Crossing the Cho La Pass towards Gokyo

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March 20th 2016
Published: March 30th 2016
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We discussed what would be next by the furnace fire. Looking at the map, it became clear that we all had time to add in some more trekking and maybe, instead of going back from EBC the way we came, we could try to get somewhere else and return in a completely unique way. We had reached Gorak Shep quickly from Namche and we had experienced both Everest Base Camp and Kala Patthar in one day. We all decided that we would try to push on. "Gokyo." As I tapped the map with my finger. "But to get there we'll need to cross this thing," I said staring at a large mountain range in the path...

Day 13

After staying in our cold lodge at Gorak Shep (5180m) for two nights, it was time to get our packs back on and continue walking. We had a new goal now that we had completed EBC. We were on our way to Gokyo. There would be a high pass to get through though. First we left Gorak Shep and then made our way down back to Lobuche. The altitude had messed with me again and I was looking forward to sleeping at slightly lower altitude. Once we reached Lobuche, we found a trail that went along side of one of the mountains. This would prevent us from descending too low and having to climb back up again. We walked along for hours and were surrounded by incredible mountain ranges. I occasionally felt like I was in the middle of a fantasy movie. We witnessed beautiful views of Ama Dablam when we looked back. The weather was good for most of the day, but as I had come to expect, mountain weather can change in the blink of an eye. Low clouds came in and took away our pretty views. We lost the trail for a bit and then had to create our own way along the mountainside. It felt pretty steep at one point but then evened out and we regained the trail once more. It took five hours and we were in Dzongla (4830m). We would be staying at a frigid lodge here and then attack the pass the following morning - weather permitting of course. We ate well and I tried to stretch and rest my body as best I could. I had been asking it to do a lot lately and it was performing pretty well for the time being. Sleeping 300m lower made a big difference in moral. I would still be getting up to pee really often though.

Day 14

We were all quiet this morning. I was a little bit nervous as high mountain passes are not something to be taken lightly. The young Sherpa man running the lodge got us breakfast and tea. I asked him about his experience with the pass. "No problem," he quickly responded. I won't forget to mention that he had climbed Everest nine times. The weather was clear and the sky was blue. The temperature would be warming quickly as the sun rose. A few other trekkers at another lodge were off to challenge the pass. Rebecca, Adam and I started a little later but figured we would catch whomever pretty quickly. Well hopefully. We left the lodge and walked out towards the imposing mountain range that lay in our way. We didn't get too far before Adam felt his back getting all wet and realized that his camel-back was leaking. It took him a short while to fix this, and then we were off again. At 5420m the Cho La Pass can be challenging to get through and extremely dangerous in poor weather. In heavy snow crampons are a necessity. We began the gradual climb, which quickly turned steeper and steeper. Luckily in the distance we saw some small specks struggling up and realized it was some of the trekkers that had begun before us. We were making decent progress and carried on until we had gone up about 300m of elevation and caught up with the others. Some of these trekkers looked wiped. The Bangladeshi guy I had met yesterday could hardly catch his breath. A French guy was carrying about twice as much gear as me. We got moving pretty quick, as long rests didn't seem to be our style on this trek.We scrambled up boulders, higher and higher. This type of climbing was incredibly fun despite how difficult it became.

Finally I pulled myself over the last boulder and there it was. A giant glacier was at the top. We heard rumblings from the top of the mountain that turned out to be rock falls, a big danger at this stage. Someone must have been here a lot earlier because there were still footprints in the snow, a nice clue to figure out the path! We began at the left side of the glacier and worked our way along the rocks. Parts of it were still kind of slippery and one needed to take care to not slip and fall 100m down. I was pretty concentrated. It was exhilarating to be crossing a glacier. The sun gleamed off the snow and ice. We had heard that parts of it are considered quite unstable. We crossed a final rock wall, and then were greeted with an incredible view of an entirely new mountain range on the other side. We had made it this far and now all we had to do is descend the other side through lose dirt and rock. We decided to space out so that if one of us did trigger a rock fall, it wouldn't take everyone out at once. There is no way to entirely mitigate the risks of this happening, but a good way to minimize them is to move FAST. And this I did, as fast as I could without slipping all the way down. One of the reasons we were moving quickly from the other trekkers we had overtaken was that too many people in one place was often not the best idea either for those reasons. It was arduous and took a lot of time but we were almost down. I saw a figure near the bottom. It was a man staring straight up at the monstrosity ahead that we had just come through. I reached him and we exchanged some words. I gave him advice on how to attack it from his side. He sounded Russian and his face was completely covered in a balaclava. A loud rumble came from the interior along with the sound of crashing rocks. "The mountain speaks," he stated pensively. I wished him luck and carried on to catch the others. I must have turned around a few minutes later and was shocked to realize how steep this side of the pass truly was. Without the rock cairns, I had no idea how anyone could find their way up. None of the other trekkers we passed were in sight. I finally reached level ground before another uphill began. Randomly, a dog appeared and began to walk with me. He looked hungry. We were now in a new valley but there was plenty of elevation still to go. We must have climbed another 200m before we began a long descent towards Dragnag (4700m). We had survived the Cho La Pass.

Dragnag provided us with a welcoming rest stop, although no one could speak any English and my lunch request was inconveniently forgotten. The others ate and had time to digest, while I didn't. So when we started out once more, my stomach was in knots. I was especially gassy. We had a large rock covered glacier to cross in the valley that still separated us from Gokyo. The hard part of the day was certainly done, but progressive fatigue had taken its toll and it was a tough crossing. I'd never seen terrain quite like this actually. It felt as though we were transported to an alien world. Every now and then we could see menacing pieces of glacier sticking out of the rocks, and sometimes small snow covered lakes would appear as well. We pretty much went up and down through the mounds of rock, the cairns being the only real navigation tool we could rely on. The weather was still alright, but forget it if the visibility had been decreased. We made the final climb out of the valley and on the other side lay the village of Gokyo (4790m). A large frozen lake lay at its side, and Gokyo Ri (5357m) towered over the town. Its summit was now covered in fog. We intended to climb this in the morning - again - weather permitting. I lumbered into the lodge we would be staying at and enjoyed the juice I was offered. Snow began to fall. The common room was nice and warm with a constant supply of Yak feces to feed the furnace. I was content just sitting and doing nothing. I think we all felt pretty good about getting through the pass and now could experience a different part of the Khumbu region. In any case, I slept really well this night.

Day 15

Another clear morning! That meant we were going to climb Gokyo Ri. I started off with some Tibetan porridge and we were off to the nearby peak. Gokyo Ri would prove to be a lot steeper overall than Kala Patthar had been. I was climbing up rhythmically. Adam was powering through, full of energy. Rebecca lagged behind, looking tired but still passing many other trekkers. The sun made its way out and we were beginning to understand why so many people had raved about the views. Within an hour and a half we had made the summit. I don't know if it's because we had been trekking for what felt like forever at this point, or if our bodies had really just adjusted to the altitude, but we were getting pretty good at this. And the views were spectacular! I could now see the Everest range with even more clarity in the sunrise. Many other peaks surrounded us and we were treated to a 360 degree panorama. I could see the countless Gokyo lakes and the large glacier we had crossed the previous day. We stayed up there for almost an hour, snapping photos and just enjoying the endless views. After this, it would be mostly downhill from here on out. Once we had descended all the way back down to Gokyo, we packed up our stuff and all looked pretty serious. What we were about to undertake for the rest of this day is usually suggested to be done in THREE days. Or so we had heard. Maybe from very unfit people. In any case we had a hell of a mission, and had already climbed about 500m so far. But we were toying with the idea of trying to get back to Namche - today!

It was already ten thirty in the morning at this point. We got going and headed down the Gokyo valley. It was mostly downhill and we had incredible views and passed many small lakes. We carried on at a brisk pace, now passing Yaks, herders, locals and trekkers alike. The trail evened out and had some instances of elevation for a short while, but mostly it was a joy to be on this trail. Of course, when we finally made our way down to Machherma (4470m) and then worked our way back up to the ridge line, I was getting really hungry and my backpack straps were digging into my skin. But still we carried on. Rebecca looked pretty tired but promised that she would keep walking until her body gave out. I figured we would reassess the situation once we arrived in Dhole (4110m). And arrive we did about an hour and a half later. At this point we had been walking for about six hours. Most people stop here for the night from Gokyo and that doesn't even count going up Gokyo Ri. I think we were all a little trail crazy. But Namche was calling us back from the distance, promising us tasty food and warm apple pie. We carried on. From Dhole we descended for quite some time. I chatted with Adam as we hiked, Rebecca had fallen back but kept going. This reminded me of our Jiri days, which felt like so long ago! The trail bottomed out at Phortse Thanga (3680m) just as thick fog had made its way in. The fog had been brewing since Dhole and I was seriously wondering if we were going to get a downpour. But nope just fog, lots and lots of fog. The surrounding trees and trail looked ominous, something you wanted to hide away from. But this was the same trail, just different weather as we had come to experience.

We now had our last big test. If we could get through this than maybe achieving Namche could happen. We had a steep uphill climb to Mong La pass (3975m). We were all obviously pretty wiped by this point. We started to climb and it hurt BUT I noticed almost immediately that I wasn't as out of breath as I had been higher up. Not only that but if I stopped for a few seconds, my heart rate seemingly returned to baseline almost immediately. Our bodies had become so used to being at high elevation that we now had produced multitudes more red blood cells and mitochondria, streamlining our cellular oxygen exchange. Adaptation! This alone excited me and motivated me to keep going. Almost an hour of uphill had passed when we made the pass. It was about five in the afternoon. Thick fog reduced visibility everywhere. But we still had another two hours to go. At least it would be mostly even trail. We carried on through the gloomy and evil looking woods and descended, losing all the elevation we worked so hard to attain. We continued on through the thick fog and now it was beginning to get dark too. My eyes don't work particularly well in the darkness so I picked up the pace wanting to try to beat out the inevitable lack of light. But I knew all too well that that wasn't going to happen. And when the darkness does roll in, the fog would compound it and we wouldn't even have the benefit of seeing any stars. Slowly but surely it was getting darker and darker, and I pulled out my head torch and kept my eyes glued to the ground, to avoid tripping and face planting into some dirt. I felt as though fate was trying its best to stop us from making it. It got really dark and I was getting disoriented in terms of if I was going up or down!

This drew on for some time. Everytime I thought we were almost there...well we weren't. We finally saw some light in the distance and once we got close enough, well we knew we had made it. Rebecca gave me her brighter head torch because I had been lagging and instantly I noticed how much better it was to move in the dark. It came into Namche through the top and made our way down endless steps. We stopped in another hotel (since the staff at the previous one left much to be desired), dropped our stuff and got ready for food. I stank pretty horribly but hunger was the most important thing at this point. We went over to Everest bakery and all ordered Yak sizzler dishes. I downed mine in several seconds. Then I had apple pie and realized that our ten hour day had been totally worth it!

Day 16

Adam and Rebecca organized their flight to Kathmandu from Namche. This meant there was a lot less pressure to get back in time. Still we blasted out of Namche and headed down the insanely steep hill, all the while smiling that I didn't have to climb this. To be honest my body felt pretty drained by this point. That marathon I went through the previous day did me no favours. We retraced our steps back through Monjo, Benkar, Phakding, and all the way down until we passed an American guy, sitting on a lodge terrace and drinking a beer. Exactly the way we had seen him on the way in. He says he teaches at the monastery, but maybe how much is the key. He congratulated us and claimed that Lukla was not close. Lukla is considered a primary gateway to the Khumbu region, with over 90% of people beginning their trek there. We had yet to see this place as we had bypassed it on our way in. We continued on for another hour or so, and yes there was a bit of uphill but nothing like we had gotten to know in the higher regions. All in all we pulled into Lukla in record time and then walked through the main street on our way to the airport. Vendors were selling all sorts of trekking wares and the prices for food here were cheaper than anywhere else in Khumbu, but still extravagant compared to Kathmandu. I had really run out of gas and couldn't wait to sit down. We checked into a multi floor "lodge" and then went out and bought a few items, then found a place selling fried momos. We had missed lunch today in our haste and only consisted of snacks until now. Later that night we all went into the chill room and played cards. There was consistent power and some bootleg DVD's so we watched the movie Into the Wild. There was even a guitar. We retired pretty early, mostly due to exhaustion but also because we had a date with the world's most dangerous airport the following morning.

Day 17

This was it. We were bidding farewell to the region we had come to love, and were heading back to a different world. A world with cheap food, many people, flatter terrain, motor vehicles and roads, and all the other crap that comes with it. We walked towards the airport and were there in about three minutes. The short runway angled up towards the mountain. There really was no room for error as you couldn't do a fly around. Basically you just had to get it right the first time. Perfect weather is a requirement to landing here, with pilots needing at least 5000m of visibility. Thick clouds covered Lukla, unusual for the morning time. Of course we all figured that once the sun came out it would clear it all out. Sadly we had gotten up so damn early and now had to wait in the small departure room, until the weather was good enough for the planes to come in from Kathmandu. About two hours passed. Looking around, I could see that some passengers looked really nervous. The sky was clearing and only high cloud remained. Helicopters took off and landed incrementally. All of a sudden a small propeller plane appeared coming up the runway. And then another. The runway was being assaulted. "Yeti air - number 1!" called out a staff person. People gathered their stuff and queued at the first plane. Within minutes they were all loaded and the plane shot down the runway at a downward angle and was gone. That was the fastest landing and then takeoff I've ever seen. "Number 2!" That was us. We bolted outside and then we were loaded into the TINY cabin. It felt like there was nothing holding this plane together. The doors shut and then the plane lined itself up with the runway and got going. The plane basically rolled itself off the mountain and then the wings caught the upstream and we began to rise. It got the adrenaline pumping. Instantly we saw Surke and then several tops of mountains we had scaled. All that hard work our bodies had done, and now we were just gliding past effortlessly. It had taken us five days to just pass Lukla - it would take us a half hour to get back to Kathmandu. Adam had calculated that our overall ascents equaled 14600m over the entire trek, just 1400m short of climbing two 8000m peaks! Our journey was over, but hopefully these memories will persist for a long time. I was already missing the mountains....

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