This Is What We Came For: Our Visit With The Highest Mountain in The World

May 19, 2017 – 3:00 PM

Dzonghla, 4830 m

It’s been all downhill today, for a change. Sort of.  The day started a little after 5:00 am when I left Gorak Shep and decided to blast 400 m up to the top of Kala Pattar (for the second time in less than 12 hours) and ended a couple hours ago in the tiny village of Dzonghla at a little over 4800 m.  Dzonghla is the staging point for the Cho La, which we hope to cross tomorrow.  I am wrecked, but it’s the best kind of wrecked that one can be.

The last 24 hours have been the realization of that dream I’ve been envisioning for the last 15 years.  Yesterday morning Kim and I left the village of Lobuche shortly after 7:00 am and made the two hour trek to Gorak Shep, the last settlement before Everest Base Camp.  There we found a place to spend the night (a small wooden-box type of room with slanted beds and a great view of Pumori), unloaded our packs with everything we didn’t need for the day, grabbed a packed lunch and headed back out the door.  To Base Camp!

Both during and at home prior to the trek, some people suggested that going to the physical base camp was a bit of a waste of time given that there aren’t actually any views of Everest and, if you’re there in the fall, the place is basically deserted.  But excluding that part of the trek was out of the question for both of us, as we were trekking during the peak (har har har) of the climbing season on Everest and also because it was just one of those bucket list things.  It did not disappoint.

A devastating avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas in the Khumbu Icefall (the first and scariest part of the climb above base camp) in 2014, followed by the 2015 earthquake that also claimed nearly 20 lives at base camp, meant that two climbing seasons on Everest were essentially shut down. Climbing and trekking expeditions are one of the biggest sources of tourism revenue in Nepal (the cost of a permit starts at $11,000 USD per climber), and in an effort to get climbers back into the region, the Nepali government decided to extend climbing permits from the two lost season into 2016 and 2017.  The result was that the 2017 climbing season on Everest was anticipated to be one of the busiest on record.  Some people we spoke to along the trail indicated that there were close to 350 Western climbers waiting to go up the mountain, and with an average of at least 1 Sherpa per climber, there were potentially over 700 people planning to climb, plus presumably more support staff staying at camp.  When we finally stumbled into the makeshift village on Day 15 of our trek (May 18th), there were hundreds of tents pitched along the groaning Khumbu Glacier, climbers and teams milling about, and helicopters buzzing up and down the valley ferrying climbers and probably some sick trekkers back to Namche.

It was a perfect, beautiful day to be there with clear skies, bright sun, and warm weather. We walked from one end of the camp to the other, and spent a couple hours talking to climbers, soaking in the views, and simply taking in the whole experience.  Before arriving we had learned that the climbing permits for Everest expire on May 28th and there was a fair amount of buzz going on because the climbing Sherpas had only fixed the ropes to the summit a couple days prior because of poor weather and high winds. It was shaping up to be a busy 10 days of climbing:  commercial expeditions were making their summit bids (or were potentially already coming down from the summit) as we were sitting there staring up to the sky!

With the binoculars we were able to watch a group of climbers navigate their way down through the Khumbu Icefall (it looked crazy), and while having a bite to eat we watched another group who had just come down the mountain march through camp.  With the packs and gear they were wearing, they could have just gotten back from outer space.  Scott and Elliot – we’ve basically been trekking together the whole way – told us earlier today that they got invited into an expedition’s mess tent and had a chance to talk to some of the climbers who had just summitted.

Shortly after walking past the prayer flags in the centre of camp, we met a fellow from Calgary who stopped to chat with us for a few minutes.  He’d been living up there with his team of three plus a guide for almost seven weeks, and they were planning to start their climb for the summit at 3:00 am this morning, with the summit still 5 whole days away.  We bumped in to him again a bit later and learned that this was the team’s second trip to Everest.  The first was two years ago.  When the earthquake hit they were actually in the Khumbu Icefall but were fortunate to make it out alive when so many others didn’t.  We wished him luck and went our separate ways.

After having spent a couple hours above 5300 m in the blistering sunshine, and starting to feel a little tired, we filled our water bottles with fresh Khumbu Glacier water and made our way back to Gorak Shep for lunch.

Even more popular than Everest Base Camp, on most people’s trekking lists, is Kala Pattar.  Compared the gigantic mountains that surround it, Kala Pattar looks like nothing more than a mole hill, despite it’s elevation of over 5500 m, and sits on the edge of a sand pit in Gorak Shep.  Its popularity stems from the fact that from its summit, there are some of the best views of Everest that you can find in the Khumbu Valley. On the trail to Base Camp, there are actually only a couple brief views of the mountain, and only the peak can be seen.

Our trekking guide book boldly states that “very few trekkers are able to visit both Everest Base Camp and Kala Pattar in the same day due to the exhaustion and effects of altitude felt above blah blah blah…”.  Over our lunch back in Gorak Shep Kim and I discussed heading up Kala Pattar in the same day as Base Camp.  We weren’t overly exhausted and the weather was fairly clear, so there was an opportunity to witness a pretty amazing sunset.  After a half hour power nap, during which Kim didn’t bother taking her hiking boots off because “if I take them off there is no way I am going back out”, we headed out the door at about 4:30 in time to see the sunset shortly after 6:00.

It turns out that the guide book was right.  Between 5100 m in Gorak Shep and 5550 m at the top of  Kala Pattar, our pace slowed to a crawl.  The book was also right about the part where very few trekkers do both trips in a day, because when we got to the top (which we did in pretty good time all things considered), there were only 5 other people there to watch the sunset. On the walk up we weren’t sure if the clouds would hold off, as Everest was often hidden from view.  But patience paid off and over the course of the almost hour that we spent up there, we were rewarded with some incredible sights.

From Kala Pattar, one begins to really appreciate the size of Everest.  The majority of the giant west face can be seen from the summit, and the tents at Base Camp look like nothing more than colorful specs on the side of the glacier.  The South Col is clearly visible, as well as the Southeast Ridge and parts of the Northeast Ridge, all prominent features on the established climbing routes.  The views really were spectacular, with the best part coming as the sun went down and lit up the whole face of Everest to end the day.  Tough to put into words what the feeling was like sitting there watching, but needless to say it was special.

It was so special in fact, that I decided that one trip up Kala Pattar wasn’t enough, and so this morning I was out the door just after 5:00 to do it all over again (Kim had the sense about her to stay in bed).  As I sit here now thinking about it, just maybe did I bite off a little more than I could chew, because today is probably the most tired I’ve felt since we started. That being said, this morning the sun was on the complete opposite side of the sky than it was last evening, and so the only way to tell when the views were better was to head up and see for myself.

If I had to pick one, I would choose sunset, but seeing the sun come up over Tibet (only a couple kilometres away) and then light up all of the Khumbu Valley was also pretty cool.  And there was not a cloud in the sky so the views were even better than 12 hours before. The full scale of Everest was on display from Base Camp all the way to the summit. Well worth the second trip and lack of sleep.

As I sit here writing this in Dzonghla, after a four hour or so trek from Gorak Shep and one solid nap, I can’t help but feel a bit of a drop in energy and excitement.  For me, the focus of the trek has always been about getting to Everest, and now that we’ve completed that part, I wonder a little if I will have to re-focus a bit for this last week of trekking.  I don’t think it will be much of an issue, as there is still some spectacular terrain to see, including some side trips in Gokyo (where we are heading tomorrow) that are supposed to have amazing views back to the Everest region.  But before that, it’s time for another nap.