Day 11: Dzongkha to Gokyo – 15,580 feet via highest point on climb, Cho La Pass at 17,611 feet

Rose at 4:45am to eat breakfast at 5am (who is hungry at that hour?) and on trail by 5:30am. Key is to get over and down pass before sun starts to melt ice and release rocks. Numerous people have died over the years here using bad judgement either by going off trail (not obvious always and there are crevasses) or going through pass in afternoon. Trail up very steep in places and requiring bouldering at moments (using hands) and some quite narrow sections above steep gorges. Thankfully we had crampons. Makes the snow and icy sections much easier to navigate.

Summited at the pass in about 3 hours and oh what views! I placed a prayer flag on top dedicated to Amy and her recovery (still no internet access as I write this and not knowing her circumstance is killing me). I also dedicated to friend Craig and his mom, both of whom have had recent health issues. Sad not to have the Amy, Craig, Ross, and Roddy team with me to enjoy this so dedicated to dear friends from college days at the University of Vermont as well. I also dedicated the prayer flag to my family. They have been so supportive of their arguably crazy 55 year old father and I want them to know a piece of them is with me and now flies in the breeze at 17,611 feet in the high Himalaya of Nepal. My guide video recorded my dedication and I look forward to sharing. Love you Susan, Casey, Katlyn, and Koby!

After a long down (nice but just means additional ups to come), had lunch at a tea house in Dragnag (barely a few buildings below a shear cliff that seemed like a rock fall could take out all of them in one fell swoop) on route before final push to Gokyo. I have new climb mates now, Adam from Maryland and Sandra from North Carolina. They are doing the passes on same schedule as me and from the same company which was quite serendipitous. Sandra is especially inspirational at 65 and doing this. I hope I have her stamina in ten years. She is a nurse. Adam works at National Institutes of Health so we’ve been able to talk common ground on grants and universities.

As we were on way to Gokyo, suddenly the huge chasm of Ngozumba Glacier appeared below us. How the heck were we going to cross the thing? Well, somehow the Nepalese hacked a trail along knife edge cliffs, up and down through enormous glacial moraine piles, and in sections, across ice. If one had a fear of heights along snow tracks and 500 or more feet slide areas, this is not for them. I felt bad for the porters, but they navigated brilliantly. Took us 10 hours over the day, inclusive of lunch for 45 minutes. Our tea house is actually nice by comparison to some we’ve stayed in. Modestly cloudy at moment so can’t see the top of Cho Oyu, the big one visible from this area.

For dinner had pizza which was ok, but probably the highest restaurant offering such an item! Made with tortillas, mushrooms, and melted cheese. Also got to actually watch the mechanics of starting a yak dung stove. Imagine a round metal drum with a stovepipe straight up. Proprietor opens a hatch on top and drops in roughly 10 dried yak dung patties. Then he pours kerosene over the patties and drops a lighted match down the hatch, hoping not to get burned by the flare up. This one stubbornly wouldn’t start so he soaks a tissue in kerosene, lights it, and quickly drops it in. That did the trick. As fire smolders a bit to get going, room starts to stink. I’ve noticed many people coughing and hacking on the trail, mostly due to the dry and cold air, but probably heightened by yak dung fires. I have a modest cough myself. The downside of no wood anywhere since above timberline. Cooking is by gas that comes up in large red cans on the backs of yaks. I’ve been buying bottled water, and as one goes higher, the price goes up. No surprise there, but still less than cost at a US airport. Drinking local water is high risk for a bad reaction.

Before dinner, I invited our guide and Adam, my new climbing mate, to play a unique game of cards with questions designed to get to know one another better. Asis our guide wants to improve his English and we used this game to do that on Kilimanjaro. Unfortunately, I discovered that Asis does not read English well so it was mostly frustrating to him. In sum, it didn’t work as well as I’d hoped. Asis is most congenial though and loves to talk and laugh.

In bed by 8pm. Leaving early again tomorrow for second of the two passes. Once over, we start the long down hill back to Namche and a shower two days from now! I might even treat myself to an Everest beer. While available everywhere in the teahouses, beer and altitude do not make good bedfellows.

Day 10: Gorakshep to Dzongkha – 15,850 feet

Sleeping last night was especially fitful. Altitude does that. I recall vividly from Kilimanjaro. Our norm is typically to give up the “sleeping” ghost around 5am (albeit we aim to turn in by 8pmish). Blessedly, it was warmer in our room last night than normal, probably due to our being right above the dining/commons room that was unusually warm via heating by gas, not yak dung.

This morning we got on the trail around 1130am. With sadness, Amy had been feeling ill for multiple days and simply felt she could not continue. She’d eaten very little and not enough fuel to tackle the passes. I SO admire her perseverance in making it all the way to Everest Base. Our guide arranged a helicopter evac for the afternoon before today but fog in Lukla prevented. This morning it was clear where we were but not in Lukla. Finally the heli came late morning. With collective tears, we embraced, she thanked the guide and porter, and loaded on route to Katmandu Hospital. She will have to stay one night in hospital for observation and then assuming all is fine (she and I were both optimistic she will be fine, although with internet down all over Himalaya, I’ve not yet been able to communicate with her, let alone post to my blog). I’ll be hanging a prayer flag tomorrow at top of Cho La Pass that will in part be for her. POSTSCRIPT: As I send this, it is my first moment with WiFi since before Everest Basecamp day. I just learned Amy is fine. She was released from hospital and spent a few days in Kathmandu. She heads back to states today and sadly, I won’t be able to see her before I’m back in Kathmandu (more hiking down to Lukla and airport ahead for me).

Back to today though. Weather was good in AM and we flew down trail back to Lobuche (down is awesome, and for breathing thicker air) for lunch and then headed back up more slowly to Dzongla, arriving around 4:15pm. After my usual afternoon lemon tea, I jumped into sleeping bag for a nap. Dinner was simple – pasta noodles and tomato sauce, aiming to eat only things I trust and have a modest appetite to consume. Guide watches me like a hawk to be sure I get adequate fuel. I have many Cliff and Power Bars which are probably better than the food I consume. I also take vitamin supplements.

Tomorrow we depart at 5:30am with headlamps. Higher up we don helmets where rick falls can occur. Mine has Lilo and Stitch on it which think is a hoot since our eldest daughter works for Disney in Orlando. Casey texted a few days ago relating that while dad was climbing in Nepal, she had just ridden the Everest roller coaster at Disney. I had a great laugh at her humor.

That the news for now. Going to turn in and do my best to get a “good” night’s sleep.

Day 9: Lobuche to Everest Base Camp – 17,594 feet

We made it to Everest Base Camp! It was a grueling 9 hour climb from Lobuche to Gorakshep where we are spending the night tonight at highest elevation of trip (16,859 feet) to Everest Base Camp (17,594 feet) and back to Gorakshep. Simply put, we are spent. It is all I can do to keep my eyes open. Amy is napping as I write. The tiredness aside, being at basecamp, while not originally planned for our itinerary, was the fulfillment of a lifetime dream (you will recall the Kongma La Pass was snowed in). I’d heard about the small tent city there and the famous Khumbu Glacier with its tall seracs numerous times in films and books, but to actually be there was a thrill. The “city” is more like a small town right now since the summit season is not until May. But teams are setting up camps and we must have seen a dozen yak or pony teams ferrying up gear and countless porters as well. Passing us by as we headed back were tents, tables, chairs, bed platforms, camp mattresses, portable generators, and much more. “Visitors” like us to Base Camp are numerous and we are allowed to go to the edge of a gorge-like area gouged out over millennia, but no further. We are also not allowed into the actual areas where the tents are. But the photo ops are yet again spectacular with Pumori, Khumbutse, Lola, and Nuptse immediate to us and the Everest peak jutting up behind. Today was a perfectly clear day to see it all. And, the SMALLEST of these is 19,765 feet, taller than Kilimanjaro. I can see why this valley is so sacred to the people here; it is utterly stunning.

As I mentioned earlier, I was exhausted after today, but I rallied late afternoon for a 30 minute hike up behind the village to see Everest at sunset. Amy stayed behind in room as she was not feeling well. Froze the last few minutes, but rewarded by a spectacular sight of Nuptse and Everest lit up red/orange and then just Everest. Will upload to blog as soon as I can.

Dinner tonight was Sherpa Stew, something that has become a meal I’ve now ordered a few times. It tastes good, has cooked vegetables and potatoes, items that are basic enough and hopefully worry free for getting sick (fingers crossed and let’s say there are lots of opportunity to apply antibacterial lotion on the hands).

Have a nice morning as I call it a night shortly.

Day 8: Dingboche to Lobuche – 16,210 feet

Once again woke to beautiful sunshine, but the coldest yet. We REALLY did not want to get out of our sleeping bags. Slept well last night and even managed to make it to 6am before hot footing it down the hall to the ice cube bathroom. So cold that the water pipe to the sink froze and it was 1.5 hours before I could do the simple task of a face wash. We’ve also now entered the portion of the trip where toilets are just holes in the floor, although plumbed and flushable (so far). Let’s just say that thigh strength is important.

Main task of morning was deciding where to head today. Original plan would take us to Kongma La Pass, and if we found it impassable as it was yesterday (unexpected late season snow had it waist deep and 70 mph winds), we had a two day backtrack we’d have to do. We decided for safety and logistics to not go there. Instead we headed directly to Lobuche, gateway to Everest Base Camp. Tomorrow, weather providing, we will be there and at the foot of the famous Khumbu Ice Fall and their constantly shifting ciracs. Many an Everest climber and porter has died there by falling into a crevasse or buried by tons of collapsing ice. We won’t be in the danger part as that higher section requires ropes and true mountaineering.

But back to today. Headed more or less straight up the side of a mountain, but then across a meandering flat with some downs. We hate the downs because it only means more up later. As we looked down on the town where we had just stayed someone was being evacuated by helicopter. At halfway point to Lobuche we came across views to die for. As an aside, it is really hard to decide what to take a picture of as it is all spectacular. Movies simply do not do this place justice. All around us are probably a dozen mountains over 13,000 feet. The big one today we saw was Pumori which is over 23,500 feet.

After lunch, and engaging 4 young men just out of the Israeli Army, it was a killer straight up. I judge the difficulty by how many draws from my drinking tube connected to my water bladder I can muster before just avoiding passing out and having to gasp for air. I usually can do 4-5, but on this bad ass climb I was down to 2, maybe 3. But we were rewarded by an awesome view on top, as well as the high Himalaya cemetery to those who lost their lives on nearby mountains, most commonly Everest. As I understand it, for the most part, no bodies are here, often because they could not be recovered and still reside on the mountain or a deep crevasse. Many Sherpa are honored here, including one who summited Everest 11 times. Can’t possibly imagine how he did that. Scott Fischer, the founder of Mountain Madness (outfit Amy and I used to summit Kilimanjaro in Sept 2017), is memorialized here. He played a prominent role in Jon Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air (a must read for understanding the psychology of high altitude mountaineering). Scott died on the mountain in that 1996 disaster with a number of others. He also has a plaque on Kilimanjaro we saw on that climb; he put in a new route there that enabled more people to summit via better acclimatization.

Final slog to Lobuche was modest incline up and then right there, roughly 6 hours after we started, was Lobuche. This is our second highest overnight elevation to sleep (tomorrow night we sleep at Gorakshep, elevation 1659) although we will be hiking higher to basecamp, and even higher over the two passes to come. The place is little more than guest houses, yaks, and many Sherpa strolling around, cleaning their clothes in water that I highly wonder about its cleanliness, and enjoying visiting with each other. The Sherpa are a wonderfully positive and outgoing people and it has been a joy to engage them, even with limited English. Their children are also incredibly cute and seem completely unfazed by the cold.

At this elevation, the body suffering is more pronounced. I’ve had a modest, but steady headache most of this afternoon. Sleeping also becomes more fitful. We’ll see how tonight goes. Our guide tested our pulse and body oxygen levels via a finger cuff last night and Amy and I are both in the safe range. Experience tells me it will progressively drop as we go higher though. We both take Diamox, a diuretic that among other things reduces the effect of high altitude sickness. Amy is experiencing some nausea, but the drugs she has seems to be helping some and she’s forcing herself to eat gorp and other high energy snacks. She is an inspiration with her drive and fortitude. Both of us though are looking forward to our last night stay and recovery at the Hyatt in Katmandu 9 days hence.

Will be going to bed early as we need to be on trail by around 7am.

Day 7: Tengboche to Dingboche – 14,300 feet

Woke to beautiful dawn of sunshine, opened our blinds, and to both sides, snow covered mountains surrounded us. We had no idea what to expect given fog of day before. One of the directions was Lhotse and Everest, looming ever closer. Pinching ourselves, are we really here? Breakfast of Tibetan toast which looked and tasted much like a beignet and was delicious. Enjoyed a cup of black tea as well. Tea is a core bev here (good for settling the stomach too I’m told) and I think I’ve tried 6 different kinds, although I am less partial to the kind you have to chew that have things floating in it for the flavor.

On route by 8am for 5.5 hours of climbing, the initial part with crampons due to the fresh snow. Total elevation gain to destination – 1,640 feet. At these heights, much more common to see yaks. Despite the height and short growing season, farming small plots is common everywhere and apparently by May, everything is lush and green.

Many folks trek and we’ve enjoyed seeing, and hearing, people and languages from a wide array of countries. Japan seems to be the biggest, but many European countries present as well such as France, Germany, the UK, Hungary, and Poland. Americans are here too as are Aussies. Everybody cheerful and most willing to chat. We met a particularly congenial older fellow from South Korea here on his own. He was taking it slow and noted that his guide relayed that a group went through the other day too fast and one was evacuated. “Pole pole” they say in Swahili and“bustari bustari” in Nepalese that both mean slowly slowly. That’s what we are doing. It’s not a race and besides, the views are too amazing to not linger over.

Our general routine is to stop for lunch at a tea house somewhere between 11am and 1pm. We’ve been on the trail for 5 days now and the menus are remarkably similar. Although I’ve generally enjoyed my meals, today’s Sherpa vegetable stew was particularly tasty. I imagine a tasty hamburger in the LA airport on return will be relished however. Although meat is available here, since it has to come in via porter or animal back over a period of days, we’ve been warned not to eat it for lack of adequate refrigeration for so long. I’m eating protein energy bars which helps though.

One section of today’s route this afternoon had a few rockfalls and as it turned out, a few small boulders shot across the trail about 50 feet in front of us. We were encouraged to step lively there and we sure did. Once more, the views were incredible. By now Everest, Lohtse, and Nuptse were socked in at the tops, but our views of Ama Dablam were to die for. How anyone climbs that tall and nearly vertical face I have no idea, but apparently it is popular to do in the fall.

Tea and cookies about 5pm is our normal routine followed by dinner around 6 or 6:30pm. The only time they fire up the stove (so far with wood but higher up will be yak dung) is around that time and folks hover close. Amy and I are finding the only true warm place is inside our -10F sleeping bags with a silk liner and layers of sleeping clothes as well. The crusher is when you need to visit the bathroom in the middle of the night… I wish I were born a camel 😊. Our current tea house communal bathroom (the norm) is just a hole in the floor with a bucket of water to ladle in as the flush. No hot water here so we go without showers until we are back in Namche 8 days hence.

Oddly, we get more hours of “sleep” here than at home. Typically in bed by about 8:30ish and up by 6am. Naps in the afternoon are also something we do when we can to restore energy. I put the word “sleep” in quotes as it can be a fitful one. Last night the Tengboche dogs had an on and off again chorus that sounded something right from 101 Dalmatians. Not sure who their Cruella De Vil is, but we thought they must have spotted the Yeti and were spreading the alarm. The walls are also paper thin so you hear your neighbors cough quite well. So far I’ve been fine, although as I write this, I have a modest headache, but aspirin kicking in.

This evening we heard that there is heavy snow in Kongma Pass, the first of three high passes planned for our climb. A group staying in our tea house had to turn back due to snow waist deep and high winds. Pondering implications now but it may mean being able to go to Everest Base Camp instead and still doing the other two passes. All hinges on weather. Stay tuned.

Day 6: Namche to Tengboche – 12,660 feet

Woke to snow overnight and kept snowing until about 8:30am. Hadn’t expected that at this “lower elevation”. Waited until it stopped, mainly to enable us and the porter to have good footing for what proved to be big ups and downs. A bit depressing to have ANY downs because in a few days more we will be at our highest, the first of three passes, this one named Kongma La at 18,159.

Today was clear for a few hours this morning, but low clouds rolled in late morning and couldn’t see the monstrous mountains surrounding us. Did observe helicopters coming and going up and down the valley, probably every 15 minutes. Sadly majority are wealthy tourists who chose to “experience” the Himalaya this way, or some who hiked to basecamp and were too tired to walk out. But still others were involved in emergency evacs. So far we continue to feel strong with no stomach upset, but we have the meds if we do. I confess that I am starting to tire of the nearly identical breakfast/lunch/dinner menus – mostly starch and little or no meat (reminder – animals we tend to eat in the states such as beef are sacred here). But I did have some very good French toast this morning. I suspect I won’t be eating rice or having curry for a while when I return to the states.

Arrived Temboche (climb of 1,380 vertical feet) and home of another famous Sherpa, Dawn Tenzing, a chief logistics Sherpa on many expeditions to Everest including the 1953 first summit. His grandson runs the tea house where we are staying. Out our window are two unusual sights. First, the Buddhist Monastery. As we were changing into dry clothes, we realized they had a birds eye view into our room. I hope we didn’t disturb their meditation 😊. Out the other window was a group of about two dozen Nepalese military Gurkhas complete with full camo and rifles slung at the ready. Gurkhas, if you know your history, are one of the most famous forces in the world and historically struck great fear in their enemies with their signature knives. While touring the historic monastery, they were there too. We introduced ourselves and their lieutenant warmly welcomed us to take a picture with them. Since they were on a secret mission of some sort, he asked us not to post to social media so we will honor that. As we parted, he said if we had any need of evac, to call him. They apparently are first responders to emergencies. Not planning to call…

Dipping quite cold this evening and many hovered around stove that seems to put out little heat. Tomorrow I will relay how the sleep was in unheated rooms. Just praying to make it through the night w/o need for the communal bathroom…

PS – Finally able to post pics with sufficient internet.

Day 5: Namche

Today was a “rest” day. I put that in quotes because the morning involved a day hike straight up for about 1100 feet to an amazing view of Everest and Lhotse, the 1st and 4th highest mountains in the world. I keep pinching myself in amazement that I am here. It is also killing me that the WiFi is not strong enough to send pictures of what I’m seeing. If/as I can, I will post to pictures section of blog.

We also visited the national park museum and the Tensing Norgay monument dedicated to the most well known and revered Sherpa in the world. He was with Edmund Hillary for the first summit of Everest in 1953. FYI – they also have a monument in town to the most famous female Sherpa, Pemba Doma, who was the first Nepalese woman to summit Everest via the extraordinarily challenging north face. She also led the Nepalese Women’s Expedition of Everest in 2002. She tragically died on Lhotse in a fall in 2007.

For the remainder of the day we explored Namche and picked up gifts which we can blessedly leave here and pick up on return from the circuit that links back up here.

Two other things about which I want to offer reflections. First, our guide. His name is Asis Gurung and comes originally from rural Nepal, the son of farmers. He has no education beyond high school but worked hard to create opportunities for himself, first as a porter, then an asst guide, and then guide for around 15 years. Guiding is a tough life but he does it in part to enable his daughters to attend college. We’ve talked about college a lot on our climb, what he knows about it and what he does not. In many ways he represents the realities for first gen students and their families, and much more than the financial issues of college attendance. The importance of wrap around support is a universal one and certainly not limited to the US.

The second thing I wanted to relay was having met Anthony McLaren today. He’s prepping to summit Everest on May 15 w/o bottled oxygen if he can. Where Amy and I slogged up the trail today, he ran it. We took a pic with him and let me say, there is no fat on that man! He’s on a quest to complete the 7 Summits to raise funds for Parkinson’s, a disease that took his father a few years ago. After Everest, all he has is Mt Vinson in Antarctica, planned for November. I thought I was motivated by challenge, but pale by comparison. He was an inspiration to talk to. We pray he is successful.