Trekking in the Solukhumbu: Part II

Continued from Part I: we made it to Lobuche!

The next two days were shorter: I had been getting sick for the past week or so (I had a bad cold and cough which went to my lungs on the day we crossed Cho-la pass, and was having trouble breathing while hiking in the cold air), so I decided to take a rest day. This worked perfectly, because the plan from here was to hike to Gorakshep, and from there go to Everest Base Camp one day and to the peak of Kala Patthar the next day before coming back to Lobuche. So I stayed in the lodge and Danny and Melissa went up to Gorakshep. They decided not to go to Everest Base Camp (Because there’s really nothing there, especially now since all the Everest expeditions this year were canceled), but went up Kala Patthar the next morning before coming back to Lobuche to meet up with me again! After 1.5 days of resting and taking tons of cold and cough medicine I was much better than before, and ready to keep hiking!

Prayer flags during the one clear part of the day on the way to Chhukhung.
Prayer flags during the one clear part of the day on the way to Chhukhung.

Day 11! It was extremely cloudy and overcast, and we decided to, instead of going over the Kongma la pass and not getting any views, we would just go around and take it a bit easier on ourselves. We already got one amazing pass experience, so we were content with that. This brought us to Chhukhung, at 4,730m/15,500ft. Here we rented equipment for ice climbing and got ready to go to Island Peak!

Day 12 we had a short hike to the Island Peak Base Camp, at 4,970m/16,300ft. Here we were going to be camping, so we set up tents and settled in. We were supposed to take day 13 as an acclimatization day at Base Camp, but we decided that, since we had been at high altitude for a week already, we didn’t need it. That meant that we would be waking up at midnight that night to do the climb to Island Peak!

At Base Camp we also met our climbing Sherpa who taught us how to clip into fixed ropes and use the ascending and descending clips to go up and down the slope on the rope line. At the top of Island Peak there is a period of time where there are fixed ropes on the ice, and you use those plus heavy-duty plastic boots with crampons to ascend to the peak. So we spent some time that afternoon getting used to climbing up a steep slope on lines, harnessed in and everything!

That night we went to sleep early and woke up at midnight. We had some oatmeal, as much as we could eat at that hour and then set off: day 13 was officially under way.

Sunrise at Island Peak.
Sunrise at Island Peak.

The first few hours were brutal. They were switchbacks covered in a thin layer of snow, and above all we could see were the headlamps of hikers who had started earlier than us constantly rising higher and higher. If you have never done this (gone up to a peak in the middle of the night), it basically sucks. Every time you look up you think that the end of the lights must be the top, and that that is where you are going! But in reality that is just the end of the line of hikers, and it keeps rising higher and higher. You cant tell how high you are, how high you have gone, and all you have is the monotony of switchbacks up a steep hill on little to no sleep, in the dark, in the cold.

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The view from Island Peak

Finally, after a few hours of the switchbacks we got to something new: icy rocks! Again, not ideal in the dark, in the freezing cold. Because it had snowed the previous afternoon (like it does pretty much every afternoon up there) there was an inch layer of snow and ice on all the rocks, and so for the next hour we climbed up boulders and across rocks, balancing on the snow.

Finally, at around 4:30 or 5 in the morning it started to get light out.

Rocks, the glacier, and the top of Island Peak.
Rocks, the glacier, and the top of Island Peak.

We spent another two hours climbing up the rocks over the snow, finally with a bit of light, and by 7am we had finally reached the top of this part! We could see the top from here, and we could also see all of the amazing views that the top had to offer. It was really a perfect spot. We could have kept going, another four hours across the glacier, to the top, but at that point we had been climbing for around six hours, were completely exhausted, and overwhelmed by the climbing that we had been doing. So we decided to end the climb on a high note, sat around eating some snickers bars that we had brought with us, before starting the long climb down.

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Myself and Danny at Island Peak

By the time we finally got down from the mountain it was nearly 10:30 in the morning. We sat around, ate some instant noodles as a sort of breakfast, and basked in the brief period of warm sun before packing up our things and hiking back down to Chukkung. By the time we got to Chukkung it was almost 3pm: we had been hiking nearly 12 hours that day on very little sleep, and all we wanted was to go to bed. We made ourselves stay up till 5pm, and then ate a light dinner before going directly to sleep.

Day 14! By this time it was mostly downhill, but we had a long day in store. The plan was to hike all the way to Namche Bazaar in one day, a hike that is close to 8 hours long, and includes both a good amount of downhill and a few intense uphills. So, we set off early, stopping only once or twice the whole time (including a lunch break in Tengboche consisting of slices of cake at a great bakery there), and made it to Namche Bazaar by around 3pm. We put down our bags and immediately went to a pub for beers and buff momos to celebrate the (near) end of our hike! It really was pretty great going down so far in altitude: we had much more energy, and the hiking felt easier because of all of the extra oxygen in the air! After being at high altitude for so long we were sure we could do anything with all of the air going to our lungs.

One last view on the way down!
One last view on the way down!

The next and last day we hiked from Namche Bazaar to Lukla: our hike was done, all that was left was to get off of the mountains!

Unfortunately, this was easier said than done.

For the past few days no flights had been getting in or out of Lukla. There were too many clouds between Lukla and Kathmandu and so it wasn’t safe to fly in. The way it works is that there are a fixed number of flights going in and out, and if your flight gets cancelled then you get placed at the bottom of a waiting list for flights the next day. But there were already nearly four days worth of people on the waiting list trying to get flights because theirs had been cancelled, so the chances of getting a flight out soon was getting pretty grim.

Helicopters landing in Lukla airport
Helicopters landing in Lukla airport

In addition to this, instead of having a flight time the flights just have an order for takeoff. They fly four flights an hour (one from each of the four airlines), and so the flights in hour one are flights 1-4, the second hour they are flights 5-8, etc. So if you have an early flight number (like 1 or 2), the theory is that you only need one or two flights to actually land in Lukla from Kathmandu, and you’ll be able to fly out.

We were flight number 15.

Of course, none of this matters if no flights at all land in Lukla that day. Which is what was happening the morning that we were supposed to be flying out. Danny and Melissa had a flight back to the states in a few days, and on top of that we really didn’t want to be stuck in Lukla, since it was a pretty miserable town. So when the flights weren’t going out we had to look at our other option: a helicopter! This meant having our trekking guide follow some leads, find a helicopter with spaces on us for a reasonable price, going to the western union to take cash out to pay for it all, and then wait on the tarmac until the helicopter landed, sprint to it, board, and we were on our way. All in the course of approximately an hour. It was a hectic way to leave, but at least we got out! And with that we ended our trip: fifteen days of hiking later!

Last day of hiking!
Last day of hiking!

Trekking in the Solukhumbu: Part I

Two weeks ago I got back from a hike to the Solukhumbu region of Nepal, which is the area of the Himalayas where Mt. Everest is located. A lot of people who go there just go straight up the Everest Base Camp trail (we call these people EBCers), and then they go straight down. While cool, there is so much that you don’t get to see while doing this. So, my brother, Danny, and his girlfriend, Melissa, and I went on a 16 day trek up to Gokyo-Ri, across the Cho-la pass, and then to Island peak, and then back down. (A lollipop route, as Melissa pointed out: we overlapped just the very beginning and the very end.) This way we were able to see incredible views of Everest and Lhotse, as well as incredible, diverse landscapes and peaks.

For reference, a map of our route through the region.
For reference, a map of our route through the region.

To get to the area you have to fly into Lukla airport at 2840m/9,300ft. It is one of the highest airports in the world, but, more importantly, holds the record for being the most dangerous airport in the world. Good things to know before flying in there! Why is it so dangerous? Well, the airstrip is on the side of the mountain, and when landing the plane flies onto a short, uphill runway that points directly into the mountain. And when taking off, well, you are flying off of a cliff. The flights are extremely weather dependent, too, and so if there is too much wind or too many clouds anywhere between Lukla and Kathmandu the flights cant fly. Because of this we were extremely lucky that our flight there not only took off on the day that it was supposed to, but it took off pretty much on time, too! It was a good start to the trip!

Me, Danny, and Melissa on the first day of hiking.
Me, Danny, and Melissa on the first day of hiking.

After landing at Lukla we had a quick lunch before setting off on the first leg of the hike: a four hour hike to Phakding, at 2,610m/8,500ft.

There are long bridges that run between the mountains, high above the river.
There are long bridges that run between the mountains, high above the river.

Day 2, a bit longer, took us up to Namche Bazaar, at a more respectable 3,440m/11,200ft. This was the last town where we were able to eat meat (above Namche Bazaar the area is a national park and you are not allowed to kill animals. Because of this, any meat on the menu is carried in by porters from below and therefore is not very fresh), so we ate plenty of buff momos and yak steak, and also took the last hot showers we would take for another week or so! It was quite luxurious.

Namche Bazaar, nestled into the mountainside.
Namche Bazaar, nestled into the mountainside.

Day 3 was an acclimatization day, so we did a day hike from Namche up to the small towns of Khumjung and Khunde.

Our first view of Everest, behind the Lhotse Wall, from a view point near Namche Bazaar.
Our first view of Everest (L), behind the Lhotse Wall (R), from a view point near Namche Bazaar.

Day 4 was another short day, a few (beautiful) hours to Dhole (4,200m/13,800ft), and day 5 was short, too, from Dhole to Machhermo (4,470m/14,600ft). Both of these days were beautiful, taking us around the sides of gorgeous mountains while also following the Dudh Koshi river north up towards the higher mountains and towards Tibet!

Following the river towards the whitecaps.
Following the river towards the whitecaps.

One more short day on Day 6, from Machhermo to Gokyo (4,790m/15,700ft). Gokyo is surrounded by five high altitude lakes, three of which we got to see on our way! They were beautiful, settled into the mountains surrounding them, some frozen over some not.

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Day 7 we finally got some of the really amazing views! In the morning we hiked from Gokyo up to Gokyo Ri (5,360m/17,585ft). From there we were able to see amazing panoramic views of Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, and surrounding mountains.

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A view from Gokyo Ri

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In the afternoon we hiked from Gokyo, across the Ngozumba Glacier to Dragnag (4,700m/15,400ft).

The glacier, as seen from Gokyo Ri
The glacier, as seen from Gokyo Ri

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Day 8 was another big day: we woke up early and set off to cross Cho-la pass! This involved a hike to the base of the mountains, across a large snow field, and then up a good deal of boulders and large rocks until we got to the pass. It was difficult, but fun, even though it took a really long time to get to the top. When we finally reached the top of the pass at 5,420m/17,782ft we got views out onto the ice glacier in front of us, and down the steep rocks and snow below us.

Us, at the top of the pass.
Us, at the top of the pass.

 

Looking back towards Dragnag
Looking back towards Dragnag

The glacier was fun to cross, though difficult at times. It consisted of a lot of testing the snow in front of us, stepping on it and hoping to not fall down into the snow! A lot of times we could take a good number of steps on top of the snow and everything would be fine, and then all of a sudden we would take one more step fall knee- or hip-deep into the snow! I missed out on getting snow this winter, so I personally loved getting to fight my way through the massively deep snow.

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Finally, after nearly nine and a half hours of hiking, we made it to our destination: Lobuche (4,910m/16,100ft).

More later on the second half of the trek, and Island Peak!

Moving on, from Lobuche to Chhukung.
Moving on, from Lobuche to Chhukung.