Today I would arise at the highest altitude yet on the trek – in the highest permanent settlement in the world in fact, at over 17,000 feet in Gorak Shep, and we were in the ‘Buddha Lodge’. It would therefore be the highest lodge we would stay at – the forchcoming tromp to Island Peak would be in tents, and then only one night higher than this, at about 18,500 feet in two days time. Today though, was all about getting to see Everest, and ‘properly’ this time.
If I thought that my previous night in Lobuche was my worst night’s sleep ever, then the night at Gorak Shep was sadly to surpass it. The only saving grace about the rooms in the Buddha Lodge were that they were relatively warm. The downside was that this was because they were directly above the kitchen, and the fumes and smells coming out of there turned the tiny room that we had into a noxious unbearable sweatbox, and you really really don’t need that when you are trying to sleep at 5,180m with mild altitude sickness. The smell was a combination of old cooking oil and yak shit (they burn this to fuel the stove), and it almost had me wanting to run out into the ice in the middle of the night.
I had actually gone to bed last night at the ridiculous time of 7.30pm, because a.) I was wiped out, b.) we had to climb Kala Pattar at 6am the following morning, and c.) it was so hot in the lodge room that you could have melted chocolate just by sitting it on the table in front of you. I was sat there in just a T shirt and I thought my contact lenses were going to melt in my eyes it was so warm.
So after retiring and reading for a little while (finishing Bear Gryll’s excellent ‘Facing Up’ about his Everest climb) I turned my light out at about 9pm. By 11.17 precisely I was awake, and I was to never get back to sleep. I was too hot, had a raging thirst, a brutal headache, and was short of breath. If someone had said there’s a helicopter waiting for me outside I would have got into it, without even caring which direction it was heading in.
When 5.30 am came, although all I wanted to do was sleep, I realised that I couldn’t, and so I climbed into my walking boots, long johns and suitable mountain attire for the haul up to Kala Pattar. Kala Pattar, at 5,650m (18,530ft) would be the highest point of the trek so far if I made it, and I was determined to, despite feeling like a zombie.
The only saving grace about this morning at all in fact, was that for the first time on the trek, we did not have to pack all of our expedition bags up first thing before breakfast. We were being allowed to do it after we got back from Kala Pattar later in the morning.
After eating no breakfast whatsoever (I just couldn’t stomach it), I set off on the steep climb out of Gorak Shep with six of the other seven team members. Stefan had had a similar night to me it seems, and decided that he couldn’t face it, and so decided to descend to Lobuche, which at 4,940m would be the stop for the rest of later in the day.
The start of the walk was incredibly cold. In fact it made yesterday’s -9 C start to Everest Base camp seem warm. I had my thick Goretex ski gloves on, which I nearly didn’t even bring on the trek with me, plus fleece inners, and my hands were so cold I was actually concerned about frostbite for a while. I kept just wigggling them around, and banging them against my legs in the hope of getting them some warmth from somewhere, and wished that I had brought hand warmers with me. By the time the sun came up some 45 minutes later all was fine, and I thankfully had no problems after that.
Problems were being had sadly by another one of our team however. Maureen has been fighting a sinus infection for the last couple of days, and I can tell you that this is no place to either have one, or to try to fight it. She is brave however, and attempted the walk, but was to give up after about 20 minutes and be helped down the valley to Lobuche by Pasang, one of our guides.
The climb to the summit took one and a half hours for Tony and Rob, who were out of our sight not long after the start, and just over two hours for the rest of us. The weather was again absolutely cloudless, and so the views (the whole point of this particular walk after all) were simply beyond compare. Pumori (7,165m) rose majestically in front of us, and the massive swathe cut by the Khumbu glacier below the west face of Nuptse (7,861m) was to our right. There were also more outstanding views of Changtse in Tibet, as well as countless other soaring 7,000m + peaks.
From probably half way to the summit, the main attraction came into view. People climb Kala Pattar because it affords the best view of Everest from anywhere, including being on Everest herself. That was why I was there too, and I wasn’t going to let my dull headache get in the way of the greatest day in the mountains of my life.
Gradually the summit of Everest appears, complete with (thank you) trademark snow plume, and then you get to see the Khumbu Icefall in all of her glory, surpassing even the views from Base Camp yesterday by some considerable margin, and then Lhotse (8,501m) comes into view, with her own plume not to be outdone by her big sister.
Incidentally the plume on Everest is caused by the jet stream, which circles the earth at approximately 200mph, and at about 30,000 feet. Everest’s summit at over 29,000 feet means that the top is effectively buffeted by this the year round, and is is why she is unclimbable for all but a few days each year, when the jet stream briefly abates and rises post the winter monsoon. This weather window is what meteorologists are looking for to help climbers who anxiously sit waiting at the various camps on the mountain at the end of April each year. Anyone who tried to climb at any other time of the year would literally be blown off the face of the mountain.
So eventually we made it to the summit of Kala Pattar, a scramble at the very top, and the panorama from 18,550 feet was utterly majestic. The word majestic in fact is hopelessly inadequate here – just look instead at this panorama shot:
There laid out before us was the classic triangle of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse. Everest at last revealing all of her gobsmacking 8,848m, or 29,028 feet. The picture I have (and I’ll have to choose which, I have lots) will be blown up, framed, and will take pride of place above whichever mantelpiece I ever have.
Dave, myself, Bruce and Ram our assistant guide also had a shot perched on the very precarious Kala Pattar peak with Pumori towering above us in the background:
Oh and one more for luck, as it were, just me and Everest this time 🙂
We probably stayed on the summit for about 30 minutes. It was just utterly spectacular in every direction. Just looking down alone to Everest Base Camp, more than 1,000 feet below us, and the Khumbu Icefall alone was enough to hold your stare for what seemed like forever. In every direction though, words would only fail you to describe the sheer exultation of what is (as far as I am concerned) simply the best vantage point on this planet.
Eventually we made our way down again, looking back south towards the path of the Khumbu glacier. Amongst the so many different perspectives that I took away from this point in the mountains was just how almost, dare I say it, insignificant, Ama Dablam looked further down the valley. At a ‘mere’ 6,686m, she was beginning to get lost amongst these 7,000 and 8,000m behemoths.
But here was I, in the midst of all of them. The fact that I nearly didn’t get out of bed this morning as I felt so bad, is now so ridiculous to think about that it almost makes me shudder.
This is the crowning moment of my time in the mountains, in the great outdoors, and in fact of all the greatest things I have ever seen it is so far and away number one that I will never again stop to even think about the answer when anyone asks me.
The walk back down I can scarcely even remember. My brain was I think just numb from all that I had seen, and it is so emotional to take all of this in. I was drained in fact, emotionally and physically. But again words fail me as to be able to describe how incredibly happy I was to be here.
Upon getting back to Gorak Shep there was a brief time to pack, and to begin our descent back to Lobuche from where we had come yesterday.
Upon getting to Lobuche I think I just slept for about two or three hours. I practically collapsed into my sleeping bag mid afternoon.
I won’t go any higher on this trip, my body is too beaten up. I think I know that now. Tomorrow the path takes us to Chukkung, over the Kongma La pass at 5,600m, just below where we have been today on Kala Pattar, but if we choose we can circumnavigate this via Dingboche at 4,400m, where we were three days ago. At dinner we were able to choose which option we wished for, and six people are heading up, whilst Mo (still suffering from her sinus infection and now also AMS as well) and I will head down.
I am therefore not going to ascend Island Peak, and I will dwell upon whether that is a disappointing thing another time. Now I just need to descend, my body craves it. I have seen and done ‘my’ Everest. It will always, always, be etched upon my retinas, and upon my mind and my heart. No-one can take it away from me. My journey, whilst not complete, is now headed only in one direction, and that is to the safety and comfort of more oxygen rich air.
Tomorrow I will begin the rest of that journey – and what a journey it has all been.