Parade of the Gods: An Everest Trek
by JOHN BORTHWICK
Dawn at twelve and a half thousand feet ... a heart stopping hour. I slip out of the trekking lodge at Thyangboche Monastery, where our group is over-nighting, and step into a world where both sound and color are muted by the snow. Glancing above the dark eaves of the monastery I see a pantheon of Himalayan mountain gods — Everest, Nuptse, Lhotse, Ama Dablam, Kangtega and Tham-serku — huddled in conference.
Their crowns glow in the first rays of the sun, and I know there won’t be many mornings in my life like this.
Over two weeks before, I had set out from the village of Jiri in the Nepalese lowlands on a trek to Kala Pattar, an 18,450-foot “hill” beside Mount Everest and the Tibetan border. Here’s my journal of the expedition.
Day 1. “Just a little bit up, little bit down,” says our guide, Gyalzen Lama, running his finger over the map, tracing our route north. Our porters are already padding up the road like a centipede pack train. Including porters and Sherpas, our group numbers eight men and three women, representing the usual Babel of occupations, with ages ranging from late-20s to mid-50s, and fitness levels from regular joggers and gym-goers to a keen surfer. No one is (yet) super fit, and none of us has mountaineering skills, for this journey, organized by World Expeditions, is a classed as a challenging trek, not a technical climb.
We too set off, testing our legs beside the Arun Khola (River) that runs celadon green, wide and whispering through its namesake Arun Valley. Days like this become a file of lingering images: women winnowing grain, children carrying almost their own weight in firewood, and meeting a Hindu sadhu on pilgrimage. Owning nothing but his orange robes and begging bowl, he declares that like us, he too is “a tourist.”
Day 3. “Bed tea. Bed tea,” chimes cook Ang Puro at each tent at 6:30 A.M. Later, as we warm up on the morning trail, traders and porters pass us in both directions: rock salt from India going up, cinnamon and medicinal leaves coming down. What are we to them, in our down and dacron, nylon and Gore-Tex®?
Day 5. We’re gaining condition and getting to know each other. Geoff, 40, has rewarded himself with this trip for finishing his doctorate. David, a “trekophile,” is on his third Himalayan journey, while Julie, 45, a schoolteacher, is on her first. The porters carry our main packs. In our daypacks we each carry little more than a camera, water bottle and jacket.
Day 6. Constantly climbing to passes and dropping to rivers, we travel northwest, “against the grain” of the Mahabharat Range, known also as the Middle Hills. “If these are just the ‘Hills’ what are the mountains like?” pants Chris, a 29-year-old telephone technician from the plains.
Day 8. Christmas Day. Salpa La pass, at almost 5,000 feet, shows us an infinite regress of blue ridges building to the north. Photographing them gives me a brief excuse to draw breath and to rapture. At night, Ang Puro’s Christmas feast appears, like a conjuring trick, out of three simple pots: buffalo schnitzel, papadums, an eccentric custard, and chocolate pudding. Next comes a bottle of rum, then a drum; add upturned pots banged with spoons, and we’ve got a party.
Day 9. If climbing out of one valley is hard, descending into the next is worse as muscles are thrown into braking mode — a reminder that there is a Himalayan condition known aptly as “sahib’s knees.”
Day 10. “For dreadfulness, naught can excel / the prospect of Bung from Gudel; / And words die away on the tongue / When we look back on Gudel from Bung.” So wrote British mountaineer Bill Tilman in the late 1940s. Standing upon the ridge at Gudel (7,480 ft) and peering way down at the Hongu Khola (4,200 ft) then up the other side of the valley to Bung (6,500 ft), I understand his gloom. It’s a three-hour descent and re-ascent in order to progress just over a linear half-mile.
Day 12. The hardest day so far. On a merciless switchback climb up to the village of Chatuk we meet five British trekkers. “My guidebook calls this ‘a staircase climb’!” says one. “I’ll say it is — without any bloody landings.”
Day 14. “We eat one porter per day, says Gyalzen, meaning that we consume, in provisions, one porter’s load per day. We have now reached the Khumbu region—“Sherpa-land”—and encounter wild-looking Tibetans rugged in grimy parkas. Below the trail are awesome drops to the Dudh Kosi (Milk River), while to the east, airplanes the size of toys drift down to Lukla’s precipitous airstrip, dwarfed by the peaks above them.
Day 15. A well-tramped path winds up beside the Dudh Kosi towards fabled Namche Bazar, the Khumbu “capital”—doorway to Everest and Tibet. Forests of rhododendrons and magnolia shade the river while frozen waterfalls hang suspended in the couloirs. Here we enter Mount Sagarmatha National Park — Sagarmatha, meaning “Mother of the Universe,” is the Nepalese name for Everest. For Tibetans, the mountain is Chomolungma, “Mother Goddess of the Earth.” Gyalzen and the Sherpas start a snow fight and we respond with glee.
Day 16. At first sight Namche Bazar (11,200 ft) seems a high-altitude slum ... such is the impact, after two weeks in the wilderness, of seeing so many buildings, people and trash piles. Soon we’ve checked into a cozy lodge, “The International Footrest Hotel,” where the bunks have mattresses and not too many bugs.
Day 17. We acclimatize with two nights in Namche before pushing on. The place names now become a chant: Shyangboche, Thyangboche, Pangboche, Devuche, Dingboche, Periche, Lobuche. Our lungs, however, sound far from musical as the depleted oxygen levels — we’re now at 13,000 feet — make our going ever slower. Suddenly, all the panting and wheezing is forgotten when, on reaching a pass, I catch my first sight of “The Mother Goddess of the Earth.”
Everest’s dark pyramid — already as familiar, via a thousand photos, as a deja-vu image — glows massively, implacably, against the sky.
We pass the night in a trekkers’ dormitory beside Thyang-boche monastery. Within its adumbral gompha, or temple, hundreds of tiny butter lamps illuminate red-robed monks murmuring their mantras. My excursion into the snow-muted dawn to witness its coronet of untouched peaks is a vision that still remains.
Day 18. Pangboche is a small monastery that compensates for its modest size with a unique possession. A man dressed in an old letterman varsity sweater and grubby pants welcomes us, holding something swathed in a silk prayer scarf. (Is this how a lama dresses on his day off — like a hobo?)
Whatever his status, he unveils a conical dome of dark flesh and bristly hair — supposedly the scalp of a Yeti. Scientists claim it is nothing more than a yak hide, thus confirming to the lamas that scientists are nothing more than kill-joys. We make a donation then tramp on.
The track is ragged, the rocks glazed with ice. The world here is a harsh zone — beautiful, indifferent peaks above, and the iced falls of the Imja Khola far below. After a long afternoon’s walk, we reach the snow-coated hamlet of Periche and find shelter in a small stone lodge, grandiosely styled “The Periche Hotel,” where the five-star appointments include rough-plank sleeping platforms.
Day 19. Gyalzen orders another acclimatization day before our final push. We marvel at the parade of god-huge mountains marching down from Tibet — the crystal peaks of Makalu, Baruntse, Ama Dablam and Pumori, forming a vast rim above us. One could almost experience vertigo here, from looking upwards.
Returning to the lodge, we discover a collapsed Japanese trekker who has ascended too rapidly, ignoring acclimatization. With his symptoms of both pulmonary and cerebral edema — breathlessness, vomiting blood and pulse racing at 144—we fear he will not survive the night. Gyalzen assigns two Sherpas to evacuate him to a lower altitude. This, the only treatment available, works and we hear later that he has survived.
Day 20. A thrill of anticipation runs through the group — we’re looking straight up the Khumbu Glacier to our first glimpse of our destination, the dark hummock of Kala Pattar, “the Black Hill.” A rough stone hut at Lobuche (16,200 feet) is our final shelter. We drape our snow gaiters and boots around the stove, hoping they’ll dry overnight. They do. I wake to find a hole burned in my boot.
Day 21. A very cold night —40 degrees Fahrenheit. The Sherpas wake us before dawn for a breakfast of porridge, plus garlic and ginger soup. Gyalzen predicts our 12-hour trek will be “A little bit up, little bit down.”
The true slog begins from Gorak Shep, a frozen lake at the foot of Kala Pattar. Here a little establishment sells tea and candies — Julie dubs it “the tea shop at the end of the universe.” The weather is closing in as we start the 1,500-foot climb.
It’s a two-hour, grunting plod up a 45-degree slope of snow and ice. The oxygen here is less than half that at sea level, so it’s ten paces up, then stop for a breather... endlessly repeated.
Reaching the summit of Kala Pattar — 18,200 feet — brings elation. The view is bleak, wild and astonishing. An enormous carousel of 20,000 to 26,000-foot peaks rotates before us.
Facing us is the giant triangular flank of Everest, seemingly the most massive thing on earth. Jet stream winds blast a plume of vapor from its awesome 29,028-foot summit. Far below, the green ice of the Khumbu Glacier catches the shifting light; somewhere down there, amid the ice fall’s shattered river, is Everest Base Camp. In front of the great mountain, the striated rock of Mt Nuptse’s face is folded and bunched, as though mere layers of crepe paper.
After a moment of silent thanks for safe arrival my reverie ends. Below, I see a tiny figure scooting up the steep slope: Gyalzen Lama. In 40 minutes, he has covered what had taken us two hours. Noticing that the snow has worsened, he has literally run up the mountain (“just a little bit up”) to guide our safe descent to Lobuche.
By mountaineering standards, trekking to Kala Pattar means less than nothing. By personal standards, it was one of the hardest days of my life — and most satisfying.
On the long, white way back down to Lobuche, I thought of what the early Everest pioneer, George Leigh Mallory had said about the so-called “conquest” of mountains: “Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves.”
For details, contact World Expeditions — Tel: 888-464-8735 or (415) 989-2212; E-mail: contactus@WEadventures.com; Website: www.WEadventures. com. The 25-day Everest Circuit trek costs $1,820; a 27-day Everest Arun Valley trip costs $1,820. Shorter trips are also available. Prices cover food, staff, equipment, accommodations, and all transport within Nepal; air transportation to the trip departure in Kathmandu is not included.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under “Nepal.”
Photo: Gary Hayes