High in the mountains where towering peaks obstruct direct sunlight, temperatures plunge well before official sunset. The evening before my push to Everest Base Camp was spent in Lobuche (4,910m), huddled around an antiquated furnace in the centre of the dining area. Staff members routinely picked up patties of yak dung drying in the corner and threw it in the poorly ventilated steel incinerator. Conventional fuels are too expensive for nonessential trivialities such as heating. I learnt that the transportation fees for a propane tank accounted for up to 80% of its total cost. This information further cemented why food was getting increasingly expensive. At the teahouse before reaching base camp two hard-boiled eggs cost me US$5 – quite expensive when you compare that to the flat US$2 fee for a night’s stay at a teahouse.
By 6am I was en route to Gorak Shep (5,164m), the last settlement before reaching Everest Base Camp. Even wearing three pairs of socks and two pairs of gloves, my extremities were numb and the mere act of reaching for my water bottle was too painful. My lips had been perpetually chapped for the last four days and my face ached from windburn.
We stowed our bags at Gorak Shep and advanced towards Everest Base Camp (5,364m). I was glad to have left my hiking poles behind, as I needed both hands to negotiate the unpredictable boulders and ice chunks on the path. The final 15 minutes to the camp were breathtaking. A small manmade stairway led over a frozen lake on to the Khumbu Glacier, which base camp is on top of. Reaching it felt a big achievement, because we know that so many people turn back due to altitude sickness, coldness or fatigue. But it also gave us greater respect for those who climb the entire mountain. Reading Into Thin Air had also made the experience much more ‘real’ – about 10% of the book is about the journey from Lukla up to base camp.
I spent a while taking photographs of mountains, yellow tents, prayer flags and the famous Khumbu Icefall, before descending back to Gorak Shep.
The next morning we were out by 5.30am to tackle Kala Patthar (5,645m), a prominence known for getting excellent views of Everest – Mount Everest cannot be seen from its own base camp. I summited just as the sun began to shine through.
I was standing at what seemed like the tip of the world with Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse, Changtse and dozens other peaks in clear view. At this height the air contained only half the oxygen found at sea level.
Over the next three days we trekked back to Lukla, stopping to rest in Pangboche and Namche Bazaar. With the risk of AMS to our backs there was nothing impeding our progress as we descended a vertical mile in altitude before our first night’s rest. We took breaks at the numerous Gompas (monasteries) along the mountains’ edges and reflected on our achievement. I spun the prayer wheels and called out “Namaste” to passing hikers, wishing them good fortune as they embarked on the hike of a lifetime.