Trekking the Himalayas, part 4 – Gorak Shep and Everest Base Camp

In case you’re late to the party on this series, have some friendly links to posts one, two and three.

We awoke on day ten of our trek in Gorak Shep, bright and early (at 4.15am!) for a pre-dawn excursion to see the sunrise.  Admittedly we required a little help – our guide Jay Ram had to come rouse us, knocking politely on our door after we apparently slept through the appointed time.  Whoops!  Seems that easy day the day before had really taken it out of us…

This, though, was to be the trek’s big day:  a sunrise view of Everest, and, the achievement of our nominal destination, a visit to Everest Base Camp.

Like our slow slog up Gokyo Ri a few days earlier, this too was a difficult climb – although perhaps this time we were a little better acclimatised, and found it a touch less challenging.  Or perhaps we’d just got better with the practice.  Or, perhaps, we may have found inspiration in the silhouette of Everest, backlight by the rising sun.

Everest (just right of centre, the second-highest-looking peak from this perspective) at dawn

Everest (just right of centre, the second-highest-looking peak from this perspective) at dawn

Looking down the Khumbu Valley from Kala Patthar as the sun begins to hit the snowy peaks

… and it wasn’t just Everest. The view down the valley was just a little special as well.

We were climbing Kala Patthar, a 5600m minor summit next to, and a little under 500m above, Gorak Shep.  And still, it was tough – and cold.  Somewhat surprisingly, after we reached the peak and settled in to sit out the sunrise, it actually got colder as the arriving sunlight brought the wind.

But it would be silly to complain about trivial things like the minor chill.  Unlike our previous attempts at a glimpse of the world’s most famous mountain, there was no cloud to impede our view this time.  And atop Kala Patthar, we had the best seats for a truly stunning vista, watching the sun appear directly behind Everest itself, and slowly illuminate the valley as the light marched over Everest’s neighbours, Nuptse and Lhotse, as well.

Believe it or not, that’s Everest in the centre, looking for all the world like not the world’s tallest mountain.  Perspective is weird.

Believe it or not, that’s Everest in the centre, looking for all the world like not the world’s tallest mountain. Perspective is weird.

And after viewing the sunrise from the peak, we had a thoroughly entertaining trot back down towards Gorak Shep, cameras in hand, finding the perfect spot for just one more sun-rising-over-the-mountains photo as the sun arced through the sky towards the neighbouring peak of Lhotse (the world’s fourth-highest mountain).

The sun on the tip of Lhotse

The sun on the tip of Lhotse

After such a fantastic start to the morning, we returned happily for a satisfied breakfast and a change of tea houses (the new one had an actual honest-to-god sit-down shitter, glory of glories!).  We spent our breakfast counting the helicopters – three landed at Gorak Shep that morning, each landing, loading up with one or more people needing out, and then setting off again straight away, all the way back down to Kathmandu, for a total of four evacuees within a one-hour period, we were told.  Ouch.  (From memory, I think we heard that three were altitude sickness and one was a broken limb.  But buggered if I can be sure I’m remembering that right.)

With that reminder of how glad we were to have made it up in one piece and good health, we set off again for Base Camp.  Or rather, ‘Base Camps’, since there are actually two.

After a two-hour hike alongside and then on the glacier, we found our way to the original Base Camp – the one that Hillary used way back in 1953.  There’s not a lot there these days, except a marker and a tonne of banners left by various ‘expeditions’ – tour groups – whom I can only assume have found it necessary to have the rest of the world help celebrate their being one of the hundreds of people to have made it that week.  So that wasn’t particularly interesting – although the walk out from Gorak Shep certainly was, as we heard and then saw two impressive avalanches en route.

An avalanche next to the Khumbu Glacier, en route to Base Camp

An avalanche next to the Khumbu Glacier, en route to Base Camp

From Old Base Camp, it was another fifteen minutes up the glacier to the new one – the one used by current expeditions.  This one was much more interesting, full of tents for the solo expedition going up at this time of year.

Everest Base Camp

Everest Base Camp. Made it.

The first tent you come across is the funniest:  the shitter.  A stand-out blue thunderbox-shaped affair, you can pick it not only from its appearance, but from the large plastic drum lying behind it:  a spare, for when the one underneath it fills up.  Turns out that you can’t just do your business and leave it there, when you’re at that altitude – it’s too cold and too high, and it doesn’t break down.  So there are two locals employed fulltime to literally cart shit back down to Gorak Shep, where it won’t cause a problem.  (Next time you find yourself thinking that your job sucks…)

The thunderbox.  Everest-style.

The thunderbox. Everest-style.

The rest of the tents don’t have nearly the same humour value, but are cool nonetheless.  Obviously, they’re mostly not really available to be poked around in:  after all, people are living in them.  But Jay Ram found a friend of his – a climbing guide – working with the current expedition, and so after we’d munched down our packed lunch, we got invited into the kitchen/dining tent for, of all things, a cup of hot Tang.  Jay Ram’s friend was having a quiet day before a planned ascent to Camp II the next day, and so happily sat and chatted away.  Most entertainingly, he showed us a video of the special remote controlled helicopter they use to scout conditions further up, before climbing.  Looks like a fun toy.  (No, they wouldn’t let us play with it!)

Enjoying a cup of hot Tang in the dining tent at Everest Base Camp

Enjoying a cup of hot Tang in the dining tent at Everest Base Camp. (Yes, the photo is blown out. It was bright outside, OK?)

And we got to observe the only expedition there at the time – a twenty-five-strong camp supporting one Japanese thirty-year-old (Kuriki Nobukazu) who would attempt the summit – sorting out their gear, and starting their preparations for the climb to Camp II.  This was October 1, by the way, and not the normal climbing season for Everest – that’s in April and May – hence no other expeditions.  He didn’t make it to the top, as it happens – although he did survive, unlike some other would-be summiteers earlier in the year.  His attempt on 17 October got him to 8000m, at which point a windstorm apparently knocked him off his feet and he decided it was a good idea to turn back.  Probably the right choice, given that even that left him with severe frostbite in all his fingers, in his toes, in his legs, and on his nose.

Tents at Everest Base Camp, in front of the glacier icefall between you and Camp II

Tents at Everest Base Camp, in front of the glacier icefall between you and Camp II

Anyway, we didn’t get any of those things, and after an appropriately satisfying final look around Base Camp, and up the intimidating face of ice that leads up away from it to glory, we wandered back to Gorak Shep for a second night.  It was a happy walk back.  We’d achieved our trek’s goal with plenty of time to spare (we were actually a day ahead of schedule at this point), and from here, it was basically downhill back down to Lukla.  Although not all the way:  since we had time to spare, Jay Ram suggested a diversion on the way home, via Chukkhung, for another sunrise climb before we headed out.

Another group of trekkers gathers for photos at the original Base Camp, as seen from the walk back from the current Base Camp

Another group of trekkers gathers for photos at the original Base Camp, as seen from the walk back from the current Base Camp

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