Day 10 – A Walk in the Clouds
Trekking to Everest’s base camp isn’t exactly a common activity, but even so on any given day during the trekking season you’re going to come across more than your fair share of tourists doing exactly the same thing as you are. While that’s not necessarily a bad sign – people are drawn to interesting things – sometimes I need to take the road less traveled, or better yet, not traveled at all.
It was an acclimatization day and the group decided to go for a modest hike to help adjust to the extreme altitude. I, along with the intrepid German trekker, was craving something a little more intense so we picked the closest mountain in sight and decided to do a little off-piste trekking. It wasn’t hard to find a way up since there hadn’t been trees for a several days. That meant that pretty much everything was a path.
Now I don’t want to exaggerate, the rock peak we chose wasn’t one of the snowcapped mountains you’d see on the Discovery Channel, but Periche, the town we’d slept in, was already at 4,930 meters. That meant we’d started climbing at an elevation higher than the tallest peak in the Alps. That alone made for quite a rush (or maybe the rush was from the shortage of oxygen to our brains). For the first time in ages I experienced the childish thrill of climbing a tree that’s a little too high, too dangerous to climb. I’d flown across the world to do it and this time it really was dangerous, but it was worth it.
The climb was intense and breathing was a challenge, but we were in good condition and were happy not to be carrying our packs. The views were spectacular and we were reveling in our bold decision until we neared the rocky peak. It was then we realized we’d left to late in the day, because the afternoon fog began to move. Actually, fog is probably the wrong word. The simple fact was it started to get cloudy and we were walking in the sky.
Unfortunately, no matter what you learned from a Keanu Reeves movie, the truth is a walk in the clouds isn’t actually that fun. You can’t see where you’re going and things start getting cold and wet pretty fast. Add to that the fact that you can fall off a mountain and it pretty much means it’s time to turn back.
As we headed back down I thought that perhaps I’d reached the peak of the trek. What could be more intense? Funny to think that just one day later it would seem like and appetizer…
Day 11 – A Mad Finish
My eyes opened up to complete darkness. Unlike in Spain where trekkers wake up before dawn to avoid the scorching heat, in the Himalayas your motivation for waking up in subzero darkness is minimal at best. Still, on this particular day it couldn’t be helped. We had a very long walk ahead of us. The plan was to walk three hours to Gorak Shep, one of the highest settlements on Earth, to drop off our bags there and continue another three hours to base camp. We’d then turn around and return to our bags to spend the night. The next morning we’d wake up early again and spend three or four tortuous hours climbing the nearby Kala Patthar, a mountain that offers a spectacular view of the Mt. Everest and which is generally considered the real highlight of the trek.
The first half of the day went exactly as planned. It was a long difficult walk, but we were like children waking up early to go to Disney World. At one point we were so giddy that the English trekker and I even decided to race. True, it was only about 50 meters before I tripped and fell on my face, but hey, I was running to Mt. Everest and that’s not something you get to do every day.
We pressed on along the narrow rocky path, each moment knowing we were drawing closer to our final destination, Everest base camp, the reason for all the trials and tribulations, the end of what had been a very long road. After what seemed like both a very long and a very short time the small tents of the climbers attempting the summit finally came into same. We’d made it. We were at base camp.
I’d like to say there was grandiose music crescendoing in the background as we climbed the crest of some glorious hill, but the truth of the matter is that base camp is a rather dismal place. Situated on what is essentially a lake of rocks left by the Khumbu Glacier there’s actually not much to see. Telephone poles often obstruct a good view, but being smooshed up against the base of the world’s tallest mountain really makes it hard to see.
We were in no mood to be disappointed though so if a picture next to the base
camp sign wasn’t enough we’d just have to find some adventure of our own. We found it on the Khumbu Glacier itself, which turned out to be the most excellent of playgrounds. If you have the chance to play on a glacier before global warming finishes off what’s left of them, I highly recommend it (although be careful not to fall into a crevasse). It was, first and foremost, beautiful. The ice was an incredible deep blue and as its surface melted in the sun in sparkled like a million ton diamond. It was also just plain old fun, especially when we engaged in what may have been the most enjoyable of stupidity ever and we sledded down part of the glacier.
Once we’d finished cutting ourselves up on the ice and rocks it was time to head back. Unfortunately a traffic jam of yaks (I kid you not) jammed up the path and slowed us down a bit, but compared to sitting in normal traffic it was a treat. That and we were at long last walking downhill, a thrill that should not be underestimated. Unfortunately it was around this time that what was left of my sanity started to leave me.
“You know I heard that sunsets from the top of Kala Patthar are really amazing, even better than the sunrise.” I hinted.
“Yeah, I’m sure.” Apparently I was being too subtle.
“I’d love to have a picture of that. It’s not that late now. I think there’s still time.” It sounded convincing to me.
“You mean you want to climb it tonight?” They looked at me like I’d grown a third eye on my forehead.
“It’s on the way.” Except for the 500 meter climb almost straight up, that was basically true.
“Yeah but we don’t have warm clothes or a flashlight. We don’t even have any water left!”
Given the groups reluctance to make the climb, I decided to do the only reasonable thing: to go on up alone. At least I thought it was reasonable until I started the actual climb. Maybe it was the low oxygen levels, but the slope hadn’t appeared as steep from the bottom. I guess there was a reason people stuck to the normal path. Still, as long as I didn’t trip that wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately the second problem was unavoidable. I was tired and once again being in an atmosphere with only 50% the normal oxygen levels was taking its toll.
The truth is that every few minutes I had to stop and catch my breath. Each time I told myself it didn’t make any sense to continue; it was getting to dark, cold and I had no water, but each time I stood up I started walking up the mountain and not down it. Part of the problem may have been that last year when preparing for the Ironman a little part of me got addicted to finding my limits and it had been six months since I’d truly tested them. Whatever the reason, I slowly kept crawling my way up. The solitude was a strange contrast from the bustle of basecamp, but the glow the last rays of the setting sun on the high peaks was not a sight I’ll soon forget.
It took hours, but after countless times stopping and starting I finally scrambled over the last bit of broken rock that make up the peak of the mountain. There were countless prayer flags and other mementos marking the end of what for so many people would mark the end of their life’s greatest adventure. I sat there, enjoy a 360 degree view of what looked like the whole world alone, enjoying a glory that seemed to have been made, at that moment, just for me. Then I realized it was too amazing not to share so I took out my almost forgotten camera and made a little video for you:
The ease of descending was a shocking contrast to the monumental struggle each step had been on the way up. At moments I was even able to jog slightly, although the rocky terrain made going too fast a bad idea. If I sprained my ankle I’m sure someone would have eventually found me, although the me they would have found might have been frozen solid. I kept the pace quick but careful and kept going, but even the top of Mt. Everest had lost sight of the sun. The fading twilight was sufficient at first, but I soon found myself staring intently at the ground, pushing my eyes to try and pick out any detail that might keep me from taking a very long tumble. Toward the bottom I lost the trail altogether and had to use the flash on my camera to try and see what I was doing.
This little trick of using the flash to see the path had one unintended consequence. My friends back at the lodge had begun to worry. They knew that if I hurt myself things could turn bad quickly. To their great credit they were outside looking for me when they saw a flashing light in the distance and wondered if it was a distress signal. The immediately started to prepare a search party, but fortunately I was now only twenty minutes away. I made my way down the last stretch of mountain with only a couple of small slips and walked the last few hundred meters that led to the lodge. As I stumbled up to the door I saw people walking around in the darkness. It was my search party. They found me thirsty and cold, but unharmed. I had been a fool. They told me as much and I knew they were right. Still it was day I’ll never forget and the perfect climax of an incredible journey.