This TR is a long one! I tried to embed a few photos. For just the photo set, go to flickr here - http://www.flickr.com/photos/35831538@N00/sets/72157625511432067/
This is supposed to be “easy” trekking. Really, how hard can this actually be, walking only a few kilometers a day, stopping for tea every couple of hours, sleeping in proper beds, relaxing by night in heated dining rooms, and having every meal prepared by someone who isn't me? This is like backpacking, but without any work! No food to carry, no sleeping pad, no shelter, and little else besides some clothes to keep us warm and a lofty sleeping bag. And all this, among some of the most amazing scenery on earth. This is trekking I can handle. It's almost too good to be true!
Maybe because it is. Or at least, it was for me.
Clouds Roll up the Dudh Kosi Valley, Viewed from Namche
For the last two months, I've been wandering the Himalayas, chasing sunrises and sunsets, hoping to be inspired by fleeting views of the biggest peaks on earth. I sweated uncontrollably those early days, walking through the hot and humid middle hills, only to gasp for air a week later in the arid alpine valleys. I shuffled across breathless passes battered by wind and snow, sliding my feet along at a speed of slow that makes a glacier's progress seem inspiring. I celebrated in style atop the highest point of my life with a ridiculously expensive Snickers bar, only to retreat 90 minutes where the thicker air would mean that danged headache would actually disappear.
I pounded all the dahl bat a man could ever stand to eat, and then refilled it one more time, only to lose it all to the worst gastrointestinal bugs ever imagined. Twice.
I spent fitful nights trying to sleep, only to be roused time and time again by the sounds of a brother battling the all-too common Khumbu Cough. And after a blizzard sent us out of the Gokyo Valley, we spent 3 days waiting for planes in Lukla where I was convinced I had become immortal, because I'd swear to the Flying Spaghetti Monster that we'd been there forever.
And perhaps the moment that hurts the most – the cloudless evening at Everest base camp, and the sunset I was so keen on photographing. The one where the moon would rise as the sun would set, and the alpenglow would light up Everest, Lhotse, and Nuptse. It should have been perfect. I should have had my camera on a tripod, just waiting for the perfect moment to capture one of the world's most classic views.
At least, that's how I imagined it.
But instead, I lied frozen in my plywood room, curled into the fetal position beneath the insulation of my sleeping bag, grimacing in pain as my intestines cramped uncontrollably. I tried in vain to squint through the window at the scene I knew was unfolding. But I also knew it would only make my disappointment more intense. Slowly, the condensation on the window pane solidified to ice, a nearly full moon rose unobstructed over the towering east face of Nuptse, and the light fully faded, along with the photo I came all this way to make. An opportunity lost.
Yet somehow, we always managed to laugh it all off (often while gasping for air). We were a strange crew indeed; Brandon and I, the sarcastic American Brothers. Phil the Brit, who spared no opportunity to take the p___ out of anyone so fortunate as to share a dining room table with him. And the Isra-Aliens, Dana, Nadav, Gilad and Yoav, who were quite possibly the finest Yanef players in the Khumbu. All of us at obviously different stages on the path of life, but all of us brought here by a common theme; the seemingly gravitational pull of experiencing Mt. Everest.
And that's part of what makes the Khumbu so interesting. It's one part mountains, one part local customs and culture, and when it's peak season for trekkers, it's one giant part international tourist. As we crossed into Sagarmatha National Park in Monjo, a hand written sign behind the desk tallied the trekkers for the month prior. Nearly 10,000 people.
Ten. Thousand. People. October 2010 had been the busiest month in the history of the park. Ever. That's the equivalent of 300 people a day, on average. Sometimes it was 800. We were astonished.
Yet, from here, it only takes a few kilometers to realize why it is so. Within a few hours, we knew we'd have our first views of the biggest mountain on earth.
My brother and I sweated our way up the way-too-demanding-to-only-be-the-second-day climb into Namche Bazaar, constantly wondering where this place really was. The landscape just didn't seem capable of holding such a large village. It was like a super-sized game of hide and seek, and there was multiple times we figured we had to be close, but no town in sight! Finally, we rounded the final small corner and caught a rather anti-climatic view of the town, the most famous Sherpa village in all the Khumbu.
This place hardly strikes me as a village. This is nearly a city! The small dirt roads are packed with all sorts of climbing and trekking shops, crowding out the dozens of multi-level hotels, all designed to handle the massive crowds of trekkers, guides, porters, and yak trains. The place even had an IME, stocked with all the best new Patagonia clothes, not to mention the official Mountain Hardwear shop, and the seemingly countless other stores selling North Fake and all other imaginable type of knocked-off outerwear.
We quickly grabbed a veggie burger (yes, you read right...) at the bakery, and randomly picked one of the many stencil-stamped lodges and settled in. The streets were chaotic, buzzing with souvenir hunters, shop owners, hard-core mountaineers, and local traders on their way to region's biggest market. The lodges all looked new, the menus packed with dozens of interpretations of popular western foods, and every corner had an internet cafe. Money seems to be pouring into this place.
As fast as the afternoon clouds effortlessly float up the Dudh Kosi valley, a realization swept through my head. Of all the places in Nepal I've seen, I think this may be the place that has benefited the most by tourism. Or is crippled?
One can't help but wonder. But as the eyes scan a seemingly infinite landscape of mountains, each twice as tall as anything I can reasonably call home, the mind is quick to find a different sense of wonder. There's clearly a few reasons this place isn't a secret.
The ridge between Dinboche and Pheriche.
Namche sits at around 3400 meters, pretty close to treeline. And once the trees start to thin, and you've climbed above the steep gorges of the middle hills, it's simply one jaw-dropping view after another. And it's definitely not just because of Everest. From here, it's hardly inspiring at all. Some go so far as to call Everest the fat ugly man in a room full of beautiful women. Lhotse, Taboche, Arakam Tse, Thamserku, they are all awesome, and worthy of every cliché adjective that's ever been applied. But one of them is even more beautiful than all the rest.
We'd find ourselves walking below her slopes for the next few days, and often I could hardly keep my feet on the trail. I'd have to stop and stare, shake my head, look back up again, and then turn around and shout back to my brother, “Ah-Ma DEE!”
Somehow, that became our nickname for the prettiest lady in the Khumbu, Ama Dablam. Maybe because I talked about it so much I finally just had to cut off the last syllable so I could catch my breath again. Fortunately, our itinerary would give us plenty of time to gaze up at her, and multiple opportunities for what I really wanted from her; a chance at a good photograph. It almost became an obsession for me. I woke up every morning before dawn, and I stayed out late after sunset, every night, hoping to capture an image of her that could somehow resemble the awesome view she presents in reality. It got so bad, I even had a few dreams about her, only to be ousted out of bed at 5:00 am by my alarm reminding me to get out of there and go chase some color in the sunrise. Quickly, it became the Mountain of My Dreams.
Which, of course, is really just a poor ripoff of a nickname David Roberts used in his epic story of a climb on Mt. Huntington, which took a chilling and tragic twist on the descent. It's one of those stories that reminds me of a phrase I've used often: “Some people are meant to climb high mountains. And some people are meant to marvel at them.” It's hard not to marvel at those peaks, and those people who climb them. But, Roberts story reminds me of why I have little interest in climbing high mountains. Especially ones called the Mountain of my Fear. But this one... This one is the Mountain of my Dreams.
Some day, if I ever give serious mountaineering some realistic consideration, I'll eventually come back to this place. And when I do, it's Ama Dablam that will be responsible. For now, I'll have to settle for a more simple celebration in her shadow. Today, as most days, the afternoon clouds rolled in and obscured pretty much every chance at making some nice pictures. But as the sun started to set, the clouds started to break, and tonight, the clouds stayed high and were clearing, instead of staying low and building. As the clouds broke apart, the sun battled through their seams, and began to set squarely between the towering slopes of Ama Dablam and Taboche. Fortunately, I had scouted a scene I wanted to shoot at earlier in the day, and I quickly grabbed my gear, slung it over the shoulder, and jogged the few minutes down to the Imja Khola. A spectacular scene unfolded, treating me to a show that wouldn't be matched again for the duration of the trip. I bounced back to the guesthouse, feeling fortunate to have finally watched the sunset I only dreamed would happen.
Perhaps the most magical sunset of the trip. Ama Dablam, Taboche, and the Imja Khola river.
Lady Luck was not always so kind to us. After spending two days in Namche, my brother and I were anxious to start moving again. We easily covered the distance to Tengboche, only for the village and the views to quickly be engulfed by the afternoon clouds. We intended to head out early the next day, and spend another acclimatization day at Pangboche, with a side trip up to Ama Dablam base camp.
About an hour after leaving Tengboche, I slowed down. A lot. Something wasn't right. I was feeling lightheaded, and had no energy. My first thought would be the altitude, except for the fact I had just finished the Annapurna circuit, and spent 7 days above 4000 meters already. We were only at 3700. I reasoned I should be just fine. But, I popped a diamox anyways, and decided to take it easy the rest of the way.
That night, I realized it had nothing to do with the altitude. A cramp in the stomach and a quick sprint up to the squatter gave me all the information I needed. Somehow, I'd caught a GI bug, and my body was determined to get rid of it... By any means necessary.
Who knows where the bug came from, or what it really was. Bad water, bad food, bad hygiene? Impossible to say, but it is ridiculously common up here. I was carrying a z-pack, and the pain was getting more intense, so I popped the pack, hoping for a quick fix. I woke up the next morning feeling slightly better, but in no shape to do any hiking. I opted to stay in bed, while my brother checked out base camp.
By early the next morning, I had finally kept down some food, and we decided to make the short walk from Pangoche to Dingboche. Originally, I thought we might be feeling saucy enough to tag Nangartshang in the afternoon, but given my lack of reserves, we decided to head up in the morning. It was the first real frustration of the trip. At this altitude, it's definitely not the distances that take a toll on a person. Most of the time, you barely walk for 3 hours in a day. It's the elevation, and it is just silly to try and push it. And if the altitude doesn't get you, there's a good chance a stomach bug will.
With a good night's rest, I woke up feeling much stronger and ready to head up the small high point above Dingboche. Brandon was charged as well. We threw down a quick breakfast and started our way up the ridge, trying to make our way around the slower folks. A quick look up the hill revealed even more ahead of us. This is the price of admission, I reminded myself.
Brandon smoked everyone up the hill, obviously anxious to do a little more taxing work for the day. I slowly plodded along, trying not to lose my breath or strain myself. Finally, we reached what was little more than an intermediate highpoint on the ridge that continues on to Pokalde. But, without a rope, it'd be an exposed stretch to get from here to the next section of ridge. At about 5000 meters, this was the spot for us to kick back and enjoy the view, with views of Taboche and Cholatse to the west, Ama Dablam just a few kilometers to the south, and the huge valley with Island Peak being dwarfed by the 8,000 meter Makalu to the east. It also represented a new high point for B. Nice!
The afternoon clouds reminded us to finally start heading back down around noon, and we grabbed our bags to head for Chukung. It's not a far walk, but an increase from 4400 meters to 4700 meters. The scale here just blows my mind. Simply walking into Chukung takes us higher than any single spot in the lower 48. We chose to take another day here to acclimatize before heading over Kongma La. We didn't realize we'd be forced to take one.
This time, however, it wasn't me. I was back to feeling pretty strong, almost 100 percent. But B was obviously slowing down. I stopped a few times on the walk to Chukung to see how he was doing. Just this morning he was flying up to 5000 meters effortlessly, and now, he was ready to throw half the stuff in his pack in the river, just to lighten his load. The altitude was taking it's toll. The tell-tale headache of AMS started to set in, and we knew we'd be taking it easy for a day.
South Face of Lhotse, Sunset.
There could be worse places to hang out for a few days. Chukung is beautiful and much less crowded than the main trail to EBC, but it still has a lively crowd. It lures many of the more adventurous trekkers, and of course, the climbers, almost all headed for Island Peak. One could easily spend a couple days, bagging Chukung Ri, heading out to Island Peak base camp, or just wandering the huge glacial moraines that fill the valley.
Hard to go wrong in any direction, and I often just grabbed my camera and went wherever looked interesting. My curiosity taking me first up Chukung Ri, where a phenomenal panorama of peaks unfolds. The massive south face of Lhotse looks close enough to touch here, along with the huge ridge to Nuptse. Makalu, like the next door neighbor who is just beyond the fence, peered over the Imja Valley's icy ridges eager to strike up a conversation as soon as we could get within earshot. And way off to the north, the perfect pyramid of Pumori represented an easily recognized landmark for where Everest Base Camp and Gorak Shep would be, and where we would be in just a few days time.
I snapped a few photos and trundled on back to the guesthouse. Brandon was still chilling, trying to shake off a headache he described as “worse than a hangover from a two-day bucket bender in Thailand...” He was feeling greatly improved however, and it looked like nothing more than a typical high altitude headache. He quickly recovered, and bagged Chukung Ri the next morning, setting us p nicely for a trip over Kongma La, and into the fabled Khumbu valley.
Kongma La gets a bad rap from a lot of trekkers, and I'm not really sure why. Rumors of a bad trail, that's hard to follow and difficult to find fall on hiker's ears pretty commonly. It's also quite high, at 5545 meters, making it difficult to do without proper acclimatization. We'd taken 4 “zero” days already, were now symptom free, and were back to feeling pretty fit. We decided to set off early in the day, to try and avoid the crowds that plagued us on Nangartshang.
Having scouted the route from Chukung Ri a few days before, I made a few mental notes to help us get on the right track, since we'd heard all sorts of conflicting reports on how to find the trail. Turns out, it isn't difficult to find at all, but there are a handful of little trails, ultimately all leading to the right place. We picked our way across the Nuptse terminal moraine, and eventually onto a grassy ridge that led straight into the Kongma valley. By 10 am we were cranking out wai-wai noodles and hot tea on the camp stove, and waiting to see if Yoav (who I'd met earlier on Annapurna) and Phil might be joining us soon.
Within an hour, our party of four was together, and we hung out enjoying the awesome views and nice weather. Two hours on the pass though, and we could feel the altitude wearing away at us, with Brandon and I both with minor headaches. Time to head down. We picked our way through a bunch of ice and scree, and eventually to the very steep northern aspect of Pokalde, which would lead us across the labyrinth of the Khumbu glacier, and into the little village of Lobuche. The thought of thicker air propelled me down the slopes, and by the time we reached the village, everyone was headache free.
On our way up to Kongma La, Ama Dablam in the background
Lobuche is another one of those villages in the Khumbu that has a legend to precede it. Probably as a side-effect of Krakauer's book, which pretty much describes it as a s***-hole. Escaping it without getting a stomach bug should be celebrated as a significant victory. Considering this, perhaps I was biased before we even got there, but upon seeing the condition of the rooms, and the inflated prices for food, and the general feeling of the place, I was glad we only had to stay here for one short night. We'd be off to Gorak Shep in the morning. But, maybe the legend of that place isn't so far from the truth...
By the time we shuffled into Gorak Shep the next morning, a significant weather system started to move in through the valley. The sky was masked by ominous clouds, and it looked like snow was imminent. I wandered around the lateral moraine a couple of times, and every time retreated back to the lodge, joking with our new friends that the storm was going to clear. Everyone shrugged me off and kept playing Yaneff, or any other variety of card games that people tend to play. Anything to make the time go faster, as one can only huddle around the yak-dung fireplace for so long.
It's going to clear! A break in the small storm near Gorak Shep reveals most of Nuptse.
But I couldn't enjoy the heat, even if I wanted to. By 8 pm, it was obvious my stomach was starting to feel the pain again. By taking a z-pack early in the trip, I figured I'd be even more susceptible to sickness, and it was clear round two of the stomach bug was starting to rear it's ugly head. Perhaps a souvenir from Lobuche?
Of course, I continually joked that the storm outside was going to clear. (the storm inside, however, was getting worse...) At about 4 am, a dozen or so trekkers set off for Kala Pattar, which is THE destination for most trekkers. I woke up, hit the head, checked the sky, and since I could barely sleep anyways, I persuaded B to head up the hill with me. By 5 am we were rolling, headed up what couldn't be reasonably considered anything but a small little bump on the southern ridge of Pumori. A true high point it is not, but this morning, there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and a world class view seemed a guarantee.
If only it wasn't for that nasty stomach bug. I'll spare the messy details, but let's just say there wasn't anything fun about that two hours trying to get to the summit. Period. It was brutal. I should have stayed in bed. Except this is Kala Pattar, and I didn't come all this way to miss it. Finally, I pulled myself to the top, tried to fake a smile, snapped a photo with my brother, and then took off at a breakneck clip to make it back to my bed. Pretty sure I was back in the room 26 minutes later, but at least it was emergency-free.
I came, I saw. Or so I thought. Problem is with Kala Pattar, the sun rises behind the view, so it's pretty hard to make a decent image at sunrise. Best time of day would be the afternoon, when the sun was setting. However, it's very rare that the mountain stays clear in the afternoon. What's more, this was two days before a full moon, so I knew that the moon would rise an hour or two before the sunset. This could be a perfect photo opportunity. And of course, as I layed in bed, with intestinal cramps seemingly ripping my innards asunder, the weather stayed clear, and the scene I thought might play out was indeed doing just that.
What the hell, why not? This is too good to pass up! It's just a stomach bug. I'm going back up Kala Pattar.
I struggled through packing up a bag with some warm gear, a tripod, and the camera, and started making my way back up the hill.
Slow. And. Steady. One foot in front of the other. I can do this.
Oh man, I can't do it. Sit on some rocks. Try and recover. Push forward another 20 yards. Back to the ground. Think of the view man! You can do this! 20 more yards. Oh no. Hit the deck. Head between the knees. I want to puke. Deep breaths. 20 more yards. How is this happening NOW? This isn't irony, this is torture.
And so it went. For an hour. I made maybe 600 meters, tops. I just couldn't do it. I retreated back to the room, back to that menacing plywood excuse for comfort. Back to my sleeping bag, which represented the only real chance and staying warm. And back to the tiny glass window pane that let in just a fraction of that classic view I wanted to so badly to photograph. Painfully, the opportunity slipped pass me, untouched. So close, yet so far away.
We had no choice but to stay another day. I was hammered. Brandon went off to Base Camp. I spent the day in bed. It was like alternating days of maddening sicknesses between the two of us. We needed a break. Relief finally started to come by that evening.
Yoav and Phil bounced off for Lobuche that morning. Probably out of some pity, they decided not to go to Dzonghla for another day, which meant we still might be able to catch back up. A day later, and feeling better, I was anxious to get out of Gorak Shep, and see some new scenery. Amazingly, I felt nearly 100 percent. I couldn't believe it. We cruised through Lobuche, started the gradual contour towards the night's stop at Dzonghla. We were there before noon, arriving to the most bizarre of all the villages we would see.
Take any reputation that Lobuche might have had, multiply it two-fold, and you have an idea of what Dzonghla is like. Only this place was still worse. Completely and utterly disgusting. Trash was tucked behind every boulder big enough to hide a two liter bottle or square of toilet paper. Rats raced through the dorm rooms trying to find any food left unsecured. An emotionless child (who looked worn out, no doubt abused by hundreds of angry trekkers before us) stared blankly at the faces of those placing orders, nodding only to acknowledge he had actually heard them. Food is guaranteed to cost nearly double what it does everywhere else, but whether or not the food came out warm was no sure thing. Human waste literally overflowed the only toilet available. And the smell was so horrific, people had no choice but to go find another place, preferably behind a huge rock for some privacy, only to find that dozens of other people had the same idea.
There are few options to trekkers for this leg. To do the whole section from Lobuche over Cho La and down to Thagnag is possible, and entirely doable, but makes for a big day. Resting halfway is the logical way to do it, with a final push into Gokyo, but in hindsight, it is the worst idea possible.
It's a shame the small little hotel there can distract so strongly from the overall atmosphere of the valley. Excepting Dzonghla, it is one of the prettiest places on the trek. Taboche, Cholatse, and Arakam Tse form huge vertical walls on their north faces. To the north lies the Lobuche massif, and to the south, Ama Dablam frames the valley, reflected in the glacially dammed lake of Cho La Tso. If the wind is quiet enough to allow it, it could be truly magical.
Star trails circle behind Ama Dablam and the Cho La valley.
It really is amazing that all of us made it out of there without any significant issue. The place certainly made it easy to be motivated for an early departure in the morning. We were out of there by sunrise.
By the time the little hotel was out of sight, it was hard not to be awed by our surroundings. We slowly climbed higher, and I think all of us made the mistake of thinking Cho La was one valley to the west of where it truly is. When we finally approached the end of the valley, and saw where the trail truly went, we were even more speechless. While we were slowly shuffling along, one porter had already lugged a huge load to the top, and was sprinting down the hill to help his clients with a second. He got a chuckle out of a few of us, along with a few mumbles of “unbelievable.”
Crossing the Cho La glacier, from Lobuche to Gokyo
After climbing the steep rock ramp, the route mellows out quite a bit, and then makes it's way across the Cho La glacier. It's not much of a glacier by Himalayan standards, but it did require a good half hour of walking on snow and ice, and one significant crevasse that had to be skirted, but never crossed. Once on top, we took a few celebratory photos, shared the few chocolate bars we had left, and then made the nasty descent down the other side, following a semi-cairned route across a boulder field that simply leaves you scratching your head. “Is that really the trail?”
Compared to all the other major trekking routes i(which tend to be as big as roads and nearly paved like one too) this was actually pretty steep and required some attention. Yaks almost certainly couldn't cross it. Which means there is a lot less traffic too. It was a very tangible transition heading into Gokyo leaving EBC behind and all of it's crowds, and a very welcome transition at that.
We moved efficiently and made pretty good time, arriving in Thagnag around noon for lunch. The sky was cloudless, and beautiful. I knew we were at least a few hours ahead of some of our group we had met the night before, and there would be some waiting around to see where everyone would end up. I was quite astonished to feel as good as I did, considering the stomach bug just two days earlier. I looked at my watch, and my brain started wondering if I could actually make it to Gokyo today, and up Gokyo Ri in time for sunset. All I could think of was getting a chance at redemption after missing the sunset at Kala Pattar.
At one point, Gilad even asked me incredulously why I wanted to go up today. “The sunset will be there tomorrow, you know?” Perhaps, but up here, the odds weren't good, especially in the evening. However, tt was clear now, and that was enough to make up my mind.
Sure enough, the group was spread out, and by 1 pm, we were back to just 6 of us. I was feeling strong, so I took off at a quicker pace, hoping to cross the Ngozumpa glacier quick enough to have a chance at Gokyo Ri before sunset. I passed a guide and client around 1:45, and asked how far it was to Gokyo. One and a half hours, they said. And then how long up Gokyo Ri? 3 hours, round trip. The sun sets at 5 pm this time of year. They said it wasn't possible, it was too late, and it was certainly going to cloud up, pointing to the first signs of clouds coming up the valley.
Nice to have a little motivation. I scrambled over the moraine into Gokyo around 2:20, looking back for signs of the other 3. Quickly I went into the village, found a room, and told the lodge owner to keep a look out for the really tall skinny guy in a group of five, and wave them to your place when you see them. I bought a couple of snickers from him, stuffed them in my pocket, and asked him how long it would take to get to the summit. No more than 2 hours. 4:30 pm, if I can keep a solid pace. Perfect.
A quick glance back to the south, and the clouds were continuing to build. In typical fashion, the clouds roll up the valley floors, swallowing up all the views as they slowly climb higher and higher. Suddenly, I wasn't so confident about my decision.
Nonetheless, I headed out. Pacing myself so as to not lose my breath, I kept a good rhythm for about 30 minutes. Stopping to survey the scene, it was obvious the clouds were building, and building fast. In ten minutes I figured to be entirely in the white mist, and barely able to see 50 meters.
If I can just get higher, I might be able to break through.
That was all I could tell myself to keep going. Group after group passed me. All going down. All wondering what I was doing going up. One Danish guy was brash enough to ask what in the world I was thinking, pointing into the clouds engulfing us and without saying anything else, seemed to ask “do you not see all this?” I just looked him square in the face and told him “It's going to clear.” I only half believed it, but I wanted to prove him wrong. If nothing else simply to spite him and that cocky attitude.
By 4 pm, I decided to just sit down and wait. My strength was starting to run out. I had pushed myself pretty hard today, especially considering two days earlier I couldn't even get out of bed. Thoughts of a nice sunset had propelled me this far, but I was pretty sure at my current pace I wouldn't make it in time anyways. The struggle was just beginning.
Had I been able to see anything at that point, I might have realized I only had about 100 vertical meters to go, and maybe 15 or 20 minutes of actual hiking. What I figured was the last group to come down passed me, all with big smiles. And I imagined, certainly with great photos, as they had to have been above the clouds for much of the day, only to see them come barreling up the valley.
“Up or down?”
“Oh, you can't give up now, you are almost there!” They had good news. As of ten minutes before, it was still clear at the summit. “Only a little farther and you'll be above the clouds!”
Unbelievable! Re-energized, I stood back up and started walking. But the energy didn't last. It was obvious I had been pushing too hard all day, and now, in that thin air, I simply couldn't walk as fast as my camera wanted me too. I was maxed out entirely. I couldn't believe it was happening again. I was crashing!
I sat down again.
This CANNOT be happening. Seriously? Again? Certainly, I must have some reserve I can tap into to make this last stretch. It's not that far. And the view is still good. And the sun is setting. And the full moon will be rising. This is my chance at redemption for what happened on Kala Pattar. Come on man, let's do this! Get moving!
I stood back up, trying to focus on slow methodical movements, when I actually realized what was happening. I had hit the cloud ceiling, and it was starting to clear. I could faintly see some of the distant peaks. A few patches of blue opened up. The clouds were swirling and moving fast, but the ceiling was near. In this landscape of unfathomable heights, measured by the thousands of meters, I figured it was only a tiny distance of 20 meters, and I'd likely have a clear view once again.
The excitement got my engine revved back up, but it didn't help. I couldn't get any power to my legs. I sat back down. No strength. Nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. The tank was empty, and even the vapors long burnt. No rational thought could make me get back up. Hell, I couldn't even think, it seemed like it was too much work. I'd have been fuming mad, if I had any energy to actually be angry.
It is difficult to explain exactly what it feels like to hit a wall. Unless you've ever bonked, it's impossible to understand why someone can't just keep going. One foot in front of the other isn't that hard. I've walked almost 4000 kilometers this year, and never felt it, including some massive 30 plus mile days on the JMT. I'd hadn't hit a wall in a long time. Until now.
There was just nothing left. I couldn't believe it. I would walk 20 yards, and have to stop. I could see the top. It was 10 minutes away, even if I was crawling. I had maybe 20 minutes before the sun set. But it didn't matter. I was frozen.
I figured “Why not just take some photos from here? It's not that bad.”
But the foreground was terrible and the view to the north completely obstructed. I snapped a few, but it wasn't really an option.
It seems terribly cliché what happened next. I remembered an email I had read from my father a few days before. With a brief explanation of my stomach issues and B's little bout with AMS, he had responded with a quick note saying something like “Get better, keep going. I have a space on my office wall for that photo of Everest.”
It was my dad who first took me to the mountains, bought me my first backpacking kit, and taught me the beauty of wilderness and the simplicity of traveling only with what we can carry. With him, I discovered my love for the mountains. I owe him a lot for those early experiences.
It's been a long time since we've actually shared a trail together, however. Nagging knees, fickle kidneys, and sleep apnea have understandably kept my dad closer to the roads and home lately. Photos and trip reports have become the logical substitute for the annual backpacking trips we used to share.
I think its fair to blame him for getting me here in the first place. So it seemed fitting a little nudge from my father's email was exactly what I needed to get me going again. I was half a world away, alone, tired, and above the clouds in Gokyo, but was nice to share the trail with him again.
I stood back up, again, trying to translate my mental energy into physical energy. Babysteps. A step here. A step there. Slowly, I made progress. And slowly, the clouds pulled farther and farther back, revealing more and more.
Eventually, I gained the summit. But the summit itself was not so important. I'd have certainly stopped earlier had I been convinced the view would have been equal. Then again, maybe that's why they are there, and why we all want to stand on top of them. Because the views are always better.
For the next hour, I watched as the clouds slowly retreated back down the valley, the last of the sunlight inch up the faces of three of the world's biggest mountains before disappearing, only for the sky to softly blend into rich hues of pink and purple.
The alpenglow seemed to last forever, and I stayed until I couldn't feel my toes or fingers anymore. I wasn't equipped to sit around at 5300 meters in 40 km/h winds while shooting photos. I was equipped to either be moving, or sleeping. And the escalating winds and lack of sun meant the temperature was well below freezing by now, and my wimpy fleece gloves and beanie weren't up to the task. I fired off a couple more images of Everest in the fading light, did a couple jumping jacks to try and warm up, recklessly stuffed the camera and tripod in my pack, fumbled to get my headlamp on, and started heading down.
When you're freezing cold, and have gravity in your favor, It's amazing how fast you can move. An hour earlier, I was crushed, unable to make progress. Now, illuminated by the small disc of my headlamp, I was cruising along, and the slope that took a solid two hours to get up took about 30 minutes to descend.
Ah, sweet redemption. Finally feeling sufficiently warm, and pleased with the gamble that had more than paid off, I strode into the guesthouse dining hall. The crew, now back up to a dozen strong, were already polishing off their dinners. The perma-grin I was wearing must have given away the story before I even opened my mouth.
“We almost sent the search party up there for ya. Did you make it?”
“Yeah, but just barely.”
“And???” It was an impatient demand for a more complete explanation. They wanted the details. But I just wanted some food.
“It was amazing. Better than I even imagined...”
I almost wondered if they really believed me. The clouds had blotted out the sky for most of the afternoon in Gokyo. They likely didn't see much, until it finally cleared at dusk. I almost felt like I needed to offer some photographic evidence to prove it. The camera was produced, and slowly circled the table, everyone taking a look.
Not that anyone needed any more reason to get up Gokyo Ri. The crew quickly decided on an itinerary for the next day. Head up the Gokyo valley in the morning, and then hope for a similar sunset on Gokyo Ri in the evening. I laughed, and then explained I probably wouldn't join them. I wanted to sleep in. I think they understood why.
Morning dawned with me comfortably in my sleeping bag. The usual cloudless sky was actually partially cloudy, and the sunrise had some color. I rubbed my eyes and tried to tell myself to get up. I pulled the curtains back and took a longer look out over Gokyo lake. The water was perfectly still, and the clouds contrasty and colorful.
Just walk to the lake, snap a photo, and go back to bed.
The crew was already on their way up to the 5th lake when I returned. My legs were soft, and I needed some time to recover, so my plans for the day were much less ambitious. I wanted to make it up to “scoundrel's viewpoint,” which supposedly had good views of Cho Oyu, Everest, and the upper Gokyo valley. It looked like 5 or 6 kilometers on the map, and almost no elevation gain. With a few hours extra rest, and some motivation from Gilad, we started the methodical plod up the Ngozumpa moraine, reaching what our maps said was a viewpoint in a couple of hours.
It would be yet another frustrating exercise reading these terrible maps. Mine had a had a distinct spot labeled “Everest viewpoint,” but according to the map, it was obviously farther up the valley. It was also obvious from where we were standing, that from farther up the valley Everest wouldn't even be visible. What's more, I thought there was supposed to be a good view of Cho Oyu, but from here it was almost entirely blocked by an intermediate peak. Dammit!
From a few hundred meters away, I could see the crew beginning to head back down Through some long distance shouting, I tried to figure out if they ever got the view of Cho Oyu. The answer was no. Everyone was confused, and the maps were definitely wrong.
Ugh. I had time, so I figured I'd keep going up, maybe to the sixth lake. I had already determined I wanted to see Cho Oyu from a favorable viewpoint, and the extra distance and bad maps today irked me. I trundled on, eventually climbing around the small “Knobby Hill” (as some call it) and found my way to the sixth lake.
Ah, this is the viewpoint on the map! The description, however, said “View of Mt. Everest.” In fact, it should say “View of Cho Oyu.” And what a great view it was. Cho Oyu's enormous south face towered 2500 meter over the icefalls at it's base, giving way to one of Nepal's biggest glaciers, the Ngozumpa. It was a hell of a view. I walked as far out on the moraine as I dared, warned of the obvious instability of the place by the constant crash of rocks and dirt collapsing to the glacier below. The wind was howling again, and the spotty cloud cover was getting thicker. I would have to settle for a little snap and run, knowing I didn't have very much food with me, and I had already gone much further than I anticipated for the day.
Self portrait near the 6th lake, at the base of Cho Oyu.
The walk back down was easy, gentle, and fast. The clouds continued to build, and by the time I made it to Gokyo, it was obvious there would be no good views from Gokyo Ri the rest of the day. I figured the boys would be more than frustrated when they got back to our guesthouse in the evening. Indeed, they'd seen nothing.
As night fell, we made plans for the next day. I reluctantly requested a rest day. The others, perhaps motivated to catch one more good view of Everest and Cho Oyu, were keen on crossing Renjo La in the morning, and heading down to Thame. Being outnumbered, I agreed with some hesitation.
Unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse. We woke up to snow at Gokyo, and dark skies warning us there was not going to be any breaks for some time. Somewhat dejected, the group had a makeshift breakfast around the dung fireplace, and brainstormed some options. We could wait a day, and see if it clears. We could try and cross in the storm. Or we could just pack up and head for Namche today.
I knew what the decision would be. None of these guys could handle sitting around for a full day in this. They wanted to move. Admittedly, I felt pretty satisfied with how the trip had gone up to this point, so I didn't offer much resistance. And so, the only reasonable conclusion was reached. We were headed for Namche.
The snow fell almost the entire day, and the stiff wind quickly erased any doubt in our minds if we had made the right decision. By 3 pm, we managed to roll into Namche, and by 5 we had all ordered some big cuts of yak steak, a psuedo celebration for what we thought would be the end of our time in the Khumbu. With any luck, we'd be on a plane tomorrow afternoon, or early the next day, flying back to Kathmandu. Man, we might even be able to celebrate Thanksgiving back on Freak St. with some of our other American friends. (The rest of our crew were obviously apathetic about this holiday).
In Nepal, those who have well scripted itineraries are destined to be frustrated. Whether it's GI bugs, or AMS, or the notoriously unreliable flights at Tenzing Hillary Airport in Lukla, nothing is definite up here. Arriving at the airport around noon, it was obvious the weather wasn't cooperating. Rumors floated around that 9 or so planes had taken off that morning, but flights were suspended until further notice. Not a problem we figured, we'll just get our names on the list for the next morning, and fly out in the generally stable morning air of the next day.
As expected, the sun rose, and the sky was clear. A small cloud hovered down the valley from the airstrip, but it seemed like good fortune was ours. We all packed up our bags and headed for the airport. But where are the planes we wondered? 6:30 am turned to 7. No signs of life at the airport. Nothing landing. 7:00 turned to 8:00. Still no planes. That little cloud in the valley? It was turning into something bigger. By 8:30, it was blocking the end of the runway. And by 9:00, it was obvious there'd be no planes at all today. It made no sense, why had no planes landed? Where were they?
The backlogs were growing, rooms were filling up, and hundreds of trekkers were obviously restless. Things went from inconvenient, to annoying, to downright maddening. It's obvious there is little in the way of a system to clear backlogs, and your best chance of getting out on an open ended ticket is to either pay off the Tara Air employee, or hope that Mr. Fingu at Agni Air puts us on the first unconfirmed flight of the day. So it went, everyone retreated back to their hotels, and then found their way to the airline office (a term used loosely, when it was just a desk and a stack of papers). Everyone intent on trying to be at the front of the cue. We'd have to wait it out. Happy Thanksgiving.
I figured I had a really brilliant idea. I had gotten a confirmed flight by calling the airlines from Namche the day before. Why not do the same again today, and skip the unconfirmed mayhem at the Agni office. I went into the kitchen of the hotel and asked to use the phone. Showing them the phone number, I asked if I could make a call. They refused, trying to offer an explanation I didn't understand.
“What the hell!” I stormed back out into the street where the crowds were lining up for tomorrow's flights. My brother and others wondered what was going on.
“They won't let me use the dang phone! What is up with Lukla man? This place is mayhem.”
Our lodge owner came out after me, laughing. It did little but make me more mad. He pointed to the guy in the office, and motioned for me to follow him. He cut in front of the lines, behind the desk, and then grabbed a note from the guy behind the desk. Still laughing, he showed me the number on the paper, and pointed to the number I had in my hand. They were identical. The person I wanted to call was the guy running the cue at Agni. It was Fingu's.
It was hard not to laugh at how ridiculous this situation was getting. If not because of me acting like a total idiot, it would have to be because of the fact one can get a confirmed flight by calling the day before, but if you are talking to the guy in person? No such luck...
By the time night came, I had one thing on my mind. Pumpkin Pie. Or maybe two things. Pumpkin Pie and some NFL football. Pretty sure neither were going to happen this Thanksgiving. So I worked out a plan B. I went on the hunt for a decent bakery who could make me a pie, and put some sort of consolation on the day.
Lukla is not without a few nice looking bakeries, I figured it would be a quick and easy plan to execute. I poked my head into bakery after bakery. 2000 rupees, 2500 rupees, 1800 rupees. Are you kidding me? $30 to $40 for a pie? In Nepal? That's ridiculous! Though, I couldn't help but feel like trekkers had happily paid that price before though.
It was no small victory when I returned to the hotel that night, and asked our kitchen staff if they could manage to put something together. Pulling out a pan normally used for pizzas, the cook asked me if the size was good enough. Perfect! He had a few apples, and said he could make some kind of apple pie. 700 rupees. Much better, even though I didn't expect much.
After a few card games, and a few hours by the kerosene heater, I wondered what was taking so long. I poked back in the kitchen, and our guy was literally cutting and weaving strips of dough across the pie, and decorating the top with a squeeze tube.
Wow! That is impressive! An admirable effort to get that crazy irritated American guy some pie on Thanksgiving. I felt a little embarassed.
Half an hour later we were all enjoying our Thanksgiving feast. Granted, it wasn't much, but it was about as good as it gets when you are stranded in Lukla. I can look back at that day now and laugh, but that's only because it didn't get any worse. At least, not until the next day...
Groundhog day. The morning dawns clear. Exactly like the day before. A few clouds are hanging out in the lower valley. After yesterdays flights being canceled, I figured for sure we were stuck again. But at 7am, we heard the sirens announcing that flights were resuming. Everyone made a push for the airport. We were set up for flight 8 on Agni Air. They operate only 2 planes in the morning, and the rountrip takes about two hours total. The first planes landed around 7:45, and turned around the passengers in remarkably efficient time, and took off again. We sat at the end of the runway with our breakfast, and a lot of hope for more planes. More planes that didn't come.
The two Agni planes returned almost two hours later, and we did some quick math. We were on flight 8. By 9:30 or 10, flights 3 and 4 were finally leaving. We'd need a big weather window to have any hope of getting out. But the weather seemed like it was holding, and the planes slowly trickled around the huge mountains to the west, and kept landing. By 2 pm, we'd been shuttled through security, and were on the tarmac. Another plane landed. Agni air, flight 7! We were one plane away. And 10 minutes later, we could hear another plane. As it came up the 15 degree incline and into view, we were amazed. Another Agni plane! Cheers from the holding room!
When the weather holds, the airlines can mobilize more planes from other nearby routes to come and help clear the backlog at Lukla. We'd gotten another plane now. But the weather was barely holding. The clouds were starting to fill the valley, and it looked like there was maybe 30 minutes of decent weather left. If the pilots can't see, they don't fly. We'd slip in just by the skin of our teeth.
Finju, possibly the only employee of Agni Air in all of Lukla, ushered us out onto the tarmac where our Dornier awaited us. We gave our waves to our friends who were still a flight behind us, and gave each other high fives. We've escaped!
We waited on the tarmac for a couple minutes. I kept looking at the clouds. Our window was closing. But apparently the door on the aircraft wasn't. Finju returned, and guided us again, this time turning us around entirely, and leading us BACK to the waiting room. No flight! Mechanical problem on the door, it won't shut, he explained.
By now, Finju and I were getting pretty well acquainted. He explained the situation to me, and I offered an explanation to the waiting room full of irritated trekkers. He promised it would be 10 minutes and another plane would arrive. 10 minutes, Nepal time.
An hour later, the other plane finally landed, but not without the clouds get worse and worse. We were motioned over to our flight, and at the same time, an engineer jumped off our plane and went to look at the other one. Within a few minutes, it was fixed. We nearly exploded with laughter/anger/relief. We joked if the engineer was the only one strong enough to kick the hinge. So while we waited to take off, the other plane loaded with the rest of all our friends, and we realized we'd have the full crew together again that night. In fact, they even took off before us!
I was perplexed to say the least. I stopped asking questions. I was just relieved to actually be on a flight, heading back to the 'du. One more plane landed and took off before the clouds shut down the airport for the day. But we'd made it, and I was happy.
It was a short ride back to Kathmandu. We landed and were immediately impressed by the warmer temperatures, the terrible air quality, and the insane amounts of noise. Certainly a wild little finish to our 3 weeks in the Khumbu, but we didn't care anymore. We were just happy to be back in the Zoo.We grabbed our bags, tracked down a taxi, and looked forward to a steak dinner, a hot shower, and a real bed.
We managed to climb into the tiny little taxi and go-karted our way out of the airport. The honking, the swerving, the braking... Accelerating and braking again, and yet more honking.... that's the insanity of a Kathmandu taxi ride. My head was spinning, maybe from the whiplash. An hour ago, we were begging to get out of Lukla. But now, I'd do pretty much anything to go back.