I was dragging my feet with each single step. I didn’t think it was possible but each step felt heavier and heavier. I carried a light pack with water and medicine leaving the rest of my expedition bag back in the guesthouse. The light pack on my back felt like a ton of bricks. I was breathing heavily which was understandable hiking at over 5,000m. I was running out of energy and base camp seemed so close yet so far away. My lungs were burning and I could not see anyone else around me. It was just me and the trail in the remote Himalayas. I was determined to make it one way or another.
The path to Everest Base Camp (EBC) was long and grueling. The first leg of the trek was from Lobuche (4,877m) to Gorak Shep (5,170m). This part crossed the elevation of 5,000m and it was composed of many ascents and descents. Since Pako the Spaniard changed his mind and decided to try to reach Gorak Shep once again, we walked together with the intent on seeing EBC and Kala Pattar the next day. After walking through a beautiful valley surrounded by snow capped peaks, we climbed steeply up to a hill before making many more descents and ascents. Two hours later, we reached the point in the trail where Pako got lost. When he attempted to reach Gorak Shep yesterday, he followed the cairns which led him past prayer flags to a western hill. My intuition when we encountered the area was that Gorak Shep was still north and we should not be crossing the flags. I believed the cairns were meant for luck and not as a marker for the trail. I was proven right after spotting a trail continuing downhill that could be easily missed. Thirty minutes after continuing on the path we arrived at Gorak Shep. The hike took a little bit more than two and a half hours and I was exhausted. However, after only an hour of rest and an omelet, we took-off for the final destination Everest Base Camp (5,475m).
It took us about two hours to reach base camp from Gorak Shep. As we approached the camp, we were surrounded by glaciers. The Maltese couple’s guide was throwing stones at some of the ice supporting our path to ensure they were stable. Many people are surprised to hear there are actually no views of the peaks of Everest from base camp. I knew ahead of time and since it was February I expected no climbers to be there either. While EBC would normally be busy with tons of climbers, sherpas and porters buzzing around the numerous tents, it was absolutely deserted when we arrived. Only prayer flags and cairns marked the spot as base camp. There was also a big rock marking the EBC altitude. At the suggestion of my friend Jill, I brought prayer flags and hung them up with the others. After snapping a few pictures and videos, it was time to turn around and head back.
Getting to base camp from Gorak Shep was one of the most difficult objectives in my life. I was so exhausted I didn’t know if I had enough energy to make it back to Gorak Shep. I couldn’t believe it at the time but it only took one and half hour to make it back. At that point my body was spent. I had been hiking for six hours at high altitude and it was the toughest and most physically demanding day of the whole trek. One of two primary objectives of the trek was accomplished.
Pako and I set off for Kala Pattar at 6:30am the next morning. Some people recommended a 4am start but we figured that would be too early since there wouldn’t be any light out and we would still be too tired. Some guides told us it would take two and half hours to summit and one and half hours to descend. Both of us intended to descend as far down the trail as we could after Kala Pattar so it was going to be another big day.
The trail up Kala Pattar was tough. Since Pako was better acclimatized and in better shape he quickly outpaced ahead of me while I took it easier. At that altitude I struggled to take ten steps without pausing to catch my breath. After forty five minutes of climbing the path leveled off before climbing towards the summit. After one and half hours I was nearly at the summit but I noticed that Pako had already started running down. I knew why he was running down because it was very cold and my fingers were numb with frozenness. I could not feel my fingers and toes no matter how I try to warm them up. In fact, I was starting to fear getting frostbite. When Pako and I crossed path, he told me how cold he felt and how he couldn’t even get his gloves off to operate his camera. At that point I made the executive decision to grab a few pictures from where I was and descend as well. I was only 50m away from the summit but felt I was close enough to my target. I hung my camera around Pako’s hand and asked him to press the button to snap one of me with Everest. We then ran down the trail quickly clapping our hands the whole way in an attempt to warm them up. Thirty minutes later we regained our feelings in our fingers and toes back in the warmth of the lodge.
After an hour rest in Gorak Shep, I started the descent portion of the EBC. We left Gorak Shep at 10AM and made Lobuche by noon. We didn’t stop in Lobuche and instead continued arriving in Pheriche at 2 pm. March was quickly approaching and we noticed more trekking groups led by sherpas followed by a team of porters. In fact, the manager at Phunki Tenga lodge indicated the numerous yaks were hauling up expedition gear for the coming season.
At the Nagarkot Hotel in Pheriche, I had tea and asked the manager about Aaron, Succi and Caroline. He indicated Aaron stopped for lunch but continued on to Namche. Succi (the Irish couple’s guide) stopped in as well but also left for Namche. Caroline also started her descent two days ago. I decided to stay the night at the Khumbu Lodge since it was warmer and Pako continued on to Pangboche. We made plans to meet-up in Namche the next day.
I was the only guest in the Khumbu Lodge so I had an early night. Taking off at 7:45am I made Pangboche in one and half hour. It then took a rough one and half hour to reach Tengboche due to the steep uphill stone steps. After a five minute breather at Tengboche I started the 700m descent to Phunki Tenga. It took us two hours to climb this stretch on the way up but only forty-five minutes on the way down. I noticed a few lodges that were previously closed had now opened. I also encountered two groups of 8-10 trekkers on the way up with their guides and porters,
There was a 300m ascent on switchbacks and moderately slanted path before leveling off on the way to Namche. The level path to Namche contouring around the mountain hills took longer than I expected to complete. I kept expecting to see Namche around the corner but would instead see more hills and more of the path. In the afternoon, the winds picked up swirling the dust. I lost my sunglasses earlier in the day close to Orsho so I wasn’t wearing any eye protection. Instead, I took out my ski goggles and together with my neck warmer it made good sand protection. I finally arrived in Namche at 2pm after six hours and fifteen minutes.
After meeting up, Aaron and I went to the bakery where I had a well deserved latte and apple pie. We ran into Lynds and Cath, the two English girls we met in Shomare. Caroline, Pako and the two Israelis who were on our flight to Lukla joined us as well. We wondered what happened to the two guys and it was good to catch-up with them. They both looked much skinnier and had done a tough seven hour descent from Gokyo to Namche. All of us caught up over dinner at the Buddha Lodge and it was a very festive atmosphere. Aaron told us the story of Michel and Caroline. Pako discussed the Basque identity and situation. Aaron and I talked about our country. We were excited about getting to Lukla the next day and Kathmandu the day after for a warm shower.
After goodbyes to Pako and Caroline, Aaron and made for Lukla. We got to Jorsale within one hour. We then ran into Lynds and Cath on the trail before getting to Phakding for lunch at noon. Aaron and I had been dreaming about the momos we had there on the way up so we decided to stop there. However, the woman that made it wasn’t there and the restaurant wasn’t open. There was a man playing chess and Aaron asked if he would be able to make us vegetable momos after the game so we waited. While the momos were being cooked, I played a few games of chess first with Aaron and then the town champion. After a second serving, we got the bill and were surprised to see it came to 800 NRs! Looking back, we should have confirmed the price before assuming it was 150NRs like last time. Nonetheless, we had some good momos and a few entertaining games of chess even though we got fleeced out of a couple hundred rupees.
We left Phakding at 1:30pm and it took us two hours to reach Lukla. The air grew smoky due to the nearby forest fire. It felt like we were walking towards the fire and I once again used the ski goggles and neck warmer to filter out the dust and ash. We tried to find Angalou the cousin of the man we helped with supplies from Kathmandu to no avail. We spent the rest of the day watching TV and eating lots of daal bhat at the Mera Lodge.
Aaron and I checked-in at the airport at 6:45am. We waited anxiously for the plane but it was delayed. After a while, we went to the nearby Himalayan Lodge for tea and snacks. There we met-up with Lynds and Cath, Charlie and Julie, and the two Israelis. We had a false alarm at 10:30am when Aaron thought he the planes were approaching since a lot of workers were congregating at the airport. We rushed outside to see if we could catch the planes coming in but they never showed up. In the afternoon while we played cards and some people sulked, the news came that all flights that day was cancelled due to high wind in the valley.
We tried to make the best of the day. We played some poker, had a few celebratory beers and relaxed in each others’ company. All of us hoped this would be our last night in Lukla and the flights the next day would not be cancelled.
The same check-in process was repeated. There was a delay once again and it made us antsy. However, at around 8am we heard the planes approaching. Four planes landed within the span of five minutes and quickly unloaded. Once passengers and luggage were loaded up all the planes quickly took off under the tight condition window. We were flying back to Kathmandu.
If I thought the landing was crazy, the takeoff was quite heart pumping as well. Due to the short runway the plane did not have a lot of time to get liftoff. Additionally the runway was steeply sloped down so the taxi down the runway got your heart pumping because you weren’t quite sure if we were going to lift off the ground and fly or fall down the gorge at the end of the runway! The flight was very bumpy and it pitched and yawed uncomfortably during the ride. The man to the right of me clutched the seat of front of him tightly showing white knuckles. He also prayed and swore under his breath. He looked over at me a few times but I wasn’t really helping his situation since I was laughing maniacally enjoying the flight which resembled a roller coaster ride (without the loops). Julie later said a woman screamed during her flight and cried when the plane landed. By 10am, I arrived back at the Kathmandu Guest House and had a well needed shower, the first in thirteen days. The mission to Everest was accomplished!
Roadhouse Café pizza and chocolate brownie was the perfect celebratory dinner. The fine company of the group (Aaron, Aoife and Noel, Lynds and Cath, Julie and Charlie, and the two Israelis) also enhanced the occasion. It was great to see everyone in good spirits cleaned up with fresh clothes back in Kathmandu. I even went to a barber to get a haircut and trimmed my beard down to a Conquistador-style moustache. This would be our last group get together before people started heading off different ways. It never ceases to amaze me how easy it can be to connect with people from all over the world and with different backgrounds. Doing the EBC trek in low season greatly facilitated the sense of community since there were so few hikers on the trail and you would keep running into the same people. Not long after being back in the warmth and comforts of Kathmandu, I started missing the trail. I missed the routine, the physical challenge and exhaustion, and the sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. I missed seeing the millions of stars in the clear night sky. There were so many and they felt so close as if you could reach up and touch them. Most of all, I missed the quietness and the savage beauty of the Himalayas.