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 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.
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 river of ice flows to the Khumbu Terminus near Everest Memorial. It is a very slow river of ice, 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 side of the trail, the other side hugging the mountain. Now, both sides of the trail that is perched on top of the moraine are unprotected. 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.
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 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. But 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.
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 also 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 get back to Gorakshep before the winds become heavy. I grab a fist full of gravel from basecamp and put it in my back pack. 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 there is the danger of rockslide because of 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 have lost some 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. I order Coke for lunch. It feels good to gulp the sugary soda.
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.
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 looking at us, the shadowy passers by. I wonder what he, standing at the edge of human habitation, must be thinking about the passing strangers from 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.
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.
Everest basecamp 17,598′ (5,364 m)
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