26 March 2012
Gorak Shep – Kala Patthar (5545 m/18,192 ft) – Loubuche:
At 3:30 a.m., I was awakened by a knock at my door. Mindu, our Sherpa, announced, “Snow stopped; we’re going to Kala Patthar.”
Delle jumped out of her bed in excitement, and I climbed out of my sleeping bag. I was feeling much better. My headache had subsided to the point of bearability, and I was ready to “get back in the game.” When we opened the door, Dharmesh and Anil rushed in, and looked at me, appraisingly. Was I feeling well enough to make the final upward trek?
“I am in!” I said in excitement. I didn’t want to miss it for anything. We washed up, got our gear together, and went down to the dining hall for a cup of hot tea.
Today would be the highest point of the trek, and it would be a steep climb up to the Kala Patthar summit. From there, we would be able to see the entire Everest panorama, but, to reach the summit by sunrise, we would need to climb another 381 m. (1250 ft.) up from Gorak Shep.
We began the climb from directly behind the lodge. It was still dark at 4:30 a.m., but, with the help of my headlamp, I could see that the snowfall had been considerable.
It was now 30 minutes into the climb. We seemed to be making very slow progress, and the air was very thin. Our assistant trek leader, Dawa, was walking ahead of us. Suddenly, he stumbled! There was a moment of terror, but Mindu leapt out from behind me and grabbed him in time to prevent him from falling, face-forward, into the rock.
Dawa had become dizzy, and Mindu, determining that he didn’t appear well enough to continue, told him he needed to go back to the lodge immediately and rest. I thought about my own condition the night before. I realized Dawa must have been feeling even worse than I was, but hadn’t said a word. We were sad he would miss the climb and would have to go back on his own, but that was still the smartest thing for him to do. We were close enough to the lodge to be able to watch him as he climbed down, and we waited till we saw him reach the grounds of the lodge.
Now we continued our climb. As day began to break, we turned our headlamps off. It was brutally cold. The temperature was below zero, and a high wind was blowing the fresh, powdery snow into a frigid swirl. I was wearing about six layers of clothing, and was still freezing. I didn’t think I had ever been so cold. My toes and fingers felt frozen, and my right ear felt painful, as if it were getting frostbitten. We were gasping for breath every few steps.
Delle, who was apparently not having difficulty with a faster pace, was walking in front of the rest of the group. Anil was also ahead of us, maintaining a slow but very steady pace. Dharmesh was with me, going more slowly, and Mindu was bringing up the rear. In spite of the view, I felt far too cold to take my gloves off to take pictures, and so Mindu obliged us by taking my camera and shooting some photos of the panorama along the climb.
We had been walking up for about an hour when we began to see some climbers returning. They had succumbed to altitude sickness and been unable to continue. That was very discouraging to me, but Mindu started humming the Buddhist mani mantra, “Om Mani Padme Hum,” as he walked behind me, and the sound of his chanting was heartening.
Here is a link to the mantra, if you would like to listen.
Even without communicating, I knew everyone in our group must have been feeling more or less as I did, but none of us wanted to talk about our own aches, pains, or discomforts, because such talk would only discourage our fellow-climbers. We continued on up in silence.
Because of the fresh snow, the views were all the more stunning. We had a 360-degree Everest panorama. Words and photos could never do justice to what we were witnessing. We felt as if we had been transported to another world, more beautiful than anything one could ever see in any computer-generated Hollywood film.
After several hours of extremely strenuous and demanding trekking, we were finally approaching Kala Patthar, but we still had to push ourselves up to reach the rocky outcrop at the summit that was marked by prayer flags. I was completely done in and felt unable to move any farther, but Dharmesh refused to accept my giving up, and demanded that, since I had come this far, I must not give up with only fifteen minutes’ climb left. Reluctantly, I pushed myself, and, although the fifteen minutes felt like fifteen hours, I finally hauled myself up to the top, where Delle was waiting for us patiently, along with some friends she had made while she had been waiting.
The deep sense of achievement we all felt is impossible to describe. THIS WAS IT!! We stood at the summit, watching the orange glow of the sun against the snowy peaks. Colorful prayer flags fluttered behind us, and the majestic Everest was directly in front of us. Mindu took my camera again and shot photos of the sunrise-lit Everest, but Anil decided the vista was far too spectacular for the camera’s tiny lens, and just wanted to absorb the beauty with his own eyes. Dharmesh and I looked at each other; this had been the toughest day we had ever encountered.
Since we had stopped climbing, we had begun to feel colder from lack of movement, and so we decided it was time to climb down. My shoelaces had become undone, but, even under two layers of gloves, my frozen fingers were not in any condition to attend to them. Mindu noticed my predicament, and, without my even asking, knelt down quickly and tied them. I was touched, and didn’t know how to thank him for all he had been doing for us for the past ten days.
It was about 11 a.m. by the time we got back to Gorak Shep. We rushed to the fireplace to thaw out, and ordered breakfast. Dawa joined us; he was feeling better, and so was I. We took a long and well-deserved break at the lodge, and sipped hot orange juice and tea to stay warm.
This part of the journey was bittersweet. We were gratified to have been able to reach the top of the Kala Patthar as a team, but sad that the trip was coming to the end. Now we had to begin our descent. It would take us three full days to hike down to Lukla for our flight back to Kathmandu.
In the afternoon, we began the downward trek to Loubuche. As we walked down, I noticed, gratefully, that my headache was gone, and we all felt a sudden burst of energy as more oxygen began to flow into our lungs. One problem was solved—but the next two and a half days were going to put my weak left knee to the ultimate challenge, since we had to maintain a schedule of 8-10 hours’ walk a day. To make matters worse, I had forgotten to bring my knee brace from Kathmandu, and so, by the time we reached Loubuche, I was really hurting.
We checked into the same lodge we had stayed at on our way up and ordered two large plates of vegetable pakora and some aloo paratha to share. The delicious meal was a well-deserved reward after a very demanding day, and, now that we had the energy to talk again, we chatted animatedly about the height of our trip—in more ways than one—finally standing on the summit of Kala Patthar.
Editing by Veronica McDavid, WordsOnTheWebNY@gmail.com