Ambling Towards Everest
Everest Base Camp the Lazy Way: Days 12-13
As places in which to brush one’s teeth al fresco go, Dzonghla takes some beating.
There’s a mist that creeps up the valley in the evenings and retreats in the morning, winding soupily around the base of Ama Dablam, my favourite mountain EVER.
I wash my face in hot water, soaping away layers of ingrained Vaseline and dust, scrub my hands clean, and brush my teeth twice, luxuriating in the all-new, healthy, smoke-free me, and the dazzling beauty of the place.
It would, of course, be perfectly easy for us, now we’re acclimatised, to walk from here to Gorak Shep, the jumping off point for Everest Base Camp, in a day. It’s not difficult walking.
And, in any case, the pencil and paper schedule Nir and I have worked out allows two days for the journey with a break at Lobuche.
So, we agree, we won’t set any alarms. We’ll get up, have breakfast 9ish, poddle lazily up to Lobuche at a snail’s pace with loads of stops whenever we feel like it, and no hurrying Zac when he’s poking at ice or skating on rivers, and break the journey there.
“So we spend one night in Gorak Shep?” asks Nir, as we walk.
“No,” I say. “We spend two nights in Gorak Shep. Or three.”
“Not three,” he says.
“Definitely two,” I say.
“Gorak Shep is very cold,” he says.
Cold?! What is this cold of which he speaks?! I’m part-Polish, goddammit, while Zac appears to be part-Sherpa.
“Look,” I say. “I want to take this slowly. And I want to get a chance of actually seeing something from Kala Patthar.”
Kala Patthar is, I’ve understood, the point of the Everest Base Camp trek. It’s got dazzling Everest views and it’s a decent height – at over 18,000 feet (5,545m, to be precise), or a couple of hundred metres higher than the Cho-La, it’s got a degree of bragging rights.
The sunsets and sunrises, I’ve heard, are also beautiful, even better than Gokyo Ri. When the entire thing’s not shrouded in mist and snow, of course.
But we’ve been lucky with the weather. And I want to extend our chances by staying in Gorak Shep a while.
So off we amble, down the valley, Zac walking almost entirely on stream ice, whose various levels of solidity he seems to well understand (and, hey, we’ve got spare boots!), through the stark and lovely high mountain landscape that I’m actually – yes, still! – addicted to.
And, here’s the weird thing for someone who’s absolutely terrified of heights, I’m so in love with Ama Dablam that I can really see how one could want to climb it.
Those terrifying, exposed ridges. I WANT to have the courage, the skill and the strength to walk along them in the silence, to stand atop that perfect peak and know I did it.
Because, this is the thing, I think, with mountains, you either worship them or you want to conquer them. Or maybe the conquering is the worship nowadays?
Not that I’ll do it, of course. Ama Dablam is a technical climb, and even non-technical climbing requires levels of fitness I just don’t have.
But maybe, I think, maybe one day when my boy and any other child that joins him is grown and flown, and I have the invisibility of age, I’ll do a long, long walk through the Himalayas, solo.
Perhaps the Great Himalayan Trail…
Yeah, I think. 2500km across the Himalayas, solo. That will be my sixtieth birthday present to myself. That’ll be cool. I can do suspension bridges now. I’m down with that.
Round a curve into the new valley, and a new ampitheatre of new mountains opens up, some of the same mountains seen from different angles, transforming them. A turn to the left, and we’re in a new valley, the Khumbu.
Like most people who end up doing the Everest Base Camp trek, I guess, I’ve read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air more times than I probably should have done.
So to actually be in the valley of Everest itself, heading up to the Khumbu Icefall where everyone since Hillary, pretty much, has set off, heading towards the teetering blocks of shattered ice where all the stories of horror and triumph start is…
…Well. We’ve been walking two weeks now, plus or minus, and we’re almost at our destination…
…It’s amazing. And it’s wonderful…
And yet, as I see a yak train porting up yet another load of camping gear, and a tour group heading up the path, I am so, so glad that we went through Gokyo.
Because, even in December, compared to the Gokyo valley trails, this path feels like Oxford Circus during the January sales. Even Lobuche, a cluster of lodges – ours has tinned sausages! And tonic water! And internet! Kinda! – feels positively metropolitan. So, well, busy…
Although, now we’ve crossed the Cho-La, the conditions up here are beginning to bug me.
One lesser reported effect of high altitude is that you need to pee more, which means Zac’s getting up in the night once, and I’m getting up twice.
Bathrooms, at this altitude in December, are squats with a vat of flushing water that has to be regularly topped up with boiling water to stop it freezing solid.
And, because folk are keen to pee as quickly as humanly possible so they can get back into their nice warm sleeping bag before the heat they’ve built up dissipates, they tend to miss, leaving the squat surrounded by an ice rink of frozen effluent.
This makes one’s natural instinct to don head torch and race to the bathroom lethally endangering, because — really, really, believe you me — you do not want to faceplant in one of those suckers. Especially not when the flushing water is frozen too solid to break…
Also, while I’m dishing out TMI, High Altitude Flatus Expulsion is a thing, people, it’s a thing!
And, when one huddles back into one’s sleeping bag after escaping the urine slide of death, one really, really wishes it wasn’t.
Even if it does enable one to bond laddishly with one’s twelve-year-old son over endless variations of “Who dal bhat-ed?”
While Zac is revelling in the fact that he hasn’t washed for almost a fortnight and doesn’t have to wash until we’re back in civilisation, AKA Kathmandu, which is transforming into a city the size of Bangkok in my head and ABSOLUTELY has to have a cocktail bar that can make a Negroni, I’d dearly like to have a bucket wash at this point but…
It’s just too cold. And Gorak Shep is colder. Apparently.
The next day, we amble steadily up the valley, epic snow-clad peaks beginning to curve out of the distance, and yaks still, even in December, grazing their summer pastures, as the clouds ease in from the north.
And then we hit our first memorial.
There is something about entering a place lined with memorials to those who died before that is simultaneously awe-inspiring and unnerving.
And the Khumbu is full of them. Most honour mountaineers who died en route to the summit or, sadder, on the way back down, but a couple record people who died just walking. Rockfalls, I’d imagine.
We stop to look at them.
Because we are, yet again, heading onto moraine, the ugly, ugly slag that glaciers leave behind, the maze of hills and tunnels and ice caves and screes, and walking into rockfall territory past memorials to the dead is an intimation of mortality I could do without.
On our right, Nuptse begins to emerge above the moraine, which we are lumbering over at a pace I would describe as glacial were we not actually on a glacier. What with the scree and the endless ups and downs, it takes us aeons to cross the few hundred metres.
But Nuptse is awe-inspiring. Dense with compacted, fissured snow, the kind of lethal mass that could come down in a maelstrom of millions upon millions of tonnes, flecked with the blue of ice-falls, it descends in flawless triangle upon flawless triangle, as close to geometric perfection as a mountain can get.
“It’s beautiful,” Zac says. “Forget Everest! Everest is ugly. Nuptse’s where it’s at.”
And it is. It’s our first time in the Himalayas, our first time among truly high mountains, and these peaks that loom above us are, almost all of them, taller than the highest peaks on any other continent.
I’d like to get to know them, to know their myriad faces, but that’s something that takes months, not weeks.
We arrive at the group of lodges around an empty glacier lake that make up Gorak Shep in time for a late lunch but too early for the brazier. Bugger!
They have an absolutely fabulous cabinet of books, though. Which retains its fabulousness, I learn, because they lost the key some time ago. Around 2008, judging by the vintage of the magazines. Great.
I am, by now, so desperate for reading material that it occurs to me to ask them for some bolt-cutters.
Further Kala Patthar is absolutely obscured by cloud, which means there’s no point us going up the bloody thing now because we won’t be able to see anything. Nor do we have enough time to both eat and tag Everest Base Camp.
I zip up my down jacket, pull my hat down over my ears, my inner snood over my nose and my warmer snood over my mouth, and contemplate whether I need to add a pair of glove liners as well, or whether that would be overkill, given we are, at least in theory, actually indoors.
In his red and black down jacket with the hood up, Zac is the spit of Kenny from South Park.
But he has his Kobo. It’s too cold for my Mac battery to even register electric current, let alone charge, so I fall on a September edition of Grazia like a drowning woman. It doesn’t last.
“When do they put the fire on?” I ask Nir, who has emerged from the kitchen where he’s been warming himself by the hob.
“Five,” he says. “I ask already.”
Zac has pulled a chair up to the brazier to mark his spot for when the yak dung goes on the fire, to the amusement of the Sherpas. Smart lad.
Even with the extra layers I’ve forced on him, Nir still looks under-clad. “How cold is it in here?” I ask.
“Minus fifteen, maybe?” he says. We’re at 5140 metres (16,860 feet) here, which means the cold feels colder because there’s only a little over half the oxygen in the air here that there is at sea level and our bodies need to work that much harder to stay warm.
“Mm,” I say. We are, indeed, indoors, as becomes clear when some absolute sociopath fails to completely shut the door that connects the “warm” room to the rest of the place and a vicious Himalayan draught screeches straight down the back of my neck.
I go for a pee, and the temperature of the metal can I use to bash through the ice on the flushing water and then flush freezes my hands so much I have to put them in my armpits to warm up, stinging my hands and chilling my core.
“So,” Nir says diplomatically, as I sit huddled, wondering how many layers I’d have to put over my face before my breath stops making steam and hoping to god that two heavy feather quilts over our -30 rated fake sleeping bags will work tonight. “How many nights we spend in Gorak Shep?”
I give him the death stare.
“Two,” I say. “Definitely two. We need to get the view from Kala Patthar. That’s the whole point of this trek. And at the moment there’s nothing to see.”
If you’re thinking of doing the Everest Base Camp trek, I recommend my Everest Base Camp FAQs.