Yet another dispatch from the Khumbu valley on my way to Everest. We’re having our cake AND eating it at the Hermann Bakery in Pangboche. The doughnuts are disappointingly dry, albeit we are at 4000m altitude. All day we’ve had an enticing view of Everest through our windscreen. But it’s still more than twice the height of where we are now.
Since Thame we headed onto Marylung, where there’s only two teahouses. The owner Phurba has summitted Everest a whopping 7 times. The day felt far too easy to be eating Coconut biscuits for afternoon tea; a daily ritual. We had the teahouse to ourselves in this freezing remote valley at about 4,200m high.
The following day we had a quick jaunt up a nearby hill to about 4,800m altitude to shock our bodies, helping kickstart the acclimatisation process.
With no connection to the outside world we played cards and drank tea whilst the locals wanted to join in. I was laughing so hard my head pulsed from the reduced oxygen.
The next day was ridiculously short up to Lungde, about 4350m. We rested for the afternoon until some Japanese trekkers turned up. It seems that in their country they are not taught how to eat quietly. In some ways it made me feel back at home, as if my dog was there. I had to put my headphones on before I threw my tea at them.
At 4am was our breakfast call. I felt strong albeit not looking forward to the day ahead. We left by headtorch into the starry darkness. After an hour or two of gasping for air, the peaks behind us were gradually lit up a pearly dawn orange.
I was dropping back way behind my team; but there’s no competition. My age means nothing. My pace is my own. The final crawl up to the top of the Renjo La pass was brutal and gave real meaning to the adage of ‘high altitude; moving uphill whilst not feeling very well’.
But at 5,300m altitude you creep round a corner to a BAM! view of Everest. It seems distant but is unmistakable, a majestic deep blue bulge on the horizon buffeted by the jetstream and a white outline. I was too ill to take it in for long as my head throbbed. In fact, seeing our 29,035ft target this close, made me feel even worse.
The descent was quick but after an hour I was utterly spent. I was well hydrated but exhausted and wretching. Every hundred metres or so I would stop, lean on my trekking pole and just close my eyes in the wind and blaring heat. I had to break down the route into sections, mentally. I would walk to a rock maybe 200 metres away, then allow myself a drink and quick breather. It seemed insignificant but this was a good practice for the high mountain days where I would be feeling much worse. ‘Relax, breathe Alex, take your time, it’ll all be fine’, I repeated in my head. Eventually I made it to Gokyo, where the lake was frozen, at 4750m. Almost sleeping on top of Mont Blanc. In the lodge I turned pale as snow when I was offered Rara Noodle soup; I could just about force myself to drink.
I soon recovered. Gokyo was great but high enough that your head would throb if you went up the stairs too quickly. Unless people have been to altitude they don’t understand that ultra fitness doesn’t equate to better acclimatisation – it’s different everytime. We bumped into some pleasant Kiwi trekkers who said they’d heard about me on their news back home. And then my Icelandic Everest 2014 teammate Ingo arrived, it was wonderful to see him again and a real man hug moment.
Today, Hobnobs made it onto the afternoon tea plate – which were amazing. The next day the others went for an acclimatisation hike up Gokyo Ri but I stayed put and washed clothes. Those biological tablets work well with an extra cool spin cycle!
I slept like a dog. Last year we’d stayed at a another Lodge where Tim knew one of the family owners, a youngish chap called Tenzing. When Tim had gone over they’d been asking all about me and if I was there again, so I went over to say hello.
Thousands of trekkers must go through Gokyo each year yet they remembered me. I was flattered. They kindly gave me free coffee as we chatted and catched up. Whenever I come back to Gokyo I know I’ll have friends here and that’s a great feeling.
The next morning we left early to head to Phortse. Cho Oyu, the 6th highest mountain, was lit up beautifully behind us.
We passed the Lakes where our guide Dep Kumar tried to convince us some rogue footprints up the mountainside were that of the Yeti. A huge Yak train passed as we descended past streams and waterfalls, towered by Cholatse and Thamserku in the distance. The trail to Phortse was remote and rarely trodden. We barely saw anybody which was special. We arrived in good time, about 6 hours, undulating down to about 3800m. Absolutely flying down the trails.
The porters had a tougher day, with 30kg on their back, but they were always happy to see us. Tim bought them biscuits and drinks, yet they would always offer it to us. Phortse was grassy and spread out. The teahouse had us listening to Buddhist chants on a looped stereo all night, but the extra oxygen definitely felt like a blessing. Last year, we had been listening to Nevermind by Nirvana, when the local Monk had walked in.
It was another leisurely start. Loraine was doing some ‘Chi Gong’ meditation with the porters to kickstart their day. Personally I prefer coffee, poached eggs and a bit of AC/DC. It was an undulating path round to Pangboche. I had pulled my Achilles tendon slightly coming into Gokyo, so had to watch my footing. Myself, Aeneas and David, or the 3 Amigos as we began to be called, had got ahead. With the fresher air I finally felt like an athlete again. Round the corner we had the demoralising sight of yet another huge dusty staircase to climb. But it was worth it, as Ama Dablam, Lhotse and Everest careered into view as we all stopped and marvelled. Lamigi, huge vulture things, soaring ahead. We were only at 4000m. Everest is 8848m. ‘What am I doing here?’ we joked. This year though, it just felt right, it felt touchable. But we would keep the memories of the 16 climbing Sherpa tragically lost in last year’s avalanche very much in our thoughts.
We dropped down past the aptly named ‘Holliday Inn’ to lower Pangboche. My favourite village in the Khumbu. Tim offered us all a Coke or Sprite as a treat; I got some cracking looks when I asked for some boiled eggs.
I’ve been reading ‘Facing Up’ by Bear Grylls recently and when he climbed Everest in ’98 aged 23, he too stayed at Pangboche and had the same sirdar Kami Nuru Sherpa and base camp manager Henry, as I do. Amazing to be following the same journey. Rumour has it that the route into the Khumbu icefall through to Camp 2 has now been fixed on Everest. I guess I’m nervous yet excited. Most other teams are already at or near base camp but we’re in no hurry. I’m just leaving my room at Sonam Lodge with a real Everest view from my window. We trek to Dingboche today, an easy 3 hour walk, before resting and going over the Kongma La pass where I was badly ill last time.
But first… What’s for breakfast?
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Until then, keep believing, keep achieving.