Saturday 28 December
Woke up this morning feeling absolutely dreadful, with a cold, fever and high blood sugar levels. My big toenail was completely black and agony. My spirits were pretty low, since I know tomorrow is the big day — the ascent to Everest Base Camp — and I want to be feeling on top form for it. Altitude sickness is bad enough without battling high blood sugar levels, fever and sore feet! Luckily after breakfast I felt much better – it’s amazing what coffee and painkillers can do — and we had a fabulous morning’s walking with beautiful blue skies, sunshine and more spectacular views. I was soon bouncing around like my usual self! There was one section before lunch where I started feeling very faint and dizzy when we ascended 200m steeply, but it was mainly just due to altitude, and once the path levelled out, I was fine again. Lots of people were feeling the altitude today with headaches and so on, so I was definitely not alone.
We reached Lobuche (4930m) for lunch, and then had a short acclimatisation walk in the afternoon. It feels much colder up here, although we have been rewarded with a very nice teahouse, called the Himalayan EcoResort. There didn’t seem to be anything particularly “eco” about it (more than anywhere else we stayed in) but it felt very homely. The website, however, claims it’s unique in that it’s constructed entirely from local stones and aluminium, and that not a single tree suffered any physical harm in its making. The furniture is largely wooden though, so I think that’s slightly misleading! And how eco-friendly is aluminium? I realised that it’s the first time I’ve actually been able to look in a mirror all week, not that I liked much what I saw. I think there’s a good reason most of the teahouses don’t have mirrors!
Sunday 29 December
This was it! A very early start today with a wakeup call at 5.30am, although as usual the pain was much lessened by our bed tea brought to us by the guides. I’d have really struggled every day without this, having to get up, pack our daysacks, roll up our sleeping bags and pack our kitbags all before breakfast. I’m not good in the mornings until I’ve had something hot, wet and full of caffeine to drink. It was still many degrees below zero at this time of day and still pitch dark, though the sun began to rise as we groggily ate breakfast. I was pretty excited, but most people seemed to be fairly grumpy and slow. Most of us were not only warming up our hands and feet by the stove, but also thawing the ice from our boots and water bottles, the latter meaning that our water was flavoured with the delicious tinge of yak dung during the day.
For the first time on the trek, I kept my down jacket on for walking, thinking it would be freezing for the first few hours, similar to Kilimanjaro. However, the sun started to rise and although it was still very cold, I realised after only 5 minutes that I really didn’t need my jacket after all, and had to stop and strip down to regular 3 layers of long-sleeved thermal top, light fleece jumper and windproof fleece jacket. I did, however, definitely need my thick winter softshell trousers, particularly as they are windproof. Having stopped to sort my clothes out, I was consequently left behind almost everyone else except the very slow ones, and stupidly tried to catch them up as the going was fairly flat, leaving me out of breath and feeling a little sick. I realised my mistake and soon stopped trying to catch them, arriving at the brief 2 minute rest stops just as they were leaving. However, I didn’t need much rest and was able to catch them up by the time they stopped for the first long break after a couple of hours.
Today was a beautiful, though very long, day as we walked along the Khumbu Glacier to Gorak Shep (for some reason, pronounced “Gorakshe”), where we had an early lunch before beginning the long haul to Base Camp. The Khumbu Glacier stetches all the way to Base Camp, where it turns into the infamous Khumbu Icefall, otherwise known as the Everest Death Trap, having killed many a professional mountaineer due to its sheer and constantly moving ice faces, connected with sets of slippery ladders).
I was excited all day at the prospect of finally reaching our goal, and at the thought of being able to conquer the altitudes that had defeated me on Kilimanjaro. I’d had a discussion previously with one of the guys who’d never been above 4000m before, about how I didn’t feel I had anything to prove on this trip after my time on Kili, even though I hadn’t made the summit that time, since in contrast, I didn’t have anything emotional attached to this trip. It turned out I was completely wrong. I was, however, very relieved that I didn’t have any altitude problems, and was pretty sure I was going to make it all the way this time as I was feeling generally good.
Leaving Gorak Shep, the going was steady, with plenty of undulations to ease the pain, although every time we descended, it felt counterproductive.
I felt pretty good all the way there, and there was certainly some spectacular scenery.
In a couple of hours we finally arrived at Base Camp. I was surprised to feel so emotional on reaching the goal, and an incredible sense of achievement, even though of course it’s not as high as Kilimanjaro, at a mere 5364m. Pah, a mere pre-breakfast saunter. Interestingly, or to be more exact, uninterestingly, there was almost nothing there except a pile of rocks and some prayer flags (which in my opinion make it look a bit like a rubbish tip), since it wasn’t expedition season, and it’s actually the Old Base Camp and not the new one (due, as far as I can make out, to something to do with trekking permits).
The whole group made it eventually, except for one person, who was fine, but just very slow, and who had decided not to make us wait around in the cold another 45 minutes or so. He stopped at a suitable vantage point where he could see us, and was more than happy with his achievement. I felt rather sad for him, as having been the only one not to make at least Stellar Point on Kili, and having had all the others celebrate their achievement around me (which was pretty galling), I would have liked him to have made it too. But none of us were fully aware of why he hadn’t joined us until later.
The return to Gorak Shep felt long and tough, although it was only a couple of hours, and we all felt a bit tired and deflated, since there was no real goal left now, apart from wanting to get back to the teahouse before dark. We easily managed this in the end, though apparently many groups are much slower than we were, and don’t manage it before sunset. We were also suffering the effects of the highest altitude we’d reached on the trek, and unlike most descents, it wasn’t straight down, but wildly undulating, so there were still rather too many uphill sections for our liking. There was also a very narrow and rocky ridge, which seemed slightly more perilous on the way back, perhaps just because of our tiredness and the increasing wind. Once again, that evening I was rewarded with another spectacular view from my window, though I had barely had the energy to appreciate it. But more on that in the next instalment….