Day 10: Everest Base Camp

We start from Gorakshep around 6 am. The day is calm; winds are not blowing. We leave before breakfast. Our plan is to go to the basecamp and come back to the lodge. Then we will eat breakfast, pack our bags and start the return journey. It is still slightly dark outside. I am wearing my sun glasses as usual. Ngima advises me to wear my regular glasses so that I can see better in the dark. I go back to my room to fetch my glasses. I try to hurry up, needlessly worrying that the winds may start blowing again, preventing us from reaching the basecamp. So I take my sea-level stride and bound up a flight of stairs to our room on the first floor. At the top of the stairs I am on the verge of collapse, out of breath. I had moved too fast for the low level of oxygen at this altitude. I stand several minutes holding on to the railing to catch my breath. Chastened, I walk back at the appropriately slow pace, to join Rahul, Pramod and Ngima, who are waiting outside the lodge.

kumbu-glacier
Khumbu Glacier, debris covered, dotted with supraglacial lakes

Gorakshep is located in a valley at the y-junction of Khangri Shar Glacier to the west and Khumbu glacier to the east. We walk northeast, climbing up the lateral moraine of Khumbu glacier. The rest of the way is along the moraine. The basecamp itself is located on the glacier. The Khumbu Glacier — 7.5 miles long, covering 8 square miles of land — is the highest glacier in the world. The glacier accumulates ice from the Khumbu ice fall to the east of basecamp. The glacier (a very slow river of ice) flows to the Khumbu Terminus near Everest Memorial. It is flowing at 50 meters per year near the icefall to less than 30 meters per year near the terminus1. The ice reaches a peak thickness of over 400 m near the base camp, and steadily thins out to zero at the terminus2. The melting ice leaves the terminus in a small stream, descending down the mountain side as Dughla waterfall. Here the glacier looks static. Its debris covered surface looks like a field of rock punctuated with small supraglacial lakes. But there is much at work in the glacier, as described beautifully by Roger Bilham3: “We’re standing on the Khumbu Glacier right now and although it looks a rather static sight and quite beautiful with blue pinnacles and a deep blue sky with the moon popping up in the middle of it, it’s just white and blue we can see all around us. It looks absolutely static but it isn’t. Occasionally there’s a pop, a groan, a creak, as this glacier relentlessly moves downhill. Millions and millions of tons of ice are slowly moving. If we could speed it up we could actually see something like a river coming down from above us with the Khumbu Icefall sliding around the corner here and heading south toward the Ganges Plain in India. The ice south of us is tens of thousands of years old and the ice to the north, above us, is even older.”

It seems the worst part of the trail is reserved for the last day of the uphill trek. So far the  precipice has been only to one edge of the trail, the other edge hugging the mountain side. Now, both edges of the trail are unprotected as it is perched on top of the moraine. Also, we encounter a couple of icy spots on the trail.

On Thursday March 24, 2016 at 8:14 am Nepali time, we finally reach Everest Basecamp, ten days after we left Lukla.We all do high fives and smile with relief. Ngima makes a small chorten by piling stones and recites a short prayer. Even yesterday I was not sure whether I will be able to reach the basecamp, and that uncertain feeling is now gone from my mind.

kumbu-icefall
A heap of stones marks Everest basecamp; Khumbu Icefall is in the background

A man-made heap of stones decorated with prayer flags mark Everest Basecamp on top of the glacier.We pose in front of the heap of stones to take pictures. As my daughter had suggested, I am wearing the camo side of my two-sided, down jacket, which looks like the hunting jackets commonly seen in West Virginia.The relatively flat area around us is covered with many natural heaps of gravel and rocks. An occasional block of ice sticks out between the rocks. Khumbu icefall, where chunks of ice the size of cars to houses fall from the mountain, sparkles at a distance with its frozen mounds of white snow. It is the gateway to Mount Everest, a treacherous gateway that the climbers must cross multiple times as they acclimatize by making multiple trips over a six week period from the basecamp, to the higher camps and back to the basecamp. The waves of ice from the icefall take a left-hand turn near the basecamp as they move ever so slowly down Khumbu Glacier. All around us are snow covered mountain peaks, seen against a backdrop of deep blue sky. Ironically Mount Everest itself is not visible from here as we are too close to it. We are less than two miles from the Chinese border, a boundary not marked by border walls or guards, but marked by the majestic and impassable peaks of Himalaya. Nothing around here seems familiar other than the handiwork of trekkers who came before us. Someone has helpfully written in black ink on one of the stones in the heap “Everest Base Camp 2016”. Others have written their names and dates on the stones: “Rob, Sarah, Jules, Tracy, Amit …” There are cloth banners tucked under the rocks with names printed on them: “Paul + Trudy…” Someone has scored a heart-sign on a patch of ice on the ground, presumably with the tip of their trekking pole.There are only two other trekkers at the basecamp, besides us. A little bird flying around also provides a semblance of familiarity. Other than the humans, it seems to be the only living being around here. It sits on the ground next to Ngima’s feet with a look of concern on its face.

atbasecamp
Posing at Everest Basecamp

We can see a few climbers’ tents, looking like yellow specks at a distance. By April there will be many more tents, when the climbers finally arrive, to take advantage of the summit window, rumored to begin mid May, when the jet stream moves north of Mount Everest and the windspeed becomes bearable on the summit. Two sherpas run past us carrying large loads on their back. I am not sure whether the loads are heavy. They are carrying supplies for the climbers. One of the trekkers decides to follow the sherpas. In a few minutes, the trekker and the sherpas look tiny in front of the mounds of snow. I feel that I have suddenly lost my sense of the scale: I am not sure how big or far the things are that I see at a distance.

Ngima was hoping that his uncle (dad’s brother), who is a cook at Camp 2, will treat us with some coffee. But now Ngima learns that his uncle is back in Gorakshep. In any case, Pramod has brought some coffee in a thermos. He pours the coffee into cups for us. I squat near my backpack kept on the ground and open its zippered pocket, reaching inside to take out the snack bars I had brought. But I am not able to find them, and I don’t understand why the zippered pocket looks unfamiliar. Pramod, standing nearby, has a puzzled look on his face. Soon, I realize that I was actually opening his backpack, thinking that it is mine. “Altitude problems, Sir!” Ngima laughs.

I would like to explore the surroundings, but I am tired and realize that we have a long way ahead of us today. Now, the wind starts to pickup. Ngima tells us that we need to hurry back to Gorakshep before the winds become heavy. I grab a fist full of gravel from basecamp and put it in my back pack as a souvenir. We start our return journey about twenty minutes after reaching basecamp.

On our way back the wind speed steadily increases. At one point on the trail, a Sherpa, carrying a rolled mat on his head, runs past me. He is presumably returning after delivering goods at the basecamp. After crossing me, he turns around and shouts to me something in Sherpa language, while still running. I, of course, don’t understand what he is trying to tell me. Pramod, who is behind me, translates it for me. The Sherpa is telling me to run as fast as possible because there is the danger of a rockslide caused by the heavy winds. I look to my right and see a near vertical wall of gray gravel. Large rocks are precariously perched on top of the wall. Now,I understand what the Sherpa was concerned about. But I tell myself that there is no way I can move any faster than the labored steps I am taking. If there is a rockslide, there is nothing much I can do to escape.

Further down the trail we come to a place where the trail is going up steeply for several feet. There is ice underneath a layer of gravel. I hesitate to walk up. Ngima gently pushes me up the icy slope. We come to a place where we need to descend down steep stone steps. Again, I hesitate and Ngima extends a helping hand.

About five hours after we left, we return to the lodge in Gorakshep. We eat breakfast, pack our bags and check out. Ngima asks whether we want to go back to Dingboche or to Pheriche. We select Pheriche because it is at a lower altitude. We want to go as far down as possible today.

Shortly after 2 pm we reach Lobouche. We stop at Alpine Home and Restaurant for lunch. I have an intense craving for Coke.I order Coke for lunch. It feels good to gulp the sugary soda.

I have lost weight; my pants have become loose. I cannot tighten my belt any further, and Ngima suggests that I fold my pants around the belt, to keep the pants from falling off.

After lunch, we leave for Pheriche. I find that I am not benefiting from the so called “downhill dividend.” Trekkers usually find it easier to go down hill. First, going downhill takes lesser effort than going uphill. Second, as you go down to a lower elevation the oxygen level in the air increases. Third, the body is already acclimatized to the higher elevation and can supply oxygen to the muscles more efficiently. All these factors make the downhill trek much easier. The problem I face is not one of effort or lack of oxygen, but of a lack of muscle strength. It seems you need much muscle strength to control the steep descend. Because of the long trek and perhaps my age, my muscles are not strong enough. While going uphill, I used to lag behind Rahul and Ngima, but not by very much. Now, going downhill they are able to almost run down, whereas I am at the same pace as going uphill. I wonder whether it is just my fear of falling. So at one place I push myself to go downhill fast. But I fall with my right knee folded and my right palm scraping over the gravel. Luckily, I am not hurt. I realize that it is not fear; its a genuine lack of ability.

outskirtsofpheriche
On the way back to Pheriche

It is getting dark. The trail close to Pheriche is covered with rocks, but thankfully flat. At the outskirts of Pheriche I go past a small hut. A little boy, around five years old, is standing in the yard. His clothes look dark and dirty. He stands motionless, curiously observing us, the shadowy passers by. I wonder what he, standing at the edge of human habitation, must be thinking about the passing strangers from the unknown, distant lands.

Six hours after leaving Gorakshep we reach our lodge in Pheriche. Again I crave for a sugary drink and have Fanta for dinner. I don’t take any Diamox tonight, but sleep well.

References
1.T. Bolch, M. F. Buchroithner, J. Peters, M. Baessler, and S. Bajracharya. “Identification of glacier motion and potentially dangerous glacial lakes in the Mt. Everest region/Nepal using spaceborne imagery”. Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 8, 1329–1340, 2008

2. M. Nakawo, H. Yabuki, and A, Sakai, “Characteristics of Khumbu Glacier, Nepal Himalaya: recent change in the debris-covered area.” Annals of Glaciology, 28, 1999.

3. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/everest/earth/glacier.html.

Elevations
Everest basecamp           17,598′ (5,364 m)

Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
37,631 16.98 4,070 326
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Day 9: Gorakshep

We start early from Lobouche, around 7:30 am. Today’s plan is to go straight to the basecamp and return to a lodge in Gorakshep by lunch time. Things don’t go according to the plan; the day turns out to be the most harrowing one of the trek.

As we hit the trail toward the basecamp we start experiencing heavy wind. Right at the start, a sudden gust trips me up, and I fall. I quickly pick myself up and walk; Rahul and Ngima, walking ahead of me, don’t see me falling.

We reach a relatively flat field. The ground is covered by fine sand, gravel and rocks. The wind is picking up speed. It is bitterly cold, a cold that seeps through the thick down jacket and layers of clothing. I sense that Ngima is getting a bit concerned. He has not experienced this type of heavy winds before, he says. The gusts pick up and blow fine sand at us. We see waves of sand at a distance blowing toward us. Every time a wave approaches us, we stop and turn around, to prevent the sand from blowing into our face. We wait until the wave passes us. Then we resume walking.

We are now at a pass between two mountains. Another big gust hits us. We all lose our balance and need to steady ourselves with the help of trekking poles. Another big wave comes. Ngima motions us toward a big boulder nearby. We duck behind the boulder for shelter. The wave rips past us, but we are protected from the sand by the boulder. The American students have caught up and are sheltering behind the boulder with us. I ask a student standing near me where they are from in America. He tells me that they are from two high schools in Portland, Oregon.

The next gust is laden with a blinding amount of sand. I get sand in my mouth. We cannot see anything in front of us. Ngima is now very concerned. The wind is strong enough to pickup and pelt rocks at us. I see a single lemon-sized rock rolling down the mountainside. The wind can cause rock slides on the mountainsides.

We have been walking for 30 minutes after we left Lobouche. It will take another three hours to reach Gorakshep. Ngima stops us and holds a consultation meeting. Should we turn back and return to Lobouche or soldier on to Gorakshep? There is no shelter between here and Gorskshep. I am in favor of taking a safe approach. But, if we turn back, we may not be able to reach basecamp. That will be disappointing after having come this close. Rahul says that we should push on. The American students have over taken us, and they are pushing on at distance ahead of us, their outlines slowly dissolving into a distant wave of the sandstorm. We decide to keep going.

After a little while Rahul becomes sick. He feels very cold and complains that his fingers have become numb inside the gloves. We exchange our gloves. He feels a little better from the warmth in my gloves. But I notice that he has a staggering gait. I walk closely behind, keeping an eye on him.

Bitter cold wind blows unabated. Thankfully, the wind doesn’t pelt stones at us. Ngima points out a landslide triggered by the wind perhaps in the past. Also, it is not on our trail.

I am walking vigilantly behind Rahul. The trail is now going uphill and has become narrow. We see the two Iranian Trekkers, whom we had met in Dingboche, coming toward us. They must be on their way back from the basecamp. I see Rahul trying to give way to them by moving to the right edge of the trail, the edge where the ground drops off sharply. I fear that his right foot has slipped off the edge and jumps to prevent him from falling. He tells me that his foot was just fine and that I almost pushed him off the trail. I tell Rahul to give way, now on, by moving to the left and stopping.

Rahul notices that the face of an Iranian has puffed up. My face has also puffed up. It is a common thing at this high an elevation.

A little while later, another group of Trekkers comes toward us. Rahul tries to move to the right, and I yell “On your left.” He listens.

Now, Ngima tells me to go ahead; he will follow behind Rahul. I soon see why. At places the trail is really narrow. In one place there is barely enough space for one foot and the trail is made of loose gravel. I have to take a long step to avoid that treacherous spot.

gorakshep
Gorakshep (left) and Khumbu Glacier (right)

As I walk I feel a fluttering sensation in my back on the left side, as though my left lung is shivering in the ribcage. In my left cheek and lips, I feel a tingling sensation. These, I have read, are side effects of Diamox. Also, I start to feel a rising pain across the top of my abdomen. Thankfully, it does not seem to increase or decrease with exertion. So, I take the pain to be benign, and continue walking.

We reach a place where the trail is right on the edge of Khumbu glacier. The rest of our way is by the side of or on top of Khumbu glacier.

After three and a half hours we reach Himalaya Lodge and Restaurant in Gorakshep. I have no taste in my mouth, and lunch does not taste good. My face is grimy. I pass my hand over my forehead. It feels like a sandpaper, the skin being coated by a layer of fine sand.

After lunch we go to our room upstairs and help Rahul into his sleeping bag. I rent a hot water bag that he can keep inside the sleeping bag, to warm up the inside quickly. Ngima advises him not to sleep off. I keep vigil. Slowly, he starts to feel better, sheltered and warmed by the sleeping bag.

Ngima tells us that it is dangerous to attempt to go the basecamp today because of the heavy winds. We will try tomorrow if the wind calms down. Ngima will wake us up early in the morning, if it’s safe to trek. We will have to miss our trip to Kala Pathar, however. If it is not possible to go to the basecamp even tomorrow, I ask Ngima whether we can attempt it the day after and delay our departure from Lukla by a day. We will still be able to catch our international flight on time, although we will miss the Kathmandu tour. Ngima tells me that he will ask Madhav.

The wind continues to howl. A layer of sand is collecting over my iPad and other items kept on the window sill, the wind blown sand having seeped through the narrow gaps around the window. I notice that a peanut bag I brought with me has puffed up. This is because the pressure inside the bag is still the pressure at sea level, where as the outside pressure has dropped considerably.

peanutbags
How the peanut bags look at sea level (left) and at the high elevation in Gorakshep (right)

As I go to bed at night the wind is still howling outside. I time the gusts based on the howling noise. They are now about a minute apart. They were about twenty seconds apart, when we were trekking. This gives me hope that the winds are dying down and we may be able to go to the base camp tomorrow.

Elevations
Gorakshep           16,864′ (5,140 m)

Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
12,211 5.51 2,558 98

 Day 8: Lobouche

We start from the Dingboche after breakfast. As we are leaving the dining hall, we find the lodge owner sitting near the door. He wishes us well and tells me “Sir, please come back the next season.” I bid him good bye and walk out the door, wondering whether I will be able to come back ever.

At first the climb is steady  from Dingboche.  Soon we reach relatively flat trail high above Dingboche. The sides of the trail are covered by a thin layer of snow.  The trail itself is free of snow and ice, however. After a while, we see Pheriche to our left, way down below. In the distance the clouds have descended on the mountain peaks. We are taking a narrow trail by the mountainside.

trailabovedingboche
On the trail above Dingboche

After walking for a while on the gentle uphill slope, we reach the Dughla (Thukla) waterfall bridge. It is a short-span, brown, metallic bridge supported on both ends by abutments made of rocks. Below the bridge, glacial waters are gurgling through grey and white rocks. The waters are coming from the Khumbu glacier, whose terminus is about 900 ft above us.

We cross the bridge and stop for lunch at Rest Point Bakery & Cafe in Dughla. It is crowded with trekkers sitting on carpet-covered benches that line either side of the narrow dining hall. The walls are made of light brown plywood. The large glass windows and sunroof make the dining hall well lit. We have a quick bite to eat and leave.

After Dughla, the climb is steep uphill. The wind is blowing hard and cold. After a long, hard climb we reach a flat area on the mountainside, where we stop to take rest. A few other Trekkers have also stopped to take rest. We have stopped near the Everest Memorial, a memorial for climbers that perished while attempting to summit Mount Everest. There is a large heap of stones that mark the central spot. From there several colorful streamers stretch out to a memorial near by. The streamers are fluttering in the wind. I sit atop a low wall near the memorial

everestmemorial
Everest Memorial

Memorials for climbers from all around the world surround us. Some are simple piles of three or four stones. Some are more elaborate, chorten-like structures made of stones and mortar, incorporating commemorative plaques, and decorated with colorful streamers. A short distance behind us is the memorial for Scott Fisher who perished in an ill-fated expedition in 1996, described in Jon Krakauer’s excellent book Into Thin Air and depicted in the 2015 film Everest.

Right in front of us is the memorial for Babu Chiri Sherpa, a legendary climber. The brass epitaph on his memorial lists his feats. He holds two records. In 1999 Babu Chiri stayed in a tent on the summit for 21 hours, without auxiliary oxygen. Most climbers stay at the summit only for a short time, as short as several minutes. Babu Chiri sang songs and talked on the walkie-talkie to keep himself awake because doctors had told him that he may not wake up, if he falls asleep on the summit. In 2000 Babu Chiri set another record by achieving the fastest ascent to the summit from the basecamp. In spite of his extraordinary mountain climbing skills, the mountain claimed his life for a careless step he took during his 11th attempt to reach the summit in 2001. He died, falling into a crevasse near Camp 2 while stepping backwards to take a photograph.

After the rest at Everest Memorial we resume walking. Soon we reach a plane surrounded by mountain peaks.The ground is clayey, dark brown in color. At places the ground is covered by patches of dry grass. The ground is strewn by rocks all over. We walk a long way over the relatively flat ground. We go past several primitive huts made of stones, surrounded by stone walls. No body is living there now. Ngima tells us that sherpas own the huts. They will come during June and July to graze their yaks. I wonder what would ownership of huts mean here.

On the sides of the trail, we find small rocks piled on top of large rocks on the ground. Ngima tells us that the piles of stones act as trail markers for trekkers, when the trail becomes concealed under snow.

We stop to take rest. A group of trekkers are resting ahead of us on the trail. A couple is walking very slowly toward us. I think they are German, although I have never heard them speak. I have seen them before at a few places. They do not have a guide nor a porter. The husband, tall and well-built, seems to know his way around here. He is a carrying on his back a large rucksack, presumably containing their supplies. The wife, who is short, walks behind him, carrying a small backpack.

The sky is deep blue in color. White snowy mountain peaks stand out in sharp relief against the sky. The scenery is eerily reminiscent of computer generated graphics of an alien world.

waytolebouche
On the way to Lobouche

We resume walking. The air is thin, and we walk very slowly with much effort. There is a positive side to the slow walking, however. As of the eighth day of our trek, I don’t have any blisters on my feet or pain in my knee or lower back. I have stopped wearing my toe socks, which were absolutely essential to prevent blisters while doing long hikes back home. I do not need the knee braces I brought with me and have put them away.

Eventually, we come to place where we see large sheets of compact snow mixed with rocks. It looks like the terminus of a glacier but Ngima says it is not. Actually, we crossed the Khumbu Terminus after we left Everest Memorial, and Khumbu glacier has been to our right ever since.

We reach Alpine Home and Restaurant in Lobouche five and a half hours after leaving Dingboche. A notice posted at the entrance requests climbers to remove their crampons before entering the dining room. Another notice advises Trekkers to inform the teahouse staff promptly of any health problems, so that they can arrange a helicopter rescue.

We enter the dining room. It is nice and warm inside. I look around and see around ten Trekkers sitting quietly in the dining room, reading books or playing with their smart phones. I get a strange feeling in my lungs. The air is already thin at this elevation. The heated air in the dining room feels even thinner as I breathe it. Also there is a whiff of kerosene in the air. This gives me a strange feeling. I immediately decide that I must take Diamox tonight.

lobouche
Lobouche

After drinking tea in the dining room, we go to our bedroom. Pramod has unloaded our luggage and is getting ready to leave. “My license” he jokes, pointing to a small length of rope that he uses to tie our luggage. The guides must have a license, which the police may check, Ngima explains. The porters do not need a license.

I am very glad to think that in one more day we will reach Everest basecamp! I take half a Diamox tablet, and the night passes without any scary, sleepless episodes.

Elevations
Lobouche           16,210′ (4,940 m)

Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
18,090 8.16 2,871 308