If you haven’t already, take a spin through Everest Base Camp Trek – Part I. If you can make it through that entire post, take a quick nap and then continue reading below…
Day 8 – Dingboche (14,500 ft) to Thukla (15,200 ft)
Miraculously, around 2am that night in Dingboche my headache went away and I was finally able to fall asleep for most of the night. Feeling renewed but wanting to minimize brain cell damage, we chose to take two days to reach Lobuche instead of one. This would ease us up the valley more slowly and also allow us to acclimatize by climbing higher each day and sleeping at a lower altitude.
The trail to Thukla from Dingboche is really more of a wide open valley, providing spectacular 360 degree views and free reign to hike anywhere in the valley and away from the yaks. This was a welcome change as the constant need for proper yak positioning on the narrow trails is annoyingly stressful. A small bump, kick, or gore resulting from placing oneself on the wrong side of the trail between a yak and a canyon gorge could make for some difficult phone calls. The one disadvantage of the wide open valley was that there was nothing to stop the howling wind, which roared at our backs and had us pulling out our down jackets during the day for the first time.
We climbed up another 1,000 or so feet above Thukla to acclimatize and then back down to settle in next to the yak dung furnace around dinner surrounded by 6 or 7 Sherpas. Since we were the only trekkers in Thukla that night and no English was being spoken by the Sherpas, I tried to finish No Shortcuts to the Top, a mountaineering book about American Ed Viesturs, who climbed all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks with no supplemental oxygen, and Alison had her nose buried in Into Thin Air, the famed book about the 1996 Everest disaster by Jon Krakauer.
A few minutes later, we introduced ourselves to one of the Sherpas next to us named Phunuru Sherpa. In perfect English, Phunuru told us how he’s summited Everest nine times, counts Ed Viesturs as a very close friend from their days guiding Mt. Rainier, and that Jon Krakauer had actually taught him how to climb. We were blown away. Here we were in the highest mountains on earth, enthralled by the literary tales of two legendary mountaineers. Meanwhile, we were sitting right next to a legend in his own right, one with close ties to the very two climbers we’d been obsessively reading and talking about.
Phunuru is the climbing Sherpa sirdar (head climbing Sherpa) for the International Mountain Guides Everest expedition this year, made up of 40+ clients and 60+ climbing Sherpas. He was an incredibly nice guy and even invited us to have tea in their tent at the Base Camp when (if) we made it up there. Meeting Phunuru was one of the highlights of the trip for us and gave us some extra motivation for getting to Base Camp.
Day 9 – Thukla (15,200 ft) to Lobuche (16,200 ft)
The route from Thukla to Lobuche starts with a steep climb up to a quasi-cemetery, where make-shift graves commemorate deceased mountaineers, mainly victims of nearby Everest and Lhotse. Then up the start of the valley that leads to the Khumbu Glacier, the famed glacial formations and deposits of rock and ice that mark the broad trail that leads all the way from here to Everest Base Camp.
At this point, new 7,000 meter peaks were coming into view every 10 minutes as we approached Lobuche, which marks the location of the final right turn up the valley of the Khumbu Glacier where Everest awaits.
Once again we hiked up another 700 or so feet on a nearby mountain to get our bodies acclimatized for the long hike the next day that would lead us past Gorak Shep and finally to Base Camp. That night all we could talk about was how close we were and the anticipated excitement (and sheer relief) that would hopefully come the next day. I felt like a kid on Christmas (Hanukkah) eve, which would normally mean no sleep, but the exhaustion kicked in, and both of us got some much needed rest.
Day 10 – Lobuche (16,200 ft) to Everest Base Camp (17,600 ft) to Gorak Shep (16,900 ft)
We woke up rejuvenated and ready to finally end the grueling ascent. I strapped on a fresh pair of boxers I’d been saving for this day, Alison lathered on a few extra swipes of deodorant, and off we went.
The lack of living things at this point was obvious. We were hiking on the ice, rock, and snow of glacial deposits and surrounded by jagged mountain peaks. It was beautiful but also begged the question – what the hell were we doing up here?
Up a big hill and then “Nepali flat” up and down for another 3 or so hours brought us to Gorak Shep, the last village before Base Camp.
Gorak Shep is a dump. No one likes it there. It’s cold. There are only a few guesthouses, everything is expensive and there is no incentive for the guesthouse owners to clean anything, especially the bathrooms. And basically everyone is sick from the altitude, food poisoning, stench of human feces, or some combination thereof. At 16,900 feet, it’s just shy of the magic “17,000 foot” mark above which scientists have yet to find evidence of any permanent human establishment because humans are just not supposed to be up that high.
I had no appetite when we sat down for lunch, not an infrequent occurrence during our journey due to the effects of the altitude. Mahesh literally stood over me during the entire lunch until I ate what he deemed a sufficient amount of calories to carry on to Base Camp. Between him and Alison, I felt like I had 2nd and 3rd mothers. I owe them both a lot for putting up and sticking with me. We sprinted off to Base Camp a little before noon.
As we inched closer to our goal, the summit of Everest snuck into view. For most of the trek after Tengboche, Everest is hidden by Nuptse and Lhotse. We were both in awe of everything at this point. We were so close to the base of Everest and had put so much into getting there. And yet the summit seemed so incredibly far away. It was humbling.
Our focus was snapped back in place as Mahesh suddenly told us to move faster through a steep section of rock just a short distance from Base Camp. Here there was a high risk for rock avalanches and we even saw some stones falling from up above, providing a very small feel for what it’s like to deal with the avalanche risks the Everest climbers face.
A few minutes later we were surrounded by the colorful Buddhist prayer flags that designate Everest Base Camp!
Standing in the valley at the base of the highest mountain on Earth, we soaked up the moment, taking in the beauty, mystery, and desolation of the place. At the very end of the valley, on the border of Nepal and Tibet, 7,000 meter peaks surround the Base Camp of Everest’s famed southern climbing route, as if to create a theatre for the brave souls who gather in the valley below every spring and risk their lives attempting to summit the world’s highest peak. I couldn’t help but chuckle – no architect could have created a more fitting design for such a magnificent place.
After Alison and I celebrated, I turned to Mahesh to give him a big hug. As if mocking our achievement, Mahesh was on his cell phone talking to his girlfriend. So in case you were wondering, you can get cell reception from Everest Base Camp.
While most people end their journey here, we wandered into the mix of rocks searching for Phunuru amongst the sprawling mess of tents that were scattered around the Khumbu icefall. We arrived in Base Camp on April 1, roughly 5-6 weeks before most Everest climbers make their summit attempts and about 1-2 weeks before they typically arrive at Base Camp. Given our timing, there were a lot of tents being set up by the Sherpas but virtually no climbers. We found the IMG tents and were kindly offered some Sherpa tea by two of the climbing Sherpas and the assistant cook for the expedition.
Pemba Sherpa (all of their names seem to end in “Sherpa”), Phunuru’s cousin, was climbing Everest for the first time at 20 years old. Mima Sherpa had summited Everest twice. We hung out with the Sherpas for a good 30-40 minutes, mainly conversing with Pemba, who spoke the best English. I joked if they needed another climbing Sherpa they ought to hire Alison.
Still riding the high of reaching Base Camp and meeting all the Sherpas, we floated back to Gorak Shep, soaking up the views of the highest mountains in the world.
Later that evening, when the yak dung ran out, we retired to our room, put all of our clothes on, and tried to get warm in our sleeping bags.
Day 11 – Gorak Shep (16,900 ft) to Tengboche (12,700 ft)
For ambitious trekkers, the option of a final hike up to Kala Pattar (18,200 ft) presents another viewing opportunity of Everest. We considered making a run at it. However, when the 4am alarm went off after tossing and turning all night, the imaginary nail that seemed to be penetrating my brain and the bitter cold made the decision a bit easier.
A Chilean woman said to her guide that morning, “I will go no more up.” Couldn’t have said it any better.
There is a small climb before the long descent from Gorak Shep down the Khumbu valley toward thicker air. It’s maybe a 200 foot climb but I swear it felt like 2,000 feet that morning. Every few steps I’d stop to rest, my lungs begging for more oxygen.
Soon enough we were passing through Lobuche. Going down felt like a walk in the park. The air felt thicker with each step and we were getting closer to the safety and comfort of lower altitudes. We pushed all the way down to Tengboche from Gorak Shep, a stretch that had taken us five days to complete going up.
In Tengboche, we met Dan, an Arkansas native that was climbing Everest. Three monks from the Tengboche Monastery came over to our teahouse to bless Dan on his journey.
Day 12 – Tengboche (12,700 ft) to Namche Bazaar (11,300 ft)
Back in the forest region, we welcomed the sight of bees, flowers, and the occasional muskrat on our descent to Namche Bazaar. “Things live here. We are ok now.”
We took our time getting to Namche, snapping some extra pictures and just soaking it all in.
We finally got our second showers of the trip in Namche, where the water pressure was weak but hot. We each showered for a good 30 minutes.
Day 13 – Namche Bazaar (11,300 ft) to Lukla (9,300 ft)
At this point it was just a victory lap. We stopped in Phakding for lunch, where I ordered a heaping plate of fried chicken.
As we got closer to Lukla, Alison and I joked about the ambitious trekkers, fresh off the plane from Kathmandu and in good spirits about the weeks to come. “They have no idea” was a common thought. We laughed at the role reversal from just two weeks ago when we were, in fact, the ones who had no idea how physically and mentally draining the next two weeks would be.
We finally got to Lukla around 3pm. It was over. We did it. Thank God.
We dragged Mahesh and Jonuk to a bar in Lukla that afternoon, where they drank Coca Cola and we drank more than enough alcoholic for the four of us.
Day 14 – Lukla to Kathmandu
After thinking we were going to be stuck in Lukla for at least a day, we managed to get on one of the last flights out to Kathmandu. Although the views weren’t as clear as before, we couldn’t care less.
Relief. Exhaustion. Joy. These were our feelings, and in that order.