Tuesday, Dec 05, 2023

On Top Of The World: A Journey To The Upper Reaches Of The Everest

On Top Of The World: A Journey To The Upper Reaches Of The Everest

Even during the pandemic, Mount Everest continues to inspire people to scale it

A team of trekkers ascends the Cho La
A team of trekkers ascends the Cho La Michael Henry

Mallika, Kedar and I stumble into Gokyo, a cluster of lodges by a stunning blue lake high in the mountains of Nepal’s Everest region. We are exhausted after two punishing glacier crossings and a scramble over a sky-high pass. We have also seen more beauty than we can comprehend.

The memory of the beauty fades away, though, as we realise that every lodge in Gokyo appears closed. We take stock of our situation: no tent, bad weather and only candy bars for sustenance. We consider sleeping in a yak shed. Suddenly a single puff of smoke rises from a lodge across town. Deliverance! A Sherpa woman has stayed in town to tend to her yaks. She can give us a bed for the night.

Climbers share a light moment on the trek
Climbers share a light moment on the trek Michael Henry

Our predicament in Gokyo reveals the great challenge and opportunity of hiking during COVID times: empty trails, total freedom, and a sense of discovery we may never experience again in our lifetimes.


The Path to the Khumbu, Nepal’s Everest Region

Our goal was the 16-day trek to Everest Base Camp (EBC) and the spectacular Gokyo Lakes. Kathmandu, Nepal’s ancient and varied capital, was the starting point. My girlfriend, Mallika, heroically packed up our apartment and arrived from Delhi, bringing her vaccination card and PCR result.

Much searching yielded us one trekking agency that could connect us with a vaccinated guide and transport towards Everest. The jeep picked us up in Kathmandu before dawn. We met our guide Kedar and hit the road.

Monks atop a monastery in Kathmandu
Monks atop a monastery in Kathmandu Michael Henry

The route led up the green, steep-sided valley of the Dudhkoshi (‘Milk River’). Mules replace cars on the route, and make the trail exciting and difficult. Stunning villages appeared beside the trail—full of colorful prayer wheels, stupas, and inscribed Mani stones that signify the Tibetan Buddhist faith.

The lodges where we stayed each night proved the supremacy of Nepal’s trekking infrastructure. The long history of trekking in the Khumbu, and its hardworking porters, has led to the availability of comfortable beds, hot showers and delicious food (from deep-fried Mars bars to yak steaks) all the way past 5,000 metres.


Crossing Into the Real Mountains

The hike towards Everest involves surpassing several symbolic barriers. For us, the first was a wind-blasted suspension bridge called Larja Dobhan. We strapped our hats to our packs, tried not to look down and crossed as the bridge swayed far above a furious river. Wildly flapping prayer flags announced our arrival into the mountains.

Our first stop was Namche Bazaar, Khumbu’s capital, a fascinating mix of old and new. Helicopters buzzed over traditional Sherpa homes and fancy new gear stores. The choppers resupply the Nepalese border posts but also frequently carry climbers, trekkers and supplies to and from Base Camp. They reveal the big business that Everest has become.

A clear view of the Namche Bazaar
A clear view of the Namche Bazaar Michael Henry

The next two days of hiking and acclimatising revealed increasingly stupendous mountains. Ama Dablam (‘Mother’s Necklace’), a vertical ice spire, dominated the scene. Trees had disappeared as we entered the land of rock and ice.

A climb up a rocky pass brought us to poignant memorials for climbers who perished on Everest over the years. The hundred-plus plaques displayed on stone chortens exposed the human side to alpine fame and fortune. Liu Xiangyang’s plaque sums up the thoughtful mood that the place inspires: ‘Like a comet blazing across the evening sky, gone too soon.’


The Valley at the End of the World

The final approach to Everest feels like a walk to the end of the world. The valley ends in an impassable snow wall a thousand metres high, which forms the Nepal-China border. There are only two ways to go: back, or to the summit of Everest. Porters, climbers, guides and yaks funnel upwards on a narrow rocky trail.

Eventually, we saw a colourful tent city splayed out over several miles at the valley’s head. Welcome to Base Camp for the most expensive, commercialised, yet most irresistible climb in the world. We saw kitchen tents with imported delicacies, shower and toilet tents, and at least three helipads. If humanity can create all of this at 5,300 meters, what can’t we do?

Feeling accomplished after reaching EBC, we luxuriated in the highest lodge on the trail at 5,100 metres.

Breaking for a team picture at the Everest Base Camp
Breaking for a team picture at the Everest Base Camp Michael Henry

Flags signed by previous trekkers from dozens of countries draped the ceiling, while a fully stocked liquor cabinet provided temptation. It was easily the most comfortable night of our lives at such a height.


The Crux of the Adventure

Kala Patthar (‘Black Rock’), is a hill below Everest that gives the first great chance at a view of the summit. The highest mountain in the world is surprisingly hard to see from ground level, blocked by lower peaks.

Clouds blocked the summit view but the scene was spellbinding nonetheless. We did it in absolute solitude, leading to a sense of discovery. Large turquoise lakes appeared in a hanging valley, and the glacier’s great buckling formations showed themselves.

We retreated downhill in the rain, but the Himalayas lifted our spirits with a spectacular sunset show. Snow slopes appeared golden among dark tumbling clouds, rising to the dagger-sharp peaks of Ama Dablam and Cholatse. To cross from Everest to the beautiful Gokyo Lakes, we then had to surmount the pretty intimidating Cho La.

Cho La requires steep rocky scrambling and crossing a glacier above 5,300 meters. We hit the trail by 5:30am. Nine intense hours later, exhausted but intact, we had crossed the pass.

Cho La was the first time where the lack of other trekkers was a drawback. Frequent trekkers usually pack down a clear path through deep snow; on the other hand, we had to break our own trail. Fortunately, national park staff had sunk poles and cables into both the glacier and the subsequent white-knuckle descent. Their good trail-building saved us.

Tired and beset by headaches, we reached the lodges where we planned to stay the night. Each one was deserted.

We had no choice but to press forward to Gokyo across the infamous Ngozumpa Glacier. Technicolour melt-water ponds and massive ice sheets would have been beautiful in other circumstances, but rain and fatigue made it a difficult grind. Finally, the stunning blue of a large lake appeared from the mist. We had reached Gokyo, victoriously closing the books on the hardest hiking days of our lives.

View of Mt Everest and Mt Lhotse from Gokyo
View of Mt Everest and Mt Lhotse from Gokyo Michael Henry

The victorious feeling evaporated when we realised that every one of Gokyo’s dozen-plus lodges had already closed for the season. We were back at the point where this story started: dazed, confused, hungry, cold, wet, and finally understanding the folly of our confidence to travel to the Khumbu in pandemic times.

Then, as if delivered by the mountain gods, there was a puff of smoke from one roof, and a kind Sherpa lady, warm tea, and sleep.


Coming Down, With a View

Gokyo’s views are indescribably sublime. Six pristine lakes glisten beneath snowcapped peaks—and a hill called Gokyo Ri gives a clear view of four of the world’s six highest mountains, all at once.

After basking in Gokyo’s alpine glory, we headed downhill to civilization. This valley retains Khumbu’s disappearing rural charm. Feeling smooth and effortless, we floated past raging rivers, clear lakes and jagged peaks. The sight of the first trees in six days created a tropical atmosphere.

As we neared Namche, we finally saw Everest itself, in all its glory. Its peak dominated even the massive walls of Nuptse and Lhotse. We were looking at the highest point on the surface of the planet. We walked for hours in its shadow, realising the truth of its traditional Tibetan name, Chomolungma, ‘Mother Goddess of Earth’. After two weeks, she had finally shown herself as a parting gift.

A car gets stuck on the road to the Everest region
A car gets stuck on the road to the Everest region Michael Henry

A final tabulation showed that we walked about 200km, topped out at an altitude of 5,500 metres, saw four of the world’s six highest peaks, ate at least ten plates of dal-bhat—and lived to tell the tale!

A bumpy morning flight from Lukla brought us to locked-down Kathmandu. That evening we climbed to our rooftop for a glorious sunset. Mallika and I agreed that seeing the top of the world had not lessened the mountains’ pull. It had just thrown more gas on the fire.

We would be back.