everest base camp fast-and-light
The evening sky darkens and the cold starts to come. I pull on gloves, take a drink, and shoulder my pack to continue up the wide track of cold dust and protruding stone. Within the hour I come to a village, little more than a few teahouses perched above the frothing churn of the Bhote Koshi River. It’s dusk at 11,000 feet and the wind bites. I need to find shelter soon.
There’s a man cleaning his shoes in front of one of the clapboard teahouses, he looks up as I approach. We smile at each other and say hello. I pause. He asks if I’d like to stay the night. Yes please. He introduces himself as Phurba Sherpa, welcomes me inside and with practiced hands starts a fire in the freestanding stove at the center of the large main room.
I sit on a bench at the back of the room and look around. Photos of Everest expeditions cover the walls, Phurba’s face nestled amongst those of climbers from around the world. The fire starts to crackle and he takes a seat next to me. He asks who I am, where I’m from, looking at me with a calm, soft face. His eyes hold mine, he’s not going anywhere.
Sherpa is a caste name that describes the original inhabitants of the Khumbu Valley, at the head of which, on the border of Nepal and Tibet, stands Mount Everest. Every year, clients from around the world come to be lead by Sherpas and Western guides to the roof of the world. Climbers are a small portion of the tourists that pass through this region. Many more come as I do, to walk the trails and take in the Himalaya from the foot of the range. Phurba tells me he retired from high altitude guiding after 2012, when 11 deaths marred the Everest climbing season. Since then he’s run this lodge with his wife, offering food and shelter to the trekkers who come through the region each year.
He hands me a menu, a single bright-yellow laminated page, and asks what I’d like for dinner. I order Dahl Bat, Nepal’s signature dish of lentil soup, rice, and curry. While the elevation is low and supplies plentiful, the dish comes with potatoes, vegetables, and spicy pickles. He nods and disappears behind a patterned curtain to the kitchen, where him and his wife laugh as they cook.
Phurba re-emerges and places a steaming plate on the table, nodding and retiring once again to the kitchen. The trekking season’s nearly done now and I’m the only one eating in the airy room. After dinner Phurba shows me outside and around the building to a cozy basement room reminiscent of a root cellar. He offers a pile of blankets adorned with gaudy rose print, and says goodnight. I read for a few moments and turn off the light, pulling the floral comforter close against the chill and marveling at how far I’ve come in the last few days.
I’m sitting behind a sprawling wood desk deep in the soundproofed, airconditioned bowels of a business hotel in south India. A screen’s glow lights my face in the dark room, the surfaces that surround me are thick wood and fake leather. I’m trying to find a way to turn desire into reality. I’m a mechanical engineer on a work trip, with ten days set aside to travel when my assignment’s up. Ever scattered and underprepared, I have a few remaining evenings to plan.
While I love the pulsing human chaos of India, my heart is in the mountains, and I point my browser at the Himalayas 1500 miles to the north. I’ve trekked in Nepal before, and savored the time and space of a monthlong itinerary in that remote and beautiful place. This time, I want something different. Over the last couple of years I’ve been exploring efficient movement in the mountains of the Western US, and I want to see how that style of movement translates to a great range. With the support of ancient trail networks and extensive trekking infrastructure, Nepal is ideally suited to my aims of going light and quick.
For three nights behind the glowing screen I pore over maps and read trip reports, testing and rejecting ideas. Intention and research start to coalesce around a plan. I’ve found a loop in the Everest Region. It’s air-accessible from Kathmandu, and offers nearly a hundred miles of trail over three high passes. Mount Everest lies within striking distance of the Loops apex if my body holds up. If not, I can retreat to the lowlands down one of several glacial valleys. Sitting at sea level in India, I’m worried about my plan to climb to 18,000 feet in three days. I’m worried about getting stranded by bad weather after flying into the Himalayas and missing my flight home for Christmas. Worries will always remain, I’ve got enough figured out to make a go of it. I book my plane tickets.
After a night under rose patterned blankets I eat breakfast and pay Phurba with a small stack of Rupees. He bids me farewell, and heads off into the hills to gather wood for cooking and heat. I pack up my sleeping bag and clothes, a few snacks, and my camera. I close the door of my room and slide the heavy latch home. Back to the path where I work my way up the valley with the river on my left through small villages and scattered huts.
By the second half of the day I’m starting to feel the altitude. 14,000 feet now, from sea level two days ago. My body feels heavy and lethargic. I’m trying to focus on my breathe and keeping my feet moving. Distracted by the chatter in my head, I don’t see the junction, hidden among the yak trails that knot the valley floor. The long light of late afternoon begins to spread. I start eyeing herders shacks crumbling into the landscape and play with the idea of spending the night huddled in the dust and old straw. Minutes later, the immense snowy bulk of Cho Oyu comes into view.
Cho Oyu shouldn’t be visible until I cross Renjo…shit. I’m lost. I don’t want to spend the night out up here, curled up next to a bunch of old yak dung in a cold shack with no food. I start to panic a bit and try to calm it. Breathe damnit. I pull out my phone and am relieved to find I’ve downloaded some basic maps of the area. The blue gps dot shows me several miles up-valley. Relieved, I pivot and walk quickly downhill, hoping the trail junction will be easier to spot this time around. It is, and I find Ang Pasang sherpa tending his guesthouse in Lundgren as the light fails.
He’s tall and quiet, thin shoulders stooped under a puffy climbing jacket. He wears a ballcap embroidered with the logo of the Wounded Warrior Project, an expedition souvenir from last season. He’s climbed Everest 14 times. 13 from Nepal and once from Tibet. Cho Oyu as well. What all else he’s done remains shrouded behind his humble manner.
I’m enjoying the quiet evening, happy to be inside the warm lodge, when a head pops out of a doorway down the hall from the dining room. “ey there ‘ow are you going?!” comes an Australian accent, followed by its owner, who comes to join me in the dimly lit main room. I’m not particularly interested in chatting but he’s undeterred by curt answers. He asks my itinerary and shakes his head when I give it to him.
“Good luck!” he scoffs. “Thanks” I say, and turn back to my book.
We dine in silence and I shortly excuse myself, retiring down the creaky hall to my room. My head is aching and the next day’s pass weighs heavy on my mind. This will be my third night in Nepal, third night above sea level, and tomorrow I’ll attempt to climb Renjo La, a pass that tops out at nearly 18,000 feet. I worry it’s stupid to do this alone, that reckless ambition has outstripped ability.
The plane banks sharply right and the pilot pushes the nose down hard. Over the shoulders of the two Nepali pilots - all aviator shades, leather jackets and black hair slicked back - a tiny piece of tarmac emerges amongst green trees and gray rock. We scream toward the foot of the runway and at the last moment the pilot pulls back the yoke, stomping the main-wheels aggressively on the numbers and reversing thrust, slowing the plane as the retaining wall rushes up to fill the windscreen. A collective sigh of relief goes up from the passengers as the plane makes the right turn into its parking space at Lukla, gateway to the Everest Region and one of the most dangerous airports in the world.
I grab my pack from the cart on the ramp and exit the airport. After the frenzied preparation of the last week, all the worrying over permits and logistics, it’s a relief to put the planning behind me and climb ancient stone steps. The path from Lukla is wide and worn. This is the highest point in the Khumbu valley accessible by road or air, and these paths carry the lifeblood of the valley above.
As the sun dips behind craggy peaks I arrive in Namche Bazaar. The valley’s hub of commerce, Namche covers an entire hillside with its web of paths, cafes, and shops. I opt to bypass the town and push on, hoping that a higher first night will speed my acclimatization.
Back in Lundgren, I leave the chatty Australian behind in the first light of morning and begin putting one foot in front of the other as I slowly ascend toward the looming uncertainty of this first high pass. I plod along slowly, paying attention to my breathing and keeping it deep and even. I’m hoping ventilation and hydration will keep my body oxygenated and ward off altitude sickness, without knowing if there’s any medical validity to the strategy.
I’m taking a risk here, and I hate the feeling of not knowing how big it is. Dry dust blows in the cold wind. The landscape is bare and no one is visible in front or behind me for miles. I’m nervous, but I like this vibe. Just me, my thoughts, and the challenge before me. A couple hours of slow walking and I crest Renjo La to an exploding view of Mount Everest.
A thick knotted mass of prayer flags hang from the cairns that frame the pass, the colorful sheets flapping madly as the bulk of thousands of flags combined swings high in the howling wind before swooping through the bottom of its arc. I linger for fifteen minutes before worries about the altitude drive me down to the valley bottom. I find a teahouse and collapse in my sundrenched room, exhausted from the thin air, headache starting to build.
I nap away the afternoon on a bunk in Gokyo. Like most other towns in this area, the main source of income are the tourists who trek through the region in the spring and fall of each year. Teahouses have proliferated to support the demand. Spindly framing stapled with thin plywood, perched atop wobbly stones, an afterthought of mortar chinking the cracks. Floors sag and stairwells are steep and dark. With rare exceptions, a room includes two single beds with a mattress and blanket, one bare bulb overhead, and a padlock and key. Bathrooms are down the hall or outside, squat toilets flushed with a scoop of water from a pail by the door. The rooms rent for next to nothing, with the expectation that dinner and breakfast will be taken at the lodge.
It’s mid December now, and the lion’s share of teahouses stand empty. Proprietors wander around making repairs, playing cards in dark kitchens. Some will soon close their lodges and descend to the warmer lowlands for the winter, before reopening their lodges in the spring.
After an afternoon nap I eat dinner downstairs and chat with a few other travelers. I head outside to snap a few photos before the evening cold closes in and I retreat to my bunk.
I wake the next day relieved to be without headache, and continue on into long days of slow walking and high windswept passes encased in ice.
It’s afternoon on the fourth day. The days are getting colder as I move steadily higher. The cold himalayan wind blows over the trail under brilliant blue sky. I seek refuge in a high altitude teahouse. At a table by the window sits a man in climbing boots and a down jacket, gazing out the window and over the valley. He turns at the sound of the door and his face startles me. His cheeks, forehead, and nose are a mass of raw, red sunblisters. I ask our host for tea and take a seat across from the weathered climber, who shifts to look out the window and back down the valley. He’s been here for days, waiting on a climbing partner he’s not sure will come. With no ability to communicate, he’s left to wait, and wonder. I offer empty condolences and begin my descent to the Khumbu valley, leaving him to his worry.
At the valley floor I hook left, passing a few scattered yak trains and porters on the climb to Everest Base Camp. In high season there’s a crush of tourists and support convoys on this track. Now, with the heavy snows of winter close at hand, the valley is quiet.
After being at elevation for days, the cold is in my bones. With no one on them, the trails bear witness to people and companionship without offering any. The late afternoon sun drops behind a spine of mountains as I come upon the guesthouses of Lobuche sitting darkly in the shadows.
I find a small guesthouse with a few people in it and chat a bit. Eat dinner. My host fills my Nalgene with boiling water for a few rupees. I retreat to a drafty, cold room with a thin mattress and tuck the bottle between my legs for a long night.
I wake cold and uncomfortable and skip breakfast in a haste to be moving. I work my way up the valley in the island of light thrown by my headlamp. As morning breaks I’m low on the slopes of Pumori. I’m headed for Kala Patthar, an 18,000 ft subpeak popular with tourists for its stunning view of Everest and Nuptse from its position across the Khumbu Glacier. I climb the ridge with labored effort and find a spot to sit as the sun struggles to rise above the bulk of the Himalaya.
Other tourists come and go, but I wait stubbornly in freezing shadow until the sun crests and warms me. I breathe relief into the glow, closing my eyes and letting the warmth sink in.
At the foot of Pumori, plumes of dust swirl in the cold, dry air of Gorak Shep. A small village near Kala Patthar and Everest Base Camp, the town’s sole purpose is to provide support for the hordes of tourists who visit these attractions each year. I stomp into one of the teahouses and blow into my hands, trying to shake off the chill. After a cup of coffee and a few minutes rest I walk out to Everest Base Camp and take some time to look out over the broken Khumbu glacier and up the Khumbu icefall, the standard climbing route of Mount Everest.
The position in the high mountains is undeniably beautiful, but sitting alone in the windswept basecamp I’m getting anxious to leave cold and isolation behind and seek warmer, friendlier climes.
After a last night in the Khumbu valley I beat my retreat from the high mountains, climbing up over the last high pass at Kongma La. From the pass the enormous valley of the Imja Khola River opens out in front of me, its upper slopes covered in short gray grass rooted in arid soil.
Shrines strung with prayer flags and deserted stone corrals dot the landscape. Descending to the river the alpine cold retreats, replaced with sun, warmth and people. Passing through Dingboche around lunchtime I come upon a mother making bread, she smiles and offers me some. I have lunch with her and her daughter in their bright kitchen.
Ama Dablam dominates the skyline for my last days in the Himalaya, as I descend in warmth and light. With no more high passes left to climb, I relax and explore the network of trails covering the Imja Khola valley. With a little time to spare I can afford some detours to the islands of humanity that dot the rugged landscape.
As I get close to the area hub at Namche, traffic increases and I climb the high side of the trail to let yak trains pass, their massive bulk adorned with brightly colored yarn, horns swinging slowly side to side as their eyes track me.
I jog the last miles back to Lukla and arrive as the sun sets, one week after leaving. My body’s tired but I’m vibrating with energy. I’m happy to have made a go of this adventure, to have chosen something I wanted and leapt after it. Alone in India, I was hesitant to launch off on a solo adventure with so many unknowns, but I knew I wanted to chase a dream and build resilience. Back in Lukla I’m so happy I did.
Personal growth and all aside, this was FUN! I got to try my hand at something I love in a new place. Experience the joy of movement, the satisfaction of big adventure alone, and the many warm welcomes of hosts along the route. The pleasure of sinking into the simple rhythm of a full week with no worldly contact, with nothing to do but walk.
It’s amazing to me what’s possible with a little bit of planning and a willingness to jump. It’s amazing and sad how much we miss out on when we let our fears crowd out our desire for adventure. In my experience, fear is often overblown. Once you throw yourself at an experience people and conditions align to help you make it happen. Fear is always at its worst right before you leap, so take a half step back, take a breath, and sprint for the edge.