Through the Khumbu

My relationship to the Everest Base Camp Trek is ambiguous. Though the Solokhumbu is a fascinating and fast-changing region characterized by its hospitable Sherpa inhabitants, the never-ending trekker’s line, the bad mountain etiquette and the ill prepared/complaining/obnoxious tourists made me let out a sigh of relief when we left the area and started heading for Rolwaling. The mountain views are beyond spectacular without a doubt. Yet I wouldn’t recommend the trip to anyone who comes in the main season and has the time for a single trek in Nepal. The loop by Gokyo over Cho La and Renjo La makes up for a lot, but there are more authentic treks out there where teahouse owners come over for a chat an all is more amicable.

During my days of recovery, my first reaction was to be greatly annoyed by it all. After three days we traded Lukla for Namche: no one can shake a headache staying in a town that surrounds an airport, where all sounds drown in the firing of jet engines and the never ending coming and going of helicopters. Lukla did have a few charming places to hang out at, but in the end the noise became too much. Namche too was a shock, with its espresso bars that could just as well be located in major European cities and its tourists covered in fancy dress and make-up. I wish I had seen the Namche Jon Krakauer describes in Into Thin Air: the vibrant Sherpa center rather than the second Thamel it is today.

But here too, in the end we found amicable places with good food to hang out. There were many good books lying around the place that taught me a great deal: on the history of climbing on Everest and its toll on Sherpa communities, on the ambiguity of how Tenzing’s role was rewarded or underrated in that, on the evolution of the Khumbu since Sir Hillary has started building schools there. And also on the dramatic plight of Tibetan refugees fleeing to freedom over the almost 5800m high Nangpa La in winter, met by hypothermia, arrest, deportation, torture and often death.

We all tried to fill our days but in the end getting stuck in the tourist extravaganza worked on everyone’s mood. After two days in Namche I still felt my head but we had to go, I could not sit there any longer. In the end I decided I would take on a porter: carrying only a small pack would take a lot of strain off my body and that would hopefully help.

I found Sondesz through our guesthouse in Namche. We explained the owner the situation and he proclaimed that someone reliable would have to be found, someone who wouldn’t turn around halfway for obscure reasons too many to name. Sondesz was a reliable person, and great company to have around for 10 days. We were lucky to have him while negotiating with the overcrowded teahouses at Lobuche and Gorak Shep, where the trail turns into a bottleneck. It worked: I recovered and got stronger again. I could also train my ankle without a fear of damaging it under the weight of the pack. Finally I regained agility, balance and a clear sense of judgement.

Finally we were moving again! The first day out of Namche was grey and snowy. We got a short glimpse of Everest and Lhotse towering at the end of the valley and paid a visit to the monastery at Tengboche. The next days, the sky was crystal clear until shortly after noon. The views of Ama Dablam – the most gracious mountain we have seen so far – were simply stunning. Ama Dablam dominated the eastern skyline while Cholatse and Pumori towered in the west. On the final two days towards Everest Base Camp Ama Dablam disappeared out of sight, hidden behind the giant icy west face of Nuptse.

Temperatures notably dropped, especially once we entered the Gokyo circuit. At Makalu Base Camp we could pull out some chairs and hang out in the sun, but at similar altitudes now even daytime temperatures remained well below zero until halfway through the morning, and barely became positive throughout the day. Icy winds blew in the afternoon, and over 4800m nights consistently became colder than -10°C. Snow fell on most afternoons, even as low as Deboche at 3800m, transforming the pine woods into fairy tale forests.

Already acclimatized we could make our way to base camp quite fast: 4 days from Namche. Above 4500m I got some mild altitude effects but nothing serious. It actually went well until we made our way up from Gorak Shep to base camp after arriving there early in the morning. On the way back I got a terrible head ache, lost my appetite and while trying to climb Khala Patar (the famous view point) at 4 A.M. the following morning for an Everest sunrise with Marylene I had to give in to my body and save my strength for a new series of high passes to come.

On that stretch, it was actually Khala Patar I really wanted to get to. But as it goes, sometimes the universe does not align, and with many good views already past and many more yet to come it did not feel like a terrible loss. At least I got up, tried, and turned back when it did not work out. Against my own expectations I was actually glad to have stood at Everest Base Camp: a place where so much history has been written, a place where maqny stories started with endings as tragic as they can be formidable. And to see the Khumbu icefall face to face, well… I don’t understand why anyone would put themselves in there.

Honestly, I don’t understand how people manage to get to altitudes of the 14 8000-ers at all. My own body does not want to function above 5000m. It doesn’t seem to matter how much time we spend at altitudes near that line – a third of our time so far – as soon as we cross it I will be the first to break. Staying put does not help either: sleeping above 5000 drains me, just the mere being there requires so much strength that for every passing day I will grow weaker. I can’t eat properly or sleep well enough to compensate for it. Luckily, our nights above the line of suffering are almost through: there are only two or three left, when we cross the notorious Tashi Labsta pass into Rolwaling.

PJ is exactly the opposite of me and does not experience any altitude sickness at all. That makes me think sometimes that life is truly incredibly unfair. Most of the time I feel really proud of him though, because he is so strong up here, and besides of the Nepali themselves there is no one to the likes of him. He must naturally have extraordinary levels of red blood cells to absorb so much oxygen, or he must have some Nepali ancestors somewhere. Sondesz has a lot of respect for him and the two of them paired up to storm off at the front. I’ve told him several times he should come back one day to climb a mountain here, something I will never be able to do. Marylene, she holds the middle ground between us. Some days she feels the cold and some altitude and the countless height meters, and some days she’ll march off at a pace so we can never catch her again.

Altitude sickness is by far the worst feeling I’ve ever had. After much debate we decided that the closest thing to it must be to drink one night until you pass out (preferably a  good mix of things) and to wake up the next morning with a hangover that makes your head explode and you are so nautious you want to throw up all the time. Then, you should smoke a gigantic joint so you can’t think straight anymore, see entirely sharp, or balance yourself. Try to climb a thousand stairs twice after that – the uneven kind – on a freezing cold day with a blocked nose so you can’t breathe. That’s pretty much it, though the real thing is most likely even worse.

After Everest Base Camp, four points exceeding 5000m lay in the near future. There were two high but otherwise not difficult passes (with overnights stays below the suffering line) at about 5400m: Cho La and Renjo La. There was the scenic lookout point over the Gokyo valley: Gokyo Ri, also at about 5400m. And then there is the one that stirs a nervousness in all of us: the technical Tashi Labsta La at 5755.

I could have ended my own suffering a long time ago and quit after the concussion or abandon the high route for trails at lower altitude. But I’ll be damned to miss the last of venturing high before winter comes, of incredible views that stretch 360° from the top of passes over a sea of prayer flags, of the splendor of standing on Himalayan glaciers. So I continued and made peace with being the one most affected by it, and after 39 days I finally learned how to pace myself to avoid the worst of the AMS. I stopped apologizing for it: I can’t alter my chemistry, and it’s better to get there slowly than to get sick and not make it at all.

Two weeks after the fall on Sherpani Col and the concussion I found myself in good shape and with a broad smile on my face the top of Cho La, 5420m above sea level. We all hugged and I thanked the other two for always patiently waiting for this one. I high-fived Sondesz, without whose help I would not have been there. Getting up there with a clear head was a game changer: I was so happy, and so proud, ready again to face what was to follow.

Things were going too smooth I guess, and after consecutive nights of overcrowded lodges half-filled with sick tourists PJ was the first one to give in and catch the Khumbu cough. He struggled badly on the glacier between Dragnag and Gokyo so we decided to stay at the latter for an extra day. He wasn’t the only one with bad luck at the time: late in the afternoon a woman was brought in supported by two friends, eyes staring into nothing and a mind all blank. It looked a lot like the onset of HAPE to me. An hour after she was helicoptered out to the hospital in Kathmandu.

The extra time gave Marylene and me the chance to relax that afternoon and head out to Gokyo Ri the following morning. The mountain was stunning: a magnificent view over three of the Emerald lakes, Everest, Nuptse, Cho Oyu and many more. Three large vultures circled the lake while we sat on the mountain. I was not necessarily planning to hike all the way to the top: at 5400m, I knew the altitude would still bother me, but I’m glad I did. Marylene had a surprise Toblerone to share with a view.

Gokyo was a stunning place, but crowded once again. PJ, still not well, decided not to stay another day so we headed out and up towards the last Khumbu pass, Renjo La. Renjo La is the most gracious and most stunning of the non-deadly passes we have crossed so far: the view was so breathtaking I had to stay 10 minutes longer than the others. I wanted it to burn into my eye and freeze inside my brain, so I would never forget. Everest, Nuptse, Ama Dablam, Cholatse, and even Makalu were shining bright on that horizon again.

Sondesz was too kind once more: I saw him run off with my pack and I knew he would come down to relieve PJ, which he did. From the top we could also see the ridge that made up Amphu Labsta, the pass we did not cross after the fall. The actual pass was hidden, but on the map it did not look any less severe than the ridge it connected to. Marylene dropped that everything happens for a reason: that I got the concussion because only something that severe would have had us turn our backs on that pass, which claims lives every year, to prevent something worse from happening. Looking at it now, I could see truth in that.

The way down from Renjo La to Lumde was my favourite stretch of trail in all of the Khumbu. The track ran down steps from the pass and then into an amazing valley enclosed by pointy white peaks and a turquoise river. The best part was that no one else was tthere: we had the valley all to ourselves. In Lumde, Sondesz led us to a small teahouse where besides us only a very nice French couple was staying. Guides from other groups we had been on pace with for a few days came over for a chat around the stove in the evening. In time, word had spread about who we were, what we were doing and where we were going. It was the cosiest night of that leg, followed by a quiet night of sleep.

When we reached Thame the next morning it was time to say goodbye to Sondesz, since he would continue back to Namche the same day. It was sad: he had become one of us: we took care of him and he took care of us. We decided that we would stay in Thame for at least a day to get ready for the next big and notorious pass: Tashi Labsta.

“You cannot stay on the summit forever, you have to come down again… So why bother in the first place? Just this: what is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above… One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”

Distance covered: 340,5 km
Total ascent: 21990m
Total descent: 20390m
Total number of days spent above/at 4500m: 17

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2 thoughts on “Through the Khumbu

  1. Holy crap those pictures are AH-mazing. Oh I long to see this in person someday … Thank you again for sharing your very personal journey with all of us. I agree wholeheartedly about the unfairness of some people being affected by altitude. Justin is a machine, and it is only at maybe 5,000 meters that he is mildly impacted. I feel like my level keeps coming down, unfortunately. I would like to add to your description of AMS: breathing through a harmonica!!!!

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  2. Wat een verhaal! Wat een schrijftalent! Wat ‘n uitnodigend beeldmateriaal! Je leest en staat er precies meteen tussen! Opnieuw héél sprakeloos, onvoorstelbaar wat jullie meemaken, wat jullie zowel alleen als samen overwinnen!!
    Pj volledig hersteld intussen?? Jullie hebben jullie portie bijzonderheden intussen al wel gehad zou ik zo zeggen……
    Jullie denkwereld moet danige metamorfoses ondergaan lees ik zo tussen de regels😉
    Wat een ervaringen, wat een wijsheden zijn jullie intussen rijker!!
    Hou jullie goed , verzorg jullie goed ! We duimen voor behouden verder zetten van jullie tocht!
    Heel veel liefs,
    Nicky

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