Monday, October 31, 2011

Guide to the Everest Base Camp Trek: Part Six

For previous installments of this Everest Base Camp trekking guide, see: Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart Four, and Part Five.

Day 9

Itinerary: Gorak Shep to Kala Pattar to Dingboche

At 5 AM, under cover of cold and dark, we left our lodge to conquer the summit of Kala Pattar. Looking up the steep path ahead, we saw a handful early-bird trekkers already in pursuit of the worm. Their twinkling headlamps mirrored the blanket of stars above while the glow of the moon illuminated the surrounding snow-capped peaks. The scene had an otherworldly beauty unlike any I had ever experienced.

But no time for entranced gawking -- there was a mountain to climb. And so we began the trudge up Kala Pattar. Our guide Lhakpa began at an ambitious pace, and I struggled to keep up. Rocketing up a steep trail is one thing, but doing so at an altitude over 5000 meters is another. I climbed to the rhythm of my heavy breathing. When we stopped for a rest, the staccato beating of my heart mimicked a rabbit's. I knew our pace was unsustainable, but pride pushed me forward, and we barreled toward the summit. Until I could barrel no more. About half way up my progress had slowed considerably. It was only with great effort that I could put one plodding foot in front of the other. At this point, Lhakpa mercifully relieved me of the three liters of water I was carrying in my pack. This was no big loss to me considering that the drinking hose had frozen solid.

With my load lightened and the summit in view, the last half of the climb should have been easier. It wasn't. The winding switchbacks up rocky terrain seemed unending. It became unbearable to look at destination as it taunted me from an impossible distance, so I kept my head down and concentrated on my feet. There was room in my altitude-fogged mind for only two things: 1) my focus on taking one step at a time and 2) "Every Little Step" from Bobby Brown's 1988 smash-hit album Don't Be Cruel.

When I did pick my head up, this is what I saw:

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The actual summit is hard to see in this photo. It is the sun-drenched grey bump on the horizon near the left of the frame. If you want to believe I went to the top of Pumori, the mountain in the center, I will not dissuade you.

We reached the summit at 5545 meters (18,192 feet) around 6:45 AM, about an hour and 45 minutes after we left our warm beds. A stunning panorama under sapphire sunrise skies awaited us.

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Nuptse, Everest, Lhotse

Also waiting for us at the top was camera difficulty. Despite having plenty of juice, our camera insisted the battery was low, slowing our capacity to point and shoot at will. No big loss, though -- this is one of those moments where it is best to put the camera down and let your eyes drink it in. Our lips certainly were not doing the drinking due to our frozen water hoses. Advice for climbers: keep your water sources close to your body to avoid freezing and perhaps do the same with your camera. We suspected it might have been the cold that made it malfunction. After it spent some time in our hands it was back to full functionality. Enough to capture this on our descent:

A bit less than an hour later we were back in Gorak Shep eating breakfast. Totally exhausted, we were not exactly enthused about packing up and hitting the road, but we wasted little time before tackling the two-hour stretch back to Lobuche. This trail was not kind to our weary bodies, and Lobuche is no finish line prize. We should have been feeling on top of the world, but after a needed break and early lunch all we wanted was to continue our descent and avoid another night in Lobuche.

Since we stayed in Dingboche on the way up to Base Camp, trying out Pheriche would have been a nice idea, especially because it is at a lower altitude and, as we understand it, the route there is a little easier. But pleasant memories of Peaceful Lodge danced in our heads and we could not resist their allure. After a long day of hiking, reaching Dingboche felt a little like coming home.

Day 10

Itinerary: Dingboche to Namche Bazaar

Refreshed after a night in Dingboche, we departed for Namche, excited to reach a larger town and the comforts it could provide. The treeline provided another welcome sign that we were homeward bound. Its hint of color reminded us that despite the lack of apple cider and jack-o-lanterns in Nepal, it was in fact October.

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It was another long and tiring day of hiking to get to Namche. We wish we could say our lodging rewarded us, but Hotel Sherpa Village failed to impress. Claudine's shower was uncomfortably scalding, but at least she got one -- the water ran out before I got a chance. All guesthouses are a bit noisy due to thin walls and floors, but this one was particularly bad. We are not sure whether to blame the acoustics or the rude, loud German guests, but we had our worst night of sleep on the trail.

No matter. We had but one day of hiking left ahead of us before our return to Kathmandu. The final stretch back to Lukla should be a piece of cake. Right...?

Continue reading: Part Seven and Tips of the Trail.

See also: Everest Base Camp Trek vs. Annapurna Circuit Trek.

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