Everest Diary: Day 21
Trip Start Sep 27, 2010
137Trip End Ongoing
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Gorak Shep to Pangboche
05:00 – 18:00
I have a small confession to make. I did not come here to visit Everest base camp, it is a brag location, somewhere purely symbolic that everyone has heard of and will understand despite having no idea where it is or what it indeed looks like. Therefore I hope that my negativity of base camp, while a quite simply outstanding and amazing place in the world, can hopefully be understood by those perhaps disappointed that I disliked so much somewhere I trekked so hard to arrive at
At five thousand six hundred meters, Kala Pattar is almost as high as Mt Kilimanjaro in east Africa though from the ground of Gorak Shep it looks more like a big hill, ugly and awkward looking, it sits though on a very good piece of real estate.
It is fifty fifty whether a climb will even be worthwhile such is the endemic cloud of the region that regularly has the peak and all it looks upon covered in thick cloud which frustrates in its ability to create on itself in the high heights above Everest, therefore it can actually last for a whole day just in this localized location even if the entire rest of the sky is clear blue. You have to start early, very early and even then the chances of a clear view of its most famous neighbor are somewhere around ten per cent or so, even less in this, the monsoon.
I awake at four in the morning and can see the mountain from my window, I tell myself that if it is cloudy at five then I will hike back down, abandoning the attempt, despite my exploits of yesterday, not a single aching part of me wants such an eventuality and I prey for clear skies from my warm bed
Kala Pattar may be five thousand six hundred meters tall but from its base at the edge of Gorak Shep it appears to be a simple brown hill. One of the things I dislike about the Everest region is that despite the huge heights, the peaks benefit from sitting upon land that is already over five thousand meters in height and somehow because of this it somehow does not seem quite fair that these mountains hold such accolades when, from here at what is or at least appears to be ground level, even the tallest peaks are only a little higher than the elevation of my Ugandan Virungas which obviously attract far less attention.
I cross the dry, desert lake to the foot of the mountain, which not so much looms as squats above me, the summit visible and looking almost too easy to reach, I wander if such a low climb can really produce views said to be among the best in the Himalaya. Already in front of me I see a woman resting after perhaps twelve meters looking quite exhausted, I doubt her chances of making the top but as I have not set off yet myself I am quick to dismiss this thought, I myself may only make nine meters before needing a rest
The air is cold and the ground has a heavy frost. For the first time on the trek I wear gloves at least until the sun appears over the massif to my right which includes two of the highest points on earth, I could not really be in a worse place waiting for the sun to breach the landscape and warm the earth beneath my feet. I was told to expect temperatures of minus twenty on the peak though it does not feel anything like that cold as I make slow progress up what seems like terminal brown rocks, I do not even wear a jacket, just my usual shirt and trousers though for this adventure I do at least my woolly dinosaur hat just in case.
The massif to my right glows a light ice blue in the morning light, Everest is mostly hidden behind Nuptse and Lhoste, no small hills themselves though as I climb they begin to give up their bigger brother and the upper part of the South Face is clearly visible, black and cold its very summit hidden in a swirl of cloud.
The climb is tough and I stop for air frequently, the atmosphere is one of cold and I take to breathing through my gloves, the warm moist air almost magical in its healing properties
It is about now that I realize that I was wrong about the summit of Kala Pattar, it looked a bit too low because it was just that, far too low in fact. The mountain has three peaks and the one I see is by far the lowest and the path does not even give it the dignity of passing along it. My heart sinks, I am by now exhausted but carry on albeit incredibly slowly, looking at the ground rather than the climb ahead to avoid depressing myself with what is to come and what is to surely hurt.
I do not have to wait long though for the world to come to my rescue as, all of a sudden to my right a great bolt of light hits the frozen surface of Kala Pattar transforming the path into a golden yellow brick road as the sun’s burning yellow rays hit the thick frost. I am witnessing the sun rising over Mount Everest
It is a magical sight as much in its significance as it is before my eyes, sunrise over the word’s highest point, sunrise over the entire world and at once I feel like the member of a very select club.
The sunlight makes me hot and uncomfortable as my heart rate races to attempt to compensate foe the lack of oxygen in the air but at least I can now breath without holding my hands to my mouth like a man eternally trying to watch his tongue in case he swore at the mountain. It has nothing to do with this new light but it perhaps gave me some renewed energy to walk a little faster which enabled me to see the summit of Kala Pattar for the first time. It looks rather unnatural, almost home made like someone has built it over the years by placing rock after rock on top of each other to a rather awkward point topped off by prayer flags and a rather ugly scientific machine which looked like something I might have built in a science lesson rather than something that was collecting valuable research, perhaps it is the Chinese, a listening device to catch any talk of crossing the peaks in front of us into Tibet (though this scenario seems a little unlikely given Nepali-Chino relations!). I just about make out three figures on the summit, I would not see them if they were not wearing bright red and yellow jackets, tiny spots of colour that do not seem to get any larger as I climb, they are in no way an encouragement
I rest for about the hundred and eleventh time and to my surprise see the woman I passed at the start of the hike still plugging away. I never see her move, just appear a tiny bit closer as her stops seemed to mirror my own, she is far below, so far in fact it makes me tired thinking about how much more she has to do just to be level with me. I pull myself up and carry on.
The next hour was a cat and mouse game of climb verses rest in which I tried to stay one step ahead of. I had no time limit, it could take me six hours if it had to but, with the sky clear, I did not want to spend all day getting to the top, only to find the mountains covered in the afternoon fog, I can rest all I want at the top I keep telling myself, the Twix in my bag taking up more and more of my thoughts and dreams.
Finally after a final scramble over a pathless scatter of piled rocks large enough for me to abandon my conspiracy theories that this entire hill might have just been made to attract tourists, I make it to the top. I am not sure it can be described.
I have before spoken of my love of mountains from a distance, that close up they lose their magical appeal living high above the world of men in quite a desolate an lonely fools paradise of rock and stone
By climbing four hundred meters I had placed myself well above the intimidating ground where man is forced to look up at faceless rocks, I had placed myself on the shoulders of giants who now stand all around me almost at eye level giving me a three sixty panorama of the fairytale mountain view I had been craving all along, only here I am much, much closer, like standing on the roofs of Midtown New York City only with much grander surroundings.
Everest stands in front of me almost face to face though my eyes and brain are tricked by the joker of perspective which also makes it look smaller than its neighboring peaks it is of course far higher and much further away than it looks, a dark secret to match its dark skin.
I sit down on the summit, the world is almost a sensory overload as literally every angle is a view, is an event. Even on the summit itself the prayer flags blow in the silent wind, colourful chaos against a background of stillness and white as another seven thousand meter giant looks down, dwarfing the efforts of my morning’s climb into the realms of obscurity
To the west there is a vast lake, a glaze of green on a black wasteland which raises up, changes colour from brown to grey before becoming white as the landscape rises high enough for snow, the perfect triangle of Ama Dablam, easily the most beautiful peak in the entire range, cutting into the ice-blue sky like a shark breaching the cold sea.
I met a Bulgarian couple, the first Bulgarians I have ever met in fact and we share stories of our getting here over biscuits and the long lusted Twix. They had arrived at four in the morning and still sat with hopes of the cloud lifting from the face of Everest, everyone wants to go home with that perfect view in their heads.
An hour and a half passes and just as I am taking some photos of myself which I am sure will end up on top of the television at my parent’s house, the woman I passed some five hours ago at the foot of the mountain appears. I am amazed and admire her spirit and persistence. It is only though when she reaches the top that she realizes that she has forgotten her camera
She is not at the summit for long though as a cold wind begins to pick up and blow across the makeshift camp the four of us had created. A cold wind here means that it has come over Everest at nearly nine thousand meters so it really is quite super cooled and we sadly agree that it is time to depart. Twenty one days for two hours sitting in the sky. It may sound like a rather bad deal but right there, right then there were no such thoughts, it had been perfect, the most spectacular end to the longest hike of my life, this despite Mt Everest’s shyness, but you cannot have everything can you?
Well, it turns out that you can.
We decided to hike back down over the other two peaks of the mountain for some variety and views over the sheer edge that the ridge between them creates. Just as we reached the second peak and were looking in the other direction toward Gorak Shep, which looked so insignificant, it might not even be there from this height we suddenly turned as if driven by some unknown urge and finally saw what we had walked nearly two hundred kilometers for
The cloud was never hiding much in truth but the summit, the highest point in the entire world like a lot of things on this trek is as much a symbolic location than anything else, the top of a mountain holds a certain significance, an indescribable lure and here in front of me was the summit of the highest mountain, the most famous summit of them all.
We all sat in silence.
I sat in silence.
How do you come down from such a high? You get as low as you can as fast as you can! For the next five hours after descending Gorak Shep and cramming twelve momos down my mouth I, along with my new Bulgarian friends, proceeded to hike down what had taken me five long days to climb.
The air growing thicker with every step as I lost all the altitude I had gained in the last half a week seemed to make me almost invincible, all lost energy being compensated for by increased oxygen, I could have walked all night while at least in my mind taken control of most of Asia
I walked down and down through the great Khumbu glacial valley which all the way back in Gorak Shep saw me trip and fall my way to Everest Base Camp on its alien surface. The wind constantly blew down from the high mountains, the same wind that hounded me on Kala Pattar but I do not care as I walk freely without the inhibitions of fear and restrictions of air that had cramped my lungs just this morning. Every hour or so I am amazed at some of the steep descents, wondering just how I managed to climb up them, alone, toward something I could not even see in my mind.
I lose a thousand meters in a few hours and continue all the way down to Pangboche, agonizingly close to a return to the tree line and the forests I missed so much on the way up a few days ago. I stay at the same guesthouse remembering the comfortable beds which would be much needed after five and a half hours of walking without rest. The owners recognize me which is nice and we are given free beds for the night though I doubt that any of us will be awake long enough to enjoy them.