Ultimate Everest Base Camp Trek
Departed 10th November 2018
Leader: Joe Brindley
Today was always going to be a day of waiting, but even knowing that makes it no easier! Flight times for leaving Lukla are very approximate, so inevitably you end up staring out of the window for hours on end waiting for what looks like your plane to arrive, only to sit down a little deflatedly upon realising it is yet again only carrying cargo. Luckily there is plenty going on to be entertained by, particularly today as there is currently no power in Lukla; security scans with no electricity are a little removed from what you might expect at home! Eventually our small plane arrived, and after a journey enjoyed more by some than others we arrived back in Kathmandu. It was a strange feeling arriving back in such a busy city having been in the mountains for the best part of a month, but this does come with benefits, primarily Fire and Ice Pizza in Thamel! We returned to our hotel where it all started feeling well fed and relaxed, and completely ready for a long sleep.
We woke to yet more perfect sunshine in Namche (making it even harder to leave), and after negotiating the last of the twisting streets, school children, yaks, and prayer wheels we were back on the main track heading towards Lukla. We again crossed the disconcertingly swinging bridges, by now feeling like seasoned pros, and made our way along the now tree-lined track down through the mountains. We couldn’t get too comfortable however, as a downhill day still often includes a few short, stinging ascents – just to remind you of the weeks of walking already completed with now tired and heavy legs. We stopped for lunch at what had been our first overnight teahouse at the start of our trip, another reminder that our journey was drawing to a close. Once we had finished happily eating in the sun, our last hard effort of the trip lay ahead, a climb of a couple of hundred metres up to Lukla. We couldn’t help but use up the rest of our energy knowing we now had little to save it for, and split into smaller groups as we each tried to go as hard as we could one last time – I’m sure that to any passers by this must have looked much slower than it felt! We reached our lodge in Lukla feeling worn-out but satisfied, and enjoyed a final meal and game of cards with our Sherpas, a real high point to end on.
Despite today being a rest day we felt that it would be a shame to break from tradition this close to the end, so we were all up and ready to go for breakfast at 7.30 (a long lie in is a treat that we’re saving for our return to Kathmandu). Besides, we had a busy day of coffee, cake, and relaxing to prepare for! Namche is a very liveable place, with a lot of the conveniences you’d expect from a far less remote town, which was a big contrast from many of the small villages that we had stayed in for the last few weeks. We took full advantage of this, and everybody took the opportunity to have a gentle day, and to breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the hardest sections of the journey were all now behind us (except for the Lukla flight..!).
After a day spent ambling between cafés, market stalls, shops, and bakeries we headed to bed feeling rested, perfect for the last stage of our journey tomorrow.
The big down continues! We left Dingboche bright and early as we had a fairly large distance planned to make it back to Namche by the evening. We walked through more yak pastures, along ridges, down valleys, and across bridges. At one point we found ourselves within a yak herd for a good hour! This involved an attempt by the yak owners to herd them down the valley, and the yaks would then in turn attempted to herd us. This slowed progress somewhat, but definitely added an element of excitement to the day – a sign of ‘beware falling yaks’ would have been appropriate! Having extricated ourselves, we eventually reached Tengboche Monastery. It is clear to see why it was the chosen location for a monastery, the high plateau looks down upon everything for miles around, with extended views of giant Himalayas in all directions. We continued down a long steep descent to reach our lunch stop at Phungi Thanga where we made the most of the chance to sit, knowing that we had a long climb to Khumjumg immediately afterwards. As the climb started, our group separated into two distinct teams, and all of our competitive instincts took over. This certainly reduced the time taken climbing, however equally increased the level of leg ache! One team convincingly made it to Namche first, however the other half are hoping to turn this around during Wednesday’s competition from Namche to Lukla! The rules for this will be explained in a couple of days… Returning to Namche almost feels like coming home, and we’re really enjoying the chance to relax here (it’s a great excuse for another brownie!), so we have another rest day planned for tomorrow before our final leg of walking on Wednesday.
We left Gorak Shep the way that we came, but it was impossible to recognise the undulating route over, under, and round the many boulders. Reaching the flat ground at the end of the moraine was a relief, and with a final goodbye to the head of the Khumbu valley we began our descent. We travelled back through Lobuche, and then instead of bearing right to Dzongla we continued South towards Thokla. By now the air was already starting to feel thicker, Thokla is 600m lower than Gorak Shep, and our destination of Dingboche a further 200m down. We passed through many Yak grazing areas, and everything seemed calm again in contrast to the bustle of Gorak Shep. No longer was the most common sound a helicopter, but maybe now a river, a fly, or a yak herd. As we walked the ridge leading to Dingboche the mountains opened themselves before us once again, and we received our final panoramama including Everest, Lhotse, Ama Dablam in the foreground, and Makalu right at the back. We sank down into Dingboche in time for early afternoon tea, and relaxed comfortably for the rest of the day.
Today everyone was at breakfast on time, it was the day for our final push north. We left Gorak Shep in a duststorm that required constant eye, nose, and mouth protection, and headed towards the moraine at the foot of the Khumbu Icefall. We walked over boulder after boulder, climb after climb, descent after descent, from hill to hill, and crater to crater. We walked we rested, we walked we rested, and finally, after a couple of hours of struggle, we saw it – a small cluster of prayer flags on the only flattening around. After an enthused rush we stepped onto the platform. We had made it to Everest Base Camp. We took the obligatory photos, but the satisfaction went beyond this, it was a combination of the many tough days that had come before, and the many months of hard work that came before even setting foot in Nepal. We enjoyed our time on the flattening, and looking up towards the Icefall imagined this just being the start of the journey, imagined the thousands of metres of climbing that could still be to come, imagined the thiness of the air not at 5380m but at 8848m. One for another day. After making our way back through the same draining moraine we returned to Gorak Shep for lunch – apparently a local special that comprises of baked beans, potato (aloo) and mushroom (chyau) curry, cheese spring rolls, and canned meat fritters. It was fantastic! Despite this very satisfying lunch we couldn’t relax for too long, we had planned to climb Kala Patthar (5643m – our highest point) in the afternoon in order to reach the summit in time for a sunset over the Everest Horseshoe. Mercifully as we set out from the the teahouse the earlier strong winds had subsided, meaning we were not sandblasted for the second time. We naturally split walking up towards the summit, giving each team member a little time from reflection, and a surprisingly short time later we were gathered together on the summit enjoying the red light being cast across the summits of Everest, Lhotse, and Nuptse. This felt like the perfect culmination of our trip, sunset at our highest point, with many of the giants of the Himalayas surrounding us. After absorbing this for as long as we could we descended back to our teahouse, and celebrated our achievement together. We went to bed for our last night sleeping at 5164m, with the comforting thought of our impending descent.
Dzongla is an impressive place to wake up, I pulled back my curtain and could see the whole of Cholatse almost within touching distance. The fact that Ueli Steck managed to run from the village in the morning, to the summit, and back before coffee time really put our heavy legs into perspective! We had another long day on the menu today, Dzongla to Gorak Shep, but thankfully nothing as menacing as the Cho La to contend with. The day started up hill but as we crested the ridge we didn’t notice our legs, as all our senses were consumed by the 7161m Pumori shining in the sun. We then turned north, heading towards the final reaches of our journey, and after rejoining the main track and stopping for lunch in Lobuche, we crossed the final undulating boulder fields into Gorak Shep. The views were incredible, with Nuptse dominating our vision, but the environment was equally as harsh, with the dusty, rocky nature combining with the altitude and powerful sunlight during the day and sub freezing temperatures at night making it an amazing yet inhospitable place. We had a relaxed evening, proving that our acclimatisation has been good, which was made all the better by an excellent cake baked for us by our very own base-camp cook! We went to bed comfortably full, and with excitement for the day ahead – the base camp of Everest awaits!
The day had finally arrived! It was time to head over 5420m Cho La Pass. We woke in Dragnag to cold, clear weather, and after packing our thickest gloves and jackets into our bags we left the stove-heated room in the teahouse and stepped into the chill. The daunting sight of the day before had sadly not changed, and trying our best to only look at the ground in front of our feet we started the ascent toward the beginning of the day’s main climb. The initial ascent was tough, and a combination of the altitude and gradient had a large effect on the pace. This did have the positive side-effect that during our many important breaks we could enjoy the frozen rivers, rising yaks, and red-tinged mountain tops that surrounded us. After this big initial effort we reached a plateau, and with it the sun! Continuing across the plateau we finally could see the finally climb of the pass, and any hope that the hardest part was behind us was quickly removed. The path wound it’s was over a tricky boulder field, then up an improbable looking slope looming above us. The climb happened in slow motion, an almost out of body experience as you commanded your legs to move – which they would do 5 seconds later. After an hour of struggle we could start to see open space above us; despite this motivation, the best we could manage was a laboured gasp over the top. No matter the method, it did not make a difference – we had made it over! The views helped bring some power back to our legs (with a little Mars bar assistance…), with the towering north Fface of Cholatse laughing down on our haggard expressions. We had another reason for excitement, as it was time for everybody to put on their new trail crampons to cross the dry glacier that stood between us and our destination of Dzongla. With everyone kitted up and ready to go we stepped out onto the ice, and enjoyed the change of surface – but this was no time to relax. The beast groaned and crackled be beneath us, and we kicked our way across to the relative safety of the rocks at the side. We came out onto rock smoothed by centuries of glacial activity. The warmer air and dropping sun on our faces told us that our journey was nearly done, and after an hour of descent we stumbled into Dzongla, exhausted but pleased.
After yesterday’s strenuous climb it was a good feeling at breakfast knowing that we could be sat back down within 3 hours. The walk to Dragnag was short but, due to the majority of it being next to or on a glacier, exciting. Hearing the ground beneath your feet constantly moan and groan adds another element to a walk, and the echoing sound of rockfall all around gave the slightly surreal feel of being inside a pinball machine. Thankfully whoever was playing was not very good, so we all escaped unscathed! Reaching the hamlet of Dragnag our feelings were mixed. It was on one hand great to be able to rest so soon, however just beyond the teahouse, in plain sight for all to see, was the entrance to tomorrow’s challenge: the daunting Cho La Pass. The path we could see had no zig zags, no flattening, just a thin weave following the fall line of the steep slope above our beds, it was almost a shame to arrive in daylight – seeing this removed a little of the afternoon’s relaxation! After sitting for as long as possible, and eating as much as we could, it was time for bed – each team member being a little extra dilligent with their respective early night.
The ascent of Gokyo Ri had been approached with both excitement and trepidation, but it was time for all of this to be put away and all efforts to be concentrated on reaching the top! Over breakfast we all stared out the large windows at the leg achingly steep slope just across the water, and half of us responded by eating as much as possible, and the other half taking quite the opposite approach. We started the climb in our thick down jackets and gloves, as the morning chill still hung in the air, but it was not long before these were pushed into the bottom of bags – not to be removed again for a long while. The steep slope was unrelenting, and for at least the first hour the pattern of step, step, breathe; step, step, breathe was not interrupted by any change in gradient. The eventual lessening of angle and rocky scramble to the summit prayer flags were welcome sights, but remained painfully out of reach for at least another 20 minutes. When we finally reached the colourful cairn our pain lessened considerably (I’m won’t lie and say it disappeared) as the most incredible view opened around us. The complete Everest horseshoe was visible, along with Makalu, Cholatse, Cho Oyu, and countless other ‘himals’ (snow covered mountains in Nepali). We could have sat and stared for the rest of the day, and indeed we did spend the best part of an hour there, but all too soon it was time to turn around and make our way back down the dusty path to Gokyo – far easier in this direction!
This morning we left Machermo at a strong pace, either everyone was feeling incredible well rested, or (more likely I think…) the mentioning of the world’s highest bakery was acting as the carrot to our inner donkeys! After a sharp climb out of Machermo, the terrain started to level off, much to our relief given the optimistic start. We again were heading towards the ever-present Cho Oyu, the mountain so big that you can walk towards it for days and yet still marvel at the expanse that remains between you. Mountain water was the theme of the day, and over the course of the morning we crossed many small rivers (with bridges definitely not wide enough for a person and a yak…) before approaching the first of the three lakes that lie between Machermo and Gokyo. The intensity of colour seemed somehow to increase with each lake, until the third looked as if it was entirely composed of turquoise paint. Not only was the water vibrant, but the ducks we saw by the shore were an equally as brilliant orange. They clearly weren’t feeling the cold as much as us as they dived into the icy shallows! Upon reaching Gokyo we checked into our most impressive teahouse (definitely borderline hotel) of the trip so far, with a panoramic view of Gokyo lake, Gokyo Ri, and Cho Oyu from the dining room. Enough about the views though, it was time for the German bakery! We set off with hopes high and we were not disappointed, not only was every pastry and cake the size of your head, but the warm room contained a library full of mountaineering books – I think we could have easily spent several days there! We went to bed that night full and content (just as every night really), and looking forward to going to the top of the mountain we’d been watching out of windows all afternoon.
Our rest day in Machermo started off with a well received later breakfast, before we strolled (as much as you can stroll at 4100m) up a nearby hill to aid our acclimatisation, and for a great view of the village. We took the term rest day to heart, and upon reaching the top promptly lay down in the sun, and enjoyed the calm. One of our guides even provided some relaxing music, and it wasn’t long before we were all quietly singing along, however I’m not entirely convinced if this added to the tranquility of the moment… After having absorbed as much sun as we could, we headed down for lunch (notable for it being the first meal not featuring any daal bhat, but still a couple of hidden chillis!) back down in the village. Having lounged a little more in the warm, we headed back over to the rescue post for another chat, and to buy a hat one team member had taken a fancy to – which I can confirm looks as stylish as he had hoped. We also gave some rupees to have a crack at the O2 stats leaderboard the doctors have been running all season – one of us was particularly pleased to end up in joint first place, not that we’re competitive!
Our day started in a very hard way as one of our fittest members had to return to Kathmandu. We’re very pleased to have since received positive news, but we all miss you. Once we began walking we noticed a real change in our surroundings, we were now definitely above the treeline and were treated to views of not only Kangtega, Thamserku, and Ama Dablam, but also of Tobuche, Cholatse, Lobuche East and West, and of course the ever present beast that is Cho Oyu. It was an inspiring setting, and even those who had vehemently described themselves as walkers at the beginning of the trip began to imagine themselves climbing the towers of rock and ice around them. We reached our next teahouse for lunch (there now appears to be a chilli or ‘korsani’ challenge with the Sherpas), and then made our way to the Machermo rescue post for an excellent afternoon altitude talk given by volunteer doctors working for the IPPG (International Porter Protection Group). We all came away having learned something, and also very impressed by the work put in by the small team of volunteers. We made it back to the teahouse for our evening meal (a suspiciously spicy daal bhat for some…) and early bed after a long day.
It’s getting colder! Despite the noticeable drop in air temperature, it wasn’t long before the layers were coming off – today’s menu consisted of 500m of height gain in only a couple of hours. After another filling breakfast we set off to our clearest views yet of Thamserku and Kangtega, but these giants were soon to be dwarfed by the stunning South face of Cho Oyu, which accompanied us for the remainder of our ascent. Everybody was either feeling very strong, or were spurred on by the surroundings, as we soon dispatched our day’s height gain. Our destination was Dole, a small community nestled between the surrounding hills, with beautiful views from every angle. We celebrated as a group having passed 4000m for the first time this trip, and daal bhat followed by masala tea (or the increasingly popular ginger, lemon, and honey for some) seemed like the perfect treat! After lunch we had a brief stretch of our legs on one of the many surrounding ridge lines before the afternoon cloud came in, and returned for a mix of tea, reading, cards, and Nepali practice for the remainder of the day. I think we’ve all lost a little confidence in our card (or ‘tas’ in Nepali) playing skills having been comprehensively beaten by our Sherpas!
We woke to a nice surprise on our rest day in Namche – the cloud had cleared and we could at last see everything around us. Cameras were out even before breakfast taking photos in every direction, with a spectacular view of the west face of Kongde being a favourite. After refilling our fuel reserves with breakfast (clearly we’d already burned off last night’s daal bhat), we headed up to the viewpoint above Namche to make the most of the clear skies. The thinner air made the steps a little tougher than usual, but this was soon forgotten as we reached the top and the valley below was revealed. Right at the head stood Lhotse – both inspiring and intimidating at the same time. Just to the right in the foreground was Ama Dablam, a mountain that everybody will have seen in photos, yet still managed to surprise with her (Ama meaning mother in Sherpa and Tibetan) sheer faces and striking ridges. Having managed to eventually drag ourselves away from this view, we took time to walk around the museum of Himalayan mountaineering, with a personal favourite being the selection of photos from the 1970s and 80s. Just outside stood a statue in tribute to Tenzing Norgay, which was infinitely improved by the ‘Do Not Climb’ sign on the base! Having returned to our teahouse we took the opportunity to top up with some more daal bhat, before heading out to explore the town in the afternoon. It was during this exploration that we discovered what could possibly be the world’s best brownie, we’ve collectively agreed not to give away the secret – a challenge to find it for anyone else visiting! We then started to head back for an early night, but not before two from the group bought a six-foot painting – thankfully we’re coming back through so it won’t need to come all the way to base camp!
The next morning started in the usual way (excluding a couple of curve-ball orders of porridge…), and we packed up ready to make the journey to Phortse Thenga, with a fair amount of climbing ahead. The air was once again clear, and within the first half an hour we were treated to our best view so far – straight down the valley to Everest. We could see every detail, even a plume of snow blowing from the summit, and the panorama continued to include Lhotse, Ama Dablam, and closer to us – Tabuche Peak. It was hard walking for the next hour, not because of the terrain but because it is hard to be aware of you’re feet when staring into the sky! After stopping for lunch at 3900m we then descended to our teahouse for the night in Phortse Thenga at 3600m. Tomorrow takes us up to Dole at 4100m, so a good rest and plenty of food (daal bhat, anyone?) will be the perfect preparation. Tonight it is time to enjoy the last of the thick air, as it’s only up from here…
Our night in Phakding was enjoyable, and after some engaging conversation we got our first long nights sleep for many days. We set off having eaten a traditional Phakding breakfast (egg, chapati, jam, potato) which comfortably saw us through until lunch where Daal Bhat was yet again popular. This day took us all the way from Phakding to Namche Bazaar (the Sherpa capital) with over 800m of elevation gain to 3450m, which the group happily took in their stride. The long metal bridges across the river (very, very far below) that we frequently crossed added much excitement to the day, which was only enhanced by the mist that occasionally swirled around us. After negotiating several yak and donkey trains we made it to Namche in good time, and were again greeted with tea, a custom that we are very grateful for. The group are all performing very strongly, and have not noticed any effects from the altitude so far – but that’s not to say they’re not pleased for the slightly shorter day tomorrow!
Having arrived in Lukla after an ‘exciting’ flight from Kathmandu, we settled down for lunch in our first tea house. Obviously the flight hadn’t dampened anyone’s appetite – a wide range of dishes from daal bhat and momos, to fried eggs and even water buffalo were enjoyed with enthusiasm! Well fed and in high spirits we began walking, the short distance to Phakding was the perfect way to get our legs moving after several days of sitting. We passed the first of many prayer wheels, and made sure to walk by on the left and spin clockwise, one of the many cultural practices the group are quickly picking up.