sixty years ago.”
The Everest trek was fourteen days long, went to an altitude of 18,200 feet, and covered sixty-five miles. The Annapurna trek was nine days long, went to an altitude of 13,550 feet, and covered fifty-six miles. In between the two treks, Teresa spent time at a quiet resort hotel in Kathmandu. “I needed a break from the hustle and bustle of the city!”
I was surprised to discover from her that Kathmandu, capital of Nepal, is at the same latitude as central Florida and so has a temperate climate. “We started hiking in shirtsleeves, but the higher we hiked the colder it got, of course. Above 15,000 feet, I wore my heavy down parka and wind pants over other warm clothes. It snowed in the middle of the trek at the highest two villages we went to—Lobuche and Gorak Shep—but the accumulation was only about two inches.”
The Everest group consisted of Teresa, two other Americans, a New Zealander, an Australian guide, two Nepalese guides, and two Nepalese porters. They stopped three to four times a day at village “tea houses” along the trail to eat and sleep. These structures housed two trekkers to a bedroom (sometimes with the luxury of an en-suite bathroom—with cold water) and offered a heated dining room that also served as a hang-out space. Teresa said her food choices were mainly rice or noodles with finely chopped vegetables and egg. “I can’t say I went to Nepal for the food! In fact, I lost weight because my appetite decreased the higher we hiked.”
Teresa did, however, enjoy meeting the Nepalese. She found them to be outgoing, warm, and hard-working people who love to laugh and look on the bright side. In fact, even though Nepal experienced two major earthquakes this spring, the Nepalis she encountered were optimistic about the recovery.
As for earthquake damage, Teresa saw lots of evidence of it in Kathmandu but less on the trail where there was only an occasional structure showing cracks in the stone facade.
When I asked her what some of her most memorable moments were, she said “Seeing Everest for the first time, summiting Kala Patthar, and crossing swing bridges across the roaring rivers.”
At 18,200 feet, Kala Patthar is one of the lower peaks in the Everest region, but the trail up it is quite steep. Because snowfall provoked a change in the schedule at Gorak Shep, Teresa had to choose between summiting Kala Patthar and hiking to Everest base camp, whose tents and facilities had been removed a few days before. Weather permitting, Kala Patthar offers a beautiful view of the Everest range, so she alone out of the group opted to do that hike accompanied by a guide and porter. And the view? “Non-existent! We were totally socked in and could only see about twenty feet in front of us.”
After Everest, she hiked to Annapurna Base Camp and was glad to have done the treks in that order because the Annapurna trip was less strenuous, the trails less crowded, and the scenery “gorgeous.”
When asked to describe her overall trekking experience in two words, she said: “exhilarating and strenuous.” And some emotions she experienced? “Glad to have summited Kala Patther, fulfilled to be in the presence of Everest, and honored to have seen Annapurna, which was the first 20,000 foot mountain to have been climbed.”
What’s next for Teresa? Any more high mountains in her future? She smiled, shook her head and replied: “It was a thrill to see Everest, but hiking at high altitude is very hard work. You have to constantly be monitoring your body and its needs which quickly gets tiring and takes away some of the pleasure of hiking. So, no more high altitude mountains in my future. But it was an amazing experience.”
— By Joyce Mann