Friday, August 31, 2012

EBC TREK: Lobuche to Gorak Shep & Kala Patthar (Day 8)

Level ground leaving Lobuche... nice and easy.
          We woke up early to get a good start on everyone else in Lobuche. It was said that there were only a few guesthouses in Gorak Shep, our next destination, and I didn't want to risk spending another night in this infested slum. Still, as we were getting ready at 6 am there were already entire teams setting out before us. We hurried and ate our egg breakfasts, paid for the deficient accommodation, and set out.

View from atop the rocky bluff-- those little black dots on the left side
are people trekking below

          Mike and I went ahead to try and get to Gorak Shep quickly so we would have rooms for the night. The first 40 minutes was rocky, but flat and easy. There was a short but steep ascent up a rocky bluff. Then up and down, up and down, up and down cold and windy winding paths. By the last ascent we had caught up with the first groups to have left Lobuche that morning and ended up passing them.        We made good time (1 hour, 58 minutes to be exact) from Lobuche to Gorak Shep.

          We checked in at the first lodge we came to (Himalayan Lodge & Restaurant-- 300 NRS/night) and got two rooms. We dropped off our bags and doubled back, finding the girls about a half hour behind. We helped them with their gear and guided the way. It was only a little after 9 am when all of us arrived in Gorak Shep (5164 m/16,942 ft)-- the original base camp for Mt. Everest. The day was young and the morning's trek had been one of the easiest of the whole trip. We decided to take advantage of our extra time and make a day trip and hike up Kala Patthar, a nearby mountain sitting below “the impressive south face of Pumori”. I stood and looked up at Kala Patthar, dark and rough. “It doesn't look that bad,” I said. In the following hours I would eat those words.

Kala Patthar

          Just next to the our lodge in Gorak Shep is an open field of dirt, an ancient lake bed, with a makeshift helicopter landing pad made from large rocks. On the other side of this dirt lot is the foot of the mountain Kala Patthar. It pales in comparison to the size and beauty of its surrounding neighbors, Lhotse, Everest, Nuptse, and Pumori. It is dark and dirty and littered with giant boulders. There's no wonder Kala Patthar means “black rock” in Nepali. It looks dead, like a mountain of the moon. Still, I was surprised to hear that it takes 2 to 3 hours to reach the top. Again I mumbled to myself, “It doesn't look that bad.”

Shortly after starting the hike up Kala Patthar-- the
 town below shrinks and the mountains grow.
          After already having hiked 2 ½ hours that morning, we set out to tackle Kala Patthar, where the views of Everest are second only to Everest's peak itself. Mike and I started out with strength and energy and before long the girls were behind us and out of sight. The weather was decent. Almost immediately I realized that the ascent was steeper than it appeared. We stopped about half way up for a short water break, to catch our breath, and to check out the view so far. Below, the settlement of Gorak Shep now looked like nothing more than a small campground.

          We climbed and we climbed. Ridge after ridge, I thought I'd be able to see the top but nothing was revealed except more even ridges and even more rocks. So on we went and soon enough, the top was in sight. I battled the wind and dug into the hard, cold dirt and pushed forward until there was no more trail. Sharp and unstable knee to waist-high boulders now covered the ground and the hike turned into a scramble.

          Using my hands for balance and leverage I proceeded just behind Mike, only being able to take three steps at a time without having to stop and catch my breath or sit down from dizziness. The unforgiving terrain and temperature combined with being sick and with exhaustion began to weigh heavy. I was more fatigued from the early morning hike than I realized and the extreme elevation was taking it's toll. There had been previous sections of the trek that were difficult and there had been more than one time where I was uncomfortable, to say the least. But at this moment more than any, only a few dozen rocky meters from the peak, I was truly struggling. Even Mike the Mountain Man-- who before now had been healthy and seemingly unaffected by the altitude and the physical labors of the trek-- was having trouble making his body do what he needed it to do. I felt exhausted, nauseated, and lightheaded. Mike and I looked at each other. We looked at the top. So close-- maybe 50 yards away--So far. I sat to catch my breath one more time and gathered my composure. I lifted my head and looked above at the nearby summit. It was wrapped in strands of prayer flags and I stared at them blowing in the wind like a finish-line. I got up and pressed on. 
          I climbed and jumped and fell over boulder after rock. The prayer flags started to get closer and soon the 8 or 9 people waiting at the top had faces. I sucked in the thin air as we scrambled forward over the last few rocks and to the top. The top. I made it. Mike and I high-fived, sat down, and ate a Snickers at 18,300 feet (5,550 m). I looked around at the panoramic view and after only a few minutes of rest I felt fine. 

          The view was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. At the top, of this mountain, Kala Patthar, suddenly turned into a little hill. I felt like I was sitting inside a bowl. We were surrounded by the Earth's most impressive giants. There's no wonder the view from Kala Patthar is called the "Crown of the Himalayas".  I looked all around and then locked my eyes straight ahead and stared into the distance. I was taking in the world's second-best view of Mt. Everest. Far below, yellow dots speckled a distant glacier. These were they tents set up at Everest Base Camp-- the ultimate of our trek.
          From the very beginning, the trek had been full of ups and down, both literally and figuratively.  But at that moment everything was worth it.  We took pictures of the mountains and of ourselves and when the wind started to pick up even more we decided to go back down. Twenty minutes into the descent... “No way... Is that...? It is... Holy $*#%!”... it was the girls. 

          We were happy to see that they never quit. I have to say, I was really impressed. Today had been incredibly demanding and they were determined to make it to the top. Mike and I decided to go back up again, this time with Britt and Leanne.  We took more pictures at the top and as the temperature continued to drop and the wind steadily picked up we raced back down Kala Patthar. When my feet touched that sandy lot at the bottom I felt happy. I felt bruised. I felt sick. I felt accomplished. But most of all, I felt like a nap.  The following day was a big one-- I would finally attain my goal and journey's end of reaching Base Camp.

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