Sunday, October 10, 2010

Everest Trek Part 4: To Base Camp & Back Again

So when I left off, we had just spent all day trying to get to the village of Dragnag in order to prepare for crossing the Cho La pass, but complications on the trail over the Ngozumpa glacier had forced us to turn back and look for another way across. When we found the bridges also up when trying to cross to the village of Nha, we finally ended the day in Machhermo and had to plan another route around to base camp, skipping the Cho La pass. After studying the maps a bit we all decided that we would head south to Phortse Tenga and then cross the Dudh Koshi river ascending to the village of Phortse. From there we planned on taking the high trail to Pengboche and from there follow the main route up to Gorek Shep and Everest base camp. Our plan was to make for the village of Dughla, and then on to Gorek Shep.

The Village of Phortse

I hate getting behind, and my thought was that if I had been able to get over the glacier and the Cho La I would have ended the day in Lobuche. In the back of my mind this is really where I wanted to end the next day, but the distance seemed to make this fairly impractical. We were on the trail early the next morning and made good time retracing our steps south and we made it to the very picturesque village of Phortse still early in the morning. After stopping here for a few photos and dodging some streams that ran down the main trails through town we made our way to the top of the ridge and headed out on to the high trail to Pengboche.

The Vertigo Inducing High Trail to Pengboche

Now I'm not normally the kind of person that has any real fear of heights, but this trail had some rather drastic and precipitous drops off the side, and several places where the trail was constructed from timber and rock that was artificially protruding from a sheer cliff face that was well over a thousand feet above Imja Khola (EDIT: A little map reference has shown it's about 1,500' from the trail to the river). There were several places along this trail where I very consciously was hugging the left hand cliff side, avoiding when I could even the chance of a slight trip that would lead to a lengthy fall. This trail was quite long, and was not one you could move over at a very fast pace, so we didn't reach Pengboche until some time just after noon.

Fields on the Outskirts of Pengboche

I was still feeling quite good after lunch, but Ian was a bit ill from some bad dairy in a milk tea that he had in thw morning. This had slowed them down a bit coming into Pengboche, and they arrived as I was eating my lunch.  To avoid having my muscles in my legs stiffen up to much I set off without them, and agreed to meet up with them at the Yak Lodge in Dughla. I set off on the trail, and leading north out of Pengboche it was quite tame and marginally level, at least for the Himalaya. I felt I was making good time and just kept my head down and moved along. The problem with this tactic is that I was making such good time that when I passed the turn off to Phortse it didn't occur to me that it could possibly be the turn so soon, so I ended up going straight into Dingboche, which I recognized from its layout as soon as I approached the village. After a short pause here and asking directions from some people I found the trail heading north west to Dughla.

Mani Wall on the Trail North of Pengboche

This trail seemed quite long and tedious to be honest. It was just me and the occasional yak, surrounded in fog and drifting clouds. After walking for what seemed like quite a long time I arrived in Dughla and found a room at the welcoming Yak Lodge. As I arrived it had just started to rain some, and I was happy to change into some dry clothes and sit by the fire for a bit. Rob and Ian arrived a little over an hour later and after getting settled we discussed plans for the coming days. After such a long and brutal day, and with the prospect of making it to base camp not looking probable, Rob and Ian decided they would take the next day easy and make a full day out of the walk to Gorek Shep. I was feeling a bit tired myself, but I figured if I woke up at a reasonable time and could make it to Gorek Shep by noon or so I would try to push on to base camp the next day and then do Kala Patar the following morning followed by a decent to Tengboche or so.

Morning Views on the way to Gorek Shep

So the next day I did get up at a reasonable time and was on the trail just before 7AM. The trail out of Dughla immediately rises up to the terminus of the Khumbu glacier. The morning started out crystal clear and I had great views back toward Ama Dablam and the other mountains in my immediate vicinity. I made really good time, passing Lobuche sometime before 9AM and arriving in Gorek Shep before 11AM. After getting a room at the Snowland Highest Inn, I dropped off my bag and made my way for base camp. The sky was still so clear that I was tempted to summit Kala Patar, but some clouds moving up the valley from the south looked like they were closing in fast, and I figured I'd save the attempt for tomorrow morning.

View of the Khumbu Glacier and Ice Fall on the way to Base Camp

To get to base camp you follow a trail north from Gorek Shep along the Khumbu glacier for quite a while, then about halfway you cross onto the glacier and traverse it all the way to the camp. Although it was still odd stuff to walk on, it was infinitely easier to traverse than the Ngozumpa, which had turned me back. I was surprised how many expeditions where camped up inn the base camp area, I counted at least four distinct well organized camps. I was under the impression that high peaks were dangerous this time of year due to the sheer volume of loose snow dumped on the mountains from the monsoons. Apparently several teams were heading up, though I think most were attempting Lhotse, not Everest. I sat on a rock above one of the camps which appeared to be doing some kind of interview with TV or movie cameras and just looked over the glacier, the Khumbu ice fall across the way, listened to the avalanches echo like thunder as the sun warmed the newly coated snowy slopes. I sat there for about an hour just taking it in and then headed back to Gorek Shep.

Base Camp on the Khumbu Glacier

Despite the elevation I was really feeling good, and I was amazed how fast I was still able to walk over such difficult terrain. Heading back I passed several tour groups on their way up, and many people were having to stop every twenty feet or so for a quick breather. That's quite normal up around 18,000', but for whatever reason it wasn't having much of an effect on me this trip. Even after the long hard day yesterday, my body felt fully charged and ready to go. When I arrived back at Gorek Shep I got some soup, and looked over my maps a bit. Rob and Ian showed up not too much later and we planned to head up to the summit of Kala Patar, the famed viewing point of Everest at about 4:45AM or so. That evening I ate extremely well, putting away a bowl of Sherpa stew, a plate of pasta and tomato sauce and following it all up with a bowl of chocolate custard. With a full belly I headed off to bed.

View Toward Ama Dablam from Kala Patar

Now this next day started bright and early at 4:30AM is one of the longer hiking days I have done. We set out to the top of Kala Patar, and again I felt really strong. Getting lucky again, the morning was quite clear and few inches of new snow had fallen over the area. Some groups were already well on their way up toward the peak, and had set off at 4AM or so, which was great because there was already a trail for us to follow. As I scaled the slopes the sun slowly came up in the east but I managed to get to the top with the first group of tourists and got some good views in before the sun managed to crest over Mt. Everest. Almost all of the sky was clear, but the south side of Everest did have some lingering clouds.

Clouds Clear Around Mt. Everest, Seen from Kala Patar

The last 150' or so of the climb to the top of the crag of Kala Patar is over large rocks, and the actual top is not a large area, in fact it's quite small with a limited amount of space to actually spend any time comfortably. I congratulated Rob on his ascent when he arrived and we took some photos of each other. As the larger tour groups I had passed on the way up started to arrive and the space became cramped I decided to head down to a larger open area at the base of the rocky climb. The view here is quite spectacular, as you can see Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse right before you, the Khumbu glacier stretches out below you. As the sun started to rise over the highest mountains on the planet, I headed back down and stopped to chat with Ian for a bit. I was back in the lodge having breakfast around 7AM.

Crags at Kala Patar

I considered waiting a bit for Rob and Ian to get back down before heading south, but with the lodge filling up with people I decided to grab my pack and head south for Tengboche, a spot I had fallen in love with last time I was here. Despite wanting to stop there I'm a very goal orientated person and once I've seen and accomplished what I set out to do, I find that I latch on to the idea of getting home as soon as possible. Still I thought getting back to Lukla in two days including the ascent of Kala Patar was ambitious enough. What changed my mind was when I reached Dughla and spoke to a guide on the trail for a bit. It was clear to me at that point that I could easily make Namche Bazaar, and if I could get a little further south I could get up early the next morning and make for Lukla, hopefully catching a morning flight that went out sometime after 7AM.

Yak Grazes Near Lobuche Pass

I made exceptionally good time heading south, passing Pheriche around quarter past ten and making it to Pengboche at about 11:30. I arrived in Tengboche around half past noon, and by this time a very heavy fog had descended on the valley, and there was no hope of seeing anything. The once quaint monastery I had visited eight years ago had grown considerably, with a new facade, and entrance and the buildings nearby had gone from quaint single story buildings to well maintained three story guest lodges. It didn't even occur to me to stop here now, despite how lovely the views might be if it happened to clear. From Tengboche the trail drops steeply down to the river over switchbacks for quite a long time. I jogged large sections of this part, and after quite some time finally crossed the river and headed south on the trail to Namche. This part of the trail climbs, steeply in places, but after being at elevation you can hit these lower trails like a truck. You never really feel the need to slow down, even when there is an incline. Your blood is really efficient at getting oxygen to your muscles once it has adjusted to high elevations and you can really move once your back to lower ones.

New Entry to Tengboche Monastery

Eventually I reached Namche rolling into the north end of town around 2:30PM and cleared the police post at the south end of town by 3PM. According to my GPS I had until just after 6PM until the sun set, and I figured with the thick fog and high mountains it would be best to find a place to stay prior to six. Although I had been kind hoping that Lukla would be in reach, three hours didn't seem like enough time, and it wasn't. After what was already a very long day that had been covered at quite a brisk pace I was starting to get a little tired, and just south of the police check point in Jorsale I ran out of water. At some point near Phakding I picked up a bottle of sprite, but this was a bad idea, and aside from not quenching my thirst the carbonation just didn't sit well. I was clear of Phadking just before 5PM and if I were smart should have stopped there for the night. I had however become obsessed with getting to Lukla that night and despite every reasonable argument one might make as to why one should stop, I couldn't get myself to. Around 6PM I passed through Chheplung, and despite it starting to get a bit dark I knew I was very close to Lukla. So with the light fading and every ounce of strength in me fading a bit I rolled into Lukla around half past 6 in the dark.

Khumbu Lodge Pizza, Simply Awesome

While walking down the street to the airport I came across the Khumbu Lodge and its owner, and got myself a very nice room. I ordered lots of food, tea, a couple of mango juices and a bottle of water. I put all the liquids down quickly, but I had trouble with the soup and the fried rice I ordered, I was starting shake, and felt cold. Despite the quality of the food, I went to my room curled up in the fetal position  under some blankets and eventually just fell asleep, essentially skipping dinner. Something I had done had caused my core body temperature to drop a bit I think, as I was shaking and quite cold for a while, but after an hour or two I was fine and slept quite well. Final tally for my day was just about 34 miles, with thousands of feet in elevation loss and gain.

The Always Intimidating Lukla Airport

The next day it poured all day, and with some irony there were no flights out of Lukla. I relaxed, read a book on my kindle, sent an e-mail to Kim and ate the best pizza I have had in Nepal. Seriously, the pizza at this lodge is phenomenal, unlike anything I have had in Asia. It's served deep dish style, the dough is great, it's real tomato sauce and even had some fresh rosemary and oregano on it. Unbelievably good. The lodge owner was also extremely helpful, confirming my flight back to KTM and the next day he even accompanied me to the airport, which was a mad house, and helped me get my boarding pass. Very highly recommend this lodge (Khumbu Lodge) to anyone passing through Lukla.

So all in all another fantastic trip in the Himalaya of Nepal, and one I would highly recommend to anyone coming here. The Everest region has so much to offer and is just in a class of its own.

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