Everest Base Camp: The Highlights, Part Two

If the first few days of the EBC was filled with energetic invincibility, reality took over in the second half of the climb. The mountains have a way of making a person feel small and inconsequential, while instilling a deep respect and awe. They stand as sentinels to a place few have ventured into, and many do not survive. They are indifferent – the earth continues to rotate, and only the mightiest of earth’s movements alter them in the slightest. During the second half of the climb, the wonder at these towering peaks and the harsh beauty of a different landscape settled in. As did the weariness, the aches, and the altitude. 

Shudder at the thought

  Tangboche Village in the clouds
Tangboche in the clouds

Can a highlight evoke a shudder? That’s what Tangboche does, but it’s a mixed bag. Though we entered Tangboche in a cold mist and left it in a steady drizzle, and our entire time in this small village was spent in damp and cold, it also had an otherworldly feel. You knew enormous whitecapped mountains were entirely blocked from view by this veil of mist. Walking in these clouds reminded me of the Inca Trail in Peru, a half a world away. You never knew when a soaring peak would suddenly peak through.

  The monastery at Tangboche
The monastery at Tangboche

We headed to the monastery, the largest building in the village. Sitting on the cold, hard floor of the temple, elbow-to-elbow, knee-to-knee, with hundreds of other trekkers, I tried to stay still. But eventually, as with most in the room, muscles start stiffening and aching, and the shifting begins, though a new position is comfortable only for a few minutes before its necessary to move again. Through it all, a single monk, sitting on a slightly raised platform, chanted his mantras in a language none of us understood, yet all were mesmerized by. Looking around, a surreal sense came over me. So many people were sitting in this room, here for so many different reasons… this room full of strangers, aching and cold, who all chose to come sit on this hard floor in this temple in the clouds, making it a part of each respective journey, each set of memories.

 

  Hot chocolate at Tangboche
Hot chocolate at Tangboche

Tangboche was also where my sniffling started. I had been warned that everyone gets sick. I assumed that meant altitude sickness – well, there’s that too. But it’s colds – coughing, sneezing, headaches, achiness – the common cold thrives on the trek. I could have paid for my newly acquired addiction to honey lattes by auctioning off DayQuil and NyQuil had I brought enough. By the time we hit Dingboche, it had come on full force – I had waves of heat and cold washing over me, and I called it an early night, drank a cup of honey lemon ginger tea, took a couple of NyQuil pills, and buried myself under blankets. But Tangboche had amazing hot chocolate. Nothing beats amazing hot chocolate.

 

  On the return trip. It's amazing how the mountains can be so close, yet invisible. (And yes, that's me.)
Re-entering Tangboche on our return.

It’s amazing how the mountains can be so close, yet invisible. (And yes, that’s me.)   The clouds and mist shifting around the mountains, giving only glimpses and guesses. The contrast between dark and foreboding and the bright and dazzling that came the next day gave my eyes whiplash.  The clouds and mist shifting around the mountains, giving only glimpses and guesses. The contrast between dark and foreboding and the bright and dazzling that came the next day gave my eyes whiplash.

 

The clarity of Dingboche

  Walking into Dingboche, the clouds hanging low.
Walking into Dingboche, with the clouds hanging low.

Dingboche is the place I saw color and light in a completely different way. We entered Dingboche in the clouds, but the next morning dawned bright and clear. I have never experienced such blinding light combined with such vibrant colors. The stupas and prayer flags on ridges above the village, with Ama Dablam looming overhead – there was no place like this. The world was dazzling, almost painful to take in – sunglasses were a must (they also helped against the pervasive dust).

 

  Dingboche the following morning, full of dazzling sun.
Dingboche in the dazzling sunlight
  Acclimatization hike above Dingboche
Acclimatization hike above Dingboche.
  Chocolate cake, honey lattes, and writing - part of my arsenal to fend off the head cold!
Chocolate cake, honey lattes, and writing – part of my arsenal to fend off the head cold!

Not much more than a stone’s throw from our teahouse was an amazing little bakery, with bright windows, lots of light, and sweeping vistas. Nursing my cold, I claimed a window table, sipped on hot drinks and wrote for a few hours, and started to feel a bit normal again. Until, of course, I would look up and the full reality of where I was hit me full force. I was really here. Sniffling, maybe, but here.

The memorials at Dughla Pass

The most sobering and somber part of the trek is at the pass near Lobuche. Monuments dot the pass and line the ridge; prayer flags flap in the breeze. These memorials are to the climbers and sherpas lost to Everest, those who never came back from the mountain. I walk around, quietly, away from the others, reading the inscriptions, and contemplating what drives humans to such extremes? For those memorialized here, what happened up on that mountain? Did they know they would never leave it? I shudder at the thought, and yet am in awe of the drive, the bravery, the determination that led them to the top of the world.

  The monuments and memorials at the Pass ~ notice how they dot the ridgeline. 
The monuments and memorials at the pass ~ notice how they dot the ridgeline.

The final stretch

  Afternoon acclimatization hike at Lobuche; looking down on Khumbu Glacier.
Afternoon acclimatization hike at Lobuche, looking down on Khumbu Glacier.

Himalayan Flat. The up-and-down, up-and-down. The knowing that you will gain elevation on the day’s trek, and the sinking feeling that comes with every descent, knowing it’s ground that will need to be made up. Above Dingboche, it is all rock, and dust, impossibly blue sky and blinding white snowy peaks. For three days – two ascending, one descending – this is the landscape.

  Up and down... and someone always walks through a photo! 
Up and down… and someone always walks through a photo!

There isn’t a good view of Mount Everest from Everest Base Camp – the best views are from the trail as it approaches (or Kala Patthar, if you can manage it), and even then, it’s the peak poking up between the two closer mountains. Those attempting to summit climb in spring, making autumn treks to Base Camp almost eerily quiet. The field of colorful tents is gone, and no one stays for any length of time. All are just there for a short while, to take photos and convince themselves they really are here. Only prayer flags, rock cairns, and a sign remain. Despite the chatter of other EBC trekkers, it is almost eerily quiet. Instead of the mountains echoing the noise, sound is instead lost in the enormity.

  Looking down on Base Camp - can you spot the string of trekkers? I love the perspective in this.
Looking down on Base Camp ~ can you spot the string of trekkers making their way across the glacier? I love this perspective!

Walking into that basin, down onto Khumbu Glacier – picking my altitude-laden body that doesn’t want to cooperate over rocks and the occasional icy patch – is surreal. Three things surround you: rock, snow, and sky. Even loads of people get lost in the vastness. (I love the “Where’s Waldo?” photos – there are people in this one, can you find them??)

 

Off in the distance, we heard it – the distant thunder, muted in such an enormous landscape, but still audible. An avalanche, somewhere up in those peaks. We heard three – and managed to spot one of them. If there is nothing else that can bring on total silence, the sight and sound of an avalanche in those peaks will do it. The power, the complete release, nature’s disregard for anything in its path. And I’m simultaneously grateful that we are not closer, but that we are witness to it.

Altitude Sickness

While the final approach started off in high spirits – maybe it was lack of oxygen, or too many cold medications – the euphoria burned off after Gorak Shep. In fact, it burned off right about the same time Base Camp came into view. Altitude hit me like a freight train. Every step became more difficult than the previous. I was forcing myself into long breaths, but my chest was feeling tighter. My whole body seemed to be in slow motion. I had to focus on my thoughts, and then on forming words. And the exhaustion… suddenly, the thought of having to walk back to Gorak Shep, the hour plus it takes to get back suddenly made me want to cry. (I did cry. A lot. But more out of being completely overwhelmed by it all than anything else.)

  Leaving Gorak Shep behind, we begin the descent. With, of course, the ascent out of Gorak Shep. Himalayan Flat.  Leaving Gorak Shep behind, we begin the descent. With, of course, the ascent out of Gorak Shep. Himalayan Flat.

Within a few hours of returning to Gorak Shep, things were taking a turn for the worse. Neither Tim (my reliable travel partner) nor I could get warmed up – my teeth and jaws were literally clattering from the cold – and oxygen levels were plummeting. I was still in the mid-to-upper 60s, but his was headed to the low 60s. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and the nagging headache common to most trekkers was now full blown. I was fortunate in that I could still force myself to eat and drink, and I could still form coherent words and sentences. Early the next morning, Nema, our head guide, knocked to say that a fellow trekker had worsened in the night. He would be sending a guide with him, to leave as soon as possible. Nema would wait for the others, and depart in an hour or two. Not seeing any point in waiting, we packed our bags and joined guide and our struggling companion. The earlier the start, the better.

  Walking through the sunny valley to Pheriche. Even with the constant wind, the sun and the oxygen were a relief.
Walking through the sunny valley to Pheriche was like walking into an oxygen bar.

Conditions improved almost immediately. Energy came back with the oxygen, and we practically raced down to Pheriche. Walking along the river, crossing that seemingly endless valley, felt like walking through a sun-filled oxygen bar. I slept hard and well that night.

The biggest downside was not making it up Kala Patthar. But we achieved our main goal: EBC. I’d love to go back some day – take the Gokyo Lakes route, check out Ama Dablam base camp. I did my research going in, and felt far more prepared than many we came across (and far less so than the more experienced trekkers). But for the first time doing something like this, I was proud of myself. I held up remarkably well. But then, you do still have to get down…

What goes up… 

“Himalayan Flat”

 

  The descent to Pheriche (at the far end of the valley)
The descent to Pheriche, at the far end of the valley.

I dreaded the downhill, and begged forgiveness from my knees for this crazy adventure before we even began our descent. I knew they’d be a problem. Bad knees run in the family as it is. I came as prepared as I could, but I knew there would be pain regardless – it was only a matter of degree. Compression knee braces on both knees, using trekking poles, and lightening my load as much as possible, plus doubling down on the marshmallow root and drinking as much water as I could. But that descent from Namche was excruciating – I was in tears at the bottom. I struggled on – and amazingly enough, each night, the joints repaired themselves, feeling new each morning. I was relieved they were recovering so quickly. Still, I kept it slow – I had to. There were bouts of shame and embarrassment – I put sunglasses on to hide the tears, put headphones in to avoid conversation, and tried to focus on each step bringing me closer to rest. I kept telling myself there is no choice, keep going, keep moving, however you have to. Because really, that’s the only option. One foot in front of the other.

  A toast to success! Himalayan Red and Khumbu Kolsch from Sherpa Brewery - Nepal's only microbrewery.
A toast to success! Himalayan Red and Khumbu Kolsch from Sherpa Brewery – Nepal’s only microbrewery (as of this writing.)

The sight of the final uphill into Lukla and the arch marking the trail’s entrance brought tears to my eyes. Not only because it wasn’t downhill, but that we’d made it. We had returned. That evening in Lukla, we toasted the trek, and whatever crazy idea brought it into our heads in the first place. We did it!

And it was worth it.

Curiosity piqued? Next week’s post will be a brain dump of all the tips, tricks, hints, and every piece of advice I can glean from my experience – so if you decide to go for it, you’ll be armed with that much more to make the trip a successful and memorable one!

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