A Trek into the Base Camp of Everest with the Bishops School from Cape Town
By Mark Mitchell
Everest, a word that needs no explanation, a word that is associated with happiness, success, hardship, loneliness, defeat, trust, support, companionship, heroism, loss, failure, cold, fear, awe. A word that has dominated many people’s lives with an almost unquenchable thirst, a thirst for something that is different for every person who falls under the spell of Chomolungma.There are many things we do in our lives that numb us both to ourselves and to our surroundings, but Everest is not one of those things; it is its spirit that, without discrimination, challenges everyone (both physically and spiritually) who dares to walk in its foothills; physically because its enormity stands in a space foreign to our comfortable environment, and spiritually because of its overwhelming timeless presence in the Himalayas.
The Journey Begins
So when we all arrived at Cape Town International airport on a sunny afternoon in March, I do not think that many of the travellers really knew what course-work, what life-degree, we all were embarking on and how we all, both internally and externally, were about to have our GPS coordinates altered for good.
Arriving in Kathmandu (at 1420 m), was like stepping into another world, a world of chaos, but paradoxically with sense of self-created order, of new shades and colours, smells and sights, but all with an intense sense of richness through longevity. Swayambhunath (the monkey temple), with its commanding views of Kathmandu, was our first stop after we had settled into the wonderful Yak and Yeti Hotel, home to most of the Everest summiteers each year. We went from there to the Hindu Pashupatinath and its sacred temple complex on the banks of the holy Bagmati River. We spent a wonderful two days getting to know Thamel and then early on Day Four we headed to the Kathmandu airport to catch our flight to Lukla (which is regarded as one of the most dangerous airports in the world in part because of the edgy landing on the shortest runway imaginable). From there it was on our way to our first stop on the trek, Phakding (2600 m). This gentle downhill walk of about four hours was not a good indicator of what was about to come! The next morning, we set off early for Namche Bazaar (3440 m) along a route that took us along the banks of the Dudh Kosi River,
crossing many of the famous prayer flag laden bridges. Yaks and humans jostled for bridge space – the yaks always won the ‘negotiation’! The day was physically challenging with many extremely steep, seemingly endless, uphill pushes, but the surprise and awe-inspiring sight of a town securely perched on a side of a mountain made the painful and self-doubting memories of the day melt. We spent two wonderful days in Namche Bazaar with an acclimatisation walk on the second day. This walk took us past the Everest View Hotel where, while reclining on their patio in the sun having the homely lemon tea and biscuits, we were afforded our first and most spectacular views of Everest.
A Lesson on Hillary
We trekked from the hotel to Khumjung – a town very close to Hillary’s heart, where he built one of his first schools. It is a gentle town, safely nestled between the mountains, but with Ama Dablam watching powerfully over it! The return journey offered the most spectacular view of Namche Bazaar. Having arrived back, we headed towards one of the entertainment spaces where we watched an extremely moving documentary about Hillary’s life, with a particular focus on the effect that the loss of his wife and child had on him and his family. There was also moving footage of Norgay and his feeling of disappointment at the end of his life with regard to his regret at ever having summited
The following day we started the slow but hectic climb out of Namche Bazaar heading towards Tengboche (3870 m), reaching it after another long push up a seemingly endless steep hill, and reaching the monastery around 4 pm. By then, the weather was coming in and everyone was starting to feel the biting cold – so we spent little time in Tengboche and headed down the other side of the saddle to Debuche – a wonderful spot at a teahouse surrounded by a forest of birches and rhododendrons.
The rest of the day was spent warming up in the cosy teahouse with an amazing view of the mountains; the weather only allowed us intermittent sneak views of what still lay ahead for us. The evening was filled with reliving the past few days, sharing stories, discussing oxygen saturation levels and rather loud and competitive card games!
On to Pheriche
Early the next morning we all gathered outside soaking up every square inch of sunlight and then headed for our next stop at Pheriche (4240 m). After about an hour of walking, we crossed the Imja Khola (one of the large rivers which drains the slopes of Everest) on a makeshift suspension bridge, the original one having been recently washed away. We then made our way up the mountain towards Pangboche. Here we experienced one of the highlights of the trek, and that was an audience with Lama Geshi. He blessed each member of the group with the usual rice, ‘orange rope’ and prayer. It was a moving experience for most of us – despite our extremely contrasting cultures, all of us felt the reverence of the space, a space that was naturally peaceful and somehow lacking in tension. The focus of the ceremony was not on our differences of background, but rather on a desire to bless people and, in particular, to ask for both safety in journeys and understanding for all – something I suddenly realised was not a religious concept, but rather a universal desire and the fundamental philosophy that holds us as human beings together, no matter our backgrounds or creeds.
On our arrival in Pheriche we experienced the first snow of the trek – resulting in the ‘highly charged’ but obligatory snow fight. We spent two days there in order to allow the acclimatisation process to take its course. On our rest day in Pheriche, we climbed the surrounding mountain in the morning and then headed back to the warm dining room and all the associated comforts of the Himalayan Lodge.
In the early evening we visited the Himalayan Rescue Association’s Trekkers’ Aid Post. This centre attracts world-renowned physicians who acquire data to analyse the effects of high altitude on human physiology. While visiting them we were given a comprehensive talk around High Altitude sickness by two doctors from Sweden. This also gave us an opportunity as a group to chat about it – something that is constantly on one’s mind when trekking in the Himalaya!
The next morning, after saying goodbye to one of the members of our group who was suffering from altitude sickness symptoms, we packed and headed for Lobuche (4930 m) in the most outrageous wind. The first part of the day was a stroll along a beautiful flat valley for about an hour and then we started the climb to a small village called Duglha (4620 m), stopping for the traditional mid-morning tea and biscuits, and then moving towards one of the most special places along the trip – Memorial Hill. The panoramic view of the Himalayas from this point gives you a true sense of the enormity of the range. Standing there and viewing this is probably one of the most humbling things one can do and certainly makes one rethink ones importance as human beings in the great scheme of things!
This hill is home to many stone memorials for climbers who have perished on nearby summits. The space is simple and quiet, but one which holds a deep sense of tranquillity and peace. Standing there, looking at the view of the Himalayas and the honouring memorials, one is just struck by the deep relationship that still exists between man and nature and of man’s fundamental desire to exist side by side with nature but, at the same time, his strange desire to somehow conquer it.
The following day we started our walk up the western side of the Khumbu Valley heading towards Gorak Shep, crossing rather rough and unforgiving glacier moraine which becomes steeper and steeper as one moves closer to Gorak Shep. By this stage many of us were now really beginning to feel the effects of the altitude making the day seem longer and harder than normal. Arriving at midday in Gorak Shep, a number of the members of the group then packed backpacks to begin their climb of Kala Pattar (meaning ‘black rock’). Kala Pattar sits comfortably at 5545 m at the base of Gorak Shep and provides the brave climber the most spectacular view of Everest on the trek.
And we reach Base Camp
The next morning, after seeing another two members of the group being airlifted from Gorak Shep (with amazing emergency response speed) due to altitude issues, we packed up and started the walk up the Khumbu Glacier into Everest Base Camp, which is situated at the base of the Khumbu Icefall. Base Camp itself is very spread out, and is littered with various coloured tents from all the different expeditions. We were extremely lucky to be able to experience something that the normal trekker is not able to do and that is to spend two nights in Base Camp proper. This was only possible for us due to the fact that Ronnie Muhl allowed us to use the Adventures Global expedition team’s camp, for the time we were there.
The two days spent in Base Camp were ones of comparative luxury: just relaxing, eating, sleeping, talking, games, singing (very impressive from the boys side) and a time to take in the enormity of the challenge that climbers face in attempting to summit Everest. It also gave us all a small understanding of the day-to-day life of the teams in Base Camp and the incredible support system that is required to attempt to ensure the safety of all climbers. The food that was prepared for us during this time really could have come from a five-star restaurant and not from the small tent next to our tent – we were even treated to a fully baked iced sponge cake welcoming us to Base Camp – this being given a major thumbs up, even by the ‘foodies’ in our group!
Thank you to Adventures Global and in particular to Ronnie Muhl and Elizabeth Bool and also to both Dawa and Hupendra for the incredible support and organisation around our trek – we are all extremely grateful to you all for the opportunities you afforded us.