Tolerance is very important. If you have tolerance, you can easily overcome difficulties. If you have little tolerance or without it, then the smallest thing immediately irritates you.
Day 9 – Everest Base Camp Day
This is it, base camp day! Now that we are at an advanced altitude and are at a bigger teahouse with more people, we hear some of the morning sounds to be expected — coughs and retching. It appears acclimatization hasn’t worked as well for some people. Our plan is to leave Lobuche this morning and arrive at Gorakshep in 2-3 hours. Once there, we’ll find our teahouse for the night, have some lunch, drop off any unnecessary load, and set out for the 4 hour journey to Everest Base Camp and back to the teahouse.
The morning walk from Lobuche starts very cold but sunny and windless, thankfully. We make our way up some gradual parts until we hit the steep hills. Our entire trek has involved us hiking past and over these glacial-fed rivers. Now, we are finally nearing and witnessing the source of these rivers; the nose of a glacier that creates them. As we top out on these hills and make our way through their very rocky trails, we see things suddenly come into sharp focus. The mountain range just in front of us is the border between Nepal and Tibet (China). An arbitrary line cuts through this spine of the world and one side of the mountain is Nepal and the other side is Tibet. That realization strikes me as profound given the historical, mystical, and religious significance of that land that is just in front of us now.
We now see the huge Khumbu glacier snaking its way down the surrounding massive slopes of Everest and her companion mountains. Right there, somewhere in the distance, is where the Everest Base Camp is and the start of epic adventures and many tragedies.
Finally, we see the last flat plateau that houses the outpost known as Gorakshep. Just outside of Gorakshep, a dark brown slope that has a light colored line on it marks the trail for those that want to climb up for the best Everest views. This dark hill is Kala Pattar and trekkers mostly climb it in the mornings to take advantage of better weather to take pictures of Everest.
We arrive at Gorakshep slightly bewildered. Our expectation was a quick two-hour climb out of Lobuche to arrive in Gorakshep for a short break and then continue to base camp. Instead, we arrive in three hours and in considerably more spent condition than expected. It’s already been very cold and windy, yet our guide tells us to have everything in our inventory with us as this final four-hour trek to EBC and back is going to be extremely cold and windy.
As we start on our way, we walk behind our teahouse and onto a sandy plateau to head. At 17,200′ / 4,180m (54% of the oxygen at sea level), Gorakshep is far higher in elevation than any mountain in the United States’ lower 48 states. Only Mt. McKinley (“Denali”) in Alaska is higher.
This sandy plateau goes a few hundred meters to the base of the surrounding hills and then more than a half-mile out of the outpost. I mention to our porter that this a good place for beach volleyball, to which he replies “I have a volleyball!” The path to base camp is straightforward. There are some typical steep climbs and dips for a while. Then, we stay on a straight rib all the way, until it’s time to drop sharply down onto the actual glacier. I didn’t know that EBC was actually on the Khumbu glacier!
We drop down onto the glacier and it’s strange that there’s so much rock and soil. You feel that you’re still on solid ground and not an ancient, living, and moving behemoth of ice. I also didn’t realize that avalanches from not just slopes of Everest, but the surrounding mountains can easily reach this area. In fact, that’s how the 19 mountaineers died during the earthquake in 2015. We hike up and down on the glacier and around an outcropping for a short while until we are at a stone cairn with prayer flags and a sign that marks the location as the Mount Everest Base Camp. This marks the general place known as base camp for those that will climb Everest and the team supporting them. We look ahead of us and see a series of tents for sleeping and a larger kitchen tent off in the distance. We learn that this is a Spanish team in the midst of attempting a winter ascent of Mount Everest.
This seems almost unimaginable to me. Here we just arrived at base camp in this ungodly wind and cold. We’re unable to stay sufficiently warm or have any desire to linger in this hostile environment. Yet, the climbers are only just starting their journey and plan to climb another 12,000′ / 3,650m. A peak that juts into the planet’s jet stream and will do it in winter. I think to myself what planet these people are from, because I could never do that! Almost everyone climbs Everest in May. Even at that more milder time, the summit is almost never above freezing and is more likely to be about -15F / -26C and very windy. During winter, the typical temperature at the summit of Everest is -60F / -50C with gale force winds of 40 miles / 64 km per hour.
It’s true that we did just arrive at this elevation on a tight holiday timeline. Given even a couple of more days in this environment, one will feel significantly stronger and better able to cope with the cold. Still, it’s clear that this is an entirely hostile environment to survive in for long, let alone to engage in a prolonged extreme athletic and endurance oriented endeavor. We wish them much strength, good luck, and safety on their expedition.
Our own journey is slowly ending as we (feebly) try to engage the sights and experiences we’re being offered right now. The cold and the wind keep ticking away how long we can stay here. This is it — we made it! This was the toughest day of the trek, by far. We dug deep getting here today; the morning segment from Lobuche to Gorakshep and now from Gorakshep to EBC. Because of how spent we were through the day, we had been surveying what it would take to get back and from where to draw that energy. The time has come now to tap that energy reserve and get back to Gorakshep. We exchange a close hug, take some grateful pictures, and get ready to leave this place.
This is when we get asked by a large group to take their picture. They’ve all reached base camp together and want no on left out of their celebration picture. We agree to take that shot, but it becomes much more than just a single shot. It becomes two pictures taken from each of the following devices; 8 smartphones, 3 small digital cameras, and one full size digital SLR camera. Apparently, these people have shared an incredible multi-week journey together, but they can’t share pictures with each other from just one device?! We cycle through the pile of electronic devices, taking one landscape and one portrait. We finally reach the digital SLR and as we start cranking away with audible clicks of quick shutter releases of rapid shots, the group whips into a fury of pumping fists and hollers on the last few frames.
We collect the gratitude for the pictures taken and its time go. The two-hour trek to base camp earlier was hard; the quality of breathing no longer in good control, legs feeling fatigued, and the pace inconsistent. Now, the return journey was more of the same. The fuse is lit, burning fast, and we are running out of time for both daylight and keeping our body at an acceptable temperature.
Through concentrated breathing, digging deep, and taking one step at a time, we reach the outskirts of Gorakshep and the half mile stretch of dusty sand. We’re almost there, but we still have 10 minutes to fight off the approaching night and cold. As we close the remaining distance, there’s a strange deep sound coming from the left and high up. I look up to see if this is a siren of some sort, perhaps warning of weather or avalanche. Instead, I see a familiar raven that we’ve seen everywhere from Kathmandu to way up here. The best I can tell is that it’s so cold that the raven’s voice has changed into something very odd and mechanical. A little further and we finally make it to our teahouse and everyone goes inside. I take a minute and stay outside to let the day sink in a little more and steady myself before entering. The day is through, we’ve achieved our objective, we took in a lot to process, and have memories that will last a lifetime.