Everest! Massive, towering above every other mountain on Earth. Enticing the human Spirit, until recent times hidden in the forbidden Kingdom, Shangrila. Unconquered by expedition after expedition over 40 years of attempts until Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa reached its summit on May 29, 1953.
The goals of our little band of three were modest compared with those who would dare to attempt Everest's summit. Thuy, Megan and I came to explore the beauty of the Solu Khumbu region, the Himalayas' crown jewel, and to try to climb to Everest Base Camp at 18,565 ft. Still, the same allures that attract the professional climbers also brought us: Love of mountains, yearning for adventure, and willingness to challenge physical limits.
After enjoying the sights of Nepal for a couple days and rafting the wild Bhote Kosi River, we met in early morning to fly to Lukla, 9,252 ft., and begin a 16-day journey. Eating breakfast in Lukla's Paradise Lodge brought back memories and the lodge's owner still remembered me despite 10 year's absence. We met our guide Karsang, who twice summited Everest. As in previous trips, we chose Asian Trekking, Nepal's top climbing and trekking company, to arrange our affairs. In so doing, we were given the best rooms at each lodge along the way, as well as the benefit of their experience and flawless service. The "tea house" lodges, I discovered, had greatly improved since my last venture to the region: Real pillows, tasty meals, foam for bedding, some lodges even had indoor toilets!
In the first three days we gained more than 3,200 feet on the altimeter. In actuality, our total climb was more than double that along the natural terrain, a fact of mountaineering that can frustrate first timers. Ascents often involved hundreds of continuous rock "stairs", except instead of 9" risers, with each step 14 to 18 inches high. Thuy purchased trekking poles in Namche, easing both climbing and descents.
Khumjung, the epicenter of Sherpa life and the school Edmund Hillary's foundation funds to provide education for Sherpa children, is the gateway to the high Himalayas. There we enjoyed our last meat as well as the last shower (for the girls) for nearly two weeks. (Steve braved to "shower" in Gokyo, purchasing a bucket of water heated by yak dung fire, but it was a tad cold!) Also we visited Khumjung Monastery which caretakes a 200 year-old yeti skull and enjoyed tea at the home of our guide Karsang and his wife, who proudly showed us pictures of their college-age kids (their elder daughter was Miss Sherpa 2011). Karsang's expedition days on Everest are over after an accident in the Khumbu Icefall killed a close friend; they hope to transform their home into a trekking lodge in the near future.
From here on out, the lodges would be more rudimentary and the night time's ever colder. Our first goal was to reach Gokyo, perhaps the most beautiful spot in the high Himalayas, nestled at the base of Cho Oyo (the world's 6th highest peak) and astride a string of six glacier fed lakes. The top of Gokyo Ri boasts the best views of all the surrounding peaks for miles around, including the best views of Everest and Lhotse, the world's two highest massifs. However, we kept encountering groups despondently headed down from Gokyo, unable to cross Cho La Pass, the only way to reach the Everest region.
A week before our arrival a huge typhoon, after devastating Bangledesh, had slammed Nepal dumping several feet of early Autumn snow throughout the region and stranding scores of trekkers unable to leave the high point, Gokyo, for days, except by helicopter evacuation. The icy conditions up and down the very steep Cho La Pass were too dangerous. Word was, Cho La Pass had been officially closed.
Our motto of "slow and steady" was paying off. Throughout the trek, we passed every group we encountered (except on the way down, a couple of alpha males ran past us). Grabbing oxygen in the thin air was, however, becoming increasingly challenging on the uphills. Not many years ago, before rules for acclimatizing to altitude became understood, one in fifty trekkers to the Solu Khumbu region died of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). The rules say do not ascend more than 1,000 feet per day, with a rest day after every 3,000 feet of altitude gain. We abided, to a fashion, pushing at the boundaries of the guidelines. And yes, we were beginning to feel the early symptoms of altitude, headaches, sleeplessness, and a persistent "Khumbu" cough. Still, we enjoyed the beauty of the surroundings as well as each others company as we drank liters and liters of ginger tea and hot lemon water to keep altitude sickness at bay.
Well, my plan was to go a little further in this first of two installments. However, even though we've relentlessly culled out from the pictures we'd like to share, we are at the max for one email. What happens next is where the real adventure begins . . . . Please stayed tuned for part two. We'll finish this with a following email on or around Thanksgiving.
Love,Steve and Thuy