Reaching Base Camp
Day 8: By this time, most of us in the group had no idea what was the day of the week let alone the date, though it was not like we had any real need to know up in the mountains. Either way, my hope of getting a good night’s sleep were quickly killed alongside a few brain cells as Yoon and I nearly suffocated overnight, having forgotten to open our room’s window. At 4910m, only 56% of the air at sea level is available with every breath so ensuring that you have a fresh supply of air in the room overnight is a must! (A pretty cool website on the effects of altitude can be found here.) Only after managing to open our window at 4:00am was I able to get an hour and a half of continuous sleep before having to wake up for breakfast.
At breakfast, Bhim went around to make a final check to ensure everyone was feeling okay that morning. For a few days now, Mark and I were referred to as the “Dobrý Team” as we seemed to be unaffected by the altitude. (Dobrý as in ‘good’ in Czech – Mark was an English teacher in Prague for nearly 8 years and taught a few words to the guides.) So every morning, Bhim would come over to us with his charismatic personality and ask, “Dobrý Team okay?!” to which we’d simply reply “Dobrý!”… Sounds cheesy now but it was one of those small, yet effective morale boosting things during the trek…
Today was going to be the longest day of trekking so far – approximately 12km from Lobuche to Base Camp via Gorak Shep then back to Gorak Shep in the evening. Temperatures that morning was -7.5’C and the ground outside was covered in light snow. Once again, what a sight to start the day!
With the weather quickly warming up, most of the snow melted away revealing an endless sight of rocks and boulders leading all the way to Gorak Shep. This village is the closest village to Base Camp and the original location for Everest Base Camp and first used by the Swiss expedition to Everest in 1952. The large, open expanse next to the village is in fact a frozen lake bed covered in snow.
Gorak Shep was a good tea stop and opportunity to re-apply sunscreen and clean the dust from our sunglasses. At this altitude, the thin atmosphere means that the sun is ridiculously strong, but the cold weather allows you to cover up and still feel comfortable. Such conditions also meant that all vegetation, bar small shrubs were non-existent. As a result, the soil is very loose and rock falls and land slides are common place along the trail. Across several sections, Bhim made us maintain a 5m gap between each person, to reduce the likelihood of multiple injuries or deaths if a land slide fall occurred. thankfully, nothing of the sort happened during our trek.
I can’t speak for anyone else in the group, but upon seeing the Khumbu Glacier, Icefall, Base Camp and Everest in one view (absolutely stunning), I had a major adrenaline kick – I just wanted to get there! Luckily by this stage, it was only a stone’s throw away and within 15 or so minutes, the group stepped onto the Khumbu Glacier for the first time.
A couple of metres from reaching the flags which signify the location of Base Camp for trekkers, a familiar voice shouted “Dobrý!” It turned out to be Jangbu, who had left the group two days ago to accompany Danielle back to Kathmandu. Lucky for him, his sister works for a company which organises helicopter flights in and out of Base Camp and since many helicopters arrive at Base Camp empty in order to carry stuff off the mountain, he managed to hitch a free ride and beat us there by a few hours!
At the position marker, there were many hugs exchanged and photos taken. However, with a massive build up, it was almost a bit of an anticlimax… With the tragedy of April 18, most of Base Camp had packed up by the time we had arrived, with perhaps 200 or so tents remaining. We were told that at it’s peak, around 2000 tents are set up here on the glacier, however it was clear from the mass of traffic walking away from Base Camp that the pack up was in full swing.
All in all, our group spent around 45 minutes at the marker. Trekkers aren’t allowed to actually access the ‘tent city’ area of Base Camp unless they pay an extra fee (so we were told). I guess if you paid upwards of $60,000USD to climb Everest, the last thing you need is to contract some virus from one of the thousands of trekkers who visit every season and risk jeopardising their climb, so to me this was understandable.
Approaching 2:00pm (if you have read or seen the movie, Into Thin Air, this is the turn back time.. :P), we decided to start the journey back to Gorak Shep. Whilst it took around 3.5 hours from Gorak Shep to Base Camp, the return journey was only 2hrs, probably due to the adrenaline still pumping through our bodies. Arriving back at the Snowland Highest Inn, the reality of the situation hit everyone… we had made it!
Sunrise on top of Kala Pattar
Though we had attained our goal of reaching Base Camp, there was no rest for the weary! After a night at the Snowland Highest Inn (where they need to put turps in the toilet to prevent them from freezing overnight – quite effective at eliminating all other smells as well!) and another massive dal bhaat dinner, it was a 4:00am rise to walk up Kala Patthar to view Everest at sunrise. As this was an optional activity, just over half of the group decided to do it.
Before heading down to meet the others, I managed to force down one of my Trek bars as we weren’t having breakfast until we returned. Downstairs, everyone was rugged up with headlamps on their foreheads as it was still quite dark outside, but upon setting foot out the door, you could still tell that there was around a foot of snow on the ground.
Around 15 minutes in, there was enough light to be able to see without the headlamps. With the bulk of the group walking in front of me, I took this opportunity to fall behind and get some shots of them making their ‘ascent’. Now the conditions that morning were the coldest yet experienced on the trek and having used my Camelbak in the snow before, I knew that it would only take a short while before any fluid in the tube would freeze. A trick to stop this is the blow air back into the tube after you use it. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to do this, so after my first drink, I was without water. Good think I drank a litre of water with my Trek bar when I woke up!
Progress of the group was slow and steady. However, according to my GPS, at our current rate of ascent, we would not make it before the sun came over Everest. Based on this, I decided to overtake the main group and try and make it up before this happened. Luckily for me, two other guys and their leader had set off 15 minutes before us, so I had fresh tracks in the snow to follow and wasn’t walking up blind.
Now, I don’t know whether this is a proven technique, but I found that hyperventilating (or trying to hyperventilate at altitude) before making and during my strenuous dash to the top really helped me to walk up Kala Patthar at a pretty fast rate. Before I knew it, I had caught up and passed the two guys who started before us and was walking right behind their guide.
When I did reach the top, their guide turned around, saw me and said “Namaste! Wait.. you’re not in my group? haha…” I managed to blubber out “Namaste” back, as my face and mouth was completely frozen… But other than that, I was feeling pretty energised! The guide was even nice enough to take a photo for me, right before sunrise. After around 5-10 minutes, the rest of my group caught up, though Linda had to turn around because of the cold conditions.
If you have the opportunity and ability (i.e. haven’t been hit too hard by the altitude) to walk up here for sunrise, do it. For me, making it to the top was definitely more ‘fulfilling’ in many ways than reaching Base Camp.
Again, after taking a heap of photos at the top, the cold really started to make it’s way through the layers. The batteries in my GPS had drained, though I was able to get an altitude reading from one of the others- we were at an altitude of 5560m! With frozen hands, feet and face, we decided to start the journey back down to Gorak Shep, following Jangbu down a different trail to the one we took up. Afterwards and back in the warm Snowland Highest Inn, a pot of honey lemon tea never tasted so good.
The return journey
Going up and down Kala Patthar that morning was only the start of the day! After breakfast and packing up, we then made the 10km walk all the way back to Pheriche, the other side of the Nangkar Tshang ridge to Dingboche.
Though we were all very tired by the time we reached Dukla, the view of the valley walking back to Pheriche alongside the cabinet of yaks and porters carrying equipment was definitely a unique sight and helped spur us on.
Our 900m descent in altitude to Pheriche also meant that after we arrived, everyone actually felt pretty vitalised! This was good timing because it coincided with the birthday’s of both David and Karen and hence a good excuse to crack open an Everest Beer and several bottles of Kukri XXX Rum (which is a pretty good drop if I don’t mind myself saying! – they have a really cool ‘coronation’ bottle for those who are interested). Cakes for both David and Karen were baked and iced by Bhim. With the limited ingredients available, he certainly did an awesome job!
The following day, we crossed the Imja Khola and climbed steadily for around 2 hrs until we reached the famous Tengboche Monastry. By this time, everyone in the group seemed quite comfortable with the uphill walking, having mastered the technique of ‘slowly, slowly’… It must have been a pretty tough walk up as we saw a few yaks along the way simply stop walking in order to sit and have a break – all in defiance of their herders. In the end, the yaks I saw had to be unloaded and the cabinet delayed until another yak arrived to take it’s place.
Speaking of yaks, my run of sticking to mainly vegetarian dishes came to a halt that night as I, along with several daring others put in our dinner orders for yak steak and chips. Whilst you can get ‘sizzling yak’ steak, ours was served just like in a western steak house, with ‘some sort’ of sauce on top, chips and salad. The texture of the meat was like that of a hamburger patty, even though we were told it was a solid piece of meat. They probably tenderised the hell out of it, because it was really really soft. In terms of taste, I’ll be honest here and say that I probably won’t be rushing to eat yak steak again any time soon! When thinking about it, yak’s are pretty damn useful animals on the mountain and provide a source of income for their owners so why the hell would they want to kill them for food? Were they sick or diseased animals? Or maybe just really, really old ones? Either way in hindsight, they’re probably not the best animal to be eating…
After Tengboche, we continued along the main Everest Trek trail until we hit the fork in the road where we split off towards Gokyo on the way up. From there, we retraced our steps all the way back to Lukla via an overnight stop in Bengkar; one of the places we previously stopped for morning tea. On the way down, we walked past many trekkers who were on their way to a Base Camp and into some brewing storm clouds.
In fact, the only time during our entire trek where we experienced anything but sunshine was on Day 11 of our trek, where it threatened to rain as we walked from Tengboche to Bengkar. Despite walking for only “25 more minutes” around 4 times, we make it into Bengkar before the rain started to fall. Overtaking us along the way were a group of trekkers desperate to fly out of Lukla the following morning, as they received information that tomorrow was the last window of opportunity to fly out of Lukla before the weather prevented flights from leaving. Our leader Bhim however, did not buy into this and assured us that we will be flying out in two days time as scheduled.
The next morning, Bhim’s ‘intel’ confirmed as there was not a cloud in the sky and the weather was ‘back to usual’. After a rather uneventful walk back to Lukla (apart from Yoon freaking out as we had to walk over that really high bridge again… :D), we finally passed through the Memorial Gate, signifying that our trek was officially over.
With a whole afternoon free in Lukla, we were eager to check out some of the local establishments. For me, it was to “Starbucks” for some coffee and black forest cake though for others, it was one of the many pubs, shops or even the barber for a hair cut, massage and hot shave. Either way, we all rendezvoused back at the Khumbu Resort at 5:30pm to say thank you and good bye to our porters as well as a few beers before our final dinner and evening briefing.
The next morning, it was a 5am start in order to get to the airport on time to catch one of the first flights out of Lukla back to Kathmandu. Though our assistant guides followed us to the airport to say goodbye, the security guards there did not allow them in (apart from Tika, who was flying back to Kathmandu in order to go home to Pokhara). Somehow however, Jangbu did make it in and was able to catch us before we passed security to enter the departure ‘lounge’.
I must comment that security at Lukla was taken far more seriously than at Kathmandu. This was made evident to me when I saw a guard take out a Mosin Nagant rifle from the armoury to take up a post outside (surely not overlooking the runway?) Going through security, the security guards do a pretty thorough bag search and they took away my roll of duct tape, motioning that I could use it to tape over someone’s mouth and/or bind someone’s wrists together! But they did let me on board with my first aid kit which contained scissors and a bandage wrap…
Anyway, we all made it through and waited around, awaiting the sound of the first aircraft to arrive. Finally after around half an hour, we boarded our flight to Kathmandu and left the mountains of the Himalayas behind.
The first order of business after returning to Kathmandu was finding a place for breakfast. Second on the list was to take a shower, which for me was the first shower in 2 weeks. Third, was to shave off my pretty pathetic attempt at growing a beard and finally after that, take a well deserved nap… because I could.
Now prior to coming to Kathmandu, I was told by a few people that I needed to visit a restaurant and bar called the Rum Doodle whilst in town. The Rum Doodle is very popular staging ground for expeditions and trekking groups, including those who intend to reach the summit of Everest. Those who indeed return after reaching the summit of Everest get to have their signature in the special ‘summiteers’ section, whilst other groups who have trekked in the region can have their feet hung in the main dining area.
Though I was expecting the place to be exorbitantly priced (due to it’s reputation), it was actually pretty cheap and the triple stack chicken and bean tortillas were awesome.
After a very slow afternoon of doing nothing (apart from buying a down jacket and booking a 4 hour mountain bike ride around the hills north of Kathmandu with Mark… more on this in another article), the group met up again for our last dinner.
Two things stand out as the most enjoyable aspects of my trek to Everest Base Camp. The first was my fantastic, friendly and easy to get along group. Being ‘stuck’ with the a group of people who you have just met for over two weeks has the potential to be challenging to say the least, but not so with the group I was in. I don’t know what it was but to me, it seemed as though everyone clicked together from the get go and supported each other throughout the entire journey. Of course, central to the group were the guides and leaders and the team of Bhim, Jangbu, Nima, Tika and Sancha really made life as comfortable as it could have been on the trek. Thanks everyone for making it a very memorable trip.
The second aspect would be the scenery along the trek. Whilst Base Camp was the goal of the trek, the journey getting there was far more rewarding and spectacular (yes as clichéd as it may sound). I think I took over 3500 photos in my 18 days in Nepal, most of them of the mountains. I can’t even imagine how spectacular the Annapurna circuit would be as the general consensus from everyone I asked was that we “ain’t seen nothing yet” by trekking to Base Camp.
That’s probably the best way to leave Nepal, knowing that there is still so much more to come back to. From trekking to Base Camp a certain desire within to come back and do something ‘a little tougher’ has definitely been ignited. Maybe my next trip back here will see me do the Annapurna Circuit as well as a trekking peak such as Imja Tse (Island Peak) or Mera Peak… Either way, you’ll hear about it here!