A dormitory. A pair of trekking boots. A chant. An unfinished business. Together, a story.
It was in January 2022 that Everest Base Camp (EBC) entered the life of Varghese Varghese M.
A lawyer by training and based in Kochi, he had no previous background in outdoor activity. But the idea of trekking to EBC, which his friend Shelly Joseph broached, attracted. To get himself physically fit for the trek, Varghese launched into a regimen of diet and exercises. Two months later, he weighed 75 kilos (lighter by 10) and was capable of jogging five kilometres in half an hour. “ On April 14, I set out for EBC,’’ Varghese said.
Part of a group of ten clients headed to EBC, upon reaching Nepal, he stayed in Kathmandu for two days. While the rest of the group proceeded from Kathmandu by road to Saleri, Varghese flew to Lukla and hiked to Ghat. The team joined him in Ghat. From Ghat, Varghese and his group, trekked to Namche Bazaar, where they halted for two days to acclimatize and rest. The whole trek was to be via Gokyo Lake and Cho La Pass. Following rest at Namche Bazaar and a visit to the Everest View Hotel in that while, the group headed to Dole. Here, something Varghese was well aware may happen but hadn’t quite anticipated, commenced.
He developed a headache. He also began feeling quite cold. By the time, the team reached Machermo, Varghese was very ill. His oxygen saturation level was down to 54 per cent. Ignored or left unattended, sickness brought on by high altitude can become a serious condition. The best medicine is to shed elevation. Pasang Gyalsin Sherpa, who hailed from Lukla and was the team’s guide, said that Varghese shouldn’t trek any higher. He arranged for a helicopter evacuation and Varghese was flown back to Lukla while the rest of the team continued to Gokyo Lake and EBC (5364 metres / 17,598 feet). “ Within 15-20 minutes of being in Lukla, my oxygen saturation recovered to 86 per cent,’’ Varghese said. The next day, in the same chopper that brought him to Lukla, Varghese managed a flight to see Gokyo Lake, Lobuche and Mount Everest. Having seen the world’s highest peak and the region he should have been in, from a helicopter, Varghese returned to Kathmandu and all the way south to Kochi. It was a sad end to his first outing in the Himalaya.
That was the story, narrated with a distinct tinge of disappointment, which I heard at The Metro Pod, the backpackers’ dormitory (near Maharaja’s College metro station) at KPCC Junction in Ernakulam, the central business district of Kochi. It was May 2022. A regular customer at the dormitory by then, I was intrigued by the sight of Varghese walking around in trekking boots. It smacked of a mind still elsewhere. We got talking and the story of the aborted trek to EBC tumbled out. Varghese owns The Metro Pod. Besides the boots, there were other signs on the premises of his first trek in the Himalaya. Atop the table at the dormitory’s reception, was a newly acquired medium sized Bluetooth speaker. It played the chant Om Mani Padme Hum in a loop. I haven’t visited Nepal. I distinctly remember settling into the sofa in the reception, listening to the chant and recalling happy days spent in Ladakh. Tucked away in India’s abject north, Ladakh’s ambiance had that chant for call sign. Cold mountain days and a glass of warm ginger-lemon-honey tea. Nothing like it! That was before Ladakh became a union territory, before COVID and before inflation and steep travel cost. For freelance journalist on shoestring budget, it made the chant cause for nostalgia. The whole experience – Varghese’s story, the chant and even some Buddhist prayer flags hung in the reception – lent The Metro Pod a backpacker-touch, something I hadn’t sensed in my earlier visits. Its clientele, as I had experienced it till then, was mostly working people (those in Kochi on business or simply passing through) and youngsters in town for exams.
The building that houses The Metro Pod was constructed in 1952 by Mani Varghese, Varghese’s grandfather. From 1957 to 2014-15, one of its tenants was the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC). They used it as the party’s state headquarters and later, the office of the district committee. Mani Varghese died in 1985. The ownership of the building shifted to Varghese’s father. Following his demise in 2011, Varghese assumed charge. A few years later, when the Congress party vacated the premises (the party’s state headquarters is now in Thiruvananthapuram), Varghese decided that apart from the shops on the ground floor, he wouldn’t give the main building on lease to anyone, anymore. Instead, he would do something himself. He also knew he didn’t wish to change the building’s external appearance or its interiors, radically. Any new enterprise would have to be within the existing old-world charm. That’s how Varghese dispensed with the idea of a full-fledged hotel and opted for an air-conditioned dormitory.
In retrospect, his timing was probably spot on. By the first and second decade of the 21st century, there was a new generation on the move in India that didn’t measure itself by social status and opulent displays of wealth, like the generations before it did. Clean, functional and affordable premises were good enough for this new lot to stay in. Kerala’s urban sprawl, its consumerism and the projects underway in the state (not to mention – its large diaspora) fetched visitors to the state who sought functional accommodation. Further, the recessed economic conditions triggered by COVID-19 and subsequent global developments, have only enhanced the relevance of no-nonsense, affordable accommodation everywhere. In Ernakulam, Varghese wasn’t exactly a pioneer in the air-conditioned dormitory segment. That tag should go to Peter’s Inn, located at the MG Road metro station (the two dormitories share a cordial relationship).
It took Varghese a year to renovate the innards of the old Thamarappilly Madaparambil Buildings into an air-conditioned dormitory. In February 2019, The Metro Pod opened its doors to the public. It has 132 beds. The first floor is a mixed dormitory; the second floor is exclusively for women. Four rooms for those wishing to stay in their own rooms, were planned for addition later. “ The new rooms should be ready in November,’’ Varghese said. It was October 2022. Weeks earlier, during a stay at The Metro Pod, I had asked Mani, the manager, where Varghese was. “ Sir is not here. He is back in the Himalaya,’’ Mani said. He whipped out his phone and enthusiastically showed me some photos he had received. Clearly, Varghese hadn’t been idle since our conversation in May.
His first attempt to reach EBC, which ended in retreat due to the potential onset of acute mountain sickness (AMS) had left Varghese very disappointed. Following that trip, he was supposed to visit Scandinavia but abandoned the plan for want of motivation. “ I was mentally low,’’ Varghese said. At the same time, EBC nagged like unfinished business. After reflecting on the experience, he decided to visit Nepal again in September 2022. Having witnessed what happened at Machermo in April, Shelly advised that Varghese get some medical tests done before launching into his second attempt to reach EBC. Dr Parveen Sultana, who had once been a guest at The Metro Pod, helped with the process. Another visitor to The Metro Pod who chipped in around this time was Srijana Dhar; she worked with the online travel company, Make My Trip. Familiar with high altitude trekking, she gave Varghese useful advice.
Taking a cue from conversations he had with Pasang, who had been his guide in April, Varghese decided that a prospective second attempt at EBC wouldn’t be with any group. Instead, it would be him, perhaps a friend, a porter-guide and enough time and flexibility in schedule to proceed at a comfortable pace. “ With a group you don’t have that freedom. If you are slow, you may end up inconveniencing others. It’s better to be on your own,’’ Varghese explained. His trekking partner for the second shot at EBC, was M. P. Ramnath. Currently a leading civil lawyer at the High Court in Kochi, years ago, Ramnath had won two national awards for best child actor (the films were Oppol and My Dear Kuttichattan). Back then, he was known as Master Arvind. The duo’s departure from Kochi was preponed to August-end to suit Ramnath’s convenience. They reached Kathmandu on August 30. Pasang was slated to anchor the Nepal leg.
The next day, the weather turned bad. It was projected to stay so for several days. It wasn’t possible to proceed by road or fly to Lukla. So, Varghese and Ramnath changed their plan. At Pasang’s suggestion (he had come to Kathmandu to arrange a porter-guide), they traded the trip to EBC for a shot at the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC / 13,550 feet) trek. The weather was better that side and the trek was open. Following a taxi ride to Pokhra, the duo and their guide started the trek from Tikhe Dunga. Thanks to the rainy season, there was plenty of leeches. But overall, ABC was an enjoyable trek. High points included beholding the Annapurna range and the beautiful Machhapuchhare peak from Tadapani, meeting a Nepali man who spoke Malayalam (the language spoken in Kerala) in Chhomrong and trekking to Machhapuchhare Base Camp (12,135 feet) from Dovan. There was also this instance of a youngster from Chennai struck by AMS. The youngster was heading to ABC and Varghese and Ramnath met him at Deurali on their way back from ABC. Given his previous rendezvous with high altitude sickness, Varghese had carried two oxygen bottles with him, as precaution. He loaned one of the bottles to the youngster to help him recover. The youngster was later evacuated by chopper, Varghese said.
The ABC trek went off well for Varghese. He didn’t feel any major discomfort. Best of all, at its end, he was feeling perfectly alright. For Ramnath, it was time to return to Kochi. Varghese hung on in Nepal to attempt EBC again. Before leaving Kochi, he had told his wife, Ramya (she and their children take care of The Metro Pod when Varghese is away) that he would do the EBC trek and come back. An opportunity to fly to Lukla on September 12 was lost after the flight got cancelled. On September 13, he teamed up with an Australian couple – Chris and Raechel – and flew to Lukla in a hired helicopter. After breakfast at the Yak Hotel owned by Pasang, Varghese hired Milan as porter-guide for the trek to EBC. The two started hiking that day itself to Monjo.
On this second attempt, the EBC trek played out better for Varghese. As on his first attempt, he was taking Diamox (acetazolamide – medication used to treat altitude sickness) but the major difference was – the ABC trek done earlier had helped him acclimatize and become comfortable with high altitude. He was attempting EBC after an ample number of days already spent at altitude. However, there were still moments of concern. On September 17, following their early arrival at Thukla, Milan recommended crossing the Thukla Pass and getting to Lobuche. That night at Lobuche, Varghese couldn’t sleep well. Next day at Gorakshep, the tiredness from lack of proper sleep was compounded by a mild headache. He had soup and managed to reach EBC and get back to Gorakshep but found himself thoroughly exhausted. The memory of his April-tussle with altitude sickness still fresh in his mind and desiring to ensure that things don’t get out of hand, the following day, he skipped the ritual visit to Kala Patthar (18,517 feet). Instead, he headed back to Lobuche at lower altitude and the next morning took a chopper all the way to Lukla and then another chopper to Kathmandu. He spent two days in the city and then boarded the flight to Delhi and onward to Kochi.
When I met him in October, Varghese wasn’t wearing his trekking boots. He seemed relaxed and wholly – body and soul – at The Metro Pod. “ The mountains are addictive,’’ Varghese said, looking back at his unexpected dive into trekking and his three treks so far in 2022. Outside The Metro Pod, a motorcycle stood parked. It had brought an IT professional out on a break from work in Andhra Pradesh, all the way to Kochi. I had heard him speak of his journey in the dormitory room. In March 2020, Varghese had purchased a Royal Enfield Himalayan. That day in October when I took leave of him, Varghese wasn’t yet clear on what adventure to embark on next. But there was something around motorcycle and mountains, brewing. In mid-November, Varghese texted that his friend Shelly had bought a Royal Enfield Meteor for the duo’s planned trip to Khardung La in May 2023.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. All the photos used herein, except the one of The Metro Pod, were provided by Varghese.)