We started out at sunrise to crystal clear skies filled only with mountains in all directions, the ones in the distance belonging to Tibet. We hike up, and up, and up… Gradually getting harder and harder… Gradually I got slower and slower, but I remained in good spirits, putting one foot in front of the other, even eeking out some dance moves around switchbacks as MJ came through my headphones… Then there it was! Renjo Pass! 5360 M, 17680ft. The highest I’d ever hiked by a good 4500 ft – and it was spectacular. A few clouds had snuck in by then, but it didn’t matter. We plodded down to the lakeside town of Gokyo, found a teahouse in our exhausted, hungry states, I wandered out for an after-lunch walnut pastry, then listened to my body telling me to lie down. By the time I’d made it back to my room my brain was screaming at me. I’m not one to get even minor headaches, but this was what I figured a migraine felt like. I figured I should tell Kunga in case he had advice, and I took 2 advil and a cup of ginger tea. It gradually subsided, and after some theraputic yoga was thankfully down to a dull ache. Had it persisted we would have spent another day resting or would head to lower altitudes. I glanced out the window to see stars glimmering up above, and in that very moment spotted what could only be the international space station making its way over the night sky. I ran outside to confirm, and sure enough, it was unmistakeable. It made its way over the mountains clearly illuminated by the almost full moon. I’ll take it!
We got up the next morning and I ecstatically told Kunga I was feeling better so we set off for Gokyo Ri. With no pack and renewed spirits, we climbed the 600km/2000ft in just over an hour, reaching the summit to a crystal clear 360 view, including Miss Everest herself. We literally ran down the mountain on our return. “What altitude?” The next day we hiked over our second pass, Cho La, struggling but sustaining over the 550m/17900 ft, but the day after on the very gradual trail over to Lobuche I felt like I’d been hit by a train. I couldn’t understand why all of a sudden after already having been over 4350m/14000ft for 4 days I was just now feeling the effects of the altitude. I was struggling to breathe (which always triggers anxiety in me – think I must have drowned in a previous life…) and my energy was zapped. I tried to appreciate the mountains flanking our flat path, and was thankful that I’d be hiking the same trail again in a couple days.
There was other emotional ups and downs – I’d met some of the best friends I’d made over the course of the whole year on the path from Salleri to Lukla, and we’d even gotten to celebrate one of their birthdays while in Namche Bazar. But in those moments when I was struggling to breathe while trying to fall asleep, I felt entirely alone. Kunga has been a GREAT guide, but there’s not the level of connection between us that you’d find in a good friend. After Spain and Norway, this is my third “solo” trek, and I have absolutely no regrets, but I definitely look forward to having company again in the future. Even though I wasn’t feeling my best, we got to Gorak shep the next day with plenty of time in the afternoon to spare, so I told Kunga I was going for a walk and before I knew it or really intended to I was at Everest Base Camp. I found it hard to believe that this was many people’s ultimate destination in the area; although the site held so much importance, being the jumping-off point for many to ascend the highest mountain in the world, it definitely wasn’t the most scenic. Almost all Everest ascents happen in the springtime so the “camp” only consisted of a few tents belonging to some mountaineers attempting Everest’s sister Lhotse, and more hiker traffic than I’d encountered the entire trip. I was so thankful for my research that led me to trekking the three passes route, enabling me glorious views from high mountain passes entirely to myself (and Kunga!). The view of the Khumbu icefall was stunning and humbling though. From wikipedia: the icefall “moves at such speed that large crevasses open with little warning. Large towers of ice collapse suddenly with no warning. Huge blocks of ice tumble down the glacier from time to time, their size ranging from cars to large houses. It is estimated that the glacier advances 1m every day.” Oh, and it’s the main route up Everest. I encourage anyone to watch the 2015 film “Sherpa”, a documentary about the incredible danger of the ascent for those that make a living supporting Everest climbers. I sat back for awhile and watched as the glacier calved every few minutes, thankful to be safely on the ridgeline across from the mountain and able to watch with awe.
I’ve cried twice in the last 24 hours. Last night, I stepped outside to find the most beautiful scene I’ve ever experienced – the moon rising behind Everest, illuminating the surrounding Himalayan massifs, with too perfect stars shooting across the crystal clear skies*. While the sun was rising today, myself and my sherpa ascended Kala Pattar (did I mention that Kunga is actually a sherpa, meaning that he comes from the sherpa lineage and that it’s actually his last name? He really embodies his roots too!) to have an unobstructed view of all of Everest’s glory, allowing us to visually trace the path from base camp to camp 4 and the summit above. Then after our descent and on our trek across the valley, I turned a corner to find myself facing Dan Fredinburg’s memorial, a friend of mine from Boeing. He was here about to embark on an ascent of Everest to capture images for Google Earth when the earthquake of 2015 occurred and an avalanche swept through base camp. Neither time were tears shed purely in sadness. The first set were shed in awe and amazement of Nature’s creations; the second in acceptance of her power and appreciation of this life we’re given. Dan lived big and I bet he has no regrets of the actions that brought him here in April 2015; I wouldn’t, especially after having seen this place with my own eye. I bet he was one of those shooting starts up there, in search of the next world to explore, making a dent somewhere else in the universe.
We trekked on, opting to skip the last pass in liu of lower elevations and a pack-less summit of Chukhung Ri when my energy didn’t look like it was going to bounce back. The scenery continued to “wow”, but it couldn’t match the feeling of those first ascents of Renjo La and Gokyo Ri. By my 17th day of almost continuous trekking, I was sad to be leaving these magical mountains, but I was ready for a break. The universe had one more adventure in store for me though… My flight out of Lukla was first thing the next morning, and although weather often deterred flights, the few clouds in the sky weren’t enough to keep the morning’s planes from rolling in. One by one they landed, loaded, and whisked tourists back to Kathmandu. All the planes, that is, except mine. Then the clouds thickened and it became apparent that Lukla wasn’t accepting any other flights for the day and the forecast didn’t look favorable for the next few days either. But where there’s a will there’s a way, and that afternoon we ran at a full sprint (carrying full packs mind you) following a complete stranger holding stacks of our Nepalese Rupees down slick trails to a helipad in village below the clouds where there was a promise of transport to Kathmandu. Once we were airborne it occurred to me that I should probably let my mom know where I was in case the chopper went down; I’m betting traceability regulations in a situation like this are slightly looser than they are for a commercial aircraft. We landed safely though, back to the buzz of the city, in plenty of time for me to have a decadent vegetarian meal and incredible fresh fruit cocktail back in Thamel. The next day I’d have the opportunity to visit the impressive Bouddha Stupa and Shree Pashupatinath to witness public cremation, and In two days I’d hop a bus to the much quieter lakeside village of Pokhara and join the Sadhana Yoga retreat for a week, but in that moment I was fully present with appreciation of my trekking venture and every single physical and emotional ascent and descent along the way.
Waiting for the moonrise over Everest
I want to take this moment and put it in a box that I can open to savor again and again and to share with others, letting them know that beauty this divine does exist
But no photo will do it justice
And I feel even attempting to put a description into words cheapens the experience
But I’ll try my best…
These Himalayas are illuminated by a moon that’s still making the journey from the horizon past Everest’s summit
Her crown graced with an ever present cloud sharing the moon’s light as she ascends
The yaks play an involuntary song, their bells sounding as they graze the hillsides
Glaciers calve and Avalanches tumble down the mountains around
Perfect shooting stars fly across the sky as if on cue, crossing past Orion, the gemini twins and cassiopia
I almost don’t care that the young Nepali man is arguing loudly on the phone with his mom, or that my toes are losing feeling (who brings flip flops to Everest in October?)
Or that I may not see the moon herself tonight, just the light she shines on this perfect world below
Gokyo to Dzoghla, including Gokyo Ri
View from Gokyo Ri
Dzonghla to Lobuche, including Cho La Pass
Lobuche to Gorak Shep including EBC and Kala Pattar