The Tibetans call it ‘Chomolungma’, Nepalis ‘Sagarmatha’, and us Westerners ‘Mt. Everest’. Whatever you call it, it’s massive and the highest mountain in the world at 29,035′. (By the way, the guy that initially measured its height was an Indian surveyor who’s name is actually pronounced “Ee-verest”. Interesting, huh?). It’s been amazing and attracting people from all over the world since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first summitted it in May 1953. Like the rest of ’em, I felt I had to see it and the surrounding mountains that make up the Solukhumbu region of eastern Nepal. Last week, I finally did. That’s me standing in front of it (it’s the grey/black peak with the clouds on it’s summit over my right – your left.. – shoulder). And it was awesome.
Leaving friends, food poisoning and the festivities of Tihar behind in Pokhara, I took a bus back to Kathmandu to gather some new cold weather gear and final prep for another stint in the Himalaya. I then took a 9-hour bus, which averaged 35 mph for several hours through the twists and turns of the countryside, to a little not-so-pretty town in northeastern Nepal called Jiri. While most people that trek in the Solukhumbu region elect to fly into Lukla, just a days hike from the beginning of the high altitude mountain scenery, I decided I’d do it the old fashioned way, hiking in the long way – from the West. I was feeling hardcore for some reason and was particularly interested in following the original route that Hillary and the early expeditions took from Kathmandu – all on the ground for miles and miles and miles – before there was an airport that could deposit you right into the thick of the action.
While I’m happy with the decision now, I quickly learned why so many wanted an airport in the middle. Rather than establish a trail that follows a winding path through river valleys, the Nepalis opted for the ‘shortest distance b/w two points is a straight line’ approach – that bisects ridges and valleys rather than following their natural curves at low elevation. After starting out at 7,200′ in Jiri, for five grueling days, I’d hike up to the top of one ridge (barely glimpsing a teeny piece of a peak in the distance) only to descend back down into the forest of the valley on the other side, repeating that same routine day after day. It was direct but was f-ing hard! By the time I reached the town w/ the airport at just 8,100′, where fresh-faced trekkers joined the path, I’d done some 25,000′ of climbing, nearly the height of Everest itself. But, because of all of the descending I’d done as well, I’d only really gained about 900′ in total.
But I was truly glad I’d done it. The work made the scenery that came later that much sweeter. A total reward. And I’d gotten back into shape after the illness in Pokhara and had spent 5 amazing days in relatively un-touristed and very beautiful countryside. I felt like I had the scenery and people to myself, usually the only tourist around the fire in the kitchen with the families that ran the place each night, eating and chatting with them. In those 5 days, I saw 19 tourists in total. In the first hour after joining the ‘on-ramp’ that connected my trail with the flow from the town with the airport, I counted 31. And all were heading in the opposite direction – back to the airport. Season was coming to an end and all were heading back to the warmth of Kathmandu. I’d learn that things were getting mighty cold up in them thar mountains. Good news for quiet trekking but bad news for physical comfort..
The next day, the trail climbed up to over 11,000′ and the town of Namche Bazaar, made famous by Everest expeditions and films over the years. At this point, I left the relative lowlands, forests, raging rivers, farms and green behind and entered a new alpine world. Again, as I climbed higher and higher each day, the signs of life diminished. With altitude, the number and diversity of wildlife is quickly diminished, allowing only the most hearty species to survive. Green became pine trees and juniper trees. Juniper trees became low-lying juniper bushes and grass became lichen, all drying out and preparing for a long cold winter under snow. Eventually, as I climbed above 17,000′ or so, I was left with little more than snow, ice, rock and rock sand pulverized into powder by glaciers in the area. It was the closest I think I’ll ever bee to experiencing life on the moon. Again, the words that come to mind are stark, harsh, and beauty.
As I traveled east on the trail, the land became inhabited mainly by Sherpa people, the group of Nepalis that most Westernerns associate with the area. Sherpa is an ethnicity, not a job like porter or guide as some people assume. Sherpa means “Easterner” as Sherpa are originally from Tibet, having migrated to settle in Eastern Nepal. They’re very friendly people mostly with amazing calm and sunny dispositions, again influenced, I assume, by the environment and their philosophy, Buddhism.
I really enjoyed being around them and found myself again in complete awe of the physical feats I regularly saw executed. Many Sherpa make a living as porters, carrying MASSIVE loads on their little frames from village to village. I heard tales from a few big Western guys who asked to try the loads on for size, only to be humbled when they could barely even lift them off the ground, let alone carry them on their backs for miles and miles. They’re obviously well suited to the area and for that reason have become famous for their heartiness and usefullness on high altitude expeditions in the area. I met a few who’d made successful summit bids on Everest and all were humble about the amazing feat, answering all of my questions and amazing me with explanations of the logistics involved. It takes something like 100 Nepalis just to get enough gear to Everest Base Camp to support the needs of just 8 climbers. And another 25 or so to support them from there on up. And ~$60,000 each in permit fees and associated costs. Makes you wonder why the hell anyone would want to do it but hundreds do every year. And some die every year as well. Not exactly light and fast climbing but it has an allure for some that will bring them back year after year to get on top. I was plenty content with a view from the bottom..
This trek was quite a bit different than Annapurna for a few reasons. For one, most of the trek has you at significant altitude – above 13,000′. With that altitude comes the need to acclimatize regularly, and, a need to keep your daily gains at or below about 1300′. The gung-ho distances and speeds of lowland hiking go away as you must work with your body to develop the ability to hold more oxygen as it gets less and less concentrated in the atmosphere. So, while your mind may want to go go go, you have to take it easy and settle for shorter days hiking and longer days spent around lodges, waiting for the next days hike.
It’s also freaking cold at high altitude, especially as Fall becomes Winter. When the sun sets behind the Western mountains at about 3:30 in the afternoon, it immediately comes bitter cold, like shutting off the heater in a room in Winter. At that point, you spend the rest of the afternoon and evening sitting nearly on top of the yak dung-burning stove found in the common room of every lodge in the area. I spent lots and lots and lots of hours bundled up in all of my clothes reading, journaling, chatting with others about the days sights and thinking about the next day’s hike while sitting around that life-giving heat source. And then, sadly, at about 7:30 after the last of the dung had burned out, the cold would settle in again and you’d have no choice but to retreat to a cold room and a cold sleeping bag. Extra blankets and a hot water bottle would help, but I usually spent 10-11 hours a night trying trying like hell to battle the effects of altitude and sleep through the cold. In the morning, I’d regularly find the windows frosted over and every liquid-containing product in my possession frozen. From water to sunscreen. Everything. “Chiso sa”, as you say in Nepali. “Very cold” indeed..
All that acclimitization and time spent freezing was absolutely worth it as each day brought more and more spectacular views of the Solukhumbu range. Cho Oyu, Manaslu, Ama Dablam and others slowly revealed themselves and finally, on day 9, I caught sight of Mt. Everest for the first time. It was bizarre to finally see it after so many years of magazine photos, movies, TV specials and stories from climbers I’d met through Clif Bar. It’s honestly not quite as interesting looking as many of the others in the area, but it is amazing to set your eyes on it. It looks harsh from the West as most of it’s face is empty of snow – black like a shark’s fin and usually covered in some fierce looking clouds and wind at it’s summit.
Staring at it from nearby Gokyo Ri at 18,000′ or Kala Pathaar, the highest point on the trek at 18,149′ enveloped in a wind, sand and snowstorm at 6:00 in the morning in sub-zero temperatures, I decided that was as close as I ever needed to be to the top. And that high altitude mountaineering was probably not for me. Awe inspiring beauty, but beauty I’m happy with taking in from the below..
I eventually made it to the actual Everest Base Camp area, on the Khumbu Glacier, situated just at the foot of the famous Khumbu ice fall and the Lhotse and Nuptse mountains nearby. More surreal lunar-like scenery with only greys, whites, blacks and ice making up the pallet of the surrounding scenery. I didn’t find the garbage of spent O2 canisters and tents that I expected. Thankfully, most have been cleaned up recently by volunteer expeditions. But I did find old remnants – tattered pieces of nylon, a couple of old tent poles, half of a rusted out gas stove, areas on the rocky glacier top leveled with flat stones just big enough to host a climber’s 2-man tent for the 3-weeks they spend there acclimatizing, and a stone hearth made by Sherpas to burn offerings of juniper for safety before each climb, and used to commemorate the dead after unsuccessful bids. An amazing place that makes you just want to sit and try to imagine what it would be like, heading UP from that high. Wow.
Anyway, I saw lots of other incredible things on the trek as I hiked up the Western route to Gokyo, full of brilliant turquoise green glacial lakes, across the Nzogumba glacier (ice covered in grey rock, pools of water and moon like powder) the Cho La (pass) and glacier, to the east side, past rock pile memorials for dead climbers (including Scott Fisher, one of the guides that died on the attempt made famous by Into Thin Air), herds of yaks (like big woolly cows which replace donkeys as the beast of burden of choice at high altitude), crows and finches brave enough to live up there, the wreckage of an old crashed plane and villages set amid the unforgiving high altitude terrain of rock and ice who’s only mission now is to serve trekkers and climbers crazy enough to head up there.
After acclimatizing (and experiencing a few minor traces of altitude sickness – headaches and minor nausea), I covered a lot of ground. I wanted to see as much as I could and decided I’d rather spend my days outside, on my feet exploring rather than sitting inside huddled around a stove. The cold kept me motivated to go quickly (missing running played a part as well – it’s been months since I’ve been on an actual run) and after making it up to Everest Base Camp and nearby Kala Pathaar for those amazing views, I turned south and busted ass to get back down. I made it to Namche just in time to see the last finishers of the Everest Marathon crossing the finish line. For two weeks, 80 tourists and 20 Nepalis had been trekking together, acclimatizing and being constantly checked by doctors, preparing for a 26.2 mile race from Gorak Shep (near EBC) down to Namche. The winners (always Nepali) made it in about 4 hours. At hour 10, I saw plenty still limping in. On the way up, I actually thought it’d be a good idea to run the race, after hearing about it for the first time. I was both disappointed and relieved, I guess, when I was told I couldn’t. Hadn’t paid the $3,000 to be a part of the team. Something about doctors too.. Anyway, after it was all said and done, watching from the finish line seemed pretty damn good.
I hauled ass back to Lukla, the town with the airport, and was thankful I’d plunked down the money to fly back to Kathmandu this time, covering in 35 minutes the ground it had taken me almost 6 days to cover in a bus and on my feet.
I’m back in Kathmandu now, revelling in the relative warmth (still cold enough to need longjohns in bed at night), the exhaust belching from inefficient vehicles, the loogey-spitting locals and the garbage-covered streets. It’s grand. Residents of the town that includes the garbage dump have recently blocked the road to the dump, citing disgust with the mismanagement of the site and the mounting filth. So, the trucks have stopped picking it up from the city. And now people just throw it into piles in the street. Quite a sight. Some are 12′ wide, 100′ long and 2-3′ high. And it’s winter. Can only imagine what it’d be like if it were hot out. Can you say cholera? Awesome.
That’s about it from here. Spending the next few days doing some sightseeing in the surrounding valley, resting, putting a few pounds back on (pancakes, pizza, pastries..) and enjoying the madness here before heading south to Chitwan National Park to see some rhinos, Lumbini to see the birthplace of Buddha and then India on the 18th, where things should get really interesting..
Love and miss you all. Enjoy your hot showers, clean toilet and garbage free streets for me. I miss them.