I was staring at a nearly 350 meter (1200 foot) straight up climb to get to our first pass: the Renjo La. I’d been over this 5360 meter (17.585 foot) pass the opposite way two years before. I remembered the descent. The whole climb from the town where we slept was 1200 meters (nearly 4000 feet).
I had puked my breakfast (and seemingly the previous night’s dinner) up for some reason right before we left. I didn’t feel horrible, was acclimatized, and really had no option. Let’s go!
After the first 350 m of the climb, it was obvious I had no gas in the tank. No matter what tactic I took, every step lacked energy. And man, I knew how far we had to go that day. There was no way I was turning back. Txaber tried pacing me to no avail. I was gassed. My pack was lighter than 30 lbs. What was going on?
The last 200 meters of straight up, stair-like climbing nearly killed me. But, the pass in clear weather is stunning with Everest right in your face as you cross. I somehow made it. But I was not happy. Even standing among the clouds with a million dollar view, there was no jubilation. We quickly snapped photos and took off for the valley.
I knew I was not right as the normal ten minute recovery basically took several hours after we finally descended to beautiful Gokyo. I had no idea what the problem was since we had been trekking now for two plus weeks.
We had decided to try the 3 passes trek and do it clockwise. It’s the Buddhist way (they go around all sacred places clockwise) and a French trekker told us that, while substantially more difficult in the clockwise fashion, the views are better and after the first pass we would be acclimatized. Fearless (and apparently ageless in my mind) for some unknown reason, we opted for that direction.
After resting the next morning and storming up Gokyo Ri (5357 meters. You do the math!) without my pack for another incredible sunset hike (tough to top the one from there two years ago) I figured, eh, I was just out of shape, the pass is high, blah, blah. But it was incredible again!
Setting out for Pass #2, the Cho La, we opted to go direct from Gokyo in the morning, crossing the challenging Ngozumpa glacier for two hours of up and down before we arrived at Dragnag at the base of the climb.
I had crossed Cho La in 1995 in the opposite direction. I remembered it was challenging but unfortunately, we climbed in cloudy weather so I was denied the views that awaited me.
The first step up the trail as it started to climb from the valley I felt it. WTF? No energy again? I can’t be out of shape. I’ve been hiking two weeks! I’m acclimatized. I don’t have the shits. What’s wrong? You go ahead Txaber. I’ll make it.
The Cho La is a double dip pass. As I crossed the first dip, I could see the daunting scree-like face of the real pass about 2 km in the distance; it’s 350 m climb seemingly beating me down before I even got there. Txaber knew. I knew. I was done. How the hell am i gonna get over that? We aren’t turning back. Looking back, I don’t know how I climbed it.
Having already ingested my “emergency” candy bar, I dropped into an even deeper sense of purpose and focus than the Renjo La demanded.
Working on my breathing and a rhythm, we weaved our way through the boulder-strewn path to the base of the massively steep final climb; now secured with braces and wire to help people climb.
Slowly I dragged my energy deprived body and my 30 lb pack over each boulder and chain; counting steps as I went to create the little micro-goals that would allow me to catch my breath and give me hope. Okay, 30 more steps. Okay, only 20 this time. Rest. Breathe.
As we hit the pass, even the incredible beauty of Cho La and the next valley could not make a dent in my suffering, frustration and concern. What the hell is wrong with me? THIS. IS. NOT. FUN!
As we skirted down along the next glacier (thankful for the mini-crampons that a couple gave us coming the other way), the valley below opened in all it’s glory. Wow! It sucks I missed this 24 years ago! It was awe-inspiring; allowing us to see the village of Dzongla 3 km in the distance and perhaps 600 m lower. The towering peaks all around us, it was stunning. Even in my exhaustion.
I was in my head. And it wasn’t a fun place.
I dragged my ass into Dzongla not knowing what was going on. What’s wrong with me? Me no-likey.
We decided on a rest day of only two or three hours the next day. There is an Italian research pyramid up at 4800 meters that has rooms and a kitchen. Slightly more expensive than normal tea houses, but a tad warmer (as outside temps were well below freezing) and a nice break.
I had noticed stomach issues over the last few days and a feeling of sickness. But since I had not puked again and wasn’t shitting, I had stayed the course. However, my gut (no pun intended) told me something was wrong. I started the anti-biotic cipro that night; cramming two doses in overnight.
I slept in an extra hour while Txaber went up to Everest Base Camp. I was recovering and still have a bit of an issue with the mountaineer scene. He wanted to see the Khumbu icefall. I decided against it.
Meeting him at noon in Gorak Shep, I felt renewed and ready to tackle the famed Kala Pattar; the 5643 meter lookout by Everest that I climbed in 1995. Also in cloudcover; thus seeing nothing.
Again without my pack for the day hike, I felt awesome til the last 100 meters but powered through it. We were rewarded with a magical night of the highest peaks in the world, little wind, and a crescent moon. It was simple otherworldly. I was giddy with delight.
Scampering down in the dark to eat and sleep at 5164 meters, I felt like I was back. Bring on the last and (was told) hardest pass; the Kangma La.
The Kangma La is about as high as Kala Pattar at 5535 meters, steeper in most sections, and a straight up climb after, you guessed it, another glacier crossing. This one the Khumbu glacier.
Having missed the correct entrance to the glacier, we boulder hopped and scrambled for 90 minutes before we started to climb. Great. Last time that happened I felt dead.
We attacked the pass full on and I felt strong. Confident the Cipro killed the bug that was making me feel weak.
Little did I know the beauty and wonder and majesty that was awaiting in the next valley.
Crossing that pass into a valley I’ve never seen or experienced was like an out-of-body experience. And as we slowly descended the pass to the Chukhung Valley, with the glaciers and peaks and yaks, the enormity of this good fortune struck me like an avalanche.
I stood, hands on my head, tears in my eyes, absolutely stunned at the beauty of this valley. Me feeling better. Me knowing I’m fortunate to do this. And just trying to drink every last drop of the magnitude and surreal beauty of this place. Right there. I wanted to hold it, save it, and figure out a way to communicate it. It blew me away. It was at that moment all the pain became worth it. I didn’t want it to end. I couldn’t continue walking. I just wanted to see. And to feel. And I did. Txaber caught this moment also. And trust me, tears were shed. Of all sorts and types.
With the valley fog rolling in and it getting cold, we slowly walked down the valley to get to Chukhung at 4730 meters.
The next day, we opted for the morning hike to the Chukhung Ri lookout instead of sunset. A gal we met hiking said it was only 90 minutes up. Bob made several crucial errors. One was forgetting I had no real rest after the pass. The other is I continued my ritual of a small breakfast. Finally, I brought no water or snacks with me; feeling a tad over-confident from my previous day’s pass.
I crashed. Hard. The climb to 5550 meters took me a full hour longer than Txaber; by farour biggest gap. I would have turned back if Txaber wasn’t there or if it wasn’t our last goal. I pressed on in the windy cold weather. Done. Again.
My travel buddy, Txaber, waited in the cold and wind with the dog that followed us so we could snap our last pic together up high. What a champ!
We descended to town for lunch, me knowing that I crushed three of the big hikes up high but was massively humbled by the other three.
It reinforced to me that it’s the journey not the destination, but you really need goals sometimes to get you over the rough spots. Indeed.
Our remaining days were spent descending the never-ending drops to Namche Bazaar to gather some things; enjoying smaller villages and bask in the Sherpa way.
Walking into Namche the last day alone (Txaber and I were just going at our own pace) was just incredible with sun and little wind and beautiful peaks all around. I just love that town; for so many reasons I’ve explained before. Again, just hiking and smiling and a bursting heart.
There is really no way to truly explain my relationship with this place. As much as I try. It is really several relationships. There are if course my close friends in Kathmandu. There are the lower elevation towns with their deep Hindu roots. Very similar to India. There is an anticipation when you start very low, just knowing the dramatic scenery and completely different way of life the people high-up live.
When you hit the Sherpa culture as you get higher, things shift. The deities and artwork and food and culture all shift towards a more Tibetan feel. Txaber was patient in my desire to explain the differences and to point out subtle changes as the two types of religions do have some overlap.
As you finally get into the high mountains and are literally smacked in the face with stunning, breathtaking beauty, the culture fades a bit. It becomes more tourist-based. But if you know what you’re looking for, you can still glimpse the culture. Ask for Shuja (butter tea) up high and you get quite the smile. Say Tashidelek or toochay (thank you in sherpa and Tibetan) and the energy you receive back is worth it all. Walk clockwise at those mani walls. Give and you get. Always, it seems. And in this place, you get even when you don’t give. And that’s why I love it here. And keep returning. And keep being sad to leave. It’s just…..different.
In Namche, we grabbed the few things we had left and crashed out, exhausted. Ready to hike out the rest of the way.
After spending 25 days in the Himalayas and hiking over 280k, mostly with a backpack, it’s normal for the whole journey to take awhile to sink in. And truly I blog to allow me to process what I just experienced.
We basically climbed enough to have scaled Everest 2.5 times. Up and back. The demand on my body was incredible. But not really. Soreness but no real pain. And that’s truly amazing knowing, until a few years ago, I had chronic knee issues, when I left the US my foot was still bad from a fall in Patagonia (thanks Ed Deboo! The best PT in the world and my good friend) and I had hurt my back pretty bad just about two weeks before the trek (thanks again Ed for your cyber therapy!) I ain’t young and had only hiked about 15 days with a pack in the last four months. Yet my body responded. And so did my mind. And I have to be honest with you. Three of those hikes were the worst I’ve felt in my life trekking. I wasn’t loving it and I had to use every ounce of mental strength to get over the passes and up to the lookout.
I joke that it’s all mental….til it’s physical. But in this case, my mental seasoning on tough climbs (and having a great trekking friend that kept me going) was all I had. Really. On two or three of these, I was physically (and maybe emotionally) done 2-3 hours before the top yet I somehow grinded my way over. And it certainly is a metaphor for life. You don’t always choose those hard paths. And sometimes, if you do choose them, unknown challenges pop up. Yet ya gotta persevere. And that’s where the mental part comes in. Bite off one step, then another. And if you are fortunate to only have to do that for an hour, a day, or a year? Consider yourself lucky. Or convert to Buddhism. Because for me, acceptance of my current moment while trying to evolve is where I find my happy place. Both during and after. Maybe that’s why I come?
Trekking here is a gift. I’ve now done maybe 17 Himalayan treks over 24 years? And I can truly say because of the pain and the cold I was not present enough in my mind. I had no life shit grinding on me. Just the challenge. And if every time I leave here I become 1% more present in my life, its all worth it. I’m very grateful.
The mountains, the dogs, the daal baht, the Sherpas, the glaciers, the squat toilets, the cold, the ice, the smiles, the kids. Just the way it is here. I can’t decide. It warms my heart.
My buddy Txaber left for Spain today. I couldn’t have asked for a better trekking friend. I hope he got as much out of our time together as I did. It is a lot to ask of anybody to share 25 days in the mountains together. He is a rock star. And I miss him already.