You are currently browsing the monthly archive for November 2008.

Once again, Lakpa had secured us rooms in the first lodge he’d come to.

But in welcome contrast to the Rockbottom Lodge at Lobuche the night before, the Himalayan Lodge of Gorak Shep, though simple, was clean, bright and lacking in the health hazards of our previous evening’s accomodation. Our room didn’t have a window. But it had a reasonably opaque skylight and a coat hook (no extra charge for this!). The wood paneling in the restaurant/common room gleamed warmly in early morning sunlight that streamed through large windows. The kitchen had a lightbulb and the cooks had haircuts.

“We’ll take it,” I told our sherpa with a smile.

***

Gorak Shep is the last stop on the trail before the lonely tent pads of Everest Base Camp. Like seemingly everywhere else in the Khumbu, it’s a collection of tidy little lodges; this bunch set out on a sandy plain beside the great Khumbu Glacier. The rock and ice of that landmark separate the town from the feet of Mt. Nuptse, which dominates the skyline with its elegant hook-beaked 7800m summit. Equally beautiful, Mount Pumori makes a tight and elegant 7100 m arc over the northern horizon. Half a dozen lesser peaks crowd in between and somewhere, behind them all, lurks the one that draws all the crowds.

We’d seen Everest several times already – from Namche Bazaar and, even more spectacularly, from the Gokyo region. But its pull was as strong as ever. The lure of a new view was something like the attraction a new climbing route must pose to climbers. The interesting angle, the lesser known perspective, the prospect of some over-excited Swede saying to you back in Kathmandu “Did you see the mountain from that hill above X-ville? Wow, wasn’t it mind-blowing!? Oh. You didn’t see it from there? Oh… Ahem. Excuse me.”

That shit always drags you out of bed and draws you on.

The most famous viewing point in the region, the high hill known as Kala Patar, was literally steps from our front door. So, after a quick cup of something hot, Gianni, Isabelle, Janine and I grabbed some Snickers bars and hit the trail again.

Of course, Kala Patar is only a “hill” by Himalayan standards. But at 5600 meters, its summit is just a hair’s breadth beneath Mt. Kilimanjaro’s. This means climbing it, like climbing Kili, only looks easy. I was reminded of this as I tramped up its series of false tops and ridgelines, the views growing more impressive as my breath grew shorter. I felt a strange disconnect grow within my body. My lungs were heaving, but none of the oxygen seemed to be reaching my legs, each of which felt like it was wrapped in a cement cast. On top of this, my stomach rolled with increasing frequency as an unwelcome hanger-on from the Rockbottom Lodge’s kitchen made itself at home in my intestines. I’d walk a half dozen steps up the dusty trail and then lean forward on my trekking poles, sucking wind, cursing the Rockbottom Lodge and generally feeling sorry for myself. Meanwhile, the age of people passing me with pitying looks was going up as steadily as the trail itself. One guy had an actual cane.

But we kept moving. Soon, the now-familiar black pyramid of Everest began to peak out from behind Nupste’s massif. The winds were harsh this year and had scoured the world’s highest mountain clean of much of its snow, allowing it to stand in even greater contrast to its many white neighbours. At the top of Kala Patar, a pile of large black rocks was bedecked with prayer flags and equally colourful trekkers savouring the view. Here, Pumori’s intimidating south face felt close enough to touch and avalanches could be clearly seen and heard racing down off the sheer sides of Nupste. But it was Everest that drew the eye. From here, the staggering southwest face dominated the eye and the history buff could trace the ridgeline that had defeated heroic Mallory and young Irvine. The Khumbu Icefall, as dangerous as the mountain itself, poured down from Everest’s heights in a frozen rapid of building-sized ice-towers. Avalanches poured onto Khumbu’s sides, bottomless crevasses tore through its middle. Not for a million dollars would you get me to climb that thing. It looked like what it was – a beautiful merciless killer.

We shared the memorable scene with perhaps twenty other travellers – Israelis, Aussies, Americans, French, Russians and Germans. But the scale of the land makes such numbers irrelevant. We felt as alone and small and awed here as we had standing alone before any of the marvels yet encountered on our travels. It was the moment that the whole trip had been leading towards. At Base Camp itself, you couldn’t see the mountain because of the towering presences of the Icefall and the surrounding peaks. This would be our most up-close encounter with the roof of the world.

“So,” I said cheerfully to Janine, who looked at me straightfaced, as if she knew what was coming, “I guess a view this good means we don’t really need to trek to Base Camp tomorrow, right?”

***

We headed to basecamp first thing the next morning. The food at the Himalaya Lodge was excellent and Gianni and I moved slowly at first under the weight of last night’s quickly-consumed minced yak steaks.

Our first destination was a tour of the many memorials to dead climbers that dot the outskirts of town. Tops on my list was finding the marker for New Zealand guide Rob Hall and his clients, who were killed on the mountain in 1996, a tragedy famously documented in Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book, “Into Thin Air”. As we searched the cairns and stupas, however, I was struck once more by the sheer number of lives these mountains had claimed. It seemed no country had emerged unscathed from its encounters with the Himalayas. We eventually found the marker for Hall and his clients – two elegant stupas situated next to one another, a line of tattered prayer flags tying their tops together. Hall’s memorial was plastered white with a brass plaque. His clients’ was made from local stone with carved stone tablets commemorating their names. We attached a fresh line of flags between them and moved on soberly to the portion of our walk that took us to and over the Khumbu Glacier.

Gianni had gotten separated from us during the inspection of the memorials and we wouldn’t be able to catch up with him until base camp itself. So for the next 2.5 hours, Janine and Isabelle and I hiked over the rolling moraines and onto the rock-covered ice of the glacier by ourselves. Nupste and Pumori still glistened beautifully under yet another brilliant azure sky. The glacier entertained constantly. Strange ice formations and brilliantly coloured lakes and rivers would appear around an innocuous looking bend. Car-sized boulders perched on improbably small frozen pillars, looking like giant stone golf balls teed up by the local gods.

But despite the beauty, it was hard to stay excited over this hike. Unlike the easy downhill return trip from Kala Patar, we knew that every wavey, rubble-lined step of this trip would have to be retraced to Gorak Shep at the end of the day. My bum knee burned with the technical, slippery footing. The Rockbottom Lodge’s going away present gurgled loudly in my stomach and I longed to stop. How much better would the view get anyway? But Janine was as firm as the mountain itself and her dedication to reaching the penultimate goal of the trip kept me limping along too.

The view at base camp wasn’t that much better. But it was base camp. A few yellow tents among the rocks and ice housed a failed Korean climbing expedition. Beside them, we sat before the Khumbu Icefall and looked up its massive white belly. A few blackbirds hopped around us, looking for handouts. Gianni happily flipped them the last half of a soggy egg sandwich brought from the lodge, despite the delicacy costing $5 at this elevation. Prayer flags shuffled in the slight breeze. The odd bark of laughter and the sounds of packing came from the Korean camp. A porter passed us by with a grunt, carrying no less than six long, steel ladders on his back, used by climbers for bridging the crevasses on the Icefall. An occassional deep cracking sound would issue beneath us as a reminder that we were sitting on a improbably deep sheet of ice. Otherwise, the place was utterly devoid of fanfare.

We had truly reached the furthest point of our Everest hike. Beyond here, you needed to fork over $30,000 to the Nepali government for a climbing permit to even set foot on the Icefall (let’s not get into the cost of actually climbing). This didn’t stop a few tourists from sneaking onto the vast ridges of ice – the young and the crazy who’d probably have their own memorial cairns and stupas soon enough.

Hiking all this way to a spot where you couldn’t even see the mountain seemed a little silly at first; a little anti-climactic. But it also made a certain amount of sense. All our walking, all our little aches and pains and crappy lodges and bad food, and laughs and gains and setbacks. All those things had only brought us to the toenails of Earth’s largest lump. It enhanced our respect for those climbers who dare to challenge the mountain itself. Where our adventure ended, their’s only began.

But it also gave us perspective. It made us a little more glad to be here; together; happy for this little moment in this very big place.

And besides, our adventure wasn’t really over.

Somewhere back in Gorak Shep, our sherpa was getting drunk and preparing a truly hair-raising end to our Everest travels.

Advertisements

We trudged into the little hamlet of Lobuche in the waning hours of a blue Himalayan afternoon.  It had been a long, difficult day of climbing and then descending the Cho La pass, continuing on past the first overbooked set of lodges at its back feet and then walking another 2 hours to reach this small collection of guesthouses.

But our real travails were only beginning.

We had sent our guide, Lakpa, ahead of us to reserve accomodations in the town, which was known to be too small for the number of trekkers that passed through there on the way to Everest Base Camp.  As we walked into Lobuche, we scanned the lodges scattered along its 50 meters of frontage on the trail, all facing the hook-beaked 7800m summit of Mt. Nupste, coloured rose by the setting sun.

They all looked fine – your standard Khumbu valley collection of tidy, stone-and-mortar buildings, puffing dung fire fumes from tin chimmneys as low evening temperatures began to arrive. All except one. The first lodge on the trail seemed entirely composed of peeling white clapboard, chicken wire and prayers for its structural integrity. It leaned slightly forward and to the left, as if it had gotten drunk once, nearly collapsed into a smoky, tetnus-filled rubble, but recovered at the last minute, and was now lumbering onwards through a brutal hangover.

“It looks like something out of a World Vision commercial,” I muttered, pitying the poor buggers who got stuck in that thing tonight.

Then Lakpa walked out of its front door and waved us over.

***

The inn’s actual name was the Kala Pattar. But we soon came to call it the Rockbottom Lodge.  Its common room/dining hall was low, gloomy and reminiscint of the bar where Han Solo and Chewbacca hang out in Star Wars. A spate of dirty, single-pane windows at the front of the room let in more cold air than light. Cracks in the glass were patched together with packing tape and stickers that advertised bygone trekking expeditions and long closed outdoor gear shops. The dung stove chimmney leaked profusely and amidst the acrid smoke, we could see the faces of fellow travellers – many huddled in their sleeping bags for warmth – silently miserable, sharing  in low tones with their colleagues their story of how they ended up on what seemed like the set of a film about a Siberian forced-labour camp.

The corridor leading to our sleeping chamber was an amalgam of bare, single-sheet plywood and corrugated tin.  The wood and metal tunnel was only wide enough for one person at a time, so when another inmate leaving his room approached us from the opposite direction, we all had to back up and return to the dining room to let him by.  On attempt #2 we got all the way down the hall to our room as Lakpa explained how lucky we were to have a place to stay tonight at all, every other lodge in town being overloaded with trekkers.

The locking clasp on the clapboard door to our room was attached with a small, rusty finishing nail that looked like it would fall out on its own if you stared at it long enough. We removed the tiny padlock (its key was something of a formality) and kicked our way into the chamber, the door being jammed on its off-kilter hinges. Inside, we were greeted by two plywood cots about as wide as your average 1950’s era television screen. Each was topped with a two-inch thick mattress, decorated with mysterious looking stains and containing all the insulative and comfort value of a sack of gravel.

Between the “beds”, the bare dirt floor was covered with a straw matt that had long assumed the colour of what it presumed to mask. Beneath them, sat an assortment of moulding cardboard boxes and, in my case, a jerry can of gas. “Just what this tinderbox needs,” I thought. “Cans of accellerant placed under the beds of the clients!” A sudden breeze blew briskly through the large gap between the window and its frame. The wall facing the hallway didn’t quite reach all the way to its perpendicular neighbour, rendering my earlier misgivings about the strength of our door rather moot. If you were thin enough, you could squeeze into our sleeping chamber through the space between the two walls.

It was all pretty dire. But after 10 hours of walking, we were too tired to put up much of a protest. Numbly, we dropped our bags and made our way back to the common room to order dinner. I asked a young Austrian how the food was. Trying to smile gamely, he said it was fine. But then added that he’d only had the courage to order the soup. I couldn’t blame him. What we could see of the kitchen appeared medieval and most patrons seemed glad that the poor lighting limited what they could see of their plates. Periodically, the hotel matriarch emerged holding a platter, looking pissed with whoever had ordered what was on it. “Room 20 Fried Riiiice!!” she barked, glowering over the assembly.

Several meals went unclaimed.

Before bed, I visited the restroom and replenished my supply of nightmares for many nights to come. A small squat toilet situated in the packed earth floor confronted the entryway menacingly. The low, sloping tin roof overhead ensured that even a boy standing up would have to stoop and get intimately acquainted with the previous occupants’ gastroenterological problems. A bucket of water on the floor served as both flushing mechanism and sink. Various misadventures with this had created a small ice-rink around the toilet that made crampons a necessity for avoiding a truly unpleasant slip and fall. I decided that, if I did go down, I’d try and aim for the large pile of dried yak dung that was stacked on the right had side of the room, rather than the open garbage pail of used tissue paper on the left hand side. Either way, I rated my chances of contracting a communicable disease as “promising.”

Once in bed, Janine and I compared notes. My cot was directly beneath the gap in the window and I was already losing sensation in my toes. Her’s sloped sideways at a 20 degree angle. Our headboards consisted of the single sheet of plywood that separated our room from the dining room. Janine’s portion had a long horizontal fault line running through it that ensured whenever someone made themselves more comfortable at table 6, she got their ass planted in the back of her head.

We both agreed that this was easily the shittiest place we’d ever stayed in all the developing world. Though to call the Rockbottom Lodge a development might be a slander to the developing world.

***

The next day, we awoke and packed in the pre-dawn hours, and were first to emerge into the common room. It was filled with the snores and sleeping bodies of porters and guides, who on their best days, often fare more harshly than us spoiled trekkers. The matriarch took my breakfast order with a grunt and soon emerged with a flask of something that tasted like coffee and two eggs fried to the consistency of cold snot.

An urge was building. An urge to run, not hike, to the next town. I suddenly had this scary feeling that I might not be able to leave the Rockbottom Lodge. That if I stayed for much longer, I’d be too cold and weak from hunger to get out the drafty front door. I’d die here, my body joining those of the other unfortunate hikers, likely buried beneath the dung pile by the toilet.

“Let’s go,” I said, dropping my cutlery onto my eggs with a wet splash. Janine, Gianni and Isabelle quickly agreed.

The bill came. The room charge was nearly triple that of any other lodge we’d stayed in to date. I was too anxious to get out to argue it properly. Here, Janine stepped in, and the matriarch and her cronies soon found out they weren’t the only hardasses in this sorry town.

Outside, we breathed huge lungfulls of crisp Himalayan air. The whole night seemed some kind of joke now and I almost expected the Candid Camera crew to step out from behind one of the scattered sleeping yaks to pop the gag on me to the delight of a live national audience.

But it was quiet. Serene. The emerging sun was searing the sky the lightest shade of blue. A cool morning wind blew off the glaciers and snowfields of the mountains ahead and above us. The trail to Everest beckoned. Horking a farewell spit onto the ground before the Rockbottom Lodge, we shouldered our packs, turned our backs and got the hell out of Lobuche.

Where are we now?

Home, Sweet Home

a

Advertisements