3 Passes Everest Trek: Part II

We’re officially done with the easy part. What we thought was “hard walking” was nothing compared to what we were up against. Dad and I were finally entering the high-altitude portion of our trek, which led us through alpine lakes, mountains, and villages seemingly untouched by modernization.
Each evening got colder. Each morning got more difficult to crawl out of bed. The lodges, rooms, and bathrooms got gradually more primitive the higher we got (“rustic” would give some of these facilities too much credit). We wouldn’t retreat below the highest point in the U.S. (Mt. Whitney at 14,505) for over a week. We would challenge ourselves, and we would come out sore, sunburnt and happy.


Day 7: Dingboche (14,245 ft.) to Chukhung (15,514 ft.)

Today is a painstakingly short day; it takes us just two hours to reach our destination in the dusty, windy town of Chukhung. However, this is our only option. In order to safely and properly acclimatize, we don’t want to be sleeping any higher than we will be this evening.
However short the morning really was, it felt longer because of a mission we’d made up the previous few days: Find out if it’d be possible for me to join a climb of Island Peak. Arriving into town before 10am, Ang races to find his connection to talk about permits, groups, and gear rental. Unbelievably lucky, we sort everything out before noon. By that evening I have my permit, guide name, and schedule ready to go for the next morning.
Dad and I spent most of the afternoon talking about my Island Peak climb, reading, trying on rental gear, playing cards, overhearing and talking to other Island Peak climbers, and generally trying to balance the anxiety and excitement of my first attempt on a 20,000er mountain. We drink a lot of tea. We eat filling meals. We sleep (myself, restlessly), eager to begin the day we’d been discussing nonstop. 


The arduous hike to Base Camp, with Island Peak visible to the far left


Day 8: Hike to Island Peak Base Camp (16,690 ft.)

The four of us hike to Base Camp, where I’m united with a team summiting Everest to share food, thoughts, and tents before we all attempt a summit of Imja Tse, more commonly known as Island Peak. I split up from Dad and our guides as they return to Chukhung for the next two evenings.

Dad had encouraged me to find a way up this mountain the entire time, saying that this accomplishment would make Mt. Rainier look like “small potatoes.” Just three months prior we’d both been the highest we’d ever been, at 19,340 ft. on Mt. Kilimanjaro. In addition to topping out that altitude a full thousand feet, Island Peak would bring on greater challenges like relying on a fixed rope, ascending up a vertical ice wall, and donning crampons during multiple ladder crossings similar to those found in Mt. Everest’s Khumbu Ice Fall.

I was excited, I was terrified, and in the end, I was thrillingly successful and stood nearly as high as the tallest point in North America!


Standing on the summit of Imja Tse, Island Peak


Day 9: Island Peak Climb (20,305 ft.)

Read my entire blog post on our successful summit of Imja Tse, Island Peak!


Sunrise over Chukhung


Day 10: Chukhung (15,514 ft.), crossing Kongma-La Pass (18,154 ft.) to Lobuche (16,170 ft.)

We wake up at dawn to prepare for our first pass crossing, considerably the hardest of the three we’ll encounter. I have an insatiable hunger from barely eating the day before during the climb, and clean my breakfast plate while helping myself to Dad’s leftovers.


View from the top of Kongma-La Pass


This is the first time we’re walking on snow, from a tame blizzard the night before. The ground is only blanketed in about an inch of powder, but it does raise questions for us about the trail conditions on our first excursion above 18,000 ft. The going is good however, and we slowly inch our way up the zigzagging trail through stupendous views to what feels like the roof of the world.

Pasang stringing prayer flags across the pass

Pasang and Ang pull out packaged prayer flags that they unravel, inscribe their names on, and hang above the pass – fresh, bright, new colors that rejuvenate the older fading flags already placed there.


The other side of Kongma-La, looking over the glacier


Looking back at the 18k foot Kongma-La Pass


The descent was difficult. We cross over the Khumbu Glacier, the same one that snakes all the way up to Everest Base Camp, but in the last two years since Pasang had guided a group over this terrain, the frozen river had shifted and virtually eliminated the trail. Dad would say this part was just as, if not more, difficult than the ascent up the pass. We spent hours boulder-hopping and navigating our way through the endless moraine, working through a windy snowfall until we reached our warm lodge in Lobuche where we thawed out on popcorn, Oreos, and hot chocolate.

Day 11: Lobuche (16,170 ft.) to Gorak Shep (16,859 ft.) and Kala Patthar climb (18,514 ft.)


Looking down-valley at the hundreds of trekkers on their way to Gorak Shep


We wake up feeling clean and rejuvenated from hot showers the evening before, and set out among at least one hundred hikers headed north. It’s a slow, steady 2.5 hour walk up a long valley from town to town, which we enjoy leisurely, knowing that we will be reaching the highest elevation of our entire trip later that morning.


Like most, we stop at our lodge in Gorak Shep to drop our packs and enjoy lunch before taking off for the day’s excursions. The tiny village of Gorak Shep caters almost exclusively to trekkers; it’s too close to Base Camp to warrant the extra stop for climbers, and with such scarce facilities, little more enjoyable than living out of a tented camp. In fact, Gorak Shep is often described as a dismal town, one where “few people sleep well” because of its steep elevation.

This is the highest altitude that we will sleep at of the entire trip, and Dad and I both request two sleeping quilts each, along with bottles of boiling water, which at the end of the night we’ll stuff into the ends of our sleeping bags to keep our feet warm (a trick I learned on Island Peak).


Halfway up Kala Patthar with stunning Khumbu views behind Dad


Everest in all its glory, scraping the sky like a shark fin, from the top of Kala Patthar


After our standardized late-morning “lunch” around 10am, we venture up the village’s looming neighbor of Kala Patthar. The weather is perfect, and we enjoy crystal clear views of Everest and its surrounding peaks from the top. Many people will climb Kala Patthar for a sunrise summit, but in the cold, and with uncertain weather, we agree it’s best to take our chances while they look good. Sure enough, the following day’s sky was covered in clouds and a steady wind that would have knocked us off our feet at that elevation.
Day 12: Gorak Shep (16,859 ft.) to Everest Base Camp (17,600 ft.), return to Lobuche (16,170 ft.)

The day and its destination that many trekkers have come to Nepal for has arrived. We wake up with our starry-eyed neighbors who are all eager to see the jump-off point for daredevils attempting to climb Earth’s highest peak. After big breakfasts, we set off for the two hours it takes to get to Everest Base Camp alongside yak herders and porters toting loads for expedition teams as large as 150 kilos (I’m not kidding).


The hike itself is smooth, slow, and gradual alongside the seemingly endless Khumbu Glacier, following the age-old frozen river north to where the Ice Fall empties out into it. We see the first cluster of yellow and orange tents from far off, when we hear a helicopter taking flight. Pasang, Ang, Dad and I watch in horror as this chopper floats sideways down the valley, then shoots straight forward to a vertical wall on the Ice Fall, then falls backwards towards camp, practically brushing up against some of the raised prayer flags. It takes us a few minutes to realize half of the copter door is wide open, a cameraman dangling liberally outside to catch the scene on film.


By the time we officially step foot in EBC, it takes us near a full hour to walk from one end to the other. We see climbers, Sherpas, medical volunteers, yak herders, cooks, and people of all skin colors and body types running around as this was any other village. I recognize many of expedition names plastered across mess tents, and don’t recognize others. Pasang and Ang run into friends and family members who offer us cups of tea along our walk.


Alpine stream flowing from Everest’s Khumbu Ice Fall


The air around Everest Base Camp is not only noticeably thin, but it’s thriving, like an energetic field pumping with adrenaline. Some climbers have begun to acclimatize by hiking through the infamous Ice Fall, but they won’t begin ascending any higher or planning any serious summit assaults for another month. The excitement and anxiety in this field full of people is tantalizing.

Compared with our morning excursion, the afternoon is dull. We grab a bite to eat in Gorak Shep before trudging down the trail to return to Lobuche, where it is snowing. Even though our lodge locations will continue to lower in elevation, we still have two passes ahead to tackle that will take us even higher than EBC. For the next few days we won’t skimp on sleep or carbs to fully prepare our bodies for the demands that high altitude will afflict on us, whether we welcome them or not.
Day 13: Lobuche (16,170 ft.) to Dzongla (15,880 ft.)

Today is a short up-and-down hike to roughly the same elevation we’d started at. We’re at our lodge before noon, but the towering Cho-La Pass stands between us the next town, abruptly ending our options of continuing on for the day.


Pasang tells us that Dzongla is the tiniest town we’ll stay in, though we hardly feel a difference. Each stone building seems the same as the next, and there are a row of tents set up outside, presumably for Sherpa guides. Dad complains about the cold in the dining room until he notices these; then we decide to count our blessings. 

Although the nights are very cold, the mornings typically bring strong sun and warm temperatures. However, these good spells don’t last for long – the weather usually deteriorates by mid-afternoon. More times than not, we’ll encounter snow flurries on our final approach into town, or admire the storms behind the comfort of thin walls, our books, and a cup of tea.

View from the small but beautiful Dzongla village

Today, I take advantage of the early afternoon sun and hand-wash three pairs of socks, saving me from any additional laundry needs before Kathmandu. They half-dry in the sun, then quarter-soak in the snow, and finally fully-dry by the heat of our lodge’s dung-powered woodstove (or “shitstove” as Dad would say).  
Day 14: Dzongla (15,880 ft.) crossing Cho-La Pass (17,782 ft.) to Gokyo (15,580 ft.)


We’re crowding along dozens of other hikers at 6:15 am with the same mindset: Start early enough to get up and over the pass to beat the afternoon winds, but not too early that the backside of Cho-La would be covered in ice. This is supposed to be our easiest pass on the trail, but we are met with endless boulder fields and a large glacier crossing that slows us down.


Final glacier walk up to the pass

We reach a tiny town after our pass crossing at 12:30, our designated end point of the day. But even after a long morning, we’re feeling good, and suggest to our guides that we push on to the town of Gokyo, which we’ve read nothing but good things about. We’re looking forward to spending two nights in the same room for the first time in a week, and our very first ever full rest day, a new concept for us.

In the last blog post, Dad made a point that he’d wished he had clarification on what “rest day” entailed. On this day, before leaving the Tashi Friendship Lodge, he’d asked our guide: If we choose to push on to Gokyo, will the weather hold this afternoon? Pasang’s response: Yes, weather will be no problem.

So here comes my father’s query of “What is your definition of ‘no problem’?” We end up walking through a two-hour long blizzard. A few tame snowflakes had us pulling out our gloves and wool hats, and at less than halftime to Gokyo we found ourselves in a complete whiteout, blind but for Pasang’s guidance.


A long traverse to Gokyo in deteriorating weather


Halfway through the day, Dad announces that he’s lost his money clip: It’s gone forever. A few hours later, he’s positive that he knows where it’s ended up: Behind a large rock, 20 minutes into the beginning of our day, presumably on top of, next to, or underneath a pile of shit. Pasang and Ang generously offer to spend the following rest day retracing our steps back (9 hours one-way) to Dzhlonga to retrieve it. 
However convinced Dad is, all three of us are skeptical, and implore him to empty out his fleece and parka. Lo and behold, it’s in the right hand pocket of the jacket he was wearing that morning. I can’t tell if he’s relieved to have found it, or frustrated to have been wrong about its placement. Either way he saved the selfless Pasang and Ang a long (and frankly, disgusting) mission.

Climbing to 20,305 ft.on  Imja Tse (Island Peak): An Adventure Into Himalayan Mountaineering

Dad gives me a longer hug than normal when setting off from Island Peak base camp. He and our guides walked me up to the 16,400 ft camp and left around noon so they’d be safe in the lodge after a grueling and windswept three hour walk.

Imja Tse is the farthest peak to the left, peeking out among the Khumbu hills

This trip came together only the day before when I got the thumbs-up from our lodge owner that my climbing permit from Kathmandu was secured. I had heard about Island Peak before and was interested in climbing it, but didn’t think it would work within our schedule or budget. As luck would have it, we only had to adjust one day of our three week trek to fit in the climb.
I’m camping and dining with a group that is headed to Everest in a few weeks. If I get nothing else from this climb, it’s all made worthwhile by getting to talk to these ambitious, sharp, and fun people hoping to summit the world’s tallest mountain. Their plan is to make a “high camp” at 6,000 meters (that’s 20,000 ft), just below the summit, beneath the tall, intimidating vertical ice wall that awaits climbers on their final push. They’ll acclimatize there instead of the dangerous and unstable Khumbu Ice Fall, and use the wall to practice climbing techniques.

Base camp is a wind tunnel at the top of a long valley which ensures every one of your belongings will be covered in dust before you’ve even unpacked in your tent. Unfortunately we have had two choppers try to land here today to pick up ill climbers who couldn’t reach the top. We aren’t sure the state of the rescuees but hear that they are simply exhausted – so the rest of us discuss whether this is a desperate situation, or just a really expensive ride home.
After lunch we jump right into training. My guide Dawa takes me to two connecting ropes up a ridge and refreshes me on the art of ascending with a jumar and descending with an eight. Once we’ve gone up and down a few times the real fun starts. The Sherpa crew has set up an elevated ladder that we’ll use to practice crossing with our crampons and ropes. We safety ourselves in on either side with carabiners and lean our weight forward, relying on the security of ropes tied behind us. The best technique is to secure the front two points of your crampon into each ladder rung as you inch slowly forward. Even though it feels unnatural and scary to rely on just these two prongs, we’ll have full visibility of the front of our feet, and absolutely zero of our backs – so trying to put any weight on your heel could throw off your balance and send you toppling over the side. Practicing is actually a lot more fun than I thought it’d be, but I remind myself that I might feel differently when it’s THREE ladders I’m crossing, strung together with ropes, waving in the wind, above a never-ending crevasse. Dawa tells me if it’s too windy, we will need to crawl across on hands and knees.

Our base camp crampon and ladder practice

After dinner I lie restlessly until I hear my new friends go to bed themselves. My body is comfortably warm head to toe thanks to the second down sleeping bag I was given, and a boiling hot water bottle at the bottom of the bag to warm my feet. Midnight comes quickly, and the hectic wind from earlier in the day has vanished. Stars dazzle from horizon to horizon, and I can faintly see the alpenglown from our neighboring 6,000ers reflected from the moonlight.
We start walking at 1am and pass High Camp in about an hour, reaching the crampon point around 3:30. I put on my down parka, helmet, glacier gloves, harness, mountaineering boots, crampons, and finally clip in to the fixed line at the base of the ice. It isn’t until hours later when the sun rises that I realize what hard, smooth, slick ice I had been walking on all day. 


A look back up what we’d climbed, around 8:30am

Dawa and I finally get to put our ladder practice to use. The first is a 10-foot long combination of two construction ladders strung together with rope. The second, however, is three combined ladders whose rungs are spaced out differently than the first. Dawa’s crampons are actually too small to reach from rung to rung, so he is forced to walk on a tip-toe across this 15-foot long man made contraption suspended hundreds of feet over a crevasse. We high five after each successful crossing.


A daylight look at the shorter of the two ladders we crossed in the pitch black of night


Sunrise over the Himalayas as we begin our ascent of the ice wall

Just as the sun is beginning to light up the mountainsides, we reach the famed ice wall that leads to the summit ridge. A Ukrainian guy at one of our hostels had shown me photos and told me of this infamous 100 foot tall vertical wall that delineates trekkers from true climbers. Upon seeing the wall, I quickly understand he meant to say meters – not feet. I misjudge this distance and leave my pack at the base of the wall, handing Dawa just a bottle of water to carry up. It takes us about 1.15 hours to reach the top.


Another daylight version of the ice wall we’d climbed just at dawn

This ice wall is way tougher than I’d made it out to be, it is the one obstacle that’s turned this day into the most technically challenging feat on my climbing resume. I’m using my entire body to propel myself up this unrelenting vertical ice. My arms and shoulders pull upwards to ascend my jumar, and my thighs, hips, and glutes push my legs and hold my feet steady as I front-point my crampons at a 90 degree angle into the wall.


Looking down at the “high camp” – perched at 20,000 ft.

At 6:30am we’ve reached the summit at 20,305 ft. We are the first people to summit today, and soak in the serene, windless calm and watch the sun begin to creep across the peaks around us. It is an incomparable feeling, a moment of fulfillment and pride and complete awe at the landscape around us. I can’t remember ever feeling happier.


All smiles at the top!

We descend slowly, making it back to base camp by 11:30 and finally arriving back to our lodge in Chukkung at 2:30. I’m wiped, but reenergized by seeing my dad again and getting to tell him all about my adventure. He reminds me how close I was to the altitude of the tallest peak in America, Denali in Alaska, just a mere 15 feet off… I mentally bookmark that statistic for the next time I try to scare myself.