Everest Lockdown: Stranded In Lukla (Part 1)

COVID-19 was an unprecedented global chaos. Little did we know a pandemic was brewing some 3,000 kilometres away from the comforts of our home in Malaysia. And when it had arrived on our shores, the ideas of a lockdown and movement control orders were far from our thoughts. It was unfathomable to restrict movement that has been embedded as part of our freedom. And so when the pandemic snowballed in the third month of the year, myself, having travelled to the high Himalayas, and the rest of world could only watch in disbelief as the world turned topsy-turvy, gearing towards a new normal.

The team trekking prior to lockdown.
The mountains always have a way of bringing strangers together to create life-long friendships. Right to left foreground: Thaya, myself, Azam, Sovita and Wan Xin. Right to left background: Shamila, Ling Yah, Ravi and Daniel Phang.

The Everest Bubble During COVID-19

High up in the Himalayas, the scene was that of a 360-degree paradigm shift. It was as though we were living in a bubble. The higher we trekked, the more detached we became from the COVID world. We had very limited use of our smartphones other than for photography and videography. In a way, we were in a zen-like bubble, minus any information. Indeed, that kept the gravitas of the situation at bay.

Mount Everest during lockdown
A stupa with the background of Mount Everest, Earth’s highest mountain at 8,848 metres above sea level.

We were following in the footsteps of mountaineering legends like Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay to the foot of Mount Everest. Along the way, the gargantuan Himalayan mountains that had long fascinated the world became a common view. Sightings of another being was scarce and we trekked by ourselves most of the time.    

Away From The Grips Of Lockdown

On the 16th of March, at 4,600 metres, we watched Malaysia declare a movement control order. It’s ironic how just a day ago, a local tea house owner was in awe at the zero mortality rate in Malaysia and within 24 hours, two people had died. The situation in Nepal was a little bit different. How so? Well, for starters there were no active cases in Nepal but that’s not to say that the people were oblivious. Something was going awry but Nepal like the rest of the world was still grappling with uncertainties in the initial stages. 

The pandemonium wreaked by COVID-19 was actually obscured at Everest. There, our concern was altitude sickness, hypothermia and exhaustion. While social distancing was just taking effect, we were somewhat living it at 5,000 metres. At times, our nearest human contact would be a mile away and all we could see around us is the mighty Himalayan range.

A yak at everest region.
A domestic yak (Bos grunniens) is a common sight at Everest.

The Growing Concern

We successfully trekked to Everest Base Camp by 2.30 pm with a temperature of -20°C. But not all of us had it smooth sailing. The challenge that we commonly faced was the extreme cold temperatures especially after late evenings. The ideal time to reach every tea house is always before sunset to avoid the rapid drop in temperature. But most of the time, you do get that bone-chilling feeling when the moving clouds block the sun. And believe me, that happened quite often. At 4.30 pm, the four of us had returned to the tea house while our remaining team mates were still making their way back. I observed the creeping darkness taking full effect without any sign of my team mates returning. Outside, the temperature had plunged to -25°C and worry seized our minds.

artic like terrain at everest region before lockdown
At 5,300 metres, we had to trek through an Artic-like terrain to Everest Base Camp.

Suddenly, the two of them staggered in, visibly shivering and exhausted. Never did it occur to me that I would be treating moderate hypothermia with no medical supplies and aid at 5,200 metres. All I had were emergency blankets, warm packs and body heat. I dare say it was the most frightening experience; watching your friends completely beaten by the effects of altitude and cold temperature. That night we went to bed with a worried heart. Our concern was no longer about the pandemic but the safety of our fellow trekkers. At the break of dawn, half of us were evacuated by helicopter, and the four of us trekked back to Lukla. What was supposed to be a 15-day trek had now been shortened by a series of unfortunate circumstances…

Everest Base Camp before lockdown.
Everest Base Camp right before the lockdown with a chilling temperature of -20°C.

The Swift Lockdown

I remembered what it felt like, arriving back at Lukla, the very point where I started this journey. We had trekked 15 kilometres and hardly had any energy left. The irony was that it took us eight days to ascend to base camp and only three days to painstakingly descend from 5,364 metres to 2,800 metres. All our outgoing arrangements had been made and confirmed. Our flight out of Lukla was all set for tomorrow morning. By this time, we were looking forward to return to the habitual comforts of city life.

While trekking back, we received news that our return flight to Malaysia was cancelled due to Malaysia’s movement control order. We knew time was of the essence and getting out of the mountains swiftly was a necessity. At 10 pm, just eight hours before our scheduled flight out, we heard a loud banging outside the door. We opened it only to hear that our worst nightmare had come true. “NEPAL IN LOCKDOWN! ALL INTERNATIONAL AND DOMESTIC TRANSPORTS HAVE CEASED OPERATION!,” exclaimed our guide. For one week there were to be no flights out of Lukla and everything else was a big question mark. Our hearts sank. Tiredness followed after. That night, after nine hours of continuous trekking, all we could think about was sleep. 

the 4 who trekked back to Lukla.
 After three days of descent, we were back to where it all began, Lukla, Left to right: Azam, Ramji (our guide), Wan Xin, myself and Thaya.

An Unprecedented Awakening

It was a peculiar awakening. We woke up to see the once bustling Tenzing-Hillary Airport on standstill. Nepal had only three active cases, but they were quick to implement a lockdown. Considered to be a third world country, Nepal’s sudden and forceful lockdown was a means to safeguard its healthcare system from total calamity. The system wouldn’t have been able to cope with surging cases.

Outside the lodge, the local police force was patrolling the area. They came in to our lodge with a familiar announcement. “Nepal is in lockdown and no one is allowed to leave the lodge,” exclaimed the officer. We were informed that essential shopping is still permissible but not leisure walks. As to when we will be able to fly out of Lukla, no one seemed to know. There were roughly 200 over trekkers stranded from Lukla to Namche Bazaar. At this point, all trekking activities had to come to a screeching halt, with trekkers being told to head to Lukla. Right now, with no way out, we had to survive with what little we have… 

lukla during lockdown
The once bustling Lukla airport had come to a standstill.

The Lockdown Routine

Life at 2,800 metres above sea level during lockdown was a novelty for all of us. By 6 am, we were usually up. The first order of the day was brushing our teeth in icy cold water. The temperature early in the morning is usually subzero and heater is non- existent. Our breakfast was ready when we got downstairs with similar selections in most tea houses.The choices were usually pancakes, English breakfast, hot noodles with a cup of tea/coffee. It was all included in the package until 26th of March, after which we would have to start paying.

Hotel nest lobby during lockdown.
Hotel Nest became our home for the next seven days. Our hotel has basic facilities and is located right opposite the airport. 

Somehow the hours began to tick slowly. We would tune in for the latest updates on the chaos happening around the world on television and our smartphones. WiFi was frustratingly erratic. The electricity did go out briefly but luckily it came back, otherwise we would be cut off from the outside world. We would sit and talk to other international trekkers about means to fly out and share how the pandemic was affecting our respective countries. At 2 pm, it was finally lunch time. We would order our usual meals and the cycle would repeat for dinner and every other day for the rest of the week. Understandably, on day four, our food options became limited as supplies weren’t coming in. Meat became scarce so we had to make do with rice and noodles.

mixed spring roll for lunch
Mixed spring rolls with fries and coleslaw for lunch!

The ‘High’ Life

After 12 days of trekking, all we dreamt of was showering and wearing clean clothes. Sadly, that was not possible. Although shower was available, we were not prepared to bathe in fairly cold waters in a subzero environment! Also, there were only two toilets shared amongst 50 people, so if you are the last one to shower, chances are it will be in a mess. As for laundry, the most we could do was to air out our dirty clothes and reuse them again. The fear was more of washing our clothes and not being able to dry them for days due to the temperamental weather. 

Our bedroom
This is part and parcel of trekking in the Himalayas. The room is always cold and the sheets are washed infrequently as it is difficult to dry. Eventually, you will settle in but the ‘bone-chilling’ temperature makes spending time in the room a little bit harder. 

As resources are hard to come by, all basic necessities such as electricity and heater are highly valuable. There is only one fireplace that operates after 6 pm as wood is scarce. At one point, they even began to burn our playing cards to start a fire! Below are the charges for some basic necessities:

WiFiNPR 200
Power BankNPR 400
Mobile Phone ChargingNPR 200
ShowerNPR 400
1 Litre Water BottleNPR 100
1 Litre Hot WaterNPR 150
All prices in Nepalese Rupees.
Conversion rate as of 15th of May 2020: MYR 1 (Malaysian Ringgit) = NPR 28 (Nepalese Rupee)
Our daily menu. Almost all the items on the menu were not available during lockdown except for noodles, rice, potatoes and Nepali meal. 
The menu continues…

To Be Continued – Everest Lockdown: Escape From Lukla (Part 2)

About Jeevitha KUMAR

Hiker, mountain climber, diver, globe trotter, and all-round adventurer, she is probably one of a handful of medical doctors who has left her footprints (almost) all over the world.

3 Replies to “Everest Lockdown: Stranded In Lukla (Part 1)”

  1. Pingback: Everest Lockdown: Escape From Lukla (Part 2) - Espoletta

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *