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Mountain Madness Climber

Everest Base Camp Trek — Dispatch #3

These days are not easy, but they are pow­er­ful. Over 14,000 ft, our bod­ies strug­gle to breathe, strug­gle to recu­per­ate from any minor infrac­tion (res­pi­ra­to­ry trou­ble, stom­ach ail­ments). Nonethe­less we climb…and we reap the rewards.

At Lobuche and beyond, the moun­tains become mas­sive. No longer a dis­tant sweep of peaks, they are now indi­vid­u­als con­fronting us and tow­er­ing over us. Nuptse, which was once a ridge in the fore­ground of Ever­est, is now a shiny face of veined black rock, slick like a mot­tled mir­ror. We curve around its side, cross over the Chang-Ri glac­i­er, and con­tour briefly along the 5‑mile Khum­bu glac­i­er, its creak­ing and crack­ing mak­ing clear that the glac­i­er is indeed moving.

Gorak Shep is the final out­post of shel­ter in this extreme world of rock and ice, and we spend two nights here. The first after­noon, Kala Patar lures us up to its rocky peak. At 18,450 ft, it’s the clas­sic view­point of Ever­est, the high­est point of the trip, and a tough climb in the thin air (only about 50% of the oxy­gen at sea lev­el). Strewn with prayer flags, the sum­mit offers 360-degree views of moun­tains includ­ing a close-up of Ever­est and a long line of moun­tains as far as the eye can see. Tham­serku and Ama Dablam. Lhotse and Nuptse. Lingtren and Khum­butse. Moun­tains even in Tibet. And of course, the round­ed snowy peak of Pumo-Ri right behind us, so close and huge that it seems taller than Ever­est from where we stand. Wind whip­ping and sun stream­ing down, we feel on top of the world! It’s hard to believe the sum­mit of Ever­est is anoth­er 10,000 ft above us. Unfathomable.

The fol­low­ing day was a long hike out to Ever­est Base Camp with Pem­ba Gyal­jen Sher­pa. Pem­ba is a well-known Nepali climber with an impres­sive record, and it’s been excit­ing to have him co-guid­ing our group. He has sum­mit­ed Ever­est six times; has sum­mit­ed K2, Cho-Oyu, Monte Blanc, and Ama Dablam; and has suc­cess­ful­ly res­cued climbers on these moun­tains after avalanch­es, exhaus­tion in the dead zone, and oth­er dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions. Pem­ba is not only a famous climber how­ev­er – he’s also a friend­ly guy with an easy laugh and is great to trek with!

While oth­er groups turned back at low­er base camp, Pem­ba took our group on anoth­er 45 min­utes to the reg­u­lar base camp and found the Ice­fall Doc­tors.” The Ice­fall Doc­tors have some 20-years of expe­ri­ence and are spe­cial­ists at detect­ing the safest routes through the ever-chang­ing Ice­fall all the way to Camp 2. They were out on the glac­i­er prepar­ing to set the lad­ders and fixed ropes for upcom­ing win­ter expe­di­tions. Also out at base camp were the rem­nants of spring expe­di­tions – strands of prayer flags from when lamas come to bless the start of each group’s climb and stone struc­tures which serve as kitchens and staff shel­ters dur­ing the long two months of acclima­ti­za­tion. Pem­ba was full of sto­ries and infor­ma­tion rang­ing from the 1952 Swiss expe­di­tion that first reached 8500 meters to his own expe­ri­ences over the last sev­en years climb­ing with inter­na­tion­al expe­di­tions (Irish, British, South African, and Aus­tri­an). After lunch and lots of pho­tos in the per­fect weath­er, our group turned around and head­ed back down to the warmth of the lodge at Gorak Shep.

Now the hard days are behind us. We drop 3,000 feet to Pheriche, a small vil­lage on a wind-swept plain. Every­one has a chance to recu­per­ate – 14,000 feet feels low and com­fort­able now! Tomor­row we take the high trail to vis­it the old­est monastery in the region before con­tour­ing around to Phortse. Built into the side of the moun­tain, Phortse is a vil­lage few groups vis­it. We’re look­ing for­ward to the qui­et trail, the chance to see wild moun­tain goats, and a vis­it to the monastery, recent­ly paint­ed by one of Dar­jeel­ing’s finest artists.

Watch out for the yaks – here we go!