A snowfall is starting slowly. It’s been exactly three years since I survived a deadly blizzard in Gangotri. Beautiful though it is, trekking through a snowfall is the last thing that I wanted to do.
Lobuche shouldn’t be very far, considering it is 4 in the evening already. The sudden change of atmospheric pressure and the ever-increasing altitude finally won over my head giving a very bad headache. As the snowfall becomes hard, the pain on my head becomes unbearable. The water cans are empty, each step seems harder in this freezing place.
I will definitely collapse here if I don’t drink some water immediately. “Don’t drink that. We are almost there”, Khadka interrupts me as he saw me running to drink the unclean water from the stream Imja Khola. With his assurance I tried to stay on my feet till I saw the hotels in Lobuche.There is a strange custom in this high village, the room rent (500 Rs) has to be paid at the small toll booth at the entrance, not in the hotel that you are checking in. The reasons are well written on the walls of the cabin, which I never bothered to read….considering my priorities.
With a heavy head, I entered the dining room of the hotel, Dewan has chosen. At that moment taking the breath is an alarming issue but not due to the altitude but because of the chimney. The sudden snowfall has blocked the passage of smoke and without a way to go up, it kept filling up the dining hall and soon the rooms upstairs as well. Tonight is going to be a living hell. I need to get some fresh air to keep my consciousness.
The situation outside is even worse. All the congested hotels have turned on their furnace for cooking and to keep warm in the dining hall but the heavy wind coming up from the mountains doesn’t allow the smoke to go up….. instead it pushes it down again. Lobuche has turned in to a steam engine now. The fallen snow on the ground is now at least 2 inches thick. Ajin’s excitement to see his first snowfall in life had subdued well before that!!
After today’s self torturing walk, the condition of us is nothing short of miserable. “I don’t think I can do Kala Pathar or I don’t want to. Base camp is what we have signed up for.” “Manu let us see what our condition is tomorrow”. I lay down dumb in the bed listening to Vikram’s and Manu’s conversation without any energy to join them.
Miracle, my headache is completely gone now and I’m all pumped up for the big day. Today we shall reach the destination – the base camp itself. But first we need to reach Gorakshep by crossing Lobuche pass which still wears the white cloth of snow, last evening had gifted. It’s not easy to walk in the shadows of the mountains in this blistering morning cold. The sun is yet to reach from behind the mountains but we cannot wait till then. As Dewan said, it’s going to be a very long day, well… from now onwards it is going to be like this.
We are at the tail of a sea of people heading towards Gorakshep. After leaving Namche I haven’t seeing such a crowd. Did all these people stay at Lobuche yesterday because surly this small village is not capable of holding these many people! At the far end of the line a very steep climb horridly came up putting bad dreams of yesterday’s but with lots of necessary stoppages for relaxing we finally climbed that monster. The trail in front of us is most rugged path we have come across so far, surly not comforting unlike yesterday’s. Good thing that I didn’t get a headache. Yet!
We are just a few hours away from the base camp but still no sign of Everest. Anyway the towering mountain Nuptse (7861 m) is there close by to make things more interesting. Here, over 5000 meters above the sea level, even the scorching noon light could not warm up the ground much but with the presence of ice glaciers right under the nose of Nuptse, this is hardly a surprise. The gravel and dust are covering most part of these glaciers but still there are some uncovered areas showing the blue color of the water stored in its purest form.
And there at last, Gorakshep, the last habitable place for the trekkers, finally appears down the valley. Dewan shows the way leading to Kala Pathar which is on the opposite side of a hill after the hotels. Throughout the way every hill with black stones on the top was Kala (black) Pathar (stone) for us but at the end it was nowhere near our guesses! It is 3 hours of trek awaiting us to take us to the base camp. I know Dewan clearly added up the time knowing our snail speed.
Heavy headache and cold is a common thing the group shares now. “Comm’on guys, it’s just 3 hours of trekking, it will be like watching a movie”, encourages Manu. “Yah, then watching the same movie again in reverse” Vikram’s comparison makes the gang burst with laughter. But we all know we have to do it, that’s why we are here.
And thus it starts……. our final push to the destination we all craved for months, to see the mountain we all studied in our geography classes in school, up so close. It is so difficult to put two foot at the same time in the rugged trail behind the barren land leading after the lodges. It’s been just an hour since lunch but I’m all dried up, it wasn’t enough as I thought earlier. Though I’m a skinny person nothing frustrates me more than an unsatisfied meal. The great Mt Everest is still hiding somewhere behind the clouded Nuptse. When are we going to see her?
I am leading the line followed by Manu who looks pale as dead but the others are nowhere to be seen. “This is the hardest thing that I have ever done. Where the hell is this place? Don’t you feel tired?” Without any energy left in me, I shorten my reply to all his questions with just a nod. “You can make it, don’t give up”, our manliness got hurt very much by the sympathy shown towards us by two middle aged American women but the effort to show fake enthusiasm failed miserably.
“Everest!!! Everest…” shouts an Indian guy who was following us all this time. Through the small hole of the blanket the clouds have made, the world’s tallest mountain peaks for a moment.
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Time freezes in Kumbu for a second, all my weariness vanishes into thin air at the glimpse of a pinnacle that hundreds of heroic mountaineers have conquered, against the raging obstacles nature has put on their way, with just their brutal determination. I wish I could see someone up there right now setting their flag on the top, making the whole world under their feet. Nothing is going to happen. This is not the time for expeditions, that will be from April to May. And that was all the time the wind has allocated for us today. The veil it revealed is closed by itself before I even take out the camera. Will I get one more chance to look at it or will it only remain in my heart like a beautiful painting……. The basecamp alone can give that answer.
“I am feeling really dizzy…….. can I borrow your glasses? I forgot mine in the hotel” Really… Of all the days, you have to forget it today! But like a phoenix bird rising from the ashes, Manu started running through the dangerous trails once he put on my shades. Is he doing this to get over with this thing sooner, or has the dizziness taken over his consciousness?! I don’t have the energy to yell out to him and ask. All I could do is to follow him with whatever strength is left in me.
Our path is about to end but rather than standing at the end of the trail, the people on the other side are appearing on the ground below very near to the ice glaciers. Please don’t tell me that this is the base camp! I definitely don’t think I can make a painful climb up and down from the place we are at the moment, to go there. Guess what, that is the famous Everest basecamp… It is like somebody wants it to be harder than what one has done already to reach here. Anyway let’s do it for the sake of it!
With the tormented legs I set foot on the graveled land. “Everest Basecamp – 5364 meters” The red signboard reads. A couple of years before I didn’t even know that ordinary people can go to the basecamp apart from the mountaineers…….. but here I am, at the exact place where six decades earlier, the great Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary started their adventure that later dazed the world, where my cousin almost got buried in the avalanche and bravely escaped it.
In the journey to the Everest basecamp I saw countless mountains throughout the way, beautiful and elegant mountains like Ama Dhablam and Tabouche, towering structures like Lhotse and Nuptse but our quest was all about one name – Everest. But where is it?? A white ceiling of clouds is all that is left above my head. So close yet hidden. It’s about the journey, not the destination… Whoever coined that phrase must have gone through the same emotional misery that I’m going through right now. It’s unfair that after all this anguishing journey, I might have to leave here without a good picture of the Everest itself.
Very close at hand, the famous Khumbu icefalls are situated making the air colder than a freezer. This frozen waterfall looking like a natural phenomenon is actually one of the most dangerous parts on the way to the summit. The mountaineers put up their camps on the rocky terrain near the icefall and stay there for weeks as part of their acclimatization exercise before starting their expedition through these dangerous glaciers. Extensive ropes and ladders have to be set up there earlier by the sherpas for them to cross the dangerous crevasses contained within the icefall, but sometimes even the tightest safety measures can be breached and many poor souls lose their life by falling into this abyss. The dead corpse en route to the summit stays there undecayed, serving as milestones. This is a place which has witnessed as many tragic deaths as human achievements are registered here.
Mountains, glaciers, icefall……… it is a feast for the eyes and admiring all this natural beauty, I stood at the base camp but the static mode is not helping the body to keep the heat in this ever dropping temperature. I drank some water from what was left with me to get the energy required for the painful walk back to Gorakshep. Was that an ice cube that just went into my mouth?!! Yes it was, a quarter of the water that was left in the cheap plastic bottle had turned into ice crystals! Oh my gosh!!!! this is getting really tough……….
I need to get out of this place immediately. Manu has started the walk already and I shall follow him before getting frozen here. Up there on the top, Pranav and Vikram are standing with Khadka waving at us giving signals that they are ending their adventure there. It is not a time to show your bravery but to listen to your body. The ability to turn back at the right time is a crucial factor in these journeys. Ajin just arrived with Dewan but I am in no mood to wait for him. I had so many poses in my mind to take pictures at the base camp but no time for all those gimmicks. Like a swimmer swimming back after touching the other end of the pool in a 100 meters freestyle, we started back to Gorakshep after seeing the basecamp. No regrets at all….
I am very eager to do the “You can do it” pep talk to someone coming from the other end but no luck, looks like we are the last batch to reach the basecamp for today. With tumbling legs and a headache which gets worse every second, I enter the dining hall in Gorakshep. Though I’m dead inside already, I tried not to sleep until finishing our dinner at night in order to get an undisturbed sleep tonight. The foggy weather outside hides the view of all the mountains including the soaring Nuptse which is just meters away from us. Gone are the times that I cared about the starry skies.
Dinner is over and it is time to sleep finally. Ironically the blankets in the hotel are the thinnest that I have seen during the entire trip. You came here after a painful walk which took days to stay right under the nose of mighty mountains on a cold night, so please suffer some more! No chances for this headache to be over by tomorrow like it happened today morning. There is a stunning silence in our rooms. Nobody is talking about going to Kala Pathar anymore….
The confrontation – Day 6
It worked again! I shook my head in disbelief knowing that my headache got cured magically. It is a clear sky outside, let me make the most of it because I didn’t come all this way to leave without a picture of Everest but how will I do it with Nuptse still hiding it with her staggering size.
As usual Dewan is up before all of us. “You should have gone to Kala Pathar today; it is such a clear day.” Yes I should have. “How about a small trek towards it, can I see Everest from there?” “Yes you can, but you better hurry coz we have to leave here by 8, it is going to be a very long day to Periche”.
As the dawn started making its presence felt in the highest village of Khumbu, I started walking towards Kala Pathar grabbing just my camera, while others were still asleep. The steep climb at the beginning itself made me realize that I am going to pay for forgetting the walking pole and the water in the room, in the excitement to see Everest. Each minute I looked behind towards Nuptse hoping for some sign of it, (which is becoming harder than finding the Holy Grail,) only to get disappointed every time. Half an hour has gone now. Along with Everest, Nuptse is hiding the morning sun as well but she cannot hold it for too long, our star will come out soon to heat up the earth and my body.
A guide coming back from the top with his sole companion immediately stopped in front of me staring at the mountains in the direction where Nuptse is standing. Without uttering a word, he continued gawking into the void like something is about to happen in any second. What is it……… an avalanche or something? I and the other fellow looked at each other wondering what the hell is going on; surely both of us didn’t hear anything. I tried to sharpen my ears but still nothing. Absolute silence in the air and then suddenly the valley of Gorakshep rattled with a thundering sound of avalanche. I looked everywhere; nothing is falling off from these mountains. “It is on the other side, nothing to worry” The guide walks down casually. With puzzled faces me and the other fellow exchanged looks wondering how he could sense this at all! Surely these people know the language of the mountains!
With the happiness of seeing the Everest reflecting on their faces, more people are on their way back from the top. When will I get my chance? Wait……. Now, from where did this black mountain come behind Nuptse all of a sudden? Is it that what I am thinking?! “Excuse me, is that the Everest?” Struggling for breath because of the strong climb down, the European whom I asked, gives me the thumbs up.
At last, at long long last, I see it – Sagaramatha, the mountain that, to the rest of the world, is known as Everest, without even a hint of clouds anywhere near it. With 8,848 meters of height, Everest is almost a kilometer taller than Nuptse but its top has completely shed off the ice cap unlike the latter and by the kiss of the first rays of the day, it is shining like a perfectly cut black opaque prism. The adrenaline started rushing through me like never before and with the help of that I climbed more and more so that I could get a better picture of this majestic beauty. Each step that I took reduced the temperature by a degree but I didn’t want to stop. AJ was right…… the best view is from up here. I was awake from 5 in the morning, only if I hadn’t been lazy I could have done Kala Pathar. This regret is going to haunt me forever.
The morning sun is finally coming out from behind Nuptse just before I get frozen. This mountain range is not only significant geographically but politically as well. Splitting the land into Nepal and Tibet, the great Himalayas stands here creating different language, culture and race on both sides. How does the base camp in the Tibetan side look like? Just a few kilometers away, passing this giant wall of rock, there could be another traveler standing there right now, awestruck with the same thought about this place. I hope I will find my answer someday but for now I shall go back to the hotel, my friends must be waiting for me. Just one more final look at her before saying goodbye to this heavenly land.
At the dining hall I am a very proud man after catching sight of Everest for a good amount of time but the others are thinking about the long trip to Periche. But it won’t be a very difficult walk; after all it’s all descent. New groups of trekkers are arriving in Gorakshep after their early morning walk from Lobuche. It is the same old passage only but the terrain looks completely new to me, the white cloak of snow which she was wearing yesterday has got completely melted by today. By the time we reached Lobuche we were all famished, so the decision to have to lunch from there made sense. After all, the only pit stop before Periche apart from here is way down there at the windy place of Dughla where nobody wants to spend much time.
When I set my foot in the memorial land again, I was not the same person inside anymore. The strenuous conditions in the valley have taught me so much that my respect for these mountaineers has increased a thousand times more.
“Look at these poor souls, these three men did the full Eight-thousand plus mountains apart from Nagaparvat and while doing that, they got killed in a terrorist massacre in Pakistan” Pranav grieves, pointing to a memorial stone.
Ama Dablam – we meet again, you were not there to witness the struggles that we have been through in the last couple of days. Well, how could you? Nuptse was hiding you, Lhotse and even the mighty Everest itself all this time! Crossing the river we enter the new trail to Periche going all the way down till the stream Imja Khola towards the side of the broad Tabouche who appears gigantic with each step that I take. Taking left from there we continued the walk through the dried river beds targeting our destination. So much of distance we have already covered today without adequate stoppages to relax, resulting in a pain on my shoulders for the first time in the entire trek. The clouds have cut down the way for the sunlight partially and in the golden light of the evening whatever left out here Ama Dablam looks as dazzling as ever she is. Did I already mention that this is the most beautiful mountain that I have ever seen in my life? Maybe yes, but I cannot stop describing its grace. From here the small village of Periche looks right under the nose of it, though in reality, at least a couple of kilometers separates these two.
Tomorrow we shall reach Namche Bazaar- the small place crowded with hotels, so tonight could be the last chance to get a good picture of the starry sky with mountains in the background. In the absence of the headache, the wannabe night photographer in me started crawling its way out again! With all those thoughts in the head while walking, I didn’t even realize that the destination has arrived already. Even at the dinner table my mind was fully focused on that mission.
It is past 2 in the morning, time for the night crawler inside me to explore the sky. Dewan was right about this valley, it is colder than a cooler. Putting up everything that I got to cover up from the cold I went outside to fight against the freezing temperature of the valley. With Imja Khola frozen to death already the only sound that can be heard in Periche at this time is the unpleasantly cold breeze coming from Tabouche. Without a tripod, setting up the camera to get the long exposure shots with just pebbles, is really a tiring task. I could be the only living thing out here in these darkest hours of the day or so I wish, but something is clearly moving behind me, I can sense that. Two glowing eyes are staring at me now. With all these heavy dresses and the balaclava covering my head, I am not sure whether I look like a human being at all to this hairy dog. How will I tell this dog that I’m just a curious photographer who has no intention of robbing anything! But it read the innocence in my eyes and started shaking its tail vigorously. Phewwww…… I almost pissed in my pants..
I will call you Fluffy and I know you would like me to pat you on your head very much……. but I have a task to do now, unlike you, I cannot stay out here all night.
Without the presence of the moon who has said adieu already, thousands of stars look more vibrant than my previous nights in Khumbu and the passing satellites and shooting stars decorate the sky. Maybe this whole journey was about the Everest which I enjoyed only for a very less amount of time ironically……….. but look at all the magnificent scenes that I got to see on the way. Would I have seen Ama Dablam or the icefall of Khumbu? Would I have experienced a magical night like this under the starry sky with the company of tall snowy mountains and a strange dog!!!!!
It’s true – it is about the journey, not the destination.
The fingers are getting numb now, not possible to even move the camera dial. It is a sign from the nature telling you to stop fooling around and go inside. Good night Fluffy, see you again tomorrow.
The walk back – Day 7 (Periche to Namche Bazar)
The days are getting tougher and tougher, the destination is Namche Bazar a distance that we covered in two days while coming up. The oddly shaped monument erected outside of the hotel carries the names of all the brave people who died during the Everest expedition through the history, a list starting from 1922 some 30 years before it yielded to humankind finally. Fluffy is nowhere to be seen here, guess I have to leave without saying a good bye. Thank you so much for safe guarding me yesterday night by the way! After the moderate climb from the Periche we set foot on the same old trails again that comes from Tengboche, only this time with more golden memories. Standing long way far in the north with Lohtse, Everest is now witnessing our walk back from her.
“Do you remember that trail coming off from the side of Chola Lake? It is the way to the Gokyo ri, a very beautiful lake in between the mountains.” “So the only way to go there is from Lobuche?” “No there is a way to reach there from Namche Bazaar through Chola pass”….
Oh so that’s where that path from Namche which I saw on our first day of trekking, is going to. Seems there are a lot of trekking trails here in Khumbu valley apart from this traditional EBC route. Adding to the checklist!
While paying for the lunch at Tengboche only I came to notice that our cash source is about to hit bottom. “Food in Nepal is very expensive.” “Yes but you know why? Everything comes from India!” Dewan’s reply is immediate.
I almost shed small tears of joy when the twin bridges of Namche finally appeared long down in the valley, ohh…. how I missed this cozy place! In the dining hall of the same old hotel we stayed earlier I looked at the table a week earlier all of us had sat together listening to AJ’s story. A new group is sitting there with all that excitement and confusion which we bore earlier, on their faces right now which clearly tells that they are on their way to EBC. Good luck guys, try to make to Kala Pathar.
No more cheating – Day 8 (Namche Bazar to Lukla)
I always dislike the walk back, especially once the view of the mountains is gone and the monstrous climb down after crossing the bridge of Namche made it more frustrating though those were completely new trails to me. But one thing is for sure, we definitely gained a big time on the way up! I cannot imagine our condition if we had to trek all this way up instead of taking the helicopter ride. A new set of trekkers are waiting in a long line in front of the tourist office of Monjo to get the permission for their elusive journey to the Everest base camp. Passing that we continued our walk to Periche. The zig zag path across Dudh Koshi without any consistency in the altitude made me lose my total count of river crossing for the day.
The sun is about to yield to the gathering clouds in the mountains and in the golden light of the dusk a small object appeared in front of my eyes flying through the narrow ravine. Because of two things the sight of this aircraft which has taken off moments before is the most relaxing view that I have seen in ages: first we are getting very close to Lukla and secondly and most important of all, the flights to Kathmandu are flying! Though the weather can change in these mountain regions in a blink of an eye, this view is certainly a beacon of hope.
With that encouraging feeling I set foot on our last pit stop … Lukla, a place, which serves as the first for most trekkers enroute to EBC, the irony! Dewan didn’t sugarcoat it, the chance of preponing the flights of 3rd Nov to tomorrow is next to impossible. Seems nothing much we can do than sit back and relax for a day in the bustling village of Lukla. He will stay for one more day and will leave only after seeing us off at the airport. But the porters may go tomorrow if they get another job which means tonight is our last night together as a group. With whatever is left in our hands we gave a tip to Dewan and the porters. But the real delight came when Khadka started dancing after one round of rum that he had, to the amusement of everyone in the restaurant. Manu, Pranav and Vikram gave their spare walking poles to the porters. These people were with us all the time through our good and bad. Apart from their charge, these small yet handy tools were the best gift that one could offer them.
A day passed without any events. In the morning we all went to see the Lukla airport – world’s most dangerous one and by seeing the first landing itself, I realized it is a name it rightly deserved. With a narrow runway ending just in front of the face of the hill and the other at a cliff, the pilots absolutely need a perfectly clear sky apart from their matchless skills to land even a very small aircraft here. The way they toy these machines by moving it around in the parking bay is a sight one could watch all day
And it arrived finally, the day I leave the mountains behind. By the end of the day I better set foot in India after crossing the border at Sanuali in order to catch the early morning train from Gorakhpur to Bangalore. Mine is the second flight of the day at 6.30 in the morning but the rest of them fly back to Kathmandu around 9.30 and since they opted to fly back to Bangalore from there I will be seeing them after 3 days only.
In the cold morning of Lukla with one final hug to all of them, I walked towards the airport with a luggage which felt heavier than before with all the memories that are stuffed inside it. The village is waking up slowly but the airport is busier than ever filled with passengers from across the globe waiting to fly to their countries after their adventurous trip. Wonder where Dewan is, I should have said goodbye to him yesterday night itself.
It’s that familiar voice again, I knew he would come. Here is a man, up early in the morning to say goodbye to a traveler who is not his client at all! It seems in this friendly airport there are no security restrictions for the locals to reach up to the departing terminal! “I have something for you”. Putting a golden shawl around my neck he said. “This is for the best of wishes for your journey. Goodbye my friend, will see you some other time”. We will….Tara Air took off at the scheduled time unlike before. Like the freefall of a scary roller-coaster from the top, the aircraft slid across the runway before it became airborne at the cliff. The frosty river is still flowing like mad down under me. Crossing Dudh Koshi is so much easier in this way! I am sure Dewan will be waiting at the airport till my flight disappears from his sight.
Tara air took off at the scheduled time unlike before. Like the freefall of a scary roller-coaster from the top, the aircraft slided across the runway before it air borne at the cliff. The frosty river is still flowing like mad down under me. Crossing Dudh Koshi is so much easier in this way! I am sure Dewan will be waiting at the airport till my flight disappears from his sight.
As the view of the Himalayas fades away from my eyes, the thought of economic crisis and the horrible two days long journey in the overcrowded train which I am going to face shortly starts slowly crawling into my mind!
Till next time Nepal…
PS: I got my phone back at the airport by the way!