We’d set our alarm for 5:30am so that we could be up with the sun for our run to Base Camp with as much time as possible. In true mountain fashion, a freak spring snowstorm had blown in overnight, covering the ground and trails in about a foot of snow. It was still active that morning, creating impeded visibility, but that wasn’t about to stop us. We took a few minutes for breakfast, and to move our gear from the Porter’s quarters into the main lodge with the owner. He made it clear that, “we couldn’t trust these porters,” but to be frank, I had more faith in them than I did in him at this point.
Most of the other folks staying in our lodge decided to stay put for the day. I figured this would be of significant advantage to us, given that it would likely mean limited people on the trail, and hopefully a little less chaos on the way to Base Camp. Our first goal was to make it to Gorak Shep (5,164 m), roughly half way between us and Base Camp (5,364 m), where we could at the very least stop for tea and perhaps a small bite. Most people spend 1-2 nights in Gorak Shep, so that they can both visit EBC and walk to the top of Kala Patar (5,643 m), which is a trekking peak to the southwest of Everest. The view of the summit of Everest is actually blocked from Base Camp, so most trekkers opt for the Kala Patar hike so that they can get an unobstructed view. Given the weather, going up Kala Patar would’ve likely been pointless, so we decided to just make the run to Base Camp. The first hour going up the trail wasn’t too bad, despite the limited visibility and slow going from the snow on the ground.
We then however started to run into tour groups making their way up from Lobuche to Gorak Shep, along with numerous porters making the same run in both directions, and yak trains also transporting supplies. All of us, coupled with the snow on the trail, made for very slow going and line ups as we waited for yaks, trekkers, and/or porters to traverse some of the more challenging sections, including a very large boulder field. This was all the more complicated given the wet rocks creating very slippery footing.
By the time we made it into Gorak Shep we were most ready for some tea, or in my case a ‘hot lemon’ – a drink made from powdered lemon drink crystals and hot water (think hot Tang) – it cured what was ailing me! We had initially anticipated that this section of hiking would take us 2-3 hours, but by the time we actually sat down in one of the few lodges in Gorak Shep it had been almost 5.5 hours. The hike out to Base Camp often took an additional 2-2.5 hours, and given how slow going the first section had been, we decided that we needed to set a hard turn around time for ourselves so that we would have enough time to make it safely back to the Pyramid before the sun went down. We had brought our headlamps just in case, but wanted to avoid that situation if possible. We settled on a 2pm turn around time, and started to make our way out of Gorak Shep.
For the first 15-20 mins of the hike, we didn’t run into anyone. We had 50-75 feet of visibility, but had stopped a couple of times to re-evaluate when conditions worsened a bit. Things were very Hoth-esque, which I’ll be honest, I was loving. It became evident that the majority of people (and animals) we had run into on the way to Gorak Shep had simply made it there and were done. Most people were not interested in making the hike out to Base Camp without a clear view of the surrounding mountains. I must say though, there was something extra special about heading there during a snowstorm. It really gave it the other-worldy quality that I had built-up in my mind, and felt like it was adding to the challenge. It also meant we were more likely to encounter a smaller crowd when we did finally get there. We had heard stories of people waiting in line for over 15 mins to get their picture taken – we were not interested in that, even if it meant limited views!
The going continued to be impeded by the weather, but we were making significantly better time given the lack of people and animals. We were also however getting closer and closer to our turn around time. We were pushing hard and were so close to our ultimate goal that we didn’t want to have to head back to try again another day – but would respect the 2pm cut-off regardless.
Then all of a sudden – at 1:45pm, we came down off of a ridgeline, and could just start to make out the famous yellow tents of Base Camp. Another few minutes and we were there. The place that we had been working towards for the past 2 weeks. We had finally made it!
We found a couple of large tour groups ( maybe 40-50 people total) had made it there about 10 minutes before us, but we were easily able to get our pictures and enjoy the experience without finding it overwhelmingly crowded. We enjoyed a snickers bar we’d been saving for the occasion, and did our best to soak up the whole experience. When 2pm hit, we started on our way back down as planned. All that, and it was over in about 15 minutes! Well worth it though!
As we were making our way down the trail, the snow started to taper off, and we began to get some views of the surrounding mountains and the Khumbu icefall. We also started to run into more and more people on their way out to Base Camp, trying to squeeze it in and make it back to Gorak Shep before the sun went down, now that visibility had greatly increased. After another quick stop back in Gorak Shep, we continued on our way down the trail, letting the magnitude of the day sink in and enjoying some breaks in the cloud cover to appreciate the amazing views that had been so hidden from us in the morning. The trail was now more deserted since the tour groups and vast majority of hikers had already made it up to Gorak Shep for the night.
Everest was the whole reason we’d come to this part of the world and this trail in particular, but we were fast becoming disillusioned with the crowds (which we were of course also adding to), the working conditions for the porters, and the general commercialization of it all. I’d also begun to think more and more about our obsessions with pursuing extremes, whether something be the tallest, shortest, largest, smallest, etc, and general box-ticking. We put so much focus on one particular mountain because it is a few hundred meters higher than the others immediately surrounding it, yet there were so very many other beautiful mountains all around us – why focus on the obsession with just this one, glossing over all the others? I didn’t want to lose sight of the forest for the tree(s). We had been discussing these things most of the way up the trail, and now that we’d officially ticked the box of Everest Base Camp, we needed to decide what to do next. The costs and the crowds on this upper section of the trail had really turned us off. Although it would mean we wouldn’t get the iconic picture of Everest from Kala Patar, we decided that we would start to make our way down the next day, and begin to explore some side paths and other sections of the trail that we hoped would be less busy but just as interesting and beautiful, if not more!
Upon our return to the Pyramid, just prior to sundown, we were greeted by an ovation from a couple of Greek gentlemen we’d met the night before, who had decided not to attempt Base Camp because of the weather, and a quickly-served dinner of momos and ‘pizza’. It couldn’t have come at a better time. We were spent. It was also at this point, as we started to get some of our gear off, that Janan noticed my face was a nice bright pink. I was sunburnt. Although I’d applied a heavy dose of sunscreen first thing in the morning, in the thrill of the day’s events, I’d forgotten to reapply – big mistake! The overcast weather and stormy conditions had lulled me out of any concern about the sun, but at such high elevations, the time necessary to burn, especially for someone of my pasty complexion, is greatly decreased. By the time we finished the meal and were heading for bed (in a considerably nicer room!) my face was on fire, which meant I couldn’t sleep. Luckily, I had made sure to pack my small vial of aloe vera, which I found myself applying in copious amounts roughly every half hour through the night. We had reached our main goal (on our 9 month wedding anniversary to boot!) and were now ready to move on to the next leg of our trek.