2 November 2017
Today was the day. A long hard trek to Gorak Shep and then onto EBC after lunch. It promised to be cold and hard. A light snow had fallen overnight in Lobuche at 4,940m.
It was an early start at 6.30am for breakfast. I was a bundle of anticipation and apprehension, scared I wasn’t going to make it. I was just as scared of my reaction if I did. The trek out of Lobuche began fairly gently, some easy slopes up and down but we’d been told a difficult section lay between us and Gorak Shep at 5,164m. And it was. Undulating rocks, the result of the glacial moraine, covered the track meaning every step had to be taken with extreme caution. I had attached my poles to my pack but once again had opted not to use them. I found them more a hindrance than a help on the uneven terrain.
Up and down and up and down rolled our path. I stepped aside frequently to let people overtake me. We walked most of the day with Barb and Julie from Victoria, Australia, whom we had seen intermittently the entire trek. I was easily the slowest on the climbs but made up for it on the downhill sections which proved more difficult for Barb and Michael.
The trek from Lobuche to Gorak Shep took about three hours. We had glimpses of the pyramid that was the top of Everest as we followed the Khumbu glacier towards base camp. A quick lunch in our teahouse and I knew my energy was waning. It was only about 11am. I had lost my appetite and hadn’t eaten all my breakfast. I had made an effort to increase my water intake but with the extreme cold, even that was challenging. I was convinced that the hose on my Camelbak was frozen but I suspect I just hadn’t turned the nozzle on my bite valve open the entire way in my tiredness. It wasn’t until the sun came up that I somehow convinced myself it was “working” again and managed to open the valve and suck in deep mouthfuls of water.
After lunch, we set out for base camp and this time our porter, Pranaya, was coming too. Chuda was concerned about the weight of my pack and thought I was carrying too much. All I had was my water, Nikon, hat, rainjacket and prayer flags. He offered to carry my pack if he could put his water bottle in it. While I insisted it wasn’t necessary, he took it from me anyway, and swung my pack over his shoulder. I took out my Nikon and slung it around my neck.
The air was icy and soon I extracted my rainjacket to keep the wind out. The trek started easy enough, a long flat along a dusty plain punctuated with dirt channels where water no doubt ran during the wet season. But all too soon, we began to climb, as we inevitably always did. More rocky, uneven terrain, up and down, up and down.
I could feel frustration building in me and soon it was taking the shape of tears welling in my eyes. My energy was sapped and I actually felt hungry. It was the first time I seriously thought I wouldn’t make it. The glacier was to our right, huge boulders of dirty ice, covered in tonnes and tonnes of rock and scree. In some places you couldn’t even see the glacier running grey underneath.
When we finally reached a long crest above the glacier, Chuda pointed out the peak of Everest. All we would see of the great lady this day was her pyramid summit, the rest of her hidden by Nuptse. The sky was crystal and the bluest I have ever seen in my life. We couldn’t have asked for better weather.
We snapped some photos and continued on but as each step brought me closer to my goal, the more difficult walking became. The terrain along the crest was all but flat so I couldn’t blame an incline for my exhaustion. I could see base camp ahead and to the right, recognisable by the tiny figures gathered around what I presumed was a rock cairn. But what was also clear was that the path from the crest, down over the glacier to the start of the Khumbu icefall was steep. I looked at it in despair as I inched closer, step by step, unsure if I had the energy. Not to make it down – going down was easy – but getting back up. Tears were flowing as I plodded slowly along the crest in front of Michael and Chuda. The more I looked at the scene below, the more convinced I became it was impossible.
Try as I might, I also couldn’t see how it was possible to actually camp there. The tonnes of rock that covered the glacier rolled and undulated like a curvaceous woman. It defied belief that hundreds of people pitched camp there for months on end each summit season. If there was a flat area larger than a small car, I couldn’t see it.
There were prayer flags ahead, strung between boulders up and away from the crest. Small rock cairns marked the start of the narrow trail that led down onto the glacier, bearing both faded and vibrant flags. I wondered to myself: if I don’t descend to the glacier, if I stop right here, can I still claim I made it to base camp? If I didn’t go down, would I regret it for the rest of my life? I was so close and yet so far. It was like reaching Stella Point on Mt Kili; there’s only a few hundred metres to go but it may as well be a thousand, such is the exhaustion of body and mind.
My body was telling me I wouldn’t have the energy to make it back up from the glacier. Already on several uphill sections since we had left Gorak Shep, I had rapidly shed my outer layers, unable to bear the feel of jacket or buff around my throat, fighting back waves of nausea, only to succumb to cold and shivering and pull them back on when I rested.
As it turned out, I didn’t need to decide whether to continue or stop. Chuda and Michael had caught up to me at the start of the trail down to the glacier and Chuda didn’t pause. He walked past me and onto the trail and I very reluctantly followed him. If he had stopped, if he had asked me how I was going, I wonder if I would have kept walking. I’m thankful I didn’t have the opportunity to find out.
Down the dusty slope, I stumbled over rocks large and small. I knew I was at the end and rapidly reaching the limits of what my body could bear, although I was still lucid. I wasn’t sure what I felt. Walking along the crest, in between bouts of despair, I had felt something like elation but now that I was walking those final few steps, I saw there was no stone cairn or marker, no “x” marking the spot I had come so far to see. There was just a small pile of rocks, covered in ice, that so many people before me had shrouded in prayer flags, frayed and flailing in the wind.
There were the crumpled banners of tour groups, proudly announcing their feat and the date they had reached the site. There were some photos stuck in among the flags, tributes to those lost or perhaps those that didn’t make it. Just beyond it all, the icefall I had read so much about. It was spectacular in its scale and frightening to consider that, each spring, climbers crossed it using aluminium ladders strapped together over crevasses. The snow on Nuptse sheened white with tinges of blue, an indication of the incredible age of the ice shelf perched on it.
We stopped a few metres from the icy stack and dumped our packs to the ground. Chuda strolled over and clasped my shoulder and congratulated me on making it to base camp. “You have come all the way from Australia to achieve your dream.” His words brought more tears to my eyes because I knew he was sincere but somehow I still felt hollow.
It saddens me to admit what I did next. I pulled out my phone and despite it showing SOS only, I tried to call AndrewNotChris. I didn’t really expect it to connect, but in that moment, he was the only one I wanted to share it with.
But it didn’t connect so he couldn’t answer and I was left to salvage what I could from this once-in-a-lifetime experience. My energy was gone and I could barely summon up the strength to pose for photos. When Michael suggested a team photo with Chuda, he touched my back and I cringed away. I didn’t want to share this moment with him, a stranger, and a person I would never be friends with in ordinary circumstances.
Moreover, this experience and why I was there had nothing to do with him or anyone else. And perhaps it was that realisation that made climbing out of that valley so hard. I was all but sobbing as Chuda led me ever so slowly over rocks to the dirt track. I was at once both hot and freezing. The urge to vomit was dire and I wasn’t entirely sure I wouldn’t do it mid-step.
Chuda waved Pranaya and Michael ahead up the slope while he and I stood to the side and let a long line of trekkers descend. My head was throbbing and my lips were cracked and dry. Chuda felt my forehead, the back of my neck and my earlobes and urged me to do up my jacket against the cold. But I was too warm. I knew only a good cry would rid the lump in my throat. Everything had been building to this day and this moment and I didn’t know how to feel.
But somehow, from somewhere, I found the strength to walk up out of that valley and off that glacier to the relatively flat of the crest, and we began to retrace our steps to Gorak Shep. We had reached the turnaround point and our journey back to Lukla would begin tomorrow. Our itinerary included a dawn hike to Kala Patthar, a notable landmark located on the south ridge of Pumori above Gorak Shep at 5,644m but I had neither paid attention nor knew enough about it to care. Aaron and Paul had told us as we passed them that morning, heading home, that the trek to Kala Patthar was hard and bitterly cold. After today’s experience, I had no desire to get up early tomorrow to walk in the dark to a new altitude just for the sake of it.
A rumble like thunder startled me and I looked to my left now across the glacier to see an avalanche tumbling down. A few hundred tonnes of ice and rock slid down the mountainface before coming to rest in an enormous puff of dust. It was amazing to witness. Thrice more on the hike back to Gorak Shep I heard rumblings and looked about me eagerly but there was only ice and rock and the crisp blue of the Himalayan skies.