Published: January 9th 2008December 19th 2007
Preparing for the Walk
Leaving Gorak Shep for Base Camp. There was no turning back from here.
A Tip For Seasonal Travel: I Wish Someone Had Told Me This Before
You wouldn’t do an Alaskan cruise during winter and you wouldn’t visit the Sahara in summer. These are two well established pieces of assumed knowledge which every one of us has installed somewhere between our earlobes. From this, it should not take a long stretch of hard thought to come to the simple conclusion that you should visit cold places when they are at their warmest; which typically occurs during summer. Through a lack of grey matter, or perhaps through the debilitating Australian disease of southern-hemisphere-itis (we find it hard to understand how December could be anything other than warm and sunny), Ben and I forgot this basic piece of advice and we were to be found in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time.
If I think back on things, I probably could have told you that the area around Mt Everest was cold during winter and that winter starts in December, but for some reason those two thoughts didn’t occur simultaneously. So, there we were, two Aussies hiking towards the world’s tallest mountain during winter.
To summarise, the trek was gruelingly difficult
for a multitude of reasons. I will try and avoid describing that aspect too much here and I’ll instead focus on the funny things that happened and beautiful things that we saw. Towards the end though I imagine that I’ll have to indulge in a short story about “the top” just to let you all know how tough we are.
So, why did we want to trek to Everest Base Camp (the camp where trekkers stop and climbers begin on their way up the mountain)? To play a game of cricket of course! Team HAC had two games left in their tour, our tour shirts already had the altitudes emblazoned on them; we simply had to go. Throughout the trek we met a number of other trekkers all of whom thought we were completely mad for undertaking the hike with such silly intentions. I am now inclined to side with them in this regard.
Day One: Discovering What We Were In For
The early morning flight from Kathmandu to the small town of Lukla taught me three things. First off, I learned that one of the Canadians that was starting the trek that day was completely
crazy (we later discovered that she was the most annoying person in the world). Secondly, I realised the reasons why we had taken the flight as opposed to walking as the plane soured over two dozen or so great valleys and mountain ranges on our twenty minute journey east. To have walked the full trek from Jiri would have required an extra six days of torture which we simply didn’t feel inclined to try out. Lastly, I discovered how much fun an airport can become when you incorporate such features as a sixty degree incline and a large brick wall at the end of the runway.
As I looked out of my window towards the soaring Himalayas I got a severe shock as I realised just how tall the mountains were and how many of them there were. So many giant mountains reared out of the rippled valleys and lofted well above the plane that I could not have counted them. And, the mountain towards which we were heading was only just visible between the others. We had a lot of hiking ahead of us. I was also feeling rather sad for having had to say goodbye to Marjie
after the three marvelous months that we had traveled together when I was snapped out of my thoughts by the shock of watching our plane veer sharply downwards behind a mountain as it finished its approach.
Our first impressions of Lukla were quite shocking. The snowline was only five meters above the town and the walk out of the airport was intermittently icy and muddy. Here we were on the first morning of our 13 day trek and we were already in the snow; it was certainly going to get worse as we climbed higher. We were already shivering and considering wearing all of our warm clothes that first morning as we sat down to breakfast in Lukla. A pessimistic old German lady sat across from us and spent most of her time telling us how everyone in her trekking party had gotten sick and had terrible troubles near base camp; an outlook which we thought was a rather nasty thing to be telling to the new trekkers. However, when we asked her how much ice was on the path she promptly told us that she hadn’t seen any at all which we thought was a good positive step.
Flying to Lukla
Ready to start walking.
Five minutes later we were walking along a completely ice-covered path which was flanked by snow on both sides. Clearly all of the woman’s opinions could be ignored.
Our first day of trekking was short and easy as we headed 200m downhill to Phakding. Unbeknownst to us, it was to be the first and last short day of the trip; if we had know this then we might have made better use of it. Unfortunately, the sun set behind the opposing side of the gorge at around 3:30pm which left us a good three hours of freezing in the “sun room” before the fire was lit. We began to realise further just how cold it can get in the mountains during winter.
Still unperturbed (although we did nearly turn around and walk back to Lukla when we discovered that there was a giant hill for us to walk up while at the same time six pretty girls were walking down the other way) we headed onwards for a tour de “che” (named in honour of the towns we walked through over the next week: Namche, Tengboche, Dingboche, Lobuche, Pheriche, Pangboche, etc.)
Been There, Seen That,
and Played Soccer With the Monks to Boot
On day one, at 8am, we began to see what we were in for. Check out the slope on the runway!
After leaving Namche Bazar, a small town nestled in a hillside about 600m above two rivers, we entered an entirely new environment. Gone were the days of shady pine forests and a normal-ish looking river valley; we were now in a high altitude wasteland. The hillside above us was covered in rocks and low-lying shrubs reminiscent of the landscape of Tibet (not surprising considering that we were only 10km from Tibet) and the sun beat down directly upon us. Unfortunately, the sun wasn’t strong enough to do a great deal in the way of heating so we had to keep walking to stay warm.
Around lunch we dropped down off the hill before beginning the last bit of walking for the day: a straight walk up a 600m high hillside. Slowly, we had been noticing a trend that day. Early on we had met a young Australian couple walking the same way as us (Jess and Kirby) as well as an older Aussie couple going the other way. After that we then met another five young Aussie guys walking the same way as us. It seemed that the only people
First Big Mountains
Barely out of Lukla and already there were big mountains.
in the world silly enough to be doing the trek in December were Australians! (We later discovered that the Koreans are worse, they all waited till mid-December to begin) At least, we thought, there was a good chance of Australia fielding a decent team for the game at base camp.
While we were walking that day we were given our first real view of Mt Everest. Far off down the valley, sitting like an island among the surrounding Himalayas, the peaks of Nuptse and Lhotse appeared with the small and black tip of Everest jutting out from behind them. Compared to all of the other mountains around (and there were a lot of them) the Everest group was in an entirely different league: far exceeding any of the other mountains in height, and being somewhat separate from everything else, made them look like the largest things in the world.
On our right we could also see Ama Dablam which is one of the most beautiful mountains in the region. Ben described it as a snow-lion, while I refer to it as the Nepali Sphinx, and it really does look like a resting cat of some description. Its dual
Before Namche Bazar we walked through dense forrests.
peaks aren’t particularly high but the mountain is completely isolated (no other peak is within five kilometers of it and it is completely surrounded by river valleys) so it sticks out like no other mountain in the region. For about four days we walked along the bottom edge of Ama Dablam, constantly in awe of it’s majesty; just look at the photos to see why.
The end of that amazing day, the day which had some of the best views of the entire trek, found us in the small hilltop town of Tengboche. This quiet little place is the home to a Tibetan monastery which overlooks the confluence of two great rivers which carve valleys between the mountains. It sits on a rise some 600m above the valley floor which sticks out into the valley. Because of this great location, the view from the town is completely bewildering: out of my room’s window I had a completely undisturbed view directly to Everest! All around us there were mountains, big, huge, amazing mountains. Every one of them seemed to be bigger than the last and I felt a bit giddy looking at all of them. It truly was the most
Mani piles were everywhere.
fantastic view I’ve seen in all of Nepal. Also, a bakery in the town made chocolate cake (trust me to think of the food).
After eating and regaining our sugar levels we planned to visit the monastery but somehow we get distracted en-route. Instead of being cultural tourists we ended up playing a game of soccer in front of the temple with a group of fifteen monks. It seemed to be a frequent occurrence as the monks were actually quite good (especially in comparison to the out of breath westerners involved). Now, can you imagine how it feels to be playing soccer at 4000m while wearing thermals and a down jacket? It was quite surreal to say the least; everything was subtly different from a typical game back home. For example, how often will the siren to end the game be the call to prayer from a Tibetan monastery?
We had a great time playing with the monks despite the facts that they were much better than us and that we couldn’t run for more than five seconds without collapsing at that altitude. I even scored a goal! Had we realised at the time that Tengboche had both
A village by the river.
the best view on the trek and the most entertaining things to do in the afternoons (football is more fun than shivering next to a fireplace which hasn’t started properly) then we would not have bothered walking any further. Honestly, once you get to Tengboche you’ve seen 90% of what there is to see on the trek and considering hard the walking gets afterwards, it’s hard to justify going any further.
High Altitude Yak Attacks and Local Camouflage
On the Annapurna trek we were faced with an army of donkeys hell bent on pushing us off trails or dropping on us from high above. The Everest trek was no different, except that the donkeys were replaced with 500kg Yaks the size of a Land Cruiser. Apparently the donkeys can’t handle the altitude so Yaks are the only option, but the dangers involved in using these animals are horrendous. Imagine the daily scenario we were faced with: innocently walking up a steep hill on a narrow path when a giant furry head comes around the corner with two foot long horns jutting towards you. Not only do the Yaks have big horns, but the horns are designed specifically
for killing tourists: they are wide enough to take up the entire path, the bounce from side to side, and they point straight forwards at chest height. Now that’s a scary sight to see coming towards you!
Further up on the trek the situation was a little better. The paths were a lot wider which helped us negotiate around the Yaks, but the population of the beasts seems to be higher in such areas to compensate for this. There were a couple of situations where we still couldn’t walk on the path because a whole family of Yaks was walking towards us; completely filling the available paths. On one such occasion we had to pass a family of Yaks which was standing around eating whatever it is they manage to find in the inhospitable ground (dirt I suspect). The only way I could see that would get us through which didn’t involve rock-climbing gear or a three day hike was to pass through a gap between Yaks (it was perhaps five meters across, plenty of room really). What I had failed to take into account was that the two Yaks I was walking between were mother and son and
she got rather angry at me. She charged me in fact.
I briefly wondered what the evacuation options were for Yak mauling victims, while also considering if my travel insurance covered the “running of the Yaks”. Backing away as quickly as I could, and nearly running into the other Yak I might add, I got as far away from the beast as I could. She was still angry at me and she gave me the evil eye until we were well away from them, but at least she’d stopped making that horribly fast loping motion in my direction.
We discovered later that day that the local people have a defence mechanism to protect them from the Yaks. We encountered it on one of the myriad paths that crisscrossed the plateau we were walking across. Ahead of us we had an undisturbed view of Tibetan plateau (very low brown shrubs and yellow grass intermittently growing on the permanently frozen earth) surrounded by snowy mountains of ridiculous heights, undisturbed that is except for the door.
Yes, there was a wooden door standing in the field. Just standing there like doors do, ready to be opened and walked through. Casually
we wondered why a door was there, and more so, what was through the door. We envisioned a portal of some kind which would have explained how all the porters seemed to walk much slower than us but always got to the destination before us, but this really did sound a little implausible.
Then, as if in an effort to explain the oddity, a hand reached around the door and fidgeted for the handle (which seemed to be missing). Then the door stood up and continued walking along the path. For an hour or so we walked behind the door as it periodically moved itself along and then sat down in a new location and did what all doors do: nothing. You see, the people there hide behind the doors so that the Yaks can’t see them; like a kind of primitive camouflage. That’s what I think anyway.
When Do You Give Up?
There is something odd about climbing mountains. It really doesn’t make much sense as a hobby or profession to try to get to “the peak”, especially when the peaks are as high as they are in Nepal. Logically speaking, you’d have to be
The Hill Before Namche
From here we climbed straight up the side of the hill in the middle. 600 vertical meters with almost no horizontal movement at all! It took two hours and caused Ben to go into shivering fits for an hour.
a nutter to even bother, but then again, there is some kind of deep seated pleasure in succeeding in such endeavours. You do get a nice feeling inside when you finally reach the top and conquer the mountain. That said, you still have to be mad.
We stopped in the town of Dingboche for a day so as to acclimatise better and we spent that morning climbing up the side of one of the hills (a.k.a. mountains) beside the town. The path was steep and went straight up the side of the hill up to the peak at around 5300m so it was no small thing to be climbing. We weren’t going to attempt getting all the way to the top, we only had to go up 300m or so, but once I started walking I felt the urge to try to make it all the way up.
We climbed quickly up the first section and soon found ourselves around 4600m. The views from there were fantastic with my favourite mountains directly in front of us across a wide valley. The weather was perfect, the sky clear as a summer day in Australia, and it felt really good
to be walking up the mountainside. We kept walking, higher and higher, getting more out of breath with each step, until I realised our error. You see, the view simply wasn’t getting any better.
Most often I climb things for the view but in this case there was no change from about 4600m up to 5300m. That is a hell of a long way to walk for no added benefits! It was around about then that I started to understand just how silly it is to even think about climbing the big mountains like Everest. I mean, I could have been staying in a nice warm bed in Tengboche where the view was better and I wouldn’t have to be walking. What is it about success that makes us push ourselves so much? Was getting to Base Camp really going to be satisfying? Would the view be any good?
In Case You’re Interested
On a side note, I feel that I need to let you all know how some people out there really are insane. It was bad enough for the three of us to be trekking in winter up to Base Camp, but some crazy
Can you imagine carrying this?
people were participating in the Everest Marathon while we were there. These mad people run (yes, run) from Base Camp down to Namche. It’s 42km long like a normal marathon and it takes them about four hours. However, most marathons aren’t undertaken at 5000m where you can’t breathe properly and they don’t usually include running up the side of 600m hillsides. I have absolutely no idea how those people manage the feat.
When considering the people who live in the area though, you can understand a little better. The people there are really tough and for them the run is probably a good laugh (you see little certificates in most guesthouses saying that the owner has competed). On our way back downhill we passed one of the guesthouse owners from Gorak Shep. He was walking down to Namche Bazar (seven day round trip for us even without acclimatisation days) to buy some kerosene. For him it was like walking down the street to the shops.
Are Mountains Beautiful?
There was a reason to visit EBC; I’m sure there was. Apart from all that macho rubbish about “making it to the top” the real reason for trekking
Lower Namche Bazar
Site of our first rest day.
there is to see the mountains and the scenery. Therefore, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t at least tell you something about what it looks like up there.
To quote the website of Unique Adventure International (P.) Ltd, the base camp trek is:
The trek to be done before die
The treks will rewards the trekker with a marvelous vista.
Well, I think that sums it up pretty well. There is only one vista and after the trek you die from exhaustion. Way to go!
Ok, that’s not very true at all, which is probably to be expected from the poorly edited English on Nepali websites. The trek gave us many vistas and many different landscapes as we traveled upwards. Initially we trekked at the bottom of a steep valley filled with pine trees which looked for all intents and purposes like a postcard from Switzerland in summer. Climbing to Namche got us above the tree line where the place started to look like the edges of the Tibetan plateau: no trees, low lying shrubs, nearly dead grass, essentially a barren wasteland of sorts only with grass. That continued for a while until we headed up from Dingboche where we were quite literally walking in a vast expanse of nothingness. Small
Now that's a big pack.
boulders were around every now and then, but the landscape seemed to continue unchanged across the plain in front of us. The mountains of course sat on the sides of our view, surrounding everything, but they stick up so steeply that they seem to be no more than a painted backdrop.
Honestly speaking, possibly the best description of the land around Dingboche is just that: a lumpy barren nothing with a painting of mountains draped around it. You have very little sense of size or perspective there and the path somehow manages to drift off between the mountains somewhere in the far distance.
The really cool landscapes came after we climbed up the side of the Khumbu glacier. Running off the southern face of Everest, Khumbu flows down the valley as one big, flat mass of rock and ice. At first glimpse it appears to be gravel and boulders rather than a glacier but just below the surface you can often see the gigantic masses of ice slowly tumbling downhill. We walked beside the glacier, a 50m high wall of rocks separating us from the ice in a surrealistic land which would be a likely location for filming
bogus moon landings. Rocks and ice lay about with very little else to change the view. Some small lichens and mosses survived somehow, the occasional tuft of grass perhaps, but other than that it was just rock and ice. Thanks to the freezing weather there was ice filling most of the gaps that water could get into, even the river which flows off the end of the glacier seems to be nearly frozen and great ice-funnels channel the water around as it bounces between ice walls and sheets of ice marking the high water mark. The entire place was eerie even in warm (ok, comparatively warm) and sunny weather.
The one constant throughout the entire trek is the mountains. No matter where you are, even on the first day, you are constantly surrounded by snow capped mountains that are larger than anything you’ve ever seen before. So many mountains were around that I can’t even begin to remember their names (Ben and I named one of them Kool mountain, it’ll be appearing on maps shortly). I can’t begin to describe how those massive white and black monsters make you feel. Every one of them was beautiful in a different
On our acclimatisation day we climbed to a hotel on the hill above Namche. This is the view looking backwards.
way, and they changed as we walked around, each showing a different face each day. To stand on top of Kalla Pathar and not be able to look in any single direction without seeing a 6000m mountain was quite shocking. We were literally surrounded.
At two times of day the mountains truly shine. In the morning, just after sunrise, after the light stops being the dull yellow colour the mountains stand out through crystal clear skies. You can see so clearly in the mornings and not a single cloud is about. The mountains seem to be in high definition at those times and you can see every little detail of them. That at least made it easy to get up in the morning, although the temperatures made it hard enough anyway.
The second best time of day is always at sunset. Almost every day we would gaze out of a window at the mountains where the last vestiges of light made their faces glow in yellows and golds. Where we slept, in the valleys, the sun would have disappeared hours earlier but the mountains would stay alight seemingly forever. The contrast between the valley floor, the dark blue-black
sky and the fiery yellow rock wall rising three kilometers above you definitely gets my vote as one of the world’s greatest sights.
The Struggle to the Top: or How We Nearly Died at 18,000ft The Weather Turns Sour, but not so Bad that a Hot Chocolate Won’t Fix Things
Our rest day in Dingboche was blessed with some of the best weather imaginable: crystal clear blue sky, no wind to speak of, warm-ish and generally great weather for hiking. Compared to some of the stories that we’d been hearing from people coming down hill, tales of -12 degree centigrade snowstorms and the like, we had the best possible conditions that day. Somehow though the powers at be got their dates mixed up and we had the good weather on the day when we didn’t really need it.
When I woke up the next morning I could immediately tell that something had changed. It was distinctly colder and the usually bright morning light was absent. Clouds had rolled in and the sun was all but invisible through them. A gusty breeze was starting to build and it looked as though fog would be heading up the
valley before too long. Hey, at least we only had a five to six hour walk that day.
Ben took to the weather badly. After his episode of shivers in Namche he had come down with a cold which had then worsened thanks to the cold and dry air and now he had to stop and cough up a lung every five minutes or so. He wasn’t eating properly, the altitude was starting to affect him and he felt as though he had no energy; pretty much the antithesis of good hiking health. Nevertheless, Ben kept walking (and very quickly compared to everyone else up there) despite everything.
We stopped for lunch beside a small stream which runs off the Khumbu glacier. A steep face of tumbled boulders and gravel rising beside us marked the termination of the ice flow and the icy waters rushing down to the valley floor made an eerie sight. The clouds had lowered and the fog was really beginning to come in by this point; the temperature still below zero even at midday. We really were in a wasteland; the tumble of rocks around us was completely barren and we could see the
The most spectacular peak.
last vestiges of a second guesthouse which had been destroyed by a landslide during the last monsoon.
We ate what we could, fried noodles laced with enough salt to satisfy three fast food addicts, and drank a warm drink or two before we headed out. From inside the warm guesthouse the walk ahead looked seriously painful. The fog had truly rolled in now and visibility was around a hundred meters thanks to the cold mist swirling around us. We rugged up in our warmest gear, put on our packs one more time, and headed out into the wild.
Immediately we started climbing the sixty meters or so up beside the glacier: a steep half hour long trudge (plod) up a boulder strewn trail that was barely distinguishable from the avalanches either side of it. At the top we rested briefly among a collection of memorials to climbers who didn’t make it back down. There in the fog the eerie monuments were barely visible; the mountains themselves were well and truly lost in the distance. Because of the cold we had to keep moving so we headed onwards beside the glacier as we slowly climbed up to our guesthouse
The Big Ones
This is from the hotel above Namche. You can see Ama Dablam in the middle with Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse just to the left.
in Lobuche (4900m). Snow was beginning to fall on us, small flakes floating all around us, the mist thickening even more. The water flowing in the stream beside the path was nearly completely frozen: sheets of ice layered upon each other showing the different levels of the stream when it froze in the past. Odd formations of frozen water looking like freeze-frames, some distant memory of summer frozen for the year.
On and on the path seemed to go. We were both feeling cold and miserable as the kilometers added up. For hours we seemed to plod onwards by ourselves; alone in the blanketing mist. Every ridge seemed to be in the right place and we kept convincing ourselves that the town would be just around the corner, but over and over again we would climb a ridge only to see another ridge behind it. Ben, in his usual way, told Raj that it was absolutely necessary that we get hot chocolates when we get in so that we can warm up, a tradition which we had been working on for days.
Eventually we made it over a small ridge and rounded a corner to see the small
hamlet lying below us. It looked like a haven of warmth and protection sitting there in its sheltered valley and we quickly got ourselves inside. After no longer than a minute (during which time we’d changed into every imaginable piece of warm clothing and were preparing to head to the fire in the dining room) Raj opened the door. He was holding hot chocolates; we practically collapsed with delight.
By three o’clock the temperature inside our bedroom dropped below zero again (I wonder how much above zero it ever got given the poor insulation) but thankfully there was a warm fireplace to hide around with the half a dozen other hikers. Ben practically collapsed and didn’t move for an hour or two, he was completely shagged, but I still had a little energy so I decided that I ought to climb just a little higher so that I could acclimatise and sleep better during the night.
Leaving the fire behind for just a short while I walked across the little valley to the edge of the glacier. From there I climbed slowly up the debris lining the ice on a yak trail until I found myself looking out
across the glacier some fifty meters above the town. I was completely alone in a misty world completely unlike my home. Behind me I could just make out the lights from the guesthouses, in front I had the slow procession of rock and ice which comes off the side of Everest. Nuptse, the most in-your-face of the mountains around Everest, would occasionally be visible through the fog, but other than that the place was completely shrouded. I sat on a small rock looking at that view while the snow collected on my back thinking about just how lucky I was.
When I got back to the fire I discovered that it was -8 degrees outside. That’s cold. The Hardest Day of My Life: Cricket on High
We ate poorly because of exhaustion, we slept badly (Ben coughed up seven or eight lungs and possibly a liver to boot), and we woke up feeling worse than when we had gone to bed. That day was supposed to be the long one where we made it to Base Camp and back to Gorak Shep (5180m) in one big go. It could take as long as nine hours for
unfit hikers to do the walk and given Ben’s condition I didn’t like our chances of being quick. Everyone was worried about Ben, his cough sounded like Pneumonia and his condition could have turned really bad. A fellow hiker turned out to be a neurologist (not really the kind of doctor Ben needed but she knew more about general medicine than we did) and she gave Ben some antibiotics to try and get him back to health, but we all knew that the only solution was to get down from the mountains and out of the cold.
Ben would have struggled to walk before the sun was out, the cold at that time made him bend over in fits of coughing almost constantly, so we headed out a little late only to find that the weather had cleared up perfectly. Although it was still cold (slightly below zero) the sun was out and the wind wasn’t particularly strong. Nevertheless, the first part of the walk up to Gorak Shep was a struggle for both of us. We were very quickly above the 5000m mark, a point at which my body seems to give up the ghost, and the thin
Everest, Straight Ahead
Everest is the peak slightly to the left of center which has a cloud billowing from its top.
air made any exertion difficult. On flat terrain we could cope quite well but when the path started going over the rough terrain of the glacier - consecutive hills and valleys of rough stone - our energy quickly dissipated. For almost three hours we hiked liked that, up and down, slowly climbing higher, until we finally reached Gorak Shep.
Gorak Shep is the end of the road; it’s the last point of reasonable civilisation on the path and I would barely call it that. A small cluster of guesthouses, only three or four of them, sits on a sandy plain wedged between two glaciers some 5180m above sea level. All supplies are either walked up to the town or flown in by helicopter and the only people that pass through are those people heading to Base Camp. If it weren’t for the climbers then the town simply would never have been built; you don’t get much more remote than that.
We ate a hasty lunch, well we tried to eat it, dropped our bags in a room and headed out again. It was around 11:30am, the sun was out, the wind barely noticeable, but that didn’t stop it
Nuptse, Everest and Lhotse.
being cold: I was wearing every layer I had and it was still cold when I wasn’t walking! Sometimes though you have to take a little bit of discomfort and in this case the view made it worthwhile. We were surrounded by mountains, big ones, with Pumori ahead of us and Nuptse beside us dominating the landscape. Everest herself was still hidden behind Nuptse, but that didn’t seem to matter.
We walked through the cold air for another couple of hours, again clambering over the rocky edges of the glacier, gaining even more altitude. Once we got up to around 5400m the path suddenly dropped down onto the glacier itself and we were faced with the horrible sight ahead of us. To begin with, both Ben and I were exhausted. We’d been walking solidly for five hours without having been able to eat proper food and the thin air was really getting to us. Then, to make matters worse, we saw that the path turned back on itself and began zig-zagging across the glacier, going up and down over dozens of small hills, as it made its way to Base Camp. My water bladder was starting to freeze over
The Walk to Tengboche
The path goes down the hill on the left all the way to the river and then up that zig-zaggy path straight up the hill on the right. 500m down, then 600m back up!
despite the fact that I had it slung underneath my down jacket which indicated that the weather was turning even colder and time was starting to get away from us; being stuck on the glacier after dark didn’t really appeal to me.
Despite the difficulties we kept on walking, plodding along for another hour or so, until we started to see signs of base camp. We were walking through an icy wonderland of sorts: the ice was clearly visible in many places and the path itself was only a centimeter or two of rocks resting on top of humongous ice-blocks. The formations of frozen water around us, and some semi-frozen lakes as well, really looked alien. This was a place where people are not meant to live.
Eventually we reached Base Camp, or the site where Base Camp usually is at least. At this time of year there aren’t any climbers though so the only signs of the camp were a few small patches of semi-flattened ground (the tents are pitched directly on top of a pile of rocks, what else did you expect?) and an empty old can of beer. What’s more, we couldn’t even see Mt
Everest! Here we were, having walked for days and days up steep mountain slopes, our only motivation being to see this spot of land, and all that was there to be seen was a pile of rocks.
Ok, the view was spectacular in its own way with the Everest ice-fall dropping nearby and the climbing path up the steep glacier to the South Col veering across Lho La in front of us, but compared to the view from further back near Gorak Shep it really didn’t compare. Also, the cricket pitch has a much better bounce at Gorak.
We played our game of cricket (four whole balls, the pitch really wasn’t that special), ate our chocolates, took our photos and turned around. Then began the hard stuff: we had to walk back to Gorak Shep. To say that we were shagged would be appropriate here, I can’t really explain to you how I felt at that point in time; it was extreme exhaustion and cold. I can only begin to imagine just how bad Ben was feeling, he was coughing almost constantly and he looked horrible (even worse than he usually does).
Plod on, one foot in
The New Bridge
The old bridge here was washed away during the last monsoon. With that overhang it's not surprising.
front of the other, breath in and out with each step. On and on, the never ending path across the glacier. The weather closed in, the light fading as the sun hid behind the mountains; snow was falling and the wind howling straight into our faces. I can barely remember those hours - two and a half hours where my mind was absent and my feet walked all by themselves.
We arrived in Gorak Shep as the last light was disappearing, our steps barely more than a shuffle across the ground. We were completely exhausted and we collapsed in front of the fireplace with our Hot Chocolates. We spent two hours motionless as our bodies recovered ever so slightly. We talked of warm weather, of beaches and sunsets, women and beer. Simple pleasures that we didn’t have up there at the top of the world. The New Hardest Day of My Life: Get The Hell Out of Here Day
Getting to Base Camp had been hard, damn hard, but our difficulties were far from over. Overnight temperatures plummeted to -10 degrees centigrade inside our room (it got to -18 outside!!!) and we spent the night restlessly
The Old Bridge
Here's all that's left of the old one.
shivering underneath our covers. Ben's cough deteriorated further and I seriously wondered how bad he would be by morning. I got almost no sleep at all, the altitude messing with my head and bringing on a pounding headache. When I woke my entire body felt like it was falling apart; my stomach was upset, my head pounding, my muscles aching.
Raj and I decided that Ben had to go down as soon as he could, he was in no shape to be climbing any further. However, the small hillock called Kalla Pathar (translates to Black Rock) was still sitting there eyeing me. Our original intent had been to climb Kalla Pathar that morning before heading downhill for a couple of hours but our new plan was to head as far down the hill as possible; it was going to be another long day. I was feeling horrible, really gut-turningly so, and I was all but convinced to give up the idea of climbing the hill but Raj's positive attitude and a promise I made to someone dear to me regarding a postcard and a tall mountain changed my mind. I was going to attempt to get to the top.
Now, I'm calling Kalla Pathar a small hill here, but I should clarify that. By Australian standards it is definitely a mountain. It rises about 400m above Gorak Shep in three rocky slopes with steep sections and relatively flat sections on the trail. Your average hiker can make the round trip to the top and back to Gorak in three hours and on that day I was feeling less than average. Raj and I set out (I couldn't have done it without Raj) and I quickly set myself into Super Extreme Plod Mode. One breath on each step, in and out, placing my feet in front of each other over and over again. I tried to minimise the number of stops I made, instead opting for a slow and steady approach, but even then I had to stop to catch my breath every two or three hundred meters. Raj danced along in front of me, seemingly running up the steeper sections, and I tried hard to put him out of my mind as I aimed to reach the next switchback without stopping.
The mountain rose up gradually and as it did so the view grew more and more
Guesthouse at Tengboche
Site of the monk soccer.
impressive. From behind Nuptse the very faintly visible tip of Everest began to peak out her head until, ever so slowly, the majority of her south face was visible. In every direction mountains began to appear, popping out from behind the smaller ones in front, and the the ring of snowy, jagged rocks around me lent an otherwordliness to the scene. For the most part I was oblivious to the view; my only thoughts being directed downwards and inwards. I struggled on and on, trying to keep myself moving in the freezing cold (but thankfully windless) conditions.
As I got higher the altitude really started to get to me. At one point I had to stop myself from throwing up and my gut was in a hideous state of disarray. My headache pounded whenever I stopped walking and my mind started to get delirious. Altitude sickness was kicking in on top of whatever else I was suffering but at least I was near the top; I would be going downhill shortly.
Finally I managed to spot the peak: a small metal pole covered in prayer flags fluttering above us. Mt Pumori ringed the flag from behind which made
Showing Off My Moves In Tengboche
I take the ball during the soccer game.
Photo courtesy of Ben.
it look like the south pole; a metal pole in the middle of a snowy nowhere. As we got close to the top Raj began counting out the altitude: 5530m, 31, 32. . .
Encouraged now I came at the mountain with all of my energy: 5536,5537. Cursing at the rocks around me, trying to act tough, I slowly came to the flag only to realise that another three meters of hill remained. With Raj's hand to assist I pulled myself up the last steep rock and found myself sitting on the edge of oblivion. On three sides the terrain fell away with a sheer drop of 300m or more; the only way down being the two meter wide rock up which I had just climbed. Precariously I sat there and looked around me at the wonderful setting. The weather was perfectly clear, all of the mountains were visible, and the best view of Everest was there in front of me. Pumori, Lho La, Everest, Nuptse, the Khumbu glacier, Tarboche, Cholatse, Ama Dablam, and many other awe inspiring sights were scattered around me. The world's ultimate collection of mountains and all you have to do to see it is
Ben Gets Into the Game
Photo courtesy of Ben.
climb to 5545m (18192ft).
After sharing my last Mars Bars we set off on the downward walk. Immediately the wind picked up, nearly pulling me over the edge, and we hastily careered down the higher slopes until we found a lee. From there we set out at a run down the path, taking the bends carefully but picking up speed on the straights. I wanted to get off the hill quickly so that the altitude sickness would go away, also, Ben had some serious painkillers in Gorak Shep that I had a definite hankering for. Raj egged me on, charging down the hill like a billygoat, and I followed suit as best I could. We dropped half of the hill within 10 minutes, and it looked like we'd be in Gorak much earlier than expected. In the end, the entire round trip up Kalla Pathar (easily the hardest and highest hike of my life) took only two hours. We'd been fast, very fast, and now it was time to get Ben off the mountain.
At this point I crashed out. I lay down in the greenhouse room, took every painkiller under the sun, drank all of my water,
Panoramic View From Tengboche
When I took this photo the weather was rather crummy (the next morning it was perfect) but there was an eerie calmness to everything. The view from here was the best on the entire hike and I would recommend you go have a look at it for yourself.
and felt like dieing. Ben was in much better spirits though and he took it upon himself to look after me. I had spent all of my energy climbing Kalla Pathar just so that I could write a postcard and now I had another four hours hiking ahead of me. It was going to be tough.
By 11 we had set off with Ben in front and me ambling behind. All I could do was to follow Ben's suit and keep walking behind him, moving my legs when he moved his. To be honest, I was out of it; I wasn't there at all. My legs worked on auto and my mind drifted to all sorts of unheard of destinations. The first two hours were horrible as we headed down to Lobuche. If it weren't for the strong, freezing cold wind in my face I probably would have stopped and gone to sleep wherever I fell. At Lobuche we stopped for lunch and I stared blankly into my bowl of tomato soup. I couldn't even answer peoples questions, I just sat there staring into space for half an hour. I really can't describe how I felt then, it was
Looks cold doesn't it?
horrible yet I couldn't bring myself to do anything about it, I really couldn't move at all.
After lunch we started again, another two hours of downhill. At first I felt even worse than I had before lunch but slowly I came too and started to feel better. Once we dropped off the glacier we found ourselves down around 4300m and the altitude sickness left me, however, the exhaustion stayed and it was one sad pair of Australians who walked through the door of that guesthouse in Pheriche. Ben and I sat in front of the fire for four hours without moving, there was nothing else we could do. It had been by far the hardest thing I had ever done, climbing that mountain and walking all the way down to Pheriche, but it was something that I had to do. The view was great, the conqueror feeling filled me entirely, but I will never again even consider such a ludicrous hike.
How do you know you’ve recovered?
How do you know when it is that you’ve recovered from an arduous journey like this one? Is it when you sleep well at night? Is it when
Change of Scenery
The landscape starts to get barren.
you are able to eat a full meal that consists of more than tomato soup? Is it when you wake up and don’t feel like a sack of potatoes that fell off a truck? Or is it when you sit in a small room in a Nepali guesthouse watching Close Up Nepali Tara 2 with your guide?
Well clearly it is the latter. Nepali Tara 2 translates to Nepali Star 2, or Nepali Idol for those playing at home. Yes, the Idol phenomenon has penetrated even into Nepal and, can I tell you, it is amazing!
Compared to the junk we get back home, watching the final two contestants struggle to sing traditional Nepali songs or “pop” music (also traditional Nepali songs as far as we could tell, maybe they add risqué lyrics like “if I said you had a nice body would you lower your bride price a little?”) was highly entertaining. Everything was the same as the American or Australian versions only the execution was lacking. The constant strobe lights which didn’t stop blinding the camera for the whole show got a bit old rather quickly. The “angry” judge who seemed to be a really nice
guy didn’t quite fill the shoes properly. The crowd “going wild” was amusing: one guy got up and pretended to be a gangster for two seconds. The hosts, a pair of brothers who are both “rap superstars” and are pretending to be Mr. T were ok I guess, they did their job quite well. Ok, maybe they could have scripted something better to fill the gaps: every twenty seconds the hosts would say “Close Up, Nepali Tara. . . Two” and do a West-Side hand gesture on the two; it was quite hilarious.
All in all I can say two things about Nepali Tara. One: it’s possibly the most hilarious television show produced in the last forty years, and it is almost as funny as the Evil Dead movies. Two: anyone can sing better than the two finalists, even me, or our guide, or the crazy lady that spits all the time on Annapurna.
Ben and I were in much better spirits after watching the show, we can’t wait to see the final.
Step by Step Guide to Preparing Yourself for the Base Camp Trek: for Australians living in Queensland
Ben came up with this
simple plan which will take your average Queenslander and turn them into a successful trekker who can withstand the arduous task of climbing to Everest Base Camp. Step 1
: Get a swimming pool filled with liquid nitrogen. Step 2
: Go swimming in said pool for a few hours (four to five) each day. Step 3
: While you’re doing that, try to swim underwater and hold your breath for ten minutes at a time.
That is a pretty good description of what it feels like when you’re walking up a hill somewhere above 5000m in the middle of winter when it’s -10 degrees centigrade outside.
When in Nepal
If anyone out there has read this and has subsequently been inspired to go hiking in Nepal then I have these two things to say to you: don't do it, you're insane (not really, just do it in September), and get in touch with our guide Raj. Raj was fantastic in every way, he's a good friend, a brilliant guide and a great man in general. If I ever go back to Nepal I'll definitely get in touch with him. Not only is Raj a trekking guide, but
he also operates a fantastic charity in his spare time. If anyone wants his contact email please just ask me.
There are more photos below