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Everest Base Camp Trek: a trip to the bottom of the top

Everest Base Camp Trek

Everest and Nuptse at Dusk. Photo: Zeb Blais

Everest and Nuptse at Dusk. Photo: Zeb Blais

 

The Himalaya is an intimidating mountain range.  Steep, jagged rock, huge glaciers, and extreme altitudes are thrust in your face as soon as you enter the Nepal.  I had been trying to figure out the perfect way to experience this range for a long time but I hadn’t lined up any climbing partners with Himalayan ambitions.

Then an opportunity to guide Everest Basecamp and nearby Lobuche Peak fell into my lap.  I was elated, but didn’t want to get too excited until I was holding a boarding pass.  Low and behold, plane tickets materialized.  Before I knew it I was jet lagged and staggering into the Yak and Yeti Hotel, an upscale accommodation with a history of lodging climbers.

Loading the heli in Kathmandu. Photo: Zeb Blais.

Loading the heli in Kathmandu. Photo: Zeb Blais.

 

Eight hours later, I was buckling my seat belt in an A Star B2, headed into the highest mountain range in the world.  The flight was surreal.  We sailed high above lush green slopes stacked with terraced crops.  Waterfalls poured from steep hillsides.  We buzzed mountain ridges close enough to wave at people walking below as we flew up into bigger and bigger mountains.

Our first stop in the Khumbu was Lukla, a tiny village with an "airport" - a 1,700' uphill runway and a couple heli pads.  The runway hardly looks long enough to land a hang glider and I was glad we only needed to worry about finding the heli pad.

After touching down,  the trip started with a one of my favorite customs in the Khumbu: tea.  We ordered a pot of fresh mint tea and traditional Nepalese chicken chili (not American style chili - it's a stirfried dish with chunks of chicken, onions, bell peppers and plenty of chili pepper kick).  Soon we were joined by our Sherpa guide, Tshering Dorjee Sherpa, who organized porters to carry our climbing gear and non essential trekking items.  We finished eating and drinking and hit the trail.

Trekking through villages low in the Khumbu. Photo: Zeb Blais.

Trekking through villages low in the Khumbu. Photo: Zeb Blais.

 

Trekking in the Khumbu is magical.  Saddled with little more than a few layers, a couple sips of water and camera equipment, we trekked between stone tea houses nestled in the mountains.  Every couple hours, instead of stopping and sitting on our backpacks and somberly forcing down an energy bar, we sat down at tables and ordered tea and hot food.  By the end of the first day I was wondering if I would ever be able to go back to backpacking the American way.

Building karma the easy way: just walk counter clockwise. Photo: Zeb Blais.

Building karma the easy way: just walk counter clockwise. Photo: Zeb Blais.

 

Light loads and tea houses made it easy, but the scene surrounding us was what hooked me.  Steep rock protruded from deep green jungle foliage and the trail itself was a work of art.  The cobbled stone path had connected small Sherpa villages over steep mountain sides, corpulent rivers and over high passes for thousands of years.

Walking down Tukla Pass. Photo: Zeb Blais.

Walking down Tukla Pass. Photo: Zeb Blais.

 

By the end of our second day were in Namche, the epicenter of the Khumbu valley and Sherpa culture in Nepal.  Namche sits at 11,500’ and we allowed our bodies a day of rest to acclimatize before moving higher.  We took a brief stroll to Khumjung to grab a light lunch where we were rewarded with a stunning view of Ama Dablam.  We used cappuccino as an excuse to grab an hour or two of wifi (or was wifi the excuse to grab cappuccino?...this is waay to civilized) at the Illy Café in town, before settling back into our comfortable roost at the Panorama Inn.

Sherpa people are as interesting as the landscape is beautiful.  I only scratched the surface on learning their customs and culture, but it was a fascinating part of the trip for me.  Melissa and Tshering helped me understand the basics of language, food, karma, and prayer wheels but we got a real taste of it when we visited Thame.

Thame is a beautiful village lined with round rock walls that sits under a beautiful Buddhist monastery.  As luck would have it, we arrived just as a new Lama had been selected.  The selection process is intriguing.  After the passing of a Lama , the monks of that monastery gather and discuss their dreams.  They pick out similarities between their dreams, then start looking for those items in the scenes around them.  They narrow down features of the future Lama, whether he’s wealthy, young, old, what town he lives in and they approach him in plain clothes.  They then spread an assortment of items in front of the candidate and ask which items he is drawn to.  If he chooses the items belongings of the previous Lama, he is selected as the successor.

The Thame Lama in all his grace. Photo: Zeb Blais.

The Thame Lama in all his grace. Photo: Zeb Blais.

 

We went up to offer some money to the monastery and were drawn by the 4 year old spiritual leader.  We knelt, delivering our donations to the Lama wrapped in a khata (blessed scarf).  He removed the cash and returned the khatas by draping them around our necks.  Despite his youth, the presence of the young Lama left an impression on all of us.  He seemed to have an old spirit, but was enjoying himself being young.  He hammed it up and got a real kick out of us taking his picture.  After sharing a cup of duhde chiya (milk tea) we were on our way again.

This is where the trek elevated to the next level.  We spent our next night in Lungden at 14,500’.  A spartan village compared to those we’d been in, it was a quick stop with the lingering air of yak dung smoke before our first high pass: Renjo La.  Renjo La is over 17,500’ and offers the best panorama of the Himalaya on the trip.  The view stretches over Cholatse, Baruntse, Ama Dablam, Makalu, Nuptse, Lhotse, Everest and Cho Oyu.  It was an impressive cast of characters.

The panorama from Renjo La . Photo: Zeb Blais.

The panorama from Renjo La . Photo: Zeb Blais.

Descending from Renjo La to Gokyo. Photo: Zeb Blais.

Descending from Renjo La to Gokyo. Photo: Zeb Blais.

 

We descended into Gokyo, greeted by a sizzling yak steak and a cup of warm mango juice.  A fairly popular stop on the trekking circuit, Gokyo is not roughing it.  Our lodge was amazingly furnished and offered great views of Gokyo Ri and Gokyo Lake (pictured).  One night wasn’t enough, but we had to move on toward our next high pass: Cho La.

Cho La doesn’t offer the earth shattering view that Renjo La does, but it is fun trekking and provided our first view of our climbing objective: Lobuche East.  This was our second pass above 17,500’ and it was clear our bodies were adjusting to the thin air.  After a brief break on the pass, we lunched at Dzongla in the valley before heading to Lobuche village.

Gorak Shep: the last stop before Everest Base Camp. Photo: Zeb Blais.

Gorak Shep: the last stop before Everest Base Camp. Photo: Zeb Blais.

 

We moved up the valley to Gorak Shep, the last village before Everest Basecamp.  We still needed a few more days to acclimatize before our Lobuche climb, and Everest Basecamp is not to be missed.  It sits at 17,500’ in the massive amphitheater created by the Pumo Ri, Kuhbutse,  the Khumbu Icefall, Nuptse, Lhotse, and of course Mount Everest itself.  The scale is hard to discern.  Everything looks close enough to be within hours reach, but of course when everything is so massive there is nothing to create perspective.

Prayer flags streaming from the top of Kala Patthar. Pumo Ri in the background. Photo: Zeb Blais.

Prayer flags streaming from the top of Kala Patthar. Pumo Ri in the background. Photo: Zeb Blais.

 

Later that night I took advantage of some free time and took off up Kala Patthar (18,200’).  It’s a simple hike at extreme altitude, but it provided some of the most stunning views of the trip.  I got to the top just in time for the last rays of light to grace the world’s tallest peak.  What a way to end an incredible trek!  Now it was on to the climb.

Starlight on Everest and Nuptse just after sunset. Photo: Zeb Blais.

Starlight on Everest and Nuptse just after sunset. Photo: Zeb Blais.

 

Travelers say you cannot go to Nepal just once.  After one short trip I am already trying to figure out when I’m going to return.  I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by the trekking portion of this trip, but it was truly incredible.  The mountains, customs, food and people were inspiring.

If you'd like to trek in Nepal with me, contact me at zeb@alpinemountainworks.com.  Stay tuned for my next blog on Climbing Lobuche Peak.

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