a man standing in a mountain range with colourful flags fluttering in the air

Tears, Toilets, and the Top of the World

There’s a saying that there are many paths to the top of a mountain, but the view is always the same.

This story was created in partnership with: Ace the Himalaya 

Peering into the damp cupboard-sized washroom I saw a toilet devoid of a flush and seat. Beside it was a large barrel of water with a plastic bottle. I paced up and down the corridor, looking at all the other washrooms in search of a toilet that wouldn’t require me to pour jugs of water into it to get rid of… well, you know what I mean.

It had been a rough day. Understandable. Hiking to Dingboche — a Sherpa village at 4410m in Nepal — with Khumbu cough isn’t the easiest. I was on day six of a 14-day trek to Everest Base Camp and Kala Patthar with Ace the Himalaya. Not relishing the thought of peeing into this morbid looking toilet I started crying for the first time on this trip, and definitely not the last. 

My husband, Ahmed, pulled me into our room. Both of us have a penchant for tough love and he sat me down on the bed and said: “Will you let me give you some advice?” Seeing my nodding head he continued on and spoke the words I needed to hear. “Okay, you have to get your head straight right now. This is an important moment. None of this stuff matters, the toilet, the room. Forget about what’s inside, look outside, you’ve been dreaming of these places and villages for months. If you let this stuff get to you now, you won’t make it to the top of Kala Patthar.”

a girl sits in a white suzuki van which has red and black duffel bags on top of it
Day one: the road from Kathmandu to Manthali | © Sahar Aman & Ahmed Omar

I choked back a sob for dramatic effect but realised he was right. “Sahar, you’re bigger and tougher than all of this. So let’s get ready and go on a date.” I looked at him in disbelief. “Come on, didn’t you want to go to that cute cafe we saw on the way to our teahouse?”

As far as places for high-altitude dates in the Himalayas go, Cafe 4410 is one of the best. Picture wooden beams and soft minimalist couches with climbers from all backgrounds casually draped over them. Some are reading, some are playing cards, some are on their phones, some of them are only meeting for the first time and some you recognise from the trails, having walked together a part of the way. 

From the moment I stepped inside this hipster cafe, I felt welcome and part of this community. Seeing all those trekkers with their knitted hats and tattered cards and books, made me feel like I was among my people. Perhaps it’s because everyone in that room was connected in some way because we were all there for the same reason: a hot drink and the Himalayas.

Cafe 4410 has a real coffee lineup, and it’s one of the few locations past 3000m where you can get a chilled can of Coke-Zero, and charge your phone for free (it costs money everywhere else). It’s also where I had a chance to reflect and grapple with the beginnings of understanding the level of determination you need for this sort of thing. To start with, you can’t cry over toilets with missing seats.

a man looking out at a valley across the mountains
Acclimatisation hike from Dingboche to Chukhung Valley | © Sahar Aman & Ahmed Omar

Dingboche was one of many stops on the way to Everest Base Camp and Kala Patthar, but it’s the place that stayed with me most. I ordered ginger, lemon and honey tea — a quintessential go-to for many trekkers on the trails — and settled down to watch the movie being shown by the cafe that afternoon. It was Everest, a film based on Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, which details the disastrous climb of 1996 in which eight people died.

As we watched the movie, another tragedy was unfolding near the top of Mount Everest where a traffic jam had trapped climbers to and from the summit. Sitting there in this cafe as Everest played on screen was surreal, I couldn’t resist looking at everyone during the movie — they all seemed transfixed, myself included. News of the unfolding situation at the summit of Everest had spread across the region, and after finding out, even our own pursuit to base camp felt different, more earnest and respectful. 

I’ve read Into Thin Air and watched the movie countless times, but seeing it there with all those people was something else. One camp watches these kinds of movies and wonders how crazy you have to be to climb Everest, the other wonders whether they have what it takes to try someday. While watching Everest, Ahmed and I kept looking at each other in awe, our fingertips interlaced on the table wondering the same thing. 

a group of trekkers walking through a valley with fluttering flags in the himalays
I had been dreaming of seeing these sights for months | © Sahar Aman & Ahmed Omar

In 2017, my brother began his climb of the Seven Summits – the highest mountain in each of the continents. As he posted pictures of himself at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro (5895m) and Mount Elbrus (5642m), Ahmed finally acknowledged his own desire to climb mountains. Egged on by me, in 2018, he successfully completed his own summit of Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua (6962m). But, if he really wanted to climb to the top of Everest, however many years down the line, wasn’t it worth seeing that peak with the naked eye first? Even if just from base camp?

Given my own love of hiking and trekking, and having lived mountain adventures vicariously through my husband over the last year, I suggested we go to Everest Base Camp together. 

Our 14-day itinerary began with that infamous flight to Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, a small town where many visitors exploring the Khumbu region of the Himalayas arrive. We flew from Ramecchap Airport in Manthali, which is adventure aviation central. From here tiny planes lift-off with trekkers that have mountains (not stars) in their eyes, larger helicopters carry smaller rescue-choppers and the reality of Everest becomes as clear as day. 

The infamous runway of Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla | © Sahar Aman & Ahmed Omar

For the next two weeks, we would make our way along renowned trails towards base camp with our guides on a journey that would culminate on Kala Patthar with only one goal in mind: standing at our final elevation of 5643m. Kala Patthar is a notable landmark and a highlight to consider when looking at Everest Base Camp itineraries as it’s one of the best places to get a view of the top of the world.

On route to Kala Patthar, along with Dingboche, many other things would stay with me. The Bollywood songs I would sometimes hear as a high-altitude porter turns the corner with his radio blaring. How deftly they could overtake me despite carrying the weight of the world on their backs. The sound of the milky-coloured river below gushing with glacier water that I wanted to get swept up in. 

a girl in a blue cap standing on rocks in the rive
Glaciers melt into the river and give them a milky appearance | © Sahar Aman & Ahmed Omar

I remember our joy when we discovered that the teahouses had achar (spicy pickle), which made our daal bhaat — the go-to meal for trekkers — taste incredible. Or the ecstasy of feeling hot water all over your skin and aching body after a week.

I remember marvelling at how the road to Namche Bazaar was an expressway for backpacks. Seeing National Geographic expeditions on their way back down and running into famous climbers celebrating their summits. The pungent and intoxicating smell of yaks has seeped its way into my memory.

Two horned beasts are loaded with goods below a snow-capped mountain
The pungent and intoxicating smell of yaks will stay with you | © Sahar Aman & Ahmed Omar

For other things, there are no words. Like, the first time you see a 360-degree view of the Himalayas with your own eyes. This happened during our second acclimatisation hike from Dingboche to Chhukung. This time, my tears were ones of joy.

Our first acclimatisation trek was from Namche Bazaar to Everest View Hotel. I was listening to music while making my way up the incline. Near the end, a track came on and it totally lifted me and I sprinted up the last 200m or so whooping and smiling the whole way. The trekkers on their way down couldn’t help joining in. 

Some hills were harder than others and you needed to give them absolutely everything thing you had. There is a certain level of fitness required for this kind of thing, but mentally, you have to be more strong, you can be human and waver, but you can’t give in. Thanks to our thought out itinerary, we acclimatised slowly and gave ourselves the best chance of getting to our final elevation and overcoming the ups and downs until then, both literally and emotionally.

a girl in a blue cap in a mountain valley smiling
There’s plenty to smile about in the Himalayas as well | © Sahar Aman & Ahmed Omar

Yet, even on the most brutal of hills, the comradery among trekkers gives you something to smile about. One day while staring up at the incline, some girls from another tour group and I made eye contact, all of us thinking ouch! I summoned within me the kind of belief they make us call upon in spin class and said, “if you can make it through a SoulCycle class, you can do this. It’s just one 45-minute class.” We all started laughing and somewhere near the top, huffing and puffing, one of the girls asked what would the spin instructor say to us now? “LET’S GET THERE TOGETHER!”

The hill to Tengboche Monastery was an absolute nightmare, it seemed to go on and on, but trekking as part of a group made all the difference that day. Encouraging each other along and seeing smiling faces at the end of a gruelling trek is a wonderful feeling. My brother says that from his experience when you climb by yourself, you go fast, but when you climb with a group, you go far.

a group of people walking through the mountains
Trekking as part of a group made all the difference | © Sahar Aman & Ahmed Omar

After nine days of moments like this, we arrived at Everest Base Camp. We went towards the tail end of the spring climbing season and it was so quiet. I’m not sure what I’d imagined but I hadn’t pictured it being so peaceful. Empty tents with their yellow facades flapping away, colourful prayer flags fluttering in the wind, the mesmerising icefall, the remnants of yet another climbing season come to an end: all of it, just there, waiting. Despite everything that had happened over the past few weeks, come autumn, this place would be filled with mountaineers once again looking to stand at the top of Mount Everest.

The next day, at 3:30 am, we began our walk to Kala Patthar from the small settlement of Gorakshep. As the sun was rising on our tenth morning in the Himalayas, our group finally saw the top of the world. For some, Kala Patthar is the end of a journey, for others, it is only the beginning. Because even from that distance, those that can and want to, will hear the call of Everest’s summit. 

black and white picture of two smiling climbers in their summit gear
29th May 1953: Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary after successfully completing the first ascent of Mount Everest at 11.30am | © Jamling Tenzing Norgay/WikiCommons

When I was 11 years old, my seventh-grade history teacher, Miss Diamond told our class about Mount Everest. I didn’t know it then, but this was the first travel story I ever came across.  

As she revelled in a detailed explanation of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s successful expedition to the highest point on earth, I looked at the picture of them in my history book trying to fathom what they had done. Little did I know that one day my own feet would walk along the same foothills. And up there in the clouds that kiss the Himalayas it’s every bit as epic as you think it’s going to be.

mount everest just as the sun is coming up
View of the top of the world at sunrise | © Sahar Aman & Ahmed Omar

For me, this experience came together in Dingboche, when I decided nothing was going to stop me seeing Mount Everest with my own eyes from Kala Patthar. But I remember something else from Miss Diamond’s history class all too well. A poster on the wall bearing the words of a Chinese proverb...

“There are many paths to the top of a mountain, but the view is always the same.” 

Chinese Proverb

There are many paths, however in the end, only one of them can take you to a view unlike anything else on earth: one that quite literally takes your breath away. It sits at 8848m, and I’ll be damned if some part of me doesn’t want to bawl my eyes out from there someday.

Based in Toronto, Sahar is a full-time content editor for Days to Come and part-time travel junkie.

silhouette of a girl with a cycle against a night sky with stars
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