Gorak Shep to Kala Patthar and finishing the Everest Base Camp Hike
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Gorak Shep to Kala Patthar
Even through the sub-freezing chill of the unheated room, there was energy in the air. This was the first thing I felt as I opened my eyes in Gorak Shep, rustling in my sleeping bag at 4:45AM. I rolled over and quickly threw on my hiking pants before the chilling cold could hit my skin. There were no windows in my plywood walled room, but at zero dark thirty it didn’t matter. The morning mission, was to load up, and make the exhausting walk for 2 hours and XXX feet to the top of a nearby “hill”. Kala Patthar. At the top of Mount Kala Patthar was the best possible of Mount Everest in all of the Himalayas. With the great mountain situated due east for Kala Patthar, trekkers scattered the hilltop as they watched the sunrise from behind Everest. Two great forces, the epitome of earth and the epitome of sky existing as one, for a few brief moments.
Now, after days of walking, trekkers were bustling in the pre-dawn hours, trudging in the oxygen deprived darkness toward to Kala Patthar.
I heard rustling across the hall and poked my head out to see what was going on. At that same instant Chris, my new triathlete trekking buddy, popped his head out.
“You ready?” he asked.
“Damn straight,” I replied, “Let’s do this.”
We refilled our water, loaded up on Snickers bars (of course) and protein bars and started the 2-hour trek to the top of Kala Patthar. The barren moonscape between the last of the lodges in Gorak Shep and the start of the zigzagging incline was covered in light frost. The air was incredibly thin and ice cold. Even with windproof insulated gloves on, my hands were numb from the cold, barely able to hold onto my hiking poles.
I breathed heavily despite how slowly we moved. Right then I realized, the headache and nausea that I felt the night before in Gorak Shep were completely gone, so I was good. I escaped altitude sickness once again. I’m not the smartest (I’ll be the first to admit that), but this time I was absolutely lucky enough. When I sat still, I felt perfectly fine. Moving was a pretty hefty chore though. Considering how far I had pushed the limits, I was just happy to be in decent shape.
In the darkness I could see a scattered snake of tiny headlamps, weaving along the switchbacks of the hill we would soon climb, all of the way up to the top of Kala Patthar. Like ants mindlessly completing a task for the colony, all of the trekkers followed the wisdom of getting up early and making Kala Patthar the first thing on their to do list for the day. Even the FOMO suffering Irishman I met in Gorak Shep who came back to Gorak Shep 10 years later, just to see Mont Everest. Without a doubt, he was here today.
A View of Mount Everest
As the flat ground gave way to gradual incline I really began to feel the altitude. I had to stop about every 10 minutes and it seemed like every step required at least a breath or two. I wanted to stop and rest, but I could see the morning light cresting from behind the mountains that hid Everest, and I wasn’t going to miss this sunrise, so we kept moving. One step after another into the rocky, chilly darkness, we kept moving until we reached the peak, just as the sun had begun to peak out behind Mount Everest, the tallest peak on earth.
We had it. The best view a human being could have of Mount Everest under his or her own power without climbing her.
In that moment, in the back of my mind, despite the discomfort and the cold I decided that one day…one day, I will climb to the top of Everest.
Though many of the trekkers skittered off the mountain within 5 minutes of sunrise, Chris and I took full advantage. After several photos and a few recordings for Chris’s project, we each took a seat on a rock, pulled out a candy bar, and sat there for a half hour saying nothing, just taking in the view. This was absolutely worth walking a week for.
Mount Everest: Amazing, but outdone
Have you ever seen a girl, so beautiful that everyone knows how renowned she is for her beauty, but when you see her sisters they are somehow even more beautiful in a similar but unique way? That is how Everest can be related to the Himalayas. A beautiful mountain, but the Himalayan peaks that stand next to her in the distance are more beautiful, by far. The silhouette of Ama Dablam to Everest’s flank is one of the most beautiful natural features I have ever seen, jagged and intimidating. I couldn’t imagine tackling that peak. The panorama of the Himalayas as viewed from Kala Patthar is breathtaking to say the least and something I would recommend for anyone that appreciates a lovely vista.
After 30 minutes of sitting and relaxing, and Chris almost falling off a cliff (that’s a story for another chapter), we decided it was time to shuffle on. Our plan was to return to Gorak Shep to refuel and grab breakfast, hike to Everest Base Camp with a small daypack, then grab our things and hike as far down the trek as we could in one day.
The Final trek to Mount Everest Base Camp
The last few miles of our Trek to Mount Everest Base Camp were relatively easy compared to all that preceded it. Kala Patthar was the highest point of our trek at 18,519 feet and Everest Base Camp’s elevation was only at 17,600 feet. The trek would only be about 3.5 km one way, or 4 hours round trip. The most difficult element of the trek was the plethora of loose rocks and scree. Old Everest base camp is actually situated on a glacier, covered by tons of loose dirt and rock. On the way to the camp, making one’s way up and down hills while trying not to slide down a pebble ridden mess is quite difficult. Nonetheless, two hours later, we finally made it. And the fact that the whole thing is sitting on a glacier is really unnerving for me…but well worth the check off the bucket list.
Mount Everest Base Camp
My apologies to spoil this for anyone that goes, but, Everest base camp is quite anticlimactic. Filled with boulders bearing signatures and names of loved ones next to streams of colorful Tibetan prayer, Base Camp is a great photo opportunity but there is no view of Everest and the views are less than impressive. My advice: make the most of it by coming up with something unique to do for your picture that you’ll keep to remind you of the achievement. A group of Irish types all went bare butt and mooned the camera while looking out towards Everest. Lovers kissed with mountains in the background. And the Aussies shotgunned a beer (I advise against this but they still get a 10 for creativity). Whatever you do, make it yours. And with a memorable picture, I ended my Trek to Everest Base Camp.
…but the adventures weren’t over yet.
Like bats out of hell
Chris and I made quick time out of base camp to beat the crowds and back to Gorak Shep well before the 4 hours. Everything we owned was already packed so we threw our packs on and left with the agreement to worry about food and bathroom breaks later. Our priority was to keep up our pace.
The best part about descending from base camp is the superhuman feeling that comes on. Not just from the bucket list level accomplishment, but because the acclimatization is so apparent as you drop in altitude. As the oxygen concentration increases, breathing becomes easier, your pack feels lighter, and your feet feel lighter. In short, you feel like a superhero. The feeling is amazing.
We cruised quickly down through the valley between Lobuche and Dughla in amazing time, making it to Pheriche just after lunch. After a brief hot meal of dahl bhat, possibly the last lentil and rice mixture we would have to endure on this hike, we saddled up and continued south. But bidding farewell to the dal baht would become my undoing that evening…but more to come on that later. We cruised past the tiny mountainside hamlets on the way Tingboche, where the monastery was, and followed the path down to the river at the base of the valley. We steamrolled back up the hardpacked road as the sunlight grew dim, crossing into Namche Bazaar just before nightfall.
We made it from Gorak Shep to Kala Patthar to Everest Base Camp, and back to Namche Bazaar in one day. This required a celebration.
The Celebration in Namche Bazaar
We quickly booked a comfy hotel, with beds, charging outlets, and a fully stocked bar with the agreement that we would go to the local Irish bar as soon we could. After taking my first hot shower (and first actual shower to be honest) in a week, we met up for dinner.
Food adventures outdo foot adventures
I’m an adventurous eater and I go by the mantra that it is impossible to experience a culture without fully experiencing the local food, so I’ll try anything once. This is where the story gets interesting…and shitty. No pun intended. I asked the Teahouse manager for a food recommendation and he suggested the yak chili. I’ve never had yak before and I had honestly never seen one before this trip, so I figured why not. I ordered the yak chili and the ginger tea I was growing fond of and started the celebration. As we ate and sipped, Chris and I made friends with three computer scientists from Silicon Valley that were sitting next to us. We enjoyed the food and the company as they talked about machine learning and…well…stuff… until it was time for our new friends to call it quits for the night. They were on their way up the next day and were planning on an early morning departure to Lukla Town. At this point we left for…of course…the highest “Irish Bar in the World,” a well-advertised attraction in Namche Bazaar.
The Highest Irish Bar in the World was very interesting. There was a unique cast of characters here, half of which looked like they were about to die. There were energized but headache-ridden trekkers on their way up the trail, marked with the curse of not being able to drink (because of altitude sickness risks). There were trekkers dying to ditch sobriety on their way out of the mountains but so tired that they can’t keep their eyes open, but they promised themselves that they would visit the bar…as did Chris and I. Nonetheless, I enjoyed a glass of Johnny Walker Black…and it was amazing. Well earned.
The Frenchies behind us played pool. The Germans to our left were chatting about the 90’s music playing in the place. And we chatted about how awesome it was that we had seen Everest. We toasted to that. Life was good. But after my second glass I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer either, so we headed back. It was a good day.
What sound does a velociraptor make?
At 2AM I woke up with a sharp pain in my stomach and ran sprinting towards the restroom. I barely made it to the sink before the yak chili made a surprise exit from my face. Then it began. The risk on the yak chili didn’t pay off. For the next 4 hours I sat in the bathroom repeatedly drinking water and emptying my guts. You remember how that friend of yours in his 20’s was throwing up so badly the only comfort he had was laying his face on a cool (yet horribly filthy) bathroom floor between heaves? That’s the kind of condition I was in for the night, and I didn’t even have a 21st birthday to show for it. Breaking my rule of dal baht for dinner once became one-way street to a nasty stomach bug. The yak’s revenge perhaps? Return of the yak? I did giggle at the thought that I was yakking up yak. My sadistic sense of humor was intact so I knew I would be fine, eventually.
At 6AM, I hobbled back to the room with the options to be sick and stay, or suck it up and hit the road.
“Yeah, I heard you in there all night,” Chris said. “You sounded like a velociraptor.”
Encouraging. Very encouraging.
At just about checkout time, the answer became “suck it up.” Chris had bought a flight on Yeti Airlines for the following day, but if there is room most of the Lukla Airport serving airlines will gladly move your ticket forward. We decided make the attempt. We would try to make it to the airport in time for the last flight, which meant we had to move fast…whether or not my guts were leaking.
I skipped breakfast (even the Snickers) in place of water and electrolytes and we quickly bolted out of Namche. We dropped our things and turned over our trekking passes and passports at the ranger station to check out quickly, loaded our packs back on, and bolted again. We continued down the zigzagging mountain trail toward the sketchy bridge, suspended hundreds of feet above the earth. This time, I was so focused on my stomach I didn’t even care about the dizzying altitude as I crossed the bridge. We continued back up the trail, and towards the edge of the national park and past Phakding as the teahouses began to look more like comfy mountain lodges than refugee camps. We were hauling ass. I only picked up bottles of Coca-Cola along the way for fuel because I wanted to avoid having anything in my stomach that I could potentially throw up. I didn’t mind vomiting, I just didn’t want to waste time and miss the flight.
In record time, we arrived in Lukla town, just minutes before 3pm. We literally sprinted into the airport and asked if there was any way we could switch our flights to today.
“All of the flights have gone out already, I’m sorry,” the attendant said.
We were disappointed, but we expected that. We sat back and let things sink in. It had been one hell of a day. Hell of a week actually.
“Wait, hang on…” the attendant said as he disappeared into the back.
There was a cargo flight that had just finished unloading and was flying out of Lukla shortly. No seats, just baggage. The flight attendant said, “it won’t be comfortable and their won’t be in flight service, but you’re welcomed to take that flight.”
We were all over it. The Yet Airlines associate shuffled us to a back room where we scribbled down our information and ticket number. Time was running short before takeoff and we didn’t want to check bags, so I started handing over my possessions as gifts. I gave the attendant my trekking poles, my pocket knife, my lighter, and was happy to do so.
Within minutes, we walked straight from the airport management’s office, onto the tarmac of the dangerous little airport, and onto a tiny plane with the engines running and all seats removed…except for three in the far rear. The pilots looked back and gave us a thumbs up, which we reciprocated. The flight attendant seated next to us gave us a smile as the crew closed the door.
The tiny lawnmower engines whirred faster and faster. I could hear the engines reaching top speed as we maneuvered to the end of the 527 meter runway, the back of the plane to the wall I was worried about crashing into before. This time, I didn’t even care. I didn’t care about the food poisoning. I didn’t care about the odds of crashing on takeoff. I didn’t care about giving away my favorite knife I had been traveling with for years through Southeast Asia and South America. I just didn’t care. And it was great.
I walked through the Himalayas under my own power. I saw Mount Everest, the tallest peak in the world. I was going home. There was a silent countdown going in my head…3…2…1…as the pilots released the brakes and the tiny go-kart of a plane shot forward.
I stared out the window with my head resting against the window as the short runway beneath us ended, just like my adventure, giving way to the hills and trees below. I could just barely make out the branches of the individual trees as they dissolved into a forest that crawled up the mountainside, then disappearing below the clouds as we shot upward. Just above the fluffy white layer of clouds in the distance, snowcapped mountains of the Himalayas bid us farewell. Dallas, Texas to Everest Base Camp. The adventure was complete.
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