Everest Part 2: Sagarmatha

<–Read Part 1: The Height

Day 4: Joining forces

Thukla—> Lobuche / 5000m (16,404ft) /O2 sats high 60s

When I woke up this morning I felt immensely improved. My sats were still in the low 70s, but my appetite was somewhat back and the nausea and headache were mostly gone. I had originally thought I’d go up to Gorapchep and maybe even Base Camp today, but even I can learn to slow my roll in response to lack of oxygen. I planned instead to make a short hike about 300m higher to Lobuche. 

I decided to first take a walk for an hour or so around the area on the descending route that leads back down toward Dingboche. When I arrived back in Thukla from my short excursion, there were a handful of hikers there on their way to Lobuche. I was feeling the need for company, so I joined in behind them.

Thukla Pass

The indescribable beauty of Thukla Pass

The walk began with a steep rocky climb up to Thukla Pass, which sits in the palm of a stunning panorama of ocean-blue peaks. This site is home to memorials for climbers of many nationalities who have died on peaks in Nepal. The wind comes gusting through the half-crescent pass, keeping hundreds upon hundreds of fresh prayer flags in constant flutter. I was awed by the power and beauty of this place. We found the memorials for Scott Fisher and Rob Hall, who both perished in the famous 1996 Everest climbing disaster that is documented in Into Thin Air. One of my most vivid pre-Nepal memories remains reading that book on the bottom bunk bed in my freshman college dorm room. I placed a stone on each of their memorials, and we went on.

From Thukla Pass I clomped along behind my new companions, who included two Nepali guides and porters, a German, a Brit, an Italian and me the American (“there must be a war joke in here somewhere,” says the German). We reached Lobuche by 1:00 and I had the whole afternoon to rest. 

My head had a dull throb and my body felt oddly heavy. I lay back in my bed. My room was warmed by a buttery sun pouring through the window. I stayed like that for a few hours, picturing my blood circulating delicious air. In the evening, we all clustered around the heating stove in the dining hall, and ate light meals that our altitude-confused stomachs would accept, and played cards.

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Day 5: Sagarmatha

Lobuche —> Gorapshep—> Everest base camp / 5364m (17,598ft) / O2 sats 65

I have borrowed a fantastic pair of hiking pants from my long time friend Pemba Sherpa, but the button has broken. However, I am my father’s daughter, and you can be sure that I have a random collection of safety pins with me, because you never know when the button on your hiking pants is going to abandon you on exactly the day you are going to Everest Base Camp.

I arrived with my pants pinned at 6:30 for breakfast. I hadn’t been able to get a phone signal to send out any messages of my well being in two days, all liquid everywhere was frozen; hot cups of tea, once served, quickly threw off the efforts of the hard-working stove and turned to water, then ice. We ate small amounts of porridge and eggs and set off through a glacial valley at 5000 meters above sea level. I didn’t think to check the temperature, but once we got going, it actually wasn’t intolerably cold. And once we crossed the horizon line of ecstatic clear sun that was making its way toward us, we let out sighs of gratitude and I put my big futzy gloves away.

On the way to Gorapshep

The hike to Gorapshep was only about 2.5 hours and maybe 150m of climbing. It took us over rocky glacier bed dressed with ice and snow. We arrived at Gorapshep, where we’ll stay for the night, around ten in the morning. I clomped heavily up a wooden staircase to my room, emptied most things out of my backpack, and came down for a cup of tea. Even tea looked intimidating to digest; my O2 sats would sit around 65 for the next day. It feels like all the cells in your body are concentrating on breathing and nothing else.

Before we could get too content resting in warm sunlight outside, the German and I set off for Base Camp with his guide, Dinesh. But Thorsten and Dinesh were a few hundred meters ahead of me for most of the way, and I walked the hour and a half up to base camp mostly in the quiet of my own steps, boots grinding on ice and rocks. We had long since left behind anything green. It is amazing to think that nearly 800 people a day come through this way in the trekking season. In February, that number is about twenty, and I might just as well have been on the moon.

The first thing I recognized was the Ice Fall. Anyone who has spent any time learning about Everest has spent many imaginary hours scrambling precariously across ladders lashed together and fixed over the dangerous crevices that separate Base Camp from Camp One. In real life, the Ice Fall is far more otherworldly than I had understood. It is not a smooth cracked glacier but an enormous army of aqua-blue ice walls, lined up one to the next as far as the eye can see. 

And there in the distance, next to the base of the Ice Fall I spotted a cluster of yellow tents. Base camp. (In a few months, there will be about 2000 people here, but now the area is empty except for a dozen tents huddled together in the wilderness.). The arrival is marked by a large rock with EVEREST BASE CAMP 5364m spray painted across it. 

Climbing teams before the ice fall

Two intrepid winter climbing teams at Base Camp are dwarfed by the Everest’s mighty Icefall.

Before I could do any normal tourist things, such as the obvious thing of taking a picture next to the spray painted rock, I got to chatting in Nepali with Norbu, a Sherpa climber with the German expedition.

Well, then this happened. Norbu Sherpa—who has summited all 8000m peaks in the world except for one in Tibet—invited me over to the German climbing camp. Normally tourists aren’t permitted in the expedition areas. But next thing I knew I was sitting in the dining tent, having a peek at the shower and sleeping quarters, drinking some coffee hot off the stove, and discussing the impending winter summit attempts with a combined group of Sherpa climbers from the two expeditions. One of them was the guy – the ACTUAL HUMAN – in charge of deciding where to lash ladders across the Ice Fall. So that’s how I got the selfie below of me and a group of world class Sherpa climbers hanging out and shooting the breeze at Everest Base Camp and now my life is complete.

Chillin with winter expedition Sherpa climbers

There was some discussion about coronavirus and whether or not the Nepal government would close climbing from the Tibet/China side of Everest (apparently the ministry of tourism is reluctant to lose the income, but the consensus among the climbers was that nobody wants coronavirus). And then Norbu Sherpa and the gang took me over to the Spanish camp, which is a much bigger team of 14 people and led by renowned Spanish climber Alex Txikon, who is making his fourth attempt at a winter summit, something that hasn’t been done on Everest since 1993. 

So this takes us to me hanging out with Alex Txikon in the Spanish kitchen, while the cook prepares imported Spanish meat over the propane stove. Actually, at that moment I didn’t really realize how well known Alex Txikon is, partly because I was so amazed by the fantastic Spanish cooking extravaganza before my eyes. (It smelled amazing; how did they get all this stuff here; who can eat at this altitude?) Txikon has made winter climbing his trademark calling and has succeeded in numerous winter summits. His team had arrived at Everest just two days ago and planned to be there for the next month.

I asked Txikon what they do on the days they aren’t climbing. I was thinking, probably lots of pushups and rope-skipping.

“Read, write, relax,” he said. “Be in nature.” And though I didn’t ask, he added (and I paraphrase), “Here on Everest, they just put people in the summit. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about working with nature. It’s about planning, not luck. It’s not about the summit. So many people who come here, they aren’t climbers. They don’t understand or appreciate what is to plan and interact with the mountain.” I filed away how he used the word “plan,” so many times. It was, in a way, plain to see what he meant. All these people living here all winter at 17,500 feet—where I survived a few hours mostly on adrenaline—did not have an ounce of entitlement about them. They were gently in a relationship, one of respect and diligence and patience.

Seek the summit, yes; but you shouldn’t be here if the summit is what matters to you the most.

“Hello,” said an enormously tall, fresh-faced German man as he popped into the Spanish kitchen tent. 

“Hi,” I said. 

Actually this man was climber Jost Kobusch, who like Txikon can be found in the newspaper, and who told me he’s attempting a route that hasn’t been taken up Everest in 40 years. 

“So, um, what are you doing today?” I asked. 

“Oh, fixing a thing,” he said. “It broke up there.” That was about the extent of our discussion, but Kobusch had a gentleness and authentic exuberance about him. He looked as happy to be fixing a thing up on a cliff over the ice fall at Mount Everest as some people look fixing their cars in the driveway with a beer on Saturday. 

I ended up spending about two hours at base camp—quadruple my planned time. Thorsten had long since headed back. I asked Anup, one of my new Sherpa besties, to take my obligatory photos on the “base camp” rock. And then finally, before leaving, I took some time to myself, outside of the adventure. To be with the Mountain.

I sat down across from Everest, whose summit just pokes out between Nuptse (so recognizable) and Lhola. An icononic plume of snow drifted from its peak. A mid-day half moon floated in the endless, empty galaxy of sky just above, as if to say: Everything Else, This Way. I built a cairn. And suddenly I heard myself think to this mountain, “You set the path for my whole life.” And it is true. If not for Everest, I don’t know if I’d have been in Nepal.

People journey to this place in all kinds of ways. For many it is the adventure of a lifetime. I understand that for me, as much as I delighted in every the walk up and all its color and beauty and fatigue and unobtrusive companionship, this walk was a pilgrimage. It was about sitting face to face with our Earth Mother, Sagarmatha. I have been coming here for so long.

What a gift it is, to be in this world, and to be free.

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Everest Prelude: Pemba

 

During the hot summer of 2001, I was drawn to Nepal by the Mountain. Also, the mountains–these grand Himalayas where the world places so much of its imagination–but mostly, the Mountain itself. At some point in young adulthood I began reading books about Everest, and I simply knew I would go. It was never about climbing it, but about following it. Because, as my mom would say, it was there. 

I never could have understood nineteen years ago that the road to the Mountain would be so much longer and more magnificent than I had imagined. I originally visited Nepal with an international group that was studying medicinal plants, and during that muggy August week in Kathmandu, I optimistically rented a bike and made a 36 hour journey into the unknown that foretold something of the road ahead. I didn’t know what a vast constellation of adventures lay before me in the decades to come, or about the family and community that would adopt me as a daughter, or the public health project I would unintentionally co-found to address an issue about which I had no expertise. So many cut fingers and thunderstorms and shelled peas and paint-splattered clothes lay between me and Mt. Everest. But in recent years, my heart has wandered back to that horizon, which has remained an untouchable idea, visible in the real world only from a distance. 

This winter I knew, with the same certainty that first brought me to Nepal, that it was time to visit Everest at last. So I called up my oldest (by time, not age) Nepali friend Pemba Sherpa, who was on the cook and porter staff of the medicinal plant study group back in 2001, when we were both in our early twenties. Pemba has since become an extremely successful tour guide, and at a hotel in Kathmandu he produced for me a backpack, a pile of gear, and instructions to take on my journey. We played with the oximeter and found my oxygen sats to be 95 while sitting in Kathmandu. I downloaded an offline map and purchased a plane ticket to Lukla. 

I’ve decided to post my eight day trip to Everest Base Camp as a separate travel journal. But before it starts, let’s begin at Fire and Ice Pizzera in Thamel, where Pemba and I reminisced over dinner the night before my trip began. We jumped back to August 2001, when we met, and from there travelled backward through the chapters of his incredible life. 

Pemba in me in 2001

Pemba and me in 2001

Pemba was born in a village in Solukhumbu called Soloban. In the 1980s there was no school in Soloban and Pemba spent his days herding, even during the snowy winter months.  I remember him telling me once, “my feet were like rocks!” His herds used to take him from time to time to Lukla. Once, Pemba stayed a hotel for a some days while his goats grazed there, and the hotel owner told him that if he wanted to, he could consider getting hired as a porter for tour groups coming to trek in the Everest region.

Soon after, fifteen year old Pemba decided to leave Soloban without telling anyone. He went to the hotel and said he was ready to work. It was the mid 1990s and there were no phones or regular means of remote communication. It would be six years before he saw his family again.

With the lights of Fire and Ice Pizzera bouncing off wine glasses, Pemba recounted how the hotel owner assigned him to porter on a fifteen day tour with a Spanish group. 

His wage was two dollars a day. Among Pemba’s jobs was to bring tea to the guests in their tents each morning. There was one guest who didn’t drink tea, but every day when Pemba presented this guest with the tea tray through the opening of the tent, the man would put a 200 rupee tip–about two dollars–in the teacup. This continued for the whole trek: the guest never drank tea, but every day he tipped Pemba two dollars. Four dollars a day for fifteen days was more money than Pemba had ever seen in his life. 

At the end of the trip, the tour group produced a tip for the entire trek staff, and part of that went to Pemba. But in addition, he had made a special impression on the guests, and they pooled an extra $100 for him. And finally, he was gifted with several expensive branded down jackets that, at that time, were almost impossible to get in Nepal. He took that stuff all back to Lukla and sold it off and made another $300. He ended the two week trip with an unimaginable seven hundred dollars in cash. 

“‘Well,” Pemba laughed over our pizzas, “I said, ‘this is what I’m going to do!’” 

Pemba in 2001

Pemba on our trip in 2001

He ended up taking a bus to the city, living with a relative of the hotel owner, and working his way through the tourism industry. He began studying languages – English, Japanese, German. He had no way to contact his family back home, and his aunt was living relatively nearby in Boudanath, but there weren’t many people from Soloban in Kathmandu during those years and there was no way for the two of them to discover each other. One day a customer at the mountaineering supply shop where he was employed asked if he wanted to join the cook and porter staff of a plant study expedition for foreigners.

That was the trip where we met in 2001.

Pemba’s career took off in the following years. He speaks seven languages proficiently and has still never had any formal schooling. He runs a massively successful trekking business and has travelled to over forty countries. He has poured resources back into his home village of Soloban, rebuilding a school and helping to organize health care services. He was recently nominated to run for local political office. When I hiked to Soloban from Jiri Bazaar with Pemba and Prem in 2008 (the week our Aidan decided to show up twenty days early…), Pemba was received like a prince. 

“Call me if you have any trouble,” Pemba said, as we bid goodnight. “The path is easy to follow. It has always been your dream.”

–> Read Part 1: The Height

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Headed to Everest Base Camp, 2020