Day 14: Gokyo Ri
The prospect of an indoor sink, a hot washcloth before dinner, or a warm common room doesn't normally bring about associations with the word luxury. Yet after two solid weeks of hiking, each one of these services brought me joy at the Namaste Lodge in Gokyo.
Facing out over a partially frozen lake framed by a steep, snow-covered ridge, the common room occupied our time for the entirety of our first afternoon in Gokyo. Amidst large pots of tea and hearty, nutritious fare, we swapped stories and played cards with the international populace of the most popular guesthouse in town.
The rigors of the trail meant that by 9 PM I was sound asleep and by 5 AM I was once again trudging up a steep series of switchbacks to a nearby peak, having left Stefje and her cough behind to get some rest at comparatively lower elevations.
In the soft, pre-dawn light the sky was a perfectly clear powder blue and a few bright stars remained shining despite the oncoming sun. In the distance behind me the first rays of golden light glanced across the Westward facing peaks, but everywhere else the mountains were still drenched in the darkness of night.
Without a single human in sight, the coming dawn was heralded only the croaking of 2 birds which looked to me like something between a pigeon and a peacock. They sang and danced next to each other, then frightened me by swooping low over my head in a burst of speed and coming to land gracefully in the middle of the trail.
About 45 minutes into my ascent, the first light hit Gokyo mountain to my left, quickly drenching the peak in a transient yellow coat.
To my right, an endless panorama of jagged peaks and glacier-riddled mountains was quickly coming into focus, with Mount Everest as the centerpiece. The queen of the range dominated the skyline, making the other 7000 and 8000 meter summits look like mere wings on a dragon of immense proportions.
Soon enough, the world’s highest mountain breathed her version of fire. The sun suddenly shot over the Northwest face, drenching the trail in fierce beams of sunlight and injecting new life into my cold and tired legs.
Just 20 minutes later I was gulping in huge breaths of fresh air while taking in the awe-inspiring views from the summit of Gokyo Ri. At 5,360 meters, my head spun, my jaw dropped, and an audible sigh of utter contentment escaped from my mouth.
“Wow” I muttered over and over again while enjoying the drop dead gorgeous Westward views. Snaking beneath my feet was the glacier we had crossed yesterday, adorned with frozen pools receiving the day’s first rays of sunlight.
The glacier led all the way back to the left, where it split in two and sloped upwards towards a ridge line capped by the enormous peak of Cho Oyu at 8,188 meters (26,800 feet).
Running parallel to the long tongue of ice yet at a completely different elevation, a line of snowy peaks and glacial valleys filled the view with a skyline that felt much more inspiring than skyscrapers of any urban jungle. Between the immensity of the mountains and the breadth of my vantage point, it was obvious that nature was operating here on a grand scale.
By bouldering over a few more rocks I was able to get the perfect 360 degree view. Behind me to the East lay the Renjo La pass, boxed in on either side by black slate mountains and more sheets of ice.
Eventually the sun rose high enough for me to get a proper look at Everst’s clear summit, which loomed high above the rest despite the fact that it lay far in the distance.
I sat in utter bliss as the cloudless skies yielded the best views of the entire journey, eating some blueberry bread from one of the bakeries in Gokyo and inwardly cackling with delight at my good fortune.
The sky on this morning was so clear that it seemed the only colors available in the universe were gradients of blue, white and black. The air mirrored the atmosphere; what struck me most as I sat in complete silence was that I couldn’t hear a single sound. No wind whistled into my ears, no birds sang in delight at the view, and no humans were audible from my perch taking in the sanctity of the Everest Himalaya range.
Fully satisfied with the day’s expedition by 8 AM, I started back down the slope with a heart that seemed to swell with joy. Hikers trudged up the trail in various states of agony, with their eyes fixated downwards oblivious to my bliss.
The whole way down was accompanied by the sight of the deeply clear and blue lake. Light shimmered off the turquoise waters, catching my eye and reflecting the beauty of the day in its tranquil surface.
Day 15: Gokyo to Lumde via Renjo La Pass
For the second day in a row I left Gokyo before sunlight flooded the village with warmth. Stefje and I skirted along the North side of the lake’s edge, looking back with affection at the tiny town pumping steam from every building’s chimney.
Our perfect angle granted a full reflection of Gokyo mountain in the deep, clear waters, meaning that regardless if my eyes were fixed up or down, they were still admiring the scraggly snow-capped peaks.
Towards the end of the lake we got our first glimpse of the arduous effort that lay ahead in the form of the Renjo La pass. We could glimpse tiny human forms winding back and forth along an impressively steep vertical face, implying that pain was in our immediate future. Yet for the time being we did our best to enjoy the magical morning vistas.
Soon enough our legs were pumping up that slope, step by step and even inch by inch due to the impossibly steep incline. Boulders, peddles, and sand marked the path, meaning that there were plenty of false steps that left me grasping for a foothold. Nevertheless we persevered through the difficult climb, which granted us excellent views of Gokyo lake and the morning sun glancing off of Mount Everest.
Now the trail wound through a large bowl-shaped valley which brought us closer to mountainous ridge lines and shadowy seracs which seemed destined to trigger an avalanche at the first glance of sunshine.
The bowl widened and then narrowed, giving me the feeling that we were walking directly towards an impassable series of mountains.
However, the trail gradually snaked around bends and climbed through hard-packed snow to lead us into previously unseen routes. It was about halfway up this seemingly endless route of swerving back and forth amongst an inhospitable landscape of boulders and ice at about 5,100 meters (16,700 feet) that my existential crisis began.
Why exactly was this supposed to be fun? Do people seriously go into the middle of nowhere at this elevation for enjoyment? What is desirable about climbing such a difficult mountain pass anyway?
Just as soon as the questions arose, the answers flashed as clearly as though imprinted on the inside of my skull. Humans are undeniably drawn to mountains, but it’s not just the majestic views or the promise of spectacular photos which bring people to such heights. Mountains enable explorers to feel their inexplicable presence, to stand in wonder under the shadow of something much larger than themselves, to test ourselves against the harshest of alpine landscapes, to feel the stoic stillness of their immovable slopes, and ultimately to simply be present in the midst of nature’s most powerful creations.
These thoughts pushed me further up the slope than I initially thought possible until finally I could hear the joyous yelps of people who had already reached the pinnacle of the pass. The last few switchbacks dug straight into a cliff; every movement was difficult as my pack dug into my shoulders and my legs heaved at 5,360 meters (17,500 feet).
The result of the early morning departure and constant consternation on the ascent as an incredible reward. Behind us lay the full extent of the viewpoint known in Nepal as the “Top of the World”, with each peak rising into the clearest possible blue sky like a jewel in Mother Nature’s most impressive necklace.
Once again the centerpiece was Everest, which towered above the rest with its impressive windswept black slopes.
With the sun shining down on our faces and a long chain of perfect peaks to take in, we basked in the scene for over an hour, munching on cinnamon bread spread with yak butter to complete our deep sense of contentment. Once we decided to descend, it required every fiber of our willpower to pull ourselves away from this perfect place.
The old adage “it’s all downhill from here” finally applied itself perfectly. The highest points of the trek were now all firmly behind us and we began mentally accumulating a list of comforts that would await us upon our return to civilization. Unfortunately our mental and geographical states had now severely diverged; as our minds drifted to far away places, our feet reminded us to stay firmly rooted in the present because we were now staring down another harrowing descent.
The trail had not been granted as much sunlight on this side of the pass, meaning we now crawled over icy rocks and hard packed snow drifts. The way was so steep that after just a hundred meters it literally disappeared down the mountainside, promising an unforgiving descent was ahead of us.
Despite the tricky footwork required and the constant threat of falling off the cliff face, we couldn’t help but be amazed by the views. The snow made every angle glimmer in the midday sunlight, which came directly overhead to reflect a world of pure white.
Overhead, rocks of spectacular shapes hung like spires suspended in thin air by the magic of the natural world.
Very slowly and very carefully, we made our way into the next valley of our interminable walking odyssey, glancing back every once in a while to again state in unfathomable wonder at the heights we had reached. With enough time the pass eventually blurred into the rest of the ridge and our eyes grew attracted to the towering snow-covered mountains that surrounded us on three sides.
Towards the end of the first descent we came upon a frozen lake which shone with brilliance and complete stillness, so pure and white that from the wrong angle it threatened to blind our fragile eyes.
Now the path opened up into a wide valley of fantastical proportions that catalyzed our imaginations with sights of magic and absurdity. The path alternated between pebbles and hard-packed dirt, but on both sides we were accompanied by black boulders the size of cars which spoke to former geological violence in this quiet landscape.
Two ridge lines of beauty appeared in the distance. The near one was sharp and black, drenched in white in parts but at other times too steep to retain any snowpack. The further one rose even higher and was packed with hanging glaciers and domed snowy peaks amongst its grey rocky formations.
Miraculousy, the perfect blue sky held throughout the afternoon for the first time in almost two weeks, maintaining perfect views of the black massifs which now dominated the left side of the trail.
While the sun remained, harsh winds came whipping down from the mountainside to ensure we wouldn’t get too comfortable in this uninhabitable environment. The lone lake which graced our views was shallow and windswept and the rivers that should have fed it were completely frozen. In one of the oddest sights I’ve ever seen, the snow-covered river wound along a sandy white beach which looked completely out of place when framed by a backdrop of sharp white peaks.
With the biggest of the mountains now forming a perfect u-shaped crescent behind us, we began our descent towards Lumde. The trail here was sandy, slippery, and steep, meaning every step was carefully calculated. Our knees burned and our feet ached after gaining 600 meters (2000 feet) and then losing another 1000 meters (3,280 feet), but finally rudimentary signs of life began to appear.
Horribly crude rock shelters were first, followed soon after by grazing yaks and then the sound of water rushing downhill beneath the rocks. By 1 PM our day was over, as after 7 hours of walking we arrived in Lumde and voraciously began consuming food to make up for all the calories burned during the course of the day.
Thoroughly pleased with having finished the final difficult leg of the trekking, we reveled in the comforts of a warm cup of tea while sharing our lessons with German, Indian, and British groups heading in the opposite direction the next day.
Day 16: Lumde to Namche Bazaar
Our last morning waking up above 4000 meters (13,100 feet) was by far the coldest. Just to pack up the gear and stuff away the sleeping bags I had to don hat and gloves and stamp my boots to warm up my feet.
As we were departing, salvation arose in the form of sharp rays of light bursting over the black peaks directly above our head, ensuring we could at least start the day’s walk with a bit of natural warmth.
For the next hour we skirted in and out of the long shadows cast by a range of snow-covered mountains which dominated the left side of the view. At times my arms were burning or my fingers freezing as we alternated between bright daylight and the deep freeze of night.
In the distance, a new range of mountains formed on the horizon, forming the focal point of our morning walk. They shone with a sacred glow in the early light, a constant reminder that even though the highest point of the hike was behind us, we were still entrapped by the beauty of the Himalaya.
The landscape here was also consistent with the high mountain lifestyle; villages were so ruddy and grey that they seemed to support very little life, the few streams we walked by were still partially frozen, and one of the few forms of life were grazing yaks.
The yaks appeared iridescent as the first gasps of sunlight snuck over the topmost peaks to radiate around their coats in a glowing ball of beauty.
90 minutes into the descent, we came across an emerald green river. This roaring body of water was carrying glacial flow from the high mountain passes down into fertile valleys. I knew that all we would have to do to reach civilization was mirror its beauty: tumble over rocky pathways and always pursue the downhill path.
Long before large populations could subsist on the still hostile landscapes, nature began to flourish. Signs of life were timid at first, but they filled my heart with hope and lightened every step. Low flung bushes resisted the harsh winds and their green branches were the first reminders of proper photosynthesis in over a week. A pair of butterflies danced merrily overhead, meaning the air was warmer and reproduction possible. The first tiny flowers appeared soon after, their minisucle purple leaves exploding with color to my eyes that had grown accustomed to the tyranny of white, blue, and black.
Now smaller black foothills began to obscure the glacial formations of the higher ranges behind them, but in low dips and natural crevices we could still catch glimpses of the giants that loomed.
The river finally brought us to a town that seemed to produce agriculture, so we stopped for lunch in Thame. Vast mountains served as the perfect backdrop for the terraced farmland and rudimentary houses of this village, a final view of the rural life we had grown accustomed to.
Outside of Thame the trail wound steeply upwards through desert-like sands which howled with strong winds, flinging dirt straight into our mouths. Just as quickly as we gained elevation we were forced to lose it, heading towards a small bridge. Here the ferocious river which had served as our guidepost all day was funneled into a thin gorge.
The velocity of the water created spectacularly smooth natural rock formations, leaving me awed as I stared down at the natural artistry.
Once we climbed out of the gorge, signs of human life once again began to proliferate. It started with the buddhist iconography: prayer flags were draped from rocks across seemingly inaccessible points, white stupas shone brightly in the midday sun, and large section of rock walls were either carved or painted with images of dieties.
We passed through a series of small towns along a trail which continuously ascended and descended, uncaring about our aching calves and sore knees. Here signs of life that we had almost forgotten about quickly came flooding back. Birds and insects soared all around our heads, trees rose to staggering heights, and flowers of red, purple, yellow and white bloomed like mirages out of hillside bushes.
It felt rejuvenating to be back in the presence of pine and evergreen trees. Their long limbs protected us from the heaviest gusts of wind, shade shielded us from the day’s strongest sunlight, and droppings of pine needles cushioned our achy feet after more than a week of rocky trails.
Yet the best aspect by far as the smell. The evergreens were intoxicating, making me feel like Christmas was coming in April, whereas the pines brought crisp bucketfuls of fresh oxygen into my lungs.
With an hour remaining in the hike, we took a break on a deserted stretch of trail to savor one last moment of solitude in the mountains. Here, the calming presence of an idyllic stream combined with surging mountains behind us and prayer flags fluttering in the light breeze to form an amalgamation of everything we had loved about the last few weeks into one perfect view.
Finally the air was full of oxygen, the sun bathed our bodies in warmth, and we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. One last grueling series of uphills and downhills later, we arrived back in the land of 4G, espresso, and Guinness known as Namche Bazaar. Having now walked alongside one river on the way out of town and then followed a different one back to the same spot, I could easily understand the geography behind why this ring of houses became the largest village in the Khumbu region.
But for now all that was on my mind was resting my weary knees, taking a steaming hot shower, and reconnecting with family and friends in the outside world.
Day 17: Namche Bazaar
The first true rest day of the trip could not have come at a better time. After descending more than 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) over the course of 28 hours, we awoke on a Monday morning in Namche Bazaar to find all the comforts of civilization. Between real coffee, long sessions of reading local books in in cozy restaurants, getting trimmed and washed at the local salon, passing out for a quick nap on the main street, and enjoying a documentary film in the afternoon, our legs graciously thanked us for keeping their usage at a minimum.
By the time the first sips of beer flooded my bloodstream with alcohol for the first time in 3 weeks, my body was in full on relaxation mode.