We arrived in Gorak Shep in time for lunch. It was here our guide assured us that the next few days would get MUCH harder and longer, as we were tackling base camp and the peaks. We settled into our lodge, grabbed some lunch and set off to base camp. Base camp was only 5360metres. We trekked along the worlds longest glacier over large scree and moraine piles (some terminology for you natural geographers out there). The mounds of rock and rubble dwarfed us and rarely could we get a true perspective of the landscape. In the distance we could see the rock piles we had to climb up and round, but in no way could we tell how tall or wide any of these piles were...... until we saw the little black dots of people wearing horrifically bright jackets, trying to scale them. O well - a long day it was. The trek to base camp was just under 2 hours as we struggled over loose rocks and then ice. After a final push up some loose stone steps, overtaking a bundle of yaks on the way, we arrived at base camp. The views here were pretty minimal. We saw the start of one of the large glaciers leaning down the mountain, and as the climbing season started to pick up, the first few tents were pitched from people intending to reach everest summit. We also saw the most expensive accommodation in the area - a heated dome complete with cinema and reclining arm chairs at a modest 35,000 pounds for the full package (not bad considering it only costs 10,000 pounds for the permit to climb to the everest summit :S). After some arty poses and photos in front of rocks, we made our way back to the hostel and settled in for an early night, as tomorrow we would be tackling kalapathar - a small peak that would give us a panoramic view of everest and its neighbours.
Up at 4.30am, armed with a torch, primark trousers, charity shop fleece and jacket, and a purple pashmina I bought for a friend but forgot to unpack from my sack before the trek, we tackled kalapathar. Steep, dusty and rocky, we had to break every 10 mins. At an altitude of 5200metres and climbing we grew very quickly out of breath and exhausted. Just when we thought the peak was in sight, more of the mountain reveals itself and ridge after ridge we climbed. As the sky started to lighten we could see how high we were getting, yet the sheer lack of scale in the landscape made it quite tricky.
As the landscape became steeper and the rocks became bigger, we soon found ourselves having to haul ourselves over icy boulders and rocks until...... the final peak was in sight. With a final push we reached the 5550metre rocky summit and waited for the sun to rise from behind everest. It was here the cold hit us. The tchibo snow boots failed their task at keeping my feet warm and the 2.50 pound gloves let in a draft. The water in our bottles froze and still we waited. As the crowd on the summit grew, we were given cups of tea from one of the other guides.
And then came the sun. It peaked round everest and shot one of those light beams across the valley - the kind of beams you see in movies that implies a 'heavenly force'. The line of light moved slowly across the valley and climbed up the mountain towards us with far more ease than we could ever attempt. The minute the sun hit us we could feel its warmth. After another small photo session, finishing our cup of tea that too was turning icy, we made back for the hostel for a watery (and definitely not oats as originally promised) porridge.
From Gorak Shep, with Kalapathar and Base Camp safely under our belts and stored eternally on our camera memory cards, we were Gokyo bound. However, first there was the little matter of the Chola Pass, which was the point at which 2 mountains joint. It was one of the only ways out of the valley to get to Gokyo. We left the frosty Gorak Shep and continued down the valley, walking alongside a meltwater stream for most of the way until lunch. After a 5 hour trek over 'flat' (or what the guide assured us was flat) land, over, under and round mountains and hilly rock outcrops, we arrived at our stopping place for the night - Dzong La. Although shown on the map, it was little more than 2 hostels (though one was as our guide put it 'out of order'). The hostel was small with only 10 rooms. We were aptly placed in wooden box room 101 - good times. The toilet was in a tin hut outside and was 4 wooden planks over a ditch. Lets just say the torch saved my life here on a number of occasions - electricity and running water? Who needs em!?
We had another early start the next day as we were to scale up to the Chola Pass. Our guide informed us that to do the pass later in the day meant having to contend with high winds which create rock falls, so its safer to do in the morning. It was only after finishing the pass he also tells us 2 guides died the week before and for all anyone knows they are more bodies buried underneath the rocks *sigh* and with that we began our climb.
A steep but stable ground at first, dropped into massive boulders which we had to use as stepping stones up the valley. Large boulders of scree and general debris that had slid down the mountain from the glacier above. Every step we had to test the rocks to make sure they were stable and wouldn't slide down the mountain, taking us with it. After many short breaks and back at a height of around 5200metres, we saw the peak of the pass. Without a set in stone path to follow round, we scaled the steep scree sides, holding onto the larger rocks for support as we tried to place our feet away from ice and unstable rocks. After a few slips and grazes, we eventually slide down and stepped off the scree pile, onto the actual glacier (more kodak monents here). A large pool had recently opened up in the glacier, so we climbed up the opposite mountain side around this, and dropped down onto the rocky peak (further photo moments and assuring people coming up the other side, that the climb going down will not be as bad as it was for us coming up).
We stepped over the edge of the pass and made our way down the few hundred metres to the valley floor. This side was far FAR worse than it was on the other side (and we were very grateful to our guide for taking us up the other side and down this side, and not the other way round). The drop was steep, the rocks all moved beneath our feet, and paths that had been carved out were so coated in dust even the best of walking boots (let alone the finest tchibo quality foot wear) slid down. I found myself having to grab on just to steady myself from tumbling down. Of course the porters wearing flip flops made little work of these walk, but to us uncultured westerners, we managed to make quite a meal of it. Weaving our way down the uneven hill, we soon understood why Sonam insisted we came early. Every so often the silence was disrupted by the sound of tumbling rock and dust coming from further up the hill. Another valuable word of his advice was to move QUICKLY and not stay on the same spot for too long - again we soon saw why.
We survived the Chola Pass (evidently) but the day was not over yet. Sonam said there would be a short 10 minute up hill walk followed by mostly flat until we reached the glacier. An hour of harsh up hill walking later, followed by some comfortable flat land walking (as flat as a former glacier valley can be) we eventually saw our destination - Gokyo, and the neighboring hill of Gokyo Ri. But first we had to cross the glacier. It was covered in rocks and general debris carved out from mountains, and the only sign there was ice beneath it, was where water had worked its way up to the surface in pools and exposed ice face - in reality the glacier was tens of metres deep. We stood on the valley edge surveying what we had to cross. Again the scaleless landscape distorted our view. The glacier could have been miles across or only metres. We had no idea until.... once again.... we saw a series of tiny little black dots scaling the wall on the other side. Shit!
We descended a 100 or so metres down onto the glacier and weaved our way round towering piles of ice and rock debris. A good hour on the glacier and then the painful and tedious walk out. The entire length of this journey we were being followed closely by an indian salesmen - carrying a bag of goodies on his back bigger than him'. He seemed to spit constantly throughout the journey, to a point where we were very tempted to push him back into the glacier as we left it - we saw this wandering salesmen in most of the places we ended up, until we reached Namche again days later (still spitting his little heart out and making a great deal of noise about it in the process).
Gokyo was a very expensive place and our hostel overlooked a 'holy lake'. Staggeringly blue reflecting the mountains around it. We settled in for the night, just as a party started to play out in the dining room. The songs which were blasted at 4am on the night bus from india to katmandu came back to haunt us, as it seemed the same cd provided the party. The 2 blonde western girls, understandably were the main attraction for the slightly old and overweight porters and guides who were stopped up in the hostel. Me and Alec were tired (and far too reserved/sober for a party) so went to bed early.
Sonam insisted we had a short lie in, so....up at 5am, up we went to Gokyo Ri to see the sunrise. Halfway up the mountain the sun rose, so we decided to start taking it slowly. Far more decieving than Kalapathar, ridge after ridge convinced us to summit was near, but after 2 hours of climbing did we eventually reach the top where we flopped down on the rocks and surveyed the view. Everest was a hazy shape on the horizon, the glacier we crossed, once again looked deceptively narrow, and sonam pointed out to us the names of all the surrounding peaks. After an hour of photos and poses, we descended down the mountain, took our last glimpse of everest, and began the hardest day of the trek - the 10 hour trek BACK to Namche. We were heading down the valley.
From 4800m to 3600m we arrived in Namche. We caught back up with the river we left far behind days earlier, we saw trees, green shrubs and yes...... RUNNING WATER (showers were still 3 quid so no this was not on the agenda). Blisters, aches, scratches and general pain were the norm as we walked round the mountains edge to get to Namche. Every corner we expected to see the town, but to no avail until around 5ish when we saw the first signs of life (and then we got stuck behind a party of yaks that sounded like an orchestra of jingle bells).
The natural deodrant I bought from katmandu earlier was now starting to fail me (its a green rock you need to moisten before you use and has only 3 ingredients.... it was also only a quid understandably). We got back to the Namche hostel and slumped down in the dining room. There was about 15 minutes of 'sitting and doing nothing staring into space' (the calm after the storm) before we headed to our room. After 12 hours of trekking, off came the boots (and much of the inner lining) and the socks and we surveyed our foot damage. On went the plasters and blister cream, and we staggered (literally) to dinner to have a large serving of yak steak and chips.
We had another lie in (though this was actually a lie in as we got up at 9am), had breakfast and wandered off to the bakery to get an apple danish. Later on in the day after lunch, we began the tedious journey back to Phakding, then back to Lukla. Our trek was coming to an end. The walk back to Lukla seemed to be far more up hill than i ever remembered, and the need for me to take a shower (its been 13 days at this point) was not only overwhelming me, but also Alec who walked metres ahead. We arrived at Lukla around 11ish, where our guide told us we would eb staying the night as there were no more 'Agni air' flights back to Kathmandu. Fecking fantastic!!.
With the luxury of running water (stone cold, but running nonethless) I washed my face and underarms, and prepared for a night in Lukla. Early start though as we headed to the airport to catch our plane. We checked in (the guards prodded our bags, nodded then threw them aside) and waited.....and waited......more....waited. A tea stall on the corner tempted us slightly, until they said the pringles were 4 quid...... we waited a bit more. Agni air has about 3 planes, and we were the 3rd flight - meaning the planes had to go from the city to Lukla and back, city to Lukla and back and on the 3rd return was our flight. However, due to lack of sufficient radar, and the fact the planes were tiny, any sign of bad weather and planes wouldnt run.
The clouds bunched slowly around the tops of the mountains and fell around the airport. After 4 hours of waiting in the airport for our flight, a guard told us the airport was closed. We went back to the hostel and waited for a further 2 hours before the rain began. A call later from the aiport told us no more flights would be coming. We settled in for ANOTHER night in Lukla.
Early start, we ran for the airport, checked in an waited. The sky was patchy, yet planes still flew (just). We waited and waited......and waited a bit more. We saw the second round of Agni air planes leaves for Kathmandu. Sods law, there was now bad weather in Kathmandu. So again we waited. We were SO close. Whenever a plane was heard, everyone would get up and rush to the window to see what flight it was. Some people were lucky. We..... were not. The following day were strikes so if we missed this flight we would be stuck in Lukla for 3 more days (minimum) and without a guide (Sonam was only paid till today). 2 hours after we were meant to be on the plane we heard it. Sonam grabbed our arms and dragged us down the stairs to the runway area. The agni air plane parked up and unloaded its cargo of wood and (broken) glass planes before we boarded. We werent safe yet. The clouds were getting thicker and we heard stories of planes being turned back midflight as it was not safe to land. The plane took off and we began our bumpy 30 min journey back to Kathmandu. After some tight turns and corners where we were all convinced we were heading back to Lukla, we saw our first sign of civilization - tarmac roads and CARS!! We landed in Kathmandu and got a cab to Thamel. The air was thick with pollution, horns and people spitting. As much as I would never plan on moving out of the city, for that instant I would have done anything to be out of it and back in the clean and quiet of the mountains. Stuck in traffic behind cows and rickshaws, we FINALLY made it back to the tour place, where we got our stuff together, said goodbye to Sonam and met back up with Emily in a nearby hotel.
Next day were the strikes and protests. Shops closed, people chanting, trains and buses not running. Hotel bound, I managed to find a small shop in which to buy some digestive biscuits and sat watching tv working my way slowly through. The next few days would be days of treats, chocolate and steaks (assuming the protests dont shut down the steak places).
In hindsight, it seems that political instability follows Alec and Emily and I around. As far as we know, Brits are still advised to steer clear of Bangkok due to the red shirt protests (which turned violent days after we left). Delhi is now on a red alert for a terror attack so we have been advised to steer clear (not that we need telling twice), and the strikes and protests in Kathmandu are to go on indefinitely. *sigh* watch out Malaysia here we come (if the airports are open in 6 days). Our mission now is to find an open tour place that will send us on our way on a white water rafting trip. We have 6 days left in Nepal, and there are only so many boxes of digestive biscuits one can eat through....