|Pumori rising: The mist lifts to reveal spectacular Pumori Peak high above the ridge on the way to Gorek Shep and Base Camp.
Thursday, Oct. 21 – Morning
Many years ago, Meenakshi and I climbed Mt. Jefferson in New Hampshire. We had only known each other for a little while, had just started properly dating, and had only climbed one mountain before – Mt. Lafayette on a picture perfect blue-bird day.
Mt. Jefferson was different. It was summer but the weather was terrible – real hypothermia inducing raw weather. I had not led many climbs before this one, and I guess I was showing off a little, or trying to.
We reached tree-line and the wind and rain came at us like a freight train; sideways and relentless. But we had Gor-tex and we pushed on. It got cold, then colder, then more windy. We tagged the summit in howling rain and near zero visibility and decided to descend down a different trail, called The Link, because we were too afraid of backtracking down the steep and, in this weather, dangerous, Caps Ridge Trail.
It was hell – eroded roots, crumbling dirt, washed out rocks and near vertical drops. There were times when we had to swing from tree branch to tree branch to avoid pitching down the slope. And all through this, the rain and cold continued. To call it a character builder would be generous. By the end we were sniping at each other, soaking wet and just about as exhausted as we’ve ever been on a hike.
It was a hike and a route that, ten years later, I would not do, alone or with anyone. Today, if faced with those conditions, I would turn back.
But we did it, and later, after our muscles and egos healed we joked about it. It became a Story in our lives, a mutual experience that despite the difficulty did not push as apart, but drew us together.
It’s a hike that serves as a way-marker in our adventures.
“Well,” we say, “at least it’s not as hard as Mt. Jefferson.” And we laugh.
I think of this story on the morning of our attempt to reach Everest Base Camp because I need to draw on the memory for strength. I am alone, and I am uneasy.
We had made a mutual decision on the 9th day of our trek to split up, breaking the first rule of climbing. I had agonized over that call since the evening before as Meenakshi and I discussed our strategy for the next morning.
|Lost in time: A lone Yak sleeps on his feet in front of two useless solar heaters. This is the weather we faced on the morning of our Base Camp attempt.
The facts were plain: if we did not get to Gorek Shep by 9-9:30am, we may very well have found ourselves, at best, sleeping on a cold floor, or, at worst, having to turn around and go all the way back to Loboche.
Our chances of successfully reaching the summit of Kala Patthar rested on us getting to Base Camp today, and having enough time to recover and prepare, in order to tackle Kala tomorrow.
We were both beat, but Meenakshi had more left in her gas tank than I. She carried less in her pack, and we both knew that she could get there faster than me, likely by 45 minutes or more.
So, before 6 a.m., we passed on breakfast, gobbled down piles of crackers and cheese and stepped outside into the snow and haze to begin the trek to our final town. Just outside of Loboche, as the valley trail headed into the Khumbu toward Everest, I went over last minute instructions. Don’t be afraid to use the map or ask for directions. You’re going to be moving faster than you’re used to so drink more water than you normally would. Take breaks. Then I kissed her, and she moved off into the mist.
It’s an interesting feeling, terror mixing with pride. She was so strong, and we’d been doing this sort of thing for so long. I knew in my heart that this was the right decision for the moment. But watching the mist swallow Meenakshi, and then setting out alone, was one of the most difficult moments of the trip.
The trail to Gorek Shep is straightforward enough – I hug the inner valley of the Khumbu Glacier for the first few miles, pass by the Italian Research Center we had reached the day before, climb up to the moraine level of the Khumbu, then it got tricky. Three glaciers, the Khumbu, and the Changri Shar and the Changri Nup, all converge in a giant three-way intersection right before the village and right at the base of Kala Patthar. The final mile is up and down over this three-way glacier headwall at 17,000 feet.
I am relieved to discover that the trail is well worn. It would be nearly impossible for me, short of a mental breakdown, to miss and take a wrong turn. Plus, after about 30 minutes I am virtually surrounded by trekkers, both going up and coming down. All through the morning trek I’m distracted by mental calculations of where she might be. I imagine what the terrain may have looked like 30 minutes, 45 minutes, one hour before I set foot here. Did she have a hard time finding the trail?
The morning is full of snow and mist. After the cut off to the research center, I move up and around a slight rise to a long wide rocky flat area a half mile long that seems to shoot straight up a crumbly hill that I assume is the beginning of the glacier intersection.
|The mist lifts: Above, the moment of Pumori’s rising is awesome. Below, looking back on the Khumbu Valley from the top of the three-way glacier intersection.
Then, something happens. I begin to see ridges through the mist, high at first then lower down. Slivers of blue begin to peek around corners and long bands of sun punch through the clouds like lasers highlighting strips on the ground here and there.
I stop to gulp down some water and catch my breath and as I stand there the remaining mist lifts like a miracle and Pumori reveals itself above the ridge, a towering, impossible apparition.
It is awesome and startling – 6,000 feet of Pumori’s perfectly shaped triangular summit cone floats above the ridge, above the clouds. The trekkers around me stop and stare. We all stare. There is no sound. We are less than five miles from this 25,000 foot mountain and it is perfect. It is astounding.
Pumori, Everest’s Daughter, rising up like that out of the mist will become my defining moment of this trip, the single second of overwhelming smallness and humility that surges up my spine. I have never seen anything like it. I can’t imagine ever seeing anything like it again.
I shake off my terror and awe and start taking pictures, praying that Meenakshi is someplace where she can see this, where we can be apart yet share this experience later.
The final climb up to the glacier intersection takes an hour, and I move slowly, zig zagging up the rise like my legs are filled with lead. I’m bolstered by the magnet of Pumori, and every step pulls me closer to its gravity.
At the top of the rise, I see the Khumbu Glacier, and the giant Changris pouring down from either side of Changri Peak, pouring down from Tibet. I begin the rocky, and daunting final pull over the three moraines and it’s hard going both because I can feel the altitude like invisible claws digging into my calves and pushing on my shoulders, but also because the trail here is hard. The moraines are rocks and rubble and the trail tries to hug the outside edge of the ridge closest to the Khumbu, but sometimes it darts down to a run-off before climbing back to the outside.
|Beyond belief: As we approach Gorek Shep over the glacier moraines, the glacier comes into full view and the surroundings become difficult to comprehend.
I stop many times to take pictures and to suck wind. But I am surrounded by massive peaks, long flowing glaciers and sky so blue it seems over saturated. How can sky be this blue, I think? My brain tries to get around my surroundings, but it’s some kind of visual overload. There is nothing in my memory to hold on to, to put what I’m seeing in context and I feel like a cup that is overflowing.
I have to shake my head. I stand at a turn in the trail overlooking the glacier and shout “Phew!” and “Wow!” Saying what I’m thinking seems to take the edge off and I settle my head and move on.
After a few more twists and turns and ups and downs, just when I think I can stand the uncertainty no more I see Gorek Shep and my heart soars. I want to run down to this unreal place, this last outpost that seems like it’s at the end of the universe.
Gorek Shep, the original Base Camp. The place where Mallory and Hillary lived as they prepared for Everest. Gorek Shep is a collection of stone and tin huts, pointed this way and that at the foot of a dry glacier lake bed at nearly 17,000 feet.
The name means Dead Ravens, and I laugh out loud as I trot down a slight hill into town.
Meenakshi is waiting for me outside, near the edge of town, and I feel delirious relief and happiness in seeing her and in being here, near the end of our journey, finally.
We embrace and she’s all grins. It’s 10 a.m. She had beaten me to town by nearly an hour, in part by keeping pace with a group of Australian boys. Leave it to Meena’s competitive nature to propel her. She managed to book the last open space in town, two side by side bunks in a dorm style bunk room. My pride in her accomplishment is nearly overshadowed by how tired I feel.
|In the shadow of greatness: Above, Kala Patthar seems small under the enormous Pumori Peak. Below, our first views of Gorek Shep, which means Dead Ravens.
I dump my gear, break out my down pants and jacket and we scramble inside the lodge to grab lunch and prepare for an afternoon trek to Base Camp.
The sun is out, but it’s cold here, and the lodge stove is not fired up yet, so we find a corner and squeeze together in the sun over grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. We’re tired and our stomachs are queasy, but our plan is solid. The weather is holding, and we have the whole afternoon.
Base Camp is three long miles away and 700 more feet above us, but this is our chance. If we manage to get there today, we get a shot at Kala Patthar tomorrow.
From where we sit, Kala looks much, much taller than it did hours earlier in the shadow of Pumori. It’s a giant brown mound of rock and dirk, 1,500 feet straight up. I take my sunglasses off and look up at this mountain that we have struggled and sacrificed the past year to reach. It is a tower of menace, a high, frightening lump of ice, a giant ominous wedding cakes, complete with three climbing tiers and a triple summit that will challenge us tomorrow. I turn away. I need to focus now on Base Camp. One challenge at a time.
We lay out our bags and prepare our bunks for our return, not knowing exactly when that return will be. In our day-packs we carry water, headlamps, one extra layer and some first aid and emergency supplies. I carry Cindy’s Memory Flag rolled up in my jacket. We check our batteries, shove some extras in my jacket pocket and we are on our way.
First we must walk over the dry glacier lake bed, a place with a insane sporting history. It is the site of the annual Everest Marathon, the highest marathon in the world – from Gorek Shep to Namche. No, seriously, there is an annual Everest Marathon. Here’s the link: http://www.everestmarathon.org.uk/
Also, for a former lake bed, the area is surprisingly flat and devoid of any rocks or stones. That’s because in 2009, it was also the site of the highest field sporting event in the world, a cricket match between two British 11-person teams. An advance team of locals painstakingly clear the area of rocks and debris so the playing area could be flat and the pitch set up.
We move through this surreal landscape, and gain a small rise that will send us up and over the flat lake bed and onto the spine of the Khumbu, a rocky ridge that will run for nearly three miles to Base Camp.
It is noon. We pause at a sign that announces Way to Mt. Everest Base Camp. We both pose for a picture and my head is swimming.
We’re here. This is it. Here we go.
Go time: The intimidating trail head to Base Camp!
Join us next week on the trail to Base Camp, where we face down altitude sickness, snow and the oncoming night to reach our first goal! Next week, Feb. 17, we go for Base Camp!
Until then, check out this week’s full picture catalog at: