To the roof of the world and back

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In April 2014 Eran, Roi and myself hiked to the Everest Base Camp. This was a wonderful trip among the highest mountains in the world in very thin air, subzero temperatures, lots of ice, snow and rocks and two unscheduled helicopter flights.

We landed in Kathmandu after dark and in Kathamandu dark is really dark, even if electricity is for a change working. Our agent collected us from the airport and drove us to the Tamel, avoiding flocks of pedestrians who walked like ghosts alongside the dark roads in the dust and the smoke. In Tamel we went to the office of Swissa our wonderful agent who took so well care of our last trip. And who will do an even better job in our current adventure. We exchanged dollars for huge bundles of local currency (the best rate in town) and got our TIMS passes for our trek. We next looked for a place for the short night before our flight. We easily found a rather dirty simple and cheap hotel and after enjoying a great dinner in New Orleans restaurant we went to sleep.

Early next morning we took a cab back to the airport, to the domestic terminal. Plowing our way through the mayhem we arrived at the desk of the Lukla flight. The desk had a sign that flights are delayed due to the weather. This was an unpleasant “unsurprise” as Lukla is notorious for fog. After a while the sign was removed and we alongside dozens of other trekkers stormed the desk and managed to check in. It took another couple of hours until we got on board a tiny sixteen seats aircraft. We were happy to take off out of the smog and flying over the huge Boudhanath stupa. An airhostess distributed candies and the ancient plane climbed through the clouds revealing a magnificent mountainous panorama. After about half an hour the hostess came to the front of the plane announcing that conditions in Lukla have worsened and that we have to fly back to Kathmandu to wait for the weather to clear. This was very annoying as were the many hours we spent at the airport until the final announcement that the flight was cancelled.

We returned depressed to Swissa only to learn that the flights during the next days are fully booked. During this season about 25 daily flights are supposed to land in Lukla but only a very few make it this year as the weather is worse than usual. We pulled out maps and started to plan alternative routes when Mr. Laxman told us that he managed to book us a flight on a helicopter next morning.

After some more nerve wrecking time at the airport our chopper took off and hovered low over high ridges. The clouds thickened and at some point it seemed as if the pilot is flying all over the place and looks completely disoriented. We were afraid that he too is giving up and returning but all of a sudden a makeshift airstrip appeared out of the clouds and we landed. Our pilot pulled out some maps and went to consult the locals. After a while he came back and we took off again. Lo and behold after a while the Lukla airstrip materialized out of the clouds and we landed safely at our destination. It was a huge relief to arrive at the Tenzing Hillary airport knowing that from here we need only our legs, which should be more more trustworthy than Nepali air traffic. We decided not to think about how we will manage to fly out from here ever again…

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We celebrated our arrival in a German bakery and started our trek and long last.

The first day was relatively level as we already landed at 2800 mt (9200 ft) We couldn’t safely gain much more elevation. The landscape was particularly lovely. We didn’t see any majestic mountains but this was the only day we could enjoy villages, flowers, blooming rhododendrons and plenty of green as well as prayer wheels and prayer stones.

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praying stones praying roles

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We spent the night in  Benkar  and woke up glimpsing the magnificent Kusum Kangru from between the branches of a blooming tree.

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Kusum Kangru from Benkar

The second day took us steeply up to Namche Bazaar, about 3500 mt (11500 ft) the local town and tourist center.

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Namch Bazaar

Here we spent our first acclimatization day and visited the Israel-Nepal friendship monument. This monument, recently inogurated by our friend Hanan Goder, the Israeli ambassador to Nepal, is in the shape of the Dead Sea. It symbolizes the bond between the lowest place in the world (Israel) and the tallest point in the world (Nepal).

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The Israel Nepal friendship monument in Namche Bazaar

On the fourth day we passed the Norgay Tenzing memorial stupa across from the amazing Ama Dablam mountain. From here we saw for the first time the top of the Everest. We carried on to the beautiful monastery of Thyangboche where we spent the night. While sitting in the warm dining room light snow covered the dispersed rhododendron trees.

Ama Dablam

Norgay Tenzing memorial stupa with Ama Dablam

In the morning we woke up to another glorious morning surrounded by huge mountains with the wall of the Everest in the distance. We visited the monastery guided by a young and enthusiastic monk.

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We left through the elaborate gateway of the monastery.

Thyangboche monastery gate with Ama Dablam

After a short distance we arrived in the small nunnery of Deboche.

Deboche nunnery

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Shortly afterwards we left the last trees behind and from now on our path crossed a brownish tundra. We arrived in Dingboche (4350 mt. 14300 ft.) a huge conglomerate of lodges which looked largely deserted. April is high season (not as high as October though) but the miserable weather that lead to cancellation of most flights reduced the number of trekkers.

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From here it is possible to see the backside of Ama Dablam. Next morning was my birthday and the boys surprised me with an apple pie. To improve our acclimatisation and to enjoy the mountains we went for a two day side trip up the valley to Chhukung (4730 mt. 15500 ft.).

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The backside of Ama Dablam 6812

It was only a short morning walk but due to the elevation and the cloudy weather from mid morning we did not carry on. The huge wall of the Lhotse towers over Chhukung, which  is rather small and feels more intimate than the bigger villages along the main EBC path.

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We spent a bitterly cold night in the lodge and the water froze in our bottles. Drinking is very important for preventing altitude sickness but once the water freezes this is a bit difficult.

Weatherise the best hours are very early in the morning however due to the freezing temperatures it is difficult to take full advantage of them. Today we continued up the valley towards the base camp of Island Peak. This path is used only by the Island Peak climbers and is very serene.

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The way to Island Peak

We didn’t go all the way though as we started to suffer from the elevation. We walked all the way back to Dingboche where stayed another night watching the full moon over Ama Dablam.

The following day we carried on north and stopped for lunch in Dughla. After lunch while ascending towards Lobuche we got caught in a magnificent blizzard. We did find our way and took a room in a lodge in Lobuche, which almost 5000 mt. above 16000 ft. Once the snow stopped falling we enjoyed terrific views in all directions,

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Louche valley towards north

Nuptse (7861mt.)

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Horned Lark

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Tonight was passover eve and we organised a makeshift seder evening.  Hard boiled eggs, Chapatti served as Matzes, canned juice as wine and boiled potatoes are staple food here. Due to the elevation we avoided alcohol all together.

The next day we marched on to Gorak shep (5200 mt. 17000 ft.) and checked into a lodge and left our packs.

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The ceiling of the lodge in Gorak Shep

From here it is not very far over the glacier to the Everest Base Camp (5300 mt. 17400 ft.) a huge town of tents serving the different climbing groups.  Three days later disaster struck here when 16 sherpas were killed in an avalanche (in a camp further up on the mountain) and the entire climbing season would be called off. But today this was still yet another busy day with caravans of Yaks and porters hauling in equipment.

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Everst Base Camp – EBC

Everest Base Camp

We posed for a quick selfie and turned back as Eran started to suffer from a severe headache.

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We spent a short and cold night in the lodge and set up to climb Kala Patar – the black rock, from which it is possible (if the weather is lucky) the top of Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain of the world (which is invisible from the EBC and Gorak Shep). Kala Patar looks like a small hill surrounded by impressive mountain but at 5545 mt (16200 ft.) and freezing temperatures is still an arduous climb. We were lucky and had a stupendous view of the entire arena topped by the Everest. The breath was short and the hands frozen but we were in great spirit reaching the top of the journey.

Mt. Everest 8848 mt.

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Top of Kala Patar

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Everest et al. from Kala Patar

From here it was mostly downhill. Down to Gorak Shep for a well deserved breakfast and further down to Lobuche for lunch (visiting the research pyramid en route). We carried on to Dzonghla (4830 mt. 15900 ft). Compared to all the days so far this was a relaxed and rather level stroll to the base of the Cho-La.

We planned crossing Cho-La all along and questioned every hiker we met who came down this way about the conditions. All had very reassuring massages. Even in Dzonghla we met six middle aged Indian women who just came down and told us that the pass is not difficult.

The next morning we thus set out to cross this pass. Eran didn’t feel well and I was concerned that his cold and breathing problems were altitude sickness and I wanted to get over the pass as fast as possible to the altitude clinic in Gokyo.

All of a sudden the hikers whom we met on their way down were far from relaxed and reassuring. The climb up was not too bad but once at the top we saw the very narrow path along the steep slope of the glacier. The only comforting thing was that on the slope there were no signs as if somebody skidded into the abyss today so that we too are likely to survive.

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Crossing Cho-La

The path winding along the glacier to the top was exceedingly beautiful, without doubt one of the most beautiful parts of the entire hike. We reached the top of the pass  (5420 mt. 17800 ft.) and stopped for a short break and photo. The descend was a steep nightmare of rocks covered with ice but we managed to negotiate it safely.

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After a rest at the bottom we made a mistake and missed the path. Instead of climbing up another small spur we followed a beautiful wide valley. We have do cross some ice fields and a stream but the Yak paths emerging from the snow were easy to follow. At some stage we realised that we were not on the correct path. As Eran wasn’t well I didn’t want to walk back to the correct path but this turned out to be a mistake. The valley we followed went in the correct direction and we knew that it must join the the path to Gokyo. We couldn’t predict however whether it will be possible to follow all the way.

Then disaster struck and on even and soft ground I slipped and twisted my ankle. I felt immediately that I broke a bone. Fortunately I could still walk. Roi went to check whether the valley was passable and built small cairns to find his way back to us. The clouds came in and It started to snow. My altimeter showed that were still at about 5000 mt. We decided to carry on, though this was a sort of a gamble. Luckily the gamble was good and the valley was passable all the way down to the path. Reaching the path we felt we survived. We still had a mile of so to the Dragnag. We found a lodge and had dinner. The lodge had a satellite telephone we used to call our insurance company. We spent another cold night and the coughing of Eran was more concerning than the state of my leg. Roi told me that now I will have something to write about in my blog. The next morning I watched the moon set over the peaks in the west, peaks I had no hope to reach now with my broken ankle. We waited for our rescue helicopter when we got the terrible news of the avalanche at camp 1 of the Everest which killed 16 sherpas, including a nephew and a close friend of the owner of our lodge. Our helicopter was diverted to the EBC and we had to wait several more hours. Once it arrived it took us to Kathmandu where we got first class treatment. Several days later I and Roi were back home in Israel while Eran (who didn’t suffer from AMS) carried on to the Annapurna.

My leg healed and four and half months later I was again in Nepal. This time with Yael in the Langtang valley. In spite of what Roi told me in Dragnag, it took me much longer to publish this post, long after the one about the Langtang (see previous post). In spite of the bitter end it was an absolutely amazing trip not to be missed.

A cleaner with these photos is available from RedBubble

Kyajo Ri from the window of our Dragnag lodge

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