The next day we are on the trail again, below a deep blue sky – the sky is getting blue-er and blue-er as we move higher in altitude. The first few hours of the hike are wonderful as we are off of the beaten path and into a wonderful pine forest. We really happy during this morning hike and realize that it is because there is nobody else on the trail. This is one of the countless times we are extremely grateful to be with Marcia because of her extensive experience in the Khumbu.
Since we landed in Lukla, we have been on the trail dubbed I-90 – the main ‘highway’ to Everest Base Camp – and it is absolutely packed with trekkers, yaks, and porters. There are enormous clouds of dust on I-90 and it is crowded, miserable hiking. This dust, full of yak dung particles, has created a notorious cold that consumes trekkers on their way up and I have been chosen by fate, along with Marcia, to develop this ‘glorious’ sickness: the Khumbu Cold & Caugh. So it is with the sniffles and a stiflling sore throat that we have started this day of trekking, under the wonderful blue sky, on the trail that leads away from I-90. Marcia knew better than to have us hike through that crap for 3 weeks, so we are taking the long way to base camp.
After the nice hike through the woods, we break through the high altitude tree line and meander our way up to Thame, where we will stay for 2 nights to acclimatize. It is 45 minutes below Thame that we start to understand the Bhuddist sentiment in the valley. This particular site sits at one side of a swing
bridge above a carved out river gorge, an easy 1 hour 30 minute hike from the closest monastery, the monks being the ones to maintain the site. Painted onto the side of a cliff, are 3 massive paintings of Bhudda and his counterparts, protecting those who cross the bridge and wishing good luck to all who pass. It is almost as if we are being pulled into this wonderful Bhuddist culture as we hike higher and deeper into the valley.
At Thame we settle in, have our veg. fried potatoes with egg, and huddle around the yak-poo stove for heat. Now that we are at just over 12,000ft. the temperature plummets at night and we can easily see our breath in our rooms through the glow of our headlamps. Needless to say, we are thankful for our fake North Face down jackets that we bought while in hot Kathmandu. While sitting around the stove, Mingma starts up in his stories, and they are nothing short of spectacular. Within minutes he has all of us laughing with tears streaming down our faces. He tells us stories about dreaded mountain yettis (that are still strongly feared by the local sherpa people) as well as frightening sherpa ghost stories. By the end we are quite convinced that somebody in our group is going to get eaten by a yetti if they wander off the trail.
The next morning opens up into another deep blue sky and Ryan, Vanessa, Mingma and I prepare for a day/acclimitization hike up to Sunder Peak. This will be the first big test for us, as we will be hiking up to about 15,000ft., which is by far the highest that any of us, besides Mingma of course, has been in our entire lives. The hike begins and soon we are high above Thame. A bit further up the trail we start to hear shouting. We look up to find 3 young boys, dressed in red jackets, cargo pants, and tennis shoes, shouting “Come! Come! Come up to the monastery!” They are giggling as we turn to come up towards the monastery. We arrive to find out that these three young boys, no more than 5 or 6 years old, are actually Bhuddist monks. Mingma takes us around the monastery for a while, explaining different aspects of the culture and Bhuddist way of life. Again Mingma impresses us with his depth of knowledge as well as passion for his culture and religion.
For the next 3 hours we hike straight up the side of the mountain, over boulder fields and grassy knolls, to the very top. We pass by himilayan tar, the same type of animals we hunted in New Zealand, and enjoy our boiled egg and tibetan bread lunch with a wonderful view. Although we would like to stay up on top for quite some time, the clouds and biting cold have a different opinion and we are soon hustling down the mountainside in our down jackets, hats and gloves amid snow flurries. We get to the bottom, breathless, and are glad for the experience. We all did well on the training hike and we have a bit more confidence about the higher altitude.
The next morning we prepare to hike to our next camp, but on the way out of Thame, Mingma tells us that his grandparents have a surprise for us. We ask if we heard him correctly because we are stunned that his grandparents live in this little village. He assures that not only do his grandparents live a stones throw away from our teahouse, but they have invited us to tea. He also tells us that they are 92 and 93 years old. We are absolutely amazed and follow down the path in the early morning light. Sure enough within 5 minutes we get to the little house and
are welcomed by an extremely old sherpa lady who begins to rapidly speak to Mingma and then give him a hug. For the next 45 minutes we are treated to milk tea inside the small house and are told a bit more about the culture. Mingma also tells us that his grandmother wants to know how the rest of his family is doing as well as wants to know how our trek is coming along. It is wonderful to see Mingma’s interaction with his grandmother because it quickly becomes evident that grandmothers have similar traits no matter what culture they come from. Soon Mingma’s grandmother is actively forcing him to have multiple cups of tea against his wishes as well as messes with his clothes to make sure they are clean and tidy. Although we cannot understand what she is saying in her rapid sherpa language, the tone of voice is extremely familiar and we know better than to interfere. Finally we say our goodbyes and thank you and we are off on the trail again with a belly full of good tea and our hearts full of thoughts of home and family.
The next 2 days are spent at a lodge below Renjo La Pass that specializes in rescue flights. This does nothing for our courage as we set off at 5:30am for the 8 hour hike over Renjo La that will take us up to 17,420ft. As the early morning dawns,
we are blessed with another bright blue sky and a wonderful alpine-glow, an orange hue that sweeps across the white mountains as the sun rises. We hike through the cold, frosty dawn and in 2 tough hours we are up to the base of the steep ascent. We treat ourselves to a Werther’s Original candy, take some deep breaths, and step up onto the stone steps that wind up thousands of feet to the top of the pass. [side note: Everyone on the team has stached away candy for different points of the adventure and we do our best to keep everyone in good spirits by bringing out candy at dire times. Marcia is in full supply of Butterfinger bars, Vanessa with Dulche de Leche from Argentina, and Ryan and I with Werther’s Original hard candies.] By this point we are already pretty exhausted, having climbed a thousand feet in the early 2 hours, but we are determined to make our way our of the high mountian bowl in which we currently sit.
The next 2 hours become a gruelling test of strength, both mental and physical. The entire group is being tested on the hard stone steps of Renjo La and if that weren’t enough, the clouds have moved in on our bright blue sky and it is snowing. It gets to the point where the entire group is spread out along the path with considerable distance in between. Each person is in their own personal ‘zone’ where they are doing whatever it takes to get to the top. I have been brought to the point of counting steps – a dreaded state in hiking that is feared by anyone who has climbed – and I can only take 8 steps before stopping for a minute to breath the thin air.
About 50ft. from the summit the clouds part and the sun starts to shine. It is the figurative “light at the end of the tunnel” and I am starting to think that I might actually make it over the pass without passing out. It is at that point when a snowball whizzes past my face. I look up and find a certain Ryan Deane with a nasty smirk, surrounded by giggling sherpas, getting ready to unleash another snowball from the summit. I yell out a vulgar warning, abandon my step counting, and make a final push for the summit. By the time I get there, the sherpas are laughing histerically and Ryan offers me a piece of candy. We have made it to the top. Soon Vanessa, Marcia, Bianca, Mingma, Kamchya, and everyone else has made it to the top. The snow has moved in again and we are eager to start the 2 hour trek down the other side. It has been 6 hours of steep hiking and we are ready for some downhill. The ‘hike’ down to Gokyo is more like a ‘slip and slide excursion’, but we make it down in one piece. We arrive to some popcorn, tea and a warm yak-poo fire – what a day.
2 days later we wake up at 5am for another acclimitization hike up to Gokyo Ri, which sits a meter higher than Renjo La Pass at 17,423ft. It is still relatively dark when we set out with Kamchya for the hike up the slopes, but soon we are blessed once again with a beautiful blue morning. The hike is supposed to be 3 hours up, but we make it up in 2 thanks to Kamchya’s no-mercy pace. We get to the top and sit amongst the prayer flags flapping in the wind. We look out into the morning sky and take in the scenery around us. This is by far the best view we have experienced for the entire trip. We look out over Gokyo Lake, Ngozumba Glacier, Cholatse Peak, Tibet, and the enormous Mt. Everest. We are looking at the ceiling of the world in the brilliant blue sky of a cloudless morning. We take our pictures, talk to some Canadians who are here as a couple to ‘test their relationship’ which we are sure is going to be an interesting adventure, and have some reward candy. Once down from the mountain, the pace of the climbing hits us like a brick wall and we immediately climb back into our sleeping bags for a nap.
2 hours of wonderful sleep later, we woken by a knocking on our door and then we hear Kamchya singing “jaaaaaaam, jaaaaaaaaaaam” from outside our door, which means “let’s go.” We roll over and yell to Kamchya multiple obscenities about him and his moral integrity for waking us up and groan while we pack up. We open the door to find Kamchya grinning from ear to ear and we can’t help but laugh – he is becoming like a funny brother to Ryan and I and we are really enjoying his company and guidance, despite the fact that he can barely speak english. The guy will do anything for us, has a sense of humor, and openly messes around with us – we love and respect him.
After the abrubt wake-up, we make our way onto the trail again for the quick hike to Dragnag. Within 10 minutes, we are walking across the gravel filled glacier, weaving our way via the ever changing trail across the moving glacier top. The hike is easy, but everyone’s minds are pre-occupied with thoughts of the next day. We are preparing to climb over Cho La Pass the next morning and we are worried about the conditions up on top. For days we have been asking other travelers, trying to get a read on how it is up top, because if there is snow or wind, the climb can go from managable to downright dangerous. Although we are hiking across the glacier under blue skies, we know all too well that the weather can change in minutes and things can turn from wonderful to deadly.
Upon arrival in Dragnag we find out that Bianca and Marcia will not be joining us for the trek over Cho La Pass. A combination of physical and mental exhaustion has brought Bianca down to a point where the thought of continuining up to 18,000ft is just too much. In any case, we are sad to know that we will be leaving tomorrow morning without the company of Marcia, Bianca, Mingma Dolma and Kamchya. That night we sleep as well as possible now that it is really, really cold in our rooms, and wake up early to just under a foot of fresh snow on the ground. Damn. Vanessa, Ryan, and I look to Mingma and a sneaky smile creeps across his face while he pulls an ice axe out of his backpack and swings it around. It is at that moment that we know we are going over that pass no matter what.
3 hours later we are at the base of the steep ascent of Cho La and we are looking up at quite a rediculous slope. For the greater part of the morning, we have been
walking up easy valley slopes in the snow, but now we are standing at the base of a daunting 1,000ft. loose rock mountainside. From where we are standing, it is clear that the path is never going to be found under the snow and that we are going to be in clear danger of either getting trapped in a stone/snow avalanche or fall down the steep face. The only thing that is giving us any kind of security is the fact that we are with Mingma and by now we are quite sure that he has super-human abilities. For the next 2 hours we break trail through the snow up the snowy mountainside, doing our best to not fall down. We are slipping and sliding, falling all over ourselves, but we are determined to get to the top. The only thing that is keeping us going in the thin air is that the snow has stopped falling and now it is another deep blue, sunny sky.
Eventually we make it to the top and take a moment to look down both sides of the pass. We are standing at 17,446ft., looking at 50 people on either side of the slope, half of them following the trail we have just broken. We are first up top for the day and we feel damn good. We treat ourselves to the customary celebratory candy bar, Snickers this time, and then make our way down the other side to the 3 tea-houses that constitute the village of Dzonglha.
By the time we reach the warmth of our sleeping bags in Dzonglha, we are exhausted and are ready for a good nap. We have just climbed to over 17,000ft. three times in almost as many days. Our bodies are trying to figure out why we are doing this and our minds are trying to comprehend the glorious surroundings around which we are finding ourselves. The past week has been absolutely wonderful and exhausting, but the next step awaits – Kala Patar, Everest Base Camp, and 18,000ft.
Current Location: Dzonglha, Khumbu Valley, Nepal – 16,000ft.