This Frozen Hell
Everest Base Camp The Lazy Way, Day 12: Gokyo to Dragnag
Dragnag is our jumping off point for the Cho-La, the Himalayan high pass that is beginning to scare the pair of us, and it sits across a hideous slurry of dying glacier from Gokyo.
We have fallen a little in love with ice, up here. Zac’s been skating on frozen lakes, lounging on them, shattering great slabs of fresh water ice on the rocks or yet more ice, jumping on the slabs that have frozen out their water and now sit stranded, balanced on rocks, shattering them with the child’s delight that has yet to give way to adolescence.
The ice roars and creaks and hisses as it expands and contracts in the sun. An animal roar, when there’s a deep crack happening, as if there’s a giant sea snake trapped in the bowels of the ice, something dark and sinister, and, once, I catch a fissure zipping its way across the surface of the ice, just like in a movie.
I’d heard that ice roared. But I never believed it until I heard it.
Watching snowcock pad around the rocks, bright Himalayan ducks skipping deftly from the edge of the roaring ice into the icy water, and the yaks still free in their high pastures, I’m amazed by the life that exists here.
What we’re heading across, though, is not so pretty. It’s marked as glacier on the map, but in fact it’s the ugliest landscape I’ve seen: moraine.
And, if you ever doubted that glaciers were in retreat, here’s the proof right here, a landscape so dazzling in its ugliness, a post-apocalyptic nightmare of mound upon mounds of slag and rubble, sinister pools of grey ice, ice so grey-blue and hard it’s conglomerate rock, holding up the ugly, ugly stuff above.
It looks, to be honest, like the remains of a gigantic, abortive mining project, one conducted by competing individuals rather than a machine.
I would never have thought nature could make such a mess.
But then, of course, with glaciers, it isn’t just nature. It’s us.
A path, continually remade by landslides and marked with totemic cairns, winds up and down and around the rubble, around a wasteland of ice lakes and ice caves, built on hidden arches of rocky ice.
It’s annoying walking, constantly on scree, over the top of one mound after another, sometimes scrambling over big boulders, sometimes slipping as the dust gives way, revealing ice as hard and clear as tinted glass.
“It’s like Norse hell,” I say to Zac, dimly remembering the sagas, the frozen wasteland of Niflheim.
“Yes!” he says. “It is.”
“Go fast here,” says Nir. We’re walking along a path below the spot where the valley descends into moraine, a steep sandy slope decked with rockfalls and adorned with more rocks waiting to fall. “Little bit danger.”
I don’t want to go fast! I got up at 3.30am to see sunrise from Gokyo Ri, I’m carrying our little daypack and, in fact, I don’t really think I can go fast at all.
That said, I’m a mother. So I chivvy Zac to walk fast, which entails walking fast, or faster, myself, one wary eye on the slope above me.
And then there’s a crack, and a shower of dust, and I look to the side and behind me, and, as if in slow motion, a rock comes bounding down the slope.
“RUN!” yells Nir, running.
And we run! Oh Jesus, do we run, pelting down this scree-strewn path that can’t be more than a foot wide, run like I never thought we could.
And, mercifully, the landslide stops, contained behind us. It’s only a few bare handfuls of rocks, some the size of my fist, others the size of my head, and every single one of them big enough to kill my child.
We stop to catch our breath.
“That,” says Zac, looking shaken. “Was the most terrifying experience of my life.” (Which, given the boy had a car crash earlier this year, is saying something.)
“Three or four Nepali people died here,” says Nir.
“In rockfalls?” I ask, redundantly.
“One time I here and a boulder like this,” he taps a chunk of rock the size of an armchair, “Fell here.” He points beside his feet. “Little bit danger,” he concludes.
“And the Cho-La?” I say.
I’m so scared of heights that I haven’t really internalised the other dangers these mountains have to offer. I’m terrified of cliffs, crevasses, long drops to certain death, but otherwise really quite relaxed about safety.
“Danger,” he says.
“Big danger, or little bit danger?” I ask, in Nir-ese.
“Danger,” he says.
For the first time in the mountains (I gave up smoking when I was sick in Pokhara), I could really, really do with a cigarette.
If you’re thinking of doing the Everest Base Camp trek, I recommend my Everest Base Camp FAQs.